Monday, May 28, 2012

"The Meaning of Marriage" (Tim Keller)

To all my readers,

As part of my blog consolidation exercise, this will be the final posting on this blog. From June 2012 onwards, Monday posts will be a book recommendation on my main blog, "Yapdates - A Spiritual Odyssey." This helps me better in managing my postings as multiple blogs do take up a lot of my time. Here is how you can get my weekly book recommendation. Every Monday, hop over to Yapdates.Blogspot.Com and read the recommendation from 9am Pacific time.

From June 2012, I will tag all my Monday posts under the label, "BookPastor." Click here to go there direct.

Thanks for reading.


TITLE: The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God
AUTHOR: Tim Keller with Kathy Keller
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Dutton Books, 2011, (290 pages).

This book is packed with biblical wisdom and practical helps on one of the most important issues of our age: Marriage. The author draws upon three deep roots to write the book; his own marriage, his concern for the large unmarried part of his congregation, and from the Bible. The central thesis of the book is that we need to understand the meaning of marriage that is both realistic and glorious.  He makes it clear that marriage is not same-sex, not polygamous, and certainly not romanticism, or defined through cultural lens. Instead, marriage is love unlimited

"The Secret of Marriage" reminds us that the tough times of marriage ought to drive couples to seek to experience more of the transforming love of God. Like Christ, married couples need to learn to give up their own selves for the sake of their spouses, and work toward mutual fulfillment. As one allows marriage to drive couples to seek God more, the gospel will transform marriages into the love that God has intended it to be.

He writes: "Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God's saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God's mercy and grace." (48)
"The Power of Marriage" comes through very unique ways, unlike the worldly ways. For instance, true power comes from mutual submission, avoiding self-centeredness, boldly facing our own wounds, and to heal ourselves from self-seeking ways. The fear of God is the beginning of a good marriage.

"The Essence of Marriage" continues on the Ephesians teachings on marriage with Keller's classic skill in separating fact from fiction. Marriage is not just a piece of paper but pure love. It is not subjective based on feelings, but objective based on truth. It is not to be a consumer activity but a covenant relationship. It is both vertical (faith in God) and horizontal (trust in each other).  It is a life that draws on the power of a promise. In other words, the starting point is not feelings of love, but "actions of love" that will lead to any romantic feelings. Just like how Christ stayed on to love us, despite our hateful actions against him, we too ought to commit ourselves to loving and staying with our spouses through thick and thin.

"The Mission of Marriage" is again other-centered. It is to be best friends with our spouses, to help each  other become our best, to see our spouses beyond simply a sex or financial partner, but a whole person who deserves to be the best in our eyes.

In "Loving the Stranger," Keller provides a vivid image of marriage being like a bridge over a stream, and the spouse as a giant truck driving on the bridge, exposing the cracks and weaknesses in all of us. Even when our spouses become like strangers over time, it is our duty to make sure that the "someone better" will always be our spouse. When one transitions from "in love" to simply "love," affection, friendship, and service will come naturally. The big problem in marriage is how we handle truth. Truth needs to be handled with grace, reconciliation, and love.

"Embracing the Other" is a call to commitment, and not convenience. This is especially when one spouse doesn't seem to make the other "get it." Keller proposes taking upon the "Jesus role" which essentially means serving, submitting, and satisfying the other more than self. As one takes care of one's  own weaknesses, one trusts God to help the spouse manage his/her own.

Chapter 7 talks about an important aspect of singleness and marriage. The author acknowledges that marriage has been given a bad rap these days, and affirms the good in both singleness as well as marriage. He maintains a high view of marriage, and that singles ought to do the same, even though some may be called to be single. He carefully explains the delicate balance, that while one can pray for a marriage partner, one needs also to cultivate contentment in God alone, to be satisfied whatever the state.  For dating, Keller takes readers through a historical tour of how the modern dating concept comes from. He then gives 8 helpful tips for singles.

  1. That there are seasons for not seeking marriage, and that Christian friendships are more important than dates or ideas about marriage;
  2. Need to understand the gift of singleness
  3. Be more serious about seeking marriage when one grows older
  4. Avoid deepening emotional relationships with a non-believing personal
  5. Be attracted comprehensively
  6. Be slow in getting passionate
  7. Don't be a "faux spouse" for someone unwilling to commit; (don't cheapen self)
  8. Solicit plenty of community input
Finally, Keller deals with the place of sex. It is for whole life "self giving." He pins the Christian sex ethic as one that is within a marriage, and between a husband and a wife. Sex deepens the marriage union, unites the couple, affirms commitment, and is about the other. With regards to singles, Keller advises chastity, and to devote one to loving Jesus. Using the example of Jane Eyre, Keller points out how the leading lady avoids depending on the feelings of her heart and redirects her energies toward God.

