Book Review: Talking with Your Kids about God

Talking with Your Kids about God: 30 Conversations Every Christian Parent Must Have

My Rating – If you have time

Level – Easy; reads quickly, moderate length (just under 300 pages)

Summary
The title of the book is a bit of a misnomer. This isn’t really a parenting or family book. This might be just because I have a three-year old, but when I see ‘kids’, I think children under 10 and skew even younger. This book is really a basic apologetics intro that can also be used with maybe high schoolers or fairly knowledgeable middle schoolers. There are discussion questions after each chapter, broken in to two parts ‘open the conversation’ and ‘advance the conversation’. The former could be used for middle school or newer Christians, the latter for high school, but also for discussion in a small group or other Bible Study. Very few people have much knowledge of apologetics, and this book would likely be new to most parents, let alone ‘kids’.

The 30 conversations are grouped into five equal parts – the existence of God, science and God, the nature of God, believing in God, and the difference God makes. There is an introduction to each part, then the six topics of conversation. Each topic is then summarized in ‘key points’, followed by the ‘conversation guide’ which consist of ‘open the conversation’, ‘advance the conversation’, and ‘apply the conversation’.

My Thoughts
As stated above, this isn’t really a book for kids. Maybe the first two parts would work to discuss with middle schoolers, but the discussion questions certainly seem more advanced. Those two chapters seem to be the strength of the book, as far as a parent is concerned. As parent, it would be worthwhile to read through these, so that you can know the discussions to have with your children as the move on through school and start to learn about so-called conflicts with the Bible and belief in God. I can’t really see reading through this book or using the advanced conversation questions with a child that is first learning of the conflict, but reading through as a parent, it would be a good reminder of the conflicts they will face and if you’ve never learned much in the way of apologetics, this will certainly move you in the right direction.

Maybe I’m underestimating people too much, but I think this book is much more suited to a small group/Sunday School/whatever you call it, discussion than something to read with children. In that sense, I can’t really recommend this for parents, but I think it is worth checking out as a group leader. The book is fairly basic, but I just don’t see that enough adults have ever learned these ideas, so you need to start with them first. Especially the part, ‘the nature of God’, as this moves out of apologetics and into more of a systematic theology.

Two other criticisms I have are that the existence of God, is a pretty good over all part of the book. There are convincing arguments of the existence of a God, but Crain never steps into the realm of the existence of our God, the God of the Bible. Which leads to the most glaring omission in the book, the Bible. There is no major section devoted to ‘the truth of the Bible’ or ‘how do we know the Bible is true’ or something else along those lines. For me, this is where apologetics or knowledge of God has to start.

One surprising strength of the book, is the final part, ‘the difference God makes’. Again, this really lends itself to a discussion group, as it more or less a group of discussion about the impact our knowledge of God should have in our lives. I really enjoyed this section and will likely use it, if not the whole book, with the group that I lead.

Overall, a pretty good book. I’m not sure it met the stated goal of discussion with kids. Catechisms are still probably the best thing for that. However, I do think it would work really well as an intro to apologetics, a basic primer on the knowledge of God, and could open up great discussion on the impact this knowledge has on our lives. With the ‘key points’ and ‘discussion guide’, I think this book could be repurposed into an interest group study.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Book Review: Why Nations Fail

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

Rating – Put it on your list

Level – Moderate, you’ll need some basic familiarity with economics, politics, and history; Long (462 pages before acknowledgements, notes, etc.) overly repetitious and a bit tedious.

Summary 
As I start to write the review, it dawns on me that perhaps the title is a bit misleading. It isn’t so much about why they fail, as to why the never even get off the ground. Some nations seem doomed from the start, however, other become wildly successful. Ultimately, I think, the point of the book is who are the ones that are successful and how does that happen? Acemoglu and Robinson pin it two factors, which taken with their opposites form something like a matrix or quadrant, and you need to overlap with the positive of both. These are whether or not you nation is politically inclusive and, and perhaps more importantly, the whether or not you have extractive institutions.

