Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Biography of J. I. Packer

I've always enjoyed biographies. The best ones tell the story of a person's whole life, not just the moments they were famous for or the times they did something that received worldwide attention. In fact, some of the best biographies I've read were about people I knew little about.

Take the book J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken. I had read some of Packer's books, and I knew that he was British but lived in Canada. Thanks to Ryken, I know a little more about the fascinating man who wrote Knowing God and whose contributions helped provide one of the clearest evangelical statements on the inerrancy of Scripture, the English Standard Version, and the ESV Study Bible. Events during Packer's childhood directed his life toward academic pursuits. His emphasis on ministry and his concern for the church at large heavily influenced his writings and the audiences he targeted with them. His involvement in controversy was borne out of deep conviction, which in turn encouraged others to take similar stands for the faith.

Ryken is a gifted communicator, which one would expect from a professor of literature. His talent combined with the interesting life Packer has lived combine to produce a tribute to the man and an appreciation of who he is and what he has done. Packer is interesting. Ryken is a good writer. That alone should warrant a look at this biography. Add a good narrator like David Cochran Heath, and you have something to listen to as well.

I received the audiobook from christianaudio in order to provide this review.

A Great Textbook Survey of the New Testament

Kregel's What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About is a survey of the New Testament in a textbook layout like you'd find in a high school entry-level college course. I'm finding it useful for gaining an overview of larger chunks of Scripture and recognizing the big picture the New Testament authors are trying to paint, which can often be lost in books and sermons that attempt to skip straight to application without fully understanding the text.

Rather than following the traditional book order of the New Testament, the chapters of this book are arranged around the various authors, which means Luke and Acts are treated consecutively, as are John's Gospel, his epistles, and Revelation. It's a novel idea, but somewhat unnecessary; the New Testament is mostly arranged by author.

As a textbook, What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About hits a home run. Each chapter begins with a summary of the main headings. Key words are identified in bold font and listed in a review section at the end of the chapter. Tables summarize data (like major sections of a book) and pictures help illustrate main ideas (like where the sermon on the mount may have taken place or what the shore of the Sea of Galilee looks like). I also appreciate the spacious margins on every page perfect for taking notes.

It's the kind of textbook I would love to teach out of. I only wish it came with more teaching resources, like chapter questions or tests and quizzes. I'd highly recommend it for use at a Christian school, but as a preacher and teacher of the word, I'm finding it useful in my own study and preparation as well.

I requested a copy of this title from the publisher in order to provide this review.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Dinosaurs, Science, and the Bible

I’ve been a fan of dinosaurs ever since I was a kid. One of my earliest memories is my fourth birthday when I got two large plastic dinosaurs: a stegosaurus and a brachiosaurus. As an adult, my interest in dinos has waned with the exception of a Jurassic Park movie now and again, but Dinosaurs: Marvels of God’s Design reminded me of why I found them so fascinating.

Dr. Timothy Clarey, a former professor of geosciences and current staff member at the Institute for Creation Research, has put together a mini-textbook of sorts chock full of pictures and diagrams pertaining to dinosaurs. The book is visually stunning and my children, aged 4 and 2, like looking at the pictures with me. It’s very much like some of the better quality magazines I used to get in the mail that coupled graphics and articles in such a way as to keep all ages interested.

Dr. Clarey writes as one who believes in a literal seven-day creation as described in Genesis, but his aim isn’t merely to argue for a young earth. He presents the prevailing views of the secular scientific community along with his arguments for his own convictions, which leaves readers well equipped to engage others who aren’t operating from a biblical worldview.

As the title suggests, most of the book focuses on these amazing creatures we call dinosaurs. The author gives special attention to various species, genera, families, and orders of dinosaurs, such as the famous T. Rex, Sauropods, and the Ankylosaurus. I had never thought about how scientists estimate their weight or determine bite strength, but Dr. Carey explains not only how, but highlights key historical developments that led to the techniques used to make these estimates.

Dinosaurs truly are marvels of God’s design, and this book justifies it’s title.

I received this book from the publisher in order to provide this review.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What happened after Acts? Some answers are out there...

Have you ever heard that the apostle Peter was crucified upside down? That Paul was beheaded? That Thomas was a missionary to India? Where did these stories come from, and, more importantly, are they true? Because the New Testament is so shy on details about the lives of these and other prominent figures, it wasn’t long before more and more stories appeared to fill in the gaps. Bryan Litfin, professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, shares these stories with us and tries to separate fact from fiction.

