Humble Roots [A review]

There have been (at least) two trends in my life over the past few years: first, I have grown rather weary of the endless parade of devotional books marching forth from evangelical printing presses, and second I have felt more and more of a desire to be out in my garden planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering, and planning. I tire of devotional literature not for any lack of good intention on the part of the publishing houses, but because so much of it seems to simply trot out the same clichés and formulas as the last 100 books. This has, in turn, led to my reading of far fewer books per year than in the past and thus spending more time out in the garden. To be fair, not all of the blame rests on the publishers; I tend to read books more quickly than they deserve, and my perception of their value might have been higher if I had read them more slowly.

513mja5ds-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_I still keep tabs on new books, however, and when I saw the publisher’s description of Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots, my interest was piqued to a degree that my cynicism could not repress. The premise is simple: growing fruits and vegetables and tending the land are activities that teach us much about what it means to be humble. In eleven chapters, Anderson walks through her experiences living in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cultivating the ground with her husband.

Chapter 7, “Vine Ripened,” is in my opinion the most excellent chapter of the book. The luscious-looking plump, red tomatoes in the store are not actually ripe but merely gassed to appear as if they are. Those tomato varieties are not cultivated for flavor but merely for their looks and for their ability to withstand long treks across the country in semis. In the same way, many of us approach life and maturity this way; the virtues we admire in others tend to be whether they are attractive or whether they say things we agree with. If someone knows the “right” people or espouses the right ideas, then we think of them as mature or worthy of our admiration. Anderson challenges this notion and suggests that perhaps the reason we see so many failures of character in the church (and even in the wider world) is because we prize superficial maturity rather than something deeper.

Horticulture is the thread tying the whole book together; this is largely a strength, but sometimes teeters on the edge of becoming cheesy. What saves the book from going there is the fact that Anderson is actually conversant in the language of the garden, and is not simply rummaging for illustrations out of a book or off the internet. She knows what she’s talking about, whether the subject is character or apple trees.

I must say that all in all, this is one of the better books I have read this year. The vine ripened tomato analogy I shared above is something I have been ruminating on for weeks and will likely stick in my consciousness for years to come. You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $7.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age [A Review]

Why do greater certainty and more control only heighten our fear for what remains outside our control—especially if the possibilities are so improbable?

—Bob Cutillo, MD

It is a curious thing that health care, whose very existence was once solely predicated upon helping people, has become an intimidating, monolithic, even frightening system that nobody fully understands and that can even ruin people physically, financially, and emotionally. It is not that anyone sets out with an evil gleam in his or her eye seeking to scuttle the lives of the medically needy; instead, we have arrived at the current state of health care rather unintentionally. The root problem is that we believe our health to be a possession to which we are entitled and our health care a service which we have purchased, and thus are owed good service.

This is at least the thesis of the recent book Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age by Dr. Bob Cutillo, a physician for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, Colorado. it is true, of course, that when you or I go to the doctor we do expect competent and accurate diagnosis of any issues we are suffering from. What happens, though, when the diagnosis is something that cannot be treated? We may rage and splutter at the doctor as if we are being short shrifted, but this belies the fact that we have forgotten that health is a gift, not a possession. Nobody receives a guarantee in the birthing room that he or she will live a long, healthy, and disease-free life. Every healthy day we live is undeserved.

31qfo2suwml-_sy344_bo1204203200_With a certain amount of irony, it is this acceptance of our true lot in life that actually leads to a better relationship with our health. Life is a gift, and when a doctor, medicine, drug, or procedure restores us back to health this is also a gift. When we receive the news that a chronic condition is incurable or that death is knocking at the door, we can receive that news with sorrow, but also with a certain measure of peace and contentment, because every good day we have ever lived has been given to us.

I personally have a complicated relationship with the medical establishment; luckily I only have ever been to the doctor for something really serious a couple of times, but the heartache of sickness and death is not far from any one of us. I have lived my life in the peculiar valley that many others dwell in; on the one hand there are those who insist that everything about the medical establishment is good and ought to be accepted uncritically if it is uttered from the doctor’s lips. On the other hand, there are those who swear off anything and everything that has to do with the AMA; healthy living is a specific formula of nutrition, vitamins, essential oils, natural remedies, and even things like homeopathy and reflexology. To be honest, one of the reasons I picked up Dr. Cutillo’s book was to see if he might provide a way forward.

