Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review: Third Time's a Charm

Third Time's a Charm: A Novel (Sister-to-Sister)


About the Book:  Can Tori balance career, family, love, and shopping? Tori Sanderson has the professional opportunity of a lifetime. If she can prove she's executive material, she's in line for a big promotion. But there's only room for one new account executive, and her co-worker has his eye on the job . . . and on Tori. How can she consider romance when she couldn't hold on to the one man who was supposed to love her forever--her own father? The time has come for answers, and Tori decides to search for the father who deserted her twelve years ago. Will she find the answers she craves? And will she ever be able to love again? "Sometimes tender, sometimes lighthearted, Third Time's a Charm has it all. Ginny always wins me over with her humor, but this time she captivated me with her depth. Highly recommended!"--Janice Thompson, author of Fools Rush In "An irresistible story of pain, discovery, and triumph that has all the elements of a wonderful love story."--Maggie Brendan, author of No Place for a Lady and The Jewel of His Heart Virginia Smith is the author of more than a dozen novels, including Age before Beauty and Stuck in the Middle, which was a finalist for the 2009 American Christian Fiction Writers Book of the Year award. In 2008 she was named Writer of the Year at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. Learn more about Ginny and her books at www.VirginiaSmith.org.

My Thoughts:  This is light, entertaining fluffy Christian chick-lit at it best.  The main character wears $300 jeans to visit a pig farm and ends up covered in pig feces.  A couple of kids ruin her designer silk blouse and replace it with one the same color (except the one they bought cost a fraction of what hers did).  Tori is the youngest of three sisters; one is happily married, one is engaged, and they are sure she needs to be.  She'd like a guy, but doesn't have time for one, since she is working all the time, for a boss who has no life. 

Her sister's upcoming wedding will mean even more changes; the family home is being put on the market.  While going through the attic, Tori finds photos of her dad, who abandoned the family when she was young.  Looking for him is a minor subplot.  

It is a Christian novel, which in this case means she met Mr. Wonderful at church, and we get to sit through a Sunday School lesson.  Also, Tori doesn't like her brother-in-law-to-be because she thinks he is too much of a religious fanatic who has turned her whole family (except her) into religious fanatics.  Mr. Wonderful likes him, and explains to her that Ken's faith is genuine, not something he puts on for a few hours on Sunday.  Tori decides a person of faith is a better associate than one without.

Despite a couple of possibly serious subplots, on the whole this book remains light and fluffy, or maybe I was just in a light mood and didn't contemplate this novel enough--but when I blow through a 327 page book in 2 and a half hours, there wasn't much contemplation involved.  Grade:  B

I'd like to thank Christian Review of Books and Kathy Carlton Willis Communications for providing a complimentary review copy of this book.  I reviewed Book One of his series here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Catholic Company Book Review: Walking with God


Walking with God is a narrative that takes you through the entire story of the Bible, from Genesis through the Pauline Epistles. Besides telling the story, Timothy Gray and Jeff Cavins explain why certain stories are important and how they relate to others. For example, they compare the return from the Babylonian exile to the Exodus. The book includes maps, diagrams and charts that help them make their points.

I learned a lot by reading Walking with God, ideas that had never crossed my mind and which I've never been taught--but I'll admit I haven't read a lot about the Old Testament, so I couldn't say whether the points they make are those commonly made in books about the Old Testament, or relatively unique perspectives on things. I have no way to judge the orthodoxy of the material except to say that Archbishop Chaput of Denver granted the book an Imprimatur.

As Catholics we hear large parts of the Old Testament read at mass; however, I think we miss the overall perspective if we don't do outside reading/study. Walking with God is a far less intimidating read than the entire Bible, and I think it gives a good overview of the story, the main points, of the whole Bible. Grade: A

I'd like to thank The Catholic Company for providing a complimentary review copy.  The Catholic Company is also a great source for First Communion Gifts and Baptism Gifts.

CymLowell

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: The House on Olive Street by Robyn Carr

The House on Olive Street


I've enjoyed quite a few Robyn Carr books lately so when I saw The House on Olive Street  at the used book store, I decided to try it.  I like happy endings wrapped up in a bow as much as anyone, but this book was just too much.  This group of women writers meets regularly, usually at the house of Gabby.  The book begins with the other members finding Gabby dead when they show up at her house for her surprise birthday party.  At the funeral, Gabby's ex-husband gives one of the writers a note from Gabby asking her to go through Gabby's papers if this day ever came.  The chosen one is a professor who has summers off, so she decides to move into Gabby's house for the summer.  One by one the others have crises in their lives, and join her there, along with Gabby's mother.  By the end of the book everyone's problems are resolved, and Gabby is the best-selling author of a book she spent years writing, an autobiographical novel.  It was all just too pat.  Grade C+..

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival

Happy New Year!  If any non-Catholics are reading this post, the reason I am saying Happy New Year is because tomorrow, Sunday, November 28, 2010, is the First Sunday of Advent, the first day of the 2011 liturgical year.  Advent is a time when we prepare spiritually for the coming of Christ.  Along with other bloggers, I'm participating in Catholic Roundup.com's Advent Calendar.  Just as the calendar you buy for use at home has small windows to open each day, so does this one, only you click on it rather than open it.  You can see the calendar here and my first post for it here--a list of links for families with kids.

