Thursday, August 25, 2011

Radical Together

I'm back from a long summer non-break. I started reading Radical Together by David Platt before the break started and it got lost in the summer activity. I was able to finish it this week and am fulfilling an obligation since I was given a copy of this book free of charge by the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review.

It really isn't a difficult book to read. It was my misfortune to read it when the summer got busy. This is a companion to Radical by the same author. I have not read that book, yet.

The sentence that really stuck out to me in the entire book was, "individually and together, we are to selflessly serve a self-centered God." It was a powerful reminder to me to that God does expect us to put God's interests before our own as individuals and as churches. Platt focuses on the corporate in this book more than the individual (thus Radical Together). And I felt he was challenging contemporary churches to pause and reflect on their current focus. Program and building, spending/stewardship and mission really do get called into question in this book.

I did feel that throughout the book I was required to have read the first work. There were many comments referring back to it. In some cases the connection was required to understand the comment. Context was enough to carry the conversation forward but something was lost.

I would use this as a great conversation starter in my churches. It reads easy enough for the average reader but offers challenges for conversation.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Death of Osama bin Laden

Honestly, I cannot mourn nor celebrate the end of Osama bin Laden's life.

His life was marked with the suffering he caused and the chaos he brought into so many places and lives. At one time he accepted the hand of cooperation from the United States to conduct his war against infidels, committing the same acts of violence and destruction with our sanction and blessing because he was the enemy of our enemy. At that time his efforts were hailed by U.S. political leaders as inspiring and worthy of praise. But he was perpetrating the same deeds he later committed against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.

I cannot mourn for a man whose life was so centered on evil. But I don't mean evil in relation to human quality of good or evil. bin Laden was proclaimed as a hero 30 years ago by the United States when he led the Mujahideen. At that time he was fighting the good fight. But our opinion turned in the completely opposite direction when he began the jihad against the American intrusion into his world. And then he became evil in the public eye.

So the evil of his life that I denounce is that of evil against all humanity and the greater will of God in creation. Chaos, destruction, and death in mass scale are evil. They are a direct effort to undo what God has intended for this world. Order, goodness, and life are God's desire. That is the evil he committed.

But I cannot celebrate his death, either. What makes us believe that this man is any more or less human? What makes him any more or less deserving of compassion? Was it not the Roman's, who were just as capable of being the bin Laden's of their age, that Jesus said, "Forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." Don't we each have the capacity for chaos, destruction, and death in our own hearts when we take into account Jesus' words of Matthew 5:21-48?

But I will be ignored because we do not like to think that ALL sin is equal before God. We don't consider our trivial failures of keeping the will of God to be of similar weight to the atrocities of Osama bin Laden. We would rather celebrate the passing of an evil man with chants of "U.S.A." or a rousing "Yee-haw" than contemplate that we might not be that much different. We would rather debate the efficacy of the Obama administration in accomplishing the deed of ending this man's life (without ending the military effort that puts so many of our servicepersons in harms' way) than confess that we do have our own capacity for defying the will of God.

The news channels will be filled with rambling reports of how this was carried out and the outcome of these events. There will be prayers of joy and thanksgiving on Sunday morning that this man is dead. But in the end what will we take away from this? Will we see that justice is not measured in ending human life but giving our lives for others willfully?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Awakening: a fresh approach to fasting?

Awakening: A New Approach to Faith, Fasting, and Spiritual Freedom
Stovall Weems

What makes fasting easier? How can you make fasting more effective? Is it necessary?
Stovall Weems provides a pattern for bringing people into the discipline of fasting without making it a burden. He also proposes that following a fast can be effective in producing spiritual awakening. And he stresses the necessity of it if you desire a fresher, more passionate relationship with God.

Awakening has two parts. The first two thirds of the book is the foundational teaching regarding Weems’ approach to fasting. The last one thirds of the book sets out a pattern for implementing fasting into your life.

Early in the book, Weems makes a decent argument for the need of believers to re-emphasize prayer and fasting in our lives. He also makes a passing mention of the role of giving. And he is right on. Believers in the current generations of the church have left the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving to the “holier” people. These disciplines are regarded as special (excluding commuter prayer practice) and not attainable by “normal” people. I believe that Weems makes the point very well that everyone can approach these means of spiritual enrichment.

