Posts Tagged ‘grace’

MessyMany, may years ago when I was still young, I felt I was being led to be the preacher of a certain church. I began going through all the motions–sending a resume, sample sermon, meeting families and members of the church, preaching trial sermon(s), and finally submitting to a vote of the congregation. During the course of this process I met with a particular gentleman who also happened to be an elder in the church. He was an older man, from a different generation, and was necessarily conservative in his theology. I distinctly recall our meeting one day before I was hired. We were sitting in a quiet room off of the main sanctuary talking with the door closed. I distinctly remember his question to me: What do you think about 'the gays'? Not, "What do you think about Jesus?" But, "What do you think about 'the gays'?"

This is all prefatory to my review of this book called Messy Grace. I received this in the mail on July 21 and on July 22 made it my ambition to read it. I did. It took me about 3 hours (because I underline and make a lot of notes.) I will just say, straight up, I love this book. That's right. I love it. Now don't mistake my loving of the book for agreement with all things written in the book, but I think it is safe to say that by and large there is nothing in this book that I find theologically repugnant. 

For this review, I'm staying wholly positive. Except for a couple of minor quibbles (his use of the word 'gender' as a synonym for 'sex', and a couple of generalizations, for example), I have no complaints at all about this book. This is an important book that needs to be read because it strikes a beautiful balance between grace and truth and helps us apply both wisely in our relationships and witness to people who are different from us. So while I understand that he is writing to Christians about the manner in which we relate to homosexuals, as you will see in my conclusion, it's really about how we relate to anyone who is different from us.

So, a few points to highlight.

This past Sunday our preacher made a statement that was utterly profound in its simplicity. He said (and I'm paraphrasing): "We cannot build relationships with people unless we start them." I couldn't agree with him more. The author of Messy Grace makes similar statements throughout the book. One that I found helpful begins on page 31: "It's imperative that we have grace for people while they are still thinking, speaking, and acting in ways we might not agree with. And we need to overcome our own inner resistance to getting involved in a relationship with them. A real mark of spiritual maturity is how we treat someone who is different from us" (31-32, his emphasis.) Isn't this how all of us want to be treated? Do any of us want to be outcasts from the church until we get all of our life together?

The church would be empty.

Kaltenbach consistently calls us to evaluate this question of how we treat other people.  He is absolutely on mark when he calls the church to think differently about the way we treat those who are different from us–those who happen to be on a journey that moves at a different speed than the one we are on. I think it is fair for Christians to ask why someone would say, "Christians don't like anyone who's not like them" (39). Could it be that in some ways those who are different from us are in fact more understanding and loving and compassionate than those of us who are called to be defined by those very things: loving, kind, compassionate, and understanding? Shouldn't this change? Shouldn't the church be a place where people can be vulnerable and weak and loved?

"Part of the pursuit is being honest with people, but doing so in a loving way." (45) This theme is developed over and over again in the book. He's asking us to evaluate who we are because of Jesus. Has Jesus changed us? Has he made us new or not? If we are still stuck in days gone by ways of thinking and judging then might we not ask if we have really met Jesus at all?

Second, I want to add that by and large the author handles Scripture very well and does not shy away from the so-called hard passages that talk about homosexuality. He affirms over and over again the testimony of Jesus, Paul, and others. So for example, he notes that "nowhere in the New Testament, however, does God define acceptable sexuality as being other than between one man and one woman. In fact, the New Testament specifically reaffirms the Old Testament's position that same-gender sexual activity is not acceptable" (86). He says later, "Another way to say this is that Jesus had to chance to define an intimate relationship as being other than male-female, but he did not" (90).

This book, so far as I can tell, is wholly orthodox which is a way of saying that he is not blurring lines in Scripture in order to spare people the truth. In contrast to other books on this subject, he is not performing exegetical somersaults to make his point one way or another. He is reading Scripture and talking about its plain meaning. He lays it out for us and allows us to think on matters. He candidly admits we might disagree with him and that he is still searching some things. He is telling us what the Bible says. But he is saying we need to be gracious…much in the same way 'God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.' We do well, as Christians, to bear this in mind continually in our dealings with people.

Finally, there is one more thing that stood out to me as important and something that I think served to minister to the author and in some ways served as the catalyst for the writing of the book. He tells in the book the story of his own conversion experience and he tells how his family reacted to his conversion to Jesus. I wrote in the margin on page 118 that Caleb is saying we should respond to homosexuals about their sexuality exactly not how his parents responded to him about his faith. Then a couple of pages later I read that 'the irony of this situation was that my parents thought I would disown them, when in actuality I felt as if they were disowning me" (123). The point is that he did not like at all the way he felt when he was rejected for his faith in Jesus. I'm glad he remembered that feeling. I'm even gladder he shared it with us.

Something tells me that this feeling stayed with him as he grew older and was trying to work through all the things he writes of in the book–in particular, how is he going to treat others because of his faith in Jesus? There is a significant lesson here for all of us who claim Jesus. In America we experience very little rejection because of our faith, but maybe that's not the best thing at all. We grow in our experience. Caleb's experience of rejection taught him how it feels to be rejected and thus how someone else might feel if they are rejected. I see God's brilliance here and I see a brilliant man who understood well the lesson that Jesus was teaching him. Would that more of us learned this lesson. It might make us more compassionate believers and more easily accessible to those who face it daily.

I love that he is open and honest about the relationships he has formed in life with those God has brought to him. I love that this guy didn't write a book crying and moaning and complaining about his 'terrible life' being raised by divorced, gay parents. I love that this guy wrote a book that at its core is telling us to get over ourselves and get to loving people–like Jesus did.

I love that he is open and honest. I love that he weeps and laughs and gets angry and is confused and is (still) searching–I love that when this guy lost someone close to him, he had a group of people to weep with him. I mean this when I say that this book touched me precisely because it is honest and unflinching and yet vulnerable and emotive. He helps us understand that no matter what we believe, there are no easy answers and that there will be pain along the way. But he also lets us see that we belong to a God of hope and mercy and grace and truth and love and Jesus.

Let me tell you how much I love this book!

Here's the truth that I have figured out after a long time in and out of ministry: this book isn't just about Christians and LGBT people even if that is the overwhelming paradigm being established in it. It's about Christians and all people. It's about the way Christians treat one another: abysmally. It's about the way we treat old people: horribly. It's about the way we treat young people: dismally. It's about the way we treat poor people: dishonorably. It's about the way we treat liberals: ugly. It's about the way we treat conservatives: angrily. It's about the way we treat foreigners: condescendingly. Frankly, it's about the way we treat one another–all the time, in every way, in every circumstance. We are not nice people when it comes too most people who are different from us. I could tell you how I have been treated by the church when I was a preacher. It's not pretty.

I teach special education. I have since I was removed from ministry against my will about 6 years ago. You know what I have learned since I started working with students who have autism, Down Syndrome, emotional and behavioral disabilities, ADHD, and more? They all, all to a very large extent although not literally all, come from extremely dysfunctional, broken, and wrecked families. Yep. Almost without fail there is divorce, separation, jail, death, poverty, substance abuse, abuse (in one form or another) and more. And these are the people that God has called me to minister to–not just the students, but the parents. And you know what I have to do? I have to be nice. To all of them. All the time. Every day. I can't tell the parents what I really think. I can't make them all rich or fix all of their marriages. But I say this honestly: I have learned–as an educator in public schools–how not to be judgmental. That's right: how to love people, all people, any people is my daily objective. Anyone who walks through my classroom door. Anyone with whom I come in contact with: I am an agent of God's grace in an often ugly environment.

