Rabbi Wolpe: Finding Meaning in Faith

Wolfe_review_08212014David J. Wolpe. 2008.  Why Faith Matters.  New York:  HarperOne.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Rabbi David J. Wolpe’s book, Why Faith Matters, came to my attention as I prepared to teach a class on Hebrews 11. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Wolpe is more philosophical and focuses on the quest for meaning. “Faith believes in the legitimacy of asking ‘why’–that the very question is an animating force in life” (193). While I am interested in the question and believe that faith is a journey, the truth of faith begins with its content. Wolpe provided me with snapshots of brilliance when what I searched for was direction in faith’s journey. Though we travel different paths at this point, I loved his book.

Wolpe’s strengths as a writer include his ability to dialog with the reader, his keen insight into the human condition, and his brilliant analytical mind. In his prelude, for example, he tells the story of a man using his sickness to teach his children and grandchildren how to die. He writes about his friend Isaac: “Here was a chance to teach his greatest lesson. They would remember much about him to be sure, but they would never forget how he died” (xiv).  As a pastor, I have used this lesson in hospital visits.

Wolpe is a master of the anecdote.  Pick a page; find a story.  One I liked was the man standing before God in heaven.  Wolpe writes:

“Dear God…Look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in Your world. Why don’t you send help?”..God responded:  “I did send help. I sent you” (38-39).

Those of us that go from point A to point B to point C can only stand and applaud.

After a brief prelude, Wolpe organizes his book into 8 chapters:

  1. From faith to doubt;
  2. Where does religion come from?
  3. Does religion cause violence?
  4. Does science disprove religion?
  5. What does religion really teach?
  6. Reading the Bible;
  7. Is religion good for you? And
  8. Why faith matters.

His introduction is written by Pastor Rick Warren.  Rabbi Wolpe was honored as the number 1 pulpit Rabbi in America.

Wolpe’s brilliance comes in getting to the heart of complex matters quickly. Why do atheists try to make science into a religion? They confuse puzzles (which can be figured out) with mysteries (which are unsolvable) (11). Why does Nietzsche dislike democracy and Christianity? He is a classicist who prefers the morality of masters (classical view) over that of slaves (Christian view) (48-49).

Wolpe’s writing is a joy because of these many insights and anecdotes.

Rabbi Wolpe: Finding Meaning in Faith

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Prayer Day 9

Available on Amazon.com
By Stephen W. Hiemstra

God of all wonders.

We praise you for Mary’s faithfulness and Jesus’ miraculous birth.

Bridge the gaps of holiness, time, and space between us.

Open our minds to the miracles that we experience daily but neglect to think about.

Open our hearts to accept your will for our lives.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Prayer Day 9

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Believer’s Prayer

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Faith: Monday Monologues (podcast) December 28, 2020

Stephen_W_Hiemstra_20200125b
Stephen W. Hiemstra 2020 (Ken Burtram Photography)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Faith. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Faith: Monday Monologues (podcast) December 28, 2020

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Spirituality is lived belief. When we pray, worship, or reach out to our neighbors, we live out our beliefs. Our beliefs structure our spirituality like skin stretched over the bones of our bodies. These beliefs start with faith in God the Father through Jesus Christ as revealed through the Holy Spirit in scripture, the church, and daily life. Our theology orders our beliefs. Without a coherent theology, we lose our identity in space and time having no map or compass to guide us on our way. In the end, we focus on ourselves, not God.

Spiritual Foundation

Christian spirituality accordingly starts with God, not with us. Like the woman Jesus cured of a spinal disfiguration, our only response can be to glorify God with songs of praise (Luke 13:13). We experience lasting Christian joy, not with recognizing Christ as savior, but with recognizing Christ as Lord. Spiritual disciplines and experiences are part of this spirituality, but they are not necessarily the focus (1 Cor 13:8).

