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Posts Tagged ‘grace’


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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Confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the culture war.

I’m torn in two. I have strong convictions on some things that I think are important. But I’m weary of how we as a culture, including the church, discuss these matters. I’m becoming more concerned with ministering to struggling people than trying to be right. I do want to explore nuances on some issues.

The subtitle of one of Scott Sauls’ books interested me. That book is Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides. Sauls is a PCA pastor in Nashville who used to work with Tim Keller in NYC. In many ways he is like Keller, making distinctions and exploring nuance. He tends to tick off both the left and the right. If the Bible is true, Keller notes, it will critique every culture and every person. That means that everyone will be annoyed by something it says. The same will be true for faithful pastors. The left thinks you are too right and the right that you are too left.

In his introduction Sauls puts it this way:

“Are we known by what we are for instead of what we are against? Are we less concerned about defending our rights- for Jesus laid down his rights- and more concerned about joining Jesus in his mission of loving people, places, and things to life?”

While we believe in truth, we also believe in grace and peace. This means a Christian should be pursuing all of them, not just one. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he calls them to end what we’d call their tribalism in light of the fact they’ve been baptized into Christ. Their union with Him and one another takes precedence over the divides that kept people apart in their culture. In light of this we keep truth and love together, as Paul notes in Ephesians 4. Sauls wants us to see beyond the polarization to affirm what is true about each side of an argument in the process of finding the truth in the middle so we can love both sides and hopefully bring them together.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first addresses issues between the various “Christian tribes”. The second addresses some of the issues that polarize the church and the world.

The first issue he addresses could be in both sections of the book: politics. Reflecting Keller he argues that no political system or party is fully aligned with Jesus and therefore subject to critique. Politics is like a religion in America. There seems to be no middle ground.

God has instituted government, and raises up and casts down leaders. Those governments and leaders don’t serve Jesus. In our own context the two parties grab hold of part of what Jesus says. As Christians we can think they have the whole (or none in the case of THEM). We each have agendas and choose the candidate or party that best represent them. And one of those agendas tends to be political power. It is not just the evangelical right that courts earthly power, as the evangelical left would have you believe. Both sides have made compromises to gain cultural power so the current dust ups are largely disingenuous to me.

“Kingdom politics reject the world’s methods of misusing power and manipulating the truth.”

As we consider politics we should recognize that Christians should be involved in terms of voting and also holding office. Yet we should do this understanding the limitations involved. No candidate or platform is perfect. We are not electing pastors, and being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make one wise or beyond corruption. This is another way of saying that politics is not a means to usher in the kingdom of God. It is, however, a means to help human flourishing so the work of the kingdom can take place in and through the church.

Sauls notes that Christianity tends to be healthier when it is part of the minority, not the majority. As the minority we are generally less conformed to the world, and less likely to trample other groups. As the majority we tend to cling to power and can abuse it. We are fallen humans after all.

He also notes that “Christianity embraces both conservative and progressive values.” It is neither. Christianity teaches that women are made in the image of God. As such it should embrace equality for women. Christians have long had a prevailing ethic of life contrary to many an earthly government and culture. If we treat women well, the pro-life movement is not assumed to be a war on women.

I don’t want to spend as much time on the other polarizing viewpoints. But in discussing politics with some from the evangelical left recently I’ve heard the accusation that I’m actually pro-birth and don’t care about the poor. That’s a nice talking point, and the second chapter: For the unborn or the poor? Oddly, I’ve found many conservatives at the forefront of care for the poor through groups like the Salvation Army, Compassion International and through funding soup kitchens, pantries and homeless shelters.

It is difficult to discuss this topic without getting back into red state-blue state. But the question is not a new one: who should care for the poor, the church or the state? Calvin argued that church should, and Luther thought it was the state. We have a similar divide between the evangelical right and left. It isn’t really about whether to care for the poor but who and how. Our problem is we tend to see the other side not caring because they don’t do it the way we think it should be done.

Sauls brings us back to the reality of both the unborn and the poor bearing the image of God. This should lead us to have a comprehensive ethic of life. Mine would go something like this: The state should protect the unborn while the church/Christians should provide for the unborn and the poor. The state should protect the living by bearing the sword against the wicked who forfeit their lives for certain heinous crimes.

