24 December 2015

Book Review: Jayber Crow

Two of my favorite writers--artists really--with the last name Peterson (Andrew and Eugene) have each mentioned the importance of Wendell Berry upon them. Intrigued, I sent for his book Jayber Crow (2000), one of the many titles set in the fictional Port William, Kentucky.

The novel tells the story of Jonah Crow, known to most as "Jayber"--the barber, grave digger, and church custodian in the small town from the depression era through the middle of the Vietnam War. Written from the first person perspective, the reader is given wonderful insight into the psyche of an intriguing man.

I look forward to exploring more of Port William. Having grown up in a small town, I was strangely attracted to Berry's vision. His indirect call to simplicity was refreshing too.

A Christmas Poem

Did the stars open their eyes widely?
     Did the trees tremble with excitement?
     Did the clouds crowd in
          to get a glimpse of the newborn Savior?

Did the rocks cry out?
     Did the grasses whisper and wave?
     Did the streams and falls and rivers
          sing in harmony at the sound of the baby's cry?

All of creation echoes the psalmist
     "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel
      who alone does wondrous things.
      blessed be his glorious name forever;
      may the whole earth be filled with his glory!"

Meanwhile,
     We turn our eyes upon the latest gadgets
     We tremble at the newest hit song
     We crowd in to get a glimpse of pre-Chrismtas deals.

Meanwhile,
     We cry out, in anger, that a clerk failed to wish us a "Merry Christmas"
     We murmur and grumble about unfair treatment
     We sing not worship, but discord.

Meanwhile, meanwhile
     we lose sight
     of the One who sets all things right

This Christmas
     open your eyes widely
     tremble with excitement
     crowd around the manger

     cry out with joy
     whisper thanksgiving
     sing a lullaby to the One who makes all things well.

23 December 2015

One Word

In late 2014, I decided that I would carry with me one word or theme through all of 2015. I chose gentleness. I thought about gentleness. I prayed about gentleness. I taught about gentleness. I read about gentleness.  I routinely asked myself, "what does gentleness look like in this particular situation?" and then tried to act accordingly. I didn't always succeed, but I believe it was a worthwhile endeavor. Heather and I were talking about this yesterday and she asked me, "so do you think you are more gentle?" and I said, "yes, I think I am." Thankfully, she agreed.

My goal is to choose a word of the year and to soak in that word for 12 months. Much to our frustration, change comes slowly to us all. The biblical metaphors for sanctification support the gradual change process. Meditating for an extended period allows us to rest in the redeeming and transforming work of the Holy Spirit. We may not perceive day to day change, but over time, we grow.

I am praying about my word for 2016, but I haven't pinned it down quite yet. What about you? What would be your word?  Will you spend 2016 focusing on gentleness? If not gentleness, here are a few other suggestions: kindness, peace, joy, patience, self-control, humility, surrender, truth, or wisdom to name a few.

If you are interested, pray that the Spirit would reveal to you an area where He wants to take you deeper.  

Just prior to posting this, I found this website, My One Word, which looks to be promoting the same idea.

17 December 2015

Book Review: The Great Divorce

CS Lewis is one of my favorite authors and his 1946 book The Great Divorce is my favorite book of his. I just finished my third (or fourth) reading and I have liked it better with each reading. If you are unfamiliar with the story, Lewis wrote an allegorical story of ghosts taking a bus trip from a perpetually grey city to a beautiful land.

Each of the ghosts who make the trip share the common feature of self-centeredness, though it manifests in different ways. They encounter bright Spirits who live in perpetual joy in the presence of the Trinity. Describing one of the beings at the end of the book, Lewis wrote "The Happy Trinity is her home; nothing can trouble her joy."

I think that in addition to being a well-written, deeply engaging story, another reason I am drawn to The Great Divorce is that it seems to present a fictional account of what may become in a community centered on God rather than on self. As a student of Larry Crabb's work, The Great Divorce reminds me in ways of Shattered Dreams, which interestingly relies significantly upon Lewis's idea that if you put first things first, you will get second things thrown in, but if you put second things first, you lose both first and second things. 

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

10 December 2015

My Top Ten Books of 2015

As we near the middle of December, it is time again to put out my "best books" list. I have read well over 100 books this year and so my field of choices is large. I chose to exclude books from my 2015 list that were re-reads for me.

If you are looking for yourself or someone else for Christmas, you can find some solid options on this list.

10) Hand in Hand: The Beauty of God's Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice by Randy Alcorn (2014). As someone who has wrestled with the implications of Calvinism, God's sovereignty, and our ability to choose, Alcorn's book was a welcome read. The author went to great lengths to find areas of common ground between various camps (e.g., Arminianism, Calvinism) in a way that wrestles humbly and meaningfully with the biblical text.

9) The Solitary Tales (2010 to 2013)--These 4 books by Travis Thrasher tell the story of a young man with baggage who moves to an unusual community in North Carolina. The story line is compelling  and mysterious and the short, accessible chapters lead the reader to say, "just one more page."  I read the 1700 pages in just under a week because I couldn't set them down.

8) Prodigal Church (2015)--Jared Wilson offered up another gospel-drenched book in the Prodigal Church. He issues a call to the church to move away from legalism and the attractional model to the Gospel that glorifies God and revels in God's graciousness and forgiveness.

7) Reversed Thunder (1988)--If two years ago was the year of Francis Schaeffer, and last year the year of Larry Crabb, 2015 was probably the year of Eugene Peterson. I read many of his books this year. He writes with a pastor's heart, a theologians mind, and a poet's soul. Reversed Thunder explored the imaginative language used by St John in Revelation.  This book celebrates the beauty of language rather than trying to read the apocalyptic tea leaves.

6) Relational Soul: Moving From False Self to Deep Connection (2015). Rich Plass and Jim Cofield wrote an excellent book exploring the importance of human connection to our overall well being by referencing interpersonal neurobiology, attachment, and Christian spirituality. As a fan of Larry Crabb's, this book was almost like reading fan non-fiction.

5) A Loving Life (2014). Looking back through my notes, I was a bit surprised to see that I had never written a review of this book.  Paul Miller, who a few years back wrote the excellent book A Praying Life, explored the themes of love and other-centeredness through the story of Ruth. He also wrote a wonderful book, Love Walked Among Us, a few years back that was equally edifying as are most books by Miller.

4) A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (2004). A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser was one of the most beautifully gut-wrenching books I have ever read. With each page, I was on the verge of tears, drawn in to the author's story.  I actually wrote to the author after reading this thanking him for writing it.

3) The Pastor: A Memoir (2011).  The Pastor is the second book in my list from Eugene Peterson. In this memoir, Peterson explores his own development as a pastor and along the way, invites the reader to look in on his journey, which he described with beauty.

2) The Allure of Gentleness (2015). I waited for this book, written by Dallas Willard and published posthumously. I have long enjoyed Willard's insightful, yet humble writing. He was an important contributor to the spiritual formation landscape for many years. In addition, for well over a year, I have really tried to focus on understanding gentleness because too many of us (myself included) lack it. Willard's book was a wonderful look into this Spiritual fruit.

1) Love Does (2012). Much like Barbara Duguid's Extravagant Grace from 2014, I didn't have to struggle long with my top book choice for the year.  Bob Goff's Love Does was a fun, whimsical, highly engaging book that demonstrated through several brief vignettes the effect of love upon others. I loved Love Does.

