Review: The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman

I haven’t read author Emily P. Freeman’s other books, nor listened to the podcast by the same name for which this book is titled. I have been a longtime subscriber to her monthly e-mail newsletter, though, and I always appreciate the ways she shares her world so generously. I received a copy of her latest book, The Next Right Thing (TNRT) through her publisher, Revell, in exchange for my honest review.

I’m leading purposefully with the most superficial aspect of TNRT because aesthetic matters to me, particularly in the Christian publishing realm where it seems if you’re a female author, your book cover MUST have some picture of a delicate flower with a watercolor script. I adore Freeman’s choice of a monochromatic, sans-serif design for the cover. It’s a refreshing departure from the others in this category lining the shelves, and sets the stage for what is a refreshing read in general.

I am not usually drawn to books about making decisions because I thought, before reading TNRT, that I had no trouble making them. I’m not usually risk-averse and overthinking my next moves is rarely a hindrance to my day. But from the outset of TNRT, I learned that this does not a sound decision maker make. In fact, on page 14, Freeman puts me on blast: “Maybe you have an aversion to making decisions so you either delegate them, avoid them, or make them too quickly just to get them settled.” Bing bing bing. I’ve been hot potato handling my choices my whole life. I hate deliberations, so I just pull a straw and stick with it and hope I can drink out of it for as long as I need. It’s what has worked. Or I thought it had. TNRT showed me a better way. Better ways, to be sure, because what TNRT does best is come alongside the reader to examine the different facets of his/her life and see what areas need the most support and discernment and so much grace.

My favorite chapters were 8, “Know What You Want More” and 10 “Quit Something” because the ideas were the most applicable for me and I thought the writing was strongest. TNRT unpacks ideas in a way that is easy to visualize and understand, often with Freeman confessing her own shortcomings and stumbling blocks to disarm the reader from thinking this is a perfectionist’s formula. There are prayers and practices that bookend each chapter and they are thoughtfully written and I’m sure will be revisited as the ideas trade relevance in years to come.

decisions

Now that I think about it, going back to the cover again, the black and white is also unisex, and I think the messaging here is, too. Freeman does a good job of incorporating voices from women and men throughout the book. I’m not sure whether a diversity of voices is represented in terms of culture and race, but Freeman is aware when her own privilege needs to be acknowledged and I find the spirit in which she writes quite equitable. Her advice presumes that a person making big or small decisions already has some measure of agency in his/her life. Being a good steward of one’s privilege — time, resources, connections, talents — is foundational to the message of TNRT. It has definitely impressed upon me that making good decisions is a sort of act of worship in itself.

Review: Love Where You Live by Shauna Pilgreen

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When the Revel Reads program offered this book among its options, I leapt at the chance to read it, largely because I liked the subtitle of the book. “How to Live Sent in the Place You Call Home.” I thought it sounded very charming and it appealed to me as a woman who believes we are all sent with a purpose to different places, whether it be a little visit to a nursing home or a long-term stay in a state where we’ve never lived before. We as a family have entered a season of putting down roots and I was interested in what this book could offer someone like me.

When I received the book and began reading the Introduction, I found the author’s perspective to be refreshing and circumspect. I had become acquainted somewhat with the urban missionary movement in the contemporary American Christian church and some of it really bristled me. Some of it sounds incredibly naive, and other examples have sounded downright entitled. Some call it “new monasticism” and others refer to it as upside-down kingdom living. I wanted to know where this book fit on the spectrum of stories/guides to being missional in one’s own community.

After reading the Introduction, the two chief questions I had in reading the rest of the book were:
Question #1: The author is white but does she recognize her privilege in moving into a community?
Question #2:- As a transplant to a community where she and her husband are trying to church plant, do they work with organizations already on the ground to learn more about their community?

I was sorry the answer to Question #1 was…not really? I am frustrated when I read about one more white woman in the church who doesn’t realize the amazing backpack of privilege she carries. The author talks about the three places she and her family moved to in and around San Francisco. It appears she blithely moved into each home without having concern as to whether or not she would be well-received. In fact, the author speaks about not receiving anything—no welcome or acknowledgment. This actually both struck me as naive and privilege-blind. I’ve lived in the city for 10+ years and I never expect to be acknowledged. It’s part of survival in a densely populated area. You just cannot expend your energy to each and every person passing into your lane. She does not mention worrying about any looks askance or overwhelmingly suspicious surveillance of her family moving in — something plenty of people of color have to worry about each day of their lives as they move through the world. The author talks about adopting their daughter from India during their early years in San Francisco. I’m sure becoming a multi-ethnic family overnight came with its lovely points and challenges, and I would have wanted to hear more about that. Instead, here is a passage from the book that bemused me:

”In my city, I’ve got a lifetime of people to love. The immigrants. The refugees. The under-resourced. The minorities…and I joyfully say, ‘You are welcome here.’”

