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Monday, December 30, 2013

"A Reader's Lexicon of the Apostolic Fathers" (Daniel B. Wallace)

TITLE: A Reader's Lexicon of the Apostolic Fathers
AUTHOR: Daniel B. Wallace
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013, (256 pages).

It is one thing to be able to read the Apostolic Fathers. It is yet another to be able to read the ancient texts in their original languages. It is even better to be conversant in both the Greek as well as the English, in particular, for contemporary eyes and ears. Enters the lexicon that enables modern readers to better appreciate the meaning of the texts in their original. Designed to accompany "The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations," readers with some knowledge of Greek will benefit greatly from this lexicon, which gives alternative renderings of the original Greek in plain English. Some readers of the Bible, especially the New Testament Greek will find the AF very fascinating, and see a stark familiarity in the language used. Like many lexicons, several assumptions frame the scope of the lexicon.

  • The words are limited to those that occur 30 times or less;
  • The text based upon is on the Baker Academic 3rd edition of the AF: Greek texts with English translation;
  • The notation needs some getting used to; like in {First Clement ἐπίσκοπος, ὁ [2] 4 • 76} essentially means: The word 'episkopos' occurs in chapter 42 of 1 Clement twice in the same verse; four times in the chapter; and 76 times in the AF.
  • The Apostolic Fathers covered include: 
    • First and Second Clement;
    • Letters of Ignatius;
    • Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians
    • Martyrdom of Polycarp
    • The Didache
    • The Epistle of Barnabas
    • The Shepherd of Hermas
    • The Epistle to Diognetus and the Fragment of Quadratus
    • Fragments of Papias
  • Verbs used are in their infinitives form in order to distinguish them from the nouns; while nouns are introduced with their articles

With a vocabulary stock of nearly 80% of the New Testament, students of Koine Greek will find reading the AF rather familiar territory. There are three observations I want to make. First, the counting of words occurring within a verse, within the chapter, and within the AF, is an extremely helpful guide to the understanding of the importance of the message being stressed. Very often, the more something is used or stressed, the more readers need to pay attention to the point the writer is making. For example, in 1 Clement 1:3; {ἄμωμος 7 • 17 blameless} is used to describe character. Clement was writing to sanctified living, purity of conscience, and the faithful relationships expected within the family.  Second, the lexicon provides expanded meanings for many of the words used. It is almost like the way the Amplified Bible translates the Bible, where a word is given multiple descriptions in order to nuance the meanings as much as possible. For example, in the Didache is translated as "sexual immorality" in the Michael Holmes's text, but given additional explanations in the lexicon to illuminate the root meaning of the word porneia {πορνεία, ἡ 2 • 5 prostitution, unchastity, fornication} Third, the lexicon is written with the words semi-parsed to enable readers to know the tense and mood. For example, where the words are in the imperative, the lexicon states so.

Indeed, this lexicon cannot be read by itself. It will be most beneficial for those with some knowledge of Greek plus having access to the "Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations" Baker Academic, 2007 edition. Without these two requirements, the lexicon will not be very useful. I find myself transported back to the days I was doing Greek and reading the Greek New Testament with a lexicon. If you are a student of Greek, and feel that the New Testament alone is not enough, try the Septuagint. If the Septuagint is still not enough, try the Apostolic Fathers.

If your love for Greek is re-ignited or if your understanding of the AF is increased, then this lexicon would have worth every penny.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Friday, December 27, 2013

"The Wall Around Your Heart" (Mary E. Demuth)

TITLE: The Wall Around Your Heart: How Jesus Heals You When Others Hurt You
AUTHOR: Mary E. Demuth
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (256 pages).

This book talks about the external wall that hurt people built around their hearts, and how Jesus can help take down the walls through inner healing. Using the Lord's Prayer as the path that can help us draw closer to God, and in the process, restore any broken relationships with people. Calling the prayer a "treasure map," the bestselling author of Everything invites readers to journey with her and to learn to see life through the eyes of God instead of our sinfulness.

The very first chapter is already a reminder that following Christ is counter-cultural. When people are hurt, instinctively they will either hit back or retract themselves like a clam. DeMuth reminds us that our first instinct must be "Pray First." Pray like Jesus. Pray to God the Father. In praying first "Our Father in Heaven," we cling onto five truths about relationships.
  1. That our earthly relationships need divine intervention
  2. We all need spiritual parenting
  3. We need to see God as the Perfect Parent
  4. We need to come before God not as judges of people but worshippers of God
  5. We need to avoid running away from people and from God.
Praying to hallow God's Name keeps any human retaliation in check, and to remind ourselves that God's holiness trumps human haughtiness. It is letting God deal with the difficult relationships and people of our lives. Praying God's kingdom come is about learning to put God's agenda before ours (which is often narcissistic). We then learn to respond like Jesus in the midst of all kinds of people. People can behave badly but that does not mean we respond in kind. Instead, we can learn to let God help us frame our relationships so that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Asking for help is also about asking for contentment in our age of consumerism and greed. In the prayer of forgiveness, we learn about genuine repentance as well as checking any bitterness inside. DeMuth even supplies nine things about forgiveness.
  1. Forgiveness is counter-culture
  2. Forgiveness is a respite from the turbulence of brokenness
  3. Forgiveness has many positives 
  4. Forgiveness enables one to empathize
  5. Forgiveness is not the perfect answer but the most humane response
  6. Forgiveness is costly but rewarding
  7. Forgiveness reflects our need
  8. Forgiveness helps us pray well
  9. Forgiveness can be revolutionary.
Her take on "lead us not into temptation" is surprisingly a very positive one. Instead of shunning away from doing things, DeMuth urges us to boldly engage and defy fear.

So What?

For anyone who is hurting or who has been hurt before, this book is like a healing balm. Writing as one who had suffered many hurts and grievances, DeMuth shares very intimate details about her traumatic past, how she was sexually abused, a daughter of a father who was into sexually perverted stuff, her early struggles in her writing, and the many disappointments in her life. With the use of the Lord's Prayer, she was able to revisit these negative past and to uncover some positive responses to it. More importantly, she puts herself in the presence of God so that she can see as much as possible God's perspective of it all.

We all need that. Far too often, we are quick to retaliate but slow to listen. We are full of ourselves and our own rights. We imagine we are at the center and unwittingly usurp the role of God when we judge others. As part of our human nature to hide or to react aggressively, we dishonour God with our behaviour that is un-Christlike. It is easy to call ourselves "Christian." It is more difficult to live out "Christlike" behaviour. The Lord's Prayer is indeed a treasure map for taking down the walls that we unwittingly put up each time we are hurt. As we situate ourselves more and more in not just saying but living the Lord's Prayer, we will tackle our human walls and take them down layer by layer, brick by brick.  Once we are free from self-guilt, and open to God, we are ready to face the world in the way of Jesus. If anyone of us dare to think that we are the world's most hurt person, remember that Jesus himself was given the deepest cut of all, by the people he loved the most. For each time we sin against others, God is hurt. Others may hurt us, but Jesus heals. Always.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Publishers through the Booksneeze Blogger Review Program in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"The Social Church" (Justin Wise)

TITLE: The Social Church
AUTHOR: Justin Wise
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013, (192 pages).