The politic aspect is fairly straight forward, are you in a dictatorship (or other controlling, top down government) or in a democracy (or other form of responsive government)? If you have no say in politics, and government is controlled by a few or just one person, it is fairly easy to see why that wouldn’t work. The more complicated and impactful side is the extractive institutions. These can take many forms, such as contract law or heavy taxation, but a good example is property rights. If you know you have solid and secure property rights, you are more likely to invest and build up your business. If you fear that an institution may step in at any moment and take your land or business from you, why bother?

The book itself is broken into 15 chapters, with an interesting preface about Mubarak and Egypt. The first chapter compares Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora; the two cities have similar culture and geography, so why is one rich and the other poor? The chapter serves as the intro to the book and leads into the second chapter where the debunk the reasons for poverty being related to genetics or weather, among others. Chapters 3 through 12 are basically case studies where the authors look a different political situation throughout history through the lenses of responsiveness and extractiveness. In 13 and 14, the authors discuss nations that fail today those that have become successful. The final chapter looks at our attempts to help impoverished nations and how understanding the causes, as the have proposed, will help us to better understand why those attempts have failed and how we can do better going forward.

My Thoughts
First, about the book itself – the authors are both academics, and the book certainly reads that way to an extent. The book could have been much more concise, dropping at least 100 pages without missing any case studies are points. I think part of the issue may come from the publisher/editor, in that instead of setting up most of the chapters as case studies that then looked at their points each time, it might have been better to make their points, and then touch on case studies as proof. Instead, each chapter could almost be read independently, meaning there is too much repetition of their point.

To the content of the book – it was fascinating, anyone with interest in economics, history, or politics, this book is a must read. One of the the more interesting points of history to me, was the impact of the Plague on serfdom in Europe. Eastern Europe reacted one way, England another, which would then impact America (as it was founded with this change as part of history), which ultimately effects me today. Had the reaction in England been the same as the Austria-Hungary reaction, who knows how different the Western World would look, perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this review right now.

Another point the spend some time on that is worth considering is looking beyond just economics. The point to growth of the economy under Stalin, but that the nation still failed. It is also helpful to see and understand how the impacts of colonialism, which was not inclusive but very extractive, still effects those countries and peoples today. The point was driven home a little more for me because I live in the South, which they actually spend some time on. The impacts of slavery on the economics of white people is still being felt today, though less so than a few decades ago. The discussion centers on the fact that obviously slavery is extractive and was horrible for black people, but it also never would have worked politically because it included so few people in the institutions. Most white people were shut out of the economy and wages and this impact lasted a long time. They point out the that median income in the South was about 40% of the median income through the rest of the nation as recently as 1950.

All of this works back to a reminder that part of why life is good for me today is pure luck. From serfdom in England, to the Civil War, on through today. If Lincoln had let the South succeed and be it’s own country, it clearly would have failed, based on the theories of the authors. Meaning, I could be living in a failed state right now, instead of America. They call it ‘small differences and critical juncture’ in history, but it is basically an accident of history; it is somewhat sobering to consider.

Overall, and interesting and challenging book. It could certainly be a bit shorter and cleaner, which is why I didn’t rate it higher, but a book that is well worth the read and one to put on your list.

Christians and Money – Plenty

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written two post related(ish) to money. The first one, was about giving/charity and the IRS, as I had just finished doing my taxes and was giving a warning that my donations were suspiciously high. The second one, was supposed to be about what to do with excess money, but I felt I had to start with the fact that most people are bad with money and inexplicably, very few people budget. So, today, I’ll jump back on track with what to do when you have plenty.

Before discussing plenty, you have to figure out, what is enough? My granddad is old enough that he was never caught up in the religious right or Republican Christianity, and therefore takes the Bible seriously about money, believing that greed is a sin. Growing up, he always told the story of a reporter asking the richest man on earth how much money he needed, and the rich many responded, ‘just a little more’. The exchange is attribute to Rockefeller, but I couldn’t actually find anything that confirms this.

Either way the point remains, the concept of enough is a moving target. As I wrote some last week, it is also almost impossible to discuss with some people. I know people, who make more than I do, who eat out 4-5 times a week, have a $150 cable bill will also having Netflix, Hulu, Prime, and still go out to movies. He tells me they are almost paycheck to paycheck, and don’t have enough. No, they have enough, they are just wasting it.

