29 January 2016

Book Review: Idols of the Heart

Since I first read Elyse Fitzpatrick's wonderful little book Counsel from the Cross (2009), I have been a fan of her work, and her heart that shines through her writing. I have since read many of her books and I have been a grateful recipient of her wisdom. So, I was understandably excited to see that P&R Publishing was releasing a revised edition of her book Idols of the Heart (2016).

Like so many of her books, Idols is filled with biblical wisdom shared from a seasoned counselors heart. Humans were created to adore and glorify God completely, but in the fall, our affections were divided. No longer did we cherish God as our supreme treasure. Rather, we began to seek after and, yes worship, other things.

Too often, Christians have a small view of idolatry. When we hear the word, what comes to mind is a small metal statue to which people pay homage. To be sure, around the world, there are still those types of idols. However, Fitzpatrick reminds us that idolatry is more all encompassing. Idolatry really deals with anything that takes away from God as our supreme treasure. On page 194-195, she wrote, "I hope that by now you've begun to identify the thoughts and desires that function as idols in your heart. Although they might seem godly, perhaps their prominence in your affections has made them idolatrous. Perhaps they are part of God's created order, but they've been distorted in some way; perhaps the world has told you that you cannot be happy without them; or perhaps, like Aaron, you've been frightened or enticed to to believe that a little idolatry, just in this case, is acceptable. But wherever these thoughts and desires have come from, if they've taken the place of God in your affections, they've got to go." So what is included? Status, relationships, money, comfort, power, activities; really anything that competes with God for your heart. 

I fear that too few of us are aware of the depths of our idolatry. I catch glimpses of mine, though quite honestly, I am more deeply aware of the idolatry of others. We minimize it, or suggest that what's going on is not idolatry, but something else. We must pray for eyes to see our false worship and continually fall upon the grace of our savior Jesus Christ who saves us from ourselves.

On the whole, I am quite happy with this book. Fitzpatrick writes in the tradition of the puritans, which for those unfamiliar with them, that is a welcome attribute.

I received a copy of this book from P&R Publishing in exchange for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed here are my own.

26 January 2016

Sticks and stones, remastered

Sticks and stones,
may break my bones,
but the tongue's a blazing coal.

The former leaves
a deep blue stain
the latter scars a soul.

Light Your Children on Fire

What are Christian parents to do? What does Christian parenting even look like? There are nearly as many theories about how to raise children as there are parents. Should they spank or not spank? If they spank, are they supposed to use a switch or just their hand? Are they supposed to discipline or train or ignore? Are they expected to positively reinforce or punish? Does birth order matter or not? Is it essential to homeschool, or should they send them to Christian school, or public school or a mix? It is easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information that is out there.

As a subculture, we are not short on theories and so my specific thoughts here will probably just add more noise to the cacophony. So read on, or don't. Its up to you.

Let me state my concern, and then I will flesh it out a bit. I have serious reservations about a certain brand of Christian parenting that seeks to break the will of a child, through physical discipline. The goal is apparently to create children of total obedience who unquestioningly follow the directives of their parents, I suppose the theory being that they will then unquestioningly submit to God. Like a good dog or horse, a child whose spirit is broken is well behaved.

But listen, our goal as parents is not primarily to produce well behaved children. Our goal is not to come to church on Sunday morning and have people tell us how well mannered our children are. No where in the Bible does it say that we are to raise automatons. Yes, we are to discipline. Yes, we are to encourage kindness, and self control, and humility, and other-centeredness, but that is not our principle goal and my fear is that the form of parenting that I am talking about loses sight of the balance, seeking to raise Pharisees, but not Christians.

So what is our goal? Let me suggest that our goal is to light our kids on fire. As parents, let's kindle a desire for Jesus. Don't squelch their passions, fuel them. Point out God's creative work in blazing sunsets, the sound of a symphony, and the smell of fresh baked bread. God is everywhere present; help them to see Him. Let's teach them about how radical, how amazing God's grace and mercy really are. But let's not only teach them, let's show them by the ways in which we love them and forgive them when they mess up. Let's not just give lip service to the truth that God's work in us is a life-long process when in reality we expect them to be perfect. When we see evidences of the Spirit's fruit in their lives, talk with them about His work, and when they sin, remind them of grace.

