31.12.11

2011 Reflections

Yet another year gone. Another month, another day, another minute, just like any other. Did you know that for centuries the Christian new year began on March 25th? It's true. Think about that for a minute, and remember that whatever you did last night was to celebrate an utterly arbitrary decision, made by some random person you have never heard of, about when the year should end and begin. I guess it's all what you make of it though. So, did you? Make something of it?

While your thinking about all that, here are some interesting things to know about my blog in the last year.


Top 5 Posts of 2011

1. Heaven and Hell - In a commanding lead we have a nearly content-less post which only sits hear by virtue of a combination of search optimization and linking. It kind of makes me sad. 

2. "About You" by Dick Staub - A book review of a good book. In the top five because the author liked it. 

3. "Love Wins" by Rob Bell - A book review of a terrible book. In the top five due to the controversy surrounding this book. 

4. Politics In/And Church - Some comments on the prime minister visiting our church. Definitely made a stir locally. 

5. Book Giveaway: Celebrating 100 Book Reviews - Who doesn't like free stuff? Sorry to all of you who missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!


Some Stats

Blogger only started keeping track of stats back in the summer of 2010, so I can't do any comparisons. This year, the most people visiting Against Nothingness in March. My biggest single day, which was in November (I can't remember which day) saw just under 300 hits. Yep, I am definitely in the big time now, lol.


Blogging


I don't know why I can't just accept things the way they are, but it makes me sad that my top three posts of the year prove the truth about what brings people to blogs. SEO, Links from popular people, and controversy. Knowing this, I have still chosen to resist the urge to pander to such trends.

Nonetheless, I have very much enjoyed this year and thank you for reading my blog. Thank you for your comments, here and on facebook. Please continue to feel free to give advice, suggestions, and make requests.


Things to Come

Over the coming week, I will be writing a number of more specific reflection posts. One on my reading over the past year, another on our church, a third about my family, and a more general one.

The following week, I will do a series of posts about things I want to do in the coming year mostly, but not entirely, related to this blog.


In the Meantime


So, while your waiting for all that goodness to come, you should check out this video and think about my family while you do.  Hilarious.


This is the way the year ends

"Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
                                        For Thine is the Kingdom
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
                                                    Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
                                        For Thine is the Kingdom
For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper."

- T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, fifth part.

27.12.11

"Power in Prayer" by Andrew Murray



Andrew Murray. Power in Prayer: Classic Devotions to Inspire and Deepen Your Prayer Life. Bethany House, 2011. 167 pgs. 

A second good devotional book in the same month? What are the odds? Then again, when one of them is by Andrew Murray, those odds go up significantly. 

What we have here is an edited, and updated, collection of over 150 select devotions on prayer from the vast array of such entries Andrew Murray has left for those interested. They are updated in that the language has been made modern, and selected seemingly with the intention of being the best of what is available (which is all pretty good stuff in my opinion). 

Andrew Murray has long been a go to author for me. His devotional thoughts are not made up of theological genius, nor stunning literary style. They are simple and many of them seem like common sense after you read them. And yet, they are powerful. They are poignant. Spiritually speaking, they usually hit uncomfortably close to the mark and force me to actually think, reflect, pray, and change. I really can't ask for more in a devotional, and so Andrew Murray will remain one of my go to authors when I know I need someone to speak truth into my soul. Having it in modern language just makes it easier to recommend and pass on to others. Someone should borrow this book from me ASAP!

Conclusion: 5 Stars. Recommended. I think I have said it all already. 

"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.
Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

23.12.11

Flying Upside Down

Often I have the wrong perspective on life. I wonder why Kristina hasn't done some specific chore, when I ought to be realizing how little I have done. I feel how good I am doing, but only because I have forgotten all that I have forgotten and left undone. I search for something thinking I know where it is only to find that if I had instead searched with eyes open I would have found it much sooner (usually plainly visible right next to where I thought it should be, and yet I miss it).

Sometimes, though, I think that I don't just have the wrong perspective on life. I am not just looking at things a little bit off center. I am actually flying upside-down through life, and so I am looking at everything wrong. Down is up and up is down and I wonder why things don't work quite the way they are supposed to. 

Christopher Wright in The Mission of God, same book as yesterday, points out ways in which reading the bible with the mission of God in mind turns our perspective ride-side up again. I wanted to share some of them:

"We ask, 'where does God fit into the story of my life?' when the real question is where does my life fit into this great story of God's mission.
...
We talk about the problems of 'applying the bible to our lives'... what would it mean to apply our lives to the bible instead...?
...
We wonder whether and how the care of creation, for example, might fit into our concept and practice of mission, when this Story challenges us to ask whether our lives, lived on God's earth and under God's gaze, are aligned with, or horrendously misaligned with, God's mission that stretches from creation to cosmic transformation and the arrival of a new heaven and new earth. 

We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission God expects from the church, when we should ask what kidn of church God expects for his mission in all its comprehensive fullness.

I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission." (Christopher Wright, Mission of God. 533-534)


22.12.11

Pleading for Sodom

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is an interesting, and often ill-used, piece of the Old Testament. In recent days it has become something of a prop to be toted out whenever we need to discuss the moral standing of homosexuality. It is interesting, and perhaps uncomfortably revealing, that we have reduced this great biblical type to a word on one moral issue when it ought to be a paradigm of our place and mission in the world as God's people. Yes, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah stands as an example for us to follow. Let me explain.

Biblically speaking, Sodom quickly becomes a type or representative of the way of the fallen world.  We can see this move being made as early as Deuteronomy 29:23 wherein Israel is compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. This continues in Isaiah (1:9-23, 13:19-20), Ezekiel (16:48-50), and on in to the New Testament. Though not mentioned directly, Paul's view of the human wickedness in Romans 1:18-32 clearly reflects the catalog of evil which is used to describe Sodom. The world apart from God stands, then, in the place and way of Sodom.

