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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Before I Go" by Peter Kreeft. A Review

Before I Go: Letters to Our Children about What Really MattersBefore I Go: Letters to Our Children about What Really Matters by Peter Kreeft
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Over the years I have sat with many people as they draw close to the end of their life, and I have noticed that several find themselves frustrated by the short time they have left to say the final, important things to their loved ones. And as I continue to grow older I find myself pondering and asking, more and more, what I should hand on to my children, what valuable things do I want them to hear from me and take to heart. Peter Kreeft has launched a preemptive strike at that moment for his family by writing his short 244 page, readably warm hardback, “Before I Go: Letters to Our Children about What Really Matters.” Kreeft states that this book, written to his grown children, is simply a “word-insurance policy,” since it is “a way of speaking even after you are dead” (4). These are words written against the day when he may no longer be able to say what he deems important, to speak clearly before he goes.

Kreeft teaches philosophy at Boston College, which shines through in several chapters, particularly in the superb craftsmanship with which he is able to hone an idea down to its primary point, like the following; “Worship God, love people, and respect stuff” (54). He is also a loyal Roman Catholic who knows what he is and what he’s about. Both of these characteristics fill the creative reservoir out of which he is able, with wit and brevity, to refresh and regale the reader.

The short chapters in “Before I Go” are normally succinct, and last anywhere from three sentences to three pages. But the depth of insight vastly surpasses the quantity of ink and paper. For example, in one short chapter, he poignantly reveals to his offspring the two categories into which he sees that people generally fall, “There are only two kinds of people: sinners, who think they’re saints, and saints, who know they’re sinners. There are only fools, who think they’re wise, and the wise, who know they’re fools” (51). It becomes clear as one reads further that the writer is skilled at writing and skilled at writing in a memorable fashion. I found myself struggling to put the book aside because each chapter enticed me to jump to the next.

“Before I Go” covers a wide range of subjects. The author tackles life, death, marriage, procreation, hope, idolatry, motivations for doing and not doing things, prayer, understanding versus toleration, gratitude, real mysticism, and the list runs on through 162 petite pieces. Each of these subjects is personal, precise, perceptive, and piercing. As an example in Chapter 162, “The Last Word,” Kreeft deftly drives home his point, “No philosophy is worth your attention if it can’t be professed on your deathbed. No philosophy is as important as a person. And there is only one person who has the answer to death. You know His name. May His name be your last word, as it shall be mine” (254).

Kreeft’s realism pulsing through “Before I Go” is a two edged sword. The down-to-earth way he airs his thoughts makes him easily grasped and heartily appreciated, as can be seen in statements like this one: “We strut and fret and preen and pose, but only God can make a rose” (86). Yet his earthy approach may well catch some completely off guard, especially as he uses expletives on occasion. These are never gratuitous, but serve to drive home a valuable, salient point.

Reading this book will be a pure pleasure for the thoughtfully reflective, and a valuable gift for many parents to use in passing on wise words to their children before they lose the ability to say those final, important words. I warmly and heartily recommend this book.

(This review is an expanded and revised version of one done for Reader Views, November 2007. Mike)


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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Congregational Prayer - 1 March 2015 AM and PM

Morning Prayer:
Our Father, who has gladly and joyfully initiated and implemented the only way the world may be saved and no longer be condemned, we lay our burdened hearts before you.

We find that things are not as we had planned nor dreamed they would be. We find that some of us, some of our friends, or some of our family-members are in the middle of trials, disenchantments or distresses that are perplexing and worrisome….Grant that they and all of us may learn obedience by the things that we suffer, and turn to you, our Helper, in the time of trouble. May there be no bitterness in our sorrows, no despair in our submission, and no doubt of you in our bewilderment. Teach us to face trials bravely; please make even the dark things of life to work together for our good; and bring all quickly out of their distresses, that together we may praise you with joyful heart.

With Your watchful eye, please preserve our U.S. Military personnel, and those of our numbers who are in other countries,..., and their families. Please guide our nation in your ways of justice and truth for the free-born, foreign-born and the unborn; and heal the nations of our world.

Thank you for answering our prayers for showers and precipitation. We ask you that you would be pleased to continue providing us the needful amounts of rain to alleviate the pressure put on our water supply, and to nourish the earth.

O Lord, we pray for your Church in all places, including this congregation and the Christian churches in Edmond, OKC, Putnam City, Bethany, Nichols Hills, Warr Acres, Jones, Luther, Midwest City, Spencer and Moore. We implore you to please come and satisfy us with your joy-filling and holiness-enriching presence that we may be the Church you would have us to be, for the life of the world.

