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Friday, August 31, 2012

"Why Jesus?" (Ravi Zacharias)

TITLE: Why Jesus?: Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality
AUTHOR: Ravi Zacharias
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Faithwords, 2012, (288 pages).

This is another book on the battle of worldviews.The popular speaker and an exponent in Christian apologetics turns his attention on an increasingly pluralistic culture, where everything from Oprah to Chopra is uncritically accepted by the world at large. Providing a critical eye and supported by historical background and research, Zacharias aims to bring back the reality of Jesus in an "age of mass marketed spirituality." It is the author's concern that not only are people no longer critical of the fake, they are dangerously embracing them as "truth." For Zacharias, truth needs to affirm two sets of combinations together:
  1. Truth with Relevance
  2. Reason and Faith.  
Any worldview that fails to pass the test of any of the four key elements and their combinations thereof, will not fit the criteria for truth. The key idea in all of these ramblings is that other worldviews point either to a principle, a philosophy, a process, or a product. Christianity points back ultimately to a Person. The problem with the world is that it has succeeded in embracing and absorbing all the worldly spiritualities around them. They have been very open-minded and all-accepting. Yet, they have become closed-minded to Jesus and have adopted a default position of skeptical-first-ask-questions later when it comes to Christianity.

Right from the start, Zacharias makes his case by asking readers to probe whether their form of spirituality is fake "movie-making" or true "soul making." He makes this sharp critique: "Giving yourself the privilege of destroying other positions while parking your own position in an unidentifiable location is a form of linguistic terrorism." (14) He then points out the three ways in which the West was lost.
  1. Disillusionment with materialism
  2. Shallowness, and sometimes hypocrisy of the Church
  3. Free from all kinds of restraint, especially sexual matters.
The new spirituality marries the soul's restlessness, disillusionment with material stuff, extreme hunger for liberation, all adds up to a pursuit of anything that promises to resolve all three tensions. Before Zacharias goes on a tirade against worldly spiritualities, he gives readers a helpful overview of some terms and definitions of the new and old spirituality, and especially how the West is taking a mysterious uncritical fascination with Eastern spiritualities. After this, Zacharias goes on the offensive, taking special aim at the two spectrums of erroneous spiritualities. On one extreme, Oprah Winfrey represents a life that started in poverty but ends up with riches. On the other end, Deepak Chopra begins something from the East and grows in influence in the West. Both of them are roundly criticized for their deceptive philosophies that are ultimately empty and meaningless. He reserves his harshest critique for Deepak Chopra, who has benefitted immensely from the works of three Eastern gurus, Swami Vivekananda (who inspired Ayurveda and Chopra), Paramahansa Yogananda (who inspired  Self-Realization and Eckhart Tolle), and the Maharishi (who inspired Transcendental Meditation).

"Behind the popularizers like Chopra are the real metaphysicians of the soul." (113)

Even Buddhism is mentioned, where the danger is the temptation to want to "become" the Absolute rather than to worship the Absolute. Zacharias highlights the three strands over and over again, that a spiritual search for a belief system needs "relationship, stewardship, and worship." On pain, Zacharias shines in defending the Christian faith, and argues actively that the moment we reject Christ, we are also rejecting the Word, the Son, and the Truth. On Jesus, Zacharias also warns readers against distorting Christ to make Christ a non-sufferer, or nonjudgmental. He even critiques authors like Butler-Bolden, who though they market their writings as something neutral, they somehow cast a negative light when it comes to Christianity.

Zacharias is also fair to admit some of the failings of the Church, especially the accusation that churches tend to be "country clubs for nice people." He reserves 5 criticisms for Christians to take note.
  1. Christians tend to be nice only to some
  2. Christians have forgotten the spiritual practices of devotion
  3. Christians have institutionalized Christianity
  4. Christians have failed to grapple with pain and suffering sufficiently
  5. Christians tend to be judgmental.
Finally, Zacharias suggests three important questions to ask whenever we come across any worldview.
  1. "How do they answer the question of exclusivity as it relates to their own belief?"
  2. "What is the source of their authority?"
  3. "How relevant is what they believe to the common experience; what difference does it really make?"
He ends the book with a quote from GK Chesterton and a hymn from "The Lost Chord" by Adelaide Anne Proctor.

My Thoughts

I applaud Ravi Zacharias for his honest convictions and passionate arguments. He thinks clear. He criticizes without fear. Most of all, he has shown us the way to be more critical with the worldly philosophies and values that sometimes we accept without asking appropriate questions. After all, if our souls are more important, should we not be more cautious about what we are accepting? At the same time, are we practicing double standards when we criticize Christianity fiercely, but fail to apply the same to non-Christian beliefs? This book is valuable for the background information that gives us an idea of how popular spiritualists like Ram Dass, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and other mysterious spiritualities are formed. There are many reasons for disillusionment with Christianity. Yet, there are no easy substitute for the vacuum left behind by the Church in this marketplace of religious ideas, in a pluralistic society. The danger for anyone is two-fold. Firstly, one can become so overly critical of the Church, that they close their eyes on all the good that the Church is doing, or has done. This leads to myopic understanding of the goodness of Christ. Secondly, one can become so all-accepting that by accepting everything, they end up with nothing.

If I have a critique of this book, it will be that Zacharias can be easily accused of being too harsh on Deepak Chopra. It will look as if he has a personal vendetta against the world renowned spiritualist. Looking at the big picture, that is not Zacharias's main concern. His main concern is truth, and Chopra is an example of how some modern spiritual philosophies are dangerous not because they want to market truth, but because whether knowingly or unknowingly, they are masking truth.

Zacharias has given us a valuable tool to engage the culture and so questions to help sieve out truth in a marketplace of ideas. Why should anyone read this book? Let me suggest three reasons. If you are concerned about truth; if you are concerned about distinguishing falsehood from reality; if you are concerned about soul making, this book is a must read.

Ratin: 4.25 stars of 5


This book is provided to me free by FaithWords Publisher, a division of the Hachette Book Group without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

"The Gospel According to Isaiah 53"

TITLE: The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology
AUTHOR: Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (editors).
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012, (336 pages).

Based on a series of lectures given in March 2009 at Irving Bible Church at Dallas, the idea behind the book is to enable both Christians and Jews to see the deep connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament through Isaiah 53, and how it shines light on Jesus being the Messiah. With 11 distinguished scholars, theologians, and professors of Old Testament from reputed theological schools, this book is a treasure chest of all things Isaiah 53. In fact, the activities that arise out of such an initiative, have created a greater awareness among Jews, that there is a gospel within the Old Testament.

This collection of papers broadly covers three areas pertaining to the study and research of Isaiah 53. The first part begins with two interpretations: A Christian one as well as a Jewish one. Richard Averbeck sees the suffering servant figure as one who is not only a Prophet, but will eventually be a Glorified Person, that this figure will also bring salvation to both Jews and Gentiles. The picture of a Servant who suffers, a Messiah who prophesies, a Son of God, and a Saviour are all evident in the one person of Jesus Christ. Themes of suffering, sacrifice, and atonement runs throughout this chapter, and through Jesus, God fulfills the prophecy. From a Jewish perspective, Michael Brown, himself a Messianic Jew, lists down at least 9 popular Jewish interpretations, chief of which is that Isaiah 53 emphasizes more on the victory rather than the suffering. He gives a helpful summary of the "big three" perspectives from the brilliant minds of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak, that all of them agree Isaiah 53 referring to the nation of Israel. Brown engages these "big three" with a focused argument that embraces both the suffering and the victory, in contrast to the Jewish overemphasis on the victory as well as the righteousness of Israel. This sets the tone for Part Two of the book, which covers biblical theology.

