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Friday, June 28, 2013

"God in my Everything" (Ken Shigematsu)

TITLE: God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God
AUTHOR: Ken Shigematsu
PUBLISHER:  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (256 pages).

Can we escape from the world without escaping from life? In a world where everything seems so busy, so frantic, and so crazy, is it really possible to find peace and solace in a noisy and sometimes cruel world? What can modern people learn from the ancients? Surely, their times are different from our times, right? This book begins with an impromptu fill-in for one of his preaching colleagues. Without much time to prepare, the author decides to speak about the rhythm of life. It is a rhythm of life that seems to be taking refuges away from the world, and at the same time still close to the heartbeat of the world we live in. This is only possible when God is in our everything, so says the author, the  lead pastor of a flourishing Church in Vancouver, BC. Using the Greek word "trellis" as a way (or rule) to hone his idea of a rhythmic support system, Shigematsu proposes five key ideas: Rules; Roots; Relate; Restore; Reach Out.

1) Rules
Beginning with a description of his pilgrimage in Glendalough, Ireland, Shigematsu shares how he is intrigued by the Celtic monks like St Kevin, St Patrick, Bridget of Kildare, and others, who contrary to what many people think, built monasteries close to settlements so that they can share Christ's hospitality with whoever that comes by. Instead of a perceived solitary monastic life, they are actually very intentional about a community, about sharing and caring for people amid their devotional lifestyle. Shigematsu leaves the place with a renewed sense of how prayer informs practice, and how practice reforms prayer. One of the things that he feels more compelled to grow in is the idea of "Bushido," a set of rules and practices that lead to growth in "wisdom, fortitude, loyalty, compassion, and service." Just like the 12th Century St Benedict, who helps spread the idea of monasticism within a community setting. The idea is that when God is in our everything, "the world becomes our monastery." Shigematsu goes on to show that following a set of rules is not necessarily a bad thing, even though rules and regulations are more despised nowadays. It is biblical. It is not about "trying" but about "training." In other words, spiritual discipline is very much a part of the Christian life. He also argues for a "centered" life more than a "balanced" perspective, something that resonates with my philosophy too. Yet, the author is quick to point out that such a rhythm is not rigid but flexible. He reflects on the biblical character Daniel, who is able to adopt a pattern of prayer and work, with God as his center.

2) Roots
The three key "roots" are Sabbath; prayer; and sacred reading. Firstly, one finds a "Sabbath" time for body and soul. For the Sabbath is a gift of one day in seven where we can live truly free especially when the week is fully busy. While keeping the Sabbath does not necessarily mean we be more successful on the other six days, it leads to greater trust in God. What then do we do? Do something that we do not normally do during the week. Secondly, one also lets prayer be the bridge between God and person, cultivating friendship with God. Contrary to what many people think about prayer being something less than work, prayer is actually the very essence of work, for true work is about relationships. Shigematsu shares some tips with regards to the Lord's Prayer, ACTS, Psalms, and seasons of prayer. Thirdly, one grows strong roots based on God's Word through sacred reading. Meditate on the Word. Memorize the Word. Visualize Scripture.

3) Relate

In a social media world where technology and gadgets seem to help more people connect, it may seem strange even to read about people feeling disconnected in a highly connected social media world. Research has shown that close relationships play a big role in psychological well-being. What more about spiritual well-being? Spiritual friendship is not about drawing attention to one another. It is about helping one another grow closer to God. Spiritual friends can also be called upon to help one draw boundaries in matters of sex and purity. For our characters are formed within the crucible of family. This is not just about the spiritual family, but the very family that we live with.

4) Restore

Learning to take care of our spiritual lives also means addressing the needs of our physical bodies. In doing so, we not only learn to take care of our physical health, we are re-invigorated in our perspective of the resurrected body in Christ. Eat well. Sleep well. Exercise well. Play well. Think well, especially with regards to money and our use of money. Let giving and generosity outweigh any desire for selfish accumulation and devotion to Mammon. Being restored means becoming more and more conscious of eternity.

5) Reach Out

It is common to come across people who simply hated Mondays. It takes a fresh perspective to see Mondays not from the eyes of mundane work, but from the mind of God whose mercies are new every morning. In prayer, work is sanctified. In prayer, we discern life. In prayer, our life as a ripple, can be used to make an impact in the communities we live in. Serving our communities is a calling for the servant of God. Reaching out is about praying for people; being present for people; and sharing the gospel like a four-sided pyramid: life, deed, sign, and word. Life is about our testimony of living. Deeds is about works of love in action. Sign is about letting the world know of God's power at work in us. Word is about proclamation of the gospel.

So what?

This is a very comprehensive book on Christian living, covering many important aspects of the spiritual life. Through stories and keen observations of life in a city, Ken Shigematsu is able to weave in spiritual practices of the ancient world with the contemporary needs of the world. Having gone through personal struggles of frantic living, relationship challenges, as well as ministry work as a pastor, Shigematsu has put into words the sermons that he has given for his own congregation. I have heard him speak before, and so am able to mentally visualize his voice through the words in this book. It is very much a personal story by the author, given passionately and yet having a gentle demeanor about it all. I appreciate the very comprehensive aspect of his treatment of the rhythms of life, so reminiscent of Mark Buchanan's book on "Spiritual Rhythm" or Wayne Mueller's work on Sabbath. Let me offer three thoughts about the book.

First, I think it is an apt corrective for a world addicted to freedom of choice. The idea of rules and regulations can often rile the modern man so used to freedom and free speech. People are put off when it comes to anyone preachy or giving words of advice. Yet, disliking something does not necessarily mean we do not need that, just like a sick child disliking bitter medicine. If we do not drink it, we may become worse off. Thus, Shigematsu's teaching about "Bushido" is highly relevant for our modern Western society.

Second, structures are helpful. Despite the culture's dislike of structures and institutionalized religion, we cannot do away with structures. The words of Jesus with regards to Sabbath is appropriate here. Know that the Sabbath is made for men and not men for the Sabbath. Thus, structures are made for humans and not humans for structures. That is why the better way is to redeem institutions and structures, instead of throwing them out altogether.

Third, spirituality is more relational than what some people think. This contrasts with some versions of spiritualities that tend to be self-centered; focused on nothingness; or simply energy consumption. No. Christian spirituality is basically about living relationships. The spiritual practices mentioned in this book have a strong sense of communal living and community responsibility. Whether it is Sabbath time with God; coffee time with people; prayer for and with people; or accountability sessions with trusted friends; spirituality is less of something private and confidential, but more of something connecting and communicating.

I love this book!

Rating:  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, June 27, 2013

"Clean" (Douglas Weiss)

TITLE: Clean: A Proven Plan for Men Committed to Sexual Integrity
AUTHOR: Douglas Weiss
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2013, (236 pages).

Do we realize that men are more vulnerable than we think? Are we aware that even during peacetime in our country, the sexual war has continued unabated? Are we tolerating sexual promiscuity and as a result, failed to be the men that we have been called to be? Do we know that our sex organs do not belong primarily to us? These questions and many more are dealt with in this frank, powerful, and blunt book about the need to be clean, and to stay clean. For the author, as far as our sex organs are concerned, we have only peeing rights! Weiss is adamant that it is God who is calling a "clean nation to rise up and reclaim our unclean culture." This is not an easy task, but not impossible either. So convicted is Weiss that he also insists that there is a tight connection between our sexual integrity and God's destiny for us. For it shows who is our true authority: Ourselves or God?

The book presents a convicting look at the state of unhealthy sexual lust and the problem of pornography. Beginning with some depressing statistics about the state of spiritual cleanliness and how pornography has choked, suffocated, and even killed marriages and family, author Douglas Weiss is on a mission to bring men from filthy thoughts and foolish dabbling in pornography, toward sexual purity in God. For we are not meant to be sexual objects or be participants in objectifying another person.  We are called to sexual integrity. Weiss makes a formidable statement in the book. He calls it a "proven plan for men committed to sexual integrity." Some readers may feel a little ambivalent about this level of confidence. I admit. I was initially skeptical, but reading farther along the book, I begin to share his sentiment and his conviction. For his "proven plan" is anchored on the Word of God, and his convictions rose out of many counseling and personal encounters with men who ought to have known and chosen better. If I can summarize the book, I will describe it in three ways. Stop. Strategize. Stay Clean.