But beyond agreeing on the necessity, I struggled with how Weems supports his argument. I will say that I believe he is right on target regarding the need of fasting and the role of fasting in spiritual awakening. But I found his supporting argument filled with contradictory points.

Early on he refers to the community of faith he belonged to and spoke the legalistic, “our way is the right way”, approach they took (pg.31). He denounces this performance centric type of faith development. But at other points in the book, he makes his own pattern very performance centric. He begins to apply the same, “my way is the right way” arguments.

On page 76 Weems imagines this interaction with someone. “I can almost imagine someone asking, ‘Stovall, are you saying that in order to come into full alignment with God, I need to fast?’ ‘Yes! That’s exactly what I am saying and Jesus said it too.’” Then on page 102 he makes this statement, “You will get a breakthrough in your area of struggle after you complete the ‘Awakening 21-Day Plan and will enjoy freedom.’”

I don’t disagree with him on the necessity of fasting. I wish I were better at practicing this discipline just for this reason. But at points he makes it sound as if his way of fasting is the only way to make contact with God.

As I read, the distinction that I found him to be making was the difference between what he called Old Covenant and New Covenant fasting. He makes the statement that the purpose and experience of fasting in the Old Covenant (specifically the Old Testament) was radically different from the purpose and experience of fasting in the New Covenant (I am assuming he means the entire New Testament) (pg.64). I think he is way off base here.

First, I would argue that if you claim that the New Testament purpose and experience of fasting is radically different from the Old Testament and that the Old Testament form of fasting was inadequate for the task of having an intimate relationship with God, then the fasting which Jesus practiced, which was the Old Covenant form was inadequate. We are told very clearly that Jesus was faithful to the law. That means the purpose and experience of the law. And that means Jesus observed faithfully everything within the relationship with God regarding the law. If Jesus did not observe the law, then he did not fast, and his expectations of followers to fast would be hollow and invalid. Jesus did observe the law, he most likely observed the fasts, and his expectations for followers would be an example of a greater understanding of the law and the relationship with God through it (Matthew 5:17-20).

Second, Weems states that Old Covenant fasting was for the purpose of mourning, getting God to intervene during a crisis, convincing God to change His mind, and obtaining favor from God (pp. 66-67). And there are specific instances where fasting was implemented for these reasons. But regular fasting, limiting what was eaten or drank to sharpen spiritual awareness, was a part of the normal ritual life of God’s people.

Sabbath required eating only what could be prepared the day before. Some of the festivals were solemn rests when no work could be done, including preparing food, in order to humble themselves. That would be why the religious leaders were condemning Jesus and the disciples for plucking heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. Fasting is a humbling experience, not an exalting experience. The Old Covenant connects fasting with humility in order to realign human priorities with God’s priorities.

Most of the argument about a difference between the two forms of fasting comes down to intention. Weems makes it clear that the intention behind the fast is what makes the difference. And I agree completely. Fasting is about the condition of our lives before, during, and after. If we are approaching fasting with any other intention than humbling ourselves before God so that God can work in us, through us, and around us, then we will be disappointed and hungry. But I have to wonder what Weems means by intention.

At times it almost sounds like he refers to intentionality as “think happy thoughts” and it will be enough. On page 30 Weems says, “Right thinking leads to right feelings and the way we think right is to renew our minds in the Word of God.” He nods to the need of study of the Word of God but there is very little to expand this practice. Instead it is the influence of thinking “right” thoughts that produces “right” feelings. And this sentence is three sentences behind what I consider to be the most problematic sentence in the entire book.

“You will live more holy on accident by focusing on the goodness of God than you will by focusing on all the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots.”

You cannot live intentionally by living on accident. You cannot be holy by accident. You cannot understand the full meaning of God’s goodness without at least comprehending the necessity of shalts and shalt nots. And you cannot live out this later statement, “…if you don’t feel like obeying God then there is something wrong with your feelings.” (pg.90) Weems goes on to say that “the majority of the time we should feel like obeying God.” You cannot obey God without focusing on what God requires. Call it what you will, obedience is still focusing on what we shall do and shall not do.

