Friday, November 26, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: THE GRACE OF GOD

I remember the lights going on twenty years ago when I read Brennan Manning's 'Ragamuffin Gospel'.  I have lived in the light of that book ever since.

Today I finished reading Andy Stanley's latest and had a few more lights go on in darkened corners.

From Genesis until today Andy shines a flashlight on the foundational truth of God's grace.  This is the kind of teaching that reminds me why I chose to follow Jesus in the first place.


This one will fit well on your Christmas list for the person who has everything and the one who has nothing.




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Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications Inc.  Available now at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.


Monday, November 22, 2010

BASHFUL

Bashful— I feel that way more often than I want to. 

Recently, I was engaged in a conversation with someone I had not seen for several months and found myself being consumed by unwelcomed feelings of bashfulness.  Shy, awkward and questioning my choice of words as we spoke.  

Private hesitations-- inner thoughts I think no-one else can hear.  Did my friend know I was squirming and unsure of myself in that moment? 

All of his kind questions focused on how things were going at the church.   There is no reason for me to be shuffle-tongued.  On a performance scale we are in a boom year at the church with an abundance of vision-charged activity.  So why am I suddenly feeling awkward to tell stories?  Why is the fearless innovator shyly sputtering for words?

Thoughts ran through my mind as we spoke.  “Don’t talk too much about yourself.  Ask him about his life.  Don’t brag.  I don’t want him to think that I am larger than life.  Why am I feeling uncomfortable?”

Childhood’s gravity still tugs at my ability to attach to others in community.  As a pastor’s kid moving from town-to-town, I attended school in 13 different buildings by the time I graduated from College.  I have lived in 15 different towns and cities.  To date, I have lived at 27 different addresses.  I learned early in life to replace people with more people, but I did not often learn to belong.  The last kid picked for the team usually has little lasting regard for teams.
 
There is a tension in us between individualism and collectivism.  God will redeem both.

We cannot follow Jesus without first letting go of social obligation and self-concept.  As we walk with God, we are given a new vision of who we are and how to relate to others.  Jesus talked about this self-denial as the first step to discipleship. 

I can be at peace with my bashfulness when I believe that God gives special honor to the weak and He has placed me in meaningful connection as a member of Christ’s body. 

Take a quantum leap with me for a moment.  In order to know ourselves, every social construct and self-awareness must be reborn in the Kingdom of God.  What is your understanding of who you are?  What is your connection to others?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

INSUFFERABLE LOSS

Matthew 5:
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

Mourning and grief will visit you.  The intensity and affect varies, but it is inescapable. 


I have known Christians whose grief was inconsolable and ended in taking their own life.  Still, Jesus described God’s heart toward mourners and grievers.  They will be comforted.  



Is it fair to say that God’s comfort and human comforting are available, but not always embraced?  I would not want to assign blame on sufferers who appear inconsolable or suffer from a mood disorder that robs them of the possibility of feeling better.  The Kingdom of God is eternal and there is a past-present-future reality to Jesus wiping the tears from our eyes.  Some tears will not dry until we are face-to-face with Jesus.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross[i] defined 5 stages of grief and loss.  When faced with great tragedy and loss people progress through:

·        -  Denial
·         - Anger
·         - Bargaining
·         - Depression
·         - Acceptance

Kubler-Ross has certainly identified common attitudes found among those who are grieving.  Certainly some will recognize themselves working through stages. 

But, critics of the Kubler-Ross model react to the linear, progressive process and do not believe everyone will experience grief the same way.  We have all known people who have been deeply hurt and not found relief after decades of suffering a particular loss.  For some people, there is no ‘getting over it’.  Instead, there are changes to the intensity and frequency of suffering. 

For the one who finds they are devastated by deep grieving and mourning, there is relief from God.  The problem for many comes when their grief seems inconsolable and insufferable.  The promise of comfort from God may seem to be just a cliché.  That in turn may lead to feelings of shame and failure for not dealing better with the pain.  How many people have you heard apologize for their tears?  I’m sorry.  I should be handling this better.”

