The God Who Uses Means

hands_holding_worldLast night during family devotions, we studied Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4).  As we were reading and discussing this passage, I saw that the NLT Study Bible contains the following note regarding Jesus’ first temptation, “Israel complained constantly about hunger in the wilderness, but Jesus depended on God’s strength to sustain him.”  While I agree with what the writer says in contrasting Israel and Jesus, if not careful, one could take this notion of God’s providence to the extreme and arrive at a completely unbiblical passivity.  Such thinking goes well beyond any scriptural description of providence and preservation into the realm of a radically unscriptural fatalism and determinism.

Our faith in God and his providential care for us should give us great comfort in the face of any and all situations.  We mustn’t let our ‘faith’ paralyze us or lead us to inaction where God has provided a clear avenue to accomplish his ends.  In other words, we must realize that God is a god who uses means, both in the ‘big things’ and in the ‘little.’  As Luther writes:

Those who assume God will take care of everything and don’t think it’s important to make use of what’s available should carefully note this example [of Rebekah and Jacob in Gen 27].  These kinds of people sometimes don’t take any action, because they believe that if something is meant to happen, then it will happen with or without their help.  They even put themselves in unnecessary danger, expecting God to protect them because of his promises.

But these kinds of thoughts are sinful, because God wants you to use what you have available and make the best of your opportunities.  He wants to accomplish his will through you.  For example, he gave you a father and mother, even though he could have created you and fed you without them.  This means that in your everyday life, you have the responsibility to work.  You plow, plant, and harvest, but God is the one who provides the outcome.

If you stopped giving a baby milk, reasoning that the baby could live without food if the baby were meant to live, then you would be fooling yourself and sinning.  God has given mothers breasts to nurse their babies.  He could easily feed children without milk if he chose to.  But God wants you to use the resources he has provided.

So we plan diligently and labor vigorously, all the while knowing that our Heavenly Father is working his will in and through our efforts.  “So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters.  Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens” (Jas 1.16-17, NLT)

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Book Review: Reclaim Your Dreams by Jonathan Mead

ebookdreamcover-194x300For those of you who aren’t familiar with Jonathan Mead, he blogs at Illuminated Mind and is a regular writer at the insanely popular Zen Habits.  In his own words, “My purpose here is to explore the uncommon side of things that is often overlooked by the typical, mainstream approach.  Illuminated Mind is about finding freedom from what we’ve been conditioned to think will make us happy.”

Jonathan is a thinker and a questioner in the best sense of the word…one who is neither content with the status quo nor content to accept what anyone tells him at face value.  One of my most cherished theology profs once told me, “For every one book you buy that you know you’ll agree with, buy at least two that you know you will challenge you.”  For me, Jonathan Mead is one of those fellows who is both immensely enjoyable to read and simultaneously guaranteed to challenge.  Though we share fundamentally different worldviews, as far as I can tell, I love to read his writings and use his ideas as a springboard from which to do my part and shake up the status quo from time-to-time (my boss might read ‘time-to-time’ as ‘always’…but that’s a matter of perspective, I guess!).  With those thoughts in mind, I naturally jumped at the chance to read and review his recent ebook, Reclaim Your Dreams:  An Uncommon Guide to Living on Your Own Terms.

Though he never comes right out and says it, Jonathon Mead is a classic existentialist, interested in challenging authority and the status quo; following his dreams wherever they might take him; and in general, ‘suck[ing] out all the marrow of life.”  Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, and Kierkegaard would be proud of their faithful disciple.  While that might put off some of the regular readers of this blog, since Dead Poet’s Society is one of my favorite movies of all time…the former existentialist in me got really excited over this book and agrees wholeheartedly with many of Jonathan’s points, even if I don’t presently agree with all the finer points of his philosophy.  For example, some might be uncomfortable with his unashamed questioning of authority, but there certainly is nothing wrong, in principle, with a genuine, humble quest for the truth and desire to find a better way of doing things.  If we find out that those we question are right, great.  If not, we continue our search, being careful not to disregard the answers we’re given just because they clash with our personal desires.

If I could sum up the point of this book in two short thoughts it would be–your life/job/vocation doesn’t have to look like society tells you it should…define your dreams and go for them!  In an age when so many are trapped in the pursuit of productivity and the culture of the cubicle, Jonathan rightly recognizes that much of life’s joy is found in the journey.  As he writes, “Too often we let the fear of the unknown keep us from taking action, so we follow the herd where things are comfortable and predictable.”

Many of Jonathan’s frustrations will be all too familiar for those in corporate America, which largely seems immovably fixed in its ways and its culture of “the way we’ve always done it.”  Instead of being lemmings blindly following those who have gone before us, he challenges us to define our dreams, our purpose, our values and then relentlessly pursue them…all the while passionately enjoying the journey and not simply focusing on the goal at the end of the road.  In order to break free of the routine, Jonathan provides a multitude of practical exercises designed to get readers to think beyond any self-imposed limits, walk through the process of understanding / defining our dreams, and making those dreams reality.  His writing is not some divorced-from-reality motivational work, however, he is clear that living out your dreams is both risky business and hard work–both of which are instrumental in avoiding lives of “quiet desperation.”