I believe that Weems is another of the current crop of preachers who is trying to draw an imaginary line dividing religion and relationship, claiming the former is dead and the latter is critical. And that distinction needs to die a quick death, soon. There is no line between the two. It is an effort to eradicate a word that should, instead, be clarified. Religion is relationship. It is the relationship that God offers to us. Religion is the response to the relationship that God offers to us. There is no separation of the two. The more the two are separated, the more the orthodox faith of Christianity will be diminished and undermined to the point of an amorphous and irrelevant social organization with no life-altering power.

I was given a copy of this book free of charge in exchange for an honest review by the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Heaven Is For Real

It is making waves in the talk show circuits. It is on the best sellers list. Wal-Mart has a whole pile of the book. It is a smash hit.

Heaven Is For Real tells the story of a little boy, Colton Burpo, who undergoes a serious surgical procedure. While under the anesthetic Colton experiences the wonders of heaven, the very throne room of God. The story is told from Colton's dad's perspective. Todd Burpo is a Wesleyan minister. Colton begins to divulge little pieces of what he experienced long after the surgery. The book tells of the little pieces of Colton's experiences that he shared over the course of a couple of years.

This is a sweet book. The innocence Colton portrays makes you want to follow in his dad's footsteps, "Tell me more." It is a very quick read. I got through it in just a few hours. But I can't say that I liked the book.

I'm probably too much of a cynic. Maybe I'm ingrained in my own beliefs too much. But as I read through the story, I couldn't connect with the experience Colton had. There were just little pieces here and there that I couldn't fit into my worldview and theology. I am not going to go so far as saying it is bad theology. It is just familiar theology. And that is my sticking point.

I wish that I could lay aside the understanding I have come to. I wish that I could lay aside the years of study and discovery and let this story wash over me as a faith building experience. But I can't. There are just little points where ideological red lights go off and tiny sirens of doubt ring in my ears.

But with all of that in mind, I sincerely hope that Colton touches many people and gets them on the path to discovering God. I hope that his family shelters him from the crush of people who would love to take advantage of his experience of grace. And I hope that if you read this story, you will have a deeper blessing of God.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Love Wins - Rob Bell's book about heaven, hell, and everyone in between

Who goes to heaven? Who goes to hell? And who gets to choose?

These are the questions that Rob Bell sets out to answer. To cut to the chase, Bell believes that God chooses everyone going to heaven. He argues that God is interested in a good story. And a god who allows people to live for approximately 72 years and then potentially spend eternity in hell does not make for a good story. For Bell, God allowing everyone to spend eternity with God makes a better story.

And it does. It makes for a good story.

And I agree with Bell on a good percentage of what he says early in the book. In general I believe that traditions and opinions of contemporary believers have strayed quite a bit from early beliefs. It is also interesting what biblical gymnastics are employed to argue for beliefs about the afterlife. Bell challenges the comfy armchair pictures and opinions about heaven and hell that we most commonly run into in today's churches. He draws out the many biblical approaches to heaven and hell. He makes some really solid points that I agree with.

But the darn Arminian within me cannot agree with Rob's final arguments that everyone will be have been redeemed to the point of eternal celebration with God. I can't go there with him. I don't read scripture the same way.

The farther Bell goes with his position, the farther he gets away from discipleship and how I understand faith. Yes, I admit, my disagreement is about how I believe and how I understand scripture. It isn't that he is the great heretic of our time. It isn't that he has violated the fellowship of faith. It is that I don't agree with him.

And it is time to face the truth about our beliefs. Your beliefs are your own. They are either compatible with other people's (living or dead or long dead)or they are incompatible with other peoples's (living or dead or long dead). That, however, does not make your beliefs the rule and standard by which everyone's beliefs are to be judged. I can promise you that your beliefs are just as laughable from God's point of view as mine are.

There is a lot to be said about orthodoxy, though. And I'm sure that someone else has said a lot about it. So I will be brief. Orthodoxy, or the doxy of orthos, with a little "o" (not to be confused with Orthodoxy with a big "O" and really cool beards) is basically the idea of sticking to what is normal or traditional. It means holding to the mainline or what is enduring. There are some ideas that have endured and have been the unifying thoughts of Christian beliefs.

I know that there is a growing contingent of believers who believe that there has been a major revision in history that has excluded alternative beliefs and doctrine.

