Archives For Reading

Recently I joined a program called Booksneeze. I get to pick out books for free and keep them forever provided that I write a review about them. I’m not required to say anything specific about the book. So decided to give it a try. This is my first (and maybe only) attempt.

As a pastor, I often receive questions from people about life, faith, politics, and just about anything else. These questions range from the simple (How do you preach a sermon without looking at your notes?) to the nearly impossible (If God really cares about the intimate details of my life, then why does he allow me to suffer?).

In just less than two years of full-time ministry I’ve encountered countless questions.

Max Lucado, a ministry veteran, has been answering questions for decades. In his new book, Max on Life, he gives his take on 172 different questions. These questions are divided into 7 topics that deal with grace, our purpose, prayer, romance, and the afterlife, to name a few.

This practical book is very handy because of its layout. Not only does Max organize the questions according to topic, but he provides a topical and Scriptural index at the end of it. So, say you have a friend who is wondering about remarriage, you can look in the index and find Max’s thoughts and advice about the subject.

Structurally, Max on Life departs from what I’ve come to expect from Max’s other work. It reads more like a reference book than one about Christian living. Each question receives an answer about 1-2 pages in length. I found that the best way to read the book was by reading one or a few questions each night before bed.

However, stylistically, Max still has his very clever way of using everyday experiences to help us understand core truths of the Gospel that I’ve come to enjoy. I found most of his answers to be very heartfelt and honest. He seems to have thoughtfully engaged very difficult issues like suffering, poverty, and sexuality. Some of the biggest criticisms of Christianity are tackled in here. Max wrestles with heavy content. I’m thankful that he did not shy away from touchy subjects.

I would have liked a little more depth to some of his answers, though. I’ve always believed Max is a very thoughtful writer, and I’d like to know more than a page or two of his thoughts about some of these difficult questions.

Overall, I think this book is a great resource to have for a pastor and any thoughtful Christian who shares their faith with others. I’m happy to have it on my shelf.

Even still, when I compare Max on Life to some of his more cohesive works, like He Chose the Nails, or Just Like Jesus, it doesn’t have the same lasting impact. Max’s full-length books convict and encourage me, calling me to lasting change. I remember quotes from his books for years and use them in sermons. I didn’t have that experience quite as much with this book, though. I suspect that is because of the structure of this book more than anything else.

Therefore, I would give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It’s Max Lucado, so of course it’s great, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of his other works.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Growing up in Danville, California, I was part of a great youth group.

I can think of a few youth workers who spent a lot of time encouraging me. One was very patient while listening to my stories of drama with girls. Another was patient while he encouraged to regularly spend time in God’s word for years. Still another one was patient as he let me play in our worship band even though I didn’t really know how to strum in rhythm with everybody else. Years later another was patient has he heard about how frustrated I was with my seminary experience.

Each one of these men never quit challenging me to be a stronger Christian.

I wouldn’t be who I am today if these men had given up hope that I could be something better than I was.

I was reminded of the role these men played in my life this week as I read an autobiography. If I were to count the number of biographies I’ve read in my life I could probably do so on my two hands. For whatever reason I just haven’t had much of a desire to read them. However, I received Louis Zamperini’s autobiography as a Christmas gift, and after the first chapter I was hooked.

I won’t go into all of the details of his life, but it’s pretty easy to get the gist by reading the subtitle of his book: “A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II.”

Enough said.

I knew from the beginning that I was in for an amazing story, but every chapter contained little gems to take away and stunning descriptions of his experiences. As gripping as his whole tale was, I was primarily stricken by events he described early on in his story.

Usually when you see a biography about somebody famous you tend to skim the beginning chapters. They typically start off the same way as they talk about parents, siblings, family life, and events that don’t really seem to have much impact on the overall story. Let’s get to the good stuff. To the action. To the events that made this guy famous.

While reading the early chapters in Zamperini’s book it quickly becomes apparent that he was a rather wild kid while growing up. I was impressed by the amount of mischief he was able to find by the time he was in high school – trouble with the law, leaving home for days on end, frequent fights, to name a few of his delinquent activities.

All the while Louis’ older brother repeatedly encouraged him to become a runner at school. Louis continually shrugged off Pete’s advice. School sports were lame and they weren’t his style.

Louis on the left and Pete on the right

Finally it got to the point that Pete entered Louis into a school race when he was a freshman, forcing him to run. He didn’t do so well, but something inside him changed.

Without giving away the whole story, this moment was a game-changer for Louis. It started him down a completely different path in life that eventually took him to the 1936 Olympics as a miler who was just seconds away from breaking the 4 minute mark.

Louis’ rise to glory is expected because it says so on the cover of the book. I was impressed, though, that Louis attributed his success to his brother’s persistent encouragement, and later in the book, to God’s grace in his life.  At one point Louis quotes Luke 12:48 by saying, “To whom much has been, much will be expected.” Louis knows that he when he was younger he had been headed down the wrong path in life, getting into all sorts of trouble. And yet something so simple, having somebody who believed in him, made all the difference in the world.

