Friday, December 2, 2016

American First Freedom Where it began and where it will end

            We hear a lot recently about Christians in America being persecuted. But most of that is an exaggeration. A coffee company which has never claimed to be based on and operated by Christian principles not having Christian symbols on its cups at Christmas time is hardly persecution. We also hear a lot about separation of church and state, or that in this age of political correctness and tolerance, that Christianity is the only religion which is not being tolerated. The First Amendment gets talked about a lot. Anyone can express their thoughts about Christianity and it's freedom of speech, but when a Christian dares express Christian belief or worldview, it seems to get labeled as a hate crime.  All in all there is a lot of confusion about what the founding fathers had in mind; and we don't have a time machine, so we can't go back and ask them to explain themselves.  Is this a "Christian nation"? Did they intend freedom of religion, or freedom from it? How involved should the Christina Church or any other religion be involved in setting policy at the state or federal level. How involved should government be in religious affairs. Can or should religious organizations be exempted from certain laws or rules, based on religious beliefs and practices?  And those are just a few of the questions that everyday Americans, on both sides of the issues, are dealing with on a regular basis.
            Are there answers that will satisfy everybody? Absolutely not. But scholars try to clarify the issues. They look at where the freedoms started and where we are now. And they look ahead to what the future holds. The second edition of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty ( Jason G. Duesing, Thomas White, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III, B&H Academic, 2016) is a collection of essays by noted voices in the field, addressing the religious First Freedom, where it started, where it is, and where it's heading.

            Duesing's essay on the beginning of religious liberty opens the book, and he opens his writing by addressing Thomas Jefferson's phrase "a wall of separation between church and state." Duesing writes, "And if Jefferson did not have a full grasp of his intended meaning, the subsequent generations have labored to supply it for him--but without unanimity."  And we continue to see that lack of unanimity even, and especially today.
            The book is divided into 3 parts, starting with a historical overview of American politics and religion. Next is "Religious Doctrine 101, covering Christian doctrine of  Religious liberty, religious liberty and the gospel, and religious liberty in the Public Square. The final section addresses contemporary challenges to Religious Liberty.
            Although Parts I and II give a lot of information, for the most part it's historical, and provides some of the necessary background for the challenges discussed in Part III. Challenges including the Sexual Revolution, Christian Universities, and international law, and what is happening in Majority-Muslim countries and how that might affect us here.
            So is the End of Religious Freedom near? Is it already here? The book ends with an answer to that too. The end of Religious Freedom was foretold a couple of thousand years ago. Read the book of Revelation. Read Jesus' promises in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts. For the Christian there is hope. But beyond that there is the knowledge that one day religious liberty, religious freedom, freedom of religion and freedom from religion as we know them will all end. Scripture  tells us that one day every knee will bow, and every  tongue confess Jesus as Lord. For some of us that will be a happy, joyous day, for others, it will be the beginning of a new religious regime. Everyone will acknowledge the true religion, the One True God, and His rule will be supreme in the new creation, the New Jerusalem.
            This is a book written by scholars and theologians--noted voices in their field. It is written for what I perceive to be a limited audience. That audience being Theologians, scholars, and a probably highly underrepresented population: Christian leaders. With the laity questioning what is happening to their church and their religion, with a generation of people growing up without church, light on religion, but heavy on opinions fueled by misinformation, leaders need this book.
            My desire is that this information could be presented in a way that would make sense to the members of American congregations, those people who are questioning, but don't have the background or the patience to read scholarly works.

            I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my review.

Time To Break Some Rules

        Leonard Sweet is a prolific writer, not one that I always agree with, but he always makes me think. Having said that, in his new book The Bad Habits of Jesus: Showing Us the Way to Live Right in a World gone Wrong (Tyndale, 2016) I find very little to disagree with. And much to think about.

         Jesus and 'bad'  are not words that generally go together in a Christian conversation. From a 21st century Christian perspective, Jesus is good. One hundred percent good, until we look at the pre-resurrection Jesus in the context of the society in which He lived. Then we notice a disconnect.
      And it's a good thing that as Christ followers we notice that disconnect. Jesus did not come to maintain the status quo. He came to turn the world upside down. He is the Messiah that came to judge, and to lift people out of oppression, and as he broke many of the cultural and societal rules of His day, we see that he was pointing to the time when the Kingdom of God would truly be established, and the perfection of creation would be restored.

                The 15 chapters of this easy to read book are stand alone, but also part of a cohesive whole.  Each chapter recounts some of the events found in scripture, and the rule that Jesus broke in that case. BUT it goes beyond breaking rules. Each rule that Jesus broke was a rule made by man, that kept people from their intended life as a child of God. As Jesus broke the rules, he showed his followers how to live in such a way that their actions would be God-honoring, instead of self-serving.

                All of us probably need to look at some of the rules that we're following, and try to understand how by breaking them we could help make the world a better place. More like God intended it to be.

                I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for posting a review.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

thoughts on Essential Worship

            Everyone has ideas about worship. We like to do things our way, and for years people in the pews, and even some members of leadership teams seem to want to limit the definition of worship to the music. Many of us have attended services where  there was 15 - 20 minutes of  worship (music) followed by the service.

            But there is so much more involved with worship, and Greg Scheer has done an admirable job of pulling it together in an understandable way. His book Essential Worship: A Handbook for Leaders ( Baker Books, 2016) is helpful for new worship leaders as well as experienced leaders. As a sole pastor of a small church, I found the book helpful for my own planning purposes.

            The format of the book is simple: five sections which flow and mesh nicely. Scheer starts with some principles which cover the basics of worship: what it is, who it's for and what it does.  From there he moves to Part 2: the past. Whether you're a fan of hymns or not, they definitely played a major role in the  worship of most Christian churches over the past few centuries. Like them or not, we can learn from them. I find that a lot of younger pastors and worship leaders don't have a good grip on things like the church year, how to use the liturgy (and yes every church has a liturgy.)  Then Scheer moves on to parts 3 and 4: using music and the arts in worship.

            I don't want to downplay the importance of music, and it certainly takes a preeminent role in most services, but Scheer also talks about using the arts in worship. This is something new and different for me. It's just not something that we do on a regular basis. However we are created in the image of the creator, and we have senses that can all be used to help us enter into the presence of God. Read the first few verses of Psalm 34, especially verse 8: Taste and see that the Lord is good. If every breath can be seen as an act of worship, and we're encouraged to 'taste and see' , then it stands to reason that we can use our other senses also. And for that we need something other than a choir, a soloist, or a band.

            Part 5 talks about the people who are involved in worship: the world, the congregation, the worship leader(s), the pastor, and also included a section on the importance of mentoring. Yes even pastors and worship leaders can learn from others, need to learn from others, and also need some level of accountability.

            I learned a lot from this book, and am excited to be able to share it with others on the leadership team.

            In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for publishing a review on my blog and a retail site. I was not required to write a positive review.