God’s comfort is sometimes found in lonely moments where His presence is felt.  Some days, it takes the form of sympathetic human companionship.  The ancient Jewish practice of ‘sitting Shiva’ involved coming as a group alongside the mourner to comfort with your presence.  That is what Job’s comforters attempted to do.  The problem is they tried too hard to explain and assign blame for Job’s misery.  That is very discomforting and we should not try to become therapists.  Better to be quiet, loving friends who allow weepers to weep.  Good comfort gives permission and the grace to validate feelings. 

There is a grief that comes from seeing injustice.  You may be deeply affected by trauma and the horrors of the world around you.  Tragic realities can harden your heart and cause you to become cold and cynical.  Or, they can motivate a yearning for God’s Kingdom and inspire acts of comfort. 

Matthew Payne describes a situation that stirs mourning based on injustice.

In Sydney, Australia where I live, there is an infamous suburb called Kings Cross.  That suburb is the place where all the street walking prostitutes ply their trade.  In the main street of that suburb there are four places that are strip clubs and brothels combined.  The men come in and watch young strippers and when they are in a position that they can be tempted, they are asked if they want to come upstairs for sexual relations.  All of the prostitutes that work in these clubs are heroin and cocaine addicts and the club not only takes 50% of the money that they make as a prostitute in their premises, but they also sell the drugs that they use.  One third of the clients that come to these workers take a twenty minute booking and buy drugs from the prostitute to have their very first shot of heroin with a needle.  Not only are the prostitutes using many thousands of dollars worth of drugs themselves, but they are introducing people to a new drug habit.
Now mourning is in knowing all these prostitutes are slaves to their trade through their addictions. You mourn when you know the fact that the clubs that they are working for sell all the heroin and the police force in that suburb know it is going on and support it by taking bribes.  The new officers make a pretense of stopping small time drug dealers while the higher ups allow massive amounts of heroin and cocaine to be dealt by the clubs.
Mourning comes from knowing that young boys and girls from about 15 years of age arrive in Kings Cross from all around Australia and within half an hour they are taken to private clubs for prostitution.  Knowing that members of the police force, the judicial system and any other person who has good connections can hire these youngsters for sex makes me cry.  The police know that this happens also and they do nothing about it.
Mourning is knowing about something that is wrong and an injustice being done and not having the power to do anything about it.  The only place that you can get comfort for this is in the arms of Jesus.[ii]

So, how are those who mourn blessed?  When grief leads us to God’s comfort can we claim that suffering has value?  Grief rips away the fake allowing us to see the real.  God is present when we stare down the ugliness of loss and brokenness.  The Kingdom of God is being unveiled.  The fake world is being tore down and comfort awaits the disillusioned and horrified.

Being poor in spirit; we are able to see the generous mercy of God who will reconcile the world to Himself and judge the oppressors.





[i] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death And Dying, 1969

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

SPIRITUAL BANKRUPTCY

Matthew 5:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

To be 'poor in spirit' is to come to grips with a crucial, yet disturbing fact. It is the very painful recognition of my spiritual condition before God. I might have been made for a garden but I’m living in a desert!  Of my own making!"   [i]

No-one wants to go through bankruptcy.  It is considered by some to be an admission of failure – you were not smart enough or took too many risks and now you have lost your credit rating.  You can no longer hold on to the accumulation of wealth you were working on. 

Bankruptcy is actually an act of mercy.  It is a cancellation of debt and opportunity to start again to live within your means.  Once declared bankrupt, angry creditors have no hold on the debtor.  No matter how angry and forceful a creditor may be, they cannot get anything further from the one who owes them.  Bankruptcy is a protection from un-payable debt.

