Category Archives: faith

Review | The Walk | Shaun Alexander

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Walk by former NFL star Shaun Alexander is apparently written for those Christians young in their faith, but its bland, trite style and theologically questionable premise make it a book only someone with a fairly mature understanding of Scripture ought to attempt to slog through. Even then, there would be very little reward in the end.

Alexander’s premise is this: Since “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33 – often translated as “order” rather than “peace”), that He has created a very specific path to maturity in Christ. That path consists of this series of stages: “Unbeliever, Believer, Example, Teacher, Imparter.” (pg. 21)

Up until this point in The Walk, I had actually been pleasantly surprised. I had fully expected it to be another Christ self-help book – “Here’s how to get spiritual power for your life – to be everything you want to be!” It wasn’t, and I was glad of that.

However, Alexander completely lost me here. The passage he quotes as the basis for his sequence of spiritual maturity clearly relates to worship in the church – not the progression of a believer’s growth. While it is true that 1 Corinthians 14:33 is a statement with broader implications, there is absolutely no Scriptural support for this order that The Walk is entirely based upon. Consequently, it took me about six weeks to read this short book because I felt compelled to continually question the author’s credibility. And I continually found it lacking.

He essentially invents his premise and tells the reader it’s from God, and this plagues the entire book.

There are notes of truth throughout the book, and I would encourage any believer from a non-charismatic background to read the final chapter with an open mind. Like Alexander, I believe that there are still miracles out there. We just don’t see them happen because we have cut ourselves off from this kind of working of the Holy Spirit.

At the risk of being too harsh, The Walk turns out to be a more or less useless book. I absolutely would not recommend it.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review as part of the Blogging for Books program.

View all my reviews

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A True Pastor

But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’S people.” It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” Then they fell on their faces. Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!” Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting, for the plague had been checked.

Numbers 16:41-50

Say what you will about Aaron. He has his own moments of rebellion and failure, of which the golden calf is not least, but in this moment, I am struck by his courage. He shows us something about what a pastor ought to be.

The Lord has finally had enough of the Israelites’ grumbling and determines to destroy them. (You see, when they grumble against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, they grumble against the guidance of God Himself, who directs Moses and Aaron.) I know I probably would have said, “Go to it, Lord! They deserve it!” But when Moses tells his brother to make atonement for the people’s sin, the priest does not hesitate.

It’s right there in verse 47. Aaron “ran into the midst of the assembly.” As fast as he can, Aaron bravely steps between the people and imminent destruction at the hands of a (rightfully) wrathful God. Without regard for his own safety (plagues are contagious!), he acts quickly, doing what he must to deliver the Israelites from the consequences of their rebellion.

In my opinion, Aaron did several things in this one act. First, he showed grace to the people. They deserved what they were about to receive, but he did what was necessary to give them what they did not deserve: continued life. Sounds like someone else I know. (I believe this is what’s known as displaying Godly character!)

Second, he showed that He loved the people. What evidence do I have for this? It is just my opinion, but I find it hard to believe that someone would rush into the midst of a plague-ridden mass of people whom he did not love.

Finally, he showed faith in God’s plan. If he had not believed God’s promise to give the nation of Israel a land of its own, what would have been the purpose of saving them? He shows great trust that God will do what he promised for the descendants of Abraham despite the destruction that occurs here.

Like all of us, Aaron was human, but for at least this moment, he gives us a picture of a true pastor. I pray that all of us – full-time, bi-vocational, paid, volunteer, church staff, or lay-people – who seek to lead the people of God in some capacity would strive to act as Aaron acts here.

Five Books Every Christian Should Read

With my review of Eileen Button’s The Waiting Place earlier this week, this blog is embarking on a new phase that will see a lot more activity and a greater concentration on book reviews.

With that in mind, I’m going to share with you five books I’ve read that I think every Christian should read. (If you’re interested, here’s my list on Amazon.)

