Posts Tagged ‘discipleship’

Eugene Peterson wrote, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, "Jesus' imagery, to be followed soon by his sacrifice, is totally counter to our culture of more, more. Could Jesus have made it any clearer? We don't become more, we become less. Instead of grasping more tightly to whatever we value, we let it all go: 'He who loses his life will save it.' 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' is another way Jesus said it." (102)

This tenth chapter of Matthew continues to expound upon this cost of following Jesus that Jesus began outlining in the 5th chapter. I'm not convinced that in the church here in America we give sufficient though to what it means to follow Jesus. I really don't. Often times, it's a matter of being baptized or catechized or initiated–the church is like another club we join with a set schedule and dues. That's not what the church is nor is it what Jesus said it would be like.

Even now, here in America, we are beginning to feel the crunch of a lot of things. A lot of the things we are feeling are trickling down and having an impact on the church. Jesus called it! Jesus said that discipleship is not a walk in the park or a trip to Wal-Mart. Let's be honest: the church in America hasn't had it rough. At all. It's not persecution when people call you names or when they disagree with you over evolution or climate change. Let's be frank, can we? We have it made as Christians here in America.

But maybe we are starting to feel the tables turn a little. Maybe the economic woes have affected Christians and churches? Maybe the constant threat of terrorism affects us too. Maybe job insecurity is another factor? But you know what? None of this is persecution of the church. None of this is persecution of Christians.

Jesus did speak to his disciples, the original twelve, and gave them a hint of what it might be like to belong to him, to follow him, and to be with him. I'm not sure how far we want to apply these things to our lives as Jesus followers here in America or even in this 21st century. Maybe the things Jesus said in the tenth chapter of Matthew were only intended for those original twelve? Whatever the case may be, Jesus sent them out, gave them clear instructions, and give them a clear indication of what they were going to face along the way.

He promises they will be provided for. Sounds fair enough. It may not always be a piece of pie with whip cream, but they will get along. It sounds boring and wrong for an American to say this, but I wonder how many American Christians would still be Christians if 'getting along' were the sum total of their daily existence? Our motto is typically something like, 'We need to get ahead.' Jesus said in the sixth chapter, pray for daily; pursue the path of righteousness; don't worry about what you need for each day. Our problem in America is often that we think material blessings are blessings. To an extent, we are 'persecuted' with too much. Ask yourself, can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to simply 'get along' each day with what he provides?

He promises there will be persecution. Yep. Sheep among wolves, serpents among the innocent and all that. Devious children who will kill you for a quarter. Immoral judges. Constantly on the run to this place or that place. We are told we will be no better than Jesus. Ask yourself, are you better than Jesus? Do you suffer with the righteous? Do you pursue justice? Have you been called the satan yet? Has something you have done been called the work of the devil? Can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to suffer for righteousness? If we are the sort of people who think that we will escape all this, ask yourself this: when secular America finally collapses under the weight of its own hubris and immorality, do you think that the church will be spared? Judgment begins with the house of the Lord. Are you prepared to be faithful?

He promises an opportunity for testimony and proclamation. I suspect, however, that we may not very much like the opportunities provided for us. Where will you be when Jesus asks you to testify? Where will you be when he asks you to acknowledge him before men? Where will your heart be when the time comes to confess with your mouth what you claim to believe in your heart? Are you prepared not just to confess some random, generic God but specifically the Jesus who makes exclusive and divine claims to being the only way to life? It's a tall order. You may have to reject your family. You may have to reject your children. You may lose your children or parents or siblings because of it. Are you prepared?

Are you prepared to take up your cross?

Are you prepared to lose your life?

The upside down culture of the Kingdom of God–the very one that Jesus told them to proclaim: 'And proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand' (7)–is about such things as losing to gain; dying to live; starving to eat; being poor to be rich; being called the devil in order to oppose him; revealing the hidden and hiding the revealed; giving away your last cup of water in order to receive a reward you cannot hold; proclaiming not peace, but war? Are you prepared to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons? Are you prepared to live hand to mouth? Are you prepared to be uncomfortable? Are you prepared to beg for a place to lay your head or a mouthful of food? Maybe Jesus didn't mean we would do all this, but where does it say he didn't? The upside down nature of this kingdom is this: what the world values, Jesus does not. And yet everything matters–even our hair.

I cannot help what is written. I can only talk about what is there. And what is there in the tenth chapter of Matthew is scary stuff. Just ask yourself: Is this what you signed up for? Or were you hoping to skate by? Are you prepared to die in order to live? It's upside down. I know. But there it is.

Where are you?

Let. Life. Go.

I'm still thinking about chapter 8 to an extent–that Jesus we follow who mixes and mingles and heals people that we typically reject. Jesus didn't consider himself better than them–which is exactly how we tend to think of most people. We tend to stick with our own because it's comfortable for us. I'm not necessarily saying that is wrong, but I'm not necessarily saying that is correct either. What I am saying is that if we are followers of Jesus then we need to give serious consideration to how we imitate him in the relationships we create and nurture.

It's not easy. There are people in this world we are naturally offended by and people who are naturally repulsive to us. In some ways, too, we will be repulsive to some people. It's OK. I have learned, and to a large degree, I am still learning, that I don't think the Lord expects that we will 'like' every person we meet. I think this is one of the reasons why there are so many personalities available in this world. It means there is someone for everyone. Yes. There are people I will be naturally drawn to; there are people you will be naturally drawn to. And in this, all people can be reached with the good news.

Luckily for us, this Jesus is different. In chapter 9, Jesus continues to rub shoulders with people that others looked down upon–in particular the tax collector named Matthew. Here's something for you to think about for a minute or two….who makes you uncomfortable? Who is out of your comfort zone? Who gives you the creeps? Who are the outcasts that Jesus would hang around that the world might otherwise reject?

So, then, on to some other thoughts. Jesus talks a lot in this chapter, but it's not like he's giving us a big long discourse as he did in chapters 5-7. His thoughts are memorable one liners that challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom of the day. I think he offers those same challenges to us as well. In other words, these things Jesus says are spoken to us as directly as they were spoken to those who would be his followers then.

First, notice that Jesus says, 'Your sins are forgiven' to a man who is paralyzed. I would think the more pressing matter would be the man's paralysis, but Jesus first addresses his spiritual condition as if one were somehow related to the other. The astonishing thing is, however, that Jesus mentions forgiveness at all. Indeed, as they reply, who can forgive sins but God alone? This is Jesus at his realistic best. Think about it, what other major religion in this entire world begins, continues, or ends with the leader of that religion addressing sin? Seriously? The very fact that Jesus addresses sin in a person's life indicates something about the nature of his being here. I think it says more about his purpose than it does about his nature (although, let's not take away from his nature).

Second, notice that Jesus says, 'Go and learn what this mean, I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' I can't tell you how much I love this statement because Jesus is claiming it for himself. Notice the 'I' in the sentence. Notice the 'I' in what follows: 'I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.' This means there is hope for us all. Jesus didn't come to earth and say, 'I'm interested mostly in all the folks who have it right.' No. He came and said, 'I came for all the people who are completely wrecked by life, by sin, by anything that wrecks life and humanity.' I love this because it means that I, too, am worthy to be called by Jesus precisely because I'm unworthy of Jesus.

Third, notice that Jesus says, 'But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.' Jesus, in other words, brought something new. He brought a new forgiveness–administered and received through himself. He brought new calling–because any wreck of life can be called to follow Jesus. He brought new reasons to fast and pray–centered around himself and his presence. Jesus brings new things to humans and gives us new reasons to do this things we do. I saw this thing the other day where someone was pointing out that all the traditions surrounding Christmas actually have their roots in pagan festivals and suchlike. The meme ended by saying something absurd like 'you don't have to believe in Jesus to celebrate and enjoy the season.' Well, that's ridiculous. What Jesus did was inspire his people to take all those pagan holidays and infuse them with new meaning and new hope.

Jesus makes all things new and that's what makes Jesus amazing.

He said some other things too. He healed a woman of a bleeding issue and raised a young girl to life. He said, 'your faith has made you well.' He then healed a couple of men from their blindness. Then he drove a demon from a many who couldn't talk. And at this point we hear other voices. The crowds marveled and said, 'Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel.' And we too are amazed at all that goes on in the chapter: the healing, the forgiveness, the claims, the miracles of many sorts.

Yet there are still other voices who are no so impressed with Jesus' words, but instead seem to be a bit sour: 'It is by the prince of demons he casts out demons.' Maybe we are being forced to decide how we will respond to the things we see Jesus do and the things we hear Jesus say. How anyone can see these things and hear these things and see nothing but the work of the satan is beyond me. How? Where does that sort of energy come from that can see a dead girl raised and consider it a matter of the work of the devil? Does the devil do this kind of work? Does he heal? Does he show compassion? Does he set the world straight and undo the things he himself brought about to the world?

Here's the kicker. The last thing Jesus says in this chapter, the last thing he does, the last thing he sees. He sees people just like those who would attribute his work to the satan and he has compassion on them because they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd. Again, this is the Jesus who says, 'Pray to the Lord of the harvest for workers.' Do you hear that? Even after these people basically say that Jesus is doing the work of the satan he still has compassion on them, he still wants them in his fold, he still wants them.

He still wants us.

He still wants us.

Read: Matthew 6

Let's be short today. Maybe.

Matthew six is a chapter that has been abused and misused by preachers throughout the ages. And by pew-sitters too. I'll be honest when I say that it is not a terribly complicated passage of Scripture to understand, but it's not necessarily easy to understand either. It's one of those passages that can be taken to extremes one way or the other. Or it can be ignored altogether.

I think Jesus assumes that Kingdom people will be practitioners of certain things like alms giving, prayer, and fasting. I don't think Jesus ever thought that these things were a mere means to an end–whatever end that might be in our minds. I do find it interesting, though, that we get a clue as to the point of these things when we read the so-called Lord's Prayer. Part of that prayer goes like this, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This goes along well with the themes we have already seen in the first several chapters: we are not about getting our own way, by our own means, in our time. We, like Jesus, are about doing God's things, God's way, and with God's methods.

Praying for God's kingdom is saying we are happy and content with the things of God, the means of God, and the ends of God. It means we are willing to put aside our own ways and means and ends because we see and believe in something quite a lot different than ourselves.

So I wondered…maybe the point of giving of alms and the fasting similar to that of prayer? Maybe we fast in order to hasten the kingdom. Maybe we give alms to others as a way of announcing the Kingdom. And we don't have to pray a lot at all–in the sense of saying a whole bunch of words: your Kingdom come, your will be done. What else need we say?