For the sake of discussion, let’s say that enough is covering the bills/expenses of living, saving 10%, giving 10%, with some emergency savings and then a little extra cash every month for fun (this is a category for going out to eat, booze and expensive dinners are not bills). So, you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, and you are doing the right things with you money and have some left over, that is enough/more than enough. I know this is a basic and peoples’ living expenses can vary dramatically, some places have a high cost of housing, some people buy too much house, many people have car loans they shouldn’t, and of course you can always lower your bills (you don’t have to keep your house at 72 degrees year round).

Certainly, if you have a decent sized discretionary or misc. portion of your budget you have enough. I guess a quick and easy definition of plenty would be if that section of your budget is larger than your saving and giving; definitely plenty if that budget item is your largest.

Maybe you’ve never bothered to budget and when you do, you end up like my buddy at work or other people I’ve talked to and find out that discretionary part of your budget is quite large, hundreds to even over a thousand dollars is what I’ve heard of from people ‘finding’ money in the budget when they actually put it on paper. Alternatively, you have the scenario like the Monday Morning Wife and I had where we both have new (promotion) jobs at new companies, so we received a substantial bump in salary. Or finally, say one spouse had been laid off or taken time out for babies and is not back to work. For these last two scenarios, you were already responsible and smart, so you had a budget and are now, clearly in the plenty category.

So now what?

I’ll admit I have no idea. I’ve struggled with this and have been wanting to write about it for almost a year. I’ll confess I’ve spent too much time thinking (obsessing) over what to do. In some ways, it is simple, right? For example, you have the raise/new income/’budget find’ scenario discussed above of say, $600 month. There are only three places it can go, savings, givings, or discretionary. This even works for just a one time bonus or tax return, as well. If you start budgeting an extra $60 a month to giving, that still leaves you with over $500 in new money and no particular place to go. Say you save have of it, now you are down to an extra $240 a month. Should you really spend all that on yourself?

This is the kind of thing that I struggle with, not the spending so much, because I just don’t buy many things, but can you justify saving 50% of new money, will keeping giving to 10%? Especially as your income and plenty grows? Dave Ramsey recommends saving 15%, and giving 10%, as a starting point. However, if you get that big bump, or just expect a good amount of growth in income over time, how much do those two numbers need to align? Can you save 30% and keep your giving at 10%? Should it be 25% and 15%? I actually had this discussion with someone yesterday. I told him I do feel compelled based on God’s blessing, to give more. He points out that Paul tells us to give what we decide and not from compulsion because God wants a cheerful giver. That makes sense on the one hand, but on the other, I don’t really want to give any money. Right? That’s the problem most people have, I’m selfish and would much rather keep all my money.

I want to quickly discuss two solutions I’ve heard that takes you away from the percentage focus I’ve discussed. I’m sure I overthink all of this and focus too much on the percentages because I’m such a strict budgeter. I’m sure many of you reading this might say, give your 10% and if there is an additional need, give to it. That’s where my obsessive compulsive nature comes in and says, yeah, but it isn’t in the budget. Back to the two methods, they are both numbers based. One number, is your income, you pick the number you want to hit, then give away 100% of every dollar thereafter. The second is your savings, same deal, pick a number you want to hit, then give away everything else. All this assumes a solid budget that already accounts for a 15/10% savings/givings.

First, income, this one is interesting, probably more Biblically sound, but harder to follow. This one should be pretty relevant for anyone who expects large growth in income over life times. Assume you and your wife make about $50k, but know in 20 years, you each could easily be making $100k (well keep all money in real dollars for ease), which isn’t that far off a scenario. You set your budget at the combined $100k mark, leave room for some growth in savings, income, and discretionary, and then pick your number. Call it $150k. When you hit this point, you’ll be giving 10% already, but will then give 100% of ever new dollar. By the time you hit that $200k line, you’d be giving away an incredible $65k (well, I guess less taxes, so call it $55k), somewhere around 25-30% of your income.

I like this idea. It is simple, and I can’t really think of any reason from the Bible to not do so. However, it is scary. It would be incredibly hard for me to give away that much, and keep savings at the relatively safe rate of 15-20%. While, I’d be sure that I’d probably be fine in the future, it seems much easier to trust money than it does God. You never know what emergency may hit – housing, job layoff, or especially in America, a medical issue. But clearly that is trying to serve two masters, it seems.

