Sunday, September 27, 2009

TOUR: "Three Weddings and a Bar Mitzvah" by Melody Carlson

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Three Weddings & a Bar Mitvah

David C. Cook (2009)


Melody Carlson has published more than one hundred books for adults, children, and teens, with many on best-seller lists. Several books have been finalists for, and winners of, various writing awards, including the Gold Medallion and the RITA Award. She and her husband live in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and have two grown sons.

Visit the author's website.

Three Weddings and a Bar Mitzvah, by Melody Carlson from David C. Cook on Vimeo.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 320
Vendor: David C. Cook (2009)
ISBN: 1589191080
ISBN-13: 9781589191082


Megan Abernathy

“Okay, then, how does the second Saturday in June look?” Anna asked her housemates.

Megan frowned down at her date book spread open on the dining room table. She and Anna had been trying to nail a date for Lelani and Gil's wedding. Megan had already been the spoiler of the first weekend of June, but she'd already promised her mom that she'd go to a family reunion in Washington. Now it seemed she was about to mess things up again. “I'm sorry,” she said, “but I promised Marcus I'd go to his sister's wedding. It's been scheduled for almost a year now, and it's the second Saturday too. But maybe I can get out of it.”

Lelani just shook her head as she quietly rocked Emma in her arms, pacing back and forth between the living room and dining room. The baby was teething and fussy and overdue for her afternoon nap. Megan wasn't sure if Lelani's frustrated expression was a result of wedding planning or her baby's mood.

“Is it possible you could do both weddings in one day?” Anna asked Megan.

“That might work.” Megan picked up her datebook and followed Lelani into the living room, where she continued to rock Emma.

“Or we could look at the third weekend in June,” Anna called from the dining room.

“Shhh.” Megan held a forefinger over her lips to signal Anna that Emma was finally about to nod off. Megan waited and watched as Emma's eyes fluttered closed and Lelani gently eased the limp baby down into the playpen set up in a corner of the living room. Lelani pushed a dark lock of hair away from Emma's forehead, tucked a fuzzy pink blanket over her, then finally stood up straight and sighed.

“Looks like she's down for the count,” Megan whispered.

Lelani nodded. “Now, where were we with dates?”

“If you still want to go with the second Saturday,” Megan spoke quietly, “Anna just suggested that it might be possible for me to attend two weddings in one day.”

“That's a lot to ask of you,” Lelani said as they returned to the dining room, where Anna and Kendall were waiting expectantly with the calendar in the middle of the table and opened to June.

Megan shrugged as she pulled out a chair. “It's your wedding, Lelani. You should have it the way you want it. I just want to help.”

Anna pointed to the second Saturday. “Okay, this is the date in question. Is it doable or not?”

Lelani sat down and sighed. “I'm willing to schedule my wedding so that it's not a conflict with the other one. I mean, if it can even be done. Mostly I just wanted to wait until I finished spring term.”

“What time is Marcus's sister's wedding?” asked Anna.

“I'm not positive, but I think he said it was in the evening.” She reached for her phone.

“And you want a sunset wedding,” Kendall reminded Lelani.

“That's true.” Anna nodded.

“But I also want Megan to be there,” Lelani pointed out.

“That would be helpful, since she's your maid of honor,” said Anna.

Megan tried not to bristle at the tone of Anna's voice. She knew that Anna had been put a little out of sorts by Lelani's choice--especially considering that Anna was the sister of the groom--but to be fair, Megan was a lot closer to Lelani than Anna was. And at least they were all going to be in the wedding.

“Let me ask Marcus about the time,” Megan said as she pressed his speed-dial number and waited. “Hey, Marcus,” she said when he finally answered. “We're having a scheduling problem here. Do you know what time Hannah's wedding is going to be?”

“In the evening, I think,” Marcus said. “Do you need the exact time?”

“No, that's good enough.” Megan gave Lelani a disappointed look. “I'll talk to you later, okay?”

“You're not thinking of bailing on me, are you?” He sounded genuinely worried.

“No, but we're trying to pin down a time and date for Lelani.”

“It's just that I really want my family to meet you, Megan. I mean all of my family. And I want you to meet them too.”

“I know, and I plan to go with you.”

“Thanks. So, I'll see you around six thirty tonight?”

“That's right.” Megan told him good-bye, then turned to Lelani with a sigh. “I'm sorry,” she told her. “That wedding's at night too. Maybe I should blow off my family reunion so that you--”

“No.” Anna pointed to the calendar. “I just realized that the first Saturday in June is also my mother's birthday.”

“So?” Kendall shrugged. “What's wrong with that?”

Megan laughed. “Think about it, Kendall, how would you like to share your wedding anniversary with your mother-in-law's birthday?”

Kendall grinned. “Oh, yeah. Maybe not.”

“How about a Sunday wedding?” suggested Megan.

“Sunday?” Lelani's brow creased slightly as she weighed this.

“Sunday might make it easier to book the location,” Kendall said. “I mean, since most weddings are usually on Saturdays, and June is a pretty busy wedding month.”

“That's true,” agreed Megan.

“And you gotta admit that this is short notice for planning a wedding,” added Kendall. “Some people say you should start planning your wedding a whole year ahead of time.”

“Marcus's sister has been planning her wedding for more than a year,” Megan admitted. “Marcus says that Hannah is going to be a candidate for the Bridezillas show if she doesn't lighten up.”

They all laughed.

“Well, there's no way Gil and I are going to spend a year planning a wedding.” Lelani shook her head. “That's fine for some people, but we're more interested in our marriage than we are in our wedding.”

“I hear you.” Kendall laughed and patted her slightly rounded belly. She was in her fifth month of the pregnancy. They all knew that she and her Maui man, Killiki, were corresponding regularly, but despite Kendall's high hopes there'd been no proposal.

“I really don't see why it should take a year to plan a wedding,” Megan admitted. “I think that's just the wedding industry's way of lining their pockets.”

“So how much planning time do you have now anyway?” Kendall asked Lelani. “Like three months?”

“Not even.” Lelani flipped the calendar pages back. “It's barely two now.”

“Which is why we need to nail this date today,” Megan said. “Even though it's a small wedding--”

“And that remains to be seen,” Anna reminded her. “My mother's list keeps growing and growing and growing.”

“I still think it might be easier to just elope,” Lelani reminded them. “I told Gil that I wouldn't have a problem with that at all.”

“Yes, that would be brilliant.” Anna firmly shook her head. “You can just imagine how absolutely thrilled Mom would be about that little idea.”

Lelani smiled. “I actually thought she'd be relieved.”

“That might've been true a few months ago. But Mom's changing.” Anna poked Lelani in the arm. “In fact, I'm starting to feel jealous. I think she likes you better than me now.”

Lelani giggled. “In your dreams, Anna. Your mother just puts up with me so she can have access to Emma.”

They all laughed about that. Everyone knew that Mrs. Mendez was crazy about her soon-to-be granddaughter. Already she'd bought Emma all kinds of clothes and toys and seemed totally intent on spoiling the child rotten.

“Speaking of Emma”--Kendall shook her finger--“Mrs. Mendez is certain that she's supposed to have her on Monday. But I thought it was my day.”

“I'm not sure,” Lelani admitted. “But I'll call and find out.”

“And while you've got Granny on the line,” continued Kendall, “tell her that I do know how to change diapers properly. One more diaper lecture and I might just tape a Pamper over that big mouth of hers. Sheesh!”

They all laughed again. Since coming home from Maui, Kendall had been complaining about how Mrs. Mendez always seemed to find fault with Kendall's childcare abilities. In fact, Mrs. Mendez had spent the first week “teaching” Kendall the “proper” way to do almost everything.

To be fair, Megan didn't blame the older woman. Megan had been a little worried about Kendall too. But to everyone's surprise, Kendall turned out to be rather maternal. Whether it had to do with her own pregnancy or a hidden talent, Megan couldn't decide, but Kendall's skill had been a huge relief.

“Now, back to the wedding date,” said Lelani.

“Yes,” agreed Megan. “What about earlier on Saturday?”

“Oh, no,” Anna said. “I just remembered that I promised Edmond I'd go to his brother's bar mitzvah on that same day--I think it's in the morning.”

Lelani groaned.

“Edmond's brother?” Megan frowned. “I thought he was an only child. And since when is he Jewish?”

“Remember, his mom remarried,” Anna told her. “And Philip Goldstein, her new husband, is Jewish, and he has a son named Ben whose bar mitzvah is that Saturday.” She sighed. “I'm sorry, Lelani.”

“So Saturday morning is kaput,” Megan said.

