Sunday, December 30, 2012

Part two, my "top 10" favorite fiction books:

As in part one, my top 10 favorite non-fiction books, this post is motivates by the many requests I get from people asking for book recommendations.

When I was in high school, I had a rhythm down where many times I read a book a day.  If I wasn't interested in class, which was 99% of the time, I'd sit in the back of the room and read, then I'd go home & read more.  I read everything in Sci-fi and Fantasy I could get my hands on.  I read the Tarzan series, I read every Conan book, and then I would re-read many of my favorites.  I read a lot of good dark stuff too, Steven King, Anne Rice, and a truly talented writer of the macabre, Karl Edward Wagner.  Unfortunately, I didn't read the "classics" until adulthood.  

As I got older, I found my love for reading increasing, but my devotion to fiction decreasing   It wasn't that I didn't like fiction anymore, I felt my allotted/discretionary reading time was better spent on reading non-fiction.  When I offer my top 10 here, this reflects a few life-long favorites, but more of my adult favorites than those of my youth.  

So, in no particular order, here are my top 10 favorite works of fiction: 

#1. Okay, here is my all-time favorite fiction book, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.  This book has such a deep plot and weaves so many subtleties throughout, it blew me away.  I loved Mice & Men a lot too.

#2. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.  This is a book I've read several times, in my youth and as an adult.  This book has a primal feel and pits the protagonist & antagonist against each other as if it were written to be studied. Also, the way Golding writes, the characters come to life and are very believable.

#3. The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, by C S Lewis.  I remember having a teacher read this to our class in second or third grade, this was the first book that I "got lost" in.  I literally lost touch with reality while my teacher read this to me, my mind entered Narnia, and it was like I was in a trance.  I read it to all of my boys when they were little, and when I our boys were young, I read it to their classes in school too.

#4. One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  The simple plot of the book takes place in a Russian labor camp on a winter's day.  It only covers one day, but it is amazing what takes place from from pre-dawn till lights out.  It shows the will to live, the strength in community, and that life isn't always fair.  I love this book, and felt like I there with the characters as they labored away on a power station, working with rudimentary tools and in harsh conditions.

#5. Friedman's Fables, by Ed Friedman.  This book I have passed out several times, read from it in Sunday School & Sunday Night Small groups   I read it to Klay when he still liked to have me read to him at nights.  I can't get enough of this book!  As you guessed from the title, it is a book of fables, and yes they all have a "moral of the story."  This book is eye-opening, and life changing.

#6. The Traveler's gift, by Andy Andrews.  I read this book in one sitting.  The protagonist is a mid-life executive who realizes after being downsized, working minimum-wage jobs, and getting further in debt, that he's worth more dead than alive.  He attempts suicide.  After driving into an oak tree, he "wakes" up in the presence of some of history's most important people.  Each of these people from the past teaches the protagonist important lessons.  This is a book I've passed out & bought for others as gifts for years.

#7. The Brother's Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  I don't have enough space here to describe this classic.  All I can say is this book has such a wide scope of emotion and insight into the human soul that it should be required reading!

#8. Dandelion wine, by Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury was my first "favorite" author when I was in grade school.  When I read on Twitter he died, I immediately cried... on the job-site.  Dandelion wine is set back in the 1920's, in the Midwest.  It is a book of family, brotherhood and life in a simpler time.  I think I have something in my eye.

#9. The Giver, by Lois Lowry.  It is a book that blends an Orwellian 1984 & a Bradbury 451 world together, at least that's how I saw it.   I read this book to a couple of our boys, and I don't know how many times I've read it.  It's part of a trilogy, which I also recommend.  This book is gripping, it's haunting, it's incredible. 

#10.  And The Shofar Blew, by Francine Rivers.  This is the only Rivers's book I've read.  I have no idea about the quality of her other books, Tammy has read about a dozen of her other books.  I do know this book is unique for Rivers.  This book is a tale of a young pastor who looses his way in his quest to build a mega-church.  It should be required reading for any preaching/ministry class.  Church leaders and members alike would get a lot out of it.  This book helped me reevaluate my priorities.  It was a great read, I doubt I can do it justice here with my thoughts.

Sorry, no runner-ups this time around.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Part one: My top-10 non-fiction Christian books

People ask me all the time for book recommendations.
It's impossible for me to calculated how many books I've read; perhaps in the thousands.
Still, I'm able to easily think of the books that have meant the most to me.

