What to do when the house is burning…

Kristen has been especially moved by the love of Christ shown in Corrie Ten Boom. If you are not familiar, Corrie (15 April 1892 – 15 April 1983) was a Dutch watchmaker and Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II. She was imprisoned for her actions. Her most famous book, The Hiding Place, is a biography that recounts the story of her family’s efforts, as well as her time spent in a concentration camp.

Here’s the quote…

When a house is on fire and you know that there are people in it, it is a sin to straighten pictures in that house. When the world about you is in great danger, works that are in themselves not sinful can be quite wrong.

What is moving to us about her life and what this quote sheds light on, is the fact that many Christians are spending their lives on trifles when people are in grave danger. This is more true today that at any point in my life when there are tens of thousands of Christians going to Christian conferences, joining Christian education movements, participating in Christian book clubs, and generally living in a happy little Christian bubble.

A friend who has been a Southern Baptist leader for 20 years reminded me today that only 5% of professing Christians will ever share the gospel with an unbelieving person. That, dear reader, is a life committed to rearranging pictures while the house is on fire. Is it that the other 95% are bed-ridden? No, they are spending all their energy on things of questionable eternal value. They are doing what Corrie described as straightening the pictures in a burning house.

Imagine that you walk up to a house on fire. Inside you hear people screaming for help. There is a young mom struggling for air holding two small children out a window. Outside there is not just one but several fire brigades and 20 or 25 firemen in full gear washing their trucks and arranging their hoses. They tell you it’s important to have the fundamentals right and to get to know their equipment well. What would you think? You would be out of your mind with anger because while it is important for a fire department to maintain their equipment and improve their preparations, their job is to rescue people in danger. To be fully dedicated to the lesser thing and ignore the mission is a catastrophic failure of calling.

I’m afraid this is where we are in the church in the west. I say this with no great joy and with the admission that I am not doing all that I can do either. Not that many years ago I was one of those people living in the Christian bubble. (Ironically, you tend to not see the bubble until you get out of it even though it has taken over your whole life.) We must focus on saving those on their way to destruction, and risk our lives doing so. The house is burning and the pictures don’t really matter that much.

In the next post I will share some of the things that can help us focus on the rescue mission.

 

Two Voices, One Reminder

This week I got a reminder from someone who loves me and desires God’s best for me that it is very possible when someone is highly committed to something to use language that makes it seem that everyone should be equally committed to precisely the same thing. That is not what I do believe, but since communication involves both a sender and a receiver, it’s important to consider this kind of feedback.

I got a second dose of that this morning while reading my latest “stretch” book, “I Must Resist, Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.” Rustin was a black, gay, communist turned socialist, conscientious objector, civil rights leader whose career extended from the 1940’s thru the 1970s.

He had heavy Quaker influences and objected to all violence to achieve political ends. This meant that at his draft hearing he refused to go to war but also refused to participate in the alternative but still war supporting camps the government made available for conscientious objectors. He was sent to prison and worked hard to bring change to a prison system that was still segregated in every way possible.

He would often get in trouble there – sometimes unnecessarily. Once, his friend and mentor A.J. Muste sent Rustin a stinging rebuke of how he was allowing himself to get in the way of their mission. It rang true to the dangers I face as well, although in a very different context. The entire letter is worth reading for those pursuing humility, but here’s one part:

A third consideration – you want to hang onto shreds of self respect, and that means you want to continue to feel superior to somebody at least, because it is by  comparing itself with other people that the unregenerate self manages to keep a good opinion of itself. “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are.” So you have a mental image of certain people as conspirators, bureaucrats, etc. Toward the individuals on whose faces you plant these masks you can be haughty or arrogant. You can completely forget the complexities of their task, the opposition which they may have to encounter.

Rustin’s friend was saying that part of the job of someone trying to bring systemic change is to empathize with those who have not yet changed in the way Rustin wanted. As I think about what I see as conservative evangelical churches contentedness in being a white, middle class movement I also need to consider how hard it would be on a church leader who genuinely felt like a directional change was necessary. Doing so will not only grow my heart for those brothers and sisters and remind me that at one time I was one of them, it will put me in a better position to help them anticipate the practical challenges they might face and overcome them.

(The book has been really interesting and I’m looking forward to finishing it and writing the review.)

