Book Review: China’s Reforming Churches (Bruce Baugus, Editor)

As I was reading China’s Reforming Churches I was struck by how ignorant I am regarding the history of the body of Christ in China, and how uninformed I am regarding the present state of Christianity there. My personal politics and very limited one and two person removed exposure to China has created a caricatured view of the country, the culture and the state of the church in this largest of all nations on earth. China’s Reforming Churches offers three wonderful challenges to readers who, like me, have been guilty of unintentional bigotry.

First, the Introduction and first three chapters offer a very detailed history of the Presbyterian and Reformed movement in China over the last 200 years. There is some overlap in the details covered, which I didn’t enjoy, but the coverage is comprehensive and lays a foundation for a more well rounded view of the contemporary Chinese church.

Next, many of the contributing authors are Chinese pastors, and several chapters compiled by North Americans, are posts and articles written by Chinese Christians or interviews of local Chinese pastors and elders. Reading their words, and their thoughts about their own culture can quickly dismantle one’s muddle of misconceptions.

Finally, there is no way to read about the contemporary church in China without coming to the conclusion that while the book is titled “China’s Reforming Churches” it should really just be titled “Reforming Churches.” So much of what is written about the church in China could, with the change of only geographical reference, be said about the churches in Canada, or the United Kingdom, or Australia, or the United States. I was startled at how familiar the struggles were, and how universal the answers should be. While this book is written about China, it is a book about how to maintain and grow healthy churches, and how to effectively train pastors and how to engage within culture. The answers are as true in my home church as they are around the world, in China.

While almost all of the book was fantastic, Chapter 9 was a red herring. The discussion of one and two kingdom theology is complex, and universal. It is surely a matter of great discussion in China, as it is across Western reformed Christianity, but VanDrumen’s chapter was irrelevant to the rest of the subject matter. I was disappointed in its inclusion in an otherwise helpful book.

China’s Reforming Churches  is a wonderful book. It is an intensive read, and won’t be consumed in an afternoon by the pool, but it is worth the time and effort to gain a more accurate view of our brothers and sisters in China, and to reflect on the global needs of the Universal church.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic copy for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one.


Things We Learn When we Aren’t Trying

All winter I lived aware of the possibility of losing power. Every time a winter storm was predicted we went through the discussion of how much water we had, and wood for the stove, and meals that could be cooked on said wood stove. We had candles and an emergency flash light. I had spare blankets for the children’s beds.

In the irony of 2014 weather, it wasn’t a winter storm in which we lost power. It was Tropical Storm Arthur. Jonathan and I have lived through a number of hurricanes and tropical storms in our years in Georgia, but this year these places seemingly traded weather, and neither fared so well.

We lost power at 8:30 Saturday morning while cooking for a church breakfast. On Sunday morning I told the children, “this is just like camping, except we got to sleep in comfortable beds!” On Monday morning I muttered to Jonathan, “I’m so over this! I just want a shower.” And when I was woken at 4:30 Tuesday morning to the beautiful sound of our toilet tank filling with water and the blinking 12:00 on my alarm clock, I said, “thank you Lord!” with no sense of flippancy.

Over all, I am pretty pleased with how our little family fared. The children mentioned T.V. only once. We cooked and ate our own food. We had enough water to drink. We spent a lot of time outside working in the garden. (The pea trellises did not approve of Arthur’s Saturday rampage.) Jonathan and I read more and went to bed earlier. I even got to the point of asking a friend if I could borrow her laundry scrub board and hand crank wringer to do my own laundry by hand. (The Lord gave me back power before I had to do that, but I was, at least, willing to try.)

I was also so encouraged that in the midst of personal inconvenience, a good number of our church congregation still arrived at church for both services. Some of them (*coughflewellingwomencough*) looking just as put together as any other Sunday. Some of us looked a little worse for wear. Our worship, however, continued despite our circumstance; possibly even sweeter for it.

So we learned we are capable of enjoying life with less convenience, and we are renewed in our thankfulness that we don’t have to. We are grateful for things we often take for granted, and are grateful for the time and place in which we live and once more thankful for the church to which The Lord has called us.

All of that from a tropical storm in the North Atlantic.


Looking Back to Look Forward

So I turn forty next week, and that is causing a bit of nostalgia for me. Not so much because this is the statistical “half way” mark for the average human (although, yes, some of that) but because I am suddenly realizing how momentous the last decade of our lives has been. My twenties were all about dreams coming true – or at least most of them. We got married. Jonathan graduated from college and found his dream job. We moved across the continent. We traveled. We bought a house. We bought a low profile sports car. And then, right when the only thing we thought we needed was children, Jonathan left his position as a youth pastor, and I felt all of my dreams slipping away.

