Rev Nev Book Review: A Free People’s Suicide

Conversations can haunt you. One that haunts me took place years ago in a park with a friend while our children played. He said that with the recent spat of political correctness he did not think it would be long until it was used against the Church in serious persecution. Shocked at the thought, I insisted that as long as we have the First Amendment, there was nothing to worry about. Call it the Ghost of Naivete Past.

Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future addresses exactly why my friend was right, I was wrong, and America is in trouble. I hate to admit all three.

834655: A Free People"s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

By Os Guinness / Inter-varsity Press

Two things are worth mentioning about Os Guinness at the outset. First, Guinness freely admits that he writes as an outsider observing America. He is from Ireland but now lives in the United States. He quotes often from Alexis de Tocqueville and it is no stretch to say A Free People’s Suicide is in the same tradition. Second, Guinness is a Christian writer and philosopher but this is not a Christian book per se. He will land on some ideas that all Christians will readily accept but the book is intended for a larger audience.

Guinness begins by explaining why freedom must be sustained. Our vaunted Founders had the pluck to win and organize (second effort was better) the freedom they secured. But being mortal they could only sustain it during their lifetimes. After that, it’s up to each generation to maintain what they secured and organized.

What does it take to maintain liberty? More than an occasional oil change on your Jeep Liberty. It’s hard, uncomfortable, and widely misunderstood. And dangerous because it’s under attack.

Guinness brings back an understanding of freedom by defining what freedom meant to the Founders. The misunderstandings about liberty are staggering in a culture that prides itself on preserving, promoting, and protecting the very thing. But the arguments have slowly been shifted over a period of decades so that suddenly (or so it seems) people accept an incorrect premise. I suspect many people know something is wrong but cannot put their finger on what.

Case in point: what’s the first thing you think of when you think of freedom? Most people will immediately think of the right to do whatever they want. On the left it’s the ability to do as they please with their genitals and  “reproductive freedom” (I call it killing defenseless unborn babies, but whatever). The right fights just as vigorously for keeping others from interfering with their guns and funds. Both argue on the basis of individual liberty. Both argue what Guinness calls “negative freedom.”

While negative freedom is important, it is only half of the equation. Negative freedom must be paired with positive freedom in order to work and, more importantly, to last. Guinness does us a tremendous service by reviving this more robust view of freedom. “Positive freedom is freedom for-in essence, freedom for excellence according to whatever vision and ideals define that excellence.” Genuine liberty goes well beyond stopping interference into allowing people to succeed or fail based on their own ambition and abilities. In other words, positive freedom is the freedom afforded by opportunity. That’s why the United States used to be called the “Land of Opportunity.” When is the last time you heard anyone say that?

"Freedom, then, is never simply privacy or freedom from interference or the right to be left alone. Nor is it simply procedural or only a matter of choice, in which the greater the range of choices, the greater the depth of freedom. An endless proliferation of trivial and unworthy choices is not freedom but slavery by another name. Freedom is not choice so much as right choice, good choices, and wise choice. When everything is permissible, no one is truly free, so it is ironic but not accidental that millions in 'the land of the free' are in recovery groups from one addiction or another." Os Guinness in A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

Political correctness has attacked the very idea of opportunity for all to succeed or fail. We hand out trophies to everyone regardless of the outcome of the game because our kids are too small to fail. Businesses are too big to fail. The spectrum between is littered with a thousand examples where political correctness has stripped opportunity in the name of fairness and it’s terribly unfair to us all. It’s the opposite of liberty. Guinness convinced me of that.

Read through A Free People’s Suicide and you will wonder how do we get liberty back? What would it take for Americans to reject the bad medicine they have been spoon-fed for the last one hundred years to restore freedom? The answer lies in what Guinness calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom.”

The Golden Triangle of Freedom is freedom, virtue, and faith. Each of the three depend on the others and they go around “like the recycling triangle, ad infinitum.” Take a look at those three things and ask yourself which of them is still celebrated in America? Once freedom is defined as the lack of any constraint, then virtue and faith become viewed as unnecessary personal constraints and are done away with as quickly as possible. So popular culture attacks virtue as old-fashioned and faith as blind. All the while it is freedom that is eroding away.

