Book Review: Church Behind the Wire

There’s something about the Christian life that is so contrary to the human disposition; there is something so completely backward about this life with Jesus. Barnabas Mam in his book, Church Behind the Wire, captures the discrepancy between the ways of God and the expectations of His creation, perfectly.

Born in Cambodia, Mam converted to Christianity in 1970, just as Communism sunk its teeth into his country. At the end of Pol Pot’s maniacal campaign, Mam was one of only 200 Christians remaining. His story is of the sheer grace of God.

During his arrest and subsequent displacement, Mam tells impossible stories of God’s goodness. He tells of food miraculously appearing in the form of fish that seemed to jump from a bush in front of him. He tells of Communist officers who befriended him and “took good care,” of him. He tells of God miraculously providing musical equipment for his worship ministry.

Church Behind the Wire, is a constant ebb and flow of tension. Each of these wonderful accounts is punctuated by long periods of starvation, isolation, loss of family, betrayal and despair. Mam learns to trust God’s favor, justice and mercy. He gains strength for the struggle as God proves His faithfulness through little graces and big miracles.

Mam’s book is a beacon on reality. We love books because they beckon us into another world. Church Behind the Wire, invites the reader to vicariously experience the world of Christians suffering for their faith. The result is a deeper sense of gratitude, compassion and activism.

The church in America has a general expectation of ease. Often times, ease blinds us the uncomfortable truth of people suffering in other countries. As I read, I felt convicted of my ignorance. I realized how little I knew of the Killing Fields. Mam’s book incensed me to learn more of the history of the church and its broader experience and impact.

On a technical note, my only disappointment in this book is that it is very disjointed. The author jumps from place to place, back and forth in time. This made it difficult for me to place certain events and people within the story. However, this gives the reader an empathy for the author. Mam conveys a feeling of wandering, lack of control and displacement.

book reviewed for Moody Publishers, complimentary copy provided

Book Review of Son of a Preacherman

There’s no better way to learn and retain history than through a well researched, historical novel. When I finally managed to put down Son of a Preacherman, I knew more about Oklahoma during the 1920s than I had learned in school.

I grew up in Oklahoma, studied state history and still never heard about the Greenwood District, Black Wall Street or the Tulsa race riot. A little research revealed that much of the true story was intentionally overlooked by history books until 1996 when the state legislature commissioned a report to establish the historical record.

Marlene Banks’ book, Son of a Preacherman, is remarkably accurate. The main characters, Billy Ray Maitthias and and Benny Freeman are fictitious, but the circumstances that surround them and the events they participate in are very real.

Banks seems to draw the very real into her fiction as much as she adds some drama to the history. She doesn’t shy away from the racial brutality of the time. Banks includes nearly every conceivable conflict, giving the reader insight into how homosexuality was viewed, how women were treated and how religion played both a positive and negative role in society.

Every element of a good story is included in Son of a Preacherman. Romance steadily blooms between Benny and Billy Ray. No chapter is dominated by cheesy dialogue or passionate scenes. However, following the two lovers through the turmoil provides an excellent balance to the book’s constant suspense.

After the tension of the book, I did find the epilogue almost too conclusive. Banks wraps each character’s situation and seals the book with an implied, “happily ever after.” Given that there is a sequel to Son of a Preacherman, I would have liked to be left with a not-too-steep cliffhanger.

Welcome September!

Believe it or not, here we are again – on the precipice of a new month. Actually, we just slipped over the edge a few days ago and find ourselves screaming through the final days of summer.

Fall isn’t so much a season in its own right as a transition with a name. I love that murky line between steamy days and crispy nights. I love the lingering green and encroaching brown. I love the refreshing promise fall holds. I love darker evenings, shorter days and first frosts. But change can leave you wondering what you missed in the moments that will never replay.

Did you play hard enough, rest long enough, spend plenty of time in the sun?

Courtesy of: http://boisdejasmin.com/2009/10

Did you finish house projects, take a father-daughter camping trip, lose the weight?
Did you do that Bible study, read your stack of books, visit your long-distance relatives?

If you didn’t “do it all” this summer, don’t despair. I sure didn’t scratch the surface of the privileges of pain, the potential of words, or the pleasure of poetry. So I’m going to keep going straight through September! Peering inquisitively into my pain, harnessing the power of my words and sometimes reigning in my tongue have been great lessons for me. They are broad brushes that color nearly every aspect of human life, leaving me with boundless questions and  an entire cannon of Scripture to ply for answers.

