Saturday, October 26, 2013

What Should We Preach? Give Them Christ

We now live in a country saturated with seeker-sensitive and self-help sermons. Many of the basic tenants of the Christian faith are be growing fuzzy or extinct in the minds of many church-goers, and when they hear a doctrinal sermon, such as a message on the atonement, it's one note that gets banged on ad infinitum like my two year old daughter playing the piano. Where is the wonder and the beauty of Christ? Where is the manifold splendor that the writers of the New Testament express? No wonder Christian intellects have become scarce of late. Our churches are giving them Novocain--numbing them to Gospel by telling them that this one note encompasses the totality of the Gospel

"Ah, I've heard that a million times." Yawn. "I want to hear something new and fresh. What about my needs?"

To which the churches have responded with "How To Make A Better You." But as Dr. Seamands reminds us, "Often our felt needs are not our truest or deepest needs." Do we feel that there is a sickness in the American Church? Do we sense that there is something missing? "Periods of revival and reformation are always marked with a renewed emphasis on the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ."

Stephen Seamands--my theology professor in seminary--has issued a statement to the church at large that we must return to the basics of preaching Christ, preaching his incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, and return. This is a book for preachers--a book on preaching. But it is not a "how to," it is a "what to." Seamands takes the theological aspects of each of these events in the life of Christ (and many that have either been unnoticed or neglected) and draws out the significance for the Christian life. People in the pews do need to know how the Bible applies to them. They need to know why theology is important. The strength of this book is that it examines the "so what" of Christology, making it accessible to lay people without dumbing it down.

Seamands writes with a clear and simply style, always looking for examples from culture, his own life or the lives of others to illustrate his points. He excels in synthesizing information into an easy to use and highly readable format. This is one of those books I will be pulling off my shelf next time I preach. Actually, I referenced it recently while reworking a lesson on the Cross for some junior high and high school students. I found it beneficial, as someone who has a tendency to become very academic, for connecting the Gospel to my students. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Reclaiming Love--A Good But Not Fun Read

Reclaiming Love is a pastoral commentary on one chapter of the Bible--the over quoted, under-applied 1 Corinthians 13. Over quoted for weddings may be a better way to say it. The "Love chapter" goes far beyond our romantic and trite views of love. Fernando examines the contextual understanding of love. Specifically, he looks at what love truly is and how it plays out in all of our relationships in the midst of the struggles and hardships of everyday life. It is a thoughtful mix of scholarship and reflections gleaned from over 35 years in ministry, reminding readers that love is supreme and is worth the effort.

If I am being truly honest, I struggled to love this book. Was it solid exegetically, theologically, and practically? Absolutely. Was it full of stories and illustrations to help me remember his points? Yes. So, why the struggle? If I'm going to be honest, I guess I would say that I was somehow expecting more.  I was expecting to have my mind blown by esoteric insights and exegetical nuggets that would revive this well-worn passage. I was wanting something from this book that it was never meant to be. Perhaps my reaction to this book reveals how much I truly need its message.

When I saw that Ravi Zacharias had written a forward, I was immediately interested. When I saw that my very own theology professor Dr. Steve Seamans, as well as, respected scholar Dr. Craig Keener gave the book a good review, I was very excited to read it. As I read, however, I kept wondering what was so great about it. Fernando was hitting all the notes, so to speak, but he wasn't singing my tune. The song was a good song, but it was James Taylor when I was wanting Pink Floyd. Part of it might be that his particular cadence didn't grip me. Some writers suck you in, even while discussing the mundane ins and outs of life. Some writers carry you on by sheer virtue of the fact that they deliver keen insights, even if their style suffers from academic woodeness. The insights of the book rang true but not novel. How could so many men that I respect find this book insightful and encouraging while I plodded along out of a sense of duty?

The more I think about it the more I believe that I read this book looking for knowledge rather than help. Interestingly, the Corinthians also prioritized knowledge. Paul said that "knowledge puffs up; love builds up." Fernando is writing this book to build up rather than to puff up, so he focuses on encouragement and example. After finishing this book, I believe that I will reread it at some point in the future when I recognize my need for help loving. For instance, I would highly recommend this book to those who are struggling with unforgiveness, bitterness, and/or resentment. Solid material: 5 stars. Enjoyment factor: 3 stars. Averages out to 4 stars for me. May change this in the future.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Is Today's Christian Overfed?