Here Guinness makes a point that both startled me and ultimately changed my mind. We conservatives are prone to thinking that the rule of law is there to protect liberty, thus our constant appeals to the Constitution. So what happens when someone violates the Constitution and usurps it? The answer is nothing. The Constitution is merely a piece of paper. Defense of liberty requires people willing to stand up for it. It takes men and women in each branch willing to work within the limits of their power. Without such men and women liberty is a mirage.

That’s what my friend was trying to tell me all along. I believed that the First Amendment would always be there to protect religious speech. It may always stand as a testament to the ideal but if men and women who do not agree with my worldview hold the reigns of power in the legislatures and executive offices of this fair land, it is entirely conceivable that they could vote to limit the freedom of religious speech in the name of “fairness” or “equality” or some other tyranny in freedom’s clothing. Stack the courts with people of similar persuasion and there really is no hope.

Guinness, though, does not allow his reader to despair. He rings the constant refrain “unless…” Hope is gone unless people can be shown the better way, shown from history how to avert this future. This is where my heart begins to beat again.

There is one hope for America. It starts with the faith leg of the Golden Triangle. To put it more bluntly than Guinness does, what America needs is revival, a complete and overwhelming return to God in our values and beliefs. Without revival America is in trouble as values erode. Most Americans do not know that revival has broken out in America almost every 50 years. By that standard we’re overdue. I’m not a numbers guy so I won’t read into the lack of revival in our day except to say that I wonder sometimes if God tarries in pouring out the Spirit because we do not ask Him for it (James 4:2). What are we afraid of? Losing our liberty to do as we please? Maybe. But I think that’s coming either way. And I’d rather be free to serve my Spirit-pricked conscience than bound to serve the Nanny State.

Guinness is absolutely spot on with a message Americans need to hear. Still, I disagreed with him on U.S. foreign policy and the way the United States was perceived during the Iraq war. I will always believe there were good reasons to go into Iraq and one day this will be understood more fully at which time “world opinion” (whatever that is) will be proven wrong. Guinness uses the war as an example of American hubris and as an illustration to prove that America can do better as an example of freedom to the world. That liberty cannot be imposed is obvious. Whether America’s presence in Iraq was for the purpose of imposing an American way or liberating others is still a matter of dispute. The historians will decide and let’s hope a conservative or two gets the upper hand.

Books can haunt you. A Free People’s Suicide is a challenging read that will stir you to think about America’s future and what role you might play in it. It’s worth every page if it wards off the Ghost of Naivety Future.

Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP. All opinions are my own. Links to are affiliate links. Purchases made through affiliate links benefit me and help keep my site going.

Nev’s Reading List: New Year, New Goals

Hello 2013! It’s nice to see you.

Time to Read

Last year, about midyear, I started something that is destined to become a regular series here: writing about what I’m reading. The series includes book reviews, an update of what I’m reading and how my reading is going, and a list of the books I’m reading on the sidebar. You’ll notice they haven’t changed in awhile. I’ll get to that in a moment.

This series serves two purposes. First, it keeps me honest. Publishing the mid-year check in kept me going through the rest of the year. Plus, it gave me a chance to talk about everything I had read to that point. Anytime you can revive your reading is a bonus.

Second, discussing books and the ideas in them is helpful to people who have limited time and can use a quick summary and a suggestion or two about what’s good. I always appreciate a good book recommendation. Hopefully, you do too.

Rules for Reading

Before getting to the heap of books I intend to Ray Lewis tackle this year I learned enough last year to make a few rules for this year:

Nev’s Reading Rule #1: One book at a time.

I decided on this rule early last year and kept to it (mostly) throughout the year. The times when progress slowed were when I tried to read too many things at one time. I don’t focus as well when I feel pulled in many directions. If I have more than one book in my bag it’s as if I don’t know what to do so I do nothing. The one book rule keeps eliminates this tension. But that leads to rule #2.

Nev’s Reading Rule #2: Only accept books to read when there is time to read them.

Ever have someone tell you about a great book they read and then say “I’ll bring it to you,” then the next thing you know they’re handing you a book and you’re wondering when you’ll read it? That happened to me a couple of times this last year. No offense intended to anyone who loaned me books. Really, it’s my fault for accepting them. That’s why I created this rule. It’s less embarrassing to refuse a book than to keep one too long or give it back unread. This rule is flexible. If there’s time between books (see Rule #1 above) then by all means borrow the book.

