28 June 2015

Joining others in protest and prayer

In our compassion, we don't like to see people suffer. And so our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering. No doubt that is a good impulse. But if we really want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to be like Job's friends, not to do our "helping" with the presumption that we can fix things, get rid of them, or make them "better." We may look at our suffering friends and imagine how they could have better marriages better-behaved children, better mental and emotional health. But when we rush in to fix suffering, we need to keep in mind several things.

First, no matter how insightful we may be, we don't really understand the full nature of our friends' problems. Second, our friends may not want our advice. Third, the ironic fact of the matter is that more often than not, people do not suffer less when they are committed to following God, but more. When these people go through suffering, their lives are often transformed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before the suffering.

So, instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering--which we simply won't be very successful at anyway--perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able--entering the mystery and looking around for God. In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them and--if they will let us--join them in protest and prayer. Pity can be nearsighted and condescending; shared suffering can be dignifying and life changing. As we look at Job's suffering and praying and worshiping, we see that he has already blazed a trail of courage and integrity for us to follow.

From Eugene Peterson's introduction to Job in The Message.

22 June 2015

Move deeper in: some thoughts on Tullian

What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar.-Romans 3:3-4

Yesterday, the news came down that one of my spiritual heroes, Tullian Tchvidjian, stepped down from his pastorate at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church after admitting an "inappropriate relationship." I grieve for him. I grieve for his family. I grieve for Coral Ridge. I grieve for all of the people whose lives have been radically transformed by the message of God's one way love.

Here's the thing: lots of naysayers are going to come out of the woodwork now, not only condemning Tullian's actions, which are condemnable, but also the gospel banner he has carried proudly for many years. After not too much time, I suspect that we will hear people say, "see, you have to be careful with this message of grace. Don't get overbalanced. It's too dangerous."

NO! Jesus' one way love toward sinners--like me, like you, like Tullian--remains in full force! God loved me so much that in spite of my ongoing sinfulness he gave his only son, Jesus, to bear the penalty that I deserve so that I might live forever in restored relationship with him. If you are a believer, that is true for you too.  No exceptions. 

If you, like me, have been utterly wrecked and rebuilt by this message of profound grace for undeserving sinners, don't shy away from it when you hear of moral failings. Move deeper in.
Grace is our lifeblood.
Grace is the sinew that holds us together.
Grace is the muscle that propels us and the bones that hold us up.
Grace is every breath we draw.

12 June 2015

Book Review: Toughest People to Love

If I could put this book into the hands of every pastor and leader in the United States I would. Chuck DeGroat's Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life--Including Yourself (2014, Eerdmans) is a useful book on understanding people that has a high Christology and a realistic anthropology.

DeGroat opened the book by discussing the challenges of the pastorate. He pointed out that 80% of new pastors quit within 5 years. As I often say to my friends, people are messy. He discusses the ineffective ways that we tend to lead and why they don't work before he moves on to discuss our deep relationality and how understanding that is the foundation of all good leadership.

One of the terms that DeGroat introduced was "beautiful complexity"--that we are not only sinful, but God's image bearers. We must be careful of simplifying people and trying to fit them into neat theological boxes.

Part 2 which deals with "leading and loving difficult people" is particularly beneficial. Often, I think Christians are leery of psychological categories, but they can be helpful in dealing with people. As his friend Johnny LaLonde said to him, "Labels are helpful when they broaden our ability to understand and empathize with a person. They're destructive when they confine us and cause us to see the person more narrowly." Having said that, DeGroat introduces the reader to terms such as personality disorders (borderline, narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, and histrionic) as well as addiction and foolishness.

As he continued through the book, he explored the benefit of the dark night of the soul, a call to wholeness, and useful spiritual disciplines. I particularly liked discipline 4: "The freedom to break the rules." I have been offering this piece of wisdom to some rigid folks I know and it helps them to discover a freedom they did not know was available.

Whether you are a pastor or not, whether you are a leader or not, I would strongly recommend this book. I have already recommended it to my pastor and will no doubt recommend it again.

09 June 2015

Book Review: Three Free Sins

This week, I read a book that at least a half dozen people asked me about just by seeing the cover. Every one of them questioned the title, which gave me a chance to talk about what a great book it is in spite of the provocative title.  So what is the book? Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You by Steve Brown. 

