Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category

Review of Love from Heaven, by Lorna Byrne

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

Love from Heaven

Practicing Compassion for Yourself and Others

by Lorna Byrne

Atria Books (Simon and Schuster), 2014. 214 pages.
Starred Review

This is the third book I’ve read by Lorna Byrne, a woman who says she has seen angels all her life. This book was even more inspiring than the previous two.

Lorna says that the angels have taught her to see the force of love coming from people. They have also taught her what it looks like when people lock away their love (which most people do). She has seen love in many different forms. This book is about the different forms love can take, and how we can release the love we’ve locked away.

Here’s how she finishes the first chapter:

The angel with no name has told me that love is love, but that we can love in so many different ways. We all have pure love inside us. We were full of love as newborns and, no matter what has happened to us since then, it is still there. Regardless of what life has thrown at us or what we have done to others, the love within does not diminish. But we all lock much, or all, of this love away deep within us. We need to learn again how to let it out.

Feeling love for anything helps us to stir up that love within us, and allows us to release more of it. Love is stirred up through personal experience of love: feeling it, thinking loving thoughts, or seeing it. We learn to love from each other.

The angels have told me we can all learn to love more frequently, and with a greater intensity. This is why I have written this book.

I especially like the section at the end – a “Seven-day path to love yourself more.” Lorna Byrne does take the view that you can love others better if you love yourself more, and the exercises she gives you will help you do that.

The week after I finished reading this book, our pastor preached on Connection, which set off more thinking – and a blog post on my Sonderjourneys blog. I felt like this book brought a lot of thoughts about love together.

Learning to love more – isn’t that a worthy goal?

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Day the Revolution Began, by N. T. Wright

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

The Day the Revolution Began

Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion

by N. T. Wright

HarperOne (HarperCollins), 2016. 440 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve read some popular books on the crucifixion lately – most notably Did God Kill Jesus?, by Tony Jones, and A More Christlike God, by Bradley Jersak. The George MacDonald books I’ve been reading for years were what first made me discontent with the explanation I’d been taught. I have become convinced that teaching that Jesus saved us from God does great wrong to God’s love. But how should we look at the cross instead?

Those previous books were popular reading; this one is a book for theologians. It was extremely dense and very long. The author goes deeply into Scripture and explains how his interpretation fits beautifully with what was written there. But – it’s difficult reading and even hard for me to sum up.

However, it’s also lovely. I found myself copying several sections to Sonderquotes. (Take a look there to understand better what’s being said.) N. T. Wright’s view of the cross is not about some kind of pagan sacrifice to satisfy an angry God. It’s about fulfilling God’s covenant with Israel through the forgiveness of sins.

The author places much emphasis on the fact that the early Christians summarized their “good news” by saying that “the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible.” So he looks at the question of how Jesus’ death was “in accordance with the Bible.” And he takes a fresh look at the gospels and the writings of Paul along the way.

He does blast the “works contract” or the “payment model” of the atonement as a paganized view of the cross. He points out that in Israel’s sacrificial system, the animals sacrificed were not punished for sin. They didn’t bear sin – except the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, and that one wasn’t killed. Instead of emphasizing death, the sacrifices emphasize the blood – and it is offered as cleansing. The emphasis is on cleansing instead of punishment.

If I start quoting, I’m going to get bogged down. (Do check Sonderquotes, though it will take me awhile to get all the quotations posted.) I don’t quite know how to summarize this book concisely, but I do know it fed my soul. If this is interesting to you, and you can handle some deep waters of theology, I do strongly recommend this book. If not, let me leave you with the last paragraph:

The message for us, then, is plain. Forget the “works contract,” with its angry, legalistic divinity. Forget the false either/or that plays different “theories of atonement” against one another. Embrace the “covenant of vocation” or, rather, be embraced by it as the Creator calls you to a genuine humanness at last, calls and equips you to bear and reflect his image. Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Angels in My Hair, by Lorna Byrne

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Angels in my Hair

The True Story of a Modern-Day Irish Mystic

by Lorna Byrne

Harmony Books, 2011. First published in the United Kingdom in 2008. 319 pages.
Starred Review

Ever since she was a little girl, Lorna Byrne has been able to see angels and other spirits. This book tells her story. And it’s lovely.

Here’s how she begins the book:

When I was two years old the doctor told my mother I was “retarded.”

When I was a baby, my mother noticed that I always seemed to be in a world of my own. I can even remember lying in a cot – a big basket – and seeing my mother bending over me. Surrounding my mother I saw wonderful bright, shiny beings in all the colors of the rainbow; they were much bigger than I was, but smaller than her – about the size of a three-year-old child. These beings floated in the air like feathers; and I remember reaching out to touch them, but I never succeeded. I was fascinated by these creatures with their beautiful lights. At that time I didn’t understand that I was seeing anything different from what other people saw; it would be much later that I learned from them that they were called angels.

As the months passed, my mother noticed that I’d always be looking or staring somewhere else, no matter what she’d do to try to get my attention. In truth, I was somewhere else: I was away with the angels, watching what they were doing and talking and playing with them. I was enthralled.

I was a late talker, but I had been conversing with angels from very early on. Sometimes we used words as you and I understand them, but sometimes no words were needed – we would know each other’s thoughts. I believed that everyone else could see what I saw, but then the angels told me that I was not to say anything to anyone about seeing them, that I should keep it a secret between us. In fact, for many years I listened to the angels and I didn’t tell people what I saw. It is only now in writing this book that I am for the first time telling much of what I have seen.

The author writes all about growing up with angels around her and about her marriage and children. She didn’t write the book until her children were grown. Now people come to her from all over, asking for prayer.

Her perspective is lovely. I like the way she talks matter-of-factly about how there are always lots of angels around places of worship – churches, synagogues, and mosques alike.

She also talks about souls that stay around after death to comfort their loved ones, or come back to comfort their loved ones. In fact, one of the first spirits she saw, and played with, was her older brother Christopher, who died as a baby.

