Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Review: Jesus Manifesto, by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola

(Guest post by Rob, filling in for Sara)

The best summary of this book comes from the authors themselves, in the last chapter: Christians don’t follow Christianity; they follow Christ. Christians don’t preach themselves; they preach Christ. Christians don’t preach about Christ: they simply preach Christ. The purpose of the book is to lay out why that’s so and what that looks like, in order to address “the major disease of today’s church . . . JDD: Jesus Deficit Disorder.”

Sweet and Viola do an excellent job of this; they have written a book which is truly centered on—indeed, saturated with—Jesus. Rather than resting on human wisdom, it rests solidly on Scripture, the word that contains the Word, “the cradle that contains the Christ,” in Luther’s phrase; this is not to say that they ignore the wisdom of Christians through the ages, but they only use it to expound and amplify the voice of the Scriptures as they speak of Christ. This book will make anyone who reads it with an open mind and heart aware of their hunger and thirst for Jesus; one hopes it will do the same for the American church.

This book was provided to me free by Thomas Nelson in exchange for a book review as part of their BookSneeze program. I was under no obligation to provide a positive review.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why liturgy? Some initial thoughts

My husband pastors a very strange beast in this day and age--a conservative, orthodox, liturgical church. It seems these days that many people assume that liturgical means "liberal." That those who keep the forms of historical Christianity do so to mask the fact that they've lost the heart of it . And it seems that those who pride themselves on being "evangelical" are intent on stripping out anything from theier liturgy that can't be passed off as spontaneous*. There's this idea that because something is rehearsed, it's not as genuine. It's a dominant attitude. So why are we as a church making the deliberate decision to worship in a manner which we can expect people to mis-understand? Why keep all the formal elements of read prayers and a call to worship and reading the creed?

1. It emphasizes that our worship is not about us. It's about God. The very structure of the liturgy reminds us that we do not come to worship on our own--we come because God calls us to him. It is not our initiation, it is his, and that reality shapes our understanding of what we are doing and the logical way to do it.
2. It emphasizes that worship is something we do corporately. I can sing along to a worship CD and listen to a sermon podcast by myself at my computer (and sometimes I do). God calls us as a people, not just as individuals. I cannot pray with my brothers and sisters by myself. It's a logical impossibility, like a square circle. The liturgy forces me to place myself in community in a very particular way.
3. It trains our understanding of ourselves. A worship service is not something in which I am the consumer and the church staff the provider. God is the recipient, the audience, and we all together are the performers.
4. It prevents us from leaving the hard parts out. And we're not very good performers to boot. We would prefer to think that our offerings are acceptable to God on our own, and our own understanding and effort will get us there. They won't. We have the prayer of confession, because we come into God's royal throne room in pretty sorry shape. We have the prayer for illumination, because unless the Spirit opens our blind eyes and softens our stone hearts, we won't be able to understand what God's on about in the Scripture.
5. It keeps us polite. In this hustle and rush culture of ours, we have lost a good understanding of hospitality. We don't have each other into our homes very much. But imagine, for a moment, going to a friend's house, and simply walking through the front door and starting to unload on them without taking the time to knock, say hi, take off your shoes, and let them pour you a cup of coffee before plunging into the conversation. But often, that's what we want to do with God. We call the church "the house of God," and when we gather, we structure things in such a way as to remember that we are guests (even while we are family members) in his house. Call to worship? Open the door and come on in! Been looking forward to seeing you! Prayer of confession? Sorry my shoes are filthy--it's pouring rain and splattering mud out there. You're right, I don't want your muddy shoes all over my house, God answers. But I've taken care of it. I've got all that you need to get clean right here. And before we leave, the thank you and goodbye and let's set out when we're going to see each other again.
6. It cuts through the cult of spontaneity. As I noted above, we live in a culture which likes to equate "genuine" with "off the cuff." They're not the same, but many people like to think they are. At the same time, these same people want excellence and a good show. So what we end up with are churches that try to project authenticity by making it appear unstructured and unplanned. But the truth is that most all worship services are planned. The musicians rehearse (Some of you may have noticed on the Sundays that they didn't get a chance to.) And the preacher? Even if he's not up there reading from a text, or even looking at an outline, he's thought about what he's going to say ahead of time. He planned. He prepared--however conversational his presentation is and how much he makes it sound like he's just telling you these insights as they occur to him. The liturgy, on the other hand, reminds us that excellence is planned and rehearsed (ask any musician). In fact, the liturgy reminds that our worship services are in fact a rehearsal themselves--a practice session for heaven's music.

