29 November 2013

Falling from Grace by Keeping the Law

I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace.--Galatians 5:4 (The Message) 

Paul has been concerned about the addition of the law to grace in the Galatian church. Specifically, those who followed The Way but also wanted to add the Hebrew law (Judaizers) were telling them that they needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. Paul very firmly tells them, "No!"  

In Galatians 5:2-6, Paul tells them, "Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love."  

In other words, Paul is writing to them, "Listen up! I am telling you that if you try to follow the law to get right with God, you're in big trouble because not only will you be expected to keep those parts of the law that seem easy, you will be expected to keep all of it.  What's worse, if you rely upon your religious duty, you will be separated from Christ. What that means is that free grace, available only through Christ, will be useless to you. Those of us who are grace addicts know that the righteousness that we are waiting eagerly for comes only from him, not from our good deeds or bad."  

Don't believe for a moment that this problem was limited to the Galatian church. Most of us do this regularly. We think, if I just pray more fervently, God will bless me.  If I just read more chapters in my Bible, God will love me more. If I just become less critical or look at less porn or give more generously, more of his favor will come my way. Even after reading these life giving verses, some of us will turn verse 6 into a work, wondering exactly what we need to do so that our faith works through love. Paul is telling us, "No. Each of those are good things, but please do not believe that your hope lies in your behavior. It lies in his." It is his grace, not your behavior, that saves, empowers, motivates, and encourages.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.-Ephesians 2:8-9. 

27 November 2013

How He Loves

"That God, in eternity, looked upon me, forseeing my fallenness, my pride, my sin and said 'I want that man in my family. I would do anything to get him in my family. I will pay for him to be in my family with my son's life.' That's love folks. That is mega, off-the-charts love!"-John Piper

26 November 2013

Book Review: NIV Ragamuffin Bible

The NIV Ragamuffin Bible, published by Zondervan in 2013, is an NIV (2011) Bible with interspersed quotes, reflections, and devotions gleaned from the writings of Brennan Manning. Beyond the 66 books and Manning’s words, this is a pretty bare bones Bible. There is a list of the books, introduction, preface, and table of weights and measures. At the end, there is also a list of references to where each of Manning’s words came from.  

Much like Manning himself, I found this Bible difficult to categorize. It is not clearly a study Bible, nor a daily reading Bible. Perhaps the closest description that I could provide is that it is a meditational Bible. Manning’s ideas and understanding of gospel truths shine through in each of his additions. Jesus figures big in Manning’s thinking and on nearly every page, his focus on God’s graciousness through the person of Jesus shines through. In one of the first reflections linked with Genesis 22:1-19 entitled “Testing”, Manning wrote “Have you grappled with the core question of your faith, which is not ‘Is Jesus God-like?’ but ‘Is God Jesus-like?’ Do you comprehend that all the attitudes, values, qualities, and characteristics of my son are mine; that he who sees Jesus sees me, his father?” (page 25). 

I find Manning enigmatic. I was reluctant to read anything he wrote for many years because he was one of those “mystical” Christians. Then I heard that the late singer Rich Mullins was deeply moved by him, so I decided to read The Furious Longing of God and I was drawn in. Manning painted a beautiful picture of Jesus that I could stare at for hours. There were times when I would find myself scratching my head in wonderment asking, “is that right?” Regardless, in reading that book and several others by Manning, I have developed a deeper appreciation for God’s steadfast love toward me. This Bible, drawing from a lifetime of writing, helps the reader to see that grace as well.  

The version of the NIV Ragamuffin Bible that was graciously sent to me by the publisher was a hard cover, with stock paper, and a dust jacket. From the Zondervan website, it appears that it is also available in an ePub format and an Italian duo-tone (which would be my preference). The paper and print is clear. It is presented in a 2 column format.  The typeface is small, but it contrasts well with the page, improving readability. My preferences would be for a single column Bible with sufficient margin space to be able to jot notes if desired. Having said that, the Bible is relatively easy to navigate and read.

The Bible is presented in the NIV (2011) translation. Growing up, my first Bible was a NIV (1984) translation, which to my understanding was the most commonly used Bible for many years. The publisher went through a period when they updated to the TNIV, which modernized much of the language, and in short order (I presume due to the lack of popularity), released the latest rendition of the NIV. I believe it is an improvement over the TNIV, but most people will remain most familiar with the 1984 version. One of my particular concerns is how they chose to translate certain verses, which may change meaning. For example, in the original NIV84, Psalm 8:4 was translated “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” In the 2011 version, this was changed to read, “what is °mankind that you are mindful of °them, °human beings that you care for °them?”  My preferred version, the ESV, reads “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” You can see that ESV and NIV84 translate identically, whereas the newer version removes gender pronouns. 

