Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Review:Innovative Planning; Your Church in 4-D by Bud Wrenn and Rick Warren

 I am a geek for Church stuff and this is a geek book for pastors and other church leaders.  Most of our folks in the pews may yawn about leadership topics but this book deserves a look by the visionary leaders from congregations of all sizes.  There are a lot of planning, how-to books out there. Most are either marketplace language with a smear of scripture or a list of verses with little structure.  Wrenn and Warren bring us a book with a short, thoughtful, quotable and flexible process to move a group from theory to action.  This is a process for the church but can be applied to a family, a ministry within a local congregation, or for that matter Little League or Boy Scouting.  The book brings a systemic way to motivate a diverse group to longer range thinking.

The "4-Dimensions" are:  Visionary: asking "Where are we going?", Missional, asking "What will we do on the way?", Strategic, asking "How will it get done?"  and Tactical, asking "Who will make our dreams become action?".  The beauty of the process is the integration of  the spiritual gifts of the participants in these dimensions.  These D's form a visual for the church family, with its unique individual gifts into a mission unique to the group.  Everything moves toward doing something that invites the congregation to be both flexible and innovative.  Our medium sized congregation used the process in a one evening retreat with follow up break out groups.  The results are exciting.

This book is not another 40-Days style rigid process and  will not bring instant success.  It must be interpreted and applied to your situation.  The philosophy and theology are very sound.  It goes on my essential's shelf with the Leadership books.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Grandpa Project

I am collecting pictures of Grandpas from anyone who will send them. Thought it would make a cool book but as with most things it has been done before. So, we'll put it on the Blog and see who looks at it. I find it very interesting and worthy of our time. These will be added from time to time. Send me yours and the email address above or via Facebook.

Our first installment: P.E. Williams. I am proud to know two of his granddaughters. They are both amazing and say this....

From his granddaughter Alyce, "He had an absolute sense of right and wrong, and could just look at me and I knew he knew whatever stupid thing I'd done. He had a wicked sense of humor (I have some of that, but not like him!). He loved family intensely and was a rock for all of us in the bad times. I have always felt cheated that I did not get to know him as an adult."

And from Granddaughter, Linda Rae, "Our Grandfather Williams was a man of principal. He was a self-taught tinkerer who built a HeathKit television using a HeathKit oscilloscope he also built. The US Forest Service owns five patents for devices he developed for them. He knew everything about cars. He developed the first defensive driving course for the US Forest Service in the 1950s. He just knew things. When we did something wrong, he laughed. He knew that we knew what we had done and that we knew we would be in trouble. We didn't need a lecture. That laugh is in this picture, as dark as the picture is."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Thoughtful Pastor Blog Looks at "Soul Print" by Mark Batterson

"Soul Print" came in last Friday and sat on my table staring at me.  I leafed the book for about 10 minutes and could see that this was not the usual "pray and process" style of book that I have read to death.   I read a little about the author and his National Community Church but knew nothing really about him.   Monday was a holiday and I dug in and read the entire book while in the various doctor's offices waiting for my wife.  I found this to be fresh and focused.  "Soul Print" is only 183 pages but packed with insight that lead to "out-sight"  Batterson offers an interesting look at the importance of being the unique person that God makes you to be.
The author insists that this is not a self help book on page 2. Before the first story Batterson declares, "Self-Help is nothing more than idolatry dressed up in a rented tuxedo.  So let me be blunt; you aren't good enough or gifted enough to get where God wants you to go.  Not without His help." However, with God's help in discovering your unique self, there is "nothing God cannot do in you and through you if you simply yield your life to Him.  All of it.  All of you."  I have read dozens of "self help-fixit" books and they all add a little value but ultimately fail. They usually attempt you to fix your Self rather than discover your Self.  With God you know more about who you are and find what you can become.  Apart from God, the path is pretty rocky.  None of this is new.  However, this presentation is pretty fresh even if his writing style is a bit frantic and dis-jointed.

