X is for Xenophilia (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” (Matthew 26:23, NIV)

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20–21, NIV)

Xenophobia is something we are all too familiar with: the fear and disdain for people not like us. It is the default stance of the internet troll and the reason for the uptick in hate crimes towards Jews and Muslims. It is codified in the practices of law enforcement in minority communities and the mass incarceration of black and brown skinned people in our country. It is becoming our national immigration and foreign policy. It manifests itself as fear and hate or the desire for the other to keep their distance.

Xenophilia,  on the other hand, is the opposite: a love for foreign peoples, cultures, and customs.  In the Christian tradition, we call this welcoming the stranger. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) has a number of passages that talk about caring for foreigners, strangers and resident aliens dwelling in the land (cf. Deut. 14:29; 26:11-13, Lev. 19:10, 23:22, Zech. 7:8-10). There are also compelling examples within the narrative of hospitality and inclusion of strangers (i.e. Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18, Rahab, Ruth, etc).  The whole thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 was that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing, a priest to the nations to welcome them back into relationship with God. Christians can glean a lot about hospitality from the First Testament and Jewish practice.

However, our example par excellence of xenophilia is Jesus. I don’t want to be anachronistic. Jesus was a first century Jew and he came to the Jews. He didn’t welcome everybody in his lifetime. Still he demonstrated the stance of welcome in his friendship to tax collectors and sinners, the healing non-Jews (the Centurion’s servant, the Gerasene demoniac, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, etc), his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and teachings which challenged the exclusion of the Gentiles (i.e. Luke 4:20-30, the parable of Good Samaritan, etc.) His ultimate welcome of strangers came through the cross where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles was torn down (Ephesians 2:14).

Before we get to Calvary. Jesus dines with his disciples in an upper room. It was Passover, and they were in Jerusalem. These were Jesus’ disciples for three years of ministry. The guys he spent most of his time with. Friends. And yet there was a stranger in their midst. Someone who dipped bread and ate with Jesus, but in his heart, he was neither friend no follower. The stranger Jesus welcomed and called a friend, The friend who gives strange kisses in the garden.

On the same evening, Jesus offered up a missional prayer, that God would unite, sanctify and send his disciples out into the world (John 17). He didn’t just pray for them but for the ones he didn’t even know yet, who would respond to God’s message of welcome.

When they arrived to arrest him, a disciple cut off an ear of someone in the arresting party. Jesus healed the stranger.

How does hospitality, the welcome of strangers and xenophilia, shape your spiritual journey?  How can we follow the example of Christ (and the biblical tradition) in caring for strangers disconnected from basic relationships and security? Theologian Krister Stendhal wrote, “wherever, whenever, however, the kingdom manifest itself, it is welcome” (cited in Christine Pohl’s Making Room, Eerdmans, 1999).

We are at a good news moment in the Gospel story, why we call this Friday good. Let us seek to extend Christ’s welcome of strangers to the world too accustomed to fearmongering and hate. It is time to demonstrate the love of Christ to all those not like us. 

The Sour-Faced Evangelists of Lent?

It is Ash Wednesday. Today many us will attend a service to receive the imposition of ashes–a dark smudge across our foreheads. This is just the first thing imposed on us in Lent, a season of self-imposed discipline. We give up chocolate, meat, coffee, alcohol, smoking–or anything that makes us happy.  Jesus suffered in the wilderness and on his long, winding road to Calvary. The Church has deemed that appropriately, we should suffer too. We wander through today our faces marked with soot and scowls. Fasting makes us hangry. Our head throbs from caffeine withdrawal. We snap at others because all our go-to-coping mechanisms are declared off limits.

Is this what Lent is about? Here are excerpts for the top three Google hits answering the question, “What is Lent?”:

What is Lent? Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. (from UpperRoom.org -Lent 101)

Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. (from umc.org- “What is Lent and Why does it Last Forty Days?”)

Lent is a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). During Lent, participants eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. It’s not uncommon for people to give up smoking during Lent, or to swear off watching television or eating candy or telling lies. It’s six weeks of self-discipline. ( from gotquestions.org – “What is the meaning of Lent?)

These definitions augment one another. Lent is a season of self-denial leading up Easter for the purpose of our growing close to God.  Lent is one of the two great preparatory seasons of the church. But whereas Advent is full of announcement of the in-breaking of the Kingdom, Lent reminds us that on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem  suffering and death await.

I am guided by the conviction that Christianity is Good News.  Christians are God’s Good News People.  We believe that this good news culminates at Calvary where Jesus set us free from sin, death and spiritual oppression. This isn’t just a season of self-imposed suffering, self denial and sour-faces. Here we mark Christ’s confrontation and ultimate victory over the Powers.

So we can take up our cross and follow Jesus because this isn’t just a death march. Jesus wins and on his way to be crucified, he exposes the lies that propped up the political and religious hegemony of his day. Jesus died for us so that we would die to ourselves and rise again with our life in him.  We participate in Lent because we know despite the hard road Jesus walked, the brokenness and violence he suffered, he would bring wholeness and shalom to all who trust in him.

Give up coffee. Give up meat. Give up pleasure and lay aside vice. But don’t do it with a sour face. Don’t do it with the shallow hope of becoming a better you. Do so in the strong confidence that Jesus suffered every shame, every pain, every hurt at Calvary because he had something better for you–abundant life, peace with God, reconciliation and justice for all. Fasting is an appropriate response both to prepare and to mark the sacred moment of what Jesus may be doing in you. He didn’t avoid pain, we shouldn’t either. But in the midst of sorrow we have joy because our salvation awaits.

Jesus is on the road, his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. Whatever holds you in bondage Christ has come to set you free. This is good news.

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Evangelism Study Bible: a Study Bible review

I self identify as an evangelical Christian. Among other things, evangelicals think that studying the Bible and evangelism are really, really important. So it was only a matter of time before someone published the Evangelism Study Bible.  Kregel Publications, in cooperation with Evantell and ThomasNelson (the publishers of the NKJV) have published a Study Bible designed to help Christians be a more ‘confident, joyful witness for Christ.’

This Bible seeks to be a tool which will aid us in evangelism, but it is also a Bible with cross references, a concordance and full-color maps. The rest of the resources in this book relate directly to Evangelism. This includes: book introductions highlighting evangelistic themes, 2,600 study-notes, articles which give you evangelistic tips, training in apologetics, discipleship or contextualization, ‘how-to-features,’ and devotions. Larry Moyer, founder and CEO of Evantell, hopes that this resource ‘will provide you with the training to explain and make clear the good news of the gospel. (Introduction p. v). 

Because of the focus on Evangelism, the study notes are not comprehensive in their treatment of all the Bible’s themes. Creation is treated briefly in two or three study notes. The first feature article is on the first sin (4).  The study notes are sparse in much of the Pentateuch or the Old Testament historical books. Only when the implications for evangelism can be seen (directly or indirectly) are there notes, leaving some difficult material (i.e. genealogies, sacrifices, etc) without comment.This  isn’t so much a criticism, but a recognition that a volume like this comes with certain limitations.

The articles themselves have helpful material, sometimes imparting knowledge and skills, at other times taking a look at the heart of the evangelist (the best way to share a compelling vibrant faith is to have one yourself). I had three questions  as I surveyed the notes and articles: (1) What is the content of the gospel that this Study Bible commends? (2) How does it handle the gospel-go-to passages? (3) What about other passages?

What is the Content of the Gospel?

The gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). The study note on the Romans passage says, ” When people place their faith in Christ, they are delivered from the wrath of God and declared righteous in his sight.” In general, the gospel that this Study Bible proclaims tells you about how to go to heaven when you die (escape God’s wrath and live at peace with him for all eternity). Dallas Willard would call this ‘the gospel of sin management.’ I think the notes and articles do a good job of talking about personal salvation, bringing people into the realm of God’s grace by helping them to deal with their sin problem; however there is more to the gospel than just the personal transformation narrative. The gospel is nothing less than the proclamation that Jesus is King and the reign of Christ is here. This captures the revivalist salvation narrative (described here) and  places it in a wider frame. If the gospel is about a King and its Kingdom than we sense social and political implications. The ‘evangel’ of this Study Bible is perhaps one aspect of the ‘Good news’ but it is not the whole story described in the text,

How does it handle the Go-to-passages?

Evangelicals have long had their go-to-texts for Eeangelism. Think John 3:16, the ‘Romans Road’ passages, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Ephesians 2:4-10 etc. These passages focus on what Christ did through His cross and resurrection to bring us in the way of salvation, and our role in accepting Christ through faith. As mentioned above, the focus of the notes are on our personal, eternal destiny. Little is said about the abundant life in Christ now (John 10:10, Luke 18:30) or passages that relate to gospel justice. The good-news-proclamation in the Synoptic gospels was the announcement that God’s kingdom was at hand (Matt. 4:17, Mark 1:14-15). These passages are referenced in the notes but the concept of kingdom is not really unpacked in relation to gospel proclamation. Again this is all good in as far as it goes but more could be said!

Other passages?

I have already hinted at an approved canon with in the cannon that this Study Bible focuses on for Evangelism and the gospel. There are other passages which are full of good news which the notes fail to engage substantively. Related to this season (and my Sunday sermon text), I think of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Despite the way this passage announces and proclaims God’s saving action and looks joyfully at the wonder of Christ’s Incarnation, the notes treat only three verses of her song. For verse 48, the notes make clear that contrary to Mary’s claim of blessedness, Christ alone is our Redeemer (1117)  and that those experience God are those who fear him (verse 50).  There is a brief note on Abraham’s seed and how God is a promise keeper (vs. 55). Fair points, but this fails to wrestle with Mary’s message about how God should be praised for his action in her life—how the proud and the powerful were being brought down while the humble were being lifted up. This is a gospel word and the notes fail to engage her song and its implications for Evangelism.

The brief introductions to each book of the Bible, and the fact that there are notes through out train our eyes to see the Good News in each book of the Bible, Old and New Testament.  There are limitations in the notes, but there is also a lot here that is good and helpful. I give this Study Bible three stars and recommend it for anyone wishing to sharpen their witness for Christ. My caution is that I think the gospel proclamation is bigger, more robust and wonderful than these notes, with their narrower focus make it out to be. ★★★ ☆☆

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Reflecting God’s glory, by living well, in the pocket of the Kingdom: a book review

The truth is we are broken people. We were created as image bearers to reflect the glory of God, but because of sin we are twisted and broken image bearers. We reflect God but are fragmented and alienated from others.

Kevin Scott’s Recreatable: How God Heals the Brokenness of Life takes an honest look at the reality of our brokenness but also offers us the Good News: we are broken people, but we are not broken beyond repair. As people created by God intended to bear his image, we are ‘recreatable.’ God is able to take the broken shards of our life and help us to live holy lives which reflect his glory to a watching world.

I really loved this book. In part, this is because it contains both what I consider the single best analogy of human brokenness and one of the best summaries of the Christian life. In the first chapter, Scott tells the story of his daughter Courtney baking brownies and dropping the glass pan that they were in. While smell of brownies was still enticing, the brownies were full of shards of glass and were dangerous to whoever dared partake of them (19-20). This seems a vivid picture of our image bearing. We humans have the scent of heaven on us, but because of our brokenness we hurt all who get close to us.]

Scott summarizes the Christian life with this ’45 second’ explication of the book’s sections (Reflecting his glory, Living well, in the pocket of the Kingdom):

“Reflecting his glory” means that God is taking  the shards of the world and our broken lives and restoring his glory to them. We become a place of intersection where people can meet God as he makes us holy.by

“Living well” means that Christ develops in our hearts a sustainable pattern of faith, hope and love. This is the essence of healing, hope, and God’s glory in us.

“In a pocket of the Kingdom” means the holy life– the attractive life–is lived with other Christians who come together around Scripture, worship, and community, and welcome other Christians into the Kingdom pocket through Christian mission.

It is through this process–this story recapitulated in every disciples life–that God heals the brokenness of life. We may be broken but we are recreatable (*13-4).

These paragraphs describe in brief the outline of the book. Part one looks at “reflecting his glory,” part two describes “living well,” and part three explores the context of ‘pocket of the Kingdom”–Scott’s description of how the church relates to the Kingdom. This forty-five second version hints at what the Christian life is about and draws on three thinkers which help Scott frame his theological vision  in reponse to three thinkers, “the scholar, the philosopher and the farmer—N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, and Wendell Berry (9).” Scott claims that the insights of these men have uniquely impacted his life. I think they helped him frame his summary of the Christian life in terms of biblical theology (Wright), spiritual formation (Willard) and local context (Berry). All three men are quoted and referenced in the text, though I think Wright and Willard’s influence (providing the biblical vision and how this is lived out) are more explicit and Berry is more implicit (i.e. how community and local communal context relates to the concept of church).

This book provides an interesting look at discipleship. I think Scott has important things to say. At times he is incisive in his conclusions (i.e. the reality of human brokenness and the gospel  news of healing and restoration). At other times he is provocative (i.e. he tells disciples that they ‘maybe’  reading the Bible daily isn’t the best way for them (153). But he is always compelling. This is the sort of book that makes me want to pursue Jesus full force. Its focus is more on ‘personal aspects’ of faith rather then social implications, but Scott is careful to situate this communally. As a book describing personal discipleship, I give this 5 stars and recommend this book for small group study and personal reading. This is an excellent resource for those seeking to deepen their spiritual life and grow beyond brokenness into holy living. This is well worth reading: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Gospel Transformation Bible: a bible review

The Gospel Transformation Bible is not a Study Bible, at least in the traditional sense. A team of scholars and pastors have joined together under Bryan Chappell’s and Dane Ortlund’s editorial direction to answer two questions: (1) How is the gospel evident in all of scripture? and (2) How does the gospel of grace bring about our transformation? Each of the books of the Bible have a brief introduction which describes authorship and date and how the gospel is illuminated (how it fits into the larger story of salvation). The notes on the bottom of each page, continue this dual focus on God’s larger plan of redemption and implications for our life.  Sometimes the notes are as detailed (particular books have more expansive and detailed notes). Some passages are passed over without comment (i.e. certain narratives in the Old Testament historical books do not carry much comments). The reason for this is that the notes are focused and so do not attempt to untangle every difficulty in the text (like a Study Bible would).

What is the gospel that contributors describe? It is focused on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as God’s plan of redpemption for humanity. But Jesus did not come in a vacuum. The Bible tells the story of God’s relationship to his people and the First Testament anticipates Christ’s coming. Thus the contributors to this volume, read the Bible Christologically (yet sensitively).

Some great scholars and interpreters have contributed to this Bible. Among them are Michael Horton (Joshua), V. Philips Long (1-2 Samuel),  Bruce Ware (Psalms),  Graeme Goldsworthy (Jeremiah, Lamentations), Bryan Chapell (Daniel), Frank Thielman (Matthew), R. Kent Huges (1-2 Timothy) and more. Because some of the scholars are more scholarly and others more pastoral, there is a lack of consistency from book to book.  Each of these individual interpreters give their particular spin on the gospel implications of a passage or book, though they share a broad agreement on the gospel.

Scot Mcknight argued in The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan 2011) that certain evangelicals have reduced the gospel to the message of personal salvation, rather than describing how Jesus fulfills the hopes of Israel. In general I would say that most of the interpreters in this volume are not guilty of McKnight’s charge. They have attended to the wider biblical story and not just the ‘order of salvation.’ However there are occasional lapses. For example, Daniel Doriani’s notes on James reduce the book’s gospel value to illustrating our inability to enact ‘true religion,’ driving us back to the grace of Christ. I would say that James carries social implications (care of widows and orphans) which make the gospel manifest. The gospel in James should not be reduced to the level of personal sin (only). But this is one example. At other points, I think the notes are brilliant and illuminating.

Another feature I appreciate about this Bible, is the use it makes of the ESV cross-reference system.  Following these cross references sheds light on particular themes and I find that helpful.  Purchasing the Bible in print gives you access to the Bible online (it is easier to access cross-references if you don’t have to flip through pages for every verse). This makes this a very practical choice for personal study.

In general I am pretty happy with the quality of this Bible. The notes are not always perfect (some interpreters are more perfect than others), but the inspiration of the Bible does not extend to marginal notes. I appreciate how well executed the final product is. And I absolutely loved finding Phil Long’s contribution (on Samuel). Long was my professor for two classes of Exegesis at Regent College (neither of which focused on Samuel, but because it is an area of some expertise I heard plenty of Samuel examples). From Phil I learned to read Old Testament narrative sensitive to its narrative craft, its historical value and theological import.  I like having some of his practical insights in print form.

I give this Bible 4 stars and would recommend it for personal study. I am not a huge fan of ‘study Bibles,’ but the unique features and perspectives of this Bible make it a valuable contribution.

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

From Facebook to the Face of God: a book review

Facebook has much to offer us. I love that I can reconnect with family and friends who live far away from me and my family. I love sharing pictures of our kids so that their grandparents and aunts and uncles can see. And it is fun reestablishing a friendship online with people you haven’t seen or heard from in years. Occasionally you read an article (or book) about how social media is addling our brains or turning us into socially obtuse narcissists, but can this really be true?

Will You Be my Facebook Friend?: Social Media and the Gospel by Tim Chester

Author and church planter, Tim Chester, has written a short booklet (48 pages) which can be read in less time than many of us spend online per day. Chester is not a Luddite. He acknowledges the benefits of Facebook and other social media sites; however, there are problems and dangers in its excessive use. Many use Facebook to recreate their world, controlling how people perceive them. Others use Facebook to escape their limitations (using Facebook to replace real-world relationships rather than enhance them). Chester explores these dangers, but also relates them to the gospel. While the promise of social media is relationship on our terms,  in the gospel God has opened up away to relate to Him and one another on His terms. While we try to ‘recreate ourselves’ on social media sites, God in Christ is recreating us in his image. He relates to us in truth while many of our online worlds are built on self-constructed images and pretense.

Chester closes with some guidelines for social networking which enable us to use them beneficially, while avoiding some of the inherent dangers. I like Facebook as much as the next person, but technology is not neutral and carries its own telos. If we use social media in a non-examined way, we likely will end up somewhere we never intended to be, in terms of how we see ourselves and our relationships. Chester offers some great advice on how to be mindful in the online world. This book will be helpful for anyone seeking to get a handle on their online world and wanting to bring greater integrity to their social media presence.

Thank you to 10Publishing and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review

Question: How much time do you spend on social media? What impact (if any) does it have on your real-time-relationships and embodied life?