Manger King – A Book Review

manger kingIt’s pretty easy to get caught up in the rush of the Christmas season every year, being whisked away amidst the Black Friday deals, Santa Claus lines at the mall, and all the things that have a tendency to pull at your wallet and vie for your attention starting the day after Halloween (or earlier in some places and stores). If you’re one who believes in Jesus and considers the Christmas season to be reason to celebrate his birth, it’s always good to have a means to stay focused on “The Reason for the Season” as the busyness and distractions ensue around you.

Enter John Greco. John has put together a thoughtful, informative, and well-researched collection of “meditations on Christmas and the gospel of hope” called “Manger King.” Through these meditations, Greco focuses the reader on the story of Christmas reaching back far into the Old Testament, past the birth of Christ, and to his expectant return one day. He relies heavily on Scripture and personal stories to assist in this feat.

Greco is self-admittedly a fan of Andrew Peterson and his song cycle “Behold the Lamb of God.” For anyone unfamiliar with Peterson or his song cycle, he masterfully tells the story of Jesus starting back with Moses, painting the picture of “the true tall tale of the coming of Christ” as he weaves through the story of Israel, including the Passover, the deliverance from Egypt, the birth of Christ, and the sacrifice that Christ made as the lamb of God.

In much the same way that Peterson tells the story through music, Greco tells the story through words. He uses his gift of storytelling and prose to fill in the back story of Christmas, exposing some common assumptions by reflecting on what the Gospels say and taking into consideration some of the contextual elements of the story that might easily be glossed over by the casual reader of the Gospel accounts. As he writes, “We’re missing out if we gloss over certain points or ignore how God himself tells the story. No matter how comfortable and familiar our nativity scenes may be, we’re only cheating ourselves if we hold on to tradition at the cost of truth.” He urges the reader to cast aside the comfortable and familiar for the more appropriately correct interpretations of what the Gospels say.

The chapters and reflections in “Manger King” are short enough to be able to take a journey through them on a daily basis as you venture into Advent every year. While they connect with each other, they could easily act as standalones which step through Advent in a methodical journey, helping to focus the reader on Jesus Christ and the bigger God story that Christmas means to us.

While I didn’t find much new information in “Manger King,” I’m not sure that could be said of those without a theology background or seminary degree. Greco’s thoughtful engagement with the material and his treatment of it is thorough enough to be worthwhile for the academic reader but not so academic that it would leave the average “Joe” or “Jane” in the dust. He is passionate about this material and that passion shows up in how carefully and thoroughly he treats it.

Greco adds an appendix in which he more exhaustively treats the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke of Jesus’ birth. Within the appendix, he dispels notions of an inn in the modern sense of the word, shepherds and wise men together at the manger, and even the public shunning of Mary at her unwed pregnancy. It’s a helpful reference for those who want to dig deeper into the Christmas story without having to do all of the research on their own.

Greco proves that the story of Jesus is so much more than the birth account found in Luke 2, the genealogy in Matthew 1, and the other information found in the Gospels about Jesus’ birth and early years. “Manger King” is a helpful tool and even devotional for the Advent season. It’s a reminder to us all that, “the men and women God used were somehow unique, altogether different from you and me. But they were ordinary, sinful, broken people. What made them special was God’s Spirit – the same Spirit who dwells inside all those who know Christ today.”

Christmas books will come and go, riding the latest trends and promoting the most popular themes, but “Manger King” is a book that focuses us on what’s most important about Advent and Christmas. It’s worth a read, whether you’re a novice at this Advent thing or you’ve delved into the material before. Pick up a copy to help you reflect on just how essential Christ is to Christmas and what a gift the world received when he came.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from the author. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Advertisements

Into the Fray – A Book Review

Into the FrayIn his previous book, “The First Time We Saw Him,” Matt Mikalatos retold some of the stories from the Gospels in modern language. His gift for storytelling and narrative was evident as he wove and reimagined these stories together, putting them into a language and context that makes sense in a modern setting.

In “Into the Fray,” Mikalatos reimagines the Book of Acts. He asks the question about the Gospel, a term that is taken from the Middle English word that means, “good news.” While some claim to be able to describe and tell the Gospel in a nutshell, Mikalatos says that the full gospel, “can’t be presented in fifteen minutes or in a sermon or in a series of sermons.” In fact, he says, “Every new understanding we gain about the person and character of Jesus is the good news, and he is an infinite being.” If the Gospel is really the good news about Jesus and what he has done and offered to us, then we might be doing something wrong as many who aren’t part of the church don’t really know just what it is that we are trying to offer to them. If it’s good news, we might need to present it in such a way that lets it be distinguishable as such.

