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Monday, November 30, 2015

"The Imitation of Christ" - (A New Modern English Translation by James M. Watkins)

TITLE: Imitation of Christ: Classic Devotions in Today's Language
AUTHOR: James M. Watkins
PUBLISHER: Franklin, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2016, (288 pages).

It has almost become a cliche in Christian circles to talk about living the Christian life: "Be Christlike." What exactly does that mean? How do we become more like Christ? Go no further than Thomas a Kempis's classic work. These words spell out the purpose of this book:

The one who follows me will not walk in darkness,”
says the Lord. These words of Christ teach us how far
we must imitate his life and character, if we seek true
understanding and deliverance for deception of
our hearts and minds. Let us, then, most earnestly
study and dwell upon the life of Jesus Christ.
Christ’s teachings surpass all the teachings of holy men,
and if we have his Spirit we find spiritual nourishment." (Thomas à Kempis)

Watkins has chosen to do away with the numbering system that some of us have been familiar with, replacing it with paragraphs so that it can read like a modern book. The language is freshly paraphrased in modern words. Some tips in this book are worth pondering:
  • Don't be too interested in "Who said this?" Be more attentive to "What is being said?"
  • Read the book devotionally, using the re-arranged "disciple" and "Christ" voices. 
The book is instructional and devotional. Sometimes, the segments that are attributed to Christ speaking appear like a mini "Jesus Calling" devotionals by Sarah Young. It takes a little getting used to in reading this new translation and re-arrangement. The language is clear and concise. The voice is fresh and the citations are clearly indicated from the Scriptures. This is useful as other translations tend to footnote the Bible verses instead. I appreciate the insertion of the full verse directly into the text as it aids reading and minimizes interruptions. This infusion of Scripture, paraphrase, and Kempis's words is uniquely Watkins's. There is a tender listening and responding format that readers can adopt when reading this. The words after the headings "The Disciple" can be a time of prayer and seeking God. The portions after "The Christ" can be adopted as getting us ready to obey Christ, as if Christ is speaking directly to us.

For the past 500 years, this classic has ranked among the most popular devotional books about the Christian life. Some even say that it is the second most translated book (after the Bible). Originally written in Latin in the Netherlands back in the 14th and 15th Century, Thomas Haemmerlein (aka Thomas à Kempis) borrowed much of his materials from three sources: The Bible, the Church Fathers, and the medieval monks. The original editions were from four devotional booklets. The modern one we have in our hands is a combination of all four. Promoted by both Catholics and Protestants, this book has been published in more than 6000 editions over 50 languages. Is that not enough? One may ask. Why another translation? Surely, we can get free ones online like here, here, here, and here. Classics are always prime candidates for translations and re-translations. I suspect that more often than not, the primary beneficiaries are the translators themselves. They are the ones who had to read, analyze, digest, paraphrase, and to communicate the truths learned into a manner that they can best express. It will take a little while for readers to re-adjust to this new translation. Some readers may still prefer an old numbering format, or the original Book, Chapter, notation. After the first few pages, once readers get the hang of it, the classic will take over. Be patient. It is rewarding read.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"Parables" (John MacArthur)

TITLE: Parables: The Mysteries of God's Kingdom Revealed Through the Stories Jesus Told
AUTHOR: John MacArthur
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2015, (288 pages).

Are parables just stories of entertainment? What are the purposes of parables? Why did Jesus teach in parables? Should we adopt the same methods? What can the parables reveal to us today? What are the unique characteristics of parables? Renowned author and pastor John MacArthur has written a passionate 288-page treatment of Jesus' parables in a way that is very MacArthur: conviction; passion; biblical; unrelenting; clear; and polemical. He contrasts the way Matthew and Luke narrates the parables. The former tends to be as brief as possible while the latter focuses on details like personality and life. He believes that contrary to some interpreters, Jesus' message is pointed and focused on a single major point. The parables are "rarely even multidimensional." He asserts that there is a central lesson and as we study the parables, we can all be "true disciples, carefully seeking wisdom and understanding with obedient hearts." He selects a dozen parables arranged in ten themes.

