28 March 2015

Without Objection

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.  So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.-Acts 10:28-29

Peter, an apostle of Jesus and a Jew by birth, had a hard time shedding his Old Covenant clothes. He had spent 3 years in the physical presence of Jesus, watching him love in a way that was unexpected. After Jesus' ascension, Peter was foundational to the growth of the early church, just as Jesus had said he would be, yet it was difficult for him to set aside his old ways. 

Acts 10 tells the story of a Roman Centurion, Cornelius, who gave alms and prayed to God daily. An angel appeared to him and told him that his prayers had been answered and that he should seek out Peter, so he sent men to seek him. 

At the time, Peter was living in Joppa, presenting the gospel of grace to the Jewish people, and otherwise seeking to uphold the law. Before the arrival of Cornelius's men, Peter was given a vision, repeated 3 times. He was hungry and God told him to kill and eat a host of unclean animals. Peter resisted, but God insisted that Peter should not call common or unclean what God has called clean. 

After seeing this vision, men arrive and Peter accompanies them to the home of Cornelius, where he had gathered many of his friends. And Peter said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit with anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean" (Acts 10:28). 

Pay attention to the time course. Peter had already spent years with Jesus. He had heard the gospel of grace. Yet, he clung to his old ways. God continued to challenge him to grow and develop gospel lenses. In this case, he was challenged to set aside the law that said he should not associate with those outside of his club and to love without objection. 

Do you ever find yourself acting like Peter? Do you ever find yourself reluctant to approach certain people because they are "common or unclean"? Do you tend to focus on the people who are like you but avoid showing love to those who are not? Like Peter, Christ's love challenges us to move toward others with his love, even if we don't think they fit the mold.

22 March 2015

Book Review: 7 Men

7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness (2013) by Eric Metaxas continues his tradition of great biographical works. Perhaps best known for his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he also wrote an extended biography of abolitionist William Wilberforce, both of whom were included in this book. Additionally, the stories of George Washington, Eric Liddell, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Charles Colson were included. These men differed by centuries, continents, denominations, and race. What united them was a common faith in the Lord Jesus and "surrendering themselves to a higher purpose, of giving something away that they might have kept" (from the intro).

In varying ways, I have benefited from the ministries of each of these men. Many of us have. On page 64, Metaxas quoted Eric Liddell: "At this time I finally decided to put it all on Christ--after all if he called me to do it, then He would have to supply the necessary power. In going forward the power was given to me." Each would agree that the power was given to each of these men.

At just over 200 pages, these are not extended biographies. They are just snapshots, really. If one is expecting the depth of his previous biographies, you will be disappointed. Having said that, the few dozen pages devoted to each of these men will be encouraging and provocative. These sketches give a glimpse about what it means to be a man of conviction under the power of the Spirit.

A complimentary copy of this book was provided to me free of charge by Thomas Nelson and the Book Look Bloggers program in exchange for this review. I was not required to submit a positive review. The viewpoints above are my own.

17 March 2015

Book Review: Ruthless Trust

I love Brennan Manning. The more of his writings that I am graced to read, the more I like him. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin's Path to God (2000) was the latest treasure. In this book, Manning called his readers to live in a life of trust in the God of love.  On the first page, he says that we need to learn to trust what we have received. When Jesus said, "it is finished", he meant it.

Every page, every line of this book is a treasure. Here are a few precious jewels that I hope will encourage you to dig for Manning's treasures yourself.

  • We can no more catch a hurricane in a shrimp net or Niagra Falls in a coffee cup than we can grasp the infinity of God's reality. 
  • Such a friend allows me to be myself, thoughtful one moment and silly the next. Between us, trust grows. If a word of fraternal correction is needed, the friend offers it directly, but the pained expression on his face tells me how difficult the reproof is for him. And yet he has the courage to tell me something unpleasant but necessary--something that others should tell me but do not. (They renege for fear that I will not like them anymore. Their emotional equilibrium is more important to them than my spiritual growth). With each interaction, trust of my friend grows deeper.
  • I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone.
  • The great weakness in the North American church at large, and certainly in my life, is our refusal to accept our brokenness. We hide it, evade it, gloss over it. We grab for the cosmetic kit and put on our virtuous face to make ourselves admirable to the public. Thus, we present to others a self that is spiritually together, superficially happy, and lacquered with a sense of self-deprecating humor that passes for humility. The irony is that while I do not want anyone to know that I am judgmental, lazy, vulnerable, screwed up, and afraid, for fear of losing face, the face that I fear losing is the mask of the impostor, not my own!

The friendship I desire

I am reading Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning. In his chapter on "Trusting Jesus", Brennan described a certain type of friendship, a type of friendship I desire. He wrote:

"Such a friend allows me to be myself, thoughtful one moment and silly the next. (Oh, that this would be a description of me!) Between us, trust grows. If a word of fraternal correction is needed, the friend offers it directly, but the pained expression on his face tells me how difficult the reproof is for him. And yet he has the courage to tell me something unpleasant but necessary--something that others should tell me but do not. (They renege for fear that I will not like them anymore. Their emotional equilibrium is more important to them than my spiritual growth). With each interaction, trust of my friend grows deeper." 