Yes, history is written by the victors. But the odd thing about the victors who have written Christian history and doctrine is that they write about their own failures and their own mistakes as well as the weaknesses of their opponents. So don't try to argue that the "heresies" of the early church were just sour grapes or ganging up on the little guy. From the beginning of teaching about the kingdom of God, there were acceptable and unacceptable beliefs. There were right and wrong beliefs. There were choices that were affirmed and choices that had to be put away.

Beliefs have to be weighed, not by personal opinion or what makes us comfortable. They need to be weighed by the measuring line of the enduring norm. The ideas that have stood throughout time are what will shape us as a people. And when something that sounds nice or draws more people in because it is easier to chew goes against the enduring norm, then we need to have enough integrity to admit that it is wrong and find our way back to the enduring norm.

Love Wins, in my opinion, crossed the line from the enduring norm and steps into a place where the church does not need to go.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The New Christians - same old story or new wine?

I am reviewing Gabe Lyons' *The Next Christians* that I received free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group in exchange for this review.

I wanted to read this book based on the title. What could the next generation of followers be like that would require this writing? I have watched the Postmodern flash and the emerging movement fade and wondered if this was the next passing claim.

The first thing that I noticed is that it is not original in the emotion behind the writing. This is a restoration ideology - "let's get back to how Jesus did it". And Lyons gives a couple of passing references to the earlier moves in church history. But he does not give a full nod to what he sees as an original shift. Church history is marked by a large number of efforts to get back to the original message of the Gospel,the marks of those efforts in the lives of followers, and the impact those followers have on the world.

The second thing that I noticed was the categories of churches that Lyons uses to divide the American (due to his focus on American believers)Christian experience. There are Separatist Christians that react to culture they don't agree with by retreating ideologically or physically. There are Cultural Christians that lose their identity in the process of trying to adapt to culture. Then there are the Restorers. These are Lyons focus for this book. What was obvious about the divisions was the direct critique of Separatist Christians throughout the book. The critique of Cultural Christians was more subtle and not as close to criticism as that of Separatists.

It is the Restorers defined in this book who stand out as the heroes of the church today. And by the time I reached the 1/3 point of the book, I was ready to disregard the rest. But as I began to work through the 6 qualities of Restorers, I began to read this differently. Lyons identifies the qualities of Restorers as Provoked, Creators, Called, Grounded, In community, and Countercultural. As I was reading those qualities I began to agree with the power of this contemporary restoration movement. And I agreed with what he was saying.

It is these qualities that make this movement a valid expression of restoring the message of Christ and God's kingdom. And it is the current reality that the modes that many believers operate in is insufficient to make significant connections with the direction that culture is moving. *The Next Christians* provides a starting block for believers and churches to begin examining their motives and actions as followers of the Gospel.

On the whole, I recommend this book. I don't agree with the generalizations of Christians experiences without substantiating the strengths that are mentioned only once. I don't feel that historical and powerful restoration movements within church history receive the credit that is due them. But this book is an important message for churches who desire to be a meaningful part of proclaiming the Kingdom's message.

There are some specific issues were raised in this book that I would like to see addressed to the church:

1.) We need to reclaim the entire proclamation of the Gospel. Lyons was a little too focused on stereotype and parody of churches. I would not disagree that simplified Gospel messages are presented often. The Gospel is not "are you going to make it to heaven" messages. The Gospel is the announcement that God created with world with purpose and ideals that reflect God's nature. Sin is a stumbling block in our individual lives but it is also a stumbling block in God's overall purpose and ideal for this world. Salvation, that is appropriated through Christ only, is not just salvation to a future perfect ideal. It is also salvation to the work of using our lives to make some of that ideal reality in our current surroundings (family, community, world). The Gospel isn't about making it to heaven, it's about capturing the idea of heaven and being inspired to shape the world we are now living in.

2.) The church needs to get past this victimized mindset. The world has changed. Perceptions of the church have changed. Accept that and do something about it. Lyons has a great mission statement for the church:

The church remains the epicenter of what is possible. It's the most uniquely positioned channel of cultural influence when it's operating on all cylinders. No other institution regularly convenes people who work within the other six channels of culture on a weekly basis. On any given Sunday in the church, leaders from all seven channels join together to pray, worship, learn, and socialize in one place. Then they are sent out, dispersed to support one another and to work within the sphere of society God has gifted and called them to in order to carry out his restoration work.
The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons, p.121.