The section also addresses personal faith or institutional church, money guilt or money greed, racially the same or racially diverse, and him or her. These are important issues that we tend to take extreme positions on and fight about in the church. These, of course, are false dilemmas for the most part. We should value both personal faith and the institutional church. One tends to be dead without the other. Sauls notes that the early church was FAR from perfect, so the problems of our churches shouldn’t mean we reject “organized religion”. Rather, the church is a place where we learn to love people who are very different from ourselves. As he argues, we need the church and the church needs us.

In discussing money he reminds us that the underlying issue is contentment. Most people are not content with their wealth. This can manifest itself in either hoarding or spending. We inevitably have to see the God-man who was rich but became poor to enrich others. As we consider Him He makes us people who also enrich others.

Racial questions are difficult because we have such a hard time moving beyond our experience. We tend to normalize our experiences and can’t see other people’s experience (especially minorities) as valid or true. People in the majority need to begin listening to minorities. Privilege, I’ve found, doesn’t have to do with having an easy go of things so much as there are things you never have to think about. For instance, when I get in my car I never wonder if I’m going to get pulled over by the police. Many blacks and Hispanics do, and that is because they are pulled over far more frequently than me. When I get pulled over I don’t think that I’d better record it just in case things go south. I’ve always been treated with respect by the police. But many blacks and Hispanics are viewed with more suspicion by police than I am. Their experience is so different than mine. There are negatives I don’t experience due to my race, social status or both.

The same is true regarding men and women. I don’t go for a jog (when I used to) and wonder if I’ll get jumped and raped. I don’t pay attention to the cars on my walk to see if the same one keeps going by. I don’t pay more for a car or repairs because of my sex. Studies show that women are often taken advantage of by sales and repair men.

Where Sauls goes is inequality in the church in both chapters. Minorities often feel forced to fit in with the white culture of a church. They feel like a token instead of someone who has a seat at the table with decision-making power. Women also have decisions made for them without seeking their wisdom and counsel. God gifts women for ministry too. They don’t have to hold office to exercise those gifts like egalitarians think. Some complementarians need to remember that this is true and not unnecessarily restrict the ministry of women.

In the second section he discusses affirmation or critique, accountability or compassion, hypocrite or work in progress, chastity or sexual freedom, hope or realism, self-esteem or God-esteem and then provides some quick pointers on living outside the lines in the epilogue.

He spends time discussing our need for affirmation and encouragement. He also distinguishes critique and criticism helpfully.

“Because an affirming critique always comes from the motive of restoring and building up, unlike criticism, which aims to harm and tear down.”

We all been victims of criticism. You feel worthless, humiliated and exposed. Critique is not focused on fault-finding and assigning blame. It is concerned with how we can do better. Affirmation should not be devoid of critique, but it should be devoid of criticism. In this context he shared a story of a bad relationship with another pastor that brought out the worst in each of them, and how it turned the corner into a healthier relationship when they considered how God was sanctifying each thru the other.

He invites to consider both the justice and compassion of God that is revealed in the cross of Christ, as well as the final judgment. This is not a book whose message is “can’t we just get along.” It brings us often to the gospel while reminding us that divine truth is not simplistic. Our positions may have elements of the truth but not the whole truth. As we interact with people of differing opinions we may discover they have some of the truth too. Sauls is not selling relativism, but is reminding us that the truth can be more complex than we want to make it in our quest to be right. Seriously, who wants to be wrong?

There is much to make you think and move beyond the false dilemmas we find in life. There are also some great stories. I loved the story about Doug and how Scott struggled with a competitive spirit with a man he hadn’t been in contact with for over a decade. Scott is vulnerable in this book. He’s not the hero who has it all together. He comes across to me as a guy who’s trying to figure all this out and shares a few of the things he’s learned. See this as critique instead of criticism and you’ll benefit from the book. See it as criticism and you’ll just get ticked and retreat to your own tribe within the lines. It might feel safer, but then so is a prison cell sometimes.

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There aren’t too many book about laziness. There aren’t too many books by Korean pastors in English either.

Busy for Self, Lazy for GodWhen I saw that Westminster Seminary Press translated and released Busy for Self, Lazy for God: Meditations on Proverbs for Diligent Living by Nam Joon Kim, I had some interest based on the subject.

I also had interest based on the author. One should not get stuck in an echo chamber, reading only people from your culture and sub-culture. Nam Joon Kim is a conservative Presbyterian pastor, but he lives in Korea and is part of a very different culture than mine. I wanted to gain a wider perspective on the issue; to see how his culture (or at least he) handles the Scriptures and does theology.

I have served in two denominations that have non-geographic Korean Presbyteries. They are largely Korean-speaking churches so there is not much in the way of interaction with the pastors at General Assembly or Synod. This is clearly unfortunate, depriving both them and us of benefits to be gained by cross-cultural conversations.

