Tag Archives: faith

Review: Joy that Renews, by Steve Akerson

Cover of Joy that Renews: A devotional from Psalms to refresh your life every day, by Steve Akerson.

Joy that Renews, by Steve Akerson (River Birch Press, 2021)

These devotions brim with infectious joy and confident trust in our Lord.

Taking one verse from each of the Bible’s 150 psalms, Joy that Renews invites readers to grow deeper in their relationship with God. The daily devotionals focus on God’s goodness and love and on themes like living in freedom, thankfulness, and listening to God. Although the Psalms were written many years before Christ, they contain much that points to Jesus.

Each day’s reading begins with a title, a one-line summary, and then the Scripture, a brief application, and a heartfelt response. The conversational, transparent style makes for easy reading and relatability. The author uses The Passion Translation, which puts oft-familiar verses in a fresh light.

Anyone familiar with the psalms as a whole is aware that they’re not all light and jubilant. Some are laments, and some groan with deep pain and affliction. One of the points Steve Akerson draws from these heavier psalms is that “You will always have a big choice in your life—either to focus on your problems or on God’s goodness. That choice will make a tremendous difference in the quality of your life and on those around you.” [Day 22, “Chased by Goodness,” Hoopla edition page 61]

And “It is good for you to praise Him, even if your praise is accompanied by tears and sorrows.” [Day 31, “Turn Distress Upside Down,” Hoopla edition page 77]

I appreciate how, whatever the circumstances, this book turns the focus back to God and His goodness. This helps strengthen our faith and leads us into worship. I also appreciate the encouragement to listen to God with expectancy—the more we train our spiritual ears to recognize His voice, the closer we’ll walk with Him. Or, as Day 110, “Listen—God is Talking,” says, “His words will bring richness to your soul.” [Hoopla edition page 253]

These daily readings blessed me, and I’ll be marking Joy that Renews as a book to read again. The book is also available in print and digital format from many online venues.

Author Steve Akerson is one of the Prayer Team leaders at Hosanna Church in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. For more about the author and his book, and to request the free study guide that accompanies it, visit joythatrenews.com.

[Review copy from Hoopla.]

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Review: Holding On When You Want to Let Go, by Sheila Walsh

Cover art: Holding On When You WAnt to Let Go, by Sheila Walsh

Holding On When You Want to Let Go, by Sheila Walsh (Baker Books, 2021)

Subtitled “Clinging to Hope When Life is Falling Apart,” this book takes a candid and compassionate look at the struggles that can make us want to let go and give up. And it takes a clear-eyed look at the God who holds us in His care even when life really does seem to be falling apart.

Each chapter opens with a verse of Scripture and a relevant quote. The first five address the main things that threaten to overwhelm us: feeling like life’s out of control, feeling alone, when God is silent, when we’re afraid, and when we’ve messed up.

This is an easy to read, conversational-style book that feels a little bit like we’re sitting with the author over coffee. Sheila Walsh doesn’t write “down” to us in an instructorly way. Instead, her personal stories and those she shares from others prove she has the credibility to write about this. She’s been there, and is still there, just as we are. But she’s learned some solid strategies to keep holding on.

Those strategies are the focus of the second half of the book: learning to focus on the God who is holding us. We read about His promises, His character, and he amazing things He has done for us. The invitation is to actually let go… and to be held by the One who won’t let go.

Favourite lines:

I still felt like that five-year-old girl who was afraid of being known. What if someone saw the crack in my soul. [page 78]

The simple act of thanksgiving reminds us that God is with us and that He is in control. [page 103]

If life is making you feel like letting go or if you just want a little reassurance, this book can be a helpful resource. I love how it keeps pointing back to God and to His Word.

Sheila Walsh is an author, speaker, and teacher who I first discovered in my younger years through her music. Scottish-born, she makes her home in the US. For more about the author and her ministry, visit sheilawalsh.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Is It Trust or Denial? (Guest Post)

Pink tulips with text "Trust v Denial"
Image by Ralf Kunze from Pixabay
Image by Ralf Kunze from Pixabay

Is It Trust or Denial?

by Steph Beth Nickel

Do people who always seem at peace with whatever life may throw at them drive you crazy?

(Psst, that’s a rhetorical question. You don’t have to share your answer. Maybe not so rhetorical actually … since you probably should answer it for yourself.)

Let me transport you back in time three decades or so. When I was a brand new mom, my family and I moved to a new city.

There were members in our new church home who were going through what I then considered unimaginable hardships, including one family whose young son had succumbed to cancer. As the mother of a two-and-a-half-month-old baby boy, I couldn’t imagine why God would bless a family with a child and then take that child away.