I'd like to welcome everyone to Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival.  We are a group of Catholic bloggers who gather weekly to share our best posts with each other.  To particpate, go to your blog and create an entry titled Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival.  In it, highlight one or more of your posts from the past week that you believe would be of interest to Catholic bloggers---whether they are posts reflecting on spiritual matters or posts about antics of Catholic kids, or anything in between.  Use that post to link to your original posts, as I linked to the Advent posts above.   Come back here and enter the URL of that post into Mr. Linky.  Finally, go visit other participants, and leave comments!  If you want a weekly reminder to post, join our yahoogroup.

I reviewed three books this week:  Redemption by Karen Kingsbury, which deals with adultery in marriage; Sisters, Ink, which is about a woman who has to choose between a big city high-powered career, and small time life and love; and Still of the Night which is a romance about folks who were high school sweethearts until she got pregnant.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Redemption by Karen Kingsbury

Redemption

About the Book:  When Kari Baxter Jacobs finds out that her husband is involved in an adulterous relationship and wants a divorce, she decides she will love him and remain faithful to her marriage at all costs. This book shows how God can redeem seemingly hopeless relationships, and it illustrates one of Gary Smalley’s key messages: Love is a decision.

Redemption is the first book in the five-book Redemption series that Gary and Karen will write about the Baxter family—their fears and desires, their strengths and weaknesses, their losses and victories. Each book will explore key relationship themes as well as the larger theme of redemption, both in characters’ spiritual lives and in their relationships. Each book includes study questions for individual and small-group use as well as a “teaser” chapter of the next book in the series.

My Comments:  While Karen Kingsbury is a talented writer who can pull at your heartstrings, she is clearly the author of Christian fiction.  There is nothing subtle about the integration of faith into the message.  As Kari's husband is getting involved in the adulterous relationship, he keeps recalling Bible verses he learned as a child.  Because of her husband's adultery, Kari is told by other Christians that she has Biblical grounds for divorce.  As a result of his adultery, her husband begins drinking, and ends up doing so to excess.  When Kari and her husband decide to try to save their marriage,they go see their pastor.  We hear the family pray, a lot.  The ending is kind of bittersweet.  I think Kingsbury is one of those authors you either love or hate--and if you like her books, judging by the few I've read, I'd say this is pretty typical.  Grade:  B.

I got this book via Bookmooch.  You can read the first chapter here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sisters, Ink

Sisters, Ink (Scrapbooker's Series #1)

About the Book:  In this first novel of the series, readers are introduced to Tandy, Meg, Kendra, and Joy - four racially diverse women adopted into the Sinclair family at various ages and raised by a preacher daddy and a scrapbooking momma. This story focuses on Tandy, the Irish-American who is headstrong, stubborn, fiercely loyal, and about to undergo a geographical transformation. Tandy is the only sister living apart from the Sinclair family. Her position at a law firm in Orlando is threatened, though, when she upsets a high profile client. To endure her forced three-week leave-of-absence, Tandy heads home to Stars Hill, Tennessee, to reunite with the sisters and scrap in Momma's scrapping studio. But sleepy Stars Hill has changed in the three years since her last visit and Tandy comes face to face with a man who loved her and left her once before. Should she dare to love him again? And, even if she did, how can they be together when her life is in Orlando?

My Comments: When you read books in a series out of order, you already have some idea of the outcome, though I can't say I would have been surprised even if I had never read the later books.  The scrap booking angle is cute and gives the sisters an excuse to get together and talk.  The book is marketed as Christian fiction but if you like "group of women" novels like Debbie Macomber's Yarn Shop books you'll probably like this one.  In this case Christian means that the characters attend church, Daddy is a minister (but we never hear him preach), the characters drink ice tea at a jazz club and Daddy asks Tandy if she is attending church.  In short, it is a light romantic woman-focused book.   I have one more book to read in this series, and I'll be looking for it--I got this one from Bookmooch.  Grade:  B.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Advent for Families with Children

As you'll note from the sticky post at top of the blog, I am participating in the Catholic New Media Advent Calendar again this year.  If you are a blogger, I'm sure they'd love to have you link to them.

This list of links started several years ago when I was teaching third grade religion.  I've updated it yearly, and I'll admit I keep doing it because I always get lots of hits, so if you aren't a regular reader, welcome.  If you are a blogger, please consider joining us weekly for Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival.  It is a meme I host that allows Catholic bloggers to share posts with each other.

One place to find activities appropriate for children/youth is from religion book publishers:
Sadlier has activities at many age levels.

The most known symbol of Advent is the Advent Wreath.  First School has a version even the little ones can make.  Amazing Moms gives you a ritual to follow, if you desire, along with directions on how to make a wreath. Domestic Church tells you how to make a fresh wreath.

Kids remember things associated with food--Thanksgiving turkey, Easter eggs, Christmas cookies, so how about some Advent food?  Catholic Cuisine has all sorts of things to try.

I'm not the only one to collect links.  For other link lists, see Catholic Mom or another page from Catholic Mom.  Catholic Culture has more activities than anyone could do in a year.  Elena at My Domestic Church has a long list of links too.

One thing we do yearly is the Jesse Tree.  The Diocese of Erie has nice downloadable ornaments.  These are pretty too.

Prayer is an important part of Advent.  The Passionists have these prayers for kids.  Catholic Mom has activities that correlate with the liturgy.

