Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Book Review (#63 of 2014) Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll

Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together

"The goal is progress, not perfection."

This is the most comprehensive book on marriage that I have seen; it is a combination of several books that I have read and would recommend. It is both written for pastors from a pastoral perspective as well as Christians young and old. It is helpful in developing a theology of marriage and looking at everything in marriage as something that is intended to glorify God. There are tools useful in planning and conflict resolution as well as developing friendship and intimacy. Even marital conflict can glorify God if done correctly, says Dever. It's one of the few books on marriage that also deals with working through past sexual histories and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as a couple. The chapters related to sex and intimacy are modern--they are addressed to a generation that has grown up in a sex-soaked culture and feels no shame. The book includes plenty of statistics from within and without the church. It is not really a funny, light-hearted read. If you want that, check out the book Fun Loving You (my review). 

The biographical info and testimonies of the Driscolls was helpful to me, these people are not "whitewashed tombs." One appeal of Mark Driscoll is his humility and use of others for support. He often (publicly) marches down a bad, angry road spiritually, mentally, and in regards to physical health but later listens to correction. He seeks wisdom from others ranging from biblical counseling to holistic health advice to hiring a life coach. To understand depression and addiction that he sees either in himself or his congregation, he reads books and seeks wisdom on the brain and psychology. Critics have faulted this book for he and his wife's detailing of their earlier marital struggles and dealing with her past abuse, but I find nothing off-putting about the content nor do I find it nearly as transparent and forthright as people claim. 

"Men see everything as either respect or disrespect. Women see everything as either loving or unloving."

Usually, the first book I recommend on marriage is Love and Respect by Eggerichs (my review). Real Marriage includes chapters detailing the same concept, but Mark writes the chapter exhorting men to love their wives while Grace writes the chapter on women exhorting men to respect their husbands. This may be particularly appealing to women who felt brow-beaten by Eggerichs in his book.

The Driscolls contrast Martin Luther's ultimately good marriage-- a marriage rooted in and exemplifying friendship-- with John Wesley's ultimately destructive marriage. I think it illustrated the importance of marriage/family balance for busy pastors and theologians. 

The chapter addressing pornography and sexual abuse is a difficult read, but necessary for the times. There is a chapter toward the beginning of the book where Mark pretty unflinchingly exhorts men to behave like men; there is not a lot of scripture just a lot of commentary on "immature" and "idiotic" behaviors common in American males that Driscoll is confronting. People may find that off-putting, but I probably agreed with everything he said.

One of the last chapters addresses sex in a shameless culture. This comes out of the Driscolls getting hundreds of questions on intimacy during premarital counseling as well as the conferences they speak at. They address every major question through the lens of: Is it lawful (1 Corinthians 6)?  Is it helpful?

The final chapter seemingly borrows from Steven Covey to "begin with the end in mind." What does your last day of marriage look like?  The authors lay out a list of goals to discuss with your spouse ranging from long-term like what you'll look for in churches and what types of ways you'll look to worship in your work  to daily habits like what kind of books and how many meals to eat together. The specific goals and long-term planning are something I need to work on in my own marriage.

I give this book five stars, I would recommend it to any pastor doing premarital counseling, and some specific cases of marital counseling. I recommend it to all Christians as a helpful marriage text.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Book Review (#62 of 2014) The Debt-Free Church by Jeff Berg and Jim Burgess

The Debt-Free Church: Experiencing Financial Freedom While Growing Your Ministry
At the time of publishing (1994), Berg was a "marketing communications coordinator for a financial software firm" and Burgess was pastoring Fellowship Bible Church in Dalton, GA... he now pastors Fellowship of the United Arab Emirates which I bet is a good story. They both have apparently worked with Larry Burkett of Crown Financial.

To write this book, the authors interviewed people from hundreds of churches who saw varying results in their building plans. There are a lot of horror stories from churches who fell apart or went bankrupt after taking on debt, and triumphant stories of churches who chose to raise funds before they built, or be more creative about their current resources.

The authors' main thesis is that while borrowing is not a sin, it is always cautioned against in Scripture. The biblical examples of building programs (the Tabernacle, the Temples, caring for those displaced in Jerusalem after Pentecost, funding Paul's ministry, and funding the Jersualem church after the famine) model sacrificial given by God's people until the right amount was raised-- before the work was established. Once enough was gathered, it was put to use-- and not before.