N.B. --I review most of the books I read. If you click on "BOOKS" on the right panel, it will bring you to all of my book reviews.

04 December 2015

A few of my favorite audio resources

Most people know that I read a lot, but I also listen a lot. Every Tuesday, I drive the hour to Rice Lake and I sit in my car (and whenever I am going anywhere) and I typically listen to different teachings. Some I may listen to once, but there are some that I listen to over and over again. Unsurprisingly, I have a "Larry Crabb" playlist that is perhaps over a day long that I listen to frequently. But of all of the teachings, here are some of my favorites.

Ambassador Basic Curriculum: Course 1--Although all 3 courses are very well done, Greg Koukl's course 1 are very well done. Koukl is an engaging communicator and these lectures provide a great foundation for communicating with others about the faith. ~5 hours.

Crisis of Care in the Christian Community--"Crisis of Care" presents one of the more comprehensive overviews of Larry Crabb's work in a series of lectures that were given at Regent College in Vancouver. I am not sure of the date that these lectures were given, but by the way he talks, it may be a bit earlier in his professional work, shortly after his thinking began to shift. 7.7 hours.

Eat This Book--In a series of 3 lectures given at Regent College, Eugene Peterson offers one of the finest introductions to absorbing Holy Scripture that I have heard. He has since wrote an excellent book with the same title, but these 3 lectures provide an engaging and important introduction. 3.6 hours.

The Freedom Series--Larry Crabb gave a series of 4 sermons at Valley Springs Fellowship regarding our Freedom in Christ based upon Romans 7:6, the foundational verse for New Way Ministries. ~2 hours.

Solving the Problem of Evil--When I was working on the apologetics certificate through Biola University, one of the many required lectures was entitled, "Solving the Problem of Evil" by Garrett DeWeese. Although DeWeese is a philosopher, he speaks with a pastor's heart and this lecture is one of the finest treatments of the problem of evil I have ever heard, not because DeWeese solved it, but because he was willing to wrestle with it well. 2 hours.

2 Bonus Recommendations
66 Love Letters Audio Book--I am putting this one in here for my wife. She listens to this over and over and over and over again. She also reads along in the book.  It is a full, unabridged version of Dr Crabb's excellent 66 Love Letters and until December 18, 2015, it is only $7.49.  14 hours.

The New Covenant--I just found these 15 lectures by Dwight Edwards on the New Covenant. I really liked his book Revolution Within and so far, these lectures have been great.  In addition to great material, Edward's voice is wonderful. ~8 hours.

26 November 2015

Book Review: We Cannot Be Silent

In his most recent book, Al Mohler, tackles a culture redefining sex.  We Cannot Be Silent (2015) is a thorough, readable book addressing many of the current issues faced by the church in light of the "sexual revolution."  Mohler masterfully traces the history of changes in sexual mores over the past 100 plus years. Today, it often seems that Christians are inordinately focused on homosexuality, a focus that in my opinion is more driven by the media Christianity itself. But Mohler explores the many changes that have occurred leading up to our current cultural climate including the birth control pill and no fault divorce to name a few.  He also addresses some of the most current issues facing the church including how to respond to transgenderism.

The first thing that I like about this book are the extensive question an answer section at the end of the book, that answer questions like "should I attend a gay wedding?" The second was that Mohler rightly reminds the reader that it isn't about homosexuality, or sexual sin, but about believing the gospel.

We Cannot Be Silent is a beneficial read for those wanting to understand the worldview behind the sexual revolution and where it stands today.

I received a free copy of this book from the Book Look Bloggers program in exchange for my review. The viewpoints presented here are my own.

25 November 2015

Book Review: More Than Conquerors

William Hendriksen was a minister, professor, and New Testament scholar, but he was perhaps best known for his excellent commentaries on several New Testament books. More than conquerors: An interpretation of the book of Revelation was first published in 1940 and has been re-released by Baker Books in a 75th anniversary edition.

The first six chapters of the book provide a general overview of the book of Revelation looking at issues like symbolism, unity, and purpose. One thing I appreciated about Hendriksen was his insight that whatever we make of Revelation, we have to understand that it needed to mean something to John's readers at that time.  So many of the esoteric approaches to interpreting Revelation seem to ignore that reality.

In the last eight chapters, he begins to look into the meaning of each of the chapters of Revelation with their rich symbolism and meaning. His insights here are deep, yet accessible.

Above all, Hendriksen argues that the apostle John and this letter are for the church. No doubt, Hendricksen too was a man for the church, a characteristic I deeply appreciated.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review. The views presented here are my own.

20 November 2015

The One Page

I seem to remember a blog post, though I cannot recall where, in which authors were asked to share the one page in a book that transformed their thinking. Readers are shaped by what they read, but some pages carry much more punch than others.

The following section comes from page 15 of Larry Crabb's book Connecting (2005 edition). I savor these words.

We need to hear the Father laugh. Change depends on experiencing the character of God.

Until we thrill in the Father's embrace after admitting we've been prostitutes, until we watch him jump up and down with delight every time he sees us, until we hear him ask, "How can I help?" when we expected him to say "I'm sick and tired of putting up with you!" we will not change, not really, not consistently, not deeply.

Do we see the good in people, the good heart buried beneath all the pettiness and resentments and empire-building ambitions that irritate us so badly? Do we accept fellow Christians the way Christ accepts us, forgiving each other for the wrongs we do and believing there is something better?

Do we jump up and down with excitement over what someone else could become? How much time do we spend envisioning what that might be? Could we write a verbal portrait of what our rebellious son or estranged spouse or critical friend might look like in twenty years if God's Spirit has his way?

Without this foundational element of offering others a taste of Christ's delight in them, all of our skillful techniques, our wise counsel, our insightful interpretations, even our warm encouragement, will add up to nothing. If there is no love, no supernatural delighting in who we are and who we one day will be, every effort to help people change will fall short of its potential.

14 November 2015

#PrayforParis and Pray also for us


(Trigger warning: before proceeding, I want you to know that in the post that follows, I share some very difficult things).

The tragic events yesterday in Paris are another reminder that things are not like they are supposed to be. People attending a show aren't supposed to die at the hand of terrorists. Contrary to Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar's recent suggestion to the contrary, Paris does need our prayer.


We also need your prayer. Our kids in Haiti need your prayer. Our friends in Haiti need your prayer. Though the French Blue, White, and Red dominate social media, much less attention has been directed to what has been happening in Haiti. Because not one of the dozen or so people I spoke with this weekend had any idea what was happening in Haiti, let me catch you up. The small country is in the middle of a presidential election. From the initial field of 54 candidates, the field is narrowed to two candidates for a December 27 run off election. On the heels of the primary election, there are widespread allegations of fraud. With these allegations comes unrest.

In his opening to a November 12 article, David Ariosto wrote, "Demonstrators wielding machetes and handguns gathered early Thursday morning in Port-au-Prince amid increased tensions surrounding Haiti's recent presidential elections." The article continues on to tell of gunfire in the capital, a charred and mutilated body found in one of the city's richest neighborhoods, and constant fears of gangs breaking into people's homes and gang raping women. My kids live there. Did you hear me?