Beginning with Jesus' frequent clashes with the Pharisees and religious leaders, MacArthur launches with the reason why Jesus teaches in parables. From the Sabbath to teachings about the condition of the heart, Jesus challenges the Pharisees without compromising on the Word. Second, Jesus talks about the willingness of people to receiving the Word of God. In the Parable of the Sower, the Word of God is the key focus. How are we hearing it? Third, we learn about the cost of discipleship, and here, MacArthur draws in the parable of the pearl of great price, the hidden treasure, and describes the six vital truths of the kingdom. Fourth, the parable of the vineyard is about the owner of a vineyard who chooses who to employ and how much to reward. Grace and justice is completely God's prerogative. Fifth, Jesus expounds the parables with regard to neighbourly love. Using the Good Samaritan parable, Jesus challenges the hearts of the Pharisees by telling the story of how even the despised Samaritan can do a better job in obeying the very law the Pharisees often trumpet. Sixth, the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector is an opportunity to teach justification by faith. By contrasting the two men's position, posture, and prayer, we learn what it means to try and please God on our own terms or on God's terms. Seventh, the Parable of the Two Servants, the Ten Virgins, the Talents, are used as examples of the need to be faithful. It is when we are constantly living in expectation of the Lord's coming that we can be motivated toward faithfulness and to be ready when the Lord arrives. Eight, the Parable of the Wise Steward teaches us "serpentine wisdom." MacArthur draws three powerful lessons to teach us lessons on how money can be used for the good of others; how we are only stewards of God's possessions; and how we must avoid letting money be enthroned in our hearts. Nine, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is also a lesson to teach us the reality of heaven and hell. We learn about God's judgment, and the need for hearers to take seriously the words of Jesus while we can. Finally, we learn from the parable of the persistent widow about the value and power of persistent prayer. As a "postscript to Luke 17," this parable is about judgment that is to come. We pray and not lose heart because God will eventually demonstrate once and for all, He is sovereign to all, regardless of whether the world recognize it or not.

Friday, November 27, 2015

"In God's Holy Light" (Joan Chittister)

TITLE: In God's Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics
AUTHOR: Joan Chittister
PUBLISHER: Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2015, (144 pages).

Much have been written about the wisdom of the desert monks. Known for their short pithy sayings and simple stories, in the early common people from the urban centers would often make their way to the desert to learn from these desert fathers. Beginning in the third century, after the Edict of Milan which made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, many pious and religious individuals make their way to the deserts in order to escape the corruption and materialism happening at urban religious centers. In seeking a life of simplicity, they have abandoned worldly pursuits in order to seek God more intently. Many of them literally obeyed Jesus' call to the rich young man to sell all his possession, give away to charity, and to follow hard after Jesus. As the world dominates the church, many people especially the disillusioned would go to the desert fathers for spiritual advice.

In this book, a collection of 35 stories have been put together with a commentary from Joan Chittister, a Benedictine monk who has written a lot on all things spirituality and a respected voice for justice and peace. Each chapter can stand on its own. There is no necessity to read straight through from cover to cover in order to be touched by the wisdom in the pages. Imagine a room with thirty five doors in front of us. It does not matter which door we opened for every door opened will shine light on the path ahead and behind us. More importantly, it shines into our hearts to reveal our weaknesses and the need for us to remain humble. Here is how I would recommend the use of this book.

At the start, read the short story and pause. Do not be distracted by technicalities or words that you are not familiar with. Some of the things may appear quite bizarre like Serapion who gave away everything including the Word. It is not the things he did outside but what is motivating his outward actions that matter more. Slowly but surely, the unassuming and gentle advice given by the desert fathers help us see ourselves more clearly. When ready, go ahead to read Chittister's commentary on the story. There are lots of gems and insights which should stretch our mind and our learning. If we think we have understood the sayings of the desert monks, let Chittister show us another perspective or more. The stories and the lessons are easy to read. Letting the truth sink into our hearts is not so easy.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"Walking Backwards to Christmas" (Stephen Cottrell)

TITLE: Walking Backwards to Christmas
AUTHOR: Stephen Cottrell
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, (128 pages).

We have all heard of the Christmas story. We watch children perform nice plays on it. We sing carols about it. We see the beautiful Christmas lights and festivities all over town. Many popular images of Christmas include scenes like:
  • The three wise men offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to baby Jesus
  • Animals surrounding baby Jesus at a stable
  • Shepherds seeing the bright star that lights up the night sky
  • Joseph and Mary cuddling the little baby
  • and so on..
Many of us are also familiar with the stories of Christmas, the signs in Isaiah, the prophecy of Zechariah, the angel before Mary, and the events leading to the birth of Jesus Christ. Most of the time, these are forward movement stories, meaning, they start sometime way back in history and progress to the birth of Christ as the climax. What if we look at a picture and start telling a story backward? What if we let our imaginations fill in the blanks of the biblical story, of how we can uncover the many plots, motives, and the associated responses to the Christmas story? Like some movies that begin with a dramatic finish and then offer viewers a flashback of "Seventy years ago," "Eight months before," or "Seven days back," Stephen Cottrell gives a fascinating first-person storytelling backwards. Without compromising on the biblical information we have, narrating the events and responses of the various movements can be informative and insightful.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"The Parables of Jesus" (James Montgomery Boice)

TITLE: The Parables of Jesus
AUTHOR: James Montgomery Boice
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2016, (272 pages).