Is that not a picture of our sin and unrighteousness before God?  We owe a debt that we cannot ever conceivably pay.  Your declaration of spiritual bankruptcy is answered with Jesus’ forgiveness.  He pays for the debt that you owe.  The generosity of Heaven meets the deeply, personal impoverishment of who we are. 

Paul declared his personal bankruptcy when he said:

Romans 7:
22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

How are we to respond to God’s generosity?  In facing the pressures and demands of life, God gives us the opportunity to develop a generous response to others rather than being defensive and defeated.  What does poverty of spirit mean in responding to the needs of others? 

“It is stepping away from the rule of fear in one's life, fear being the great force that restrains us from acts of love.  It is becoming free of the myth that possessing many things will make me a happier person."  [ii]



[i] Jesus, Religion, and True Spirituality: A Look at Four Beatitudes by Greg Herrick, Ph.D.
[ii] Jim Forest, from The Ladder of the Beatitudes - this text was subsequently expanded into book form: "Ladder of the Beatitudes" published by Orbis

Sunday, November 14, 2010

O BLISSFUL ICELAND

If geography has any bearing on one’s level of happiness, where would you go to be happier? 

Vacationers and snowbirds[i] often head south looking for sunshine, beaches and a relaxed lifestyle.  But according to the World Database of Happiness, Iceland is the happiest place on earth.  



With all its ice, snow and darkness during winter months, it ranked highest.  Why there?

Eric Weiner, Author of ‘The Geography of Bliss, traveled to Iceland to find out.  After interviewing a number of Icelanders, Weiner discovered that their culture doesn’t stigmatize failure.  Icelanders aren’t afraid to fail — or to be imperfect — and so they’re more willing to pursue what they enjoy.  That’s one reason Iceland has more artists per capita than any other nation.  “There’s no one on the island telling them they’re not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write,” Weiner writes.
This makes them incredibly productive.  They don’t just sit around thinking they’d like to do something.  They do it.  According to the psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, who wrote the book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “It is not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel but the ones we think we have.”
So if you think you’re good at something, whether or not you are, you’ll do it. The converse is also true: if you think you aren’t good enough at something, you won’t do it.[ii]

In pursuit of idyllic circumstance people often head in the wrong direction.  They head south when they should go north.  They have affairs when their satisfaction may be found in monogamy.  They take a higher paying job and pay with their pound of flesh.  They sell the drum set to buy an RRSP.

Jesus understood more than we will ever know about human satisfaction.  He lived it and taught the ways of God’s Kingdom; a state in which citizens experience peace, joy and love. 

One of his most famous teachings took place on a mountainside.  15th century Bible scholars used a common English word to describe the list of values found in Matthew 5.  They were called ‘The Beatitudes’.  The word ‘beatitude’ means to be in a state of utmost bliss.

Jesus is describing demanding situations that give the child of God an opportunity to experience a great amount of bliss, or we might say complete happiness.  What is that will make you completely happy after going through great difficulty?  The beatitudes give us a map to living in the Kingdom.

N.T. Wright provides a context for understanding Jesus’ teaching on the mountainside.  Wright says that Jesus is saying:

“Now that I’m here, God’s new world is coming to birth; and, once you realize that, you’ll see that these are the habits of heart which anticipate that new world here and now.” These qualities—purity of heart, mercy, and so on—are not, so to speak, “things you have to do” to earn a “reward,” a “payment.” Nor are they merely the “rules of conduct” laid down for new converts to follow…They are, in themselves, the signs of life, the language of life, the life of new creation, the life of new covenant, the life which Jesus came to bring.[iii]

These Kingdom attitudes are proofs of the resurrected Christ living in us.  Let us look closely at the virtuous attitudes being formed in unhappy circumstances. 




