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Saturday, March 30, 2013

"DiscipleShift" (Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington)

TITLE: DiscipleShift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples (Exponential Series)
AUTHOR: Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (240 pages).

Most of us will be familiar with the phrase: "Paradigm shift." It represents an out of the box or a seismic transformation of thinking and doing, in order to bring the purpose of an organization or a movement forward. It has to do with a change of mindset. It requires boldness and an openness for fresh and effective approaches.   Joel Barker first popularized the notion of a "paradigm shift" back in the 70s. Since then, the idea has been used in many different places. Before one shifts at anything, one needs to recognize the need to shift. Beginning with a critical observation of spiritual lethargy and how little discipleship is happening in churches, Putman and Harrington observe that many leaders have approached church ministry wrong at the onset. They look at numbers driven strategies. They search for a one-size-fits-all solutions. They seek to apply wholesale programs thinking as if the program is the magic for church growth. Those attending conferences and training tend to look for "silver bullet" solutions. At the core are two issues at stake. What is the destination? This is followed by "What kind of leadership style is needed to move toward this?" Effectiveness is keenly sought after. That is not all. What concerns the authors is that Christians not only fail to practice discipleship making, Christians are also becoming more worldly in their approach and their lifestyles. They separate Church from daily living. They dichotomize responsibility sharply between the clergy and the lay. They fail to make disciples.

We are reminded to distinguish a change of style versus a change of purpose. The former can change. The latter does not change. The methodologies and strategies can vary. The objective of making disciples remains the same. In this book, the authors Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington try to do both, by homing on the big idea of helping disciples make disciples, through five different shifts. It is hoped that through each shift, doing church can be more effective as Church people moves toward "relational discipleship" that is biblical and effective. In sum, the two words to consider are: "Focus" and "Methodology." Right focus and right methodology makes for a powerful discipleship strategy.

Briefly, I have summarized the five shifts as follows:
  1. From Reaching to Making.
    FROM: Discipleship is understood in terms of reaching out to bring converts.
    TO: Discipleship is about making disciples to be disciple-making disciples.
  2. From Informing to Equipping.
    FROM:  Discipleship is understood more of a transference of information.
    TO: It is about making disciples through equipping, educating, teaching, and creating an environment for making disciples.
  3. From Program to Purpose.
    FROM:  Haphazard programming
    TO: Meetings and programs that accomplish a purpose, whether building relationships or demonstrating Christlike discipleship, through Share, Connect, Train, and Release.
  4. From Activity to Relationship.
    FROM: Discrete ministries and programs that do not have an integrated focus
    TO: Cultivating a culture of relationship building and ministries that are aligned toward Disciplemaking
  5. From Accumulating to Deploying.
    FROM: Measuring success based on buildings, budgets, bodies.
    TO: Developing and Releasing people to let them serve inside and outside; using a blueprint of share-connect-minister-disciple.
This book is powerful in at least three ways. Firstly, it provides a guide for discipleship drawn from real life experiences. Readers will be quick to notice that there are many stories that backed up the ideas and strategies mentioned. There are real people. Their stories add to the reality of ministry. There are frequent flashbacks on traditional methods that have led many churches to become stagnant and die. There are also warnings to wake people up from the sleepiness of ministry to the wakefulness of discipleship. The biblical mandate is weaved throughout the book.  Secondly, the book is written with practice in mind. Many books on discipleship tend to be heavy on the theoretical portion, but relatively light on the implementation aspect. Not this book. Putman and Harrington energize readers to take the plunge as soon as possible through practical steps, logical flows, memorable visuals, and exciting ideas. The discipleship strategies, phases, and movements are diagrammed clearly through a circle chart. Four concentric circles summarize the gist of the shifts needed in any Church. You can read them from the outside in.
  • First Circle: Moving from Sharing -> Connecting -> Training -> Releasing (SCTR for short);
  • Second Circle: About the scope of relational ministry based on SCTR;
  • Third Circle: About the Stage of Spiritual Condition (Dead - Infant - Children - Young Adult - Parent)
  • Fourth Circle: Identifies the language and behavioural traits of each spiritual condition.
Thirdly, the book contains lots of focus on actively equipping and engaging the people of God more. It does not throw away the old completely, though it points out that old models of a superman minister cannot be sustained. It concentrates on the biblical model of a humble minister, serving out of love and building a relationship of people helping people. The church is about people ministering to people. It is about a many-to-many ministry, not a top-down or a one-to-many ministry. It is about everyone serving one another in the name of Jesus.

The examples help readers know that the ideas have been tested and tried. That is not all. The authors close each chapter with a summary of the key points so that readers can be refreshed and are able to use the summary as a reference index in future. Those who have read the whole book, and have been impressed by it, will appreciate this summary to enable them to get back in quickly. Each chapter includes a "Ask Dr Coleman" section, which is an interview with the famous master-teacher of evangelism and discipleship. In fact, these interviews are alone worth the price of the book. I savour every page of this book and appreciate the candour of the authors and the real-life implementation strategies. With this book, Churches will certainly be equipped with a powerful tool to aid their design and strategy of a discipleship culture for their churches. If your church does not have a discipleship strategy right now, or are in need of a refresher, or a re-start, why not begin with this book? For all we know, what we need is not simply a new idea about discipleship. What we need is to re-ignite a passion for discipleship, a purpose in discipleship, and a growing desire to make disciples on all people, nations, and beyond, beginning with ourselves. The following sums up very well what discipleship is about.
  • Demonstration: I do. You watch. We talk.
  • Assistance: I do. You help. We talk.
  • Delegation: You do. I help. We talk.
  • Observation: You do. I watch. We talk.
  • Spreading: You do. Another watches. We talk.

One more thing. If you want to have a good night's sleep, do not read this book before bedtime. It can make you jump up and want to start putting it into practice. This is one of the best books on practical discipleship I have read.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.

conrade

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, March 29, 2013

"The God Who Walks Beside Us" (David Roper)

TITLE: The God Who Walks Beside Us
AUTHOR: David Roper
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2012, (136 pages).

Suffering is not an option. In fact, for anyone desiring to follow God, suffering is part and parcel of that obedience. Using biblical examples of faith during times of doubt and disappointment, Roper shows us that for every struggle that tries to hem us down, there is an overcoming that will lift us up. For every occurrence of suffering and pain, there is a promise and assurance of comfort and companionship. It is exactly this. We sense the presence of God who walks beside us, not so much during our bubbly, jovial mood, but often during times of stress and distress.

Based on the character of Jacob, this book is formerly published as "Jacob: The Fools God Chooses." Roper studies the person of Jacob, whose name essentially means "he deceives."

The biblical Jacob went through many different kinds of struggles. First, he had to endure sibling rivalry.  At first looks, Jacob seemed to be one who was cunning to deceive his elder brother Esau to give up his birthright.  The incident turned Esau from a close brother to an enemy who hunted him down. Forced to flee, Jacob discovered the presence of God who continued to walk with him, and to manifest his presence. Secondly, Jacob also had trouble marrying Rachel.  Wanting to marry Rachel, he was forced to marry the elder Leah, and had to work many years just to gain Rachel's hand in marriage. Somehow, God made Jacob wait, and in the process tested Jacob's sincerity. Thirdly, Jacob had work trouble, and pocketed nothing even after 14 years of hard labour for his uncle Laban. Fourthly, Jacob thought that he could wrestle the Lord, only to be spared. After that experience, Jacob was a changed man. Fifth, Jacob was asked to go back to Esau and be reconciled. It was the willingness to obey that demonstrated the inner quality of the man of God.

These and many more are some of the powerful insights the author has of Jacob. Filled with quotes and notable writings from Reformers like Martin Luther, converts like John Newton, spiritual writers like Henri Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and many more, Roper shows readers that suffering is not altogether a bad thing, especially if it is something that is done out of our obedience to God. In fact, with each suffering, with each trial, believers going through the hard times will get a special opportunity to experience God's grace and deliverance. Not only that, there are powerful spiritual lessons that can only be learned through the school of hard knocks.  Roper observes:
"God will use anything to get our attention. It may be, as it was with Jacob, a change affecting a relationship—a much-loved child turning away from us, a long-term marriage unraveling, an old friendship fading away. It may be some prize we attain that leaves us feeling dissatisfied and empty, or something we lose that leaves us brokenhearted. It may be a change we cannot avert or a circumstance we cannot change. But whatever comes our way, we can be sure God’s love is behind it, helping to pry our fingers loose from this decaying earth and drawing us toward Him and our eternal home. When our hearts respond to God’s call, however, we can be sure of opposition."
With God's call, there will be opposition as the believer obeys. Yet, the presence of hostility and trial guarantees something far more precious: God's presence. This is something that Jacob experiences over and over again. Toward the end of the book, Roper becomes even more reflective of our modern world and his own experiences. He encourages readers to learn to accept trials graciously, putting bitterness aside. Take small steps forward. Resent not. Complain little. Trust God. Above all, if believers can learn to look beyond the suffering, see the bigger picture of faith, wear the lens of hope at all times, and most importantly, to sense the presence of God, they will be most blessed. As I read this book, I am reminded too of Jesus' words about how blessed we will be when we are persecuted for righteousness sake, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of Christ, for we will be comforted. Comforted with God's presence.

