Review of A Rhythm of Prayer, edited by Sarah Bessey

A Rhythm of Prayer

A Collection of Meditations for Renewal

edited by Sarah Bessey

Convergent, 2021. 146 pages.
Review written March 7, 2023, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com.
Starred Review

A Rhythm of Prayer is a book of prayers and meditations about prayer from a stellar group of Christian writers — I found some new books to buy from the credits after some of the selections.

This little book gave me something to think about each morning as I read and prayed a selection, and usually this included something I hadn’t thought of before in that way.

In her Introduction, Sarah Bessey says she thinks of this book as calling you into a prayer circle.

When I first began to envision this book about prayer, I knew right away what I didn’t want to give you: a nice and tidy new set of prayers to co-opt for your own. Nope, what I wanted was equal parts example and invitation, permission and challenge, to acknowledge the heaviness of our grief and at the same time broaden our hope.

Frankly, I love to pray, and I think the prayers of people like us — however we show up to these pages — matter. Not in spite of scripture but because of it. Not in spite of Church but because of her. Not in spite of our questions and doubts but because of them. Not in spite of our grief and our longing, our yearning for justice and our anger, but because of them.

So no, the point of this is not to give you prayers to pray but to show you: you still get to pray. Prayer is still for you. You still get to cry out to God, you still get to yell, weep, praise, and sit in the silence until you sink down into the Love of God that has always been holding you whether you knew it or not.

This book will give you things to think about, things to meditate on, things to contemplate, and yes, things to pray. And it will also inspire you to do those things on your own.

I’m thinking about prayer often lately, because I recently finished writing a book about prayer, using patterns from the book of Psalms. (I’m still seeking a publisher for that book.) This book fit beautifully with all that I’m thinking about, modeling opening your heart to God in prayer.

sarahbessey.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 Freedom to Flourish, by Elizabeth Garn

Freedom to Flourish

The Rest God Offers in the Purpose He Gives You

by Elizabeth Garn

P & R Publishing, 2021. 187 pages.
Review written February 28, 2023, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review

Disclaimer first: I met the author of this book at a writers’ group meeting, and we quickly hit it off. We had lunch and I heard about this book and loved the concept, so, yes, I was predisposed to enjoy it.

And yes, I did enjoy it tremendously. I’m co-leading a ladies’ small group, and I’m going to suggest this book as our next choice for a study guide.

This book looks at the creation account and talks about God’s calling for women.

And “Freedom to Flourish” is a perfect description of that calling. Elizabeth Garn looks into the actual words used in Genesis in their context and shows us that God’s calling for women is much more than making babies.

She looks at what it means to be made in God’s image – both male and female – and what it means to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth as image bearers of God.

Art, music, hospitality, gardening, cooking, writing, storytelling, mathematics, programming . . . creating of any kind imitates God! You fill the earth by doing anything that adds beauty and life and fullness to the world around you, whether you prepare a simple meal, start a business, or create a work of art. The job of an image bearer is to use your gifts to mimic the passionate, creative work of God.

Oh, and her explanation of what it means to be an ezer (“helper”) is just plain empowering. And she points out that Eve was made for that outside the context of marriage and before the two were married. All women can be mighty helpers and defenders of humanity and all creation, not simply married ones. It’s not a subordinate role, and is even used in other places to describe God.

I also love the way she shook up my concept of Adam and Eve cast out of the garden in shame, dressed in some kind of wooly loincloths. She points out that the same word used to describe the priestly garments worn by Aaron and his descendants is used about the garments God gave Adam and Eve. They still bore God’s image and were sent out, not in shame, but with a calling.

Please, read the book to understand the scholarship and insights that the author uses to bring us to this place. But let me quote from a concluding paragraph so you know where she ends up:

God loves us! Not because of anything we do but because of who he is. And he has created us with freedom to live lives that display him in stunning ways. Far from the exhaustion and the striving, he has set us free to be women of God: image bearers of the King. It’s an extravagant calling! His plan for us is bigger and better than I ever dared to imagine. I want to stand on the rooftops and scream that we matter! That our hearts matter. Our minds matter. our passions and gifts and graces matter! The women he has made us to be matter. And all of that matters because we are his image bearers.