[i] Canadians who spend their winters in Florida or Arizona
[iii] N.T. Wright, After You Believe p.106

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: YHWH

On her website Paula K. Parker wrote:

“I know many young people and adults who don’t read the Bible simply because they don’t think the language is understandable,” states co-writer, Paula K. Parker. “YHWH: The Flood, The Fish & The Giant is a contemporary adaptation of those ancient stories that bring the three major world faiths together, but rewritten for the Harry Potter Generation.”

G.P. Taylor is an Anglican vicar who has written several works of fiction and fantasy to communicate the great messages of Scripture in entertaining ways. In the tradition of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others he brings the ancient worlds to life.  

When books are co-written, I often wonder which author made what contribution.  Not having read Parker or Taylor, I read it as if written by one.  I found the writing to be consistent, compelling and true to the Bible stories being revisited.  

Poetic license can sometimes be an excuse to re-frame the message to fit an agenda.  While the Scriptures used are common to Jews, Christians and Muslims, the retelling of the great stories are decidely Christian.  I do not have a problem with that.  Two Christian authors are able to see the Living Word unbound in the ancient text.

'Walk Through The Bible' invited the authors to write this book.  In their mandate to promote the reading of Scripture, this book has done a good job of whetting appetites for the original stories.


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Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.  Available now at your favourite bookseller.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

RITUAL FOOD

Throughout history, food has been used ritually to remind us of important truths.  Wherever culture and religion occur, someone is working in the kitchen.

A cake on your birthday is an act of celebration for your life. 

Cookies and milk left out on Christmas Eve show hospitality to Santa Claus.  Is it any wonder the man in red is overweight?  

In Haitian voodoo, Mademoiselle Charlotte is ritually offered the tender meat of young chickens.  She is an intermediary for the distant god.  She is offered special foods and drinks in hope that she will take a fancy to you and present your needs to the god.

In Hinduism, there is a group known as Ayyavazhi.  They have a ritual mean known as Palvaippu, the serving of a gruel boiled in milk.  The poor and rich of all castes partake without discrimination.

Ritual foods and meals bring people together in honor of what they most value.

The Passover meal reminded Israel that God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt.  This meal of wine, bread, lamb and bitter herbs was brought new significance when Jesus ate it together with his disciples prior to his betrayal. 

Consider the unleavened bread known as matzah.  Jesus broke it and said it was His body.  There is significance to the lack of leaven in the bread. 

On the one hand, matzah symbolizes redemption and freedom, but it is also (lechem oni), "poor man's bread." Thus it serves as a reminder to be humble, and to not forget what life was like in servitude. Also, leaven symbolizes corruption and pride as leaven "puffs up". Eating the "bread of affliction" is both a lesson in humility and an act that enhances one's appreciation of freedom.[i]

We remember Jesus as the humble, poor man’s bread.  To partake of Him is to receive God’s deliverance from sin’s slavery.

Leaven was a symbol for sin.  Its presence in us causes us to be puffed up and exaggerated.  At the Last Supper there is no sin in the person of Jesus Christ.  We receive the sinless One.

But leaven is used elsewhere as a symbol of influence and affect.  "The chemical definition of ferment or yeast is "a substance in a state of putrefaction, the atoms of which are in a continual motion.”[ii]

Luke 13:
20 Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? 21 It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

The kingdom of God is good yeast that affects the substance it is merged into.  This woman is making a great amount of bread.  The small amount of yeast transforms the flour into a sizable loaf.  Every part of the bread is changed and influenced by its presence.

Permeation is inevitable once yeast is introduced. Implied is a growth that is slow, almost invisible, but this is not the point. Be sure of one thing, Jesus says: we may seem like a small movement, but eventually we will permeate the world.[iii]

Jesus, the unleavened bread was broken and distributed to the world when He died on the Cross.  The bread of Heaven was sinless, but He became the representative of sin in His sacrifice.  As the Cross of Jesus affects the world, the Kingdom of God grows; just as a little leaven affects a large lump of dough.

We remember Jesus’ purity and worldwide influence when we eat the bread together.

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