Today is Good Friday. This book is an apt reminder of Jesus, who did not get the benefit like us. God the Father turned his face away in his deepest hour of need. All for the love of us. It is because of this sacrifice, God raised Jesus from the dead, and we as believers, will get to experience always, the presence of God who walks with us, whether we know it or not.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Reasons for Belief" (Norman L. Geisler)

TITLE: Reasons for Belief: Easy-to-Understand Answers to 10 Essential Questions
AUTHOR: Norman L. Geisler and Patty Tunnicliffe
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (240 pages).

Know why you believe. Know what you believe. Know the reasons for your belief. These are important considerations for anyone seeking not just to give an answer for the hope they embrace, but to be personally convinced and convicted about their faith. There are many tough questions when it comes to Apologetics. Geisler and Tunnicliffe manage to distill them into ten of the most popular "challenges" that often make it hard for non-believers to come to faith in Christ. These ten challenges are:

  1. On Relativism: "Real truth does not exist. 'Trust is just truth to you."
  2. On the evidence and existence of God #1: "Christianity rests upon God's existence. If God does not exist, Christianity is false," and God does not exist.
  3. On Monotheism: "If God exists, He isn't necessarily the God of the Bible."
  4. On Miracles: "Miracles don't happen."
  5. On the Reliability of the New Testament: "The New Testament's many errors make it unreliable. It's more like a collection of myths and legends."
  6. On Jesus' deity: "Jesus never claimed to be God."
  7. On Jesus: "Jesus didn't prove he is God."
  8. On Resurrection: "Jesus did not rise from the dead."
  9. On Religious books: "The Bible isn't the only true religious books."
  10. On the way to God: "Christianity is too narrow. There are many ways to God besides Jesus."

The cover page visualizes the ten challenges through icons that represent the wide range of challenges. There are issues that range from creation to the resurrection; from the reliability of the Bible to the reality of Jesus as God; from worldview philosophies to Christian theology; to engagement with plural concerns and freedom of belief. The authors hope to equip readers with a ready defense of Christianity. The ten challenges are carefully selected and thought out so that one can argue convincingly that Christianity claims are true. Typically, each chapter goes like this. First, the authors state plainly the challenge. Second, the problem is further described often in a philosophical manner like comparing and contrasting two intellectual assertions.  Third, the reasons, the assumptions, and the preconceived notions are laid out. Four, closing comments from the author about the challenge and how it impacts believers or seekers. Finally, the arguments are summarized.

What I like about the book is its simplicity of approach. Without beating around the bush, the authors state the problem and its assumptions, even bringing in other worldviews so that readers can fairly compare and contrast them on their own. Using scientific knowledge, philosophies of the age, classic and familiar worldviews, together with modern examples and apt summaries, Geisler and Tunnicliffe make apologetics look so easy to understand. Some of the comparisons include:

  • Magic vs miracles
  • Theism vs Atheism / Deism / Pantheism / Polytheism / etc
  • Biblical texts vs others
  • Jesus vs the other religious teachers 
  • Biblical worldview vs other worldviews
  • ...

With the reader in mind, the authors have put together a simple guide for anyone who needs help on explaining their own faith. Being able to put the tough philosophical challenges in a simple statement is not easy. Explaining the steps in a credible manner is even tougher. Kudos to Geisler and Tunnicliffe who help remove the complexity out of important questions, providing reasons for belief and at least, a step forward in the direction of embracing the faith. One thing still remains for the skeptical reader. Understanding the reasons for belief is one thing. Accepting it as a viable answer is another. 

This is not the first work on Apologetics by Geisler. He has written other books like, "When Skeptics Ask," "If God, Why Evil?," "Reasons for Faith," "The Big Book of Christian Apologetics," and many more. Geisler has always been clear and is able to channel his personal convictions through the lectures he gives and through the books he writes. This book is a beneficiary of Geisler's many years of experience, knowledge, and interactions with people. When I read this book, I ask myself the following questions. Why are there only ten challenges? Why these ten? How did the authors decide on these final ten? What audiences are they trying to reach? Let me then leave you with three thoughts.

Firstly, these ten challenges summarize the most popular modern barriers to belief in Christianity. Readers will recognize many of these challenges right away with a nod or an utterance of "Yes!" It addresses some honest questions with honest answers. Secondly, some of them are what I call "classic" or "evergreen" statements of anti-beliefs, among those who are honest seekers or skeptics. They can only be understood through faith. Reasoning can only lead one so far. One still needs the step of faith in order to truly understand. Thirdly and more importantly, the authors have presented a methodology that can be applied to other types of challenges. Readers can do their own research, or read other materials by Geisler. They can ask their own questions and compare with other worldviews. They can even word their own doubts and to work through them honestly with the Bible in hand. After all, if truth is truth, there is no worry that it can ever become false. What readers must be aware is that, truth is often not found out, but revealed. It is like uncovering the blanket to discover the hidden treasure, or having something in our heads light up. When truth is revealed, we will be set free. Clearly written, I recommend this book for those seeking to explain their own faith clearly and reasonably.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Revealing Jesus" (Darlene Zschech)

TITLE: Revealing Jesus: A 365-Day Devotional
AUTHOR: Darlene Zschech
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (400 pages).

[*Note: This is a review of the book, not the music album.]

The most critical part about being a worship leader is not simply being musically talented, or having a stage presence. Neither is it being a professional musician or a perfect choreographer. It is worship. A worship leader is first and foremost a worshiper. A worshiper is one who is close or desires greatly to draw close to God, as often as possible. Daily devotions is a great way to cultivate that sense of God's presence. Darlene Zschech, a world famous worship leader, who has written powerful hits like "Shout the the Lord," "Power of Your Love," "The Potter's Hand," and many others, has shared the inner source of her strength: Devotion to Jesus. She longs for this book to encourage readers to worship Jesus "with every fiber of your being."  In this book, Zschech demonstrates that worship is a 365 days commitment, every day of the year, to reveal Jesus. Twelve themes are broadly explored. Through her personal journey, she reflects upon God's faithfulness, holiness, power and might, Savior and Lord. The careful reader will note that there is a thematic movement of the works of Christ toward the Person of Christ. Revealing Jesus is a gradual awareness that God is not distant but near. God is working in the lives of others as well as ours. God has spoken in history and is speaking now.

Each day begins with a Scripture verse followed by a short personal devotion, a classic hymn, lyrics of a song, and ends with a brief personal prayer. It honours special days in the Christian Church calendar like Resurrection Day, Christmas, and Lent. The devotional allows readers to observe significant seasons like Lent and Christmastide. There are periods of contemplation and encouragement. There are also many acknowledgements of our own weaknesses and doubts. One particular area I appreciate is how Zschech dedicates the second part of the month of August toward meditation on the names of God. She leads readers to worship and to lift up the attributes of God through the different Hebrew renditions. The author weaves through the whole devotional other themes like God as the Shield and Rock, God as the Gate, the Savior, the Redeemer, the Risen One, the Bread of Life, God of Peace, Friend of Sinner, and many more.

Zschech is also a worship pastor, and this book in a way can be used by worship leaders in their churches to allow the music and songs be complemented by a meditative Bible reading and a brief devotional. Read a snippet or a page. Pray a sentence or pause for a moment of silence. The words allow leaders to invite their people toward a gentle reflection of God himself, through the use of Scripture and the devotional. Zschech has written a simple guide that is gentle to the heart, to bring hope to the down and out, and to direct attention more toward Jesus. If this book can help anyone see Jesus more clearly or more personally, to me, that will be worth every penny you spend. Indeed, worship need not be restricted only to lyrics and song. Worship can be channeled through words, through devotional, through prayer, and any movement of the heart that desires to see Jesus revealed and glorified more and more.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.

conrade

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.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Words for Readers and Writers: Spirit-Pooled Dialogues" (Larry Woiwode)

TITLE: Words for Readers and Writers: Spirit-Pooled Dialogues
AUTHOR: Larry Woiwode
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013, (240 pages).

