Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Midweek Meditation: "Wisdom of the Desert 2"

TITLE: The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century (Shambhala Library)
AUTHOR: Thomas Merton

PUBLISHED: Boston, MA: Shambala Publishers, 2004, (128 pages).

Who are the desert fathers? In the fourth century, these people could be found in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, and Persia. They were people of faith who left their cities so that they could venture into the wilderness to be closer to God and cultivate simple practices of the faith. They strive for purity of hearts. In this series, we will be dealing with hermits rather than cenobites. The selections are based on Thomas Merton's book entitled, "The Wisdom of the Desert."


Wisdom from Abbot Pastor

"Abbot Pastor said: There are two things which a monk ought to hate above all, for by hating them he can become free in this world. And a brother asked: What are these things? The elder replied: An easy life and vain glory." (35)

"Abbot Pastor said: The virtue of a monk is made manifest by temptations." (57)

"A certain brother inquired of Abbot Pastor, saying: What shall I do? I lose my nerve when I am sitting alone at prayer in my cell. The elder said to him: Despise no one, condemn no one, rebuke no one, God will give you peace and your meditation will be undisturbed." (75)

"Abbot Pastor said: If you have a chest full of clothing, and leave it for a long time, the clothing will rot inside it. It is the same with the thoughts in our heart. If we do not carry them out by physical action, after a long while they will spoil and turn bad." (79)

"A Brother came to Abbot Pastor and said: Many distracting thoughts come into my mind, and I am in danger because of them. Then the elder thrust him out into the open air and said: Open up the garments about your chest and catch the wind in them. But he replied: This I cannot do. So the elder said to him: If you cannot catch the wind, neither can you prevent distracting thoughts from coming into your head. Your job is to say No to them." (83)

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Monday, January 15, 2018

BookPastor >> "The Altars Where We Worship" (Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, Mark G. Toulouse)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on Feb 21st, 2017.

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TITLE: The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture
AUTHOR: Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, Mark G. Toulouse
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, (225 pages).

It has been said of the Israelites who had left Egypt: "You can take Israel out of Egypt, but you cannot take Egypt out of Israel." This parallels the way Christians interact with the world. We can take Christians out of the world, but we cannot take the world out of a Christian. John Calvin once called the human heart as an "idol factory." The war against idolatry and the worship of idols continue to be fought through the centuries. In ancient times, we have the idols of Arianism, Dualism, Stoicism, Gnosticism, Dualism, and other deceptive philosophies. In modern times, we encounter more of the same in the form of individualism, consumerism, materialism, narcissism, and in the words of the authors of this book: "Altar-ization." While six different kinds of altars are mentioned, they all symbolized the reality of the world today: We are building altars faster and greater than ever before. This is troubling. More troubling is that we worship after what we built. Even the "religious vs secular" divide has an altarization bent. The key thesis in this book is that religions are not declining, but flourishing, albeit in different contexts. Authors Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, and Mark G. Toulouse propose six manifestations of such religious practices, sparking each issue with with a provocative question.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Midweek Meditation: "Wisdom of the Desert 1"

TITLE: The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century (Shambhala Library)
AUTHOR: Thomas Merton

PUBLISHED: Boston, MA: Shambala Publishers, 2004, (128 pages).

Who are the desert fathers? In the fourth century, these people could be found in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, and Persia. They were people of faith who left their cities so that they could venture into the wilderness to be closer to God and cultivate simple practices of the faith. They strive for purity of hearts. In this series, we will be dealing with hermits rather than cenobites. The selections are based on Thomas Merton's book entitled, "The Wisdom of the Desert."



Three Kinds of Men

"Abbot Joseph of Thebes said: There are three kinds of men who find honour in the sight of God: First, those who, when they are ill and tempted, accept all these things with thanksgiving. The second, those who do all their works clean in the sight of God, in no way merely seeking to please men. The third, those who sit in subjection to the command of a spiritual father and renounce all their own desires." (32)

My Thoughts: Indeed, the first is about contentment in spite of illness or temptations. In an age where we are quick to find pain relief or unable to tolerate any kinds of discomfort, being thankful is an important spiritual discipline. The second is about our inner motives. Are we doing our best simply to please people? If so, it will be futile because we will be caught in an endless circle of competition when others do better than us. Seek God instead, who alone knows our needs and our makeup. The last one is obedience and speaks about humility. Perhaps, this third one is the most challenging of them all. Now, what if the three contradict each other? That would be interesting.

