Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Story of Faith and Fortitude

I recently began reading Anne Applebaum’s book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.  It is the story of how Stalin, the premier of Communist Russia, used a famine caused by his own policies of collectivization to destroy the leadership of ethnic Ukraine and prevent any threat of its future independence.  Applebaum is an excellent historian, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  Her books are powerful, but also chilling.  Whether she writes about Communist Russia’s prison camps, the spread of the Iron Curtain over Europe or a deadly famine in the Ukraine, her stories are a dire warning about the power of government unrestrained by law and constitution.  They are also a reminder to us of the evils of Communism, especially in our day when Communism is becoming more and more attractive to the millennial generation.

But as I was reading Red Famine, something else hit me.  Although I did not realize it when I bought the book, my grandparents lived through the events Applebaum was narrating.  And in the midst of this turmoil and tumult, they kept their faith in Jesus Christ and passed down a legacy of endurance in the midst of difficulty to their descendants.

As some of you may know, my ancestry is Mennonite.  Both sides of my family originated from Mennonites who found themselves in the Ukraine in the days of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great.  My mother’s side of the family immigrated to Canada in the late 19th century and settled in southern Manitoba.  My father’s side of the family stayed in the Ukraine and lived through many of the events in Applebaum’s book.

The story that I was told when I was younger was that during the Communist Revolution in Russia, when my grandmother was about 12, my great-grandmother’s house was invaded by soldiers and she was shot before my grandmother’s eyes.  I had always assumed that the perpetrators were Russian soldiers, but according to Red Famine, they could have been members of any number of roving bands of soldiers and bandits that plagued the land at the time.  Applebaum tells stories of whole villages of Mennonites slaughtered during this upheaval.  My ancestors were at the mercy of whatever roving band was passing by.

Being hard-working farmers, my grandparents and their families were likely labelled as “kulaks” by Stalin and his followers.  A kulak originally denoted an individual who was wealthy, but as time passed the definition included anyone who opposed the effort to create collective farms or clung to ideas that were opposite to Communist ideals, such as faith in Jesus Christ.  Kulaks were killed, sent to the gulags in Siberia and exiled out of Russia.  Kulaks of German descent, like my family, were especially targeted.  The story my father told me was that his parents, now married, were sent to Moscow in about 1931.  They were told to board one of the two trains at the station.  The train they boarded exiled them from Russia, and paradoxically to freedom in the West.  The other train’s passengers were sent to Siberia.

My grandparents at my parent's wedding.
Their exile from Russia in 1931 spared them from the worst of the Ukrainian famine detailed in Applebaum’s book.  But it did not spare them from hardship.  Unable to immigrate to Canada because of health, they settled among other Mennonites in Paraguay. There they started with nothing, breaking virgin land, living in poverty and having 12 children, 9 of whom lived past infancy.  Their life was far from easy, and even after they immigrated to Canada in 1956 with their six youngest children (my father being the oldest of those six), they still did not have much.  But what they did have was a deep faith in Jesus Christ.

Sometimes I look at my life and I catch myself worrying about this and that, but in light of my grandparent’s story, my stuff seems so trivial.  I am sometimes concerned about finances, but in reality I have to admit I have more now than my grandparents ever did their whole entire lives.  I get concerned about the state of our country and its rejection of the Christian faith, but I do not have to face outright persecution and murder like they did.  I get concerned about health, but I have never been banned from immigrating to freedom because of it.  I get concerned about my kids, but I have not had three of them die in infancy.  My life is easy compared to the life of my grandparents.  And through all of that hardship and poverty, their enduring faith in Jesus Christ shines through.  In those times when I get concerned and struggle to trust God, I need to remember their faith amidst trials.  I am truly thankful for godly grandparents and the legacy of faith they passed down to their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review - God's Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture

As many know, this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  5 centuries ago, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses against indulgences on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  What he thought was an invitation to theological discussion kicked off a movement that has changed the world.

Many books have been written in the past year to honor this event.  For example, I am reading one biography of Luther presently and have another in my too-read pile.  Other books have dealt with the theological issues of the reformation and have even asked the question of whether the reformation is still important.  Some of the best of these books can be found in the 5 Solas series, a set of 5 books exploring the 5 Solas of the Reformation – sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone) solus Christus (Christ alone) and soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone).

