17.11.14

A Pastor's Word: Silence

Silence. 

I think of the servant watching Rebekah intently, waiting to see if his mission is a success. 

I think of the darkness of the ninth plague; I wonder if there was silence.

I think of the Canaanite woman crying for help and Jesus not saying a word. 

I think of the disciples in the storm as they find that Jesus is asleep. Were they speechless?

I think of Jesus in the Garden, his friends all asleep, his prayers rising as his sweat falls. 

Or the three hours of darkness while Jesus hung on the cross. Was there silence then?

I think of the silences I have experienced. 

The brief pause, the in-drawn breathe, that stretches into an imaginary eternity, when I asked the woman I love to marry me and she had yet to answer. 

That moment of silence before our baby cried for the first time. 

The first rays of sun hitting the side of the mountain, when I realized I couldn't hear the highway anymore. The pause in the wind at the peak.

The silence a loved one leaves when they are gone. 

The silence we give every year to the brave fallen. 

It becomes clearer to me why silence is more easily avoided. Why noise is comforting. Silence can be many things but it always seems full. It is easier to rest in the emptiness of noise. 

And right then I remember the still small voice. The soul waiting in silence. And I push in once again, struggling to rest in the silence of God. 


 

11.11.14

A Universal History of Iniquity by Jorge Luis Borges



Jorge Luis Borges, A Universal History of Iniquity. Penguin Classics, 2004. Translator: Andrew Hurley. 

A long time ago a good friend of mine recommend Borges to me. At the time I read Fictions and quite enjoyed his short stories. I remember them being strange, thought-provoking, and genre bending. Somehow I never gave Borges another thought. Never, that is, until I came across this book and, stirred by the distant association of the name "Borges" with enjoyable reading, started reading. I was not disappointed. 

This is Borges first book and it is a kind of non-fiction. I am fairly certain the stories are embellished, but this only makes them better. What you have here are short stories from the old west, medieval Islam, ancient Asia, and more, each focused on the highly colorful life of one individual. These stories are crafted with genius and very enjoyable to read. 

Borges is a master writer. I regularly sat back from reading this book just to marvel. I used the word crafted above because that is the sense I got in reading: that I was holding the highly polished result of long hours of careful crafting. His words become images and dance in the mind. His biting wit, displayed as it is in such tragic tales, drew me through each page with delight and horror.

My two favorite stories were "The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell", which tells of Morrel's many crimes in the American south during the time of slavery, and "The Uncivil Teacher of Court Etiquette Kotsuke no Suke", which is a sparse retelling of the tale of the 47 Ronin. 

Conclusion: 5 Stars. It should be obvious, but I highly recommend this book. 

9.11.14

A Pastor's Word: Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.
Blessed is the man. I want to be blessed. I know that true blessing does not come in the abundance of our possessions but in the abundance of our God. And so it almost goes without saying that this rules out walking in the counsel of the wicked, standing in the way of sinners, or sitting in the seat of mockers. 
I find the progression instructive. From walking, to standing, sitting. From being a person who is walking with God, moving forward in the mission and calling God has given to a person who is sitting on the sidelines, mocking those who try. From taking the advice of the wicked to actively hindering those who attempt to do better. 
I also find this progression harrowing. It is the picture of deep and disturbing transformation which I have seen in others and see the potential for in myself. 
But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

To delight in the law is only possible because it is the law of the Lord. The one who has given and gifted this law creates the possibility for delight. We can delight in the law of the Lord because we know that the Lord is the giver of life, the one whose presence is full of joy, the one who blesses. Meditation is an act of devotion and response to our Lord. 
This is the path of blessing: to delight, in the full sense of that word, in God and to devote ourselves to Him in all that He has given to us. 
He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

This is the result. The image of blessing. 
Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

And this is the other option. Life or death. Fullness or emptiness. Lush or dry. Why would anyone choose the latter? But we do. It is easy to do something which satisfies momentarily but only dries you out. 
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

How could the wicked stand? Chaff is without strength. A tree, beside streams of water, this can stand. But chaff? Once one has gone down the path of the wicked one has lost substance; when judgment comes, when the truth is revealed, standing is out of the question. 
In Christ we can be renewed - our dry bones can be clothed in flesh and He will send the Spirit who is the breathe of new life in us - but absent his intercession we are lost, tossed, and empty. 
For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

And this is no accident. The Lord sees. 
I read this Psalm and I know that it is an introduction to the book of Psalms as a whole, an invitation to delight in and meditate on these words. And I can't help hearing Deuteronomy 30:19-20a:
call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him.

24.10.14

Sick Family

When I started, back at the beginning of September, to post 3 times a week, I noted that 'life happens.'

Well, it has.  My whole family, including me, has spent the last week being sick. You may have noticed some missing posts in that time (last Friday's misc. and last Tuesday's book review). Now you know why. 

I enjoy blogging but there are other things higher on my priority list :) 

So, apologies for not explaining earlier, and things should be back to the normal schedule beginning Sunday. 

19.10.14

A Pastor's Word: Praise God

“Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled.” Psalm 65:1

Indeed, praise awaits our Lord, now and on that final day when His glory is fully revealed. Praise for who He is, praise for what He has done, praise from all of creation.

This is our God.

For He is Lord over all things, from us human beings and out into all of creation. The same God who hears our prayers also covers the meadows and valleys. The same God who forgives our transgressions, despite our being repeatedly overwhelmed with sin, also clothes the hills with gladness. The same God who fills us with good things crowns the year with bounty. The same God who answers us with awesome deeds of righteousness also cares for the land and the waters. He, the one who formed the mountains and stilled the seas, is the hope of all the earth.

This is our God.

