Posts Tagged ‘Church’
Part 3: What the Church Needs. Now.
We've been taking the last Sunday of each month the past couple of months to visit other churches in our area. This, in conjunction with our travels to preach in various churches, gives us the opportunity to see how the Lord is working in our part of the world.
It appears, from what we can tell, that God is working in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are struggling, dying, small churches dotting the land around us. They are congregations full of few generations (which is a nice way of saying that they are filled with older people who have never left the small town where they were born). There's nothing particularly fancy about these churches. They still have fellowship dinners–carry-in–and sing songs from a hymn book. They still do traditional things like read Scripture as a call to worship and clutter up the spirit of worship with strange meditations before communion and too many announcements.
Yet these churches plod on day after day. They turn over their preacher every couple of years and operate on significantly small budgets. But they are still here, alive, and contributing to the Kingdom of God, in some way, right where they are. They wield very little power in this world. Yet here they are still here–living, breathing, and worshiping.
On the other hand, there are what I call hip churches. They are large and have virtually cut themselves off from anything resembling tradition. Their preacher is young and doesn't own a suit. They are spread out over large areas and consume a lot of resources. Their buildings are new and ergonomic. Everything is a production. The music is loud and modern and has a lot to do with singing about how great our problems are in this world and how God is somehow greater if we just open our eyes and see. These churches wield a lot of power and influence in the world precisely because they are so large.
And they too are here. They press on every day and face problems that are proportional to their size. Every church has problems and really it's simply a matter of size that determines the nature of the problem and solutions. They have large budgets and I suppose this might be one of the problems they face: how do we keep people interested and the money flowing? They are, nevertheless, here and they, too, are contributing to the advancement of God's kingdom–sometimes in spite of themselves–but here they are: living, breathing, and worshiping.
In Mark 1, we have seen that Mark had something to say to the church about preaching and repentance. In this third post of my short series, I'd like to look briefly at what he says about power. Here's what John the baptist said, "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
If I hear him, and I think I do, he is saying something like this: the One who comes after me will not only come in power but he will also empower you. Now it could be that John was talking to the individuals in his audience that day and probably was, but it could also be, and I think it is more likely, that Mark has him speaking to us, the Church in every generation who reads this verse. After all, these words were recorded for us and we read them. Right? So I suspect that even though these words were uttered a long while ago by a preacher we would surely not listen to then any more than now, the words nevertheless mean something to us or at least should.
I also noticed this: John makes a connection between power, baptism, and the Spirit in verse 7-8 and then in verse 9-11 he makes another connection between power, crucifixion, and Jesus. Here's how I see this. Mark uses a word in verse 10 when Jesus is baptized that our Bible's have translated 'ripped' or 'torn.' There's nothing particularly fancy about this word in Greek. We sometimes transliterate it as 'schism.' The interesting thing about this word, though, is that Mark only uses it's verb form two times. Once, here in Mark 1:10 at Jesus' baptism and again in Mark 15:38–at Jesus' crucifixion: "The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." So, if I hear Mark, and I think I do, he is saying there is a serious connection between this Jesus who comes in power, who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, and his crucifixion.
The crucifixion and the necessary resurrection are both a part of this powerful arrival of the Spirit of power.
Here's my point: this is what John the baptist preached. Look what Mark wrote: And this was his message. Or: And he was (continually) preaching saying. He was constantly preaching to whoever would listen that someone was coming who would do things in power of the Spirit. This echos the Older Testament prophets who made similar statements. In particular Zechariah who said, "This is the Word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." (4:6). Now John says that this Spirit is the power of Jesus and that it was beginning with the arrival of Jesus and that it's full manifestation was to be realized at his crucifixion and resurrection. This is why he makes the connection between Jesus' baptism and his crucifixion.
This is what the prophets preached. John was another in that long line of Israelite prophets who announced this powerful arrival. Paul the apostle would later make this connection too when he wrote to the church at Corinth: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20). The kingdom is about power. The prophets said it. John clarified it. Jesus brought it. Paul preached it. The Spirit is it. Here it is: the power of the church is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It just so happens that this morning I listened to a rather old lecture by Professor NT Wright from 2012. In this lecture, he made something of a similar point as I am making here. He said:
"The way God rescues people from sin and death is by overthrowing all the powers that held them captive. And the way he does that is not with superior firepower of the same kind, but with a different sort of power altogether…The power that is let loose transformatively in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it will continue to work until every tongue confess and every knee bow."–NT Wright, How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels (my emphasis)
So what am I saying? And how does all this tie together? What does visiting churches around the area where I live come into play here? What does the church need? Now? Well, I think it's rather simple, isn't it? The church needs prophets who will proclaim this message of the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John didn't come in any fancy way. He came as a prophet of old, like Elijah. He used words that reminded us of Zechariah and Isaiah (or quoted them outright). He's the one prophesied by Malachi. He preached a message that pointed unalterably to Jesus–the one who came with power and the Spirit.
John didn't come doing miracles. John didn't come from a high class of people. He didn't stand in the temple. He didn't write books or anything like that. He simply, continually, preached the good news, the Gospel, that God was beginning to do what he had promised he was going to do: return to his temple and set all people free from the bonds of captivity and exile. There had been 400 years of silence, sin, and exile in Israel–490 years said Daniel–and this is what God did: He sent a prophet to proclaim his Good News. Nothing more. Nothing less. He sent a preacher to preach, prepare, and proclaim in power the coming of Jesus.
John came along and simply said: you want to be free? The power to set you free is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
That is power!
I think this is what the church needs now. We live in desperate times, don't we? People are desperate for hope and healing and many churches and christians do little more than point to a political candidate and say 'vote for her or him.' Churches keep plodding along as they always have–but with remarkably little demonstration of the Spirit's power. Some are old and dying and plodding along. Some are new and living and plodding along. But where is the Word of God? Where are the prophets? Where is the Spirit? Where is the Power? We will get things done not by strength and might but by the Spirit of God. How are we, as the prophets of God, manifesting this Spirit of power, the Spirit of God here, among ourselves and in the world in general?
Or is the church devoid of prophets?
How can we get out of the way so that the Spirit's power is evident among us?
How can we preach in such a way that when we are finished people will know that Jesus is arriving? How can we preach with such power that people know who empowers us?
What the church needs right now is the sort of prophets who will stand up, like John did, and take their place among the long history of Israelite prophets who proclaimed God's enduring message of hope that in Jesus God is becoming King of this world for all people and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
So here's a further point: it makes no difference if the church is small and dying or if the church is large and living. The same power is available to both and ought to be manifest in and among both. The same Holy Spirit of Jesus is available to the dying church as the living church. And perhaps if more dying churches recognized this there would be less dying churches. And if the living churches recognized this perhaps their fruit would be even greater.
Most of what we preach in the church is superfluous. Seriously. What we need in the church is prophets. Prophets who stand up and proclaim the unfiltered, unadulterated, Word of God. I'm tired of fluff. How are we, as the church, demonstrating the power of the Spirit of God among us?
I want power. Let's hear the prophets speak and so say with the congregations of generations gone by: Maranatha! Come Holy Spirit!
Or maybe our prophets will speak so powerfully, as a demonstration of the Spirit, that the Spirit will simply come among us, shake the place where we are meeting, and enable more of us to go forth and proclaim the Good News that Jesus is King!
Part 1 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Doing. Now.
Been thinking about church. I do that a lot for some reason. It's not like I have anything else to do with my time. (/sarcasm). The truth is, I'm fairly heavily involved with my local church through helping lead worship (singing, playing guitar, reading Scripture), teaching a Bible school class, and teaching at a small, local Bible College. I also do pulpit supply whenever I can, wherever I can. I wish every day was Sunday, sometimes.
I have a love/hate relationship with the church. I have spent my entire life married to the church. It has seen my best days (baptism, wedding) and my worst days (termination, heartbreak). I am almost 46 and the church has never not been a part of my life in some way, some shape, or other. So this post isn't about any church in particular, it's about the church in general. It's a short sermon sans a pulpit.
Here's the first of three things the church ought to consider when the church considers its appearance and mission to the world. All three will be drawn from Mark's Gospel, chapter 1.
First, preparing the way. The last thing faithful Israelites heard from the prophets before a what must have been a dreadfully long 400 year silence, was this: "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). There's a lot more to Malachi's thoughts, but this is where Mark's Gospel begins. That is, he begins by telling his readers that this is what the prophet(s) said, and this is what happened, "And so John the baptist appeared in the wilderness" (Mark 1:4a).
I doubt seriously this is what people had in mind. Maybe they expected some flashbang or shock and awe. Maybe they thought about fire from heaven or miracles galore. Maybe they thought and end to the Roman occupation with a giant military coup. Yet there was John. Preaching a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." So, it seems, what Mark is telling us is this: the way John prepared the way for the Lord's arrival, the way he prepared people for the appearance of the Lord in his temple, was this: Take personal inventory of your sin and repent. Imagine that such a task–preparing the way of the Lord–could be accomplished with such an unflashy medium. Preaching: repentance.
This is decidedly not how we prepare the way of the Lord in the church. Instead we draw them in with fidgets and gadgets and gimmicks. And all churches do it. To an extent, some churches even make repentance a gimmick. John did nothing fancy. He simply went out and preached that people needed to repent. Interestingly enough, when Jesus took up the mantle of gospeling after John was put in prison, he did the same thing: "The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). John didn't even draw people in with supernatural power. He went as far away from them as he could in fact–the wilderness. He didn't hang out at all the swank places eating rich fair–he simply at locusts. He didn't look particularly fashionable–he wore scratchy camel hair and a belt. Yet people went to him. And listened. And were baptized by him.
Maybe there is something to what John was doing? Maybe the Lord knew what he was doing? Maybe we need to imitate John? Maybe part of our preaching objectives ought to be calling people to repentance from their sin?
How is it that such a simple message was able to prepare a generation of people for the arrival of the Lord in his temple? And why don't we do more of this in our churches? I mean, isn't the Lord going to return someday to claim his bride? Maybe the best message that the church can preach to the world and to the church is that they and we need to repent.
I've been thinking about it. There's a lot to do in the church in America, here in the last days. Maybe it is time for the church to stop pushing a gospel of America and to start preaching repentance again. It's just a thought. Maybe it is time for the church to abandon all the tricks and gimmicks and all the sermon series' about How a Good American Can Have a Happy Outlook on Life.
