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.


Monday, April 9, 2012

"The Gift of Years" (Joan Chittister)

TITLE: The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully
AUTHOR: Joan Chittister
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Bluebridge, 2008, (226 pages).

This book is a gift for all ages. For the young, it is a gift of illumination about what all persons will eventually go through. For the old, it is a gift of knowing that the greatest value we have is our beings. Chittister was 70 when she wrote this book. In fact, she even called herself young! It reminds me that age is very much heart-based, rather than counting the number of wrinkles on our skin.

In the book, Chittister encourages readers, especially the older ones, to embrace their aging years, seen often as the golden years. Instead of feeling more helpless about physical abilities, or hopeless about future possibilities, readers are urged to enjoy the years through avoiding burdens and accepting blessings. The book essentially goes through every detail of life, like a zipper joining two seams together.  Through 40 meditations, Chittister masterfully begins with a quote about old age from a famous person. She then explains the reasons that often weigh old people down, that old people are either sour or serene. After describing the often downward pattern of thought that makes people sour, she moves toward giving hope, saying that we need not remain depressed or sad. All it takes is a change of perspectives. While understanding the physical limitations, older folks need to remember that their spiritual discoveries are in the horizon. Life after retirement is not doom and gloom. Instead, it is the blooming of wisdom, and room to grow in a different way. In a nutshell, Chittister suggests:

  • Aging is a gift to be embraced; not burdens
  • Aging is a special period, a beginning of a new phase
  • Aging is beautiful especially in the spiritual realm
  • Aging is not old but a new way of life
  • Aging is purposeful
  • One can grow old gracefully and gratefully.
My Thoughts

I like the way Chittister display her understanding of the aging psyche. She accompanies the reader like a careful listener, discerns the paths like a wise sage, and shows the way like a reliable compass. Each of her meditations is conveniently summarized in terms of burdens and blessings. After showing the ways that can make one sour or serene, she offers the reader an opportunity to say yes to the new opportunity to grow. Every page oozes with wisdom. Every emotions is thoughtfully phrased. Every common symptom of aging is recognized but not denied. This book itself is a gift to the aging community. At the end of the book, Chittister shows us again that death is not something to be feared. The symptom of good aging eventually lies in our outlook at the end of our lives. Aging well does not mean living in fear of dying. In aging well, we will look serenely forward to be joined with our Creator, trusting in God's perfect time. There is no fear, only love. 

This is one of the best books on aging well. It is well written without theological jargon. It has great wisdom and spiritual guidance. Above all, it gives hope to a new way of living. I highly recommend this book for all readers.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


Monday, April 2, 2012

"Life of the Beloved" (Henri J. M. Nouwen)

TITLE: Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World
AUTHOR: Henri J. M. Nouwen
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1992, (122 pages).

Henri Nouwen is well known for his short books but deep reflections on spirituality. In this book, Nouwen touches on one of his favourite topics: Becoming loved as the beloved in Christ. Based on a friendship that Nouwen has with a young journalist called Fred, Nouwen sees the common refrain in living in this secular world.

"I believe that people can make choices and make them according to their own best aspirations. I also believe that people seldom make these choices. Instead, they blame the world, the society and others for their 'fate' and waste much of their life complaining." (13)

What Nouwen is trying to point to is that while we cannot tell the world how to behave, at least we can live in a manner that does not let the world tell us how to behave. Our desire for friendship, for greater intimacy with people should not be based on the agendas that secular living offers us, but on our recognition that God is in control, and we are God's beloved. The book is then divided into three categories; 1) Being the Beloved; 2) Becoming the Beloved; 3) Living as the Beloved.

Part One - Being the Beloved
Being the Beloved means recognizing God's gift of love to us. The world's default is basically rejection of us until we are found worthy of its standards and values. God's default for us is acceptance of us in Christ, regardless of how well we perform in the world's stage. This is the essence of being the beloved. By depending on the world means slavery to the world. By depending on God means freedom from the world.

Part Two - Becoming the Beloved
Nouwen then moves to describe what it means to become the beloved.  It is not just a lofty idea or plan, but an exhortation toward living it out all of our lives.