 We are His, He is ours, a people chosen before eternity, a God sought out in daily prayer. God who first loved us, first came to us, and who has done all to bring us together. We who speak these prayers and watch for the answers, who hear His call and respond. Blessed are those God has chosen. Blessed are those who come to Him.

This is our God, and we are His. May we join with all of creation in shouting and singing together for joy. 

14.10.14

"There Was a Country" by Chinua Achebe



Chinua Achebe, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Penguin Books, 2013. 

Achebe is a giant in African literature and his acclaim is well deserved. Until reading this book, however, I had only read his fiction. I picked this up because it was on the 'New' shelf at the library and because it was by Achebe. I was not disappointed. 

There was a Country is part biography, part event driven memoir, and part critique, all surrounding the Nigeria-Biafra war. The biography comes in Achebe describing his early life and personal involvement in events leading up said war. This section of book is more personal and, thus, more moving. The second half of the book is largely impersonal, focusing on the events of and after the war. Finally, as a conclusion, Achebe laments the current state of Nigeria and much that has happened since the war. 

On the one hand, I do not know enough of the history to judge this book as an account of events, or of Nigeria to judge it as an account of that country. Until reading this work I had never even heard of the Nigeria-Biafra war (or Biafra, for that matter) despite the fact that over 1 million people died in the conflict. I'm not sure if that speaks more to a deficit in my historical education, to the sad frequency of such conflicts in the 20th century, or to my ignorance of events outside of a very small sphere of interest. 

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed this book as both a masterful piece of writing and a moving lament. Achebe is able to write in a very evocative way and one feels as if one knows him, impartially of course, after reading this book. I particularly enjoyed his reflections on writing and being a writer in politically and socially charged times. 

In the end, this was a very rewarding book to read. Though the position may be biased, I learned history of which I had been unaware. I was given insight into a man's heart for his country and what true lament can look like. It humbled me and made me want to pray. In some measure, by means that are hard to describe, it seemed to me that reading this book caused me to mature. 

The only part that saddened me was that the second half of this book, though still good, was far less so for want of the personal style that had been so evident in the first portion. 

Conclusion: Recommended. 4.5 Stars. It may be that there are problems with this book I am unaware of; bias or prejudice that should lower this rating. However, as a piece of writing it is excellent. 

12.10.14

A Pastor's Word: Gratitude

"O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south... Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy."
- Psalm 107:1-3, 19-22

Have you ever heard of negativity bias? Negativity bias is what academics call the observed tendency of individuals to both recall negative information more readily and, also, to put more weight on those negative pieces of information. The combined effect is quite large, as we have a larger number of negative pieces of information available and we are also more likely to view them as important. 

The combined effect also means that thankfulness is a discipline. It does not 'just happen.' Even for those who have a more optimistic disposition thankfulness must be practiced and learned. 

This is especially true in terms of our Christianity. "The worst thing that can happen to our Christianity is to let it become a thing taken for granted, which we wear around every day, just as the elder brother wore, and wore out, his existence in the father's house as he would wear an old, tattered shirt.

The marvel of God's gracious act upon our life never really dawns upon us unless we render thanks to him every day. Only the man who gives thanks retains the wonder of God's fatherly love in his thoughts. But one who has this wonder in his thoughts keeps the very spring and freshness of his Christianity. He holds on daily and nightly, to a living joy in his Lord and Savior. He knows that all this is not mere ideas and habits, but life, and fullness, and joy." (Helmut Thielicke)

Notice, please, that embedded in that quote is the idea that this begins as ideas and habits. It is as we pursue them that they become life, fullness, and joy. First we give thanks every day. First we fight to hold on to the wonder of God's fatherly love. 

This takes vision, a vision and a hope that thankfulness truly will be part of what takes us down the road of life, fullness, and joy. 

This takes intention. We must decide that we will walk this road, will it and walk towards it.

This takes means. We must lay out a plan, a path, and take it one step at a time. We may begin with a prayer journal, or with a simple way to remind ourselves to give thanks each morning, or with a heartfelt thanks to someone we love (or don't!). Then we continue. We fight each day to give thanks. 

As we do this we then realize, and only then, that in the fight, in the habit, in the truth of this gratitude, we are drawn into the love of God and we find life, and fullness, and joy. 

Gratitude. What are you doing to practice it today? I might add, to those of you reading this on thanksgiving, when that question may be easy to answer: What will you do to practice it tomorrow? Throughout this week? And beyond? 

10.10.14

Difficult and Beautiful


Some things are difficult.


Some things are beautiful.


They often overlap. 


May both the difficult and the beautiful draw you to praise the Lord.

7.10.14

"Jesus of Nazareth" by Gerhard Lohfink



Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was. Liturgical Press, 2012. 

"There are innumerable books about Jesus. The reason is obvious: We can never finish with him, and every age must encounter him anew." (xi) Indeed. Here, then, is another such book. Lohfink seeks to give a comprehensive overview of Jesus, examining his actions, message, and life in a combination of historical critical research and theological thinking. 

Lohfink does many things well. A friend, the one who requested that I review this book, commented of this book that it made Jesus more real to him than any other book he has read about Jesus. I can see that. Lohfink does an excellent job of bringing what we know about 1st century Palestine to bear on Jesus' life and teachings. Not only that, Lohfink is unquestionably a talented writer (and, I presume, Linda Maloney must also be a talented translator). I often found myself admiring Lohfink's details surrounding Jesus parables, his deep reading of scripture, and his ability to bring these things to life. 

At the same time, I found myself constantly disagreeing with Lohfink's conclusions. It seemed that many times, he made the shift from history to theology, or just interpretation, I disagreed with what he had to say. His chapters on miracles, the old testament, and the resurrection stood in this respect. 