  1. The Bible – I know this one probably seems like a cop-out, but too few of us really read the Bible. I struggle with it just like everyone else, but I can say that I read it more consistently now than I ever have before. A few years ago, I prayed that God would give me a greater love for His Word, and He did. (You can read about it here.)It’s the Word of God. It is more important than any other book we’ll ever read, and as it shapes us, it shapes the lens through which we read everything else. We should read it in big chunks and study it down to the briefest statement.I like the NASB because it is a word-for-word translation. The NIV – because it translates ideas more than individual words – is generally easier to read in large sections.
  2. unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons – The information in this book may not be news to some people, but for those of us who have grown up in the traditional church culture, it can be world-altering. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group provides in-depth research into the attitudes and reactions of teens and young adults toward the church.
  3. Crazy Love by Francis ChanunChristian was the beginning of a journey for me and several other folks in my life. God had begun to alter my perceptions of faith and the church not long before reading it, and those changed perceptions were solidified upon reading it. But Crazy Love took it one step further, showing me what I ought to be doing with those new perceptions. It was no longer enough to follow the rules and be part of the institution of the Church. I had to love God with everything, and that love wouldn’t make sense to most people. Read my review here.
  4. Forgotten God by Francis Chan – Yes, it’s another Francis Chan book. Yes, I’m a big fan. But this one was the next step on my journey. The Holy Spirit empowers us to live the life God has called us to live. The Holy Spirit does things beyond imagining. We’ve put Him in a box and written off the miraculous, or – worse – we’ve forgotten about Him altogether. We neglect Him to our detriment and that of the Church as a whole. Read the review.
  5. Radical by David Platt – Pastor of a megachurch in Alabama, Platt challenges us to turn our backs on the American dream and embrace the call of God to go against the culture around us, focusing first on the Kingdom. Though the book has its flaws – it loses some steam in the middle – its premise is powerful, and for me, was the culmination of many things God had been teaching on this literary journey.

Take the time to read these – especially the first! – and you will be challenged. Your perceptions will be altered. And maybe – hopefully – you’ll begin to think a little more like Christ.

Review | The Waiting Place | Eileen Button

At times beautifully written and at times full of cliché, The Waiting Place: Learning to Appreciate Life’s Little Delays by Eileen Button is a worthwhile read if only for its powerful honesty.

Button – an adjunct professor, newspaper columnist, and pastor’s wife – is a competent writer, but she relies a little too much on trite sayings like “too much month left at the end of the money” (pg. 65) that she seems to think are clever.

She also leans too much sometimes toward corny sentimentality – “When we listen closely enough, we think we hear the angels cry.” (pg.121) Button is at her best when she simply tells the stories. These are stories that don’t need sentimental embellishment to bolster their power (good stories rarely do!), and the book falters when she tries to do so.

There’s little that stands out in her writing style, but I found her honesty so courageous that the book’s flaws were forgivable. Indeed, the beauty of The Waiting Place is found in her honesty. Most of us know that church people often expect complete perfection from pastors and their wives, but Button is brave enough to talk about the struggles of a white, formerly middle-class woman who finds herself applying for WIC, a mother suffering through her child’s horrific birth defect, and a pastor’s wife on the receiving end of both the grace and the venom of the church. Some of these struggles are born out of her self-centeredness, and that is what’s so refreshing about The Waiting Place. She is honest about the struggles and about where they come from.

One of my favorite passages is found in chapter 13. Her description of the church is powerful: “She is loving and life changing; she is malicious and overbearing. She is beautiful; she is ugly. She is as light as day, capable of astonishing kindness and generosity; she is as dark as night, capable of unspeakable evil.”

There is not a great deal of theological depth here, all of the stories in The Waiting Place come back to one thing. Eileen Button and her husband had wonderful dreams about where their lives were going and what God would do with them, but it’s never quite looked the way they’d hoped. That is the waiting place – the place where you wait to become. The problem is – as Button discovered and shares with us – that we spend most of our lives in that place. Button tells us that the trick is to find the beauty – the workings of God – in the waiting.

I review for BookSneeze®

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Worship Music Industry | Right or Wrong?

Being a worship leader is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I love every moment of it. It’s a blast, it’s a challenge, and it’s meaningful. It’s right up there with being a husband and father.

Like any position of leadership, it’s also fraught with pitfalls, the most obvious of which is the lure of fame. Even in a small church like the one of which my family and I are members, it’s easy to feel like you’re on a pedestal – even if no one else thinks you are. (That being said, it’s also easy for others to put you on a pedestal.) You step onto the stage every Sunday morning with the spotlight shining on you. People complement you, tell you how talented you are, want your attention. It’s the great temptation of pride.

It concerns me to see the direction of worship ministry in the church these days. There seems to be such a push to record and distribute nationally or globally the music you’re doing at the local church level. It’s as though your ministry is not relevant or fruitful unless people on the other side of the country are playing your music on Sunday.

I tried to be a musician for a living. I had a band, which many of you know. We made a go of it for a while and did pretty well for an indie outfit just starting out. Things stalled out after a couple of years, and I believe there were two reasons for this. First, it wasn’t what God wanted for me (or the rest of the band – at least not at that point in time). Second, I was completely burned out.

