Review of Then Sings My Soul, by Robert J. Morgan


Then Sings My Soul

Volumes 1 & 2

250 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories

by Robert J. Morgan

Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 2003.  308 pages.

My Mom taught me to love hymns when I was a girl.  She made sure our family had a copy of the church hymnal.  My sister and I used to while away long drives by singing hymns.  We used to kneel at the two back windows of our van (oh horrors, without seatbelts!) and sing out the back window.  With all the noise of the car, it felt like no one could hear us but each other, and we could sing our little hearts out with the wind blowing in our faces.

So I thought Then Sings My Soul is the perfect book for morning devotions.  Each two-page spread has a hymn on one page, and the story behind the writing of that hymn (or perhaps a story of someone touched by the hymn) on the facing page.

Not only are the stories inspiring, but the book also has a wonderful selection of old classic hymns.  As the author says in the introduction, “Hymns connect us with generations now gone.  Each week millions of Christians in local settings around the world, using hymns composed by believers from every era and branch of Christendom, join voices in united bursts of praise, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in their hearts to the Lord.”

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Review of The Prodigal’s Perspective, by Robert E. Steinkamp

The Prodigal’s Perspective

by Robert E. Steinkamp

Rejoice Marriage Ministries, 2006. 263 pages.

Of all the books from Rejoice Marriage Ministries, I think I am most encouraged by the ones Bob Steinkamp has written about his experiences as a “prodigal.”

Bob’s wife Charlyne divorced him for adultery and abuse, on the advice of her pastor.  But then her heart was convicted and she felt God was telling her not to give up on Bob, but to fast and pray for him to repent and come back to God.

At the time, he thought she was crazy.  He told her the marriage was over, and melted down his wedding ring to prove it.  He told her he was never ever coming back.

But now, twenty years later, he tells a different story.  He tells how God was working on him the entire two years that they were divorced before he finally gave in to God’s promptings and remarried his wife.

He says, “It took a long while, crisis after crisis, almost a promise of a plane crash, and even coming face to face with three visible demons in my bedroom, for me to do what the Lord desired.  Yes, I had my own ‘free will’ as people are reminding you, but it would take a book to share all the ways God used to bring my free will into alignment with His will for my life.”

This book gives a window into what happened behind the scenes while his wife was praying.  She certainly didn’t know what he was thinking at the time.  I thought this paragraph was eye-opening:

“How many times a day do you think of your absent mate?  How often does something happen that will instantly remind you of the one you love?  Rest assured that you are coming to your prodigal’s thoughts just as often.  When you were married you became one flesh, a relationship that simply cannot be dissolved at will.  Your absent mate may wish you would drop from their memory, but God will never allow that to happen.  As you stand strong, doing things God’s way, those memories in your mate’s mind will be enhanced.  Take that as fact from a man who called the other woman by his wife’s name a year after our divorce!”

Bob also reminds the reader that his transformation came from God’s work in his heart, not something that Charlyne engineered.  He urges you to give your marriage to God, but reminds you that prayers for your spouse are far more effective than you may realize at the time.

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Review of The Evangelical Universalist, by Gregory MacDonald


The Evangelical Universalist

by Gregory MacDonald

Cascade Books, Eugene Oregon, 2006.  201 pages.

Several years ago, through reading the writings of George MacDonald, I became convinced that God will save everyone, eventually.  Now I believe that this view is the most consistent interpretation of the Bible.

Gregory MacDonald’s process of coming to believe in universalism was similar to mine.  He says, “Finding arguments for universalism convincing seemed to be a major and unwelcome challenge to my orthodox faith.  I was, and remain, committed to the truth of Scripture; so I thought that I ‘knew’ universalism was not true.”

However, he began to read articles and books that presented the idea that universalism is a biblical belief.  Similar to my own process of coming to this belief, the first step was the realization that there exist some intelligent and godly people who believe that the Bible teaches that God will save everyone.  This realization opened the door to question the interpretation that he had always been taught.

