Angel: 'Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.'"
- C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
The living must speak for the fallen.
Ain’t no ramblin’ Rambler today, friends. This is Race Weekend here in Indy, and a special one at that. This Memorial Day Sunday will mark the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500.
Your chaplain won’t be going anywhere near 16th and Georgetown tomorrow, however. Officials announced the first sellout in the history of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, which means that an estimated 350,000 people will crowd into the track on the west side of the city to watch the race and participate in the general revelry. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway does not release official attendance numbers, but it is said that the Indy 500 is the largest single-day sporting event on the planet. And this year, for the 100th race, all kinds of records are being set.
Let’s get a bit of historical perspective: when the first 500 Mile Race was run:
- A first-class stamp cost 2 cents
- A Hershey chocolate bar cost 2 cents
- A bottle of Coca-Cola cost 5 cents
- A gallon of gas cost 6 cents
- A box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes went for under 10 cents
- The average cost of a new car was $1,280, and a new home, $2,650
And, oh yeah, Wrigley Field had been open for 2 years, and the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series for 8 years (I’m still waiting).
Should be wild around here for the next couple of days. Here are some links for those of you who would like to learn more about this racing institution, celebrating 100 years this weekend.
- This year’s field of racers
- Indy native David Letterman’s memories of the race
- IMS photo galleries
- Trip Down Victory Lane: Interviews with 18 race winners
- 8 Wild Ideas that Debuted at the Indy 500, from Seat Belts to Mirrors
- 100 Most Interesting Facts, Milestones, and People of the Indianapolis 500
It’s a great weekend to live in Indy! So, come on everybody, start your engines, and let’s ramble at 225 mph today!
Is Hillary in big trouble?
The former First Lady and current presidential candidate found the temperature rising with regard to her email controversy. CNN reports:
While an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server continues, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General has raised the stakes with the release of a remarkable report finding that Clinton’s actions violated State Department policies and were inconsistent with federal record-keeping laws.
…the inspector general directly contradicts Clinton’s repeated assertions that she complied both with federal law and State Department policies. “At a minimum,” the report finds, “Secretary Clinton should have surrendered all emails dealing with Department business before leaving government service and, because she did not do so, she did not comply with Department’s policies that were implemented in accordance with the Federal Records Act.”
Clinton’s defense has basically been, “Others did it too!” which sounds kind of like my kids when they were seven years old. I didn’t buy it then — will the public buy it now? The report does point out that Colin Powell also used private email and failed to protect correspondence, but is that going to be enough to protect Ms. Clinton?
Despite the inspector general’s report, criminal charges against Clinton remain highly unlikely. While the report provides previously nonpublic information relevant to Clinton’s motivations, the available public evidence remains insufficient to illustrate two facts needed for a criminal charge — that she knew that emails on her private server were classified and that she intentionally mishandled classified information.
No doubt this will constitute a major theme of discussion for some time in the run-up to the election.
Have you ever wondered how the U.S. military decided that Hiroshima was the city on which to unleash the atomic bomb? A fascinating article by Paul Ham at The Atlantic tells us.
A group in Los Alamos, New Mexico gathered in May, 1945 to discuss options. They were known as the Target Group, and this was the question before them: Which of the preserved Japanese cities would best demonstrate the destructive power of the atomic bomb?
General Leslie Groves, the Army engineer in charge of the Manhattan Project, had been ruminating on targets since late 1944; at a preliminary meeting two weeks earlier, he had laid down his criteria. The target should: possess sentimental value to the Japanese so its destruction would “adversely affect” the will of the people to continue the war; have some military significance—munitions factories, troop concentrations, and so on; be mostly intact, to demonstrate the awesome destructive power of an atomic bomb; and be big enough for a weapon of the atomic bomb’s magnitude.
Tokyo, Ham reports, had been eliminated from consideration because it had already been devastated and was in a state of rubble. The group narrowed down their choices to four: Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura. As they considered Hiroshima, they observed that it
…was “an important army depot and port of embarkation,” …situated in the middle of an urban area “of such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged.” Hiroshima, the biggest of the “unattacked” targets, was surrounded by hills that were “likely to produce a focusing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage.” On top of this, the Ota River made it “not a good” incendiary target, raising the likelihood of its preservation for the atomic bomb. Hiroshima met the criteria — “a large urban center, the psychological impact of which should be “spectacular” to ensure “international recognition” of the new weapon.”
Ham’s article painstakingly describes the process as the discussion went through several committees. In one of his most troubling paragraphs, he writes
…not one of the committee men raised the ethical, moral, or religious case against the use of an atomic bomb without warning on an undefended city. The businesslike tone, the strict adherence to form, the cool pragmatism, did not admit humanitarian arguments, however vibrantly they lived in the minds and diaries of several of the men present.
The debate continued until it was finally decided that Hiroshima would be the site. Weather forecasts promised clear weather for August 6, 1945.
It is graduation season of course, and time for loads of boring speeches.
However, one of the better endings to a speech came from Hank Azaria, as he congratulated the students at Tufts University using his Simpsons’ voices.
…comes from Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of famous evangelist Billy Graham.
Lotz, who has previously said that she believes the Rapture will occur during her lifetime, reasoned that the fact that her father is still alive might have something to do with the return of Christ.
“I thought it had to do with the Return of Jesus and I won’t go there right now, but I wonder also if [my father] is here … to be an encouragement to you — that there is a man that is still faithful, still has a heart for the Gospel, heart for God, heart for the lost and still prays,” she continued. “In fact, he prays in his preaching voice. He is still kicking. Maybe that will encourage you to be faithful through persevering in the ministry to which God has called you.”
In an interview with The Christian Post following her speech, Lotz clarified what she meant when she said her father’s aliveness could possibly have something to do with the coming of Christ.
“My father’s life is very unique. His life in ministry will never be equalled. The fact that he is still on this planet at 97 years of age, that is not an accident,” she explained. “God is not whimsical and he does everything intentionally. The fact that my father is still here, God is holding him for a reason.”
“One of the things that I thought possibly — only God would know — when my father goes to Heaven, one more time, the Gospel will be preached to the whole world,” Lotz continued.
She cited Matthew 24:14, which states: “And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
“Every news outlet, I would think, they won’t be able to talk about Billy Graham without talking about the Gospel, I wouldn’t think unless they do contortions,” she stated. “So, maybe God is holding him for that particular moment in time, in timing for things that will happen at the very end of this age.”
In another prediction, Ms. Lotz said, “I believe America is in the last stage of this downward spiral into the abyss of God’s judgment.”
In a scintillating display of exegetical skill with Romans 1, she was somehow able to find how abandoning Creationism and embracing evolution leads to sexual immorality and ultimately judgment.
What is it with Billy Graham’s kids these days?
Reports are that there is a new Republican Super PAC that is focusing on getting a specific population of previously untapped voters to vote for Donald Trump.
You guessed it. Let me introduce you to “Amish PAC” — “the first Super PAC dedicated to getting plain voters to the polls.”
Amish PAC’s co-founder, Ben Walters, said his group’s goal is to mobilize a previously untapped bloc of conservative voters for a general election fight against Hillary Clinton. The group is focused on the key swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are each home to about 60,000 Amish people.
…Walters said in an interview that he and others started Amish PAC to reach out to this culturally isolated community, basically because no one else had tried it yet.
“It became clear that Republicans were doing a bad job of reaching out to probably one of the most deeply conservative pockets of potential voters in the country,” he said.