Overall, I would recommend this Bible. I believe it would be a good Bible to use for a daily reading program. The interspersed notes from Manning would add some additional insight into the gospel of grace and would provide the reader with a sense of Manning’s writing. There are some subtle changes I would make to the Bible (larger margins, for example) and translation (perhaps the ESV) , but on the whole, this is a solid product from a respected publisher. 

*The publisher provided me with a complimentary copy of this book through BookSneeze® 

25 November 2013

Adoption Update: God is Real and Has Good Plans

My beloved writes fairly updates about our adoption journey.  Here were her thoughts from this morning.

Good Morning everyone,
Last night Jason and I were blessed with tickets to the Steven Curtis Chapman, Laura Story, and Jason Gray concert here in Eau Claire.  I sobbed the whole way through.  Jason Gray reminded me that our time waiting for our children to come home was not wasted time.  I so often think of all the time that we have missed with them has been wasted.  It is impossible for my brain to wrap my mind around the 3 and a half years that we have been matched with our kids.   Time we have missed. Yes folks we received their referral three and a half years ago!  In the spring of 2011 during a garage sale fundraiser we received their paperwork.  I never thought at that point that we would still be waiting for them to come home.  I wept thru this entire song.  God just totally opened the flood  gates of my heart to stop focusing on all that we have missed and thanking him for the time we have had with them and WILL have with them in the future!  So please watch this video because I am sure I am not the only one that this music will speak too.
Then Laura Story started singing and two sentences into this song I lost it again.  I have been trying to do this all on my own.  I have been angry at God for not working on my time table.  Again this will speak so many of you.

I have a renewed hope and strength to get thru these last few steps before my kids come home. 

Then during Steven Curtis Chapman's video on adoption he shared the story of a little girl with twisted legs like little Lili from our children's orphanage.  Some of you know her story.  Some of you know that I desperately want to bring her home to our family.  I think about the idea that if she is not brought to the United States she will spend her nights in the infirmary with the sick children and spend her days in wheelchair stuck in the main building with children 3 and under since she won't be able to get her wheelchair outdoors.  If she does go out of the main building she will have to drag her body across the hard dirt, rocks, or concrete.   Please pray that God will either move our family to bring her into to our family or to another family so that she can thrive and walk!   It is NOT God's plan for her to grow up in an orphanage!  

Then to finish me off last night they ended the night with worship music.  The song that God has used in my heart so many times in regards to our adoption is the one that says...Savior he can move mountains....I never remember the rest of the song but God moved MOUNTAINS of paperwork to bring Tessa home quickly.  Why God hasn't moved mountains to bring home Yoldine and Vlad I don't know and won't until we get to heaven.  However GOD WILL MOVE MOUNTAINS!  Our time waiting isn't wasted! Mostly my family and I will NOT have to do this alone!  Our God is with us and HE IS REAL and HE IS MOVING MOUNTAINS!

I am so thankful for God using these musicians to speak into my heart to encourage me thru these last steps.  Please be praying with us as we wait for these final steps to bring home our children.


22 November 2013

Giveaway! Mere Christianity

Fifty years ago today, CS Lewis, beloved author and apologist CS Lewis died, on the same day as John F Kennedy and Aldous Huxley. He left behind an a lasting, and important legacy and a library of important Christian writings. My friends at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview have been celebrating the life of CS Lewis this week and have allowed me to give away a copy of Mere Christianity, one of Lewis's best known books and an important read.

Here are links to a few of the Colson Center's articles this week.

CS Lewis, Head and Heart
Become a Narnian
Screwtape and Everyday Faith

To enter, comment on this blog post, retweet, or share this on Facebook.  I will choose the winner tomorrow!

Thanks to the Colson Center for generously providing for this giveaway. Be sure to check out there resources and consider signing up for the Centurions Program.

21 November 2013

The Mercy Tree

Book Review: The Narcissism Epidemic

The Narcissism Epidemic (2009) by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell is an important book. I first heard Twenge interviewed by Michael Horton on the radio program the White Horse Inn. She presented a compelling case for the growth of narcissism and its effects upon society.

