The Gift of Being Yourself by David Benner is the second book in a three book set that leads the reader into understanding who they are in God. Each book is fairly brief and has discussion questions for personal and group study.

This particular volume leads the reader into “self” discovery, but not in a way one would normally think.

“Discovering yourself” isn’t about constructing something through self-improvement. It’s not an object to be grasped. It can’t be torn down and built back up by therapy.

Benner’s contention is we find out WHO we are by seeking GOD.

“There is no true life apart from relationship to God.”

A fairly bold statement for a therapist to make.

As we seek and know God, we find true freedom. We also find our calling. We find the pleasure of understanding what brings pleasure to God… and how he pours that pleasure back through us.

This past week I was reminded of that joy when I shared in another class about my main vocation: pastoring. I teach as an adjunct and really enjoy it, but when I was in another class sharing about my city, my church, and the ministry… I was overwhelmed with joy again. THIS is what brings pleasure more than anything. It wasn’t talking about the relationships I have with city leaders and others in my community. It was the relationships themselves that brought me joy. I think of the deep friendships cultivated and the HOPE of seeing these friends come into Kingdom blessing… and I find true joy.

Two buzzwords we have about our lives are “happiness” and “fulfillment.”

“God just wants me to be happy.”

“I just want to be FULFILLED in life.”

Those are important to God, but can’t be divorced from his DESIRE for us. Deep joy isn’t found in our personal happiness or fulfillment. Deep joy is found in Christ.

Benner boldly states that simply pursuing happiness and fulfillment as ultimate goals is idolatry. Our purest joy, deepest satisfaction, and true authentic self can only be found in Christ.

Benner’s slim volumes are packed with intense thoughts. Short sentences leave me thinking about those thoughts long after I put the book down.

IVP sent me these books at no cost and no obligation for review.

Book Review: Surrender to Love by David Benner

I received Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality by David Benner from IVP. It is part of a trilogy of small books Benner has updated.

The foreword by M. Basil Pennington has this sentence: “It took me several weeks to read.” The volume I as holding in my hands was slender. The text itself, subtracting discussion group exercises at the end, is less than 100 pages.

Several weeks?

Then, I got into Benner’s introduction… and could easily see how long this could take. Every sentence was a meal.

There are some books that “hit us” at the right time. This seems to be one of them. The words were so inviting. The spirit was gentle. The message was intense and full of love. I wrote one of the staff at IVP and said, “I have almost literally cried my way through this little book.”

Benner turns our sappy cultural notions of “love” on its ear. Unapologetically. He also talks in terms of total surrender and complete transformation that is only possible in Christ. Unapologetically. And he does so as a psychologist. He doesn’t believe in “self-help” or incremental change. It is about total surrender to the astonishing love of Christ. And his words breathe hope and life into the reader.

His premise is this: “Love invites surrender, and surrender is at the heart of spirituality.” (p. 15)

He rejects the entire notion that “God is angry” (although he deals with what it means to fear God), and boldly states that only love has the power to transform a person. We have to surrender. We have to be completely vulnerable. We don’t follow Christ out of simple, blind obedience. We follow him from a posture of surrender.

I wrote briefly yesterday of his opening four lines in Chapter One. They still blow me away.

What does God think about me? How DOES he feel about me? Too often I project my own disappointment into that that answer.

“God bursts with love for humans.” (p. 20)

Not exactly “wrath of God” stuff that makes me feel somewhat better about how lousy I am as a Christian at times.

The bold statement of God’s love for Benner is not based on emotion. It is about God’s character. Love is stripped of our sappy cultural definitions. It is powerful, and I sensed that intense love all the way through this slender volume.

When it comes to encountering God’s love, Benner believes it is vital not only for people who “live with their hearts” but also for people who “live in their heads.” We can’t leave our commitment to following Christ with head knowledge. We need the experience of his love. We need to FEEL his deep love for us. We need that experience.

But this powerful love is also for those who tend to live only in the emotion of the moment. God’s radical love takes us beyond the superficial feelings. It is a call to move beyond the superficial feelings and understand the power of authentic feeling. Along with that comes critical thinking, and God’s love is not opposed to critical thinking.

Each chapter ends with a long list of suggestions for further reflection. There are Scriptures to soak in. At the end of the book are two sets of discussion ideas. One set is for a 5 week study. The other set is for a day long retreat.

