28 September 2015

A Case for Positive Behavior

Too often, it seems to me, that Christians ask the wrong questions about how to live. We rightly desire to follow Christ and live consistently with Scripture. Unfortunately, we often arrive at questionable conclusions about what is good and right. I want to share a few observations and thoughts.

First, I think we have a propensity to think only in terms of what behaviors are prohibited. We ask things like "does the Bible prohibit premarital sex, smoking marijuana, pornography, gambling, etc.?" We seem to approach God's word with an attitude that says, "just tell me what I can and cannot do and I will seek to live in those boundaries."

Second, we unfortunately think only in terms of behaviors. It seems to me this was one of the primary issues with the Pharisees and Scribes in Jesus' time. They were well-versed in the law and tried to shape their behaviors accordingly, but they ignored the heart and ignored relationships.

Third, we proof text. In other words, we try to build a behavioral code upon verses pulled out of context. Eisegesis is associated with proof-texting. Eisegesis is the process by which we read meaning and our own biases into a scriptural text as opposed to exegesis, which involves trying to arrive at the actual intent of what the Bible is saying.

Finally, we engage in mental gymnastics to justify behavior. We think or say things like "well, I may be looking at pornography, but at least I am not committing adultery." We also live with the attitude that says, "well, I'm saved anyway, so it is okay if I get drunk. God forgives."

So, if those are the wrong, or at least incomplete, approaches, how then shall we live? First, let's stop thinking just in terms of behaviors to avoid. It seems to me that was part of Jesus' point in the Sermon on the Mount. He was teaching his followers that we must go deeper than just avoiding negative behaviors. We must go to the heart. In Luke 10, we read a summary of the law, which tells us to "love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves." We need to get into the habit of asking "am I being loving?" Another question to ask ourselves in this vein is "Am I living in a self-obsessed, self-centered way OR am I living in a God-obsessed, other-centered way?"

Second, it is important that we try to think not only in terms of isolated verses, but in terms of the whole biblical narrative. Plucking a verse out of Malachi to justify a position is not only unwise, but it can be dangerous. Rather, while considering what specific verses teach, think about it in terms of the whole biblical narrative that recognizes the realities of God's creation, our fallenness, Christ's redemption, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit through the body of believers.

Third, if you find yourself having to do all sorts of interpretive gymnastics to justify your position rather than a plain reading of the text, understand that you may be engaging in eisegesis rather than exegesis. Approach Scripture humbly and seek to grow in wisdom.  Sit under God's holy word rather than standing above it.

Finally, and this is ultimately my goal, that we would start thinking in terms of positive behavior. In Galatians 5, we read of the fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Get into the habit of asking questions like: how can I be most loving in this situation? How can I act kindly? Rather than living from a mindset of finding what behaviors we must avoid, we should get into the habit of asking how can I be most loving toward others and is my behavior glorifying God? Am I seeking to put on the mind of Christ and living in the reality of the indwelling Spirit?

As we seek to grow in Christ let's learn to ask the right questions--not, "is this prohibited?" or "am I allowed to do this?" but rather "is the loving?" and "does this bring glory to God?"

24 September 2015

Book Review: The Story of God's Love for You

One of the most remarkable books that has come out in the last several years was actually a children's Bible. Together with incomparable artwork of Jago, Sally Lloyd-Jones wrote the award-winning Jesus Storybook Bible.  Too often, children's Bibles are presented as lessons in moralism, rather than being grounded in the work of Christ. Lloyd-Jones masterfully pointed to the work of Jesus through 44 short vignettes drawn from Genesis through Revelation.

I once heard Tullian Tchvidjian say that the Jesus Storybook Bible would be great prerequisite reading to diving into the Bible itself because it weaves together the whole story of God and His redemptive work through Jesus Christ.  A friend of mine who works at a Christian bookstore said that they routinely sell out of the Jesus Storybook Bible because she tells everyone about it. 

But this is actually a review of The Story of God's Love for You (2015, Zondervan), which is a repackaged version of the Jesus Storybook Bible geared for adults. The words are the same, minus the vibrochromatic artwork of Jago present in the children' version.

