20 January 2017

Book Review: Shalom in the Psalms

According to the front cover, Shalom in the Psalms (Baker, 2017) is described as "a devotional from the Jewish heart of the Christian faith." When quickly scanning the text, one quickly sees that the devotional first presents a psalm in its entirety in the Tree of Life Version, followed by a brief reflection or meditation by one or more of the three authors: Jeffrey Seif, Glenn Blank, and Paul Wilbur.

Reading through the book, I had a few observations. First, I was grateful that this book was approached communally by a D.Min., worship leader, and literary editor. Each presents a different perspective on the Psalms and their varying voices were welcome in the book. Although most of us who have come to love the Bible have benefited from our individual meditations, there is real strength in communal study. I particularly liked that some of the meditations were co-authored because one then hears different voices.

Second, I have not been familiar with the Tree of Life Version of the Bible, a translation initially developed by the Jewish Publication Society in 1917. I always find it interesting to read translations with which I am unfamiliar. The TLV version is no different. One of the things most Christian readers will find with this version is that various Hebrew words are retained. This forces one to slow down and not simply gloss over the reading. Poets know that word choice can intentionally slow a person down and that is certainly true here. There were a few times when I found it distracting, however.

Finally, I appreciated the commentators' willingness to ask questions of the text. In his reflection on Psalm 51, one of my favorite Psalms, Paul Wilbur wrote, "I don't really understand verse 6, because the sin was not only against the Lord and His righteousness; David also sinned grievously against Uriah his friend and Bathsheba, Uriah's wife" (p. 124). Too often, when reading the Bible, we assert our understanding, rather than seeking to listen.  Wilbur reminds us that it is good to do that.

On the whole, I would recommend this book. I suspect it will be a resource for me as I continue to explore the Psalms.

I received a copy of this book for review from Baker Books. The views presented here are my own.

18 January 2017

T.H.A.G.S. and the Beauty of Sacred Clutter

"For as long as they could remember, Nia had taught the children what she called T.H.A.G.S.* Janner studied writing and poetry. Tink spent his time painting and drawing. Leeli learned to sing and to play the whistleharp. Tink had asked his mother once what was so traditional about learning the T.H.A.G.S. when not one other child in Glipwood was forced to spend hours upon hours drawing the same tree over and over from different angles. 

"'You're an Igiby,' she said as if that answered the question. 

No other boy in Glipwood had to read as many old books or write as many pages as Janner and no other girl in town knew how to play an instrument. All three of the children had some proficiency in each of the T.H.A.G.S. but spent the vast majority of their time perfecting only one. 

*Three Honored and Great Subjects: Word, Form, and Song. Some silly people believe that there's a fourth Honored and Great Subject, but those mathematicians are woefully mistaken. 

-Andrew Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, page 78

If you've spent any time in our home, you might describe it as a beautiful mess, or just a mess. You might think we own too much stuff. Perhaps we do. The vertical spaces are covered with guitars and artwork and shelves and fingerprints. Books and animals and tablets and pencils occupy the horizontal. Sacred clutter.

As I look around our home, I am reminded that beauty matters here. Sometimes, there is an overgrowth of unwashed dishes, unfolded clothes, and unpaid bills, but almost always, creative blooms continue to break through.

I am thankful to Andrew Peterson who gave us the term T.H.A.G.S.--Three Honored and Great Subjects. Before I ever read the Wingfeather Saga or knew of the acronym, our home was a sanctuary where the T.H.A.G.S. were valued.

 If you ever stop by on one of our "family create nights," I'll show off my wife's paintings because she's too humble to show them herself. If you're lucky, Grace and Tessa will show you their artwork as well. Ian will gladly play you a song on his ukelele and sing just a bit off tune.

My writings are coming along nicely, though my paintings are further behind. But, with time, I'm learning the process matters more than the product.

Let me encourage you as well.
Get a little bit messy.
Make some mistakes.
Create your own sacred clutter.
Trust me, its beautiful.

15 January 2017

fifty books

On the way to church today, I was talking with my kids today about simplification. I made the whimsical claim that someday, I intended to live in a small cabin with no television, a stockpile of art supplies, and 50 books. My daughter Grace quickly replied, "you could never survive with only 50 books." Recognizing my folly, I said, "alright, 5000."