So, that leads to the other method. I heard about this from a friend who was a financial adviser and it is something he recommended. Unfortunately, he died last year and we never had the chance to discuss further. The idea is straight forward, you save/give your 15/10%, then as income rises you increase your savings rate, then once you hit your target number, you stop saving and give the rest away. I really like this idea, because it plays in to my need for safety and comfort coming from something I can ‘control’. However, I can’t think much about the method without feeling like all I am doing is ‘building a bigger barn’.

Obviously, there is some nuance to each of these situations (if you are going with the nest egg method, but you are offered a 401(k) match, do you keep saving a little?), but as general guidelines, I find them compelling. This has gone long, so maybe I’ll do yet another post, but I haven’t even touched on some even more compelling and interesting situations such as financial independence, moving to ministry/changing careers later in life, and the craziest of all, retirement (having a pension is simple, you can give off of your income, but if you only have a nest egg, how do you give?). Admittedly, I overthink it, but how about you? Do you under-think it? See any major pros or cons for either method, or thing focusing on percentages is the way to go? Please leave comments if you have them, I’d love some input.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Fall of Hyperion

The Fall of Hyperion

This is the second book in a series, check out my review of the first book – Hyperion.

My Rating – Must Read

Level – Quick, easy read; fairly long at over 500 pages.

Summary
This is a continuation of the first book, Hyperion, so the story line of the Pilgrims in continued, but there is also the introduction of another main character story line. To avoid spoilers (if that is a think for a book published over 20 years ago), I’ll say the Pilgrims all meet the Shrike, all have their stories (more or less) meet a resolution, and find out that their stories are even more intertwined than they knew.

The additional character is Joseph Severn, a Cybrid for the personality/memory of John Keats. Much of the book takes place from his vantage point. Not only his own story, but he is inexplicably tied to the Pilgrims and view what is happening to them in his dreams. CEO Gladstone puts him up in TC2, so that he can keep her apprised of the Pilgrims.

Severn/Keats and the Pilgrims stories also mix together, as does the Ousters, for a few twist and turns you don’t expect coming, including a few new back stories.

My Thoughts
One quick thought, that I didn’t put together form the first book, but become more apparent in this one, why does the cover art show the Shrike with only two arms?

As for the actual content of the book, as much as I enjoyed it, I have to admit, it wasn’t as good as the first. However, if you’ve read the first, this is still a must read. If you haven’t read the first, go read it, then come read this one. This is still a great work of fiction. He is writing during the early days of the internet, but his future thoughts on what it could be come are frightening and a little ephemeral, and in some parts could best be described as ‘trippy’. Smart phones were more than a decade away when the book was published, but the equivalent he uses, sure sounds like them, especially if we were to lose them now; from page 480

“After seven centuries of existence and at least four centuries where few citizens existed without it, the datasphere…simple ceased to be. Hundreds of thousands of citizens went insane at the moment – shocked into catatonia by the disappearance of senses which had become more important to them than sight or hearing.”

The Pilgrim story conclusions are interesting, though some are unsatisfying, and at Severn is not an interesting character. However, the book touches on some of the wildest ideas of AI and has so many intertwined stories and crazy new back stories, it is well worth the read.

Christians and Money – Budgeting

Last week, I wrote a long rambling post specifically about giving and what the IRS might flag when you do your taxes, but also generally things related to money. One of the tangents I veered towards relates to what we would do with our money, specifically as it relates to getting new job, or some sort of other large bump in salary. My somewhat rhetorical point being if you salary goes up 10%, your expenses shouldn’t. Your mortgage/rent, groceries, other bills, are what they are, so you should have surplus, what should you do?

I think before diving into that, we need to point out that, for the most part, we are terrible with money. As I point out, American’s only give about 3% of their income, and this article shows, we save less than 5%, and finally, this article says the average federal tax rate is 13.5%, but a little nuance (see chart below) shows that no one pays double digit taxes rates until the make over $200K, so for the purpose of this post, I’ll call it 7%.

