Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Book Review - You and Me Forever

 Take a few minutes to think about the following quotes.     
            “Your relationship with God is far more critical than your marriage, and it is everlasting.”
            “Couples spend a lot of time looking at themselves and each other, but very little time staring at God.”
            “It should burden us deeply that many of our marriages paint the gospel in a bad light.”
            “Marriage is one of the most humbling, sanctifying journeys you will ever as a part of.”
            “Regardless of how satisfying your marriage is or isn’t, the real issue is how satisfied you are with God.”

Each of those statements – and many more – stopped me in my tracks when I read them and prompted me to put down my reading and think.  And that, I believe, is one of the things a good book should do – prompt someone to stop, to think and hopefully to adjust their perspective and/or actions as a result.

The above statements are from a different type of marriage book.  As I have noted in this blog previously, it is my habit to try to read a marriage book every year, not only to benefit those I counsel, but to benefit my own marriage.  (You will have to ask my wife if it has made any difference…)  The marriage book I read this year was You and Me Forever by Francis and Lisa Chan.  Francis Chan is well-known as a speaker and writer.  Lisa is also a speaker as well as mother to their 5 children.

The book has a rather unique structure.  The first half of each chapter is written by Francis Chan.  Francis faithfully and relentlessly applies Scriptural truth to the reader’s marriage to help them see that their marriage priorities may not line up with God’s priorities for their relationship.  The second half of each chapter is written by Lisa Chan.  Lisa often repeats the same themes as her husband, but with a woman’s touch and perspective.  I found the structure very refreshing.  While my male brain responded to Francis’ exhortations, Lisa’s discussion of the same themes often brought out things I have not thought about.  It is almost like the reader is getting two good books in one.

Most of the marriage books I have read over the past 20 years or so, with a few notable exceptions, have focused on the typical, external marriage problems.  Communication.  Money matters.  Sex.  Compatibility.  Gender roles.  And those are all good topics to talk about.  The Chan’s book does not directly deal with any of those things.  Rather the focus of this book is very refreshing and to the point – a good marriage starts and ends with our relationship with God.  We put so much time and energy into our marriages – do we put that much time and energy into our walk with God?  Our marriages have a greater purpose – to point people to the love of Christ and the marriage between God’s son and God’s people.  Are we obsessed with our earthly marriage, or the eternal, heavenly marriage to come?  Humility before Christ by both the husband and wife are keys to a good marriage.  After all, what matters most – winning arguments or becoming more like Christ?  Our marriages are made for something bigger than ourselves, our happiness or our comfort.  They are made for God’s mission – to make disciples, to actively seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness.  When a couple is fighting spiritual battles together for God’s kingdom, they are less likely to fight each other.  Finally, are couples raising their children to love God far more than they love them?  That is a shocking question on the surface, yet is a necessary one to ask.  As Francis Chan asks, “What will break my heart more – if my kids don’t end up loving me or if they don’t end up loving Jesus?”
You and Me Forever is a different type of marriage book.  If you are looking for a book with practical, step by step tips on you and your spouse can communicate better, this is not the book you are looking for.  This is better.  This book will shake your marital assumptions, make you examine your marital and parenting priorities and cause you to gaze deeply into the grace and love of Jesus Christ.  This book will encourage you to direct your vision to Jesus, because when your eyes are on Jesus, your marriage and your family will be infinitely better for it.

P.S. – Francis and Lisa Chan have made this book available for free in electronic format for those who cannot afford to buy the book.  Check out the FAQ and the many resources they have provided at http://www.youandmeforever.org.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Marriage Isn't That Great

This afternoon I had the chance to start reading Francis and Lisa Chan’s book, You and Me Forever:  Marriage in Light of Eternity.  I try to make it my practice to read a book on marriage each year, not only for my personal benefit, but also for tools to care for married couples in the church.  I have appreciated Francis Chan’s books in the past and am looking forward to reading this one in its entirety.

The Chans start the book in a strange place.  Many marriage books start you off with some kind of reflection or analysis of your marriage.  They asked questions like: What are your struggles?  What are your joys?  Where you are united?  Where do you tend to fight?  Rather than starting their book off by reflecting on the state of a couple’s marriage, the Chans start by calling the couple to reflect on the state of their understanding and fear of God.  And as I think about it, that is exactly where any discussion of marriage should start.

The fact is, our relationship with God is far more important than our marriage.  Our relationship with God sets the tone for our marriage.  Our relationship with God is eternal, our marriages will not be. (Matt. 22:30)  And the problems in our marriages are actually often problems in our relationship with, understanding of or fear of God.  As the Chans note, most marriage problems are really God problems.

And so, the Chans challenge couples to start staring deeply at God rather than spending a lot of time looking at each other and themselves as a couple.  Let’s face it, we are very guilty of looking at each other rather than looking at God.   I don’t mean looking at how we are aging or gaining a few pounds or sprouting some (or in my case, many) gray hairs.  I mean we get far too wrapped up in looking at our spouses in other ways.  Some look at their marriages as a competition – when one spouse gets something, the other needs something equivalent, whether they can afford it or not.  Others look at their marriages and just see the bad habits and the irritating things.  Sometimes we get very convinced of our own superiority or, dare I say it, “godliness” by dwelling on the failures of our spouses.  Still others wrap all their energy and focus into their earthly marriage relationship, becoming much too obsessed with their spouse and far too apathetic toward God.

All this goes away, the Chans suggest, when we start looking at God.  We need to stare deeply at Him.  We need to read and meditate on Him as He is described in the Scriptures.  We need to cultivate a healthy fear of Him as God Almighty, Creator, Sustainer and Lord of all.  We need to bow in awe of Him as we contemplate His salvation, His goodness and His grace poured out into our lives in Jesus Christ.  We need to find satisfaction in him.  And that means not just being satisfied with what God has done or is doing our lives or our circumstances, but being satisfied in Him.  Do we understand God as being the source of all our contentment?  Can we put aside our pursuit of personal satisfaction, even personal satisfaction in marriage, to gaze deeply at God and find real satisfaction in Him?

