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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Holy Nomad" (Matt Litton)

TITLE: Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy
AUTHOR: Matt Litton
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2012, (246 pages).

What is life all about? What does it mean to live as a Christian? Are we practicing a form of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome, of preferring to be enslaved by the world, even though we have been freed in Christ from the worldliness at large? Are we overly consumed with protecting our turf? Are we rushing to preserve our material possessions and personal reputations? Are we waiting for others to take the first step in doing a good deed? These and many more are addressed through a series of movements.

Movement One recognizes the predicament the human condition is in, that we are living in a kind of a "life sentence" of sin and restlessness.We are trapped in a culture of materialism, fragmentation of communities, religion, and others. Our own "kung fu," is not enough. We need to recognize the need to move on to the next phase.

Movement Two talks about us being created to be nomads, rather than settlers. Litton makes a distinction between running away from responsibility and running toward a destination. It is not an escape but an expedition. He calls a spiritual nomad as follows.

"A spiritual nomad is - a member or people of any race, color, or tribe that has no permanent attachment to the temporal but moves through life free with only one intent: to follow in the footsteps of the Holy Nomad—Jesus."

This means that one needs to let one's movement be led by God, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need to be continually resisting any desire to retreat back to our old ways, especially when the going gets tough. Spiritual warfare is about battling this fleshly tendency. The spiritual nomad listens for the voice of God and follows after that voice. He is sustained by God's breath. It is learning to carry the proper tools for travel, and to remove anything that entangles us. Trust is key. Spiritual nomads are also defined by who they follow. Litton contrasts the "Nomadic journey" with the "Jones's journey." The challenge is to climb above the worldly concerns and to be curious about God.

Movement Four talks about the need to travel as a community. It is dangerous to travel alone. It is also lonely. Yet, living like a family does has its own challenges. The rewards far outweighs these challenges.

Movement Five describes what the nomadic life looks like. It means living out the commandments to love our neighbours and to "light up the neighbourhood." It means learning to take care of creation, remembering that the first creation mandate has not been rescinded.

Movement Six deals with areas of justice, care, and social concerns. Spiritual nomads long to do something about the great needs in the world. They are also peacemakers and breathes new life to old worlds. They also build visible altars along the way to proclaim the Person of God they serve.

Movement Seven describes the joy of completion of the journey, that people may come to believe in God.

My Thoughts

Many Christians have been talking about using the journey motif as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Matt Litton has taken this idea and applied it through the seven movements. It speaks directly to the spiritual pilgrim or spiritual nomads. It spells out the different phases of the spiritual life. Through the journeys, Litton is able to flesh out the difficulties and the dangers of embarking on such a journey. The temptation to sit back and do nothing about it; the temptation to give up at the first obstacles; the temptation to look back and complain when the going gets tough; the temptation to listen to the wrong voice; the temptation to travel alone; the temptation to be discouraged; the temptation to move on our own strength; and many more. Along with it, readers are encouraged to listen to the voice of God, through the Holy Spirit, and to learn to travel together as a community. Spiritual nomads can make a difference in this world.

I like the term "spiritual nomad." It is one who is constantly on the move, but with a purpose and direction. It is about not lazing around in our spiritual lives but to continue the adventure that has been started by many saints of old. It is about living a vibrant Christian life that is forward looking. The "movement" motif also carries with it an active voice, urging readers to embark on such a journey as soon as possible. In fact, readers who are already on a spiritual journey can benefit by using the book as a road map ahead. Those who do not have a clue where to begin their spiritual lives can leaf from chapter one. Those who are near the end of their journey can begin at the last movement. While this book may not command the same following as John Bunyan's classic, Pilgrim's Progress, it is a worthy attempt to shake those of us who are spiritually lethargic to get moving. Read it. More importantly, walk it and recognize that we are all spiritual nomads.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Abingdon Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, October 29, 2012

"Unglued" (Lysa TerKeurst)

TITLE: Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions
AUTHOR: Lysa TerKeurst
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (208 pages).

When one lose control of one's emotions, the unraveling of self has begun. Badly. Not only will it hurt other people, it has a boomerang effect of hurting the self, sooner if not later. The problem is the inability to make sense of progress, and to accept imperfect progress. Call it perfectionism, anxiety, or simply wanting a quick-fix mechanism, when one loses control, all emotions can break loose. We need to be unglued from all these things that entangles us, that makes us hurt people. Slowly, bit by bit, we let grace enable us to put the pieces back together with choices that honour God and love people. Choose to do the right thing in the right spirit. In doing so, one gets to live in an abundant, unlimited supply of goodwill and grace.

Here is TerKeurst's roadmap in two parts. First, she points out the perils of letting our raw imperfect emotions define our sense of perfection or the right thing to do. This requires one to go through a process to be "unglued" from these unhealthy emotions. It requires new thinking on old paradigms. Instead of fixing our attention on circumstances, we learn to fix our attention on God. Before one can be unglued, one needs to recognize the imprisonment, and the labels that imprison and condemn us or lock us in the past. She lists four categories of "unglued reactions."

  1. Exploders who shame themselves.
  2. Exploders who blame others.
  3. Stuffers who build barriers
  4. Stuffers who collect retaliation rocks.
Exploders are those who push their emotions outward. Stuffers push emotions inward. If we can free ourselves from any of these, and let ourselves come under the liberating Hand of God, we will be ready to embark on a journey of becoming new people in God. The middle part of the book focuses on identifying, on diagnosis, and on freeing ourselves from these debilitating emotions. She offers practical steps to deal with each category of reaction. 

Second, she helps readers to move from a state of refusal to release control of one's sense of perfection, toward a willing acceptance and joy of "imperfect progress." This is about believing that one can act differently and not react compulsively. It is about wrapping every step with grace. It is about connecting with love and goodwill, to hand to God our raw emotions to be processed under the loving Hands of God. Honor, Grace, Compassion are the three points to keep in mind.

My Thoughts

TerKeurst cuts through the choppiness of human emotions with a skilled and gentle hand. Her voice of reason is compelling. Her understanding of the raw emotions is convincing. Written primarily for women, the author is able to state the problem, loosen the ropes that bind, and to guide readers to live free in grace. She makes many apt observations.

  • "God give me emotions so I could experience life, not destroy it."
  • "Choosing a gentle reply doesn't mean you're weak."
  • "The more I compare, the emptier I become."
  • "Feelings are indicators, not dictators."
  • "No jealous thought is ever life-giving."
  • "The difference between boundaries and barriers is honest transparency."
  • and many more....

Her five steps to recovery is worth remembering. At some point, we all do need to take charge of our raw emotions instead of letting them control us. Practical and useful, this book is a valuable resource when it comes to managing our own emotional outbursts to imperfections in life. More importantly, it lets God transforms us to learn to live our imperfect lives with gratitude, grace, and faith to know that one day, God will make all things perfect in His time.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"One Big Thing" (Phil Cooke)

TITLE: One Big Thing: Discovering What You Were Born to Do
AUTHOR: Phil Cooke
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (186 pages).

This book begins with two big questions to drive home one big thing. The two questions are:

  1. "What am I supposed to do with my life?"
  2. "In a hyper-competitive, cluttered, and distracted world, how do I get noticed?"
Both of these questions intersect to drive home one big thing, to discover what exactly are we born to do. It is about focus. It is about being able to recognize what is important and what is not. It is to know oneself, and to be purposeful according to one's knowledge of self. Cooke shows us that without intentional living, we let culture define who we are and what we ought to do. Without a sense of destiny, we will miss the opportunity to make a choice, and instead let ourselves be vulnerable to the whims and fancies of chance occurrences. This is a culture of clutter, of distractions, and very limited attention span. One of the biggest downside of such activism is a sense of meaninglessness. That is why Cooke argues for the need to have a sense of direction, appropriate influence, and a healthy sense of personal identity. Once this is appropriated, one can begin the journey to living the person we really are. We learn to let priorities be driven by values, to learn to take responsibility for the choices we need to make for ourselves, to map out our own future, to see the difference between jobs and our vocations, and to learn to harness the power of modern communications, according to our own make up.

