Book Review: “Unwrapping the Names of Jesus” by Asheritah Ciuciu

Advent pic

Looking for a book to deepen and enrich your Advent experience? You need to check this one out!

Unwrapping the Names of Jesus (2017) is written by Asheritah Ciuciu and is published by Moody Publishers. Ciuciu is an author, speaker, and blogger. She runs a website to encourage, equip, and resource followers of Jesus at Her other books include: Full: Food, Jesus, and the Battle for Satisfaction, Quiet Time for Busy Women, and Walking with God.

Unwrapping the Names of Jesus is meant to be a personal daily devotional or one that can be used by a whole family to go through together. The book begins with an excellent brief explanation of what Advent is and why observing it can be such a powerful time of spiritual growth.

The book is divided into the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day, and the themes are: Hope, Preparation, Joy, and Love. Each week begins with what is called an “Advent Celebration” (there is also one for Christmas Day). This is essentially a guide for a personal experience or a family / small group gathering where prayers are said, scripture is read, questions are discussed, and a Christmas song in sung. Think an intimate “church gathering” in your home. [Supplemental materials for these celebration experiences can be found at]

Then after the “Advent Celebration”, there are five daily readings, each with a scripture, a challenge, a prayer, and additional scriptures for further study. The readings are excellent, not shallow or fluffy, and the challenges are outstanding. The challenges push you to not just simply read about who God is or what it means to follow Jesus, but to then have that move from your head to your heart and ultimately to how you live out your faith.

Finally at the end of each week there are a number of suggested activities to live out the theme of the week with concrete action. These activities are ones that can be done solo or with a whole family or group of friends. These suggestions are thoughtful, fun, practical, Christmas themed, and easily done in the community you live in. [Bonus content and additional resources for these activities can be found at]

Unwrapping the Names of Jesus is a beautiful book, both physically and in its content. The readings are rich, the call to action is strong and practical, and without question it will add to your Advent experience.


Book Review: “Confessions of a Funeral Director” by Caleb Wilde

Funeral Director

Being gifted a book from a friend is always a dangerous thing. What if the book stinks? What if you have no interest in even reading the book in the first place? What if months go by and they ask you if you’ve read it yet and you haven’t or you gave up on page 2? Seriously, gifting books can ruin friendships.

Well, a friend recently gifted me the book Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life, and I’m happy to say that not only did I read it, but I loved it!

Confessions of a Funeral Director is written by Caleb Wilde who is a partner in his family business, Wilde Funeral Home, in Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. Wilde is also a popular blogger and has been featured in The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, TIME magazine, and on NPR, NBC, and ABC’s 20/20.

Whenever I read a book and I am explaining it to someone else, I usually try to put the book in a category comparing it with others of a similar type, but the great thing about this book is that I have never read anything like it. I have no established bookshelf for it to go on with others like it, which made it a fascinating read.

Confessions of a Funeral Director is a pretty candid exploration of death and all it has to teach us about life. Wilde tells numerous stories of his experiences working in a funeral home beginning at a very young age and unpacks his personal and professional struggles with death. I really appreciated how transparent the author was when it came to his wrestling with how to reconcile death and the idea of a loving God.

The book is essentially the authors journey from holding onto a death negative narrative to developing a death positive narrative. A movement away from seeing death as only dark and negative and destructive, and beginning to see the gifts that death has to offer. This movement to a death positive narrative doesn’t take away the pain or loss, but it reframes how we see, experience, and navigate death.

One of the highlights of the book for me was the explanation of the Jewish practice of a death Sabbath. This is a very intentional process of mourning and would bring such health to walking through the loss of loved ones.