Social media is in fashion nowadays. Threatening to usurp email as the kingpin of electronic communications, social media has become the mainstream of news, personal connections, and cultural influence of our times. Yet, as far as the Church is concerned, how are we to think about the impact of social media? What can we do? Where do we go from here? These questions and many more are covered in this book about thinking theologically about social media. Rather than to adopt a "if you cannot beat them, join them" mentality, Wise urges us to ask ourselves what we would do with the modern technology at hand? Just like Martin Luther at the time of the printing press, many breakthroughs are the results of people stepping forth in faith to venture into an area where no one has ever ventured before. Such people are sometimes labeled as "heretics," just like Luther when he was arguing against indulgences back in 1517.  For Wise, "heretics" are change agents who will risk conventional wisdom to embark upon revolutionary approaches to bring forth the gospel. This calls for a "calculated rule-breaking" that is essential for breaking new ground in reaching modern people. Believing that technology is amoral, Wise's conviction is that "how we use it" is the key issue. As long as social media technology is used to facilitate connections and relationships among real people, its use is legitimate and validated for the Church.

In trying to understand the underlying values of social media, Wise makes four observations.

  1. New media is responsive and interactive
  2. Personalization is key
  3. Lines are Fading between online and offline worlds
  4. Church is less of a knowledge base but a communal hub. 

One of the most intriguing things in the book is the rise of "online services" which apparently challenges the age-old practice of physically going to Church. Wise argues for the increase and adoption of such resources as it paves a "new way to be the Church." He even justifies this by saying Paul himself is doing a kind of a thing in his letters, which states he is present with the church, even though not physically.

I am not convinced about that. The context of that is different for it is not about an online vs offline choice that Paul was talking about. In the case of Romans 1, Paul was physically "prevented" from going to the Church community. He desires to go. In the case mentioned by Wise, it is not the preventing element but the "selecting" mentality that is the problem. Wise also comments about the usefulness of brevity in the use of Twitter. Saying that it is not necessarily a bad thing, being brief is also about being intentional. I will argue that not being brief is not necessarily unintentional. Another problem I have with the book is the use of the images from Pope Benedict's installation in 2005 and another photo from 2013 which shows a sharp increase of individual cellphone users snapping photos. This photoshot which went viral was actually based on two different occasions and has been called "misleading." Thus, the very example used by Wise is already problematic. While Wise's intent is to highlight the power of social media, it unwittingly highlights the ease in which wrong information and contexts can be transmitted.

That said, the strongest part of the book is how the author stresses the big idea that every Church must have. He asserts that social media strategy must be based on this big idea, and not let social media drive Church strategy. I agree wholeheartedly. Overall, I feel that the book has placed way too much faith on a phenomena that is still in its early stages. There are some good things about social media, but there are also some rather worrying things. For example, there is a recent report about how social media is making us narcissistic. For all the enthusiasm and potential of social media, I feel that more critical thinking is needed in order to harness the good and at the same time, be aware of the bad. This book presents more of the good side, but needs another point of view to give readers a fuller picture of social media. Sherry Turkle to the rescue?

Rating: 3.25 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"Faith in the Fog" (Jeff Lucas)

TITLE: Faith in the Fog: Believing in What You Cannot See
AUTHOR: Jeff Lucas
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (208 pages).

Bethlehem is not exactly a land of peace, despite it being world famous for being the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. In a place that is often called the holy land, the various suspicions and threats of violence have rendered it more unholy. Even the Christian places of worship had been segregated into tense quarters where fights and arguments are commonplace whenever any party cross their stated boundaries. All these leads to more confusion and fogginess with regards to hope and faith for the author. Beginning with John 21, bestselling author Jeff Lucas tries to make sense of the 1st Century land where Jesus first walked, and contrasts that to what he is experiencing today. From having to grapple with many different languages used there, to the constant warnings not to venture into any sect's sacred spaces, Lucas asks about what it means to walk in hope when there seems to be no hope. How do we walk in peace when all around us is filled with unpleasant human relationships?  How do we exercise faith in the midst of a foggy spiritual climate? These questions and many more are tackled in this very reflective and personal journey of faith.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"How to Be Rich" (Andy Stanley)

TITLE: How to Be Rich: It's Not What You Have. It's What You Do With What You Have.
AUTHOR: Andy Stanley
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (160 pages).

We don't need more money or stuff. We need more heart! This is the essence of the book. It focuses on 1 Timothy 6:18 which says: "Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share." Paraphrasing this, Senior pastor of North Point Community Church and bestselling author Andy Stanley, says that being rich is not about what we own or possess, but what we do with what we have in our possession. Although the book is titled in an enticing manner, the content is basically one of giving, sharing, and caring for others, using whatever resources we have to bless another person. It is more about being rich rather than making more money. What Stanley aims to convince readers is that we are already rich beyond measure. For that matter, we cannot read this book on the basis of wanting to get more money or more stuff. We need to cultivate an attitude of noticing others who need more from us.

There were two reasons that got Stanley fired up to share this message. Firstly, the culture around constantly tries to tell people that they need to get more and more, when in fact, most of us are already rich beyond measure. Secondly, many Christians simply do not know how to behave as richly blessed people. He uses this message to challenge his own congregation at one time to give away $1.5 million dollars to a needy cause, with the entire amount dedicated to the cause. The congregations pooled together $5.2 million and gave every single cent away.

Beginning with a stunning story of how Sir William Gull correctly diagnosed Anorexia nervosa, the "most puzzling diseases of the 20th Century," Stanley makes the point that we already have what we need to do good in this world. All we need is to learn to observe the outside, and to be aware of the treasure we already have inside, and to apply them for the good of others. In doing so, we learn what being rich is all about. In contrast to the unsatisfying nature of getting more and more, yet feeling less and less contented, readers are urged to consider the counter mentality. For being rich is not about getting but about giving. This requires training and constant honing. Being rich is one thing. Practicing it is another. Stanley notes how the possession of wealth without learning how to make use of them is downright unhealthy. It causes us to long for more stuff. It makes us bloated. It gives us a false impression that life is basically designed around the collection of more money or more stuff. Moreover, it can give one a mistaken belief that once we get all the money we want, we have attained self-sufficiency and the holy grail of happiness. No way!

Being rich means learning NOT to trust in riches. It means learning to arrest the "endless desires" for stuff, that will subsequently bring about non-stop worries and fears. After all, the more we have, very often, the more we worry. At the same time, the more things we have, the more we lose sight of the purpose of having them. This is a gem indeed and reminds us in a crazy shopping frenzy to ask ourselves why we are buying what we are buying.  One way of dealing with our wealth is to find ways to "get rid of it" purposefully and with appropriate stewardship principles, lest it finds its way to our hearts. Stanley suggests three Ps for us to learn about planning.

  1. PRIORITY GIVING - where generous giving is to take priority over procrastination of any giving.
  2. PERCENTAGE GIVING - where we avoid giving out of our excesses but giving out of whatever we have.
  3. PROGRESSIVE GIVING - We learn to increase our giving progressively.
Not only will we learn to counter the negative effects of hoarding wealth, we develop the positive effects of using wealth for the good of people and for the glory of God. 