But it's not just about being nice while something else is swirling in my head. It's about changing and actually becoming a different person (CS Lewis describes this change brilliantly in Mere Christianity, chapter 10, "Nice people or new men?") It's about being a nice person and not just about being nice to people. Anyone can be nice, but not all of us are truly, genuinely lovers of people. God takes these barriers of soft bigotry and hard prejudice and breaks them down–like he did the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. I truly believe this book, Messy Grace, will go a long way towards helping people not just be nice (which is a nice way of saying 'being hypocrites') but also to transform them  into the sort of people who actually, truly, genuinely love people for Jesus' sake, love people for their own sake. This is what he has called us to do. To love people, other humans–our brothers and sisters in flesh. To minister to them. To bring the healing of Jesus into their lives when they are ready for it. And to let God do his work on them when he is ready to do his work.

"Christians need to stop trying to convert people's sexuality. It isn't our job to change someone's sexual orientation. You and I are not called by God to make gay people straight. It is our job to lead anyone and everyone to Christ. I believe God is big enough to deal with a person's sexuality" (185).

Well said. Very well said.

It will never be easy for Christians in this culture of 'I want to see results now.' But we can if we are patient, if we pray, and if we pay attention to the often subtle movements of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. My prayer is that our Father will use this book to change the hearts and minds and attitudes of the church of Christ into such as we see in Jesus who welcomed all who came and never drove any away, who called all to repentance, who loved all right where they were but wasn't content to leave them there, who didn't condemn but commanded us to change.

And this is the message to the church. First. First Jesus speaks to the church. And we must listen.

You will do well to pre-order this book and read it prayerfully in one sitting. You will be rewarded for doing so.

5/5 stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Messy Grace Amazon (Paperback, pre-order for $11.24; October 20, 2015)  CBD (Paper back, $10.99; pre-order 10/20/2015); WaterBrook Multnomah (Trade paperback, $14.99; pre-order).
  • Author: Caleb Kaltenbach on Twitter | Messy Grace
  • Publisher: WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group
  • Pages: 212 (ARC, page count may be different in final publication)
  • Year: October 20, 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 WaterBrook Press via the Blogging for Books Blogger program
  • Page numbers in this review are based on the ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.

Logo

 

71q989m262LTitle: Vanishing Grace

Author: Philip Yancey

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 298

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

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

The boysI tried to secretly take this picture of the boys this morning. I think Samuel knew I was taking it and was trying to hide, scootch backwards so he wouldn't be included. I got him anyhow. I'm good like that.

This is a picture of my three sons in worship this morning.

I didn't like worship this morning. It wasn't anything personal against anyone and there wasn't anything necessarily wrong with it. It just didn't work for me.

It started when we watched a movie in Sunday school. Nothing wrong with a movie. It's just not what I had hoped for.

I didn't like that we watched a slide show to begin the corporate worship. Nothing wrong with watching a slide show, but the one we watched was accompanied by a song from the 60's or 70's ('He's my Brother'). I literally cringed when it started playing.

I didn't like the organ music that started the worship, played during the worship at certain points, and ended the worship. There's nothing wrong with organ music. It's great at a ball game! There's nothing wrong with the people who played the organ. They did a great job. But it was not my thing.

I didn't like the songs that we sang this morning at all. I looked it up, because I had time, and here's what I found (I figured that's why all those indices are in the back of the hymnal.) The author's of our song service:

  • Jesus Saves, author born in 1829, died 1907
  • Old Rugged Cross, author born 1873, died 1958
  • O Zion Haste, author born 1835, died 1923
  • Just as I am, author born 1789, died 1871

And on top of that, we only sang two verses of Old Rugged Cross. There's not a thing wrong with any of these songs, but there's a part of me that wonders if these songs are still relevant–to anyone.

I had also flipped through the Christian Standard (during the organ recital) and learned things from 50 different people–the same people that the Christian Standard always (!) refers to because they are mega-church preachers, authors, or other super Christians. I couldn't even enjoy that precisely because the articles were drawn from the same pool of people that Standard Publishing always draws from. They are great people. They have important things to say. And I have nothing against them. But good grief can we interview some new people for God's sake? (And don't even get me started on the fact that not a single African-American man was interviewed for the piece. 50 different people. Not one black man among them. Sad.)

I struggled to 'come to terms' with what I was hearing and seeing and doing and reading. I struggled to sing. I thought maybe I had missed the Holy Spirit today. I struggled to get in tune with the sermon and the songs. It felt so old and routine. I thought maybe my worship angst was getting in the way…and then something happened. I saw my dad up front among the leadership. Then I heard my younger brother offer prayer for offering. I thought maybe the drought was being deluged. Then we sang two of those songs and I was kind of right back to square one.

Then something else happened. I looked to my left and saw those three young men in the picture above–my sons. I saw those three boys and my eyes melted. I saw my three sons partake of communion with me for the first time in at least 3 years. My heart swelled and the Holy Spirit did speak to me. He reminded me of his grace. I saw my three sons–right there in that blue church pew. Paying attention. Listening. Respecting. Worshiping. Present.

And then I was able to come to terms with the fact that our worship practices this morning reminded me of something from the 1970s or 80s–something that was, again in practice, highly irrelevant to me and to my sons. But relevancy isn't the sum value of worship, and worship isn't necessarily the sum value of our attendance at sunday gatherings. Sometimes attendance in worship is more about what God gives us and less about what we bring him.

Something bigger was taking place this morning. In a sense, God wanted me to take my eyes off of everything else–to sort of 'zone-out'–and have an intense focus. When all the distractions of songs and slides and sermons were gone, I saw my sons. And then I saw Jesus. Right there. In my sons. His grace flooded me, and tears flooded my eyes. I tried to hide it, just like Samuel tried to hide from my picture, but Samuel, with his keen eye, caught me.I felt his hand upon my back. I tell you it was the touch of God.

This morning helped me understand that even if my heart isn't into what's going on around me, even if I'm not fully engaged, there's still something going on inside me–something I didn't initiate, something I cannot control, and something I may not understand. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but what I saw this morning was simply the grace of God. I saw my sons, my beautiful sons.

Those three boys are proof of God's grace–their presence proof that God's grace is bigger than any sin I may commit. I can sing anything knowing that.

I went to Sunday School this past Sunday for the first time in a long, long time. I also stayed for worship and was delighted that at the end of the two hours or so I was in the building the roof managed to stay attached to whatever the roof is attached to. In other words, it didn't fall on my head. That is always happiness.

As it turns out, we were talking about Matthew chapter 18 on Sunday. I will quote it in full before offering a few comments:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Causing to Stumble

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

The Parable of the Wandering Sheep

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. [11] 

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Dealing With Sin in the Church

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[h] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This is a great section of teaching by Jesus, but there is a problem that is easily identifiable by the little numbers scratched between sentences. The problem with these little numbers is that they make the section fairly incomprehensible to most people reading the section. I say this because the little numbers (along with the section divisions) make this section out to be a collection of smaller teachings instead of one large section of teaching addressing one particular 'subject' which, in this particular instance, is found in verse 1: "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

So strip away all the verses and section dividers (things like, "Causing to Stumble" or "Dealing With Sin in the Church"). These are all artificial and, frankly, meaningless precisely because they do absolutely nothing to help us understand what Jesus was getting at and, to be sure, do everything to obfuscate what he is talking about. He is answering the question: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Everything in chapter 18 that follows this question is designed to answer this question–all 34 verses. I know this peculiar teaching section of Jesus ends at 18:35 because in 19:1 we read this: "When Jesus had finished saying these things…." This marks the end of one section and the beginning of another.