Here are a few quotes from the book that stood out to me:

We will all at one time or another be confronted with death, our mortality, and the deeper questions of life. The question isn’t if we will be broken by death and dying and mortality, but how will these inevitabilities break us? Will we be broken open or will death break us apart? (p. 26)

…be present in the here and now, at this moment, in this place, in the ground I was planted, because maybe heaven is here, hiding somewhere behind the fear-inducing tragedies that cloud our eyes. (p. 51)

Tears are like a good confession. (p. 88)

…death and dying creates community by allowing us to touch one another’s humanity. (p. 112)

I know it is completely cliche to say, but I did laugh and cry, and I was deeply inspired by this book. I highly recommend you check this book out, but I do so with a caution. Some of the stories contained in this book deal with miscarriages and the death of children. The book is hilarious in some parts, it asks some powerful and beautiful theological questions in other parts, but it also tells some pretty heart breaking stories that are very difficult to read. Some of the stories brought me to tears because they reminded me of the losses I have personally experienced, and depending on your story, specific stories in this book may bring up some painful memories for you. I think Confessions of a Funeral Director is an incredibly valuable book to help bring people into a healthier view of death, but maybe use some discretion on the timing of when you read this book.

For more information on the author, you can visit his website HERE, and I would also recommend following his often hilarious Twitter account @CalebWilde.

To see a trailer for the book, check out the video below.

Book Review: “Team Us” by Ashleigh Slater

Team Us

The book Team Us: Marriage Together is written by Ashleigh Slater and is published by Moody Publishers. Slater has also written the book Braving Sorrow Together, three eBooks, and numerous articles for various websites. She is married to her husband Ted and they have four children.

Team Us is written in a very conversational format with her own personal story woven throughout the book. Imagine sitting down with the author over coffee and listening to her tell her story while also sharing marriage advice, and every once in awhile her husband leans over from the next table and in two sentences shares his thoughts on what his wife just said. That’s what the book feels like.

The book revolves around the theme of unity. It’s about how we navigate conflict, how we walk through pain and loss, how we honor and love one another well, how we grow and develop, and all to build unity in our marriages.

The chapter that resonated with me the most and I deeply appreciated her transparency in, was the chapter called Pink Slips and Other Loses. In this chapter Slater talks about a miscarriage they had, working through the loss of jobs, and also her struggle with prayer. I thought her (and her husbands) commentary on the purpose of prayer in difficult times being less about the answer and more about our relationship with God was outstanding.

The chapter called The Parent Trap was also great. There is some really strong advice for parents who have different parenting styles in this chapter. Rather than one parent imposing their style on the other parent, she suggests parents discover the beauty within their partners differing style while at the same time both parents being intentional about honoring the other persons preferred style.

Another excellent feature of this book are the discussion questions at the end of each chapter for couples to work through together. Like any discussion guide there will be some questions that might not connect, but there are also some really strong and important questions that every couple should be asking.

Overall I think Team Us is a good book particularly for those who are young married couples or young adults preparing to get married who also have a more conservative Christian leaning. That said, those who have been married for a long time will be sure to find some great truths, advice, and encouragement in this book too.

To see a trailer for Team Us, click HERE.

To visit the authors website, click HERE.

* I received this book from Moody Publishers for my honest review.


Book Review: “When God Made You” by Matthew Paul Turner

When God Made You

As a pastor and a father of a young daughter, I deeply care about the books she “reads” (she’s only 2½) and has read to her, especially the books that speak of God. I want my daughter to have an understanding of God that reflects the beauty, love, wonder, passion, and creativity we see of God in scripture. I also want her to see herself and her neighbor in compassionate and grace filled ways, as seen in how Jesus loved and called us to love.

So it matters to me what books will fill her bookshelves and be found on her nightstand. If I’m being honest I approach most Christian children’s books with an expectation that they are going to be just awful. The thing that bothers me the most about many of the Christian children’s books I have seen is the poor theology they contain and the dumbing down of the message of the Bible.

When I received this book, When God Made You to review, the gloves were off. I was ready to mercilessly pick it apart and tell you why you should never read it to your children. But instead, after reading it I couldn’t wait to read this with my daughter and I hope it becomes one of her all time favorites!

When God Made You is written by Matthew Paul Turner who has written numerous books, including: Hear No Evil, Churched, and The Coffeehouse Gospel and is illustrated by David Catrow who has illustrated more than 70 children’s books.

This book is beautiful in every way. The writing is poetic, the theology is rich, and the illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. Visually this book is stunning and unlike any other children’s book I have seen. My daughter couldn’t take her eyes off the pages as we read the story together.

The main theme of the book is celebrating and holding onto the fact that we are all uniquely created by God and we are to live and create and love in the fulness of our God ordained uniqueness. Turner writes in a way that inspires. Not only does my daughter love the story but as an adult I was taken aback by the depth of the writing. This is a book that young ones will enjoy and even as my daughter gets older I want to continue to unpack more of the beauty found in these pages.