Nev’s Reading Rule #3: Book reviews get priority.

I couldn’t possibly overstate how fantastic I think this bit of blogging is. For about two years now I have been requesting and receiving books as review copies from publishers. For FREE. But just like the Force, there’s a dark side. The publishers send me the books for a reason: to write a review. Last year I received Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide and have yet to finish it. That’s why it’s still at the top of the sidebar list of books I’m reading (told you I’d get there). The book came in August and my life exploded with busyness right at the same time. This year I want to get the reviews done within a month of receiving the book.

That’s probably enough rules to break. Now for the list of books I intend to read this year.

Pile of old books

Carry Overs

As I mentioned, there are a few books that I did not get to last year so they end up at the top of the list here.

1. Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide
This book is great. I’m about two-thirds through. Guinness is convincing me that the problem we have in this country isn’t political it’s moral. Look for a review shortly.

2. Jonah Goldberg, Tyranny of Cliches:How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas
This looks like a great book. I’ve started it (violated Rule 1 above and got bogged down…see what I mean?) but now is the time to finish it and get a review up. Goldberg makes a compelling case about the many cliches that people in politics uses to end arguments when they think they are making them. It’s witty and fun and slightly depressing.

3. Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy
I read 1-2 biographies per year. Bonhoeffer was to be my second last Fall but I never got to it. This year, it’s at the top of the list. Sometimes you can see the hand of God in the timing of things. I’m starting to wonder if that’s the case with the resurgence of Bonhoeffer’s popularity given the times. That makes this book an important read.

Everything else that was on this list but not in this post will have to wait.

New Year’s Reading Goals

4. Wayne Grudem, Politics – According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture
Yeah, long title. I like Grudem because of his Systematic Theology. It’s easy to read and helpful when thinking through theological issues. I don’t always agree with him but do always give his ideas respect. I had the privilege of taking his last class at Trinity with about 68 of my closest friends. Yeah, that’s right. I totally name dropped like I know the guy.

5. Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image
This is a book I’ve owned for a long time but never read. Ever since I took a self study theology class when I first got to seminary, I have been enamored with the idea of God’s image in man. In many ways this is the foundational concept for a Christian worldview (really any worldview). Created in God’s Image also is indicative of my desire to read at a bit higher level this year than I did last year. No sense in making a list if you’re not going to challenge yourself.

6. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places
This is the first in Peterson’s quintette on spiritual theology. Very interested to read this because Peterson is always insightful and eloquent.

7. Augustine, Confessions
A classic that I’ve never read. This time next year I won’t be able to say that.

8. Ernest Hemmingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls
What this list needs is some fiction. I’m a moderate fan of Hemmingway. This is one I’ve attempted before but never gotten too far. I’d like to read the last page this year.

9. George Orwell, 1984
Everyone talks about it but I’ve never actually read it. Now’s as good a time as any.

10. Tim Keller, The Prodigal God
I’ve heard a lot about Tim Keller but have read none of his works. This book comes highly recommended to me so I’ll start my journey into Keller’s thought here.

11. D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited
Carson is one of the best thinkers out there. His update of H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic is welcomed. Niebuhr’s ideas are insightful but his writing was unbearable. I’m hoping Carson is an easier, and therefore more helpful, read.

As much as I’d like to add a couple more, if I finish these I’ll be doing good. Plus, choosing a smaller list will leave some room in the year.

Here’s how the list breaks down by topic:

HIstory: 2 (if you include Augustine)
Politics: 1
Philosophy/cultural thinking: 3
Fiction: 2
Theology: 3

I like to do this exercise to reveal my biases. Clearly I’m most interested in cultural thinking and theology. Nothing wrong with that but I do find it helpful to balance them with history and fiction.

Enough about me. what about you? What’s the best book you read in 2012? What are you most looking forward to reading in 2013? What topics do you read most?

Leave a comment to let me know. I’d love to hear about books you’re reading!

Book Review: Sanctuary of the Soul

What is your prayer life like?