I have only read 1 chapter of the Chans book, but I am looking forward to the rest.  The chapter I read was entitled, “Marriage isn’t that Great.”  Doesn’t that sound like a strange chapter title for a book on marriage?  But it is true – marriage isn’t that great when we compare our earthly marriages to what our relationship with God should be like.  Our earthly marriage relationship does not ultimately hold a candle to our eternal, Godward relationship.  And the joy, the satisfaction and the contentment we find in a good marriage does not begin to compare to the joy, satisfaction and contentment we can find in God.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

How do you Respond to the Sin of Others?

My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law. (Psalm 119:136, ESV)  This verse was part of the passage I read for my devotional time yesterday.  The verse and the accompanying devotional really made me think.  How do I react when people do not have the time of day for God’s law?

It is not hard to look around and see examples of people who want nothing to do with God and the way God wants us to live.  And, I have to admit it, those examples often make me angry.  I am angered by our culture’s sexualized state and how something like pornography has reached into the families in my church and wreaked its havoc.  I am angered at people’s rejection of God’s good plan for the family, even to the point of punishing those who do not agree with their perversion.  I am angered that even though Planned Parenthood officials admit selling fetal body parts, our government is powerless to do anything about it.  I am angered that my brothers and sisters in Christ in the Middle East face arrest, rape, torture and death, and yet those events don’t seem to be news.  I could go on.

Sometimes it is okay to be angry.  If we are angry at the things God is angry about, if we can practice a righteous anger, we do not sin in that. (Eph. 4:26)  But it is hard to be righteously angry, and it is even harder to stay righteously angry.  Our sin nature is very adept at taking anger that may have started righteously and twisting it into something ugly, prideful or self-centered.

We have to ask ourselves, is anger the Christian’s only right response to sin?  According to Psalm 119:136, mourning and tears is also a response that honors God.  Does our anger keep us from mourning the fact that sin is so prevalent in our lives and in the lives of others?  The psalmist weeps streams of tears in response to sin.  I am guessing that a more accurate rendering of that verse in most of our lives would be, “My blood is boiling, because people do not keep your law.”

The devotional I read this morning asked some important questions.  “Are we angry merely because the biblically informed traditions of Western culture in which we have become accustomed seem to be dying, or are we upset because God and His glory are not being honored?  Do we mourn over the world’s failure to respect the Creator’s good law because we know that those who are breaking it inflict much pain  upon themselves in the process, or do we relish in an unrighteous manner the judgment that they are bringing upon themselves?  If we are not grieving that our Maker is not being glorified and that people made in his image are callously throwing their lives away, we must return to God’s Word and reorient our priorities.” (Tabletalk, Sept. 14, 2015)

Friends, it is easy to lash out in anger at the sin against us.  And while there is a proper place for righteous anger, it is wrong to allow our anger to prevent us from shedding tears and mourning over sin.  Anger should never prevent us from praying for repentance.  And anger should never stand in the way of sharing the gospel with sinners with compassion. 

Let us ask the Lord to cultivate within us a heart that mourns for lost people and grieves over sin, both our sin and theirs.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Trusting God for Who you Are

There are many people in our world who look in the mirror with some form of disappointment or perhaps disgust.  They see a funny looking nose, or a receding hairline.  They note that they are too tall, or perhaps too short, too thin or maybe too rotund.  Just about everyone can find something about their appearance they are discontented with.

The fact is, God made people different.  Our facial features are shaped differently, our hair looks and acts differently, we are of different heights and weights and our personalities, our likes, our dislikes, and our tendencies are different as well.  All those differences were put there by God.  As King David reminds us, God knit each of us together in our mother’s womb, and the result of that is that each of us are fearfully and wonderfully made. (Ps. 139:13-14)  And so, if we have difficulty accepting ourselves the way God made us, we find ourselves in conflict with our Creator.  The fact is that God created you just as you are, and He wanted you to be that way because He loves you and wants to glorify Himself through you.

I have been rereading Jerry Bridges’ wonderful book Trusting God with my summer intern Chris.  This week we read the chapter about trusting God for who you are.  It is a chapter that challenges the reader to trust that God knew what he was doing when he knit each of us together in our mother’s womb.  God gave us our physical characteristics out of love, for His glory.  God gave us our personality, also out of love, for His glory.  Accepting that is foundational for our spiritual, and relational health.  Bridges quotes wise words from James Hufstetler that come right to the point:  “You will never really enjoy other people, you will never have stable emotions, you will never lead a life of godly contentment, you will never conquer jealousy and love others as you should until you thank God for making you the way He did.”  Friends, that is so very true.

God made you who you are biologically.  Yes, that body you look at in the mirror and perhaps cringe at – God made you like that.  He created that nose, that hairline or those funny looking toes.  For me, God created me with bad eyesight, unruly hair and crummy digestion.  I can fight those things, which I have.  I can curse God for those things, which thankfully I have not.  Or I can be content with those things, which is what I am learning to be.  I also can open my eyes to see how God can be glorified in those things.  For example, my crummy digestion has caused me all sorts of pain (literally and figuratively) over the years.  As a pastor, there are times when I have to be present, bad stomach or not.  But I can tell you two good things my bad digestion has done in me.  First, it has made me more dependent and prayerful.  God’s grace has been sufficient for me, and there have been many times His power has been made perfect in my weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9)  Second, I have seen the faithfulness of God through it – I do not believe my digestion has ever prevented me from fulfilling any pastoral roles in 24 years of ministry.  You see, even our disabilities – great or small – can be used for God’s glory and our growth in maturity.

God also made your personality.  Are you funny?  Are you shy?  Are you a deep thinker?  God made you that way.  And although our personalities are often so very obviously corrupted by sin, the fact is God made you who you are from the inside.  And He can be glorified in that as well.  Think about those times when we are made aware of the ugliness of the sin inside of us.  Perhaps we struggle with pride, or bitterness, or anger, or impatience or jealousy, the many and varied sinful reactions to our circumstances.  But God knew we would have those reactions, and out of those reactions He can be glorified.  The sinful side of our personality should drive us to His grace and to the cross where that grace was demonstrated to us.  Our sin should prompt us to seek God in confession, to ask for His transforming power, and to renew our trust that He will complete the good work He began in us. (Phil. 1:6)  All those things are for our good, and bring God glory.