My Thoughts

This is a wonderful book that reminds us about the perils of wealth in keeping and holding. At the same time, it shows us the pearls of generous giving, and that in giving, not only can we bless more people, we also benefit by growing a big heart and glorifying our great God. This is certainly one of the best messages to come from the popular author Andy Stanley. Stanley is increasingly becoming one of my favourite authors, for his sheer way of understanding the modern culture around us, and the biblical way to counter the negative effects of the world. The topic of wealth and riches is given an extensive treatment within a relatively short book. Compared to a weightier volume that I reviewed recently, Stanley's book is targeted more at the layperson and the average Western Christian consumer at large.

Each year at Christmas, we all rush to buy gifts and many of us are influenced by the glitzy sales and offers around us. While it is good to make more money and to buy stuff, we need 1 Timothy 6:18 to be louder than any sales pitch, sharper than any sales cuts, and greater than any big offers. In learning to cultivate an attitude of gratitude for the things we already have, we learn to focus more on what God wants and less on what man wants. Through our wealth and riches, or whatever we now have, invest and make good use of them. All of us have 1, 30, 500, or 1000 units of talents. Use them faithfully, and in God's perfect timing, He will multiply them, and to bless more people. Surely, in some special way, the blessings will come back to touch lives, including ours. Consider this book a great Christmas reminder that God so loved the world that He gave his only Son. That we all may live.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Friday, December 20, 2013

"A Stubborn Sweetness and Other Stories for the Christmas Season" (Katherine Paterson)

TITLE: A Stubborn Sweetness and Other Stories for the Christmas Season
AUTHOR: Katherine Paterson
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (185 pages).

This book is a collection of 15 Christmas stories to whet our literary appetite over the Christmas season. Although the title is based on the last story of the book, each story is designed to stand on its own merit. There is the story of a strange visitor selling Christmas greens, who was invited in for a cup of coffee, and asked for Mozart to be played. There is the interaction between a 65-year old grandmother with a little boy on a door to door mission for a Church project. There is even a story from Communist China, where a passage from Isaiah provides consolation amid a Cultural Revolution. Over and over, stories abound with strangers meeting strangers; family touching family; and friends; and stories of believers in other parts of the world struggling even with the most basic things like food and shelter. The story of a Japanese pastor meeting a young Korean child is a mixture of hardship living, evangelism, and letting Scriptures guide away one's fear and turn it to faith.

The author, Katherine Paterson is an award winning book, The Bridge to Terabithia, shares these stories that were written by her but read aloud by her husband, Rev Dr John Paterson at Christmas Eve services over the years. Written over a period of 40 years, the stories have been published at various places and is now conveniently packed in one book.

In contrast to the familiar Christmas daze, the shopping craze, and the traffic maze we encounter in a busy December holiday month, this book of Christmas stories shows us that Christmas is way more than Santa Claus, reindeers, caroling, or Church activities. It is about expectation, peace, hope, joy, faith, and the power of simple human love. We see how mercy is extended. We note how generosity if offered without being asked. We see how churches remain key places of gathering, even when retailers try to attract people to shop until they drop. Some stories looks back at the nativity scene while other stories look at the nature of human relationships and their interactions. Most significant of all, is the fact that stories come alive not because of gifts but because of the giving and receiving; the human element above the materialism and consumerism; the place of faith amid a climate of fear.  More importantly, the stories reflect ordinary lives in such a way that readers can jump in and say: "Hey! I can identify with that."

When this happens, one knows that the book is already a worthwhile read.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Discovering Joye" (Jim Stovall)

TITLE: Discovering Joye: Uncovering the Treasures Inside Ordinary People
AUTHOR: Jim Stovall
PUBLISHER:  Shippensberg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, 2013, (176 pages).

This book looks back at the life of Joye Kanelakos, the mother of one of the author's colleagues. While the author writes books, Joye writes poems about life. These poems are part of the treasure left behind when Kanelakos passed away. The title of the book essentially is a series of 17 reflections on the works of Joye.

Stovall is a well-known author, especially his bestselling book, The Ultimate Gift, which has since been made into a movie. Being blind himself, he depends on hearing the poems read aloud so that he can visualize the moving poetry. Wisdom abounds as he allows himself to be transported back to when he was a young boy at 10, just before he lost his sight. At 10, he remembers a French masterpiece of art. As he lets the poetry he hears and the French art he remembers, to inform each other, he puts down words of wisdom that readers will find very meaningful and applicable for life.

Some snippets of Wisdom

When looking for treasure, one needs to be willing to dig a little deeper beyond the superficial layers of people. Like the unveiling of a masterpiece, quiet discovery will lead to deeper insights of life. All of us have gifts to be discovered, and the discovery of these gifts add to the meaning of life. Knowing that life is short, we need to make the most use of time to spend with the most important people in our lives. While life can be hard, without laughter, life will be even harder. Time is a gift, so we need to spend them wisely. Any career must be rooted in our passion to do things well. Life is more than just making a living. It is making a life. On money, it is good to remember that it can enslave us. True wealth is not in terms of how much we have but on the quality of friendships. Problems are opportunities to better ourselves. Learning must be ongoing. Do not look for perfection in any family, otherwise, we ourselves will be excluded. Dreams are not a product of our imagination, but we are a product of our dreams.

I like the part about giving, where in any giving and receiving, there are two beneficiaries. The one who receives something is blessed by generosity. The one who gives is blessed by the blessing of seeing others blessed. Gratitude is big because it shapes our perspective of life. All of us have today, and so we ought to make the best of the present. Love when in its fullest form makes one fully satisfied. We make our holidays special every time because, while holidays will always be there, our loved ones may not be. Inspiration can be found in the most ordinary, if only we learn to notice. Calling is ultimately the key to recognizing our purpose in life.

What Stovall does well is the way he is able to notice the treasures of life with simple observations. Far too often, those of us with regular sight and hearing tend to take such senses for granted. We breeze past life. We rush from place to place. We hurry ourselves and in the process hurry others too. In trying to accomplish everything, the tragedy is we may very well accomplish very little, even nothing. Poetry is a great device to helm our noticing skills. Do not let the simplicity of this book deceive you. Stay with the poetry. Reflect on the observations. Ponder about the discovery at the end of each chapter. You will find yourselves amazed at another treasure written by a blind author.

Rating:5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Destiny Image Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Church History Vol 2: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (John Woodbridge and Frank A James III)

TITLE: Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context
AUTHOR: John Woodbridge and Frank A. James III
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (864 pages).

This is an ambitious book which tries to survey Church history from 1300 to the present day. Having read many other surveys of Church history, the one big question I have when I read this is: "What's new?" Let me give a short summary before offering my thoughts on the book.

Six goals form the underlying philosophy of the book.
  1. Academically responsible to the facts of history
  2. As Global a Perspective as Possible
  3. Contemporary and relevant to modern readers
  4. Presenting the Contexts as accurately as possible so that readers can draw their own conclusions
  5. Watching cultural nuances in each historical period
  6. Ecumenical.
A) The Layout

There are twenty-two chapters that spans more than 800 pages in this heavy textbook. The first half of the book comprises about 15 chapters between the 13th to the 18th centuries. Four chapters are dedicated to the 19th Century. Five chapters describe the 20th and 21st centuries. From the European discovery, the Middle Ages, the 16th Century beginnings of the Renaissance, to the many branches of Reformation in Europe, the authors shine a light on how Christians grapple with faith in God amid the adversity they faced. From the horrible 100 years war (1337-1453) to the Black Death plagues (1347-50), believers were left to wonder if God's judgment had arrived. Even the leadership, in particular, the papacy were plunged into crisis, with political and religious lines being crossed over, leading to the Great Schism in the 14th Century. Readers will see that there were many things overlapping and influencing one another. Apart from faith and politics, we read how religious leaders influence the rise of the arts in the Renaissance. Building upon this is the rise of science and technological advancements. Even religious lines overlap, with adherents to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, living in religious tension in an increasingly fragile political climate. While the historical scope is framed chronologically from the 13th Century to the 21st Century, the authors carefully highlight the significant events for each century, and more importantly, the implications of such events then, and now. At the end of each chapter, there is a conclusion followed by a list of resources for further study.