We should all desire this type of friendship, a friendship that dives beneath the surface.

12 March 2015

Book Review: Bold Love

Bold Love (1992) by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III was first recommended to me by a friend at the Next Step School for Spiritual Direction last fall. More recently, my friend Mark has referenced this book on more than one occasion. 

Bold Love is a bold book about forgiveness, relationship, and deep love. The authors open the book by discussing what seems to be the unreasonableness of love. Love is a great ideal, but often it just does not make sense. The authors then enter into an exploration of bold, biblical love--the kind that is other centered, desires redeemed relationships, and honors God. Love is not tolerance; it is a much higher ethic.

This book was a bit of a slow starter for me. If I am honest, I initially was unsure why my friends were so taken with it, but as I proceeded, I could see why. There is much to commend here. 

Here are a few tidbits that really struck me:
*Love is a sacrifice for the undeserving that opens the door to restoration of relationship with the Father, with others, and with ourselves.
*The greatest gift this life offers is the joy of forming Christ in others.
*Forgiveness is inviting the one who harmed you to a banquet of fine food and wine that you have prepared so that he might have a taste of life.
*In many cases, love will unnerve, offend, hurt, disturb, and compel the one who is loved to deal with the internal disease that is robbing him and others of joy.
*When someone gives love, it should be with a strength that does not fear the loss of the relationship.
*The powerful voice is one that falters but perseveres.

Weaving together powerful stories, biblical wisdom, and a knowledge of the human condition, Bold Love is a winner.

10 March 2015

Why Can't All Religions Achieve Peace?

I recently saw this picture appear on my Facebook feed. It reads, "if all religions teach peace then why can't all religions achieve peace?" I have a few thoughts to share.

First, all religions do not teach peace. It is a mischaracterization to state that they do and unfortunately, perpetuates the tendency to view all religions as basically the same. For example, Islam is derived from the Arabic word meaning submission. Not only are Muslims to submit to Allah, they are to subdue (sometimes violently) others until all are under the rule of Islam. 

Second, a sufficient worldview will provide an explanation for why things are the way they are. For example, Christians believe that the world was created good, peaceful. However, due to free will, humans chose to act against the created order, thus disturbing created peace. Christians call this interruption in the created order "sin" and believe that it affects everything. 

The nontheist or materialist (i.e., someone who believes the world and all that is within it came about by natural processes) is not excused from explaining what went wrong. Too often, those representing that camp offer up questions without providing sufficient answers from their own worldview. For example, one question I would ask the materialist is how peace is defined in a materialistic worldview. Is it even a meaningful construct and if so, how does one arrive at a moral construct such as peace? If I am to accept materialism or Darwinian evolution as a valid worldview, then it is the strong that survive. Through whatever means necessary, the stronger will override the weaker and that often will entail the exact opposite of what is commonly thought of as "peace."

Third, we need to consider what is the solution to these problems from the perspective of the various worldviews. As I indicated above, under Islam, the solution to the world's problems is through submission--often coerced--to Allah. For the Muslim, once Shariah law is properly in place, society will function better. For some materialists, their solutions are offered through better science and understanding, but to what end? Research physicians seeking a cure for cancer and a dictator seeking to destroy a race he deems to be inferior are both operating from materialist assumptions. If you believe one of them is wrong, how do you make that determination from an objective point of view? One's personal distaste is insufficient ground for moral oughtness.

Christians believe that the world was created good and that because of sin, shalom--which not only means peace, but also includes human prospering and completeness--was fractured deeply. The only way individual, societal, and universal shalom may be restored is through a Restorer. Christians believe that restorer is ultimately found in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ came to redeem the lost and ultimately will restore heaven and earth to its original goodness. Peace will be restored.

Fourth, we must not ignore what has happened in history. A common assertion made by those who would tear down religion is that religious systems are at the root of most major world conflicts. For example, last month, President Obama equated Islamic extremism with the Christian response during the Crusades, which demonstrated a poor understanding of history. The Crusades were an attempt to push back Islamic expansion and jihad--it was first defensive, not offensive. However, it would be unfair to minimize any atrocities conducted by Christians during that time. Christians are called by Jesus to love their neighbors and when they do not act that way, it acts against their worldview rather than consistently with their worldview as might be the case with Islam or, frankly, with nontheistic materialism.

If one explores the history of thought, Christians have been at the forefront of developments in technology, science, education, human rights, and many other things. Christians are called to steward the created order in a way that promotes love for God and love for neighbor. Admittedly, there have been things done in the name of Christ that were inconsistent with the Christian worldview, but it is unfair to minimize the many positive contributions by Christians.