Here's where it gets really exciting–when we pray for his kingdom and will to be done–in our lives. When we do so, we need not worry about all that much. Jesus says at the end of this chapter: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. You hear it? He's saying the same thing: Your will be done, your kingdom come. Is this the content of our prayer life? Is this the purpose of our fasting life? Is this why we give? Are we practicing these things in order to hasten the kingdom's arrival?

I've been paying attention lately to the goings on in the world. There's a lot of worrying going on, and fear, and worry, and emotional output, and worry, and fear. Lately it seems like a lot of christians are being driven by fear and worry–which is an over concern for things over which we have no control. There is clamoring for more guns and more control and more violence. There's a lot rhetoric being bandied about by christians who think that we ought to act an behave in much the same way as the general population. We ought to exercise our constitutional rights and bear arms and kill people or wish and hope that others do the killing for us.

This is not a kingdom way of thinking. This is a satanic way of thinking, a Herod way of thinking. Herod uses the sword, and the satan says bow down before me. Yet neither of these are the quiet, unassuming way of hiding in a prayer closet asking for God simply to bring his will to bear on this earth. People who live in anxiety and fear are those who tend to think that God is not going to do anything. And you know what? He might decide to remain silent for a while. That's OK. Our responsibility is very simple: keep on praying, day in, day out, for God's will to be done on this earth.

Then go and live in faith that he will do so. Our simple life then becomes one free of anxiety, free of fear, and free of the need to resort to the ways of the satan or Herod to get things done. Let go and let God do what God is going to do in his time. Don't seek your own life or your own comfort. Seek first the Kingdom of God. His will.

That's all.

Read: Matthew 5; Galatians 5; Exodus

At its very core, Advent is a time to think about the first coming of Messiah and, perhaps, to telescope that thinking into the future and his Second Revelation. When we take the time to pause and think about the Advent of our Lord, we are pausing to note that God's will was to undo this present darkness and replace it with light. Yet we also pause to understand that He was determined and willful that it would not be accomplished in the way or with the means by which the world gets things done.

So we read Matthew. Early on Matthew tells his readers that a certain king was on some throne and his name was Herod. This king got all worked up because a baby had been born who was also a king. This bothered Herod a great deal so he went out of his way to protect his position of power. He called for secret meetings with the wise men, he lied to them, maybe he threatened them, and then, when he saw that he was making no progress–two years down the road–he took the sword in hand and slaughtered children.

Because when you are a king and your power is threatened, it's always best to slaughter the innocent as a reminder of who really holds power. That's how the world gets things done. God did not accomplish things that way.

I read this tweet from someone I follow on Twitter. I don't know the guy from Adam, but I follow him and this could be the only tweet of his I have ever read. He wrote:

Advent reminds us salvation comes differently than we expect. Not a warrior wielding a sword to show off his military power, but as a baby. 5:03 PM – 29 Nov 2015

I think that so perfectly captures the point of Advent. And it was the Advent of Jesus–not Herod. Herod shows us exactly how the world does things. God shows us another way.

We are reminded, then, that God does things differently and as such he calls you and me, his followers, to do things differently, to be different. Thus prepared we arrive at Matthew 5 where Jesus blows the lid off of conventional wisdom by showing anyone who wants to follow him exactly the ways in which they will be different from the world.

Some people read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and think that perhaps it is a checklist we have to follow in order to be good Jesus people. But that's not quite what I take away from this sermon at all. Rather I think the point of the sermon is to mark Jesus' followers as different from the world. We are going to fail at most of these things he says, but that shouldn't stop us from being different, or from walking a different path, or, and here's the kicker, not doing things the way the satan or the Herod did things.

So our ambition is not the same as the world. We are content with our own poverty if that is what Messiah calls us to. We are merciful people, because we know the world isn't merciful. We are about peace! How many Christians do I see all over Facebook and Twitter continually calling for the death of people of Islam? That is not the Jesus way. That is not how the Lord accomplishes things.

As a Jesus follower, my heart is breaking for the world. I see people being raised in an ideology where their only hope is in killing or being killed. I see people being raised to believe that the only way to stem the tide of violence is to increase our own violent output–and to encourage our young men, and now women, to bear the burden of knowing they have killed another human being. I see other Jesus followers following the masses and making calls for death, deportation, and/or destruction of human life. Our enemy is not flesh and blood. I see Lord. Seated high and exalted. His will shall not be thwarted and I, as a follower of Jesus, will in no way promote the violence towards others that they would bear against me.

Jesus called his followers to be different, and told them not to follow the ways of the satan to accomplish His goals. If we are no different from those who wish to kill us, what's the point of following Jesus?

But we often forget these things. We forget that we are to be differently angry, if we are to be angry at all. Our hearts should reign in peace and forgiveness. Our hearts and eyes are to be pure. Our marriages are to be differently organized–but we find ways to justify our divorces in the church, don't we? We really do. It's really quite a problem in the church that our marriages are no different from the marriages of the world. So he goes on…

I find it simply amazing that in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus focuses so much energy and attention on how we get along with others. We should be merciful, peacemakers, we should be salt and light, we should not be angry people or lustful people. We should treat our spouses differently. Ours is not the path of revenge and retaliation but of grace and peace: Turn the other cheek, do not resist the one who is evil, be kind, generous, and forgiving.

And lastly, in chapter 5, Jesus tells his followers that they are to treat their enemies differently. It's a hard thing he asks us to do, he commands us to do: don't think your own sins are any better than the sins of others. That's typically why we love ourselves and not our enemies. Jesus is very explicit, very clear on this point: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

That, my friends, is revolutionary. That is how you and I can be different in this world. Jesus pulled no punches when he said it and it probably shocked his listeners that day. I suspect few can actually do it, but there it is. The only weapon that Christians ought to be calling for right now against those who wish to kill is love and prayer. The world will call for weapons. The world will call for deportation. The world will call for blood and cheer when it flows. Those who follow Jesus must not do these things. We must be different. It may well cost us. Yep. No doubt about it. Yet in no way must we, Jesus' followers, disgrace his name by calling for more violence and bloodshed.

That's not His way. That's the satan's way. That's Herod's way. That's not our way.

We must not forget these things.

Back several months ago my car was totaled. The road was icy. The temperature was cold. The driver was inexperienced. The hill was steep. And the bend in the road fairly sharp. All this combined equals a destroyed rear-end of a car.

The rear-end is worth more than $3000 in damage repair. The car still drives like a champ. It's a seven year old car with over 100,000 miles. It runs well. It's the cosmetic aspect of it that is the problem: aesthetically it is about as unsightly as it can be. It is a perpetual embarrassment. The problem is that I have no choice but to drive it because I simply cannot afford another car right now.

I drive down a certain road every day to get to work and every day I drive past people walking to work, people waiting on rides to get to work, or people with cars that look like piles of garbage. It must be embarrassing to the folks who make up that huddled mass of humanity. Yet every day I see them. Every day they are there, sacrificing themselves to the sunrise and sunset rhythms of this world. Every day they are getting at it.

Recently there have been other reasons to be embarrassed here on earth and only this morning I asked myself why I feel that way. A car is a means to an end. A car doesn't have to be aesthetically pleasing in order to accomplish its purpose of getting me to and from here and there. It does not have to make me the envy of anyone or make me envy anyone. So I have to ask myself, why am I embarrassed about it?

Why do I care?

Envy. I think that may have something to do with embarrassment. Yes. I'm sure of it. This embarrassment, or the situation that causes embarrassment, is rooting out, by the grace of God, those insipid desires to have and to hold things–or to struggle against embarrassment. Maybe the embarrassment we 'suffer' is due to an inflated opinion of ourselves or an inflated opinion of what we think we are are owed or deserve. Embarrassment is the polar opposite of gratitude. So putting all this together I can conclude that embarrassment stems from active envy instead of active empathy or active gratitude. I get so used to thinking about myself and my own situation that I am blind to others.

Or I see them too much which might be even worse.

I'm embarrassed because I think I deserve better or more. There's a point where Jesus is telling me this is true–except that better is not more or shinier. Better is less. Better is an understanding of those for whom his own heart aches and those with whom he dined: the poor, the weak, the outcast. At some point, I have to realize that I am the poor, the weak, and the outcast.

Jesus–this Son of Man who had no place to lay his head–wouldn't be embarrassed to ride in my car.

Jesus too was poor and outcast–and I'm sure his car wasn't the best. Maybe being like him in this small way is the cost of my discipleship.

ThrivingI love when a book just sort of 'shows up' and it has immediate relevance to my life or ministry. Such was the case with Thriving in Babylon. I was searching through the David C Cook offerings on NetGalley and this book just appeared…I'm fairly certain I heard the sound of 'ahhh' sung by angels as a halo of gold surround the book. Needless to say I was happy to see the book, a book, any book focused on the Book of Daniel.

I have been engaged in serious study of the book of Daniel since sometime in 2014 as I prepared myself to teach an undergraduate level course on the book at a small Bible College located near my home in the Fall of 2015. I mean it must be providence because this is the fourth book on Daniel I have managed to get for review from publishers in the last year (and in fact, I just received a fifth one in the mail today from another publisher). All of the books have had unique perspectives on the Book of Daniel and have lent their insight to me as I sought to understand Daniel.

It does make me wonder though why there is currently so much popular and scholarly level interest in the Book of Daniel–so much interest that one noted author even published a lifestyle book based on something he read in Daniel. It's curious how it seems that perhaps people are slowly beginning to realize that all our American dreams are not quite the stuff that being a disciple of Jesus is made of. Or maybe what people are seeing is that the time is ripe, the axe is at the root, the signs are converging and coalescing, and maybe we imagine we hear just the faintest hint of a trumpet blast being carried by the wind.

This book started out strong with a heavy focus on the Book of Daniel and I was rolling along with Osborne nicely. He is correct: Daniel is neither an adventure story nor a prophecy manual. Where he kind of lost me is when he stated what he does think the main point of Daniel's book is: "When it comes to the book of Daniel, his incredible example of how to live and thrive in the most godless of environments is the main lesson we don't want to miss. It's a template that's particularly relevant today" (Location 128). Unfortunately, this kind of made me yawn a bit because I started sensing where the book was going–a mere manual for living, something the church does not need. Fact is, if we read the Book of Daniel as a book of mere examples for living, however incredible, encouraging, and faithful they may be, then we may as well read it as an adventure story and we probably miss the bigger story he is telling us about ultimate redemption of the world, of His saints, of his Son, and of a victory that even death cannot prevent. 

A deeper look at Daniel reveals a deeply theological story, one that is entirely focused on the sovereignty of God over the nations and of how, despite the terribly negative outward appearance of things in this world, God will rescue and redeem his exiles from Babylon, establish his Messianic Kingdom by uprooting, supplanting, subverting, and at times destroying the kingdoms of earth, and establish his Son and People as the rightful heirs and rulers of the kingdoms of earth.