Upon sharing this story, my good friend Mark, a missionary who knows the realities of trimming the excess, challenged me to write a blog post sharing my list of 50 books. I thought it was a wonderful idea and I accepted his challenge. Before sharing my list, I want to share a few relevant details about my reading life as well as a few guiding principles that I used when constructing my list.

First, the relevant details. I am an avid reader. My current library has somewhere between 4000 and 5000 books and occupies one level of our home. I typically read 100 or more books each year. Last year was light at 93, whereas 2015 was more productive at 144. So even on the light end, with only 50 books, most would be read twice.

Second, to the guiding principles. As I was walking through my library, I tried to keep a few things in mind. I wanted books that had staying power, in other words, that I would want to read them repeatedly, year after year. The intention in coming up with only 50 is that these would be THE 50 and that I couldn't exchange them out. I would be stuck with them. Also, as long as they were available in a single volume, that would count for me as a book. Some of you may think that is cheating, but I don't care: my list, my rules. I also wanted sufficient variety to keep myself interested. If I chose 50 books that all dealt with systematic theology, I would probably get bored quickly. In other words, I wanted a 50 book library that contained a variety I would want to read again and again.

So, without further ado, here are my 50.

04 January 2017

Christmas Eve Evanescence

I didn’t see you come in, but there you were all the same. Right side, fourth row, standing in front of me. Were you there as we sang, “God rest ye merry gentlemen?” If you were, I didn’t notice you. Forgive me. While singing “tidings of comfort and joy,” I failed to offer them to you.

When the band ceased, I stood to offer a Christmas welcome. I tried to look upon the gathered crowd, but the spotlights blinded me. I encouraged everyone to really listen to the lyrics of these familiar carols. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it can also breed forgetfulness.  These songs tell the most amazing story if only we would properly tune our attention. Were you able to hear?

I first noticed you when we stood to sing “Silent Night,” our candlelight anthem. Along the aisles, the ushers lit the candles. One by one, flames leapt to life. You were on the inside of your row, sitting alone, a chair between you and Izzy. Forgive me again; I initially thought you were a child. You were barely taller than Izzy and thin. You held your unlit candle, standing stone still, a charcoal shadow in a pool of lights. With whispered encouragement from her mother, Izzy brought her light to you. Trembling, trembling you tilted your wick to meet her flame. And we sang,

            Silent night, Holy night,
Son of God, Love's pure light,
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Did you sing? I couldn’t tell. You were a statue in front of me, the only movement the anxious flame in your folded hands. Perhaps you were heeding my request--listening, listening.

With candles extinguished, the music continued telling us that old gospel story: 
            “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.”  

As I fumbled with the harmony, I continued to watch you. You drew your dark peacoat around your slumped shoulders and you gripped your purse tightly. Your private thoughts were nearly audible: “Am I safe to leave? If I go now, perhaps no one will notice me.” You nervously shifted from foot to foot. You briefly surveyed the congregation calculating your escape, questioning, questioning. With surprising swiftness, you disappeared.

I longed to stop you, to put a hand upon your shoulder and invite you to stay. Like normal, my logic prevailed. What woman, especially one so afraid, wants a strange man three times her size to bar her escape? Like the smoke from your candle, you were gone in an instant. Christmas Eve evanescence.

I returned my attention to pondering Immanuel, God with us.  Forgive me, forgive me, thrice forgive me. In pondering Immanuel, I forgot to show you Immanuel. I forgot that in His church, Jesus is more than lyric; He is life. 

02 January 2017

A plea for greater discernment

Tune your ears to the world of Wisdom;
set your heart on a life of Understanding.
-Proverbs 2 (MSG)

Many Americans felt that 2016 was a particularly terrible year. A political changing of the guard, oft-publicized episodes of violence, and the loss of many familiar celebrities dominated our thinking and emotion.

In our social media world, one of the things that often seemed evident was our national lack of discernment. Too many of us have abandoned scalpel-sharp insight for bludgeoning hammers of information, even when that information may be false. We convince ourselves of the truthfulness of what we read when it conforms to our narrative without bothering to discern what is true. Whether on the political right or left, we allow truth to be determined by our preferred media outlets while at the same time castigating those who oppose us. And it is to our shame.