Part Two represents the core nuts and bolts of the entire book. With six powerful essays, we learn from six world-class Old Testament professors through exegesis and biblical theology. Walter C. Kaiser Jr kicks off the session with the objective of understanding the identity and mission of the Suffering Servant. He gives 8 reasons why the Messiah figure in Isaiah 53 is NOT Israel. In fact, the most powerful piece of evidence lies in the New Testament interpretation of Isaiah 53 through Jesus' own words (like Luke 22:37), as well as Isaiah itself.  The mystery, the rejection, the atonement, the submission, and the exaltation of the suffering Messiah, can find no better explanation than in the person of Jesus Christ. Michael J Wilkins follows up with a second essay that focuses on the salvation message guided by two questions. How does Jesus see himself? This is followed by how the New Testament writers see Jesus. Wilkins conclude that both can only be answered with Jesus as the answer. The third essay by Darrell Bock links the reading of Isaiah 53 with Acts 8. Being the longest citation of Isaiah 53 by a New Testament book, Bock goes deep into the Septuagint and the Hebrew Scriptures to deal with three interpretive problems in the Hebrew texts. Jesus by allowing himself to be shamed, enables the world to gain everything. Craig A Evans uses the letters of Peter, Paul, Hebrews, and John to explain how Isaiah 53 shapes their theology. Evans reveals Peter's amazement at how the sufferings of Christ can be transformed into glorious victory. Paul uses Isaiah to announce and to proclaim the good news of Christ. Hebrews and John declare that Jesus is the ultimate high priest. David L Allen expands our understanding by showing us the context of Isaiah 53, on the identities of the people in that chapter, the cults alluded to, the language, and the identity of who the servant figure is. He is rather convincing in that if one accepts the interpretation of the Suffering Servant being corporate Israel, one must also be open to see at least 15 other individuals at that time who can be suffering servants too! The most plausible understanding is through New Testament lens. Robert B Chisholm Jr makes a New Testament application of Isaiah 53: Atonement, forgiveness, and salvation.

Part Three brings together three essays that apply the findings of Isaiah 53. John S Feinberg points out several themes that are relevant for postmodern minds. He says that Isaiah 53 tells a narrative of tragedy and triumph which so often reflects the reality of life. It demonstrates once again in the flesh how God cares for the world. It promises a freedom for the communities of the world. It highlights the concerns God has for us, and the importance for us as communities to make room for one another. Mitch Glaser goes on an evangelistic stance to bring the hope of Jesus to his Jewish community. Describing his own conversion and testimony, he points out three major polemical purposes and five powerful arguments for Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. If one is keen on apologetics to the Jews, this chapter is it.  Donald R Sunukjian concludes with tips on the what, and the how to preach Isaiah 53.

My Thoughts

I find myself very much enriched in my understanding of Isaiah 53. Readers will be quick to feel the growing pulse of excitement as contributor after contributor becomes more convinced themselves that the core bridge between the Old and the New Testament lies in Isaiah 53. The book can be used for two purposes. Firstly for evangelism to the Jews. Secondly, for equipping Christians on a better understanding of Isaiah 53, as well as to grow in their Christian faith. In fact, I will say that Isaiah 53 reflects the truths of Christian living in profound manner. The ability to appreciate and to embrace both the tensions of "suffering" and the "victorious living" also parallels the many Christian themes such as:

  • Kingdom being the already here and the yet to come;
  • The highs and the lows of Christian living;
  • The Old Testament and the New Testament interpretations;
  • tensions of seemingly opposed views, but pieced together through the grace and love of God..
While Jewish interpretations tend to harp on the point of Israel being the key figure in Isaiah 53, and the overwhelmingly high regard of the righteousness of the Jewish nation, I believe Isaiah 53 actually speaks against these. In Jesus, we see the fulfilment of the prophecy in both suffering and victory. In Jesus, we see the need for humility, that we cannot save ourselves. In Jesus, we see grace personified. If there is one key theme to remember in this book, it is the fact that no other interpretation other than Jesus, comes close to explaining not just part of it, but the entire text of Isaiah 53. 

For all preachers, teachers, and pastors keen to preach the gospel, besides using the four gospels in the New Testament, this book is an important one to get your hands on. If you only have time to read just one or two chapters, I strongly recommend Mitch Glaser's essay in chapter 10 and Darrell Bock's conclusion at the end of the book. For preachers, any of Donald R Sunukjian's essays will suffice. If you are a congregation member who desires your pastor or preacher to preach the gospel powerfully from the Old Testament, do them a favour by buying them this book.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Godspeed: Making Christ's Mission Your Own"

TITLE: Godspeed: Making Christ's Mission Your Own
AUTHOR: Britt Merrick
PUBLISHER:  Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2012, (256 pages).

The title of this book is intriguing. Together with the front cover, it suggests three things. Firstly, it paints an extreme sense of urgency. Secondly, it shows us that it needs to be done in God's speed, rather than man's rush. Thirdly, it leads ultimately to a destination. The subtitle suggests a fourth thing: Making Christ's mission our own. These sets the tone for the entire book.

Pastor Britt Merrick begins by asking readers to reflect about what is missing in the life of American churches. Many people have criticized churches either as hypocrites, as homophobic, as judgmental people. Such criticisms are understandable as some in the American church has embarked upon a pattern that has replaced grace with condemnation, relationships with rules, and truth with judgment. In the process, Merrick is convinced that the Church at large has lost sight of the person of Christ. This leads them to lose sight of the missio Christi: The mission of Christ. The premise of the book is as follows:

We need a right understanding of what mission is all about, to live something bigger than ourselves, or our churches, and to grasp a Christianity that will not only change us, but through Christ in us, the world will be changed.

Based on John 20:21, the mission of the Church is to be sent to the world, just like the Father has sent Jesus into the world. Above all, mission is based on a theological foundation of the Triune Godhead. Part One talks about the "Father's mandate" that the word "mission" is more significant than the word "missions." The latter represents something distant, while the former suggests something more active and intentional. Merrick argues that the Christian's entire life is to be the "mission." Thus, mission is not about people, but mission begins, continues, and ends with God. Through the Father, one is sent to people, and God reaches people through people. Merrick makes an interesting observation about Jesus choosing his disciples, while the typical Jewish rabbi were chosen by their students. This is significant because the calling of God means a radical response. The idea of calling is given a lengthy treatment to hone in its importance.Our lives are to reveal the Christ in us. We are the fourth missionary of God. The first three is the Triune Godhead. I like the way Merrick calls the Triune God as "Sender, Sent, and Sending."

Part Two describes Jesus being the "Son's Model" of doing Missio Christi. Through the incarnation, one learns to embody the person of Christ in one's character and behaviour to all. Unfortunately, many Christians have either cocooned themselves by retreating from the world, or to combat the very people we are called to love, or to conform ourselves to the ways of the world. Incarnational Christians are called to worship God and to witness to people. They are to seek people out, even if it means leaving one's comfort zones. They are to be prepared to touch people, no matter how uncomfortable it is. They are to be agents for freedom, to liberate people from slavery, announce justice and good news to all. They are to restore generosity even for the undeserving.

Part Three describes the Holy Spirit's ministry through renewal, intentionality, and to let the Spirit transforms us to all things new. Let the Good news make us new. A transformed people of God will turn the world upside down through kingdom living. Merrick speaks about the kingdom helpfully in "three tenses: historical (past), practical (present), and eschatological (future)." We are between two arrivals of Christ, living in the now and the not-yet. Finally, in prayer, we practise the missio Christi to battle the spiritual forces of darkness, and to do the reaping in God's strength.

My Thoughts

I am fascinated by how Britt Merrick is able to be so creative in his presentation of the gospel, of God's mission through the Triune Godhead. The stories are plentiful. The passions are visible. Most of all, the simple point of God's mission is laid bare for all to see. I like the way Merrick is able to present theological truths of the Trinity, the Kingdom, the Mission of God is such a clear framework. There is not much to critique in this book, except minor ones like the use of certain quotations, like the oft-quoted St Francis of Assisi words that put works above words. It sounds nice, but the gospel needs to be both works and words.

This book is a preacher's guidebook on how to preach the mission of God. It is every Christian's guide not just for mission work, but for the work of mission to be planted in the hearts of every believer. It is also a book that can trigger off the alarm clock among those of us who are sleeping through life. May we all develop a character that is Godlike, a life that is Godly, and a pace that is Godspeed.

Ratin: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"The Christian World of the Hobbit"

TITLE: The Christian World of The Hobbit
AUTHOR: Devin Brown
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012, (192 pages).

