Book Review – “Unstuffed” by Ruth Soukup

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There comes a tipping point in our lives. A point at which we realize things have to change. Sometimes it is a good revelation. Sometimes it is a hard revelation. Sometimes it is both.

In the past few months, I have slowly had one of these revelations. My wife actually had it before I did. It’s catching on now. We have too much stuff. Our otherwise nice home is overtaken by things. Our kids’ toys. Clothes. And . . . this pains me to admit . . . my books. I am still of the mind that having a lot of books is a good things. Studies have shown that children who grow up surrounded by physical books achieve more. I will never be book free, at least I don’t foresee that right now, but I do need to cut back.

In an effort to help with this, I have been reading more books on minimalism and decluttering.

I knew my wife had picked up Ruth Soukup’s book Living Well, Spending Less before, and she really enjoyed reading it. When I saw that she had released a new book, Unstuffed, I really wanted to check it out. I was not disappointed.

Soukup’s book is like many books on minimalism in that it strives to help us break free of our need to collect and keep more and more things. It is different, however, in that it does not stop there. The subtitle of the book is “Decluttering Your Home, Mind & Soul,” and the book strives to show us how to “unstuff” all three areas of our life.

The first part focuses on the same aspects as many minimalist books: Cleaning up the house. Soukup encourages us to create a vision for what we want to see in our home, and then to do whatever it takes to make that vision a reality. She encourages us to realize that more storage is not the answer, purging is. She also focuses on one aspect that is probably the most difficult for many minimalists, reducing the stuff the kids have and get.

But here is where the book took a nice turn. The next section focuses on decluttering one’s mind. She encourages readers to cut back on what we do by paring back our schedules, by reducing the amount of paperwork we have to wade through, and by learning how to reduce the guilt of getting rid of things that people have given us. This last part is very difficult, as we attach memories to things so that we feel that if we get rid of the stuff, we get rid of the memories that go along with it. Soukup encourages us to realize that the memories will remain long after the things are gone.

The final area Soukup focuses on is unstuffing our soul. She starts by encouraging us to declutter our friendships by focusing our time on developing a few deep friendships as opposed to spreading ourselves very thin in all of our friendships. This is not to say we have no acquaintances and aren’t friendly to everyone, but we cannot have an infinite number of deep friendships. She then moves on to unstuffing our lives to support our wellness. By focusing on sleep, exercise, and taking down time, we can drastically improve our overall wellness of life. Finally, in the last chapter, Soukup focuses on unstuffing spiritually by relying on grace and realizing we are a work in progress. I really liked that last chapter, as many minimalism books seems to come from an “I’ve arrived, so why haven’t you” perspective. Soukup, however, is very clear that she is still growing and has obstacles to overcome, as will we all if we embark on this journey to unstuff.

Perhaps other books on minimalizing have some of these same concepts and I just haven’t read them yet, but this book struck me as very well-rounded.

Throughout the book there are gray boxes with practical tips on how to apply the information in the book itself. The first one, for example, is “five easy decluttering projects that will transform your living space,” and the projects include creating a collection zone, clearing the counters, sweeping the surfaces, pitching the pillows, and managing the media (pp. 17-19). These practical steps are nice, as they take the information from ideas into real-life projects. As my wife and I work on cutting back on stuff, we will go back to these tips often.

The book also provides an address to a site to take the information further, and she mentions an app to download to help spur the process along.

One of the things I liked most was how the author kept tying in the concepts with examples from her own life of how she faced and overcame (or is in the process of overcoming) the very struggles she is writing about. This made the book feel much more personal than some other books and articles I have read on the subject.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking to declutter, minimalize, and “unstuff” their lives all around. Unstuffed is a good and encouraging guide in the process.

*Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from Zondervan publishers through the BookLook Bloggers review program in exchange for my honest review.

 

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Book Review – “Fool’s Talk” by Os Guinness

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As a lay apologist, I am always looking for good books on the topic.  I have heard Os Guinness speak more than I have read things by him, but I knew that I liked what I heard.  When I saw he released a book on apologetics, I immediately added it to my “to read” list.  Guinness’ book, called Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, did not disappoint!