That is the church in any generation, any location, made of up any group of people. That is who we are and what we are to be doing.

3.) The Next Christians, according to Lyons, require a grounding in what the traditional, orthodox church has called disciplines. It is odd that Lyons, who pays little homage to the influence of traditional church states that something intrinsically traditional is critical. But what is considered traditional in traditional churches is practiced with little discipline and even less passion. And Lyons chooses the classical practices that draw us closer to Christ.
Reading Scripture with a passion for the story god has unfolded in the lives of others
Observing a true, rest filled Sabbath to enrich our lives
Choosing to deny the extra indulgences that are freely available to us and fasting in the form of simplicity
Being completely present with those we interact with
Praying to put ourselves in the posture of humility and recognizing the true power player in the world

4.) Ever since I was in college, I have recognized the need of community in our lives. In college I found my first intentional community. It was a campus ministry at East Central University. In that place I found people from different backgrounds, belief systems, social position, and cultural status working together, playing together, and ministering to one another and the community together. In seminary, I found that experience once again. And ever since those two places of being a part of community, I have longed to find it again.

Being a pastor means being an outsider. We move into a house that is not ours. We take a job that was not created for us. We are a regularly interchanged part in a fixed machine. And community is not easy to find for pastors. Even in a place of welcome and friendship, community is still challenging. There are rules that prevent personal intimacy within the congregation. There are standards and expectations of the churches we serve that limit seeking community outside the congregation. So pastors have suffered isolation to many degrees. And have been denied a necessary experience in life.

But pastors are not alone. Churches have begun to take on the same traits as neighborhoods in regard to community. We don't take the time to get to know the neighbors. We have stopped inviting friends over because we are too busy, too tired, too gone. We get into each others' lives by reading their Facebook status or Tweets. Conversations happen with fingers and screens instead of eyes and facial expressions. The Body of Christ exists because we are parts of one another, not wired together.

To quote the Beatles, we need to "come together, right now". Jesus sat down with potential followers at parties. He feasted and fellowshipped quite regularly with friends and enemies. And he said that when two or more gathered together, he was present. Wouldn't a party with Jesus there, be an amazing grace-filled time? Wouldn't a meal with Jesus seated at the table be filled with the possibility of something extraordinary happening? And wouldn't the people of God, bound together by the Spirit of God, redeemed through the Son of God, be all the stronger and become more Christ-like if we came together more often, more intimately, more intentionally?

The Next Christians is not a new idea. There have been movements that re-emphasized these qualities when someone was brave enough to step out and change what is normal. And when people reacquired these qualities in their lives the church and the world have changed for the better.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Welcome back to my corner of the world

I got a really, really cool Christmas present. Probably the greatest thing since sharp thingy's to slice bread.

My beautiful and really smart wife got me a Kindle for Christmas. For those who don't spend most of their time connected to technological doo-hickeys, a Kindle is an electronic/digital book reader. You download books into the device and then read the book.

I've gone through a few books so far. Most of them have been science fiction (because who else would think up a device to store and read thousands of books).

But I just finished a book that really deserved a comment or two. Amazon offers some Kindle books for free. And as someone always looking for something for free, I download a few each week. This week I downloaded Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos.

I typically do not read Christian fiction. I wasn't even sure this one was Christian. When I scanned the description, I wasn't sure what I was getting. But very early in the book I was finding it to be entertaining and engaging. Mikalatos has a snarky style, which I am very comfortable with. Imagine Lewis Carrol reading C.S. Lewis and pushing Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters through the looking glass.

Basically this book tells the "semi-autobiographical" spiritual journey of Mikalatos to discover Jesus. Along the way he encounters a wide variety of Jesus'. From his home town to 1st century Israel and back, Matt joins Pete and Daisy as they confront the many different Jesus persona that exist today.

I admit that I'm not sure if I like the book. It didn't leave me comfortable but challenged me with my own Jesus. I think I may have to revisit this one at different places in my life.

If you are sensitive to your own flavor of faith, this book is not going to be easy. But if you don't mind a little challenge to your faith this will give you a little shove in a safe way.