If you’re like many calling it a “life” is being generous because your prayer shows few signs of life. And yet, in the back of your mind, and perhaps your heart, there is a nagging feeling that you would resuscitate prayer in your life if you only knew how.

So you look around your church and wonder who could show you what a real prayer life looks like. Real prayer warriors are usually quiet, unassuming, and wait for you to find them. Even in large churches there may only be a handful of them.

You wonder if prayer is anything more than listing the things you’d like God to do for you because that’s all you have ever known it to be.

You hear or read stories about people who spend hours in prayer. How is that even possible?

Maybe you have even tried to spend some time praying but your mind wanders and you keep thinking about all the things you have to do instead. Your mind simply will not quiet down so you abandon the attempt.

If any of the above describes your prayer life then I have a book for you.

835553: Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer

Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer

If the term “meditative prayer” reminds you of Buddhist monks in robes sitting in the lotus position humming or sounds a little fluffy and intimidating at first, do not let it deter you. Christian meditation is an ancient practice repeatedly mentioned in Scripture, especially the Psalms (see Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-3, 19:14, and all of Psalm 119).

In fact, to demonstrate how thoroughly Biblical the idea is Foster devotes the first part of his book to showing how people in the Bible came to God in meditation. Seeking God and expecting Him to speak back was common practice for many of our Bible heroes. This we do not find hard to believe.

Faith’s rubber hits the road of life, however, at the point when we begin to seek God ourselves. Can God still be found in the vibrant way he was in the Bible? We find it is easier to believe God is out there somewhere than we do that He is active and ready to relate to us. And we have so few resources to show us how we would go about it if we wanted to. For all our talk about Christian faith being a “relationship not a religion” we know precious little about relating to our Lord. Foster reminds us that friendship with God is possible.

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Hebrews 11:6

He writes, “And the wonderful news is that Jesus has not stopped acting and speaking. He is resurrected and at work in our world. He is not idle. He is alive and among us as our Prophet to teach us, our Priest to forgive us, our King to rule us, our Shepherd to guide us, our Friend to come alongside us.”

Even after we accept that God is accessible via meditative prayer the practical question of the mechanics of prayer remains unanswered. Fortunately for us, this is Foster’s strength. Many of his previous works like Celebration of Discipline, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, and Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World, serve as how-to manuals for their subject and have helped many including your humble blogger. In Sanctuary he offers instruction in a variety of meditative practices such as lectio divina, the use of icons, recollection, learning to be still before the Lord, and recognizing God’s voice.

Foster is careful to address concerns that may arise about each practice he recommends. Evangelicals unfamiliar with some of the practices may find them unsettling, especially the use of icons, an Eastern Orthodox practice using images to draw you into worship of God. Foster’s defense is grounded in the historic councils of the Church and Scripture but those who do not find the practice useful need not practice it.

Discourse on Distraction

The most insightful section of the book is Foster’s discourse on distraction. Our culture of constant connectivity makes it very difficult to be attentive to anything for very long. That makes prayer more difficult. “The fact that our schedules are piled high and we are constantly bombarded by multiple stimuli only betrays that we have succumbed to the modern mania that keeps us perpetually distracted. The moment we seek to enter the creative silences of meditative prayer, every demand screams for our attention. We have noisy hearts.”

Foster does not simply diagnose the disease of distraction but he also prescribes the encouraging remedy of practice. No one starts as a meditative guru. “We did not develop noisy hearts overnight, and it will take time and patience for us to learn a single-hearted concentration.”

Those who are new to the process of meditative prayer will find Foster’s tips helpful on a variety of subjects ranging from keeping a note pad to jot down distracting thoughts while praying (helps get them out of your head) to more difficult issues like dealing with demonic attacks during prayer. An informative chapter titled “A Potpourri of Questions” addresses questions from whether meditative prayer is necessary for all Christians to how new mothers could approach the practice, to the best time, place, and posture for prayer.

Sanctuary has another powerful feature that serves to highlight both the practice of the discipline and what is possible in meditative prayer. Foster wisely includes a chapter in each section describing his experience with what he has just discussed. While reading these chapters I found myself caught up in the experience. God seemed too good to simply see Him through Foster’s experience that I longed to meet Him in this way, too. It takes a special author to draw you into the experience like that.