And so, whether we struggle with our outside looks or our inward make-up, we need to be assured that God created us that way.  Whether we have abilities or disabilities, we want to learn to receive them from God.  In all those things we can learn to give thanks, and we can know that God can and will use those things in our lives for our good and His glory.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Book Review: The Enemy Within: Straight Talk about the Power and Defeat of Sin

I choose books to read for a lot of different reasons.  I read history books because the topic is interesting or even at times obscure.  I read biographies because the person in question is often fascinating on some level.  I read some books because I like the author, or I need to learn more about the topic the book discusses.  But rarely do I intentionally pick up a book in order to be completely convicted of my sin.  That has happened more than once, but sadly it is not because of an intentional choice of my own.

The Enemy Within:  Straight Talk about the Power and Defeat of Sin by Kris Lundgaard is a book that falls into the last category.  It is a book recommended to me by a good friend.  It is a relatively short book, about 150 pages.  And it is a book in which the author probably says nothing I had not heard before.  But he says it is such a way, with such truth and directness, that God’s Spirit used it to speak to my heart.

The Enemy Within is a book about sin.  Depressing right?  But as Kris Lundgaard notes, this is a necessary topic.  Getting to know our sin is wisdom.  The more each of us discover about the power of indwelling sin, the less we will suffer its effects.

The apostle Paul knew the power of indwelling sin.  This is how he described it in Romans 7:21:  “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” (ESV)  Sin is a law living inside of us, a law that fights us even in our best moments, a law that never rests or gives up.  It is a traitor working from the shadow of our hearts, a usurper to the throne and authority of God in our lives.  Indwelling sin, or the flesh as the Bible describes it, will fight us each and every day we live on this earth – we cannot make peace with it, we can only defeat it.

As the prophet Jeremiah clearly notes, our hearts are deceitful and wicked, beyond cure and understanding. (Jer. 17:9)  We could never design a house as complex as our hearts or gather enough monsters to fill it.  Our heart as the Bible understands it, is made up of our mind, our will, our affections and our conscience.  Each of those aspects of our heart, the Bible says, is unsearchable and deceitful above all things.  (As a side note, consider the implications of a verse like this for the case of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.)  Deceit is what the flesh uses to confuse our minds, entangle our affections and persuade our wills that sin is either good for us or at least, not as bad as God says it is.  The flesh works to weaken the spiritual conviction we feel when we sin, reminding us to cling to the remedy of grace - God’s forgiveness of sin - but conveniently persuading us to forget the design of grace – to make us holy.  It has the ability to use spiritual things for its purposes, as long as those spiritual things do not lead us closer to God.

All this is rather depressing.  The picture the author gives is a true one – our flesh is a powerful, ruthless, unrelenting enemy that will fight against anything that leads to true communion with God.  Thankfully, Lundgaard does much more than merely give a troubling description of the flesh.  He also offers hope.  He makes it clear that while the flesh will never be completely defeated in this life, God has given us all the tools we need to fight the flesh, to weaken its power and to live a life that glorifies Him.

God has given us His Spirit.  While it is true that our hearts are deceitful, wicked and unknowable, it is also true that God has given every believer His Spirit who lives in us.  And the Spirit, thankfully, knows our hearts even as we do not.  The way to fight the flesh is through the Spirit.  The Spirit helps us meditate on God and His gracious, good character.  The Spirit enables us to meditate on God’s Word, His truth revealed.  The Spirit empowers us to expose our sinful hearts to God’s holy character and the truths of His word, which leads to conviction, repentance and change.

God has given us minds that are being transformed and renewed, minds that can be trained to love Him.  Guarding our mind is an essential part of obedience, which weakens the grip of the flesh.  Obedience is not just doing what God says, but doing what God says in God’s way.  The work of the mind of a believer is to know God’s rule and apply it to all we do before God.  As the apostle Paul notes in Ephesians 5:15 – “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.” (ESV)

Finally, God has given us faith.  Faith is the only thing that truly destroys the power of the flesh because salvation comes from the Lord.  By faith, we are able to fill our souls with thoughts of the purpose of Christ’s death, on the meaning and implications of his shed blood and his work on the cross.  And by faith we can anticipate help in our struggles from Jesus – he does not leave us to struggle against the flesh alone.

The flesh is an implacable enemy.  Indwelling sin never gives up and never takes a vacation.  It fights against anything and everything that leads us to real communion with God.  But ultimately, for the Christian, the flesh does not have any real authority.  We belong to God in Christ.  He is transforming our hearts, writing His law there.  While the fight never ends in this life, God has given every believer the weapons he or she needs to be increasingly victorious in this life-long battle.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Book Review: What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?

One of the most polarizing issues in our society today is the whole issue of homosexuality, especially when it relates to homosexual marriage.  While very few people would insist on discriminating against someone with a homosexual orientation with regards to a job for example, there are many who struggle with the homosexual lobby’s attempts to redefine marriage away from the traditional (and biblical) definition of one man and one woman.

Into this hot button issue steps Pastor Kevin DeYoung with his new book What does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?  With a blend of serious scholarship, clear thinking and a pastoral heart, DeYoung explains what the Bible does say about homosexuality and then counters many of the common arguments society offers against the biblical data.

DeYoung begins by saying that while the Bible says something about homosexuality, it is not a book about homosexuality.  Rather it is a book about God, His creation, sin and salvation.  It is a book about God seeking to dwell eternally with His creation, His holy people.  And so while the Bible is not a book about homosexuality, the issue of homosexuality touches on many of the important truths the Bible upholds.  The question then must be asked:  “Is homosexuality a sin that must be repented of, forsaken and forgiven, or given the right context and commitment, can we consider same-sex sexual intimacy a blessing worth celebrating and solemnizing?” (p. 15)

DeYoung begins to answer this question by first unpacking the handful of Scripture passages dealing directly with homosexuality.  He begins in Genesis 1-2, which sets out God’s clear design for marriage as a union between one man and one woman.  He argues that heterosexual relations are the only relations that fit the biblical description of a “one-flesh union.”  DeYoung moves onto to Genesis 19 and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  It has become fashionable to argue from Ezek. 16:49 that the sin of these cities was a lack of hospitality.  But when one views Ezek. 16:49 in context (Ezek. 16:47-50), it becomes clear that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is abomination, the same word used in Lev. 18 and 20 for homosexual behavior.  Moving on to the Law of Moses, DeYoung investigates Lev. 18:22 and 20:13, arguing that these verses forbid homosexual behavior because it is an affront to God’s holy order.  He then lists 6 reasons why these verses cannot be just set aside as an ancient law for another time.  In his chapter on Romans 1, the author makes a clear case that God sees homosexual practice as an example of mankind’s rebellion against God and a willing, sinful suppression of the truth of God’s good design.  Finally, DeYoung investigates 1 Cor. 6:9-10 and 1 Tim. 1:8-11, two passages based on the Leviticus law in which the apostle Paul condemns men who have sex with other men.  According to DeYoung, the argument of Scripture is clear – homosexual activity of any type is a sin against the clear creation design of God.

