Thursday, June 29, 2017

Book review: Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church by Philip Yancey

“I’ve noticed that Christians tend to get very angry towards others
 who sin differently that they do”

from Philip Yancey’s novel Soul Survivor.


Yancey makes his case well.  He has indeed recovered from the church (viz. “I have spent most of his life in recovery from the church”. Page 1).  His church “mixed in lies with truth” in a “hermetically sealed” racist Georgia of the 1960s.  Fitting to his recovery is a prominent chapter – perhaps one of the best in the book – dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.  Ever since the start of his recovery path Yancey has “clung fiercely to the stance of a pilgrim” – “one person among many on a spiritual search”.


At the core of Yancey’s flight is a maturity of view that he had gained towards a particular church.  Yancey’s recognition of racism (and its lie) commenced that flight.  It is perhaps not that Yancey need survive the church – for instead he grew away from the church - but that he instead continue to fuel his own journey. 


It was through this book that I re-discovered John Donne (see this linked post).  Donne and another of the persons covered; G. K. Chesterton make a neat pair of perhaps similar order to the two Russian authors that are coupled into a single chapter; Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky.


While Yancey makes his case well, clinging as he does to an eclectic mix of persons across the ages, I was left with some questions.  What advice does Yancey offer to others to allow their faith survive despite the church?  What should people look for in their churches so that they identify the mixing in of lies with truth?  Indeed, how should people be opened to seeing themselves as “hermetically sealed” within a church?  How do they identify their church as little more than “a social setting for tidily dressed families to accumulate dignity by being seen every Sunday”?; Anne Dillard, American poet and author.  Yancey certainly seeks each reader to embark on their own journey to associate with Christian leaders of the past yet he does not offer immediate practical advice that establishes immediacy of discernment.


The book at times deviates from its prime theme of soul survivorship in becoming a reflection on the life of a writer.  In this way, Yancey seems to be justifying the times that he retreats - hermit like - to complete manuscripts.  These deviations do not distract too heavily from the overall theme yet they do suggest that Yancey’s selection of profiles was occupationally driven.  That is, he was perhaps naturally drawn to other authors.   Each person will naturally gravitate in similar ways to people who have some commonality to them.




Note: all links good as at 29 June 2017

All is Donne

English Poet John Donne first entered my life as an awkward student of English Language at High School.  Donne’s poetry was a real stretch to comprehend. Yet, amongst the poetry selected by the class teacher were some pieces that were intimate enough to stir testosterone-charged teenage boys.   Take for example one of his most famous poems that opens with a chastisement to the sun.  Donne’s chastisement is in response to the sun’s disturbance of him and his lover:



 The Sun Rising
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

When I re-discovered John Donne he was no longer just a poet, but now also a preacher.  Donne was called later in his life to be a Priest in the Church of England.  Donne took an appointment in St Paul’s Cathedral, London in 1621.  He would conclude his days as a Priest in 1630.



It was as a Priest that Donne wrote a most wonderful Christian poem.  The poem is short.  The three stanzas serve as a neat summary of mankind’s twin life under both sin and grace.  It is well worth pushing past the old English expression to grasp the poem's meaning.  In a world that is want to deny or diminish sin; or of cheap grace, the poem is a real eye-opener.



A Hymn to God the Father
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, 
         Which was my sin, though it were done before? 
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run, 
         And do run still, though still I do deplore? 
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done, 
                        For I have more. 

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won 
         Others to sin, and made my sin their door? 
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun 
         A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score? 
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done, 
                        For I have more. 

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun 
         My last thread, I shall perish on the shore; 
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son 
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore; 
                And, having done that, thou hast done; 
                        I fear no more. 
Copied from: Poetry Foundation

In the first stanza, Donne recognises that as a member of the human race he is seen by God as under original sin – the sin of Adam and Eve.  It is Donne’s sin even “though it were done before”.  Donne begs that God will forgive him that sin.  The first stanza then draws attention to how Donne continues to sin in his own right.  The first stanza then concludes that there is even more sin.



Things look grim at this point.  Donne is acknowledging his stain of both original sin and ongoing sin.  Yet, he still begs God to hear him more for other sin.