Parables are unique, especially those told by Jesus. Used to cast alongside important truths, parables are meant to be clear for those with ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to understand. It is simple enough to understand at first read, but contains fresh insights on the spiritual life when read again. Studying it is even more rewarding. This book gives us a deeper insight to the things we thought we already knew. Since it was first published in 1983, this book has become a classic. It categorizes all of Jesus' parables into five categories.
  1. Parables of the Kingdom
  2. Parables of Salvation
  3. Parables of Wisdom and Folly
  4. Parables of the Christian Life
  5. Parables of Judgment
The author is James Montgomery Boice, who died in 2000, and who had previously served as pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for 32 years. Originally created as sermons to be preached, he had never thought it would be published in a book of this nature. Thankfully, it has been published for the benefit of people beyond the confines of the pulpit. Bible study groups can use it. Church groups can learn from it. Even pastors and preachers can learn a lesson or two from it and share it with their congregations.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"If" (Mark Batterson)

TITLE: If: Trading Your If Only Regrets for God's What If Possibilities
AUTHOR: Mark Batterson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015, (304 pages).

If a word can launch a thousand thoughts, a book can surely create boundless imaginations. Using one word, author and pastor Mark Batterson helps bring us away from the "if only" of past regrets toward the "what if" of future possibilities. Believing on the need to renew the mind and to be filled with good thoughts, Batterson believes that this one word "if" can change our perspective of life. Basing this book on the eight chapter of Romans, which he calls the "Great Eight," he distills ten "ifs" that add up to limitless possibilities. Central to it all is Romans 8:31 which says: "If God is for us, who can be against us?"

It is very much Batterson's positive thinking equivalent for his followers. Loosely based on Romans 8, the author distributes 30 chapters of stories, narratives, anecdotes, and tips over four major parts. The first part is about past regrets often denoted by the "if only." If only things were better. If only I had done that. These two words "if only" can usually be mind-crippling. It makes us forget the grace and mercy of God. It makes us feel guilty with self-condemnation. Very quickly, the second part of the book is a defying voice against the impossible circumstances. Instead of being fixated on the things of the flesh, we can choose to focus on the things of the Spirit. We can pledge to dig deeper into God's Word rather than to become distracted by anxieties and cares of the world. We can make a beeline for the Cross. We can choose not to let fears dictate our lives. We can choose to live as children of hope. Part Three tighten the screws of optimism by helping us turn outward to blessing others; to look beyond our self-needs; to bear fruit for Christ; etc. Some of the "what ifs" in this section is particularly powerful. Like:

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Rediscovering Discipleship" (Robert Gallaty)

TITLE: Rediscovering Discipleship: Making Jesus' Final Words Our First Work
AUTHOR: Robert Gallaty
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (240 pages).

Robert Gallaty has done it again. As one who wakes, sleeps, eats, drinks, and talks discipleship, he has become a living crusader for all things discipleship. Focusing on Jesus' last words to his first disciples, this book brings into the fore the need to "rediscover" discipleship. One question which many people may be asking is: "Is there anything more to be written about discipleship that is not already written?"

For Gallaty, it is a resounding yes. Simply because most people's spiritual lives are still very much in limbo. Quoting statistics on the failures of Church discipleship programs, there is a general decline in spirituality among church goers. In spite of all the resources available out there, there is still a "discipleship deficit" today. One main reason is the lack of measurables. We are good at organizing, planning, and implementing various programs. Unfortunately, we are not as good when it comes to measuring their effectiveness. So convicted is Gallaty that he calls the return to discipleship as "the reformation of the twenty-first century." Not only is this time-tested, it is also culturally relevant. With discipleship, believers will be empowered for ministry, for witness, for growth. We realize the "great" in the "Great Commission." The Church must keep the "main thing" the main thing, and not be distracted by minor concerns. The Great Commission to make disciples is the "main thing." Gallaty states:
"Until disciple-making becomes the ministry of the church and not a ministry in the church, we will never see our discipleship efforts impact the world the way that Jesus envisioned. Until disciple-making becomes the ministry of the church and not a ministry in the church, we will never see our discipleship efforts impact the world the way that Jesus envisioned. This generation, as with every generation."

