42 Seconds to Talk Like Jesus: a book review

I  read a book by Carl Medearis half a dozen years ago on the art of Not-Evangelism (Speaking of Jesus, David Cook, 2011).  It was a breath of fresh air. Medearis didn’t advocate manipulative techniques to talk about your faith. He said to not get stuck trying to defend the faith but he pointed at talking about our experience of Jesus in ways that were winsome, inviting and authentic. That was the only one of Medearis’s books I’ve read, though I’d hear him as a podcast guest occasionally, talking about his work as a peacemaker and his advocacy for Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations. He is very much evangelical, but he has sought to respond to terror and Islam in ways that reflect the manner and character of Jesus.

978-1-63146-489-8His newest book, 42 seconds, was birthed after a casual conversation he had with his neighbor as they both were working in their yards. Afterward, he emailed his assistant Jesse and asked him to look up every conversation Jesus ever had in the gospels. Hesse compiled a list, and the two of them read through each conversation, out loud, discovering the average conversation Jesus got in was 42 seconds long (ix, at least the portion of the conversation recorded in the Gospels). Medearis notes, “Because Jesus being Jesus, his conversations were typically anything but normal. and when I realized this—when I realized Jesus managed to turn otherwise everyday conversations into something profound—I knew I had to figure out how he did it” (ix).

So Medearis compiled a month’s worth of meditations on Jesus’ conversations, to be read for the course of four weeks. Each week has five readings on a theme, plus ‘a final word’ which tie it together with some reflections and suggestions for practice. These reflections are organized under the headings: “Be Kind,” “Be Present,” “Be Brave,
and, putting it all together, “Be Jesus.” Sorry, Melania, No “Be Best.”

Each daily entry has some practical reflections for engaging people in conversation about things that matter. The “Be Kind” section begins by exhorting us to say hi to people and acknowledge the people we fail to see (e.g. like the waiter or busboy filling your water). Medearis encourages us to ask questions, find some small act of service to do,  to pay attention to children (the way Jesus did). The “Be Present” section describes cultivating attention to the person we are talking to, and what may really be going on with them (instead of rushing to some strategic end, letting conversations go where they go).

The “Be Brave” section presses into the challenging things that Jesus said. Jesus says hard things, but not to everybody, and not always (religious insiders bore the brunt of his criticisms). The final section, “Be Jesus” prompts us to make sure our words and life are consistent with the life and witness of Jesus.

Medearis weaves stories of his own interactions with strangers and friends—evangelistic conversations or otherwise—with  Jesus’ conversations with people in the Bible. Medearis is winsome and this book is pretty accessible. If you read it over the course of a month, there are small challenges to be more like Jesus in our conversations and make every 42 seconds count. This isn’t a book on evangelism but on entering into more significant conversations (which includes evangelism or something like it). I give this four stars. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from NavPress through the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my honest review.

 

Lenten Reflections.

In addition to book reviews, I also use my blog as a place for spiritual reflection. This is especially true, in the liturgical penitential seasons (think Advent and Lent) or when I am feeling vocationally angsty.

Tomorrow Lent begins and I am feeling vocationally angsty. You will get new Lent reflections here. In the meantime here are some past Lenten series I’ve published here, that still drive a bunch of traffic (each link below will take you to a separate list of links or posts):

From 2017:

An Alphabet for Penitents

 

From 2016:

The Sour Faced Evangelists of Lent?

Good News Lent: Baptism

Good News Lent: Wilderness Introduction

Good News Lent: Wilderness Temptation Part I

 

From 2012:

The Seven Sins

And my popular blog series of all time:

The Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross

 

 

All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance

Why don’t we practice peace?

Is that we don’t regard the biblical vision of Shalom as a practical alternative to the violence all around us? Is it all just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky idealism? Walter Wink observed, “Many of those who have committed their lives to ending injustice simply dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism” (Jesus & Nonviolence, Fortress Press, 2003, p.9).