What really bothered me about this book, however, was not that I disagreed but the places I felt that Lohfink contradicted himself. Some of these were small. For example, he notes that wheat bearing fruit 30, 50, or 100 fold is not unusual, but then goes on to comment that no one could double their money without criminal extortion or some other immoral business practices (commenting on the parables of the sower and the talents, respectively).  Others were larger. He opens the book with some excellent comments on historical criticism, noting that "when biblical critics measure Jesus only by their own prior understanding, deciding ahead of time what is 'historically possible' and what is 'historically impossible,' they exceed their own limitations." Unfortunately, Lohfink goes on to make just such decisions as well. Perhaps these were not made 'ahead of time' but they come across as merely affirming Lohfink's own prior understanding, rather than well argued positions backed up by evidence. Other examples include his excellent conclusion that God can be present in "irritatingly unique" ways contrasted with his persistent denial of such instances in his detailed reading of scripture.

What conclusion do I reach? There is some great material here. There are some great points made, even if they are inconsistently applied. But I'm afraid that I can't recommend this book. If you are already fluent in the language and world of historical criticism and, better yet, German theology, then this is a great book. Otherwise, I would send you elsewhere. 

Conclusion: Not Recommended. 3 Stars. 

5.10.14

A Pastor's Word: Faith

I say faith is a burden
It's a weight to bear
It's brave and bittersweet
And hope is hard to hold to 
Lord, I believe, only help my unbelief

Faith, we read, is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see. 

Faith is what those of old were commended for; Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and more. 

Faith is what we see in the Roman Centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant. And the Canaanite woman who begs for Jesus to free her daughter from a demon. 

Yet, with these examples before us, we somehow mistake faith for something easy. Something we can get once and for all. Something we can possess. 

In my experience faith is something I must struggle for and cling to. Rather than possessing faith I am continually holding it out to God, doing my best to take him at His word, despite all that stands against such trust, and waiting, holding my breathe, to see if He will come through yet again. 

I am called to "faith in," not just "faith." Faith in God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Faith in His promises and presence and person. And, therefore, also faith against all that stands in the way. 

In the end, the struggle of faith is the struggle to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. This is the lesson Peter learns in Matthew 13. And so the call to faith is the call to adventure, the call to brave uncertain waters where only He is certain:

"Yes, we Christians are adventurers of a higher order. Everything is uncertain, nothing is sure, except this One Man, who is with us in the ship and at the same is our goal. One look away from him - and our ship becomes an uncanny, alien place, drifting in a void. One look at him - and the strange and alien becomes familiar. We do not understand the navigation, true enough; but we know the Navigator."
- Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father. 


3.10.14

How Did They Do That?

It's misc. posting day, and this is kind of random, but in the past two days I read two entirely different accounts which made me respond: "How did they do that?"

The first was the account of Peter Schoening's "Miracle Belay" on K2 in 1953. The team of 8 american men were heading off the mountain, having failed to summit, in order to try to save the life of Art Gilkey who had thrombophlebitis and a pulmonary edema (I had to look those up to). On a steep glacier slope one man slipped, pulling his partner down with him. These two slide into the rope tying the next two men together and pulled both of them down. These four men hit yet another rope, joining Peter Schoening to his partner, but Schoening managed to wrap the rope around his shoulder and set his ax behind a rock, while also bearing the weight of the gurney Gilkey was on. 

So, five men are plummeting down a glacier and one man is holding on to a rope and an ax and somehow Schoening managed to stop all five men. And you already know how I reacted to this story. 


Time for the second account. A short time ago I hiked up Mt. Seymour with a friend and we saw a memorial to Tim Jones. We were curious who this man was and my friend looked him up later. It turns out he was a paramedic and unit chief as well as heavily involved with North Shore Rescue. With a family and a job he somehow managed to volunteer for 50 hours a week with the rescue services. Same reaction. 


This post has no real point, except to say that I suppose people do things every day which I find nearly unimaginable. 

30.9.14

"Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clarke


Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. Random House, 1954 (1990).

The Overlords have come. They have ended war, ended hunger, and unified the world. But who are they? And what are they really after? And will humanity succumb to a growing malaise and lack of creative striving in the face of this newly given peace?

These are the questions which begin this great sci-fi novel. I don’t normally review sci-fi books on here. I read plenty of them, being my genre of choice when it comes to fiction, but they are typically akin to the martial arts movies I enjoy: Briefly enjoyable and suited to my tastes, but nothing to write home about. 

Still, in every genre, no matter how specific, there are hidden gems. Here is one of them. What you will find in this book is, of course, Clarke’s creative vision of a specific future. Yet embedded within are also ideas about humanity, religion, science, purpose, and the meaning of life. And while you may or may not agree with Clarke’s ideas, exploring them with him and thinking about them alongside of his writing is both fun and interesting.

Not only that, but I was pleased to find, on the back of this book, one of the original endorsements: “There has been nothing like it for years; partly for the actual invention, but partly because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity that its own ‘survival.’” – C.S. Lewis.

Conclusion: 5 Stars. Highly Recommended. You may not like sci-fi, but give this a try as a thought experiment anyway. 

28.9.14

A Pastor's Word: Doubt

"The doubters are always more blessed than the mere fellow travelers in faith. For they are the only ones who fully learn that their Lord is stronger than any doubt and any hell of despair.”

- Helmut Thielicke, Life Can Begin Again


For a long time I have found bizarre comfort and encouragement from Luke 7:18-23. 

Jesus has just raised the widow's son from the dead and word is spreading that a great prophet has appeared in Israel. 

"John's disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" When the men came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?'" At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."
I read this and I try to imagine being John. John, Jesus' cousin, the one who baptized Jesus, the one who sent his own disciples to Jesus telling them that here is the Messiah, the one who seems to know who Jesus is  before anyone else. This John is now in prison and he must fear that he will never get out. He is correct. 