"Soul Print" is a mash-up of the life of David, the Old testament king, and a loose autobiography of the author set up like a theater play.  It works.  David, Mark Batterson and I journey together on a path of discovering ourselves-and must discover God first in order to do it.  The author is easy to read, doesn't take himself too seriously and is just plain funny! It is not flippant.  The book also makes its point.  Some of the lightness of the book runs the reader's thinking deep and even dark.  No spiritual stone is unturned in fresh language, little churchy jargon and well applied scripture.

You can check out Chapter One for free by going to:

I like the book and am richer for the journey.  This is not my usual fare but I am glad for the privilege of reading it.  Oh yeah, the Legal Stuff:  Multnomah press gave me this book free in exchange for this review.  would you do me a favor? Please go to this link and give me a quick rating for this review.  It just takes a moment.    I thank Multnomah for risking negative comments and you for reading my blog.

Alan Van Hooser, "The Thoughtful Pastor Blog"

Monday, February 21, 2011

Photos of the Day: The Prayer Garden

The Prayer Garden at our church is beautiful and suffered from neglect.  The more it is used, the more beautiful it grows.  Follow along with the seasons of the year and pray through all of the seasons of your heart.   It is hard to see the Hibiscus which is behind and to the left of the bench.  It froze to the ground and I cut is all the way back.  I was chastised.....Now in mid summer it is seven feet tall and flourishing.  God's beauty pushes through dead looking stalks.

We are experiencing a drought in our area but the prayer garden is exempt from the brown and dry leaves that are just beyond the gate.  May we all water our hearts with prayer and be bigger than the spiritual droughts all around us.  God has beauty for you today.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Photo of the day: Tasteful Tie

Review: In Plain Sight; Seeing God's Signature Throughout Creation by Charles R. Gordon

The myriad of devotional instruction books out there start running together after a while.  This one is different for two reasons.  First is that it comes from the perspective of a scientist and not a spiritual director or theologian.  Second is due to the fact that I can review the author and not just the work. Charley is the neurosurgeon that did a delicate back surgery on my wife last September.  He is the first surgeon that prayed with us and he exhibits Christ with integrity.

Charley Gordon, MD provides visual explosion of God's creation.  Pictures and a daily/weekly Bible reading lead the reader through the process of seeing the seen and the un-seeable.  For example, a photo of  a finger print that is paired with a photo of zebra stripes  followed by a short and sincere commentary on God's unity in diversity. With this is an invitation to set a tone for seeing our lives more clearly throughout the day.  This is more than a book full of pretty pictures or scientific oddities.  The woods are full of those.  "Plain Sight"  moves the reader to a deeper walk with God in Christ. I like the book.  It is good for the observant Christian and the seeker alike,  anyone looking for a smart, honest and spiritual way to find faith into the invisible part of creation.

The book is available through his ministry at or from Amazon.  The website also offers other articles of interest, Dr. Gordon's online journal and a newsletter.  Buy two copies.  This is one to share with someone who is seeking more of the spiritual life.   

In Plain Sight: Seeing God's Signature throughout Creation

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Top 21: Books that all Christians Should Read

We have a budding spiritual formation group that meets on Monday evenings.  Right now we are studying through "Good and Beautiful God" by James Bryan Smith-a review is on this blog.  We are a studying bunch and I was talking about my essential book that any Christian disciple should read.  This is my list and is not in any particular order.  I'll bet you have yours and I invite you to click on "comment" and add your influential books to mine.

