Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

Eugene Peterson made waves with the release of The Message in 2003, a paraphrase crafted from the original texts of Scripture without aid from other English translations and without the input of a committee. In his own words, Peterson began this work because,

“While I was teaching a class on Galatians, I began to realize that the adults in my class weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek. Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.'”

– from the Preface to The Message

The truth is that a large segment of the Western church is bored by Scripture. The problem that Peterson faced was not and is not unique to that particular bunch of believers. So while The Message is not my preferred translation and I disagree with some of the choices that Peterson made (though I do use it from time to time as you can see throughout this blog), I do appreciate the heart behind the work. Scripture was not written in what we see as the “high falutin'” style of early modern English. God used ordinary people who wrote in ordinary language. Poetic at times, peppered with sarcasm, often attempting to describe the indescribable, but ordinary nonetheless. There is no reason why anyone translating the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into any other tongue shouldn’t use terms that the reader will understand.

Thus my puzzlement regarding As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

I’m not the smartest person on the planet. Nor do I have much patience flowery-ness in the written word. Though I spend more than my fair share of time contemplating abstract concepts, I do so in a linear, analytical, orderly fashion. I prefer fifty cent words to five dollar terms. My own dabblings in poetry reveal my love of straightforwardness. Go for the jugular, as they say.

Thus more puzzlement as I attempted to read this book.

I am loathe to post a review of something I did not finish, but I couldn’t get through this book. A collection of sermons grouped under seven different topic headings (“Preaching in the Company of Moses,” “…of David,” “…of Isaiah,” “…of Solomon,” “…of Peter,” “…of Paul” and “…of John of Patmos”), it’s possible that this work is not meant to be read straight through. As with any other sermon, the hearer (or, in this case, the reader) needs time to contemplate what she has learned.

I don’t know what I learned or what I was supposed to learn.

Peterson doesn’t use the five dollar words for the most part, and when he does he provides explanation. I can make some sense of individual paragraphs, but, when strung together to make a complete essay-sermon, I can’t figure out what the main point is supposed to be. This might be attributable to the nature of reading a sermon versus hearing it; I am not privy to tone, pauses, facial expressions, all of which provide the hearer with physical context clues that can aid in understanding.

Yet I wonder if these would illuminate the murky text or not.

Consider,

The Holy Spirit descended on this old world of ours, and there’s a Psalm 29 powwow in Elmo every day of the year: a grace-revealing gestures, a fresh snow-fall, a friend’s forgiveness, the first migrating yellow warbler, a miracle conversion, a truth-telling poem, a pasqueflower in bloom, the good death of a parent, resurrection – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – all the endless permutations of life. The beauty of holiness. And we have ringside seats. Henry James once said that a writer is a person on whom nothing is ever lost. That sounds like a focused Christian identity to me: the men and women on whom nothing, at least nothing that has to do with life – and virtually everything else – is lost.

– p. 84

This is the closing paragraph from a sermon on Psalm 29 and Revelation 4:1-8. Go and read those passages, then come back and read this paragraph again.

Now tell me, is the beauty of holiness found in the creation around us or in the presence of the God who created?

For the life of me I don’t know how Peterson would answer that question.

And this business of focused Christian identity – what? Really, what does he mean here?

No sarcasm.

I’m asking because I really don’t know.

As I wrote above, I am not the smartest person on the planet and I’m aware that my mind works in a specific way. It could very well be that another person could pick up this book and find themselves deeply encouraged and inspired in their faith. In fact, I have seen these people praise this book all across the internet. Someone like me, who is task-oriented to a fault, will find herself throwing the book across the room, yelling, “What do you want me to learn?!”

Perhaps the fault here lies with me, the reader. Maybe I simply can’t hear what he’s trying to say. I don’t know. I hope someone pondering this review does read the book, because I would love to hear your thoughts.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

 

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Review: Worn Out by Obedience

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Exhausted. Worn out. Weary.

These are all states with which I am intimately familiar – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I know what it is to drain the tank to the very last drop and wonder how or why I should keep on the path that God has laid out for me. Wouldn’t it be easier to take a detour? To check out for awhile? In the name of self-care, isn’t it all right to indulge myself?

Because I’m tired.

