Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hebrews 4:13-16 -- Approach the Throne of Grace in Prayer

Hebrews 4:13-16
13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. 14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

       We are called to "approach the throne of grace" in prayer for the necessary mercy and grace to persevere through our weaknesses. Being sinners, we need to lean on Christ, depend on him, ask him for his mercy and grace, especially in times of need.  Jesus "sympathize[s] with our weaknesses" in that he was tempted, faced deperate times of need in the desert and during his passion, and lived the day-to-day corporeal life contending with human desires and physical needs. His life's example, however, models sinlessness.  During his earthly life, Jesus felt as we feel. He knows, therefore, first hand what it is like to suffer.  When we call out to Christ in prayer, he hears us with a sypathetic ear and a loving heart. But we must take the initiative and call out to our loving God in prayer.  He will answer and guide us to his will in all things.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Be the Dad She Needs You to Be: The Indelible Imprint a Father leaves on His Daughter’s Life. by K. Leman

Dr. Leman writes a primer for every father who desires to be the best dad for his daughter.  Dr. Leman’s audience, however, also includes daughters and their mothers, which is a creative way to include more people in his message.  The book’s message, therefore, is geared toward love.  How do we as fathers love our daughters beyond our own broken, stubborn instincts and abilities?  Although indirectly, the author implies that fathers must tap into humility, service, love, and self-sacrifice.  Every illustration and example throughout the book points toward loving our daughters more than ourselves, advice all dads need to emulate, myself included.
Be the Dad She Needs You to Be presents an engaging voice and real-life point-of-view. In a conversational, straightforward manner, the author relates what life is like for many dads who struggle with fatherhood, especially with daughters. Dr. Leman’s tone is conversational and his illustrations are drawn from his own family examples, for he extensively draws on experiences of being a father of four daughters with a wide age range. Dr. Leman’s illustrations work and are so clear that you actually get to know his daughters in the context of the book.   Additionally, the author draws on a wealth of outside examples of people he knows through his years as a psychologist. Throughout the book, however, he relies on the concept of birth order as related to individual personality, which may not apply in some family situations.
Disappointingly, there are not many references to the author’s faith life or topics that engage the reader's faith.  In chapter five on explaining sex, Dr. Leman explains the necessary approach to overcoming father’s unease.  He delves, moreover, into the importance of faith in explaining the purpose of sex and gives a reference to the Book of Genesis and the one-flesh relationship of marriage. This is one of the few sections of the book where Leman discusses that he “is a man of faith.”  Since this book is published by a Thomas Nelson publishing, I would have appreciated a more prominent discussion of faith weaved throughout.  The book falls short in this area, however.
Leman's book is well structured and organized with each chapter focusing on how fathers can grow in a specific parental area.  The chapters begin with an introduction of each concept such as being a peacemaker among fighting females, talking about "the birds and the bees," and encouraging your daughter to do her best in life.  After the author introduces the idea, he fills out the rest of the chapter with personal stories and anecdotes both from his family and clients.  The chapters end with a synopsis of ideas gleaned from the chapter; they remind the reader of key takeaways and are usually humorously worded.
Dr. Leman weaves humor through his book.  This not only adds to the personal tone of the writing but keeps the reader engaged and laughing at key times throughout. Laughter always brings me back for more, and I would recommend this book to any father who loves his daughter and wants to be better for her.  Although some illustrations throughout the book are repetitive, there are many fatherly lessons, some more obvious than others, found throughout this book.

* The publisher provided me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Matthew 12:7 and Hosea 6:6: Worship With Merciful, Loving Hearts

Matthew 12:7

7But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. (NRSV)

Hosea 6:6

6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
  the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings. (NRSV)

Dear Jesus,      
When we pray for ears that hear and eyes that see, You clearly answer.  How wrong I have been, O Lord, in thinking that ritual, repetition, and routine were the only answers to spiritual growth.  Yes, these can (and have) led me to You, Jesus, but an overly zealous approach to routine and repetition blurs the beauty of knowing and growing in a relationship with You. I should focus, rather, as You point out, on “steadfast love” and “mercy.” You have been merciful to me in all my transgressions, and although I have tried, I oftentimes fail to “get it.”  These failures, however, are tests of faith, and I appreciate the grace You give to battle through these tests.  I appreciate anything that draws me closer to You, Lord.  For instance, in my struggle to understand Church teaching regarding receiving Holy Communion and whether I am "doctrinally" worthy, my legal scrutiny became a barrier to Your great gift.  I listened to the voices of the Pharisees condemning me, rather than the Master of the sabbath feeding me. Today’s Scripture clearly rests in my heart, Lord.  The legalistic sacrifices and burnt-offerings of strict doctrinal adherence are not the way to You.  Help me, Jesus, to abandon the scrupulosity that the enemy so often uses against me.  Instead, please grant me Your grace to live a life reflecting Your love and mercy, allowing that love and mercy to fall on all those with whom I come in contact.

