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Sunday, April 15, 2018

"O LORD, Our Lord" - 15 April 2018

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger” (Psalm 8.1-2). We pray for our foes, some of whom are even in some of our own families. Change their ways and outlooks. If there are actions and attitudes we need to repent of and ask forgiveness for, help us to swallow our pride and take the plunge. Bring those who are presently antagonistic toward us to the place where they will be affable, and draw them and us together at your feet to adore you and acclaim your amazing grace.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him” (Psalm 8.3-4)? Sometimes, Lord, we citizens of the United States and our leaders, as well as the heads of other nations and their peoples, get pretty full of our own self-value, thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. And so we pray for our country and all lands – to include Syria, the UK, France, Russia, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, and Maldives – to see that we are no more than a drop in a bucket in your sight, and our days are like dust in the wind. Keep us humble and content with what you have bestowed on us; to rightly steward the resources you have handed on to us; to preserve and protect our inhabitants; to foster true justice at home and abroad; to practice sobermindedness and civility in our political wranglings and personal ways; and to export values that are wholesome. We also ask you to preserve and protect those in the middle of the wildfires, those who have lost homes and property, those working at containing them, and those sent in to restore power and give aid. Send rain, Lord God. Put the fires out.

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (Psalm 8.5-8). Thank you that in your Son, Jesus Christ, you have placed all things in subjection; and that though he was momentarily made lower than the angels, you have crowned him with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by your grace he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2.8-9). Preserve and provide for us, for whom Jesus died, throughout the world, at this congregation, as well as Spender Road Freewill Baptist, Trinity Freewill Baptist, Beth Haven Baptist, Bodine Baptist, and Calvary Baptist, along with Mark and Lori Berry and Pancho Calderon of Serge in Peru. May your word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119.105). And as your chosen ones, holy and beloved, may we put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another, forgiving one another as you forgive us; and above all these may we put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And may the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, to which indeed we were called in one body. And may we be thankful (Colossians 3.12-15). 

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8.9)! We praise you, and pray to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"Remembrance, Communion, and Hope" by J. Todd Billings. A Review

Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord's TableRemembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord's Table by J. Todd Billings
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s only so much you can say about J. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, and accomplished author. You either like him, or you like him. It’s just that plain and simple. And recently Billings gave us one more reason to like him with his newest 237 page softback, “Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord's Table”. This fine treatise on the Lord’s Supper is written to attract the attention and affections of professors, pastors and parishioners. And it is composed to present readers and leaders with a wager: “that a renewed theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper can be an instrument for congregations to develop a deeper, more multifaceted sense of the gospel itself…the Supper is God’s own instrument for conforming believers to the image of Christ” (1). Though it is a learned composition, it is not a parched pedagogy.

Very much like strolling along a garden path surrounded by subtle scents, shades, hues, textures and designs, Billings guides us down a well-marked lane and encourages us to stop and take in the assorted aromas and auras of Holy Communion. He unashamedly does so from a Reformed and Calvinistic perspective, while giving deference to other traditions. The book is divided into three plots. The first, very much in the vein of James K.A. Smith, brings us to examine our functional theologies that have been shaped by our cultural liturgies. Billings then shows how in the Lord’s Supper Christians are offered a tangible, touchable and tastable counter-formation, where believers “enact their role in the Trinitarian drama of the gospel, as ones who are nourished by Christ through the power of the Spirit as adopted children of the Father” (45).

In the second plot of “Remembrance, Communion, and Hope” the author cultivates what is the Reformed thinking on the Sacraments, and how it can enhance (without co-opting) the sacramental perceptions of other Protestant and independent traditions. Here Billings maps out a nine point sketch of the Lord’s Supper that is shepherded by a breadth of Reformed Confessions. He also critiques Radical Orthodoxy’s and Hans Boersma’s flattened readings of the Reformation and narrow explanations of why the Eucharist has become de-sacralized among Protestants; and then offers a happier alternative.