We pray for your and our enemies that by your mercies we may forgive those who have wronged us, and be quick to confess the sins whereby we have wronged them. And for those who are sadistically or slyly harming your people, change their affections and ambitions that they may turn away from evil and be turned to everlasting life.

Finally, we plead for the salvation, transformation and rescue of those who have never believed in your Son and turned from their sins and for the restoration of those who have strayed away from you….hear our prayer, O Lord; and let our cry come unto you!

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Evening Prayer:
Lord God, mighty in means, gracious in goodness, longsuffering toward our weaknesses, rich in kindness toward our fumbling faults: We draw near to you with needy hearts.

Please be with your holy, universal Church, and specifically be with this congregation; Trinity Free Will Baptist Church; Trinity International Baptist; Trinity Missionary Baptist; Truelight Missionary Baptist; and Union Baptist Church. We are grateful that you have not only revealed yourself to us as one God, but you have made yourself known as one God in communion of Three persons. May we hold on to your self-revelation tightly; and may our harmony in the midst of individual variety radiate your eternal loving splendor to all so that they may come into the fellowship of Your Son, Jesus Christ. O Lord, hear our prayer.

We desire to see our neighbors, enemies, friends and family embraced by your gracious mercy….Draw them to the cross of Jesus, and help us to be ready, willing and able to declare to them the only way into your kingdom through Jesus Christ our Lord. And prosper our plans and endeavors for our mission work in Carnagie OK in June, our own VBS in July, and the Good News Festival in August. O Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord God, people throughout the world are suffering from various calamities and agonies….deliver them from their distresses, relieve them of their faithless fears and worldly anxieties, restore their wellbeing, and draw them near to yourself. We desire to see the nations return to sane justice and liberated peacefulness. Guide the leaders of all nations, including our own country, in these ways. O Lord, hear our prayer.


Finally, Lord, we implore you on behalf of those grieving, others who are ailing, and some whose careers are tottering…you who know them and their needs better than we or they do, help them, hold them, heal them. O Lord, hear our prayer.

Friday, February 27, 2015

"Rejoicing in Lament" by J. Todd Billings. A Review

Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in ChristRejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

C.S. Lewis once stated, “If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones – bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas” (“Mere Christianity,” 128). But for many people theology is simply dusty, drab, dispassionate, desiccated drivel. And then into the mix life happens, or death, bringing tragedy and theology to meet and clash in the sparring ring. It’s right here, in all of the sweat, the grit and the grappling, that J. Todd Billings, research professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, presents his own, very personal , tussle with life-threatening cancer and life-enriching theology . His soon to be published 224 page paperback, “Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ” displays the beauty of how his Reformed and Calvinist theology worked into, throughout, and along with the shock of the diagnosis, the grueling treatments and the fatiguing recovery. This is a book where calamity and creed come together, all scuffling and brawling, which then morph into dancing and pirouetting.
The chapters of “Rejoicing in Lament” sequentially walk the reader through the autobiographical scenes of Billings’ crawl along his ongoing experiences with multiple myeloma, periodically incorporating entries from his CarePages.  As the author takes us through each stage, he ties in salient theological aspects, tackling subjects like the problem of evil, the mystery of divine providence, the place of faithful lamentation while longing for the new heavens and new earth, the significance of the church, the right emphasis in prayer, regeneration, and God’s impassibility.  The author’s goal in pulling together tragedy and theology is to shake us loose from the dreamy middle class American mirage that says we have a divine right to the good life, the pain-free life, the prosperous life, the health-filled life. And once set free from this entitlement myth to draw us upward into our heritage in Christ, a durable heritage we have even when faced with disease, dying and death; “Our lives are not our own, and our stories have been incorporated into the great drama of God’s gracious work in the world in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. As we come to sense our role in this drama, we find that it is a path of lament and rejoicing, protest and praise, rooted in trust in the Triune God, the central actor; we can walk on this path even while the fog is thick. For God is bigger than cancer. God is bigger than death. The God of Jesus Christ is the God of life, whose loving promises will be shown as true in the end. Until that time, we wait with the psalmist for the Lord and hope in his Word” (15-6).