“And Lelani wanted a sunset wedding anyway,” Anna repeated.

“So why can't you have a sunset wedding on Sunday?” Kendall suggested.

“That's an idea.” Megan turned back to Lelani. “What do you think?”

Lelani nodded. “I think that could work.”

“And here's another idea!” Anna exclaimed. “If the wedding was on Sunday night, you could probably have the reception in the restaurant afterward. I'm guessing it would be late by the time the wedding was over, and Sunday's not exactly a busy night.”

Lelani looked hopeful. “Do you think your parents would mind?”

“Mind? Are you kidding? That's what my mother lives for.”

“But we still don't have a place picked for the wedding,” Megan said.

“I have several outdoor locations in mind. I'll start checking on them tomorrow.”

“We'll have to pray that it doesn't rain.” Megan penned 'Lelani and Gil's Wedding' in her date book, then closed it.

“Should there be a backup plan?” asked Anna. “I'm sure my parents could have the wedding at their house.”

“Or here,” suggested Kendall. “You can use this house if you want.”

Anna frowned. “It's kind of small, don't you think?”

“I think it's sweet of Kendall to offer.” Lelani smiled at Kendall.

“I can imagine a bride coming down those stairs,” Kendall nodded toward the staircase. “I mean, if it was a small wedding.”

“I'll keep it in mind,” Lelani told her. “And your parents' house too.”

“It might be tricky getting a church reserved on a Sunday night,” Megan looked at the clock. “And speaking of that, I better get ready. Marcus is picking me up for the evening service in about fifteen minutes.” She turned back to Lelani. “Don't worry. I've got my to-do list and I'll start checking on some of this stuff tomorrow. My mom will want to help with the flowers.”

“And my aunt wants to make the cake,” Anna reminded them.

“Sounds like you're in good hands,” Kendall sad a bit wistfully. “I wonder how it would go if I was planning my wedding.”

“You'd be in good hands too,” Lelani assured her.

“Now, let's start going over that guest list,” Anna said as Megan stood up. “The sooner we get it finished, the less chance my mother will have of adding to it.” Megan was relieved that Anna had offered to handle the invitations. She could have them printed at the publishing company for a fraction of the price that a regular printer would charge, and hopefully she'd get them sent out in the next couple of weeks.

As Megan changed from her weekend sweats into something presentable, she wondered what would happen with Lelani's parents when it was time for the big event. Although her dad had promised to come and was already committed to paying Lelani's tuition to finish med school, Lelani's mom was still giving Lelani the cold shoulder. Make that the ice shoulder. For a woman who lived in the tropics, Mrs. Porter was about as chilly as they come. Still, Lelani had friends to lean on. Maybe that was better than family at times.

“Your prince is here,” Kendall called into Megan's room.

“Thanks.” Megan was looking for her other loafer and thinking it was time to organize her closet again. “Tell him I'm coming.”

When Megan came out, Marcus was in the dining room, chatting with her housemates like one of the family. He was teasing Anna for having her hair in curlers, then joking with Kendall about whether her Maui man had called her today.

“Not yet,” Kendall told him with a little frown. “But don't forget the time-zone thing. It's earlier there.”

“Speaking of time zones,” Lelani said to Marcus. “Did I hear you're actually thinking about going to Africa?”

Marcus grinned and nodded. “Yeah, Greg Mercer, this guy at our church, is trying to put together a mission trip to Zambia. I might go too.”

“Wow, that's a long ways away.” Kendall turned to Megan. “How do you feel about that?”

Megan shrugged as she pulled on her denim jacket. “I think it's cool.”

“Are you coming with us to church tonight, Kendall?” Marcus asked. “Greg is going to show a video about Zambia.”

“Sorry to miss that,” Kendall told him. “But Killiki is supposed to call.”

“Ready to roll?” Megan nodded up to the clock.

He grinned at her. “Yep.” But before they went out, he turned around. “That is, unless anyone else wants to come tonight.”

Lelani and Anna thanked him but said they had plans. Even so, Megan was glad he'd asked. It was nice when Kendall came with them occasionally. And Lelani had come once too. Really, it seemed that God was at work at 86 Bloomberg Place. Things had changed a lot since last fall.

“So are you nervous?” Marcus asked as he drove toward the city.

“Nervous?” Megan frowned. “About church?”

“No. The big interview.”

Megan slapped her forehead. “Wow, I temporarily forgot. We were so obsessed with Lelani's wedding today, trying to make lists, plan everything, and settle the date … I put the interview totally out of my mind.”

“Hopefully, it won't be out of your mind by Monday.”

“No, of course not.”

“So … are you nervous?”

Megan considered this. It would be her first interview for a teaching job. And it was a little unsettling. “The truth is, I don't think I have a chance at the job,” she admitted. “And, yes, I'm nervous. Thanks for reminding me.”

“Sorry. Why don't you think you'll get the job?”

“Because I don't have any actual teaching experience.” She wanted to add duh, but thought it sounded a little juvenile.

“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

“But starting in middle school, just a couple of months before the school year ends? Don't you think they'll want someone who knows what they're doing?”

“Unless they want someone who's enthusiastic and energetic and smart and creative and who likes kids and had lots of great new ideas and--”

“Wow, any chance you could do the interview in my place?”

“Cross-dress and pretend I'm you?”

She laughed. “Funny.”

“Just have confidence, Megan. Believe in yourself and make them believe too. You'd be great as a middle-school teacher.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because I remember middle school.”


“And most of my teachers were old and dull and boring.”

“That's sad.”

“And I would've loved having someone like you for a teacher.”


He chuckled. “Yeah. If I was thirteen, I'd probably sit right in the front row and think about how hot you were, and then I'd start fantasizing about--”

“Marcus Barrett, you're pathetic.” Just the same, she laughed.

“What can I say? I'm just a normal, warm-blooded, American kid.”

“Give me a break!” She punched him in the arm.

“Is that your phone?” he asked as he was parking outside of the church.

“Oh, yeah, a good reminder to turn it off.” She pulled it out to see it was Kendall. Megan hoped nothing was wrong. “Hey, Kendall,” she said as Marcus set the parking brake. “What's up?”

“Guess what?” shrieked Kendall.

“I have no idea what, but it sounds like good news.” She stepped out of the car.

“Killiki just called.”

“That's nice.”

“And he asked me to marry him!”

Megan raised her eyebrows and looked at Marcus as he came around to meet her. “And you said yes?”

“Of course! Do you think I'm crazy?”

“No. Not at all. Congratulations, Kendall. I mean, I guess that's what you say.”

“So now we have two weddings to plan.”

Megan blinked. She walked with Marcus toward the church entry. “Oh, yeah, I guess we do.”

“And I'm getting married in June too!”

“That's great, Kendall. I'm really, really happy for you. And Killiki seems like a great guy.”

“He is! Anyway, we just looked at the calendar again. And we finally figured that I should just get married the same day as Lelani, only I'll get married in the morning. That way we'll all be able to go to both weddings.”

“Wow, the same day?”

“Otherwise, you'll be at your reunion or Marcus's sister's wedding. Or Anna will be at the bar mitzvah. Or Lelani and Gil will be on their honeymoon.”

“Oh, that's right.”

“And I want all of you there!”

“Yes, I suppose that makes sense.”

“It'll be busy, but fun.”

“Definitely.” Then Megan thanked Kendall for telling her, and they said good-bye. Megan closed her phone and just shook her head. “Wow.”

“Kendall's getting married?” asked Marcus as he held the church door open for her.

“Yes. Can you believe it?”

“Good for her.”

“And her wedding will be the same weekend as your sister's and the same day as Lelani's.”

Marcus held up three fingers and wore a perplexed expression. “Three weddings in one weekend? That's crazy.”

“Yep.” Megan nodded. “Three weddings and a bar mitzvah.”

“Huh?” Marcus looked confused, but they were in the sanctuary, and Megan knew she'd have to explain later.

©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. Three Weddings and a Bar Mitzvah by Melody Carlson. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.

I am very sorry, but I do not yet have a review for this book. When I ordered it, I didn't realize that it was the 4th book in a series (somehow I missed that). I just thought it sounded like a cute book that I'd like to read.

But, upon picking up the book and digging in, I was completely lost just in the first few pages. I didn't know the characters or the events being referenced to. I gave it my best shot, but I just couldn't continue... the lack of knowledge made it hard to enjoy the book, or even to get into the story.

So, what I'm going to do is go back and hunt down books 1-3, read those, and then go back to reading this one (book 4). I will then post my review here.

Again, my sincerest apologies. I will be sure to read my emails more carefully from here on out. :-?

