Monday, October 30, 2017

Book Review: A Forest, a Flood, and an Unlikely Star

A Forest, a Flood, and an Unlikely StarWhat is it like to grow up in the jungles of Africa? That's what J.A. Myhre sought to depict for her children through her Rwendigo Tales. Originally written as Christmas presents, but now, a gift shared with a wider audience, Myhre shows rather than tells her readers what it is like to grow up in the jungles of Africa. Her experience as a doctor who has served with Serge in East Africa for over two decades uniquely qualifies her to present the distinct challenges of those living in the African jungles. A Forest, a Flood, and an Unlikely Star is the third book in her series, aimed at youth, which takes us on a journey with thirteen-year-old Kusiima and his family. Each book is set in the same general region and follows different characters, so they do not have to be read in a specific order. In her Introduction, Myhre informs us that:

"Events in this book have their roots in the real lives of real people who love each other and raise their families in places increasingly affected by the same injustices the boy in this story struggles with: loss of those he loves, disease [AIDS], poverty, deforestation, poaching, and rebel movements" (pg. v).

I thoroughly enjoyed A Forest, a Flood, and an Unlikely Star over a rainy Sunday afternoon and evening despite the fact that it is a somewhat "heavy" book gently introducing young people to the brokenness and complexity of this world. Although it doesn't expressly tell how the Gospel makes a difference in Kusiima's life or how the Gospel gives hope to those facing sin and suffering, it lends itself well to that discussion. Myhre's writing is engaging, wholesome, and age-appropriate while avoiding over-simplicity in vocabulary, plot, and conflict and is a thought-provoking introduction to life in the jungles of Africa.

Book Synopsis from the Publisher:

"Just thirteen-years-old, Kusiima has no time for school, sports, or hanging out with the other boys in his African village. With no father or mother to take care of him, he works long hours to support his grandmother and sickly baby sister. Then one day, Kusiima’s life suddenly changes when he travels into a nearby protected forest. In the forest, Kusiima is presented with many choices, all with uncertain outcomes. Should he go along with illegal logging? Help to save an endangered baby gorilla? Follow a donkey to who knows where? With each choice, Kusiima has to make yet another decision about what is right in front of him. As he does, he meets a mysterious doctor who holds the key to his past and his future. In the end, Kusiima is faced with the hardest choice of all. Can he forgive a great wrong and heal a broken relationship?"

*Many thanks to New Growth Press and Litfuse Publicity Group for a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Book Review: A Small Book About a Big Problem

A Small Book about a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger, Patience, and Peace
In a post-Fall world, there are no strangers when it comes to anger. Ed Welch's latest book, A Small Book About a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger,Patience, and Peace, seeks to address and tame this universal problem. I welcomed the idea of succinct meditations that could be read in under two minutes each. It was refreshing to drink deeply of the rich, Gospel-truths in which this book is rooted. I love that Welch didn't leave any stone unturned when it came to various manifestations of anger but included commonly overlooked habits including: sarcasm, grumbling, complaining, gossip, withdrawal, silence, indifference, envy, and jealousy. I appreciate that he didn't merely focus on outward behavior modifications but looked more deeply at the heart issues that drive anger, seeking to apply biblical truths.

Naturally, a short book with a limited word count presents certain limitations. Understanding these should help prevent disappointment and misunderstanding.  This book is largely about addressing the reader's anger. Although Welch mentions that sometimes our judgments are accurate and often contain some truth, he tends to focus on the undesirable aspects of anger, narrowly defining it as: specializing "in indicting others but is unskilled at both self-indictment and love" (pg. 11). This aims the focus of A Small Book About a Big Problem on the negatives and destructiveness of anger without giving attention to the fact that our propensity for anger is part of being made in the image of God, was corrupted by the Fall, and is in need of God's redeeming grace.

Several aspects of the book would benefit from further development. Welch notes that "There are times when we should speak out against the wrong, even when it was done against us" (pg. 13) and that we shouldn't excuse anger (pg. 118), but he doesn't clearly spell out when those times are, what circumstances surround it, or how one should go about it. Some guidelines would be helpful here.

When speaking of personal injustices, the focus is largely on the reader looking to and imitating Christ who entrusted Himself to the righteous Judge (1 Peter 2:18-23) and the good that God intends to accomplish through mistreatment. While Welch qualifies this with a short statement excluding violence and encouraging the reader to seek help when in danger, his overall emphasis on trusting God's judgments such that one need not take matters into his/her own hands leaves unanswered questions. Does "justice in the end" (pg. 54) mean that there is never justice in this world? Is this not the reason that God has placed authorities (both church and civil) over us? While Welch would advise others to seek outside help, at times, in A Small Book About a Big Problem, there doesn’t seem to be room to meaningfully explore these significant, sensitive issues. Excluding these important questions left me wondering, "Is this treatment of anger careful enough when it comes to the mistreatment received at the hands of others or does it have the potential to leave the most defenseless people vulnerable?" Such delicate matters necessitate more words!