Within the narrative, God hears the out cry from Sodom and must respond. On his way to judge them, he stops by for a visit with Abraham. Abraham, having been brought into the confidence of God, turns to intercession. He pleads for Sodom.

Abraham seems to expect to have to bargain with God. One imagines that Abraham thought his proposal of 50 righteous people would have been met by a scoff and "I couldn't do it for less than 100," after which Abraham and God would settle to haggling and probably meet somewhere around 75. Instead, every proposal, hesitant as they are in Abraham's mouth, is met with unhesitating acceptance by God. Abraham is learning more of the character of God as he intercedes. In the end, God is more merciful than even Abraham was prepared to request; though the city is destroyed, the righteous within are saved. Abraham's initial plea, that God not sweep away the righteous with the wicked, is answered.

For our purposes, however, we must focus on the role of Abraham. In the face of the coming judgment of God, in the face of the heinous sins of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham steps forward as an intercessor, pleading for their salvation. In the middle of this narrative, God offers an aside: "Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him." (Genesis 18:18-19).

God chose Abraham with the purpose that he will direct his children in the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, and this with the purpose that God would bring about His promises (to be blessed and be a blessing to the nations). It is as Abraham teaches others to live and walk with the Lord that he is blessed and able to be a blessing to others. Abraham, in his response to Sodom and Gomorrah, does just this; pleading for mercy is precisely the way of the Lord. We see this same role taken on by Moses, as he pleads with God in the face of the idolatry of the Israelites in the desert. We see this same truth in the writings of Paul who, though he characterizes the world in terms of Sodom, also knows he is called to just that world with the gospel message of redemption and healing. We see this, ultimately, in the person of Jesus the Christ, the great intercessor.

This is how the story functions as an example to us. Just as Sodom is a type of the world, Abraham is a type of God's people. And it is we, the followers of Jesus, who are Abraham's seed, through faith in Jesus the Christ, members of the people of God. Thus, we are called into his mission, the same one Abraham was called to, the mission Paul labels 'the gospel given in advance' (Galatians 3:8). We live in a world walking apart from God, in the ways of Sodom. We believe in the coming judgment of the Lord. And we are called not to judge our world, but to intercede for it - to stand and plead for our world, to call down not the judgment of God, but the blessing of God. This is to act in the image of Christ, as his representative.

The only alternative is to stand in the role of Jonah, hoping and longing for the Lord's judgment, only to be dismayed, shocked, and rebuked by His mercy.

Where do you stand? For what do you plead?


- Credit for this reflection goes to The Mission of God by Christopher Wright, Chapter 11. Though not directly quoted, the ideas and arguments in this post are all directly from this work. 

14.12.11

Pay Attention!

We have all heard it before. Something like: your not going to reach the end of your life and wish you had spent more time at work. Or: what really matters is giving to the people you love. 


Yes, such sayings abound, and with good reason. Yet it is somehow easy to forget the deep truths behind those words. And then something happens to remind us. I had such a reminder recently. 

I was with a group of youth and young adults and I asked them a question: If you could share a meal with any living person in the world, who would you share a meal with?

I was thinking that it would be interesting to see who people admired and wanted to get to know. I thought the question would reveal people's heroes, or people they want to learn from, or people who have accomplished something that we are curious about. Instead, the majority of answers were family members: Grandparents we never knew well, siblings who live far away, and also those near to us who, in my mind, ought never to be on this list. 

These were young people who live with their immediate family, and  yet they shared that if they could have a meal with anyone on the planet, they would choose an unhurried meal with their brother/father/sister/mother! 

And so, as I was reminded of the central place of my own loved ones in my life (see above picture :) I wanted to pass on this reminder, and this plea. Give to those you love. It has been said that we move through life with 3 gifts: resources, time, and attention. Far too many of us focus on making sure that those we care about have enough resources, when what they really need is our time and attention. 

Parents, especially parents of teenagers and young adults, take you child out for a meal. Focus just on them. Turn off your phone, clear your schedule, and gift those you love with your life giving time and attention. If you do nothing else this holiday season, do this. 

Pay attention! They need you!

13.12.11

"The Names of God Bible" edited by Ann Spangler




Ann Spangler, General Editor. The Names of God Bible. Revell, 2011. 1730 pgs. 

Reviewing a bible... this is most definitely a first. What am I going to say? Recommended? Obviously, what follows is a review of the particularities of this version and this translation.

What you have here is a version of the "God's Word Translation." The entire thing focuses on the names of God. The cross references, few and far between as they are, point to other uses of particular names of God. The sidebars and informational pages focus on explaining the names and usages of particular names for God. And every time one of the names for God is used, this version keeps that name in a transliterated version of the original; things like "El Chay" (Living God) and Sar Shalom (Prince of Peace).

As a way for people with no Hebrew and Greek background, this version of the bible offers a great window into the various names of God and what they mean. The sidebars are quite interesting. Personally, I think you are better off learning a little bit of the original languages, but I know that this is not possible, nor easy, for most people. My only other comment is that I wish it had been packaged in another translation. There is nothing huge wrong with the 'God's Word Translation.' No heresy, no big mistakes. However, in every area where there are translation difficulties, the GWT gives no indication whatsoever of alternatives of selection process. Perhaps that was just a choice they had to make, as making this both a 'Names of God' version and a study version would have made a huge book.

Conclusion: 3.5 Stars. Conditionally Recommended. Interesting stuff, acceptable translation. If you want to read something with the original names of God in it, then look no further. Just make sure you don't make this your main or only bible version/translation.

"Bible has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.
Available at your favourite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

11.12.11

"In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day" by Mark Batterson


 

Mark Batterson. In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day: How To Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars. Multnomah Books, 2006. 192 pgs.


