holy spirit in the Hebrew Tradition: a book review and reflection

Breath of Life CoverAs a somewhat disgruntled (wounded) charismatic and committed evangelical, I am always searching for an intelligible depiction of life in the Spirit; however I have never read a book exploring the Spirit of God in the Judaic tradition (despite having an M.Div with an emphasis in the Old Testament). Rabbi Rachel Timoner does a fine job of illuminating the role of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Rabbinical tradition. She writes of the Spirit in hopes to speak meaningfully to both Jews and Christians. Certainly as a Christian I affirm the Trinity and have a different list of religious authorities to appeal to than Timoner does; still there is much here that is fruitful for Christians to grasp and grapple with if we are to do justice to our shared scriptures and lay hold of the gift of God’s spirit (through out this review I will try to respect Timoner’s lowercase usage of spirit to denote it as God’s possession rather than triune person; that I believe more in this regard, does not mean I don’t respect her integrity to her tradition and think that it has something to teach us).

Timoner received her B.A. from Yale University, was ordained at Hebrew Union College, has won several awards, is an advocate of justice and the Assistant Rabbi at Leo Boeck Temple in L.A. She grew up as a synagogue-drop-out with no particular interest in God or religion. That was until she began to pay attention to life and had the growing sense of the transcendent, a reality she names as God. The Hebrew words for spirit, ruach and neshamah, name God’s immanence and transcendence. Timoner traces the role of the spirit of God through the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition exploring three themes which correspond to the parts of this book: Creation, Revelation & Redemption. Rachel Timoner

Creation
The Hebrew Bible begins with ‘the spirit’ hovering over the waters breathing life into the cosmos. Humanity is enlivened by the ‘Breath of life-nishmat chayim. Our life is sustained by the spirit of God. Timoner’s picture of sustaining power of God’s spirit giving us life, underscores the relationship between God’s spirit (breath) and our own. I think any pneumatology which strives to be Biblical should start here.

Revelation
As protestant, I am comfortable talking about specific and general revelation. General revelation, is God’s self revealing through creation. Specific revelation is God’s historic self-revelation through scripture (and as a Christian I think ultimately revelation through Jesus). What Timoner does with the term revelation does not fit into the neat boxes of my protestant systematic theology. She uses the examples of the spirit’s revelation in the Hebrew scriptures, but she uses these evocatively to speak of a universal outpouring of God’s Spirit. Thus she points out the gift of the spirit to enable leaders, artists, the wise and courageous and the eloquent; yet the spirit of God is also what is given to each of us in all walks of life. It is God’s gift of the spirit which helps us clarify our life’s calling. Because ultimately the gift of the spirit of God is given in the context of covenant, a special relationship where we live out God’s purposes for the world.

Again there is little I would disagree with here. I would personally push for more clarification on the nature of covenant than Timoner offers (i.e. obligations and conditions, how you enter covenant with God, who is excluded). But certainly seeing all of our lives, our gifts, talents, insights, proclivities as gift from God seems good and right. Timoner insists that God gives gifts and has an agenda in the world in which we are called to participate. I would not want to say less than this. Her attentiveness to the gift of the spirit takes aim at the practical Deism of our age.

Redemption

In exploring this theme, Timoner has a rich heritage to draw upon. Of course the story of the Exodus is paradigmatic for God’s rescue. But there are also the prophets that talk about redemption, restoration, reviving dry bones and re-dedication. It is the spirit of God issues in an age which is characterized by where God’s people live out God’s redemption for all of humanity. This means advocating for the redemption of the poor and marginalized. The Spirit that creates, sustains, gives and guides directs us to treat our fellow humans with justice and love.

Here is another point where I think Christians can learn from this very Jewish reading of the new age of the Spirit. Sometimes Christians use the same prophets Timoner used to speak of redemption as though they were fulfilled with Jesus and the New Testament (i.e. Redemption, the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh). The Judaic tradition is a living tradition which holds the same texts sacred; they long for their fulfillment in the same way that we Christians long for God’s kingdom to come in fullness. That our approaches are necessarily different doesn’t obscure the common ground. Jews and Christians both draw on the resources of God’s spirit as we seek to live out God’s redeeming presence in the world.

So I really liked this book and found it helpful. Admittedly it harder reading as a Christian because it draws on a number of sources which are not as readily familiar. Yet it talks of the God of the Hebrew scripture with wonder and reverence and illuminates aspects of the holy spirit (our Holy Spirit) which should help us to understand more fully.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of Breath of Life in exchange for this review

Job interview, how to do it better

Since I may be away from good internet access for a couple of days, I thought I would post here about my continuing quest for a pastor job. I interviewed today for a church that I can get excited about. The interview was a good experience, in part because I did such a lousy job as an interviewee that I was able to learn a few things. (Examined) experience is truly the best teacher!

Okay, it wasn’t that bad. I think there were parts of my story which are appealing. Impressive even. But the experience of examining your own interview, is a bit like listening to a recording of yourself preach. You may have connected well, communicated well, expressed yourself well, but listening to yourself you hear yourself fumble words, stutter, um and ah. When I examine myself in the interviewee chair, I am aware of several places I could have done better. So in an exercise in pure narcissistic self-indulgence, here are lessons for myself on how to be a better interviewee for a pastor position:

1. Interviewers want to know that you are competent and so you need to be able to communicate competence. Sounds simple right? Well here is where I screwed it up. I was asked, “What are three things you would implement if you had this job.” I gave a non-answer. I said the importance of getting to know people, what is happening in the church, getting to know the leaders first. All true and for me stems from a theological conviction that there is no one-size fits all spirituality and we need to attend the soil where we are planted. What they wanted to know was, “am I thinking strategically and thoughtfully about ministry.” What they heard was, ” I have no agenda and will proceed with caution.” Or maybe that’s what they heard, but I don’t think I sufficiently communicated competence, even if they see my heart to honor context.

2. Reframe ‘bad’ questions. By ‘bad’ questions, I mean questions that impose a different understanding of ministry on you than you yourself have. For example I was asked how, “I would take the ministry to the ‘next level’ and pressed for an example of experiences I have had in taking things to the ‘next level.’ Wow. I shouldn’t of tried to answer that one because I had to admit that I didn’t have any such experience and I haven’t been in a leadership position of that magnitude (as the position I was applying for). In other words they asked the competence question again, “What do you got?” I answered, “Nothing.”

What I should have done is re-framed the question by talking about ministries I have done and excelled in, not because I was competent but because I was faithful had God took what I had and multiplied it. I should have spoken about how I see my role of prayerfully discerning where God’s Spirit is already moving and helping people attend to the Spirit’s movement in their own lives. I should have, but instead I told them I didn’t have any good answers. Honestly, good theology and spirituality informs my practice of ministry, but I failed to articulate it well.

3. Talk about prayer. I didn’t do this. I managed to share a theological conviction about how spiritual formation is God breathed/God initiated and God is at work through out the entire process without talking much about prayer. I meant to and being as I believe one of the biggest issues in ministry is practical atheism (ministry that God does not have to be a part of for it to function well), why didn’t I talk about prayer?

The answer is, the interview was short, I was nervous and couldn’t say everything I planned to. I am hoping they gave me the benefit of the doubt on some of these and that I see a second round, but in the future I need to take care that I answer questions about my competence, don’t let the interviewer frame my understanding of my role as minister and talk about the vital role of prayer in ministry.

Get Passionate about God Fast

Has the passion gone out of your relationship with God? Don’t let the fire fizzle, but Awaken to all God has for you (cue the infomercial).

Stovall Weems, the Lead Pastor at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida has written Awakening in hopes of igniting in you a passion for God. Along the way he offers helpful advice on starting your day by focusing on God’s greatness, goodness and glory. He advocates the practice of giving to charity, prayer and fasting as means of ‘making space for God’ in your life. And then he uses the rest of the book to unpack this, particularly in regard to fasting. Along the way, each chapter is punctuated by ‘awakening stories’ of those who have a fresh experience of God, because of their fast. The last section of this book, is Weems’s 21 day fast plan, daily devotionals and practical advice on fasting.

I admire and share Weems’s enthusiasm for getting people excited about God. Certainly I want my pastor to be so passionately motivated. Having read his book, I likely will refer back to it the next time I fast. However I am not sure that I would recommend it. Below I would like to signal two notes of caution and two criticisms of Weems book:

The first area that gives me pause, is this book seems to be tainted by a prosperity gospel. Weems is generally focused on our relationship with God and stoking the flames there. However sometimes, Weems does act like the evidence of that is ‘financial miracles’ and healing. Certainly God does provide and care for his children, but miracles and prosperity are not the only way God draws near to his people. I am not sure that Weems ever says that it is, but the general feel of some passages, and the little testimonials kind of leave this impression.

The second area of caution is related. I am kind of bothered by a relationship with God being reduced to a formula. The idea that intimacy with God is achieved by a three-week-fast is to apply a technique to gain relational intimacy. Techniques, disciplines and practices are important. Yet I think intimacy with God is not something you get in a few easy steps. It is much more dynamic and exciting than that. Now that is it for caution, let the firestorm of criticism begin.

While reading this book, I kept wondering where the footnotes were. The fact that there were none is problematic. I say this not because I love more academic books (okay, not just that), but there is almost no evidence of any dialogue with anyone else. At all. As part of his fasting guide, he does reference Wayne Cordeiro’s devotional reading plan(SOAP: Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer). But he doesn’t reference anyone else despite dispensing a lot of spiritual insights. Where this seems the most suspect for me, is when Weems describes the health benefits of fasting. He admits that he is not a doctor and shares anecdotally about how fasting cleanses his system and helps him lose weight. huh? Claims for health benefits of fasting are controversial at best and spurious at worst. I at least want to know that Weems talked to someone before spotting off medical advice (why is this chapter even here if fasting is about your relationship with God?).

Furthermore, the lack of dialogue with the Christian tradition of fasting, does mean that what is presented here is somewhat shallow. Christians have practiced and mis-practiced fasting for centuries, would like to know if Stovall is aware of any of it.

Which leads me to my last point of critique. What exactly is Weems theological understanding of fasting? Some fasting is dualistic, hating the body and exalting the spirit. This is not Christian fasting. Weems seems to hold some dualistic notions. He is also dismissive of the example of fasting in the Old Testament as pre-christian and unrelated to our current practice. For Weems, you fast to recieve, rather than as a response. I find all this as theologically problematic and would direct people to Scot McKnight’s accessible treatment on the theme.

This book was given to me by Waterbrook Multnomah’s Blogging For Books Program in exchange for my honest review.

Looking for a pastor job.

So I didn’t get the position I was trying for at Logos because, well, I didn’t really qualify. I am trying for another one, because my wife is applying somewhere else in town and if God wants us to stay in Bellingham, I need to start pulling money.

In other news, I am still applying for pastor positions. I find this a really odd process. To get a job, you kinda have to sell yourself; to be faithful to the gospel, you use your gifts with humility not to present your best self, but to glorify Christ. So I find it odd selling myself to a church, hoping that they see me as their best choice for pastor. It seems like the job market and the job have me working at cross purposes with myself. I don’t mean ‘Cross Purposes which sounds like a sermon series on the atonement (if you needed a title for your lent series, you’re welcome), but a war against my mission as pastor and the reality of getting a job.

To this end, I am writing a cover letter with hopes of wowing a church, which I feel I would learn a lot from and hopefully fit well into. I’m telling them of my call as a pastor, but trying not to sound to arrogant about my gifts and abilities. I’ll save my arrogance for a sales position cover letter.

Actually trying to focus on my philosophy of minsitry, which is difficult to communicate in a full-orbed way in a page. Here is some of what I think is important to say:

    1. People are spiritually formed when they have a transforming encounter with Jesus Christ. The scriptural pattern seems to be, first to proclaim good news to people, and then help them to make steps to live their lives which correspond to what God has done. Likewise, I see my job as pastor, is to always proclaim the good news and God’s hospitality towards us before spelling out the implications it has for our life.
    2. Truth is lived before it is understood. I believe our capacity to hear the gospel is affected by our own practice. As people live out their lives in light of the gospel, their capacity to see and hear from God increases. ‘The way is made by walking’ and I see it as my job to help people get the truth of the gospel in their bones as they seek to live out their faith.
    3. The Christian faith is lived in community. I believe wholeheartedly that the Christian faith is impossible when it is privatized. If I am to fulfill my calling, I need sisters and brothers to walk along side of me, proclaiming Christ’s presence, holding me accountable and showing me the grace of God. We all need this, which is part of why gathering with other Christians in worship and in small group settings is so profitable and fruitful for our spiritual growth. It is also why I don’t approach ‘my ministry’ individualistically. There is no ‘my ministry’; there is the ‘ministry of the church.’ And as such, part of the task of pastor is to help develop the gifts present in the congregation for mutual edification and to extend the mission of God in the world.

Thoughts? I haven’t told anyone how great I am at administration and how much of a gifted preacher I am.

Why I hate Why Men Hate Going to Church

Why Men Hate Murrow

In this updated edition of his 2005 book Why Men Hate Going to Church David Murrow has addressed a real, verifiable problem. Men don’t go to church, at least not in the numbers that women do. Why is this? Are Women more spiritual than men? Less fallen? No, but among the various factors that keep men out of the pews, Murrow finds that the church have soft-pedaled parts of the gospel painting Jesus as the gentle lamb of God without also showing us that He is the Lion of Judah, ferocious and wild. He asserts that if the church is to recapture the culture, grow, fulfill its mission, take risks, do something significant, be more orthodox, cultivate commitment among the youth, then we need to retool how we do church in ways that appeal more to men and make them feel like church is worthwhile.

What Murrow attempts to do in these pages is point out the lack of men in church, identify some of the ways that church culture has excluded men, and offer some practical advice on how to make church more man friendly. I applaud this goal. The issues he speaks of are real and if men are to be encouraged to pursue a real and vibrant faith, clearly this means doing ministry in ways that speak to men. A promise keeper’s male hug-fest doesn’t translate to more men in the church. Murrow tries to put his finger on the pulse of what does. For this I applaud him. And so, what is the problem? Several in fact:

1. Murrow bases his analysis on unhelpful gender stereotypes garnered from pop-psychology. In chapter one, Murrow makes the case that the church displays feminine values because Christian values. Murrow utilizes Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus to make his point that culturally, the Church is seen as feminine. Women value things like communication, connection, beauty, whereas men are all about power, efficiency, proving oneself and skills. While I think John Gray makes important distinctions in the way men and women are socialized, I think it is a mistake to absolutize his claims. If men are to thrive in life, the so-called feminine characteristics he describes are what will enable it. Without the ability to empathize, and relate to others (feminine traits), a man demonstrates a low E.Q. and will not succeed in business or life. This is what a number of popular business books are telling us guys. Men are not simply task master automatons; they are also relational beings. I have a problem with a book about men which begins with an assumption which denies their full humanity.

2. While Feminization is a problem in the church, Murrow fails to see that it is actually a broad cultural problem, not a simple ecclesial problem. At one point, he does acknowledge that women are starting to be a significant portion of the academic world is also excluding men. This is a societal problem. Men are withdrawing from business, from academic institutions and the church. This book addresses the problem in the church in isolation from culture. Therefore Murrow’s analysis is flawed from the get-go.

3. Murrow’s use of statistics is irresponsible. Well, at least he is inconsistent. Some of his stats are good; sometimes he relies on non-scientific polls to make his point. Other times he draws conclusions from stats that are not judicious. For example, when 11 out of 95 men leaving a sportsman show think that church is not masculine, this is hardly compelling evidence of how feminine the church is. Let me be clear, I agree the feminization of the church is a real problem; yet most of the data Murrow sites is more anecdotal than empirical.

4. Sometimes Murrow fails to accurately name the reasons for the problems he sees. For example, he rightly points out that the biggest gender disparity he sees, is in African-American churches. What is the reason? Gay pastors, the formal and traditional dress of African-American churches, and the length of their services are Murrow’s answer(91, 109, 159). While there may be some truth to his answers, this fails to account for the wider societal issue of the absence of the African-American male. African-American males are under educated, under represented in the workforce, do not have the political clout of African-American women. They are the highest representative demographic of men in prison. Murrow’s analysis doesn’t account for any of this. It makes me think that much of what he says is more conjecture than actually helpful.

5. Murrow operates on the assumption that because something is cultural feminine, it excludes men and therefore we need to do something different for them. I agree up to a point. But he makes the case that men are uncomfortable with physical affection, talking about their ‘relationship’ with God or being in intimate settings with other people. He suggests mega-churches attract men because they feel unthreatened and can be anonymous. Okay. But is this good for men? Personally, opening up relationally and talking about uncomfortable things has been my biggest growth edge in my ‘relationship’ with God. I get that some of relational language can be seen by macho-men as a little bit ‘candy-ass,’ but honestly relational language captures the experiential reality of what it means to walk with God. Murrow would argue that we should abandon the unbiblical language of ‘personal relationship’ which sounds icky to men and anyway is not biblical, to the harder more challenging language of discipleship. I agree that to be a Christian is to come to grips to what it means to be a disciple, but this does not fully encompass our life with God. Jesus himself said to his disciples, “I no longer call you disciples but I call you friends (John 15:15).” There is a personal relationship at the core of how we relate to Jesus. If men object to the language of ‘personal relationship,’ they still need to contend with Biblical language which commends intimacy and friendship. If this is problematic for the would be disciple, maybe they need to let go of some of their gender stereotyping. Man up! Having a personal relationship with Jesus doesn’t make you less of a man. It makes you a member of the new humanity. You want to be a man, have a personal relationship with Jesus. You don’t want to do that? Then die in your impotent idea of manhood with its antiquated appropriation of gender stereotypes.

6. As long as I am mentioning language, another place where Murrow gets this wrong is when he eschews the language of ‘family of God.’ He rightly, if woodenly literal, points out that Jesus never used the term ‘family of God; instead he talked about the Kingdom of God. I personally have no issue using Kingdom language, but to dismiss family of God as simply something that appeals to the feminine, fails to emphasis our relationality to one another. To be in the church, is to be connected to other Christians in ways more profound than our marriages or family of origin. The fact that Jesus never says, “family of God” doesn’t illegitimatize the term. Jesus does say, “Those who do the will of the Father are my brother, sister and mother. (Matthew 12:50)” My guess that this statement is more offensive to women than men. Paul, Peter, James and John all use the term ‘brothers’ to refer to those in the church. When you think of the church. this is your family. It is a theological truth for Christians, not gendered language aimed to draw women into the church and exclude men. It is a fact for those who would call Christ their Lord and want to be his disciples.

7. On a personal note, I like church. I am bummed if I miss church. According to Murrow’s analysis, the fact that I like church, thrive in church, have good verbal skills and am relational is because I am feminine. My schmaltzy talk-about-your-feelings-pastoral nature fits well in church and its girly. Well Murrow here is a newsflash. I am all man. I am so manly that other men cower when I walk to a room. If you are a man reading this now, I know you are intimidated. I’m just saying.

This isn’t to say all the advice that Murrow gives on how to reach men is bad. Some of it is pretty helpful. He talks about providing places where men feel like they are offering something significant and are taking leadership. He also offers some helpful tips on teaching that connects with men. Occasionally he overstates his advice like when he says don’t allow churches to display flowers because it’s too feminine and men feel uncomfortable. If your church doesn’t look like a bed and breakfast probably most men can handle a few bouquets. I find the inherent sexism in his analysis problematic, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get some things right.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson (via Booksneeze) for giving me this review copy in exchange for my review. I was not asked to write a positive review of this book. So I didn’t.

Job Interview frustrations.

So my job interview didn’t happen today because I was having Skype issues (for the position I am applying for, it is the only way they would interview me. So I am rescheduled for Tuesday, which the plus side is that I have until Tuesday to become a better man.

The upside of not getting my interview done and over with is that I discovered the issue is with my microphone. I get that taken care of and everything should work. Unfortunately that means going and buying a microphone to apply for a position I barely qualify for and am not likely to get.

Luckily my video is working, so I should be able to get by on my good looks.

Book Review: Mercy is the Name of an Old Lady?

Arterburn encounterI wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. A book about a middle-aged man on a self-destructive path having to face past wounds and in the process being met by God, sounded just a tad ‘Shack-y’ for my tastes. When the synopsis of the book online said:

The Encounter, the unique new book from best-selling author and counselor Stephen Arterburn, is a moving parable involving Jonathan Rush, a wealthy and famous entrepreneur, who is tortured by bitterness toward his mother who abandoned him when he was four. He travels to Alaska to find her but instead meets an enigmatic old woman known only as Mercy…

I just figured that this was a new twist on the same theme (meet God in your place of wounding and be healed). And that kind of was it, but not exactly. Actually the story doesn’t just follow Jonathan as he searches; it also tells the story of Ada, the woman who gave him up for adoption when he was four. It tells of how she made the choice, the regret she had afterwards and the ways she still tried to love him even after giving him up for adoption and forfeiting her legal rights to be in her life.

This then is a story of forgiveness. Jonathan learns how to extend grace to his mother (SPOILER ALERT: The woman he meets named Mercy, is in fact his mother Ada). Ada also has been walking around in guilt and shame since abandoning her son 31 years later. She has to forgive herself.

This story while fictional, is based on two true stories. One of these stories is reenacted in the climactic scene of this book. That is the best part of the book and is a vivid picture of what it means to extend grace to others, and the ways in which God extends grace to us.

I appreciated this book and it certainly caused me to reflect on where I harbor unforgiveness in my heart and what it does to me. I think on that level, this story illustrates well the dangers of letting bitterness to take root, and the experience of grace.

I received this book from Thomas Nelson via Book Sneeze in exchange for my honest review.