I recently had the pleasure of reading one of these volumes, Matthew Barrett’s book on sola Scriptura entitled God’s Word Alone:  The Authority of Scripture.  The discussion around the doctrine of Scripture – especially issues like inerrancy – never really ends.  The authority of God’s Word is being continually challenged, whether in lofty academic arguments or in day to day pastoral counseling situations where the counselee is not interested in submitting to what the Scripture commands.  Barrett’s book is excellent for anyone to read in order to bolster their confidence in the Scriptures and their understanding of the doctrine of the Word of God.

The book has three main sections.  The first is a historical survey of how people have understood the authority of God’s Word from the time of the Reformation to the present.  Barrett dives into the Roman Catholic view of authority that Martin Luther dealt with, the rise of liberalism and its denial of the Bible’s authority, and today’s postmodern world and its view of the Scriptures.  It is a very helpful survey and a good reminder of how over the centuries, people have challenged the authority of God’s Word in various ways, a pattern which continues today.

The second section of the book is journey through redemptive history.  Barrett explores the necessity of a Word from God, how God revealed his Word through the covenant relationships He established and finally how those covenants were fulfilled in God’s Word made flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The final portion of the book is a theological survey of four of the vital components of the doctrine of Scripture – inspiration, inerrancy, clarity and sufficiency.  In each of these chapters, Barrett does a great job explaining the importance of these ideas, showing how Scripture itself supports them, and then briefly tackling how these ideas are under fire today, both from outside the church and also from people inside the church who carry the label “evangelical.”  This was the most valuable section of the book for me – it reminded me how rich and how vital each of these ideas are for life and ministry.

God’s Word Alone does not answer all of one’s questions about the Bible – few books attempt that.  But it is a great survey of Biblical truth, a rich source of well-reasoned argument and will be encouraging and challenging for the reader.  I highly recommend it for anyone who has questions or is just looking to solidify their understanding of or faith in of the authority of Scripture.  I have already begun another volume in the series, Faith Alone:  The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner, and look forward to completing the series in the coming year.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Baby on Board

Earlier this year, my wife suggested that we pursue becoming foster parents.  This was something we had discussed from time to time and planned to do sometime in the future.  Well, for her, the future was now.  While I also shared her desire to be involved in foster parenting, there was part of me that was somewhat reluctant.  After all, we had almost raised our kids.  We only had one more at home, and she would be a high school senior.  I was looking forward to having time with my wife – time we did not really have much of in years past.
As we pursued getting approved to be foster parents, I filled out the paperwork, but admittedly was not as excited as my wife and daughter were.  This past summer, we had our foster training.  The crew in Bozeman did an amazing job in that training session, and as I listened to the plight of these kids in the foster system, my heart began to change.  As I heard about their feelings of abandonment and grief at being separated from their parents, God kindled a desire in my heart to be part of the solution.

A few weeks ago, after a couple months of waiting for background checks to go through, a state social worker did a home visit with us.  At that time, she informed us that she did not have anyone to place in our home at that time.  My wife and daughter really wanted to have a baby as our first placement, and there were no babies available at the time.  As a result, after the visit we resigned ourselves to wait patiently until there was a need.

Two days later I received a call on my cell phone at the office.  It was Family Services.  They had a 5 month old baby boy that needed a placement.  Were we interested?  I told her to call my wife, but yes, we would probably be very interested.  When Miriam got the call, she packed up the car with a car seat and hustled down to Family Services where she met baby “D.”

I came home from the office later that day.  I walked into the house.  Miriam was giving baby “D” a bottle.  When he saw me, he stopped drinking and gave me a big smile.  When I saw that smile, he had me.  I was smitten.  Immediately I felt I would do anything for this little guy.  I felt we were so blessed to provide a stable home environment for this little one until a permanent placement could be arranged.

We don’t know how long we will have baby “D”.  It could be another month, it would be longer than that.  His case is working his way through the court system.  It has been an adjustment to have a baby around again, since our youngest is 17 years old.  We wish he would do a little better job of sleeping through the night.  But otherwise, he is a joy and a delight. 

I pray for this little guy every day.  I pray that God would bless him and keep him.  I pray that one day, he would hear and accept the gospel and grow up to serve the Lord
.  I realize that he will probably not remember us.  That’s okay.  I just hope we can provide a place of stability and love until he can be placed in a home where he will be nurtured, cared for and raised in a safe environment.

