Blessings All Mine and Ten Thousand Beside: a book review

When American Christians start talking about ‘Blessing,’ I get nervous. It isn’t that I don’t believe in God’s blessings, but the contemporary chatter on blessing   amounts to little more than good advice about how to obtain the good life (defined along the lines of “American Dream”).  ‘Blessing’ means  for us, a good job, a good marriage and a meaningful life.  Among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, ‘blessing’ means that you ‘get your miracle’ or experience a manifestation of the Spirit’s presence (i.e. ecstatic utterance or holy laughter).   Certainly all of these could be God’s blessing, but us American Christians often end up speaking about God’s blessing in an entirely self-referential and self-centered way.

Thankfully Gerrit Dawson’s new book, The Blessing Life: A Journey into Unexpected Joyprovides a larger vision of what God’s blessing is. In three parts, he presents a pastoral and biblical theology of God’s blessing. Part one explores  God’s blessing for us, part two describes how we bless God and part three describes how we bless others by reflecting God’s blessing to us.

Dawson does not define God’s blessing as everything going well for us. God’s healing is certainly a blessing, but some people long for healing, pray fervently for it and die in pain. Some faithful Christians experience turmoil and tragedy, grief and loss. Dawson  says the essence of blessing is God himself ‘who came to us full of grace in Jesus Christ'(10).   The ‘blessing life’ is a life lived in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are blessed when we live aware of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Suffering can be a blessing in the life of a Christian because God is sovereign and uses the struggles we face to help us grow. Thus we can experience the blessing life even when our circumstances don’t feel much like a blessing.

The idea of  ‘blessing God’ is found in the Psalms (cf. Psalm 96, Psalm 103. It is exemplified in Mary’s Magnifcat. The idea of blessing God is found through out scripture. Throughout part two of the book, Dawson picks up on this language of ‘blessing God’ and gives a theological account of worship. Dawson exhorts us

say something, write something, play something, bang something, shout something, dance something, draw something, give something, add up something, design something–whatever you can do to give glory to the God of all, do it. Of all the creatures in the universe, you alone uniquely give this blessing to God. He waits and longs for your blessing. His throne is richer and more glorious because of our praise (79).

According to Dawson, blessing God can be as simple as recounting and giving thanks to God for the ways he has blessed you. It may mean creative service to God (as the above paragraph illustrates) or it may mean reflecting on the truths about God found in scripture or in a beloved hymn.

While the first two sections, describe the orientation of the Blessing life (receiving blessing from God and returning blessing to Him), the final section describes the activity of the blessing life. Those who have been blessed by God, live lives which overflow in blessing to others.  Like Abraham of old, we are blessed to be a blessing.  We bless others with our words and in our giving.  We bless others when we participate in his mission to welcome the Kingdom of God into our world. We do not just bless others to receive a reward from them (which would just be a utilitarian, self-serving version of blessing), but we bless others even when they curse us, hurt us, hate us and seek to destroy us.  This is the sort of blessing that reflects the blessing we received in Christ who gave his life for our salvation.

These are rich meditations on the Blessing life. I appreciated Dawson’s focus on Jesus as our blessing. This is fundamentally different from a focus on blessing which simply extols the benefits of the Christian life. Yes there are benefits: God provides, people get healed, miracles happen. But the heart of the Christian life, is a relationship with the Triune God through Jesus Christ. This is the real blessing of the Christian life! I also appreciated the sensitivity in which Dawson deals with difficulties. This book is chock-full of stories of God’s blessing, but he also recounts stories of difficult episodes and profound grief at the death of loved ones.  Dawson is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The community he serves lost everything in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Thus he is cognizant of life’s struggles and does not present a Pollyanna-ish version of the Blessed life. God’s blessing comes to us in the midst of a world scarred by human Sin. Dawson does a good job of naming the tension and presenting the biblical vision in a compelling manner.

I think this is one of the those books that would probably good for anyone to read.  The first part of the book is a re-presenting of the gospel–all that God in Christ has done on our behalf.  Interested non-Christians and Christians alike will benefit from Dawson’s account. The anecdotes and stories throughout the book make its message easy to grab on to, and Dawson gives a good deal of space to discussing relevant scriptures. There is a companion volume, A Guide to the Blessing Life, which has 40 days of scriptures and prayers to accompany your reading of this book (I have not read this). This means that it is possible to use this book in small groups or devotional use. I give the book five stars–★★★★★

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

Sloth is a deadly sin?

After several days of stalling, here are my reflections on the sin of Sloth. I think this is one of the most misunderstood and underestimated of the big seven. Sloth
Despite its status as a ‘Deadly Sin’ we don’t often think of Sloth as particularly deadly. Image is everything and when the sins got together and chose mascots, Sloth chose the sweetest, cuddliest one it could find. it is hard not to think of it as innocuous. How can something like this be deadly? When did a sloth kill anyone? It just doesn’t happen.