Friday, September 25, 2009

TOUR: An Eye For An Eye by Irene Hannon

“Extraordinary writing, vivid scenes and surprise ending
. . . a not-to-be-missed reading experience.”
—Romantic Times

From award-winning author Irene Hannon comes another romantic suspense novel in her bestselling Heroes of Quantico series: An Eye for an Eye.

Perfect for readers of Dee Henderson and Kristen Heitzmann, An Eye for an Eye is a fast-paced tale of romance, suspense, and intrigue that will keep readers glued to each page. Even acclaimed author Dee Henderson said of Hannon, “I found someone who writes romantic suspense better than I do.

In An Eye for an Eye, Mark Sanders is a member of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team—the nation’s most elite civilian fighting force. But after an accidental shooting at a tense standoff, he is sent to St. Louis to work as a field agent and get his bearings while the bad press settles.

Just weeks away from returning to Quantico, Mark has a chance encounter with his first love, Emily Lawson. But their reunion is cut short by a sniper. Now Mark must find the shooter before he strikes again. But what is his motive—and who was his intended target? As they search for answers, the peril escalates. Can Mark put the pieces together, keep Emily safe, and rekindle a relationship at the same time?

Can their relationship survive a killer set on vengeance?

Irene Hannon is the author of more than thirty novels, including the bestselling Against All Odds. Her books have been honored with the coveted RITA Award from Romance Writers of America, the HOLT Medallion, and the Reviewer’s Choice Award from Romantic Times BOOKreviews magazine. Irene and her husband make their home in Missouri.

Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, offers practical books that bring the Christian faith to everyday life. They publish resources from a variety of well-known brands and authors, including their partnership with MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) and Hungry Planet.

For more information, visit


Ms. Hannon is a fantastic writer. The dialogue was realistic and flowed smoothly, and the suspense was intense. It's a well-written story, with a very detailed and interesting plot. I enjoyed the chemistry between Mark and Emily, and the banter between Mark and his fellow agents.

It's such a pleasure to read a book like this, where everything just fits together so well, and the editing has been done properly -- there weren't any spelling or grammar mistakes (at least none that I noticed, anyway! LOL).

Overall, this was a great book, and I look forward to reading more books in this series! ;)

Rated: B+

Available September 2009 at your favorite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

TOUR: The Great Christmas Bowl by Susan May Warren

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

The Great Christmas Bowl

Tyndale House Publishers (August 17, 2009)


Susan May Warren is the award-winning author of seventeen novels and novellas with Tyndale, Steeple Hill and Barbour Publishing. Her first book, Happily Ever After won the American Fiction Christian Writers Book of the Year in 2003, and was a 2003 Christy Award finalist. In Sheep’s Clothing, a thriller set in Russia, was a 2006 Christy Award finalist and won the 2006 Inspirational Reader’s Choice award. A former missionary to Russia, Susan May Warren now writes Suspense/Romance and Chick Lit full time from her home in northern Minnesota.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers (August 17, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1414326785
ISBN-13: 978-1414326788


I’ve always been a football fan, the kind of woman who could easily find herself parked on the sofa any given Sunday afternoon, rooting for my favorite team. I’ve never been a gambler, never played fantasy football, never followed my team during the hot summer months. I’m a fall-season-until-Super-Bowl-only fan, but die-hard nonetheless. Something about investing my emotions for three hours in the fate of eleven men dressed in purple tights soothes my busy spirit.

Having given birth to three sons, I dreamed I’d have the makings of a starring offensive lineup. My oldest son, Neil, would play quarterback; Brett would be a running back; and my youngest, Kevin, would be a wide receiver. My daughters and I would lead cheers from the stands. My husband, Mike, who had played in our hometown high school and helped bring them to state in his senior year, would help coach. We’d be a football family, training with weights and running in the off-season. We’d plan our vacations around summer practices, and I’d join the booster club, maybe sell raffle tickets, even host the end-of-the-year potluck.

If girls could have played football in our tiny town, I know that Brianna and Amy would have joined the team. They became my cohorts, huddling under stadium blankets and clapping their mittens together as we cheered our high school team to victory.

Alas, Neil joined chess club, and Brett became a lead in the school plays.

The football gene seemed to have eluded even our youngest son. A boy who would rather sit on the sofa moving his thumbs in furious online game playing as his only form of exercise, Kevin didn’t possess even a hint of interest in football. I knew he’d inherited some athleticism, as evidenced by the discarded sports equipment left in his wake over the years: hockey skates, pads, helmet, basketball shoes, a tennis racket, a baseball glove. All abandoned after one season of hopeful use.

The only sport that seemed to take had been soccer. For three years I entered into the world of soccer mom, investing in my own foldout chair and a cooler. Perhaps it was his boundless energy that allowed him to play nearly the entire game, but Kevin had a knack for getting the ball in the net. Too bad our community soccer program ended at sixth grade, because Big Lake might have had its very own star. I’d hoped his interest would transfer to football, the other fall sport, but the old pigskin seemed as interesting to Kevin as cleaning his room.

Meanwhile, Neil, Brett, Brianna, and Amy graduated and moved out of the house, bound for college—most obtaining scholarships, much to the relief of my overworked, underpaid EMT husband. By the time Kevin moved into Neil’s basement teen hangout room, Neil was married and working as a CPA in Milwaukee, Brett was doing commercials in Chicago, Brianna had started graduate school for psychology, and Amy was studying abroad in London.

I worried for Kevin as he approached his senior year, envisioning him taking on a post–high school job at the local Dairy Queen while he honed his gaming skills, waiting for his future to somehow find him in the dark recesses of our basement amid his piled dirty clothing, his unmade bed, and the debris of pizza cartons. How I longed for him to grow up.

So the day he came home from school clutching a medical release form for football in his hand, I wondered if perhaps he had a high fever and needed immediate hospitalization.

“I’ve been thinking of playing for a while,” he said, shrugging. “It’s my last chance.”

Summertime had begun its slide into fall, the northern nights cooling. In two short months, we’d have our first snowfall. As I stared at my son—his stringy blond hair, his muscles that just needed toning, the way his gaze slid away from me and onto the floor—I wondered if he expected me to say no.

I took the pen and signed the form without reading it.

Teenage sons are often difficult to encourage. Instead of erupting into a wild jig of joy in the middle of the kitchen, I took the subtle route. I purchased football cleats and set them by the door to his room. I filled his water bottle every morning, packing it with ice, then slipping it into his backpack. I started baking pot roasts and cutting him the largest piece. I bought Bengay, put it on his pillow. I set vitamins out for him at breakfast.

And sometimes, yes, I snuck up in my SUV and sat at the edge of the field, behind the goalposts, watching practice.

My son had talent. A lot of talent. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Our residence in a small town played to Kevin’s odds, and being bigger and faster than most of his teammates made up for his inability to block. Coach Grant started him at tackle, then moved him to fullback, then, after noting his ability to twist out of a hold (thanks to years of wrestling for the remote control with his brothers), landed him at tailback.

To my silent glee, my son had the moves of Walter Payton and could dance his way up the field, leaping opponents, breaking tackles, and generally restoring my faith in the Wallace family football gene. I couldn’t wait for the season to start. Finally, I had a Big Lake Trout.

I purchased a season pass. A stadium cushion. A foam finger.

I was the first one in the gates on the day of the season opener. Mike stood on the sidelines next to the requisite ambulance, something that I’d always noted but never fully appreciated until now.

He waved to me as I plopped down my cushion, pulled my red and black stadium blanket over my knees, and wrestled out my digital camera, prepared to capture every moment of my son’s magnificent run to victory. Mike had taken Kevin out for dinner the night before for what I hoped would be a pep talk/strategic-planning session. I wasn’t the only one holding tightly to silent hopes.

“You’re here early.”

I looked up from reviewing shots of Brianna’s college graduation to see Bud Finlaysen greeting me from the field. Bundled in orange hunting coveralls as an undergarment, he wore over the top the shiny black and silver costume of the Big Lake Trout team mascot. Bud had served as the Trout since what I assumed was the dawn of time, or at least the game of football, and we needed him like summer needs lemonade. He and his fish costume comprised the entirety of our cheerleading squad. Our cheerleaders had defected three years prior, and despite the efforts of our paltry pep band, we were woefully lacking in sideline team spirit.

Bud held his headpiece under one arm, the gargantuan mouth gaping open. When worn, his face showed through the open mouth, the enormous fishy eyes googling out from atop his head, a spiky dorsal fin running along his back. He’d shove his hands into two front fins that sparkled with shiny silver material. The costume split at the bottom for his black boots, and a tail dragged behind him like a medieval dragon. Once fitted together, the Big Lake Trout towered nearly eight feet tall, although with the tail, it easily measured over ten. Ten feet of aquatic terror.