In the face of that fear he doubts. Why, if I was right about Jesus being the messiah, am I still in prison? Why is he allowing me to languish here in jail? Is he really who I thought he was? 

Out of this doubt and fear he sends his disciples to ask: "Are you the one, or should we expect someone else?" 

Jesus, perceptive as ever, answers both questions: I am the one but you, John, should not expect someone else. I am the messiah; look around, report to John all that you see and hear. And blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me. Yes, John, I am the Messiah, but I am not coming to rescue you. 

Part of me rebels at this. What I want is to believe that everything is always going to be OK. But it's not. I want to believe that every bad situation has a happy ending. But they don't. I want to be able to turn to Jesus and say 'You promised!' But he doesn't. 

You may wonder how I find this encouraging or comforting. I told you it was bizarre. 

I am comforted in the knowledge that even John the Baptist doubts in the difficult time, and when he does Christ does not rebuke his doubt but answers it. 

I am encouraged in the knowledge that Jesus doesn't just answer this doubt with the evidence but he also speaks directly to the disappointment behind it. We all struggle with disappointment, expectations not met or realized, just as John does in this passage. Jesus response to this is a word of both truth and encouragement and rather than dodging the blame he acknowledges his own place at the center of our disappointment, deserved or not. 

"Blessed is the man who..."

23.9.14

"Called To Be Saints" by Gordon T. Smith



Smith, Gordon. Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. Intervarsity Press, 2014.

It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.
-       Col. 1:28-29

That we may present everyone mature in Christ. Is this the end we strive towards, personally? Is it what we wish and pray for those around us? Is it what our churches are about? Smith wants us to say “yes.” Not only that, he is concerned that we know understand the content of the Christian Maturity for which we strive. And so he has written this book.

Though not exhaustive in his vision, Smith argues that maturity in Christ is founded in, begins with, and is all about union with Christ. From there maturity has four marks: Wisdom, Good Work, Love, and Joy. Naturally he means something specific by each of these. Wisdom is living and walking in the truth and light. Within this we are called to do good work and maturity means we are living out God’s call for us in our vocation. Love is the deep love and radical hospitality of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 13. Finally, Joy is the attitude which comes from union with Christ and the maturity that this develops in us over time.

I thought this book was great. It asks a very good set of questions (what is the life we are called to? How do we grow into it? How do fellowship, worship, teaching, prayer, spiritual direction, the church, and more play a part in this journey?) and he offers excellent answers. By the very nature of the subject this book is a beginning; no book can replace the journey of growing into maturity. Instead, we are given a vision, a set of means, and an invitation to take that journey.

I will say that some of the things he lays out as means are not as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be (issues around communion, for example, or prayer), but you have to stop at some point. Within this, a saving grace is the sparse but highly useful reference notes which will lead you to valuable further reading.

Conclusion: 4.5 Stars. Highly Recommended. 

21.9.14

A Pastor's Word: Desire

"We can't choose what we want and don't want and that's the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it's going to kill us. We can't escape who we are."
- Theodore Decker in The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

There is an attitude that places desire at the heart of identity and then assumes both to be unchangeable. Immutable and thus unquestionable. The Goldfinch is an excellent novel for many reasons, but one is that by the end it is clear that such a belief is equivalent to fatalism. 

However, it is much easier not to argue about where one thinks this belief leads and instead simply point out that it is mistaken. Desires are not beyond our ability to affect. 

None of us were born needing to wind down at the end of the day with TV and a bag of chips. Our three year old selves did not long for the things we dream of now. And yes, I suppose these are simplistic illustrations, but perhaps it is high time we realized that this attitude towards desire is equally simplistic. Infantile even. 

Our desires have been formed. They can be reformed.

This is an important part of my reading of the Psalms. When I get a Psalm inside of me it reforms my desire. 

"Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you..." 
"O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water..." 
"Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God..."

Desire is not a bad thing, but it is a sad truth of our times that our desires are often formed towards things that do not lead to life. I have found the Psalms to be a particularly strong anti-viral, necessary and vital for my faith and my self. 

19.9.14

Paths

Though both are beautiful, I sometimes wish the path of life looked more like this


And less like this




16.9.14

The Silence of God by Helmut Thielicke


Thielicke, Helmut. The Silence of God. Eerdmans Publishing, 1962.

I am almost always in the middle of a book of sermons. I read them both to increase my own skill as a preacher and to hear, in the voice of these other preachers, the word of God preached to me. For the year 2014 I am also almost always in the middle of a book by Helmut Thielicke. I am experimenting this year with taking one author who I respect and learn from and attempting to read all of their books. I’m not sure if I am going to make it. Thielicke wrote a lot.

Much about Thielicke’s writing impresses me; more than I am willing to type out in a book review. One of the constant themes, however, is his ability to speak deeply into the experience of doubt and struggle in faith. So far this book does this best.

The Silence of God is a collection of ten sermons – six ‘regular’ sermons and four ‘festive’ sermons (those preached on holy days). Each deals with the ways silence of, or questions of, or actions of, God seem confusing or threatening to faith. The ways, in other words, in which God’s silence demands answers.

In doing this he takes on some very difficult texts, such as Matthew 15:21-28, with marvelous results.
Speaking of the Canaanite woman in this passage Thielicke points out that: “There are some among us who cannot make anything of one or another dogma or who have doubts that they cannot resolve. They should prick up their ears and hear about this great faith. For it does not consist in regarding something as true, or in a capacity for dogmatic understanding, but in a struggle, in a dialogue with God.” (pg. 11)

Not all questions are answered, and I would not classify this in any way as apologetics. Instead, these are sermons which are meant to draw you forward to the only one who can answer: Jesus.  

