Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Grow a Church

Being somewhat observant of the American church scene, I think I now have some good formulae for growing a church.  Let me float some past you and see what you think.

--Preach about your congregation more than about Christ.  People are more attracted to self-help messages than messages about the sufficiency of Christ.

--Have a great band that can perform lead worship well.  If you don't have drums, how do you expect your church to grow?

--Structure your services to satisfy the preferences of those people who don't come to your church, not the ones who do.  After all, they already come.

--When structuring your services, keep the preferences of people uppermost in your mind, not the preferences of God.  He'll understand.

--Question the clear doctrines of Scripture.  If possible, publish books on the subject and get interviewed on national TV.

--Avoid any terminology that visitors might not understand.  If you try to teach theological terminology and the concepts behind them, you highlight the ignorance of the visitors and make them feel bad.  Instead, stick to monosyllabic words and movie references.  Visitors don't come to learn and heal; they come to veg.

--Become more like the world in a variety of ways.  You don't want visitors to your church to get the impression that they would have to change much to become like you.

What do you think?  Should I write a book?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

9 Books on My Shelf Right Beside Me I Have Yet to Read and I Probably Won't Even Get to This Year

  1. Sea of Glory (Nathaniel Philbrick)
  2. Crazy Horse and Custer (Stephen Ambrose)
  3. The Collected Short Stories (Isaac Babel)
  4. Mother Kirk (Douglas Wilson)
  5. Creative Suffering (Paul Tournier)
  6. The Art of Prophesying (William Perkins)
  7. Henry IV, Parts One and Two (William Shakespeare)
  8. War in Heaven (Charles Williams)
  9. The Deerslayer (James Fenimore Cooper)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Life in Britain during WWII

Sara and I recently started watching from the beginning a favorite series of ours, a British drama entitled Foyle's War.  Set during WWII, Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle wants to be involved in the war effort for his country, but his superiors keep him on the police force, because crimes (murders) are still being committed in merry old England.

Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle
The series starts in 1939 or 1940 and progresses through the war until its end.  What's fascinating is the way daily life is portrayed in this mystery series.  We observe the pinch of rationing, the necessary blackouts, the dispersal of London's children to unknown families to protect them from the German bombers, the air raids on London, the English Nazi sympathizers, and the increasing hatred for legitimate citizens of German descent. 

The series is delightful for its subtlety, its portrayal of WWII Britain, its sensible characters (Foyle; his driver Sam, a young woman; and his assistant detective, a man who lost his leg in the war), its interplay with WWII events (like the rescue of British soldiers at Dunkirk by a fleet of merchant vessels), and its plots that seem simple at first but in reflection are found to be delightfully complex.

At the same time I am reading vol. 2 of the biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a Welsh preacher who ministered at London's Westminster Chapel, first coming there as G. Campbell Morgan's co-pastor in 1939.  I read also of the same things I see portrayed in Foyle's War.  Westminster services were often interrupted and terminated by the air raid sirens.  Many churches in London were destroyed and countless more were damaged by German bombs falling from the sky.  Westminster men rotated sleeping in the church to act as a fire brigade should a surprise air attack damage the church.  Dr. Lloyd-Jones sent his wife and children to the countryside to live, not willing to take the chance of them being hurt.  The congregation diminished in size as many of its members moved out of London, and the salaries of both Morgan and Lloyd-Jones were significantly diminished.

In Foyle's War and the Lloyd-Jones bio, I found this a fascinating convergence on life in WWII Britain, and I thought I'd share it with you.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Appropriately, Jury Still Out on Bethel Revival

Several weeks ago it was reported that Bethel College experienced a revival.  A chapel service turned into a day-long praise and prayer session, and more.

Some of the administration has declared it a legitimate revival.  Some of the students have questioned it.  Some people are withholding judgment.

My reading recently in J. I. Packer's A Quest for Godliness dwelt on revival; in particular, Jonathan Edwards' teaching on revival.

Edwards taught that revival is often a chaotic and messy affair, because even while the Spirit is at work, so also Satan is at work to confuse and corrupt and tarnish anything that God is doing.  So while Satan often works to restrain Christians, when revival comes and he can no longer restrain them, he changes his tactic and gives them a push from behind to send them head-long in their passions; i.e., into excess.