The shepherd-warrior David felt that, too. After years on the run from King Saul, he gave up on seeking God’s will for a season. Oh, he didn’t hate God. He just sort of put God on the back burner. David took his men into enemy territory, to Ziklag, because he was tired. And that tiredness led him to believe that God wouldn’t take care of him.

Pastor Ron Moore uses this biblical story to show us how easy it is to wind up in our own personal Ziklags. We never intend to go there. We want to do the right things. Except…sometimes we don’t. We hold on to secret, precious sins. Or maybe it’s not that, maybe it’s just that we’re trying to do all the right and good things in our own strength. Eventually, that strength runs out.

Either way, enemy territory looks mighty pleasant.

Moore’s years of pastoral work is evident on every page. He relates stories of men and women who turned aside from God for a time, as little as a few days or as long as many years. Some of them wound up in Ziklag because they didn’t want to give up sin – but they were still able to put on a good religious show. Others bought ground there out of burn-out, the kind that comes from never being able to say “no” to all the good things that need doing.

This would be enough, but Moore goes a step further and shares his own struggles, never denying his own humanity. This allows the reader to explore the discussion questions at the end of each chapter in safety and vulnerability, knowing that the author isn’t out to condemn from the confines of a hypocritical tower.

Divided into three parts, Worn Out by Obedience begins by describing the ways in which we become exhausted. Are we asking God to order our days? Are we holding onto things we need to get rid of? Are we trying to earn His grace by our good deeds? Whether we are worn out by service, expectations, disappointment or sin, we risk giving in to the temptation to listen to our own advice and pack our bags, as outlined in the second part. Finally, Moore reminds us of the grace of God that enables us to get out of Ziklag and get back on His path.

Though I cannot reproduce it here and am reduced to mere description, the graphic on page 22 provides a nice summation. The Christian experience is one of hill and valleys, ecstasy and agony. At the same time, it is one of overall progress is upward, toward Christ. The pits and the progress coexist. And so, as Moore writes,

When the reality of soul weariness is ignored, we slowly slide into dangerous time of spiritual disconnectedness, disappointment and discouragement. It is during these vulnerable stretches when we are most susceptible to suspend the battle against temptation, lay down our armor and surrender to sin. As a lion goes after worn-down prey, so Satan charges after the tired believer. We have to recognize the reality of spiritual fatigue, understand the danger and takes the steps of refresh our soul.

– p. 25

The rest of the book explains how to identify weariness and how to address it in order to avoid Ziklag. However, if Ziklag is where we are, there is always grace to leave.

As this is a book from Moody Publishers, there are a few sections that are heavy on the Calvinism, but this doesn’t effect the overall message of the book. One paragraph did, however, stand out to me:

I became a Christian when I was around twelve years old, and my family was very involved in our small church. The fellowship was meaningful. The worship was uplifting. The messages were based on the Bible and applicable. But there were challenges with the church’s doctrine. I was taught that Christian could lose their salvation, that an act of sin severed one’s relationship with God. I grew up believing that I could be headed for [H]eaven in the morning, then sin at lunch and be on my way to [H]ell by the afternoon.

– p. 180-181, emphasis mine

As Moore does not name this church, it is impossible for me to know if he was taught an incorrect doctrine of assurance or if he misunderstood the Arminianism the church espoused. If the former, if he really was taught that one sin meant he had to be somehow saved again, then there were definite problems with the church’s doctrine. That would inspire terror and legalism. If the latter, he would not be the first to misunderstand the Arminian teaching on assurance and apostasy. The Society of Evangelical Arminians addresses this directly:

…a believer cannot lose his or her salvation (cf. John 3:16, 36; Rom. 5:1), since he or she by definition remains in the state of belief or trust in Christ and is hence a believer. The one who falls away from salvation is the one who is no longer believing or trusting in Christ alone and is thus not a believer. Second, the believer does not lose his or her salvation by falling into sin. Though sin may lead one to deny Christ, the act of sin itself does not cause one to lose his or her salvation. A person is justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1). And a person is not justified due to unbelief. If a person no longer believes in or trusts in Christ Jesus for salvation, then that person will not be justified by God — accounted righteous in Christ and by His merit.

As this comes up in the penultimate chapter, and Moore does not spill significant ink in trying to convince his audience of Calvinism or in attacking those who do not find TULIPs lovely (neither of which is the point of the book), it is only a minor detail and one that a casual reader may not even notice. The mindful non-Calvinist need not fear being blindsided or belittled, not should he fear manipulation.