A) Stop

It is one thing to say that pornography is bad. It is yet another to allow lingering thoughts of some sexual objects to remain in our brains, lodged somewhere in our thoughts, only to breed wildly when triggered by an image or a pornographic encounter. While it is impossible to stop the proliferation of dirty thoughts and Internet sharing of porn on the outside, we can certainly do something on the inside. We stop by declaring war on pornography. Don't buy it. Don't patronize it. Don't watch it. The statistics are alarming. For example, based on 2006 data, the porn industry rings in more than US$3000 each second. China. South Korea, and Japan share the top three spots in terms of porn revenues per country. This calls not only for decisive action to stop, but to point our weapons constantly against porn. One way is to attack lust at its root. Another is to draw firm boundaries. Yet, another is to draw up a plan and be accountable to one another. Remember the formula U (You) + P (Porn) = D (Destruction). For if we do not take this seriously, not only will we hurt our own self-esteem, we hurt our family and loved ones too.

B) Start Strategizing

Bring your weapons with you all the time, especially when venturing into a world of sexual connotations and Internet porn. Have a plan that stops any evil lust from even taking root. Adopt a covenant prayer such as:

"Lord Jesus, I am 100 percent committed to love all women today as your daughters and my sisters. I covenant with you to protect all women at all times, in every circumstance today, even in my mind. I hate lust of any kind of all women, and I covenant to protect them all this day."

This is followed up by a firm determination to protect and to cover anyone who is undressed or disrobed. See people with a "holy hologram" to see them as what God had intended them to be seen. Part of the strategy also requires us to have a proper perspective of our own sexual organs. The ownership priorities go as follows. God owns us first. Our spouses own us next. We are the third owners, and our rights are limited to peeing only. Be bold to question leaders on their sexual integrity. Share the program with men in the Christian community. Protect the Church.

C) Stay Clean

Like the gospel story of the room swept clean, only to be occupied again by evil, we need to remember that being clean does not mean we are not vulnerable. If there is anything, we may very well be even more vulnerable. Weiss recommends eleven ways to stay clean.

  1. Fear God, letting our actions stem from a reverence for his holiness.
  2. Be honest, and do not hide our failings
  3. Be truthful to our spouses in our marital relationships
  4. No secrets absolutely
  5. Fantasize not, but anticipate the worst. In other words, keep the consequences visible at all times.
  6. Recognize the exit signs in every temptation situation and exit when necessary.
  7. Be praised and touched by our spouses, to be accepted rather than rejected
  8. Cultivate respect in our marriage
  9. Daily declaration for a life of purity
  10. Prayer
  11. Be the hero of integrity to our wives and family.

Recognize the threats of sexual addiction.

So What?

Never overestimate our ability to resist temptation. Neither should we underestimate the power of pornography. Readers may not find in the book anything that resembles "Seven Habits" or nicely concocted formulas to address the problem of pornography. It all starts with a recognition of the problem and to stop the porn habit. It continues with an awareness of the seductive allure, and to start strategizing both our defenses and our offenses. It continues with regular education, accountability, and utter honesty to ask for help when needed, and to help others when required to ensure that we stay clean. Weiss has given us a whole book, backed by biblical stories and teachings, letting readers see the problem as it is, so that they can do something about it. The book forms a great launching pad for us to start our road to cleanliness, beginning with God, proceeding with humility, and engaging with courageous determination not to lust with our eyes, or to sin with our thoughts.

Gender differences are many, and none more so than the area of sexuality. Sexual sins have caused the downfall of many powerful people in society. Whether one is a President of the most powerful capitalist country in the world, or the most prestigious Ivy League University don, or top positions in corporations or various organizations, men are essentially "born into a sexual war." In biblical times, people like Judas, Samson, Ahab, King David, even Solomon have all been tempted and failed in this area. If one follows the story of King David, one can sense that after his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, things appear more downhill for David thereafter. If great men of old have fallen, what makes anyone of us think we can fare better? That is why this book is so important. For those who have fallen, it represents a form of hope and recovery. For those who have not fallen, it is a reminder that they are not immune, that we are all vulnerable. Most importantly, it is an opportunity to be clean and stay clean, knowing that every time someone, somewhere determines to keep their sexual integrity pure and holy, there is one LESS person in this world for our children to worry about.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Thomas-Nelson under the BookSneeze blogger program in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"The Surprising Grace of Disappointment" (John Koessler)

TITLE: The Surprising Grace of Disappointment: Finding Hope when God Seems to Fail Us
AUTHOR: John Koessler
PUBLISHER: Chicago IL: Moody Publisher, 2013, (176 pages).

We do not need to make an appointment with God in order to meet Jesus. Often, even in the midst of disappointments, Jesus is there to meet us. This entire book is about debunking the errors of superficial theological thought, renewal of our understanding of grace, and anticipation of a bright and future tomorrow with Christ in us. Koessler, a professor at Moody Bible Institute writes with a pastoral heart in this very personal book. He begins with some observations of how childish and shallow some of our Christian expectations are. Stuff like the victorious Christian life being the norm once a person receives Jesus. Or a believe in Jesus and all our problems will strangely go away. Such ideas give false hope and unrealistic expectations of God.

Can Jesus heal us when we ask him to? Surely he will, but sometimes not in the manner or timing we want. There will be times when God will disappoint our deepest hopes, but that does not mean God loves us any less. Koessler even states that if the gospels are any indication, we too will be disappointed by Jesus, just like the early disciples and followers were disappointed when Jesus fails to summon celestial army to wipe out the enemies and make Israel a strong and mighty military Power. Even our prayers are bound to produce awkward results when what we ask fail to produce much fruit according to our specific requests. Calling prayer as an "awkward conversation," Koessler does not downplay the importance of prayer. Instead, prayer is essentially a rising dependence on God, and not a magical utterance of holy words to bring about results.

Koessler brings in lots of reflection on biblical passages. For instance, he reflects on how the disciples panicked when faced with windy storms that threaten to sink their boat. In a way, they take Jesus' sleeping stance as ignoring their concerns. As a result they draw erroneous conclusions based on their lack of faith. Faith is not in the answers to prayers but in the person of Christ. It is not in the disappointments in our expectations but the presence of God in both our appointments and disappointments. Before we can grow in grace, we need to weed away more expectations of us that will stagnate our faith. Expectations that are often delusions that the Christian life will mean less problems. Expectations that will create spiritual myopia and narcissistic hopes. He uses a personal story, the parable of the kite to show us that our achievements in life are not exactly ours to begin with, but God's.

Along the way, there are other insights pertaining to daily living, about using hunger and food as a way to hunger after God. There is also that truth that true fulfillment lies not in getting stuffed up but in hungering for more of God. Koessler also reflects on the world of work, our jobs that often are less satisfactory than we want. What do we do when we feel our work is not rewarding enough? He concludes by saying that job satisfaction or the lack of it is less about the job, but more about our perspective. He also talks about Church and worship, asking why we feel kind of disconnected during Church worship. Likewise, what is needed is not the style or the content of music, but the perspective we bring to it.

So What?

Why should we read this book? So what if we have read this book? Is there anything new or groundbreaking? Probably not. For the things in the book are not exactly rocket science. What is relevant however, is the need to make our faith as holistic as possible, that God works in both good and bad times. God is present with us not just in our highs but also in our lows. God cares for us, even when we feel God is farthest away from us. When we can learn to encounter God on a daily basis, in times of light and darkness, then we will better appreciate the words of Ps 139, which is a confession that God knows all of us, our past, our future, our present, and all our works and intent. The point of this book is this. Grace does not mean God is present only in our perceived answers to prayers. What it means is that grace is independent of our moods and feelings. For grace is essentially God with us, through the thick and thin of life. It is when we feel God is most distant from us, God may very well be carrying us. Now, that is a surprising grace of disappointment.