In no particular order (apart from the Bible) here are 10 of my favorite non-fiction Christian books:

#1. Playing with Fire, by Walt Russell.  This is a book that will help you fall in love with reading the Bible, it encourages reading the Bible like no other book I've ever seen.

#2. The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard.  This is the best book I've ever read on the meaning of discipleship.  This book has powerfully influenced the way I see Jesus' actual teachings on how He wants us to live in this life.

#3. The Blue Parakeet, by Scot McKnight.  Here's the best book on interpretation I've ever come across.

#4. The celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster.  Here's a book filled with ideas that would take a lifetime to exhaust.  Foster unpacks the spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting and solitude, etc. in such a way that you desire to live the Christian life to the fullest.

#5. The Universe Next door, by James Sire.  This was the book that made me feel like I was in an intellectual slumber all my life, until I read it.  This book opened up a whole new world to me, it introduced me to the idea of "worldviews" and it helped me learn how to think better.

#6. Caring Enough to confront, by David Augsburger.  If you've ever wanted to learn how to speak the truth in love, to save relationships, and how to lovingly confront people, this is the book.

#7. True for me, not true for you, by Paul Copan.  Here's a great book that addresses relativism, help you learn apologetics and it will sharpen your mind.   

#8. The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  This book weaves together community and faith in a way that inspires one to reject cheap grace and embrace the cross.

#9. Mere Christianity, by C S Lewis.  This classic unfolds the simple tenets of the Christian faith, and the common ground-principles that unite us.

#10. Knowing God, by J I Packer.  As the title suggests, this is book on the nature and character of God.

Bonus!  Here are several "runner ups" of my favorite Christian, non-fiction authors:
Lynn Anderson
Eugenie Peterson
Daniel Taylor
Fred Craddock
Donald Miller

Next time around, I might try a blog on my favorite fiction books.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Eschaton, a catalyst for connecting Faith and Science in the End”

Here's a revised version of my article that is in this month's Wineskins, The Eschaton: A Catalyst for Connecting Faith and Science in the End

The subject of “End times” continues to be popular and we have several reminders that the clock is ticking: The recent hype over the Mayan Calendar.  Nostradamus has been a household name for years.  Even before the “Walking dead” on AMC, for decades Hollywood has given us movies like the Road Warrior or the Book of Eli to whet our apocalyptic-appetites.   And R.E.M. sang to us, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”  You may have also heard, the 2013 Pepperdine lectureships are being drawn from the book of Revelation -- a book many people look to for eschatological insights.

Typically, the study of eschatology revolves around four future events: Death, the Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.  There’s another element to eschatology too, the final fate of our three-dimensional time-space reality, the eschaton.  Well, with the prestige science has attained, can we as believers talk intelligently in today’s marketplace of ideas about “the end” of the world?  

Popular culture suggests that there are firm lines drawn between the perspectives of faith and science, as if one worldview cancels out the other.  While there may be endless debates on the origin of the universe and questions over multiverses, there are few disagreements that this universe will come to an end.  That there is a conclusion in store for the material reality is a point where faith and science intersect.  Both parties agree “the end” will happen.

It had all had to start, before it could end
Most cosmologists sign-off on what popular culture labels the “big bang” theory -- a theory that posits a singularity from which all matter suddenly expanded into the entire universe as we know it today.  This instant appearance of the physical universe out of nothing ties in well with Genesis 1:1 -- a beginning to the existence of a time-space reality.  

Have you ever wondered why the night sky is only speckled with dots of starlight instead of being entirely white?  The light traveling our way from multitudes of galaxies and the billions of stars should all descend on our senses as one bright light, or so it would seem.  Unless -- unless the universe has a finite age and the light hasn’t all traveled here yet, if those stars are traveling away from us around the speed of light, and, if there is a lot of dark matter diffusing the light.  

Astronomers tell us 95% of the universe is composed of dark matter (25%)  and dark energy (70%).  These two forces (and no this isn’t the Dark Side of the Force from Star Wars) are responsible for the gravity that holds all of the galaxies together, and possibly the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

It will soon be impossible to determine the “boundaries” of the universe or where we are in the universe, since the dark matter of the universe is expanding so fast.  The effects of Dark matter and energy will soon interfere with our methods of observation to the point where we won’t even be able to determine our location in the universe, let alone the very ends (if there are any) of the universe.  So, technologically speaking, we are in a unique period of time to analyze the universe.  