This book explores the concept of narcissism and its growth, particularly in the United States using a disease model.  The book is organized into 4 sections: the diagnosis, the root causes of the epidemic, symptoms of narcissism, and prognosis and treatment.

It appears that narcissism is, in many ways, a product of the self-esteem movement gone awry. Psychological and educational programs that have attempted to foster self-esteem have sometimes gone too far, creating an environment of pandemic specialness. One of the authors young daughters made the astute observation that "if everyone is special, then no one is really special."  One of the songs sung at the school of Dr Campbell's daughter went "I am special/I am special/Look at Me."  In short, narcissism is a problem rooted in a sense of one's own specialness. 

I particularly appreciated section 2, which dealt with root causes of the epidemic. The authors provided example after example of frankly horrifying examples of narcissism. In parenting, there is a growing emphasis on being child-centered, often relying on children to be decision makers in the family. Parents glorify their children through buying them expensive things and calling them "princesses."  Even at the college level, parents are confronting faculty members and advocating for better grades for their deserving, special children.  But this is problematic. The authors commented that "thinking you're great when you actually stink is a recipe for narcissism."  In addition to parenting methods that foster narcissistic traits, the celebrity focused culture (think Miley Cyrus), social media (Facebook, YouTube), and the credit crisis have all contributed to our senses of being exceptional.

In the third section, they described symptoms of narcissism, which include: vanity, materialism, uniqueness, antisocial behavior, relationship troubles, and entitlement. It felt like I was reading a list of the 7 deadly sins or something akin to it.

In the final section, they provide specific recommendations for how we as a society and as individuals may respond to this crisis. For example, helping our children to develop an accurate, rather than inflated, self-image is helpful. Encouraging them to develop social interest rather than excessive self interest is essential.  I particularly liked their recommendation near the end of the book to consider a Fair Tax model of taxation. I would not have made the connection to narcissism, but I think they are right. 

I had just a few concerns about the book. In a few different places, they linked narcissism to global warming and environmental destruction. This seemed like a stretch to me and that they were looking for a way to bring this issue to the table. I also disagreed with some of their parenting recommendations, but that is more closely linked to my worldview and my understanding of the psychological research than anything else.

On the whole, The Narcissism Epidemic is a very important book. Not only would it be useful for helping professionals, but frankly for anyone who's interested in at least one explanation for why society has changed in the way it has. I fear what will happen if we continue down this road and continue to criticize more traditional values like humility, love, and kindness.

19 November 2013

My Grace Kick

 'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

-John Newton
In our small group, we have been working our way through Paul's letter to the Galatians. Paul is building his case that we cannot add anything onto Christ.  A friend of mine commented that I have been on a "grace kick" over the last couple of years. Indeed. I hope that it is more than a kick, because grace is the heart of Christianity.

In my quiet time this morning, I was reading another one of Paul's letters, Second Corinthians. In chapter 12, Paul was writing about the thorn that was given him in the flesh. People have made guesses what this thorn is, but in truth, no one really knows. Paul wrote "Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me." He pleaded with the Lord. This was no casual prayer, it came from his gut. He was deeply bothered by it and desired release.

What is God's response? "My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness." We typically look at Paul as a towering hero of the faith, but how many of us at our core would say that we believed that he was a hero because of his weakness?

For many Christians, one of our thorns is failure to believe that the gospel is actually good news. We read that God's power is made perfect in the weakness of Paul, or any of the heroes of the faith described in Hebrews 11 and we think, yeah...but.  We think that even though they were weak on some level, their strengths outweighed their weaknesses. And then we look at our own lives and we feel weak and fearful. God's grace is sufficient for us too. His power is made perfect in our weaknesses.

Did you ever stop and wonder how God's power could be made perfect? Isn't He already all powerful? Here's what I think, the power that the Lord was speaking of is the power of the cross. The power of the cross, the ever flowing fountain of grace, was made perfect in our weaknesses. It's power was shown in the ability to deliver us from sin by no merit of our own.

Second Corinthians 12 should be a huge encouragement to us. In the light of his grace, we should be eager to share our weaknesses with one another. As a community of believers, we should be eager not only to share our joys and successes, but to share our brokenness and our pain. Why? Because God's grace is sufficient even in our darkest days.