Oh, I could recite the cliches! But I didn’t know any of them to be true—not deep down in my heart.

As time went by and I got to know some of these people better, I realized they weren’t just spouting platitudes but actually trusted that God knew what was best—even when their situation was difficult and heartbreaking.

Trust, especially trust in the God of All Comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3), is a remarkable and precious thing.

But what we think is trust can actually be denial, a squashing of our feelings, doubts, and fears.

This summer, my second son is getting married. Because of COVID, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to attend the ceremony. (He and his bride-to-be live two provinces away.)

I’ve braced myself for this pretty much since Joshua informed me that he and Ericka had set a date. Still, it was more with a sense of fatalism than acceptance that I dealt with the reality of the situation.

And then, one day, I decided to be completely honest with myself. While I may have locked away my emotions, it didn’t mean they weren’t there. It didn’t mean that, if I gave them permission, the tears wouldn’t fall. It didn’t mean that I was truly accepting that God knows best in this, and every, circumstance.

COVID has taken many lives, and my heart goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one or is facing an ongoing battle with this horrific virus.

But, as we all know, COVID has struck a fatal blow in other areas as well—job security, relationships, our peace of mind, and on and on and on.

There’s no denying it.

And yet, there is light in the darkness, hope in the despair, trust in the denial.

But the way to find real peace is not by denying the struggles we face—physical, emotional, and spiritual.

We don’t need to cling to platitudes or cliches.

We don’t need to deny how we feel—or that we’ve locked away our emotions.

We don’t need to paste on a happy face and pretend we’re a-okay.

But if we want to come to the place of authentic trust, we must press in and get to know the God of All Comfort better than we ever have before.

That’s what I plan to do. How about you?

Steph Beth Nickel
Steph Beth Nickel
Photo of Steph Beth Nickel
Photo credit: Jaime Mellor Photography

Steph Beth Nickel is an editor, writer, and birth doula. If you would like more information about her services, you can contact her at nurtureandinspire@gmail.com;
join her Facebook group:
 https://www.facebook.com/groups/2725853534313738;
or visit her website-in-progress: nurtureandinspire.com.

Review: Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan

Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan (David C Cook, 2018)

I’ve read some impactful Christian nonfiction this year, but this book may be the most crucial.

Francis Chan writes here with a gentle, prayer-steeped tone, knowing some of what he has to say can sound hard and may be misused.

He actually pleads with readers not to use his words to berate leaders who may not be doing the best they could. And he confesses those times he’s been where some of those leaders may be. (He does warn readers who discover they’re in a church with false teaching to find a Bible-based church right away!)

So now you’re wondering what kind of book this is. It’s the result of the author’s study of what church looked like in the Book of Acts and what it looks like in other parts of the world today.

He challenges readers to “slow down long enough to marvel” [page 5] about Who God is and who we are in Him, advising, “don’t try to solve the mystery; just stare at it.” [page 7]

Chapters address wonder, pleasing God first, prayer, leadership, suffering, attitudes, and more. The focus is on simplifying, going back to the Gospel basics, and developing into an intimate capital-C Church family. The model is house churches, but it has plenty of insights and challenges that readers can apply in established building-based churches as well.

Favourite lines:

Remember it’s not about what I would like, what others would like, or what “works.” Church is for Him. [page 150]

My hope is that you will refuse to take the easy route. You need to care about His Church enough to fast and pray. You must believe you play a necessary role in the Church. [page 151]

One of the key takeaways is that each member of the church has a role to fulfill and that everyone working together is the church. The shepherds are to be training up other shepherds, not raising complacent sheep.

Francis Chan built and shepherded a megachurch in California before God called him and his family to missions in various parts of Asia. At the time of this book’s publication they were back in the United States, planting and growing house churches as part of wearechurch.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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In Search of Joy and Wisdom (Guest Post)

Red heart with a puzzle piece missing.
Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

In Search of Joy and Wisdom

by Steph Beth Nickel

In the English Standard Version, James 1:2-5 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”

I can almost guarantee we’re all going through a trial of some description. Thankfully, as believers, we can cling to the promises in this passage.

It won’t be easy. And the full effect of steadfastness won’t happen overnight, but we can rest assured that God will be with us each step of the way. And I need that assurance right now. How about you?

In the early days, COVID-19 exacerbated my tendency to procrastinate to a full-on “What’s the use?” attitude.

With God’s help, I pushed through … although I still have a tendency to put things off. However, I no longer believe my efforts to forge ahead are essentially futile.