For those considering foster care, I encourage you to take the leap.  Yes, there are tough times.  (Talk to us on a day when we are suffering from sleep deprivation, especially my wife.)  Yes, it will be tough to part with little baby “D” when his permanent placement comes through.  But the need is so great.  There are many children out there who need a stable loving foster family, whether for a week or a year.  With God’s help, you can provide that.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book Review: A Theology of Biblical Counseling

We have all read books with titles that intrigue us and draw us in.  For example, I just finished an epic fantasy book entitled The Shadow of What was Lost.  As the story progresses, the meaning of the title is gradually revealed.  On the other hand, there are books where the title carries no intrigue at all.  A Theology of Biblical Counseling:  The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry by Heath Lambert, is one of those books.  This book sat on my shelf for a number of months and I hesitated to pick it up because, frankly, the title communicated “dry” to me.  I finally picked it up because the author will be one of the speakers at a counseling conference I will attend later in July.

I am happy to admit that, although the title is not flashy, this book is anything but dry.  In fact, about halfway through the year, apart from the Bible, this is the best book I have read so far this year.  Lambert endeavors to survey a number of aspects of Bible doctrine, specifically bringing out the reasons why these truths are vitally important in counseling for both the counselor and the counselee.

Heath Lambert writes well.  He is obviously passionate about his subject.  And he does a great job beginning and ending his chapters with counseling stories that relate to the topic at hand.  These stories make each chapter – which is essentially filled with a mix of systematic theology and counseling theory – approachable for the reader.  Yes, you heard me right.  This book is primarily theology and theory.  If you are looking for a practical, step by step guide to counsel someone, this is not your book.  But if you want to develop the theological foundation for your counseling efforts so that you will be offering people solid biblical truth, this is the book for you.

The first three chapters of the book alone are worth the price of the book.  In chapter 1, Lambert argues that counseling, at its heart, is a theological discipline.  In chapter 2, he explores the topic of Scripture.  So much of the content of our counseling turns on what we think of Scripture.  Is it authoritative?  Clear?  Necessary for counseling?  Sufficient for the task?  How you answer these questions will set the direction of your counseling.  And in chapter 3, the author unpacks the doctrine of common grace and explores the pervasive effects of sin in our lives.  Throughout these chapters, he gently but firmly gives reasons why biblical counseling is a better alternative that other approaches to counseling, all the while showing the areas where medicine and even at times, secular psychological observation can be helpful to the biblical counselor.

The table of contents for the rest of the book looks very similar to any other systematic theology book on my shelf.  Lambert, in turn, explores the doctrines of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, humanity, sin, suffering, salvation and the church.  In each case, he lays out the orthodox teaching of Scripture, but then makes specific application to how and why these truths are vital for various counseling situations.  He ends with an excellent summary chapter on the goal of theology.  As he puts it, counseling is taking what we know from theology and applying it to people who are suffering under the weight of all the kinds of pain this world has to offer, for the purpose of building their hope and increasing their joy in truly knowing Christ.

I think this is an excellent resource that belongs on the shelf of anyone who endeavors to counsel others from the Scripture.  We want to give those we counsel our best, but ultimately our best is only that if it is God’s best, counsel firmly grounded in God’s very Word.

Monday, June 19, 2017

God in the Killing Fields

As Donald Trump’s presidency continues, I hear more and more things from the left about how Trump and the Republicans are a danger to democracy.  I hear how Mr. Trump or a Republican Congress will take away our rights and our freedoms.  I believe it is wise to diligently guard those rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution.  At the same time, there is a sense that the people complaining about our rights and freedoms, from both the left and the right, should get some much needed perspective.

I say this, having just read Intended for Evil:  A Survivor’s Story of Love, Faith and Courage in the Cambodian Killing Fields.  The book, written by a college acquaintance of mine, Les Sillars, gives our current discussion that perspective.  While we carefully guard our rights and freedoms, Sillars tells the powerful story of Radha and the Cambodian people whose rights and freedoms were taken away completely by the Khmer Rouge Communists.  What may or may not be happening in our country is nothing compared to the horror visited on this Asian nation.

Sillars’ story is based on extensive interviews and, it appears, a friendship with, Radha Manickam, an Indian citizen living in Cambodia at the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover in the 1970’s.  From a wealthy Hindu family, Radha became a Christian as a young man.  Soon after his conversion, the country was taken over by the Communists.