She sees different kinds of angels – and tells us that everyone has a guardian angel who is with them all their live

Review of A More Christlike God, by Bradley Jersak

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

A More Christlike God

A More Beautiful Gospel

by Bradley Jersak

Plain Truth Ministries, Pasadena, California, 2015. 330 pages.
Starred Review

This is a beautiful book. It made my heart sing. In the introduction, the author offers this as a mantra:

God is Good. God is Love. Life happens but redemption is coming. “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (I John 2:8).


I ordered this book from Amazon because I had just finished a book on universalism that I loved, Flames of Love, by Heath Bradley. I was looking for another book on theology, and I’d enjoyed Bradley Jersak’s book, Her Gates Are Never Shut. I liked the description of this book. It turned out to be a wonderful choice.

The book is about exploring what God is like. Here’s where the author starts:

The Christian faith, at its core, is the gospel announcement that God – the eternal Spirit who created, fills and sustains the universe – has shown us who he is and what he’s like – exactly what he’s like – in the flesh and blood human we sometimes call Emmanuel (‘God with us’). Conversely, we believe Jesus has shown us the face and heart of God through the fullness of his life on earth: revealed through eyewitness accounts of his birth, ministry, death and resurrection. We regard this life as the decisive revelation and act of God in time and space. That’s still a faith statement, but for Christians, it is our starting point. To look at Jesus – especially on the Cross, says I John – is to behold the clearest depiction of the God who is love (I John 4:8). I’ve come to believe that Jesus alone is perfect theology.

This does shake up some of the prevalent teaching about God.

When I personally turned my gaze to the God who is completely Christlike, I was confronted with how un-Christlike the ‘church-God’ or even the ‘Bible-God’ can be. Setting Jesus as the standard for perfect theology, many of our current Christian beliefs and practices would obviously face indictment. Even significant swaths of biblical literature don’t line up well with the Christ of the Gospels. Claiming that God is revealed perfectly in Jesus triggers tough questions about the God I once conceived and preached. Jesus’ life and character challenges my religious clichés and standby slogans – especially the rhetoric of supreme power and irresistible force. Christ never reveals God that way in his teachings and especially not in his Passion (that is, Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture and death). Yes, he proves victorious, especially in his resurrection, but remember that Paul resolved to preach ‘Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2). you could resist him, you could mock him and beat him up. You could kill him. And we did. Our God is the cruciform Christ, the ‘weakness of God’ (1 Cor. 1:25) who is stronger than men. Why? Because he operates by overcoming love, not by overwhelming force.

Here are some more sections from the first chapter:

Jesus’ favorite image of God was Father (seventy times in the Gospels!). Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith. Or better, he was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy. He didn’t seem to appreciate our self-loathing. The repentance he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds.

After all, this is what Jesus said about himself.

Add to Jesus’ depiction of God as Father his startling Last Supper announcement, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). Somehow we need to let his words jar us again. Maybe we’re too used to the phrase, but it’s what I’ve hinted at in the title. For our own sakes, we might take a break from trying to convince ourselves that Jesus was and is God and to spend this twenty-first century meditating on the truth that God is like Jesus. Exactly like Jesus.

This book explores the ramifications of this observation. And the result is truly beautiful, as the subtitle promises.

Now there’s a whole lot in here that’s wonderful. I’ve marked many sections to add to Sonderquotes, and while I was reading it, I couldn’t stop talking about it with some of my friends.

He especially talks about the theology of the Cross. Here’s a paragraph that sums up the direction he goes. (Kenosis means “self-emptying,” used of Christ in Philippians 2.)

In the next few chapters, we will begin to explore the grand mystery of how a kenotic, cruciform and Christlike God can reign – can be present, active and ‘sovereign’ – in the world, when he is neither coercive nor controlling, but nevertheless infinitely close and caring. We’ll notice together how such a God rules, saves and serves by grounding and filling all that is with the power of love – a divine love with a particular content defined as consent and participation.

Further, we’ll see that we surrender to God’s reign, cooperate with the Spirit’s grace, and receive Christ’s salvation in the same way: by consent and participation. The fullness of God’s saving comes as God participates fully in the human condition – from birth to death – and consents to enduring temptations, trials and even the extreme humiliation of crucifixion. The fullness of our salvation comes as we participate in Christ’s death and as we fully consent – cooperate and surrender – to his grace.

The book is full of the exploration of these ideas and what they mean in our lives. And it gets into big theological questions – and answering them by looking at Christ.

Here’s a section that blew me away. I had never thought of God this way:

In that sense, I say God is in charge, but he is not in control, because he doesn’t do control. Sometimes I wish he did, but as I scan history and humanity, I don’t see him controlling. Sometimes he seems and feels absent, distant and silent, weak or maybe even dead. Did God simply die and abandon us all to go to ‘hell in a hand basket’?

No! Rather than control and coerce, God-in-Christ cares and consents to suffer with and for us. We don’t concede to the false image of a ‘lame duck’ dad who sits by silently, watching his kids getting beaten by the bully. Instead, we look to the true image of the cruciform – Christ himself – the One who heard our groans and came down to suffer and die with us in order to overcome affliction, defeat death and raise us up to live and reign with him.

I also really appreciated the section on the Gospel – and “unwrathing” the Cross. I especially appreciated how he lays out the foundation before he started looking at Gospel metaphors used in the Bible:

I would like to explore some of the salvation metaphors in detail, unpacking key biblical and historical symbols of atonement. Before I do, I must say it again: atonement theories are not the gospel. Across the New Testament, while metaphors do appear to hint at the ‘how’ of atonement, the emphasis is not on these symbolic explanations, but on the story itself. Preaching the gospel never meant theorizing how atonement happens but, rather, proclaiming good news: the events and impacts of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. When the evangelists in the Book of Acts went preaching, whether it’s Peter or Stephen to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, or Paul and Barnabas to pagan Gentiles in Greek and Roman cities, their message is consistent. They usually follow this basic storyline:

God sent Jesus into the world to announce the good news of peace, to turn us from wickedness and save us (from ourselves).

Jesus was crucified (and sometimes, “You killed him”).

God raised him from the dead.