Holy Heroes will send your children a daily email during Advent.

Joy to the World: Advent Activities for Your Family  Finally, if you want to spring for a few dollars, Joy to the World: Advent Activities for Your Family will not only give you more activities than you have time to do, it will give you a concrete framework to follow with your family during Advent.  You can read a full review here, and read the first chapter here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review: The Still of Night

The Still of Night (A Rush of Wings Series #2)


I enjoyed the first book in this series, A Rush of Wings, so I ordered the second from the library.  The Still of Night is about a couple who were high school sweethearts.  She got pregnant and led him to believe she had aborted the baby; instead she put the baby up for adoption.  As a result, he has become a professional "fixer"--he goes into companies with basically good prospects and fixes the management problems that are keeping them from being profitable.  He is wealthy, and has all the toys that go with wealth, but has also been known to render substantial aid to those who need it.  Still, he keeps trying to chase the demons away with alcohol.  She is a special ed teacher in their hometown.  She is dating a nice guy, but when he asks her to move in with him, she drops him, she says because their life views and faith are so different, but that's not all--she is afraid to give of that part of herself.  Both are living, but not living life fully.

One day she gets a cal from her baby's (now a teen) adopted mother.  Their daughter needs a bone marrow transplant from a relative. His and her lives now intersect again.  Can they get past the pain?  

This is a Christian romance and one of those where one of the characters has to accept Jesus before they can live happily ever after.  It is definitely one of those that hits you over the head with the faith elements, but the basic story line is a good one and the characters seem real.  I enjoyed the book.  Grade:  B

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival

Welcome to Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival.  This is our weekly opportunity as Catholic bloggers to share our best posts with each other.  To participate, go to your blog and create a post called Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival.  In it, tell us about what you wrote about this week, and link us to your posts. Include a link back here so your readers can find us.  Then come back here and leave a link on Mr. Linky.  Finally take a few minutes and visit other bloggers--and leave comments.  This is a weekly meme and if you'd like a reminder to post, join our yahoogroup. 

This week I interviewed one of the regular Sunday Snippets participants, Kathleen Basi, who wrote a book about celebrating Advent.  

I reviewed a bunch of books:
From Dust to Ashes:  About the wife of an SS officer after the fall of the Third Reich
Costly Grace:  An interpretation of the writing of Bohnhoffer
Southern Fried Child:  A memoir.  I loved the way this Baptist described the nuns who taught her.
Sweetie:  Southern coming of age novel
A Rush of Wings:  Christian Romantic Suspense
Christmas at Harrington's:  Sweet Christmas Novel.
Amy Inspired: Christian novel

What about you?  What did you blog about this week?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Too Good To Be True: From Ashes to Dust

From Dust and Ashes: A Story of Liberation (The Liberator Series, Book 4)


One of the worst horrors of modern history is the Nazi Holocaust--the slaughter of six million Jews and other people in prisons set up as killing factories.  It is hard not to wonder what kind of people could possibly have run those places.  How many were just totally evil?  How many were brainwashed?  How many were going along reluctantly?  What about those who were not directly involved, but who knew what was happening and did nothing?  The Nuremberg trials and other war crimes trials punished the perpetrators, but what about their families?  Were these men who loved, who had children, wives, mothers?  What about those women in their lives?  What was it like to live with someone like that?

Somewhere I saw something about From Dust and Ashes: A Story of Liberation (The Liberator Series, Book 4) and reserved it at my library.  I was hoping maybe it would give me some insight into those questions.  Honestly, it really didn't.  While it was an easy enjoyable engaging read, it was sugar-coated and unrealistic.  It opens as the Americans are about to liberated a concentration camp in St. Georgen Austria.  Frederick, an SS officer is about to flee and leave his pregnant wife and daughter behind.  By this time she can hardly stand him--he has become hard and cruel.  The Americans come and find the camp in all its horror.  She (Helene) decides to take some milk to feed the survivors, and takes her four year old with her to the camp.  While there she meets an American Army officer and a woman who survived the camp.  She invites the woman into her father's home (he runs a boarding house).  The woman won't leave a friend, so she takes them both in.  After a while those women move on, and the Russians come to occupy that region of Austria.  Helene flees to the American sector, helps the Americans and lives happily ever after.  She accepts Jesus into her heart, forgives her husband, and tries to convert him.  At the end, God has worked everything out, the only one who  isn't happy is Helene's husband, but she left a Bible with him, so who knows, maybe...

As I said, while the story was easy to like, the ending was just too happy, just too many bows.  Grade:  B-

Thursday, November 18, 2010

First Wildcard: Costly Grace

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:

Acu/Leafwood Publishing (September 1, 2010)
***Special thanks to Audra Jennings, Senior Media Specialist, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Jon Walker has worked closely with Rick Warren for many years, first as a writer/editor at Pastors.com, later as vice president of communications at Purpose Driven Ministries, and then as a pastor at Saddleback Church. He's also served as editor-in-chief of LifeWay's HomeLife magazine and is founding editor of Rick Warren's Ministry Toolbox. His articles have appeared in publications and web sites around the world. He is also the author of Growing with Purpose. Jon currently lives in Hendersonville, Tennessee.


Visit the author's website.