If we look at it this way, without verse divisions and the like, we can see that Jesus' intent in all of these seemingly disconnected stories is actually a singular cohesive point: The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who refuses to stand on his/her own rights. That is, we are less concerned about ourselves than we are of others. In other words, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who thinks of others first, foremost, always. So chapter 18 is a collection of five stories all, in different ways, telling us that same exact thing.

He begins by telling us about a child: "Whoever becomes like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." I know what people have traditionally said about this: children are quiet and humble and unassuming. Well, of course, raising three sons has taught me that this is absolute balderdash. I think what it means is something like this: a child has nothing to stand on, nothing. They are completely at the mercy of others. They cannot demand justice. They have no rights to demand or stand upon at all. If this is true now, it was especially true when Jesus had the child stand in his midst. Children are dependent upon others for everything, yes, but I think the issue here is, really, this idea that children essentially have nothing and can make no demands upon anyone.

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Be like a person who lays no claim to personal justice, personal safety, or the lives of others. This is his thought. This is what Jesus is driving at in 'chapter 18.'

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Deal with your own sin first (6-9). This is important in today's world because many, many people are concerned about the sins of others.

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Be willing to put your own safety at risk for the sake of others (10-14). This is ties everything together by use of the phrase 'these little ones' (18:4, 6, 10, & 14).

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Forgive. I think that's what Jesus was talking about in verses (15-20) because that's how Peter understood Jesus: "Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?" (21) Why would Peter ask this question if Jesus was talking about something else? Again, I think there's a clue to be found in the verses. Look at verse 17: "If they still refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

Well…well. How do we interpret this? How should we treat a pagan? How should we treat a tax collector? Well, how did Jesus treat them? "While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples" (Matthew 9:10). And, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13). That is how we are to treat tax collectors and sinners. We are to treat them the way Jesus treated them: with grace, forgiveness, deference, and welcoming. How much forgiveness are we to offer? Endless amounts. In other words, when it comes to other people, we are to forget about our rights. We have no rights to stand upon when it comes to others in the kingdom of heaven.

Being a Christian means that we no longer demand our rights. Being a Christian means we have no right to withhold forgiveness from the person who asks. Being a Christian means we have no rights. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who understands these things and puts them into practice. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who knowing their rights abandons them in favor of grace, in favor of reconciliation, in favor of healing and peace in the kingdom of God. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who knowing their own value abandons it in favor of preserving the lives of others. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who has a legitimate beef with another person and yet utterly forsakes their own demands for justice, their own claims to righteousness, and forgives–frequently, often, much.

It is unreasonable, frankly, that Jesus demands such hyperbolic levels of forgiveness, but that's what he does. 70×7. 77 times. Doesn't matter how we look at it, Jesus demands it. The kingdom demands it. The kingdom principle demands that we relinquish our claim to justice in favor of forgiveness, grace, and love. And frankly, there are some people we may have to wake up and forgive every day for the rest of our lives. Jesus demands it. Greatness demands it. Look what Jesus did. 

Forgiveness is not a matter of law or steps or procedures. Forgiveness is a matter of grace. It's a matter of the kingdom. Forgiveness is the ultimate abandonment of our rights. Forgiveness is our way of saying, "I relinquish my claim on your life. You owe me nothing. I make no demands of you." Forgiveness is our way of saying, "This is the way things operate in the kingdom of heaven. This is what life in the kingdom of God is all about, every day, all the time."

This is what it means to be a Christian.

Once upon a midnight dreary, I was enrolled in seminary. I had to write a paper once concerning whether or not Jesus ever said anything political. I don't remember everything I wrote but I do remember being marked down a grade because it was my opinion that Jesus had very little to say about politics.

I suppose by now I might change my mind. He probably said a lot. He probably said more than I really care to think about right now. I think if Jesus did say something about politics it is something that most people really will not want to hear. The liberal thinks Jesus said something that justifies their liberal social agenda. The conservative thinks Jesus said something that justifies their conservative social agenda. If we use Scripture to justify a political point of view then we have missed the point of reading Scripture altogether.

I think Jesus said something about the Kingdom of God and anything he said about politics, and how they are used, must be found somewhere within the matrix of God's Kingdom. I think we must also be careful because Jesus spoke to a particular and peculiar political situation. He did not, to be sure, say anything specifically about American politics, American politicians, or the American political machine. There's a lot of folks who think Jesus had something to say about America, but he didn't. Not specifically anyhow. But if he did say something in general, I think he warned his followers that we ought to tread lightly and not be found holding hands with those in power.

Jesus had lots of things to say about the Kingdom of God though.

So I got to thinking tonight and went on a mini-facebook rant, posting mini-screed after mini-screed to my wall. (Mostly I do things like this to aggravate people, but tonight I was kind of being serious because I'm kind of getting sick of the attitudes of many of my conservative Christian friends. Jesus did say something to them, something about humility or being humble or being last or something.) The point here, then, is to post a few of those mini-screeds.

I think if Christians really, really, really want to see the world changed for the better, kind of a redeeming the time sort of thing, then it would be better if we aligned ourselves with Love instead of a particular political party.

[Comment: Jesus gave us one command: Love. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love God. Love one another. That's pretty much it in a nutshell. What bothers me is that more people seem to get this who aren't christians than who are. I think that should bother people; a lot.]

I think if Christians really, really, really aligned themselves with Jesus, then we would have the same opinion of both sides of the political aisle because in truth, neither conservatives nor liberals have in mind the things of Jesus. I'll go a step further and suggest that they don't have your best interests in mind either. Politics is about one thing and one thing only: power. And the Gospel of Jesus is the power we already possess and the only power we need.

[Comment: In my opinion, way, way, way too many Christians think that our salvation comes from electing socially and fiscally conservative politicians. I disagree. I happen to be a socially and fiscally conservative Jesus follower, but that is not where our hope is found. We are not a people of power and we do not need those in power for protection and/or salvation. We belong to Jesus. He is our King. He is our love. He is our God who came to bring us back to Him. David Crowder wrote those last three lines. All I'm saying is that dialogue is fine. Opinion is fine. Belief is fine. But don't for a minute think that dialogue, opinion, and belief in or with a political party is going to keep you safe. It's dog eat dog in politics and Christians are very tiny dogs.]

Funny thing is that I often find it is those who are politically liberal or religiously agnostic who tolerate my ideas more than my conservative friends.

[Comment: I don't even care anymore. I don't even try. I like a good debate, but I have long since given up the idea that I will lead anyone to Jesus just because I have more arguments against evolution than they have for it. I figure if God wanted it to be so clear, he could have made it clearer himself. These political and scientific arguments are great fun, but really amount to nothing in the grand scheme of things. Let's talk about things that really matter–like life, and love, and happiness (that's from Audio Adrenaline.) Down at the bottom of a person, I want to know they are into Jesus. They can sort out their political and scientific angst in their own time and with God. None of this means we have to agree with one another. Jesus didn't say: A new command I give you: Agree with one another. No. No. No. Jesus said, verbally and demonstratively, Love. That's all. Just Love. ]

The Resurrection of Jesus is God's demonstration of Power and if Christians think we need something more or other then we have not truly understood the Gospel of Jesus yet. The greatest among you will be the least. The first shall be last.