Reading Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age did not automatically reconcile these two groups in my mind or even provide me with an obvious third way, but Dr. Cutillo did help me recognize and understand that the posture of control is evident in both of these groups—they just disagree on how to control life. Viewing life as a gift, however, offers a certain amount of liberty in both. You can receive the diagnosis from the doctor without being disillusioned when the news is bad.

If I have any critique to offer of the book, it’s that its target audience is not always clear. Sometimes it’s as if Cutillo is writing to medical professionals, and sometimes to laypeople. The result is a book that feels at some points laser-focused in its intent and at other points simply over my head. That is a relatively small critique, however, and in general there is plenty of food for thought for any reader. Though I would hesitate to call this a five star book, it nevertheless is one of the most interesting, applicable, and genre-crossing books I have read this year. I highly recommend it.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $10 or WTS Books for $16.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Cover photo courtesy of 强 石.

Punderdome [A Review]

I consider myself something of a connoisseur of puns. A pundit, you might say. A pun at its essence is simply a play on words, but a good pun exhibits draws an intersection between two otherwise unrelated conceptual fields in one word or phrase. A pun will always draw forth a groan, but a good pun also draws forth begrudging appreciation for the punster’s rhetorical cunning.61ve2bo1hojl

All of the above is a fancy way to say, “I like puns and I actually spend time thinking about them.” So when I happened to see a new card game come out last month called Punderdome, I was sold… even though I received my copy for free from Crown Publishers. Thanks! I decided to try it out with my wife and one of our friends, two people who both love and hate puns more than most.

The game is quite simple: someone draws two cards at the same time. Each card has a word or phrase on it, and then everyone else has 90 seconds to write down a pun that integrates the two cards. That’s the big idea of the game—I told you it was simple. It might not sound very difficult, but I found it to be rather difficult (and I tend to find puns to come fairly naturally). At the end of the 90 seconds the prompter decides which pun is the best, and that winner gets the two cards. Whoever gains the most cards wins.

A quirky aspect of the game is that whoever brings the game out and wants to play it is the first prompter, and (as a sort of apology for the groans that will ensue) he or she has to fill two mystery envelopes each with a prize. At the end of the game, the winner gets to pick one envelope as their prize. Of course, there might be a good prize in only one of the envelopes, so it’s a bit of a gamble.

The game is pretty fun, but I imagine it would be most fun with a large group of people. The only critique is that some of the combinations of cards can be fairly difficult, which decreases the fun when everybody fails to come up with anything. It’s a great game in general though, and I love how simple it is.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this game from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Home Cooked [A Review]

Cooking good food is one of those things we just do not seem to have time for these days. Most folks subsist on a combination of microwaved dinners, takeout, or dine-in. When we do cook, it’s usually a matter of popping open boxes from the pantry or pouring a frozen bag into a pan and coating it with a tear-open packet of sauce. After all, when creating a relatively decent hot meal is this easy, is it really justifiable to pour extra time into a meal just to make it from scratch?

home-cookedIn her new Home Cooked: Essential Recipes For a New Way to Cook (10 Speed Press, April 2016), Anya Fernald offers a middle ground between slow-cooked, high quality foods and fast but flavorless cooking. Her suggestion is simple, yet genius: put in time creating quality base ingredients and preserve them, and then when time is short on a weeknight you’ve got flavor-packed ingredients that are ready for use immediately.

Take, for instance, her sofritto: there’s nothing to it but olive oil, onions, carrots, and celery, and I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve made this to start a soup. I usually rush it, cooking it hot just to get it done, and the flavor is never as good as it could be. Her innovation is to cook it ahead of time and freeze it in ice cube trays for ready-to-go flavor later on.

The first portion of the book is devoted to such recipes for base ingredients, and then the rest of the book is divided up into appetizers/cocktails, meals, and desserts that utilize these base ingredients. Interspersed throughout are her various thoughts on cooking as well as stunning photography.

If there’s anything that turned me off about the book, it was the many recipes that I personally found rather unappealing (fried chicken hearts? raw beef?). I imagine it’s mostly because I’m vegetarian, but my omnivorous wife had much the same reaction as me.