My Thoughts

The way the author writes is captivating. He poses good questions to hook the attention of readers, to enable them to internalize the question into a personal one. He suggests several ideas, in the hope that at least one will hit home. He reads the culture at large and reminds readers that all that glitters out there is not necessarily precious or worthwhile. What is more important is to recognize our true sense of self and worth, and having done that, to learn to live in a manner that blesses others. There are at least three ways to benefit from this book. First, it is a mirror to look and to reflect on our own lives. Far too many people are living according to the values of the world, chasing after material dreams simply because everyone is doing it. As a mirror, it makes us think more seriously about what is more important for us. Second, it is a guide to help us discover who we are and what we are called to be. This sense of being will determine what we can do best. In our world, it is easy to react according to what the world hits us with. We need to learn to sift through the mass of information, to determine what is central and fundamental, and what is peripheral, and having done that, to make a conscious choice for the necessary. Third, it is a book to help us live well, that we can benefit others. Yes, no one is an island. No one needs to live only for self. We need to discover the role we play as a community. For people who feel uncomfortable about self-improvement, lest one becomes too individualistic focused, I like to offer some encouragement. Improving oneself is not wrong. Learn to see self-improvement as a way to bring positive energy and good to the community you are in.

This is one book that makes readers feel good about themselves, and having done that, to make one sit up and do something with their lives. The practical steps are easy to understand. The challenge to step out of our comfort zone is more difficult to practise. If readers are able to overcome their resistance to change, and to live on purpose and overcome the obstacles to change, they will benefit most. This book is strong in calling one to take the first step. It is not so useful when the going gets tough, or when discouragement steps in when the results are not forthcoming. That is why this book may give us the kick start. For Christians, we need the Bible and the Holy Spirit to help us navigate the marathon.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255<http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Friday, October 26, 2012

"Acceptable Words" (Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney, eds)

TITLE: Acceptable Words: Prayers for the Writer
AUTHOR: Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney, eds.
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012, (206 pages).

This is a fine literary gem. Gems I must say. Filled with psalms, hymns, and spiritual writings, the editors Gary Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney have brought together some of the best prayers and poems to nourish the writer's soul, and to re-invigorate a desire for God in prayer. The quotes throughout the book gives readers many moments to ponder about life, about faith, about creativity, and God. There are at least seven ways to use this book.

Firstly, it can be used as a tool to sharpen our writings, to be aware of our awareness, and to focus our attention on the big idea. Too many times, writers meander in many other directions in the drive to overcome the writer's block.

Secondly, it reminds me that writers are readers too, and there are so many good pieces to read here! In fact, good writers are also good readers. This book compiles some of the best writings, from theologians like Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, and William Barclay; hymn writers like Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley, and Isaac Watts; philosophers like Soren Kierkergaard and G.K. Chesterton; preachers like Henry Ward Beecher, Peter Marshall, and D.L. Moody; classic writings from John Donne, T.S Eliot, Robert Frost, as well as contemporary writers like Madeline L'Engle, Henri Nouwen, Luci Shaw, and many more.

Thirdly, it is a good reference book to spur creativity. The book is structured in seven perspectives, each addressing a specific area important to the writer. Like a camera, one can use the book as like a zoom in lens to observe the world around, to study it, and to ponder on it. One can also zoom out from the details, and to start the creativity process to expand the vision, to let the Word inform our thinking, to discover joy in our writings, to pray, and to offer our work back to God. It allows the writer-reader to plunge into the book straightaway without having to read from cover to cover before gaining any benefit.

Fourthly, it is a book of prayers. There are biblical passages to direct our attention back to God. There are many wonderful moments in which readers can share in the spiritual moments of the reflections and writings of the individual contributors. One can even use this book as part of a personal spiritual retreat. Some of the poems and writings can appear simple but hold immense depth. Simple words can hide deep insights.

Fifthly, this book can be a teaching device for educators. At the beginning of each chapter, there is a short introduction that describes the theory and many literary tips for the avid writer. It blends in many things. From art to prose, from prayer to praise, there is something for nearly everything.

Sixth, it is a wonderful book to appreciate life in general. In our technological and scientific world, too many of us approach life with a problem solving paradigm, seeing everything as a problem that needs to be solved. Unfortunately, life is not about solving problems. Life is about living. Appreciating art, music, dance, and literary works remain one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate our humanity. In fact, we can reflect the Creator God in our creativity.

Seventh, it encourages readers to write, and writers to read. In other words, it enables both reading and writing to inform each other. When I read a touching passage or a poem, I cannot wait to put down the book to write something. When I write something, and in my moments of pausing, I cannot wait to pick up the book to read something.

As a writer, I must say that this book is one of the best books for the writer's soul. The editors Schmidt and Stickney have given us writers a powerful gift, an early Christmas present. If you are a writer, this book is a must have. If you know someone who loves to write, give that person this book. They will probably give you a big warm hug, and if not, a prompt electronic kiss.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"The Parent App" (Lynn Schofield Clark)

TITLE: The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age
AUTHOR: Lynn Schofield Clark
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012, (320 pages).

How do technologies impact relationships in the family? How do they shape the relationships of middle-upper and lower class families? In what manner does modern technological gadgets shape families of today and tomorrow? What if parents have an app in which to rely on, to learn how to relate to their children, or how to shape the family dynamics, and at the same time prevent the negative effects of technology in this age? These questions and many more are probed by Clark in this insightful book on technology and the family in the digital age. Technology is here to stay. From mobile gadgets to the tablets, from computers to the social media network, the pervasive nature of technology increasingly demands a response. The question is, how is it shaping families and us? Parents need help to understand the impact of technology and how to navigate by avoiding the risks and at the same time maximize the potential.

Part One deals with matters that concern parents more.  Things like risks of losing privacy, potential dangers by Internet predators, and how the new media and technology magnify such risks. How do parents keep up with change, let alone, understand the implications? How can parents from another era of little technology deal with the new era of pervasive technology? Balancing risks and resources begin with understanding not only the modern cultural perspective, but also the kind of background the family hails from. This is because the middle-upper class families respond differently from the lower-class families, so says Clark. Parents in the former practises a form of "ethic of expressive empowerment," while the latter adopts an "ethic of respectful connectedness." The former focuses more on intellectual curiosity, self-esteem, self-reliance, etc. The latter promotes family bonding and relational matters. According to Clark, the main determinant is the "access" factor, how much technology and how pervasive each family uses the new media. Clark also talks about overparenting, where technology is used to monitor children. Such tactics impede trust building. How then do parents balance concern for their children versus their need for independence? Clark also talks a bit about the different parenting styles across the family groups. For instance, less well-off parents tend to exercise greater control over the use of technology.

Part Two looks from the perspective of youths. Beginning with the more well-off groups, it tells of stories of young people growing up in the social media age, how they find recognition, meaning, and connection. The struggle is in interpreting the parents' desire to continue to protect their teens, versus the teens desire to want to be trusted by their parents, and to have greater freedom and independence. Such tussles deal with differences when trying to understand how much information to share on social media, how to relate or engage well, and how to make a distinction between needs and wants. Clark also uses secondary data, such as the 2010 study by the Kaiser Foundation. There is also the important issue of identity among young people, and how they use technology to express that. It also points out the growing desire of young people to use technology as their new "right" to use. With the less well-off group, there is a bigger emphasis on respect, of young people more adept and even being able to teach their parents on the latest and the greatest (a reversal of roles), and the greater level of parental restrictions on the use of technology.