Monday, December 16, 2013

"Pilgrimage" (Lynn Austin)

TITLE: Pilgrimage: My Journey to a Deeper Faith in the Land Where Jesus Walked
AUTHOR: Lynn Austin
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (240 pages).

Spiritual dryness is not something that is easily avoided. It comes in many forms. It can be boredom about the daily routines of life. It can be the staleness one feels about the weekly worship services. It can also be the increasing sense of restlessness about what the spiritual life actually mean and whether there is more than simply going through the spiritual disciplines. For many of us, a popular project is to take either a long sabbatical or a short retreat. For Lynn Austin, she decides to take a pilgrimage to and through the Holy Land where Jesus walked. Sharing many of the spiritual dryness sentiments described earlier, bestselling author Austin packed her bags to tour Jordan, Israel, various cities in the Middle East as well as the Wilderness of Zin.

With her keen sense of observation and her grasp of the Old and New Testament, she interleaves her sights and experiences of her travels with insights and perceptions of the ancient biblical times. Having done that, she then puts together lessons that touch her and reinvigorated her life and her faith. As she hikes through the wilderness of Zin, she experiences first hand the elements that the Israelites felt when they were struggling through their 40 years of wilderness. She becomes more sympathetic of the real struggles the people felt at that time. It reminds me of our tendency to become armchair critics of the Israelites without actually empathizing with their conditions. The call to faith is actually more challenging than we often think. Even the sight of shepherds leading sheep to graze on dry terrain and rough paths is a reality check against any simplistic picture of shepherds in the ancient times having large green pastures for sheep. Austin also relates the Israelites' crossing of an "unimpressive" looking Jordan River as a milestone to mark the end of their wanderings. It can also be a milestone for our Christian beginnings. Interestingly, despite the sight of the heavily armed security personnel and the sight of weapons, the paranoia and vigilance actually made the visitors feel safer.

Austin spends quite a bit of reflection on Jerusalem, a most important city among the three major religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Observing the nature of the walls that keep enemies out, Austin sees how futile it is to depend on the wall for security as history had shown that it is God, not the walls who has the power to save the city. Even her tour through the Pool of Siloam provides her lots of fodder for spiritual thoughts, about abundant water of life, about free flowing spring waters of life, and its spiritual implications. Of special significance is the Holy Week trek where Austin's tour group traces the days and places Jesus walked, leading up to the crucifixion. She closes her reflections with the Sabbath keeping, learning directly from the people there what it means to live leisurely and more humanly.

So What?

For many believers, it is not a question of whether there will be such lethargy but WHEN the spiritual dryness will occur. When that happens, how then does one deal with it? The popular biblical fiction writer has written a non-fiction book that traces her own spiritual pilgrimage and has given readers a window into her thoughts and her spiritual experiences. Just following her journey is like a mini-tour of the Holy Land without having to leave our homes. For those of us who are unable to journey to the Holy Land, this book is a good glimpse through the eyes of Austin. For those of us who experience spiritual dryness, we can visualize that the ancient pilgrims and Old Testament people are in a more challenging positions. For those of us needing a re-invigoration of spiritual vitality, this book brings us back to visualizing the ancient times and to imagining how we would have responded if we can transport ourselves back in time. The pilgrimage has given Austin a breath of spiritual freshness, and to excite her to start a new journey in her spiritual pilgrimage outside the Holy Land. There are three reasons why I like this book.

Firstly, it is a mini-tour guide of the Holy Land. It works like a literary video camera that traces the various landmarks and biblical places. For one who has never stepped foot on Israel, I appreciate the descriptions of the various sites that I have grown so familiar through reading the Bible, but have not seen the place for myself. It gives me a better appreciation of the Bible. For instance, when she was describing her tour of Jerusalem, I find myself grasping on her descriptions to try to paint a picture of what it actually looks like.

Secondly, I appreciate the way Austin links the places she saw with the biblical parallel of what had happened many years ago in the same place. It is one thing to read about the wall. It is yet another to be reminded how the wall had meant to the biblical characters of old.

Thirdly, the spiritual lessons Austin had learnt are powerfully conveyed in the book. Whether it is hunger or thirst; rough terrains or tough territories; towers, walls, or temples, Austin is able to reflect upon the most ordinary things with some extraordinary applications. For example, she reflects on the engineering wonders and the impressive projects King Herod had commissioned during his reign, and how his once prosperous city now had disappeared into the ruins of today. Earthquakes and the natural elements had devastated these symbols of human arrogance.

If you are able to, nothing beats the experience of seeing the Holy Land firsthand. If not, reading this book may very well be a helpful alternative.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"The Vanishing Evangelical" (Calvin Miller)

TITLE: Vanishing Evangelical, The: Saving the Church from Its Own Success by Restoring What Really Matters
AUTHOR: Calvin Miller
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (242 pages).

The problem with modern evangelicalism is that it has adapted too readily with the culture and for some, they have adopted the culture, lock, stock, and barrel. Instead of evangelicals shaping the world, the culture is shaping the evangelical world. Making eight distinct observations of what exactly is happening to the evangelical world, the late Professor at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham Alabama, has written a plea for evangelicals to wake up and do something before the evangelical landscape vanishes forever. Miller asks two broad questions:
  1. Who are Evangelicals?
  2. Who are the sources?

Of the many definitions of evangelicalism (note: NOT 'evangelism'), Miller opts for one from "Got Questions Ministries" which stresses the point about "personal relationship," rebirth, and beliefs associated with these. He makes observations of other definitions such as one that is being "bound up in conservative theology," and one that exists at two levels: "mystique" and "activistic." He also cites other evangelical definitions from Carl F.H Henry and George Marsden. It is evident that Miller tries to be as all-encompassing as possible. On sources, Miler credits three major influences: Jacques Barzun's take on how culture has influenced the West; and Philip Jenkins's rather gloomy prediction of Christianity's dying days; and Thomas Friedman's take on how the world is changing. From here, Miller lets off an entire barrage of bad news for evangelicalism of today, before pointing out some glimmer of hope.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Pull" (Bob Franquiz)

TITLE: Pull: Making Your Church Magnetic
AUTHOR: Bob Franquiz
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (192 pages).

Many churches grow stagnant and stale over time. They become unattractive and for some, a chore to go to. Without the "pull" factor, churches will decline and even go out of existence. A Church that is not growing is dying. A Church that is not doing outreach is not interested in growing. A Church that is not doing discipleship is not caring enough for her people. The key for any revival, any start of growth, and any fruits lies in learning to reach out the way that Jesus has taught us. Bob Franquiz, founding pastor of Miami's Calvary Fellowship, and founder of the Church growth website, ChurchNinja.com, is passionate about all things outreach. He believes that every Church must do outreach to three groups of people: Internal, Peripheral, and External. Very importantly, one needs to remember that there are no "silver bullet" solutions to this problem. It requires a multidimensional approach that galvanizes the entire Church to work together in the Great Commission.

