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    Friday
    Sep292017

    Talking With God :: Current Devotional Writings

    If you’d like to read a little bit about prayer, First Methodist Mansfield has been running a series of devotional writings I composed for their current sermon series. Links are below.

    Week One: What is prayer?

    Week Two: Why should I pray?

    Week Three: How do I pray?

    There are three more weeks to follow. To receive these entries to your email inbox click here and then select the subscribe button in the upper right corner. Thanks for reading.

    Tuesday
    Sep262017

    An Interview with Jen Pollock Michel, Author of Keeping Place

    Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP Books, 2017). You can visit her blog here. I interviewed her about the book, which is excellent, and she was gracious in sharing her thoughts.

    BAS: Keeping Place is a biblical and theological reflection on the meaning of home. What led you to write the book?

    JPM: I’m one of those people who can’t answer the very simple question, “Where’s home for you?” I think that’s a big reason that the topic of home has been an important one for me. Currently, our family lives in Toronto, Canada. We moved here from Chicago six years ago, so in many ways, we’re outsiders here. But even before that, I’ve had a long history of moving. As a child, we moved often for my father’s education and job. I can’t really say where I’m from, where I’ll be buried, which inspires a weird sense of dislocation, to be honest. I think it’s that dislocation, that homesickness, that give rise to a deep longing to be rooted somewhere.

    I think it’s also fair to say that this book is a natural follow-up to my first book, Teach Us to Want. If I argued in that first book that desire isn’t always this terrible, corrupt part of ourselves, that sometimes our desires have very important things to say about God, our place in his world, and the purposes for which we are made, then I work out my own deep desire for home in Keeping Place. And what I found, in Scripture, is this incredibly hopeful idea that God is a homemaker, that he’s made a home for us, that we do in fact belong somewhere, that all our sense of impermanence in this world is finally going to come to a glorious end. The gospel story is a home story!

    BAS: In your second chapter you present a history of homemaking, noting the ways domestic roles have taken shape over time based on numerous factors. You write, "According to Scripture, home is shared human work." You explain that homemaking has not always been the exclusive domain of women. You then proceed to outline biblical instructions for men within the home. I found this to be a welcome reminder with regard to my role at home. Has your work been engaged by a male readership? What has been the response?

    JPM: I have to say that I’m so incredibly encouraged by the response from male readers! My publisher and I knew that this was going to be a tricky task, trying to market a book on home to both women and men. It’s not a topic that immediately seems resonant to men, which is why that chapter you’re mentioning had to be very early in the book. I needed to draw out that important pre-Industrial revolution history to make the case for saying that home should matter to everyone, and I have heard from men that they’re appreciative of that historical context. I’m blessed by the men who have put a lot of their own support behind this book; Scott Sauls wrote the foreword, several different men endorsed it, men like you who are featuring it on their blogs and podcasts. I’m grateful. I want also to say that it continues to be difficult for women in Christian publishing to have their work taken as seriously as male authors. I think it’s telling when I hear from women that their male pastors have not one single title, written by a woman, to recommend to their congregation. It saddens me to see booklists published by popular blogs and websites and not to see a single woman author on those lists. It’s just not true that women aren’t publishing good books these days, and I would love to see men reading more widely—to include women as well as other marginalized groups.

    BAS: In chapter four you write about our modern tendency toward mobility and the importance ofplace. I find that many people feel caught between the tension of wanting to be on a journey while simultaneously longing for home. The chapter closes with a reflection on the Benedictine vow of stability. How do you see stability and place as important for spiritual formation and Christian witness?

    JPM: I’ll tell a quick story. Just this morning, I was walking to the gym, which is right in my neighborhood. I’m there three times a week, so there’s a lot of familiarity with the people there, both at the gym and at the Tim Horton’s where I camp out for the half hour before my fitness class starts. I hadn’t been to the gym all summer, and as I walked there this morning, I recognized the same woman who frequently begs outside. My first thought today was, “She’s still here? What a bother.” But then the Holy Spirit ever so gently asked, “But isn’t this your neighborhood? And doesn’t that, it some way, make her a part of your sphere of responsibility?”

