Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The year gone by

Looking back, I realised that this has actually not been an easy year for me. In fact, I suspect, in different ways all of my family has not had it easy at all. Even at this present moment, as one or two readers of my blog may know, I'm currently in the midst of a challenging situation.

But looking back, I am also truly thankful to a gracious God who watches over me. I am thankful that he chooses to be patient with those who are slow, i.e yours truly. He is there. I know suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life, but I think too that genuine hope is part of that same fabric. I was thinking tonight what it would be like if there was no God, and I simply found that vision despairing. But there is a God!

So here's to 2009. I know Christmas is over, but since I haven't wished my readers merry Christmas yet...Merry Christmas! And have a happy New Year too! See you in 2009.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Simple Truth

God doesn't think you're awesome.

He doesn't. He is not "enthralled by your beauty."

He sees you as you are: broken, sinful, hard, selfish.

And he loves you anyway.

That makes him the awesome one, not us.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
- Romans 5:8

: Jared Wilson
Really liked this short post. Profundity in simplicity, and a great reflection during the Christmas season.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lists! Glorious lists!

The New York Times has offered theirs. So has Amazon. And the Economist. Not forgetting popular Christian blogger Tim Challies. Yes folks, it's that time of the year again where top 10 (or 100, or whatever number you like) list-making is in fashion, and the bibliophiles are out in force.

To be honest, I can't remember off-hand every single book I read this year, much less compile and rank them. So instead I thought I'll just offer a short annotated list and categorise them to the best of my ability. Remember, this list doesn't mean I endorse completely all the books mentioned!

Page turner of the year: The Curse of Chalion - Lois McMaster Bujold
This was probably my favourite read of 2008. A thoroughly enjoyable fantasy romp with a very likable hero and - very important for a fantasy novel - a well-imagined world which sucked you right in.

"Worthy" novel of the year: The Echo Maker by Richard Powers and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Both were among the (allegedly) more weighty works I tackled these year and I can't really decided between the two, both prize-winning novels which were critically-acclaimed. The former deals with the aftermath of an accident which leads to one of the characters suffering from Capgras Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which the sufferer is unable to recognise his loved ones. The latter deals with a disastrous sojourn in the Congo by a missionary family in the middle of the 20th century. Both thought-provoking in their own right.

Novel (Honourable mention): Death of a Red Heroine - Qiu Xialong
Couldn't quite decide what category I should put this under but it merits a mention. It's a detective novel set in Shanghai in the early 1990s, as well as a vividly painted picture of modern China. I certainly won't mind picking up the 2nd book in this series!

Mind-bending book of the year: The Stuff of Thought - Steven Pinker
No question, this book was easily hands-down the one that made my brain ache the most. Pinker tackles stuff like the relationship between words and thoughts, language and space-time, why some names are popular and so on. He's a very, very good writer, and he explains things well, but the concepts he deals with are innately difficult so ouch!

Inspiring read of the year: Faith that Endures - Ronald Boyd-Macmillan

Best Christian living book: You can Change - Tim Chester
Clear and simple, but gets at the heart of our ongoing struggles with sin. This and Kris Lundgaard's The Enemy Within will probably be the first two books I recommend to any Christian on day-to-day living.

Best "old" book: The Doctrine of Repentance - Thomas Watson
C.S Lewis once advised, if I remember correctly, that for every three 'new' books you read, you should read an 'old' one. So I tried to, and set a low target of two 'old' books for the year, defining 'old' as anything that predates C.S Lewis. I failed miserably, as this was the only 'old' book I read, so it wins by default. Still, it's a good one. Written in 1668 by a Puritan, and pretty accessible; my edition was, anyway. If you can read C.S Lewis you can certainly read this. It has a certain weightiness to it that is missing from many contemporary books. Next year: I'll see if I can finally get round to G.K Chesterton's Orthodoxy!

Best Christian theology-type book: The Worshipping Trinity - Robin Parry
Now this was hard, but I guess this one edges ahead of the competition: concise, instructive and a joy to read. Parry shows how the Trinity is fundamental to our faith and to Christian living. There were some other very good ones as well. Tim Keller's The Reason for God is superb and I would love to have my own copy. I enjoyed what little I read of Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope as well as the lesser-known 666 and all that by John Dickson and Greg Clarke.

