18 January 2014

Book Review: The Prodigal: A Ragamuffin Story

Mega-church pastor, Jack, falls from grace — not in the sense of losing his salvation, but he gets drunk and sleeps with his assistant when they get stranded on a church missions publicity trip. The church he founded fires him, his wife leaves and takes their daughter. Jack is devastated by what "they" are doing to him and refuses to acknowledge doing anything wrong. He retreats to a getaway where, over a 2-month period, he tries to drink away his problem. But he's rescued by his father from whom he has been estranged for 10 years.

Back "home", Jack begins the long process of facing who he really is, what God really thinks about him, and restarting his life. It's a good story that hits close to home in that we all have failed, in some way, to live up to our own expectations of our self and we struggle with how to be worthy enough to be accepted by God and others.

Some of the characters were particularly well developed — Tom, Jack's father; Frank, the Catholic priest who advocates for grace; and James Taylor, the despicable mayor.

While I recognize that I come from a different religious tradition than Manning and the characters in his book, I found the liberal use of alcohol by believers unsettling. It was not just by one or two characters, but by many (maybe most). And, with the 3 main characters, there was misuse, even abuse, of alcohol that essentially went unchallenged, even as it led to problems.

The basic message of the book — that God loves us, extends his grace to us when we don't deserve it, and is forgiving — is a great theme and one that's necessary. The problem, in my limited exposure to the US over the last many years, is that this is a theme that is taken to the extreme by some (Osteen, for example) to the point where there is no repentance necessary. Thus, Jack's focus as a mega-church pastor — we've all totally ruined our live — seems like a straw man. However, his focus on self-improvement (we have to do better) seems to be a more common thread — works-based salvation. The truth is between those two — we have sinned, we do need a Saviour, God does extend his grace and we can repent and turn to him for forgiveness and eternal life. Jack finally experiences God's grace and forgiveness as he slowly realizes that the love he receives from his earthly father is a picture of how God deals with us.

I rate the book 4 of 5 stars. If you're struggling with guilt because of real sin, this is a great book to read to help you see God's love and forgiveness at work. It's also an enjoyable story of one man's struggle.

(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this e-book in exchange for a review of the book through Thomas Nelson's blogger review program, Booksneeze. I have been free to write the review I think the book deserves.)

07 January 2014

Book Review: "The Total Money Makeover"

Read this book and put the principles into practice. You have to do both. If you're only going to read it, don't spend the money on the book in the first place.

I had just talked to one of my brothers and sisters-in-law about Dave Ramsey's financial advice and books when I checked on available books via Thomas Nelson's blogger review programme, Booksneeze. Ramsey's book, The Total Money Makeover, was available, so I decided to see what I thought. My brother and sister-in-law are big fans. She says Ramsey's advice helped her see the error of her own financial management. And, while I don't think of them as wealthy, they are financially comfortable.

Let me acknowledge that this book was not really written for me (just shy of 60 years old). It barely addresses financial issues that I face as I don't have 20 years before retirement. We do use credit cards but have no debt, have an adequate nest egg, and our kids are already through with university.

First impressions: a lot of hype and a lot of cliches and sound bites. I've never listened to Ramsey's radio programme but I often felt like I was reading a transcript, particularly in the first part of the book, which seemed primarily motivational. That is fine, but I didn't really need that.

All of that being said, this is an excellent read for anyone who has consumer debt or who is undisciplined with finances or who has 20 years or more before retirement. Ramsey lays out clear principles and plans for controlling one's finances rather than letting them control you. And, it doesn't matter whether one has an annual income of $25,000 or $225,000 — the principles and the plans apply. In fact, this book may be more important for the one with the $25,000 income.

Ramsey's primary messages, though he doesn't use these phrases, "get out and stay out of debt — avoid it like a plague" and "be laser-focused on working your financial plan" (Ramsey's phrase is "focused intensity"). His advice is sound, though it may be unconventional:
  • Quickly set aside a starter emergency fund
  • Get rid of consumer debt, starting with the smallest debt first — early success is a strong motivator for future effort.
  • Complete your emergency fund
  • Maximize retirement savings
  • Save for your kids' college
  • Pay off your mortgage
  • Build wealth
  • Give, have fun, invest
His motto is, "If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else."

For me, the biggest weaknesses of the book are:
  • It's cliche-ridden — to be fair, though, he warns the reader up front that it will be.
  • I think he doesn't make a strong enough emphasis on giving early in the book. One could get the impression that giving doesn't begin until one has built wealth.
  • He doesn't address what to do if one is within 10 years of retirement and doesn't have decades to build wealth.
But, none of those weaknesses detract from the importance or helpfulness of The Total Money Makeover.

Run well, y'all,

[DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review of the book. My future participation in the program is not dependent on how I review the book, I'm free to write the review that I think the book deserves.]