[Comment: At the heart of the matter is that we now live in a church that reflects the US constitution and not the Bible. I'm sorry to say it. The church is stagnant–and mega churches prove nothing otherwise. I know from first hand experience how churches treat people–and they do so because of power. Churches like power just as much as the politicians with whom they align themselves. And our daily commentary on world events is not Jesus or Scripture, but talk radio hosts whose use of Scripture is offensive and appalling. What's worse is that Christians buy into it: lock, stock, and barrel. We think because it's conservative, it's right. We think because it's liberal, it's wrong. Seriously, who cares? Let's talk about something like fixing the world because we love Jesus or because he loves us. Let's talk about what real power is and where real power comes from. Let's talk about love. Let's talk about something like how we as Christians can be Jesus to the thousands of people who are illegally entering this country each day. What can we do to alleviate some or all of their burden? Let's talk about how that Jesus Resurrection Power can make this earth shake.]

So you see I am a little out there tonight. It's not about being contrary. It's about thinking through what the Bible really, really, really says and means. It's about being a Jesus follower first and an American second. America is great. I have no desire to live anywhere else, well, maybe Paris for a year or so, but other than Paris, Venice, and Berlin, I'm all about America the beautiful.

But I'm more about Jesus.

Christians need to give serious thought to where their loyalties lie and to whom they belong. Faith is about trusting that God knows better what's going on than we do and that that's OK. We don't have to be in the know about everything. We don't have to be on the supposed right side of everything. Key to our discipleship is God's grace: no one will be saved because they dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. We are saved only by grace. No one will be saved because they had the right political opinion or because they hobnobbed with all the right political power mongers. Grace. That's all.

In other words, I don't think Jesus gives a rip what your politics are. I do think he pays attention to your motivations when it comes to politics though–that is, where your faith is, how you use politics, etc. He knows your heart. That's what he is concerned with each moment of each day. Your heart. Many of us would do well to be liberated from the notion that our political persuasion will somehow persuade Jesus.

The Daily Office readings for today, June 30, 2014 are as follows. I draw from the Book of Common Prayer, Year 2, Proper 8:

Psalm 106:1-18 (I just read the entire Psalm)

Numbers 22:1-21

Romans 6:12-23

Matthew 21:12-22

These were some wonderful readings and I'll briefly share just a few thoughts on them in order to get your mind moving in a Godward direction today. There is nothing necessarily scholarly about these reflections. These are mostly thoughts that come to mind while I read. The exercise of the mind upon Scripture and the meditation–the binding of the Word upon my heart–is the objective.

First, the Psalm: What I noticed in the Psalm is the story of Israel told from a single person within that story. Verse 4 was key for me: "remember me, Lord, when you show favor to your people." I think sometimes it is very easy to get lost in the shuffle and feel like God has somehow forgotten us. I have felt much the same way myself at times during the past 5 years. And so we cry out and talk louder hoping that maybe it's just that God hasn't heard us. As the Psalmist moves on, however, we start to see a pattern develop. So note verses 7, 13, and 21: 'they forgot.' God did this, and that, and this and that…and he rescued them. But they forgot. Periodically folks would stand in the gap in order to stay God's wrath (Moses v. 23 and Phinehas v. 30), but the people continued to push the boundaries of their wickedness and pursue sinful ways of those around them. Then near the end I noticed that God did something remarkable, something unthinkable: He heard their and remembered his covenant (45). So even when, as it turns out, it is actually we who are the ones doing the forgetting we can safely work on the premise that God does not forget. He remembers. It's kind of like that brigand hanging on the cross with Jesus who said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). I think that criminal was praying this Psalm. Lord, I know I am a sinner, but please remember me. And he did (Luke 23:43).

Second, Numbers 22. I will freely admit that this is one of those stories in the Bible that makes little sense to me. I have read it many, many times and I still struggle to understand why God got angry with Balaam even after he told Balaam it was OK to go as long as he only said what the Lord told him to say. It seems that perhaps what we are seeing is that Balaam's 'real intentions…were known to the Lord' (Allen, 889). So perhaps that's what we are dealing with here: intentions. Balaam was a strange character was was motivated by money, animated by greed. This is a good story, if Allen is right, which reminds us to stop and analyze our own intentions and think not that we can hide them from God. He knows the heart and we would be wise to remember that. (Pay close attention to verses 20-22.)

Third, Romans 6:12-23: Psalm 106 was a psalm dealing with sin. It seems that whoever wrote it was embroiled in some sort of sin and was concerned that perhaps this sin was egregious enough to cause God to forget him. So he rattles off the entire history of sinful Israel and points out at the end that even then God was not forgetful–He still remembered his covenant. So, God will you forget me too or in my sin will your grace prevail and will you remember me? So here in Romans 6 we see another thought about sin: What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? And here is what I think is the point: no, we shall not. Why? Because grace is not a license to do whatever we want. Grace according to Paul is a catalyst for persistence in righteousness. We have been set free from sin so why should be persist in wrong, in unrighteousness? We died to sin, why would be want to resurrect into a sinful life all over again? We have been raised up to life in Jesus. Be done with sin. Struggle against it. Wage war against it. Fight against it with all the power grace affords you. Remember Jesus Christ crucified who is your life. Remember you raised to walk in the newness of life not in the oldness of death.

Fourth, Matthew 21:12-22: I will focus rather narrowly on verses 12-15, and perhaps even more narrowly than that by looking at verse 14. It might be helpful to remember the story of David who conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital city (2 Samuel 5:6-10; 1 Chronicles 11:4-6). It may do well to remember that the owners of the city, at that time, told David the 'blind and the lame' had been set as a guard against him and that even they could ward off him and his army. It may be helpful to remember that David banned the blind and the lame from entering the courts. It may do well to remember that Jesus is the Davidic king. Now here is Jesus first entering Jerusalem (21:10) and second the Temple (21:12). And so look what happens: "The blind and the lame came to him at the temple and he healed them." But others, chief priests and teachers of the law, were indignant. How could they not be? Here was this Jesus welcoming those who were forbidden to be in the temple right into the temple. And not only was Jesus welcoming them into the temple, he was healing them which mean things like talking to and touching and pronouncing God's blessing. Now here is the King, Jesus, entering the courts of the temple and welcoming those that David had banned.

So it kind of makes me think about who we welcome and who we do not. Jesus welcomes anyone. Who do we welcome? What about your church? Do you welcome the blind? The lame? Those with Autism Spectrum Disorders? Those with AIDS? Those who are 'sinners'? Those who are alcoholics? Those whom the rest of the world rejects? Jesus is the King! The King welcomes all. Shouldn't his subjects be as gracious as he is? Well, think about yourself. "Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him" (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Think about it. And think about what so many churches are missing out on because churches are more interested in who can bring in the most dollars or the most influence–ask why people plant more new churches in posh suburbs instead of in poverty stricken urban centers. Just think about it. Then think about the folks King Jesus welcomed. Think about it.

These are my thoughts today. They are unfinished and incomplete. They are random. Nevertheless I pray they give you strength today in Jesus.

Plainfaith-3dcover-transparentTitle: Plain Faith

Author(s): Irene & Ora Jay Eash with Tricia Goyer

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 208

Cripple Creek Horse Ranch

Tricia Goyer

[Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of Plain Faith by Zondervan in exchange for my faith and unbiased review. I hope that helps clear up any confusion.]

I'm going to go out on a limb and break my book review tradition by stating upfront how I feel about this book: I loved it!! This is a book that I will definitely read again and will share with others too. In fact, I cannot wait for my wife to read it and my landlord.

I live in a rural community in the southernish part of Ohio. We are surrounded on all sides by Amish folks and their families. In fact, two out of my three years teaching I have had a young Amish girl as a student. The community where we live is largely populated by Mennonites and there is a fairly large Mennonite congregation about 500 yards from our rented house. Living in this community has given us a new perspective on simplicity and quietude. After reading this book, maybe some of my opinions will change.