Somewhere in this, yes, we are called to live and thrive. Clearly the prophet Jeremiah, one of the books Daniel read, told the exiles that they should settle down, build houses, raise families, live, and seek the welfare of the city where they were confined, but I doubt Jeremiah did so without first giving those people a picture of the great God who led them there in the first place. I doubt that living and thriving are the main focus of the book–or of any book of the Bible for that matter. I'm not saying they are absent; I am saying they are the trees we see when we take our eyes off the forest. 

I absolutely agree that we live in a world of chaos. I agree that for all intents and purposes our times are no different than those of Daniel and that Christians are, by and large, living in the shadow and confines of Babylon. I disagree that we are going to change this world simply by displaying hope, humility, and wisdom–the three ideas explored in the book. To me, however, this sounds like a convenient outline–kind of preacherly (if that's a word). Needless to say, however well he may find these ideas in the Book of Daniel, I was fairly disappointed that this was the route he chose to go. It's not that anything he says in the book is wrong or that it cannot be found in the book of Daniel. It's just that this is not the point of Daniel's book and, therefore, I think Thriving in Babylon was wanting for something more.

So let me wrap up by noting a couple of things that did resonate with me and ultimately were good constructs–even if I think the foundation upon which they were built was a bit beyond the blueprint. First, I agree that '[F]rom the first page to the last, Daniel clearly saw God's hand in everything that happened' (Location 203). I agree. This is laid out for the readers in Daniel chapter 1 and it carries all through the book. He goes on to note that 'God is in control of who is in control' (Location 222). Here I think Osborne nails it and, to this point, he is correct: upon this understanding of God we can indeed thrive in Babylon. I only wish he had explored his point a little more with respect to how Christians respond to the the kings of this world. Daniel is a decidedly political book and I think it needed to be explored, and could have been even at this popular level.

Second, he brings out some import and valid points about suffering in this world and our response to it. Key among his points is this: 'Those who walk away from God in anger and disillusionment in the midst of their suffering never do so because their test was too hard. They do so because their faith was not genuine' (Location 541). Whatever else I may have written, I want to be clear that Osborne has written a good book with much worth lauding. His points about our suffering as Christians in the midst of the Babylonian shadow are important and timely. We do well to listen. Yet we also do well to remember that there is no resurrection needed for those who remain alive. The saints of God will suffer at the hands of kings. Perhaps this timely message needed to be explored a little more.

My main disappointment with this book is that I don't think Osborne handled the Book of Daniel very well. Frankly, it was a huge disappointment. At times, it was like he utterly forgot he was even taking us through the book at all. Besides this, as noted above, I think he failed to get to the heart of what Daniel is teaching us. I get that the book is not designed to be a thorough exposition of Daniel and in this Osborne succeeds. The book of Daniel is a complex book and the character of Daniel–one of only two characters who 'survive' the entire book from start to finished–is a complex character. He has good days and bad days. He spends a lot of time sick due to the visions he has. He has to make difficult choices at times and seems at times to be all about his own self-preservation. Sometimes he doesn't tell the whole truth when interpreting visions and dreams. At times he us utterly brilliant and at other times he seems confounded. Sometimes he appears to compromise a bit and other times he is utterly bold and forthright. It is, therefore, difficult to make Daniel the sort of hero I think Osborne wants him to be.

Daniel is complex and I wish that complexity had been explored with a little more nuance than Osborne did. Again, it's not that anything Osborne said was wrong or out of place. It's just that Daniel is not so black and white as he leads us to believe.

It's a good read for the most part and I didn't disagree with all that much. He says a lot of important and timely things. There are some surprisingly fresh anecdotes and I like that he doesn't fall back on the the so-called standard sermon illustrations–oh thank God for that! I found the book to be honest and readable; accessible and, at times, challenging. It has plenty of Scripture references quoted and/or alluded to (notes are at the end of each chapter.) I also found the book a bit unbalanced. Chapters 1-4 talk about 'Daniel's Story'; Chapters 5-7** discuss 'Prepared for Battle'. He discuss all these things before diving into his thoughts about hope, humility, and wisdom. Chapters 8-13 are 'Hope'; 14-16, 'Humility'; 17-20', 'Wisdom'. It's slightly unbalanced as you can see, it's a small thing to be sure, but it bothered me.

One last thing. Daniel's book warns us over and over again of putting our hope in the kings who derive their position and authority 'out of the earth' or 'out of the sea' (see Daniel 7). Christians in America are particularly susceptible to this scheme of the devil–the one where he tries to convince us that our hope is found in the next great ministry or the next great up and coming politician. We are continually told about how important it is to vote for a particular political party or a particular political candidate. Sometimes we are even told that Daniel himself is a fine example of why Christians ought to be involved in the political process. At one point Osborne makes an utterly brilliant point when addressing this scheme: "[Satan] is still at it. Today, he's convinced many of us to replace our passionate hope in Jesus with a passionate hope in politics or the latest ministry on steroids. It's taken our eyes off Jesus and put our hope in that which can't deliver" (location 1334). Here I think he nails it because it is here, at this point, that I think the point of the Book of Daniel is clearly in view.

What the church needs is a formidable and robust picture of a great God who will wreck the systems born in this world, born of this world, born from this world, and who will set up his own kingdom which is 'not of this world' (Daniel 2; cf. John 18). Daniel gives us this vision–as a prophet should. I find that looking at mere examples of mere humanity is not enough to strengthen us in our current need. This is why, for example, when John the Revelator was writing to the seven churches in province of Asia who were muddled in persecution and complacency, he began not with a robust picture of an exemplary human being but with a picture of the cosmic Jesus who is the Alpha and the Omega. In short, I think the focus on Daniel as a person is misplaced.

So I'm a little disappointed with this book, but not entirely. There are times when Osborne gets Daniel brilliantly and other times when he falls down. It's a preacher thing to narrow down a book to a set of memorable ideas. In this case, hope, humility, and wisdom are the memorable ideas he wants us to remember. I think we would have been better served if he had asked us to remember that it is God's faithfulness to his people, to his own plans for this world, not his people's mere example, that is why and how and for what we thrive and survive and ultimately own this world and how he ultimately conquers Babylon.

4/5 Stars

**I would make one correction to the book. In chapter 7, he begins with an illustration of living near Camp Pendleton, a US Marine Corps recruit depot in San Diego, California. In paragraph 2, he refers to those who train recruits as 'drill sergeants.' This would be fine if he were talking about Army recruits, but those who train Marines are called Drill Instructors. Trust me when I say this is a big deal to Marines. It should be addressed in future editions of the book.

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Thriving in Babylon (Amazon: Kindle $9.28 ) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback $9.99) David C Cook (Trade-Paperback $15.99)
  • Author: Larry Osborne
  • Larry Osborn on Twitter
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: David C Cook
  • Pages: 224
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.

**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.

Cover65208-mediumBack in the day when I was still invited to stand in the pulpit each week and preach, I once had a crazy idea after reading a book by Eugene Peterson. Actually, Peterson's book began sparking little fires in me that I simply could not control. He eventually wrote five volumes in a series of spiritual theologies, but it was that first book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places that wrecked me. The crazy idea was that I should start sharing with my congregation this newly found discovery that Christianity was not about 'me.' I still remember the sermon series because it came out of me around the time The Purpose Driven Life was all the rage. My series was called The Crucifixion Driven Life.

Then I took a seminary class called Doctrine of Grace at Cincinnati Christian University (hosted by a preacher named Jack Cottrell) which served as another fire that eventually, completely undid me. Along the way I met a preacher/author named Tom Wright, another named Tim Keller, and still another named Brennan Manning. David Crowder*Band released A Collision and redefined (at least for me) Christian music.  Then I read a book by a now deceased blogger named Michael Spencer (Mere Churchianity) and heard a sermon by an obscure preacher named Max Lucado who called his sermon It's not about Me, It's not about Now. (Of everything I have heard and read by Max Lucado that sermon remains the most powerful and convicting I ever participated in. It was truly a watershed moment in my faith. He also wrote a book with a similar title, which I read. But even the book paled in comparison to the sermon he preached.) I don't even have the space to tell you about what happened when I was introduced to a turn of last century theologian named Peter Taylor Forsyth. 

So many books…so many steps….so many sermons…

It took several years of reading and listening to these sermons and allowing these radical ideas to flood my own sermons for me to get fired from the church where I was preaching at the time. OK. I'll be fair. I 'resigned.' And it's been six long years that I have been in the wilderness learning about what Kyle Idleman crammed into 224 pages. And what is worse, I'm not sure God is done ending me just yet. Truth is, we probably don't 'end ourselves' as much as when we submit ourselves to Jesus he undoes us for us. Sometimes the submitting isn't done so willingly either. We may not ask for it. I'm certain it will be (or is) unpleasant (for the most part). And I'm certain it will not be a finished task until after Jesus has returned to claim his own and to set things to rights. Idleman wrote:

Even though most of us can point to a significant event like the ones above, getting to the end of me is not just one moment in life. Reaching the end of me is a daily journey I must make because it's where Jesus shows up and my real life in him begins. (location 49**)

I'm not sure how Idleman crammed so much into 224 pages. I mean, it's taken me more than six years to get where I am and I know that I could fill more than 224 pages, but I like writing and I probably wouldn't work well with an editor. Nevertheless, here I am. Once again I heard the voice of God whispering the truth to my heart and it hurts my ears and demolishes my pride and almost drives me to hopeful despair. Jesus is not easy. Following him is less so. So if John the baptizer 'must become less', how much more must we?

I have not heard these things taught in any of the churches that I have been to in the last six years or so since I stopped preaching and became a special education teacher in a public school. Well, maybe I heard some of it in the Anglican church we attended for a while, but the truth is that when I started thinking deeply about what real faith was like and started to express those thoughts in the pulpit, the people in the pew became increasingly uncomfortable. It was palpable. Truth is, it's just not popular, frankly, to tell the truth about what it means to truly follow Jesus. I mean we all utter things like 'Jesus said to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him.' Yes, we do. But in America that scarcely has the subversiveness that Jesus attached to it. In America we bear crosses of cranky neighbors, Facebook debates with 'liberals' who deny young earth creationism, or long slogs to boring jobs. Idleman brings this back to his readers: "I want to warn you now–so much of Jesus' teachings seem oppositional to what we have come to accept. And the life He invites us to is not just countercultural, it's counterintuitive. More often than not it flies in the face of what feels right" (location 64).