Word also has it that Bernie Sanders is making a last minute push to get out the Zoroastrian vote in his efforts to surpass Hillary Clinton.
Let’s not forget the real reason for Memorial Day.
Chris McGonigal, the photo editor at Huffington Post, has put together a remarkable and moving series of photos to remind us of those whose service and sacrifice we recall this weekend. I hope you’ll follow the link and spend some time reflecting on the toll war takes, not only on the fallen we remember on Memorial Day, but also on those they leave behind.
May these pictures be constant reminders for us all to pray and work for peace.
Finally, there’s only one song to play today. Two years ago, Jim Nabors sang his last rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana” before joining with Mary Hulman George to say the iconic words, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
Here it is, with wishes for a safe, happy, and reflective Memorial Day weekend.
Ray Bradbury is well known in two differing ways, as one of the bards of the dystopia to come and as an advocate for a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Patrick West describes the difference.
We see the former in The Martian Chronicles.
‘We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things’, says one trooper in the story ‘And the Moon be Still as Bright’: ‘The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose.’ Man can leave his own planet, but he can never escape himself.
We saw the latter in the newspapers.
In real life, however, Ray Bradbury was a well-known and vocal advocate of the liberating potential of space exploration. Alongside Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, he has been hailed by NASA historians as a visionary without whom the space programme would not have been possible.
I am reposting this review from a couple of years ago because it’s become newly relevant with the movie, based on this book, that’s just come out. Some of my friends on Facebook said they were happy to have this information because the movie sounds so sweet and romantic. Is there a legal penalty for deceptive packing of of movies? This book, and very probably the movie version too, is poisonous.
I was deeply disappointed by this long, engaging, insidious apologia for assisted suicide, or “mercy killing” as the euphemism goes. I saw this title on so very many end-of-the-year favorites lists, and I thought it sounded engaging. It was. The characters were appealing, and Louisa Clark’s project to make her quadriplegic “patient”, Will Traynor, take an interest in life, kept me turning the pages to see what would happen.
I didn’t want easy answers. I know people who live in chronic pain, and I know people who deal with severe disability every day of their lives. It’s not easy, and their problems should not be trivialized by an unearned and unexamined happily-ever-after ending to a novel. However, (SPOILER: I’m not at all reluctant to write spoilers for a novel that engages in blatant propaganda), the ending to this novel trivializes life itself, and its ending makes the lives of disabled people and people who are in pain seem cheap and worthless.
Serendipitously, I saw a tweet today that connected me to this blog post quoting Marilyn Golden, Senior Policy Analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, at a disability rights group blog called Not Dead Yet. These are some reasons she gives to be concerned about laws being proposed in in such far-flung places as Scotland, New Hampshire, and New Mexico—and about the legalization of assisted suicide that is already in effect in Washington state and in Oregon:
Deadly mix: Assisted suicide is a deadly mix with our profit-driven healthcare system. At $300, assisted suicide will be the cheapest treatment. Assisted suicide saves insurance companies money—even with full implementation of the greatly-needed Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
Abuse: Abuse of people with disabilities, and elder abuse, are rising. Not every family is a supportive family! Where assisted suicide is legal, such as in Oregon, an heir or abusive caregiver may steer someone towards assisted suicide, witness the request, pick up the lethal dose, and even give the drug—no witnesses are required at the death, so who would know?
Mistakes: Diagnoses of terminal illness are too often wrong, leading people to give up on treatment and lose good years of their lives, where assisted suicide is legal.
Careless: Where assisted suicide is legal, no psychological evaluation is required or even recommended. People with a history of depression and suicide attempts have received the lethal drugs.
Burden: Financial and emotional pressures can also make people choose death.
Unnecessary: Everyone already has the legal right to refuse treatment and get full palliative care, including, if dying in pain, pain-relieving palliative sedation.
No true safeguards: Where assisted suicide is legal, the safeguards are hollow, with no enforcement or investigation authority.
Our quality of life underrated: Society often underrates people with disabilities’ quality of life. Will doctors & nurses fully explore our concerns and fight for our full lives? Will we get suicide prevention or suicide assistance?
Of course, in Me Before You, all of the family are motivated by pure concern for the quadriplegic Will. Will himself makes a completely autonomous and carefully considered decision to kill himself, and no one is allowed to really argue that he is in no condition to make such a decision. One character, Will’s caregiver’s mother, is outspoken and unshaken in her opposition to “mercy killing”, but she is a peripheral character and the only one who is not finally recruited and convinced by Will’s suffering and his determination to support him in his decision to end his life.
A book that showed both (or many) sides of this issue, even if it ended in the same way, would have been worth reading. As it is, Ms. Moyes has used her admittedly fine writing talent to propagandize for death, and I think it’s a pity.
Doug Ponder describes the party that began at the beginning and will last forever.
The Trinity is so saturated with truth and beauty and goodness that their delight in each other spilled over the banks, like the Nile in flood season, creating life where there was no life so that others might come to share in God’s joy. Creation was God’s divine invitation to join the party of the ages.
Not really bloody. Or violent. Well, not very. I mean, there are pirates. But Captain Peter Blood (that’s his real name) is a gentleman pirate. He only kills bad guys. And a lot of the really bad, violent stuff occurs off-stage, so to speak. Captain Blood reminds me of Captain Jack Sparrow, sort of quirky and not always trustworthy. He lives by his own code of honor and morality, and it’s not exactly the traditional one of his time and culture. Still, Captain Blood sees himself, and others mostly see him, as a gentleman, forced into piracy by circumstances beyond his control and trying to make the best of it.
The story begins in England, 1685. (You can read an article with detailed historical background to the novel here.) Peter Blood is a “bachelor of medicine and several other things besides.” He becomes inadvertently involved in the Monmouth Rebellion against King James II of England. Although he is innocent, guilty only of sheltering and assisting medically one of the fleeing rebels, Blood is convicted of treason, and in lieu of a sentence of execution, he is sent to Barbados as a slave. Eventually after years of captivity, Peter Blood escapes from his master in Barbados, but since he is an outlaw and an escaped slave with a price on his head, he has little choice but to become a buccaneer, or privateer, or in common parlance, a pirate.
Some of the events in Peter Blood’s career as a pirate sound very similar to the exploits of the actual pirate Henry Morgan, fictionalized in John and Patricia Beatty’s book, Pirate Royal. Sabatini explains this similarity in his book by saying that Captain Morgan’s biographer, Esquemeling, must have read the ship’s log of Captain BLood’s ship. “Esquemeling must have obtained access to these records, and he plucked from them the brilliant feathers of several exploits to stick them into the tale of his own hero, Captain Morgan. I mention it chiefly as a warning, for when presently I come to relate the affair of Maracaybo, those of you who have read Esquemeling may be in danger of supposing that Henry Morgan really performed those things which are veraciously attributed to Peter Blood.”
So, Captain Blood, the epitome of the pirate adventure story, published in 1922, is a good bet to recommend to teens and adults looking for pirate books. The Sea Hawk is another pirate story from the pen of the prolific Sabatini. Both of these novels were adapted into movies by the Hollywood film machine of the 1920’s and 1930’s, twice each, first as silent films and again as “talkies”, the latter starring the swashbuckling film hero, Errol Flynn.
Occasionally I pick up a work of contemporary fantasy, especially if I have some acquaintance with the author. I know Mike Duran, author of The Resurrection, slightly through Facebook. He’s a writer who shows promise.