The authors attempt to address some of the counterarguments churches give in defense of borrowing. My favorite counterargument they demolish is that "borrowing is an act of faith," perhaps even greater than patiently saving up to build.  Berg and Burgess respond (p. 102, italics their own):

"It is not faith to test God's goodness with presumption...but borrowing usually does reflect presumption-- believing we know God's will in the future without proof of God's provision in the present...Some say, 'But when you wait until you have all the money in hand before you proceed, that's not walking by faith--it's walking by sight.' This argument ignores the clear teaching of the scriptural examples...Accumulating funds in advance of ministry is God's very own method! In stark contrast to the principle of trusing God to supply through His people, the concept of trusting God to help repay loans has no scriptural support whatsoever...Ministering without borrowing...neither obligates God nor presumes on an ideal future. If borrowing is truly a way of trusting God, why do churches that borrow sometimes end up in bankruptcy? Has God failed?"

The authors list some strategies for congregations who wish to become debt-free, and for members who wish to keep their church debt-free. They also exhort individual church members, and especially leadership, adopt sound financial practices and model them.

"We believe that the church of Jesus Christ will not be truly financially free until the individuals members of the church are financially free" (p. 181).

I agree with the authors that "in the final analysis, godly ministry is not a question of what 'works.' Rather, the question to ask is, 'Are we consistently conforming ourselves to biblical principles"  (p. 202). Giving by church members is an indication of their spiritual condition (p. 154). The best way to improve the spiritual condition of believers is for their pastors and elders to preach the Word and disciple them properly--which includes modeling financial discipline. You don't want your members giving to a program or something that's man-made; you want them giving sacrificially because they desire to be obedient to God in doing so.

"Unless your people are enthusiastically demonstrating sincere love for Christ by their current levels of generous giving, there is little reason to assume they will rise to the occasion in support of paying off a loan"  (p. 154)

I found myself relatively discouraged about believing any church that trumpets "God's will" for a particular growth plan. This book tells the story of too many churches who were growing rapidly and borrowed to expand, when in Year Five of a Ten Year Plan the pastor "accepts a calling" to a different church, members then leave (some following the pastor to his new church) and the financial situation devolves rapidly into crisis and bankruptcy. People claimed "God's will" every step of the way; because the attendance and financial picture seemed to be strong evidence. Until it rapidly deteriorated. I have been a part of a similar church story, the church still groans under the stress of having borrowed to build a new facility when it had double the attendance it currently has.

A weakness of the book is in not detailing what patterns, if any, could be discerned among the debt and debt-free churches in regards to budget decisions. I would have liked to have known more from their surveys of churches what churches were doing with their assets while they were accumulating. How many were keeping it in savings accounts vs. how many were investing? I would also have enjoyed reading more about some of the more creative uses of funds churches were demonstrating. But their focus is narrow and their task relatively well-accomplished. I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Book Review (#61 of 2014) Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman Cantor

The Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised and Expanded Edition of Medieval History
I learned too much to write about in detail from this sweeping book of Western European history from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. It's a 5-star book. It begins with a brief look at the development of the Roman Empire, and how Romans adopted previous Mediterranean ideas. Cantor repeatedly returns to Greek and Roman works on philosophy and political science and their importance in the development of Western European institutions, both from the beginning and later when they were "rediscovered" and translated into Latin during the Rennaisance and had to be reconciled with theology by people like Thomas Aquinas. Platonism vs. Stoicism vs. Aristotelianism. Platonism was hugely important in the development of Western thought.

Cantor also briefly examines the development of Judaism to understand roots of Christianity.
Judaism differed from Platonism in that Judaism made no differentiation between body and spirit. (This has important implications for Christians who embrace covenant theology.)

The book often reads a lot like the History of the Christian Church Podcast on iTunes. You can't understand the development of Western civilization and government without understanding the development of the Church. Cantor includes brief summaries of the early theological schisms and the development of the Pope as the leading political force in the declining Roman Empire. Christians today may not appreciate the importance of people like Boniface, who evangelized the Germans and established important monastaries, and Patrick who evangelized the Celts. Monastaries in early medieval times preserved Greek and Latin literature, and contributed economically to their societies. (For more on this I recommend Rodney Stark's Victory of Reason). However, in later medieval ages (and today?) monks forsook labor and commerce, as well as literature and study. Once secular universities were developed, monasteries no longer provided any role as far as the preservation and development of knowledge. Eventually, universities formed outside of the traditional monastic system of education. Monastaries no longer served the purpose of education and preserving culture, so there was a shift into becoming orders of soldiers fighting the Crusades on behalf of the Church-- the Knights Templar, the Hospitaliers, etc.