In the second stanza, Donne acknowledges that he has caused others to stumble and has admitted unconfessed or unacknowledged sin (sin in which he wallows).  Incredibly, that stanza also ends with recognition that Donne has even more sin!  It was Donne’s acknowledgement of the sin that caused others to stumble that most drew me to the poem. I had cause recently to examine Matthew 18:6 in this linked post.  As a Priest it was likely that Donne was astutely aware of his role of laying a straight path for all his flock.  How easy is it for a Priest through laziness or omission to cause upset or disorder?  In respect wallowing in sin, I suspect that Donne recognised that like all people he had a tendency to self-justify some of his behaviour.  I’ve examined that nature in this linked post.



In the third stanza, Donne displays a sin of doubt.  In his old age he recognises it wrong to have had a life in Christ and yet still doubt he’s own eternity in Christ.  He recognises that his boast is in God’s Son who shines now and forever more.  This is Donne’s unmistakeable answer to his sin – God’s abundant grace.



The poem reminds me of King David’s confession of sin in Psalm 51.  It is similar in that David and Donne both are acknowledging that sin is always before them Psalm 51:3.  The first stanza’s acknowledgement of original sin is equivalent to David’s cry in Psalm 51:5:



“Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

Psalm 51:5 NIV



There is much to gain from aged Christian literature.  It can aid our understanding of both sin and grace.



Note 1: Donne's poem and a summary of his life is included in Philip Yancey’s novel Soul Survivor.  That novel has provided me much comfort and other recent blog posts have sprung from it.  Yancey points to Donne's word play in the poem.  There is a neat collision of the use of "done" and the poet's surname; Donne.

Note 2: all links good as at 29 June 2017.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Reflections on suburban church preaching

Reading noteUnderstand that the point of this prose is to identify the critical role of the sermon and of the stressors that the preacher is under. Likewise, Buechner had a similar intent.  Read the first part of the prose in consideration that it is painting the picture of every Western World suburban congregation.  If you look around you in your congregation you'll probably find someone that fits for every character. It is an 'everyman' congregation.  


Ackowledgement: Pastor Frederick Buechner


An elegant elderly lady, glad that the loud music is finished, turns up her hearing aid.  A young mother fresh from the morning's gym session, who yearns for the day that her husband will join her in church, slips her pre-school son an iPad turned to silent.  The accountant of the large retail conglomerate, who daily battles doubts of faith, places his notice-sheet on his lap.  A recently separated woman, who still pines for her marriage, reaches for her well-thumbed Bible.  The father of four, who is not at peace that his grown children do not attend any religious service, turns on his electronic device to open his eBible.  A rotund butcher, who for twenty years has suppressed his same-sex attraction urges to best hold together life with his spouse, gazes uncertainly at the stain-glass window.  The local real estate agent, who is smug in his long term role as elder, smiles that today the Senior Minister is rostered to preach.   The angular stockbroker gazes up at the upper windows glad to see the morning full of sunlight.  An office worker adjusts her glasses and reaches for a disposal coffee cup - it’s last content of latte going cold.  The erudite scientist quickly re-reads the day’s Biblical text puzzled by Matthew 18:6.  The immigrant worker, who has a daily struggle of discrimination, reaches for his Bible comforted that on each page one column is in the language of his birth and the other column in English.  An energetic mid-age dentist contemplates if it was true that he sensed the Senior Minister leaving half-way through the Parish Prayer meeting to attend the banality of a televised football match. The fresh ordinand ponders whether women will be permitted to preach in this church as occurs in other local same denomination churches.  A mother-of-three who has a constant wheeze is distracted by the buzz of a faulty musician’s microphone cord connection.  A middle-age mother glances briefly at the cross and momentarily tries to balance her Christianity with her multi-level marketing plan sales occupation.  An optometrist, who is yet to have the bravado to share with his brother-in-law the devastation bought unto the family through the brother-in-law's same-sex relationship, trains his focus on the lectern. The specialist doctor, who is still shocked by the two-year-prior maladministration of church renovations, changes his posture rigidly in expectation of the Senior Minister’s delivery from the Word.  The tweed coat wearing lay service leader takes his seat glad that the preacher has arrived in perfect time from another parish commitment (the first time in three past occasions)…