Back to the book.

Rev. Kim breaks the book into two main sections: describing laziness and its consequences, and then mortifying laziness. The forward by Peter Lillback, President of Westminster Seminary in PA, notes that Rev. Kim is part of the same theological tradition. As an avid  reader, he has delved deeply into the Puritans. The book is a bestseller in Korea and Chinese-speaking countries. Now we get to benefit from his work.

In his introduction, Rev. Kim notes:

“Also, I began to realize that laziness is not a simple issue to deal with, but is a very complex issue because the root rotting one’s soul is self-love, and self-love is complex matter reaching into every corner of our lives.”

Conversion does not immediately drive out laziness. He does mention that the Christian life is a cruciform life, “built upon our Spirit-empowered, grace-infused efforts to become more like Christ”. Yet there lie the remnants of sin. It manifests itself in laziness among other things.

He reminds us that work is a blessing, and part of our being made in the image of God. It is intended to give us joy, both earthly and eternal.

Image result for the dudeLaziness is a cancer-like sin. Laziness inhibits our spiritual growth & sanctification since it often keeps us from engaging in the dependent discipline necessary for growth to take place. Laziness keeps us from reading the Scripture so our minds are renewed and our lives therefore transformed. Laziness keeps us from prayer in which we engage with God and receive grace. There is a reason laziness, or sloth, is known as one of the seven deadly sins.

Rev. Kim thinks of his own country and church. He laments the lack of integrity of Korean people. He frames this in the context of national income per capita. He sees integrity and holiness as connected. Integrity is being who you say you are. Holiness is being who God says you are. As a Christian, you should say you are what God says you are, and live it. Both find their foundation in trust in God. Kim mentions that doing the right thing includes doing them at the right time.

As a result, Rev. Kim explores how laziness affects the witness of the Church. It also reduces our labors to the money we need to survive instead of the glory of God.

Christians, like other people, often have dreams. They dream of doing great things. As a kid I dreamed of athletic prowess. Dreams, however, are different than goals. Goals are used to accomplish dreams. Without them dreams are just that: dreams. The reason we don’t develop goals to make dreams a reality is laziness.

“A dream is a desire for something. But that is where dreams stop: with desire. A goal, on the other hand, is something that someone burns with passion for and thus strives devotedly to accomplish.”

He notes that laziness can be very busy, and look like diligence. But it is busy with the wrong things. We can tread water in life, but treading water is not to be confused with swimming.

Laziness is not contained to you. You don’t simply ruin your life. Often you ruin the life of those who depend upon you. Think about that for a minute, parents and employees. This is part of the danger of laziness. Perhaps you’ve had to rely on a lazy person as the project falls farther and farther behind schedule. Perhaps you’ve been the one who was fired because people relied on you and you sank the project.

“The influence of one person’s laziness is never neatly contained. It spills over into the lives of others.”

The second chapter, Robbed by a Thief, begins his meditations on the Proverbs. He begins with 22:13. He spends time setting up the context, interpreting and applying this and other proverbs.

IImage result for the break upn this he explores the balance between work and rest. He returns to the theme of self-love as the root of laziness. Like Gary in The Break-up, we say we just want to rest for 20 minutes watching our highlights before helping prepare or clean up dinner. There is always a reason not to help. Your desires are the only ones that matter. Laziness begins to destroy relationships.

“A promiscuous and decadent lifestyle is not merely the result of poor decisions: it is the natural outworking of the rejection of true love- biblical love- along with the direction and sacrifice such love requires.”

As you start to feel the weight of your laziness, and like all you are getting is law, Rev. Kim brings us back to the gospel. As a member of an honor culture, he does focus far more on the effects of laziness on others, particularly your family that most Americans would. He does emphasize discipline and more than many American Christians do. But he does bring us back to the gospel before we suffocate. He reminds us of God’s diligence in fulfilling His goals, including taking responsibility for His children. Grace shapes our discipline rather than substituting for our discipline.

In The Desire for and Development of Laziness Rev. Kim spends time on Proverbs 21:25. He introduces this with some background on the Chinese emperors decadence and excess, contrasted with the plight of the ordinary person. Our quest for “peace” is often like theirs, “a prelude for perversity, and perversity can be linked to laziness.” He rightly addresses the beastliness of laziness as a function of our depravity. Sinners are sensual and driven by desire like animals. For the Christian, laziness often means we don’t seek God diligently and remain spiritually weak and focused on our desires.

