Permanent Freeze

Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey:  A Book Review

“Like a sudden thaw in the middle of winter . . .”:  this is Philip Yancey’s descriptive metaphor for grace on this fallen planet. “It stops us short, catches the breath, disarms.”  Vanishing Grace was written out of Yancey’s concern that the church is failing to demonstrate the warm and compelling grace of God.  As a result, the tendency of those outside the church is to view Christians as “bearers of bad news, not good news.”  He documents this trend in Part One of Vanishing Grace.  As evidence, he presents conversations with unbelievers from around the world, statistical data, and shattering examples of situations in which Christians have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  He calls believers to “a different sound” in which we demonstrate to the world that the good news of the gospel is, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “gooder than we ever dared hope,” and that God’s call to salvation is a call to a broad and spacious place — not the cramped quarters many believers seem to occupy.

Part Two sets forth models of three groups of people who seem to be more adept at communicating grace to the culture:

(1)  Pilgrims:  Every Christian is a pilgrim; i.e. on a journey of faith.  No one has arrived, but there is a tendency among Christians to regard others from a pinnacle of superiority.  Here, Yancey demonstrates a characteristic of his writing which I find to be most compelling:  he is widely read and quotes broadly from a number of authors, genres, and historical contexts.  (I always come away from reading his books with a list of authors I want to sample.)

(2)  Activists: Expressing their faith by their deeds, activists kick the traces out from under the most common complaint against Christianity:  hypocrisy.  Vanishing Grace reframes Jesus’ question to His disciples on the day of His ascension.  “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”  As the “agents assigned to carry out God’s will on earth,” believers must avoid the trap of expecting “God to do something for us when instead God wants to do it through us.”  Scriptural truth is best lived out from hand [practical acts of mercy], to heart [expressions of love],  to head [Truth about the Source of that love].

(3) Artists: Those who skillfully represent  beauty and reality are able to speak into the human condition with sensitivity in a way that is truly heard.  He likens the creative arts to goads, which create enough discomfort to motivate people to action, and to nails which sink deeper and leave a lasting mark.  The challenge for the Christian artist is in finding the balance between propaganda and art.

In Part Three, Yancey looks at Christianity as it stacks up against other springs from which people seek to quench their thirst for truth.  As it happens, the Christian’s strongest argument for the truth of the gospel is in demonstrating how it works in one’s everyday life.  Therefore, ironically, the kingdom of God “largely exists for the sake of outsiders, as a tangible expression of God’s love for all.”  As we fail to provide that visible reality, we also fail to provide moral guidance and hope to religious skeptics.  Yancey deals specifically with the answers that lie beyond science in three chapters that pinpoint:

1.  The God question:  Is there anyone else?  [Hint: What or Who lavished such gratuitous beauty on our planet?] 2.  The human question:  Why are we here?  [Hint: God wants you to flourish, but this has nothing to do with having your own way.]

3.  The social question:  How should we live?  [Hint: Christians will bring clarity to moral issues only if we “listen well, live well and engage well with the rest of society.”]

Finally, in Part Four, Philip comes back around to the pilgrims, activists, and artists to demonstrate that believers can and should be functioning in the world as something more than just a voting block — or worse, a stumbling block. To provide that needed “community of contrast” the prayer of the church should be:

Lord, teach us how to be a “counterculture of ordinary pilgrims who insist on living a different way.”  May we “admit that we are needy and look to God for both vision and strength to subvert the world.” Show us how to be activists who live out our beliefs “against the grain of surrounding culture.”  May we shout for the hard-of-hearing and draw large and startling figures for the almost-blind. Help us to enter into the “attitudes, feelings, and total experience of” the receivers of our art.  As artists, may we be like You, rendering the “full spectrum of doubt and faith, struggle and resolution, sin and redemption.”

When Christians present a “shining alternative” to evil, the grace of God will become visible and will sound like good news to ears that need to hear the truth.

Disclosure:  This book was provided by BookLookBloggers in exchange for my unbiased review.

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“Are We O.K.?”

 

Early in our marriage, my husband and I stumbled onto a means of cutting to the chase in determining the state of our union.  Protracted silences, a perceived “mood,” a brusque response, or an air of impatience always triggers THE QUESTION:  “Are we o.k.?”  Of course, the success of this little drill presupposes a level of honesty, transparency, and a willingness to change on both sides, but it has been a path toward maintaining our marital peace for nearly twenty-five years.

