Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking Ahead



Make an effort to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker, who doesn’t need to be ashamed but is one who interprets the message of truth correctly.--2 Tim 2:15  (CEB)
 Pray continually.--2 Thessalonians 5:17 (CEB)

In the last year I have done a lot to care for others, and for their spiritual welfare. I have expended a lot of effort in a lot of church things. I have led our community's ministerial alliance. I have completed another Backyard Mission Project. Yet, as I look back on how I have cared for my own soul, I am deeply disappointed with myself. I need to do better.


Yet, I know this phrase, "I need to do better" gets me nowhere. I said this every January about weight loss, and I spent many of my years gaining weight instead of losing it. I have told myself that I am going to study more, pray more, and save more over and over again. I rarely make any progress.


This is because intention is not enough to get anything accomplished. As Dallas Willard might say, I need Vision, intention, and means.


I think I am a hard-working man. I work hard to be a good dad, husband, pastor, and person. I do not think, though, I am as disciplined as I could be. Especially when it comes to really managing my time.


My planners show this weakness. I begin using them in January, but then I lose track of what I am doing with them as I go through the year.


I think I can be a more prayerful and spiritually grounded person, and a more scripture-saturated pastor if I can organize my time better. I think I can be a more studied pastor if I plan to study more. I also think I can make some new strides in weight loss and personal health if I write it into a daily plan instead of trying to fit in time to make it happen.












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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review of THE EARLY CHRISTIAN LETTERS FOR EVERYONE by N.T. Wright

Early Christian Letters for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone)



By N.T. Wright
ISBN 978-0-664-22798
Westminster John Knox Press
Reviewed by Clint Walker

About the Series
A generation ago, William Barclay wrote a New Testament commentary series called The Daily Study Bible. Although the theology of its author was more progressive than many of the American pastors who used Barclay’s commentaries, the series sold well and was used often because of its readability, brevity, and the ease in which it aided preaching and bible study.

In many ways, Westminster John Knox’s “For Everyone” commentary follows in the footsteps of Barclay’s Daily Study Bible. In other ways, this layman’s commentary does MUCH better than Barclay. The New Testament commentaries in the “For Everyone” series are written by N.T. Wright, who is clearly one of the most accomplished and well-known theological scholars  of the twenty-first century. The layout is easily accessible, with each small periscope of Scripture newly translated, followed by a one to two page comment on every passage.

Most of the commentary articles in the series begin with a short illustration of what is happening in the passage, followed by an explanation of what was happening in Bible times, and then a few thoughts about what the passage means for believers who are studying it today. With Wright’s deft communication skills, it combines the best of scholarship with an explanation of the passage that everyone should be able to understand.

About this Book
The Early Christian Letters for Everyone is a small commentary volume about several of the general epistles; namely James, I John, II John, III John, I Peter, II Peter, and Jude. I found this commentary very helpful. I was pleasantly surprised that even though this was a small volume covering several books of the Bible at once, Wright several lengthy entries when necessary to thoroughly interpret the passage. I enjoyed all of the commentary, but I especially enjoyed studying through I John and Jude.

Wright’s commentary on I John is especially helpful because he clears up a number of misconceptions that can arise from the book. For instance, Wright guides his readers through a proper understanding of the terms “world” and “flesh” so that they will not misconstrue them in a way reinforces the material world as bad and the non-material as good (p. 147). He also clearly explains why John ended his epistle with the phrase, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (pp. 167-169).

What I enjoyed about Jude (or Judah) is something different. From the first entry to the end of this small epistle, Wright draws me into the story of this small book. He helps me to feel and understand with my heart why Jude was writing with such energy and urgency. He communicates this message in a way that when I can teach it, I can help my congregation think and feel their way through this passage as well, and get to the core of what he is trying to say.

I would recommend this book to teachers and students of Scripture alike. I would especially recommend it as a supplement to a Bible study one is doing as a group or individually. Whether you are theologically educated, or just a neophyte to reading God’s Word, there is something “for everyone” to learn.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review of Flames of the Spirit: Flames for Worship ed. by Ruth C. Duck

Flames of the Spirit


Flames of the Spirit: Resources for Worship
Edited by Ruth C. Duck
ISBN 978-1-60608-584-4
Published by Wipf and Stock Publishers
Reviewed by Clint Walker

About the Publisher
This month I was honored to have Wipf and Stock join in with the number of publishers that I review books for. Wipf and Stock is a wonderful little small publishing house out of Eugene, which also happens to be about an hour from where I was born. Wipf and Stock does not exclusively publish religious but many of them are faith-based. Nearly all of Wipf and Stock books are what I would call "thoughtful", by which I mean that they are for people who buy books to expand their thinking and help them to grow and learn intellectually. I am so excited to get to share about some of their books with you!

About the Book
Recently, as I make the transition from a town and country church with informal worship to a church with a more formal worship tradition, I have been seeking some resources to provide me with well-written litanies, unison prayers, and responsive readings. Being familiar with Ruth Duck from my seminary texts, and seeing occasional church readings attributed to her, I decided to find a way to get a hold of her book Flames of the Spirit. Now, as I plan worship for the coming year, I find that Ms. Duck's book is helpful to have in my library as one of many resources that will guide me as I plan worship.

Flames in Spirit is organized in relationship to the Christian Year, which is very helpful in liturgical churches. It not a large book (121 pages). Because of its brevity, Flames of the Spirit does not cover every reading for Years A, B, and C in the Revised Common Lectionary. The text that each reading is designed to support is referenced at the beginning of that reading though, which makes it easy to understand where the reading fits into the service that one is planning.