Maybe it's time for real power in our pulpits again.
I saw the other day in my Twitter feed where someone quoted a certain political candidate as saying if he is elected to the presidency Christians will have power in this country. Everyone knows that such statements are merely populist in nature, but if it has even a thread of truth in it, the church ought to be afraid. The church doesn't need power (and I'll demonstrate this in a future post). The church needs prophets. The power will come, but not from politicians. This is all another post. In the second post, I'll write about preaching the Kingdom.
Me and a friend have been working our way through some pretty good books. I'm just a little more ahead of him, but he is plowing his way through slowly and making some amazing discoveries in the works of Scott McKnight and NT Wright among others. We have both had our theological worlds shredded–and for the better!–but we always kept coming back to the same question: how does this 'reign of Jesus'/'kingdom of God'/'Jesus is King' stuff play out in every day church/christian life?
That is really the question any theology needs to answer, in my opinion. I think NT Wright is brilliant theologically and Scott McKnight is spot on when it comes to the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. But I think even they would admit that if their theology has no practical legs, it's not worth all that much when it comes to the church. This is why, in my opinion, their work is so refreshing: it has legs, and arms, and hands, and so much more. It's not just for the head or even the heart. It's for those who work. This is the problem I have found with my own tradition's theology for so long. It limits itself to a mere 'join the club' type of rhetoric. It appeals to the head, sometimes the heart, but rarely to the appendages. Too much it focuses on getting 'saved' without really understanding or knowing what that means.
This is where Michael Frost's book Surprise the World has picked up what was lacking in my own understanding and in a few short pages provided a shell to enhance the framework and platform built by McKnight and others. I am not saying McKnight or Wright are devoid of practicality, so don't misunderstand my point. Nor am I saying that Frost is devoid of the framework or platform. I simply haven't read enough of Frost to know at this point. In short: I like this book. A lot.
I like this book because Frost, who has heretofore been unknown to me, bridges the small gap that I think exists between a robust Kingdom theology and a robust 'here's how Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places' practicality. This is not to say that these other two are devoid of practicality. Not at all. It's just that in this book by Frost one is able to see the platform and the framework upon which he is constructing his ideas. His near constant use of the phrase 'God's reign and rule' to under gird these 5 habits is what captured and held my attention. Here is a christianity that is finally getting out of itself. This is no mere book about habits to make you a better you. This is a book about getting out of you and into Jesus–it's about bringing his rule and reign to bear on this world in meaningful, Kingdom driven, Christlike ways. It's about having a solid reason to be a missionary every day instead of the mere 'hey, it's time to get saved and join the club' kind of rhetoric that we typically hear from our pulpits.
He is focusing primarily on 'mission' in the book and the way we go about bringing God's reign and rule to bear on this earth. He writes, "Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God." (21) It is this idea that permeates the book and supports his ideas. I love it! "Mission is both the announcement and the demonstration of the reign of God through Christ" (21). He couldn't be more correct and in this I begin to make the connection between the 'drowning' and the 'breathing.' I will spare you my thoughts on missionary work, but suffice it to say that perhaps a new model is needed in some parts of the world.
The only part of the book that kind of bothers me is the habit of 'listening.' It's not that I think listening to the Holy Spirit is a bad idea. Far from it. But this idea of 'centering prayer'…I'm just not sure about because, frankly, it sounds weird. Prayer is prayer. I get that he clears up any confusion that it might be confused with Eastern meditation. That's good. But for all the emphasis he places on being in tune with Scripture and Jesus I found this chapter/habit to be lacking. Prayer is prayer. Silence is silence. I think it's quite OK to be quiet during prayer and let the Holy Spirit pray for us. 'Centering prayer', frankly, bothers me precisely because of the imagery that it brings to mind. I'm sure the Bible even talks about meditating day and night on the Scripture, but again I think this is something different from what Frost is suggesting. I'm willing to be wrong on this point, but right now I remain unconvinced. Maybe I'm bothered by calling it 'centering prayer.' Maybe not. I simply do not see, in the Scripture, and overwhelming call for Christians to engage in this sort of prayer life. That's my opinion.
The other habits, though, are spot on in my judgment: blessing, eating, learning, and being sent. I especially love the part of learning about Jesus. We simply do not do enough of this because we are too concerned about getting people to say a 'sinner's prayer' or getting them baptized or whatever. Let's slow down and learn from and of the Master.
I have minor quibbles with the way he interprets some Scripture. For example, is take on 1 Corinthians 11:23-28, is a bit strange, but it doesn't necessarily impede what he is saying. Sometimes his language is a bit awkward. For example, I don't know what it means to 'craft a blessing' (38) but I'm not willing to build a mountain of protest against it. I simply think that blessings are often more random and spontaneous than planned or 'crafted.' Other times, I found his writing to be quite breathtaking. For example, when talking about reconciliation between God and humans being at the heart of Christ's work on the cross, he draws the obvious conclusion that such reconciliation between warring people should be a core expression of God's reign and rule (87). To this I offer a hardy Amen. I suppose more Christians need to hear this–especially some who call themselves 'conservative' and yet go out of their way to wish death upon anyone who wants to see peace with those who practice Islam and upon those who practice Islam.
It is such 'conservative' Christians who have turned me off completely to the conservative movement in the church. We should pray for peace, pray for our enemies, and feed those who wish to bring us harm–as evidence that Jesus rules and reigns in our own lives too. We have a long way to go in our understanding of Jesus and the church if there is a single person among us who wishes death to another human being simply because they wish death upon us. Jesus did not call us to hate those who hate us, but to bless them. We do not promote the reign and rule of God through force or violence or aggression or through inflamed rhetoric, but only through a loving embrace, a hardy meal, and through the imitation of Jesus.
Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf–and even raised the dead–as evidence of God's kingdom coming in glory. Therefore, it should be reasonable to suggest that wholeness, the healing of broken people, is primary evidence of that reign today. (92)
This is a short and yet remarkable book. I am always glad when the Lord brings to me a book like this and I am even happier when I can write a positive review to share with my friends. I highly recommend this book. To be sure, Frost is recommending that we make these five habits (BELLS) more than mere habits. "I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life…Missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them" (99). It's hard to disagree.
I want to say exercise caution, but I also want to say to live under His rule and reign with reckless abandon. The simplest acts of blessing and grace can be missionary work. This book helps the reader see that even in the seemingly small acts of blessing God works mightily. You do not need to be trained in preaching or missions to be a missionary. You need to be willing to be a blessing to all, feed anyone and everyone, pray with all kinds of prayers, learn about our Master, and get sent into the world.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Surprise the World (Amazon, $4.99, paperback); (Tyndale, $4.99, paperback)
- Author: Michael Frost
- On the Web:
- On Twitter: Michael Frost
- Academic Webpage: Michael Frost
- Publisher: NavPress
- Pages: 125
- Year: 2015
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
I only recently jumped on the Scot McKnight bandwagon. This year, in fact, although I have followed him on Twitter for a while and, if I am not mistaken, reviewed a book he wrote on Fasting a long while ago. I became interested in McKnight's writing when I saw another of his books called The King Jesus Gospel and in his important book Kingdom Conspiracy. I have also seen his name mentioned by NT Wright here and there. I enjoy McKnight's work because I think he has important things to say that more people ought to be listening to. I think when it comes to the Kingdom and the Gospel McKnight is dead on point. Now I'm kind of convinced that he's on the right track when it comes to the local church. I'm sure at some point along this journey he'll go off the wall and disappoint me, but so far, so good. Fingers crossed.
I don't say it too often about authors because there are so few authors that I truly appreciate–whose work truly resonates with my own heart. I say that because so many authors who write books for the church are afraid to get dirty, say the hard things that need to be said, and actually dig deep enough in Scripture to challenge the status quo. I don't find any of that to be true about McKnight. He writes his books like he writes his Twitter feed and blog: straight up and if you don't like it, well? We may not want to listen, but McKnight (among others) is saying something important. It's time for the church to hear what is being said.
But seriously, McKnight's commentary and arguments are nuanced, but not so much that they are misunderstood. I think he writes clearly enough–even if at times he has to repeat himself in order to make his point. Sometimes those of us who read are a bit of a challenge to those who write. We have to listen carefully or we might miss the bigger picture someone is painting.
So these three books of McKnight's I have mentioned so far are, I think, some of the most important books I have read. In truth, I don't think he's saying anything I don't already believe. It just so happens that he is smart and got the book deal and I got to teach special education. As I noted above, McKnight is really only doing what needs to be done–it's kind of revolutionary in a way because maybe if more people start writing books like he is writing, saying the things he is saying, and alerting Christians to what the Bible really says, then maybe, just maybe the church will hear what the Spirit has to say. Lord knows it's not like we actually read what the Bible has to say. Seriously. I say this because I read a lot of books and I see the things being written….and it's kind of…thin. I like McKnight's work because he consistently finds a way to take his readers deep into the Scripture without causing them the sort of palpitations that get their itchy fingers dialing the phone trying to get someone fired for preaching the truth.
So, A Fellowship of Differents. I don't think I disagree with much in the book, but I do have a serious question to ask. McKnight is selling us this idea that the church ought to reflect the culture in which we live. That is, the church ought to be made up of all sorts of people: different cultures, different colors, different tribes, nations, orientations, ethnic backgrounds, and so on and so forth. I don't disagree. We all together make up Israel expanded. Yep. No complaints. In fact, the book of Revelation is keen on this point too: "After this I looked and behold a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…" (Revelation 7:9)
But how do we make this universal vision of the church a local reality? In fact, is it necessary to do so? Let me give you an example. The church I belong to and worship with is white. Very white. There is one person in the congregation who is African-American–a young girl. She is quite welcome. She is quite active. She is quite happy. My own family has brought her to worship and taken her to dinner and so on. I'm not bragging. But here's my point. The community is small and I don't even know if there are any black families in the community. When I was growing up in that town, there were two such families. My question is this: for all the call to diversify the church, and yes! diversify!, how is a church in a white-washed town supposed to do such a thing? There's not a single personal or theological reason people of color are not among us. It's simple demographics.