How could Moses have known, as he writes in Genesis 1:1, the universe was created out of nothing?  Maybe, to sceptical people, Moses wasn’t inspired (though I think he was) and maybe he was a good analytic philosopher and simply deducted from pure reason that the universe began from nothing.  Even so, for our sceptics, how could Peter in the New Testament have predicted the universe would end, and, how could he in his barely literate, pre-scientific world have known about the manner in which the world would end?

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Peter 3:10-12 ESV)

Peter was an Apostle not a scientist, and the Bible wasn’t written as a science textbook.  Are we reading too much into Peter’s words? But look closer at what Peter says: The elements being burned up, dissolved, and stars and planets melting.  Sounds like a very detailed description, a very specific account of how the end of time will happen.  Peter’s details probably wouldn’t be very noteworthy, if they weren’t so close to what scientists predict about how the universe ends.

It all began, How will it all end
The beginning of the material universe started at the point when suddenly time started along with all of the Laws of Physics.  This piece of knowledge that the Laws of Physics were all in place is important too, since the Laws of Physics speak also to the way things will eventually wind-down.  The fact that all the Laws of Physics are in place at the big bang is interesting, since the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics respectively state #1. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, and, #2 Everything is moving to a steady-state of being.  It is the Second Law of Thermodynamics that we want to home in on as we think eschatologically.  

The Second Law of Thermodynamics, also referred to as entropy, is the observation that the universe is composed in such a way that everything, literally everything, is in a state of increasing disorganization.  Atoms move from order to chaos, things wear out, material decomposes, and instead of becoming more complex or structured everything “rusts” into oblivion.  

Think of a glass of ice-water on your counter.  Left there long enough, the ice becomes liquid and the entire contents of the glass become “room-temperature.”  That’s actually an observation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.   

The universe is running out of energy and it will experience one of two endings, either incineration or freezing.  What determines the difference?  Imagine the universe is either enclosed, like inside a greenhouse, or the universe is set adrift without any bounds like a ship on an endless sea.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics plays out differently, based on which of these two settings happens to be the case.  How so?

In an “open” universe where there are no boundaries, the universe will continue to expand and eventually experiences a “cold” death.  Every atom achieves a temperature of absolute zero, which is about 460 degrees fahrenheit below zero .  In this “open” universe ending, Energy is exhausted; everything pretty much turns into helium after all of the stars expand, contract, and then the universe dies.  

Or, think now about the universe being encapsulated in a greenhouse (versus an open field), eventually there would be a “heat” death where the very elements themselves erupt into an intense ball of fire.  So instead of everything in the universe freezing, it burns up.  Sound familiar?  

To my knowledge, scientists haven’t finalized a conclusion about whether the universe is an open or closed system.  Even if the universe is an open system, moving towards a “cold” death, Peter is still onto something with his prophecy of an intense heat consuming the heavenly bodies.   Astronomers tell us that the stars of every solar system will die.  They also have said that the formation rate of new stars has decreased dramatically.  Even if time never ended, according to the latest research, we can only expect an increase of approximately 5% growth of new stars.  

The lifecycle of every star begins as clouds of dust and gas form into what we usually think of as a nebula.  After a period of time, depending on the size and density of the star once it is formed, the star will eventually use up its hydrogen which then becomes helium.  Before your eyes glaze over here, catch the connection.  What happens next in the lifecycle for the star is a massive expansion, a very hot one.  Stars become white-hot as they expand, pushing outward, they will consume the planets that are orbiting them.  

So, Peter’s observation that the universe will be destroyed with an intense heat still sticks whether our universe experiences a heat death or cold death.  Either way, the stars will all grow into gigantic balls of flames, obliterating many of their planets before they die-out or collapse into black holes.   

Why is it vital for the church to reclaim our stake in this conversation?  Somehow along the way, perhaps between Hal Lindsey and the “Left Behind” series, we relinquished a key element of the Gospel; we shied away from talking about the End.  We must re-engage in this discussion because the presentation of the Gospel message is only partially communicated when we leave off the climax.  

This incompletion is twofold.  For starters, evangelistically as we reach out, we are only telling part of the story when we leave off what the Bible says about end times.  How so?  In sharing the Good News, Jesus & the Apostles included the end of time as a major component of their message.  Secondly, the doctrine of the end of time is the last rung of the ladder -- it’s the fulfillment of the Scriptural narrative.  

Also.  We as believers can provide what science can’t, the “Why” for the reason the universe is moving towards death.  The fruition of Eden’s exile is located eschatologically in a cataclysmic renewal.  As Peter concludes his teaching on the melting of the universe he immediately says, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:13 ESV).  Also see Rev 21:1-4.

