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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Gifts of the Dark Wood" (Eric Elnes)

TITLE: Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers)
AUTHOR: Eric Elnes
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015, (240 pages).

"You have a place in this world"; so begins the book that is marinaded with assurance and acceptance. It addresses the fundamental aspects of life, what are we searching for, where is home, and in particular, where are we. It is an invitation to journey through the dark woods and discover for ourselves the gifts that we so often miss out in our busyness of life. It is a quest for life not on the basis of following the rules and false promises of human schemes but on the basis of God alone. We do not stand on the premises of the Church in hope, but on the promise of God who is the True Giver of Hope. The gifts to be revealed in this book show us how to deal with emptiness, uncertainty, lostness, temptations, being misfits, and so on. What appears like curses can be blessings in disguise. This is what trusting and following Christ entails: Not what we expect to happen, but what surprises God has in store for us. This calls us for rearranging our inner dinner table to let God sit and the head and us being ready to dine with Him. It is a book for "Dark Wood" travelers. Often shunned in favour of security and clarity, Elnes brings us back to revisit the dark night of the soul, experienced by the saints of old.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"The Practice of Pastoral Care" (Carrie Doehring)

TITLE: The Practice of Pastoral Care, Revised and Expanded Edition
AUTHOR: Carrie Doehring
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, (232 pages).

Pastoral care is a critical part of any Church ministry. The word "pastor" is synonymous with "shepherd." Unlike some places that sees the pastor as the leader-CEO, the true biblical basis of a pastor is to shepherd the flock. How we practice pastoral care however have changed, partly because of changing needs. In this book, the way is to adopt a "postmodern approach" toward the practice of pastoral care. Calling it an "intercultural approach," pastoral care in this book means not just listening to the stories of the people but also to create meaning of them. It means learning to piece together the broken pieces of life. It means learning to help people tell their stories. It means cultivating trust. For Carrie Doehring, it is the heart of pastoral care where people are willing to open up their lives to caregivers. It is about creating opportunities for "care conversations" and relating real-life to theological truths and biblical principles. Doehring goes a step further to advocate for a care that brings back individuals from a de-centered sacred bearings due to suffering and painful circumstances. How can one show compassion and understanding toward those questioning their faith and religious values? This calls for a "theological, cultural, and psychological expertise" that can help care for parishioners and people in such need, what Doehring refers to as "the compassionate art of intercultural care." Carers essentially enter into the lives of others, sharing in their pain, walking with them in the valley of questions and celebrating with them in the answers of joy. It is about intermingling one's lives with another so as to build a bridge that aids integrative moments and shared stories. It is collaborative exploration of new and strange emotional territories. The author attempts to use a "trifocal lens" which comprises of a precritical, a modern, and a postmodern approach.  As a first-order language, a precritical lens looks at the world from a divine perspective. The modern lens is a second-order language that adopts "text critical methods" and social sciences to include empirical analysis and rational judgment of knowledge. The postmodern approach is the third-order language that nuances all of these in the light of present contexts. This approach involves the meaning making and the response of individuals to the earlier two orders of language. She summarizes the book's structure in six parts.

Monday, July 27, 2015

"Despite the Best Intentions" (Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond)

TITLE: Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools (Transgressing Boundaries: Studies in Black Politics and Black Communities)
AUTHOR: Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, (272 pages).

All people are created equal. So with equal opportunity and equal rights for all, they should all do well academically right? This is the assumption that is behind Riverview High School. As a suburban school, it is highly resourced, well-funded, and thoughtfully designed to give the black community a leg up. In 2006-7, the school spent above $18000 per student, double that of the national average. More than 80% of the teachers hold a masters degree. There are spanking new facilities with children coming largely from middle class families. There is a thriving commercial community. It is located in a progressive and liberal city. Unfortunately, segregation and forced integration of the different races do not prevent the same kind of statistics, that blacks generally do poorly in the academic realm. Despite the help given, 90% of students in the AP classes are white. About 80% of all the Honours students are white. The majority of the blacks, two-thirds of them are still stuck in basic level classes. Consistently, the Whites and the Asians are at least a grade point higher than the average black student. Why? This is an interesting question posed to educators and especially the authors Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond. Amanda Lewis is Professor of Sociology and African-American studies at the University of Illinois while John Diamond is Professor of Education at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. Both are concerned with the area of addressing racial inequality in schools and achievements. In a five year quantitative and qualitative research, they look at public policy that tries to bring about greater parity among the races in education. They focus on Riverview High School as a test case for providing whatever resources necessary to help all races excel in their studies. In spite of the efforts, there still remains a troubling "racial achievement gap." The conclusion made by the authors is interesting. While they believe that race is "a social and political category," it cannot be the cause of differing SAT scores. Why then the disparity in achievements? In a startling conclusion, the authors assert that race matters. Race plays a key role in academic achievements. The problem lies in our assumptions when we try to social engineer the integrative process.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work" (John M. Gottmann and Nancy Silver)

TITLE: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert
AUTHOR: John M. Gottmann and Nancy Silver
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Harmony Books, 2015, (320 pages).