I seriously do not understand how the preacher at a so-called megachurch can say things like this and still have a pulpit to climb into every week. But he said it. And I think he is right. It all seems so backwards to me at times and yet there's this nagging in my brain and heart that tells me he is correct. "Embrace the paradox," he writes, "Brokenness is the way to wholeness." When I read things like this I hear the echoes of those I have read before: Manning, David Wells, Michael Spencer, Eugene Peterson, Lucado, Crowder, Keller, Mullins, Tolkien, Lewis, Carson, Wright, Willimon, Hauerwas, Buchanan, Rowling, and so many, many more. There are so many voices screaming this in their books and pulpits and records and blogs–and yet…here we are…running over the same old ground…retracing our steps to the same old fears and misconceptions about Jesus and what it means to be his disciple. Here in America.

That phrase, 'brokenness is the way to wholeness,' is alone worth the price of the book. I know it's only a retread of something Jesus said, but I don't care. Say it again. Print 224 pages with nothing but that on each page and I'll buy the book because I have lived it–as have many others who will also testify to it's veracity. I cannot explain it or even wrap my head around it. But I see how God in his righteousness has been breaking this chain that bound me–bound me to a pulpit, bound me to an idea, bound me to a people and how he has taken that brokenness and retro-fit me with something better than pulpits, projects, and people. Grace. That's all. Just grace. It means coming to the end of me and realizing that God through Jesus loves me more than I imagined he ever could or would. It means truly living the Resurrection Driven Life (another series of sermons I preached back in the day.)

Even more importantly though is that in coming to the end of me I come to the beginning of others. I've been teaching special education students for 4.5 years now and every day I have to get out of the way and see them. When I was all up in my own business, there was no room for others–even though I served in a hundred different ways. I can honestly question my motives. My students force me each day to end myself. "This is the death we must die. Not a one-time death. Not a partial death. It's a daily dying. And every time I come to the end of me I discover what I deeply wanted all along–real and abundant life in Christ." (Location 2037). In my church of six members, located in a self-contained special education classroom in a public school, I work with emotionally and behaviorally disabled children. Every day they remind me to close the book on myself, to lose myself, to die to myself. They remind me of what it truly means to be the least and the last; the overlooked and forgotten, tucked away safely from the general population where we won't be a problem. Every day these six show me Jesus.

Well, I could go on quoting from the book and preaching this sermon, but I think at this point it's enough to say that I love this book. I like that Idleman, given where he is and what he does, has stayed humble. In many books I read like this, the authors come across somewhat pretentious and condescending. Not so with Idleman. It's a testimony to the leadership in his church, his upbringing, and his training that he has remained in touch with earth. This is what impresses me about this book. I get not a single hint of arrogance or condescension. This book reads like it was written by a fella who has walked with Jesus. His stories are self-deprecating when he tells them, but in truth he doesn't tell a lot of stories about himself–which I appreciate–and instead he tells stories about Jesus. I like this a lot. Too many authors write autobiographies and call them books about Jesus. This book is truly a book about Jesus.

My point is that Idleman seems to think there is something more important for his readers to read than stories about his own faith-prowess or preaching super-skills. He seems to have this idea that it is Jesus who saves and loves and who models for us what being a disciple looks like. So in wonderful fashion, he wrote a book about the end of himself by telling us about Jesus. And I'm sure Kyle Idleman would tell us that a story about Jesus is far more interesting than a story about himself.

This is a book you should buy and read. And then read again. And then buy for someone so they can read it.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase or pre-order (on sale October 1, 2015) The End of Me (Amazon: Kindle) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback) David C Cook (Paperback)
  • Author: Kyle Idleman
  • Kyle Idleman on Twitter
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: David C Cook
  • Pages: 224
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.

**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.

UnbeliefEvery time I get ready to write a book review, I start to feel like I'm about to do something huge–like lead worship with feeble guitar skills, or send out the starting line-up for a little league game, or get in the ring with a prize fighter. It's always nerve wracking and it's always a bit daunting–especially when the author of the book is someone who is fairly well known and fairly well respected.

With that being said, I have to ask an honest question: Why does anyone want to read a book by Barnabas Piper? And an extension of this question goes something like this: Can I read/review this book without making even that passing reference to his, arguably, more famous father? One shouldn't have anything to do with the other, right?

Yet this is exactly where my first question comes in: what has Barnabas Piper done in his life that is justification for reading his book about matters of faith, Jesus, Church, being a disciple of Jesus, and so on and so forth? Is it his struggles, his doubts, his family name, or something else?  There is nothing novel or unique about what he says in this book. There is nothing extraordinary in this book that I haven't read before. There is nothing about this book that makes a little light bulb hover above my head.

I'm not saying it's a terrible book. I am saying that it's nothing new and so I wonder who it was written for, what the market is, and why I would want to buy this book. Can the book stand on it's own?

Piper states his purpose in writing: "My goal is to help you see that belief isn't blind faith and that questions, if asked well, are building blocks for strong faith rather than stepping stones away from it." (Kindle, Location 87). OK. This is good. But why should I trust that this particular author has the answers to these questions? And does the author, ultimately, accomplish his purpose? The first question, I am unsure how to answer. Some people will trust his answers, but I'm not sure they know why they trust his answers. This gets back to that second question I asked above which had something to do with whether or not I can read this book apart from the knowledge of who he is related to. I think other people will find his answers shallow or cliched. This is not a deep book, it's not a book that takes you on a whirlwind, big city adventure through the Bible. It's full of lots of nice quotes from famous people and anecdotes about his own personal journey.

The second question (does he accomplish his purposes) is a yes/no for me. Let me give you an example of the problem as I see it.

Piper asks some difficult questions in the book, but what if his particular theological disposition that underlies his answers is flawed? How do we understand his answers? So: "If He chooses who will be saved, then why are unchosen people held responsible for their actions and His choice?" (Kindle location 447; he does mention human free will at location 577, but I'm not sure how he means it given everything else he has written in the book). This is a question he asks that has a presupposition underneath it: God intentionally saves some and intentionally condemns the rest. I simply cannot agree with his proposition and it was difficult for me to separate what I suspect/know of his theological tendencies and the answers he gives to some of the questions in the book.

I just read this morning, 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (ESV) Or what about Paul in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior who desires all people to come to the knowledge of the truth." (ESV) I think this is the main problem I have with the book. It is beholden to a theological proposition that simply cannot be maintained logically if one reads the entire Bible, observes human nature, and thinks logically. There is no way we can say that God wants all to be saved and then turn around and say that God only saves a few and that the unchosen are, well, lost. There is no way to say that God chooses some for salvation and not others unless you are willing to attribute evil to God.

This is the No side of my answer.

On the Yes side of my answer I had to wait until I got all the way to the appendix 1: Reading the Bible to Meet God. This was the most satisfying part of the book for me: "We must learn to read the whole story of Scripture from beginning to end." (Location 1449). I think in this part of the book he offers us the solutions that I had been waiting for through the entire book because it is here that he finally engages Scripture–to an extent–or should I say encourages us to engage the Scripture. It was most disappointing that this section only made it to an appendix–as if we will find more answers to our doubts and struggles by reading anecdotes about Piper's doubts and life instead of reading stories from the Scripture.

Nevertheless, the points he makes in Appendix 1 are quite good–I only wish he had explored them more in the main text because frankly they would have made better chapters: Read the whole Bible; look for Jesus; get to know Jesus; don't shy away from the hard stuff; start small (I'm iffy on this section); don't read the Bible as a set of rules; pray for the Spirit's help. These are actually the answers we needed when it comes to living in the tension between doubt and faith because the chapters he gives us are really only his beliefs and theological dispositions–many of which, as I noted above, are simply incompatible with the whole Bible he encourages us to read (such as his acceptance of the five solas; I still struggle with how there can be five 'onlys'. Kindle, chapter 2).

One final note of importance. I agree with the author that it is OK for the church or individual Christians to say things like 'I don't know.' I have had to learn this as a human who always wants to have an answer to the questions people ask me. I think we are afraid if we say 'I don't know' people will think we are stupid so we end up giving answers that absolutely confirm our stupidity. So it's OK for the church, or for Christians, to have no answers to all the suffering and violence that goes on around us. It's OK to ask questions: "Questions are an indication of trust." And here I think Piper answers his own questions well: "By revealing what He did in Scripture, God created a massive mystery. He gave us an enigma, a puzzle, a riddle with so many dimensions and plotlines and layers and themes that even just those sixty-six books have generated libraries of volumes of thought, argument, and questions" (Kindle location 225). Yes. Even in our doubts, in some mysterious way, we point to Jesus for answers even if our mouths happen to stay closed.

In short, we do not have to have all the answers to all the questions or perhaps better, we do not have all the answers to all the questions. It's OK to sit in silence for a while and pray. As the time worn conclusion goes, "It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open the mouth and remove all doubt." I think this is something that the Church in general should learn and I think Piper is right to emphasize this point. I think it's OK to live in the tension between grace and doubt and to let grace be sufficient. (See chapter 8, So What and What Now?, Kindle location 1381ff).

Overall, the book is not terrible. It's not the best I've read, but not the worst either. I think for some people it will be wholly unsatisfying and for others it will be a good introduction. He has some good and important things to say and he has some other insufficient things to say–especially as it relates to his theological under girding. I didn't come away from the book wholly satisfied, but I didn't come away wholly unchallenged either. I think if a person can weave through some of the theological underpinnings and get to the core of his discussion (which I confess was difficult for me) then there may be some fruit to be realized. At least Piper is humble enough understand that the church is bigger than his opinions and ideas and thoughts and for this I respect him (see the Afterward) and my disagreements with him theologically are not to be interpreted as personal attacks.

At the end of the day, his best advice was found near the end: "In God's infinite wisdom the best way to bring more people to belief is to show them a massively varied story pointed in one direction–to Himself" (Kindle location 1355). I think he is correct on this point and that he does well to point it out. Maybe soon the church will become the place where all such things are discussed in detail precisely because we are all looking for Jesus to arrive…because I'm inclined to think that Jesus will arrive long before any of us do. And this keeps us hungry. And humble. And searching. All things Piper suggests we need to do and be.

Doubt, in a way, keeps us safe because it keeps us moving forward in search of Jesus. Someday he will surprise us and be found. I know that I personally long for a church where I am free to live in the tension and find satisfaction in Jesus alone.

So, to answer my earlier question: Yes. I think this is a book that can stand on its own. I'm not buying all he is selling, but neither am I dismissing it. There's much to think about and much to enjoy.

4/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Help My Unbelief  David C Cook (Trade Paperback, $14.99) Amazon (Kindle, $9.99) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback, $10.99)
  • Author: Barnabas Piper
  • Publisher: David C Cook
  • Pages: 176
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley
  • Interview with Barnabas Piper @Christianity Today
  • Page numbers in this review are based on a Kindle version ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.