His description of his change of thinking also describes exactly how it was for me:

“My ‘conversion’ to universalism was not sudden but very gradual and, at times, anxious.  Such a departure from the mainstream view of the church is not something to be rushed into.  I do not expect readers of this book to rush to embrace universalism — in some ways I would be concerned if they did.  I do however wish to sow a seed of hope.”

It may come as a surprise to those brought up in evangelical churches (such as I) that some people believe that universalism is biblical. “I hope to show that, in fact, universalism is not a major change to the tradition and that it actually enables us to hold key elements of the tradition together better than traditional doctrines of hell.”

Gregory MacDonald reminds us, “even a commitment to an inspired Bible is not a commitment to inerrant interpretations.  Reason can play a role in exposing misinterpretations of the Bible.”

How is an evangelical universalist different from an evangelical or different from other universalists?  Well, such a person does believe in hell.  However, they believe “that one’s eternal destiny is not fixed at death and, consequently, that those in hell can repent and throw themselves upon the mercy of God in Christ and thus be saved.  Second, she also believes that in the end everyone will do this.”

Gregory MacDonald takes a very intellectual approach to this topic, and concentrates on the biblical backing for this view.  If you think universalism might have merit, but don’t understand how someone could claim the Bible teaches it, this might be the book for you.

As for me, I already had come to believe that universalism makes more sense and resonates with the body of Scripture.  But like Gregory MacDonald, I am not 100% sure.  This book helped clear up some of the discrepancies that remain in my mind and helped me feel that much more secure in this belief in a God who loves everyone enough to save them.  Truly, He is mighty to save.

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Review of Your Life in Christ, by George MacDonald


Your Life in Christ

The Nature of God and His Work in Human Hearts

by George MacDonald

edited by Michael Phillips

Bethany House, 2005.  261 pages.

I love George MacDonald’s writings.  His deep and abiding love for the Father shine through, and his encouragement is inspiring.

Here’s another collection of his writings compiled by Michael Phillips.  This book contains selections only from his nonfiction, with commentary on each passage from Michael Phillips.

Here are some quotations that blessed me from this book:

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Review of Your Father Knows Best, compiled by Bob and Charlyne Steinkamp

Your Father Knows Best

True Reports from Court of God Moving When People Are Praying

Compiled by Bob and Charlyne Steinkamp

Rejoice Marriage Ministries, 2003.  93 pages.

Rejoice Marriage Ministries was founded by Bob and Charlyne Steinkamp to minister to spread the word that God heals hurting marriages.  Twenty years ago, Charlyne divorced Bob for adultery and abuse.  But God spoke to her, asking her to pray for Bob and pray for their marriage to be restored.  And God did that very thing, after two years divorced.

This summer, when I got to visit a meeting of Rejoice Ministries in Florida, I told Charlyne about my upcoming court case.  It looked like I might get out of the November 5 trial if my husband and I reached an agreement about custody and visitation, but it was looking more and more likely that at the very least there would be a final divorce hearing on December 10. 

Charlyne, who is compassionate and kind and a radiant believer in the power of God, reminded me about their book, Your Father Knows Best.  I’d read the book before, but agreed that this was an opportune time to go over it again.

Your Father Knows Best is a compilation of true stories people have told to Bob and Charlyne about ways that God moved in surprising and miraculous ways in court cases.  This book is an encouraging reminder that God can still work, even when divorce has gotten to the final stages.

I could add my own story to a later version of the book.  A few days before our custody and visitation hearing, our lawyers came to an agreement that would settle matters between us.  I went to my lawyer’s office and signed my name or initials 300 times on 5 copies of two different versions of the agreement. 

A couple days later, I learned that my husband did not like the agreement and had a dispute with his lawyer.  It was too late to get another lawyer before the case came up in court, so he dropped it completely.  I am still married.