Jesus is Lord and Saviour; he is making all things new.

Now turn to this Jesus, entrust your life to him, and he will make you new too.

Do you see how this outline follows the Passion story? No theories, no clever analogies. The gospel is what actually happened in space-time history. The facts.

But the best part of this book is that the author really does “unwrath” the gospel. He shows that Jesus was not saving us from the Father. Jesus was fully God at the moment of his crucifixion.

Somehow, we must affirm both truths: that Christ entered an authentic experience of our sense of abandonment and that he never ceased to be God, nor did the Trinity ever cease to be one.

And I loved this point about how the gospel is often presented:

But further, where did we ever get the idea that God is too holy, righteous and pure to look on sin? Did it somehow escape our notice that God is everywhere and sees all things? If God was too holy to look on sin, would he know anything about anyone? In fact, did not Jesus walk, talk and eat with sinners every day of his life? Are we saying that Jesus was not God incarnate, fully God and fully man throughout every moment of his life? What Jesus saw, God saw – sin stains and all.

And here’s a further challenge:

I would challenge readers to find one instance in the four Gospels where Jesus casts the Father as the principal conspirator and punisher on Good Friday. Examine every instance of the gospel being preached in Acts (25% of the book!). See if you can spot even a single hint that God the Father was the culprit in the crucifixion. Yet, paradoxically, God did orchestrate our salvation through it. Even the Pauline language of God sending his Son as an ‘atoning sacrifice’ is a far cry from this picture of a retributive God turning from or lashing out against Jesus in order to fully satiate his wrath.

He sums this up beautifully by referring to “The Gospel in Chairs” – which you can find on Youtube! I strongly recommend watching this. One friend I sent the link to said, “That’s why they call it Good News!”

And that’s the message here:

God never turns away from humanity. God is perfectly revealed in Jesus. When did Jesus ever turn away from sinful humanity and say, “I am too holy and perfect to look on your sin?” Did Jesus ever do anything like that? No. The Pharisees did that. They were too holy and turned away. God is like Jesus, not like a Pharisee.

The gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness.

Truly beautiful indeed.

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Review of Flames of Love, by Heath Bradley

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Flames of Love

Hell and Universal Salvation

by Heath Bradley

Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2012. 176 pages.
Starred Review

Recently, I posted on Facebook an article that questioned the common view of hell in evangelical churches. The article referenced the fact that it isn’t entirely clear in the Greek text how the word should be translated – there’s definitely a strong case to be made that eternal conscious torment is not what’s intended in the original Greek after all.

This did get the attention of some of my friends and relatives. During the discussion that followed, I picked up this book that I’d purchased awhile back and had been meaning to read – and I love it. In fact, it’s completely pertinent. Every objection that people brought up in the online discussion is directly addressed, as are many others.

This book is for people who, like me, believe that the Bible is the Word of God. If you aren’t concerned about whether the Bible is entirely true or not, you don’t need this book to convince you that a loving God probably isn’t going to threaten his creatures with everlasting conscious torment.

But if you think Isn’t that what the Bible says?, so that you think you have to believe this if you believe the Bible, I strongly recommend reading this book. The author takes Scripture seriously and shows that it may be much more responsible interpretation to take a different view.

Now, a key word here is “everlasting.” When talking about hell, the Greek word used is aeonian, or “lasting eons.” I knew about this from my other reading. It does not mean going on and on without end, even though it may mean a very long time. Christian Universalists do not believe that hell is not real, but that it will not last forever. They also believe that the Bible’s promises that all will be made alive in Christ are completely true.

Here are a few sections from the introduction.

I believe hell is very real, yet I also believe that a God who is love is also real, and that this God gets the last word.

I related to this next passage. When I became a Universalist, I was afraid that it would destroy any motivation to evangelize. But instead, it made me feel hugely better about evangelism. Now I feel I actually have good news!

If the message that Jesus came to bring is that most people will actually spend an eternity experiencing the most horrible torment conceivable, well, to be honest, I can think of much better news than that! That theological vision does not strike me as good news at all. It certainly does not set my heart on fire with a joyous desire to share this news with as many people as I can. In fact, when I thought that this view of things was indispensable for Christianity, it made me feel anxious to think about and embarrassed to talk about. God, it seemed to me, had a dark side underneath the veneer of grace and goodness, contrary to how John summed up the meaning of Jesus’s message that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

There is, however, a theological vision that does strike me as good news, indeed as the best news possible for the world. It is a vision that fills my heart and soul with grateful awe and joyful excitement. It is a vision that I believe is Christ-centered, biblically-grounded, spiritually-compelling, and life-inspiring. In this book, we are concerned with understanding and evaluating a specific Christian vision of God and God’s relationship to humanity known as Christian universalism. Although this view will be fleshed out throughout the book, we can define it initially and simply as the belief that ultimately every person will be saved through Christ. This vision of salvation stands in sharp contrast, of course, to the dominant Christian vision of hell which we can define as the belief that all people who are not Christians will spend eternity in conscious torment.

Here’s another thought worth pondering:

From the outset it should be noted that in the Christian church’s traditional view of hell, not only Hitler spends an eternity in hell, but also his victims. Six million Jews suffered horrific torment in this life from Hitler, yet on the dominant Christian view of hell, after they died they entered into a realm of unending torment and punishment at the hands of God because they did not profess Christ as Lord. One has to honestly ask who comes off looking worse, Hitler or God? I bring this point up now just so we can have clear in our minds what we are dealing with when it comes to the traditional view of hell. This is certainly a doctrine that raises lots of theological questions and moral objections that need to be given thoughtful attention.

And he makes some very good points about interpretation. This is from that discussion:

Christians have been reading the same Bible and holding greatly different beliefs for over two thousand years now. Awareness of this historical fact alone should make us quick to listen to others, and slow to assume our position is the obviously right one. It should also give us pause before accusing someone of denying biblical authority just because they question the legitimacy of our interpretations. In other words, in questioning hell we are not throwing away the biblical puzzle pieces we do not like, we are simply questioning if the picture on the lid that we have received from the dominant tradition actually gives us the best way to put all the pieces together. Perhaps there is a better picture that can make room for more of the pieces to fit together better. At this point we need to acknowledge that people who disagree with our own biblical interpretations are not necessarily denying the Bible, but simply questioning the lenses through which we currently see the Bible.