“Into the Fray” is the retelling of the Acts of the Apostles, which Mikalatos believes to be a terrible name. After all, the stories told throughout Luke’s book are not so much about the acts that were accomplished by the apostles but the acts accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts tells stories about people who are ordinary rather than extraordinary. The only way that these people become extraordinary and accomplish the astonishing is through the receiving and the power of the Holy Spirit. As one of the characters retelling the stories puts it, “It’s not the people who are extraordinary. It’s what’s inside them.”

In the stories and in his own narrative throughout “Into the Fray,” Mikalatos pushes against some of the preconceived notions and accepted norms of evangelicalism. Who is in and who is out? What does a “real” Christian look like? He reminds the reader of the apostle Paul’s words that our fight and battle is not against flesh and blood. People are not the enemy. He calls us to question the things that we have called to be sacred just as Peter was given a vision of eating the very things that had been off-limits according to the old covenant.

Mikalatos reminds his readers that we are called, as followers of Christ, to make pure Jesus followers, “people who come close to Jesus and become more like him.” He says, “As we become more like Jesus, we behave more like him, thus naturally stopping sinful behavior and embracing pure, beautiful, godly behavior.” Considering that the Book of Acts is full of stories of people who have been changed and transformed by the Holy Spirit and an encounter with the living God, it’s a good reminder that we aren’t called to change people or get them to act a certain way, we’re simply called to introduce them to Jesus and teach them all that we have been taught about him.

We enter into conversations with those who are far from Jesus by finding connection points. Sometimes those connect points are cultural or musical while other times they are spiritual. Sometimes, we find common points, points of discussion and conversation around another religion that someone has chosen to follow. Those can act as starting points, springboards into other conversations. Mikalatos write, “It’s not that the conversation ends there or that we’re allowing other religions to dictate our own. It’s that we’re sorting through two belief systems and finding the places they overlap and starting the conversation there.”

Throughout the book, Mikalatos admits to the reader that he is in process himself. He admits his own tendencies towards Pharisaism and judgment. He writes, “Whether I look at my own heart or at Christian culture, I see evidence of areas where we refuse to interact with others because, at the heart of it, we see ourselves as better, more clean, more correct, more holy, more spiritual, more righteous, more dedicated, more committed, more insightful, more innovative, or more traditional.” He reminds us that God has admitted those into his kingdom that didn’t necessarily meet the standards that were expected or even called for.

Mikalatos pushes just enough to be provocative but not so much that he becomes antagonistic or belligerent. His provocation isn’t simply for provocation’s sake, but with the intent of helping the reader to reimagine some of the stories from the Bible. He has a knack for taking them out of the context in which they were written them and transplanting them into our own context, staying true to the essence of the stories while retelling them in such a way that they are easily understandable.

“Into the Fray” ends with a discussion about story, the parts of story that matter, and how we tell our story. Mikalatos writes, “Our stories matter. We all know that a witness is someone who saw something. And as John said, our story is the story of what we have seen, what we have heard, what we have looked at, and what our hands have touched.” We tell our stories to let others know just what God has done in our lives. We come to the place in our stories and say, “That’s when God showed up,” and that’s when all the change took place. Sometimes, as followers of Christ, we make our stories simply about what happened up until our meeting Jesus, but we can’t forget that’s only the beginning of the story.

Mikalatos talks about his experience with creative writing. His ability to craft stories is evident throughout “Into the Fray” and he sticks with this strength. It might not be everyone’s style, to rethink and reimagine stories from the Bible that already seem perfectly understandable just the way that they are. If that’s your thoughts, this book is probably not for you. If you want to stretch your imagination about how some of these stories may have played out in a modern context, then “Into the Fray” is a worthwhile read. You will be challenged and stretched to think outside of the comfortable places where you’ve come to reside. If you let yourself, Mikalatos and his ability to tell stories may just help you see just how much the Holy Spirit is capable of doing as you experience some heart and life change of your own through these stories.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Jared, Josh, and Jesus

jared and joshUp until a few weeks ago, I had no idea who or what Ashley Madison was. While I probably knew that websites and services like Ashley Madison existed, I didn’t know them by name. Maybe I hoped that they weren’t true, kind of like those stories that you hear about as a kid that you keep hoping beyond hope aren’t true. Maybe it was a case of “ignorance is bliss” for me and I didn’t want to know that Ashley Madison existed.

I’ve never seen an episode of 19 Kids and Counting either. I’ve heard the Duggars name tossed around here and there, but I just kind of figured they were one of those crazy homeschool families that all of my homeschooling friends didn’t want to be associated with and all of my non-Christian friends wanted to label as “those weird Christians.”

