Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?

Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids? How Moralism Suffocates Grace by Samuel C. Williamson

With such a provocative title, this little book by Samuel Williamson is sure to interest those who invest their lives in Sunday school and in raising children for the Lord.  The premise of the book is that until we understand the amazing grace of God in every part of the Christian life, our children will succumb to a lethal injection of moralism that will cause much ruin in their lives.  Sam writes in the beginning, “Grace means we are both unworthy of God’s love yet profoundly loved by him nevertheless, both at the same time” (v).  Some preachers tend to focus on the unworthiness of humans, thus squashing any hope of adequately seeing God’s love, whereas some miss the sin part to focus on the love aspect.  Yet, both elements are essential to the gospel message.

The problem with many Bible curriculums for kids is that they bring to bear an unbiblical basis on morals.  Be like Abraham or Paul fails to see the full picture of these men of the Bible, for they sinned also.  God pursues us in his love from the very beginning.  Sam has a wonderful way of thinking about the stories of the Bible.  He writes, “David was a murdering adulterer, and God loved him and pursued him, Abraham was an idol worshiper, and God love him and pursued him” (6).  Sam goes onto write, “Our heroes weren’t loved because they were good; they became good because they were loved” (6). 

Sam indicates in the next chapter that our kids are leaving the church because they can’t distinguish the gospel from mere morality (11).  Willpower fuels morality and thus heaps burdens on our people that they can’t possibly bear.  Mere morality deals with external behavior but not the motivations of the heart, this is why we must get to the bottom of things before we give direction in godly living, including morals.  Yet, the greatest enemies of Jesus were the moralists (29).  How do we get beyond moralism, but through an understanding of grace, our sin, and God’s sacrificial giving of his Son.  When we are motivated by grace, we see others sins as another opportunity for God to reveal his mercy, just as he did for us. 

I really appreciated this book as a way to remind me of God’s grace and as a way to remind me that I easily slip into moralism.  My only criticism is that I wish it was longer.

Thanks to Beliefs of the Heart Press and SpeakEasy for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Church

This weekend on Friday and Saturday our local Presbytery (Mid-America in the EPC) met at Central Presbyterian church for a time of worship, praise, and business on Saturday.  Overall, there was much to thankful for, including the way God is working in the midst of churches in Hannibal, Kansas City, Joplin, and right here in St. Louis.  The dedicated time of prayer where each church shared their own challenges and times of thanks was extraordinary.  Brothers and sisters in Christ met at this gathering from all over Missouri.  Times like these where people are able to laugh, encourage, become vulnerable, and pray with one another really are times of refreshing for the body of Christ. If you are interested in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, what we believe and who we are visit:  
Here are a few thoughts I had about the time this weekend:

The Mighty Work of the Lord

Rehabbing, reshaping, removing, and renaming, the Lord is at work in our midst. From the rural towns of a few thousand to the thoroughfares of our urban centers, God is breaking cycles of oppressive sins by the miry hands of his servants. Not fearing the coarse consternation by others, God's people are rising up to love, to care, to cry, and to give of their time, money, and talents to those all around them. Where is this activity taking place? All around you, including in the gospel living, gospel teaching, and gospel preaching EPC churches in our state.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Critical Realism and Objectivity

Roger Olson, theologian and author has some timely and trenchant words on objectivity, critical realism, and the world we live in.  Here are a few quotes from his blog piece:

"Unlike many of my contemporaries, whether religious or irreligious, I always assume a very real distinction between what is objectively real and true and what is merely subjectively felt and perceived. I do not claim that the line between them is clearly visible; it often is not. And the “objectively real and true” is often inaccessible to me and to everyone. I admit that there is no “view from nowhere”—a basic axiom of postmodernity. I am a perspectivalist; we all, without exception, observe and interpret reality through a “blik” or “worldview lens.” However, that does not mean there is no objective reality “out there” and that we have no access to it and cannot talk about it.

Let’s take an example from Christian theology: atonement doctrine. I don’t have a dogma about the atonement, but when I think and talk about atonement I always assume Christ’s death on the cross “fixed a problem” outside of me—alienation from God. And I always assume that alienation is more than a feeling of being alienated. A very real situation existed between God and humanity (me) that Christ’s death “fixed.” That’s called “objective atonement” in classical theology. I find that most modern/contemporary Christians, even evangelicals, tend to think of atonement as affecting my inner states, not an objective situation “in the cosmos,” so to speak, between me and God.