In short, whether or not one subscribes to the philosophical worldview embraced by Mead, there are many gems in this ebook that can be put to good use by anyone seeking to clarify and then follow his or her dreams.  It is, to use his own words “a permission slip to be ridiculous…[and] an invitation to dream.”  Check it out here on Illuminated Mind.

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A Communion Hymn–“What Is This Bread?”

Last Supper

This Maundy Thursday we sang a new Communion hymn titled, “What Is This Bread?” (LSB 629).  They copyright on the song is 1991, which is very new in our LCMS circle.  To put it into perspective a bit for some of you uber-contemporary folks, this hymn is across the page from a hymn by Thomas Aquinas dated in the late 13th century.  Anyway, this is a great hymn, with a beautiful tune and lyrics that teach a wonderfully rich, unashamedly Lutheran theology of the Lord’s Supper:

What Is This Bread?

What is this bread?
Christ’s body risen from the dead:
This bread we break,
This life we take,
Was crushed to pay for our release.
O taste and see–the Lord is peace.

What is this wine?
The blood of Jesus shed for mine;
The cup of grace
Brings His embrace
Of life and love until I sing!
O taste and see–the Lord is King.

So who am I,
That I should live and He should die
Under the rod?
My God, my God,
Why have You not forsaken me?
O taste and see–the Lord is free.

Yet is God here?
Oh, yes! By Word and promise clear,
In mouth and soul
He makes us whole–
Christ, truly present in this meal.
O taste and see–the Lord is real.

Is this for me?
I am forgiven and set free!
I do believe
That I receive
His very body and His blood.
O taste and see–the Lord is good.

There are many wonderfully rich truths taught in this short hymn.  In fact, one could use it as a great catachetical tool to teach the basics of a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament.

As we were taking Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday evening, however, I was struck by a line in the third verse, “My God, my God, why have You not forsaken me?”  It is a subtle twist on Jesus’ words from the cross and Psalm 22…and it echoes the recurring sentiment of my sinful heart.

There is no direct reply in the verses that follow, which is fine, because the sin-burdened heavy heart does not need a theological treatise on God’s presence with us.  What follows is better–the promises of God, through the Word, that he is both ever-present with us and that we are forgiven and freed from our sins.  Amen.  Thanks be to God!

Book Review: Christianity in Crisis: 21st Century by Hank Hanegraaff

Christianity in Crisis: 21st Century is an extensive update and revision of Hank Hanegraaff’s classic, first published nearly twenty years ago.  In it, he examines and scrutinizes the theology, practice, and teachings of some of the most popular “Word of Faith” (or simply “Faith”) preachers and teachers so prominent in American Evangelicalism today.  As in the initial version of Christianity in Crisis, Hanegraaff contrasts the teachings of the Faith movement with those of the historic, Christian faith to show the great disconnect between the two.  Using the acronym FLAWS, he examines deficiencies in this movement’s beliefs in the areas of faith, the nature of God, the understanding of the atonement, the fixation on health/wealth, and the theology of sickness/suffering.  After focusing on the negative aspects of these teachers and preachers, Hanegraaff offers several chapters of teaching on the “basics” of the faith in the areas of prayer, the Bible, the nature of the church, basic apologetics, and the theological non-negotiables of historic Christianity.  As is characteristic of Hanegraaff’s other works, he provides countless endnotes (nearly 75 pages) and a lengthy bibliography documenting the teachings of those under scrutiny, eliminating any serious accusation that he is taking these individuals out of context.

Hanegraaff’s lively writing style makes Christianity in Crisis: 21st Century an enjoyable read.  While he is to be considered an ardent defender of the faith, he is neither slanderous nor mean-spirited as he writes.  Two aspects of this book stand out and make it shine, in my opinion.  First, Hanegraaff is quick to separate the Word of Faith/Faith movement from Charismatic Christianity.  While the two are often lumped together by those in non-Charismatic circles, he points out the clear distinction between them in order to eliminate confusion for those who may erroneously believe or assume they are one-and-the-same.  Perhaps the most valuable portion of this book is the chapter titled, “Cast of Characters.”  In this chapter, Hanegraaff examines the false teachings of many prominent Faith teachers/preachers, including: Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, John Hagee, Rod Parsley, Paula White, and many others.  His lucid writing style clearly communicates what these individuals teach as well as pointing out the problems associated with their teachings.

Regardless of whether or not one is familiar with the original edition of this work, Christianity in Crisis: 21st Century is sure to make a valuable addition to the library of any Christian seeking discernment in the midst of the sometimes-confusing landscape of American Christianity.

The Future of the Lutheran Church

If the Lutheran Church has a future, it will be as the Lutheran Church. It will not be as imitation Baptists, Presbyterians, or anything else. If people are to become, remain, and rejoice in being Lutheran, it is because they understand the distinctively Lutheran way of being Christian. Being Lutheran is an evangelical catholic and catholic evangelical way of being in unity with the entire Church of Christ.  The present state of American Lutheranism is not just “not satisfactory.” It is a sickness unto death. The alternative is not beating the drums to revive flagging spirits, nor is it to move evangelism a few notches up on the bureaucratic agenda.   The alternative is renewal — theological, pastoral, sacramental, catechetical.  The alternative is to be something that others might have some reason to join.

Richard John Neuhaus, 1986 (quoted in Forum Letter March 09)

HT: Pr Matt Harrison