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Monday, January 29, 2018

"Joy" (Edited by: Christian Wiman)

TITLE: Joy: 100 Poems
AUTHOR/EDITOR: Christian Wiman
PUBLISHER: New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017, (232 pages).

Joy is not just essential for life. It is crucial. Imagine a life without joy. It would be meaningless. For all the wonderful things we can say about this fascinating and needful emotion to have, people still feel conflicted about what it means, especially for them. Editor Christian Wiman notices this in her introduction to the book of poems. While dictionary definitions provide a starting clue about what joy is, truth is, joy is more than a definition. It is an intimate part of life that could be elusive to many, but highly sought after. It could not be scientifically manufactured lest the product comes forth as artificial. Even the word 'faith' needs healing before seekers can actually enter into a deeper comprehension of it. Truth is, joy can be found in more places than mere ecstasy or human happiness. It does not appear in one long climax but manifests itself in unique moments of life. Poetry is a powerful way to examine and experience these precious moments. Dictionaries can highlight the academic meaning of joy, but poetry tills it, massages it, evokes its essence in ways that typical prose and scientific manuals cannot do. Frogs jump for joy without even having to make an indepth study of their leaping experience. It comes in expectancy of freedom like a moth ready to take its first flight. It can be like a grand return to home after a long and weary expedition. It is a "catalyst" that leads us to other things, such as seeing life with a more positive viewpoint. Sometimes, joy is not simply described but played out through music. People sing and shout out loud.

Monday, January 22, 2018

"Mending Broken Branches" (Elizabeth Oates)

TITLE: Mending Broken Branches: When God Reclaims Your Dysfunctional Family Tree
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Oates
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2017, (240 pages).

Marriages break up. Divorces happen. Children suffer the consequences. Can we escape from our past? Maybe. Will we be free to live well in the present? That depends on how we are healed. In spite of the high place of family in society, these are some of the modern struggles family go through. It pretty much describes the landscape of the cliché: “No family is perfect.” While that is true, it is also true that some families are more imperfect than others. This is often what society means when they say “dysfunctional families.” Writing from her own broken background and a determination to heal from her wounds, author Elizabeth Oates uses the planting metaphor to help us make sense of our past, our present, and our future. The purpose in this book is three-fold. First, we are given the space to grieve our past. Second, we learn to be equipped to deal with our present circumstances. Third, we are encouraged to build a healthy and hopeful future.

Part One helps us work through our past to find our true significance in Christ instead of the “transactional relationship” with Santa Claus. Readers will learn about being bold to open the dreaded Pandora’s Box of any shame in the past. Oates uses a familiar plant model to craft out our past. There is the root of the problem which is a failure to find our significance in Christ alone. There is a need for pruning, where we tackle head-on the heavy baggage from the past. Our family of origin is not to be blamed or praised but accepted. The sprouting willows and branches are like opportunities and spaces for us to acknowledge our past. Just like a branch that can grow in any direction, once we are safely anchored on a trunk, we grieve with all the space we need. We need not feel alone because we are not the only ones that have baggage from the past. Every family do. Slowly but surely, we learn to let go and move forward. Whether it is shame or lost childhood; failed dreams or broken realities; the positive thing to do is to acknowledge our various stages of grief. Here, Oates uses Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief model. It would have been better if the author had acknowledged this in a footnote but I suppose the model is popular enough for most people. This journey to the past ends in the embrace of the Heavenly Gardener, God Himself.

Friday, January 19, 2018

"Everything Happens for a Reason" (Kate Bowler)

TITLE: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved
AUTHOR: Kate Bowler
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Random House, 2018, (208 pages).

Is it true that God rewards the good when they do good and punish them when they do bad? Is it also true that there is absolutely a reason for everything that happens to us? Must well-meaning Christians always do something for those who are going through tough times? What about things such as as direct blessings or curses? Is it true that God blesses us when we are good and curses us when we are bad? By the way, is there a cancer cure for those who seek God hard enough, or when we pray fervently enough? Having gone through personal struggles and doubts over past pet beliefs, author Kate Bowler emphatically says no. In a nutshell, there is no such thing of a spiritual guarantee for some earthly cure from heavenly realms. Having written "Blessed," one of the most in-depth studies and research on the prosperity gospel, Bowler shares her inner thoughts and feelings about the promises and perils of believing in the prosperity gospel in the midst of extreme pain and cancer. In a frank and open manner, Bowler reveals how her stomach pains and frequent discomfort led to a shocking diagnosis of an advanced stage of colon cancer.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

"The Perfect You" (Dr Caroline Leaf)

TITLE: The Perfect You: A Blueprint for Identity
AUTHOR: Dr Caroline Leaf
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017, (320 pages).