I don't understand why it is 'wrong' for a church to resemble the community where it is located. I get the point McKnight is making, but I don't think it's quite as 'easy' to simply remake the church the way he thinks it should be made. Most congregations resemble the neighborhood where they are situated. Mine is no different. Maybe this works itself out in a different way practically so maybe that is his point. Maybe we are simply not practical enough as Christians when it comes to how we relate one denomination to another. Maybe we need a Revelation 7 kind of vision. Maybe this book will help us. Maybe the church is diverse and we need to simply celebrate what we have.
Maybe more of us ought to think and believe that 'we are Christians only, but not the only Christians.' It's just a thought.
McKnight says something I like very early on: "These three principals are a way of saying that local churches matter far more than we often know." (15). Yep. I agree. Which means, as far as I can tell, that more emphasis ought to be placed on the work that local churches do, that more preachers ought to take seriously what they preach, and that more congregations ought to take seriously the things that the Bible says defines the church. So McKnight is right to ask: What is the church supposed to be? And: If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like? (17). From which I draw the obvious conclusion: Why are there so many preachers on television?
Yep. So, if the local church matters, and these two questions are right, then what is the problem? Well, I suppose you'll have to read the book to find out what McKnight proposes. I have a hard time not recommending his writing. It's accessible and deep. Mostly what I like is that when he handles the Scripture, he doesn't yank a single word from a single verse from a single chapter from a single book and develop an entire theological dogma from it. This book, like what I've read of McKnight in other places, deals with context: literary, historical, and contextual. The reader will not agree with all of McKnight's conclusions. I didn't. But that doesn't mean the conversation isn't stimulating and worth the effort.
I recommend this book because it challenges us to think about the value of the local church and challenges us to keep that church in context and out of context. At the end of the day, this book is an apologetic for loving people because we love God who loves people. It's kind of hard to argue with that logic.
Notes are appended at the end. There is a Scripture index and subject and name index too.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase A Fellowship of Differents (Amazon: $15.92)
- Author: Scott McKnight
- On Twitter: @scotmckight
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Zondervan
- Pages: 272
- Year: 2015
- Audience: preachers, christians, anyone who likes McKnight's work, etc.
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of BookLook Bloggers blog program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
Can you imagine if Karl Barth sat down to write Church Dogmatics and began with an exceptional account of how wrecked his life has been by sin, how disturbed his family is/was, and other unsavory and sordid details of his confusion, pain, and suffering and then told us the story of how God redeemed it, made it whole, and eventually used that life to change the lives of countless other equally shattered and broken people?
Neither can I. But maybe if he had, Church Dogmatics, as much fun as they are to read, would be even more fun. (I confess I have not read through the entire Dogmatics, so maybe he did I and I don't know it.)
To be sure, God for the Rest of Us is not Church Dogmatics. Most will probably be thankful for this. But it is another book among a collection of books that continue to be published by Christian publishing houses who are convinced that the every day readers in the church want to read stories about how terrible the lives of their favorite preachers have been. Preachers used to be paragons of untouchable virtue and holiness. Not so much anymore. It's kind of a newer trend where we get insights into practical Christianity via the growth process of (insert favorite preacher's name here). We get to read about their struggles, their families, their suffering, their pain, their doubt, their heroics, their rise from the squalor of outcast kid who doubts his way through Bible college on to having some sort of an epiphany and their subsequent rise to become super-hero pastors of super-mega-giant churches that are doing everything right that most other churches do wrong.
I hate to be this way, but this is the trend. I don't see it slowing down anytime soon because evidently there is a market for it. Evidently, people are buying this stuff. When I think about my own 'rise to stardom' in the world of churchianity, I usually end up sitting around wondering why it is that some people suffer so much and end up writing books and others of us suffer so much and end up reviewing those books. Sometimes, I suppose we come off as bitter.
This is partly what you get though when you read God for the Rest of Us. I'm not, necessarily, suggesting this is a bad thing. Those who read this book will figure that out on their own. To be sure, I think people should read this book because despite my conviction that the preacher should not be the focus of his sermon or an illustration (I learned this in elementary homiletics classes) in this case what we learn is that Antonucci is not some stuck up snobbish preacher unwilling to get close to people or to have people close to him. I like that this is a man who has been through the mud a time or two and yet somehow or other found Jesus. Or maybe Jesus found him. Or maybe Jesus dogged his footsteps until he turned around and asked where the Master where he was staying or the Master informed him he was coming over for dinner. Maybe its a little bit of all of it. Maybe Jesus follows us long before we ever follow him. I don't know. My point is that while I have grown somewhat weary of reading stories about the preachers who have struggled and suffered so much prior to Jesus (and sometimes after Jesus too) and share it in their books, churches, and t-shirts, church curricula, and DVDs, there is something to be said about what these preachers have learned from these experiences.
I think this book is, partly, the evidence of what Antonucci learned through his experiences.
While some Christians seem to go out of their way to protect God from the unseemly and untidy and unwashed heathens in this world, Antonucci goes out of his way to demonstrate that it is precisely 'these types' of people in whom God is most interested. Jesus did say 'it's the sick who need a doctor, not the well.' OK. So Antonucci has a vision one day, or a calling, and he packs up the family and moves to Vegas where he, following the lead of Jesus, starts to befriend and minister to all the wrong people–you know, people who would never fit in in our comfortable, white-washed, stained glass, middle-class suburban campus style churches. And a church starts to grow–and the Lord 'added to their number daily those who were being saved'–right in the middle of Las Vegas.
And if this story is true, and why shouldn't it be and how can it not be, it is utterly remarkable and unnerving the people that Jesus loves into his church through his people.
I heard a young preacher say something once that was utterly brilliant. He said, we cannot build relationships if we don't start them first. Oh, he had me hooked after that because I know that I am a somewhat strange person when it comes to relationships. Antonucci agrees: "The way to change a life is not by judging people but by embracing them. Not by pointing out their sins but by pointing the way to hope" (19). I mean, how simple can one get? He goes further (and I've read variations of this before, so it's nothing new, but I think it sets the tone for what the book is about): "What's so disturbing is that what Jesus was known for–amazing grace–is the exact opposite of what Christians are known for today. We're known for judgment and condemnation. We're known not for what we're for–loving God and loving people–but for what we're against" (19). It's really hard to argue with this.
When I was still a preacher, here I go breaking my own rule, I was one time ripped a new one in a board meeting because I helped a friend with his taxi service. The reason I was ripped? Well, you see, I picked up drunks from bars, I drove people to a local gambling facility, and every now and again I picked up and drove 'exotic dancers' home. You'd never believe some of the conversations I had with people in that car. But it was too much for the uptight members of the board–after all, I was a preacher and I shouldn't be seen in such places or with such people. (It's a true story. It wasn't too long after that that I left the church.) I think God was teaching me to love people. I should have stayed at the church because I ended up not being very loving towards those board members who seem to want to stifle and criticize me.
Love even the judgmental. God is for church boards.
I don't know what is so difficult about loving people right where they are and then allowing God to do the hard work of changing them. But let's take it a step further and suggest that it is our goal to change people, "If our goal is to change people's behavior, to get them to repent, is fear really the best way to do that?" (156) Spend enough time trolling the blogs and you will see that there are a lot of Christians who believe just that. Spend enough time with Jesus and you will see that it will never work because even those who are won over by fear will not last long. Maybe the voices of those who spend more time with Jesus ought to be the voices heard the most by those who think of God as someone who could never love them. Our lives are shaped and we thrive by love. Fear motivates me to nothing, but love? "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). What else need be said?
God is for us, and if he is, who can be against us? Yes, this is spoken in particular to Christians, but isn't there also a sense in which we can say that God is for all people? God is patient and not willing any one should perish. God wants all people to come to a knowledge of the truth. All. That is a huge, huge word that is too often left out of our Christianese dictionary. We need to embrace it. We need to embrace all people. And seriously who cares if we embrace people and they take advantage of us or persist in their sin? Will God find fault with us for loving all people?
Ask yourself: Will God judge the church more harshly for loving all people with great love even though they might take advantage of us or for only loving some people who treat us kindly? I think it would be better to ere on the side of love than discernment. God can do the judging, we are called to do the loving.
So, yes, there are parts of the book that made me uncomfortable. For example, I don't know about his list of apologies on 112ff, but I suppose if my apology will lead someone to Jesus, then I'll offer it. What do I care? What matters most: my squeamishness at offering apologies for things I never did? Or someone else seeing the Love of Jesus? I like that he takes the time to open up lengthy passages of Scripture for us and walk through them. In particular, the story Jonah, the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8, and the story of the Prodigal from Luke 15 were well told. I like that he made reference to The Count of Monte Cristo; I dislike that it was the movie version. I like the stories of redeemed lives and how God took broken people and made them whole again. I like how he is honest about who he is and where he's from because even though I get a little tired of the personal 'how I rose from nothing to start a church and write books' stories, I think in this case it grounds the reader: Antonucci understands well the depths of God's love for all people–not just the few we think ought to be saved. God is for everyone. You name the category, the sub-category, or whatever: God loves people. That's the point. God loves people. So should we.
I am glad for that because this also means he was and is for me. That says a lot.
He ends the book with a worthy challenge for those who read it: Whom Do You Least Want to Love? That's all I'll say because I want you to read the book (so does Antonucci) and I want you to answer the question. I have to answer the question too because I suspect there are a lot of people I find it difficult to love. And yet God loves me. I must change.
Notes are appended at the end and there's a nice appendix titled 'My ABC Book of People God Loves." It just may shock you to see the people God is for, but it may also affirm that you are on the right path in your own choices of who you love. Good reading here. I recommend this book for all Christians who struggle to love people who are different. I recommend this book for all Christian who think it is their job to change people or to judge people. I recommend this book for Christians who are more in love with discernment than they are with Jesus. I recommend this book for Christians who truly believe that God does not want anyone to perish.
Get this book. Read it. Think on it. Then go love someone–maybe someone you never thought you could love.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase God for the Rest of Us Tyndale House Publishers (Trade Paperback $15.99) Amazon (Kindle $9.99 Pre-order) CBD (Paperback $12.99)
- God for the Rest of Us on the internet
- Author: Vince Antonucci On Twitter
- Where Vince hangs out with People Jesus Loves: Verve
- Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
- Pages: 255
- Year: August 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people, people whose lives are a trainwreck, seekers, the saved, the lost, the helpless and hopeless, the loveless, the judgmental
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of Tyndale Blog Network.
