Prayers in Ordinary Time (Week 16 after Pentecost)

This is not the way it is supposed to be–
the dull ache of disappointment
the weight of failures and false starts,
Heartaches and suffering,
wars and elections,
and systems of injustice.
It is still months before we celebrate your coming, but we need you to come now.
Come Lord Jesus.

I am not what I’m supposed to be:
I am quick to judge others.
I lack grace and understanding.
My words offer poor refreshment,
like a brackish stream.
I am anxious and do not trust well.
I am broken and fail to love well.
But I am still on this journey, and long for You

    to be fully formed in me.

That I may be like you.
That I may be with you
Come Lord Jesus.

What Matters Most is Not the Title (but I like the title): a book review

What Matters Most: How We Got the Point but Missed the Person by Leonard Sweet

This is not a new book. It is a new title for a book that is eight years old. Waterbrook Multnomah has latched onto a marketing strategy for giving older books a new lease on life by re-releasing them with a brand new title. Titles are often the privilege of the publisher anyway, so certainly re-titling is their prerogative. Of the five re-titled books I have read from Waterbrook Press  I have read, at least three of them benefited from the re-christening. So does this one. Previously released as Out of the Question. . .Into the Mystery in 2004, the old title doesn’t seem to get at the heart of all this book is about (though does allude to an important aspect); What Matters Most” How We Got the Point but Missed the Person does a good job of summing up the major message of this book.

In What Matter Most, Len Sweet makes the claim that the truth of the gospel is not primarily propositional. Nor is Christian truth fundamentally addressed at moral behavior. What stands at the center of the gospel is the relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ. Certainly this is a claim common to evangelicals (with our ‘personal relationship’ language) but we have been prone to mess it up. Sweet puts our relationship with God, one another, people outside the faith, and creation in perspective as he challenges our tendency to run from relationships and want ‘faith’ on our own overly intellectualized and individualized terms.

Sweet organizes the book into eight parts. In part one, he talks about how our faith is relationship (versus intellectual assent). In part 2 he addresses our relationship with God by exploring the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Issac and what ‘God’s test’ in that context meant. He argues that when Abraham lays Isaac on the altar he passed the obedience test, but he failed the relational test (failing to ‘wrestle with God’ as Jacob later would). For this section, Sweet leans on Jewish Midrash for his exegesis and gives a fresh and interesting read to this troublesome passage. In part 3 he looks closer at God’s story recorded in scripture and how we ought to read scripture relationally. In parts 4-6, Sweet talks about our relationship with one another, those outside the faith and creation and he addresses how human sinfulness has caused us to mess up our relationship with each. In part 7 he discusses art and symbols in our relationship with God (and the church). And in his last section Sweet discusses our relationship with the ‘spiritual world’ entails our willingness to be open to mystery (remember the original title?).

This is my favorite Sweet book I’ve read. There is so much here that provokes a whole life response. I am certainly on board with the centrality o Jesus and found that this book made me hunger for a deeper relationship with Him. As always Sweet has questions for ‘further contemplation’ and discussion (as well as ‘bonus online content’ which I have not looked at).  In other books, I feel like Sweet tries too hard to be culturally relevant, but I didn’t feel that with this book. This is Sweet at this best: engaging, historically astute, challenging and winsome in his presentation of Christian truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thank you to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Aphorisms of my Aged Wisdom

On June 3 I turn 37.  I always have mixed feelings about my birthday. I don’t really mind getting older but as the years role on I feel inadequate in that I have yet to make my impact on the world. I long to do something significant and beautiful but thus far I feel like a bigger consumer than producer. Yes I have three wonderful children whom I am proud of. The above comment does not intend to slight them in anyway. I just feel like I have more to give. But I console myself with the fact that my greatest accomplishments await me and I have gained some wisdom in my few short years. Below is some of the wisdom I have acquired through the years. I hope that these lessons bless you and that you don’t have as hard a time learning them as I did. If I ever become a business guru or a motivational speaker, I imagine these are the sorts of things I would have on a plaque behind my desk:

  • You can only get so far with your raw talent, incredible good looks and superior intelligence. The world is full of people less gifted, less goodlooking and dumber, but who are more successful because they try harder. You want to get somewhere, hard work is necessary (though the othere stuff doesn’t hurt).
  • People don’t care what you know unless you are funny.
  • In Christ alone my hope is found but coffee is still really important.
  • No matter what you think about how sophisticated you are with your  metaphorical and metaphysical distinctions, your mother will never understand the difference between calling her a bitch and saying she’s ‘being a bitch.’  Once you invoke the category of ‘being,’ the only way your mom will hear that as an ontological pronouncement. It is probably best to shut up.
  • Honesty is NOT the best policy; Truth in love is. If you tell the wrong person that ‘honesty is the best policy’ they will consider it license to be a complete a-hole. Yet if people worry about how the truth will hurt someone, chances are they get it.
  • The way to a women’s heart is by being an incredible man.
  • If you don’t know how to be vulnerable with people and share your hurts, worries, weaknesses, you will never know the joy of being fully accepted and loved despite your glaring flaws.
  • The biggestthing I need from other people is not accountability; rather it is for them to name where God is at work and where they see the rhythms of grace in my life.
  • Everybody fails eventually. It is what you do after you fail that counts.
  • I was born into white male, middle class privilege and that has afforded me certain opportunities that have been denied others and I have benefited from an unjust system.  I used to think I was not a racist or sexist because I wasn’t actively oppressing people, but by privilege given to me at birth and my societal entitlement, I am still part of the problem, no matter how enlightened I think I am. It is only when I see my white privilege for what it is that I can hope and work for justice and systemic change.
  • A vote for president (or any other political office) is always the lesser of two evils. 
  • A good sense of humor helps put people at ease so they can talk about serious and personal stuff.
  • Overuse of humor makes people think that you don’t care, are not thoughtful about the issues and are not very deep.
  • In sunday school we all learned Jesus was the answer, but as we walk with Jesus we learn to ask the right questions.
  • If you hurt someone say your sorry regardless of whether you think you were right. Even if you think you are justified in your specific action, you still are responsible when some feels wronged and hurt by your actions. Defending yourself is always a secondary concern.
  • If you were alone on a desert island and you could take ‘one book with you,’ it doesn’t really matter which one you take because you are still going to die. 
  • Revelations talks about the ‘Lamb’s book of life’ because Jesus kicks ass AND takes names. 
  • That voice inside your head which tells you that you are not good enough, you don’t measure up and you will never amount to anything, that isn’t God. 

That is all I got for right now; next year I plan to be even wiser.

If You are Really Viral, Lets Just Be Friendz on the Interwebs: a book review.

A couple of years ago a co-worker of mine came back from a conference and quoted Len Sweet as saying, “The question is not whether or not Jesus would tweet, the question is how he would tweet.” I was curious but remained unconvinced. Technology comes with a whole set of issues and where I have connected most with Christ has been when I have unplugged (rather than from some 140-characters-long-message). Then a year ago, a friend and professor of mine, John G. Stackhouse, Jr. came back from an ‘Advance’ with Len Sweet in the Orcas Islands and decided to jump into the twitterverse . I was already on Twitter, but only making occasional use of it and didn’t see the point. So when Len Sweet published a book detailing how social networking is poised to ignite revival, I thought I should read it, so I could maybe understand (and jump on that bandwagon).

Ideologically I generally feel a little out of step with Sweet. He is always waxing eloquent about where we are in culture and how we should speak relevantly in our context. I want to ask how our context can prevent us from experiencing the truth of the gospel and numb us to the Spirit’s movement. I feel this most acutely in relationship to technology. I have a blog, I’m on Facebook and Twitter and happy to amass friends and followers at each venue (and yes, I blog as a Christian), but I also wonder how technology is numbing my ability to know God intimately, to be in silence and solitude, and to make meaningful connections where I live.

When I read Viral, I heard Sweet’s strong exhortations to get with the time, to embrace the social medium and use my platform to share Christ.  These pages don’t have the prophetic edge of a Jacques Ellul or Albert Borgmann questioning what meaningful thing is lost when we embrace new technologies (although Sweet quotes Marshall McLuhan several times). You also won’t find Neil Postman’s incisive analysis of how Western culture developed technology, but technology is now making us. But Sweet is not wholly ignorant of the dangers inherent in this tangled web we weave. He just chooses to accentuate the positive.

Sweet compares the two cultures that co-exist in our time. The Gutenbergers, love the printed word, sustained thought, but are also individualistic, narcissistic and prone to argument. The Googlers are digitally connected, think its more important to be in relationship than to be right and prize images and symbols and metaphors (though they still like text). As I expected, Sweet thinks that the Googlers are where our culture has moved to and so if we are serious about engaging the world with a Christian message, than we ought to move into the digital age engaging in the entire spectrum of the ‘TGIF’ culture (Twitter, Google, iphone, Facebook).

Yet Sweet does not give his wholesale stamp on every phenomenon in the Google world.  What he is really interesting is describing our context, where we live and how we relate to each other in our day and age, and how we remain faithful to Christ in the midst of that culture. So while much of this book is a glowing endorsement of twitter and iphone, Sweet augments that with suggestions of how to tweet in a transformative way and how to tell beautiful, poetic stories of God’s goodness in an era where people spend half the day looking at cat memes.  A lot of what he says tells people how to navigate the Google world better, some of it cries out for some of the Guttenbergers’ literary skill, left brain thinking and analysis. So while Sweet comes down on the side of the Googlers, he affirms that both groups need each other.

This a worthwhile read and despite my skepticism and suspicions, I found some real insights here on how to use my online platform for the kingdom of God. This book is way over simplified in its analysis (Sweet admits as much) but it does a good job of naming and illustrating some of the major trends in culture that has happened over the past forty years. As always, Sweet provides you with a plethora of acronyms and witty terms which you will either enjoy or roll your eyes at. But despite his trendy, poppy prose, this book has good stuff to say and I would recommend it to those who are trying to be ambassadors for Christ in a digital world. As always, Sweet’s interactive discussion questions, poke and prode and invite you into deeper learning (rather than just rehearse the chapter for you). Read it. According to Sweet, if you are Googler you will read it on your reader or ipad, if you are Guttenberger, you will read the print version. I read both, which I suppose means I’m every woman (or boy).

Thank you to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

I Swear Being A Christian is the Best: Alternative Christian Cusswords and How to Use Them

BleepOnce upon a time Christians watched their language. Armed with scriptures like Ephesians 4:29 we knew that ‘no unwholesome talk should come out of our mouth” and that never, under any circumstances should we take the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7). Alternative cusswords abounded, nothing too crass, or cutting, but otherwise ‘safe’ lists of mild oaths. This is how hell became heck and other close sounding words were born (frick, frickin’, shoot, etc). Rather than shout God or Jesus in anger, many opted to misuse the names of other gods (Great Zeus!) or replaced it with nonsense phrases like (Golly, egad, geez, Gadzooks!). The problem with all these ‘cuss words’ is they weren’t much better and made the speaker sound like they escaped from Archie comics.

Now there are Christians who like to swear. They think nothing of dropping an occasional f-bomb or talkin’ some crazy $h!t. I know pastors and speakers who will swear in sermons, mostly for effect and to get a reaction out of people. The first few times they swear from the pulpit, it actually is amazingly effective; then they sound just like everyone else.

I’m not personally disturbed by much bad language, some of which I think is just the parlance of our times. Certainly people can be overly crass and their language can be too sexualized or harmful, but the occasional swearer doesn’t bother me much. I’m perhaps a little more sensitive about it now that I am the father of young children that repeat everything they hear. Sometimes when I’m walking down the road with my jogging stroller and neighbors are speaking loudly and crassly, I wince a little. It seems impolite to not respect other people’s kids (unless there are an inordinate amount of people with tourette’s in my neighborhood, than I apologize for my insensitivity).

So what is a Christian to do? Certainly we get angry and need to be able to express our frustrations. But we also need to be careful with what we say. So here is my guidlines on how we as Christians can be better swearers:

  1. Don’t swear at people, swear with people.  In the sermon on the mount, Jesus had these words to say to his disciples, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca, is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:22). I think a lot of the problem with ‘bad language’ in the Bible comes from the way we label people, curse them and dismiss them. This is wrong and should stop, no matter how great your language is.  On the other hand using language to identify with people and connect with people, isn’t so bad.
  2. Tame your Tongue! Jesus’ favorite brother talks about the need to make sure our language reflects our  commitment to God and the type of life he’s calling us to, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:9-12).”  There is not a list here of approved words or phrases for daily use, but I personally know when I’ve crossed the line in the way I describe a neighbor or when I say something harmful to my Spirit or others. We need to cultivate a sensitivity to our own words and how they affect us and others.
  3. Don’t demean God! This is the big one! Right in the 10 commandments it says not to misuse God’s name (Exodus 20:7). Certainly this includes using any of the names of the Triune God as a cuss word. I think it also warns us about being cavalier in the ways we invoke God’s name ( i.e. honoring Him with our lips when our hearts are somewhere else). So with these guidelines, how’s a Christian supposed to cuss? Lucky for you I have more to say!
  4. Be Creative. I think one of the biggest problems with traditional cuss words is overuse. They have become mundane and lack force, the rest of the list will help you tune up your cussing muscle (cusscle?).
  5. Go Greek and Hebrew. One way to become a better cusser is to learn the crass words and innuendo of the Bible which are sometimes cleaned up in English translations. For example in Phillipians 3:8, Paul says, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider themrubbish, that I may gain Christ.” Most English translations say ‘rubbish’ or some near synonym (garbage). A more literal translation, to put it crudely, is “Shit.”  You can transliterate the Greek as skybala. Try shouting that the next time someone cuts you off on the freeway. There are other crass words in the bible , but I don’t want to spoil your fun. These are best found as you get deep in  BS (Bible study).
  6. Go Festive.  We love our holidays and traditions and while many of these are religious holidays they do provide us with many alternative non-blasphemous cuss words. My current favorite is, “O Tannebaum”  (the German version of O Christmas tree) as an expression of utter and total disgust.  If you do it right, you may have the perfect mild expletive for every occasion. Plan ahead for the holiday seasons!
  7. Say, “God Darn.”  Thus far I have restrained the urge to give you a list of particular cuss words you should say, but I think this could be a good one. “Gosh darn it” was sort of the cleaned up version of saying, “God damn it.” Gosh is a perversion of God’s name to avoid saying it in vain (though it is still demeaning him). When you say, “damn it” you are saying, “Condemn it to destruction.” When you use the phrase, “God damn” toward a person,  you are literally cursing that person to hell.  You shouldn’t say that, because your words really matter. Instead say “God darn it.” Why? Because darn means to mend ( like ‘darning socks). So when you say “God darn it” you are not speaking nonsense, or saying, “to Hell with you!” What you doing is praying that God would take the situation, the person, this moment of utter frustration and mend it. So say “God darn it” and your cussing transcends cursing and becomes a prayer for restoration and wholeness. Say it enough and. . .World Peace.   Wouldn’t that be nice?

So this is my list? What are your thoughts on “Christian cusswords” or “ways Christian’s should (or should not) cuss?

What’s in a Word?: Why I don’t have ‘prayer tools’

Occasionally I post these ‘What’s in a word?’ posts because I am convinced that how we talk  is important, and the way we name things and speak of them effects what we see.  Sometimes I think certain metaphors fall short of the truth and end up communicating something damaging. This is how I feel about the language of tools.

I have heard people talk about prayer tools, relational tools, pastoral care tools, missional tools, evangelistic tools, and discipleship tools. In these contexts ‘tool’ is shorthand for strategies, set forms, techniques or patterns of relating. However, by employing the language of tools, we end up saying what we ought not say.  We employ a metaphor and the metaphor reshapes our understanding.

Years ago I attended a church that had a regular healing service. It became a major outreach activity at our church– people would bring family members or co-workers for prayer and through that ministry people experienced God’s healing.  But something didn’t sit quite right with me about it.  The leader of the service had several ways of praying that he encouraged the intercessory prayer teams to pray, different prayer strategies, “Tools in your  prayer toolbox,” he called them. The idea was that by praying in different ways, you might hit the ‘healing sweet spot’ or build the faith of the person enough that God could really do something in their life (God sometimes obliged).  Prayer, in these meetings ceased to be a conversation where we presented our requests before God, but became a technique which would produce a desired result.

This is the problem with the language of tools. What is a tool? In the traditional sense, a tool was something you hold in your hands and  manipulate to complete a particular task efficiently. In our highly technological age, ‘tools’ are what you use to change part of a document or image, or  where set your preferences for surfing the web. In either case, tool is not a relational term (even ‘relational tools) but when used of prayer, relationships, conversations, it reduces it to a formula: if you apply x to y with enough torque,  you get desired result z  or x+y(t)=z.  In Technopoly, Neil Postman characterized our society as being so enamored with the tools we’ve made, that our tools have started to remake us. Shouldn’t we cultivate a sensitivity to the way ‘tool metaphors reshape the way we relate to God or one another?

Strategies and modes of prayer should not be called tools but ways of relating. When we use our ‘prayer tools’ we relate to God in an I-It relationship rather than I-Thou (to use Martin Buber’s typology).  It isn’t that technological metaphors can never be used for aspects of the Christian life, or our relationship with God and others, but it should never be our primary metaphor for life with the Divine. The scriptural metaphors that speak most meaningfully about pray are organic (think Psalm 1 or John 15) or relational (John 10 Shepherd and sheep, Luke 15-the Prodigal Father).  We are living beings and created for relationship and we don’t learn to relate better by depersonalizing prayer and relationships. How you talk about God matters and how you talk about talking to God matters!

Does this mean that we shouldn’t strive to pray effectively or pray strategically? Well yes and no. Sure it matters how you pray for something and prayer methods (i.e. ACTS, prayer books, etc) can be helpful. Certainly I know that if I ask my wife for something the wrong way, I’m never going to get it. But the heart of prayer (and all relating) is not technique but intimacy.  Tools are only effective when appropriately wielded and can only take you so far; prayer is more about faithfulness, trust, worship, speaking honestly without shame and placing your whole person in God’s care.  I don’t know of a tool or technique that gives you that sort of intimacy with God, but I know that God is always there to meet those who keep coming to meet him.

The Voice Bible Book Review

This month The Voice unveils their Bible version for the whole Bible, Old and New Testament. Recently Thomas Nelson sent me the New Testament and I ‘m impressed by it (I used it on my blog for my ‘Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross’ series). The Voice is the brainchild of Chris Seay and the Ecclesia Bible Society. I have followed the project and even have some of the earlier volumes on my shelf ( The Voice of Matthew, The Voice of Acts, The Last Eye Witness: The Final Week). It is nice to see the whole project finally come together.

Why Another Translation?

Seriously, why another translation? With the NIV perpetually updating itself, the Reformed crowd all reading the ESV and other translations popping up, seemingly every few months, do we need a Bible like this? I would say that this project is sufficiently unique and I have found that it does a good job of illuminating the Biblical text for a contemporary context.

There are two main approaches that translators take when approaching the Bible. One translation theory is Formal Equivalence which are very literal translations like the NASB or KJV. These translate Hebrew and Greek Idiom, essentially as is (there are mistakes and the KJV wasn’t working with earlier manuscripts but the translators worked on a very literal rendering). On the other side you have translations which aim at Functional Equivalence (NIV is a major example of this). The Voice is closer to the functional equivalence side and dynamic in its approach. The translators and writers producing a text that is at times literal and at other times explicated and amplified. The Ecclesia Bible Society brought together Bible and language scholars with authors, songwriters, poets and pastors in order to produce a text that is beautiful in its expression but accurate in translation.

I think it succeeds rather well. Some of the things I like include:

  • Dialogue is written like a screenplay. This gives the interactions a dynamic and immediate feel. It is very effective.
  • In italics are words and phrases, which are not from the original text but explicate its meaning.
  • Peppered through the Bible are notes that either explain the original meaning or its contemporary implications. What I like about this is that the notes are often meatier than your typical devotional Bible, but leaner than a lot of Study Bibles which (in my opinion) over inform.
  • The Translation itself is highly readable, and accessible. This would be a good Bible to share with Non-Christians, Youth and Seekers. My wife is using it as she prepares children’s curriculum for church. If this translation helps people get the story a little more, I’m in favor.
  • If I could quibble with the marketing of this Bible, the back cover promotional blurbs are from Donald Miller and Darrell Bock. Darrell Bock is a good New Testament scholar and Donald Miller is a justly popular author. Both guys are not impartial because they worked on The Voice. This is like an author saying, “Buy my book I really like it.”

    But I liked it too and recommend it if you are shopping for a dynamic rendering of the Bible or looking for a good Bible to share with friends.

    I received this Bible from the Thomas Nelson Blog Bunch with the understanding that I would share my thoughts on it on my Blog. If you are interested in exploring this translation further, go to HeartheVoice{dot}com.