The Appendix lists some thoughtful ways to think about our gender roles.

  1. The husband's authority over the wife is meant to serve the interests of the wife, not the husband.
  2. The wife's role is beyond mere compliance but to use her resources to empower her husband.
  3. Wives are not to give their husbands unconditional obedience.
  4. Husband's headship is for ministry to wife and family.
  5. Any stalemate needs to be 'broken' with a decision that is made for the family or the marriage, never for self.

My Comments

What makes this book very readable for all is that it appeals not only to Christians but provides a reasonable and inviting atmosphere for non-believers to enter in. In other words, one does not need to be a Christian (but being a Christian certainly helps!) in order to appreciate the wisdom in the book. Carefully laying out the biblical principles, he makes a powerful case for marriage seen from the Bible's perspective, which is far more wholesome and constructive. He is respectful to both male and female. By not talking a lot about homosexuality or gay affairs, he faithfully sticks to his main definition of marriage being between a man and a woman.  His chapter on singles and the need for couples to learn to be other-centered more than self is certainly godsend for many in the Church, especially single women. I appreciate the "Decision Making and Gender Roles" he has included in the appendix which lists what are the better ways to understand biblical submission and gender roles.

In one book, Keller explains biblical marriage, relationships, practical marriage tips, singlehood, sex, and gender roles. It reminds me of another recent book on marriage, written by Mark Driscoll. While the other book is deemed "controversial" for its boldness in talking about more explicit sex techniques and tools, this book is more focused on reasonably translating biblical truths into practice.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Monday, May 21, 2012

"The Reason for God" (Tim Keller)

This review was first published at YAPDATES on Feb 16th, 2009.

Tim Keller is pastor of the fast growing Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. One reason for his rising fame and popularity is his ability to speak to the concerns of a culture that is not only becoming more secular but skeptical of tradition and religion. CS Lewis gave a radio talk in the 1940s entitled: "Case for Christianity." Lee Strobel had his "Case for Faith" sometime in the 1980s. Tim Keller's contribution is a 293-paged "Reason for God," published by Dutton, member of the Penguin group, 2008. The book's website is here.

Briefly, the first part of the book deals with 7 major doubts skeptics have regarding the truth of Christianity. Calling the seven statements as the Leap of Doubt, he turns the skeptical view on its head by forcing them to apply their own statements using their own measurements.
  1. There can't be just one true religion
  2. How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?
  3. Christianity is a Straitjacket
  4. The Church is Responsible for so much Injustice
  5. How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
  6. Science Has Disproved Christianity
  7. You Can't Take the Bible Literally
The Two Camps & Three Barriers
Keller describes his early Christian experience in terms of struggling with two seemingly opposing viewpoints and three barriers to faith. On the one camp, people who fight for social justice are themselves 'moral relativists' (xii). The other camp comprises people who were morally upright and yet socially nonchalant. Compounding this problem are three barriers: Intellectual, Personal and Social barriers. A religion that is believable for him must overcome all these barriers, to be intellectually reasonable, personally accountable and socially responsible. He argues that faith needs to be lived with some level of doubt as well, just like a human body needing antibodies. Otherwise, the faith is not solid but plastic. They do not last. In his recommendation, he suggests that both believers and non-believers at the worst scenario, ought to take the stance of 'disagreement' rather than 'denouncement' (xviii). The main point of Keller's book is to challenge the skeptic to dare to measure their own criticisms with their own standards, and at the same time, to extend their understanding of future hope, learning 'reasonably' toward the viewpoints of Christianity. It is an invitation for the skeptic to taste and see that the Lord is good.

The author then goes on to address the seven skeptical statements before promoting the seven positive statements of the gospel of Christ which are:
  1. The Clues of God
  2. The Knowledge of God
  3. The Problem of Sin
  4. Religion and the Gospel
  5. The (True) Story of the Cross
  6. The Reality of the Resurrection
  7. The Dance of God
The Seven Leaps of Doubt
1) "There Can't Just Be One True Religion" is a major statement of faith. It already assumes that there is no one true way. Skeptics generally force themselves to take either or a mixture of 3 alternatives toward religion; 'outlaw' it, condemm or to privatize it. All three have shown themselves to be equally inadequate.

