Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Books for February 2012

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern WorldTo Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t say enough about this book. It is one of those books that I read and keep tying into everything else I see, hear, and read; that I keep telling everyone else about, and that quotes regularly come to mind that apply immediately to circumstances or ideas.

In short, Hunter considers the lofty and frequent goal of “changing culture” or, as the title states, even changing the world— both in its foundational underpinnings and rationale, and in the efforts and approaches put forth to accomplish such. As history has proven, each attempt has been found wanting, and Hunter considers why and redirects us toward an approach that is both biblical and proven. Along the way, he helpfully rethinks ideas like worldview, political power, and public witness, in each providing much assistance toward the realignment for the thoughtful Christian.

While lengthy, there isn’t a part of Hunter’s book that drags or gets tedious. Each chapter builds on the previous ones, and there is constant progress forward toward constructive ends. Every repetition serves a useful purpose and restates ideas with different emphasis or nuance. The tone and spirit of every critique is gentle, with healthy affirmation and always with more than mere critique in view.

I look forward to considering and reconsidering this material many times over, for a long time to come, and with as many people as I can.

Girl Meets God: A MemoirGirl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve liked Lauren’s writing style in everything I’ve read from her; no less so in this book. In it, she recounts her coming to faith— twice, actually— and shares the honest struggles of a new Christian finding her way into an unfamiliar faith. With fresh and keen observations, she reminded me of how delightfully curious and how frustrating the early years of maturity in the faith can be.

Girl Meets God is an easy read, and will be enjoyable to any Christian.

Traci LordsTraci Lords by Traci Lords

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Like many men, I have struggled with the temptation to the use of pornography, especially since it is so readily available to anyone who wants it. One of the ways that, by God’s grace, I have been able to strengthen my resistance to that temptation is by learning to understand the objectification of women that occurs in the porn industry, and by recognizing how abusive and harmful is their participation in the creation of porn.

Traci Lords’ autobiographical work, Underneath It All, is helpful in both of these ways. She offers the reader a clear, barely-varnished look at the broken circumstances that made her vulnerable to entering the porn industry, the harm and abuse she suffered while working in it, and the long-reaching aftermath of its consequences. Her story is heartbreaking, though there is a (so far) happy ending.

Be warned: while she is careful in how explicit is her description of the making of the pornography itself, there are graphic concepts described within this book. There are also photos of Traci that, while absent of nudity, are racy and provocative. Finally, there is a fair amount of coarser language, even sometimes related to sexual things. With that said, nothing is found here that isn’t milder and less coarse than the average HBO or Showtime TV show, or “R” rated movie.

The book is an interesting story, not least because it is clear from the cover and the author’s presence in more mainstream culture in recent years that she has overcome much of the brokenness that afflicted her early in her life. The writing is not bad, but far from literary in quality.

Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy SpiritForgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit by Francis Chan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This title fits nicely into a category I would call “Vernacular Theology” because, while it isn’t up to the level of academic or even advanced lay-level theological writing, it isn’t exactly mere “Christian Living” either.

I appreciated Francis Chan’s effort to challenge Christians toward more thorough and faithful consideration and reliance upon the Holy Spirit. In that way, it was a very strong work on a needed topic. The Holy Spirit— and our theological reflection on His presence and work in our lives— is probably one of the more woefully neglected topics in the broader evangelical tradition (apart from our Pentecostal and Charismatic brethren, at least), and certainly among Reformed or Calvinist folk.

There were times when I wasn’t 100% with Chan in his particular points, like when I felt he was being provocative for the sake of it or even throwing down a gauntlet of “if you disagree then maybe you aren’t a Christian” (though never in those words). These occasions weren’t enough to sour my overall impression, however.

Chan’s writing isn’t bad, and it is generally engaging enough. He’s not up to the level of a Nouwen, Wangerin, or Sinclair Ferguson in his ability to engross his readers in a page-turning literary feast.