“Apart from communion with God, which is fostered by God’s grace but also demands our continual effort, our spiritual epiphanies dwindle and disappear.”

In the midst of this he discusses get rich quick schemes, which are born in laziness. He shifts into the progression of laziness: Not putting fort our best effort ==> abandoning duties and responsibilities ==> carnal passions. Laziness progresses in our lives unless fought diligently. It is the unrelenting downward pull of our flesh. Grace, and grace alone, can overcome this pull. Left to ourselves we drown in envy, discontentment and despair.

He then addresses the Carelessness of Laziness with a focus on Proverbs 24:30-31. He tells of a man who was careless in a public document that cost the company a large sum of money. They lost their job, and their supervisor was also disciplined. Laziness leads to neglecting details that can be costly.

In the midst of this, the translators use some Christianese. Instead of saying “zeal” they use the phrase “on fire”. It is one of my pet peeves. While concepts may be unfamiliar to non-Christians we should speak in understandable words and phrases. We want to stand out for our faith, not our odd use of language. We can be lazy in thinking about how we communicate.

The tendency of laziness to invent excuses is examined in The Way of a Hedge of Thorns (Proverbs 15:19). I thought of some of the people in my life that this applies to greatly. I am not immune, nor are any of us. Excuse-making can eventually cripple us spiritually. We often don’t make excuses in our worldly responsibilities, but do with our God-ward ones. We are busy for self, but lazy and excuse-making when it comes to seeking God and seeking to glorify and enjoy Him.

Having explored laziness and its harmful consequences, Rev. Kim moves to the second part of the book: Saying Goodbye to Your Close Friend. The mortification of sin can feel like that. You’ve gotten comfortable with certain sins, in this case laziness. Putting it to death is painful. You will miss it to some degree.

He begins with two chapters on Laziness and Sleep. Rest is a promise of God with the intended purpose of preparing us to work. Laziness separates work and rest, seeking rest and sleep as a good in itself, to be enjoyed well beyond our need for sleep. The Korean work ethic seems like over-kill to many of us in America or Europe. There needs to be some adjustment. Adam didn’t punch a time clock. In the Garden he would likely take time to enjoy a job well done, a beautiful scene or sunset, and perhaps an intimate moment with Eve. God is not like the Egyptian task-masters and Pharaohs.

In this section the translators note that “Korea follows more of an ‘eight to nine’ lifestyle- no one may leave until the boss leaves.” A hard working person in another culture may be considered lazy by their standards. And by our standards there are likely hard working people what are considered to be lazy. We all tend to make ourselves the measure of all.

He notes that medical conditions can produce the need for extra sleep. What is in his focus is the sleep of laziness that leads to poverty of spirit and wallet.

“There can be no coexistence of the gospel with laziness; we always choose to focus our attention on one or the other.”

He then explores the fact that Laziness Hates Passion from Proverbs 19:24. Our love of sleep and rest must be cast out by the power of a greater love. Laziness hates passion and embraces weak responses to important things. Laziness gives a half-hearted response and doesn’t see things through.

Image result for smoke in the eyesHe then confronts our Boredom. Diligence is not necessarily exciting. Completing projects tests our attention span. So, what happens when you grow bored of a task? He explores the difference between conviction and sheer stubbornness (which is born of laziness and pride).

He returns to the reality that The Sluggard Gives God Grief. Laziness is like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes. It is a constant source of irritation to others, including God. One of the sins Jesus died for is our laziness. The penalty of sloth, which seems so innocuous, is death. It grieved the Father to send the Son to die for laziness.

He then moves into ministry whether pastor, elder, deaconess (his inclusion). Our call is intended to shape our lives. We don’t fit it into a little corner of open space and hope we can fulfill our duties. We are called to make room to fulfill the duties of our call.

“We should consider the gravity of our call from God, whatever it is, and restructure and reorganize our priorities and lives in order to be faithful to that call. … The point is a very simple one: change so that you can serve; adapt and adjust so that you can live out God’s call on your life.”

He concludes with An Image Forever Burned into the Heart as he meditates on Proverbs 24:32-34. The author of this proverb had this image of a neglected field burned in his mind. He knew the circumstances of the owner. It was not illness of disability that kept that field in disrepair. There was no tragedy that produced this effect. This leads to some hard questions about the places in our lives suffering disrepair. Is that a result of laziness or tragedy that has befallen us. Often it is the result of choices we make.