Read this book and be encouraged again in your faith in God.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, June 24, 2013

"The 40 Most Influential Christians" (Daryl Aaron)

TITLE: The 40 Most Influential Christians
AUTHOR: Daryl Aaron
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (304 pages).

This book brings together 40 people who have shaped and "influenced" the world of Christianity for over 2000 years. Twenty persons have been selected for the first 1000 years, and the other twenty for the next 2000 years. All of them are dead, but their legacy remains, especially in this latest collection of famous people and their stories that have impacted the Christian world. The author is a pastor-turned-professor of religion at Northwestern College in Minnesota. He attributes his interest in historical theology to one professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Behind the writing of the book lies five reasons to read the book. First, seeing how these Christians have fought heresy and false teachings (especially during the first thousand years), teaches us to be constantly discerning what is being said or taught. Like how Ignatius of Antioch fought the threats of docetism and other heresies, making him a fervent defender of Christ being fully human as well as fully divine. Or how Irenaeus fought gnosticism, and how Clement of Alexandria fought paganism.

Second, we learn to distinguish what is a passing fad versus timeless truth. Despite his unorthodox philosophy in the 18th Century, Friedrich Schleiermacher provides the Christian world with one of the most powerful responses to the rise of deism in that era. Instead of rejecting traditional orthodox beliefs, Schleiermacher re-interprets the doctrines for the times, and becomes the father of modern Protestant liberal theology. He may not have defended the orthodox doctrines and traditions like some of the forefathers of old, but he certainly makes it more difficult for detractors to deny it. His successor, Albrecht Ritschl continues this rather "human-centered theology" and is able to teach widely the universal sinfulness of the human race. Seeing how these believers wrestle with traditions of old and the contemporary cultures of their times, helps us understand how challenging the contexts were at that time.

Third, we learn God is sovereign across all eras. This is the point made by people like Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great; as well as Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer who lets the sovereignty of God be his linchpin for all his theological works.

Four, reading the lives of these people shows us the importance of humility. The Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Naziansus) in fighting against the heresy of Arianism and the confusion over the Trinity, unite against the heretic teachings of Arius and confusion over the place of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. While protecting the majesty of God on the one hand, they stress the importance of humility as a human response. This is also what John Calvin insists upon, that true Christianity results in a response in humility.

Five, as we live in a world where relative thought and all kinds of philosophies are being taught, we need reminders that there is such a thing as truth. Several of these influential persons grapple with relative thinking and the need to come to grips with cultural nuances in their land. For instance, Gustavo GutiƩrrez, in his liberation theology, shows how important it is to contextualize the gospel and apply them to culture at large. The advantage is that it brings the gospel alive to the needs of the poor, the powerless, and the helpless. The disadvantage is the vulnerability of the theology to other influences such as Marxism, and worldly philosophies.

Each chapter begins with a description of the contexts each person lives in. Whether it is through a particular era; a pressing theological issue; cultural integration; or reactions to unorthodoxy; it sets the stage for understanding how the person and his work makes its significant mark at that time. This is followed by a description of the key contributions given by each person, ending with a personal conclusion by the author of the highlights of that person's life work. In one book, Daryl Aaron has given us a brief sweep through history from the first century to the Millennial times; from theological giants to martyrs; from orthodoxy to liberation theology. Like Mark Noll's work of history according to turning points, Daryl Aaron gives us a work of history through people who help create great moments of history. We can then join the dots of history together and formulate a pretty good idea of how wonderful and creative God is when He moves among men and women both then, now, and the future.

So What?

For a book like this, it is a given that we ask how these people have been chosen. What is the criteria? So what if they have been "influential?" Are we then supposed to follow them, or what then do we do about this book? Maybe, it is to inspire us to be the best person of faith that we can be, just as these 40 individuals have done in their exercise of faith. Deciding who to put in is probably harder than actually writing this book. Well, for every one name included, we can argue why another is excluded. Books like these need to be understood in the light of the author's perspective. Don't expect to see Billy Graham, JI Packer, or some of your Millennial Christian heroes. That said, when reading about these men of faith, I am impressed for five good reasons. Firstly, these men are powerful voices who stood up for truth, so necessary when the people either needed an affirmation of the old, or a fresh new direction in Christian thought and culture. We can recall how Martin Luther stood against the entire Roman establishment, birthing the Protestant movement; or how John Wesley helped spur the holiness movement during a time of social unrest. Also, there are people like Thomas Aquinas who stood in the gap between intellectual scholastic theological world and the pastoral care of the flock in his parish.

Secondly, whether it is the affirmation of orthodoxy or the introduction of new thought, these men fill in a specific need at a specific time. Tertullian in the second century was the first theologian to write in Latin rather than the Greek, and is able to defend Christianity in the language of the people, during a time of massive cultural change or adaptation.  Another example is Theodore of Mopsuestia, one of the earliest proponents of literal interpretation and the contextual studies. This is a powerful step against an increasingly allegorical way of understanding the Bible. The over-spiritualizing methods are simply too radical and too liberal for him. The method he had proposed continues to be widely practiced in our modern day and age.

Thirdly, it reminds us that each generation needs to fight its own theological battles. Whether it is heresy in the early centuries; reformation in the middle ages; or cultural adaptations in the modern age; we need to read our Bibles on the one hand, and read the times on the other. In both cases, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us.

Fourthly, these people are powerful advocates for the Christian faith, and in some ways can be seen as heroes of the faith. We may not agree with their exact doctrinal positions, but we can surely identify with their  passion in the pursuit of truth. Together, they form a compendium of truth seekers in a world of false religions and deceitful philosophies. In standing up for the Christian faith, they are doing their form of battling evil principalities with the best they can muster up with.

Finally, the book gives more prominence to some of the lesser known figures (compared with famous names like Augustine, Martin Luther or John Wesley). People such as Cyril of Alexandria, Philip Spener, J. Gresham Machen, Albrecht Ritschl, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, just to name a few. It reminds me that for every visible name mentioned, there are hundreds, even thousands more theologians, martyrs, pastors, teachers, scholars, servants of God, who had remained under the radar for various reasons. It is like a reminder that the heroes in Hebrews 11 only represent the tip of the iceberg, as far as faithful believers are concerned.

Read any one chapter and be inspired! Better still, be motivated to do the same for your own generation, in your own community, according to God's perfect timing, as you let Him.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Finally Free" (Heath Lambert)

TITLE: Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace
AUTHOR: Heath Lambert
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (176 pages).

There are many books that have been written about the dangers of pornography, the statistics, the horrible stories, and all kinds of information that can wow the reader but do little to stem the tide of this major cultural temptation. There are also lots of resources that talk about the do's and don'ts of pornography. Yet, the number of people addicted to pornography seems to rise unabated. Recognizing this, based on his many personal encounters from his ministry, Heath Lambert states right from the start that people do not need more information about pornography. Instead, what they need is something better. The power of Christ to free them from this addiction. For the Apostle Paul, even when he condemns a sin, chooses to move toward confidence in God, and faith in Jesus. Instead of creating guilt in the consciences of people and prevent them from pornography, Heath hopes to help free people toward grace that will drive people toward purity and desiring holiness. For the power of God is deeper and wider than obeying a set of rules or don's and don'ts. Based on the foundation of grace, one needs to come under the auspices of forgiving grace, and then to be embraced in transforming grace. From this, grace can be unleashed through eight ways to be finally free from pornography.

First, there needs to be a genuine sorrow about the sin and regret. It is no good to just say it. One must also mean it. He compares worldly sorrow with godly sorrow and makes a case for the latter providing six marks of true godly sorrow. The marks of earnestness; eagerness to be cleansed; indignation about the sin; genuine alarm; longing for restoration; and desire for justice.

