Friday, July 31, 2009

The “Wish Dream” of Christian Community

"Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial."
Dietrich Bonhoffer - in "Life Together"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Healing Community

I felt it when I woke up this morning. After my drive from Georgia I felt it. After my third wipe-out on the kneeboard I really felt it! An ache and pain in my right hip (Okay – my right "cheek" to be specific!) that modulates between searing and tolerable. But it is always "there". Paul said it true, "our outer self is wasting away" – to that I can attest. Is having this constant ache "healthy"?

What exactly does it mean to be "healthy"? Does healthy mean free from every pain, ache, and condition? Does healthy mean I'm the biological equivalent of the six million dollar man? How about spiritual health? Does spiritual health mean we never struggle with the weaknesses of the flesh or bear the wounds of living in a broken world?

No, healthy means we are moving toward wholeness; spiritually, emotionally, and relationally. Healthy means we are aware of our weaknesses, but we keep moving forward, even though we limp. Healthy means we can be honest and open about our scars, sins, and struggles. We can begin to "confess [our] sins to one another, and pray for one another that [we] may be healed" (James 5:16)

We can do this because the debilitating effects of shame are cured in the gospel. We can do this because the exhausting work of projecting "I've-got-it-togetherness" is no longer necessary. In the gospel we find that Jesus has both exposed and taken our shame. In the gospel we find that only Jesus had it all together.

So we are in "gospel rehab" together. We care for one another's souls as wounded-healers. We journey as a healing community together. And I kinda think the world is waiting for this kind of church. How about you?

The well wisher of your soul's happiness,

Pastor Tom

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Patience that Perseveres

"You also, be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand." (James 5:8)

What's on your heart these days? Do you have a heavy heart? A hungry heart? A broken heart?

Oh how fragile our hearts are! One moment we feel like superman, the next moment we wonder who hit us with the kryptonite. We are not as strong as we think we are. As Dylan said – "…she breaks just like a little girl". We get wounded and weary, sick and sore. Our hearts need strengthening.

Okay – I get that. So, what am I supposed to do? Do I sign up for some spiritual cardio-class at the YMCA? Do I push my heart past muscle fatigue to whip it into shape? Sigh. What do I do when I am too fatigued to make it through boot camp?

Ah, the blessed plural! It's not "me", it's "we". It's "hearts", not "heart"! That means I need you. Yes, you have to help me strengthen my heart. When I am dog-tired under the load of the everythingness of life – you have to come and remind me about Jesus. You just gotta!

You have to tell me that he loves me, that he laid down his life for me, that he kicked Satan's @#$% for me! And you have to tell me that he's got his eye on me and he is coming for me. You have to tell me it's all going to be okay.

And, yeah, sometimes you have tell me to suck it up and hang in there, that it's all worth it, that I have keep my eyes on the prize.

But you have to be there for me.

And me for you.

The well wisher of your soul's happiness,

Pastor Tom

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Review: “Foolishness to the Greeks – The Gospel and Western Culture” By Lesslie Newbigin, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1986, 150pp

Overview—Give a brief overview of the book, including its theme, perspective and approach.

Former missionary to India and cultural observer Lesslie Newbigin probes the question of what would involve a genuinely missionary encounter between the Gospel and "modern western culture". In other words, Newbigin is concerned with the "re-evangelism" of post-Christian western modernity. In "Foolishness to the Greeks", Newbigin analyzes the development of modern culture and then asks what role the Word has in contemporary culture. He then dialogues with science and politics before concluding with a call to the church.

Critique—Offer a brief critique of the book, including elements of strength and weakness.

Newbigin's scholarship is apparent on every page. He interacts with both the scientific community and political/economic thought with equal aplomb. His strength lies in his piercing analysis. I have not read a better overview of modern culture, the loss of a sense of purpose and how we got here than in his chapter on "Profile of a Culture". However, his strength as an observer exposes his weakness in offering plausible alternatives. He chastises the lack of purpose and absolutes in western culture, but his reluctance to embrace a full view of the authority of scripture leaves him on shaky ground as well (p.59). To his credit, Newbigin challenges the church not to try to commandeer the culture and reestablish a politicized Christendom. Nor should we try to recreate a pre-Constantinian innocence (p.103). As if we could do either! Simply let the church be the church.