And then George Floyd and the racial divide spotlighting the need for God-honouring forgiveness and reconciliation.

In Ontario, churches have been allowed to reopen with restrictions. You would think this would be a cause for celebration, that we would delight in the opportunity to be together again. And while that’s the case to a certain extent, we are witnessing everything from those staying away because of fear to those who think we should completely disregard the governments directives.

We have come to realize we don’t know one another as well as we thought.

Enter social media. Facebook, in particular, has become a place where we hurt one another because of the hurt we’ve been carrying, the hurt that those who attend church with us may not be aware of.

Enter, once again, the “What’s the use?” mindset.

Why would I explain myself? What good would it do?

Why would I share my perspective with that particular person? Their mind is already made up.

Why would I voice my opinion? It will only cause an argument.

Or the other extreme …

Why shouldn’t I voice my opinion? I want to start a conversation. (Sadly, this “conversation” often devolves into something completely emotion-driven and just causes more hurt—especially if posted online.)

After 35+ years in the same church, I have seen countless hurts and disagreements. Those are unavoidable. I get that.

But what do you do when one person you love and care about wounds another but you haven’t witnessed it firsthand?

You want to submit to authority.

You don’t want to cause division.

But you believe we, as the body of Christ, could be more than this, more genuine, more authentic, more loving.

I long for the day when beloved brothers and sisters don’t simply disappear into the night as it were.

However, in all this, I must cling to James 1, trusting God to work it all out not only for me but also for all those involved.

When we face trials and heartbreak, we can count on God’s promises.

When we just don’t know what to do or say, we can ask for wisdom and trust Him to provide it.

It may be cliché, but “God’s got this!” And boy, am I glad!

Tweetables:

The full effect of steadfastness won’t happen overnight. (click to tweet)

God will be with us each step of the way. (click to tweet)

What do you do when one person you love and care about wounds another? (click to tweet)

When we face trials and heartbreak, we can count on God’s promises. (click to tweet)

When we just don’t know what to do or say, we can ask for wisdom and trust God to provide it. (click to tweet)

Steph Beth Nickel
Steph Beth Nickel
Photo of Steph Beth Nickel
Photo credit: Jaime Mellor Photography

Steph Beth Nickel is an editor, writer, and birth doula. If you would like more information about her services, you can contact her at nurtureandinspire@gmail.com;
join her Facebook group:
 https://www.facebook.com/groups/2725853534313738;
or visit her website-in-progress: nurtureandinspire.com.

Review: Silent Shadows, by Natalie Walters

Silent Shadows, by Natalie Walters (Revell, 2020)

A single mother hiding from a gang. Her young son. And a military intelligence officer discharged with an unexplained movement disorder that causes seizure-like muscle contractions.

Pecca Gallegos loves her job as a nurse at the Home for Heroes. Her son, Maceo, is unhappy at school. And Captain Colton Crawford, her newest patient, may be what they both need—if he can see beyond his limitations.

Maceo has a prosthetic leg and what seems like an impossible dream to play football. Helping him may be what Colten needs to help himself.

My personal preference is for an understated romantic thread, so I found Pecca and Colton’s swoony thoughts about one another a little much in the first half. That said, their first true date was definitely an “aww” moment.

And there’s a lot to like in this story. I appreciated the clean suspense and the frank wrestling with the tension between faith and painful circumstances. I also enjoyed the camaraderie among the “D-Wing” patients. Team dynamics, belonging, and purpose play an important part in the book, along with faith and second chances.

Favourite lines:

You look at yourself as less than. Is that the message you want your life to reflect? [Kindle location 3755]

“…Allow yourself to believe that even though this isn’t how you planned your life, it doesn’t mean it’s not exactly where you need to be.” [Kindle location 3761]

Silent Shadows is book 3 in the Harbored Secrets romantic suspense series. I haven’t read the previous books, but had no trouble settling into this one. Books 1 and 2 are set in the same town of Walton, Georgia, but feature different characters.

Natalie Walters’s author bio says that she “comes from a long line of military and law enforcement veterans and is passionate about supporting them through volunteer work, races, and writing stories that affirm no one is defined by their past.” For more about the author and her books, visit nataliewalterswriter.com.

[Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.]

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Review: Grace in Deep Waters, by Christine Dillon

Book cover: Grace in Deep Waters, by Christine Dillon

Grace in Deep Waters, by Christine Dillon (Links in the Chain Press, 2019)

Should Blanche go home? But how can she resume life with her legalistic husband now that her growing faith conflicts with his dogma? And while he denies their shared grief over their daughter’s death?

