18 November 2014

Book Review: The Prodigal


Brennan Manning died last year. Writer extraordinaire and grace addict. For those who love the message of grace, his books have been a rich source of sustenance. The Prodigal: A Ragamuffin Story (2013) co-authored by Greg Garrett was the last book of Brennan's before he died.

The authors tell the story of Jack, a megachurch pastor, who has built a church and a huge following on a message of door more, try harder. At the beginning of the book, we discover that he has been caught in a moral failure. The rest of the book tells the story of his ailing father bringing him back home to small town Texas. 

Although I suspect the text itself was largely constructed by Garrett, the story has the unmistakable fingerprints of Brennan, particularly in the character of Father Frank, the aging Catholic priest. If you have enjoyed Brennan's works, this book is for you. If you have lost hope in the church, this book is for you. 

16 November 2014

Book Review: Jesus Continued

In Jesus Continued: Why the Spirit Inside You is Better Than Jesus Beside You (2014), JD Greear tackles an important issue: the neglect of the Holy Spirit in the modern, presumably American, church. Although we are often sincere, we weary because we rely not upon the promised Spirit, but upon our own efforts.

Early in the book, Greear draws out an important distinction between the two extremes (p. 22) that Christians tend to gravitate towards. On the one hand, there are Christians who seem to regard experiences of the Spirit, apart from the Word of God as the normal Christian life. On the other hand, there are those who operate as though there is no current involvement of the Holy Spirit (i.e., hard cessationism). Greear argues that neither extreme represents biblical Christianity. As someone who probably tends toward the second extreme, I appreciated his view of the ongoing work of the Spirit. I want to hope in His continued work on a bigger scale than I do. In chapter 15, Greear quotes AW Tozer, who wrote, "if the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference." Is the Spirit still active as he was with the New Testament church? Greear says yes and I am inclined to agree with him.

Jesus Continued is divided into three sections. The first section is entitled "The Missing Spirit" and deals with our feeble pneumatology in the church today. In many regards, this book is good companion piece to Francis Chan's excellent Forgotten God, another book about the Holy Spirit. Part two is "Experiencing the Holy Spirit." Here, Greear demonstrates the different ways in which the Spirit manifests, not only through the Gospel and through his word, but through our giftings, in the church, in our circumstances, and in our Spirits. Too often, we tend to limit the movement of the Spirit. Part three is "Seeking the Holy Spirit," which deals with prayer, revival, and the Spirit's ongoing movement.

I really appreciated this book.  I share Greear's concern that too many Christians have a anemic view of the Spirit. May He use this book to stir people to be sensitive to the movement of the Spirit. 

I was provided a complementary copy of this book from Zondervan through the Book Look Bloggers Program.  I was not required to write a positive review of this book. 

08 November 2014

Flying kites in a whirlwind

Adoption is not for the faint of heart. Rather, you are called to it. It is no mere weekend adventure. Instead, it is flying a kite in a whirlwind. You throw your sail into the air and hang on for dear life.

Yesterday, my wife and I were talking about our first adoption five years ago when our Tessa came home to us. I was reminding her of how out of control things felt near the end of the process. Heather was going through chemotherapy and we were hoping Tessa would be home by Christmas. In fact, we were specifically praying that she would get a December 17th embassy date, but even a week before she came home, we were told by our social worker that she just didn't see how it could happen. But God...I love those two words...but God moved mountains and we received a December 16th date, almost as if He were saying, "I'll do you one better." As whirlwinds go, that one felt like a subtle breeze compared to this time around.

Adopting from Haiti has brought with it every emotion--fear, joy, anger, sadness, bitterness--the list goes on. This has been a much longer process too, years versus months. Each trip to Haiti makes it harder to leave. Heather, Grace, and Tessa have now been living down there with Jasmine and Calvin for about 3 weeks in the home of a dear friend. Even in that brief period of time, our emotions have blown in a thousand directions, though yesterday was hardest.

We had been searching for the children's birth mother, following whatever leads we could and eventually, they just seemed to dry up. We had no clue where to find her and in a country of millions of people, where do you go next when your leads have led nowhere? Friday morning, Heather purchased plane tickets to come home on Saturday and began packing while trying attend to a sobbing Jasmine and a Grace refusing to come home. I wished I was there with her to help pick up the pieces. After crying for hours, Jasmine went out on the porch to pray. Fifteen minutes later, Heather received a call that the kid's birth mother had heard on the radio that we were looking for her and had come to the orphanage, the one thing we needed to happen. Our mourning turned to dancing in a very literal sense.

