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When I bought this I thought it was a biography. I was wrong. That’s one of the weaknesses of online shopping.

While it contains biographical information it is really a walk through the gospel from creation to consummation for those who have experienced abuse at the hands (and lips) of others.

The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse (Biography)The book is The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse by Mez McConnell. McConnell is now a pastor in Scotland, a true trophy of grace. He experienced profound abuse from his step-monster and her band of drunken friends. There was also sexual abuse from a baby sitter, and more.

Rosaria Butterfield was right when she wrote “The most disturbing book that I have ever read. I cannot recommend it enough.”

It is a very disturbing read. Through the first half of the book I was wondering, “Where’s his dad?”. In the forward Mez notes that his father was unaware of what was being done to him and his sister. I was wondering how this could possibly be so. He explains how in the second half, very briefly.

McConnell does not dwell on the abuse he suffered. That is probably a difficult thing to do. He does grapple before us with the process of becoming a Christian and then how to think about “her”. He’s honest about the wrong road of dealing with his abuse that led him into prison. It made him an angry and drug-seeking young man who destroyed others and himself in trying to make the pain stop. He glorifies none of this.

The biographical material usually comprises the shorter chapters. The larger chapters tend to be the more theological ones. But none of the chapters is long. They are meant to be read in a short sitting to give you time to think about them. I think he strikes a good balance between the events of his life, the theology to understand it and the existential struggle all this presents. His is not a faith that seeks to hide from the tough questions. It is all here.

He’s also honest about his target audience and goals.

“This book is for the silent sufferers within our churches (and without).”

“However, this book won’t answer all your questions.”

He begins with a definition of child abuse so people understand the breadth and depth of abuse in its various forms. He includes statistics before his conclusion filled with reality and hope. For instance:

“There’s the unexplained rage and frustrations at people around you- especially your loved ones.”

“I think there is real hope to be found, in the middle of our deepest traumas, in the good news about Jesus Christ. … I also think there is a place for us to find hope and community within the church.”

Initially his struggle was with “Doesn’t God see?” Soon he was agnostic, and then an atheist seeking to vent his rage and numb his pain.

This sets us up for brief meditations on Creation, focused on Eden, and then the Fall and Curse. He wants to explain theologically how we got in this mess of abuse. This leads to meditations about Satan and Adam as the prime actors in this sad drama. He answers some objections to the idea that we fell in Adam from Romans 5. This leads into the reign of death as the wages of sin.

“The truly scary thing is that instead of being a book, the Bible is, in fact, more like a mirror. Once we open it up, we begin to see our true nature reflected in it. We begin to realize that we, too, in deep, dark recesses of our souls, are more than capable of untold horrors against the rest of humanity.”

After a brief word about the world to come, he addresses where we live: in the time between the times. After this McConnell focuses on Jesus’ incarnation, compassion, and suffering. He wants victims of abuse to know Jesus experienced incredible betrayal, injustice and abuse. His is not the compassion of an observer, but a fellow sufferer. Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath that we deserved. In the midst of this McConnell defends the biblical view from the recent charges of “cosmic child abuse” in that while it was the will of God to do this, Jesus submitted willingly.

Seeing ourselves as sinners that deserve to drink that cup, but who have received grace can help us turn the corner from demanding justice to extending mercy. The mercy we received meant that Jesus received the justice we deserved. In speaking of justice he moves into a defense of the doctrine of hell. The fact is, as Mez notes, we aren’t just victims but also often victimisers.

With his conversion, McConnell not only learns about forgiveness but also about love. He states that he not only didn’t know how to love, but didn’t know now to process emotions. This is common among abuse victims. Love was a mystery to Mez because the people who were supposed to love him only brought him pain.

“The more I considered Jesus, the less I considered myself. The more I considered His pain, the more my own pain was put into perspective.”

He had to look to Jesus to understand love. He is not alone. Even if you haven’t been abused, you need to look to Jesus to understand what love is and does. And this leads to a discussion of grace: the good we don’t deserve.

He swings back to God’s sovereignty which is a bitter pill for people to swallow, even if they haven’t been abused. He brings us back to Jesus who suffered according to the will of God at the hand of sinners. We see this in Isaiah 53, Acts 2, Acts 4. More generally we see that God brings both good circumstances and catastrophic circumstances like the Covid-19 crisis we currently experience (Eccl. 7:14; Lam. 3:37-39).

“God may have ordained evil in our world, but He does not revel in it. He does not approve of it or take satisfaction in it.”

In answering the difficult question of how God can ordain child abuse, McConnell brings us to the life of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers of all people. Well, they were going to kill him. Joseph who was imprisoned for sexual because the mistress he spurned lied. Years later when Joseph was one of the most powerful men in the world, and his guilty brothers before him he made one of the most profound statements in the Scriptures. “You intended this for evil, but God intended it for good to accomplish the saving of many lives.” Joseph could see the great good worked through the evil of his brothers. Mez sees, at least, that this pain was necessary for him to cry out to God. He doesn’t claim we’ll know all or any of the reasons we suffer. But he does claim that good can come out of our suffering and trauma.

This is not a book that is afraid to say the hard things. He says them clearly and effectively.