You Are What You Love Reviewed

At this point I have to admit something to the people who read this blog something you already know, namely that I’ve been terrible at keeping up with the blog. The good news is that I’ve been slightly less terrible at keeping up with my reading list and I will try to get around to publishing more reviews of my books in the next couple of weeks assuming that my paying job and my church responsibilities don’t keep me away

I mentioned in my reading list that today’s book “You Are What You Love” was on many book of the year lists from people I greatly respect. I wanted to like this book simply based on the fact that the title sounds like something I would say both figuratively and literally (we’ll get to that). Ultimately, I think the book did have some very strong point but I did not like it, had to work like crazy to get through it, and I don’t think it benefitted me or would benefit most anyone in my little mission field much. Even so, I’ll start with the positives

I think the author and I would get along well and see eye to eye on many things, even things he covers in the book. He rightly and forcefully makes the case early and often that the Christian life is a life of “knowing” in a relational sense and not “knowing” in an academic sense. I think the one sentence that basically summarizes the whole book is found on page 127, “You might have bible verses on the wall in every room in your house and yet the unspoken rituals reinforce self-centeredness rather than sacrifice.” Indeed, this idea that how we actually live our lives reveals what we truly love most is part of his core message and a core message of the Bible. Why did Israel turn from God to idols? Ultimately it was because they wanted to. Maybe they thought God was unreliable, or the idols promised something better, or they didn’t want to wait for God. The bottom line was in the moment of that hope transfer from the one true God to an idol they wanted what they believed the idol promised more than what they believed God promised

So he goes on to point out all the ways God asks people to examine their desires and how the life of desire is more central to the souls of people made in God’s image than the life of knowledge acquisition. He blows up the idea you see in many conservative Christian circles “You grow by what you know” and he points out this means that the life spent following Jesus is “more about hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing,” and I think that’s more or less right. He shows very well how that philosophy would play out in practical ways in churches and homes and youth groups. That emphasis and those specific applications can be appreciated by almost anyone who wants to transform life. It is in the unconscious “default setting” of our hearts that ultimately makes most of the choices in life, and thus we need to make conditioning that setting (which he calls telos) a major priority in becoming more like Jesus. These points are very strong in my view.

So why not a positive review and recommendation? I’ll list several reasons:

  • It’s important to remember that for books related to ministry in the church, I’m reading them in a totally different context than I did a few years ago. I am serving poor, minority, mostly under-educated people here. Not a single one of them could have gotten 10 pages into this book. It was written by a philosophy professor and it shows. If you’re a middle class, white, college educated, philosophy lover that serves people like yourself, than you’ll like this book way more than I did. It’s not just the concepts that are hard to tackle, there are far too many complicated words for no apparent reason which makes it difficult to read. Take “telos”. Why not just say “default setting” or the word the Bible uses, “heart.” Any term you pick is going to take some explanation, but it would have been nice to read this book without a dictionary. I could have used the word “pattern” instead of liturgy. There are at least a dozen more. The book is just not that accessible.
  • I am also underwhelmed at how far he takes this idea of “liturgy.” At one point I asked in my notes why he keeps doing this and then it finally occurred to me that it’s the whole point of his book. He believes that church liturgies – the doing the same things over and over routine seen in some church traditions – are somehow more of an interaction between God and people even though it’s really just the people doing the same things over and over. He equates these church traditions that stand out in our culture as somehow automatic evidence of transcendence. I think he goes way too far with this in a way a Baptist with the same core convictions would not go simply because of a different experience in Sunday gatherings. He is imposing his form of church on his notion of spiritual formation (although he argues he is not doing that).
  • Related to this, I am not comfortable with the way he praises liturgical forms of so called “Christian” traditions that do not hold to the core teachings of the faith such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox. I’m not trying to start a fight, I’m only saying those groups do not believe the same things about how to become a Christian, how to grow as a Christian, or how Christian identity is expressed in a local church. It is mind boggling to me that he would promote them as examples.
  • Since he sees liturgies as transformational, he then takes the massive leap that if we just start doing a different liturgy we will become changed people. I just don’t think the Bible says that. I think, contrary to his earlier quote which I mostly like, discipleship is primarily about believing. It is about choosing to believe the truth or believe a lie. I would totally agree with Dr. Smith that the truths you believe show up in your practical life patterns, but I don’t believe that changing patterns changes hearts. A man who hates his wife and kids and believes they are the reason for everything bad in his life will avoid them. Having a family dinner every night is not going to change anything but that man’s schedule. Might God use something in that commitment to change the man’s heart? Only if he is operating from faith (what he believes) when he makes the change. That is what the bible says and what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.
  • And so my #1 concern with the book is what I see as an over emphasis on what amounts to religious externalism. The author wants us to believe that “rehabituation” is the key to a transformed life. If only people did different things, then their hearts would change. If only they were more committed to “transcendent” ceremonies and liturgies and traditional worship contexts then they’d really look like Jesus. The problem is that idea perfectly describes the Pharisees who Jesus condemned by saying “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” All of their liturgy didn’t make them follow Jesus. The Bible just doesn’t seem to indicate that people change like that.
  • Even at just under 200 pages the book seemed long to me. I cover half of his concept in a sentence I say all the time to my church family and those who come to counseling: 100% of the people, 100% of the time, chase what they love most. I bet if he worked with Mez McConnell or someone else focused on less highly educated disciples he could get the book down to 120 pages and make it far more accessible at the same time.

