Review: Out of a Far Country

Out of a Far Country
by Christopher Yuan & Angela Yuan

On May 15, 1993, Christopher Yuan came out of the closet to his parents. His mother gave him an ultimatum: Take that back or get out. He chose to leave. Finally free of his parents, Chris flung himself into his new family who supported his homosexuality. His mother, though, turned suicidal. Through the following years, both hit rock bottom, and God brings them to himself. This is their autobiographical story.

First off, this book is about 95% solid. It is a true story, and neither Chris nor Angela hold anything back about their struggles.

In one telling part, Angela, who had been an atheist, makes a startling realization: “A person’s attempt to prove his righteousness was the very thing that kept him from understanding God’s love for him” (31). Angela realizes that she’s a sinner, and she doesn’t have to hide that. She ends up walking around in a joyful daze muttering, “I’m a sinner! I’m a sinner!” Later on, she makes a great connection: “We’re all sinners, and knowing that helped me stop worrying about what other people thought” (72). If you want a book that shows the implications of Law and Gospel in a modern-day context, this book is great. (more…)


Not Good Enough

And all the festering puss that had built up in her wounded soul spilled out. Her fear at her weakness. How close she was to death. She missed her dead husband so much. Why did her brother die so young? Her daughter hadn’t called in two years. And all her misery, all her tears, her wailing for comfort, all of it flooded from her and over me.

Her hospital room is dark. Her nose keeps running in her grief. There’s no decorations here like in other patients’ rooms; no smiling pictures from family, no get-well cards, no vases of flowers.

I’ve come because she requested me. I serve as a chaplain in this little hospital; I listen and then share the Gospel. It’s pretty straightforward. I’ve gotten to speak Jesus to so, so many people who have needed to know what Jesus did for them, and what that has to do with their pain today.

And this woman today. Her fear and her sorrow enveloped me. And then she asked, “I want to be with my husband in heaven. But why would God ever take me?” (more…)

I don’t get it.

The Art fell to earth and landed in a sixth-grader’s lunchbox. And that’s when the adventure began.

Or at least, that’s what I’ve been reading this week. I volunteered to read a book to my oldest son’s classroom, and the teacher allowed my suggestion of What Came from the Stars. If you don’t know it, it’s well worth your time. A great fantasy story that has really engaged the kids in that classroom. (It doesn’t hurt that the longer I read, the less time they have for math.)

It’s been fun going in every day. It’s part of my long-term strategy to simply be known and hopefully building relationships within the school, so if and when something happens and a family needs a pastor, they’re already connected with one. I’ve been praying that God uses me to connect with people in the school, and to then be able to share the Gospel with them.

But that’s a different post for a different day.

When my boy got home from school, I asked if his classmates enjoyed the time I spent reading. His response was not what I expected: “Of course they liked you! It’s what people do!”

I asked for clarification. What?

People like you, Dad! They always like you!”

I… what? (more…)

A Prayer for One Dear to Me

Oh my dear, dear lady. What has been done to you? I remember your smile. I remember your laugh. I remember your trust, your faith, your reliance on Jesus. You are a chosen woman, brought out and faithful for so many, many years.

Your smile has curdled to bitterness. I see your hurt. I do. I see your frustration. The wages of sin may be death, but before that we are reminded of what is coming in so many little deaths. And just like we deny death when we grieve, we want to deny all these little deaths. The death of independence. The death of depending on self. And when we deny that… we clutch what we can to ourselves.

And I see that in you. I see that pain. That fear. And I weep with you.

But I weep for even more a reason. (more…)

Review: Hard Sayings of Jesus

Hard Sayings of Jesus
by Joel C. Seifert

Some things Jesus said are fairly easy: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Sometimes, though, he said some things that are… difficult. “Buy a sword!” “Hate your mom!” “Unless your righteousness surpasses the Pharisees…” What do we do with those hard sayings of Jesus? If we value all of the Bible as God’s Word, we need to wrestle with these difficult passages. In this book. Joel Seifert walks through many of the most difficult things Jesus ever said and explains them, using context, culture, and appropriate translations to connect Law and Gospel to modern readers.

After my last… disastrous… book, I thought I’d read something fast, easy, and from a source I knew I could trust to not lead me astray. I have to say, I greatly appreciated this little volume. And make no mistake, it is little – a paltry eighty pages! Yet there’s a lot of good in it. (more…)

Review: The Wisdom of Tenderness


The Wisdom of Tenderness by Brennan Manning

A few weeks ago I wrote a review for Keeping the Faith and I panned it. I did need to find a book for a congregation member that’s been struggling with past abuses, though, so I reached out to some of my brother ministers for recommendations. One of the recommendations was this short book.

As I started reading it, I thought that it was emotional pap encouraging you to see yourself as good. I was ready to throw it in the garbage.

I’m glad I kept reading.