This books also has a series of appendices. The first is an interview with a child abuser who became a Christian after turning himself in and going to prison. He was a victim who became an abuser. He talks about how difficult it was to find a church willing to let him worship there. He gets into some of the conditions placed on him. He wrestles with bringing his sexuality back within God’s boundaries. In some ways this has happened, and in others there is still internal struggle. He doesn’t completely trust himself. He is unable to contact his victims, and cannot confess his sin to them and ask their forgiveness. One of the lies the told himself though was that the boys liked it so everything was okay. He doesn’t believe this anymore.

One thing I disagree with him is this: “I think we should teach a child exclusively that it’s their body and their private parts. There is no such thing as good touch bad touch. It is all bad touch (excluding medical professionals).” The recent scandals involving Michigan State and the University of Michigan’s team doctors reveal that bad touch happens too often by medical professionals. Not all touch is bad. Sexual touching of children is, however.

Then there is an interview with the pastor of a child abuser. It focused on how the situation developed and how it is going.

The third appendix is a list of FAQS by child abuse sufferers answered by a panel of 3 pastors who suffered, including the author. There is much wisdom here.

“Do not get married without telling your spouse your history. Otherwise, when and if issues come up, it will prove difficult, although not impossible, to move forward together as a couple. … We want to avoid cases of frustration and anger on the part of the non-abused spouse, which can be misinterpreted by abuse sufferers.”

“People who commit these kinds of offenses are master liars and manipulators. … Often people will confess things to me to mask other, more serious sins going on in the background which they want to keep secret.”

They address the problem of forgiving someone who never asks for forgiveness or is dead. Also addressed is the reality of a tight-knit community that has abuse victims in it and their struggle to accept an abuser as a member.

The book concludes with a response from an abuse sufferer. This person found the book very helpful. They addressed their own struggle to forgive; “I feel that if I forgive, they will have won.” In that way and others the book brought their own sin to the surface. We see this again “I feel by saving abusers, God is hitting me with one last sucker punch. Yet, the gospel is real and changing lives. It changed mine.”

And that is McConnell’s goal, to see the gospel change the lives of those who have suffered childhood abuse.

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Every church member is a sinner. One implication of this fact is that every church will experience conflict, both big and small. Churches are wise to cultivate a culture of conflict resolution.

Resolving Everyday Conflict (Updated) Sande, Ken cover imageOne of the things we did as a part of this is to buy a case of Resolving Everyday Conflict by Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson to give away to our members. This doesn’t mean that people will read it, and try to implement it. One of our members is seeking to become a certified conciliator, part of that process is facilitating a series based on the book. Next month we will begin 12 weeks of instruction on the principles of conflict resolution taught in Scripture and summarized in this book.

“Conflict is a normal part of life. … Many relationships are too important to walk away from. Some issues are too big to give in to. And some people won’t let go until they get everything they want. Add a variety of intense emotions to the mix, and conflict can get messy and painful.”

Resolving Everyday Conflict is a greatly shortened version of Sande’s The Peacemaker. This makes it easier to read, and apply, in the ordinary conflicts that people will find themselves in the family, church and workplace. One of the key words is “everyday”. This book is not intended to deal with more profound conflict that results from trauma.

The book begin with The Nature of Conflict. This chapter is largely focused on James 4:1-10. Conflict is about unfulfilled desires both proper and misguided. Being a Christian doesn’t exempt us from these desires, and engaging in conflict to fulfill our desires.

“Many of our differences aren’t about right or wrong; they are simply the result of these God-designed personal preferences.”

Some of our conflicts result from our God-given diversity. We want everyone to share our preferences and opinions. We see uniformity instead of unity. Our unmet desires become cravings and begin to control us, and we begin to try to control other people.

Sande and Johnson then remind us of The Hope of the Gospel. Our fundamental hope for conflict resolution is the gospel. The gospel enables both parties to humble themselves instead of pressing on to a battle to the death. The gospel helps us to be honest with/about ourselves because Jesus has removed the guilt and condemnation of our sin. We don’t need to be afraid anymore.

“Because running away delays finding a real solution to a problem, flight is almost always a harmful way to deal with conflict. … Peacefaking happens when I care more about the appearance of peace than the reality of peace.”

They then discuss Escaping, Attacking and Peacemaking. The first two are among the works of the flesh to avoid or win a conflict. Peacemaking moves us thru conflict toward reconciliation thru confession and forgiveness.

“People who use attack responses when they are more interested in winning a conflict than in preserving a relationship. … Peacebreaking happens when I care less about our relationship than I do about winning.”

They then shift to the 4 G’s. Sande loves his acronyms to help you remember the process. The first G is Go Higher, or bringing God back into the picture. We want to remind ourselves that we are not simply called to win a conflict. We are intended to glorify God in how we go about the conflict. We are reminded that every horizontal issue also reveals a vertical issue. Our conflict with our brother or sister also involves a conflict with God. We can’t love them unless we love Him, and while we are focused on our glory, kingdom, or agenda we are opposing God’s glory, kingdom and agenda. In this section they also discuss overlooking sin: choosing to forgive without confrontation. They help you to sort out when you should and shouldn’t overlook.

Image result for sande slippery slope

Then we are to Get Real, or own up to our own contribution to the conflict. This is getting the log out of your own eye, which is painful and avoided by most people. Most people are highly defended and overly focused on the other person’s sin (real or imagined) instead of humbled by their own sin. This section includes what Sande calls the 7 A’s of confession to avoid a bad confession which will usually prolong and exacerbate a conflict.