Having unpacked what the Bible says, DeYoung moves on to counter 7 common arguments against the clear teaching of Scripture. They are:
·  The argument that Christians are making much too big a deal about this, since the Bible hardly mentions homosexuality. 
·   The argument that the kind of homosexuality practiced today in committed relationships is not what the Bible is condemning. 
·   The argument that the church is hypocritical, failing to deal with its own sins.
·   The argument that the church should be a place for broken people, and labeling homosexuality a sin closes the door for such people. 
·   The argument that in opposing homosexual advances, Christians are on the wrong side of history.
·   The argument that labelling homosexual behavior a sin is not fair.
·   The argument that says that God is a God of love who would never condemn someone practicing homosexuality.
In countering these arguments, DeYoung communicates truth, but does it in a sensitive, pastoral way.  Not everyone will agree with his conclusions or his counter-arguments, but despite that I believe DeYoung does a good job staking a position on the truth of the Bible.

The author concludes his book with three appendices worth reading.  The first explains what is at stake in the homosexual marriage debate.  The second provides 3 building blocks in dealing with the issue of same-sex attraction.  And the third lists 10 commitments every church should make in response to the issue of homosexuality.

As I mentioned, some people will disagree and hate this book.  They may even hate my review.  But in a time when the homosexual lobby has been incredibly successful in changing public perception and opinion regarding homosexual marriage and homosexuality in general, this is a book that every serious, thinking Christian should read.  Is it the ultimate resource on the issue?  Probably not, but it is a great one, a resource that will equip you to think seriously and biblically about one of the most contentious issues of our day.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book Review - Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

I usually pride myself in not following the crowd, but I will admit that this week, I did just that.  I grabbed a copy of Jon Krakauer’s new book, Missoula:  Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.  It is flying off the shelves in our area, making Krakauer the most popular (or unpopular) man in the county.

Mr. Krakauer must have a thing for Montana.  He has questioned the integrity of Montana icon Greg Mortenson in his book, Three Cups of Deceit.  Now, with this new release, he uses Missoula as his tableau in his exploration of non-stranger rape, college towns and a faulty justice system.

A few years back, Missoula made the headlines for being the “Rape Capital” of America.  As Krakauer’s book notes, it is an unfair description – Missoula is merely average when it comes to incidents of sexual assault.  But since Missoula is average, it becomes a great case study for Krakauer on how such sexual assault is handled in a small city.

Missoula is also a college town and the football team rules the town.  It is Griz nation, and the community reacts violently when one of its favored sons is accused of a crime, especially rape.  And so when two high profile Griz players – quarterback Jordan Johnson and running back Beau Donaldson – were accused of rape, much of the community rose up to their defense.  Tracing the trials of Johnson and Donaldson, along with the troubles of other Griz players and U of M students, Krakauer paints a rather disturbing picture.  A word of warning – in painting this disturbing picture, Krakauer is graphic.  This book is not for the faint of heart.  The description is not at all titillating – I found it rather nauseating – but it is graphic.

As Krakauer discovers in his investigations, rape is not all that rare among the U of M crowd.  And the vast majority of the rape cases, as they are nationally, were non-stranger rapes.  These were rapes perpetrated by friends and acquaintances of the victim.  Contrary to the vision we have of rape being about a man in a mask jumping out from behind a bush, about 80 percent of rapes in America are non-stranger rapes.

The book tells the story of four victims, only one of whom received any form of justice from the legal system.  Your heart goes out to them as he tells their story.  It is meant to do that – Krakauer is clearly on the side of the victims here.  Is it a hit piece?  Some will say so.  The current county attorney is suing over allegations made in the book.  Krakauer is not neutral, but he does appear to be thorough.
These are stories of pain, fear, misplaced trust, betrayal and extreme disappointment.  In Krakauer’s mind, the system in Missoula failed in a variety of ways.  The University and the local police for both failed to protect victims.  But Krakauer reserves his harshest judgment for the local county attorney’s office, especially both the former and current county attorneys for failing to pursue justice for women who have been raped.
Four things stood out to me as a read this book.  Two of the things Krakauer discusses, the other two are not discussed at all.  First, Krakauer paints a pretty sordid picture of trial lawyers, especially in the context of rape cases.  Both the county attorneys and the private defense lawyers come off pretty badly, especially with regard to the lengths they will go, or not go, to win cases.  I recognize that they are there to win, it is the lack of ethics displayed in the attempt that disturbed me.  The second thing Krakauer brings up is the vehement reaction of Griz nation to the tarnishing of their heroes.  A football player in Missoula is always innocent, no matter what.  A woman accusing a football player in Missoula is always guilty, no matter what.  And the comments that are made, especially on the “anonymous Internet”, curdled my stomach in their hateful surety and lack of compassion.

There are two things Krakauer definitely does not discuss which seem to me to be central to the issue.  Those things are the presence of alcohol and the campus hook-up culture.  I realize he is a liberal, so he cannot go there, but I wish he would have.  The book’s dustjacket states, “College-age women are not raped because they are promiscuous, or drunk, or send mixed signals, or feel guilty about casual sex, or seek attention.”  That statement is correct – these women are raped because of the horrific actions of a predator.  They are victims deserving of compassion.  But know this: every assault portrayed in Krakauer’s book involved alcohol, often to excess, and often involving underage drinkers.  Every assault!  I wonder what removing the alcohol-fueled party scene would do to the incidents of rape in our area?  Krakauer has nothing to say on this topic.  A second topic is related – the casual sex, hook-up culture found on campus.  As a Christian, I believe the Bible lays out the only proper context of sexual activity, and that is marriage.  You can agree with me, or disagree with me, go right ahead.   But the fact is, trouble always follows when sexual activity is let out of the box that God intended it to be practiced in.  Again, what would happen to the rape culture on campus if the casual sex culture, and our wider sex-worshipping culture, was not there?  Mr. Krakauer does not deal with these topics, and I honestly don’t expect him to as they are taboo in liberal circles, but they are part of the problem.