I readily concede Pennington’s statement in the foreword. This little volume is one I can carry with me for weeks and feast on sentences at a time. It is my prayer the other two volumes pack this much power!

Four Lines to Wreck My Day

I have found culturally these days that words have duel, and opposite, meanings.

When I’ve heard something or someone described as “sick,” I think, “Oh, that’s too bad. What’s wrong with them?”

Then, I find out the word meant, “Awesome,” or “incredible,” or something opposite of what the word used to mean for me.

So, I use the word “wreck,” or I could use the word “ruin.” I have heard it used as opposites as well. When someone says, “This ruined me,” it could mean, “It was bad news. It was my undoing in a BAD way.” OR… it could now mean, “It affected me so deeply I am changed for the good.”

So, in that spirit, I want to give four lines I read this morning that have “wrecked” my day. May they “wreck” yours… in some way. 🙂

The book is Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality by David Benner. It is an updated edition sent to me for review by IVP. And the first four lines have already sealed the deal for me.

Benner writes:

Take a moment and try a simple exercise. The results will tell you a great deal about the nature of your spiritual journey.

Imaging God thinking about you. What do you assume God feels when you come to mind?

This may do nothing for you. But those opening lines to a very slender book have “wrecked” me. How it wrecks me isn’t really something to reveal right now.

But, may it “wreck” you in some way.

Book Review: My God and My All: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi

The Feast of St. Francis was this past Sunday in many liturgical churches. On the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S., it seemed a bit more meaningful, I am sure. I also was finishing up a reprint and updated edition of My God and My All: The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi by Elizabeth Goudge. The book was initially published in the 1950s. Plough Publishing updated the edition and I received a review copy from Handlebar Marketing.

The Feast of St. Francis is commemorated through the blessing of the pets. Francis was known for his communication to animals. It’s a bit sad, for me, that this is the main way we choose to remember Francis. He was a man who surrendered everything. He stripped himself, literally, to take up the call of following Christ. He learned to completely rely on the generosity of others and in turn became generous with what was passed through his hands.

He set up orders for men, women, and laity so all could follow Christ in simplicity. He was involved in one of the Crusades, trying to mediate between the Muslim and Christian armies.

The book is written in a novel style and is very readable.

It is a fresh reminder of radical obedience. Francis readily admitted that God would demand sacrifice of him beyond his capability, but that was where he found the strength of the Lord. It was in holy obedience he best found the presence of God.

A good reminder.

Book Review: “Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times”

I received a copy of Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah from IVP. It is a part of a new series called “Resonate” that looks to engage books of the Bible through a current theological lens and the study of culture.

Rah’s book focuses on the Book of Lamentations. It’s not a book I’ve readily studied and rarely read. There is a good reason for that. It is a lot crying. And Rah points that out. It IS a lot of crying and in the West we’re used to an “overcomer” message. We’re about TRIUMPH. We don’t have time for lament. 

And that is the rub. Rah shouts a prophetic voice of his own into a very comfortable American church, and it’s a voice we need to hear. The American evangelical church has watched the culture shift and we’re moving from white male dominance and that’s hard to take. We don’t know what to do. We don’t understand other cultures very well. When places like Ferguson, MO blow up, we think, “Get over it.” We don’t lament. 

The book is a walk through Lamentations and does have exegetical insight I found very helpful. But it’s also a walk through our current culture offering biting commentary along the way. And I found that very disturbing. And I needed disturbing.

Lamentations, I discovered, has each chapter built around the tool of using the Hebrew alphabet one letter at a time. For instance, if a chapter has 22 verses, each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It demonstrates that lament needs to be thorough. And lament also has a framework it works in, but there is an ending in some ways. Ultimately, the book ends on what Rah calls a “minor key.” It leaves things unresolved. What is next isn’t revealed. But the lament is over, hope is turned to God once again, and the believer must move forward.

At this particular time in our culture, this book is incredibly needed. It is something we need to hear. To absorb. To apply. Lament isn’t part of our “routine” as the Church in America. We don’t understand it. We sniffle for an afternoon, then move on.

Maybe what we need instead is a lament for the Church. A lament over the shift in culture. A good weeping. Get it out. Pound the frustration out on the desk. Cry into the carpet.