Second, there needs to be accountability when fighting pornography. Through the biblical passages of how brothers need to be accountable to one another, Heath gives seven principles to build accountability structures.

Third, radical measures need to be adopted in the fight against pornography because of its formidable power over the human heart. It is as radical as plucking out the eye when the eye lusts after another woman. The three radical measures work on the basis of thought life, Word focus, and seeking for outside help. Other radical measures include how we use time; knowing our weaknesses enough to chop off passages that will cause us to stumble; and take whatever legitimate steps necessary to buffer us from temptation.

Four, confession is a major step when fighting pornography, especially confessing to the ones who are hurt the most. It is acknowledging we need help from above. It blesses and restores the relationship. It releases the channels of mercy and grace. More importantly, it brings about humility and healing. Heath highlights six critical guidelines on how to make a helpful confession.

Five, instead of focusing on the bad, start focusing on the good. This is the principle behind "using your spouse" to fight pornography. While the title of this chapter badly needs revising, it definitely grabs attention. Heath uses Proverbs 5 to warn us against letting temptation turns to threat. Instead, turn away from danger toward delight in our own spouses. Three suggestions are given on how to do that. Heath also makes a case that Proverbs 5 can also be applied to those who are single too. Point to Jesus.

Six, humility attacks one of the major weaknesses of people who "love to be first." Arrogant people look at pornography. They struggle against pride so much that sometimes, they prefer to take the easy way out to hide away and fantasize in their pornographic activities. The key is to let humility reign. Let arrogance go.

Seven, gratitude is an important way to fight pornography. This is because immorality, lack of self-control, and greed, can be arrested with pure thankfulness. Gratitude results in gladness that will free us to appreciate what God has given us, instead of eyeing on things that God has not given us.

Eight, dynamic relationships, healthy fellowship, and community living is a powerful weapon against pornography. Like seeking bread from heaven, we learn to cultivate a dependence on God for our daily needs. Only when our relationship with Jesus is bigger than everything else, will we stand a chance against the tentacles of pornography. In other words, do not consume porn. Consume Christ.

So What?

The book has given eight ways that grace can empower us toward holy living and godly intent to refuse to view or to entertain thoughts of pornography. The main weapon in the fight against pornography is not locks and chains that tie us down in terms of what to do or what not to do. Instead, the arsenal of spiritual warfare is grace. For it is by grace through faith in Jesus that we are saved, it is also by grace through God's help that we are continually rescued from the clutches of temptations, especially pornography. I find the book heavily aimed at the male population. In this sense, it is quite lob-sided, though I understand the reason Heath has done so. The thing is, pornography affects both male and female, albeit in different ways. Maybe, Heath can have a co-writer who can present a female perspective to this very important topic. After all, women's porn does exist. So, in order to reach out to a wider audience, the book will need to be written with both genders in mind.

Having said that, I applaud the author for this approach that begins with grace. That is most Christian. Most people will already know that pornography is bad. Otherwise, why do hotels try to do a favour to guests who view adult movies, by saying that whatever they watch will not be recorded? Or why is there a sense of lingering guilt whenever X-rated movies are viewed? Freedom is for us, but first we need to surrender to the grace of God. Surrender our pride. Surrender our weaknesses. Surrender any warped or deceiving rationalizations that project any need for visual stimulation or satisfaction. No. Pornography is like visual heroin. Once addicted, it is very hard to escape it. This book is a strong antidote to prevent the problem from happening.

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.

Friday, June 21, 2013

"The Calling of Congregational Leadership" (Larry L. McSwain)

TITLE: The Calling of Congregational Leadership: Being, Knowing, Doing Ministry (TCP The Columbia Partnership Leadership Series)
AUTHOR: Larry L. McSwain
PUBLISHER:  St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2013, (288 pages).

Leadership is a calling. It is a ministry of being, of knowing, and of doing. Larry McSwain is a Professor of Leadership at the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. The main idea in the book is about how congregational members can "model communities of obedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ in who they are and what they do." Aimed primarily at congregations that are local and autonomous, and structurally not as hierarchical or connectional, the author believes that God's power flows through the local congregation of the Church as they touch each other's lives, through the practices of being, knowing, and doing ministry.

Part One deals with the being aspect of a congregational member. This is linked with a response to the calling of each member. For people are meant to be unique, not uniform. There are four ways to understand calling. Firstly, calling is beyond the self. God must call the person. Secondly, the calling involves an experience from within, to generate purpose and passion. Thirdly, the call to leadership comes from the Church. This has implications for pastoral leadership and the ecclesiastical call, where serving the Church is not about an employment contract, but about vocation. Such a vocation is that deepest desire to serve. Fourthly, it means learning about vocational calling and discernment remains a core responsibility of the Church leadership. The response to the call is then through deeper self-knowledge, deeper growth in spiritual disciplines, and deeper responsibility in leadership.

Part Two is about knowing the mission of God. It requires the leader to know the cultural realities of the church community. It needs the leadership to understand the uniqueness of their DNA, and live intentionally God's mission for their unique contexts.

Part Three is the most practical part of the book. Congregational leadership is demonstrated through eight ways, all of which are interconnected and important.

  1. Dreaming: This is important for hope is tightly connected to dreams. Just like the Christian lives in anticipation of the promises of God, the Church leadership must adopt "pastoral imagination" that embodies the call of the people, the needs of the neighbourhood, the mission of God, and the strategic vision of the Church.
  2. Caring: It is the art of compassionate ministry that distinguishes Church leadership from other kinds of leadership. The three circles of care are pastoral care, internal congregationalcare, and external community care. Pastoral care involves friendship, comfort, confession, and teaching. Compassionate preaching can be done over the pulpit. Caring preaching can minister to the hurt and needy. Grief ministry to the suffering. 
  3. Proclaiming: The purpose of the gospel is basically to be made known to as many people as possible. The Church's mission is to declare it to their neighbourhoods. 
  4. Organizing: If there is no people to plan activities, there will be nothing for the people to look forward to. Activities in the Church include worship services, learning programs, liturgy, hospitality, social, evangelism, and so on.
  5. Resourcing: This is essentially about stewardship. Out of the need to practice holistic stewardship, education, training, and giving structures need to be attended to.
  6. Conflict Management: With change so prevalent everywhere, people do come into conflict from time to time. Various conflicts and the responses are suggested on how to deal with each.
  7. Evaluating: In order to improve, one needs to evaluate themselves.
  8. Celebrating: Serving well also means celebrating well together.

So What?

This book presents a comprehensive picture of what a Church needs. The objectives are clear. The flow is logical. The suggestions are practical. It is a powerful handbook for Church ministry and leadership, and congregation members can benefit from the book in many different ways. The three parts of the book shows us that every leadership consideration must involve recognizing the who we are created (the being). Then, we  need to be clear about the mission of God in our Churches (knowing). Know who we are. Know what we are supposed to do. Then, go ahead and be equipped for the work to be done. Churches that are aimless often do not know who they are and where they are supposed to go. It is because they lack knowledge in these, they are unable to be trained or seek education. In other words, they start barking up all kinds of different trees in search of something to do. The tragedy is that they may end up doing things that are totally out of sync with their calling. Finally, the doing aspect of the book contains many practical advice and program steps. Many of the ideas can be easily adopted by any congregation.

My suggestion is that readers should not jump too quickly to the last part of the book. Instead, they need to spend a 40-30-30 percentage. For 40% of the time, pray and fast to discover their being, their calling, and to affirm one another their uniquenesses. For the next 30% of the time, take time for knowing the self, the congregation, and the community at large. Finally, the last 30% is about implementing all of the above in specific ways. For any Church, certain ministries will be more developed than others. So, different ministries will be at different phases at any one time. Thus, it is important to take a step back and not presume the whole Church is stuck at any one phase.

Even though the author has indicated the book as meant more for congregational members of churches that are non-hierarchical and non-connectional, I think the ideas in the book can benefit the Church at large.

Great leadership resource!