Missoula is a good read.  It is disturbing and powerful.  And as a man with two daughters, including one in college, the topic of campus rape is one that concerns me personally.  I am glad that the Missoula police, the University of Montana, and even the Missoula Country attorney’s offices are making changes.  Let’s hope they are enough to bring justice to victims of these horrible crimes.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Should Christians Complain about the Weather?

When Montanans talk about the weather, you often hear the phrase, “Well, if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes and it’ll change.”  While that phrase may be true in many places, in the mountains of western Montana is seems especially appropriate.  One never knows for sure whether or not a drenching rainstorm lurks beyond the nearest mountain range, ready to wipe out your planned hike, or whether brilliant sun is just over the horizon to melt the icy roads.  Even the weather professionals in western Montana rarely get it absolutely right – the past few years have been filled with storm warnings that never materialized or predictions of 2 inches of snow that resulted in 10 inches of snow.

One thing that never changes – whether in western Montana or elsewhere – is that we tend to complain about the weather.  This past year, we have had a mercifully short winter and a gloriously warm February and March.  (That said, yesterday morning snow was falling…)  And while many are loving the weather, others are complaining, noting that we need more snowpack in the mountains to prevent summer forest fires.

So the question I want to ask here is this: should a Christian complain about the weather?  Should a Christian grumble about what the day holds in terms of weather?  Jerry Bridges, in his wonderful book Trusting God: Even when Life Hurts, writes that believers should not complain about the weather for two reasons.

First, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign over the weather (see Job 37:3, 6, 10-13, Psalm 147:8, 16-18, Jer. 10:13, Amos 4:7 for examples).  If God is sovereign over the weather, and we complain about the weather, we are actually complaining against God.  We are intimating that God is not powerful enough or wise enough to handle the weather in the right way.  Perhaps we are even suggesting that we would do a better job than God in managing the weather.  Complaining about the weather is actually sinning against God who controls the weather in his power, might and wisdom.

Second, not only are we sinning against God when we complain about the weather, we also deprive ourselves of the peace that comes from recognizing that our God is in control of it.  The doctrine of the sovereignty of God should bring us peace.  I admit, sometimes that peace is hard-won.  When we turn on the news and see someone’s house wash away in a flood or we see a family sifting through the ruins of what was once their home before the tornado struck, we are apt to question why God allowed this to happen.  It would be so much easier to just chalk everything like that up to an act of nature and leave God out of it.  But the Bible assures us that tornados and floods are not just random acts of nature.  God controls them.

The peace comes when we accept God’s sovereignty, and when we believe that God is sovereign, but also good and purposeful.  Do we understand why things like weather events or natural disasters happen when they do?  No, but we can say this with assurance:  they come from the hand of God, God is good, and God has a purpose in them.  We will not necessarily understand what God is doing, but like the prophet Habakkuk, we must trust Him.

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  (Hab. 3:17-18, ESV)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Repentance or Regret – what’s the Difference?

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.  For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor. 7:9-10, ESV)

In 2 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul speaks of two kinds of grief or sorrow.  There is godly grief that produces a repentance that leads to salvation.  There is also a worldly grief that does not and cannot lead to salvation, but rather brings only death.   The question a passage like that prompts in us is this:  When we get caught in sin, how do we respond?  Do we respond with regret (worldly sorrow) or repentance (godly sorrow)?

You see, there is a great deal of difference between regret and repentance.  In his book, The Peacemaking Pastor, Alfred Poirier does a great job differentiating between the two.  What is the difference between regret and repentance?

1.         Regret runs from God, repentance runs to God.  When we are merely regretful about sin, we typically try to cover it up.  We are regretful that we got caught, and because the regretful person is more concerned about man’s opinion than God’s opinion, we do things like cover our sin, try to win sympathy or garner support for our views.  Repentance on the other hand has no desire to hide our sin, rather the repentant person exposes it, first to God (Ps. 51:1), and then to others (James 5:16).  The repentant person runs toward the cleansing and forgiveness found in God through Jesus Christ.

2.         Regret seeks to make atonement, repentance accepts atonement.  The regretful person often has a guilty conscience and seeks to repair the damage.  Sometimes they offer substitutes for their sin, like directing attention to all the good things they have done.  Repentance does not try to atone, but recognizes and receives the atonement offered through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

3.         Regret sorrows over our failure to achieve, repentance sorrows over the state of our hearts.  Regret forces a person to admit that they are not as great as they thought.  Often they say that they cannot believe they did what they did.  They insist they are not that kind of person.  They pledge never to do it again.  The repentant person knows that statements like these are only attempts to cover up the true state of one’s heart.  The repentant person recognizes their own sinfulness and grieves over the state of their heart.  Like Paul, they cry out, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)

4.         Regret leads to self-righteousness and/or self-condemnation, repentance leads to Christ’s righteousness.  The one who is regretful is often quick to beat themselves up, to beat others up, to resent others, to take offense easily and to point out the faults of others.  The regretful person either displays an unhealthy self-loathing or an arrogant self-righteousness.  The repentant person rejoices that what they could never achieve, Christ already did achieve.  They rejoice in the fact that while their sin is serious, because of Jesus they are not condemned. (Rom. 8:1)  As a result, they are free to glory in Christ’s perfect obedience and love.

5.         Regret moves a person away from the people of God, repentance moves a person toward the people of God.   When our attitude is merely regretful, true reconciliation never really happens.  Regretful people are unwilling to do what is necessary to bring reconciliation – to truly confess the depths of their sin and humbly, gently seek the forgiveness of others.  Repentance leads a person to just that – to recognize the pain their sin has caused in others and to approach them with the goal of forgiveness and true reconciliation.