A Valuable Guide

Richard Foster has impacted many in his career with his work on prayer and spiritual practices. I personally consider him one of my spiritual mentors because the Lord has used his books to drive me toward Him. Sanctuary of the Soul will do the same for you. It is a continuation of the theme and a useful primer on meditative prayer. It is a small tome and not exhaustive by any stretch but accomplishes the intended purpose of introducing the reader to Christian meditative practices.

I recommend this book to believers of all maturity levels especially those sensing a desire to deepen their prayer life. God has a way of drawing us into Him and at that point, especially if no proper discipleship in prayer is available but also with a mentor, Sanctuary of the Soul is a valuable guide.

Sanctuary of the Soul is available from IVP.

Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP. All opinions are my own. Links to are affiliate links. Purchases made through affiliate links benefit me and help keep my site going.

Rev Nev’s Reading List: Mid-2012

Every New Year’s Eve I make a series of resolutions. Lose weight. Make more money. Read more books. Lots of people do that, I hear. Most of the time I make them half-heartedly and promptly forget them. Lots of people do that, too. Or so I hear.

This year, I took a different approach: I made less resolutions with more resolution.

The main area I focused on was to read more. Since getting out of school the number of books appearing before my baby blue eyes has been woefully small. Maybe that is to be expected after that knowledge-fest also known as seminary. Still, if you’re not reading you’re not learning much and I wanted to be prouder of my reading this year than last. That’s a nice vague goal. More books in 2012 than 2011. Plus it has the added advantage of being easy to do since I only completed a handful of books last year.

Now that May is over, this seems like a good time to review the books I’ve read. Maybe you’ll find one or two interesting, too.

Here they are in the order I read them:

1. TrueFaced by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and John Lynch

I got this book when I was in school for a project several years ago and read only about half of the book then. This time I was determined to plow through to the end, despite some challenging content, because we may do a study on it later in the year. When I say challenging, I mean spiritually challenging. The authors ask you to consider a life (and church) where grace is the only rule and masks are non-existent. Even though most of us would say we have no masks I think we are lying to ourselves. I certainly catch myself doing that, despite my good intentions. It takes real courage to take off the mask you wear and be honest about who you are. That’s what this book is about. Challenging but worth it.

2. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

I heard about this book through another blog I like to read. Pressfield writes about the things that keep us from living up to our full potential. He calls it Resistance. It will kill you if you let it. But if you fight it, you can win and you can become very successful. I needed this kick in the pants and picked up this book because another of my goals this year is to be more productive with my time. No more giving in to fear or laziness. Pressfield helped me do that.

3. Do the Work by Steven Pressfield

More on Resistance but also direction on how to plan out and actually complete a project. Plus, it’s free if you have Amazon Prime.

4. Fathered by God by John Eldridge

This book is a follow up to Wild at Heart and another one I read for a study. We wrapped the study up with a few guys a couple of weeks ago. Eldridge walks the reader through the stages of the spiritual journey men take pointing out the sign posts and the ways God interacts with them along the way. This proved to be a good reminder of several things: (1) Passivity is evil. (Note that Eldridge rings the same bell as Pressfield. Think there’s a theme emerging this year for me?) Want to be a good father? Engage and act as God does. (2) It made me want to cherish my children more. We spend so much time trying to get them to do what we want them to do that we (mostly I, my wife is pretty good at this) forget the incredible gifts they are from the Lord.

5. Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job and Your Dream Job by Jon Acuff

Anyone who knows me and my lot in life is not surprised by this selection. A couple of observations about Jon Acuff. First, he is one funny dude. If you are Christian and not reading his blog Stuff Christians Like every week or so, you are missing out. Hilarious. And his personality comes through in Quitter. Second, Acuff has some good insight about his topic because he’s lived it. He worked a job he hated to get to the job he loved. This is not your typical “just do it” self-help book. In fact, it’s probably the antidote to all those kind of books out there. It was Quitter that inspired me to start writing again and get it in gear. Well, Acuff and Pressfield.

6. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I read these because the movie came out and there was all this hype for a series I’d never heard of. My wife read them and thought they were good. Also, I like to mix some fiction into the rotation sometimes. It’s fun to get swept away in a story and this is a good story. The political aspects of it are fascinating. Worth the read but not everyone will be able to stomach the idea of children killing one another. That’s kinda the point.