For a while now I've been on a mission to push for deeper teaching in our churches. Occasionally I'll encounter someone who says that most Christians have enough intellectual knowledge and simply need to be "out there" doing something with it. On the surface this sounds good and right. After all, our churches are full of people who hear sermon after sermon week after week and never really do anything with it. There is no real change. The answer has to be that they are overfed right? Not necessarily.

Think of it this way: There is a major problem with obesity in this country. According to the CDC, roughly one-third (35.7%) of the adults in the U.S. are obese. However, doctors and other health professionals do not recommend a strict regiment of exercise with no eating. Why not? They have clearly eaten enough. Now they need to get out there and work some of it off.

No--starvation and exercise do not go very well together. We would quickly grow weak because our fat supplies cannot be immediately turned into energy. The answer to getting healthier is both diet and exercise. Incidentally, I get so frustrated with many Christians' seeming inability to think in term of both/and rather than either/or. Merely taking away junk food is not enough--you must replace it with good food...and, yes, exercise too.

The problem is: I'm not sure if the American Church is obese or starved. You see, just because people are being fed regularly doesn't mean that they are getting the proper nutrients. Maybe the reason we don't see the Church working enough is that they are subsisting on gruel rather than wholesome food.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer says it this way:

"In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still and infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." (Hebrews 5:12-14)

In and of itself this passage does not speak directly to the issue I have raised. Here the writer is merely saying that these people should be further along in the process than they are. They should have grown up by now. They are still drinking milk rather than eating meat. The problem can be seen more clearly when we ask ourselves the question of what are we serving in our churches--milk or meat? Some people want to eliminate both!

What would we consider to be meat today? Think that one over for a moment before you read on, because it is a question well worth pondering.

The writer continues:

"Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings (milk) about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again (milk) the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." (Heb. 6:1-2)

Do you catch what he's saying? Repentance of sin and faith in God, baptism, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead (eschatology), and eternal judgment (seemingly heaven and hell) are kids' stuff...Christianity 101. But when I look at this list, I can't help thinking that if many of the churches I have been in over the years were to preach on these topics, people would think it was incredibly deep.

I don't think our food is too rich. I think we are living on skim milk. The answer isn't to cut people off and send them out the doors to change the world. They will die on the side of the road. I believe the answer is that we need to be offering something more substantial--more nutritional--at church.

I have been in the church my whole life, but it wasn't until I experienced deeper teaching and richer reading through seminary that I was actually motivated to impact the world. There has to be something to back the enterprise, so to speak. When our people are asked to give a defense for what they believe, they should be able to give one. The trendy solution of "just get out there and serve" doesn't cut it. Service is essential. But transformed hearts come from transformed minds (Rom. 12:2). The church must be a place of transformation and growth. If our people are fat and lazy or if they are starved and languishing, the answer is more good food and less filler--not less food altogether.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Kyle Idleman's Gods at War--Idolatry 101

Recently, I listened to a sermon series on idolatry. It was fantastic, so when I saw this book offered on the booksneeze blogger program I immediately signed up for a copy. The cover was cool. I had mental images of Thor and Loki battling it out with battle axes and fire...only in a Christian sort of way because this was about idols of the heart--an enormously important topic. I was a little disappointed that there was no battle imagery depicted in this book (should I say *Spoiler Alert*?), but Kyle has written a good book none the less.

In part one, he sets up his premise, declaring that idolatry is not just a issue it's THE issue. The heart is the battle ground where the gods war for our attention and worship. And the fact that God is a jealous God, who is not content to let us chase after lesser things. 

From here the sections revolve around Temples: the temple of pleasure (the god of food, the god of sex, and the god of entertainment), the temple of power, and the temple of love. There is no "practical section" at the end of the book because he does this after each god he addresses. He always includes a segment called "Idol ID" in which he walks you through some searching questions to help you discern whether this might be an idol in your heart or not. Then he includes a segment called "Jesus My Satisfaction" with the tag line "Idols are defeated not by being removed but by being replaced." This last one is where he walks the reader through Jesus' supremacy and the idol's inability to satisfy.

Kyle Idleman uses lots of first hand examples from his life or people he has counseled. These are often very useful for grasping the reality of the situation--making the issue concrete rather than theoretical. He helpfully applies Scripture, making it fun and interesting. At the same time, I was left wanting something more. I'm not sure if this is a problem of the book or me. 

I'll admit that I'm a glutton for punishment. Years of academic reading have conditioned me to want harder reading, detailed exegesis, or at least some serious A.W. Tozer style prophetic tongue lashing. If that is what you are looking for, then you won't find it here. That's probably OK with the average person. 