The bottom line is that revival is never a clean affair.  It is a wonderful thing, something to be prayed for and welcomed, a great work of God; but at the same time the devil is also at work.

That being the case, apparent revivals should be evaluated for their fruits, whether they be long-term or not.  Time will tell whether what happened at Bethel was a revival.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Paradise for Those Who Don't Deserve It

Exchange Amongst the Crucified 

 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
 43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” 
(Luke 23 NIV)

This is an amazing promise Jesus makes to this criminal.  This guy is going to get something incredibly wonderful that he doesn’t deserve.

Look who’s getting it: a criminal!
And he know he doesn't deserve it, for he says, We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.”

Look what he’s getting: paradise!
What should he get?  Hell.  Instead, he gets paradise; heaven; living with Jesus. 

Look when he’s getting it: today!
There’s no probation time.  There’s no purgatory.  Today; with Jesus; in paradise.

We, like the criminal on the cross, deserve hell.  But Jesus gave his life to give us heaven.

That’s the heart of the Savior.  That’s why he went to the cross, to give us what we don’t deserve--paradise; heaven; forgiveness; eternal life.

Jesus willingly took what he didn’t deserve so that he could give us what we don’t deserve.  And he did it because he loves you, because he loves me.

"Christ loved us and gave himself up for us."  (Eph 5:2 NIV)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Good Biography of a Great Man

Ulysses S. Grant is one of my historical "heroes."  Bruce Catton is the reason for that.  Nine years ago I read his Grant Takes Command, which narrates Grant's brilliant career during the latter half of the Civil War.  He was the general Lincoln was looking for from the beginning but didn't find until he had gone through the likes of McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker.

Some time later I discovered Grant Takes Command was the back end of a 2-volume bio.  So for the last several months I have been reading in bits the front end, Grant Moves South.  In this book Catton details Grant's rise in both military prowess and esteem during the first years of the Civil War, 1861 to July of 1863, when Vicksburg fell to him.

Catton paints Grant as a general unconcerned with personal reputation and glory who focused all his efforts on achieving his military goals with whatever resources available.  This might strike us as "duh!", but in the Civil War, it was far from typical.  Many generals were concerned about personal glory, and many moved against the enemy slowly (or not all) until all the pieces they felt they needed were in place.  (McClellan was notorious for extraordinary delays due to fears of enemy strength that was monstrously over-estimated.)

As an example, Grant had moved faster on Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson than the commanding triumvirate—Gen. Halleck, Grant’s immediate superior, Gen. McClellan, and Gen. Buell—expected.  “The Generals had been upset; they were above all other things deliberate, and although universal opinion in the Old Army held each of the three to be brilliant, it appeared that brilliance needed plenty of time—time to consult and confer, time to perfect the largest and the smallest details of supply, transportation and coordination, time as well to jockey and maneuver for personal advantage" (p. 186).

The charge of alcoholism has been levelled at Grant even to the present day; it was a charge that was levied against him during the Civil War.  Catton painstakingly lays out evidence to the contrary (both in this book and Grant Takes Command).

The things I like about Grant are his work ethic, his clear-headed thinking, his ability to solve problems that seemed unsolvable, his principled approach to the war as well as to his particular command, his humility, his love for his family and his men (well, most of them), and his integrity.

I am well aware that biographies tend toward hagiography, and Bruce Catton may be guilty of this in his volumes on Grant, but even allowing for some weaknesses and faults in Grant that Catton has failed to record, I still find him to be a great man.

Ironically, as I was reading Grant Moves South, I learned that this volume is not technically "vol. 1," for Catton was continuing a multi-volume bio of Grant begun by Lloyd Lewis.  Lewis wrote vol. 1, Captain Sam Grant, before death intervened.  So at some point I may pick up Lewis's volume, thus completing my backwards journey through the military career of Gen. Grant.  However, I am more interested in a bio of Grant's presidency.  Ranked as one of the worst, the more I read history the more I realize that contemporary notions of presidencies are often incorrect, and I wonder if such is the case with Grant.  However, I know of no significant book on Grant's presidency.

First line: The governor of Illinois remembered that 'he was plain, very plain,' and men said that he usually went about camp in a short blue coat and an old slouch hat, wearing nothing that indicated his rank, nothing indeed that even proved he was in the Army.