In Chapter 13 of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, he warns against a false peace in our relationship with God.  “Take heed thou speakest not peace to thyself before God speaks it, but hearken what He says to thy soul.”  The impression I gained from this rather lengthy chapter was that our Christian life must be viewed as a relationship rather than as a transaction.  There is a tendency to base the entire foundation of one’s faith on a prayer that was prayed at the age of six, and, therefore, “I’m safe!  I can do as I please and know that I’m forgiven.”   This reduces the blood of Christ to a token that is slid into a vending machine for the prize of forgiveness.

The kind of thoughtful, discerning attentiveness to the Master’s voice which John Owen describes in Chapter 13 comes only through relationship.  “Faith knows the voice of Christ” in the same way the sheep know the shepherd’s voice.  If the relationship is otherwise sound and being maintained through regular communion in the Word of God and a right understanding of it, a vibrant prayer life, and a ready obedience, then the least grain of sand in the works of that relationship will bring the gears to a grinding halt, prompting the question:  “Are we ok?”

When forgiveness of sins is transactional instead of relational, it is possible for the wound of sin to be healed lightly.  However, if the heart of the believer is committed to “acquaintance and communion with Him, you will easily discern between his voice and the voice of a stranger.”   If prayer is a formula in which forgiveness of sin is listed along with a variety of other requests, then the voice of the stranger may be our own feelings, speaking peace to us because of a callous conscience.  (What would you do to a friend who lied to you as often as your feelings have?)  But if prayer is a time in which the heart is present to God in submission to the searchlight of His Spirit and the washing of His Word, the conviction of peace can be trusted.

Joining with friends at #livefreeThursday!  Won’t you meet us there?

Just One Thing: Urgency

The book of Nehemiah is a shining example of one man’s methods of accomplishing his goals.  Most of us lack the passion (or even the attention span) to mourn and pray and fast over anything for four months, even if it affects us personally.  Nehemiah grieved over a problem that was a thousand miles away because of his passion for God’s redemptive purposes.  Apparently not one to make much of his troubles, he describes his thousand mile trek [Picture horse- or camel-back, flies, sand, bandits, heat, and inconvenience] in four words:  “I went to Jerusalem.”

The next time I feel urgency about an issue, I hope that I use the Nehemiah-Method for effecting change or fixing the problem.   God-given urgency comes when you see the need and others do not.  Therefore, rather than calling the pastor to suggest that he start a ministry to senior citizens, or complaining to the person sitting next to you that we’re not doing enough outreach in the summer, or collaring a deacon to complain that our church is not adequately serving the poor and disenfranchised,  perhaps it’s time to “sit down and weep.”  After a time of mourning and fasting and praying Nehemiah-style, it may become apparent that you are seeing the need and feeling the urgency because God is calling you to be the one who meets the need.

Founder of World Vision, Bob Pierce, said, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” This was the fuel that drove Nehemiah out of the palace and into a war-zone.

Empowered Living

Empowered by His Presence by Kevin G. Harney:  A Book Review

The question that drives Empowered by His Presence is this:  “Where can I receive strength as I seek to live another day?”  In this four-week study, Kevin Harney unpacks the stories of biblical characters and their responses to God’s presence and power within the challenges of their situations.  For example, the woman at the well is a story every Sunday School child would recognize, but, when this nameless woman is portrayed as a fellow bucket-carrier in the search for satisfaction in life, the story takes on a fresh urgency.  A powerful person has lots of buckets and access to thousands of wells — maybe even a staff of bucket-droppers who will eventually draw up something that will satisfy an empty soul.  A powerless person may decide there’s no reason to keep carrying buckets from well to well.  They’ve given up ever trying to quench the thirst of their parched soul.   The woman at the well becomes empowered by coming to Jesus, the source of living water.  She dared to take his “eternal refreshment,” and to quit dropping the bucket of her heart “down the endless wells the world offers.”