One recurrent focus in “Rejoicing in Lament” is the use of the Psalms, with all of their hope, anger, complaint, lament and rejoicing. In some very tangible ways this is a “how-to” book with regard to integrating the Psalms into our prayers, our cries of “why?” and “how come?” and “how long, O LORD?”, as well as our prayers on behalf of others who find themselves flooded by misfortune. “…praying the Psalms allows every part of us to come before the Triune God, to be seen by him as his adopted son or daughter – to praise, complain, and even vent before the Almighty. God can handle our laments and our petitions. Our laments pivot on God’s promises” (14). To take up the Psalms on our lips, and in our prayers, is to wrap up our griefs, woes, joys, and delights and hand them back to God in the words of Scripture. To do this is not an act of irreligion, but an “act of faith and trust” (55). And as Christians united to Christ, we also do this Psalm-praying in solidarity with Christ Jesus himself. This means that we “don’t have to suppress anger or confusion or misery before coming before the Almighty. With an open heart we bring all of this before the covenant Lord, entrusting him to hear our cries and moving toward trust in his loving-faithfulness and covenant promises. Moreover, since we pray the Psalms with Christ and in Christ, all of our prayer resonates with the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” ( . . . ) we are displaced from our old self, which seeks autonomy, to find our true life in that of the crucified Lord, the One to whom the Spirit conforms us” (172). From one end of the book to the other, praying along with the Psalms is helpfully displayed, encouraged, and modelled.

“Rejoicing in Lament” addresses several relevant theological categories as they tangle around his tragedy, as mentioned above. But two of the subjects that I found genuinely exceptional had to do with God’s providence, and God’s Church.  In Chapter 4, “Lamenting to the Almighty,” the author goes toe-to-toe with theodicy, God’s providence in the face of evil. Here Billings challenges both those who raise “the problem of evil” and two Christian answers that cause more trouble than they resolve: Fatalism and Open Theism. In the end, the author – rightly it seems to me – leaves the problem of evil open: that God is utterly good, truly sovereign, genuinely employs humans free-choosing, does not automatically use mechanistic algorithms of “evil is always the result of badness, or weakness of faith,” and finally, at the end of the day, God simply doesn’t answer our questions about why there is evil in the present world. “The biblical practice of leaving suffering as an open question before God can be difficult to maintain, particularly as we consider the providential care and power of God. Yet leaving the problem of suffering and evil as an open question is essential if we are to affirm Scripture’s testimony about who God is and who we are” (57).

“Rejoicing in Lament” also picks up the role of the Church in this clash of calamity and creed, but the way the author approaches the subject will likely surprise some. In the sixth Chapter, “Death in the Story of God and in the Church,” Billings carefully describes how the Christian congregation is one – if not the only remaining – institution that mingles together in a single community births, baptisms, bridals and burials; “It’s a marvelous gift that the church who baptizes and celebrates new life in Christ also does funerals, mourns with the dying, and celebrates the promise of resurrection in Christ. For some young people, the church is one of the only places that they are exposed to death in a real, personal way – where someone they knew has died” (99).  The author recounts how death and life, grief, betrayal, joy and loyalty come together in a congregation’s worship, through Word and Sacrament; through the Gospel declaration, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, ( . . . ), he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15.3-4); and the Sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, which both announce Christ’s death and ours, and Christ’s resurrection which gives us life! Therefore the Christian congregation is “a gathering of sinners who are both old and young, healthy and sick, growing and dying. But, by God’s promise, the church is also people who move through birth, health, dying, and even death on a journey to resurrection because they belong to Jesus Christ” (101). In an unexpected turn, all of this brings the author to ask “church shoppers” one conspicuous question; of all the congregations you have visited, “who would you like to bury you” (99)?

“Rejoicing in Lament” is a book where calamity and creed come together, all scuffling and brawling, which then morph into dancing and pirouetting. As readers work their way through each page and chapter, they will likely come to places where they will stop and weep, blush, give thanks, reflect on their own collusion with the entitlement mirage, repent, and cry out with the father of the boy with the convulsing, destroying spirit, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9.24)! I warmly and heartily commend to you “Rejoicing in Lament”

My earnest thanks to Brazos Press who generously provided a copy of this book for this review.

[Feel free to print, post or publish this review; but as always, please give credit where credit is due. Mike]


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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Congregational Prayer - 22 February 2015 PM


Our Father, who has cheerfully adopted us through Jesus Christ, we come and hand over our burdened hearts to you for this world and your church. We find that we are restless and uneasy about the things going on in our own lives, amongst our friends, families, and in our world. Sickness, sorrow, trouble at home, problems at work, uncertainty about the future. We remember these who are wrestling with specific misfortunes…grant them and us courage, faith, graciousness, comfort and relief.  O Lord, hear our prayer.

