Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Midweek Meditation: "Bernard's 12 Steps of Spiritual Progress"

When we talk about spiritual progress, there is a lot of self-awareness going on. With ample self-examination and a desire to refuse to sin, one gets ready to climb up the ladder of spiritual progress, with God's help of course. Note the several instances of refraining, limiting, and self-control, that in itself is a fruit of the Spirit.


Step 1 - Love of God
Step 2 - Watchfulness over sin
Step 3 - Submission to Superiors
Step 4 - Patience in the face of accusation
Step 5 - Honesty in Confessing our sins
Step 6 - Refraining from taking the initiative to remove our sin (*)
Step 7 - Humility in the face of others
Step 8 - Refusing to assert any special rights
Step 9 - Refraining from speaking unless asked
Step 10 - Reluctance to laugh
Step 11 - Restrained speech
Step 12 - Limited expectations

(adapted from Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe's excellent work, Longing for God, IVP, 2009, p37)
(*) This means that one recognizes only God can remove sins.


Monday, February 24, 2014

BookPastor >> "Pilgrimage" (Lynn Austin)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on December 16th 2013. 


TITLE: Pilgrimage: My Journey to a Deeper Faith in the Land Where Jesus Walked
AUTHOR: Lynn Austin
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (240 pages).

Spiritual dryness is not something that is easily avoided. It comes in many forms. It can be boredom about the daily routines of life. It can be the staleness one feels about the weekly worship services. It can also be the increasing sense of restlessness about what the spiritual life actually mean and whether there is more than simply going through the spiritual disciplines. For many of us, a popular project is to take either a long sabbatical or a short retreat. For Lynn Austin, she decides to take a pilgrimage to and through the Holy Land where Jesus walked. Sharing many of the spiritual dryness sentiments described earlier, bestselling author Austin packed her bags to tour Jordan, Israel, various cities in the Middle East as well as the Wilderness of Zin.

With her keen sense of observation and her grasp of the Old and New Testament, she interleaves her sights and experiences of her travels with insights and perceptions of the ancient biblical times. Having done that, she then puts together lessons that touch her and reinvigorated her life and her faith. As she hikes through the wilderness of Zin, she experiences first hand the elements that the Israelites felt when they were struggling through their 40 years of wilderness. She becomes more sympathetic of the real struggles the people felt at that time. It reminds me of our tendency to become armchair critics of the Israelites without actually empathizing with their conditions. The call to faith is actually more challenging than we often think. Even the sight of shepherds leading sheep to graze on dry terrain and rough paths is a reality check against any simplistic picture of shepherds in the ancient times having large green pastures for sheep. Austin also relates the Israelites' crossing of an "unimpressive" looking Jordan River as a milestone to mark the end of their wanderings. It can also be a milestone for our Christian beginnings. Interestingly, despite the sight of the heavily armed security personnel and the sight of weapons, the paranoia and vigilance actually made the visitors feel safer.

Austin spends quite a bit of reflection on Jerusalem, a most important city among the three major religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Observing the nature of the walls that keep enemies out, Austin sees how futile it is to depend on the wall for security as history had shown that it is God, not the walls who has the power to save the city. Even her tour through the Pool of Siloam provides her lots of fodder for spiritual thoughts, about abundant water of life, about free flowing spring waters of life, and its spiritual implications. Of special significance is the Holy Week trek where Austin's tour group traces the days and places Jesus walked, leading up to the crucifixion. She closes her reflections with the Sabbath keeping, learning directly from the people there what it means to live leisurely and more humanly.

So What?

For many believers, it is not a question of whether there will be such lethargy but WHEN the spiritual dryness will occur. When that happens, how then does one deal with it? The popular biblical fiction writer has written a non-fiction book that traces her own spiritual pilgrimage and has given readers a window into her thoughts and her spiritual experiences. Just following her journey is like a mini-tour of the Holy Land without having to leave our homes. For those of us who are unable to journey to the Holy Land, this book is a good glimpse through the eyes of Austin. For those of us who experience spiritual dryness, we can visualize that the ancient pilgrims and Old Testament people are in a more challenging positions. For those of us needing a re-invigoration of spiritual vitality, this book brings us back to visualizing the ancient times and to imagining how we would have responded if we can transport ourselves back in time. The pilgrimage has given Austin a breath of spiritual freshness, and to excite her to start a new journey in her spiritual pilgrimage outside the Holy Land. There are three reasons why I like this book.