Finally, “Remembrance, Communion, and Hope” leads us to the third plot exploding with a brilliant array of colors and fragrances. Here, Billings graciously unpacks Zwinglianism, and favorably describes John Williamson Nevin’s defense of Calvin’s position. He further discusses open communion, closed communion, and a middle way of “fencing the table”. Yet, most of the pages in these final three chapters swell with striking portrayals and presentations of what God is doing in the Holy Supper. It is a pageant of the Gospel; savory and salacious through and through; running from the here-and-now longingly into the there-and-then! As I finished the last chapter my heart was singing with joy, raising the anthem, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Out of the many aspects I appreciated in the book, that which most charmed me is how Billings clearly brings out the Gospel enfleshed in Communion. And because of this, the Lord’s Supper offers what our fractured and frayed world is in desperate need of. How Christ, freely offered to us in the Gospel, and by means of the Sacrament, challenges our ethnic snobbery and lust for comfortable homogeneity. For example, Billings notes that, "many of us desire a church that matches our “tribe” of political leanings, cultural background, life stage, etc. But the Host (Christ) for the feast of love does not just invite hipsters or squares, conservatives or liberals, whites or blacks; the Host invites people we would rather not see there. For we are not masters or owners of this table; it is “the Lord’s table” (1 Cor.10:21)…It would be tempting to "feed upon Christ" but to spurn the actual flesh and blood of Christians who surround us. But the Host invites not only us into God's household fellowship, but also others in our congregations, in our denominations, and in the worldwide body of Christ...[the church] enters into the messy and open-ended task of loving those she did not choose as adopted brothers and sisters in the Lord...To be in communion with the beautiful, alluring Christ is impossible without communion with his broken and sinful – yet cleansed and redeemed – bride, the church. In the words of Calvin, 'We cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren.'" (139-40). That preaches, and it preaches right!

“Remembrance, Communion, and Hope” will help to hone and develop a greater appreciation and enjoyment of the Lord’s Supper for most any reader. Church members will gain a richer understanding of the Lord’s Supper as they pour over this volume. And if you’re a minister, it will give you a better sense of why the Sacrament is important, and how to present it to your congregation. I have already been recommending it to my fellow pastors, and I happily commend it to you!

My plentiful thanks to Wm. B. Eerdmans, and J. Todd Billings, for sending at my request the copy of the book used for this review. The assessments herein are mine; I have freely given them with no coaxing or coercion from author or publisher.

You can obtain a copy of the book here: "Remembrance, Communion, and Hope"

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Vespers - 8 April 2018

(Our Children): Father, who delights to call us your children and has blessed our families and church with many children – teeny ones, tween, teens and grown ones. We pray for them that in their particular stages of maturation and growth, you would preserve them from harm and harmful people. Further, we ask you to cultivate their attractions, their affections, their thoughts, and their discretions that they would not be swept up and away by treacheries or twisted allurements. We want them to be successful in their academic studies and vocations, yet we ultimately long for them to always walk in your ways, to know that they are yours and you are theirs, and to love you with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength. O Lord, hear our prayer.

(North American Church): We plead with you especially and expressly for your church in North America. Preserve us from ourselves; preserve us from amputating ourselves from the essential, directive, life-supporting connection to your Word; preserve us from caving in to the present social and sexual storm that is brewing. Raise us up and guide us in affirming the beauty of your creation ordinance of one man and one woman married for life; the goodness of maleness and the splendor of femaleness. Breathe into us creative ways to communicate this so that our neighbors, friends, foes, society and even our courts will not be able to “withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which” we are “speaking” (Acts 6.10). And give us the astuteness to rightly, and God-honoringly, minister to those who are ensnared in the present stultifying social squall. O Lord, hear our prayer.

(Non-Christians and Others): Rescue those who are perishing in their sins, and those who have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Timothy 6.10)…If there is a way we can be part of their conversion or restoration, give us those opportunities, along with the wit and willingness to go there with them. If they won’t listen to us because of family relations or personal history, then, please, send them the right persons to lay out before their eyes and hearts the Gospel of your Son, Jesus Christ. O Lord, hear our prayer.

"The LORD Takes Pleasure..." - 8 April 2018

Our Father, who’s blessed Son our Savior gave his back to the smiters and did not hide his face from shame: give us all that we need to endure the sufferings of this present time with grace and joy, as well as a sure and certain confidence of the glory that shall be revealed in us through Jesus Christ our Lord. For the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love (Psalm 147.11).