And he’s right, isn’t he? Turn the other cheek seems like an awful way to stand up to a bully (if you like your face). Love your enemy sounds sooo naive. Pray for those who persecute you. Just what we need in the world: more thoughts and prayers!  If only Jesus had more American pragmatism about him. Didn’t he know that the best way to keep the peace is through a show of strength? Take up your cross? Nope. “Speak Softly and carry a big stick.”

But it isn’t just that we think the peace of Jesus as impractical idealism. We also lack the spiritual and moral imaginations to live at peace. Our Western mindsets cause us to think of our spiritual lives in individualistic terms. We talk about personal disciplines (e.g. daily Bible reading, prayer, quiet times, meditation). Our evangelical emphasis on personal conversion emphasizes our personal responsibility in the Christian life.  And yet to practice peace is to enter deeper in relationship. God’s shalom is always communal. It ripples out from Father, Spirit, Son—the perichoretic peace within the Godhead—into our hearts, our neighborhoods, our nations and all creation.

When we think about practicing peace we need to reimagine communal contexts for our actions. The individual who turns the other cheek may incur the violence of a bully or enable abuse to continue. But non-violent direct action becomes powerful when done in the community, before a watching world.

The Civil Rights era has become part of our cultural memory. Nonviolent protests in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham awakened national outrage at the injustices faced by the Black Community. America saw BullConner, the KKK, White citizen councils, firehoses and dogs, young people jailed and beaten and finally decided that enough was enough (and yes, there is still so much work to be done!). The power of turning the other cheek is that shames the oppressor into repentance (Wink, 27). Turning the other cheek is all about social change.

When an individual person loves their enemy, it does something. At least one person has learned to rehumanize the opposition—to not see their enemy, whether nations or those across the political aisle, as evil incarnate. But the real power of enemy love is found when churches and communities commit together to a vision of humanity that leaves space for the redemption of the other. Wink writes:

It cannot be stressed too much: love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Commitment to justice, liberation, or the overthrow of oppression is not enough, for all too often the means used have brought in their wake new injustices and oppressions. Love of enemies is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God. The enemy too believes he or she is in the right, and fears us because we represent a threat against his or her values, lifestyle, or affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny [w]hat they have of God within them that makes transformation possible. Instead, we play God. We write them out of the Book of Life. We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God. (58-59).

Can you imagine what it would look like if the church in North America were committed to this sort of vision of shalom? If we refused to demonize or write off anyone? What if we regarded Democrats, Republicans, the LGBT community, Westboro Baptist Church, Pro-Choice advocates, evangelicals, Muslims, terrorists, refugees, undocumented immigrants as all worthy of redemption?

The Advent vision of shalom is that one day wolf and lamb will lie down together (Isa. 11:6). The oppressed and the oppressor will be at peace; they will no longer be prey and predator. Do we dare hope for this? How can we become a people committed to seeing the humanity of oppressors, enemies, and adversaries?

Pray for those persecuted! But please, do it in public! Our world won’t be transformed when our cries against injustice are only done in private devotion.

The autumn of 2017 erupted with cries online of #metoo and brave women and men sharing stories of systemic abuse from Hollywood producers, actors, politicians, and executives. Time magazine named their person of the year “The Silence Breakers.” When darkness is brought to light, systemic change becomes possible.

Praying for the persecuted names injustice. It points it out. When we pray in public for the victims of religious violence around the globe, or victims of sexual violence, when we dare to acknowledge before God and the world the ways our unjust systems privilege one person’s race or economic status and do violence toward another, we both bear witness to our lack of shalom and commit to no longer being complicit in injustice. We can’t pray publicly about the persecuted, downtrodden and oppressed and remain the self-appointed guardians of the status quo.

Jesus’s call to nonviolence comes with a promise:

But  I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  -Matthew 5:44-45

It is as we love our enemies we become the household of God!