Is there such a thing as a perfect person? What happened to the common phrase: "There's no perfect person?" Before we dismiss this book on the basis of the title, perhaps we could begin with the cultural use of the word 'perfect.' In our everyday conversations, sometimes we would respond to the question: "How's your day going on?" with the answer: "Perfect!" This book is neither about semantics nor cultural cliches. Instead, it is about helping us become the best version of ourselves. It is about identity and what we can do to unleash our deepest potential. Most importantly, it is about recognizing the perfection is not about us but about the Perfect God who had designed us and made us. Our key to unlocking this is understanding how we are wired. It begins with God and the blueprint provided in this book will bring us closer to seeing this beauty of God in us. Combining theology, science, philosophy, and practical checklists, Dr Caroline Leaf helps us to discern how we think, feel, and choose. Based on neuroscience, she is convinced that our minds control our brains. Based on her research and practice, she believes that individual choice plays a bigger role. She defines the "Perfect You" as "how you uniquely and specifically think, how you uniquely and specifically feel, and how you uniquely and specifically choose." It is essentially the intersection of mind, heart, and will that makes up the framework of this key thesis. She redefines success as being able to transform our community and to bring heaven to earth. Instead of searching for some potential out there, we are urged to consider developing the potential that is in us.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Avoiding the Greener Grass Syndrome" (Nancy C. Anderson)

TITLE: Avoiding the Greener Grass Syndrome: How to Grow Affair-Proof Hedges Around Your Marriage
AUTHOR: Nancy C. Anderson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2017, (152 pages).

Getting married is easy. Staying married is the hard part. What about preparation to stay married? This is where this book fills in the gap. In other words, don't wait until the crisis before doing something about our marriages. Nourish and prepare for the challenges in the road ahead. For all marriages will be challenging in one way or another. Popular author, Nancy Anderson believes that it is possible, even though she had admitted cheating on her husband before. That was then. Having survived infidelity, she is back on a mission to use her story to help others build affair-proof hedges around their marriages. For Anderson, it takes years of rebuilding after that momentary fling with sexual temptation and adultery. Readers will not find lots of theories or concepts about marriage. Instead, they will be witnessing the sudden fall from grace and the long road to recovery. Written in two parts, Part One describes the author's betrayal of her marriage vows; confession of her affair; and the difficult journey of restoring her broken marriage. Each chapter is about what happened in her life that leads to her poor decisions. Before the confession, there was confusion about what was the right thing to do. Would she let her feelings rule the day, or will she return to the fundamental meaning of the marital vows. Plus, how does one apply biblical principles of truth and reconciliation in this complicated web of betrayal and distrust? So, before Anderson and her husband press the divorce button, they realize that recovery is possible. All it takes is commitment and determination to make things right. In starting over, she learns many lessons and takes the time to share these lessons with us. The rest of the book is about her experience and how we can avoid falling into the pitholes of temptations. How to plant and build hedges around one's marriage? Anderson goes through eight whole chapters on how to do just that. Each chapter springboards out of a biblical verse. Anderson uses HEDGES as an acronym for action:
  • H = Hearing
  • E = Encouraging
  • D = Dating
  • G = Guarding
  • E = Educating
  • S = Satisfying

Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Stay in the City" (Mark R. Gornik and Maria Liu Wong)

TITLE: Stay in the City: How Christian Faith Is Flourishing in an Urban World
AUTHOR: Mark R. Gornik and Maria Liu Wong
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2017, (95 pages).

There was a time in which many Christians flood the suburbs as the city becomes either too expensive or over-populated. Some see the city as too secular for their comfort. Others deem the city a lost cause due to the rising levels of crime and social ills. For young families, it is also increasingly difficult to afford to live in cities where the cost of living rises each year. Yet, the city continues to hold a strange attraction for many. Going downtown or uptown is also a popular choice among young people. What if all Christians vacate the city? Where then would gospel witness come from? Even in an age of Internet and social media connections, there is still a need for face to face interactions and communications. The authors of this book believe that Christians have a calling to stay in the city as a gospel witness. They provide encouraging stories of the many creative witness happening in major cities such as the City of Refuge in Brooklyn that offers refuge for the homeless. Over in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a terribly expensive city, a young couple made their home so hospitable that teenagers loved to pop in for a snack and where parents could drop off their kids for a few hours. Other stories of hope and mercy fill the pages of this very engaging book about how Christians are making a difference in the cities. This book is a companion volume to "Sense the City." The latter goes more in depth about the skills and the practical things needed. This book shows forth the stories and the reasons why Christians ought to continue to be engaged in the work of the gospel in the city. Why? There are many reasons. More and more people are living in cities. Much of the need for the gospel are in cities and urban areas. In fact, cities are creeping into suburban lands and not the other way round. Cities are also hubs of opportunities, given the many resources and growth activities in them. There is also global migration to keep track of.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"A History of the Church in 100 Objects" (Mike Aquilina with Grace Aquilina)

TITLE: A History of the Church in 100 Objects
AUTHOR: Mike Aquilina with Grace Aquilina
PUBLISHER: Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2017, (424 pages).