O Lord, we pray for your Church in all places, for this congregation, Northwest Freewill Baptist; Oak Hills; Shady Nook; South Oaks; and Southwest Free Will Baptist Churches. Help us that we may be strengthened to greater and greater faithfulness, that no matter what we may face, we will always walk in your ways. Take care of all our needs, providing for us bountifully from your generosity. For the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.

Please turn the hearts of our enemies away from hate and maliciousness, and bring them into your fold. And give us daily grace to love our enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return, that we may show ourselves to be sons of the Most High. For the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.

We beseech you to lift up your face on those in hard times, dark times, dry times, and harrowing times…Comfort them in their grief; strengthen them in their weakness; deliver them in their distress; refresh them in their weariness, and raise them to renewed hope and with refreshed hearts. For the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.

Please safeguard our country, and deliver us from the road to serfdom. Be with our State leaders and teachers, and bring forth a proper, appropriate and prompt solution. Direct the hearts and minds of the leaders of every nation, including Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau and Macedonia, that they would render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, they would not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, nor devise evil against another in their heart (Zechariah 7.9-10). For the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.

Father, we pray for those we know or have met who are in real need, and we pray for those who play on the vulnerabilities and emotions of others; for people who mishandle their resources and people who perform for drugs and drink; for people who are genuinely poor and those who are being devious and deceitful;… Help us to fathom and perceive who it is that genuinely needs aid, and how best and rightly to help them. And also, grant to them a new way, your new way, that they may be freed from lifestyles and life-long habits that are destructive and demeaning. For the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. 

Finally, Lord, we thank you for your generous goodness to us, and that you take pleasure in those who fear you, in those who hope in your steadfast love. Amen.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

"The Church in Exile" by Lee Beach. A Review

The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After ChristendomThe Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom by Lee J Beach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It regularly worries me when I hear Christians panicking and clanging the alarm, "We're being persecuted! Everyone is out to get us! Woe!" So it was refreshing to read "The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom" by Lee Beach, assistant professor of Christian ministry, director of ministry formation, and Garbutt F. Smith Chair of Ministry Formation at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. In this 240 page softback, Beach's premise is not that Christians are being targeted and persecuted in the West, but that after centuries of being the privileged religion, we have now only become one of many. We have been pushed out of, or slipped out of, the limelight and set off to the margins. And our task in the present is to rethink what it means to be the church in exile, and how we do our tasks from the margin. In Beach's words, "I will attempt to help us begin to consider both a biblical theology of exile and some of the ways that the church can appropriate this theology in its practice as a church on the margins" (25). Though anyone can easily engage with the book, it is primarily written to church leaders.

The first half of the book surveys the Old and New Testament, showing how Scripture addresses exile, and the place of God's people when they have become the displaced people. Though Beach accepts the notions that Jonah, Esther and Daniel are only advice tales for exiles (not real people in real situations), and that the exhilic prophets were simply recording their prophetic imaginations, yet the insights he brings from those biblical books is very helpful and clarifying. From the Scriptures, and especially those addressing exile, Beach concludes that rather "than succumbing to the challenges of our own exile, we can choose to take another approach altogether and seek the road of a church renaissance, attempting to bring renewal" (135). I found this section to be very sensible and encouraging.

The second half of "The Church in Exile" is a thought-provoking attempt to tease out ways of being church in exile. For me, this section was hit-and-miss. Beach gives away too much with regard to liturgy and ecclesiology in order to become a renewed church in a displaced situation. Sometimes he slides into the doomsday-naysayer when he declares the demise of established congregations within a generation, especially if they don't change along the lines he's presenting. Alarm sells, and it helps to sell newfangled programs (I have mentioned before that church renewal movements assume a specific ecclesiology and sacramentology, and usually declare the demise of churches that don't buy their program. You can see it here). And yet this section sketches out several important perceptions. For example, leaders need to guide their congregations away from a Christendom mindset, into a church-in-exile frame of reference. In the contemporary setting, church leadership must offer an "imaginative vision to the church, one that refuses to be overcome by the circumstances around us that often speak of decline, demise and is the kind of vision that offers new possibilities for understanding who we are as the church and what we can be in the midst of our current circumstances" (142). From there Beach works on several suggestive ways this can be done, and how it might work out.