Always Your Dedicated Servant by Your Grace, Mercy, Peace and Love,


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

1 Peter 4:8-10: Employing God's Talents

“Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”
1 Peter 4:8-10 (NRSV)

All have certain abilities and talents, no matter how small.  When people see us engaged in these activities that highlight these talents, they take notice and focus their attention on the action.  These talents are gifts given to us by our Creator, for they were knit into the tapestry of our being.   Peter says that in loving others through service, we are called to use our gifts to promote the love of God.  However, this does not necessarily mean that we all must evangelize door-to-door, asking for everyone to repent and accept Jesus. We are, instead, called to use our talents to reach out to others in love and service, allowing them to see the light of Christ in us.  This may mean singing as a cantor in your church, teaching a religious education course or Sunday school, working on site with Habitat for Humanity, knitting caps for homeless babies, visiting hospitalized patients to talk or just be a presence, smiling at everyone you see and meet throughout the day, telling you family that you love them and doing something for them to show that love. There are innumerable ways to use God’s gift for the service of others. We must first recognize that our talents are not our own, for they are gifts given by God to which we are the stewards. As in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), for example, God expects us to make sound investments, employing His gifts for the love of others.

1 Peter 4:2: Abandoning Self Will

“. . . live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.”
1 Peter 4:2 (NRSV)

Total abandonment of self will, emptying oneself of all desires and motivations that are not geared toward the Gospel, is at the root of Peter's message. We are called to devote our lives to God and be Christ-like. As difficult as this may be, we are called to love in all situations, living our earthly lives in serving God's will, not ours. That is a tall order but one for which God is willing to give at least sufficient grace. True conversion happens when we not only think about abandoning the self will, but when our hearts truly search out and notice habits and actions that need changing, and we actively change them. Allowing Jesus to enter our hearts and act through us, we give God permission to use us as conduits of His mercy, love, peace, and light.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

1 Peter 1:14-16: Living a Holy Life

“Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
1 Peter 1:14-16 (NRSV)

My former ignorance, the life I lived before I devoted my life to Jesus as my Lord and Savior, must be a thing of the past. Base desires, emotionally-spent thinking, self-focused actions, pursuits of personal pleasure, and the quest for more money are all past passions that led to empty ends. In living a life in and for Christ, I must be holy in thought and action, even if it seems impossible at times and I miserably fail.  It is the many failures, moreover, that act as trials and training grounds that lead me closer to God. More importantly, however, is how my quest for holiness is unsuspectingly viewed by others. For it is through my actions that others can come to know Christ. Being holy in conduct, then, is allowing Jesus to use me as His servant and conduit of love and peace to others. Holy living, however, is not a way to earn salvation. Striving for holy living is only possible and prompted by God’s grace.  Aiming to live a holy life is a cooperative step toward serving God and living a life reflecting Jesus’ love.
What is a “holy” life?  It is living a life that no longer focuses on “me.”  Real-world holiness is living a life that in small steps, diminutive decisions, and miniscule moments serves others.  It is turning over the last two dollars in your wallet to the homeless shelter collection on the way out of Wal-Mart, even when you can think of ten things to buy with that two dollars. It is saying hello to someone in a public place when it is easier to walk by and look away. It is answering the phone when you know it is a telemarketer and treating them with respect and kindness. It is answering the door to a sales person, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, or any person looking for your attention and treating them will love.  It is listening when you want to be heard.  Holiness is putting the others first and ourselves last.

Friday, July 11, 2014

God's Story by Dr. Brian Cosby: A Conservative Protestant View of Church History for Youth Ministry