Application—Offer some specific application to your own ministry— demonstrating the value and relevance of the material in this book.

Newbigin addresses issues so broad that application on the local level is a challenge. I feel I have a better grasp on the roots of secularization of my own culture, but putting that into "parish practice" is another story. His threefold model of communicating the gospel, though, forms a helpful paradigm for evangelism: 1) Make sure you communicate in a language the culture understands; 2) even so, the gospel by nature will contradict the culture, 3) so remember that radical conversion can only be a supernatural work of God. Therefore, be culturally sensitive, but radically gospel-centered and leave the results up to the Lord.

Best Quote—Be sure to include the page number where the quote can be found.

p. 124, "The church is the bearer to all the nations of a gospel that announces the kingdom, the reign, and the sovereignty of God. It calls men and women to repent of their false loyalty to other powers, to become believers in the one true sovereignty, and so to become corporately a sign, instrument, and foretaste of that sovereignty of the one true and living God over all nature, all nations, and all human lives. It is not meant to call men and women out of the world into a safe religious enclave but to call them out in order to send them back as agents of God's kingship."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Book Review: “Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology” By John M. Frame, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 2006, 332 pp.

Overview—Give a brief overview of the book, including its theme, perspective and approach.

John Frame puts the cookies on the bottom shelf in this warmly written, yet scholarly informed introduction. Systematic Theology can be scary just to pronounce, so Frame takes the reader by the hand and skillfully guides him through the gamut of theological issues from who God is to how we should live before Him. He comes from a Reformed Theology perspective and usually lands within party lines, but is even handed and congenial with positions with which he disagrees. He approaches his material as an academician with the heart of a pastor.

Critique—Offer a brief critique of the book, including elements of strength and weakness.

In "Salvation Belongs to the Lord" Frame not only gives us an introduction to systematic theology, he gives us an introduction to John Frame. And whereas one can easily get lost in his more technical works, here he makes sure he doesn't lose anyone. His tri-perspectival approach is unique and eventually compelling. He explains the Normative, Situational, and Existential perspectives clearly and then points out "triads" that he sees that fit with these categories. And Frame sees these triads everywhere! Many will see a weakness here, in that his approach might become a procrustean bed where all truth must come in sets of three. Yet he has the humility and humor to call himself out for this (p.73)!

Because of the broadness of his subject matter, I found myself often wanting more from Frame, but that is the limitation of an introduction. Thankfully Frame's body of work is voluminous enough to drown in, so digging deeper should not be a problem. And his bibliographic references provide many more avenues of investigation.

Application—Offer some specific application to your own ministry— demonstrating the value and relevance of the material in this book.

Though some may think a practical systematic theology to be an oxymoron, that is far from the case here. Frames discussion of the doctrine of Adoption was particularly insightful in helping one to live before God as a son (or daughter) rather than just a servant. I plan to pass this section along to those struggling in their relationship with the Lord. And in spite of the seeming abstractness of his tri-perspectival approach, I found myself thinking more and more in those categories and appreciating not only it's pedagological value, but also the balance and completeness such a framework brings to church ministry. That will have to be fleshed out! And his section on the nature and task of the church has confirmed and renewed by vision for local church ministry.

Best Quote—Be sure to include the page number where the quote can be found.

p.80 "Reformed theologians generally have been averse to talking about inner subjectivity, about feelings and inner thought processes. But I think Reformed theology needs to give more attention to the subjective side of theology… It isn't just feelings …but it takes account of feelings, for thoughts and feelings influence one another all the time."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Book Review: “Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road” Timothy J. Keller, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1997, 236 pp.

Overview—Give a brief overview of the book, including its theme, perspective and approach.