The Internal group refers to people already attending faithfully the services each week. They are those who are already within the fold but needs constant nourishing and care. The primary way to feed them is via the pulpit ministry, discipleship, evangelism, and to make them eager to come to Church.

The Peripheral group refers to friends, family, new believers, and acquaintances with regular church attendees. This group needs to be sensitively reached through special Sunday events. For new believers, they can learn the 8 '-ates' to ensure that they are not left behind. The three "irrefutable laws of outreach" will empower members to know who they need to reach; how to reach them; and how to get their attention.

The External group refers to those outside the two categories above. They can be strangers, neighbours, or anyone walking into the Church. Through direct invitations, flyers, social media, and all kinds of media both online and offline, churches can rally their people to do outreach together.

Franquiz ends the book with the story of how a Pastor Willie who had never done promotional outreach, turned around to help his church reach the highest level of church attendance once outreach becomes a focus of ministry.

So What?

The underlying conviction in this book is that whatever is written must be practical. Whatever is practical must be practiced. Whatever that is practiced needs to be shared. Outreach is the key theme. Throughout the book, Franquiz lets his excitement about evangelism leads the way in reaching not just one group but all groups. He believes it is possible. This is critical because belief drives actions. Actions that are performed without much belief will gradually fall with a dull thud. The single biggest benefit is for me, is in recognizing the three groups of people to reach out to. Conventional understanding tends to see outreach as more for people out there. No, it needs to be as all-encompassing as possible. Sometimes, I like to call it "in-reach" for those within the Church, and "outreach" For those outside. The peripheral section may be somewhere between the two. Anyway, the idea is the same.

I appreciate the many examples and steps suggested to spur imagination and creativity. The part about digital evangelism is for me one of the highlights of the outreach explosion. Considering the explosive growth of social media, churches will need to see this more as an opportunity and to approach it with less fear and more faith. Let not the ills of social media discourage anyone from trying to use it rightly.

While there are many good points in the book, especially the easy to follow practical steps, I feel that Franquiz may have unwittingly become dogmatic about those who have not done anything to not write a book about it. While in many cases that is true, we need to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the different gifts given to different people. There will be some who have the gift of writing but someone else the gift of practicing. For example, Philip Yancey is a writer, but not all the things that he has written about is exactly something that he had personally practiced. Writers often put down what they have learned from others too. That said, this book has more positives to take home. It is a powerful adrenaline for outreach.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Books and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Eat Move Sleep" (Tom Rath)

TITLE: Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes
AUTHOR: Tom Rath
PUBLISHER: Arlington, VA: MissionDay, 2013, (256 pages).

Do you know that sitting is one of the most hazardous activities in our modern living? Do you know that sleeping less in order to get more work done can also hurt our overall long-term health? What about additional nutritional awareness apart from counting calories? These findings and many more are described in this very illuminating book about how our daily habits are critical elements to our long-term health. Longevity is not inherited. Physical inactivity can be very harmful. Health must not be taken for granted. In fact, simple healthy lifestyle choices can help 90% of us live up to age 90! Is it impossible? Are we missing something here? No. According to Tom Rath, all we need to remember is the "Eat, Move, Sleep Equation." These three are all interconnected. Point by point, Rath goes on to debunk the promises of super diets; how inactivity is our greatest enemy; and how we need to learn to sleep well and longer!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"Hope in Front of Me" (Danny Gokey with Ben Stroup)

TITLE: Hope in Front of Me: Find Purpose in Your Darkest Moments
AUTHOR: Danny Gokey (with Ben Stroup)
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2013, (208 pages).

His wife died unexpectedly without seeing him go on to the big stage. If he had pulled out of the competition, people would understand. How then did Danny Gokey overcome the height of all the odds and the depths of grief, to become a Top Three finalist on the popular TV show, American Idol in 2008? This book is an inner look on how Gokey finds hope amid emptiness and meaninglessness. His initial words say it all: "Hope means nothing - unless it's all you have."

When one is down and out, hope is the last gasp for fresh air, that last drop of water for parched lips; and the last parachute left when plunging into an abyss of uncertainty. He begins the book with a trip down memory lane, how he met his late wife Sophia, their dating relationships, the proposal, the wedding, and the new life together. Even then, the challenges of life soon took over. Financial struggles became even worse when he lost his job. His volunteer time in Church was no guarantee of any career in the music industry. Both Sophia and Danny were basically living more dark moments than bright. If that is not problematic enough, Sophia was diagnosed with a heart condition. From then on, the Gokeys struggled with even more uncertainty, with the medical factor a major one. Despite all the emergency prayers, vigils, accumulation of knowledge and faith about miracles, Sophia never did wake up from her last surgery. The rest of the book details how Danny was able to pick himself up each time he fell. Music started to take a life in Gokey's life. The song was no longer about words or melodies. It was about him entering into the music and making it his own story. Gokey learned several lessons of life, which I paraphrase as follows:

  • In order to move forward, one must learn to let go of the past.
  • The best place to start is where we are.
  • How we think affects how we live.
  • The more we recognize our own uniqueness, the more capable we are to see the beauty in others
  • Sometimes, we just have to swim under the darkest questions in order to come up to the brightest answers
  • Many good things are in front of us, if only we open our eyes and really see.
  • God has given us strength and we are strong enough to overcome what God has placed in front of us.
  • Looking outward to assist others will help us avoid depressing inward lives.
These and many more form the lessons behind the book. As I read the book, I can see the struggles of Gokey continue to play a big part in the shaping of his life. Going through the hard times of life can be very difficult. Those who fail to do so end up making bad decisions for themselves and their loved ones. Those who overcome will live to tell the world their story. This book is that story in which readers will find very encouraging. Gokey ends with some of his thoughts about his stint at American Idol. In fact, learning to grieve properly when one is under public eye is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for anyone. 

Hope is real. Gokey knows it for he has lived it out. He learns that it is important to prepare for the unexpected. He realizes that it is important to have something to live for. He testifies of the need for community during times of need. Hope is very much in front of us, if only we can see it. Even if we do not see it, that does not mean hope is not there. That reminds me that hope is closely linked to faith we have on things that we do not see, and how hope is anchored on the love of God that we know is there. Always there.

Rating: 3.75 stars of 5.


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

Friday, December 6, 2013

"Minding the Heart" (Robert Saucy)

TITLE: Minding the Heart: The Way of Spiritual Transformation
AUTHOR: Robert Saucy
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013, (448 pages).

Isn't the mind for the brain and feelings meant just for the heart? No. The mind and the heart are closely connected in ways that we have sometimes fail to appreciate. Using a catchy title to describe the intimacy of the mind and heart, Biblical scholar, Robert Saucy's key thesis is that thoughts and beliefs impact one's attitudes and actions in life. Looking at the various tools and devices that have often been paraded for spiritual growth, Saucy laments that very little has been said about how the Scriptures, prayer, sacraments, fellowship, and others, can speak into the area of spiritual growth. Without a transformation of the heart, spiritual disciplines are what they are: Mere outer things done without much inner impact.