For my part, I will take a quirky, creative, misbehaving child who knows her status as Jesus' beloved over a Pharisaical, anesthetized child whose only goal is to obey his parents, but knows nothing of the blazing fire of God's grace.

21 January 2016

To Book or Not to Book, That is the Question

Last night, one of the young men I know was admirably describing how a friend of his only reads the Bible. In fact, it sounds as if he wears this as a badge of honor. Apparently in their discussion, his friend commented that although his dad likes to read books, he only reads the Bible.

On several occasions, I have heard people (almost exclusively young men) say that they only read the Bible and that it is the only book for which they have any use. But that led me to wonder, is it wise to pride oneself on only reading Scripture?

On the positive side, it is only the Bible which is infallible. Through the history of the church, Christians have shaped their lives by the Bible. And we should. The Bible contains the words of God, what He deemed important for us to know. So perhaps these young men who read only the Bible are right, we have no need for other books. Or are they?

Let me suggest a few reasons why such a view may be shortsighted. First, through common grace, God has given many men and women the ability to write about God's creation. He has endowed scientists, and mathematicians, and poets, and historians to observe the world and write about the world around us. In many cases, these books address issues that the Bible never specifically does. I've heard people respond by saying, "well the Bible gives me everything I need for life and godliness", but in actuality, the passage says "His divine power [not the Bible specifically] has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3). Perhaps Peter was referring to Holy Scriptures, but I do not think he was referring to only Scriptures.

Second, we have the privilege of access to 2000 years of church history. Over the millenia, godly men and women have wrestled with many of the same issues that today's Christians wrestle with. The wealth of knowledge available to us is abundant. There is much we can learn from others who have gone before. In a similar way that one might ask a wise elder questions about the Bible, we can ask those questions of generations of men and women, both dead and alive.

Third, reading extra-biblical sources allows us to sharpen our thinking. Too many people today lack the capacity for critical thinking. One of the reasons is that they don't read and so are not required to deal with a sustained argument.  One of the most important ways one develops logic and critical thinking skills is through exposure to the written word.

Finally, such an approach often suggests pride. It implies that a young man, often without having lived much real life, possesses the wisdom and knowledge to interpret Scripture correctly. To be sure, I believe that everyone should swim in the pages of Scripture, but the assumption that I can figure it all out on my own can be dangerous. In many cases, we benefit substantially from the guidance of others.

In sum, I agree with Spurgeon who said, "visit many good books, but live in the Bible." Make the Bible your home. Eat the Word. Drink it deeply. Read it over and over and over again until it becomes a part of your DNA. I would even say that if you aren't really a reader and only have 15 minutes a day, spend them in the Bible. On the other hand, if you get the chance, go visit other books. It just may enrich your understanding of the world and the Bible itself.

18 January 2016

Christlike Breathing Room

Sometimes, I am too busy. I find myself running from one activity to another. If I am not running then I am thinking about what is coming next. Work, church, friendships, family, speaking, writing, radio, board of directors involvement, time to myself.

Oh yeah, and time with God.

Often, it seems like there is more work than week. If I am not careful to set margin, it can lead to burn out. I can find myself resenting any of a number of things...or worse, people...and I don't like that feeling. I have had to try to be intentional about setting up boundaries around my time and, though I am not always successful, I wanted to share a few thoughts for others who may struggle with the same thing.

First, I have to intentionally order my priorities. God must be first, or else nothing else works. After that: Heather, my children, close friends/family, and then others. Unfortunately, too often, my order of priority becomes imbalanced. My times with God get squeezed because of work responsibilities. Time with my children becomes a quick hello over dinner while I am off to be with or serve someone else. On occasion, this imbalance is necessary, but it will not be sustainable over the long haul.

My wife and I have spoken that life sometimes feels like we are firefighters putting out relational fires all over the place. Both of us value that God allows friendships with others where we can "go deep". We seek them out. But like fighting real fires, it can be exhausting and when those activities become too much, the energy that remains for our marriage and our children dwindles. We feel it. Our children feel it.

Keeping this balance is difficult for a few reasons. For example, some needs feel more pressing than others. Frantic phone calls often supersede a child who needs lap time. There is a certain pride in feeling needed by others. It is also difficult to say no to people because I do not want to disappoint them. I once asked Larry Crabb about how to kindly say no to people who ask for time with me. It made me feel better that he also struggles with it. He has developed the skill of saying:"yes, I would love that", "I simply do not have time" or "I sure would like to, but now is not a good time." It is hard to figure out that balance.