Louis’ story asks us a question: Who has given much to you?

Who has made sure to let you know they believe in you? How has their encouragement affected your life? Do they know that you are grateful?

As Louis describes his life later on, he explains that he made it his goal to try encouraging others in the same way his brother had made a difference to him. He spent years working with other troubled youth to help them make better choices in life. His gratitude motivated him to action. He has made it a point to pass on the encouragement of his brother, Pete.

How have you passed it on?

Who has benefited from your encouragement? How are your following in the footsteps of those who took time to encourage you?

Louis’ brother, Pete, was lucky. He had press conferences and newspaper articles to hear how his encouragement had impacted Louis. We don’t often have that luxury. We might not ever know the impact we have on others, but we are still called to encourage others.

Take some time this week and consider those who have helped you along your way. Think about letting them know how they have impacted you. Then think about how you can be a positive impact to others.

Under the Sun

October 8, 2010 — 3 Comments

 

Commander Shepherd with members of his squad

 

Earlier this year Bioware released the second installment of their increasingly popular video game, Mass Effect. Among thousands others, I was very excited to play Mass Effect 2,and for good reason.

In the Mass Effect universe you star as Captain Shepherd, the commander of a large spaceship called the Normandy. Shepherd lives in a time where space travel is commonplace. Humans have discovered an ancient alien technology that they don’t fully understand, but it has allowed them to traverse the galaxy and find many other sophisticated sentient species. Shepherd’s task takes him to multiple planets and space stations in order to defend everything good he has known. This is all done in amazing high definition graphics with excellent voice acting by famous movie stars like Martin Sheen.

This sounds like the perfect recipe for an amazing series of video games and it is, but there’s even more. As the player, you have the ability to dictate what Captain Shepherd says to everybody in the game. There is an unprecedented about of freedom offered to the player in Mass Effect – and the game responds perfectly. You can choose to be a benevolent hero who sacrifices everything in order to save all known alien races, or you can become an evil tyrant. You can have a romantic relationship with various members or your team or you can stand alone in your fight against evil. Many of these choices are not superficial. You are sometimes forced to make literal life or death decisions in the game.

To top it off, all of these decisions carry over from the first game to the second one. So if you were evil and let various people die in Mass Effect 1, when you play the second one people will still be afraid of you. When one considers how many possible lines of dialogue must have been recorded to coincide with all the different choices available to players, it becomes overwhelming. This is a totally groundbreaking type of programming in video games.

As I played these games I was swept away by how awesome and original they were. Around the same time, I was reading some science fiction books that a friend of mine from church had recommended. The Gateway saga, by Frederick Pohl, was written in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s. I had a ton of fun reading these books and I found them to be very thought provoking. The main character was filled with weaknesses and I loved watching him grow throughout the plot that ensued.

 

Book 1 of 4... Don't judge a book by its cover!

 

I also loved the Gateway universe that Pohl had created. The Gateway novels take place in the future, in a time when humans have discovered an ancient alien technology that they don’t fully understand, but it has allowed them to traverse the galaxy and find – wait a second!

Didn’t I say the same thing just a few paragraphs ago about Mass Effect? After doing a little bit of comparison, I discovered that both Gateway and Mass Effect have a very similar back-story, strikingly similar. Both stories involve humans trying to discover why an ancient extinct alien race left an extensive amount of technology available for us to find thousands of years later. Yes, many of the specific details are different, but the overall premise is very similar.

“Big deal,” you might say. So some nerdy science fiction video game stole the story of an out-of-print science fiction novel that’s over 30 years old. Who cares?

I care.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few months now. Think about how many things are simply borrowed from other things. How many times will they remake a Superman movie? I hear they are already redoing the Spiderman movies. There are 14 Final Fantasy video games. Nintendo is notorious for remaking old video games. Like Nintendo, pastors are also notorious for using other people’s creativity, especially in preaching. I’m ashamed to admit that I know this next one… Back in the boy band craze, O-Town and the Backstreet Boys had two completely different songs and their intro was the exact same melody, just in a different key. Just click on the names of each band to hear the beginning of each song.

Even my declaration that nothing is new is not new! Close to 3000 years ago in the book of Ecclesiastes a wise teacher said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”

The author of Ecclesiastes has a point and it’s well taken.

So if nothing we do is really all that creative, then why do we bother? Why am I writing a blog? Why do I hope to one day finish a novel of my own? Why do we embark on so many creative endeavors if we know that somebody else out there has already done something similar and often better? Why do we take pride in our work? Why does it bring fulfillment to us?

I find it interesting that throughout all of human history there has never been two of the same person. Everybody is slightly different. Even twins who have the same exact DNA can end up making vastly different decisions in life. Each person is a unique combination of genetics and experiences that nobody else in the world will ever have.

If we believe the story of creation found in Genesis, then we realize that our God is a creative one. He created all that we see around us and he created each of us. He continues to create every day when people are born. God has been in the business of creating for thousands of years and he still makes original masterpieces every day.