When it was first published back in 1999, this book made a huge impact that shot authors and marriage counselors, John Gottmann and Nancy Silver to fame, becoming their most popular book. Using interviews, research, and scienfic data analysis, the authors begin with a startling claim: They can predict an impending divorce with a 91% accuracy just by looking at various signs. Moreover, they criticize most marital therapies as ineffective. They can recognize the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse. They can also tell the health of a marriage by asking a few questions and observing the responses. Fortunately, they are able to come up with seven principles not just to make marriage work, but to sustain it over the long haul. In brief, the principles are:

  1. Learning to enhance one's love maps
  2. Nurturing fondness and admiration for each other
  3. Turning toward each other instead of away from
  4. Letting One's Partner Influence You
  5. Solve the Solvable problems
  6. Overcoming gridlock over unsolvable ones
  7. Creating shared meaning

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"Every Child Welcome" (Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo)

TITLE: Every Child Welcome: A Ministry Handbook for Including Kids with Special Needs
AUTHOR: Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2015, (176 pages).

Jesus welcomes every child. He says it clearly in Matthew 19:14 to let the little children come to him. We are not to hinder them in any way. While it is easy for us to say that we all love children, it is far easier to love children who are lovable, adorable, and downright cute! What about those who are not? What about children with special needs such as "preexisting physical conditions, mental illness, or behavior issues?" Not so easy now. This is particularly so for parents of such children. Overcoming the initial challenge is not the only thing. It is trying to care for these kids every day, every moment, and every emergency. Authors Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo were former public school teachers, with special education backgrounds, and have been practitioners in the area of working with children with special needs. They are also parents of such children. Philo's son, Allen had a "life-threatening esophageal birth anomaly" at birth, followed by six surgeries, PTSD, and others. Wetherbee's daughter, Annie, suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak. Only after much care and therapies that she had managed to regain some strength and ability to speak. The authors met each other at a seminar for special needs children. Their common interest enabled their friendship to blossom and this book is a product of that shared interest and excitement to encourage "quality teaching."

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Pray Like a Gourmet" (David Brazzeal)

TITLE: Pray Like a Gourmet: Creative Ways to Feed Your Soul (Active Prayer)
AUTHOR: David Brazzeal
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015, (192 pages).

How we eat our physical meals can be quite an accurate reflection of how we feed our souls. Are we constantly rushing through meals in order to get back to our work? Do we go for the most familiar restaurant joints and select the usual cheaper options? Maybe we are used to drive-through convenience that opts for the standard fare? What if we can inject some creativity into our eating or ordering? In this very well-illustrated and creative book on how to pray, author David Brazzeal, together with Dutch illustrator Willemijn de Groot have put together "creative ways to feed your soul." Written in three parts, we catch a glimpse of what it takes to set up a kitchen for prayer; which is followed by basic recipes for prayer; and finally the praying.

Brazzel whets our appetite by enticing us to go beyond normal ordinary fare such as fast-food, cheap joints, and predictable meals. He show us how to acquire a taste by hungering and thirsting after the really good stuff, and parallels them to seeking after God. Preparing to pray includes praise, just like the way St Francis of Assisi's had prayed. From Richard Foster, he learns about imagination in prayer. From Evelyn Underhill, he learns that spirituality and creativity are both on the same side of the brain. From Peter Lord, he learns that our creativity is most beautiful when it is in sync with the Holy Spirit. He shows us how to creatively choose a meal, just like seeing the Bible as the first book, the middle, and the last. This parallels the regular meal set of appetizer, entree, and dessert. He is particularly critical of fast food that never gives us time to cultivate relationships; of junk food that offers little substance to our self-centered praying; and processed food that limits ourselves to devotions and prayers of other people. On forms of prayer, he reminds us of the popular ACTS acronym before challenging us toward Observation; Intercession; Meditation; Contemplation; Blessing; Lamenting; and Joining. Gradually, we involve the gourmet of choices to let our prayers involve body, heart, mind, and soul.