    That’s what stability does. That’s what rootedness does. It starts to imprint on your soul, on your conscience, who belongs in your sphere of responsibility, whom God is asking you to actively love. Our habits of mobility—of constantly moving from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, even church to church—can, in very tragic ways, disrupt the important, if also difficult task, of living with and loving broken people in broken places. When people and places disappoint us, we so easily sever our ties and move on, not recognizing that the restlessness of our souls, the pining for the greener grass somewhere else, is never going to be satisfied. The shine always wears off the new. I am as guilty of that illusion of anyone else.

    Stability, while hard, offers so many gifts: the gift of our sanctification (because we stay rather than leave when times get hard); the gift of being known and received by people who know our story, the gift of fruitful ministry (because ministry is always relational, and there’s no rushing that). I’m just starting to experience these gifts here in Toronto, and we hope to stay put!

    BAS: In your chapter on marriage you write, "The mystery of self-sacrifice in marriage is that it is not an obstacle to self-fulfillment but a means to it." You note that both marriage and family involve various forms of self-sacrifice, and say "The mystery of marriage isn't its limitless capacity for securing our personal happiness. the mystery is its witness to the eternal, self-sacrificing love of Jesus for his bride." How do Christian convictions about marriage offer a counter-narrative to modern understandings of self-fulfillment, and how can the uniqueness of Christian marriage offer a compelling witness to those who are not part of the community of faith?

    JPM: As I talk about in the book, marriage is a tremendously important practice of stability. It’s not commitment to a place for a lifetime—but commitment to a person. And as Paul talks about in Ephesians, it’s marriage that witnesses to God’s unfailing love for his people. I think that parallel—of Christian marriage to Christ and the Church—forces us to lament how easily we in the church discard our marriage vows for that proverbial greener grass. I’m right now in the middle of watching a very close friend choose divorce—and I say choose, because the situation, while complicated, doesn’t necessarily warrant it—and it is a tremendous grief. I think she thought divorce would be easier than a difficult marriage, but I think she’s realizing that it’s not that easy.

    What could it look like for us, as Christians, to keep choosing our marriage even when it’s not necessarily fulfilling our dreams and desires? Anyone who has been married for some time knows that we must choose our marriages every day: choose confession, choose repentance, choose service, choose self-sacrifice, choose honesty, choose love. You don’t choose those things and get immediate reward. But if these are your regular practices, I think you’re moving in the direction of a marriage that is resilient, God-honoring, and as you say, something your neighbors are going to notice. And when they do, you get to say something to the effect of, “We’re no heroes. But Jesus is in this marriage, too, and it’s his faithfulness that is holding us together.”

    BAS: In our household one of our great challenges is finding space for rest, or sabbath keeping. What wisdom would you offer to those who believe themselves to be "too busy" to keep sabbath and create space to reconnect and remember their Creator?

    I’d love to answer this as someone who has got it all figured out. But I absolutely don’t! I will say that one thing that has been incredibly helpful to our own family is to draw fairly strict boundaries around Sunday. Generally, our kids don’t participate in athletic events on Sunday, we don’t usually drive them to birthday parties. And let me be honest and say that this restriction limits what they can and can’t do, especially when it comes to sports. None of them has been able participate in any super competitive leagues because that requires Sunday involvement. But it’s allowed us to make worship a priority for Sunday, which isn’t a small thing.

    It’s interesting to me: my oldest daughter and I were recently visiting a college campus, and one of the campus ministers was giving us a tour. He was talking about the kinds of Christians who lose their faith at college, and he said one group of kids who don’t really grow in their faith are those whose parents, in high school, let them miss church for athletic events and for homework or school projects. Their parents told them, implicitly if not explicitly, “Your sports, your athletics: these matter for your future. They’re more important than church.” And I think that should feel haunting to us as parents! Sabbath isn’t, as you say, simply a practice of rest: it’s a reorientation of our hearts toward God. That makes church a really big part of Sabbath-keeping.