John Lennon’s sang: All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance. I dare to hope for God’s shalom. But if peace is ever to have a chance we can’t embody it alone. May we become the “we” that gives peace a chance.

Embodying Hope for Those in Pain: a ★★★★★ book review

There are a number of recent treatments on the problem of suffering. Christian writers and theologians have reflected on losing loved ones, trying circumstances, diagnoses of debilitating, chronic, and terminal diseases, and natural disasters. Many of these theologians seek to trace the place that suffering has within the purposes of God.  In Embodied Hope, Kelly Kapic offers his theological and pastoral meditation on pain, prompted by watching his wife battle chronic pain and fatigue for several years. He doesn’t guess at the ‘why’ behind suffering but describes the reality of pain, and the resources available to those of us who suffer.

5179Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) and an author of several books. He stands firmly in the Reformed tradition, but unlike some of his Calvinist friends, you won’t find him tweeting about ‘God’s greater purpose’ in the wake of profound tragedy. Embodied Hope doesn’t attempt a theodicy—a defense of God in the face of evil’s existence. His first chapter opens, “This book will make no attempt to defend God. I will not try to justify God or explain away the physical suffering in the world. Instead, I wrestle with nagging questions about our lives, our purpose, and our struggles. How should we live in the midst of this pain-soaked world? How do we relate to the God whose world this is?” (7-8).

In the pages that follow, Kapic examines the reality of pain, wrestling honestly with the experience (part 1), before examining the resources we have in the midst of suffering: Jesus (part two) and Christian community (part 3).

In part 1, Kapic takes an honest look at the problem of pain, describing its debilitating effect on our spirituality. In chapter one Kapic notes how the problem of pain causes us to ‘think hard things about God.’ In chapter two, he discusses the need for Christians to develop both pastoral sensitivity and theological instincts (24), by not attempting to untangle the ‘why’ behind suffering but instead seeking to love others well, even in our theologizing (26). In chapter three, Kapic advocates the place of lament and grief in Christian spirituality. He notes:

We will only discover hope when we are ruthlessly honest about what lies between us and that hope. At least such truth telling is required if we are ever to know the true hope of the ancient Christian confession. The church denies the power of the gospel when it trivializes grief and belittles physical pain, overspiritualizing our existence in such a way as to make a mockery of the Creator Lord. Faithfulness to the gospel requires the Christian community to deal with the messiness of human grief. Biblical faith is not meant to provide an escape from physical pain or to belittle the darkness of depression and death but rather invite us to discover hope amid our struggle (41).

Chapters five and six invite us to a spirituality that embraces our physical embodiment and the ‘questions that come with pain.

In part 2, Kapic describes the resources available in Christ Jesus for Christians suffering and in pain. Chapter six discusses how Jesus’ incarnation involved God’s self-identification with us in our embodiment. In chapter seven, Kapic explains how Christ on the cross, entered fully with us, into the experience of pain and death. In chapter eight, Kapic explores how we enter into Christ’s resurrection and the hope of redemption beyond our pain and death. Kapic writes, “Christian affirmation of resurrection is not chiefly about escaping this world but righting it. Resurrection is not about denying this world but rather enabling believers to have an honest assessment of their experience and yet to have a real hope for restoration beyond it. Pain is real, but it is not the only reality” (115).

Part 3 describes the resources available for sufferers within Christian community. In chapter nine, Kapic discusses, through the lens of Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Luther, the ways fellow Christians enliven our faith when we are in a weakened state, proclaim hope to us when we are unable to proclaim hope for ourselves, and demonstrates to us the matrix of divine love by walking alongside us in our pain and suffering. Chapter ten reflects (with Dietrich Bonhoeffer) on the resources of confession for those who suffer (e.g. forgiveness, cleansing, healing, restoration, release from shame and condemnation and false images of God that compound psychological suffering, and mediating Christ’s presence). Chapter eleven describes faithfulness in the midst of suffering.