In honor of fall’s stealthy approach, I will change a few tiny things this month – like the first leaves to turn before cascading to the ground. On Mondays we will continue to look at the Privilege of Pain. I have a whole new perspective to consider – a medical application.

We will still celebrate Wordy Wednesdays. Ponder with me tough words like addiction. Wonder what’s in a name. Try to share Jesus without words. 

Friday will offer a little variety. I’ve been devouring a wonderful book called “In the Land of Blue Burqas,” by Kate McCord. In fact, it has fueled much of my thoughts on pain and how we use our language. I am honored to review various books for Moody Publishers, so on one particular Friday, I will entice  you to read this book.

Not that my opinion is to be over valued, but I want to share with you my thoughts on a couple other ministries and resources of truth as well. Truth is the only vaccine against or treatment for the Predatory Lies of this fallen world. And doubtless, my journal will be peppered with poetry prayers in September. I hope you don’t mind if I share them.

So there you have it! Happy September!

Book Review: In the Land of Blue Burqas

Kate McCord left a flourishing career to begin a non-governmental organization in Afghanistan with the goal of helping Afghan women. In her book, In the Land of Blue Burqas, she uses her “boots on the ground” perspective to describe the countryside, homes, people, culture and emotions of a country few non-military Americans will ever see.

Quite literally, I could taste the dust swirling through porous homes. As I read, I felt the piercing cold and the tingle of sweat in the midst of the extreme seasons. I could feel the tension between McCord and her Afghan co-workers when the subject of faith inevitably surfaced.

In the Land of Blue Burqas, is a unique book, in that it goes beyond painting an almost tangible image of this mysterious country and its people. McCord shares how she learned to boldly share her faith in Jesus Christ without alienating Muslims who would as soon kill an infidel as entertain their witness.

A couple of McCord’s explanations of her faith to Afghan friends actually strengthened my own understanding of my Christian faith. My favorite was her depiction of the Trinity.

“God the Father is like the sun that sits in the midday sky. The sun is so strong that if we stare at it, we would be destroyed because it burns with such a great fire. If we did get to it, we would be destroyed because it burns with such a great fire. We cannot come near the sun in the midday sky. God the Son is the light of the world, just as your Holy Quran says. We need the light of the sun to live. Without it, no plants would grow….God Jesus is like the light that comes from the sun in the sky. And God the Holy Spirit is like the warmth that the sun provides. Without it, the earth would be covered with ice and we would die. The sun, the light it shines, and the warmth it gives are all one thing; they cannot be separated…The three are one, and yet they are different.”
(In the Land of Blue Burqas, pg. 242)

Kate McCord’s book deepened more than my understanding of the country of Afghanistan. It also increased my compassion for all who work desperately to appease a God they do not know and who die with no certainty of salvation. McCord calls Christians to consider how they approach differences between faiths. How do we act in love? express forgiveness? explain our relationship with a loving God?

Finally, McCord doesn’t leave her readers with more questions. Her book provides numerous examples of speaking the truth in love and being unashamed of the cross of Christ.

One Thing For Sure

It is not my desire to ignite controversy. But, I’m going to do it anyway (:

Isn’t that what blogging is for: to strike up dialogue, probe opinions and make you think?

I have been reading Christ’s Prophetic Plans, by John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue. I picked it up just after re-reading Hank Hanegraaff’s Apocalypse Code, so my thoughts are tangled, my opinions mangled and the only thing I remain certain of this that JESUS IS LORD AND I WILL SPEND ETERNITY WITH HIM IN HEAVEN! Whew, at least that’s settled!

Caught between these two eschatological view points, each espoused by biblical scholars that I deeply admire, I have digging in unusual places (Google) for better illumination on each opinion. I have ferreted out audio and interviews with MacArthur, R.C. Sproul and Sinclair Ferguson. I have read about John Newton Darby (often regarded as the founder of Dispensationalism) and read about Margaret MacDonald (a woman whose entranced, hysteric mumblings have been regarded at different times both as extra-biblical and demonic.

This reading leads one into discussion of the rapture, the tribulation, the essence of salvation and the distinction of the nation of Israel. While I firmly believe that we are called as Christians to “… you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.” (1 Peter 3:15) I confess that I remain unresolved on three of these issues.

If one accepted Darby’s view of the secret rapture… Benjamin Wills Newton pointed out, then many Gospel passages must be “renounced as not properly ours.”…this is precisely what Darby was prepared to do.

