Thinking Out Loud

February 21, 2015

Weekend Link List

Pete Wilson is one committed pastor.  Here’s what he did this week to create a sermon illustration:

Now on to your weekend reading:

I don’t usually write an introduction to the news and opinion selections here, but I wanted to say that while it’s not represented in these pieces, it’s difficult to ignore what CNN called “Religion’s Week From Hell.” Our thoughts are with the brothers and sisters worldwide and their families who have experienced horrible atrocities committed against them simply for being Christians. It’s hard to find words.  “…We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us…” (Rom 8:26 NIV)

Must Read: Christian Moms of LGBT Kids Speak Out – “This week…took me to one of the most sacred spaces yet; a private online support group for a couple hundred Christian moms of LGBT children. Each day they gather virtually, to share a unique, incredibly difficult journey. I was there as a temporary guest, to be a resource for those present; to answer questions, and to encourage them in any way that I could. During my three days with these amazing women, I was incredibly moved by their honesty, their vulnerability, their thoughtfulness, their strength, and most of all, their deep and abiding faith. It was inspiring and humbling… Knowing they were safe to speak honestly in anonymity, I asked these moms of LGBT children one simple question: ‘What do you want Christians and church leaders to know about you, your kids, and your family?'”

Maximizing a Snow Day - I know, we should have had this at the start of the week. “My weeks are full and if I don’t go into the office on a day I had planned to be in the office, everything I had planned on that day backs up to a future day. I feel so trapped and unproductive.” Sample: “Special projects. What is a new project you’ve wanted to think about and haven’t had time?” Seven short suggestions to keep on file.

The Scriptures in Their Own Place and Time - Because of my interest in John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, I was interested to see what reviewers said about his new release (co-authored with D. Brent Sandy), The Lost World of Scripture. (I guess this is a brand now!) One reviewer explains, “The primary emphasis in the book regards the distinction between literary production in a hearing-dominant world and literary production in a text-dominant world.” Another review quotes, “If we question the continued sufficiency of the term inerrancy, it is not that we now admit that the Bible has errors. It is rather that the term inerrancy may no longer be clear enough, strong enough or nuanced enough to carry the weight with which it has traditionally been encumbered…If the term inerrancy, however, has become diminished in rhetorical power and specificity, it no longer serves as adequately to define our convictions about the robust authority of Scripture.”

Leadership Library – Something completely different this weekend, a book list. “Churches can’t say they don’t have resources for effecting change. …33 books that help you do just that. All have something helpful, but I have bulleted ones that have stirred my passion for change.How many of these do you own?

The US Has Testamints, The UK Has The Real Easter Easter Egg – “When in 2010 a team of Christians decided to launch a chocolate egg that contained the authentic message of Easter – and which also used high-quality Fair Trade chocolate and gave away a hefty portion of their profits to charity – it was met with a complete lack of interest by mainstream retailers. The Meaningful Chocolate Company might have had great chocolate and a noble ethic, but their religious meaning didn’t sit too well alongside Lindt bunnies and Chocolate Krispie chicks. So the company turned directly to churches and church schools, and received an overwhelming response.” Now some of the region’s top retailers realize they made a mistake.

Giving Up Lent for Lent - “God has called me, and you, into ministry to serve God. Not to have a paying job, not to pay back our seminary loans, not to create the programs we’ve dreamed of. No. We’ve been called into ministry because God called us and we said yes. At least, that’s my story. I was thirteen years old, and I felt God’s call to ministry. Some days I lose sight of that. I am frustrated at a board meeting or sitting at a blank screen trying to type a sermon, or looking at the decreasing funds and wondering if they can afford to pay me in the next few months, but I need to go back and remember, I am in this because I said yes to God.”

They Sure Get a Lot of Press Coverage - A UK Christian magazine is the latest to devote a cover story to Christian rap music. “I loved the music and I loved the culture, but as I became more of a fanatic I realized that most of the content stood against everything that I stood for. The glorification of drugs, money and misogyny never sat well with me, not to mention the bad language. Back then, clean versions of records were few and far between, so I found myself rapping along but taking a deep breath of silence whenever a swear word appeared. That all changed one day while I was watching a Christian TV channel…”

Bobby Schuller’s Two Churches to Merge into One - I kept thinking I’d heard this story before; it’s reminiscent of the situation where Tullian Tchividjian assumed the pastorate of Coral Ridge and the church merged with New City Presbyterian, which he had founded. “Tree of Life Community church, founded by the Rev. Bobby Schuller, will merge into Shepherd’s Grove church, home of Crystal Cathedral Ministries and the Hour of Power with Bobby Schuller television program, on March 1. Members of both congregations approved the consolidation last month. Schuller had pastored the two churches since assuming leadership of Shepherd’s Grove in January 2014. ‘This move is a natural progression of what we feel God wants to do with our ministries,’ said Schuller. ‘The transition from Crystal Cathedral to where we are now was seamless, and the Hour of Power continues to grow and reach more people with the gospel.'”


