29 May 2015

Book Review: A Fellowship of Differents

Since becoming interested in theology, I have always thought of Scot McKnight as a "different" from me. He understands certain theological issues differently than I do. However, I am a faithful reader of his excellent blog, Jesus Creed. More often than not, he causes me to think outside of my normal box.

In his book A Fellowship of Differents (Zondervan, 2014), McKnight takes a look at the church and what it should be, a salad with an abundance of unity, grace, and love. Christ's global church is a glorious community of differents, not a homogenized group of people who all look, think, and act the same. Unfortunately, the local church is too often one of boring sameness, which I think McKnight would argue is not God-honoring. When we spend all of our time in community that thinks and acts just like we do, we become weary of those who think differently and we begin to circle the pews.

As McKnight moved through the book, he encourages the reader to ask, "who is invisible in your church?" Do we create space for people of different races, socioeconomic groups, cultures, politics, and marital statuses within the church? Do we allow for people, wherever they are at on their spiritual journey, to come and find a place of welcome? McKnight gave ample space to grace, love, communion/unity, holiness, newness, and flourishing. One of the things that I most appreciated about this book is deeply it is grounded in relationship, which seems to be the core of Christianity.  In fact, he titled chapter 10, "We is Bigger than Me."

McKnight is a great communicator. Weaving narrative with humble theological reflection, A Fellowship of Differents is a beneficial book for the church. Like Bonhoeffer's excellent Life Together, McKnight challenges us to think about moving toward Jesus together. Regardless of your theological persuasion, you will benefit from this call to unity even if you find yourself disagreeing with McKnight on certain theological issues.

I received a complementary copy of this book from Zondervan and the Book Look Blogger Review program. I was not required to submit a positive review. The impressions written above represent my own thinking about this book. 

27 May 2015

My Top 10 Favorite Sermon Jams Plus One

Are you needing encouragement? Check these out? In fact, bookmark this page and visit it often.

Summer Reading List

Last week, Mark Halvorsen sent me a link to Bill Gates’s summer reading list and asked if I would be willing to put one together for off the shelf. I happily agreed, but then came the question what should I include? As I thought about it, I had a few criteria. First, I wanted to avoid the heavy stuff, so you won’t find Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology on this list (as useful as it is). I also wanted to give our listeners a variety, to keep things interesting. So this list includes a mix of biography, fiction, non-Christian, and of course a little something from Larry Crabb. So without further ado, here are my 6 summertime reads:

Right at the top of my list, I am putting the Hawk and the Dove Trilogy by Penelope Wilcock. In the early 1990s, Wilcock wrote three books that were set in a 14th century Benedictine Monestary called St Alcuin’s. Admittedly, when I first heard that basic background, I was not hopeful, but as I began to read them, I couldn’t put the books down. Through the lives of the monks, Wilcock explores life and relationships in a deeply meaningful and engaging way.

The second book on the summer reading list is All of Grace by Brennan Manning. If you are unfamiliar with Brennan Manning, he was traveling preacher who couldn’t stop talking about the love and grace of God.  Although he is most well-known for his excellent book the Ragamuffin Gospel, All of Grace was written near the end of his life. They are his memoirs, his confession. You will be deeply moved by his story. 

The Great Divorce by CS Lewis is the third book on my summer reading list. As you may know, CS Lewis wrote many different books. In fact, many of you probably have read some of them like Mere Christianity or the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As good as those books are, The Great Divorce is my favorite Lewis book. In just over 100 pages, CS Lewis writes an allegory, or a story about what the afterlife might look like. The story opens with people at a bus stop waiting to go to heaven.  No doubt you will see a bit of yourself in some of the characters.

My fourth book is Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. In Daring Greatly, Brown explores the roots of shame that so many of us deal with and points us to a life of vulnerability and authenticity. If you are like me, you have spent much of your life wearing various masks to help keep people out of your mess, but Brown talks about the importance of taking off our masks.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is my fifth on my list. If you have never heard of the Pilgrim’s Progress, pay attention. This book was written by John Bunyan in 1677 when he was in prison for preaching the gospel. Since then, it has never been out of print and remains, after the Bible, one of the most popular books ever published. In it, Bunyan tells the story of a man appropriately named Christian who journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It is what is referred to as an allegory, or metaphor for the Christian life. If you have never read it before, don’t delay. 

