Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Mercy and Crysostom (from IVP's Ancient Christian Devotional, p. 210)

Mercy is the highest art and the shield of those who practice it. It is the friend of God, standing always next to him and freely blessing whatever he wishes. It must not be despised by us....It must be shown to those who have quarreled with us, as well as to those who have sinned against us, so great is its power. It breaks chains, dispels darkness, extinguishes fire, kills the worm and takes away the gnashing of teeth. By it the gates of heaven open with the greatest of ease. In short, mercy is a queen that makes men like God.

Monday, August 31, 2015

St. Augustine's thoughts on wealth and poverty

I love the way St. Augustine uses a reversal motif to entreat the rich to allow the poor to help them by unburdening them of some of their wealth.

He says, "Both of you are travelling the same road; you are companions on the journey. Lighly laden are the poor man's shoulders, but yours are burdened with heavy luggage. Give away some of the load that is weighing you down; give away some of your luggage to the needy man--and you will thus afford relief for both yourself and your companion. (Sermon 11.6--In Ancient Christian Devotional Year B, p. 209)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review of Fail by J.R. Briggs

Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure
by J.R. Briggs
ISBN 978-0-8308-4111-0
IVP Praxis
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I suppose I am a glutton for emotional punishment. My wife sighed when she saw me with this book. And rightfully so. I have been feeling like a failure lately. I have especially felt down about my ministry work, but because I tie so much of my self-value to how successful I am as a pastor, it cannot help but also find its way into how I feel about who I am as a father, husband, friend, and human being. I feel like their is a big "L" for loser on my forehead at this point in my life, and try as hard as I may to feel different, I struggle to overcome it.

J.R. Briggs, in his book Fail,  talks about the sense of failure that many pastors experience and/or feel, and sees that sense of failure at the very least as not fatal in life or ministry, and at best perhaps fertile ground for growth as a disciple of Christ and perhaps as a minister.

Briggs discusses all sorts of failure that a minister can experience. He speaks of failure in the ministry that is the result of sin. He shares about ministry failures that are a result of a lack of wisdom, or perhaps a series of poor communication patterns between the pastor and the congregation or congregational leadership.

Perhaps, what Briggs really grabs onto that is helpful is a study about amoral ministry failure. He describes in detail how that process comes about, how it wounds the soul of the Christian leader, and healthy ways of recovering from such a failure. I found this section of the book worth the price of the entire text.

Another thing Briggs does that is helpful, however is that he describes the landscape of the modern American church and the modern pastor's ministry. Using Eugene Peterson as a foil against the modern business and success model of doing church, he then borrows statistics that speak to the scene of pastoral ministry on pages 46-47 of this text. These include:

  • 40 percent of pastors seriously considered leaving ministry in the last three months
  • 25 percent of pastors have been forced out or fired from their church at least once
  • 45 percent of pastors experience depression or burnout to the point where they express a need to take a leave of absence.
  • 70 percent of pastors report not having a single close friend
  • Pastors who work less than 50 hours a week are 35 percent more likely to be terminated
David Hansen put it correctly in his book The Art of Pastoring; Ministry Without All the Answers. Ministry is a journey to the cross, or at least of taking up your cross and following Jesus. It is not supposed to be easy. But, there are points when you really wonder if God wants you on his ministry team anymore. Briggs gets this. He acknowledges this sense of failure as part of ministry, and then he leads ministers, not necessary out of failure, but to a place of healing and perhaps hope. Praise the Lord.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Book Review of Entreprenurial Leadership by Richard Goosen and R. Paul Stevens

Entrepreneurial Leadership: Finding Your Calling, Making a Difference
by Richard Goosen and R. Paul Stevens
ISBN 978-0-8308-3773-1
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I come to this book with a different attitude than most I am sure. I am not really an entrepreneur--yet. At least in the classical sense. I am not one who goes out on new ventures and starts new things and takes fantastic risks. Nor do I really have a lot of experience in the business world. To be honest, I went "all in" with ministry in college and really never looked back.

On the other hand, there are some things I do, even in ministry that people would find entrepreneurial. I try to innovate, and enjoy doing so. I work to help the congregations I serve as a pastor to transition from being internally focused to being externally focused. I try to look toward the future instead of simply preserving the gains of the past.

At the same time, the theme both in a colleague's blog, conversations with members of my church, as well as some reading I have been doing seem to endorse what is often called the "side hustle". That is, attempting to have an entrepreneurial venture that compliments the current work I am doing. I am not sure what that is yet, unless it has to do with writing, but it is something I am thinking about.