So, what will it be the next time you are caught in a sin?  Will it be a regret that is only sorry about getting caught and leads us away from God’s provision and people?  Or will it be a repentance that recognizes our sin, and throws ourselves on the mercy, grace, forgiveness and righteousness provided in Jesus Christ?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Are you Captivated by Christ?

The other day, I sat down for my monthly meeting with our church’s deacons.  We have a wonderful deacon board in our church – godly men who are gifted to serve the body.  As we usually do, we started with devotions.  A few years ago, I began using good Christian books as devotional tools with my leadership.  At this time, our deacon board is reading and discussing The Grace of God by Andy Stanley.

The topic of this month’s chapter was the Ten Commandments and the whole issue of law versus grace.  In our discussions, our conversation wandered around to the whole issue of someone who is lukewarm in their faith.  What do we do with the person who claims grace of God but exhibits no evidence that the grace they claim is actually changing their lives?  As the discussion continued, various people were brought to my mind.  These were people I knew, people I had taught and ministered to, people I had counseled and sought to care for.  They were also people who, despite my best efforts, displayed no evidence of the transformation Jesus brings to a life.

At those situations, a typical pastor often does one of two things.  Either we write that person off, convinced that any help they need is not going to come from us.  Or, we get down on ourselves, thinking that it was our failure to connect, to communicate, to help, that has them in that spiritual position.  And while there may be some truth in those reactions – we may not be the person who will ultimately help them or we might have taken more time with them – the heart of the matter is often something very different.  The heart of the matter is often this: that the lukewarm Christian is more in love with the world than they are with Jesus.

After my discussion with the deacons, I was reminded of a passage I read this past fall from Michael Reeves’ book Delighting in the Trinity.  Interspersed throughout this wonderful book are small vignettes about historical figures and their thoughts on the Trinity.  In one of those sidebars, Reeves quotes Thomas Chalmers, a 19th century Scottish pastor and scholar.

In a sermon on 1 John 2:15 entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Chalmers discusses where the power to change comes from.  Our lives are naturally guided and controlled by our love for the world.  That is our default setting, a tendency that we all are born with.  What can we do to change that?  Is it possible to convince ourselves that the world around us is not so alluring after all?  Can we adjust our heart’s desires so that the world does not seem quite so attractive?  Chalmers concludes that trying to change our hearts by ourselves is “altogether incompetent and ineffectual,” for nobody can “dispossess the heart of an old affection, but by the expulsive power of a new one.”  In other words, our tendency to love the world can only be changed when we learn to love something or Someone else more.  We always love what seems to be the most desirable to us.  As a result, we will only change what we love when something or Someone proves to be more desirable to us than what we already love.

To put it another way, you and I will always love sin and the world until we truly sense that Christ is better.  We will be stuck loving the world first and foremost until we are convinced, by the power of God, that loving Christ is a better and truer option.  We will love the world until we are convinced again of the truths of the gospel.  You see, true change happens when we are overwhelmed by the grace of God in Christ.  True change happens when we grasp anew the height and breadth and depth of the love of Christ for us.  True change happens when we experience the freedom of forgiveness and the assurance of salvation.  True change happens when God’s Spirit convinces us that God is indeed good.  True change happens when we truly grasp hold of the truths of the gospel and are captivated by Christ our Savior.  That is the answer for everyone – whether they are a “lukewarm” believer or not.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Book Review: The Wonder Working God by Jared Wilson

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “of making many books there is no end…”  (Ecc. 12:12)  That is especially true it seems, regarding books about Jesus.  It seems to me that every time I turn around there is another book published by another author with another view of Jesus.  While I would be the first to admit that we will never fathom the depths of who Jesus is and what He has done this side of heaven, my cynical side wonders how unique all these books about Jesus can be.

That said, a few days ago I finished Jared C. Wilson’s The Wonder Working God:  Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles.  While Wilson’s perspective on Jesus is not necessarily completely unique, I would not chalk this book up as “just another book about Jesus.”  Focusing on a number of his miracles, Wilson digs deep into each situation with a purpose to reveal how the glory of Jesus is revealed in the event.

There are various miracles portrayed in the book.  Jesus turning water into wine.  Jesus feeding the 5000.  Jesus calming the storm.  Jesus casting out demons.  Jesus healing the sick and giving sight to the blind.  Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and others.  Each tale is told with heavy reliance on the Bible’s words, yet also with a dose of humor and insight.

Now, I can hear you saying – “but Jeff, there are a lot of books out there about Jesus’ miracles.  What makes this one special?”  The thing that is especially good about Wilson’s book is his effort to define what the miracles mean, and more specifically what they say or reveal about Jesus.  For example, when Jesus turned water into wine, what did that say about His identity, His power, His purpose and His glory?  This is the type of question Wilson seeks to answer in his book.  In doing so, he gets beyond the miracles to deeper theological truths regarding Jesus as Creator and Savior.  He wants us to see the Jesus who is our provider and the one who gives us life in Him.  He sets out to reveal the glory of Jesus as it was and is displayed in His earthly miracles.

Is The Wonder Working God the last word on Jesus?  Nope, not in any way.  Wilson himself does not think so, especially since he has a companion volume entitled The Storytelling God:  Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables.  (I hope to get into this book in 2015.)  Wilson’s book may not be the last word, but it is a good word.  It is a kingdom oriented word.  It is a word that will draw those who read it to glorify Jesus in an increasing measure.  And that, I believe, is what Jared Wilson is after.  So, if you want to know your Savior better, especially as He is portrayed in His miracles, read this book.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review - The Daring Heart of David Livingstone

David Livingstone.  The name brings many images to our minds.  Pioneer missionary.  The darkest jungles of Africa.  Surviving a lion attack.  Discovering the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls.  “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  The man was a legend in his own day and even today his name is still well-known.

In his book, The Daring Heart of David Livingstone:  Exile, African Slavery and the Publicity Stunt that Saved Millions, author Jay Milbrandt presents us with another side of the famous man.  Many people over the years have seen Livingstone as a missionary or an explorer, but Milbrandt reveals Livingstone also as a man on a God-given crusade to end slavery in East Africa.

Livingstone lived at a time when slavery in the British Empire had come to an end.  William Wilberforce and his allies had freed the slaves and ended the slave trade in England.  America was on the cusp of our own Civil War which brought an end to slavery.  England and the United States had been involved in buying and selling slaves from W. Africa, a practice which had mercifully come to an end.  But slavery was still alive and well in E. Africa.  The slaves were captured in what are now the countries of Mozambique, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia and were marched to the coast where they were sailed to the island of Zanzibar and sold to primarily Islamic buyers.