While I eat at Subway from time to time, it’s not among my favorite places to go, regardless of its ties to my home state of Connecticut. I’ve not found myself gravitating towards the Subway diet and Jared’s connection and promotion of the food chain has had no influence on my preference or lack thereof for it.

And then, like that, all that I needed to do to hear about Ashley Madison, Josh Duggar, Jared Fogle, and the downward spiral of all of the above was to turn on the TV or hop on the internet. These names were plastered all over the screens. While it’s been said that no publicity is bad publicity, I don’t think that this is the kind of publicity that you ever want.

I mean, who wants everyone to know that the values that you touted and stood so strongly in favor of were actually a sham and that you had been living your life as a phony and a hypocrite? Who wants everyone to know that the position that you had gained to influence the world for good had actually been turned around and used for bad? Who wants everyone to know that despite the “put together” outward appearance that you had been conveying, there was a whole lot of other stuff going on beneath the surface? Who wants everyone to know what evil REALLY lurks in the hearts of men?

News of Josh Duggar’s involvement with Ashley Madison, as is often the case with the downfall of vocal Christians, was cause for rejoicing for those who consider Christianity to be a sham and who are looking for any and every possible way to disprove it because of the imperfections and flaws of its followers. It made me wonder if every ideology that was ever embraced should be questioned because of the flawed and imperfect people who embrace it.

It’s so easy in the midst of all of this to point fingers and say, “That would never be me,” but I’ve lived enough life of my own to know that the distance between me and an act of indiscretion is probably much shorter than I can even imagine. How many times have we heard someone publicly condemn a behavior only to be found guilty of that very behavior not too far in the future? How many times have we judged a person’s behavior without actually examining our own heart to see what really lurks there beneath the surface?

I’m not saying that what Josh and Jared did wasn’t wrong, it was and there are consequences for bad behavior, but instead of pointing fingers, maybe it’s an opportunity for us to examine ourselves and see if there are safeguards, guardrails, and other protections that we need to put in place in our own lives to avoid making some of the same mistakes. Not that we’re all just one step away from an affair or from being charged for child pornography and soliciting minors for sex, but maybe there are other things that seem more innocuous in comparison from which we are only one step away.

There have been times when I’ve stopped to look at my heart and I’ve been ashamed of what I saw there. There have been times when I’ve realized that as much as God has transformed some areas of my life, there are some other areas that need far more transformation than I’d like to admit. There have been times that I have begun to fully appreciate and understand just how deeply I need to be saved. There have been times when I see just how far I fall short of representing him and of being made more and more like him every day.

I don’t know what’s lurking in the hearts of Josh Duggar or Jared Fogle, but I know what’s lurking in my heart, and it’s not always pretty. I guess admitting you’ve got a problem is the first step towards fixing it. I’m not perfect and I won’t stand up and attest to any contrary admission. I need Jesus. On my own, I could be the subject of countless headlines, the recipient of endless public ridicule and scorn. On my own, I would simply do my best to present a whitewashed image of who I am while desperately hoping and praying that no one peeked to see what was really inside. Just like the Wizard of Oz said to the misfits seeking answers and gifts, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” On my own, I could do a really good job pretending that I had it all together and that the filthiness of sin hadn’t touched me.

I need Jesus.

I am striving every day to allow my life to be changed and transformed by a power that lies outside of me. I am striving every day to stop pointing my fingers so desperately at others in an effort to make me feel better about myself. I am striving every day to let the trips, falls, and failures of others act as a mirror instead to help me see just what’s lurking inside of me that desperately needs changing. I need these things to be revealed in me so that I know what needs to be changed.

Tomorrow, there will be another story in the news of someone who has fallen from grace, someone who has pretended to be something that they’re not. Tomorrow, there will be another story in the news of someone who has done something that appalls us, that may even make our skin crawl. Maybe instead of pointing our fingers at them, we need instead to take a closer look at ourselves to find out just what we’re pretending doesn’t exist within our own hearts. I think if we spent a little more time looking at our own areas in need of transformation, we might fixate less on what needs to be changed in others, and in the end, maybe we could actually help others with their stuff after we’ve allowed transformation to happen in ourselves.

Redemption Free

The other day, I was reading through a thread on a Facebook page that was created for my hometown. I grew up in a town that can easily be described as privileged and many would suggest that an attitude of entitlement was felt throughout much of the community. Even though most of the friendships that I still maintain from there can’t be categorized by that same privilege and entitlement, it seems that a few bad apples spoil the bunch and we, as a society, consistently characterize and categorize based upon the negative behavior of the few rather than the exemplary behavior of the many. But I digress…

The thread that I was reading had to do with the current status of a man who, when he was in high school, had been accused of raping girls. At the time, he was the co-captain of the wrestling team, a popular athlete in the school. On the brink of his trial, he fled to Europe where he lived off of his parents’ money for years, continuing his life of privilege as he was hiding out, until he was discovered and extradited back to the United States to finally stand trial.