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"The Gospel Disciple" (David Putman)

TITLE: The Gospel Disciple
AUTHOR: David Putman
PUBLISHER: Exponential Resources, 2012.

[Free ebook available here.]

This ebook seeks to answer three fundamental questions.

  1. What is the Gospel?
  2. What is a Disciple?
  3. What is the Church?
Beginning with a frantic phone call from a Church leader in Haiti, to help disciple the workers there, Putman starts to wonder about the rediscovery of the gospel mission not just in his own Church, but the American Church context. The big problem he identifies is this. Belief is one thing. Be willing to follow and put that into action is another. Thus, the order in answering the three questions become very significant.

A) The Gospel

This announcement of good news need to be RE-discovered. The gospel is not something earned but given. It is redeemed in Christ. We are saved by grace. It also renews us. We grow when the truth of the gospel transforms us. When the gospel is written into the hearts of people, we will be excited to tell our story, our testimony, and our lives of these three things: How we are redeemed in Christ; how the Spirit continues to restore us; and how we ourselves can be agents of restoration for others. Being a gospel disciple is about sharing this journey with others.

B) The Disciple

Our mission as gospel disciples is to make disciples. That is also the mission of the Church. It is not a program. It is a way of life to become the disciple that you want others to become. In other words, live by example. Live like Christ. Live for Christ. This calls for a constantly renewed focus to learn, to live, to loge, and to lift up the Name of Christ. Just like the saying: "Hurt people hurt people. Loved people love people." We need to let our mission for God flow out of God's love for us.

C) The Church

The third question is about living together as a community of Christ. The body of Christ is the Church, and not the institutional structures that many of us have come to refer the Church as. It calls for prayer for one another in the faith. It calls for caring for the least of the people. It calls for planting the gospel, just like Christ. For Putman, to be a "Gospel Disciple" means building the Church around the disciples, instead of building disciples around the Church. Let the Church be the strengthener of the relationships. Build a gospel community and link up with other gospel communities. Here are some of the suggestions in "rediscovering Church."

  • "Re-discovering church is less about gathering and more about scattering."
  • "Re-discovering church involves shifting power from the center to the edges."
  • "Re-discovering church involves hitting the reset button."

In other words, let the Church be one that is more concerned about reaching out, about touching outside, instead of worried about inner church life and about internal concerns. Let the Church empower others who are serving people at the edges. Let the Church constantly be renewed, and not try to keep things status quo.

The instructions are short and sharp, and will be useful for Church leaders, planters, and laypersons to read and apply straightaway. The pointers can also be good conversational starters.


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

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Liturgy as a Way of Life" (Bruce Ellis Benson)

TITLE: Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship (The Church and Postmodern Culture)
AUTHOR: Bruce Ellis Benson
PUBLISHER:  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (160 pages).

What has philosophy got to do with art? How does postmodern theory affect the way we do Church? What are the connections between theology, art, and postmodernity? How do we better appreciate the ecclesiological and theological differences among various branches of the wider Christian community?  Perhaps, instead of being a light to the world, the Church at large has become a world where postmodernity has directed their formation instead of the reverse. Not necessarily, says Bruce Ellis Benson. What theological knowledge does for the head, the liturgy and the arts do for the whole body. True liturgy is not institutionalized religious acts, but a way of life. The author is a professor of philosophy at Wheaton College as well as a jazz musician himself.  In this book, he manages to weave together his expert knowledge as a theologian, his love for the Church, as well as his deep fondness for the arts. For Benson, life is about constant improvisation, and improvisation is by itself a work of art. Such a philosophy changes the way we do liturgy and the way we do art and life. The key idea in this book is that "we are all artists, that our very lives should be seen as art, and that we should live liturgically in service to God and neighbour." Thus, the most basic call for us is to present ourselves as living sacrifices, to let God mold us into his work of art. By this, Benson is arguing that this molding is in being transformed more and more into the image of Christ. That is why we "improvise." Our improvisional vocation means a life of creative activity rather than monotonous strain. We are called to be artists, and our artistic vocation is about responding to the call of God. He acknowledges that seeing life as a work of art is nothing new. Great theologians from the 2nd-5th centuries, like Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom have mentioned it. More modern philosophers like Frederick Nietzsche and Michael Foucault have resurrected it. Now, Benson has published it by infusing art with liturgy. For art is not simply for genuises or add-ons. It is essentially a way of thinking and a way of living. That said, the author is mindful that any work or works of art can themselves become an idol. That is why he makes a distinction between icon and idol. Our works of art can be iconic, to point people toward God instead of idolatry which points people, including ourselves away from God. How we can cultivate an iconic lifestyle of art is essentially the thrust of the entire book.

First, Benson links the call with the need to respond. Every call needs to be met with a response, making it a liturgy of life that interacts both ways. The alternative is a non-response where there is no connections, and no work of beauty. For every work of beauty stems from a response to a call. Such connections allow the meeting of transcendence and the existential. It ties in the beauty of nature with theological truth.  It streamlines the relationship between man and God, and God with man. This in turn leads to much improvisation that has positive implications not just for oneself, but also for the community.

Second, before one can start liturgy and arts as a way of life, certain misconceptions have to be debunked. One major one is the separation of art from theology, like how some people separate sciences from the arts, and call them mutually exclusive. That is not so. Another challenge is how to innovate amid a system of rules, rituals, and regulations. Benson uses the example of Bach as a way to show readers that genuises of innovative abilities are also craftsmen in their own rules and rituals. He makes a case that there are primary as well as secondary artists. While the former creates something, and the latter makes a derivative out of the works of others, artists are participants of a wider community, even when they have been perceived as lone creators. Interestingly, Benson observes that artists do not usually remember the how-to after creating their masterpiece.

Third, after the deconstruction of art in the previous chapter, it is time for reconstruction. From the many example of classical composers and artists, Benson brings in more familiar cultural icons like movies, blues music, and of course, the author's favourite: jazz. The important point to note is that there are no lone stars, for all great works of art are indebted to tradition, history, and derivatives of the works of other artists. Alas, there is a whole legal matter of copyright issues that can derail any creative attempts to innovate. Society walks a tricky balance between protecting the rights of artists and their works, and the need for others to innovate and improve. If the law is too rigid, then copyright matters can strictly inhibit creativity.

Four, Benson brings readers face to face with the dichotomy between art and sacred living. Based on the Chaim Potok's work, "My Name is Asher Lev," we are reminded of the warning to Asher Lev not to become a whore. Essentially, people who deceive themselves are whores. Artists live in a tension between creativity and conformity. My reflection is that we need to be creative when we are able to, and to conform when we need to. At all times, affirm both, with truth as the guiding light. This is tough, considering that often, we are forced to conform to what our audience want, even when we see that what people want is not necessarily what the truth is. This is a practical problem. Do artists paint the real world as is, or should they draw up something pretty because everybody expects it?

The last part of the book brings everything together, that we all grow and live, to become living works of art for the glory of God. We become living works of art when our "intensive liturgy" meshes with our "extensive liturgy" on a daily basis. The former is what happens when the people of God come together in worship. The latter is when believers leave the assembly to live out in the world. What is helpful is Benson's dissection of the word "liturgy" comes from the Greek word "leitourgia" which itself is a combination of two other words, "leitos" (people) and "ergon" (work). It can be translated as public worship or service to God. This one word can nuanced both the intensive and extensive liturgies that Benson has been talking about all along. Originally, liturgy is about how people lived. Unfortunately, over the years, it has become too specialized into a series of acts or rituals, to the point that the original meaning has been forgotten. It is time to bring back both the public and the private, the community and the works of service, all of which are to be done to the glory of God, Creator of heaven and earth.

My Thoughts

Considering the fact that words like "liturgy" are increasingly out of vogue, even despised in this postmodern climate, it is heartening to read a book that personifies a work of art. More often, liturgical practices fall out with many modern folks for sheer ignorance of the richness of history and tradition. Benson says it well, that liturgy is not just for Sundays, but ought to be a way of life that presents our live as living sacrifices all days of our lives. Our call is to simply listen and respond. We are already called. 