Put all those together, and are only talking about 15% of income. Throw in 33% for housing, 10% for food, another 10% for transportation, and lets call it 7% for misc., you get 75%. Or you can also take a look at this article, which goes over the average American household budget. I also took a look at Mint, there is a comparison tool to see how my spending stacks up against other in my metro area. Four big categories stuck out to me:
Shopping  – $5,873
Personal care – $1,148
Misc  – $2,506
Fees and Charges – $1,175
To note, shopping is a separate category from groceries. The income, from which the use data came, was around $67K, so this shopping category is close to 10% of pre-tax income. I’m not entirely sure what people call personal care, but $100 a month seems high. The Misc category is a little hard to judge. That might be unexpected expenses, not too sure as it looks like people are already spending $500 a month on shopping. The Monday Morning Wife and I use the Misc as a giant catch all for shopping, eating out, unexpected expenses, haircuts, etc. So, it was a little harder to compare how we stack up exactly. Finally, it appears people are spending $100 on fees and charges. I interpret that as people are spending $100 a month to not pay attention. I understand things happen, but I can’t imagine how you get hit with so many fees if you are actually keeping on top of paying bills and monitoring you accounts.

Which I guess brings me to the point I want to make in this post. Not necessarily the original point I was going for, but here we are. We are just not effective stewards of our money. Mainly, because we are too lazy to pay attention. I talked with a guy over a year ago. I mentioned with the new jobs, we were thinking of possibly trying to pay the house off earlier. As we were talking, we realized our incomes and expenses were roughly the same, but he wasn’t in a position to have extra money. I asked him about budgeting and tracking, and he wasn’t doing it. This is a smart, high educated guy, who is a committed husband and loving father, but was just failing to pay attention to his finances.

I found this to be pretty consistent last summer when our pastor did a series on money, our small group discussed what people were spending on what and how people track and budget. Out of the five of us, only one other family was seriously tracking. Some people were saving, but not giving, some were giving but not saving, some were doing both, but couldn’t tell you how much they spent going out to eat, or where their money went, so they were falling further and further in debt. Many of the guys have great salaries, or large bonus, and one had recently started a new job with a big pay raise. So, they are paying their bills, but spending the rest, neither increasing their giving or saving. This is a huge problem for most Americans called Lifestyle Inflation were you end up matching you spending to your income, so that is you receive more and more money, all you do is spend more and more.

So, it ends up with people being highly compensated, but live paycheck to paycheck and do not feel like they are actually blessed by God, despite their obvious abundance. I was talking to a coworker the other day. He and his wife combine for an income that likely puts him in the top 10% of all earners, and despite their being in their 20’s, with two incomes and no kids, he was wondering how it is possible to ever retire. I asked him, well, how much are you saving, he wasn’t sure. We just cannot use what God has given us, unless we actually know what we are going with it. If you aren’t tacking, you really need to start and get your spending under control. If you don’t know where your money is going, it is a safe bet that not enough of it is going back to God.

I had intended for this post to go a different direction, but I realized as I researched and thought back to my conversations with people that you can’t really talk about handling abundance until you know what that even means in your own spending and how most people don’t even respond to God’s blessing enough to know what they are even knowing where it is going. So, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, next week I’ll try to get back to abundance, and two different solutions I’ve seen heard of as a response.

Book Review: Hyperion

Hyperion

My Rating: Must Read

Level: Fairly easy read, long (almost 500 pages) but reads quickly

Summary
This is the first book the the Hyperion Cantos series and centers around the stories of seven ‘pilgrims’ as the travel to the distant world Hyperion and a voyage to meet the Shrike. The story take place 700 years in the future, where we have left Earth after it’s accidental destruction and colonized multiple planets throughout the galaxy.  On the ship, each pilgrim – the priest, the soldier, the poet, the scholar, the starship captain, the detective, and the consul – tales their story.

Each mini-story is incredible and interesting in it’s own right. But it is nothing less than impressive they way Simmons weaves the stories together with histories, biologies, geographies, ecologies, and political back stories of a dozens worlds and scores of peoples. It is an amazing, sprawling, interwoven, epic fantasy.