The Resurrection centers on a small, struggling church in a little California coastal town. The pastor is having a crisis of faith, and the elders are divided and contentious.
Ruby Case, one of a trio of faithful church members who’ve never quit praying for their congregation, attends the funeral of a teenage boy. To her amazement, a miracle happens, through her, and overnight she becomes the focus of a media frenzy, and her family is brought under stress, and even into danger. Meanwhile the pastor is being led, by an apostate seminary professor, into dangerous spiritual byways.
Author Duran has genuine gifts as a storyteller. There were moments in The Resurrection when I was authentically moved. The book reminded me, to be honest, of nothing more than my own novel Wolf Time (which is not to suggest in any way that it’s borrowed. It’s just the same kind of tale).
The author does need to work on the tools of his craft, though. He sometimes selects the wrong word, and he often throws verbiage at a passage when he would have done better to pare the words back and find the exact ones he wants for his desired effect.
But I read it all the way through, which I can’t say about a lot of Christian fantasy books, and as I told you it gave me some genuine thrills. So I recommend it. Suitable for most readers.
Pastor Joe Thorn said he’s seen many small churches, some being the salt of the earth, some needing a smack upside the head. Last year, he wrote a four part series on what small churches can do in their communities.
- “As I have seen several churches in my area continue to dwindle in size I have watched the leadership of many of these churches settle into into one of three dangerous mentalities: elitism, defeatism, and survivalism. These are mentalities I know well as they have characterized my ministry at one time or another.”
- “Many smaller churches feel extremely limited by their size,” but they don’t have to compete with other churches for market share or apologize to anyone for their size.
- “Smaller churches are no less hindered from doing what God has called his people to do than are larger churches. Having more people does not maker it easier.”
- “My wife and I once attended a Reformed Baptist Church that fits my current definition of a “small” church. There was no worship leader. No choir. No instruments. No overhead projection. No cool lights. The building was plain-Jane. Yet their gathering was powerful. Why?”
Thorn has a “three-book series on the confession, nature, and expression of the Church” coming out this fall from Moody, which will likely cover these themes and much more.
This colorful book has the basics plus a few: volcanoes made of baking soda and vinegar, a storm in a jar or clouds in a jar, a bouncy ball made of borax, cornstarch and glue, invisible ink, and lava lamps, just to name some. Each experiment has a set of symbol pictures next to the title to indicate that it might be “exploding” or “messy” or easy or difficult or requiring fire or safety goggles or a longer time period than usual.
This book is a Dutch import, but the translators and editors have done a good job of Americanizing, as far as I can see. I didn’t catch any “European-isms” in the ingredients lists for the experiments. The measurements are in the units commonly used in this country: cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. American parents might be a little surprised by the “paint bomb” with which one can “turn your doorstep into a painting!” But it’s marked as “messy” and “explodes” and “do this outside”. Maybe there should be another symbol for “ask your parents first before you paint the front porch.”
These experiments involve lots of baking soda, lots of eggs and balloons and sugar and salt and bubbles and explosions. There is a note in the front of the book on the reverse side of the title page opposite the table of contents, easy to miss, that tells readers: “All of the experiments in this book require adult supervision, and some require careful, hands-on adult assistance. Even materials that might not appear dangerous can be harmful in certain situations if mixed, or if used improperly. Any experiments using fire are safest performed outside and require particular adult assistance and attention. Some materials and experiments may endanger people or pets, either in the process of doing them or if left unattended or stored improperly. Get adult help to decide which ones are right for you, and make sure an adult is there helping along the way. Read through the experiment completely before starting.”
I’m quite curious as to whether or not that same disclaimer appears in the Dutch edition of this book. Or is only Americans who feel the need to warn children in tiny print that fire burns and that chemicals combined may explode or poison the dog?
“Yeah, you know—I’m a midnight Tokar.”
This was the first Steve Miller Band-quoting Muslim cab driver I’d ever had the privilege of sharing time with.
I was in a city up north for a pastors conference and was going to meet some friends after hours at a restaurant downtown. But when Tokar and I arrived, I spent another thirty minutes just sitting in the cab at the curb, talking with my new friend.
How the conversation got started, I don’t remember, but it went pretty deep fairly quickly. By the time we’d arrived, he’d already told me he and his wife were waiting for their last child to leave home so they could get a divorce and that he was reading a lot of self-help books.
Tokar’s Muslim beliefs were nominal. But he had the same working understanding of life as nearly every other human being in the world: “do more good than bad.”
“Do you want to get divorced?” I asked him.
“No. My wife wants it. She’s a very depressed person. I want to help her but she says she doesn’t love me any more and we are better if we are separate. So as soon as our last child goes—pffft.” He made a gesture with his hand. “She’s gone.”
“What does your religion say about this?”
“Well, you know what they would say. It isn’t right.”
“So what do you do?”
“What can I do?”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
“Okay, right. I’m sorry.”
“Every day,” he said, “I just get up, do my thing. Try to stay out of the way. Just try to get through the day.”
“That sounds like a terrible way to live.”
“What would your religion say about that?”
“Just trying to get through the day.”
“I don’t know. They’d say it’s not good. I should look on the brighter side.”
“Look on the brighter side?” That wasn’t the kind of thing I would’ve expected from Islamic theology. It sounded more like Joel Osteen. The more we talked, the more I discovered Tokar’s theology was closer to Osteen’s than to Islam’s. I said, “So when it’s all said and done, what happens? When it’s all over.”
“When it’s all over? You go stand before God.”
“And you hope he will let you into heaven?”
“And how do you know if he will?”
“It’s like—”—and I swear, I am not making this up; this is the exact illustration he used, which might as well have been cribbed from someone’s fake illustration about sharing the gospel with somebody—“it’s like there’s a big scale.”
I totally knew where he was going with this.
He continued: “And on one side is all your good, and on the other side is all your bad.”
“And whichever side is weightiest, that’s how you know if you made it.”
I just sort of let it hang there a while. Then I asked him: “Do you think your good outweighs your bad?”
He let that hang there a while. Then he softly said, “No.”
“I don’t think mine does either.”
We all have, essentially, three ways to live: by goodness, by badness, or by the gospel. Or, to put it another way: law, license, or Lord.
Some people prefer to live for the moment, to get as much pleasure in as they can, and not think about tomorrow, not think about what comes after they die, not think about God, except perhaps to shake their fist at him or his church. Some people deny God by their words, avowing a decided atheism. Some people simply deny God by their life, embracing the functional atheism of living however they please. This is the “bad” or “licentious” way to live, although certainly people who’ve sold out to it don’t think it’s bad at all!
Some people prefer to live very religiously, very morally, minding all their p’s and q’s and keeping a tidy behavioral ledger running. They are doing their best to be good and think good and say good. They serve and give and sacrifice. But they don’t love Jesus. They might even go to church, or they might think themselves too good for church. They may be atheists or religious people, but they are trying to “earn their keep” in the world either way, trusting that karma will save them or maybe those great big heavenly scales will tilt their way when it’s all said and done.
I think if we’re all honest, we will recognize that isn’t likely. A lifetime’s worth of good behavior cannot make up for the eternal glory we need to live with God forever.
So there I was in that cab with my friend, the midnight Tokar. He had admitted his good deeds would not outweigh his bad deeds. I admitted the same. He was staring not just into a dreary life of “getting by,” he was staring into the unknown eternity, and I had unwittingly exposed his aimlessness. And his hopelessness.