I so badly want to quote the entire book for you, but since that breaks way too many copyright laws, here are a few of my favorite lines:

‘Cause when God made you, this much is true, the world got to meet who God already knew.

Discover. Explore! Have faith but love more.

‘Cause when God made you and the world oohed and aahed, in heaven they called you an image of God.

A you who views others as sisters and brothers and lives by three words: love one another.

Buy this book for your son or daughter, your niece or nephew, your grandson or granddaughter, your neighbors kids, or your friends who just had a baby. When God Made You is a rare find in Christian children’s literature. It’s a perfect combination of excellent writing, really sound theology, and unbelievable artwork.

To see a trailer on the When God Made You, click HERE.

To see a great video of the author Matthew Paul Turner talk about the inspiration of When God Made You, click HERE.

To visit the authors personal website, click HERE.

* Publisher recommended age range for this book is 3-10 years old. 

** I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book Review: “The Last Arrow” by Erwin McManus

Last Arrow

The Last Arrow: Save Nothing For The Next Life is the newest book from best-selling author Erwin McManus.

Erwin McManus is the founder of MOSAIC, a well known and influential church in Los Angeles, and is the author of a number of books including: The Artisan Soul, The Barbarian Way, and Soul Cravings.

This book is about living your life well. It’s about spending everything, holding nothing back, and getting to the end of your life knowing you lived it to the fullest. It’s about not settling, not being defined by your past, and being driven by where you want to go and who you want to be. It’s about honoring God with all you’ve got and enjoying all that God has to offer.

So much of this book left me asking big questions about where I am and where I’m going. These questions were both very difficult and very motivating. One of the more convicting sections of the book for me was in the chapter called Act Like Your Life Depends On It. In this section McManus talks about the difference between living a simple life and a negligent life. I think this slip into negligence can come even in the name of trying to live a more “balanced” life or even in the striving to attain a healthier pace of life. Although I certainly don’t support being unhealthy with the pace of our lives, especially in the name of Jesus, the following quote was a good heart check for me.

Be careful of embracing the type of spirituality that has a deep disdain for ambition and hides apathy behind a language of simplicity. If you want to live a simple life, that’s a beautiful thing. If you want to use it as an excuse to live beneath your God-given capacity, that is negligence (p. 110). 

The whole time I was reading this book, the word “inspirational” kept going through my mind. Between his personal stories, his passion, his reminder of the gift of life we have been given, I couldn’t help but feel inspired the whole way through.

My only issue with this book is that in my “theological opinion”, the author takes a few “artistic liberties” when applying certain passages to fit the theme of the book. One such example for me is found on page 200 where he is reflecting on a passage from 2 Kings.

Some Israelites were burying a friend when suddenly they saw the band of raiders. So they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. ‘When the body touched Elisha’s bones,’ we’re told, ‘the man came to life and stood up on his feet.’ I think this is a not-so-subtle reminder that if you truly live before you die, your life will have a power that not even death can conquer. 

Do I agree that a well lived life will have an impact on others even after we die? Definitely. Do I think that’s what the author of this passage was trying to tell us? Probably not.

This book is packed with outstanding content and the pages of my copy are littered with stars, underlining, and notes in the margins. Here are just a few standout quotes from the book that caught my attention:

Time seduces us into believing that it is the one friend who will never run out on us, but the cruel truth is that it always does (p. 25). 

What Jesus did two thousand years ago is a call not to live in the past but to create the future (p. 38). 

…if you want a different life, you have to give up the one you have (p. 48).

…know what you are about; know what your life is given to; know what matters to you and always move forward in that direction (p. 70).

I do not want to watch God work from a distance. Neither do I want to hear the amazing stories of God’s activity in the world as if they are fables made for other people in an ancient time. I want to live the kind of life that cannot be lived without the fulness of Christ in my life (p. 88). 

It is not an overstatement to say that the church has become more of a reflection of what we are running from than what we are running to…We are seen as the guardians of tradition. The church is known for fighting the future rather that creating the future that humanity desperately needs. (p. 139-140). 