The Pressure’s Off by Larry Crabb is my sixth book. As I was looking over my Crabb shelf at home, I was thinking that a book about getting out from under pressure and learning to live in the freedom of Christ is just what we need for the summer. Plus, my copy has two kids jumping into a lake. This summer, break free from rules and performance.

 These are just a few suggestions. There are so many good books out there. As Augustine said, Tolle Lege—take up and read.

19 May 2015

Book Review: The Hawk and the Dove Trilogy

In the early 1990s, Penelope Wilcock first published the The Hawk and the Dove trilogy consisting of: The Hawk and the Dove, The Wounds of God, and The Long Fall. However, the edition that I read was published by Crossway in 2000 as a bundled trilogy. 

The first two books in the series differ from the third in that they are cast as a type of story within a story. In each of the first two books, we are introduced to Melissa, who narrates the story. She is a teenage girl who lives with her parents and 4 sisters. However, her father and sisters play bit parts in comparison with Melissa and her mother. Melissa is drawn to her mother's character and is always eager to hear her mother tell stories about a 14th century Benedictine abbey in Yorkshire called St Alcuin's. The stories exposed Melissa to the day to day monastic life. Although the reader comes to know many different characters, the central character is Father Peregrine, the abbot of the monastery. The abbot was a man of deep conviction, wisdom, and love.

Although the third book continues to deal with St Alcuin's, there is a decided shift in the storyline. Melissa and her mother are not even mentioned in the third book; it is entirely focused upon the monastery. It also deals with suffering and compassion on a deeper level. Without giving too much away, as a neuropsychologist, Wilcock's presentation of an unfortunate neurological malady in the final book was thought provoking for me.

On the whole, this trilogy does a commendable job of discussing the love of Christ in relationship, showing what life on life may look like. Wilcock is an engaging writer and I found it difficult to put the book down.  Despite her skill at writing, I was disappointed with the editorial work in the book that I read which included sentence fragments and incomplete punctuation, something I do not typically encounter with Crossway books. All in all, The Hawk and the Dove is a series I will gladly recommend.

15 May 2015

Entrusting Ourselves to God

I have been spending a lot of time in 1 Peter recently. Each morning, I get up and ask myself if it is time to move on to another book and each day, I realize I want to continue to be mastered by this epistle, and I have not been yet.  God still has work to do in me through Peter's words. He always will, but for right now, I want to live in Peter's neighborhood.

As I was reading this morning, I was struck by Peter's call to other-centeredness. One of the most important things that Larry Crabb helped me to see about myself is justified self-centeredness, which he talks about in his book Men and Women, and how the Bible calls us to other-centered relating.

Look at 1 Peter 2 with me. Right away, in verse 1, he tells us to set aside hypocrisy, slander, deceit, and envy. Every one of those things suggests self-centeredness.  I am a hypocrite because I am afraid of what you will think of me if you see the real me. I envy you because I want things you have. It's all about me. But Peter goes on to say that, as true believers, we will be rejected by men, though chosen and precious to God.

But I was particularly struck by the last section:

    Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:18-25 ESV)

It is a gracious thing to endure unjust suffering.  What? When we are reviled, we do not revile in return. When we suffer at the hand of another, we do not threaten, but rather entrust ourselves to God because God is always just.  Really? Look at verse 24--Jesus bore our sins that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. In other words, Jesus has born all suffering so that we can live with other-centered love (righteousness) and not sin against others with our self-centered motives (relational sin). 

This is a hard thing. None of us want to endure suffering at the hand of another, yet when we do and remain loving in the process, it is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 

14 May 2015

Circle of Friends

My circle of friends talked and laughed together. We took turns helping each other. We gathered to read enjoyable books.

We joked often and at other times were serious. We could disagree without offending. We reasoned as a man would with himself, and our occasional moments of disagreement only spiced our usual harmony of thought.

Sometimes we would teach, and sometimes we would learn.

We would sorely miss the one who was absent and welcome him when he returned.

Such were the expressions of our hearts for one another. We loved and were loved by those who knew well our expressions and words, the look in our eyes and all of our individual gestures. This is the fuel that heats souls until they melt together, to make out of many one. This is the picture of friends bound together in mutual affection. The feelings become so strong that one's conscience condemns any doubt or critical thought of the others that breaks that emotional connection.

