Bringing Home the Prodigals by Rob Parsons

I didn’t get all the answers I wanted from reading Rob Parsons’ short book called Bringing Home the Prodigals. (I don’t get all of the answers I want when I read Scripture either.) I didn’t read the book, and immediately receive a phone call from one of my “prodigals” saying that she was returning to the faith and wanted to go to church on Sunday. I prayed the prayers printed in the book, and my prodigal son hasn’t come home—yet.

'The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1667/1670' photo (c) 2010, Jorge Elías - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/However, I was reminded of the truths that God has already spoken to my heart during this time of waiting on Him and trusting Him to do His work in my life and in the lives of my family members:

Ultimately, we are all prodigals, Elder Brothers and Younger Sons and a little of both, and Christ is our only hope.

We the people of God’s church, by our legalism and our unloving attitudes, have made open rebels of some who were never rebels in the first place. We have driven God’s children away from us because of the color of their hair, or the clothes they wear, or the beverages they drink, or the language they use, or the piercings or tattoos they have on their bodies.

The great problem with the church in the Western world is that half the prodigals are still in the pews—and don’t realize their lost condition. “Our churches are filled with nice, kind, loving people who have never known the despair of guilt or the breathless wonder of forgiveness.”

Seeds sown into the soil of our children’s lives go deep into the soil of their very being. Never give up.

We cannot live someone else’s life for him. Children make choices. And sometimes those choices are bad ones.

“Our children are ultimately God’s responsibility. He is their Father. He does not ask the impossible of us. Only that we love them.”

“You and I cannot bring up godly children; it is not our responsibility—it is too heavy a burden. We are called instead to live godly lives.”

“In love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.” ~Thornton Wilder.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. ~I John 1:8-9
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. ~I John 3:1-2

Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis, with Beth Clark

“I have absolutely no desire to write a book about myself. This is a book about a Christ who is alive today and not only knows but cares about every hair on my head. Yours too. I’m writing this book on the chance that a glimpse into the life of my family and me, full of my stupidity and God’s grace, will remind you of this living, loving Christ and what it means to serve Him. I’m writing with the hope that as you cry and laugh with my family you will be encouraged that God still uses flawed human beings to change the world. And if He can use me, He can use you.”

I was encouraged by this story of a young woman, a girl really, eighteen years old, who found herself called by God to live in Uganda and minister to the poorest of the poor and adopt orphans and be ministered to by those same poor people and orphans. Katie Davis is a normal, average American girl in many ways, but she has an unusual God to whom she said “yes!” when He called her.

I really devoured this book. Katie’s story is amazing and inspiring. I will admit to one complaint about the book (but don’t let this keep you from reading it.) I would have liked to know more about what made Katie the caring, compassionate adult that she is. I would have liked to know more about her background. She mentions that her parents are Catholic, but Katie doesn’t seem to be a practicing Catholic. She talks like an evangelical Christian. I would have liked to know more about Katie’s family and how God prepared her for her new life in Uganda. But maybe Katie didn’t feel it necessary or didn’t feel comfortable sharing those family details.

Anyway, it is an excellent and challenging book. I gave it to a friend for a graduation present. I would recommend giving Kisses from Katie to all Christian graduates, but only if we’re prepared to have God do radical, exciting things in their lives. Read it only if you’re prepared to have God do radical, exciting, difficult things in YOUR life.

Katie’s blog

The Heart of Texas, the Movie

Wow! I just checked out this documentary movie from the library the other day, and I put it in my computer and watched it tonight. I had no idea that I would be watching such a powerful story of suffering, redemption, and forgiveness. The events chronicled in the movie happened in 2000; the movie came out a couple of years ago in 2009. The tragedy/miracle happened not far from where I live, in a little town called Simonton and nearby Wallis, Texas. I hadn’t heard of the movie, nor had I heard the story of Grover and Jill Norwood and their neighbors, Ulice and Carrie Parker.

I don’t want to say much more, except that I highly recommend that you find or buy a copy of the movie and watch it. You may find yourself in tears, and then on your knees before the Lord.

The Devil in Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo

I am in a quandary. I don’t want to discourage anyone form reading this memoir, a true story that carries a wonderful message about the necessity of forgiveness, even in the direst of circumstances.

