Friday, July 29, 2011

Book: Out of Solitude

TITLE: Out of Solitude - Three Meditations on the Christian Life
AUTHOR: Henri Nouwen
PUBLISHER: Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2004.

Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian LifeThis is one of my favourite books on solitude and spirituality. First given as sermons at Yale University's United Church of Christ, it is a profound reflection on the need to find contentment in God alone. The deceptively simple book contains much solid food to chew on. In it, Nouwen urges us to:

  • Be aware that our personal worth is simply being who we are, and not what we do;
  • Trust God to show us our true selves, instead of seeking approval constantly from people around us.
  • "A life without a quiet center easily becomes destructive." (25)
  • Caring is more important than curing.
  • In a lonely place, we not only find God, but ourselves.
My Comments
Nouwen writes in such a simple manner that one can be forgiven for reading it too quickly. He first contrasts our modern world of action and busyness with quietness and solitude. He identifies us as victims of seeking value in terms of success, and our desire to be useful. 

"In this success-oriented world, our lives become more and more dominated by superlatives. We brag about the highest tower, the fastest runner, the tallest man, the longest bridge, and the best student. (In Holland we brag in reverse: we have the smallest town, the narrowest street, the tiniest house, and the most uncomfortable shoes.) But underneath all our emphasis on successful action, many of us suffer from a deep-seated, low self-esteem and are walking around with the constant fear that someday someone will unmask the illusion and show that we are not as smart, as good, or as lovable as the world was made to believe." (23)

We need to disconnect any link between self-esteem and the accomplishments we do. Enters solitude. With solitude, we learn to:
  • unmask any possessiveness in us;
  • we recognize that without a quiet center in us, we can easily become destructive to others as well as self;
  • Seek God more in earnestness;
  • be able to grow old and go slow without constantly asking if we have been useful enough;
His second meditation draws a sharp contrast between curing and caring. We need to move away from a 'curing' mentality toward a 'caring' disposition. He makes this insightful observation about our modern life.

"How can we be or become a caring community, a community of people not trying to cover the pain or to avoid it by sophisticated bypasses, but rather to share it as the source of healing and new life?" (41)
"Although it is usually very meaningful to call on outside help, sometimes our referral to others is more a sign of fear to face the pain than a sign of care, and in that case we keep our greatest gift to heal hidden from each other." (42) 
Nouwen's third meditation covers expectation from God and community. We need to anticipate God in solitude and in community. It is centered in expecting God to do what He has promised to do. This expectation is lived out in patience, in joy, and in trusting upon God's timing.

"To wait patiently therefore means to allow our weeping and wailing to become the purifying preparation by which we are made ready to receive the joy that is promised to us." (55)

Personally, I find this section most powerful.

"That is the greatest conversion in our life: to recognize and believe that the many unexpected events are not just disturbing interruptions of our projects, but the way in which God molds our hearts and prepares us for his return. Our great temptations are boredom and bitterness." (56)
Slow and steady reading of this book is most necessary. Do not rush. Do not read the book too quickly lest you miss the gems that are only visible through intentional, prayerful and thoughtful reading.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book: "Extreme Church Makeover"

This review was first published on YAPDATES here.

Title: Extreme Church Makeover
Author: Neil Anderson & Charles Mylander
Published: Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2005

Extreme Church MakeoverThis is a book about revitalizing Church. The key theme of this book is that every church that is entangled in conflict and disunity can be redeemed through an 'extreme' makeover. Riding on the success of the previous book: "Steps to Freedom in Christ," the same formula that enables individuals to be liberated is applied to a larger body, namely the church. In other words, the key to any makeover is firstly to 'resolve personal and spiritual conflicts' (7). The challenge is to uncover past hurts and make brave leadership decisions to address them head on. One of the key observations is that 85% of churches surveyed are 'spiritually dead and bearing no fruit at all' (11).

Typical of Neil Anderson's stance, the book relies heavily on recognizing the spiritual forces that lurk underneath any church body conflict. That is the reason for the large emphasis on prayer throughout the book. Anderson and Mylander are spot on in terms of identifying root causes. What are the elements of makeover?

- Protection from the evil one;
- Be rooted in Christ;
- Clear understanding of what is destructive and what is constructive;
- Clear Understanding of roles of pastor, board, members and leadership;
- Leadership as a function of 'leader, follower and situation';
- Ministry Model that incorporates Cause-Community-Corporation enclosed together via "Communion in Christ.'
- Healing bad memories and tough with past sins;
- Leadership

The part I like is the Cause-Community-Corporation model, which was credited to Jim Dethmer's "Moving in the Right Circles" published in the Fall 1992 edition of Leadership Journal.
Communion - described as the ethos of every member and leader of the church to center their lives on Christ;
Cause - Sharing the good news with people local and abroad;
Community - celebrating relationships;
Corporation - wisely administering the resources God has given.
The last segment on leadership is perhaps one of the most crucial. Members of the church must be free to discover their true identity and freedom in Christ. Leadership must provide space and let individuals be free and honest with themselves and the church, without fear or favor. Clearly written, one of the most helpful parts of the book is the leadership strategy portion. The five strategies of Planning, Praying, Preaching, Involving Other Leaders and Active Discussing among members sum up the way to approach a Church makeover. Leaders must be empowered to lead. Followers need to trust and support the leaders as much as possible. Ultimately, any efforts to revitalize the church is not easy step-wise formulas but tough meticulous steps toward self-discovery, corporate trust and constant prayerfulness against the spiritual powers of the world, and the lusts of the flesh.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Book: "Let Your Life Speak"

AUTHOR: Parker Palmer
PUBLISHER: San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of VocationThe author writes this book as a personal pilgrimage through not one but two deep depressions in his life as a writer, teacher, and activist in issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He begins the book with a statement: “Asking me whether what I have done is my life”. His words throughout the book emanates with painful reflections of his struggles to be honest with himself as well as the frustrations with well-intentioned people giving him counsel which only served to depress him further, like Job with his four friends. His main point is that: The voice of vocation does not come from outside but from inside.

