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Category: Book Reviews

You Are What You Love

When it comes to our spiritual formation, the average Western Christian has lost much of the value that comes from practices that quiet our souls and remind us of who we are. We live in an age of addiction to speed, multi-tasked productivity, compressed thoughts, and condensed experiences. Even when it comes to our spiritual life we find ourselves too busy to pray, too distracted to just “be still”, and even see some churches try to preach shorter sermons out of fear that they will lose the attendance of our attention-deficit generation. And from society around us we (the church) run the risk of succumbing to these bad doctrines and false narratives; carelessly adopting our secular culture’s daily liturgies.

In You Are What You Love Smith argues for a return to intentional practices that immerse our souls in “liturgies indexed to the kingdom of God”. He recognises that we are restored by being re-storied; and we have a deep need to change the rhythm of the narratives that we live by. The truth is the same whether we are considering the habits of our own lives or the environment of our local church; where we invest our time reveals where our love truly resides.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t ask people to gather wood.
Rather, teach them to long for the sea.”

But we can’t re-calibrate our hearts merely from the top-down. Intentional discipleship isn’t a purely intellectual exercise (although, I believe that it needs to begin as one). Smith helpfully points out that his solution isn’t to shun knowledge – as though being anti-intellectual would somehow make you more ‘in tune’ with matters of the Spirit – but to focus on the connection between our habits and our desires. We need to recognise the power of habit. As Christians, I think we understand routine. We strive to read our bibles regularly, we gather together every Sunday to worship as a community, but we are also bombarded with the many unhealthy cultural liturgies that would seek to distract our hearts and steal our affections. We check our social media before – or more frequently than – our time spent with God, and we are lazy about sticking to spiritual disciplines that we know are good for our souls.

Smith is quick to point out that ​we won’t be “delivered from deformation simply by new information” bur rather reflection must propel us into new practices. By grace we have been provided the means by which to nurture our love for the good and beautiful God, found in the rich practices of the historical Christian church. Perhaps you haven’t given much thought to your habits, your morning routine, the order in which you sub-consciously prioritize your tasks and time. Smith reminds us that in the midst of a world of “hurry sickness”, there is infinite value in receiving and adopting the historic Christian practices as enduring gifts that help us rightly order our loves, just as they have for Christians down through time, and he shows how this deep continuity remains a radical call to discipleship.

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Lessons in the Art of Giving Away Your Life

Rarely do I find a book so wonderful and easy to read that I fly through it fifty pages at a time. And yet, right from the outset its clear that in Ordinary Saints: Lessons in the Art of Giving Away Your Life Devenish would encourage me to take it slow; to look under every rock, touch every leaf, smell every flower. In so doing, I learn in the pages of his book not only how I should live as a Christ-follower, but I see clearer how I am called to live Jesus’ kingdom vision for my family, for my work life, and for the way in which I am called to have an influence on the world around me.

With the movement of time and the development of language, one could easily find themselves picking up Ordinary Saints with a range of preconceived ideas and prejudices and so Devenish begins with a most helpful and illuminating definition of terms: what are saints? Returning to the biblical language, he defines saints as

all people who have been made righteous
through their faith in Christ
and who subsequently adjust their mode of living
to reflect Christ’s life in the world.

Over against the more commonly used disciple Devenish clarifies “whereas the word disciple highlights the obedience that the disciple offers to Jesus, the word saint highlights the kind of life that the Christian disciple lives before the watching world”. Before even leaving the introduction it became clear that Ordinary Saints is a highly practical, challenging, and encouraging word designed for all of God’s people.

Laying a foundation for what characterises the ordinary saint, Devenish discusses the qualities he believes should be present in their every day lives. These are: (1) love for humanity, (2) overflowing joy, (3) generosity of spirit, (4) willingness to suffer, (5) deep humility, (6) essential goodness, (7) profound wisdom, (8) holiness of life, (9) the practice of prayer, (10) an eternal perspective, (11) readiness to resist evil, and (12) forgiving one’s enemies. I found this chapter simultaneously encouraging and convicting, knowing that as Devenish drilled down into each one of these characteristics, I still have a way to go.

Chapter seven (titled “Holy Wounds”) expands on the model for the saints’ lives. Included in this chapter is a concept he has coined called “voluntary vulnerability”, which he defines as when a person who is whole, healthy, happy, and right with God through faith in Christ, nevertheless chooses to give up their “right” to ensure their own needs are met. Instead, they relinquish any claims to their own comfort and well-being, in order to act in the best interest of others, not themselves.

This pattern is richly demonstrated throughout the book with many stories and examples of ordinary saints living out what Devenish describes. These stories serve to inspire and delight; it is true that saints have currency today because their lives are revelatory; saints lives are truly the best apologetic for the gospel. In considering everything that ordinary saints have to contribute to the life of the Christian today, Devenish writes

History as a narrative rehearsal of past events is punctuated by the life stories of men and women who have performed their character and faith in the past, in such a way that they shape and influence the present (not to mention the future). History would not exist as we know it today without those cultural, religious, and political heroes who have left their “notch” on the stick of time. To that extent, the present moment springs forth from the heroic imaginings of yesterday’s people, who lived their lives not accidentally but intentionally towards making their tomorrow (our present) a better time and place.