- Page numbers in this review are based on an ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
Every time I get ready to write a book review, I start to feel like I'm about to do something huge–like lead worship with feeble guitar skills, or send out the starting line-up for a little league game, or get in the ring with a prize fighter. It's always nerve wracking and it's always a bit daunting–especially when the author of the book is someone who is fairly well known and fairly well respected.
With that being said, I have to ask an honest question: Why does anyone want to read a book by Barnabas Piper? And an extension of this question goes something like this: Can I read/review this book without making even that passing reference to his, arguably, more famous father? One shouldn't have anything to do with the other, right?
Yet this is exactly where my first question comes in: what has Barnabas Piper done in his life that is justification for reading his book about matters of faith, Jesus, Church, being a disciple of Jesus, and so on and so forth? Is it his struggles, his doubts, his family name, or something else? There is nothing novel or unique about what he says in this book. There is nothing extraordinary in this book that I haven't read before. There is nothing about this book that makes a little light bulb hover above my head.
I'm not saying it's a terrible book. I am saying that it's nothing new and so I wonder who it was written for, what the market is, and why I would want to buy this book. Can the book stand on it's own?
Piper states his purpose in writing: "My goal is to help you see that belief isn't blind faith and that questions, if asked well, are building blocks for strong faith rather than stepping stones away from it." (Kindle, Location 87). OK. This is good. But why should I trust that this particular author has the answers to these questions? And does the author, ultimately, accomplish his purpose? The first question, I am unsure how to answer. Some people will trust his answers, but I'm not sure they know why they trust his answers. This gets back to that second question I asked above which had something to do with whether or not I can read this book apart from the knowledge of who he is related to. I think other people will find his answers shallow or cliched. This is not a deep book, it's not a book that takes you on a whirlwind, big city adventure through the Bible. It's full of lots of nice quotes from famous people and anecdotes about his own personal journey.
The second question (does he accomplish his purposes) is a yes/no for me. Let me give you an example of the problem as I see it.
Piper asks some difficult questions in the book, but what if his particular theological disposition that underlies his answers is flawed? How do we understand his answers? So: "If He chooses who will be saved, then why are unchosen people held responsible for their actions and His choice?" (Kindle location 447; he does mention human free will at location 577, but I'm not sure how he means it given everything else he has written in the book). This is a question he asks that has a presupposition underneath it: God intentionally saves some and intentionally condemns the rest. I simply cannot agree with his proposition and it was difficult for me to separate what I suspect/know of his theological tendencies and the answers he gives to some of the questions in the book.
I just read this morning, 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (ESV) Or what about Paul in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior who desires all people to come to the knowledge of the truth." (ESV) I think this is the main problem I have with the book. It is beholden to a theological proposition that simply cannot be maintained logically if one reads the entire Bible, observes human nature, and thinks logically. There is no way we can say that God wants all to be saved and then turn around and say that God only saves a few and that the unchosen are, well, lost. There is no way to say that God chooses some for salvation and not others unless you are willing to attribute evil to God.
This is the No side of my answer.
On the Yes side of my answer I had to wait until I got all the way to the appendix 1: Reading the Bible to Meet God. This was the most satisfying part of the book for me: "We must learn to read the whole story of Scripture from beginning to end." (Location 1449). I think in this part of the book he offers us the solutions that I had been waiting for through the entire book because it is here that he finally engages Scripture–to an extent–or should I say encourages us to engage the Scripture. It was most disappointing that this section only made it to an appendix–as if we will find more answers to our doubts and struggles by reading anecdotes about Piper's doubts and life instead of reading stories from the Scripture.
Nevertheless, the points he makes in Appendix 1 are quite good–I only wish he had explored them more in the main text because frankly they would have made better chapters: Read the whole Bible; look for Jesus; get to know Jesus; don't shy away from the hard stuff; start small (I'm iffy on this section); don't read the Bible as a set of rules; pray for the Spirit's help. These are actually the answers we needed when it comes to living in the tension between doubt and faith because the chapters he gives us are really only his beliefs and theological dispositions–many of which, as I noted above, are simply incompatible with the whole Bible he encourages us to read (such as his acceptance of the five solas; I still struggle with how there can be five 'onlys'. Kindle, chapter 2).
One final note of importance. I agree with the author that it is OK for the church or individual Christians to say things like 'I don't know.' I have had to learn this as a human who always wants to have an answer to the questions people ask me. I think we are afraid if we say 'I don't know' people will think we are stupid so we end up giving answers that absolutely confirm our stupidity. So it's OK for the church, or for Christians, to have no answers to all the suffering and violence that goes on around us. It's OK to ask questions: "Questions are an indication of trust." And here I think Piper answers his own questions well: "By revealing what He did in Scripture, God created a massive mystery. He gave us an enigma, a puzzle, a riddle with so many dimensions and plotlines and layers and themes that even just those sixty-six books have generated libraries of volumes of thought, argument, and questions" (Kindle location 225). Yes. Even in our doubts, in some mysterious way, we point to Jesus for answers even if our mouths happen to stay closed.
In short, we do not have to have all the answers to all the questions or perhaps better, we do not have all the answers to all the questions. It's OK to sit in silence for a while and pray. As the time worn conclusion goes, "It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open the mouth and remove all doubt." I think this is something that the Church in general should learn and I think Piper is right to emphasize this point. I think it's OK to live in the tension between grace and doubt and to let grace be sufficient. (See chapter 8, So What and What Now?, Kindle location 1381ff).
Overall, the book is not terrible. It's not the best I've read, but not the worst either. I think for some people it will be wholly unsatisfying and for others it will be a good introduction. He has some good and important things to say and he has some other insufficient things to say–especially as it relates to his theological under girding. I didn't come away from the book wholly satisfied, but I didn't come away wholly unchallenged either. I think if a person can weave through some of the theological underpinnings and get to the core of his discussion (which I confess was difficult for me) then there may be some fruit to be realized. At least Piper is humble enough understand that the church is bigger than his opinions and ideas and thoughts and for this I respect him (see the Afterward) and my disagreements with him theologically are not to be interpreted as personal attacks.
At the end of the day, his best advice was found near the end: "In God's infinite wisdom the best way to bring more people to belief is to show them a massively varied story pointed in one direction–to Himself" (Kindle location 1355). I think he is correct on this point and that he does well to point it out. Maybe soon the church will become the place where all such things are discussed in detail precisely because we are all looking for Jesus to arrive…because I'm inclined to think that Jesus will arrive long before any of us do. And this keeps us hungry. And humble. And searching. All things Piper suggests we need to do and be.
Doubt, in a way, keeps us safe because it keeps us moving forward in search of Jesus. Someday he will surprise us and be found. I know that I personally long for a church where I am free to live in the tension and find satisfaction in Jesus alone.
So, to answer my earlier question: Yes. I think this is a book that can stand on its own. I'm not buying all he is selling, but neither am I dismissing it. There's much to think about and much to enjoy.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Help My Unbelief David C Cook (Trade Paperback, $14.99) Amazon (Kindle, $9.99) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback, $10.99)
- Author: Barnabas Piper
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 176
- Year: 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley
- Interview with Barnabas Piper @Christianity Today
- Page numbers in this review are based on a Kindle version ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
Title: Bringing Heaven to Earth
At Amazon: Bringing Heaven to Earth
Publisher: Waterbrook Multnomah
I like to mark up the books I read with my pen. In this way, I will be able to go back through the book at a later time and note important passages or thoughts that I may wish to use in a lesson or blog or whatever. For this book, I used a nice red ink and on page 2, near the bottom, I wrote, "I'm already on board!" I wrote that after reading this:
We don't believe the primary purpose of following Jesus is to enjoy the gift of heaven. Rather, it is to be united with Christ in His love and mission. The call to conversion in the New Testament isn't a decision for salvation, but a decision for Jesus. It is more than a change in status; it is a shift in allegiance, passion, and calling. (2)
I like that. I like that very, very much. I like it because it resonates with me deeply in that I want something different from the pie in the sky Christianity I was raised on–the kind I have complained about elsewhere. That sort of Christianity gets us in the club and we talk an awful lot about how to get into the club. Then we go through the motions. I was a church preacher for nearly 20 years and I have seen the results of preaching that simply aimed to get people into the club and along for the ride.
Frankly, it's boring. It's meaningless. And it has killed the church. Or it has at least ruined it for some of us. Books like Bringing Heaven to Earth will, hopefully, go a long way towards rectifying one of our most significant problems in the church: definitions. In my opinion, for too long the church has misused some of its language. We have misused words like kingdom, heaven, mission, and judgment. Maybe we have even misused the name of Jesus. N.T. Wright has done the lion's share of the work in helping us re-acquire proper definitions of bible words and others, more recently Scot McKnight in his book Kingdom Conspiracy, and I think Tim Keller to an extent (we might also say Yancey, Hauerwas, Willimon, and others), have taken Wright's heavily historical and theological work and brought it down to the level of the pew. I do not mean this in the sense that McKnight's work or the current book is 'easy' or pedestrian. Wright's work needed a filter for the average pew sitter and these author's have done remarkable work in bringing Wright's message home to the church.
The church has benefited from their work and now I am hopeful that the church will also benefit from the work of Ross and Storment. I come from the same church background as Storment and I can say with utmost confidence that this is a message our churches need desperately to hear. IF there is a denomination in America deeply entrenched in mis-applied definitions it is the church tradition I belong to. Storment's message resonated with me deeply for this reason–especially since I only have a limited voice in that church at this point in my life.
Back to definitions. As one example, take the word 'heaven.' Churches in America have this strange idea that heaven is a place 'we go' after we die. Preachers have done a remarkable job painting pictures of mansions within mansions, ethereal whispiness, clouds, and harps. I confess that when I was younger I used to think to myself that such an existence, no matter how long, would be utterly mind-numbing. And I could never reconcile that vision with Jesus' words about 'heaven being God's throne and the earth being his footstool.' Then along came N.T.Wright who began articulating for me what my heart had only been whispering. I'll never forget the time I preached from the pulpit that when we are resurrected we will have bodies, real flesh and blood bodies and one of the ladies approached me afterward and virtually questioned my sanity. Didn't matter that Jesus was resurrected with a body. But I digress. Ross and Storment bring it home to all of us:
In the Christian worldview, heaven is the realm in which everything is as God wills; it is not just a far off location out past Jupiter. Heaven is less a location and more a reality defined by God's will being done. Yet here on earth, a lot of people are working against heaven by trying to make sure that what they will is what gets done. (33; their emphasis.)