So what do we do? We have three ways we can live, but in the end, the first two are really the same. They are both just self-salvation projects, and neither of them works.
But then there’s Jesus. He alone offers a rest from trying to be good enough. He alone conquers our fears of being too bad. And when we see him clearly—see what love he has for broken sinners, see what hope he offers for wayward travelers, see what rest he provides for weary hearts, see what joy he pours out on parched souls, see what glory he shares with frail human beings—there’s only one choice to make. This is what I told Tokar.
In the end, Christianity stands alone, not because it’s a “better religion,” but because it speaks a better word. Christianity is unparalleled, because Jesus Christ is.
Please don’t shrug.
(This is an excerpt from my new book Unparalleled: How Christianity’s Uniqueness Makes it Compelling)
I got to thinking about the old song, “Oh Shenandoah,” this weekend, for no important reason. It’s one of The Divine Sissel’s favorite numbers (as witness the video above). She says she learned it from a Norwegian sea captain, which is no surprise, since one of its many permutations over the years has been its service as a sea shanty. It’s certainly one of America’s most beautiful native songs, and also one of its most versatile and mysterious.
In fact, one has to ask, “What in Burl Ives’ name is the song about, anyway?” It addresses Shenandoah, which we all know to be a river and a valley in Virginia, but then it talks about “the wide Missouri,” thousands of miles away. This is the question I set out to answer, sparing no expense in consulting a sophisticated new technology called Wikipedia.
Well. Turns out it’s not about the Shenandoah Valley (or river) at all. There was a guy named Shenandoah.
Shenandoah (or Skenandoa) was an elected chief of the Oneida tribe in the 18th Century. He lived to be, apparently, 110 years old. He assisted the American side in the Revolution, providing (or so it is said) needed supplies to them at Valley Forge. Washington, so the story goes, admired him so much that he went home to Virginia and named a river after him.
He was converted to Christianity and took the name John Shenandoah. The minister who baptized him, Samuel Kirkland, became a lifelong friend. Kirkland founded what is today Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, and the chief and the missionary are buried side by side on the college grounds.
So that’s where the Shenandoah of the song comes from. Only there’s no reason to think John S. had anything to do with the events described in the song, which are entirely out of character for him. The writer just needed an Indian name, and Shenandoah scanned well.
We don’t know who wrote “Oh Shenandoah,” but it seems to have first been sung by traders and voyageurs along the Missouri River in the early 1800s. In the song, a trader falls in love with the chief’s daughter and asks for her hand, but is rebuffed because he’s white. But then another trader comes along with “fire water,” and the chief gives the girl to him. The singer paddles away “across the wide Missouri” in grief.
Over time many versions have appeared, many with little relation to the original concept. Which is how folk songs work, after all.
What a fascinating piece of narrative nonfiction history! I learned so many things that I didn’t know before:
The Treaty of Union between England and Scotland (1706-1707), according to Mr. Herman, was actually a huge boost to Scottish commerce, progress, and culture. As he writes the story, the Scots may have given up their independence, but they received innumerable benefits from the deal, including a paradoxical and practical independence from English interference in their affairs that enabled the Scots to “invade” London and indeed England and become leaders in government, education, and business for over a century.
Philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume, historians and biographers James Boswell and Thomas Babbington Macaulay, poets Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, inventors John Macadam (macadam roads), Thomas Telford (canals and bridges galore), James Watt (steam engine), and many other men, both famous and under-appreciated, were all Scots or of Scottish extraction.
Scotswomen, other than the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, seem to have been quite unheard of and unremarkable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at least. The dearth of women in the pages of this book reminded me of the scarcity/non-mention of dwarf women in The Lord of the Rings. You know there must be women, and every once in a while a “mother” is mentioned, but the women were not part of literary, educational, or polite society. (Scotsmen remind me of dwarves, or vice-versa, anyway.)
The whole Bonnie Prince Charlie thing and Highland kilts and bagpipes made the Highlands of Scotland a tourist attraction in the early 1800’s, mostly because of Sir Walter Scott’s novels.
Scotland’s literacy rate (boys and girls) was higher than any other country in the world by the end of the eighteenth century, and printing and book-selling were major industries in Edinburgh during that same century.
And lots more. I found this book fascinating, even if it was a somewhat one-sided view of the power, influence and sheer overwhelming greatness of Scotland and its culture. If everything good, especially in the eighteenth century, came out of Scotland, what happened in England, Ireland, France, America, even China? Another fault in the book, the author begins his story with the true tale of Edinburgh theology student Thomas Aikenhead who was hanged in 1697 for the crime of “obstinate blasphemy”. Herman calls Scotland “a nation governed by a harshly repressive Kirk; a nation of an unforgiving and sometimes cruel Calvinist religious faith.” However, the rest of the book makes little of the influence of the “Kirk” or of Calvinism or indeed of Christianity in general, even though most of the Enlightenment figures in Scotland who dominate the culture for the next two centuries were professing Christians, many of them ordained ministers. With the notable exception of atheist philosopher David Hume, it’s as if their religious beliefs were baggage to be hidden away or overcome and not an influence on their thinking at all.
I would have liked to read more about how the faith of men such as educator, theologian, and philosopher Francis Hutcheson shaped their theology —or perhaps how Mr. Hutcheson was able to reconcile his Presbyterianism with his belief in the innate goodness of man. In fact, the author, Mr. Herman, does highlight the Christian faith of Hutcheson, although with less of a explanation of how that faith was worked out in his life than I would have liked. But the faith of other men who are featured in the book would have been valuable to explore and in treating to read about.
Nevertheless, even if the book is biased in favor of Scotland’s influence and standing in the world, and even if Scots Calvinism is given short shrift in the building of that Scottish moral philosophy, How the Scots Invented the Modern World certainly was a good read. It made me want to look up and find the names and histories of some of my own Scottish ancestors so that I could claim a part in the Scottish heritage that Mr, Herman so ably extols.
Brothers, don’t go about your weekly sermon preparation and personal discipleship in sackcloth and ashes. Get into the vineyard of God’s Word, get some holy sweat worked up, whistling while you work, lifting your hearts in worship. Get into the kitchen of study and prep and start putting together the banquet. And come Sunday, spread the feast out rich and sumptuous for us, beckoning us to taste and see that the Lord is good. We don’t need your doomsdaying or dimbulbing. Still less do we need your shallow pick-me-ups and spit-polished legalism. Like our brother Wesley, set yourselves on fire with gospel truth that your church family might come watch you burn.
And when you gather Sunday with the flock, shepherd us to repentance and sincerity, reminding us of the holy God who welcomes us with sin-forgetting forgiveness. When we enter the worship gathering, let us not look back to the ruins lest we all become the wrong kind of salt. Let us look forward to the new Jerusalem, where our citizenship is secured even today and evermore. Get your wits about you and take heart, for our Lord has overcome the world. Yesterday, today, Sunday, and forever. Frighten the kings of the world and shake the kingdom of the devil with how resolute you are in abandoning yourselves to the mighty God.
Your churches don’t need your hand-wringing but your hand-raising. We need your deep, abiding, all-conquering, sin-despairing gospel joy. This and this alone is the hope of the world.
Barnabas Piper offers this thoughtful, relevant prayer for many people all over the Interwebs.
Lord, make me viral,
Because despite public opinion publishing isn’t all that lucrative.