MessyMany, may years ago when I was still young, I felt I was being led to be the preacher of a certain church. I began going through all the motions–sending a resume, sample sermon, meeting families and members of the church, preaching trial sermon(s), and finally submitting to a vote of the congregation. During the course of this process I met with a particular gentleman who also happened to be an elder in the church. He was an older man, from a different generation, and was necessarily conservative in his theology. I distinctly recall our meeting one day before I was hired. We were sitting in a quiet room off of the main sanctuary talking with the door closed. I distinctly remember his question to me: What do you think about 'the gays'? Not, "What do you think about Jesus?" But, "What do you think about 'the gays'?"

This is all prefatory to my review of this book called Messy Grace. I received this in the mail on July 21 and on July 22 made it my ambition to read it. I did. It took me about 3 hours (because I underline and make a lot of notes.) I will just say, straight up, I love this book. That's right. I love it. Now don't mistake my loving of the book for agreement with all things written in the book, but I think it is safe to say that by and large there is nothing in this book that I find theologically repugnant. 

For this review, I'm staying wholly positive. Except for a couple of minor quibbles (his use of the word 'gender' as a synonym for 'sex', and a couple of generalizations, for example), I have no complaints at all about this book. This is an important book that needs to be read because it strikes a beautiful balance between grace and truth and helps us apply both wisely in our relationships and witness to people who are different from us. So while I understand that he is writing to Christians about the manner in which we relate to homosexuals, as you will see in my conclusion, it's really about how we relate to anyone who is different from us.

So, a few points to highlight.

This past Sunday our preacher made a statement that was utterly profound in its simplicity. He said (and I'm paraphrasing): "We cannot build relationships with people unless we start them." I couldn't agree with him more. The author of Messy Grace makes similar statements throughout the book. One that I found helpful begins on page 31: "It's imperative that we have grace for people while they are still thinking, speaking, and acting in ways we might not agree with. And we need to overcome our own inner resistance to getting involved in a relationship with them. A real mark of spiritual maturity is how we treat someone who is different from us" (31-32, his emphasis.) Isn't this how all of us want to be treated? Do any of us want to be outcasts from the church until we get all of our life together?

The church would be empty.

Kaltenbach consistently calls us to evaluate this question of how we treat other people.  He is absolutely on mark when he calls the church to think differently about the way we treat those who are different from us–those who happen to be on a journey that moves at a different speed than the one we are on. I think it is fair for Christians to ask why someone would say, "Christians don't like anyone who's not like them" (39). Could it be that in some ways those who are different from us are in fact more understanding and loving and compassionate than those of us who are called to be defined by those very things: loving, kind, compassionate, and understanding? Shouldn't this change? Shouldn't the church be a place where people can be vulnerable and weak and loved?

"Part of the pursuit is being honest with people, but doing so in a loving way." (45) This theme is developed over and over again in the book. He's asking us to evaluate who we are because of Jesus. Has Jesus changed us? Has he made us new or not? If we are still stuck in days gone by ways of thinking and judging then might we not ask if we have really met Jesus at all?

Second, I want to add that by and large the author handles Scripture very well and does not shy away from the so-called hard passages that talk about homosexuality. He affirms over and over again the testimony of Jesus, Paul, and others. So for example, he notes that "nowhere in the New Testament, however, does God define acceptable sexuality as being other than between one man and one woman. In fact, the New Testament specifically reaffirms the Old Testament's position that same-gender sexual activity is not acceptable" (86). He says later, "Another way to say this is that Jesus had to chance to define an intimate relationship as being other than male-female, but he did not" (90).

This book, so far as I can tell, is wholly orthodox which is a way of saying that he is not blurring lines in Scripture in order to spare people the truth. In contrast to other books on this subject, he is not performing exegetical somersaults to make his point one way or another. He is reading Scripture and talking about its plain meaning. He lays it out for us and allows us to think on matters. He candidly admits we might disagree with him and that he is still searching some things. He is telling us what the Bible says. But he is saying we need to be gracious…much in the same way 'God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.' We do well, as Christians, to bear this in mind continually in our dealings with people.

Finally, there is one more thing that stood out to me as important and something that I think served to minister to the author and in some ways served as the catalyst for the writing of the book. He tells in the book the story of his own conversion experience and he tells how his family reacted to his conversion to Jesus. I wrote in the margin on page 118 that Caleb is saying we should respond to homosexuals about their sexuality exactly not how his parents responded to him about his faith. Then a couple of pages later I read that 'the irony of this situation was that my parents thought I would disown them, when in actuality I felt as if they were disowning me" (123). The point is that he did not like at all the way he felt when he was rejected for his faith in Jesus. I'm glad he remembered that feeling. I'm even gladder he shared it with us.

Something tells me that this feeling stayed with him as he grew older and was trying to work through all the things he writes of in the book–in particular, how is he going to treat others because of his faith in Jesus? There is a significant lesson here for all of us who claim Jesus. In America we experience very little rejection because of our faith, but maybe that's not the best thing at all. We grow in our experience. Caleb's experience of rejection taught him how it feels to be rejected and thus how someone else might feel if they are rejected. I see God's brilliance here and I see a brilliant man who understood well the lesson that Jesus was teaching him. Would that more of us learned this lesson. It might make us more compassionate believers and more easily accessible to those who face it daily.

I love that he is open and honest about the relationships he has formed in life with those God has brought to him. I love that this guy didn't write a book crying and moaning and complaining about his 'terrible life' being raised by divorced, gay parents. I love that this guy wrote a book that at its core is telling us to get over ourselves and get to loving people–like Jesus did.

I love that he is open and honest. I love that he weeps and laughs and gets angry and is confused and is (still) searching–I love that when this guy lost someone close to him, he had a group of people to weep with him. I mean this when I say that this book touched me precisely because it is honest and unflinching and yet vulnerable and emotive. He helps us understand that no matter what we believe, there are no easy answers and that there will be pain along the way. But he also lets us see that we belong to a God of hope and mercy and grace and truth and love and Jesus.

Let me tell you how much I love this book!

Here's the truth that I have figured out after a long time in and out of ministry: this book isn't just about Christians and LGBT people even if that is the overwhelming paradigm being established in it. It's about Christians and all people. It's about the way Christians treat one another: abysmally. It's about the way we treat old people: horribly. It's about the way we treat young people: dismally. It's about the way we treat poor people: dishonorably. It's about the way we treat liberals: ugly. It's about the way we treat conservatives: angrily. It's about the way we treat foreigners: condescendingly. Frankly, it's about the way we treat one another–all the time, in every way, in every circumstance. We are not nice people when it comes too most people who are different from us. I could tell you how I have been treated by the church when I was a preacher. It's not pretty.

I teach special education. I have since I was removed from ministry against my will about 6 years ago. You know what I have learned since I started working with students who have autism, Down Syndrome, emotional and behavioral disabilities, ADHD, and more? They all, all to a very large extent although not literally all, come from extremely dysfunctional, broken, and wrecked families. Yep. Almost without fail there is divorce, separation, jail, death, poverty, substance abuse, abuse (in one form or another) and more. And these are the people that God has called me to minister to–not just the students, but the parents. And you know what I have to do? I have to be nice. To all of them. All the time. Every day. I can't tell the parents what I really think. I can't make them all rich or fix all of their marriages. But I say this honestly: I have learned–as an educator in public schools–how not to be judgmental. That's right: how to love people, all people, any people is my daily objective. Anyone who walks through my classroom door. Anyone with whom I come in contact with: I am an agent of God's grace in an often ugly environment.

But it's not just about being nice while something else is swirling in my head. It's about changing and actually becoming a different person (CS Lewis describes this change brilliantly in Mere Christianity, chapter 10, "Nice people or new men?") It's about being a nice person and not just about being nice to people. Anyone can be nice, but not all of us are truly, genuinely lovers of people. God takes these barriers of soft bigotry and hard prejudice and breaks them down–like he did the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. I truly believe this book, Messy Grace, will go a long way towards helping people not just be nice (which is a nice way of saying 'being hypocrites') but also to transform them  into the sort of people who actually, truly, genuinely love people for Jesus' sake, love people for their own sake. This is what he has called us to do. To love people, other humans–our brothers and sisters in flesh. To minister to them. To bring the healing of Jesus into their lives when they are ready for it. And to let God do his work on them when he is ready to do his work.

"Christians need to stop trying to convert people's sexuality. It isn't our job to change someone's sexual orientation. You and I are not called by God to make gay people straight. It is our job to lead anyone and everyone to Christ. I believe God is big enough to deal with a person's sexuality" (185).

Well said. Very well said.

It will never be easy for Christians in this culture of 'I want to see results now.' But we can if we are patient, if we pray, and if we pay attention to the often subtle movements of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. My prayer is that our Father will use this book to change the hearts and minds and attitudes of the church of Christ into such as we see in Jesus who welcomed all who came and never drove any away, who called all to repentance, who loved all right where they were but wasn't content to leave them there, who didn't condemn but commanded us to change.

And this is the message to the church. First. First Jesus speaks to the church. And we must listen.

You will do well to pre-order this book and read it prayerfully in one sitting. You will be rewarded for doing so.

5/5 stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Messy Grace Amazon (Paperback, pre-order for $11.24; October 20, 2015)  CBD (Paper back, $10.99; pre-order 10/20/2015); WaterBrook Multnomah (Trade paperback, $14.99; pre-order).
  • Author: Caleb Kaltenbach on Twitter | Messy Grace
  • Publisher: WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group
  • Pages: 212 (ARC, page count may be different in final publication)
  • Year: October 20, 2015
  • Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of WaterBrook Press via the Blogging for Books Blogger program
  • Page numbers in this review are based on the ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.

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51agVhsRghL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have a friend who pretty much believes that even when Brant Hansen breathes it is funny. Well, that might be an exaggeration, but in truth, Brant is funny and I am grateful to my friend who 'introduced' me to Hansen several years ago. (To be sure, Brant doesn't know me, didn't ask me to review his book, and I've never even listened to his radio program. Just so everyone knows there is no bias here.)

I find that I have the most difficulty with being offended in two places. The first place is Facebook. Facebook can be a cesspool of personal ignorance, political hubris, and religious stereotype. Needless to say, I get very little enjoyment out of Facebook and I am typically, generally, always offended at something or someone. The other place I get offended easily and quickly is in the car. I hate driving because there is no one on the planet who drives as well I as I do, who follows the rules as closely as do, and who never tailgates the driver in front of me. I have had to scale back my driving and let my wife do most of the work because my blood pressure elevates to such levels of offendability that I am afraid I might have a stroke while driving to church on Sundays.

