Cornerstone Christian Fellowship

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Immeasurable

This month's book response comes from Justin Ryan Boyer who serves on the Pastoral Team at Cornerstone.

As we read through book responses, may our ears be attentive to the Spirit and may our minds discern and consider truth well. Also remember the words of the Preacher from Ecclesiastes: The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments.


Let’s begin at the end.

In the final chapter of Skye Jethani’s newest book, IMMEASURABLE, the author recounts a story of himself as a young, twenty-six-year old seminarian. One day, during his chaplain rounds in a hospital, he met Bill, a fifty-four-year-old pastor. Bill had multiple upper body fractures including in his face which now featured a wired jaw. The serious injuries, however, weren’t from the pastor being hurt on the mission field or attempting to crowd surf during the latest Switchfoot concert or rescuing some poor old lady’s purse from a mugger. They were a result of solace. Solace sought from the mounting pressures, internal and external expectations, and steady stresses of pastoral ministry. Solace found in a misuse of alcohol that led to a severe fall that he couldn’t even remember and that was contextualized in the loss of his ministry, marriage, and children.

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But this book in review isn’t about alcoholism. It’s about a religious mindset that easily fueled Bill’s devotions in all the wrong ways and can easily push addictive behavior in general, whether it be alcoholism, pornography, or one of a dozen other more culturally acceptable, though equally destructive, vices. IMMEASURABLE is a canon of cautionary tales about CHURCH, INC. and a reminder that the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t need anything added to it.

From the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

I pray that you will understand the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe Him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.

I see a raised hand. Yes? Question in the back?

What is Church, Inc.?

It’s many things. It could be said, in some regards, to be a mindset that dehumanizes people and Christ’s redemption towards them. Simplistically, Church, Inc. is about “systems, efficiencies, and metrics. It sees ministry as an industry on an assembly line of sermons and music and programs… struggles with sin and brokenness are inefficient, they slow down the system, they hinder institutional expansion and the triumphant image that Church, Inc. relies on to attract more members.”  You may be thinking this means only large or mega or colossal churches wrestle with Church, Inc. You would be wrong however. Undoubtedly certain environments cultivate Church, Inc. more distinctively, but this is a mentality that most of us in an age of consumerism and counterfeit covenant are tempted to strive for. It is a hollow and deceptive philosophy which tries to hijack faith and make our dependency on something other than Christ Himself.

SOUL BROTHER

One of the great things about Skye Jethani is that he is bald. I’m not sure if this is by choice or hereditary. All I know, is that it makes creating a mash-up of him and soul-singer James Brown super helpful.

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The book’s sub title is: reflections on the soul of ministry in the age of Church, Inc. There are twenty-four chapters, but only 210 pages proper. Many of the entries come from renewed versions of previous blog-posts and lectures. If you are new to the author, this is a terrific intro class, though by no means low-hanging fruit. Even if you are familiar with some of the stories, they have been converted and offer new insights. The chapters stand on their own, and yet, as all good canonical assembly does, there is an inter-connectivity that reminds you that each portion is part of something larger.

Each section ends with a few points of reflection and applications, prompting those brave enough to not just make this an ethereal journey, but an embodied one. The format feels robustly devotional as Skye always communicates illustriously with thoughts from history and everyday symbols. The book will make for great small group digesting as high-minded observations are communicated in an edifying-for-all style. Chapters range from Ambition to Technology to Vampires, from how the “real meaning of our work is only found when we stop doing it,” to how “preaching is about revealing God’s beauty, not merely teaching his truths.”

While IMMEASURABLE is geared towards ministry leaders, the benefit towards all who care about the health of the Church is easily seen. We are reminded that while God does grace his Church with leaders, we are all, in the end, followers of Christ.

Franciscan friar Richard Rohr once wrote that part of a prophet’s task was to keep people free for God. He goes on to say…

We get trapped in chains of guilt and low self-esteem, focusing on our imperfect church attendance and inability to live up to the law’s standard. As if the goal of religion is “attendance” at an occasional ritual instead of constant participation in an Eternal Mystery! Prophets turn our ideas of success and belonging on their head, emphasizing God’s unconditional and unmerited love in response to our shortcomings.

Jethani’s book is prophetic in that it seeks to keep people free to follow God rather than being tied up to a cultural tradition of church. And as we recall the 500 year anniversary of the reformation this year, IMMEASURABLE calls out to re-establish our foundation, cast off the chains that bind, and  listen for the ever present impressions of the Spirit.

REMEMBERING WHO WE ARE

Back to the beginning, or rather the end, and the hospital room where Bill awaits us.