FImage result for abandoned houseor instance, the last two years have seen an abundance of leaks in my irrigation at home. I could choose to let the water puddle in unproductive places each morning. I could choose to turn off the water and allow our plants and trees to die in the desert heat. I could choose to turn it off and water by hand and have less time to spend with God and my family when I’m home. I could choose to repair them when I have time on the weekend and enjoy a beautiful yard with my family and time with God. The more things we push back the more disrepair fills our lives until we are like a broken-down, abandoned house except there we are.

Rev. Kim is calling us to faith and repentance. The echo in the background is the creation mandate. The power to turn from our sluggishness and toward diligence is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is a needful book, though a hard book. It will expose the laziness in your life. It isn’t condemnatory, but is calling people to repentance due to the kindness of God. That is a book worth reading.

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Last year at this time I was preaching through Jonah. I wish I had Tim Keller’s latest book at the time. The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy should raise any controversy with the title. I’m sure there will be plenty to annoy some. But I loved reading this book.

The book is dedicated to John Newton whose life and ministry made a big impact on Keller. Those familiar with Newton’s writings will find his influence in many places.

He makes two passes through the book, exploring the themes that are found there. The first pass (9 chapters) handles the text sequentially. The second goes back through thematically to address our relationship to God’s Word, God’s world and God’s grace.

It is in Keller’s typical winsome style that points out where we tend to go wrong whether to the left or the right. He’s an equal opportunity offender, but it is so gentle I don’t understand how people get so mad at him. He’s generally right.

In the introduction he alludes to one of his other books. In the first half of the book Jonah is like the younger brother who goes to the far country to avoid his father. In the second half he’s like the angry older brother who is upset about the Father’s joy in repentance.

Jonah stands out as the willfully disobedient prophet to a willfully disobedient people. He is the representative Israelite. Jonah doesn’t trust God. He doesn’t trust that God has his best interests in mind. He is so like, … us.

“And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. … The story of Jonah, with all its twists and turns, is about how God takes Jonah, sometimes by the hand, other times by the scruff of the neck, to show him these things.”

Keller starts with the storms of life. “All sin has a storm attached to it.” (btw: I read people who claim Keller never talks about sin, or uses the word. What are they talking about?!) Jonah’s disobedience brought a literal storm not only into his life but the lives of the Gentile sailors. Sin’s storms don’t remain isolated to the particular sinner in question. “Sin is the suicidal action of the will upon itself.” He does clarify that most storms are from the condition of sin, meaning that we live in a fallen world and we don’t need to find the particular sin/sinner behind each hurricane, flood or drought. But know that when we sin, there are often earthly consequences.

For the Christian, the storms of life (afflictions) are meant to produce good. He is at work in this storm to bring Jonah to Ninevah for them to receive mercy. For example, I saw a recent interview with Donna Rice who experienced a storm of publicity due to her affair with Senator Gary Hart. She said that the storm brought her back to her Christian faith.

Next Keller explores the idea of who our neighbor is. These Gentiles are better human beings than the prodigal prophet. God is using the disobedient prophet to lead Gentiles to faith and repentance through his disobedience. Jonah only wants to see himself as an Israelite, as part of a faith community. He needs to also see himself as part of humanity, the broader community. Frankly, Christians have the same problem. We don’t have much concern with those around us as long as our lives are going okay. And so Keller explores common grace.

He then moves into the “other”, the question of identity and those who have a different identity than we do. Jonah’s national identity blinded him in many ways. The early church would struggle with the same problem. We use that identity to exclude other people unnecessarily. We dehumanize people who don’t share our ethnic, national or political identities. We’ve seen this as one of the early steps in the holocaust and other genocides (Rwanda, Armenian etc.). This was very helpful as I preached thru Philippians 3 and the false identities we can boast in.

Keller moves to the pattern of love, and the heart of the gospel with substitution. Jonah is a type of Jesus who would die for our sins instead of sins of his own. The storm of God’s merciful wrath (the phrase I used in my sermons, adapted by a phrase of Luther’s) is stilled.

“To deny God’s wrath upon sin not only robs us of a full view of God’s holiness and justice but also can diminish our wonder, love, and praise at what it was that Jesus bore for us.”

In this context he connects wrath with love too. God’s wrath is directed at actions (and people) who harm what He loves. He again clearly articulates the gospel contrary to what the discernment blogs claim about him.

The Gentile sailors end up offering praise and sacrifices to YHWH after the storm is stilled. Keller notes the irony in that Jonah sought to avoid bringing truth to Gentiles, aka wicked pagans, but actually does anyway.