But I digress. This blog post isn't about me, it's about this book called Unoffendable. And in my opinion, Unoffendable is a spectacular book worthy of the time spent reading it (and you should read it slowly) and beneficial for those who will invest the time to do so. The main question Hansen seeks to answer in this book is simple: "Isn't being offended part of being a Christian?" (2, his emphasis). Well, isn't it? I have spent a lot of time around the world of blogs over the past many years and there are times when I wish I had not. I would probably be a better person if I hadn't learned that there are so many offended Christians surfing the web and trolling blogs. It is no wonder at all, to me, that so many people dislike Christians. We are some of the most unbelievable offended people on the planet. And why? We have every reason imaginable not to be offended but instead filled with joy and love and compassion and laughter. And yet here we are more easily offended than loving, quicker to anger and slower to love, and happier to frown than smile. 

I think this is why I like Hansen, even though we've never really met: he laughs. And he makes people laugh. He doesn't take himself too seriously and I think he is trying to show the rest of us that, perhaps, we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously either. But the fact is we find all sorts of ways to justify our anger and our offendability and our curmudgeonly attitudes towards life and love and sin and joy and peace. I get it: Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed that of the pharisees. So we also took this to mean that our self-sufficiency, our condescending-ness, and our frowns and our offendability must surpass theirs also.  But the Scripture, Hansen makes clear, says that we are to get rid of all anger and that there is no justification for it. Ever.

All along Jesus is telling us to relax–let the world be the world. But you, disciple, follow me. Perhaps the reason we are so easily offended is because we don't really trust Jesus after all? Perhaps we think that we are somehow enhancing his image by being offended when people do all sorts of stupid things? Perhaps we think if we sneer a little harder, furrow the brows a little deeper, and groan a little louder that the offensive things we do won't be so noticeable to others. It's a distraction. Or something like that.  Hansen seems to be making the case that being offended does absolutely nothing to advance our cause or to expand the Kingdom of which we are citizens.

"We should forfeit our right to be offended. This means forfeiting our right to hold on to anger. When we do this, we'll be making a sacrifice that's very pleasing to God." (3) Yep. He is right–even if it offends my sense of right and wrong to do so. Forfeiting our anger is a large part of what it means to daily take up our cross and follow Jesus–the master of un-offendability. Jesus saw all sorts of unrighteousness and unsavory people and yet I don't recall a single instance of Jesus being offended–except perhaps he was offended one time when death dared to knock on the door and take the life of his friend Lazarus. But even as the grave was opened, Jesus wasn't offended. He simply called on his friend to come out and join them. And Jesus turned and occasion of offense into an occasion of joy. Maybe we should practice something like that, you know, take situations where offense might be warranted and redeem it, make it an occasion for laughter and joy instead of an occasion for arguing and yelling and gnashing of teeth.

Hansen invites us to think about the Kingdom of God and what it looks like and how its citizens behave: "I'm already a believer, but the kingdom of God is so shockingly opposite the way the rest of the world works that I need constant reminding of what it looks like and how good it is" (89). Being a member of this kingdom means that for us things are different. The way of the cross means we no longer have a right to hold on to our anger or resentment or bitterness or offendedness. "Humility means there's so much less at stake, so much less to protect" (191).

This book is not an easy read. If you read this book honestly and constantly evaluate yourself as you do so you will likely get offended a lot. Hansen has written a book that forces us to think deeply about what it really means to be a Jesus-follower, a kingdom citizen, a cross-driven disciple. He invites us to look deeply at ourselves and evaluate the things that offend us and get our shorts in a wad and then to lay those things down, to sacrifice them to Jesus, and to get on with living in Him. Perhaps the reason Hansen can write so freely and deeply about this subject is that he has a lot of experience. I don't know because I don't know what's in his heart. All I know is what's in my own heart and and my own experience. I was confronted a lot. I have a lot of sacrifices to make; a lot of anger to let go of.

The good thing about this book review is that I can write whatever I want about the book and, perhaps, about Hansen, and know that he is not going to be offended by what I say. In fact, he might even invite me over for dinner. That's the kind of fella he seems to be and that alone makes this book worth reading: it was written without a shred of pretense or condescension. Hansen says: Here I am. There you are. I love you. I think that's kind of what Jesus was getting at. It's hard to believe that I can't offend Jesus and yet I am persuaded that Jesus thinks I am worth having dinner with or going to a party with or dying for.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about the book is this: I want to be just like the guy who wrote it because I suspect he really knows Jesus. 

Highly recommended for it's honesty, transparency, and because, unlike many books written for the masses, Hansen doesn't use Scripture as a mere prop.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Unoffendable: Amazon (Kindle, $9.99)  Thomas Nelson (Paperback, $15.99)  CBD ($11.99) B&N (Paperback, $11.62) (Prices current as of June 10, 2015)
  • Author: Brant Hansen's Blog  Facebook  Twitter
  • Publisher: Thomas Nelson
  • Pages: 209
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: Christians, others, pastors, preachers, housewives, baby-mammas, baby-daddies, high school students, humanity
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy via Thomas Nelson's BookLook Blogger program.

9781601426703Title: Bringing Heaven to Earth

At Amazon: Bringing Heaven to Earth

Authors: Josh Ross & Jonathan Storment

Publisher: Waterbrook Multnomah

Year: 2015

Pages: 215

I like to mark up the books I read with my pen. In this way, I will be able to go back through the book at a later time and note important passages or thoughts that I may wish to use in a lesson or blog or whatever. For this book, I used a nice red ink and on page 2, near the bottom, I wrote, "I'm already on board!" I wrote that after reading this:

We don't believe the primary purpose of following Jesus is to enjoy the gift of heaven. Rather, it is to be united with Christ in His love and mission. The call to conversion in the New Testament isn't a decision for salvation, but a decision for Jesus. It is more than a change in status; it is a shift in allegiance, passion, and calling. (2)

I like that. I like that very, very much. I like it because it resonates with me deeply in that I want something different from the pie in the sky Christianity I was raised on–the kind I have complained about elsewhere. That sort of Christianity gets us in the club and we talk an awful lot about how to get into the club. Then we go through the motions. I was a church preacher for nearly 20 years and I have seen the results of preaching that simply aimed to get people into the club and along for the ride.

Frankly, it's boring. It's meaningless. And it has killed the church. Or it has at least ruined it for some of us. Books like Bringing Heaven to Earth will, hopefully, go a long way towards rectifying one of our most significant problems in the church: definitions. In my opinion, for too long the church has misused some of its language. We have misused words like kingdom, heaven, mission, and judgment. Maybe we have even misused the name of Jesus. N.T. Wright has done the lion's share of the work in helping us re-acquire proper definitions of bible words and others, more recently Scot McKnight in his book Kingdom Conspiracy, and I think Tim Keller to an extent (we might also say Yancey, Hauerwas, Willimon, and others), have taken Wright's heavily historical and theological work and brought it down to the level of the pew. I do not mean this in the sense that McKnight's work or the current book is 'easy' or pedestrian. Wright's work needed a filter for the average pew sitter and these author's have done remarkable work in bringing Wright's message home to the church.

The church has benefited from their work and now I am hopeful that the church will also benefit from the work of Ross and Storment. I come from the same church background as Storment and I can say with utmost confidence that this is a message our churches need desperately to hear. IF there is a denomination in America deeply entrenched in mis-applied definitions it is the church tradition I belong to. Storment's message resonated with me deeply for this reason–especially since I only have a limited voice in that church at this point in my life.

Back to definitions. As one example, take the word 'heaven.' Churches in America have this strange idea that heaven is a place 'we go' after we die. Preachers have done a remarkable job painting pictures of mansions within mansions, ethereal whispiness, clouds, and harps. I confess that when I was younger I used to think to myself that such an existence, no matter how long, would be utterly mind-numbing. And I could never reconcile that vision with Jesus' words about 'heaven being God's throne and the earth being his footstool.' Then along came N.T.Wright who began articulating for me what my heart had only been whispering. I'll never forget the time I preached from the pulpit that when we are resurrected we will have bodies, real flesh and blood bodies and one of the ladies approached me afterward and virtually questioned my sanity. Didn't matter that Jesus was resurrected with a body. But I digress. Ross and Storment bring it home to all of us:

In the Christian worldview, heaven is the realm in which everything is as God wills; it is not just a far off location out past Jupiter. Heaven is less a location and more a reality defined by God's will being done. Yet here on earth, a lot of people are working against heaven by trying to make sure that what they will is what gets done. (33; their emphasis.)

And,

Don't get us wrong, the Gospel is about heaven. But heaven is not the distant, otherworldly place we often imagine it to be. Heaven will come down to earth. We will live on earth in a renewed, restored world. (59; except that the Gospel is not necessarily about heaven; it's about Jesus and how he has brought about heaven's rule here on earth.)

This is good, solid theology for the masses here (except I would eliminate the word 'just' in the first sentence.) The point is clear: so many Christians are caught up thinking about the 'Promised Land' that they haven't given any thought to what God is doing right here, right now, and how what he is doing right here and now will last into eternity. Our lives are about what Jesus continued to do and teach (Acts 1) and what we are doing will be tested in fire. Some will burn up; some will last. Yet there is a reason why Jesus died, was resurrected, and bids us to keep on living here instead of swooping us up as soon as we believe. There is work to be done here, now, and it matters now and then. In one sense it is true that 'this world is not' our home, but there's a better sense in which we do not have much of a choice.

Later on, the author's write:

If we think God's future has nothing to do with our lives and this world, then it won't affect how we live. It's possible to be a Christian and waste your life. It's possible to think that the gospel is all about another time and another place, and totally miss out on what God is doing right in front of you. (190)

What encourages me greatly about this book is that it was written by two preachers. What this tells me is that the message is getting into the hands and hearts of people who live in the world every day of their lives. It tells me that at least in some places in the church words are being defined properly and people are taking in the message and not kicking out the preachers who are doing the defining. What it tells me is that there is leadership in positions of authority who are supporting the message of these preachers. Finally, what it tells me is that the Holy Spirit is indeed moving in our congregations and that the famine might be staved off for a while yet.

This book greatly encourages me not because they have it all correct (although there were more than a couple of times when their insights were deep), but because they are living it, preaching it, and sharing it with others. It's easy to be innovative for the sake of an audience, but I don't sense innovation in this book. I sense a deep personal conviction that this is a message that needs to be heard by the people of the church. It's a strange sense of conviction I get from these two authors/preachers that this is a fire in their bones that cannot be quenched. I'm encouraged because when so many preachers are taking the easy way, they are sticking with the Gospel.