I do like this take on it, looking at the big picture of theology:

Christian universalism simply affirms with Calvinists that God can and will do whatever God desires to do, and with the Arminians that God desires to save all people. Put those premises together, and you get the conclusion that God will save all people….

Consider the following three statements, each of which, at least on the surface has some degree of biblical support:

1. God loves every human being the same and desires all to be saved.
2. God has the power to accomplish God’s redemptive desires.
3. Some people will remain in hell forever.

The three statements, taken together, are contradictory. One of them must be false. Calvinists deny the first one. Arminians deny the second one. Universalists deny the third one. At the beginning of the debate, why assume that the first two are up for discussion, but the third one is untouchable, as Christians so often do? Why assume the priority and clarity of the everlasting hell passages while being willing to reinterpret the passages used in support for the other two claims? At the end of the day, each position has to try to explain why some passages do not mean what they appear to mean. While I think the universalist position does a better job than the other two in making the most sense of the whole of the biblical witness, at this point my hope is that you can see that Christian universalism is a position at least as worthy of consideration as the other two major theological systems.

In the main text, the author takes the approach of using each chapter to address one of six objections to universalism.

The first objection is “Universalists don’t believe in hell.” Here’s a bit of the answer to that:

Judgment need not be everlasting conscious torment in order for it to be very serious. This cannot be emphasized enough. Christian universalists do not deny the reality of judgment and hell, they simply contend that judgment and hell should be conceptualized and imagined in such a way as to be congruent with a God who is genuinely loving to all people and who therefore seeks what is best for all people.

This is the chapter where the author talks about the Greek word gehenna and what it would have meant to Jesus’ followers. While the Bible clearly teaches there is a hell, it’s not absolutely clear it means the currently popular depiction of hell. Here’s another good point the author makes:

In applying this to the question of hell and judgment, I am not suggesting that since God is like a loving parent there is no judgment. What I am suggesting is that however we conceptualize and imagine the reality of hell, it must be consistent with the affirmation of Jesus that God relates to us as a loving parent, and loving parents only punish their children for the purpose of correction and restoration. If you are inclined at this point to object that I am limiting God by reducing God to the confines of good parenting on a human level, I would remind you that it was Jesus himself who taught us to think of divine goodness on the analogy of human parental goodness. If divine goodness is completely of a different kind than the goodness of a human parent, then Jesus’s admonition wouldn’t make any sense and there would be no use comparing the two. I don’t think that can be emphasized enough.

Here’s another good point in that chapter:

I confess that I am often baffled when defenders of the traditional view of an everlasting hell say things like, “God will not tolerate sinners.” I know this doesn’t sound very nice to say, but it really makes me wonder if they have ever paid close attention to Jesus’s life. If one thing is abundantly clear about Jesus’s life, it is that he not only tolerated sinners, he loved them, ate with them, and accepted them into fellowship with himself, to the chagrin of the top religious leaders of his day (Luke 15:1-2). If we believe that Jesus reveals God more than anything or anyone else, as Christians have always believed, then how can we ever come to the conclusion that God cannot tolerate sinners? The Pharisees were the ones who thought that God could not tolerate sinners, not Jesus and his followers.

The second objection is “Universalists don’t believe the Bible.” The answer is that universalists interpret the Bible differently – and there are strong hermeneutical reasons to interpret the Bible as we do.

Here’s a bit of his discussion about that:

As I see the debate, the traditionalists and the universalists both have a difficult interpretive task set before them. To put it concisely, the traditionalists have to try to explain why “all” doesn’t really mean all when it comes to who will be saved, and the universalists have to explain why “eternal” doesn’t really mean eternal when it comes to the duration of the punishment in the age to come. I will argue that I think the universalist position is more exegetically sound and theologically coherent than the traditionalist position, but before getting there, it is important to see that both positions have a similar predicament. Oftentimes Christians of a traditionalist perspective seem to think that the Christians who have a universalist perspective have the burden of proof on them. But, as we have argued, there is no good reason to simply assume from the start that the traditionalist passages should be taken as primary and more clear than the universalist passages. Certainly the weight of tradition leads many people to quickly filter out the universalist passages without much thought, but this is not a fair way to proceed in examining these texts. We should be willing to set aside, as best we can, our preconceived and inherited notions of which texts are really “clear,” and see which position can do the best job of accounting for the other set of passages.

Here he looks at the strong case that “all” does mean all, but that “eternal,” hasn’t been translated well, and means “pertaining to an age.” He treats it as a serious interpretive question. It’s good to realize that this is an interpretive question, and not a matter of whether you believe the Bible or not.

I like this sentence toward the end of the chapter:

God does not punish people instead of saving them from their sins, but, if the foregoing picture of divine punishment is true, God punishes people (by showing them the essential ugliness of their sins) so that God can save them.

Objection #3 is “Universalists deny human freedom.”

Again, the answer is a chapter long. Here’s a bit of it:

Christian universalism deeply values human freedom, so much so that it holds that God will not even take it away in the age to come. Freedom to choose God does not end at death in this view, as it does for traditionalists. In addition to extending human freedom in the age to come, the Christian universalist can also criticize the free-will defense of an everlasting hell for failing to take into account several important features about the nature of human freedom. In this chapter, we will explore how the account of human freedom offered in a free-will defense of everlasting hell fails to consider two very important things: the power of God to change a human will, and the inherently socially-embedded and constrained nature of human freedom. In other words, the free-will defenders of an everlasting hell do not give enough credit to the power of divine love, and they give too much credit to the power of human choices.

He waxes eloquent about the power of God’s love here. (And this is partly why I love the theory of universalism. How great God is in His great love!)