Don't get us wrong, the Gospel is about heaven. But heaven is not the distant, otherworldly place we often imagine it to be. Heaven will come down to earth. We will live on earth in a renewed, restored world. (59; except that the Gospel is not necessarily about heaven; it's about Jesus and how he has brought about heaven's rule here on earth.)
This is good, solid theology for the masses here (except I would eliminate the word 'just' in the first sentence.) The point is clear: so many Christians are caught up thinking about the 'Promised Land' that they haven't given any thought to what God is doing right here, right now, and how what he is doing right here and now will last into eternity. Our lives are about what Jesus continued to do and teach (Acts 1) and what we are doing will be tested in fire. Some will burn up; some will last. Yet there is a reason why Jesus died, was resurrected, and bids us to keep on living here instead of swooping us up as soon as we believe. There is work to be done here, now, and it matters now and then. In one sense it is true that 'this world is not' our home, but there's a better sense in which we do not have much of a choice.
Later on, the author's write:
If we think God's future has nothing to do with our lives and this world, then it won't affect how we live. It's possible to be a Christian and waste your life. It's possible to think that the gospel is all about another time and another place, and totally miss out on what God is doing right in front of you. (190)
What encourages me greatly about this book is that it was written by two preachers. What this tells me is that the message is getting into the hands and hearts of people who live in the world every day of their lives. It tells me that at least in some places in the church words are being defined properly and people are taking in the message and not kicking out the preachers who are doing the defining. What it tells me is that there is leadership in positions of authority who are supporting the message of these preachers. Finally, what it tells me is that the Holy Spirit is indeed moving in our congregations and that the famine might be staved off for a while yet.
This book greatly encourages me not because they have it all correct (although there were more than a couple of times when their insights were deep), but because they are living it, preaching it, and sharing it with others. It's easy to be innovative for the sake of an audience, but I don't sense innovation in this book. I sense a deep personal conviction that this is a message that needs to be heard by the people of the church. It's a strange sense of conviction I get from these two authors/preachers that this is a fire in their bones that cannot be quenched. I'm encouraged because when so many preachers are taking the easy way, they are sticking with the Gospel.
The book reads easily; although, it's easy to get reading and miss the depth. They tell plenty of stories. Quote plenty of Scripture even though I thought perhaps a little too much prominence was given to the story of the Prodigal son. There are several pages of discussion questions at the end and also notes are at the end as well. In my ARC there was no subject index but it may have been added in the final edition.
The only real quibble I have is that I wish they had pushed the metaphor a little more. That is, I wish 'bringing heaven to earth' had been a little more obvious in each chapter because I thought at times it was a bit obscured by other things. It doesn't take away from the book. It just means that a little more work has to be done to find it.
This is an excellent volume and I think it will be a welcome edition to anyone's library–preacher, teacher, church member/parishioner, Protestant or Catholic, or whoever. I applaud the men on their work of bringing this timely message to bear on the church in these days.
Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via the Waterbrook Multnomah Blogging for Books readers' program. I was not compensated or asked to write a favorable review. I was only expected to be honest and that I have been. Enjoy.
Author: Scot McKnight
Publisher: Brazos Press
I read a lot of books and I write reviews for most of the books I read. Most of the books I read are kind of popular level books written for the general Christian population among us and they are thus not too deep or theologically hefty. Mostly they are boring.
Every now and again I come across a book that radically alters the way I think about things or the way I believe or understand things. Sometimes a book utterly rebuilds the landscape. Kingdom Conspiracy is one such book. I say this without the slightest hint of hyperbole: this might be one of the most important and significant books written during my generation. That is how important this book is and that is why this book should be read by every Christian–pastor, preacher, and parishioner alike. I think the Pope should read this book–maybe he has. Seminary professors ought to read this book. In a world where words often mean nothing, it's important that we are also careful not to make words mean anything or everything. This, I think, is key to understanding McKnight's ideas in Kingdom Conspiracy.
Not everyone who reads this book is going to wholly agree with all of his ideas of what the kingdom of God is (sometimes I thought the hair he was splitting was a little too fine) or his understanding of certain passages of Scripture. But one thing I think everyone can and should agree upon is that whatever we think of the kingdom of God we need to be very careful not to define it too loosely or casually. That is to say: not everything people label as 'kingdom' work is, in fact, kingdom work. (To put a finer point on it: merely calling something 'kingdom' work does not necessarily make it kingdom work or sacred and when we call something kingdom work, even if it is, it is not ours to bypass the church in the process.) Definitions matter as much as articulation. Thus his opening salvo: "Precision begins with defining terms" he writes quoting Marilyn McEntyre. Yes. It does. He goes on: "I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, that we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense to Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told" (22).
Definitions and articulation matter. What I continue to see and hear–both from pulpits and in the books being published–is that we get it wrong on both marks most of the time. The Americanized gospel of 'join the club, go to church, and follow the rules so you can also go to heaven' is the result of unclear definitions and poor articulation. It's the result of thinking democracy=kingdom. That is decidedly not the kingdom articulated in the Scripture. Again, I see it in the books I read for review and in the sermons I hear and read. I am grateful for preachers like McKnight, N.T. Wright, and others who refuse to take shortcuts around the Bible to make a gospel that Jesus fits into. Frankly, I think if we asked a group of 100 Christians to articulate the Kingdom story, 99 would fail because it simply is not preached in the pulpits: "Until we can articulate the Bible's kingdom story, we can't do kingdom mission" (23). I agree.
I was in his grip after 3 chapters and he never let go.
What has most amazed me since I started (and finished) the book is how aware I have become of kingdom language in the Bible. Don't get me wrong: I think McKnight nails it most of the time when it comes to understanding what Kingdom is and is not. My point is that as I read through the Bible–I am currently teaching through the book of Daniel–I am amazed at the language that is used: kings and kingdoms, kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven, and so on. It's all over the place. It's amazing and it is there from front to back, Genesis to Revelation, and all places in between. Maybe someday some fine theologian will do a comprehensive study of the Kingdom of God from the beginning to the end of the Bible. I think it would be a fascinating study. (I'm currently reading a book called The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts by Karl Allen Kuhn which is exploring Kingdom in a small part of the Bible, but he is also nicely tying that story in with the meta-narrative of the entire Bible.)
I'd like to note what I think is probably the most significant aspect of the book for me insofar as giving readers something to practice. I belong to a generation of people who have by and large given up on the church. Let me be honest: I'm on the edge. I'm on the edge because of my experiences as a pastor with churches that have refused to move forward and who found that getting rid of me would make their lives easier. But I haven't given up entirely for two reasons. First, the church hasn't given up on me. If one church has gotten rid of me for their own convenience, another church has taken me in and bathed my wounds. I still love the church; the church still loves me. Second, because the McKnight solidified for me something I have already and always believed: the church and the kingdom are synonymous. Thus: "…kingdom mission is church mission and that kingdom mission is not working for the common good…" (115). Further,
What I am not in favor of is assigning the word 'kingdom' to such actions [as public action or social justice or compassion for the poor or feeding the homeless] in order to render that action sacred or to justify that action as supernatural or to give one the sense that what she or he is doing is ultimately significant. When we assign the word 'kingdom' to good deeds in the public sector for the common good, we take a word that belongs in one place (the church) and apply it in another (the world). In so doing we run the risk of diminishing church at the expense of the world. (115, his emphasis.)
And he's correct. For the Christian, the church should be a significant priority. "Kingdom is the realm of redemption and the redeemed, not what followers of Jesus did in the public sector" (114). Yes. His argument is, admittedly, complex and being able to draw that line in minds that are already persuaded is difficult. Nevertheless, we must indeed have our minds open and our hearts rent so that we can clearly define and articulate bible things. In the tradition I have belonged to for most of my life, this has been a part of our 'doctrine'–that we should call bible things by bible names. This is good. Now my tradition just needs to start defining Kingdom with more accuracy and clarity and then begin articulating it from the pulpits of our churches with more frequency, more duration, and more intensity.
I am glad that McKnight takes up for the church. I am guilty, but I get tired of people running down the church, the body of Christ, the Bride for whom Jesus died. So often people are so busy running the church down that we might think christians can get along with it. We cannot. We need the church. All of us. Yet we struggle.
"It is more glamorous to do social activism because building a local church is hard. It involves people who struggle with one another, in involves persuading others of the desires of your heart to help the homeless, it means caring for people where they are and no where you want them to be, it involves daily routines, and it only rarely leads to the highs of 'short-term mission' experiences. But local church is what Jesus came to build, so the local church's mission shapes kingdom mission" (97).
We can do better.We need the church. We need one another. McKnight helped stoke the fires of affection in me for the church again. Maybe I have been too critical; perhaps unfair. With a prophet's insight and conviction, McKnight confronted my own church angst and now restoration has begun in me.
This book asks some difficult, soul-searching questions. It challenges time honored traditions concerning definitions. While I get the point of demarcating this book along lines of 'skinny-jeans christians' and 'pleated-pants christians', I think even McKnight would acknowledge there is a lot of room for frilly-dress and bonnet christians, overalls christians, sweat-pants christians, polyester slacks and silk shirts christians, and many more besides. In other words, his categories help us see the differences but all of us have this problem of definition. His clear point is this: be careful how you define words because your definition directly affects your articulation. I agree.
The book is heavily researched and, as per usual, given that it is written for a popular audience, notes have been relegated to the end of the book. It is deeply exegetical and contextual–in other words, he doesn't prooftext his readers but thoughtfully engages in exegesis of large swaths of scripture to give context and clarity to his ideas. It contains a substantial subject index which will be helpful for preachers and teachers alike. Sadly, there are no references except what is found in the end notes so following up with his research might prove to be a bit of a chore. This is a book that will not disappoint the thoughtful reader–the person wholly engaged in trying to understand what Scripture says about a particular theological subject.
I simply cannot say enough good about this book. Please read it.
