23 April 2014

Book Review: Connecting

When I was having dinner with Dr Crabb at the School of Spiritual Direction a few weeks ago, I remember during our conversation that I wondered aloud whether I was going through some of the same professional transition that he went through many years before as a professional psychologist. It felt arrogant saying it, and in no way would I imply that I am similarly brilliant, but it seemed that many of his struggles of 20 years ago are things that I struggle with.  His book Connecting (1997) has strengthened that impression. In fact, on page 42, he wrote, "Was I afraid to just be with this man (a client), to take off the Dr Crabb white coat, to stop being an expert, and offer myself as a person?" This statement so closely mirrors what he told me--"I have no interest in knowing Dr Kanz, but I would really like to know Jason"--I wonder if he had this section in mind. 

Peppered throughout the book are references to the inadequacy of the professional model of helping for soul healing. Of course professionals can, and often do help, but what people often desire is connection, not professional therapy or legalistic moralism.  In this book, Crabb discusses what connection may look like in relationships with one another. 

True connection, what Curt Thompson calls the desire to "be known", is at the heart of healing and soul work. We are relational beings created by a relational God, but as a result of the fall, we struggle to relate well.  This book may provide some wisdom as to what it might look like to start down the path of connecting with one another.  Highly recommended.

20 April 2014

Book Review: A Sacred Sorrow

A few weeks ago at the School of Spiritual Direction, a new friend of mine was reading this book by Michael Card--A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament (2005). He spoke highly of this book. In fact, the morning that we led worship was focused on lament and was driven in part by his readings in this book.  I was intrigued to say the least. 

I had previously read Fragile Stone by Michael Card which was about the emotional life of Peter. Between that book and his music, I knew of his capacity to write with illumination.  This book was no different. 

A Sacred Sorrow is in many regards, the anti-prosperity theology book.  Contrary to books like Joel Osteen Your Best Life Now, I believe Card's topic is ultimately more hopeful because it captures the whole of human experience.  Contrary to happy-clappy Christianity, Card recognizes that God goes with us through the full spectrum of human emotions.  A Christianity that promotes only happiness and success all of the time is disingenuous at best. 

Card explores the prominent theme of lament through the Bible, focusing specifically on a few characters.  He traces the laments of Job, David, and Jeremiah all of whom spoke and wrote about the more difficult sides of life in a fallen world. He then proceeds to show how Jesus--God in the flesh, himself a man of sorrows--has entered our lament and has echoed the previous laments.

I suspect this book will be different from many Christian books that people want to read.  Yet it is important to read. It seems to me that Christianity, in America at least, has lost the capacity to worship in the midst of sorrow, anguish and pain. This book may help you to rediscover how God goes with us in those seasons as well. 

Book Review: Soul Keeping

I have been familiar with John Ortberg's work through talks he has given at the American Association for Christian Counselors and his book The Life You Always Wanted, which surprisingly is not a book of prosperity theology.  Because I have been favorably impressed with his work in the past, I was eager to read Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You (2014). 

Ortberg is a pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, though he also trained as a clinical psychologist.  Each of those facts are important background in this book about caring for the soul.  Additionally, Ortberg was profoundly influenced by the work of Dallas Willard who in May last year.  In many regards, this book is a festschrift to Willard. Not only are Willard's influences deeply felt, Ortberg went out of his way to weave many stories about the man, a welcome addition. 

Essentially, this short book is a study in how we care for the most important part of us our souls.  At the outset, Ortberg seeks to define the soul so that the reader is able to proceed from a place of common understanding.  Once he establishes what the soul is, he moves on to reviewing what the soul needs and eventually how the soul is restored. 

There were a few things that I particularly appreciated about this book.  First, Ortberg does a commendable job of differentiating between the soul and the self.  So often in modern thinking about mental health, we think only about the self, which Ortberg suggests is misguided.  Rather, we should focus on the soul, which defines who we are in relation to God. In the world of Christian psychology where I do some reading and writing, this is an important distinction. 

Second, Ortberg effectively weaves in his understanding of the importance of spiritual disciplines. As one deeply influenced by Willard and involved in the Renovare conferences, he views disciplines as important. He discusses these in more depth in his book The Life You Always Wanted, though here they find an organic place. 