The first thing I want to point out is that the book is dense.  Not in a bad way, but it is certainly  not a quick read.  Guinness includes a lot to think about, and it is both deep and well rounded.  Honestly, I’m not sure I feel qualified to write a review after reading it only once, but I will have to read even slower the next time, so I am going to give it my best shot.

Fool’s Talk is an interesting addition to the apologetic genre.  It is not a book primarily filled with answers to tough questions, although there are some.  It is not primarily a book on methodology.  In fact, Guinness points out a few times throughout the book that he is no fan of scripted methodologies of apologetics or evangelism.  To Guinness, we should know the person we are talking to well enough to have a genuine conversation that is geared toward the needs of the hearer.  I suppose I could describe Guinness’ book as being a primer on why apologetics is necessary, with many reminders as to the ultimate goal: loving people enough to persuade them into God’s kingdom for their benefit.

Along those lines, then, Guinness’ book is also a crossover into evangelism. Again, nothing scripted.  Rather it is an encouragement that the reason for apologetics is not ultimately about “winning” an argument.  Instead, the goal is heart and life transformation of those we are reaching out to.

Guinness tackles various subjects such as why people fail to believe, how to “turn the tables” to expose the presuppositions (and the weakness of those presuppositions) of the hearer, how to trigger more of  desire for our hearers to know God, understanding that our lives must increasingly match our talk, and more.

I found myself wondering throughout the book whether Guinness would support more of an evidentialist-based approach or a presuppositionalist-based one.  Guinness ends up answering that question in the book, and I love his answer:

“One of the most futile arguments in contemporary apologetics is the debate between the so-called evidentialists and presuppositionalists. But what should be clear from this description of the journey toward faith is that the answer is not either-or, but both-and and which-when.  Both presuppositions and evidences are a key part of our apologetics approach, and the real question is which to focus on and when.” (p. 246)

Guinness then proceeds to explain how someone who is hardened to Christianity is in need of more presuppositional explanations, while someone who is open is in need of more evidentialist ones.  I think that he does a phenomenal job of bringing together something that is normally divided (and often harshly so).

Throughout, Guinness reminds us that the goal is love.  We love people.  We want them to know God. Therefore we must recover the art of Christian persuasion.  It is not about being smarter than others.  It is not about winning an argument; if all we do is win arguments, we may be winning small battles but ultimately losing the war for the hearts of people who need to know God in Christ.  It is about knowing the love of God and life in His kingdom and wanting others to know and experience the same.  That is the goal of Christian persuasion, and it is a much-needed reminder for those of us who delve into apologetics.

I truly believe every Christian needs to read this book.  It needs to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.  And then it needs to be implemented in our lives.  If we can lovingly recover the art of Christian persuasion, the Church will make great strides in leading people back to God’s loving kingdom.

*Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

Anxiety for a Bibliophile

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Hi.  I’m Martin.  And I am addicted to books.

Anyone who knows me is not shocked or surprised by the words above.  I have loved to read as long as I can remember.  I have always had a bookshelf with books on it, whether it was in my own bedroom growing up or a joint bookshelf in our den where my father and I shared (actually, still share) books.  (Sorry, Dad.  I’ll get my books out of there some day.)

I have multiple bookshelves in my house with books.  Most shelves are now two deep.  I also have boxes in my garage with books.  And I have boxes in my parents’ shop with books.  And I have some on a bookshelf at my parents’ house.

Okay.  I have a problem.  I admit it.  I can justify it by talking about how great it is to have books, and I still think that is true.  But I still have a problem.

Books are my trophies.  Whether I have read them or not, I love to be able to point to them on my shelves.  I justify keeping them.  What if I want to read them again (which I have done on occasion, but not all that often)?  What if I want to reference them? (After all there was that one sentence on p. 24 out of a 300-page book that was great.)  One day I will have a room as a study/library.  (The fact that I don’t have one now and will have no way to have one anytime in the near future is irrelevant.)

Lately it has been weighing on me more thinking about just how many books I have.  My wife (Chrissy) has been leaning toward minimalism more lately, and I am impressed by how much it has taken hold of her.  In some ways, it has taken hold of me, too.  (Don’t tell her I admitted that.)