None of the qualities that Devenish expounds in the life of the ordinary saint come naturally to any of us. And yet, this is precisely the life that those who have been saved by grace are called out of the world to live. Ordinary Saints is both a call to intentional transformation and an encouraging reminder of that great ‘cloud of witnesses’ that has gone before us, laying down their lives for the spread of the gospel in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing the homeless.

Ordinary saints recognise that they are to love others even as they themselves have been loved – completely and unconditionally.
Read it, then go and do likewise.

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The Tech-Wise Family

Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place.

We live in a world saturated with technology. From the moment most of us wake to the moment that we go to bed there is at least one screen calling for our time and attention. While there are many good things about technology, in The Tech-Wise Family Andy Crouch encourages his readers to consider the impact that these devices have on our lives, our families, and our children. Now before we get too far, it must be made clear that Crouch is not anti-technology. In fact, early in the book he refers to himself as “a certified geek” so this book is not about getting rid of technology from our lives but merely putting it in its proper place so that it is a benefit to our families rather than something that damages them.

“If we don’t learn to put technology, in all its forms, in its proper place, we will miss out on many of the best parts of life in a family.”

The core of the book consists of “Ten Tech-Wise Commitments” that Andy and his family have made. In each chapter, he looks at one of these Commitments, outlining the issue that it aims to solve, and he provides statistics from Barna group that show the impact and extensiveness of the issue. Finally, Crouch provides a practical way of living out that Commitment. The Commitments provide a shift of focus from our devices to our families in a way that is challenging (at times) but with attractive benefits. The Commitments range from Filling the House with Things That Encourage Creativity Rather Than Consumption to Making Car Time Conversation Time to Intentionally Turning Devices Off Regularly.

The Ten Commitments are not designed as a be-all-and-end-all list that every family should adhere to. Instead, it is a starting point for us to consider how much technology is, and should be, ingrained in our lives. In fact, there is even the understanding that we aren’t going to keep the Ten Commitments perfectly. Every chapter concludes with a “Crouch Family Reality Check” where Crouch looks at how well his family has actually done in keeping them. He reports that some they have done well, but a lot of them have been kept imperfectly at best. By presenting this reality check he stands not as an Expert (with a capital E) giving direction on how we should live our lives but as a fellow parent and husband trying to do the best he can.

I haven’t come out of this book with a determination to keep every one of these Commitments but it has definitely made me think about how much I engage with devices in my day-to-day life. It has also made me consider the impact and example of that engagement for my daughter as she grows up. I’m not about to pull the plug on all of the electronic devices in my house all at once but I am going to start with walking away from my phone a bit more and just being in the moment. I think that’s the point.

Enjoy: Trillia Newbell

I‘m one of those people who always tries to make the most of every opportunity. Need to get in the car? I’d better listen to a Christian podcast and learn something on the drive. I can sometimes find myself in low-level guilt if I simply play or relax without infusing it with more purpose. But can we honour God by doing things for no other reason than that they bring us pleasure? In her new book Enjoy: Finding the Freedom to Delight Daily in God’s Good Gifts, Trillia Newbell asks the question “why did I wrestle with guilt over time spent riding my bike, feeling as if it were a waste of time unless I turned it into something greater?” By exploring the twin realities that God is the giver of good gifts and that our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, Newbell invites us to consider what it looks like to enjoy a simple, leisurely activity for our good and God’s glory.

In eleven chapters, Newbell looks at how despite living in a fallen world, the Christian should never feel guilty about unwrapping and delighting in the many and varied gifts that God has intended for us to enjoy. This exploration includes our God-ordained enjoyment of (and with) other people, work, possessions, sex (in marriage), food, and more. One key area that I’m slow to get the message on is beautifully framed by Newbell in her chapter on rest called The Freedom to Press Pause. When we rest – and enjoy doing it – we’re actually fulfilling part of our design as creatures made in God’s image. Newbell is quick to remind us that taking a Sabbath is not a legalistic duty, but rather as we hit pause for a time (especially when work and deadlines are vying for our attention from every angle) we are accepting a wonderful gift of grace in which we demonstrate our trust and reliance on God.

When it comes to money and material possessions Newbell exhorts us to hold them lightly knowing that they are perishable things. By all means, remember that money and possessions are gifts from God and to be enjoyed in the knowledge that he has given them for his glory as we exercise wisdom in the distribution of our wealth among our work, rest, and play. But at the same time, Newbell encourages us to expand the categories in which we think of enjoyment, in that wealth also empowers greater generosity and here too “we give because of the joy of emulating our saviour.”

When we pause and learn to delight in these things, we also learn to delight in God and give proper thanks and admiration… We delight and give thanks not solely because he gives good gifts but also because he is God.

Most importantly, not all God’s gifts can be seen. God has also given us glorious promises, and faith through which we can lay hold of those promises in – and despite of – our varied circumstances. Most of all it is Newbell’s heart for glorifying God through the enjoyment of his good gifts that shines through on every page. As she infuses her own story into each chapter, the richness of what it means to enjoy giving, resting, sex, food, art, and more is simultaneously encouraging and transformative. Enjoy is a call to see and know God as the giver of these good gifts, and how those gifts (and the enjoyment of them) reveal something about him. Rich with scripture, Enjoy continues to point the reader back to Christ as the ultimate gift of God that we should enjoy in and above everything else. Through the pages of The Enjoy Project (practical application found at the end of each chapter), Enjoy is relevant and readily adopted into the life of every Christian for their good, and God’s glory. This is a great read for individuals or small groups.