The readings are done in a collaboration of a number of readers. I think this is good. It increases the quality of readings that are offered. It also ensures that as one uses this book over time in worship leadership, that every reading does not sound like all the others.

Flames of the Spirit is written from the perspective of progressive, mainline Christian leaders. For this reason, all of the readings use inclusive language for both God and humanity. Many of the readings also come from the perspective of a more "social" gospel, emphasizing peace and justice issues. I personally am sympathetic to some of the concerns, but do not feel as invested and beholden to these concerns as the authors of these litanies and readings might. This means, as I hinted at earlier, that I will use this book a lot, but I will also supplement this resource with other similar resources as well.

All in all I think this is a very helpful book. I am glad to have it on my shelf.

Book Review of Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis
by Lauren F. Winner
ISBN 978-0-06-176811-8
HarperCollins Publishers
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Lauren Winner is one of my favorite writers. Since Girl Meets God came out, I have been eager to find any articles or books she has written. Most of her books are confessional, even those that engage a specific subject, such as spiritual disciplines or sexual ethics. Her latest book, to be released on January 31, 2011, is a spiritual autobiography about facing sin and loss as Winner faces mid-life. True to form, Still is totally riveting and readable, and deserves to be read by a wide audience.

Truth be told, Still is about Lauren Winner's "dark night of the soul". Throughout the text she struggles with the failure of her marriage, a sense of the absence of God, depression, lonliness and loss. She speaks a lot of working through the "middle" parts of life, where great things are not beginning or ending, and where we are just challenged to keep pressing on and pushing through. Through Winner's insights and intelligent words, readers will find someone they can relate to, and know that they are not alone in such difficult struggles.

Winner's book is smartly organized. She organizes it in three parts entitled "wall", "movement", and "presence". Each chapter is brief, and speaks of a specific incident or insight in that part of her journey. The book is also organized  around the Christian year, which allows Still to take on the paschal rhythym of life, a sense of death, and rebirth. The end of the book has an interview with her by her publisher, which gives further insight into the book.

Still is everything I enjoy in a book. It is smart and well-referenced. Winner is slightly neurotic and a little quirky in the way she presents herself, which makes her all the more enjoyable to read. I received the book and read it all in one evening. It is that good. I recommend ordering it immediately upon its release.



Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Review for THE DIVINE CONSPIRACY by Dallas Willard



The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God
By Dallas Willard
ISBN 0-06-06333-9
HarperCollins Publishers
Reviewed by Clint Walker

In many Christian leadership circles, Dallas Willard's name is well-known. Dallas is extremely well-written and well-spoken. One of the things that Dallas Willard is best known for is advocating for a life of discipleship and spiritual formation.

Perhaps the most well-known and well-respected books by Dallas Willard is his fifteen year old book The Divine Conspiracy. Most of Willard's book is about how to live the "kingdom of the heavens" kind of life right now. A majority of the text reflects upon the Sermon on the Mount as a guide for apprenticing ourselves to Jesus.

The main point of The Divine Conspiracy is that the "kingdom of the heavens" kind of life is easily and simply available to any believers that open themselves to it. He argues that is in not complicated way of living, but very few people are truly committed to living in the Way of Jesus. Most of us settle for a "gospel of sin-management" that separates justification from sanctification, and creates a false dichotomy between salvation and discipleship. Willard goes to great lengths to show how conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and social gospellers all fail to understand the gospel "wholistically".

The whole text, is extensive, well-footnoted, and thoughtful. At times, such as with Willard's understanding of the beatitudes, I tended to disagree with Willard. In other chapters, such as "The Community of Prayerful Love", I was challenged and moved to understand and live the truth of the gospel more fully. Either way, this a great read. I believe in will be a classic in Christian books for generations to come.



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review of Teaching Generation Text by Lisa Neilsen and Willyn Webb




For those who lead children and youth in activities and education, cell phones have become the bane of their existence. As hard as schools try, they continue to have cell phones distract their students. So, Neilson and Webb challenge teachers to stop fighting students and start working within the "texting" culture, using cell phones as an ally instead of an enemy.

This book is very through, although if I were to use it I would really have to do some deeper research om how to use my cell phone more effectively. The book includes ideas on how to develop lesson plans with wireless technology, and how to advocate for a text-friendly educational plan in your classroom, school,and district. The authors provide studies of this model of education to bolster their advocacy of the use of text messaging in schools. It is a really well laid out argument in favor of cell phones, especially smart phones, in a classroom environment.

I do think, however, that the authors are a little overly optimistic about how smoothly this model of education will integrate into an educational environment. I don't have any evidence of this however, just the gut instinct of someone who worked with adolescents for over a decade.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review of Work Matters by Tom Nelson

VOCATION WEEK: REVIEWS OF BOOKS ON FINDING MEANINGFUL WORK AND VOCATIONAL IDENTITY





Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Morning to Monday Work
By Tom Nelson
ISBN 978-1433526671
Published by Crossway
Reviewed by Clint Walker


It seems that the study of work and vocation is garnering more and more interest from Christian publishers. I have several books on this topic in my review cue. The first book in this series is by Tom Nelson, who is the pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas. It is titled Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Morning to Monday Work.


My impression of this book is mixed. On one hand, this book would be an excellent basic text to guide a group or a class on discovering ways to integrate one's spiritual life into one's work. The entire text is a easy to understand theology of work in the life of a Christian. It discusses concepts like calling and vocation in terms that just about everyone can understand. Each chapter begins with a well-selected quote, and ends with a prayer and a few discussion questions. Many chapters have "case-studies" of real people who have been able to put the principals that Nelson mentions into action. As Work Matters discusses the concept of work, it also touches on other theological topics, such as the doctrine of last things (what will work be like on the other side of eternity), work ethics, and much more. 