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Monday, January 08, 2018

BookPastor >> "Old Paths, New Power" (Daniel Henderson)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on Feb 8th, 2017.

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TITLE: Old Paths, New Power: Awakening Your Church through Prayer and the Ministry of the Word
AUTHOR: Daniel Henderson
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2016, (272 pages).

It's another New Year and time to make new resolutions. It is also tempting to ask ourselves what is the newest, the latest, and the greatest to shore up our work or activities planned for the year. With regard to the Church and the Christian life, it is doubly tempting to incorporate fresh new ideas to renew or revitalize the community. Instead, this book stops us on such a track and forces us to examine old paths instead of seeking new ways. It makes us ponder at the tried-and-tested disciplines instead of relying on the latest and the most novel options available today. Two words sum up the old disciplines needed: Prayer and Bible. It is most timely and timeless. Timely because of the relevance to the needs of today; Timeless because it is applicable throughout the ages. By re-examining the tenacity of the faith and practice of the early Church. While many of us in the modern Church tend to pray in the context of ministry, the early believers minister in the context of prayer. The difference is stark because modern believers treat prayer as a means to an end and practice it only as a department of the overall ministry. This is all wrong. It should be prayer as the context of all ministries. The same applies for the ministry of the Word. This principle is taken from Acts 6:4 which is about how the apostles said: "will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."


Wednesday, January 03, 2018

"Making Sense of God 6d" (Tim Keller)


TITLE: Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical
AUTHOR: Tim Keller
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Viking Books, 2016, (330 pages).

Who am I? Who are you? Often, the answer depends on our upbringing, our links to certain institutions, or our roles and titles. In non-Western cultures, people are identified through their connections with their communities. In Western cultures, this is reversed via "expressed individualism." While it may be overly simplistic, this offers us a glimpse into the differences in mindset that contrasts "self-sacrifice" from "self-assertion"; Keller even points out the hit movie Frozen's song that affirms the latter in Western culture. With secularism, the image of the modern man has become incoherent, illusory, crushing, and fracturing.

Question 6d: "The Problem with the Self: Question of Identity"
On Fracturing:
"In the last chapter we talked about how the secular view of freedom as the absence of restrictions undermines community. Taylor argues (and Bellah demonstrates) that the secular view of identity and self does the same thing. This view, argues Taylor, reduces relationships and community to things 'purely instrumental in their significance.' In traditional cultures our most crucial relationships are more important than our individual self-interest, because our identity depends on honoring the relationships. Therefore they are inviolate and we are solidly embedded in them. A traditional human community according to Bellah, was 'an inclusive whole, celebrating the interdependence of public and private life.'

But when, as in the modern approach, you bestow significance on yourself, then your individual interests are more important than any social tie. If a relationship is satisfying to you, you keep it only so long as it pleases you. 'It fosters a view of relationships in which these ought to subserve personal fulfillment. The relationship is secondary to the self-realization of the partners. On this view, unconditional ties, meant to last for life, make little sense. Human communities become thinned out into 'lifestyle enclaves' or 'social networks' in which people connect, flexibly and transiently, only to people like themselves. They relate to one another around similar tastes in music or food or common wealth status (such as in a gated housing development), but their private and public lives are no one else's business. It is well documented that under the conditions of the modern, individualistic self, social ties and institutions are eroding, marriage and family are weakening, society is fragmenting into warring factions, and economic inequality is growing." (131-132)


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Monday, January 01, 2018

BookPastor >> "Is Justice Possible?" (J. Paul Nyquist)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on Feb 1st, 2017.

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TITLE: Is Justice Possible?: The Elusive Pursuit of What is Right
AUTHOR: J. Paul Nyquist
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2017, (176 pages).