 

I Need a Rest – NOT

A friend said something on FB yesterday that seemed a little off. He loves Jesus a lot and has been a blessing to me in many ways so I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was just not as precise as he could have been.

Men w small kids:Your wife really needs a 4-hour block of time weekly to herself. Time to “be”not just grocery shop. Will u do this for her?

All I said was “We should be careful about using the word “need” for things God does not call a need. Things can be advantageous or beneficial without being a need.” It brought the predictable response that rest is needed and even the Bible supports the idea of taking a break. (The reality is that it seems like most of the time the Bible talks about “rest” it is referring to heaven either literally or allegorically.) These things have some truth to them but in a leisure soaked society it is useful to filter them through the Scriptures with some questions.

Am I spending and being spent for the Gospel?

Paul said his goal was to spend and be spent for the gospel (2 Cor 2:15). He said he did it gladly. This is a guy who was shipwrecked, stoned, beaten with whips, hunted and abandoned over and over. Was he looking for rest? No, he was looking to give every ounce of his being over to the cause of Christ and he was joyful in doing it.

A lot of people I meet who “need” a break are spending and being spent chasing the middle class, white American dream of a nice house, two or more cars, educational achievement, soccer camps, and whatever else they see on TV or Amazon Prime. People like this don’t “need” a rest in any biblical sense of the word. They need to use that same level of ambition on pursuing Jesus before they can claim any biblical basis for rest.

Am I seeking refreshment in the ways God has provided?

John 15 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. The basic idea is that Jesus is supposed to be the vine that provides us nourishment, life, and purpose. The way to access that is to abide in, or remain connected to, him. People who are exhausted because they are not abiding in Jesus should try that first before they start demanding rest.

Or consider Hebrews 12:3, Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. Here, the author of Hebrews says that one key to not growing weary (needing a rest) is to actively consider what Jesus endured as a fuel and motivation for further gospel centered action on our part. The verse before this says that Jesus endured dying on a cross for the joy he got from it. It’s hard for me to reconcile this with the “need” for resting from things like a job in an air conditioned office, caring for kids that love you, or even building up the body of Christ.

Is the rest I am seeking drawing me closer to Jesus or my creature comforts?

I’ve heard many people talk about how Jesus took times by himself to rest and that is certainly true. The overwhelming evidence of the New Testament is that when Jesus did this it was to get alone with his Father. For example in John 6:15 we read “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Here Jesus got away not because he was focusing on himself but because he was focused on the Father’s mission for him. In Luke 6,  Jesus spends the entire night alone praying before calling the Apostles. His “me time” deprived himself of sleep before he deprived others of his presence. Even in the well known Psalm 23, David enjoyed the green pastures and still waters but he enjoyed the God who provided them much more.

What happens when my rest is interrupted?

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Gospels and one thing that is impossible to miss is that Jesus almost never actually rested. Even when people notice how much he “needs” a rest and make provision for him, it is often interrupted. So in Mark 6, when people are convinced Jesus needs a rest and shuffle him off in a boat, how is he going to respond when the crowd literally runs along to shore to intercept him again at the other end? Is he going to pout or retaliate or whine about not getting his “me time?” No, he sees this crowd so hopeless and lost and gives up any idea of rest because of the great compassion he has for them. Rather than rest, he teaches them late into the night then organizes the biggest buffet in history feeding something like 20,000 people.

Am I letting God determine the right rest?