This book begins with the prediction by one of the world's most beloved authors in the Christian world, CS Lewis. He says that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" books, may very well be a "classic."  It has become an understatement. In this book, Devin Brown hones in the the key belief about how Tolkien allows his Christian faith to influence the writings of the popular Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series. Brown traces the hard life of Tolkien, who struggles with his loss of his parents, and how his Christian upbringing by his guardians forms Tolkien's convictions. CS Lewis is one of Tolkien's benefactors. Interestingly, Brown observes two different styles of Christian witness. Tolkien is more reserved and implicit compared to his illustrious counterpart. While Lewis has a personal fight for and against atheism, Tolkien's faith is a quiet one.

In Tolkien's letter to Father Murray, he confesses that his work is "a fundamentally religious" work. While Tolkien has removed religious vocabulary and terms in his books, the stories, the plots, and the characters, are plainly and fundamentally religious in nature. The Christian worldview has been embedded in the stories which make this book a wonderful guide to help unwrap and to see what Tolkien is fundamentally talking about. Some readers may be able to see quickly the Christian references in Tolkien's novels Many others may not, and Brown is eager to help this group see it more clearly. Nevertheless, both types of readers can benefit, to affirm those who are in the know, or to illuminate the uninitiated.

That said, there are still some who claim otherwise. For example, Tolkien refutes various claims, that his books represent an allegory to WWII, where Sauron represented Hitler, or mere "Christian allegories." No. The work is fundamentally Christian, but it needs to be read according to Tolkien's personality and writing styles. Two guidelines are essential when trying to understand the Christian world of the Hobbit. Firstly, one cannot try to totally ignore any Christian allusions. Secondly, readers are not to read Christian references everywhere. Instead, the story itself points to meanings of the Christian story, in a way in which the Christian story reflects reality.

In order to understand Tolkien's work, one needs to appreciate the author himself, that Tolkien is not an "explicit" person, preferring a covert manner of presenting the gospel, in contrast to his counterpart, CS Lewis. Tolkien expresses his own emotions best through his stories. He points to the presence of a God who is both seen and unseen. The rest of the book tries to reveal the Christian Worldview through Providence, the purpose, and the moral perspective of the Hobbit.

A) Providence

The author notices Tolkien's use of "luck" and "lucky" on several occasions which leads him to ponder about whether Tolkien is referring to divine providence or unexplained occurrences. The key characters in the stories are seen to exercise a kind of faith that is beyond mere "luck" especially when it comes to critical decision making, like the trip across Mordor. Perhaps, the use of the words "luck" refer to a worldview that most people has, and that the key characters have understood something that is beyond mere luck.  The clear theme is that nothing actually happens by accident. Random chances do not just happen. From the ring being picked up by the most unlikely person, to the ways in which mysteriously, the characters are led from place to place, tells of the presence of a Higher Being who creates them, who guides them, and who provides for them. Whatever coincidences happening at Middle-Earth, seems to have an overarching theme of providence from above, including the struggles with the dark forces of evil. Through the unseen hand, through the still small voice, through how planned events getting frustrated, and how unplanned things happen when least expected. Good intentions are rewarded, like how Bilbo spared the life of Gollum, and how evil intentions are not only punished, but how they unwittingly play into the hands of a Divine Being above for good. In summary, the Hobbit reveals a Divine Provider who cares for people, and guides them through the unseen hand.

B) Purpose

In contrast to some of his contemporaries who write about a world that is purposeless, Tolkien's books exhibit a purposeful endeavour, where the potential of people like Bilbo and Frodo achieves their potential through mystery and adventure. There is a theme of being chosen for a special purpose, to work out a special work of salvation for the world. It is about making use of an opportunity toward a higher purpose. With despair comes hope. With heartache comes comfort. With loneliness comes friendship and companionship. There are themes against materialism, greed, and evil. The character Gollum represents a fascinating two-sided world, one of good and the other of evil. Whether something is good or bad for us, each decision calls for discernment and wisdom. There are also theme of moral courage. It is also an encouraging book in which the smallest and the littlest person in the character of Bilbo, can be used for ultimate good.

C) Moral Perspective

The characters in Tolkien's novels display a "moral universe." There is such a thing as a "right choice" on Middle Earth. There is a point where Eomer needs to decide on the spirit of the law or the letter of the law. There is good and there is evil. There is a constant decision on whether Bilbo ought to kill Gollum or not. The burden is heavy, and the decisions to be made can be heavier still. There is conflict and warfare. There is the power of materialism that is dangerously seductive. For Tolkien, the antidote to greed is firstly in giving away stuff, secondly to embrace generosity, and thirdly to seek after the more important and "sacramentally ordinary" things. Not all glitters is gold. Not all that is dull is empty of value. Not all kinds of power can conquer, but they can surely corrupt.

Finally, Brown reflects upon this book whether it is indeed suitable for children or not, given its heavy theological slant, and the violence in it. In a nutshell, the key element ought to be truth told and truth revealed, rather than fairy tales that end up being untrue. I appreciate this quote from GK Chesterton:

"Fairytales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairytales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairytales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey"

It reminds me that what is true can be both terrifying as well as frightening. This is the real world. Instead of shielding children from the world of reality, stories ought to prepare them, to learn that this world is tougher than what fairy tales have taught, and more comforting than what the doomsday prophets have preached. What makes Tolkien's works worth reading and re-reading for people of all ages is simply this. It enables readers to learn about the reality of the world from a safe position. It also challenges readers to be courageous in making good and noble decisions in the light of tough circumstances. Throughout it all, there is an unseen Hand, a Divine Person who can provide, who can lead, who can guide, and Who can save us. This book is one of the clearest explanations of the theological underpinnings of the works of JRR Tolkien.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

Monday, August 27, 2012

"Organic Outreach for Families" (Kevin and Sherry Harney)

TITLE: Organic Outreach for Families: Turning Your Home into a Lighthouse
AUTHOR: Kevin G. Harney and Sherry Harney
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (192 pages).

This book is a follow up of the very successful "organic outreach" series of books by the influential Kevin Harney of Shoreline Community Church. The first two books deal with doing outreach organically as an ordinary person, and then as a Church organism. This book looks to help equip the ordinary home to be the lighthouse of the world, or in particular, our neighbourhood. The authors begin, and rightly so, with reaching inward to the family members. The central premise of this book is that we cannot give to others what we do not have. If our families are not touched by God's light, how can we then be a lighthouse to the world or our neighbourhoods? Beginning with his surprise on the hostility toward the faith by some of the students he has encountered, Harney asks the question of how parents can ever instill a lifelong commitment in their children toward the love and passion for God's Word. While parents know that the Word cannot be "shoved" down the children's throats, they can show the truth through words and through living by example. The key is living by grace, beginning at home. By adopting storytelling and the friendship method, one can begin influence at an early age. Sherry shows the way through modeling, recognizing the child's uniqueness, and using the biblical proverbs to guide the children's growth. "Repeatedly and organically" is the main theme. It can also be translated as intentional and consistent. Be listening to the children's needs. Be inviting for them to enter into God's overall story. Be gracious when they reject initial attempts. Be ready to give thanks and rejoice for any positive overtures.

From the family, the book progresses toward reaching out the extended members of the family through patience, and constant linking of arms in relating to one another. This calls for a clear understanding of what the gospel means, and how relevant it is to the needs of all families. While there is discipline involved in the family, there is also safety that can be expected of a God-fearing family. This is especially when parents design rules for growing children, especially teens, where there is a rising need to show them the principles, the rationale, and the benefits of discipline. The ability to know when to probe and tune in, and when to refrain and tune out of the lives of teenagers is wisdom in practice. The Harneys also show us that the home can be a fun place to be in, while becoming a lighthouse. There is even a theology of play and of prayer. There is a creative use of the "bowl" image that I find fascinating. We are urge to beware of being overly focused on the "bowl of good things" that we forget the most important thing: the gospel. We need to beware of the "bowl of fear" that can hide the light of Jesus. We need to avoid the bowl of "disobedience" and the "bowl of material stuff" which will lead us away from God.  Finally, the authors provide a host of ideas on how to connect and how to overcome challenges that face families trying to reach out to families, as families.