This collection of essays puts the value back into words for readers to appreciate, and for writers to create. As we continue to adopt unabated, the digital medium for all kinds of communications for literary work or leisure, it is increasingly important to realize that words are not simply binary bits to be turned off and on. There are powerful meanings to ponder. There are insights to be held in wonder. Words is the water that gives the river its stream of life. It is the fuel that energizes way we live. It enriches human communications. Woiwode in this book seeks to inject a greater appreciation for the use of words for several groups of people: readers, writers, and other users like speakers and listeners. Using a mental picture of two drawers (inner and outer) to touch on a four-drawer folder (self, memory, interviewers, and editors). The essays are then grouped in three parts; how words are used; how users use words; and the different kinds of users of words.

Part One is about the "uses of words." It deals with the questions surround what words are for and how they are being used. Woiwode explores the way words are used in family relationships and how it contributes to unity. There is a bond that stories and histories are weaved through the use of words. They can increase intimacy. In litigation circles, words are dependent on who is speaking it. For instance, in a courtroom, the litigator (or plaintiff) is usually referred to as the second person; the defendant the first; with the judge and the court as the third person. Woiwode explores the role of poetry, even hinting at the longevity of age-old poetry that will outlive even the hottest technology of today.Words can also be used in autobiographical sketches, being used for both fiction as well as non-fictional purposes. Of particular interest is spirituality, where Woiwode centers the place of faith, and how words point one toward spiritual matters. Words amplify meaning. They lead us to appreciate the mysteries of the spiritual world. Readers are urge to re-tell history and put it in the forefront of Christian Education. One essay includes an interview with the author with IMAGE magazine, on how a writer visualizes a mental image inside, and to use words to draw them out. Such drawing out of an inner picture can also be done through metaphors like e-mail, simile, medium, play, and of course word pictures. Words are so powerful that at one point, Woiwode even cautions writers not to usurp the place of God in their writing.

Part Two is a fascinating look at the author's 50-year journey from childhood to his adult years. It is a process of learning, fine-tuning, polishing, and perfecting the use of words. There are users like the publishing industry, on the relationship between authors, editors, and their publishers. Woiwode introduces his appreciation for authors like William Maxwell whose literary brilliance was discovered late, and how his editing skills display a knack for clarity and simplicity. On Tolstoy, the author notices a passionate fight for truth, and how Tolstoy displays his dislike for power and arrogance of rulers, by using his novels to subvert tyranny and abuse. There is Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian writer (Surin), who has great love for his mother and his patriotism for his country, and with a keen awareness of a world beyond this world. There is the reflection of the Russain martyr, Aleksandr Men's play of words and meaning of "martyrs who have lived" which contrasted sharply with popular usage of "martyrs who have died," whose writings point unabashedly to what it means to live for Christ.

Part Three is an exhibition of the power and versatility of words in the world of literature, ethics, faith, morality, human rights, aesthetics, beauty, science, writing, and free writing. What intrigues me in the final chapter is how the author gives a profound take on what it means to write unhindered, and unedited. In an A-Z framework of writings, he begins with a description of his inner thoughts while sleeping in the subway, his journey to meet a well-known editor, his observations of ordinary life going on around him as he makes the journey, and ends with a terse note about his essays that were written in one sitting, end up becoming the first story that a magazine has accepted for publication without a single edit.

My Thoughts

Who am I to review such a deep and insightful book by Larry Woiwode? Who am I to talk about the martyrs, the spiritual writers, and the many great writers of the world? At one end, I remain at a distance clapping away in amazement at some of the masters of words. At the other, I risk being ridiculed of trying to wear a holier-than-thou hat of a reviewer. Thus, I stand trapped between astonishment of a grateful admirer and trepidation of a critical reviewer. As an admirer, seldom have I come across a book that I take, turn over, and ponder at various points of the contents. It is one thing to be well read in good books. It is another to be well read in great literature. Larry Woiwode has given readers a glimpse of the world of how words can inject life into mundane matters, how passions can be set free, how far words can reach, and how words bring beauty out of ordinary life. The book concludes not with a thud but a ripple that creates waves of reflective moments. One of them is how we in the world have unwittingly edited life from authenticity to plasticity. It reminds me of how society in general, in a world that seeks perfection and polished work, often fails to acknowledge the beauty of the ordinary. If only we allow the ordinary to grow its best self, and minimize the editing of ordinary life, people will be less prone to wear the skin of others, and will be more willing to be themselves. One of the things I appreciate is Woiwode's reminder for writers.

"If you work as a writer or reporter you must meet each person with the grace of openness, as Jesus did, seasoned by compassion, rather than with a preconceived or judgmental outlook. You think you're speaking to an ugly thief or snarling shopping-cart collector when you may be entertaining an angel" (176-7)

If I must critique, I must say that this book may not reach a wide audience or pander to the wishes of the popular genre. Just like the way Woiwode refers to Marylynne Robinson's essay on science putting down religion, our world dominated by Darwinistic pragmatism will put down any creative attempt toward aesthetic beauty, especially if such attempts do not bring in bigger bucks or become a Youtube phenomena. No. Books like this will be a hard sell for a world addicted to fast facts and abbreviated communications. In fact, words that are hurried will tend to short circuit the natural and preferred progression of human development in the cultivation of literary and living beauty. Sigh. That's the world we live in. Yet, there is hope. Let those who have ears listen. Let those who have eyes see. Let those who are willing to pause periodically from the crazy mundane world, and to ponder, to wonder, and to appreciate life, through the world of words. For behind every use of word is a story waiting to be told. If only we take time. Beware. This book is not to be speed-read, but to be gently savoured. The essay format of the book will certainly help.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Monday, March 25, 2013

"Deeply Loved" (Keri Wyatt Kent)

TITLE: Deeply Loved: 40 Ways in 40 Days to Experience the Heart of Jesus
AUTHOR: Keri Wyatt Kent
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012, (200 pages).

How do we better experience the practice of Lent? Does it mean simply fasting or refraining from certain things? Is it a period where we wear our somber looks everywhere we go? What about learning to walk closer with Jesus with the 40 days as an opportunity to prepare our hearts for Good Friday and Easter? The key point: Draw closer to God.

This gentle guide brings together many different spiritual practices, guided by several ancient and modern spiritual practitioners, as well as reflections of our typically busy lifestyle. The crux of the book is this. Make spiritual growth practices a deeply personal one. The disciplines of praying, reading, waiting, pondering, self-examining, and many more are not new. They have been adopted by saints of old such as Brother Lawrence, Thomas Kelly, the prophets of old, as well as modern writers like Richard Foster, Philip Yancey, John Ortberg, and others.

It is important to begin well, and Kent shows the way by reminding readers that we are first and foremost children of God. Our identity is not in terms of what we do or say, but in God accepting us as we are. We walk with Jesus knowing that He is the Master of the whole project called "Life." We slow down so that we can pace more naturally. Kent shows us gently the way to go through the day. We wake up with a daily reminder that God watches over us. We go through the day knowing the presence of God that is real, regardless of whether we feel God or not. We learn to praise and pray, adore and be restored to God, to be alone and yet not lonely, because God is with us. Self-examination is a big feature of the book. Following the spiritual practice of "examen," we resist the pressures of the world that tries to mold us to its image, and to be open to the movement of the Spirit, to transform us into what God wants us to become. Kent calls worry as the biggest distraction we often face. Using personal examples with her own relationships, as well as learning from the spiritual masters, Kent not just writes about spirituality. She practices it. It looks so simple that one may be mistaken that it is a light book. While the content is not heavy, the practice of it can be challenging. By spreading the daily exercises over 40 days, we learn patience and discipline. We learn to be intentional and to be sensitive to what God is saying to our hearts. At the end of it all, as we slow down to examine ourselves, as we open our eyes to appreciate the wonders of God in creation, as we remember the sacrifice of Christ, the biggest benefit we can gain is through the period of Lent, is to learn that we have been deeply loved by God. All the sacrifice, all the overcoming of obstacles, and all the spiritual disciplines that have been done, will be so worth it that we will want to do it over and over again. Not because we have to, but because we want to. Draw closer to God.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Friday, March 22, 2013

"The Way of the Wise" (Kevin Leman)

TITLE: Way of the Wise, The: Simple Truths for Living Well
AUTHOR: Kevin Leman
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2013, (158 pages).