Interweaving Radha’s personal story with a birds-eye view of what was going on in Cambodia on a national and international level, Sillars tells a story of lost rights, powerlessness and random murder.  The Khmer Rouge evacuated the Cambodian people from their cities, forcibly settled them in the country to grow rice, and starved and worked them to death.  Radha’s story is depressing at times and hard to stomach.  The reader wonders how one man, and ultimately how a whole country, could endure that much brutality.

And yet, God’s hand shines through over and over in the story.  God is a work protecting Radha, providing food for him, overseeing the circumstances of his marriage and ultimately helping him escape to the United States.  While Radha’s story is one of profound loss at times – most of his immediate family died in the killing fields of Cambodia - it is also one of hope, since God never lets go of one of his own.

Sillars tell the story of both the rise and the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  Interestingly enough, a recent issue of Christianity Today chronicles the amazing opportunity for ministry that exists in Cambodia at the present time.  Christians are at work in many areas, from standing against the sex trade to planting churches among Cambodian national.  As Intended for Evil makes clear, God is able to take situations and circumstances that are brutal and redeem them for His glorious purposes.

So, by all means, stand up for the rights and freedoms we enjoy in our country.  Thank God for them on a regular basis.  Make yourself aware of the places where those rights are being eroded.  At the same time, always remember we may not have those freedoms forever.  But if they go away, it does not mean God is no longer at work.  In fact, it may be that God has even more opportunities to work, redeeming painful situations and bringing hope in places where, humanly speaking, it should not exist.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Book Review: Clouds of Glory by Michael Korda

In May, the city of New Orleans removed the last of its Civil War monuments, a statue of General Robert E. Lee.  There has been great outcry by both sides of the political spectrum over the removal of these monuments.  The left is pleased to see them go, decrying them as continual reminders of the national sin of slavery and a debunking of the “lost cause” Civil War mythos.  The right, while agreeing with the evils of slavery, wondered out loud about forgetting our history as a nation and wondered whether the founders of our country, many of them slave-holders as well, would also soon be “removed” from public view.
In the midst of this discussion, I had the privilege of reading Michael Korda’s biography of Robert E. Lee entitled Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.  I have read and heard much in recent months about this man from many sources, from media reports to Facebook memes.  Who was this man and how much of our perception of him, 150 years later, is accurate?

Korda’s book is massive – almost 700 pages of text, not counting footnotes – and his story is told well.  Except for a few instances of irritating repetition and a few factual errors, such as errors in dates that a good editor should have caught, Korda’s portrait of Lee is well painted.  Beginning with his early life in a prestigious but impoverished Virginia family, Korda follows Lee through West Point, marriage and the Mexican-American War, where Lee first made his mark on the national stage.  Many of Lee’s years in the Army, either as an engineer or cavalry commander, were years of boredom, drudgery and a lack of promotion.  That said, as a result of Mexican War heroics, he entered the Civil War with a rank of Colonel. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, both sides, Union and Confederate, sought Lee’s services as a commander of their armies in the field.  Only when Virginia seceded from the Union did Lee make up his mind, following his home state into the arms of the rebellion. 

The bulk of Korda’s book focuses on Lee’s years as a Civil War commander.  He was, without a doubt, the most brilliant of all the commanders on both sides of the war.  He took risks no other commander would take, and often he pulled them off.  Korda does a good job analyzing Lee’s strategical and tactical choices, marveling at his willingness to divine his forces in the face of the enemy.  At the same time, Clouds of Glory is not hagiography.  Korda criticizes Lee for the risks he took that did not turn out well.  He especially is concerned about Lee’s unwillingness to be forceful with his sub-commanders, all too often trusting them too much and leaving too much in their hands, which at times led to movement and attacks that were made too late to garner even greater victories.

Throughout the book, Korda addresses the glorification of Lee that is the product of historians like Douglas Southall Freeman and others of the “Lost Cause” persuasion.  While Korda considers Lee to be a brilliant general, he has little time of day for Lee’s most zealous apologists.  One area where those apologists focus their interest is on Lee and his slavery views.  While Lee did hate slavery, he also considered, as many Americans on both sides of the rebellion did in those day, that black Americans were inferior.  While Lee did not participate in the slave trade, he did own 200 slaves, all inherited through his wife’s family at the death of his father-in-law.  Despite his revulsion of slavery, Lee was unable to free his slaves prior to the Civil War due to the stipulations of his father-in-law’s will.

