Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Living a Prayerful Life: A Book Review

I have taken quite a significant turn in the material I have been reading as of late, and Andrew Murray is a "new" author that I have enjoyed immensely. I have had a craving for more spiritually intellectual material and Murray strikes that balance very well. It is one part devotional material and one part theology, both playing off one another in a divine soliloquy.

Murray entreats the reader to a life of believing prayer; a life founded upon the Word of God with the prayer life the cornerstone of such a life. Murray proves that our lives are continuous prayers, whether we realize it or not, and attitudes, behaviors, and actions either praise God or belittle Him. "What do you think? Which has the stronger influence over you: five- or ten-minute prayers or the whole day spent thinking on worldly desires? Do not be surprised if your prayers are not answered" (p. 116).

Murray contends rightfully that the secret of a godly life can only be discovered not by spending time in prayer, but by spending much time in prayer. This book is a needed remedy against the fast-paced, hectic lifestyle of the modern Christian, the Christian who has no time at all for spiritual disciplines. Though he never says it, perhaps if the book could be summed up in a simple phrase, one might think, "Slow down." Let's face it--godliness isn't achieved overnight or pell-mell. It takes work--hard, knee-breaking work and Murray exhorts us lovingly to undertake such a task. Why? Its worth it; eternally worth it.

One of the greatest needs in the lives of Christians and the church today is focused, intentional, deliberate, believing prayer. If you want to seriously pray, then I would encourage you to pick up this book and read each chapter slowly. Digest Murray's thoughts; let the Spirit work it into your soul.

Murray, Andrew. Living a Prayerful Life. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002. 159 pages. (I searched for the original publication date, but was unable to find it. The introduction states that the book was the fruit of a minister's conference in South Africa on April 11-14, 1912. Murray lived from 1828-1917.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Simple Church: A Book Review

A pastor friend just recently handed the book Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger off to me and asked me to read it and provide my opinion. I have already talked the book over with him and thought I would share my thoughts here, too.

Simple Church is yet another slim offering to be thrown on the already mounded-over heap of church growth literature. It is a simple read in accords with its title and the glossy white dust jacket ensures that what is found inside will not overtax your already busy and complicated life. "Relax," the authors encourage. Over committed? Over obligated? Spread too thin? Rainer and Geiger try desperately then to convince you that this book is for you.

The major premise of the book is that church has become too difficult. Church people are asked to do too many things and though, as a pastor, I do have a desire to do fewer things and simplify my schedule and the church's schedule, I am encouraged that there may legitimately be a way out there to do things more simply. So in that regard, Simple Church may fill a need. With a mountain of statistical research, Rainer and Geiger argue that simplicity will solve all of the church's woes.

From my tone, you can gather that I really did not like the book. Granted, you won't find any heresy within but deep insight is lacking. Only a brief smattering of Scripture is offered, and that only offered as anecdotal evidence to bolster whatever point Rainer and Geiger are already making. The frequent refrain is "according to our research," rather than "the Bible says." Herein is my primary trouble with Simple Church; the subtitle claims that the book will help you "return to God's process of making disciples," yet that process is never really explained. The authors simply argue (pardon the pun) that if a church "goes simple" then a "vibrant" church will be the result. Moreover, simplicity is something you have to figure out.

"Vibrancy" seems to be what the authors are pushing for. Two types of churches were examined in the authors' research (and I would like to commend the amount of work put into the research; obviously a lot of hard work and dedication went into it). They were either "vibrant" or the more banal "comparison" churches. Is vibrancy the barometer to measure the effectiveness of any church? Rainer and Geiger seem to think it is, regardless of what the Scriptures say.

The overall sentiment of the book seems to be the same rehashed argument that I have found that plagues most church growth literature; traditional versus non-traditional, formal versus informal, old versus young, and now, "simple" versus "complex." The assumption that drives the book, that "simple works," I also find troublesome. Is church simple? Are people really that simple? Because simple "works" for Google, Inc., should it automatically then work for church and Christianity as well? Why do we have to take our cues from the business world? Why not the book of Acts?

Geiger and Rainer are exactly right that Christians often overload themselves with church activities, and the church also puts too heavy a burden upon their people to "be active" in church. Nevertheless, people are complex creatures, and following Christ is incredibly difficult. Being in relationship with any set of people is going to be hard--people cannot just be moved through a three-step process and expect to come out clean as a whistle. Relationships take work.

Faith cannot be watered down, nor is it meant to be simplified and dumbed down to a few trite statements and the latest buzz words to sum up your ministry approach or your life in Christ for that matter. I get the impression from Rainer and Geiger that "backsides in the seats" is yet again the yardstick for measuring church effectiveness. What about those small, rural, back road churches where God's men labor day by day, month by month, with relatively little increase?