Product Details:

List Price: $15.99
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Acu/Leafwood Publishing (September 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0891126767
ISBN-13: 978-0891126768

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Grace and Discipleship

What shall we say, then? Should we continue to live in sin so that God’s grace will increase? Certainly not! We have died to sin—how then can we go on living in it?
Romans 6:1-2

Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared cheap grace the deadly enemy of our church in 1937. “We are fighting today for costly grace,” he said. We are in that same fight today.

By cheap grace, Bonhoeffer means the arrogant presumption that we can receive forgiveness for our sins, yet never abandon our lives to Jesus. We assume, since grace is free, there is no cost associated with the free gift. We assume we can go on living the way we have been because our sins are now forgiven.

The gift is free, but Jesus paid a bloody price to offer us the gift; the gift is free, but that doesn’t mean there is no cost to following Jesus once we step into his grace.

Costly grace justifies the sinner: Go and sin no more. Cheap grace justifies the sin: Everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are.

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession,” says Bonhoeffer. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

And this means cheap grace is “a denial of the incarnation of the Word of God,” says Bonhoeffer. Did Jesus die so we could follow a doctrine? Did he suffer a cruel and bloody crucifixion to give us a code of conduct? Did he give up all he had, take on the nature of a servant and walk through Palestine as a human being so we could give an intellectual assent to the grace he freely gives? Did he humble himself and walk the path of obedience all the way to death so we could live in disobedience to him? (based on Philippians 2:8)

When the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed as a general truth and the love of God taught as an abstract concept, we depersonalize the incarnation; yet, it can’t be anything but personal: the God of the universe launching a rescue mission for you, his beloved creation, at the expense of Jesus, his only begotten son. Jesus didn’t come in the abstract, as a nebulous idea of love, grace, and forgiveness; rather, “he became like a human being and appeared in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7b).

You can’t get more personal than that.

The Incarnation is totally personal. When Jesus calls you it is absolutely personal; and the cost of grace is personal. Jesus paid personally to provide us with free grace and we must pay personally to live within that grace. Why do you think Jesus died for you, if not for the personal? What do you think he expects from you, if not something personal?

RATIONALIZING OUR WAY INTO CHEAP GRACE

We too easily slip into a corporate concept that Jesus died for sins in general and so he becomes to us something like a huge corporation: we don’t really expect to get personal, individualized attention. And because everything, in our thinking, is impersonal, it is easier for us to dodge responsibility.

In the case of the cross, it is the difference between “Jesus died for the sins of mankind” or “Jesus died to pay for my lie last week at work.”

This is how we rationalize our way into cheap grace. But we are called—in truth, we are designed— to come face-to-face with Jesus, which allows us get to know him and the Father as we are know by them: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete—as complete as God’s knowledge of me” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

On the one hand, costly grace cost Jesus his life and he gives it to us as a gift of righteousness that includes the forgiveness of sin; it is something we can never earn and it comes to us as we open our hearts in repentance: “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me” (Psalms 51:1-4, 10 NLT).

On the other hand, Bonhoeffer says cheap grace requires no contrition; we need not even have a desire to be delivered from our sins, just forgiven. He says, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.” It’s okay, God will forgive me.

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has,” says Bonhoeffer. “It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which auses him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” Costly grace comes when we come to the end of ourselves, ready to abandon our current lives in order to give our lives whole-heartedly to Jesus. It comes when it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). It comes when we submit ourselves to the will of Jesus, doing what he tells us to do day-in-and-day-out, altering our lives in obedience to him.

Costly grace means we change our habits, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and relationships according to the will of Jesus. Nothing can remain the same because we are no longer the same. We are uniquely connected to the divine nature through Jesus and we no longer “live under law but under God’s grace” (Romans 6:14; see also Colossians 2:9-10).

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ,” says Bonhoeffer. “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.”

GRACE AND DISCIPLESHIP ARE INSEPARABLE

“When he spoke of grace, [Martin] Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ,” says Bonhoeffer. Costly grace does not exempt us from discipleship or give us a pass on obeying the commands of Jesus. In fact, it demands “we take the call to discipleship more seriously than ever before.”

And grace doesn’t make our sanctification automatic; Jesus transforms us into his image as we follow him down the hard path through the narrow gate into the kingdom of heaven. Luther quickly understood that discipleship must be tested in the world, outside the cloister, as Jesus pushes us from self-centered to other-centered.

While it is true Luther said, “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still,” Bonhoeffer notes his intent was not to teach cheap grace but to help us understand our position in Christ. When we get serious about discipleship, we will want to be obedient to God. This is why Jesus said the way we show our love for him is by being obedient to his commands. Our obedience brings us in line with the will of God; we become one with his agenda. And that’s the essence of love: when we love we want to do the things the people we love want to do; we become one with our loved one’s wishes.

Yet, our obedience will never make us perfect. The only way we can approach the throne of grace boldly is by stepping into the costly grace of Christ, where he becomes our righteousness before God; he acts as our mediator. Luther’s point, then, was when we sin we need not despair. Jesus covers all our sins. He died for the sins you’ve already committed and he died for the sins you will commit tomorrow. Luther means we can stop being afraid of ourselves; stop being afraid that we may make mistakes. Just love God and live your life—and when you stumble, fall into the grace of Jesus Christ.

By trusting the grace of God, we can be courageous in following Jesus and equally courageous in confessing our sins before him. There is no need to hide our sins or to posture as if we have not sinned. We can just admit it and keep on following Jesus, even if we have to confess sins to Jesus every day.