What is legal is not necessarily right. What is right is not necessarily protected by the law. Put it another way, just because we have a legal system does not mean we have a justice system With startling stories of unfair imprisonment, abuse of power, lopsided punishment, and lack of fairness in meting out the punishment, we are reminded once again how elusive justice is even in societies that pride themselves about their premier justice systems. Petty crimes get crushing punishments. Suspicions are tied more to skin colour rather than the evidence of the crime. Wrongful convictions get overturned without much compensation. It is entirely human to crave justice for we are born with that inner desire to seek fairness. Distinguishing between social justice and legal justice, author Paul Nyquist focuses on the latter mainly because it tends to be more neglected. He also limits his description to the American scene and seeks to give a Christian response. With the big picture about possibilities surrounding the issue of legal justice, readers can use four key questions to probe the main issue:

  1. What is Justice?
  2. Why is Justice Elusive?
  3. How Should we do justice?
  4. Will we ever see Justice? 


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"Making Sense of God 6c" (Tim Keller)


TITLE: Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical
AUTHOR: Tim Keller
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Viking Books, 2016, (330 pages).

Who am I? Who are you? Often, the answer depends on our upbringing, our links to certain institutions, or our roles and titles. In non-Western cultures, people are identified through their connections with their communities. In Western cultures, this is reversed via "expressed individualism." While it may be overly simplistic, this offers us a glimpse into the differences in mindset that contrasts "self-sacrifice" from "self-assertion"; Keller even points out the hit movie Frozen's song that affirms the latter in Western culture. With secularism, the image of the modern man has become incoherent, illusory, crushing, and fracturing.

Question 6c: "The Problem with the Self: Question of Identity"
On Crushing:
The problem with the modern self is:

"Ironically, the apparent freedom of secular identity brings crushing burdens with it. In former times, when our self-regard was more rooted in social roles, there was much less value placed on competitive achievement. Rising from rags to riches was nice but rare and optional. It was quite sufficient to be a good father or mother, son or daughter, and to be conscientious and diligent in all your work and duties. Today, as Alain de Botton has written, we believe in the meritocracy, that anyone who is of humble means is so only because of a lack of ambition and savvy. It is an embarrassment now to be merely faithful and not successful. This is a new weight on the soul, put there by modernity. Success or failure is now seen as the individual's responsibility alone. Our culture tells us that we have the power to create ourselves, and that puts the emphasis on independence and self-reliance. But it also means that society adulates winners and despises losers, showing contempt for weakness.

All this produces a pressure and anxiety beyond what our ancestors knew. We have to decide our look and style, our stance and ethos. We then have to promote ourselves and be accepted in the new space - professional, social, aesthetic - in which we have chosen to create our selves. As a result, 'new modes of conformity arise' as people turn themselves into 'brands' through the consumer goods they buy.
....

The self-made identity, based on our own performance and achievement in ways that older identities were not, makes our self-worth far more fragile in the face of failure and difficulty.

....

In the New York Times, Benjamin Nugent writes about the struggles he had when he was a full-time novelist. He says:
"When good writing was my only goal in life, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn't able to read my own writing well. I couldn't tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane. I lost the ability to cheerfully interrogate how much I liked what I had written, to see what was actually on the page rather than what I wanted to see or what I feared to see."
When his identity was based on being a good writer, it made him a worse writer. He announces at the end of the article that he doesn't base his self on writing anymore because he 'fell in love, an overpowering diversion.' But is the love of someone else a better basis for an identity?

....

If we base our identity on love we come to the same cul-de-sac that we saw with the novelist who got his identity from work. Just as he could not beat poor work, so we will not be able to handle the problems in our love relationships. The writer had to believe he is a great writer in order to be sane. We will have to believe our love relationship is okay - if it goes off the rails, we lose our sanity. Why? If our identity is wrapped up in something and we lose it, we lose our very sense of self. If you are getting your identity from the love of a person - you won't be able to give them criticism because their anger will devastate you. Nor will you be able to bear their personal sorrows and difficulties. If they have a problem and start to get self-absorbed and are not giving you the affirmation you want, you won't be able to take it. It will become a destructive relationship. The Western understanding of identity formation is a crushing burden, both for individuals and society as a whole." (128-130)


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