Commentary: Colossians (NIVAC) - David Garland
I actually did use a few commentaries this year, and though I'm still very much a novice at learning how to utilise them for maximum benefit, thought I'll create a category for them. Garland's Colossians commentary seems to be close to what I think you want in this type of work. He discusses issues well, lays out the options and defends his position clearly. I also read two very good expositions this year - Roy Clements on 2 Corinthians (The Strength of Weakness) and Sinclair Ferguson on Ruth (Faithful God). And I think I will be going back to Michael Bird's introduction to Paul, A Bird's Eye View of Paul.

The one that got away: The Bible and Other Faiths - Ida Glaser
I regret not finishing off this series, and I'll see if I can. But this was definitely a thought-provoking read, especially her insights into the links between gods/powers-people-land.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Book Recommendation: Faith that Endures

Faith that Endures - Ronald Boyd-MacmillanThis is my most inspiring read of the year. And I had not even heard of it just over a week ago! I was on a weekend away last week, and upon perusing the little book table, this one leapt out at me as it was the only title I didn't recognise. I picked it up, read a couple of pages, then read a few more pages, and before I knew it I had forked out my chequebook! But it was worth it. I finished it in 3 sittings - utterly compelling and challenging.

Ronald Boyd-Macmillan is a long-time journalist and researcher with Open Doors International, having also worked for a couple of other news organisations and seeing the persecuted church up-close. Faith that Endures bills itself as "The Essential Guide to the Persecuted Church", and Boyd-Macmillan seeks to answer 5 questions:
  • What does contemporary persecution look like?
  • What is a persecuted Christian?
  • Where is the persecuted church?
  • How can we best assist the persecuted church?
  • What does the persecuted church have to teach us?

    So it sets itself pretty lofty standards! But Boyd-Macmillan rises to the challenge admirably. It is a remarkable blend of even-handed reportage, incisive analysis, and passionate exhortation. He takes us on a tour of places like Kurdistan, India and China to give us a flavour of persecution today. He then deftly navigates his way through the current literature on the subject, as he thinks through both legal and biblical definitions of what "persecution" means. This is one thing I especially appreciated about his work. His style was readable and clear, but I had no doubt that the author had done his homework; I could feel the weight of learning.

    The persecuted church is bigger than we think, and Boyd-Macmillan takes us through the different regions of the world. How, then, can we help the persecuted? This section is a good example of the nuanced approach with which Boyd-Macmillan approaches the issues. He shows how often well-intentioned Christians can do more harm than good, as well as the politicised nature of the NGO world. He helps us see two sides to each tactic ("Bible-bombing", for eg.).

    Also, he helped me see the importance of keeping informed. I discovered, to cite one instance, that my assumption that state churches in China were banned from preaching the 2nd coming of Jesus was at least a decade out of date. There was also a very moving account of how, upon meeting some of the Chinese church leaders, they broke down in tears when the author gave thanks to God for the revival in that nation. Astonished, he asked them why. Their reply was instructive: "we often ask God, why he has given us more converts than we are able to disciple!" I thought that was a very insightful and mature perspective on the biggest revival in modern history, given that in Matthew 28, Jesus asks us to go and make disciples, not converts. Finally, there is a section on learning from the persecuted church, and he rounds up by providing an informative annotated bibliography.

    Another thing I really appreciated about his work is how often he tries to set things in wider context. So he is keen to emphasise that for every dazzling story of martrydom we hear, there are so many more ordinary stories of endurance that we might not know about this side of heaven. For some of the persecuted, deliverance from their suffering might never come in this life. Indeed, to focus only on the more sensational stories is to distort the true picture. Nor is it always true, he contends, that the "blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church". There are times where it has had adversely negative effects. But it wakes us up to the reality of what it means to take up our cross to follow Jesus and reminds us that in all things, we can trust that God will be with his church.

    Sure, I wish there was more explicit engagement with biblical texts at times, but that's a minor point. This has got to be currently the best one-volume work on the persecuted church. But sadly, it's not well-known at all. I hope blogging about it would go a tiny way to rectifying that situation.

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