Part Three brings parents and youths together under the umbrella of family communications. Clark deals with the factors that influence parents' view of technology, how these impact the way families interact, and that good parenting opportunities is a better way to make decisions rather than the avoidance of risks. Here, Clark makes a home run with her use of the two different ethics. In the "Ethic of Expressive Empowerment," parents in the upper-middle class tend to worry that their children's use of technology may impede their focus on more profitable matters. Such families tend to look for a "parent app" that enables their kids to do more productive work, like excellence in education. On the other hand, the lower-income families' "Ethic of respectful connectedness," come through more distinctly as the children's use of technology needs to be secondary to more important needs, like making a living, or supporting one another in sacrificial service.  The "Parent app" needed is one that will enable them to close the gap as much as possible to the societal inequalities they face.

My Thoughts

Social class studies are always difficult to analyze and give a clear answer. The nuances are too many to count. Even the more than ten years of research by Clark, the hundreds of interviews and observations, the many states in the USA, the wide sampling of families across ethnic groups, social groups, income brackets, etc, only gives a small insight to a large cultural effect. More importantly, studies like these are only snapshots of a particular time and space. Things and technology change too fast, and often the results are not only too late, they are also outdated. Just as technology faces obsolescence, so do data in social studies.

Such distinction between the various classes may be labeled as stereotyping. The author is well aware of this accusation. While one cannot generalize any one group, it is fair to say that there is evidence that points to such a use of modern technology. Families relate differently because their lifestyles manifest their unique ways to parenting. Ability to afford modern technology also affects the use of technology. Compare one who often upgrades their technology to another who only gets hand-me-downs. Key to it is the ability to gain access through available technologies. What is helpful for me is to understand again that affordability and access have a direct impact on families' use of technology. While parents of all income brackets have a similar goal to want the best for their children, how and why they do it differs quite considerably. The book is stronger on the descriptive angle, where research and data are well laid out. The conclusion tends to be more disputable. That said, this book does highlights the need for families to understand one another within the confines of their social affordability with regards to technology. As the prices of technology continues to drop, I believe that such a socio-economical distinction will continue to shrink. When that will happen, I do not know. What we can gain from this book is the methodology used, and the extensive resources provided. Perhaps, some of the conclusions may sway you. If not, it does not hurt to understand Clark's perspective as one of the many out there.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Oxford University Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"inSignificant" (Chris Travis)

TITLE: inSignificant: Why You Matter in the Surprising Way God Is Changing the World
AUTHOR: Chris Travis
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2012, (160 pages).

This book is a personal journey of how the present lead pastor of a growing Manhattan Church finds his calling and his discovery of his significance by being first insignificant. Beginning with a longer than usual "about the author" section, partly disguised as chapter 1, Travis shares his brushes with meaninglessness and his struggles with his teaching stint in "the most dangerous middle school" in New York. With virtually "no support" for first time teachers on how to deal with out of control students, Travis discovers the humbling shift from meaningful work to something more meaningless, safe ministry work previously to dangerous, and a position of significance and effectiveness, to a position of insignificance and a gross lack of effectiveness. Despite his high GPA in his own academic achievements, when it comes to being a teacher, it hardly means anything. It all begins with perspective, to see that to change hearts, power is not necessarily most effective. In fact, "power is powerless" when it comes to changing the heart. Being a white in a black neighbourhood also shows him up close and personal the poverty in his city. Much of reality does not show up in modern TV and movies.Trying to teach proper manners and rules to a classroom devoid of courtesy and structure turns the author from teacher to student. For Christians, it is quite easy to speak of God's love. It is quite another thing to try to love God back.

The author discovers how much the Lord's Prayer means. He learns how difficult it is not to use "I or me" in his praying. He learns what it means to give away what God has given him, that his greatest power is to give up control what what he clings on most, especially worldly understanding of power. Some of the tips he has for churches and organizations on serving to the poor, the needy, and the marginalized in society.

  • Come alongside schools to lend a helping hand, not just wanting to do evangelism;
  • Serve with no ulterior motives (especially those evangelism nerds).
  • Embrace the diversity around us
  • Downplay the focus on significance in the world by embracing insignificance.

My Thoughts

Sometimes, Christians tend to think that when they give up something in the Name of God, they will experience moments of high, rewards, and more feelings of significance. Travis points out that the opposite is more real. When one chooses to follow Jesus, one needs to be prepared for all kinds of trials, heartaches, and dangerous risks. Sometimes, the feeling of insignificance can be overwhelming. Indeed, this book is a reminder that when we choose to follow Jesus, we are choosing to follow not just some of the way, but ALL the way. No matter what hits us, no matter how demeaning and discouraging the journey is, we learn true discipleship only when we learn to give up our own significance (like Christ), downplay our own expectations (like Christ), and then follow Christ. Until one learns true dependence on God, one has not really learnt what it really means to be desperate for God. Only when one discovers for oneself, how insignificant it is to depend on things other than God, one begins to see how significant God's power is. Some of us go through life with rose colored lens, thinking that a Christian life is meant to be smooth-going. Others simply cannot see the downsides of faith (like trials, tribulations, pain), as a direct consequence of their obedience to the call of God. Few recognizes the significance of being insignificant. Travis shows us the way on how to do the latter, take the road less traveled, and at the end of it all, to give like Jesus, live like Jesus, and to die for Jesus.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Bethany House Publishers and Graf-Martin Communications (Resourcing Leaders Program) without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, October 22, 2012

"Spirit Hunger" (Gari Meacham)

TITLE: Spirit Hunger: Filling Our Deep Longing to Connect with God
AUTHOR: Gari Meacham
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (208 pages).

Are you hungry? Do we love Jesus as we claim to be? Do we really want to know Him more? How much do we long for God? This book touches on three movements of the spirit: A heart that longs; a heart that seeks; and a heart that moves, to WANT to connect with God. Popular speaker and Bible teacher, Gari Meacham seeks to help readers do exactly that. These words essentially captures the essence of the author's heart. Note that "i" is intentionally in small letter to symbolize the author's view of smallness in oneself when compared to God.

"i believe there is a deep place of engaging God — of needing him, wanting him, and enjoying him. i don’t want to be a committed Christian; i want to be a desperate Christian." (15)

Meacham argues that we long for purpose, for affirmation, for intimacy, but often, we do not get them. By ourselves, we fight the spiritual warfare, poorly equipped, and greatly outgunned.  Our desire for self-control instead of surrendering to God, is one of the biggest culprits for our lack of spiritual connection with God. We wander around on our own strengths. We wonder why God is not near us. We fail to see the presence of God as we bask in the world of worry and anxiety. It is because we fail to connect with God, we deal with pain in ways that are unhelpful to ourselves. Men tend to deal with it outwardly through indulgence in worldliness, while women deal with pain inwardly through worry and regret. Thankfully, a makeover is possible. A heart that longs is good, but it needs to long for God for true fulfilment.

Part Two brings in what it means to seek God with our whole heart. We need to engage God in frequent and earnest prayer. We need to replace formula, stale and repetitive praying with simply the notion of simplicity in asking. Just show up with God. Bang on doors. Want God so bad that we will spend time with Him. Know how He talks and stays silent. Pant for God like a deer. Then hear God speak. The process of a breakthrough is helpful.