However, to be honest, the book could have been edited down to about half or three-fourths of its almost 300 pages and not have lost a thing. If you’re a good skimmer, you’ll really appreciate this story of a pastor and his family terrorized and very nearly destroyed by a man who acts like the devil incarnate. In 1969, Robert Nichols moved with his family to Sellerstown, North Carolina to serve as pastor of the Free Welcome Holiness Church. As the name of the church indicated, the Nichols family was welcomed by the community, except for one man, Mr. Horry James Watts, who lived across the street from the parsonage and occupied pew number seven in the Free Welcome Church every Sunday morning. The violence and harrassment began with threatening phone calls and escalated until . . . No spoilers here.

The amazing thing about the story is the ending. Could you forgive a man who threatened to make you family leave the community where you lived “crawling or walking, dead or alive?” The sction near the end of the book on forgiveness is worth the price of the book because the author speaks from hard-earned experience.

“If I allow myself to go down the pathway of rage and retaliation, several things happen, and none of them are good. Here are my top four:
My sins will not be forgiven by God if I refuse to forgive those who have sinned against me.
I miss an opportunity to show God’s love to an unforgiving world.
I’m the one who remains in jail when I withhold God’s grace by failing to forgive.
If I have trouble forgiving, it might be because I’m actually angry at God, not at the person who wronged me.”

So, I’m recommending this book with the caveat that you’re not to expect deathless prose, just a riveting and inspiring story of nitty-gritty forgiveness and even joy in very difficult circumstances.

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Nominated for 2011 Cybil Awards, Young Adult Fiction category. Nominated by Ashley at Book Labyrinth.

This YA novel featuring small town Christian young people gets many things right. The story is absorbing. The characters are believable and interesting. The themes and issues in the book–teen pregnancy, homosexual temptation, drunk driving, etc.—are issues that young people do face; the presentation is realistic and sensitive. The author shows respect for the beliefs of conservative Christian people. I thought the parts of the book where the main character and narrator, Lacy Anne Byer, is experiencing God through her “prayer language” (charismatic speaking in tongues) were particularly well written and understanding.

However, (you knew there was a however) I am somewhat annoyed by books in which it is assumed that Christians, young and old alike, have never thought about the things that they believe, and it takes some enlightened outsider to bring them to their senses and make them realize their parochialism and blindness. In this book, Lacey’s new boyfriend is that enlightened, understanding, broad-minded outsider who makes Lacey Anne see that the Christian answers that her parents have given her are inadequate and unsatisfying. I don’t have a problem with Lacey Anne questioning the things she has been taught; I would question some of things that Lacey Anne has apparently been taught. And often it does take a new person’s perspective or a new experience to jumpstart that questioning process. Tyson, Lacey’s new friend in the book, is so perfect, however, that his answers seem obviously right and good while Lacey’s conservative Christianity comes off looking ineffectual and untrustworthy.

It doesn’t help that the adults in the book are mostly hypocritical, in a mild, unthinking way. There are no real villains in the book (other than Satan); even the bully is seen to be reacting to the abuse he receives at home from his alcoholic father. However, Lacey’s parents have difficulty dealing with her friendships with kids who are not perfect Christians from perfect families, and Lacey’s dad, a pastor, is quite over-protective. I have dealt with what I consider to be over-protective families in my church and in the homeschooling community, and Lacey’s dad is not uncommon. However, he is something of a caricature and his views on homosexuality, dating, and teen pregnancy are not very nuanced or well articulated.

I also didn’t like the way the book strongly implied that if a guy is a nerd and artistic and creative in his clothing choices, and if he hangs out mostly with girls and gets bullied, then he might be suppressing his homosexual identity. Especially, he might be smothering those tendencies if he has grown up in a small town and been taught that homosexual behavior is immoral. Talk about stereotypes. Artistic men are not naturally gay and do not necessarily, or even probably, have same sex desires. And if one does have those temptations, I would argue, like the people in Lacey’s church, that it’s not a bad thing to reject homosexual behavior for yourself. In fact, I would still maintain that the repudiation of homosex is what the Bible teaches and what is best for a man or woman who is tempted in that way.

Overall, Small Town Sinners is a good book, but it does encourage the view that there are no answers, only questions. And parents are not the ones to go to with your questions; a kid your age from out of town who has experienced so much more of Life is more likely to know the meaning thereof than your small town, uncomprehending parents. My final complaint is that there is very little or no gospel in Lacy Anne’s church or in her ideas about Christianity, only rules. Ty, who encourages Lacey Anne to question that legalism, doesn’t have much concept of what to replace it with either. Forgiveness is discussed, but staying “pure” and avoiding sins (of the flesh) are the main focus of Lacey’s brand of Christianity.