In a compelling personal testimony about his depression, he shares about his progression from “wearing other people’s faces” toward becoming the authentic self, to listen to his inside voice. He is quick to point out that there is no self-hood outside of relationship, and that only when by knowing one’s inner voice can one embody the great commandment to love both neighbour and self. His journey does not come easy. It is via a year-long sabbatical in a Quaker live-and-learn community that leads him to a transformative experience. This Quaker experience that taught him guidance is not simply a matter of doors being opened for him. Doors that close behind him can guide as well. Yet the depression remains.

In the deepest and darkest moments of depression, as he hit muddy ground he discovers that humus (latin for decayed organic matter), is the root for words like humility and humiliation. With elegant reconciliation of his experiences, he begins to see himself as a person of weakness AND stength, liability AND giftedness, darkness AND light. Collectively, to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it. Thus began his path of recovery. His eventual understanding of depression is memorable:

“Depression was, indeed, the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand – the ground of my own truth, my own nature, with its complex mix of limits and gifts, liabilities and assets, darkness and light. ” (67)

The rest of the book is imbued with a beautiful sense of waiting, hoping and ultimate splendour of joy. Palmer uses the four seasons to describe the journey of life. The decline of Autumn, the deadness of Winter and the romance of Spring all work together towards an abundant summertime harvest of happiness and joy. Summer is a season where the promissory notes of autumn, winter and spring come due. In summer, it becomes easy to forget that before summer, was the awful process of the previous three seasons. Death is finally understood to be a legacy to the community of abundant life.
Parker takes great care to explain that probing inwards towards self, or selfhood is not the same as selfishness. Neither is it egoism nor egotism. The reason for this emphasis is to counter the modern belief that trusts more the power of external realities rather than the power of inner life. In this sense, it is more of striking a proper balance rather than mere crusading for inner living.

This book has touched the lives of many, including this reviewer. Vocation is not something that people bother to consider as seriously as what Parker did. Even the word ‘vocation’ has too often been equated wrongly with a job or a career. A job is something one do for a living. Vocation is much more than that. It is a calling, a listening for the voice within, a recognition of who one really is, and an honest affirmation that the life before it can be lived, has to be heard first from within.
This book not just for those seeking to understand their vocation in life. It gives the reader an insight into one person’s journey through depression. Ultimately, it is an honest book that refuses to wear the mask of others. It is a book where the author hoped that people will learn to treasure their most important gift: True Self.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Book: "The Grace of God"

This book review was first published on YAPDATES here. I warmly recommend this book for your reading and practice.


Book Review: "The Grace of God" (Andy Stanley)

TITLE: The Grace of God
Author: Andy Stanley
Published: Thomas-Nelson, 2010.
Reviewed by: Conrade Yap

The Grace of GodThis is by far one of the best books on the subject of grace. Arguably, it can be even be ranked together with Philip Yancey's "What's So Amazing About Grace?" Deeply biblical, highly applicable and wonderfully quotable, Stanley has given the Christian public a wonderful and important gift with insights on God's grace in the Old Testament and the New Testament. He starts off well by addressing the position of grace.

"When we are on the receiving end, grace is refreshing. When it is required of us, it is often disturbing. But when correctly applied, it seems to solve just about everything. Contrary to what is sometimes taught, the opposite of grace is not law. As we will discover, God's law is actually an extension of grace. The opposite of grace is simply the absence of grace. " (xiii)

What the Book is About

Grace acknowledges both the seriousness of sin, as well as the magnaminity of grace and mercy. The whole Bible is in itself a Tour de France of grace. Stanley highlights the essence of grace through the biblical characters of Adam, Abraham, Judah, Joshua, Rahab, David, Jonah, Nicodemus, Samaritans, Paul and others. He packs his insights by allowing the reader to walk their doubts alongside. Gently, like popping the lid of a coffee can, he acknowledges the hard Mosaic laws God seems to demand out of the Israelites. Then he guides us to appreciate the aroma of grace coming off the laws of God, to reveal the heart of the law: God's grace. One of my favourite quotes deal with the purpose of discipline, and how God's law is an extension of grace.
"To a child all discipline feels like a curse, but to the parent, it's a way to teach two important lessons: disobedience has consequences, and obedience leads to freedom." (15)
My Comments
I love the way Stanley weaves in his interpretation of the Old Testament narratives through the lens of grace. He makes the ancient Old Testament books come alive with fresh and modern new applications. One of my favourites is the way he expounds the Ten Commandments.

"... the Ten Commandments do no stand in contrast to grace; they are introduced within the story of God's grace." (53)
For those who sees the Old Testament as a rigid rule book, it will be important to remember that the Israel of old does not have any laws like we do in modern times. In other words, at a time when Israel is in disarray and without law and order, God by his grace and mercy gave them laws to keep their own house in order. Giving the law is an act of grace.

Personally, I think that while Stanley does well in the Old Testament exposition on grace, the part from the New Testament is not as strong, except for the final chapter on the parable of the Prodigal Son. This last chapter, "How Sweet the Sound" is worth the price of the book. Now I learn to read that parable as the parable of the two sons instead.

This book is definitely my book of the month for November.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin Communications, IncAvailable October 2010 at your favourite bookseller."