This was from the Twitter feed of Unvirtuous Abbey:

Honestly, we have no idea what's going on in this picture, but they gave it the caption, "For cats who are compelled by the power of Christ, we pray. "

Honestly, we have no idea what’s going on in this picture, but they gave it the caption, “For cats who are compelled by the power of Christ, we pray. “

 

 

 

 

 

February 17, 2015

Book Review: The Happy Christian

In November of 2013, I reviewed a book by David Murray, Jesus on Every Page. When I was contacted about reviewing a new book by David, I immediately replied in the affirmative, only to receive an email that The Happy Christian was on its way. Wait, what? All I could think of was all my online friends who would cringe at the idea of reviewing something like “10 Ways to be a Happy Christian;” and then the book arrived and I was horrified to see that there were indeed ten sections, and the book’s cover art certainly alluded to a smiley face. Surely, I must find a way, to ditch this review obligation, right?

Happy ChristianI decided to read a few pages and before long, David Murray won me over. If anyone picks up this title looking for something trite or pithy, they are going to be ambushed.

If anything, I would call this book “An Encyclopedia of Fulfillment.” It looks at the things people crave and were made for and how society at large tries to find that satisfaction, but then shows how acknowledging Biblical principles where were there all along is the only way to find that satisfaction in life.

Each of the chapters also uses a cute mathematical formula, but the book is anything but formulaic. There’s also a healthy dose of reality in each chapter which eliminates any chance of this being characterized as a tome on positive thinking.

I hope I don’t offend the author or editorial team by saying this, but The Happy Christian is a book that pretends to be shallow but isn’t! In other words, it’s constructed along the lines of one of those “ten things” listicles but turns out to be much deeper.  There is an examination in each chapter to the writings of a secular psychologist (or similar) but they are used as a motif for deeper consideration. The book is highly footnoted — 381 end-notes, I counted them — and many of these are scripture references.

A few days ago I ran an overview of the second chapter, which looks at our media diet and how that shapes us. You can read that short excerpt by clicking here.

The type of happiness David Murray is describing here isn’t a passive thing that happens to you, but rather more of an activist happiness, a state of satisfaction and fulfillment in life that comes from entering into the life Christ offers, rather than sitting back waiting for happiness to arrive like a check in the mail. 

There are also a number of unexpected issues that the author raises which might challenge the reader, such as the idea that if the situation allows for it, Christians should select retailers or tradespeople from among fellow Christians. In the chapter on grace, he writes:

God blesses the world for the benefit of the church and every Christian in it.  His multiple varied blessings of industry, business, government, science, friendship, art, food, music, water, seasons, talents and gifts, conscience, courts, medication, air conditioning, and more are ultimately working together for the good of those who love Him.

That’s why we shouldn’t be ashamed to use non-Christians for goods and services.  Sometimes Christians and churches may decide to buy a certain good or service from a company simply because it is a Christian company.  The product or service may not be the best, but it has a Christian owner.  That’s faulty thinking, thinking that results from failing to understand God’s everywhere grace.  If God has enabled a non-Christian to make the best product or provide the most efficient service, we should gladly buy from him or her and regard it as God’s grace to that person and to us.  (p.112-3)

My only criticism is that perhaps in an effort to shape the book into a “top ten” format, the teaching on generosity and forgiveness were combined; I think each really deserved its own chapter.

The Happy Christian: Ten Ways to Be a Joyful Believer in a Gloomy World releases February 24th in paperback from Thomas Nelson. Look for the somewhat smiling cover where you buy quality books.

February 5, 2015

A Fresh Take on “Whatsoever Things Are True…”

NLT Phil 4:8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

KJV Phil 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Happy ChristianI’m currently reading a forthcoming book by David Murray titled The Happy Christian: Ten Ways to Be a Joyful Christian in a Gloomy World. In the second chapter he takes the familiar scripture above, and turns it on his head by looking at the opposite of the things named in the verse…

…our educational, political, and business culture rewards negativity experts, those who can pick out a single negative in a sea of positives.