"I am afflicted.
Remember me, Lord. Don’t forget me.
I cry out my request.
I will have a role in this commitment.
I don’t care who is watching.
I have been pushed to a point of desperation.
I am no longer sad. I have release as I trust you, Lord." (85)
Part Three moves from this breakthrough point, toward God. In listening, one needs to adopt a humble posture that deflects focus from ourselves toward God. The "reviving posture" summons one toward a new life. The "expectant posture" provides the promise that we can hang on to. We are urged to be still, be open, be bold, and be listening to God. Meacham reminds us that prayer is not for sissies. It is for men and women who take God seriously. It requires one to be like clay, placed under the hands of the Master Potter. Her three "potter principles" are insightful for us to note.
  1. We are the clay. God is the Potter. Don't mix them up.
  2. We are unique, and we need to make sure we don't demand God to make us like some other person.
  3. We must be ready to be shaped, or reshaped, even when it means pain, slow, and mysterious.
Finally, we need to move from becoming a mere spectator at a parade, to becoming a disciple helping to create the whole parade. We need to move away from the outer circle of ACQUAINTANCE (friendly, interested only) to the next circle of PERSONAL (relational, interactive). Best of all, move toward INTIMATE where we are bound together in the love of God. We are urged to move from "bystander to partaker, from fan to teammate."

My Thoughts

This is a practical book about Christian living, of urging believers to be more desperate for God, to long for God like never before. Meacham does a great job in identifying with the perils of worldliness and the nature of self-seeking desires. With great understanding of how women thinks and feels, she shares the struggles which many can identify. She opens up her own life and shares with lots of teaching illustrations. She brings in biblical examples and teach clearly with conviction. The way she is able to weave in simple ideas through expert teaching is a mark of an effective communicator. If you are sick and tired of an aimless spiritual life. If you are ready to do something about it. If you are ready to forget about memorizing or following set prayers, but to simply ask, to seek God from a position of weakness, to knock, pound, and plead for God, this book will be a good companion for your journey of faith.

Rating; 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"The Writings of John" (C. Marvin Pate)

TITLE: The Writings of John: A Survey of the Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse
AUTHOR: C. Marvin Pate
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, (562 pages).

This survey covers all five New Testament books in the New Testament written by John; the gospel of John, the three letters of John, and Revelation. Recognizing the centrality of Christ in its Christology, Soteriology, and Eschatology, and its impact on the formation of creeds and confessions for the Church, this work balances critical scholarship with general commentary, drawn from a variety of sources, including extrabiblical sources such as the Qumran Dead Sea scrolls, the old and new testament Apocrypha, and Pseudepigrapha.

Each of the 57 chapters begin with the same format. It begins with a one page list of objectives for that chapter. Filled with colourful diagrams, tables, and illustrations, it draws out key theological themes, frequent flashbacks to the Old Testament, section by section commentary of the key ideas in John's writings, highlighting contextual information with great clarity and insight. The review questions enable readers to look over the chapter in case they have missed something.

My Thoughts

This book is a preacher's treasure chest for preaching on anything that is from John's writings. With brilliant drawings and corresponding photo images of the lands, the book brings the gospels, the letters, and revelation alive to the reader. There are so many ready made point by point summary that it helps preachers and teachers be able to communicate the Bible clearly and meaningfully. The most fascinating part for me is the part on Revelation. Pate is able to move in and out of the three genres: apocalyptic, prophetic, and epistolary. There is history and prophecy, major schools of interpretation compared, with brilliant explanation  that unpacks complex imagery into understandable ideas. Focused on descriptive terms, readers can be rest assured that the author does not share just one view. He draws on many interpretations, and allows readers to decide for themselves. The multiple summaries, glossary, definitions of terms, make this book ideal for learning the writings of John on their own.

If you are looking for something in depth, this may not suit your liking. If you are looking for something that resembles a doctoral dissertation, look elsewhere. If you want to appreciate what the writings of John is about, how the contexts inform understanding of the biblical texts, and how educators can bring alive the events John recorded to the lay person, this is it.

I wish I had this book.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This review is based on a book provided by the local library.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Handbook on the NT Use of the OT" (GK Beale)

TITLE: Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation
AUTHOR: G.K. Beale
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, (174 pages).

This is a companion volume that works like an introduction or primer to its larger volume predecessor published back in 2007. The old volume comprises more than a thousand pages of commentary from a collection of biblical scholars. This is a handbook, much smaller, and is written by one of the two editors of the previous volume. Take nothing away from the qualification of GK Beale, whose work here comes out of his passion and "great interest" for biblical studies of this type. While the commentary focuses on the "what is" aspect, this book focuses on the "how-to" area for pastors, teachers, and students to apply the exercise of interpreting the NT use of the OT. It is also a guidebook to lead readers to appreciate its big brother volume.

It does not go into all the allusions or details of OT references mentioned in the NT. It focuses on methodology, with the selected examples setting the pattern for readers to apply to other passages. In other words, readers can learn to "fish for themselves" after picking up some skills from this handbook. Some interpretive challenges are highlighted to let readers know of the multiple perspectives in this area of study. For example, what is typology to the apostles then, and for us now? Are we to read it like the Apostles or otherwise? How do we make sense of how the OT texts are quoted or paraphrased? How do we recognize allusions?

Beale also proposes the ninefold approach.

  1. First, identify the OT reference.
  2. Analyze the broad NT context of that reference
  3. Analyze the OT context broadly and immediately
  4. Check out how early and late Judaism interpret them
  5. Compare the various translations (NT, LXX, MT, targums, etc)
  6. Analyze the textual usage of the OT
  7. Analyze the author's hermeneutics of the OT.
  8. Analyze the author's theological usage of the OT
  9. Analyze the author's rhetorical usage of the OT.
There is also the constant mindfulness of whether the text is analogical or typological. How much of it is foreshadowing of the things to come, and how far is the analogy taken. Where and when is the symbolism?

My Thoughts

I am impressed by how the author is able to condense so much exegetical skills and interpretive paradigms into such a small volume. The book is written for the lay reader in mind, though theologically trained individuals will be more familiar with the terms used. It provides just enough detail to whet the appetite, and is not too overwhelming for any busy reader. It can also be used as a quick reference guide on how the NT interprets the OT. After all, it is a handbook. Like an index or a Table of Contents of a book, this guide immediately opens up the wealth of information that is packed into the larger volume. The bibliography at the end of the book is worth the price of this book. What I appreciate is the author's early acknowledgement of the problems and promises of studies of this nature. While the commentary is on a book by book arrangement of all the NT books, this book works on a methodological approach that readers can apply to ALL the NT books. This is an important resouce for anyone interested in the unity of the Old and New Testaments, and how they inform each other.

Handbooks like this ought to be vague on the details (for brevity and easy reference) and precise on the complexity (for accuracy sake). This book meets both requirements.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Academic in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, October 19, 2012

"A Theology of Luke's Gospel and Acts" (Darrell L. Bock)

TITLE: A Theology of Luke and Acts: God's Promised Program, Realized for All Nations (Biblical Theology of the New Testament Series)
AUTHOR: Darrell L. Bock
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (480 pages).

This is an extremely comprehensive survey and study of two New Testament books. Affirming that both Luke and Acts are written by the same author, Bock pulls together many theological themes surrounding the Person of Christ. The textbook is packed with so much information that it warrants two table of contents, one first one containing chapter headings, and the second a more detailed and descriptive listing of key ideas to structure the whole book into one unified whole.