Heather and I made the decision to cancel the Saturday return trip, eating the $1600 tickets if need be. It was more important to stay and see this through. Amazingly, I was able to cancel the tickets with only a $75.00 service charge.

So, what does that mean over the next few weeks? God only knows. For us, it means hanging tight to the kite string, knowing that our God lives in the whirlwind.

Postscript: If you want to read more stuff about our adoptions, you can click here.

01 November 2014

Book Review: Vanishing Grace

According to the dustjacket, Philip Yancey is a successful Christian author. He has written 13 Gold Medallion Awards, won the ECPAs book of the year twice, and 4 of his books have sold over 1 million copies. I've had the pleasure of reading several of his books and his reputation is well earned. Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News (2014, Zondervan) is his latest offering.

In the introduction, Yancey pointed out that this is actually a volume of 4 mini-books around a central theme: a world athirst, grace dispensers, is it really good news?, and Faith and culture. In the first section, he explores questions about why evangelicals have increasingly been viewed with derision in society. It seems to me he rightly points out that too often Christians want to propose answers before listening for questions. He writes, "to communicate to post-Christians, I must first listen to their stories for clues to how they view the world and how they view people like me" (p. 21). He showed that Christians are viewed as judgmental, confusing, guilt dispensers and he calls us back to love, grace, and humility. People are thirsty. We must dispense living water.

In the second section he explores three specific groups whom he identifies as grace dispensers--pilgrims, activists, and artists--those he appears to identify as having the most potential impact upon secular culture. He calls us to walk with others on their journeys, to be agents of change in our culture, and to show the world the beauty of Christ through creative, artistic means.

In the third section, perhaps my favorite, Yancey explores the influences that Christians have had on human flourishing and the culture at large. As he notes, "the way of life set out in the Bible is intended for our own good" (p. 163). Christian missionaries have had a greater influence upon societies than anything. I appreciated Yancey's insight into the common rebuttal about European countries like Denmark where Christian commitment is low but society seems to work well. He writes, "to be fair, let's admit that the region was populated by warring and pillaging Vikings until the Christian gospel came along. The gospel transforms culture by permeating it like yeast, and long after the people abandon belief, the tend to live by habits of the soul. Once salted and yeasted, society is difficult to un-salt and un-yeast" (p. 169).

In the final section, Faith and Culture, he dives more deeply into how Christians may be involved in the surrounding culture. He offers suggestions about how Christians may engage with politics and other cultural influences. In the final chapter, Holy Subversion, he revisits the concepts of pilgrim, activist, and artist.

I really liked this book. As a certified Centurion, I frequently enjoy books about how we can influence the culture around us and this book is no different. As I read, there were whispers of Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and Chuck Colson and reflections of books from the Centurion program including Glenn Sunshine's Why You Think the Way You Do, Neal Plantinga's Not the Way Things Are Supposed to Be, Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason, and most notably Colson's How Now Shall We Live? Yet, for those familiar with these authors, Yancey approaches these issues from a different vantage. It is as though he is looking at the same issues, twenty degrees to the left.

In sum, I would happily recommend this book. Yancey is an engaging, thoughtful writer and consistent with his typical style, he winsomely takes on issues that matter.

I received a complementary copy of this book free from the Book Look Bloggers program and Zondervan publishers. I was not required to write a positive review of this book.

27 October 2014

Redeeming Emotion--wrap up.

Yesterday, I completed a 4 part teaching series at Cedarcreek Community Church entitled Redeeming Emotion. Over the 4 weeks, we looked at what the Bible had to say about emotion, specifically anger, fear, sorrow, and joy.  I also introduced a 4 step model for working through emotions: 1) reflect and listen, 2) respond and repent, 3) remember the gospel, and 4) relate and restore.

I thought it might be useful to provide a few brief notes and links to the audio teachings for those who are interested in going deeper. You can click on the links to hear the teachings.


