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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"A Concise Guide To Bible Prophecy" (Stan Guthrie)

TITLE: Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy, A: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know
AUTHOR: Stan Guthrie
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (176 pages).

We read a lot about people predicting the future. Movies like 2012 predict the end of the world according to an ancient Mayan prophecy. Others use the Bible as a way to predict a doomsday scenario. For example, Harold Camping has even led his followers to sell all they have and prepare for the worst. Even a typical Church member will be left mystified by what exactly is biblical prophecy. So what is Bible prophecy? According to Stan Guthrie, it means at least three things. First, it is a statement by God and from God. The prophecy can come through people such as prophets, but the fact remains is that the words and prophecy is divine from above, and does not originate from men or the mouths of men. Second, all prophecies find its origin from God through Scripture, and all prophecies in Scripture point and ends in Christ. That is why some people, like the author makes an explicit distinction in the words "Bible prophecy" so that people will know. Third, each prophecy is but a pointer to the whole. It is not meant to be taken in itself as the complete fulfillment of isolated prophecies. In other words, each prophecy is a part of the whole.

According to Hugh Ross, about 2000 of the 2500 prophecies in the Bible have already been fulfilled. Another 500 are still awaiting eventual fulfillment. Guthrie maintains that it is only God who knows what the true exact numbers are. In a way, Guthrie also says that the precise number does not matter. What matters is that all of them point to Christ, and will glorify God eventually and fully. Choosing "60 predictions" Guthrie also claims that these need to be the ones "everyone should know."

The first eleven chosen prophecies are on the chosen state of Israel. Prophecies that have come through in Israel being a blessing to the nations; its struggles through history; its judgments meted out due to disobedience; and how the Gentiles are grafted back to the new Israel. In Jesus, the blessings are shared widely and more perfectly. In Jesus, the struggles are made real in a person. In Jesus, the world is saved.

The second set of prophecies cover the nations of Egypt, Nineveh, Syria, Tyre, Edom, Philistia, Ammon, Moab, Babylon, and many of the nations surrounding Israel. It shows how God is at work in the famine of Egypt, using Israel to save Egypt from calamity. The stories of Nebuchadnezzar amazingly detail the providence and protection of God on Israel despite the chosen state being exiled in a foreign land. Through it all, the central thread is that God protects Israel both within as well as without.

The third set of prophecies cover the royalties of David leading up to the Son of Man in Jesus. What Guthrie tries to show is that the early prophecies of Genesis 49:10 of a coming great king, finds fulfillment in the birth of Christ.

The next three sets of prophecies cover the birth, the life and ministry, and the death and resurrection of the Son of God in Jesus. Here is where the bulk of the prophesies see clear fruit. Many of the gospels bear testimony to the Old Testament fulfillment, with Jesus himself bearing witness.

The last two sets of prophecies are about the Church and the end times. With the Church comes the Great Commission and the great outpouring of the Spirit on the people of God. It is proclaiming far and wide the great fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ.

The last section will probably be of great interest to many readers. There is a reference to the Second Coming of Christ, the new heaven and the new earth, and how the future looks like. Broadly speaking, the message is since no one knows exactly when the last day will be, the best we can do is to be faithful and to live our lives readying to see Christ at anytime. Guthrie ends with a declaration that in Christ, the prophecies have been fulfilled, and in Christ, all other prophecies will also be fulfilled.

He closes the book with some basic principles of interpretation and contextual reading; as well as a listing of some popular schools of thought with regards to prophecy and interpretation.

So What?

Guthre maintains a consistent focus on the Person of Christ throughout the book. He has done this with both the Old and the New Testaments with a sharp Christological focus. If in doubt, focus on Christ. Right from the start, know that in Christ all will be fulfilled. In a way, readers will feel as if there is nothing really new in this book. Some may be thinking: As long as people know that all fulfillment is in Christ, then why read the book?

I think there are three reasons to buy this book. The first reason is knowledge. I know of Christians who are basically reluctant to talk about prophecies lest they be associated with doomsday prophets or false teachers such as Harold Camping, whose predictions tend to harbour on the extreme views of the end times. At the same time, there are believers who feel that many of these things are not profitable for them as no one can actually know when the end times will be. Having said that, prophecy is something that is important for all believers to know. Even if one does not feel a need to learn about prophecy, what if someone else likes to know more? Are we going to just roll our eyes and ignore these questions? Learning more about prophecy will give us some handle on how to approach the topic, even if it is an elementary understanding.

The second reason is witness. This comes together with the passion for right teaching. If we do not learn how to understand prophecy properly in the first place, we will not be helpful witnesses at all. Just like the prophets of old have testified to a coming Messiah, we too as disciples of Christ are to proclaim the Name of Jesus as the Saviour of the world. This is not just a job for people with the title of prophets. This is a responsibility for all believers.

The third reason is the methodology. Personally, I would have preferred the "Different approaches to Interpreting Prophecy" to have more coverage in the main part of the book, rather than being sidelined all the way to the end. That said, I can understand why Guthrie decides that the best place for that is at the Appendix. His methodology is simple and written for the layperson. With the single focus on Christ, readers will have a good start on learning how to read and how to link the different narratives, prophetical writings as well as New Testament works together. This methodology is most helpful and clear, though it may not satisfy those who are more scholarly and desires more "meat" in terms of archaelogical works and research.

If there is any critique, I will say that the title of the book sounds rather bold. What makes the author so sure that these 60 prophecies are what people should know? Why only 60? While it is concise, there are also times in which after having my appetite whetted, the chapter ends. It makes me feel like the book is a mere devotional at times. However, if you have no idea what prophecy is all about, maybe, this book is a good starting point.

Rating: 4 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, July 26, 2013

"Fully Alive" (Larry Crabb)

TITLE: Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes
AUTHOR: Dr Larry Crabb
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (224 pages).

What happens when a man or a woman is most fully alive to his calling as a man or a woman respectively? More than that, what does it mean to be a man/woman of God for the glory of God; to be created male or female; meaning of femininity or masculinity? What happens when two fully alive persons interact on the "Bridge of Connection?" Crabb writes that any meaningful connection must stem from the great truth of the identity of the Triune God, on how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit relate with one another. Crabb takes a four-part perspective to free oneself toward becoming fully alive in our sexuality.

First, we need to go to the very core of our being to discover what it means to be feminine and masculine. Crabb makes a keen observation on patriarchal culture of certain churches that are so harped up on "role of women" and does not place equal emphasis on the "role of men." He goes back to the beginning, asking a more pivotal question of what it actually means to be in Christ, and the reason for our existence. Any spiritual formation must be relational, and any Christian spiritual formation must be relational in Christ. Genesis clearly states that we are created in the image of God. It is because God is relational, the key to understanding our sexuality is in our relational abilities, not our role capabilities. We build community using the best of our gendered uniqueness. We are not meant to build commodities where our gender becomes a means to material ends. More than that, our relationship building and community developing will reveal more and more our gendered uniqueness. For example, what makes a woman feminine is neqebah, (means punctured, open), that it is "to invite, to neither demand nor control." Feminity is essentially invitational, and that begins by inviting God in. It is also a willingness to give. Submission (ezer) is to be open to help by someone stronger. Submission involves wise discernment with gentleness, and not reflexive obedience.  For men, the Hebrew word is zakar, which is to "make an impact." The Greek word used is arsen, which is to lift or to carry. If relational femininity is about revealing the "invitational beauty of God," relational masculinity is revealing the "incarnational beauty of God."

The second part of the book deals with the place of fear that robs us from living out our gendered selves. There are fears that affect both male and female. Crabb describes the four personas that inhibit women from their truest selves: the defensively deranged woman; the prematurely satisfied woman; the angrily hardened woman; and the visibly troubled woman. The problem with men is their fear of "weightlessness" that when they are not doing things, they feel useless. Along with it is loneliness, doubts, and despair. Three kinds of weightless men are described: the shallow; the secularized; and the spiritually addicted. The shallow will find unfulfillment in relationships. The secularized do lots of stuff but without God's power.