This focus on what God has done begins in verse one of Genesis where God is pictured creating the heavens and the earth. What exactly have we done to deserve being created? Nothing. In fact, our first independent act was to sin. What exactly have we done to warrant forgiveness? Nothing. Christ died for our sins. The only meaningful response to these gifts of creation and salvation is praise.

Early Church

The early church interpreted and summarized God’s revelations in the biblical text and early creeds. It later developed the catechisms to summarize key church doctrines. The Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s catechism, and the Catholic catechism focus on three key statements of faith: the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments (Chan 2006, 108). Not surprisingly, Sunday morning worship has for centuries focused on these three faith statements, often being memorized and put to music. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, encourages a focus on worship and is itself divided into 52 sermon topics for weekly use.

The key spiritual discipline in the Christian faith naturally is Sunday morning worship. The worship service includes prayer, readings from scripture, the spoken word, the sacraments, music, statements of faith, and other expressions of faithful worship. In worship, music binds our hearts and minds.

Spiritual Practices

This worship experience is strengthened daily through personal devotions as well as devotions with our spouses, families, and other small groups. The original small group is the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—our template for healthy community. And when we take our spirituality into the work world, it too becomes an opportunity for worship.

Hear the words; walk the steps; experience the joy!

Reference

Chan, Simon. 2006. Liturgical Theology: The Church as a Worshiping Community. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Thielicke, Helmut. 1962. A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Ganssle Defends Faith from Innuendo

Ganssle_review_20200614A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One God + One set of physical laws in the universe = One objective truth.  Apologetics.  It must be written on my forehead (Revelation 22:4).  At a conference last month, a representative of the publisher handed me A Reasonable God by Gregory Ganssle and said—you will love this book.  She was right.

Ganssle is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and a Senior Fellow of the Rivendell Institute at Yale University. Ganssle could be described as Christian philosopher.

For anyone familiar with the story of David Brainerd (1718-1747), Ganssle’s location at Yale appears most ironic.  Brainerd was expelled from Yale for questioning the faith of a Yale faculty member in a private conversation.  His expulsion led later to the establishment of Princeton University.  Unable to be ordained without an ivory league degree, Brainerd became an early missionary to the American Indians and a major inspiration to American missionaries in the nineteenth century[1].  Ironic.

In this book, Ganssle reminds us that the term, New Atheist, applies primarily to books by four authors:  Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.  Their work shares three things in common:  passion, belief not only in atheism but the danger of believing in God, and their status as public intellectuals speaking outside their fields of experience (1-2).  Apparently, if one practices medicine without certification, then one ends up in jail; if one attempts to destroy the faith of a generation, then one ends up on the evening news.

Ganssle organizes his book into seven chapters introduced with an introduction and followed by a brief conclusion.  The titles of the seven chapters are informative: 1. Science, religion, and the claim that God exists; 2. Faith, reason, and evidence; 3. Three arguments for God; 4. The design argument; 5. Darwinian stories of religion; 6. Three arguments for atheism; and 7. The fittingness argument.

Surprisingly, the word, proof, appears nowhere in these chapter titles.  The arguments here are modest, more nuanced[2].  The book title, for example, is: A Reasonable God.  What is reasonable?  Ganssle uses the word in his last sentence in the book but never directly defines the term.  Alvin Pantinga articulated a similar concept, warrant, and wrote an entire book to define it[3].  When the idea of proof is abandoned and the debate centers on what is reasonable, the strength of the argument lies, in part, on the craft of the writer.  Is my story better than your story?

I learned a lot reading Ganssler.  For example, Darwin’s theory can be applied outside biology provided two conditions are met.  First, one needs to demonstrate a benefit.  Natural selection assists a species to survive better than competing species.  Second, one needs to show a transmission method.  Genes record favorable variations (116-117).