Perhaps you, like many of my friends, hear me say that title and you wince, but give me a moment. If you are at all familiar with Steve Brown, he’s been around a long, long time. In fact, he refers to himself as “old as dirt.” He is a conservative, Bible believing seminary professor who has been telling people about Jesus for a very long time with his amazing baritone voice. But in the introduction to the book, he tells his readers that he has tried really hard to live in the “religious box” for a long time, a stiff container of legalism and lovelessness. Although the title catches almost everyone off guard, the message inside is pure gospel. 

Too often, you see, Christians use methods of discipleship that don’t work. For example, we inflict guilt or we hold up stories of “Bible heroes” without recognizing their dark sides. We present the Bible as a list of rules to be followed rather than a story of a God pursuing sinners right in the middle of their mess. We confuse law and gospel. What happens is not that we sin less, but that we get better at hiding our junk. And then we get self-righteous. 

Brown turns this whole approach to the Christian faith (which is ineffective anyways) upside down. He asks the question “What if the Christian faith isn’t about getting better?” Rather, what if the Christian faith is developing a deeper and deeper recognition that God loves us in spite of our sins—past, present and future. What if being a Christian really is about freedom, recognition of our need for Jesus, and the beauty of forgiveness? On page 87, Brown wrote, “I’ve found that the greatest need among Christian leaders isn’t for more commitment, more ‘religion’, and more ‘making an impact for Jesus’. What they need to be taught is that they are seriously sinful and God loves them anyway.” Bingo!

When we begin to recognize God’s love, grace, and forgiveness, something interesting happens. We begin to live as free people. We live fearlessly. We will get better when we aren’t watching and trying so hard. 

Three Free Sins is an amazing book. Don’t let the title scare you off. If you are a Christian, God. Is. Not. Mad. At. You. You are his beloved child. You are free.  I’m Jason Kanz for off the shelf.  

04 June 2015

One of my Favorite Sermons:Blessed Self-Forgetfulness

One of my favorite books is a short little book called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller. At just 46 pages, I can read it through in a half-hour or so and usually read it a couple of times per year. Earlier today, I was looking into buying copies of this book to give out to as many people as I could. I found that if I bought 100, I could get them for 1 pound each, but shipping was about half of that again. So, to get 100 shipped here would be $222, which is more than I want to spend.

But today, I came across the sermon that this little book is based upon. In fact, it is almost word for word and you get to hear Tim Keller's inflections and humor come through.  If you want to buy a copy, great. If not, I would strongly recommend the sermon. It will only take you about 35 minutes.

02 June 2015

Book Review: Law and Gospel--A Theology for Sinners and Saints

On February 20, 2010 a major shift occurred in my life. The pastor of my church read Romans 5:20-21 which says “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” I sat in the front of the church and wept. I think that was the day that I began to understand the difference between Law and Gospel. 

If you have no idea what I am talking about, a new book, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners and Saints, by William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl will provide a great introduction to the distinction. Briefly, God gave us both the law and the gospel but they have different roles. The law was never given as a means of salvation, the law was given to show each of us our absolute inability to live up to God’s perfect standard. It is the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ came to earth, lived a sinless life, was crucified on the cross, and was raised again to new life on my behalf that provides the power to save. It is Jesus who did the saving.

The first half of the book is dedicated to exploring the role of the law and how it has overtaken many churches. From pulpits all over America, we hear messages of do more/try harder/pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But we fail, again and again. The law tells us what to do, but it is impossible for us to do it and so we stand accused. When people recognize their utter inability, lots of people give up.

But, like good sermons should do, the book begins with the crushing power of the law, but finishes with the life giving power of the gospel. The authors show us that because of Christ’s love for us, he alone accomplished our salvation as a free gift. Then, in my favorite part of the book, they looked at the fruits of the gospel, of what Jesus did. The fruits they listed include: humility, receptivity, gratitude, spontaneity, humor, and freedom.

If you have struggled to understand what Paul was talking about when he said that we are free in Christ, or what I mean when I saw the law/gospel distinction, please get this book.