What do you do when opportunity roars? Batterson urges us to give chase, lock eyes with our lion, and charge directly at it. Through nine chapters Batterson makes this point again and again. That opportunity often comes in threatening forms, and if we wish to seize that opportunity we must overcome our fear. He urges us to forget about playing it safe, embrace uncertainty, and stop worrying about looking foolish, and then we will see the blessing of the Lord.

In one way there is nothing wrong here. Opportunity does often come from overcoming threats and fears. We must, in fact, overcome our fears and follow the path God leads us on. And yet this book exemplifies much of what I find disturbing in contemporary Christian literature. Let me explain.



Here we have a book which takes as its basis barely a scrap of a verse and, with this biblical justification in hand, quickly moves into realms of pop psychology, business literature, and modern truism with nary a thought given to any of them. The bible does not function as guide but as proof, and poor proof at that.

Along the way half truths abound. Perfect love covers over all fear, but that does not mean we take all risks. Where is the chapter on discernment? The acknowledgement that some opportunities must not be seized, and that in the face of them we ought to recoil in fear, fear for our souls? Or, for that matter, where is the chapter discussing how we can take our worries and fears to God and replace them, not with the courage of someone who has a bigger goal than succumbing to fear, but with the courage of someone who knows God and thus is a person to whom all objects of fear shrink away into insignificance? Instead we are taught to unlearn our fears and reframe our thinking; sad alternatives indeed when put next to the peace of Christ which transcends all understanding.

Conclusion: 2 Stars. Not Recommended. Don't waste your time. Check out the story in 2 Samuel 20:20-23, and do imagine what Benaiah must have been like. Think about fear and risk, and what you fear and may need to risk in following Jesus. If you then conclude in prayer, offering up your fears to God and asking him to fill you with His love in their place, then you will not only have the good content of this book, but something far better as well!

Thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with this copy to review.

7.12.11

"The Eloi"

"As God lives in his own will, and we live in him, so has he given to us power to will in ourselves. How much better should we not fare if, finding that we are standing with our heads bowed away from the good, finding that we have no feeble inclination to seek the source of our life, we should yet will upwards toward God, rousing that essence of life in us, which he has given us from his own heart, to call again upon him who is our Life, who can fill the emptiest heart, rouse the deadest conscience, quicken the dullest feeling, and strengthen the feeblest will!

Then, if ever the time should come, as perhaps it must come to each of us, when all consciousness of well-being shall have vanished, when the earth shall be but sterile promontory, and the heavens a dull and pestilent congregation of vapors, when man nor woman shall delight us more, nay, when God himself shall be but a name, and Jesus an old story, then, even then, when a Death far worse than 'that phantom of grisly bone' is griping at our hearts, and having slain love, hope, faith, forces existence upon us only in agony, then, even then, we shall be able to cry out with our Lord, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' Nor shall we die then, I think, without being able to take up his last words as well, and say, 'Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.'"

- George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Vol. 1. "The Eloi"

To see the greatness of God as the one who is the essence of life, the one who gives from his own heart, the one who is our very life and can fill the emptiest heart, and yet to know that one day we must face the feeling of utter abandonment by that same God... To then urge us to call out to him nonetheless... A high calling indeed. But one Christ lived out more fully than we ever will. Can we do anything less than follow in his footsteps? 

6.12.11

We're Sinking!


The Allegory

Another scream echoed from the stern. Justin twisted his head sharply to see who had gone overboard, but was unable. The storm was worse than any before and the old ways were failing. The collapsing railing that scream evinced was proof enough for Justin.

As he firmed his grip on the wheel, trying to fight the storm, Justin looked down at the rope holding him to the steering column and prayed, again, that it would hold. 

Every time there was a storm the captain did the same thing. He rushed around the deck and the hold attempting to tie as many of the crew to the ship as he could. All functions ceased except the two stations that could be manned effectively by someone who was tied in: steering and pumping. 

Sometime in the distant past the captain had noted that with every storm, men were lost. He tried to save them, but he quickly learned that the grip of the sea was merciless. Not only were men rarely recovered, often some trying to rescue them were lost as well. And so came the fateful day when the captain announced his new plan, his new vision: there would be no more fighting the storm, instead we would fasten ourselves to the ship and ride it out. 

For a time, this worked. As long as the storms were small. When the storms were big, nothing went well. Not all of the men could be tied down in time and, inevitably, some were lost. More importantly, no ship can function without its crew.

It was thus that Justin found himself attempting to steer a ship with quickly loosening rigging and sails always at odds to his purpose. It was thus that the waves, crashing into the wrong part of the ship, had not only taken all those not tied down, but had torn loose one of the stern railings. Slowly, surely, all the men fastened to that railing were going under. 

As each wave seemed to be hitting the ship higher and higher Justin wondered if anything had happened to those manning the pumps. If so, they were finished. It did feel as if this time they might sink but Justin could do nothing but continue to hold fast to the wheel and pray. That rope would do him no good if the ship went down...


The Instance

Last week a friend and I went to hear Josh McDowell as a precursor to the "Truth Matters" Campaign, featuring his son, which is coming soon for young adults near you. After a delicious lunch, McDowell got up to speak. He offered an interesting vision of a human being as an iceberg, with the tip that we see being behavior and that underneath it, in descending order, values, worldview, and relationships. He then proceeded to tell an incredibly skewed story of history from renaissance, to enlightenment, to industrial revolution, to darwinism, and, finally, to the internet. Each of these instances was displayed as merely a way of lowering God and elevating Humanity until finally, with the internet, God is no longer in the picture at all. We learned that the internet is the greatest threat to faith the church has ever faced! (Such a storm has been brewing, are you tied fast?) And do you know why it is such a threat? Because Atheists (those dogs!) and people of other faiths (those heathens!) have equal access to your children for the first time in history.