“I have a son playing tailback,” I said, holding up my camera and taking a shot of Bud. “Gotta get a good seat.”

Bud laughed. I remembered him from the days when I attended Big Lake High. He worked as the school janitor. Even then he seemed ancient, although he must have been only twenty years or so older than I was. Thin, with kind blue eyes and a hunch in his back, he’d drag his yellow mop bucket around the halls singing Christmas carols, even in May.

“Maybe this will be the year they go to state,” he said, pulling on his giant head. “They’ve got some good players.” He gave me a little wink, as if to suggest Kevin might be one of them.

I smiled, but inside I longed for his words to be true.

State champions. The Super Bowl of high school sports. I could barely think the words.

Bud moved up the field, where he stood at the gate, waiting for the team to pour out onto the field. I waved to friends as the stands filled. In a town of 1,300, a Friday night football game is the hot ticket. A coolness nipped the air, spiced with the bouquet of decaying leaves and someone grilling their last steaks of the season.

The band, a motley crew that took up four rows of seats, assembled. I hummed along as they warmed up with the school fight song.

Town grocer Gil Anderson manned the booth behind me and announced the team. I leaped to my feet in a display of disbelief and joy as the Trouts surged out of the school and onto the playing field.

Each player’s hand connected with one of Bud’s fins on the way to the field.

I spotted Kevin right off, big number 33. He looked enormous with his pads. As he stretched, I noted how lean and strong he’d become over the past six weeks of training. I held my breath as he took the sidelines, wishing for a start for him. To my shock, he took the field after the kickoff, just behind the offensive line.

I’ve never been one to hold back when it comes to football. I cheered my lungs out, pretty sure the team needed my sideline coaching. And when Kevin got the ball and ran it in for a touchdown, I pounded Gretchen Gilstrap on the shoulders in front of me. “That’s my son!”

She gave me a good-natured thumbs-up.

We won the game by two touchdowns and a field goal. As Kevin pulled off his helmet and looked for me in the stands, his blond hair sweaty and plastered to his face, I heard Bud’s words again: “Maybe this will be the year they go to state.”

What is it they always say? Be careful what you wish for?


“Amazing run on Friday!”

“I didn’t know your son could play football!”

“Kevin has his father’s moves—I remember when Mike took them all the way to state!”

I love my church. I stood in the foyer, receiving accolades for birthing such a stupendous athlete, smiling now and again at Kevin, who was closing up shop at the sound board that he ran every Sunday. Mike had already gone to get the car—his favorite “giddyap and out of church” maneuver. I still had more compliments to gather.

After all, Kevin had been a ten-pound baby. I get some credit.

I worked my way to the fellowship hall to pick up my empty pan. With eighty members, sixty attendees on a good Sunday, we took turns hosting the midmorning coffee break. I had whipped up a batch of my grandmother’s almond coffee cake.

Pastor Backlund stood by the door, and when I finally reached him, he grinned widely. “Great game, Marianne.”

“Thanks. I’ll tell Kevin you said so.”

“Must be strange to have your youngest be a senior this year.”

I was trying not to think about that, but yes, although I was thrilled to see Kevin move off the sofa and onto the playing field, I was dreading the inevitable quiet that would invade our home next year. I smiled tightly.

“I hope that will leave you more time to get involved at church?” His eyebrow quirked up, as if I’d been somehow delinquent over the past twenty-five years. I was mentally doing the math, summing up just how many years in a row I’d taught Sunday school, when he added, “Would you consider taking on the role of hospitality chairperson?”

“Hey, Mom!” Kevin appeared beside me. “Can I head over to Coach’s for lunch? A bunch of guys are getting together to talk about the game.”

I glanced at him, back to the pastor. “Sure.”

“Perfect,” Kevin said, disappearing out the door.

“Wonderful,” Pastor Backlund said, reaching for his next parishioner.

Mike, now spotting me, leaned on his horn.

I’d have to call the pastor later and politely decline his offer to let me take command of the weekly coffee break, the quarterly potluck, and most importantly, the annual Christmas Tea. The hospitality position came staffed with women decades older than I, who could teach even Martha Stewart a few things about stretching a budget and creating centerpieces. I’d rather lead a camping trip for two hundred toddlers through a mosquito-infested jungle.

“Be back by supper!” I hollered to Kevin as he slid into his friend’s sedan. He didn’t even look back.

I climbed into our SUV next to Mike. His thoughts had already moved on, probably to the training he would attend next weekend. Or maybe just to lunch. We rode home in silence. I noticed how the brilliant greens of the poplar trees had turned brown, the maples to red, the oaks to orange. The wind had already stripped some of the trees naked.

I could admit that my leaves had started to turn. But I wasn’t ready to shed them yet.

I pressed my lips together and silently begged the winter winds to tarry.

Excerpted from The Great Christmas Bowl by Susan May Warren. Copyright © 2009 by Susan May Warren. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

***NOTE*** I didn't get a copy of this book, as I was too late in asking for one. But, Susan is one of my favorite authors, so I thought I'd post the tour, anyway. ;) Eventually I'll get to read this one. :)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

TOUR: No Idea by Greg Garrett

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

No Idea

David C. Cook (2009)


Greg Garrett is a popular writer, teacher, speaker, workshop/retreat leader, and media guest. The critically acclaimed author of the novels Free Bird, Cycling, and Shame, the memoir Crossing Myself, numerous nonfiction books on faith, culture, and narrative, and an array of essays, articles, reviews, and lessons, Greg is also a primary writer for the Scripture project The Voice. An award-winning professor of English at Baylor University, Greg serves the church as Writer in Residence for the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and as a lay preacher at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.

Visit the author's website.

No Idea, by Greg Garrett from David C. Cook on Vimeo.

Product Details:

List Price: $12.99
Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 208
Vendor: David C. Cook (2009)
ISBN: 1434767965
ISBN-13: 9781434767967


No Idea

At the Ranch

It's sometimes a challenge to know where to start a story. My fiction-writing students are always asking me where to begin, and I usually tell them, “As late as possible. Right when things start to happen and not a moment before.”

Of course, when you're telling your own story, it can be harder to know exactly when that moment occurs. Is it in the big events of our lives, the births and deaths?

Or is it the moment that you have a realization that changes you?

It had been raining all afternoon at Ghost Ranch, sometimes just a spatter of drops, sometimes a torrent. I had been writing since mid morning and hoped to take a break and go out on my bike--why was it raining in the desert?--but the rain kept falling, sometimes more, sometimes less, but always steady. So I worked until late afternoon, when I finished a draft of the chapter I was working on. Then I put on my anorak and walked out from Casa del Sol, the isolated retreat center where I was staying on the ranch, and down to the nearby creek, mud clumping on the bottom of my Tevas, my feet gathering weight as I walked, rain tapping on the hood of my jacket. The old timber bridge down at the creek was shuddering with the violence of the water rushing beneath it. Most summers the creek was a tiny trickle of clear water over stones far below, or even just dry creek bed. Now it was a fast-flowing brown liquid, not quite as thick as chocolate pudding, but certainly thicker than chocolate milk, and it was swooshing by just a few feet below me. Down at the next bend, the current had washed out a bank and pulled a tall cedar into the water--a tree that had lasted for long years in the desert, and now was going to drown.

I felt bad for the tree. But I felt good away from the computer, out in the rain and the cool air, and I walked across hillsides and up at last onto a mesa across from the painted rock that surrounds Ghost Ranch. People have been traveling here from all across the country for at least eighty years to see this sight, and one of them, the great painter Georgia O'Keefe, had actually strong-armed the ranch into selling her the house across the valley from where I stood, a place where she painted some of her best-known landscapes.

Man, I am so lucky to get to see this, I thought as I looked out across the valley at the multicolored cliffs of sandstone, at the dark gray clouds behind and above them.

Then I saw a jagged flash of lightning, heard the thunder follow a second or less afterward, and knew that I was in real danger. There were no trees anywhere near, and I was the tallest thing for some distance; never a good thing when there's lightning around. So, bent over like Groucho Marx--if Groucho Marx were also a sprinter--I dashed across the pasture, panting with the altitude (Ghost Ranch is 5500 feet higher than Austin, Texas, where I still live), rain pattering off my head and shoulders.

I clambered down hills and climbed with some delicacy over a barbed wire fence. I followed a pickup track back to where I had diverged from the road, and by then it was raining harder.