Part Two is the main dish where we learn about the 11 ways to pray. We praise by telling the greatness of God. We thank God for what He had done. We confess our sins as we deal with life's realities. We bless the world with goodness as we pray blessings from God upon the land we live. We observe the world, especially nature, and to simply see without analyzing or watch without the urge to solve something. We lament the reality of the world, especially the sad things happening around us. We also lament on things that are beyond our control. We learn to meditate and to contemplate, which may not be easily understood or differentiated. For meditation, it is about learning to reflect silently with the Spirit of God leading us. Brazzeal shares with us that "Meditation is stimulated by something external: a text, a quote, a sound, an image, a thought, or even a repetitive action, while Contemplation deals with the purely internal: silence, stillness, void, release, and the lack of emphasis on reasoning and rational thought."

He leaves the asking quite late in the process, which is a curious decision because prayers have often been associated with asking for things in the first place. He admits that the chapter on asking is the "hardest chapter" because as he grows in his journey and gourmet of prayer, he finds the asking less as less desirable, once he experiences the other element of prayer. He settles on a type of asking that is "less self-absorbed and more God-focussed." This is a good lesson for us too. This is quickly followed by interceding which is about advocating for the needs of others. At one look, it seems like the asking and the interceding are the same thing, the former being more other-centered and the latter being praying for others. What's the difference? The author does not offer any clear explanation but as I read the chapters, it appears to me that "asking" to be more God-centered and other-concerned is a conscious decision to put ourselves less important; while the "interceding" is to put God and others as more important. The difference is subtle. In joining, we pray with God's mission in mind, to be reminded that our concerns are merely a speck in the larger world of God.

Part Three of the book show us how to spread everywhere the joy of prayer. When showering, learn to see the steam as a chance to thank God for the presence of the Spirit; to experience the waters on our bodies as a way to reminisce the baptism of the Spirit; the scrubbing of the skin as cleansing; and to the wrapping of the body as being embraced by the Spirit; and so on. Even in swimming, we can learn to pray. Gradually, we come back to the dining atmosphere where we can bless all who gathered with thanksgiving; picnic moments; to the worship time in Church. Finally, there is the clearing of the table which we can also pray.

So What?

We eat at least two to three meals daily. We are exhorted to pray frequently too. One of the most regular times of prayer is the time just before we tuck in the next meal. Christians often pause for a moment; say a prayer of thanks; and then eat away. For some, these are the only times they pray. If there is a way to bring this regularity of eating and to inculcate a more prayerful life, why not?  In this book, we are exhorted not only to pray frequently but also to pray widely. Praying like a gourmet is essentially praying lavishly, unselfishly, and generously. Full of ideas that are simple and doable, after reading this book, it will not be surprising that readers would want to simply pause and put the prayers directly into practice. This is how powerful the book is.

Written with practice in mind, the book is concise in its theory and extensive in its applications. I love the colours used in the book which reflects a desire to bring colour into our praying. While the book is brief, it covers a lot of ground as far as learning how to pray is concerned. With many tips, pointers, and to the point challenges, readers will be happy to learn that there are more ways to pray. Hopefully, this book will help readers catch a glimpse at why the prayer warriors and spiritual leaders of the past are able to pray so constantly, so consistently, and so passionately. If there is a modern equivalent of Brother Lawrence's "Practice of the Presence of God," this book will be very up close and personal.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Paraclete Press and SpeakEasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, July 17, 2015

"A Trip Around the Sun" (Mark Batterson and Richard Foth)

TITLE: A Trip around the Sun: Turning Your Everyday Life into the Adventure of a Lifetime
AUTHOR: Mark Batterson and Richard Foth
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015, (208 pages).

In evangelism, one popular question that is used to trigger interest is: "If you were to die tomorrow, do you know where you'll be going?" In Christian Living, believers often ask themselves whether there is more to life than just doing the routine stuff day in and day out. In this book, authors Mark Batterson and Richard Foth ask the reflective question: "If you can re-live your life, how would you have lived?" In a book that spells adventure, risk-taking, and faith ventures, readers encounter page after page of living not just in anticipation of the eternal life promised by God in Jesus Christ, they learn to live out perspectives of eternity on earth to live freely as people as if there is an even more wonderful tomorrow. For Richard Foth (aka Dick), "loving in the hard times is the best kind of living." For pastor Mark Batterson, if he could relive his own life, he would "risk more, reflect more" and "die young at a ripe old age." While it is designed to excite readers to take the plunge of living in faith, it is also a personal revelation of the authors' reflections on life and their passions for life in Jesus.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament" (Stanley E. Porter)

TITLE: Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice
AUTHOR: Stanley E. Porter
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, (448 pages).