But if we don’t have a clear understanding of costly grace, we’re more likely to play games with God, pretending we haven’t sinned, maintaining the delusion that we’re not that bad, and that leaves us stuck in immaturity right at the threshold of discipleship. And our posturing is part of how we undermine grace. If we’re so cheaply forgiven, then we never have to face the ugliness of our sin. It doesn’t seem so bad. The bloody work and resurrection of Jesus become a generic work, a blanket forgiving of sins, a prettified passion meant to God bless us, everyone.

Cheap grace flips Luther’s sin without fear upside-down, recreating it as a justification of sin instead of the justification of the sinner. Bonhoeffer says the real “outcome of the Reformation was the victory, not of Luther’s perception of grace in all its purity and costliness, but of the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price.” “The justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of sin and the world,” Bonhoeffer says. “Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship.”

This is exactly what Paul addresses with the church in Rome, where the religious instinct of man—that desire for self-justification—was in full assault against the sovereignty of God, attempting to prove God wrong in his bloody sacrifice of Jesus.

DOES GRACE MEAN WE CAN KEEP ON SINNING?

“So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving?” asks Paul. I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land! That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means” (Romans 6:1-3 MSG). The costly grace of Jesus means to take us into a new land, the kingdom of heaven. We follow Jesus obediently along a difficult path through a narrow gate into his kingdom.

A simple glance across the evangelical landscape reveals that we’ve overwhelmingly embraced the lesser grace. We’re barely willing to adjust our schedules let alone our lifestyles. We make decisions based on common sense, robbing the Holy Spirit of his role of counsel. We stash away our 401k’s and plan for when we will do kingdom work in the future, never trusting God to provide. We take the risk out of ministry by always leaning on our own understanding and then we wonder why our faith is weak. When do we exercise our faith?

We’re glad to follow Jesus. His yoke does seem easy: a few hours each week in worship, a Bible study, a small group, a bit of service at the church and perhaps a mission trip each year. We try to be good people, to help others, and to thank God for our blessings. When things are going well, we don’t want to bother God and, when things are going badly, we can camp out with God and say a holy “Amen” that he’s always there in our darkest times.

But a peculiar people? A royal priesthood set apart? What? Does Jesus really mean I’m supposed to abandon my ________ (fill in the blank)?

We preach, we teach, we publish. We have the internet and Christian radio. “We poured forth unending streams of grace,” says Bonhoeffer. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way is hardly ever heard. Have we presented the gospel in such a way that we’ve left people feeling secure in their ungodly living?

Cheap grace has been “disastrous to our own spiritual lives,” says Bonhoeffer. “Instead of opening up the way to Christ, it has closed it. Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience.”

We’ve settled for cheap grace for so long that we’ve allowed it to become the norm for Christian living. We know there must be something more but life just gets in the way. We’ve taught people to live disconnected from Jesus and we wonder why they struggle in their Christian walk, why they are so tired all the time.

Bonhoeffer says, “To put it quite simply, we must undertake this task because we are now ready to admit that we no longer stand in the path of true discipleship. We confess that, although our Church is orthodox as far as her doctrine of grace is concerned, we are no longer sure that we are members of a Church which follows its Lord. We must therefore attempt to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship. The issue can no longer be evaded. It is becoming clearer every day that the most urgent problem besetting our Church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?”

THINK OF GRACE AS A RESTAURANT

Grace is a restaurant where you can eat anything on the menu for free. The cost for you to dine is hefty, but your whole bill has been paid by Jesus.

“You mean, I can eat anything I want here? Then I’ll have a lust burger with a side of lies.”

I’m sorry. We don’t serve lust burgers or lies here. But you are welcome to anything on the menu. Everything here is hand-made by the Father and all of it is specifically designed to keep you healthy.

“I thought you said I could eat anything I wanted if I came into this grace restaurant?”

You can eat anything you want, but we only serve what is on the menu. If you look, you will see there are thousands of choices we’ve prepared specifically for your taste buds.

“But not a lust burger? No lie fries. What kind of restaurant are you running here? Don’t you want me to be happy, to feel good?”

Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully!

“What if I go outside the restaurant, get a lust burger and some lie fries, and bring them back in here to eat?”

That would be cheap grace.

GRACE IS A TRANSFORMING POWER

If you asked most evangelical Christians about the meaning of grace, they’d probably tell you it’s the unmerited favor of God. Not a bad answer, but one that’s just academic enough to keep you distracted from the truly transformational nature of costly grace.

Grace is powerful, audacious, and dangerous, and if it ever got free reign in our churches, it would begin a transformation so rapid and radical that it would cause skeptics to beat a path to our door.

What is grace? Consider this illustration from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s timeless tale about a peasant who is sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Released from jail, Jean Valjean is offered brief sanctuary in the home of a priest.

Despite being treated with dignity for the first time in years, Valjean, steals the bishop’s valuable silverware and runs away. The next day, Valjean is brought back to the priest’s home by the police, who tell the priest that Valjean has claimed the silver as a gift. The police obviously expect the priest to deny the claim.

The priest immediately addresses Valjean, saying, “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” When he hands the candlesticks to Valjean privately, he tells him, ”Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you.”

It’s a Christ-like moment—and one that shows the tremendous cost of grace, both for the giver and the receiver. Valjean goes on to live a life of grace, supporting the poor and adopting a young orphan whom he must ransom out of servitude.