The Holy Bible-var. human authors...Perhaps a "well-duh" moment but this is the key to it all
My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers
The Confession of St. Augustine, by Augustine
The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A' Kempis
The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence
Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
The 52 Standard Sermons, by John Wesley
John Wesley, (the Brown Book) edited by Albert Outler
The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoffer
The Wounded Healer, by Henri Nouwen
Contemplative Prayer, by Thomas Merton
No Man is an Island, by Thomas Merton
The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran (yes, I know he is an Arab)
God's Psychiatry, by Dr. Charles L. Allen
Dogmatics in Outline, by Karl Barth
Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
Sit, Walk, Stand, by Watchman Nee
The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein
Soul Feast, by Marjorie J. Thompson
Apples, Snakes and Bellyaches, by Calvin Miller

Having a favorite book is a slippery thing.  This list might be different tomorrow and I could probably put a top 100 if I got to work.  These are the ones on my shelf that I will always have a copy of.  There are many more that I love but these are my essentials.  Care to add a yours?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Picture of the day: Winter's Teeth

Winter like this is a novelty in the south....we do get over it pretty quickly.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil" by Randy Alcorn (2009 Multnomah Press)

Each book is a journey with the reader and author keep each other company.  Through this review I get to tag along with you.  Randy Alcorn offers us an invitation in "If God is Good" to change the focus from the tyranny of the crisis to a God's eye view of our suffering. This book does not reduce Evil and Suffering to easy questions, an easy journey or simplistic answers.  It is nearly 500 pretty dense pages and is pretty daunting at first glance but reads quickly.  Mr. Alcorn does give a companion for the journey to those who dare to be transformed and even healed through its process.  

One of the strengths of the book is its organization and writing.  "If" is organized into 11 sections beginning with a few pages of explanation followed by 4 or 5 supporting chapters.  Alcorn writes efficiently and he structured the sectioned to flow from defining terms, examining Evil, chapters for "non-theists", stating the character of God, the character of people, Christ's mission and remedies and answers to the basic question of "WHY".  The final section is devoted to the life application of Christ's mission.  

Alcorn is very careful with churchy jargon, though there is some, and stuffs scripture in to every corner.  At times he stands dangerously close to the trite Sunday School, "just get saved and believe" answers that too many evangelical writers end up with.  However, he balances scripture with numerous stories from faithful, modern witnesses that have lived through evil and suffering.  He stands closely to becoming a rant against the host of athiests, or as he prefers "non-theist", works that have sold well over the last few years too.  Section 2 speaks to Dawkins, Ehrman and others with solid scripturally based arguments. "If" is even structured and looks like one of these tomes. He actually read the books and spoke to the authors rather than just condemning them.  Through this broader look there is an appeal here to those who are seeking Christ beyond the coloring pages of a spiritual childhood.   For anyone adventurous enough to ask, they will find answers, or at least find the courage to ask deeper questions.  

The author's biases are present along with some of the well worn theological arguments. I speak Mr. Alcorn's language and pretty much share his world view and still find plenty of  theological nits to disagree with.  However, he has the courage to admit to ambiguity.  One example is found on page 277 where he invites the reader to "Seek to be consistent with the Bible, not with a particular theological persuasion", and to read the entire section before making any over arching decisions. He demonstrates that the Word can lead the reader in more than one direction.  This is good advice for all readers that dare to journey through a subject this dark. I didn't feel that he was beating me with a "Jesus Stick" and do feel that he trusts his readers to make a God-led choice, even if God may not be the center of the reader's understanding of life.  The author is consistent and keeps his integrity while admitting that there are other answers to some of the deeper, universal questions.  

I rate most books good or bad by how much I can borrow (or steal if you wish) for the sermon and Bible teaching process. "If" has many small bites within to help share the subject of evil and God's nature with others.  In section 10, clergy and laity alike will find words to share in ministry to the hurting.  I would like to seen Section 11 and especially the section on "Giving Comfort" page 470, given more prominence and space.  This wasn't the author's priority and there are plenty of crisis counseling books out there but it would have added value to the Church's messengers that read this book.  

Bottom line: I am better for reading it.  It is good book to inform those ministering to the wounded and proclaiming God publicly.  It does speak to the more rationalist pre-believer/non-believer but is far more effective to someone with an understanding of scripture at some level.  This is not a light weight book and requires a lot from the reader, especially a lay reader. A human guide would be very helpful to a hurting reader. He has a study guide for the book that I have not read which would probably enhance the books usability also.   "If God is Good" would make a great small group or covenant arrangement resource.  I would not simply hand it out as a " here-go and fix it" book.  