During his explorations in Africa, David Livingstone had come face to face with the horrors of this trade.  The Daring Heart of David Livingstone picks up the story after his first, great African exploration.  Livingstone cut ties with the London Missionary Society and joined forces with the Royal Geographic Society.  His vision was to establish a British outpost in the interior of East Africa with the dual goal of exploring the area and ending the slave trade.

The rest of the book is how David Livingstone’s desire unfolded, or rather failed to unfold in the way he had planned.  It is a story of grit and determination in the face of brutal terrain and tropical disease, of strong personality and deep devotion to God.  Above all, it is a story of persistence in keeping to the vision Livingstone believed God has given him.  Livingstone comes across both admirable and disappointing.  There are times when his godly character is very much on display, and other times, such as when the author describes his family life (or lack of it) that Livingstone presents a disturbing picture.

When Livingstone’s initial plans for a British outpost fail and after spending years in a futile search for the source of the Nile River, Livingstone finds himself stranded and sick in the heart of Africa.  At that point, Henry Morton Stanley enters the story.  Sent by American newspaperman James Gordon Bennett, Stanley braves the heart of Africa and finds Livingstone, surviving the return journey to declare to the world that Livingstone was alive.  With him he carries letters from Livingstone; letters which are meant to challenge the conscience of the British Empire and push it toward using its power to end the scourge of slavery, which is exactly what they do.  Livingstone passed on before his dream was realized, but his words and his challenge to the people of Britain were vital in bringing his vision to reality.

The Daring Heart of David Livingstone is a wonderful read.  It is a well-told story of the God-given vision of one flawed man to end African slavery.  Livingstone persisted in pursuing that vision, and a result our world was changed.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Best Books of 2014, part 3 - Fiction

This is part 3 of my listing of the best books I have read this year.  This list is fiction.  Truth be told, except for two superb exceptions, most of the fiction I read this year was good, but not great.  It kept me entertained, but not necessarily immersed.  Here is the best of what I read, and the rest of what I read.  As you can see, fantasy is still my favorite genre.

Heartstone by C. J. Sansom.  The year is not complete without reading another fine Shardlake mystery set in Tudor England.  Once again hump-backed lawyer Matthew Shardlake finds himself embroiled in the mystery and politics of Reformation-era Britain.  I cannot wait for Sansom’s next installment – Lamentation, due out in February.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  (Stormlight Archive, #1) Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite fiction writers.  This is book 1 of his latest epic fantasy series.  I read it a few years ago, and read it again this year as a prequel to book 2.  Very rarely do I think a book is better the second time, but this one was.  Amazing world-building!

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. (Stormlight Archive, #2)  Book 2 of Sanderson’s series is even better than book 1, if that is possible. (To give you an idea, my 17 year old son read this 1000 page book in about 48 hours!  He literally could not put it down.)  Sanderson returns with the characters you have grown to love and adds new ones you find yourself fascinated by.  The book leaves you waiting for book #3.  Definitely the best fiction I have read this year.

Natural Ordermage and Mage Guard of Hamor by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Saga of Rescluce) I admit, I have a strange fascination with the books of L. E. Modesitt Jr., as you can see below.  Out of all of Modesitt’s fantasy series, the original Recluce series is still my favorite. These two related books take the Saga to a new continent with new characters and provide an enjoyable change of pace. 

The Skin Map, The Bone House and The Spirit Well by Stephen R. Lawhead. (Bright Empires series, #1, #2, #3)  I have been a Lawhead fan for a long time – he is one of the few Christian fiction writers I can stand to read.  While this series is not his best – I reserve that for his Song of Albion series – it is enjoyable, intriguing and finally finished.  I am reading #4 right now and have #5 in the hopper after that.

2nd Tier reads – very good, not great.
Imager’s Challenge by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Imager Portfolio, #2)
Arms Commander by L. E. Modesitt Jr.  (Saga of Recluce series)
Imager’s Intrigue by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Imager Portfolio, #3)
The White Order by L. E. Modesitt Jr.  (Saga of Recluce series)
The Magic Engineer by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Saga of Recluce series)
Colors of Chaos by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Saga of Recluce series)
Scholar by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Imager Portfolio, #4)
The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

3rd Tier read – books I finished, but were mildly disappointing.
Scepters by L. E. Modesitt Jr.  (Corean Chronicles, #3)
Forever Odd by Dean Koontz

Best Reads for 2014, part 2 - Ministry and Faith-Oriented books

This is part 2 of my review of the best reads of 2014.  In this list, I highlight the ministry and faith-oriented books I read in the past year.

I read some really good books in this category this year – so many good ones that I found it difficult to choose a few to provide capsule reviews for.  Here are the best, and the rest.

The Hole in our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung.  This was my first time reading DeYoung’s stuff –and he has quickly become a favorite.  He has a wonderful way of communicating deep truths with great mix of humor and conviction.  The chapters on repentance and what it means to be “in Christ” are especially powerful.
Found in Him:  The Joy of the Incarnation and our Union with Christ by Elyse Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick spends about equal time on two profound topics – first, the incarnation of Jesus Christ in human flesh and second, the doctrine of our union with Christ.  This is not dry theology, but a book that takes theological truths and explains how they should change our lives.

The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson.  This book unpacks the gospel in two distinct ways.  Chandler looks at the good news from a personal level, aptly describing how it impacts us.  Then he looks at the gospel from a cosmic level, showing how it affects all of creation.  He saves the best for last – the last chapters about the importance of viewing the gospel in these ways and about the dangers of moralism are especially worth the read.

The Pastor’s Justification:  Applying the Work of Christ in your Life and Ministry by Jared C. Wilson.  Wilson is another author I discovered this year.  Like Kevin DeYoung, he has quickly become a favorite.  This is easily the best book for pastors I have read this year.  Humble, honest and gospel-oriented, it is both convicting and encouraging at the same time.
Spirit-Empowered Preaching by Art Azurdia.  Dr. Azurdia has spoken at 2 conferences I have attended.  His messages are always powerful and incisive.  In this short but deep book, he probes the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the work of preaching.  These truths have changed how I approach the pulpit each Sunday.

