Book Review

Help for busy families

13th July 2017 — by stevepalf


I love a good management book.  Maybe it’s the thought that with each page I might find magic solutions to my ineffectiveness and ignorance.  That’s yet to happen but still I’ve been helped by much of what I’ve read, including works by Patrick Lencioni recently recommended to my by David Snyder and Ralph Cunnington.

Partick Lencioni is a team work expert and writes books for business leaders but in an intriguing departure he’s also written a book for parents.  “3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family” seeks to apply what he’s learnt from managing teams to home life and it starts with the premise that if businesses were run in the way many of our family lives are run they would quickly go bust.  Lack of focus, unclear goals, disconnected thoughtless activity pulling in multiple directions marks much of our family life and we’re the worse for it according to Lencioni.   Helpfully appreciating that the complexities of business administration don’t easily scan onto family life the book homes in on 3 questions to answer:

  1. What is unique about your family?  What are the strengths and weaknesses you have, what do you like/dislike, what are your values and priorities?
  2. What is your family’s top priority right now? This isn’t a for all time priority but a 2-6month priority, what is it that you’re aiming to achieve and how are you going to go about doing it?
  3. How will you keep these answers alive? What will you do to remember these answers and let them shape what you do? He recommends meetings!

Lencioni isn’t writing just for Christians, nor is the book an expressly Christian book although Lencioni himself is a Roman Catholic and is very open about his faith in his writing but still I’m convinced the book would be really helpful for any busy family in church, and here’s why…

Not only does Lencioni’s plan help you get organised (which is a big help in any family) but also he helpfully steers us away from just copying each other and doing what other families do in the absence of a thoughtful plan of our own.  Mindless comparison has been around forever but social media has given us a window into each other’s lives which strengthens that curse; they seem to be having such a good time in Spain on holiday, we should go there, their house looks beautiful we should make ours like that etc, etc.  Lencioni doesn’t put it like this but his first big question is founded on the truth that God has uniquely made us with particular strengths and weaknesses, characters and opportunities and as a family reflecting on those and coming up with a plan to be the most god honouring, effective, and purposeful as we can be is what we’re called to do.  Of course in a church family we hope that each home is God facing and gospel centred; committed to reading the scriptures, praying and saying sorry, yet still within that there is great variety and we should live that out to his glory.

Book Review

Being there

17th March 2017 — by stevepalf


A few months ago I posted here about general help not being generally helpful.

Well travelling this last week gave me chance to read the book that goes with that short film, called Being There.  The book tells the story of Dave and Gloria Furman and how they’ve worked together to come to terms with Dave’s disability which he developed shortly before the birth of their first child.

If you’re looking for a book that’s realistic about suffering and the cost to those around you with some very practical advice on how to (and not to) respond then this book is brilliant.  I was struck by the honesty of the pain not only for the sufferer (indeed that’s not the focus) but also for those seeking to give help and support and the damage that thoughtless actions can have.  It’s an inspiring book on the strength and dignity that the gospel gives to loving service of the suffering.

The video below gives a longer introduction to the book which I commend to you.

Book ReviewChristian Living

Secret to contentment

22nd September 2016 — by stevepalf


Really the subject of contentment deserves a longer post but for now here’s a killer quote from Jeremiah Burroughs’ book.

And the truth is, I know nothing more effective for quieting a Christian soul and getting contentment than this, setting your heart to work in the duties of the immediate circumstances that you are now in, and taking heed of your thoughts about other conditions as a mere temptation.

Book ReviewChristian Living

Two governing principles

12th February 2016 — by stevepalf


One of the blessings of this first week of sabbatical has been reading Tony Reinke’s book “Newton on the Christian Life”.