Friday, November 20, 2015

"The New Pastor's Handbook" (Jason Helopoulos)

TITLE: The New Pastor's Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry
AUTHOR: Jason Helopoulos
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015, (208 pages).

What can a young pastor expect in a new parish in the first years of ministry? How can he meet the high expectations of the congregation? What can he do to manage the relationships between the Church leadership and the pastoral team? Taking a leaf from Paul's exhortation to young Timothy, author Jason Helopoulos believes in the importance of a good start for it often sets the pace for the subsequent years in ministry. How can one cope with the ups and downs of pastoral work?

New pastors need encouragement, especially in the first few years. Unlike books written by retiring pastors at the end of their ministry vocation, or experts from seminaries, this book is very much written by a young pastor for fellow young pastors. A newbie book for newbie pastors. Helopoulos is associate pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He begins slowly with the meaning of calling, defining it as something distinct and primarily with pastoral care. Three elements are essential for the call: 1) Internal call; 2) Approval by the people; 3) Confirmation in the Church. He has advice for those starting out as senior pastor, assistant pastor, youth pastor, and church planter. There are lots of very practical tips on the role of each position.

The bulk of the handbook is devoted to the encouragement section. Using a baseball metaphor, readers learn that ministry comprises three loves: love for Christ, love for the people, and love for the Word. We are encouraged to care first for our families before we devote our time to the flock. Know the history of the Church. Know the greatest need of oneself is personal holiness. Tips include time management; listening; visitation; knowing self; delegate; dealing with complaints; silent suffering; hospital visitations; and many more. These chapters on encouragement are short on details but highlights key helpful points. Finally, there are pitfalls for young pastors to avoid. From idealistic zeal and trying to do too many things too fast, to sermon delivery and control, many of the struggles described would resonate with even the most seasoned pastors. I appreciate the last section, "Joys of Ministry" which is a core component in pastoral work. The joy of the Lord will be our strength. the moment we lose this joy, it's time either to leave or to take a sabbatical.

In an age where pastoral turnover in churches are getting higher and pastoral tenures shorter, this book serves as a useful guide for pastors both new and old. Pastoral work is never easy, but also not impossible. A good pastor takes time to develop. One of the most important points is a good pastoral-church leadership relationship. Without this, it is impossible for the pastor to grow and for the Church to flourish. I warmly recommend this book for the reading and reference of new seminary graduates and pastors to be.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Availability" (Robert J. Wicks)

TITLE: Availability: The Challenge and the Gift of Being Present
AUTHOR: Robert J. Wicks
PUBLISHER: Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2015, (160 pages).

Being present and available sounds easy and a great thing to say. Practicing it however is anything but that. In fact, people who recognize the challenges of availability will soon find out that it has complex implications, time challenges, and also a problem. Problems like how much is too much; how little is too little; how appropriate is appropriate; and how can it be a gift rather than a bane to receivers. In fact, being 'too available' can also be a problem in itself.

  • What if being present with God becomes a perpetual state of self-criticism?
  • What if wanting to be available is actually a sense of loneliness?
  • What if our expectations for intimacy are not met even after making ourselves available?
  • What if our modern lifestyle of busyness and hurry are preventing us from being truly and fully available?
  • It means coming face to face with the barriers that impede our availability.
In this update of an earlier version published some thirty years ago, Psychologist and Professor at Loyola University Maryland, Robert Wicks probes the idea of availability from three angles. He begins with ourselves, which may be intriguing to some readers thinking that availability should always be for others. The wisdom of this is clear. If we do not know ourselves and our limits, how can we be of help to others? Healthy people are the best help for others. Unhealthy people suck away the emotional energy around them. Wicks is so emphatic about this that he asserts "we must understand and preserve ourselves at all costs... not merely so that we can survive, but also that Christ may live on in us and in those whom we touch in His Name." In being available to ourselves, we learn about our own uniqueness. Through our struggles, we can learn more about ourselves. Failures and our ability to forgive also teach us about ourselves. Being a psychologist or psychiatrist can often leave one empty after a session with clients. Being 'burnout' requires a theology of hope. Here, Wicks brings in the psychology and theology of hope to accomplish a deeper level of self-understanding, knowing, and clarity. True power comes with great self-awareness. Courage comes with clarity about one's strengths and weaknesses. With perspective comes clarity and prayerfulness.

The second part of the book deals with being available to others. This is helpful for any forms of self-knowledge is never mean for personal consumption. God has gifted us with one another and we ought to use these gifts to care for the people that God cares for. Wicks says it well, that being with Christ means being with others as well. In relationships, we are able to cultivate the language of love. We learn to share our pain and fears within the support of a loving community.  We show compassion to one another. We learn to rejoice with those who rejoice; and weep with those who weep.