Part One sets out to state the contexts, the importance of the two New Testament books in biblical theology, and the case for studying Luke-Acts as one whole unit instead of two separate ones. The key idea is that when Luke begins to write, he has Acts in mind as a completion for what he has started in the gospel. Clues are there, such as the way Luke 24 ends and how Acts 1 begins; or how the descriptions of Jesus, Peter, and Paul are paralleled in both books; and the way the Holy Spirit has been described. Any objections to the unity tend to be an "argument of nuance" instead of an absolute objection. The narrative survey gives us a good chronological flow of how both books are written. Briefly, the outline is as follows:
  1. Birth and Introduction of John and Jesus
  2. Jesus is anointed for ministry
  3. Ministry in Galilee
  4. Journey to Jerusalem
  5. The Arrest, Execution and the Resurrection in Jerusalem
  6. Ascension of Jesus
  7. The Early Church in Jerusalem
  8. Community Living
  9. Persecution at Jerusalem and the Spread of the Gospel
  10. Gospel to the Gentiles
  11. First Missionary Journey of Paul
  12. Second and third missionary Journeys of Paul
  13. The Arrest of Paul
  14. Gospel to Rome
 Part Two is about the major theological themes in Luke-Acts. Themes like:
  • The Person and Character of God through Jesus
  • Salvation theme and fulfilment in Jesus
  • Messiah and Prophet theme through the works of Jesus
  • The Witness of Jesus in the Power of the Holy Spirit
  • Major dimensions of the salvation themes in Luke and Acts
  • Israel
  • Gentiles
  • Discipleship and Ethics of Christian living
  • Unity and Division brought about by the Person of Jesus
  • Women, and Social Action
  • Ecclesiology
  • Scriptures.
Part Three looks at how Luke and Acts are incorporated into the canon and how it fits into the big picture of the Bible story. The major thrusts are centered on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. There are also parallels to the other synoptic gospels, John, the Pauline epistles, and other books in the New Testament. Finally, six key theses are highlighted to summary the whole book. Bock argues that Luke-Acts taken together argues for:
  1. Fulfilling of God's Covenant through Jesus
  2. God's Plan includes Israel
  3. The Coming of the Holy Spirit as Evidence of Jesus' Resurrection
  4. How the Work of Jesus Bring Salvation and Identity to all who believe
  5. A Trinitarian story
  6. Prophecy and Promise of Jesus' Return.
Jesus comes. Jesus saves. Jesus gives hope. Jesus is present today in the Holy Spirit. These and many more proves again that Luke-Acts alone is a treasure chest of theological themes that not only completes the biblical canon, it gives readers a rich appreciation of how much Jesus has done for the whole world.

My Thoughts

There are so many theological themes in both Luke and Acts, that just by trying to consolidate them can easily lead to reductionism. The book is a worthy in-depth treatment of Luke-Acts, with very few stones left unturned. There is a lot of supporting scholarship material at the beginning of each chapter. The narrative and the theological themes inform each other. Bock also deals with known objections and puts forth his own case with force but allows readers to take their own stand. Most of the historical and contextual heavy-lifting are done at the first part of the book. The level of detail and care is evident, as in any doctoral dissertation, which this book is based upon. Going through this book is intense. At the end, these 3 hermeneutical axioms describe the book. (1) Luke-Acts represent God's design and fulfilment of the good news in Christ; (2) Christ must be read as the center figure in the reading of Luke-Acts; (3) of how Scripture explains what has happened and what is happening today.

This is a theological textbook. Seminarians, Bible teachers, and pastors will benefit a lot from it. It can be used by pastors to structure a preaching series on Luke-Acts. Teachers can use it in a teaching curriculum. Students can frame their learning using the themes highlighted in the book. The bibliography at the beginning of each chapter allows one to research at a topical level or more specific theological themes, without having to dig through the comprehensive bibliography at the end. The strength of this book likes in its comprehensiveness of coverage, the clear theological themes highlighted, and the way it brings together the whole gospel and its associated themes in one unified whole. The comprehensiveness can also become a weakness, as readers can sometimes be lost in the details of it all. This can be overcome by the frequent use of the table of contents, and the conclusions and summary at the end of each major chapter. 

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Jesus Today" (Sarah Young)

TITLE: Jesus Today: Experience Hope Through His Presence
AUTHOR: Sarah Young
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (368 pages).

Written by one who has personally entered the trenches of illness and despair, and how she finds healing and hope, this book offers 150 devotional entries on how Jesus can be experienced today. Having suffered as a victim of Lyme disease and its coinfections, plus a bout of brain fog due to hyperparathyroidism, Young admits that if not for her own trials, this book will never have been written. She writes with one particular kind of reader in mind: the discouraged, the down, and the desolate. In the process, she invites others into the conversation, in the hope that different people will learn something from her sharing. More importantly, we all learn to experience Jesus's presence even when we are going through hard times. Each devotional piece is written in such a way that Jesus is the first party speaking, while the author is the second. Readers are free to eavesdrop or listen into the conversation. At the end of the brief session, several verses from the Bible are listed to strengthen the theme of the message. Actionable points are italicized for readers to pay extra attention to.

I find the words in the devotional packed with the author's personal experience. It takes one who has gone through substantial trial in order to be at peace with the practice of the presence of God. It gives healing for the soul, that amid the physical pains and emotional struggles, there is comfort by knowing that Jesus cares. It gives encouragement to one who is down and out. It provides a way for one to channel anxiety and unhelpful worries into trust and hope in God. Above all, the devotional affirms once again that God is not only able to work a miracle, there is more: God's very presence. When Jesus speaks, it is not simply about words flowing from mouth to ear. It is about the Word becoming flesh and dwells deep within our hearts. It is about experience and knowing that God cares, right where we are. One can also use the book as a praying device, getting a partner to read aloud the words of the devotional, after one has cried out in prayer to God.

This is one kind of a book that does not talk about the Christian life. It literally lives out the Christian life.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Thomas-Nelson and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Introducing the Old Testament" (Tremper Longman III)

TITLE: Introducing the Old Testament: A Short Guide to Its History and Message
AUTHOR: Tremper Longman III
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (192 pages).

This is an abridged edition of the larger volume, "An Introduction to the Old Testament," co-authored by the same author. The other author, Raymond Dillard, passed away suddenly when the original edition was almost completed. This new edition, abridged from the original by about 60% focuses on about half the original emphases. The unabridged edition deals with each of the 39 old testament books by describing the historical background, the literary style, and the theological message of each book. This new edition continues this format, even though it is shortened. The basic conviction is that a deep knowledge of the Old Testament will help readers toward a better understanding of Jesus and the gospel. The short guide maintains the following format for each book:

  1. Content: What is the book about?
  2. Authorship and Date: Who wrote the book and when?
  3. Genre: What is the style of literature of the book?
  4. Connections: How does the book anticipate the Gospel?

The bibliographical information that used to be spread out in the original volume has now been compiled under three easy to follow headings; Introductory, Intermediate, and Advanced. Looking more like a commentary in some way, and a theological guide in another, it is also a useful handbook for pastors, teachers, and preachers who need a refresher course without having to look through their old seminary books or to get back into the original larger work. That said, the ease of access has a shortcoming. Unlike its predecessor, where readers are left to draw more of their own understanding and conclusions themselves, this new short guide is more directed, where the author includes his own interpretation as well. For example, in the section on Genesis, the literary artistry graphic present in the original has been removed. The very brief treatment of each book can leave the hungry reader wanting more. The already brief treatment of "Approaching the New Testament" has also been shortened through further paraphrasing. That said, not everything is reduced or taken away. The author has added in discussion questions at the end of each chapter to stimulate further study and research. This is definitely helpful and enables the reader to do some independent work and reflection, or with a group. The overall flow of thought is more compact and fluent. The reduction of content is substituted with a better and clearer paraphrase. This new edition, though written more for the popular audience, is still a good enough guide to launch anyone toward a better appreciation and understanding of the contexts of each Old Testament book.

For pastors and teachers who do not have much time to prepare or to deliver their material to a busy audience with little time, this book's concise way of teaching the contexts of the Old Testament is godsend.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Glorious Ruin" (Tullian Tchividjian)

TITLE: Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free
AUTHOR: Tullian Tchividjian
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012, (208 pages).