Part Three of the book gives us a bigger idea about the source of the problem by turning the picture over to see what an unfeminine and unmasculine person looks like. There is that self-centered relating that destroys community. There is the tongue that invites glib words, slander people, spreads gossip. Unfeminine or unmasculine behaviour often invites a reciprocal response. For example, a wife who went into depression becomes unable to satisfy the sexual desires of the husband, who subsequently dabbled in pornography. The complex web of dysfunctional behaviours invite insecurity through inability to help the wife; reluctance to risk failure; and deceiving oneself to think that sexual fantasies can be a "safe" channel without breaking marital vows. For both male and female, the core of the problem is the deception that we can live without God. Such a person feels that God is impossible, impractical, irrelevant, and unnecessary.

By Part Four, readers will begin to sense what the author had in mind right from the start: Spiritual Formation. Through Christ, we are formed from female to feminine, and from male to masculine. Spiritual formation is about disconnecting ourselves from worldly stereotypes toward Godly awareness and reality of our gender beings. When we meet God, we will begin to realize our created desires for community and holiness. Such a process is slow and often long. The three starting blocks are conception, conversion, and confession. The tell tale symptoms of anyone growing in spiritual formation are:

  • Noticeable end to Self-Centeredness
  • Desire to walk the narrow road of obedience
  • Recognizing our weaknesses but reinforcing our hope in Christ
  • Sensing the work of the Spirit in us
  • Living and Loving the Abundant Life
The book ends with an epilogue written by the author's wife. It is a fitting end to a book that tries to rescue men and women from being trapped in worldly stereotypes, and to free them to be the men and women that God had intended them to be. 

So What?

This is a very liberating book, true to its title. It addresses our human sexuality in a Christ-centered way. At the same time, we are reminded of how vulnerable we are to worldly expectations and stereotypes that often trap us and prevent us from growing properly as persons. A key idea is that we are more gendered than we often think. It is not a choice of sexual preference that we can make. Another idea is that we are not what we choose, but we are what God has created us to be. The trouble with choices is that making a personal preference can mean choosing something totally out of sync with our very gendered identity. It brings confusion into an already confused world of sexuality. It confuses roles. It confuses our sense of identity. It confuses our relationships with one another. Most importantly, the book reminds us of the need for spiritual formation, which cannot begin by reading manuals or books, attending conferences or talks, but starting with our relationship with God. The book shows a framework that hopefully will propel readers toward discovering their own spiritual formation paths, in Christ.

I like the way that the author starts with the biblical definitions of gender. In order to get a sense of who we are, we need to be freed away from the worldly stereotypes often labeled on what men or women are supposed to be. Crabb argues passionately that we all need to go back to what the biblical vision of gender is. The spiritually addicted try to dominate over other men through whatever resources they have in order to gain respect. Thankfully, Crabb leads us to the fourth kind of man that we ought to be appreciative of: sincerely struggling man. Such a man is like Augustine or Paul who confesses their weaknesses so openly and bravely.

I also like the way that Crabb brings all back to Christ centered lives. We are all made either male and female. The problem is, we are living in a world that is confused and out of that confusion, we are molded to fit the stereotypes and expectations that are often unbiblical, unhelpful, and untrue to our calling. The road ahead is, seek Christ. The Bible says in Genesis that "male and female he created them" to be. The world instead claims "male and female we chose to be." Society has elevated personal freedom even to the point of choosing one's sex and sexual preferences! For some, they have also tried to create their own sexuality in their own image, far away from God's intended creation.

While I enjoy the way Crabb has described the feminine and masculine aspects, I think there is still much room left untouched. What about transvestites? What about homosexuals? What about people confused about their genders and sexualities? Perhaps, Crabb can add some of his thoughts in another edition, if it gets published.

Nevertheless, I am happy to recommend this book as another great resource for spiritual formation.

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.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"STIR" (Mindy Caliguire)

TITLE: STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships
AUTHOR: Mindy Caliguire
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (192 pages).

It is important to cultivate the inner life. It is necessary to grow spiritually. It is also critical to be transformed inside, that we may be agents of God's transforming work in the communities we are in. The question is, how are we going to go about doing it? Are small groups the answer? While there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, sometimes, we cannot even find a suitable one. In a culture which tends to pay more attention to the external, we often suffer from a lack of cultivation of the internal. This is where Christian spirituality is important. For spirituality deals with a lot of what is happening on the inside. Call it soul care; inner transformation; spiritual formation; or simply spiritual growth, sometimes when we go loud with the questions, answers received are many, but few are appropriate for our needs.  More crucially, the Mindy Caliguire observes that our existing spiritual climate is more "sole (solo)" care rather than "soul care." An entrepreneur with a vision for soul care, the author feels that soul care is not just a solitary exercise. It is about the type of New Testament community as exemplified by Acts 2. True spiritual formation is bound up within the fabric of relationships. For spirituality is relational. Just like the Holy Spirit works in us to help us, the Holy Spirit also works in us and others to help one another. This book is about spiritual formation within communities and for communities. Church is not meant to be an impersonal institution but a group of like-minded believers who care for one another personal. We are not meant to be consumers of religious goods, but community of pilgrims working for the good of the world and for one another. We are not made to disconnect ourselves from people toward individual lives. For we are created for relationships, for community living, and for sharing and caring.

Caliguire, a spiritual formation director at Willow Creek Community Church has discovered that small group programs do not necessarily lead to transformed lives. People can faithfully attend small groups and still not grow in spiritual health. For spiritual health can only thrive in relational communities. Three things are necessary to make spiritual transformation a routine exercise in any Church: "clear vision; strong teaching; right relational environment." This is done through learning together (thinking), journeying together (sharing); and following together (doing).

Part One is about "Learning Together" in contrast to running alone. Caliguire shares about her own journey of spiritual formation that ends with a thud when she realizes she has missed out on the community aspect of soul care. Building her case from biblical examples, she increasingly realizes that God had meant for soul care to be done communally rather than individualistically. Spiritual growth is about moving from one phase to another.  From "core beliefs" to "spiritual practices" to "giving away." In the first phase, there is a higher degree of needing a more "directive" climate, where one is taught and guided. The source of guidance is from the Word of God, and through mature spiritual directors. Even leaders need an environment where they can share and provide guidance for one another. The three core goals in this phase is Scripture; core beliefs; and relationship with God and others. As they grow in God-awareness, in personal encouragement, and openness to the wisdom of God, they will start to notice new behaviours and learning experiences.

Part Two is about "journeying together." On the one hand, we need to travel together as a group, on the other, we need to own our role. At this stage, one needs to be prepared for a fair amount of uncertainty, even discouragement because it can be confusing at first. While taking ownership of our own growth journey, we remember that we are traveling with other pilgrims as well on their own faith journeys. Together, the community discover for themselves they need God more and more. Groups need to set a "AWOL" (A Way of Life) format at this phase. Firstly a sense of ownership will put into practice the learning gained in the preceding phase. Secondly, growing also means discovering the hidden "motives, desires, shame, and fear" in our lives. As the wounds are revealed, healing is allowed to happen. At this stage, it is important to have an experienced director who have been there, a trusted guide. Caliguire also introduces some of the mystics of old, like St John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. The thing about journeying together also means we are to be the guide of someone else within the community. Caliguire provides a chapter to help us be that "desert guide," giving readers 8 signs on how to help others.

Part Three is the third stage of "following together." Here, we are ready to move away from a "directional" relationship toward a more "discerning" relationship. While direction involves creating safe relational environments, strong spiritual place, and an appropriate curriculum, discerning is about four things:

  1. Helping others find connections with God's work;
  2. Praying for inner healing;
  3. Catching glimpses of God;
  4. Recognizing when a person can move on.

Once the momentum has been built, our stories, our services, and our spiritualities converge into a common surrender, abandonment, contentment, and participation in God's will.  At this point, relationships flourish, with free giving and receiving of direction and discernment. Spiritual friendship is formed and continually reforming.

My Thoughts

What spiritual information can do for the head does not necessarily means that it will do the same for the heart. The main purpose in this book is not simply about sharing the different stages of spiritual transformation, or the steps to take with regards to spiritual growth. It is more about self-awareness and communal relationships. It is about deepening our own resolves to own our learning, to share our journeys, and to follow Christ together, through intentional relationships. Our hearts need to be stirred by the Spirit to go beyond mere Bible study toward Bible study with spiritual transformation in mind. We need to journey together with free flowing giving and receiving relationships; with the more mature leading the young, and the mature discerning with one another.