"The Church in Exile" is important, especially for church leaders. It is a helpful starting point to launch a discussion on how to be Christ's church from the margins. It is normally free of alarmism, and speaks with a fairly level head and hopeful voice. If readers will work through it with discretion and discernment (not always accepting every conclusion or outlook), they will find they were glad they read it. With that caveat, I recommend the book.

I'm grateful to my friend, Paul Rebelo, for sending me this book as a gift way back at Christmas time.

If you're interested in obtaining the book, you can purchase it here: The Church in Exile.

Friday, April 6, 2018

"The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor" ed. by Sally Fitzgerald. Short Review.

The Habit of BeingThe Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn't know how well I'd do plodding through seventeen years of letters. But the compilation of Flannery O'Connor's correspondence in "The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor" ended up being an enjoyable read, and a voyage of discovery. This volume, compiled, selected and edited by her long time friend, Sally Fitzgerald, brought out aspects of O'Connor that are not easily divined from her novellas and short stories. If a reader wants to know the details of the content of "The Habit of Being," I'll refer them to the other reviews. I will simply point out four items that stand out to me above the numerous other characteristics I sighted.

First, O'Connor was truly a child of her time and her place. Most of her life was spent in Georgia, with only a few small stints in Iowa, Connecticut, and shorter stays in a couple of other places. So her language and recorded experiences show the era in which she grew up and lived. This means she used contemporaneous characterizations of the Black folks who worked around her. But, to the discerning reader, it will become subtly clear that she didn't completely agree with the discriminatory mindset of her compeers.

Further, O'Connor new what she was about with the characters in her writings. Several letters express why her characters acted this way or that, the rationale behind their decisions, and the reasons for her writings. "The writer has to make the corruption believable before he can make the grace meaningful" (516). The grotesque in her stories was intentional but not gratuitous. If one has read her works and puzzled over what is happening, they will find "The Habit of Being" helpful.

Then, O'Connor was unashamedly a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic. Her faith is a struggle for her at times, but it is real with her. And she was certain that her faith was not a hindrance to her writings; "I write with a solid belief in all the Christian dogmas. I find that this in no way limits my freedom as a writer and that it increases rather than decreases my vision" (147). As a Protestant reader, I found myself pleasantly surprised. She was truly Roman Catholic, and yet many of her observations roused the pleasure in my heart as she beautifully diagnosed the age in which she lived; held up the importance and centrality of Scripture; and declared her utter confidence in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. And her clear-eyed recognition of the importance of God's truth is refreshing: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally" (100).

Last - out of all the other things I could say -O'Connor was civility in the flesh. She obviously didn't agree with several of her interlocutors. She would unashamedly state where she disagreed, and what was the correct side of the subject. But then she would continue to write and show genuine care for those to whom she was writing. Whether it was Dr. Spivey, the anonymous friend "A," or Maryat Lee, to name a few. Her approach was immovable, but compassionate. She would hold her own without demonizing the other.

My trip through "The Habit of Being" was a pleasure. If you're a Flannery O'Connor fan, or maybe have just been introduced to her in your Literature class and are intrigued with her style, this is a book to take hold of, and read with underlining pen in hand. I happily and heartily recommend the book.

(Follow these links if you are interested in two more quotes from "The Habit of Being. This on is on criticism. And this one is about the law of nature and the Christian faith)

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Thursday, April 5, 2018

"Woman on the American Frontier" by William W. Fowler. A Short Review.

Frontier Women: An Authentic History Of The Courage And Trials Of The Pioneer Heroines Of Our American Frontier (Woman On The American Frontier)Frontier Women: An Authentic History Of The Courage And Trials Of The Pioneer Heroines Of Our American Frontier by William Worthington Fowler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A longish piece that is a child of its age. Originally written around 1876 under the title "Woman on the American Frontier," it exhibits much of the perception of that era with regard to Native Americans and African Americans. Yet it was likely before its time with regard to the role and attitude toward women.

From the coming of the Plymouth Pilgrims to the centenary, Fowler recounts the feats of women on the frontier, in harried and horrifying circumstances. The material brings one to recognize that life was nothing like it is today. One can only imagine how our forebearers survived such perils, whether man or woman, girl or boy! Some of the Victorian romantic with regard to womanhood unfortunately gushes in at times.

If a reader can accept the book for when it was written, and as a product of its era, without getting their hackles up, then that reader will find this book a valuable read. I recommend it.

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