I’ve heard many people—pastors, Sunday school teachers, professors—talk about some of these stories, but I didn’t have any basis on which to accept them as true or deny them false. Litfin has done the homework for us, explaining where the stories came from, including when and where they appeared and how likely they are to be true. In fact, each chapter ends with a report card of sorts, grading the credibility of various claims. The evidence for some claims, like that Peter was buried in a grave now located beneath the alter of St. Peter’s Basilica, was surprising (it’s very likely where he was buried).

After Acts is written for everyone. It’s not overly complex or full of jargon and footnotes. Although he does use some endnotes, they’re relegated to the back of the book to avoid any distraction from the reading experience. I’d recommend it for adults and even high school students. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Christian schools have incorporated it into their curriculum. I’m hopeful that this book could serve as a gateway to further study into the history of the church after the time of the apostles.

I received this book from Moody Publishers in order to conduct this review.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Not all pastors like counseling. This book might help with that.

Anytime I see the IX Marks logo in the upper left-hand corner of a book cover I make some assumptions about the content of that book. I assume it will offer practical guidance on ministry from a solid theological base. I assume I'll know more and feel better equipped for service once I'm done reading it. I make these assumptions because my past experience with IX Marks titles has consistently delivered on these features, and The Pastor and Counseling is no different.

The book is coauthored by Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju, but I didn't notice any significant distinction between writing styles, and I wouldn't be able to guess which chapters were written by whom. Both voices have blended into one, which makes for a positive reading experience you expect from reading a book by a single author.

Counseling is scary. I should know. I'm a pastor, and I've had many opportunities to meet one-on-one or two-on-two with people facing various life situations. Not having had any formal training, it's easy to believe that I have nothing to offer. But God's Word is sufficient to guide our faith and practice, both when gathered as a Christian community and when out and about in the world around us. If you are already operating from a Christian worldview, you're well on your way to being able to counsel others. What this book offers is a framework for counseling.

My prior experience with counseling has been somewhat haphazard and disorganized. I've seen many people blessed in spite of that, but I want the counseling I provide to be more helpful and purposeful than it has been. Pierre and Reju have given me the tools to do that. They divide their book into three parts. The first part looks at the purpose of counseling and reminds you that we should have a goal and an ascertainable end to the counseling. The second outlines some useful advice on the process from start to end. The third piece talks about how the church body should be involved, and how a pastor should handle bringing outside parties (like medical professionals) into the process. They round out the book with appendices including checklists, background forms, and a method for note taking.

I'm glad this was my first primer on biblical counseling. Doubtless there's much more to be learned, but starting well is important for ending well, and I can't think of a better place to start than with The Pastor and Counseling.

I received this book from Crossway Books in order to provide this review.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A book for seminarians who aspire to be pastors

I saw the title and I was intrigued. The Secret Life of a Pastor (and other intimate letters on ministry) sounded like something up my alley. I'm a bivocational pastor, and this book looked like an exposé, a confession of sorts, about the challenges and joys of being a pastor. As I opened the book, I was a little disappointed. Rather than finding pages of personal anecdotes, I found instead a series of letters from a pastor and seminary professor to his students. Perhaps they should have dropped the words "secret" and "intimate." Or maybe I should have just read the back cover ;-).

My disappointment was due to my misplaced expectations about the subject matter. After getting over that, I found the book full of practical guidance and reminders about what pastoral ministry is all about. It was very encouraging, and I expect that it will be helpful to the book's target audience: young seminarians who aspire to become vocational ministers at the conclusion of their studies. Pastoring is not just about preaching sermons and teaching Sunday school lessons. Pastoring is a relational job. It can become overwhelming, especially for young guys who've been sheltered from "normal life" living on a Christian campus for a few years. Men with experience who take time to write books like this are needed and welcome. Transitioning from student to pastor can be bumpy and fraught with failure for those who don't have good, godly men speaking into their lives. This book helps those seminarians wade into the responsibility of being a pastor.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of providing this review.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

October in Review

October started with a late 4th birthday party for Abigail with her friends and their parents. One of my earliest memories is from my 4th birthday, and the celebrations with both sets of grandparents and now with her friends gave her ample opportunities to retain something for the rest of her life. It’s scary to think that she’s to the point where she will start holding permanent memories.