My biggest disappointment with this book is that it really did not challenge me all that much. I thought Work Matters was well-written. I also thought it was really a basic book on the topic. I was hoping for something more. But, for those looking for some introductory ideas and skills to guide them in integrating their work life with their faith journey, this is a great book. 


(I was given copy of this book in exchange for an honest review)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Evaluation of Missiolife: A New Intergenerational Educational Program for the Entire Church

MissioLife

Recently, Beacon Hill Publishers came out with a challenging, exciting new curriculum intending to lead churches in holistic spiritual formation. It is called Missiolife. The idea is to develop a spiritual formation program for the whole church that will launch them into ministry. The publicist for this company contacted me about being part of a group of people that review this curriculum, and post an evaluation of it. There is much to commend about this curriculum. It has a solid educational philosophy and some good goals. It is smart. It has some of the best minds in cutting-edge evangelicalism developing and endorsing this work. There promotional materials are impressive.

I also think the idea of developing a digital curriculum is wise. There is a lot that one can do with this methodology. You can have students watch videos before class, read PDFs that you send them via email, and much more. The development of digital curriculum allows the publisher to be flexible and adaptable, and it saves a lot of trees and shipping costs to get the curriculum from the teacher to the students.

The fatal flaw of Missiolife, at least as I read it, is does not come across as very user friendly for people sitting in the pews. All the good theology and good pedagogy is helpful, but if I cannot give this curriculum to a teacher and have them have a clear idea of how the curriculum would work within 10 minutes of receiving the curriculum, I will have a lot of angry, frustrated teachers on my hand as a pastor-leader. This curriculum, by that measure has the potential to have a lot of people get very frustrated with me very quickly, at all age levels.

Could it be that I am not understanding the presentation and packaging? Possibly. But if I have a hard time with  sensing the plan and flow of the curriculum, my congregation will be completely lost in sampling it and trying to plug it into our educational ministries. I hope that Beacon Hill takes this concern to heart. They have done too much good thinking and good planning to let this new venture go down hill because they couldn't clearly communicate how this teaching plan would "work" in a way the average person in the pew would understand it.

Book Review of Lit! by Tony Reinke



Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books
by Tony Reinke
ISBN 978-1-4335-2226-0
Published by Crossway
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Anybody who knows me knows I love reading. After all, why would I be writing all these book reviews if I did not love books? So, when I had the opportunity to pick up Lit!, I grabbed it.

As you might expect from the subtitle, Lit! focuses on encouraging people to read, and instructing people how to read well. The book is divided into two sections. The first section of the book is a theological guide to reading as a faithful Christian. The second section of the book is practical. It gives guidelines and advice on how to become a good reader. Included in this section is how to read across genres, and how to find time to read in a busy world. In both sections there is a caution that our visual/digital culture distracts us from thinking and reading well. I could not agree more.

There is a lot to commend about this book, and there are a few perspectives that I did not agree with as much. First, the good things about the book. Lit! is full of wise words. The guidelines for non-fiction reading are stellar. Reinke correctly reports the benefits and challenges of reading as a spiritual discipline. I resonated with the truth he shared about reading not being transformational without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. I felt comforted as Reinke shared about the different kinds of reading non-fiction, because I learned that skimming as one reads non-fiction is both common and helpful to others as well as myself. There are several fun turns of phrase in this book as well, which make it fun to read.

As I said, I was disappointed by some of the text. Most of the disappointment had to do with the influence of the "New Calvinist" movement upon the book. There were several cautions about reading fiction that I disagreed with in Lit!. For example, Reinke overstated his case against visual mediums over against the written and spoken word. He shared concerns about children reading Harry Potter, which I thought was a little bit silly. And he believed that fiction should not help guide worldview development, where I believe story is what most powerfully forms identity regardless of whether we like it or not.

All and all though, I wouldn't let these concerns keep you from getting Lit! into your library.

(This book was provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for a review)

Sermon on Isaiah 9:10-17--Immanuel, God with Us


GOD WITH US
Scripture
10 Moreover the LORD spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!”
13 Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.[b] 15 Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings. 17 The LORD will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your people and your father’s house—days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah.”
Sermon
In the land of Israel, long before Jesus, there was this man of God who spoke God’s word with courage. His name was Isaiah. He was what the Hebrew people called a prophet. The word prophet is a word that we hear a lot, but the idea of a prophet in Israel had a larger role and a more expansive meaning that we have in twentieth century America.

People like Isaiah, who were God’s prophets were both foretellers and forth-tellers. Let me explain that. Did prophets foretell things in the future that were going to happen in generations or even decades to come? Yes they did.

More often than not though the prophet spoke God’s truth about what was going to happen in the future in order to bring God’s insight into contemporary situations. Then, there was a smidgen of hope that if people heard God’s Word, and responded to it with repentance and faithfulness, that the people would experience God’s power and presence in a deeper and more profound way.

The chapter before this one in Isaiah is an often quoted passage, especially for persons who are seeking to understand what the call of God is like. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah goes to the temple, and into the sanctuary, and he encounters God there. He is overwhelmed.  Isaiah tells God that he is an unclean man with unclean lips. God purifies Isaiah. Then the heavenly hosts began to ask who will go out on God’s behalf. Isaiah commits to do just that.

God tells Isaiah that he will go out and preach God’s word to people. And he will be persecuted, rejected, and ignored because of it. Do you still want to go, Isaiah? Are you still willing to say, “Here am I, send me!?”