That being said, there are plenty of other interesting recipes in the book that are appealing. I normally link to both the physical copy and a digital copy of the book, but in this case just do yourself a favor and pick up a hardback copy of the book from Amazon for $17.50. Not only is the Kindle Edition actually more expensive, but the hardback is worth it. It’s well-bound and sturdy, and quite aesthetically pleasing.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The Water-Saving Garden [A Review]

When my wife and I got married, we thought we’d try our hand at gardening—the fruits of our labor that summer were pitiful, but the joy of growing our own food carried us on. It’s a wonderful feeling to grow so much food for free, but the thing is that when you sit down and do the math, it’s not that free anymore. After the cost of seeds, good soil, fertilizer, and most importantly, water, it can end up being fairly expensive. If you don’t get a good yield from your plants, it can actually be more expensive than just buying groceries from the store.

61bu6y4v2yl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Because of these concerns, I was intrigued to pick up a copy of The Water-Saving Garden by Pam Penick. If I could learn ways to make a gallon of water go further in my garden, I would love to. While Penick offers plenty of advice on how to be more thrifty in terms of water usage, unfortunately most of her advice wasn’t very applicable to those who are trying to simply grow a small sustenance garden. I’ll offer a fuller critique in a moment, but first, what I appreciated about the book.

The Water-Saving Garden is divided up into 5 parts: motivation and inspiration for a water-saving garden, practical strategies and habits to use less water in the first place, how to landscape and pick more drought-resistant plants, how to evoke the illusion of water abundance, and a list of specific water-saving plants to consider.

Parts two and three were probably the most helpful bits; she gets very practical about how to collect and use (free) rainwater as well as the importance of permeable paving that lets rainwater soak into the ground, as well as mulching that slows the evaporation of that same water. Further, she also helps the reader understand that lawns gently sloping away from the house are good for the house’s foundation, but bad for water utilization because so much of what you sprinkle runs directly into the street. To that end, she gives practical ideas about how to replace lawns (which need tons of water in the first place) and re-landscape with native plants that are less thirsty and can trap water from running into the gutter.

Rainwater collection is a legitimately good idea that would help with my vegetable garden, except for the fact that I live in Colorado where it is very illegal to do so. I am very interested in trying some of her ideas with my front lawn, however, which is currently the epitome of water wastefulness. That’s a lot of money that I don’t need to be sending down the street! It was also valuable for me to think through the role of mulch in trapping water from evaporating, but I wish she would’ve spoken explicitly about vegetables (especially root vegetables) where you have to disturb the soil more frequently.

I hate to say it, but in general the book struck me as having a fairly pretentious tone. The introduction is mostly a guilt trip about using so much water in our country, and names sustainable living and climate change as the primary reasons anyone would want to save water. The pictures of gardens she presents in part one are these grand, sweeping vistas of beautiful shrubbery and carefully landscaped paths. I think gardens are beautiful as much as the next person, but it just seems like she’s writing exclusively to upper class middle-aged Americans who garden because they can and because they don’t have much else to do. Saving water, for this demographic, is mainly a moral concern rather than a financial one. I’m not in any way saying that these people shouldn’t save water, but only that it comes across as very pretentious to those who need to save water in order to make gardening a feasible endeavor.

For what it is, the book is a good one, which is to say that it accomplishes what it intends. That being said, it wasn’t the book I was hoping for. If you tend a largely non-edible garden, this will probably be a great read for you. You can pick up a paper copy of the book from Amazon for $13.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Reading, Reflecting, Failing, Succeeding

One hundred books. That was my new year’s resolution last January: to read one hundred books during 2015. I tend to read a lot of books in general, so that number (though it was definitely a stretch goal) seemed attainable. It is the beginning of December and I’ve just finished my sixtieth book, so it’s safe to say that I wildly overestimated how much I could read. At any rate, here are a few miscellaneous thoughts about my reading experience this year.