I read this one as a free, borrowed title from Amazon’s Prime Kindle Lending Library, so I didn’t have any financial stake in liking it— but I did anyway.

The Facial Hair HandbookThe Facial Hair Handbook by Jack Passion

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Chalk this one up as another of the more odd titles that I read this month!

I bought this because, after 3+ years with a full beard, I wanted some insight into better care for my beard. (Especially since moving to Arizona, I’ve noticed that the skin beneath my beard is dry and sometimes irritated.) The Amazon reviews for this book suggested that such insight might be found within.

I will say this: the author is definitely passionate about his own beard, and about what beards in general suggest about a fellow’s manliness. He’s also funny, and there are a few laugh-out-loud lines in the book. It is an entertaining read, though I say that as a beard-wearer more than as a reader.

By and large, though, I found very little help in this book for what I sought. The information offered is far too basic (though very thoroughly covering the basics) for my needs, as I already know very well how to wet-shave and how to wash and brush my hair. This book is ideal for a college kid who is in one of two circumstances: a) his dad was largely an absentee and therefore couldn’t or didn’t teach his son the basics of grooming; or b) he’s setting out to grow a beard but is too insecure to even ask friends or family for advice.

Seriously, if you’re not in one of these two situations, this is hardly a “must read”. If you’re bored and more than mildly curious about beards, though, it won’t kill you to read it.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Primer on Fasting

Our Session has determined that we will have a congregational day of fasting for all who feel led to participate, on Saturday, March 3rd, in anticipation of our potluck and congregational discussion on Sunday, March 4th. I wanted to take an opportunity to answer some questions and offer some guidance about this.

Why do we fast? This basic question occurs to all of us at some point. A writer named Scot McKnight defines fasting as, “a whole-body response to a grievous sacred moment.” This definition helps us understand why we fast: we are responding to something that is spiritual enough, and grievous enough, to merit such a response. We are spiritual beings, and often respond to grievous occasions in a spiritual way (prayer, for example); but we are also physical, body-dwelling creatures, and we can and should respond with our bodies as well.

On this occasion, the Session has recognized that we are in the midst of a grievous sacred moment right now—as we seek the Lord’s guidance in future directions for our congregation. We want to respond appropriately, with fasting and prayers for repentance and forgiveness, of intercession for one another and our body corporately, and for our humility and God’s glory.

Some may ask, “Should I participate?” The answer is, yes— if you believe that you should. Fasting is something that some people incorporate into their spiritual lives on a regular basis— even weekly for some. Others seldom, if ever, fast. If you have never fasted— or if it has been a long time since you did so— you might try it, keeping an open mind. You may find that it is a practice you would like to continue.

There are some people who should NOT fast because of health or medical reasons; if you aren’t sure about this, it might be worthwhile to call your doctor before you decide to fast. Some will find that fasting can become something they approach in a legalistic way, and these people should be careful about whether they should fast, and what their motives are for fasting. Some will find that their circumstances may prevent them from being able to fast on a particular day (and may want to consider fasting on another day in solidarity with the congregation). No one should feel compelled to fast if they don’t feel led to, nor should they feel judged by others if they choose not to fast.

What is involved in a fast? Strictly speaking, a fast is giving up all food for a period of time. Some people do what is called a “liquid fast” which means that they do not eat solid foods, but they still allow themselves liquids such as juices and other drinks. Another type of fast is called an “absolute fast” which is when the one fasting gives up all food and drink for the duration of the fast. In most cases, a fast involves no solid foods and no drinks but water.

Sometimes people will speak of giving up certain foods for a time— during Lent, for example (more on that next week!). This is not technically a fast, but an “abstention,” as they are simply abstaining from certain foods. This can be a good exercise, too, in a similar way to fasting. Some who are not able to fast due to medical need might find that they can participate in a group or congregational fast by abstention.