The New Atheists speculate that religion is the product of a Darwinian process.  The Darwinian benefit arises with improved survival through a natural group selection process and the transmission mechanism is a meme—a cultural analogue to a gene (122-124).  What is unique about this speculation is that the New Atheists do not bother to valid the hypothesis. This suggests a deliberate strategy of innuendo[4] which Ganssle describes as a Nietzschean genealogy—a genealogy given not to prove that one’s family includes royalty, but to discredit the family (136-137)[5].

Ganssle writes with surprising clarity.  While some apologetic texts read like a bad mathematics text, I found Ganssle’s book readable and engaging.  I would enjoy reading more of Ganssle’s work.

Footnotes

[1]See:  Jonathan Edwards [Editor].  2006.  The Life and Diary of David Brainerd (orig pub 1749).  Peabody:  Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

[2] Alister McGrath (Why God Won’t Go Away, 2010, Nashville:  Thomas Nelson,107) sees modest objectives as one of the strengths of scientific inquiry.

[3]Alvin Plantinga.  2000.  Warranted Christian Belief.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

[4]McGrath (2010, 138) sees the New Atheists as resorting to ridicule when their arguments are questioned.

[5]A familiar voice looms in this line of argumentation—Did God actually say… (Genesis 3:1 ESV).

Ganssle Defends Faith from Innuendo

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Petition to Grow Faith

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Precious Lord,

In our finitude, our sin, our brokenness, we yearn for your righteousness, oh God.

As the hungry grasp for bread and as the thirsty cry for water, we search for your justice where no other will do and no other can be found.

Your Holy scriptures remind us that you are ever-near, always vigilant, and forever compassionate.

Through the desert of our emotions and in the wilderness of our minds, bind our wounds, relieve our pains, and forgive our sins.

Through the power of your Holy Spirit, grow our faith even as our strength fails us.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Petition to Grow Faith

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Believer’s Prayer

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Winters Gives Men Hope

Winters_review_20200224David L. Winters. 2020. Exercise Your Faith: Defeating the Lies Men Believe. VA: DAVIWIN Publishing.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For most of my adult life, church men’s groups have been a flop. Men generally had a good idea of what life was about (even if it was pathetically wrong) and saw no need to talk about it in a group. Five to ten years ago, that sense of identity started to come apart at the seams and men started trickling into men’s group meetings, even if they did not stay long. Now, with grown men committing suicide in record numbers, the need for men to attend to their inner lives faithfully has become a national crisis.[1]

Introduction

In his book, Exercise Your Faith: Defeating the Lies Men Believe, David Winters describes his work as a:“treatise about being a guy in 2020s” (viii). He works out this treatise proverbially by confronting 31 lies that men often believe about who they are and what it means to be a man. Satan is the father of lies and, as men, we often succumb to these lies—perhaps, out of ignorance; perhaps, because we want to believe them.

The photograph on Winter’s book is a case in point. Many men believe that they need to have a body like a personal trainer (like the man on the cover) to be a real man. Women often share this belief. This belief is highly corrosive for the other ninety-nine person of men, like myself, who don’t live in a gym. Although I managed a soccer team in graduate school, when I tried to keep up with a team after I started working I repeatedly injured myself because I no longer had time to train three hours daily. As I started putting on weight, my self-image plummeted—with a little help from my highly disciplined wife.

The Lie: Masculinity is Now Toxic

Perhaps my favorite Winters lie-buster deals with the idea that masculinity is now toxic, as suggested in a recent political ad by Gillette (link). Winters’ writes: “Some special interest groups try to convince men that any assertiveness is toxic masculinity.” (12) He advises: “Be who God made you—within the guardrails of Scripture.” (12) He goes on to highlight four “God-given attributes that all men should aspire to possess.”(13) They are: courage, faith, love, and protection (13-14).

Winters clearly stays close to his understanding of the biblical mandate for masculinity. He also eschews some of the hot-button he-she food fights that have arisen in the church. However, he does not shy away from the problem that many today want to abandon Christian teaching on sexuality and gender identity. He cites, for example, a 2015 study that reported a staggering forty present of transsexuals reported attempting suicide (James and others 2015; 8).