And then desperately ask for the voice of God.

Rah gives the invitation to listen to the other cultural voices we have. Don’t stay with “majority” culture. Listen to the minority voices God has gifted us with in the church. FOLLOW some minority voices from time to time! We need a process of learning the plight of others and hearing their pain. We don’t need to be so quick to move on.

Rah’s book is a challenging read. And challenges are what my soul needs.

Book Review: Eldership and the Mission of God

J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt have teamed up to write a book on elders in the context of being a “missional” church. (I am not even going to pretend I know what that word means. I’ve tried. I’ve failed. Just go with it.) The book is Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership

Alan Hirsch writes the foreword to the book and starts with this: “The church doesn’t have a mission; God’s mission has a church. And the calling of the church, first and foremost, is to seek God’s rule and reign.”

While I will never get the term “missional”, I do know that when I generally read books by “missional” pastors, they resonate with how I see ministry and mission within my community.

This book is wonderfully simple. It is a “quick read,” but don’t leave it as simply that. Refer to it again and again. Visit the biblical underpinnings of eldership in their explanations. Understand how they developed the roles of elders within their own contexts. When you are working on how to form a team of elders, pull this book out again. Mark it up. Don’t dog-ear it. I hate that. Use post-it notes or something. Respect the page!

This is about biblical journey. It is about life journey. It is not about structure for the sake of structure. It is learning to build long-term relationships that root the church deeply in the community and disciple believers to change their world. We want to do so much more than simply “get people saved.” It’s more than getting them “ready for heaven.” We need to equip people to bring heaven to earth as we live. It is a powerful calling.

Reading this book helped me reflect on the wonderful relationship we have built in our own church. It is an established church but over 17 years of ministry the “board of deacons” has become a true team of elders. We have a staff as well, and I meet with them more regularly, but together we have a unit that prays together, counsels together, longs to build community in our church, and longs to build the Kingdom in our community. This book was a refreshing reminder that we are doing something solid and good. (It’s also a reminder that I should write things more quickly and try to get them published before these guys. 🙂 )

When they visit the biblical passages typically connected to elders, they talk about the role of men being leaders in their families. They also tackle the tough issue of women in leadership as well. They walk through those tough passages as well. (I have to leave something dangling so you’ll actually read the book, so I’m going to leave off what they conclude.)

This is a good basic manual that is worth visiting again and again. For me, it serves as a possible “thank you” gift to the team I serve with because they model so wonderfully what this book lays out. For new church plants, this is worth visiting as you dream about good leadership structure.

We need ALL the gifts in the church! We need ALL the gifts possible in leadership. It can’t be a one-man show any longer. This is a great tool for taking us to true team leadership.

I was sent this book by IVP for review. I am under no obligation to write a positive review.

Book Review: Christ-Shaped Character: Choosing Love, Faith and Hope

In Christ-Shaped Character: Choosing Love, Faith and Hope, Helen Cepero begins with her story. And story is what this book is about. It is seeing the activity of God in our own story. It is about experiencing the presence of Christ in very real, tangible ways. We can take our life’s journey and follow Christ. As Cepero states, “The journey follows along the way of love, faith and hope.”

Each aspect of “faith, love and hope” is explored in some detail. She invites the reader to see the hand of Christ in the joys and troubles of our own journey. Our identity is not formed by doctrine alone. It is by experience. We find our identity in our stories. As we listen to each other we find where Christ is moving.

Each chapter follows a story from her own life, then steps to practice in prayer and conversation, as well as thoughts for journaling. Each chapter also offers further reading on the particular topic.

There are no set formulas. There is no “road map.” It is simply learning to see how Jesus moves in faith, hope, and love through our lives and examining that through prayer, Scripture, and conversation with others.

We need to learn how to walk on a journey. We don’t get it right from the very start. She tells a marvelous story in Chapter One of the beginners band in school. They all have instruments and they can barely read music and it’s tough to listen to. But as the students progress in music, in another year they are learning to play together better. In another year they can come together in ways where improvisation is possible. We need to journey with Christ. We don’t always get it right, but we need to keep on the journey.

This is a refreshing book to pick up and enjoy.

I was given Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero through IVP. It is from their Formatio series on spiritual disciplines and is a great addition to their offerings. I am under no obligation to give a positive review.