Finally, I really liked the last two chapters.  Essentially, these deal with his final interactions with Dallas Willard. He discusses suffering and what he thinks it looks like to die well, looking at Willard as a model. 

On the whole, I would strongly recommend this book.  I wish more "Christian psychology" and soul care would look like this book. It is deeply relational, hopeful, and grounded in the truth of the gospel. 

I received this book free from the publisher through the Book Look Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

08 April 2014

Book Review: Delighting in the Trinity

Delighting in the Trinity (2012) by Michael Reeves was one of the five books on the Trinity recommended by Larry Crabb at the School of Spiritual Direction that I attended last week. I started with this one, primarily because of price.

I am glad I started with this one and now I am eager to read more. Reeves is a humorous, engaging writer who discusses the importance of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian belief. Prior to reading this book, I would have happily endorsed the importance of the Trinity, but I am quite certain I didn't understand the full implications. I suspect I would have said that I believe in the Trinity because I believe it is what is taught by the Bible, but now I would add that it seems to me that not only does the Bible teach it, but that in order for an eternal God to be "loving" the Trinity is logically required.

Having used a word phrase like "logically required", I certainly hope that it doesn't scare you off from this book. I found myself drawn to God as Reeves presented Him. A Trinitarian God is able to love me ferociously, and subsequently enable to me to love.  Furthermore, His holiness and even His wrath make more sense in the light of the Trinity.

In addition to his clear writing, Reeves features short vignettes from many of the Reformers and early church fathers to make his case.

I would highly recommend this book.  

Flourishing in Prayer and Meditation

Yesterday, I posted a link to a video of my friend Curt Thompson.  This is my friend Eric Johnson who, more than possibly anyone, has influenced how I think about soul care and psychology.  He is intelligent, wise, humble, and compassionate.  I want to be like him when I grow up. 

07 April 2014

Book Review: Could it Be This Simple?

I received a free copy of Could it Be This Simple? A Biblical Model for Healing the Mind (2012) by Timothy Jennings MD at last year's world conference for the American Association of Christian Counseling. As a Christian and a neuropsychologist, I was eager to read what he had to say.

Replete with examples from everyday life and from his clinical experience, Jennings describes a model of "healing the mind."  In the early chapters, he laid out the link between our spiritual natures, conscience, will, reason, feelings, thoughts, and physical functioning in influencing our mind.  He then set out to show how our minds functioned before sin entered the picture and then subsequently, how sin affected us.

There is much to commend about this book. Jennings is a clear and engaging communicator. This was an simple, though not simplistic, book to read.  I appreciated his recognition of the multiple elements of how the mind functions. Too often, it seems that we focus on one area (e.g., thoughts, relationships) to the exclusion of others. Dr Jennings seems to find that balance reasonably well.  He recognizes that God created us as thinking, feeling, volitional, relational beings and that each of those areas--as well as others-- were affected by the fall. 

Near the center of the book, he took time to develop his thoughts about the laws of liberty and of love as well as their counterfeits. I think that, for the most part, he is right especially as he talked about what right, biblical love looks like.  In chapter 12, his discussion of forgiveness and its associated myths are worth reading.

Despite much to commend about this book early on, the book took a decided turn for me on page 129.  Prior to that, I had some concerns that he was developing a model of healing based upon the law of linearity that Larry Crabb talks about.  In others words, if I have problem A, and I apply treatment B, good things will happen.  If-then Christianity.  Because there was much that was good, I was happy to set that aside.  However, then came page 129.  Under the heading "a false gospel", he essentially dismisses penal substitutionary atonement as a "wolf in sheep's clothing". He argues that Christ did not come to appease God's wrath toward sin and that we need to be cautious with phrases such as "being clothed in Christ's righteousness."  He wrote, "far from what it professes, this false view is actually a candy-coated, rotten-apple theory."  At best, his description is incomplete; at worst, it is heretical.  It may be that I am misreading what he wrote in this section, though I don't think I am.  Having read it several times, he seems to reject the biblical notion of propitiation. He appears to favor a semi-pelagian view of salvation rather than salvation based purely upon the free gift of grace offered through Christ, the sacrificial lamb, which is well-described in Hebrews. 