One popular question for people at different stages of their lives is to ask: "What is life all about?" That is usually about purpose. Other times, they will be asking about why they are doing certain things in life. That is a question about meaning. Still other times, they will ponder about where it all leads to, which is a question about destiny or a goal in life. Purpose helps us focus our lives. Meaning helps us understand the significance of our lives. Destiny enables us to establish hope for the future. How do all of these come into play in our present moments? This is what this book tries to do: To provide us some simple truths for living well, while on this earth. How many "simple truths?" Ten. All ten can be gleaned from Proverbs 3:1-6.

Leman shares about tumultuous early years in school that leaves him feel more like a drop-out or the odd one out of the school systems. At that time, he feels like he is of no use to God. It takes many years of trying to connect the promises of God and also to make sense of his own struggles. He summarizes them in ten principles to help readers learn from his experience so that they too can live well.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

"True Purity" (Hayley and Michael DiMarco)

TITLE: True Purity: More Than Just Saying "No" to You-Know-What
AUTHOR: Hayley and Michael DiMarco
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2013, (190 pages).

Books in the Christian Living genre often have the same kind of message: "It's all about God, not about us." This book is no different. When it comes to purity, it is not about us doing or not doing certain things in order to earn our collection of purity medals. True purity never begins with us or ends with our accomplishments. True purity is started by God, sustained by God, and awarded by God. We are pilgrims on a journey watching how God does that, and when need be, to avail ourselves to be purified by God. Purity begins with God. It is God's work, not ours. For the DiMarcos, purity for us is a matter of the heart. How have we completely given ourselves over to God, his purpose, his desires, and his passions? The moment we fail to love God with our 100%, we are due for a spiritual tune-up.

The book uses metaphors like water and light to describe the journey to purity. Whether it is water that washes us cleran, or like light that shines into darkness, the work is God's, not ours. For our devotion, our love, our relationships, our future, and our everything to be pure, we need God's light to shine through the crevices of our lives. Five areas are covered with regards to letting our focus on God be pure.

Firstly, in the area of love, the authors touch on the subject of dating and love. Instead of asking ourselves questions like, "Can I do this?" or "How far is too far?" we ought to change our questions. More helpful will be to do some self-examination: "Why am I in this relationship in the first place?" In doing so, as we begin to realize that our goal in life is not mere happiness, but holiness, we will have a true perspective of living holy lives in our love relationships.

Secondly, in the area of community, the DiMarcos touch on friends and friendship. There are three categories of friends. Those who are more spiritually mature than us as well as our spiritual peers. These two categories, we can be influenced by or learn from. The third category, the less mature, the young, we can offer our help to encourage or guide them. The guiding principle for friendship is that it is meant to glorify God. They also provide tips on relationships with non-believers.

Thirdly, for purity in self, readers are reminded about society's overwhelming pre-occupation with all things "self." As a result, they worry, they get anxious, and they fear not having enough for themselves. The key transformation needed is to learn to turn ourselves over to God, and to give God our 100%. There is also some interesting insights on the rising use of social media, where Michael comments that social media is essentially about promoting the self. Thus, readers are urged to tamper their social media usage, and to make sure that they do not fall victim to the trap of self-glorification, and making use of other users in order to puff up or prop up one's popularity. When I read this, I feel less guilty when my social network numbers do not run in the thousands!

Fourthly, there are some good advice on cultivating the way we think, in order to bring all things captive to the thoughts of Christ. Our mind, because of the centrality of our person, often defines who we are. If we can focus our mind on the thoughts of Christ, and the purity of God, we set ourselves to grow in the fruits of the Spirit. We respond more readily to the Spirit. We reflect more responsively to God. The freedom to seek after Christ leads to pure peace, pure sight in God, and to recognize that one's freedom to pursue stems out of God's grace and not our efforts. That in itself is a liberating reason to seek God.

Fifthly, readers are treated to joyful journey of faith. It is energized by love, knowing that all of our living have been because of the cross of Christ. It clings on to God. It is surrender in God. Only when we acknowledge our own impure efforts, and to trust God for all works of purity, to trust that when the day comes, God will make it perfect.

My Thoughts

This is a deeply encouraging book. The single biggest benefit for reading this book is not just thinking it is all about God, and not about us. The single biggest benefit is to realize that when we orientate ourselves toward God, it is not us moving ourselves toward God. It is God gently guiding and pulling us closer to him. Love is freely given and freely received. When we apply this to faith, to our desire to seek God more, in our thoughts, actions, and words, we are on the path to true purity. The authors have also put up a helpful table on page 173 as a quick guide to leaning away from our self-seeking ways or weaknesses, toward learning more of God's ways and strengths.

I enjoy reading the personal sharing of the authors. They share about their deep struggles and how God has helped them through. It gives the book a very authentic feel, and readers will be comforted to know that the authors do not simply talk or teach about true purity. They are actually living it and experiencing it. Even today.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Doing Well at Being Sick" (Wendy Wallace)

TITLE: Doing Well at Being Sick: Living with Chronic and Acute Illness
AUTHOR: Wendy Wallace
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2010, (240 pages).

We have all experienced terrible illness from time to time. It can be a simple bout of flu, or a tummy ache. It can also be due to some accidental fall or a crazy migraine. Usually we get well. With medication, we can often deal with the symptoms and with rest, to let our bodies take care of the longer term healing. What if chronic illness hits us? What if the cherished recovery takes so long time to come, that we fear it may never ever come? What if the sickness is so bad that we not only struggle with pain and depression, we lose our hope to live? What if you get not just one sickness, but multiple problems plaguing you over and over again? By the age of 47, Wendy Wallace has gone through heart attacks, lung cancer, chemotherapy, lupus, arthritis, colon cancer, multiple surgeries, and several more ills. It seems too terrible to be even true, but yes. Wallace lived through it all and from the depths of her despair and the heights of her hope through faith in God, she has given us a book to share her journey with. In this book, she deals with questions like:

  • Where and how do we find strength in our weakest moments? 
  • What about the guilt that patients feel when they see their family members, loved ones, and caregivers suffer because of them?
  • Where is God when everything seems to be going wrong?
  • How can family members cope?
  • What about cases when medical professionals make mistakes?
  • What can we do to assist the healthcare given to us?

This book is soaked with the author's experience through her own physical ailments. Just seeing how Wallace was able to overcome the many struggles through illnesses from A-Z already humbles any reader. Yet, she points out that although she is a person with many illnesses, these illnesses do not define her. It is God who defines her. With that knowledge, she is able to develop an attitude of gratitude away from self-pity to other-centered; to spend whatever gifts and time she has wisely, instead of complaining about the things that she does not have. Readers will learn about the relationship with our caregivers and our families. Sometimes, it is our own family members who are having a harder time grappling with our own illnesses. The part about shifting our trust from self to God is soul warming. While humans tend to think short term, God is mindful of all terms. Whatever God does, is always for the eternal good. In illnesses, we learn what being broken and trusting in a more unique way.

The book also deals with how patients can relate to their doctors, even though some doctors are downright arrogant, to the point that their actions may endanger their very patients they are supposed to help. The key is to work together, and not totally (or foolishly) think that doctors are our saviours. They are not. They make mistakes too. By working with them, patients can take responsibility for their own health too. She even goes through a list of the different kinds of doctors who are specialized in very specific areas. Know what is an Otolaryngologist or Nephrologist? There is also a chapter on how to work with hospitals, and to be prepared with a medical list of essential information so that medical professionals can react rapidly to time-sensitive emergencies. The last three chapters of the book will be helpful to those who are going through pain and physical suffering. Physically and practically, Wallace shows us how to live with pain, from pain relief to self-care; from preparation to actual implementation; from moaning about our pain to trusting in God. Mentally, she gives tips on approaching life with a more positive attitude, one that is mature and life-giving not just to self but also to others. Spiritually, she shows us what she has done in her journey of faith and trust, meditating on Scripture.