It starts out having the feel of sentimental drivel. But within a few pages of that, you see that while it may be using some of the same language, it is driven by a cross-centered Christianity that longs to connect the reader to Jesus and to show the ramifications of Christ’s love in the reader’s life.

The book speaks of the necessity of tenderness – but it begins with the tenderness Christ has for us. “There can never be another healer in the mess and madness of our postmodern world, because no one else has been there. Only Jesus Christ, ‘a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering,’ has carried our pain into the peace of grace. He has made peace through the blood of his cross” (52). The comfort I didn’t find in Keeping the Faith is front and center here. Manning continually points to the love Christ showed for us on the cross. He does not shy away from pointing to our sin and the need of Christ’s sacrifice. And then he shows the results of that love, that tenderness, in our own lives.

In fact, he pushes us to see ourselves in the harsh mirror of the Law. He reminds us that so often, we cover up our sins. He shows us that we don’t like dealing with ourselves as we really are, and even to God we present fake uses, asking forgiveness for sins that generally don’t really bother us. “When I present this false self in prayer, God doesn’t bless what doesn’t exist” (74).

He speaks well of the necessity of the Law to reveal how shallow we can be:

The omnipresent temptation of the superficial soul is to pretend that we’re sinners and to pretend we’re forgiven – it’s all pretense because the sins we acknowledge are not those that decimate us, and the forgiveness we claim is a sham because of our flagrant dishonesty with God and each other. … However, when the scourge of sin rips our life apart and the rawness of our spirit longs for the sweet salve of relief, we may stagnate between choosing to endure the shame or choosing to trust mercy and to internalize Julian’s words, ‘Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us.’ The grace for the latter choice is not denied to anyone ‘who cries out to him day and night, even when he delays to help them’ (Luke 18:7). (146-7)

He goes on to show the results of our sin isn’t “just” a matter of our relationship with God; it is terribly practical in how sin destroys us.

Sin is the starting point of all social estrangement. Every sin, even every sin of thought, leaves its mark on the psychic structure of the human soul. Every unrepented sin has a sinisterly obscuring effect on true openness. … Sin is antisocial; it locks us up in the prison of our own egoism. And that imprisonment bears grave consequences; insofar as we’re closed and incommunicative with others, our own personality is impoverished; when we can’t reach out to others in a meaningful gesture of love, our own humanity is diminished. Callousness seduces tenderness, and insensitivity becomes a lifestyle. (118)

Thankfully Manning doesn’t just diagnose the problem and then offer a quack solution. He shows us instead how Christ has been tender with us, even with his eyes wide open to our sin. He shows how while we were still sinners, Christ Jesus died for us. And Jesus’s tenderness for us produces tenderness in us. That grace allows us to confess. It allows us to be broken. And it then allows us to be broken for others as well.

Throughout the book, Manning provides many great examples of sharing tenderness with one another. Manning, an alcoholic, relates how grace allowed him to escape the bottle, and how then he was enabled to show that grace with others. Manning is also incredibly wide-read, it seems, quoting so many sources and giving a number of relatively deep Biblical allusions, such as calling John “the eagle of Patmos.”

But always, always he returns to the Gospel. He writes in a way I have endeavored at times to write here. He tells of how he fears falling into sin again, and he writes that Jesus says, “You belong to me, and no one will ever snatch you from my hand. I have changed your name. No longer shall you be called ashamed, guilt-ridden, lonely, and much-afraid. Your new name is ‘child of mine, broken and beloved, playful one and joy of my heart’” (145).

Manning shows immense tenderness in his tone as he writes his book. He writes to allow people to be broken, so that they know that even in that brokenness, their God loves them. He writes to sinners who long to feel again, showing that their God rejoices over them. He points us to Jesus again and again.

If you hunger for a moment of depth and a time of silence, I highly recommend this book. It’s one that I think I’ll be using with my congregation member, and one that you yourself may benefit from.

Review: The Barbarian Way


The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith Within
by Erwin Raphael McManus

Christianity has become civilized. It’s words on a page and saying the right things on Sunday morning. But what if that’s not what Jesus intended? What if those who follow Christ are not meant to be tamed, but to be barbarians, smashing down whatever was in the way of their Lord? What if instead of forming committees, Christians passionately followed their King, living in communion with him and each other, doing what they have been unleashed to do? The Barbarian Way says it will connect you with that living, barbaric faith.

McManus accurately diagnoses a problem. Time and time again he hammers away on a problem: So many churches promise that you are safe in the hands of God, that God will keep you from danger. Jesus never promises that. In fact, he does promise that Christians will face persecution. Because of their connection with Jesus, they will face danger, and often in ways they feel unprepared to face.