Now, my husband still fully intends to divorce me.  I was disappointed that this development meant no spousal support is forthcoming.  I’ve wondered if maybe I shouldn’t file for divorce myself to get things settled.

However, I prayed and asked God if I had really heard correctly and if He was still telling me to wait and pray for my marriage to be restored.  He answered swiftly and surely, yet again through a sermon the very next Sunday, a Christmas sermon not quite like any other I’d ever heard.

And God already did an amazing, unexpected and impossible thing by putting a stop to the divorce case this first time.  Who am I to say He cannot do this other thing of restoring and rebuilding our marriage?

Books like Your Father Knows Best remind me that mine would by no means be the first marriage God has miraculously restored.

A wonderfully encouraging book about God’s power.

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Review of The Handmaid and the Carpenter, by Elizabeth Berg


The Handmaid and the Carpenter

by Elizabeth Berg

Random House, New York, 2006.  153 pages.

I’ve been reading Christmas novels, so here’s a novel about the original Christmas.

There was a time when I couldn’t really enjoy novelizations of Bible stories — I would get upset over quibbles where they didn’t quite line it up with the Bible text, or the characters would not act as I had imagined them to act.  But perhaps I’ve outgrown that.  I’m quite sure this is not how I would imagine Mary and Joseph, but I did enjoy these characters.

What would it have been like to give birth to the Son of God?  And how would your betrothed react?  Elizabeth Berg does pull us into the story, in all its wonder, yet with a nod to the reality of dirty straw and a long journey and a village reacting to the story of an angel announcement.

This isn’t a dramatically in-depth novelization, but it gives you a taste of what that first Christmas might have been like.  Definitely good holiday reading.

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Review of Free of Charge, by Miroslav Volf


Free of Charge

Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

by Miroslav Volf

Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005.  247 pages.

I’ve been reading lots of books lately about forgiveness, because it’s an inexhaustible topic, and I find I desperately need it in my life these days.  I do believe that forgiveness is absolutely essential to happiness.

Miroslav Volf’s book, Free of Charge, is more of an academic look at forgiveness and at giving.  He approaches giving and forgiving as our response to a giving and forgiving God, our obligation as God-followers.  Though his approach is a little more academic, it is nonetheless powerful, and perhaps that much more persuasive.

God’s forgiveness is so amazing and unlimited, how can we do less and claim to be His children?

I found some wonderful quotations along the way, posted on Sonderquotes:

“God works against evil and suffering.  But God, in immense divine power and inscrutable divine wisdom, also works through evil and suffering.”

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Review of Crazy for God, by Frank Schaeffer


Crazy for God

How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back

by Frank Schaeffer

Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2007.  417 pages.

Starred review.

Frank Schaeffer is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of L’Abri and famous Christian writers.  In college, I read Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri, What Is a Family?, The Tapestry, Affliction, and Common Sense Christian Living.  I bought a set of The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, but still haven’t read any of it!

My father was a fan of Francis Schaeffer’s writings, and my mother a huge fan of Edith Schaeffer’s.  After reading Edith’s books, I dreamed of living that sort of life myself — living as a family in Europe, reaching searching souls for God!  It sounded like a dream existence.

Frank Schaeffer (known as Franky then) did come and speak at my college, Biola University, when I was a student.  I think he was promoting A Time for Anger, and he came across as very angry indeed.  I pretty much dismissed what he had to say, and figured he must be a typical rebellious preacher’s kid, though I was still enthralled by his parents’ works.  His mother spoke at a Ladies’ Tea at Biola, promoting her book Common Sense Christian Living, and I was further enraptured.

I should add that I still think of her way of looking at suffering, as presented in Affliction, as a wonderful paradigm for dealing with why God allows suffering.

In Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer outlines his life growing up in Switzerland, his later involvement in the founding of the religious right political movement in America, and his search for some kind of peace.