The view presented in this book has a liberating and expansive view of our calling as humans. And it’s strongly rooted in Scripture, pointing out insights I hadn’t noticed from the original language of these familiar passages.

prpbooks.com

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Review of Open and Unafraid, by W. David O. Taylor

Open and Unafraid

The Psalms as a Guide to Life

by W. David O. Taylor

Nelson Books (Thomas Nelson), 2020. 230 pages.
Review written December 15, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

I’ll be honest, the reason I ordered this book was that I was looking for competitive titles to go with my own book that I’ve written about Psalms. And I was delighted with this one. I do believe that the two can go together, more complementary than competitive. They have different approaches, but someone who enjoys one book will also enjoy the other, because both books are focused on that amazing book in the center of the Bible, a book that engages your emotions and gives examples of people bringing their lives before God.

In the Introduction, the author tells us his hopes for the book:

I’ve written this book so readers would become excited to embrace a prayer book that has been deeply influential, not just for Jesus and the apostles and for monastic and cathedral practices of prayer but also for the hymns of the Reformation, the spirituals of African American slaves, and the songs of the global church. My hope is that church leaders and laypersons, and even seekers and “nones” (those claiming no religion), would understand that they are never alone in their sorrows, angers, doubts, joys, thanksgivings, or questions about life and death.

I love the title of the book, because it reflects the psalmists’ stance before God — Open and unafraid. The psalms are amazing in their honesty and the openness of their emotions before God. In fact, as David Taylor approaches the Psalms by looking at many different themes, he begins with the theme of “Honesty.”

What the psalms offer us is a powerful aid to un-hide: to stand honestly before God without fear, to face one another vulnerably without shame, and to encounter life in the world without any of the secrets that would demean and distort our humanity. The psalms, then, are for those who know that they spend much of their life hiding secrets; they are also for those who know that standing in the presence of God “is the one place where such secrets cannot and must not be hidden.”

The other themes the author takes up to look at the Book of Psalms are Community, History, Prayer, Poetry, Sadness, Anger, Joy, Enemies, Justice, Death, Life, Nations, and Creation. Every chapter includes Questions for Reflection and Exercises, all of which run deep, so this book would be wonderful material for a small group to work through together.

The psalms invite us to risk the love of God and neighbor and of the world that surrounds us with the reassurance that we do not venture this risk alone. We venture it together with an extraordinary company of fellow pilgrims across the ages.

Dive into the psalms with this book. Like the author, I hope it will encourage you to spend time reading the Book of Psalms again and again as you come to understand why they have been beloved by God’s people for thousands of years.

thomasnelson.com

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Review of Learning to Pray, by James Martin, S.J.

Learning to Pray

A Guide for Everyone

by James Martin, S.J.

HarperOne, 2021. 386 pages.
Review written January 7, 2023, from my own copy.
Starred Review
2022 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 Christian Nonfiction

I thought I knew a lot about prayer. After all, I’ve done it all my life. But Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, opened my mind to new ideas and new ways of praying.

He puts the thoughts about prayer in the context of his own life, telling his own story as he goes. But then besides offering different ways to pray, he answers many different questions about prayer. From chapter titles alone, I see “Why pray?,” “What is prayer?,” “What happens when you pray?,” “How do I know it’s God?,” and “Now what?” at the end. You can see from this that he doesn’t simply give formulas or rote ways to pray. You will find in this book explorations about every possible aspect of prayer.

And I appreciated his thoughts on ways to pray, some of them taken from Ignatian practices of the Jesuits. These included things like the daily examen, but also using your imagination to place yourself in a gospel story or going on a retreat with guidance from a spiritual director.

Above all, he challenged me to go beyond a simple list of requests and think about God’s response when I pray.

This book challenged me in multiple ways and I hope will influence my life and my prayer going forward.