You cannot get much more simple than a single staff member church, but wait--Simple Church wasn't written for you. It was written, as most church growth books are, for the upper stratum of churches. Though Simple Church was not a bad book, it certainly wasn't a great book, and did not strike me as an even necessary book. Why? The authors' conclusions were already drawn by page one.

Rainer, Thom and Eric Geiger. Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006. 257 pages.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

So I'm NOT Supposed to Struggle?

I was recently told this in a manner of speaking in a Facebook conversation. This irritates me at a level within that I cannot even begin to describe. The premise was that since I am a pastor, and therefore have arrived spiritually (tongue firmly planted in cheek), I should not struggle with life's difficulties. This is in the context of my unborn daughter that has been diagnosed with spina bifida.

If anything this has further intensified the struggle. I do not mean that since I am in Christian ministry that I should not struggle or some such nonsense, because simple empirical evidence would militate otherwise. I do not mean that I should not struggle because I'm a Christian. Jesus happened to promise the exact opposite of that sentiment.

I have seen a good bit in my short tenure of ministry. I've stood in hospital rooms unable to do anything to alleviate obvious pain. I've gone over to homes in the middle of the night to offer comfort after the death of a loved one. I've prayed for people who were sick and they didn't get better. I tried to share God's love with a young man in the hospital writhing in pain after a car crash who flatly rejected any notion of God.

I've watched people die. That scene is just not easily shaken.

But, I've also prayed for people who have gotten better. I've quite literally seen miracles take place on hospital beds. So it amplifies the struggle. I know that my baby may or MAY NOT be OK. But to say I should not struggle is patently foolish. I may be a minister, but I'm also human; a deeply flawed human who doesn't always get things right. I'm a deeply flawed human who has committed himself to a perfect Lord and Savior who is infinitely good and desires only the best for him, his family, and the baby growing in his wife's womb.

I ache. The struggle is deep. The struggle is difficult. Its intense. To say otherwise is an illusion of a sort that I am not familiar and don't care to be familiar.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Note of Finality

"Consider the work of God, for who can make straight what He has made crooked?" Ecclesiastes 7:13

As many of you may or may not know, my wife is pregnant with our sixth child; a child with spina bifida. If you don't know anything about it, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start. Needless to say, I have been rattled to my core over this. The Lord has trusted unto my care five amazingly healthy and beautiful children. So, my first thought when we received the initial diagnosis of number six was the wonderfully self-serving "Why us?" It took some prayer and contemplation to arrive at the necessary destination of acceptance. I stood in a church service following the diagnosis and gave glory to God. He alone knows this baby right now.

I began praying--fervently. I knew of numerous others who also began praying for us. Many told me they were praying for a miracle. Some even ventured to claim audaciously that this baby was going to surprise all the doctors. I typically accept such statements with much trepidation and even fear, because a part of me just says "that's putting God to the test." Don't misunderstand; with God all things are possible. I believe that. And please do not think that I don't believe God cannot heal my baby. He can.


What if He chooses not to do so? What then? Do I stop believing? Do I lose faith? Has providence failed? Do I turn my credentials in? What? Like my other children, God is at work knitting her together, fashioning her in my wife's belly. And this child will also be a wonderful gift from Him, fearfully and wonderfully made. Just not like the others. Yes, she will be a challenge. I know that and I am ready to accept that challenge. I'll meet it dead on even.

I came to the above conclusion after a note of finality was forced upon me. We have been scheduled for routine ultrasounds to monitor Miriam's progress. (I like that name by the way. I picked it out.) So, we went on December 23rd for one of these "comprehensive" ultrasounds. They look at everything. And I mean everything, fingers, toes, bladder, kidneys, brain, heart, even the umbilical cord.

While watching the show, even with a few little fingers that looked like they were waving "hi" to daddy, there was a noticeable addendum to the ultrasound pictures. Picture wind being sucked from your sails at this moment.

In spina bifida babies, there is a membrane that the body naturally forms around the lesion in the back. It is a defense mechanism to protect the spinal column, because it is, quite literally open. Plus, it becomes filled with cerebrospinal fluid. The membrane could clearly be seen in this particular ultrasound. The technician pointed it out. I was mortified. All words fled me at that moment. I have been very emotional throughout this time and even without my wife knowing. At this moment, inside I was a wreck. A seven-car pileup.

Seeing that membrane confirmed all of my fears. Yes, my baby has spina bifida! I know its not the end of the world, and many people have much more trying difficulties than this. But she is my baby and its natural to want a healthy and whole baby. During my morning readings, the above verse from Solomon's writing was part one particularly glum and sad day. So, I began to consider the work of God.

Perhaps He did make Miriam crooked. Perhaps He was pleased to do so. Perhaps He wanted to give me a baby with a special need. Not for the baby, but for me. Perhaps I've been found worthy of a greater honor than any man can ever bestow. Perhaps. I know a lot of the preceding is bordering on mere sentimentality. But there is one thing I cannot deny. Miriam is a precious gift. And I'll be glad to receive her.