Finally, availability also means being available to God. Wicks teaches us that true prayer has a "uniting influence" as we grow toward union with God. Being available for God means creating space within us for God. It means letting go of our idols and anxieties as we enter into periods of darkness. It means learning to withhold judgment on people and to seek God's mercy. As we deal with our inner wanting to run away from God, we will then be able to restrain our human tendencies and to experience God.

So What?

Casual readers may think this book is some kind of a self-help manual for caregiving and being present for people. On the surface it does look like that. Instead, I am pleasantly surprised at how spirituality has been weaved in through prayer and intentional spirituality that allows one to be open to God and the movement of the Spirit inside one's heart. Without shunning the reality of rush and anxieties in our society, Wicks from experience starts from self-care or soul-care. Without taking care of our own houses, how can we even offer to help others with their houses? This principle is demonstrated in the framing of this book. Slowly but surely, readers learn with increasing clarity three things. First, the need for self-care and self-awareness. This is the core part of being available. The sad fact among many people is that they want to help others without first helping themselves. Like the airline safety video that reminds parents to wear their oxygen masks first before helping their young kids, Wicks correctly points out to us that spiritual care is no different. The worst thing we can ever do to a person in a sinking ship is to invite the person onboard another sinking ship! He covers a lot of ground with honest self-discovery and through our struggles, to know more about ourselves, our potential as well as our limits. Second, there is a need to look beyond ourselves and to be reminded that we are created for community. We help because we are participants in the world of people. This is the core of being human, not for ourselves but for one another. The Bible has lots to say about learning to walk together in pain and in sorrow. Third, we learn to deepen our prayer lives. This is perhaps one of the best reasons to buy this book. From psychology to community, we move eventually to the spirituality of prayer. I appreciate Wicks for sharing the wisdom from people like David Steindl-Rast, Anthony Bloom, and Henri Nouwen. Many of these writers are modern names we recognize. The annotated bibliography at the end of the book also forms a useful resource for those of us wanting to explore the spirituality of prayer in greater depth.

All in all, this is a nice little guide book on understanding the person psychologically and spiritually. At some point of the book, readers can be forgiven when they sense they are reading a portion of the late Henri Nouwen's books.  If you feel busy to pray or too caught up with trying to meet needs of others as well as self, maybe, it is high time to pick up a book like this one to gain a better spiritual perspective of where we are and more importantly, who we are.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Sorin Books, a division of Ave Maria Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Volunteering" (Leith Anderson and Jill Fox)

TITLE: Volunteering: A Guide to Serving in the Body of Christ
AUTHOR: Leith Anderson and Jill Fox
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (112 pages).

The Church is the Body of Christ made of people, not a building made of bricks. Volunteerism is essential to the running of the Church. No Church can every hire enough people to run all the ministries. It either does not have the financial muscle nor administrative resource to mange or of them. Even for large churches, there is always a need to have a pool of unpaid individuals who feel a calling to serve and to follow after the footsteps of Jesus who showed the way to serve rather than to be served. Written as a guide for those who want to serve, this is more like a "companion guide" to another book entitled: "The Volunteer Church" plus a few more initiatives like:

  • Giving past volunteers an additional motivation to volunteer again
  • Gently persuade the fence-sitters to take the plunge toward volunteering
  • Be affirmed once again on the merits of volunteering
  • To empower volunteers to find the right fit
  • To train others to volunteer

Monday, November 16, 2015

"The St Teresa of Avila Prayer Book" (Vinita Hampton Wright)

TITLE: The St. Teresa of Avila Prayer Book
AUTHOR: Vinita Hampton Wright
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015, (176 pages).

Who is St Teresa of Avila? Why should we know about her and her works? What has a Sixteenth Century Carmelite nun to do with prayer? Who are the people who have influenced her spirituality? In uncovering the story of this amazing saint, award winning novelist and school teacher Vinita Hampton Wright has put together a min-biography of St Teresa of Avila to help us appreciate her early life; her decision to choose the religious vocation instead of marriage; and how her own life led to the classic writings on prayer. At the same time, there are difficult physical circumstances that plague Teresa. When she was a teenager, she had severe anxiety attacks, malignant malaria, and a serious bout of illness that even paralyzed her for three years. With sufferings of health, she plunged herself into deep prayer and meditation. In particular, she gravitated toward the teaching of Peter Alcantara's Treatise on Prayer and Meditation. Soon, she developed her own sense of abandonment to God and started her work on The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection.