My Thoughts
I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, but I was impressed with this book and honestly shocked that it ins’t more famous. The shear volume and intricacies of the stories and back stories are impressive. I actually found myself staying up late to read and being excited to come back to the book to see what would happen next. I ordered the next book in the series as soon as I was wrapping this one up.

I don’t know how much I should concern myself with spoilers for a nearly 30 year old book, but I’ll just say the pilgrim stories for the priest and scholar were so fascinating to me, that they are worth the price of the book alone. Either one could be it’s own novel, and the concepts Simmons put are great thought experiments.

Of course, the book being so old, there are interesting parts that are oddly anachronistic now, which make them especially funny being projected in the future. For instance, one of the top technologies is the personal fax machine. But his concept of the ‘all-thing’ is basically our modern internet with smart phones, so that was interesting to see. Overall, a great, fun book that is a must read for anyone who likes sci-fi or fantasy, but also for anyone who enjoys thoughtful fiction.

Charity & IRS Audits

I recently finished reading Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, which I may review later, but I thought there was an interesting anecdote in one of the last chapters, one of them relates a story of man he new that was audited by the IRS due to the amount of money he gave to the church. His point being, what if all Christians gave so much money that tax auditors had to give it a second look.

I thought, man, how much is this guy giving as a percent of his income that would make the IRS suspicious? I could imagine a situation where giving goes up dramatically in one year. Say someone started a new job with a bigger salary, or took a big promotion/made partner, or something along those lines. If you are living on the fixed budget, then you’d have more money to give. Just because you have a raise, doesn’t mean you mortgage or groceries go up.

This is actually what happened to Mrs. MMT and me. Last year(ish) we both took different positions (that were promotions) with new companies. You almost always get a bump in salary if you go to a new company or get a promotion, and we did both, the both of us, so it was kind of a double double raise. However out expenses didn’t move up in the same proportion as our income, obviously, so we were able to increase our giving rate. We also spent a little more on ourselves and dramatically increased our savings rate, but overall we felt like, when faced with the question, ‘what should we do with this nice bump in income the Lord has blessed us with?’ part of the answer has to be to give more, and not in the total amount.

Clearly, if you make $50K and your salary goes up 10% to $55K, if you are holding to a 10% giving, then your giving would go from $5K to $5.5K. But like I mentioned earlier, if you have a handle on the rest of your expenses, you should be able to give more than 10% to church and other charities. It is not like the tithe is a hard and fast rule. We, as Christians, are not bound to 10%, and we can give more. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:7 – Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

We were more convicted of this during the summer when our pastor did two sermons (Part 1 & 2) on generosity as part of a large series on Money, Sex, and Power. It is also something I had been thinking about since we started our new jobs. We know we are ‘supposed’ to give 10% and we are supposed to save 15%. But if you have a large salary increase, what would it look like if you saved 25%, but still only gave 10%? That can’t be right, right? So, that is a point that the pastor was pointing out, what do your percentages look like. But, I digress too much, maybe I should make that into another post.

So, back to the present. I filled our taxes. I like using the H&R Block Tax Software. They have a cool feature that does an audit check for you and will tell you if something is really bad or just curious. Well, we were flagged. The system told us to double check out charitable deductions, because we had given a large amount. Of course, it wasn’t actually a large amount, just relative to income, it was a percentage they thought could raise interest for an audit.

I had just finished reading that book, so it made me interested. I’m imagining what it would look like to give 20-25% or more to the church, but I’m getting flagged for barley more than 10%. Why? Well, I looked into it. The average American only gives 3% of their adjusted gross income to charity. The most recent Pew study shows that 70.6% of American’s claim Christianity. So, if we all gave 10% and everyone else gave zero (which certainly isn’t the case, 1.9% claim Judaism, another .9% claim Islam, so there are a few more with the 10% guideline. Of course it would be ridiculous to think only religious people (or only these particular religions) give money to charity), then the average charitable giving of an American should be around 7%, not adjusting for things like income and religious affiliation, etc.