Using the journey metaphor, Saucy asserts that the beginning of growth is at forgiveness, sustained over continual spiritual transformation, culminating in abundant living in God. Such an abundant life is real and achievable. The important thing to remember is this caveat: Spiritual transformation is the Lord's initiative, not ours. How is this done is what this book will show us.

What is heart? For Saucy, understanding the meaning is most critical as this represents the union of body, soul, and spirit. It is the center of our thought, our being, and our behaviour. Without a transformed heart, there will be no transformed thought, being, or behaviour.We need transformation basically because our hearts are already evil. Sounds bad? The author then describes from scriptures how the human heart is evil, perverse, and bent on corruption of all sorts. Saucy even shows from biological research that the heart is no mere blood pumping machine. It is a living organism with its own nervous system. It is the center of volitional, emotional, and intellectual activities. In knowing, thinking, and hearing, the art of loving unites all of these activities and the person into one. For all of us, we need spiritual surgery of the heart, that we can be cured, and be guarded against sinful influences. God can give us a new heart.

Key to Saucy's thesis is that spiritual transformation of the heart begins with the renewing of the mind.  With a renewed mind, one's thoughts will be toward truth seeking more and more. It will resist deceptions. It is convicted about the truth making one free. This means meditation and training the heart toward being sensitive to the things of God. It does not mean knowing per se. It also means tasting the Word. It is interesting to see the results of meditation as follows. There is:
  • A change in emotion from being moved by the Word to moving toward the Word;
  • Learning Godly sorrow instead of worldly sorrow;
  • With Faith comes Sureness and Faithfulness;
  • Lectio divina (lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio)

My Thoughts

This is a very big book on simply one idea: That the mind and the heart are both integral to the whole being. Throughout the exposition of this idea, Saucy draws several paradoxes to remind us that there is only so much that one can try to control. For instance, as we meditate on the Word, we will feel drawn more and more to the Word. At the same time, meditating on the Word also brings about a desire in us to know more about the Word. Spiritual transformation means learning to see things more and more from God's perspectives and less from worldly perspective. It means delighting in the beauty of God's truth and shunning the deceptions of the world. It means learning to take the yoke of Christ and not be burdened so easily by the worldly loads. Speed is never man's accelerator, but God's pace. There are many references to biblical support. If I have one criticism, I will want to say that while Saucy has rightly identified the Hebrew usage of kidneys used figuratively in the Old Testament with regards to the inner being, I think much more can still be said about that. In fact, there is quite a lot of difference in the way the Old Testament and the New Testament uses the word for 'heart.' In fact, the Greek understanding of heart is very different from the Hebrew mindset. For example, when the Hebrews use 'heart,' they are referring to the whole person. They are pointing to a deep longing of the whole being, and not just the feelings portion. In contrast, Greek understanding of "heart" is kardia, from where we get the word "cardiology" or the science of the heart. Simply state, the Hebrew form is more inclusive as a whole, while the Greek form tends to be more analytical in parts. Of course, there is much more to the differences, but suffice to say, Saucy ought to have tackled this difference in greater detail as it has cultural and historical significance. In fact, in our modern 21st Century world, intoxicated with romance of all things love, it is important that the way modern people understand "heart" is rather different when compared to the Jews, the Greeks, and even the Romans.

Anyway, I suspect Saucy's main point is total transformation and what it looks like for the modern person. He has done a credible job in reminding us that things of the head and the heart are not separated but to be considered one whole. That is already an important point worth stressing over and over again.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"The Key to the Middle East" (Derek Prince)

TITLE: Key to the Middle East, The: Discovering the Future of Israel in Biblical Prophecy
AUTHOR: Derek Prince
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Chosen Books, 2013, (208 pages).

Why is peace so hard to attain in the Middle East? Is there ever going to be a solution to the Middle East quarrels? What significance does Biblical prophecy has to the future of the disputed lands? What if someone tells you that there is a "key" to understanding the Middle East? Published previously as "The Last Word on the Middle East," author Derek Prince insists that the two biggest reasons behind the problems and promises of the Middle East are oil and Israel. As one who had personally lived and witnessed the events in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Palestine, Israel, and other Arab lands, Prince first chronicles the historical developments surrounding the Middle East before giving his prophetic take.

On the historical overview, Prince begins by noticing the Jewishness of the Old Testament, of Jesus, of the Bible's context, and of the future according to Revelation. The return of the Jews coincides with the prediction of a coming home from the Northern land. Prince is convinced that the Holocaust followed by the founding of Israel on May 14th, 1948 is a direct fulfillment of Jeremiah 3:14,18. He even accuses a "succession of Christian theologians" who have helped to promote anti-Semitism. As a Briton, he tells of the good and bad deeds of the British government that have largely shaped the formation of the Palestine of today. The Balfour Declaration in 1917 sets in motion a good plan for statehood for the homeless Jews. The inconsistent implementations and "hypocrisy of the highest order" have played a big part in the instability of the holy land. Six key prophetic fulfillment are described. First, the formation of Israel is a direct fulfillment of God's predetermined plan. Just imagine how miraculous a tiny nation can survive amid a formidable and hostile neighourbood. Second, regathering the people from exile is a common promise in the Old Testament. In the formation of the state of Israel, God has given His people "their own land," that they will "never again be uprooted," and that the land is a "gift" from God. Third, even the New Testament, especially the gospels have reiterated the same message of the founding of the nation of Israel. Four, on the identity and the disputes of the lands, God has frequently spoken about the importance of this land, that the land belongs forever to the ones who will obey God's will. Only when everyone, both Jews, Arabs, and all inhabitants of the land bow down to the will of God can there be peace and harmony. Five, how we respond to the biblical prophecy is part of the fulfillment of the prophecy. Under the judgment and mercy of God, the unjust will be punished. The persecuted will be shown mercy. Six, Jerusalem will remain the center of contention, even though Israel has promised freedom of worship and passage to the holy city for all religious faiths, especially the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

So What?

Derek Prince is clear and convicted that the key to the Middle East is Israel, and the relationships with the Jewish state. Just to see how resilient one nation can stand up against the huge political, economic, military, and social pressures is a case in point. Other than divine help, it is impossible to see how human efforts can bring about the present Israel. The book is a huge call for all, especially the Christian community to take Israel seriously because how they are treated is how the future of the world will be shaped. As long as there is no peace in the Middle East, the rest of the world will have no peace.

Readers will find this book a fascinating read, but it remains one interpretation of the whole Middle East event. In fact, there is no silver bullet solutions as far as the Middle East peace initiatives are concerned. Think about how America, especially at the efforts put in by five American Presidents to achieve peace between Israel and the Middle East. To this day, nations like Iran and several other Arab nations continue to insist on the "destruction of Israel." Israel too continue to defy world council leaders in their struggle to fight back and take their own actions in the name of self-defense. For me, the Middle East is one big complicated puzzle that cannot depend on any one single solution. There are many ideas, many strategies, and many initiatives. Without a common person driving it, without a common understanding of the complexities involved, there will never be peace and prosperity. I agree with Prince that the key to peace is on the question of Israel. I do not quite agree that the entire future stems from one nation. My reading from Scripture is that there is a "new Israel" which comprises of Gentiles grafted into the called people of God. Just like there are good Jews, there are also good Arabs. There are good Gentiles. There are good being done by people of various religious beliefs. God can use any of them, including the people of Israel. God can use evangelicals too, not just for the benefit of any one people group, but for upholding peace, justice, mercy for all people.