I appreciate Caliguire's efforts in putting together a structure for spiritual formation, which is often something not easily understood. Neither is such spirituality easily grasped. That said, I read this book with cautious optimism, recognizing that even in a community, there are different people of various backgrounds and spiritual maturity. Forming relational groups can be a tricky thing. Some still prefer the traditional Bible study group. Not many are comfortable with spiritual formation groups either for lack of mature spiritual directors, or the lack of interest in spirituality. We are creatures more comfortable with spiritual information, and less clear about what spiritual formation is all about. That is why the move from "directional" to "discerning" can be frustrating for lack of a clear guide. This book can provide a jump start. That said, it needs a mature spiritual director to guide the uninitiated. Perhaps, it is more suited for leaders or people who are ready to take the plunge. More importantly, people need to be "stirred" with interest, before this book will register any interest in them. Once stirred, this book will be great fodder and fuel for the journey.

Be stirred and know that God is God.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Billy Graham in Quotes"

TITLE: Billy Graham in Quotes
AUTHOR: Franklin Graham with Donna Lee Toney
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2011, (448 pages).

This massive collection of quotes is a treasure chest of wisdom and wit from one of America's most revered preachers and one of the most recognizable evangelical figures in this century. It covers topics from A to Z (Y to be exact). It touches on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from abortion to addiction; Christian living to missions; personal character and political leadership; young and old; and many more topics. All of these quotes grow out of a firm and steadfast conviction: The Bible as the authoritative Word for all of life.

Thoughtfully arranged, the authors of this collection of quotes, namely Franklin Graham the son, Donna Lee Toney, a colleague of Billy Graham, have teamed up to organize many of the classic quotes culled from the great evangelist's many talks, books, writings, meetings, speeches, rallies, and lectures.  Five things grabbed my attention. First, there is that reliance on the Bible as the starting point. That is why, every topic starts with a Bible passage as an anchor for the entire chapter. The quotes are then arranged more in accordance with the Bible verse rather than the title of the chapter. Second, it takes someone with a close knowledge of the man himself to quote Graham within the right context. A book of such nature cannot be easily done from a distance. So often, quotes can be taken easily out of context which risks misrepresentation. Just deciding on which material to pull the quote out from is already a huge task. Third, one cannot help but notice the conviction in each quote. Graham is ready to call a spade a spade without reservation or qualification. For example, he calls Satan point blank as a "crafty and clever camouflager." He fingers out the problem of marriages that lie in people "absorbed only in their own pleasures and desires." He warns us against pride in one of the simplest ways possible:
"Pride comes from looking only at ourselves;
meekness comes through looking at God."

Four, Graham speaks in a manner that convicts hearts. The quotes themselves are weighty and readers will find many moments in which they have to let Graham's convictions challenge the reader: "What about you?"

Five, this book alone brings together the best of Graham all in one book. It reminds us once again why Billy Graham is so renowned, respected, and revered by many people, both Christians as well as non-Christians.

 It is tempting for any reader to just open this book, look at the topic of interest, and then choose the first quote that grabs our attention. My advice is: slow down. Pray and ponder. Reflect and wonder on the Scripture verse at the beginning of each topic. Then slowly peruse the quotes one by one, thoughtfully, critically, and openly. I recommend this book highly for preachers and teachers to use as resource material; the busy reader for a quick meditative quote; and the Christian for building up conviction in the Word of God, and commission to share that Word with the world for God.


Rating: 5 stars of 5.


I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Choose Justice" (Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne)

TITLE: Choose Justice - A Daily Lifestyle
AUTHOR: Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne
PUBLISHER: World Vision Canada, 2013, (DVD + Discussion Guide)

Have you ever wondered about the power and influence of the Church community, IF every member lives out the example of Jesus? Have we considered whether we are living more in line with worldly expectations or in line with Jesus' expectations?

This set of studies focuses on the power of choice Christians and Churches have when it comes to doing something about justice in this world. Bearing much similarity to the passions in "Red Letter Christians," the same two authors have come together with World Vision to produce six video discussions and a conversation guide for Christians not just to talk about justice, but to live out justice through a daily lifestyle. This resource grows out of three convictions. It asserts that Christians are called to simple living and justice affirming. It maintains that justice is possible through intentional choices. It promises that such a lifestyle of simplicity and justice will bring about blessings for all.

  1. Choose Justice as a Lifestyle
    This first session sets the stage about the importance of living a lifestyle in recognition of needy people. It shows us the way Jesus lived. It contrasts two different lifestyles; the worldly vs the way of Jesus; and then asks us to choose.
  2. Choose Justice at the Table
    We can choose justice by the way we eat. Here, readers are asked to consider the amount of consumption and wastage; how food can be used to build community; how we adopt an 'open table' and food choices.
  3. Choose Justice at the Party
    This session homes in on the way we celebrate special occasions. How can we simplify our food choices? What biblical principles can we apply on inviting people to our party? There is the three-gift model that deserves consideration, including the way we receive gifts. In conventional gift-giving, give less and receive differently. In addition, learn to give charitably to the needy. 
  4. Choose Justice at the Mall
    With shopping a major past-time in many parts of the world, learning how to shop as Christianly as possible is important. It is about buying well, not just buying less. It is being prepared to change our lifestyles to live more simply, even doing away with some treasured conveniences. It is also exercising consumer power and communicating our values through our buying.
  5. Choose Justice at the Bank
    Here, the focus is on money and the use of money. What is our relationship with money? Does it cause others to envy? What about the way the Church spends money?
  6. Choose Justice in Community
    Here, we are urged to "go boldly where we have not gone before." The purpose of the Church is not to spend all of its resources on herself, but to learn to go beyond their comfort zone.

Do not let the brevity of the book/DVD resource deceive you. It is packed with lots of ideas and practical tips about learning how to inculcate just living through intentional choices in our daily lives.

The virtues of simplicity and action are lived out by the very format and footprint of this resource. With six short videos in the DVD and a small booklet of condensed ideas, anyone can read this book quickly. It is challenging enough to make one stand up and want to do something. It can convict those of us who have lived in our comfort zones for far too long. Perhaps, the way ahead for people feeling jaded about their faith is to exercise their faith. This book shows the way. Use this book for maximum benefit with a small group of believers what want to do something.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Graf-Martin Communications and World Vision Canada without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Is God Anti-Gay?" (Sam Allberry)

TITLE: Is God anti-gay? (Questions Christians Ask)
AUTHOR: Sam Allberry
PUBLISHER: New Malden, Surrey, UK: The Good Book Company, 2013, (88 pages).

Hardly a day goes by nowadays without someone somewhere talking about homosexuality. Whether for or against, hate or love, advocate or opponent, one tends to get a sense that the debate will never really be resolved. The opinions are deep and the camps are divided. It is hard to get any consensus apart from the popular "Let's agree to disagree" conclusion. Sometimes, what it requires for greater understanding is do some dissecting of the complexity behind the "presumed facts." At the heart of Sam Allberry's argument is the separation of fact from feeling. In other words, what one feels does not define the person's being. Mere having a Same-Sex Attraction (SSA) is not the same as saying a person is born or created that way. The author is a pastor at St Mary's Church in New Malden, Surrey in England (Corrected: Maidenhead, Berkshire. Thanks Nathan!). He admits he has SSA, but is quick to say that it is not SSA that defines his sexuality, but God. Responding to people's sympathy about it being "hard" to give up homosexuality, Allberry's answer that Jesus' call for disciples to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, and to follow Christ, is much harder. For the gospel demands us to give up not just a part, but "everything."

The short answer to the title of the book is simply: No! The problem with us is that we prefer to live more for ourselves and our preferences rather than for God alone. God loves us, but do we love our own sexuality more than God? Tackling the age-old question of "What does the Bible say about homosexuality?" Allberry gives some biblical basis on how homosexuality affects five areas.

First, the biblical pattern for marriage is between a man and a woman. Two persons become one flesh, that they can be fruitful and multiply. Genesis 1-2 shows that God blesses marriage, and sex is for marriage. In fact, all sexual activity outside of marriage is evil. Sexual union produces a form one oneness that is not the same as SSA that uses commitment to bind two persons of the same sex. In other words, sexual union is between a man and a woman within the confines of a heterosexual marriage. Same sex couples can still have commitment and faithfulness to each other, but that is not the same as biblical sexual union. More importantly, human marriage reflects God's grace.