2) "How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?" was first suggested by David Hume, a British philosopher. Keller asserts that evil and suffering does not satisfactorily prove against the existence of God. It might even be arguments for God! In other words, suffering and pain makes us long for something better. Moreover, evil, suffering and pain is not just for the God-aware, it is for EVERYONE, no exceptions! Whether one is an atheist, a theist or an agnostic, all face suffering in one way of another. If theism is non-reasonable, atheism is far worse in terms of understanding the problem of evil and suffering. God himself did not spare his own son to undergo suffering. In Christ, there is ultimate redemption from suffering. Can we say the same for atheism?

3) "Christianity is a Straitjacket" reflects very much the modern times of relativity and the desire for people to determine their own truths, according to their own standards and within their own fancies. The culture resists the authoritative manner which religion tries to shove down their doctrines down people's unwilling throats. Keller points out that one's belief against absolute truth is in itself an absolute statement. In other words, one can argue that anyone criticizing Christianity for straitjacketing people can also be equally criticized for 'straitjacketing' others into their relative way of believing. The author then argues that communities cannot be completely inclusive. How can falsehood and truth exists side by side? Christianity is not culturally rigid. After all, Christianity was first encountered by Jews, moved to Greek Hellenists environment in the Mediterranean, received by the Barbarians in Northern Europe, then Western Europe and subsequently finding their way to Latin America, Africa and large parts of Asia. Regarding the issue of straitjacket, the counter argument is that 'freedom' itself does have its limits. A freedom seen in terms of self-indulgence and insensitive to the community one lives in is never true freedom. It is licentiousness leading initially from an amoral point of view toward a self-justifiable immoral way of life.

4) "The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice" is a common accusation. Yes, there has been flaws in history of the church, violence through crusades, and fanatical bigots. Even the Christian West was once beset with slavery. However, with each name mentioned that one used to attack the church, remember that there are true martyrs who died for the faith, and did lots of good to advance the human dignity in the world. So when one argues against the injustices, do not forget that fair judgment requires the skeptic to consider the good that has been done.

5) "How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" One reason why increasingly people believe this is due to the tendency of people to arrive at their own religious conclusions based on their root secular beliefs. In fact, one can argue that secularism is a religion in itself. CS Lewis brilliantly identified magic and science being twins that came from the same set of parents. There were 'born of the same impulse' (70). While in the past, people believe that there is a Divine Superior outside and we are all seeking the Higher divinity, (Magic), modernity reverses it and sees everything gravitating toward themselves (Science).
"Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires. The ancients looked at an anxious person and prescribed spiritual character change. Modernity talks instead about stress-management techniques." (71)
CS Lewis said that there are two kinds of people. The first kind says "Thy Will be done" to God. In the second kind, God says to them: "Thy will be done." Other religions do not claim their divinity as a God of love. Only Christ claims that.

6) "Science Has Disproved Christianity" is a sweeping statement propagated by people such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel C Dennett. Keller argues that not only modern scientists have to grapple with the issue of miracles. Ancients do too. The power of the gospel is that when people see the miracles, it does not remain within the realm of intellectual beliefs. It leads them to worship, to do great things for God and to become people yearning to bring God's goodness to the world. Ian Barbour lays out 4 ways in which to deal with science and religion: "conflict, dialogue, integration and independence" (88). One end is very public while the other is completely private. The conflict part is losing credibility. Many scientists can reasonably believe in Christ.

7) "You Can't Take the Bible Literally" means that one rather pick and choose Scripture. If that is the case, one can become like the Stepford wives where one lives like a robot, choosing and keeping only those things that one finds reasonable in the Bible. The problem with why people struggle with the Bible is their failure to take into account how deeply they have become entrenched in their own sense of history, that they ignored the contexts of the biblical passage. In other words, trying to force modern history and interpret the Bible from there is a problem right from the start. It is like trying to question a 1st century man walking many miles to work, saying why he did not drive!

Seven Reasons for Faith
(1) Clues of God
Several clues are evident.
  • The very existence of the world
  • Finetuning of the universe
  • Regularity of nature
  • Beauty and meaning in the world
  • Our cognitive faculties work!
2) The Knowledge of God
One already knows God is there, for if life is one big intellectual problem, where is the meaning? The reason why people are searching for meaning in life is because all their struggles are in essence a search for God. Why do we tell one another to be truthful? Why do we want to do good? Where are the origins of human rights? Without a knowledge of God, will all these make sense? In fact it could even be more 'dishonest' to deny God.