Part One is a primer of St Teresa. After a mini-biography to show us the person behind the famous works, it is hoped that readers would then find Teresa a bit more familiar with so as to pray alongside. In Part Two, we follow after Teresa's rhythm of morning and evening prayers. This rhythm was developed as Teresa was reflecting on the Letters of St Jerome and later, St Augustine's Confessions. From this pattern, Wright distills it for modern readers through a liturgy as follows:

Friday, November 13, 2015

"Chosen?" (Walter Brueggemann)

TITLE: Chosen?: Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
AUTHOR: Walter Brueggemann
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, (108 pages).

Whenever people think of the Middle East conflict, they would shake their heads as if there will never be any solution to the conflict. It is one of the most, if not the most, difficult problems in this world. For Christians, it is one huge theological puzzle of disagreement. At the heart of the disputes are the questions surrounding the nation of Israel.
  • Who is Israel?
  • Is Israel still God's chosen people?
  • How should evangelicals see the Israel of today?
  • Is there any theological basis to support Israel with military weapons? 
  • What should we make of the relationships between Israel and the Palestinians?
For scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, far more important than political maneuvers for or against Israel is the plight of human rights for Palestinians. It is not right for US lobbying groups to continue to support Israel's bullying tactics by sending them military weapons and at the same time downplaying the human rights of the Palestinians. Worse, it is bad theology to just interpret the Bible as if it is a command to prop up Israel regardless of what she does to her neighbours. For Brueggemann, the well-being of all must be foremost.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"Habits for Our Holiness" (Philip Nation)

TITLE: Habits for Our Holiness: How the Spiritual Disciplines Grow Us Up, Draw Us Together, and Send Us Out
AUTHOR: Philip Nation
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2016, (192 pages).

We have books on spiritual disciplines that help us grow our spiritual lives. We have many resources on contemplation and meditation to cultivate a deeper level of holiness and spirituality. We have discipleship programs to enable individuals to develop their Christian lives. The sad truth is this: Many of our programs are more man-cantered than God-centered. The purpose of spiritual disciplines is not about us becoming more 'spiritual' as opposed to worldly, but more godly as becoming more like God. Author Philip Nation provides several reasons why we need disciplines.
  • Not an end in themselves but tools for God to hold us
  • Learning to serve rather than to be served
  • Greater intimacy with God
  • Loving God and loving people
  • Becoming a witness for Christ

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Awe" (Paul David Tripp)

TITLE: Awe: Why It Matters for Everything We Think, Say, and Do
AUTHOR: Paul David Tripp
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015, (208 pages).

We need to make space for wonder. We need to find room to discover the divine. We need to be still in awe of God's presence. Confessing that he wrote this book for himself, author and pastor Paul David Tripp gives several reasons why awe is more necessary than ever. First, God's creation is already wonderful in itself as it reflects a beauty that can stimulate our senses. Second, for a fickle and wandering soul, we need something to keep our roving thoughts in check. Third, we need more attentiveness for the presence of God. Fourth, we need to "recapture, refocus, and redirect" our heart's attention to God over and over again. Fifth, with awe, one will be able to shape our words, thoughts, and deeds, according to the spiritual awareness of God. It is awe that many of us lack. When we think we have everything under control, where is there a need for awe?

Tripp takes us through thirteen windows of awe, beginning with HUMANITY, where there are so many things we can share and appreciate together because we are all created with the ability to wonder. Even when we have all the answers the the everyday problems we face, without awe, we will be stuck in cycles of discontent. He thinks about WAR and becomes aware of "awe wrongedness" (AWN) which happens when we feel wronged, victimized, received the shorter end of the stick, unjustly treated. Wars happen when this AWN takes root. The world through the past century have endured two world wars, and many more scattered across various continents. Even today, wars are happening not only in the Middle East but in Eastern Europe, restless pockets of strife in Asia, unrest in Africa and the Americas. On MINISTRY, Tripp sometimes wonder if he has truly been called to ministry in the first place. If worshiping God is foremost, why then are people constantly getting stuck in doing things that do not resemble any act of worship? He surmises: "Only a functional, heart-directed, ministry-shaping awe of God has the power to protect me from myself in ministry." We are hardwired for awe, and when our heart goes through a REPLACEMENT, with us replacing God with other gods, our sense of awe becomes warped. We forget God. We suffer from AMNESIA, seeing without truly seeing, and hearing without truly hearing. Through self-centeredness, a grotesque sense of entitlement, discontent, relational dysfunction, control, fear, anger, envy, drivenness, doubt, coldness, and others, our capacity for awe gets decapitated.  TRANSGRESSION follows suit. We snigger at the laws of God. We belittle the importance of obedience. We swim in rivers of COMPLAINT and give critical and sarcastic answers to the five diagnostic questions about God. Instead, we move toward MATERIALISM and puts our trust in the temporal things of life. Failing to answer the two most important questions in our lives will put a damper to GROWTH. Thankfully, Tripp presents us with two "awe portraits" from Galatians 5. The first is to be careful of the works of the flesh. The second is to don the fruit of the Spirit. Spiritual growth comes with the suppression of the former and the increase of the latter.  As the author quotes at length the passage from Isaiah 40, he senses a WORLDVIEW awareness. He gains a bigger picture of CHURCH. Seeing PARENTING as a high calling, readers learn about awe inspiring moments that we can teach our children. We gain a renewed sense of WORK that puts in proper perspectives that it is our identity in Christ that gives us our worth, not our works. Eventually, Tripp boils it all down to one phrase: "Awe is a longing."