We have a smaller house.  It’s enough room for us, but it’s not huge by any stretch of the imagination.  Because it is a smaller house, it is all too easy for it to fill up with various items.  Add to this that we are both teachers who work about 45 minutes away from home, and we struggle to keep up with tidying up the house with all the things we have laying around.

I hate to admit this.  My books are a large part of the problem.

Recently I have gotten better about getting rid of books by donating them to my church library or by giving them away.  But it is kind of like using a thimble to bail water out of the Titanic while it is sinking.  I am constantly taking in more books than I can read or get rid of.  (Did I mention I have a problem?)

I really got thinking today when I read an article by one of my favorite bloggers, Tim Challies.  He wrote an article titled “Going All-in With Ebooks.” In the article, he thinks through the possibility of getting rid of his entire library and going all digital.  I like some of the reasons he brings up.

I also read several articles today by minimalists on the idea of at least trimming back one’s collection to one bookshelf (or less, in some cases).

I have to admit, the idea interests me . . . but it makes me extremely anxious at the same time.  It would be very beneficial to cut back on my book collection, transitioning to mainly digital.  I say “mainly” because at this point I have no plans on getting rid of certain collections I have (C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, Randy Alcorn, etc.), but that would reduce the number of books I have to probably about one complete shelf, maybe a little more.  I currently have four bookshelves in my bedroom, so that would be a huge improvement.

I keep getting almost ready to take the plunge, and then the anxiety kicks in.  It is at this point that I understand at least a little how hoarders struggle.

So, I feel stuck and indecisive.

On one hand, I could help my wife with her minimalizing.  I could reduce the amount of books I have to keep track of and take care of.  I could have my entire library always at the touch of my fingertips on my Kindle.  And I could focus on having a library with more purpose and focus on only a select few authors.

On the other hand, the time and money I have spent collecting books would be wasted.  I feel like I would be betraying my bibliophile ways.  The ease of referencing something in a physical book would be gone.  (I am extremely visually oriented and mentally map many of the books I read.)  And I would possibly have a nervous breakdown.  (Okay, not really; but it certainly feels like it.)

Perhaps I will make a decision sooner rather than later.  But I am interested in your thoughts.

Do you prefer physical books or digital?  Have you found yourself overwhelmed with books, or do you think, as I tend to, that there is truly no such thing?  Is the comfort of a large library worth the hassle of having more items all around the house?  Is the convenience of having all books in digital form worth giving up a large collection?

Comment with your thoughts!

Blessings!

The Incarnation

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First, I want to apologize to my blog followers.  Things have been hectic the last few weeks, and I have not done a good job keeping up with the blog.  I hope to pick it back up more regularly.

Christmas is fast approaching.  Stores are busy, Christmas music is playing everywhere, and I have already eaten enough Christmas goodies to last for the season.

In our house, we chose not to tell our children that Santa was real.  Our goal was to keep the focus on Christ.  But I’m not sure that we have fully succeeded.  We still have a Christmas tree with lights.  We still watch shows with Santa, much like we might watch Disney characters, understanding they are not real.  We have presents under the tree.  And I still cannot help but feel that those things pull our focus away from Jesus.  So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the real reason we celebrate this time of year.

The real point of our celebrating Christmas is to remind ourselves of the miracle of the incarnation.  That a little over 2,000 years ago, God the Son came down to earth and took on flesh.  Without losing His divine nature, Jesus also took on human nature: 100% God and 100% human at the same time.  If your mind is spinning trying to comprehend that, then you are getting the point.  It is mind boggling.  It is a miracle.  And it should  be the focus of this season.

It gets better when we think about why Christ was “pleased as man with men to dwell,” as stated in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

One reason why Jesus came was to show us how to live.  From the Sermon on the Mount to the parables to His very life, Jesus intended to demonstrate the way to live as followers of God the Father in His kingdom.  Jesus told us to, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29, ESV)  We are to “learn from [him]” and follow Him.  The great commission was not to make converts, but to make disciples, teaching people to obey everything that Christ commanded and taught.