    In terms of making the time for rest, I’d love to quote from one of my favorite books, Essentialism. It’s not written by a Christian, but the principles in the book are incredibly wise, especially for people caught in the busyness trap. Let’s be honest with ourselves to say that we choose busyness more often than it chooses us. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown puts it this way: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” The fact is that God—GOD—has given us, not just the priority, but the privilege of rest. We have the time to keep Sabbath, to engage deliberate rest in our week—but maybe a better question is, “Do we have the courage?” Do we have the courage to get behind, to leave something undone, to trust that God is upholding the universe if we don’t open our email? Sabbath, for me, is exactly that kind of trust. And when I let myself surrender to the idea of my own smallness, even for one day, it recalibrates the rest of the week.

    BAS: I sincerely thank Jen for taking time to chat about her work. Keeping Place can be purchased at Amazon and other fine book sellers around the land.

     

    Thursday
    Sep072017

    The Cross and Cultural Engagement

    On Tuesday afternoon I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Moore was speaking at Baylor University, offering a lecture titled “Is There a Future for Evangelical Cultural Engagement?” The lecture was sponsored by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

    I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Moore, who has been unafraid to offer his viewpoint on race, politics, sexuality, and religious liberty. His stances have been cheered and jeered, and his opposition to Donald Trump caused a stir within the Southern Baptist Convention and nearly led to his ouster. This profile in The New Yorker shows how Dr. Moore holds conservative theological positions while casting Christian witness in a different light than his predecessors at the E.R.L.C.

    Tuesday’s lecture was bookended by references to “Outlaw Country,” noting how the unique contributions of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson preserved something of the soul of country music as Nashville trended toward a popular sound. Dr. Moore had a convenient opening: Willie Nelson attended Baylor for two years before dropping out. Moore’s point was simple: outlaw country may have been out of step with the mainstream but had staying power due to its continuity with the historic country music tradition and the excellence in songwriting and musicianship of its best exemplars. Even though the outlaws were relegated to the margins, they stuck to their guns, excelled in their craft, and made a lasting contribution to the history of music. They also inspired another generation of musicians.

    Moore invoked the outlaws as a parable for modern evangelical Christianity, observing that popular trends in society and culture have drawn the attention of evangelical Christianity, causing some to be seduced in pursuit of influence, power, and success. Dr. Moore noted how market-driven impulses within evangelicalism have been both a source of strength and weakness. Churches have wanted to reach as many people as possible with the gospel and have developed programs, sermons, and outreach initiatives to meet felt needs. But along the way, these churches have minimized their prophetic witness within the body of Christ by neglecting church discipline and teachings on repentance and sin while amplifying screeds against those outside the body of Christ. By giving people what they want, churches have compromised their own message in order to keep insiders happy and blame outsiders for their own failures.

    Dr. Moore argues that the way forward for evangelicalism rests not in cultural relevance or better programming, nor in the reformulation of certain classical doctrines of the Christian faith, but rather in the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ. Christianity, according to Dr. Moore, must be unapologetically and self-consciously cross-centric and cruciform. There must be a focus on the meaning of Jesus’ death and the redemption accomplished on Calvary, as well as a clear calling to every disciple to take up one’s cross as they follow Jesus.

    Dr. Moore has maintained that the Christian message is peculiar, strange, and odd. But its peculiarity gives it power. On the cross we see both the love of God and humanity’s deep need for redemption. We also see the meaning of Jesus’ call to discipleship, and how he precedes us in death that he might raise us up from death to new life before God, all for God’s glory. While some churches may continue to be seduced by the notion that they can achieve relevance through better print materials, a more polished worship band, an innovative program, or slicker marketing, it is instead upon the gospel of and about Jesus by which the church will either stand or fall.