7. Pure Scum: The Left-Out, the Right-Brained, and the Grace of God by Michael A. Sares

Technically, I read this book in 2010 but it’s been sitting on my desk waiting for me to finish my review for almost two years. (There’s that “getting stuff done” theme again…) You can read my long awaited review of Pure Scum here. In finishing the review I read parts of it and remembered how much I liked this book. Sares is a good author but it is the stories he shares about his congregation that are truly moving. Worth the read for everyone.

Started but Not Yet Finished

1. Crazy Love by Francis Chan

I first heard of Francis Chan a couple of years ago but have never read his books. One friend of mine has read most of this one and is finding it very thought-provoking. Looking forward to this one. You can also get this book free with your Kindle along with Chan’s other works.

2. The Story of Superstition Mountain and the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine by Robert Joseph Allen

This book was loaned to me by my grandfather when we visited them in Arizona. He and my grandmother live not far from Superstition Mountain in the winter. As happens when you are in a new place you hear stories and legends about things that happened there, I kept hearing stories about the events around Superstition Mountain and the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine including hunting for treasure, murder, and a missing gold mine. I was intrigued and fortunately Grandpa had a book on the subject. Reading it slowly but it’s a fun one.

3. Building a Church of Small Groups by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson

I like this book because I believe real spiritual change happens in small groups. I started it because I would like to be a pastor of small groups. The authors work through why small groups are a good plan for all churches and how to properly establish a small group ministry so that your church becomes a church of small groups, not a church with small groups. I should finish this one soon. I read a follow up to this one last year (out of order, I know) called the Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry which is also very good.

The Stack of Books I Hope To Read Before The Year is Out

1. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer

A copy of this book came into my possession by way of a pastor not long ago. Tozer, obviously, is classic. It’s kind of a travesty that I haven’t read anything by him in my life. This is the year to change that.

2. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

This will be a summer read. Had it since Christmas. I hear Jobs was an amazing figure and I know from his Benjamin Franklin biography that Isaacson is a good writer.

3. Spiritual Leadership by Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby

This book comes recommended to me as a good one about being a spiritual leader. I am finding myself in more and more situations where spiritual leadership is required (not least of which is home) and could use some insight into doing it well. If you know a book that’s better I’ll take your recommendations below.

4. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

I’m becoming a fan of Metaxas through Facebook where I subscribe to his feed. Always something interesting to say and a positive voice for Christian issues that are currently dominating the political conversation. He filled in for Chuck Colson on Breakpoint while Colson was dying. Before that, I was not very interested in Bonhoeffer but now I’d like to read it. I don’t currently own this book so if someone wants to send a copy my way I’d be grateful.

5. A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness

Looks like a Christian perspective on freedom and what it will take to preserve America as we know it. Comes out in August 2012.

6. Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer by Richard Foster

This came out late last year. Foster has been one of my favorite authors for years now. His work first introduced me to meditative prayer and now here he has a book delving deeper into the subject. Looking forward to reading – and more importantly, practicing – about prayer.

You probably have a few suggestions. What books have you read, started or want to read this year? Tell me what and why. I’d love to hear it!

Book Review: Pure Scum

I’m a little apprehensive about this book review. I received this book after making a request for a review copy from IVP almost two years ago. (Full disclosure: “review copy” means it was free!) That’s too long and this review is too little too late but I feel I owe it a post. Parts of Pure Scum resonate deeply with me because some of my story is similar to the author’s story. But also, it feels weird to write a review of a book about a church in my town that I have heard about but never been to although I know some people who go there. In fact, I met some Scum folks briefly at a graduation party this weekend. Perhaps sometime soon this needs to be remedied.

836291: Pure Scum: The Left-Out, the Right-Brained, and the Grace of God

Pure Scum: The Left-Out, the Right-Brained, and the Grace of God

Who is Mike Sares?

Mike Sares pastors the most interesting church in Denver. Don’t believe me? Try pastoring a church named Scum of the Earth. Bravery embodied. In Pure Scum: The Left-Out, the Right-Brained and the Grace of God, Sares admits the name wasn’t his first choice. “Perhaps I was afraid of it,” he writes. “Maybe I was too insecure to lead a church with a name like that.” But as the reader thumbs the pages it becomes clear the name is perfect for the ministry, a blend of shock and awesome grace.

