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All is Grace

All is Grace, by Brennan Manning

This is Manning’s life story in his own words.  It is unpolished and raw.  He is honest about his addiction to alcohol, and other regrets, but the book is not simply a written confession.  It is a window into how he got to be Brennan Manning.  Good stories, easy to read.

I never met Father Manning, but I think we would have been good friends, at least, I hope, for my sake, that we would have been good friends.

Highly recommended.

Advent Preparations 2014

Someone asked me about Advent, recently.  This is how I responded:

What is Advent?

Advent is a time of tension.  We are ever so hopeful . . . and also remember strongly that our hope is the future, not the present.  Things are really bad now.

Our society wants to rush to Christmas, to the big celebration, without thinking about a reason to celebrate.  Why is Christmas good news?  Putting off some of the celebrations until after a season of preparation (that is, Advent) helps us to live in that tension.  On the other hand, the celebration is unavoidable, because Advent is also a time of hope.  So, I think any sort of movement to remember the ugliness of the present world is good.  If the entire society was sad and mournful during this time, we would have to emphasize the hopefulness, I think.

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And, quite honestly, remembering the ugliness of the world today helps us to have more hope for the future, more longing for the future, perfect kingdom that is coming, which means our celebrations are so much more celebratory.

What Should Advent Look Like, Practically?

Quite honestly, my family is still wresting with the tension, for sure.  For a few years now, we have extremely plain breakfasts (plain oatmeal, or plain rice) for the entire time of Advent, but our diet doesn’t change much otherwise.  Then, we take the food we were going to eat (vegetables, beans, fruit, cereal, eggs, bacon, etc.) and give them to a food bank.  Then, on Christmas morning, we have a huge (I mean HUGE) spread of all kinds of wonderful foods for breakfast, which lasts the whole 12 days of Christmas.

As for decorations, we have a plan to decorate a little bit each day of Advent.  Each day we open a present (which is wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper) which is a decoration of some kind.  Then we decorate the house.  So, at the beginning, we have very few decorations (but not nothing) and as Advent progresses, the house begins to look more and more joyful and more like typical American Christmas.  Actually, about half the decorations (or more) go up the last week, one day at a time, and the Christmas tree goes up Christmas Eve.

“Seriously, how do you live like that?”

We do not have things all figured out for sure . . . but I know that Americans hate to mourn, we hate to lament, we hate to reflect on the evil in the world, hate to cry.  We want to rush to celebrate, rush to smile, rush to laugh.  And so we have tried to find ways, tangibly, to remember the tension of the season.

We try hard not to impose this on other people, because most people don’t understand, and I think most people don’t want to understand.

Maybe another way to say it is this . . . the “silly, empty traditions” of Santa, romantic sleigh rides, sweaters, baking, etc. are only silly and empty (from a spiritual, religious perspective) if you are neglecting the tension, and only experience Christmas as future hope.  Of course, the traditions are always quite meaningful as they connect us to family, friends, society, culture, etc., which can be said of fireworks on the 4th of July, costumes at Halloween, etc.

Ugly-Christmas-Sweaters

How to make Advent and Christmas Better:

But if you work hard to put tangible reminders of the present brokenness of the world into place, and you do the hard work of using those reminders to meditate and internalize the reality of the world’s brokenness all through the Advent season, I think you’ll actually find that baking, caroling, sweaters, music, decorating, movies, sleigh rides, etc. actually become far more meaningful.  They become a statement of faith.  They become actions that give the middle finger to the world, the flesh, and the devil . . . they become a way of saying, “My Jesus will rescue us!  He will come for us!  He will redeem us, no matter how horrible it looks right now!  I’m not giving up hope!  I am so sure that he will keep his promise, that I am going to celebrate it even before it happens!”  And that confidence in the face of our brokenness is what Advent is all about.

Without that perspective, I think those traditions are not nearly as meaningful as they could be.  So, don’t abandon your “traditional” celebrations . . . they connect you to family and friends, that’s wonderful . . . but if you put yourself in the place of Mary and Joseph, of Elizabeth and Zechariah, of Anna and Simeon, waiting, longing, desperate for his advent . . . all those celebrations could be far more meaningful than they have been in the past.  You could turn mere “warm fuzzies” into something that goes far deeper than skin, and reaches your heart, and gives life to your soul, while maintaining the warm fuzzies.

Am I the only one who thinks about this?

TrueFaced

TrueFaced: Trust God and Others With Who You Really Are, by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol and John Lynch.

Overview

Christians regularly feel the need to wear a mask that hides their true identity.  They think that they must project an image of holiness and perfection in order to be accepted and loved by God and others.  Underneath the mask all people are guilty for sin committed by them and hurt for sin committed against them.  Unless Christians deal with these sins, they cannot mature and achieve the dreams God has for them.  The Room of Good Intentions is the place where people pose with masks for each other and people are trying hard to please God and others, first.  The Room of Grace is opened by the knob of humility.  Here, everyone trusts God before they try to please him.  They are not afraid of their guilt and hurt because they are confident in the grace of God.  This confidence allows them to receive and then give love.  It allows them to repent (not just confess), and to forgive others truly and deeply.