Unfortunately, for many of us this lack of discernment shows up in our every day lives as well. We have a narrative for life and we actively seek sources that support our narrative. Psychologists call this a confirmation bias. We favor information that bolsters our preconceptions while either ignoring or flat out denying incongruous information.

Sadly, this can have profound effects upon relationships as well. In some cases, people are more willing to abandon relationships, even long-standing ones, than to try to apply wisdom, insight, or discernment into determining what is true. Rather than seeking after wisdom and truth, they seek counsel from those who will parrot their preconceptions.

Considering this, here are a few things to think about:
1) Seek humility. We should develop the habit of asking the question, "is it possible that I'm wrong?"
2) Actively listen to those with whom you disagree. Even if you ultimately continue to disagree, a willingness to listen serves you well.
3) Pursue long-term relationships. Acquaintances often cannot provide informed counsel because they know neither you, nor the situations you are facing. If the people you are listening to never disagree with you or challenge you, they are not a friend, they are an echo chamber. Seek deep relationships with people who are willing to pursue both truth and love with you.

23 December 2016

The Dangers of Book Hoarding...but also not reading

A good friend of mine sent me a link to an article by Jim Elliff about "Book Hoarding". Book lovers, I would commend the whole thing to you.  This will give you a flavor, however. 

Elliff writes, "I’ve spent my life around pastors and church planters. I can tell you that most of them do not eagerly talk about new findings in the Bible, new insights from Jesus’ teachings, how they find Christ in the Old Testament, how passages are coming alive to them because they are finally understood. No, mostly they talk about what others say in the books they read. They speak like hoarders of books rather than lovers of the Bible. For me, correcting this problem takes true repentance. But, in my experience, and the experience of generations of Bible lovers, substituting saturation in the Bible for inordinate hours in uninspired books will do something for your soul that cannot be done otherwise.

Here was my response to my friend: 

Jim Elliff offers a good and important corrective and he expresses something those of us who love books must wrestle with.  First let me say that I agree with much of what he says (I actually felt like he was describing me), but I think there are places where this message may be overbalanced in the opposite direction as well.  Here were a few thoughts/questions I wrestled with as I read:

1) Is having a large library or a hobby necessarily sinful?  I don't believe that it is, thought it certainly can be. I think one needs to ask what is the purpose behind the library. Is it being used for edification and ministry?  

2) What is the purpose of reading outside of the Bible?  One of the things I believe is true is that we learn in the "community of saints." I believe that extends not only to our local community, but to the church historic. We can gain insight by reading folks like Luther, or Augustine, or Lewis. There is a long history of "spiritual reading" in the church. I sometimes see in people who proudly read only the Bible what appear to be false understandings of Scripture that disagree with 2000 years of church history. I suspect this is how some cultic beliefs begin. 

3) Do people who read many books necessarily read less in the Bible than those who do not OR, alternatively, do those who read widely have a more robust devotional life? I can't speak for others, but for me, reading other books has enhanced my time in the Bible. I am more likely to read more Bible when I am reading more books.  Elliff says that collecting books eats away at your desire to read the Bible. For me, at least, I disagree. 

4) It seems to me that much of modern culture lacks the capacity for critical thought and reflection. I believe this is due, at least in part, to a reduced functional literacy (e.g., most people can read, but many cannot read critically). We see this all the time on social media. I frankly believe it would be advantageous to have a stronger community of readers than we currently have. Specifically, most Christians would do well to become better readers, not just of the Bible, but in general. 

5) Do other sources allow us to gain insight into what Scripture teaches? Are books different from sermons? 

Thanks for sharing this. It is great food for thought. I fully recognize that my reflections above may just be my well-defended justifications.  Earlier this week, I went through my library to see which books I have that I still want to read and haven't previously. There are 177.  That's a significant number, but I keep plugging away at them. I also believe that I am a different, and better person not just because of what I have read in the Bible, but also what other books have showed me about what is in the Bible. 

20 December 2016

Raising Immanuel

I'm just a lowly carpenter,
building things of wood;
I put my heart and soul in this,
my buildings firm and good.