There are many precious gems in the book.
  • "Most medical personnel work extremely hard to keep us as healthy as possible. But they all make mistakes along the way, and we need to forgive them.."
  • "Contentment is not the fulfillment of what you want, but the realization of what you already have."
  • "One of our tasks in learning to live well is to learn the truths that will set us free to be well in sickness."
  • "In all of life’s difficult situations, God often allows us to stew in these stages until we are ready to accept the fact that He has been in control all of the time."
  • "If I had simply acknowledged that God was in control of my life and looked for His lesson in the situation, I would have moved more quickly out of my grief to a place of contentment. Instead of asking, “Why did this happen?” I should have been asking, “What do you want to teach me now, Lord?” I had no way of knowing God’s plan for my future, but I could have simply trusted that He had one that was being worked out."
  • "We search for happiness through fame, fortune, serial relationships, and acclaim. Yet daily we read reports of the suicides of rich people, the painful ending of yet another celebrity marriage, or the downward spiral of someone who was once at the top of whatever game he or she played. The “saints and poets” Wilder writes about have the opportunity to “realize life” because they see their lives through God’s eyes. God clearly teaches us that “me first” always leads to despair, and the only important thing we do with our lives on earth is to love God and others."
  • ...
If you are sick, or know someone who is sick, this is one book that you must pick up. Wallace covers a lot of areas, but one big area that will need more coverage is in the area of finance. As many societies around the world age, and with the costs of healthcare going up every year, chances are, financial pressures are going to impact our overall state of health too. Sometimes, the lack of money or the stress of it all only goes to make one more ill. Health is a big area of concern for many. In the Bible, healing is understood more of being made whole rather than just a specific area of cure. Healing is about the whole person, not just a discrete part of our body. This book, though not a full healing manual, points us to a wide variety of areas that we can pay attention to. Ultimately, there is a need for hope, that is regardless of positive or negative prognosis. Even if one has only a few months left to live, if one can make these remaining months count, that will be a life more well spent. A healthy person may have many more years to live, but if his life is without purpose or hope, without meaning or love, is that life a better one? 

Let me close with a quote from Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie."

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"John Wesley's Teachings, Vol 3" (Thomas Oden)

TITLE: John Wesley's Teachings, Volume 3: Pastoral Theology
AUTHOR: Thomas C. Oden
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2013, (304 pages).

John Wesley is one of the most prominent figures in the Christian world. Known as a reformer in England, and credited with the rise of England from the ashes of social despair and discouragement, he has preached thousands of sermons, and written even more. Widely read, he shares his knowledge, his discernment, and his wisdom far and wide. Even today, many people, especially Methodist and Wesleyan groups still continue to learn and cherish his teachings. This book, compiled from many of Wesley's writings brings together Wesley's teachings in themes. This series, masterfully worked upon by the Methodist theologian, Thomas C Oden categorizes the works into four volumes:
  1. Vol 1 - God and Providence
  2. Vol 2 - Christ and Salvation
  3. Vol 3 - Pastoral Theology
  4. Vol 4 - Ethics and Society
There is a general progression of thought in Oden's design. Beginning with God in Volume 1, Oden tries to lead readers to appreciate the theological movement from God to man, through Christ and the Church, and ultimately to society and the world at large. This volume touches on the pastoral ministry and how ministry leaders are called to minister. The scope is breathtaking. While the material is Wesley's, the arrangement of the themes of systematic theology, ministry, pastoral care, and general flow of applications belongs to Oden. That said, it is still quite correct to credit Wesley for the teachings. Written specifically for "non-professional readers," Oden attempts to present this volume of core insights of "the heart of Wesley’s argument, his intention, and his relevance for today." After distilling from Wesley's wide repertoire of writings, hymns, sermons, essays, and homilies, Oden then applies them to various aspects of pastoral care and ministry. As an avid scholar of patristic literature, Oden focuses on primary sources so that he can let Wesley speak for himself as much as possible. Like Wesley who prefers to go back to the original biblical texts instead of the popular King James Version of the Bible, Oden mines the depths of Wesley's works like "The Works of the Rev John Wesley," "The Journal of John Wesley," "The Letters of John Wesley," "The Poetical Works of Charles Wesley and John Wesley," and so on.

A) Ministry and Soul Care
“The most conspicuous feature of Wesley’s work on the church and pastoral care is his persistent focus on the church as a work of the Holy Spirit .Everything follows from this premise .The Spirit is bringing into being the communities of faith in Christ.’ (Oden, 29)
It is Wesley's conviction that pastoral theology is not something reserved for the clergy or ministers of the Church. Like Wesley, whose concern is largely for the laity, the care of souls is the responsibility of the whole laity, clergy included. After all, the laity can participate in the care of souls, and clergy is also a member of the laity. One particular point that Oden mentions is worth taking note. “Some will find this volume most useful for quiet spiritual formation.” Central to Wesley’s teachings is the role of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of pastoral care for the flock. It is shown through the “gifts and graces” of God to men called to lead in the ministry of care. He makes a close connection of vocation and soul care as follows: 
“Soul care is not strictly speaking a job, but a vocation .A job is a paid position of regular employment .A vocation is a calling from on high, transcending the economic, political, and domestic spheres .To receive God’s call, Christians must listen for his voice .” (38) 
Whether one is called to ordination or not, all are called to the ministry of the laity. The difference is the level of caring needs to be according to the gifting of the called. Having a quick and sharp mind, understanding Scripture, learning from the forefathers, and a need for steep educational qualifications are trademarks of the Wesleyan minister. Character and regular self-examination forms the spiritual syllabus of every servant. Wesley uses the word “higher calling” to indicate the seriousness of the call, not the privilege of the office. It is quite easy to discern Wesley’s conviction for the methodical structure for ministry. It must be orderly, connected, and designed in order to maximize the reach of the Holy Spirit to the rest of the flock, through the channels of the called, both clergy and laity. Some people may find Wesley’s teachings too “authoritative” for comfort. For example, the part about simply doing what the spiritual adviser says to do, without questioning or doubting, certainly does not fit into the Post-modern mindset of suspicion before obedience. On pastoral counsel, Oden has done readers a great favour by summarizing Wesley’s scattered thoughts on modern pastoral responsibilities like visiting the sick, caring for people in need, mediating conflict, and various counseling matters. It makes reading more structured and flows better along “Pastoral Theology.” Hey, Oden is a Systematic Theologian in the Wesleyan tradition after all! Soulcare is a core component of pastoral theology. Generally, healthy workers can be counted upon to do healthy work. Thus, Wesley places great emphasis on discernment, and to counsel those facing temptations, both clergy and laity. He even touches on the dark night of the soul, with ample advice on how Wesley points out four ways to discern the "darkness of mind" from "heaviness of the soul." He points back to the role of the Holy Spirit, which especially means the need to be patient.

B) Pastoral Care and Family

Ministry to families is particularly important for Wesley. Three teaching homilies speak into that, to remind all that family relationships are to be based on biblical foundations, and how God deals with humanity family-by-family, and how sin and grace can also be transmitted through the family. With great detail, Wesley lays down instructions for parents and children, from children's education to adult learning, that education is for all. Even music and aesthetics are to be used as a way to teach Christian Education. Five stages of the family life are described; namely, the single life; marriage; parenting; mature adult; and death.

C) Church and Sacraments

Church is a crucial part of any pastoral theology. The later half of the book focuses on Church ministry and the sacraments. Going back to the theology of the Church, readers will come across the 25 Methodist Articles of Religion, adapted from the Anglican Church's 39 Articles. This is still widely used by many Methodist around the world. Wesley takes pains to describe the Church as the body of Christ, and also a double emphasis on the role of the laity and the clergy to be actively engaged in this body. The call for unity is strong, and separatist stances are frowned upon. Thus, excommunications are not something easily approved of. There are even instructions for pastors who are caught in sin, whether they can be allowed to administer the sacraments. Fundamentally, the belief is that if God blesses a ministry, then one must never separate. In true graciousness, unholy ministers can still minister the sacraments because all are under grace, not merit. Wesley struggles with the issue of whether members ought to go to churches that supposedly preach erroneous doctrines. His conclusion? "They unanimously agreed, first, that it was highly expedient, all the Methodists (so called) who had been bred therein should attend the service of the Church as often as possible."

D) Baptism & Holy Communion

Of Baptism, Oden compares the Lutheran, the Anglican, and the Methodist views of baptism side by side, to show us how Wesley himself has struggled to remain within the Anglican tradition, choosing to let exclusion of certain words be his argument from silence, and at the same time, not explicitly denying his Anglican heritage. Oden's main point is to show the continuity of thought Wesley had through the various traditions. The words "New birth" and "regeneration" figure widely in Wesley's understanding of baptism. It is an outward sign of an inward grace. Child baptism is retained, so is baptism by multiple modes. Five sure benefits of baptism as a means of grace are:

  1. Those baptized experience the "value of Christ's death" and personally to our sins.
  2. Welcomed into the covenant community
  3. Becoming members of the body of Christ
  4. In baptism, one is grafted in and become members of the body of Christ
  5. In baptism, we are made heirs with Christ in the new kingdom.