In God's Story, Dr. Brian Cosby pens an interesting look at the history of the Christian church from its genesis in the early church fathers to the current struggles of global Christianity. The history he surveys, however, is brief and lacks the depth that might make this book more engaging.  The author mostly emphasizes John Calvin, John Knox, conservative Evangelicals, and the Reformation, which is expected knowing his denominational anchor in the Presbyterian church.  But gauging this book in a specific theological direction limits its audience.
Although I enjoyed the quick and easy overview of church history, Dr, Cosby’s arguments are one-sided at times, clearly Calvinist, and subtly anti-Catholic.  For instance, Dr. Cosby paints St. Augustine in a Calvinistic light and emphasizes the "false" Scriptural claim of the papacy based on Matthew 16:18, which, again, for a conservative Presbyterian point of view is expected. This makes his argument hard to take at times, especially if you are of a different theological bent such as Arminian or Roman Catholic. A more ecumenical approach would widen his audience.
Overall, I enjoyed the breakdown of key Patristic, Dark Age, Reformation, and American players in religious history.  The descriptions are brief but effective in sparking the desire for further inquiry into such areas of church history.
At the beginning of most chapters, Dr. Cosby weaves personal young adult adventure themes into the narrative.  Rightfully, this rhetorical risk works in some chapters but limps in others.  The chapter anecdotes, however, cleverly make the reading more engaging when they succeed. Also, the discussion questions at the end of each chapter lay out study structure and can foster fellowship discussion for youth groups or Bible study.
I normally do not pine about writing style, but Dr. Cosby overuses the exclamation point throughout, which can be distracting.  Maybe he was trying to harness the excited exuberance of his youth audience.  The editor should have been more critical, however.
Although the text is an easy, quick read at 144 pages, and its Lexile score is most likely around 6-8 grade, I am unsure about the text’s intended and reached audience.  The audience could be anywhere from sixth grade through lower-level college. Overall the text is a solid production for conservative Protestant youth groups, but had Dr. Cosby taken a more Rogerian, ecumenical tone throughout, he could have widened his audience and readership.
God’s Story is a brief overview of 2000 years of Church history with plenty of survey-level information. Dr. Cosby’s work is enjoyably written for its intended audience.

*The publisher provided a free copy of this text in exchange for a fair review.

1 Timothy 6:10-12a: Faith's Fight Finds Peace

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.”
(1 Timothy 6:10-12a)

The above six attributes of faith suggested to Timothy by Paul are antidotes to anything immoral or unethical in the world. Money, if we really look at its core and beyond the necessities for which it provides, is corruptive. It can alter our natures like nothing else. For with money comes power -- power to buy, power to influence, power to become our own god and the god of others. Money, therefore, can lead us to idolatry. We seek it so vehemently because of its power and ability to fill us. But this "filling" is only temporary, and once we are empty, we require more. Then the more we seek, the more we need. An unhealthy pursuit of money is like an addictive drug that rots our soul and distracts us from things of God. While delivering His sermon on the mount, for example, Jesus says in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Paul, moreover, gives Timothy much needed advice, especially for an influential, up-and-coming bishop of the Church. Paul says, “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” 
Paul’s message is as true today as it was in the first century, for we, too, must avoid an over-zealous pursuit of money at the expense of following the gospel. When we harness “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness,” like Timothy, we will fight the good fight of faith.  Loving God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves truly is a victory worth winning.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

1 Timothy 3:15: Avoiding Exclusivity and Embracing Jesus

“... the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
1 Timothy 3: 15b (NRSV)

Some Christian denominations tend to see their faith tradition as the exclusive “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” but it really is the universal ("catholic") Christian church that is the household, strength, and protection of God's truth. One should not be exclusive and say that a singular faith tradition contains the "pillar and bulwark," for the truth of Christ's gospel is also found in other Christian denominations. Although Christian denominations have varying doctrines and ways of worship, they are all part of the body of Christ. Doctrine, however, does not define our relationship with the Holy Trinity. Instead, faith, hope, and love in Jesus Christ; love of God above all things; and love of our neighbor as ourselves characterize our relationship with God. The "church of the living God," therefore, is not something for which one denomination should claim ownership. When exclusivity is claimed, religion can become a reflection of the hypocritical Pharisees of Christ's time (see Matthew 23).  Focusing on love of God and neighbor destroys this potential hypocritical view and instead models the love Jesus Christ gives to all, a love, that when reflected in all Christians, will draw others to the beauty of God’s household in Christ.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Finding Faith in Uncertainty

Jesus does not want us to be governed by fear at such times. He wants us governed by faith. The uncertainty we are faced with is only apparent uncertainty. Our future and our provision and our ultimate triumph are certain to God. He has all the foreknowledge, power, and resources necessary to insure these, and he has the desire to turn everything for good for those who love him and are called by him (Rom. 8:28).  

Apparently uncertain seasons are often some of the most powerful moments we experience with God in this age. More than seasons of security and prosperity, they demonstrate that God exists and rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6).  So if you are in one of those seasons, take heart. God is graciously allowing you to experience the reality that he “acts for those who wait for him” (Isa. 64:4).

This not only applies to physical and financial uncertainty but spiritual challenges as well. Recent uncertain shifts in understanding my faith tradition have posed a great deal of uncertainty for me. This uncertainty, however, could potentially have a negative effect on my prayer life and relationship with God; instead, I choose to listen to God in faith, knowing that this is part of the path he planned for me. In the challenge, He gives me the opportunity to find great grace. I see this "uncertain season," then, as a test for me to shore up my love and faith in Christ, for I know He is in charge and will lead me to a closer, more intimate relationship with Him.