We ask our children, “What’s wrong with this picture?” We set class assignments, “Critique this passage,” or “Find the flaws in this article.” We mark mistakes with red ink but don’t waste blue ink on the correct answers. We scan our garden for weeds. We admire politicians and debaters who can punch holes in their opponents’ arguments. We promote lawyers who can detect a loophole from a hundred miles away. We love journalists exposés. We are drawn to watchdogs and discernment ministries. We honor theologians who can destroy a heretic with one devastating put down.” (p. 25)

It’s into that environment that Murray offers a response. To do justice to this would mean excerpting the entire chapter, but I want to share his outline in this chapter.  The first section that he calls “Media Diet” simply looks at the opposite of each of the things named in Phil. 4:8. (Eugene Peterson is on the same track with the translation of this verse in The Message.)  The second section, he calls “Ministry Diet” and follows the same pattern.

Media Diet

  • True, Not False:”Whatever things are true”
  • Noble, Not Base: “Whatever things are noble”
  • Right, Not Wrong: “Whatever things are just”
  • Purity, Not Filth: “Whatever things are pure”
  • Beautiful, Not Ugly: “Whatever things are lovely”
  • Praise, Not Complaint: “Whatever things are of good report”

Ministry Diet

  • More Salvation Than Sin
  • More Truth Than Falsehood
  • More Wooing Than Warning
  • More Victory Than Struggle
  • More Celebration Than Lamentation
  • More Life Than Death
  • More Strengths Than Weaknesses

I hope that outline leaves you wanting to read the book, which releases February 24th in paperback from Thomas Nelson. (I’ll have a review later on!)

You can do a similar study by looking at I Cor 13, what we call the love chapter, and from each of the things listed, you can compose a picture of “love’s opposites.” If I were to combine these together and incorporate it into your character not to manifest each of these negative traits, I would certainly be a much better person… and so would you.

February 2, 2015

David The Shepherd King: Bible’s Most Detailed Narrative

Leap Over a WallI’m trying to continue my routine of alternating between reading a currently-published book — the ones publishers send to me — and a previously published title.  Two weeks ago I was encouraged to look at Leap Over a Wall by Eugene Peterson, an author who I am increasingly drawn to read more of.

The book would fit in well to what is described as an “application commentary,” though I suspect one publisher may have a copyright on that phrase. He looks at the life of David in the Old Testament books that are named after Samuel and provides insights for the modern reader from the Bible’s most-covered character.

But Peterson also provides insights from his own career as a pastor.  He knows people, what motivates them, what frustrates them; and he knows church life intimately. The subtitle, Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians is most appropriate.

There are 20 chapters each going several directions at once.

First we see each part of the narrative involving David’s interaction with another person (Doeg, Abagail, Mephibosheth, plus the expected ones) or place (Brook Besor, En-Gedi, Ziklag, Jerusalem) and having a theme (Imagination, Sanctuary, Wilderness, Suffering, etc.)

Second, each begins with a quotation from the New Testament. Although this is a First Testament story, it has links to the Second Testament gospel, with a number of parallels to the life of Christ.

Third, I believe each chapter has a link to one of the Davidic Psalms that was written around the same time as the narrative, poetry which gives us a great window into David’s heart. So the book can be seen as a limited commentary on the Psalms as well as on I Samuel or II Samuel.

Fourth, each chapter very much relates to the human condition; to the state we find ourselves occupying in the 21st Century. There is a lot of David in each of us, we are perhaps most acquainted with our failures, our brokenness; but there is also the resident potential for much achievement as we allow God to be reflected in and through us.  

This book can be read in one or two sittings, or as I did, you can read a chapter-a-day devotionally. This is a book I would also want to return to a second time.  

Also, I want to especially recommend this to people who are familiar with Peterson’s work with The Message translation but like me a few years back, hadn’t checked out his other writing.

David is proof that God can use us in our weakness, in our broken condition perhaps we are more attuned to him than at times we would think we had it all together.


Note: A study guide for the book is published separately.


 

 

 

January 28, 2015

Wednesday Link List

Jesus is my Coach

First, we’ll look at what PARSE readers are seeing today, and then we’ll add a few bonus links:

  • Work Out Your Salvation in Fear and Publishing – Philip Yancey sits down with World Magazine: “I tell people I write my books for myself, and that’s true. I grew up in an unhealthy church. I’ve talked about that very openly in my books. It was almost a toxic church. I went through a period of time where I threw out that whole church background because I realized there were some things they had lied to me about… [W]hen I started writing, I realized I had the opportunity to pick up pieces, one-by-one, of things that I had learned in church, and examine them, kind of, dust them off, and see what the truth was. You can almost tell from the titles of my books…what interests me.”
  • Up in the Sky, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Super Apostles – An excerpt from a new book appears in a review by Tim Challies: “Some readers may suspect that the authors are anti-charismatic. They may expect us to argue that the miraculous gifts described in 1 Corinthians 12—including the gifts of prophesying, healing, and speaking in tongues—are no longer active in the church today. This is not our objective. Many Christians around the world, including charismatics and classic Pentecostals, believe that the miraculous gifts are still active, and we do not dispute their belief. We’ve tried to show that [New Apostolic Reformation] teachings do not represent the views of most charismatics or classic Pentecostals, but are, rather, entirely different.” Read the review of God’s Super Apostles.
  • Three Things Megachurch Leaders Get Right – With 300 members, you may not feel you’re playing in the big leagues, but you can borrow their strategies. “In our experience, it is common for churches to accumulate a variety of ministries over time. Some of them get the attention of senior leadership while others seem to float along under the radar. If you’re looking to lead a church toward a unified vision, build accountability by keeping everything tied to your senior leadership team.”  Which brings us to…
  • A Liberal Gay Jewish Man Walks Into a Baptist Megachurch - After constantly driving by Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa, curiosity gets the better of him: “First, these churches deliver powerful, personal spiritual experiences — which is a primary reason they’re winning over lapsed Catholics and mainline Protestants. The pastors talk directly about their conversion experiences. The service that I went to was a carefully, skillfully choreographed crescendo designed to inspire (and, judging by the enthusiasm of the congregants, successful at doing so). The theology is personal and experiential; you’re meant to talk to God, and hear God talking back…
  • Academic Avenue: The Role of Oral Tradition in the Synoptics - I thought we’d toss in some meat in the middle of the snack food: “But why can all three synoptics sometimes provide different wording regarding either the story or quotation of Jesus, yet some quotations will be exactly the same in all three synoptics? Scholars call these similarities and differences the Synoptic Problem.” Later on, “[E]xperts now tell us that ancient oral tradition was not only formed but performed. That is, early church communities further remembered Jesus by performing plays about these remembered incidents in his life.”
  • The Things Educators Believe Matter – Despite having high academic test score averages, a Christian school in the UK is in danger of losing its certification and having to shut down because inspectors felt the school reflected homophobic attitudes. Parents have rallied to fight the assessment carried out by Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, a government agency. A ten year old girl was put on the spot by the question, “What is a lesbian?” and was asked “if she felt trapped in someone else’s body?” Worse, the girl now feels the school’s rating by Ofsted is her fault.
  • Why We Won’t Lose the War - Author Anne Marie Miller doesn’t ignore the statistics, in fact she loves stats. And she knows that many under-35s are leaving the church. “Some leave and go to the church down the road. And then to the other church farther down the road. We commit just long enough to wonder why we haven’t found community only to start all over again.” Yet, despite all this, she remains wholly optimistic; “…quietly hoping, seeking, praying, pleading, trusting and living out the Gospel that the numbers and statistics don’t matter.”
  • Sorry, It’s In Your Contract – I knew a youth pastor once who worked in a megachurch that can only be described as a “sweatshop.” The week after his father died he asked if he could be exempted from having to be part of the platform party — it was the type of church where all the ministers sat on the stage during the whole service — and they refused him. And so he sat there, in full view of everyone, in tears.  I think of him whenever I see this healthy contrast:  The annual list of the Best Christian Workplaces.
  • Short Essay of the Week – A Michigan pastor escapes the frozen north to Cancun only to come face-to-face with with his own susceptibility to consumerism. As a member of the resort staff leads him into temptation: “It’s ironic, but our ‘all inclusive resort’ turned out to have some exclusions after all. Now here’s the thing: I was completely happy with my little corner of paradise until Shakira (yes, that was really her name) told me that there was more, and that – for only $70 more per day – we could have it all.” Did he purchase the upgrade?
  • Why Speak in Tongues When There’s Christianese? – “The Sea of Forgetfulness. Partaking in Christ’s body and blood. Dying to yourself. The mark of the beast. Getting caught up in the air. Out of context, some of the language used regularly in church sounds more like it belongs in some sort of weird horror movie…Some strange church sayings are direct quotes from the Bible, but to someone not familiar with the whole story of the Bible, they’re mind-boggling.” And speaking of our family dialect, the most recent post at The Dictionary of Christianese concerns the word televangelism
  • She’s Back! –  After a long absence, former co-host Sheila Walsh returns to The 700 Club for a 9-minute interview, speaking of her battle with clinical depression.