Father Martin calls this book A Guide for Everyone, and here’s his Invitation in the very first chapter:

Learning to Pray is written for everyone from the doubter to the devout, from the seeker to the believer. It’s an invitation for people who have never prayed. It’s designed for people who would like to pray, but are worried they’ll do it the wrong way. It’s meant for people who have prayed and haven’t found it as satisfying as they had hoped. It’s also aimed at people who might be afraid of prayer. As I said, prayer can frighten us. It’s unfamiliar territory for some and can be frightening even for believers, because God can seem frightening….

By the end of this book I hope you’ll have a better knowledge of prayer. More important, I hope that you will have started to pray. Finally, I hope that your prayer will lead you to either begin, explore, or deepen your relationship with God, for prayer isn’t an end in itself: God is. The goal of prayer is deepening one’s relationship with God.

This book will challenge and inspire you in your personal journey with God.

jamesmartinSJ.com
harpercollins.com

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Review of Braving the Thin Places, by Julianne Stanz

Braving the Thin Places

Celtic Wisdom to Create a Space for Grace

by Julianne Stanz

Loyola Press, 2021. 170 pages.
Review written August 19, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

Here’s how author Julianne Stanz introduces the idea of a “thin space”:

Each of us stands at the threshold of a thin place, and we are its gatekeeper.

Have you ever held a loved one’s hand as they slipped from this life and into the next? Birthed a child and felt the thin edges of God’s presence inside your being? Beheld such beauty that it took your breath away? Or been moved to tears by an image or a piece of music? If so, you have stood at the edge of a thin place, a place where God and humanity meet in a mysterious way. These moments open us to places of rawness and beauty. Something seems to break open inside us, and words are inadequate to describe what we are experiencing. We feel a sense of breakthrough as we break free of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.

This book is about making room for thin places and embracing them. The author was born in Ireland and brings the idea of thin places from the Celtic tradition.

The Celts, known for their love of threshold places at the edge of life, such as Sceilg Mhichil, a crag off the coast of County Kerry, were never afraid to explore God in the known or in the wild, barren edges of life. We should not be afraid either. The Celtic imagination considers sacred places to be “thin,” or places where the veil between the worlds of heaven and earth seems especially permeable, and the worlds discernibly close to each other. Thin spaces exist between the now and the not-yet. Entering thin spaces is an opportunity that we don’t normally have — to slow down, to pause, to look with fresh eyes, to recover a sense of wonder about the world. The pace of life moves too fast for many of us over concrete and inhospitable ground, and we are searching — for joy, forgiveness, healing, completion, and peace. God is all around if only we recognize his presence. And for those wwho do, that this space is one of rejuvenation and renewal.

This book works for personal meditation and devotional use, and it would also work for a church small group to go through together. There are 11 chapters and an Introduction. Each chapter has some open-ended questions at the end, under the headings “Breaking Open,” “Breaking Through,” and “Breaking Free.” And they start with an Irish proverb.

Julianne Stanz makes this a personal journey, illustrating it with stories from her own life. The book builds toward getting through difficulties and making a space for grace.

To be honest, I read this book when everything in my life seemed to be wonderful — having just gotten my dream job and enjoying working in it. But I know hard times will come, and I think this lovely and encouraging book will be especially helpful to take up and explore when one of those times comes. Yes, happy times can be thin places, too — but I don’t need as much help finding a good perspective on them. I enjoyed the book, but I think that if times were tougher, it might be a lifeline. I will keep it on hand.

loyolapress.com

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Review of The Art of Biblical Poetry, by Robert Alter

The Art of Biblical Poetry

by Robert Alter

Basic Books, Revised and Updated 2011. Original edition published in 1985. 296 pages.
Review written June 8, 2021, from my own copy

I purchased a copy of The Art of Biblical Poetry after reading the author’s book The Art of Bible Translation. That one was written for a more general audience and is about Bible translation in general, but it made me want more in-depth information. I’m writing a not very academic book about Psalms, so I wanted to know more about the original language.

I learned so much! I knew that biblical poetry has parallelism, but this book showed me nuances in that parallelism I hadn’t been aware of before. I also learned that there’s a rhythm to Hebrew poetry, a certain number of beats per line, which can’t always be translated well.