Monday, November 9, 2015

"What the NT Authors Really Cared About" (Kenneth Berding & Matt Williams)

TITLE: What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Their Writings
AUTHOR: Kenneth Berding & Matt Williams
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2015, (240 pages).

First published in 2008, this second edition has been released to update the book on what is really important in the New Testament. Organized around nine New Testament writers to show their concerns, we learn to study the New Testament intent inductively and not to insert our own concerns and purposes into the texts. We learn to recognize the biblical authors' main concerns and how we can apply the truths and principles into our modern world. Written collectively by 15 NT scholars and professors, the authors offer undergraduate students a colourful and enriching resource to guide their study of the New Testament. With a very extensive introduction about how first century audience would understand, readers learn about how the Assyrians and Babylonians were perceived, marauding invaders who were the cause of Israel's demise. They thought of the Persians who were the foreigners permitting the Jews to rebuild the temple. They were familiar with the Greeks who had a culture of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism. They knew the influence of the wars between the Ptolomies, the Seleucids, and the Hasmodeans. They were also familiar with the history of the Samaritans, the rise of the Pharisees, and the powerful positions of the Zealots, Essenes, and the Sadducees. Of course, they feared the Romans and lived in total submission to Roman rule.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"Abba's Heart" (Neal Lozano with Matthew Lozano)

TITLE: Abba's Heart: Finding Our Way Back to the Father's Delight
AUTHOR: Neal Lozano with Matthew Lozano
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Chosen Books, 2015, (224 pages).

What is mankind's deepest need? For Neal and Matthew Lozano, the deepest need for us is to get back to the heart of Father God. With many households nowadays dealing with an absentee father environment, the deep need for a father figure has grown even deeper. Written in a very accessible manner, with tenderness of a father-son sensitivity, the authors affirm the call for each of us to accept the warm embrace of God. It prompts us to ask:
  • What song is the Spirit of God singing?
  • What message is God speaking to us personally?
  • What is preventing us from experiencing God more?
Birthed some eight years ago, this book was only completed with the help of the author's son, Matthew. Both are now serving in the same ministry called "Heart of the Father Ministries." They have many free resources there. Both understand the spiritual hunger in people. The reason why Jesus came to earth is to bring us back to the Father He so loved. Using a journey metaphor, readers are invited to come alongside the authors' approach toward homecoming to God. The first section talks about "The Way Home" that begins with a promise that God the Father is not some harsh judge who dishes out punishment but a loving God who wants to embrace us. They ask:
  • Who God is?
  • What is God the Father like?
  • What is in the Father's heart?

Friday, November 6, 2015

"The Volunteer Church" (Leith Anderson and Jill Fox)

TITLE: The Volunteer Church: Mobilizing Your Congregation for Growth and Effectiveness
AUTHOR: Leith Anderson and Jill Fox
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (160 pages).

Every member is a servant in the Kingdom of God. For the Church is not a building made of bricks and stones. It is a Body of Christ made of people serving God and one another in the love of Christ. Volunteerism is in. Compulsory work is out. This is particularly so in a ministry that requires us to put our faith into action. If there is any group of people who deserves more encouragement and praise, it would be the group of people who willingly offer to serve at their own time and own resources. Weekly, they work without official pay. They do their best despite not having the best tools or training. In fact, the best form of leadership development is to increase the level of volunteerism in any organization. A Church grows not on the basis of attendance numbers but volunteer numbers. The challenge for any church is not only to encourage the volunteer numbers, but to increase the cheer among all. This book is written for three groups of people.
  1. For leaders exhausted by lack of volunteers
  2. For volunteers wanting to have more to join them
  3. For ministry staff wanting to train and to cultivate a culture of volunteerism

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Family Worship" (Donald S. Whitney)

TITLE: Family Worship
AUTHOR: Donald S. Whitney
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2016, (64 pages).