Second, if I tell someone that I do not have time to meet with them, or if I do not meet as often as they would like to, I want them to know that it is not a rejection of them, though for many people it may feel that way. I suppose this comes back to the issue of priority. I know men who commit to meeting with other men several nights a week to fellowship, or play sports, or pray together, leaving their wives and children alone. Though all of those may be good activities, it can lead to imbalance in priorities. I have to intentionally guard against that.

Third, when I am acting from wisdom, I make decisions together with my wife. She has a better pulse on my commitments and emotional energy than anyone, including me. I need her to speak into my schedule. I have two men I have breakfast with once a week who also speak into my priorities. Too often, I am not smart enough to make those decisions by myself--my pride and my fear of disappointing others gets in the way.

Fourth, it is essential for me to keep sacred set aside times.  When I started my master's degree, a mentor and a friend told me that I would be wise to zealously
guard a day a week when I didn't work on school.  That served my family well through many years of graduate school. I accomplish that now by waking up early every morning and spending time with God: reading, writing, and praying. I also try to protect time each week when I am with my family and not "with" others. In other words, I don't answer my phone. I avoid chatting and texting. We aren't doing anything special, just living in the same space. An area that I want to grow in is to set aside more extended times each year when I can get away for a silent retreat, away from the worldly cacophony in which we live.

I think my need for margin in a busy world is one of the reasons I love Mark's gospel.  If you read Mark, you will discover the contrasting themes of immediacy and Jesus seeking to be alone with the Father. Perhaps my favorite passage is in the first chapter. Beginning at verse 32, it reads "That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. and the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various disease, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, "Everyone is looking for you" (Mark 1:32-37). I think part of the reason God gave us Mark's gospel is to show us how Jesus faced time pressures and how he handled them, which wasn't by always being available to everyone.

Every one of us, whether intensely introverted, or extremely extroverted, or somewhere else on the spectrum, must be intentional about setting margin, establishing priorities, and learning to say no.

12 January 2016

Diotrephean Self-Centeredness

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.- 3 John 9-10

At 15 verses, 3 John is one of the shortest books of the Bible. Written to Gaius, by John, it is pregnant with pastoral wisdom. Midway through, John wrote about Diotrephes, whom context would suggest was a part of the early Christian church, though we know nothing else about him apart from these two verses. 

What resounds about Diotrephes is that he was self-centered, presumably proud, arrogant, and unteachable. We can surmise that he lacks humility, patience, and other-centeredness.

Those words sting.  In part what makes them sting is that I can be Diotrephes. I do like to put myself first. Many of us do, but Diotrephean self-centeredness is the antithesis of the gospel and Christian maturity. 

May we grow in other-centeredness. 

08 January 2016

In all things, He is present

To see the hand of God upon the earth
and upon my friend;

To hear His whisper in the trees
and in attentive conversation; 

To feel His movement within the wind
and in lives made holy. 

In all things, 
God presents us with His presence. 

04 January 2016

Longing for Greener Lawns

We live in a celebrity culture. A trip to the local library, a button pushed on the television remote, or logging in to Twitter gives any one of us access to famous people. The free access to the words and images of politicians, singers, actors, and writers provides a false sense of familiarity.  As a reader, at times it is easy for me to believe that I "know" men like John Piper, Eugene Peterson, and Tullian Tchvidjian. But I don't. Even Larry Crabb, Curt Thompson, and Eric Johnson--Christian authors with whom I interact more regularly--I do not know with the same level of intimacy with which I know my family, my friends, and my home church.

I am afraid that the celebrity culture in which we live promotes a false hope. We hang on the words these people share with us, often forgetting that what they choose to share is carefully measured. They let us see what they want us to see. Even when controversy hits the information we receive is filtered.

But real people, the people with whom you live real life, are messy.  They sin against you.  You sin against them. We are often unkind, unforgiving, negligent, and downright mean.  That's not the way it is supposed to be, but that is the way it is this side of heaven. These are the communities in which God has placed us.  So the next time you see someone from afar and wish you could be closer to them, remember they too are messy.

Real life isn't living above the mess, but learning to live with hope in the middle of it.