Maybe not surprisingly, the more money you make, the less you actually give. This article from Fool shows giving peaking at incomes of $50-75K with 6.8%, and then declines in every bracket until your income hits one million. Forbes breaks it down in even more specifically, take a look at your income and see how you compare. People start giving $3K once they make about $65K (notice, that is less than 5%), but don’t add that extra thousand to bring their total giving to $4K until they make almost twice that, at $125K (now we are closer to 3%). If you go from making $100K to $200K, you should be double your giving, instead you are going from $3.6K to $5.6K, at this point we are down to about 2.5%.

So, two things here, not only are we not giving more as a percentage as our income goes up, we are actually giving less, but we aren’t even giving close to 10%. No wonder it is a red flag that someone would give 10%. Imagine what it would look like if all Christians about a certain income gave 10%, and then as they made more that percentage increased? If we said from our abundance, we give even more back? What affect on society? Instead from more abundance, we become even less faithful. It is almost like we can only serve one master. It also frustrates me that so many Christians oppose certain types of welfare and government safety nets, claiming that charity should support people, not the government. While I don’t necessarily disagree, it is beyond hypocritical to claim that will not even giving 10% to your own church.

Anyway, this post became longer and less coherent than I intended. It was an interesting coincidence that I was challenged by this book with the example of the guy audited, only to then have my tax software tell me I needed to double check my own numbers, to then finding out Americans give so little as a percent of the income. Maybe I’ll break out some of these ideas in later post and try better next time.

Book Review: Darkness is My Only Companion

Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness

My Rating – If you are looking for something

Level – Moderate read, short book but reads longer, but too much ‘philosophizing’

Summary
The best summary of this book comes from the subtitle – A Christian Response to Mental Illness. However, even that is quite all encompassing enough, the book is part autobiography, part pastoral guidance, and part education on what mental health can actually look like. Greene-McCreight’s insights do not come from counseling or academic study of psychology, but her own struggles and personal mental health issues. Because of this, you’ll get invaluable insights into a first hand account of mental health problems, but not a great deal of help in understanding how to respond or counsel people.

She breaks the book into three sections, first, what she calls ‘facing mental illness’, which is her personal story; second ‘faith and mental illness’, which is still mostly her personal story, but with a focus of how mental illness interacted with roll in the church; third, ‘living with mental illness’ which has two chapters, ‘how clergy, friends, and family can help’, which sadly is only seven pages, and ‘choosing therapy’, in which she discusses the churches fears and rejection of psychotherapy. The book finishes with her conclusion and two appendices, one on her use of scripture and a checklist for symptoms and resources.

The title of the book comes from Pslam 88, where verse 18 in her translation reads –

My friend and my neighbor have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.

She says she is using NRSV, but nothing I found online matched (I’ve linked the NIV). It must be an older translation, I do not know if it is closer to the original Hebrew or not, but her translation certainly captures the feeling of depression and despair that one feels while struggling with mental illness.

My Thoughts
I wanted to like this book more than I did. I appreciate and have immense respect for her honesty and candor in this book. I was blown away by her personal story. The book is fairly educational, she goes into different medications (as in the levels and types from a pharmacology standpoint), and discuses her experience with Electroconvulsive Therapy, which you might know as ‘shock’ therapy.

Where the book falls short is anything outside of her. It doesn’t appear she has counseled people with mental illness, and as mentioned above, the outside response is only seven pages. I was somewhat annoyed by one of her chapters regarding faith centered around her ordination and her IQ test, that while her score was well above average, she felt didn’t reflect her due to her struggles with depression. I think this partly comes from the Mainline denomination and their clergy’s obsession with where they were educated. She tells us multi times throughout the book that she attended Yale. I support the requirement that pastors be seminary educated, and I think Evangelicals have gone too far with the, ‘we don’t need no education’ stance, but Mainliners have a tendency to view pastoral education too academically, and her book suffers from this.

Greene-McCreight gives us many great quotes from philosophers and Christian’s from the past, but there is very little in the way of pastoral counseling or response to mental illness from those not suffering. I find the especially odd coming from the Mainline, that doesn’t suffer the same strength of rejection to counseling and psychotherapy that Evangelicals do.

