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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"A Necessary Grief" (Larry J. Michael)

TITLE: A Necessary Grief: Essential Tools for Leaders in Bereavement Ministry
AUTHOR: Larry J. Michael
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2015, (176 pages).

Why is grief even necessary in the first place? The answer is simple. It is part of being human. It is part of what it means to love a person. It is part of life. Often, the standard approach to grieving is to be silent, to be still, and to be walking next to the people who are mourning over the passing of a loved one. Is that the only tool available? Is there something more that we can do to comfort the ones during times of loss? How can pastors, ministers, caregivers, or people in the help ministry do when they are expected to help in times of pain and grief? This book is released to help us bring help to others, even to ourselves. Dr Larry J. Michael is Teaching Pastor for Adult Ministries at South Highland Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, AL. As a teacher, he is in the ministry of equipping Church people to do the work of God by walking with people at different stages of their lives. This collection of wisdom and tips for people in leadership is a precious resource to equip and enable people to help the bereaved during times of need. If there is anything most certain in this life, it would be the finality of death. We are mortal beings and it is only a matter of time before we all say our goodbyes. That is why talking about grief is a necessary topic. For death can hit anyone anytime, any how, and in any place. Instead of worrying about the inevitable, why not be ready for them? The key is preparation. Michael gives four broad suggestions.


Monday, May 25, 2015

"Take My Hand Again" (Nancy Parker Brummett)

TITLE: Take My Hand Again: A Faith-Based Guide for Helping Aging Parents
AUTHOR: Nancy Parker Brummett
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2015, (224 pages).

In many societies around the world, one of the most pressing concerns is the aging population. As people live longer, it also means additional needs on healthcare and tax burdens. Taking care of the elderly is not simply daycare centers or medical care clinics. there are emotional, mental, and spiritual needs too. There are practical concerns. There are financial considerations. There are complexities on how to give them continued freedom in the neighborhood and how to ensure safety for themselves as well as the communities who live in. In other words, as a person ages, many ordinary errands suddenly become challenging projects. In a very personal as well as a practical guide book, author, gerontologist, and grandmother of 12 writes this book about caring for the aging in societies. As a professional, she shares in the book many aspects of the aging process. At the same time, she weaves in many personal experiences with people she meet and the family members she cares for. This makes the book both professional and also very personal. She also anchors each chapter on biblical reflection, to let Scripture guide one's thinking and caring in the aging process.

The fourteen chapters in the book deal with the physical, the emotional, the mental, the practical, as well as the spiritual aspects of growing old where familiar things and people increasingly becomes unfamiliar. There are adjustments to be made on all sides. One of the biggest is role switch where the children suddenly parent their parents. The aging parent will have to depend more on others, especially their children to care for them. The grown up children will have to be more assertive and aware of new roles in honouring and respecting their parents. What makes it more complex is that some parents have to juggle two roles at the same time: Taking care of their aged parents as well as their young children. It is something that happens more and more in graying societies all over the world. Brummett's coverage of the whole aging situation is very broad. Historically, we read about the different perspectives of aging through the years. In the 16-17th Century, most of the care were done by families. By the 20th Century, with the Great Depression and an increased dependence on government help, families are relying more on public assistance, especially those with difficult financial situations. Now, depending on each family situation, there will be combinations of private and public assistance available for all. Brummett goes much further. She has a keen eye for the emotional struggles of old people. While many of us will be interested in what practical steps to take, healthcare concerns, and specialized gerontological resources available to us, the author spends a good chunk of time dealing with emotional heartstrings. When parents start to age, family dynamics change. There can be sibling disagreements over matters financially, logistically, or even relationally. Who cares for the aging parents? Is the responsibility only on the unmarried siblings? Knowing what to do is one thing. When and whether one is willing to do it is another. Like deciding on what is the best care center to live in. Will an expensive four-month stay be justifiable when financial means are small? What if the aging parents want a nice room but the family could not afford it? What if the most affordable care home does not have the specialized nursing skills needed? Do we throw away precious belongings of parents when we do our spring cleaning? Remember that some parents do have deep emotional attachment to things familiar to them. Then there is the driving license. For many, taking away the driving license is like removing an important symbol of independence.