 

 

In 1986 Harper Magazine published a series of ads about each of the deadly sins. This is the ad that ran for Sloth:

We just don’t believe that Sloth is sin, or think that if its sin it really isn’t that bad. I mean aren’t we entitled to a little rest and relaxation? Certainly all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! But is this what Sloth is about? There is much more to Sloth than simply traversing the Protestant Work Ethic!

From Acedia to Sloth

Part of our confusion about Sloth, is that even within the Christian tradition it has undergone a sort of metamorphosis. One of the original eight thoughts (or passions) of Evagrius, it was originally called Acedia and referred to a a restless boredom that makes ordinary tasks seem too dull to bear (Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 74). In the West, Acedia was systemized as the Capital Sin of Sloth and the emphasis gradually shifted from internal struggle to exterior practice (Norris, Acedia & Me, 21). Acedia became Sloth, and Sloth was identified as merely laziness.

The difference between the two is significant. With “Sloth” the emphasis is on our inaction; with “Acedia” the emphasis was on an internal disposition irregardless of action or inaction. While the ideas are distinct, there is clearly overlap. Kathleen Norris says that Sloth and Acedia exist in a symbiotic relationship to one another (Sloth is Acedia‘s handmaiden, Acedia & Me, 12)

Getting to the Bottom of Acedia

The word Acedia, literally means ‘lack of care,’ which for me conjures up my father’s ‘you got potential’ lectures aimed at my under-achieving adolescence. “You could be at the top of your class, but your problem is you just don’t care.” I can quote the entire lecture verbatim and will one day pull it out of my parenting arsenal and against my will, thrust it on my own children. I hated that lecture and it wasn’t always fair; nevertheless my father’s point is a good one, when we care about something we diligently attend to it.

But spiritual writers were not concerned simply with are lack of diligence and apathy in general; rather they wanted us to attend to where laziness and lack of care have affected our relationship with God. For example, a workaholic businesswoman who crowds her schedule and time with activities and interests can still be guilty of Acedia by failing to cultivate her prayer life and attend to her own spiritual growth. The man who doesn’t go to church with his family but instead putzes at home is slothful regardless of how hard-working he is in his vocation. There is laziness and then there is laziness of the soul.

Basically Sloth is resistance to soul work. We resist the transformations that Love demands of us and instead opt for an easy existence and simply go with the flow. We perceive struggle ahead and rather than press forward we meander through our monotonous existence. Evagrius called Acedia the noon-day demon because it named the struggle desert monks had in staying committed to prayer in the heat of the desert sun. They were sleepy, their minds wandered and they had a hard time keeping their minds and hearts on God in prayer. The demonic temptation was to just let their commitment to God slide. It is precisely this failure to attend to one’s spiritual health that makes Sloth deadly.

Alternative Practices

If Acedia is an attitude of boredom and apathy and Sloth names laziness and inactivity, how do we conquer these tendencies in ourselves? The Desert and Monastic tradition suggests three practices designed to rein in our laziness, inattention, and listlessness. (The list below owes much to Kathleen Norris in Acedia & Me).

    • Hard work. Seems obvious that the way to conquer laziness is by not being lazy and working hard. This is what the writer of Proverbs means when he advises the lazybones (sluggard) to look at ants (because as long as they aren’t doing anything, might as well find an anthill). Something about hard work frees us from our inner apathy, and allows us to press fully into joy of the Lord. If we stew on it, or fail to act, inertia carries us into further apathy and inaction; when we work, Acedia loses its stronghold.
    • Stability. St. Benedict in his rule suggested a vow of stability in which monks committed to a particular place and didn’t wander from monastery to monastery. In a transient culture this is a value seldom practiced by sorely needed if we are to grow to spiritual maturity. When we fall victim to Acedia–that listless boredom and lack of commitment in the spiritual life–are tendency may be to run somewhere more fun or at least less monotonous. However, our growth often demands that we ‘stay in our cell’ and face ourselves. By committing to a place, you commit to community, to a way of life, and your practices. You decide to work through your issues and not bolt for the door.
    • A Rule of Life. Another way to break the bondage of sloth and Acedia is through a ‘rule of life.’ A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines and commitments which provide structure and direction for your spiritual life. Communities often follow a rule, like the Benedictine Rule I mentioned above. People may also opt to write their own personal rule. I have lived under a rule when I lived in community in my twenties, doing an urban ministry program called Mission Year. Rather than finding the rules and regulations laid out for me restrictive, I found that they enabled me to stay on task and keep my priorities in place so that I could love God and others more effectively. This week I am working on a personal rule of life (I may share it here later, if I have the guts). Consider this practice, it may be worthwhile in conquering your inner sloth.