So boast in the cross. Boast in God's goodness to you. Go on a grace kick. Because Christ is strong, you are free to be weak.

18 November 2013

Book Ratings: My ideal system

I read a lot of books.  I also rate and review a lot of books. Each book site has their own system for rating. For example, at Amazon.com, when you rate a book with 5 stars, it means you "loved it." At goodreads.com, a 5 star means "it was amazing." Unfortunately, this can lead to some variability from site to site. Furthermore, sometimes the options are too restricted for the reviewer.  Finally, if you have read reviews of books, it is often like the grading cycle in the modern American university. In other words, there is "grade inflation." Each of these variables contributes to diminished meaning when it comes to book ratings.

My own rating would look something like this:

1=This book is actively destructive. As one example, it may present a viewpoint well that is actively harmful to unsuspecting readers. Like a ouija board, it could do real damage. A second example is something that is so poorly written or constructed that the reader loses brain cells in the process.  Much like Billy Madison's principal, "Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."
2=This book was fair. In a world where there are so many good things to read, why would you bother with this one? Put it away and pick up something better. It would even be better to re-read something you have already read than to read this one. Even vaccuuming would be preferable.
3=This was a good book. I enjoyed what I read. I learned a little. However, there were some things about it that kept its rating down. Its applicability is likely to be short lived or it may speak to just a limited audience despite higher intentions. 
4=This book was really good. It won't make my must read list, but I think most people would be better off by reading it. It may not become a time-tested classic, but it is important enough to highly recommend.
5=This book is a classic and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. This book should be read repeatedly and be anchor for your bookshelf.

Most of the books I read would be in the 2-4 category.  It is a rare book that would qualify for a 1or a 5.

17 November 2013

Book Review: Let Hope In by Pete Wilson

Pete Wilson, pastor of Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tennessee wants his readers to rediscover hope and he believes that hope is a choice, or rather the result of a series of choices. He structured the book, Let Hope In (2013) around four choices: choosing to transform instead of transfer, choosing to be okay with not being okay, choosing to trust rather than to please, and choosing to free people rather than hurt them.

The basic message of the book is that Wilson wants people to rediscover the hope of the gospel. Somewhere along the way, the message of Christianity has gotten twisted and his desire is that his readers would find their hope in Christ. There is an early focus on addressing shame, which in turn gives way to hope and freedom.  Later in the book, he makes the point that hurt people, hurt people and free people, free people. He wants people to leave the hurt at the cross and rediscover the freedom in Christ.

On the whole, I loved this book. Wilson is a great story teller who has a gift for weaving biblical truths with compelling narrative. He makes the reader believe that he has lived and experienced the things that he writes about.

In the first chapter, he shared a slogan that they have adopted at their church, “Everyone is welcome, because nobody is perfect, but anything is possible.” I appreciated how Wilson helped the reader to see that it is okay to be imperfect. In fact, in our humanity, we are imperfect, he merely calls us to recognize it. From that point, we can move forward. Tied with our hiding is the notion of shame, which is all too often ignored in the church. He rightly desires the church to be a place where it is safe to talk about brokenness and shame and find hope in the gospel. We should be a confessional community who point one another toward Christ and his forgiveness. I have been working my way through several of Larry Crabb’s books and there are certain parallels with his work, which I believe is a good thing, because both authors rethink Christian community.

Wilson landed where I hoped I would. Once we admit our brokenness, it ultimately should lead us to gratitude, grace, and freedom. This is a gospel saturated book. Wilson clearly wanted his readers to see the beauty of Jesus in the midst of our fallenness. I believe he succeeded.

If I had one complaint about the book, it wasn’t always clear to me that he was following the same thread through the book. There were times when I was not sure how one chapter linked to the previous. On the whole, he wove together several threads into a wonderful tapestry, but sometimes, I couldn’t see it.

I would strongly recommend this book. The publisher has provided you with a complimentary copy of this book or advanced reading copy through BookSneeze®

14 November 2013

Theology is...

When many people hear the word theology, they often think of old, white men pontificating about God. Often they are right. Unfortunately, theology has earned the reputation as a stale, uninteresting discipline for ivory tower academics. May it not be so.

Theology should not ultimately be analyzing a flower petal under a microscope,
     it should be lying in a field of purple and yellow and white flowers, feeling the breeze on your face.