In his own words: “Thus the message which we now have to proclaim from Calvary’s hill is that there hangs here One on whom our burden rests and on whom we may lay it – our care, our anxious fear of the future, our guilt, our broken homes, the many bankruptcies we experience in life. Here hangs One who bears all that we find intolerable and who knows all that we dare not know. And here also hangs One who for us has burst open, or rather prayed open, the way to the heart of the Father. And if I am at my wits’ end when the hostile power of conscience attacks and accuses me, if I am oppressed by sickness and misfortune, if I am forsaken by men, if I can no longer see the divine hand or higher thoughts, then I may confidently repeat what the dying Savior dared to cry in His last agony: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ And as I say this, the everlasting hands are there into which I may entrust myself and from which I can receive all things; and the comforting angels will come and lead me. For the way is open; One has gone before. Hence the night of Good Friday is full of the joy of Easter which is possible only in this night and at this place of a skull:

I cling and cling for ever
A member of this Head,
We go our way together
Wherever Christ may tread.
Through death He onward goes,
The world and sin and woes;
He makes his way through hell
And I will follow still.

But before I may sing and praise thus, I msut first come to Golgotha and say to the Man of Sorrows, the Man of my sorrows: ‘I will stand here at Thy side; despise me not.’” (pg. 75-76)

Conclusion: 5 Stars. Highly Recommended. 

14.9.14

A Pastor's Word: Wonder

"When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?"

I read Psalm 8 and it speaks to me of wonder. Wonder at the marvelous creation we inhabit, and wonder at the gracious God who cares about us in the midst of it. Yet, when I think of my own habits and ways I realize that I ‘wonder’ less and less. And not just me – as one living in Vancouver and as a pastor I see this often.

It seems the longer one lives in a place as beautiful as this, the longer one spends time in between this ocean and these mountains, or in any other setting of natural beauty, the more the wondrous becomes commonplace.

Hannah, Ethan, and I went hiking the other day, and reached the peak of Black Mountain in Cypress park. Hannah jumped up on top of a rock and exclaimed, “Ethan, look at all we can see!” Ethan responded, “We can see all the way to China from up here!”

Meanwhile, three others arrived, looked around, and said “Is this it?”

It seems the longer one is a Christian, the longer one partakes of Christian education, the more the marvelous becomes commonplace. We sit through Christmas and Easter services, hearing of our God who loves us enough to become one of us, to defeat death for us, and we are unmoved. “Is this it?” we think.

Perhaps one of our failures is a failure to consider. A failure to pause (and who has time to pause in this day and age? If I pause anything it’s the TV so that I can finish the game on my cell phone while waiting for the video to finish buffering on my computer) and reflect.

Perhaps you could change that this week. 

12.9.14

Books I Like: Survival and Conversion

On Tuesday I mentioned two genres I enjoy: Conversion narratives and survival narratives. I also mentioned the first book I enjoyed in each category. This gave me an idea. Why not give a short list of books I enjoy and recommend in each of those two categories? Indeed. And so I am doing so today on my misc. post.

These lists are in no particular order. 


Conversion Narratives:

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – I mentioned this in the book review on Tuesday.

Confessions by Augustine – I suppose you can’t have a list like this without Confessions on it. It really is a good book, though it is difficult reading if you are not used to reading older books.

God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew – Another book which has impacted my own life a lot, this is the story of Brother Andrew’s conversion but also his smuggling bibles into communist countries.

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken – Incredibly well written biography of a man whose life story really is amazing. I know, that’s a lot of superlatives, but it is a good book.

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis – His autobiography; well worth reading.


Survival Narratives:

The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen – Also mentioned on Tuesday’s post.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe – Sometimes you just can’t beat the classics.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – Superb. Similar to John Newton; this is an amazing story told incredibly well.

The Martian by Andy Weir – This is a sci-fi story, set in the very near future, about a man stranded on Mars. Gripping, but be aware there is a fair amount of profanity.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer – True story of the 1996 'Everest disaster'.  


If you have any recommendations to make in either of these categories then please do pass them on!

9.9.14

We Thought We Heard The Angels Sing




We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing, by Lieutenant James C. Whittaker. 1943, Public Domain.

This is the tale of eight men lost in the pacific in 1942. Stranded on rafts with four oranges, no water, one watch, life jackets, a Bible, and a few flares, they hope for rescue and struggle to survive.

In the end, seven make it. On the way some find more than just hope of rescue; some find faith in God.

I came across this book because Helmut Thielicke referred to it in one of his sermons. It sounded like an interesting story so I looked it up. I was pleased to find it free online and I read it. This was the right choice. It is an excellent story, worth reading.

In reading that recommendation you should know that this is a book which fits into two genres I quite enjoy: Survival and Conversion.

One of the first fiction books I fell in love with was The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. I read it multiple times and then read everything else I could find by Paulsen. It is the story of a 13 year old who survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness and survives for nearly 2 months before being rescued. I read it again earlier this summer.

One of the first non-fiction books I fell in love with was Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. I read it multiple times and then read everything else I could find by Chesterton. It is about many things and includes the story of how Chesterton came to faith. I read this book every 2-3 years.

Reading a book in which these two things came together was great. But apart from fitting my tastes so well, and coming with just the right amount of nostalgia despite my never having read it before, I stand by my recommendation that you read this book. We Thought We Heard The Angels Sing is a worth your time.

Conclusion: 4 Stars. Highly Recommended. 

7.9.14

A Pastor's Words

As I write this, the first in a promised four months worth of ‘Pastor’s Word’ posts, I am struck by how little you need more words. If ever there were a culture with too many words then we who are buffeted by tens of thousands of words from hundreds of sources every day live in that culture.