In a lot of ways, I found his quest mirroring my own.  I too grew up in a rather unusual Christian community — a family of thirteen children.  I too ended up with liberal political views.  Although I still attend an evangelical church, it is a church about community and much less hung up on exact statements of faith.  It sounds very similar in attitude to the Greek Orthodox church where Frank Schaeffer has found a home.  Like him, I find myself thinking of Christianity as a “journey to God, wherein no one is altogether instantly ‘saved’ or ‘lost’ and nothing is completely resolved in this life (and perhaps not in the next).”  My belief that all will be saved eventually puts me at odds with the standard evangelical community he was once so much a part of and that I was once so much a part of.  So I found his journey fascinating.

That perfect family life at L’Abri was not so perfect after all.  Those family reunions that Edith Schaeffer wrote about as so idyllic were filled with angry fighting.  Francis was an abusive husband, and Edith was not a tremendously respectful wife.  Both were rather neglectful parents, sacrificing family life for “the work” and letting their son run wild.  (Not that he didn’t enjoy that!)

He also points out that Francis and Edith were very open and accepting — at least for most of their lives.  But they closed down that openness when they were catering to the American evangelical political movement.  He has some scathing words about many American evangelical leaders, and points out some things about them that were downright strange.

He grew up in Europe, and when he got involved in American politics, he didn’t even really know America.  His parents enjoyed European culture, and thought themselves a bit above your run-of-the-mill Americans.  Francis Schaeffer’s book, How Shall We Then Live? was based on his wide knowledge of Western art and history.  Having lived for ten years in Europe myself, I have some sneaking sympathies with him on these points. 

I’m sure many hero-worshipers will be bitterly angry that Frank Schaeffer would say anything negative about his parents.  He also says many positive things, but is trying to write about his own strange childhood.  He makes the point that we are all human, that the perfect “common sense Christian living” may have its own flaws, under the surface, if you look more closely. 

This book was fascinating and eye-opening.  I appreciate the look at someone else’s thoughts about what it really means to live for God, and making sense of his own life’s path and life’s work.  In many ways, with the collapse of my marriage, I am looking at some of the same issues.  So I appreciated this chance to get someone else’s perspective, as well as to learn that what I thought of as idealistic perfection in my youth didn’t actually match that in reality.

I’m coming to think that a lot of what God wants from us is to live life as the person he made us to be:  Enjoying his blessings and doing the work He made us best suited for, whether it has anything to do with “leading others to Christ” or not.  I doubt that Frank Schaeffer would word it exactly that way, but I felt that much of his spiritual journeying mirrors my own, and I appreciate the insights from a fellow traveler.

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Review of Boundaries, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend



When to Say YES

When to Say NO

To Take Control of Your Life

by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend

Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.  304 pages.

I finally read this book that I have heard recommended or referred to many, many times.  It struck me as the Christian version of Melody Beattie’s book, Codependent No More.  Boundaries deals with many of the same issues, but I do think that the term “boundary” is easier to understand than the term “codependency.”

What are boundaries, anyway?  Drs. Cloud and Townsend say:

“Any confusion of responsibility and ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries.  Just as homeowners set physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”

“Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.  If I know where my yard begins and ends, I am free to do with it what I like.  Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options.  However, if I do not ‘own’ my life, my choices and options become very limited.”

The authors definitely take a Christian perspective.

“The concept of boundaries comes from the very nature of God.  God defines himself as a distinct, separate being, and he is responsible for himself.  He defines and takes responsibility for his personality by telling us what he thinks, feels, plans, allows, will not allow, likes, and dislikes.”

Often, Christians think that we are supposed to be “nice” to everyone, and it doesn’t feel nice to hold onto our boundaries.  The authors are good at showing why this doesn’t truly help anyone.

“Two aspects of limits stand out when it comes to creating better boundaries.  The first is setting limits on others.  This is the component that we most often hear about when we talk about boundaries.  In reality, setting limits on others is a misnomer.  We can’t do that.  What we can do is set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly; we can’t change them or make them behave right.