Image result for jonahHe then delves deeper into grace as Jonah wrestles with God in the belly of the fish. He’s gone as low as he can go (the literary irony) because he didn’t go up to Ninevah. Jonah “does business” with God only when he can no longer run from God. He’s trapped and finally admits the ugly truth. Often God has to bring us to similar places before, like addicts, we admit we’ve made a complete mess of things by our disobedience and can’t fix it.

With Jonah finally going to Ninevah, the discussion moves to repentance. They repented of their injustice, and moved toward justice. They were a violent, oppressive people. Repentance meant turning away from their violence and oppression. When the gospel calls us out of sin, it also calls us out of injustice. This is Keller’s connection between the gospel and “social justice”. He’s not preaching a social gospel, but the gospel of Christ’s penal, substitutionary atonement with implications for justice in society. He’s not preaching a privatized faith nor a civil faith or religion. Personal faith is lived out in society as well as the community of faith.

With God relenting another storm arises, this time in Jonah’s heart. He’s beyond angry. In Jonah’s mind, relenting from destruction means the inevitable destruction of Israel. He’s blind to Israel’s sin, apparently, just as we tend to be to our sin and the sin of our communities.

God responds with patience and instruction. He is not only concerned about Israel, but all these people who also bear His image. He even cares about the livestock. That’s who He is. Unlike Jonah, Jesus wept over Jerusalem over the impending destruction for its wickedness.

“They want a “God of love,” but a God of love who does not get angry when evil destroys the creation he loves is ultimately not a loving God at all. If you love someone, you must and will get angry if something threatens to destroy him or her.”

Both God’s righteousness and His love are functions of His goodness! We don’t play them against one another but embrace them both as grounded in His goodness. So, this same God can justify the wicked because He loved them in sending His Son as a propitiation for their sin. Jesus satisfied His righteousness and His love. He didn’t satisfy His righteousness so God was then free to love.

Keller then moves to the three final themes of his book. Like Jonah (following Adam and Eve) we struggle to believe God’s Word is good for us. We minimize His wisdom and magnify ours. We trust our word over His.

“Sin always begins with the character assassination of God. We believe that God has put us in a world of delights but has determined that he will not give them to us if we obey him.”

Keller defends the substitutionary atonement from the charge of “divine child abuse” as infamously made by Steven Chalke. That charge does damage to the Trinity, not simply atonement. The one God in three persons works to save us. Jesus is not some lesser being offered to change the mind of an angry deity.

IImage result for dodo birdn terms of our relationship to God’s world he returns the question of our neighbor. Calvin, he notes, reminded us that all our neighbors bear the image of God and we must remember that. Keller applies this to politics. We must find a way between the erroneous beliefs that we should just preach the gospel and avoid politics, or that politics is all-important. The two party system tries to push a “package deal” on us instead of allowing us to vote “a la carte”. Pro-life Democrats are going the way of the dodo. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Republican. They have anti-Christian views too. The gospel of the One who died for us when we were His enemies, calls us out of our partisanship and demonization of the other side. Loved by One we hated, we can begin to love ones we hated.

Keller moves into how privileged status can play out in perverting justice. The same laws should apply to all within a society. He mentions “citizens over immigrants” without any mention of their legal or illegal status as immigrants (I think this matters in light of Romans 13). But immigrants and other vulnerable groups should not be taken advantage of by the powerful. Christians, who worship a just God, should care about justice.This is not at the expense of the God but on account of the gospel.

“We must realize that since all our social problems stem from our alienation from God, the most radical and loving thing you can do for a person is to see him or her reconciled to God.”

IImage result for c.s. lewisn our relationship to God’s grace Keller clearly puts a changed life as a result of salvation, not the cause of salvation. In this it differs from every other religion. Here he explores Lewis’ The Four Loves to discuss our attachment to our people and culture. Lewis affirms a love for our people, but notes “We all know now that this love becomes a demon when it becomes a god.” Love of country is not the same a fascism or racism. Lewis rejects anti-patriotism as extremism just as he rejected any nationalism that begins to denigrate and destroy those who are different. [It is important to understand what is meant when someone uses the term ‘nationalism’. It can simply refer to the love of country that is normal for most people, and not the political movement used to justify the supremacy of a nation.] When do you know love of country has gone toxic? When it ignores the blemishes of its past. EVERY country has very ugly blemishes in its past. In the present, every country is full of “good” and evil people (law abiding vs. criminals). Lewis notes that when a country begins to intentionally suppress or erases its misdeeds they begin to express racial/national/ethnic superiority. We then find ourselves on the doorstep of racism and oppression. This is a very helpful section. This is pertinent because it helps us to understand what Jonah experienced in himself. Turning from grace he was in the throes of a toxic nationality that wanted to withhold God from other people groups.