One of the concerns I had over the way my friend phrased his post was that he was dictating a particular type of rest that would be uniformly applied to all moms of young kids. Not only is this “need” impossible for any single mom to ever achieve, it just isn’t right to declare one particular type of rest like this because even if the Bible does say rest can be a good thing, it never gets very precise about what that looks like. God seems to know the right kind of rest and can supernaturally intervene to provide it. One comment from a dear sister made it seem like unless her husband had chipped in and helped her when she had four kids under four, God would have been utterly helpless to meet her needs. While I’m grateful this man cared for her well, I have to lovingly say her God is far too small if she can only imagine one way that he is able to provide for her well being.

If I believe in rest, what am I doing to make it possible for others?

I hinted at this above, but my friend’s comment is very  white, middle class. In my church context, very few moms of young kids have this option. I wonder for those that do, are you finding ways to use your blessing to be a blessing? Parachuting into a poor community is generally a bad way to minister, so are you going to find a semi-permanent way to serve these moms who almost certainly need a rest more than you do?

What I’m not saying…

I’m not saying rest cannot be helpful or that husbands should never look after their wives in this way. Looking after the well being of your wife is one obvious way husbands can love their wives as Christ loves his church. But doing that well means you will study your wife to see what it would look like to care for her in particular. Maybe my friend’s post is a helpful starting point, but it should not be an ending point. Based on the marriage counseling I’ve done, many stay at home moms would prefer a reliable 30 – 60 minute break when their husband gets home from work more than a single four hour block of time once per week. This is an issue that a married couple should discuss themselves rather than follow a well meaning but ultimately arbitrary mandate. And while you are having that discussion, talk about how you can serve those moms with young kids who may be divorced, abandoned, or widowed and have no husband to help them.

Of course it’s a Muslim ban

After spending a couple days on Facebook listening to really silly arguments about how President Trump’s moratorium is not a ban on Muslims I felt like I might try to add some common sense.

  1. The President is fully within his rights to issue this order. He may end it early or extend it at his sole discretion.
  2. He has consistently said the order is about protecting Americans from terrorism.
  3. He has consistently said the terrorism threat is from Islamic Extremists.
  4. According to the CIA World Fact Book, about 98% of those living in the countries covered by the ban are Muslims. If you exclude Syria, it’s 99%.

Objection: It’s not a Muslim ban because non-Muslims from those countries are also affected.

I use the old math, but I think 98% is a pretty big number. If I told you that I spent 7 hours and 50 minutes playing video games and 10 minutes checking email from work, the natural conclusion you would make is that I took the day off. You would be right. This is really not even close.

Objection: Obama did the same thing in 2011 and nobody called it a Muslim Ban.

Nobody called what President Obama did in 2011 a Muslim ban, because it’s not the same thing. After arresting two Iraqis on terror charges who had ties to terrorism in Iraq, the Obama administration slowed down the visa process for Iraqis. There was never a shutdown, and no person seeking a visa was ultimately denied one. This is different because of the scope of the ban, the amateurish way it was implemented, and the fact that there is no actual cause or trigger to do it other than a campaign promise.

Objection: He’s not targeting Muslims

The hypocrisy in this one is really amazing to me. The whole campaign, Trump said his opponent wasn’t worthy of being Commander in Chief because she wouldn’t even name the enemy. Trump repeatedly named his Public Enemy #1 as Islamic extremists not only in extemporaneous speeches but in written communication that was presumably thought out. Here’s what he published after his infamous Muslim ban speech.

“Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

I would expect him to at least respect the intelligence of the public enough to admit that he’s just doing what he promised to do in the election cycle. If he was intellectually honest he would not have stopped at the seven nations and would have included places like Saudi Arabia, home of Osama bin Ladin and the vast majority of the 9/11 terrorists.

My friend Kevin Carson has posted a helpful article on how Christians ought to think about the ban and if you are interested you can read it here.

Prepared for a Purpose Reviewed

I came across this book at a local discount store and thought it would be a good addition to my 2017 reading list. It met several criteria from a list I was using to push me toward a more diverse set of authors: female author, minority author, memoir style. The author had the commendation of sources as broad as President Obama and Fox News. Plus, this was a crisis event that happened in my own metro area so it seemed something I might benefit from socially and professionally (my career is in crisis management).

I think I would enjoy the author’s company quite a lot. It’s clear from the book we share many values, but her background is so different than mine I think she would stretch the way I applied those common values. In doing some homework on her story, her daughter Lavita has had some noteworthy successes which is also a great testimony to the author (couldn’t learn much about her son). The details of her story of how she reacted  when she was the primary point of contact a gunman showed up at her school would be riveting. She as a resilient faith in Jesus that would be an encouragement to any Christian.