I've asked a girl to be my wife,
young Mary, sweet and kind;
a flower so pure and lovely,
I was blessed to find.

With longing anticipation,
I'll await our wedding day;
I'll protect the virtue of this girl
and keep my desire at bay.

The whisperings I hear in town
say "Mary is with child."
"It can't be true" I tell myself
my fears are running wild.

O God, I'm hurt and weeping
this pain, I cannot bear;
she dashed my heart upon the rocks
leaving fragments of despair.

Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace
I cry to you for aid;
the law says I should stone her
but I can't. I am afraid.

I will divorce her quietly
the most mercy I can show;
A woman deserving death
will just be left alone.

I'll buckle down, back to work
forget about our plans;
swinging a hammer is what I know,
not being a married man.

Tonight I dreamed a wondrous dream,
God's angel spoke to me;
rekindling my cooling fire,
he said "let the marriage be."

"Don't be afraid, strong Joseph
to take Mary as your wife;
the life that grows inside her
is the Messiah's life."

I awoke excited and with dread
the Christ will be my son;
what can this lowly carpenter
teach the Maker of the Sun?

I'll take the girl as my wife
we'll raise Immanuel;
"God with us" will live with us
the Savior come to dwell.

13 December 2016

Living wisely as storytellers

We are a storied people. Humans love to hear stories and tell stories. Even before we could speak, our parents read stories to us. We reinforced them by gazing attentively at their faces. As we grew and we began to read, we absorbed the stories that others put down on paper. We began to tell our own stories to people and to listen to the stories that others told about themselves. We are in the practice of living into an ever developing narrative.

But stories are not always happy. In fact, wise storytellers recognize that good stories include tragedy and tension. Difficulties and hardship are true elements in good storytelling because they mirror the realities of life under the sun. Anyone who has lived enough life recognizes that personal narratives contain difficult elements.

Yet so often in our longing for redemption, we try to craft our own stories in such a way that we come out as the hero. When evil enters the story, we edit the script. We set ourselves as victims of an oppressive enterprise. We create scapegoats and villains to become the source of all suffering, and particularly our own suffering. In the end, we draft stories--fictions actually--wherein we are the survivors, Righteous crusaders against the tyranny of family, friends, or institutions that have oppressed us.

In the middle of our storytelling, we believe that our own words are pristine and true. If there is any falsehood, it comes not from us, but from those we cast as villains. Then we workshop our stories to others, believing most strongly those who affirm us and discounting out of hand those with hard criticisms. A primary reason for this tendency is that the human capacity for self-deception is remarkably deep-seated. We become willing to sacrifice others for the sake of remaining the hero in the white hat.

But listen--in a world of oft-competing narratives and inconsistent stories, God alone is true. Romans 3:4 says that even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. We each find ourselves in the midst of His story, not the other way around. Christ alone is the hero, not us.  Christ alone is the only one who is immune from the remarkably virulent self-deception that plagues all of us affected by sin.

Thankfully, as image bearers whom God has included in His story, He has shown us the way to live in His word. He is not interested in us advancing our own shaping fictions, but in His story being told well. In His word, He has consistently shown us the goodness, truth, and beauty of His Son, the most remarkable story ever told.

Yet He has also given us practical advice on how we should live and relate. He tells us about the importance of living in community even when we disagree or when it is hard, so that we can begin to understand what is true--of ourselves, of others, and of God. He tells us that it is essential not simply to accept as true one person's narrative without also considering  another's (Proverbs 18:17). He hints that it is in a community of storytellers where we begin to get at truth (Proverbs 15:22).

If we choose to live into any story other than God's story, we are following a dangerous fiction. If we choose to relate in a self-centered way just to maintain the false "truth" of our narrative rather than in a way that seeks relational wholeness and redeemed community, God's word calls us a fool (Proverbs 12:15)

08 December 2016

Top Ten Books of 2016

For the last several years, I have put together a list of my ten favorite books from that year. It must be a book I have not read before. This is important because, for example, I read the Great Divorce by CS Lewis at least once a year and that would be on my list every year if I did not set this stipulation. By intention, I read substantially fewer books this year (87, so far) than I did last year (144) and there were several that I re-read.  Despite my more restricted reading, I had no difficulty identifying ten.