I didn’t even get into the “Hell House” aspect of the plot, which provides an interesting bit of evangelical Americana for those interested, but you can read more about that drama at Linus’s Blanket or at Presenting Lenore. Take it with a grain of salt, and some questions of your own, but Small Town Sinners provides a good story and some challenging ideas for evangelical Christian teens and non-religious ones alike.

Love Wins by Rob Bell

Rob Bell is slick. I use that word to describe him and his book, Love Wins, because I believe it’s applicable, even charitable. (Charitable, because I’m trying not to say that he’s only interested in selling lots of books.) Immediately after I read the book, my first thought was, “What’s the big fuss?” I don’t agree with everything in Mr. Bell’s book, but I can certainly agree with much of it. Then, I began to go back and try to find the things I agreed with, those points that were supported by Scripture. First I found that even when I agreed with Bell’s exegesis of Scripture or his explanation of Christian doctrine, he often contradicted his own words in the next paragraph or on the next page. Then, I found that much of what I could support was phrased in the form of a question, and it was not a good kind of questioning. In fact, Mr. Bell seems to question in the same way that the serpent in the garden of Eden questioned: “Hath God truly said . . . ?”

Then, I saw, in the book and especially in the debate with Adrian Warnock linked below, that Mr. Bell likes to play games with words and with communication. When he is asked a question, he likes to not answer, but rather ask another question or turn the question back toward the interviewer, maybe with a slightly different emphasis or meaning. He reminds me of Humpty Dumpty who famously said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Only with Mr. Bell it’s usually more; words mean lots of things; stories mean lots of things, and Rob Bell chooses the story he likes the best and the meaning he wants to fit his chosen story.

“It’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the orrect thngs in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.
In contrast, everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story.” Love Wins, p.110-111.

Love Wins is supposed to be “a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” However, don’t ask Rob Bell to tell you what the Bible says will happen to you after you die or whether you need to consciously choose to follow Christ in this life, or even whether or not God desires our obedient love for Himself so much that He gave His only begotten Son to secure our salvation from the ravages of sin and hell. Mr. Bell is likely to respond to those questions with a question of his own: “What do you think?” or even “What story do you want to be true about heaven and hell and your own fate?”

My answer to that bit of sophistry is: what I want to be true doesn’t change reality. I would dearly love to rewrite history and say that there never was any fall into sin. I would like for the Story to be all about God’s love and our obedience and love for Him with nothing to mar that perfect fellowship. But I live in a world of sin and suffering, some of that sin and suffering caused by me and the choices I have made, and the good news is that I can have hope and redemption and eternal life through the marvelous sacrifice of Jesus on my behalf. And because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I can live an abundant eternal life with Him. That’s a good story and a true story, and it’s available to anyone who chooses to follow Jesus.

However, it’s also true that if any one of us chooses to go our own way, make up our own story, hold on to our sin, and worship some idolatrous figment of our own imagination, God will allow us our tragic freedom. And He will someday say, “Depart from me. I never knew you. (Because you never chose to know Me.)” And that, too, is eternal, and it will be an irrevocable decision. So, in a sense, each of us does get to choose his own story; either we believe the truth or we choose the lie.

I found the book Love Wins ultimately to be slick and slippery, and in the interviews and discussions I saw with Mr. Bell, he comes across as evasive and flippant. Although I think it’s O.K. to smile and even laugh as we discuss important things, Mr. Bell doesn’t seem to seriously care about truth. In fact, I’m not sure he believes that truth is knowable. If not, then we might as well eat, drink and be merry, right?

Adrian Warnock, a Christian blogger from the U.K., debated Rob Bell when Bell was doing a book tour in the UK, and then Warnock wrote a series of posts, engaging key points on which he disagrees with Mr. Bell.

Pastor Kevin DeYoung writes an excellent critique of the book from a Reformed perspective.

Tough Questions and Real Life Stories

This weekend, Easter weekend, a lot of people are thinking about Jesus, and Christianity, and Truth. I followed a link in a John Piper tweet and found this website out of the U.K. called Christianity Explored. The site includes a section called Tough Questions in which real people give preliminary answers for questions such as:

You can’t trust the Bible, can you?
Wasn’t Jesus just a great teacher?
Doesn’t becoming a Christian mean becoming boring?
Hasn’t science shown that Christianity is wrong?
If there is a God, why does He allow suffering?
Why bother with church?
Isn’t believing in the resurrection ridiculous?
How can a loving God send anyone to hell?
Why are Christians so old-fashioned about sex?
Aren’t all religions essentially the same?