When I got back down to the bridge, where I was surrounded by lots of things taller than me, I felt some relief. But I also paused for a second, smiling as the rain ran down my face and cold down my back. And then I started laughing.

I wished I'd been able to see myself on the mesa, ducking and running as I made a dash for safety, and I could still feel that pinprick of fear that had grown at the thought of not seeing my boys or my Martha again, of not finishing the book sitting on the table in the common room in Casa del Sol.

I laughed again, and the rain came down in sheets as I made the long walk back. I was soaked and chilled to the bone and amazed at how much I loved being alive.

I laughed, although not because I found the thought of getting struck by lightning funny--or because I enjoy courting pneumonia. But one of the things you will need to know about me if we are going to walk together is that not so long ago, if I'd been up on the mesa with lightning flashing around me, I probably would not have been induced to quicken my pace back to the ranch. During long stretches of my life, I had very little interest in preserving my life, and for some few horrible years I actively thought about ending it, and so this storm would have seemed like a godsend.

Bring it on, I would have told God. I'm ready whenever you are.

No, I laughed now because I was alive, and because I received that life as a gift and wanted to protect it--and because I know how much I have to live for, and because I know more than most how wonderful it is to feel this way, even with red-spattered legs and cold mud squishing between my toes and cold water running down the small of my back.

But then I always seem to be having these flash-epiphanies at Ghost Ranch, which shouldn't surprise anyone, since that is why it exists. Formally speaking, Ghost Ranch is a conference center in the high desert of northern New Mexico affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, and it has been since its former owners, the Packs, gave it to the Church in the 1950s. Informally speaking, Ghost Ranch is a thin place, a nexus, a site where people have come and returned, because they felt something beautiful and sacred when they were here.

The guest list over the years has been a cross section of American culture. First there were cattle rustlers, and then ranchers, and then the property became a dude ranch. The DuPont family built a summer home here in the 1930s after the Lindbergh kidnapping freaked out the rich and famous and sent them seeking safe havens. Cary Grant visited several times over several summers. The atomic big brains working on the Manhattan Project down in Los Alamos came to the ranch under assumed names for R & R while they were trying to perfect how to make things go boom.

And then there was O'Keefe, who lived here or in her home in nearby Abiquiu for something like sixty years while she painted the play of light across the cliffs and the texture of skull on desert sand and the flat-topped mountain, Pedernal, which dominates the skyline across the valley.

The first time I came to Ghost Ranch was in the summer of 2001, in the midst of that dark period when I was wondering if I might find a way to stop hurting myself and everyone who loved me, preferably a permanent solution that would leave at least a nagging doubt about whether or not I had meant to kill myself.

I had been camping in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains two hours away, hiking, thinking, and trying hard to get a handle on the life that seemed to have flown as completely out of my control as a rain-swelled stream in a desert arroyo. I could almost grasp it--I was at the point of having some conscious understanding of how my depression worked and what it was costing me--but I could not imagine how I could possibly have the strength or the energy to stagger on much further--and healing? Well, healing seemed completely out of my control, as of course it was.

My writer friend Joan Logghe had invited me to talk to a writing class she was teaching at Ghost Ranch, and that, at least, I could manage. I was, as they say, high functioning, even during my least-functional periods. In public, at least. So I expected to come to this place called Ghost Ranch, be clever and funny and maybe the tiniest bit wise for Joanie's class, and then go curl up in a dark room somewhere.

But on the drive from the Sangre de Cristos, the landscape turned from desert to textured and colored rock, and even the light seemed different, more intense, more luminous, which I know doesn't make any sense, but how else can I account for pulling up over the top of the rise and seeing the multicolored cliffs--the Piedra de Lumbre, or Valley of Shining Stones--spread out in front of me, and knowing immediately that it was one of the most holy places I had ever been?

“In the desert you can remember your name,”1 America sang, and this may be true. But what's even truer is this: In the desert, you must remember your name. There's nowhere to hide. What you see is what you are.

And once you get used to that, an amazing freedom emerges from not having to pretend--or even being able to pretend.

I pulled into the main campus, a pocket of green in the midst of the sand and colored rock and met Joan and talked to her class, and all that day I felt peaceful, as though I had entered a place where the normal rules of my life no longer applied. That night I sat under a tree on the grass with Joan and some of her friends, and they had mixed a pitcher of margaritas; one of them who had heard the sad story of “my life so far” formed an attachment to me as one might to a wounded puppy, and we stayed up talking while the stars came out, big and bright and so close to earth you could make some kind of haul with a butterfly net.

It was a magical day and a magical night, and I've been coming to the desert ever since. I connived my way into teaching a writing class at the ranch the next summer and began coming a couple times a year to write, something I still do for at least part of every book I've written since (including, obviously, this one).

And it was in the summer of 2003, on my way to finish a novel at Ghost Ranch, that I realized the depression that had bedeviled me for years was gone--that, as Jesus told the woman who touched the hem of his garment, I could go in peace: I was healed. As I got closer, the sky seemed bluer, the mesas even more colorful, and when I reached Ghost Ranch, I was ready to celebrate. For one of the first times in my adult life, I was experiencing joy, real out-of-the box joy.

So although I come to Ghost Ranch to do hard work, writing or teaching or leading people on spiritual retreats, I also come here because I continue to experience that joy and the same sense of being on holy ground.

One of the things that resulted from my survival is that I have gained a real and living faith, and have become both very spiritual--which wouldn't surprise the old me much--and very religious, which would surprise the old me and everyone else who knew the old me. In the years since I decided to live, I've gone to seminary; I've studied Christian history, theology, and tradition; and now I know that in the Jewish and Christian traditions, people have always gone to the desert or passed through the desert to get themselves sorted out, to come to the realizations that will change their lives.

Abraham crossed the desert to reach the land to which God was calling him. Moses heard the voice of God from a burning bush while he was in the desert, and he led the children of Israel back through the desert so that they would be purified by the time they reached the land God had promised them.

One of the most important stories about desert testing in the Bible is that of Jesus' temptation. It immediately follows the account of Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Prophet in the three Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), and it seems to do what desert has always done--to serve as a place where people can look hard at themselves and at the world, and see what they need to keep and what they can dispense with:

Filled then with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan River and the Spirit led Him into the desert, where for forty days He was tested by the Devil. During that time, He did not eat, and by the end, He was starving.

Then the Devil told Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.”

But Jesus answered, “Scripture tells us human beings do not live merely on bread.”

Then the Devil raised Jesus high and instantly showed Him all the nations of the world. “I will give You all this power and glory,” he told Jesus, “for it has been given into my hands, and I can give it to anyone I choose. Bow down and pay me homage, and it will all belong to You.”

But Jesus answered, “Scripture tells us, give homage only to God, and serve only Him.”

Then the Devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and raised Him to the top of the temple. “If You are the Son of God,” he said, “then throw Yourself down from here, for Scripture tells us that God has given the angels orders to guard You and keep You safe. They will lift You in their arms so that You will not even stub your toe.”

But Jesus answered, “Scripture tells us, do not test the Lord your God.”

When the Devil had exhausted every test, he left until the right moment, and Jesus, carrying the power of the Spirit in Him, returned to Galilee. (Luke 4:1-14a)2

Jesus is tempted with material things, with power, and with glory, but He passes the tests (every test, the Scriptures tell us) with flying colors. In His responses, Jesus reveals that if life isn't centered in and on God, it's not life at all, and He walks out of the wilderness and back into the world, knowing at last who He is and what He's called to do.

Now, I'm no Jesus. Not that anyone has confused us. But one thing we do have in common is an experience of the desert, both the physical one and the metaphysical one. Jesus responded much better than I did to both. But in my own life too, the desert experience has been a crucible that burned away everything that didn't matter and left just the tiny sliver of me that did matter still. It's been a preparation for what comes next. And in the lives of many people I love, it's been the place they've had to pass through before they could enter into the land of promise.

My dear friend Roger Joslin had waited for what must have seemed like half a lifetime--and it had certainly been the entire lifetime of our friendship--for ordination into the Episcopal priesthood. Of all my friends from seminary, it was Roger whose path seemed longest and most difficult, and his desert experiences had direct parallels in my life.

So I took joy in Roger's ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Arkansas--for him certainly, although a part of me was also celebrating the possibility that someone like Roger could be-- had been--faithful to a process that bounces you around like dice in a cup before releasing you at last into the life you're meant to lead.