The Lie: Death Has to Kill You

When I worked as a chaplain intern in Providence Hospital, I noticed an alarming trend among my patients: about half of them exhibited physical ailments that stemmed from repressed grief. The presenting diagnosis could be virtually anything— backache, suicide, addiction, medications not working—but when you asked about the patient’s family life, someone close to them had often died in the past year.  This experience gave me a profound appreciation for anyone willing to talk openly about grief.

Winters talks about the death of his father at the age of 65 (I am 66) from emphysema (97). He writes:

“For those who don’t know if they believe in eternal life, all you need do is watch a few people before and after death. It’s easy to see that something profound separated from his body.” (100)

This comment made a big impression on me because my younger sister died in 2007 and I experienced this precise observation—a year later I entered seminary. Winters talks about walking around in a daze for the year after his father died (101). He advises men to read what the Bible says about death, analyze your fears in view of scripture, and sort out what you believe about death before you are confronted with it (102-103). In my case, I found a book by Michael Card, Sacred Sorrow, most comforting.

Assessment

David Winters’ Exercise Your Faith is a readable and helpful guide to dealing with masculinity in our time. Winters bares his soul revealing stories that few authors have the guts to write and puts them in a Biblical context. This is something that men need to hear. Christian men’s groups will want to pay special particular attention to this book.

References

 Card, Michael. 2005.  A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament.  [Also:  Experience Guide].  Colorado Springs:  NavPress. (review)

James, S.E., J.L. Herman, S. Rankin, M. Keisling, L. Mottet, and M. Anafi. 2016. The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

Footnotes

[1] As a writer and pastor, I welcome any book offering insight into this male identity crisis. I want to thank David Winters for giving me a pre-release copy of his book.

Winters Gives Men Hope

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Murrow Invites Churches to be Man-friendly

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Believer’s Prayer

Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, Lancaster PA
Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, Lancaster PA

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heavenly Father,

I believe in Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead.

Come into my life, help me to renounce and grieve the sin in my life that separates me from God.

Cleanse me of this sin, renew your Holy Spirit within me so that I will not sin any further.

Bring saints and a faithful church into my life to keep me honest with myself and draw me closer to you.

Break any chains that bind me to the past—be they pains or sorrows or grievous temptations, that I might freely welcome God, the Father, into my life, who through Christ Jesus can bridge any gap and heal any affliction, now and always.

In Jesus’ previous name, Amen.

Believer’s Prayer

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Prayer for Healthy Limits 

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Prayer to Deepen Faith

Sharron_Beg_winter_trees_01052014
Winter Trees by Sharron Beg (www.threadpaintersart.blogspot.com)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Blessed Lord Jesus:

Cover me with your blood again today that I my mind would not wander and my heart not chase after foolish things.

Forgive my indulgences, the little foxes that trample the vineyard of my soul and consign my spirit to deserts dry and far away.

Thank you for faithful friends and devoted family.

In the power of the Holy Spirit, remind me again of my baptism, the promises made on my behalf as a child, and the fellowship of the saints. Guard my heart and mind during winter’s discontents. Deepen my faith even as I cannot walk the journey of faith without you.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer to Deepen Faith

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Prayer for Healthy Limits 

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Gumbel Answers Faith Questions

Nicky Gumbel.[1]2016. Questions of Life: Alpha. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Books about the fundamentals of the Christian faith fascinate me. No two of these books are remotely similar even though they presumably cover the same topics. The topics remain similar but the manner in which we approach them needs to ring true in different times and places. This makes the Alpha approach remarkable because it appeals to so many different people in different times and places. Nicky Gumbel’s book, Questions of Life, sets forth these objectives:

“This book attempts to answer some of the key questions at the heart of the Christian faith. It is based on Alpha, which is designed for non-churchgoers, those seeking to find out more about Christianity, and those who have recently come to faith in Jesus Christ.”(ix)

Audaciously, Gumbel starts citing his own objections to the Christian faith: it’s boring, untrue, and irrelevant (11-12).