On Setting a Quantitative Reading Goal

I came to find that one of the benefits of setting a specific number of books that you will read in a year is that it is an easily measurable goal, and it also keeps you honest. It can be an easy default when I’m commuting to work to just listen to music, read news/blogs, or play games on my phone. But then, after the course of a year, I find that I’ve largely wasted another year of my life frittering away the time on stupid stuff. Having a quantitative goal continually confronting me often helps to choose reading something substantive over slowly slouching toward intellectual death.

The downside of setting a quantitative goal, however, is that I start making decisions, whether conscious or not, to choose books that are quickly digestible, because my goal is to consume as many of them as I can. Similarly, when I start into a book and I can tell that it is not worth my time within the first few chapters, I am more likely to finish such a book because, well, I’ve already started it so I want these pages I read to count towards my goal. On the flip side, when I find myself in the midst of a really good book, I don’t have time to slow down and ponder, consider, or treasure it.

On “Moving Evenly Together”

I tried to read a fairly diverse diet of books this year, and one that was far afield of my normal fare was The Man Who Killed the Deer by Frank Waters. Written in the early forties, it’s an 51t14urxezl-_sy344_bo1204203200_exploration of the tension between Native Americans, Hispanics, and White settlers in the American southwest during the expansion. It’s a classic portrayal of how different cultures can so easily speak past one another and fail to communicate because of their differing presuppositions and expectations as well as power differentials.

There is an oft-repeated trope throughout the book’s tribal meetings that stuck itself thoroughly into my head: the idea of “moving evenly together.” For this tribe, the priority in decision-making is not the decision itself, but to move evenly together, which is to say that they want everyone to “be on the same page,” in modern parlance. It is more than just agreement, however; moving evenly together is about waiting and waiting and waiting until each is convinced in his own heart about going the same direction.

The implicit argument is that how decisions are made is more important than the decisions themselves. It’s a way of thinking that has influenced how I consider my marriage and the decisions that my wife and I make; it is not enough to simply understand one another—we must wait and wait and wait for one another until we can move forward together. We cannot live life in the fast lane this way, and we cannot get as much done. The benefit, though, is that we move through life feeling more valued by each other.

On Obedience as a Good, Beautiful, and Right Thing

I read John Frame’s 1,200 page magnum opus, Systematic Theology, this summer while I was unemployed for a few weeks. It is a wonderful work for a variety of reasons, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart, and as a reference 51gnmr5684l-_sy344_bo1204203200_work it is certainly not intended to be read straight through such as I did. Yet John Frame has an unusually razor-sharp mind, and it is fascinating to grasp snapshot of his entire mental belief system in such a short amount of time, because he truly is able to articulate himself so unusually well.

Frame’s governing principle in his theology is the idea of God’s lordship over the world and all that is in it (which is to say his control, authority, and presence), and the requisite response of obedience on our behalf. Though this concept is certainly draconian and repulsive to our modern ears, Frame elegantly and compellingly draws out the beauty, goodness, wisdom, and logic of laying down our autonomous, personal sovereignty in order to lovingly oblige God as our King. Perhaps you might ask why this is logical. Quite simply, submitting to a good God who only ever works for our best interests and his glory makes a great deal of sense. The sacrifice of libertarian freedom for the privilege of following such a God is a trivial price to pay. Frame helped me reframe (pun very much intended) my thinking about the concept of obeying God from duty to thankfulness.

On Violence and the Goodness of Sovereignty

My wife and I have been reading Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion trilogy, which is equal parts perplexing and fascinating (spoilers ahead). Lewis Gillies, a graduate student at Oxford, follows his roommate Simon through a cairn in northern Scotland to another world called Albion. It is an archetype of the British Isles where Lewis and Simon are trained as Celtic warriors to defend and fight for the kingdom of the good King Meldron.

9780310217923Within the first novel all hell quite literally breaks loose, and the innocent are slaughtered all across the land. The upheaval of order and justice results in the destruction of the most vulnerable, and those who wish to defend them. As Lewis eventually finds out, the source of all this horror and tragedy is none other than King Meldron’s son, who sought to rebel against the goodness of sovereignty and would do whatever he needed to usurp the throne. Meldron was a good king and exercised his control, authority, and presence over his realm in ways that worked toward the good of his people. His foolish son saw his father’s sovereignty as a right rather than as a responsibility, and was willing to kill—even the entire realm—to gain it.