Kapic offers these reflections as a gift to the church. Pastors, pastoral counselors and all who walk along side Christians in pain, will find Kapic’s counsel to be both wise and sensitive. He avoids clichés and offers an embodied hope to those suffering. I appreciate the way he wrestles with the reality of pain and takes an honest look at it. He honors those who are suffering by describing with sensitivity the difficulties they face, but also acknowledges how destructive pain may be for their spiritual lives:

Christians struggling with physical pain often develop defense mechanisms that are destructive in the long run. Denial, for example, can take many forms, like the cultivation of detachment from pain. By deadening their affections and repressing their frustrations, some seek to carve out an inhabitable and safe place. Not only is this strategy partly successful, but the colors of life soon dissolve into the blandness of grays and whites. . . .Although the one who closes off the pain this way may not literally lie in the grave, those who know them whisper concerns about how ‘dead’ they have become (58).

It is only after describing the dangers and realities implicit in pain, and encouraging sufferers to examine themselves honestly, that he describes the embodied hope we have in the midst of pain: the Jesus who took on flesh, suffered, died, rose and ascended and the body of Christ which mediates His presence today.

This book will be a helpful aid for pastors, sufferers of chronic illness and for their supportive community. I recommend this book highly. Five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review

Only Love is Credible: a book Review

Brian Zahnd was a big fan of the Angry God. As a young pastor, he carried around a handwritten copy of Sinner’s in the Hands of an ANGRY GOD, Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon. He memorized portions of the sermon, in order to give preaching more of an edge, so he could draw sinners to repentance as Edwards had done. However, Zahnd since discovered the Father revealed to us through Jesus Christ is not the violent, angry, retributive monster god articulated in Edwards’s sermon.

SinnersWrestling with issues like Old Testament genocide, Jesus crucifixion, eternal punishment in hell, and the final judgment, Zahnd re-presents to us the Christian God—a God who is Love, not wrath. But just because the God Zahnd now preaches is loving, not angry, doesn’t mean he doesn’t deal with sin. We are Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. The monsters are the things that keep us from finding our life in Him. Zahnd writes:

Today my handmade copy of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is stored safely away among other memorabilia. I’m no longer mining it for material to terrorize sinners. The monster god has faded away and today I preach the beauty of God revealed in the face of Christ. But that doesn’t mean there are no monsters.  The monsters of war, violence, greed, exploitation, racism, genocide, and every other form of antihuman abuse continue to inflict  our species with unimaginable suffering. If we try to manipulate these monsters for our own self-interest, they eventually turn on us and destroy us. (22).

Zahnd’s book unfolds in 10 chapters. Chapter 1 describes Zahnd’s shift from believing in the mere angry God, to believing in the loving God. Chapter 2 examines how Jesus closed the book of vengeance by emphasizing the “Jubilee good news of pardon, amnesty, liberation, and restoration” (44) in his reading of the Old Testament.  Chapter 3 discusses the importance of interpreting the violent and troubling passages through the lens of Jesus.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion. Zahnd eschews interpretations of the cross that appeal to fear-mongering, instead, the cross emphasizes the love of God:

I’m not afraid of God. I used to be, but I am no longer. I am no longer afraid of God because I have come to know God as he is revealed in Christ. I have come to know that God’s single disposition toward me is not one of unconditional, unwavering love. The knowledge of God’s love has made it impossible for me to be afraid of God. (97).

As such, Zahnd does not believe that the Father was a blood-thirsty God demanding Jesus death in order to save some. No, Zahnd argues:

When we say Jesus died for our sins, we mean something like this: We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving our sins. By saying “we” violently sinned our sins into Jesus, I mean that all of us are more or less implicated by our explicit or tacit support of the systems of violent power that frame our world. These are politically religious systems that orchestrated Jesus’s death. At the cross we see how Adam and Eve’s penchant for shifting blame and Cain’s capacity for killing led to the ultimate crime : the murder of God (109).