This was followed by a rallying of the statistics. One by one they marched across the screen: this many young people losing faith, that many old people behaving badly, and, the culmination, if we don't convert someone by the age of 12 they have only a 4% chance of becoming Christian!

The solution? Build strong families (not that this had anything whatsoever to do with McDowell's presentation; has this become an a priori amidst Evangelicals?), get them young (though no stats were given, presumably there is more than a 4% chance of someone converting when they are young?), and strengthen their worldview (tie them in!). 

Indeed. We are facing difficulties in this ship we call church. A storm like never before. Time to tie yourselves in boys. 


The Problem
McDowell's entire performance was fear-mongering. The extremely flawed history lesson, the deeply slanted statistics, and the dubiously suggested solutions, were each designed to overwhelm and awe away any questioning or contrary thought. 

The history lesson, portrayed as a loss of the transcendence of God from our perspective, had little to do with reality. One cannot tell a true story by starting in the wrong place. More importantly, one cannot tell a true story by distorting the facts. Darwinism, which if anything served to lower humanity, is a perfect case in point. Whatever the effects of the current horrendously misguiding science/faith debate, the theory of evolution is not about God at all. The conclusion? The threat of the internet. But stop and think, for a moment, about that posited threat. The implicit statement in McDowell's estimate of this threat is that Christians used to be more secure because they were ignorant. With no atheists and very few other religions to contend with, people just never realized they had options and, therefore, blindly continued on in their Christian faith. Is that the kind of faith we want to promote? I suppose if you accept the definition of faith offered by Dorothy Sayers (as a caricature), that it is 'resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact,' then it is. But I disagree, strongly.

The statistics, offered only to help us whip up the despair we ought to be experiencing at the current state of things, had little to do with God. There is no possible way to measure the chance of some individual becoming Christian, after the age of 12 or at any other time in life. All we can do is note how many people are actually converted within certain parameters. The climactic statistic, that there is only a 4% chance of someone converting after the age of 12, if accurate, would rightly be stated as follows: 4% of individuals who are not Christian at the age of 12 convert at some point in their lifetime. This is indeed a damning statistic, but it precisely does not call for us to 'get them while their young.' Which brings me to the solutions. 


I actually found the pyramid McDowell started with to be quite insightful. I found out later it was a simplified version of the one you see above. Attitudes and thoughts have been collapsed into values, beliefs converted to worldview, and environment replaced with relationship. Fair enough. I have no problems with those changes. 

If the bottom level is relationship/environment, then it makes sense that McDowell is urging us to build strong families. He never talked about it, but still. The problem is assumption of family. We do not live in a world with solid families; the church has been in this place many times before. The solution is to build strong Christian relationships. When those occur within a family, we have before us a blessing from the Lord. His second suggestion was to strengthen and make fast our worldview. However, it was very clear, based on the rest of his presentation, that this meant standing rigidly against the world and rejecting all of its influences. We do indeed need a strong Christian view of beliefs, values, thoughts, and attitude, but this comes through interaction with our world. It is not a strengthening if you cannot turn around and say to us that the internet is not threat at all because, despite 'equal access' to 'dangerous ideas', we can take what we find there. Finally, he suggested that we get them young. This is nothing less than a denial of the power of God. What, we must succumb to misused statistics? There is only a 4% chance of getting them after age 12, so just focus on getting them before? But when we hear that statistic as it should be said (again, if accurate) then it is not a call to 'get them younger' but to preach the gospel and rely upon the power of the Lord. 

So it is that I heartily urge you to ignore the upcoming 'truth matters' campaign, ignore the advice to tie everyone on the ship down, and start doing what we are supposed to do in a storm: learn how to run the ship well. 

3.12.11

"Your 100 Day Prayer" by John I. Snyder


John I. Snyder, Your 100 Day Prayer: The Transforming Power of Actively Waiting on God. Thomas Nelson, 2011. 240 pgs.

This books is supposed to be a 100 day journey which guides one through intentional prayer and biblical truths which will "transform their spiritual lives and reveal God's provision for their needs." It takes much the form you would expect: A prayer, a guide, an introduction and then straight into 100 days of devotionals each of which end with a prayer and a space journal about 'today's progress.'

In reality, the only way this book will transform your prayer life is if it pushes you to pray regularly for 100 days in a row. If you haven't done that, you should. If, as you do so, you seek the Lord, you will be transformed. As for this book... well, there is nothing wrong with it. It is a fairly well written, fairly standard devotional. But it is not a book about actively waiting on God. If anything, the focus is really on freedom in Christ. Overall, I couldn't help feeling that this book would be much more successful if it had been marketed differently. It certainly wasn't what I expected.

Conclusion: 3 Stars. Not Recommended. What can I say... *shrug*. Perhaps there being nothing to say is the real problem I had with this book.

This book was provided by Thomas Nelson, through BookSneeze, for review. 

2.12.11

"The Love and Respect Experience" by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs






Dr. Emerson Eggerichs. The Love & Respect Experience: A Husband-Friendly Devotional That Wives Truly Love. Thomas Nelson, 2011. 320 pgs.

Reviewing a book such as this can be difficult. Devotionals and prayer books are designed to be ready slowly, one day at a time, over weeks, months, or even years. As a reviewer I am rarely given the time to take such an approach to a book. Add to that the fact that this devotional in particular is designed to be done as a couple and the difficulty doubles. The result is that I often feel obliged to begin my review with a caveat about how I did not read the book as intended and that this may have skewed my review. In this case, however, I am able to review with confidence despite these difficulties.

