Best Read in Small Doses: “Gifts from Heaven” Book-Review

I might have called this “God’s Answers to Prayer”, rather than “Gifts from Heaven”. I chose it because last year, I reviewed “Jesus Talked to me Today” (also by James Stuart Bell) and really enjoyed it. This is the same format, with numerous short stories of how God intervenes in people’s lives. I found the second half more inspiring than the first; “A Precise Prayer for Healing” and “Race to the Bottom” really stood out, but a good proportion of these stories were health-related and It can be demoralising to read so many accounts of health-problems.

I looked forward to my complementary copy from Bethany House, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend reading this from cover to cover. Probably his previous offering had more appeal because it was about children.

No, Lord

We looked last time at Peter’s encounter with God, and how the Holy Spirit filled Cornelius’ household as a result. After this, Peter had to explain to the other believers what took place. Here he is talking about his vision: “I saw something that looked like a big sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. It came very close to me. I looked inside it and saw animals, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds. I heard a voice say to me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘No, Lord! I have never eaten anything that is unholy or unclean.’ But the voice from heaven spoke again, ‘God has made these things clean, so don’t call them unholy’” (Acts 11:5-9).

No, Lord.

Don’t those words seem incongruous? ‘Lord’ means master, and if someone truly has mastery over you, you don’t say no to them. Earlier in Peter’s life, he famously tried to do a similar thing. In Matthew 16, Jesus gives His followers a heads-up about His suffering and death, but Peter takes Him aside and says: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to You!” (Matthew 16:22).

Jesus’ response is often quoted. “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to Me” (Matthew 16:23). Peter went from support to stumbling-block because his attitude was Satanic, pushing out God’s agenda in favour of a human one.

Are there times in your life (as there are in mine) when you’ve effectively said, ‘No, Lord’? Maybe He’s asked you to give up chasing a dream and instead hand it over to Him, but ‘No, Lord; I still want to hold on’. Maybe He wants you to do something, but you know you’ll face opposition. Two quotes come to mind – one from Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”), and something my pastor said several years ago that’s stuck: “It’s never a waste if you’re doing it for the Lord.”

What if our ‘No, Lord’ turned into a ‘You know best, Lord’?

Peter the People-Pleaser

In my last post, you heard that Peter went back to his old way of living, but Jesus met him there, talked to him and restored him. You almost want to put a little sentence after that: “And they all lived happily ever-after.” Except Peter was a human being just like us, and when we become Christians, we don’t all live happily ever-after. We can have some amazing moments; Peter certainly did. I think particularly of the day the Holy Spirit filled him, he preached a sermon and three thousand people put their faith in Jesus, but he also had a deep-seated prejudice to iron out along the way.

You see, God’s kingdom wasn’t exclusively Jewish; it was open to all. We read in one of Paul’s letters that through His death, Jesus broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and non-Jews/Gentiles (Ephesians 2:14). As a Jew himself, Peter would have been brought-up with all their preconceptions. Jews didn’t associate with Gentiles (they believed doing so would desecrate them). In fact, many held the view that their Messiah’s coming would herald victory for them and judgment for everyone else, so this was a big lesson God had to teach Peter. He did it by sending him to the house of Cornelius, a non-Jew, to tell him about Jesus, but first He had to prepare Peter’s heart. He showed him a vision of animals, all of which were unclean by Jewish standards, and told him to kill and eat them. “God has made these things clean, so don’t call them unholy” (Acts 10:15). Peter soon discovered his vision concerned more than food; it was about people. The servants Cornelius had sent took him to the house and God’s Holy Spirit filled them all, Jews and non-Jews alike. Peter had learnt his lesson … or had he?

Paul later wrote about an incident in a place called Antioch. Peter had been happily eating with the other believers, whatever their backgrounds, until some fellow-Jews came along. (It’d be a bit like me ambling along at my own pace, until someone I admire pays a visit and I shift myself up a gear.) Peter wanted the approval of these men and immediately conformed to their expectations, associating only with the Jewish believers. Paul saw his hypocrisy and challenged him because he was trying to follow a set of man-made rules, when in fact he already had right standing with God through his faith in Jesus Christ. Peter was being a people-pleaser, putting the approval of men before the approval of God. It’s good to have someone like Paul in our lives, who’ll put us right when we’re going off-track.