This is a great introduction to the concept of idolatry. It's fun (even though there are no cool battle scenes), filled with examples and practical helps, and it's Gospel centered. It also has great potential to reach more Christians because it is written at the popular level.

I did find it difficult to not compare it with the sermon series I mentioned above, but that's not even a fair comparison (especially since I haven't even read the book the series is based upon). So, I'll let that slide. But there where a few minor things that annoyed me:

 There are frequent QR codes throughout the book, linking to a song or an audio/video testimony. I don't have an iPhone. Plus, it is an element of the book that will go out of date in the near future, so I would have preferred it if they would have left it out (I would have probably thought otherwise if I had an iPhone...who knows). 

But the biggest annoyance to me was superfluous footnotes that could have easily been included within the body of the text. Footnotes like "So I've been told," "They would probably say, gobbledygook, hooey, hogwash, or poppycock," "Admittly, that is awesome," etc. 

So when it comes to some of these editorial choices within the book I would say, to quote Kyle Idleman's first book, that I'm "Not a Fan." The true content of the book, however, is well worth reading. I would say that I give it between 3 and 4 stars.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

C.S. Lewis On the Need For the Christian Intellect

Recently I picked up Lewis' book The Weight of Glory, a collection of lectures that he delivered in the 40's to students. I find it surprising that little has seemed to changed since the words entered print. In an essay entitled "Learning In War-Time" he addresses the mentality of certain people to think learning a frivolity during times of crisis, such as those of World War II; however, there seems to be a similar way of thinking in certain sectors of Christianity today, whether we are in a time of crisis or not. I felt that it would be apropos to quote him at length, as it pertains to my reasons for writing this blog:

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now--not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground--would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether. Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

Lewis indicates two fields of learning for the Christian intellect: philosophy and history (if I am reading him correctly). Where would you say the greatest need is today? What elements of the Christian intellect deserve more attention within the Church and without? Please leave a comment and tell us what you think.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Old Topic, New Twist: A Review of 20,000 Days and Counting

How many days have you been on this earth? How many days might you have left? How are you going to spend each one of those? Robert D. Smith raises many good questions and offers some real food for thought in his debut book, 20,000 Days and Counting. The title comes from the event that started Smith on this journey: he was curious how many days he had been alive and typed in his birthday to a counter. He decided that he would celebrate the next big milestone, and that was 20,000 days. His way of celebrating was to check himself into one of the world’s best hotels (he doesn't say which one) and plan out his next 20,000 days (I guess he plans on living well into his hundreds). The rest of the book comes from that plan with chapter titles such as: Motivation Is a Myth, You Only Have Two Choices, Focusing Your Morning Vision, Doing What You Know, How to Conquer Rejection Forever. 

First of all, I’ll say that this book was an easy and enjoyable read—short easy-to-read sentences, lots of interesting quotes, and good stories. The academic in me always feels a bit cheated if a book hasn't punished me a little, and while I was reading this short book I didn't feel like I was working out the ‘ol intellect too much. Many of his points were familiar to me; much of the advice seemed somewhat obvious. So this wasn't one of those works I see destined for literary greatness. However, it won’t get out of my head, so Smith has done something special here. He has written a book that will stick with you and make you rethink your life and how you live it. How many days have I wasted? How will I use my remaining days on earth? What does this mean for my day? These are questions I have been thinking about ever since I finished the book.

Thankfully, Mr. Smith doesn't just give us a longer version of "Live Like You Are Dying" or "Live each day as if it where your last." He actually addresses this approach and says that it's impractical. So, while he is delivering thoughts on an old topic, he is giving it a somewhat new twist.

 He also talks about his good friend Andy Andrews a lot (he is a promoter for Andrews), so at first it seem like he was still on the clock or either name-dropping to give his work credibility. After listening to an interview with Robert D. I have come to understand that he has dedicated years of hard work in the service of others, especially Andy Andrews, while writing and promoting his own material has never been on his radar. So I suppose it only makes sense for him to talk about what and who he knows.

It is a very quick read, and well worth the time. All in all 3 1/2 out of 5 stars. I would also add that Mr. Smith has a counter on the home page of his website [here] where you can see how many days you have been alive. At the time of this edit (8/18/14) I have been alive 13,060 days.    

If you have read 20,000 Days and Counting, I would love to hear your thoughts. If you have not, at least do yourself the favor of "number[ing] your days" and asking yourself how many of those days did you spend doing something important--something that would effect lives.

Thomas Nelson Publishers and gave me a free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.