Second, the Bible is not a proof text against homosexuality, although it warns about it. The Old Testament shows that homosexuality is a serious sin, based on the evils committed at Sodom and Gomorrah. Lev 18 and 20; Romans 1; and others have specific prohibitions against homosexuality. Moreover Paul says that homosexual activities are "unnatural." Allberry even says that homosexuality is a sign of God's judgment, that the greatest punishment God can inflict upon us, is to give us exactly what we want. The point is, anyone who speaks against homosexuality needs to speak equally hard on other sins like greed, theft, murder, slander, etc. Biblically, Allberry declares: "God forbids homosexual activity." He also rebuts statements by the gay advocates who often say Jesus never explicitly condemn homosexuality. He also insists that the only other alternative to marriage is celibacy. If that is true, it explains why gay rights groups are insistent on having their same sex unions to have a marriage label.

Third, Allberry writes about Christians who struggle with homosexuality. Again, the point is clear. How one feels is not the same as what God has created one to be. While change is possible, even with sexual orientation, the Bible does not explicitly promise that we get changed now or during our lifetime. Being celibate or chaste are not the only struggles. There is loneliness, isolation, and sexual temptation. Remember that even Paul himself has to deal with a personal thorn in the flesh. The author addresses a helpful distinction in terms of nuancing how one applies the Old Testament prohibitions. One cannot read the Bible and use the same application yardstick to everything the Old Testament says. There are "contours, emphases, and priorities" plus other moral requirements. How Jesus casts new light to some of the moral code is a case in point. 

Four,  it is no secret that the Christian Church is deeply divided over the homosexuality issue. The author supplies tips on what the Church can do when a gay couple comes to their churches; how to support them legitimately; and how to debate about homosexuality.

Five, see the homosexuality debate not as something to be avoided but lovingly engaged with grace. Many non-Christians are watching how Christians play out their disagreements. Other tips include how Christians can share the gospel with gay non-Christians, and how to relate, etc.

So What?

The author of this small book is both realistic about the problem, but also hopeful about the Church's role in bringing about greater understanding among the different groups. Riding on the fact that the gospel is both "relationally costly" as well as "relationally generous," Christians can pattern themselves as being biblically faithful regardless of external critics; and at the same time, be gracious in their relating to dissenting views. As I read this book, I am reminded that while it is easy for Christians who are "straight" to say that homosexuality is a sin, it is much harder for Christians with SSA to say the same thing. After all, it is like saying something very negative about one's favourite sports team, that douses out any flame of support. Allberry humbly submits himself and his own sexual orientation to obedience of the Scriptures. It is so easy to twist and turn Scriptures away from what they say, toward what we want the Scriptures to say. The art of scripture twisting has been around for quite something. Usually, when fervent Bible believers are passionate about anything, they can so easily twist the Bible to say what they want to say.

Not Allberry. Sam Allberry has openly shared about his own struggle with SSA. He has provided his best understanding of what the Bible says about homosexuality. At the same time, he gives laypeople a good and honest approach not only to the homosexuality issue in general, but how to relate to people who are gay in particular. I appreciate his distinction of terms, preferring to use SSA rather than the word "gay," simply because far too many people have lumped up their self-identity with the latter term, forgetting other aspects of themselves. This is one of the most compassionate and honestly written books by one who has personally struggled and still struggling with SSA.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by The Good Book Company and Cross-Focused Reviews without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Sunday School That Really Excels" (Steve R. Parr)

TITLE: Sunday School that Really Excels: Real Life Examples of Churches with Healthy Sunday Schools
AUTHOR: Steve R. Parr
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013, (208 pages).

Many experienced educators know that learning is something more caught than taught. For such a practical topic like creating Sunday Schools that excel, we cannot simply talk about theories and strategies. We need to learn from various real life examples as well as tested methods. Simply put, this book is a book of stories and storytellers, of how different churches put into practice their sense of God's will for their Sunday Schools. Instead of reading the book straight through, and then teaching the concepts to others, the author suggests another approach. Encourage all the leaders to have a copy. Read a chapter or more together. Then gather again to discuss it and apply it if necessary. Seventeen stories from thirteen contributors are put together about Sunday Schools that excel. Sunday school is the Christian Education arm of any Church, from kids to adults.

Thom Rainer talks about the state of the Sunday School today. Backed by years of research and familiarity with the North American Church scene, Rainer emphasises the strong link between Church health and a strong Sunday School. He calls Sunday School an "open group" ministry where anyone can join at any time. SS has become more infused with the need for a "worshipful experience." There is a shift toward missions and ministries. There is also a rising inconsistency in materials being used. Following that snapshot of the current SS climate, readers can then dive into 16 stories of SS excellence.
  1. Normal Church: Josh Hunt shares that normal Church is one that has a growing Sunday School. Through the example of Pastor Roger Radliff, we learn that a growing Sunday School has the elements of a caring leader. There is a vibrant Visitation strategy. Churches with a strong visitation program are double likely to grow.  
  2. Rural Church: Tim Smith shares the example of how Corinth Baptist Church continues to thrive despite being in a rural area, and the majority of the residents earning below the national average household income.  On top of that, there are four major challenges: mindset; long commute; family power structure where a negative leader will mean the whole family not go to Church; perceiving the pastor more like a chaplain rather than a leader. Excelling means to have a clear mission and vision. It means reaching outward as well as inward. It means commitment to a Sunday School strategy. It means leadership. 
  3. Established Ministry: Every Church ministry needs to be re-vitalized from time to time. Ben Pritchett thinks so. Keep working at it is a good reminder.
  4. Small Congregations: J.D Tucker mentions four factors behind thriving SS in small congregations. Strong in evangelism; wide in fellowship; deep in prayer; and broad in welcoming.
  5. Hands-On Missions: Bob Mayfield talks about a rare aspect of SS: Missions. It is the paradigm of missions emphasis that drives the entire SS strategy. It is what members do AFTER the class that makes for a successful SS.
  6. During Crisis: Learn to find God and then find friends, especially during a crisis situation. Each crisis brings about an opportunity for positive change.
  7. Equipping Leaders: David Francis and Gary Jennings talk about equipping leaders through shared vision, regular communications, clear processes, and team work.
  8. Volunteer SS Director: Even 'normal' individuals can excel. Five critical leadership factors are identified. Teachers need to be valued, and known personally. Regular teacher meetings are held. Making guests feel at home is needed. Regular recruitment.  
  9.  Attendance Campaign: Whether the Church is small or large, SS can be an outreach program through 'Friend Days.'  
  10. Declining Church: Stressing the need for the pastor to champion the SS, churches can arrest any decline through promoting the importance of SS. Interestingly, the author indicates that growing churches have growing SS rather than growing numbers in worship services. 
  11. Multicultural: Leaders need to have a multicultural understanding as they try to be as welcoming as possible to all. 
  12. Small Groups: Elmer Towns talk about how SS classes can transition to small groups, like how a weekday group can supplement Sunday group.
  13. Innovative Home Groups:  Tim Smith discusses the traditional SS structure with innovative ideas like home groups. While the SS serves as an initial entry point, the home group cultivates an environment for community and growth. 
  14. Teaching God's Word: Ken Coley affirms the need for excellence in teaching the Word of God. The fruit is in the transformation of believers' lives outside of the classroom. For where there is no change, no teaching or learning is done. Engaging members is key, through knowing the learning styles of each member and tailoring the teaching accordingly.
  15. Examples: Steve Parr gives more glimpses of some SS that excel. One starts care groups within each SS. Another involves the casting and the executing of a clear vision.  
  16. Excelerate: Some best practices are then considered. 
The SS is here to stay. Whether traditional or non-traditional, large or small churches, thriving or declining, there is a way in which SS can excel. The traits are common. Every successful SS has:
  • The pastor as the primary advocate;
  • Training of lay leaders;
  • Elevating SS as key ministry of Church
  • Leadership;
  • Growing relationship among members;
  • Communications and teamwork;
  • Missions
This collection of stories, strategies, best practices is a ready resource for any Sunday School leader, pastor, volunteer director, teacher, or simply an interested member. Filled with so many great ideas and ready illustrations, one can turn to any page and there will be at least one idea to take to our home churches and apply them. That is most important is that many of these ideas and stories are real tested ones. I recommend this resource highly for anyone involved in all things Sunday School, Church School, Education Ministry, or whatever names chosen. Let me close with this very passionate plea.