It seems that this comes down to whether or not we should have more confidence in the power of human sin, or the power of divine grace. I’m going with divine grace. Paul writes that “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Rom. 5:20). At the end of the day, I believe that God’s love for us will be more relentless than our rejection of him, and that is why I am a universalist. I do not at all underestimate how deeply rooted self-centered and sinful patterns of living can be, but at the same time I do not think we should underestimate the power of God’s just and holy love to pull the roots of sin out of our hearts.

If I am proven to be wrong about this, if some will forever hold out against God, then I think God will not be offended if I put too much confidence in the power of divine love. Even if one doesn’t go all the way in affirming that God will ultimately heal every human heart and transform every evil will through destroying all sin with the fire of his holy love, it seems to me that every Christian should at least have hope in the possibility of this happening. Jesus, after all, told us that, “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). We should take careful note of the fact that when Jesus said this he was explicitly referring to the power of God to save even those who seem impossible to save from a merely human perspective (Matt. 19:23-26). When it comes to who can be saved, our hope is in divine possibility, not in human probabilities.

The fourth objection addressed is “Universalists think all religions are equally true.”

Now, some universalists may think this, but not the Christian universalism presented here. First he presents the views of pluralism and exclusivism. He’s a little bit harsh about exclusivism.

The exclusivist viewpoint, when pressed, has a supreme irony, or shall I say contradiction, at the heart of its claim. It claims that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, yet for the people who do not know about how much God loves them, God will subject them to never-ending suffering. While this view certainly highlights the central role of Christ in our salvation, it ultimately paints God as something of an arbitrary tyrant rather than the loving parent Jesus describes.

He does present an alternative:

Fortunately, there is a third option available to us that preserves what is good about pluralism and exclusivism, while avoiding the pitfalls that come with both of these views. This view is known as inclusivism. According to this view, Christ is the only way to God, yet the saving work of Christ is not limited to people who in this life knowingly and intentionally put their trust in Christ.

I love this perspective about the calling of Abraham. I’d never noticed this thread before, and it rings true to look at it this way:

Another key aspect of the argument for inclusivism is the broad scriptural theme of God’s saving love that reaches out to the whole world. From the beginning of the biblical story of redemption, God reveals himself to be a God who is not concerned with only a small set of people in the world, but rather with all the people of the world. In fact, God’s particular election of the people of Abraham is for the universal purpose of drawing all people into the blessing of God (Gen. 12:1-3). The Christian tradition has mostly missed this point in a huge way, and has instead talked about “election” as pertaining to the salvation of some instead of others. But in the biblical story, election is about a calling for the sake of others. Election is not a matter of God favoring some people over others. Election is a matter of God choosing some people to be instruments of blessings to the rest of the people. It is never about God choosing some individuals for redemptive privilege, but rather it is about God choosing a group of people for missional service.

The fifth objection is “Universalism undermines evangelism.”

I enjoyed this chapter, because when I first decided to embrace universalism, this was the biggest objection in my mind – and then I found, to my surprise, that I was much happier telling people about my faith, so it came much more naturally. I no longer felt like I had to tell bad-news-good-news, but no, I believe that the message is purely good news. God loves everyone utterly – and He’s going to redeem everyone!

The author seems to have had the same transformation of his feelings about evangelism. And he makes some excellent additional points in this chapter.

While belief in an everlasting hell may be what has motivated many evangelists and missionaries, I would argue that it is precisely this belief that has largely contributed to a transactional, decision-oriented focus towards evangelism that has made accepting the gospel the minimal entrance requirement for heaven. In contrast, Jesus said evangelism is to be about making disciples by teaching people how to live as he taught through empowerment of his Spirit. If we think that people are going to be tortured for an eternity if they do not believe the right things, then all of our focus is on getting them to say a certain prayer or accept a certain creed to escape that fate. What matters, on this view, isn’t getting the whole gospel into people as deeply as possible, but rather what becomes top priority is simply getting just a part of the gospel into as many people as possible. But, wehn the part becomes the whole, then the whole thing gets distorted. Teaching people how to live in the Way of Christ becomes optional on this view, instead of being essential as Christ said it should be.

He makes a great point about the first Christian sermons in the Bible:

Interestingly, “hell” is never mentioned in any of the sermons recorded in the book of Acts. This is highly significant because Acts offers us an account of the spread of the church in its earliest years (from roughly 30-60 AD). The whole book is filled with one missionary story after another, and yet not once do the apostles threaten eternal punishment to people if they do not accept their good news. They didn’t see their mission as getting people to buy “celestial fire insurance.” They do preach a judgment in the age to come, but as we have seen, one cannot simply read into an affirmation of judgment an eternally dualistic outcome. While the preachers in Acts do not preach a doctrine of everlasting hell, one preacher named Peter did in fact proclaim that one day there would be a “restoration of all things.” Even though Peter apparently believed that one day God would restore and reclaim all things, this didn’t at all dampen his missionary zeal. In fact, Peter argues that because one day the work of Christ will be consummated in a universal restoration, we should repent here and now so our sins will be forgiven and so that we can begin to live in tune with how life in the kingdom of God will be (Acts 3:19)….

The logic of Christian universalism isn’t that because all will be reconciled to God, we should therefore not be concerned about how life is lived here and now. No, the logic of Christian universalism is that because we are all headed towards an inescapable encounter with the complete truth about ourselves and about God, we should open ourselves up to the light of God here and now so that the light can begin to dispel the darkness and we can begin to be transformed now and experience a glimpse of the fullness and richness of life with God in the age to come (Acts 3:20).

The sixth and final objection addressed is “Universalism undermines holy living.”