The addition of the title ‘pastor’ does not improve upon this judgment. I, like you, am frail, fallen, failing, and failed. My words, insofar as they are merely that, offer no sustenance, relief, or hope.

If these posts are to have any value it will be found only insofar as they turn you away from me and towards the one whose word, and presence, offers these and much more.

If you take these posts and do not click them, or read them, or pass them on, but instead allow them to act merely as reminders to listen to Jesus, that would be OK. Still, I hope there is more here than that. 

But this reflection contains questions.

Who are you listening to? That is, whose words do you take seriously or obey?

Who are you listening for? That is, whose voice do you long to hear, search for, and desire?

Who, or what, defines you? That is, whose words do you take to heart, allowing to penetrate your everyday defenses?

Take, for example, these words from Psalm 105:

Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them.
The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.
I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands.
Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name.
Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.
Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts.
Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees.
Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.
Do they draw a response from you?

Or these, uttered about Jesus on the Mount: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!”

Does it strike you that Moses upon the mountain received books of law while Jesus on the mountain receives but these few words? 

Does it make you want to listen? 

3.9.14

It's "About" Time?

The following is an update I have added to my "About This Blog" page:

It has been a long time. I haven't posted in 5 months, and I haven’t posted regularly in far longer. However, this is about to change.

Beginning this Sunday, Sept. 7th, I am going to post three times a week. On Sunday I will post a ‘Pastor’s Word’, on Tuesday I will post a book review, and on Friday I will post something miscellaneous.

Pastor’s Word: Every week at my church, in our Sunday bulletin, one of the pastors writes what is called a ‘Pastor’s Word.’ There are almost no content guidelines, except that they need to be 350-400 words long. Personally, I have only done this four times, and I have written them as devotionals. I will continue that here, and post one every Sunday. Some of them will be the very same that I have written for our church bulletin.

Book Reviews: The format of my book reviews will remain unchanged. I will tell you what the book is about, tell you what I thought of it and why, and summarize my recommendation. What will change are the books I review. In the past I have largely reviewed books which I received in exchange for the promise of a review. Now I will be reviewing two kinds of books: books I want to recommend to you and books that placed in me a need to write or respond.

Miscellaneous: This ought to be fairly self-explanatory.

A few caveats:
Life happens; things may change.
I reserve the right to post more often.
No doubt I will change this schedule someday, perhaps soon. For now, I am committed to following this three post a week schedule until near Christmas of 2014. At that time I will likely take a Christmas break, re-evaluate, and see where to go from there.

As always, thanks for reading, and do let me know your thoughts, requests, and so on.
P.S. Yes, Snook, if you end up reading this: I do plan on eventually getting to at least some of the books you have asked me to review.

16.4.14

A Child In Prayer



Thielicke, speaking about the petition for daily bread:


"A father who would not listen to everything his child says would not be a father. He may smile because the child so often has so little sense of proportion, because the child grieves more over a lost screw in his toy train than the destruction of his parental home, because the child has so little understanding of the difference between great and small things, but he listens nevertheless. God does not want only to be 'praised'; nor does he want us to simply go on saying, 'Thy will be done' and all the while, deep down under our own words, be tormenting ourselves because we have our own will and our own cares and troubles and are only suppressing them out of a kind of religious politeness which we associate with piety. Let us not fool ourselves: the Father knows what we are thinking. And so we can let out even our most secret desires. In other words, we should not only praise God; in this petition and intercession there is power and God has promised to listen (Luke 11:5 ff., James 5:17)."

I am often that child in prayer. Agonizing over much of little import while giving scant thought to such things as the hearts and souls of those around me. And so I found these words, and this whole sermon, both convicting and encouraging. For I am reminded to do the former, taking to God the things that burden me, no matter how small they be, but I am also urged to do the latter, praying over that which is of eternal significance and asking for God to change my heart so that one day what burdens me, and what I agonize over in prayer, will include those things which burden Him.

11.4.14

Helmut Thielicke and Social Media

To begin, here is an excerpt from Helmut Thielicke's book The Prayer That Spans The World: Sermons on the Lord's Prayer. It is from the sermon entitled "Hallowed Be Thy Name."

"When a man gets away from God he becomes like someone who is deprived of the sun and is therefore artificially isolated from the element of life which is part of his nature. Then symptoms of decline immediately begin to appear because the life-giving element is lacking. This is a fact that can frequently be observed in everyday life; for example, in workers who are cut off for days from the sunlight or dwindle away in unhealthy factories, or even our brethren in the Far North. When this happens, a paralyzing weariness and listlessness settles down upon a man. He is literally cut off from the source of life.

So it is not surprising that he seeks artificial stimulants; he swallows caffeine, or he gives himself a lift with nicotine or a coke or vitamin pills. But the bit of specious life that he stirs up in himself in this way is only a delusion. In the long run he only becomes more miserable, and as time goes on his hangover becomes worse and worse and returns at shorter intervals - unless he leaps into the sunshine and restores connection with its life-giving rays, unless he goes back to his real destiny, which is to live beneath the sun.

And this is exactly what happens to the person who separates himself from God and goes into the far country where he hopes to be independent and run his life on his own steam. He runs away from the sun, to which he belongs by nature, and thus robs himself of its life-giving power.
Then he tries (he simply has to try) to get along with artificial stimulants. He whips himself up with ideas of duty, he submits to the knout of the eternal 'Thou shalt,' the scourge of the Law. He attempts to galvanize himself by pursuing great examples and ideals, or he may turn to some very cheap anesthetics and stimulants. The cheapest of these may be ambition: for example, the will to impress his fellow men at all costs, to put on a show and 'be someone.' So he tries to arrange everything he has as skillfully as possible in the show window of his life, and there can be no doubt that this passion for the show window can produce all kinds of exhibitionistic accomplishments that make people gape and gasp, 'Oh, how wonderful!' 
But we must realize very clearly that all these things are merely artificial stimulants.