The 3rd G is Gently Engage. You will not this is not “confront”! We are to restore gently (Gal. 6). The goal is restoration, not pummeling the other person into submission. It is established by your own confession and seeking of forgiveness.

“We often stomp into a situation with heavy boots. We lay into people for their sin. That’s a sign of peacebreaking, caring more about getting our way and fixing a problem quickly than preserving a relationship.”

The 4th G is Get Together, Giving Forgiveness and Arriving at a Reasonable Solution. This is about working together to resolve the material issues because the personal issues have been addressed. This includes a discussion of what forgiveness is and isn’t.

The final chapter is Overcome Evil With Good. Hopefully you won’t get to this step because it means one person won’t be reconciled to the other. Peacemaking takes two. Some people want to cling to their peacefaking or peacebreaking. Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee that the other party will own their own part of the conflict, and work toward gentle restoration.

“Although some opponents readily make peace, others stubbornly and defensively resist our efforts to reconcile. Sometimes they grow more antagonistic and even go hunting for new ways to frustrate or mistreat us.”

We are to love them, do good to them and give them space at times. There are times only God can work in them, so pray instead of push. This is hard because living with the reality of a former friend out there hating your guts is really hard to deal with.

This is a helpful little book that gets to the heart of the issues. It isn’t overly complicated which is important because when you are in a conflict, you don’t have the brain space for complicated. Sande & Johnson keep it simple and sweet. There are plenty of personal illustrations to show you what it looks like.

Doing what this book says to do is not easy (as I speak from firsthand experience). It requires faith. And that faith and obedience may not see the short-term results you would like. You aren’t responsible for the results, just whether you trust and obey, whether you seek reconciliation or you seek your own way.

 

 

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Most books have a story, or I should say stories. There is the story of the book. The story of my book is long and complex and will hopefully come to some sort of resolution soon. There is the story the book tells. But there is also the story of the relationship between the book and the reader.

I was given Coffee with Mom: Caring for a Parent with Dementia by Mike Glenn by one of our deacons and his wife. A very “deaconly” thing to do. This had to have been about a year ago. Occasionally I had time to pick it up. I liked the book, but the book wanted me to face what I really didn’t want to face. Thankfully I was a few thousand miles away. I was actually trying to care for my father who was taking care of my mother.

But things changed when my mom went on hospice care. I began to read more often, which still wasn’t much. After her stroke, I began to read in earnest. That was when I decided I should give my dad a copy.

The book itself is the story of Baptist pastor Mike Glenn as he cared for his mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s and another form of dementia. He gives us background to understand who he was messing with, and who she no longer was.

He started noticing problems when his dad died. He couldn’t tell if the issues were just the grief talking because as points grief and dementia can look alike. But it wasn’t just her grief, it was far more.

His dad had suffered from heart disease and lived far longer than anyone thought he would (largely due to Glenn’s mom). When they were alone his dad would tell Glenn how to care for her after he was gone. There were instructions and promises. She didn’t know about them.

“I talked to a lawyer (she actually did), and he said to write down everything you stole from me. I’m making my list.”

Not that it would have mattered. She was a stubborn woman made more stubborn by a disease that slowly killed you after it killed who you were.

The short chapters of this book tell how he moved her from Alabama to Nashville and made her a ‘prisoner’ in that nursing home. It is about the struggles to care for a woman who doesn’t want to be cared for, only cared about. It is about the unfolding effects of the disease on his mother (no two stories are just alike). It is about realizing that while he’s not his father (as his mother reminded him constantly), “it’s all his fault” meaning he had to be responsible. He struggled to do what was best, not simply what was easy.

“I think I may try another church. I just know too much on this preacher.”

Because it is told largely in narrative it alternates frequently between funny and sad. Glenn has an easy writing style. It almost feels like a Boomer version of Blue Like Jazz but centered on caring for someone rather than trying to figure out who you are.

Since the nursing home was between his home and the church he served, he would stop for coffee with her most mornings. The margins of the book contain sharp little comments she makes. They are funny, unless they are said to you. It isn’t easy to love and care for people with dementia. To make it worse (I think) she never forgot who he was. This meant she knew how to hurt him until the end. But she sounds very much like Lord Crawley’s mother, Violet, on Downton Abbey.

“I tried to raise you right. I really did, but you turned out all wrong.”

The final chapter is about your more basic relationship with God and your parents. It is titled Loving Your Parents When You Don’t Really Like Them. He begins with discussing the command in Ephesians 6 for parents not to exasperate their children. Many parents frustrate and even harm their children. As parents they shape their kids’ first understandings of God. When you are a complete jerk (or absent, unempathetic…), your kids think God is a complete jerk (or absent, unempathetic …). When you’ve been sinned against by your parents, and we all have because they are sinners, you have to deal with that. Some of the damage is bigger and deeper. He is a fool who tries to navigate this on his own. He is a fool who tries to navigate this on the basis of justice instead of mercy.

“Of course I slept well. I have a very clean conscience. How well did you sleep?”