Do you suppose for a minute that a harsher approach by the priest could have gotten a better response from Jean Valjean? Then why do we expect people to behave better when we “Tsk, tsk, tsk” and shame them into behaving properly rather than modeling the kind of grace that will change them radically and permanently. Grace allows people to make choices and assumes they’ll make the best choice. Grace is free and flowing and unencumbered by guilt or shame or fear, for true grace says, “I know all about you, and I still love you with a godly acceptance.”

We see this in John 4, when Jesus meets the woman at the well. When she offers to give him a drink, he says, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh living water” (John 4:10 MSG).

Note that he talks about how gracious God can be. Yet most of us, if we were gut honest, function as if God were stingy with his grace. We fear his punishment, in the sense that we think he’s the high school principal walking the halls, taking down names. Who did what and who’s to blame?

But God already knows who did what and who’s to blame, and he still loves us anyway. His interest is in redeeming us, not in keeping us on the hook for our sins.

Unfortunately, many of us—Christians—live our lives as if we’re still on the hook, and as if we have to keep everyone else on the hook. We use weapons of the flesh—the sarcastic comment, the angry stare—all designed to get people to straighten up and live right.

In contrast, when the woman at the well goes back to her village, she says, “Come see a man . . . who knows me inside and out” (John 4:29 MSG). Nothing is hidden from him, and yet he communicates with her in such a fashion that she leaves feeling loved and accepted. That’s the aroma of grace.

Did she get away with her sins? No. They cost Jesus plenty, yet you don’t see him lording it over her, or putting a guilt trip on her, or even using the time for a lecture on sexual ethics. Jesus trusts that once she is confronted with God’s generosity—his grace—that she will be eager to change and conform to God’s commands.

It’s a classic Christian paradox, isn’t it? Just when you think it’s time to pull out the Law and read someone the riot act, Jesus shows by his behavior that it’s better to embrace that person with a costly love.

And grace does cost. It obviously cost the Son of God everything, and for you to extend grace will cost you, just as it cost the priest his silver. In fact, one way to distinguish the difference between grace and mercy is that grace costs while mercy does not. Mercy says, “I won’t press charges.” Grace says, “I not only won’t press charges, I’ll pay for your rehab program.”

GRACE HELPS US BECOME OTHER-CENTERED

Grace is powerfully other-focused. It gives without fear of depletion. Love, forgiveness, and mercy are handed out with no thought of exhausting the supply. Someone enveloped by grace is rooted deeply in soil next to a river that never knows drought.

The prodigal’s father offers a picture of the paradox of grace. The story begins with a self-centered, younger son. He requests his inheritance and then squanders all his father’s hard earned money, ending up working for a pig farmer. Every time he touched a pig, the young Hebrew boy was reminded how far he was from the will of God. In a state of horrible desperation, he remembers his father and decides to return home as a slave.

What was going through his mind as he headed home? Maybe he realized what a failure he was. Or maybe he thought about the money his father gave him that he had foolishly thrown away. Possibly he feared a harsh rejection, one he was sure he deserved.

Whatever he thought, he was not prepared for his father’s response!

Imagine: He sees his father’s house in the distance as he shamefully shuffles home. Then he sees an unidentifiable person running toward him. Then he recognizes his father and he prepares himself for the worst.

The prodigal was probably bewildered by his father’s loving embrace. The father’s love faces off against the son’s self-degradation. After a few minutes of wrestling, the son’s heart is finally overcome by the father’s passionate embrace. He goes limp in his father’s arms unable to hold back the tears.

The father is overjoyed at the son’s return. This is too much for the son. He only hopes for a job as a slave, and yet he is treated as a son despite all his filthiness. The father’s extraordinary grace continues as he places a ring on his son’s hand and sandals on his feet and then wraps him in an extravagant robe. Each gift is a visible sign of full son-ship.

The father completes his bountiful behaviors of grace by inviting the community to a joyous celebration of his son’s return. Rather than being embarrassed at the wayward son, the father responds with merriment. The father’s response to a rebellious son is a beautiful picture of transforming grace.

Each of us has had our prodigal experiences. Prodigal behavior is common because our heart’s default setting is trust yourself at all cost. Self-trust is rooted in the belief that I will be more gracious to myself than God will. Who are we kidding anyway?

We must go to Jesus to be personally tutored in Grace 101. As we receive his grace, we can then pass his grace to others.

My Comments:  Go ahead, read that first chapter.  It won't take long, unless you want it to, but it does have a lot to say.  Since that first chapter is about all I've read of this book (somehow the quick-reading novels move up on the stack a lot faster than the thought-provoking spiritual books) I can't comment a lot on it, but I will tell you that years ago I was an active participant in an AOL message board devoted to debate among those of various Christian denominations.  Most of the time it amounted to a cadre of Catholics vs a cadre of Evangelical Protestants and a topic that got re-hashed time and time again was "once saved, always saved" or, put another way, is our final salvation something we are freely given once we accept Jesus, or is it something we can lose?  The general view of the Protestants (and I say general because there were other opinions) was that once you accepted Jesus, He would save you, no matter what.  He had paid the price to cover your sins, so you had the assurance of salvation, once you accepted Him.  The Catholic view is that baptism gives sanctifying grace, but that mortal sin, until repented, blocks the action of that grace.  In other words, moral sins--serious sins that we know are serious and freely choose to commit anyway--can send us to Hell, no matter what our beliefs were earlier in life.  We would go round and round with that topic.  Catholics saw no sense to the idea that once you'd accepted Jesus, you could sin anyway you wanted and not  worry about it; Protestants saw us as trying to earn our way to heaven. This book talks about Grace,but also about what it requires of the believer.  Maybe we all aren't as far apart as all those posts would make you think.