 

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I received this book free from Blogging for Books for review.

Christless Christianity

Early on in Michael Horton’s 2008 look at the state of Evangelical Christianity in America he states his case clearly by saying “My argument in this book is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous.” From this beginning he takes the reader on a journey through mainstream evangelicalism and shows where Christ has not been explicitly denied but simply ignored.

The first stop is to look at what has replaced Christ-centred Christianity, namely Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. This is essentially the belief that there is a god who wants us to be good people and wants for us to be happy. While this is an attractive belief system – after all who doesn’t want a god who just wants us to be happy – Horton shows that it is a belief system that doesn’t have Jesus as its focal point. Instead the focus is the consumer.

So instead of introducing people to a majestic God who nevertheless condescended in mercy to save those who cannot save themselves, these sermons— even with the parable of the prodigal son as their text— proclaim a message that can be summarized as moralistic, therapeutic deism. As a product, the God experience can be sold and purchased with confidence that the customer is still king. Therefore, statements that would have appalled previous generations of mainline Protestants are assumed as a matter of course even among evangelicals today, such as George Barna’s defence of “a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message is sovereign.”

Having identified the problem we are now led through an in-depth look at a few specific examples. We see the gospel of Joel Osteen where we are essentially good people who just need to do the best we can, but “Who needs Christ if this is the gospel: ‘You’re not perfect, but you are trying to live better, and God looks at your heart. He sees the inside, and He is changing you little by little’?” We see the message of Joyce Meyer where we “live the gospel” by loving people but “love is actually the summary of the law. God’s commands stipulate what love of God and neighbour means. In the Bible, the law simply nails down what it means to love God and our neighbour.” Finally we look at the message that Willow Creek sent by their response to a survey on the health of the church which found that a large number of members described themselves as stalled spiritually. As Horton says “What I find remarkable is that those who identified themselves as “stalled” said, “I believe in Christ, but I haven’t grown much lately,” and the dissatisfied said, “My faith is central to my life and I’m trying to grow, but my church is letting me down.” These highly committed respondents even said they “desire much more challenge and depth from the services” and “60 percent would like to see ‘more in- depth Bible teaching.’” The take- away for the authors, however, was not that Willow Creek should provide a richer ministry but that the sheep must learn to fend for themselves— to become “self- feeders” who need to be more engaged in private spiritual practices.

Fortunately we are not shown the problem without an answer being provided. The answer is simple: we can never outgrow the gospel. We should never assume that everybody knows it and we can move beyond it.

When our churches assume the gospel, reduce it to slogans, or confuse it with moralism and hype, it is not surprising that the type of spirituality we fall back on is moralistic, therapeutic deism. In a therapeutic worldview, the self is always sovereign. Accommodating this false religion is not love— either of God or neighbour— but sloth, depriving human beings of genuine liberation and depriving God of the glory that is his due. The self must be dethroned. That’s the only way out.

This isn’t a book that all church-goers are going to enjoy. The people that it looks at are admired by many but unfortunately that is the point. It has been nearly a decade since the book was published and if anything the problem is now worse. I’m convinced that this should be required reading for anyone in the western church. “As heretical as it sounds today, it is probably worth telling Americans [and Australians] that you don’t need Jesus to have better families, finances, health, or even morality.” If that is true then we need to understand why we need Jesus and that’s not something that’s talked about enough these days.
 
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Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is not the Enemy of Faith

For many Christians, the very idea of having doubt is unthinkable, even sinful. Solid Christians are those who not only know what they believe, but are ready with an answer to tell you why it is the way it is, and why – if those around them would simply read scripture as it should be read – they would come to the same rock solid, unshakable conclusions. Enter Barnabas Piper, who is bold enough to ask the question “what is belief?” and explore the critical difference between doubt based in belief and doubt that undermines belief.

Through personal and often painful story, Piper recounts his journey from being a born-and-raised Christian who went on to graduate from seminary, always having the right answers, to one who learned the stark contrast between knowing God in relationship and simply knowing a lot about him. Many of us (myself included) will find resonance with Piper’s discussion of mental assent; knowing the facts, defending the arguments, even brushing aside wise counsel designed to penetrate and change us with the terse “I know”. Christians need to move beyond mere mental assent – Piper urges –  to allowing what we know to transform us. That kind of belief is what the Bible calls faith. Faith is belief that transforms into action. When we only have the mental assent part, we base our actions on something other than God, namely our own emotions or reasoning. Piper writes:

“When people say they believe in God, what does that mean? It may mean they believe God exists in some form. It may mean they acknowledge God’s moral standard as a genuine guideline. Or it may mean they believe fully in God’s word and God’s way and look to him as the object of their faith. While each of these is an accurate statement and a proper use of the term belief, only one of them is real belief. That is the third use.”

As risky or uncomfortable as we feel doubts and questions can be, Piper argues that it is much more dangerous to live in a safe Christian world refusing to exchange curiosity for comfort over the long haul. The only way to disarm the danger posed to faith by things like divorce, destitution, and disease is to engage the questions (especially with our kids) before they wreak havoc.