My Thoughts

There is nothing really new in this book when it comes to the idea of an "organic outreach." Having said that, what is useful and practical are the ideas that come with each and every chapter. Though some of the things are pretty obvious, it is important enough to bear re-stating. Human beings are terribly forgetful people, and reminders are more needed than we choose to admit. What the Harneys do well is to have this central idea repeated throughout the book, that we all need to become a lighthouse, whether as individual family members, as family units, or as parents. By infusing an outreach mentality from young through exemplary living, biblical training, teaching and intentional guiding, the Harneys demonstrate that it is all possible to do outreach naturally. That is what "organic" is all about: Natural.  There are three major themes I find helpful. Firstly, there is that staunch conviction that outreach begins with inreach. Before anything can be authentically done outside, there needs to be inner transformations inside. Secondly, this is also a book about Christian parenting, on how parents can instill Christian values in the home, for the young, the teenager, and the growing young adult. Thirdly, this book joins the growing influence of the "Organic Outreach" series of books, that shows us once again that outreach is not simply an external activity reserved for the professionals or the external departments of church mission boards. It is very much a dynamic activity of letting God's light shine through us, everywhere. If there is one critique, I will question the statement made by Kevin Harney, in that we need to reach our families "before" we start to reach out to our neighbours and communities. While the principle is good, should we straitjacket ourselves to not reach out at all until we talk to our own families? The trouble is, why can't we do both? Why can't we use reaching out to neighbours as a way of reaching inward as well? Moreover, there is also the question of how much is sufficient inreach before we do outreach? I understand what the Harneys are saying. I just want to let readers consider that God is still able to work in all ways, and for parents who are late in the process be encouraged.

If you like the first two books on the organic outreach series, you will like this book too. If you are currently a young parent, this book will be a good book to start with. If you are a pastor, a teacher, or a Church leader, this book provides excellent material for practical ideas. If I can predict what is to come next, I suppose there will soon be an "organic outreach for the online world. things Online."

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Center Church" (Tim Keller)

TITLE: Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
AUTHOR: Timothy Keller
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (400 pages).

This book is an ambitious attempt to bring together generations of thinking surrounding Church ministry and outreach, and at the same time, challenge Christian leaders to develop their own theological vision, that is based on gospel truth and contextualized ministry. Adapted from Richard Lints's observations about the importance of theological vision, Keller restates "theological vision" as "a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history." Such a theological vision enables churches to see the real need in their churches, to contextualize gospel truths to culture, and to empower the ministry through the priesthood of all believers. Four key themes form the basis of "Center Church."
  1. "The gospel is at its center."
  2. "The center is the place of balance."
  3. "This theological vision is shaped by and for urban and cultural centers."
  4. "The theological vision is at the center of ministry."
All of these are applied toward the commitments of proclaiming the Gospel, to a living Church, and to constant movements in and out of ministry in a city. Center Church is formed in three progressive phases. It begins with a doctrinal foundation that is biblical, then to the formation of a theological vision, and finally to a type of ministry expression that bears fruits here and beyond. The key is in attaining some form of a "balance" among the three major axes of gospel, city, and movement.

In summary, Center Church is about being centered in the gospel, being the center of engagement among between city dwellers and Church, and being the center in which movements flow in and out of the church.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Grace" (Max Lucado)

TITLE: Grace - More than we deserve, greater than we imagine
AUTHOR: Max Lucado
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (239 pages).

Do we really need another book on "grace?" Haven't we exhausted this old subject years ago? Even Lucado has previously written on it before, so why another repetition of grace? The reason is simply this: "we've settled for wimpy grace," so says the author. The key purpose of this book is to challenge us with the question: "Have you been changed by grace?"

For many people, far too much attention has been put into the prepositions of life, especially on things outside. Far too little attention has been given to notice the grace that is happening inside us. What does it mean to have Christ abide in us? What does it mean to have grace happening in us? These are questions that Lucado aims to answer.  In a world where grace is much talked about, and paid lip service by the world, and even Christian leaders, Lucado argues that we need to go farther beyond the word, to the essence of what it means. In order to understand grace, one needs to begin with God. God is seen as a God who stoops, and demonstrates grace in the scene where people were threatening to stone the sinful woman in John 8. Staring condemnation at its face, Jesus defies conventional wisdom, and practices grace that silences the accusers. He allows himself to be used in the world's most unfair trade, a sinful Barabbas, in exchange for a sinless Jesus. On our own strengths and our own cleverness, we can never really comprehend what grace means. God is not in the business of helping good and deserving people. He is in the business of saving sinful and undeserving people. Our merits are nothing. God's merit is everything. This ought to free us from trying to earn God's favour. In grace, we can rest assured that God gives us favour freely and surely.

One of the most powerful parts of the book is "Wet Feet" where Lucado works through pains and hurts, and let grace shines its forgiveness and healing. Wimpy grace is self-limiting. True grace removes such limits. Wimpy grace is feeble. God's grace is mighty. Wimpy grace may speak well, but true grace lives well. True grace invites us to come clean with God fully and willingly, because God is fully willing to forgive us. Lucado spells out the other attributes of grace, like sustaining grace, saving grace, sufficient grace, and also surprising grace! True grace grows a heart of generosity. It grows a big heart. Grace cascades from one level of goodness to another. Perhaps, the most powerful description of God's grace is one that is linked to God's love to us, like a father to his children. God does not simply do the job of approving or disapproving. God loves. God gives. God initiates love. Grace will lead us home, through the promise of a guaranteed heaven. True grace is a verb that continues to be alive. This is because grace like love does not just happen. It is still happening.

Closing Thoughts

This book is another testimony of why Max Lucado's books are so well-loved. Though it is not Lucado's best, it is certainly reflective of his story-telling prowess and his knack for bringing out profound truth in simple words. A quarter of the book comprises the "Reader's Guide" and should be good material for a group discussion guide. The chapters are written in an easy to read manner, and most busy readers can finish each chapter without much difficulty. That said, I recommend that readers take time to pray and to think through what was written, and work on the questions in the guide. What I find most helpful are the powerful quotations printed at the beginning of each chapter. Not only do they give us a glimpse of what is to come in that chapter, they frame some profound truths in a very catchy manner. Perhaps, the biggest impact of the book comes from the need for us to wake up from any saddling in wimpy grace, toward a radical receiving and giving of grace. Let me close with this wonderful description of grace, that is is ultimately pointing us to a Person.

"He himself is the treasure. Grace is precious because he is. Grace changes lives because he does. Grace secures us because he will. The gift is the Giver. To discover grace is to discover God’s utter devotion to you, his stubborn resolve to give you a cleans-ing, healing, purging love that lifts the wounded back to their feet." (Max Lucado)

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Dangerous Calling" (Paul David Tripp)

TITLE: Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry
AUTHOR: Paul David Tripp
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2012, (240 pages).

Some books tend to be explanatory and others tend to be encouraging. Still other books attempt to be instructive and others try to be exegetical. This book is none of the above. Instead, it aims to be diagnostic. The pastoral calling is a dangerous calling. It calls one toward humble reflection and to be prepared to be challenged to change. The key requirement is for readers to "deactivate their inner lawyer" and to consider the book's challenges "with an open heart."

A) Beware of Dangers Outside

Part One describes the nature of the modern pastoral culture. Beginning with his confession of his own anger problem, Tripp points out that there are blind spots in each of our lives, especially when our "public pastoral persona" and the "private man" are two different people altogether. We let ministry define our identity. We let our Bible knowledge and theological education define our maturity. We let "ministry success" determine God's will. What makes these blind spots even more dangerous is that we tend to do it over and over again to let them sink roots. This leads to 9 dangerous ways.

  1. Ignoring the problem(s)
  2. Blind to issues of own heart
  3. Lacking devotion in ministry
  4. Not preaching the gospel to self
  5. Not listening to people closest to him
  6. Ministry becoming a burden
  7. Living in silence and fear
  8. Questioning calling
  9. Vulnerable to fantasies

Pride then leads to big headed theological brains and small-hearts with it comes to grace to others. Tripp warns about "academized Christianity" that fails to connect theology with practice and points out seven dangers when that happens. The ministerial calling is more than knowledge and skills. It needs a new understanding of what pastoral success means.