Firstly, it is a mini-tour guide of the Holy Land. It works like a literary video camera that traces the various landmarks and biblical places. For one who has never stepped foot on Israel, I appreciate the descriptions of the various sites that I have grown so familiar through reading the Bible, but have not seen the place for myself. It gives me a better appreciation of the Bible. For instance, when she was describing her tour of Jerusalem, I find myself grasping on her descriptions to try to paint a picture of what it actually looks like.

Secondly, I appreciate the way Austin links the places she saw with the biblical parallel of what had happened many years ago in the same place. It is one thing to read about the wall. It is yet another to be reminded how the wall had meant to the biblical characters of old.

Thirdly, the spiritual lessons Austin had learnt are powerfully conveyed in the book. Whether it is hunger or thirst; rough terrains or tough territories; towers, walls, or temples, Austin is able to reflect upon the most ordinary things with some extraordinary applications. For example, she reflects on the engineering wonders and the impressive projects King Herod had commissioned during his reign, and how his once prosperous city now had disappeared into the ruins of today. Earthquakes and the natural elements had devastated these symbols of human arrogance.

If you are able to, nothing beats the experience of seeing the Holy Land firsthand. If not, reading this book may very well be a helpful alternative.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Midweek Meditation: "Bernard's 12 Steps of Spiritual Demise"

What does it mean to love one's neighbour? It means knowing what it is, and what it is not. For this week and the next, we will be reflecting on St Bernard of Clairvaux's steps of spiritual demise and steps of spiritual progress. This week, we look at how one's spiritual demise leads to contempt for neighbour, contempt for one's superiors, and finally contempt for God.

Loss of love for neighbour

Step 1 - Curiosity
Step 2 - Light-mindedness
Step 3 - Foolish Merriment
Step 4 - Boasting
Step 5 - Trying to be Different
Step 6 - Arrogance

Contempt for one's superiors

Step 7 - Presumption
Step 8 - Self-Justification
Step 9 - Insincere Confession
Step 10 - Rebellion

Contempt for God

Step 11 - Feeling free to sin and creating habitual patterns of sin
Step 12 - Showing Utter Disregard for the Ten Commandments.

(adapted from Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe's excellent work, Longing for God, IVP, 2009, p36)

Monday, February 17, 2014

BookPastor >> "When the Heart Waits" (Sue Monk Kidd)

This review was first published on July 11th, 2010 at this blog. It has been slightly revised.

TITLE: When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life's Sacred Questions (Plus)
AUTHOR: Sue Monk Kidd
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, (240 pages).

This is a book to help us cultivate the posture of waiting. Throughout the book, the author uses the cocoon/butterfly metaphor to help readers understand the importance of waiting. In a society that tends to want quick results, fluttering butterflies are overwhelmingly preferred, and boring static coccoons are shunned. Her book covers four phases which parallels the stages of growth of a butterfly.

Phase 1 - Waiting and Transformation
Phase 2 - Passage to Separation
Phase 3 - Passage of Transformation
Phase 4 - Passage of Emergence

Essentially, this book is Kidd's way of getting in touch with our inner lives, to understand the 'deep and beautiful work of soulmaking' (ix).

Filled with personal stories as well as insightful lessons from children's tales like Rapunzel, Little Red Hen, and Chicken Little.  Her essence of waiting can be understood from her description about the three stages of waiting.
"Egypt, wilderness, and promised land are comparable to interior states of being: larva, cocoon, and butterfly. In both journeys - inward and outward - there's first a movement of separation, then a holding environment where transformation happens, and finally an emergence into a new existence." (78)
Another profound insight I find helpful is about how waiting and prayer are linked. She describes the observations of Eugene Peterson as follows:
"The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it." (Eugene Peterson, 129)

This is followed by a powerful learning point. Kidd writes:

"This is the motivation behind waiting prayer. We place ourselves in postures of the heart, in the stillness that enables us to become aware of what God is doing so that we can gradually say yes to it with our whole being." (129)

My Comments

Readers ought to take note of the 'When' in the title of the book. In contrast to the tendency to use 'why' like philosophy, or to use 'how' for practicality, the author truly embraces the essence of waiting through timing. Waiting is about timing and Kidd is spot on. Written from a personal perspective, Kidd combines a keen observation of the natural world, with a heightened awareness of the supernatural. The result is a powerful book that provides readers with help about spiritual direction, personal guidance and useful tips on how to cultivate a heart that waits. While Kidd may not have the philosophical brilliance like Simone Weil, or the classical insights of the Medieval writers like Julian of Norwich, her book fits in the genre of contemporary spirituality that the modern world so deeply needs. In this sense, Kidd's writings are a lot easier to read and comprehend, compared to the spiritual masters of the Medieval world. Having said that, Kidd incorporates a couple of references to these ancient masters of spirituality like Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Siena, and the desert fathers.