Lawhead describes life in Albion with complex strokes: it is at once breathtaking in its vivid hyper reality and gritty with the all too realistic horror of violence and death of average people. It is neither the airbrushed Kinkade painting that you’d expect from American evangelicalism nor the unreal comic book violence of the modern sci-fi/fantasy flick. Lawhead’s brush is so photorealistic that it is disturbing. Evil is actually possible for normal people to inflict and to be victimized by. There’s a particular scene where Lewis is walking through the burnt husk of a town, ashes frozen into place by recent snowfall, and he comes across the frozen corpse of a toddler sprawled in the street. As I read those words, my heart churned within me and yearned for justice to be dealt swiftly, surely, wisely, and well, especially since I know what it’s like now to have a toddler of my own.

This is what good fiction does: it helps me to feel again and feel rightly about our world when I am all but callous and numb to the headlines I read. The violence and devastation in Albion is really no different from Paris, San Bernardino, Syria, and a thousand other places. Reporters and non-fiction writers may tell me what happened, but only the storytellers, the bards, and the artists can teach me how to feel rightly about it.

Concluding Thoughts

It was a fascinating experiment to press my nose to the grindstone of an impossible reading goal this year. I don’t plan on doing a quantitative goal again, at least not in 2016, but neither do I regret doing it. I failed at my new year’s resolution, and if this were a performance evaluation at a job I would certainly be fired. I cannot help but think, though, that in the end I succeeded; I read many good books, interacted with many interesting thinkers thinking about a multitude of topics, and I came by some truly pivotal concepts that have shaped the way I live my life.

The Imperfect Pastor [A Book Review]

The Imperfect PastorPost-apocalyptic movies always begin the same way. The scene opens upon the heels of catastrophe—all of humanity’s best laid plans have quite literally exploded around us, and the few survivors are left to pull together what remains and eke out some semblance of meaning and purpose from the ashes.

So call Zack Eswine’s latest book, The Imperfect Pastor, something like a post-apocalyptic pastoral theology. Having experienced desolation himself, both personal and pastoral, Eswine forges a way forward for pastors in the far from perfect world we live in. Simply put, he explores the calling we pursue (part 1), the temptations we face (part 2), reshaping our inner life (part 3), and reshaping the work we do (part 4).

What is immediately striking about the book is its tone. There are many books in pastoral theology today promising seven steps to a better church, or the secret key to unlocking ministry leadership potential in order to grow your church tenfold. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are many other books that react against this sort of “Leadership Industrial Complex” (to quote Jared Wilson) with uneasiness, distrust, and even cynicism. Having seen such grand promises fall through, the second sort of book warns the reader against the church growth movement and its allurement. While they rightly (in my opinion) point out the errors of the first, few go so far as to chart a practical way forward.

This is what is remarkable about Eswine’s work: his own personal disasters and disillusionment with chasing “professional” ministry seem to have chastened him and created in him a humble wisdom that is grateful for small things. What does pastoral ministry look like without speaking platforms, book deals, podcasts, and networks? What is a pastor to think when his church is not large, influential, strategic, or well-known? Consider these words:

We have trouble seeing how it is glorifying to God to eat food, learn to love, go to bed, and get up the next day for the same old work. The thought of living and ministering in one or two unknown and ordinary places for fifty years and then going home to be with the Lord feels like death. Of what account to God is an ordinary life in the grain fields?

As Eswine painted ever more clearly his picture of ministry, my heart kept saying, “Yes!” The cult of personality that the pastorate has become is neither good nor safe. Furthermore, it is hard to reconcile pastoral platform-building with, say, the attitude of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Eswine speaks an encouraging word to the majority of pastors in the world laboring in small congregations in the middle of nowhere, helping them shepherd their flocks with practical advice about how to care for the sick and how to handle well-meaning but hurtful comparisons to the former pastor.

If the book has any weaknesses, it is in its verbosity. Sometimes Eswine says in ten words what he could say in two. Notwithstanding, The Imperfect Pastor is a thought-provoking, incisive, and valuable meditation on what it means to be a pastor. I had something to gain by sitting at Eswine’s feet, and I trust that many others will, too.

You can pick up a paper copy of the book from Amazon for $15, or from WTS Books for the same price.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.