Please uphold our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen; strengthen them as they serve to be courageous in the face of adversities, and to be dutiful during drudgeries. Also, please calm and hearten their families during deployments, bringing them back to their families unharmed. O Lord, hear our prayer.

We call upon you to take care of our country and all who are in authority. Promote our national well-being, defend us from malicious elements that would bring us into harm’s way, and cause us to utilize our liberties for the purpose of furthering justice and peace for the born and unborn. Please take note of the nations of our world, especially the places where there is conflict, slavery, brutality, anarchy and ferocious injustice; and cause justice and hope to reign in every land (Mexico, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria). O Lord, hear our prayer.

O Lord, we pray for Your Church in all places, for this congregation, Springdale Baptist Church; Sunny Side Baptist; Sunnylane Missionary Baptist; Tabernacle Baptist; Tabitha Baptist and The Cross Baptist Church. Please keep us ever in your care, stirring up our hearts to serve you with joyful persistence and energy, and to seek first your righteousness and your kingdom. O Lord, hear our prayer.

We plead with you to change the hearts of those who are your and our enemies, those who harm, hamper and behead your people; please save and convert them that they may come and bow the knee to Jesus with us – and if they will not, then break them and shatter their power to do evil. O Lord, hear our prayer.


Mighty God, who does not desire the death of sinners, but that they should turn and live: hear our prayers for the salvation of friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors...And in this regard may your hand be on us as we prepare for the Mission trip to Carnegie in June, our Outreach VBS in July and our involvement with the Good News Festival in August. O Lord, hear our prayer.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"Scaling Force" (DVD) by Rory Miller and Lawrence A. Kane. A Review


Rory Miller and Lawrence A. Kane
YMAA
$29.95
5 of 5 Stars
Riveting, Rattling and Rapid-Fire

How do you deal with a hostile set of circumstances? Do you go full-bore when someone starts pushing you and calling your mother names? Do you try to soft touch someone who has pulled out a big-honking bowie knife and is holding it at your gut? How do you know when violent self-defense is proper or not, and deadly force is or isn’t justified? Rory Miller and Lawrence A. Kane, both seasoned in violent confrontations from a law enforcement and security environment, have brought out a 120-minute DVD that approaches this subject in a thoughtful, experienced, and attention-getting way.

The format of the “Scaling Force” DVD is very simple. Miller and Kane walk the viewer through each of the 6 levels of force, giving demonstrations, stories from their own experiences and explanations that are clear and easily grasped. The exhibitions support the didactic matter, reinforcing each point, exposing vulnerabilities and displaying the strengths of better approaches. There is even a segment on how to survive a crowd attack that was simple and skillful. The final minutes of the DVD hammer out the importance of articulating why one used force level 5 and 6 and the subjects that must be expressed clearly to help keep one’s self out of lawsuits or jail.

One of the strengths I appreciate about the “Scaling Force” DVD is that the intention of the presenters is not to get into a fight, all macho and mad-hatter, but how to avoid becoming a victim or evade the misstep of going from the assaulted to the assailant. Miller and Kane work hard to help the viewer make sane decisions in dangerous situations. One of the potential downsides to the DVD happens to be the profuse profanity. If that doesn’t bother you, or you can filter through it, then the DVD will prove an invaluable addition to your library.

The “Scaling Force” DVD is a great stand-alone media, or a supporting addition to the book that goes by the same title. The DVD will keep your attention, and get you thinking through scenarios you could easily find yourself in. This electronic instruction material would be useful for viewing in a martial arts school, or as supplemental information for a self-defense class. I highly recommend this DVD.


Thanks to YMAA for a copy of the DVD used for this review.

{Feel free to post, publish or print this review; but as always, please give credit where credit is due. Thanks, Mike}

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Congregational Prayer - 15 February 2015 PM


O God, indestructible, indefatigable, indomitable; to you we come and hand over our burdened hearts into your watchful care on behalf of this world and your church.

We have so many things that have weighed us down with fear, worry, grief, and consternation. There’s sickness, trouble in our homes, difficulties at work, unsettledness in our world. We remember these who are wrestling with specific distresses…grant them and us courage, faith, graciousness, and appropriate restoration.  O Lord, hear our prayer.

Please uphold our U.S. Military people, esp. these….comfort and encourage their families during their deployments, and restore them to their families unhurt. Similarly, please hold in your safe keeping our peace officers, first responders, and emergency personnel. Preserve them from accidents, aggressors, ambushes and affronts. O Lord, hear our prayer.

We entreat you to look upon our country and all who are in authority; defend us from malevolent forces and elements that would bring our land into harm’s way. Likewise, look over the nations of our world, and for the good of your Church and wellbeing of all, we ask you to intervene so that peace and order would prevail where there is only conflict and anarchy; and cause justice and hope to reign in every land. O Lord, hear our prayer.

Father, who causes the sun to shine on the righteous and unrighteous, and brings rain to the just and unjust; please hear our pleas for plentiful rains, replenishing showers and restoring precipitation; and our appeals for a rapid reversal of this drought. O Lord, hear our prayer.

 O Lord, we pray for Your Church in all places, for this congregation during this time of decisions and direction-seeking; but also for Southern Temple Baptist Church; Southside Missionary Baptist; Southwest Baptist; Southwest Freewill Baptist; Spring Creek Baptist and Spring Creek Baptist Church; guide us by your truthful Scriptures and the Spirit of truth, while preserving us from evil, protecting us from error, and strengthening us to fulfill all that you command. O Lord, hear our prayer.

 Finally, we plead for the salvation, transformation and rescue of those who have never believed in your Son and turned from their sins…..and the restoration of those who have strayed away from you...And in this regard may your hand be with us as we prepare for the Mission trip to Carnegie in June, our Outreach VBS in July and our involvement with the Good News Festival in August. O Lord, hear our prayer.

Monday, February 9, 2015

"Autopsy of a Deceased Church" by Thom S. Rainer. A Review

Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours AliveAutopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In so many different ways death is a grievous event to be part of, whether it’s a pet, a parent, a companion or a congregation. But it is even graver when it is a death that might have been avoided. Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, describes the postmortem he performed on fourteen congregational corpses in his 112 page hardback, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive”. This little work moves quickly through fifteen concise chapters, keeping a reader engaged and deliberating. The book comes out in two uneven parts, the first eleven chapters cover the autopsy and the final three encompass hope.

In the first section of “Autopsy of a Deceased Church,” Rainer takes the reader through the trademarks of decline that he has culled from interviews with previous church members. The pattern becomes speedily obvious: slow, almost imperceptible ingrownness among the members that stiffened into a rigidity and recalcitrance to adjustment, outreach or purposefulness. This showed up in how the members glamorized the past, responded in fear when the surrounding neighborhood changed, and engineering their budget around bolstering the inwardness of the congregation.  Other items that evidenced the looming demise of a congregation had to do with shortened pastoral tenures, a lack of enthusiasm in corporate prayer, and infighting over some aspect of the church building. All of these items would capture a congregation over a series of years, but the results would be deadly, to the point that even “if the church began to grow on its own, the members of a dying church would only accept the growth if the new members were like them and if the church would continue to “do church” the way they wanted it” (44). Each of these chapters involves the reader in some written prayers, all of which reflect on the lesson of that particular chapter. Many of these prayers are priceless!

In the second, and final, section of “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” the author divides his 12 prescriptions between churches that show symptoms of sickness, congregations that are very sick, and those that are at death’s door. Rainer attempts to shine some hope into this mix, but the only real hope is for those parishes that show symptoms of being sick. Death at this point is avoidable, what a shame if those churches refuse to take remedial steps now!

As I have stated elsewhere, renewal programs come out of a specific ecclesial and sacramental framework. “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” is no different.  The author’s diagnosis is processed through a Baptist grid, which is not meant as a slight in anyway. What it means is that the author identifies a dying congregation through a low-church and Zwinglian sacramental lens. For example, according to Rainer, a congregation’s liturgy (way of worship) must be subject to change to attract outsiders, and inflexibility in the area of worship ritual can be deadly; so change or die; “We are to do whatever it takes to seek the best for others and our church” (50). There is no wiggle room in the book’s analysis for those traditions that have deep theological reasons, hammered out over multiple centuries, for their set liturgy and way of worship.

At the end of the day “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” is a decent, though depressing book. From my experience with churches and pastors over the years, the various diagnoses seem right. If an elder board or leadership council is careful to read the book through their own distinctive theological matrix, then this book could be seriously profitable. And if the prayers at the end of all fifteen chapters are possessed and prayed at the heart-level, I imagine good things may well begin to take shape for a church. Pastors, heads of parish councils, and senior elders should head out this week and purchase copies for themselves and the other leaders in their church!

Many thanks to B & H Publishing and Net Galley for the free temporary e-copy of this book used for this review.

Feel free to publish, post or print this review; but as always, please give credit where credit is due. Mike

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