In chapter 6, Zahnd describes the doctrine of Hell. As with the Angry God, Zahnd used to like Hell a lot but observes that many (evangelical) interpreters make Jesus’ word’s of judgment about the afterlife when he intends to talk about injustice and consequences in this life. He also challenges as fundamentalist fiction the notion that the sufferers of Auschwitz or godly non-Christians (like Abraham Heschel) are consigned to eternal torment (144-45).

chapters 7 through 9, describe Jesus, the Lamb of Revelation and the final judgment. Chapter 10 forms the conclusion: “Love alone is credible.”

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is similar to other recent books which question the traditional Angry God of evangelicalism. I think of recent publications from Brad Jerzak, Greg Boyd, Thomas Oord, Keith Giles, Rob Bell.  People who love John Piper (and are therefore more Reformed than God) will not like this all that much. If you feel, as many of my Reformed friends, that we are only drawn to God by feeling the weight and cost of our sinfulness, then you won’t enjoy this book. However, if you believe, as I do that, that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance(Rom.2:4), then you will be challenged and inspired by Zahnd’s words.

Zahnd does emphasize the here and now sometimes at the expense of the Hereafter. Of course, historically evangelicals have done the reverse, speaking only of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-when-you-abide-in-the-great-by-and-by. Both this age and the age to come are part and parcel of the gospel of the Kingdom which Jesus preached, and I think it is appropriate to speak of the former alongside the latter. I also wonder if Zahnd under-emphasizes some of God’s anger. It is always the loving who get angry, and I think it makes sense to still speak of an angry God in that context. Still, it is not as though Zahnd ignores human sinfulness and its destructive power for human souls.

I have talked with too many people whose experience of evangelicalism is one of judgment, anger and wrath. I recommend this book (along with books like Brad Jersak’s A More Christlike God) as representative as a more gracious depiction of biblical orthodoxy. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review

Sinners in the “ands of a hangry God”

Jesus was an angry guy. Nope, it wasn’t just that one time in the temple after he rode in a town and really needed a breakfast burrito. He was angry other times too. However, he didn’t get angry in the way we get angry, selfishly when things don’t go our way.  He got angry when the worship of God was misdirected and he got mad when he saw injustice. He really got upset, when people created obstacles to God.  As Sarah Sumner observes:

  Jesus is a friend of sinners. He’s an advocate for those who need to hear his loving call and realize that his love can make them clean. Jesus welcomes sinners to come home. It’s when people deny the fact that we ourselves are sinners that our dishonesty provokes the ire of God. (Angry Like Jesus, Fortress Press 2015, p11).

When you read the gospels, you discover that the Pharisees were at loggerheads with Jesus, and they are objects of his anger. Often Jesus butted heads with them just as he sat down to eat.

The Pharisees were annoyed at the type of people Jesus ate with. When Jesus called Matthew, one of his twelve disciples, he went to dinner at Matthew’s house and ‘many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'” (Matthew 9:10-11). Jesus responds by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12-13).

I know we are used to a sanitized savior, but don’t you hear a little Son-of-God snippiness in Jesus’ response? Jesus didn’t like the Pharisees’ policy of exclusion.  Again he said,”The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. But wisdom is proved right by her deeds'”(Matthew 11:19).  And we can’t forget the reaction of the Pharisees when a woman of ill-repute anointed Jesus’ feet as he dined at one of their houses? (Luke 7:36-50).  Tax collectors. Prostitutes. Sinners. Jesus was in constant conflict with the religious establishment because of the type of people he chose to include.

The Kingdom of God is like a great banquet (Luke 14:15-24). When the guests that should be there didn’t come, the master sent invites the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame. When Jesus sat down at the table, he inaugurated a spirituality of radical inclusion. Those who had been excluded from the banquet found themselves sitting at the table with the Son of God. The only one’s left out the banquet were those who refused to join the feast.

