Open to Every Which Way the Spirit Blows: a book review

Being open to the Spirit once meant, for me, attending a charismatic church. There the works of the Spirit were front and center—prayers for healing and deliverance, prophetic words, ecstatic utterance. It was good for me to be there, to cultivate an experiential openness and allow the winds of the Spirit to blow where they would. Unfortunately, not everything I’ve experienced and witnessed at that church was the move of the Holy Spirit. I witnessed poor discernment, unhealthy dynamics, and psychological manipulation. It took me years to sort out the difference between being open to the Spirit and just being weird.

McknightOpentotheSPiritScot McKnight’s Open to the Spirit is a great overview of how to cultivate an openness to the Spirit’s movement, that attends to the Spirit’s purposes for us. McKnight is a New Testament scholar, and professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, author of a gazillion Christian books and is a popular blogger at Patheos. This is a popular level book designed to help ordinary readers enter into and appreciate what it means to be open to the Spirit. Nevertheless, McKnight is a New Testament scholar and he seeks throughout to root his description of the Spirit’s work in the biblical text, and where appropriate, he interacts with various other biblical scholars (notably, Gordon Fee, Jimmy Dunn, Jack Levison, NT Wright, Daniel Wallace, Monica Coleman), but this remains a non-technical book, with plenty of personal examples from  McKnight’s faith journey.

McKnight explores being open to the Spirit in five areas. In Part 1, he describes being open to the voice of the Spirit (e.g., the Spirit’s witness in pointing us to Jesus, in the written words of Scripture, in prophetic utterance, and in the Spirit’s wordless, groaning intercession for us). In Part 2, he discusses being open to the Spirit’s new creation in us (e.g., God’s presence in our lives, in the Pentecost, in a new baptism, in our transforming inner self and in giving us new power).

Part 3 talks about being open to the Spirit in Christian community, in inspiring the cruciform style of Christian leadership in the way of Jesus, and in an other-oriented spirituality of love. Part 4 explores what it means to be open to the Spirit’s sanctifying work—the assurance of life in Christ, our growth in freedom and holiness (e.g. the ‘fruit of the Spirit) and living towards the good.

Finally, part 5 explores being open to the victory the spirit brings over sin, victory in communication (e.g. tongues, prayer, and evangelism), victory over sin and death, victory over demonic powers, structural evil and victory in worshipping God.

Because McKnight focuses on the role of the Spirit in the Bible (with a special focus on the New Testament), he acknowledges and describes charismatic phenomenon without laying the emphasis on the strange and esoteric. McKnight’s emphasis is always on what the Spirit of God wants to accomplish in us if we allow ourselves to be open to the Spirit’s multifaceted work in our lives. Each chapter explores a dimension of the Spirit’s work and closes with a question asking if we are open to the Spirit’s work (e.g. “Are you open to the Spirit who speaks in the Living Word and takes you to Jesus?” – pg 27; “Are you open to the Holy Spirit who brings you new power?”- pg 95; “Are you open to the wild freedom of the Spirit?” -pg 147; “Are you open to the Spirit who grants victory in communication, sometimes in miraculous ways?” -pg 179.

Three times McKnight includes a prayer of openness to the Spirit for readers to pray as they read (in the introduction, on page 70, and on page 204):

Lord, I am open to the Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit, Come to me, dwell in me, speak to me

so I may become more like Christ.

Lord, give me the courage to be open,

Lord I am open to the Holy Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit

Amen.

McKnight’s goal is that in reading the stories he shares (his own and others) and in reflecting on the Spirit’s movement throughout the biblical text, we will be open and the Spirit of God would move in us. This is a good book to read prayerfully and expectantly. Are you open to the Spirit? Sometimes the Spirit moves in weird ways, but always with the purpose of bringing us into a deeper experience of the Kingdom of God. McKnight names the way the Spirit directs, intercedes, inspires, renews, brings intimacy with God, knits Christian community together, and compels us to work toward healing and justice, to the glory of God.  I give this five stars. – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the blogging for books program and Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my honest review.

 

Practicing Theolocal Spirituality: Prayer

In a previous post, I discussed our theolocal imagination and what it means for us to bear witness to the Spirit is already active in the world. I want to also describe some of the practices which shape us and enable our theolocal witness.  Prayer is fundamental to it all.

I say this as a lousy pray-er.  I would be the world’s worst mystic. I try to practice contemplative prayer, but am sabotaged by my frenetic ADHD. It’s your world and I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut to move your butt, to the dance floor now your butt’s up. Wait what?

When I sit to pray. I am immediately distracted. This is doubly difficult because I am an extrovert who works at home. Alone. I crave interaction. Personal prayer is difficult for me and I suck at it. I need to admit this up front because as a faith blogger and erstwhile pastor,  it is easy for me to cast myself in the role of expert. Not in this post, I am describing a practice which is still a major growth edge for me. Below I am describing aspects of prayer and spirituality I believe and long to grow into.

If you want (as I want) to know the Theolocal Spirit—our God-come-near we need to set aside time to explore and grow in prayer. As I see it, prayer is necessary to the theolocal practice because it changes who we attend to, our attitude in the moment, and awakens us to where the wind of the Spirt may be blowing.

Paying Attention to God

Have you heard of confirmation bias? It is a social psychological reality which describe how naturally, each of us tends to overvalue evidence which confirms our preexisting set of beliefs. It is the reason why those on the far Right are able to put a happy face on a Donald Trump’s presidency (for the way he drains the swamp, takes on the lying fake news, stands up for the little guy and promotes economic growth) and those on the Left see corruption, collusion with Russia, careless speech, misogyny, and treason. Both the Left and Right are looking at the same guy, but they pay attention to different things, emphasizing the facts (or alternative facts) which confirm their bias. Neither side sees the whole picture.

There is much more to be said about confirmation bias (such as the need for epistemological humility), but how does any of this relate to prayer? On a basic level, confirmation bias is paying attention to the truths which matter to us. I believe wholeheartedly that God is living and active in our communities, constantly at work—the wind blowing where it will—whether we mark His Presence or not; however those of us who carve out serious time for prayer, and prayerful activities (such as Lectio Divina) will see evidence of his Presence everywhere. Prayer primes the pump. Our prayer awakens a habit of mind where we see the Divine in daily life. This is the Confirmation bias of Prayer.

As a young adult, I was part of a faith community which emphasized personal evangelism. We used to pray for ‘divine appointments,’ opportunities to share our faith with others. When they happened we called this answered prayer. Perhaps, but if I am honest I also have gotten into many spiritual conversations without praying in advance (I also missed more than a few).  If we cultivate a life of prayer, we are more likely to see ways God is at work and make the most of the opportunities which come our way.

Do you see God at work in your neighborhood and in your community? What about in the lives of friends and neighbors? 

An Attitude of Openness

My guiding theolocal conviction is that wherever we are, God got there first and is already at work. When this conviction guides our prayer life, we parse our ecosystems differently. We don’t just look for the areas of distress (e.g. addictions, pollutants, destructive behaviors, isolation or whatever) but we look to others in our community with an expectancy to see the hand and face of God.

We come to a neighborhood, not with the hope of bringing the Kingdom of God but with the expectation that we will bear witness to the ways the Kingdom is already there. We don’t go into the world simply to seek and save the lost as the incarnate Christ once did (Luke 19:10) but we go expecting to identify the altar of the unknown God (Acts 17:23) and ways the Spirit of Christ is there calling out to human hearts.

As we pray, we pray for an attitude of openness to see how and where  God is at work.

Awakened to the Wind of the Spirit

In prayer, we cultivate attention and an openness to God, but we also are awakened to see the ways God’s Spirit is moving.  This is the fruit of learning to attend to God. We recognize where God is, and at work. We also see when God is on the move.  How do you reach a community with the love of Christ and bear witness to the reality of God’s Presence in our midst? What is the missional strategy that you should take with your neighbors? In your community?

The answer is different for different places and different people. There is no missional strategy or fancy acronym that will bring the world to Christ. The Spirit of Christ is already there, in the world. Get theolocal and learn to attend to the ways God-Came-Near is moving.

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Spirit Empowered Theology: a book review

With over 65 years in ministry and with conviction and experience of the Spirit moving in power Charles Carrin, D.D. has compiled a one-volume resource aimed at helping ordinary Christians understand, articulate, and experience the Christian life.

9780800798178  Spirit-Empowered Theology is comprised of 300 questions organized under headings which are roughly reminiscent of a traditional systematic theology. Carrin discusses who God is, who we are, the nature of Scripture, the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection,  the Kingdom of God, the Church, the five-fold offices of the church, Spiritual gifts, deliverance ministries, the foundations of faith, doctrinal variations, various heresies, God’s plan for Israel, significant events and people in Christian history,  Creationism, the Covenant and the meaning of various terms.

As this is a concise overview of the Christian Faith, theology, history and practice (from a Charismatic/Pentecostal perspective), the answers to the 300 questions Carrin poses are brief. Carrin has an index but no bibliography or footnotes (though he obviously referenced a number of works in compiling this resource).  His consulting editors include John and Carol Arnott, Bill Johnson, Stephen Chitty, R.T. Kendall, Randy Clark, Michael Peterson, Leif Hetland and Jack Taylor (19).  This list favors pastors and practitioners who are open to manifestations of the Spirit (Kendall may be the one theologian in the mix). Notably absent from the list are folks like Amos Yong, Wolfgang Vondey, Frank Macchia, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen or other scholars from a maturing Charismatic/Pentecostal academia. Even Wayne Grudem’s charismatic friendly Systematic Theology is never referenced. This isn’t so much a criticism but an observation. This may be a ‘theology’ but it is conceived as a practical resource, not an academic tome.

Carrin’s theology affirms traditional Christian doctrine: God is One and Three, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. Salvation comes through trusting Jesus as Savior and Lord and the efficacy of his death and resurrection, the Bible is God’s Word and contains the truth about God, Jesus, us, the world, and the coming Kingdom.  As a ‘Spirit-Empowered’ resource, Carrin emphasizes the experiential dimension of the Christian life (i.e. signs and wonders, prophesy, healing, Spiritual gifts, deliverance, etc). This Charismatic perspective pervades and there is no pretended objectivity on this point.  For example, after a matter of fact summary of What cessationism is (146-47), Carrin writes, “This is religious absurdity. Ignore it.” (147).  It is also pretty clear that he favors an Arminian perspective over Calvinism (207-209).

The Christian history sections (Part 14 and 15) are underwhelming for me. Carrin does a nice job of highlighting significant moments in Christian history, but with 1-5 paragraphs per entry, these events are brief sketches without much color. The profiles of significant figures in Christian history are even briefer (a paragraph apiece). You could find out more about these events and people from Wikipedia (and in many cases actually have footnotes to chase down for research). There is more a chronology of events/people as good historiography would give more in the way of context and analysis. As a lover of Church history, this section of the book is a disappointment, though it was interesting to see which events/people Carrin chose to highlight.

There are other aspects of the book where I didn’t find myself in complete agreement with Carrin (i.e. his discussions of science and Israel come to mind). However, I think a resource like this which provides Charismatic laity with practical and pastoral answers to theological questions is to be applauded. With the brevity of answers, this almost a ‘bathroom reader’ of Charismatic theology.  It is also an at-a-glance resource when particular questions arise. I appreciate Carrin’s summary of (his perspective on) demonology, demonism and Spiritual warfare.

I give this book three-and-a-half stars and recommend it for Charismatic lay folk. If theology and church history is your jam, you will find Carrin overly brief, and lacking in nuance on a number of points. However, if just want a quick resource which is traditional, responsible and friendly to a charismatic worldview (and open to the Spirit’s movement), this is a good book for you.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

The Wright Way for Spiritual Fruit: a book review

Chris Wright is one of my favorite authors. He is a missiologist, biblical ethicist, international ministries director for Langham Partnership, co-worker and friend to the late John Stott, and an Old Testament scholar (I sometimes refer to him as O.T. Wright). In Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Wright examines each of the nine fruits of the Spirit referenced by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 and encourages us to pursue the Spirit’s transformation in each of these areas.

4498This book began as a nine day Bible study series, and companion series of videos produced for Langham Partnership for Lent, 2013: 9-A-Day: Becoming Like Jesus. Wright, along with Jonathan Lamb and Langham leadership, was inspired to create this series from John Stott’s example. Every morning Stott prayed this prayer:

Heavenly Father, I pray that this day I may  live in your presence and please you more and more

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (quoted in Wright’s introduction, 13).

The chapters of this book examine each of the nine fruits, in turn. Wright explores each theme of each fruit is (1) evidence of God’s character, (2) exemplified in Christ, and (3) and how the presence of each demonstrates the work of the Spirit in our lives. The chapters end with questions for reflection or discussion. There is also a web link to Wright’s talk on the fruit. [ The link provided at the end of the chapter was broken but the original videos that inspired this book can be found at http://9aday.org.uk/the-9-fruits (referenced in the book’s preface) or linked from the book page on the publisher website]. Wright’s introduction and conclusion place the fruit within the frame of Paul’s message to Galatia.

The fruit of the Spirit ought to characterize the lives of followers of Jesus. Reading through this study in Lent, if you pardon the pun, has been fruitful for me. There isn’t always actionable applications in the text, but Wright encourages us to look at the example of Jesus and to pay attention to where we have seen these fruit in the lives of others.  Wright spends most of each chapters describing what each of these fruit/virtues is. The assumption is that while there are things we ought to do, ultimately the growth of the fruit is the Spirit’s work.

This can be read individually or as a group. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

 

A Kid Friendly Pentecost: a kid’s book review

We are a couple of weeks away from Pentecost—the celebration of the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh: wind and fire, young and old seeing visions and dreaming dreams, and women and men speaking with other tongues. Acts 2 tells the story of one-hundred-and-twenty disciples gathered and waiting, surprised and vivified by the Spirit’s presence, knit together as one family—the church—the body of Christ.

the-day-when-god-made-church-a-child-s-book-about-pentecost-4The Day When God Made the Church: A Child’s First Pentecost Book by Rebekah McLeod Hutto (illustrated by Stephanie Haig) provides a way for parents, educators and ministers to share the story of the Holy Spirit’s coming with young children. With Haig’s vivid illustrations, Hutto narrates the rush of wind, the crowds confusion and highlight’s from Peter’s sermon. She stresses the good news of Christ’s resurrection and the joy and new life given by the Spirit to all who respond to the good news of Jesus.

Hutto is a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister at Brick Presbyterian Church where she serves as Associate Minister for Christian Education and Discipleship. She manages to tell the story of Pentecost in an engaging way that is simple enough for a three or four-year-old to apprehend,  and true enough to events that older kids and adults (big kids) will also find it instructive.  Haig’s artwork includes ribbons of color and fire, people, animals and symbols. There is a variety of skin tones included among Jesus’ disciples, signally the diversity of the body of Christ.

This is a short picture book (paper back, 32 pages long) but it captures well  the birth of the church. I recommend this book for parents, Christian education directors, Sunday School teachers who want to share the joy and Good News of the Spirit with their children. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

The Freedom of the Triune God and Our Own: a book review

Paul Molnar, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, previously published a major work on the Immanent Trinity, the inner-relations of the Triune God in eternity–Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology (T & T Clark, 2005). In Faith, Freedom and the Spirit (IVP Academic 2015), he returns to the topic of Trinity, this time exploring the economic Trinity–God’s revelation to us in time, especially as it relates to theeconomy of salvation.  He wrote this book “as a discussion of just how a properly conceived pneumatology would assist such theologians speaking of the economic Trinity to think more accurately about divine and human interaction in the sphere of faith and knowledge within history” His aim is to “explore God’s relations with us and our relations with God within the economy by focusing on the activity of the Spirit who enables faith and freedom” (7). He affirms human freedom and the Triune God’s actions within history; however he refuses to reduce Trinitarian theology and Christology to a historicized versions of it, and reflects thoughtful on the role of Spirit in mediating the gospel of grace to us.

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Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology by Paul D. Molnar.

Throughout this book, Molnar is in dialogue with Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance and several contemporary theologians. Molnar has published monographs on both Barth and Torrance. In general, Molnar defends Barth against the neo-Barthian revisionists and uses Torrance to critique Barth in the places where Barth is inconsistent. Barth remains the genius of twentieth century theology, but where Molnar disagrees with him, he tends to follow Torrance. This is especially true when it comes to Torrance’s careful distinction between Christ’s vicarious activity for us and his ‘inner being as the Word’ (341-44).  Barth certainly affirms both, but his writings are inconsistent and allow for confusion regarding Christ’s mission and processions, and the error of subordinationism (339-340).

Faith, Freedom and the Spirit is made up of eight chapters.  The first two chapters explore the role of the Holy Spirit in imparting faith and bringing true knowledge of God through the incarnate Word. Chapters three through six critiques the missteps by contemporary theologians in understanding the relationship between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity, as well as contemporary misreadings of Barth. Chapter seven explores the obedience of the Son in the economic Trinity (and why this doesn’t necessitate subordinationism, especially according to Torrance’s reading). Chapter eight unfolds the theology of grace and how it enables true human freedom (freedom to live by the Grace of God through surrender to Christ)–God’s work in human history. A brief conclusion reviews the terrain and declares the necessity of the Spirit’s work for living the Christian life.

Continue reading The Freedom of the Triune God and Our Own: a book review

Praying to the Spirit: a prayer book review

I’ve become quite the fan of Jack Levison. I’ve read a couple of his books, Fresh Air and Forty Days with the Holy Spirit [as I write this review, Fresh Air  and Forty Days are both only $1.99 on Amazon!].  Fresh Air is the popular level version of his scholarly tome Filled with the Spirit. Forty Days with the Holy Spirit is a daily devotional with scripture, devotions, space for reflection and prayer. I find his writing both insightful and personally, spiritually enriching. Reading Levison I’ve been blessed with a greater understanding and a deeper experience of the Spirit. His newest book, Holy Spirit I Pray is a book of fifty prayers, which invites readers to  pray to Spirit.

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Holy Spirit I Pray by Jack Levison

In his introduction, Levison writes, “A book of prayers to the Holy Spirit, even a slender one is an oddity. While they probably exist, I know of no others. In a modest way this book is unprecedented” (introduction, p.5).  Nevertheless, Levison notes the long tradition of addressing the Spirit in prayer (i.e. liturgical prayers, prayers of Christian saints like Hildegaard of Bingen, or the Cappadocians). So while books of this kind are somewhat novel, praying the prayers in this volume, is joining in the chorus of Christian tradition.

The fifty prayers in this volume are composed by Levison. Each is paired with a relevant Bible passage. These are presented without comment or reflection. Instead Levison uses his introduction to unfold several  concepts to help orient readers toward prayer: the meaning of ruach (Hebrew for Spirit, wind breath), the nature of the Spirit’s filling, and the Spirit’s eagle-like-brooding (vii-xi). These are important concepts which Levison explores more in-depth elsewhere. What he says here is brief, but explicates what you need to know to fully appreciated his prayer-metaphors and the connections he makes. Continue reading Praying to the Spirit: a prayer book review