Too traditional to admit that biblical authors might have contradicted each other, and too rationalist to admit that the prophetic maze defied penetration, Darby attempted a resolution of his exegetical dilemma by distinguishing between Scripture intended for the Church and Scripture intended for Israel…

The task of the expositor of the Bible was, in a phrase that became the hallmark of dispensationalism, “rightly dividing the word of truth”.

From “The Roots of Fundamentalism:
British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930” (1970)
by Ernest R. Sandeen, University of Chicago Press
ISBN 0-22-73467-6, p. 65-67

Makes you think, huh?

It bothers me that as I read both view points, I find the authors of each, demeaning the others. Not only do they espouse a different opinion, but like politicians defending their platforms in an election year, they mock the opposing view. While we study and strive to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and wait expectantly for Him can we not remember,

“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Philippians 2:1-3

Paul reminds us:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

“And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, ‘Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.’ Jew and Gentilef are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.” Romans 10:8b-13

Shhhh…It’s the Quietest Gospel

The Quietest Gospel. Kind of self explanatory, but Wax explains there are a couple angles. For the sake of baiting you to read the book, I’ll only explain the version that I struggle with the most.

The conservative version maintains the appearance of prophetic speech by speaking out against certain sins. But it often reduces the gospel announcement by relegating its implications to personal fulfillment in a way that makes the church irrelevant to public discourse. (pg. 140)

Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow Him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (quoted on pg 140)

The problem is I observe plenty blatant sins in my daily life. It’s easy enough (though sometimes I wimp out even still) to declare that am pro-life and abortion is wrong, that taking God’s name in vain is a sin, that stealing is wrong and so is sexual immorality and lying and abuse and sorcery and… you get my drift. Many people, priding themselves on morality, would support these assertions. However, the true Gospel calls me to more than that.

Where is a Christian living out the bold apostolic Gospel that defies evil even when to do so will cause pain? Where is the Christian willing to take the true Gospel for all its political assertions, for its nitty-gritty implications on everyday life? I suggest to you that there aren’t many living in the United States.

It is frequently heard from our pulpits, “Just preach the gospel.” I have heard many Christians say, “I don’t really say much about my faith, I just hope people see Jesus in my life.” That’s not the Biblical Gospel.

Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and Ezekiel had no trouble holding together the proclamation of good news with the prophetic call to care for the poor and needy, to stop economically unjust practices, and to return to a heartfelt worship of God.” (pg. 145)

I think on a smaller scale of other examples of a quietest gospel: when we’re afraid to raise our hands in church or kneel in worship because of what others may think; when we don’t give money to that homeless person because we don’t know their real motives; when we don’t tell the truth about where we’ll be on Sunday morning when asked to make other plans. Anything sound familiar?

This morning I began my quiet time as usual with my journal open on my lap. Suddenly, after a few pages of drivel and standard prayer requests, the Holy Spirit dug deep into my heart. He asked me, “Abby, if there were no hell, would you love me?”

What?

“If there were no eternal consequence to sin, no fiery hell to be avoided, would you love me? Or would you say, ‘A little longer, I’ve almost got it right down here;’ or, ‘I’m actually enjoying this for now.’ How passionate is your love for me? Is it greater, louder, more fulfilling than your comfort, your reputation, your self-esteem?”

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin. Hebrews 12:1-4

The Moralistic Appeal

On Monday, I confessed several ways that I see the moralistic gospel veiling pride in my own life. Continued reading reminded me of a specific instance, or several instances.

When I was 14, I began a long struggle with anorexia. I endured hours and hours of counseling. I was treated from every angle – coddling and compassion for the disease that assailed me, conviction and chastisement for  yielding to a sinful addiction. At first, it was easier to lean into the people who felt sorry for me. But, as God has peeled away the scabs of pride, painfully revealing my frailty and failures, I realized that I had been lured into sin.

Personally, my eating disorder was a mask for pride. I had invented my own moral code: extreme bodily self-control. I berated myself for succumbing to food or a shortened workout. I looked down on others who couldn’t mortify their own desires. So pride festered, manifesting itself in my own bodily destruction – what sin will always do.

When I married, my wonderful husband turned out to be human too. I won’t confess his weaknesses, but he had a few addictions and failures of his own. I mounted my moralistic ladder and instead of displaying Christ’s love to him, I preached a moralistic gospel. He didn’t measure up to my personal moral code, he wasn’t reading the Bible as much I was, he wasn’t seeking Godly counsel as I was, he wasn’t fighting his demons as valiantly as I was. So I lambasted him for his shortcomings. Regrettably, I even doubted his salvation.

Case in point – a moralistic gospel.