Now the legal stuff:  Multnomah Press gave me this book free in return for this review as a part of the "Blogging for Books" program.  I thank them for the book-for which they risked negative comments- and you for reading this review.  

Alan Van Hooser- you can

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"The Unthinkable:Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why" by Amanda Ripley (2008 Crown Publishing)

Our lives are marked by spiritual milestones, regardless of our concept of God, religion and spirituality.  Since August of 2005 many of my milestones have taken names like Katrina, Rita, Gustov, Humberto and Ike.  Hurricanes have been deeply spiritual events and the recovery from them have shaped my personal ministry.  I read and train in Crisis and Trauma counseling and Critical Incident response.  I do this for my own personal healing as well as preparation for moments of ministry that will come my way.  Email me for a book list if you want one but if you only read one, read The Unthinkable.

Most response and preparedness material focus on the disaster or protocols of response.  They dot in a few stories for color but the end is the same-flexible answers to what happened.  Amanda Ripley look at a wide variety of disasters from the perspective of the survivor. Answers to  "Who Survives and Why?" is her quest.  While there is no single solid answer the book's aim is to provide people who aren't in crisis at the moment a with a new way of  survivor-thinking.

Ripley is a journalist from Time Magazine.  Her perspective differs from the sociologists, theologians and psychologists that write much of this genre of books.  She is clear, concise, interesting and writes with integrity-see her comments on not paying for interviews from chapter 8 and found on page 245.  This is not the end all of disaster response and recovery but it gives a rich list of things to 'bulk up our brains' and build resiliency both as individuals and as a group.

The commentary on the relatively new science of evacuation is interesting and informs us on how to get out of a public place.  Ripley challenges notions that limit our survivability while offering a healthier way to think about crises that haven't happened yet-and for that matter may never happen.  For example, one of the key issues in the survivors of the 9-11 attack-especially the female survivors-was their shoes.  Those in practical, though not fashionable shoes, were more resilient and hence more able to get out.  As individuals were more resilient, the group became more able to survive.

Her thesis, found in the notes on page 225, offers a clear truth for students of crisis intervention and study.  She writes,  "Survivors offer our greatest hope for reconstructing disasters-not just the plot, but also the smells, the sounds, and the spontaneous acts of kindness.  Their memories of the banal and the horrifying are portals into the unknown."

This was an excellent and valuable read.  DON'T skip the introduction and the author's note.  They are important.

Alan Van Hooser

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith (Intervarsity Press, 2009)

Yet another book study handed down by the hierarchy.....  This raises my suspicion of hidden agenda etc.  I bought the book anyway to see what everyone was up to.  The first thing I noticed was that it is from the Renovare folks, led by Richard J. Foster.  His is one of my "mentors".    Foster's book, Celebration of Discipline, was a gift to this 'Protestant' and gave new life to spiritual praxis to many-it sits on my essentials shelf.  "Good" is a part of Renovare's "Apprentice Series" and comes with an online leader guide, retreat outlines and individual instructions  too.

The goal of the book is for each participant to fall in love "with the God that Jesus Knows."  Scripture is the lens that brings six attributes of God into focus.  Each lesson has a rhythm of an opening story from the author, a False narrative of an attribute, The Jesus narrative of the same, an invitation to transformation, "Soul Training"-specific actions to practice the lesson and participating in community. The topics of God's goodness, trustworthiness, generosity, love, holiness, self-sacrificing and transformation are brought into a modern/post-modern context without being disconnected from the Holy Bible.  The focus is on connection, correction and transformation