Last line: Sherman had said it: Sling the knapsack for new fields.

My rating (out of 5): 3 1/2

Note: If you only read one of the Catton books, read the second, Grant Takes Command.

Peacemaking Requires Perspective

"The peacemaker is the man who does not talk about people when they are offensive and difficult.  He does not ask, 'Why are they like that?'  He says, 'They are like that because they are still being governed by the god of this world, "the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience."  That poor person is a victim of self and of Satan; he is hell bound; I must have pity and mercy upon him.'  The moment he begins to look at him like that he is in a position to help him, and he is likely to make peace with him.  So you must have an entirely new view of the other person."

--D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in a sermon called, "Blessed Are the Peacemakers," Studies in the Sermon on the Mount

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Christ Will Put All Things Right

"He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he's there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross."

--Colossians 1:18-20, The Message

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Vacuum Salesman Turned British Agent

Mr. Wormold, an English merchant, has run a vacuum cleaner shop in Havana for some 15 years.  (This is pre-Castro, pre-Communist Cuba.)  His two worries are his 17-year-old daughter, whose beauty has lured in a dangerous police captain, and his financial struggles--customers aren't too keen on the new "Atomic" vacuum, given the connotations of "atomic" in 1958.  (This anticipates the Cuban Missile Crisis.)  But when a man with the British secret service recruits him as an agent, over his mild protests, Wormold begins to see a way to provide a dowry for his daughter.  Seeing spying as nothing more than a game, he begins to turn in receipts, recruit agents on paper (though they are unaware they've switched careers), and send in elaborate drawings of installations that don't exist.  The money is good until his "agents" begin to die.

Our Man in Havana, written by Graham Greene, is a novel of both intrigue and subtle humor.  I've read two other novels by Greene, The Power and the Glory and A Burnt-Out Case, and I've enjoyed all three.  Quality literature.

First line (you will forgive me if I don't print the whole line): "That _____ going down the street," said Dr. Hasselbacher standing in the Wonder Bar, "he reminds me of you, Mr. Wormold." 

Last line: "There are three of us," Wormold said, and she realised the chief problem of their future--that he would never be quite mad enough.

My rating (out of 5): 4 1/2

Friday, April 15, 2011

Great Book on Pastoring

"A sermon is not thoughts about the Bible. Preachers make war on the human heart."

"Computer chips get hot--they use energy--because processing the input and rearranging it into a new form is a lot of work. Likewise, sermon meditation takes time, and it is hard work. Just sitting there (looking like you're doing nothing), contemplating the Scriptures, is some of the hardest work of the week. Rushing through Scripture meditation causes shallow sermons."

"The people of God will follow the pastor who feeds them the Word of God.... Even the delinquent son has an uncanny sense of when dinner's on, and he knows he will not be refused."

Those are some thoughts on preaching from one of my favorite books on pastoral ministry, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry without All the Answers, by David Hansen.

The Art of Pastoring is simply divided into various aspects of a pastor's ministry, such as "Call," "Eschatology," "Preaching," "Prayer," "Friendship," "Sacrament," "Leadership," etc.

His argument is that the key to successful pastoral ministry is authentically following Jesus: "The thesis of this book is that people meet Jesus in our lives because when we follow Jesus, we are parables of Jesus Christ to the people we meet. This book is a description of the pastor as a parable of Jesus Christ" (11).

For 10 years Hansen served as pastor, simultaneously, of two small churches but very different churches in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. Each chapter is helpfully illustrated with his experiences during that time.

Hansen does for me what Eugene Peterson's books on the same topic do for me; he gives me perspective on pastoring, a refreshing perspective, which provides encouragement and joy in my pastoral task. I benefit from every chapter (this was my second time through the book). Even his chapter on Leadership, a topic I generally deplore, is brilliant.

Two other of my favorites are The Contemplative Pastor (Eugene Peterson) and Left Behind in a Megachurch World: How God Works through Ordinary Churches (Ruth Tucker) [only $2.99 at CBD!].

My rating (out of 5): 5

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lost in the Park

(aerial shot of Hamilton Park)

Spring has sprung. Warm weather is here. Time for the park.

Callie and I have made a few trips down to Hamilton. Wow.