You may have heard of Dr. Emerson Eggerichs. He is the author of the book this devotional is based on, as well as a companion workbook , both of which have done very well. One of the pastors at my church recently used it as a text for a Sunday school class. The basic concept comes out of Ephesians 5:33; that husbands need to show love to their wives and wives need to show respect to their husbands, and understanding these things will aid your marriage. With this in mind, Eggerichs has prepared fifty-two devotions for husbands and wives to do together (in various possible ways) which explore this concept further and in specific, practical, ways.

As my wife can testify, I find many devotional books to be quite lacking. They can be shallow, wishy-washy, full of theological and biblical errors, or just plain unhelpful. This book, however, was none of the above. I think that by virtue of focusing on a specific issue (love and respect in marriage) it is able to offer interesting and helpful insights and thoughts, and to do so in a way that is helpful to husbands and wives. Naturally quality varies, but if you take it for what it is (a way to enrich your marriage through discussion and focusing on common ideas together which are designed to help you love and respect one another) then it is a good book.

Conclusion: 4 Stars. Conditionally Recommended. Obviously you will not find this book helpful outside of the marriage context.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.
Available at your favourite bookseller from Thomas Nelson". 

1.12.11

November Reflections


Yes, Christmas is now only 24 days away. Tis the season...

Top 3 Posts from November:

1. Pull Up a Chair - A game, an illustration, a parable. Designed to illustrate how we think, or don't think, about God. 

2. Wrong Worship - Mostly just a link to a hilarious video. 

3. Church Not Manly - A quote and a question. Is church not manly? 


On the whole, November is a representation of how I want my blog to function. A couple book reviews, a couple quotes, a couple more thoughtful posts, and a couple posts each week. I was also pleasantly surprised by the traffic some of these posts received. 

In terms of the rest of my life, November has been crazy busy. Not only have I had lots to do at my own church, I have also filled in at a friend's church as well (because his wife just had a baby!). It is surprising, in retrospect, that I was able to have a fairly good month blogging, and reading, in the midst of that rush of things to do. In the past I have commented on how my blog tends to fall by the wayside as I get busy; this is normal and expected. However, I am now forced to account for this blip in the midst of that trend. I think that, more than anything, it has to do with the quality of intake I am getting. While this month has been very busy, it has also been fairly balanced between me giving of myself in ministry and me receiving from God through others in ministry. This has made the busy-ness much more bearable, and it is a seemingly counter-intuitive piece of information I am going to have to keep in mind during my next season of plenty (of work to do). 

In the meantime, Merry Christmas, and may Christ incarnate himself into your life more and more with each passing day!

29.11.11

"The Higher Faith"



Here are few poignant words from George MacDonald:


"What I want to say and show, if I may, is, that a man will please God better by believing some things that are not told him, than by confining his faith to those things that are expressly said... If he is not taught of God in that which he hopes for, God will let him know it. He will receive something else than he prays for... The danger lies not in asking from God what is not good, nor even in hoping to receive it from him, but in not asking him, in not having him of our council... But it is about hopes rather than prayers that I wish to write. What should I think of my child, if I found that he limited his faith in me and hope from me to the few promises he had heard me utter! The faith that limits itself to the promises of God, seems to me to partake of the paltry character of such a faith in my child- good enough for a Pagan, but for a Christian a miserable and wretched faith. Those who rest in such a faith would feel yet more comfortable if they had God's bond instead of his word, which they regard not as the outcome of his character, but as a pledge of his honor. They try to believe in the truth of his word, but the truth of his Being, they understand not... You must come out of this bondage of the law to which you give the name of grace, for there is little that is gracious in it. You will yet know the dignity of your high calling, and the love of God that passeth knowledge. He is not afraid of your presumptuous approach to him. It is you who are afraid to come near Him."

- George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Vol. 1, "The Higher Faith."

28.11.11

"Why Men Hate Going to Church" by David Murrow



David Murrow. Why Men Hate Going to Church. Thomas Nelson, 2011. 256 pgs.

We all know that not all men hate going to church. I think we also all know that in most churches there are more women than men. Why is this? Where are the men? According to David Murrow we have made church an overly, and overtly, feminine experience and are now reaping the dubious rewards of such efforts. Through three sections Murrow makes the persuasive argument that we do have a problem, that it is a result of tailoring the church culture towards women, and that we can do something about it. Not only can we but we must, for without men churches slowly, but surely, perish. Or so argues Murrow; I happen to agree.

Why Men Hate Going to Church is an excellent book. It is provocative, well researched, and thoughtful. There were several moments during reading when I nearly gasped, in shock and delight, as Murrow refuses to pull any punches. In speaking of the feminization of worship, and how an 'ideal' worship service looks, Murrow concludes with these apt words: "After a round of applause, the satisfied worshippers return to their seats, emotionally and physically spent, bathed in the afterglow of heartfelt worship, ready to cuddle up with a message from the pastor."

Conclusion: 5 Stars. Recommended. If you are in a leadership position in a church then you should definitely read this book so that you can begin to see and implement necessary changes in your church. If you are not in church leadership, then you should still read this book; you need your eyes opened too.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for providing this book for review.

25.11.11

I Am A Failure



I am a failure. 

How do you feel when you read those words? Does a part of you revolt, wanting to immediately respond by offering encouragement, telling me how wrong I am, and righting the obvious wrong in the sentence? Or, does a part of you cringe in recognition? Do you see in those words your assessment of yourself? 

Either way, I have to tell you this: it is true. I am a failure. So are you. 

You may wonder why I am bringing this up. Let me tell you. I am bringing it up because I believe that unless you respond to this statement correctly you have misunderstood the grace of God. 