The fruit of pressing through Sloth is that we enter more fully into the joy of the Lord and experience more of his love and freedom.

May God break the power of Sloth in our hearts as we walk this Lenten journey together. But first look how cute this one is:

Calvin Seeks Pure Joy: A Book Review of ‘The Joy of Calvinism’

Joy of Calvinism We all know the stereotypes of the cranky Calvinist who is serious, doctrinaire and fervent but lacks joy. I think of the Danish sect portrayed in Babette’s Feast with their sour faces, scandalized by a good meal. But is this a fair portrayal of Calvinism? Author Greg Forster claims it is not. He argues in The Joy of Calvinism that not only do Calvinists have joy but that “if you want to understand the command to rejoice at all times, and still more if you want to obey it, of all the places you might start looking for help with the problem, the best place to start is Calvinism.(14)” And so he wrote this book as a sort of lay exposition of Calvinist doctrine to draw attention to the joy of Calvinism, especially as it relates to soteriology (salvation).

[Personal Note: At the interest of self disclosure, I read this book as a non-Calvinist but I am not an anti-Calvinist. My own spiritual formation has been shaped, in part, by my reading Calvinists and Reformed authors and I regard many Calvinist theologians warmly. Certain passages of Calvin’s Institutes bring me to my knees and I hear within his prose pure worship. But there are other voices that have formed me and I don’t feel like I can buy into the Calvinist system completely. Rather than saying I am a non-Calvinist, it makes sense to say that while others boast that they are five-point-Calvinists, I am at best a .5 Calvinist. It is part of my Evangelical heritage, but not necessarily where I theologically locate myself. Back to my review.]

Forster thinks Calvinists have not presented their own theology in winsome ways, often focusing on the things they don’t believe, rather than stating positively what they do believe. He observes:

It sometimes feels like Calvinists invoke the five points, then apologize for invoking the five points, and then explain how the five points don’t really mean what they seem to mean and aren’t really saying what they seem to be saying. This can’t possibly be the best way to introduce people to what we believe.(16)

So this book promises to get beyond TULIP (a modern summary of Calvinism), formulas and technicalities to what is positively wonderful about Calvinist beliefs. So after a brief detour addressing ‘five points about Calvinism’ and trying to correct many misconceptions (i.e. Calvinists have free will, aren’t saved against their will, are wholly defiled but not ‘totally depraved,’ do not deny God’s love for the lost, or concerned only with God’s sovereignty) most of the book is dedicated to presenting a positive account of what Calvinists believe. Forster divides his chapters into<
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four headings, each addressing an aspect of God’s love: God loves you personally, unconditionally,irresistibly, and unbreakably.

By framing Calvinist doctrine in terms of God’s Love, Forster is able to draw out some of the pastoral implications of Calvinist dogma and show where Calvinists have drawn comfort from their core beliefs. That God loves us personally, is the positive implications of the doctrine of limited atonement/election. Forster claims that to say that God loves humanity is to abstract God’s love because real love is personal and involves doing concrete things for concrete individuals (48). To say that God loves unconditionally is to say that God’s choice of the elect resides solely in his own character and love and not on any of our techniques or our own character. To say that the love of God is irresistible means that when we experience God’s good work and love we cannot help but give ourselves over to him in wonder and devotion because of his goodness to him. To say that God’s love is unbreakable means that we trust that God will continue to preserve us and keep us on the path of salvation. All of this taken together, causes and sustains the joy of the convinced Calvinist.

Despite the merits of this book I think Foster occasionally comes across as uppity. He repeatedly diverges from his ‘positive presentation’ of Calvinism to show up other Christian traditions and I don’t think he always characterizes them well. For example, he argues that Calvinism alone places the hope of salvation squarely on the cross of Christ, but other Christian traditions set up a ‘salvation system.’ Roman Catholics are saved through the Church and the sacraments, Lutherans likewise trust the sacraments as ‘means of Grace,’ Arminians lay there hope solely on the moment of decision(53-54). Forster is quick to dismiss these other traditions for putting hope for salvation in something else besides Christ’s substitutionary atonement, but his quick dismissal betrays a low view of sacraments, ecclesiology and human freedom. He is also rather flippant in his characterization of each tradition. It would have been better if he presented the positive aspects of Calvinism without resorting to an apologetic and an ‘over and against’ posture.

I also disagree with his sole focus on soteriology. Calvinists’ sometimes focus narrowly on a theology of the atonement which looks at the cross and resurrection only but fails to place Christ’s redeeming work with little regard to the wider Biblical story. A focus on salvation is not wrong, per se. It just isn’t wright. I personally need a theology which is richer than one atonement model. I need to hear how Jesus fulfills the hopes of Israel, blesses the nations and brings his Kingdom rule to the earth. I get more joy out of stories than I do out of propositions.