Another book on suffering. Rather than dispensing advice about what to do or how to go about overcoming suffering, Tchividjian reminds us once again that suffering is not about us going through hard times alone. God is with us walking with us through suffering, simply because God has been there before, and is still with us today. Beginning with his own story of pain and struggle with divorce and heartache in the family, writing the book itself becomes a painful struggle as he revisits and reinterprets what has happened in his life. A "theology of glory" is inadequate. Theodicy does not cut it. Understanding is elusive. Often, the way to deal with suffering and pain is not to work against them, but to accept them. The clue is in seeing how suffering reveals the "beginning of faith," not the end of the world.

Written in three parts, Tchividjian works through the biblical passages on Job, touching on the reality of suffering, that often, suffering is an inevitable part of life. In Part one, the author works from the meditation on Nicholas Wolterstoff's experience, and learns about God rescuing people through pain. No matter how much faith we have, no matter what kind of progress we have made, when it comes to suffering, we need to learn to accept both the "theology of glory" as well as the "theology of the cross." The latter is perhaps one of the best arguments against atheism. One of Tchividjian's observations is that legalism has made Christian living worse, and moralism in fact can produce immorality. While the law can point to a form of righteousness, only grace can inspire one toward it. What is needed is "suffering honestly." This means we cannot trivialize suffering, but to honestly call suffering as suffering. No more. No less.

Part Two moves beyond the reality of accepting suffering, and looks at two erroneous approaches on how to deal with this animal. The first approach is that of moralizing, where retribution theology reigns supreme. Good guys win, and bad guys lose kind of a theology is not only unhelpful, it is "antigospel." The author reserves some of his harshest criticisms for prosperity theology, Oprah Winfrey's brand of karma, the individualistic me-gospel, and the two-fold danger of glory theology. On the latter, the author points to two inevitable conclusions people will have to make when they suffer. First, the presence of suffering makes God out to be a liar, especially when we think God wants us to be rich, and we are not rich. Second, it makes God to be a powerless Deity against the evils of suffering. These then loads the burden and the responsibility of suffering on the sufferer. Another error is to minimize suffering, to downplay or reduce the impact of pain. When they minimize suffering, people invariably minimize the power of the gospel to heal.

Thankfully, Part Three is most redemptive. Suffering when we learn to accept it, can be a liberating experience. We are free from bondage to erroneous interpretation of the law. We are free from self-guilt inflicting. We size ourselves appropriately, not too big to puff self up or too small to humiliate oneself. Just like how God liberates Job from Job himself, from the "idol of explanation." For Tchividjian, the gospel shines when it comes to suffering. Trust rises out of the ashes of pain and confusion. Suffering frees us from idols we unwittingly accumulate in our own lives. Suffering is one way in which we are given a chance to avoid reducing the gospel to human terms. Suffering strips us of ourselves, so that we can see fully the cross of Christ.

My Thoughts

The subtitle of the book betrays the intention of a book that purports to prefer to answer the "who" question more than the "how" or the "why." That said, Tchvidjian has given a refreshing look at the reality of suffering without minimizing the human impact. At the same time, his gentle explanations prepare us to take a new look at the promises and positive lessons we can learn when we accept suffering instead of fighting against it. Suffering is real, so don't falsify it. Suffering is formidable, so do not downplay it. Suffering is part of life, so we need to deal with it. Thankfully, we need not deal with it alone. We have Christ with us always. We have freedom to deal with suffering without needing to explain away or to justify ourselves. We can be equipped with "gospel-soaked liberation" when we face suffering of all sorts. The theology of the Cross is far more promising than the theology of glory. More importantly, the presence of grace is available for all who desires. It is more precious than gold or silver.

If there is one way to describe this book, it is a freedom to embrace suffering as it is. No more. No less. Just the real deal. It is the assurance that we will not be alone. It is the comfort that because Christ has overcome, we too will overcome. In God's time.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by David C. Cook and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, October 15, 2012

"The Action Bible Devotional" (Jeremy V. Jones)

TITLE: The Action Bible Devotional: 52 Weeks of God-Inspired Adventure
AUTHOR: Jeremy V. Jones
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012, (336 pages).

This is a perfect companion volume to the very illustrative Action Bible. In this devotional, Jones continues the very engaging colour and vivid pictures to pique the interest of young readers. It turns a rather plain Bible text into life, visually. Meant to hook the short-term attention span of kids, it immediately keeps readers glued to the overall flow of the story. Based on the belief that a picture speaks a thousand words, this book is generous with diagrams, pictures, and looks like manga for Christians. Meant to be used once a week, it can also be used as frequently as needed.

Each "adventure" begins with an illustrated story followed by a key verse from the passage where the story was taken from. Some modern examples are then introduced as "X-Ray vision," to see spiritual lessons amid ordinary life. In the "mission," three questions are raised to help readers apply the lessons to their daily lives. In the "debrief," readers are invited to interact with what they learn, their feelings, and their responses to the adventure. Finally, there is a call for readers to go beyond mere intellectual understanding to wider sharing of what they have learned.

I must admit that I was attracted by the colour and the lively figures in the book. I call it more of a book rather than a "bible" because it is more of an interpretation and paraphrasing of selected Bible stories. There is little context given, and the lessons have all been done on behalf of the reader. In fact, adult readers may find the whole book very directive, strongly worded guidance for young minds. Those of us who are educators may not be comfortable with things already done on our behalf. Yet, given the age group that the Action Bible is targeted at, I can understand why. The intent is to get children excited to WANT to read the Bible more for themselves. That said, the stories chosen tend to be those that are generally agreed and understood. For personal devotional reading, I can recommend this book more as a supplement rather than the main course. It needs not only the Action Bible companion, but also the actual Bible itself. Understandably, children may not be able to stomach heavy diets. Thus, if there is a parent or an adult who can guide the reading, that will be most helpful. Another way to use this is in the Sunday School. The questions posed in the book are immediately useful for teachers to engage children in a lively discussion. If this book can encourage young readers to desire to read more of the Bible, it would have worth every cent.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by David C. Cook and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

"Joy Together" (Lynne M. Baab)

TITLE: Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation
AUTHOR: Lynne M. Baab
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, (203 pages).

In a world often blamed for its individualistic emphasis and behavior, the danger for Christians is that the world may have influenced them more than expected. Just recall the kinds of spiritual vocabulary we use. "Personal devotions," "Individual quiet times," "Spending time alone with God," "Self-examination," and so on are terms which many of us have often accepted without much thought. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that these things are not needed. In fact, many spiritual disciplines ought to begin with the self. That is not my concern. My concern arises when people choose to remain at the "self" stage. Thankfully, Lynne Baab has given us a book of doing spiritual disciplines together as a community of faith.

True to Baab's area of expertise, the book dwelves into spiritual disciplines such as fasting, giving thanks, contemplative praying, Scripture reading, showing hospitality, keeping Sabbath, spiritual discerning, and many more. Unlike her previous work, this book focuses on what it means to do spiritual disciplines communally, to be of the same mind and heart, to practice common disciplines through our individual uniquenesses. There are many advantages in doing so. Firstly, it helps us with a more holistic understanding of the spiritual disciplines. Secondly, it allows others to complement us, that each other's strengths to complement the weaknesses. Thirdly, there is an increase in learning of many perspectives for a more fruitful and enriching experience. Fourthly, it aids in our spiritual listening, that as we make space together for God, we are also making space together for one another. Fifthly, we get to participate in a spiritual feast. Sixthly, together as a body, we are able to practice MORE disciplines, to cover more ground than any one person is able to.  For this, Baab sees the practice of communal spirituality primarily through small groups, Church worship, fellowship as "indispensable and essential to the Christian life." Baab chooses to focus on six disciplines.