There are a couple of apparent advantages to this book. First, it is more compact than its predecessor and could be more easily tossed into a bag or a small pocket. Second, for those who feel a bit sheepish about reading a children's Bible, this is a nice alternative (though admittedly, Jago's artwork is rather remarkable).

On the whole, I would echo the recommendation of Tchvidjian. Lloyd-Jones's book provides a wonderful introduction and overview to the redemptive work of Christ so whether new to the Bible or infinitely familiar with it, you will likely benefit from this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the BookLook Bloggers book review program in exchange for this review. I was not required to submit a positive review. The impression from this review are my own. 

Book Review: The Pastor

The Pastor: A Memoir (2012) by Eugene Peterson is a remarkable book, full of wisdom and beauty. Undoubtedly, Peterson is a storyteller, one who draws the reader into his reflections on a lifetime as a pastor, not as a job, but as a true vocation. From his early life in mountains of Montana to his later aspirations to become a professor, to the transition to becoming a pastor, he paints a thousand pictures with his words.

I said recently that I would like to put this book into the hand of every pastor I know. Peterson has an intimate understanding of the DNA of the pastoral life through his decades of self-reflection and wisdom. He reminds the reader that being a pastor is not simply about the job of preaching, but that it forms his whole person.

For me personally, as my own reading life has matured, I have realized that although I still maintain an appreciation for much theology, I am increasingly interested in what Peterson calls "spiritual theology". On page 238, he wrote "I had understood the Revelation as a work I would later learn to name spiritual theology--entering into the lived quality of theology, writing my way into the primary substratum of life that involves taking the immediate conditions of everyday life--family, work, place, feelings--into the scriptures and gospel story and making a home there. Entering into reimagining and repraying scripture in the details of daily living personally and relationally and in place, right here, right now."

The Pastor is a book I will likely read again. It presents a theology lived, beautifully.

The Unbusy Pastor

Though I am not a pastor, I have been drinking deeply from Eugene Peterson's excellent memoir The Pastor (2012). I personally believe this book should be required reading for all pastors.

On page 277 of the book, he writes of his crisis when on the eve of the 27th evening in a row occupied by church meetings, he told his daughter Karen that he could not read to her. He went into the meeting with the elder board with the intention to resign. He recalls telling them,

"And it's not just Karen. It's you too. I haven't been a pastor to this congregation for six months. I pray in fits and starts. It feels like I am in a hurry all the time. When I visit or have lunch with you, I'm not listening to you; I'm thinking of ways I can get the momentum going again. My sermons are thrown together. I don't want to live like this, either with you or with my family."

"So what do you want to do?" This was Craig speaking. His father had been a pastor. He knew some of this from the inside.

"I want to be a pastor who prays. I want to be reflective and responsive and relaxed in the presence of God so that I can be reflective and responsive and relaxed in your presence. I can't do that on the run. It takes a lot of time. I started out doing that with you, but now I feel too crowded.

"I want to be a pastor who reads and studies. This culture in which we live squeezes all the God sense out of us. I want to be observant and informed enough to help this congregation understand what we're up against, the temptations of the devil to get us thinking we can all be our own gods. This is subtle stuff. It demands some detachment and perspective. I can't do this just by trying harder.

"I want to be a pastor who has the time to be with you in leisurely, unhurried conversations so that I can understand and be a companion with you as you grow in Christ--your doubts and difficulties, your desires and delights. I can't do that when I am running scared.

"I want to be a pastor who leads you in worship, a pastor who brings you before God in receptive obedience, a pastor who preaches sermons that make Scripture accessible and present and alive, a pastor who is able to give you a language and imagination that restores in you a sense of dignity as a Christian in your homes and workplaces and gets rid of these debilitating images of being a 'mere' layperson.

"I want to have time to read a story to Karen.

"I want to be an unbusy pastor."

11 September 2015

Book Review: Reversed Thunder

I have been on Eugene Peterson kick recently. The more books that I read from him, the more I am drawn to his writing. He is wise, earthy, and poetic, a wonderful combination. Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (1988) was the most recent. 