Through the prayer of a desperate man in Mark chapter nine (“I believe; help my unbelief”), Piper unpacks the struggle of every Christian; that we will always hold tension between believing and not believing, but we take comfort from the fact that even this prayer takes a shred of faith to pray in the first place, so all is not lost. He discusses evidence of true belief like repentance, prayer, and humility and he effectively shows how doubt is not the opposite of faith, but is in fact a healthy part of it.

As beings created by God, our finitude simply cannot grasp his infinity aside from what he chooses to reveal to us. Scripture doesn’t offer every answer. But it reveals exactly and completely everything God wanted revealed – no more, no less. This is where our belief takes comfort. When we question and wonder in ways that are firmly planted in relationship with God, then it will serve to strengthen our belief. And so our faith seeks understanding and we pray “I believe; help my unbelief”.

 

 

The Temple and the Tabernacle

To be honest I think what initially attracted me to J. Daniel Hays’ The Temple and the Tabernacle: A Study of God’s Dwelling Places from Genesis to Revelation was the fact that it boasts over 60 full colour images in its almost 200 pages. Many pages of Scripture are filled with events taking place in or around a tabernacle or temple, and I was hoping to get a better handle on the particulars of each of these structures which played such a large role in the life of God’s people. Hays delivers an accessible, enjoyable survey of how these structures came to be, but he also demonstrates how the prominent biblical motif of “temple” weaves its way through Scripture from Genesis to Jesus, and the implications for the people of God today.

Hays begins with Eden as the Garden Temple where God dwells and relates to the people he created (this is the underlying reality of the later tabernacle and temple structures), and he shows 9 ways in which this place serves as the divinely constructed prototype for the later tabernacle that Moses built, and the temples of both King Solomon and Herod the Great. What I appreciate most about Hays’ work is his detailed summaries of the construction projects, including the extravagant furnishings with their function and symbolism. He places each of these structures (and their contents) in their historical and theological contexts, and follows Scripture’s naturally growing anticipation as he discusses the role that all these things play in foreshadowing greater future realities.

After admiring the significance of Eden, Moses’ tabernacle, Solomon’s temple, the postexilic rebuilding events recorded by Ezra and Haggai, and finally the temple of Herod the Great, we find ourselves entering the New Testament period. Here we come to learn that it’s been 400+ years since the presence of God has chosen to return to any temple, that is until Jesus Christ walks in through its gates. Hays brings together every untied thread; using Scripture to show how the temple, the sacrifice, the priesthood, the ark, and the very temple itself all come to find their fulfilment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. After centuries of carrying out the blood-soaked requirements of the old covenant, and witnessing the constant rebellion and sin of God’s chosen people, Hays writes

“God is very clear throughout the Old Testament about the righteousness demanded by his holiness. That is, the whole point of the stepped gradations of holiness in the tabernacle and temple (moving from the courtyard to the holy place to the most holy place) is to stress that the powerful and dangerous holiness surrounding God’s presence cannot allow sinful or unclean people into his presence.
…But with the death and resurrection of Christ, all of this changes dramatically.”

After a detailed examination of the second temple in the time of the gospels and the book of Acts, The Temple and the Tabernacle finally reaches the glorious event that all Scripture has been anticipating for hundreds of years: the arrival of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God’s presence once again has come to dwell with his people, and through the sending of the Holy Spirit God now dwells in the newly constituted temple – his people. It is within the context of the sweeping arc of all salvation history that Hays has brought his readers on a journey from the garden temple at creation to the arrival of the Creator, and now he looks forward to the fullness of God’s presence in the ultimate climactic temple city of Revelation 21-22.

As the people of God today, we understand that the beauty of these remarkable structures does not lie in their being impressive feats of architecture, nor in the tons of precious resources that went into their construction. Rather, it is that God was present in them, relating to his people who came to worship him. Through them we are reminded of the immense privilege that Paul reminds us of in 1 Corinthians 3:16

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

May we be humbled and awed as we consider that because of Jesus’ removal of the multiple layers of separation (courtyard, holy place, most holy place) the God who dwelt in unapproachable glory in the heart of the temple now chooses to dwell in our hearts. The Temple and The Tabernacle will leave you not only with a greater understanding of the reason for these old covenant structures and a greater appreciation for the unity of Scripture, but most importantly you’ll add meaning and depth to your own Christian journey by coming to see the daily joy and responsibility of living as those in whom this holy God has chosen to dwell.

You and Me Forever:
Marriage in Light of Eternity

Having recently reviewed Dave Furman’s excellent book about the most important things to do (and not do) when it comes to showing true love for someone who is hurting, and how to ensure you take care of yourself in the process, Francis and Lisa Chan’s book on marriage in light of eternity overlaps in many wonderful places. Their first chapter Marriage isn’t that Great is Francis’ usual provocative style in which he reminds us that while we should be invested in nurturing, growing, and protecting our marriages we must always remember that our worship is to be directed only to God. In firmly fixing our gaze first and foremost on the all-satisfying God, we plant ourselves by the stream of living water from which we draw all the nutrients necessary to take care of ourselves and out of which we can truly love and care for our spouse. He writes

We need to prioritize our eternal relationship with our Creator above all things.
When two people are right with Him, they will be right with each other.

Francis affirms that while we are called to love and care for our spouse as we love ourselves, we should always keep God in the front of our minds in order that the love we have for our family doesn’t eclipse all others. God is far beyond us, and so our love for him should be far beyond our love for all others. Here’s our normal way of prioritising our affections (left) contrasted with the biblical mandate (right).