I appreciate the chapter on "Focusing on Friendship" as it is something a lot more humane and helpful. The older one gets, the harder it is to make new friends. Even old friendships are tested when people remember different things which may be meaningful to some but not to others. Brummett writes: "Reminding them that they have had successful, nurturing, relationships in the past can give them the courage to forge new ones." This is important when one moves to a care home. Without making new friends, one can become very lonely. Another important chapter is the caring for the aging mind. What the aged needed most is someone who can understand how they feel. Biologically, the older one gets, the weaker one is able to exercise their neural connections due to age or disease. That is why older people tend to multitask less, become more absent-minded, easily distracted, and behaving strangely abnormally as years go by. This is complicated by dementia which is a loss of mental function like memory, reasoning, thinking, and speed. Alzheimer's is "progressive brain disease" due to a reduction of brain cells. While dementia often means forgetting facts, Alzheimer's is more serious as people with such problems can even forget how to get back home after a walk in the neighbourhood. Some do not even recognize their own children! Then there is depression that hits the aged really hard. The American Psychiatric Association even lists nine depression symptoms, saying that as many as five are present in any two-week period. Physical limitations are next, with tips on health care options, medication needs, nutrition, as well as the risk of falls. The later part of the book deals with emotional and spiritual aspects, which I feel can be the hardest for three reasons.

Firstly, it is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of the aging parent. After all, we have never had the chance to experience what they are experiencing. What is meaningful to them may be different from us. We can throw away a tea cup they love but as far as they are concerned, that item is irreplaceable because of the memories attached to them. Secondly, aging parents behave like a different person altogether. With the complications of dementia, it can be frustrating that our best efforts are not reciprocated. Worse, after spending a fortune on the best care for them, they can turn around and reject them, even accusing us of not caring for them. It is also a tough challenge as many parents caring for their aged parents are busy career people and parents themselves. How do they juggle how much time to divide between their various responsibilities? After all the sacrifice, imagine how the caregiver feels that upon giving up so much, their own parents do not seem to appreciate the efforts. Thirdly, every aging situation is different. There are no one book that can speak exactly to all. We just need to learn and be prepared for emergencies and contingencies. What can be done however is to be aware that these are issues that many aged people face. Knowing even the most mundane things can be a life-saver. Simple issues like what can we do if the person refuses to eat?

There are funny moments but also very serious implications. Like the observation of one old person calling to warn her children about dangerous driving, where not only one driver was driving on the wrong side of the highway, but all were. The way to read this book is to let our care and love for our aged parents or loved ones direct our reading. For educators, it is a useful resource to learn from. For the child of aged parents, read according to the need at hand. While it is good if the whole book can be studied and applied, chances are, every aging situation will be unique. Perhaps, the most useful takeaway from this book is the title itself. "Take My Hand Again" is about a physical and loving connection with something so simple but meaningful. Holding the hand of an aged person means a lot more than a mountain of words. Holding it again and again means a lot. It demonstrates a love that will continue.

I recommend this book for a broad audience simply because we live in an increasingly graying society. We may not have aged parents but our colleagues, our fellow workers or friends do. We meet people at coffee shops, supermarkets, and other public places. Knowing the challenges of the aged in our society helps us to engage them not with complaints or impatience but with understanding and encouragement. If this book can help us to be more sympathetic to the challenges and more empathetic to the aging person, it would have worth every cent. Read it and we will never see the aged the same way again.

Rating: 5 Stars of 5.

conrade

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Help My Unbelief" (Barnabas Piper)

TITLE: Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith
AUTHOR: Barnabas Piper
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2015, (176 pages).

Doubt is not the enemy of faith. Unbelief is not necessarily bad. In fact, for author Barnabas Piper, it is necessary for authentic faith. As a son of the famous evangelical, John Piper, Barnabas is no stranger to the Church or all things evangelical. Go to Church. Join the Sunday School. Have faith. Be baptized. Pray. Obey your parents. Believe in the Bible. Be well behaved, especially when you are a pastor's kid! Growing up in such an environment, there is a strong tendency to dumb down doubts so as to raise up the level of faith. It may work for kids, but as kids grow into young adults, they will start to be more inquisitive, to probe, and to question the norms. Looking at the famous words of Mark 9:24, which the book's title had borrowed from, Piper moves beyond the "Lord I believe" toward the "Help my unbelief" phase of life. He eases readers toward the tension of faith and doubt; belief and unbelief; the ups and downs of the spiritual life. There are parts of the Bible that are very clear to us, and parts that are mysterious. The reason for the tension is because both sides shed light on truth. The Bible does not simply spout out answers to life, it raises questions too. Asking questions does not mean a lack of faith. It simply means wanting to know the truth at a more profound level. It is acknowledging the mystery without giving up our faith. Such an attitude brings us back to what faith and belief is about. Knowledge without experience is incomplete.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"A Glorious Dark" (A. J. Swoboda)

TITLE: A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension between Belief and Experience
AUTHOR: A. J. Swoboda
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015, (240 pages).