Of course, there is the recurring topic of the importance of Augustine in medieval thought. Cantor seems to understand many of the philosophical and some of the theological debates rather well. As some commenters point out, he errs in some details but the breadth of topics covered is such that it can be forgiven.

Cantor purports that the Byzantine Empire gave civilization "nothing" outside of some architecture. However, he lauds Justinian's efforts and legal code; perhaps he is referring to Byzantium before and after Justinian.

From the book, I learned about the history (what little is known of it) of the Goths. Ostrogoths had no codified legal system, pantheistic superstition determined guilty and innocent. I also learned about the Carolingian dynasty and its importance in the development of later France.

I found the reform movements within the Catholic church interesting, particularly Pope Gregory XII's reforms. Highly critical of kings and lords, he pushed for one of the first social justice movements and centralized power with the papacy while also undermining it. But what was being handed down by the Popes had to be understood within the Italian context-- which was one of weak kings and very little respect for them. Therefore the comments would not be received well by clergy and laity in Germany and England with strong kings (Henry, William the Conquerer, etc.). William the Conquerer's reforms and contribution are also covered along with the English vestiture and the ramifications of the Norman conquest .

The Crusades might have been successful at defending Jerusalem as a Latin state had it garnered the full resources and attention of European monarchs, but it did not.Cantor makes the Crusades seem more as a minor sideshow than any major world-changing event.

Throughout the 1100s there was no uniform or formal legal system, every region had a mixture of feudal tradition mixed with Roman law and other forms. As trade and cooperation developed, and currency, greater formality in the legal codes had to be developed. When the Justinian Code was "rediscovered," it grew great interest and helped the development of western European judicial code.

One interesting point that I was unaware of is interesting is the development of thought after works of Plato and Aristotle were "rediscovered" and translated into Latin, which didn't occur widely until the 11th century. The Church then had to (re-)address Aristotelian philosophy as Muslims and Jews had already been doing for centuries. Cantor explores the development of philosophy in Europe and its contribution to religious thought, including the Cult of Mary that sprung up in the 11th century and maintains a strong hold on areas of Europe today. 

This allows Cantor to pivot into Jewish life in the Middle Ages, including their role as lenders. Cantor examines Jewish religious though at this time, including Maimonedes' scholarship.

One weakness of the book is the lack of insight into the daily life of a peasant in the Middle Ages. Their home, work, agriculture, tools/technology, and culture. It is a broader view particularly looking at what we know from written records of the educated class and macro-view historical development. Venice is about as far east as the detailed part of the history gets, no attention is paid to Central and Eastern Europe. Cantor also does not give much information about what exactly various clergy critical of the Vatican and advocating for reforms were exactly preaching, such that they were able to gain large groups of followers. Likewise for some of the heresies that were deemed dangerous enough to be rooted out violently. That would have been helpful to understand. Cantor does outline the doctrinal disputes of the Cathar heresies and the persecution contributed to some fervor of the Inquisition.

Interestingly, pre-reformation church leaders like St. Francis pushed for a Gospel that could be related to the masses rather than the Latin-educated literate or clergy. The "bourgeois" classes wanted a religion that was practical to their everyday life and rather inspiring rather than purely liturgical. Hence the writings and teachings on Jesus transformed into much of the form that we might see today-- one of a more loving and interpersonal self-sacrificing savior than just an icon on the wall that might be revered and doctrine recited about.

Cantor pays much attention to the importance and controversial nature of Aquinas' contributions.

Eventually, the book covers the divergence in the governance and ideas in the various West European countries and societies, and it becomes a little more difficult to follow. The advancement of various political reforms in their national contexts is highlighted; the importance of the Magna Carta really comes into view when you look at the great sweep of history leading up to it. Cantor closes with a look at "Renaissance culture."

Oddly, he closes the book with a list of modern films that he thinks covers the spirit of the Middle Ages well. It is ironic because a few of them are not set in Europe. I've seen Alexander Nevsky, which is on his list, but that movie is very Russian and Russia gets no mention in the book.

I give this book 5 stars and recommend it. Worth your time and attention. I recommend reading Justinian's Flea and The Victory of Reason as supplements.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Sermon of the Week (6/29 - 7/4, 2014) Banning Liebscher on The Call to the Inner Room

Banning Liebscher at Bethel Church in Redding, CA (on iTunes). Liebscher's texts are 2 Kings 9:1-10, where Elisha obeys God's command to anoint Jehu king over Israel and speak a word of prophecy to him privately, "in the inner room" and Matthew 6:6 where Jesus commands his disciples to pray in "the inner room" privately, and not before men. (This is not an expositional sermon.)