I know fame is fleeting and often harmful,
But I’m pretty sure I’m the exception to the rule.
That’s like almost from 3 Peter that. Read the rest through the link.
One last Marty Singer novel for now. A new one’s coming out at the end of the month, but you’ll have to wait breathlessly for my review of that one.
The Wicked Flee starts with our hero sick in bed, not with the colon cancer he’s been fighting, but with the flu. But when his friend, undercover cop Chuck Rhee, shows up at his door saying his teenage sister has disappeared, Marty gets up and joins him in the hunt.
This installment differs from the previous books in jumping between points of view. Part of the time we’re with Marty and Chuck in their desperate hunt, part of the time we follow a couple sociopathic human traffickers, and much of the book is seen through the eyes of Sarah Haynesworth, a Maryland state police officer. In fact, Marty is kind of a secondary character this time around.
But the writing is excellent, and the tension ratchets up effectively. Recommended. Not too much graphic stuff.
Winners of the 2014 World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band from Lisburn, County Antrim, under Pipe Major Richard Parkes MBE and Drum Sergeant Keith Orr. This was their fourth championship win in four years.
I’m honestly not sure what I think about N.D. Wilson’s newest book, the beginning of a series called Outlaws of Time. The story is really dark and violent, and as with some of Wilson’s other books it moves too fast for me with too many layers of meaning. I feel as if I’m missing something when I read Wilson’s fantasy, in particular. Actually, I feel dumb. On the other hand, I loved Boys of Blur and Leepike Ridge, especially, and this one has some of the elements that I liked from those: a very American setting, brave kids, adventure, lots of good writing with good metaphors and similes. I just feel as if I have whiplash from trying to follow all the symbolism and hidden meanings and the time travel.
For example, Sam Miracle (his real name) begins the story as a resident (inmate?) of Saint Anthony of the Desert Destitute Youth Ranch, SADDYR. And it’s a sad place, governed by your typical fictional orphanage parents, Mr. and Mrs. Spalding. There are twelve boys at SADDYR, including Sam, and the others are Pete, Drew, Jude, Barto, brothers Jimmy Z and Johnny Z, Flip the Lip, Matt Cat and Sir T(homas), Tiago Lopez, and Simon Zeal. They’re all juvenile delinquents, but they have the names of the twelve apostles in the Bible, minus Judas Iscariot. Yes, I noticed that little naming trick immediately, and it’s kind of cool. But why? Why do Sam’s friends and cohorts have the same names as Jesus’ twelve disciples? What does it mean? Sam isn’t Jesus or a Christ figure, or is he? The priest, Father Tiempo, that Sam meets in the desert is kind of a Christ figure who gives up his life/lives to save Sam and the rest of the world through Sam, but then the priest turns out to be someone else, not Jesus at all. Sam is the one sent to save the world from the evil Vulture, El Buitre, but he’s a violent and at the same time, vulnerable, savior, sent to use his deadly snake arms to kill The Vulture. Even though he’s mangled and wounded by the bad guys in the story, and handicapped by his unreliable memory and his lack of confidence in his own abilities, Sam is a survivor, redeemed and resurrected multiple times. I suppose I’m trying to make the story too simplistic, the characters too allegorical. But allegory is implied in the names and actions of the characters. (I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s professed hatred of allegory in all its forms while at least parts of his Narnia stories are clearly allegorical in nature.)
Then there’s the time travel, enough time travel to make Hurley’s head hurt a lot (LOST reference, there). This book reminded me of LOST–way too much to figure out, and maybe half of it doesn’t mean anything, just the author playing around. Sam and his friend Glory travel though time, around time, behind time, on the edges of time, and through the cracks between times. I’m a straight-forward, A-Z kind of gal, and although I can handle one time jump, or maybe two, the ramifications of all the time travel in this book make me feel as if I’ve lost my grip on reality. Sam Miracle certainly loses his mind and memory and his sense of what’s real and what’s a dream quite often throughout the course of the story. And since Sam is the main viewpoint character, so did I.
PC critics are going to hate all the guns and all the bullets flying. Even though one of Sam’s snake arms, Speck, is a little bit goofy and doesn’t want to hurt anyone, the other one, Cindy, is “a killer, a nightmare.” Speck shoots the weapons out of the bad guys’ hands, but Cindy shoots to kill. Again, I’m tempted to draw allegorical parallels or symbolical confusion from the contrast between Sam’s left arm, vicious sidewinder Cindy, and his right arm, distractible pet snake Speck, but I will refrain.
Do I think kids will like Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle? Yes, I think so, but I’m not sure what exactly they will get out of it. Maybe that’s good. Maybe that makes me a little uneasy as a parent who’s tempted to give them a neat little book in which I know the “moral of the story”. Maybe one moral of this particular story is that life isn’t neat or predictable, and neither should the stories that we share with each other and with our children be unsurprising and tidily understood. Or maybe, like the authors of LOST, Mr. Wilson is just playing around, having fun with the names and the nicknames and the numbers and the times and the snakes and the guns and all the things that make me want to read the next book in the series.
However, I would warn the author that playing with guns can be quite dangerous.
“You know,” Glory said, watching. “There’s a difference between real life and books. Don’t act like they’re the same.”
“Sure,” Sam said. “Getting life right is a lot harder.”
Another Marty Singer novel by Matthew Iden. I liked this one particularly, since it revisited some themes from the first and best novel in the series, A Reason to Live.
At the beginning of The Spike, Marty is a witness to the murder of a businesswoman in a DC Metro station. He tries and fails to chase the murderer down, but the victim’s family hires him to find the killer. Prospects of success seem slim. The woman worked in real estate and seemed to have no particular enemies.
But as he investigates, Marty learns more than he wants to know about the seedy side of Washington real estate, a world of sweetheart deals where politicians and developers profit and poor people lose their homes. It gets increasingly difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
What I liked best about The Spike was that the themes of Marty’s cancer treatment and his relationships return to play a larger part than in the last couple stories. The theme of politics shows up this time around, which worried me (author Iten doesn’t say much about politics but I suspect his are to the left of mine), but I think it was handled pretty evenhandedly. The only corrupt politician whose party is mentioned is Republican, but on the other hand the majority of the political sleazebags are Washington, DC civic officials – and we all know what party those people would be.
So I happily recommend The Spike to the reader. Cautions for the usual.
In 1875, George MacDonald, Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister, published the novel Malcolm, the rags-to-riches story of a common fisherman who finds his identity as a (Christian) gentleman. The sequel to Malcolm, The Marquis of Lossie, soon followed in 1877. This was the era of Charles Dickens and the other great Victorian novelists, and MacDonald was following in their tradition, with a bit of a difference. First of all, MacDonald, a friend and mentor to Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), was a pioneering author of fantasy (The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, The Light Princess) as well as the realistic, romantic novels the Victorians had grown to love and read avidly. And MacDonald was emphatically a Scot. His novels almost all take place in Scotland or in a fantasy world that looks and sounds a lot like Scotland—–with all the heather and mountains and seas and kilts and bagpipes and thick Scottish brogue that such a setting implies.
In the 1980’s, Christian author Michael Phillips wanted to make MacDonald’s realistic fiction more accessible for a new generation. He edited the two volumes of Malcolm’s story and re-published them with the Gaelic language toned down and reinterpreted and with some of MacDonald’s long didactic passages either excised or edited to be shorter and more to the point. Phillips also gave the novels new titles, The Fisherman’s Lady and The Marquis’ Secret. You can purchase these updated versions (or borrow them from Meriadoc Homeschool Library). Or you can read Malcolm and The Marquis of Lossie in the original language online at Project Gutenberg or other online book sites.