One of the things I appreciated most about Korda’s book was its emphasis on Lee’s religious faith.  While he does not make it a major part of the book, he does not shy away from matters of faith like many modern biographers do.  He is very clear that Lee is what he calls an evangelical Christian and that his faith in God’s will guided and directed his life to the end.   His mentions of Lee’s faith in God are woven throughout the book, as I believe they should be.

The book, while excellent, produced mixed feelings in me.  While I share Robert E. Lee’s faith, I cannot relate to his views of African Americans or his tolerance of slavery.  I don’t know how he mixed those views; that concept is foreign to me.  Like a number of Civil War icons, Lee is an enigma to those of us who see the world in a different way.  At the same time, Korda’s portrait is still eminently worth reading.  We cannot forget our history, especially the parts that make us uncomfortable, even while we forge ahead, committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Scarlett Johansson, Monogamy and the Bible

In a recent interview, actress Scarlett Johansson admitted that she is not sure that people are designed to be monogamous in relationships.  “I think the idea of marriage is very romantic.  It’s a beautiful idea, and the practice of it can be a very beautiful thing,” said the twice married actress, “I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person.”  Johansson considers marriage a “legally binding contract that has weight to it,” and a “beautiful responsibility,” but also remarks that marriage is a lot of work.

Ms. Johansson, I completely agree.  Marriage is a beautiful responsibility.  It is a lot of work.  And it is more assuredly NOT natural to be a monogamous person.  It is not natural for sinful human beings to commit themselves – ideally for life – to one partner in marriage.  But the fact that, until relatively recently, that has been the standard, accepted pattern in the western world is tribute to the foundational impact the truths of the Bible has had on our society.

I came across Ms. Johansson’s words while I was in the midst of reading a book about the very thing she is indirectly addressing – the profound yet often unseen and unnoticed impact the Bible has had in shaping western culture and society.  The book in question was The Book that Made your World:  How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization by Vishal Mangalwadi. 
Mangalwadi is a social reformer, political columnist and Christian philosopher who was born and raised in India.  His eastern roots give Mangalwadi a unique perspective on the whole question of how our society has been shaped by the Bible.  With numerous examples from India, Mangalwadi presents a stark contrast between a culture like India’s that has only relatively recently been affected by the Bible and our own culture.
The very soul of western civilization, Mangalwadi argues, has been shaped by the Bible.  Our idea of humanity and basic human dignity comes from the Bible.  It is based in our understanding of the incarnation – the fact that Jesus became man meant that human beings are and continue to be objects of dignity and great value.  Our emphasis on rationality and thinking through things comes from the Bible.  Our minds have been understood as one of God’s great gifts to us.  They enable us to seek to understand a rational God and drive us to create a thinking civilization.  Even our emphasis on technology has its roots in Scripture.  The Bible portrays God as a Creator, the architect of the cosmos, not as a dreamer or a dancer as others faiths do.  When we create and invent ourselves, we follow a divine example.  And much of what the west has created over the years has brought liberty and freedom and the betterment of human existence.
Mangalwadi continues his argument, suggesting that many of the underlying concepts that we accept as a society come from Scripture.  Our idea of a hero, someone who refuses to bow before evil and falsehood, is biblical.  The godly pursuit of translating the Scripture from Latin into common languages brought revolution, freedom and other biblical ideas to many nations.  The idea of educating your subjects, as opposed to just simply ruling over ignorant people, is biblical.  Our quest for truth in science has its roots in our quest for the truth about the biblical God and how he created our universe.  Biblical morality, even though we are moving away from it, still has its affect.  Countries where the Bible has had influence for centuries are notably less corrupt.  The Bible’s emphasis on family, gender roles and marriage has raised the status of women, especially compared to many other places in the world.  The ideas of medical compassion and stewardship of wealth come ultimately from the Bible.
Now of course, people can argue that the world the Bible created is not all roses and sunshine.  I agree.  Anything and everything can be used for hurtful, ugly, self-centered purposes.  But is that the fault of the Bible, or is that the fault of sinful, corrupt human beings who take advantage of the freedom or scientific advancement the Bible set in place in our society?

The fact is, as Ms. Johansson’s interview reminds us, we are quickly moving away from being a culture influenced and shaped by the Bible.  Society is quickly laying aside the foundational ideas that the Bible has ingrained in us.  Unfortunately, what society is blind to is that the freedoms we enjoy, or the wealth we are privileged to have, or the responsible, democratic government we take for granted all exist primarily because of the Bible.  When we take that foundation away, what will be the result?