I highly recommend this book. I love the passion of Erwin McManus, you can feel it in every chapter, and maybe this quote from from page 72 best sums up the heart of The Last Arrow:

I’m not going to watch life happen. I refuse to be the audience. 

To see a trailer for The Last Arrow, click HERE.

For more information on The Last Arrow, the author, and to read an excerpt, click HERE.

To visit the authors website, click HERE.

* I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book Review: “The Myth of Equality” by Ken Wytsma

The Myth of Equality

After reading a book we instantly label it. It was a “terrible” book. It was an “ok” book. It was a “decent” book. It was an “amazing” book. If I had to label Ken Wytsma’s newest book, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, I’d have to say that it is an incredibly “important” book.

Ken Wytsma is the founder of The Justice Conference and president of Kilns College. He is also the author of a number of other books including: Pursuing Justice, The Grand Paradox, and Create vs. Copy. His book Pursuing Justice is absolutely brilliant and a must read on the subject of justice (find my review of that book HERE).

The conversation on racism here in America is all over the place. It consumes the news networks, it dominates our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and has even become the primary narrative of the NFL and the NBA. It is a conversation that is going to continue and it should continue. It has to continue. But for us to move forward in healthy and helpful ways, we need to do so with open ears, open eyes, and an open heart. I am so thankful that this book has come out at this time.

The Myth of Equality is divided into three parts: The Story of Race, Equality and the Kingdom of God, and The Challenge of Privilege.

The first part alone is worth the price of the book. Although this would certainly be considered a primer on the history of racism and inequality in America, it is a powerful overview touching on subjects like: colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, the war on drugs, and redlining. This section completely floored me and opened my eyes to things I had no idea about. To have an accurate understanding of our history as a nation concerning race issues is critical and makes it possible for us to have conversations based in reality about the subjects of racism and inequality. Without an understanding of our history, not only will we be unable to fix the problems we have, we won’t even be able to have a conversation about them.

In the second part, Wytsma does an outstanding job unpacking how justice is not just an add-on to the Gospel, but that it is inherently a part of the Gospel. He walks through portions of Isaiah, the incarnation of Christ, the message of Jesus, and the cross, and shows how justice, righteousness, and shalom are all connected. One of the highlights of this section for me was his exposition of “the golden rule” (Matthew 7:12). To do unto others as you would have them do unto you, isn’t just about not doing bad things to others, it’s equally about being active in doing good things for them (ie. justice). Would I want my neighbor to stand up for me if I was being marginalized or just want my neighbor to not marginalize me?

Finally in the third section of the book, the discussion on charity and compassion is both sobering and deeply convicting. Although compassion and even acts of compassion are great things, they rarely if ever address the root systems and causes of racism and injustice. Wytsma points out that, “Doing acts of compassion is different from helping to make sure people exist in a just state” (p. 161). This is where the Church should shine, not just in acts of compassion, but in actively pursuing justice for our neighbor. To close this section the author also lays out a way forward for us, involving: listening & learning, lament, confession, and laying down of privilege.

The book is full of great content, but here are just a few quotes that stood out to me:

“When we address racism, we often make the mistake of trying to resolve the problem without diagnosing or understanding what or who created it in the first place…Who benefited from racism? Under what conditions and under whose authority did it occur? How was it able to permeate societies and take firm root in cultures across history?” (p. 29-30)

“If our imagination is captured by the empire rather than by Christ, we will defend the empire – even if we are inadvertently defending it against Christ.” (p. 92)

“Speaking biblical truth can be costly when our ears have been attuned to what a political party or the world says about truth.” (p. 96)

“Perpetuating a system we inherit is the same as creating the system anew for those who come after us. To pass along is to create.” (p. 156)

“It is a lack of faith, and a narrow view of the depth and richness of the body of Christ, that fears there will be no trustworthy, biblically faithful, or well-motivated people who might disagree with me or who I can learn from.” (p. 172)

Lastly at the back of the book there is an excellent recommended reading list for further study and education on issues of race, racism, inequality, and justice.