According to Paul we have, in Jesus Christ, redemption and forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace (Ephesians 1:7). It has long been the testimony of Christians that God's grace is nothing short of amazing. We sing exactly that; Amazing Grace. God loved us into being, refused to abandon us when we abandoned Him, made a way for us to not only be forgiven but to have Life, eternal life, today and forevermore. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is both the promise of an inheritance and present help now. Grace, says Thomas Oden, "is an overarching term for all of God's gifts to humanity, all the blessings of salvation, all events through which are manifested God's own self-giving. grace is a divine attribute revealing the heart of the one God, the premise of all spiritual blessing." Grace is part of God's very nature, it is his self-giving for us, and thus it is the gift none which greater than can be thought or recieved. 

We ought to respond to these great and marvelous gifts in awe and thanksgiving, on our knees. Somehow, though, we don't. 

There are two more common misunderstandings which prevent this proper response, and they are both embedded in how we respond to the statement "I am a failure."

For many of us, we have grown up in, and absorbed, a culture which teaches us to never, under any circumstances, utter that devastating three word phrase. We have been conditioned in the proper practices of self-image and self-esteem. We have learned that the key is to quickly forget our failures and hold tight to our successes and thus maintain a state of mind we call happiness. 

From this position, we approach grace as those who 'just need a little help.' We are forced by life, and the fact that we are a failure no matter how much we hide it, to admit that we cannot make it on our own; we need help. But not too much. After all, we are mostly good people. Mostly successful. Mostly right. Mostly loving. Of course we are not perfect; far be it from us to be prideful. So, we turn to grace as that final push, that final nudge over the top. And it is no wonder that we do not, then, fall to our knees in awe at the grace of a God who would die for us

What we, in this position, have failed to grasp, perhaps fatally so, is the depth and truth of sin. We are failures, in every way, and we are not mostly good or anything of the sort. We are, in fact, hopeless apart from God. Until we come to this realization we will never appreciate grace as we should. 

Thus stands the first misunderstanding. 

For many others of us, we have grown up in, and absorbed, a culture which preaches success and self-image, but we are not as practiced at the pattern of self-deception. Others may not see it, but we do. We see the darkness in our soul. We see the besetting sin, the habit we just can't break, the fifteen-hundredth time that we have, yet again, failed. And whether anyone else knows it, we know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we are failures. We understand that we are hopeless. 

What we misunderstand is that we are hopeless apart from God

What we, in this position, have failed to grasp is the depth and truth of grace. We are, indeed, failures in every way, but that is exactly why God has shown us the extravagance of His love and grace. There is no pit too deep, no cave too dark, and no sin too heinous, such that God is not able to pull us up and free us. 

Thus stands the second misunderstanding. 

From a Christian point of view, we are not meant to have good self-esteem. We are meant to have God-esteem. We are meant to know precisely how bad we are and yet to turn to the grace of God and rest in it. To find our identity and our worth and our image in Jesus Christ. Not by hiding the bad and focusing on the good, nor by wallowing the darkness, but by stepping out of the darkness and into the light of God. 

Though our culture rails against and fights, tooth and nail, the traps which lead to the second misunderstanding, that of feeling hopeless and despairing, it is this misunderstanding which is easier to correct. This person needs to hear and know and come to trust and believe in the grace of God. The news they need to grasp is wholly and entirely GOOD news. The person in the grip of the first misunderstanding, however, needs to be torn down, humbled, and made to see a painful truth. The news is still good, but first it is painful. 

Why, then, if we must make a mistake, do we put so much work into building people into the first mistake? Personally, I think we have indeed forgotten the fallen nature of man. We have labeled middle-morality life, or middling common denominator life, as the norm and so any and every time our sin comes to the fore we must label it no longer as sin but as sickness. It becomes a thing which requires therapy and recovery, not a condition which requires repentance and salvation. 

As for us, whether we find ourselves in the grip of a false pride which sees no need for the amazing grace of Jesus, or in the grip of a false despair which sees no hope in the amazing grace of Jesus, I urge that we throw ourselves upon that amazing grace, as only in Jesus Christ, through the grace He has given us, can we be victors and more than conquerors instead of failures. 

22.11.11

Church Not Manly?

"Unfortunately for the church, many men see churchgoing as womanly behavior. It's the polar opposite of the risky, dangerous image they try to project. Men don't go to church for the same reason they refuse to carry anything that resembles a purse - it's not something guys do. Imagine this scene one Wednesday night after a long, hot day on the construction site:
Bill: Hey, where you guys going after work?
Dean: I'm going out for a beer. 
Jeremy: I've got tickets to the ball game. 
Bill: How about you, Sam?
Sam: I'm going to Wednesday night church serve. 
All: [Silence]
Men, do you feel that one in your gut? Dean and Jeremy are planning an evening of manly behavior. But Sam will be doing something real men don't do - going to church, and on a weeknight. This is one reason many Christian men hide their faith from other men. They're not ashamed of Christ; they're ashamed of feminization."
- David Murrow. Why Men Hate Going to Church  (A book I am reading and soon will review)


So, what do you all think of this? Is Murrow right? 

I Hear Those Bells...


I know it is early, but I can't help it. Each year part of me despairs as all of the wrong things about Christmas show up earlier and earlier. Yet, each year another part of me can't wait. It is a joyous season and I enjoy celebrating the incarnation of Jesus the Christ. 

At various times in Christian history Christmas has been a non-event, a major festival day, a day reviled as nothing more than a Christian overlay on a pagan holiday (yes, early evangelicals refused to celebrate Christmas! Think about that for a moment), and an overly consumer-ized celebration of consumption, among other things of course. 

As I think about the many ways in which Christmas has been misused, at the 'questionable' origins of much of what we now celebrate (from the date itself on to many of the trimmings) I am tempted to bow my head in despair, but then I cannot help but hear that old, familiar, carol play: 

...
And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, good will to men."
...