Someone had posted an article about this man’s current life, what he is doing and trying to do and how he is living. The article listed not only his successes in the business he was pursuing but his failures as well, indicating that some of the behavior which had characterized him so many years ago seemed to still be present in him. The article was posted for information purposes, but the thread underneath quickly escalated into a battleground as strong opinions emerged on both sides of the argument as to what this man deserved.

I took the time to read through the remaining thread (some of the initial posts had been deleted before I had arrived). I was fascinated at the vitriol that flowed through the black letters on the screen. It seems that the sexual assault of women is one crime for which justice is rightfully demanded. The severity of the crime was seen clearly through the passion with which people approached this thread. People were lamenting the fact that this convicted rapist was now creating a new and successful life for himself.

As I read through the comments in the thread, I was struck by the lack of grace exhibited. Of course, I realized that if the article that had been posted was true, this convicted rapist was still exhibiting some of the behavior that was indicative of his character. At the same time, when we cry for justice to be served, a conviction is handed out, and time is served, when do we stop vilifying someone for their wrongdoing and sin? At one point is it acceptable, in our eyes, for someone to move on with their life? At what point have we paid for our transgressions?

Reading through the thread, I thought to myself, “I’d hate to be friends with some of these people because I’m not sure how well they would forgive me when I did something wrong.” It struck me that we as a society are passionate about asking for and pursuing tolerance, but it seems that there are things for which we think that tolerance is unnecessary or even a moot point. While we may verbally seek tolerance on what we would consider to be ALL levels, when the chips come down, we want people to be tolerant for the things that we want them to be tolerant for.

I keep trying to reconcile in my head how a society that promotes such tolerance can be so unforgiving and graceless when it comes to perpetrators. Please hear what I am saying in this and don’t read into it what you want. I’m not saying that there should not be consequences for the crimes that people have committed, but I am saying that when justice has been meted out and sentences have been served, at one point do we promote restoration and reformation?

To be honest, the way that I see this is that true reform, restoration, and redemption can only come from one place: Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, those who claim to follow Christ can be just as guilty (if not more so) than those who don’t of pissing on the grace that has been given to them. The headlines have been hot with stories of Josh Duggar and his own indiscretions. His story is a post all its own, but I think a lot of that has to do with vilifying others for things with which you currently struggle yourself all while pretending to be living a model life.

Can people show reform, restoration, and be redeemed without Christ? I think that people can accomplish a lot on their own. I think that people can experience a certain amount of reform and restoration on their own, but redemption doesn’t seem to be achievable unless it’s perfect redemption.

This is why I think that we need a perfect savior and a perfect sacrifice. None of us by ourselves can do it. The problem with living and imperfect sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar. We needed a sacrifice that was perfect, that wouldn’t back down, that would perfectly pay the price for what was owed.

The problem is that we willingly accept the gift, we willingly accept the price that has been paid, but when it comes to graciously giving the grace that’s been given to us, we stink. We’re great at receiving grace and horrible at giving it.

But we continue to try, we continue to press on, that’s the process of spiritual growth and maturity. We stumble and we fall, we continue to push forward, but we may fail more often than we succeed. That’s why we need a perfect savior, because…..We. Will. Never. Measure. Up.

I’m grateful for grace and I am trying more and more every day to mete it out as well as I receive it.

Just keep swimming….

Follow Me

confession boothA few weeks ago, I had more traffic than usual on my blog as I dove headfirst into the Brittany Maynard story. I am always fascinated by the stories that attract people’s attention, especially when there’s more to the story than a simple cursory glance. Stories that you have to pick up and roll through your fingers, glancing at every side as you try to determine just what it’s made of, those are the stories that attract me.

In the midst of my writing, a friend from high school reached out and gave me some insight on his impression of what I had written. I was intrigued at how he was reading it because it wasn’t exactly how I saw it, so I engaged him in a conversation. In the midst of the conversation, I learned more and more about myself and about my friend. I did my best to respond in a way that told him that I was sincerely seeking answers and not trying to proselytize or convert anyone to my own way of thinking. While there may be times to do that, a first conversation or post hardly seems the time for that.