    This claim seems so elementary that it is obvious. But it is not so. Cultures ebb and flow, and across church history there are examples of Christianity being widely embraced and, conversely, being persecuted and marginalized.

    Dr. Moore is right to remind us that there is a future for evangelical cultural engagement, grounded at the point where timber met stone and flesh was pierced for the sins of the world on the top of Skull Hill.

     

    Saturday
    Aug192017

    Book Review: Goggin and Strobel's The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb

    Power is a tricky subject. It always has been. Power presents great temptations. It is also unavoidable and necessary, can be used for good or ill, and is best understood as a kind of stewardship.

    Power does not always receive the degree of reflection it deserves among Christians. It is an acknowledged presence in congregational, community, and personal interactions but is not always carefully addressed. Christians long for power, and even possess power to a certain degree, but fear naming it. There is kind of confusion that reigns concerning a proper or healthy disposition toward power and how it can be used for good as well as a blindness to its more seductive properties. In naming power, we acknowledge the responsibilities that come with it, as well as the temptations that accompany it. Bringing power to the forefront of conversation exposes us one way or another as good or poor stewards. Perhaps there is fear for what such a conversation might reveal.

    Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel address power in their book The Way of the Dragon and the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It. Far too often, Christian leaders look to the surrounding culture and for cues on power and its use. Goggin and Strobel apply pastoral wisdom and theological insight to the question of power while also inviting the reader to reject prevailing models and take up the way of Christ.

    Goggin and Strobel’s book unfolds as a travelogue. They travel from place to place and interview evangelical sages about power and report their findings, speaking with J. I. Packer, James Houston, Marva Dawn, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, John Perkins, and Jean Vanier. In each of these conversations they weave together their insights about present models for church leadership and why they are problematic and then offer alternative ways of leading the church that bring proper honor and glory to Jesus Christ.

    Goggin and Strobel are right to critique present leadership structures in evangelical churches, which can be overly-susceptible to defining success in terms of attendance, buildings, and cash. When taking their cues on leadership from sources other than Christ, churches can become entrapped by over-reliance on charismatic leaders and resistant to those who serve humbly and faithfully as shepherds. Sadly, small churches can be labeled unhealthy or second-rate just because of their size, when in fact they are just as much a part of the body of Christ as other fellowships who faithfully proclaim the gospel and serve the kingdom. Goggin and Strobel also note that some pastors can also fail to acknowledge God’s call to serve smaller fellowships because of false notions about what constitutes success.

    Strobel and Goggin also address how churches have at times elevated toxic leaders, those who use leverage their ministries for personal empire building rather than as serving as shepherds of an outpost of the kingdom of God. This phenomenon is certainly not limited to evangelicalism. It turns out that churches are just as vulnerable to temptation, corruption, and malfunction as any other human institution. Churches consist of sinners being remade into saints, and as Eugene Peterson notes, they also have sinners for pastors.

    But churches are also home to God’s people and are communities where God’s grace continues to be at work. Goggin and Strobel offer a prophetic call: reject the way of the dragon, the way of worldly power and domination. But they also offer a gracious invitation: embrace the way of the lamb, the way of service and humility, the way of Jesus Christ.

    The way of Christ is the way of weakness, which involves vulnerability, meekness, and the willingness to put self aside. Churches do not grow in maturity through technique or manipulation, but by grace and gentleness. Leaders who have been enraptured by the way of Jesus will be like John the Baptist, but understood that he must become less and Christ must become greater (John 3:30). Goggin and Strobel bring theological and biblical insight to bear on the question of power, and highlight the significance of practices like the Lord’s Table, communion, and baptism as formative in the way of the lamb.

    This is a good book containing a needed challenge for Christianity in evangelical circles and in other denominational or networked forms. The first task of the church is not to rule but to serve. The Christian way of service will differ from all alternatives. It is not a way of rejecting power but instead of stewarding power. It is a way of focusing on others and foremost upon God rather than pursuing the glorification of the self or of a particular congregation. Goggin and Strobel provide a compelling vision.