What lessons has God been teaching you? Maybe you’re a bit like Peter. He’s taught you something, but you’ve tripped up and He’s had to teach you all over again. If that’s true, don’t be discouraged. The main thing Peter’s remembered for is being a close friend of Jesus. Stay close to Him, and He’ll make sure you get to the finish. “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end” (Hebrews 12:2).

Going Back

I wrote last time that “Peter left his old life behind in favour of all that Jesus had for him” and yes, he did, until after Jesus was crucified. This Jesus he followed was arrested, beaten, stripped, nailed to a cross, and left to die. Peter was there at the time of His arrest and even tried to defend Him, but Jesus wouldn’t allow it. Clearly, Peter thought if he couldn’t escape, he would also be condemned. In that context, standing in the high priest’s courtyard, he denied several times that he knew Jesus. Some time later, he told his friends: “I am going out to fish” (John 21:3) – the ultimate rebuff. It was like saying: This new life, this being sent out to bring people close to God, it had nothing to offer me after all; I’m going back to what I knew, but as the rest of the chapter tells us, that’s the exact time Jesus spoke with him and sent him out all over again.

Harking back to your old life – the days before you were a Christian; the things and people you left behind – is generally a sign of discontent with the new one. In fact, Jesus says: “Anyone who begins to plough a field but looks back is not prepared for God’s kingdom” (Luke 9:62). I’ve had times where I’ve wanted to get away from my problems and felt God hasn’t done it for me, so I’ll escape onto YouTube to take my mind off it, but the safest place to go back to is His love. On 2 October 1999, God said in my heart: “Come because I love you.” That’s what I need to remember.

Jesus talked about this coming back to love in His letter to the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:2-5): “I know what you do, how you work hard and never give up. I know you do not put up with the false teachings of evil people. You have tested those who say they are apostles but really are not, and you found they are liars. You have patience and have suffered troubles for My name and have not given up.

“But I have this against you: You have left the love you had in the beginning. So remember where you were before you fell. Change your hearts and do what you did at first. If you do not change, I will come to you and will take away your lampstand from its place.”

The first question in the Bible was “Where are you?” and it’s always one worth considering. Do I really believe God will come through for me? Am I just going through the motions? Have I forsaken my first love – stopped loving God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength? If I have, I need to go back: Back up the beach like Peter, to that time with Jesus.

Jesus Never Said, “You are a Sinner”

In my previous post, we looked at the call of Peter in Luke 5:1-11. In verse 8, Peter says to Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!” Hearing those words, it struck me: It wasn’t Jesus who said, “You are a sinner”; it was Peter who acknowledged his sinfulness.

In fact, Jesus never said “You are a sinner” to anyone.

But what about the woman who was caught committing adultery? John 8:3-11. In her case, He said: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” He had a problem with the way she was living, not with her as a person.

I was reminded of a book I read recently – “Out of a far Country”. It’s about Christopher – a former homosexual drug-dealer who became a Christian. He wrote about Leviticus 18:22 – the part in the Bible where it says: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” When he actually read the verse, Christopher discovered it was an abomination. He and his friends had always got the message from Christians that they were an abomination, but it wasn’t them as people God hated; it was the act of homosexuality. I’m deeply sorry that for so many years, he carried around the wrong message, and considered himself unwelcome and unloved. I think that’s why it’s so important for me and my Christian family to know what the Word of God says, and to give people the right idea of God and how He feels about them.

If you’re in a place today where you’re thinking: “Go away from me, Lord. I’m full of sin!” how about following Peter’s example? When Jesus told him not to be afraid and offered him a new life, Peter left his old life behind in favour of all that Jesus had for him.

The Thing They had to Offer

Have you ever had a moment when you were reading two books at the same time, and there seemed to be a recurring theme? This happened to me with Renee Swope’s “A Confident Heart Devotional” and Kenneth E. Bailey’s “Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes” (and by the way, I would thoroughly recommend both).

Day 44 in Renee’s devotional really stuck with me because it’s written with such empathy. It’s about Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well, who was from Samaria, and Renee calls her Sam because “it makes her feel more like the woman she really was.” In John 4:7, Jesus asked her for a drink. Renee writes: “Jesus asked Sam for the one thing she had to offer.” Coming to the well at the hottest part of the day to escape the accusations of others, she must have felt she had nothing to give, but sitting by a well, there was one thing she did have – water.