I recommend Worn Out by Obedience to anyone who wishes to avoid burn-out and wandering off of God’s path, but especially recommend it to those who, like myself, have strayed more often than they would like to admit. The struggle is real. The climb is steep. There may be miles to go in order to get back on course. But there is more than enough grace to save us, more than enough love to console us and more than enough Spirit to empower us.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Review: The Life Path

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Personal development is not a genre that I typically read. I have a difficult time with gimmicky, formulaic, “follow these steps and your life will be made of unicorns and marshmallow fluff!” types of books. It’s all been said and done. So when Dr. Thien Doan shared this in the introduction:

There are plenty of books out there on this subject by experts and success gurus who have conquered the world, made fortunes, and have millions of followers, fans and “friends” on Social Media. I’m not one of them.

I found myself smiling. The Life Path may not have been a title I would have chosen if not graciously asked to review it, but I can’t help but appreciate an author who is refreshingly down-to-earth.

The subject matter – planning, goal setting, leaving a legacy – is difficult for me. My eyes tend to glaze over when an author tasks me with composing lists or figuring out where I want to be in five years. This brain simply doesn’t work like that. It’s not that I don’t like planning; I do. Quite a lot. I am in fact deeply logical and orderliness is my jam. Perhaps the struggle is rooted in living with chronic illness. I simply have no idea what the next day, let alone the next year, will bring.

Thus I appreciate that Dr. Doan doesn’t pretend that life is neat. Plans must be sketched in pencil. He keeps the changeable nature of human existence at the forefront as he lays out the steps of the “Life Path.” We must take responsibility for ourselves, he rightly declares, but he doesn’t try to sell the notion that we can achieve perfection or bliss this side of eternity. Dr. Doan draws the reader to focus on God; how He has gifted and called each person. Those gifts and callings are varied. One life will not be exactly the same as the other. Several biblical illustrations are used to drive this home, from Nehemiah and his quest to rebuild the wall to the haunting question Jesus asked the man by the pool: “Do you want to get well?”

This is an honest book, outlining a never-ending journey. As we grow and change and become more intimate with the Lord, the road shifts. Dr. Doan reminds us that God is the center, the focus. He is to be our highest priority. We must be willing to lay our plans aside as His will becomes clear. That is a necessary and timely message to a church culture that is caught up in self-centeredness and the pursuit of the American Dream.

Humble and straightforward, Dr. Doan peppers his message with humor and pop-culture references, which I greatly enjoyed. One moment I was laughing…

I’m like Steve Rogers before he got the Super Soldier serum that turned him into Captain America. Beaten up and with a bloody nose, I’ll still square up and look at life’s obstacles in the eye and say, “I can do this all day.”

…the next I was thinking deeply,

God has a clear and compelling assignment for your life. Can you see it? Is your vision clear? Is it compelling enough to get your butt off the couch?

This is feet-on-the-pavement style teaching, meant to drive the reader to action.

Dr. Doan sums up the message of this book within its pages:

If you’re not learning, you’re not growing as a person.

This is the task of the disciple – to learn from and grow in the Lord. The Life Path is a good resource in that pursuit, perhaps especially if you’re not normally a fan of this kind of book.

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I received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Harm in That

Harm in That Cover

Gentle Reader,

The LORD upholds all who fall,
And raises up all who are bowed down.

– Psalm 145:14 (NKJV)

I hate pants.

Three abdominal surgeries have left me with very sensitive skin and internal organs that don’t function properly. Anything tight is a big no-no. It’s a good thing that my style leans in the casual, comfortable direction already; I can’t really wear anything that is the correct size.

I was reminded of this yesterday after foolishly wearing a belt. My outfit for church was, if I may say so, very cute. Floaty summer top and slim khakis. But the pants don’t fit right. So I slipped the belt through the loops and anchored it as loosely as I could while ensuring that my underwear did not make an unexpected appearance.

Cue the nausea.

Hannah Anderson tweeted this yesterday:

So now I’m sitting here thinking about link [between] conservatives’ approach to healthcare [conversation] & [G]nosticism prevalent in evangelical church…

Gnosticism is our modern term for various ideas and philosophies, originating in the Jewish world of the first and second centuries, the proponents of which sought to attain “higher” or “secret” spiritual knowledge. An inter-religious movement rather than a distinct belief system, gnostics tended toward asceticism, disdaining the body and physical world as corrupted and of lesser importance when compared to the spiritual. Highly influenced by Platonism and comfortable with syncretism, Gnosticism emphasized personal experience over systematic doctrine and liturgy.