Many books have been written about Good Friday or Crucifixion Day. With the revival movement, there are even more about the Resurrection and the glorification of Jesus who rose on the third day. Like many projects in life, beginning enthusiastically is easier. Reaping the fruits of diligence toward the end is also relatively easy. It is at the middle that people are most vulnerable to emotional struggles and mental toggles between hope and despair; optimism and pessimism; faith and doubt. Using the Good Friday to Resurrection Sunday story, Professor A. J. Swoboda talks about the obscure and less noticeable day in the middle: Saturday. How many believers know about this silent and somber day which Swoboda calls “A Glorious Dark?” We know what happened on Good Friday and the Resurrection Day. What about that Saturday where people’s faith seemed to be “sleeping in?” The key point the author tries to make is that God meets us most profoundly at the tensions that we felt most acutely. It is when the reality of the world and the beliefs we have do not seem to match up that God will show up. It is another way of saying that when the journey seems darker, our capacity to anticipate God’s movement is sharpened.

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Leisure and Spirituality" (Paul Heintzman)

TITLE: Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives (Engaging Culture)
AUTHOR: Paul Heintzman
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, (352 pages).

Feeling guilty about relaxing? Restless when one is not working? What is the Christian viewpoint of work, leisure, rest, and spirituality? What does it mean to spend quality time in both work and play? What does the Bible say about leisure? In a systematic approach to the topic, Paul Heintzman expands upon his master's thesis entitled, "A Christian Perspective on the Philosophy of Leisure" which culminated with his PhD thesis: "Leisure and Spiritual Well-Being: A Social Scientific Exploration." Now Heintzman works at the University of Ottawa as Associate Professor of Leisure Studies. How appropriate. Noticing a lack of literature and studies on the philosophy of leisure, Heintzman is also concerned about the problems with current leisure practices. At the same time, leisure activities seem to be occupying a bigger space in society. As Christians, how are we to avoid making leisure an idol; it becoming hedonism; and the problem of utilitarianism. How can our faith instruct our practice and thought about leisure? Compared to the huge quantity of material on work, progress, exercises, and activism, resources on leisure seem so little.


Friday, May 15, 2015

"First and Second Corinthians" (John Proctor)

TITLE: First and Second Corinthians (Westminster Bible Companion)
AUTHOR: John Proctor
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (242 pages).

There is always a special need for commentaries that laypersons, especially teachers of Bible classes need. Not many people have the time and money to go through intense seminary education or Bible training. Without a proper guide, it is easy to let subjective opinions on Bible passages lead the way. This is not good for students. It is also not good for the Church. Without oversimplifying things, Churches still need Bible resources that are easy to refer to but also dependable and faithful to the biblical contexts. Using the New Revised Standard Version Bible, the two letters written by Paul to the Corinthian Church are examined in this book and presented to the public for easy reference and reading. The usual stuff is there. There is the overall map of the region the Apostle Paul writes to. There is the introductory material to give readers a short description of the contexts, the theological themes, the major issues of the day, the authorship and audience, and the unique place of Corinth. This is followed by a map to outline how the letter develops.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"The Day I Met Jesus" (Frank Viola and Mary DeMuth)

TITLE: The Day I Met Jesus: The Revealing Diaries of Five Women from the Gospels
AUTHOR: Frank Viola and Mary DeMuth
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015, (208 pages).

History is very much a storytelling of the past. In some sense, Bible paraphrases do try to reveal past stories using modern language and contextual understanding. With imagination and prose, stories in the Bible can be given a dramatic re-telling without losing their theological significance. In this book, authors Viola and DeMuth retell the stories of five women from the gospels. Frank Viola is no stranger to storytelling, having written books like "God's Favourite Place on Earth" which retells Jesus' journeying in and out of Bethany. Mary DeMuth is a long time blogger and author who had written much about brokenness and abuse, and shares a unique perspective with regards to brokenness, regrets, hurts, and shame. It is one thing to read the gospel stories according to the perspective of the gospel writer. This book reveals the stories from the perspective of the five women. With DeMuth's expertise as a Christian fiction writer, the authors selected:
  1. The woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11)
  2. The prostitute who loved much (Luke 7:36-50)
  3. The desperate Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42)
  4. The woman with a flow of Blood (Matthew 9:18-22, Luke 8:42-49)
  5. The woman that Jesus loved (Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-7, 17-44)

Monday, May 11, 2015

"Launch Your Encore" (Hans Finzel and Rick Hicks)

TITLE: Launch Your Encore: Finding Adventure and Purpose Later in Life
AUTHOR: Hans Finzel and Rick Hicks
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015, (208 pages).