Sares took the scenic route to ministry through jobs in advertising, sales, a steel mill and high school English as a teacher. He has attended denominations as divergent as Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and PCUSA but is ordained in The Alliance for Renewal Churches. He recounts his experience leading to his ministry at Scum as an encouraging story for anyone stuck in that place between calling and fruition.

What is Pure Scum about?

Pure Scum is written in an easy style and is part story of his Sares’ life, part philosophy of his ministry, and part devotional.

Early on Sares asks “Could it be that vision, passion and suffering are closely related?” His journey begs the question. The answer emerges throughout the book as the reader senses how deeply he cares for those to whom he is called to minister and how appropriately his own journey prepared him to ministry to them.

Sares tells of his conversion during high school and his long trek to ministry. He knew he was called early in his Christian life and was involved in leadership but not in a full-time position. He recounts the years between a word from God that confirmed he would have a ministry and his actually entering seminary with frustration. Believing God has called you but being unable to enter that calling is a special form of suffering. Like torture but less humane.

During those long years, God was quiet but not silent. Sares heard form God in one of those inside-your-head-but-not-you  moments that a band would someday come from his ministry. Eventually, this turned out to be the band we know as Five Iron Frenzy. The Bible study they started would evolve into Scum of the Earth.

The picture of Sares’ philosophy of ministry comes together in the stories he shares about his people. Gothic Sean’s story is moving as Sares describes a Goth kid with a passion for sharing Christ with his community. The reader quickly will realize that the impact of a struggling human being like Sean can often be greater than that of one who hides their suffering. His struggles were very real and Sares recounts dozens of hospital trips and hangovers. But he also tells of sitting in a Goth bar while Sean dances and occasionally brings people over to introduce them. There Sares’ ministry reached a world some of us do not even realize exists. “Make no mistake,” he writes in his eulogy for Sean who died, frozen on the streets of Boulder, Colorado, “Sean was a missionary to Capitol Hill, and he said so.”

One musician friend of mine says that “some people sing about the light, while others sing about what they see because of the light.” – from Pure Scum

The story of Kate’s poem delivered on Christmas Eve is equally emotional and riveting. Imagine what would happen if someone wanted to read a poem containing the F-bomb in your church. On Christmas Eve. In most churches that conversation would die before it even started. At Scum, Sares not only has the conversation but decides to go ahead with the reading, all the while processing the pastoral calculus. “I had to decide whom I was going to offend – the young woman who was tentatively placing her foot into the door of the church for the first time in years, or mature, faithful Christians who might leave me and Scum of the Earth but never leave Jesus and his church.” The poem and congregational response is worth the price of the book.

As I read these and other stories I could not help but wonder who we are trying to minister to in our churches. Our churches, as if they belong to us. Are there people we do not even see because we are too busy trying to make ourselves happy? Are people wrestling with the Living God because of our ministry? Or are they lulled to sleep because we refuse to be challenging? Jesus calls all kinds of people to himself regardless – or perhaps because of – their struggles or lot in life. Am I comfortable with that? With them? Sares challenges me (and will you if you read this book) to be more concerned about bringing the Gospel to people who can be overlooked than my own success or profit.

Who should read Pure Scum?

Pure Scum is one of those books aimed at a large section of the population but not specifically targeted at anyone. Christians will be most interested in the book, of course. I know a few people who believe Christians are judgmental jerks who might be surprised by Sares and his ministry, too.

In the Christian camp, Pure Scum will challenge pastors to reevaluate their ministries and consider whether they are listening to the Spirit as they serve. The Spirit pops up throughout the book as Sares tells the stories of the Spirit moving him toward people and the Lord, always keeping his eye on the prize. The Lord may not be calling you to reach the same people as Sares but He is calling you to listen and be ready even when you think you know better. Lay people will be dared to open up themselves to others that perhaps have fallen off their radar, people who may look different but who are loved by God tenaciously.

Pure Scum is an encouraging read in the tradition of Acts that will bolster the faith of Christians everywhere.