I am increasingly coming to the belief that there are two incommensurable modes of consciousness: subjectivism and objectivism. Both have many varieties and adaptations. One does not have to be a sheer Platonist, for example, to be an objectivist. Nor does one have to be a nihilist or sheer anti-realist to operate mostly out of a subjectivist mode of consciousness.

I often wonder about “failures to communicate” between equally bright and educated people. They often use the same words but mean entirely different things by them (as in the example above of “guilt”). The two modes of consciousness described above might be the two most basic “bliks,” perspectives on reality, separating modern/contemporary people from each other. People who come to my blog ought to know, need to know, that I operate out of an objectivist “blik.” Namely, I always assume that many words point to objective realities that exist outside of any human mind—such as truth, beauty and goodness. To be sure, as a critical realist, I deny that any human mind has direct, unmediated and perfect access to these realities. And I am not a language essentialist. But these realities are not just concepts but are “out there” (not spatially but dimensionally), independent of our minds and inner states (whether individually or collectively). And I think that attempting to “do Christian theology” without objectivism of that kind (including critical realism) makes it something else than Christian theology. Christian theology in any classical sense requires realism, objectivism, even if tempered with a degree of perspectivalism (as in critical realism)."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Dear Anxiety

Dear Anxiety,

The last time we talked you droned on and on about the beauty of black.  Like the wearing of tight fitting pants that appear to make one slimmer, this blackness is supposed to shield me from the outside world.  But isn’t it true that for all your sleek postures, you are an insidious threat to my comfort.  The way you elevate the few things that I enjoy in life and turn them into shields against the tough edges of life makes me ill.  Yet, what would I do without you to coat my insecurity with false hope?

The unknowingness of life zaps the confidence I have in relationships at times.  One husband, one father dies in a gruesome wreck, what will happen next?  Will many die upon that same road?  The shock of feeling unable to help but feeling overwhelmed at the pain is raw and acute.  Yet, what am I to do with the razor sharp anxiousness of the unknowing next?  A spiritual pill, a modicum of faith, will this do the trick and turn the page on hurt street?

Whether the hurts release into the thick air or stay just a little long as a young mother takes her child to kindergarten waiting for his safe arrival, anxiety you are here by my side.  But I guess the extraordinary thing about you, O baron of exhaustion, is that you have a way of heightening my craziness in times of insignificance but remain aloof in the nitty gritty moments of life and death.  Yes, it will be alright, God, for your little one right in my midst to not always raise her tone at the end of a question. 

At the precipice of despair, anxiety produces both an insulating and maniacal verse in my life.  I don’t wish for this on anyone, but I believe at times anxiousness helps us realize that we are not dealing with life as it is.  Maybe, just maybe, this truth points us back to hope. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Flunking Sainthood: a daily devotional for the rest of us

Flunking Sainthood: A Daily Devotional for the rest of us by Jana Riess

The same author of Flunking Sainthood, who tried 12 spiritual practices but failed at all them, comes to us with a similar and yet different book here.  This new book, Flunking Sainthood: a daily devotional for the rest of us is Jana Riess’ quirky wisdom in the midst of Scripture and another author’s wisdom.  What really makes this devotional a treat is Jana’s careful selections from the pen of other authors and her very practical action points at the end of each day.  Although you will find yourself disagreeing and agreeing with some of the selections in the book, this book will push you toward a more satisfying relationship with God and with others.

Jana points to the contentment we seek in having our house in order, free of cobwebs all the time.  After quoting from Elizabeth Andrew, Jana writes, “Is it possible for you to find God in the process in creating a welcoming place to live, rather than in some ideal finished product (Yes I read those home decorating magazines too. Darn you, Pinterest!) (70)  We strive to have our ducks in a row and our pantries lined perfectly, but we miss the point sometimes that it’s the people who make the home and not the order.  Yet, I will admit that to get the house in order helps us all with our anxious feelings. 

In looking at the Sabbath, Jana quotes from Andy Crouch who writes, “Busy, restless, Sabbath-less people are idolaters…Without remembering the sabbath, we cease to remember the Creator God who made the world and called it good; we cease to remember the one who brought us out of Egypt; we cease to remember the Eighth Day when God defeated Death” (155-156, from Playing God).  Not attempting to fill the time means breaking from media, from even spiritual practices if these cause us unrest, because the Sabbath is designed to refuel our batteries, to focus our hearts on God’s good gifts and creation. 

Overall, I think this devotional is wonderful in that it challenges us to see the world God made differently, not about rules or hoops to jump through, but infused with God’s grace.  Secondly, this book was unique in that it came with selections from a broad range of authors from church fathers, modern evangelicals, progressive thinkers, priests, and Quakers, etc.  Everyone will find some wisdom here but also a refreshing voice.