We took the kids to the pumpkin patch at Tuttle’s Orchards to select their pumpkins and load up on apples. We even ran into one of my students from church (small world). I transformed Lukas’s pumpkin into Boba Fett, a character from Star Wars, and Hannah made Abby’s into Hello Kitty.

Both Abby and Lukas enjoyed being outside, and now that we have to wear coats on some days, we’re reminded that winter is on its way. Trips to the park are extra special as we get to enjoy the fall colors while watching our kids step out and do things they’ve never done on their own before. Both kids have no fear on rock walls, ladders, or stepping stones.

We’ve also started doing more inside activities like puzzles, memory games (Lukas is still learning that one. He either wants to flip over all the cards, or he wants to flip over the same two every time).

I enjoyed teaching the youth at church as we work our way through the book of Daniel. One weekend we hosted our second annual youth Oktoberfest including corn hole, ladder golf, a giant-sized Connect 4 (courtesy of my dad), and bobbing for apples. I always enjoy spending time with these “kids” who are only three to thirteen years younger than me.

I got in touch with my creative side this month, making miniature Star Wars spaceships and putting hooks on them to turn them into ornaments. Maybe I’m just antsy before the baby comes in November. Hannah finished up working at Wee Care Preschool and is officially on maternity leave. Let the nesting begin!

Our church recognized us both for Pastor Appreciation Month, including a generous monetary gift and a trip out to a nice restaurant. Hannah and I feel so blessed to be part of this community, and we know that we’ll need that support when Natalie arrives next month.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Some Star Wars: The Force Awakens theories that are actually plausible

It seems like everyone has a theory about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Some of these garner attention in the news and social media. Most have either been stated a dozen times already or are so far-fetched that it's not even worth the time it takes to read them. Mine are different for two main reasons:

  1. They are fairly unique
  2. They are graded. A = very likely, B = likely, C = possible. Why would I bother sharing a theory that was doubtful?
Without further ado, here are my theories:

1. Kylo Ren is tasked with retrieving Anakin Skywalker's lightsaber as a rite of passage into the Knights of Ren. It's fairly well established that Kylo is after the blue lightsaber, but so far, no one has expressly stated why, except to say that there's a bit of a Darth Vader cult obsessed with getting all his paraphernalia. I'm surprised I haven't seen it making the rounds on the internet, but it makes sense that Kylo must retrieve the lightsaber as his rite of passage to become a full Knight of Ren, just as Yoda told Luke Skywalker he had to face his father to become a full Jedi Knight. J.J. Abrams already revealed that Kylo is not fully formed and that his path is similar to that of Luke Skywalker. Final grade = A.

2. The main character of the trilogy is Rey, not Finn. The first character who appears in the first teaser trailer for The Force Awakens is Finn, suggesting that this film is about him. Rey appears to be helping him in the second trailer, and the third glimpse we've had of Finn shows him wielding Anakin Skywalker's blue lightsaber. Everything we've seen suggests that he's the hero. But Disney has been purposely keeping us in the dark about the plot, so we can't trust our eyes until we have a longer trailer or, more likely, until we see the film in theaters. Kathleen Kennedy, President of Lucasfilm, has gone on record stating that the trilogy follows the Skywalker family. It's possible Finn is related to the Skywalkers, but doubtful, given that he'd either have to be adopted or of mixed race to be related to Luke or Leia. Rey is much more likely to be a Skywalker, and shooting for Episode 8 has already placed her and Luke Skywalker together, probably for her training as a Jedi. I anticipate that Finn will be the center of attention in Episode 7, but that he will either be wounded or die at Kylo Ren's hand in the snowy woods, whereas Rey will come out towards the end of the film to show she is indeed both a Skywalker and strong in the force. Final grade = B.

(On a side note, some have suggested that Kylo Ren is the next Skywalker, and that his story arc will be more or less the inversion of Anakin Skywalker's in the prequel trilogy. This too is possible, but not as likely as Rey being the heir. If he truly is a Skywalker, I expect that he and Rey will be revealed to be siblings in Episodes 8 or 9. I give this theory a grade of C.)