3) The Problem of Sin
Sin is essentially an inadequate attempt to fill our emptiness and void, thinking that we can fill it without God. According to Kierkegaard, everyone must find some way to 'justify their existence.' There are personal, social and cosmic consequences of sin.
"Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in the place of God." (71)
Everyone needs to live for something. A life without God does not cut it.

4) Religion and the Gospel
Beginning with the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Keller argues that either way, one becomes bad and mad. The very desire to do good deeds in order to 'redeem' the evil ways of Mr Hyde ultimately destroys both. Dr Jekyll uses religion as a form of good deeds. Sin and evil have two faces. One face is to do evil to destroy. The other is to pile up good and become self-arrogant and prideful leading to self-destruction. Pharasaism is dangerous as it can create social strife. We need the grace of God, to be accepted. Religion pushes fear to get us to conform. Grace in God invites us through love. Grace can also be a threat. Using the example of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean when he eventually spared his persistent pursuer, police officer Javert, the latter could not comprehend why a 'bad' guy like Valjean can ever do such good to him, by releasing his arch-enemy? The gospel offers us this radical grace. Yet this alone is not the whole story. We need to see the cross.

5) The (True) Story of the Cross
The cross represents real forgiveness through the suffering of Christ. Secondly, it represents that real love is a personal exchange.
The fact that Jesus had to die for me humbled me out of my pride. The fact that Jesus was glad to die for me assured me out of my fear. (200)
The Bible is for us.

6) The Reality of the Resurrection
Many people struggle with this. This is why the four gospels and the New Testament repeatedly echo the evidence.
  • The Empty Tomb and the women as witnesses seem incredulous. After all, women witnesses are not very respected in the society then. Yet, physical eyewitnesses were recorded. Are they all wrong? Despite such incredible evidence, yet the early Christians were prepared to suffer for the sake of standing up for these proofs, even in spite of persecutions and humiliation. If the evidence is false, these people are truly insane. If the evidence is true, they cannot help it but to proclaim and bear witness. In fact, believing that the evidence is false is more absurd than believing that the evidence is true. It is more reasonable that they are correct rather than to attribute them to hallucinations. Christians at that time do not have the luxury of comfortable pews in nice church buildings. They proclaim Christ at a personal cost. Why will any reasonable person put himself or herself through social, religious, political or economic inconveniences? Unless they are proclaiming what they saw. Remember that doubts about the resurrection is not restricted in the modern times we live in. The ancients also struggle with this.

7) The Dance of God
God is Trinity. We are invited into the divine dance, not because God needs it, but because God desires to share it with us in love. We need to return to the dance. In a nutshell, the gospel comprises of 4 great acts: CREATION, FALL, REDEMPTION And RESTORATION.

Great book. I like to end the way the book ended. A story.
During a dark time in her life, a woman in my congregation complained that she had prayed over and over, 'God, help me to find you,' but had gotten nowhere. A Christian friend suggested to her that she might change her prayer to, 'God, come and find me. After all, you are the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep.' She concluded when she was recounting this to me, 'The only reason I can tell you this story is - he did.'"


Monday, May 14, 2012

"Hope for Parents of Troubled Teens"

This book review was first published on 11 Apr 2012 at "Panorama of a Book Saint" here.

TITLE: Hope for Parents of Troubled Teens
AUTHOR: Connie Rae
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2012, (227 pages).

This book gives excellent practical tips on a wide range of issues. It aims to bring hope and healing to families struggling with bringing up their children who are moving from adolescence to adulthood. It is common knowledge that parenting teens can be challenging. Instead of approaching the book on the perspectives of why teenagers are treating their parents this/that way, the book focuses on this main question:

"How can I help this child find his/her way?"

This question defines the overall mood of the book. Redemptive. Re-conciliatory. Rewarding. In twelve chapters, the author deals with acknowledging the children for who they are, their idiosyncrasies, the stages of the children's growth, husband/wives and parent/child differences, knowing our teens and our relationship with God, sex matters, peer pressure, communications, rebellion, drugs, and many more. Every chapter contains good practical advice that is not only clear but highly applicable. Even the most difficult issues are not sidelined. Instead, the author writes with understanding and with intentionality.

I appreciate the way the author patiently deals with the 'getting to know your adolescent' through 8 tasks. She then anchors the entire relationship with a nice analogy of how God, parents, and children are positioned. Using the example of Archer-Bow-Arrow, God is like the Archer who determines the direction, the purpose, the strength, and the timing of the activity. The parents help to support the bow by creating an optimal environment for the children to flourish. The children are like the arrows. This reminds me of Ps 127:4 about the joy of having many children like a man with arrows in his hands.