If I can refine one nugget of gold from the years of my eating disorder, it is that God used it later in life to show me how patient, graceful and forgiving He had been toward me. God even showed me how my own family had displayed the true gospel toward me in the midst of my eating disorder. In this way, He convicted me of my counterfeit life-preaching toward my husband. If God stooped so low as to redeem me from the pit of rebellion, how could I insist that anyone else climb out of the pit, clean themselves off and then present themselves to the God of Grace?

Wax’s chapter on the moralistic gospel in Counterfeit Gospels, rings true in my own history. I pray the Lord to keep me humbly in the center of the one true gospel.

Counterfeit Gospel #3

I’m about half-way through Trevin Wax’s book, Counterfeit Gospels. I have only one complaint and we’ll see if it survives the rest of the book. So far, it seems repetitive. Perhaps that’s simply because of human nature. Wax lists six counterfeits, but their traits and symptoms overlap quite a bit. Sin is like that though.

Recently, I was challenged to search my heart and ask the Holy Spirit to uncover my “pet sins.” I can list several sins that cling to me, but they all dissolve in the acid of pride.

It was pride that enticed Eve to devour a fruit that would make her “like God.”

It is pride that goads me into an argument with my husband to prove that I’m right.

It’s pride that leads me to over-commit, trying to show off my Superwoman skills.

It’s pride that spearheads envy, pride that fosters worry, pride that keeps me from shouting the true gospel of Jesus Christ from the roof tops.

The third Counterfeit Gospel that Wax describes is the “moralistic gospel.” This one is like the missing security thread on a twenty dollar bill – few people will actually spot it. Perhaps it is more frequently exchanged among “life-long Christians” than among new, excited babes in the faith.

Wax tells a story of a pastor explaining Christ’s miracle of walking on the water and calming the seas. The pastor struggled to convey a deeper meaning: Christ’s ability to calm the storms in our own lives. But his listeners were brand new to the Scriptures and had a language barrier as well. They simply could not get beyond the power of a Man who could walk on water and calm raging seas.

Once, we were astonished at the grace that saved, awed by the supernatural love of a God who would die for us. Over time, we not only begin to practice a doctrine of “gratitude leads to good behavior” but we may even begin to preach this counterfeit gospel.

Beware Christian. Galatians 5:1 could be the theme verse for this chapter.

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.

Judgement-lite

As I read about the second Counterfeit Gospel, Jeremiah 8 kept coming to mind.

They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed an abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. (v. 11-12)

All day long, in every podium (alas, often in our churches) the buzz-word, “tolerance” blares. “Don’t judge.” (The Biblical context disregarded.) “We all need to love one another.” No one wants to have to choose, let alone instruct anyone else in right or wrong. We have parents raising their children “genderless” so that they can choose whatever makes them “happy.” Parents are encouraged not to spank their children and to soften their approaches to discipline, another indication that our world can’t stomach any form of judgement.

Trevin Wax coins this dilution of the Gospel, “judgmentless.” The problems listed above are modern, plastered on the front pages of newspapers, preached from universalist pulpits, and marched in protests. But Wax examines the root of the problem.

The idea that people are basically good. This philosophy looks at the tantrum throwing two-year-old and declares that he doesn’t really mean it, certainly he was just provoked. Surely, words of hatred, white lies, divorce, infidelity – all have justifiable causes. Since God looks at our hearts, and since God is love, this gospel insists that God understands.

It makes it easier to win converts. Quite simply, it’s easier to build a mega-church if you allow everyone to have their own version of God. It’s really hard to look at your coworker and honestly tell them that if they don’t believe in Jesus Christ as the one and only Son of God who sacrificed Himself for their personal sins and rose again, they are going to hell.

Near the end of the chapter, Wax delivers a decisive blow. For all our talk about justice: we cry for justice against the evils of slavery, we want justice and equality for women in the work place, we want criminals punished, and underdog to be rescued – we don’t know what we’re asking for. If we truly want justice, we truly want a righteous Judge.

If you expect God to do something about the evil in this world, then you want God to judge. (pg 80)

Therein is the truth, the beauty and the difficulty of the true Gospel. We all deserve judgement. The real, divine righteousness that our hearts long for will condemn each one of  us. Thankfully, the mercy of our God is equal to His absolute justice. He poured out unspeakable wrath against all evil on His own son, Jesus. And Jesus rose, conquered death, condemned sin in the flesh.

[Now] We need only recognize our guilt in light of God’s holiness and then bask in [His] forgiveness in light of God’s grace. (pg. 82)