What this book on entrepreneurial leadership does is show you how to develop innovative business ventures that get you in touch with your calling, help you take steps toward fulfilling that calling, and helping you take those steps grounded in your Christian faith.

The authors encourage reading the book a little bit at a time. Read one chapter a week, they advise, putting the principles you learn into practice. I can attest to this, this book gives you lots to consider and practically apply.

Book Review of Ten by Sean Gladding

Ten: Words of Life for An Addictive, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-Out Culture
by Sean Gladding
ISBN 978-0-8308-3656-7
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Ten is a book about the spiritual importance of the Ten Commandments. Written in a format that Brian McLaren called "creative non-fiction", Sean Gladding sets his discussion of Scripture in the middle of a modern day story. The characters are a small group of friends that gather in a coffee shop each week, and begin an extended discussion on the Decalogue. The discussion begins as one of the characters sees a debate in the news about whether or not the public display of the Ten Commandments is important, and moves on from there.

Gladding says this book was inspired by the people he was working with in a ministry that focused on reaching out with the grace of God to people struggling with addictions in Houston. And in fact, the back cover has a quote from the book that shares "We've been shaped by the things we've become enslaved to."

The study carefully goes from the tenth commandment to the first, clearing up misconceptions about what the Scripture says, bringing in helpful modern scholarship, and showing that God through the Ten Commandments is showing his people a way to health and freedom in a way that they have never experienced, and in a way that many of us rarely experience either. Too often we gloss over this familiar part of Scripture, and don't consider it closely. Gladding lets the Scripture speak to us in new ways in this fine book, and shows how the Ancient Word is as contemporary as yesterday's news.

A good book for the shelves of teachers, pastors, and lay persons alike.

Thanks Sean!

Book Review of Summoned by Daniel Allen Jr.

Summoned: Stepping Up to Live and Lead with Jesus
by Daniel Allen
ISBN 978-0-8308-3687-1
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

With enthusiasm and energy that comes leaping of the page, Daniel Allen has written a book that is in equal measure a battle cry, a pep-talk, and a practical guide to Christian leadership both inside and outside of the church. Summoned is a passionate plea for people, especially men, to step up as leaders and leave a meaningful life that has true power in building the kingdom of God here on earth.

There are several appealing things about this book. First, most of the chapters are fairly short. They have good practical exercises and steps to grow as a Christian and as a leader. So, as one seeks to walk through this book, they can take each little section step by step over a period of time. As a matter of fact, this would be a great book to do with a group of men wanting to learn about living their faith with true meaning and passion.

Second, it has a well-thought out process for addressing the movement toward being a Christian that has influence on the world around them for Jesus. The book is divided into four sections. The first section is about "waking up" to the possibilities of what God could do with your life if accepted his call on your life. The second section seeks to form the leader in issues of character, which is an often neglected area of true leadership development. The third section gives practical ways that the reader can "step-up" and serve. Finally, Allen addresses the need for believers, and especially leaders, to develop a meaningful support team to help them grow.

My favorite chapter in this book was about addressing blind spots. We all have them, but rarely does anyone teaching on leadership give their students a process for addressing those blind spots.

This is a great book! I encourage a number of you to pick this up, read it, and share it within a small group.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On preaching....

In 2008, after a dozen or so years in youth ministry, I chose to move into a solo pastorate, and then into what would probably be called a senior pastorate. I believe it is what God called me to do, in large part because I believe that I am called to preach.

I don't know why I feel called to preach. I think I have teaching gifts to be exercised in the church. I struggle with doubts, though, about whether I am really all that good at what I do, and whether God is continuing to call me into this kind of ministry. But, I try and be faithful to the call, and people seem to respond with feedback that tells me that my preaching is making its way into their hearts and lives.

Having said that, I have been thinking a lot lately about my preaching methods and habits. I have found that each time I am in a different community, it is important that I learn to alter how I communicate to each group. Belgrade Community Church wanted to be inspired to live the Christian life with enthusiasm, and so they preferred a more conversational approach from me--even though that was neither of my senior pastor's styles. In Colorado Springs, people wanted to connect with the heart and head, so the preacher was challenged to be open enough to vulnerable (but not too vulnerable), but also handle the word with intellectual rigor and clarity. Fowler wanted to hear the Word, plain and simple. Fowlerites liked it when you got excited, and responded when you challenged them from the pulpit, but most of all, they just wanted to hear a clear gospel message. Here in Hot Springs, this church at this time is hungry for sound, understandable teaching on basic Christian living. Many of the folks in church seem to respond well to sermon outlines, with blanks to fill in. They like sermon series' on relevant issues and basic discipleship. Last year I did an "Under Construction" theme. The summer before that a "Together in Christ" series highlighting the important issues related to life together (like forgiveness for example). This year I have preached through the Fruit of the Spirit. Even though attendance has not been as strong this summer, I feel like the 9 week series has been my best two months of preaching since arriving at United Churches.