The book isn’t so much a biography of John Newton, although it contains some fascinating biographical details, rather the book is an overview of his letters and teaching on how to live as a Christian. There’s lots in there worth sharing but here are his two governing principles:

1. Do everything only for God’s glory

This is the great purpose of all that we should do and the ultimate purpose of everything in the universe. All things will one day and we should today show the greatness and majesty of God in all we do. This isn’t to mean we should all become pioneer church planters in Afghanistan (although that’s not a bad idea if you’re considering it) but rather means that all we do should be done with singleminded concern to make God look great and not ourselves.

Here’s how he puts it:

we are devoted to the Lord, and have by grace been enabled to choose him, and to yield ourselves to him, so as to place our happiness in his favour, and to make his glory and will the ultimate scope of all our actions.

The more you ponder on it the more simple it makes life. Liberated from the perpetual desire to justify my existence and to feed my pride on the praise of men my only concern is: does this action make God look great? If it does brilliant, if it doesn’t, if it’s design is something else, I won’t do it.

2. Do everything trusting only in God’s sovereignty

This shifts our focus from the “why” to the “how”. How will I live? How will I face the future? How will I know that all will be well? Answer: only by trusting in God’s sovereignty!

Newton (and Reinke) brilliantly bring out the consequences of NOT doing this:

The lack of such dependence leads to a host of complications and problems. We are quick to look to the world to provide our comforts and our hopes, especially when life grows dark. We seek to serve false saviours that promise comfort and hope, instead of living on the promises of God. Spiritual insincerity emerges in our hearts… and some may eventually shipwreck their own souls by the complexity of self-wisdom and indecision. An inability to fully trust God creates a toxic “duplicity of conduct” that poisons the Christian life.

Again the more you ponder this the better news it is. Trusting in God alone brings a joy and a liberty that otherwise would be unknown to me. As Newton puts it:

Every rain drop hits its appointed target, and every dust particle is carried on the wind to its appointed resting place. If we could but grasp this in the depth of our being, our souls would be liberated to depend fully on God’s governance over our lives and learn to count trials “all joy” (James 1:2)

Book ReviewChristian Living

The Valley of Vision

18th August 2015 — by stevepalf


The front cover of this little book is not quite how I picture the Valley of Vision, it looks more like the valley of a cheap 1970’s farm based holiday, but don’t let that put you off!  The Valley of Vision is a collection of prayers and reflections written by pastors and theologians from yesteryear.

Personally I’ve found it really helpful.  Let me share one of the prayers I’ve been turning to regularly…

It is a good day to me when thou givest me
a glimpse of myself;
Sin is my greatest evil,
but thou art my greatest good; ….more

Book ReviewChurch Community

The Compelling Community

7th August 2015 — by stevepalf


There are lots of books about church and church life many of which I’ve found helpful but this one is a new favourite and let me explain why.

One of my consistent prayers for Aigburth is that people would see in our church a community that only God could build.  One where people’s love for each other is divine and not natural, where people’s confidence in God and delight in him is inexplicable outside of the good news of the Lord Jesus.  It’s been exciting to see that happen but I’m still praying it and longing for more(!) and that’s what this book is about.

Listen to how they put it:

Supernatural community in a local church is this principle being worked out hundreds of times each week.  The people in our churches understand their sin. They understand the seeming absurdity – and yet reality – of forgiveness in Christ.  That spark burns into love for God, which in turn creates love for others. So they love not in their own human strength, but in the supernatural strength of the one who loved them first. (page 46)

What I love about the book, and found so helpful when reading it, is the many practical ways this principle is worked out.  So that it’s a conviction that the gospel builds diverse communities that shapes how you organise and structure church life, how you think about and communicate church membership and what your expectations are when you preach and pray.

One particular highlight to get you thinking is how sometimes the schedule of church activities and the busyness of members in running the church machine can foster a shallowness in relationships.  So leaders and members become more concerned with “are you serving” than “are you growing”. Now of course those two can be linked, but not always and I want to be able to say to the church member in a wheelchair who faithfully prays for the church and encourages others “you’re as important as the person who manages by some superhuman feat to be on all the rota’s”.  Why? Well because at the heart of our church is not a programme to run but people to be discipled, encouraged and equipped.