In chapter 11 of “Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes”, Bailey concentrates on the call of Peter. Peter (initially known as Simon) was a fisherman, who became one of Jesus’ closest friends. In Luke 5:3, Jesus asked Simon to row a little way from shore, then He sat in the boat and taught the people. Bailey writes that Luke’s readers will know Peter ‘Owes Him one’ because Jesus had just healed his mother-in-law, but there was more to it. Jesus was requesting Peter’s help – his considerable rowing skills. Peter didn’t have anything else; he’d just fished all night and caught nothing, but he did have his boat, and the ability to row. I was instantly reminded of Sam … and the one thing she had to offer.

Have you considered that Jesus could be asking the same of you – that ‘Thing you have to offer’, whatever it might be? For me, I think one of those things is my love of words, and the desire to share what I’ve learnt with others. I don’t know what it is for you, but are you willing to use it for the glory of God?

“Bible Trivia, Jokes, and Fun Facts for Kids” Book-Review

I might have called this “The Bible Joke and Quiz Book”. In places it’s not clear whether the author’s in joke or fact mode, and I’m not sure what age-group it’s aimed at. For instance, the most memorable joke – Why did Moses have a hard time as a baby? He was in de-nial – wouldn’t be easily understood by a 5-year-old. There are certain words the author explains, such as ‘Lame’, but then he’ll use ‘Prophet’ or ‘Apostle’ with no explanation. The reference to NFL teams is also a mystery to anyone living outside of the US.

On the positive side, it’s a very good concept to have questions parents can ask their children. I’m reviewing the eBook, and I don’t think it works in this format. It would work well as a hard copy so that someone could cover up the answers.

Considering the book as a whole, there were parts I liked, particularly the section on Jesus’ disciples, but there were also some discrepancies, E.G. Troy Schmidt says King Nebuchadnezzar saw an angel in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; however, many Christians believe this 4th figure was not an angel, but Jesus. Schmidt also claims Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm in the Bible with 150 verses; it actually has 176.

Bethany House were kind enough to give me a complementary copy in exchange for my honest review. While I wouldn’t recommend this book in its entirety, it may hold some useful ideas for parents; they might just want to have a Bible handy to check the facts.

We Three Magicians?

In the church calendar, today is Epiphany – the day when we think about the wise men following a star to Bethlehem to worship the baby Jesus, and that carol is sung. You know the one:
Star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright;
Westward-leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light
.

I do like some of its truths: Gold for kingship; frankincense for a deity; myrrh as a reminder of the kind of death He would die, but you won’t catch me singing the first verse. I hate it with a passion: Firstly because they weren’t kings and nowhere in the Bible does it say there were three of them, but it’s more than that. I don’t like it because it takes away from who they really were and what that means.

The ministry Telling the Truth once released a box set called “Coping with Christmas”. I bought the series on CD and would recommend it. In their message about the wise men or Magi, they said the first four letters of that word gave us a clue: Magi … magic. In Biblical books like Daniel, when it came to distant nations (E.G. Babylon), their ‘Wise men’ were magicians and astrologers. Very likely, these were too.

I find that amazing because in the Law Moses wrote for the Jews, God had something to say about magic and astrology: “Don’t let anyone use magic or witchcraft, or try to explain the meaning of signs” (Deuteronomy 18:10). “The LORD hates anyone who does these things. Because the other nations do these things, the LORD your God will force them out of the land ahead of you.

“The nations you will force out listen to people who use magic and witchcraft, but the LORD your God will not let you do those things” (Deuteronomy 18:12, 14). Astrology and magic aren’t what God wants for His people, and living like that, they (or we in our generation) aren’t right in God’s sight.

But the story of the Magi is so awesome because God didn’t toss them aside or give up on them. When they weren’t living right before Him, He met them where they were at. They studied the stars for guidance, so the Messiah’s star appeared in the east. When they bowed down and gave Jesus their worship, it was a call to a changed life – a life centred around this new-born King they’d come to see.

* * *

Perhaps this Epiphany, it’s worth celebrating that God offers the same to us. If you accept His offer, you can say with me and with Paul: “We should have suffered God’s anger because we were sinful by nature. … But God’s mercy is great, and He loved us very much. Though we were spiritually dead because of the things we did against God, He gave us new life with Christ” (Ephesians 2:3-5).

My One Word for 2017

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to do this again. Last year, my word was Restoration and although in some areas the restoration process has started, I didn’t leave 2016 feeling completely restored.

Taking a brief look at last year’s post, activity-wise, I mentioned I wanted to do more outside the house and try to organise something different once a month. Well, nine out of twelve ain’t bad. Some particular highlights were the Stuart Townend concert in April, my meeting with Damon Hill in June, the first-ever ChristianityWorks conference in October (shared between ChristianityWorks and GNBA), and my Christmas present to Mum – a trip to York in December for the carol concert at Yorkminster.