This book has challenged me about how art can powerfully teach us theology, and how theology can influence art. In order to improvise and innovate any work of art, we need to remember that we ourselves are in the first place, works of art. It is like the biblical notion of love, where we love because God first loved us. Likewise, we create because God first created us. God has empowered us to do great things, and our living on this earth is a direct outworking of this calling.   This may be a small book but it surely packs a big punch. As I read the book, I am left with a sense of awe at how my own life can be a work of art. Under the guidance of the Spirit of God, and the instructions of the Word of God, my life need not be simply a single note on a piano keyboard. I can be creative not just to use all the black and white keys, but to creatively improvise from the simplest to the most profound musical scores, utilizing both major and minor keys, pedals on or off, echoes in and out, and endless combinations of keys.

What really makes this book stands out is the author's humility to acknowledge the contributions of many others, even suggesting that there is truth in birthing the reader even if it means "death of the author." The path to the realm of arts is about improvising one's giftedness, that all of life can be a beautiful piece of art, with ourselves as paintbrushes, our fellow people as contributors of ideas, the world's resources as our tools, with the Spirit as our guide, and our creative work as a glory to God. Let me close with this brilliant reminder.

"Thus, each of us is an artwork in the making. Art flows from us precisely because we ourselves are works of art. Our souls and bodies are artworks that are far more fundamentally art than anything sketched on a page or painted on canvas. We are God’s sculptures and we are called to join him in that task." (Bruce Ellis Benson)

Great book!

Rating: 5 stars of 5


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

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"God's Favourite Place on Earth" (Frank Viola)

TITLE: God's Favorite Place on Earth
AUTHOR: Frank Viola
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2013, (208 pages).

Is there such a thing as Jesus' favourite place on earth? If so, is it Jerusalem, the capital of much religious significance? Or is it in Bethlehem where he was first born? No. It's Bethany, insists Frank Viola, author of "Pagan Christianity" and "Reimagining Church." Using the biblical Lazarus as the narrator of Jesus' activities in, out, and through Bethany, Viola gives a fascinating narrative of the Bethany chapters of Jesus' life. Beginning with the facts of Bethany to prepare readers to appreciate the geography, the size, the botanical spread, filled with plenty of biblical images, Biola demonstrates passionately why it is a preferred place of refuge for Jesus. While the meaning of "Bethany" is not clear, there are suggestions that it could mean house of the poor, or afflicted, house of dates or house of figs. More importantly, in Bethany, Jesus fellowships with Mary, Martha, Simon, as well as Lazarus. Using the gospels as the main guide, Viola brilliantly recreates the biblical scene as much as possible, so that readers can understand not only the context, but the nuances of Bethany is so significant.

According to the author, Bethany is appreciated because some of the most precious moments of Jesus' time on earth were spent there. When Jerusalem rejects him, Bethany embraces him. The way Bethany, or more specifically, the people at Bethany receives Jesus, makes Jesus better able to find solace amid rejections at other cities. Viola reminds us right from the start that the Christian life is not one of comfort, prosperity, or winning successes, but one of discomfort, poverty, and suffering. It is because Jesus has suffered much, we as followers take comfort in a Saviour who fully understands us and our sufferings.

At Bethany, we see how Mary is awed by the presence of Jesus, reminding us our spiritual posture when we come before the throne of grace of an Awesome God. Here, we see a powerful exposition of the famous passage about Martha and Mary. Viola dispels the popular dichotomy that puts Martha as busy and Mary as contemplative. The main point is while Martha receives Jesus into her house, Mary receives Jesus into her heart. Martha focuses on temporal stuff and is anxious over them. Mary is captivated by the eternal Lord and is restful at the feet of Jesus. For me, it is basically the difference between "living for God" versus "living in God." Viola gives some three helpful applications on what it means to receive Christ.

At Bethany, we see how Lazarus was awakened by Jesus. In a moving narrative, Lazarus shares about how he was raised from the dead, and how emotions were free flowing by all his loved ones, as well as Jesus. The gospels record only three instances where Jesus shed tears. One was at Jerusalem where he shed tears of sorrow. The second was his tears of prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane. The third was Bethany where he wept as he expressed sympathy with Mary and Martha. Viola gives a powerful message on the significance of the resurrection.

Chapter 4 explains the breaking of the alabaster jar of expensive perfume, and how Mary anoints Jesus completely with it. In the process, the whole house is filled with the fragrant aroma of Mary preparing Jesus for his impending death. It is completely worth it. A contrast is also made with the attitude of Judas Iscariot who claims that the breaking of the jar and the use of the perfume was a waste. As we think about it, we only call it a waste when something expensive is used on a less valuable or less worthy purpose, such as using expensive water to wash our hands. When it comes to Jesus, if we believe Jesus is worth it, he is worth not just the most expensive gifts we have, he is worth our all! I appreciate Viola's interpretation of the fig tree, where he gives a deep insight into the cursing of the fig tree, relating it to the judgment of Israel that bears false witnesses.

Slowly and gently, Viola leads us toward a posture of anticipation of the great enthronement of Christ. For as we seek union with Christ, we will be inspired by the vision of the great kingdom of heaven. We will be set free from enslavement to earthly bitterness and temporal suffering. We will be able to better respond to struggles that we face on a daily basis, because Jesus himself has suffered all the way.

My Thoughts

This is one of those books that really gets me pumped up with excitement, not only with the powerful exhortations to read the gospels with a more discerning eye on the significance of Bethany, but also the many insights of the love of Jesus in spite of suffering. Things like the lessons of life is learned most through the school of suffering. Insights like how Martha sees only the small picture of serving God, while Mary takes in the whole person of the Servant God. Though much of the book is written from a first hand account from Lazarus's perspective, with some amount of fictional dramatization, we need to appreciate the book from the angle of story telling, not from the microscope of historical word-for-word replay of the first century encounters with Jesus. The best that anyone in the modern world can do is to recreate as much as possible the meaning behind the texts. One can dispute whether Bethany is indeed the favourite place of Jesus. Whatever the case, it is quite clear that where there are willing hearts, there Jesus will find his favourite dwelling place. Viola has demonstrated strongly that in bethany, he has found people who have carved out a place in their hearts, and in doing so, he willingly lets himself into their hearts.

For me, Chapter 1 alone is worth the price of the book, especially for those of us in Christian ministry. AW Tozer has said that "All great Christians have been wounded souls." Reflecting on Jesus' call to disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ, it should not come as a surprise that the Christian call is to lose, be broken, and be smitten for Christ. Frank Viola goes even further to say: "Unbroken people don't know how to lay their lives down and lose. They only know how to try and win." As I think of it, it is really true. Those of us in Christian ministry need to remember this. It's a terrible thing, but when you are in the ministry, losing is a default mode. If you are still unconvinced, let me suggest you read Matthew 5:38-42.

I highly recommend this book for your reading. Share it widely. Discuss it passionately. It is worth it.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, June 17, 2013

"The Action Bible Handbook" (Sergio Cariello)

TITLE: The Action Bible Handbook: A Dictionary of People, Places, and Things
AUTHOR: Sergio Cariello
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2013, (224 pages).

Written as an easy reference for children, this handbook continues the "Action Bible" series of publications that supplement the traditional Bible material with cartoons and colourful illustrations. With names of Bible characters, places in the biblical lands, as well as definitions laid out for important terms used in the Bible, this book is an ! to Z reference goldmine for children or anyone involved in children's ministry. Designed for use together with the larger volume "Action Bible," each term is then referenced with the exact Bible passage and page number from which the term is taken from. This makes it easy for novices and children to find out exactly where the terms come from. The description is intentionally kept at a children's level, especially elementary school level, so that children at that age group can use the handbook independently like a dictionary.  The colour and pictures will help keep the children more ready to open the Bible as if it is a colour and picture book. In fact, the book itself can be easily mistaken as a comic book. Yet, for a children's reference book, I am impressed with the level of detail given in the description. For example, the segment on birds, from doves to sparrows is an eye-opener not only at a children's level but will arouse the common interest of adults too. The different diseases are explained in a way that brings out how terrible they can become. Some of the articles will be new to those of us adults as well, especially those lesser know characters like Elymas, Ish-Bosheth or objects like Urim and Thummin;  or cities like Lydda and Mahanaim.