Recognizing that a common fear among laity is the fear of taking the Lord's Meal unworthily, Wesley takes pains to call the Communion a "duty of every Christian," as God's providence for the soul, and a means of grace received. However, Wesley makes a distinction between consuming unworthily versus feeling unworthy to consume. Wesley also addresses the fear of routine taking of the meal that makes the whole ritual less meaningful. Oden summarizes Wesley's thought on this as follows:

"True reverence flows out of our receptivity to God, not out of our concentration on our feelings." (221)

E) Unity

For Wesley, unity is a big thing. He believes that any splits, schisms, or separatisms, are primarily issues of the heart, and do not necessarily mean churches must break up and separate. Schisms are evil. He speaks out against any partisan spirit. Even if a church is under accusations of heresy, the unity of the body of Christ must take priority. Wesley's thought is as follows:

"Suppose the church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein."
My Thoughts

This series of works on John Wesley's teachings are arranged systematically and will be a precious resource for Methodist ministers and laypersons to read, to research, and to treasure. Sometimes, just seeing the mountain of writings by John Wesley himself can discourage any prospective learner to read Wesley. In bringing together themes and issues that are very relevant to life in the Church, Thomas Oden has given us a great set of works to refer to, so that we need not re-invent the wheel with regards to trying to resolve difficult issues. While I find it helpful to get a compact volume of Wesley's thoughts and teachings, the serious student of Methodism will not use this set of works as the only resource. The way to use this book is as a launchpad to dig into the treasure house itself. This is basically for two reasons.

First, we must learn to read Wesley in context as well. While Oden is a respected theologian and scholar, there is only so much systematic theology can highlight. There is history to be appreciated. There are contexts to be understood. There is the flow of argument in Wesley's writings that can only be fully comprehended if we go back to the sources, like what Oden has done. All of these cannot be achieved just by reading this book. Serious readers will need to read beyond this book.

Second, readers need to constantly ask themselves: Is this Wesley's thought or Oden's? This is important for good scholarship will need to credit the right sources correctly. Sometimes, the thinking of both men converged. Other times, I struggle with trying to understand if Oden has interpreted Wesley correctly. This is where a knowledge of the primary sources will help immensely. This question will also remind readers to stay attentive to details. It is easy to mistake Oden for Wesley, and vice versa.

Still, I will give this book high marks for the good work Oden has put in. If you are a Methodist, you will probably want to read this book. If you are a Methodist minister, start budgeting for your library. If you are interested in how theory and practice of Methodism comes together, this book is a great way to start.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5

conrade

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

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Awake" (Noel Brewer Yeatts)

TITLE: Awake: Doing a World of Good One Person at a Time
AUTHOR: Noel Brewer Yeatts
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (176 pages).

Good works that flow out of the Good Word in the heart. Doing good to the world one person at a time. Reaching a larger world regardless of how small or how limited one is. All it matters is a big heart and willing hands. This is exactly what Noel Brewer Yeatts has done. Spurred in part by Timothy Keller's book, "Generous Justice," Yeatts attempts to help believers "wake" up to the reality of a world that needs us more than we can ever imagine. She makes a bold call to try to take readers through various shifts. I summarize some of my seven reflections as I read the book.

First, we need to move from guilt-driven kind of a help toward a justice minded perspective. Using the example of Mother Teresa and the story of the Tuohy family who helps a boy get back on his feet, Yeatts points out the need for a kind of help that will aim to make a difference one person at a time. If one is guilt-driven, one may only get to help on a knee-jerk manner that does not last. If one is led by justice, one will persevere in being creative and convicted about helping a person a long way.

Second, we need to move from sleepy knowledge toward wakeful action. So often, we allow our accumulation of knowledge bog us down to inaction. Like Aquinas, we need to choose to "feel compassion than to know the meaning of it." It is not enough simply to be aware of what is going on. We need to take responsibility for this knowledge and to do something about it. The trouble is, far too many people o not think their participation will make any difference. This is tragic not only for the needy, but also for us. So what are the rich of the world, who as a minority possess the majority of the world's wealth, doing about the rest of the world, who not only are poor, but seem to exist only to serve the desires of the rich?

Third, we need to move from a mentality of handouts to compassionate action. Giving handouts is a cop out to reduce one's guilt feeling. Action that stems from a deep compassion will resemble Jesus' being moved by compassion to action. That means learning to move from mere giving to actual serving, distant awareness to up close and personal human touch.

Four, our giving and helping need to move from haphazard help to strategic assistance. Women in general are more vulnerable. They are also more influential. Like the saying in Ghana, that if a man is helped, it is just one man; but if a woman is helped, the nation is also helped. One strategy then is to pay special attention to the needs of women and to train them to develop help channels in their respective contexts.

Five, move from vague ideas about help toward crystal clear ideas. Take the issue of the lack of clean water. It spawns a host of problems with regards to diarrhoea, malaria, typhoid, as well as the good health. Without good health, one cannot have a good quality of life. Helping the poor does not mean just addressing symptoms. It also means addressing root causes.

Six, we need to move from a boring but safe lifestyle to a bold and significant form of faith. It means radical plans with our own lives. It means learning to make our lives count. It means living a worthwhile life for others. Helping the poor is not simply just wearing a T-shirt. It means wearing the needs of the poor through active engagement with the rich AND the poor. We need to evangelize the former and to be an agent to touch the latter. We need to speak up for the voiceless, listen to the silenced, see the marginalized, and to feel that the world as it is right now, is moving toward injustice.

Seven, we need to move from a sense of complacency to a sense of urgency. I think it is an apt reminder that the biggest tragedy for many people is not because they are successful, but when they are successful in things that ultimately do not matter much. Yeatts urge readers to actively join groups that advocate for the poor and vulnerable; to invest in a child; to be an active part of infrastructure improvements in the needy world; and even to make a trip to the poorest of the poor to experience first hand the reality of injustice, poverty, and suffering.

This book is about changing the world, beginning with changing the hearts of anyone who wants to do some good in the world. The primary audience is essentially the rich West, but the scope can be easily enlarged to include other groups. Containing many stories of faith and trust, success and disappointments, Yeatts encourages us not to look at the problem, be discouraged and then do nothing. Instead, she urges us to look at what is possible, be encouraged, and then do something, even if it means just one life or one small situation at a time. Three thoughts come to mind as I marvel at the resilience and the industry of Yeatts. First, we are not responsible to solve all the problems of the whole world, just part of it. Second, we are not meant to help everybody in the world, just who we can reach. Third, we are not responsible for the ills of the world, but we are responsible if we do not do anything about it. If any of these thoughts can be planted in the reader, this book will have done its job. I'm sure readers will be moved. It is a fitting reminder that while we are not responsible for solving all the problems of the world, we are responsible for those things that we can do something about.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Sacred Compass" (J. Brent Bill)

TITLE: Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment
AUTHOR: J. Brent Bill
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2012, (208 pages).

Spiritual discernment is often talked about but rarely lived out. It is about sensing God's presence and guiding hands, rather than forcing our own ideas into a I-know-what-is-best mentality. Using a compass as a metaphor for spiritual discernment, Bill makes us realize that our deepest desires to find meaning and purpose for ourselves, stem from our attentiveness of our inner compass to God. It makes us sensitive to God's direction and to discover not simply a path we ought to go, but to discover God himself. Along the way, we become more self-aware and more God-aware.

Beginning with the famous Quaker-phrase, "As way opens," Bill describes the differences between a tourist and a pilgrim. Pilgrims recognize that the spiritual life is a long journey. It is an expedition of continuous learning from others. As one cultivates trust in God, one learns to see God in the many details. They travel together. Pilgrims let their lives speak to one another, that in the process of trying to discern one's own path, one helps others to discover both their paths as well a their uniquenesses. It teaches us to develop attentiveness. Learning becomes transformative, and one then learns to lead others in their journey too. The leadings come in many ways. It is patient. It is persistent. It is creative and beautiful. It is both calming and exciting. However, all of these leadings need an acute sense of testing whether they are from God. Bill provides seven helpful ways to test. He also provides some spiritual disciplines we can adopt to sharpen our awareness.

What is also helpful is how Bill brings out the dangers of the dark side. We need to discern whether the valleys are in fact mere spiritual dryness or some warfare. The former we need to cling on to God's promises. The latter we hang on to God's strength.  Bill provides tips on how we can still maintain that compass direction in spite of dark times. Some traveler's aids are listed for the benefit of readers, and excites readers about the dance of heaven on earth.