Isaiah was willing to be God’s spokesperson, and at some points God’s laughing stock, and went out to God’s people with words of caution and warning, blessing and encouragement. One of the first prophetic duties Isaiah was called to perform was to speak God’s Word to Israel’s king.

Now it so happens that Isaiah was alive during when promised land was a divided kingdom. The northern kingdom was called Israel or Ephraim. It was less godly than the southern kingdom. The southern kingdom was called Judah. Judah’s king was, at this point, in a little bit of a crisis. Israel and Judah were combining to attack Israel. The king was pondering whether he should join up with Assyria against Syria and Israel or Ephraim. This was not a wise idea, nor an idea that God would honor.

Ahaz begins a dialogue with Isaiah, or was it vise-versa. Anyway. God offers to give Ahaz a sign that is amazing and fantastic. Ahaz says that he is not going to test God by asking for a sign.

To that God says this, that in the next few years this young woman, who apparently was in their presence, was going to conceive. She was going to have a child. And that they should call that child, “God with us”, because the child was a promise that God would see Israel through the difficult time. The child would have it rough, and there would be some difficult financial times ahead, but they would be able to avoid complete disaster. At least temporarily.

And that is exactly what happened. And many people believe this child to be the king Hezekiah, who was one of the righteous kings of Israel, at least until the end of his life. Isaiah brought prophetic messages to him as well.

And this promise during this crisis, GOD WITH US, demonstrated by the conception of a yet to be born child, became a part of God’s people’s collective memory. And came to be understood not only as a prophecy for that time, but also as a promise for what was going to happen when the Messiah came. So when people were drug off to Israel, they believed that at one point God was going to raise up a leader, born of a virgin, that would be a life that was lived as GOD WITH THEM.

Immanuel. God with Us. Immanuel. God with Us. These words filled people’s hearts. When they wondered if their children were going to have a future, they clung to the promise of the coming Messiah. When the persecution from invading powers, they remembered that salvation may be just around the corner, being formed in a woman’s womb, a miracle of God, and a sign that God would never abandon them, would never leave them or forsake them.

God could have given bigger signs. Hurricanes. Food falling from the skies. Mountains of gold appearing out of nowhere. In fact, to Ahaz, he offered anything. But, when God chooses to show us that he hears our prayers, when he wants to show us that he has not left us alone or forgotten about us, he gives us something more amazing and more precious. When God wants to show us that he is with us, he sends his message of his presence and faithfulness through the gift of a child.

I have always thought this very appropriate and very wise on God’s part. There is just something about a child, and children, that even if they are not a sign of deliverance or a promised Messiah, that helps us trust in the presence of God and have hope for the future.

This is why we respond so favorably to children. This is why our worlds seem to get bigger and our hearts seem to become more tender when we are awaiting the arrival of a newborn child, and as they wiggle their way into our lives and we begin to care for them and treasure them. This is why grandparents and great-grandparents long to be close to their grandchildren. This is why churches hope to hear the cries of babies and the pitter-patter of little footsteps in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Children embody hope for nearly all of us. The miracle that they are teaches us about God’s presence and his goodness.

But by the time we read the New Testament, and we hear this passage quoted in the gospel of Matthew, we begin to understand that this child that we hear about, this Immanuel, this Jesus is a more special gift than we ever expected.

As the angels said to Joseph in Matthew 1,

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”
22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,”[d] which is translated, “God with us.”

You see, God’s promise through Jesus is always better and always more amazing than what we expect. The people were looking for some person whose leadership would make them feel like God was on their side. But when God sent Jesus, he did even better. He sent his Son Jesus as God in human form.

That little child growing inside Mary was not just a great teacher that was going to show people right from wrong, although he was that. That little guy in that young woman’s womb was not just going to grow into a great leader, although he was going to do that as well. That child that Mary and Joseph would raise was going to be God in a bod, he was going to a living, breathing man that was also God.


When we see that little Jesus in a manger, we see the lengths that God will go to in order to reach out to us, love us, be with us, and make a way for us to be with him for eternity. Jesus left the comfort of heaven for a feed trough. He left the choirs of angels for the jeers of ugly crowds. He left the beauty of heaven for arid dirt, sand, and stone of ancient Israel. And Jesus did all of that because he loves us with all of his heart, and he cannot bear to see us hopeless and helpless, and lost without him.

So Jesus came from heaven to earth. He was tempted just like we are, yet without sin. He was hungry and sick. He was tired and lonely. He cried. He teased his friends. He worked a job where he got sore and he had blisters. He went fishing. He experienced rejection from family and friends. In the end he was beaten and bruised to take our sins upon himself. And he did all of that out of love for you. To save you. To show you the way. To show me the way.

And when he died, he rose again. And he appeared to his disciples. And it came to the point where Jesus was going to ascend to heaven, he began to speak about the promise of the Holy Spirit coming to indwell and guide his disciples. And they were told to go into all the world and tell other people about the love of Christ. And Jesus told them as they went out into the world as his friends and representatives that “lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”

So this promise that we hear in Isaiah, that we see fulfilled with Jesus, this promise that God is with us, is not just a promise for days of old. It is a promise of Jesus for disciples today as well. We may feel abandoned, but we are not abandoned by our Heavenly Father. God is with us. We may feel alone, but we are never alone. God is with us. We may feel that nobody cares about us, or what we are going through. But that is simply untrue. We know this because God is with us.