In The Marquis’ Secret, Malcolm, who has been secretly told of his true identity, must decide how to handle the information and the responsibility he has inherited. There’s a running analogy in the book between the taming of a wild horse and the growth of a man (or woman) and the “taming” of that man’s (or woman’s) sin nature. As Malcolm must discipline and guide the horse, so the Lord must tame and discipline His children to bring them into the fullness of what He has created them to be.
The two novels that make up the story of Malcolm are all that modern literature is required not to be: melodramatic, yes; didactic, absolutely; one dimensional characters, yes, that too. Malcolm is a hero, through and through, although he says he has had to allow God to tame his temper and his passion for justice. The bad guys are obviously evil, but in MacDonald’s near-universalist worldview there is much hope for redemption for each of them. Nevertheless, sometimes a dose of hopeful preaching through Victorian drama with characters who are recognizably either good or bad (until the bad repent and become good) is just what the reading soul needs. If you want an absorbing drama that will leave you encouraged rather than discouraged about mankind and the depth of God’s mercy, George MacDonald’s Malcolm is just the ticket.
And if you’re in the Friendswood/Clear Lake/South Houston area this weekend, the play, Malcolm, is being performed by Selah Arts at Trinity Fellowship in Friendswood, May 26, 27, and 28th at 7:00 pm each evening.
All along the watchtowers of the walls around
The city of man, the jokers and thieves shout
The songs of their sacred temples
And we all muse that there must be some way out of here
And the Dancer still dances His threefold dance
While we are only specks in the eye of the universe
That He forms into one new Man and fills with His breath
Paradox, mystery, unexplainable ineffable light
One and one and one make one
While the rebels shatter and scatter like Babel
“Min Heo is an illustrator and recent graduate of the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California.” (From Amazon)
The illustrations are what create interest in this series of books exploring the world’s cities. We have Paris and New York, soon to be joined in July, 2016 by a book entitled Come With Me to London. The pictures are simple, yet colorful and intriguing. If you like the cover illustration, you’ll get more similar pictures inside each book.
The text is rhyming, and although the rhythm or scansion is really off in most of the mostly four line poems that describe each site in either Paris or New York, they are readable, short and to the point. Again, I think the pictures are the focal point anyway. For example:
Along the Seine,
Where the bridges do cross;
From Pont Neuf, make a wish,
With a coin we can toss.
(I’ve no idea why there’s a semicolon after the word “cross” in that one?) It annoys me that the poetry is so poor, but the pictures make up for the lack of rhythm.
In Paris, we get a picture and verse for the Eiffel Tower, the Palais Garnier, the Louvre, Sacré-Coeur, Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Arc de Triomphe, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and several other sites. For New York City, there are visits to Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, the Natural History Museum, the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park Zoo, Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, Times Square, and more.
If you’re taking a trip to either city, or to London in the future, these exciting picture books would be a good accompaniment to your vacation. Or if you live in New York or Paris, your child might enjoy getting to know the city through one of these books and then visiting the places that are featured.
In 1773, Ronald Cameron and his sister Lauchlin are busily waging their own private war against the oppressive Sassenach (English soldiers) as the two young Highlanders work and play around their Scottish home. Their parents fought the English invaders and supported the Stuart King Jamie and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now Ronald and Laughlin believe it is their turn to carry on the struggle, especially when their elderly cousin Matthew from Virginia comes to visit and encourages their rebellion and love for liberty. However, when the sister and brother team get into real trouble with the occupation forces, their parents have no choice but to send them to Virginia to stay with their loyalist aunt, Lavinia Lennox.
The characters in Sally Watson’s Family Tree Series are all a part of the same family, the Lennoxes, and Cousin Matthew in this book is even studying his family genealogy. So there’s a running thread of family heritage and pugnacious, spunky traits that are handed down through the family, especially among the girls. The other books in the series are Linnet (London, 1582), Mistress Malapert (Shakespearean England, 1599), The Outrageous Oriel (English civil war, 1641), Loyal and the Dragon (English civil war, 1642), Witch of the Glens (Scotland, 1644), Lark (Puritan England, 1651), Highland Rebel (Jacobite revolution, 1745), and Jade (pirates in Colonial Virginia and the Caribbean). Read more here about how Ms. Watson’s books and characters are all related to each other.
I read at least some of these books when I was a kid of a girl, and I loved them then, especially Jade, the story of Melanie Lennox who frees a cargo of slaves headed for Virginia and becomes a pirate queen. The only ones of Ms. Watson’s books that I own are The Hornet’s Nest and Lark. But if any of you have any of her books lying around gathering dust, I would be happy to take them off your hands.
Characteristics of Ms. Watson’s heroines: outspokenness, a passion for justice, courage, over-confidence to the point of foolhardiness. These rather willful girls, mostly girls, make for interesting, exciting, adventurous stories, and of course, that’s the best kind. If you run across any of Ms. Watson’s novels for young people, I recommend them—even the ones I haven’t read yet.
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” — Nehemiah 8:9-10
The first step to real gospel joy is real gospel brokenness. We cannot get to real happiness in God until we get to real despair of our sin. “Til sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet,” Thomas Watson tells us.
But once we have despaired of all sin and the gods at their genesis, we are free. Really, truly free. To eat fat juicy steaks, for instance.
In fact, we cannot really enjoy the good gifts God gives us until he as their Giver is our greatest joy. Until he as their Giver is our greatest joy, we will be left trying to enjoy his gifts for things they are not, rather than the things they are.
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis credited a close friend with cultivating in him “a determination to rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being so magnificently what it was.”
John Piper echoes this enjoyment of quiddity in his book Don’t Waste Your Life, commenting on this kind of awareness: “To wake up in the morning and be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the warmth of the sun’s rays, the sound of the clock ticking, the sheer being of things… ”
If I don’t believe the gospel, I will miss out on the joy of the it-ness of things. I will be looking to these things as drugs, as appetite-fillers, as fulfillers, as powers, as gods, as worshipers of the god of myself.
If coffee or chocolate or anything else other than God is the highlight of my day or the ultimate joy of my heart, my joy is temporary, hollow, thin.
But if I believe in the gospel, I can finally enjoy the chocolate-ness of chocolate and the coffee-ness of coffee. Only the gospel frees me to enjoy things as they truly are and as they someday will be.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” — Hebrews 13:17
I wish that when I was a pastor I had spent more time with all the low-maintenance church folks. In church life, the squeaky wheel, as they say, gets the grease. Meanwhile, the folks who quietly and humbly served, gave, and simply showed up without causing heartaches or headaches just keep on keepin’ on. God love ‘em. I sure did. They were a joy to me, and I fear I neglected them too much simply because they didn’t seem too needy.
It is my goal now, for as long as God would have me simply as a sheep and not a shepherd, be as low-maintenance as I can manage for my church. I want when my pastor sees me coming — his name is Nathan (Hi, Nathan, if you’re reading this) — not to inwardly sigh or tense up or have to marshal some extra patience or energy, but to relax a little, smile, and feel safe.
As a twenty-plus year veteran of ministry who knows an awful lot of pastors, I can tell you that this feeling can be rare.