The book reads easily; although, it's easy to get reading and miss the depth. They tell plenty of stories. Quote plenty of Scripture even though I thought perhaps a little too much prominence was given to the story of the Prodigal son. There are several pages of discussion questions at the end and also notes are at the end as well. In my ARC there was no subject index but it may have been added in the final edition.

The only real quibble I have is that I wish they had pushed the metaphor a little more. That is, I wish 'bringing heaven to earth' had been a little more obvious in each chapter because I thought at times it was a bit obscured by other things. It doesn't take away from the book. It just means that a little more work has to be done to find it.

This is an excellent volume and I think it will be a welcome edition to anyone's library–preacher, teacher, church member/parishioner, Protestant or Catholic, or whoever. I applaud the men on their work of bringing this timely message to bear on the church in these days.

5*/5

Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via the Waterbrook Multnomah Blogging for Books readers' program. I was not compensated or asked to write a favorable review. I was only expected to be honest and that I have been. Enjoy.

 

Jesus OTLTitle: Jesus Outside the Lines

Author: Scott Sauls

Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers

Year: 2015

Pages: 210

Disclaimer: Happily I was provided a free copy of Jesus Outside the Lines via Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my free and unbiased review of the book. Joyfully, I present to you my review–free of additives, preservatives, and sugary marshmallow shapes. Just my undiluted opinion, free of charge, here at Typepad and around the web at such places as GoodReads, Amazon, and elsewhere. Thanks for reading.

I noticed a couple of times in the book that Saul's quotes people with whom we might have a difference of opinion or two. In the introduction, he quotes as a source of authority Chris Stedman who happens to be a chaplain, at Harvard, and an atheist. There's a part of me that kind of cheers that Sauls finds something in common with Stedman, but there's another part of me that shudders because in quoting Stedman as an authority, early on in the book, he is allowing Stedman to set the agenda for the book. Maybe that's a good thing; I'm not sure. To be sure, he also quotes from Tim Keller and Tim Kreider and Jesus and Dostoyevsky and dozens of others. Slowly he builds his case that we should all be able to talk to one another peacefully even though we may disagree with one another on about every conceivable subject.  So:

Is it possible to profoundly disagree with someone and love that person deeply at the same time? Is it possible to hold deep convictions and simultaneously embrace those who reject your deep convictions? (xxv)

And:

Do you want to be known for the people, places, and things that you are for instead of the people, places, and things you are against? Do you want to overcome the tension of wanting to be true to your beliefs and engage the culture? Are you ready to move away from polarizing conversations and toward Jesus and your neighbor? (xxvii)

This is the thesis of the book and the rest of the book explores this thesis with, surprisingly, some depth. And not surprisingly, he begins by discussing politics. I was prepared to roll my eyes frequently but early on he wrote this, "…when it comes to kings and kingdoms, Jesus sides with himself" (5). I agree. Then he ends with this thought concerning you and me: "Seek first the kingdom of God…, and all these things will be added to you" (19). I have engaged enough political debates on blogs and FB to know where my buttons are and I am able to simply avoid those conversations.

This might be key to all of our understanding of loving people and disagreeing with them. When I see a thought I disagree with, I assume first that it is just that: a thought. In other words, I try to remember that on the other side of the thought there is a person that I love or who may love me. IF I cannot handle the thought, I don't engage it because I prefer to remain in love and in friendship with the person who wrote it. It takes a lot of work, but learning not to be bothered by other people's ideas is a huge step in maturity. Learning how to peacefully disagree is another step in the journey. Learning how to see people instead of mere thoughts is Jesus. Being able to laugh with others, learn from others, listen to others, and love them deeply is probably something close to divinity.

Sauls frequently confronts the reader with the idea that Christians haven't always been the most gracious, kind, and loving people on earth when it comes to our disagreements with those who hold to a different worldview. We have tended to get all worked up, start campaigns, or believe, naively, that the only way to win a conversation is to elect a certain politician who will make our point of view law. That'll show 'em! I think Sauls does a fairly good job of helping us bridge that massive gulf between what we believe and how we treat others because of those beliefs. He tackles some fairly significant topics along the way towards peace–because ultimately, Sauls is playing the role of the peacemaker in this book–such as abortion, money, sexuality, church, poverty, and suffering. At times his thoughts are deep and at other times his thoughts are a little confusing; at times his exegesis is spot on and at other times it is a bit sketchy; and at times his voice is clear and prophetic and other times he really needed a better editor.

With all that being said, the book grew on me. I started out with my typical skepticism and by the time I got to the end I was in a fair amount of agreement with him. The book is subtitled: A way forward for those who are tired of taking sides. No one should get this book and attempt to read it with the expectation that Sauls is going to lay out a step by step set of instructions for this 'way forward.' Instead, he is going to tell us some stories, talk to us about Jesus, point out where our flawed definitions of Bible things have caused us to see things with eyes fixed on the wrong thing. The book is going to cause the reader to stop and listen to Jesus and to 'examine the self.' Maybe all of us would do well to pause each day and examine ourselves or ask God to do a deep search of our souls and see if there be in us any unrighteous thoughts or way. The Spirit searches all things. Maybe we should invite the Spirit in for some housecleaning.

Interestingly, the following quote sort of summed up the book for me: "If Christianity has something to significant to contribute to the question of suffering and evil, it is that Christianity is incredibly realistic about how messed up the world is" (153-154). I have two thoughts, one negative and one positive. First, the negative, 'if' is a big word. I think I understand his point, but I also think that given the nature of our our faith (cruciform), 'if' is a bit too squishy. Here I believe his sentiment should have been a little more concrete and affirming. Second, the positive, if his point is true, and I think it is, then we (christians) are, and should continue to be, incredibly realistic about how messed up the world is. Let's live in hope that God has redeemed this world, but also let us be incredibly real about the hope we have in Jesus precisely because of the suffering he endured.

So this, which I think is Sauls' point: let's be honest. Let's stop acting like the world is so easily divided into 'us and them' or 'we and they' or 'me and you.' All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Problem in the church is that we simply forget this because we come to church on Sundays. We seem to forget that we, too, were 'once like them' (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-12; Ephesians 2:11-22). If there should be any compassion, it should flow from this idea that we were once like those with whom we so often disagree. And if there is compassion and mercy it should not come from arrogance or hypocrisy or condescension, but from compassion, weeping, and grace. I think a large part of the problem with the church is that we have forgotten to remember…many things.

I came away from this book reminded to be sober in my thinking about others–especially those with whom I have philosophical or theological differences. I came away reminded that even though Sauls nicely divides the world in binaries, that the world is not so easily categorized as black and white.

Sauls does a good job balancing the book between self-deprecating stories and faith-hero stories–but he is never the subject of the faith-hero stories. He quotes all the standard folks we would expect to see in an Evangelical publication: Lewis, Chesterton, Volf, Lamott, and more. He quotes plenty of Scripture; although, at times it was mere prooftexting. I prefer larger quotes with more context and a little deeper exegesis, but it doesn't kill the book that he does not do things this way. The notes are all at the end of the book, there is no index, and there are no references. He ends the book by again quoting a lengthy swath of ideas from an atheist. I'm not sure how I feel about that, even the thoughts might be helpful, yet it does fall right in line with the theme of his book.

All in all, this was a helpful book and as I noted above, Sauls words and style grew on me as the pages were turned. There is a lot to think about in this book and he certainly makes us pause for a draft of reality as it relates to our own faith in Jesus and how we go about treating other people in the world. Get to know people. Step away from stereotypes. Listen to their words and engage thoughtfully. But always bear in mind that there is a person speaking to us and we may not  know all there is to know just by reading a FB update or Tweet. Talk to people, not ideas; dislike ideas, not people.

Maybe we should do two things. First, join Jesus outside the lines already drawn and, second, stop drawing new lines.

4.5*/5

 

 

 

I came across a startling idea when reading John's Gospel and it has to do with greatness or greater. Great. Greater. Greatest. We have fun ways of delineating hierarchy in the English language. I always enjoy seeing words like 'greater' in a text because it makes me wonder what's just 'great.'

It happens in John's Gospel on more than one occasion. I first saw it in chapter 1:51 when Jesus said that Nathanael would 'see greater things' than Jesus merely seeing him sitting under a fig tree. I saw it again in chapter 4 when Jesus was talking with a woman in Samaria (4:12) and in a discourse by Jesus in chapter 5 (20, 36), the latter of which Jesus says, "I have testimony greater than that of John." In chapter 8 someone asked Jesus if he is 'greater than Abraham' (8:53).

Jesus changes the perspective in chapter 10 when he notes for us that the Father..'is greater than all.' He tells his disciples in chapter 15:13 that there is no 'greater love' than to lay down your life for a friend and that 'servants are not greater than their masters' (15:20). Just before all this in chapter 14 Jesus said something interesting about those who follow him: "I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (14:12).

It's all very exciting. I should note that in each of those verses I cited Jesus used the same word for 'greater.' I don't know if that means anything in particular or not, but I note it simply to point out that Jesus was concerned about a hierarchy of people in the God-scheme of things: we rank somewhere far below Abraham, Jacob, John the Baptizer, Jesus, and the Father. Yet Jesus also says that because he is going to the Father we will do greater things than these. I'm not sure what the referent is for 'these', but it's at least interesting to know that Jesus is thinking about us: "All who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…" (14:12).

Well, that's exciting isn't it? We will do greater things. Greater things. Well, there's at least one other reference to 'greater' in John's Gospel that startles us back to reality–and we probably need that startling because it's very easy to start thinking like gods when we read that we will do greater things than these. It comes from, interestingly enough, from the mouth of John the Baptizer: "He must become greater; I must become less" (3:30).

I don't think we ought to pursue greatness. Maybe our greatness comes when we recognize that we ought to be lesser. Maybe we get too concerned about greatness. Maybe we need to focus on shrinking and when we do the greatness of the things we do will become more evident to the world around us. Until then, it's all so much selfish ambition.

How God Makes MenTitle: How God Makes Men

Author: Patrick Morley

Publisher: Multnomah Books

Year: 2013

Pages: 190

Man in the Mirror

[The FCC is convinced that you may somehow be led astray if I do not inform you that I received a free copy of this book from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for this thoroughly unbiased and fair review of this book. I hope this helps you sleep better.]

 There is a passage of Scripture found in 1 Corinthians 10 that says this: "Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did…these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of all the ages has come" (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11 TNIV). I preface my review with this passage because it is important to remember, or to be made aware of, the reasons why the Bible was written and preserved and passed along. We are the beneficiaries of the wisdom of the saints.