Anger
  • Part of bearing the image of God means that we are emotional. God is passionate; we are passionate.
  • God's anger is expressed towared unrighteousness and unholiness (Exodus 32). His anger is always righteous.
  • Our anger may be either righteous or unrighteous.
  • “Careful inspection of ourselves, particularly when we’re angry, makes it clear that we suffer from a defect more severe than mere self-centeredness. The greatest obstacle to building truly good relationships is justified self-centeredness, a selfishness that, deep in our souls, feels entirely reasonable and therefore acceptable in light of how we’ve been treated." (Larry Crabb, Men and Women)
  • From Ephesians 4--Paul assumes believers will become angry, but we are instructed to not harbor our anger. We are also instructed by David to ponder our anger.
  • Imprecatory psalms express anger and call for God to deliver.
Scriptures
  • Song of Solomon 6:4-5
  • Luke 10:27
  • Exodus 32:9-10
  • Romans 1:18
  • Proverbs 6:16-17
  • Ephesians 4:25-32
  • Psalm 4:4
  • Psalm 139
  • Romans 5:6-11
Fear 
  • One in five Americans have disruptive anxiety.
  • Anxiety can consist of fear, worry, fret, physiological symptoms, obsessing. 
  • We need to dig deeper into what the Bible teaches about anxiety. 
  • Two types of fear--righteous and unrighteous
  • The righteous type of fear is found in the "Fear of the Lord"
  • We worry about lots of things that are not God.  Jesus tells us not to worry about those things.
  • Often our anxiety comes from the the belief that either God is not powerful or that God is not good.
Scriptures
  • Luke 12:4-5
  • Proverbs 1:7
  • Matthew 6:25-34
  • Proverbs 16:9, 19:20, 20:24, 21:1
  • Matthew 7:9-11
  • Romans 8:35-39
  • Psalm 55
Sorrow
  • Biblical characters with clear stories of sorrow--Job, Hannah, David, Elijah, Solomon, Jeremiah, Jonah, Mary, Martha, Jesus.
  • 1/3 Psalms are in the minor key--laments.
  • Jesus experienced sorrow--at the death of Lazarus, in the garden of Gethsemane
  •  Sorrow is a part of the rhythm of life.
  • Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.-CS Lewis
  • Christians Get Depressed Too videos
  • Isolation leads to loneliness leads to depression
Scriptures
  • Psalm 22
  • Psalm 88--"the saddest psalm in the psalter. Does not resolve. Most hopeless of all the Psalms."
  • John 11:35
  • Luke 19
  • Matthew 26:38
  •  Romans 8:26
  • Psalm 69
  • Psalm 42
Joy
  • Christians are rarely described as joyful, but instead hypocritical, judgmental, political, and conservative.
  • If your yoke is hard and your burden is heavy, it is because you are trying to carry it instead of Jesus--read on Twitter
  • We tend to live in duty driven Christianity.
  • Christianity is a celebrating religion.
  • God is a delighter.
  • You can't get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.--CS Lewis
  • Happiness in God is the end of all our seeking--John Piper
  • It is finished.
  • Christians are too cautious with grace.
Scriptures
  • Luke 7:31-34
  •  Zephaniah 3:17
  • Luke 16:20
  • Genesis 3--independence
  • Genesis 11--achievement
  • Genesis 19--sexual pleasure
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Deuteronomy 24:5
  • Psalm 16:11
  • Psalm 119
  • Psalm 1
  • Matthew 5:17-20, 48
  • Romans 5:8-21
  • Ephesians 1:3-14
  • Psalm 30:4-5,11-12

Book Review: God at Work

A friend of mine sent me a video of Tim Keller talking about the doctrine of vocation, which brought back to mind Gene Veith's God at Work (2002, Crossway), an engaging, accessible summary of the doctrine of vocation, particularly through the lens of the Reformation tradition. Veith, a Lutheran scholar, draws particularly on the writings of Luther himself, a source we all benefit from.

Veith sets out to examine what is meant by vocation or calling. Too often, it seems, we are limited to thinking of our jobs as our vocation, though we all have a variety of vocations. For example, I hold the vocation of neuropsychologist, but I also hold vocations of husband, son, father, citizen, deacon. Veith explores how we live out our callings in each of the roles God has called us to.  I particularly appreciated his chapters on "your calling as a citizen" and "bearing the cross in vocation." In the first case, understanding how we live as citizens of two kingdoms, how we submit to the governing authorities, and how we resist when necessary were all good and useful topics.  His application of Luther's Theology of the Cross to vocation was also beneficial.

I would happily recommend this book to those interested in learning what does it mean to live as a Christian in the world.

23 October 2014

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

They say "absence makes the heart grow fonder", whoever "they" are. When separated from your beloved, you develop a deeper sense of longing, or perhaps appreciation. All I know is that I miss my wife. I feel like when she is here at home, I am fond of her, yet I can see the truth in this pithy statement. Seeing the tenderness in the pixilated face of my wife tonight, surrounded by our children--four of them, at least--filled me with a desire to be with her. Not just romantically, but in all ways. She is my best friend and after just four days, I miss her so deeply it hurts. I think the most difficult thing is not knowing when she will come home.

How do soldiers manage? Or those left behind? How do they pass the days separated from those whom their hearts long for? How do they fit all the pieces of each daily puzzle together when some very important pieces are missing?