I say “preliminary answers” because for each of the above questions there is four minute video of a Christian giving a real introduction to the Christian response to that particular issue. Of course, four minutes isn’t a lot of time to answer most of the complicated and serious questions that people have, so the website goes on to provide further resources, reading suggestions, and more in-depth answers to the questions. Also, the website, Christianity Explored, has a series of short stories of real life Christians telling about how they came to believe in Jesus Christ. And there’s a course that you can sign up for called (no surprise) Christianity Explored, and you can also read the book of Mark, one of the first biographies of Jesus, for yourself.

At the risk of sounding totally frivolous about a serious subject, I must say that you should be careful about watching these videos. Many of the speakers are British, and anything presented with that kind of oh-so-English accent is bound to sound erudite and indisputable. Just sayin’.

I can’t think of a better way to spend at least part of your Easter weekend than to explore the claims of Christ and of his followers. And if you’re an easily impressed American like me, enjoy the accents.

Christians Meet the World: Adventuring in Faith

I’ve been reading a string of adventure, world travel, conversion memoirs in which common themes of caring for orphans, reuniting and dividing families, and surviving tragedy, kept reiterating.

First, I read Mary Beth Chapman’s Choosing To See, about the commitment of her and her husband, singer Steven Curtis Chapman, to adopt three girls from China, and also about the tragic death of one of those girls, Maria, in a car accident. Ms. Chapman is about as real as I would imagine anyone could be in writing about her battles with clinical depression, even before the adoptions, and about her struggle to make some kind of sense or gain some peace in the midst of a seemingly senseless tragedy. the story itself is powerful enough to overcome any deficiencies in the writing, and I was amazed and heartened to see God at work in the Chapmans’ story in spite of the suffering that they have endured. The foundation that the Chapmans started, Show Hope, is involved with orphan care and adoption aid around the world.

Next, I read a very different sort of book, set in a very different part of the world: Son of Hamas by Mosab Hasan Yousef. The Middle East, and the Palestinian Authority in particular, are very difficult parts of the world, and it makes sense that a memoir set in that violent and conflict-ridden area would leave some questions in my mind as I read it. Son of Hamas is the story of the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of the Palestinian/Muslim organization, Hamas. Over the course of events in the book, Mosab Yousef becomes his father’s bodyguard and security detail while at the same time working for the Israeli security service, Shin Bet. He rationalizes this double life by telling himself that he is saving lives by informing on the terrorist activities and secrets that he is privy to knowing, but the strain becomes too much as he is also involved in a Christian Bible study and becomes convinced of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While I was able to rejoice in Mr. Yousef’s conversion to Christianity and his eventual resignation from both Hamas activities and from his spying assignments for the Israeli Shin bet, I also took seriously Yousef’s admonition in the afterword of his book:

“So if you meet me on the street, please don’t ask for advice or what I think this or that scripture verse means, because you’re probably already way ahead of me. Instead of looking at me as a spiritual trophy, pray for me, that I will grow in my faith and that I won’t step on too many toes as I learn to dance with the bridegroom.”

The third memoir I read has a very different feel to it. Little Princes by Conor Grennan is the story of Nepalese children in an orphanage in Katmandu who were thought to be orphans but who were discovered to be mostly children who had been taken from their parents under false pretenses and abandoned or enslaved in the capital city of Katmandu. Grennan tells the story from his (American) point of view and shares some personal details of his own life, but he keeps the focus on the children. After stumbling into his work with the orphanage with less than pure motives (he wants to impress the women with his altruism), Grennan learns to care about the children and begins an organization dedicated to the goal of reuniting the trafficked children of Nepal with their families. You can read more about Conor Grennan’s non-profit organization Next Generation Nepal at the website.

Sad to say, although I believe after reading the books that all three of these authors are sincere in their beliefs and truthful in telling their respective stories, I can’t vouch for any of them personally. And in light of the recent revelations about Greg Mortenson and his immensely popular book Three Cups of Tea an the organization that he directs, Central Asia Institute, any book of this sort, especially Grennan’s which takes place in the same general area of the world, is bound to come under some scrutiny. Such scrutiny and due diligence is good, but a lack of compassion and charitable giving and general skepticism used to justify stinginess and apathy are not good and not right. We must give our money and our compassion wisely, but also generously.