Review: Southern Fried Child in Home Seeker's Paradise

Southern Fried Child In Home Seeker'S Paradise


I have a confession to make.  A month or so ago, I ran an author interview introducing you to a new author, an author with whom I share the bond of being alumnae of the same great university (Mississippi University for Women), and whom I have gotten to know through alumnae listserves.  I ran the interview because I wanted to support Jimmie Meese Moomaw but I really didn't want to read her book.  One thing I've learned over the last couple of years is that self-published books are usually self-published for a reason, and that reason is usually because they aren't very good.  However, as noted in my "Make New Friends" post, alumnae in this area got together for lunch, followed by a reading by Jimmie.  Since the gathering fell on a day I could actually attend, I went.  After listening to Jimmie read, I decided that the rest of the book, Southern Fried Child In Home Seeker'S Paradise probably wasn't all that bad, and I'd give it a try.  I'm glad I did.

Southern Fried Child is a series of anecdotes about Jimmie's growing up years in Brookhaven Mississippi in the 1940's.  We hear how the Baptist girl going to a Catholic school fell in love with the nun who taught her first grade, and piano.  We hear how Jimmie realized that the elaborate angel wings her father made for her performance in the Christmas play were his way of saying "I love you".  Fishing is Jimmie's favorite sport and she learned it from her father--and we get to join them.   Who wouldn't love a story about Elvis Presley Junior Smith?  Most of us have a "what I did to my hair" story, and Jimmy's is as funny as any of them.  Did you ever  wonder what happened in the back rooms of a funeral home?  Jimmy saw a real (almost) ghost there once.  

Sometimes when people start telling stories about the colorful people in town it is easy for the reader to become embarrassed for those about whom the stories are written.  It may be funny that you walked through town with your skirt tucked into your pantyhose, but do you really want that in print for folks to read for years on end?  For the most part, Jimmie avoids this.  While she mentions that her parents were alcoholics, she doesn't tell stories of their drunken behavior, and were it not for mentions of their alcoholism, you'd probably consider them ideal parents after reading this book.  She tells of Lola's aberrant behavior, but lets us know that she really cared for and about Lola.  

While my high school and college years were spent in Mississippi, I'm not from there, and we lived on the Coast (which anyone from Mississippi will tell you is different from the rest of the state) so I never really developed a southern accent (except to the ears of my Wisconsin relatives) and what little I did have has mellowed since I've been in New Orleans (no southern accents here) so when reading it myself, I didn't get the full effect of the book like I did when Jimmie read it out loud; however, I could picture Jimmie on the front porch in a rocking chair telling those stories to her grandkids in her lovely southern drawl.  

Since the book is a series of anecdotes rather than a running narrative, it is an easy book to pick up and read for a few minutes and then leave.  If you like stories of ordinary lives seen through extraordinary eyes and written about in beautiful prose, I think you'll enjoy Southern Fried Child In Home Seeker'S Paradise as much or more than I did.  Grade:  A-

Besides clicking on the Amazon links (which earns me a couple of nickels) you can purchase this book at other places mentioned on  Jimmie's website.  Jimmie also does readings and signings for book groups, church groups or at book stores.  You can learn more at her facebook site (where there is a link to a video of Jimmie reading) or find her on Twitter by searching for southfriedchild

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sweetie by Kathryn Magendie

Sweetie


Those of you who read this blog regularly know that my taste in literature is pretty unsophisticated.  I prefer sappy romances to the classics; formula fiction to literary fiction.  Still, when asked to review Sweetie something about the description intrigued me:

About the book: Friendship. Courage. Hope.For shy, stuttering Melissa, the wild mountain girl named Sweetie is a symbol of pride and strength. But to many in their Appalachian town Sweetie is an outcast, a sinister influence, or worse. This poignant and haunting story takes readers deep inside the bittersweet heart of childhood loyalties.

My Comments:  Kathryn Magendie can write!  I loved her use of language and would periodically stop to read aloud so I could  hear myself saying those beautiful words.  I don't really think anyone would talk like that, but I could see an old woman in a rocking chair telling this story (the book is written in the first person) to her grandchildren.  I'll admit I found the character of Sweetie somewhat unrealistic, but then I'm pretty sure I was supposed to find her unrealistic.  As I said earlier, I tend toward the simple in my literary tastes and there are a lot of ways to interpret things in this book.  Sweetie is a child of the mountains, who is uncomfortable around people, except around a few who are outcasts for various reasons.  Is she real, did the story happen?  I'm not sure.  

I found Sweetie to be an engaging read, though it didn't provoke any emotional reaction from me, unlike many books with death scenes that have tears rolling down my cheeks.  I recommend it to those who like literary fiction or Southern fiction. I think it would make a good book club selection, even though it doesn't come with handy discussion questions at the back--but I think folks could find plenty to discuss without stilted questions that pretend a work is greater than what it really is.  At 200 pages it is not work that will bog you down for days.  Grade:  A-

I'd like to thank Belle Books for providing a review copy.  