Even the honest people who have tried this have found that they, too, get what I have called the 'hangover' that comes from being deprived of the sun. They have found that they got nowhere, that something central was lacking. Why else should the rich young ruler have run up to Jesus and asked him what he was lacking, and why, in his quiet moments, he was always falling into that disillusioned, crapulent 'headache' that comes to the moral activist. (For there can be no doubt that he had this 'hangover headache,' even though we could describe it more politely and discreetly by saying that he had come to a 'critical point' in his inner life where he needed the help of a pastor.) And Jesus proceeded to tell him straight to his face: 'One thing you are lacking.'"

There is much here that is good and worthy of discussion but I want to highlight only one thing.

Thielicke identifies the effects of being cut off from our source of life, whether that be our sun or our God, as "paralyzing weariness and listlessness." These are all too common maladies modern individuals suffer and I do believe that much of it is caused by being cut off from our source(s) of life.

We suffer these from being cut off in an ultimate sense; being cut off from God. We also suffer these from being cut off in much more proximate senses as well: From community, family, ourselves, and nature. We are meant to live in communion with each of these five things and each of them supplies us with both life and identity. In the absence of such connections we do experience paralyzing weariness and listlessness.

But what do we do about it? Clearly we are not all sitting around paralyzed and doing nothing. We feel these things, but we move on. How?

As Thielicke notes, in the face of these symptoms we turn to artificial stimulants.

Our world is awash in options for those seeking out artificial stimulus. Some, perhaps extreme, examples include drug addictions, video-game addictions, and pornography addictions. Thielicke, however, goes further. He mentions material stimulants but his focus is primarily on behavioral stimulants (duty, legalism, and idealism are the first three he mentions). Then he comes to consider what he calls the 'cheapest of these': Ambition. Specifically, ambition with the goal of impressing, of putting our lives in such an order that we cause those who see to be impressed.

Read the second last paragraph I quoted above.  Does that sound like social media to anyone else? Or is it just me?

"But we must realize very clearly that all these things are merely artificial stimulants"

What if, for many people, social media is becoming, or has become, an artificial stimulant taken in order to mask the symptoms of living apart from our rightful sources of life?

One thing you are lacking... 

28.2.14

"....with good intentions."


Nearly every day I drive by this billboard:

 


I've struggled with both whether and how to respond to this. It invites the nonconstructive response of mockery and the not-possible response of argument. Neither suits and yet there it sits, on the side of the road, every day.

In the end, I've decided to engage. What I mean is this:

Let us lend as much depth as possible to this message, let us seek the points of connection and appeal, and let us delve into the question of the rhetorical and persuasive power of the choices made herein. Let us take seriously each part.

There is, of course, every chance in the world that I will overshoot my mark but, given the alternatives, this is the risk I choose. 

To begin at the beginning: "Dave 27:1"

The appeal to individualism, which suffuses this ad, begins almost subtly. The title mocks scripture but also pulls at the thread in each of us which desires to 'live by my own rules' and 'go my own way.' From Gibb's rules on the popular TV show NCIS to LL Cool J's biographical-motivational-self help book this is a way of life with which we have strong affinity; perhaps even more so out here in the 'land of Lewis and Clarke.'

The appeal quickly becomes more explicit when we read vs. 1a of Dave chapter 27: "Lead with your heart."

The message of individualism, with the always attendant subjectivism, continues. We add to this a second thread of appeal. Here is a message which, thanks to Disney among others, many of us have heard since childhood. Taken in without reflection as you drive by this phrase has the potential to affect you like the smell of warm apple pie or freshly baked bread. Drawing up memories of home, comfort, and peace. It is a comfortable phrase, cultural encouraged; a piece of advice we likely received in youth from well meaning caregivers.

Then the turn: "Not with your bible."

Mockery has become direct assault and a third thread has been added to the appeal: anti-authoritarianism. It is a sad truth that many have experienced the church, and the bible, as a kind of tyrant under which their true self was squelched by morbid life denying constraints and misplaced guilt. To this we might add many other negative experiences of authority and the cultural pressure to experience freedom as "living without limits," an ideal hampered by any authority.

So we place next to the warm feelings of home the dark experience of subjugation and thus dangle in front of the viewer the further possibility of "freedom."

And lest freedom be frightening, as freedom often us, be reassured, innocent and victimized passerby, that "Without God. We're all good."

The assault becomes surgical with the capital 'G' God. We do not stand against any god, but the biblical "G"od of Christianity. To this we add specific moral reassurance (without god we're all good), a statement of the way we live (without god), and an appeal to a general attitude (we're all good).

Thus concludes what is not an argument but also not merely an advertisement. Thus concludes the promotion of a very specific lifestyle founded upon specific ideas of freedom and the good life. Thus concludes the siren call not of atheism, despite the theological standpoint of the cfi, but of consumerism, complete with well-dressed-open-shirted-handsome man holding disposable consumer item G328-L7.

If this is in fact what is going on, and I believe it is, then my response as a Christian Pastor is very specific. It not directed at cfi or the individuals therein; they are not available via this poster anyway. It is not intended to engage in intellectual debate over issues of theism and atheism; no such content is presented to debate with. It is not even an apologetic, a defense of my own faith under assault; quite frankly the lance of this assault is not only blunted but dangling.

My response, which is begun already, is one of attempted apocalypsis; unveiling and disclosing what is hidden. This is because what is presented here is temptation.