"A church can have more than one priority. On the other hand, if you have a dozen priorities you might as well have none. Vibrant churches usually have three to five key priorities and Sunday school or their small group strategy is clearly communicated as one of them. Can you have six or seven priorities? You can, but the others become more and more diluted and ultimately devalued. Your Sunday school ministry must be elevated as one of the churches priorities through the pastor’s preaching, pastor’s verbal affirmation, the affirmation of the staff in larger congregations, through written communication, through calendaring, and through commitment as a key priority." (Steve R Parr, p195)

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"One Way Love" (Tullian Tchividjian)

TITLE: One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World
AUTHOR: Tullian Tchividjian
PUBLISHER: Colorado Spings, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2013, (240 pages).

Do we still need another book about law and grace? That was my question when I first started reading this book. After the introduction, I was sold. We need to be reminded again that it is "grace alone" that suffices. Many Churches are still practicing a form of works+performance sprinkled with grace kind of a spirituality. Other churches aim at a lot of grace together with works. Tchividjian challenges readers and churches to move from "grace a lot" to "grace alone." This is essentially going back to the Reformation call by Luther for sola gracious. According to the author, the Church is way overdue for an "inexhaustible grace" in an increasingly "exhausted world." This is how the author begins. He describes the constant push and shove that Christians have given in, competing in the world according to worldly standards. As long as one can earn some assurance, safety, possession, or some kind of a control over one's life, working hard is a no brainer. Unfortunately, the costs can be quite high. The need to desire constant approval leads easily to pride, arrogance, and distrust of the world and people around us. We prefer perfectionism to acceptance of our humanness. We insist on crazy excellence instead of humane understanding of our limitations.  So much so that Christians have even turned the Bible of God redeeming us, into a self-help manual on how to redeem ourselves! In insisting on a You-rub-my-back-and-I-rub-yours kind of reciprocity in relationships, we have unwittingly forgotten that grace is a one-way love, independent of how others treat us. Worse, when we receive something free, inevitably we ask why!

This very "why" response is exactly the trigger for the author's return from rebellion. Describing his teenage years of resisting his parents' wishes, he becomes fascinated by acts of grace on him to win him back. Fully expecting the "voice of the law," or people trying to straighten things out with him,  he realizes the power of unmerited grace just like the parable of the Prodigal Son. His own life is a testimony of how it is not the law but grace that led him home.

The journey to a "grace alone" life continues with a tribute to his late father, that "it was his unconditional, reckless, one-way love for me at my most arrogant and worst that God used to eventually bring me back." This journey is threatened by fear of judgment, stress, anxiety, and a performance infatuated culture. The more one is addicted to law, the less one is attracted to grace. It needs conscientious battling against law-based behaviours. The author admits that every relationship has various degrees of judgmentalism. We can fight, take flight, or appease people or their expectations. The key is to abandon the low view of law (of judgment) and to adopt a high view of law (of fulfillment in Christ).  This fulfillment in Christ is learning to share the love of God in grace.  It is about a one-way-love that gives without expecting anything in return. Grace shifts one from hurting to healing. It surprises us. It counters the world. Grace keeps us humble. The world praises performers and successful people. Grace accepts people regardless of performance or success. It turns out to-do list upside down, turning a have-to mindset to a want-to desire.

So What?

The reason why grace is such a needful topic nowadays is simply because the world we live in are increasingly graceless and cruel. People care for their own agendas. There are plenty of law-based behaviours even among Christians. The topic of grace is relevant for all, for Christ died for all. It reminds me of the wisdom of one desert fathers, who was asked what the spiritual life is all about. He replied: "I fall down. I get up. I fall down. I get up. I fall down again. I get up again."

These seemingly mundane set of actions can be applied to grace. We work, and we sin. Grace renews us. We work and sin again. Grace forgives us again and again. The difference is this. True recipients of grace will want to sin less and less. They want to share the grace of God. They want to bless people. They will journey along the direction of "one-way-love" giving as much as possible, expecting as little as possible in return. Perhaps, one day, we can grow to the point of expecting NOTHING in return, fully wanting to please God who has given us everything.

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.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bible Savvy Series (Jim Nicodem)

TITLE: Bible Savvy Set of 4 books (Bible Savvy Series)
AUTHOR: Jim Nicodem
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013.

This is a unique Bible resource that comprises an overall Bible storyline, that offers a defense of the Bible, that supplies tips for understanding the Bible, and for application purposes. Together, they form a basic class for laypersons to better appreciate the Bible. Here is my summary of the books followed by some brief thoughts about the whole series.

Book I - Epic, The Storyline of the Bible (190 pages)

The Bible is essentially one big story. Out of nothing, Genesis records the story of creation, the Fall, and at the same time, leads to "Redemption Prompted." Right from the beginning, God had redemption in mind. From Genesis to Song of Songs, this redemption process is given greater emphasis through "Redemption Prepared." Through Abraham, the Exodus, Ruth, Israel, and despite the idolatry and rebellion of God's people, the redemptive process remains intact not because of man, but because of God's faithfulness in keeping the covenant. "Redemption Prophesied" continues the promises of God through Isaiah to Malachi. We read of how the prophets remind people of God's laws, warn them about judgment, and urge the people to repent. They proclaim the coming of Christ faithfully. The gospels of Matthew to John proclaim the "Redemption Purchased" with brief thoughts on each of the gospels specific emphasis. For example, Matthew is written to Jews, Mark for Gentiles, Luke for the world, and John for all to believe that Jesus is the Christ. Acts to Jude is summarised as "Redemption Proclaimed of early Church life and the witnessing of the Gospel. Finally, Revelation is called "Redemption Perfected" as we look toward the Second Coming of Christ. In one word, the Bible is about Redemption.

Book II - Foundation, The Reliability of the Bible (144 pages)

The entire Christian faith is dependent on the authority of the Bible. If the Bible is not authoritative, then there is no faith. If the Bible cannot be trusted, there is no reason to study or revere it. This book brings about four phases to demonstrate the reliability of the Bible. Firstly, God is the one who has authored the Bible, using human people. The "Doctrine of Inspiration" is not about how the writers are inspired or how readers are inspired. It is about the words in the Bible that are God-breathed.  It is supernatural because of factors such as historical accuracy, fulfilled prophecy, miracles, durability, consistency, and most importantly, transformed lives. Secondly, God preserved the Bible through careful transmission over thousands of years. The canonization process is not about Church councils declaring the Bible as canon. The Bible was already recognized as authoritative and the councils basically formalized the canonization process. Thirdly, the doctrine of revelation tells us that the Bible reveals God's attributes, God's salvation plan, and the gospel. Fourthly, Nicodem encourages greater Bible literacy through reading, listening with discernment, studying, and memorizing Scripture.

Book III - Context, How to Understand the Bible (160 pages)

This third book is about interpreting and understanding the Bible. The context can be understood in four ways. First, there is the historical setting, that the Bible is wrapped up with objective facts, and not some whimsical fantasy. One way to pursue the historical contexts is through the journalism questions: Five Ws: "Who? What? When? Where? Why?" Second, the literary setting is about understanding the categorization of each Bible book, in terms of laws, narratives, letters, poetry, parables, etc. Tips are given on how to understand ceremonial laws from moral principles; reading poetry and epistles, etc. Third, the theological setting leads readers toward applications. Using cross references, concordances, study Bibles, and systematic theology resources, one can appreciate theology more, and not simply relegate it to the theologians. Four, the "Immediate Setting" is about applying the Bible for our modern settings. There are tips on choosing the appropriate Bible translation, how to study the Bible, avoiding faulty interpretations, and understanding both the ancient and the modern contexts well.

Book IV - Walk, How to Apply the Bible (142 pages)

Book Four of this series brings together all the hard work of the earlier three books, toward applications. Four major sections are described. The first section points to the Bible as light for all of our paths. It shows us the way. It reveals God's will. It brings light and clarity to our lives. The second uses the acronym COMA to demonstrate how the text can come to life. C is for Context where the four contexts mentioned in Book 3 are brought together. O is for Observation where we learn to be sensitive to the way the Word is put. M is for Message where we ask ourselves about what God is trying to teach us. One example is to use the SPECS (Sin to Confess / Promise to Claim / Example to Follow / Command to Obey / Statement about God). Finally, A is for Application which makes the Bible personal. The third section applies COMA to a few Bible passages so that readers can learn to apply the same to other passages. The fourth section encourages readers to adopt a daily discipline of reading, studying, and applying the Word of God to their lives.