The preacher places his note on the lectern shuffling them out like a StarCity Casino blackjack dealer.  The odds are high.  He straightens his back and takes a deep breath.  He reminds himself to smile. The expectation is enormous.  The needs are deep.  The preacher could be true to the Word and true to the oratory norms of the sermon form.   He could build hope and allow people to see through him to Christ (and through Christ to God).  He could be a shepherd to all and depict how his respect hinges not upon his achievements but instead on his building up in the Spirit of all of his flock.  The sermon begins …


Note 1: all links good as at 28 June 2017

Note 2: all characters are works of fiction - I've certainly never known a tweed coat wearing lay leader.  I'll change the characters from time-to-time so feel free to come back regularly.

Note  3: This text was stylised from a narrative written by Pastor Frederick Buechner as depicted in Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Two hands

On a 1.5km walk from my daughter's gymnastic class last Sunday I chose to pick up any waste that I would otherwise have to step over.

For a 1.5km walk you'd hope to collect no rubbish or at least a little wind-blown scrapes.

However, the collection was quite credible.  And, it included a lot of recyclables.  As a bonus, it also included an Australian $2 coin - collection of rubbish had never been so rewarding.

We live in a wealthy and glorious country.  I'd hope that would cause people to take more care in disposing of items.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

We are made for that which is too big for us

A Russian novelist; Feodor Dostoevsky whose most famous work was a novel Crime and Punishment, gave the world the most beautiful interpretation of man’s struggle with sin.  Dostoevsky’s thoughts are summarised in Philip Yancey’s novel Soul Survivor.


Dostoevsky after a life of imprisonment and struggle came to realise that:


“No one lives up to the ideal.  No one can perfectly love his neighbour as himself. 
No one can fulfil the law of Christ.

God can not ask so much and be satisfied with so little.
We are made for that which is too big for us.”


Dostoevsky thus reasoned that there must be an afterlife.


Now that is a most wonderful line of thinking.  It answers a question that I think every Christian has.  All probably recognise that Jesus sets a high bar of perfection – a reading of the Sermon on the Mount is probably enough to conclude that.  It is a level of perfection that is perhaps unachievable to all but a few cloistered monks.  And yet, Dostoevsky is recognising that we simply cannot achieve what is intended of us in this lifetime.  What cannot be achieved in flesh can ultimately be achieved in Spirit.


We are fearfully and wonderfully made (see Psalm 139:14) – a composite of flesh, soul and spirit.  Of all of creation we are the creature most able to recognise God and worship him.  We should take great delight that our Heavenly Father has provided for us to achieve his ideal in an afterlife.  And, it is an afterlife in a most wonderful place (see 1 Cor 2:9).  We are so loved that we all get a second chance.




Note: all links good as at 22 June 2017

Note: I recalled this quote after responding to a Facebook thread where somebody had questioned whether it was normal to doubt the Gospel account.  Specifically the question was: "Have you ever wondered to yourself - what if it's all not true? What if the Bible's just made up? What if Jesus didn't die and rise? What about all my doubt?".  Dostoevsky settles me into thinking of how God has made mankind for more than just this world.  We most definitely need to have an eye for the seen and unseen.  We most definitely need to recognise the fullness of life that we have in the Spirit.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What to do with John?

The next time a gentleman like John (a subject of an earlier post) turns up at your church and it is necessary for you to break attendance of the sermon to minister to him, think of who John is.

Philip Yancey identifies the dignity of every human being. For in every human being there is an image of God: 

“Sometimes, as I sit and watch a child struggle to do just the right job of representing God’s face, His features, the shape of His head the cast of His countenance, I think back to my days of working in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker soup kitchen. One afternoon, after several of us had struggled with a ‘wino’, a ‘Bowery bum’, an angry, cursing, truculent man of fifty or so, with long gray hair, a full, scraggly beard, a huge scar on his right cheek, a mouth with virtually no teeth, and bloodshot eyes, one of which had a terrible tic, she told us, ‘For all we know he might be God Himself come here to test us, so let us treat him as an honored guest and look at his face as if it is the most beautiful one we can imagine.”