A curious thing about books like this and my love/hate relationship with them is that sometimes I simply do not know what to make of them. I often wonder about those authors who take Scripture and reduce it to mere principals for living (or, as in Morley's case, 10 principles for living or making of better men.) Yet there is also this curious notion in Morley's book that 'nothing that happens to us by human decision can ever happen apart from the will of God' (24). That is, Morley seems to believe that, human free-will notwithstanding, everything that happens in this life happens in someway in concert with the will of God. He may not directly cause it, but neither will he necessarily always prevent it.

In Morley's words: "God wants us to know He is in control. He doesn't do 'random.'" (25)

If that is true, then even the fact that I chose this book from the selection list, read it, and am writing this review is not mere coincidence to God, but is something that he planned, or at bare minimum, he knew I would do. So what should I do? Paul says these stories were written down to teach us which seems to validate Morley's (and many, many others') use of Scripture to write about principles for living. Yet, I having this gnawing sense of angst that Scripture points to a much larger idea than can be reduced to mere principle (see Luke 24:27, 44).

But the truth is this: for all the talk about manliness, how God makes men, and the examples we should follow, Morley didn't talk about the one man who gives us the best example of what it means to be a man: Jesus. Oh, don't get me wrong: Morley talks about Jesus, but there's not a single chapter devoted to the example Jesus sets for us men. Maybe this is a good thing because maybe it means that Morley refuses to look at Jesus as mere example we should strive to imitate even though the apostle Paul seems rather convinced that Jesus is the one person we should imitate: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). This seems to be appropriate given what Morley states as his thesis:

Here's the promise of How God Makes Men. And it's a huge one. If you will absorb and embrace the timeless principles offered by these ten men, you can get past the shallow cultural Christianity that wants to gut your manhood and get to–or get back to–a more biblical Christianity.

If you will let these ten men mentor you, then, like them, you will become the man God created you to be. You will release the power of God in every direction and detail of your life. You will know how to sustain the passion of your faith. And you will be well on the way to writing your own epic story. Why? Because God is too good to let our lives merely turn out like we planned. (xiii)

To be sure, the man God wants me to be, according to Patrick Morley, is quite a stout individual. Of that, there can be little or no doubt. If I follow these principles, I will be virtually unconquerable and undefeated; nothing will dominate me. Perhaps this is a good thing, but maybe I will never know in this lifetime.

If I set aside my qualms about how authors us the Bible, I can safely say that I really enjoyed this book. As I noted above, I don't think I was reading it by accident and thus, it truly spoke to me in many places. It helped me understand, frankly, that it is quite alright to be ordinary, quite alright to struggle, quite alright to have bad days, and quite alright to thoroughly miss God's point time and time again. Morley said it this way: "…God is more interested in the success of our character than the success of our circumstances" (42). Funny thing is that the preacher I listened to this morning made a startlingly similar comment about the Christian and character.

Another significant aspect of this book is that even though I have my reservations, the book is thoroughly grounded in Scripture. Morley spends a lot of time in the Scripture in this book and I did and do appreciate that very much. It was refreshing to re-read the stories of Abraham, Gideon, Moses, Nehemiah and others. It was refreshing to have a fresh set of eyes surveying their stories and pointing out aspects that might otherwise be overlooked or disregarded.

Finally, it is also important to note that Morley spends a lot of time calling men out of themselves an into ministry. Now, I don't think he necessarily means that every man who reads this book is going to enter into full-time, paid, 'professional' ministry. But I do think he means that every man is called to be used uniquely by God in some small or large part of the world. This seems to correspond to something David wrote in Psalm 51: "Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you." Morley's point is that when we go through the sort of trials he describes, we will find that often God is burdening our heart for a certain segment of the population. 

I remember when I was a fresh-faced, enthusiastic 25 year-old just out of Bible college. I was eager to preach. That was my burden. Frankly, it is still my burden. So off I went, a day or two after I graduated to the first church that took an interest: far down in the hills of Appalachia to a small town so far from humanity that they bragged about not having a single traffic light in the entire county. I lasted all of a year and a half. About a year later, I was called back to preaching ministry. I lasted another 2 years and some before making a rather difficult transition to a new congregation where I stayed for nearly 10 years.

I am now a public school teacher and scarcely a member of any church let alone the preaching minister. I attribute this, in large part, to the fact that I have had no male leadership in my life. I remember the man who led me to Jesus, who baptized me, and who subsequently vanished afterwards. I gave my life to Jesus in 1983 and from there launched out on a one-man journey. I got lost along the way because I did not have the sort of adult male leadership in my life that was necessary for me to avoid all the pitfalls that have caused me struggle after struggle in my life and have caused failure after failure in my career. I often wonder what my life would be like, what my preaching ministries would have been like, if just one older man had taken me under his wing and treated me like a young christian man who needed guidance and love instead of as an employee that he needed to govern and control.

Fact is, those men have been non-existent in my life and the results have been painful.

It's not easy to become a man. Many young men today have grown up as practical orphans. They've been left to guess at what normal male behavior looks like. The faith of young men is under severe attack. That's where the battle is raging. And frankly, mature Christian men are just not getting the discipleship job done. (153)

So if it is true that nothing happens apart from God's will, then this book came to me according to God's plan and will for my life. And if that is true, and I am leaning in that direction, then it came at the right time because at my age, I still have no adult male leadership in my life. I'm still trying to make sense of it all–on my own. It is still difficult. I'm still waiting. I have a strong suspicion that there are more men my age who have the same sorrows and the same needs and who failed at local church ministry precisely for these reasons.

But I have the books the Lord keeps sending me. This book, How God Makes Men, is a helpful, necessary, and powerful tool. It is an important voice that I needed to hear right here, right now. And with that in mind, maybe there is hope yet that I will become the man God intends for me to be.

4.5/5

978-1-4143-7559-5Title: I Still Believe

Author: Jeremy Camp with David Thomas

Publisher: Tyndale

Pages: 213 (plus photo spread)

Date: 2013

[In order to comply with certain FCC guidelines, I am required to inform you that I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale Publishing in exchange for my review on my blog.]

I went to Bible College in the fall of 1991. I had just married my wife in June of the same year. By the time December of that year rolled around, we knew she had Hodgkin's Disease–a cancer of the lymphatic system. By January of 1992, we were fully engaged in the first round of a six-month regimen of chemotherapy. This would be followed up with six consecutive, five-day a week radiation treatments. This is how we spent the first year of our marriage.

I Still Believe is a memoir written by popular Christian musician and songwriter Jeremy Camp. I was on the early bandwagon for Jeremy and still own and listen to his first three records. I have always enjoyed his music, his guitar playing, and the tone and depth of his vocals. After reading this book, I think I can now say that I also appreciate the lyrics to his songs as well. It's not that I didn't enjoy them before, but I think like most, I listened to the lyrics, often sang along, but rarely gave thought to what they might mean or what the background might be. Frankly, I am a big fan of musicians sharing the background to songs they write. It makes the songs more meaningful.

That said, this was a difficult book to read. I'm sure it was a difficult book to write. It made me think about my own walk with my wife: after her cancer at the age of 20-21 we have enjoyed nearly 23 years of marriage. But I am also acutely aware of the fact that her cancer could manifest itself again at any time. We are not so much in control as we like to think. And the struggle is summed up nicely in Camp's song and title: I Still Believe. But will we? We suffer and struggle a lot in this journey and it is terribly easy to fall back and forget that we are like so much gold in the fires of purification. We often blame God, accuse God, yell at God, shake our fist at God–and sometimes we just flat out ignore him. I think God is big and strong and can handle it and waits for us to come to our senses, but he waits. He is that Father who is waiting on his son and sees him off in the distance and runs to him.

And I think this is what troubles me the most: he waits. Sure there are sermons (or poetry) about God the great hound nipping at our heals. The Psalms tell us over and over again to 'wait on the Lord' and it is just that that bugs me. We are told to wait; he is waiting; someone has to make the first move. Someone has to get the ball rolling. Someone has to take charge. What we are supposed to learn, I think, is that God is in charge and all we can do is weep, wait, fall face down on the floor in prayer. Maybe we are to be like Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego: God can rescue us, oh king, but even if he doesn't we want you to know that we will not bow down to your statue of gold.

When I was in homiletics class at Bible College, one of the first an most enduring lessons I learned about preaching was this: don't talk about yourself in sermons. If you do, we were told, you make yourself out to be a hero of sorts and that's not always happiness. That is, it makes the person speaking seem to be less than humble. To this day, I can say that I may have spoken about my wife's cancer (and a subsequent bout with hemolytic anemia 2 years later) only a handful of times–which is an arrogant thing to say. That's what made the memoir, the memoir of someone who hasn't had trouble succeeding, very difficult to read. There is a tremendous depth of honesty and candor in the writing, but it comes off as heroic; a lot. Camp probably doesn't intend it to be so, but it does nonetheless. This was the least redeeming aspect of the book.

It's a difficult path. You want to tell your story. You want to honor Jesus. But there's always the struggle of painting yourself too highly. It may not be intentional, but it is inevitable.

Yet it is a good story to read. I read the revised and expanded edition so I have no idea what was changed or altered from the previous (2011) version. I'm not sure this book is worthy of a second read, although some may think it is. I also think this book is written for younger people–maybe college age or high school. It's not going to win a Pulitzer Prize or anything, but he's probably not trying to either. He is sharing his testimony before the Lord in the hopes that one person might hear and be saved. I'm fine with that.

He deals with weighty issues: I too would have been devastated if my wife had died during that first year of our marriage. Jeremy Camp gives us a wonderful picture of what the depths of sorrow and devastation are like–and perhaps how to respond to such devastation. And in this regard, we can come alongside Jeremy and sit in the ashes with him for a while. It is good to be sorrowful together, to carry one another's burdens, and to weep together in the Lord. But he also gives us a picture of what it means to trust and wait on the Lord–to Stay 'right there in the light.' I might find him a bit too heroic at times, but I cannot say he is not faithful. I might not read the book again, but I'll keep listening to his music. There, in his songs, is where his testimony is.

3.5/5 Stars.

Disclaimer: To comply with new regulations introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, please mention as part of every review that Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers has provided you with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.] – See more at: http://specialeducationteacher.typepad.com/my-blog/#sthash.4xzeWelK.dpuf
Disclaimer: To comply with new regulations introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, please mention as part of every review that Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers has provided you with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.] – See more at: http://specialeducationteacher.typepad.com/my-blog/#sthash.4xzeWelK.dpuf
Disclaimer: To comply with new regulations introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, please mention as part of every review that Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers has provided you with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.] – See more at: http://specialeducationteacher.typepad.com/my-blog/#sthash.4xzeWelK.dpuf
Disclaimer: To comply with new regulations introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, please mention as part of every review that Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers has provided you with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.] – See more at: http://specialeducationteacher.typepad.com/my-blog/#sthash.4xzeWelK.dpuf