"Ministries of Mercy" is Biblical, theological, and practical exposition on the need and practice of helping those in need. The book in divided into two sections, one on principles and one on practice. Keller lays out the biblical case for mercy ministries in part one and then offers practical guidelines about getting involved in part two. Keller addresses the need for involvement in acts of practical mercy to the needy on various levels (individual, family, church, community) as well as giving attention to pitfalls to avoid. He supplements his material with some helpful "best practices" from model churches and ministries.

Critique—Offer a brief critique of the book, including elements of strength and weakness.

The crucial area of mercy ministry is poorly addressed in contemporary Christian literature. Keller's book fills that vacuum nicely. If you had only one comprehensive guide to caring service from a Christian perspective, "Ministries of Mercy" would serve you well. Keller leaves few stones unturned in addressing these issues, yet without ever becoming bogged down with minutia. In one of the strongest sections of his book, Keller persuasively argues that acts of mercy are a test of the genuineness of our faith and therefore not optional for the Christian. "Ministries of Mercy" is a clear challenge for the church to become more sacrificially engaged in the needs of its community, yet Keller never sounds shrill in his admonitions. And he always is careful to center his thoughts on the gospel of grace. If there is a weakness, it is in the broadness of his vision. Those seeking to begin diaconal (servant) ministries in a local church might become overwhelmed at the thought of addressing systemic injustice, but Keller urges us to start small and build up.

Application—Offer some specific application to your own ministry— demonstrating the value and relevance of the material in this book.

The application of "Ministries of Mercy" is immediate. In particular I will recommend that this book become a catalyst for forming a more sustained diaconal ministry in our church. Keller offers the biblical foundation and practical tools to look at our community and begin to serve the needs intangible ways. Also, I plan to use his section on "Understanding Every-Member Ministry" (p.156-157) to inform, motivate, and equip our church membership.

Best Quote—Be sure to include the page number where the quote can be found.

p.61, "A merely religious person, who believes God will favor him because of his morality and respectability, will ordinarily have contempt for the outcast. 'I worked hard to get where I am, and so can anyone else!' That is the language of the moralist's heart. 'I am only where I am by the sheer and unmerited mercy of God. I am completely equal with all other people.' That is the language of the Christian's heart. A sensitive social conscience and a life poured out in deeds of mercy to the needy is the inevitable sign of a person who has grasped the doctrine of God's grace."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Book Review: “The Reign of Grace”, by Scotty Smith, Howard Publishing, West Monroe LA, 2003, 303 pp.

Overview—Give a brief overview of the book, including its theme, perspective and approach.

Author/Pastor Scotty Smith takes up where he left off in "Objects of His Affections". "Reign of Grace" might be called "Further Adventures of…" or "What I learned in the Meantime". Reign of Grace both compliments and, yes, corrects Smith's musings in "Objects". Wondering that he may have inadvertently communicated a "cheap grace" at the expense of discipleship, Smith challenges his readers to live under the reign of grace under the lordship of Christ. Smith uses the book of Malachi as a guide to outline ways we cheapen grace and ways we can live freer, healthier lives as Christ conquers all areas of our lives. The goal is loving God well.

Critique—Offer a brief critique of the book, including elements of strength and weakness.

"Reign of Grace" is a solid work with much to commend it. Smith's style will still appeal to those looking for a "spiritual memoir" type book. Yet in addition to this, after each main chapter, Smith provides a "Further Up and Further In" section. These sections are less biographical and more theological and expositional, thus providing a strong undergirding for his more personal reflection. This makes for a more satisfying reading experience for all types of readers. Smith is also a clever wordsmith and his imagery is memorable ("Greasy Grace", "Southern Grace", "Mirage Grace"). However, sometimes his pregnant prose can be a bit distracting! (Note to publisher – if you want more men to read his books, lose the girly fonts and design!)

Application—Offer some specific application to your own ministry— demonstrating the value and relevance of the material in this book.