After a very short time, it stopped being about Jesus or about the music. It was about booking the next gig. This is the difficulty of music as business – at some point the art is probably going to give way to the need to put food on the table. I was spending all my time trying to book gigs when I wanted to be writing music and touring. And even the little bit of touring we did wore on me because – even then – I felt that my primary goal was selling my product. I don’t have the personality of a salesman.

I believe it’s even more dangerous to mix business and worship. At that juncture, you’re mixing business with something much more pure and noble than art. How can we possibly combine a pursuit of money with our pursuit of the Living God? How can we respond to Him properly when it’s all wrapped up in money?

Think about the state of the music industry now? The economy, digital downloads, piracy have all contributed to the atrophying of CD sale, and the labels are trying every bad idea they can think of to get people to start buying again. Apple finally convinced them to let go of DRM protection. They still want to limit the number of devices you can play your songs on. And those things pale in comparison to what they’re actually doing to the music!

Pop music has always been formulaic, but periodically, you would see it changed by the random renegade who gets a record deal. The last time that really happened, though, was in the 90s. Suddenly, the face of pop music changed. Much like the music of the 60s, the grunge bands brought us incomprehensible lyrics (a big no-no in the pop formula) and musical experimentation. Then the post-grunge bands rode that momentum and created pop-rock songs with intelligent lyrics that people could relate to.

These days, bands are slavishly shackled to the formula – lowest common denominator lyrics, overly simplified music. The labels are afraid that’s the only way they can sell music!

That industry is the industry that is now shaping our worship music. That formula – a formula invented by people whose goal is to make money – is being applied to the way we worship God.

Worship leaders started gaining a national stage via the music industry years ago. Now, we’re seeking it. We’ve created a worship music industry. I have a hard time making that fit with what I know of God and Scripture, primarily because of the way the music industry in general works. Being successful in the music industry requires selling yourself – telling everyone how great you are – and that is entirely antithetical to the teachings of Christ. (Yes, I believe there is a difference between you telling everyone how great you are and your agent or manager telling everyone how great you are. However, I also believe that’s a gray area that requires further thought.)

Since when is it right for a worship leader to tell everyone how great his music is? How does a church justify marketing its worship ministry?

And honestly, this isn’t limited to music. We see it with pastors. We see it in the focus of the mainstream church on so called “evangelism” that exists only to make our institutions larger. We are attempting to define the success of ourselves, our ministries, our churches by worldly measures.

I’m not saying that it cannot ever be right for a worship leader or a church’s worship band to record an album or sign a record deal. But I’m not entirely uncomfortable with saying it’s wrong. I believe it’s tricky terrain to navigate, and we must be much more careful than we have been up to now.

We Have Forgotten God

I recently read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It honestly wasn’t an enjoyable read (then again, I don’t think it was supposed to be), but Solzhenitsyn is considered such a great thinker, I had to give it a shot.

He paints a pretty convincing portrait of the bleak life of a prisoner in a 1950s-era Siberian work camp in the Soviet Union. It’s freezing cold. The food they’re offered is unappetizing, to say the least. The most striking aspect of the novel, though, is Ivan’s attitude. More than once, he says something like, “This is the good life!” when he gets an extra hunk of bread or bowl of mush. And he takes pride in his work, even though he will get absolutely no benefit from it – just more mistreatment from the guards.

But the thing that hit home with me the most was a passage near the end of the book in which Ivan is speaking with a character called Alyoshka the Baptist. Here’s an excerpt:

“The thing is, you can pray as much as you like but they won’t take anything off your sentence and you’ll just have to sit it out, every day of it, from reveille to lights out.”

“You mustn’t pray for that.” Alyoshka was horrorstruck. “What d’you want your freedom for? What faith you have left will be choked in thorns. Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul. Paul the Apostle said: ‘What mean you to weep and to break my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Ivan is without hope. He’s in prison for no good reason, and he doesn’t understand Alyoshka’s perspective. Ivan’s world was full of cruelty, self-preservation, and grief.

The cruelty of that society was summed up by Solzhenitsyn himself in a speech when he said, “We have forgotten God. That is why all this has happened.” The Soviet government had forgotten God. Therefore its only purpose was to create an order that served the nation’s power-mongering leaders. Since they only cared about themselves, their government could be as cruel, suspicious, and tyrannical as they wanted it to be.

Subsequently, the people of the Soviet Union forgot God and lost hope. That’s what we see here in the passage. Alyoshka hoped in the Lord. He knew there must be a purpose to his imprisonment even if he didn’t know what it was. He knew that Christ holds everything together, that all things work for good for those who love Him. If God wanted him to be imprisoned or even die, he was joyfully ready (hence his quotation of Acts 21:13). Ivan didn’t have this hope.