Jesus purchased people from every tribe, tongue, nation and language. The gospel mission focuses on loving other people groups, not just your own. This is the heart of Jonah’s struggle and ours. Will we embrace the mystery of God’s mercy or will we try to bottle it up as exclusively for people just like us? Jonah doesn’t resolve that question in his life, because it isn’t fully resolved in the readers. The question is, what will you do next knowing that God cares about those people too?

In the future I hope to read Anthony Carter’s book on Jonah,Running From Mercy: Jonah and the Surprising Story of God’s Unstoppable Grace, which was released at about the same time.

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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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What does evangelism have to do with grace? Obviously we want the other person to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ. But why do we want this? Mike Bechtle ponders this in the short, next chapter of Evangelism for the Rest of Us.

Let’s be honest. We often feel guilty about not sharing our faith. I feel it at times. As I prepare a sermon that touches on evangelism I can feel it. I want to produce conviction, surety of thought, on having it as a priority. But I’m sure it is often heard through the filter of failure and my words produce far more guilt than I’d like.

Evangelism often seems like one more obligation of the Christian life. The type A persons around us (or in us) have it on their To-Do List. It’s about obedience, for the love of Pete.

Yeah, but ……

We miss the point if it isn’t about compassion. The Father didn’t send the Son to save sinners as part of His To-Do List. “Oh, yeah. Time to save some sinners!” We see God’s great compassion for sinners in Scripture. This is most clear in Jonah, particularly chapter 4. Jonah’s compassion was limited to the plant that grew up overnight without any help from Jonah to provide Jonah with shade lacking from his lousy lean-to. Jonah was there hoping God would smite those lousy Assyrians. God, on the other hand, had compassion for this great city filled with people and animals that He made. God sent Jonah to them, not out of sense of obligation, but out of compassion. This is also why He sent the One greater than Jonah. “For God so loved the world…”

Too often we are about obligation, obedience, checking stuff off our list (or growing our church to satisfy our selfish ambitions or pay off our mortgage- ouch!!!!). We simply lack compassion.

He tells of a car salesman who paid him and his family so much attention. He felt connected to this guy who seemed interested in them. But the next day the salesman didn’t pay any attention to them when they came to pick up the van. It was simply the sale he cared about.

As we evangelize, or bear witness, we can be all about “closing the deal.” We can communicate that in unexpected ways. This mentality, not just its manifestations, is wrong. But that is what happens when our motivation isn’t compassion.

What we need more of to bear witness more consistently is compassion and love.

“But the more we love people, the more we will want to share with them. The focus will be external- on them, not us.”

As we grow in love our evangelism will be rooted in grace rather than guilt.

God uses weak people. The treasure of the gospel is in jars of clay. He didn’t remove Paul’s thorn but said “My grace will be sufficient.” He didn’t give Paul super-human strength, but enabled Paul to persevere despite that distracting, disabling thorn. The thorn seems to have become a means by which Paul gained opportunities to bear witness.

We hate pain. We’d rather be pain-free than experience sufficient grace. And that means we’d rather enjoy ease (like Jonah) than be channels of grace by pointing people to Jesus. Graceful  evangelism bears witness from reality, who we really are and out of our circumstances, not out of some fantasy land where Christians have it all together, have plenty of cash on hand, and never deal with sickness and tragedy. God often reaches people dealing with tragedy or illness through people who have or experienced something similar.

As Christians, Bechtle argues, we are to be bilingual people. The language of faith is our second language if we’ve come to faith in adulthood. We are speaking to people who don’t know or understand the language of faith. We are communicating to unbelievers. Graceful witness means speaking their language (I’m not talking about dropping “f” bombs), translating our faith into words they can understand as best we can. We connect it to their world, their needs, rather than keeping it abstract. Graceful witness doesn’t expect them to learn our language so we can share the truth (if they come to faith they will learn it).

This will happen if we genuinely care about people. If we love them and have compassion on them, we won’t expect them to buy a theological dictionary so we can evangelize them.

If we genuinely care about people we will listen to them.

“If I learn what’s important to him, I can find out where Christ might fit in his life.”