Jasmine and Calvin
     my children
Live
     There.  

Right in the middle of this mess. Gunshots. Gangs. Violence. My kids and my friends fearing for their safety everyday and now more than ever.

Please don't brush by these words. Enter the story with us. Imagine that you do not allow your precious little ones--blond haired, blue eyed beauties--to go to the playground a block away because if you do, there is a chance that a gang of thugs will chase them down, back them up to a chain link fence and cut them to pieces with their machetes because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Imagine that your daycare provider, the one who teaches, consoles and loves your child fears for her life every day on the way to work. Because she loves your family, she makes the journey, always looking over her shoulder, knowing that one of these days she could be raped.

Imagine that you are at home, tucking your little ones into bed with a story, a prayer, and a kiss on the head when you hear a loud bang from downstairs. Peace has given way to chaos when you realize that men have entered the house with every intention of brutally raping and killing your family.

Please don't whitewash these scenes. Let the emotion of them move you to act. This is Jasmine's and Calvin's and many more Haitians reality.

People often ask us "what's the hold up?" I don't have a good answer. We have been working on this for nearly five years. We have done everything that has been asked of us. We obtained the requested genetic testing to prove that their mother was indeed their mother. We have provided document after document after document. The children have been legally ours--legally Kanzes--for years. And yet they remain in Haiti, awaiting approval from the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) for their visas to come to the United States, to come home. To their beds and their place around our table.

I read another article today that 10,000 Syrian refugees have just arrived in New Orleans. Perhaps it would be better if my children were treated as refugees. Then at least they would be allowed across our borders.

So what's the hold up? I sincerely do not know. Can't someone help us? Senators Baldwin or Johnson? Congressman Kind? Director Rodriguez (USCIS)? President Obama? Ben Carson?

Can someone from the media draw attention to our story? ABC? CBS? CNN? FOX? NBC? The New York Times? The Washington Post? The Blaze? The Huffington Post?

If you are reading this, what can you do?

First, pray.

Second, share this post so that others may join us in prayer and protest. Tweet it. Facebook it. Pin it. Email it.  Please just get it out there.

Third, feel free to contact your senators, representatives, local newscasters, or national reporters. Let's get the word out.

Fourth, if you want to help pay for security and keep our Haitian loved ones safe, please consider donating here.

Fifth, pray again--for Paris and for us.

09 November 2015

Isaiah 41:13- A Reflection

For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.”
-Isaiah 41:13

In the darkness I sit, chained and afraid;
shackled by shame over choices I've made.

Pushing away the One I need most,
the Father, the Son, and the heavenly Ghost.

He continues approaching, relentlessly;
always pursuing, beckoning me.

"For I the Lord God hold your right hand,
I kneel next to you when you cannot stand.

"I whisper to you, don't be afraid
You are my child, the one that I made.

"I am your Helper, I won't leave you alone;
we'll walk hand in hand to your heavenly home."

04 November 2015

A morning greeting

Black birds in black trees
     wings and branches
     stretched heavenward in morning praise
     silhouetted against the pastel Southeastern sky
A world awakening
     coming alive

Venus looks down from her heavenly seat
     the last nocturne light to retreat

Leaves fall
     crows caw
          squirrels having a ball
greeting the morning with glee
chattering aloud, "Come see! Come see!" 

03 November 2015

Book Review: The Wisdom of Ourselves

The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation Between Spiritual Friends (1998) by Eugene Peterson is a unique, though beneficial, book. It is unique because it contains a series of letters addressed to Gunnar Thorkildsson, whom Peterson described as "not an actual person with an existence documented by birth certificate and social security number", though Peterson insists that the details were grounded in actual encounters he had over the years.

In each of the several dozen letters Peterson penned, he responded to some actual circumstance of Gunnar's life--return to the faith, the poor quality of too much Christian literature, church politics, and the tranquility of canoeing. The unifying theme, as far as I am concerned, is a spirituality that does not exist above everyday life but rather enters into it and moves around in it. Peterson wisely showed us that. Although not my favorite book by Peterson, it is a welcome addition to my collection.

01 November 2015

Book Review: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

I have been a fan of Andrew Peterson's music for a number of years, but I was admittedly doubtful that his skill could translate to prose. I was wrong.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (2008) is the first book in the Wingfeather Saga, which tells the story of three young children: Janner, Tink, and Leeli. The children live with their eccentric grandfather Podo and their kind mother Nia on the outskirts of Glipwood. Unfortunately, the town is overrun by Fangs of Dang, disgusting lizard-like creatures, who control the townspeople with fear.

It is not faint praise to say that I liked this book as well as I like Peterson's music. He developed his characters well, writing personality into even secondary characters. The book was humorous at times, suspenseful at others. Still, the unpredictability was my favorite part.

I cannot wait to read the rest of these books. And I cannot wait to read this one aloud to my children. If you are a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia or the Harry Potter series, you will not be disappointed with this book.

Book Review: Unapologetic

I heard about Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense by (2013) by Francis Spufford from a few authors whom I respect. The few snippets in combination with the premise was intriguing to me and is probably why I wrestled through it longer than I typically would.

The book is titled Unapologetic for two reasons. First, Spufford is clear that the book was not written as an apologia, or intellectual defense of Christian ideas, but rather "for a defense of Christian emotions." The second reason is that he is not sorry for the book. Certainly, this is a well-written book.

One of the themes that finds its way throughout the book is the HCtFtU, or Human Capacity to F--- Things Up. I think that Spufford rightly points out that any honest person recognizes that things don't work as they should. Any honest person recognizes their own tendency to mess things up. Without unnecessarily theologizing, the author recognizes the truth of human depravity. He continues moving forward through a discussion of religion, landing eventually upon Yeshua, or Jesus. Indeed, the chapter dedicated titled Yeshua is the strongest in the book, in my opinion.

I wanted to like this book, but in the end I didn't. Spufford makes generous use of swear words throughout the book, perhaps to be edgy, though I did not get that sense. Regardless, in my opinion, his crassness detracted from the rest of the book. I am certain some people will think that my offense at his language colored the rest of my impression the book. Let me try to assure you it does not. It did nothing to add to the book.

He admitted early on that he tends toward the left end of the political spectrum, which is fine. However, he suggested certain topics (e.g., sexuality) appeared to be unimportant to Jesus. This suggests poor exegesis and frank ignorance of the Bible as a whole story. At one point, he appears to suggest that heaven is simply an unimportant consideration to his view of Christianity; whether it is or it isn't is of little relevance, what matters is life before death. Unfortunately, he may be prematurely cutting himself, and others by means of this book, off from a full-orbed Christianity.

On the whole, Unapologetic presents a view of Christianity in the image of Spufford and not as God Himself presents it through His word.

28 October 2015

Praying your Thought Stream

"Okay. It's time to pray. 'Dear Holy Father in Heaven above. Thank you for this day and all of the good gifts that come from Your hand. 

[I could really use another cup of coffee]. 

Wait, where was I? Oh yeah. I am so grateful for every...

[I wonder what my work schedule is like today] 

Shoot. Sorry God. Please be with my pastor... 

[I wonder how Bob is doing. He seemed kind of down last week. I really like sleep. And coffee. I should really check my Facebook status. Oh, and I need to order that book. Wait...no...I'm praying]. 