Read this book to gain greater insights into the history, the contexts, the cultures, and one interpretation of the biblical prophecies. Even if you are convinced by Prince, which I am in some way, be ready to consult alternative sources so as to gain a bigger picture of what is going on. Prophecies are not the property of any one person. In fact, it is entirely possible, that what Prince has written forms a part of the bigger picture. My recommendation: Be informed with the importance of Israel. Be equally informed that it is the Player up there that will determine the playing field, the players, and the how the future is going to be played out.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"Begin" (Bob Franquiz)

TITLE: Begin: First Steps for the Journey of Faith
AUTHOR: Bob Franquiz
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (112 pages).

What does it mean to be a Christian? How do we pray? Why must we be a part of a community? Is there a simple way for beginners to study the Bible? Is baptism necessary? Written for the benefit of new believers, Bob Franquiz, founding pastor of Calvary Fellowship in Miami Florida has written a simple beginner's guide to begin one's journey of faith. Having experienced what it means to be without a guide on his early Christian growth, Franquiz puts himself in the shoes of a newly minted Christian, eager to grow and grasp at faith. He shares his five early decisions that helped shape his beginning.

  1. Daily prayer with God;
  2. Daily meditation on the Word;
  3. Weekly Church attendance;
  4. Fellowship with a community;
  5. Public Expression of faith through Baptism.

Based on these five personal learnings, Franquiz shares his method of beginning faith. Being a Christian is basically about confessing Jesus as Lord, obeying God, and letting this relationship influence our relationships with others. He uses the Lord's Prayer as a guide for prayer. He focuses on community building in terms of caring, sharing, loving, and relating to one another in God's love. Reading, meditating, and living the Word of God is his three simple steps of learning about studying the Bible. He spends some time to explain why baptism is important.

So What?

The fact that a book like this needs to be written shows us the need among many communities to have a guide that is simple to use, easy to understand, and palatable to new believers. Pastors and teachers can use this book easily for their teaching curriculum. It is also priced like a typical Bible study booklet for use among young believers. For that matter, it is disappointing that the book does not have a set of study questions that can be used together with this. Do not expect heavy theological treatment on any topic. The teachings are at a basic level and most suitable for early discipleship classes. This book is a great gift for anyone who has just become a Christian; baptismal candidates; young believers; or anyone desiring a systematic guide to help them in their spiritual growth.



This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Books and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

AHA (Kyle Idleman)

TITLE: AHA: The God Moment That Changes Everything
AUTHOR: Kyle Idleman
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2014, (208 pages).

Have you ever wondered why the self-help industry is now estimated to become a more than $11 billion industry? Why is self-help so popular? How are Christians to live in a self-help crazed world? Enters this book that attempts to be the "anti-thesis" of the self-help phenomenon. The first thing that readers of this book will be challenged is this: Reject your self's offer to help. As we reject our natural tendencies to control life, we accept help from the supernatural. What is an AHA moment? For Idleman, teaching pastor as well as author, it is that "sudden recognition that leads to an honest moment that brings lasting change." In short, it is "Awakening Honest Action." Such moments cannot be easily explained, but they can be surely be experienced. AHA for Idleman comprises three ingredients.
  1. A Sudden Awakening
  2. A Brutal Honesty
  3. Immediate Action.
Based on the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, Idleman focuses on some of the reasons why the younger son ran away from home, giving a parallel story of Ryan who thinks about his father as someone in a distant country, uncaring, unpleasable, and unmerciful. All it takes is an AHA moment in order to turn the person around.

The first phase of AHA begins when a person comes to his senses. It can be a gambling addiction. It can be a flirtation with a long time sweetheart. When things like these happen, we need an alarm to wake us up from the slumber of sin. With the rude awakening comes the desperation, mixed with feelings of fear and dependence. This leads to the second phase where brutal honesty is required to realize one must change. This may need self honesty. This also means learning to talk to oneself openly and honesty even if it hurts. Those who are honest with self will be better equipped to be honest with others. Sometimes, it may mean seeking help from someone more mature to listen to our confessions. Otherwise, one can continue to ignore it or deny it, which will put the spanner in the works for any AHA recovery. The three strategies of self-denial are disagreement with the facts, defensiveness of the self, and the distractions we willingly submit ourselves to. This leads to projecting the problem to external sources or reasons. Eventually, when one minimizes the brutal truth, the AHA moment dies. That will not happen if the third phase is quickly adopted. This third phase is most important for it means putting resolutions to action. It must be immediate. The time to repent and recover is always now. It cannot be delayed otherwise passivity will creep in and render any recovery null and void. It tempts one to procrastinate which quickly unravels the good work done. It culminates in a state of defeatism where one surrenders to the point of saying: "It's too late now."

So What?

This book reads like a three point sermon about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Well explained and expounded, Idleman puts himself in the shoes of the younger son of the parable and draws many modern day illustrations to show readers how powerfully relevant this parable still speaks today. What the late Henri Nouwen has done for spirituality in the exposition of the Parable, Idleman has done for Christian Living using the same parable. While Nouwen has brought deeper insights of God's love as the major focus of the Parable, Idleman has enabled readers to respond as children to the love of God. Nouwen focuses on the homecoming joy, the affirmation given by God, and the God's restoration of the sonship. In contrast, Idleman focuses on the three movements of Awakening, Honest, and Action. While Nouwen is heavy on the spiritual transformation of the hearts of people, Idleman is eloquent in terms of a "moment" that results in practical actions. Here lies the biggest different between Nouwen's book and Idleman's. Nouwen's three part focus on the Younger Son, the Elder Son, and God the Father; contrasts with Idleman's three part focus on Awakening, Honest, and Action. The former marks out the book in terms of people while the latter divides the book according to actions.

Idleman's book will be easily received and appreciated. Although I personally prefer Nouwen's exposition of the Parable, this book fares quite well as far as Christian living is concerned. I warmly commend this book as another very effective way to deliver the classic parable.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of David C. Cook Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, December 2, 2013

"Start Here" (David Dwight and Nicole Unice)

TITLE: Start Here: Beginning a Relationship with Jesus
AUTHOR: David Dwight and Nicole Unice
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2013, (208 pages).

This book begins with an invitation to embrace Jesus Christ through the words of the prophet Jeremiah 29:13: "You will seek Me and find Me and search for Me with all your heart." For Christianity is not about remembering a set of rules or rituals. Neither is it a series of do's and don'ts. Christianity is a relationship that is centered on Christ. How do we actually begin our journey in this relationship? What does it take to go to where God has called us to go? How do we know where to start? Enters this book which keeps it simple and practical.

David Dwight, senior pastor of Hope Church, one of the fastest growing churches in Richmond, Virginia, shares about his early years trying to understand where to start with Bible reading. Is it on Page 1 Genesis? Can a new Christian simply begin with the first verse of the New Testament? After some help, he was asked to read the gospel of John. His co-author, Nicole Unice also grew up not knowing what being a Christian means. Unice goes on to describe her early years trying to control her life, even thinking erroneously that Christianity can be something she can control. Beginning Christianity is about beginning a relationship.