There's a lot less covered now that it's warm.

That's not technically correct; tattoos cover a lot more than they used to.

Taking in the park scene, where young punks are now parents but have not grown out of their punk-dom, the sense of lost-ness is palpable.

Silent prayers. Wondering how these are reached. Asking that I would see and seize opportunities.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Baseball's Dream Team Stuck in a Nightmare

Opening day of Major League Baseball I was listening to The Herd on ESPN radio. Colin Cowherd was reporting how the writers and broadcasters at ESPN had all made their picks for the playoffs and the World Series, who would be in and who would win.

The majority had picked the Red Sox to win the World Series. They looked that good.

The Red Sox are currently 2-9. They lost their first 6 games. They have the worst record in baseball right now. I know there's still 151 games to go in the regular season, but it sure is interesting, isn't it?

None of the #1 nor #2 seeds made it into the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. It was a 3-seed, 4-seed, 8-seed, and 11-seed.

Projections and expectations only go so far. We are so limited, even in fields where we are "expert." There is room for humility.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Doggone Good

Dogs are not my favorite animal, but I enjoyed Dog on It, by Spencer Quinn. I read this one aloud to Sara, and there were a couple times I had to stop reading because we were both laughing so hard.

Dog on It is a detective story told from the dog's point-of-view, and it is well done, because the storytelling feels like the way a dog would tell it if a dog could tell it. The idiosyncrasies we suppose dogs have are integrated into Chet's (the dog's) personality as he tells the story: he's intensely loyal to his owner, will eat practically anything, is proud of everything his nose can detect, hates cats, loves to dig, has a sort of canine ADD, and enjoys riding shotgun with the top down.

Chet lives with a private investigator who is good at his work, low on his funds, and just a little low in general since his divorce has separated him from his son. The particular case that Dog on It dwells on is a decent mystery. What makes the book special is Chet's storytelling.

The series is apparently doing well since book 4 of Chet and Bernie is due out soon.

First line: "I could smell him--or rather the booze on his breath--before he even opened the door, but my sense of smell is pretty good, probably better than yours."

Last line: "I rose, ran to the back fence, and leaped over, soaring into the night."

My rating (out of 5): 4

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jack London's "The Road" an Adventure

I remember reading White Fang, by Jack London, a couple times as a kid. So when I saw I could download London’s The Road for free onto my Kindle, I did. The book turned out to be his rehearsal of a stint in his life when he hoboed on the rails. He was 18, and the year was 1894. The book is fascinating, well-written, and at times humorous.

The Road details, among other things,

  • how London became good at telling stories to housewives in order to get a meal

  • the different types of names hoboes took and what they meant (like Leary Joe, Painter Red, Chi Plumber, Michigan French)

  • London’s physical escapades in hopping on trains, hopping off, and evading the train’s police while on a train

  • his stint with an army of hoboes (or "bums" or "stiffs") some 2000 strong that traveled together and practiced a certain kind of extortion with small towns

  • what prison life was like and how he got ahead and survived in prison during his 3-month stint

  • and his run-ins with bulls (the police, also called "John Law").

Well worth the read in terms of entertainment and in terms of opening one’s eyes to another side of life.

First line: There is a woman in the state of Nevada to whom I once lied continuously, consistently, and shamelessly, for the matter of a couple of hours.

Last line: So I caught the next train out, and ate my breakfast in Baltimore.

My rating (out of 5): 3 ½

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Prayer for Book Reading

Lord, please don't leave me alone when I'm reading today, whether it be books or newspapers or magazines.

Guide me to choose the right books, and having chosen them, help me to read them in the right way.

When I read for profit, grant that all I read will draw me closer to you. When I read for fun, grant that what I read will not lead me away from you.

Let all my reading so refresh my mind that I will all the more eagerly seek after that which is pure and beautiful and true.