-St Augustine, The Confessions

12 May 2015

Book Review: A Grace Disguised

Suffering and loss are inevitable, but I don’t know if I understood that when I was younger. My wife’s breast cancer and the trials of adoption have pressed suffering upon me in ways that I have never felt before. Shortly after Heather was diagnosed with cancer, I tried to find books of comfort, writings to help explain what was going on in my life. The Psalms took on a new richness for me, but other books varied. 

In the last few years, I haven’t read many books dealing with suffering or loss, but as I was looking over my bookshelf at home, I happened across a little book by Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. I had previously read another of Sittser’s books and I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t prepared for this book.  

A Grace Disguised is, in a word, stunning. Based in his own experience of profound loss—his mother, wife, and daughter were all killed by a drunk driver—Sittser explores loss of a gut-wrenching level. When I began reading, I told my wife that with each page, I was on the verge of tears. The book opens like this: “Catastrophic loss wreaks destruction like a massive flood. It is unrelenting, unforgiving, and uncontrollable, brutally erosive to body, mind, and spirit.”  The author never shied away from the many ways in which this loss affected him. 

Though every page carried its own value, his chapter on forgiveness is phenomenal. My master’s thesis dealt with forgiveness and oh that I had this book then. From here on out, when anyone is looking for readings about forgiveness, this will be the book I recommend. Sittser’s understanding of forgiveness, crafted not in an ivory tower, but in the fires of loss. 

A Grace Disguised is one of the most beautiful, painful, and engaging books I have ever read. I read a lot of books and this is a book that will get my highest endorsement.  If you are someone who has experienced tragedy, loss, or suffering, I cannot recommend another book as strongly as I recommend A Grace Disguised.

09 May 2015

Celebrating Mother's Day on Good Intentions Road

I told a good friend of mine tonight that tomorrow, I just might win the award for worst son of the year. Tomorrow is Mother's Day and I forgot to send my mom a card. My mom loves cards. I thought of it on Thursday and Friday and again today, but alas, I dropped the ball. Mom, you probably know by now that you won't be getting a card by tomorrow.

What is worse is that tonight was the dance recital for my kids and I didn't invite her. It wasn't that I didn't want her here; quite the opposite, I love it when she is here and so do Heather and the kids.  We cherish her presence. Much like the card, I suspect I always thought I would have time or maybe that Heather would take care of it. 

Mom, I am sorry I didn't send you a card and I am even more sorry that I forgot to invite you to the recital. For future reference, you are always welcome to come to it. I love having you here.

But here's what I want to say, I love my mom deeply. She has always been one of the most important people in my life. From my earliest years, she was my best friend. Even now, I love to talk to her--it is one of my highlights--even though it seems it is never often enough. She showed me what it is to love fiercely. She showed me what it is to have compassion on people regardless of the hand they were dealt. She showed me what it is to put others first, to live with other-centeredness.

In many respects mom, I want to be like you when I grow up--to be someone who puts others first, who loves without condition, and who shaped me into the man I am. 

I love you always, even if I do forget to send you a card. 

Book Review: Simply Christian

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (2006) by NT Wright is a 21st century primer on the Christian faith similar to what one might expect in CS Lewis's Mere Christianity or Chuck Colson's The Faith. Divided into three sections, Wright makes a compelling case for the truth of Christianity. In the first section, he addressed the "echoes" heard by all people--the desire for justice, a sense of the spiritual, a need for relationality, and a love for beauty. In part two, he explores how the God of the Bible and Christianity in particular helps us to understand those echoes by looking at God's self-revelation through His people, His Son, and His Spirit. The third part answers the now what question.  If Christianity is true, which Wright proposes that it is, what do our lives look like? Although the whole book was good, it was this third section that particularly captivated my attention. His discussions of worship, prayer, and the word of God would be beneficial for all believers to consider. However, it was his final chapter, "New Creation, Starting Now" that was I think the most beneficial. Wright tells his readers that we wait not until heaven to live as Christians, but to live right now.  We have the answer to questions of justice, spirituality, relationships, and beauty. In Christ, we are new creations. Starting now.

07 May 2015

Book Review: Restoring All Things

Too often, Christians get a bad wrap. The media has a way of presenting Christians as bigoted and hateful, standing against anything of value. But is that true? Perhaps, the truth is that Christians have been at the forefront of positive cultural and social change for the last 2000 years. In their book Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan to Save the World through Everyday People (Baker Books, 2015), Warren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet use the medium of story to explore just what Christians are actually about.