Finally, at the end of the book, it was hard for me to determine his views of eternal life. On page 136, he wrote, "if we utilize our reason, we would realize that God cannot be the loving Father and the threatening destroyer at the same time...If God is not threatening to destroy the unrepentant, then what will he do to those who reject Him? It is very simple, really. He takes the only loving action He can: He lets them go, and when the Life-giver lets go, they die." This section, and those following make Jennings sound like an annihilationist (like the late John Stott), though I was never entirely sure.

In the end, there are many good elements to this book and some that are strikingly concerning. I believe a discerning reader could wade through the concerns, but unfortunately, this book is not targeted to the theologically sophisticated. Having said that, I humbly acknowledge that I hope it is my own limited understanding and not false theology that raises concerns for me.  I would be eager to hear any corrections from Dr Jennings if I am misrepresenting his work.

Spirituality and Neuroplasticity

This is a video of my friend Curt Thompson. Curt has brought together his Christian faith with his work in psychiatry and interpersonal neurobiology.  I would love to receive supervision from him in this area because, to me, it is quite cutting edge. If you get a chance, you should also read his excellent book, Anatomy of the Soul. I've read it 4 times and I like it better each time. 

Feeling entitled to the truth

"Do you want answers?"
"I think I'm entitled."
"Do you want answers?!?"
"I want the truth!"

So goes one of the best known interactions in movie history. Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in an epic court room battle. Sometimes--perhaps even often--I find that I think like Tom Cruise. I think I'm entitled.

This morning, I was reading 1 Chronicles 13, which describes the story of Uzzah and the ark. The Ark of the Covenant was being moved and at one point, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah put out his hand to "take hold of the ark." Verse 10 reads, "and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God." Every time I read that verse, my immediate thought is, "What?!? Are you kidding me?" How could God be angry with Uzzah for what seems to be an innocent, even benevolent, action to save the ark? As I picture a gracious, all loving God, I cannot fathom why He would strike Uzzah dead.

It seems David felt the same way. David, the man after God's own heart. In verse 11 it says that David was angry because "the Lord had broken out against Uzzah" and in verse 12, it says that David was "afraid of God that day."  I completely understand David's responses. Interestingly, if we follow the story to the end, David left the ark with Obed-edom for 3 months and the Lord blessed all that Obed-edom had. How does that fit into the story?

Even now, I am sitting here trying to wrap my mind around what was happening. In my limited understanding, I am trying to make sense.  I confess that I don't get it. How often, do I try to make sense of things that make no sense? How often do I question God's goodness when I see "bad things happen to good people" (a phrase I do not actually believe to be true). A hard working father of 5 gets cancer and dies prematurely. A corporation that loves their employees and treats them very well gets punished for not falling in line with federal mandates. A brother and sister suffer in Haiti while their adoptive parents eagerly await their arrival, asking God "when?"

I don't get it it.  I really don't.  I want answers. I believe I am entitled to the truth. Too often, I don't like the mystery. It's uncomfortable. God, help me to live in the mystery. Help me to delight in You when things don't make sense and to trust that You, O Lord, know what you are doing. Teach me to trust that you are infinitely knowledgeable, infinitely powerful, and infinitely good and that I am none of those things.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding?-Job 38:4

04 April 2014

Review: In His Image

As a part of the Re:series, the Colson Center for Christian Worldview has released another video/study guide curriculum, again tag-teamed by John Stonestreet and T.M. Moore. I previously reviewed the excellent resource, He Has Spoken.  This most recent set of materials is entitled "In His Image" (2014). Essentially, this is a five-part study consisting of five videos and 35 short studies, so it is well designed to use over a period of five weeks.  For small groups using this material, the authors recommend working through each part and then coming together to watch the video and discuss the questions.

In the first section, they explore the question of what it means to be created in God's image. Moore opens the week by contrasting the prevailing view that humans are not much higher than lab rats with the Christian view that we are spiritual beings and divine image bearers. Understanding the bankruptcy of the materialist worldview is essential if one is to see the dignity of humans.  In the video portion, John Stonestreet mentions Peter Singer, a bioethicist at Princeton, who equates all life forms and is notorious for believing that a smart dog is of more value than a fetus or cognitively impaired child. Moore takes this further by exploring the worlds of aesthetics, social relationships, morality, work, and dominion.