While we don’t see this level of cruelty and paranoia in the US, we can still see the effects of the same attitude. In its subtlest form it has invaded the church. The very thought of going to prison for the cause of Christ is foreign to us. True, that doesn’t happen in America, but think about this. If we attempt to do something for God and it ends badly, most commonly, we think, “It’s hard. God must not want me to do it.” So many of us believe God’s greatest goal for us is financial security. We avoid suffering at all costs. We don’t go to places like Haiti because the political environment is too volatile. It would be dangerous for us. And when someone decides to go to a dangerous place for the cause of Christ, we often criticize them.

We have no hope, no reason to risk, no thought that suffering could be the right thing to do. Why?

America has not become like the USSR, but it’s coming. Attitudes in this country have already shifted against Christ. And while we fight to change those attitudes (and I believe we should), our church is slipping further away from His teaching, and our nation is becoming less and less tolerant of us. (I believe those two are interconnected, by the way. See “Hated and Highly Regarded.”)

But maybe that’s what God wants. Look at places in our world where the church is persecuted. It is growing. The people are serious about Christ – in many instances serious to the point of their own death. This attitude is alien to American Christians. We are like Ivan – looking for an extra bowl of mush when the glory of God’s kingdom is waiting for us if we’ll only hope in Him and take a chance. So what if they put us in prison? So what if they kill us? They cannot kill the soul.

But instead, in this nation where we are more or less accepted, we have become content, complacent even. Possibly complicit in our own downfall.

Why are we this way? Because we have no hope. Because we have forgotten God.

Hated and Highly Regarded

Nestled in amidst the passion, boldness, love, persecution – the absolute beauty – of the early Church, we find in Acts 5:13 the words, “they were highly regarded by the people.” It’s true that Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26) So, what’s the catch?

This passage in Acts is interesting because we see a dichotomy – not in the behavior of the Church, but in outsiders’ perceptions of it. A verse earlier, we read that the people saw miracles performed by the apostles. We also see the early Christ followers gathering in Solomon’s Colonnade – that’s part of the temple, the seat of Jewish worship. The Jews – all the people – saw them together in fellowship and worship in this very public place.

We can probably infer as well that the people saw how the members of the early Church lived on a daily basis – that they refrained from sin, that they treated people with respect, that they spoke with boldness about the One who made them different – Christ.

I believe this is why the people held them in high regard. Outsiders daily saw these Christians not just living by the rules, but they saw Christ living through His Church. It was evidenced by authentic worship, charity, love for each other. They saw there was something special.

But verse 13 also reads, “No one else dared join them” in the colonnade. Nobody wanted to be seen with them. Despite the fact that these followers of the Way healed people, showed kindness to one another, lived pure lives, nobody wanted to be too closely associated with them.

Which is to be expected. And yet, in Acts 4:14, “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”

They lived as they should, shared grace and love with one another, lived by the Word of God. They scared people, made outsiders want to avoid them, yet this Church was highly regarded, and its growth was unrestrainable.

I’m reminded of a message by Francis Chan in which he referenced the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9). Jesus sat by the lake. Large crowds gathered. He told them this parable that, in all likelihood, made no sense to them. His disciples had to come ask Him what He was talking about! When the disciples asked Jesus why He spoke to the people in parables, He responded, “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” (Matt. 13:13)

He taught in parables so they would not understand. Only the ones who cared enough to chase Him down and ask for the answers would understand.

Francis Chan said, “If Jesus had a church…, His church would be smaller than mine.” Why? Because we try to teach so everyone can understand. We shy away from teachings that may be hard to understand or that step on toes. We try to draw people in with events and programs. But Jesus taught so that people would not understand unless they sought Him out! And that comes through an act of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus didn’t obsess over the next great method for getting people to listen to Him. He drove them away!

So why are we so obsessed with reaching the most people possible? Because that’s the way our world works. The measure of success in this world is, “How many people bought my product?”

But Christ is not a product. He’s the source of life.

Acts 4 shows us that when we live as Christ lived, teach as Christ taught, love as He loves, the Holy Spirit will do something amazing. Though people disdain to be seen with us, they will highly regard us. Though no one else dares join us, the Spirit will draw people to us, and the numbers of the Kingdom will grow.

But that growth isn’t guaranteed, and it’s certainly not a measure of success. The measure of success for the Church is, “Are we a presentable bride?”