In Reversed Thunder, Peterson explores the creative and imaginative language of St. John in the last book of the Bible. In my experience, many books about the Revelation of John attempt to provide a key to the events of the book as a type of apocalyptic road map. In other words, many books claim to have found the key to the end times and are eager to share their findings. This book is refreshingly different.

In the introduction, Peterson wrote, "I do not read the Revelation to get additional information about the life of faith in Christ. I have read it all before in law and prophet, in gospel and epistle. Everything in the book of Revelation can be found in the previous 65 books of the Bible...I read the Revelation not to get more information, but to revive imagination." Later: " I have taken the position that this book does not primarily call for decipherment, as if it were written in code, but that it evokes wonder, releasing metaphors that resonate meanings and refract insights in the praying imagination."

To be honest, this is the first thing I have read about the book of Revelation that I have actually benefited from, actually enjoyed. Peterson, a poet in his own write, writing about the poetry of St John is a lovely gift. If you are someone who has been confused by the book of Revelation, I would commend Reversed Thunder to you.  It is well worth the time.

04 September 2015

Book Review: The Way of the Heart

Flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.-Abba Arsenius

The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (1981) by Henri Nouwen is a short book with deep impact. At just 96 short pages, Nouwen provides much to think about. In essence, Nouwen examined the importance of solitude, silence, and prayer through the lenses of the desert fathers, Christians who lived in the Egyptian desert during the 4th and 5th centuries.

Flee--In the first section, where Nouwen addressed the importance of solitude, he began by telling of St. Anthony who apparently lived in complete solitude in the desert for 20 years. Nouwen uses Anthony's experience as a call to solitude for the modern Christian. He contends that solitude is a direct key to developing compassion.

Be silent--Silence often goes hand in hand with solitude. Living in the 21st century, we are bombarded with noise, and sounds, and words. In our loquaciousness, words have been drained of their power. The person who practices silence guards his tongue and also learns to speak with meaning. Nouwen writes, "It is a good discipline in each new situation if people wouldn't be better served by our silence than by our words" (p. 65).

Pray always--In the final section, Nouwen addresses the pray of the heart, which he differentiates from prayers of the mind that dominate many of our prayer lives. Learning to enter the presence of God, to pray with our whole lives, flows from solitude and silence.

On the whole, I liked this book. I think there is a lot of wisdom to glean from this book. However, though I agree that there is much benefit to the practice of solitude, I do not believe that living in complete isolation, such as St. Anthony did for decades, is as God intended. We were created to relate, so seeking long term isolation seems contrary to God's Word.  With that modest caution, reading this book is definitely worthwhile. 

02 September 2015

Book Review: Tranquility

Tranquility: Cultivating a Quiet Soul in a Busy World (Baker Books, 2015) by David W Henderson addresses an important topic, the noisiness of life that too often invades our souls. On page 3, he introduced the book in this way: "Instead of asking, 'How do we manage time?' this book asks, 'How do we manage ourselves as people who are ever in time's flow?' It is about perspective and focus, yieldedness and willingness, quiet and silence, putting first the things that should be first, waiting and trusting and resting."

For those of us living in Western cultures, busyness defines much of our lives. We race from one task to the next, seemingly eager to fit yet more activity into schedules. In fact, it is arguable that not only does busyness define our lives, it is often viewed as a personal strength. Efficiency, something I have long prided myself on, is seen only for its benefits. We are encouraged to do more faster and better. But what if busyness damages us and our relationships? In the beginning of the book, Henderson explores with the reader some of the problems with hurry which range from relational to medical (i.e., the "Type A" personality).

In the remainder of the book, he explores ways in which we can begin to redeem time, not by becoming more efficient, but by quieting our souls.  He helps the reader to see who we are in relation to God and others. He explores the biblical basis for sleep and rest, calling the reader to view the Sabbath as a gift.

On the whole, this is a readable, enjoyable and important addition to the growing spiritual formation literature. If you are someone who, like me, has struggled with quieting my soul, consider reading Tranquility.

I received a free copy of this book from Baker Books in exchange for this review. I was not required to submit a positive review. The views expressed above are my own.