A natural question is, “How long will we fast?” Generally speaking, fasting can be shorter or longer: some may occasionally fast from a single meal, while others will fast for entire days or even longer (remember Christ’s 40 days of fasting before He began His public earthly ministry). In this case, the Session has called for a fast to start on the 3rd, with no specific instructions beyond that. You may choose whether you would fast for the entire day, for a half-day (starting after lunch, perhaps), or some other length of time. Our fast will be broken together during worship, when we take Communion together (perhaps there is no better time or way for a congregation to break fast together!), which will be followed by a potluck.

Someone once asked me, “What do I do during the fast?” This, like fasting itself, is largely up to your conscience. However, I am glad to offer some suggestions. You might spend the time you would normally take for meals in prayer, reading the Bible, or singing hymns. You may decide to calculate what you would normally spend on those meals and snacks and give that amount of money to the Deacons’ Fund at DMC, or to a charitable cause.

In this case, because the Session has called for both fasting AND prayer about a specific topic— God’s leadership for our congregation— you should spend some extra time in prayer. One “cue” that I have used in the past is that, whenever my stomach growls or I feel a hunger pang, I take that as a prompting to pray. You should pray in your own way, and as you feel led to do so.

Jesus tells of how we should NOT spend our times of fasting: flaunting it before the world. When we fast, he says, we should not do it like the hypocrites, making a big deal about it and drawing attention to ourselves (Matt. 6). Thus, if you choose to participate in this fast (and/or to fast at other times), you should be cautious that you don’t do so hypocritically or in a manner that draws attention to your fasting.

Finally, we understandably ask, “What does fasting DO?” Sometimes we feel we must “get something out of” an exercise like fasting. And truthfully, God does, at times, bless our fasting with a response of granting us something— He will answer our prayers in the manner that we asked for, or will begin (or continue) a work in our midst that represents a blessing. But (like prayer and so many other spiritual activities) we must be careful not to approach fasting with wrong motives, or to view it as some sort of special tool that will help us to get our way with God. Fasting is not a spiritual crow-bar for leveraging our desires into the will of God.

Going back to McKnight’s definition of fasting: what fasting does is to serve as an appropriate response. We don’t fast to get something; we fast to be something— or someone: specifically, a child of God. When we are grieved by our sin, by the lack of repentance in our hearts, by our neglect of the poor, by a tragedy or loss, or by any of a number of other reasons why we might be grieved, fasting is a natural and proper response for the children of God. If we get anything from it— if fasting DOES anything in these moments— then the most important thing it does is to help us to draw closer to the God who we call Father.

I hope you will search your hearts and pray about whether you would participate in the day of fasting that we have scheduled. May the Lord be with you as you do.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Congratulations again, Laura!

NewImageOne of my friends from college won a Grammy last night: Laura Story won the award for "Best Christian Music Song" for "Blessings."

Of my 10s of readers, long-timers may remember that I posted about Laura before: when she won a Dove Award for her song, "Indescribable", back in 2009. For the other eight or so of you, let me bring you up to speed.

Laura and I were on the same Young Life team for about a year, and we were friends from the college campus ministry where I was the music team leader (FCA). Also, Laura was in a band for whom I did a lot of photography for their CDs and promo materials. Eventually the band moved on to using a real pro for their photos, and Laura and I both moved on from Young Life to other ministries. But we kept in touch, at least a little, and it was a true delight to see her at the PCA's General Assembly a couple of years ago.

A fun story (sorry, bad pun) about Laura and her husband: one night, after one of the concerts where I did photography for the band, they and a few others (including me) went out for a bite. Laura and I were talking about relationships, and she told me she was trying to decide what to do. A guy she had seen off and on in high school wanted to date again, but she wasn't sure. My advice? Give me a chance! So she did— and eventually they got married!

(I asked her at General Assembly about that, and whether she remembered it; she said she did, and her husband, Martin, said, "dude! Thanks for my wife!")