I thought this book offered a good summary statement of Calvinist belief from someone inside their ranks. I think Forster did a good job of framing Calvinism as a theology of God’s love. Yet, in exploring the ‘joyful life’ from a Calvinist expression, I think J.I. Packer’s Knowing God or even John Piper’s Desiring God is a more helpful exploration of the theme. I would recommend this book to Calvinist friends seeking a better grasp of their own tradition and theological contribution.

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

What’s in a Word?: Why I’m not ‘Driven’ and You Shouldn’t Be Either

This is the first of an occasional series where I critique the words that we Christians use. I know what you’re thinking, “James you are an overly critical and cranky man who thinks you are smarter and more holy than the rest of Christendom.” Guilty. Well, not really. I admit I am a little neurotic about some of these things but I also really think words matter. Yes the Spirit of God can shoot straight arrows with the crooked arrows of our words but the metaphors by which we habitually describe God, faith and the spiritual life shape our understanding and experience. Some of the words that we use are actually damaging and do injustice to both God and ourselves. I submit that one such word is ‘driven.’

I am not sure that I can blame Rick Warren for entering driven into our spiritual lexicon but he certainly popularized it with his wildly successful books The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life and various purpose-driven spin-offs. But Rick Warren with his warm smile and Hawaiian shirts is not the only offender. A search of titles with ‘driven’ in the title from Christianbook.comreveal that many are clamoring to join the herd. There are books with titles like: Family Driven Faith, Driven by Eternity: Making Your Life Count Today & Forever, The Gospel-Driven Life, A Proverbs Driven-Life, The Passion Driven Sermon, Text-Driven Preaching, Spirit-Driven Success, Values Driven Leadership, The Spirit Driven Leader, Jesus Driven Ministry, The Values Driven Family, The Market Driven Church(I think this one is a critique), Character Driven, The Wisdom Driven Life, The Passion Driven Youth Choir, The Mission Driven Parish, The Spirit Driven Church, Driven by Hope: Men & Meaning, A Love Driven Life, A Passion Driven Life and From God-Given to God-Driven.Bull Whip Cattle Drive

Without critiquing the content of these books (some I am sure have great stuff to say and others just have stuff) this list shows how pervasive the word ‘driven’ is in the Christian publishing world. But the book title doesn’t even begin to reflect how much authors use this word within their books to speak of the sort of life we all should be living. This is picked up by pastors, blogs and every tweep from here to eternity. This is where I have issues.

What does it mean to be driven? It is obvious to me that the people who use it are trying to get at what are motivation is but this is bad language to be using. The dictionary defines driven as, “being under compulsion to succeed or excel.” I understand a personal ‘drive’ towards excellence but I get worried about what we mean when something outside of ourselves is the one said to be ‘driving us.’ Are we under compulsion by our families and values? Are we ‘driven’ by our commitments? Does God, the Spirit, Jesus ‘drive’ our spiritual life? What does that say about us and God?

I think this term stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the spiritual life. Hear the good news: In a world where we are driven by the will to succeed, the will-to-knowledge and the will to power, in a world where we are under the compulsion of a thousand demands internal and external, you don’t need to be driven anymore. You are being invited by God to enjoy the good things he has stored up for you. Listen to these words From Isaiah 55:

    “Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
    and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
    Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
    Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
    Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.”

This is fundamentally different from having any sort of ‘driven life.’ What if we understood our spiritual life less in terms of its demands and more in terms of what we are being invited into? What if we didn’t speak so much of ‘being driven’ but spoke of where God is drawing us?

The reason why I am so passionate that ‘driven’ is a bad word in the spirital life is because I tend to imbibe its message. I load on myself heroic spiritual disciplines and feel guilty about where I have failed to do all I am supposed to do. When it comes to drive I’ve got it and then some. What I haven’t always understood is that my life with God is more joyful, freeing and wonderful than I can imagine.

Marva Dawn’s hymn Come Away From Rush and Hurry capture for me the reality of the post-driven life:

Come away from rush and hurry
Marva J. Dawn

    Come away from rush and hurry
    to the stillness of God’s peace;
    from our vain ambition’s worry,
    come to Christ and find release.
    Come away from noise and clamor,
    life’s demands and frenzied pace;
    come to join the people gathered
    here to seek and find God’s face.

    In the pastures of God’s goodness
    we lie down to rest our soul.
    From the waters of his mercy
    we drink deeply, are made whole.
    At the table of his presence
    all his saints are richly fed.
    With the oil of his anointing
    into service we are led.

    Come, then, children, with your burdens –
    life’s confusions, fears, and pain.
    Leave them at the cross of Jesus;
    take instead his kingdom’s reign.
    Bring your thirsts, for he will quench them –
    he alone will satisfy.
    All our longings find attainment
    when to self we gladly die.

As we enter into this season of Lent, what is God inviting you into?