When considering historical facts regarding peace, we cannot ignore the 20th century. The number of people killed by those operating from an atheistic worldview far exceed the atrocities done in the name of Christ. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Margaret Sanger are just the tip of the iceberg.

In sum, when considering the statement about why religions don't achieve peace, ask yourself: 1) Does my worldview explain why there is a lack of peace and how we can achieve it?, 2) In my worldview, is peace even a meaningful construct?, 3) what does a balanced view of history tell me about promotion of peace?, and 4) what am I personally doing today to promote shalom?

For further reference, consider reading:
Why You Think the Way You Do by Glenn Sunshine
The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark

07 March 2015

Book Review: Dangerous Wonder

Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith (1998) by Mike Yaconelli calls us back to a childlike faith. Christians, saved by God's scandalous grace to a life of wonder, are too often dour, dispassionate people having forgotten what God has done. One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy.  Where is our joy? 

Yaconelli writes of curiosity, wonder, abandon, playfulness, quiet listening, passion, terror, and naivete as characteristics to cultivate and not destroy.  We are Christians, not Pharisees.

I have now read two books by Yaconelli: Dangerous Wonder and Messy Spirituality and I have been deeply moved by both of them. One particular story in Dangerous Wonder brought me to tears. In the chapter, "naive grace", Yaconelli told the story of an alcoholic man and abusive father who was leveled by grace. I won't share particulars, because I want you to read this book and find what I did.

If you have grown up in the church or consider yourself a "good Christian", Yaconelli will make you uncomfortable. And that's a good thing.

05 March 2015

Book Review: Practice Resurrection

Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (2010) is the final book in the 5-volume spiritual theology series by Eugene Peterson. In the book, Peterson explores growth in Christ and character formation for the Christian by going slowly through Paul's letter to the Ephesians. In the introduction, Peterson wrote, "Evangelism is essential, critically essential. But is it not obvious that growth in Christ is equally essential?" In evangelical circles, I think we can become easily unbalanced in this way, and this book serves to "true the wheel" a bit. 

The way in which Peterson writes reminds me of the pleasure of a slow stroll with a learned man. As we walk, he stops to point out things that he sees and those things may remind him of something else, which enriches the experience. His knowledge is broad and his insights welcome. 

There is so much to commend about this book, though I would leave with just a few short words from the author himself.

"In fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense among the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace--a comprehensive, foundational reorientation from living anxiously by my wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God's active presence. The prevailing North American culture (not much different from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman cultures in which our biblical ancestors lived) is, to all intents and purposes, a context of persistent denial of grace" (p. 96).

"'Be subject to one another.' Maturity is not analogous to a body-building regimen in which we lift weights to build our muscles to the max, and then periodically stand before a mirror to examine our progress. Maturity is not a solitary state; it is relational. Maturity does not come about by making the most of ourselves; it is making the most of personal relationships. We don't do that by becoming stronger than the other, overpowering him or her, dominating either emotionally or physically. We don't impose ourselves. We enter into another person's life sharing both weakness and strength. We enter the life of another, but we don't force the entrance. Mutuality is always involved in 'be subject.'" (p. 234)

"There is more to church than sermons and sacraments, theology and liturgy, Bible studies and prayer meetings, committee minutes and mission statements. There are names, meals, small talk, births, deaths. There is us. Conversation is the form that language takes when the persons of the Trinity and the persons of the congregation are in the same room. The 'everything' that Tychicus will have to say to the Ephesians is no insignificant part of what it means to be the church. And you and I are Tychicus" (p. 271).

If you have the time and are willing to put in some thought work, I would strongly recommend this excellent series of books. Practice Resurrection, however, is a great capstone on the series. A book by one of my favorite authors about my favorite book of the Bible is a welcome addition to my library and one I will no doubt reference often in the future.

01 March 2015

Book Review: The Day I met Jesus

The Day I Met Jesus: The Revealing Diaries of Five Women from the Gospels (2015, Baker) by Frank Viola and Mary DeMuth gives an interesting presentation of the several gospel accounts. They take the accounts of five women who interacted with Jesus and fill and add fictional details to add flesh to the stories, melding true accounts with thoughtful reflections on what might have happened. The five women include: the woman caught in adultery, the grateful prostitute who washed Jesus' feet with her hair, the woman at the well, the woman with the discharge of blood, and Mary the sister of Lazarus. After writing "autobiographical" diaries of these women, they provide several pages of reflection on how Jesus interacted with each of them. 

Jesus seemed to have a special place in his heart for broken women. Marginalized. Outcast. These five stories show his compassion for them in wonderful detail. Jesus is a man of grace, and mercy, and love. We see that clearly in these biblical accounts, and the additional details presented add to the draw of the stories. 

If you wish to see the compassion of Jesus in a unique way, I would recommend this book. 

This book was provided to me free of charge by Baker Books in exchange for this review. I was not required to submit a positive review of this book.