Critique

This book was written for church leaders and mature Christians, or, at least, those who have been in church communities for a long time.  A new believer will struggle to understand what the authors are saying.  Nonetheless, this is a fantastic book to help understand what Tim Keller calls, “the sin beneath the sin.”  The summary at the end of each chapter is a helpful way of using the book in a small group discussion.  I must agree with Dallas Willard, it is “one of the best books o practical theology I have seen.”

“Sin will not be managed.  Behavior change and sin management are deceptively tricky boxing opponents.  We win some earl rounds.  This increases our confidence and by the firth or sixth round, we break into a rendition of the Ali Shuffle.  Hey, this isn’t so hard.  Soon, we’re mugging for the cameras . . . and the next thing we know, we’re on teh canvas, knocked into another world by a devastating left hook.”  p. 66.

The Call

The Call, by Os Guinness.

Overview

One of the chief problems with contemporary Western Christianity is a misunderstanding of their calling.  God calls each of us in two distinct ways.  We are called by, to and for God, following him.  And second, we are called to live in a way that conforms with his sovereignty.  Our calling is as complex as our identity, and can be found only be looking at the various facets of how God exerts his loving influence over the world, and over us.  We should live our lives so that he is pleased with us, even if that means that no one else is.  To do so means we take responsibility for our thoughts, words, feelings and actions.  A proper sense of calling will combat the seven deadly sins and provide the motivation and vision for leaders to emerge to lead the church (and the world) in God’s mission of grace, truth and love.

Critique

Guinness has a natural way of expressing complex ideas in simple terms through the use of story and illustration.  He inspires even as he teaches.  Guinness states in the book that his call includes translating the gospel for the culture and translating culture for the church.  He has certainly done that here.  His chapters on the seven deadly sins are masterful, though, at times, it seems he is stretching a bit to connect the discussion to a sense of “calling” particularly.  At some point, one wonders if Guinness’s idea of “calling” is just a guise for “everything about life.”  While each chapter is helpful, they don’t flow well together, and it is hard to identify a cohesive structure to the book.  Nonetheless, this is a great book, worth keeping on the low shelf for future reference.

“The problem with Western Christians is not that they aren’t where they should be but that they aren’t what they should be where they are.”  p.166

Stuck!

Stuck! Navigating the Transitions of Life & Leadership, by Terry Walling.

Overview

Christian leaders experience several major and many minor transitions throughout their lives.  Each transition is an opportunity to grow and a potential for stagnation.  Transitions move through four stages, Entry, Evaluation, Alignment and Direction.  In Entry, a person is uncomfortable and restless in his situation, indicating that a change needs to take place.  In Evaluation, a person looks back to see what God has done, what God has said and the re-assesses his own passions, values and experiences.  In Alignment, a person surrenders to God’s will, changing his life to match the results of the Evaluation phase. and in Direction, a person experiences a breakthrough of faith and begins a new phase of their life.  These stages can be easily seen in the three major transitions of life, Awakening in early adulthood,

Deciding in middle age, and Finishing in the later years.  Each of these transitions can be difficult but also provide an opportunity to discover and re-discover God’s purpose and grace in a person’s life.

 

Critique

Walling provides and excellent resource for those who are going through a transition, or for someone who is coaching a friend who is doing so.  The paradigm and accompanying practical and specific advice will serve especially pastors and Christian leaders who encounter such people in counseling settings.  Walling writes in a conversational tone, easy to understand with helpful illustrations and examples throughout the book.  At times, it seems the material is too brief, and one wonders if the book is an expansion of class notes or an extended seminar handout.

“There is a temptation in life to often just let things slide.  Important questions remain important, but hide in the “not urgent” basket.  In a transition God raises the questions, and then allows them to go unanswered to test how much we want to know the answers.”  p. 76

 

Spiritual Leadership

Spiritual Leadership, by Henry & Richard Blackaby.

Overview

Christian leadership is related to secular leadership, but transcends it by pointing people to God’s agenda for their life.  As our model of leadership, Jesus exhibits some unique leadership qualities such as humility and dependance.  Christian leaders are typically ordinary people whom God uses.  A good leaders communicates his vision effectively and often.  His legitimate God-given character allows him to focus his attention on a particular vision which should bring others to Jesus and give glory to God.  Leaders can hone their skills.  A teachable attitude, openness to the Holy Spirit and an understanding of history can help a leader make better decisions.  By taking regular time to think, pray and dream, a leader can better plan his schedule to make his time more effective.  Leaders will benefit form contemplating both the common pitfalls and rewards of leadership.

 

Critique

The Blackabys give a good general introduction to Christian leadership.  There is nothing groundbreaking or new, but this book is a solid text from which to begin thinking about the subject.  In the first chapter, they bring up the question of what difference God makes in the effectiveness of leaders.  Their conclusion (p. 14) is that uniquely Christian leadership is “phenomenally more effective that even the most skilled and qualified leaders.”  However, they fail to demonstrate this.  In fact, it seems that the Blackabys have taken “secular” leadership principles and “baptized” them with Bible verses and stories to demonstrate that they are actually Christian leadership principles.  If the reader acknowledges the authors’ need to spiritualize leadership principles, young leaders can greatly benefit from this terrific introduction.

 

“Managers often become embroiled in the daily grind of keeping the organizational  machinery functioning properly.  Leaders realize they must occasionally step back from the day-to-day operations in order to gain perceptive on the broader issues such as the nature and future of their organizations.”  p. 210