Dr Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children, cited in Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey as to how he Yancey learned to understand the dignity of every human being.


Note: all links good as at 21 June 2017

A verse without peer

Some verses in the Bible are standouts.  They appear without peer.  No credible cross-references are noted.  Such verses fascinate in that they stretch one’s comprehension of the Christian life. 


John 17:17 is perhaps one of the best illustrations of a standout verse.  It appears amongst prayers that Jesus is offering in his last hours.  Jesus opens the prayers by first recognising that his mission is near complete:


“… Father, the hour has come”


Jesus then prays that he come into glory, prays for his disciples and then prayers for all believers.


In verse 17, the standout verse arises:


“Sanctify them [disciples of Jesus] by the truth; your word is truth.”


As best understood in context of verses 17-19:



“Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.

As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.

For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.”


The standout element of verse 17 is this: Christ Jesus died upon the cross so that his followers may enter into priesthood of the new covenant.  The truth would be written on their hearts and they would share this truth, as priests of Christ’s nation, in the world.  They would fulfil their role in the world to the manner that Christ had modelled for them.  Christ, in obedience to, and in fulfilment of God’s plan, identifies that Calvary was essential to bring the sanctification to himself and to his people.  For there to be priests, there must be a chief priest. 


It is a standout in that nowhere else do the Gospels make it clear that the cross serves such purpose.  To be sure, the Gospels are rich in evidence that the cross brings salvation yet nowhere else do they treat the matter of sanctification to priesthood with such clarity.


So, the cross brings salvation and brings sanctification to priesthood.


Next time you gaze upon the cross think of the abundance that flows from Christ’s sacrifice!  What a shame that some churches willingly set out to remove crosses!



Sunday, June 18, 2017

It is a funny old world

Funny old world!

A Pastor half way across the world communicates with me in a week when I did not communicate with my local pastor (who lives on the same street as me).

In a previous post I've considered the bad theology of Christian songs.


Our God is marching on

I'm in preparation for a sermon on 2 Kings 7.   A broad reading of many great books is a very helpful way of preparing.

In 2 Kings 7, four lepers leave their post outside the besieged city of Samaria's gate and march forth to the enemy's camp.  The broken, starving, lepers go forth in faith.  They go forth knowing that their death is imminent but for the prospect that the enemy would offer them mercy.

As they walk to the camp, God amplifies the sound of their footsteps.  The amplified noise is heard by the enemy. The enemy thinks that a great foreign army has risen to assist the Samarians.  The enemy flees their camp leaving food and weapons behind. 

The lepers enter the camp and enjoy God's providence.  There is plenty for them.  There is plenty for the hungry people of Samaria.


While thinking this through I was fortunate to come across a speech by the American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King.  In the speech titled "Our God is Marching On", King identified with the notion of God's steadfast march for his people.  King had faith that God would deliver civil right amendments.  He used the speech to encourage his weary brethren to persist in the Lord.  These words concluded that speech:

"How long? Not long (not long), because:

   Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir)
   He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; (Yes)
   He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; (Yes, sir)
   His truth is marching on. (Yes, sir)
   He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; (Speak, sir)
   He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. (That’s right)
   O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
   Our God is marching on. (Yeah)
   Glory, hallelujah! (Yes, sir) Glory, hallelujah! (All right)
   Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
   His Truth is Marching On! (Applause)
   (copied from this linked page)

A seventy-two year old female volunteer who accompanied King reported after the speech that: "My feets [sic] is tired, but my soul is at rest" (as reported in Philip Yancey's book: Soul Survivor, How my Faith Survived the Church", p30, 2001, paperback).

Just as God amplified the sound of the feet of the four lepers as they walked from Samaria, God amplified the sound of the feet of those who stood with Martin Luther King.  God was swift to answer King for the United States President; Lyndon Johnson, in the same year, passed the Voting Rights Act.  That Act bought a major positive change to civil rights. 

Martin Luther King's tired feet, and his supporter's tired feet were jubilant.  God had taken up their march.  Truth marched on!