The family in the UK school story has the same last name but is no relation.

Now on to some bonus links for readers here:

Finally, one of the great products to come out of the Emergent Church movement, Emerjeans:

Emerjeans

 

January 26, 2015

Encyclopedia of Modern Churches is Difficult to Read

Yesterday at Christianity 201, instead of using an excerpt from a book, I drew the day’s thoughts from a table of contents. I wasn’t given a review edition of the book anyway and was using a borrowed copy, and second, I had not looked at the individual chapters at that point. The table of contents is impressive supported our theme verse for the day

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. I Cor 12:4-7

We had a pastor who repeatedly said “It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people.” Every church has something special to offer. The parish system — where you simply attend the church located closest to where you live — has some things in its favor, but for centuries now, Protestants have chosen their place of worship based on a variety of factors, some doctrinal and some, if we’re honest, that are totally superficial.

I also had a missionary friend who said, “Every denomination is an overstatement.” What he meant was that if you have a particular distinctive, you are going to emphasize that above everything else, which means that sometimes other priorities will fade into the background. So our churches often feature a particular facet of ministry life, but may do so at the expense of something else. Hopefully nothing that should be absolutely central is diminished beyond recognition.

Ten Most Influential Churches - Elmer TownsThe book is, The Ten Most Influential Churches of the Past Century: How They Impact You Today by Elmer L. Towns, published by Destiny Image. I did not quote index verbatim here, I just wanted to give readers there an overview. And it turned out there were more than ten churches covered; there are more than ten chapters! I combined a few, and warned my readers that listing does not imply endorsement.

  • The worldwide Pentecostal movement
  • House church / Home church movement
  • Churches at the forefront of racial integration
  • Church structures using a network of cell groups under a central administration
  • Churches built on Christian Education / Sunday School outreach
  • Churches using non-traditional teaching methods
  • Churches targeting seekers, skeptics; the non-churched
  • Baby Boomer churches
  • Worship/Praise driven churches
  • Integrated media, or internet-based churches
  • Churches promoting multi-generational appeal and programs
  • Positive-thinking or prosperity teaching churches
  • Churches built on personal evangelism
  • Churches focused on foreign missions
  • Multi-site churches with video teaching
  • Churches modeled after the concept of using church plants to evangelize

Now remember, with a couple of exceptions above, this has nothing to do with doctrine or teaching. You could map this on to a variety of denominations and many of the models would fit.

What’s your reaction to this?

Mine was generally positive. God us using many people in many different ways to accomplish his Kingdom Purposes. Yes, some of these have emerged more driven by the culture than by anything the First Century Church knew and some of these styles may be unknown a generation from now. Some are more likely to lead people into a deeper walk with God, and some are more entry-level; their converts will eventually feel the need to settle in another congregation.

But instead of bemoaning the particular styles you personally don’t care for, I think we need to celebrate what God is doing around the world. There are a few styles listed there that I know will cause eye rolls, but I’ve been to some of these and have found a depth of devotion and Bible knowledge among some adherents beyond the stereotypes.

If the gospel is presented clearly and is unobstructed by distractions, people will come to Christ through all types of churches, and those already in the fold will find avenues for greater growth and discipleship.

But let’s talk about the book itself.

I found this deeply disappointing on a variety of levels. Because I attended The Peoples Church in Toronto during some very formative years, I was looking forward to reading its listing in the section that goes beyond the author’s top ten choice, but after reading the first paragraph and turning the page, I discovered there was only a cursory listing for the additional churches.

Large sections of the book are copied directly from Wikipedia. While attribution is made for these, they appear in isolation, so the author then is forced to backtrack to give some of the chronology all over again. I guess if you don’t have internet…

Inexplicably, there are a large number of blank or mostly blank pages. At one point I checked to see if I was actually reading an advance reader copy (ARC) where information was waiting to be dropped in later. I was not. This was the finished book. I can see this as a style thing with the first ten chapters, after that it was basically a waste of good trees.

The book is very U.S.-centered. While there is mention of Peoples and four churches overseas, I can’t imagine a list of this nature, purporting to represent the most influential churches of the past 100 years not including Holy Trinity Brompton, which brought the world The Alpha Course.

There’s no mention of several prevalent styles. Because there isn’t a single church to represent them, a number of things are skipped over. One is the alternative, counter-cultural type of church like House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver. Or arts-based churches like (I believe) Mosaic Church in Hollywood. Another I would call prayer-based (or better, prayer-bathed) churches like the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. A third would be the New Calvinist type of churches such as the Sovereign Grace churches with their deep teaching and modern hymns. And finally, if you want an anti-role model, if you’re talking churches of influence, you might even mention Westboro Baptist.