[Note: This review is more technical and is intended for those who have some knowledge of Greek and linguistics]

There are many people who try to exegete the Greek text but lack the knowledge of the interpretive and linguistic issues behind the ancient language. While they cannot be faulted with the intent, many unfortunately err on the side of ignorance about basic linguistic issues. This is what the Professor of New Testament at McMaster University, a well-known proponent for the SFL (Systemic Functional Linguistic) approach toward linguistic analysis is concerned wit. Simply put, this SFL method affirms that the lexicon is part of the grammar and semantics are selected on the basis not only the morphological, the lexical, or the syntactical aspect, but also the discourse of the language and contexts concerned. In other words, many works focus on the technical aspect of the language but few look, or does not do enough onlooking at the overall bigger picture flow and contexts. Such a method is focused not only at the micro-details of the language but the macro picture of the linguistics used.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Unshaken" (Crawford W. Loritts Jr.)

TITLE: Unshaken: Real Faith in Our Faithful God
AUTHOR: Crawford W. Loritts Jr.
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2015, (144 pages).

The Bible tells us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. The author of this book asserts that without faith, there is no Christianity. In other words, it is impossible to live the Christian life. The reality among many Christians is not that they are without faith but they have allowed fear, discouragement, and frustrations to influence them and shake their foundations of faith. This is especially so when believers feel that their faith had let them down. Based on a series of sermons preached at Fellowship Bible Church, author and senior pastor Crawford Loritts Jr tells us that Bible describes faith more than it defines faith.  He uses two foundational perspectives to guide us along. First, faith is about letting God fulfill his will through us. Second, obedience is proportional to the level of faith.

This calls for "God confidence" which is from above. Such faith from above is sustained in God. It defies circumstances. It is anchored in Christ. It is strengthened by God alone.  Faith in God is dependent on God's unspeakable love, complete assurance, and security in Christ. Such assurance and security extends to the future. Based on the knowledge that God is steadfast and firm, we have everything to be hopeful and trusting of God. Fear and uncertainly may cast shadows of doubt but God's assurance shines a light to drive all shadows away. Loritts knows the barriers to embarking on such a journey of trust by showing us five questions we can ask ourselves.

Monday, July 13, 2015

"No Fear in Love" (Andy Braner)

TITLE: No Fear in Love: Loving Others the Way God Loves Us
AUTHOR: Andy Braner
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015, (192 pages).

The Bible says that there is no fear in love. What does that mean? In many societies, fear is a powerful and effective tool to make people follow the rules. It can also be used in relationships to keep people in check. Unfortunately, it has a lot more negative connotations and unhelpful consequences. Worse of all is the fear that grows inside us. In this book, author and founder of Ahava Ministries, a non-profit youth ministry that teaches a Christian worldview to young people, shows us that we can love fearlessly even in the midst of disagreements. Written in three sections, the first section deals with personal encounters with fear. The second section covers the author's encounter with specific worldviews. The third section works on the wider culture at large.

In Section One, we see a personal view of fear. When we are able to love people the way God loves them, we will no longer be afraid to touch on taboo topics like abortion, homosexuality, immigration, and many other controversial topics. All it takes is a change of perspective, something that Braner learns when he starts to deal with his inner fears. He realizes that his work is not the most important thing; trials are not the most terrible; natural events are not the most disastrous; but to know God inside and to hunger for God. From his forest fire encounter, he realizes how fear can often take over the person's life and corrupts everything. Just as one is fearful of failure, there is a corresponding fear in succeeding; For example, the fear of not able to sustain that success. Going back to the biblical model of holy fear, he shows us that when we put our human frailties and anxieties in its proper place, we are better able to live free and to live without fear. Through understanding, we bridge racial and religious gaps. Through places of common thought, we know that truth can be expressed in other ways, not just ours. Just because we cannot convince others does not make our beliefs wrong. In the same light, just because others can express their religions well does not make them right either. If we are in the search for truth, there is no fear in expecting truth to show up in whatever truth forms it takes. We can learn of Jesus on how fear can be dealt with as we share in the fellowship of suffering.