The book’s four-week format allows for a lesson for each day Monday through Friday and one lesson for the weekend.  The “Resources for Living an Empowered Life,” the Small Group Discussion Guide, DVD curriculum, and the breadth of Old and New Testament characters covered throughout the study make this a valuable resource for a home study or for use in a class room.  A church’s ministry resource library would be greatly enhanced by having a copy of Empowered by His Presence available as a reference for Sunday School teachers who want to liven up their presentation of a familiar Bible story.  With biblical literacy in decline in the church, Kevin Harney has given us an important bridge between biblical content and living an empowered life.

I received this book free from Baker Publishing Group. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Truth for the Heart

Found in Him by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick:  A Book Review Caution:  This book contains theology.  However, as you are reading, you will be so caught up with the practical impact of the incarnation and the believer’s union with Christ that you may not be aware of the weight of the truth you are absorbing.  Throughout all ten chapters of this book, God-exalting truth is tied to real-life examples, and it may change the way you read Scripture from now on,  because “the Bible isn’t primarily a rulebook, nor is it a self-help manual; it’s not about how we become better people so that we an earn blessings by working hard.  It’s all about Jesus, God made man, his life, death and resurrection.” Merry Incarnation!  Every time we sing a Christmas carol we celebrate the God-man, “veiled in flesh.”  Part One of Found in Him traces that miracle throughout Jesus’ earthly life, citing His qualifications to be Savior of the world, exploring the self-emptying sacrifice of His life and death, and celebrating the victorious resurrection — “deathless life.” Part Two goes on to consider the benefits of Christ’s work with the goal of highlighting that His presence and power in a life and “being ‘in’ Him changes everything about you and how you live your life.”  Union or oneness with Christ is a major theme in the writings of Paul (33 mentions in his letters), and the benefits deserve the capital letters Elyse uses to set them off:  redemption, death to sin, eternal life, freedom from condemnation and the law of sin and death, and the immeasurable love of God.  She explores the metaphors of temple (building), bride, and adoption to lend richness to our understanding of what it means to be one with God in Christ. Of special value in this volume are the appendices which include a selection of historical creeds, Elyse’s personal testimony, Jesus’ prayer in John 17, and a succinct table which shows the ways in which Jesus’ union with the believer through His incarnation brings specific blessings. Found in Him is an excellent study resource, while at the same time a thoughtful gift for Easter or Christmas. Disclosure:  I received this book from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.

Mind the Gap

The Puritans, apparently, were not preoccupied with self-esteem issues.  John Owen’s opening thoughts in Chapter 12 of The Mortification of Sin demonstrate the great gulf between his mind set and present-day sensibilities.  Even though it may be understood that, when compared with the God of the universe, yes, any mortal creature could be filled “at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of [one’s] own vileness,” we of the enlightened 21st century would just never say it that way.  Owen’s point, however, is that in order to make much of God, it is essential to the human heart to put ourselves in our place, comparatively.  This would include:

1.  Mindfulness of God’s majesty and our “infinite distance from Him.”

2.  Awareness of how little we really know of God.  Even Solomon laments his lack of wisdom (Proverbs 30:2-4) when it comes to the knowledge of the Holy One.  Paul’s glass through which we “see darkly” is not a telescope “to help us see things afar off.”  Quite the opposite, I’m afraid.  In fact, “all our notions of God are but childish in respect of His infinite perfections.”

Owen goes on to explain this lack of understanding.

“We know so little of God because it is God who is thus to be known; i.e. He who hath described Himself to us very much by this, that we cannot know Him.”  These words make me smile with their delightful circularity, and remind me of the words of Andree Seu-Peterson:  “All reasoning is circular at the fundamental level; e.g. ‘God does not exist because the universe evolved from nothing.'”  Given that, it is heartening to remember, as Owen knew, that “we Christians have the better circle.”

There is a danger inherent in pushing to describe God out of our limited understanding, and it is this:  we “make an idol to ourselves, and so . . .  worship a God of our own making and not the God who made us.  We may as well and as lawfully hew him out of wood or stone as form Him a being in our minds.”  The distance between who we are and who God is seems to dictate that we will know God better by what He does than by what He is — “by His doing us good than by His essential goodness.”  I can’t help but see our fallen-ness in this, for even in our attempts to gaze upon the myriad perfections of God, we struggle to avoid seeing them in relation to ourselves.   Thanks be to God that in our best moments of spiritual lucidity, “to believe and admire is all that we attain to.”