My favourite part of the book is "Quickaholic Spirituality." The biblical waiting portion is really good. She writes:
"If you want to be impressed, note how often God's people seem to be waiting. Noah waits for the flood waters to recede; Daniel waits through the night in a den of lions; Sarah waits in her barrenness for a child; Jacob waits for Rebecca's hand. The Israelites wait in Egypt, then wait forty more years in the desert. Later they wait seventy years in Babylonian captivity. Jonah waits in a fish's belly; Mary waits; Simeon waits to see the Messiah; the apostles wait for Pentecost; Paul waits in prison." (28-29)

If I have a critique of the book, it will be her almost uncritical way of taking in material from all sources. For instance, we see her soaking in Carl Jung's "Stages of Life" like a sponge. She does not explain the pros and cons, or the limits of applying Jung's theory. Anyway, I do not feel this is a major problem. The book has more positives that makes this book a worthy purchase. All in all, this book is a great resource to help us learn to wait and develop patience. The study guide at the end of the book is an excellent way for small groups to discuss the book's contents.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Midweek Meditation: Moving Valentine's Gift

This picture has gone viral. It is about the story of a woman receiving flowers from her husband, both in life as well as in death. While it is not exactly something that we can meditate word for word, the thought of how love can touch another person, both in life as well as in death is truly heartwarming. Perhaps, we can be led to pray for our loved ones.

Perhaps, it can remind us that love is eternal.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Puritan Beginnings: Harvard

"Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well that the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3), and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning." (Founding Members' Mission Statement for Harvard, 1636)

If I were to give you the mission statement above without telling you where it came from, chances are, you would have thought it is some Bible college or theological institution. No. It is that famous institute called Harvard. It reminds us that the mission of the world renowned Harvard University had Puritan beginnings? In fact, the purpose of Harvard was to train pastors, missionaries, and qualified clergy for the benefit of the community and society at large. Established in 1636, the records from Harvard archives had this to say:

"After God had carried us safe to New England and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God's worship, and settled the civil government: One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust." (link)
Nowadays, even in an Age of Google, it is very hard to find out the original mission statement of the early founders. Secularism and the plain refusal to give any prominence to God or its religious roots seem to be the default mode of the day. It is good to remember that Harvard has a Puritan beginning without which, she may not be where she is today.


Monday, February 10, 2014

BookPastor >> "Doing the Right Thing" (Scott B. Rae)

In a world that is increasingly more comfortable in choosing personal gains over community benefits, self-gratification instead of sacrificial living, self-honouring instead of God-fearing, this book is another attempt to show us that doing the right thing is not only beneficial for all, it is needful personally. A good neighbour will not only do the right thing, but will always choose the right thing, no matter what.

This review was first published on November 14th, 2013 at Panorama of a Book Saint.


TITLE: Doing the Right Thing: Making Moral Choices in a World Full of Options
AUTHOR: Scott B. Rae
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (192 pages).

This book reminds us that we live in a culture that practices values very contrary to biblical teachings. In fact, not only are they at odds with biblical principles, they are increasingly more aggressive at shutting down traditional values that have underpinned society's success for so many decades. In an age of compromise, we have failed to uphold our promises. In a frantic search for profits, we let ethics fly out the window. In an age of relativism, we lose sight of absolute truths that are so critical to maintaining a sense of doing the right thing. "Reason is indispensable" so says Scott Rae, in this companion book to the late Charles Colson's film series of the same name. For the purpose of this review, while credit goes to Scott Rae, it is good to know that many of the ideas originated from the late Chuck Colson, simply because the book is based on the film series.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Midweek Meditation: A Moving Story of a Nigerian Pastor

I came across this amazing testimony by a Nigerian pastor from the blog of Mark Meynell. It was so good that I just had to repost this.  Credits as indicated below.


The story concerns a young Baptist pastor, Sunday Gomna, who had been a student of Professor McCain’s, and led the church attended by him and his family. The church building and the pastor’s house were located in an area of Jos which was badly affected by the recurrent outbreaks of violence, and there had been much loss of life and destruction of property there. Danny McCain relates the story:
On the second Sunday of the crisis, which was the first Sunday we could go to church, pastor Sunday [Gomna] assembled his congregation in a little mud wall community center about one kilometer from the burnt church . . . The service was all in Hausa and my Hausa is very poor. However, I understand enough Hausa and the pastor slipped into English enough that I could understand what he said.