“Our model is God.  He does not really ‘set limits’ on people to ‘make them’ behave.  God sets standards, but he lets people be who they are and then separates himself from them when they misbehave, saying in effect, ‘You can be that way if you choose, but you cannot come into my house.’…

“Scripture is full of admonitions to separate ourselves from people who act in destructive ways (Matt. 18:15-17; I Cor. 5:9-13).  We are not being unloving.  Separating ourselves protects love, because we are taking a stand against things that destroy love.

“The other aspect of limits that is helpful when talking about boundaries is setting our own internal limits.  We need to have spaces inside ourselves where we can have a feeling, an impulse, or a desire, without acting it out.  We need self-control without repression. 

“We need to be able to say no to ourselves.  This includes both our destructive desires and some good ones that are not wise to pursue at a given time.  Internal structure is a very important component of boundaries and identity, as well as ownership, responsibility, and self-control.”

It’s struck me that there are several boundary issues going on in my life right now.  The big one is negotiating a divorce settlement.  I started feeling guilty that we might have to go to court.  But then I realized that if I don’t stand up for what I need and deserve, who will?  Sometimes if being “nice” means allowing yourself to be mistreated, it’s not really very nice at all.

The authors warn us,

“No weapon in the arsenal of the controlling person is as strong as the guilt message.  People with poor boundaries almost always internalize guilt messages leveled at them; they obey guilt-inducing statements that try to make them feel bad….

Do not explain or justify.  Only guilty children do that.  This is only playing into their message.  You do not owe guilt senders an explanation.  Just tell what you have chosen.  If you want to tell them why you made a certain decision to help them understand, this is okay.  If you wish to get them to not make you feel bad or to resolve your guilt, you are playing into their guilt trap.”

I also like what they have to say about blamers:

“Blamers will act as though your saying no is killing them, and they will react with a ‘How could you do this to me?’ message.  They are likely to cry, pout, or get angry.  Remember that blamers have a character problem.  If they make it sound as though their misery is because of your not giving something to them, they are blaming and demanding what is yours.  This is very different from a humble person asking out of need.  Listen to the nature of other people’s complaints; if they are trying to blame you for something they should take responsibility for, confront them.”

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the writing in this book; I still find Melody Beattie’s books more inspiring.  However, the concepts are basic and important and life-changing.  This book deserves its status as a classic.

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Review of The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri J. M. Nouwen


The Return of the Prodigal Son

A Story of Homecoming

by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Image Books (Doubleday), New York, 1992.  139 pages.

Starred Review

This book is not quite like any other devotional book I have read.  The focus and structure of the book involves the author’s encounter with a painting:  Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.  This painting, of course, presents a story from the Bible, in a way that gives the characters new life.

Henri Nouwen first saw a poster of the painting, then the painting itself, at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.  He says, “A seemingly insignificant encounter with a poster presenting a detail of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son set in motion a long spiritual adventure that brought me to a new understanding of my vocation and offered me new strength to live it.  At the heart of this adventure is a seventeenth-century painting and its artist, a first-century parable and its author, and a twentieth-century person in search of life’s meaning.”

He tells about his own encounters with the painting and what it meant in his life.  He writes about what the painting must have meant in Rembrandt’s life.  And he talks about how we have the opportunity to stand in the place of each character in the painting.

All that I have lived since my first encounter with the Rembrandt poster has not only given me the inspiration to write this book, but also suggested its structure.  I will first reflect upon the younger son, then upon the elder son, and ultimately upon the father.  For, indeed, I am the younger son; I am the elder son; and I am on my way to becoming the father.  And for you who will make this spiritual journey with me, I hope and pray that you too will discover within yourselves not only the lost children of God, but also the compassionate mother and father that is God.

The result is a beautiful and inspiring book with thoughts that will stay with you.

Here are some passages that stood out for me:

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