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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."