One final note to any Evangelical considering reading this book, don’t be turned away because the author is a ‘liberal Christian’, for the most part she holds to a very conservative view of Scriptures. Maybe not seeing outside of her liberal, academic viewpoint, she opens the book defending her use of the Trinitarian view of ‘Father, Son..’, over and against the feminist view that calls for inclusive language for God. For Evangelicals whom haven’t read much outside of their own viewpoint, this can seem strange. For anyone wanting to pass on this book because you don’t believe in female ordination, relax. This book is about her deep struggle with mental illness and anyone who is interested in what the looks like, who hasn’t experienced themselves, I’m not sure you’ll find a more open and honest book. The book falls flat in a few ways, but if you looking for something to learn from a personal story of mental illness, this book is for you.

Some thoughts on Lent

Growing up Baptist, I think my first exposure to the concept of Lent, in which someone gave up something for the period of time leading up the Easter, came from the movie 40 Days and 40 Nights. That was my senior year in high school and I don’t think I actually knew a catholic until one of my roommates a few years later in college. I guess because of this, I’ve never really ‘got’ Lent.

It was amusing last week as Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, approached. Most of the people in my immediate office are Catholics. This is true now for the first time in the 10 years in which I’ve work there. So, I think there is a bit of Baptists and Beer thing going on (if you go fishing, why should you take two Baptist instead of one? They’ll both watch the other to make sure they don’t drink your beer), in which they are all watching to see who is giving up what and who went to Ash Wednesday Mass. The best part was on Friday, as they are supposed to abstain from meat, one of them had already forgotten and was called out right before he ate a chicken biscuit. This is the same guy who ate steak every night for the week leading up to Lent, because that is what he was giving up.

If you don’t know, Lent is not in the Bible. We, as Christians, are not required to participate, or to fast, or really follow any particular rules about Lent. The concept comes from the Temptation of Christ, when he spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, fasting and preparing for his ministry. As a spiritual exercise, I find it fascinating. That being said, I don’t really understand how, and almost wish that the works and rules based requirements of Catholics were actually Biblical requirements. In a sense, it would be easy to give up something for the sake of giving up something. Or skipping meat on Fridays, just because, though fish is allowed, basically because Aquinas didn’t think it tasted good. Apparently, part of the fasting and abstinence is just to give up something you enjoy.

However, if you are seeking a spiritual discipline, and want a reason for what you are giving up, it becomes more difficult. I feel like I really need a why. It doesn’t work for me to say, I’ll give up pizza, because I like pizza. I guess, ultimately, that is often the point of fasting, but as a Lenten practice, it seems odd. Maybe this is due to wanting to have a counter balance. So, I give up pizza, what am I supposed to do with that? If I just replace it with something that is also good, like burgers, what have I gained. I’ve heard from some who fast from dinner on Fridays and instead spend the time they would be cooking and eating in prayer. That seems interesting. This is why I consider myself to only have had on successful Lent.

It was years ago, and I gave up video games and decided to use the time playing them when I get home from work, to read the Gospels. This did in fact change me. I started reading more, especially studying the Bible and theology, to the point that now I have a blog about book reviews. Also, I never regained the habit of playing video games only a daily basis and actually haven’t played any in a few years, ever since Sprout was a few months old.

In this way, I do think I completed a spiritual exercise. I have up something that was pointless, and began to study the Bible. But I’ve struggled to ever replicate this again. As you start to think about things to give up, you mind if often drawn away from spiritual things. For instance, the only other time I actually gave up something was last year, and I have up alcohol. Seemed like a good idea, but then I lost a few pounds from it, so it kind of became about health; plus I never found something to replace it with, or any kind of ‘why’.

As I talk with others looking to engage in a Lenten abstinence, the same issues seem to come up. People decide to get up earlier in the morning and go to the gym, or give up red meat or sugar, to lose a few points. Those are basically New Year’s resolutions. They are good things, nothing wrong with either of them, but tying them to God seems disingenuous. Likewise, people struggling with alcoholism or lust will give up getting drunk or porn. These are already things you shouldn’t be doing.

Anyway, I guess this is just a long way of saying, I don’t know how to Lent. I’d love to hear from any of my readers as to what you’ve given up and why, either this year or in the past. Finally, any good satire type things to give up are always appreciated, probably my favorite two that I’ve heard is people giving up their Catholicism, or giving up their virginity.