I can see immediate value in "Reign of Grace". The sections on marriage and sexuality are helpful for marriage enrichment. His discussion on divine discipline and spiritual idolatry will put the battles of the Christian life in perspective. And his reflections on worship and generosity will well equip any church on those issues. Because Smith's style is so accessible, I can see using this book in counseling settings and group studies. Those who recoil at "warm and fuzzy" Christian psychology will like to "further up and further in" sections. And those who begin to nod at the first whiff of theology will warm to the biographic sections and his rich illustrations.

Best Quote—Be sure to include the page number where the quote can be found.

p.162 "Crucifying our sinful nature involves identifying the things we desire more than we desire God and his glory (our particular idols), as well as identifying the substances we are depending upon to empower the worship of our idols. Then we must take pitiless and decisive action. For God's grace teaches us to say "No!" to all forms of ungodliness and idolatry and "Yes!" to filling our hearts with the beauty and bounty of Jesus."

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Book Review: "The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society", by Lesslie Newbigin

Overview—Give a brief overview of the book, including its theme, perspective and approach.

Missionary/theologian Lesslie Newbigin offers the reader a critique of pluralism, the dominant worldview of our time. As one who has roots in both western cultural as a citizen of England and eastern culture as a missionary to India, Newbigin is in a unique postion to share his perspectives. Newbigin lays out the issues and then, through both historical, philosophical, and cultural analysis, he points out the weaknesses in a pluralistic worldview. He concludes by affirming the positive ways the church can respond while remaining faithful to the Gospel.

Critique—Offer a brief critique of the book, including elements of strength and weakness.

Newbigin is a thoughtful and insightful communicator. His style is not overly academic, though those unfamiliar with the issues will get bogged down at times. His strengths are seen as he disarms seemingly powerful arguments with simple observations: "In spite of the enthusiasm of many educational experts for encouraging their pupils to have and open mind and to make their own decisions about truth, a teacher who asks her class whether Paris is the capital of France or Belgium will not appreciate the child who tells him that he has an open mind on the matter" (p7). He points out the arrogance in the pluralists claim that there is no absolute, which they seem to know absolutely.

However, at times Newbigin wants to have his cake and eat it too. He argues for the exclusivity of Christ, and yet is agnostic on the subject of universal salvation (ch. 13). He wants to affirm truth revealed in the Bible, yet denies it's absolute authority (ch.8). Finally, his interpretation of Romans 9:22 is simply forced.

Application—Offer some specific application to your own ministry— demonstrating the value and relevance of the material in this book.

I found the most relevant material in his chapters on "The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel", where he argues for the centrality of the living witness of the church. As the gospel is incarnated in the lives of those who believe it and live by it, there will the watching world will see most clearly the credibility of our message. He takes time to flesh out what such a congregation should look like in worship, in truth, in ministry to their community, and being equipped as priests in the working world. For pastors this means spiritual formation as a community must become a priority. Entertaining and informative "messages" are no substitute to becoming the people of God. He then calls for church leaders to set the pace in equipping the church to become a missionary congregation.

Best Quote—Be sure to include the page number where the quote can be found.

p. 22 "Merely wandering around in a clueless twilight is not seeking. The relativism which is not willing to speak about truth but only about "what is true for me' is an evasion of the serious business of living. It is the mark of a tragic loss of nerve in our contemporary culture. It is a preliminary symptom of death

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Beating the Prosperity Trap

"Howl and Wail!", "Your riches will eat your flesh like fire!", "You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter!" Whew! James lays down some of the strongest rebukes in the Bible against the oppressive rich. And though He is taking up the prophetic mantle on behalf of his poor brothers who are being oppressed, we in the affluent west need to hear his words ourselves.

Remember, God never condemns money. Rather hard work and providing for oneself and family is commended. But wealth and prosperity has a way of twisting our souls in upon themselves and skewing our perspective. Like Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings", wealth becomes "My Precious" and we cling to it until it consumes us.