"Becoming the beloved means letting the truth of our belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do." (39)

One of the ways that Nouwen emphasizes is the need to respond to the Spirit's Work in our lives through four ways: 'taken, blessed, broken, and taken.' All of this happens within the remembrance of the Lord's Supper, the highlight of our spiritual practice. The first step in becoming the beloved is to be TAKEN, chosen by God. All of us need to hear the assurance that God has chosen us for who we are, and not what we do. The world tends to be destructive in its treatment of us. What are some of the ways that the world tries to take us away from God? I paraphrase Nouwen's three guidelines in the 3Ds below.

  1. Destructive Control: The world manipulates, controls, and makes us hungry for power which eventually destroys our true selves.
  2. Distracts Our Identity: The world tries to label us otherwise, seducing us to reject our real selves in favour of something artificial.
  3. Delusions about Entitlement: The world deludes us into thinking that we are entitled to worldly stuff. Instead, we ought to learn to oppose such secular delusions by being grateful.

The second aspect of becoming the beloved is BLESSED. The world tries to motivate us through fear, anxiety, and some sense of insecurity. Instead, living spiritually in a secular world is to remember we are already blessed in God. Like children being blessed by parents, we can in turn bless others as blessed people ourselves. Nouwen offers two further suggestions on how to bless and be blessed.

  1. Prayer Constantly. Whenever we feel the world pressuring us to conform, pray. Wait for the Spirit to move in our hearts, and instead of becoming victims of the tyranny of the urgent, and worldly expectations, we become victors when we become agents of blessings.
  2. 'Cultivation of Presence:' Being attentive to one another is increasingly difficult in a busy and distracting world. Do we pay attention to those who are needy? Do we recognize the need to be patient? Have we taken the time to just relax and enjoy God's creation, instead of the daily hustle of rush and hush?
The third aspect of becoming the beloved is BROKEN. Each of us are unique and no one brokenness can be compared with another. Nouwen writes:

"Our sufferings and pain are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives; rather, they touch us in our uniqueness and our most intimate individuality. The way I am broken tells you something unique about me." (71)

The world is a broken world, and tries to drag us into a spiral of destructive brokenness. Nouwen makes two suggestions to tackle this.

  1. Befriend our brokenness: It is part of our identity. Do not deny ourselves the time to 'befriend it.' For Nouwen, when we embrace our brokenness as a part of ourselves, we know ourselves better, and we appreciate our uniqueness more. The world tries to tell us a good life is a happy life. No! A good life is a life that embraces the essence of our joys and our sorrows, our pleasures and our pains, our ups and our downs.
  2. Put Our Brokenness Under a Blessing: It is not a curse. In fact, this second suggestion underlines the first. Learn to make plans to address our pain in a meaningful way, rather than outright rejection of it. Like every failure is an opportunity to learn what not to do in future.
Fourthly, just as Christ gave of himself, we the Beloved ought to be GIVEN.  The greatest fulfillment for each of us is to give our ourselves. Nouwen suggests two ways to give.
  1. Giving in Life: Here we learn to use our gifts and talents for the benefit of our community.
  2. Giving in Death: Strange though it may seem, this suggestion basically means that all of our life is actually to prepare ourselves for a good dying. Like Jesus whose purpose on earth is to die that the world may live, we too are to adopt an attitude of keeping the end in mind. This is what makes the spiritual life so much more powerful and meaningful than the world of secular living.
Part Three - Living as the Beloved

This part essentially summarizes the whole book, that we ought to live as the beloved in both life and in death. We do not belong to this world, so why live according to the values of this world? We are blessed from above, so let us live as blessed from above. We are sent out into the world, and we ought not to live worldly.

"What I want most to say is that when the totality of our daily lives is lived 'from above,' that is, as the Beloved sent into the world, then everyone we meet and everything that happens to us becomes a unique opportunity to choose for the life that cannot be conquered by death." (108)

I highly recommend this book. It is a simple but powerful way to resist the ways of the world but to live as Beloved sons and daughters of God in this world.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.