In America, more than 76 million people are above 60 years of age. Some call it retirement phase. Others call it the golden years or the silver hair period of life. After many years of active working, this phase of life is often marked by slowdowns  physically, mentally, and emotionally. In such later years, what can these people do? They may retire from their jobs but they cannot retire from life altogether. Moreover, with more people living longer and the pace of society getting quicker, it can be very challenging for people in this age group to cope. Rather than to be shoved aside, the authors of this book believe that retirement is more an opportunity rather than an unwelcome phase of life. The premise is this.

"The word retirement should not be an exit sign, but a door into something fresh, new, and exciting." (17)

This "final act" may very well be this particular generation's "greatest contribution." How is it possible, one may ask. The authors frame the process in four parts.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"Becoming Worldly Saints" (Michael E. Wittmer)

TITLE: Becoming Worldly Saints: Can You Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life?
AUTHOR: Michael E. Wittmer
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (208 pages).

Is it possible to be a Christian and still enjoy life? How can we practice a faith that is both world-affirming as well as world-denying? What does it mean to live in this world and not be of the world? Simply put, just because we are Christian does not make us less human. Just because we are called to be saints does not mean we are no longer sinners. Just because we are heaven bound does not mean we ignore our life on earth. In fact, we are called to live out heaven on this earth.  In order to do this, author and Professor of Systematic Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, Michael Wittmer affirms the joy that every believer can exhibit, whether serving, working, or enjoying this present life. We need a larger narrative that is able to embrace both the "high purpose of heaven" as well as the "normal pleasures of earth." When we do affirm both together, we are saying no to the extremes of naturalism and spiritualism. The former is fixated on things physical and existential while the latter tends toward an extreme version of supernaturalism.

Wittmer helps us appreciate the one biblical story through four aspects: Creation, Meaning, Fall, Redemption. In doing so, we are led through various aspects of life's paradoxes. We are liberated in Christ, yet are subjected to the Lordship of Christ. We are concerned about present human suffering but also mindful of the eternal suffering. Two distinctions are emphasized. The first is that of the natural and the supernatural. The second is the unique distinction of us being redeemed despite our fallen nature, which ought to inform our mission whether we are giving people a fish or teaching them how to fish. In much Christian humanitarian work, people tend to focus on doing things for people. However, the greatest need for all people is Christ. He offers two pieces of encouragement.
  1. It is impossible to do only what is important. We still need to do the routine and mundane stuff of life.
  2. There will always be a tension between what we do and what we ought to do, a tricky balance between earthly and heavenly mindedness.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Praying With Paul" (D. A. Carson)

TITLE: Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation
AUTHOR: D. A. Carson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (216 pages)

Think of the epistles of Paul and what comes to mind? You may see Romans as a book with deep theological underpinnings or Galatians as a letter which focuses on law and grace. Maybe Ephesians is about the Armour of God and Colossians about Christology. Perhaps there are some of us who see Thessalonians as a warning about the end times and Timothy as instructions from an elder to a junior. What about using the Pauline Epistles as a way to pray? More specifically, what about letting the letters of Paul reform the way we pray? With this book, we learn to avoid the frenetic tendency of using the Bible to run programs, to plan preaching schedules, or to structure Bible study sessions using the letters of Paul. What about letting Paul inform us in terms of knowing God more personally and devotionally? What about letting Paul shape our own theology of prayer? Indeed, the most pressing need in the Church is more praying.

After setting forth eight lessons from the school of prayer, Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School examines several Paul's letters to highlight some ways we can learn to pray. In 2 Thessalonians1:3-12, readers learn about the framework of prayer of thanksgiving in spite of trials and tribulations. Instead, persistence in prayer is linked to the promise that believers will be vindicated and those who persecute them will be judged. The goal of Paul's prayer is about glorifying God. The basis of prayer is via the grace of God. We learn how Paul prays for others. We sense Paul's deep passion for the people he wrote to.