The question is, will we believe and trust that truth, or will we ignore it. Because if we live our life with this trust and this confidence in the truth that God’s love surrounds us, and is always near to us, and always accessible to us, we can live a totally different kind of life. We will not have to be filled with anxiety. We won’t have to be riddled with doubt. And we won’t feel comfortable just being apathetic either. Instead we will be able to live in faith. And when we truly trust that God is with us we will be able to claim the truth that the Apostle Paul proclaimed in Romans 8

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tebowing and Christian Culture 2



One of the things I find most interesting about the Tim Tebow phenomenon is how it is many ways a narrative about how Christ can be shown as strong in our weakness.

For anyone who watches the first three quarters of most Broncos games, it is fairly obvious that Tim Tebow does not demostrate the skill set of an effective professional quarterback. His timing is pathetic. His footwork is awful. He has a slow passing delivery. He is painfully inaccurate on some of his passes. It just looks pathetic.

Somehow, though, when the fourth quarter comes around he leads his teams on miraculous comebacks. Strange things begin to happen. And Tim Tebow leads the Broncos to victory.

Generally, I am not a big fan of believing that God cares who wins football games. I pray when my Ducks and Seahawks play anyway, but I am not sure God roots for certain teams, and against others.
But, when I see Tim Tebow's transformation between the third and fourth quarters, I begin to believe that something supernatural is taking place. Which pains me to say, because I would prefer that God hate the Broncos as much as I do.

This appearance of a supernatural transformation in the fourth quarter speaks poorly for Tim Tebow's skill set, and more loudly for God working most powerfully through his servants when they are weakest. It is hard to believe that Tim is doing what he is doing when you watch him at the end of games. Sometimes it is easier just to believe that something is being done through him.

This narrative is a little different than most Christian athletes. Most Christian athletes enter the field of professional athletic battle as Goliaths. Tebow comes into the arena with five smooth stones and a slingshot. Then he has faith that somehow, someway God will do the rest.

I find the change in the Christian athlete narrative fascinating and intriguing. And, I am anxious to see what happens next.

Tebowing and Cultural Christianity I




The other day I came home from work, and opened my Facebook page. One of my parishoners had a picture of their child "Tebowing". For those of you who are unfamiliar with the practice, "Tebowing" is a certain position of bowing in prayer that mimics Tim Tebow's prayer pose on the football field. Underneath the picture my friend had commented, "Thank you Tim Tebow for showing my son that God is cool".


Now I certainly appreciate my friend's heart on this matter. She wants her children to love Jesus, and she is working hard to raise them right. She is looking for all the role models she can get in support of her Christian faith. And, in a day where there are so many awful role models in our popular culture, it is helpful to have one or two that reinforce good, healthy, Christian values. Yet, I had some measure of discomfort when I read this proclamation. This discomfort had less to do with my friend and family, which I have a lot of respect for, and more to do with how Christians and Americans deal with expressions of faith in the public square.


A number of questions raced through my mind. Is God best described as cool? Do I want my child thinking of God as "cool"? In what ways does longing for and expecting God to be "cool"effect the faith development of persons in our culture?


As I pondered these questions I came to a conclusion. I don't think the Lord cares if he is all that cool. Furthermore, I think that more often than not, the way of "cool" and the way of Jesus run in opposite directions.


Over and over again throughout Scripture God's people are called to be "set-apart", holy, peculiar. Instead of being cool, they were often viewed with suspicion. They were beat up, they were persecuted, and they were murdered for what they believed. The early Christians were believed to be unpatriotic to Rome, and irrationally loyal to their God in a land of polytheism. 


Jesus often had crowds gather around him. As soon as the crowds became large, Jesus would challenge people in harsh manner. He would encourage them to count the cost of following Jesus. He would say things that would so shock people that the crowds would nearly disappear. Jesus was so uncool to his peers that they murdered him.


More often than not, American Christians act like an insecure sophomore in high school. You know what I am talking about. Christian culture acts like that kid that gets picked on everyday, but is desperate for everyone to like and admire him. He has yet to learn to be comfortable in his own skin, so he mimics every trend that comes along, and does everything he can to gain positive attention.


This summer, I listened to a Christian leader speak about his evangelistic efforts. He could have shared about many opportunities he had to share his faith. He chose to share about how he led a celebrity journalist to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior. The way he described it, it was almost like a romantic conquest. He began to speak to her over dinner before. He closed the deal the next morning for coffee. 


I wondered, as I often do in moments like this, why it is so important that he reached a celebrity  with name recognition? If Christians are true to their message, shouldn't a homeless drunk or a prostitute finding hope in Christ matter as much to them as a famous journalist or great pro football player?


You see, what happens with "cool" Christianity is that we try to push God into our mold so that we can brag about Him, sell Him, and use Him for our benefit, and to serve our agenda. When we try to place the label "cool" on Jesus, we try and fit life of work of Christ into something that is easy, palatable, and marketable. We try and make our image of Jesus conform to society's standards. And by doing so, we compromise and ignore basic biblical truths that seem inconvenient.



Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book Review of Distinctly Baptist ed. by Brian C. Brewer

Distinctly Baptist: Proclaiming Identity in a New Generation

Distinctly Baptist
ed. by Brian C. Brewer
ISBN 9780817016982
Judson Press
Review by Clint Walker


In the Baptist circles that I run in, discussions of historic baptist principles are commonplace among pastors and denominational leaders. This is especially true from people with a more progressive, activist theology. These discussions take place for two reasons. One reason is that many people have ties with Southern Baptist life, and believe that conservative drift of the SBC in the last 20-30 years does not reflect Baptist principles. Specifically, the effort to force pastors and people in the academy to sign on to a rather narrow theological statement has been resented by many, and many of those people have drifted into American Baptist Life.