Where was I? Dear God...wait I already said that....

[sigh, forget it.]

Have you ever had a prayer time like this?  You sit down to pray with the best of intentions. Perhaps you plan to use the ACTS model (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication) or some other approach. But then you get going and your mind is in 10,000 places. You become angry with yourself because you cannot focus on "praying right." Paul's words from 1 Thessalonians 5 come to mind--"pray without ceasing"--and you cannot even imagine praying for 10 minutes. What does it even mean to pray without ceasing?  You begin to think, if there is a right way to pray, I am surely doing it wrong. Then the guilt comes.

But, what if in our pressure to pray right we are completely missing the point? We become so focused on following the right model, or saying the right words that we forget that prayer really is conversation with God. It's about relating with the Trinity, not manipulating God with our words.

So, how might this look different? First, drop the guilt over your anemic prayer life. Even when you don't know how or what to pray (which for me is much of the time) the Holy Spirit prays for you (Romans 8:26). He is way better at it than we are anyway.

Second, learn to enjoy talking with God about everything. When you are praying and you think about another cup of coffee, thank God for coffee or just let him know your desire. When you are praying and you think about your work schedule, offer it up to God.  I think when Paul talked about praying without ceasing, I think this is partly what he meant a life lived in ongoing conversation with God, learning to present whatever comes to mind.

Third, learn to listen. Sometimes, when those seeming interruptions come to mind, we should attend to them. God speaks to us through His word, but also through His people, and His world. Give ear to him. Pray conversationally and relationally--speak and listen.

19 October 2015

Book Review: The Contemplative Pastor

There are few writers I enjoy more than Eugene Peterson. His love for God, for people, and for language routinely meet on the pages of his books. His work should be tasted and savored, but I find it difficult not to binge on his writings. Not surprisingly, Peterson exploring "the Art of Spiritual Direction" in The Contemplative Pastor (1989) was a book that I had a hard time setting down.

The Contemplative Pastor is broken into three sections. In the first, "Redefinitions," Peterson explored three descriptors for a pastor: unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic. I was recently moved by his description of the "unbusy pastor" in his later memoir The Pastor and had some familiarity with the idea of the apocalyptic pastor. Briefly, in Peterson's thoughts, pastors should be characterized by settledness, margin, and patience, working without frenzy in the day to day life of the church and of the world.

The second section--the longest--is called "Between Sundays". Peterson meaningfully argues that much, if not most, of the work of the pastor takes place from Monday to Saturday. The nine chapters here are built around the beatitudes with an eye toward soul care. Each chapter begins with a poem and then moves into the realities of spiritual direction, exploring themes such as creation, prayer, language, small talk, and suffering.

The final, albeit too brief, final section contains a number of poems about the incarnation. Peterson asked, "is it not significant that the biblical prophets and psalmists were all poets?" To answer his rhetorical question, yes, I believe it is significant. Words matter.Words convey truth, but they also convey beauty.

Like his previous works The Contemplative Pastor by Peterson is a joy to read, whether or not you are a pastor.

12 October 2015

What would you call a man...

What would you call a man who...
  • Uses touch to heal rather than to harm (Matthew 9:25, 9:29; Mark 1:31; 1:41; Luke 4:40; John 9:6)
  • is a willing servant (Mark 5:24; 10:45; John 13:4)
  • is known for his compassion (Matthew 14:14; 15:32; Mark 6:34)
  • sees children not as a hindrance but a joy (Matthew 18:2; 19:13; Mark 5:41; 10:14; Luke 18:16)
  • Listens to the "undesirables" in society (Matthew 20:31-32; Matthew 26:10; Mark 2:15; 5;34; Luke 5:13; 5:31; Luke 8;2; Luke 19:5; John 4:1)
  • can be sad and troubled (Matthew 26:37; Mark 14:33; John 13:21)
  • cries (Luke 19:41; John 11:35)
  • steps away from a fight (Matthew 26:52; John 18:11)
  • keeps his mouth shut rather than justifying himself (Matthew 26:63; 27:14)
  • feels pain (Matthew 27:50)
  • devotes himself to prayer (Mark 1:35; 9:29; Luke 11:2; John 17)
  • requires rest (Mark 6:31)
  • knows the Scriptures (Luke 4:17; 24:27)
  • speaks of love toward other men (John 13:23; 13:34-35) 
  • Values relationship (all of the Gospels)
You would call that man Jesus. Often our definition of masculinity is formed not by Scripture but by Hollywood. The biblical portrait of Jesus is not one of a hard-edged emotionless, loner. Rather, he is a man of conviction and wisdom who is tender, compassionate, relational and emotional. 

08 October 2015

Reflections from a Pensive Heart

I have felt weepy today 
Emotive clouds pregnant
     Eager to give birth to tears. 
Yet they are not gloomy and gray. 
     They are tall and billowing and white. 
     Contentedly basking in the light of day
     Ready at a moment's notice to conspire with the sun 
          to mingle rain drops and sun drops 
to paint beauty in the sky. 

I partly blame...or perhaps thank...Andrew Peterson for today's speculative mood. I listened to his new song, Be Kind to Yourself, perhaps a dozen times this morning.  His lyrics and mood affected my mood and lyrics today. Let me share a few of my rambling thoughts.

++++++++++++++

The Beauty of God's grace is my heartbeat. Thoughts of it occupy my mind many times a day. Grace marvels me. That God would lavish His love on me is difficult to comprehend. Today, though, I have been struck by mercy, grace's mirror image twin. Mercy is beauty. Because of the blood of His son, and His incomparable love, God stays His hand.

++++++++++++++

Though Lewis's Mere Christianity is a matchless book, Christianity isn't merely anything, a point Lewis rightly made. In whatever ways I might conceptualize Christianity, it is more, always more. It is too easy to allow Christianity to be assent to a set of doctrines, or a way of living, or even a feeling. Christianity is more. In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrased part of Mark 12 as "love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy." Christianity is not merely attending church on Sunday morning. It is not merely saying yes to Jesus. It is not merely preaching the good news. It is not merely serving the poor. Christianity is all of life. Christ is present in my dinner table conversations, my walks on a crisp day, and my love of my wife. He is present in my laughter, my sorrows, and my pain. God does not exist above the everyday, He enters it. True faith is both ruddy and transcendent. I marvel at them both. 

++++++++++++++

My mind tends to run ahead, always thinking, thinking, thinking. Cogwheels whirring, manipulating ideas and formulating thoughts. I want to learn to be attentive to the moment. To quiet my soul enough to listen for God. To be present with people. 

Father, train my ears to listen carefully for Your indwelling breath. Sharpen my eyes to see flickers of Your majesty. 

05 October 2015

Of Thinking Humbly of Ourselves-a'Kempis

I finally started reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a'Kempis (1380 - 1471). I only made it as far as chapter 2 before I stopped to ponder. These words captured my attention and convicted my spirit. I have updated and paraphrased the language from the version I have to improve readability so thou art not plagued with obfuscation.