But then… sigh. (more…)

Review: Every Man’s Battle


Every Man’s Battle
by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker, with Mike Yorkey

Every man battles with lust. That includes every Christian man. Every Man’s Battle claims to identify the source of our problems and offer practical solutions to men about how to prevent lust in the future. It deals candidly with the problem, tackling issues varying from porn use to watching joggers to masturbation. It offers three “levels” of defense: protecting eyes, mind, and heart. The authors claim that by using this method, any man who is not a sex maniac can conquer lust and never be bothered with it again.

OK. Good stuff first:

The book does offer a lot of good practical advice on how a man can keep himself from temptation. The chapters on dealing with the eyes in particular seem very useful. If I were counseling a man struggling with lust, either in or outside of a marriage, I might use some of the methods here to share some practical advice.

But then, there’s the bad stuff. (more…)

Review: The Pastor’s Justification


The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry
by Jared C. Wilson

Faithful pastors point to Christ. They share Law and Gospel. They pour out forgiveness. They long to connect their people to Jesus, so they grow in him. The pressures, though, are severe. Pastors “should” do so, so many things. Their sinful sheep pull and push. And believe it or not, pastors have sinful natures, too. They are very familiar with their own sins. They need the forgiveness they pronounce… but so often, no one offers it.

This book gives what so many faithful pastors need. It points to Christ. It shares Law and Gospel. It announces forgiveness.

Wilson has written exactly what I needed to hear. He announces Law. He shatters many of my personal idols, and I know not mine alone. He talks about people-pleasing and martyr complexes – two things of which I am supremely guilty. And he doesn’t give excuses. He doesn’t pull punches. He announces the Law: I have sinned by my fault, by my own most grievous fault. “The primary problem in ministry, brother pastor, is not them. It’s you.”

But then he doesn’t give me a ten-step program to get out of the pit I’ve dug for myself.

No, he points to Jesus. He reminds me that Jesus didn’t just come for my flock… but for me, too.

Pastors, will we seek justification in our reputations? In our church’s numbers and figures? In our retweets and links? In our podcast downloads? In a book deal or speaking engagement? In our own sense of a job well done? This is sand.

Or will we look up and out, away from ourselves, away from the fickle fellowship, away from Satan’s accusations and insinuations, up to the right hand of the Father, where our righteousness sits, firmly fixed eternal? There is your justification, pastor, perfect and big, bigger than you and better than you but bled and bought for you and birthed in you, yours irrevocably, sealed and guaranteed through both your successes and failures, through the pats on your back or the knives in your back. There is your justification, there in Christ, and because in him there is no shadow of turning, you are utterly, totally, undeniably justified.

Brother, you are free.

The book breaks down into two parts. Part One, the Pastor’s Heart, takes the reader on a guided tour of I Peter 5. Wilson gives Law and Gospel to knock down idols, heal with real forgiveness, and then motivate with Christ. Part Two, the Pastor’s Glory, walks through the solas of the Reformation and shows how they apply very specifically to ministry.

I personally found Part One to be far more useful, but that could be because I read Part One along with several brother pastors, and the bulk of Part Two I read after my move to a new congregation, so I didn’t get to have the conversation.

Either way, I found that as I read Part One, I nodded along so often. It’s as if Wilson is an old friend who knows me so very, very well. He knows where my weaknesses are. And it reminds me that I face no temptation that is not common – and no temptation that Jesus didn’t face and defeat for me.

I highly, highly recommend this book for both pastors and any other leaders in ministry. Church councils would benefit if they’re involved in the ministries of their congregations, as would leaders of Bible studies. It may not apply as much, but I think they would still benefit. The book doesn’t just diagnose a problem; it gives the remedy: Jesus, not as example, but as Savior.

I was blessed by this book, and I think your pastor would be, too.

Jesus Offends.

And then they abandoned Jesus. They walked away. These people who had chased after him, who longed to hear him preach, who had witnessed miracles – these people who had sacrificed days of time and a lot of effort to follow Jesus: they walked away.

Why did they walk away?

Because what Jesus taught offended them. (Check out the end of John 6.)

This morning’s sermon was all about how offensive God’s Word is.

The Law declares that I am a sinner. That by nature I am dead in my transgressions and sins. That I am hostile to God. That I am not a good person. In fact, there is nothing good in me! And not only me – but that there is no difference, for all have sinned. The newborn baby? Just as sinful as me. That old grandma knitting scarves for the homeless? Just as sinful as me. And man… that is offensive.

The Gospel isn’t much better. It declares I do nothing to help. Jesus died for my sins. I didn’t help him. God declares me not guilty. I don’t help him. I didn’t choose Jesus; he chose me. And even my “good works” God himself works in me to will and do. And then, that person that hurt me so much? Jesus forgives that person too, with just as little work on their part? Shouldn’t they do something to make up for their sins before Jesus forgives? Nope! There is no difference: All are justified freely by his grace. And man… that is offensive. (more…)