Lisa Chan supplements this by reminding us (in the same vein as Dave Furman) that it is when we find our identity and fulfillment in Christ that we have all the love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness to pour into our spouses. He fills us up so much that we don’t need anyone else to meet our needs; rather we spend our lives blessing our spouse and investing this limitless grace into their life for their good, and God gets the glory.

In the middle of You and Me Forever the Chans work through their take on the famous marriage pericope found in Ephesians 5. Francis begins by addressing the husbands on what the aggressive, sacrificial pursuit of loving your wife “as Christ loved the church” looks like. Lisa then follows with a word to women on the importance of shifting the focus more towards wives who strive to possess the humility of Christ rather than over-thinking how our culture bristles against the biblical command of “submit to your own husband, as to the Lord”. In both instances there is no better way to model to the world the mutual love between Christ and church than through our sacrifice and submission, which is ultimately loving obedience to God.

The thread that runs through each paragraph and page of You and Me Forever begins in the book’s subtitle. God’s mission is bigger than your marriage; and once cast in the light of eternity, you and your spouse will come to see that – paradoxically – it is in pursuit of God’s Kingdom above all else that your marriage will flourish like never before.

The way to have a great marriage is by not focusing on marriage.

You and Me Forever is as good a book as I have ever read on marriage. It is sensitive and insightful, but also gospel-soaked and Christ-exalting. Francis and Lisa Chan write to exhort couples everywhere from their experience of life and marriage that seeks to love God and love each other while walking together in the obedience of faith. I commend it to everyone.

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The Curious Christian

Barnabas Piper begins The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life by highlighting the critical placement of the suffix “-ish”. Jesus bade people to come to him with faith that was childlike; the wonder and curiosity displayed when everything prompts a question, everything fascinates and excites, and we bubble over with a desire to know. Consider this contrasted with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:11 regarding putting aside childish things. Paul is talking about thinking, speaking, and reasoning like a child. In The Curious Christian, Piper laments that the former has been lost to us as we seek “maturity”, and wonder no longer has a place in the version we see. But maturity doesn’t (read shouldn’t) mean growing out of those aspects of childhood that Jesus embraced. Rather, instead of smothering childlike questions and wonder to make room for responsibility and adulthood Piper urges us to see that real maturity holds information and imagination in equal measure and with equal value. Indeed

Curiosity produces a proactive life rather than a reactive life.
We go on the hunt to discover rather than letting the new and strange come to us, and that is where learning and growth happen.

Beginning with Adam and Eve we see plainly that God designed humanity to be curious and creative; but their curiosity went too far and they sought to have that which wasn’t theirs to possess. Now creation is broken, you and I are broken, and so is our curiosity. But wait… how can curiosity be one of the ways that we’re made in God’s image and likeness? God knows everything, sees everything, is everywhere. There’s nothing for him to be curious about, nothing for him to discover. Piper’s answer to this question is vocation. We reflect the glory of God in our faith seeking understanding; in order to proclaim God to the world we must get to know him, and to do that we must possess a desire to learn. Christians must be curious. Godly curiosity – deeply rooted in the truth and worldview of Scripture illuminated by the Holy Spirit – equips us with discernment to see the world as it is and reflect God more as we live in it.

Piper (accurately) likens us to real-life Hobbits; we enjoy our comfortable lives and shelter from the happenings of the outside world, though we’re fascinated with tales of the goings-on “out there”, as long as – for the most part – it stays out there. But then

A wizard, as it were, knocks on our door, or a pile of dwarves devours everything in our pantry and sings a tale of a dragon. We begin to realize that our shrunken life isn’t enough to make sense of their lives and stories. We’ve heard rumor of such people and such experiences, but they were much more palatable online or “out there” where they belong.

Then there are the negative side effects of what Piper calls “uncuriosity”; binary thinking (inability to see shades of gray in an issue), missed connections (forgetting that strangers have a story too) and depleted friendships (lack of curiosity keeps acquaintances but makes it hard to have deep friendships). Curiosity is the discipline we foster that takes risks; it moves beyond the surface level small-talk to share about hopes, beliefs, and deep fears. And while curiosity makes us vulnerable, the risks often lead to great rewards.

Imagine a church, family, or work environment that encouraged a culture of curiosity. People taking the time to ask questions, and desiring deeply to understand the answers; a place where “tension and infighting would diminish because people would be curious enough to learn what others really said and really meant instead of construing meaning and creating drama or conflict”. Christian community would be a place of rich, nourishing relationships with God and others as we seek together to understand scripture with consistent curiosity and provide counsel with curious care.

And so Piper explores the question. But infinitely more than that, he implores us to rekindle in ourselves the yearning to ask questions of our own. And keep asking. Keep discovering. And use that knowledge to connect people and cultures to God’s truth so they too can see God’s glory.

The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life will be available on 1st March 2017.
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How to Love Those who are Hurting

Ten years ago Dave Furman developed a nerve disorder resulting in chronic pain and a disability that prevents him from using both his arms. Working through depression as he came to terms with needing care on a daily basis, Furman now writes of the journey (shared with his wife and four children) offering highly practical encouragement for how to love those who are walking through pain and suffering. The first two chapters address the suffering of those who daily care for the needs of another. In a very personal way, Furman recognises that oftentimes the friends and family of the sufferer don’t have their experiences addressed or needs validated, and so he begins with two chapters called Grieving Your Loss in Another’s Pain and Walking with God. He writes

If you’re going to help the hurting, your heart needs to be healthy,
Your efforts in your own strength can only go on for so long.