4.  “We know little of God because it is faith alone whereby here we know him. . . Faith is all the argument we have of ‘things not seen.'”It is though faith that we receive the “light of the gospel whereby now God is revealed” and, consequently, are given quite enough knowledge of God “to love Him more than we do, to delight in Him and serve Him, believe Him, obey Him, put our trust in Him above all that we have hitherto attained.”  The believer cannot use lack of knowledge as an excuse for sin, and John Owen fends off any possible complaints with the wisdom that if we “used our talents well, we might have been trusted with more.”  Furthermore, the point of gospel revelation is not to “unveil God’s essential glory,” but to be a foundation for our faith.  We learn to depend on the indwelling Spirit to reveal the Father.

God’s greatness, His unfathomable other-ness, is intended to “fill the soul with a holy and awful fear of Him, so as to keep it in a frame unsuited to the thriving or flourishing of any lust whatever.”  I am reminded of Elisabeth Elliot’s words (another great saint who was not preoccupied with the matter of self-esteem):  “Until we live perfectly, which will not happen on this fallen planet, we must fear.  Until perfect love casts it out, fear is a salutary thing.  Fear saves us.”    She knew whereof she spoke, and her words came from Moses:

“The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning, ”  (Exodus 20:20)

 

 

Just One Thing: Story Arc

I have a tendency to get stuck in time.  It was true when I was single; it has been true of my days as a parent; it is true when my back flares up or when I am sick.  I believe — falsely — that whatever is going on at the moment is insurmountable and eternal.  The sleepless haze of new motherhood, the sleepless haze of eleven o’clock teen curfews, whatever the obstacle, my default reaction seems to be obtuse tunnel vision.

This was not the case with Nehemiah.   When he learned that the walls around Jerusalem were, once again, demolished, he reacted emotionally (“I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days . . ” 1:4), but then he began decisive action.  He was able to act effectively because he understood his present situation (and that of Jerusalem) in light of the bigger story arc which encompasses all the lesser stories of the Bible:  God redeeming his people and restoring His world.  In her excellent book Women of the Word, Jen Wilkin refers to this as the metanarrative: “the comprehensive explanation or guiding theme that illumines all other themes in a text.  A metanarrative is essentially a story about stories, encompassing and explaining the ‘little stories’ it overarches.”

How much of God’s  metanarrative of creation-fall-redemption-restoration did Nehemiah comprehend as he fasted and prayed for guidance in Shushan?  Enough to turn God’s promises to the Israelites into a trajectory of prayer that lasted around 16 weeks (from the Hebrew calendar’s month of Chislev to the month of Nisan).  Enough to interpret his present problem in light of the bigger problem.  Although Nehemiah was a Jew, he was, in all probability, born in Persia and had lived his days in the shadow of King Artaxerxe’s citadel.  His display of grief over the destruction of Jerusalem would not have been because he had fond boyhood memories of Israel’s kingdom days, but, instead, because he had tender heart toward God’s agenda.  The promise of God to restore the nation of Israel (Jeremiah 25:11,2; 29:10-14) was being thwarted once again.  The building project had been halted because of the political ax-grinding of evil men.

Hearing of this crisis in Jerusalem, Nehemiah chose to risk his safe position as the king’s trusted servant (1:11)and to leave the comfort of the palace in Shushan for a thousand mile journey and a new life in a war-zone.  Like Joseph and Esther before him, he recognized that he was in his present position for “such a time as this.”  Because he had interpreted events in light of the main theme, he would have realized that the walls around Jerusalem were necessary in order for there to be a distinct people of God.  It is doubtful that he would have known that God had an individual in mind, an individual who would be raised as a Jew so that he could become the ultimate Priest and King over Israel.  The restoration of Jerusalem as a political entity was just part of the great story arc (metanarrative) which would climax with the coming of Messiah.

With this in mind, I am challenged to interpret my own circumstances in light of a bigger picture.  What presents itself to me minute by minute is rarely my deepest, truest need.  Recognizing that God has complete freedom to do his big-picture plan, we can join Nehemiah in his God-centered prayer.

“Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, lease let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night . . .”

And so, the real story begins.

(For further study, refer to Kelly Minter’s Nehemiah study guide, Kathy Keller’s address to the Gospel Coalition conference 2014 . . . or join us at Spruce Head Community Church for my Sunday School class on the book of Nehemiah!)