Background and Organization

Nicky Gumbel is an author, founder of Alpha, and an Anglican priest serving in one of the UK’s largest congregations. He studied at Hill House and Eton College, read law at Trinity College, Cambridge, and studied theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Other books by Gumbel include: The Jesus LifestyleSearching Issues, and A Life Worth Living.

Gumbel’s Questions of Life is organized in fifteen chapters preceded by a preface and Foreword, and followed by endnotes. The chapter titles are:

  1. “Is there more to Life than This?
  2. Who is Jesus?
  3. Why Did Jesus Die?
  4. How Can I have Faith?
  5. Why and How Do I Pray?
  6. Why and How Should I Read the Bible?
  7. How Does God Guide Us?
  8. Who is the Holy Spirit?
  9. What Does the Holy Spirit Do?
  10. How Can I Be Filled with the Holy Spirit?
  11. How Can I Resist Evil?
  12. Why and How Should I Tell Others?
  13. Does God Heal Today?
  14. What About the Church?
  15. How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life?”(v)

The chapters follow the Alpha course outline and provide content for small group discussion and sermon presentation. Some chapters include cartoon illustrations.

Alpha Context

The Alpha focus on non-Christians and Christians who do not attend church regularly helps explain the plain-English language, the choice of topics chosen and the large number of stories suitable as sermon illustrations. This audience, sometimes described as seekers, stumble over “churchy” words and misconceptions of the Gospel story. Even among believers it is perhaps rare to participate actively in a small group. 

Every effort is made to avoid placing people in an awkward position. A non-believer may find prayer intimidating or even discussing personal questions about what they believe or do not believe. Small group leaders are accordingly encouraged to giving everyone an opportunity to participate in discussions without being pushy about it or putting people on the spot. The illustration of a circle game of passing a beach ball around is a template for group discussions.

The Anglican origins of Alpha show up in the choice of topics. Among Presbyterians discussions about the Holy Spirit are usually brief—Alpha devotes about four chapters to the Holy Spirit (chapters 7-10)—have generally been skeptical about spiritual healing (chapter 13) and avoid discussions of sin and evil (chapter 1). The Anglican willingness to broach these subjects came as a pleasant surprise.

How and Why Do I Pray?

Gumble’s chapter on prayer provides a good illustration of this book’s contribution. Personal prayer is a Christian distinctive in that many religions suggest prayer, but it is a transcendent God and, for that reason, prayer tends to be formulaic, not spontaneous. Think of Moslem lined up for Friday prayer and reciting Surahs from the Koran. 

Personal prayer is harder because it is a deeply theological activity. I have often said that my prayer book (Everyday Prayers for Everyday People) is my most theological book. Gumble notes that before he came to faith, he recited mostly child formula prayers and mostly prayed in times of crisis (62). Now he focuses on his relationship with his heavenly father (63). While some people find relationships easy, many people today find intimacy generally hard and especially hard in a. lonely, technological society that does not encourage development of social skills. What do you say to your heavenly father when conversation with your earthly friends and relationship is strained and infrequent? Gumbel walks his reader through the Lord’s prayer, petition by petition (63-73).

Assessment

Nicky Gumbel’s book, Questions of Life, is an accessible and helpful book. Small groups may find this book useful even outside of a formal Alpha course. I used it to prepare as an Alpha group leader. I also appreciated the head’s up on sermon material, which helped drill the subject matter in more deeply. Nonbelievers may find this book an excellent way to become familiar with the Christian faith before walking into an unfamiliar church.


[1]https://alpha.org/nicky-gumbel.

Gumbel Answers Faith Questions

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Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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