Overall Thoughts

I must say that the simplicity of the Bible Savvy series is the key strength of the book. It is not easy to summarize all 66 books into four separate books with different purposes and intent. The aim of this series is to give general readers a four-part introduction to the Bible. For Book I, James Nicodem has streamlined the Bible into a basic redemption theme. While it is simple and easy to understand, it can become overly reductionistic. The Bible is really much more than mere redemption. In fact, it is more revelation of God to man, including the revelation of redemption. Yet, for the hugely condensed storyline, it is important to remember that this storyline is but one of many ways to view the Bible. I appreciate the summary of the Bible Table of Contents on the Appendix section. Book II is a good defense of the authority and reliability of the Bible. Described in simple terms, readers can get a bigger and better idea of the canonization of the Bible. Book III is a good introduction to contextual learning and understanding the Bible's ancient times. Book IV gives readers a good primer on how to apply the Bible.

I recommend this book for basic Bible classes for its sheer clarity and simplicity. It is hoped that this series can whet the appetite of Bible believers so that they can spring toward deeper stuff. One more thing. Although each of the volumes can be purchased separately, it is best to purchase all four together as they form the whole storyline of the BibleSavvy series.

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, July 15, 2013

"Angels in the Fire" (Dann Stadler)

TITLE: Angels in the Fire: The Dramatic True Story of an Impossible Rescue
AUTHOR: Dann Stadler
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (208 pages).

Are there angels walking among us? For the Stadler family, the answer is a resounding YES! In fact, there are many yeses. Dann Stadler, husband and father of a Wisconsin family reveals how his faith in God was renewed over and over again, despite the most traumatic circumstances. It all began with a fatal crash. A drunk driver accidentally made a U-turn back on a one-way six lane highway. At 70 miles per hour against the flow of traffic, the car eventually crashed into the vehicle driven by Dann, with his wife Tracey as passenger. The drunk driver died instantly. The Stadlers survived but with multiple life-threatening injuries. Miraculously, they got pulled out from the burning carnage by an angel that passersby saw but could not trace. The miracles do not just end there. There was the presence of God-fearing Christians who happen to stop their cars on the highway in order to render assistance. There were hospital staff who gave their best medical assistance. Surviving the crash and the aftermath was even more miraculous.  Dann confesses from hindsight that "Life is a collective set of events, decisions, and circumstances that propel us where we are at any given moment in time." Though their lives were shattered from that one vehicle crash, it was God who used angels to help piece themselves back one by one. Tom, their dad became surrogate parent to their daughter Meghan. Physically, they started to heal, albeit with much pain and several surgeries. One of their biggest blessings are the people who had gone the extra mile to help them. This book is a testimony of how God had sustained them and encouraged them in the light of terrible happenings.

This book has taken the Stadlers many years to write. The accident occurred in September 1989. The book is published only in 2013. Along the way, the author shared about the many incidences of how angels have protected them.  In fact, angels do not just whisper or do things quietly. Tracey even shared about a moment where she heard a shout, which led to an escape from two men stalking her; or how their car narrowly missed a deer. Amid the many bad news coming off the press, this book is a welcome relief to provide us a few glimpses of hope, that God still works and walks among us today. God can turn the most traumatic and difficult circumstances around, using people in our midst not just to aid our physical recovery, but also give much hope, faith, and joy. With great confidence, Dann states:

"Keep your eyes and ears open at all times - watch and listen with a faithful heart. God is with you always and working wonders and miracles, for you alone, on an almost daily basis. Be ready and open to his works and He will reveal himself in ways great and small." (200)

If you are feeling down and out, discouraged or disillusioned, this book can shine a ray of hope to remind you that God is still walking among us, and if necessary, He will use angels to reach out to us. Watch for God.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Friday, July 12, 2013

"Tempted, Tested, True" (Arnie Cole and Michael Ross)

TITLE: Tempted, Tested, True: A Proven Path to Overcoming Soul-Robbing Choices
AUTHOR: Arnie Cole and Michael Ross
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (256 pages).

Temptations seem to be here to stay, but it certainly does not need to stay that way. In a survey of more than 100000 Christians by the Center for Bible Engagement (CBE), 85% of Americans are "defeated" by temptations of all sorts, from sexual addiction to pornography. As a result, they shrink back away from God, and huddle into an atmosphere of loneliness and shame. The authors, together with six other contributors aim to supply "ten nudges" to move people from temptation to victory. This is done in three ways. Firstly, identify the traps that robs the soul. Secondly, find a way to break free from these traps. Thirdly, execute a plan toward lasting change. The authors have also provided an online resource to supplement this book. Let me share briefly about the ten nudges toward purity.

  1. Learn God-centered Behaviours
    Exercise our freedom of choice toward the Cross. Recognize that only in Christ can we overcome our weaknesses.
  2. Pinpoint our weaknesses
    Recognize the four stages of temptations: the enticement; the conception; the gestation; and the delivery. Again, only in Christ can we overcome these temptations. Using a spiritual weakness chart, we learn about our points of weaknesses, so that we can take the necessary steps to avoid falling into them.
  3. Reconsider holiness
    Temptations come in all shapes and sizes all the time in our everyday activities. From fantasizing to gossiping, to materialistic concerns, we need to examine ourselves regularly.
  4. Change Our Brain
    Research reveals that both men and women face specific challenges. Here, three hot button issues that face men are dealt with. Knowing the different kinds of temptations can help men to train themselves to deal specifically with them.
  5. Interrupt our Heart
    Five hot buttons are identified for the female gender; like fretfulness, unkindness, consumption, gossiping and discouragement. These are then followed by specific plans to deal with each of them.
  6. Detach from Attachments
    Addiction is a real problem. Grace will help bring back the lost.
  7. Surrender Control
    There is no point in letting ourselves be drained by anxiety and fear.
  8. Shake the Shame
    When anyone turns away from sin, there is no shame in repentance.
  9. Fall in Love again
    When the liberation happens, one freely embraces a bright and hopeful future. We are then free to love God and his mission all over again.
  10. Rethink Church
    Church is essentially about ordinary people coming together in the Name of Christ, to share and to care, to meet one another's needs in Christ, and to build the community.

So What?

Recently, there have been a slew of books written to combat the rise of pornography. Heath Lambert's "Finally Free" seeks to liberate people from pornography through the power of grace. Douglas Weiss's "Clean" proposes a proven plan that can enable men to live with sexual integrity. Derek Wilson's "Magnificent Malevolence" turns the table around to see the temptation from the eyes of the tempter! The truth is, temptation is more than mere sex. It involves the distraction of people from their primary calling to their creator God, and turns them into worshipers of idols. In the words of Arnie Cole and Michael Ross, temptations entice people to make "soul-robbing choices." The question remains: Do we really need another book about temptations and the overcoming of them?

Yes of course! In an ocean of temptations, we need more rescue boats all the time not just to rescue people from drowning in sin, but to weather the storms of temptations. This two-in-one book basically gives ten overviews of the different ways temptations get at us, followed by ten helpful projects to equip us to overcome the temptations. At each step of the way, we are reminded to pray, to seek help, and to use resources widely available. My take home is this. The temptations and the sins around us are many, even daunting. We need to fret or be discouraged, for with every temptation, there is also the opportunity to overcome them. This resource is a big pillar of support for anyone wanting to weather the storm, or to help the resilient be even more resilient.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Bethany House Publishers and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

"The Digital Invasion" (Archibald D. Hart and Sylvia Hart Frejd)

TITLE: Digital Invasion, The: How Technology Is Shaping You and Your Relationships
AUTHOR: Archibald D. Hart and Sylvia Hart Frejd
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (236 pages).