He said, ‘First, I am grateful that no one in my church killed anyone.” Certainly many Christians had blood on their hands. However, Pastor Sunday said that he had gone around through the community and some of the Muslim people said, “Pastor, thank you for the way you taught your people. Your people helped to protect us.’ So Pastor Sunday was proud that his people did not kill any Muslims. ‘Second, I am grateful that they did not burn my church.’ We all looked at him a bit incredulously. We were meeting in this little uncomfortable place because the church building had been burned. But Pastor Sunday continued: “Inasmuch as no church member died during this crisis, they did not burn our church. They only burned the building. We can rebuild the building but we could not bring back to life any of our members. So I am grateful that they did not burn my church.” He continued, “Third, I am grateful that they burned my house as well” He had been living in the parsonage [which] was burned with everything in it. Pastor Sunday continued, ‘If they had burned your house and not my house, how would ! have known how to serve you as pastor? However, because they burned my house and all my possessions, I know what you are experiencing and I will be able to be a better pastor to you. So I am grateful that they burned my house as well.’ To me these were amazing statements coming from a young pastor. And they were an illustration of the true spirit of Christ. Who can find fault with this kind of Christianity? This is not just a veneer of Christian faith over evil thoughts and attitudes. It is a true reflection of Jesus’ teachings. (Danny McCain, To the Ends of the Earth (Calabar, Flourish Brands 2010) 164-5)

Monday, February 03, 2014

BookPastor >> "Called to Serve" (Max De Pree)

TITLE: Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board
AUTHOR: Max De Pree
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001, (100 pages).

Have you ever wondered what a Board of Directors, a volunteer or non-profit organization do? How can they be more effective in their altruistic goals? What makes a successful nonprofit board? These questions are ably dealt with by one of the most respected names in the leadership arena: Max dePree. Known for his classic work entitled, "Leadership is an Art," DePree applies his knowledge and years of wisdom from the for-profit enterprise to the nonprofit organizations such as churches, charities, and other social causes. As money continues to pour into nonprofits, it is critical that there be increasing quality of management and leadership in them as well.

Written as personal letters to his friend, Verley, DePree talks about the eleven marks of an effective board as:

  1. Having a mission statement;
  2. Nurturing strong relationships with board members;
  3. Maintaining an understanding of the surrounding world;
  4. Planning well;
  5. Enabling competent and inspirational leadership;
  6. Cultivating growth in members of the organization;
  7. Giving wisdom, wealth, work, and witness;
  8. Maintaining intimacy with their responsibilities;
  9. Measuring and doing what it says it will do;
  10. Reflecting;
  11. Thanking.
A good board has a clear agenda. It needs to have a future orientation. It also has specific present responsibilities for each member. It needs to evaluate senior leadership in the organization so as to improve leadership performances. The Board's role needs to be strategic and reflective, based on the administrative information provided them. Board meetings need to engage all members. 

DePree talks about the design of the Board. Structures must be thought of not in terms of work to be done but what the organization wants to become. They need to be primarily concerned with people, followed by financial prudence and managing of both hard and soft assets. The chairperson mainly chairs the meeting. Unfortunately, many places tend to see the chairperson as President or Chief Executive. That will be wrong. The authority of the chairperson resides in the running of the meeting, keeping time, sensing members' moods, and so on.  The single most important thing any chairperson can do is to cultivate trust. This is done through two ways. The first is to express gratitude frequently. The second is to uphold accountability levels of all members. So important is the role of the chairperson that DePree allocates two chapters on it. He calls the act of chairing a prime example of servant leadership. Other roles of the chairperson include:

  • Building community
  • Designing agenda
  • Using a "bell curve" to know when is the optimum time for members' attention and discussion of important issues;
  • Communicating well;
  • Be Hospitable
  • Be an accountability leader.
Having said that, there is also a list of duties for members to remember for themselves; such as statement of expectations; enabling trust to the other leaders; giving space; providing care; and others. He ends with a personal story about his brother at Herman Miller, where he reminds us that when we implement things affecting any one particular group, always consult the people who will be most affected by any change. Let me close with this powerful quote about volunteering.

"There's a lesson here for all of us engaged in volunteer activities. Be careful not to give people too many reasons for reconsidering their calling. Consider deeply and meticulously why it is that so many people are called to serve others as volunteers. Never forget that non-profit work, like no other endeavour, engages our choice, our hearts, and our spirits." (91)

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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