When it came to community, I was finding it difficult at my church with the size of its congregation. I did celebrate their move to new premises, but left halfway through the year to try a smaller church. This is a better fit for me – much easier to figure out who’s who, and where they are. Meeting new people and opening up to them can be hard. I want to be known and respected, even though I haven’t been there long enough to earn their respect, but I’m grateful for their patience and the way they’ve welcomed me.

I also touched on exercise, but I’m not back into a good exercise routine yet. I did join a gym, but the pain I sometimes experience meant I was having to finish early, which didn’t work well with taxies etc. I’m still working on this.

* * *

So that’s why I was unsure about a word for 2017, but I prayed God would show me if He wanted me to have one. At church on Sunday, I got my word. And it is?

Shelter

During the worship, my friend felt God was saying we were a shelter for many. 2017 would be a year of shifting sand for people, but our dependence on God and His Word could be an anchor for them.

Can you picture it – people coming to us because they see Jesus living in us? “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3). This was a challenge, and made me see the importance of staying strong in God. Who wants to come to a crumbling shelter? I’m thankful that in Christ all things hold together, but I need to take responsibility too. As Paul says to the church at Colosse: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Colossians 2:6).

I’m a shelter for God (a place where He lives through His Spirit), I’m a shelter for others, and God is a shelter for me. “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:15-17).

Top 10 Books of 2016 + Some Upcoming Reads

Goodreads is great, though the app is much easier to use than the website. It’s fun to set myself a reading challenge and tick them off as I go through the year. I’m sure I’ve read more books because of it. These are a few that impressed me:

10. “21 Seconds to Change Your World”

About the prayer Jesus taught and the 23rd Psalm. This stayed with me because they’re Bible-passages I wouldn’t have ordinarily put together, but I saw their similarities, and the seconds they take to say can be life-altering. There are several books on prayer I’d still like to read. One is “Living the Serenity Prayer”. This is my mum’s favourite prayer and she’s been living it ever since I was born premature and one of twins.

9. “God is a Matchmaker”

Dealt with the topic of marriage extensively, even considering the way bride and groom interact with their parents – a subject rarely discussed in similar books. In 2017 I want to read “Sacred Marriage” by Gary Thomas because I’ve seen it quoted so many times, and I bought it when it was on offer.

8-7.

I’ve read several of Annie Downs’ books this year. “Let’s all be Brave” is a skilful piece of writing, with the chapters presented in pairs – the bravery of perseverance, or of letting go; the courage to say yes, and how saying no can be just as courageous. Because I loved this so much, I tried “Perfectly Unique”, even though it was written for teenagers. Really it would be just as good for adults. It’s the best book I’ve seen on glorifying God with your whole body. The only one of Annie’s I haven’t read is “Speak Love” – again because it was written for teenagers, but now I won’t let that put me off.

6. “God is Just not Fair”

Written by Jennifer Rothschild, who lost her sight when she was fifteen, this book about her wrestling with hard questions was hugely helpful and encouraging. Next I’d like to read “Mum’s List” – a list written to a husband and sons by their wife and mother, who was dying of cancer. I heard the husband interviewed on local radio and he sounded so nice, it made me want to buy the book.

5-4. Children

This year I reviewed “Jesus Talked to me Today”, which was better than expected. I also read a book I’d never heard of called “Touching Heaven” because I had an Email to say it was reduced, and I really enjoyed Leanne’s accounts of helping children in her hospital chaplaincy work. One child-focused book on my list for 2017 is “Always Enough: God’s Miraculous Provision Among the Poorest Children on Earth”.

3. “Watching the Wheels”

Written to a tight deadline, there are a few mistakes in this, but it’s an in-depth look at Damon Hill and how his early life shaped him as a person. The way he described depression is spot-on; I even shared it on Facebook with a link to the book. (I don’t know whether it got him any more readers, but Damon, I tried!) Aside from Formula One, I found some novels about NASCAR that I’m looking forward to: The RPM series by Chris Fabry. I had no idea he’d written so many books!

2-1. Novels

I read for the first time this year “Redeeming Love” by Francine Rivers (a modern-day take on the Biblical story of Hosea), and “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti (about the battle between good and evil). “The Visitation” looks another good one from Frank, and there are lots by Francine Rivers I haven’t got around to yet.

What were your best books of 2016 and why?