I appreciated the author’s take on Holiness. I’d never thought of it this way before, but once my eyes are opened I notice that, yes, this fits with many, many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments:

If the charge is made against Christian universalism that it dilutes the motivation for holy living, not only can the previous defense be offered, but we can also go on the offensive and make the case that it is actually the traditional doctrine of everlasting hell that potentially undermines holy living insofar as it actually distorts what God’s holiness is all about. Recall that earlier we said God’s holiness is God’s “otherness,” that is, it is what makes God essentially different from us. According to the traditionalists, God’s holiness lies in God’s right to retributively punish sin forever out of being offended by human sin. However, Jesus defined God’s holy perfection much differently. He didn’t describe God’s holiness as God’s desire or need to restore his offended majesty, but rather he explicitly and clearly defined God’s holiness as God’s unbounded love for God’s enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). Remember, it was the Pharisees who defined God’s holiness in terms of separation from sinners. The Pharisees (whose name means “separate ones”) excluded sinners from their fellowship because they believed they were imitating the way God relates to sinners. Jesus, on the other hand, welcomed sinners into fellowship with himself because he believed he was imitating the way God relates to sinners. Jesus subversively redefined God’s holiness as compassion, not separation. When thinking about the holiness of God, it is crucially important that we let Jesus define divine holiness for us, since he is the pinnacle of God’s revelation to us. “No one has ever seen God,” the apostle John writes, but Jesus “who is close to the Father’s heart has made him known” (John 1:18). God is holy, to be sure, but traditional defenders of hell rely far too much on the vision of divine holiness put forth by the Pharisees, and not enough on the way Jesus revealed the holiness of God as compassionate love.

Taking that a step further:

On the traditional view, God essentially asks of humanity what God is not willing to do. God asks us to not seek merely retributive punishment and to forgive indefinitely, yet God is not willing to do this himself. On the traditional view, it is easier to write people off and condemn them because it is believed deep down that this is what God in fact does with the majority of people. On the universalist view, restorative justice and reconciliation are the ultimate reality. Because the universalist believes that the world is heading towards the reconciliation of all things, we are motivated and inspired here and now to begin to make that a reality.

In the final chapter, Heath Bradley looks at some remaining questions with shorter answers. I like his way of wrapping up the book:

I realize that there are legitimate questions to be asked and genuine concerns to be raised with the view that holds that ultimately all will be saved through Christ. I hope I have addressed them in thoughtful and helpful ways, although I am sure I have not done so in such a way as to dispel all doubt. My hopeful belief is that these remaining doubts and concerns will turn out to be similar to the question that the women disciples asked on their way to the tomb, concerning how the stone will be rolled away (Mark 16:3). They discovered, beyond their ability to imagine or conceive, that with God, all things really are possible. Christian universalism is the conviction that their discovery, that the darkness cannot overcome the light, will one day belong to us all.

I’ve included lots of excerpts here, because I love the logic and thoroughness of his thinking, and I wanted to give a taste of it. Please be aware that this is not the entire book! If you find these arguments at all compelling, I encourage you to read further. If you find yourself dismissing all of them, you might also want to read further and get more background, understand more clearly why someone who solidly believes that the Bible is the Word of God also believes that hell is not a place of everlasting conscious torment.

I’ve done a lot of reading on this topic over many years now, and I love the way this one sums up many good arguments and brings up some new ones, and does so clearly and consistently. This author has read many of the same books I have!

But I also love his take on God’s holiness as expressed above all in God’s forgiveness. And I love the way his love for God and for sinners shines through in these pages.

And praise be to God’s great, unending, amazing Love that indeed gets the last word!

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Review of Imagine Heaven, by John Burke

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Imagine Heaven

Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future That Awaits You

by John Burke

Baker Books, 2015. 348 pages.
Starred Review

Imagine Heaven looks at accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs) from all over the world, from various cultures, religions, and backgrounds — and shows how the accounts match what the Bible says about heaven.

I’ve been interested in near-death experiences for awhile. Most of the books I’ve reviewed on the topic were quoted in this book: Proof of Heaven, Heaven Is For Real, To Heaven and Back, and even the book where the author went to hell first, My Descent Into Death. (Reading my review of My Descent Into Death, it was apparently the book that got me started reading other such books.)

Author John Burke does stick with a strictly evangelical perspective in his interpretation of the experiences. I tend to think they give support to Universalism. But one thing that is striking, which I hadn’t noticed before, is how those who have experienced NDEs describe heaven using very similar terms with the descriptions in Revelation.

When I was in the middle of reading this book, my sister had a dream about our mother, who is in late-stage Alzheimer’s. She dreamed that they were climbing stairs together. My Mom was much better, happy and eager, and climbing the stairs. At the top, there was a door, and Jesus was at the door. Becky left Mom with Jesus, and Mom was so happy to be there. Reading this book, and a dream like that, reminds me that Yes, heaven is a wonderful place. Yes, what’s important is Love.

The highlight of many NDEs, for all who claim to have come near, is this mystical Being of Light who fills them with a love beyond imagination.

A common experience across cultures is that this Being of Light gives them a Life Review.

One of the greatest indications that the God NDErs describe is the God of the Jewish/Christian Scriptures is how they depict their life review in his presence. Despite vividly seeing all their deeds, good and evil, and all the relational ripple effects of both, they do not experience a Being who desires to condemn. They experience a compassion coming from this Being of Light.

The author looks at the work of other researchers:

Dr. Long talks about how the unified theme of thousands of NDEs is the importance of love first. Muhammad in Egypt said after his NDE, “I felt that love is the one thing that all humans must feel towards each other.

The book does go on about details — the “sea of glass, clear as crystal,” the “rainbow that shone like an emerald,” the streets of pure gold, like glass. The author throws in lots of interpretation — but with many valid conclusions.

For me, the book encouraged and uplifted me, reminding me that God is Love, that heaven is not something to fear, and that what’s important, in this life and the next, is Love.

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Review of Champagne for the Soul, by Mike Mason

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

champagne_for_the_soul_largeChampagne for the Soul

Rediscovering God’s Gift of Joy

by Mike Mason

Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, B. C., 2007. 190 pages.
Starred Review

A big thank-you to my sister Becky for recommending this book!

Here’s how the author introduces this book:

In October 1999 I began a ninety-day experiment in joy. I made up my mind that for the next ninety days I would be joyful in the Lord. Because this was an experiment, there was room for failure. If there were times when I wasn’t joyful, I wouldn’t despair or beat myself up. Rather I would gently, persistently return as best I could to my focus on joy.