The author covers all different types of biblical poetry – and before reading, I hadn’t realized that different types even existed. The beginning looks more deeply at parallelism and has a whole chapter called “Structures of Intensification,” looking at how parallelism is used. He looks at sections of narrative poetry that tell a story, and then moves on to looking at the poetry in different books of the Bible – first Job, then Psalms, then the prophetic books, then Proverbs, and then Song of Songs. Finally, there’s a summary chapter.

In the summary chapter, he makes the case that the poetry in the Bible isn’t often studied as poetry.

The aim of my own inquiry has been not only to attempt to get a firmer grasp of biblical poetics but also to suggest an order of essential connection between poetic form and meaning that for the most part has been neglected by scholarship. For if I have used the image of brushing away deposits from a beautiful surface to describe the task at hand, I should add that poetry is quintessentially the mode of expression in which the surface is the depth, so that through careful scrutiny of the configurations of the surface – the articulation of the line, the movement from line to poem, the imagery, the arabesques of syntax and grammar, the design of the poem as a whole – we come to apprehend more fully the depth of the poem’s meaning.

The choice of the poetic medium for the Job poet, or for Isaiah, or for the psalmist, was not merely a matter of giving weight and verbal dignity to a preconceived message but of uncovering or discovering meanings through the resources of poetry. In manifold ways, some of which I try to illustrate here from chapter 4 onward, poetry is a special way of imagining the world or, to put this in more cognitive terms, a special mode of thinking with its own momentum and its own peculiar advantages.

Throughout the book, he looks at specific passages in depth, looking at those things he mentions – “the articulation of the line, the movement from line to poem, the imagery, the arabesques of syntax and grammar, the design of the poem as a whole.” This isn’t light reading, and it took me a long time to get through the whole book, but I did gain a new appreciation for these passages as works of poetry and a new appreciation for what was going on in the original language.

This is not light reading, and I don’t recommend it unless you’re ready for an intense academic work. But if you know what you’re getting into, this book is full of insights that will add to your appreciation and understanding of the Biblical text.

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Review of Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, by Sarah Bessey

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things

A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God

by Sarah Bessey

Howard Books (Atria), 2019. 222 pages.
Review written September 6, 2022, from my own copy
Starred Review

First, a big thank you to my friend Amanda who recommended Sarah Bessey’s writing. I purchased this book shortly after it came out, on her recommendation. When I finally got around to reading it a few years later, I wondered what took me so long. I loved it!

First, Sarah Bessey has a way with words. Her writing is lyrical and lovely. This book is full of stories that pull you into the scene and keep you reading. She also finds ways to interweave emotions and thoughts about God that get you thinking as well.

This book begins with a very bad car accident. One that significantly messed up her health.

In the middle of the book, she receives a miraculous and dramatic healing. But although that healing was real, other parts of her body were still in bad shape. She had to grapple with the miracle that did come and the miracles that didn’t come. And she explains that journey in a way we can all relate to.

Here’s a paragraph that I love, when she was talking about a way God had reached out when she was discouraged and told her she was not forgotten:

I have never gotten over that moment, that word of knowledge, and I hope I never do. My mantra was disrupted, and I had a new path to walk, a path I still walk to this day. If God had not forgotten me — and clearly God had not — and yet I was still part of the company of the unanswered prayers, perhaps that meant that I had misunderstood something about God. Perhaps the problem wasn’t God; perhaps the problem was the God I had created and the God I had been given.

In the miracles and the lack of miracles, she looks at what she needed to unlearn and relearn about God, and she takes the reader on that journey with her.

I also loved the chapter where she visits Prince Edward Island. I was there in 2019 with two of my best friends. I’m always happy to read the thoughts of an L. M. Montgomery fan! And yes, I can’t think of a better place for a spiritual retreat.