Furman’s desire is to see those who care for the hurting remember that Jesus Christ should remain our greatest affection and our constant source of hope. To love and continue loving requires the help of our loving Heavenly Father, and we should tend to our own hearts through regular communion with God in prayer, immersion in scripture, and being part of a loving community of saints. I found such a strong resonance with these thoughts from chapter two; I know both as one who has experienced suffering and as one who cares for those who suffer that my walk with God has enormous impact on my capability to care for others in their pain. I would hand out copies of this book en mass even if it was only composed of these two chapters.

From chapter three onward, Furman offers practical strategy for helping those who are hurting. He begins by taking the example of the three friends in the book of Job – mainly as an example of what not to do – in order to discuss some ways in which we can minister to the hurting as faithful friends. Job’s friends question, accuse, explain, and condemn him during their time of ‘support’ but there is something they do well at the beginning. They sit on the floor with Job in silence… for seven days. There is a kind of ministry that is without words; and often just being there can be the timely balm for someone’s soul. Perhaps we have answers. Perhaps we know that God is sovereign and he has a plan. Perhaps they know it too. But – Furman writes – rather than slapping our favourite Bible verse as a Band-Aid on suffering people’s wounds, offering loyalty, longevity, and unwavering love through the darkest times can actually meet the deepest need.

Later in the book, there are four heart questions. Jesus was the suffering servant who not only condescended from the glory of heaven to become like one of us, but actually stripped off his outer garments and washed his disciples feet, wiping them with the towel he was wearing. Thinking about our own service in light of this humility, Furman asks

  • Do I get upset if no one recognises me for my service?
  • Am I ever inconvenienced in my service?
  • Do I feel too embarrassed to be treated like a servant?
  • Do I complain about the ministry of serving others that God has given me?

In this revealing self-diagnosis, I found I have a long way to go, but Furman also reveals that to be selfless and humble like Jesus is a sweet thing, and that God is most glorified in our service when people see the Saviour through the servant.

Still firing on all cylinders, the second-to-last chapter provides an insightful, helpful discussion entitled Whatever you Do, Don’t Do These Things. This chapter is brilliant, and because I’m constantly messing up how to care the way I should, it’s worth regularly re-visiting. The list of ten things in this chapter (which could have also been called “please don’t do these for your hurting friend”) includes: 1. Don’t Be The Fix-It Person, 3. Don’t Make It Their Identity, 5. Don’t Encourage Them to Just “Move On”, and 10. Don’t Condemn Them.

Being There is a powerful, insightful, and gospel-saturated resource for everyone who is called to care for those who are hurting. But to limit this book to the readership of carers would do it a grave disservice; Furman points out that to be a follower of Jesus Christ means to continually consider others as more important than ourselves. In order for the love of the suffering servant and sovereign king to be displayed in the people (not simply delivered from the pulpit), books like Being There can help every one of us in the local church to pursue the broken with the healing, restoring news of the gospel.

Review: The Mission of God (C. H. Wright)

The mission of Israel was to live as God’s people in God’s land for God’s glory. But what of the Christian living in the twenty-first century under the New Covenant? How should the story of Old Testament Israel influence our reading of Scripture, and by application transform how we live? In clarifying his missional hermeneutic for the whole bible, Wright begins with a definition of terms. Most crucial is the acknowledgement that mission is not ours; mission is God’s. For Wright, a Christian worldview asserting that there is one God at work in human history and that (from the point of view of humanity) ‘mission’ means our committed participation in his purposes for the redemption of his creation is essential.
Using this as the basis of a hermeneutical framework, we read the bible in light of God’s election of Israel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and God’s calling of the church (as the newly constituted people of Israel united in Jesus Christ).

When it comes to scripture establishing our authority to carry out mission (and the command that we should do so) we find in the story of the Old and New Testament the imperative of mission as appropriate, legitimate, necessary, and indeed inevitable. Through its presentation of the reality of this God (YHWH – the biblical God), this story (the universe-encompassing grand narrative from which we get our worldview), and this people (the identity of Israel, including their anticipated future) we find a missional hermeneutic that is not simply a call for obedience to the Great Commission nor a reflection of the missional implications of the Great Commandment; for behind both we find the Great Communication – the revelation of the identity of God, of God’s action in the world, and of God’s saving purpose for all creation. For every Christian today this demands the recognition that the church was made for mission, and this (being entrusted with making YHWH known) is a fundamental part of the identity-transformation that salvation brings.

In his exploration of the monotheistic faith of Old Testament Israel, Wright unpacks how knowing YHWH (and making him known) has formed the primary driving force behind mission since it was first commissioned to Abraham in Genesis 12. Human beings are invited to know YHWH as God, with the knowledge that he can be known and he wills to be known. In fact, Wright proposes that the bible is itself a product of God’s mission; the text itself is a living record of mission in action. Ultimately those who have come to know subsequently bear the responsibility to both live in ethical obedience to YHWH, and to declare to the nations who it is they have come to know.