As we dialogued back and forth, he complimented me in my reaction and approach towards the conversation. To say that I was relieved would probably be an understatement. As I shared my own convictions with him, I was saddened to hear about another conversation in social media that was taking place on the wall of a friend of his. There was lots of judgment, lots of insult hurling, lots of people stating opinions without entering into dialogue or seeking to understand another’s perspective.

Why do we do this over and over again? Why do we approach conversations as competitions that need to be “won” rather than experiences in which we can learn?

Honestly, I think that Christians are the worst at this. We somehow think that every conversation needs to end with everyone on the floor, praying the Sinner’s Prayer, and then singing Kum Ba Yah until Jesus returns. In our efforts to speak the truth we forget the “in love” part of it. In our efforts to show our convictions, we feel the need to always be right.

I’m not saying that we don’t hold to strong convictions, that seems to be a dying art in our “everything goes” culture. With relativism pressing in on every side, speaking in absolutes is unpopular, but I believe, necessary. But there’s a better way to do it, and hurling digital hand grenades is not the way to do it.

In talking to my friend, I realized what I had so many times before, people judge Jesus by how those who follow him act. It seems unfair, but it’s a fact of life. When we don’t hold to his teachings, we not only make ourselves look bad, but we make him look bad as well. When we tout our strong convictions and then consistently fail to live by them, we make it look like Jesus is the one who is wrong.

One thing that I love about the Apostle Paul is that he lived what he believed. He knew that it wasn’t popular, he knew that it was counter-cultural, but it didn’t stop him. The Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. God has made the lofty things of this world to be low and made the low things to be lofty. Paul was confident enough in his convictions and how he lived them out that he was not afraid or ashamed to say, “Follow me.”

I was reminded of Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz” when Miller talks about how he and some of his friends set up a confession booth in the middle of a hedonistic weekend celebration at a Portland college. His friend, Tony, says, “Here’s the catch…We are not actually going to accept confessions…We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”

I’m not perfect. I’ve done my fair share of misrepresenting Jesus to those who desperately need to know that he loves them. But I see that, I admit it, I’m making steps towards recovering, towards redemption, towards restoration.

As many times as I’ve read the Gospels, I don’t recall any story where someone got themselves all “cleaned up” and then went to meet Jesus. In fact, Jesus usually met them, doing what they were doing, wherever they were. They probably felt unprepared, insignificant, inadequate, but that’s how we should all feel in the presence of holiness and perfection. Jesus met them there, found them where they were, but didn’t leave them there.

When we meet people, they will judge Jesus by how we live. Most people aren’t opposed to convictions, they’re opposed to inconsistency. How are we doing in representing Jesus to the world? Is it time for us to set up confession booths in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our homes? Is it time for people to take our confessions of where we have fallen short, where we have failed to live up to the name by which we all must be saved?

We can’t live up to that name…..EVER, but that doesn’t mean we just give up trying. We try not because we think we can earn something, but because we are grateful for that amazing thing called grace that reaches out to us in our dirt, filth, pride, and aloneness and calls us “beloved” and calls us to live different, to be different. We are driven by gratitude, not guilt or obligation.

How about we confess that?

 

Distorted Religion

extremismThe news has been full of stories about ISIS and the rampage of terror that they are wreaking upon the Middle East. The videos that have been portrayed have been brutal. They have beheaded journalists and others. They have instilled fear in people and had the world scratching their head in wonder, asking how this can happen and who will stop them.

Some have taken to criticizing Islam because of this extreme group. I read the posts and found myself feeling mostly aligned with some of the thoughts and criticism…..until I looked in the mirror. A friend posted this picture on his Facebook page and I was horrified at the thought that, as a Christian, I should be associated with the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, Fred Phelps and his minions, or psychotic megalomaniacs like Jim Jones and David Kuresh. Surely people who know me would know that the Christianity that I espouse does not bear any similarities to these extreme distortions, right?

Over and over again in the past few weeks, I have mulled over in my mind what to do with ISIS and how to address it in my own mind. I have wondered about the process which has become known in the theological world as eisegesis, the isolating of passages of the Bible out of their contexts to be used for less than noble purposes. For hundreds of years, people have taken the Bible and distorted it, twisting the words to fit whatever their preferences would have them. If the Bible is subject to such distortion, why should the Koran be any different or exempt?

Christianity is an embracing of the teachings of Jesus as truth, the embracing of Jesus as the only son of God, fully human and fully God, the embracing of his life and teachings, the embracing him as the only way to the Father, the becoming a disciple and follower of the incarnate God, the embracing of the Bible as the written Word of God. When we fail to fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith, we will find ourselves guilty of eisegesis over and over again. We might like to point our fingers at those who are doing “really bad” things with their distortions of their religious books, but it doesn’t make our distortion any less of a distortion.