All men naturally desire to know (Ecc 1:13); but what good is knowledge without the fear of God? Surely a humble husband that serves God is better than a proud philosopher that, neglecting himself, labors to understand the course of the heavens. The man who knows himself well is lowly in his own sight and does not delight in the praises of men. If I understood all things in the world, yet were not charitable what would that help me in the sight of God, who will judge me according to my deeds? [I have a theological quibble with this statement, a point I would want to clarify, but I will leave it aside for just now]

Stop obsessively trying to know so much, because when you do, you are distracted and deceived. Learned men are happy to be seen as smart to others and to be considered wise (1 Cor 8:1). There are many things that you can know about that do not profit your soul and the man who focuses upon those other things, but ignores his salvation, is very unwise. Reading many words does not satisfy the soul; but a good life comforts the mind and a pure conscience gives great assurance in the sight of God. 

The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely you will be judged, unless you also grow in holiness. Do not be proud for any art or science that you know, but rather let your knowledge make you more humble and cautious. If you think you know a lot, realize that there is a lot you don't know. Don't pretend you are smarter than you are; rather, acknowledge your ignorance (Rom 12:16). Why would you prefer yourself before others since there are many who are smarter and more skillful in the Scriptures than you are? If you want to profit from what you learn, desire to be unknown, to be little esteemed before man. 

The highest, most beneficial reading is to truly know ourselves. True wisdom and perfection are to know that of ourselves, we amount to nothing, but instead to think well of others. If you see someone else sin, don't think to highly of yourself because you don't know how long you will be able to remain in good estate. 

We are all frail (Gen 8:21), but you ought to hold none more frail than yourself. 

04 October 2015

Book Review: Faith Alone

Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification (2015, Zondervan) by Thomas Schreiner is an informative, readable introduction to sola fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

In the opening section, Schreiner explores the history of sola fide. He establishes the importance of the doctrine not with the reformers, but with the early church fathers, 1500 years prior. After a brief sketch of this earlier history, he spends a considerable amount of time on the reformers. He dedicated a chapter each to Luther and Calvin before exploring the Council of Trent, later reformers, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. This overview led to some surprises particularly in regards to Richard Baxter and John Wesley.

In the second section, he moved in earnest into exploring the theology of sola fide including human sin, faith alone, God's saving righteousness. Chapter 9 which deals with the interpretation of the phrase pistis Iesou Christou and whether it should be interpreted "faith of Jesus Christ" versus "faith in Jesus Christ", was interesting and important. He later concluded section two with traditional topics such as imputation and the forensic implications.

The final section deals with contemporary issues including the Roman Catholic Church, Francis Beckwith's departure from evangelicalism, and NT Wright's New Perspective on Paul. I was particularly interested in the chapter regarding Beckwith and Schreiner's response.

On the whole, this is a great introductory text to the doctrine of faith alone. This volume has whetted my appetite for the rest of the 5 solas series.

Book Review: Soul of Shame

My friend Curt Thompson's sophomore release, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Zondervan, 2015) does not disappoint. He is a Christian psychiatrist deeply influenced by the field of interpersonal neurobiology and particularly the work of Dan Siegel.

My initial exposure to Curt was when I was asked to be a respondent to his first book, Anatomy of the Soul. I read his book with an analytic eye, prepared to offer my critique. Prior to our talk, though, I was blessed to have a three hour dinner with him and another friend. Although I was still left with questions about his ideas, I felt a connection with the man. I have often joked that he is the only person I have ever presented at a conference with whom I hugged when we parted. I have since read his book four times.

Quite some time ago, he told me that he was working on a book on shame and I could not wait. In recent years, I have done quite a bit of reading about shame including Ed Welch's fine book Shame Interrupted as well as the works of Brene Brown. These works have been professional rewarding and personally helpful.

The Soul of Shame is a particular gift to me, however. As a Christian, a neuropsychologist, and someone interested in shame, this book provides a unique intersection. He weaves his personal and professional experiences together with his discussions of vulnerability and developing an integrated mind, particularly in the context of a body of believers. Though written by a psychiatrist specializing in interpersonal neurobiology, it is accessible, interesting, and wise. 

28 September 2015

A Case for Positive Behavior

Too often, it seems to me, that Christians ask the wrong questions about how to live. We rightly desire to follow Christ and live consistently with Scripture. Unfortunately, we often arrive at questionable conclusions about what is good and right. I want to share a few observations and thoughts.

First, I think we have a propensity to think only in terms of what behaviors are prohibited. We ask things like "does the Bible prohibit premarital sex, smoking marijuana, pornography, gambling, etc.?" We seem to approach God's word with an attitude that says, "just tell me what I can and cannot do and I will seek to live in those boundaries."

Second, we unfortunately think only in terms of behaviors. It seems to me this was one of the primary issues with the Pharisees and Scribes in Jesus' time. They were well-versed in the law and tried to shape their behaviors accordingly, but they ignored the heart and ignored relationships.

Third, we proof text. In other words, we try to build a behavioral code upon verses pulled out of context. Eisegesis is associated with proof-texting. Eisegesis is the process by which we read meaning and our own biases into a scriptural text as opposed to exegesis, which involves trying to arrive at the actual intent of what the Bible is saying.

Finally, we engage in mental gymnastics to justify behavior. We think or say things like "well, I may be looking at pornography, but at least I am not committing adultery." We also live with the attitude that says, "well, I'm saved anyway, so it is okay if I get drunk. God forgives."

So, if those are the wrong, or at least incomplete, approaches, how then shall we live? First, let's stop thinking just in terms of behaviors to avoid. It seems to me that was part of Jesus' point in the Sermon on the Mount. He was teaching his followers that we must go deeper than just avoiding negative behaviors. We must go to the heart. In Luke 10, we read a summary of the law, which tells us to "love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves." We need to get into the habit of asking "am I being loving?" Another question to ask ourselves in this vein is "Am I living in a self-obsessed, self-centered way OR am I living in a God-obsessed, other-centered way?"

Second, it is important that we try to think not only in terms of isolated verses, but in terms of the whole biblical narrative. Plucking a verse out of Malachi to justify a position is not only unwise, but it can be dangerous. Rather, while considering what specific verses teach, think about it in terms of the whole biblical narrative that recognizes the realities of God's creation, our fallenness, Christ's redemption, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit through the body of believers.

Third, if you find yourself having to do all sorts of interpretive gymnastics to justify your position rather than a plain reading of the text, understand that you may be engaging in eisegesis rather than exegesis. Approach Scripture humbly and seek to grow in wisdom.  Sit under God's holy word rather than standing above it.

Finally, and this is ultimately my goal, that we would start thinking in terms of positive behavior. In Galatians 5, we read of the fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Get into the habit of asking questions like: how can I be most loving in this situation? How can I act kindly? Rather than living from a mindset of finding what behaviors we must avoid, we should get into the habit of asking how can I be most loving toward others and is my behavior glorifying God? Am I seeking to put on the mind of Christ and living in the reality of the indwelling Spirit?

As we seek to grow in Christ let's learn to ask the right questions--not, "is this prohibited?" or "am I allowed to do this?" but rather "is the loving?" and "does this bring glory to God?"

24 September 2015

Book Review: The Story of God's Love for You

One of the most remarkable books that has come out in the last several years was actually a children's Bible. Together with incomparable artwork of Jago, Sally Lloyd-Jones wrote the award-winning Jesus Storybook Bible.  Too often, children's Bibles are presented as lessons in moralism, rather than being grounded in the work of Christ. Lloyd-Jones masterfully pointed to the work of Jesus through 44 short vignettes drawn from Genesis through Revelation.