The media chatter would have us believe that Christians are anti-science, anti-woman, anti-education, anti-progress, anti-, anti-, anti-.  The list goes on and on. Indeed, there have been a number of excellent worldview and apologetics books helping to equip Christians to respond to these challenges to the Christian faith. These books are often reactive. More recently, it seems that there have been more books that I would call proactive apologetics texts, books that seek to highlight the positives of Christianity. Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason (2006) and the newer book Joy for the World (2014) by Greg Forster are proactive. In the same way, Smith and Stonestreet's book provide a positive case for the biblical worldview in all things.

In the introduction, they provide a useful framework for thinking about God's redemptive work in all the world by asking four questions: 1) what is good in our culture that we can promote, protect, and celebrate? 2) What is missing in our culture that we can creatively contribute? 3) What is evil in our culture that we can stop? and 4) What is broken in our culture that we can restore?  Then, through the remainder of the book, through the medium of stories, they examine the positive apologetic for the Christian worldview. They explore how Christians are at the forefront of combating sex trafficking, promoting racial reconciliation, and honoring human dignity on the deepest level. In fact, if there was one message that leaped off of the pages for me, it was the authors stalwart attention to the fact that Christians have a high view of the dignity of all people.

All in all, this was a great book. If you are interested in learning more about the positive role Christians play in fostering culture and loving people, this is a great place to begin.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Baker Books in exchange for this review. I have provided my opinion and I was not required to write a positive review of this book. 

06 May 2015

The Correspondences--James 5

Last week, I wrote out all of James's epistle as if it were a letter from God to me. Here is the final chapter.  This was a very enlightening project.

(1-6) If you keep watching, your house, your car, your clothes, even your body will waste away. If you put your keep putting your hope in things, you are going to be absolutely miserable when you watch it fall apart before your eyes. If you aren’t careful, your soul will corrode along with all of this stuff. Not only that, all of the people whom you have treated unfairly testify against you and I hear their cries. Remember, I am for the downtrodden and to think you are one who treads them down! Every time you speak or act in a way that makes you look good at the expense of others, it is a testimony against you. Your file is thick, child, and apart from the blood of my son, you have no hope of acquittal.

(7-8) So rather than placing your hopes in stuff, or in your comfort, or your success, hope forward. Be patient. I will be there soon. Just think about your garden. When snow still covers the ground, you plant seeds and you tend to them. If you were to judge its success in the first few weeks, you would feel pretty defeated, but today’s faith in these seedlings anticipates a future hope.  I’m coming. Have faith.

(9-11) As you wait for me, don’t fall back into the habit of grumbling against your brothers and sisters. As I said, I’m coming back soon, focus on that instead. There will be times when life and relationships just seem so hard and you will feel impatient and begin to justify your self-centered attitudes. When you start feeling that way, think back to the prophets, who often saw nothing but misery, yet they hoped in me. Just think about my friend Job. If he would have been focused in the here and now, he would have killed himself because he had nothing to live for.  But he continued hoping in me even though he could not see my purposes. Now, he understands.  

(12) Live simply. You don’t need to make fancy promises.  Be a man of your word. Whether you say yes or no, stick by what you said. If you are always honest, you won’t be caught in a lie.

(13-15) Don’t forget to come and talk to me when you are suffering. I love it when you sing to me when you’re cheerful. It’s music to my ears. When you aren’t doing well, seek counsel. If you are sick, tell the elders so that they can pray for you and anoint you with oil in my name. The prayers of my kids are powerful. Whatever is going on, I love talking with you. Too many of my children get it in mind that they can only talk with me when they really need something fixed, but I just want to be with them. I already know everything you need and what you need most is Me. I am a gracious, merciful, forgiving Father and I cherish your words.

(16-18) But I have also created you to relate with others. Its great that you enjoy hanging out with other people, but I have also called you to something deeper. Get beneath the surface with a few people.  Take off your mask and tell them what’s really going in inside. Be authentic with your sin. Then come and talk to me together. As I said, when you pray its powerful. Just think about Elijah. He prayed and it stopped raining for three and a half years! Prayer works, son.

(19-20) Finally, I know that since sin entered the world life on the narrow road is hard. Some of your friends are going to stumble. Some will fall. Some will wander. Get past your fears and go after them. I came after you, you do the same. You just may breathe new life—My life--into a dying man.