William didn’t even go to the funeral. And he denies the existence of their other daughter, Rachel, who left home many years ago at 15.

Grace in Deep Waters is book 3 in the ongoing Grace series (there are more books to come). New readers can start here and not feel lost, but I’d recommend starting at the beginning with Grace in Strange Disguise.

The women in this series develop a faith that’s nothing like the showy façade William has drilled into them. When life circumstances hit—and hit hard—Esther, Rachel, and Blanche each discover a truer Christianity and make the hard choices to live for God’s honour instead of living to satisfy or defy William’s rules.

William is proud, self-centred, and unyielding. Author Christine Dillon does a fine job of letting readers into his head to understand him and develop enough compassion to hope he’ll change.

Part of the novel is his story: will he change or harden himself further? Can he change, even if he wants to?

Another part is a beautiful observation of Blanche, a fallible woman growing in her faith and trying to find a healthy way to grieve.

Is this a depressing novel? Not at all. It’s heartwarming, inspiring, and it can challenge us to prayerfully make better choices in our own lives.

Favourite lines:

She’d let fear bind her. What might life be like if she walked free? [Kindle location 288]

The kid turned around and gazed at  him with a piercing eye a high school principal would die for. [Kindle location 2159]

Anyone who thinks Christian fiction is light and fluffy or dry like a dusty sermon needs to read Christine Dillon’s Grace series. The faith message is strong and clear yet presented organically through the characters’ thoughts and decisions, leaving readers free to draw their own conclusions. The questions are real and deep.

In Grace in Strange Disguise, the challenge was “what happens when the prayer of faith doesn’t heal?” In Grace in the Shadows, it’s “how—and why—would God love me, after what I’ve done?” In Grace in Deep Waters, characters wrestle with grief, marital breakdown, and that contentious issue, submission.

As the characters wrestle, readers can wrestle, too. This isn’t a series that hands out easy answers. Discussion guides are available on the author’s website, for book clubs or individuals who want to dig deeper.

Christine Dillon is a missionary whose tag-line is “multiplying disciples one story at a time,” and the author of the Grace fiction series. She has also written non-fiction books about the Bible storytelling approach. For more about the author, visit storytellerchristine.com.

[Review copy provided by the author.]

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Review: Grace in Strange Disguise, by Christine Dillon

Grace in Strange Disguise, by Christine DillonGrace in Strange Disguise, by Christine Dillon (2017)

Esther Macdonald is diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at age 28 – shortly before her wedding. Her fiancé doesn’t know how to handle it, and he’s too busy with his own reactions to take an interest in supporting her.

Her father’s even worse. He’s the polished pastor of the second-largest church in Sydney, Australia, and this is not in his script. When prayer doesn’t heal Esther, he blames her for harbouring sin or doubt.

Her mother is a more supportive, but having lived in the shadow of Esther’s father for so long, she doesn’t dare offer much in the way of original thought.

Help comes from an outspoken cleaning lady at the hospital, who overhears Esther’s frustration with God for not healing her. This lady, Joy, dares to suggest that asking in faith isn’t the only ingredient in a miracle.

Determined to prove her wrong, Esther searches in her Bible for the examples Joy gave. Reading more than her father’s sound-bites of Scripture opens her eyes to the context of his “victory” verses.

Joy becomes Esther’s mentor and friend, and shares Bible events with her through storytelling and simple, thought-provoking questions.

At this point you may be thinking “too preachy for me” and that the novel would read like a sermon. Not so – yes, faith and Scriptural themes are part of the plot, but it’s all driven by Esther’s situation and her need for answers.

Nothing is forced or dry. Instead, it’s one of those stories that kept me thinking about the characters when I wasn’t reading.

Esther is easy to care about, even in the beginning when she’s not operating from a place of truth. Readers see for themselves the flaws and blind spots in the characters and in the excuses Esther habitually makes for them until she begins to change.

Esther’s health crisis and the resulting fallout in her family make her a character we can care about, and seeing her learn to stand up for herself and apply truth to her life is encouraging. What’s heart-warming is to see her begin to share what she’s found with others. Non-Christians won’t get that part, but Christians will be inspired to look for more opportunities to share with the people around them.

The medical details have been carefully researched, and they’re sparingly revealed as Esther needs to know them. No information dumps here. The story is set in 1995, so some things will have changed in the real world. The only thing I was surprised not to see included was discussion of a prosthesis or reconstructive surgery after Esther’s mastectomy. Even if that’s not something that her body would have yet been ready for, she’d likely have asked. Side note: in Australia, radiation treatment is called radiotherapy. I like that much better – sounds less frightening.