  1. Thankfulness
  2. Fasting
  3. Contemplative prayer
  4. Contemplative Scripture reading
  5. Hospitality
  6. Sabbath keeping 

The six point the way to other disciplines. More critically, the reason for choosing these six is to address  several concerns. Concerns surrounding the worldly consumerism and materialism in the world of advertising and consuming. Concerns about the need for spiritual growth on a daily basis. Concern about being equipped to live in God's wisdom and listening for God. Concerns about growing spiritually in our difficult world. Other concerns center around the decline of congregational giving, lack of enthusiasm in outreach, and the loss of purpose, especially, our understanding of the meaning of church. Are we able to rise above our own personal concerns about our own family, problems, work matters, personal issues, and to live Christlike, sharing our ups and downs with the communities we belong to? Baab says yes. In fact, it is imperative simply because we are created to be a community of believers. We need one another.

In giving thanks, we can thank not just for our own blessings, we can learn to give thanks to God for what has happened to our communities, our neighbours, and others. God blesses and guides not only us, but our friends, our communities at large. Giving thanks gives us new eyes to see the workings and wonders of God in this world.

In fasting, Baab begins with a reference to Richard Foster's bestselling book, "Celebration of Discipline," on how difficult it is to find a book about fasting. The secret of fasting is not in the physical hunger or thirst, but in the remembrance of what is more important in life. In fact, there are numerous biblical examples of communal fasting. Baab gives us many different options to cater to the different needs of each group.

In contemplative prayer, we grow in intimacy with God, sharing our 'aha' moments, together. Baab guides us through some spiritual practices like Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises of examen (examination of consciousness), Adele Calhoun's river and street metaphors, centering prayer among several others.

In contemplative reading of Scripture, Baab shows us the lectio divina exercise, of spiritual reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), praying (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio). Instead of limiting oneself or the group to any one agenda, contemplative reading frees the group to let God speak freely. Baab also gives tips on group reading for small groups, church boards, staff meetings, and worship gatherings.

In hospitality, Baab shows us how to move out of two limited perspectives of hospitality. We have often been constrained by hospitality as a "paying a debt" or reciprocal arrangements; and the commercialized "hospitality industry." What about hosting community gatherings as a community of faith? I remember how the Jews come together for feasts. Surely, the modern Church can practise a form of feasting together? The key is to keep it simple and enjoyable.

Finally, in Sabbath keeping, we arrest the tendency of people to be trapped in a 24/7 world, non-stop activism, and the restlessness of society. One interesting idea Baab poses is the idea of a Sabbath for regular volunteers on Sunday. Recognizing that the majority of the work is often done by a minority of people, why not for one Sunday, flip it around?

My Thoughts

If you have been reading Baab's other works on spiritual practices, you will find many practices familiar to you. What makes this book unique is the focus on group practicing of these spiritual disciplines. The part that is most essential for group work is spiritual discernment. Through the six spiritual practices described in the book, one can connect individual discernment with community discernment. The part about whether spiritual disciplines are forms of self-help is an interesting segment of the book. She tackles the question of focus. Are disciplines directing our attention more toward God, or toward selves? Baab acknowledges this predicament and the dangers of spiritual practices becoming too curved into our needs and ourselves. Her argument is that any "initiative" on our part to do spiritual practices, is already a step that God has initiated first! If the spiritual disciplines are then shaping us to be more Christlike, why not? After all, when the Holy Spirit works in us, we learn to participate in God's work in all ways. The chapter on spiritual receptivity is worth the price of the book. It is an intelligent engagement with a modern society that is increasingly pluralistic and how we can be open and at the same time, be faithful to God's truth in the Bible. More importantly, when we are open, we are actually training ourselves to be more willing to let God transform us not only to be better people, but to be ready for the kingdom.

This is a good book to read together as a small group.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, October 12, 2012

"The Art of Neighboring" (Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon)

TITLE: The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door
AUTHOR: Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (208 pages).

This book begins with a sharp observation of something that we often pigeon hole ourselves into when going house hunting. We check out the location, we look at the quality of the house, the size, the age, and the land area. We even check the structures for stability, the roof for leaks, the walls for moulds, and the interior. In terms of proportion, if we are honest, we tend to be more concerned about the inside of the house instead of the outside. This book shows us farther than mere house hunting into neighbourhood building. Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, pastor and leader of a church and a non-profit respectively bring us on a journey of building friendships and relationships through neighboring. The question looks like this: "What if loving our neighbour is not simply a concept but a literal application of actually connecting with our physical neighbours?"

The "neighboring movement" begins with the question, "Who is my neighbor?" The sad reality is that far too many people do not know their neighbor. They live like strangers. They do not even know the names of their neighbors. The idea of neighboring comes about through the author's discontent with simply weekly Sunday services, where reaching out to fellow members seem too limited and restrictive. Surely, God has called believers to do more. If anyone is serious about the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor, surely we can turn isolation and loneliness into community and sharing; fear of the unknown toward understanding of one another; and foster relationships that prevents misunderstanding and increase goodwill among neighbors. With initiative, one can start a strategy of reaching the people next door to us intentionally. Time will not wait for us. We need to make hay when the season is ripe. In order to be a good neighbor, we need to learn to move from stranger to acquaintance, from acquaintance to relationship. Through block maps, we can do the former. Through block parties, we accomplish the latter. Giant steps are not needed. Baby steps often suffice. Talk to people. Get to know them. Be ready to share of oneself. Bake cookies. These and many more are building blocks to make the neighborhood a great place to live in. The authors also anticipate uncertainty and fear among readers with regards to boundary setting and scope of relating.

My Thoughts

This book is a quick read, but slow practice. We can accumulate knowledge rather quickly, but the art of neighboring takes time. In fact, it requires one to take initiative and to keep trying, knowing that not only is our time limited, our neighbors' time is also valuable to them. Being respectful of one another remains a key attribute in learning to neighbor well. Sometimes, books like "The Art of Neighboring" seems so common sense and logical, that we can start to question ourselves, "Why didn't I think of it first?" True. Neighboring begins with ourselves. We begin a good neighborhood by being a good neighbor first, and then extend a hand of friendship and goodwill when God opens the opportunity. By taking initiative, we help to break the ice through genuine desire for friendship. By being intentional, we avoid becoming discouraged when we fail to meet our neighbors the first few times. Over time, as long as we be consistent, and not give up the habit of neighboring, there will be a time in which our neighbors will be ready to talk. By investing our limited time into neighborly relationships, we are building for the future, not just for ourselves but for our neighbors. Not just for our kids but for our neighbors' kids. Not just for our friends and visitors, but for our neighbors' friends and visitors. That said, I believe that being a good neighbor and building a good neighborhood will bring not only dividends for our relationships among one another in the area, it is good for society at large outside and our souls inside.

This book will not only ease you away from your fears, it emboldens you to take the first step, not to merely ask: "Who is my neighbor?" but to take the initiative to say, "Hey, would you like to try some cookies I've just baked?" Most likely, that neighbor will smile with a big yes!

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Books in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Honoring God in Red or Blue" (Amy E. Black)

TITLE: Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason
AUTHOR: Amy E. Black
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012, (208 pages).