Having said that, I focus my work in the contemporary service in the evening doing more of what I did in Fowler. In Fowler, I preached through Bible books in a sequential fashion, thus drawing messages from Scripture and applying them to life. This has the function of teaching the Word the way it was presented, and educating the parishoners on Bible content while inspiring them to connect with God and live their life based upon the Word. There are times, however, where it can come across like more "bible-study" and less "preaching".

Now, both my seminary training and some of my members, especially those from traditions other than my own in this multi-denominational church, really value use of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in worship. (The RCL is a selection of 4 texts chosen by an ecumenical ground of mainline leaders that rotates through selected texts every three years with a Psalm Reading, and Old Testament reading, a Gospel reading, and an Epistle Reading. The order the texts around the seasons of the church year, and tying together themes from Biblical literature in each section of Scripture.)There have been times when I have been able to tie a theme to the RCL, and work that together pretty well. But the RCL often is neither sequential in its study of specific parts of Scripture, nor easily able to work into a "thematic unit" that really works for those "teacher types" in my congregation.

Now that I am nearing Fall, and coming to the place of sermon planning, I am at a crossroads. Our church has structures our lay leadership around an RCL preaching schedule and methodology. I don't mind the RCL a lot of the time. And, I believe the practice of the church year (Advent to Pentecost especially) is an important spiritual rhythym that the RCL honors and assists with. But, more and more, I wonder if my preaching gifts and the church's learning style's are ripe for a change in our adherence to the RCL for most of the year.

So I wonder, can I move in a more independent direction full-time without upsetting key leaders in my congregation. How important is the RCL to the congregations identity and self-understanding of what worship should be like for them? Should I continue to seek out series material, or is that pushing me away from "preaching the whole counsel of God?"

Just things I am thinking about. The reader's comments are always appreciated, as is the banter back and forth that will follow.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review of Spirit of God ed. by Barbeau and Jones

Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith

Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith
ed. by Jeffrey w. Barbeau and Beth Felker Jones
ISBN 978-0-8308-2464-9
IVP Academic
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith is a wonderful monograph about the theology of the Holy Spirit in the community of faith. In this text, the development of the theology of the Holy Spirit across a number of traditions as well as a number of epochs in Christian history are discussed (I found the discussion of the Wesley brothers' doctrines of the Holy Spirit fascinating).

This book is a treasure trove for the discerning reader. Do you wonder how Orthodox spirituality and Catholic spirituality developed different traditions, and how their theology of the Holy Spirit contributed to that? Have you wondered how the Reformed and the Wesleyan tradition approached the spiritual life differently? Have you thought about how a person could learn from a liturgical approach to Christian spirituality, as well as a Pentecostal understanding of the spirit at the same time? This book will guide you into a spirituality with stronger intellectual underpinnings, while at the same time helping you to grow deeper in your journey with God through the power of the Holy Spirit. I highly recommend it!

Book Review of The Master Musician by John Michael Talbot

The Master Musician: Meditations on Jesus
by John Michael Talbot
ISBN 978-0-8308-3697
IVP Books

When I was growing up, John Michael Talbot was a CCM artist. Of Methodist background I believe. Then, at some point, he converted to Catholicism. He has since went on to continue developing music, albeit with a little lower profile, and to develop a community called the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. In recent years, he has been using his gifts in communication to write books that challenge people to understand the spiritual journey in a thoughtful, contemplative, and yet contemporary way.

Talbot's latest book (which is reworked from an older version of the same text) is entitled The Master Musician: Meditations on Jesus. The book is a simple description of one's journey with Christ in three phases, guided by the metaphor of musicianship. Talbot says in the introduction:
"This work is divided into three main sections: God's grace, our human response, and life in the church. The first is liked unto the crafting of a fine guitar by a Master Musician. The  second, unto learning how to play under the Master's instruction. The third, unto learning how to play with others in the symphony orchestra or band."
I found this book educational, thought-provoking and spiritually nourishing. I learned a lot about the development of musicians, and how that process parallels the spiritual birth and growth of individuals. Particularly intriguing in this sequence to me was the movement from a "personal" relationship with Jesus, which is essential, to a relationship with God within the context of a community, and how the later step is the next step in spiritual maturity. This left a lot for me to consider in leading others to faith and to maturity in Christ as a pastor.