Title: Permission Granted
Author: Jennifer Grace Bird
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
"To the Church, then, has been given the charge of proclaiming the Word of God. This revelatory Word is not a concatenation of human opinions and ideas but rather is God's own proclamation, the very means by which he speaks, even into postmodern society."–David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, 176
If I had been paying attention, I would have seen the endorsement by Rachel Held Evans on the front cover and I would not have selected this book for review. I should have known better. Here's the bottom line to this book: Jennifer Grace Bird did 'take the Bible into her own hands' and she made an absolute wreck of it and embarrassed herself along the way. There is nothing new whatsoever about what she wrote: she is regurgitating the arguments of folks like, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan (and others) all over again–time worn arguments that question whether the Bible is God's Word and whether or not we should pay attention to it, and whether or not we can believe in the God who is there. I've heard that argument before, "Did God really say…?" And although she says: "My intention is not to leave you in the lurch, with your entire faith system challenged," she writes. "My ultimate intention has been to have you look at where you have placed your faith. Is it on the words in the Bible, or on the God the Bible points to?" (187) this is not what one comes away with after reading this book. (And, to be sure, this is a false dichotomy which I have not the space in this review to address.) (Interview)
There is nothing original about Bird's intellectual pursuit to 'read what the Bible really says.' There is nothing interesting about it. There is nothing compelling about it. It has a niche audience: those who are already on board with her absurd ideas about Scripture and her silly angry-feminist hermeneutic (I invite you to read carefully and slowly her work and notice how many times she makes pejorative remarks about men). What's amazing is that there are hundreds and thousands of women scholars and preachers who read the same Bible Bird reads and come away with a radically different understanding and application of the words written.
I think a large part of the problem is that Ms Bird seems to think that just because it is written in the Bible that this automatically translates into God's approval of it. Take for example polygamy in the Bible. Just because the Bible records many instances of polygamy is not an indication that God approves of polygamy. Remember in the garden, there was one man and one woman, which later Jesus affirmed. This was the ideal. After sin enters the world, then we see a break from the garden ideal and marriage corrupted. Bird seems to think that we should read the Bible at face value without our bifocals: one lens reminding us that we are sinful and live in a sinful world and the other lens reminding us that Jesus has redeemed us. To be sure, there is a lot of stuff in the Bible–stuff like rape, murder, slavery, and war–that God is not in favor of and certainly doesn't approve of, but is God at fault because the authors of the Bible truthfully report these events? Or is God evil because these things happen? Bird spends a lot of time in this book saying things about God that made me shudder. For all her talk about those who 'read the Bible literally' Bird seems to suffer from a profound sense of inability to distinguish one type of literature from another (she does acknowledge on page 7-8, and 11 that readers of the Bible should be aware 'of genre', but I do not recall that she employs this warning herself and her favorite term to use is actually 'myth'). In other words, she is, frequently, a worse literalist than those she accuses!
Pause for a moment and consider what that means.
I do not know too many preachers or scholars or theologians in general who would argue that there are not 'issues' when it comes to parts of the Bible. That is to say, I do not know of anyone who thinks that Genesis 1 and 2, for example, are telling us the exact same story of creation. On the other hand, I do not know anyone who believes this means they are also contradictory either. So too with the Gospels. Just because we are given four 'versions' of the Jesus story, where each author makes a particular point about Jesus (which I thought Bird handled and explained fairly well), does not mean that we are given contradictory stories about 'how to be saved' or that we have to decide 'which Jesus is the real Jesus.' Bird is rather difficult because she believes that variety means disunity and that differences mean contradiction. She actually had some good thoughts in chapter 9 ("Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?"), but she takes her conclusions from these thoughts in strange and rather unorthodox directions. Hmmm.
And to be sure, one really only needs to read her introduction to the book (xi-xvi) to understand what she is going to do with every single chapter in the book–whether writing about sex or violence or the virgin birth or John 3:16 (she made a big fuss out of John 3:16 only to tell us that we ought to read all of John 3; duh.), it is all too much for her. In her mind, we cannot trust many, many parts of the Bible because it contains things that do not pass her 'litmus test' of 'who God is and is not' (188). So she has created a god, held this god before her face while she read the Bible, and anything that does not comport with this god of her creation is suspect and therefore worthy of being tossed out into the rubbish heap. Think about that for a minute. Does that sound like the sort of author who is not trying to 'leave us in the lurch' or 'poke holes in' our faith? Hmmm.
Every now and again the book has text boxes where Bird engages in a brief excursus on some topic she finds particularly in need of reinterpretation (e.g., heaven and hell, the name 'christians', fun facts, depiction of Jews in the Newer Testament, etc.). There are also a few charts that are somewhat useful and also some charts for the reader to fill in to help better understand a concept she discusses (e.g., creation accounts, dualism in John's Gospel). Unfortunately, there is no index for subjects discussed or for Scripture referenced or discussed (although, to be fair, looking at the table of contents should give the reader a fairly good idea of what scripture can be found and where.) Each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions which may or may not be helpful after reading the chapter they are attached to. Finally, I was frustratingly disappointed that there is not a single page of references. She quotes several scholars in the book and I would have been pleased if there were references where I could check her work or dig deeper for myself.
I'm not going to bother addressing her conjectures about the sexuality of people such as Paul (whom she conjectures, based on the letter to Philemon, might be a homosexual) or David and his relationship with Jonathan. I'm not going to bother addressing her quite apparent disdain for men and the way 'they' have handled Scripture throughout the generations and kept women like her from being 'ordained' (a wholly unbiblical concept in it's own right if she would take time to investigate it). Nor will I address her rather lazy attitude towards sexuality (all of it). And I'm not going to bother dignifying her stupid idea that it was 'actually God who has misled the humans, not the serpent' in Genesis 2-3. Hmmm.
All of this, and much more besides, gives me reason to pause and question what exactly her agenda is in writing this book. Bird assures us that her task is 'not to poke holes in anyone's faith' (19) but rather to go 'for the 'mark of an educated mind,'" (121; she assures us of these things frequently). But I don't think she accomplished either point. Her questions will cause weak minded people to stumble in their faith and intellectual people to question how she got this book published in the first place. What follows, on page after page, is simply lazy exegesis with a lack of enthusiasm towards understanding.
Her 'questions' and controversies have been written by others, have been answered by others, and these questions and controversies have always been full of holes, based on faulty logic, and, frankly, in no way intellectually astute. I tend to mine books when I read them so, yes, there are times when I think she has a rather brilliant insight (e.g., much of her discussion on Job was helpful and, in my opinion, on the mark; and in one of her excursions, the one on 'heaven and hell' (p 182-183), she makes some good points too; and other places). And, yes, she is decidedly correct that we should read all of the Bible and not just the parts that make us all warm and fuzzy. Furthermore, she is also correct that there are difficult things in the Bible for us to accept about God, about ourselves, and about the Christian faith in general; nevertheless, her questions have been answered a thousand times over by scholars, preachers, theologians (men and women alike). The nuggets I was able to mine in this book are too few and too far between to make this worth the time of serious readers in search of an intellectual pursuit or faith strengthening exercise.
There's just nothing new here (literally, she retreads time worn arguments with hip language for a new generation of skeptics and they will eat it up!) and it literally brings me to tears that she is in this place (and that she teachers students in a university). I think this book comes up way, way short on both supporting faith or providing stimulation for the intellect. I would like to meet the people she claims 'confront these issues in the Bible and come out the other side…often even stronger in their faith than when they began!' (187). Seriously.
So again I will note that I think this book has a niche audience and it is those people who already believe like she does. This book will in no way strengthen the faith of anyone and it will not provide intellectual stimulation for anyone either. In fact, you will probably left with the same 'sinking feeling in' your gut when reading it as Bird often expressed she had when writing it. The church right now needs a high view of Scripture and Bird's isn't even off the ground.
One of the last acts I performed as a member of Facebook was to follow a link to a blog post and read the blog post. It had something to do with Daniel 11 so I thought this would be a good thing–given that I am currently neck deep in a study of Daniel in preparation for weekly Bible school lessons and, further down the road, teaching it at a small undergraduate college nearby.
Then I got there.
I'm sure the blogger's intentions were good. Maybe not. Personally I think that if a person has to go to that much trouble to understand what Scripture is saying then the person probably has no idea what Scripture is saying. That's my opinion, but I'm pretty sure that the Bible can be understood on its own terms without the help of charts and graphs and overlays and all other such 'helpful' things. Take Daniel 11 for example which should be read closely on the heels of chapter 10 of Daniel.
Chapter 10 is a conversation between Daniel and one who 'looked like a man.' This one strengthens Daniel. Speaks to Daniel. And reveals things to Daniel. Chapter 10 is a prelude to what he says in chapter 11. It may well be helpful when reading Daniel 11 to think in big pictures instead of small pictures…that is, see the forest through the trees. There are trees and if we like it may prove a fun exercise to wander through the woods and attempt to identify all the different species of trees that we see, but there is a bigger picture in chapter 11 that the identity of one small tree cannot overshadow.
The cycle in chapter 11 goes something like this:
- A king will rise up somewhere in the world.
- This king will do as he pleases. He or she will do whatever necessary to gain and consolidate power for themselves.
- This king will wreck the holy people of God.
- This king will come to an end.
It is there. Over and over again it is there. 11:4. 11:6. 11:17-19. 11:20. 11:24. 11:26-27. 11:45. Everyone of these verses speaks to the downfall of some king who thought he was the cat's meow. Every single verse. Every king who has ever lived, every kingdom ever established on earth–all of them from the greatest to the least–comes to ruin.
It seems to me that this ought to give us pause for more than a moment. It seems to me that our reaction ought to be more in line with that of Daniel who 'trembled', who 'was overcome with anguish because of the vision,' and who 'mourned for three weeks, ate no choice food, drank no wine, and used no lotions.' I'm not sure this is our christian response when we see the world afire. Ours is typically not a response of repentance, but one of indifference. It starts with me.
It seems to me it ought to give us pause to think about our own situation here in the United States because many Christians seem to think that somehow or other our kingdom is different. I think this is why we are fond of seeing the trees instead of the forest when we read Daniel. That is, if we can learn the true identity of the 'king of the North,' or the 'king of deception,' or the 'king of the South' as people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago then, well, think about it: if that is the only thing true about Daniel's prophecy then it must not apply to our kingdom here in the USA, right? I'm sure it's important to know about Antiochus and Alexander and Ptolemy and the rest. That's the trees.