A few observations looking back over the past 7 years of these lists:

  • The authors who appear most frequently are Jared Wilson and Jerry Bridges, each three times. Several others including Larry Crabb, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Randy Alcorn, John Ortberg, Tullian Tchvidjian, and John Piper appear twice. 
  • In the first year I did a list (2010), my top 10 was strongly "Calvinistic" (indeed, everyone on my list could be considered at least a soft Calvinist). This year, it would be fewer than half. 
  • Until last year, there was very little fiction on my list. In 2010, Pilgrim's Progress was on the list, but I am not sure if that really counts. My reading is still primarily Christian nonfiction, though I have stretched to reading some fiction as well, thanks largely to my oldest daughter.
  • Interestingly, when I first read The Great Divorce in 2010, it didn't even make my top 10.  I wonder what changed? 
10) Letters to a Young Pastor (Calvin Miller). In this book, Miller shared a lifetime of gathered wisdom with those desiring to minister to others. Miller is an eloquent writer and gifted communicator. Even if you never intend to become a pastor, the wisdom in this book is worth absorbing.

9) You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (James K.A. Smith). Smith offers a unique and informative exploration of why people develop the habits they do. He challenged the notion that what we do is driven primarily by our thoughts, suggesting instead that our desires are a primary motivation. As we think about what we love, it helps shed light on how we think and behave.

8) The Cry of the Soul (Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III). Although previously familiar with Allender, I had never heard of The Cry of the Soul until I attended the Men at the Cross event in February, where the book was mentioned. In the book, the authors help the reader to explore the language of emotion in Scripture and particularly the Psalms, looking at shame, fear, and sadness to help us know God and ourselves more deeply.

7) The Voice Bible (Ecclesia Bible Society). When it comes to Bible reading, I tend to be an ESV guy. I personally have more ESV Bibles than there are members in my family. I recently started into the 6 volume reader's set, which is a joy to behold. Sometimes, though, I like to mix things up. Last year, I read through Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, The Message, in my year of Peterson. This year, I decided to read through The Voice Bible after I heard my friend Ruth read a few passages from it.  The Voice aims to be a dynamic equivalent translation of scripture (thought for thought), but it is presented in a rather unique way, almost as a screenplay format. There are also places where ideas, set apart by italics, are added into the text to enhance the reading. In their desire to remain faithful to the Bible, the editors are clear that these words are not a part of the original text. The Voice is one of the most beautiful translations I have read and it helped me to enter passages of Scripture in ways that haven't happened before. Or perhaps, it allowed Scripture to enter me.

6) The Blessing of Humility (Jerry Bridges). The world lost an amazing author this year in Jerry Bridges. Well, I should clarify. His actual writing skills, while clear and engaging, are not especially remarkable. Perhaps what makes him amazing is the man who seemed to be behind the words. Bridges seemed to be a man full of biblical wisdom, but even more than that, a man of palpable humility. Therefore, to see a book about humility published posthumously by who has always struck me as quite humble was a welcome gift.  We could all use more humility and this a great place to start.

5) World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Christian McEwen). World Enough is the only book on my list this year that I would not classify as a "Christian" book. McEwen is a poet and professor who explored the topic of slowing down as a way of living a fuller life with specific attention to how a less hurried life can help the creative process. Drawing from a variety of traditions, she writes beautifully (you can tell this book was written by a poet) about noticing the world, something many of us fail to do adequately.  A few of her essays were assigned in a class that my daughter and I took this summer, Writing from Your Roots, which prompted me to read the rest.

4) Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self (Chuck DeGroat). In April, I wrote this about Wholeheartedness: "the best non-fiction book I have read this year by far." DeGroat has a special ability to draw together multiple streams of thought (neurobiology, theology, psychology) to help his readers think more deeply about what it means to be a whole person. He presents a wise way of thinking about living out a restored life, a life of shalom.   

3) A Different Kind of Happiness (Larry Crabb). This book holds a special place in my heart. I hold dear the man who wrote it, considering him a mentor and a friend. I also was privileged to write an endorsement for this book, which appears on the back cover.  Yet those thing alone do not provide a place for this book on the list. Rather, A Different Kind of Happiness is the clearest example of Crabb's current thinking about other-centeredness and the importance of sacrificial love. The second part of the book presents his seven questions of spiritual theology, which also help to formulate his thinking.  This book provides an excellent, Christ-centered approach to relating.