I once heard Tullian Tchvidjian say that the Jesus Storybook Bible would be great prerequisite reading to diving into the Bible itself because it weaves together the whole story of God and His redemptive work through Jesus Christ.  A friend of mine who works at a Christian bookstore said that they routinely sell out of the Jesus Storybook Bible because she tells everyone about it. 

But this is actually a review of The Story of God's Love for You (2015, Zondervan), which is a repackaged version of the Jesus Storybook Bible geared for adults. The words are the same, minus the vibrochromatic artwork of Jago present in the children' version.

There are a couple of apparent advantages to this book. First, it is more compact than its predecessor and could be more easily tossed into a bag or a small pocket. Second, for those who feel a bit sheepish about reading a children's Bible, this is a nice alternative (though admittedly, Jago's artwork is rather remarkable).

On the whole, I would echo the recommendation of Tchvidjian. Lloyd-Jones's book provides a wonderful introduction and overview to the redemptive work of Christ so whether new to the Bible or infinitely familiar with it, you will likely benefit from this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the BookLook Bloggers book review program in exchange for this review. I was not required to submit a positive review. The impression from this review are my own. 

Book Review: The Pastor

The Pastor: A Memoir (2012) by Eugene Peterson is a remarkable book, full of wisdom and beauty. Undoubtedly, Peterson is a storyteller, one who draws the reader into his reflections on a lifetime as a pastor, not as a job, but as a true vocation. From his early life in mountains of Montana to his later aspirations to become a professor, to the transition to becoming a pastor, he paints a thousand pictures with his words.

I said recently that I would like to put this book into the hand of every pastor I know. Peterson has an intimate understanding of the DNA of the pastoral life through his decades of self-reflection and wisdom. He reminds the reader that being a pastor is not simply about the job of preaching, but that it forms his whole person.

For me personally, as my own reading life has matured, I have realized that although I still maintain an appreciation for much theology, I am increasingly interested in what Peterson calls "spiritual theology". On page 238, he wrote "I had understood the Revelation as a work I would later learn to name spiritual theology--entering into the lived quality of theology, writing my way into the primary substratum of life that involves taking the immediate conditions of everyday life--family, work, place, feelings--into the scriptures and gospel story and making a home there. Entering into reimagining and repraying scripture in the details of daily living personally and relationally and in place, right here, right now."

The Pastor is a book I will likely read again. It presents a theology lived, beautifully.

The Unbusy Pastor

Though I am not a pastor, I have been drinking deeply from Eugene Peterson's excellent memoir The Pastor (2012). I personally believe this book should be required reading for all pastors.

On page 277 of the book, he writes of his crisis when on the eve of the 27th evening in a row occupied by church meetings, he told his daughter Karen that he could not read to her. He went into the meeting with the elder board with the intention to resign. He recalls telling them,

"And it's not just Karen. It's you too. I haven't been a pastor to this congregation for six months. I pray in fits and starts. It feels like I am in a hurry all the time. When I visit or have lunch with you, I'm not listening to you; I'm thinking of ways I can get the momentum going again. My sermons are thrown together. I don't want to live like this, either with you or with my family."

"So what do you want to do?" This was Craig speaking. His father had been a pastor. He knew some of this from the inside.

"I want to be a pastor who prays. I want to be reflective and responsive and relaxed in the presence of God so that I can be reflective and responsive and relaxed in your presence. I can't do that on the run. It takes a lot of time. I started out doing that with you, but now I feel too crowded.

"I want to be a pastor who reads and studies. This culture in which we live squeezes all the God sense out of us. I want to be observant and informed enough to help this congregation understand what we're up against, the temptations of the devil to get us thinking we can all be our own gods. This is subtle stuff. It demands some detachment and perspective. I can't do this just by trying harder.

"I want to be a pastor who has the time to be with you in leisurely, unhurried conversations so that I can understand and be a companion with you as you grow in Christ--your doubts and difficulties, your desires and delights. I can't do that when I am running scared.

"I want to be a pastor who leads you in worship, a pastor who brings you before God in receptive obedience, a pastor who preaches sermons that make Scripture accessible and present and alive, a pastor who is able to give you a language and imagination that restores in you a sense of dignity as a Christian in your homes and workplaces and gets rid of these debilitating images of being a 'mere' layperson.

"I want to have time to read a story to Karen.

"I want to be an unbusy pastor."

11 September 2015

Book Review: Reversed Thunder

I have been on Eugene Peterson kick recently. The more books that I read from him, the more I am drawn to his writing. He is wise, earthy, and poetic, a wonderful combination. Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (1988) was the most recent. 

In Reversed Thunder, Peterson explores the creative and imaginative language of St. John in the last book of the Bible. In my experience, many books about the Revelation of John attempt to provide a key to the events of the book as a type of apocalyptic road map. In other words, many books claim to have found the key to the end times and are eager to share their findings. This book is refreshingly different.

In the introduction, Peterson wrote, "I do not read the Revelation to get additional information about the life of faith in Christ. I have read it all before in law and prophet, in gospel and epistle. Everything in the book of Revelation can be found in the previous 65 books of the Bible...I read the Revelation not to get more information, but to revive imagination." Later: " I have taken the position that this book does not primarily call for decipherment, as if it were written in code, but that it evokes wonder, releasing metaphors that resonate meanings and refract insights in the praying imagination."

To be honest, this is the first thing I have read about the book of Revelation that I have actually benefited from, actually enjoyed. Peterson, a poet in his own write, writing about the poetry of St John is a lovely gift. If you are someone who has been confused by the book of Revelation, I would commend Reversed Thunder to you.  It is well worth the time.

04 September 2015

Book Review: The Way of the Heart

Flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.-Abba Arsenius

The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (1981) by Henri Nouwen is a short book with deep impact. At just 96 short pages, Nouwen provides much to think about. In essence, Nouwen examined the importance of solitude, silence, and prayer through the lenses of the desert fathers, Christians who lived in the Egyptian desert during the 4th and 5th centuries.

Flee--In the first section, where Nouwen addressed the importance of solitude, he began by telling of St. Anthony who apparently lived in complete solitude in the desert for 20 years. Nouwen uses Anthony's experience as a call to solitude for the modern Christian. He contends that solitude is a direct key to developing compassion.

Be silent--Silence often goes hand in hand with solitude. Living in the 21st century, we are bombarded with noise, and sounds, and words. In our loquaciousness, words have been drained of their power. The person who practices silence guards his tongue and also learns to speak with meaning. Nouwen writes, "It is a good discipline in each new situation if people wouldn't be better served by our silence than by our words" (p. 65).

Pray always--In the final section, Nouwen addresses the pray of the heart, which he differentiates from prayers of the mind that dominate many of our prayer lives. Learning to enter the presence of God, to pray with our whole lives, flows from solitude and silence.

On the whole, I liked this book. I think there is a lot of wisdom to glean from this book. However, though I agree that there is much benefit to the practice of solitude, I do not believe that living in complete isolation, such as St. Anthony did for decades, is as God intended. We were created to relate, so seeking long term isolation seems contrary to God's Word.  With that modest caution, reading this book is definitely worthwhile. 