Note: links good as at 18 June 2017

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book review: The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Philip Yancey in a book; Soul Survivor, How my Faith Survived the Church, identifies how reading can sometimes deliver a message powerfully.  In reading some Christian titles Yancey recalls how:
"I felt the power that allows one human mind to penetrate another with no intermediary but a piece of flattened wood pulp.  I saw that writing could seep into crevices, bringing spiritual oxygen to people trapped in air-tight boxes". page 7, 2001, paperback. 
In reading The Cost of Discipleship I have experienced that power.  Bonhoeffer speaks wonderfully across the Christian communion.  Bonhoeffer is as relevant today as when he was writing the book in the 1930s.
Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship stands out in two ways.  Firstly, in the opening chapter; Costly Grace, and, secondly in the extended consideration of the Sermon on the Mount

Bonhoeffer is at his most ardent in the book’s opening chapter.  Bonhoeffer is making a passionate plea to the church.  He begs the church to take great care.  The church need ensure that God’s grace is dispensed respectfully.  At risk, is a cheap dispensation of the grace – preaching of God’s forgiveness where the hearer is not obliged to repentance.  Bonhoeffer’s warning is to the church yet the warning has application to people who hear the church’s message. 

The hearer need understand that offer of grace requires a response of the hearer.  It is in this way that grace is costly grace.  The hearer should respond with a genuine change of heart.  A person who has such a change of heart will willingly be yoked to Jesus as a follower.  Once yoked to Jesus the hearer willingly serves as a disciple in fulfilment of the ongoing mission of Christ’s people in the world.

Bonhoeffer’s extended consideration of the Sermon on the Mount – from the Gospel of Matthew – is a very worthy read.  Bonhoeffer identifies how Jesus employs the sermon as a way of heralding in his kingdom.  Perhaps, the heralding of the kingdom is exhibited best in Bonhoeffer consideration of a single verse – from Matthew 5:4:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” 

Bonhoeffer identifies that it is the disciples who will mourn the world and the ways of the world.  The disciples will mourn as they know that much more awaits the disciples in their eternal lives.  The disciples will also mourn because not everyone will heed God’s call to a repentant life.  They will mourn in yearning, as God does, for all men to be part of Christ’s kingdom.  And, in their mourning God will provide them their joyous eternal comfort.


I encourage you to read The Cost of Discipleship.  If pressed for time please consider reaching for the book to read just its first powerful chapter.  It may change your life!
Shalom, Ozhamada

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Buddhist fishermen

The nineteenth-century anthropologist Adolf Bastian described a way that Burmese Buddhist fisherman avoided damnation.  Burmese Buddhists were prohibited from killing any creature – whether human or animal.  The fisherman avoided the prohibition by placing fish on the river bank to dry after their long soak in the river.  If the fish were foolish and ill-judged to die as they thrashed around on the river bank then it was their own fault. 


Now, many people would question the fisherman’s logic.  They’d say that identify with how a fish that is denied it’s natural living environment would surely die.  They may even point to how a fish could hardly exercise any judgment while it was struggling to maintain vital functions.  An Evolutionists may propose that the ability of fish to survive on land requires a slow multi-generational adaptive processes rather than an instant process.


As questionable as the logic is, it is logic that we use every day.  It is the logic we use to justify ourselves in the face of sin.  Some examples of every day usage are:

  • “I am over the speed limit but I really need to get to that appointment on time” (speed limit is set for a good reason and is enforceable yet we seemingly think that our own rationale is of higher importance)


  • “Everybody cheats on their tax return” (we perceive that something becomes right if everyone is violation, we exaggerate to justify our own malfeasance)


  • “I’ve told you, I’ve told all the family: I don’t need to go to a doctor” (we deny well-meaning advice from those who care for us)


Before we hasten to justify sins we need to first recognise the nature of sin.  Sin is costly.  It is costly to the point where the Bible equates it to death.  To justify sin is to justify the effects of sin.  Put off your sinful nature and aspire to capture every thought for Christ.

"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

"We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up
 against the knowledge of God, and we take captive
 every thought to make it obedient to Christ."



Note: Bastian’s discovery was found in a book by Eugene Soltes “Why They Did it: Inside the mind of the white-collar criminal”, hard copy, 2016, p254

Note: Eternity Magazine published on sin here