Yes, it's easy to let doing the same things the same way become a rote exercise in form. But consider a child at the piano flying through the scales as fast as she can rush through them, hurrying to get through her practice time and on with everything else. Now consider the concert pianist, going through the same scales. Taking her time. Fast and slow. Major and minor, varying the dynamics, never bored but aware of just how much time and effort and practice it takes to get even scales up to the musical standard . . .

* Definition of liturgy: a form of public worship. Ritual. A particular arrangement of services. Most every church has a liturgy--even if it's only "we sing for 30 minutes and then the pastor preaches for 30 minutes.

Memory and forgetfulness

We are finite and lose even ourselves, sometimes in the end (as with Alzheimer's or Huntington's diseases). But God is infinite and holds each of us perfectly.

a good morning for videos

Love it. :)

This one reminds me of Amy Walker's 21 accents video, which I thought I had posted before and now can't find. Well. Here it is again then.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Book Review: I Am Hutterite, by Mary-Ann Kirkby

In 1969, Ann-Marie Dornn's parents took eleven year old Ann-Marie and her six brothers and sisters and left their Hutterite Colony to live in the "English" world. The decision had been years in the making. Though this book purports to be the story of Ann-Marie's adjustment to life away from her Hutterite community, it is as much the story of her parents as her. She starts her tale with the family history of each of parents individually and covers their courtship and its controversial place in the community. She writes about the establishment of Fairholme colony and the community dynamics of Hutterite colonies. We're three and a half chapters in (out of eleven) before Ann-Marie is even born, and eight chapters in before her family actually leaves the colony. Only the last third of the book is about their adjustment to the outside world. Mostly, this is a book about what it means to be an integrated part of a Hutterite community.

Or is this in fact Ann-Marie's story? Hutterite faith is definitionally lived out in community. Gemeinshaft ist der einzege Weg, they say. Community life is the only way to heaven. This is a story about belonging and choice. About family and commitment. About the difference between the ideal of community life and what happens ordinary sinful people try to live it out. About keeping individual integrity when there doesn't seem to be a right way forward. Ann-Marie-the-child loved community life, was welcomed and enfolded by it, while her parents struggled with adult conflicts, of which she knew virtually nothing. To understand Ann-Marie's story, it is clear, one must understand the community of which she was a part. The proper Hutterite understands her identity first and foremost not as an individual, but as a member of the group. Ann-Marie was wholly a proper Hutterite child and her beloved family-colony was who she was. No wonder leaving was so wrenching.

This is a well written memoir and I would happily recommend it. The common themes that play out in our human experience of love, pain, family and forgiveness are richly drawn within the very concrete experience of a specific time, place and culture. It's a quick, easy read. Four stars out of five.

This book was provided to me free by Thomas Nelson in exchange for a book review as part of their BookSneeze program. I was under no obligation to provide a positive review.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Two Book Reviews: The Marriage Code and Love & War

One of my husband's ministry mentors some years back told us that he believed that every married couples--especially pastors--ought to go in for marriage counseling routinely every three years. Rob and I haven't done that. But I have taken it as encouragement that our marriages are something with which we need to actively engage. Two new relationship books bear reading and discussion this spring--Farrels' The Marriage Code and Eldredges' Love & War. I'd strongly recommend both of them for any couple, whether healthy or struggling (though my recommendation for Love & War comes with some caveats).

The Marriage Code examines the dynamic of security and success in a marriage. Both men and women need both security and success the Farrels say, but women tend to primarily need security and use success as a means to that end, while men primarily need success and will sacrifice security to achieve it. Additionally, (as per the Five Love Languages) people tend to give what they themselves want to receive, so women, the Farrels argue, tend to try to make their husbands feel secure when what they need to be doing is helping to be successful, while men tend to try to feed their wives success when what they need to be doing is feeding them security. The Farrels then unpack this idea across a variety of issues, covering work and play, communication, finances

One of the more interesting things to me about this book is the principle that men are supposed to be successful and that one of the keys to a good marriage is for a man to feel that he is a success as a husband and a father. A man will pour his time and energy into the areas in his life where he can accomplish things and being deliberate about setting up those positive feedback loops in areas where God has called him to work is critical. Much of the language of success has been hijacked by the legalists and heretics of the American church. An orthodox, gospel-driven view of righteous success in an accomplishment driven society is sorely needed.