"The problem was the pastor's lack of a living, humble, needy, celebratory, worshipful, meditative communion with Christ. It was as if Jesus had left the building.... You see, it is only the love for Christ that can defend the heart of the pastor against all the other loves that have the potential to kidnap his ministry." (63-4)

There are some concrete steps that Tripp proposes that are worth pondering and practising.
  1. Requiring that pastors attend a small group he does not lead
  2. Seeking another person to be mentored by.
  3. Establishing a pastors' wives small group (especially for churches with multiple pastors). This gives wives an opportunity to ask for prayer and help.
  4. Commit to self-disclosure in preaching. This promotes openness.
  5. Ensure that the pastor and his family be invited regularly to meals at the church family. This avoids isolation.
  6. Pastor's wife be mentored too.
  7. Regular time away by the pastor and his wife
  8. Ensure counseling help available for pastor and wife
B) Beware of a Dangerous Inside

One important point Tripp mentions is that ministry is not to be a one-person-show. The body of Christ needs to be ministered by the body of Christ. Even well trained pastors need to be surrounded by well-trained members. The eight danger signs about the "Cycle of Danger" are worth pinning up on the wall of every pastor's office. Spiritual warfare is also a crucial area of concern. Ministry is war. Unfortunately, many ministers have forgotten that. They forget that the evil ones are constantly warring against their inner hearts, tempting them. They forget the purpose of their ministry being to fight for the gospel. They become less conscious of the warring divide between the world and the kingdom. Tripp also points out four ministry principles to be heavenly "treasure oriented; to let our hearts be commanded by this heavenly prize; to let our allegiance to Kingdom drive our ministry; to constantly recognize that these treasures point to being attached to God. Otherwise, if we lose our sense of calling. We forget who God is. We forget who we really are.

When this happens, familiarity breeds contempt, and we lose awe of God. We become vulnerable of fear, and tend to hide our true selves from people. Our ministry turns mediocre. We substitute practicality and worldly expectations for the heavenly perfection. We become prideful people, not knowing where we are in the already-here and not-yet worlds. We forget our sins.

C) Be Aware of Hope

Thankfully, all is not bad news. There is good news. We need to be reminded that our pastoral ministry must lead us to regular worship of God. We need to be God-assured rather than self-assured. We replace self-glory for God's glory. With great humility, we are always preparing ourselves to improve, and to anticipate the work of God in our ministry. Our private worship needs to lead us toward self denial. We need to be reminded that we are in the world but not of the world. Wisdom and discernment will help us be separate from sin in the world. Finally, in a powerful five pointer teaching from 1 Peter 5:6-11, Tripp calls pastors to:

  1. Know your place, that God is king, not you.
  2. Learning to rest in God, to let God handle any of our anxieties in ministry and in life
  3. Taking our ministry seriously, like recognizing the potency of sin and the reality of spiritual warfare
  4. Learning to resist the evil one and temptations constantly
  5. Trusting God's sanctifying grace, that we are not going through it alone.
D) Closing Thoughts

This is not a difficult book to read, but the teachings can be difficult to chew especially when those of us in ministry has gotten lukewarm about ministry altogether. Perhaps, this book can be a wake up call for nominal pastors. That said, I recommend three groups of people who can benefit from reading this book. Firstly, all pastors need to read this book, as the teachings and observations apply directly. Secondly, all leaders ought to read this book, so that they can support, admonish, protect, discipline, or do whatever they can to help pastors do the ministry together with them. Thirdly, laypersons can read this book for the sole purpose of knowing how to pray for their ministers or pastors. Sometimes, we take the pastoral ministry for granted, thinking that they are so holy up there, that God will protect them. Yes, it is true that God will protect them. The question is, what if God is calling you the reader to help guide and protect them?

The title of the book "Dangerous calling" has a double meaning. In negative terms, the first is the literal danger in terms of pastors being waylaid and fall from grace in ministry. In positive terms, the second is the heightened awareness of spiritual danger that raises the fire-power against the minister who has woken up from spiritual slumber. Either way, the calling is dangerous. If that is the case, make the danger something worthy to fight against, for the Kingdom of God.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Sunday, August 19, 2012

"Job (NIV Application Commentary, The)"

TITLE: Job (NIV Application Commentary, The)
AUTHOR: John H. Walton
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (480 pages).

The purpose of the book of Job is not pain or suffering, or mere arguments to debate about this heavy subject. This is because suffering cannot be measured subjectively. Instead, the questions that the book of Job raise, are meant to direct our attention to God Himself. This is the central purpose of Job, according to this commentary. With this as the hermeneutical key, we are advised to be guarded against any references to Job as a book about suffering. It is about God, and the more significant questions in life. It is not about Job or his friends or family. Neither is it about us. It is to point us to God. We learn to ask:
  • What is Job's motivation in serving God?
  • Must there always be a reason for suffering and pain?
  • How valid is the good-effort-good-result philosophy when it comes to suffering?
  • Can we put God to the test?
  • Can we question God's policies?
Walton says that the purpose of the book is to "explore God's policies with regards to suffering in the world, especially by the righteous or the innocent." The three big reasons to read Job is this. Firstly, we get to see how frustrating it is to try to understand suffering on our own terms. Secondly, we get an opportunity to see how realistic the book of Job is. Thirdly, when we study Job, we will be transformed in our understanding, especially on how we RESPOND to suffering. Walton's main objective in this commentary is to help us read Job with a transformed understanding of how God works in the world, how much we need to be more concerned with the "nature of righteousness" instead of the "nature of suffering." If we really want to understand suffering humbly, we need help. We need guidance. We need our own mindsets to be modified, prepared, and even silenced, so that in God's time we become more like Job who is able to say:

"My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:5-6)
The framework Walton adopts is a broad three part structure.
  1. Narrative in the Prologue, Job's lament, and three dialogue cycles. (Job 1-27)
  2. Interlude (Job 28) followed by two discourses by Job and Elihu. (Job 29-41)
  3. Ending narrative and God's response. (Job 42).

Personally, I like to view it as a Drama (Job 1-3), Dialogues (Job 4-27) and Discourses (28-37), followed by a Declaration (Job 38-42). Walton gives a good overview of the literature used in the Ancient Near East in the same era as the book of Job. Comparing Mesopotamian literature to Job, there are various similarities. For example, there is commonly a protagonist who suffers. There is a laying out of woes before a Deity. There is an intense level of philosophy and theology going on. The differences are also great. For instance, while the ANE kinds of suffering are primarily health related, the book of Job begins with a heavenly bet. This throws in disarray the "Retribution Principle" greatly held during the time of the Ancient Near East cultures. The book of Job also goes beyond merely talking about God's justice or Job's righteousness. It touches on Sovereignty of God. The answers given in Job to the question of evil and suffering is a significant counter-cultural teaching, and will very well shock the ancient people then. It makes us realize that no matter how much we think we are in control, the truth is, we are never really in control, and we know less than what our arrogant selves wants us to think. Walton is convinced that Job is distinctly Israelite. Here are some of the theological themes from the book of Job.
  • Job counters the growth of Retribution Principle (RP), and show how limited it is. It is a poor tool when it comes to theodicy (defending God), and anti-theodicy theme.
  • Poor understanding of the issue is due to our flawed understanding of God, theology theme.
  • There is a corporate level covenant theme, in which because Israel's rebellion and sin were rampant at that time, it is hard for anyone then to claim any level of innocence, a covenant them.
  • For individuals, one can learn wisdom from the book of Job, a wisdom theme. 
  • The book points to monotheism, where even Satan has to ask for permission from the One and Only God.
Walton also compares Israelite theology with biblical theology, the differences between Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz with Elihu, and distinguishing good and bad advice. It is important also to note that Walton is not throwing away RP. He is helping us to see a "modified" view of it. There is also a great observation that God's restoration of Job also defies our understanding of RP. Walton even discusses "open theism" and counters some of the arguments that claims Job supports such a theology. Instead, Walton affirms that God is Sovereign and All-Knowing, and open theism is definitely not the theme in the book.

