Ministries of Mercy (Book Review)

ministries-of-mercyTwo years ago a local minister and I began praying about how to bring the gospel and mercy ministry to our town and county.  We sensed a deep desire for churches to walk in unity and felt led by God to do something about it.  After more than 2 years or praying, meeting, planning, and working, our two congregations have built a joint framework for local churches to partner together for the gospel and mercy ministry.  We hope that where other Christians have gone before us to cultivate, sow, and water the seeds of Christian unity, this current effort of gospel partnership will bear much fruit.  (I will have more to say on the nature and work of this partnership in the future.)

Partnering with other local churches in evangelism is no small task.  It can be done through shared programs and events, and we’ve been blessed to have some experience in this department over the last year.  Three congregations have worked together to host joint a VBS program and a “Live Nativity” that our town permits during Christmas festivities.  But when it comes to mercy ministry, finding ways to get even one congregation to reach our neighbors with the gospel through felt needs mercy is a much larger undertaking.  Churches need a many things for mercy ministry that is gospel-driven to happen.  God must prepare a congregation to serve, and mercy ministry leaders—whether they be pastors, elders, deacons, or others—must do their part to move strategically from inaction to action.  This is where a book like Tim Keller’s, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road [hereafter MOM], can meet such a need.

Now in its third edition (this review is of the second ed.), MOM is a two-part study on the theological rationale (principles) and the how-to steps (practice) to build a vibrant mercy ministry in your church.  Even though the book is written with instructions for individual congregations to tackle this issue, it does give several ideas for multiple churches partnering together for the sake of unity, pooling resources, and meeting needs that may be too much for a single church.  The first part of MOM is an extended theological study on the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Keller devotes more than 100 pages to the meaning and implications of this famous story that Jesus told to answer the question: “Who is my neighbor?”  Each of these chapters, originally written almost 30 years ago, are still relevant and penetrating.  Well, every chapter except for the Introduction which attempts to extrapolate the pressing social problems of the late 1980s into the future.  For example, the AIDS crisis has not reached the level of epidemic health crisis once predicted.  But many of the other socio-economic trends have continued in the direction foreseen.  The white-collar cultural elites are just beginning to realize the extent of hardship in much of America.  MOM cites statistics on the rise of poverty, the growth of number of people considered homeless, the working poor and their children who are trapped in a grinding cycle of poverty, the problem of youthful poor, the new and changing ethnicities in our midst, the blue-collar poor (many of whom turned out in record droves to vote for change in 2016), the graying population, the problem of the sick and un(der)insured, and our swelling prison population.  While much has occurred in the last 30 years that was unforeseeable, Keller conclusions in the Introduction remain true: Continue reading

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How to Endure Suffering

sufferingTake a look at the first verse of the hymn “In Christ Alone.”

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

We sing these words because we know they are true, but also because we know they strengthen us. We need words of encouragement like these when suffering overtakes us. Because if we’re honest, suffering has a unique way of revealing how weak we can be.

One of the most discouraging aspects of the Christian life a person can face is suffering, especially the kind that takes the form of persecution for your faith. Like nothing else, suffering can drain your courage and strength. Pressure to minimize or deny something that is true about Jesus and his gospel feels like denying him completely—because it really is a betrayal. When suffering for the gospel comes, whether it be pressure to hide the gospel, to keep it private, to modify it to fit the spirit of the age, or to outright deny it, we need strength to overcome the temptation to give in and give up on Jesus.

To endure suffering, Christians should treasure the gospel, share in the hardships it brings, meditate on “portraits” of faithfulness, and above all remember Jesus Christ and his chosen ones. To gain this eternal perspective, start by adopting Paul’s trustworthy saying on suffering.

Treasure the Gospel Message

Be strengthened by Christ’s grace (v. 1)

No one ever found the strength to suffer for anything without first treasuring that thing. For your strength to withstand suffering, you must treasure something outside you, something bigger than you. As Paul attempts to encourage Timothy, he points him away from his natural characteristics (weak, timid, ashamed, youngish) to Christ and his grace. Why? Because even though it may seem strange, grace is the most powerful change agent, and Christ’s grace is the most pure and powerful form of grace. His grace strengthens the soul, even to the point where the Christian can endure unimaginable suffering. It is so important that we remind ourselves of grace every time we hear biblical encouragements to do something. Because if you don’t start with Christ’s grace you’ll try to find strength in yourself. As proud sinners we’re all prone to do this.

Here’s how we try to strengthen ourselves when suffering arrives. Continue reading

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Orthodoxy (Book Review)

orthodoxy

The caped crusader!

Honestly I don’t know how to begin reflecting on G.K. Chesterton’s classic apologetic book Orthodoxy.  Reading it was a dense and delightful experience.  Simultaneously unusual and common-sensical in perspective, Chesterton’s account of how he came to believe the Christian religion is true is a literary and logical tour de force.

Rather than set out a typical intellectual defense of the faith, Chesterton approaches the question of Christianity from psychological, sociological, and creational categories.  He is a master at employing the imagination in observing what must and must not be true.  If it can be said the author concludes that Christianity is beautiful, good, and true (in that order), it’s probably also right to say the opposite.  Interacting with the philosophies en vogue during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (particularly in the Enlightenment West), he playfully argues they are ugly, bad, and false (again, in that order) when put under the microscope or observed in the real world of nature and human relationships.  Many acknowledge the more famous C.S. Lewis as an original thinker.  But interacting with Chesterton’s mind gives the impression that Lewis digested and synthesized him for the next generation.  Thus to appreciate and understand the gigantic influence of Lewis, one must swim upstream and listen to his teacher.  After reading Orthodoxy, the one thought that kept popping into my mind was “A student is not greater than his master” (Matthew 10:24).

When it comes to understanding anything or anyone well, it is wise to turn to converts.  Because converts have lived and imbibed the teachings of another perspective.  First they knew and believed another viewpoint, another teaching, another “orthodoxy” from the inside before ending up critiquing it.  That is Chesterton’s advantage.  He was a pagan and total agnostic before he (re)turned to the Christianity on which he was weened.  From the 1995 Ignatius Press edition’s back cover:

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Can the Religious Right Be Saved?

God and Country, always hand in hand?

God and Country, always hand in hand?

Word is quickly spreading that Russell Moore just “killed it” last week when he presented the 29th annual Erasmus Lecture, sponsored by First Things (published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life).  Moore is the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.  He has become something of a mouthpiece for American evangelicals who see their role as more prophetic minority than Moral Majority.

This video of Moore’s lecture is over an hour long, so you’ll need to plan to sit down to watch it. (If you prefer audio only: here is the podcast link, dated 10/27/2016.) But with Election Day 2016 quickly approaching on Tuesday November 8, I urge you to consider watching it your own personal voting preparation.  Viewers may not agree with everything Moore says, but his is an important perspective that’s begging for a wider audience.  So what is Moore’s short answer to the question “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?”  No, and why would gospel-loving people want to save it anyway?  The gloves are off.  Tune in to watch the fight.

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Christians and Halloween: A Taxonomy of Perspectives

I wrote this three-part post on Halloween a couple years ago. Based on the kinds of things I keep hearing and reading about Christians and Halloween, it appears the “perspectives” viewpoint is still relevant. Read it for the first time (or again) and let me know what you think.

DANGITBILL!

Christians-Halloween “Treat” Get it? If you don’t, maybe you won’t. :-)

This post is Part 1 of 3 in my Halloween series.

  1. Christians and Halloween: A Taxonomy of Perspectives
  2. Is Halloween the Evil Holiday?
  3. My Top Ten Benefits of Halloween

It’s that time of year again, when Christians will drop the gloves and fight about Halloween.  If you are as sick as I am of the same old rehashed arguments for and against believers celebrating Halloween, then I hope you’re ready for a perspective that moves the conversation beyond the stalemate to a place of mutual understanding.  It would be arrogant of me to suggest that I alone have it all figured out.  I don’t.  My goal is a more humble one: to get us to see Halloween from the typical vantage points where various Christians stand.  In other words, as a thought experiment let’s try for a bit to walk…

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A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 1 (Book Review)

phmw1My interest in history is bookended by a couple of academic experiences—one negative and the other positive.  Actually I am mostly a private reading enthusiast as the number of post-high school history courses I’ve taken for credit can be counted on one hand.  Two in college and two in seminary.  My first course was a dreadful experience.  The first semester of my freshman year, I had an eight o’clock class that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It’s entirely possible that I would have slept through a class on “How to Get a Girlfriend” at that awful sunup hour.  So the class I really did take, “Medieval European History,” didn’t have much of a chance of gaining my attention (or attendance, ahem, if I’m honest).  The professor was a stereotypical bore.  Rather than put in the effort to win his students with engaging content, he dug in his heels against the “koofers” (Virginia Tech lingo for old exam copies) everyone knew were floating around out there by taking the esoteric minutiae route.  So for three months history became to me a list of popes and kings, mixed in with lots of dates for minor military battles.  Experience?  Negative.

My last history class was a seminary course on the second half of church history—from the Protestant Reformation to the end of the nineteenth century.  Rather than focusing on memorizing a bunch of dates and names, the professor deftly seasoned his lectures with stories of the heroes, villains, and everyday people of Christian history.  He helped me put the names and dates in an exciting narrative context.  Experience?  Positive.

These two experiences frame my theory of how history is best taught and learned.  Any book on history that aims to situate important persons, places, wars, and dates in a story has my respect.  Some authors do this better than others.  It’s a delicate balance.  Tell too many stories and you risk not covering enough ground.  Try to cover too much ground and you may run out of space to tell enough stories.  Larry Schweikart and David Dougherty, authors of A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 1 (PHMW1), attempt to tell the story of the world from 1898 to 1945 from a distinctly American point of view.  They cover a lot of ground in 424 pages, so much that I think they slightly err on the side of too many details.  There are enough stories to keep the book moving, but perhaps not enough dialogue to make the stories compellingly personable.  Too bad because their “just the facts” approach, which includes occasional value judgments (what telling of history doesn’t?), is refreshingly straightforward.  Thus PHMW1 is a sufficient introduction to the significant persons and events of the time.

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Generous Justice (Book Review)

generous-justiceChristians with a social conscience.  The idea wasn’t supposed to be so controversial.  But it seems whenever you combine the notions of justice with the gospel, the antennae go up for critics of the social gospel.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a proponent of the social gospel.  It is a false gospel as much as it replaces the absolute necessity of personal conversion and sharing the good news of Jesus’ death on the cross to reconcile sinners to himself.  But the social gospel appears a plausible alternative to the traditional message of the gospel because it’s not hard to find a myriad of passages in the Bible that emphasize the justice of God.  This idea of biblical social justice is actually all over the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.  Historically, Christians of all traditions, including conservative Protestants, have stressed the need for God’s people to advocate and work toward a more just society for all—particular for those who suffer various forms of injustice.  But with the resulting bifurcation of Christendom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (particularly in the Global West), the trend has been for the theological liberals to dominate in social concerns.  Yes, theological conservatives have adopted certain social problems that were largely ignored (such as abortion)—transforming them into culture war issues, but too often Christians who emphasize personal salvation through Christ have turned a blind eye to the systemic difficulties that so many face.  The widow, the orphan, the sojourner, and the poor have not been helped holistically.  What the Church has needed for a long time is a move of the Spirit to stir the consciences of God’s people to feel God’s concern for the downtrodden.

In Tim Keller’s small book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (GJ), the author describes his own personal experience of having his spiritual eyes opened to the great need for the Church and for Christians serving in the public square to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  Keller’s treatise amounts to a compelling case for three kinds of people to consider:

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