But don't you think it's also important to know who these people are in our world? That's the forest. And it seems to me that it is far more important to see the forest just now than it is to see the trees since, of course, we are living now and not then. Don't you think it is important, right now, today, to understand the fate of every single kingdom that has ever arisen on this earth? Doesn't this help us understand why now, even now, the world is afire with death, destruction, and hatred?
I'm thinking about my allegiance to Jesus. I'm thinking about how being a citizen of the USA affects my counter-cultural identity as a citizen of heaven–a much better country (Hebrews 11:16). I'm thinking that during this Lenten season, I need to reorient my eyes, my mind, and my heart so I will be guided by three passages of Scripture.
First, Hebrews 12:2: "…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." My vision needs to be clarified. My focus needs to be fixed. If the world is afire, I need to have a steady gaze. There is a greater joy than the shame of suffering. Jesus is at the right hand of the throne of God. All the kings of the world will come and go, but Jesus remains. (Which is a key to understand the entire book of Daniel.)
Second, Romans 12:1-2: "Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to daily offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is–his good, pleasing, and perfect will." My mind needs to be clear and sober. My body needs to be holy and pleasing. If the world is afire, I must be ready to endure. Giving my body and mind to Jesus every day is the best way to be ready.
Third, Mark 8:34-35: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it." I think we have to make up our minds whether or not we want to be Jesus' disciple. If we want to then Jesus tells us what being a disciple entails. Give up your life. Deny what the world tries to tell us our body needs. Take up your cross–which does not mean to simply endure the burdens and drudgery of life, although it means that as well–taking up your cross means head to Calvary with Jesus. Daily. Make the sacrifice. Daily. Give your life for something more than yourself. Lose your life for Jesus as he gave his life for you.
If the world is afire, I had better make up my mind right now whether or not I want to be Jesus' disciple. And if I want to, then here's what I had best be prepared to do and how I best plan to live. Like Rick said in Sunday evening's episode of The Walking Dead, "we are the walking dead." We are.
So this Lenten season there is a lot of turmoil in the world. There's a lot of death. There's a lot of hatred. Kings are coming; kings are going. Empires are rising; empires are falling. Look at the forest…what looms on the horizon of our own nation? What preparations are you making should this great empire we live in here in the USA be the next kingdom to collapse under the weight of its own hubris?
Fix your eyes.
Die with Jesus.
God bless you on your Lenten journey. Come back often for more updates and reflections on this life with Jesus.
[Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of The Daniel Plan in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of the book. I was in no way compensated nor asked to write a favorable review. So, there you go.]
I'm sitting in my study tonight enjoying some music, playing a game on my NOOK, and enjoying a fine adult beverage–which is loaded with carbs and calories and was probably made from the sorts of things that the authors of The Daniel Plan would advise me to eschew. I'm actually fine with that. It seems to me that the key to living, and enjoying life, is moderation. But let's be honest: most Americans would just as soon cut their leg off than to practice moderation.
This is a long book. A very long book. It is all of the 261 pages of text about the Five Essentials (Faith, Food, Fitness, Focus, and Friends.) One would think it would be a quick and rather whimsical read, but it wasn't. It was boring. The remainder of the pages (263-346) are filled with recipes, fitness plans, meal plans, detox charts, and more. Really, it is terribly boring reading–even the multitude of personal testimonies marked off in green text boxes gives the book very little depth because all the testimonies are, predictably, supportive of the wonders of the Daniel Plan. I'm not suggesting the authors should have included negative testimonies; that would defeat the purpose. I am suggesting they could have eliminated most of them and the reader would not have missed anything.
I'm going to just cut to the chase, so to speak, in this review. Rick Warren is very popular and has written several books that have been remarkably helpful to thousands of people around the world. This is a fact no one disputes–well, except for some online 'ministries' who think it their job to police the church. I'm not concerned about Rick Warren as an individual nor is it my objective here to review him. I will review the book. The Daniel Plan is the third of Warren's books I have read and the same problem I had with the first two is the problem I have with this one: I dislike to the nth degree the way he uses Scripture to suit his own agenda. And with this book it starts with the title and gets worse.
Let's be honest: the Old Testament book of Daniel has absolutely nothing to do with what 'a healthier lifestyle' and frankly it is simply pastorally irresponsible to suggest that it does. Yes, in chapter 1 of Daniel, Daniel and his three friends refuse to eat the king's provisions and instead consume only vegetables and water. The next verse says, "To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds" (1:17). The emphasis is on what God did, not on the reasons why Daniel and his friends went on the peculiar diet in the first place.
This is how Warren consistently uses Scripture. He quotes it piecemeal–as if that is how the Bible was written. A verse here, a verse there; a particular translation that renders a verse with just such language that it suits Warren's thesis. It's old and tired. Just once I'd like Warren to write a book where he deals with a whole text–say, a book length church program about the church living in exile and what the Bible says to us about keeping in stride with Jesus all while focusing on one book of the Bible, from one translation, and with clear theological exposition of the book. But that is just not what I get from Warren's books. It is disappointing. And if I might say one final thing about this point, it would be this: his use of Scripture is, in my opinion, dangerous because it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of Scripture. That is, it may not necessarily be wrong, but neither is it necessarily right. It really fails, at a significantly deep level, the grapple with the hard truth of the Bible. The Bible isn't necessarily interested in better people, but new people. Books like The Daniel Plan might make us thinner, healthier, and better. They will not necessarily make us new.
As much as I hate to say it, Warren is a master of abusing context to make Scripture match his ends.
As for the rest of the book, what can I say? There are those who agree; there are those who disagree. I've read other reviews suggesting his take on wheat and gluten and other grains is wholly off base. I disagree that the diet plan suggested in the book is affordable. Whole foods and organic foods are incredibly expensive and the meals they suggest we prepare for our families probably are not entirely realistic for families where both adults work full-time. I could be wrong, but I'm willing to bet that people who are already in a financial position to eat the sort of foods suggested are going to have a much easier time following through than people who are not.
A couple of final points. First, I disagree that red meats 'should be cooked medium rare or medium' (146). I think this is a matter of taste. Second: "That is why we believe that once The Daniel Plan is embraced by the faith community, it will spread the gospel of health and change through America and the world" (148). Well, there you go. This is a worldwide initiative. I can think of a few other things the church ought to embrace–but this is a 'faith community' initiative not necessarily a church initiative.
Here's the bottom line: I am sure The Daniel Plan has helped a lot of people. I am sure there is nothing in it that is entirely unhelpful. I am sure it is a radical thing for the 'faith community' to embrace. I am sure it is somewhat countercultural. I am sure getting healthy is a good thing that many of us in the church need to think about–especially in America where our poor are among the wealthiest people in the world. Rick Warren continues to produce books that are meaningful to a large portion of the population and that make a lot of money for his publishers. (There's a whole line of The Daniel Plan products including journals, apps, exercise gear, etc.)
As far as content is concerned, I'm indifferent. It's nothing more than another in a long line of lifestyle books on the market. Strangely enough we have a market for these books in America where we have everything we need. Others can testify to the medical content of the book; although, I have read reviews that suggest he is misguided on the issue of wheat, grains, gluten and other things. (And I might add that I don't trust Dr Oz who happens to be a proponent of the content of this book.)
But I'm not going to pretend for a minute that this book has done any justice to Scripture and I'm not going to pretend that just because it was written by a Christian preacher that it necessarily has anything to do with faith in Jesus. The 'faith community' is where it's at for this book–whatever faith that may be.
Title: Vanishing Grace
Author: Philip Yancey
[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.
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.
The other day I made an announcement on my Facebook page about some exciting things happening in my professional and personal life. The announcement involves the church and a Bible College where I will be doing some teaching next year. A friend of mine later commented that my willingness to 'trust in spiritual institutions gives me hope.'
That statement gave me hope.
I'm not sure why I haven't given up entirely on the church. I spent the better part of the first half of my life drowning in church culture. I was an active prodigal as a teenager. As a younger man I spent time as an altar boy in a small Methodist church. I was baptized. Sanctified. Left home at barely 21 for Bible College. Graduated four years later, ordained, and began preaching at my first church at the ripe age of 25. From there it was all down hill.
My first church ministry, in West Virginia, lasted a little more than a year. I could not come close to managing local Appalachian church politics at that age. I made some critical relationship mistakes and they turned on me faster than vultures on a carcass. I moved back home with my wife and son and took a job in a Burger King as a manager and later as a laborer in a shop my dad managed. It was dirty, filthy, and back-breaking work, but I did it with a gusto unmatched by anyone else in the shop. All the while I attended my home church and became involved to the extent that I could in the ministry there–teaching, preaching occasionally, and singing in the choir.
Then came an opportunity to preach again–in West Virginia. I jumped at the opportunity and the church seemed like a perfect fit: I was close to my family and my wife's family, there was strong leadership, the congregation was fairly good sized, and they had little debt. I could be involved with other preachers in the area who shared my theological background. Once again I made some critical errors in judgment–thinking that the things that mattered most mattered most and misunderstanding the delicate balance between personal relationships and leadership. After about two and half years I was out again. It was a difficult choice, but since I was leaving one church and entering directly into another ministry the time gap wasn't as painful as the first ministry had been–that is, that sense of despair that comes from not knowing where or when or if I would preach again.
Still, there were a lot of hurt feelings on the way out of the church. Some of those relationships have not, to this day, been healed. I have wept over that fact, but this side of the new heavens and new earth, I suspect they will remain broken.
So I went to my third church (technically, my fifth, but I'm not reckoning the two youth ministry positions I held while in Bible College) in the fall of 1999 and there I would remain for nearly 10 years. I had finally found my place to belong and be and become. Immediately upon moving to the area we found a church poised for growth. I met a childhood friend who, along with her husband and sons, lived in the area and didn't have a church. The church had a good base of young people who were eager for change and ready to support the work. The building was paid for. I was ready. Surely this was the providence of God finally leading me to the place he wanted me to be, a place I could be used, a place where I could raise my family.
That was in 1999. Things rolled on from bad to worse as the true colors of the church began to bleed through the veneer. Within the first year, two of our young families had decided to leave and enter the ministry. Within two years, I had no elders. Within three years, due to a large township sewer project, the church was $70,000 in debt. But we pressed on as best we could and God was faithful. He provided an abundance of offerings and we saw some growth in our membership–even though quite a few had come and gone for a variety of reasons. Still, our honeymoon lasted barely a year.