O Lord, I am grateful that you allow me to continue to delight in the wife of my youth, my companion, and friend. Thank you for reminding me of the desire for her that you have continued to fan into flame for over 17 years.

Bring her home to me.

You’ve captured my heart, dear friend.
    You looked at me, and I fell in love.
    One look my way and I was hopelessly in love!

-Song of Songs

21 October 2014

Book Review: The Making of an Ordinary Saint

The spiritual disciplines are a curious thing to me. I have read numerous books about them over the years, but I have never been quite sure what to do with them. The message that I seem to hear from the conservative side of evangelicalism with which I would align myself would suggest that spiritual disciplines can be a dangerous business if improperly understood. And yet, I have read many books about them. When I saw The Making of An Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (2014) by Nathan Foster, I was intrigued. Certainly, as a "Foster", the child of author Richard Foster, he has a regal lineage. Honestly, though, the book cover was just as inviting and a wise choice by the publisher.

In the book, Foster set out to explore twelve spiritual disciplines--those initially described by his father in the Celebration of Discipline--stitched to his everyday life. This approach allowed for an honest, autobiographical description of the spiritual disciplines in his life. Foster shared his challenges and new understandings in an engaging way.

As I read the book, I was deeply affected by some of his chapters, but with others, I was less engaged. The chapter on submission was my favorite. I could find myself easily connecting with what he was saying about some of the frustrations he experienced, but was drawn to his description of an Eskimo man who didn't fit the mold of the bike racers he was with. I also learned from the other chapters as well.

One of the criticisms that Foster anticipated was hearing from fundamentalists...like me, I suppose.  On page 143, he wrote "While I try to remain teachable and open to the insights of others, I'm finding I have little interest in learning from extreme fundamentalists whose lives and careers are based on criticizing others--you know, those people who call themselves Christians but seem to know nothing of love." I wonder if Foster cuts himself short. I share a concern for a lack of love, but I also share a concern for truth. There is an old proverb that says, "don't become so open minded that your brains fall out." I wonder if Foster's unwillingness to learn from those whom he considers unloving is actually an unloving thing to do.

On the whole, this is a good book and I would commend it. Foster is a captivating writer and tells his story well. 

A review copy of this book was provided to me by Baker Books in exchange for this review. I was not required to submit a positive review of this book.

09 October 2014

Book Review: Daring Greatly

I think that more people need to read Brene Brown. She came to notoriety through a TED talk that she gave and was thrusted into the international spotlight. Brown is a PhD social worker who researches shame, vulnerability, and wholeheartedness. I previously had the chance to read her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, which I thought was quite good. Recently, however, a friend of mine recommended Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012). As much as I liked her first book, this one was better.

Brown accomplishes what we all hope with our research. She is able to examine her data and personalize it in such a way that it grabs the reader. This book is a perfect example. She describes how she distilled 12 years of research into this book about vulnerability.  She shares numerous anecdotes from her own life and the lives of those she has met to animate her thoughts.

This book dives deeply into topics of shame, boundaries, feelings of unworthiness, wholeness, and vulnerability. Brown talks about the toxicity of shame and the benefits of being vulnerable to risk and emotional exposure. I suspect this book will be deeply challenging for many, especially those who deal with shame, but on the other side, there is hope and healing. Don't let that keep you from reading. Indeed, I would like to put this book into the hands of many people that I know.

02 October 2014

Book Review: Unshockable Love

I think I like this book. Unshockable Love (Baker Books, 2013) by John Burke is really a book about the love of Jesus. Burke, the pastor of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas makes the case that too often Christians are prone to evangelizing with the model: bad news first, then good. Admittedly, I have typically operated from this mindset and I think it has its place at times. I once heard someone say that Jesus came to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, or something like that. Some people, self-righteous people, often need to be shaken up a bit. Nevertheless, I think that he is right in suggesting not enough people hear the good news of the gospel. Early on in the book, he indicated that he intended to look at the life of Jesus and make a case, based on Jesus' own way of interacting, for how we should interact. He made headway toward this goal, though I expected it to be a more central part of the book. Rather, the book seemed to be filled primarily with stories of redemption that occurred through Gateway Church.  It seems that a large part of these stories of redemption was rooted in the belief that every person is an image bearer of God and, given grace, mercy, and the love of Jesus, will often flourish. The final 100 pages or so presents a model for how to put this into practice, though admittedly, I found this less engaging then the first half of the book. 

On the whole, I think this book gives an important message. Too often, we look like Pharisees, not Christ, in terms of how we relate to others. We are called first to love, and this book helps show the way.

I received a complementary copy of this book from Baker Books for purposes of review. I was not required to submit a positive review of this book.