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Archive for March, 2018


I read this as a son, and a pastor.

My mother has Alzheimer’s Disease which is a form of dementia. As a pastor, I have had and will have some older members with dementia. A wise pastor won’t stick his head in the sand. Even if you pastor a young congregation, they will have parents who are diagnosed with this horrible disease.

Into this, Dr. John Dunlop wrote Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia. He is a Geriatrics physician. He is too familiar with dementia as a son and a doctor.  He writes as a physician with great bedside manner. He’s informative, and gentle. He’s honest but not despairing. He sees God’s sovereignty in a way that calls us to trust His character, His goodness as we suffer.

“All shall work together for good; everything is needful [necessary] that he sends, nothing can be needful [necessary] that he withholds.” John Newton

When God brings dementia into our lives, He has a good purpose. Much of this has to do with trusting Him more fully, finding strength in our union with Christ. His purpose is to mature us, not destroy us. That is how the Enemy wants to use dementia.

Theology bookends this book in many ways, and permeates it. He gets into the nuts and bolts of dementia at a lay level. He addresses diagnosis and whether or not the disease can be prevented and how it can be treated. He addresses both what it is like to have dementia in its various stages, as well as what it is like to be a caregiver in various stages. He offers some helpful hints for caregivers.

He views those who suffer as image bearers which is counter-cultural. In our culture’s human (objective)/person (subjective) dichotomy those who suffer from dementia can be seen as no longer of value since they have no apparent sense of personhood. Dunlop encourages us to remember that they remain image bearers and therefore have value despite diminished capacity. He speaks of some ways to respect that dignity even as the disease strips them of dignity.

He does have a chapter on the church. Dementia isolates people, particularly the caregiver. I’ve seen this with my father as his world shrunk to match my mother’s shrinking world. Churches should be engaged providing familiar faces for relief and encouragement. Faith can also be sustained, or comfort provided by listening to the pastor’s sermons (a familiar voice) or Scripture read by a friend or loved one. Songs from worship can be played ad infinitum and enjoyed by the patient (as the caregiver returns to the early years of parenting).

The toughest chapter is the last, End-of-Life Issues. It was also the most helpful for me in light of my mother’s recent admission to a memory-care facility. She became more than my father could handle. Her world continues to shrink. She has a terminal disease. That shapes, or should, how other diseases are treated. We should keep in mind that “the patient’s quality of life as perceived by the patient may be far better than that perceived by loved ones or the medical establishment.” We project our fears as a person without dementia upon them. None of us would like to be a baby again, but babies don’t mind being babies. People with dementia may not have an awareness of all they have lost, but enjoy life much like infants and toddlers do.

He addresses feeding tubes. They are used because the patient has stopped eating. They often cause more problems than they prevent or address. They often “stop eating because they are dying; they don’t die because they stop eating.” We have to make sure we are doing what is in the patient’s best interest, not ours. There are times to prolong life, but as the disease gets more severe you don’t want to be as aggressive and put them thru a long, lingering death artificially extended. It is heart-breaking and hard.

Dr. Dunlop has provided a good resource for pastors, elders and caregivers (as well as potential victims of this family of diseases). It is succinct and not overly technical. There is a strong focus on how God is graciously at work through the experience of dementia. I found it very helpful, and one of my congregants who read it has as well.

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The first section of Organic Outreach for Churches by Kevin Harney covered motivation: love for God, the world and the congregation. He calls this the heart of the congregation. In the second section he addresses the mind of the congregation. The focus is on the administrative structure expressed by the heart that seeks to reach out with God’s love to the world around it through the congregation. Put another way, the first task of leadership is to cultivate love for God, the lost people around us, and our congregation. Until this is done, the administrative structure should not be changed. To borrow terminology from another book on ministry, there needs to be a vine before you put up the trellis.

“When our hearts are filled with love for God, for our community, and for the church, we are ready to strategize about outreach.”

This is one of the positives of his approach. He is talking about outreach as a (church) community project rather than focusing on preparing individuals to share their faith.

The first step in this process is the mind-shifts Harney believes need to take place so we can be productive. Here they are:

  • From random to strategic outreach
  • From famine to funding (making money available for LOCAL outreach)
  • From believing to belonging (as the first step in the process)
  • From us to them (regarding focus)
  • From programs to praying
  • From mush to clarity (regarding your beliefs)
  • From fatalism to faith

These are important shifts, though I would be hesitant to fully embrace the 4th one (us => them) for reasons I will develop below.

I will throw out a reminder. This all takes time. This morning I read about the building of the temple by Solomon. It took 7 and a half years. Just as the temple wasn’t built in a day, neither will a congregation’s outreach ministry. People are often harder to mold than stones. This is about cultural change, and that takes time, and undetermineable period of time.

He then develops the idea of from famine to funding, because you’ve gone from random to strategic outreach. Many churches provide money for missions, elsewhere. By someone else. Funding missionaries is a great thing. The point is not to eliminate funding to foreign (and even local) missionaries and ministries. The point is to add funds for your congregation to reach the people around you.

This also means that everyone is getting involved instead of paying surrogates to do the work for you. Not everyone will have the same role; the different gifts of God’s people will be engaged. This is one of the mind shifts he neglected: from them to us. No longer should outreach be the work of a chosen few who work on behalf of the rest of us (surrogates). An outreach committee would lead the strategies that involve everyone in various ways (even if all you can do is pray because you’re home-bound).

One common problem Harney experiences is that ministry leaders see outreach as an optional thing that competes with their ministry instead of being something that their ministry also participates in. As a result, they can ignore events, schedule competing events etc. The goal is for each ministry to see their place in outreach. To see it as part of their mission. The Outreach Team is then viewed as influencers. He finds it most helpful if all the ministry leaders comprise the Outreach Influence Team.

Harney then moves into the 6 Levels of Influence. It all starts with God. As a loving, eternal community (Trinity) God is a missionary God who has been sharing His love with people since the beginning of time. Between God and the world, Harney lists the Outreach Influence Team Leader, the Outreach Influence Team, ministry workers, and ministry participants.

To put it simply, the team leader encourages the team to maintain focus and develop the ways their ministry participates in outreach. The team provides training for workers in outreach, which helps instill the vision for outreach to participants so they begin to engage in praying for others, inviting people to events or ministry functions etc.

Then he moves into raising the evangelistic temperature utilizing the one degree rule. This is about accountability. And while it can be helpful, knowing the perversity that remains even in Christians, it can easily lapse into legalism and self-righteousness (self-condemnation if you aren’t doing enough). It is here that he starts to sound more seeker-driven than seeker-sensitive. It was here that I began to grow frustrated.

Why was I frustrated? The easy answer would be my flesh is resisting the call of God to engage in this process. I don’t think that is is (though he did talk about lots of meetings and I’m currently have meeting fatigue).

The other answer is a glaring lack of ecclesiology in the book. It is assumed, and you know what happens if you assume. Part of ecclesiology is the mission of the church. When there is no clearly developed mission of the church, an author’s emphasis becomes the mission of the church. There are subtle statements in this section that indicate that he thinks outreach trumps the rest, shapes the rest. Like most books on a particular goal of the Church, it becomes out of balance and begins to veer down dangerous roads.

Let me explain. I take a tri-perspectival view of worship (and most things, to be honest). I express this as worship is intended to exalt God, edify the Church and evangelize the world (in terms of unbelievers present). Worship cannot focus simply on evangelism as in the seeker-driven model. I think we should be sensitive to “seekers” (I don’t really like that word). By that I mean we explain things. We periodically explain some of what we do in worship. In preaching we explain “big words” and call people to faith for both conversion (justification) and sanctification.

Our mission, as expressed in the Great Commission, is not to simply make converts but disciples. We are to present people to Christ in maturity. Yes, you have to start with conversion but that is not the end all and be all of church life. Outreach is a part of our mission, not the mission.

If we are asking about outreach temperature, we should start asking about your marriage (if you are married), parenting, sex life, work life etc. because all of these are about being faithful to Christ in our context. Suddenly we have a long list, and even more opportunities to become self-righteous Pharisees boasting of our outreach righteousness, or parenting righteousness.

Taking part of the mission as the mission is just plain dangerous. No one comes out and says that, but it is expressed in terms of the “most important” part of our mission, or main emphasis requiring “inordinate amounts of time”.

So, while I agree that outreach should permeate all of our programs so it is an organic thing for the congregation, I don’t agree that it supplants or overwhelms all of the other ministries of the church. Our discipleship ministries should be welcoming to outsiders (and people should invite others as well as pray for the lost), should connect everything to the gospel (including calling people to faith as well as expressing that faith) as well as prepare people to share their faith (preferably in a tri-perspectival way, which is a separate blog post). Our worship should not be reduced to altar calls, “love songs” to Jesus with a great beat etc. I’m still a “Word & Sacrament” guy. Evangelism as well as exaltation and edification take place as we sing the Word, pray the Word, listen to the Word (preaching) and see the Word (sacraments). God works in that to bring people to faith as well as build people in their faith. We explain things, we don’t eliminate them precisely because worship is also for God and His people, not just the people who don’t believe yet.

Precisely because there is no explicit eccesiology, Harney is beginning to slip down this road though he may not realize it. There are some things that slow it: being clear about what you believe. He hasn’t gutted the faith like some do. But I find him beginning to move out of balance in this second section. In the third section, we’ll see where his trajectory leads us.

 

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One day while I was at my in-laws’, I saw a book on the shelf that looked interesting. It was called Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex Is Affecting Our Children. Published in 2008, it seeks to bring the then-recent scientific discoveries to bear on the question of sexuality. After reading Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body I looked to this book to verify the science on a few things. Then I ended up finally reading it.

Their concern in this little book (about 150 pages) is for what they call the third risk of pre-marital sex. There is more going on than the risk of pregnancy and disease. They address the way the body is designed (which they don’t come out and say) for bonding and attachment through sexual activity. Promiscuity and serial monogamy therefore damage this natural process, inhibiting our later ability to form monogamous, permanent relationships.

Thanks to brain scans, we are discovering more about how the brain functions and develops. We are able to see which parts of our brains are active and the release of various brain chemicals during sexual activity. Both men and women have “attachment hormones” vassopressin and oxytocin respectively. In addition to dopamine, which is connected to the pleasure/reward which encourages us to repeat sexual activity, these chemicals help us to bond emotionally with the person we are with when they are released.

These bonding chemicals are also released by snuggling, holding hands, hugging for a long time. In women, oxytocin is released during birth and nursing to help them attach with their children. The chemicals in our brains can be understood as designed by God to foster marriage and child-rearing in the context of monogamy.

These chemicals can work against us, masking and extending bad relationships if there is promiscuity. This biochemical reality means that sex is not “just sex”, but is designed as a bonding agent. The dualism of our society, splitting body and person such as Pearcey discusses at length in her book, is a lie. When you play at sex, it makes it more difficult for you to make proper, healthy attachments. The illustration they use is trying to use the same tape over and over again.

Young adults and teens are particularly susceptible to promiscuity due to the dopamine and the incomplete development of the frontal lobe. Kids and young adults don’t always make the best choices and the body’s longing for sex creates problems. In some ways this is an aspect of the fall, where now our bodies can also work against our best interest. They need guidance and direction, including the scientific understanding of what is going on.

I wish I’d known this when I was a teenager. I’m not sure how much of a difference it may have made but perhaps I would have made some different decisions. Such information should be a part of sex education.

They were not fatalistic. Pre-marital sex doesn’t doom one to a life with no lasting connections. The brain, which changed with such activity, can change again when we abstain for a period of time. I spent nearly a decade without a romantic relationship that may have been helpful in this way. While they didn’t mention it, the gospel is also an important element in restoring sexual sanity.

Where they didn’t take this was the maintenance of monogamous relationships. “Falling out of love” may be a function of failing to hold hands, kiss and have regular sexual activity. The attachment hormones are not released as they should and a couple begins to feel less connected, less “in love.”

The book is also filled with reflections taken from counseling ministries. Teens and adults share how promiscuity affected them and their relationships. They are not content to rely on the hard sciences, but supplement them with the soft sciences.

This book would be a very helpful resource for parents, teachers, youth workers, and pastors. It is not very lengthy. There is some repetition to help in the learning process, but not so much you get overly annoyed.

There was little to no indication in the text of the book about the worldview or faith of the authors, Joe McIlhaney and Freda McKissic. It was clear they came for a conservative viewpoint morally and ethically. They were arguing for abstinence on the basis of their research. So it many ways this didn’t read like a book written by Christians. But in the acknowledgements in the back there was reference to a person at Moody Publishers who shepherded the book process. The book is published by an innocuous division of Moody. This shouldn’t detract from the truthfulness of what they say, but I wish they had been more upfront about that connection. They didn’t have to inject their faith into the book at every turn, but they should have laid their cards on the table.

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Last year I came across Nick Needham’s 4-volume series, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power. I thought it would be an interesting read, and one I could possibly use with my kids in the high school years.

Needham used to teach church history in Nigeria. He longed for a readable, well-rounded textbook for his students. So he wrote one.

For 2018, I decided to read the set. One volume per quarter should make for relatively easy reading. The opening volume has 12 chapters, so I read a little more than a chapter per week. I would generally read in the morning after my time in the Scriptures. It was a reasonable goal, and for the first volume it worked quite well. At 400 hundred pages, I averaged about 50 per week. This was fairly easy since I like to break at the end of a section, and he divided each chapter up into around 4 sections.

The first volume is entitled The Age of the Early Church Fathers. The chapter listings are helpful to see the scope of the volume. It has a strong commitment to Eastern Christianity, as well as a chapter on African Christianity, focused on Alexandria and Carthage. Due to the time frame covered here, there is plenty of focus on heretical movements and Christological development. There is a progression from persecuted minority to Christianity as a dominant but divided faith in the Roman Empire.

Designed for education, each chapter has a list of key people and then a sampling of writing from some of them. At times he used footnotes to point you to more detailed information in the series about a person to whom he refers. He has a glossary of terms in the back of each volume.

He begins with historical information about Rome and Israel. The globalism movement of today isn’t new, but is an echo of the Roman Empire. He mentions the common philosophies of the time. In Israel, he summarizes the various groups exerting influence on the people.

From there he moves into the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to include Gentiles and eventually be dominated by Gentiles. The Jewish War saw the fall of the Sadducees from power and influence, the Zealots and Essenes essentially wiped out, and the Pharisees left as the controlling force of post-war Judaism. They condemned Christians and Christianity became almost entirely Gentile in make up.

Needham moves into persecution and the Church’s response in a series of Apologists defending the faith. This includes information about early worship services.

“For it is through faith that Almighty God has justified all people that have ever lived from the beginning of time.” Clement of Rome

The rise of the Gnostic heresies lead to the development of symbols or creeds. He also discussed the Apologists who responded to Gnosticism. The faithful church so separated itself from the Gnostic “Christians”, calling themselves Catholic or universal. The emphasis was on the same faith they held in contrast to the idiosyncratic faith of different (often small) Gnostic groups claiming to be Christian. At the same time, another group arose known as the Montanists, which believed God had sent a new wave of prophets who spoke mostly about the nearness of Christ’s return. They were a proto-Charismatic group focused on dreams, visions, speaking in tongues and a strict lifestyle including fasting, celibacy and martyrdom. At a time when the Catholic Church was seeking greater unity due to Gnosticism, the Montanists created further division and often condemned those who didn’t embrace their teaching.

You can’t discuss the early church without discussing the influence of Alexandria and Carthage. Needham introduces people to Clement, Origen, Tertullian and Cyprian. These men would exert a great influence over the Church for hundreds of years. It was not always for the better, but they certainly left their mark.

Soon the Church wouldn’t be fighting for its life as toleration grew and eventually Constantine legalized Christianity. Now the Church began to focus on theological formulation. Most of this centered on Christ. Initially it was the problem of Arianism (Jesus was the first created Being). Needham also brings in developments in Church leadership, organization and worship. There is also some discussion of the Canon of Scripture. With legitimacy came laziness and the response of monasticism to escape the worldliness that entered the Church.

There is a whole chapter on the Arian Controversy that he mentioned in chapter 7. One of the strengths of the volume is its tracing Christological developments in the Church. While not as deep as it could be, he brings in a broader depth then I’ve seen many books on Christology. They usually end with Chalcedon, as if that answered all the questions. When Needham gets there, he addresses how the Eastern Church was still divided in their understanding of Chalcedon. These theological differences often included political components as dissent from Constantinople blended theological disagreement and the push for independence which would foreshadow the Reformation in some ways.

Tucked between the Arian Controversy and the post-Nicene Christological controversies is a chapter on John Chrysostom, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo. Both John and Augustine were children of privilege (Jerome as well) with loving, faithful mothers who doted on them. John represented the Antiochene method of biblical interpretation which focused on grammar and history rather than the more allegorical Alexandrian method. Like Augustine and Jerome, he struggled with sexual temptation. Rather than get a wife, he also fled from close relationships with women (with one exception later in life). His time as a hermit with fasting and sleep deprivation did great damage to his health. Known for his preaching, he was essentially kidnapped by imperial forces to become the Patriarch of Constantinople. He didn’t fit in well there and angered many of the political elites. This is one of the passages that gives us insight into the worldly political games that entered the Church. His enemies got the authorities to stop the annual baptism service on the eve before Easter. 400 soldiers entered the church and mayhem and bloodshed ensued. Eventually Chrysostom was exiled to a remote, inhospitable fortress town. The escort was instructed to give no regard to his well-being. He would never make it to the fortress as the scorching sun and hard rains brought him to his death on the journey.

“Glory be to God for all things.” The last words of John Chrysostom

Jerome was a scholar schooled in philosophy who traveled throughout the East, spending time in the Syrian desert avoiding women and learning Hebrew. Jerome brings us into a discussion of the Apocrypha. Jerome advocated for following the Jewish canon. Others included books found in the Septuagint. The Church remains split on the Apocrypha to this day. The Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church receive them, while Protestants and the Russian Orthodox Church view them as less than Scripture.

As I noted, one of the strengths of this book is the focus on the Christological controversies. Needham returns to them in the struggle between the theologians from Antioch and Alexandrians. Some of their differences resulted from the different methods of biblical interpretation, some from different use of technical terms and some from different emphases. Antioch emphasized the two natures of Christ, while Alexandria emphasized the one person. Sounds overly reductionistic but I’ve noted that in disagreements we tend to harden our positions and get more extreme. Both schools of thought had their extremes which seem to be mistaken at times for the norm. The charge of being Nestorian is still tossed out by Eastern Orthodox to Protestants, Lutherans to Reformed regarding our views of the Supper, etc. We easily forget that distinction is not the same as dividing. We can easily forget that all Jesus does He does as one person, so we can speak of Mary as the theotokos or sing that “that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me.” And so Needham brings us from Nicea to Chalcedon.

He then interrupts the Christology to talk about the Germans, or the Germanic tribes pushed out of eastern Europe by Attila the Hun. They were largely Arian Christians and Pagans. They spread to the West and a number of them sacked Rome, North Africa and Gaul. He delves into the contrast between Celtic and Roman Christianity and how the latter finally prevailed through the British Isles.

He then returns East with a focus on the on-going post-Chalcedon Christological controversy and the political fall out. Much of this will likely be new to Western Christians for whom Christology was generally seen as resolved at Chalcedon. This can help them in their interacts with Eastern Orthodox Christians.

This was a very readable and helpful volume. Needham struck a good balance between depth and breadth in what he communicated. It was not dry as some church histories can be. The larger type also means it seems less intimidating despite the 4 volumes. I look forward to reading the rest of this series over the coming months.

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