"Liebscher talks about how every single one of us is called to be a part of a team that changes the world, carries the presence of God, and leads in the sphere we’re in! What separates us is not our call, it’s our response to the call by meeting God in the secret place. The most strategic thing you can do in your life is separate yourself to the inner room of prayer, where you’ll find God’s presence and His anointing and authority to change the world."

Liebscher makes the point that many people talk about revival, and may even pray for it because it's the right thing to do, but few actually spend their quiet time with God fervently asking for it. He calls these half-hearted prayers the "bring Rascal home" prayers (listen to the story) because they are ones you pray not actually expecting in faith God to answer-- so God doesn't--and you mainly just pray them to make others feel better hearing you pray it. "Many are called but few are chosen" - Liebscher interprets this statement to mean that we are all given the Great Commission to make disciples and do God's work, but few of us actually volunteer to do what needs to be done. If you really want to know what God wants you to do, ask him in the inner room. God doesn't honor policies, strategies, programs, etc.-- God honors the obedience of His people.

This sermon struck home with me because I am about to be made chairman of a committee at church that has some important responsibilities. That committee-- a group of people-- has not met all year. That likely means that there has not been concerted and fervent prayer for the area in which it oversees. That isn't good, but at least I know where to start.

Some of my Baptist and Reformed friends would be quick to call a church like Bethel a bunch of "heretics," namely because they believe in praying for healing, casting out demons, prophecy, blessings, etc. Suffice it to say I've known Baptists who felt that way until they actually encountered someone who was miraculously healed, a demon, or received a word of prophecy from someone and didn't know how to wrap their heads around it. The Reformed Church, in my opinion, is by and large logically inconsistent (or at least widely varies) in its approach both to the miraculous/supernatural and whether to take the Bible literally or not. (A loaded sentence.) If you only listen to people who already believe exactly as you do, you'll never learn anything. Give it a shot.

Years ago I had a (Southern Baptist) Sunday school teacher who was profoundly impacted by Bethel and the church's teachings revolutionized both his prayer life and his witnessing, and that's why I listen to their sermons. I should say I don't agree with every statement made from the pulpit at Bethel every week, but I by and large find them dedicated to taking God's Word seriously. They take prayer and personal evangelism more seriously than most churches I know.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

My thoughts on the 2014 World Cup

This is the first World Cup I've really watched closely. I've watched as much as I could of the games thus far, really focusing on the teams whose players I have watched before. I watched all of Team USA's heartbreaking defeat to Belgium. The long bouts of "boring" play punctuated by sudden feverish excitement and either ecstasy at a goal or agony of another missed opportunity really wears me out. 

Soccer (futbol, whatever) wasn't of much interest to me (outside the 1994 U.S. World Cup) from the time I played it as a 7 year old until the time I was 22 and living in Azerbaijan. I remember trying to keep up with what was going on in the UEFA Champions League that my Lezgi friends and students were watching late every night on TV. I didn't get the interest and still preferred basketball or American football. When my mom sent me a VHS of the Super Bowl, I invited my friends to watch it; they mildly enjoyed it. "At least in soccer you can tell who the good players are, I can't tell who is good at all in American football," one remarked. I used to sit with them and watch the local professional team (which wasn't very good) play, I enjoyed the live experience.

Since then, I've encountered ethical dilemmas with all the other sports I used to love, and become a NASCAR fan full-time. I remember Joni and I watching the World Cup final in 2006, but not much else.

But moving back to Turkey re-introduced me to concept of everyone being VERY passionate about professional soccer. (Even in the midst of cheating scandals... which repeatedly prevent me from really loving the game.) I was reminded of the goal of having your favorite professional team winning the Champions League or Europa League as a second-best option. The local Ankara team some of my colleagues loved had a stadium ban (fairly common in Turkish soccer due to fans often throwing things-- like flares!-- onto the pitch), which meant I was prevented from checking games. The major national clubs (Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, Beşiktaş) also sponsor other sports leagues around the country from rowing to wheelchair basketball, and picking a particular club is pretty close to a picking religious affiliation. Elias originally chose Fenerbahçe when asked, but I made us change our minds after watching the fans riot after narrowly losing the Turkish Cup in 2012.