If we believe what’s found in Genesis then we also must believe that God created us in his image. So not only is God creative, but we’ve been made to be creative as well. We’ve been knit together with specific talents, dreams, memories, and goals because God has a specific purpose for each one of us. Even though we often feel as though we don’t have it all together, God has created us and he says we are very good.

So we keep on creating things because God keeps on creating. We create because when we do we help other people learn just a little bit more about God, even if it’s already been done before. Yes, there might have already been a picture taken of that city skyline before, but there’s never been one taken by you, at that particular time, shown to that particular person who was inspired when they saw it. When people see us create something beautiful, they have an opportunity to see that God creates things, even people that are beautiful, too.

So what about you? What do you find to be easy to create? What is difficult to make for you? Do you find any roadblocks to creativity in your life? How do you overcome them when encounter them? What do you learn about God or other people when you create things?

Don’t be alarmed! Not every post will be about video games.

Gaming at its finest.

With that said, earlier this year I beat a Playstation 3 game called Uncharted 2. It’s a third person adventure/puzzle/shooting game with a plot that resembles an Indiana Jones movie. This game is absolutely gigantic in scope. The game begins with Nathan Drake, a handsome, rugged young man who reminds me of myself. He’s stuck in a train car. This car is hanging vertically over the edge of a huge snow-covered rock face in the middle of the Himalayas. You have to climb out of the battered train car before it falls into the white abyss beneath you.

The game only continues in this vain. It takes you through collapsing buildings, tropical jungles, urban firefights, humongous caverns, exploding trains, duels with helicopters armed to the teeth, and many other amazing experiences. All the while you are stuck in a love triangle with two (fictional, I know…) beautiful women, looking for ancient treasures known to impart incredible amounts of power.

What’s not to like about this game? In a behind the scenes video, one of the game developers says that in each frame of the game the PS3 is rendering about 1.2 million polygons. Most games run at about 30 frames per second. You can do the math. Just to create one individual character, the developers use 80 thousand individual tiny shapes all put together! I was astounded when I heard this.

Having stayed up too late to beat the game, I was a little ashamed of myself and I began to wish that my life were as exciting Nathan Drake’s. Why couldn’t I be out doing exciting, heroic things? Instead, I was just staying up late, playing video games, living vicariously through the creations of other people, manipulating a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that I’m not alone in this desire.

A little after beating Uncharted 2, I read a book called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller. I’ve always enjoyed whatever he’s written, especially his New York Times best-selling Blue Like Jazz. In this book, Miller explains that over time he came to realize that his life was boring. He wasn’t too content with many things about himself. If his life were turned into a movie, it wouldn’t be an exciting one. Throughout the course of the book, we see Miller take various steps to improve the story that his life tells. He shows us that God has a story to tell through each of us.

We all know what makes a good story. It has to have conflict. A character has to want something enough that they are willing to face difficult opposition in order to obtain it. You may disagree with my examples here, but some of the best stories told in books, film, or video games introduce us to people who face insurmountable odds and prevail, achieving their goals.

Look at Star Wars, Episode IV, for example. Just 30 Rebel fighters go on the offensive against the Death Star, a battle station the size of a small moon, to end the reign of the Empire. They fight against all odds to save others. In The Lord of the Rings a few Hobbits, men who are no bigger than a child, willingly journey past legions of Orcs into the bowels of Mordor, past a giant spider, to a firy volcano so they can destroy the One Ring, ending Sauron’s reign. We see this formula repeatedly in our most beloved stories: Harry Potter against Voldemort, Sarah Connor against The Terminator, Ellen Ripley against hundreds of flesh-eating acid blood-filled aliens, a few defenseless people against an island full of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and on and on…

Do I believe that our lives don’t have meaning unless we are about to die from wizards, Orcs, Stormtroopers, aliens, or terminators?

No.

But there’s something we can learn from these stories, and even Uncharted 2.

Story matters.

Throughout the Bible we see God using the imagery of story. God knows how to create a good story. If you think about it, even the story of the Gospel matches the formulas of some of our best stories. It seems as though God is stacking the odds completely against himself. Why would he come to earth in the form of an ordinary man. Why not a powerful king? Why not the richest person alive? Why even come as a man at all? And yet God comes to us as Jesus, a man who hangs out with the losers of his day and tells us to serve one another if we want to be great.

And if that isn’t enough, Jesus dies at the end! How does this make sense? I thought God was the good guy, the one who wins? When we think all hope is lost, Jesus rises from the dead and conquers even the grave. Just like any good Oscar winner, Jesus’ story keeps us at the edge of our seat until the very end, wondering how things will turn out.

But story also matters in our lives.

Good movies, books, and video games ask us a question. Are we satisfied with the story of our own lives? Does the life we live excite us? Does it excite others? What is holding you back from living a life that tells an exciting story? What have you found that helps you live an exciting life? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we all need to do daring things or work in dangerous professions to live an exciting life. However, these stories do teach us that when we live a life not just for ourselves, when we set goals that affect other people, when we take risks to serve others, our lives gain significance. When we start to make choices like these, we begin to see how Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith.