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.

02 September 2014

The Way of Self Centeredness

The "love chapter", 1 Corinthians 13, is familiar to many of us. Perhaps too familiar. It is a classic wedding reading and its words fill many greeting cards. I was reading it again this morning and was reminded what a dynamite chapter it really is. Most of us casually handle these few verses like some comfortable trinket, tossing them into a junk drawer until we happen to be rummaging around and happen back upon it when we think, "oh, I used to love this chapter." We must guard against that mistake.

As I was pondering the words of 1 Corinthians 13 this morning, I began to think about love's opposite. Elie Wiesel has said that "the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference." I am not sure that is exactly right, but it begins to get at truth. I also think that the opposite of love, at least a part of it, is self-centeredness.

I learned from David Powlison that sometimes writing passages out as their opposite adds new clarity to the intended meaning. I know that for me it did. I tried to come at this passage with no pre-conceived ideas about what might emerge by rendering its opposite. I am grieved to see myself in so many elements here.

The Way of Self Centeredness

Self-centeredness is demanding and rude. Self-centeredness wants what other people have. It draws attention to itself, bragging in its accomplishments and abilities, embellishing stories and puffing itself up. It is mean-spirited and unkind. It demands that others follow its protocol--its way or the highway. Self-centeredness is set-off easily, irritation rising to the surface at the slightest provocation, particularly when it observes others getting what it believes it deserves. Self-centeredness accepts wrongdoing when it improves its position and it rejects the truth when it does not. Self-centeredness quits when relationships are hard, it is chronically suspicious, it expects things to get worse. Self-centeredness drops out of the race of life as soon as it develops a stitch in its side.

Self-centeredness is a quitter.

May these words help you to understand the way of self-centeredness and the way of love more deeply.

O merciful Father,
Forgive us for our self-centeredness and the many ways in which we justify it,
Make us more loving and other-centered, as you have steadfastly loved us.
Apart from your mercy and grace, we are undone.
May we glorify you in love.

31 August 2014

Affected by our Presuppositions

Peter's past affected him. Raised a Jew, he had specific ideas about who was in and who was out. The Jews were the chosen ones, the one for whom Messiah came. Even after Peter was befriended by Jesus, he maintained his strong Jewishness and apparently was reluctant to move outside of that former way of thinking.

In Acts 10, an angel appeared to Cornelius who was not a Jew, telling him to seek out Peter. So he sends for him. In verse 9, the story is seemingly interrupted as we read about a vision that Peter had. Hungry, Peter sees "a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: 'Rise Peter, kill and eat'" (Acts 10:11-13). Peter essentially responded by saying, "no way Lord. I've never broken this law you set forth and I'm not about to start now."

I used to read this story and think it was about food, but its about people. Its about Peter seeing that Gentiles were God's children too (Acts 10:27-28) and so he relented and met with Cornelius. And Peter and the church lived happily ever after, right?  Not so fast.

In Galatians 2:11-14, there is another story about Paul opposing Peter for a very similar issue. Peter had been hanging out, having lunch with the Gentiles, but then the Jews showed up. Peter was scared about what the Jews would say, so he quietly pulls back from them and Paul confronts him for behaving this way. 

I have said it before, but I am glad Peter is in the Bible. Peter is the rock on which Jesus would build his church, but as Michael Card pointed out, Peter was a "fragile stone." He was an impetuous sinner. He was also a new creation, but still seemingly affected by his former way of thinking.

Here's a little secret...all of us are affected by our pasts. Your style of relating, your way of thinking can be subtly or not so subtly affected by what has gone before. So what? First, it is important to acknowledge that how you think and feel can be deeply affected by your history. Second, it is important to remember that you are a new creation. The words of truth are written on your heart and in God's word. Submit your thinking to the word of truth (Romans 12:2). Third, seek wise counsel from people who know you and know God. They may help to hold up a mirror for you to see blind spots you may not see, as Paul did with Peter.

Finally, show grace to others because their past affects who they are as well.  If they are Christians, they are called saints by God, but they remain flawed saints until glory. There will be times when they seem to be living well in the rhythm of the Spirit and there will be times when their past pops back through. Be patient, give grace, and thank God for the work in their lives, just as He continues to work in yours.

26 August 2014

Book Review: The Case for the Real Jesus--Student Edition

When one thinks of mainstream Christian apologists, Lee Strobel's name is assuredly at the top of the list. A former atheist and journalist, he initially came to recognition by applying his journalistic skill to the excellent book, The Case for Christ. He has since applied the same engaging, journalistic method to several other books such as the The Case for a Creator and the Case for Faith. His typical approach is to tackle questions Christians may discuss with nonbelievers or that they may struggle with themselves.  The Case for the Real Jesus (2008, Zondervan) was no different.

In this book, Strobel sets out to address six different challenges:
1) Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus through ancient documents just as credible as the four gospels.
2) The Bible's portrait of Jesus can't be trusted because the church tampered with the text.
3) New explanations have disproved Jesus' resurrection.
4) Christianity's beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions.
5) Jesus was an imposter who failed to fulfill the prophecies about the Messiah.
6) People should be free to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus.

In each case, he would find expert theists and apologists to address the questions at hand. Although many people may be unfamiliar with these authors, writers such as Craig Evans, Dan Wallace, and Paul Copan are highly educated, knowledgeable about the topics, and capable of defending. In each case, Strobel essentially lays out his conversations with these individuals to the benefit of the reader.