The reactions to politics are often negative, even dismissive. It is common to hear people saying things like:
  • "Politics is dirty."
  • "Politics is a four-letter word."
  • "We cannot mix politics with religion. Separation of Church and State remember?"
  • "All politicians are crooks."
Rarely do we find informed opinions from laypersons that not only explain the preconceived notions of such negativity, but provide insights into the world of politics, especially the American political scene. Published at a time when the two major American political parties are revving up their rhetoric and campaigns, this book helps us to not only understand what politics are all about, it educates us on what is and what is not, the right and wrong ways to engage politics, and more importantly, how to think and respond Christianly toward the political scene. As the title suggests, whether we support the Republicans (Red) or the Democrats (Blue), honoring God is possible either way. In other words, God is neither Republican, Democrat, Independent, or whatever visible party out there. God is God, and we can all honor God regardless of what party lines are saying.  The key point is that all parties have mixtures of good and bad, and we ought to be aware of the potential as well as the constraints of each position taken.

Amy Black, a Professor in political science at Wheaton College shares with us a wealth of information regarding the modern cultural perceptions of politics and parties, an insight into how the American political system is designed, a brief history of the separation of powers and the separation of Church and State, and a hugely beneficial section on how Christians can engage constructively in the political arena. In Part One, Black makes a case that there are more upsides to politics than what most people think. While there are perils of political work, we need to keep in mind the promises and the potential of God working out for good in the world of politics. Black puts forth ample biblical support for the active engagement of politics simply because religion and politics inform each other. If that is the case, retreating from talking about it is unhelpful. Constructive engagement is needed. She suggests four principles on how to do this.
  1. When talking about politics, display humility
  2. It is ok to disagree without calling each other unChristian. Diversity always imply a difference of opinions.
  3. Do not use the label "Christian" to validate any political stand, simply because such labels belong solely to God. In other words, don't say things like, "God tell me......" frivolously.
  4. Use politics as a way to demonstrate love for God and neighbour, and not a sledgehammer to pound our views across.
Part Two is a fascinating tour of the American political system, how the government works. This part alone is worth the price of the book as it not only helps readers to understand the party ideologies and the overall checks and balances of the American separation of powers, it shows us the ingenious ways in which the system is able to correct itself and avoid any movements toward totalitarian regimes.  It is one of the finest demonstration of democracy and freedom of all to participate or to switch parties based on conscience, not fear.

Part Three is the key section for readers who are Christian, and want to learn how to honor God when engaging in politics.  Black compares and contrasts four different traditions of political theology, namely the Catholic, Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Reformed perspectives. She shows us how to avoid tribal politics and engage more in dialogue and how to disagree peacefully. Learning how to disagree is so important that Black sets aside more than one chapter to let Scriptural truth shine and guide our steps. She also gives tips on how to evaluate any policy or party stand. One way is to first search for common ground, and then agree to disagree on the rest, later. The late Dr Martin Luther King Jr describes the role of the Church as follows:

"The church must be reminded that it is not the master or servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state."

This wisely put phrase sets into perspective how Christians are to interact with the State, maintaining a separation of religion from politics without missing a beat with regards to engagement meaningfully and purposefully. Finally, when deciding how to vote, Black provides the following tips:
  • Evaluate each candidate on the basis of how trustworthy he/she is, based on one's understanding of fair representation.
  • Be prepared with what political issues most matter to us
  • Set priorities on which issues are most important
  • See how well the running candidate fits the requirements, duties for the post
  • Learn about the candidate and the office
  • Discern what the campaigns are trying to communicate
  • If needed, volunteer to get a closer look at the person, the party, and how well the candidate is practicing the political ideology.
In summary, the best way for us to engage constructively is to have adequate knowledge of the political system, meaningful understanding of the people and parties involved, and purposeful engaging of the entire political process. This book not only launches us to this end, it shows us the way to do just that. 

Ratin: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Moody Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Turning Points, 3rd Edition" (Mark A. Noll)

TITLE: Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity
AUTHOR: Mark A. Noll
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, (356 pages).

This is the third edition of the very popular book on Christian history. With additional material in the last chapter, especially the two new turning points of the Second Vatican Council and the Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization, the third edition continues the impressive framework of using pivotal moments of the past as a way to study and understand the history of Christianity. Even then, such an exercise can be very subjective, open to questions of why some are chosen while others are omitted.That said, the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages. First, it helps to frame the huge quantity of information into a recognizable structure. Second, it enables readers to zoom into details without losing sight of the bigger picture. Third, it helps to highlight the complexity of events, and uncertainties during that time. Four, it allows modern readers to do their own interpretation of history.  Five, it is a very useful tool for teaching, and to do a general sweep of Christian history.

Noll also makes a case why we ought to study history of Christianity. Some of the reasons include the need to be reminded on how easy we are to fall into disobeying God's Ten Commandments; how history repeats itself; how God acts; how we can interpret the events in the light of Scriptural truth; how the Church has interacted with culture through the ages; how God sustains the Church through the various eras; and many more.

Fourteen turning points are described in the book.
  1. In the "Fall of Jerusalem (70)," Noll looks at the background of the fall of the great city, and how the Church, even when it is marginalized, the events and its suffering sow the seeds of the growth of Christianity.
  2. In the "Council of Nicaea (325)," Christianity becomes the defacto religion of Europe that marks the turning point of a persecuted religious movement to a popular institutionalized religion.
  3. In the "Council of Chalcedon (451)," as the Church gets threatened with disunity and deep controversy, doctrinal problems (against heresies like Nestorianism, disputes over Christology) need to be dealt with.
  4. In "Benedict's Rule (530)," we read about the rise of the Monastic movement through the Middle Ages.
  5. In "The Coronation of Charlemagne (800)," we see Christianity peak in influence and stature, and how the Church becomes the power center of society.
  6. In "The Great Schism (1054)," we see how the Church splits into East and West, partly political and largely theological differences like the filioque and the iconoclasmic controversies, etc.
  7. In "The Diet of Worms (1521)," is an important milestone that marks the rise of the Protestant movement, that splits from the Roman Catholic Church.
  8. In "The English Act of Supremacy (1534)," we read of how political and theological tensions spread across the continent. This turning point sows the seeds of multiple expressions of different Protestant movements.
  9. In "The Founding of the Jesuits (1540)," we see how the Roman Church begins to take back both credibility and inner renewal of the Church, to say that if the Protestants can do it, so can we.
  10. In "The Conversion of the Wesleys (1738)," we read of how the religious revival leads to societal reforms.
  11. In "The French Revolution (1789)," we read about the beginnings of secularism, as the peasant people revolts against the establishment.
  12. In "The Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910)," we read about the world mission movement that leads to present day evangelism and missions. 
  13. In "The Second Vatican Council (1962-65)," we read about how the work of the Holy Spirit has led to a revival and a renewal of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as major shifts in doctrinal standing in the Vatican.
  14. In the "Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization," is the Protestant equivalent of the Roman Catholic Church's second vatican council. It leads to present day evangelicalism.

My Thoughts

This book does a great job in distilling two thousand years of history into a small book. It is no easy feat to decide on 14 critical turning points. Why only 14 points? Why not more? How do we measure an event is more significant than the rest? What about the history of Christianity in other parts of the world? These questions are not easily answered. That said, the idea of Turning Points remain a useful framework to look at the events throughout history. One can argue that anything can be interpreted as a turning point. One way to use this book is to have it as a companion text to a more traditional history book that is written in a chronological manner. Whether it is Roland Bainton's "Christianity," Justo Gonzalez's "The Story of Christianity," or the recent book by Diarmaid MacCulloch, "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years," one will benefit more by having these read side by side with Turning Points.

The discussion questions at the end of the book provide a more indepth challenge to readers to decide whether to agree or disagree with Noll's interpretation of Church history and the selection of that turning point. I must say that Noll's book continues to be one of the best selling history books for Church history simply because of its compelling title and idea. It arrests readers' attention and reminds us that we are all part of the turning points of history. Determining whether we are before, after, or during makes us active participants of history in the making.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Academic Publisher in exchange for an honest review.