I appreciate this book a lot for its clarity. Five things strike me powerfully. First, the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts. Sometimes, we tend to highlight only one part of our lives over the rest. That is wrong. As pilgrims, we are not to base our lives on some highlights or high periods of positive experiences. Pilgrims travel the entire journey, and let the whole journey tell the full story. Second,  it is about God, not us. For those who are experiencing spiritual fatigue, it is an apt reminder that whatever we do or not do, does not change God's love for us. Third, even in dark moments, we can still learn spiritual discernment. Good spiritual discernment happens at all times, not only during feel-good moments. Four, the tools and tips provide readers an arsenal of resources to use. At times, when we feel like we have run out of ideas or resources, this book not only provides additional ideas for us to contemplate and put into action, but also to cast new light on old tools. One example is the way to "listen deeply." Most of us talk about the importance of listening. Bill's wide repertoire of listening pointers help us to listen beyond ourselves or our own needs. We are urged to engage in community sensitivity in listening. We are encouraged to listen for movements that benefit others, even when it does not lead to any direct self-benefit. More importantly, listening is putting the interests of others above our own. Finally, I enjoy the leading chapter of the book. It is not just about spiritual leadership. It is about true leaders are those who have been lead in the first place. The essence of leadership is about listening to God, and to lead like Jesus has led. Leading is learning. It is waiting when it is the time to wait. It is moving when it is time to move. It is gathering when it is time to gather. The interesting thing is this. True discernment is not about leading forth like a spiritual Rambo. True discernment is being led by the Holy Spirit to go to any place, willingly and joyfully, even to places we do not want to go. Above all, pilgrims on the spiritual journey will not be too caught up with what to do, where to go, who to meet, or how to go about the travel. They will be utterly content, knowing that it is God who is their traveling partner all the way.

This is an excellent guide for spiritual discernment.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Friday, March 15, 2013

"The Briarpatch Gospel" (Shayne Wheeler)

TITLE: The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places
AUTHOR: Shayne Wheeler
PUBLISHER: Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2013, (186 pages).

What is a BriarPatch Gospel? It is a place of spiritual dryness or darkness, where instead of the promised faith, joy, and hope, there is that doubt, despair, and discouraging spiritual life. It is a place where the blues seem to take over the skies of bloom, covering it with dark clouds of gloom. The types of people who enter the briarpatch include those who are often ostracized for their sexual orientations, as social outcasts, the depressed, sinners, the marginalized, and those struggling to spring out of the boredom-crisis pendulum. Even in churches, there are many who feel worn out or utterly discouraged for whatever reasons. Take heart. If you are in any of these situations, do not let your hearts be troubled. For if you are a Christian, Jesus will be calling you into the briarpatch. He wants to love us and to heal us. Then he wants to send us into the world to do the same for others. Wheeler reminds us that regardless of our spiritual conditions, rain or shine, thorny or comfy, Jesus will be right there with us. Wheeler deals with two types of briarpatch conditions. The first is external, like home which is where we feel welcome. It is a place where we feel accepted even though we fall short on many fronts. It is a place where we can freely connect without having to sign our names in the blood of commitment. Home is where visitors and strangers will not feel like visitors or strangers, but as family. Instead of abandoning or avoiding friendship with people who are different from us, we address the differences and try to accept one another as best as we can. The way of love is how Jesus accepts people as they are.

The second kind of briarpatch is internal. How possessive are we about our material possessions? Have we shared well with the poor? What is the place of money in our lives? Are we putting relationships above accumulation of things? Inner briarpatches also exist as doubts. How do we deal with pressing questions of faith when there seems to be no answers? Even the early disciples were stunned when Jesus, their Teacher and Master was killed. The sad thing is that many Christians not only allow their doubts to linger without being addressed. As a result, many fail to grow. Like the character Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Trreader, one needs to undress the dragon scales, to be freed and naked before God. Let God heal us, and make us whole. God wants to change us from the inside out, if we let him.

While the first two parts of the book deal with the external and internal briarpatches of one's life, the third part helps to show us how God can build us up in the midst of journey through the parched land. There is a trajectory of hope. There is the promise of God who is trustworthy and true. God will shape us. God will use us to shape others. Wheeler shares about how reaching out to others has reaped much spiritual dividends and encouragement for him and his church. About a Mr Buford who murdered the man who raped his wife. Even in his brokenness, Buford found Christ. He found faith. Another story is about a man who was just released from prison. He was jailed for drug offenses. What is the meaning of Jesus in the midst of such brokenness. Wheeler helps us realize that life is complicated. Jesus died for all people, not just those who are nicely dressed on Sundays, live a respectable life, and holds a decent job.

Without the rain, we cannot see the rainbow. Without recognizing the briarpatches of our own lives, we deceive ourselves. Without learning to grow in spite of these spiritual dryness, we will not bear fruit. Transformation begins when we realize it is all grace. Grace is free. Grace is radically free. Grace is given to us. Grace is in the person of Christ. Yet, it is also an invitation to us to accept. We are not force to take it. How does a transformed briarpatch pilgrim look like?

According to Wheeler, he will be living out heaven's reality on earth. He will embody the life and presence of Christ in his work and his relationships. He will be "ambassadors of grace and mercy." He will be praying and hoping that God's kingdom will come soon, and make not just one, but all things new.

Shayne Wheeler has written a very sensitive book. It reaches out to the down and out, the marginalized in society. It also touches the emotionally down or the spiritually outcast. In doing so, he strikes a chord with many who are going through rough times right now. In some way, this is not exactly a typical feel-good kind of an inspirational that charges one up to storm the battlefield. There is something more subtle in the way that it motivates readers. This is the goal of the whole book, which is worth quoting:

"As we enter the briarpatch of our tangled, fallen world, we take the presence of Jesus with us, and we find that he is already there, in the midst of the thorns and thistles, preparing the way for restoration, reconciliation, and redemption." (Shayne Wheeler, p171)
The gospel is bigger, way bigger than any briarpatch.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"The Connecting Church 2.0" (Randy Frazee)

TITLE: The Connecting Church 2.0: Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community
AUTHOR: Randy Frazee
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (256 pages).

No man is an island. In fact, authentic churches are not collections of individuals, but communities of disciples who are constantly on a lookout for one another, and to share the kingdom of God's love far and wide. In a follow up of the first book published ten years ago, Randy Frazee not only updates the book, he presents new ideas with regards to how to become a better and more effective "connecting church" in our times. Three quarters of the book are allocated to defining the problems of the common Church life, and to help rediscover the purpose of Church, the place of neighbourhood witness, and the need to let community take priority over possessions. The last part of the book provides some implementation strategies using best practices of four churches and a presentation of a hybrid starfish model. The book is essentially about community.

A) The Problems
Frazee flashes out the three problems that prevent authentic community building. Firstly, there is the problem of individualism that diminishes community, creates breakdowns in common beliefs and purposes, causing any highest virtue to be mere tolerance rather than wholehearted acceptance of one another. Secondly, there is the problem of isolation that has been fueled by individualistic cultures. Loneliness, separation by physical distance, and a lack of interactions, turn many people and families into isolated enclaves, where people hardly know their neighbours. The third problem is consumerism, that assumes self-dependence, distrust of people, readiness to file lawsuits, lack of social accountability, and unending greed. The book is about addressing these problems head on first to stem the tide of decay. After that, Frazee proposes a constructive approach to redeem people, relationships, and society at large in order to build a connecting Church that reaches out to people and touches lives.

For each of these problems, Frazee provides a series of helpful strategies to counter them. Against individualism, Frazee proposes five ways to counter individualism.
  1. Authority: Inculcating a healthy respect for the authority structure so as to establish a working framework for community building.
  2. Common Creed: Using shared beliefs, people can work together for a common purpose
  3. Traditions: This is a crucial vehicle to impart knowledge, history, values, purposes, heritage from one generation to the next
  4. Standards: With recognized guidelines, communities can feel safe and are able to work together to uphold the standards.
  5. Common Mission: Having a clearly defined mission often draws communities closer together.
There are also five ways to counter the problem of isolation.
  1. Let there be Spontaneity that it is not the schedule or time that directs the relationship, but real needs of people that determines the time and place.
  2. Let there be Availability where people in a community put each other as more important, and where community goals trump individualistic concerns.
  3. Let there be Frequency of getting together, for all kinds of reasons. Daily interactions are far better than rare meetings.
  4. Let there be Sharing of Meals where people can hang loose, relax, and share naturally.
  5. Let there be Geographic proximity, where people can build communities without the threat of distance. 
In countering the problem of consumerism, Frazee proposes five characteristics to develop.
  1. Interdependency: Instead of trying to build up independent lifestyles that express no need for others, take time to question ourselves that just because "I could" (ability) does not necessarily mean that "I should" (application).
  2. Intergenerational Life: Learn to appreciate the challenges of different challenges and work together to live, to learn, and to leave a legacy.
  3. Children: The raising of children is not simply the parents' responsibility, but the responsibility of the whole village or community.
  4. Responsibilities: In an individualistic culture, people talk more about rights. In a community, people are ready to exercise responsibilities.
  5. Sacrifice: This negates consumerism straightaway as it not only refuses to fatten oneself up, but to sacrifice for the sake of others. In giving to others, we will truly receive something more important in return.
The final part, Part IV supplies the "2.0" content of the book. Frazee shares his top ten learning tips from his ten years of teaching and preaching "Connecting Church." He proposes a "starfish church" structure that decentralizes rather than a "spider structure" that centralizes. While the latter attracts people fast, it is the former that helps the process of discipleship better. Four churches of various sizes are highlighted to demonstrate the effectiveness of the strategy. It helps readers to appreciate that the theory has been successfully put into practice. In belonging, growing, and serving, one builds the connecting church.