3. The Resistance is just that, a resistance movement. This theory comes in two flavors. In the first,  the Rebel Alliance eventually fought to a standstill with the First Order (Empire) and then signed an armistice agreement to end hostilities. In the agreement, some star systems were ceded to the First Order. Those who had been loyal to the Rebel Alliance felt betrayed by their cause and formed a resistance movement to continue the fight. In the second, rather than star systems being ceded, the First Order lay dormant for some time and has recently reopened hostilities. Through their blitzkrieg tactics they've occupied multiple star systems. Thus arose a resistance movement. I'd like to give this theory a B, but since there's been nothing explicitly stated about this, I'm afraid I don't have any evidence to support it. Final grade = C.

4. We will see a return of the Mandalorian armor. Now that Disney has retconned the entire Expanded Universe, including the part where Boba Fett escapes from the Sarlaac, we have no idea if he or anyone else will be showing up in that armor. Since it was featured in both the original and the prequel trilogies, as well as a female version in Star Wars Rebels, don't be surprised if we see that armor again. I'd give it a D (doubtful) for showing up in The Force Awakens, but there's a good chance we'll see it in Episode 8. Final grade = B.

Depression is not incompatible with Christian experience

David Murray offers sound Christian insight into depression (and mental health issues in general) in his book Christians Get Depressed Too. The “too” in the title points to one of his main purposes in writing the book, namely, to show that depression is not incompatible with Christian experience. It serves as a defense against approaches to depression that treat it merely as a sin to be repented of rather than a complex issue that is often affected by genetics, the environment, thinking patterns, and (sometimes) sin.

In it, Murray addresses various approaches to depression and mental health within the church, arguing that depression is more complex than some well-meaning pastors and counselors have stated or implied. Using statistics, anecdotes, reason, and Scripture, he shows that depression may stem from multiple causes, and he provides guidance to both those who suffer from depression and those who would provide care to them on how to go about identifying the cause(s) and planning a route forward. This might seem like an overly ambitious goal for a book that’s barely a hundred pages long, but Murray has done it. The end product is something people struggling with depression can actually read and find hope in, as well as something counselors, pastors, friends, and family can use to get on the right track in providing help to others. It may be succinct, but it is not incomplete.

I personally benefitted from it during the week it took me to finish it. I was having a very stressful and difficult time at work, and listening to the book on the way home helped me see how work was affecting my attitude, thoughts, and feelings. Rather than sink towards depression, I found myself uplifted, more self-aware, and ready to tackle my responsibilities because of the book. Like so many others who’ve weighed in on the book, I heartily give my recommendation.

I should add that the audiobook is read by David Murray himself, and if you’ve ever heard him, you’d know he has a Scottish accent. If you enjoy listening to Alistair Begg on the radio, you’d probably enjoy hearing Murray’s narration as well.

I received this book from christianaudio in order to write this review.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Peru is less than a year away

Next year I will be participating in a mission trip to northern Peru in a small town called Chazuta. The trip runs from October 8-15, 2016, so we're now officially less than one year away!

While I'm in Peru I'll be helping to train pastors from all over the countryside. We'll be teaching on prayer and giving a survey of the New Testament. This is one of over ten such trainings conducted over multiple years to bring a solid theological education to those who wouldn't have the opportunity to get one otherwise.

I've already been thinking about how I can prepare myself for this trip, even this far in advance. Since prayer is one of the areas we'll be teaching on, I've been praying about the trip in general and the pastors in particular. I've also been praying for good weather. This area of the country is prone to rains and landslides that can dump large boulders on the mountain roads. It can also dump those same boulders on people traveling those roads. God alone determines if, when, and where they will fall, so I appreciate your prayers on my behalf. If this week's weather is any indication of what I can expect next year, it's looking hot. It was 96 degrees yesterday, and all next week is looking like rain.

In addition to prayer, I'm seeking financial support from anyone who feels inclined to give. In my last post I shared how you could give through my church. You can still do that, or you can give directly through the mission agency, Reaching & Teaching International Ministries. Either method is tax deductible.

Checks can be sent to:

Reaching and Teaching
PO Box 122
Wheaton, IL 60187

Just be sure to include a note (not on the check) with my name and "Chazuta October 2016 Trip"

A more convenient method is giving online either by an electronic funds transfer from your bank or by credit card. Simply include my name in the comments field.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

September in review

September is our family month. Hannah and I went on a date to see an Indianapolis Indians baseball game. Despite a one-hour rain delay, we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves. We left in the seventh inning to pick up the kids, but the break after such a busy month in August was welcome.