I watched what I could and enjoyed watching Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. When we returned to the U.S. I watched Galatasaray's UEFA games on U.S. cable TV, and kept up with the Champions League. I watched the semis and finals with much interest. Like foreign food, soccer takes a while to appreciate-- it's an acquired taste. I don't pretend to understand all of the UEFA scoring rules; I didn't understand NASCAR's point rules either until they simplified them last season.

But you can't watch Messi and Ronaldo and not understand why soccer is called "the beautiful game." When you realize that different countries have different styles-- some prefer a tactical passing game while others a fast-paced attack-- you realize there is a personality to the game that is also reflected in the rituals of the fans. ESPN has been showing the cumulative distance run by each player on the field, you realize they do a 10K made up of sprints out there in 100 degree heat with few breaks-- it's impressive.

I'm pulling for Argentina and Messi from here on out because I want more opportunities to see arguably the Greatest of All Time play. I'm enjoying watching.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Book Review (#60 of 2014) An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture by Dr. Andrew M. Davis

An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture
This short book gives motivation for and a step-by-step guide to memorization of entire books of the Bible. Davis begins by making the case that memorization is commanded. For example, Deuteronomy 11:18 "You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes."

Moreover,  memorization is beneficial for personal holiness (Psalm 119:11, Romans 12:2) and for the edification of the church (2 Timothy 3:16). Davis remarks that Scripture memorization contributes to good Bible teaching. As Mark Dever's number one mark of a "healthy church" is expositional preaching, book memorization contributes. A person who has previously memorized an entire book is very familiar with its flow and purpose; he can identify when someone uses or expounds on a verse out of context.

The author then gives a step-by-step method for book memorization. First, the one-verse-a-day method (w/10% more time given as leeway, 26 weeks for Ephesians):
Day 1: Read the verse out loud 10 times, including the verse number (this is important). Read it while freezing your eyes every single word on the page, memorize the words. Cover the page and repeat it 10 times from memory.

Day 2: Recite the previous day's verse 10 times from memory. Read it again as an aid.
Read the new verse out loud 10 times, including the number. Read it while freezing your eyes every single word on the page, memorize the word. Cover the page and repeat it 10 times from memory.

Day 3 and onward: Recite the previous day's verse 10 times from memory. Read it again as an aid.Read the new verse out loud 10 times, including the number. Then recite all previous days' verses together once, including yesterday's.Read the new verse out loud 10 times, including the number. Read it while freezing your eyes every single word on the page, memorize the word. Cover the page and repeat it 10 times from memory.

He also includes a "high school" method of learning 6 verses a day. This requires a bit more time per day. In any case, you'll end up needing 30-45 minutes a day. You can use your commute, shower, etc. for your complete memory recitations.

After memorizing a book you can either continue to recite it-- maybe one day a week give it time for this (ie: Monday recite Ephesians entirely, Tuesday Philippians, etc.), or "Kiss it goodbye" and just focus on memorizing another book.  With a longer book (like Matthew), he recommends "kissing goodbye" the first chapters as you memorize later chapters, so that you do not recite the entire long book from beginning to end every day. Even after kissing it goodbye, whenever you hear verses from that book or study it, you will remember what you learned from it and its overall flow.

Years ago, my wife and I memorized Romans 8. I did not follow this method exactly, but whatever works. I could not recite it to you today. As of this writing, I currently memorize other things (foreign language vocab) using Anki (free software) and (without software) I memorize one verse of Scripture in Turkish a week. I am pondering using Davis' method to memorize entire books of Scripture in languages rather than English (kill two birds with one stone, essentially). I wonder if I would get as much out of it, personally.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It's 99 cents for Kindle, you can't really go wrong. I'm now curious to look at Davis' other books.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Book Review (#59 of 2014) Basic Budgeting for Churches by Jack A. Henry

Basic Budgeting for Churches
This book does a good job helping a pastor or finance committee set up a budget and monthly cash flow budget from scratch. It is basic bookkeeping for those who have never done so. I would see it as a guideline of best practices and things to consider when working with a congregation to develop a financial plan. There are not a lot of biblical explanations/justifications of good stewardship and financial organization, so look elsewhere for that.

Caveats are that it assumes congregational context. It assumes the traditional Baptist polity of a Pastor-led church with a committee that will handle a budget to be voted on by the church at large. It is most applicable to small churches. It is also dated, there is a chapter on the usefulness of a computer. But for 99 cents, it's worth it. 3.5 stars.