This brings us to Love & War. In this book, John and Stasi Eldredge give us a picture of marriage--all marriage in general and yours in particular--as a battleground of spiritual warfare. Satan wants your marriage to fail and you need to be active in fighting for your spouse, not against them. My main problem with the Eldredge's theology is this: I think they are far too prone to name as the devil that which is simply the world and the flesh. There is a real danger in anthropomorphizing certain kinds of problems and sin. That said, the Bible makes very clear that Satan is very real, that we do have a malignant, intelligent Enemy working against us. And the Eldredges have written a challenging, sympathetic, pragmatic, gritty book on the core how-tos of making marriage work between profoundly sinful and broken (that's all of us, folks!) people. Too many Christian marriage enrichment materials start with the implicit assumption that the couples working through them are Nice Christian People without significant hang-ups or issues. Give 'em a few active listening techniques and understanding and peace (voila!) will blossom. The Eldredges start with the assumption that you don't really have a clue just how screwed up you are and that the best thing that you can do for yourself and your relationship is take a good long look in the mirror. Get some humility. And expect Capital I Issues from yourself and the people around you.

Any good counselor will tell you that any real change starts with the understanding that you can't change other people; you can only change yourself. (And indeed--good theology takes that a step further; you can't change yourself in any meaningful sense. Only the Spirit of God can change you). So in order for our marriages to grow, we need to not focus on our spouse's problems but on letting God point out to us the areas where he wants to grow us and then cooperating with God to become the people he means us to be.

But if the Eldredges make the challenges to our marriages out to be worse than you wanted to admit, they also promise a pay-off better than you could have hoped for. "This is the deepest and most mythic reality in the world. This is the story of God's romance with mankind." Each of our marriages is a microcosm of the love of God, a peephole for us to see the wild, infinite, creative love that we are called to. A crack we allow in our self-protective shell that pry wide open to pour his love through us.

At the end of last year, Elizabeth Weil published an article in the NY Times about the quest she and her husband took to "improve" their marriage. For the most part, the secular experiment turned into an exercise in frustration, simply bringing into focus irritations that they were generally able to ignore. In the end, she comes to the conclusion that happiness cannot be found in ones spouse and a good marriage is one in which the spouses keep growing. This dovetails neatly with the Christian insight that we do not find our fulfillment in other people but in God. And our marriages are the primary place where we help each other along in doing that. If your desire is to grow into the fullness of who God made you to be, and for your spouse to do the same, each of these books is a good resource.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho

Just . . . wow. I've always loved this song. I think love it more now.

P is for Process: preamble

Now for a little bit of Meyers-Briggs talk. Of the four sets of toggles that combine to make the sixteen personality types in this scheme, the "J-P" split is the most difficult to understand. "Extrovert" and "Introvert" are fairly self-explanatory. So are "Thinking" and "Feeling." "Intuitive" and "Sensing" are even managable. But what are "Perceiving" and "Judging" supposed to mean? I think that they would have had a hard time doing a better job obscuring the issues if they had tried.

I knew it had something to do with being organized--the questions that sort out J's from P's have to do with whether you're neat or messy, and whether or not you're likely to be on time for something. It's something to do with planning. For a long time, I tried to describe it to people in terms of closure--do you prefer things being decided or open-ended? But all of these seemed lacking. Then two things happened this fall that helped me start thinking through the issue a little more.

The first was that I was working through the personality inventory questions with my parents, and I realized that the questions are about emotionally healthy and mature J's, but about unhealthy and immature P's. The readily identifiable lifestyle choices and tendencies that the questions highlight are biased.

The second was that a sociologist (someone who tests strongly P) came to our MOPs group to talk about Meyers-Briggs (and the ways that personality differences between parents and children can be addressed). It was an interesting talk by a man who has been working professionally with these materials for decades. I brought the handouts that he gave us home and my husband looked over them. "Oh," he commented. "Someone else who thinks that J's are morally superior to P's." (My husband tested J for years due simply to the fact that he thought that's what he was supposed to be.)

Our society is strongly biased for J's. It is run by J's, for J's, and indeed, many J's think that they are, in fact, morally superior to P's. (There is no allowance in our culture for many of the flaws that P's are most prone to).

But if we are all of us, J and P, made in the image of God; if in fact, humanity as a whole reflects God's image; if it is the J-P spectrum that reflects God . . . what does that tell us about this character trait? How do we understand the spectrum so that we can see the strengths of an emotionally healthy P and the flaws of an emotionally unhealthy J?

What I have come up with is this: P's are about process and J's about result. Put another way, P's are about the means and J's about the ends.