Another reason why Jesus came was to live the life we could not live.  In the process of showing us how to live, Christ fulfilled everything we did not and could not because of our flesh and sin.  Christ lived the perfect life, without sin.  More of this in the next reason.

A third reason why Jesus came was so that He could sympathize with us after living among us as one of us.  He was tempted (see Matthew 4), He knew hunger and thirst, He knew betrayal, and He knew emotional turmoil (remember the garden of Gethsemane).  Even with all of this, He persevered, never falling into sin.  Hebrews 4:15 tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (ESV)  Where we stumble and sin, Christ succeeded.  But because He was tempted, He sympathizes with us in our weakness.  When we pray to Him, He understands.  What an amazing thought!

One last reason why Jesus came (although I’m sure there are others I could write about) was to offer Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins.  As a perfect person, He was able to offer Himself up as the sacrifice for our sins so that our relationship with God could be restored.  Jesus tells us in Luke 19:10, “‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.'” (ESV)  Not only did Jesus come to die for us, but He was seeking us in the process.  Because He died in our place, we can become righteous in Him!  We didn’t have to beg God to die for us.  He initiated the process.  This should humble us and overwhelm us with gratitude!

So as you are making whatever preparations you have left for Christmas, as you are singing carols, watching movies, making cookies, and keeping whatever family traditions you may have, be sure to reflect on what Christmas means.  Remember the incarnation.  Remember the miracle.  And keep it central.

God bless you this Christmas!

Time Flies

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Sometimes we need a reminder of how our time flies.  I had such a reminder the other day as I was reading the Scriptures.

Psalm 39:4-5 says, “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you.  Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” (ESV)

Somewhere along the way we get this idea that we have unlimited time.  We get the idea that we are immortal, and that there is always tomorrow.  James 4:13-15 warns us about this.

Perhaps it is a result of our desire to ignore death; if we ignore death’s reality, then certainly it will never come to us, right?  But the reality is that death comes whether we want it to or not.  Unless the Lord returns, we will all face death at some point, and we do not know when.

The psalmist asks God to “let me know how fleeting I am!”  He wisely wants God to remind Him of how quickly his life will pass.

He describes his days as “a few handbreadths.”  A handbreadth equaled about four inches.  The idea being that in the grand scheme of things, his life was not very long.  He then says that “all mankind stands as a mere breath.”  The word for “breath” is a word meaning “vapor.”  Think about going outside on a cold day and breathing out.  The breath that you see disappears quickly; it is a vapor.  That is the idea of how long (or short) our life is on earth.

In light of these things, we should consider how we are living.   How are we using the time that we have, fleeting as it is?  What things are we doing to ensure that we are “making the best use of the time”? (Ephesians 5:16, ESV)

Are we wasting it on things that won’t ultimately matter?  Are we investing it wisely in spiritual growth and time with family and friends?  Are we using our time to bless others?  Or are we selfishly hoarding it all, always waiting until later to use our time wisely?

There was an old saying that I remember hearing Leonard Ravenhill say, although I don’t think it was original to him.  It says, “Only one life; ’twill soon be past.  Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

How true that all is.  We only have one life on this earth, and as the psalmist reminds us, although in different words, “’twill soon be past.”  The only things that will last are those things done for Christ.

Now this doesn’t mean that we can do only “spiritual” things (like reading the Bible, praying, etc.).   But whatever we are doing needs to be done to God’s glory.  And we do need to think about how our time is being spent.  Perhaps there are some better ways we can be using our time.

This life is a gift from God, and we will never regret the things we have done for Christ. Let us be sure we are using our time wisely.  After all, it is “a mere breath.”

Book Review – “The End of Me” by Kyle Idleman

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Having read Not a Fan and Gods at War by Kyle Idleman, I was interested in his new book The End of Me.  David C Cook publishers was kind enough to send me a copy to review.

The subtitle of the book is “Where Real Life in the Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins.”  This adequately sums up the main focus of the book.  Idleman shows how the ways of Jesus are often completely opposite of the ways of the world, and that in order to grow in Christ, we must adopt Jesus’ ways, which requires us to go against the normal ideas we have about how life works.

