Can We Get More Resurrection?

Yesterday we celebrated Easter, the day the resurrected Jesus broke forth from the tomb and broke the power of sin and death. If the Lenten season was about walking with Jesus the road to Calvary, the Christian life is about coming out the other end. We proclaim with the Apostle Paul, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55).  And yet . . .

And yet death still stings.  We feel it as we age, time decays and slows our pace. We feel it in the face of a troubling diagnosis or when we have to have our cat put down on Good-Friday morning. We feel its sting when we grieve the loss of a family member or close friend. Where O death is your sting? You don’t have to tell us. We feel it.

And yet death still looks pretty victorious. It still claims us all. We don’t need to look beyond last week’s news cycle to see the threat of death that looms over our heads. The Cleveland broadcast killer, Palm Sunday Massacres, Bombs dropped, another youth gunned down by police in Fresno, executions lined up for this week in Arkansas, and 45’s threat and show of strength against North Korea. Where O death, is your victory? Ubiquitous and persistent, we see death everywhere.

I know everything changed Easter morning. Death died and when love stronger than death broke its hold on our souls. We have hope because of Jesus’ resurrection and we await our own. Still, can we get a little more resurrection? We could really use it.

H is for Hope (an alphabet for penitents)

 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. -Romans 5:3-5

Hope is a prime motivator. The Apostle Paul describes hope as the end (telos) of suffering: suffering→endurance→character→hope→the fulfillment of our hope (because we have God’s love in our hearts through the Spirit’s presence). No argument from me Paul, but I am pain avoidant enough to not suffer anything if I don’t have to. I won’t do hard things, engage in a discipline or exercise if I don’t perceive some sort of pay-off. Spiritual disciplines, such as Lenten fasting and reflection, are no different. Lent is a preparatory season. We don’t need to prepare unless we are hoping for something—the resurrection after our long death march. Hope is bound up with our ‘whys.’

Here are some things I am hoping for this season:

  1. I hope to have a good Easter– I hope that a focus on Christ’s suffering and what it means to ‘take up my cross’ and follow Jesus, will give me a deeper appreciation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. My small share in Christ’s suffering, through fasting, is so I can share in his consolation as well (2 Cor. 1:5)
  2. I want a ‘hope reset’ so that my hope rests on something more firm– Things don’t always go the way we expect.Careers implode, the wrong people win elections, the wrong team wins the Superbowl, our moral leaders lack compassion for the marginalized, politicians and media lie to us, friendships dissolve so much of life goes sideways. Biblical hope—our hope in God—places us on much more solid ground. God is the the rock of our salvation, our mighty fortress. Christ is the cornerstone and foundation on which our faith is built. Our hope is sure. I want to grow in my confidence in Christ.
  3. I hope to be transformed.- Lent is about spiritual renewal and I want to be made new. I want to have my life and imagination shaped by what it means to follow Jesus. I want to grow in grace and compassion for people. I don’t want to be self-centered. I want to know what it means to take up my cross and follow Jesus, come what may.
  4. I hope for the courage to be. – If you know my story, you know I feel called to pastoral ministry but my first pastorate ended badly. I was asked to resign and I am still smarting from that experience. Since then I haven’t done much to pursue my life’s calling. I am still hurt and afraid. I know better how to approach some things but because of my insecurity, I feel like I’ve hit a stuck point. I wish I could share my experiences from a place of victory, but I still feel really battered and broken by it. I hope for the courage to reengage my calling with a new sense of purpose and direction.
  5. I hope that my children will flourish. – Like every parent I hope that my kids will succeed at life. I want them to do well in school, I want them to do well at life, I want them to know Jesus. I get anxious about school systems, and being in a more economic impoverished area, I am concerned that I am limiting my kid’s opportunities.
  6. I hope that writing regularly bears fruit. –  I like writing. I sometimes think I am good at it. This blog has been mostly reviews of other people’s books, but I hope to one day write my own. I still make stupid grammatical errors and form bad sentences, but the writing brings me joy. I want to be an author, though, like this blog evidences, I have a difficult time narrowing my focus on a particular topic. I hope by making myself write (in this case a penitent’s alphabet), I will hone my craft, increase my impact, and sharpen my voice so that people will see I have something worth saying. Is this a shallow hope? I don’t know.
  7. I hope people read my blog. – This is a shallow hope, but I want you to like me. I know people check out my book reviews when it is interesting to me. I hope for something more. I hope for good conversation and dialogue.