Such a confused beginning is common. Like Pete Woods, who confesses that his family are church CEO (Christmas and Easter Only) attendees, Woods only begins a stirring in his heart when he is more aware of Jesus rather than mere theories. Likewise, Josh tells of his encounter with the living Christ that sets his whole life apart. The authors then affirm the reality of Christianity being one that is personal and relational. One of the things that will affect new Christians is how they deal with obstacles along the way. Obstacles such as boredom, doubt, confusion, unresolved questions about God, and the ups and downs of relationships. Such obstacles can be farther strengthened when even Christians start to live as if the Christian faith is about rules and regulations. Relationships however is about being open, be in a posture of receiving and acknowledging the mystery of faith. Beginning a relationship is about receiving Jesus Christ into our lives. It is about having a new identity in Christ. It is about desiring to know more of God, that God is Perfect, Relational, and Sovereign. The five things about what happens when we know God are most helpful. Knowing God:

  1. Changes our view of people, not to see them as temporal but eternal beings
  2. Helps us face challenges differently
  3. Helps us never to feel out of control, and to know God is in control
  4. Helps us to remain humble and purposeful;
  5. Helps us make sense of life.

Beginning our relationship with Christ also has an external outlook. It means involvement in a Church community, serving and caring for one another. It means learning to grow in the knowledge of the Bible. It means praying and praising God. This is one of the simplest books about introducing Christianity for new Christians. It does not carry a laundry lists of things to do or not do. Instead, it contains real life stories of people and parishioners that the authors have personally encountered. At the same time, the Bible references they use are there to show us how relational God is to us.

The key idea in this book is Christianity is a relationship. When we read the Bible, we are learning not just about God, but we are learning to see God more. When we pray, we are not simply just uttering a set of prayer requests. We are seeking to commune with God more. When we share the gospel, we are not simply spouting off a prepared list of things to say. We are reaching out to people, caring for them, and sharing the love of God in our words and actions. In our devotional lives, we are seeking to learn more of God and to grow to be more like God. If this book can lead you to begin a relationship with God, even though you feel far away right now, it would have worth every penny.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of David C. Cook and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Christians in an Age of Wealth" (Craig L. Blomberg)

TITLE: Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship (Biblical Theology for Life)
AUTHOR: Craig L. Blomberg
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (272 pages).

[Zondervan Special $3.99 ebook download here. Offer ends Dec 8th, 2013.]

It was 4% in the 1920s. Now, it hovers around 2%. In general, giving has gone down substantially over the years. At the same time, American spending patterns have risen astronomically with huge discretionary income allocated for "non-essential stuff" such as "pleasure boats, jewelry, booze, gambling, and candy." Craig Blomberg then takes aim at the rich Christians sector, especially those who had invested "state of the art facilities and technology" to sustain their church ministries. That is not all. The criticisms roll on:
  • How is it justifiable for rich Christians to channel funds to already wealthy establishments, and not worry about the those living way below the poverty line?
  • Is the Church guilty of "passing the buck" where a need is someone else's problem?
  • For those who gave to the poor, how much of those giving have actually done more harm than good?
  • Why must Western missionaries be paid "Western salaries" in the country they serve in?
  • Why are there so many initiatives, charity, mission work, and other ministry causes duplicating one another's efforts, without even trying to coordinate their efforts? 

Friday, November 29, 2013

"How to Talk to a Skeptic" (Donald J. Johnson)

TITLE: How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics
AUTHOR: Donald J. Johnson
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis. MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (272 pages).

Have you ever been tongue tied when an aggressive non-Christian throws doubts at your faith? What about times in which you feel inadequate when dealing with atheists and secularists? What if you have previously gone for a class on Apologetics but have largely forgotten what the teacher had said? If you are any of the above, you are in good company. A lot of people have received training and possessed wonderful resources in addressing the tough questions regularly thrown at Christians. Whether it is the inability to recall the facts and information, or the inadequacy of responding on the fly, it is increasingly more challenging not just dealing about material but learning how to talk to skeptics. Written gently and with great understanding, Apologist Don Johnson, President of Don Johnson Evangelistic Ministries has written a very practical how-to book on learning to converse intelligently with skeptics, non-Christians, and people who simply needs someone to engage them at a level they appreciate. Basically, when engaging in any discussion, the purpose is about worldviews and truth. Johnson gives 5 reasons why tackling the subject of worldviews is most important.

  1. Looking at worldviews is an excellent way to exercise rationality and to relate with the facts presented.
  2. Worldviews are bigger than any single objection.
  3. The honest skeptic deserves a fuller answer.
  4. It is easy for anyone dealing with one objection to be quickly dealt with the next, and the next, and the next.
  5. Apply burden on proof on all sides, and not just rely on the Christian to defend the faith. The skeptic will also need to defend his/her skepticism.
These form the foundation of the conversational approach advocated by Johnson. Putting it simply, the entire book is about empathizing with the skeptic; explaining the Christian faith; and finally engaging with the objections raised.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

"Chasing Hope" (Kathryn Cushman)

TITLE: Chasing Hope
AUTHOR: Kathyrn Cushman
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (320 pages).

Two unlikely friends. Two persons traveling on different paths of lives. Two different directions to choose. This novel weaves in the lives of Sabrina Rice and Brandy Philip, both talented runners but from different backgrounds.

Selected for her University's track team, about to win a scholarship, landing an internship with the biggest PR firms in the country, and deeply in love with the love of her life, Sabrina Rice's future looks bright and promising until a devastating illness rocked her perfect life and threatened to send everything she had ever hoped for into shreds. Her problem with rheumatoid arthritis not only forced her to quit running, but led to a hospitalization and many frustrating trials with different medications. Her fungal infection was potentially life threatening too. Add to this is her anxiety over decisions that she had to make with regards to her future and her calling.

On the other hand, Brandy Philip seemed to have come from another world. Her dad died when she was a baby. Her mum imprisoned for drug offenses. With only her grandma as her closest relation, Brandy had to convince the judge why she should not be sent to a juvenile home. In fact, the first time Rice saw her was Brandy running away from some security officers!

Brandy's saving grace was her running talent, more particularly, Rice's willingness to coach and to guide her so that she can meet the strict requirements to avoid been sent to juvenile home.   As two lives come together, the coach-trainee relationship slowly turns into a warm and touching friendship that spreads to bless the lives of other people.

I love sports stories and this book is no different. Cushman has that ability to string many different lives together in such a powerful and entertaining manner. The title "Chasing Hope" had me grasping for clues on exactly what kind of a hope Cushman is talking about. Is it about the hope of Sabrina Rice achieving all of her dreams? Or is it the hope of Brandy Philip making a life out of nothing? Or is it about God's call for both of them to do something significant? Actually, these questions only scrape the surface of this very thoughtful and perceptive novel. Thoughtful in the sense that the characters all fit in well to carry the emotional ups and downs of each character. Perceptive in the way that helps readers empathize with the many common hopes in life and how when placed in the hands of God, the hopes are fulfilled in the most surprising and inexplicable way. The thing I like about this book is that the hope Cushman is talking about is not just limited to the wonderful conclusion of the whole novel. Cushman peppers the 48 chapters to remind us once again that as God speaks into the most ordinary circumstances, all it takes is an extraordinary inspiration and we learn to see hope rising amid the ashes of any despair.

I enjoyed this book very much.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.