Archive for December, 2014

Still Blogging

I stopped by today to see how things were going and found out that this blog still receives quite a bit of activity. There were comments that needed approval and people are still visiting regularly.

Well, I still blog. Life has changed a lot since I blogged here regularly, but I’m still ‘out there’ writing and sharing. If you are interested, you can visit the latest incarnation of my blog: http://specialeducationteacher.typepad.com/my-blog/

I would be happy to have you stop by for a visit.

Jerry

71q989m262LTitle: Vanishing Grace

Author: Philip Yancey

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 298

[Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of Vanishing Grace via BookLook Bloggers program. I was in no way compensated or asked to write a positive review. I was asked only to be honest and fair in my review which I was. Thanks for stopping by and reading.]

I think the first Philip Yancey book I read was The Jesus I Never Knew and when I read it I was simply blown away. Along the way, I have read just about everything Yancey has published in book form and even used one or two of his video series' in Bible studies.

Yancey's work has been a blessing to me not only because of the work he himself has done but because of the work he has introduced to me through his writing. He introduced me to Annie Dillard and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Walker Percy. He introduced me to GK Chesterton and Thomas Merton and Dr Paul Brand. There have been others, yes, and Philip Yancey has had a way of making these authors and artists seem like old friends–like I am sitting in my living room with a fireplace and a glass of wine enjoying their company and conversation.

Vanishing Grace follows Yancey's standard model and if I hadn't read What's So Amazing About Grace many years ago this book might have impressed me more. The problem, as I see it, is that there's not really all that much about it that is new. That's not to say the book is merely a mirror of the former book as much as it is to say that I have read enough of Yancey's work to be able to say that I've been there, and I've done that. I've read his criticisms of the church, he doubts about faith, and his enthusiasm for artists and activists. New packaging; same story.

Yancey explores things in the book that at some level irritate him about the church. And the truth is, if all I ever read about the church was Yancey's experiences as a young man growing up in a southern Fundamentalist kind of congregation, I suppose I would hate church too (not that Yancey hates the church, but that he struggles mightily against some of the more challenging aspects of it). I have my issues with the church: after serving a church for nearly ten years and buying a house with their blessing, I was asked to resign. That was five or so years ago and I have largely let go of it because in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. There's a sense in which I wonder if Yancey has ever let go of those negative experiences of his youth or if they continue to color the way he sees things in the church. After reading so many of Yancey's books, I'm kind of bored reading about how terrible the church was when he grew up in the south.

The book does what Yancey does: he explores the church, the world, and himself. Maybe not always in that order, but always with a keen attention to detail. As per usual, Yancey is a very well read individual–now he even begins to explore internet resources like blogs. Nevertheless, he always comes back to his favorites: O'Connor, Volf, Weil, and others. I liked that he also interacted, at some level, with some newer folks: Keller, Collins, N.T. Wright, and Eugene Peterson. He touches base with all the big name evolutionists we would expect: Dawkins, Hawking, Hitchens, and Gould. And of course he interacts with the Bible and some of the ancient commentators on the Bible.

I am certain that a lot of people in the world have a lot of problems with the church–Yancey not least among them. Throughout the book he identifies and labels the church's faults. He then goes on to highlight several ways, in each category he explores, how the church–or at least people who are somewhat loosely affiliated with the church–is going out of its way to buck the trend of gracelessness so evident in churches like the one in which Yancey grew up. I think it is difficult to come face to face with our sin and Yancey certainly pulls no punches when it comes to brutal honesty about the failures and faults of the church. But if, as Yancey rightly notes, "Jesus turned over the mission to his followers" (98; one of only 3 or 4 places I underlined in the book), the what are we to expect? He goes on to note that he struggles with the 'ascension' of Jesus (99) because it was the 'ascension that turned loosed that company of motley pilgrims known collectively as the church.'

And here I admit that Yancey's consternation is somewhat flummoxing to me. If Jesus set us (the church) free, then what are we to expect but that the church, made up of humans–albeit redeemed humans!–is going to foul things up every now and again? The ascension isn't about Jesus floating up to heaven on a cloud. It is kings who ascend to a throne and Jesus is no different. Jesus, ascended to the right hand of God, now rules from the right hand of God, seated. There's more. In the Revelation, Jesus is described as one who 'walks among the lampstands' (where the lampstands represent the church). Jesus ascended. Jesus among the lampstands. It's not so much that Jesus has set us free–that is, to run around without any help or guidance or direction or oversight or discipline. At this point Yancey kind of loses me because I'm not sure if he a) doesn't understand what ascension means or b) chooses to ignore what it really means. There is no Christianity without the church.