But this is a book review, so my job is to evaluate how good of a book this is. I think it’s middle of the road at best for a few reasons.

The author uses a somewhat common technique of bouncing from her life story to the crisis event. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the times when she would flashback to her life story I found it interesting but totally unrelated to the crisis event. Since the title of the book is “Prepared for a Purpose” I was really expecting the connections to be frequent and obvious but in my opinion they were not. It was not until page 140 (of 219) when she talked about a time when she felt like things were so bad she wanted to die that I caught any connection between the two events whatsoever.

The other thing I think really distracted me about the book is how far out of her way the author went to try to make her boyfriend/husband seem like less of a jerk. I’m guessing we only got a fraction of the whole story in this book and it’s still enough to know I would have not liked this guy very much. I saw a Ted Talk type video with the author’s daughter and she described her dad as a notorious drug dealer. I was not surprised in the slightest. It’s pretty clear to me that while it was perhaps part of her preparation for this event, the actual substance of that relationship was pretty one sided. As a church leader, I was disappointed how much her church failed to protect her from him and had to wonder how much of that was because the church leader and her husband were related. Maybe there is more to the story that would change my opinion.

One struggle for me as I read a memoir written by a professing Christian is to take off my theological filter and just appreciate the book for what it is. That was true in this case. I’m not sure how much actual doctrine the author and I would agree on and I found myself frequently having to take a step back from my doctrinal filter. The wonderful thing for me is when I did that you got to see a lot of the author’s hopes, dreams and pursuits. I was forced to ask myself hard questions like “Since she seems like a smart and capable lady, why would she stick around with this loser?” She is pretty transparent in her life story so it’s not hard to piece together some of the forces that drove her decision making. In our ministry context we meet ladies who make the same decisions all the time and I am grateful for the reminder through this book that things that are obvious to me simply aren’t so obvious to others. Perhaps these ladies are more justified in their conclusion than I would initially think, or at least more worthy of compassion.

Overall, I think that is the best part of the book – getting the chance to see behind the curtain of Antoinette’s life. If she had never been the calming influence that may have saved dozens of lives in August 2013, that would still be a story worth knowing.

Code Name Verity Reviewed

It’s the worst time of the year. The time when I have to review a fiction book. I don’t even know how to review a fiction book. I read the Code Name Verity at the request of my daughter who says it is her favorite all time book.As I write this, I am even tempted to keep this introductory paragraph so long that I never have to write the actual review. I wonder whether that will work. I doubt too many people will find it compelling. I am running out of things to say. I give up.

I thought it was a good book. I don’t think I”d re-read it as my daughter has, but it was well written and the story line was pretty interesting. The setting is the end of WW2 and you don’t get too far into the book before you appreciate the amount of research the author did about the various aspects of history, culture, and war fighting of the time. I’m always heartened to learn non-fiction while reading fiction. In a wonderful twist, something I learned in the book showed up in an episode of Foyle’s War I watched the next day which had the effect of increasing my opinion of the book.

In terms of style and flow, the author takes an interesting approach by organizing the book into journals written by the two main characters. It’s a clever way to write – having your characters do the writing for you, and I imagine it’s harder to do this than it is to just sit down and write the book like I’m writing this review. Despite the format, the book is still filled with the kind of surprises you would expect to see in a thriller style book and there are plenty of plot lines you don’t actually grasp until the end of the book.

Even though the bulk of the content in the book is about two people’s involvement in the Allied war effort, the book is really about a friendship between Julie and Maddie. Their love for each other transcends their significant differences and I suppose that in and of itself is a heartwarming aspect of the book that would improve our world if modern readers would just believe it.

Since I have made it clear that I have no idea how to review a fiction book, I admit I cheated a little and read the NY Times review of the book. They admitted that saying anything about the plot could ruin the book for the reader. This is something my daughter understood well as she told told me nothing about the book when at the same time enthusiastically explaining why I should read it. The good news for me is that I now have an out to say much more about it. Wonderful how it works out that way.

I would recommend the book for anyone who enjoys spy fiction, especially of the WW2 period. It’s a “girl power” book without being one of those “shove it down your throat” girl power books bathed in pretension that are well hated and ignored by the very people who probably ought to read a few more girl power books.