In 2008 my wife and I decided it was time to buy our first house. We wanted to put down roots in the community. Our children were by now getting older and we wanted to think about them being near friends and we also were thinking that our long term plans did not involve living in a 100 year old parsonage for the rest of our lives. We took the plunge. The church supported our decision and adjusted my salary accordingly and voted 100% to approve the budget for the next year.
In 2009, less than a year after we bought our 'dream' house, and nearly 10 years into the ministry, I was informed on a late July Saturday morning that I was being given two choices. The first choice was to resign immediately and receive six week's salary. This was a salary that had been reduced by 20% earlier in the spring. The other option was to refuse to resign, be fired immediately, and receive one week's worth of vacation pay. I was assured by one of the trustees who was used during this time that 'It was nothing personal.'
Here it is 5 years later. I'm no longer in ministry, at least not in the paid, professional sense. I'm no hero, but despite all of this (and there is much more besides), I still belong to the church. I still worship with the church. Soon I will be serving in the church again and soon after that I will be working in a parachurch organization. I gave my friend hope, and yet I'm not sure I even understand why I haven't given up on the church. Still I think I have a hint at why.
It's very simply that of all the horrible experiences I have had in churches, and of all the different ways I have managed to embarrass the church, my home church has never once given up on me. They have invited me back to preach. They have let me teach. They have let me sing. They have supported my family when we were unbelievably in a bad way. And anytime that I have gone into the church building since 1983 people have known me, spoken to me, and loved me. And here I am, five years after the latest debacle, and my home church has welcomed us back yet again.
I realize that the church in general has done a lot of things to screw up the world. I also realize that the church is made up of really horrible people at times–I have lived it. I realize that some Christians have a way of driving people away from the church with their judgmental attitudes, terrible theological ideas, and despicable social commentary, but I also know my own experience is this: the Church has loved me, welcomed me, and done everything they could to support me. I've made a lot of poor choices and I've done my share of embarrassing things, but there is at least one church in the world where I will always be able to show my face and know that someone will love me.
I suppose what is amazing is not so much that I haven't given up on the church as much as that the church hasn't given up on me. And I think by extension this means that neither has Jesus.
Title: Giving Blood
Author: Leonard Sweet
Pages: 368 (I read an e-book version on my Nook reader. My page numbers may be a bit different. I apologize in advance for any troubles this may cause.)
[Disclaimer: I was provided with a reader's copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I am happy to provide that very thing in the following blog post.]
I once preached a sermon about the Bible. I think it might have been from John's Gospel, but I don't really remember. The sermon had something to do with the Scripture, the Bible, the Word of God–however you want to refer to it, that was the topic. It might have been about Jesus. I might have even trekked into the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah and wrestled a bit with his idea that in his mouth the Word of God tasted like honey, but in his gut it was turning him inside out, upside down, and sending him scurrying off to the bathroom.
I don't really remember all the particular details of the sermon except for the end. I recounted a story about a tradition (perhaps apocryphal) that when young Jewish children first hear the Torah or first read it, they are given honey to eat. It is, so the story goes, to remind them of the sweetness of Scripture. So I preached my sermon and finished with a reading of Scripture. I then moved down to the floor where I had arranged a table with two or three jars of honey and some plastic spoons. That day, instead of an invitation hymn or prayer or announcements I simply invited the congregation to silently walk forward when they were ready. One by one they came forward and received a single spoonful of honey–pure, sweet, glorious, raw honey. It was a beautiful moment.
It was one of the best sermons I ever preached and easily one of the few, without referring to my journals, that I remember. It was a stroke of genius.
One time I went to hear a friend preach. He had just taken a position with a new congregation and it was his first sermon. I don't remember all that much about what he preached that day or what passages of Scripture he used, but I do remember that at all of us in the room had been supplied with a small can of PlayDoh! and that at some point he had us take the PlayDoh! from its can and work it with our hands. He said, "mold the PlayDoh! into the shape of what you think you would like to be or do with your life." I remember that as I shaped PlayDoh! and created a dream, so I can give that dream to God and allow him to shape me into something he can also use. It was a brilliant idea.
Leonard Sweet has written a large book about preaching. This is a thick book both in overall content and sheer girth: 369 pages (about 1/10 is reserved for end notes) and I only read an e-book on my Nook. To be sure, 369 pages was too many in my opinion for the very fact that at the end of the day, as Sweet himself notes, metaphors tend to break apart. In the case of Giving Blood there was simply too much repetition and, in my opinion, he stretched the metaphor too far. Less is more and I think in this case the sheer volume and density of words was kind of overwhelming. Couple this with one of my pet-peeves, unbalanced chapters, and you end up with a lopsided book that despite the beauty of the metaphor was rather tedious (I was actually sick of the word 'narraphor' by page 50.) I really dislike when one chapter is 30 pages and another is 5. It's a personal thing, but there were times when I was convinced Sweet could have lopped off about 50% of a chapter and still made his point.
That being said, the metaphor is beautiful and I agree with a great portion of what Sweet wrote. Preaching is, to me, exactly what Sweet calls it: giving blood. And unless a person has stood in the pulpit and preached a sermon, or spent time in the study during the week preparing (bleeding), or stayed up late on a Saturday night because there were simply no words, then they will not ever understand what Sweet means by giving blood. Any preacher worth his salt does these very things. Then on Sunday mornings he or she has the audacity to stand up before people who expect a miracle and lay out their heart and mind and soul in mere words. People expect all their problems solved, all their questions answered, all their wounds balmed, and all their sins forgiven. Yet the preacher is tasked with standing and proclaiming the word of God to a people who will not listen and who will forget every single word by the time they cross the threshold of the back door.
Preachers give blood. And if preachers do not give blood, then perhaps they need to review if it is preaching they are actually doing. This is what we do week after week, in season and out, in good times and bad: we keep coming back for more because that is what we do. We preach. We cannot help ourselves. From near the conclusion of the book he writes:
Do you bleed over every sermon? Do you give blood through every sermon? Preaching is the discipline and craft of giving blood. (330)
It's true. Preaching takes years off our lives because we put our life into every jot and tittle we scratch across the paper.
I think the best parts of the book were found in the 'Labs' and the 'Interactives.' These were short sections at the end of chapters where Sweet applied his principles to a passage of Scripture (e.g., Jonah) or shared some ideas or exercises for how to put into practice the subject matter of the preceding chapter. Of these two, I liked the labs the best. I especially enjoyed his various readings of the book of Jonah. I recall one time I preached a sermon from Luke 15 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That morning I didn't so much preach a sermon, but offered four different readings of the parable. That is, I told the story from four different perspectives–the father, the son, the older brother, and as a disinterested bystander. It was a lot of fun to see the anguished faces of the olders among us that morning as I 'tore apart the sacred story.' I still smile because for me it was enlightening and exhilarating to see the story from other perspectives than the same one I had always used.
I think this is the gist of this book. Preachers are called to bring the living word to life among dead and dying people. We will never do this if the people are bored. And we will not awaken them if the way we preach does nothing to spark their curiosity and arouse their suspicion. This is what I loved doing when I preached and why I waited until the last possible minute to script my sermons. I didn't want to know what I was going to say until it was time to say it. One time I preached a funeral sermon with nothing but my heart. No notes. No Bible. No nothing. I just poured out words and prayed that the Holy Spirit would do something with them. Sweet is absolutely correct that a lot of preachers tend to be rather boring. I think so boring even the devil won't hang around because the preacher is doing all his work for him by keeping the people sedated.
Sermons need life but if the preacher doesn't care, I can't imagine the Spirit does. What is the Living Word in the hands of a dead man?
One time I preached a sermon about Jesus' crucifixion. I don't recall all the specifics of the sermon, but I recall the conclusion. Sometime in the weeks leading up to the sermon me and one of the deacons had taken apart an old piano that was no longer in good repair. While doing so, we came across a large hunk of wood inside the old instrument. I'm not sure what purpose it served, but I do know that it probably contributed considerably to the weight of the piano. It must have weighed 150 pounds. It was solid. As soon as I saw it I was reminded of what may have been the crossbeam of the cross of Jesus.
Before the morning worship began that day, I had arrived early and strategically placed the 'crossbeam' in the middle of the sanctuary. I had also supplied a few hammers and scattered a large supply of heavy nails on the floor. After the conclusion of the sermon, I said something to the effect of 'we have all had a part in nailing Jesus to the cross.' I then invited the congregation to come to the center where the patibulum was located and pound a nail into it. I was amazed that everyone there participated. I kept the crossbeam in my office until I eventually left the church as a reminder of what we, the entire congregation, had said that day about our relationship with Jesus.
It's not so much, then, that Sweet is offering us a new paradigm for preaching or homiletics. He is simply putting down on paper what some of us had discovered a long time ago: images work because we all learn in different ways. In education we call this the 'theory of multiple intelligences.' I have a suspicion that we never really grow out of our particular intelligence for learning. That is, if I am a kinesthetic learner as a 10 year old, perhaps I will still be such when I am 20. It doesn't mean I cannot develop other ways of learning, but it does mean that perhaps I will always lean in one direction more than another. And perhaps–and here I agree with Sweet even if he says it more implicitly than explicitly–preachers need to take a long hard look at the way 'preaching' was conducted in the Bible and become more like those fellas who laid on their side for a year or cooked their food with feces than those guys who ramble on and on and on for years without end demonstrating to all the futility of a well mannered discourse to someone who learns by doing.
I'm sure a twelve year sermon from Romans is fantastic. But I'm sure it is also profoundly boring to most.
I think this is why God had the prophets in the Old Testament do some really strange things in order to get the attention of the people and why the Spirit animated the disciples so wildly on the Day of Pentecost that people thought they were drunk. Maybe we need to open ourselves to the Spirit. So maybe preachers can abandon, to an extent, the 'stand up and lecture people about what they should believe' style of preaching and instead adopt a way of preaching that illustrates ways of believing, ways of growing up in Resurrection life, ways of being a follower of Jesus. You know, let the living word live inside us and bring the Word to life among us.
I read an e-book version of Giving Blood obtained through NetGalley for review purposes, but I will purchase this book so I can give it more attention with my pen. Although I think the book is a little longer than it needs to be, I still recommend it. I would say give it to a younger preacher, but I think a lot of younger preachers already get this. I'd say give it to an older preacher who will either read it and change or who will laugh at you and prove why his ministry/congregation is ineffective.