The second part is dedicated to the "unraveling of evolution."  In the video, Stonestreet begins to explore in more depth what we were created to do and what went wrong.  Moore attempts to show how rather than religious belief, it is secularism that is unraveling, much to the disappointment of individuals like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.  He points to the flaws in how evolution attempts to explain things like artistic sensitivity and the need for work. As a psychologist, the study (12) on "The power of the word" was particularly interesting as it discussed the flaws in a purely biological psychiatry. 

In the third section, they address the question "why isn't there more evil?" If indeed survival of the fittest is true, one might expect greater levels of evil in certain realms. Contrary to a materialistic worldview, Christians believe that God is sovereign, God is good, and God restrains. Because of his character and power, he restrains evil that would not be restrained if an amoral materialism were true. 

I think that section four addresses a very important question. Simply entitled "The Lie", Stonestreet and Moore address the common perception that religion has been responsible for most of the death and destruction throughout the world. Unfortunately, this Lie has been foisted on an unknowing populace.  Moore takes this further by discussing the bankruptcy of the pursuit of pleasure. 

In the final section, they address wrong reasoning. Stonestreet calls us to develop an increased awareness of the messages coming from culture and to stay up to date and in touch with the messages that are being perpetrated. Part of being created in God's image involves our capacity to reason. Moore encourages us to make use of our reasoning and discover that it will lead us to real answers. 

There are many ways in which one can pursue the question of the Imago Dei. True to form, Moore and Stonestreet look at the worldview implications of being image bearers. They routinely contrast the Christian worldview with competing worldviews such as secular naturalism or Eastern religions to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian position. In that regard, this curriculum set is decidedly apologetic in nature. These gentlemen both possess the unique capacities to reason sharply, communicate clearly, and love well. 

There is much to commend here and very little to detract.  One concern that I had when working through Moore's study guide was the level of language employed in places. Moore is one of the smartest people I know and I wondered if his word choices might alienate some who could benefit from the series. However, these sections were few and far between. In general, Moore again demonstrates his competence in helping people to think through difficult issues with clarity.

This will be a useful series for those trying to understand some about what it means to be created in God's image. 

The Colson Center has allowed me to give away one copy of this DVD and study guide. If you are interested in being considered you can: 1) comment on this post, though I will need your email, 2) share this post on your Facebook page or Twitter (and let me know you did), or 3) retweet this post. I am sure these materials will be a blessing to you. I will do the drawing next Friday, April 11th. 

Stop Sinning, Sinner

So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets.-Matthew 7:12

This verse stirred something in me today. I was thinking about how many Christians, myself included, often respond to sin. We see sins in people around us, even if we don't know them, and feel compelled to comment. This seems particularly true of certain sins, such as homosexuality. It appears that a common public response is something along the lines of "well...sinners should stop sinning, so stop sinning, sinners." We do not seek to understand, only condemn sin.

It's interesting that the golden rule above follows on the heels of another well known passage, reminding us to remove the plank from our own eye so that we can see to remove the speck from our brother's. Jesus is reminding us that we all are sinful, and when we confront one another's sins, we must be aware of and confessing our own sin. 

Contrary to popular belief, I do not believe Jesus was telling us to not deal with each others sins. I believe we are called to do so. However, what I think Matthew 7:12 makes clear is that we must respond to others the way we want them to respond to us. So what does that look like?

I think it involves an honest appraisal of your own status before God, as sanctified sinner. There has to be a recognition that apart from God's free grace, every one of us stands condemned. Then, I think we must move toward another in love, keeping in remembrance that His free grace is available to all. If we want to be able to speak into someone's life, there has to be a genuine desire for relationship. We also should have a vision for who someone might become through the work of the Holy Spirit, which is something Dr Crabb talked about. Without vision, we simply become judgmental moralists. 

We all heard the golden rule as kids; perhaps its time that we look at it with fresh eyes. 

03 April 2014

New Way Ministries School of Spiritual Direction

Dr Crabb and Me.  I am a giant.
Last week, I attended the School of Spiritual Direction in Asheville, North Carolina. This week long school is offered by Larry Crabb and New Way Ministries. Dr Crabb is a clinical psychologist who is a popular speaker and author. About 20 years ago, he had a significant change in his thinking about what constituted helping or "soul care."