02 September 2015

Book Review: Tranquility

Tranquility: Cultivating a Quiet Soul in a Busy World (Baker Books, 2015) by David W Henderson addresses an important topic, the noisiness of life that too often invades our souls. On page 3, he introduced the book in this way: "Instead of asking, 'How do we manage time?' this book asks, 'How do we manage ourselves as people who are ever in time's flow?' It is about perspective and focus, yieldedness and willingness, quiet and silence, putting first the things that should be first, waiting and trusting and resting."

For those of us living in Western cultures, busyness defines much of our lives. We race from one task to the next, seemingly eager to fit yet more activity into schedules. In fact, it is arguable that not only does busyness define our lives, it is often viewed as a personal strength. Efficiency, something I have long prided myself on, is seen only for its benefits. We are encouraged to do more faster and better. But what if busyness damages us and our relationships? In the beginning of the book, Henderson explores with the reader some of the problems with hurry which range from relational to medical (i.e., the "Type A" personality).

In the remainder of the book, he explores ways in which we can begin to redeem time, not by becoming more efficient, but by quieting our souls.  He helps the reader to see who we are in relation to God and others. He explores the biblical basis for sleep and rest, calling the reader to view the Sabbath as a gift.

On the whole, this is a readable, enjoyable and important addition to the growing spiritual formation literature. If you are someone who, like me, has struggled with quieting my soul, consider reading Tranquility.

I received a free copy of this book from Baker Books in exchange for this review. I was not required to submit a positive review. The views expressed above are my own.  

27 August 2015

Ashley Madison and Our Self-Righteous Indignation

God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.
-Psalm 53:-2-3

In recent weeks, the depravity of the human heart has been on display in the wake of the Ashley Madison scandal. If, by some inexplicable reason, you are not aware of what has been happening, the database for the website Ashley Madison was hacked and names were released. Ashley Madison exists for the sole purpose of arranging discrete affairs for those involved in committed relationships. The story went from big to gargantuan when it was revealed that Josh Duggar was one of the people signed up on the website.

People have reacted with shock that 1) such a website even exists, 2) that so many people were registered, and 3) that those championing family values would be involved. On the one hand, I understand this reaction. Each of us has a sense of moral right and wrong, largely because the word of God is written on our hearts. If truth and morality were relative, we wouldn't give Ashley Madison a second thought. But we do, because right and wrong are real, objective things.

What strikes me even more deeply is the sense of righteous indignation that seems to accompany the shock. As a society we seemingly cannot believe that there are people who would do such a thing. In other words, we distance ourselves from their sin. We pretend like we would never do anything like that! Yet, I think Alexander Solzhenitsyn was right when he wrote, "if only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." We fail to acknowledge that apart from the restraining grace of God, every...single...one of us is capable of adultery or murder or a host of other sins. We also seem to forget that all of us commit sin enough every day to separate us from God. That includes the sin of our self-righteousness. In fact, Isaiah 64:6 says that all of our righteous deeds are like filthy rags (literally polluted menstrual garments). Romans 3:23 says all have sinned and fall short of God's glory.

You. Me. All of us.

So as you hear details about Ashley Madison, Josh Duggar, and the people involved, search your heart. Pray that every one of them may receive God's mercy available through Christ alone. Pray also that God would not only make you aware of the depths of your own sinful heart, but of His grace, which goes deeper still.

21 August 2015

Book Review: KJV Foundation Study Bible

At home I have lots of Bibles. Perhaps dozens in many different translations. Plain Bibles. Study Bibles. Paperbacks. Hardcover. Goatskin. What I didn't have, however, was a King James Version, so I took the opportunity review the KJV Foundation Study Bible by Thomas Nelson (2015).


Software
When I do reviews of Bibles, I like to discuss the operating system. This particular Bible is in the King James Version, originally published in 1611 and enduring the test of time--it is over 400 years old--the KJV remains one of the most beautiful translations available.  Many people hold that the KJV is the only acceptable translation, though it is based upon later manuscripts (Byzantine) than many of the newer translations, which are based upon earlier texts. 

Both the Old and New Testaments are included. However, it also includes many additional useful features. Each of the 66 books contains a brief, half-page introduction discussing authorship, theme, and key verse. Substantial study notes were included, taking up perhaps a 1/3 of each page. Finally, on each page, there is a small box listing a number of cross references.  The number of study notes is not as extensive as something like the ESV Study Bible or the MacArthur Study Bible, though they will provide a useful addition. Finally, at the end, there is a 77 page concordance, a useful feature when you are looking for a specific word. The Bible concludes with 8 color maps.

 Hardware
The Bible itself is 1462 pages, yet fairly compact for a study Bible, about 6 x 9 x 1.75 inches. It is presented in a 2 column format and the font is a reasonable size. The words of Jesus are in red, a feature I do not personally prefer. In their attempt to produce a smaller study Bible, there is minimal room in the columns or at the bottom for notes, though there is slightly more space at the top. I would not count on writing in the interior margin (the gutter) because there simply not enough space. There is slight ghosting (seeing one page through another), but not enough to detract from the reading.

I have said previously that one of the features I like in a Bible is whether it will lay flat when you open it. Opening to Jeremiah resulted in the pages staying open without assistance. Even turning to Genesis 1 and Revelation 22, the Bible stayed open. Once the dust jacket is removed, the underlying hardback Bible also has writing on the cover (KJV Foundation Study Bible \\\\\ Build Your Life On It) and on the binding. The overall construction seems sturdy. 

On the whole, this is nice little Bible that serves a variety of needs--smaller size, sturdy construction, and numerous tools to aid Bible study. The list price is $19.99, which is a pretty good deal for a study Bible. If you are looking for a basic study Bible in the KJV translation, you can't go wrong with this one.


A complimentary copy of of this book was provided to me free of charge in exchange for a review through Nelson Books and the Book Look Bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review of this book. The review represents my own viewpoint.

20 August 2015

Book Review: The Prodigal Church

I have read most of the books authored by Jared Wilson and each time, I am convinced that his voice needs to be heard by the church. His passion for the gospel is an unquenchable fire. His most recent book, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (2015, Crossway) is no different.

The Prodigal Church reflects Wilson's heartbeat. In essence, he writes with conviction to encourage the church to return to its gospel roots, again and again. He rightly shows how the response to legalism in the church can not be an attractional model, but one grounded completely in the finished work of Christ. The church exists not to beat people up, not to glorify the self, and not (primarily) to provide tips for self-improvement.  The church exists to glorify God and make much of Jesus and his finished work.

Although the whole book is a clarion call for "gospel wakefulness", to draw from another Wilson book, the fourth chapter, "the Bible is not an instruction manual", was my favorite. In this particular chapter, he shows the reader that the primary purpose of the Bible is not a manual for better living. It is a story of a God who relentless pursues His children, ultimately bringing them to Himself through His son Jesus.  On page 80, Wilson wrote, "I will go so far as to suggest to you that not to preach Christ is not to preach a Christian sermon. If you preach from the Bible, but do not proclaim the finished work of Christ, you may as well be preaching at a Jewish synagogue or a Mormon Temple. Ask yourself, as you look over your sermon outline or manuscript, 'could this message be preached in a Unitarian church?' Ask, 'did Jesus have to die and rise again for the stuff to be true?'" This one quote represents the lifeblood of this book. 