There is a verse in the Bible that reads thus: "As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields see for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11). I intend someday that this verse will be inscribed on my headstone because it is the very foundation upon which I constructed my ministry when I used to be a preacher. The problem I believe we have in our world today is that most preachers simply do not believe it. So concerned are they with growth, so concerned are they with ideas, so concerned are they with themselves they fail to have the simplest of faith in the unadulterated, unfiltered word of God. Does that sound too simple? Does it make no sense that if a preacher stood up on Sunday morning and simply read from Scripture that the congregation would go home filled and satisfied? Is that too naive?

"Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near" (Revelation 1:3). It seems to me that the Scripture is powerful to effect such results that we can scarcely imagine. Yet we think we have to be so innovative and imaginative in order to 'get results'–I'm not sure yet what the word 'results' means just yet–but that's what I constantly see from leadership gurus: get results! results matter!

Well this is all so much of a rant to say that this book proves exactly the opposite is true. It tells the story of a man and a woman, Amish, who were thrust into a wilderness none of us would every wish upon anyone: the death of two of their children. This event in their lives began to reveal the emptiness of their Amish way of life, their Amish way of Christianity, and their Amish way of thinking about the God they claimed to worship. In other words, it thrust them into a wilderness not of their own making and the Enemy, taking every advantage to keep them enveloped in pain and sorrow, kept pressing the issue of their faith. But the enemy is shortsighted and did not foresee what his pressure and chaos would give birth to in their lives.

What may seem at first glance as arbitrary, as pointless, as utterly devoid of anything remotely resembling fairness ended up being the very thing that opened their hearts to a greater and more fuller expression of faith and trust in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. And to think that all of this, happened simply because at some point during their journey they opened up a Bible and started reading for themselves what it said: "As God's Word grew clearer, we found more freedom" (105). They go on:

Even as our eyes were opened, change came slowly over time. Our Amish traditions were deeply ingrained, including the belief that it was by our works that we are saved. But as we read, we saw a little spark of grace. The Word of God came alive, almost as if God was tapping us on the shoulder and saying, 'Take a look at this.' (104)

Isn't that just like God though? They tell the story about getting in trouble for reading the Bible on their own. "Bible reading was for preachers," they were told, and "to read too much was to make one 'wise in their own eyes'" (99). And prayer was "taking pride in your own words" (99). They conclude by writing, "Yet that taste of reading God's Word wasn't something we could shake" (99). Wow. I mean it is amazing that as the book went along they kept seeking and hoping and eventually, naturally, they became who they became. There didn't seem to be anything acting on them save for the Word of God and God's Holy Spirit.

For me this book is far less about their conversion from an Amish way of life–which brought them great struggles as a family–or the tragedy that in its own way served as a catalyst for their exodus and far more about how the Word of God continued to provoke them, prod them, and pursue them down every alley, every struggle, and every step. I was in awe at their development and growth in Scripture and how they continued pleading for their family to see the grace that God was leading them in and to.

This is a remarkable book. I love the alternating style of hearing from both Irene and Ora Jay. I enjoyed reading the letters they sent to family members and the circle group (for greiving families). I enjoyed very much learning about the Amish culture. The main point for me though was simply reading about how the Word of God did exactly what it was sent forth to do: it went back to the Lord with results.

The reader will enjoy this book too. It is a quick read, but not shallow. This is a book to be shared with people who are going through their own struggles with faith. This is a book to be shared with someone who is struggling with the legalism of a church. This is a book for someone who needs encouragement to simply and daily read the Bible. It is packed with raw emotion that is not easily shaken off. In other words, it's a difficult book to put down or to forget. Read this book and marvel at God's mysterious ways, and his amazing Grace.

5/5 stars

Grace. "It's a name for a girl" (U2). Grace falls all over us and colors us clean. Grace marks as children of the living God. Grace prevails upon us when we have no clue who we are, what we are doing, or where we are going. Grace guides, teaches, sustains, and reveals to us the mystery of God. All we need to know is found in grace–charis.

And why not? While all the other gods of this world demand from us, Jesus gives to us. Grace enlivens the heart and enlightens the eyes. Grace creates space inside of the void of our selfish and survivalist existence and then fills the vacuum. Then slowly it begins to expand like a universe and what started as a mere pinpoint of light eventually has expanded into a galaxy full of light and life within us. We are consumed. We are lost and found again in grace. We are destroyed and made by Grace.

Grace is our peace. Grace is a thought we can never lose, yet we can never track it down. We can scarcely pin down and yet it never lets us go. Never let me go. Never let us go. Let your grace conquer the abyss of wickedness that swims and swirls in our hearts and minds. Dear Father replace our inclination to evil with a bent towards your mercy and love and forgiveness.

Grace like rain. Grace like a waterfall. Grace like an ocean. These are all ways various artists have spoken or sung about grace. It's always about drowning, being overwhelmed by a fluid density that we cannot stand up under: we are lost, we are drown, we are suffocated, we are consumed and of us there is nothing left when grace is finished. Can we overstate the case for grace? Can we condense grace to a single point? Can we contain grace or keep it from expanding in our lives until it replaces all of us we hate and even bleeds into the lives of others? I think not.

If grace once infects us, we can neither contain nor control its growth. It grows and spreads with a rapidity we cannot imagine or believe. We cannot stand before the flood, the rushing tidal wave of forgiveness, mercy and love. Once we see it, it's too late. Grace utterly wrecks and makes us less useful to the world of self-interests and more useful to the ministry of Jesus.

And we cannot stand before God any longer without fear and trembling once grace has taken over our lives. So with reckless abandon we hurl ourselves and are ourselves hurled into a broken world where the Father invites us to trust and believe and hope despite all that speaks against such things. We are asked to live as though his grace is all we will ever need–it is sufficient–and that it will somehow sustain us now and forever come hell or high water.

We need grace just to live in grace.

I'm spending the month of May reading through the entire New Testament and I am now finished with the book of Acts (actually finished a couple of days ago). When I was reading it I came to chapters 13-16 where I saw something I had either not noticed or not paid attention to in past readings: grace. See it with me: 13:43, Paul and Barnabas urged the church to 'continue in the grace of God'; 14:3, Paul and Barnabas 'spoke boldly for the Lord who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders'; 14:26, we learn Paul and Barnabas went back to Antioch where they had been 'committed to grace of God'; 15:11, 'We believe it is through the grace of the Lord Jesus that we are saved…'; 15:40, Paul and Silas were 'commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.'

I like that they are not ordained into 'ministry' but to grace. They are not committed to missions but to grace. They are not commended to good works but to grace. They are not preaching growth, but grace. Their message is not of self-improvement, but grace. They are not to continue in spiritual disciplines, but in grace. Maybe one of the reasons we see our message so often confirmed by mere growth instead of by signs and wonders is because we preach a message other than grace? (14:3). This is a serious church problem: we preach more for results than we do for God to come among us and shred us with his power. I have little use for results, and we live in a results oriented church culture. And often we use the book of Acts to prove it when we point to times when God added 3000 to their number, or the number grew to 5000, and things like that.

What we fail to remember is that God was moving among them and empowering them. I think it's because they preached grace not because they were looking for results. There was no strategy for growth, no delineation of demographics, no plan for prosperity–it was just the clear, intentional, and deliberate preaching of the Gospel of God's grace to people who were broken and beaten down by life and by a religion that afforded no room for error or reconciliation. I think we do much the same in today's church. Our message is not one of 'comfort, comfort for my people', it's one of follow all the rules and you get to go to heaven.