So began (and continues to this day) the happiest time of my life. This book is the record of that experiment in joy, along with other thoughts on joy that came to me later. While I was astounded by the results of my initial experiment, I deliberately waited before writing a book. I knew my ideas needed time to mature, and more important, I had to see whether the new joy that had flooded my life would endure. Amazingly, it has. My original thesis turned out to be true: Joy is like a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it grows.

The book consists of 90 two-page chapters. Each one begins with a verse, and then some thoughts about aspects of joy.

I’ll admit that it wasn’t until I was more than two-thirds of the way through the book that I decided to try a full-fledged experiment with joy myself. So my plan was to turn around and start the book over again.

However, today, the very day I finished reading the book, my church small group met for the first time since taking the summer off, and we were trying to decide what study to do this next season. I threw out the idea of using this book — and they immediately loved the idea.

So — I’m going to try an experiment in joy along with a close group of Christian friends! I think that’s going to add layers of richness to the experience.

And this book is a wonderful guide to bring along. There aren’t “study questions.” Mike Mason writes about his own experiences with joy, which I think will encourage us to think about our own experiences and share them with each other.

This isn’t a how-to book. More of a travelogue about one person’s journey with Jesus into a new experience of joy and encouragement for others who may choose to follow a similar path.

As I was reading, I found dozens of quotes I loved, and I’m slowly loading them into Sonderquotes. You can get an idea of the sort of thing the author focuses on by reading these.

Now, I’m happily writing this review having finished the book but knowing that I’m only on the beginning of my journey with it. And next time around, I’m looking forward to having companions traveling with me.

I should add that when I first approached the book, it was as a casual reader, figuring I’d read good thoughts about joy. When I decided to actually try my own experiment with joy — 23 days ago — it suddenly got more personal, more immediate.

Not to give spoilers, but here are some words from the Epilogue:

My experiment has been wildly successful. Joy has indeed become an ingrained habit of my soul — so much a part of me that it hardly seems possible that I lived without it for nearly half a century. Not only am I much happier now than ever before, but I know it’s possible to keep moving in the direction of joy and to have more and more of it. In the search for joy a certain point arrives where the balance tips in our favor. We find we’re no longer striving for happiness; we’re simply happy. It’s like getting out of debt: Without a fat mortgage payment to dole out every month, life takes on an entirely different feel. Difficulties still come, perhaps grave ones, but joy keeps flowing into the hurts like a self-renewing stream.

I highly recommend this book. While it’s fantastic casual reading, I’ve found my experience with it got richer the more seriously I took it. What are you waiting for? Dive in!

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Review of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, by James Martin, S. J.

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

jesuit_guide_largeThe Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything

A Spirituality for Real Life

by James Martin, S.J.

HarperOne (HarperCollins), 2010. 420 pages.
Starred Review

A big thank you to my friend Charles for recommending this book!

The title sums up the book well. This book takes a close look at how Jesuits approach life – and it applies to almost everything.

Charles recommended it as a good book for helping make decisions and figuring out your life path. I agree with him that it’s good for those things.

It’s a long book, and it took me a long time to read it, but it’s packed with good thoughts. The Jesuit perspective is a new one for me, yet from the same view of wanting to bring God into our lives. There are many good ideas and godly advice here.

James Martin begins the book by talking about Ignatian spirituality.

Ignatian spirituality considers everything an important element of your life. That includes religious services, sacred Scriptures, prayer, and charitable works, to be sure, but it also includes friends, family, work, relationships, sex, suffering, and joy, as well as nature, music, and pop culture. . . .

In Ignatian spirituality there is nothing that you have to put in a box and hide. Nothing has to be feared. Nothing has to be hidden away. Everything can be opened up before God.

That’s why this book is called The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. It’s not a guide to understanding everything about everything (thus the Almost). Rather, it’s a guide to discovering how God can be found in every dimension of your life. How God can be found in everything. And everyone, too.

Here are the kinds of questions that are proper to Ignatian spirituality, which we’ll discuss in the coming chapters:

How do I know what I’m supposed to do in life?

How do I know who I’m supposed to be?

How do I make good decisions?

How can I live a simple life?

How can I be a good friend?

How can I face suffering?

How can I be happy?

How can I find God?

How do I pray?

How do I love?

All these things are proper to Ignatian spirituality because all these things are proper to the human person.

That summarizes well the kind of things this book looks at – things about life and guidance and decisions and direction, things about love and friendship and a relationship with God. Father Martin’s style is personal and friendly, like a brother sharing his walk and his insights. He maybe rambles a little bit, but that adds to the non-threatening, friendly style.

The author interweaves his insights and advice with many, many stories – from his own life and from the lives of friends and mentors and people he has counseled. He also includes some Jesuit jokes! These are not abstract ideas, but time-tested wisdom – as the subtitle says, this is spirituality for real life.

James Martin ends the book with a prayer of total surrender, of offering all we are and have to God.

Why am I ending this book with such a “hard” prayer? To remind you that the spiritual life is a constant journey. For me, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say that prayer and mean it completely. That is, I still want to hold on to all those things. And I’m not sure that I can say yet that all I need is God’s love and grace. I’m still too human for that. But as Ignatius said, it’s enough to have the desire for the desire. It’s enough to want that freedom. God will take care of the rest.

So together you and I are still on the way to being contemplatives in action, to finding God in all things, to seeing God incarnate in the world, and to seeking freedom and detachment.

The way of Ignatius has been traveled by millions of people searching for God in their daily lives. And for that way – easy at times, difficult at others, but always moving us closer to God – we can thank our friend, St. Ignatius Loyola.

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Review of Moving Mountains, by John Eldredge

Monday, July 4th, 2016

moving_mountains_largeMoving Mountains

Praying with Passion, Confidence, and Authority

by John Eldredge

Nelson Books, 2016. 248 pages.
Starred Review

My church Small Group went through this book this year, and we’ve been richly blessed.

Moving Mountains is a book about prayer, and praying effectively.

We have embarked on the most exciting story possible, filled with danger, adventure, and wonders. There is nothing more hopeful than the thought that things can be different, we can move mountains, and we have some role in bringing that change about.