Technology is here to stay. Does that mean faith is now pushed out of the way? The good news and bad news of technology is the same: We are always reachable. That is why the title of the book is telling, that technology, in particular, digital technology has invaded our traditional spheres in more ways than we can ever imagine. All of us have been influenced by technology. As the world continues to change, the best that parents and adult educators can do is to provide guidelines to constructive usage of technology instead of creating dams to prevent people's use of technology. The key emphasis is in putting technology in its rightful places, and people in their respective spaces. The father and daughter have teamed up together to write about the impact of technology in our contemporary times. It is no longer about Aldous Huxley's prediction of technology controlling the future. Instead, it is how to prevent technology from totally taking over our modern world. Hart himself is both a technologist as well as a trained psychologist. As such, he has the privilege of seeing the world from both a technological as well as a sociological standpoint. While there is a bright side to technology on the outside, there is an insidious dark side on the inside. He remarks perceptively that we are quickly seeing the last of a generation who have experienced an "unplugged world." He uses the terms "digital natives" as those born with modern digital culture, and "digital immigrants" as those who have technology introduced to them in their lifetime. Further sub-categories exist within each group. Both authors find that there are worrying trends that are happening right now.

  • The ironical increase in communications that are lacking in face to face connections;
  • Loss of interpersonal communications skills;
  • Inability to focus and concentrate
  • Multitasking and the lack of courtesy to give people undivided attention
  • There is a new Generation C: (connected)
  • With digital connection comes digital intrusion by all, including total strangers;
  • ...
Their research also points to a worrying trend: "digital engagement seems to be breaking down their sense of unity as a family." Both parents and children are hooked to their computers or phones. Both are addicted. Texts are preferred to face to face communications. In other words, both digital natives and digital immigrants eventually face the same problem. When parents are trying to protect their children, they too need to remember to protect themselves from the same ill-effects of technology. The authors believe that while digital natives may know a lot about technology, digital immigrants know more about life. Hart argues that there is something more sinister, that not only is the digital world shaping our lives, many are oblivious about it. According to a 2011 Barna report, people are uncritically accepting technology more than caution; few people take breaks from their digital devices; technology use causes conflicts within families; hypocrisy accusation in many directions with regards to technological usage; lack of teaching with regards to technology and faith. An army chaplain laments the increasing invasion of technology that is tearing apart young soldiers, rendering them incapable of handling emotional traumas and inability to cope with failure, rejection and loss. Why? Simply because for most of the time, after a tiring day at the war zone or training, they come back and plunge into a world of Xbox, Internet, and digital mediums, at the expense of time with their spouses, loved ones, and meaningful relationships. This is supported by a rise in suicides, sexual assaults, and domestic violence!

One of the key things to learn is that our brains are changeable. Quoting Nicholas Carr, one result of brain change is in the way we handle information. We are training our brains to forget (if need to just Google) rather than remember (making a point to recall and reinforce). Whatever our brains have developed in terms of speedy access to information, it will lack in other ways, like how we learn. Other disorders that technology can cause to the brains are abuse of the pleasure systems in our brains, aka addiction; ignoring ordinary pleasures due to heightened levels of technological stimulations; higher levels of anxiety as our cortisol levels rise; failure to exercise information retention; inability to focus leads to learning fatigue; inadequate sleep; just to name a few.

Then there is the multitasking myth. Society has glorified multitasking to the point that they have failed to distinguish human multitasking from computer multitasking. For multitasking does not necessarily facilitate learning, simply because our brains are more designed for sequential work rather than multitasking. The authors bring multitasking to task because it has been uncritically accepted so much and so fast, that multitasking is actually not progression but regression in terms of relationships as well as quality of work. For instance, the Brodmann Area 10 of the frontal lobe of the brain which deals with switching tasks. The more one multitasks, the greater the level of blood flow to this area. Studying high multitaskers, researchers have found this area flushed with blood, increasing anxiety hormones, and subsequently impacts learning ability. In order words, multitasking decreases the level of attentiveness to any one task.

There are more concerns with regards to social media usage. With the rise of social media use comes a corresponding rise in "narcissistic epidemic." People are so pre-occupied with themselves and what they do, that they are postings stuff about themselves more and more. In traditional relationships, people take time to interact, to meet at the convenience of others, to invest emotionally and patiently to listen to one another. In a social media world, it is a case of I-choose-I-post-I-declare, with absolutely no need to connect at other people's terms. For Facebook allows one to freely choose when and what to post, totally oblivious to how it would impact others. Social media also impacts the dating world. The problem is when people substituting online communications for real life communications. Other disorders of excessive social media us include depression, affairs, loneliness.

Thankfully, there is hope in overcoming digital addiction. It begins with an acknowledgement of our vulnerability to digital addiction. It is in understanding the components of technological connections, its implications, and its consequences. It is recognizing that technology can be an unhealthy form of escapism from the real world. Digital usage is not simply about using technology. It is about technology changing us, even our brains. Dr Frejd is concerned that heightened digital use is a threat to anyone wanting to cultivate one's natural potential. Key to it is to understand ourselves, and our own vulnerabilities, and then to subject our use of technologies to stay within the limits of our natural abilities. In other words, do not "overclock" our bodily CPUs. The authors suggest an interesting "digital pyramid" that is worth pondering and practicing. Move toward an unplugged life more and more, if we truly want to cultivate our best potential. The more we can benefit from being unplugged, the more we can benefit best when going online. In other words, let there be a balanced and healthy segmentation of online and offline engagement. Use intentional strategies to keep us on the healthy leash. The authors also developed ten steps to help readers do just that.

So What?

There are so many things that resonate with me in this book that made me sing out YES! Research data and shocking finds made me say out WOW! Information on how technology can shape our brains made me worry with "Oh No!" Indeed, the biggest value for me in this book is to realize that digital use comes with a fair mix of advantages and disadvantages. The problem is that we have unconsciously hyped up the advantages and unwittingly stayed silent or oblivious about the disadvantages. Hart and Frejd have given us a digital warning about the Trojan horse of convenient technologies that threaten our relationships, our learning abilities, our growth as a natural human person, and our need to switch off on a regular basis. We are not to work ourselves out the way we work our computing devices out. Social skills cannot be developed only on the social media front. It needs to be exercised often in a face to face manner. There are way too many human skills that cannot be replicated through a digital medium. Digital technologies can promise a lot, but the moment the electricity is gone, all we have is a blank screen. Which is a reminder that behind technology is something even more important: Energy.

Without energy, it is like having a nice Ferrari without gas, a lamp without electricity, or a beautiful yacht without fuel. Being human, we cannot let technology replace our need for personal connections in a non-digital form. Sometimes, a casual walk down the park with no cell phones, no MP3, and no Internet connections, can do wonders to inculcating a peace and serenity that no digital signals can produce.

This is one of the best works on the dangers of uncritical acceptance and use of digital technologies. Beware, the invasion has already started. Be hopeful, for simply being aware, we can turn the ship around. Let this book be your first step to turn the ship around toward a lasting, and more meaningful relationships and personal growth, with or without technologies.

Rating: 5 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.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"I Am a Church Member" (Thom S. Rainer)

TITLE: I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference
AUTHOR: Thom S. Rainer
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B and H Publishing, 2013, (96 pages).

I know of a lot of people who would like to read more, but cannot seem to find the time to read. Moreover, many of the books out there in the market are either too tedious to finish, or too brief to make any significant mark. Thom Rainer, President of Lifeway Christian Resources, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, has a gift of cutting through the masses of information to bring out the profound truth in simple ways. While there are many books on Christian living and for Christian leadership, not many cover the area of what it means to be a Church member. Simply put, it is the attitude that makes the difference when we think about Church membership. Membership is a privilege. Beginning with the story of two Church members, Michael and Liam being great buddies who meet on a weekly basis. One day, Liam drops a bombshell about him and his wife leaving the Church. The reasons for leaving will sound very familiar to many of us.

“Lana and I went to the church to learn deep truths about the Bible, but Pastor Robert is just not feeding us. We’re not getting anything out of his messages. Sitting in the service on Sunday morning is just a waste of our time.”

It is a familiar chorus of people seeing Church as a means to their spiritual ends. Sometimes, Church leaders blame the declining Church membership on the secular culture, or negative perceptions of Church members. The truth is, the leadership can only do so much. What is equally important is for Church members to see membership as a privilege rather than a right; to see the Church as a place to give, more than a reserviour of resources they constantly take. See the Church as a spiritual depository with all members doing their part to enrich it for the kingdom of God. Be the Church member that we are ought to be, and then see how God works. In six brief chapters, Rainer drives home how we can be a responsible and respectful Church member.