I recommend this book for people who are charged with helping believers grow, and especially for musicians and music teams which will be challenged in unique ways to help their teams grow in their faith.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Its gonna be alright--reflections on the Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage

It was about two years ago when I was sitting with a group of ladies I lead Bible Study with on Wednesday morning. Several of our  ladies expressed concern about the liberal gains on the issue of gay marriage through the legal system. Fueled by the anxiety from their favorite news channel and political activists doing direct mail campaigns, the concern showed on their faces and could be heard in the elevated pitch of their voices.

My response was something like this, "Like it or not, this issue is not going to go away. As a matter of fact, it will not be long before homosexuals can marry in all 50 states. We as a church need to spend less time dreading the inevitable, and more time figuring out how we will respond to the world we live in."

As a Christian who believes that the Bible is my authority for faith and life, I believe that homosexual behavior is sin. There are times, when I am in a place of deep compassion for my LGBT friends and acquaintances that I struggle to understand why God's Word teaches so clearly on this matter. Once in a while I wish Scripture said something different because I think it would make things a lot easier. But God is God. I owe my allegiance to Him. I trust him, and I trust the Scripture as his authoritative Word. It is not my place to judge homosexual persons (or yours), to treat their sin as any more "dirty" and evil than any other sin, or to pretend like my struggles are any less profound. As both a believer and a church leader, though, it is my job to stand where Scripture stands on morality, and no amount of hermeneutical-hoop jumping can convince me that the Bible says anything other than behavior in the LGBT spectrum is contrary to faithful Biblical teaching.

The truth is, there are a lot of behaviors that are legal that are contrary to Biblical teaching. You can get drunk without going to jail. You can charge usurious interest rates, and be within the law. A person can solicit a prostitute in a legal brothel in Nevada. People shack up, commit adultery, gossip and cuss out folks, others let the hungry starve, and still others covet their neighbors oxen and asses. Just because something is legal, my friend Randy Rasmussen reminded me a few weeks ago, doesn't mean that it is right.

Just because we as believers cannot dictate ethics to our society through the legal system does not mean that we are at a disadvantage as a church, or that the rapture must be coming in the very near future, or even that we should be angry, concerned, or fighting for our rights more vigorously. There is no need to be anxious. God is on the throne. He is still our God. We now have an even clearer understanding of a truth we may have forgot. The United States is not God's chosen nation. We are not a theocracy. We don't obey the laws to worship the state. We are subject to civil governments in order to be good witnesses and so that we can live at peace with others.

Furthermore, while the state has "ordained" marriages that I do not recognize as biblical, it has done a great service to the cause of justice by allowing persons in same-sex relationships the same civil rights as persons who have covenanted together in more traditional marriage. Just because a person does not approve of same-sex marriage as a sacramental act of the church does not mean that that same person cannot celebrate the fact that same-sex couples can now have the property rights, taxation rights, and rights relating to health care as those who are in marriage covenants that conform to the biblical standards.

God designed the church from the beginning to be a counter-cultural movement. To have a set of standards and values for those that covenanted with them that was contrary to the world around them. We have an opportunity as God's people to stand apart. To shine like light in the darkness. To engage persons who live in all sorts of different ways that leave them in bondage to sin, and share with them a different way--namely the way of Jesus. We don't have to scream or fight for our rights. We can simply stand apart as God's holy people. This is something that we have always been called to do.

Is the Primal Church the best church?

Image result for early church fathers

Lately I have been reading through the book Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith (edited by Barbeau and Jones). As I have been reading through some of the analysis of the Patristic theologians, I began to ponder, "What if the early church is not necessarily the ideal church?"

Maybe the Holy Spirit has a unique way of working throughout history to help the community of believers grow in their faith in certain ways throughout the centuries. Certainly, there are ways that believers throughout different epochs of history, including our own, have drifted away from the true message of the Gospel and true practice of the faith. But, is the early church really our role model of what the church should be about? It seems to me they got a lot of things right, but they had a lot of struggles in their time, perhaps as many as we have today. Why do churches make such a strong appeal to say that they are the most like the first church, and therefore their expression of the faith is the most valid?

Just a thought.