How do we study history? For most of us, we would hit the books or listen to some historians explain the stories of the past. Others would go deeper into the science of archaeology or ancient artifacts. Modern technology gives many of us a way to search for information about the past. For author Mike Aquilina, "stuff" matters because they all tell a unique story. More specifically, the history of the Church could be traced through the examination of objects. These objects are then situated in seven eras:
  1. The First Century Church (Apostles and Martyrs)
  2. The Roman Empire (First to Third Centuries)
  3. The Dark Ages (4th to 8th Century)
  4. The Middle Ages (5th to 15th Century)
  5. The Renaissance and Reformation (16th to 17th Century)
  6. The Age of Revolutions (18th to 19th Century)
  7. The Global Village (Our Modern 21st Century World)
The key idea is that these objects tell a story. Beginning with the first century Church right through to modern era, readers get to see real stuff being used as pointers to the past. The silver star in Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity confirms what the ancients had seen prior to the birth of Christ. Not only does it represent eye-witness accounts, it affirms the story as depicted in the Bible. We read about paving stones, wooden posts, ancient amulet, catacombs, and many fascinating events in history. The chains of Peter show us how the apostle Peter was imprisoned, even tortured. As we move on to the Roman era, the monuments like the Colossus bring us back to the times of persecutions and political chaos prior to the Edict of Constantine. Even soil in Jerusalem's Basilica of the Holy Cross were used to remind us about the purpose why they were there in the first place.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

"Vindicating the Vixens" (Sandra L. Glahn)

TITLE: Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible
AUTHOR/EDITOR: Sandra L. Glahn
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2017, (304 pages).

In our modern age of gender equality, human rights, feminist and egalitarian movements, many have accused the Bible of being overly patriarchal and even sexist. Why must women play second in a male-dominated culture? Didn't God create both male and female and made them equally chosen to be blessed? Moreover, there are many instances in the Bible where women tend to be depicted in a derogative manner. Does that make the Bible less relevant for our age? Is God being fair to the female gender? What about those 'bad' girls in the Bible? People such as Eve who persuaded Adam to eat the forbidden fruit; like Sarah who bullied Hagar; Tamar and Rahab the prostitutes; Bathsheba whose affair with King David led to the downfall of a powerful leader; and many more. Instead of simply going with these flows, this book offers to take a fresh look at these women, the ones listed in Jesus' genealogy in Matthew; and various vilified women in the Old and New Testament. The underlying conviction in this book about these women is that: They are not what they seem to be. Editor Sandra Glahn gives three additional reasons:

  1. Ensure that one's re-look is grounded in the Word of God
  2. Take seriously what God says about nearly 50% of the earth's population
  3. New information has come to light about the way the Bible describe women.

Monday, January 1, 2018

"Bearing Fruit" (Robert Gallaty)

TITLE: Bearing Fruit: What Happens When God's People Grow
AUTHOR: Robert Gallaty
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2017, (144 pages).

We all want to grow in maturity and fruitfulness. The question many would ask is how? What is fruitfulness? What are the impediments of such fruitful works? Making a distinction between one's status (unchanging) and one's standing (varies), we could navigate appropriately the constant tensions between being saved and the levels of our good works. The author believes that true believers will bear fruit. Based on John 15, he identifies seven places in the New Testament that contain the word 'fruit.' He describes it as follows:
  1. The Fruit of Repentance (John 15:1)
  2. The Fruit of Ministry (Romans 1)
  3. The Fruit of Sanctification (Romans 6)
  4. The Fruit of Righteousness (Philippians 1:9-11)
  5. The Fruit of Good Works (Colossians 1:11-12)
  6. The Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-17)
  7. The Fruit of Praise
In Repentance, we learn about what it means to abide in Christ, depending on Jesus to help us grow by letting him tend us, nurture us, and prune us. He concludes with a comparison of Martha and Mary, urging us to live like Mary in terms of allowing God to work. Bearing fruit goes beyond mere believing toward ministry and comes through as burdens for God's ministry to people. It means recognizing the sin in us and taking steps toward escaping sin. This is well described in a powerful Warren Wiersbe quote: "The answer to the problem of sin is not simply determination, discipline, reformation, legislation, or any other human endeavor. Victory comes through crucifixion and resurrection." For one to bear fruit on all cylinders, the barrier of sin has to be overcome. Gradually, we move forward and here, Gallaty hones on a common cliche which has prevented people from growing. People often advised having consistent prayer time, Bible reading, and so on. The sad reality is that the advice are not often taken to heart. As a result, people don't grow. The key reason is a lack of direction and purpose. Growing is simply a direction closer toward God in maturity. A mature believer will live out works of righteousness not because he has to, but because he wants to. Moving deeper, Gallaty highlights the fruit of good works through perseverance and patient endurance. A key thought is the difference between taking things for granted vs taking things with gratitude. It is the latter that shines forth with spiritual fruit. The author goes on to compare and contrast the spiritual fruit vs vice in Galatians 5, reminding us that bearing fruit is a slow growing process. This is so true in an age of instant results and quick expectations. He writes: "The slowest-growing trees sometimes bear the sweetest fruit."  I concur. That is perhaps a major reason why the Bible describe the need to abide in Christ. It is not a question of whether we can do it fast or slow, to bear fruit well or not. It is a question of abiding in God, trusting in God's timing to sow, plant, water, and tend, while waiting for fruition. The climax of all fruitfulness is praise and worship.