Congratulations, Laura— may this be the first of many more recognitions of your wonderful talents.

Buy Laura's award-winning song, Blessings, here.

Monday, February 6, 2012

From Pastor Ed, 2/5/12: Why do we confess our sins every Sunday?

For those who have been worshiping as Christians for much time at all, we would have little trouble filling in the blank for this statement: "worship just wouldn't be complete without _____." Early in my ministry, a friend and fellow pastor introduced this statement to me by saying, "it wouldn't be Christian worship without a good confession of sin and assurance of pardon."

Obviously, that statement has stuck with me all these years; indeed, it was a beginning-place for my ongoing consideration of what constitutes right, healthy, biblical worship. For many, however, my friend's statement seems unreasonable, or even perhaps mistaken. Confessing our sin week by week may strike us as off-putting and even offensive. Why DO we confess our sin in worship every week?

I believe there are a number of good reasons to do so. Here I'd like to offer a brief glimpse of some of them.

We confess our sin because we can see a clear biblical pattern of confession in worship. Throughout the Bible, those who worship do so with confession of their sin readily on the tips of their tongues. As we read the Psalms, which was the hymnal and prayer book for the Old Testament church, we see that most of them contain a strong element of lament for sin. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He included a clear prayer of confession and request for forgiveness. Worship that is guided by the Bible, and not simply by preference, includes confession of sin.

We confess our sin because we recognize God's glory and, therefore, our sin. Every week our worship service begins with open and abundant praise to God. This is right! God is glorious and worthy of all of our praise— indeed, He is worthy of even more praise than we are able to give. If we honestly acknowledge God's glory and worthiness for praise, it should be a natural response to that to confess our own sin. The light of God's glory shines into the dark corners of our lives, and exposes who we really are.

We confess our sin because we are told, in Scripture, to approach God in worship with a humble spirit. The Psalmist wrote, "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Psalm 66:18). Likewise James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6) and therefore urges Christians, "humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you" (4:10). Pride keeps us from confession of sin; humility is required for forgiveness.

We confess our sins because we have them! No one— believer or unbeliever— is without sin. Christians don't stop sinning; we simply grow in our awareness of it and honesty about it. John the apostle, writing to believers, said, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). He was including himself, and all of the other believers, in this active and present-tense declaration. We have sins, and we must confront that fact— not with effort or desire to improve in our own strength, but with reliance upon God's grace, mercy, and strength.

We confess our sin because we have been promised forgiveness, assurance, and deliverance of it. Those who are believers are not only called to confession, but are promised assurance of pardon of the sins we confess. John immediately followed the verse above with this promise: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Not only are promised forgiveness, but also that God Himself will work in response to our confession to give us more righteousness.

We confess our sin because we are bound together in it. Sometimes the specific confessions of sin that we use may describe particular sins that we do not directly struggle with; yet, because we are bound together in Christ, and because we are commanded to bear one another's burdens, then we confess our own participation in the sins of our brothers and sisters. This is one reason why public and corporate confession is so vital: it encourages and enforces a solidarity with one another that the Bible tells us is necessary for our individual and corporate spiritual growth.

One of my favorite writers on Christian worship described confession of sin in this way:
"…Worship must include recognition of our sin. This is difficult for our age, but without it our worship lacks integrity. It is a matter of honesty. God is offended by sin, and yet he accepts sinners… Honesty demands that when we approach God sin be confessed. Otherwise we have an uneasy conscience about it, and, even worse, we compromise the holiness of God."
(Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer: a workbook for worship [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995], p. 79.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sermon Texts for February

Here are the sermon texts for February 2012, for Dove Mountain Church:

2/5 — 1 Peter 1:13-21 (Holiness by Identity)
2/12 — 1 Peter 1:22-25 (The Imperishable Seed)
2/19 — 1 Peter 2:1-12 (Living as God's People)
2/26 — 1 Peter 2:13-17 (Submission, part 1: The State)