There’s even a Bible verse about this, and it’s one that many pastors are too scared to ever preach on. I’m gonna do them all a favor right now and share it with you:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
Some of you reading this might actually need to print that out and tape it to your mirror or the dashboard of your car.
Yes, there are some bad pastors out there. There are some authoritarian, domineering leaders out there. Too many, in fact. Some pastors are indeed bullies. These guys need to be held accountable and in many cases removed from their position of authority, as the biblical qualifications for the pastoral office forbid the quarrelsome, short-tempered, domineering man any part in church leadership (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4). (I have written about the necessity of pastoral gentleness numerous times, perhaps most notably here.)
But can I be honest? In my entire life in the church, despite some negative experiences with a few pastors, I’ve encountered way more bullies in the pews than in the pulpits. There are just as many pastors victimized by graceless congregants as vice versa.
I have a pastor friend who said he once dared to preach on Hebrews 13:17, and he had no sooner read the verse at the start of his message — hadn’t even started preaching yet! — and a woman stood up and shouted, “We’re Baptist. We don’t submit to anybody!”
You may not be Baptist, but you do need to submit to your church leaders. The Bible says so. Argue with it, if you want, but know that you are arguing with God.
To be a Christian is to be a churchman or churchwoman. The New Testament knows of no vibrant discipleship apart from life in the local church, no authentic Christianity divorced from the covenant of life together according to the biblical structure of the local church. And if this is true, it behooves us to be the best churchmen and churchwomen we can be. And good churchfolk love, respect, and submit to their pastors.
This does not mean idolizing them, treating them like celebrities or becoming yes-men. It doesn’t mean becoming our pastor’s rubber stamp committee. But it does mean giving grace not just to your fellow sheep, but also to your shepherds. In fact, they may need more, as the responsibilities they carry are more burdensome and they will have to give a greater account before God. Submitting to your leaders means repenting of the impulse to “yes, but” everything they say, especially if what they say isn’t sinful.
In matters of differences of opinion, it means being circumspect in how we voice our own. It means remembering that playing the “devil’s advocate” is not a good thing. Christ doesn’t need any advocates for the devil in his church!
Generally speaking, submitting to your elders means maintaining a posture of encouragement and gracious support for them and working to make the church a safe place for them (and their families!).
Some people in our churches see it as their role to “keep the pastor honest.” These people are usually the kind that make pastors keeping watch over them groan.
Look, you may be a total mess. You may have a lot of pain and a lot of struggle. You may find it frustrating to get your act together. If you know this about yourself, why not give the same grace to your leaders that you expect for yourself?
And if you think it should be a great honor to your leaders to get to shepherd you, you’re probably the most groan-worthy of all. It’s the ones who reckon themselves totally put together who usually cause the biggest problems.
How can we work toward our leaders’ joy and not their anxiety? It’s no advantage to us to be a nagging pain to our pastors. They’ll have to give an account for how they pastored us. And we’ll have to give an account for how well we presented ourselves to be pastored.
Originally published in the Netherlands under the title Speeltuin, this visually rich and colorful picture book is fun to look through, if a little confusing. The pictures are stunning, busy, and lively. The plot is almost non-existent: two children travel through the pages of this colorful world on their way to The Playground. The reader is invited to “take an exciting trip through this book! Find the way with your finger. These red arrows on each page show you where to start and where to go next.”
Maybe I just don’t get it, but the arrows seem unnecessary. If a child reader wants to run his finger over the double page spreads of rather abstract landscapes, I can’t see how the arrow on the edge of each page helps. But the adventure in art is enticing, and as the two children collect animal friends on each page to accompany them on their journey, the illustrations become more and more imaginative. I can see how this book would inspire children to create their own artistic journey-scape.
The ending is . . . disappointing. Perhaps the author/illustrator is trying to show that the journey is more interesting than the destination, or maybe I’m reading too much into it. At any rate, I would let children explore this book on their own and see what they come up with. Maybe start them on the adventure with the invitation, “Let’s go to the playground! Are you coming?”, but the text, translated from the Dutch, is fairly basic and dull. In fact, I can see this one as a wordless book, and it might work better that way.
Enjoy the color. (Did I mention that the book is very colorful?)
The resurgence in commitment in many evangelical circles to expository preaching is a very encouraging sign as the contemporary church navigates so many shifting cultural trends with so many shifting stylistic trends of its own. As many younger churchmen have begun to look not at the latest preaching styles but at what evangelicalism’s elder statesmen have been doing for years — not to mention, as they’ve begun studying the homiletical practices of the gospel renewal movements throughout church history — we’ve fortunately seen a rise in expositional preaching. Many of us have maintained a commitment to this kind of explication even when our sermons happen to be topical!
While there’s no need to be dogmatic about this kind of sermon delivery, and while I think taking time for short topical sermon series or strategic “stand-alone” messages can be good and helpful, I do think it is generally wise for a pastor not just to preach expositionally, but to preach expositionally through entire books of the Bible. I think every preacher ought to endeavor to feed his flock this way. And here are eight reasons why:
1. It’s biblical.
Contrary to what some have said, expository preaching through books of the Bible has biblical precedent. The two most notable examples can be found in Nehemiah 8, where Ezra preaches through the book of the Law, “giving the sense” (v.8) as he goes, and of course in Luke 24, where “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v.27).
2. It helps people learn their Bible.
It is a sad reality that most Christians get most of their Bible at church. We want them to spend daily time in the word, of course, but too many don’t and won’t. Preaching through books of the Bible, then, over time exposes churchgoers to the fullness of God’s counsel. This is even true for Christians who do study their Bibles but who tend to do so like their preachers tend to preach, favoring certain books or certain stories or certain devotional emphases. If a preacher will preach through whole books, he will eventually get to more “obscure” books that even some studious Christians haven’t spent much time in.
3. It spiritually stretches the preacher and deepens his understanding of God.
If a preacher will commit to preaching through entire books of the Bible, he will find himself dealing with difficult and complex passages he might otherwise have avoided. Systematically working through a book means you can’t skip the confusing parts or the scandalous parts or the “boring” parts, the study of all of which is helpful to the preacher’s own devotional life — since all Scripture is breathed out by God and useful (2 Tim. 3:16) — and consequently helpful to the congregation.
4. It puts controversial or “hot topic” issues in their proper place.
A preacher committed to preaching through books of the Bible can’t hobby-horse or camp out on one political, social, or cultural issue he feels most important. His preaching isn’t being driven by Hallmark or the headlines. Thus, he gets around to the “social issues” when the Bible does and ends up correlating his concern and energy about them to the Bible’s concern and energy about them.
5. It helps Christians see the full storyline of redemption.
The gospel announcement of Christ’s sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection for the salvation of sinners is a grand plan foreshadowed and echoed throughout all of Scripture, and preaching through entire books of the Bible helps churches see the epic story God is telling about his Son from the foundation of the world. Similarly:
6. It more greatly magnifies the glory of Jesus Christ.
As my favorite children’s Bible storybook says, “Every page whispers his name.” As Jesus himself says to those disciples on the road to Emmaus, even the old covenant Scriptures are “about himself.” And as Paul says, all the promises of God find their “yes and amen” in Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20). To not preach through as many biblical texts as you can is to withhold certain aspects of Christ’s glory from your church. To preach systematically through books of the Bible – laboring faithfully in the work of Christ-centered exposition — is to show the glory of Christ in surprising, fresh, and God-designed ways.