I have always hated to be associated with mainline Christianity by friends whose only understanding of Christianity comes from MSNBC, the Washington Post, or worse yet, from an experience that they had with a supposed Christian who hurt them or offended them in some way. While I consider myself evangelical, that word seems to set something off within people that triggers an alarm, signaling for them to stay away……far away. Labels have a way of doing that, polarizing people because we tend to think in extremes, identifying the labeled with the extremes that fall into that particular label.

Unfortunately, imperfect people (like me) have spoken for Jesus and have caused people to think that they (and me), in their (and my) imperfect state are the reason to follow or reject Jesus. It’s not license to live however we want, but it is a request for grace from those who are still not convinced that Jesus is who he says he is or that God is real.

I am sorry for the distorted picture of Jesus that I have sometimes given to others. I am sorry that my representation of him has been less than stellar at times and downright atrocious at other times. I am sorry that I may have caused someone who was searching for answers to have looked the other way because the Jesus that they encountered in me was so far from the real thing.

I am thankful that God’s mercies are new every morning. I am thankful that there is grace extended to those like me who fall short time and again. I am thankful that Jesus came for people like me, people who fall short and are unable to bring salvation to themselves.

I hope and pray that I might learn a little more every day just who Jesus is and how I can best represent him. I pray the prayer of John the Baptist that I might decrease in order that Jesus might increase in me. I pray that the God of second chances might grant me second and third and beyond that number of chances to better represent him to the world and the people around me.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found but now I see. Soli Deo Gloria!

Experiencing the Loss of a Family Member – A Book Review

Experiencing the Loss of a Family MemberIf we live on this earth, we will all experience loss. Sometimes we wade into the losses that we experience while other times, we dive right in, experiencing the loss of family members or friends who are close to us. When we experience loss and dive into a time of grief, how do we appropriately wade through it? How do we venture through grief, especially when our society seems to want to push past it and not even address it?

H. Norman Wright has experienced loss of his own. He lost his 22 year old son who was severely disabled and his wife who succumbed to breast cancer. It is out of the depths of this loss that Wright is able to write and share. He is not coming in as a counseling or therapy expert alone, he is able to share his thoughts and guidance through grief because he has personally experienced deep and painful loss himself. His voice of experience speaks volumes when it comes to grief.

This book is laid out in such a way that it can serve as a handbook, so you can pick and choose the chapters that may be more applicable to your own experience if you don’t want to read the whole book. There are insights throughout the book on the journey through grief, tucked in among the specific chapters. Wright starts out with an overview of the world and process of grief and then walks through chapters that deal with specific losses such as the loss of a spouse, the loss of a child, the loss of a parent, and the loss of a sibling. Wright even adds chapters on losing friends and pets (as pet lovers can attest to the fact that pets become part of your family).

Part of the strength of this book is the permission that Wright gives to the reader/grieving one. He says, “Everyone grieves differently, and there isn’t one right way to grieve. Never compare your grief with another’s; your grief is uniquely your own.” He talks about the potential physical implications that will be seen as one journeys through grief, the complexity of emotions that will be experienced, and some helpful hints as to how to make the journey less bumpy. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that the journey through grief is easy, but his suggestions can at least help to ease the pain a little.

Throughout the chapters, there are questions that can be asked by the reader (or others) to try to explore and even get to the heart of grief. Wright offers advice from others who have written on the subject of grief and includes helpful Scripture references that may bring salve to the wounds of grief that are experienced.

Wright’s style of writing is such that you almost feel yourself reliving some of your own losses as he describes the emotions experienced. I felt myself knotting up inside as I read through some of the implications of losing parents. Wright’s experience in loss is an asset for him as he doesn’t describe the process of grief in psychological jargon but in conversational prose. He makes a connection with his reader with this approach. The only criticisms that I have for the book are that it can feel a little overlong if you read it from front to back rather than using it as a manual. The other criticism is that there are times when the scriptural reference seem rather forced or obligatory rather than flowing naturally out of an essential part of coping with loss. A deeper theological treatment of grief would have been helpful.

Besides those few critiques, the book was good. It’s a book that I could easily recommend, in sum or in part, to someone who has experienced grief and is looking for some answers for their own coping. If you know of someone who has experienced the loss of a family member or if you have experienced that loss, you might give Wright a try.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Bethany House Publishers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

The First Time We Saw Him – A Book Review

first time we saw himIt’s quite possible that a person has been following Jesus for so long that they’ve lost sight of what it was like in the very beginning. The early church in Ephesus had forsaken their first love, even despite the fact that they lived much closer to the Christ event than we do. So, why should it be a surprise that we might experience dryness and need a “shot in the arm,” a rebirth, or a fresh perspective?