I swear half the time people in churches do not even know what they are getting saved from or for so consumed are they with the mere idea of some vague notion of heaven. But grace–grace is always a fresh message, always a word of power, and always a welcome sermon to a people broken and beaten down in this world by sin, poverty, suffering, and hurt. Grace is a balm for our pain and how can we preach anything less in this world?

Every now and then I get inspired to walk. Walking is fun when the walk is long and slow and perhaps accompanied by some music. Other times there are birds to listen to or streams to walk through. One time I was walking down a long country road near my house and some cows, thankfully on the other side of a fence, were eyeing me up and making some rather aggressive cow sounds as they sauntered in my direction. On the way back past the cows I made sure I was in a slow jog–on the other side of the road.

I figure I started walking around the age of one. If I'm accurate, then I have been standing and walking for about 42 and a half years. That's a long time to be walking and I can recall more than one occasion when my feet or ankles or legs in general betrayed me and I fell flat on my face or my behind. Falling is a lot less graceful than walking, but walking requires a lot less grace than falling. We can walk all day and find ourselves oblivious to our needs. Frankly, maybe, we are only aware of our deep need for grace when we fall. That said, we have to fall in order to see the need which means that we necessarily have to forget, for a mere moment, how to walk.

I've been walking for 42.5 years, how can I possibly forget how to walk? Yet we do.

Walking is a beautiful thing. I like watching animals walk because–I don't know if you have ever noticed–animals rarely fall. The are about as steady as it comes–maybe because they walk on four legs–and they often walk in places where human beings can scarcely imagine. Maybe humans are inclined to such disaster precisely because we are in need of so much grace. Maybe we should feel badly for people who are rock-steady on their feet, who never fall, who never need grace.

Maybe the proclivity to fall is God's or evolution's built-in measure to constantly, or at least occasionally, remind us that we need help, that we need grace.

I had a conversation the other day with a very important person in my life. I was concerned about walking. My point to this person went something like this: 'What does it say about me and my work if I ask for help?' The response was pure genius and I suspected that the Lord had opened this person's mouth and spoke directly to my heart. It went like this: 'What does it say about you if you do not [ask for help]?'

Last night I learned a very important lesson. I learned that it is OK to need help walking. Better, I learned that didn't even know I had fallen. I learned that even something that comes to us so naturally, so fluently, so beautifully can, sometimes, require just a little extra help. 

Related articles

Being Dad: Introduction
Ten Thousand Places

DDD

Author: Joshua Harris

Title: Dug Down Deep

Pages: 232; +study guide & endnotes

(study guide written by Thomas Womack)

Publisher: Multnomah Books

Date: 2010, 2011

 I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for my review by Waterbrook/Multnomah Publishing

"A religious person is trying to put God in their debt through hard work…A Christian knows they are in debt to God; it's an absolute miracle…"–Tim KellerBeholding the Love of God sermon.

When I read any book written by a Christian the very first thing I pay attention to, regardless of who wrote it or what the subject matter is, is how long it takes for grace to make an appearance. I literally count how many pages it takes for the author to use the word, talk about it, expound upon it, and associate it with the theological point of view from which he/she is writing. In this way, I learn pretty much all I need to know about the author, the book, and the subject matter–especially if said book is a book of theology as Dug Down Deep in fact is. 

In the case of Dug Down Deep it took 12 introductory pages (introduction, TOC, etc) and 25 pages for grace to make an appearance and then only because someone else 'talked about grace, sin…' I didn't really get to bite into grace until page 27 when Mr Harris states, "The deeper I delved into Christian doctrine, the more I saw that the good news of salvation by grace alone in Jesus, who died for sin–the Gospel–was the main message of the whole Bible" (27). Sad to say that it takes a while for grace to get back into the book with any substance. I think for me it was about page 72 and then again around page 124 where we get a less than compelling definition of grace from another author. To be sure, he finishes strong, but by then I had wondered if it was too late. 

I sensed in this book that Harris was having trouble letting grace outweigh doctrinal orthodoxy–as if doctrinal orthodoxy is our salvation. I do get it: doctrine matters, but it is in no way as vital as God's grace: "The message of Christian orthodoxy isn't that I'm right and someone else is wrong. It's that I am wrong and yet God is filled with grace" (231). If that's true, why did we need this book? Because at the end of the day, it's all about grace since not one single human who has ever lived will get it 100% right. So again I ask: whose orthodoxy matters?

None of this is to say that I think Joshua Harris is preaching a gospel of works salvation. I don't think he is, but there are times when he treads the waters a little too carelessly. For example, he writes, "Being a Christian means being a person who labors to establish his beliefs, his dreams, his choices, his very view of the world on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has accomplished–a Christian who cares about truth, who cares about sound doctrine" (19). It is all to easy to point to the apostle Paul's thought that we should 'work out our faith with fear and trembling' (Philippians 2:12-13) to justify such sentiments, but I'm not buying it at all. He spend more time talking about what we do in the first 3 chapters than he does talking about what God does. 

It may be implied, but it seems to me that the weak might miss it. I'm glad that Harris learned theological words like propitiation, sovereignty, and justification (23). But what about grace? What I wanted, what I kept hoping for, was more of Harris exorting us to seek Jesus instead of theological propositions: "Pursuing orthodoxy and sound doctrine has to begin with a heart drawing close to Jesus–not to a theological system, denomination, or book" (30). Here I agree 100%! Sadly this is not always how the book came together for me. I wanted an explosion of grace to flood the pages, but aside from a few spring showers, I was left dry. I wanted a deluge of theological propositions about God's grace to fill every page, but most of the time it was merely a Wadi.

In the first chapter, My Rumspringa, he writes, "Theology matters, but if we get it wrong, then our whole life will be wrong" (11). He then spends a lot time time (about 220 pages of time) telling his readers that "theology, doctrine, and orthodoxy matter because God is real, and he has acted in our world, and his actions have meaning today and for all eternity" (15). And I just do not know if this is true. Can I be wrong at one point of theology and get my whole life upside down? I think Harris is wrong about tongue speaking; he thinks I'm wrong. Who is to say who is holding the orthodox position? Does it matter? 

There is a nagging thought tthat kept creeping up on the pages while I read: Whose theology? 

I have no problem accepting that orthodoxy matters. I have no problem accepting that 'right theology' matters. I have very little problem with most of the ideas Harris expounds upon in this book–that is, they are basic enough theological ideas that, with the exception of a few minor points here and there, most Christians will agree with him. But spare me the idea that Biblical Theology matters if you are going to begin by reciting one of the creeds (14). Creeds are neither theology nor orthodoxy. 

There is, on the other hand, a lot to like about this book. It is, in fact, easy to read and filled with happy little anecdotes. Personally, I disliked chapter 7 (How Jesus Saved Gregg Eugene Harris) and I thought chapter 9 (I Believe in the Holy Spirit) was a bit condescending, but for the most part Harris is self-effacing and humorous (maybe more than I think) and takes a stab at himself ever so often for his blunders and failures. It was interesting to follow his early paths where he 'learned to dig' and see what he came up with out of the dirt. Yet he has led a life of theological and pastoral privilege and sometimes I think his lack of experience outside the pastoral walls clouds his view of what in the dirt theology really is. 

Second, even though there are times when I disagree with Harris profoundly (I'd like to see one passage of Scripture that tells us baptism is merely the entry point into the church, 204), I do believe he is grounded in Scipture and has a high view of it. He quotes it a lot and at times takes a page or two to expound it. I wish his theology sprung more from the Bible than the collected works of Grudem, Calvin, Stott, and Mahaney–but isn't that just the point? When I ask "Whose Theology?" I am directly pointing here to this point: even Harris is the product of a mixture of theological propositions and ideas–all of whom disagree with one another at some point. 