--a paraphrase of John Baillie in his A Diary of Private Prayer (Twenty-first Day, Morning)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Some Persecution Truly Horrific

Shaheen Bibi & her father
from a Voice of the Martyrs prayer sheet:

Also in Lahore [Pakistan], 40-year-old Shaheen Bibi, a Christian mother of seven, was recently freed from her Muslim captors after being kidnapped last August. Shaheen had been drugged, raped, sold into marriage, and threatened with death if she did not convert to Islam. On March 6, a team managed to rescue Shaheen from her captors. She reported that at least 10 other women were in captivity with her. Thank God for her release. Pray that God will equip Pakistani Christians to be bold and gracious witnesses in an environment of severe opposition. Also pray for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which is often used against Christians.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Not Your Ordinary Preface

Doing some searching on my Kindle for free books to download, I came across Selections from the Table Talk of Martin Luther. It was free, and I downloaded it.

The family still in bed, I decided to read the introductory material right away while I was in the mood for introductory material. Sitting in my pajamas, a blanket over my cold, bare feet, the soothing sound of soft rain serving as background, I was whisked into a world far different than my own.


Written by the translator, Capt. Henry Bell of England, Bell explains how a copy of Luther’s Table Talk came into his possession.

After Luther’s death many of his works were published for the German people, to their great delight. But events took a turn when a certain pope, Gregory XIII, felt that Luther had done far too much damage to the Roman Church. Using his considerable power, he persuaded the German emperor of the time, Rudolphus II, to rid Germany of Luther’s writings. Thus it became illegal and dangerous to possess Luther’s books, and some 80,000 of his writings were burned.

Some time later, a copy of Luther’s Table Talks was found at a home in a deep hole in the ground. The new owner of the home, Casparus Van Sparr, rebuilding on the old foundation, had occasion to dig deep under the foundation, where he found this work. The volume was perfectly preserved, having been wrapped in a strong linen cloth which had a thick layer of beeswax about it.

A different emperor reigned at the time, Ferdinandus II, but he also persecuted Protestants, and so Van Sparr sent the uncovered book to Henry Bell in England. He had met Bell when Bell was in Germany, and he knew him to be proficient in German. In the letter that accompanied the book, he urged Bell to not only keep the book safe but also to translate it for the advancement of God’s glory and Christ’s church.

Bell attempted to work on the translation several times, but work prevented him from giving it serious attention. “Then, about six weeks after I had received the said book, it fell out that I being in bed with my wife one night, between twelve and one of the clock, she being asleep, but myself yet awake, there appeared unto me an ancient man, standing at my bedside, arrayed all in white, having a long and broad white beard hanging down to his girdle-stead, who, taking me by my right ear, spake these words following unto me:--‘Sirrah! will not you take time to translate that book which is sent unto you out of Germany? I will shortly provide for you both place and time to do it;’ and then he vanished away out of my sight.”

Bell was shaken, but since he didn’t usually heed visions and dreams, he didn’t take it seriously. Two weeks later, upon coming home from church, he was arrested and imprisoned for ten years. He spent five of those years translating the book.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, one Dr. Laud, sent round to the particular prison to collect both the original and the translation from Bell, who refused to give it up at first. Later he was persuaded to do so, and the Archbishop loved it and kept it, both German and English, for a few years, kindly refusing to return them when asked by Bell. Eventually, however they were returned with the promise of aid in mass publishing and distribution.

When the king of England authorized Bell’s release, Dr. Laud was not the help he had promised, for he himself “fell into his troubles, and was by the Parliament sent unto the Tower, and afterwards beheaded.” But the House of Commons heard of the work, had the translation evaluated to make sure it was a good translation, and then had it published, giving Capt. Henry Bell copyright privileges for the next fourteen years, beginning from the date Feb. 24, 1646, 100 years and 1 week after the death of Martin Luther.


Not your typical introduction. After reading about the intrigue and political mayhem and personal tragedies accompanying this book, how can I not but read it?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Cubs Not As Optimistic As Their Fans

from The Onion ...

Chicago Cubs Can't Believe They're Doing This Again

CHICAGO—Cubs players, coaches, and management expressed disbelief Thursday, questioning whether they were out of their minds for participating in another Major League Baseball season.

"Why the hell are we still putting ourselves through this?" left fielder Alfonso Soriano said during an Opening Day press conference, adding that no one on the team has ever been happy at the end of the season, during the season, or at the beginning of the season, which, according to Soriano, is when everyone actually feels the most hopeless. "We just have to admit to ourselves that the Chicago Cubs should not be playing in a professional baseball league. Can we all just do that and put an end to this misery?"

For the rest of the, um, story, click here.