Yancey remains one of the finest journalists and storytellers the world knows and for this I appreciate his work. I think Yancey would tell his readers that the church has a lot to offer and that, ultimately, the church is a good thing. But I think he might also tell people to proceed with caution. I think he might also tell his readers that even though the church is a good thing perhaps working as a church outside of the church is a better thing. His distrust of the church is somewhat apparent, but his praise of those who do Jesus things while belonging to the church only tangentially is also quite apparent. Take that for what it's worth. At the end of the day, Yancey has written a book that even for my criticisms was hard to put down. I was always awaiting the next anecdote and the next quote and every now and again he perks up with childlike wonder at the changes that Jesus brought into a person's life. This is when Yancey is at his best.

I'll end with a quote from Chesterton that Yancey includes in his book that to my mind is one of the best things he wrote: "Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who new the way out of the grave" (158). Although, to be sure, I think the renewal he speaks of must include words and deeds. I think the words need to be more full of grace and less of hate and I think the deeds need to be, well, more.

4/5 Stars

PS-I am still not a huge fan of the way Yancey writes his notes. I'd prefer endnotes with numbers, but that's a small thing.

Prayer scripturesTitle: Pray the Scriptures When Life Hurts

Author: Kevin Johnson

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers

Year: 2014

Pages: 128

[Disclaimer: I was provided an electronic preview copy of this book through NetGalley. I was not compensated in any way nor am I required to positively review the book. Thanks for reading.]

A few years ago I had a startling revelation while I was preparing a sermon or a Sunday school lesson or reading for devotional purposes that a great deal of the Scripture is actually prayers that were prayed by real people at some point in history. I think of people like Hannah, Mary, Miriam, Moses, David, and Jesus. John 17 is an entire prayer. Look at the words Jesus spoke on the cross and you will see that many of them are prayers lifted directly out of the Old Testament. Or look at the church praying in Acts 2 or 4 and see how they do it: the words of their prayers are lifted directly from the Old Testament.

So when I saw this book offered for review, I was actually very, very excited. I had actually started writing a series of Bible study lessons for my church at the time where we would learn to do just this: pray the Scriptures. By that I mean far more than looking to the Bible for ideas about what to pray and rather directly praying the words we find in the Scripture. Again, look at the prayers found in the Revelation and you will be surprised how many times the author of the Revelation quotes or alludes to Scripture and how often those words are in the form of prayer.

So, to reiterate, I was very excited about this book, so I started reading. Each chapter begins with a verse of Scripture followed by two or three pages of thoughts about the particular verse just quoted. The author also works this verse and his thoughts around a theme for each of the 9 verses explored. So, we learn, Psalm 22 is about agony; 1 Kings 19 is about loneliness; Psalm 73 is about resentment. I think you get the idea. At the end of each chapter there are prompts which the author gives us full leave to 'cross out and respond with [our] own thoughts.' These prompts are based on a more comprehensive quotation of the Scripture. So, on chapter 5 where the author talks about 'resentment' from Psalm 73, he begins by quoting verses 2-3. At the end of the chapter, he quotes the entire Psalm, bit by bit.

I use the same procedure every time I review a book that deals in any way at all with the Scripture: I look carefully to see how the author 'uses' Scripture. The way an author, or preacher for that matter, 'uses' Scripture tells me a lot about what they think of Scripture. Well, as it turns out there isn't anything necessarily wrong with the way Johnson uses Scripture in his book. And there isn't anything wrong, necessarily, with what he wrote. My only real grip with this book is that it is shallow.

Look again at the way the people of the New Testament pray Scripture. Look again at the way the people of the Old Testament wrote their prayers and what they prayed about when they prayed and when those prayers were written down for us. They are much deeper and far more revelatory about Jesus or about God's goings on than Johnson's book would lead us to believe. Now that's just my opinion. I'm not saying this is not a good book and I'm not saying it's not worth the time. I am saying it is shallow and that in my opinion he could have delved much, much deeper into the meaning of the passages than he did because I'm not quite so certain that what he says is what those passages are always about when context is taken into consideration.

Scripture is filled with a singular idea from the first verse to the last: God living in peace with his creation and his creation bearing his image and the work he did to restore that peace after humans made a mess of it. It's just my opinion, but I would like to have seen more of the revelatory power of praying the Scripture than the counselor side. Right now the world does not need counseling and Christians do not need therapy. What both need is revelation.

In that regard, this book fell short for me.

3.5/5 stars