I would say the only place where I was puzzled was in trying to understand what classified this as a "student edition."  I was unable to locate anything specific, other than the cover, that specifically mentioned that it was for students. The writing style employed inside is classic Strobel and doesn't appear different from how he typically writes. Admittedly, I did not have a copy of the non-student edition for comparison, though I suspect they would be vastly similar.  Perhaps what made it a student edition was the inclusion of various text boxes, tables, and figures to highlight parts of the text, though to be fair, these "call outs" would be beneficial whether a person was a student or not.

In sum, this was a fine book. It could have been more comprehensive, but that was not the focus and there are other fine volumes to fit that niche. The purpose of answering these basic questions is handled clearly and effectively.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

23 August 2014

Book Review: Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them

In the past, I have read a couple of engaging books by John Ortberg, so when I saw Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Zondervan, 2003) on the shelf at the thrift store, I thought I would give it a go. To not delay your suspense, I told a friend of mine that this book was gold. In fact, when I was half-way through the book, I purchased two other copies to give to people. I've already given one away.

Ortberg has an engaging writing style that shows a wide breadth of knowledge and a capacity to capture the reader's attention. In this book, he explores the concepts of loneliness, community, and boundaries. In essence, he reminds us of the need for healthy community. 

One of the things I most appreciated about this book was his discussion of the Canaanite woman who approached and asked him to heal her daughter. He told her that "its not right to take the children's bread and toss it to dogs."  I have always hated that verse. It doesn't fit with my conception of Jesus.  Ortberg used it as a lesson, not so much for her, but for his disciples, showing the role of faith rather than lineage. I had never looked at it that way before.

Just this morning, I was reading from John 17 and Jesus is praying that we would be one, just as he and the Father are one and that we may be in them (the Father and Son) as they are in each other. That's a call to Trinitarian community and Ortberg writes of that idea well. 

21 August 2014

Book Review: Three Philosophies of Life

Peter Kreeft's Three Philosophies of Life (1989) is a philosophical, theological, and practical exploration of the the themes of vanity, suffering, and love. He explores each of these "philosophies of life" through the biblical wisdom literature. In particular, ecclesiastes represents vanity, Job represents suffering, and the Song of Songs represents love.

The longest section dealt with Ecclesiastes, which Kreeft regards as one of the finest philosophical "books" ever produced because it deals so well with a basic human issue. He writes, "Ecclesiastes is as great, as deep, and as terrifying as the ocean." For him, though the book is several thousand years old, its practical relevance today is unparalleled.

The second section, which deals with the suffering of Job, is also deeply relevant to modern life. He wrestles deeply with the what suffering means in life without minimizing it or avoiding its reality, much like the author of Job did.

My favorite section dealt with Song of Songs, the final "philosophy of life." He writes, "The Song of Songs is the definitive answer to the question of Ecclesiastes and to the quest of Job." He proceeds to show the many different manifestations of love evident through the writings of this short book. One of my favorite, extended quotes, appears near the end of the book.

"But what about sin? Does God just hide his eyes? How can that be realism? God does not hide his eyes. Your eyes are hidden in time, hidden from your eternal destiny and identity. You see only the present crude sketch of yourself. He sees the completed masterpiece, for he sees from eternity. Your life is like a string pulled taut. Like an ant, you crawl along the string of your lifetime, from one end (birth) to the other (death). But God sees the whole string end on, from the end. He blinks at nothing; he sees everything in its true perspective. He sees your whole life, but not as you do, piecemeal. He sees you whole, as a finished painting. And the judgment he pronounces on you is 'perfect.'"

Three Philosophies is a good little book. Despite the fact that it is written by a philosopher, it is accessible, clear, and engaging.

20 August 2014

Foundational Ideas in One Paragraph

Every one of us has ideas about how the world works. Our underlying presuppositions, even if we are unaware of them, affect how we view and interact with the world (worldview matters). As a Christian, several ideas inform how I view the world. Christianity is unique in the centrality of relationship. God is Trinity--a perfect relationship that has existed for all eternity and, as Christ followers, we exist to be in relationship with others as well (Relationality). We don't do this perfectly because we are flawed. We err in keeping God's law, we err in relating well.  However, through the finished work of Christ, we are also saints--image bearers of our perfect King. We sin, but possess value (flawed saints). Because we are imperfect, but saved by a perfect God, we pursue humility. We admit that we don't have all the answers. We listen attentively to try to understand. Even in the face of disagreement, we act from a perspective of sacrificial love and service (self-denial/humility). Nevertheless, I believe that truth is objective, and much of it is discoverable. I have no doubt that I am wrong about many things, but being wrong assumes that there is a right and wrong.  Humbly pursuing that truth is a noble endeavor (absolute truth). One of the truths that most deeply affects my worldview is that I am a great sinner and God is a great Savior. Apart from his saving grace, I am hopeless (grace/forgiveness). However, the gospel is much bigger than me individually. When sin entered the world, it affected--infected--everything. There is nothing in the universe not touched by sin (the fall affected everything). At the same time, the gospel is more powerful than my salvation, though it is not less than that. The good news of the Kingdom, brought by Jesus Christ, is that He is in the process of restoring all things, restoring shalom, and in that, there is great hope (the gospel affected everything).