What’s the main difference between faith’s view and science’s view of the end of time?  We believe time moves purposefully towards an end goal.  On the other hand, Naturalism (the ideology that rejects the supernatural) thinks the beginning of the universe was a random or cosmic accident and the end of the universe will be as equally random without any design or purpose.  The Apostle Paul puts the universe's renewal like this, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25 ESV)

The early church looked forward to the end of time with great anticipation, and our Restoration Movement heritage in the 19th century focused heavily on the Second Coming.  Does the “Millennial Harbinger” ring a bell?  Campbell thought we would usher in the millennial reign of Jesus when we achieved unity, thus the meaning of the title.  I see the millennial-period differently than Campbell, in that I think we are already in Jesus’ thousand year reign.

In our generation, more than likely we will probably not win a debate on Evolution -- Darwinism is too entrenched in our culture.  I’m not recommending “concession” I am saying perhaps we waste our breath trying to convince people against their will on this point.  Darwin, by the way, didn’t attempt a theory on the initial spark or origin of life, only on how existing life developed and morphed over time.  Arguing over evolution in our day is counterproductive.  I say it’s time we move on and instead of addressing the origin of life, shift to the discussion to the end of all life.

The next time you are tempted to think Science is irrelevant, or the enemy of faith, think again.  The end of time is a subject where faith and science can and should dialogue.  The Bible wasn’t written as a Science textbook, yet Science and Scripture dovetail wonderfully well on the subject of the end of time.  From its outset, the universe had a built-in mechanism that sets it on a self-destruct course.  Sounds crazy, unless there’s something more than “something.”  The corollary here is that both Scripture and Science teach that the universe is set to expire.  

I love when Scripture seems so relevant, it seems like it was written in my lifetime.  II Pet 3:7-13 is one of those fresh passages for me.  Peter addresses a topic that’s on the contemporary radar and one that is scientifically verifiable.  Science might tell us the “What” but it can’t provide the “Why.”  From a Biblical perspective, we can give a reason “why” the universe is here, and “why” it will end.  There is to be had, an intelligent and fruitful discussion of the teleological aspect of the eschaton -- the end goal of the universe, and here we can find common ground worth sharing with those we are trying to reach, not alienate.

[Author’s note: I owe a debt of gratitude to three dear christian brothers: Allan Fain, Dr. Rich Knopp (Director of Worldvieweyes) and Dr. O’Sheg Oshinowo (Physicist at Fermilab) for reading over my rough-draft, lending useful insights, and helping me clarify my thoughts.]

Cowardly Keyboards:

The response to my writing has been extremely encouraging.  Really, 99% of the feedback people have emailed me is overwhelmingly positive.  My thoughts here in this post are not a reaction to any criticism I've ever received.  It's more about something I've noticed that bothers me more & more lately. 

Before I point out my concern, let me add this.  Whenever I get the occasional email from someone who has an issue with my writing, I always respond.  I'll write back thanking that person for taking the time to read whatever it was I wrote.  I'll say something like, "You've given me something to think about."  Or, "You have done me a favor, reminding me how I need to be clearer in communicating my thoughts."  What I never do is try to defend myself.  I never claim they are wrong and I am right -- neither do I  try to convince them of my point.  I simply thank them, and tell them honestly, I'll try to do better communicating the next time around.

So, what triggered this post?  There's an online magazine I enjoy reading and am thrilled to contribute to that has attracted a cyber-bully.  He periodically posts random comments under other people's articles that usually have nothing to do with the article he's commenting on.  He says off the wall things that are so disconnected, I shake my head in disbelief.
What can be done?  Really, not much.  Engaging negative people usually energizes them and reaffirms in their mind, their crusade for "The" truth is valid.  And, it can't be one person to stand up to the bully -- the "community" of readership needs to respond as well.  I think moderators have the right to block or delete offensive responses, but we know people find ways around that by simply posting under an anonymous, bogus ID.

If you've ever written anything, you know it's easier to bulldoze over a house than it is to swing a hammer and build the house from the ground up.  And, you know it doesn't take much courage at all to sit in front of your monitor and snipe a writer across cyberspace. I do think we can challenge critics to find publications that are more in line with their perspectives, or challenge them to submit an article they've written, if they have the courage.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

What Kingsford Charcoal and healthy chruches have in common

When Henry Ford started making the Model T, he ran into a challenge while he was manufacturing the famous car.  Since the Model T had many wooden parts, like steering-wheels and side-panels, a lot of scrap lumber & saw dust accumulated around the Ford factory. The question was, how to effectively dispose of the waste.