Dr Crabb has shifted from a counselor/counselee model to a focus on "conversations that matter" that can, and should, occur between believers. He describes wise conversations between pilgrim's on the way. There are none who have arrived in and of themselves; each faces his or her own brokenness.  Along with about 30 other people, we learned about what it meant to have conversations that matter.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but it is fair to say that I have not experienced anything quite like this event. We were given a binder full of notes, but we rarely looked at it. Dr Crabb encouraged us not to get bogged down in taking notes. Rather, I would describe the week as a series of conversations--sometimes with the whole group and sometimes one on one.

Over the week, each day had a rhythm of sorts. After breakfast, we would meet as a group from 9 until noon. This time involved worship, devotional thoughts from Dr Crabb, and his explanation of how he envisions having these conversations. His approach is very conversational, engaging the class with his stories and ours. He was very good at drawing people out.

The afternoons consisted of work in small groups of 3 or 4 where we were able to share one another's stories on most days. One afternoon was dedicated to meeting with Dr Crabb or one of the other directors. I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr Crabb a couple of times, which was helpful in understanding how he approaches spiritual direction. Meeting with 3 others, though was equally useful.

In the evenings, Dr Crabb would spend some more time talking through his model.  Though I would get tired, I always looked forward to the next session. And I never skipped any, which was unique from any other conference that I have attended.

The in between times were spent walking in the woods, visiting with new friends, or resting and relaxing. The beauty of the mountains is unparalleled.

More personally, I wish it were possible to explain the shift in my soul that I experienced when I was there. Spending time meditating on what Dr Crabb shared with me individually and what he talked about in the group has shaken up my thinking, in a positive way. I am eager to see how it affects relationships. Dr Crabb said, "spiritual formation is relational formation."

If you want to talk specifically about the school, or if you have questions, let me know. I would be eager to sit down with you and have a conversation that matters.

02 April 2014

Book Review: I Don't Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist

I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (2004) by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek may be the best introductory apologetics textbook I have read. Because they are typically written by smart people, apologetics books are too often burdened by writing that is inaccessible to many readers. Dr Geisler, however, has a gift for explaining logical reasoning in an efficient manner. Turek adds a warmness to the narrative, making this amongst the most readable, yet well thought out and comprehensive, apologetics textbooks on the market.

Weighing in at 450 pages, the authors are able to address many of the most important arguments in the battle for truth. For example, the authors address the following broad categories: 1) truth about reality is knowable, 2) the opposite of true is false, 3) it is true that the theistic God exists, 4) If God exists, then miracles are possible, 5) Miracles can be used to confirm a message from God, 6) The New Testament is historically reliable, 7) The New Testament says Jesus claimed to be God, 8) Jesus' claim to be God was miraculously confirmed, 9) therefore, Jesus is God, 10) whatever Jesus teaches is true, 11) Jesus taught that the Bible is the Word of God, and 12) THEREFORE, it is true that the Bible is the Word of God.

To address these major premises, the authors walk through common apologetics arguments such as those relating to origin of the universe (cosmological argument), the design of life (teleological argument), and the truth of the moral law (moral argument). In each case, they generally explain the current status of the arguments, but seek to clearly show the logical endpoints of each perspective. In other words, they effectively employ what Francis Schaeffer referred to as "taking the roof off", thus showing the logical flaws.

Some people have commented that this book can be too adversarial at times, but we are engaged in a battle. Geisler and Turek effectively dismantle arguments raised against the Christian position. I would strongly recommend this book to both Christian and non-Christian alike. If you give it a fair review, I have no doubt you will find their work compelling.

I received this book free from the publisher through the Beyond the Page book review bloggers program through Crossway Publishing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: Fully Alive

Last week, I attended the 52nd School for Spiritual Direction led by Larry Crabb, the author of Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes (2013) and we were all given a copy of this book. Crabb's understanding of gender is refreshing. Examining the Hebrew and Greek words for men and women, he proposes an understanding of what makes men masculine and women feminine. He argues that to live most consistently with our gender, men must seek to "remember and move" and women were created to "invite and nourish." Through practical examples, he shows how a biblical understanding can work well and not so well. This was a good book, but I suspect things he says will cause people to rock back on their heels a bit, whether liberal or conservative. It will give everyone something to think about.