    But the realization of that vision would require a tremendous work of grace, as I am certain Goggin and Strobel would concede. The prayer of the church then should be one of humility and availability for service, as well as of reliance and trust, that the God who has all power would make his power manifest in his people, and that his people would join alongside the heavenly court, laying down their crowns, and proclaiming that all power and glory and honor are the Lord’s forever (Revelation 4:1-11). There is an alternative approach to power, one which seek to exalt the Lord’s power and is conscious and aware of human limitation, weakness, sinfulness, and need of grace. A different pathway for church leadership and for Christian discipleship is possible. This book points toward a better way.

    Friday
    Aug182017

    Book Review: James Bryan Smith's The Magnificent Story

    James Bryan Smith is one of my favorite contemporary writers on Christian spiritual formation. His latest book, The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth is another fine contribution to the field. Professor Smith’s writing is pastoral, warm, and intelligent, and this book presents a helpful approach to thinking about God, getting to know Jesus, and living as a disciple in the world. Smith helps us think theologically through the lens of the transcendentals: beauty, goodness, and truth.

    Professor Smith’s book addresses the human longing for a great and magnificent story, one that matches up with our deep desire to be part of a narrative that is rich with beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith believes that the good news of and about Jesus is that story, revealed to us in the life, person, and work of Christ. But Smith argues that the fullness of the Jesus story has been shrunken or reduced in ways that get things all out of balance, emphasizing God's wrath over God's grace, judgement over love, being right over being compassionate, and eternal life in the future over eternal life now. Smith addresses those imbalances throughout the book, offering a different way of seeing and understanding God that aligns more closely with a vision of the beautiful, good, and true.

    Smith focuses on practices in addition to offering counternarratives and alternative ways of thinking about the Christian story. Each chapter ends with a prescribed exercise that helps the reader begin to notice ways God is at work in the world. This approach is similar to what Smith offered in The Apprentice Series: Common Narrative, Counter Narrative, and Practice. In this book, narratives about God are examined in light of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and Smith tests these narratives in light of beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith also encourages his readers to join with others in community as they explore the ideas presented, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide group conversation and to work by grace through the practices he suggests.

    Professor Smith engages theologically with several ideas that are open to debate, and some readers may find themselves in disagreement. Smith challenges penal substitutionary atonement, for instance, as an example of a problematic doctrine. He argues that this representation of the Father pitted against the Son for our benefit does not accord with the idea of a merciful and loving God, nor does it take into account the full story given in Scripture. According to Smith, penal substitution is a shrunken story. Smith argues that we need forgiveness, our sins are real, and that the cross does defeat our sin. However, Smith argues that there is a different way of understanding atonement that better represents God. Smith’s approach is known as the Christus Victor model.

    On this point of doctrine, and perhaps on other points as well, some readers will have quibbles and even deep disagreements. The Christian community is no stranger to disagreement. Our perpetual challenge is to disagree in love while maintaining a firm commitment to unity under Christ, the head of the church. Smith’s critiques are charitable, I believe, and worthy of discussion among Christians. As Smith notes, some beliefs are harmful. Therefore, Christians must always be as clear as possible concerning what we believe, and undertake the challenging work of theology in a manner that is truthful, attractive, and good.

    Smith’s invitation to intimacy with God, knowing the loving kindness of Jesus as Savior, experiencing the availability of grace, and growth in sanctification is clearly explained, compelling, and attractive. This book rings with beauty, goodness, and truth. There may be points of disagreement among Christians that can be discussed in good faith. But the allegiance to Jesus is foremost. In him the church is united.

    I’m always on the lookout for resources that will help people draw near to God, experience the grace of Jesus, and engage seriously with discipleship. This book fits the bill. I recommend it. I appreciate the witness of James Bryan Smith. And I am glad to share with him in the magnificent story of Jesus Christ.