What is the proper perspective on wealth? The Bible gives us some key insights in 1 Timothy 6:6-8, 17-19:

6 Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.

17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

Here's the way it works:

  1. Contentment, not acquisition, is the goal! (v.6)
  2. Money is for meeting our basic needs, (v.7)
  3. It's okay (even commanded!) to enjoy the good gifts God gives us! (v.17)
  4. God gives excess wealth so that we can be generous to those in need. (v.18)

While we're listing points, here are some probing applications of generosity from Tim Keller's excellent book "Ministries of Mercy"

  • We must give so that we may feel the burden of the needy ourselves.

  • Keep only what wealth we need for our calling and ministry opportunities.

  • We must not be generous in such a way that we or our families become liabilities to others (1 Tim 5:8).

So – here's the bottom line: work hard, give harder, and live in joyful contentment of God's good gifts!

The well wisher of your soul's happiness,

Pastor Tom

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Book Review: "Objects of His Affection", by Scotty Smith, 2001, Howard Publishing Co, West Monroe, LA, 260pp

Overview—Give a brief overview of the book, including its theme, perspective and approach.

In "Objects of His Affections", Scotty Smith takes the reader along on his spiritual journey as he comes to grips with the impact of his mother's early death on his life (when Scotty was 11 years old). Part spiritual memoir, part meditation on the book of Zephaniah, "Objects" is an invitation to experience intimacy with God by reflecting on His affections toward his people. Smith intersperses vignettes from his life with teaching and application from the scriptures.

Critique—Offer a brief critique of the book, including elements of strength and weakness.

Smith is a gifted writer with a warm, inviting style. He carefully walks the line between transparency and vulnerability, without straying into maudlin sentimentality or emotional exhibitionism. A challenge for a book like this is to communicate the affections of God in a day when Christians tend to make much of God to the degree we feel He makes much of us. Smith affirms on the one hand that, "While the gospel of God's grace is for us, it is not about us" (p.129), while also affirming that Jesus is, "...the one who would rather die than live without us" (p.193) on the other hand. I appreciate His emphasis to rediscover the God who has deep, intimate affections toward His people, But I question whether, "..the deepest thirst and most acute hunger of the soul is to be delighted in by God" (p.70). Having said that, his sections on "idolatry" and "obstacles to intimacy" were probing and insightful.

Application—Offer some specific application to your own ministry— demonstrating the value and relevance of the material in this book.

The greatest point of application of "Objects of His Desire" is to come to grips with whatever is keeping you from experiencing the deep affections of God. False thoughts of God as a distant and dispassionate deity tend to afflict those with a cerebrally oriented Reformed bent (after all, the Westminster Confession tells us thet God is "without passions"). Smith challenges to come to grips with the affections God has for his beloved bride. A church that "feels" the affections of God for sinful, undeserving people will warmly share those affections with one another and will ultimately overflow in a compelling evangel for their community.

Best Quote—Be sure to include the page number where the quote can be found.

p. 37 - "God the Father has always loved and delighted in God the Son - and vice versa. Jesus has never been anything other than the Father's pleasure and deepest delight. And it is only because of what he has done for us that we dare speak of ourselves as objects of God's affection and subjects of his great delight. The same love, delight, and pleasures that God the Father has for God the Son, he has for all of those who are in Christ - no exceptions."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Wish I could remember this...

"Christ endured the great shower of wrath, the black and dismal hours of displeasure for sin. That which falls on us is a sunshine shower, warmth with wet, wet with the warmth of his love to make us fruitful and humble... That which the believer suffers for sin is not penal, arising from a vindictive justice, but medicinal, arising from a fatherly love. It is his medicine, not his punishment; his chastisement, not his sentence; his correction, not his condemnation."
Samuel Bolton (1606-1654)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

“The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”, John M. Frame Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1987, 437 pp.

Overview—Give a brief overview of the book, including its theme, perspective and approach.