How  about you? What are you hoping for?

romans5-3-4

Lessons of a Good God (Hosea)

Hosea was a bad husband who publically shamed his spouse and a bad dad who saddled his children with awful names. He did all this to make vivid the message he had for a bad people, with bad leaders practicing bad religion. The final decades of Israel were marked by violence as new leaders deposed previous dynasties. They put their trust in trans-national partnerships with Egypt and Assyria. And the people followed the gods of the nations. Their idolatry was adultery, they forsook YHWH and their covenant relationship with Him. They forgot that was God that brought them into the land and gave it to them as a gift. Their practice of false religion and fertility rites (9:1-6) would not stave off famine and exile. Times of economic prosperity had led them away from their  God (10:1-2).

Because of Israel’s idolatrous heart, they were under God’s judgment. They sowed to the wind and would reap the whirlwind (8:7). Israel would be swallowed up by the nations they trusted, carried off to Assyria (8:8-9).  Hosea hoped that his people would turn their hearts back to God but they didn’t. The result was that perverted justice and coming judgment:

Sow righteousness for yourselves,
    reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
    for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
    and showers his righteousness on you.
 But you have planted wickedness,
    you have reaped evil,
    you have eaten the fruit of deception.
Because you have depended on your own strength
    and on your many warriors,
the roar of battle will rise against your people,
    so that all your fortresses will be devastated—
as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle,
    when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.
 So will it happen to you, Bethel,
    because your wickedness is great.
When that day dawns,
    the king of Israel will be completely destroyed. (Hosea 10:12-15)

God’s judgment hangs like a cloud over the prophets’ writings. But judgment was never the final point. Revealing badness was always a secondary concern for the prophet. The primary prophetic task was to reveal knowledge of God (daath Elohim), His goodness, and turn the hearts of people back to Him. Using the analogy of marriage, Hosea reveals God’s heart—the love he had for his people.
Throughout his book, Hosea describes the Lord in heart language. When he speaks of the knowledge of God (cf. Hosea 6:6), he is describing the intimate sharing between He and his people (like the intimate knowing which marriage partners possess of one another). “The general sympathy which Hosea requires of man is solidarity, an emotional identification with God” (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 1, New York: Harper & Colon, 1962, p60). So emotive language describes God with emotive language: “When Israel was a child  I loved him. .. (Hosea 11:1). Hear the yearning of God in this passage and the promise of restoration:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
    How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
    all my compassion is aroused.
 I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
    he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
    his children will come trembling from the west. (Hosea 11:8-10)

It isn’t just a prophets purpose, it the Father’s longing for his people to return to Him. He loves and longs for his people. God loves his people and even though they spurned and rejected Him, and like an adulteress chased after other lovers, God longed for their return to Him.  So while Hosea 12-13, like much of the book, describes Israel’s sin and God’s judgement for their adultery it ends with the promise of future blessing.
 I will heal their waywardness
    and love them freely,
    for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
    he will send down his roots;
    his young shoots will grow.
His splendor will be like an olive tree,
    his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.
People will dwell again in his shade;
    they will flourish like the grain,
they will blossom like the vine—
    Israel’s fame will be like the wine of Lebanon.
Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?
    I will answer him and care for him.
I am like a flourishing juniper;
    your fruitfulness comes from me.” (Hosea 14:4-8).
The wayward and rejected Israel is promised that God would  heal them, love them freely, That his anger toward them would cease, and he would renew his Covenant love and blessing.
When we consider our own context, Hosea has a lot to teach us. As a prophet of God he spoke God’s truth. He told his nation of their wandering heart, idolatry and their failure to follow God. And yet as God’s prophet he told the whole truth. Beyond their national apostasy stood a loving God, longing to restore his people who had good things in store for them. God who would not be angry forever and would restore, and renew covenant life with Him.
So whatever your read is of America’s social and political landscape—its decadence, the pandering to special interest and oligarchy, our tenuous relationships with other nation states, the winking at injustice when it suits our interests,  the hypocrisy of leadership, the need to drain the swamp, the subversion of Christian values, the lies of the media, the treatment of the vulnerable, and the violence or whatever other ways we’ve sown to the wind and reaped the whirlwind—God’s good news for us is this: He loves us with a faithful love and longs to turn hearts back to him. His anger doesn’t burn forever and he will restore those who turn to Him.
Who is wise? Let them realize these things.
    Who is discerning? Let them understand.
The ways of the Lord are right;
    the righteous walk in them,
    but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9)

Celebrating Advent Like a Boss: a book (p)review

Advent is just around the corner and I can’t wait to. . .wait. If you are like me, Ordinary Time felt a little less sacred than normal this year, with the election season overshadowing the liturgical calendar. Its over now but I feel anxious and icky. I pray: even so, come Lord Jesus. 

all-creation-waitsAdvent is the season of waiting for Jesus’ coming. We remember the hopes of the Hebrew prophets, the events leading up to Christ’s nativity. We cry for light to come and shine in our own darkness(es). While the wider culture rushes to Christmas with a consumerist frenzy, the wisdom of the Christian tradition has always said wait.

I’m a father of four, always on the hunt for resources which help my family enter into and appreciate their Christian heritage. We’ve picked up advent calendars with cheap chocolate from the grocery store and Jesus-y ones with printed manger scenes and bible verses behind each door from the Christian bookstore. Gayle Boss’s All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings was birthed as her personal family advent calendar, more than twenty years ago from a similar desire to help her kids enter into this season:

Advent, to the Church Fathers, was the right naming of the season when light and life are fading. They urged the faithful to set aside four weeks to fast, give, and pray—all ways to strip down, to let the bared soul recall what it knows beneath the fear of the dark, to know what Jesus called ” the one thing necessary” : that there is One who comes to be with us and in us, even, especially, in darkness and death. One who brings a new beginning.

This is Christian tradition at its best, moving in step with creation. When the sun’s light and heat wane, the natural world lets lushness fall away. It strips down. All energy is directed to the essentials that ensure survival. Engaging in Advent’s stripping practices—fasting, giving away, praying—we tune into the rhythms humming in the cells of all creatures living in the northern hemisphere. We tune into our own essential rhythms (introduction, xi-xii).

Boss’s eldest child was a toddler and she was pregnant with her second. She made an advent calendar for her family, not with Bible verses and scenes, but with creatures intimately aware of what it means to wait, to hope, and to long. She made a calendar that was “less about Christ’s human birth and more about the need for that birth” (xii). The animals stand in as metaphors and teachers, showing us what it means to wait.

This book is an elaboration of her family’s advent calendar (with some new creatures thrown in), published here with the beautiful illustrations of David G. Klein. There is a painted turtle,  a muskrat, a black bear, birds,a porcupine, a skunk, lake trout and more. Each creature, in their own way says: The dark is not an end, but a door. This is the way the new beginning comes (xiii). The creatures walk us through Dec. 1 to 24th. Jesus, the Christ comes on Christmas Day.

The words and images of this book are simply stunning and I look forward to delving into this with the family during the coming season. Watch the book trailer below to taste and see what sort of Advent reader this is. I give it five stars.

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

All Creation Waits Book Trailer from Hailey Jansson on Vimeo.

A Happy Church for Grumpy Gus: a book review

Joy is an essential characteristic of the Christian life. However happy Christians are in short supply. Author and pastor Tim McConnell wrote Happy Church to call Christians to reclaim happiness as our birth right. This happiness is not dependent on ‘happenings.’ McConnell has in mind a “thicker happy than the superficial sentimentality of the moment”  (20).  The happiness he is talking about is rooted in the joy of the Lord and being glad in Christ.

9780830844562McConnell describes the radical joy available to us as the people of God. This means the joy found in Christian community, in being satisfied by the Word,  entering into worship and praise of God, having a joyful prayer life, knowing the role of laughter in the life of faith, being filled with ‘limitless hope’, participating in the mission of joy among the suffering, and anticipating the future feast that awaits us (and we taste some now!).  The theological realities that McConnell describes (i.e. our access to God in prayer and praise, our sharing in God’s life and mission, our hope amd confidence in God’s Word) are all causes for deep wells of gladness. God has given us Life abundantly and we share it with Him forever!

So this is a good book; however when I see the title ‘Happy Church,’ it makes me feel like a grumpy Gus. I have been in too many churches where in the name of Christian joy a happy face was painted on circumstances that weren’t too chipper. I say yes to joy,  but I worry about how an emphasis on happiness obscures authenticity and our willingness to enter into the pain of others; I say yes to gladness, but I also think we need to name grief and provide space for lament. I say yes to happiness and contentment if it doesn’t hide anger at injustice and a holy discontent with a world where hope is too often deferred.

Thankfully I think McConnell’s call to happiness is not a call to painted smileys and emotional dishonesty. The happiness he describes is rooted in a deep confidence in God, his word, and the hope of Christ’s coming kingdom but he never pretends pain isn’t real. In these pages he describes the experience of joy in the midst of difficult circumstances. McConnell writes:

To celebrate happiness is not to discount sadness. To take up the mission of joy is not to dismiss the reality of suffering. We need to talk about the happiness that mourns. We need to talk about the smiles and the laughter at the bedside of the dying. WE need to know the happiness we are seeking and finding in Christ doesn’t burn off like a mist when hardships come. There is a kind of happiness that mourns, but at the very same time it has the power to overcome mourning (133).

So there is no need to be a grumpy Gus. Though sorrow may last for a night, joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5)! I recommend this book for anyone that needs to remind their face that the gospel is good news all the way through and that Jesus desired that our joy would be complete (John 15:11). I give this four stars.

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

Revealing the Hidden Things: a book review

Christian films, books and TV preachers give their take on the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Speculation about end times is a Christian cottage industry with theories bandied about on things like the identity of the beast, the rapture, the role of Israel, or the nature of the judgments poured out on the earth. Revelation is written in highly metaphorical language, so there are tons of speculations. Other Christians read through Revelation once or twice but unsure of what to do with it, so they ignore it.  In The Heart of Revelation,  J.Scott Duvall offers a third way of of reading revelation. He attends to the vision of hope in the book without devolving into personal speculation about what we may or may not suffer.

TheHeartOfRevelation_hires+spine.inddAfter a brief introduction discussing the cultural context, Duvall explores the book’s message through the lens of ten themes: God, Worship, the People of God, the Holy Spirit, our enemies, our mission, Jesus Christ, judgment, new creation, and perseverance. By attending to Revelation thematically, Duvall provides a overview of the book rather than a detailed walk through the text (elsewhere he has published a commentary on revelation in the ‘Teach the Text Commentary Series).

In his introduction Duvall offers these guidelines for understanding the book: (1) attend to the meaning of the book to its original hearers in Asia Minor, (2)  Be aware of the symbolic nature of its language and (3) a focus on the main theological message of each vision (9-10).  The result is a historical-literary sensitive reading which doesn’t get caught up in theorizing about locust in smoke or Russia’s role in Armageddon (Sorry Hal). This isn’t to say that what Duvall says isn’t compatible with various eschatological options. He allows for the book’s future orientation without speculating about the minutia. His focus remains on the major themes through out the book and I think that mild Preterists, Millennialists and Dispensationalists can all read this book profitably.

The picture he paints is of a loving God who is the true center and source of life, a worshipping community drawn from every tongue, tribe and nation, a Holy Spirit who is living and active among us, an oppressor who is defeated by the cross and enemies we will overcome as we take up our cross and suffer. We also see our calling to be faithful witnesses to Jesus, the coming judgment against sin which takes seriously God’s holiness and  our human freedom, a new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with his people,  and the challenge and promise for those who persevere until the end.

If Revelation mystifies you and you want a book that helps you see the meaning and purpose of the book, this is a great place to start. Each chapter ends with a list of key texts, a reading plan and community group questions for exploring Revelation in a small group setting (or personal study).  I give this book four stars.

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

Our Redemption in Ruins: a ★★★★★ book review

What does God’s redemption look like?  God’s kingdom comes in fullness and all that is wrong is set right. But what about  in the meantime? How is the gospel hope for broken? The oppressed? The abused?  Matt Bays observes that many modern Christians have this working definition of redemption:

Redemption n.—A state of existence in which the faithful to God receive what they expect to receive out of life (and out of God), and what ails them is converted to something fresh and new. (Getting the desires of one’s heart.) (26).

135468lgBut the reality is that the faithful suffer: miscarriages, mental illness, bankruptcy, loss of jobs, doubt, grief, etc. Sometimes God doesn’t seem to come through and even the redeemed carry the scars of the past. In Finding God in the Ruins Bays opens up his own hard journey and shares this experience of hope and redemption. God didn’t remove the brokenness and the pain but stepped into it with him.

The impetus behind the book came when Becky, a cat-loving-coworker succumbed to a deep depression and committed suicide, taking too many pills and leaving a note. Bays wrote in his journal I hope they saved the pen she used—that the leftover ink inside will be used to write words of love and hope (32). At her funeral, Becky’s husband John gave Bays the pen and told him to ‘write beautiful hope-filled words’ (34). In the pages which follow, Bays weaves his own painful journey with the tales of other broken doubters and beat-down saints.

At the age of twenty-eight, Bays was several years a pastor, but the pain of his childhood caught up with him. He had been abused by the Step-Dad from Hell. Beyond the physical and emotional turmoil he experienced, he also experienced the confusion of incest.  He turned to alcohol. When it didn’t anesthetize the pain, he found a counselor and began to work through his issues. Bays also shares of his doubt and struggle watching his sister Trina fight stage-four breast cancer.

Bays story is hopeful. He experiences real healing in his life and he points to the unlikely places  God met him through broken people (i.e affirmations from a pedophile band teacher). But this is a raw account of what it means to have faith in the midst of some pretty blankety-blanked-up-stuff. Bays rages against God, talks about the ways that Jesus felt distant from him— i.e “When God was thirteen, he never faced any kind of trial” (63). Ultimately Bays experiences the grace of God through family, through learning to face his pain and share vulnerably,  learning to tell his story and seeing how much God-in-Christ truly experiences and enters into the pain and struggle we face:

God wasn’t staring on in the brothels of Mumbai; he was stuck on the dirty floor with a pedophile on top of him. And he wasn’t leaning against the laundry machine in my basement; he was being pierced, crushed, bruised and wounded so eventually I could be healed. It happened to him every time it happened to me.  It was him, the same as it was me. (197).

This is not Hallmark-Channel-Jesus. Jesus doesn’t ride into an unbeliever’s life with a saccharine sweet ending, tying off all loose ends and making it all work out. The kind of redemption that Bays points to is more personal. Jesus steps our heartaches and experiences all the horrors we do. He brings  us to redemption by going through the pain with us.

This is a great book, but emotionally heavy. At a different stage, I wouldn’t have been ready for it. Bays lie story allows him to speak empathetically to those of us who likewise struggle. I appreciate the radical honesty he advocates. Bays helps us face ourselves (all of us), face our pain, and be honest to God about our struggles. This doesn’t give our doubt the final word, but allows for real faith to grow. I give this book five stars. ★★★★★

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