With apologies to Jonathan Edwards (who got ousted from his Northampton congregation for making it more difficult for folks to join the church, receive communion and be baptized), we are not sinners in the hands of an Angry God, but we are in the ands of a hangry one. Dinner is served and Jesus is hungry. He looks towards heaven and thanks the Father for the meal he provided. We know we are with him, by who we are willing to include at the table (the ands):

  • the LGBTQ Community

and

  • Trump Supporters

and

  • Black Lives Matter

and

  • Law Enforcement

and

  • Liberal Social Justice Warrior Snowflakes

and

  • The NRA

and

  • White Nationalists

and

  • Undocumented Migrant Workers

and

  • Eco Feminists

and

  • New Agers

and

  • Evangelicals

and

  • Muslims

. . .and whoever else. We know we are with Him by who we are willing to include at the table. We are the ands because we are included!

Are some of these ‘ands’ difficult for you? I know I don’t feel like welcoming everybody. I  can get down right judgy. People with particular ideologies or personal histories are sometimes hard for me to love. I can them off. But when I do, I am not operating out of the Spirit of Christ. It is fear, or me feeling like I’m better than them. And yet the banquet is on and Jesus anger burns against those who would exclude others from the feast.

Painting by Sieger Kroder- Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors and Sinners

Z is for Zarathustra (an alphabet for penitents)

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 3)
“DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE SUPERMAN TO LIVE.”—Let this be our final will at the great noontide!— Thus spake Zarathustra.
Z. We’ve reached the end.  A journey that began with ash, a reminder of our mortality, ends in the death of God. When Jesus had died, about the middle of the afternoon, they took his limp body off the cross and laid his body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57–61).
The gospel writers are silent about the events of Holy Saturday and the emotional state of the disciples. Certainly, they were raw with grief and carried shame for deserting and denying their Master—the man they had invested three years of their life following. They likely didn’t visit the Temple on that Sabbath. It is difficult enough to pray and share space with other worshippers while in the midst of grief (who wants to sing happy-clappy songs of God’s deliverance when you are hurting?). It is all the harder when we consider that they believed Jesus would be God’s deliverer and they mulled over his strange sayings about how he embodied the Father (John 14:9-10). Now Jesus was dead.  My guess is that they holed up in the same room we find them on Sunday morning.
Zarathustra was the ancient, Iranian founder of Zoroastrianism. A man by the same name is Fredrick Nietzche’s mouthpiece in Thus Spake Zarathustra. 19th-century philosophers, like 19th-century novelists, could seldom write anything without preaching at their readers.  Zarathustra is Nietzche’s  preacher and the populizer of the phrase, “God is dead” (along with the madman in Nietzche’s The Gay Science). He preaches a new way of being in the world, freed from the confines of religious belief in a god. Kathleen Higgins suggests that:
“Nietzche’s basic goal in Zarathustra is to explore the question of the meaning of individual life. . . .The perspective that renders life meaningful is the tragic perspective, Nietzche contends. The tragic perspective does not denigrate individual life by urging the individual to associate meaning with notions of survival or perfect contentment. Instead it finds individual life to be meaningful in the way that art is meaningful—meaning emerges from the artist’s arrangement of limited material (“Reading Zarathustra” in Reading Nietzche, OUP, 1988, p146).
Nietzche has his fans, especially among athiests, philosophers and the children of Christian fundamentalists in teenage rebellion. Christian apologists love to quote Nietzche and use him as a foil for theism. But if truth is contextual, then today of all days we say with Nietzche and Zarathustra, “Gott ist tot.” God is dead.
Can we inhabit this space? The disciples are hiding out, wrecked with grief. Their religious illusions, beliefs about God, and hopes for a Messiah were dashed on the previous day. We may not, with Zarathustra, do away with God and put our faith in our own human potential. But the prophet and the madman understood the death of God has far reaching consequences. How now shall we live?