Because of the liberality of the mostly blank pages, churches like Peoples and the Crystal Cathedral could have and should have had their section extended. I should also mention that I have attended some of the churches covered here on more than a single occasion, and thought the chapters on Willow Creek and Calvary Chapel would present this history well to those unfamiliar.

Elmer Towns is no novice on this topic. Although the book is well footnoted, he also drew on his own memories of these churches including interviews he did with the major players during times of explosive growth. I just think the book suffered more in the planning, editing and layout stages; the transition from concept to finished product could have been refined to give interested readers more information and better flow.

January 19, 2015

Review: Killed by the Church, Resurrected by Christ

Killed by the Church Resurrected By Christ - Rick AppersonIf someone decides to start something like Churchgoers Anonymous, I think I’ve just found your curriculum: Killed by the Church, Resurrected by Christ published by WestBow Press. Author Rick Apperson has had his share of strange church experiences. Remarkably, just weeks after visiting some of these congregations, the place would shut down. Someone suggested it was like having Angela Lansbury of Murder She Wrote show up at your front door, but clearly, none of this was Rick Apperson’s fault.

From Pennsylvania to East Tennessee to Croatia to British Columbia; and from Catholic to Charismatic to Congregational; Rick has seen his share of church governance models, worship styles, and quirky parishioners. But mostly he’s seen hurt, frustration, and disappointment. If anyone had the right to walk away from it all, it was him and the book’s final chapter should end with total rejection of faith in God.

But instead, Rick, later with wife Sarah, perseveres. We aren’t told what drives this desire to keep attending even in the face of lies and false doctrine, but he seems to always be willing to risk the vulnerability of starting from scratch in a new place of worship.

Despite the autobiographical nature of Killed by the Church, there is much teaching here and I would suggest that at 132 pages, the book offers more food-for-thought than books twice its size. What’s more, despite what some would consider the ‘in-group’ nature of a critique on the local church, it is presented in a very simple, very casual writing style that might actually resonate with that person you know who has walked away from weekly church attendance.

Most of the chapters in the book conclude with a section called “What I Learned on the Way to the Resurrection” where Rick does delve a little deeper into the life lessons underlying his personal journey. Then there is a section called “Taking it Deeper” which is a set of discussion questions that could be used in a group setting, but are also deeply personal to the reader.

I can’t say enough how much I think people who have abandoned church could identify with this book. However, despite the many ways that people in local assemblies may have wounded them, this book has a very positive spirit to it and could be part of their journey to healing.

…I’ve been following Rick’s blog, Just a Thought almost from its inception and have especially enjoyed the Five Questions With… series he runs with Christian leaders and authors. After years of association with Youth With A Mission, today he serves with The Salvation Army.

In the last chapter, just to show that God has a sense of humor, we learn that Rick and Sarah planted a church. Who better? 


Read an excerpt from chapter 2 of the book at Christianity 201.


Paperback 9781490853789 $13.99 US
Hardcover 9781490853772 $30.99 US

January 16, 2015

Re-Reading: Classic Philip Yancey

Some time ago, I wrote something to the effect that Christian readers should alternate between currently published works, and what are considered Christian classics. Of course, by classics, I meant something a little older than Philip Yancey, but that raises another issue: So many great Christian books — ones still in print, author still living — predate the internet, which means reviews are fewer than for more recent titles publishes are promoting through social media.

Reaching for the Invisible GodPhilip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God is perhaps more significant now than when it was published in 2002. It belongs in the conversation among those wrestling with issues of faith and doubt, and addresses the question of skepticism directly that is so prevalent in 2015.

Reaching is subjective. Most of Philip Yancey’s book are more autobiographical than other authors you encouter. They are about his journey, but sufficiently researched and footnoted so as to represent our universal quest to know and experience God in a world where he is physically invisible.

If you’re new to the name, Yancey started out as a journalist writing for Campus Life magazine, which led to co-authoring The NIV Student Bible notes with Tim Stafford and co-authoring three books with Dr. Paul Brand. Though his earlier writing includes books such as Where is God When it Hurts and Disappointment With God, for this reader the journey began with The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace.