2) Living In Christ's Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God (Dallas Willard and John Ortberg). It seems that in each of the last few years, one writer has had a particularly significant place in my reading. Historically, it has been Eugene Peterson, Larry Crabb, and Francis Schaeffer to name a few. This year, it was probably Dallas Willard. Last year, his book The Allure of Gentleness was also my number 2 book.  Living In Christ's Presence is a unique book. I first came to it as an audio book, which was actually a recording of a conference that Willard and Ortberg did together, Willard's final conference before his death.  I found myself listening to it again and again. I also read the book that was based upon the conference. All told, I have probably consumed this book 10 or 12 times and I fail to tire of it. The sweetness of Jesus is so evident in Willard's words and demeanor one would be hard pressed to dislike this book.

1) The Wingfeather Saga (Andrew Peterson). Technically, The Wingfeather Saga consists of four books: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North or be Eaten, The Monster in the Hollows, and The Warden and the Wolf King, but this quadrilogy (I may have just coined a new term, though I doubt it) traces a singular story line. In this series of books, Peterson traces the story of the Igiby children, Janner, Tink, and Leeli as they come to discover who they are together with their mother Nia, grandfather Podo Helmer, and friend Oskar N Reteep (a man to whom I bear an uncanny resemblance). This is a wonderfully engaging tale complete with dragons, whistleharps, and fangs.  Though many would consider this a children's book, I wept at the end of the series. I am already finishing my second read through of the series in 2016 and anticipate that The Wingfeather Saga will be a perennial favorite for me as I am undoubtedly a bit of a groupie already.

Here are my past lists:

1) Love Does by Bob Goff
2) The Allure of Gentleness by Dallas Willard
3) The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
4) A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
5) A Loving Life by Paul Miller
6) Relational Soul by Rich Plass and Jim Cofield
7) Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson
8) Prodigal Church by Jared Wilson
9) The Solitary Tales by Travis Thrasher
10) hand in Hand: The beauty of God's sovereignty and meaningful human choice by Randy Alcorn

1) Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid
2) Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them by John Ortberg
3) Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi
4) The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund Jr.
5) Joy for the World by Greg Forster
6) Why Sin Matters by Mark McMinn
7) What's Best Next? by Matt Perman
8) Messy Spirituality by Mike Yaconelli
9) Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves
10) Jesus Continued... by JD Greear

1) One Way Love by Tullian Tchvidjian
2) Grace in Addiction by John Z
3) Becoming a True Spiritual Community by Larry Crabb
4) Tale of the Toboggans by Christian Schmidt
5) Prodigal God by Tim Keller
*I only listed 5 in 2013 for some reason.

1) Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson
2) The Transforming Power of the Gospel by Jerry Bridges
3) Not the Way Its Supposed to Be by Cornelius Plantinga
4) Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
5) Think Christianly by Jonathan Morrow
6) Gospel Wakenfulness by Jared Wilson
7) Gospel Deeps by Jared Wilson
8) The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler
9) Shame Interrupted by Ed Welch
**Nine?  Why nine? What a weird number.

1) Commentary on Galatians by Martin Luther
2) Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints by John Piper and Justin Taylor
3) Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson
4) How People Change by Tim Lane and Paul Tripp
5) Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney
***Apparently in 2011, I didn't actually put out a list. Why? I am not sure.  However, I went back through my list and here are some I would have recommended from that year. Luther on Galatians is an absolute must read for Christians, in my opinion.

1) Chosen by God by RC Sproul
2) The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
3) Ashamed of the Gospel by John McArthur
4) Surprised by Grace by Tullian Tchvidjian
5) Confessions by St Augustine
6) The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges
7) Spectacular Sins by John Piper
8) If God is Good by Randy Alcorn
9) Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl by ND Wilson
10) Family Driven Faith by Voddie Baucham

29 November 2016

Athletae Dei

Ten years ago, I intruded upon a midweek staff meeting at Cedarcreek Church to tell them I would be coming back to worship that Sunday. I explained that I wanted to be a part of a community where discipleship mattered.  I continue to think a lot about discipleship.