Here his theological leanings show up: “each person must give Christ permission to work.” I get what he seems to be trying to say, but… God’s great work in a person begins with regeneration. Apart from that we are so spiritually messed up we hate God and the truth. We won’t believe. Regeneration is the granting of a new heart so now one wants God to work. God works first so I’ll want Him to work. We also have to recognize that due to remaining or indwelling sin, we still want to hold things against them at times. We want our pound of flesh because the flesh (sinful nature) and Spirit are in conflict with one another inside us. But he isn’t trying to lay out all the theology involved in this. He’s trying to bring you to Jesus whom you need desperately for more than your daddy and mommy issues.

“You’re running a little late this morning, but you’re a Baptist preacher. You don’t know anything about time.”

He recognizes that some parents do so much damage they just can’t be trusted: sexual or physical abuse for instance. Most parents try their best and fail. Others are malevolent and delight in damaging their children. Forgive them but as a counseling professor of mine said, keep the screen door to your life closed. Let them see in (have a relationship) but not come in to continue damaging you or your family.

“Your sermon was short. After all week, I thought you would’ve come up with a little more.”

Image result for screen doorHe then shifts to the fifth commandment: Honor your father and your mother. This is the first commandment with a promise. This commandment is about you as a child, a son or daughter. It is not about your parents. People who love God and honor Him will honor their parents as a result. The vertical relationship determines the horizontal relationships. He fleshes this out in terms of gratitude (they gave you life, and often much more). Secondly, forgive them as you’ve been forgiven (Eph. 4:32). They may not even ask for it but forgive their debt to you. Just as God’s kindness led you to repentance, so yours may lead them to repentance. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you don’t talk about it or give them full access to your life (reconciliation).

“Forgiveness, simply put, is releasing the other person from the expectation they can fix what they did.”

Third, he mentions not hurting them. We forsake revenge even if they don’t repent. We aren’t in the making them pay business. Glenn could have mentioned it is God’s right and duty to repay, so we can rest in that (Rom. 12). Our job isn’t to judge them. Like a physician, do no harm even though you may limit contact. You may not have them over for Christmas, but you can send a card (that doesn’t curse them).

“Let’s go back to the heart of this commandment. This is about you, not your parents. This is about the type of person you are and what you believe about redemption, grace, forgiveness, mercy and love. This is where our theology of Easter is tested.”

I gained a better understanding of what my father experienced. I also gained a better understanding of her experience. So this book allows you to both grieve and grow in compassion. I’m leaving my copy with my father in the hopes it helps him sort through the last few years of his life, grieving the many losses he experienced over the last 7 years.

“I heard you had the flu … I was praying for something worse.”

With all the recollections this is a helpful book not only for caregivers but for pastors, elders and deacons to help care for caregivers. I’m thankful my deacon and his wife cared enough about me to give me a copy. I’m leaving it behind for my dad. I may even buy another for my brother who checks in on him.

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In our day and age humility is not seen as a blessing. We live in the age of the big ego. This is the dawning of the age of narcissism. Our social media usage seems to stroke our pride as we seek after likes.

IThe Blessing of Humility: Walk Within Your Calling‘m aware of the irony. I’m writing this on a blog, part of social media, hoping people will read it. But I’m hoping they will go beyond this blog post to the book I’m writing about: The Blessing of Humility by Jerry Bridges.

Jerry Bridges has written many books that I’ve found helpful in the course of my life as a Christian and a pastor. This is one of the last books he wrote prior to his death. I was unaware of its release until seeing it in a clearance sale. Good for me, but a sad reflection on society and even American church culture. This is a book too many of us need to read.

Pride is like bad breath, everyone knows you have it before you do. The struggle against pride is one that is a daily affair, if we are paying attention. Over time I’ve read a few books on the topic including Humility: the Forgotten Virtue by Wayne Mack, and Humility by C.J. Mahaney. I used Mack’s book for our Men’s study at one point.

In Bridges’ book, he looks at the Beatitudes as a description of humility. Humility is one of the twin traits of mature Christianity. The other is love.

Bridges notes that in Jesus’ day, humility was looked down upon in Roman culture, the dominant culture of the day. Before moving into the Beatitudes, he addresses some key texts including 1 Peter 5 which joins precepts and promises.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,…

Humility is the metaphorical clothing we should wear as we appear in public. We are to be humble in our relationships with others and with God, in keeping with the two great commandments upon which hang the whole law. While humility seems off-putting and working against our advancement in life, God offers promises of grace and glory for those who humble themselves in this way. There is promised blessing for humility.

Bridges view of the Beatitudes is one of what a sanctified person looks like. While our failure to possess these characteristics as we should points us to Jesus who perfectly manifested them for imputed righteousness, we must not stop there. Like Mark Jones, Bridges sees this as a description of imparted righteousness in sanctification. The Beatitudes reflect whom Jesus is making us as He conforms us to His likeness. Thus we are to seek these traits and therefore humility.

“In the Beatitudes Jesus is talking about the character traits of those already in the kingdom.”

In this relatively short book, just under 150 pages, he explains teach character trait and ties it to humility. With short chapters it can be read devotionally. It contains a study guide in the back for group study or personal reflection and application of the material.

What we find is not an exhaustive book, but certainly a helpful book. It is not very technical, assuming a knowledge of the original languages or lots of theological terminology. It is written for ordinary people to study. He often connects the ideas he is exploring with hymns that express those sentiments. It is rich in Scripture and hymnody.

Humility is poor in spirit. We recognize that we are spiritually destitute and unable to please God in ourselves. Our struggle with sin is far more profound than we realize, and realizing that is half the battle. Maturity means increasing in our awareness of this ongoing struggle. Our focus shifts from our actions to our attitudes and thoughts.

It is because we are still practicing sinners that we mourn. We mourn our spiritual poverty. We aren’t simply aware of our continuing sinfulness but broken hearted about our continuing rebellion.

Meekness points us to the humility of accepting the difficult circumstances in our lives as part of God’s wise, loving providence. Following Thomas Watson (for Bridges loved the Puritans as well as hymns) he applies meekness toward other people in terms of “bearing of injuries, the forgiving of injuries, and the returning of good for evil.” We will all be subject to the sins of others against us. Humility does not retaliate but bears, forgives (!) and bestows good. This is so contrary to our prideful flesh what strikes out, bears grudges and tries to destroy the offender. Our words are often weapons we use against them.

“Meekness is a defining grace, produced by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, which characterizes that person’s response towards God and man.”

We also have a hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be personally righteous. Such hunger and thirst is not so we don’t need Jesus but so we are like Jesus and bring Him glory. Prideful righteousness, religiosity, is an attempt at self-salvation. It is in this section in particular that Bridges distinguishes between positional and personal (what he calls experiential) righteousness. If I am a Christian I need not hunger and thirst for positional righteousness. I have it! But I do for personal righteousness.

Jesus then moved to mercy, and so did Bridges. He develops the idea of mercy as compassion in action. It is not simply empathy but moving to relieve misery as seen in Isaiah 58 among other places. Part of mercy is remembering the sins of others no more. This is not forgetting but choosing not to bring those sins up against them anymore. This happens only as we see the fact that God no longer remembers our many and grievous sins.

Bob Dylan plays a guitar and sings into a microphone.Another aspect of humility is purity of heart or whole-heartedness. He ties this into the fact that we are not our own but have been bought with a price. We are property of Jesus, as Bob Dylan sang long ago. Purity of heart recognizes this and seeks to see all of life through that lens.

Conflict is regularly addressed in Scripture. When I recently preached through Philippians I was shocked to discover how much this “epistle of joy” was marked by conflict. As someone going through a prolonged conflict, I found hope as well as conviction as I struggled to preach through such a “simple” letter. Humility seeks peace, and makes peace. Peacemaking is very difficult and goes against all our basic inclinations to seek peace on our terms. In other words, there complete surrender.

“To be a peacemaker, then, means we absorb the hurtful words or actions of others without becoming resentful, retaliating, or even cutting off a relationship with the person.”

Humility is revealed in how we respond to being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. While it is appropriate for American Christians to seek protection in our earthly citizenship (Paul, as Bridges notes, appealed to his Roman citizenship at times) we should recognize that our courts system will fail us eventually. We may lose our rights as the tide rises against Christianity. While experiencing hostility, we are not to be hostile but humble. Bridges reminds to entrust ourselves to our Creator, like Jesus, and continue to do good in keeping with 1 Peter 2.

He ends with humility and the gospel. He channels his inner Jack Miller and talks about preaching the gospel to himself and yourself every day. The gospel is not simply the door we walk through to begin life as a Christian but the path we walk as Christians. Humility only grows in gospel soil.

“It is the gospel that will keep us from becoming discourage and will instead motivate us to keep pursuing humility, even when we fail so often.”

This little book is gospel-drenched. That means it is encouraging, not discouraging. Our failures are opportunities to look to Jesus, not a call to despair or simply try harder. The humble and meek Jesus is ready to pardon and help us. Humility keeps coming to Jesus as our only hope. As we do this we find ourselves no better than others, in part because we are not focused on their sins so much. Our sins, and theirs, drive us to Jesus who deals with us as a wonderful, merciful Savior.

This is a book worth the time to read and think about.

 

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I was planning for my vacation reading. I felt the need to be refreshed, renewed. I had recently purchased the Puritan Paperback Christian Love by Hugh Binning. It was short (105 pages), and on love. What could possibly go wrong?

The doctrine of concurrence indicates that two or more persons will the same event for different reasons. I chose this book because I thought it would be encouraging. God chose this book because I needed to be challenged- to wrestle more deeply with the realities of love.

If only I’d looked at the table of contents! The first chapter is “Love and Self-Love”. Binning began his treatise with the problem of self-love which inevitably exposes the selfishness of one’s own heart. At least if you are regenerate (unconverted people being more easily blinded by their self-love).

Sin is the threat to true love. It cuts thru the bonds of love that are intended to hold us together, so that we can have our own way. Sin is contrary to love which is how Jesus summarizes the law of God.

All is not lost. Binning reminds us of Jesus who is our peace. He restores the bonds of love between us and God and one another.

Binning then moves us to the “Excellence of Christian Love”. This is the key here: Christian. It is the love we experience and manifest as Christians. Having the love of God poured into our hearts, we are enable to love others better and better. Eventually we are able to love others well. This, of course, means putting our self-love to death.

“Self-love is the greatest enemy to true Christian love, and pride is the fountain of self-love. … Self-denial and true love are inseparable. Self-love makes a monopoly of all things to its own interest, and this is most opposite to Christian affection and communion …”

The next chapter is “Motives to Christian Love” since he has commended love to us as excellent. He works thru the various motives we have to manifest love. He rightly begins with God’s love for us as revealed in Christ. Christ, who had all things, became as nothing out of love. He humbled himself in order to love us, and as an act of love to us. We see as well the forgiveness and grace of God toward us, that we are now intended to extend toward others. Having knowledge of our own sinfulness, pride and tendency toward self-love, should move us with compassion toward others who also struggle.

The next logical subject is “Christian Love in Practice”, focusing on what it looks like for us to love. There is more here about forgiveness. To love is to forgive our brother 70 x 7. It is to not tell tales (gossip) concerning our brothers. These are the two aspects that draw the most of his attention, or at least caught the most of mine.

Image result for whack-a-mole arcade gameBack we go to “Humility and Meekness”. Binning resumes his gospel-centered assault on our self-love. Pride dies hard. It is like that Whack-a-Mole game. Every time we pound it down, it pops back up again in a slightly different form. He provides some positive ways to cultivate humility in us.

The book concludes with 3 sermons from Binning’s series, the Sinner’s Sanctuary. This was a 40 sermon series on Romans 8:1-15. I can’t conceive of such a long series on 15 verses of Scripture. The focus of these three sermons is the promise of God and our need to live by them; the practical aspects of the doctrine of adoption and prayer. These are largely encouraging.

While this is a short book, the sentences are long. One sentence, a whole paragraph, took up 9 lines of text. Another 7. These are long, complex sentences that moderns (post-moderns) in the age of texts and blog posts often struggle to understand. People familiar with the Puritans understand. Those who haven’t read them will have to work harder. Don’t give up for the struggle thru the complexity will yield gold. The best treasures aren’t found lying on the ground, but must be dug out of the ground.

This was difficult to read existentially. Every page, it seemed at times, was a jab to my self-love. So much for light, encouraging vacation reading. But it was important reading about an important subject. And if God is love (and he is) then there is no more important subject. This is the whole enchilada of the Christian life.

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Sometimes you come across a book that looks like it will address the big questions you’ve been churning over in your mind for years. When you read it you are disappointed because it barely addresses those questions. This can happen more frequently in the age of internet shopping. But it is quite frustrating as you invest time in a book that doesn’t scratch the itch you have.

Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds is one of those books for me. Based on the subtitle I thought it would focus on the profound ways we have been sinned against. Indeed, Chris Brauns does include a number of stories about such profound sins. But I found a disconnect between those stories and the content he presented. So while there was some good material here, it didn’t really help me in the issues I was looking for help personally and professionally.

In his introduction he claims to address “where I’m coming from”. This is not so much about his presuppositions (more in a moment) but the questions he will address, such as: should we forgive God, does God forgive everyone, and should we forgive everyone?

He does lay out one presupposition: “only God’s Word can unpack forgiveness”, a proper commitment to sola Scriptura. He then says “unpacking forgiveness is like relocating a family.” Unpacking takes a lot longer than the actual event of moving. He mentions that 2 years after a move, his family was still unpacking. This is what I was hoping he’d address but really didn’t as I’d hoped. And some of what he said hindered this process, at least as I understand it.

I was struck at the two main presuppositions he didn’t address which shape so much about forgiveness. He never defined his understanding of sin. He assumes we all know. He doesn’t use this term often, preferring the terms derived from the verb “to offend”. While sin rightfully offends, we often use that term (which he doesn’t define either) in many ways no connected to sin. It often has psychological (for lack of a better term) uses, and he generally distances himself from other psychological concepts. This focus on “offense” is a more subjective understanding of sin, not an largely objective one. For instance he says “we have all offended his standard” (pp. 45) with regard to Romans 3:23 (I assume since he doesn’t note it). This is a great time to clarify that “sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” Look, was that difficult? No. But he assumes the reader has a definition of sin, and that it is the same as his unexpressed one.

The other big presupposition was the nature and extent of the atonement. He quotes a few Calvinistic and Reformed guys (he mentions Piper frequently), but how he speaks about forgiveness points to a general atonement in which salvation is possible but not actually procured. I could be wrong about what he actually believes, which is the point: he doesn’t actually express it. (To be fair, he defines ‘propitiation’ on pp. 46.)

Granted, you can’t say everything about everything when you write a book, but these seem to be significant issues that affect much of what you say on this topic. I’m not “heresy hunting” but noticing large gaps in his reasoning.

At times his vagueness affects how he interacts with Scripture. I have notes written in the margins in numerous places questioning how he understands particular texts.

He interacts with Lewis Smedes on the topic of “mandatory forgiveness”, representing a less than biblical view of forgiveness. But he doesn’t interact with anyone else on significant issues. I would have liked him to interact with Dan Allender’s material in Bold Love, as an example. His work regarding forgiveness is different than Brauns’ (and Smedes’). Such interaction would have helped clarify a few things in his book that I still have questions about regarding his perspective.

The main premise of the book is that “we forgive as God forgave us.” He doesn’t simply take this as forgive because we’ve been forgiven, or even in a similar way, but rather “in the same way.” He rightfully notes the graciousness of God’s forgiveness, and the costliness to God in the atonement of Christ. He properly notes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us in justification. He notes the connection of forgiveness with reconciliation (they are not identical). He also notes that forgiveness does not remove all earthly consequences which in Christ have been transformed from punishment to training in righteousness. But I struggle with his definition of forgiveness.

“God’s forgiveness: a commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences.”

So, for you to forgive is an identical commitment to those who repent.

Take a moment though to insert that definition into a passage in the place of forgiveness. Passages like these:

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,Luke 1

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Acts 5

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, …. Ephesians 1 cf. Colossians 1:14

In this way, he goes beyond the simple meaning or use of the term forgiveness (which he mentions) as release from a debt to this more complex idea. We therefore offer people forgiveness, but they must repent in order for us to actually forgive them. We have an “attitude” of forgiveness toward them.

So, while he therefore says we don’t need to “forgive” everyone he never gets to what I think is a core issue based on the doctrine of sin. I don’t forgive people unless they sin, thereby incurring a debt, against me. I can’t forgive Timothy McVeigh, whom he mentions repeatedly in this context, for instance because he didn’t sin against me except in the most vague way since I’m an American. I can feel outrage, but that is the problem: I’m carrying an indirect burden since he didn’t take anything away from me. His treatment of this issue, in my opinion, is quite superficial and unhelpful.

Let’s apply this to an unknown rapist whose repentance a victim may never know about. She has an attitude of forgiveness, and a “gift” she doesn’t know where to send. This is where it breaks down for me. Theology is all about distinctions, and there are a number of big ones he doesn’t make. The “gift” makes sense in understanding my personal relationships. But not with regard to profound sins in which there is no personal relationship (for instance with an uncle who physically abuses the victim).

Another important distinction that is never spelled out (or I missed it if he did) was that just because I forgive someone doesn’t mean God does. He seems to imply at points in his argument against automatic or mandatory forgiveness that God does because I do. Not only may there be state sanctions (though he has conflicting statements on this too), there may be divine sanctions that remain.

Let me illustrate: there is a family member who sinned against me profoundly (it was not a crime so there would be no legal sanctions), in a way that still haunts me to this day. That person can’t really face it, or understand it. For an extended period of time I was very angry with them. Despite their lack of repentance I forgave them. I didn’t just have an attitude of forgiveness, but forgave their debt to me. I am reconciled with them despite this sin and their lack of repentance. This doesn’t mean God forgave them or is reconciled with them (by all appearances He has not). I chose to no longer hold this debt against them, and even restore relationship with them despite this profound debt.

He missed another important distinction in his chapter about when you can’t stop thinking about it. Why are you thinking about it? Is the source Satan to continually put up walls between you, to get you to be bitter or feel false condemnation, shame etc.? Or is the source God to help you deepen your forgiveness of the other person? This, in my opinion, matters. But he never mentions the latter possibility.

What I mean is this (which I hoped the book would be about or address): at times we come to a deeper understanding of the debt incurred. Something we thought was a $50 debt is really a $1,000 debt. For instance, I minimized that debt a family member incurred. I needed to face what I really needed to forgive. Ultimately God intended that process for good, even as Satan intended it for evil (to trap me in bitterness). THIS is real pastoral theology, not the superficial approach he presented that we shouldn’t think about it if we’ve forgiven. But what have we forgiven? Have we forgiven the debt as much as we can understand it?

A question he doesn’t really answer is that though forgiveness is often the basis of reconciliation, must I reconcile with someone because I have forgiven them? A rape or abuse victim should forgive the person who sinned against them. Perhaps the person has even repented. Must you be reconciled to them? Have them over for dinner? Leave your kids with them? No!! Forgiveness does not mean that the person is suddenly trustworthy, or that you trust them with your life. It just means you no longer want your pound of flesh, for the debt to be repaid. It doesn’t mean you have to loan out more money.

There was also somewhat of an internal conflict in the book. He thinks we should only forgive if the other person repents. That was not the intention of Jesus’ answer to the question. It was not what must they do for me to forgive them, but if they repent must I forgive them. Very different question, and to distort that distorts the answer. As long as someone repents, I must forgive them. But it doesn’t mean I must wait until they repent to forgive, which is what Brauns says at points.

Later in the book he notes we can overlook an offense. But they didn’t repent. Unlike Ken Sande, whom he references at times, there is no real process for sorting out when I should just overlook an offense or sin. Sometimes even Braun, despite his previous statements, means they don’t have to repent for you to forgive them.

This book does present some good material that may be helpful to a number of people. He is closer to the biblical understanding of forgiveness than Smedes. But there are some holes in the foundation, gaps he didn’t address or distinctions he failed to make that prove unhelpful for others. For instance, my sister-in-law found the book helpful. Okay. I don’t think she’s deceived or stupid. It helped her and that is GOOD. I didn’t find it as helpful. That could be a function of my understanding of theological complexities which differs from hers necessarily as a pastor, and/or the ways I have been sinned against that she has not. I still find Allender’s work more helpful for me. If you are more like my sister-in-law you may legitimately find this book helpful. If you are more like me, you may not find this book helpful for equally legitimate reasons.

 

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I’ve been wanting to read some of John Perkin’s books for some time now. His new book, Dream with Me: Race, Love and the Struggle We Must Win, is a great place to start.

This book is a little bit of everything. Partially autobiographical you get insight into the events that have shaped John’s life and ministry. This also gives people like me a better grasp of the black experience in America.