The above statement isn’t meant to somehow limit Christ, but to identify the points of entry for the gospel. Because you genuinely care! We want them to come to faith for their well-being, not so you can boast about it, ease your guilty conscience or feel better about spending time with them.

Graceful witness keeps in mind that it doesn’t all depend on me. I’m not just talking about my theological commitment to “the efficient call”, meaning God converts the person. I’m also talking about the fact that God may be using a variety of people in this person’s life. I can show them grace because it isn’t about my timetable for them or somehow showing my methods are superior to yours like some kung-fu showdown. (Yeah, I’m not sure where that came from.) We genuinely care and so wait on the process and players God is using. It isn’t about my airtight arguments. It not about winning the debate. It is about loving another person.

 

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It has been a while since I invested in one of the “dead guys”. When I saw Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Your Love for God by John Flavel, I thought I should read that. I am glad that I did buy it and read it.

This relatively short book is only comprised of 4 chapters. The great bulk of the book is the 3rd chapter. I read the book “devotionally”, after my daily time in Scripture. In the large chapter on the special seasons in life I would read one of the 12 at a time.

This is a typical Puritan work. This means Flavel looks at the subject from a variety of angles, dissecting it to pieces. If you aren’t used to this, it can feel wearisome but the repetition is important to driving the point home. This particular edition doesn’t give all the Scripture references to his quotes and illusions. That is unfortunate since it isn’t always obvious to the modern reader. This edition does have an introduction by J.I. Packer prior to Flavel’s own introduction.

If you think of the Christian life as one of dependence and discipline, this book focuses on the discipline while assuming the dependence. He does make some comments about our utter dependence upon God but you need to keep this in the forefront of your mind or you’ll take a very man-centered, fleshly approach to what he says. His focus is on our devotion, and at times he could do a better job reminding us of our gospel dependence or the gospel context that he assumes.

He begins with What the Keeping of the Heart Supposes and Imports. Since Adam’s rebellion humanity has been a rebellious creature prone to self-deception. Even the Christian, though regenerate, is still a sinner and prone to wander as the song goes. Keeping the heart presupposes regeneration. You can’t keep a heart of stone. It must be a heart of flesh. “Yet sin often actually discomposes it again; so that even a gracious heart is like a musical instrument” that needs to be tuned. This presupposition of regeneration is why I say he assumes the gospel thru much of the book. It is like the first verse of Exodus 20 which must not be forgotten while you read the rest of Exodus 20. Regeneration sets the gracious framework we are so easy to forget.

Keeping of the heart includes observing the frame of our heart, humbling ourselves for our sins and disorders (including our sinful desires), persistent prayer for purification, the making of vows to walk more faithfully, a constant zeal for the condition of our hearts and knowing that we live before the face of God.

The second chapter deals with some reasons why we should keep our hearts. Such reason include the glory of God (would he be a Puritan without starting here?), the assurance of salvation (tied to the sincerity of our profession of faith), the beauty of our conversation or sanctified living, and a different focus on the assurance of salvation focusing on the witness of the Spirit. God doesn’t assure wayward hearts. Implied here is the distinction between union (unchanging) and communion (changing). Keeping the heart is also essential to the improving of graces in our lives (seeing our need we pray and grow, for instance), and greater stability in times of temptation and testing.

As I said, the bulk of the book is concerned with particular seasons in life when keeping the heart is most difficult and yet necessary. Our circumstances do matter. We live out our faith in changing circumstances. Some of these circumstances require more attention on our part. Each of us is prone to greater weakness in some circumstances than others. Those circumstances include prosperity, adversity, trouble among God’s people, public distraction, outward deprivation, and more. 12 of them to be exact. He also lays out reasons why we should take heart in the midst of these circumstances, as well as the dangers presented by them. We often live like all seasons are the same. They aren’t. Differing seasons uncover different sins in our hearts. We need to engage our hearts in these circumstances to know the graces we need in our times of trouble or ease.

When in the midst of our circumstances, we would benefit from going back to that section of the book to remind ourselves of our great need and danger in those circumstances.

The final, and brief, chapter focuses on “improving and applying” the subject. He laments the weakness of the church of his day (what would he say about ours?), which indicate the great need of this book and its message. He largely focuses on revealing our need for grace so we will seek it from Jesus, the fountain of grace.

Modern writers don’t write books like this. And it is a shame. So it is important to read these older books that do address these spiritual subjects our time neglects (at its peril). This is a book most living Christians should read. They would find it helpful for keeping there heart before God, seeking His gracious Son.

 

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