The other reason that many people argue for Baptist distinctive beliefs is that they believe that the Baptist history of soul freedom and religious freedom should absolve congregations from ethical accountability and theological orthodoxy as they associate with other Baptist churches. This particularly relates to, but is not limited to, sexual ethics in Baptist life, and the refusal of some congregations to embrace the historic Christian teaching that homosexuality is incompatible with biblical teaching.


Into this mix of defining Baptist identity steps the faculty of Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, and the book Distinctly Baptist: Proclaiming  Identity in a New Generation. This text is unique in that it is really a collection of sermon manuscripts. In 2010, on the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement, the faculty of Truett preached a sermon series in their chapel that reviewed 14 Baptist principles that have guided Baptist life and mission. Some of these principles are shared across the Christian movement, some are more uniquely Baptist.


I truly enjoyed this book. I found myself agreeing with some the Baylor faculty, and I found myself less comfortable with other messages. Some of the messages were engaging and easy to understand. Some of the sermons were more heady and esoteric than I really cared to read in regard to Baptist identity. As a whole though, these messages hang together. The Truett faculty accomplish the task of describing what Baptists are like without defining Baptist belief, and by doing so creating an alternative Baptist orthodoxy based on Baptist principles.


What is neat about the book as well is the introductions to each section of the book. In these introductions, there is a summary of what is going to be discussed. There are also suggested Scripture texts for preaching on each of these Baptist principles, as well as ideas for introducing these concepts for worship and ways of creating opportunities for service relating to these principles. In addition to this, there are suggestions for further reading. 

A few more Hot Springs Pics: From the Walking Trail

These pics obviously need some editing as they have a lot of shadows, including shadows of me. They are of the path that runs through town, especially between the hotel and the United Churches building







Book Review of Night of the Living Dead by Matt Mikalatos

 

Night of the Living Dead Christian
by Matt Mikalatos
ISBN 978-1-4143-3880-4
Published by Tyndale House Publishers
SaltRiver Imprint
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Much of Christian fiction is dull and schmaltzy. That is why I often avoid it like the plague. Every once in a while, though, a writer comes along in the Christian writer's market that breaks that mold, and is truly creative. Matt Mikalatos has truly found his own creative, unique voice. And the Christian fiction world is truly better for it.

Mikalatos' most recently released book is entitled Night of The Living Dead Christian. It is a smart, intelligent allegory of the Christian life.

The focus on the book is the wild, crazy supernatural battle of the author and some friends he meets along the way. Mike begins the story as someone who is leading a neighborhood watch. As he seeks to fulfill his responsibilities, he finds himself enmeshed in battles with werewolves, zombies, and more. All right in his neighborhood. The result is a theological conversation on the nature of spiritual growth and transformation via a "horror-movie" kind of theology.

What intrigued me as I read is the ability of Mikalatos was his ability to build a connection between his novel and the literature of monsters in general. Historically, monster novels and stories were prophetic about the human condition. For instance, Frankenstein is a warning to our culture about becoming overly dependent on technology to solve our problems and provide for our comfort.

Night of the Living Dead Christian is more overtly Christian in its use of the monster archetypes to communicate ideas of theology and faith. It challenges our propensity to live parallel lives through the metaphor of the werewolf. It uses zombies to communicate the idea of being dead inside, but still looking alive on the outside. The examples go on and on.

So if you are looking for something to read that is fun and little quirky, but theologically sound, I would recommend grabbing the book and giving it a read.

I currently have one copy of this book to share with others. So, join in the conversation. I will chose one person who comments on this blog expressing interest in the book. The winner will be chosen on Monday the 19th.

(this book was given to me in exchange for an honest review)


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review of Matthew by Craig S. Keener

book cover


Matthew
by Craig Keener
The IVP New Testament Commentary series
ISBN
Intervarsity Press
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Craig Keener is a brilliant man. He is also passionate about Jesus and about ministry. The professor at Asbury Seminary has written a two-volume commentary on John that has become a standard of quality biblical scholarship. Several years ago Keener also wrote a great little commentary on Matthew, which I was recently given the opportunity to review. It was recently re-released in paperback.

What is great about Matthew by Craig S. Keener is that is really sharp and on point with the academic work, and yet at the same time it is really very conversational and accessible. It is even, at some points, surprisingly humorous,such as when it warns against preacher puns with the parable of the wheat and the tares (p. 242).

Keener keeps to the basics in this commentary. He organizes his understanding of Matthew around the themes of the Kingdom of Heaven and discipleship, which are perfectly appropriate. Very few passages are written about for more than two-four pages.

The strength of this commentary is that it really says in plain language what each passage in the gospel of Matthew in its social and literary context. When you read the words that Keener has to say about each specific passage, you can clearly relate to the time it was written, and see what was happening through the gospel by the way Keener opens up his readers' mind to understanding.

The one weakness about this commentary is that it is really does not communicate much in most passages about what the specific text means in everyday life. In other words, Matthew helps its readers observe and understand the text, but the author leaves it to his readers to figure out how to apply what they have learned.

All in all, this is a good commentary. It would be especially good if someone was teaching from a curriculum about something in Matthew, and wanted to use this commentary to add in insightful background information.

(This book was reviewed after the publisher provided me with a complimentary review copy. Thanks IVP!)

Advent 3 Sermon on Isaiah 35



1 The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them,
      And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose;
       2 It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice,
      Even with joy and singing.
      The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
      The excellence of Carmel and Sharon.
      They shall see the glory of the LORD,
      The excellency of our God.
       3 Strengthen the weak hands,
      And make firm the feeble knees.
       4 Say to those who are fearful-hearted,

      “ Be strong, do not fear!
      Behold, your God will come with vengeance,
      With the recompense of God;
      He will come and save you.”
       5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
      And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
       6 Then the lame shall leap like a deer,
      And the tongue of the dumb sing.
      For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,
      And streams in the desert.
       7 The parched ground shall become a pool,
      And the thirsty land springs of water;
      In the habitation of jackals, where each lay,
      There shall be grass with reeds and rushes.
       8 A highway shall be there, and a road,
      And it shall be called the Highway of Holiness.
      The unclean shall not pass over it,
      But it shall be for others.
      Whoever walks the road, although a fool,
      Shall not go astray.
       9 No lion shall be there,
      Nor shall any ravenous beast go up on it;
      It shall not be found there.
      But the redeemed shall walk there,
       10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
      And come to Zion with singing,
      With everlasting joy on their heads.
      They shall obtain joy and gladness,
      And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.







As most of you know, I was born in Oregon. I grew up in Roseburg, Oregon as a matter of fact. Right after we moved here, Jennifer and I had the opportunity to travel to my boyhood home while I officiated the wedding of a youth group member from Colorado Springs.

As I headed toward where I grew up after I officiated the wedding in Portland, it was obvious that my joy and anticipation was starting to grow. With each mile, my heart filled with anticipation. Memories came flooding back. As Jennifer drove, I was able to remember familiar places and sign posts from the past. All the small towns on the Old 99 Highway. The paper mill in Albany, Oregon that smells really bad. Autzen Stadium in Eugene. The ice cream shop in Rice Hill. The Winchester Dam that we used to stop at and look for fish on the fish ladder. The lumber mill that my mom’s boyfriend worked at. The beautiful, green Umpqua River. Each mile forward got me closer to home. Closer to the place that I love. Closer to my roots. Closer to that place that I always dreamed of getting back to since I left it in junior high.

To a lesser extent, I feel that anticipation when driving back to Fowler from Pueblo. I check off the streets as I go in my head. I look forward to seeing that bend in the river a little ways on this side of Nepasta where the Arkansas comes close to Highway 50. I know that when I hit that Travel Inn sign that used to be a KFC sign I am less than five minutes from my front door. I look for the signs. I get eager to open the front door and be home.

I know you feel much the same way. Most of us enjoy seeing signs along the road that point us toward home.

This is, in some ways, a similar idea to what God is trying to communicate to Isaiah through Isaiah 35. The image of Isaiah’s journey; however, has greater import than our journeys to our front doors.

The picture is bleak as the story begins. God’s people are in a hard place. The ground is dry and cracked due to the lack of moisture. The people’s bodies are feeble. Their hearts are filled with fear. Some are blind. Some are deaf. Some are crippled.

God’s people, as this is being written, are a discouraged people. They are wondering, have we been abandoned by God? Why then is life THIS hard right now? Why then do I hurt so much? Why am I struggling, God? Why don’t I feel like you are close? Why don’t I feel you at work? What is going on, Lord? Their enemies have beat them up, put them down, and rubbed their nose in the dirt. And they wonder…does God notice? Does God care? Do they matter to him?


And, in the midst of that heartache, in the midst of those doubts, God sends his people good news. He is present. He is listening. They need to look up. They need to rejoice. There salvation is nearer now than they ever anticipated. Because God is about to lead them on a wonderful, beautiful journey home—and provide for them amazing signposts along the way.

So, the prophet, in the midst of heartache, in the midst of physical and emotional pain, and in the midst of difficult circumstances tells the people to have joy. He tells them to rejoice, have joy, or be glad. These words are mentioned 5 times in ten verses. He commands them to do this because he sees what God is doing, and that in the words of soul singer Sam Cooke in the midst of the civil rights movement, he tells them to look up because “change, change is gonna come.” As a matter of fact it is here.

God is on the move. He will not leave us alone in our misery and suffering. He will not leave us alone in our heartbreak. He will not abandon us in a dry and weary land where there is no water. No the message of Advent is that our king, King Jesus, has come and is coming. He is true and he is faithful. King Jesus is making a way out of no way. He’s building a highway to us, with lots of rest and refreshment along the way, and then he is leading us in a victory march to Zion, to the city of God, to the foot of his throne as his own.

So open up your ears, and hear the good news. Open up your eyes, and see his kingdom on the move all around us. Know that your prayers have been heard. You deliverer is coming. And rejoice. And get ready. Prepare your hearts and your lives for the coming king.

To see this hope most clearly, you need to see the passage in its literary context. This chapter has a chiastic structure. This is a type of poetic structure in Hebrew that places the key point of a passage in the middle of the passage, with themes and words matching one another before and after the key point. In this passage they key point is in verse 4. Verse 4 says in the Message, “Tell fearful souls,  "Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here, on his way to put things right and redress all wrongs. He's on his way! He'll save you!"

When things seem like they are out of control, God is listening. When things seem completely hopeless, the one we place our hope in is not far from us. And if we are wise, we will look up, we will look around, and see that he is at work, and see that whether we sense his nearness or he seems far away, he is at work loving us, delivering us, rescuing us, giving us new life and new hope.

So today, no matter our circumstances, if we see the world through the eyes of faith, can have joy. We can have joy because we know the story. We know that it starts with a loving creator speaking the world into being, and it ends in our eternal home with our Precious Savior.
The Scripture urges us to notice all the things that God has done to reach us.  First, it says that he has provided water in the desert. And not just a little water. The Scripture says that streams will burst forth from out of nowhere. That where there was once a parched ground, now there is this spring of fresh water for people to drink out of. And the place that was a scary, parched, windswept wild place will become an oasis.

Several years ago, I was leading a youth group through the desert to San Diego for an urban missions experience. We made our way through Phoenix, cut our way down through this two lane that took us to the interstate that runs right along the border, and we stopped in Yuma. Now, I don’t know how many of you have been to Yuma, but I have to tell you Yuma is not a desirable place to be. It is ugly. It is hot. And the people are not friendly. Anyway…we leave Yuma and we start through this ruggedly beautiful set of jagged mountains that we have to get over to get to San Diego. Those mountains have little pullouts on them about every 2-5 miles. And in these pullouts are little fountains of water that you can stop at when your car overheats driving in 110+ degree weather at steep grades. I began to think what it might be like to have the van we were driving full of kids overheat and have to stop in this spot in the middle of nowhere.  It was a frightening experience.

Life in desert is always a life lived on the margins. Life in that kind of wilderness is not really about living, it is about surviving. It is about getting your family from one day to the next.

And what does God bring to that barely surviving life? Abundance. More water than they needed or could have hoped for. Enough so that they did not have to live their lives just surviving. Instead, through Jesus, God made a way where we could truly live life, and not just survive it. That is why he said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly”. (John 10:10).

Then, Isaiah also says that God heals those who are disabled, and strengthens those who are weak. The crippled walk. The blind see. The deaf hear. The mute do not simply speak, they sing.

Certainly we see Jesus fulfill this promise in the Gospels. When John the Baptist sends representatives to Jesus to ask if he is the one that is promised, Jesus says, “Tell him the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the good news is preached to the poor”. A brief summary of Isaiah 35 and 61—understood as prophecies of the Messiah.

But even today, Jesus offers us his healing. And he offers to make us stronger and more whole. He takes our feeble souls, and gives them strength. He gives us the ability to be who we never thought we could be, and through his Spirit do what we never thought we could do. He changes our lives. He gives us new lives. By his grace.
We also see that Jesus makes a way out of no way. A way for us to walk with God and his people. And then, at the end of our journey, to reside in Zion, eternally in the presence of God.  The Bible says the Messiah makes a Highway of Holiness.

The idea is, as the Messiah seeks to save those in the wilderness, he builds the original road to nowhere. Where there was no way to God, Jesus makes a way to Zion to be in his presence.

The final verses use two other very important words. Redeem and ransom. Both are words used for captives. To ransom is to pay a price to set someone free who has been held captive by someone else. To redeem, in biblical language, is to buy a slaves freedom and restore them to good standing. This passage promises that when Jesus will come he will do both. He will pay the price to set us free, and he will restore us to what he created us to be.

The question is, will we go with Him? He has set us free from slavery to sin. Will we go with Him?

He has offered us life, true life, instead of an existence just trying to survive. Will we trust Him? Will we walk with Him?

He has offered healing to our weak and feeble lives and souls. Will we trust him to heal and strengthen us? Will we walk with this Jesus?

He had made a way where there is no way for us. He has become the way, the truth and the life. He has built a path to us, and now he invites us to get on the road to Zion with Him.

Will you get on that journey home with Jesus? A journey filled with blessing and provision, hope and joy.

I hope you will. Because as you get on the path with Jesus, you will begin to notice things on the journey. You will notice signs along the way. Bends in the road. You will experience a sense of peace and confort as you walk with Jesus. And then, somewhere along the road, you will realize that the journey from the parched wilderness to Zion is not just any simple journey. You will notice that that as you walk with Jesus and you look toward eternity with God, you are not heading to a strange and scary place. You will find as you walk with Jesus, and you see the signs along the road, you will realize that everywhere you have been before you were a stranger and foreigner. As you go with Jesus, and you follow his lead, you will notice he is simply leading you home.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Book Review of the NIV Study Bible


A little over 15 years ago, I was licenced as a minister at Armourdale Baptist Church. When I received this honor, the deacon board at the church gave me an NIV Study Bible. It has been well used since then.

About one year ago, the people at Zondervan updated their NIV translation. Recently, they have published a revision of my beloved NIV Study Bible. So, I picked up the newer version, and have been looking through it off and on ever since.

I am truly impressed with what the new NIV Study Bible has to offer. Changes from previous versions of this bible include:
  • stronger introductions to sections of Scripture, instead of simply introductions to books
  • A layout that has a much more readable font and much clearer delineation between the "notes" section and the actual Scriptural text.
  • More visual aids.
  • Most of the visual aids in the new NIV Study Bible are now in full color. This makes the maps and the charts much easier to look at, and adds to greater ease in understanding these study tools.
Each of the changes in the NIV Study Bible adds to its quality instead of detracting from it. This product still keeps its most helpful features including:
  • excellent notes about verses and passages at the bottom of each page
  • helpful maps, drawings, charts, and other visual aids to help the reader to understand the context of each passage a little bit better
  • a helpful topical index AND
  • a decent but not exhaustive concordance
For evangelicals this study bible is the standard bearer for all study bibles. It maintains that standing with this new edition. In the process of transitioning to the 2010 NIV text, the folks at Zondervan have show that they are not afraid to step up their game to make an even better product. For that they should be commended.

(This bible was provided in exchange for an honest review)

Pictures of Me and Of the Fam and I

These are the directory pictures for the Olan Mills Directory they are putting together at United Hot Springs, SD. It is sure a good family picture. Not sure I like the picture of me, but trying not to be picky. I always get squinty when I smile. Grr.