Packed with lots of good tips and parenting advice, this book provides lots of references to the many counseling materials, quips, and wisdom. Most importantly, the ideas in the book are not only enjoyable to read, they are doable. Each chapter ends with some doable activities and a prayer for God to help one accomplish the challenging tasks ahead. The ten guidelines for tackling rebellious behavior is certainly worth the price of the book.

I highly recommend this book for anyone, not just parents. This is because any challenges with teenagers are not limited to parents. Teachers, friends of parents with teens, counselors, pastors, teachers, and students all have something to learn from in this book.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Power in Prayer"

This review was first published at "Panorama of a Book Saint" here.
TITLE: Power in Prayer - Classic Devotions to Inspire and Deepen Your Prayer Life
AUTHOR: Andrew Murray
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2011, (172 pages).

For those of us familiar with Christian literature, when we think of THE MESSAGE, we think of Eugene Peterson. If we think of the PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE, we remember Rick Warren. When it comes to prayer, even in our modern settings, many of us will probably think of Andrew Murray, the 19th-20th Century Scottish prayer giant. He has authored many devotional books on the Christian life but his books on prayer remain very much on the bestseller category.

Extracted from more than 18 books on prayer, Bethany House has compiled more than 150 devotionals in one volume, to be used as both a devotional as well as prayer help. If you are familiar with the popular daily devotional booklet, OUR DAILY BREAD, published by Radio Bible Class, you will be quite comfortable with the way this book is laid out. With a focus on prayerfulness rather than prayer itself, each chapter begins with a Scripture passage on which the reflection will be based upon. The first part normally begins with a small description on what prayerfulness actually is. For example,

  • Prayer is the fullest expression of one's spiritual dependence: "All the things of faith, all the pleadings of desire, all the yearnings after a fuller surrender, all the confessions of shortcoming and of sin, all the exercises in which the soul gives up self and clings to Christ, find their utterance in prayer." (11)
  • Prayer is Unselfish Intercession: "In true, unselfish prayer there is little thought of personal need or happiness. If we would be delivered from the sin of limiting prayer, we must enlarge our heart for the work of intercession." (13)
  • Prayer is a Path of Obedience: "We are apt to think of absolute obedience as a principle, that obedience unto death is a thing that can only be gradually learned in Christ's school. This is a great mistake. What we have to learn, and do learn gradually, is the practice of obedience to new and ever-increasing commands. But as to the principle, Christ wants us from the very entrance into His life to vow complete obedience. This is the reason why there are so many unanswered prayers with regard to God making His will known. " (17)
  • Prayer is Unity: "United prayer is a great privilege, and its power waits to be experienced. If the believing couple knew that they were joined together in the name of Jesus to experience His presence and power in united prayer; if friends believed how effective two or three praying in concert could be, what blessing might come? If in every prayer meeting faith in His presence and expectation of an answer were foremost, in every church united prayer was regarded as one of the chief purposes for which Christians come together - the highest exercise of their power as a church, how might the church be empowered for ministry?" (24)
  • Lack of Prayer is the Root of Discouragement: "We must not comfort ourselves with thoughts of standing in a right relationship to the Lord Jesus while the sin of prayerlessness has any power over us. But if we first recognize that a right relationship to the Lord Jesus above all else includes prayer, with both the desire and the power to pray according to God's will, then we have reason to rejoice and rest in Him. Discouragement is the result of self-effort, and so blocks out all hope of improvement or victory." (78)

The book covers a wide range of matters affecting the Christian life. There is Bible meditations, praying for various human conditions like sinfulness, prayerlessness, illness, patience, relationships, and many more.

My Comments

I remember walking by a rocky beach where tiny crabs scatter and hide amid the small rocks on the seashore. Every stone I overturn reveals some tiny crustaceans. This book is the same. Every page I turn reveals some wonderful revelation of prayerfulness. Murray's words are written simple enough for the layperson to appreciate. It is insightful enough for the most astute theologians. It is also very quotable. Reading this book makes me want to pray more before I work. Pray more and worry less. Pray more to know God and His will rather than to use God to do my will. Every page is a prayer burner. Every prayer is a soul mover. Like what the subtitle of the book suggests. This book is a precious collection of devotionals that will help to 'inspire' and to 'deeper' one's prayer life. I think it does much more. It draws one to want to know God better. This book demonstrates to us, again and again,  that we can bring everything to God in prayer. If there is power in prayer, there is more power in prayerfulness when the True Power above moves.