Further information and links related to these books and to Mortenson’s CAI:
60 Minutes report on inaccuracies in Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea
Central Asia Institute website
Greg Mortenson’s response to 60 Minutes’ questions
John Krakauer: Three Cups of Deceit, How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way
Conor Grennan’s non-profit organization Next Generation Nepal.
Conor Grennan’s blog
Conor Grennan on Condemning Greg Mortenson and a Thousand Little Girls
Son of Hamas blog
Son of Hamas book website
Show Hope foundation
Maria’s Big House of Hope Orphan Care center
Mary Beth Chapman’s website
Steven Curtis Chapman official site

By the way, by grouping these reviews and links together, I don’t mean to imply in any way that all or any of the books are inaccurate or filled with lies just because one book, Three Cups of Tea, has been accused of containing falsehoods. I read these books in succession, and then I read the news reports on the issues with Mortenson’s story. And I, of course, wondered. The fiasco surrounding Three Cups of Tea and Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute should be a strong warning to all memoirists, especially those involved in fund-raising, to be scrupulously honest in their story-telling. Mr. Mortenson’s looseness with the truth has hurt more people than just himself and more organizations than just CAI.

And The Word . . . Dwelt Among Us

The Kimyal people of Papua, Indonesia receive the Bible in their own language:

What a celebration. Do we even begin to know what precious truth God has entrusted to us? “To whom much is given, of him much shall be required.” We in the West are abundantly blessed. God forgive us for the misuse and waste we have perpetrated with the blessing He has given us.

And won’t heaven be grand as we all worship the Lamb together, from every nation and tribe?

Observing Lent

Easter is late this year, not until April 24th. And so the season of Lent begins in March. Shrove Tuesday is March 8, and Ash Wednesday is March 9. I want to do some special things with our family to observe both Lent and the fifty days after Easter which constitute the Easter feast that lasts from Easter until Pentecost Sunday, June 12.

The following ideas for Lent come from:
Lenten Links: Resources for a Post-Evangelical Lent.
One deep drawer: Observing Lent with our families
10 Lenten Traditions to Enrich Your Family’s Easter Celebration by Barbara Curtis
At a Hen’s Pace: An Anglican Family Lent.
Recommended Reading for Lent at Conversion Diary.

1. Make doughnuts or some other deep-fried treat on Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday.
2. Learn a new song. a song that points to spring coming and new life sprouting.
3. Go for a walk every day. I once knew of a homeschooling family who put a pot of soup on to simmer for lunch and headed out for a walk each day, no matter what the weather.
4. Make a nature almanac recording what you see on your walks.
5. Learn a new prayer to say at meals.
6. Give up meat as a family. or sugar. Give the money to an organization like Heifer.
7. Change your seasonal table or altar. Add a bowl of water to be the waters of life, or a tray of sand to be the 40 years in the desert, our own long journey, our dustiness.
8. Sprout something. Grow something. Plant something.
9. Make bread. to go along with the soup.
10. Celebrate National Poetry Month (April) with a poem a day.
11. Wear purple, the traditional color of Lent, to keep you mindful.
12. Light candles at meals. Turn off the electric light. Enjoy the darkness.
13. Observe silence even for a few moments each day at the same time.
14. Memorize an Easter passage of Scripture as a family. Suggestions: one of the Psalms,
15. Celebrate Purim, March 20-21. Read the book of Esther aloud.
16. Celebrate Passover, April 19-25.
17. Post Bible verses, especially the words of Jesus, on the refrigerator, bathroom mirrors, wherever a busy family is sure to see them.
18. Bake your own pretzels. Pretzels originated as early Christian Lenten treats, designed in the form of arms crossed in prayer.
19. In Matthew 12:39-41, Jesus points to the story of Jonah as a sign of his own destiny. So this is a great time to review it with your children, discussing the issues of sin, obedience, and God’s mercy.
20. Read books together as a family or alone to lead you into Easter Resurrection celebration. Books for Lent to lead you into Resurrection.
21. Read the Church Fathers during Lent.
22. Practice confession, asking God to search our hearts and point out those things in our lives that need to change.
23. Fast on Fridays or fast from meat on Fridays.
24. Decide as a family on one thing that is distracting your family from following God fully, and take that one thing out of your family life at least for the duration of Lent.
25. Participate in World Vision’s Relentless Acts of Justice.
26. Pray and read the Bible daily.