The two par excellence accounts of this unfolding grand narrative are the exodus, and the return from exile. In the story of the exodus, YHWH reveals himself as Israel’s gō’ēl thereby declaring himself to be responsible for Israel’s redemption, restoration, and liberation from all shackles (political, economic, social, and spiritual). In following this trajectory chronologically forward, Wright sees this model of liberty and return (restoration) worked out further in the provisions of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-12). Wright argues that YHWH never intended Jubilee to remain within the confines of theocratic Israel but rather the strong eschatological implications are picked up clearly by the New Testament authors. Wright states that the new community of Christ, now living in the eschatological age of the Spirit are to live lives marked by jubilee ideals such as social and economic equality. Obedience to YHWH is surely part of the missional declaration to the nations that they have been redeemed. Jesus too endorsed the moral priorities of the Old Testament, thereby upholding the Scripture-based missional priorities of God’s people.

Wright argues that it would be vastly inadequate to see the Christian’s mandate for missions as beginning in the New Testament; rather he sees Scripture’s four point narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Future Hope as the mission of the biblical God. The story reached its climax in Jesus Christ; about whom the New Testament authors intentionally make use of scriptures in a way that unequivocally identifies him with YHWH. In asserting these identifying claims of Jesus as Creator, Judge, and Saviour, Wright demonstrates that New Testament salvation is as Christ-shaped as Old Testament salvation was YHWH-shaped.

In part III the foundation of the entire framework for Wright’s biblical theology of mission is God’s covenant with Abraham. Wright summarises:

“Having been chosen, redeemed and called into covenant relationship, the people of God have a life to live – a distinctive, holy, ethical life that is to be lived before God and in the sight of the nations. This too has crucial missional relevance, for… there is no biblical mission without biblical ethics.”

It is in Genesis 12 that Wright sees the launch of God’s redemptive mission. This is not to be read simply as the nations being blessed by Abraham (and his offspring) in some purely passive way though. Rather it is in the nations having turned away from all forms of idolatry and coming to know the God of Abraham that they will indeed share in Abraham’s blessing as they identify with the whole biblical grand narrative and acknowledge their inclusion in and through the story that began with Abraham. The Abrahamic covenant too weaves its way through to the New Testament where it finds fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Through his survey of the Pentateuch, the historical books, the Psalms, and the Prophets, Wright leads the reader along the bible’s grand narrative to see how the nations will not only come to experience God’s blessing, but become the agents of it. Finally, it is because of God’s self-revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Abraham’s seed) that the Abrahamic covenant can truly be viewed now as both “the gospel in advance” and “the Great Commission in advance”.

As people who have now come to share in Israel’s identity, and who have grasped that the whole bible communicates the mission of God, we cannot avoid reading scripture through the hermeneutical lens of YHWH’s grand missional purpose of saving a ‘particular’ people for ‘all’ nations. The result must be our living in ethical obedience to the God of the whole canon, but also recognising the bible’s demand for our participation in this unfolding story as citizens of the missional people of God.

Communicating for a Change

Every journey begins and ends somewhere. The same should be said for every sermon. Unfortunately, what most of us grew up hearing were messages built around several points rather than one clear destination. Andy Stanley and Lane Jones explain that the point of having points is to move people systematically through an outline of information; but if life change is your goal, point by point preaching is by far the most effective approach.

I haven’t written a hundred sermons. But I know that when I write, I have a dangerous tendency to structure a sermon too much like another one of my seminary papers; and that becomes obvious the moment its read aloud. Communicating for a Change contains so many implications, insights, imperatives, and instructions (one of them is that alliterations are much less effective than you think!) for how to carefully craft a sermon that will not only engage your audience, but actually take them on a journey that they want to remain on all the way to the end.

My wife isn’t a seminary graduate. But her Dad is, and after many years as a Pastor’s Kid she’s been on the receiving end of her fair share of sermons. Plus, she’s an articulate communicator on her own, and I know she shares the sentiment that forms Stanley & Jones’ main premise: Pick a Point! There are plenty of Sundays to go around, and they aren’t going to stop any time soon. So rather than seeing that 30 minutes on Sunday as an opportunity to display your exegetical prowess and vast knowledge of church history as you build towards application, why not simply determine your goal and reduce your sermon to a short, simple statement that summarises the whole message. “But, what if there are several great things I want them to know?” These authors simply say “save it”.

The second danger in my seminary-brained construction of sermons is that when I read aloud what’s been written it can sound like information transfer, and generally speaking that’s about as personally convicting as a Quit Smoking TV commercial. “You weren’t talking to people, Chris. You were talking at people”. the always straight-shooting voice of my wife’s observation isn’t without sting (as though I wasn’t trying to connect) but it certainly contains truth. An outline that came straight from your research degree or an exegetical commentary has the potential to be dry as dust to an audience who don’t move in the same circles as you do during the week. On the other hand, an outline built around your relationship with the members of audience (rather than the content) best matches what they feel, and because of your conversational style with this familiar crowd, it will come across the way they naturally process information.

Andy Stanley & Lane Jones have taught me to ask the right questions to assemble a message designed to stick. I’ve found both Communicating for a Change and Saving Eutychus (read my review) to be immensely helpful as I develop my craft in the pulpit by observing these principles from the pew. The reality is that my own style will no doubt be a hybrid of these two excellent resources, and in any case I highly recommend a read and a re-read for any preacher, teacher, or communicator who desires to be engaging while cultivating positive change in their people.