The book is divided into two parts.  In the first part, Idleman focuses on four of the beatitudes (the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the humble/meek, and the pure in heart), showing that we must come to the end of ourselves before we can be used.

The second part shows us that, in Idleman’s words, “we will see that when we get to the end of ourselves and realize we aren’t strong enough, smart enough, or talented enough, then ironically we are in the best position to be used by God in significant ways” (p. 15).

Throughout the book, Idleman uses both Scripture and anecdotes to help us understand how all of this works.

Interestingly, I found the very last chapter of the book to be the best.  In some way, it seemed the most practical and hard hitting.  Just two examples will show what I mean.

First, he basically summarizes the thrust of the rest of the book:

“This book has been a kind of path,  treasure hunt if you will, and on it we’ve followed Jesus through his teachings.  We’ve seen how he turns the world’s views inside out and upside down.  He simply cuts against the grain of how we naturally think, and we realize that to follow Jesus, we need to retrain our minds to focus through spectacles we’ve never worn before.  The key to thinking his way is an utter surrender, a giving up of the old ways, which never would have worked anyway” (pp. 196-197)

What a great summary!  I almost think it would have been helpful to lay that out in the introduction to set the stage.

The second example of how helpful the last chapter is says,

“Each day is a new narrow gate.  The problem with dying to myself is that it’s so daily.  I have to make the choice over and over again.  I can live for myself or I can live for Christ, which means picking up my cross–at the drugstore, at the gas pump, in my living room, in traffic.

“Not only must I serve the people I love and admire, and those who can make my life easier, but dying to myself also means serving those I don’t really like or understand and even those who have hurt me.  How can you serve a husband who is apathetic rather than loving? A wife who never speaks an encouraging word? A child bent on rebellion? How do you serve the coworker who talked behind your back? The rude guy across the street? The driver who takes your life into his hands on the highway? It takes dying to yourself. If Jesus can wash the feet of Judas, then it’s time for me to come to the end of myself and follow his example” (pp. 204-205)

What a powerful reminder!  Living the way of Christ takes place most when we are serving people who require us to die to ourselves in order to serve them.  It’s easy to serve those we love and to serve when we get something in return.  It requires the life of Christ in us to love those we have issues with or who have issues with us.

In reality, the entire last chapter (all 21 pages of it) is full of wonderful reminders and truths.  To me, the last chapter, alone, is worth getting the book.

The only issue I had with the book was the humor that Idleman puts throughout.  It’s not so much the humor in the main body of the book that throws it off, but the humor in the footnotes seems a bit much.  I’m sure that is just Idleman’s style.  In defense of the author, he was probably just trying to take a tough topic (coming to the end of oneself) and make it a little easier to take in.  In my opinion, however, it seemed to take away from the overall impact of the book.  I would feel really convicted (in a good way) and then come across a footnoted joke that seemed to just rob the moment of its force and impact.

One example of the joking that Idleman does is during a part where he is talking about how much time people spend on entertainment and staring at screens.  While making a great point about how busy we are (as a way of filling emptiness in our lives), we find this note:  “If you’re reading this on a tablet, you’re absolved. In fact, let’s take the time you spend staring at a screen to read this book and credit that to your account. So play a few games of ‘Flappy Bird’ on me” (p. 125)  In my opinion, the note, while humorous, seemed to jump in and take away the seriousness of the moment, a seriousness which was much needed.

Overall, The End of Me by Kyle Idleman is a great book.  It serves to remind us that it is not all about us and that we must come to the end of ourselves so that God can do His work through us.  I definitely recommend this book!

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

Hello world!

I have debated about starting a blog for some time.  I decided to give it a try and see how it goes.

My hope in this blog is to share insights I find with others, to give encouragement to others, to share reviews of books, and so on.  If others are encouraged by this blog, learn something new, or find a new book to read, then I have accomplished my goal.

For those who don’t know me, I am a public school teacher.  I am also married to the love of my life, Christine, and have two wonderful children.  My main hobby is reading, and my reading is very eclectic, with a focus on apologetics and theology.

If you have ideas for the blog, feel free to comment on them below.  I am interested to see where the blog goes.

God bless!

Martin