That said, books like these are meant to be a reference to give a quick explanation of terms. For serious study, it needs a bigger and more comprehensive supplement. At the same time, remember that the illustrations are the best guess effort of the author, and not necessarily the exact replica of the biblical contexts. The handbook's illustrations are to be understood as the author's interpretation of the events.

Recommendation: Great for kids and for teachers needing a reference book in children's ministry. For a reference work like this, buy the printed copy instead of the Kindle version. Due to the high graphics, loading and page turning takes a longer time and may be frustrating for many readers. Having a printed copy in front of kids will give them a chance to touch and feel the book. That is so much better than simply swiping or tapping keyboards on a computer.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"The Father You've Always Wanted" (Ed Tandy McGlasson)

TITLE: The Father You've Always Wanted : How God Heals Your Father Wounds
AUTHOR: Ed Tandy McGlasson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (192 pages).

We all need a little more love, especially from fathers to their children. Intended to be both "miraculous and practical," Ed Tandy McGlasson, a former-NFL linesman turned conference speaker and author, has contributed yet another resource on fatherhood and the importance of fathers in society. Believing with passion that Malachi 4:6 will soon be a reality, he makes a passionate plea for children to maintain hope and for fathers to be available answers to the crying need in our tough society. It is interesting that McGlasson begins the book with a story of an orphanage and how they have been cared for by a spiritual father. While in a real way, there are many who may not be orphans literally, they may instead experience an absentee father. Statistics reveal that more than half of the children in America will sleep without their fathers at home, which is a shocking phenomenon, considering how strongly society places upon the importance of family. Weaved throughout the book is a subtle reminder that we too are spiritual orphans in need of our Heavenly Father.

McGlasson begins gently reminding us that fathers do make a huge difference in the lives of growing children. From encouragement from being present at the child's sports game, to the painful revelations of many fathers who themselves did not have a good father-child relationship, on and on, McGlasson gives us a glimmer of hope that gets brighter as the chapters flow on. For fathers are able to give their children love, without ever the children asking for it. They should for that is what fathers are called to do. The book shows us the different ways fathers can love their children.

First, there is the role of blessings. A growing child needs the word of the father to help them grow well. It transfers a legacy of blessings and goodwill that the child can carry with him. For those who have never been blessed in any way, there is good news. It is never too late. Like the example of the 90-year old elder who finally verbalized his love for his 68-year old daughter, or the healing of a broken past with words that mend. Second, there is the significance of the names we have been given. The Bible has stories of how dads have "blown it." Yet, through the naming, the child grows up blessed when he lives in the might of his name. In a broken world, many people's relationships with their fathers are also broken. Without the father's blessings, people easily put themselves down as failures, as outcasts, as despised, unwanted, and useless. They become vulnerable to "performance based approval" that often does little to the self-esteem and true worth of oneself. That is why many who does not have a good father-child relationship go through lives of quiet desperation. Gradually, McGlasson introduces the "father that you always wanted" beginning with the Father that Jesus knew. Third, fathers show their love through words of affirmation. "You are my Beloved Son, whom I love" represents one of the most beautiful words of affirmation from Father God to Jesus. The sharing then becomes painfully personal as the author shares about how he lost his own dad in a plane crash., and how his own stepdad treats him the same way that his stepdad's dad had treated him. The point is, fathers wield a significant influence in their children's lives, whether knowingly or unknowingly. That is why wounds from a father take a long time to heal, if they ever heal. Fourth, the promise of God shows us that we have an eternal Father who loves us and cares for us. Even if some of us live as orphans in this world, we have this promise that with God as our heavenly Father, we are no longer orphans, in many sense. There is no need to try to make a name for ourselves just to prove we are worthy. There is no need to feel a pressure to achieve in order to be taken seriously. Sharing a personal humourous example of his encounter with a buffalo, there is also no need to show or prove that one needs to be boss.

Thankfully, the problems mentioned are not an end in themselves. The promises bear out a big and bright future.  It is God the Father who takes the initiative to call us back to Him. It is God the Father who becomes our reference person of who a perfect father can be. It is basically becoming aware that having God the Father, helps us not only to appreciate our status as children of God, it makes us want to be more like him, to be better fathers ourselves. The greatest gift is for parents to be close with their kids so much that no matter how things get rough or tough in this life, kids know their fathers and mothers will be there for them. McGlasson also shares some tips for single moms, broken families, and to take comfort in the Word of God that chimes in God's love to us, page after page.

My Thoughts

This is a beautiful book to read as Father's Day approaches. McGlasson has woven together a book that is sensitive to the plight of children who live like orphans in this world. He has a broad understanding of the many different challenges in families, with absentee fathers, with people who have a broken childhood and many more. Gently, he guides readers toward seeking God, our Perfect Heavenly Father, who is there for us, even when we feel our earthly fathers have disappointed us. The multiperspectival use of the "father" image is especially helpful. Not only is the book for those to reminisce or to reflect upon their earthly fathers, it encourages us to seek out and receive the love of our Heavenly Father.  In the process, slowly but surely, we grow in the understanding of the importance of fathers in the family and society. We grow in appreciation of God the Father. We grow in understanding the role of fathers. Like a football coach pounding out exhortations "You can do it!" McGlasson sounds out the clarion call for all to become the fathers they are called to be. Someone has said that it is easier to become a father (biologically) than to be a father (responsibly).

This book is a great way to encourage us to go forth not only to become the fathers we are called to be, but also to honour our fathers that God has called to be our dads. Great book!

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Friday, June 14, 2013

"Church Zero" (Peyton Jones)

TITLE: Church Zero: Raising 1st Century Churches out of the Ashes of the 21st Century Church
AUTHOR: Peyton Jones
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013, (240 pages).

This book is about Church planting. It is about starting up from scratch. Why is it necessary to start from ground up? That is because not only are many churches losing the young, they are modeled incorrectly, and far too different from the early New Testament Church. For instance, we have the numbers-driven MegaChurch movement, that continues to attract people and using a quantitative yardstick to denote success. Then there is the counter-MegaChurch movement, called the Emergent movement which rises up as a response to the rising disenchantment with the megachurches. Then, there is the inward-looking churches. Instead of reaching outward, they are dying inwards due to its self-serving programs. In Jones's words, churches in America and Britain are "already dying from within." Going back to the Early Church and the book of Acts, Jones argues that a major problem lies in the wrong structure right from the start. The voice of the apostles has been replaced by a pastor-boss led structure. Instead of innovating outreaches, churches are now managing programs. Instead of starting new parishes, many are preserving old ones. Instead of flourishing, many churches are floundering. Jones asserts that the vocation of "apostles" is to actively be sent out to start new churches. The mission of churches is to plant other churches. Together with the apostles, there are then the three amigos of evangelists, pastors, and teachers who make the ragtag group of gifted individuals to expand the kingdom of God. The gift-driven ministry forms the core element of raising first century churches out of the ashes of the modern church. With wit and humour, and parallels to many modern stories we are familiar with, Jones seems to really enjoy the whole process of writing and sharing.

There is hope for reformation of the modern Church, away from inward to outward, from Church programming to Church planting. In addressing the lack of "missionary" zeal, Jones makes a fervent case for the Church to identify more missionaries from among their midst. In a way, Jones is still seeking more numbers for "Church Zero." He wants more people to catch the vision for Church planting, and to reform their church wherever they are. At one point, he takes on a radical position and seeks to "blow up the death star." In some cases, change by innovation or reformation is not enough. It needs revolution. He tries to blow up the measurement by numbers, the way churches do their budgets, and the "celebrity performance" element in churches.