I believe Murray will be more than pleased if we say that his books have not only helped us in our prayer walks, it has drawn us closer to God, and God closer to us. I appreciate the efforts of the publisher to bring together in one volume that highlights the prayerfulness and spiritual vitality of Andrew Murray. Great book!

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Monday, April 30, 2012

"Engaging Today's Prodigal" (Carol Barnier)

This review was first published in Panorama of a Book Saint here

TITLE: Engaging Today's Prodigal: Clear Thinking, New Approaches, and Reasons for Hope
AUTHOR: Carol Barnier
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012, (176 pages).

This book acknowledges that parenting is tough. It is getting more difficult as children grow into teens and subsequently into young adults who do not readily share parents' values as readily as hoped. What the author tries to do is to clear up 7 myths about parental guilt over their parenting. It lays out 12 tips of dos and dont's to guide parents on how to relate to their children constructively. Writing from her personal spiritual struggles, from faith to atheism to faith again, Barnier hopes that parents of this modern age will be able to adopt clear thinking, learn new approaches, and to maintain reasons for hope.

The 7 myths parents need to avoid are:
  1. Thinking that perfect parenting will automatically mean perfect children;
  2. Blaming oneself as if the Bible said so;
  3. Thinking that parents are able to rescue their children;
  4. Assuming that kids deliberately want to irritate their parents;
  5. Thinking that perfect words can correct the kids;
  6. Thinking that if kids feel parents' pain sufficiently, they will listen and turn back from their ways;
  7. Assuming that one's scars will damage children's lives forever.
Along with these myths, there are gems of wise advice dispensed. Such as:
  • differentiate between 'influence' and 'control';
  • Not to be too willing to accept responsibility instead of helping kids learn their responsibility;
  • To be balanced and that the leash should not be held too tightly or too loosely;
  • Kids can still make bad choices despite the best parenting efforts;
  • Reading the intention of Proverbs as truth sayings instead of absolute promises;
  • That one cannot save those who refuse to be saved;
  • to learn to save our energies for battles that we can actually win, instead of expecting children to feel something that they can never understand;
  • God can make something beautiful through our best/worst efforts.
I appreciate the 12 points in learning how to engage the new prodigals. 
  1. That parents learn not to badger their kids to submission, but advise them by the side;
  2. Learning to focus on boundaries instead of criticizing behaviours;
  3. Creating common places to connect;
  4. Learning to avoid quoting Bible as if kids accept its authority;
  5. Learning to sit down and listen;
  6. Recognizing courage in our kids;
  7. Loving our prodigals;
  8. Creating support system in our parenting efforts, with the help of a community;
  9. Remember our non-prodigals even as we are concerned for the prodigals;
  10. Learning to care for prodigals who are not our own children;
  11. Avoiding putting up a list of expectations when prodigals return;
  12. Not to lose ourselves or our sense of worth during the trying times.
While the first two parts deal with remedial efforts, Part Three looks toward preventative measures, that gazes at the future beginning now. Barnier urges readers to hold on to faith and hope. Using her own story, she tells of how she searches for God in all the wrong places, finally returning to God, after realizing that atheism is a dead end. Finally, she maintains that God is an artist who is able to weave all things together for good. 

Closing Thoughts

Barnier has a lot of good advice to give us. She gently dispels the myths that often pile up guilt, instead of releasing us in grace. This is important because many parents have a tendency to place wrong expectations on themselves and their children. She encourages readers to adopt new creative ways to communicate affirmatively with their children. Learning to say 'no' firmly and to say 'yes' openly. She boldly points us toward hope that everyone can look forward to. It can be a good reminder for parents who are tearing their hair out over their children who are no longer the same. It reminds us again that we need to learn when to hang on and when to let go. Only through wisdom and discernment, and gentle reflection on what has happened, can readers walk the fine balance of 'light and tight' parenting. This book gives us the balancing rod as we walk the tightrope.

As one who is constantly on a lookout for good materials to bridge the generational divide, this book is certainly an important resource for parents in this increasingly complex world.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Moody Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All views expressed are mine unless otherwise stated.

Monday, April 23, 2012

"Spiritual Leadership" (Henry and Richard Blackaby)

TITLE: Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God's Agenda
AUTHOR: Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2001, (308 pages).

This book is a classic. It is a no-holds-barred expose on the perils, the disappointments, and the immense challenges facing leaders, especially those intending to lead according to what God has intended them to lead. The constant messaging in the book is, "Spiritual Leadership is not an occupation: it is a calling."