The message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone must be the heartbeat of the church. We have no hope in programs or personalities. Wilson understands that and communicates it wonderfully in this important book. 

19 August 2015

Book Review: Becoming Human

Becoming Human (1998)  is a short book and international bestseller by Jean Vanier, "the founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities." The book consists of five chapters entitled: loneliness, belonging, from exclusion to inclusion: a path of healing, the path to freedom, and forgiveness.

There is much to commend about this book. It is essentially a manifesto on what true humanity looks like, a humanity that values all people, seeks good for others, and lives to serve, love, and forgive. In this book, Vanier recognizes the essential importance of attachment, though I am not sure he ever actually used that word. Rather, he writes things like, "deep inner healing comes about mainly when people feel loved, when they have a sense of belonging." He pushes back gently on the fallen tendency to separate and isolate, whether as individuals or as groups. When we focus primarily on our differences from other people, we fail to acknowledge our common brokenness and need for love.

As with most books, there are things I would quibble with him about. Although I strongly agree with his view that all humanity shares a common brokenness and need to belong, there are times when intergroup differences are not only real, but important.  I would characterize it as a minimization (bordering on an absence) of objective truth as a way to promote love. I think in this regard, caution is necessary.

On the whole, however, I thought this was a wise, humble book about the importance of love, relationships, and forgiveness.

Self-denial as a Path to Our True Selves

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."-Matthew 16:24-25

Jesus called his followers to a life of self-denial, but have you ever asked yourself, what does self-denial look like in practice? I suspect that for many Christians and non-Christians alike, they hear the term self-denial and they assume that it means a loss of self. The path to self-denial is a path of becoming a bland automaton, incapable of free thought or expression of one's unique personality.

But what if the process of self-denial involves not a loss of the self, but rather a dawning discovery of who we truly were meant to be? What if denying ourselves, as Jesus taught, leads to becoming more fully human? In fact, I think Jesus' words in verse 25 tell us that it is impossible to become fully alive without this process of self-denial. "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." In other words, if we cling to our own ideas about who we are, our growth will be incomplete, but if we are willing to let go and allow God to work in and through us, we will become fully who God intends us to be.

I think of the 4 gospel accounts, each fully inspired by God, yet each retaining the personalities of the writers. The fact that they penned the very words of God did not negate their true selves. In a certain way, the same is true for us. Though our lives are by no means inerrant, when we set the self aside and allow the Spirit to work in and through us, we become more deeply and uniquely who we were intended to be.

18 August 2015

Book Review: The Solitary Tales

At a party last Friday night, I was telling a friend of mine that I was on the hunt for what to read next. Earlier in the day, I had pulled about 10 different books off my shelf, read the introductions, and reshelved. Not that they were bad books, they just weren’t what I was looking for. My friend asked if I had ever read The Solitary Tales by Travis Thrasher and when I told him no, he put the 4 book series in my hand and sent me on my way.

If Thrasher’s name sounds familiar, it may be because he wrote the novel based upon the new movie Do You Believe? from the makers of God’s Not Dead. But if you are like me, you’ve never even heard of The Solitary Tales.  The 4 books—Solitary, Gravestone, Temptation, and Hurt—tell the story of a young man, Chris Buckley, who moves with his mother to a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. An outsider in a close knit community, he doesn’t know where he fits, except on the outside. He is drawn to a mysterious girl, Jocelyn, whom he can never quite make sense of. There is also a lot of mystery to discover in Solitary, the town itself.

I don’t want to say much more because I don’t want to give the story away. My daughter is currently reading the series and I find myself eager to hear where she is so we can talk about it. I found the books nearly impossible to set down; in fact, I read over 1700 pages in less than 6 days which is even more than I normally read. I found myself talking to the characters in the books and at times yelling at them. There were some weird idiosyncrasies, like occasionally switching between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person, but overall it did not detract significantly from this compelling story. 


If you are looking for something captivating and mysterious, you may want to consider The Solitary Tales by Travis Thrasher. 

17 August 2015

Satan is a Cunning Tempter

At the outset of his ministry, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting (Matthew 4). At the end of that time, Satan showed up on the scene to tempt Jesus to abandon his mission. Satan is cunning. He used three different approaches to appeal to Jesus.

The first thing the tempter did was appeal to Jesus' biology. Jesus had not eaten for 40 days and he was hungry (v. 2). Verse 3 reads, "And the tempter came and said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loves of bread.'" He appealed to Jesus' physical desires, in this case the desire to eat. 

The appeal to biology is still a primary way we justify sin. Particularly regarding sexuality, people talk about how they have certain biological drives which impel them to engage in sexual sin. The feelings of arousal or attraction are seen as permission. Although sexuality is the most obvious area people appeal to biology, they could talk about biological underpinnings of anger, gluttony, laziness, you name it.

The second thing the devil did was to appeal to the Word of God. In verse 6, he quoted two passages of Scripture to Jesus, taken grossly out of context to encourage Jesus to abandon his messianic mission, yet Jesus did not lose sight of what God had called him to do.

Taking the Word of God out of context remains all too common. People preemptively decide what they want to believe and then look for Scriptures that can be used to support that perspective, which is called proof texting. One of the best examples I heard of this came from Greg Koukl who tells of a woman who left her husband for another man when she read a verse that said "put off the old man." Clearly, this is an extreme example, but if we leave out the grand story of the Bible, it becomes too easy to twist Scripture to justify whatever we want. Rather, we should let the whole counsel of God, all of Scripture, shape who we are becoming, rather than vice versa.


Finally, Satan appeals to worldly desire. In verse 8, he basically says to Jesus "I will give you everything you see. These are the things the world says are good, and right, and important." Jesus responds, "be gone!"

This appeal to what the world says is good remains pervasive. We hear messages that it is okay to be dishonest so long as it gives you riches. It's okay to sleep with whoever you want because that is what the world says is good and right. It's okay to abort your child because the world says it is fine to do so. 

Satan tempted Jesus by appealing to biology, Scripture, and worldly desire. He continues to do so today. He will do or say anything to tempt us away from following God. We must remain attentive to these temptations and run to Christ who not only recognized them, but overcame them on our behalf.

16 August 2015

Book Review: Leap Over a Wall

As I was reading Eugene Peterson's Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (1997) two thoughts kept resurfacing. First, I really think someone should seriously consider making a Braveheart style about the life of David. Second, I think more people need to read the writings of Eugene Peterson.

In Leap Over a Wall, Peterson explored the life of David, not as the model life, but as the normative life of a believer, at least in some regards. He wrote, "Life isn't an accumulation of abstractions such as love and truth, sin and salvation, atonement and holiness; life is the realization of details that all connect organically, personally, specifically: names and fingerprints, street numbers and local weather, lamb for supper and and a flat tire in the rain" (p. 3). The Bible is story--a true story to be sure, but a story that communicates truths about God and about us. The details of David's life provide one of the most extensive narratives to understand what life before God looks like.

One of the things I most appreciate about Peterson's writings is the way he is able to take a passage and wring out truths that map on to real life. He sees things in story that I miss. He cleans my interpretive lenses. He walks me into the story in a way that I can smell the air at Brook Besor and can feel the emotion of a kneeling Abigail. Leap Over a Wall is another strong addition to the Peterson corpus.