I was supposed to celebrate my thirtieth birthday with a cruise to take my mind off of being 30 and childless. Instead, I celebrated it by signing up as a real estate sales agent with my dear friend Donna. Jonathan took a part time job as a church secretary. We had a fire in our home with thousands of dollars in smoke damage. One new church was sued. It was a really low year.

But that year was a threshold for us. God did so much work in us over the last ten years that I almost don’t believe it myself, and I lived it. I discovered not one, but two rewarding careers (Real Estate and teaching). And Jonathan spent three years working in fast food after four years of teaching. We were a part of three different types of churches before finding our home in the Presbyterian branch of Christendom. We dramatically renovated a house, and then lost it. We moved to St. Louis and survived seminary. I learned to cook. I started a blog (and then abandoned it somewhere along the way). Jonathan took five weeks to preach at a church with an empty pulpit. We moved across the northeast in a snow storm in December.

And while I entered my thirties childless, and disillusioned and confused, I am looking at forty with three children, with a husband returning to pastoral ministry and with such growing clarity and trust in the things of God. It has been such a momentous decade of The Lord proving himself faithful over and over and over, so often and with such intense regularity.

This Sunday Jonathan preached on Mark 6:30-56. When the disciples see Jesus coming on the water they are afraid, “because they did not understand about the loaves.” Jonathan said,”if we don’t understand his provision, we will doubt his protection.” I feel as if the last ten years has been miracles and storms until we could trust in both The Lord’s provision and protection.

I am looking back so that I can look forward at the next half (or so) of my life in confidence that the One who brought me through that, will be completely faithful not to abandon me in the future unknown.


Please Read This Book Review: Worshipping With Calvin by Terry Johnson

I know that I haven’t been blogging much lately, and I know that my book reviews aren’t usually my biggest hitters, but please, please, please read this review because this is an important book.

I am a product of the worship wars of the 1970′s and 80′s, and have spent far too much of my life as a Christian believing that worship was unaffected by doctrine. However, the early church fathers, and the reformers and all of the heavy weight thinkers through out church history have had a very different view on worship. They believed that what we believe is true must determine how we act, and there is nowhere that this is more important than in the corporate worship services of the Body of Christ. Worshipping with Calvin by Terry Johnson makes the compelling point that we should follow their example.

Johnson’s biggest strength is when he acts as a conduit, presenting the biblical and historical view on Christian worship in a tidy, readable package. Calvin and his reforming compatriots did nothing without careful consideration and deliberate exegesis, and Johnson does a wonderful job of presenting how that worked out in their view of Christian corporate worship. Having once been under the misapprehension that much of the practices of the reformers were trappings left over from the medieval papacy against which they were protesting, I was impressed at the thoroughness with which Johnson dispelled this commonly held myth. On the elements of worship, and the doctrine that forces their necessity, Worshipping with Calvin is clear, concise and meticulously exegetical and historical. I have been deepening in my understanding of reformed doctrine and practice over the last five years, but portions of this book explained issues that had previously been unclear for me.

Unfortunately, there are times that the author gets in his own way and allows his personal soap boxes to cloud what could have been a paradigm shifting book. The first chapter is a muddled tirade of bad history and poorly stated Barna surveys. This last inclusion is ironic, considering the author goes on to lambaste George Barna personally, and the use of his demographic studies, in chapter 8. I wish the author had jumped from the preface (which is excellent) immediately into the heart of the matter which is found beginning in chapter 2. There was a culturally insensitive portion of at the end of chapter 8 that made me cringe a little. Additionally, when referring to contemporary trends in American evangelicalism, the author often jumps to the extreme fringes. The churches to which he refers have claimed association with neither Calvin, nor reformed doctrine, and to include them as negative examples feels too much like a disingenuous straw man attack. In fact, as my friend Sarah pointed out in her excellent review, he occasionally criticizes models and practices that have fallen out of mass favor. Conversely, when emphasizing the importance of the use of historical hymns, Johnson fails to acknowledge groups like Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Music and David Crowder who are making an effort, often as a direct result of their reformed doctrinal leanings, to encourage and promote a return to the very hymns Johnson praises. This is more unfortunate when many in this movement are members of Johnson’s own denomination.It makes me fear that Johnson will alienate the very people who are most likely to read, and most in need of, this book.

This brings me to the first sentence of my review. This is a very important book. It is vital that we begin to understand that the word Reformed has deep and abiding implications. During the reformation, men and women faced imprisonment and death not primarily because they believed in five Solae, but because the truth of what they believed changed every single detail of the way they worshiped. If we say that salvation is all about God, and that we bring nothing to the table, we must, by application, believe the same thing about the way we worship the God who has saved us. Worshiping with Calvin should be widely read and discussed among anyone who considers themselves a Calvinist, or reformed. I only ask that you give the author as much of that grace we all talk about as you can handle.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic copy for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one.