And I cannot help but be reminded that if we use this as an opportunity to worship God, to celebrate the truth of the coming of Jesus the Christ, and His future return, then the bells of Christmas can ring out loud and clear no matter how deep we try to bury them in whatever current mistake is in style. 

So, here's to the start of a GOOD Christmas Season! May it be, for you and I, a season filled with generosity, not only to our loved ones, but most especially to the stranger, the sojourner, and the enemy. May it be a season filled with peace, the peace of Christ which transcends understanding, and good will lived out in meaningful and sacrificial ways to all those God brings into our lives. 



(P.S. The carol I quoted is "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Casting Crowns has a newer version of it out, but the best is, in my mind, still the one done by Jars of Clay from their album "Christmas Songs".)

20.11.11

Wrong Worship

And now, in the same vein as "Contempervant Growtivation" I am proud to pass on another sadly funny video parody of church: "Wrong Worship"


17.11.11

"Afraid to Believe in Free Will" by Carl Begley




Don't you wish that there was someone else to blame for all of your mistakes? Of course you do. So do I. In the world of my self-deception I am to be praised for all the good in my life, able to take credit for my success, but all of my failures and bad decisions are the result of some form of determinism; I was raised that way, the social structures I inhabit left me no choice, or the devil made me do it.  In this book Begley argues, from the point of view of psychology, that we are indeed afraid of free will and the responsibility it thrusts upon us. Begley knows that we cannot prove, or disprove, the existence of free will. However, he take son some of the modern trends in science and psychology towards determinism and points out their flaws. He then argues that free will is central to what it is to be human and that we ought to, if we can, choose to believe in free will. 

I had no idea what to expect coming into this book. An examination of free will not taken from a theological perspective? You mean this isn't a book about Calvinism and Arminianism? No, indeed it is not. But then what is there to say? Well, a lot, as it turns out. And a very interesting 'lot' at that. Begley's examinations of the sources of resistance to free will, of various sorts, was highly interesting. His insights into the world of psychology and the skew towards determinism in the sciences were very much worth reading. I am still digesting all the details of this book, but I think it is more than worth reading and thinking about. 

Conclusion: 4 out of 5 stars. Conditionally Recommended. If this topic, or constellation of topics, interests you in the slightest then you should read this book. 

Book provided by Thomas Nelson for review. 

14.11.11

Who Is God?

Who is God?

No, I am not going to attempt an answer to that question in a blog post. In fact, I am not going to attempt to answer that question at all.  Instead, I have a question for you; but first, a prologue.

As a Christian I know and believe that the place to go to find out who God is would be the bible. However, I have not always had this faith. I started to look for, and find, answers to this question in other places before I turned to and trusted the word of God. I have been reflecting on that lately, and it has made me curious. 

So, I would like to ask you: Where and when did you first encounter God? 

And, assuming you have had such an encounter, what did you learn? 




P.S. I will be answering these questions myself, just not right now. 

8.11.11

Pull Up a Chair...


Pull up a chair and play a game with me. 

Sounds like fun. 

Do you know how to play chess?

A bit; I'm not very good.


That's OK. We're not going to play real chess. 

Huh?

Did you catch the mischievous glint in my eye?

Nope. We are going to play dream chess.


Right...

Exactly. Before we can play, you have to tell me 
your dream of your future. 

What does that have to do with chess?

I see your confusion, but trust me. 

You'll see. Just tell me your story, the one you hope 
to write with your life. 

And so, you weave your dream for me, letting me, ever so briefly, glimpse your secret hopes. You tell me the story you want to live out. Maybe I have to tease out some of the details, or stop you to remind that I have asked for a story and not a to-do list, but slowly or quickly, one way or another, your tale is told. You tell me about the work you hope to do and how you will get there. University, career training, hard work, and eventually, the full reward of this effort and planning. Then you tell me about the relationships you will have... well, not quite. You tell me about that one, special, relationship you dream of and how it will carry you into the rest of your future. You sigh, ever so slightly, at this point in your story, imagining the love of your life, and the additional relationships that will spring from it. Then, the rest of the story rolls up quickly, perhaps a little bit too much like a cheap rug... or so you seem to wonder, as it all to quickly ends...
That was a beautiful story. 
I hope all your dreams come true.

Ready to play?

I guess.
In your dream, you told me of your life for 
years to come. The result, in game terms, 
is that you get to know my moves
far in advance. 

Really?

Really. Do you think that knowledge 
will help you win?

Absolutely! How could I lose?

I quickly suppress a sad and knowing smile.

In fact, you can know up to my next twenty 
moves. But, I will only need four to defeat you. 

Yes, I see the doubt and confusion returning to you face. 

First I will free my queen. 
Then I will move her to the center of the board. 
My third move will take her to the pawn right in front of your king. 
And on my fourth move, the game will be over. 


What? How will that happen?

Let me show you. 

I proceed to do exactly what I told you I would do. 
It happens so quickly, you fail to move a single piece. 
Why did you lose? You knew exactly what 
I was going to do but you still lost... 
How could you let this happen?

...you didn't give me any moves.
I told you this wasn't chess. Thanks for the game. 

You see, life is not a game of chess. It is not fair nor regulated and it rarely gives you the time to think that you need. More importantly, that game of chess was played out exactly as you wrote it. I was playing the part of the world and you were playing the part of God. That's right, God. And do you know who didn't get any moves in your story? God. It has been said that failing to plan is planning to fail. Most of us fail utterly and completely when it comes to planning anything to do with our walk with Christ. If I asked you a specific question like "do you want to be more patient in five years?" or "Do you hope to be a more mature believer in a decade?", you would say yes. Of course you would. We all know what the right answers are and I am, after all, a pastor, so you would feel compelled to give me the 'right answer.' But when I ask you to dream, to hope, to plan, to tell me the story you hope to write with your life then, well... then things are different. Somehow Jesus never got to be a part of that story. Maybe you left Him behind in your youth, or maybe He was never part of your story at all, just an insurance policy to keep for... later. No one can win without a move. Now, go back to the beginning and ask again: what is the story you hope to write with your life? Will you stop dreaming your dream, and seek to join His?
P.S. I have played this game for real with several of the high-school students at our church. All but one lost in four moves. That one lost in five, and I was thoroughly impressed with him for getting that far. Putting yourself in this story may seem artificial since you did not, after all, get to tell me your story. But would you have done any better? 