After a time of hearing Bill’s story and advice, Skye thanked him and got up to leave, not sure how to respond to the broken man who lost his dignity. But then Skye remembered his own calling, that he was called to intercede and to represent the presence of God, not Church, Inc. or the chaplaincy or even himself.

“Bill, I don’t know how to help you,” I said, “but I’d like to stay here if that’s okay.” He took my hand tightly in his and began to weep. So did I. I don’t know how long we cried, but our weeping was a liturgy without words. The tears were a silent sacrament containing confession and absolution, condemnation and compassion, burial and resurrection. I knew Bill wasn’t clinging to me, he was clinging to God, just as I wasn’t merely crying over Bill’s sin, I was mourning my own. The moment was utterly human and yet mysteriously divine. It was ministry.

In the era of aggressive individualism, we ministers are being distinctly called to look outside of ourselves, into the systems of "church" we thought were helpful but could possibly be the opposite, and contemplate what is the soul of the church.

There is a partnership still to be realized in caring for the church. The bride belongs to the groom, but may we stand with the groom, hearing His voice, being filled with joy at His success, and resounding the truth and beauty spoken of the church as she is designed to be. May we love even stronger when she herself may be in a time of forgetfulness.

For what benefit is there if the church gains the whole world but loses her own soul? Is anything worth more than her soul?

All glory to God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power at work within us.

As part of the Book Launch Team, I have a discount to offer you.If you use Immeasurable40 as a coupon code, you can receive 40% off the book through October 2017 at Moody Publishers. You can also preview the first two chapters.


Just Mercy

This month's book response comes from Ariel Hesse who serves the city through YWAM Lebanon.

As we read through book responses, may our ears be attentive to the Spirit and may our minds discern and consider truth well. Also remember the words of the Preacher from Ecclesiastes: The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments


Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who has a passion for helping the poor, mentally ill, veterans and children. He founded Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to help these people. The EJI is a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted, poor prisoners without effective representation, and those who may have been denied a fair trial.   

 
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In this book, you see many people, both innocent and guilty, sentenced unfairly. This is a story about seeking justice for these people who have been wronged. I have to admit this book was hard for me to read, it was hard for me to understand how there could be so much corruption in our courts. It was difficult for me to read about the injustice and even for the people that were guilty to be given the death penalty. It made me rethink a lot of things.

“Capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.’”

This is the first memorable statement, from Steve Bright, made to Stevenson when he began working with prisoners on death row. Stevenson never intended to make a career out of working with these people but after meeting one, named Henry, and being shocked by how rawly human he was, things changed. Henry and Stevenson spent three hours talking about life. The meeting ended with Henry being roughly dragged away. During the dehumanizing interaction with the guard, Henry began to sing an old hymn to calm Stevenson down. From then on, Stevenson knew he had to help these people who were otherwise defenseless. 

If one statement in the book could define it I would say it’s this one:

“We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and weak – not because they are a threat to public safety but because we think it makes us look tough, less broken.”

While this story focuses on many cases that Stevenson takes that all fall under that statement, there is one case that defines this book. It’s the case of Walter McMillian. McMillian is a poor African American man who is accused of and then sentenced to death row for a crime in 1988. As the story goes it’s clear to see that he had a clear alibi for and no connection to the murder. As someone who grew up in the Deep South, I am no stranger to how blunt racists can be.  However, it shocked me how close to my lifetime the events of this case occurred were.

We also learn the story of several children who have been sentenced to life in prison. As Stevenson helps them the EJI takes on a case going up to the supreme court to declare that sentencing children to life without parole to be unconstitutional. This opens up a lot of cases to be retried during this time.

I realized on my second time reading the book that Just Mercy, the title, doesn’t mean Only Mercy, it’s core meaning is Mercy is Justice. When we think of Mercy we often think that Mercy is opposite of Justice, however that is not the case, Mercy and Justice are partners that go together. Understanding our brokenness creates a need for mercy; when you experience mercy it changes you, you learn things that you couldn't have known before. 


The Things of Earth

This month's book response comes from Paul Davis who serves on the building team at Cornerstone.

As we read through book responses, may our ears be attentive to the Spirit and may our minds discern and consider truth well. Also remember the words of the Preacher from Ecclesiastes: The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments.


What should believers do with the "things of earth"? Enjoy them? Reject them? Appreciate them with a twinge of guilt? What? Even the Bible seems to have two opinions. The apostle Paul in Colossians 3:2 says: "Think about the thing of heaven, not the things of earth," while in 1 Timothy 4:4 he says: "since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks."