Thanks to Paraclete Press for the copy of Jana’s devotional in exchange for an honest review.  

Can I really trust the Bible?

Can I really trust the Bible?  By Barry Cooper

This little booklet on the trustworthiness of the Bible is a rich resource devoted toward helping people stand squarely on the Bible as truth.  Barry Cooper, author and speaks, gets into the heart of the issue of the Bible’s reliability by looking at its contents, what it says about God, and how the canon came about.  This little booklet turns out to be a wise work in discerning the truth of the Bible amidst scholar’s claims that the canon is riddled with errors, inconsistencies, and aberrations.

Barry gets started by giving us a picture of God’s world as revelation but seeing in this revelation not a full picture of God’s truth.  The Scriptures from the very beginning claim that they are written by God, just as he claimed also to make the world (14).  Secondly, Jesus rested on the Scriptures, he quoted them, he fulfilled them, and he also speaks to the truthfulness of the Bible’ characters (15-18).  At the end of the first chapter, Barry responds to the argument of circularity against the Bible (i.e. The Bible says that the Bible is trustworthy) with a careful response that even those who employ rationality worship at the altar of circularity.  Instead, he points that we should test the claims of the Bible and see what it claims for itself (22-23).

The most impressive chapter is chapter 4 which deals with canon, contradictions, and criticism.  Barry concludes the chapter with some key points: namely that the 66 books of the Bible bear within them an ongoing theme with one central figure, fulfilled predictions reside in them, there is eyewitness testimony of the NT, the writers faced torture and death for their truth in what they wrote, and there was remarkable agreement between the early church and which books to be included (65).  These points are outlined in a very succinct manner. 

I hope this book helps readers understand the truthfulness of the Bible and the unique way it came into existence through many writers carried along by the Holy Spirit.  The only drawback I found in the book was no further reading section for those who want to dive deeper into the subject.

Thanks to the Good Book Company and Cross Focused Reviews for the book in exchange for review.

Ordinary by Tony Merida

Ordinary: How to turn the world upside down by Tony Merida

Helping the vulnerable is not first priority for many churches, but rather saving the lost spiritually comes to the forefront.  In his new book, Ordinary, Pastor Tony Merida turns our old outdated categories of what it means to serve the disenfranchised and vulnerable on their head and promotes a strong theological and biblical rationale for doing so.  In turn, what you find in this book is a work that is wise, challenging, and faithful to the Scriptures.  Tony has seen it all, from the social gospel to an evangelical gospel that has no room for service, and yet he still has hope for the future. 

In the opening preface Tony cites Aristides who saw the early Christians as normal citizens caring for the widows, orphans, and one another in love and yet stood for the truth.  These believers were not elites or special Christians, but “Ordinary Christians who proclaim an extraordinary message, and ordinary Christians who practice compelling acts of justice and mercy” (xvii).  The church as an outpost for the kingdom has the responsibility to humbly engage those who have spat on by the culture. 
Tony began to see this vision for loving the poor when he was asked to lead a Bible study on the subject of the poor.  Going from eschewing passages concerned for the poor as someone else’s problem to repenting of this blind spot in his life, Tony began to see these questions about the poor as a ghost that was haunting him (2-3).  With the mission of Jesus and by looking at the God who believe in, Tony slowly recognize that helping the poor, sick, the orphan and the oppressed was not an extra credit duty for the believer, but part and parcel of the faith.  The banner in Imago Dei church reads:

P – Plant Churches
E – Evangelize the World
A – Aid the Poor and the Sick
C – Care for the Orphan and the Oppressed
E – Equip Leaders (4)

One of the best parts of this book was Tony’s focus on neighbor love.  He reminds his readers that by helping the oppressed the good news is given a platform.  He writes, “As you huge the AIDS patient, remind them of the glory of God that will revealed to the saints.  As you ladies care for homeless prostitutes, share how Jesus transformed ladies just like them by His redeeming love.  Love you neighbor as you love yourself – your whole self” (32).  To embrace ministries such as these, we have to get involved personally, but this does not mean that we all do same thing (Tony provides a list on page 34 that opens us up to some opportunities).  The gospel goes forth by word and deed and this is not something we have to keep arguing about.

This is a fantastic book and one that I will read again with an eye towards how should my life be different because of the Scripture’s view of the orphan, poor, and sick.

Thanks to B & H Books and Cross Focused Reviews for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.