My Thoughts

I am glad that Walton spends considerable time debunking the idea of RP. Even in our modern culture, RP is wreaking havoc in our philosophies and theologies about God, evil, pain, and suffering. One of the best insights of this book comes across through a forward stance of anticipation. Walton writes with six powerful propositions that are worth our consideration:

  1. "Suffering is one of the contingencies of creation in process." We are sensitive people who feel pain.
  2. "Suffering is not intrinsically connected to sin." Not all suffering is due to sin.
  3. "Suffering is the lot of all humanity." None of us are exempt.
  4. "Suffering should be faced with trust in God's wisdom." There is hope.
  5. "Suffering should be viewed as an opportunity to deepen our faith and spiritual maturity as we look forward to understand God's purposes, rather than backward in an attempt to discern reasons. Suffering shapes us - of this there is no doubt. What varies is whether it breaks us."
  6. "Suffering for the gospel gives us the opportunity to participate in Christ's sufferings." Let us not forget that Christ suffered more than all of us.
There is great wisdom in this commentary. Scholarship material is rich and varied. Walton pulls in practical stories about suffering in our contemporary times, while being faithful to the ancient texts. I like this commentary for three reasons. Firstly, it is a very usable book for teaching or preaching. The structure set out in the book will provide either a teaching syllabus or a sermon series. Secondly, it is a book for personal study. There is a lot of research that goes into the book, with references and bibliography for the advanced student. Thirdly, the wide range of applications in the book makes this ancient text alive for modern listeners. The stories and the contemporary significance throughout the book makes this commentary an exciting one to read. I have one small critique.

When Walton brings up the topic of "intelligent design" in the book, I was thinking that he may be conversing with Hugh Ross's book "Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job," which is also an apologetic for creationism. That was not to be. That book can be an additional application to be considered in a book of the NIVAC nature. That said, the advantages are huge. I warmly recommend this commentary for your reading, and perhaps your buying.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Deuteronomy (NIV Application Commentary, The)"

TITLE: Deuteronomy (NIV Application Commentary, The)
AUTHOR: Daniel I. Block
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (880 pages).

Deuteronomy is more important than what many of us may have thought. Daniel Block,  Old Testament Professor at Wheaton College, has reminded us again that if anyone has a negative view of the Old Testament, the book of Deuteronomy is the antidote. Jewish tradition has called the book the "Torah." The Church fathers have tried to interpret the book "Chrsistologically," just like the Apostle Paul. The Reformers like Luther and Calvin tend to elevate the point of grace and their efforts have unwittingly put down the place of Old Testament law. Modern scholarship during the Enlightenment era tends to be more critical, seeing Deuteronomy more as "pseudepigraphic" (meaning not written by Moses, but use the name of Moses), or primarily a book re-discovered by Josiah for the purpose of reforming Israel. Still, other scholars have pointed to Moses being merely a "legendary" figure. More recently, scholars have painted Deuteronomy as a book to help tide the people of God over during a time of crisis.

Block dispels these by affirming the place of Deuteronomy as a book of expositions by Moses, interpreting law from the lens of God's grace. It is Moses who ordered the Torah to be written and placed with the Ark. It is Moses who has personally given the sermons to remind the people of Israel to remember, to be taught about the book of the Law, and to learn to trust and love God. Here are some of Block's key observations about Deuteronomy.

  • It provides a "theological base" for virtually the Old as well as the New testaments.
  • There is no doubt about Moses as the author of the book.
  • The Torah is Moses's "inspired commentary on the covenent" between God and Israel
  • The Torah refers expressly to "the speeches of Moses"
  • Deuteronomy is the conclusion of the Pentateuch
  • If Deuteronomy is not authoritative, it has direct implications on the authoritativeness of other books, like the Psalms, the Prophets, and large parts of the New Testament.
  • Paul is the Moses of the New Testament
  • The sequence of hearing Deuteronomy:
    "Reading > Hearing > Learning > Fear > Obedience > Life"

Block says that we need to interpret the book beginning with reading it as an "ancient" document written for those times. Secondly, the book is seen as "eternal truth," that every command has minimally a principle truth to be held. Thirdly, the original meaning can uncover new significance for modern world. Five theological themes are highlighted.
  1. The book begins and ends with God
  2. It is a comprehensive picture of God's relationship with the people of God
  3. It is a thorough treatment of the covenant
  4. Theology of land is well developed
  5. It provides instructions for the administration of the covenant.
The five main blocks of the book comprises the first sermon, the second sermon, the third sermon, the song of Moses, and finally the benediction of Moses. The first sermon talks about the need to remember God's providence and remember the grace of God. The second sermon explains the grace of God. The third sermon touches on trusting the grace of God. 

The commentary follows a set manner. It begins with a passage from the New International Translation version. Block goes on to provide an "original meaning" (first hermeneutical step), describing the genre, the author, the addressee, the time etc. Next comes the bridge (second hermeneutical step). Finally, the significance for the contemporary world is put under "contemporary significance" (third hermeneutical step). Interspersed throughout the commentary are tables, illustrations, and multiple footnotes to guide the reader toward deeper research and understanding. 

This is a great commentary from an application angle. Block makes sure that the scholarship involved does not wear down the reader. Exegesis has been provided when the contexts require it. The strongest part of the commentary comes from the application perspective and the way to interpret the book with New Testament grace. I appreciate the way Block has honed upon the book as an exposition of the law rather than mere repetition of the Law. This is something very practical for modern ears especially for those of us who like to hear expository sermons week after week. It is also very illuminating on how Moses interprets the law, and on how Paul follows this pattern in his writings of the epistles. Without a doubt, if there is any one recent book to help increase in readers a love for the book of Deuteronomy, it is this commentary. 

Indeed, if there is another title for the book of Deuteronomy, instead of the Law of the Lord, it can also be seen as the love and grace of the Lord, demonstrated through the Torah. 

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Undead" (Clay Morgan)

TITLE: Undead: Revived, Resuscitated, and Reborn
AUTHOR: Clay Morgan
PUBLISHER: Abingdon Publishers, 2012, (208 pages).

This book is not so much about death and dying, but life and living. The title is provocative. Do not let the dark and sinister looking book cover deceive you. It is very much about declaring the hope and joy we can have in Christ. Morgan reminds me of a kind of living that appears more dead than alive. Like living purposeless, and living without a sense of hope. There is also a kind of dying that appears more alive than dead. This is living with a purpose and with full of hopefulness. This is exactly the life that Christ has promised to all who believe and follow Him.

Beginning with "The Living Dead," Morgan takes a wry sneer at some of the cultural depictions of death through movies, cartoons, and stories that look more like a humourous literary scarecrow. More importantly, he notices that our world tends to be generally afraid of death. He makes an observation that most people have "zombies" in them, so self-seeking that they fail to see life beyond themselves. He brings out the reality of eternal life and eternal death, through stories from our ancestors, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, and other ancient peoples of the world. In fact, the topic of death is so popular that it is constantly being talked about through the generations. The true undead are people who are brave and uncompromising about truth. People like Gandhi, Martin Luther Jr, and Jesus, whose unwavering focus on truth helps them live powerful lives. The key point Morgan asks is this: Do we want to live well, or do we simply want to exist?

Morgan highlights some biblical stories that deal with death and dying. He even refers to Ezekiel 37:1-10 as a "zombie psalm." Yet, death meets its match through the revival narrative, like the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings, and how Elisha manages to resurrect the dead with the help of God. Morgan makes a case for the existence of miracles, and how God can continue to do miracles today. Think about that. If God is the Only One Sovereign over both life and death, is He not then worthy of our worship? The author is quick to acknowledge that death and dying is a fearful thing among mortal people. He does this well with constant references to the Giver of Life, and how God continues to manifest His presence through hope, faith, and love. The outcasts are accepted. The dead is resurrected. Hopelessness turns to hopefulness.