When I first approached this book, with its rather bland and innocent-looking cover, I expected it to be a long elaboration on the idea that of course it's okay to enjoy children, human relationships, ice cream, music, warm sunshine, lakes, trees, and the Pittsburgh Steelers as long as we don't enjoy any or any combination of them more than we enjoy God. How wrong I was. The book is so much more than that.

 

Joe Ridney, the author, studied in seminary under John Piper, the well-known pastor, author, theologian and coiner of the term "Christian Hedonism." Rigney is now an assistant professor of theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis. Piper has written the forward to this book, and I can't imagine a higher endorsement of Rigney than what he says in the first sentence of the forward:

"If there is an evangelical Christian alive today who has thought and written more biblically, more deeply, more creatively, or more practically about the proper enjoyment of creation and culture, I don't know who it is."

Christian Hedonism is best summed up in the statement, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." And this book can best be summed up as an elaboration on the basics of Christian Hedonism laid down by John Piper.

The first five chapter are the foundation for the more practical concluding seven chapters. They get into some rather serious theology including topics such as the mystery of the Trinity, attempts to reconcile God's sovereignty with human responsibility, and even the problem of evil. And that's all I'll say about those five except to note that they may just be the clearest exposition of basic theology that I have ever read.

So how do we reconcile the above pair of verses, and dozens of similar pairs that could be set in seeming opposition to each other? Rigney suggests there are two ways of relating God to His gifts - the comparative and the integrated approaches.

In the comparative approach we separate them and evaluate them against each other. Since God is infinite and even His best gifts are finite, the gifts will always be as nothing compared to God. In the integrated approach, however, when we love God supremely, we are able to unite our joy in Him and our joy in His gifts, receiving the gifts as tiny flashes of His glory. Since God's excellence is present in the gifts, we are free to enjoy them for His sake, and they become a way of our enjoying Him.

In the following chapters, Rigney introduces the concept he calls "godwardness," which he simply defines as our attempt to live out the apostle Paul's exhortation in 1 Corinthians 10:31: "So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."

He differentiates between direct and indirect godwardness. Direct godwardness is experienced when God Himself is the center of our attention, in activities such as prayer, corporate worship, or Scripture reading. Indirect godwardness is everything else - all our mundane or occasionally not-so-mundane daily activities.

Since we are creatures limited by time and space, we can only orient ourselves in one of these directions at a time. So we need to find what the author calls "rhythms of godwardness" - appropriate times for each of them.

He uses what I think is a great analogy. Our eyes can only directly focus on one thing at a time, although at the same time there are many things in our peripheral field of vision. We never see what is behind our heads at any given time, however. Likewise, we can legitimately directly concentrate on any of the things or activities of earth, as long as we keep God in our "field of vision" and don't put Him out of sight behind our heads.

What about the many places in Scripture where we are called to self-denial - the voluntary giving up of some gifts? Rigney insists that biblical calls to self-denial are always accompanied by the promise of obtaining some-thing better, although the better may not always be immediately apparent to us.

As an example of this, he mentions specifically missionaries, especially those serving in radically different cultures from their own, who have voluntarily given up many of God's good gifts for the sake of bringing the light of the Gospel to persons lost in sin and darkness. He cites the great apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, as the supreme example of this. Paul gladly gave up many of God's good gifts to establish churches that would, among many other things, recognize that things created by God are gifts to be thankfully enjoyed.

Self-denial is voluntary, but how about the involuntary giving up of good gifts that we all will inevitably face?

An extreme example: A young Christian couple who have been struggling with infertility for several years finally manage to conceive and bear a child. Two years later the child develops an incurable illness and dies. What do we say to the heartbroken, devastated parents who have lost their most precious earthly gift? Probably nothing. Just cry with them and love them. Why does God allow things like this to happen? We don't know in any specific instance, but we know we live in a fallen world under a curse, and Christians are not immune from tragedies. Bad things do happen to good people. God is till good, and there are still good gifts in the world, although it may be quite some time before the couple in this example will be able to see any of them.

But what about our ultimate loss of all earthly gifts? I'm going to die, you're going to die, and Vladamir Putin and Miley Cyrus are both going to die. For those of us who have put our faith and trust in Christ for salvation, after death there are even greater gifts to come. In addition to the unimaginable gift of our Savior's presence and the almost unimaginable gift of being re-united with family and friends, there will be "pleasures forevermore."

In conclusion, a quote from Michael Reeves, professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England:

"Reading this [book] will be a sweet moment of profound liberation for many. With wisdom and verve, Rigney shows how we can worship our Creator through the enjoyment of His creation. This is going to make a lot of Christians happier in Christ - and more attractively Christlike."

Read this book, fellow believer. You will not regret having done so.

 

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