Although the novel’s focus is relationships, another bonus is its setting. While most scenes take place inside, there are a few ventures into Australia’s gorgeous outdoors. I don’t expect to ever get there, so the virtual visit was a treat.

Favourite lines:

She might feel full of cracks but somehow her learned patters of behaviour were holding her together. Like a broken egg bound with string. [Kindle location 705]

The habit would have to be fought. It wouldn’t just roll over and die. [Kindle location 2187]

Christine Dillon has previously published the non-fiction books 1-2-1 Discipleship and Telling the Gospel Through Story, but Grace in Strange Disguise is her first novel. It doesn’t read like a first novel, and I hope we won’t have too long a wait for the next book in the series, Grace in the Shadows.

For more about the author, her books, and her Bible storytelling ministry, visit storytellerchristine.com. You’ll also find discussion questions for her novel.

[Review copy provided by the author.]

Review: The Forgotten Way, by Ted Dekker

The Forgotten Way, by Ted Dekker | #Christianliving #meditations #Christianity #faithThe Forgotten Way, by Ted Dekker (Outlaw Studios, 2015)

Most readers know Ted Dekker for his Christian fiction, but The Forgotten Way is a collection of 21 non-fiction meditations on “The path of Yeshua for power and peace in this life.”

With detailed reliance on Scripture, the author invites readers to discover and believe the Truth (about God and ourselves), the Life, and the Way. The readings focus on who God is, how He sees us, and how we can begin to believe His truth about ourselves instead of clinging to our temporal, human perspective. Beginning to believe this helps us live as His beloved children in this world without investing our identity solely in the world. This liberates us from a great deal of fear.

Readers are well advised to take time to read every Scripture end-note as flagged in the text, since they often have additional insights attached. There is a companion study guide, which includes the same Scriptures and a few application questions, but it’s more useful to see these quotations and notes in context of the specific portions of the meditations to which they refer.

The Forgotten Way stretched my thinking, and while I gained much, I’ll be following the author’s closing advice to go back and read the book again for a deeper understanding. There were a few minor points I didn’t entirely agree with, but that may be due to the particular words used. A second reading may help.

I did read carefully, and prayerfully, alert for anything that would lead me astray (although having heard Ted Dekker speak, I already respected him as one who seeks truth). Although the concepts are expressed in a different way than I was used to, there was no sense of treading dangerously. Instead, key points matched what I’d heard stated other ways by other teachers.

The individual study bundle comes with brief audio clips expanding on each day’s meditation, plus a few longer podcasts addressing key topics. I saved the longer ones for the end and haven’t yet listened to them.

The Forgotten Way is available for individual or group study. For more details or a taste of the contents, see theforgottenway.com/welcome. It’s not available in stores, and for those shopping outside the US, the shipping is quite expensive. I opted for the study pack, and while I didn’t feel the study guide book added a lot to the experience, I’ve valued the audio resources, and I’d recommend going for the study pack if possible.

Ted Dekker is a New York Times best-selling author of intense Christian fiction and more recently, historical fiction from the time of Christ. For more about the author, visit teddekker.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Grace for the Good Girl, by Emily P. Freeman

Grace for the Good Girl, by Emily P. FreemanGrace for the Good Girl, by Emily P. Freeman (Revell, 2011)

This is a book for all the women whose honest desire to be good sets up impossible expectations and leads to hiding behind facades and fearing to be found out. Anxiety grows, and we struggle in our own strength instead of learning to rely on God. Hence the subtitle: “Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life.”

The author says, “Somewhere along the way, I got the message that salvation is by faith alone but anything after that is faith plus my hard work and sweet disposition” (page 13). Many of us fall into that trap, and Grace for the Good Girl can help us reset.

One of my favourite lines is about giving ourselves “permission to sit down on the inside and live like I have a God who knows what He’s doing” (page 65).

The book is in three sections: the hiding (in which we find out how we’re not alone in this after all), the finding, and the freedom of being found. It ends with a small group leader’s guide for an eight-week study.

Emily P. Freeman writes with transparency and candour about her own struggles, and shares the stories of other “recovering good girls.” The book is easy to read and encouraging. It points us back to relying on the character and grace of God, and to learning to live by faith instead of by feeling. It addresses core issues like anxiety, identity, emotions, and self-reliance, and while you likely won’t recognize yourself on every page, don’t be surprised to relate to at least a few of the stories.

The “try-hard life” is exhausting. Grace for the Good Girl points to freedom. Emily P. Freeman has also written A Million Little Ways and Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. For more about the author and her ministry, visit emilypfreeman.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]