"The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God" is a seminary level treatment of Christian theological epistemology. Frame seeks to demonstrate how one gains true knowledge of God, the world, and one's self, under the Lordship of our covenant God. He addresses the objects, the justification, and the methods of knowledge. Frame comes from a studied Reformed perspective.

Critique—Offer a brief critique of the book, including elements of strength and weakness.

Frame's strengths lie in his comprehensiveness. At over 400 pages, DKG leaves few stones unturned. Of course, this has its downside in that one can easily "lose the forest for the trees". I found myself needing to come up for air a few times. I also found his tri-perspectival framework very helpful. At first the idea seemed a bit contrived and forced, but as I considered it further and saw how he fleshed it out, I became more comfortable with the idea. Utilizing a normative, situational, and existential approach allows Frame to find helpful insights from scripture, reason, and experience. This allows one to appreciate varied perspectives without demonizing those with whom we disagree.

I will have to think more about his assertion that Scripture is the ultimate presupposition. I understand the primacy and authority of Scripture, but it seems that there might be certain logical presuppositions that are hardwired into our humanity, without which we cannot make sense of anything, including Scripture. In the mere act of reading a coherent sentence we apply certain logical presuppositions (non-contradiction, causal connectedness, etc…). And we also need a coherent hermeneutic so that we may understand what we read as well. These, it seems, we bring to the inspired, authoritative text. But this is not my area of expertise, so I will have to think through these issues.

Application—Offer some specific application to your own ministry— demonstrating the value and relevance of the material in this book.

As an encyclopedic treatment of epistemology, DKG will serve as a serious reference tool as I wrestle with the issues of epistemology. His section on Logic is a textbook in itself! I plan to apply his tri-perspectival approach to various areas of pastoral ministry (counseling, leadership development), biblical understanding, and cultural assessment.

Best Quote—Be sure to include the page number where the quote can be found.

p. 45 "For a Christian, the content of Scripture must serve as his ultimate presupposition. Our beliefs about Scripture may be corrected by other beliefs about scripture, but relative to the body of extra-scriptural information we possess, those beliefs are presuppostional in character. This doctrine is merely the outworking of the lordship of God in the area of human thought.

Business Class Pride

"Attack the Status Quo" seems to be the motto for the book of James! The attitudes James exposes in chapter 4:13-17 are nothing less than a clash of worldviews that the brother of Jesus must confront. The first "worldview" is what we might call "business class pride", a practical atheism that presumptuously plans as if there was no God. "Religion is all well and good for Sunday morning, but I'll take control of my own pursuits starting Monday". We plan as if tomorrow was guaranteed and we determined the outcome of events.

Yet as recent headlines have shown us, our lives are but a vapor. We are here today and gone tomorrow. And if we were so smart about the future, why did the economic downturn catch us so off guard?

No, humility demands we confess we are much more frail and ignorant than we'd like to admit. But there is another way to view the world.

Rather than "business class pride", we need to live life before the face of God – something ancient theologians called "Coram Deo". R.C. Sproul explains it like this:

"This phrase literally refers to something that takes place in the presence of, or before the face of, God. To live coram Deo is to live one's entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God"

"Living under divine sovereignty involves more than a reluctant submission to sheer sovereignty that is motivated out of a fear of punishment. It involves recognizing that there is no higher goal than offering honor to God. Our lives are to be living sacrifices, oblations offered in a spirit of adoration and gratitude."

As we conduct our lives in the business world, we do so with an understanding of the sovereignty and providence of God. Yes, we must make plans and do business. But we do so in a spirit of simple humility and joyful dependence on God for the outcome. As a wise man once said, "Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established." Proverbs 16:3

And when God alters our plans, rather than frustration and irritation, we can respond with trust and excitement about the new adventure He has for us! To quote John Newton (writer of "Amazing Grace"):

"When I hear a knock at my study door, I hear a message from God. It may be a lesson of instruction; perhaps a lesson of patience: but, since it is his message, it must be interesting!"

The well wisher of your soul's happiness,

Pastor Tom