What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? What is sanctification? What does growth in Christlikeness involve? What is the link between salvation and works? These questions occupy a great deal of my day-to-day thought life. Let me offer a few rambling thoughts and conclude with a parable/metaphor that came to me on my morning commute. 

First, I am utterly convinced that salvation is a free gift of God. There is nothing that anyone can do to earn salvation nor even to improve their standing with God. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us: "for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." Christ's favor is unmerited. Whoever places their faith in Christ will be saved. Period. 

But, unlike the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), most of us are not immediately headed for glory upon our good confession. God leaves most of us here for some time. In light of that, we are wise to ask, what shall we do with time we are given? How shall we live? These questions place us squarely in the domain of discipleship. 

To be a disciple means that we seek to learn from a teacher, in the case of Christianity, Jesus.  Disciples try to shape their lives to be more like Christ wants them to be, which he demonstrated by his life and teachings. In other words, they seek to grow in Christlikeness. Although stated above, this point is important enough to be restated: these attempts to grow in Christlikeness do not merit favor with God. Those who have placed their faith in Christ are as approved as they will ever be, which is to say fully approved. 

However, even though salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, it does not mean that works are inherently bad or evil. Dallas Willard has famously said, "grace is opposed to earning, not to effort." Indeed, the words of the apostle Paul routinely commend us to to strive for growth in holiness. Why should we do this? Not to earn God's favor, but because it is the best way to live. 

Let's see if this story clarifies this thought. 

A Parable 
Following up on their New Year's resolutions to get healthier, two men joined a gym. Taking advantage of New Year's offering, the first man signed up for the whole year, intent on becoming healthy and strong. The first few weeks, he showed up faithfully. Though he didn't really know what he was doing, he would run on the treadmill and do a few reps on the weight machines. After those first few weeks, life got in the way. His work was busy and after work, he just wanted to come home and crash in front of the TV for a few hours before going to bed. 

Also wanting to be healthier, the second man signed up for the whole year. He had chosen his gym after doing quite a bit of research and weighing out the pros and cons. He knew that the gym he joined not only had a variety of exercise options, there were also staff and more experienced athletes who were able to help him to reach his goals. He knew that in order to be successful, he would need to prioritize his time at the gym. In the upcoming year, he developed strong habits. He consistently came to the gym several times a week. If he missed for any reason, he would get back at it, not shaming himself for missing, but keeping his goals in mind. He sought advice from a personal trainer who also helped him to stay motivated and reach his goals. 

At the end of the year, the first man gained 15 pounds. He regularly complained of new aches and pains. He felt tired all the time. The second man lost 15 pounds. He felt healthier and better able to handle the daily stresses of life. In the Fall, he reached a long time goal of completing a 5K race. Others took notice of his improved health and he found himself instructing and encouraging others. 

Both of these men remained gym members. They both had access to all of the rights and privileges of being a member of the gym. They could take advantage of any of the resources at any time. 

But only one became a disciple. 

Like most parables, the parallels to real life are imperfect and clumsy at times. Yet, they often make a larger point, in this case, the importance of being a disciple. Jesus was the only one to ever live his life perfectly. Dallas Willard argued that Jesus is the smartest, wisest man who ever lived. If we believe that, we believe that Jesus knows what constitutes the best life because he lived it. If then that is true, it would be unwise for us to merely give assent to his claims without also seeking to live a certain way, Jesus' way. 

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul encourages his readers to become Athletae Dei--athletes for God. Athletes, at least those who want to be successful, go into training. They begin to shape their lives to succeed at their sport. They know that progressive training will be essential to continued success. No one wakes up one Saturday morning and plans to win a marathon that day without training for it. No matter how hard they try, they won't succeed. Training is more essential than trying. 

The same holds true for those of us who desire to grow in Christlikeness. We begin to train ourselves to be more and more like Jesus in our thought, word, and deed. We become his students. No one expects an overweight middle age guy to run a marathon, but knows that with training, he probably can. As our teacher, Jesus also knows that we are far from living perfectly, but he is eager to teach us his ways. 

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive an imperishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.-1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV)