29 May 2017

Book Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

I waited for the release of As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God (Waterbrook, 2017) by Eugene Peterson for many months, yet when I received it, I was reluctant to begin. There is a certain desire to savor what may be one of the final books by a favorite author. Yet ultimately, it does no good to look at a meal with admiration; one must eat. And Kingfishers is a satisfying meal.

I knew little about the book when I pre-ordered it in November. When it arrived, I was pleasantly surprised at its length, 372 pages. In the opening letter to the reader, I was also surprised to discover that the book was a collection of 49 teachings from Peterson's 29 years as a pastor. The editorial team wrote, "Throughout this definitive collection of teachings, Peterson is intentional in keeping the main idea the main idea: that we, as Christians, live lives of congruence. Put another way, that the inside matches the outside. Or as we used to hear, that we indeed practice what we preach." Congruence is a good descriptor.

The 49 sermons were broken into seven parts. Each part contained seven sermons centered around the writings of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon (save one about Job), Peter, Paul, and John. The sermons cover the ground between Genesis 1 and the end of John's Revelation.

Through his books, Peterson has reinforced several themes for me: the importance of prayer, the sacredness of the ordinary, and the the beauty of the Word, expressed through words. Each of these themes found their way into the pages of Kingfishers.

Although I love words, I fail to capture meaning and beauty the way Peterson so consistently does. My hope is that sharing a few of his words whets your appetite for more.

  • Regarding the Sabbath--"One day a week stop what you are doing and pay attention to what God has been and is doing" (page 13). 
  • "We are always drifting off into the impersonal. It is easier and less demanding. But it is also demeaning and estranging. Always and everywhere in Scripture our attention is brought back to the central fact: God is a person; God makes persons; God remakes persons. A person like me" (p. 25). 
  • "We live in a culture that knows little or nothing of a life that listens and waits, a life that attends and adores" (p. 77). 
  • From my favorite chapter, The Beauty of Holiness, "Beauty is the outside and holiness is the inside of what is essentially the same thing: life full and vibrant, life God created and God blessed, life here and now" (p. 78). 
  • "We read and live at different speeds" (p. 158). 
  • "A critical question every Christian has to deal with is 'How can I best assist others to a full, mature growth in the Christian way?'" (p. 189). 
  • "International diplomacy takes time and careful listening. Parenting takes time and careful listening. Friendship takes time and careful listening. And Scripture takes time and careful listening" (p. 236). 
  • "You think religion is a matter of knowing things and doing things. It is not. It is a matter of letting God do something for you: letting Him love you, letting Him save you, letting Him bless you, letting Him command you. Your part is to look and believe, to pray and obey" (p. 291). 
  • "I want to know that the nitty-gritty of my life is taken seriously by the gospel, not just the state of my soul. I don't want a religion of neat little slogans about sunsets and heartthrobs. I want something practical that gets into the working parts of my life" (p. 303). 
  • "If Jesus makes it into our daily behavior, observers will begin to think there might be something to this after all" (p. 307).
  • "In Christ we see the putting to death of self, the killing of self-centeredness, the crucifixion of the ego" (p. 310). 
Once again, Peterson has instructed me in the Jesus way, showing me with thoughtful prose the beauty of Jesus and of a life lived with him.

24 May 2017

Live as People Who are Free

I wonder if we believers give enough thought to our identity in Christ. Though we cognitively assent to our justification by grace alone in Christ alone, I wonder if that truth has taken up residence in our hearts. Our fears often get the best of us. We are burdened by the judgments of others, threatened by their words. Our own thoughts may accuse us as well, telling us that we are somehow less than others, so we try to hide. Even if we claim to be Christian, we imagine God shaking His head in disappointment at how messed up we are.

The belief that we are not enough affects how we view ourselves and how we relate with others. Because we don't feel the freedom of justification, we respond in relationally distancing ways. Some of us are conflict avoiders. When interpersonal difficulties and conflict arise, we seek escape, preferring to sidestep--and even flee--any relational discomfort. Others of us are fighters. When we face criticism or strife, we fight back with anger, sarcasm, or blame-casting. In both cases, fight or flight, we look for ways to justify ourselves and our responses.

Christians have another option open to them. We are not limited to fight and flight; we have the option of living out our freedom in Christ. Romans 8:1 reminds us that for those who are in Christ, there is no more condemnation. We are fully approved by God and nothing can take that away. Because of our union with Christ, the Father is able to look at us and say, "That's my boy. That's my girl. I am so pleased with that one." Because of Jesus's finished work, we no longer have to avoid conflict with others. We don't have to resort to sarcasm, or anger, or attack, or deception even when we are being treated poorly. We don't have to respond to haughtiness with anger; nor do we have to respond to anger with haughtiness. We can live with true other-centeredness because we have already been set free in Christ--radically free.

The apostle Paul knew this freedom. He told the Corinthians, "It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I don't even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me" (1 Corinthians 4:3-4). How was he able to take comfort in the fact that it was God who judged him? Because he knew that the judgment had already taken place and that Jesus bore the entire penalty for his sins and failures. In other words, he was free--gloriously free.

What would our relationships look like if our identity in Christ truly took hold of us? Perhaps we would show a sacred curiosity about others, entering their suffering and their celebration without feeling threatened. Perhaps we could serve others with our words and our works without grumbling about their apparent lack of appreciation. Perhaps we would address conflict humbly and directly without fear of retribution because we know who we are. Perhaps we wouldn't feel the need to justify ourselves based on our education, our possessions, our appearance, or anything else because we are already fully justified in Christ. Perhaps we would not feel the need to make too much or too little of ourselves. We could simply rest in the knowledge that we are Christ's.

Live as people who are free. -1 Peter 2:16

If you are interested in exploring this concept more deeply, consider Tim Keller's brief, but excellent, The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness.

15 May 2017

Book Review: Word Centered Church

I was drawn to Word Centered Church (2017) by Jonathan Leeman for a few reasons. First, the book is a product of 9Marks, an organization committed to what they describe as the 9 marks of a healthy church (preaching, biblical theology, The Gospel, conversion, evangelism, membership, discipline, discipleship, leadership). Last year, they put out an excellent journal about Authority. Second, in a world that has 10,000 ideas about what constitutes Christianity, a book titled "Word Centered Church" brings us back to the centrality of the gospel message. Third, as a preacher of The Gospel, I want to make it my business to share God's word accurately.

This book did not disappoint. Leeman had three sections--the word, the sermon, and the church--each containing a few chapters. He was unapologetically focused on the centrality of the Bible and the proclamation of the message contained within its pages. What is absolutely necessary for the church? "God's Word working through God's Spirit" (p. 18). Other things have value, but apart from the proclamation of the Gospel, all of the rest is chaff.

I was convicted by the "Sermon" section. Leeman shared an experience where his board of elders confronted his "creativity," gently but firmly reminding him that he missed the point of the text. I was reminded of my conviction that I want to understand the whole story of God's word and communicate it clearly. It is far too easy to make Scripture fit our own preconceptions and we must guard against that tendency.

On the whole Leeman is clear and concise in his communication of his message. He bolsters the main points with examples from his own life and ministry that help to provide useful context. If you are interested in understanding the importance of the centrality of the Word, this is a great place to begin.

I received a free copy of this book from Moody Publishers in exchange for my review. I was not required to submit a positive review. The impressions offered here are my own. 

"With" Christians

I fear that far too much ministry operates from an "at," rather than a "with," mentality. Christians, in our desire to communicate biblical truth, talk at people. We spend our time crafting arguments and learning the Bible so we can give people all of the information they need to choose Jesus. There seems to be an assumption that if I just communicate the right information in the right way, then everyone will turn to Christ.

And indeed, proclamation is essential, but we mustn't stop there. We must purpose ourselves to roll up our sleeves and join people, not simply instruct them. In other words, we must be with people.

I fear that too much ministry is unbalanced in favor of imparting information and I wonder if that is especially true of youth ministry, though perhaps it is not exclusive to the young. We operate from a mindset that says, "if I can just get them to be quiet and listen, I can get these Bible facts in their heads!" When real life issues disrupt our teaching, we can get irritated.

But what if treated the disruptions, digressions, and distractions as the heart of ministry? What would it look like to follow the questions and conversations where they lead?  What sort of transformation would we observe if we entered the mess and confusion of people's lives with the love of Christ, not just teaching them, but actually apprenticing them? How many more teenagers would stick around the church when they not only heard about, but actually experienced, the love of Christ? What would be the effect upon people to hear and experience that they matter and that they are valuable? What would our churches look like if we recognized that the Bible is ultimately relational, rather than merely informational?

Proclamation of the good news is a must, but without love we are just clanging symbols. Let's become "with" Christians.

14 May 2017

Hearts Undivided

I wrote ou my closing prayer for today.

God, sometimes we are so scattered and incoherent
We run 10,000 directions, chasing after the wind
We try to cobble together a sense of wholeness apart from You
Forgive us these sins
Teach us Your ways, O Lord
That we may walk in Your truth
With hearts, undivided

11 May 2017

Are you an Ambassador for Christ

Yesterday, I was reminded about the importance of presenting a well-informed, biblical worldview to those we encounter on a day to day basis. Each of us, as believers, have multiple opportunities every day to represent Christ.  Paul calls us ambassadors for Christ in 2 Corinthians 5:20.  We carry the message of our King.

One of the tools that has most deeply informed my understanding and approach has been the Ambassador Model described by Stand to Reason.  Greg Koukl, founder of STR, reminds us that we are to be people of knowledge, wisdom, and character.

If you've never given this much thought, let me encourage you to do so. Print out the Ambassador's Creed and read through it regularly.

You can read more HERE.

04 May 2017

Book Review: The Imperfect Disciple

When I saw Jared Wilson's The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can't Get Their Act Together (2017) on the list of available books from Baker Books, I tweeted with excitement. Wilson is one of my favorite writers, one of only two authors whose books have made my yearly top 10 list more than twice (Eugene Peterson is the other). Earlier this year, I suspected a fourth appearance would be likely after I read The Pastor's Justification.

The Imperfect Disciple did not disappoint. It is a book about Christian discipleship, but it didn't read that way. The signs were there--references to prayer and quiet times, mentions of Dallas Willard and John Ortberg--but it felt different, more Wilson that Willard. Wilson employs captivating writing that showcases justification, grace, and a big Christ. Wilson has the remarkable skill of sharing his own (often painful) narrative in a way that highlights not him, but Jesus.

I was particularly fond of chapter 3, "staring at the glory until you see it." He writes about learning how to behold the glory of Jesus and its superiority to simple behavior change. Chapter 6 (The Revolution Will Not Be Instagrammed) was also particularly good. It dealt with what Christian community could be, a place of confession, grace, prayer, and real life.

But chapter 9 wrecked me. In chapter 9, Wilson dealt with living in the midst of suffering and disappointment, showing us that God's grace meets us in the depths of our pain. But it was second paragraph on page 210 that did me in:

"When you are in the pit of suffering--on the verge of death, even--Jesus isn't up in heaven simply blasting you down below with some ethereal virtues. He's not "sending good thoughts"--or worse, "good vibes"--your way. No, when you are laid low in the dark well of despair, when the whole world seems to be crashing down on you, when your next breath seems sure to be your last, Christ Jesus is down in the void with you, holding you. He keeps your hand between his own. He offers his breast for your weary head. He whispers the words of comfort a whisker's breadth from your ear: 'And behold, I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20, emphasis added). Grace is all-sufficient for weakness and for suffering because Jesus is all-sufficient." 

I don't remember the last time I began crying reading a non-fiction book, but reading that paragraph, I did. Jesus is with me always. Wilson has the ability, rarely matched, to make me rest in Jesus' arms.

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