So when I ask the question "Whose theology?" I am kind of asking "What is orthodoxy?" This leads into my third positive point: The last chapter is the best. "I am wrong, but through faith in Jesus, I can be made right before a holy God" (231). Because of Jesus. Because of Grace. 

I rate this book 3/5 stars. It will be helpful for new Christians, but I think it will leave a more mature audience wanting. 

BloggingForBooks-Animated-300x250

Companion Blog

I have a companion blog you can access here: Ten Thousand Places

Thanks for visiting. 

Some Thoughts

Maybe a large part of the problem with christians in general is that when we approach the bible, what we call ‘the word of God’ or the ‘scripture’ (and rightfully so), we do so with the idea that it is a prescription. That is, we have a problem so let’s head to the Physicians Desk Reference and find the cure or something silly like that. Maybe we do not take enough time to consider genre.

That the Bible is made up of different genres was eye-opening for me the first time I heard a professor explain it. Well, of course, I knew there were letters and apocalypses and gospels and suchlike, but even though I knew that, my interpretive skills were not at a level where it mattered. All I was reading was the Bible. I was not reading a ‘letter from Paul to the Colossians’ or a ‘gospel written to the Gentiles in Rome.’ Genre, and thus context, mattered little and I suspect for many christians this holds true.

Quote

The standard practice of preachers linking God’s work so closely to church programs and priorities had a devastating effect on Christians who gave up on the church. For them, leaving the church meant leaving Jesus behind in the church. God was so closely linked to the building that it seemed he was the property of the congregation. The church acted as if it had God on salary, with him keeping regular office hours and even being on called whenever he might be needed.

“The claim on God and his activities, ironically, helps explain the empty pews in most of our churches.” (Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity, 16)

Today’s readings are from Numbers 22:1-21, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 21:12-22, and Psalm 106:1-18.

Numbers 22:1-21

Moab needed an ally and their king, Balak son of Zippor, evidently thought that words mattered. Thus he summon Balaam.

This is a curious story. It echoes thoughts from Genesis 12 where God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who curse you and I will curse those who curse you” (Genesis 12:3). Balaam was setting himself up for something terrible as was Balak. Balak says to Balaam, through his emissaries, “For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” This is terribly problematic because it must be somehow true.

So we will have a conflict here where God, who promised to bless and curse on behalf of Abraham, will be up against a man who also blesses and curses—in this case, on behalf of Balak to Moabite. Strange this conflict that must ensue. God spares Balaam the trouble, “You must not put a curse on these people because they are blessed.” (22:12) It kind of makes me wonder how there can be such a conflict.

Clearly Balaam was bargaining for more cash. Greed is a powerful ally (I’m fairly certain I heard this from a Jedi Knight.) And if it is greed versus God…well, clearly in this case Greed wins hands down.

Romans 6:12-23

NT Wright on Romans 6:

All this helps us, too, to understand the exhortation in chapter 6 to ‘reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (6.11). This is calling for an act, not of guesswork, nor of fantasy or speculative imagination, but of mental deduction: you are in the Messiah; the Messiah has died and been raised; therefore, you have died and been raised; therefore sin has no right to hold sway over you. That mental framework, and that alone, is the basis for the appeal which follows instantly: ‘So don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its desires’ (6.12). All of this—and much more, actually, but at least all of this—stands now behind Paul’s deceptively brief instruction at the start of chapter 12: don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (After You Believe, 154-155)

To use a quaint christian metaphor: there can only be one king reigning in my body and it must not be sin. Yet all of this is couched in grace language: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (6:14) I am not governed by sin, law, or anything else that engages in a coup; I belong to Christ.

Frankly, I think that all too often I simply forget that and get caught up in the moment. Not one single part of me belongs to sin and therefore I should not feel compelled to offer one single part of myself to sin—as if I have an obligation to sin.

We learned a ‘pattern of teaching’ and we are to obey from the heart. We have come to obey it. It takes practice to be obedient, it takes time. We are not masters over night. And we do not gain so much from indulgence as we might be led to believe. Freedom consists not in the offering of ourselves to sin, but in the bondage of Christ.

Matthew 21:12-22

The so-called ‘temple incident’ is one that Christians often use to justify their ‘righteous indignation.’ But if we were truthful about this I would say that it has nothing to do with us at all. Frankly Jesus would probably come in to many of our own temples and turn over many of our tables too, and whip us, and drive us out, and remind us what the Scripture says—and how we have made a mockery of Scripture by doing the things we do.

What Jesus did—and, let’s be honest, this is somewhat embarrassing—is strange. I mean, he had been alive for at least thirty some years and had seen this many times over during those thirty years. Why now did it suddenly offend him? Why now did he get bent out of shape about what was going on in the temple? Did it really take him that long to get angry about it? Had he not seen it a thousand times before?

And if that were not enough, after he turns over all the money-changing tables and drives everyone out, he sets up his own shop: the blind and the lame came to him at the temple. The implication is clear: the temple is a place of healing and restoration and some had taken over the temple space for their own objectives. How can the church be a place of healing and restoration when the church has been ransacked by those whose only objective is to secure their money?

There is a lot going on in the temple that day: Jesus driving out the capitalists, Jesus preaching a sermon, Jesus healing people, and children shouting in the temple. I love that: children were shouting in the temple and Jesus didn’t rebuke them but justified them. It was the curmudgeons who did the rebuking.

This scene must have appeared strange to all who saw it and heard it and, in some way, participated in it.

Concerning verses 18-22 I have scratched in the margin of my Bible: the appearance of fruitfulness is not the same as fruitfulness.

Psalm 106

Praise the LORD. 
       Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
       his love endures forever.

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
       or fully declare his praise?

Blessed are they who maintain justice,
       who constantly do what is right.

A little ways down in this Psalm it says this, “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (21-22).

Forgetting is not easy yet sometimes it is easier to forget God than it is to forget those who have wronged us—or at least the wrongs they did to us. I have a suspicion that this is a large part of what is wrong with the world today.

Maybe, too, we have to practice remembering. Maybe we need to daily remember all that God has done, his faithfulness. Then in lean times when he seems strangely absent we will not be so quick to forget and lapse into the ways of Egypt he redeemed us from. Maybe I should start today making a list of all his ways of faithfulness, start remembering all his mighty deeds.

Maybe if we thought more of God, remembered more of his deeds, we would think less and remember less of all that humans manage to accomplish—whether evil or good.

The God of Our Expectations

1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”

5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.” 10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

There is something wrong with this story and it’s not what you think. Well, maybe it is; I don’t know what you are thinking. From where I sit the problem appears to be Jonah, though, again, perhaps not how we think. In an ironic twist, the only person in the story of Jonah to remain unconverted was Jonah. I believe that this story is told from a point of view that means for us to see that Jonah was the real target of God’s advances. Everywhere Jonah goes in the story, someone gets religion. It doesn’t matter if it is men on a ship headed for Tarshish or the 100,000 people living in Ninevah or the animals: God does weird, wild, amazing things in spite of Jonah. Yet Jonah, for all his theological profundity, remains steadfast in his anger.

But there’s a problem with the story. The problem should be obvious, but in case it is not, let me point it out to you. It’s in verse 2 and I think it is worth repeating: “He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

The problem is not this verse per se, but Jonah’s application of it. I think what it demonstrates is that Jonah had a profoundly orthodox view of God. He had dotted all the theological ‘i’s’ and crossed all the theological ‘t’s’. He had it all together and to prove it he quoted from the Torah. Jonah knew his Bible; Jonah knew his God. Look what Jonah says, “I knew this is what you would do…” and it was precisely because Jonah knew that he fled and ran and ran and fled. That is, Jonah’s theological orthodoxy is the very problem of this story. It got in the way of Jonah’s discipleship and it got in the way of Jonah’s vocation. It was precisely because Jonah knew something about God that Jonah refused to be obedient to God or care about the people God cared about.