According to Helmut Theilicke "there is one thing that must be very clearly understood, and this is that, if we cannot believe... the reason lies only in the rarest cases in the fact that we have intellectual doubts... Rather, when we cannot believe, there is something in the background of our life which is not in order." I agree. This poster tempts one to a disordered life. It promotes a lifestyle which will create hard soil in our hearts.

Rather than a life of righteousness in which I seek to relate well to creation, others, myself, and God, this is temptation towards self centered individualism. This is disordered.

Rather than humble submission to appropriate authority, this is temptation towards anti-authoritarianism. No individual lives without authority in her life. To throw off one authority is always to adopt another. We are always serving someone or something. To be anti-authoritarian, as an attitude rather than a specific (and potentially quite appropriate) instance, is simply to hold an attitude which promotes hidden authority over revealed authority, subtle subjugation rather than overt submission. This is disordered.

Rather than a life in which freedom is about the opportunity to choose and do the good, the best I can, this is temptation towards freedom as the autonomous exercise of will in choice. Life is full of things we can and cannot do. To accept that freedom consists in a lack of constraint on my choice is to literally amputate the majority of life. It leaves untouched all that might be put into the category of 'freedom to' rather than 'freedom from'; freedoms to which, incidentally, will require submission and humility. This is disordered.

Let us, for a moment, imagine giving in to these temptations to the utmost extremes.

We live in a culture which uses the word 'freedom' in a very specific way. We want the freedom of self-actualization, self-determination, and choice. We want self-centered, anti-authoritarian, absolute autonomy.

We have enshrined the will and thus defined freedom around it; if my will, my ability to choose and determine for myself, is constricted in any way then I am less free. And so we seek a kind of arbitrary freedom, to do what I want, when I want, how I want, for whatever reason I want, or for no reason at all.

Maximal freedom is being who I want to be, doing what I want to do, no restraint, nothing outside of my grasp, so that I can express my inner-self however I want. Capitalizing on this sense of freedom means seeking maximal choice so that whatever we choose is, as nearly as possible, a perfect expression of my inner-self.

But think through the ends of this vision.

To be truly and completely self-determining you would have to live in a world in which you were the only person with a will. A world in which there were no other people whose needs you had to take into account, no other people whose emotions had to be regarded, no other people who have value or dignity or are deserving of human respect. It would have to be a world in which the stuff around you was utterly worthless except insofar as it could be used for your ends, because if the stuff, the earth, around you mattered in any other way then you would be restricted as to what you could do with it. It would have to be a world in which there was no morality, no external vision or criteria of a good life, no better or worse or good, to impede your decision making and no God with higher demands upon you.

Do you know what I call a world with no people, no worth, no good, and no God? A world in which you are all there is, you and your will and what you want? I call that hell.

Does anyone really push it this far? Of course not, not least of all because it simply isn't (currently?) possible. But dislocating each of these things is a step in this direction. Embracing individualism, in its current form, rather than being an individual in right relationships, moves us towards isolation. Embracing anti-authoritarianism as an attitude, rather than seeking to discern right authority in our lives, moves us towards nihilism. The quest of self-actualization through free choice and "freedom-from" ignores the fact that to actualize what I am right now is to actualize "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Each of these things becomes hell. And not hell inflicted by a vindictive "G"od but hell chosen and approved and pursued.

24.1.14

"The Vanishing Evangelical" by Calvin Miller



Calvin Miller, The Vanishing Evangelical: Saving the Church from its Own Success by Restoring What Really Matters. Baker Books, 2013. 

Herein lies an examination of the current state of that somewhat nebulous entity known as "Evangelicalism.' An analysis which hops from worship to mission to the information age to the attack of secularism and preaching in the church. An analysis and, nearly, an obituary. 

In his first chapter Miller notes "Generally I have noticed that the events of any movement that has been moving in one direction continue to move in that direction until they reach a conclusion. Great movements like American evangelicalism rarely come to a complete and final stop. They end in a reduced state of trickled down vitality. There will always be evangelicals, of course; the question is how many and for how long?"

Yes, indeed. Wait... what? I'm afraid the confusion here is basically carried through the whole book. If there will always be evangelicals then there is no question of how long. And if great movements always reach their conclusion, how exactly has the church survived? And if it doesn't come to a complete stop... well, you get the idea. Frankly, as I came back to write this review I was shocked to reread the subtitle. Somehow it got lost in the actual book. 

Unfortunately, The Vanishing Evangelical hops from common sense to ill-founded conjecture all to frequently. There are good points here, but the book ends up reading as a long list of complaints from someone who is trying their best to stay in the "good camp" while groaning about what a terrible camp it has become. Some of the ideas are sound and provocative but they never come together. 

Conclusion: 2 Stars. Not recommended. 

Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Books in exchange for an honest review.

2.1.14

"God's Double Agent" by Bob Fu



Bob Fu, God's Double Agent: The True Story of a Chinese Christian's Fight for Freedom. Baker Books, 2013

Herein lies the tale of Bob Fu. Born in China, full of ambition and a desire to improve his home, Bob eventually became involved in the protests which ended in Tiananmen square. The resulting punishment and depression were the context for his conversion and the beginnings of a ministry that would lead him to found China Aid. 

I don't want to give away too much more of the story; you should read it for yourself. And that, I suppose, gives away the rest of this review. I find a good Christian biography to be a very encouraging and challenging thing. Good in the sense that it is well written but, more importantly, good in that it displays the work of Jesus in the life of one of his followers. This, God's Double Agent, was a good Christian biography. And you should read it. Did I say that already? It's worth saying twice. 

Conclusion: 5 Stars. Recommended. 


Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Books in exchange for an honest review.