Jesus is Ruler. Jesus is Friend. Jesus is Life. Jesus is Savior. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No vampires can match the Power of the Cross. The Resurrection proclaims that death has lost its sting. Morgan also deals with the issue of death and dying through his personal experience with his grandmother who died of cancer. Looking at the face of death is a terrible experience. Looking at someone you love, having to go through pain, suffering, and death can be even more painful.

Morgan makes several insightful comments about living. He notices that children are easily victimized by LSD: Lost, Strangers, and Darkness. Adults are fearful of loneliness. Self-deception and worthlessness leads to despair.

My personal take away from the reading of this book is this. Each of us ought to learn to live well and to die well. If we are prepared to die at any time, let our present lives reflect that. Otherwise, we will easily become victims of the fear of death. We succumb to the paralysis of the unknown. We live weak lives under the falsehood of fear. If death is certain, Jesus shows us that the resurrection and the life is even more certain. We are all going to die by default. Yet, Jesus has shown us that we need not be utterly helpless. We have Jesus. There is no shame in dying, only pity when we fail to live well. If this book can wake any of us up from a meaningless life, of a life of slumber and mere existing, to point us to the Giver of Hope and Life, it will be worth the price of the book. The author ends the book with an invitation.

"Life and death have both been set before you. The choice is yours. Choose life now." (Clay Morgan)

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Wisdom Meets Passion"

TITLE: Wisdom Meets Passion: When Generations Collide and Collaborate
AUTHOR: Dan Miller and Jared Angaza
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Thomas-Nelson, 2012, (272 pages).

This book maintains that both wisdom and passion are needed for whatever work we do. It aims to help blend together accomplishing financial goals and creating meaningful work. Wisdom ties everything together, thus the title of the book. Using an intergenerational approach to describe the differences among two generations, the authors themselves each represent one end of the spectrum. Dan represents the "passion" end where stewardship, responsibility and hard work defines their tradition. Jared represents the go-getter generation, daring to breech traditional boundaries in order to fulfill his dream. The focus is not on questioning traditions or perspectives, but on accepting ourselves the way God has accepted and created us to be.

The book begins with a clarion call for readers to dream big. It is one thing to be faithful with what we have. It is yet another, to seek out better future through passion and dreaming. Knowing that there are many who grew up in a conservative tradition, the authors show sensitivity to the culture among the Baby Boomers, and the older generation, recognizing the inner need for some form of security. Gently, the authors point out seven areas in which one can improve and excel in. Areas such as financial, social, personal development, physical, spiritual, family, and career. They acknowledge the level of debt by many families which can easily stifle any desire to achieve one's dreams. That did not stop the authors from teaching ten steps to education, and becoming rich too! In the new generation, traditional barriers are no longer career or dream limiting. With Facebook, internet, and the social media, as long as one can dream, anything is possible. Throughout the book, the emphasis is consistent. Dream big. Attempt big. Live a great life and do not settle simply for a good life.

Chapter 5 offers a theological perspective on work excellence. Develop a passion that is contagious. Chapter 6 probes the identity and destiny. Learn to imagine, to dream, to anticipate, to set realistic goals, to plan, to act, and to realize one's dreams. This book is pure perk-me-up vocational challenge for us to go all out, to dare to dream, and to dare to make that dream a reality. Most importantly, one needs to be crystal clear that it is a path one desires to do. There is no shame in wanting to make more money, only shame if we fail to exercise our talents when God has given us talents.

I am reminded of Mark Twain's famous words.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

This book is another way of showing us how and why. The generation gap is not meant to be a barrier to bridging wisdom of the old with the passion of the new. Instead, it is meant to show us the strengths and weaknesses of both eras, that the best way to move forward is to work together. I like the way the book is summarized through the following:

  1. Find your story.
  2. Face your fears.
  3. Be resourceful without resources.
  4. Keep it simple.
  5. Build trust.
  6. Giving is good business.

The last chapter on work is indeed one of the strongest parts of the book. It also shows us the common ground both traditional as well as the modern generation has in common. Both will reach old age one day. Perhaps, when that day comes, it may very well be too late to regret not fulfilling our dreams. Take this book as an apt reminder that we are called to be the best that we are created to be. No more. No less.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"The Best Advice I Ever Got on Parenting" (Jim Daly)

TITLE: The Best Advice I Ever Got on Parenting: Incredible Insights from Well-Known Moms and Dads
AUTHOR: Jim Daly
PUBLISHER: Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2012, (176 pages).

This is a compilation of 16 of the world's most prominent parents. Calling them "best advice," Daly helps us to condense them into one book. It is a way to help himself improve as a parent, and hopefully invite readers to do the same. In "Parenting with Grace," authors Tim and Darcy Kimmel share about learning from mistakes what NOT to do. They connect between faith and practice, sharing that kids are on a character watch each time they see their parents. "Grace-based parenting" is essentially about treating our children the way God treats us. Grace.

Kevin Leman chimes in with an affirmation that parents are the child's #1 influence. He highlights 9 parenting myths for parents to watch out for.

Gary Thomas, writer of a bestselling book, Sacred Parenting, gives his take by warning parents against becoming an absentee parent. Children are important enough to warrant parents to re-look at their work priorities. Shaunti Feldhahn, popular for her book on women relationships, contributes by urging the open sharing of love with kids, to assure them of love. Otherwise, kids will default by questioning whether their parents love them. The basic need for kids is reassurance, over and over again.

Dannah Gesh, makes a case for parents to identify and know their children's uniqueness, and then direct, discipline, coach, and encourage them to be who they are made to be. Ted Cunningham shows the way on how to talk to children about sex. Instead of any "shame-based" reference, he advocates honesty and clarity to approach sex without fear and without shame. Amy and Michael Smalley share that the way to set our children up for success is to maintain calm heads and to let the Holy Spirit guide. Telling the truth is a core requirement to learn what they live, and to live out what they learn.

Fern Nichols asserts that parents need to work with God in bringing up the children. The home is a "showcase" to bring up children, as well as point the child to Jesus. Parents are to pray for their children regularly.

Randy Alcorn reminds us that parenting brings about much joys that money cannot buy. The pressure, the stress, the financial struggles, will all be worth it. Phil and Heather Joel gives an interesting contribution on "Garden-Variety Parenting." They provide two insights from gardening. Firstly, one needs to know how and when to weed, and it takes time. Secondly, it is about enjoying the fruits and the process of working the garden.

Gary Smalley shares a parenting tip from a paediatrician, that the key to healthy relationships is to "keep honor high and anger low." Cynthia Tobias Talley advocates the learning parent. Not only that, parents need to be able to let children learn at appropriate times. Mark A. Holmen uses the TRAIN acronym on how to inculcate faith in the children. Time, Repetition, Acceptance, Intentionality, and Never-Ending.

Vicki Courtney shows the way to parent from the inside-out, focusing more on the attitude behind the behaviour. Remembering the Cross is a way of telling the kid what is the fundamental basis of behaviour. Jerry B. Jenkins argues for actions that speak louder than words and Juli Slattery talks about team-based parenting. Humility, discernment, adaptation, and prayer are to be practiced together.

For the busy parent, this book works very well, forming a useful reference book whenever parents want "nuggets" of parenting wisdom. It is good at an introductory level. For anything more advanced, I recommend other parenting books that cover more ground. Having said that, this book aims for breadth rather than depth, and as far as the time-scarce modern family is concerned, this book fits in just nice.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


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

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Church Behind the Wire"

TITLE: Church Behind the Wire: A Story of Faith in the Killing Fields
AUTHOR: Barnabas Mam
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012, (352 pages).

This book takes a penetrating look at the horrific Killing Fields in Cambodia during the tragic 70s, and how Christians like Barnabas Man maintains hope in a world of hopelessness. It is a journey of faith in what may be called the "Holocaust" of the Far East. The author has personally gone through the suffering first hand. His conversion to Christianity only makes matters worse. He gets persecuted time and again by the Communist regime of Pol Pot and the Vietnamese invaders. Not only that, he gets to see how others are persecuted.