Ill Equipped for the Task at Hand

On Thursday I took the children to our weekly public swim. Jonathan was out of town at the ARP Synod meetings, so I was flying solo, meaning I was required to field all of the questions coming from the three motor mouthed fruit of my womb without the option to call in a pinch hitter. In the midst of this, the Mackerdoodle asked me what a Black Hole was. I answered that it was a very, very, very heavy place in space that sucked everything near it toward itself. She then said to me:

“So it sucks everything into itself? So there could be a whole universe inside a black hole?” I was startled and answered, “Um. Yes sweetie. Actually scientists who study space are wondering exactly that.

She didn’t stop there, though. She followed it up with, “But all of that stuff that gets squished down into the black hole. I mean it can’t just disappear into nothing. It has to go somewhere. Could a black hole suck stuff in and send it somewhere else?” My brain was beginning to be distracted by the implications of this conversation, but I continued to affirm her. “Well, some scientists wonder exactly that. No one has been able to study it closely enough.”

“What if there used to be a huge black hole and  then it exploded, and everything in our universe came out of it!” She asked, excited at the possibility.

“Well, what do we know about how the universe was formed?” I asked. Praying for the right answer, and in answer to that prayer, her answer came quickly.

“Oh Right. God spoke and it was made. No black holes in Genesis.”

She was appeased, but I was terrified. My six year old had, from a very elementary explanation of black holes managed to hypothesize the same types of cosmological scenarios that doctoral candidates are considering for dissertation work.

I am clearly ill equipped to be her primary educator.


Book Review: Active Spirituality by Brian G. Hedges

I have been reading a lot of non fiction lately, both for the blog and for other reasons. While different in substance, and even style, there is an element of knowing what you are getting into with a non-fiction piece that I really like. The words themselves will surprise, or even offend me, but the form and shape is fairly constant from one to another. Active Spirituality is sub titled “Grace And Effort in the Christian Life.” When I sat down to read it for review I knew what I was expecting, and I had some idea of the topics the author would discuss. I was interested to see where exactly he would land on this thin balancing beam between true grace and antinomianism. Instead, I still haven’t figured out exactly what I was reading.

This is not a theological treatise. This is not a devotional. This is not an opinion piece. I was baffled. Frankly, I put it down and gave up. But I kept coming back to it.

Active Spirituality is written as a series of letters between a pastor and relatively new Christian. It has a rambling, non-linear structure. The subjects seem to come at random, then disappear, only to reappear three or four letters later, tied to another thought, or idea. I felt as if I had entered a conversation in which I had missed the introductions and a few key facts. I was that awkward person who smiles and nods but never knows exactly what is going on.

Except, just as I was ready to toss it aside, and say, “enough of this!” there would be a moment of brilliant clarity. The chapters on the armor of God were amazing. The idea of acedia (spiritual laziness) was brand new to me, and extremely convicting. And the style of the book itself became a teaching tool for me.

The bottom line is that friendships and conversations are never linear and tidy. I often leave conversations feeling that there were only snatches of ideas, threads of possible topics, instead of orderly discourse that would meet a rhetoric guideline. Yet, when I am back with that friend another day, something picks up something else and we’re back tugging at that thread again, much like the letters in this book.

I wish I had read this book for book club, instead of for review. I have no idea what I thought of it, and I would love to sit back and listen to what others took away. If you’re looking for a bible study or an instructional manual regarding law and grace and personal responsibility, this isn’t what you’re looking for. But it is a good example of how we disciples those with whom we have relationships, and I think new believers would find it helpful.

You can click here to listen to an interview with the author, which will be far clearer than my review.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic copy for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one. I keep a disclosure statement here.


Simplicity

Tonight there is a gentle rain falling. It is the perfect sort of soaking drizzle that covers everything, including the thirsty ground, in a gentle blanket of damp that soaks down into the cracks and gives our brand new garden a much needed drink. The children, who have been helping us with the garden for the past three weeks, were pleased to see the rain, because it meant that the potatoes and tomatoes and peas and carrots and corn that we had planted would be stronger in the morning. They have never been happy to see rain before.

This week we had a conversation about pets. I am beginning to feel strongly that if we feed something, it should bring some added value to the family, and the children, surprisingly, were okay with pets we would also eat. It was not a strange concept to them.

Today, as we planted a semi circle of sunflowers, and the Snickerdoodle smiled delightedly as yet another tractor drove past on our rural road, the mackerdoodle said to me, “Mama, our life is simpler now, isn’t it? I like our simple life.”

So do I. It feels like we’ve come home to something we didn’t know we were missing.


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