 I read the book during my personal time for a month and was richly blessed.  In our congregation we have a weekly group, organized by the leader guide, and also members reading through individually.  This is a group book in its design and intent.  But, the rhythm is bearing fruit in those who are either too bashful or too busy to take part in a group.  It is a wonderful guide for anyone's study.  By using it in personal time, the pressure to complete the lessons and training in a week is taken away.  I would like to see a Sunday School class or other group study it over several months or a year rather than the 12 week  or retreat setting

The "Soul Training", which sounds better than a "discipline",  is hard hitting, pointed and practical.  Smith avoids the usual spiritual formation jargon and breathes a fresh sense of God's spirit into these practices!  The first "discipline" to get some sleep!  Who knew that a nap could be a spiritual thing.  Others include making time for silence, making praise a habit, praying the scripture as a personal word, and more.

In my world, our congregations are organized into districts and our entire district is invited to take part in this study.  Our county has 6 congregations of our denomination and we have arranged the lessons so they can be shared, mixed and mingled by all.  We have congregations of different races and neighborhoods that have not met each other.  The study gave us an opportunity to unify around Spirit led Christian praxis. I have made some changes in my life and made some friends through the book. The rest of the Apprentice series deserves a look too.  My experience is very positive from both a personal and pastoral perspective.  Good book.

Addendum:  Our congregation completed the 12 weeks course as the group described above.  We started with 14 in the group plus three studying personally.  We ended with nine and the three.  All of the feedback was positive and we have scanned Smith's follow up study, "The Good and Beautiful Life".  We will read it in the fall.  The good news is that the group will continue beyond this book as a Bible Study.  I wished for more mixing from the other local churches but it was a good start.  Our final group was a communion service and each participant shared the biggest single impact that the book made.  Each one had a practice to add to their daily devotional life....or something to take away.  Smith planted some seeds for the future in our church.  PASTORS-Look at this seriously for your congregations.  It will not draw a big crowd but it will deepen the ones that come and develop Spirit led leaders.

Review: Paths to Prayer by Patricia D. Brown (C.2003 Jossey Bass)

I bought this book a couple of years ago at a training thing and it lingered on my "to read" shelf.  I finally read it in a hospital room when there was time on my hands.  Christian Education is trying to catch up by teaching learning styles.  Christian Leadership is trying to catch up by teaching leadership styles and Patricia Brown is pitching in by applying this type of thinking to the teaching of prayer.  Most of the text is devoted to the usual; lectio divina, journaling, icons etc.  Her take on these is fresh but predictable.  On the first glance they are just the usual things with the usual jargon.  This is why it sat on my shelf for so long.  It is now on my essential shelf with Augustine and Wesley.

The jewel of "Paths"  is her simple and usable prayer style assessment.  She gives 40 question survey, at the beginning, that breaks your preferences down into four styles-Searching, Experiential, Relational and Innovative. I scored pretty close across the styles but scored highest in Innovative.  The traditional methods/technique are then categorized into these styles.  Rather than serving one prayer "dish" to everyone, she lays out a buffet by type and allows the reader to choose.  I find the book very usable and helpful in both learning and teaching the inner journey's arts.

Two things are said in the book but should be stated very strongly.  First, this is a great book for a small group but not so good for a solitary beginner.  Any disciple, whether teacher or learner, can benefit.  It is more of a technical how-to than a process of growing into prayer but that is ok, especially with the dynamic of a covenant group.  The book is what it is meant to be.  This leads to the second important point-"Paths" gives the reader a starting point in discovering or deepening Christian prayer in the life of a Christian disciple.  This is a crucial element in living.  However, simply knowing your style is not the end goal but a thoughtful place to take stock and ask yourself where you are in Christ and where are you going.

For those who are not Christian, the book still has value.  Though we may not agree on the Christ we can agree on the connection that comes through prayer.  Prayer is something we can agree on, in other words.  The book gives a Christian perspective on spiritual practice and it meets my needs as such.  Perhaps this book also brings a touch-point for those within the diversity of the Christian faith as well as those who do not embrace it at all.  May it bring a dialog on the life in Christ to us all.