My son Chandler and I had driven across a big chunk of Texas, Oklahoma, and part of Arkansas to be at his ordination--just as we had been there in northwestern Arkansas when Roger was ordained as a deacon, an intermediary step on the road to becoming a priest in the Anglican tradition. Sometime after that ceremony, Roger told me about the ritual itself, which involves the laying on of hands of a bishop and as many priests as happen to be present. When there are a lot of them, as there had been when Roger was ordained, it looks a little like a rugby scrum, all these hands reaching in and down onto something--in this case, Roger himself.

“Man,” Roger told me later, “I have to tell you, there was a second there when I was scared to death. I felt all this weight pushing down on me, and I thought it was going to flatten me. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get up.”

Roger did get up, of course, and has served with passion and joy in Bentonville, Arkansas, where he has planted a countercultural Christian community in the home of the largest corporation in the history of the world, Wal-Mart. But that image of hands, of weight, has stayed with me. Even though others among my priest friends have said that their ordination experience didn't feel like Roger's, this is what I imagine it might feel like for me, because I think the call to serve God is about as serious a call as there is, and if you don't imagine the weight, then maybe you should.

When I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church in December of 2003, the bishop laid his hands on my head, and as he inducted me into the life of the Church, I felt pressure and heat, half-expecting marks on my temples when he lifted his hands away. The bishop who confirmed me is no longer in the Church, and the place where I was confirmed was not my home congregation of St. James in Austin, but nonetheless it was a strange and holy experience that left me temporarily stranded between worlds.

When I came back into this one, after a confirmation lunch with my friend Carissa and our fellow St. James parishioner Ora, I continued to think about what I was supposed to be doing in this life and how I could be faithful to a God who had saved my life and given me purpose.

Ten years ago, if you'd told me my life would be filled with people who are priests and pastors--if you'd told me that I'd even be hanging around with devout Christians--I would have laughed in your face, and it would not have been a joyful laugh like my caught-in-a-thunderstorm laugh. (If I even felt capable of laughing, that is--in those days, I rarely was.) But since I came into the Church, my life has increasingly centered around trying to discover and do what God wants me to do, and so not surprisingly, I find my pathway crowded with other people who are trying to do what God wants them to do--which naturally includes a disproportionate number of Professional Christians.

The Christian tradition tells us that we are all called to follow Jesus, and in my tradition, we are taught that the job of priests and other ministers of the church is to equip all believers for ministry to the world. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who gave his life in the struggle against Hitler, observed that most people ignore the call or act as if only Professional Christians need to pay attention to it, that a simple belief in God and God's saving grace is enough. Bonhoeffer's famous term for the belief that many Christians have about their lives in God is “cheap grace,” a belief that God's grace will cover their transgressions and wrongdoings without requiring any effort on their part.

Bonhoeffer said that we couldn't be more wrong because what God actually offered was “costly grace,” grace offered only within a life of service and faithfulness: “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”3

In the history of the church, Bonhoeffer said, monastics--that is, men or women living in contemplation and prayer--were considered to be professional religious people, and everyone else lived in the world and like the world. But Bonhoeffer argued that this setting apart of professional religious people ignores the fact that all of us are called to discipleship, and that the real lesson of Martin Luther's reforms was that for most of us, the way we are called to follow Jesus is not in convents or cloisters, but in our everyday lives.4 The Gospels often talk about “the Way,” as though Christianity is a path rather than a single limited event in our lives, and that's what I believe too, because that has been my experience.

I do believe that following Jesus--discipleship, as Bonhoeffer called it--is the task of everyone who wants to call herself or himself a Christian, and that's the path that I'm trying to walk in this life I never expected to have. But what does it mean to say I am trying to do what God wants of me?

Well, that's the question, isn't it?

I know that whether or not anyone ever lays hands on my head and makes me a priest, whether I ever feel the press of responsibility pushing me toward the ground, I am called to faithful discipleship, since we all are. But what should that faithful discipleship look like?

What am I called to do in this miraculous life?

I have no idea. But by listening and praying, by walking in companionship with others, I do know I'll have a better chance to find out.

And that practice, the practice of discernment, is what I'm doing now.

©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. No Idea by Greg Garrett. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.

NOTE: I wasn't scheduled to do this tour, but since I got the book separately (apart from the tour group), I figured I'd post the tour & first chapter now, and come back to add my review, later. I'm looking forward to reading this one! :)

Friday, September 11, 2009

TOUR: If God Were Real by John Avant

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

If God Were Real: A Journey into a Faith That Matters

Howard Books (July 7, 2009)


John Avant is the author of Passion Promise and Authentic Power, as well as numerous national articles. A pastor of a 7000-member Baptist church, he has served as vice president of the North American Mission Board and has been deeply involved in missions and church development around the world.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Publisher: Howard Books (July 7, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1416587799
ISBN-13: 978-1416587798



If God Were Real ... the Illusions of Ordinary life Would Be Shattered

We all need illusions. That's why we love movies.

Monica Bellucci

Shattering the Illusion That Christian Life Is Boring

Who doesn't love a great movie? All of the most exciting and wonderful parts oflife are right there on the screen to be enjoyed. Romance? Just come to my house anytime my wife, Donna, is watching television, and there's a pretty good chance she'll be watching Sleepless in Seattle. I thought the movie was kind of touching the first time I saw it. But Donna still cries, even now that she has the lines memorized.

As for me, I'll take a movie with raw, masculine courage every time. Nothing beats Gladiator or Braveheart for making you glad to be a man. Or how about pure adventure, like the Indiana Jones films? What could be more cool than watching Indiana get out of every trap-and along the way eat monkey brains, defeat evil, and get the girl?

Yes, movies are one of life's pleasures-even though we know that what they show us are just illusions. Could it be that we love movies because they allow us to experience, if only for a little while, what we'll never really have? Or what we aren't sure we can ever really be?

But what if life is meant to exceed even the best of what we see on film?

What if we are meant to live out the greatest romance of all?

What if we are designed to be powerful and courageous?

What if life could actually be filled with suspense and adventure and we really could live happily ever after?

Well, shouldn't we expect all these things to be true if God is real? If the One who created this vast universe with a word really did come and live as one of us, die and rise again for us, and promise to fill us with his Spirit, why would we not expect all that and more? Especially since Jesus himself said he carne so that we "may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).

Yes, things don't always go smoothly in the movies. In fact, a movie with no tension is boring. As Christians, we know that we won't live happily ever after until we get to heaven. In this world we will have pain and difficulties-but not boredom! Not if God is real.

The movies that seem so exciting to us might be boring when compared with the real lives we are meant to live.

If we actually lived as though God is real.

My friend Gary Witherall calls this kind of life "adventuring for God." Gary is one of those Christians who really believes in God. He has definitely traded in practical atheism for authentic faith. Gary and his wife, Bonnie, put their authentic faith into action as missionaries in Sidon, Lebanon. Regardless of the personal risk involved in taking their Christian witness to a place where many are hostile to Christianity in general and especially missionaries, Gary and Bonnie sought to show God's truth through their authentic, caring lives. They deeply loved the Palestinian people they served.

The following was written on the website of Operation Mobilization, the mission agency with which Gary and Bonnie served: "Some people talk about being on the cutting edge; some actually live there. Fewer choose to live on the bleeding edge of humanity, where nothing is humanly certain except great need, where risk defies other definitions, where light shines the brighter for the enveloping darkness. Sidon in Lebanon is such a place, and Bonnie and Gary Witherall were some of those few."

Gary's belief has been tested in the most extreme ways. In fact, Gary and Bonnie's life should be made into a movie. It already has been written as a book. Total Abandon is the story of Bonnie's murder. Bonnie, a nurse, was shot by a terrorist as she entered the clinic where she cared for Muslim women. The authorities quickly got Gary out of Lebanon. Less than a month after Bonnie's murder, Gary wrote the following in his journal: "Nothing remains and yet I have everything. I lost my wife, my ministry, my beautiful apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, my friends there, my Arabic classes, and three classes a week studying Islam. The little Honda we drove on the bumpy roads through the crazy traffic. The warmth of Bonnie lying quietly asleep next to me. I was robbed but have been found today steadfast, strong as a piece of steel yet completely broken. Lord, sustain me."!

Those were not just words in a journal. Since those days of crushing loss, Gary has returned to Lebanon many times, including once with my own daughter. He has stood in front of the place where Bonnie was murdered and preached forgiveness and love to the same culture that killed his wife. And then he sang with my daughter and the others there, ... "Blessed be the name of the Lord ... You give and take away ... My heart will choose to say, ... 'Lord, blessed be Your name.'"

Those who know Gary watch him live in boldness, forgiveness, joy, and service to others-even to those who would kill what he loved most. Who lives like this? Only those who believe God is real!