My Thoughts

Jones is fully aware that his ideas will not be easily accepted. That is why he says that being a prophetic voice for such changes can be lonely and is also an "occupational hazard." I am not sure how well churches will receive such a "game changer" book. I think it boils down to first recognizing the problem and the symptoms of the problems. If leaders are in self-denial, it is hard to convince them to do any change. If leaders are fearful, they will prefer the safety of the status quo. Only when they recognize the problem, then this book will be most helpful. Maybe, this book can force leaders to take a hard look at their own churches first, and then decide.

Change is not easy. Trying to catch a vision is important. Peyton Jones has a powerful message to share, but the implementation aspects will be a bit more complicated. Every reader and Church leader intending to put the principles of this book into practice will need to spend more prayer and persuasion among their team members to first recognize the problem, second bring them on board, and third, to identify an appropriate strategy for change. While top-down can sometimes be fast, it is better for a more broader base of supporters, and people who are prepared to "bite the bullet." Multiplication efforts need to be Spirit led and empowered. If you are concerned about the sustenance of the Church, don't bother with this book. If you are concerned about the gospel, and how the Church can play an active part in promoting this gospel, you need to pick up this book.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Altar Ego" (Craig Groeschel)

TITLE: Altar Ego: Becoming Who God Says You Are
AUTHOR: Craig Groeschel
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (240 pages).

"Your reputation is who others think of you. Your character is who you really are." With these words, an investigation is launched into three key ways to reset our egos from self-perspective toward the altar-perspective, to let God help us rediscover our Identity, our Values, and our call to Obedience. We build up our egos with temporal security when we fail to recognize who we really are (The Identity Problem). We surrender eternal values when we compromise the truth (The Values). We fail to practice passionate obedience when we choose to self-justify ourselves and our actions (The Call to Obedience). What is needed is to let our egos be dependent not on worldly measurements but by God. Put our egos at the altar of God, so that we can start to see from the perspective of the altar. Let us be measured in God's terms, not ours.

Part One begins with a call for an identity anchored in Christ. In a passionate plea to wake up the believer, Groeschel seeks to begin the process of anchoring our egos on the altar by focusing on the person of Christ. Our sacred identity is in Christ, not the worldly labels of success or achievements. In Christ, we are God's masterpiece, overcomers for God, and ambassadors for God. This calls for a sacrifice of our worldly self-image, and to let it be replaced by God's opinion of us. The key belief is that when we are identified with Christ as our core identity, we are free to live for Christ. First, we need to lay our false egos at the altar. Be careful about labels that define us, for they can easily lead us astray.

Part Two grows from the sacred identity in Christ toward living in Christ. Four virtues are highlighted. The virtue of patience counters the impulse driven worldliness that describes so much of the world we know. Impulsive actions tend to be more short-sighted, less thoughtful, and prone to foolish decisions. Patience enables us to pursue God more fully. It teaches us to be more conscious of the Holy Spirit. The virtue of integrity not only helps us match our behaviour with our beliefs, it can even bring about greater good in our circles of influence. The author shares how his act of integrity actually helps save a person's job. Not only that, a life of integrity helps other virtues to grow too, like respect, honour, trust, influence, and so on. The virtue of honour is an attitude of honouring others above ourselves, in the name of God. Groeschel observes that the way we honour others, is a reflection of the way we honour God. It is to believe the best of the other person, not just giving the person the benefit of the doubt. It builds up, not tear down. The virtue of gratitude is a way of life that helps us move from discontentment to contentment. These four virtues are evidence of a Christ-led life.

Part Three is the most radical of all the parts in the book. Like the previous part, Groeschel zooms in on four aspects of bold living; namely, bold behaviour, bold prayers, bold words, and bold obedience. In bold behaviour, one learns to stand up against expectations of the world to be more concerned about what matters to God, not distracted by what matters to man. Boldness means taking risks, moving outside our comfort zones, and proclaiming Christ boldly through our behaviour. What is the source of such spiritual boldness? Knowing Christ. In bold prayers, we pray what we believe about God. It is to pray that others know God more. It is God-centered, and oriented around the benefit of others. We pray big bold prayers when we are fully engaged with a Big God. In bold words, we let our deep-seated beliefs shape the words we say or write. It also means speaking boldly for the benefit of others, and loving others to speak the truth in love. In bold obedience, we are called to live a bold life of faith, where any doubts of worldly loss, we substitute with hope of kingdom gain.

My Thoughts

Groeschel has a gift of bringing to life simple concepts, and to turn it into a passionate delivery of powerful instructions and lifestyle exhortations. In this book, he not only gives us many reasons to long after Christ, he makes us excited about it all. Good works begin with the Good Word in us. Good deeds flow out of a good person in Christ, just like good fruits come from good trees. "Altar Ego" is an extremely practical and engaging book. With the many stories and illustrations, especially from his own life, Groeschel is generous with his self-deprecating comments, preferring to make fun of himself more, so that he can bring across his point less offensively. While that avoids offending other people, sometimes, I feel that he may have gone overboard with his silliness, and makes it sound rather ridiculous. Readers can take his sharing at face value, not more than that.

What is most beneficial for me is the fact that Groeschel tries to help us shift away from self-focus into God-focus. We need more books like that, especially in an age where self-help seems to be in vogue. In fact, this book emphasizes again the importance of faith in the daily lives of a Disciple of Christ. The reason why some Christians are living lives of mediocrity and lack-luster days is simply because they have not seen themselves as what God had intended. They have not read their own life's manual, written by the Creator. It is less important on how we see ourselves. It is more important how God sees us. The whole of life is based on this. This one message is worth the price of the book.

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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Discover Your Mission Now"

TITLE: Discover Your Mission Now
AUTHOR: Dave Ferguson
PUBLISHER: Exponential Resources, 2012.

[Free ebook available here.]

Each of us has a mission. Every Church is called to a mission. The trouble is, have we forgotten it? Are we totally clueless about what mission we have? When in doubt, check back with Jesus. This is the prescription that Ferguson has for us.

First, we discover what is the mission of Jesus. Second, we look at five ways (missional practices) in which Jesus accomplishes this mission. As followers of Christ, we are to do no less. Using the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well as a launching pad, Ferguson highlights the 3Rs of discovering the mission of Jesus.

A) The Mission of Jesus

First, there is the REACH aspect where Jesus sets off purposefully to reach out to those who are far away from God. Just like the way Jesus reaches out to the woman, so too we are to reach out to our neighbours and friends.

Second, there is RESTORE. Jesus restores the woman's life, and urges her to sin no more. God's love is so deep and wide that He cares for the down and out, the outcasts, and the most marginalized people on earth. We are to be channels of God's grace.

Third, there is the REPRODUCE element. Note how excited the woman was when she goes to share of her encounter with the rest of the folks in the town. One good deed deserves another. One great act of kindness leads to another.

All these three elements are applicable to both Church as well as the individual.

B) Discovering Our Mission (BLESS)

Five steps are given.
  1. B = Begin with Prayer
  2. L = Listen
  3. E = Eat
  4. S = Serve
  5. S = Story
All significant spiritual work must begin with prayer. Prayer is the window of relationship for man to meet with God, and for God to empower man to serve better. If we fail to pray, we are set for failure for we are then going forth in our own strength rather than God's.

Before we can bless the world, we need to be able to discern the needs of the world. Listening is a key activity. Prayer prepares the person to listen better.

Eating is essentially about opportunities to build relationships with people over a meal. In our busy world, while many people claim to lack time, opportunities are there for meal times.

Serving people from where we are is also an opportunity to bless our neighbourhood.

Finally, share the story of God and our testimony.

Ferguson ends the book with a challenge. Are we going to be people who "Read and Regret" or are we going to be people who "Read and Repeat?" Hopefully, in discovering our mission through BLESS, we learn to do the latter more and more.

The steps to discover our mission is very simple and practical.  Go and make disciples of all nations, and BLESS them.


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