Forty Days for Breathing Deeply: a book review

A few years ago I read Jack Levison’s Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for the Inspired Life. I wrote a gushing review of it.  My enthusiasm for that book was due in part to the way Levison unfolded the mystery of the Spirit’s presence in scripture in a number of ways, and connected it to everyday life. While my previous run-ins with the Holy Spirit focused on his role in convicting us for sin, empowering us for mission, and ecstatic experience, Levison helped me enlarge my frame to see how the Spirit sustains us with his breath, and is active not only through ‘events’ but through habits, decisions (and a lifetime of decisions), and meditation. Levison also explored how the Spirit poured himself out on God’s people (not just individuals but communities). While Fresh Air was a popular level book but full of rich insights

It is about three years later and I am again reading Levison. This time it is a devotional, 40 Days with the Holy Spirit. In forty daily readings, Levison reflects on Spirit’s presence and activity in the Bible through seven verbs:

  • Breathing– the ruach, Spirit Breath, which sustains each of us.
  • Praying–the listening, receiving and Abba-whisper of the Spirit.
  • Practicing–the long-haul of Spiritual formation.
  • Learning–the way meditating ( gnawing) on the Scripture opens us up to a deeper experience of the Spirit.
  • Leading–How the Spirit inspires, equips, sustains, empowers leaders.
  • Building–How the Spirit forms (and re-forms) vibrant communities of faith.
  • Blossoming–How the Spirit transforms us into what we were meant to be.

Each of the forty entries begins with a scripture, a brief meditation from Levison on the theme, a space for personal reflection and a space to ‘breathe’–a short prayer to the Holy Spirit.

As with Fresh Air, I am inspired by the texts that Levison includes here. The devotional format demands a slow read and thoughtful lingering. Also Levison’s meditations treat forty different scriptural passages. He is a perceptive reader and he treats some ‘Spirit’ passages that are overlooked (i.e. looking at the Spirit-breath of Job, how the faithfulness of Joseph allows him to exhibit the Spirit, the intimacy of Jesus’ breath in the Johannine Pentecost, etc). Also Levison’s prayers are artful and inspiring. Where I am not always a ‘devotional’ guy, I felt drawn in by Levison’s depth and insight.

Often when we talk about what it means to be ‘Spirit Filled’ we hold up a small dimension of the Spirit’s work in our lives. This book will lead you deeper into the life of the Spirit where we will encounter his wisdom, his inspiration, his daily teaching, his empowerment, his sustaining us through suffering, his enabling us to persevere and grow in grace, his guidance, his constituting community his transformative work. . .  If you are looking for a devotional which will enlarge your vision (and experience) of God, look no further. Five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Faith and the Hiddenness of God: a book review

Unhappy circumstances set Tony Kriz thinking about the way God hides. His four-year-old nephew, Ransom, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer. Kriz prayed that God would show up and hold Ransom’s hand–through treatment and through death. This set his mind thinking on his own journey and the way he has sensed God’s hiddenness throughout his life. More accurately, Kriz recounts the way God ‘shows up’ unexpectedly just beyond his grasp.

This is a memoir of doubt and faith. Kriz recounts how he sensed God’s presence when he was a child and said the sinner’s prayer to receive Christ. He also tells of how a well-meaning Sunday School  teacher caused him doubt that experience. He describes how his growing doubts during his teen years swallowed his child-like-faith whole. When he left for college he had every intention of leaving Jesus behind but God pursued him. So in college his faith deepened through prayer meetings, Bible study, mission trips and joining a fraternity (because God told him). These were the ‘dojo years’ and he felt the nearness of the Master. But when Kriz went out into the world his faith again became untethered. He threw himself into Christian missions and an activist faith. Kriz reveals that part of his activism was an attempt to get God to notice him. He ends up broken, needy and abandoned. There is one encounter where Jesus came to him in a real way but mostly Kriz felt abandoned and alone. Thankfully this isn’t the whole of Kriz’s story. He comes back to faith and begins to sense this Hidden One in rest, in waiting, in the shyness of the Spirit, on learning to encounter God on His terms, in community and in all things.

I gave as bare-bones of a sketch as I could. Kriz’s story is worth reading for yourself. Kriz has given us a gift of opening up his journey and reflections to us (these reflections were intended first for his nephew Ransom). With searching honesty he traces his tenuous faith from childhood to his forties. With searching honesty he reflects on answers to prayer along the way and experiences of Divine intervention, but he never lets these become easy-proofs of God’s Presence.

Kriz’s story is much more impressive than mine–both in its highs and lows. Yet I relate to some of the unrequited desire  to meet God and to experience him intimately. His uneasy faith and seasons of doubt reminded me of difficult spells in my own walk. Like Kriz, I cannot point to anything in my history that ‘proves God’ but like him I have come though to a place of strong(er) hope.

This is the second book from Kriz that I read. Neighbors and Wise Men was another memoir that recounted parts of his story and how Kriz was nurtured back to faith through unlikely people. This book is more personal. It is sadder in some respects, but no less hopeful. I highly recommend this book. Five Stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

Preaching Preparation with Accuracy: a book review

I like reading preaching books. As a regular, but rookie preacher, I know I have lots to learn. Preaching books provide me with ideas on how to engage the text and present it to a congregation. Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching is a new book from Kregel Ministry on how to preach messages that are faithful to the Bible’s text and intent. Author Randal Pelton is a pastor and professor at Lancaster Bible College and Gordon Conwell. Pelton pairs Haddon Robinson’s ‘Big Idea’ approach with Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered canonical approach. The result is a ‘homiletic hybrid’ which allows selected passages of scripture to control meaning while placing it in the larger frame of the Bible’s unity and the understading of Christ (13).

The seven chapters of Pelton’s book provide a hands-on approach to selecting and exegeting the preaching text with attention to its main idea, its function in the wider context of the individual book or genre, and its place in the canon–the larger biblical story. The first three chapters address how to approach the text. In the first chapter Pelton makes the case of the expositional (rather than topical) approach to preaching. In chapter two, he urges us towards locating the ‘big idea’ from the passage and warns that preaching the ‘little ideas’ skews our understanding. In chapter three he advises us on how to select and ‘cut the text’ (decide the limits of the pericope and whether or not our passage has a ‘big idea’ of its own or if it is borrowing from the immediate context).

The rest of the book describes his method. Chapter four exlains how to locate the ‘textbi’ (textual big idea). Pelton walks through how to identify the big idea in various genres (and invites practical hands-on practice in relationship to particular texts). Chapter five examines the ‘conbi’ (contextual big idea)–how our text functions within the larger context of the book it belongs to.  As with the text, Pelton gives helpful advice on how to determine how passage functions in its peculiar genre (i.e. a story fits into a larger narrative, laws and legal material, geneologies are also encased in narrative, epistle texts are a link in the larger argument, etc). Chapter six explores the ‘canbi’ (canonical big idea)–how this work functions within the God’s story (i.e. how it relates to the story of Jesus, the canon’s center). Pelton’s final chapter explores how to use these different levels in crafting a sermon with an eye toward application.

Pelton’s argument is that accurate preaching happens when we attend to the meaning of the text, its context, and then its larger canonical frame. The order is important. By attending to the literal-historical meaning of the text first, Pelton guards our canonical/theological interpretation from devolving to a shallow allegory with little resemblance to the plain-meaning of the text. But he also helps us connect the dots to the larger biblical story. I think in practice it doesn’t work as neatly as Pelton describes. Sometimes our understanding of canon or our wider theological commitments drives our understanding of an individual text (in ways we may not be aware!). Still I appreciate his emphasis on making sure what we are preaching is the passage’s main idea (not our own).

This is not a book about ‘preaching.’ This is a book about the work preachers do before sitting down to craft their sermon. Pelton has little to say here about the preaching moment. He doesn’t address the sermon form (other than a couple of paragraphs on thinking of an introduction for your sermons). His focus is almost solely on sermon content rather than delivery. I think that emphasis is appropriate but it does indicate the limits of this book. If you are looking for a book which gets you to think about how to preach the Bible, attentive to the text, to its larger context and the gospel, there is a lot here for you to chew on. If you are looking for a book which will aid you to proclaim in relevant, creative ways, you will be disappointed with what you find here. That is a different topic altogether.

Still for what it does and is, it is pretty good. I read through and implemented his approach as I prepared my Sunday sermon this week. It didn’t change how I approached my text significantly but it did help me organize some of my ideas. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection; I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Beatitude-nik? a book review

Beatniks weren’t my generation but I’ve read Kerouac and Ginsberg. I find their spiritual ramblings to be egocentric, self-absorbed, nonsensical, heretical, tried and tired, misogynistic, fanciful and bland, Manic self-aggrandizement enshrined as wisdom. From a literary perspective, I appreciate a lot of what they did–how they broke rules and cast aspersions at convention. There is honest searching. There are moments of epiphany and wonder. There is also the beauty of the bygone era–non-traditional nostalgia.  Yet I don’t find in their writings a compelling narrative (even with all the sex, drinking and drugs). All this tells you that reading a book that urges the common thread from the Apostolic age to the Beat Generation a little out of my ordinary frame.

Andy William Smith (aka Andy Sunfrog) is an English prof, DJ, activist, poet, blogger, PCUSA elder, aspiring preacher and Vanderbilt seminarian. In Beat is Beatitude Smith examines Beat culture appreciatively for the ways in which Kerouac et al. rejected societal norms and the ways they lived life in the present.  For Smith there’s an overlap between the counter-cultural vision of Jesus and the Beats. He writes:

The great American novelist & author of On the Road, practicing alcoholic & Catholic-Buddhist poet Jack Kerouac said, that the beats in beatnik came from the Beatitudes. “Beat doesn’t mean tied or bused or beat so much as. . .beatific,” Kerouac penned, calling us all “to be in the state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cltivating joy of heart.” (3)

Smith joins his voice with Kerouac & the Beats & Jesus as he celebrates life, experience and the journey. In poem and sermon (poetic prose?) he explores the spiritual life. We hear Smith’s joyful quest and his rediscovery of the Christian faith (coinciding with his journey to sobriety). Smith doesn’t idealize the beatniks and acknowledges their lapses, but he sees a great deal he admires:

Kerouac &  [Neal] Cassady were right about living in the moment, about rejecting the ways of the world, about the complementary teachings of Jesus & Buddha, about  the spirituality of everything & everyday life, even & especially about the spiritual aspects of travel, of an itinerant lifestyle on the road. Jesus & Paul & many disciples & Early Church Movement Folk certainly lived “on the road.” But Kerouac and Cassady were wrong about alcohol & drugs & how to treat women (13)

My own list of what they got right and wrong differs in some respects from Smith, but I appreciate that he appropriates their legacy critically.

Smith’s collection of poems and sermons is playful but uneven. I enjoyed the creative handling of biblical texts: Paul, the Cross, Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.  I also liked hearing pieces of his own Godward journey with Presbyterians and anarchists, with addiction and twelve-steps. Yet I felt like I could penetrate far below the surface of the poems. I wondered if I would appreciate these more as performance art, spoken word in a dimly lit coffee shop. Without the jazz these remain opaque to me.

I am happy to admit that it is probably just me. I am not as progressive as the author. I am not as cool. I didn’t get every literary reference or poetic allusion. Though it is me and for me this book is just a three.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

Blindsided : a book review.

When I picked up Blindsided by God I was only tagently aware of his story. My wife read his blog and I can remember telling me about his journey. My eyes welled up with tears several times as I read his story.

BlindedChin was an Evangelical Covenant Pastor in Washington D.C. and a church planter.  He blogged about justice, race and the Kingdom of God. But his first year as a church planter was marked by suffering. Before he moved into the neighborhood he was to pastor in, burglars broke into the house they were moving into and stole the bathroom fixtures. That same year his wife Carol had a miscarriage. Then came a diagnosis. She had breast cancer and a particularly aggressive form of it. When they sought treatment their health insurance provider told them they wouldn’t cover them because of a gap in coverage (they managed to prove their wasn’t one and get their insurance company to reverse their decision). It seemed like everything that could fall apart in their world did.

Carol was steadfast in her faith and strong in the face of cancer. This book is Peter’s story of anxiety, worry and fragile faith in the face of watching someone he loves suffer, feeling powerless to do anything. When Carol underwent surgery they made another discovery. She was pregnant. This meant that if she carried the child to term, they would have to delay chemotherapy until at least the second trimester. An oncologist advised Peter that Carol’s best chances were to terminate the pregnancy. But Carol never wavered in her resolve. Later they discovered that women who are pregnant during their cancer treatments have a higher survival rate. Peter sees this as God’s purposes and plan as they faced this trial. Carol is alive today with three more children (her son whom she was pregnant with at the time, and two more children).

This is a faith story. Peter opens up his prayer life, his anxiety and his struggles with God and where he senses God’s answer and presence with him and Carol through their most difficult year. In the end, this ‘seminary of suffering’ taught them to trust God in profound ways and they have a powerful testimony of God’s care. But it also made Peter a better pastor, more sensitive to those in his charge. In fact, that year his church plant didn’t attract your typical young energetic disciples you would expect. Peter’s preaching attracted fellow broken people and he learned to listen to their pain without offering easy answers.

But  Peter and Carols story doesn’t wrap up neatly with all the ends tied up. They went through a lot and it took a tool on their life and ministry. Peter had to close the doors on their church plant. They have also suffered other break-ins and bad times. They still are part of a suffering world, but they have an experience of knowing God’s care and reason for hope.

This is a moving story and I challenge you to read it and not cry. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Espiritu Santo and John’s Gospel

It started at a prayer meeting several weeks ago. While praying for my city I felt led to read Jesus’ words and to pray for the Spirit to come afresh to my city, “Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Holy Spirit” (John 7:37-39).

The image of a spring of the Holy Spirit set my mind ablaze. The town I live and minister in is Safety Harbor—the ‘Green Spring city.’ According to the local legend, the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto discovered the natural springs of our city when he landed in Tampa Bay ca. 1539. Believing that springs were the site of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, he christened these springs Espiritu Santo—the springs of the Holy Spirit.  These springs now sit in the belly of a Spa and Resort in town. Over the years it has been the site of bathhouses and health spas.  These waters that flowed here were once revered and sought after for their healing properties.

Thinking of springs of living water in a prayer meeting made me wonder about the metaphoric and spiritual significance of water in John’s gospel.  I do better reading the Bible if I ask questions for the text. So I read through John looking for water.  Four of John’s ‘sign’ miracles involve water: The wedding of Cana (2:1-12), the healing at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-15), Jesus’ walking on water (6:16-24), Healing of the blind man when he washes in the pool of Siloam (John 9:7; 11; 15).  Additionally Jacob’s Well provides a meeting place between Jesus and a Samaritan woman (John 4) and Jesus washes his disciples feet (John 13). During the crucifixion, Jesus thirst (19:28) and the act is done when blood and water pour from the wound in Christ’s side (19:34).  The book closes on the shores of Galilee when several disciples meet the Lord after a night after returning to fishing (John 21). While there are several other motifs in John’s gospel, water flows through it.

But as I read John’s gospel and asked questions about water and its significance I also noticed where water was lacking.  The gospel that gives us ‘living water’ is surprisingly not wet. While the synoptic gospels record several trips across the Sea of Galilee by Jesus and the disciples in John the disciples are in the boat in just two chapters (in John 6 framing the feeding of the five-thousand and their return to fishing in John 21). Even the call of Simon and Andrew is surprisingly waterless.  Jesus doesn’t board Simon’s boat and send him to deep water so he can teach the crowds (like he does in Luke 5). Nor are we told of Jesus’ encounter with Simon Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee while they were mending their nets (like in both Mark and Matthew). Instead Andrew seeks out Jesus because of John the Baptist’s testimony about him. He runs and tells Simon, ‘We have found the Messiah” (John 1:42).  Here their coming to Jesus emphasizes their coming more than Christ’s initial call, but it is noticeably dryer.

I think part of what John is doing in drying out the scene is playing with the metaphor of water.  The theme of thirst becomes more significant and urgent under the dry Palestinian sun (John 4, 6:35, 7:37, and 19:28).  The lack of water makes us pay attention when we find it. But often John’s gospel sets out to marginalize the importance of water, setting it alongside God’s spirit and Christ’s presence.

The first time we see water in the text is chapter 1. John the Baptizer comes a baptizing (1:28). He tells the Pharisees, “I baptize with water” (1:26). The one who would come after him (Jesus) was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit (and not just water). In John 2:1-12, six jugs for ceremonial washing are filled with water and transformed to new wine. As significant as baptism (and other ceremonial cleansing is) the Spirit and New Wine are offered as something radically better.  In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that those in the Kingdom need to be born not only of water but also of the Spirit (3:5). It is clear from these texts that water is valued as a natural commodity, but Jesus was unfolding a spiritual, supernatural reality. By the end of chapter three we learn that Jesus’ disciples are baptizing more people than John (3:26; 4:1).

Water is again compared with the things of God continues in John 4. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at well and asks her for a drink. They begin with a conversation about water.  But Jesus turns the conversation to something better than mere water. Something he calls living water,” If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (4:10). And again, “Anyone who drinks this water [the water from the well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13, 14).  By the end of their conversation, the woman leaves her water jug (this is significant) and goes to tell people of her town about Jesus (4:28).

In John 5, an invalid for thirty-eight years is unable to get himself to the waters of Bethesda to heal himself when an angel troubles the water.  Jesus comes and heals the man instantly. Telling him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (5:8). Jesus is greater than healing waters.

In John 6, again Jesus promises that those who come to him will never thirst (John 6:35). This time he compares the thirst quenching aspect of water to being nourished by his presence—eating his flesh and drinking his blood (6:53-58).  The crowds desert Jesus preferring easier, more digestible fare, but here again Jesus is setting the supernatural over and against the merely natural. Just before this Jesus appears to his disciples walking on the waters (6:16-24).

In John 7:37-8, the passage that sent me on my quest, Jesus promises those who believe in him would be filled with rivers of living water and John interprets this for us, “By this he meant the Holy Spirit.”  In a number of texts we see Jesus (and John the Baptist) poking at the significance and necessity of water: to signify repentance, to wash, to quench thirst, to heal. Yet as we see over and over again as significant water is for human flourishing, what Jesus brings is far richer and more meaningful than anything water brings us. Just as we thirst for water, we ought to thirst after the things of God.

So I sit in my church office, not a half mile away from the springs my city is founded on. While there is legend of the healing properties and significance of theses springs, I know this city needs something more. May the springs of the Holy Spirit flow through Safety Harbor.  Springs greater than anything that occurs in the natural world. May this city encounter Jesus afresh and find freedom, healing, cleansing and satisfaction in him.

The Leap of Paradox: a book review

If you want a simple, step-by-step approach to the Christian faith don’t read The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. Like his earlier volume, Pursuing Justice, Wytsma examines an idea from many different angles. In the former book he looked at the mosaic of justice. Here he turns around the jewel of ‘faith’ in all its mysterious and messy glory. This isn’t a book about easy faith with pat answers.  Wytsma is much more interested in the paradoxical nature of faith–how walking by faith calls us to ‘live the questions’ (13).  In the place of answers, Wytsma calls us to something deeper: trust in God.

That Wytsma examines  a topic from various angles shouldn’t be too surprising, he wears a few different hats. He is the lead pastor of Antioch in Bend, Oregon and a philosopher who teaches at Kilns College. As the founder of The Justice Conference he moderates a discussion on biblical justice and how to care for the vulnerable. He is also a C.S. Lewis aficionado. So in these pages Wytsma offers reflections that are pastoral, theologically rich, philosophically deep and practically engaged. There are a number of rich insights here, though not always ‘easy reading.’

Wytsma begins his paradoxical look at faith by examining Joshua’s defeat of Jericho. The plan that God gave Joshua was to walk around Jericho with the ark and blow horns, watch the walls fall down and take the city. From a strategic perspective this is a terrible plan, but through it God demonstrated that the victory was his and not the might of Joshua and Israel (4). The Jericho example sets us up for the nature of faith–where we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Sometimes the stuff God calls us to makes no sense, from a human point of view. Wytsma writes, “Walking by faith doesn’t bring the control or sense of satisfaction we desire, and over time, it guarantees a measure of suffering. Walking by faith on the other hand, can feel like walking blind–an even more dangerous idea–and we know that it, too, will involve suffering. Both alternatives seem undesirable.” If that was where things ended, faith or no faith carries no special promise. But Wytsma goes on, ” It is the faithfulness, the promise, and presence of God that give us a way out of the catch-22″ (16). God, and God alone provides a way through the paradox.

In chapter three Wytsma (with a great deal of Kierkegaard) describes he nature of  authentic faith as trust in God, though we don’t understand him (26). In chapter four he discusses how Christian wisdom may look like folly to the uninitiated and therefore close-communion with God is required for us to know that we are on the right track. In chapter five, Wytsma examines the imperative of justice for all who claim Jesus as savior. Chapter six examines how the pursuit of happiness (in the ancient sense) encapsulates all that is necessary for human flourishing and therefore is a necessary component of the virtuous and godly life. Chapter seven examines the interplay between doubt and faith, Chapters eight and nine examine personal calling where chapters ten and eleven examine the wider cultural landscapes. Chapter twelve examines the role of church and the final three chapters unfold the eschatological dimensions of faith.

I appreciate many of the insights Wytsma has here. I am a new pastor who has been preaching on discipleship through Lent and I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradox of discipleship. Wytsma has been a good dialogue partner and has pointed me to other theologians too. Where a lot of pastor/authors are light on content, and where justice practitioners sometimes lack thoughtfulness it is refreshing to read  a book from a justice-loving-pastor which is meaty, challenging, theological and inspiring. This is a comprehensive guide to the pursuit of God and it gives space for questions, doubt and uncertainty while still calling us to greater trust and obedience. That I appreciate.

My convoluted (and small) critique of this book is that I think he emphasizes the personal dimensions of faith at the beginning of the book to the exclusion of  its communal aspects. Wytsma doesn’t explore the church until chapter twelve. Eschatology comes later. Yes, I know he is a pastor and he cares about justice (which he addresses beautifully in chapter five), I just wish the company of witnesses was named earlier and given their due throughout. I give this book a solid four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.