Pneumatology

All too often relegated to a minor role, one of the most exciting developments in 20th century theological thought is a resurgence of interest in the Holy Spirit. While historically there have been a broad spectrum of views held with regard to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, no denomination or movement can be said to hold a monopoly on the Spirit’s activity or involvement, and the Bible itself presents no systematic view of the Holy Spirit any more than it presents such a neatly delivered package on any other doctrine. In his book Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International and Contextual Perspective Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen surveys the Biblical canon (with commentary from church history) to form a solid ‘core’ for understanding the Holy Spirit. This is followed by an examination of perspectives on the Spirit from the main Christian traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Pentecostal/Charismatic) with contributions from leading contemporary theologians.

An overarching theme throughout Pneumatology is the assertion that one cannot simply pursue abstract definitions or general facts with regard to the Holy Spirit, but rather (Kärkkäinen believes) the Spirit himself must be encountered. Further, he says “the experience of the Holy Spirit is as specific as the living beings who experience the Spirit, and as varied as the living beings who experience the Spirit are varied”. Thus while we should earnestly attempt to repair the Pneumatological deficit present in much of the contemporary church, a fuller understanding of the Holy Spirit cannot be acquired without the lived experience of the living Spirit, and that in the communal discernment of the church – called and gathered by the Spirit.

There is much to say when it comes to documenting the unfolding experience of the Holy Spirit throughout Church history. Beginning with the Charismatic experience – which Kärkkäinen proposes (via James D. G. Dunn) actually found expression right from Christianity’s inception – Pneumatology traces the church’s growing understanding of the Holy Spirit and the various expressions that this experience was manifest through. Next came the Eastern Fathers; the most noteworthy of which is perhaps Gregory of Nazianzus who was likely the first of his company to call the Holy Spirit “God”. Contemporary Christianity owes a great debt to the Eastern Fathers for their wrestling with the doctrine of Pneumatology and how it is interwoven into every other area of theology. Almost simultaneously over in the Western church, Augustine was hard at work laying a foundation with the same purpose with the notion that the Spirit is the bond of love between both Christians and God, and Christians one with another. The implications of this rippled forward to medieval mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux, who spoke of the Holy Spirit as the one who makes the knowledge of revelation possible – but ultimately love is the goal, not knowledge – the Spirit also revealing the intimacy of love between the persons of the Trinity that is now offered to humankind.

While historically there have been a broad spectrum of views held with regard to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, Kärkkäinen brought together a coherent introduction to this crucial doctrine. His treatment of the depth and breadth of such an array of perspectives was enlightening, accessible, and holds much value for the contemporary Christian. His summaries of the main traditions (enhanced by rich discussion from the voices of prominent theologians) were formational both in gaining a better grasp of Pneumatology as held by the orthodox Christian Church, but also for acquiring a more considered appreciation of what different contextual Pneumatologies throughout history have revealed about the experience of encountering God the Holy Spirit. Pneumatology makes an excellent contribution to a broadened understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit in a way that will help Christians in the church today to understand and encounter what was once a seemingly incomprehensible doctrine through this clear, accessible work.

True Worshipers

When John Calvin wrote “we should consider it the great end of our existence to be found numbered among the worshippers of God” I’m sure he wasn’t picturing an auditorium with the house lights down, the stage lights up, and a band that is working hard to ‘create an atmosphere’ where people feel drawn to worship. At a time when worship has become an industry, Bob Kauflin (pastor, songwriter, and the director of Sovereign Grace Music) presents this incredibly helpful book that connects our practices as the gathered community of God to the much bigger all-of-life reality of worship.

It’s Easier to Catch a Baseball than a Handful of Sand

Gary Millar and Phil Campbell have a passion for teaching the Bible book by book in a way that is scripturally faithful and also engaging. The challenge for any preacher lies in working hard to exegete the biblical text in order to preach it in a way that fits your own personality and delivery style, while enabling those listening to think more clearly and deeply about its contemporary relevance in their lives.

Review: Counter Culture

I think it would be impossible to read David Platt’s latest book without taking on something of the weight of burden his heart feels for the issues in its pages. He begins “imagine standing at the height of all the earth and seeing the depth of human poverty” and Platt is no stranger to spending extended periods in some of the world’s most impoverished places. As the former Pastor of the Church at Brook Hills and now as President of the International Mission Board, Platt has travelled extensively around the world witnessing the life-changing (and often life-threatening) implications of countering economic, spiritual, and moral poverty with the gospel in a world where racism, sex slavery, pornography and persecution are worse than any other time in human history. It is from this position that Platt makes a compassionate call to stand for justice and mercy in the world, while proclaiming without reservation that Jesus Christ is the Judge and Saviour of the world.

Review: Intentional Parenting

When it comes to the goal of raising children who treasure Jesus above all things, Tad Thompson’s book Intentional Parenting: Family Discipleship by Design provides relevant, uncomplicated, practical theology in a punchy no-nonsense 100 pages. Short accessible chapters mean you get straight to the crux of each matter Tad addresses, and the “Now Make It Stick” section at the end of every chapter brings the point right into your home by asking questions and issuing challenges that help you know right where you’re at, and where you need to grow.