It begins with a recognition of the challenges facing leaders. Not only are they constantly questioned by their followers through skepticism or a failure to meet expectations, leaders question themselves too about their sense, their purpose, and the meaning of spiritual leadership. The  Blackabys recognize that even secular leadership materials, like Harvard Business Review, point to some forms of Christian leadership. The problem about leadership in society is not a lack of leaders but a lack of understanding of Christian principles in leadership. This is where the authors seek to place this book.

Using Jesus as a model example, they redefine the purpose of spiritual leaders as moving people toward God's agenda in 5 ways:

  1. "The spiritual leader's task is to move people from where they are to where God wants them to be."
  2. "Spiritual leaders depend on the Holy Spirit."
  3. "Spiritual leaders are accountable to God."
  4. "Spiritual leaders can influence all people, not just God's people."
  5. "Spiritual leaders work from God's agenda."

Through the life of Abraham, one is prepared to be a spiritual leader beginning with one's ordinary self and heritage, learning from failures, building spiritual landmarks, experiencing God's redemption, learning by experience, living by faith, braving the tough, demonstrating the faith, obeying God, and subsequently cultivating friendship with God.

Spiritual leaders will play a major role in vision setting. The authors highlight 6 wrong ways before pointing out the essential way to set vision toward God's agenda. Firstly, one cannot set a vision purely on the basis of something visible, because vision has more to do with invisible future rather than meeting an immediate goal. Secondly, leadership is not about duplicating success but thoughtful innovation in the light of God's agenda. Thirdly, it is not to feed inner vanity but God's purpose.  Fourthly, it is not need-driven, but dependent on calling. Fifthly, it is not simply due to the availability of current resources, but the vision will drive the organization to seek out whatever resources necessary, including the existing ones. Finally, leadership is not leader-driven but God-led. It is not focused on a small vision but dedicated toward a large one. I The authors have this special word for churches.

"While churches are sensitive to the needs in their communities, a need expressed is not the same thing as a call by God." (61)
They have a word for parents too.

"For example, when parents run their families by worldly standards, their children may experiment with the temptations of the world. The parents may believe what they need is a community center to keep their teenagers off the streets. In reality, what they need is to have Christ as the head of their home and to raise their children using God's standard instead of the world's. Need-based visions not only allow unregenerate people to set the agenda for churches, but they also tempt churches to focus on symptoms rather than causes." (62)

Well said.

On character, the authors warn of the illegitimate sources of influence like position, power, and personality. Often these clouds out God's authentication, encounters with God, character and integrity, to develop a successful track record of depending on God, and the need to prepare one toward God's agenda.

On purpose and goals, they point out three 'misguided goals' that are based on 'bottom-line mentality,' 'perfection,' and 'bigger, faster, and more.' Instead, the three 'worthy goals' are firstly to lead people toward spiritual maturity, leading people to lead, and leading in a way that brings glory to God.

On influence, leaders need to pray often, work hard, communicate well, serve others,  and maintain positive attitudes. The section on how to communicate is a tremendous resource for all communicators.

On decision-making, the most important task is not to make right or wrong decisions, but to be prepared to bear the consequences of any decision made. They provide four guidelines on decision making.

  1. Letting the Holy Spirit guide them through prayer, the Word of God, and discerning circumstances;
  2. Teachability
  3. Aware of their history
  4. Accountability to God
Spiritual leaders will manage time wisely through scheduling, and their understanding of God's will helps them say yes or no to various demands. They cultivate healthy routines, delegate appropriately, and apply focused concentration to the most important tasks.

Finally, the Blackabys give ample warnings on the pitfalls of spiritual leadership. They highlight ten of the most common pitfalls.

  1. PRIDE that take credit from others, that makes one unteachable, leading to a increase in self-sufficiency and a decrease in compassion for others.
  2. SEXUAL SIN: where 5 safeguards are not practiced. Safeguards of accountability, heeding own's counsel, contemplating consequences, developing healthy habits, and prayer.
  3. CYNICISM that continually concentrates on the negative that they lose sight of the positives and the big picture.
  4. GREED of money, possessions, power, that distracts the leader from the real important goals.
  5. MENTAL LAZINESS where people are 'intellectually stagnant' and never start growing.
  6. OVERSENSITIVITY in which people cannot handle criticism, and are unable to take opportunities to learn from constructive criticism, and easily discouraged by negative remarks.
  7. SPIRITUAL LETHARGY in which people forgo the time with God and mainly works on a get-things-done mentality.
  8. DOMESTIC NEGLECT where one neglects the family.
  9. ADMINISTRATIVE CARELESSNESS where basic fundamentals of administrative efficiency are compromised. This is especially in the area of conflict resolution and communications within and without the organization.
  10. PROLONGED POSITION HOLDING in which some leaders stay too long on their positions and prevent newer people from stepping in.
Thankfully, the authors conclude not with pitfalls, but the rewards of a spiritual leadership that honours God and moves people toward God's agenda.  They point to two kinds of rewards. The first kind are the tangible rewards like monetary, legitimate power, respect and prestige. The second kind focuses on five types of spiritual rewards. Firstly, it is a reward of God's affirmation and calling. Secondly, it is the integrity at home, at work, relational, and self. Thirdly, the reward of contribution to people, to organizations, and to the next leader in line. Fourthly, the rewards of relationships in family and friends. Fifthly, the rewards of influence.