Henry Ford, being a sharp businessman, didn’t fret over this wooden waste-product for long. He thought of a way to turn the accumulated rubbish into a profit.  He started Ford Charcoal. In the 1970’s a small company bought out the Ford Charcoal line, maybe you have heard of them... Kingsford Charcoal?  

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard this preached or taught, but I believe this is true: The goal of our faith is transformation (Becoming more like Christ), and a byproduct (like charcoal) of the authentic Christian faith is evangelism. Evangelism should be a priority, yes. But, evangelism isn't more significant than worshiping the God we love and serve. It isn't more important than prayer, or fasting, or a host of other manifestations of our faith.  

When to comes to evangelism then, the healthy perspective becomes one where we see evangelism as a byproduct of actually living out our faith. If we are faithful, we are equipped, and we are acting on what we believe, then we will all naturally be evangelistic. Or as a good friend pointed out this morning, while I preached on this, "It's like a side-effect"

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
(Psalm 34:8 ESV)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Flying High: Flight with Denzel Washington

Tonight we went to see Flight with Denzel Washington.  Denzel is one of my favorite actors, and this is one of his best films, ever.  The movie was captivating.  By the way, the director did the Back to the Future movies, Forrest Gump, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Warning, there may be a few plot spoilers ahead.  Probably nothing you wouldn't have heard in reviews or have seen in previews. I will not give away the powerful conclusion or the touching denouement.  

There were more references to God and His ordaining events than in any movie in recent memory.  The way God was woven in wasn't cheesy, and it fit in the plot well.  Though the co-pilot and one of the flight-attendants are made out to be a bit over zealous, the Christian faith isn't disrespected and believers aren't made out to be idiots.    

The big tension in the movie is the central ethical dilemma you struggle with while the plot unfolds.  Denzel's character, "Whip" is drunk, and on coke when the plane crashes.  Yet, he saves countless lives, only 6 people die in the crash, and had Whip not handled the plane the way he did, everyone on the flight and perhaps a populated city center would've died as well.  So, now, Whip's toxicology report shows the substances he's on.  What should be done?  Do we bury the report & hale him as a hero or sentence him to life in prison for six counts of manslaughter?  That question is played out throughout the movie exceptionally well.   

In the hospital a day or two after the crash, while Whip is being treated for his injuries, he ends up meeting a heroin addict.  She is seen being taken away in an ambulance in an earlier scene, because she overdoses at the exact moment the plane crashes.  They enter into a romantic relationship.  You are left wondering at first, how will two addicts cope, and at times you wonder who will die first from their self-destructive lifestyles. 

The movie is so much deeper than the crash.  It's about Whip's battle with alcoholism and truth.  Whip's disposition for me, was reminiscent of  Ben Sanderson's, played by Nicolas Cage in "Leaving Las Vegas." Will Whip face up to the truth he's an alcoholic, or will he remain in denial?  He has so many people on his side, from Union Reps to high profile lawyers, to the sleazy drug dealer excellently played by John Goodman.   You will never know until the end how Whip will respond, and if you think you can predict the ending, good luck.  

The biggest battle for Whip is, how long can a man lie to avoid his consequences?  Will he lie about his battle with substance abuse, even when he's under oath?  Will he ever own up and be held accountable?   On the one hand, you desperately want him to lie.  You want him to avoid prison because he's a hero.  On the other hand, you want him man-up and take responsibly for being intoxicated while flying, because that's the right thing to do.  The plot gives you an emotional tug-of-war like good movies should.

Sadly, I won't be taking my boys to see Flight.  For the first 5 or 10 minutes of the movie, Whip is in a hotel room with a flight-attendant, one who will die in the crash.  The room is messed up, and it's clear they partied all night long.  She's fully naked, and she gets a lot of camera time prancing around the room.  This is one of those nudity scenes where as a dad you can honestly say, it adds nothing to the plot and only ruins the potential for a larger audience's viewing.  And truthfully, that's a shame, because the sobering truth of the movie's plot has a great moral that would be a great lesson for adolescents and teens.  Maybe when it comes out on DVD we'll watch it and just fast forward through the inappropriate part.

At face value an alcoholic pilot facing life in prison doesn't sound like a captivating plot.  But it is because you keep believing he will turn a corner in his struggle and you want to believe in him, even though he fails time and again. But for some reason, you never let yourself lose hope in Whip as he wrestles with good & evil within himself -- which is where the real battle is played out in each of our lives.