Monday, November 15, 2010

Family Dinner: We Have a Winner

The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time


Holly of Two Kids and Tired Book Reviews, one of my regular blog reads, as selected by Random.org (#18) as the winner of The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time.  Congratulations Holly.

Author Interview: Kathleen Basi



Today I am pleased to welcome Kathleen Basi, author of Joy to the World (see my review) to This That and the Other Thing.  She kindly agreed to answer some questions I had about her life, Joy to the World, and writing in general.  

Can you give my readers a short bio of yourself?
I’m a cradle Catholic and a farm girl, two things that really shaped my world view. From the age of ten until I finished grad school, the flute was the focus of my life, and writing was just a hobby. But these days writing is my passion—both music and prose. All the things that have shaped me—faith, liturgy, family, nature, music, fiction, raising a child with special needs—these things now shape my writing.

What is your educational background?
I have two degrees in flute performance, and I never studied writing at all until I started taking online courses about five years ago. But I’m a voracious reader, and I think I learned the most about writing by reading.


Joy to the World: Advent Activities for Your Family


What made you decide to write Joy to the World?  
As a full-time liturgy director, I used to get so angry at the commercialization of December. I never enjoyed Advent or Christmas because of it, and I loathed Santa Claus. The year my oldest was three, my husband said, “Kate, you’ve got to make peace with Santa Claus.” I started looking for a way to reconcile the sacred season of Advent with the secular Christmas celebration, and Joy to the World was the result.

As a book blogger I have started to become familiar with the whole world of book marketing, which I barely realized existed a few years ago.  What have you learned about book marketing since Joy to the World was published?   
Writing gurus say that you won’t believe how much time you spend on marketing. And they’re right—except that I was prepared for it. In some ways, JttW is easier to promote and market, because I’m certain that it’s actually something that will help people, so I don’t feel that I am simply promoting my own interests. I haven’t felt inhibited about approaching people to set up book signings at parishes, radio interviews, and so on. It does require a different mindset, though. As a stay-at-home mom, I’m accustomed to arranging writing time around the kids, and with publicity that’s not always possible. When someone responds, I have to get responses written, phone calls made, and books to the post office in a timely fashion.

I have a feeling that promoting a novel is going to be a largely different animal, because a novel is, in essence, entertainment, even though it can teach, inspire, or enrich life. But I’ve been thrilled to find the community of book bloggers—both as a reader and as a writer. What a great resource to help people cull through the offerings!

As an author, what do you want from a blogger to whom you send a review copy?   
Good question. I appreciate it when reviewers take the time to synthesize what was in the book and what did (or didn’t!) work. I think it provides better service to the readers, and thus, to the authors, as opposed to one-paragraph generalizations. Savvy consumers are looking for details.

How have sales been so far?
So far, we’re ahead of the publisher’s expectations.

Honestly, how much of what is in Joy to the World does your family do yearly?
We use the morning and evening rituals (Advent calendar activities, Jesse Tree, Advent wreath) and the manger. It sounds like a lot, I know, but it truly has shifted the tenor of the season for us. I used to feel cheated every Christmas, because I never “felt” Christmas. Using the calendar and the evening ritual the last two years has made all the difference.

I noticed on Facebook that you were working on a Lenten book.  Can you tell us about that?
The Lent book will, in some ways, be a companion to JttW, in that we’ll use something tactile, like the calendar, to mark the passage of time. But it will be much less intensive than the Advent rituals, because Lent is so much longer. There will be reflections and activities for each week, centered around a Lenten theme.
  
Your website contains a long list of published articles.  Is writing a paying hobby or is it something from which you derive an income commensurate with the work involved?  
Frankly, I don’t think you ever really earn an income “commensurate with the work involved.”  Like Emily Starr, I write because I have to.

How many hours a week do you spend writing things you hope to publish, and for which you hope to be paid?
It’s highly variable. I keep a list of what projects I’m working on in a given week. I’ve been blessed to develop a good professional and personal relationship with Christina Capecchi-Ries, who is an editor for two Catholic magazines, and I write a lot on assignment for her. How much querying I do depends on what other projects I have on the docket. And of course, I blog five days a week, which doesn’t net any immediate financial return, but helps me to develop a readership.

How would you advise someone who wants to write professionally to get started?
I’d say that most of us dream of writing novels, but a novel is heavy on time with zero guarantee of any return, so it’s a good idea to diversify. The nonfiction market is much bigger. I started out with Long Ridge Writers group’s online course, called “Breaking Into Print,” and it was a very good introduction to the publishing world.
 

It's Monday: What Are You Reading?

My mailbox was completely empty this week, which gave me a chance to catch up on the backlog, and read a library book.  Click on the book titles to read my reviews.

Life from Scratch:  About a women who blogs as she learns to cook and live on her own after a divorce

1022 Evergreen Place:  The latest episode in Debbie Macomber's Ceder Cove soap opera.

'Twas the Night:  Christmas romance anthology

The House:  A woman about to divorce takes back her ex when she learns he is dying.  Kindle giveaway.

Hatteras Girl:  Christian romance.

Rush of Wings:  Christian Romantic Suspense

Christmas at Harrington's:  Christmas Novella

Amy Inspired:  Christian novel about an apiring writer

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