Matt Mikalatos has grown up in the church. He’s seen the Bible stories played out and played out and played out again. He knew all of the right answers, but it seems that some of the questions might have been forgotten along the way, which is why he wrote this book.

Too often, it’s easy to read the stories of Jesus and lose so much because of the cultural and temporal distance between them and us. Some of the shocking elements of the stories that Jesus told and lived lose their shock because we don’t always fully understand just how important or how controversial or how significant something was at the time of Jesus’ telling.

Mikalatos is a gifted storyteller, there is no doubt about that. He uses this gift to reimagine some of the stories of Jesus that we find within the gospels. He tries to find ways to connect the elements of the story that were grounded in the culture and time of Jesus with something that will connect with us in our own time to impact our own telling and hearing of the story.

He’s mostly successful at this, changing some of the names here, changing locations there, changing some of the cultural shocking elements to things that might be equivalent in today’s culture. He uses artistic license to expound upon stories, adding elements that might connect better with the reader. As I read these stories, I could hear the voices of some of the “Bible police” in my head, shouting at the exgetical fallacies that were committed by the author. But, honestly, if someone is looking that hard to make sure that every connection and change is spot on, they probably shouldn’t be reading this book. Or maybe they should.

In his own words, Mikalotos wants to, “talk about the Gospel stories in a way that might shock us out of our preconceived notions and help us approach Jesus with the same wonder, frustration, revelation, uncertainty, and nervous fear that people did in the first century.” And that’s just what he does. There are things that might feel offensive, I found myself stirring up within at the retelling of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet, but I think that stirring up was a good thing, brining me closer to experiencing the emotions of those who heard Jesus’ words for the first time in his presence.

The stories will be familiar to most who have grown up within the church. The prodigal son. The lost coin. The raising of Lazarus. Mikalatos even tackles the end of Jesus’ life, a bold feat which could stir up strong emotions in anyone who is familiar with the atrocity of racism that we tend to want to sweep under the rug within our country, likening crucifixion to lynching. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem ends up in a convertible rather than a donkey. Peter wields a gun rather than a dagger to cut off the ear of the soldier.

Yes, Mikalatos is a gifted storyteller and he leans on that strength to retell these stories. He also adds personal commentary and stories along the way, connecting well with his reader and helping them to understand that he is not simply reciting nice stories, but sharing some of the very things that he has wrestled with himself.

“The First Time We Saw Him” was a worthwhile read. It was a reminder to me that I need to pause more frequently when reading the Gospel accounts, to reflect on just how powerful those stories were at the time of their telling so that they can be equally as powerful to me and all of us who hear them today. These are the stories that we need to tell because they change us. They are the stories of God’s promise, that he will be among us, and that he will meet us where we are but never leave us there. If you need that kind of a reminder, I would recommend this book to you.

Praying For Your President

Politics aren’t my thing. I just don’t get into them that much. Sure, I vote and take my responsibility as a citizen seriously, but it’s not often that I get into political debates with people. To me, there are much more important things to talk about than someone who’s temporarily filling a political office.

While I don’t get hopped up by politics, it doesn’t stop me from stirring up the hornet’s nest once in a while. I’ve done it since I was in high school, throwing out the provocative statements and then watching as people take the bait. I guess I was always amused at how worked up people could get over things that seemed somewhat insignificant to me.

My intentions when doing this are never malicious, they are always playful. Unfortunately, not everyone gets that. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise though, when we hold to something so passionately in life it’s very difficult for us to joke around about it.

It’s not so unusual for people to call me out on it either. A few times recently, I have posted something that seemed innocent, at first glance, but in the hands of the passionately political has turned into a mud-slinging contest. Comments fly as people drop their “digital hand grenades” and walk away. The vitriol flows like beer at a fraternity party as people allow their deepest disdains to be aired.

As I survey my friends in social media, I have a fairly mixed bag across the political spectrum. So, it’s always interesting to see and to read the comments. Recently, though, I was appalled and taken aback after I asked a simple question about our current president. I wasn’t so surprised by the people who commented so much as I was by some of the comments. Then a friend who resides somewhere to the left of me commented about their sadness at the comments.

That comment was enough to give me pause, to help me consider what was going down.

As I thought about it, two things came to mind.

My father always used to say that we might never get the political leaders that we wanted but we would always get the political leaders that we deserved. It’s a fairly telling statement and one that I have thought of many times over the years since I first heard him say that. It made me realize that if I claim the sovereignty of God and if I believe what Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome, which now resides in the 13th chapter of Romans, then I need to rethink some of what I think, feel, and believe about politics and political leaders.

The other thing that came to mind was a question and I asked myself, “When’s the last time that you prayed for your president and elected officials?” To be completely honest, mainstream Christianity seems to have a tendency towards accepting the easy and comfortable commandments of the Bible while casting aside the more difficult ones. Jesus preached a sermon in Matthew 5 where he commanded people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. While I’m not sure that we’ve come so far as to be persecuted by our political leaders (except in a very privileged Westernized form of the word), the notion still stands true.

Do I pray for my president?

I don’t have to agree with him. I don’t have to like him. I don’t have to want to hang out with him (or her, when that finally happens). But I do need to pray for them. I need to ask God to get through to them if I think that they are closed to what he has to say. I need to pray that their eyes might be opened. I need to pray for wisdom. I need to pray that God’s sovereignty would reign and that I would trust that sovereignty. I need to do this more than once…….I need to do this continually.

I realized in those moments of seeing the deep emotions of people coming out that I couldn’t participate in it. I realized that I needed to get on my knees and pray for someone who I wasn’t particularly fond of and in doing so, I would be fulfilling the commands that Jesus spoke, no matter how hard they were.

We won’t always agree on ideology, but I think we can agree to the need for prayer for those who lead us.

Next time that I feel the urge to sling mud, to criticize unduly, and to begin a firestorm that isn’t beneficial or helpful, maybe I’ll remember all this and simply bow my head to offer up a prayer.

What Makes A Company Christian?

hobby lobbyHaving grown up within the church, I’ve often marveled at the language that we use within its confines. For someone who might walk in who has had no experience or history within the church, the language could easily be confusing, frustrating, and, sometimes, downright offensive. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Gospel itself is offensive, I fully appreciate that, but language that is used to describe other things outside of the Gospel should not be offensive if it can be helped (which, most times, it can).

One such word that gets attached to other words as an adjective is the word “Christian.” I’ve heard it (and unfortunately used it) so many times to describe the ideology behind something, but I wonder if it’s really been a true descriptor and whether it hasn’t begged confusion with its usage. Christian actors. Christian music. Christian schools. Christian businesses. The usages are endless, but is the word “Christian” the best word to describe these things?

The internet is abuzz with the recent SCOTUS ruling on what has become known as “the Hobby Lobby case.” Companies are now free to restrict health insurance coverage for certain forms of birth control and contraceptives. The case was brought up mostly to avoid companies who considered themselves “Christian” from having to fund birth control measures which acted as an abortive procedure of sorts.

While the overall ruling was of interest to me, I was mostly interested in the labeling of Hobby Lobby as “a Christian company” or a company that runs its business on “Christian principles.” It aroused a curiosity in me as I wondered exactly what that means. What does a Christian company look like?

Is a Christian company a company that runs itself based on the principles of Jesus? I seem to recall that Jesus made reference to the fact that the Son of Man had no place to lay his head, so does that mean a Christian business doesn’t own a building? Jesus said that in order to be the greatest one has to become the least, so does a Christian company serve everyone…..no matter what?

Jesus said that the merciful and meek would be blessed, that those who are persecuted because of righteousness would inherit the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ business principles spoke to a return on investment that couldn’t be seen, couldn’t be held, couldn’t be measured. In fact, one had to have faith to believe that they would actually receive that return. He didn’t draw up charts and projections, he didn’t try to forecast the way that the market would act, and he didn’t sell the stock to the people who would most likely have been first in line to buy it. He actually gave away the shares to the people who seemed the least deserving.

So, is that the way “Christian” companies operate? Do they act counterculturally? Do they blow people’s minds in how they conduct themselves and their business, pointing people towards the Christ that is found in their names? Is “Christian” really a descriptor of these companies or is it simply a word to hide behind to prevent the persecution that Jesus actually recommends we face? Is it a means by which we can work towards bringing this country back to its roots of becoming a “Christian” nation (whatever, in fact, that means)?

I think it’s important that Hobby Lobby and other companies that are owned by those who consider themselves followers of Christ be allowed to choose whether or not they fund things with which they disagree. The political left would not be keen on funding Bibles in schools or churches that proclaim Jesus as the only way, so why should the political right be forced to fund things with which it doesn’t agree? Consistency is key here and we need to assess it at all points, but I think that we need to rethink how we go about describing companies who are owned by those who consider themselves Christians. Companies themselves are amoral, incapable of making decisions without people behind those decisions. We might want to find a new descriptor that might better suit what we’re trying to say. In so doing, I think we could avoid some confusion as we move forward.