He is very philosophical in his writing. I copied this passage from Reaching… a few days ago to send to a friend which deals with the contrast between the God of the First Testament and the Jesus of the Second Testament. I love this analogy:

Love tends to decrease as power increases, and vice versa.  The same power that repeatedly overwhelmed the Israelites made it difficult for them to perceive God’s love.  A parent stands tall to instill respect in his child and stoops low for hugs and affection.  In the Old Testament, God stood tall. (p. 131)

The original subtitle of the book — which appears on my copy — is “What Can We Expect to Find?” It reminds me of Jesus’ words to his earliest disciples in John 1:38,

When Jesus turned and noticed them following Him, He asked them, “What are you looking for?” (HCSB and others use looking, others use seeking)

In a world where people are seeking and looking for God, people often search for a book, but booksellers and their staff are so oriented to frontlist (recently released items) that they forget that Christian publishing is so rich in backlist titles. Publishers revive older books with new covers and even new titles, but sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to find a gem you may have missed. 

If you already own a copy; join me in a re-read. If not, get yourself a copy. I think you’ll find it is perhaps even more relevant more than a decade later.


Related: A few years back I wrote about rich text, which is of course now an HTML computer term, but I appropriated it to mean books that are rich in substance.  You can read that article by clicking here.

Philip Yancey Books

 

January 9, 2015

Bible Overview Offers Interesting Premise

Regular readers here know that I choose the books I review, which means that I have an obvious bias before scanning the first page. Often, I am already familiar with the authors from their online work. Generally, you get the impression that I never met a book I didn’t like.

God's Story in 66 VersesBut this one was a bit frustrating. Stan Guthrie’s God’s Story in 66 Verses: Understanding the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book looked like it was going to be an interesting focus on some key passages, but I have to admit, I was taking the title (and subtitle) of the book very, very literally, so that once I got into the first few chapters, I felt I wasn’t getting what the book promised.

Yes, there are 66 chapters, running three to four pages each; and yes, each begins with a key verse from each book in the Protestant canon. But in providing context for these verses, many others are invoked and instead of commentary on the key verse, or why it means so much to the author, we are simply given a retelling of the story.

Of course that’s very important. Bible handbooks provide great overviews for people looking for a companion reference product. Honestly, I think everyone should have one lying around the house somewhere. (Haley’s Bible Handbook is a longtime bestseller; younger readers might enjoy Zondervan’s The Map.) This is especially helpful if your Bible is a basic text edition without chapter introductions, or you have a friend who is just starting out on their spiritual journey and say they already have a Bible, but you want to give them something to help them get started.

But one thing God’s Story… is not is a product presenting the Bible story arc as one, single unified story, despite the similarity of the title to another product line by the very same publisher. Rather, each chapter is discussed somewhat in isolation of the others, which on the plus side, means you can indeed use the book for reference, or read the chapters in any order. Perhaps that stands as a healthy contrast to the former type of product which seem to be proliferating rather quickly.

Of course, if your favorite verses match the ones contained here, then this is a great product for people who might be called upon to give a very short devotional talk on a verse that has been of great benefit to them over the years. Or if there’s one of the minor prophets you tend to skim over, this will draw you into the text and help you understand that book’s significance. (Reading lengths are somewhat equal: Nahum is given more space than Hebrews.)

Bottom line for me however was that the book offers a premise that it doesn’t deliver. It’s a great handbook, and bringing in the context provides a great set-up for the key verse that is inevitably reiterated in the reading, but the title left me expecting something more devotional.  Hey, maybe it’s just me.

So here’s my conclusion: 18-24 months from now Thomas Nelson will reissue this product under a different name. Getting to Know Every Book in The Book is my suggestion. And it will do even better under the second title, whatever is chosen.

Available now from Thomas Nelson, 240 pages, in paperback at $16.99 US

 

January 1, 2015

LifeWay, the SBC, #the15, and God

#the15As I mentioned yesterday, the latest “tempest in a Tweet-pot” involves a group calling themselves #the15, who have expressed outrage on Twitter against the retail arm of LifeWay, a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) publishing empire, because they sell so many things in their store of which #the15 does not approve, while at the same time claiming to operate by the highest standards. One blogger noted the company even sells a book by a self-professed mystic and Universalist.

In one corner, we have #the15. [Update] In an earlier version of this article, I mis-characterized them as ones whose Calvinism compels them to the most rigorous study of scripture which translates in the real world to acting as judge and jury on every published work, be it written by a blogger or national author. Like the Pharisees of old, they set the bar so high that very few obtain their seal of approval. Jesus said of such people,

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.  (Luke 11:46)

[Update] After more careful study, I realized I had fallen under a misconception created by Ed Stetzer, and that the original #the15 were desiring to see the retail chain do a better job of being gatekeepers of what people see, than the usual Calvinist judge-and-jury situation which is more common. 

The problem of course, is what gets in and what’s excluded?