The powerful British Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon had wished more people would do it. The Barna Research Group show statistics about a more vibrant family because of it. Church people generally verbalized it as a good thing to have: Family Worship. Yet, it is another of those things that are widely spoken about but seldom practiced. Being a Christian is more than just going to Church. In this small book, author Donald Whitney shines light at this important topic so as to encourage more families to take family worship more seriously with tips and methods on how to do it. Dr Donald S. Whitney is Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has a website to accompany his work.

Beginning with an affirmation from Joshua 24:15, about the desire for the whole family to serve God, Whitney shows us several biblical injunctions on why family worship is important. Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah is a clue that the family recognizes the ritual of worship. Moses calls Israel to be faithful to God through the Shema. The book of Job begins with a description of how devoted Job is in worship. The Psalmists themselves are worshipers too! Over in the New Testament, Peter and Paul teaches us to maintain an attitude of worship.

Readers learn also that Church history is replete with examples of family worship. Tertullian in the second century wrote about believers who got married are seen praying, worshiping, fasting, instructing, and encouraging one another in the Word of God. Chrysostom often preached about this. Likewise, the great reformer Martin Luther lived it. Then there are the Puritans, and preachers through the centuries who continued to affirm family worship is key to the health of the Church.

There are three elements in family worship: Reading; Praying; and Singing. Read the Bible methodically. Pray using a list. Sing with songbooks for everyone. Be brief. Be regular. Be flexible. After the simple instructions, Whitney goes on to tackle some issues that families may face:

  • What if the father is not a Christian?
  • What if the children are too young?
  • What if there are wide ranging age groups in the family?
  • What if there are no children? 

With clarity, Whitney has given us a guide that does not bog the busy parent down with details. Instead, it is an easy book to pick up and go do it.

It has been said that a family that prays together grows closer together. A family that worships God together is one of the most profound spiritual relationships to be formed. The trouble with many families is that they already had trouble finding time to talk, to play, and even to eat together. Busy people with busy lives obviously have no time for other people. Sadly, this extends to many modern families as well. This book contains a few gems but the main shortcoming is that it looks half-cooked and hastily assembled. The book offers promise and would be suitable for those who needed a starting torque to get family worship going.

Rating: 3.75 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

"Just Show Up" (Kara Tippetts)

TITLE: Just Show Up: The Dance of Walking through Suffering Together
AUTHOR: Kara Tippetts
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2015, (192 pages).

This book begins with a somber greeting: "Hi. My name is Kara Tippetts, and I may not be alive when you read this book. I hope so, but I don’t know. That decision is in the hands of the Author of my life—His name is Jesus. I trust Him with every ounce of who I am."

With these words, Tippetts begins this book with hope, that even when she does not know what to do, what to say, or what to answer, just showing up is already a blessing in itself. It is also a step of humility to come as we are to say: "I'm here. I may not have the answers, but I'm here." With "Just Show Up" as her principle of perseverance through the ups and downs, and especially the suffering moments of life, cancer patient Tippetts shows us what perseverance means amid the pains and sorrows of life. Tippetts died on March 22, 2015, but not without touching the lives of many. Through this book, her life continues to influence many even after her death. Written with Jill Lynn Buteyn, author of inspirational novel, Falling for Texas, this book is an honest down to earth retelling of the struggles through the tough times of life by simply walking together and being present for each other.

Monday, November 2, 2015

"The Biblical Hebrew Companion for Bible Software Users" (Michael Williams)

TITLE: The Biblical Hebrew Companion for Bible Software Users: Grammatical Terms Explained for Exegesis
AUTHOR: Michael Williams
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (144 pages).

Technology is here to stay. Whether we like it or not, technology is fast changing the way we study the Bible, especially in the way we approach biblical languages. I have heard of seminaries and Bible colleges doing away with the conventional ways of approaching the biblical language. So, armed with all kinds of modern computer platforms and powerful Bible software, users can try to learn all the Hebrew from the technological tools, according to their own pace.

Traditional learning is also not easily done away. Such a method of learning Hebrew includes the rote memorization of word endings, the hours of digging into grammar, the vocabulary, the various rules and unique features of the ancient biblical language. I remember using many flash cards handwritten and placed in my pocket to be revised throughout the day. The art of remembering the Hebrew, combined with the science of analyzing the grammatical structures is part and parcel of learning the semitic language.