Is there ever a place for good/righteous anger? Is all anger entirely bad, save God's? Can human anger be redeemed as we grow in Christ-likeness? After examining Exodus 33:1-3 and 12-17, Welch compares human anger with God's anger and remarks:

"It is hard to imitate. It is possible but very hard. At some point you want to aim for this: 'Be angry and do not sin' (Ephesians 4:26). For now, follow Jesus's example and have zero tolerance for all anger that reacts to personal slights or attacks" (pg. 123).

This is another statement that left me wanting.

When exploring a topic as volatile as anger, short meditations seem to fall short of sufficiently exploring the many questions raised. All in all, A Small Book About a Big Problem is a good start, but ideally, it would be paired with another resource to provide some needed balance.

*Many thanks to NewGrowth Press and Litfuse Publicity Group for sending me a complimentary copy of A Small Book About A Big Problem in exchange for my honest opinion!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review: Counseling Under the Cross

Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life
What does a man do when he encounters the grace of God and finds peace with God? In Counseling Under the Cross, Bob Kellemen introduces us to Martin Luther and shows us how he learned to apply the Gospel to daily life. Initially, "Luther had attempted to care for his soul through his own wisdom and it earned him nothing but despair. Only as Luther clung to the sufficiency of Christ and Scripture did he find peace for his troubled soul" (pg. 25). Kellemen relates how God used His people and His Word to open Luther's eyes to the Christ of the cross, transforming him into a man whom God would use to minister His Word to others.

If you have read any of Bob Kellemen's works, then you likely know of the significant influence that Luther has had on him and will recognize the lens through which he views Luther's counseling. Through Luther's writings, Kellemen illustrates his four biblical compass points to speak gospel truth in love, what Kellemen refers to as "gospel conversations," compass points which Kellemen would contend were derived directly from Luther's works. In a fresh way, Counseling Under the Cross demonstrates that:

“Changed lives occur as we apply Christ’s changeless truth to help suffering people know that it’s normal to hurt (sustaining) and possible to hope (healing), and as we help sinning people to know that it’s horrible to sin but wonderful to be forgiven (reconciling), and supernatural to mature (guiding)” (Robert Kellemen, Equipping Counselors for Your Church, pg. 65).

According to Kellemen, "...Luther's counseling followed the historic focus of pastoral soul care and spiritual direction...[that] dealt with the evils we have suffered in a fallen world and with the sins we have committed" (pg. 40). This pastoral concern of Luther's became the spark that ignited the Reformation making this work a timely gift in light of the upcoming 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Kellemen demonstrates how the: "'Sufficiency of Scripture' is the heartbeat of the Reformation. God's Word is sufficient, authoritative, and profoundly relevant for all of life and all of ministry" (pg. 221).

Counseling Under the Cross is well-documented and includes many quotes from Luther's letters, sermons, table talks, and other writings. While at times, Kellemen's terminology may seem cumbersome, his message is faithful to God's Word, centered on the Gospel, and provides useful categories for ministering the Word to others. Each chapter concludes with a "tweet-sized" summary for review, and the entire book wraps up with a call to make application from what we've learned. Kellemen shows how he has spent that last two decades of his ministry standing on the shoulders of a faithful brother who has gone before us. The thoughtfully selected quotes in Counseling Under the Cross are like flowers plucked out of books that will likely lead many readers to the garden of Luther's works in the future.** May we all continue to minister the Word to our brothers and sisters who are suffering, fighting sin, and seeking to grow in holiness, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us just as Dr. Kellemen has done with Luther.

If you'd like a taste of the content that you can expect to find in the book, Dr. Kellemen has put together an edifying PowerPoint presentation.

You may also be interested in these related book reviews: Gospel Conversations, Equipping Counselors for Your Church, and Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling.

*Many thanks to New Growth Press and Litfuse Publicity Group for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

**(Many thanks to Aimee Byrd for introducing me to Hannah More's  excellent analogy through her book, "No Little Women". In it, Aimee Byrd writes: "One of the best treasure troves is the footnotes of the book you are reading. Authors pluck flowers out of books that will hopefully lead you to the garden they came from!" -- pg. 212.)