I learned so much from this book. I was heart broken, I felt convicted, I felt sick, I felt angry, I felt humbled, but I also felt inspired and empowered. I felt inspired to live differently, to have greater empathy, to be slow to speak and quick to listen, and empowered to have more informed conversations about racial inequality in my church and my community. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, especially if you are white and consider yourself a follower of Jesus.

ken wytsma

Book Review: “The Day the Revolution Began” by N.T. Wright (Lent Series: Part 3/3)

The day the revolution

Over Lent this year I decided to read three books as a part of my Lenten experience. I divided the books into daily readings so that each day I would get to read a portion from each book and still have them all read by Easter Sunday. The three books I chose to read were: Show Me The Way by Henri Nouwen, 24 Hours That Changed the World by Adam Hamilton, and The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright.

Part 3 of 3

If you are unfamiliar with who N.T. Wright is…Merry Christmas! This blog post is my gift to you. I was introduced to N.T. Wright’s work a few years ago through his book Simply Christian and have since gone on to buy quite a few of his books.

N.T. Wright has a very storied career. He was the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, Bishop of Durham, and is now the chair of New Testament & Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is considered to be one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and has written over 70 books and commentaries.

Early on in the book, in a chapter called The Cross in Its First Century Setting, Wright unpacks the presence, role, and the practice of crucifixion in the years before, during, and after the life of Jesus. This chapter deeply affected me and was incredibly eye opening. I had never considered what Jesus would have seen, and known, and grown up in as He approached the cross Himself. This look at first century crucifixion will profoundly impact how I read the New Testament and especially the account of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, with respect to the mental and emotional state He would have been in.

One of the main highlights of the book is Wright’s commentary on atonement theories. He argues with ample scriptural support that salvation is far more than “getting into heaven” and that unfortunately much of the Church today doesn’t go beyond this in it’s preaching and practice. Wright argues that to make salvation purely about going to heaven is to build a theology on portions of the Gospel and not the entire Gospel narrative. Essentially it is an incomplete, cheaper, and even a selfish view of salvation.

Almost nobody talks about “going to heaven.” When Jesus talks about the “kingdom of heaven,” he doesn’t mean a place called “heaven,” but the rule of “heaven,” that is, God’s reign, coming to birth on earth. (p. 196)

Jesus’s death is seen, right across the New Testament, not as rescuing people from the world so that they can avoid “hell” and go to “heaven,” but as a powerful revolution – that is, a revolution full of a new sort of power – within the world itself. (p. 220)

…salvation in the New Testament is not seen as an escape from the world of space, time, and matter, but rather as its redemption. (p. 348)

Sin matters, and forgiveness of sins matters, but they matter because sin, flowing from idolatry, corrupts, distorts, and disables the image-bearing vocation, which is much more than simply “getting ready for heaven.” (p. 363)

Wright points out that the Church can make the grave mistake of building it’s beliefs on cultural or inherited theology and not necessarily on scripture itself. So although some theological positions may be supported by the Church and may even be considered “traditional theology”, they may not actually fall in line with the Biblical narrative.

The historical questions and answers are the place to go if we want to find the theological answer. If we cannot see it there, that might be an indication that we are trying to answer the wrong question. If the gospels do not seem to be “saying the right stuff,” maybe it is our idea of the “right stuff” that needs adjusting. (p. 199)

This book challenged me deeply on how I understand what Jesus accomplished in and through the cross and His resurrection. I don’t mean to say that it fundamentally changed what I believe about the cross, but it certainly broadened what I believe and how I understand it. Wright does an excellent job in presenting what I would consider to be a holistic and Biblically faithful understanding of the purpose and work of salvation.

The cross stands at the center of the story of Jesus, Israel, the human race, the creator God, and his world. This is where the biblical narrative finds its heart. (p. 255)

Of the three books I read over Lent, this was the thickest book of the three, both physically and in theological depth. Wright himself would consider this a less academic “popular” offering, but I found this book to be quite dense at times. There are a few chapters that were slow moving for me, but they all still contained incredible insight.

The Day the Revolution Began is a truly exciting book. It is a reminder of who we were created to be, a reminder of the passion and commitment of God towards us, and a call to live fully in our vocation as image bearers of God, engaged as active participants in the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

Like I do with all of his books, I highly recommend you check this one out. It is not a casual breezy read, it will be a commitment, it will challenge you intellectually and theologically, but it will be completely worth it.

nt wright