First, one begins with a change of perspective, that members are not there to be served but to serve, to give more than receive. It means recognizing that each of us has a role to play, according to our gifts and talents. It means understanding that while we are all different, we can still work together, for we all have the same goal. Whatever we say or do is based on the foundation of God's love.  The biblical model of church membership is to "give abundantly and serve without hesitation." In fact, biblical church membership gives without qualifications and serves without hesitation. Pledge to give and to serve, willingly.

Second, unity is the core aim of Church membership. What makes a Church special is not because of some special people with super abilities or skills. What makes even the most average Church with most average people special is simply because they have learned to work together. Suppress all gossip or negative talk. Practice forgiveness regularly. Pledge to be a unifying force in the Church community.

Third, Church is not about me or my needs, or my personal preferences or desires. It is about servanthood. Truth is, when we join a Church, the biblical mandate is that we give up our preferences when we join. Like Jesus' teachings in Mark 9:35, that we who want to be first, must learn to be last among all, and to be a servant to all. With the words "servant" and "serve" appearing 57 and 58 times in the New Testament, we will soon learn that being a Church member is more about serving one another. In a survey, Rainer highlights ten key traits of largely self-serving church members, from worship wars to program driven; from petty budgets to crazy demands for pastoral care; and so on. Thus, the third pledge is about committing to set aside our petty preferences and to wear the apron of servanthood.

Four, being a Church member means we pray for our Church leaders regularly. It is no secret that the pastoral work is hard. That is primarily because it deals with relationships and people. Pray for his preaching and his handling of relationships. Pray for his family. Pray that the Lord protects him from temptation. Pray for his physical and mental health. Even if it is a few minutes a day, being a responsible Church member means to pray for leaders, not just the person with the title of "pastor."

Five, being a Church member means leading one's family members to be part of the Church life. Going to Church is not about taking and receiving, but more about serving and giving. Expanding the first pledge of serving and giving, Rainer applies it to the immediate family circle. We learn to be good spiritual fathers to our family, that we can be good servants in the Church community. Using the example of Bob, Rainer highlights a model of a responsible Church member who leads his own family to be responsible Church members. In doing so, there is a growing overlap between Church as family as well as one's organic family.

Six, remember that membership is a gift, not a right. This mentality is critical because it defines how we live as Church members. If we see Church as some kind of a club membership, we will begin to demand that our rights are exercised and our perceived needs be met. Biblically speaking, Church is not a club for us to insist upon our ways. Church is a body of Christ where every member needs to play their part, simply because they are a part of the body. Not wanting to be involved is a bad way to start. It stems from an erroneous understanding of what Church membership is all about.  It is because membership is a gift, we need to approach membership with gratitude and appreciation, rather than personal entitlements or expectations.

So What?

Every Church member needs to read this book. Being a responsible Church member has at least these six implications, and it all stems from the understanding that to be a Christian means to follow Christ. To be Christlike means to follow what Christ has done, ie, to serve instead of being served. In giving and serving, we start to understand like Rick Warren had said, "It is not about you." It is about God and our neighbours. In serving, we prefer the apron instead of demanding a napkin. We need to be united as one body. We need to share our gifts of family, from our family to the Church family. We need to be constantly praying for our leaders. We need to remember all the time that membership is a gift, a privilege given to us. In all of these, I think the most important is about recognizing we are all servants learning to serve one another.

The word "servant" is the underlying theme throughout the book. It undergirds all the six ways that Rainer has mentioned. That is indeed following Christ. Perhaps, we can all do a personal survey on our own churches. The more we see people adopting a heart of service, the less we see of people constantly complaining about their needs not met.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5


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

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Jesus on Justice" (Don Posterski)

TITLE: Jesus on Justice, Living Lives of Compassion and Conviction
AUTHOR: Don Posterski
PUBLISHER: Mississauga, ON: World Vision Canada, 2013, (156 pages).

What does Jesus has to say about justice? Will he be fighting for a piece of the economic pie on behalf of the poor? Will he be inciting demonstrations on Wall Street to champion the needs of the economically disadvantaged? Will he be giving speeches to haunt the conscience of the rich and the powerful? In this book, we learn that Jesus actually has a lot to say about social justice, but not in the manner that we are used to. According to the author, the four ways in which Jesus exercises social activism are:

  1. Inclusiveness, to include the excluded in society;
  2. Counter-Cultural, to challenge existing cultural practices especially if it is wrong;
  3. Confronting the powerful;
  4. Advocating for the oppressed.

Posterski links any act of social justice to a need to experience for oneself what poverty, marginalization, and social injustice mean. He defines social justice as one where "people are treated equally without prejudice and able to access a fair share of the world's resources; while living with dignity, people are given opportunities to pursue and sustain their well being as responsible citizens contributing to their communities."

As far as Jesus is concerned, justice comes in two dimensions: Spiritual and social. Spiritually, it is about obeying the calling of the Spirit to be touched to touch others; blessed to bless others; healed to heal others. Like Luke 4:16-21, Jesus begins his ministry with a proclamation of his calling. Christians have this calling. Socially, it is about being bold to repeatedly right the wrongs of society. We are freed to free others. Using whatever legitimate resources available, we can exercise and continue Jesus' mission on earth. Based on God's identity in the Triune Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we see how our mission has a three-fold emphasis: Great Commandment, Great Commission, Great Requirement. In Christ, all of these three overlap. This overlap plays out in four distinct thrusts.

First, there is the thrust of Jesus including the excluded. People such as the social outcasts in society, the gender inequality situations, as well as children. These people can be found in many places, like within the Church or denomination; the country; or our neighbours.

Second, there is the thrust of challenging cultural practices of racism, unfair treatment of people, and risking one's reputation by associating with the drunkards and prostitutes. All of these stem from "Christian motivation" that recognizes the dignity and value of every human being, as well as loving our neighbour as God has called us to. One example is to learn to surrender our shared privileges for the greater good of the community.

Third, the call to challenge the powerful and the proud. The human costs of injustice are high. Our calling is to stop doing nothing, but to start doing something no matter how insignificant it seems to be. Like Jesus reaching out to Zaccheaus, or him denouncing the legalistic Pharisees, we are called to speak up for the silenced and the poor. Instead of dethroning the existing powers, we can do something better: Be an agent to help reorder priorities. For example, look at how Jesus answers the question of paying taxes. Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what's God's.

Four, be an advocate for the oppressed such as the poor, the under-privileged, and the tormented. There are real causes of economic poverty. For example, people born in poor countries and economically challenged cultures will seem to be unfairly ushered into a world of poverty right from birth. It can also be a harsh religious climate that makes things more difficult. The point is not to dwell in social poverty all the time and then complain without doing anything. The point is to have a spiritual awakening on demarginalized people groups and the poor, in order to bring about positive change. Posterski proposes eight tasks based on the acronym ADVOCACY.

  • Addresses issues of injustice
  • Designs strategies to alter systems
  • Values vulnerable people as agents of change
  • Offers expertise to implement objectives
  • Convinces power structures to alter policies
  • Accesses like-minded people to join the cause
  • Changes policies, practices, and perceptions
  • Yearns for justice that leads to sustainability.

So What?

In a nutshell, life is not fair. Life can be very cruel to the oppressed. The facts are clear that this world is deeply divided between the haves and the have-nots. The truth is, it need not remain that way. As followers of Jesus, we have a big role to play with regards to spiritual and social justice. In this book, Posterski has focused on the righting of wrongs, championing for the poor, advocating for justice, and to live lives filled with compassion and with conviction. Just like Jesus. It really all boils down to Jesus and his mission. Called a "biblical action guide," Posterski has written this book with action in mind. The ideas are biblically based, socially aware, and practically designed with steps that readers and Bible believers can take. It is specific enough for people to know exactly what needs to be done. It is general enough to give people an idea of the needs and problems that need to be addressed.

Is there an order that we can adopt with regards to the four thrusts? I do not think so. At least, I say, it depends on the different situations we are in. At best, I can say a combination of all four is in place. Thus, the ideas in this book need to be considered as a whole, letting spiritual awareness leads to a spiritual awakening. This will lead to a social awareness that leads to a spiritual awareness and practical steps to do something about it. The ideas in the book are good but should be treated only as a starting point or to jump start our call to action. What is more important is to let the love of God touch our hearts, knowing that the moment we understand with compassion like Jesus, we will be able to serve the needs of the world around us with conviction, like Jesus.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by the publisher and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.