As in his other books, John Eldredge reminds us that we are at war – but God has given us authority in the battle.

The Scriptures are a sort of wake-up call to the human race, a trumpet blast, to use Francis Thompson’s phrase, “from this hid battlements of eternity.” One alarm they repeatedly sound is that we are all caught up in the midst of a collision of kingdoms – the kingdom of God advancing with force against the kingdom of darkness, which for the moment holds most of the world in its clutches. Is this your understanding of the world you find yourself in? Does this shape the way you pray – and the way you interpret “unanswered” prayer?

The author also points out that God is growing us up. He’s teaching us to use the weapons He’s given us by throwing us into the battle.

Now, if you believed both assumptions, if they were woven into your deepest convictions about the world, you would want to learn to pray like a soldier wants to learn to use his weapon, like a smoke jumper wants to learn survival skills. We really have no idea what sort of breakthrough is actually possible until we learn to pray. Perhaps we, too, will be ending droughts and stopping wildfires.

With that background as to where we’re going, John Eldredge doesn’t leap right into prayer of warfare. He lays the groundwork, looking at our beliefs about God. Here’s a moving section:

A slave feels reluctant to pray; they feel they have no right to ask, and so their prayers are modest and respectful. They spend more time asking forgiveness than they do praying for abundance. They view the relationship with reverence, maybe more like fear, but not with the tenderness of love. Of being loved. There is no intimacy in the language or their feelings. Sanctified unworthiness colors their view of prayer. These are often “good servants of the Lord.”

An orphan is not reluctant to pray; they feel desperate. But their prayers feel more like begging than anything else. Orphans feel a great chasm between themselves and the One to whom they speak. Abundance is a foreign concept; a poverty mentality permeates their prayer lives. They ask for scraps; they expect scraps.

But not sons; sons know who they are.

Before he talks about praying for others, he covers our authority in Christ.

We really thought this life was simply about getting a nice little situation going for ourselves and living out the length of our days in happiness. I’m sorry to take that from you, but you and I shall soon be inheriting kingdoms, and we are almost illiterate when it comes to ruling. So God must prepare us to reign. How does he do this? In exactly the same way he grows us up – he puts us in situations that require us to pray and to learn how to use the authority that has been given to us. How else could it possibly happen?

After talking about prayers of intervention, the book goes on to talk about consecration and about daily prayer to align ourselves with God’s purposes. Then it covers prayer for guidance, listening prayer, praying Scripture, warfare prayer, and inner and outer healing. The final chapter talks about outcomes that are not what we had desired.

I love this reminder:

Life wins. Sometimes now, especially if we will pray. But life wins fully, and very soon.

Just as we must fix our eyes on Jesus when we pray, we must also fix our hearts on this one undeniable truth: life will win. When you know that unending joy is about to be yours, you live with such an unshakable confidence it will almost be a swagger. You can pray boldly, without fear, knowing that, “If this doesn’t work now, it will work totally and completely very soon.” We can have that kingdom attitude of Daniel’s friends, who said, “God is able to deliver, and he will deliver. But if not . . .” we will not lose heart. Period.

As we worked through this book, our Small Group found ourselves getting opportunities to practice what we were learning. We saw some mighty examples of God working. And we feel like we’re only at the beginning of our journey.

I highly recommend this book for personal study, but especially for group study if your group is ready for an adventure together.

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Review of Miracle Man, by John Hendrix

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

miracle_man_largeMiracle Man

The Story of Jesus

by John Hendrix

Abrams Books for Young Readers, New York, 2016. 44 pages.
Starred Review

This is a picture book telling about the life of Jesus Christ, done by an accomplished picture book illustrator.

Now, I personally am not completely crazy about the book, since I have my own conception of Jesus’ story, and there’s some necessary simplification. For example, he gives Andrew’s lines to Peter (the only disciple named in this book, besides Judas) in the story of the feeding of the five thousand.

But the more I look at this book, the more it’s growing on me. John Hendrix makes the characters in the story look like Jews. Jesus looks tough, and his clothes are a little ragged. But the most interesting feature is that he makes the words of Jesus part of the art and larger than life.

The author introduces Jesus like this:

On a day that didn’t seem at all unusual, there came an unusual Man. He looked like any other man, but he was like none who had ever lived before. This Man was God’s son. When he spoke, his words made things happen. His words came . . . ALIVE

[ALIVE is spelled out by butterflies in the illustration.]

The stories told about Jesus include calling the disciples and the miraculous catch of fish, healing a leper, healing the paralytic (after his friends broke through the ceiling), and calming the sea. I especially like the author’s paraphrase of Jesus’ words after he stops the storm:

I am the Son of the living God who made the water and the winds. Did you forget who was in your boat?

The story goes on with the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water, including Peter walking on the water. (“Peter, have faith in my feet, not your own.”) Then we come to the Last Supper and Judas’ betrayal.

The crucifixion is mainly alluded to — very tastefully done for a picture book — one page with Jesus carrying the cross and then a grand scene with the heartbroken disciples, and the women in a corner with Jesus’ body, and the very walls of Jerusalem seeming to say, “It seemed the miracles had COME TO AN END.”

Then we have a spread from inside the empty tomb, graveclothes on a ledge, and Jesus outside in the light looking at a butterfly.

But God’s Son, Jesus, the Miracle Man,
had in store one last glorious miracle . . .

I haven’t seen another book about Jesus’ life quite like this one. The word that comes to mind is Majestic.

The Author’s Note at the back explains why John Hendrix wanted to tell this story. I liked hearing that he was fascinated as a child by the words of Jesus in red in his Bible.

You may have heard about the life of Jesus many times before, but my hope is to share the familiar story with you in a new way. Perhaps the best way to experience the Easter story is to momentarily forget about the trappings of religion around it and see the man at the center. In my experience, the story changes when we think of the people who experienced Jesus in person during the time he walked among us. Those people didn’t have a steepled church building or know anything about Christian theology. They simply met a man, some of them for only a brief moment, and they were changed forever.

Most of all, the author’s love for the Miracle Man shines through. This book is a wonderful way to tell children about Him.

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