Again Dunlop and Dever have a whole load of practical ways to foster this culture in our churches with great sections on “Keeping it Simple” and “Keeping it Informal” as well as encouraging lives centred on the local church.

So I’m going to keep praying for our church and I’m getting a copy of the book for all our elders!

You can get a copy here.


Book Review

A new name, Emma Scrivener

8th July 2015 — by stevepalf


There is a way that seems right to a man,
but in the end it leads to death
(Proverbs 14:12)

Emma Scrivener’s anorexia nearly killed her – but whilst she was starving herself and over-exercising it seemed like the right thing to do. Trying to understand how anyone could deliberately behave in such a destructive way can be hard, but Emma’s account of her own eating disorder is incredibly insightful, and so strikingly honest, that she helps us make some sense of two decades of fighting anorexia. Although she doesn’t at all consider her own experience to be a ‘blueprint’ of what most anorexics will go through – she has great understanding, compassion and wisdom that will help anyone struggling with eating disorders, or who knows someone who does.

However, I think the thing that gripped me most about Emma’s story was not even the starkness of eating disorders, but her incredible insight into human nature, and her blunt assessment of her own personality and nature. Emma begins her story by telling us:

“Jesus Christ calls himself a Doctor for sick sinners. And I am both. I’m sick – helpless in the face of a condition that overpowers me. I am also a sinner – deliberately choosing my way over his. Despite this, he loves me just the same. So this is not just ‘my’ story. It’s the story of his work in my life.”

As she takes us through the things that shaped her life from childhood, through adolescence into adulthood, she picks out thought processes and feelings that led to her actions. Not just when she was obviously ill, but in the intervening years, where she appeared to have recovered.

“I have always felt hungry… Not just for food, but for everything: from money to recognition. I’m a human chasm, a vortex of insatiable longing.”

I love Emma’s honesty about what we really find when we look inside ourselves. Our culture seems to be such a mix of mantras – ‘believe in yourself’, ‘fight for your rights’, ‘don’t be a victim’.

“Therapy involved looking for the answer ‘within’. This sounds good, right? But what if, when you look inside, there’s nothing there? Worse still, what if what’s there is really rotten? What do you do with that? And where do you go when the experts can’t help?”

What a breath of fresh air! I can read this book knowing that I don’t have to pretend my motives are always pure, and my confidence is firmly rooted in Jesus – when really I regularly try to plant my confidence in my own weak efforts.

I wonder if sometimes we think it’s possible to hit a level of christian maturity where we’ve really got our heads around the gospel, and the growing that still needs to be done is far outweighed by other people’s need for us to teach them.Yes, of course I needed to hear that sermon on grace, but not because I didn’t already know it – I’m just thinking how I can encourage the person next to me to really take it on board.

Emma’s relapse occurred when she was a children’s worker in a church:

“From the outside, I looked like a great Christian. Glossy, high-functioning and motivated… [but] at the heart of a thriving ministry beat a commitment to proving myself… Idols, you see, are not always easy to spot [and] they’ll flourish as readily in churches as in temples.”

Emma’s relapse was more severe than her initial illness. Not only did she come incredibly close to dying, she was also so affected by the illness mentally that she thought she had everything under control. So what finally got through?

“At my very lowest ebb I opened the Bible and came in brokenness before the Lord. In Revelation I met Jesus: someone I had never really seen. He’s the Creator of the universe (Revelation 1) – and He’s a bleeding and bow-legged lamb (Revelation 5). He’s the embodiment of strength and glory – but also of frailty and pain. He’s Jesus as Lord, the conquering Lion. And He’s Jesus as Lamb, sacrificed and broken.”

This book is for:

those struggling with eating disorders, or who know someone who does
those struggling with idols in their lives
anyone searching for recognition and acceptance from those around them
anyone who thinks Jesus has lost his appeal a bit
anyone who isn’t amazed at grace anymore

Reviewed by Naomi Grindey