I could barely read the rest of the book after this passage. It sounded at turns Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and also incredibly pompous. Really? As a transplant to a city, you still feel entitled to tell others that they’re welcome in a city? There’s nothing wrong with being a welcoming person, but maybe those folks already know they belong. Maybe they don’t need a white woman to validate their being there. Being blind to one’s own privilege is a huge turn-off and I just never found the level of awareness I had hoped to find in this book.

The answer to Question #2 was maybe. As church planters, it appeared that this family and the other planting staff did reach out to others in the trenches who were doing their best to start churches. But I didn’t see much in the way of allying with organizations already on the ground who could provide resources and an invaluable intel into the community. The author prescribes whittling away the shoe leather in walking the blocks that surround her home and meeting the people and praying for the places in which her ministerial circle comprises. I think this is great, but it’s also one of the criticisms of new monasticism: that oftentimes these idealistic ministers seem to get burned out by doing it all from scratch, when they could have sought existing, embedded resources to help them find their path.

There were many redeeming parts about the book, including the early chapters on doubt and discomfort. I loved this: “A fear of missing out is not from God.” The author and her husband offer excellent, tactical strategies for planning a purpose-driven move. The book is also filled with a tremendous diversity of perspectives from luminaries such as C. S. Lewis, Marc Batterson, Maria Goff, and Pete Scazzero whose words enriched the pages.

Overall, there were far too many surefooted explanations for how ministry should be done in a place outside of one’s own comfort zone. The blindness to privilege was a major detractor for me as a reader. However, I think this book would still be a helpful companion for those who are discerning a move for ministry because of the cards the author is willing to show in sharing her spiritual walk through discomfort and toward the unknown.

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

"A Star is Born" and what I’ll tell my daughter

2018’s “A Star is Born” hits some pitch perfect notes. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s chemistry, the robust sounds of their voices, and the tragic truth of stardom are all especially captivating. The film, by Bradley Cooper, bears out the metaphor of stardom beautifully. In order to shine brightest, stars are often eclipsing one another, and in the world of celebrities, paying for it with their very lives. Falling stars are at their most recognizable when they’re descending. There is nowhere to hide. Where “LALA Land” sang wistfully of the “City of Stars,” in “A Star is Born,” this song becomes a lament.

Photo by  Phil Botha  on  Unsplash

Photo by Phil Botha on Unsplash

As with stars, we all have an expiry date, and Cooper’s character Jackson Maine’s edict to Gaga’s Ally rings truest and most important of all: We’re all here to launch the message within us. It’s our raison d’etre. We can borrow another’s message, but it will never ring as true unless we assign our own interpretation. We can let others mold and fashion our message to their liking, and we will lose the essence of who we are, we will trade our truth for an advertisement, a glossy, photoshopped billboard.

The irony of “A Star is Born” is that it is itself a recycled work. It’s message is to be thine own self be true, and yet it is based on a prewritten message, repurposed for the new millennium. There are brief but potent nods to starlets like “Dirty Dancing’s” Baby, “Pretty Woman’s” Vivian , “Splash’s” Madison—all female characters whose ascendancy is inextricably linked to a romantic male character, their North Star of sorts.

It also employs a couple of Hollywood tropes that surprised me in their transparency. Dave Chapelle is an obvious Magical Negro who exists, it would seem, merely to rescue Cooper from his sunken place and remind him with wisdom and wit, that he should dock his boat in a safe harbor. The hackneyed mystical person of color who speaks words of life into the wayward white person made me roll my eyes a bit, even if I did love seeing Chapelle.

The damsel in distress trope is also undeniable. Gaga’s Ally possesses a sound mind and creative talent, but she is always thanking men for allowing her the opportunity, looking to men to validate her decisions, waiting for men to bless her words and deem her worthy. Spoiler ahead: I don’t recall anyone asking her to marry him. I don’t remember anyone asking her what she wanted. This may well be the film’s own critique of Hollywood, a place where women must still ask for permission to succeed even if we are finally beginning to demand an end to the forces that hinder our access or snuff out our light altogether.

I hope to share “A Star is Born” with my daughter someday. But I will do so gingerly, asking her what she thinks of what it takes to be a woman with a message and a microphone, and what costs she is willing to pay to share them with a world that too often wants to silence her.