I appreciate this book for its clarity and practical applications. Frazee has powerfully described the three problems of modern society, especially the rich West. It is most applicable to churches that are sub-urban, middle to upper class, and some may say, mostly white communities. When compared to other cultures like parts of Asia and Africa, community building can come more naturally than many communities in the West. One can argue that an Asian living in the West can also become individualistic and consumeristic over time. Culture is a powerful force that can mold people into a new state. That is why we need to counter society not as individuals but as communities, not as self-sufficient persons but as humble learners ready to learn the ropes of interdependence. Some of the strategies can be immediately applied to churches that look similar to the examples given in the book. That said, it is important to remember that culture is a strange animal. Unless we learn to read and diagnose our own culture correctly and accurately first, we cannot apply. Unless we read this book with a readiness to apply, we cannot establish any purpose in reading culture.  Most importantly, we need to change not because it is a new idea worth trying out. We need to start moving because it is one powerful way to live out the Great Commission. I like the way Frazee opens with a problem and closes with some positive recommendations on what to do about it. In fact, he goes much farther to help readers see the grand story, that apart from mere solving of the three problems of individualism, isolation, and consumerism, one needs to push toward strengthening communities. After all, life is not about solving problems. It is about linking people up toward a common purpose and to grow a common identity that fully appreciates our uniqueness. The Church as the Body of Christ must show the way.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.

conrade

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Understanding Spiritual Warfare - 4 Views"

TITLE: Understanding Spiritual Warfare: Four Views
AUTHOR: Walter Wink, David Powlison, Gregory Boyd, C. Peter Wagner and Rebecca Greenwood.
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, (230 pages).

Spiritual warfare means different things to different people. Some underplay its significance, while others hype up its importance. Even scholars and theologians are not able to agree. Instead of trying to pit one another in order to find out who is right or wrong, this book brings together four diverse but important perspectives of spiritual warfare. Walter Wink advocates the "World Systems Model," where if there are institutions and world systems that have been taken over by evil forces and principalities, the Christian is to name them, unmask them, and "engage them." Wink then makes a bold call for Christians to take on a counter-offense against the principalities of evil, to a "collective exorcism" believing that God will empower believers to wrestle against the spirits of the age. At the heart of Wink's view is the place of Satan, whose fall from being a 'servant of God' to a spiritual rebel has become a spiritual objective of Satan to do the same for the rest of the world. He makes a useful observation that actions and counter-reactions by humans against themselves can often make people forget that the enemy is out there, not our fellow people. I do agree with David Powlison who argues against Wink's excessive use of prayer as a form of spiritual battling. Prayer is more than that. While Wagner agrees that prayer is a powerful weapon in intercession and spiritual warfare, how much prayers and intercessions change history remains debatable.

David Powlison promotes the "Classical Model" where spiritual warfare is centered on fighting the flesh. Powlison describes spiritual warfare as a term for "describing the moral conflict of the Christian life." Using Ephesians 6 as his launching pad, he sees the warfare more as a defensive approach. In dealing with deliverance, he points out three biblical examples of how sin is dealt with through "repentance" and not "exorcism." Through Christian disciplines of prayer, evangelism, spiritual growth, one automatically fights the sinful desires of the flesh. Boyd makes a useful critique when he says that spiritual warfare cannot be limited to lifestyle strategies, and asserts a need for binding and loosing spirits. I agree with Boyd that Powlison's model tends to be an over-reaction to the excesses of exorcism and sensational spiritual deliverances. That said, Powlison does gives us a good "classical" reminder that when we follow the ways of Jesus, and obeys his teachings, we are already equipped for spiritual battle, in character.

The third model is the "Ground-Level Deliverance Model" which is advocated by Gregory Boyd. He says that earth is the battle ground where evil rebels constantly against God's purpose on earth. That is why the prayer "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is a specific spiritual warfare prayer. Boyd frowns at how some modern theologians have not only downplayed, but denied the reality of Satan and evil powers by rendering them as mythological. Boyd offers four objections. First, believing there are perhaps some mythical character in the Bible does not mean these characters' thoughts and teachings are mythical. Second, there is no reason why a person who believes in science and technology, cannot similarly believe in spirits and forces in the spiritual realms. Third, one must beware of modern arrogance, thinking that our modern technological advancements dispel any reality of historical beliefs. Four, we need to abandon any arrogance or forms of cultural superiority over ancient times. In short, spiritual warfare is real, physical, and exists right now. That said, Boyd then deals questions surrounding the need to deal with personal demons that requires exorcism, and whether Christians can be demonized in the first place. Wink and Hardin takes issue with Boyd's use of a "personal devil" as a key way to deal with spiritual warfare. For them, spiritual warfare is more than that. Powlison claims that Boyd  has unwittingly denied God's sovereignty over evil, and argues that spiritual disciplines that battle against evil must be tied together with mercy. Wagner prefers to take issue with Boyd's "strategic level" kind of warfare, saying that while spiritual warfare need not be the centerpiece of ministry, it can be an important central strategy.

Finally, Peter C. Wagner and Rebecca Greenwood helms the view of "Strategic Level Deliverance" where spiritual warfare is of a territorial and cosmic dimension. Both Wagner and Greenwood highlight the realty of dark forces, quoting personal experiences from different corners of the world. Their version of spiritual warfare covers many territories, like land, war, idolatry, sexual immorality, broken covenants, and many power encounters. Believing that the Church is the chief vehicle for spiritual warfare, their conviction is that if we do not pray, we become prey for the evil one. Even the issue of abortion is a result of evil. Wink critiques Greenwood's exegetical method and her use of "federal theology" that basically ties American society as breaking her covenant with God. Powlison too questions Greenwood's exegetical exercises, saying that he remains unpersuaded that abortion is a direct result of spiritual rebellion. Boyd accuses Wagner and Greenwood's "triumphant theology" that is too "Constantinian" for comfort. Rather than working toward a victory on earth, Boyd calls for humble living, and wait for Christ to come and bring to completion the final victory.

My Thoughts

There are so many things to learn from in this book. Like iron sharpening iron, these four views are ably argued for and against by the different writers. It highlights issues that bring clarity to the original propositions, adds in important nuances to the understanding of spiritual warfare, and maintains a healthy respect for persons who agree or disagree. While I am tempted to say that the biggest beneficiaries for this book are the contributors themselves, readers are in for a treat as they are invited to listen in to the conversations and to be reminded that spiritual warfare is real, wide-ranging, and deeply mystifying too. Readers ought not to be distracted by the different views and opinions of the authors and editors. Instead, readers can acknowledge the variety of differences based on contexts, understanding of differences, and an awareness of how each perspective deals with spiritual warfare. There is nothing to lose when we learn from others. There is everything to gain when we are humble to acknowledge that together, we are stronger. This book shows us the way on how Christians may differ in views, but united in their stance against principalities and powers of evil. In Christ we stand.

I like Wink's way of seeing spiritual warfare with a worldview of systems, and how we need to be on the alert that evil does reside in many structures and systems in the world. I appreciate Powlison's wide treatment of what spiritual warfare is, how to understand the occult, how to help those in addiction and bondage, how to understand exorcism as recorded in the Scriptures, and the experiences of warfare in other native cultures. Boyd's essay is particularly instructive, especially when he deals with the postmodern skeptics who dispel the reality of spiritual realms. Wagner and Greenwood's more radical perspective of warring against evil in a more forceful manner, stem out of personal experiences they have encountered, and while they may sound radical, their views ought not to be dismissed outright. After all, some experiences cannot be explained. The responses by the other writers make this book a highly educational one for the reader, and keeps us humble to know that spiritual warfare is much bigger than any one view. In fact, four views only go to scratch the surface of this very important topic. That said, this book can help begin our learning and our equipping for spiritual warfare. This is perhaps one of the best books, if not the best book on comparing spiritual warfare perspectives. For four capably argued perspectives, with rebuttals and positive engagement, readers are in for a treat and a great learning experience, learning from those who not only argue for it, but live it.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.

conrade

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