Delighting in the Trinity:  An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves.  I have read a lot of theology, but I have never had the Trinity explained to me better than I have in this book.  Using Scripture and many historical testimonies, Reeves does a wonderful job bringing the doctrine of the Triune nature of God home to the reader.
The Meaning of Marriage:  Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy and Kathy Keller.  I try to read a marriage book each year.  This is one of the most sane, well-thought out, balanced and biblical books on marriage I have ever read.  This is a book I would not hesitate to give as a gift, even to a young adult who is not yet married but struggling with what marriage really means.

2nd Tier Reads – very good, not great.
Deep and Wide:  Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend by Andy Stanley
Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor:  The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson by D. A. Carson
Making Spiritual Progress:  Building Your Life with Faith, Hope and Love by Allen Ratta
The Gospel as Center:  Renewing our Faith and Reforming our Ministry Practices by D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller, eds.
Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung
Forever:  Why you can’t live without it by Paul David Tripp
The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Iain H. Murray
Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung
AHA:  The God moment that Changes Everything by Kyle Idleman
Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It by Andy Farmer
Idols of the Heart:  Learning to Long for God Alone by Elyse Fitzpatrick
To Live is Christ, to Die is Gain by Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson
The Great and Holy War:  How World War 1 became a Religious Crusade by Philip Jenkins
Radical:  Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt
Broken-down House:  Living Productively in a World Gone Bad by Paul David Tripp
Church Elders:  How to Shepherd God’s People like Jesus by Jeramie Rinne
Church Discipline:  How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus by Jonathon Leeman
Autopsy of a Deceased Church:  12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer
When I Don’t Desire God:  How to Fight for Joy by John Piper
7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas
The Wonder Working God:  Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles by Jared C. Wilson
The Peacemaker by Ken Sande
The Daring Heart of David Livingstone by Jay Milbrandt

3rd Tier Reads – books I finished but were mildly disappointing.
Rewiring Your Preaching:  How the Brain Processes Sermons by Richard H. Cox
Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Pure Desire:  How One Man’s Triumph can help others break free from Sexual Temptation by Ted Roberts

Best Reads of 2014 - History/Biography

The New Year is upon us and, as I did last year, I want to look back on the best books I read over the past year.  As I have done in the past, these lists will be divided into three separate posts – history/biography, fiction and ministry/faith-oriented books.

I read a lot of book history/biography books this year.  I always have at least one book in this genre going at all times.  Here are the best (listed in no particular order), and at the end of the post, the rest. 

Paris 1919 by Margaret McMillan.  World War 1 ended in November, 1918, but that did not mean the fighting stopped.  It just moved inside.  McMillan’s book is a fascinating account of the political machinations behind the treaty that formally ended World War 1.  She carefully crafts portraits of men like US President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George and others.  Especially interesting to me were the discussions and decisions about dividing up Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the defunct Ottoman Empire.

How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark.  I am a Rodney Stark fan, and in this book he has served up another historical treatise seemingly meant to drive the political correct crowd nuts.  Looking at history from a sociologist’s viewpoint, he gives a convincing picture of why the West is modern and other cultures are still catching up.

The Bully Pulpit:  Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  This is a fascinating book about 2 US Presidents and the ground-breaking journalists of McClure’s magazine who covered them.  The contrast is stark between Roosevelt, who was a favorite of those journalists and shared their progressive views, and Taft, who was unable to relate to the press and as a result, got skewered by them on a regular basis.

Into the Silence:  The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis.  Probably the best history book I read this past year, it is the story of the multiple attempts by British mountaineers to conquer the highest peak in the world.  The grit and determination of these men, even in the face of tragedy and death, was unbelievable.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides.  Hampton Sides’ ability to tell a story just gets better and better.  This is the story of the polar voyage of the USS Jeannette, their effort to reach the North Pole and their dramatic struggle to survive after the sinking of their ship.  Powerful story – just don’t read it in the winter.  BRRR!

Mission at Nuremberg:  An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis by Tim Townsend.  Townsend tells the tale of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor and US Army Chaplain who was assigned to provide spiritual care to the worst of the Nazi war criminals during the Nuremberg trials.  As Gerecke leads some of these men back into communion with the church, the book explores the meaning of repentance and forgiveness for some of the worst offenders in history.

Paradise Lost:  Smyrna 1922, the Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance by Giles Milton.  Usually when I read a history book, I have some basic knowledge of the story being told.  Not with this book.  Milton tells the story of Smyrna, a city in western Turkey that had long been an example of true tolerance between Christians, Jews and Muslims.  In the aftermath of World War 1, ignorance, greed, militant nationalism and intolerance led to its destruction.  Paradise Lost is a sad story with real life application today.

2nd Tier Reads – very good, not great.
Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray
The Lost Patrol:  The Mounties’ Yukon Tragedy by Dick North
The First Tycoon:  The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles
Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
A Hanging Offense:  The Strange Affair of the Warship Somers by Buckner F. Melton Jr. 
The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel (much better than the movie)
The Wolf by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen
Curse of the Narrows by Laura M. McDonald (Canada's greatest disaster)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson
Adopted Son:  Washington, Lafayette and the Friendship the Saved the Revolution by David A. Clary
The Envoy:  The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate closing Months of World War 2 by Alex Kershaw
A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-62 by Alistair Horne
Catherine the Great:  Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Shooting Victoria:  Madness, Mayhem and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy
Dark Invasion:  1915, German’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America by Howard Blum
Escape from North Korea:  The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick
Failure in the Saddle:  Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign by David A. Powell
Cavalryman of the Lost Cause:  A Biography of J. E. B. Stuart by Jeffry D. Wert

3rd Tier Reads – books I finished, but were mildly disappointing.
The Abacus and the Cross:  The Story of the Pope who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages by Nancy Marie Brown
When America First Met China by Eric Jay Dolin
Vanished:  The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War 2 by Wil S. Hylton
Prairie Fever:  British Aristocrats in the American West by Peter Pagnamenta
Midnight Rising:  John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz
Killing Patton by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (not sure I buy their ultimate premise)
Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller
Alexander II – the Last Great Czar by Edward Radzinsky