Theology should not ultimately be carefully analyzing a person's gait,
     it should be dancing in time with the music, flowing fluidly across the floor.

Theology should not ultimately be theories about meter and chord progression,
     it should be coming to tears as Handel's Messiah washes over you.

Theology should not ultimately be about Doppler radar and rising barometric pressures,
     it should be about listening to the rain splashing against the windows, just a little scared at the crashing thunder.

Theology is the study of God, but it is a study that should drive us to worship. Theology should not ultimately be accumulating information about God, but an aid to help us bask in the presence of God.

05 November 2013

Wine Cooler Christianity

I must have been in grade school when wine coolers really became popular. The commercials featuring the old pair, Bartles and Jaymes signing off with "and we thank you for your support" were deeply memorable. Wine coolers were made by combining cheap wine with fruit juice, carbonated water, and sugar to make something that tasted better. It was tough to get people to drink cheap wine, but when Seagram's and others sweetened it up, repackaged it and sold it, then people were eager to buy in.  It also weakened the potency of the wine. 

American Christianity is too often wine cooler Christianity. The branded version of Christianity that makes up much of the evangelical landscape is a watered down version of the true gospel. The Christianity that is packaged for most American consumers is too often weakened. God is presented as a kindly old man in the sky who is interested in our morality, but never wrathful.  The Ten Commandments are reformulated as the ten suggestions for a better life. Christianity becomes about moral improvement for the already pretty good. The Holy Spirit becomes a help line you can call if you ever get to the point that you cannot handle things on your own.  Psalm 42:1, which reads "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you" becomes a slogan to be plastered on the side of a mug, rather than an anguished cry from a man who is desperately longing for God.  Wine cooler Christianity, which so often thrives on slogans, never keeps reading. Once the good tasting spiritual morsel is extracted, there is no need to move on. Psalm 42:3 reads, "My tears have been my food day and night,while they say to me all the day long, 'Where is your God?'"  These words do not suggest a peaceful stream with a majestic buck; they suggest a man who is so thirsty he will die if God does not intervene.
If Christianity is only about man and him improved through suggestions for successful living, there was no need for the cross. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." 

But Christianity-lite will not suffice. The Bible teaches that God's standard is perfection in thought and deed. None of us, even at the height of our righteousness, can hope to meet that standard. God hates sin and sin deserves His wrath. Still, God is not only holy, he is also benevolent and gracious. The whole Bible tells a story of God pursuing sinners who continue to rebel and, at the hingepoint of time, Christ came not ultimately as a model to be emulated, but as a Savior to bear the wrath for undeserving sinners.  2 Corinthians 5:21 reads, "He [God] made him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God." The great exchange--our sin for his righteousness. 

Don't drink the watered down version. You will stay thirsty. 

In honor of Reformation Day just a few days ago and a faith not watered, down, I want to finish with this quote from Robert Farrar Capon: 

The Reformation was a time when people went blind-staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, 200-proof grace–of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture that would convince anyone that God saves us single-handed.

 The Word of the Gospel, after all those centuries . . . suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home free even before they started. How foolish, then, they said, how reprehensibly misleading, they said, to take the ministers of that Word of free, unqualified acceptance and slap enforced celibacy on them–to make their lives bear a sticker that said they had gone an extra mile and paid an extra toll. It was simply to hide the light of grace under a bushel of pseudo-law. . . .

 And for the Reformers, that was a crime. Grace was to be drunk neat: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, nor the flowers that bloom in the spring of super-spirituality could be allowed to enter that case.

02 November 2013

He did it all perfectly

 John Dink writes, "Cheap law weakens God’s demand for perfection, and in doing so, breaths life into the old creature and his quest for a righteousness of his own making. And what I’m telling you is this: what doesn’t kill him, makes him stronger. Lowering the bar lets the Old Adam peek into the Promised Land. It allows the flesh to survive by rebelling in a form of external piety. And – it’s a perfect hiding place for the Old Being. We don’t think to rebuke such a moral, well-mannered creature. But cheap law offers mercy in the wrong place. It offers mercy to those who are offended by the gift. It creates a people of great zeal, but they lack knowledge concerning the question 'What Would Jesus Do?' Here is the costly answer: Jesus would do it all perfectly. And that’s game over for you. The Father is not grooming you to be a replacement for his Beloved Son. He is announcing that there is blessing for those who take shelter in his Beloved Son."

Read the rest here.