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.