That's what it's like to believe in God. Gary is living, breathing, weeping, laughing evidence that God is indeed real. If God does not exist, Gary has done an incredible job of inventing God's impact in his life!

I've gotten to know Gary well since Bonnie's death. I have laughed and cried with him, counseled him, and received counsel from him. And I had the privilege to help officiate his wedding to Helena, his beautiful new wife (and the granddaughter of a martyr).

God is real to Gary. This man believes it-and then actually lives as though he does. This has not led to an easy life, but it has led to the adventure of real life. Gary has known passionate love, tragedy and heartbreak, terror and suspense, renewal and new love, courage, danger, and adventure. All of the things we flock to see in the movies are his in real life.

Living for God shouldn't be boring. When we live as though God is real, the true adventure begins. So maybe, after all, living a boring Christian life is a conscious choice, not an inevitable state. Perhaps for most of us the issue is not whether God is real but whether we really want the life that results from living like he is. Perhaps "adventuring for God" is a little too dangerous and risky for most of us. So the question may be, is it worth it to live as though God is real?

Shattering the Illusions of Religion

I've served as a pastor for twenty-seven years and served in a mission agency for two years. I have had the opportunity to see many lives like Gary's-enough to convince me that only God could be responsible for what I have seen in them. But I have to admit that I've also seen a lot of the opposite-lives of those who believe in God, who love Jesus, but who have just settled into lives that are nothing like the adventure of following the real God. Most of these are not bad people. They love their families and friends, try to live decent lives, and serve in their churches. But something is missing. Many of them are just overwhelmed with the stuff oflife. They're too busy trying to figure out how to afford a third car payment or how to get their son's grades up to think much about such "deep" things. They may never have stopped to wonder if there could be something more to their experience of God-something that could dramatically impact those allconsuming daily struggles.

Now, living a life of adventure is not, in itself, evidence that God is real. Some people live lives of reckless adventure without God. But my point is that if God is real, there's no need to live a boring life! We are meant for more. You can live a life of temporary adventure without God, but you cannot be an authentic follower of the real God without adventure. And why would you want to?

Many people do want very much to experience more than what they currently know of God. Every pastor hears regularly from those folks who want to "go deeper." I want a deeper knowledge of God too. In fact, I can't think of anything I want more. But my experience has been that many who want to go deeper are actually afflicted with an insidious spiritual disease I call Deeper-Sleep Syndrome. They make the mistake of thinking that going deeper means getting more knowledge about the Bible, having more Bible studies or worship services, or learning some spiritual mystery that they've somehow missed all these years. But as they dive into these things again and again, they're in danger of going so deep that they end up in a deep spiritual sleep, unconscious of what God really wants. That's DeeperSleep Syndrome.

The cure is actually quite simple. If God is real, surely he wants us to know him and to know him deeply. In fact, he says he has already told us all we need to know. "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Peter 1:3). Knowing more about God is a good thing; but acting on what we know is the real answer. James 2: 17 says, "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

So if we were to begin to really live out the teachings of Jesus, we would find ourselves in the middle of an incredible spiritual adventure.

Can it be that simple? After all, isn't that what Christians are already doing? Or at least something close to it?

I'm not so sure. When I examine my own life, I wonder how much I'm really seeking to follow Jesus, to do exactly what he said. Am I just a part of a church system that does its best to reinvent the words of Jesus to make what he said more palatable for our modern sensibilities, more in sync with the ways we really want to live? Maybe the nineteenth-century philosopher S0ren Kierkegard had it right: The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. ... My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I get on in the world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.2

Wow. I don't think I would be quite that hard on scholarship, but he has a point. If God is real, he has told us what we need to know and what we need to do. Could it be that it's time to take what we know ... and do it?

I think we need to be prepared for the ramifications of this. We could be talking about a complete reshaping of how we have "done" our faith. But wouldn't that be worthwhile if it resulted in the kind of movement that changed the world, the very course of history, through a little group of peasant nobodies in the first century?

So where do we start? First of all, start with hope-wild, fan-tastic hope that your life could be worthy of the big screen. That all that captivates us while we sit with our popcorn and Cokes may not be just an illusion.

It is time to be "dis-illusioned."

I stumbled upon a website that fascinates me. It's called "The Joy of Disillusionment: A Resource for Those Leaving Christianity,"3 and it chronicles the journey and the thoughts of David P. Crews, who has moved from being a committed Christian, a selfprofessed believer in the God of the Bible, to being an atheist. Crews says, "This site is primarily directed to a select group ofpeople-those who are somewhere in the process of leaving their Christian beliefs behind them and moving forward into an unknown realm of rational, non-theistic thought and life."4 In other words, he writes to those who once lived as though God is real but now are on a journey to live as though he is not. I found that ironic and intriguing, since I'm writing to people who may not live as though God is real but are on a journey to live as though he is.

I find Crews' writings to be honest and fair and even instructive in a strange, backward kind of way. He writes: "For those of us who have come out of a religious life to the acceptance of disbelief and of a rational world view, the word disillusionment is uniquely appropriate, but in a new and positive way. In fact, it is the perfect term for us. When we dissect this word, the root is, of course, 'illusion.' To be 'dis-illusioned,' therefore, is to not be deceived by the illusion. Finally, it is to reject the illusion in favor of what is real."5

Strangely enough, I find this to be a great description of how Christ followers need to live if we believe God is real. We must come out of the current religious life we've been languishing in. We must "disbelieve" it. It is not a rational worldview to live in bland uniformity and creative vacuity if we believe what we say we believe. It is time to leave behind that illusion-to reject it in favor of what is real, the God on whom we have staked everything.

Crews goes on to give us a good prescription for living the "disillusioned" life. "When we replace illusion with reality, we step out of our cavern of myth and take a deep breath of the air outside-brisk and with a tang of scents unknown. It is the real world we are inhaling and it enlivens us to move forward and to value who and what we truly are."6

Yes! This atheist has just about nailed what life as a Christ follower ought to be.

But I don't know what I find sadder, the fact that David Crews has concluded that God is an illusion or the fact that we so often and so tragically live as though he is. It is time for us to step out of our cavern of myth-in which we live as though we were godless-and breathe the air God made in the same awesome, exhilarating way he made us to breathe it. Or else get honest and follow Crews into a life of less hypocrisy that simply discounts God altogether.

If you're ready to be "disillusioned"-if you are determined to live a life that is genuine, a life that embraces the reality of God rather than the illusion we seem to have made him-I affirm your path. I respect David Crews. In fact, I suspect I would like him. But I believe he is wrong, and desperately so. Our hope is valid. It's intellectually defensible. It's philosophically sound. But it's rarely lived.

So let's begin to live! All the romance and adventure of the most thrilling movies may actually be your birthright as a child of God. The curtain could be lifting, and the screenplay of your life could be about to come alive in a way that would make every flick you've ever seen a B film that can't even begin to measure up.

Shattering the Illusion That Hollywood Must Be Our Enemy

If we truly lived adventurous lives that reflect the reality of God, maybe Christ followers would make all the movies. No, I'm not talking about some battle plan to boycott Hollywood until the purveyors of on-screen smut go broke and Christians take over. (The fact that some have tried things like this fits the sad caricature of Christians the world thinks is true of all of us.) I'm saying that if we made movies that resembled the lives we are actually meant to live, the movies would be so good that everyone would want to see them!

All right, I know I'm being naive. We would leave out the sexual content that draws many people, and not everyone would flock to see our films. But the fact is that many of the best movies actually are about spiritual truths. It almost seems that the world is trying to write our stories for us. I am astounded at the prevalence of spiritual searching evident in movies today. Sometimes the world seems more interested in the wonders and possibilities of God than his followers are.

Tom Hanks seems to bring elements of the gospel into just about every film he stars in. He's the one who lays down his life for another in Saving Private Ryan. He's the simple man, Forrest Gump, who just can't get away from the amazing plan and purpose woven throughout his life. Gump is a simpleton, yet he confronts the atheist with a profoundly faith-filled statement: ''I'm going to heaven, Lieutenant Dan." And then he witnesses Dan's transformation. Hanks is the lost man in Cast Away who experiences the worst we might imagine life could offer and, in the end, sees that there's a plan by which all things work together for his good.

You just can't get away from God and his mysteries in the movies. And even when it's not blatant or intentional, many films seem almost like a retelling of the gospel.

I recently saw the blockbuster movie I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. When the film ended, I walked out of the theater thinking, Well, they did it again! They just made a film that directly parallels the gospel, and they probably had no idea! (Spoiler alert! If you haven't seen the movie and don't want to know the ending, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph-or better yet, go see it and then keep reading.) A man-made virus has virtually destroyed humanity. Those not killed by the disease have been devoured by the horrific creatures that those infected by the virus became. Will Smith's character is a doctor, the only survivor in New York City. He spends his days seeking a cure that will transform the monsters mankind has become back into what they were created to be. At the end he sacrifices his life to save others and, ultimately, the entire world. And what is the means of this salvation? Blood.