He describes how young children gets enlisted and indoctrinated with the ideals of Communism. Under the guise of the greater good for the greater society, these young children learn to elevate the Communist ideals and leaders so much, even at the expense of forsaking one's sense of identity. As the collective society expands, the individual identity contracts. The ideology easily leads to the wanton taking of human life without much thought or regard. Even the author's name has been cut short to a one syllable name by the Khmer Rouge. Mam shares about how the regime uses fear to control the people. They use power and authority to silence the people into unquestioning submission. The strategy to build a new country begins by tearing down the old. Genocide is one such flawed strategy.

Staying Alive Through Faith and Hope

Mam spends four years in prison, and is said to be one of only 200 surviving Christians in the land. Under such dire conditions, where then is hope? With suffering as a given, how can Mam survive it all?

His survival tip? Faith.

Deciding that he can no longer serve two masters, Mam opts for Jesus instead of remaining loyal to the Communist regime. His life is an example of learning to live wisely as serpents, and innocent as doves. Hope is in Christ, Mam reflects. Through the singing of hymns he has learned in the past, he is able to focus on the beauty of heaven instead of the ugliness on the earth he sees. By meditating on the Scriptures in his heart, he learns to trust and worship God, despite the ideologies and flawed thinking amid the persecutors. Through frequent thoughts of heaven, his hope is broadened when he sees the greater reality of the Kingdom, in contrast with the hopeless surroundings he face. Through hope, he sees the permanence of heaven instead of the temporal in Cambodia. Through prayer, he maintains an upbeat disposition by praying for true liberation. Even in moments of hunger, he is able to think of the true Giver of all blessings. Even without the direct fellowship of the estimated 200 followers of Christ then, Mam is able to remain hopeful, not wanting to go back to either the fatalistic Buddhist religion or the emptiness of the Communist ideology.  His obsession with the person of Christ, actually helps him through many hard times, "profiting" from the gospel through trusting.


Mam also makes several tough decisions. Mam reflects on how he used to spy for the Communists. As he seeks out the enemy by spying on Americans, he learns instead that it is God who is seeking him out. Mam also shares about his conversion experience. Recalling the evangelistic campaign of Stanley mooneyham, Mam relates how impressed he was about the way the evangelist makes the case for a Creator God, in contrast to the dominant teachings on Darwism in his society. The contrast is also dramatic. Instead of the Buddhist-Communist emphases of hard work to the detriment of self, Christianity is simply accepting Jesus into one's life, freely and lovingly. Buddhism and Communism seem enforced. Christianity is freely given and freely received. Mam relates that one reason why Buddhism is deconstructed in Cambodia is because it is not personal enough. Worse, over four years, Pol Pot's rename country of Kampuchea totally deconstructed the country from inside. The entire culture and society were destroyed. All three "kings" prove helpless in uniting the country. Firstly, the Communists flip flopped between being pro-Vietnam to anti-Vietnam. Secondly, Prince Sihanouk's neutral stance failed to instill any stability. Thirdly, the radical strategies of Pol Pot instead of constructing, actually destroys the whole country. All of these downfalls, only lead Mam to hope more in Jesus, the true Hope of all.

The story of faith during the Killing Fields years is both tragic and heartwarming. Tragic when we see how cruel people can become toward human life. Heartwarming because of the faith of Mam in spite of the evil around him, and how he tries to help others in times of suffering. At the same time, silence is not just golden. It is survival. Mam also survived because of the skills he had. From construction to agriculture, from translation to literary skills, he is able to be useful for his masters. Psalm 23:5 becomes so real to Mam as he lives in the presence of his enemies. By 1978, matters worsen as Cambodia goes to war against Vietnam. This is when the Killing Fields is at its peak. From 10000 believers in 1975, only 200 survived by 1979.

Application for the Modern West

This book reminds us in the comfortable west, that for every complaint or unhappiness we have with life, it is nothing compared to the genocide years. For every freedom of religion and belief we have take for granted, we ought to be ashamed when we fail to cherish them, in the light of other parts of the world where basic rights are simply denied. It speaks of simple faith and trust on the part of Mam. It shows us that faith without suffering is not tested faith at all. Does this mean that we need to go through suffering in order to prove our faith. Not necessary. Yet, this is something that I fear many of us in the West are unwilling to go through, and unable to overcome. Finally, Mam shows us the importance of seeing hope through having a vision of heaven. That end in mind helps cement our hopes in spite of the hopelessness we see around us.

Three things strike me. Firstly, do not take our freedom to believe for granted. Secondly, we need to learn to identify with fellow sufferers in Christ. This means that through books like these, we learn to understand the struggles fellow believers go through. Thirdly, we need to be prepared to be tested in our faith, in both good and bad times. For those of us living in comfort and take our freedom of faith for granted, re-think about our own sense of hope. Let this book remind us again, that even today, there are suffering brothers and sisters out there who are being persecuted for Christ. They are largely unknown and unheard of. We need to let books like this remind us to pray and to fight for justice wherever we can.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, August 13, 2012

"At Home With God" (Gavin Long)

TITLE: At Home with God: A Complete Liturgical Guide for the Christian Home
AUTHOR: Gavin Long
PUBLISHER: Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011, (258 pages).

Ever wanted to do family devotionals but don't know how? Can we do church at home? What if we are able to cultivate spiritual awareness through the family meal together? This book shows us that it is entirely possible. Through simple liturgies in the home, the family can experience God together in powerful and transformative ways. As a guide, this book is superb in terms of creativity, clarity, and comprehensiveness. There is a strong sense of Sabbath keeping in all of the liturgies. The major elements are Communion, Sabbath candle lighting, prayers, and remembrance of Christ. Most of all, the liturgy invites participation by all at home. Four seasons are used to frame the book. In Winter, the themes are advent to anticipate the coming of Christ; Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and Epiphany to enjoy the life of Christ in everyday life. Each liturgy has the following process:

  1. The lighting of the candle
  2. A blessing followed by a song
  3. Telling the redemptive story
  4. Reading and Prayers
  5. Blessing the Communion elements
  6. Singing and Peace giving

Spring focuses on Lent, Easter and from Easter to Pentecost. In Lent, one learns to reflect upon the sacrifice of Christ. In Easter, one celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. Pentecost anticipates the Holy Spirit.

Summer touches on the ordinary time of the Church and of the Kingdom. The former is from Pentecost to the end of June, while the latter is from July to August. The time of the Church celebrates the arrival of the Holy Spirit and how God builds the Church. The Kingdom reminds us of God's promise to set up His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. There are special activities like planting seeds, and practicing the liturgy according to the Church and Kingdom themes.

Autumn is likened to a journey. From the last weekend of August to the end of November, the liturgy helps focus on the theme of faith as a journey. It reminds us of our citizenship in heaven. It  helps us remember the saints of old. It is also a call for repentance.  There is a significant presence of greater silence and meditation in the liturgies.

There are at least three reasons why I like this book. Firstly, it is easy to follow. The liturgy does not need any major modifications. Just turn to the page anyday, according to the time you are in, and use them as is. Easy to used and follow, it does not contain complicated language. Secondly, it reminds us how closely related church and family is. The blending of Scriptures and prayers, with the daily meal is a good reminder to all that grace is not something just restricted to saying a one-sentence prayer before meals. It is throughout the whole meal, of celebration, of conversation, and of participation. Thirdly, with the liturgy in place, devotions can be enhanced. The invitation to participate as a family is strong. Long says that the liturgies will "awaken new possibilities for families and communities." Reading through the liturgies, I believe him.

I find this book a helpful guide to avoid letting Church becoming only a Sunday activity. In fact, what is done in churches on Sundays is mainly a highlight of the week, and not meant to be the only time we celebrate the presence and glory of God. We can do the same in the home through simple liturgies adapted from the larger church tradition. The liturgies in the book can be easily implemented straight out of the book. Adaptation is easy. Whether one comes from the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, evangelical or Protestant traditions, this book can be used easily. Perhaps, the biggest benefit when we practise the liturgy at home, is to inculcate a greater awareness of God not just on Sundays but on all days. Not just in churches but in the home. Perhaps, then, our families will be able to do what William Barclay has said about worship.

"Real worship is the offering of everyday life to him, not something transacted in a church, but something which sees the whole world as the temple of God." (William Barclay)

This book certainly helps to nudge one closer to being more worshipful of God in the home.