You see, Jonah did not want God to be gracious, and compassionate, and slow to anger, and abounding in love, and relenting from calamity towards the Ninevites. Jonah wanted God to act in a way contrary to God’s revealed character, the character Jonah knew and believed. He wanted God to, well, not be God or do God things. That is, Jonah wanted God, I think this is clearly the implication, to wipe out the Ninevites because of their wickedness. Clearly, if any one deserved the wrath of God, it was the Ninevites. But Jonah knew what kind of a God he served and prophesied for and so Jonah did what any self-respecting, theologically orthodox Christian would do: He ran and refused to offer that God to the Ninevites. He would rather have been dead than to offer the God of grace to the people of Ninevah (that is why he asked to be thrown overboard; he hoped to die.)

Jonah must have figured if he ran and ran and ran then perhaps the Ninevites would get what was coming to them.

I might go so far as to make this claim: Jonah had reduced God to an idol. That’s right: An idol. You know why? Because Jonah knew God, he knew God’s character, he knew how God would act and he, Jonah, challenged God on this point. Jonah wanted God to act like Jonah wanted God to act which is contrary to what Jonah knew about God. Jonah had no desire for God to demonstrate grace to Ninevah. Ninevah deserved wrath and judgment. When we reduce God to our expectations and demand that he act in accordance with our expectations we have made him an idol. God did not act in accordance with Jonah’s wishes but in accordance with his own character: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” And that is how God acted: Perfectly orthodox.

What I’m suggesting is that God is not bound to our conceptions of theological orthodoxy even if he is bound to his own revealed character. Here, in Jonah’s short book, I think that is abundantly on display. And I suppose when God does do things that run contrary to our conceptions of theological orthodoxy or our expectations of God,  we act just like…Jonah. Theological orthodoxy, while not wrong, can be among the most dangerous weapons wielded by the church because it breeds the sort of pride and privilege we see in Jonah the man. The worst thing we christians can do is try to hold wind in a bottle, but the wind blows where the wind blows and who among us can stop the wind? And if we cannot stop the wind, what makes us think we can stop the Spirit of God?

Let’s see if this economy of grace plays itself out in the New Testament too. We already know that Jesus preferred hanging around with the sinners of the world, but he also taught about these things. Consider this parable of the workers in the field (which is a sad misnomer) in Matthew 20:

1″For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3″About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5So they went. “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7″ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 8″When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9″The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12′These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13″But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16″So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Here we see a profound example of God acting contra the expectations of people and doing something no one could explain, even though it is perfectly in keeping with his revealed character: Paying everyone equally for unequal work. Thus this isn’t a parable about workers in a field or about eleventh hour salvations as much as it is a parable about the crazy economy of God’s grace. Someone wisely pointed out to me this morning that those who expected to get more because they ‘bore the labor in the heat of the day’ are, actually, those who are bound up in a system of works righteousness. They believe they deserve more because they worked longer and harder and at the most inconvenient times of the day. They did not recognize that they were being paid according to the owner’s gracious will. At the end of the day, all the workers go away baffled at God’s grace. Grace makes no sense. Grace is the great equalizer. (It is likely, though, that those at the end of the day went away far more thankful than did those who began working at the beginning of the day and this for reasons that should be fairly obvious. The whole ‘those who have been forgiven much…’.)

This parable should turn our conceptions of God upside down because in it we see a great, profound reversal of all our expectations about God: He is not fair. Grace is not fair. We need to get used to it. This is what Jonah could not get in his head, and since the story of Jonah is left open-ended, we have no idea how he answered God. (Just like we have no idea if the older brother went in and joined the party in Luke 15.) Grace makes no sense because it is so wasteful. Grace makes no sense because…well, because it is grace. Who can understand it?

The great thing about Jonah and this parable in Matthew 20 is that they both end with questions the readers are supposed answer. In Jonah, God asks whether or not he has a right, as God, to be concerned about those whom he has created and to demonstrate grace to them as he wills. In the parable, God asks the people if they are envious because he is generous and spreads around his grace freely to all equally. (Another parable that fits well here, and also ends with a question, is Luke 15’s parable of the two lost sons.) All of these stories are pointing in one direction with these questions: Have we so bound God to a theological system that we actually prevent God from being God? Or, negatively, we cannot bind God to, or in, a theological system. Hear it well: We cannot control, bind, predict or anticipate this God and his grace.

Just about the minute we do, he tells us this parable (or the story of Jonah or the story of the two lost sons.)

Have we so demanded God act according to our expectations that we have actually reduced him to a mere idol?

Do we have a right to be angry with God when he acts outside our expectations, outside our theological constructs (no matter how orthodox), and against our will? (And doesn’t it infuriate some of us when he does?)

Are we so bound to a theological orthodoxy about God that we actually hope God sends calamity, that we get angry when he doesn’t, against those whom we deem to be the worst of the worst? What if…what if…those that we think are the worst, the ones most deserving of God’s wrath and judgment in our expectation…what if God actually does care about them more than we do and is in the process of saving them quite apart from our efforts, pride, and prejudice?

What if…what if…at the renewal of all things….what if God raised everyone up and in his grace had mercy on…everyone…without exception paid everyone the same price? I don’t know if he will; I don’t know if he won’t. I do know that if he does, which he could since he is a God who delights to act outside and contrary to our expectations, it will be christians who will complain the loudest and the longest and who will, most likely, bear a grudge against God, sit outside the party, pouting and refusing to join in an celebrate that the lost have been found, the blind have received sight, the lame dance, and the sinners forgiven, or will grumble because others have unfairly received the same as we have. Do you think we will rejoice that the lost have been found?

The God of our expectations is not necessarily the God of the Scripture or the God who saves. The God of our theological orthodoxy, is not necessarily the God who saves and reveals and redeems. The God of grace is.

Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you . . . — Luke 10:20

Oswald Chambers on discipleship:

Worldliness is not the trap that most endangers us as Christian workers; nor is it sin. The trap we fall into is extravagantly desiring spiritual success; that is, success measured by, and patterned after, the form set by this religious age in which we now live. Never seek after anything other than the approval of God, and always be willing to go “outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:13). In Luke 10:20, Jesus told the disciples not to rejoice in successful service, and yet this seems to be the one thing in which most of us do rejoice. We have a commercialized view— we count how many souls have been saved and sanctified, we thank God, and then we think everything is all right. Yet our work only begins where God’s grace has laid the foundation. Our work is not to save souls, but to disciple them. Salvation and sanctification are the work of God’s sovereign grace, and our work as His disciples is to disciple others’ lives until they are totally yielded to God. One life totally devoted to God is of more value to Him than one hundred lives which have been simply awakened by His Spirit. As workers for God, we must reproduce our own kind spiritually, and those lives will be God’s testimony to us as His workers. God brings us up to a standard of life through His grace, and we are responsible for reproducing that same standard in others.

Unless the worker lives a life that “is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), he is apt to become an irritating dictator to others, instead of an active, living disciple. Many of us are dictators, dictating our desires to individuals and to groups. But Jesus never dictates to us in that way. Whenever our Lord talked about discipleship, He always prefaced His words with an “if,” never with the forceful or dogmatic statement— “You must.” Discipleship carries with it an option.

HT: Brendt





Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.