Hello? Does anyone have any trouble seeing the gospel reflected in this story? A savior comes and sheds his blood to save and transform the human race, which has been infected by sin. It seems that God's plan is so hardwired into our souls that it leaks out everywhere, even when it may not be intentional.

Does it not seem strange and sad to you, though, that many people who claim to be Christians spend most of their time fo-cusing on the internal issues of church life that almost no one outside of the church cates about, i.e., the style of music and minor doctrinal disputes, while the world scrambles to write our story? And when the creative work of a follower of Christ actually does make the screen, most of the time the world flocks to see it! Films based on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy and C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Natnia ate perfect examples.

The bottom line is, followers of Christ have a compelling story to tell. In fact, if we live like God is real, we have the story of all stories to tell! And we are made to tell it. The foundation of all our stories is that we were made in the image of God-in the image of the Creator. So we were designed to create. The spatk that lit the match of the universe ignites our souls.

Yet we seem to think that being a good Christian means pouring water on that spatk so it doesn't flame up and get too wild. After all, we have to be reverent, don't we?

What does that even mean? I've heard the "irreverent" criticism used hundreds of times to justify the squelching of creativity within the church. The critics don't always use the words reverent or irreverent. They may just criticize the music for being too loud or worldly, or the methods of the church too contemporaty. But it all seems to come back to the same thing: they want their Christianity to be neatly packaged, safe and quiet-reverent.

My problem is that Jesus' behavior as recorded in the Bible doesn't seem all that reverent to me. He condemned the teachers of the law and Phatisees-the most reverent of Jews-called them names like snakes and vipers, and chose to spend most of his time among big, loud crowds of peasants. He chose rough fishermen and embezzling tax collectors for his followers. He ran those in the religious business out of the temple with a whip.

Jesus calls us to passion, not boredom. Maybe it is time to reject cold "reverence" and join a "wild" crowd. And tell a "wild" story. My "wild" daughter is a theater actress in New York City. Maybe she can help us understand the story we are meant to tell; the real-life adventure we are meant to live; what the screenplay can look like when we choose to follow Jesus with passion in the real world.

Acting Out God's Love


Rehearsal studios in Manhattan commonly smell of sweat and bare feet-not an altogether appealing aroma, but one I am familiar with nonetheless. Actors file into this pungent building, chatting excitedly. We are in the ensemble of a play going up at a rather prestigious off-Broadway theater. None of us has any lines. We sing only one song in the show. Nevertheless, we are buzzing like honey-starved bees, knOWing that after this production, we can place the name of this theater prominently on our resumes.

We hope the next casting director we see will observe this credit, jump for joy, and call us in for every project he has. Most likely, this will not happen; but we hope. After all, we are a people of crazy hope, illogical dreams, and gritty passion. An average person may go to five or six job interviews in a lifetime; we go to five or six a week. If one produces any results, even a follow-up phone call, we celebrate. Halfway through rehearsal, a presence enters the room, and all eyes turn in her direction. Dressed head to toe in the quintessential New York hue-black-the acclaimed playwright has joined the lowly ensemble players. In the middle of the room, she stands on a chair and warmly greets us. "I grew up in a strict evangelical home/' she says, "then I went to Berkeley, and I began to accept what is so acceptable today-that evangelicals are morons, idiots, and that they are ruining our world. However, after I moved to New York, I began to realize that to lump all of these people together is abit simple-minded. I decided to do an experiment, to write the church service-and the characters in that service-that would interest me as an atheist; and that is the history behind the show you are in." If I was buzzing before, now I was spinning out of control with anticipation. The only thing I love as much as singing or delving into an intriguing character is working with and knowing artists who are aggressively, and in this case publicly, searching for truth. Creative people, whether or not they follow Christ, have tapped into the remnants of God left in every human heart, and I absolutely love surrounding myself with that.

For two years I have been here, pursuing this absurd profession alongside New York's progressive and wonderful culture. I have had the privilege of performing allover the United States, even in Alaska. Every day is not a good day. Some days I feel like I have been thrown into a boxing ring, gloveless and in five-inch heels, and been pitted against a heavyweight champion. On those days I focus on the relationships I have developed that would never have taken root within the walls of a church. Although my friends are very spiritual, they tend to fall somewhere along the playwright's path. Either they have been wounded and are angry or they simply feel that the Christian church is irrelevant.

Often the church has not helped matters. Sometimes the church sings "Just As I Am" and then demands that others be just as she is.

Every day I pray that I can be a part of reversing the tragic flow that has left the state of the Christian church such that this is its impression on the world-or at least that I can follow Jesus Christ closely enough to heal the pain people feel.

Eric Bryant, one of the pastors at a "flow-reversing" church in Los Angeles, says that "Love is the best apologetic." After all, was it not love that drove Jesus Christ to hell and back on our behalf? No other force is powerful enough to turn the tide, and as ambassadors of that love, we have an amazing opportunity to alter the future.

Perhaps I'll never grace a Broadway stage or a big screen. Perhaps I'll never again get paid to do what I know I was born to. These thoughts are paralyzing sometimes, but all adventures come with great risk. In the end, the faces of my friends who have allowed me to share in their spiritual journeys are what matters. It is not the grandiose feats you accomplish but the people you actively and intentionally love who will take you on the great adventure available to every follower of Christ. If you restrict your love to those like you, those you understand, those who make you feel comfortable, you will be pretty bored. If you dare to open your life to one person who needs a friend, you just might find yourself in an adventure of eternal proportions.

Since we have the most compelling and interesting story to tell, and since it seems even those who don't believe our story want to tell it for us, maybe it's time that we actually begin to tell it ourselves-and even more important, to live it ourselves. To live like God is real.

The screenplays of the movies of our lives will be full of emotional ups and downs, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. Like Gary and Bonnie Wither all's missionary service in Lebanon, like my daughter Christi's missionary service in the theater district of New York, authentic life in Christ will not always be easy, pleasant, or predictable.

But it will always be an adventure.

Trading Illusions for a Compelling Faith

I walked past the television the other day and stopped in my tracks when I heard a voice say, "I have been told you will not have a person of faith at your house .... Is that true?" The voice belonged to talk-show host Glenn Beck, and his question was addressed to comedian and illusionist Penn Jillette, who is well known for his controversial atheistic ideas. Jillette confirmed that Beck was correct and went on to explain why he would not allow Christians or other people of faith to visit in his home. He said that he did not use alcohol or drugs and would not allow people who did into his home to influence his children. He also did not want what he had seen in Christianity to influence his children in any way.7

Is it possible that while we Christians have been busy fighting the culture war and protecting our families from evil influences, we have done such a poor job of living out an intelligent, provocative, and compelling faith that people like Jillette now feel they must protect their children from us? Mter almost thirty years of ministry, I'm not sure he has it wrong. I've been fortunate to spend my ministry among loving people who helped my children to grow up seeing much of the good that is the church. But honestly, I've seen more children alienated from God and from the church by the actions of Christians than by anything atheists have done. I've lost count of the number of pastors I know whose children want nothing to do with the God of their parents, because they watched what people who claimed to love God did to those parents. Even I want to protect my children from some Christians.

In a different interview, with NPR, Jillette said, "Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O, and all other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have."8 Now that's funny. And also profoundly sad. For I believe the responsibility lies squarely at the feet of the church for allowing an illusionist like Penn Jillette to spend his whole life seeing only an illusion of what it means to follow Jesus, never the real thing. For offering so little ofJesus to the world that a man like Jillette can really think that all those things he mentioned, from his family to his Jell-O, are better off without God, without purpose, without hope of anything except utter annihilation, and without any contact from Christians. It's time that we change that, for Jillette's sake and for millions of others'. It's time to become the kind of people everyone wants to have over to his house-if nothing else, just to hear our stories, to explore the mystery of our lives, to try to understand what it is about us that draws them to us, even in their disbelief It's time to get the messed-up movie we've made of Christianity out of the theater and put a new show on the screen.

One that is worthy of the Producer.

So take a step toward that hope's becoming reality. Decide to take the risk of living like God is real, whatever that may mean and wherever that may take you. Perhaps the only way you'll be sure that God is real is to live as if he is and then watch what happens. Get ready, though. In the next chapter we'll see just how enormous that change may be.

I did not receive a copy of this book for review.