He also provides some background to Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and summarizes the Three R’s (relocation, reconciliation and redistribution). He also allows himself to dream and invites us to share his dream.

So, there is a little bit of everything John is about in this book. Hopefully it will pique interest in his other books to develop areas on interest more deeply.

John has about a third grade education, and notes he had some help in the process of writing (we all need good editors). As a result the book is easy to understand and generally easy to read. It is not overly complex but not simplistic either. At times it does seem to change direction unexpectedly. There is a stream of consciousness feel to it as if you’re sitting down and listening to John over a cup of tea (you can have coffee if you’d like).

He begins with his story as part of the larger story of segregation in America. Things most of us take for granted were out of the realm of possibility for many/most black Americans. For instance, he noted not only blacks having different waiting rooms for the doctor, but not having appointments. They were for white people, and blacks got the left over time on a first come, first served basis. The medical clinic he founded in Mendenhall was intended to help blacks gain access to health care as if they were white people. And they didn’t exclude whites.

“Black citizens weren’t allowed to participate in the society they had spent centuries helping to build.”

He then shifts into the history of the CCDA. It is based on a biblical view of a new humanity in Christ living and working together for the common good. It is a vision of a “multiethnic, multicultural, multigenerational, multiclass” community based on the same elements in God’s kingdom.

Perkins returns to race relations more specifically in talking about poor whites. Often the only relationships in which they had an power was in their relationships with blacks. They were often damaged and gained some sense of power and worth by playing the oppressor toward the one group lower on the social scale then they were. This, in turn, damaged them even more (oppression damages both the oppressed and the oppressor).

“Wealthy whites also used the poor whites as tools of oppression, making them overseers or guards or sheriffs charged with taking care of the dirty work to keep black people in their place so they didn’t have to. In reality, though, this just fueled the resentment between blacks and poor whites.”

He moves toward his experience with non-violence in the face of oppression. The move away from this is one of the things that concerns him about the present and the future. He believes people have the power to win with love, but often think they don’t (or don’t have the time) and resort to violence and rioting that makes they no better than their oppressors.

“In the face of power, some resort to violence as a way to create chaos. That’s terrorism. That’s what people use when they don’t have the power to win. Nonviolence is a better way. It’s radical.”

“I quickly came to realize that nonviolence takes more strength than violence- and it takes more than just human strength. It takes God’s strength working in human beings to produce self-control, gentleness, and the other fruit of the Holy Spirit. God’s power comes in our weakness and brokenness.”

From here he moves into the 3 R’s mentioned above. To assist a community, he believes it is best to live there. This often means relocating into the community so you help from the inside, not the outside (and security of your gated community). While there you seek reconciliation between groups and individuals in conflict. This can be race, class, culture or other barriers used by sin to divide and impoverish. He speaks of the redistribution of opportunity, not free stuff. Not working robs people of dignity. He addresses stewardship- sharing our skills and opportunities (like networks) with people who don’t have those skills or opportunities. These new relationships give the poor new opportunities. In the Gospel we see Jesus “relocating” to planet Earth as a man, reconciling all creation to God through the cross and making Himself poor to enrich others. This notion of incarnation is addressed in the next chapter.

“Reconciliation is God bringing people into relationship with Himself and other people. Redistribution is caring for others’ needs as we care for our own.”

“I long to see the church give up its power and privilege the way Jesus did when he came to earth to give us the greatest of gifts.”

Perkins then talks about justice, and the differences between theology done by whites and blacks. He speaks in generalizations, obviously, but those differences affect how we view justice. White evangelical theology has focused on the personal side of redemption thanks to our commitment to individualism (among other things and despite some people’s commitment to covenant theology). Black theology, often written in response to white oppression sees redemption as communal as well as individual. Both are true and in tension with one another. But we tend to be polarized and talk past one another (on many topics unfortunately). He notes how both sides have sins in need of repentance and forgiveness.

After a very personal chapter about his son Spencer, he moves into human dignity, the final fight (love) and forgiveness. I’m not sure about the order there but all three are important if we are to discuss reconciliation and justice. He sees the church as the primary communicator of these truths. Sadly, we’ve allowed tribalism (Democrat vs. Republican, black vs. white, poor vs. rich etc.) to set in so we now disparage those who disagree with us (unAmerican, denier, homophobic etc.). He mentions immigration in particular (recognizing government’s role as possibly different from a Christian’s view) as a place we should be able to talk, and disagree, peaceably.

“So becoming a Christian is discovering God’s love for us, and being a Christian is learning to love God back- and then finding ways to show God’s overflowing love to the people around us.”

I certainly agree with him that the noise in our culture is too loud and we must move beyond it to think and act as responsible people instead of performing a series of knee jerk reactions that perpetuate the conflicts of our time.

“There is too much noise in our society right now, and that noise just keeps getting louder. We need quiet time for reflection. We need to be still and know that God is God.”

He briefly concludes with his dream which shouldn’t surprise us if we were paying attention throughout the book. It is the dream of a civil rights leader and Christian. It is a dream we should all share, one that is not simply about externals but about the heart. I leave John Perkins with the final word.

“I want to see a real community of love. Everyone wants to fight crime, fight violence, fight racism, and fight injustice, but love is still the final fight, and unless we have these communities of love, we will never see this dream realized.”

[I received a complementary copy from Baker Books for the purposes of review.]

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