1.11.11

October Reflection





Forgiving means to pardon the unpardonable, faith means believing the unbelievable, and hoping means to hope when things are hopeless.
- G. K. Chesterton

Top Posts for October:

1. Heaven and Hell - Let the humbling continue. My most popular post of all time, now by a nearly a factor of 4, continues to be a nearly content free one. Hooray!

2. To Whom Do You Compare Yourself - Herein I offered some reflections on the parable of the publican and the pharisee. I enjoyed writing this; it gladdens my heart that you have apparently enjoyed reading it. Ahh, if only the numbers of hits received could actually tell me what you thought... 

3. "Everything the Bible Says About Heaven" by Linda Washington - Seriously, do you people just like it when I am mean? This was a terrible book and I wrote a harsh review.


Reflections:

It has been a good month, October. It involved much and many activities with my family, good times in the church with baptisms, bible studies, and not too much busyness. I enjoy the fall. Fall is the season of decay before winter, and it always reminds me of the renewal I ever look for in Jesus Christ, for without the ever new Spirit to make me a new creation, I am in trouble. And, as the leaves, so I am but dust in the wind, constantly fading with only one hope: the resurrection, prefigured in every springtime bloom. 

28.10.11

"Chaos and Grace" by Mark Galli








Mark Galli. Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit. Baker, 2011. 203 pgs.

In Chaos and Grace, Galli asserts that the church has forgotten the character of the God we serve. We have forgotten that He is beyond our control, unpredictable, untamable, and mysterious. In His place many churches have centered their life on idols of control, peace, and order. In the midst of this situation, Galli seeks to wake us up. He spends the first half of this book examining biblical passages in which we see how God works, how chaos and grace are defining factors of walking with God; the chaos of life beyond our control, and the grace that shines through in the midst of it. The second half of the book is an analysis of current church culture, decrying our loss of touch with God Almighty and calling us back. 


Galli acknowledges that the first half of his book, examining scripture with the themes of Chaos and Grace in mind, will seem odd to many as these are not often taken to be primary themes of scripture. And he was absolutely right; those chapters did feel odd; but they were also interesting. I did not agree with everything Galli had to say about them, nor all of the insights he drew from them, but he succeeding in making me consider and read those texts anew, which is already a good thing. In the second half of Chaos and Grace, Galli is particularly poignant as church culture critic. My own critique here is that he needed to speak more about where the church ought to be and less about where it is. Still, just as in the first half, you cannot read this second half without pausing at points and considering how you do church. 


Conclusion: 3.5 Stars. Conditionally Recommended. This was a decent book, with good thoughts, and we certainly need to be reminded of the what our God is like.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.
Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group".


25.10.11

"Sacrilege" by Hugh Halter




Sacrilege is a book out to answer one question: What does it mean to be like Jesus? The premise of the book is that Jesus was sacrilegious (that is, he de-sacralized, treated as not holy, things which had been treated as holy) and as his followers we ought to be as well. To explain what he means by this, Halter follows in the steps of the likes of Bonhoeffer and Dallas Willard in centering his answer to the books question on the beatitudes, with lots of practical advice and personal stories along the way. 

In a church which clearly needs to rethink what it means to be like Jesus, this book comes as a big step in the right direction. No book could say all that needs to be said on this topic, but what Halter does have to say is worth listening to and think about. Personally, there was not much new here; people such as Bonhoeffer and Dallas Willard have said it before, and I have read them. However, for many individuals in our digital age, who have never read a book 20 years old let alone 50, those books will be nigh inaccessible. Here, then, is a viable alternative. 

Conclusion: 4.5 out of 5 Stars. Recommended. Sacrilege is filled with good words, such as teachings about hospitality, humility, and Sabbath; most Christians will benefit from reading this book. 

"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.
Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group".


19.10.11

Dictionary of Christian Spirituality



Glen G. Scorgie, General Editor. Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Zondervan, 2011. 864 pgs. 

Christian Spirituality has been a topic exploding with publications for a few decades now. My own introduction to the topic came through Foster's A Celebration of Discipline. Now, newly published from Zondervan, we have a dictionary devoted to this topic. This dictionary is divided into two sections. To begin, there are 34 articles on various topics within Christian Spirituality. These cover a range of topics, including definitions, methodology, history, specific practices, and explorations of the interaction of Christian Spirituality with topics such as mission and grace. The second section of this book is what you would expect: a dictionary. It contains over 700 entries defining, rather extensively if taken in dictionary terms, words within the topic of Christian Spirituality. 

Generally speaking, the articles in this book are excellent. Meanwhile, the definitions offer the starting point you would expect from a dictionary as well as some well chosen further resources for each one. Not every entry or article is superb, but this is expected in a text such as this. I can tell you two things for sure: Firstly, I will be using this as a reference resource within pastoral ministry. Secondly, I wish it had an index. 

Conclusion: 4.5 Stars. Conditionally Recommended. This is certainly not a book for everyone. It is for those who enjoy having good reference books on hand and for those who will be teaching, preaching, or leading others in a place and/or fashion which intersects with the topic of Christian Spirituality. 

Thanks to http://www.koinoniablog.net/ for allowing me to take part in their blogtour.