I’m going to look for more of Sarah Bessey’s writings. Like me, she comes from a Christian background, but some of her beliefs have changed as an adult. I appreciate her stance of not being certain that she has all the answers.

sarahbessey.com
SimonandSchuster.com

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Review of Freeing Jesus, by Diana Butler Bass

Freeing Jesus

Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence

by Diana Butler Bass

HarperOne, 2021. 285 pages.
Review written July 25, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review

In Freeing Jesus, Diana Butler Bass tells us her life story — and how her life experiences affected the way she looked at Jesus.

She goes through six names for Jesus, which fit how she saw him during six stages of her life. I thought it was interesting that they were the same six names — even “Way” and “Presence” — my pastors used in a sermon series on names of Jesus.

Her journey had many similarities to mine, about a decade before me. I know the Christian college she refers to, because I went to a nearby Christian university that was a sports rival with it.

But it also got me thinking about the ways my views of Jesus have changed — and many of those ways were similar to the journey she describes. I like reading about her wrestling with the theology she was taught, because I’ve wrestled with some of the same ideas. Here’s a passage I marked because I love the way she expresses these transcendent ideas:

Jesus was born a savior, and he saved during his lifetime. “Fear not!” “Peace on earth!” He did not wait around for thirty-three years and suddenly become a savior in an act of ruthless, bloody execution. Indeed, the death was senseless, stupid, shameful, evil. It meant little other than silence without the next act — resurrection — God’s final word that even the most brutal of empires cannot destroy salvus. This is no quid pro quo. Rather, Easter proclaims that God overcomes all oppression and injustice, even the murder of an innocent one. At-one-ment means just that. Through Jesus, all will be renewed, made whole, brought back into oneness, reunited with God. Salvation is not a transaction to get to heaven after death; rather, it is an experience of love and beauty and of paradise here and now. No single metaphor, not even one of Paul’s, can truly describe this. We need a prism of stories to begin to understand the cross and a lifetime to experience it.

I love this concept she spells out at the end of her book:

We know Jesus through our experience. There is no other way to become acquainted with one who lived so long ago and who lives in ways we can barely understand through church, scripture, and good works and in the faces of our neighbors. In these pages, I have shared six Jesuses whom I experienced through something I call “memoir theology” (not theological memoir). Memoir theology is the making of theology — understanding the nature of God — through the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus.

This spoke to me because I’m working on a book about Psalms that uses my own experiences to illuminate the different types of Psalms. But she demonstrates with this book how much richness is added to her insights by looking at them through the lens of experience.

And after she said that, she points out that even though many church “fathers” wrote theology in the context of memoir, it was taken seriously because only certain (mostly male) perspectives were taken seriously. But she points out that all our experiences matter:

There is an old Berber proverb: “The true believer begins with herself.” Your experience of Jesus matters. It matters in conversation with the “big names,” when you argue with the tradition, and when you read the words and texts for yourself. It matters when you hear Jesus speaking, feel Jesus prompting, and sink into despair when Jesus seems absent. It all matters. The Jesuses you have known and the Jesus you know matter.

Read this book to think about who Jesus is in the light of one woman’s life story, with inspiration to reflect on how Jesus has touched your own life story. Think about who Jesus is and how he has touched your life.

dianabutlerbass.com
harpercollins.com

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Review of The Bible and the Transgender Experience, by Linda Tatro Herzer

The Bible and the Transgender Experience

How Scripture Supports Gender Variance

by Linda Tatro Herzer

The Pilgrim Press, 2016. 126 pages.
Review written May 19, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is for Christians who want to understand what the Bible says about accepting transgender people. And who are willing to think about interpretation and context.

Now, I am all too painfully aware that some Christians are not willing to think about interpretation and context or the consistency with which they apply principles of interpretation. I have a transgender daughter, and less than a year ago, I left a church with a broken heart because of this issue. Most of the people there had their minds made up, and I wish I thought they’d listen to the words in this book more carefully than they listened to my words. (I did a blog series with the title “Transcending.”)

I’m not going to present all the author’s points, because those points deserve to be heard in their entirety. But she does tackle verses that are used to say that transgender people are sinning and explains why that’s a huge stretch. She also looks at passages that strongly suggest that God wants his people to be accepting and welcoming of gender variant individuals.