Mid-month we packed everyone up and traveled to Michigan to see family. This will be our last trip up north before Natalie is born in November. The trip worked out better than we planned because my employer asked me to speak at a careers event at Ferris State University, so my mileage was covered, and I didn’t have to take as much time off. We went to a corn maze with my parents, my sister Alyssa, and her husband. It took us a while, but we made it through without getting too lost. A friend of Hannah’s mom invited us to an estate sale and we ended up shelling out some money picking up tools, toys, and other miscellaneous items. Before the weekend was over we celebrated Abby’s fourth birthday early with both sets of grandparents.

There were a bunch of birthdays to celebrate this month. We went to Munro Lake to celebrate the birthday of one of Abby’s friends, and later in the month we went to a Minion-themed party where I created a “Minion-melon.” I can’t wait to test out my skills on Jack-o-lanterns. Although Abby’s birthday party in Indianapolis wouldn’t be until October, we ate cupcakes and gave her some presents on the 30th.

At church the youth group was treated to two self-defense classes from a couple from church who hold black belts in Tae-Kwon-Do. The husband also teaches hand-to-hand combat in the military. I preached at Enfoque and after the service Hannah was treated to a baby shower by the women at church. It’s hard do believe the due date will be here in less than two months.

Finally, I signed up for a mission trip to Peru in October 2016. I’ll be training pastors in a remote area of the country. Most of these pastors haven’t had any formal training outside of this program, so this trip is an opportunity for me to share what I’m learning in seminary with men who can use it for the betterment of themselves and their congregations. I appreciate your prayers. If you’re interested in learning about the trip or how you can support me, please click here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

I'm going to Peru!

Training site in Chazuta, Peru
I’m happy to announce that, Lord willing, I’ll be travelling to Chazuta, Peru, in October 2016 on a one-week mission trip with Reaching & Teaching International Ministries.

Chazuta is a small community on the eastern side of the Andes mountains. Pastors from as far away as a week’s journey by trail and boat will be coming there for the week of October 8-15, 2016, for an ongoing training program that began in 2013. I along with others who go on this trip will teach a survey of the New Testament, the personal spiritual discipline of prayer, and an advanced course for those who have completed the basic program.

I encourage you to watch this Youtube video from a trip in October 2014. This is what I’m getting myself into.

My focus right now is on praying over this trip. As a matter of fact, please pray for the trip right now, and if you can commit to it, include it in your regular times of prayer.
I’ll be making a concerted effort at fundraising closer to the New Year, but if you’d like to get a head start and donate towards the cost of the trip ($2400, including airfare), you can do so by sending a check to

Fall Creek Baptist Church
8901 Fall Creek Road
Indianapolis, IN 46256

Please put on the check that it is for the “Peru Mission Trip—Andrew Wencl.”

I’ll also be working on getting in shape for the trip and developing some outdoorsman skills that may be useful in that area of the country. I’ll chronicle my efforts on those fronts closer to the New Year as well.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

3 Christian martyrs in Malatya

On April 18, 2007, three Christian men were tortured and killed by five young men in Malatya, Turkey. I remember seeing the story in the news. It was terrible and tragic, but there was little information beyond the fact that they were stabbed multiple times and some generic language about religious tensions in Turkey. I knew three men were killed. I knew that they were targeted because they were believed to be Christians. I couldn’t say anything for certain beyond that. Now, after reading Martyrs of Malatya, I know them as Necati Aydin, Uğur Yuksel, and Tilmann Geske, brothers in Christ. They had lives of their own—stories of their own—before the events of April 18, 2007.  This book tells their stories.

The author, writing under a pen name, originally wrote the book for distribution in Turkey. Because of the cultural dominance of Islam, as well as suspicions that missionary activity is orchestrated by Western intelligence agencies to undermine the religious, social, and political unity of Turkey, Wright is careful to show how these men were motivated by their love for Jesus and their desire to see the Turkish people know about Jesus’s love for them.

The author’s purpose for the book was not solely for evangelism and defending Christian witness in Turkey. He also wanted to make sure these men were known and remembered by Christians who may have seen the headlines, but didn’t know who these men were. I’ve always enjoyed biographies. Our routine day-to-day activities distract us from the greater picture of our lives. Biographers show us that our lives are much more meaningful than we often realize. And as significant as the martyrdom of Necati, Uğur, and Tilmann was, their lives were even more significant. It is hoped that their deaths will result in more people coming to Christ than before. I hope that their lives, as recorded in this book, will result in more believers taking a bold stand for the gospel.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of providing my review.