The debate has been going on for days now, with members of #the15 and those who align with them taking Route 15 highway signs as their Twitter profile picture.

Some of the books that LifeWay sells are easy targets, such as Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. None of us who work in and around this industry saw the controversy going in, but it’s now quite clear the title is theologically problematic. In the little independent store I oversee, the title will be taken off display tomorrow, though remaining copies will be sold as requested. I’ve emailed our staff over the holiday, and the consensus is that we’ve got to act responsibly in light of what is now so plain.

But there are others I feel are being unfairly criticized like Mark Batterson’s The Circle Maker. In the book, Batterson borrows a story from Jewish antiquity about Honi The Circle Maker and propelling that story into a challenge to all of us “draw circles around” the thing or group of things that constitute our greatest needs or righteous desires. Admittedly, it’s not the analogy I would have chosen. But rather than meet with Mark and get to know him and what drives him, the analogy was just a little too outside the scope of conservatives, even though Jesus’ own story of Lazarus and the Rich Man contains elements of the afterlife which may or not be the case. (Commentators always point this out, that Jesus wasn’t indicating that people in Heaven and Hell can communicate with each other.)

Furthermore, now that he is branded, these same conservatives would be unlikely to touch Batterson’s new work, The Grave Robber, which is an excellent study of the miracles in John’s gospel.  (Actually, of all the stuff in the market, I’m amazed the DC pastor would be lumped in with Sarah Young and that he’s become such a target. I would dare these critics to check out the newer book, published by David C. Cook.)

In another corner, are those who are quick to jump on #the15 bandwagon and side with them in this, but this is more a vote against LifeWay than a vote for condemning books.

Still another group consists of people wanting to be identified as Calvinists who do not support #the15.

And finally, in the last corner, we have LifeWay itself. I have written about them before, and don’t wish to burden regular readers here with repetition, so you can simply check out these posts:

For them, it’s all about money. And more money. Regular commenter here and fellow blogger Clark Bunch replied yesterday:

LifeWay exists for one purpose only and that’s to sell you stuff. Any volunteer VBS director that has ever ordered materials knows that as well as anybody. A box of 15 paper whatevers are easily divided into “selling units” that cost 3X what you could get them for at Dollar Tree.

Heaven is for Real is a book they sell at LifeWay Christian *gasp* Bookstore. LifeWay is not a group of seminary professors or a board of trustees. It’s Southern Baptist Walmart. Our church uses LifeWay Sunday School literature for all age groups. Thom Rainer writes good stuff. But LifeWay should NOT be and I don’t believe claims to be in a position to say “this is what you should believe and teach others.” If you are a Calvinist, non-Calvinist or don’t know the difference, you can walk into their store and buy what you want.

If that’s all it is, a Baptist WalMart, then so be it. Let them stock whatever people are curious to read and throw in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and The Book of Mormon while you’re at it.

In our store in 2012, for several months we had a section captioned, “Heretics Corner – Because every bookstore should have one.” It was my place to include people whose orthopraxy makes others uncomfortable, though we do not stock popular liberal theologians like Marcus Borg or Shelby Spong because they undermine the rest of what we carry. And that’s an important distinction. I wanted to allow other voices to be heard even if I disagree with some aspects: Matthew Paul Turner, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Webber and even Peter Rollins, despite the lack of a third name.

That’s the part of this story that’s so confusing. I find myself agreeing the book censors because I view LifeWay’s hypocrisy as the greater sin. But I don’t support a very narrow judgmental attitude where only a few books get in. I am always reminded of the Life cereal commercial where the kids say, “We’ll get Mikey to try it; he hates everything.”   I wish all the energy that goes into condemnation was being used to celebrate the good things that God is doing through a whole new generation of leaders and writers instead of mistrusting them. (Life Cereal, LifeWay…I’m sure there’s a punchline there just waiting…) And I’m sure God can use the little boy’s story in Heaven is for Real despite my misgivings, just as he used Left Behind to propel people into a study of the end times, even though it’s not my personal eschatological cup of tea.

So today’s discussion, for me at least, blurs the normal battle lines.

Either way, it’s the online story that ended 2014 and as of the morning of 2015 was still going strong on Twitter.

I’d write more, but I have to prepare my Rob Bell text for this afternoon’s Christianity 201 devotional. That’s right, Rob Bell. He wrote about The Good Samaritan and despite others’ misgivings about the direction he’s been heading, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Yes, in 2015 the lines are quite blurred.


Read more about one of #the15 protagonists here.

[Update] It gets worse: read more about him at this story.  This guy is a menace.

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