I’ve also read and reviewed Transforming, by Austen Hartke, which is another look at this same topic. There is not only one set of arguments, so you’ll get some new ideas and perspectives here. The study guide at the back of the book seems especially helpful, and the author is gentle and instructive for people who don’t know anything about gender variance but want to learn how to be respectful and supportive.

I especially love the way the author closes out the main text of the book (before appendices with information to help you make your own church or group more trans friendly).

On a personal note, I am grateful for the gifts of honesty and courage I have seen manifested by gender variant people. They have inspired me to be as honest as they are about who God has created me to be, challenging me to ask myself, “Who am I vocationally? What are my unique, God-given gifts, aptitudes, and interests? Am I honoring and using them to their fullest? Who am I spiritually? What sort of spiritual practices work best for me, given my divinely created temperament and proclivities?”

Next, gender variant friends and congregants inspire me to live my answers to the preceding questions as courageously as they live their truths. Let’s face it, all of us are subjected to peer, parental, familial, societal, and even religious expectations about how we are and are not supposed to act. So to act in ways that are true to who we are but that may be contrary to people’s expectations of us takes great courage – for all of us! Watching transgender people courageously live their lives has been a huge inspiration to me to exercise the courage I need to live my divinely created truth each and every day.

Given the ways that gender variant people inspire me daily, and all the gifts I have seen them bring to the church and to the world, I close with two prayers.

My prayer for all gender variant people is that you will let the light of your vast and varied gifts continue to shine brightly. My prayer for all nontransgender people is that, in the same way we delight in the dusk and dawn of each new day, may we also celebrate the dusk/dawn light of gender variant individuals and the many gifts they bring to the church and to the world.

Amen! May it be so.

TransformationJourneysWW.com
thepilgrimpress.com

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

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Review of The Heavenly Man, by Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway

The Heavenly Man

The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun

by Brother Yun
with Paul Hattaway

Kregel Publications, 2020. First published in the United Kingdom in 2002. 338 pages.
Review written May 28, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is the amazing true story of the life of Brother Yun, a pastor in the Chinese house church movement. The story of Brother Yun’s faith is full of miracles from start to finish. His family first accepted Christ when Yun was a child, after his mother received a vision and then his father was miraculously healed of cancer.

Brother Yun devoted his life to Christ when he was still young. One of the early miracles he experienced was when he prayed earnestly for a Bible, and one was then brought to him. The entire book testifies over and over to the great power of God.

After Brother Yun became a pastor, he was imprisoned in China three times. Each time, he was tortured horribly. At one point in prison, he followed the Holy Spirit’s guidance and miraculously went without food or water for 74 days.

And despite all the torture, all the difficulties, his passion for Jesus, commitment to tell about him, and determination not to betray his brothers and sisters all shine through. During his third time in prison, he experienced a miracle like Peter’s as the doors of the prison were standing open and he walked right past the guards to escape, with his broken legs cured as he walked away.

Brother Yun’s story is told in his own voice, with interludes from his wife, telling how things were for his family when he was imprisoned. Both attest to miracle after miracle and God’s faithful care.

After the escape from prison, Brother Yun miraculously made his way to the West. He still preaches to those who haven’t heard, especially as part of the “Back to Jerusalem” movement, which plans to send millions of missionaries from China.

I was amazed that Chinese Christians don’t want people in the West to pray that their persecution will stop. Here’s one place where Brother Yun talks about this:

Don’t pray for persecution to stop! We shouldn’t pray for a lighter load to carry, but a stronger back to endure! Then the world will see that God is with us, empowering us to live in a way that reflects his love and power.

This is true freedom!

This book is riveting reading. As a western Christian reading it, of course I’m struck by how different my life is from Brother Yun’s. It’s a story of God’s power and the Lord’s amazing faithfulness. And amazing stories of how God is changing lives today.

The one thing I didn’t like was that, because this was originally published in 2002, that’s when the story ends. I am completely sure that Brother Yun did not stop following God twenty years ago, and I would like to know what happened next.

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