How is Gnosticism present in American, evangelical Christian teaching today, specifically in the context of healthcare?

Right there in the assumption that a Christian should be able to conquer her body.

If you would just eat this…. If you would just do that…. If you would drink this…. If you would take this herb/read this book/buy this flaxseed pillow…. If you would exercise harder…. If you would pray more….

The body is nothing. It is lesser. Mind over matter. Control.

Consider our Christian celebrity culture. What prominent pastor, teacher or author can any of us name who isn’t conventionally attractive? Who doesn’t have decent health? (Not perfect; we do love those who have beaten cancer). Joni Eareckson Tada, of course, but her teaching is really just for “those people,” right?

The ones that make us uncomfortable. The ones we shuffle off to the side.

No room for bodies that don’t conform.

I write very generally and I don’t seek to condemn. Not all Christians have these beliefs and assumptions. There is much compassion and acceptance among the people of God. But we struggle. It’s easy to comfort someone diagnosed with terminal illness. Even in our awkwardness, we know how to hold hands and shed tears and bake casseroles. This is good, necessary, gracious work.

When it comes to those whose pain has no expiration date, though, we don’t know how to respond. We don’t know what to do. Such suffering messes with our tidy theology. And so we let fear or discomfort cause us to release such people from the bonds of fellowship, never thinking to find creative ways to support and love them. Or, if we do think of it, we become terrified of doing it all wrong and stay away. Worse, we indulge in arrogance, taking health for granted and wondering, in some corner of our minds, if the chronically ill didn’t do something to bring on the illness.

Never mind that any one of us can be struck down, at any moment.

The next clear, painless breath is not guaranteed.

We don’t think about that.

We don’t dare.

So what do we do with verses like Psalm 145:14, which show us that God is intimately involved with the suffering? He holds up people who can’t take another step. He carries them. There is no hint of anger, no trace of, “well, if you had just….” What do we do with “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33, emphasis mine)? How can we fully embrace that Christ was “beaten, He was tortured” (Isaiah 53:7a, MSG)?

This is why I wrote The Harm in That: False Gospels, Alternative Medicine and Suffering. Not to scream at people who hold fast to essential oils. Not to shame those who don’t understand exactly what they buy into when they accept “health and wealth” teaching. Not to make anyone feel bad and myself feel superior. I wrote this book because we, Christians, people of God, have go to come to grips with suffering. We have to learn to accept it as part of life on this broken earth, even as the eternal part of us, the part that cries out to God and knows that this is not how things were meant to be, rebels.

I pitched this book to many agents and several publishing houses last summer and fall. Over and over again I was told that my writing was good and the topic was one that needs addressing, but nobody wanted to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Because it’s not a “happy, feel good” book. It’s not warm fuzzies and rah-rah time. It’s not a guaranteed best-seller. It steps on toes. Confronts some cherished beliefs. It’s messy. Unpretty. (It’s also not a “woman’s book,” but that’s an entirely separate issue, one that I could go off on for hours. I will spare you that).

So, convinced that this was something God would have me do, I self-published the thing back in January. No fanfare. No fuss. It’s sold a few copies. I’ve achieved starving artist status. Woohoo.

Really, making money isn’t my concern. This is a book that people need to read. Not because I’m amazing or the best author ever. I’m not. I simply believe that I have a perspective that is often lacking in Christian teaching. Again, not because I’m a genius. Rather, because the sick and suffering are marginalized, however unwittingly, by a church that doesn’t know how to respond, doesn’t have a clear understanding of how illness and faith can exist in the same body. Their voices are silenced in the face of a callousness that many probably don’t even know they possess.

Would I like you to buy my book? Of course. I got bills. But if you can’t afford the cost, I’ll send it to you. Free of charge. (No substitutions, exchanges or refunds, though). You can find my contact information on the “about” page. One thing I do beg of you: Please don’t take advantage of me. Like I said, I got bills.

Oh, if you do get the book, leave a review on Amazon. It’s painless and makes you an extra-awesome person. You don’t even have to leave a good review.

Okay, enough with the very uncomfortable self-promotion. Continue on with your regular activities.

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