Closing Thoughts

This is a very comprehensive book on spiritual leadership. If Oswald Sanders's book of the similar title has done for his generation in the 60s-80s, the Blackabys have done the same for the generations beyond the 80s. With the many stories, illustrations, and wisdom of real life examples, the individual points are communicated clearly and powerfully. The authors have not only given readers a broad range of leadership material, they have helpfully reminded all leaders past, present, and future, or leaders to be, that leadership is not about us or the organizations we serve in. Leadership is beyond just seeing the big picture. It is living beyond ourselves by looking at the world from God's perspective. It is replacing worldly goals and agendas with God's agenda. It is not about moving up the hierarchy of power and prestige but moving people along toward God's will and purposes.

This is what spiritual leadership is all about. I recommend this book highly for students of leadership, existing leaders, teachers, trainers, and anyone concerned about the quality of leadership in any organization.

Rating 5 stars of 5.


Monday, April 16, 2012

"Just Walk Across the Room" (Bill Hybels)

TITLE: Just Walk Across the Room: Simple Steps Pointing People to Faith
AUTHOR: Bill Hybels
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006, (224 pages).
ISBN: 978-0310-27218-2

This book invites Christ-followers to walk as Jesus walked, and talk as Jesus talked. It is based on evangelism up close and personal, to be willing to step out of our comfort zones, to learn to strike up a conversation creatively, to use our life stories in the faith talk, and to adopt different methods for different people. The key idea in this book is to see evangelism as natural as possible, and as personal as possible. Experiencing God with others is not that difficult once we are able to create circles of friendliness and genuine love.

Beginning with a look at how Jesus ministers to the people then, Hybels notices the apparent natural and non-manipulative ways of Jesus. Jesus was able to strike up normal conversations with people from all walks of life. After going through some of the 'evangelistic fads' over the past few years, Hybels opts for the need to live in the Spirit, and to move in the Spirit in our evangelism. He offers the 3-D model:

  1. Develop Friendships;
  2. Discover Stories;
  3. Discerning next steps.
It is important to be able to tell our own story first. After opening up a conversation, Hybels gives four criticisms of how some good stories can go bad. Some Christians tend to be long-winded that they lose their audience. Secondly, they are too fuzzy in their messaging that listeners lose the point. Thirdly, some Christians use too many 'Christian' language that non-believers find hard to understand. Fourthly, some Christians come across as arrogant in their sharing. Hybels suggests the following:
  • Keep it brief: Brevity
  • Keep it clear: Clarity
  • Keep it simple: Simplicity
  • Keep it humble: Humility.
I like the three illustrations he gives about why people come to Christ.

  1. Bridge Illustration: Jesus is the bridge to link people to God
  2. Do vs Done: We are saved by grace, and need to simply trust God's work already 'done' on the Cross.
  3. Morality Ladder: Why try to bridge the gap on our own good works? 
In learning how Jesus evangelizes, Hybels learns several lessons. Firstly, see how Jesus is able to bridge the gap between God and the hearers. Secondly, notice how Jesus asks questions out of ordinary circumstances. Thirdly, see how Jesus is patient with the Samaritan woman. Fourthly, learn from Jesus how he manages to stay on track, and not be easily distracted by the words of people. Finally, see how Jesus gives hope to the hopeless. The way Hybels highlights Greg Ferguson's song, the 'Peacemaker' is brilliant. 

This book can be used in small groups because every chapter ends with a set of discussion questions. It can also be used as an idea generator for evangelistic training. It deserves to be one of those books on any Church's library, especially the outreach section. 

I highly recommend the book for its simplicity, wisdom, and very practical steps to practice walking our faith and sharing the gospel.