7. It fosters congregational patience, endurance, and commitment to the word.
Hopping from one topic to the next, jumping around according to pastoral interest or current devotional mood, has some advantages to be sure, but a commitment to a book more befits the plodding needed for faithful, long-term ministry. Preachers who preach through books of the Bible logically think in more long-term ways, which is beneficial for pastoral fruitfulness. And the way preachers preach shapes their church. A pastor who commits to showing Christ week after week through book after book re-wires the short attention spans of modern congregants to the Spiritual fruit of patience, the Christian virtue of endurance, and the church’s mandate to be “people of the book.” Nothing shows a pastor’s and a congregation’s fidelity to and reliance on the word of God alone like preaching the whole counsel of the word of God alone.
8. It creates a longer pastoral and congregational legacy.
As C.S. Lewis once said, “To go with the times, is to of course go where all times go.” Or, alternatively, also from Lewis: “The more up-to-date a book is, the sooner it is out of date.” Substitute “sermon” for “book,” and I think we’re on to something here. To preach with the times is to go where all times go. Now, sermons ought to be applicable and relevant to the Christian’s daily life and the world we live in. But the great thing about the Scriptures is that they are remarkably applicable and relevant to the world we live in without our help! And while sermons fashioned toward the tyranny of the now may be of some help for some time, sermons preached from the eternal word can be of help for all time. In the long run of pastoral ministry and the life of the church, a pastor who resources his congregation with faithful, plodding biblical exposition is providing a body of work that will live much longer after his own departure. What a milestone it would be to get to the end of preaching through the entire New Testament to your church, or even, should God grant you this length of tenure, the entire Bible! Wouldn’t that be a finish line worth shooting for?
The why behind the vision for Unparalleled: How Christianity’s Uniqueness Makes it Compelling
If I still have any readers after not posting for almost six months, I’m going to try something and write a poem every Sunday from now until the Sunday before Advent, the space the church calls ordinary time. Let’s see how this goes.
“Take a deep breath,” he said,
“and think the phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’
while you do it.
“Inhale on ‘Jesus,’
pause on ‘is,’ and breathe out ‘Lord.’
And repeat that for five minutes,
every day, when you wake up
and before you go to sleep.”
This, offered as, if not a cure,
Then at least a brief reprieve from
The fear that took over my body–
And I breathe in Jesus
And I breathe out his kingdom
And in between I pause in the present tenseness
And somewhere in the breathing
The cry turns to song
Even if sometimes it’s still lament
Every week one could write another post about another fallen pastor, because that appears to be the rate at which they fall. A great number of ministers without national or global platforms are counted in this number, but oddly enough, these falls only seem to hit “close to home” when it’s a guy with a big platform. It’s an odd phenomenon, isn’t it? We may not know the big name guys at all, but the fact that they are, in evangelical culture anyway, a “household name,” makes it more personal. (This is not just evangelicals, of course — newsstand tabloids regularly run photo features like “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us!”)
In all the hand-wringing over the latest evangelical celebrity scandals, however, I don’t see much new that is said. To some extent, this is understandable, as the problems being faced are not new — pride, anger, lust, etc. — any more than they are limited to those in ministry. These old, universal problems require the same old, universal solutions — grace-driven repentance from us, grace-glorious deliverance from God.
And so we see the same usual formulas handed out in blog posts and tweets and sermons and podcasts — accountability and honesty, lots of talk about boundaries and “guard rails” and the like. Pastors are re-reminded to not be alone with women, etc. Most of these words are good words, advice that is tried and true. Within the gospel renewal movement, of course, we are moving deeper to heart issues and idolatry, and this is a good thing too. Figuring out how the gospel speaks to the idolatries and root sins that seem particular to the work of pastoral ministry is really important.
Yet, we are identifying something else here, something that runs across evangelical tribes. It is the “celebrity pastor” problem, where we participate in the highest elevation of a pastor’s platform as we can manage and then load him up with all the expectation we can muster. The result, naturally, is that he is top-heavy and prone to toppling. There are dangers in temptations in pastoral smallness and obscurity too, but the most prominent dangerous temptations in pastoral bigness are these idolatries — worship of the celebrity pastor by his fans and himself.
So let us accept the soundness of the typical boundaries and relational and ministerial guardrails that every pastor and his church ought to have in place. But what else can we do? What are some specific, practical things that can be done to work against the idolization of the successful pastor? I have a few ideas. They are not easy things to do, of course, but wise things rarely come easily.
1. Transition your “video venue” satellite campuses to church plants or at the very least install live preaching.
I have quite a few friends whose churches employ this medium for weekend preaching in their satellite campuses, so I tread lightly here, as always, but I have yet to hear a very convincing argument for the wisdom of this approach to the worship gathering. I say a lot more on this in my book The Prodigal Church, so I won’t rehash my critique here, but the argument seems to boil down essentially to: “The campus wouldn’t be viable without so-and-so on the screen.” And my response? “Okay. Maybe it shouldn’t be viable.” If they’re only coming because of so-and-so, you have a celebrity pastor problem. (Now, this happens in almost any church of any size. People come only because of the preacher, or only because of the music, or only because of the children’s program, or what-have-you. But when we franchise rather than plant, we cooperate with the idolatry of the consumer.)
2. No more book deals for gifted preachers who are not gifted writers.
Sometimes gifted preachers are gifted writers and sometimes gifted writers are gifted preachers, but more often than not, guys gifted to preach aren’t necessarily gifted to write (and vice versa). We compound the celebrity pastor problem when publishers sign guys with big churches to big book deals regardless of their ability to say anything lasting in any artful kind of way. I am grateful for evangelicalism’s double threats (men like Tim Keller come to mind), but not every dynamic speaker needs a publishing deal, especially since the books are most likely to be written by somebody else, which is not just a celebrity problem but an honesty problem. Couldn’t we all be helped if more of us just stayed in our lanes?
3. Discerning the credibility of our experts.
I had a great conversation last week with a friend who called me specifically to talk about this problem. What do we make of publishers, editors, and other public parachurch platforms who provide outlet for ministers, for which their only qualification appears to be success or popularity? In other words, how do we know the guy publishing the book on marriage has a healthy marriage himself? Why are we assigning parenting books to people whose kids aren’t even teenagers yet? What if the guy we’re paying to write and speak on grace-centered leadership is a short-tempered, domineering jerk to his staff? How would we know?
What responsibility do those of us in cultural gatekeeper positions (I’m the managing editor for For The Church, a site that regularly publishes resources from ministry leaders big and small) have in vetting somebody’s credibility on a given subject or perspective? I don’t know that I have the answer to this, but I think we ought to try to figure it out. Maybe it involves having deeper conversations with someone’s family or church leaders. I don’t know. But I’m willing to bet more platform-providers are asking these questions these days, if only because it’s costing them lots of money to send books into rain-soaked dumpsters.
4. Actual parity among elders.
I greatly appreciated this recent sponsored post
by* featured at Tim Challies’s blog on Confronting the Current Church Leadership Crisis. Pastoral plurality in the local church is not just the biblical norm, it is a practical and spiritual necessity. But this plurality has to actually function as a plurality. We can look at the church leadership structure of many of these fallen celebrity pastors and see that there were other elders in place. Sometimes they do not actually have parity with the lead pastor — meaning, his vote outweighs theirs, if they even have one — and sometimes the parity is there on paper but not in practice. In either case, accountability isn’t just something to reserve for times of crisis.
Real collaboration and cooperation should be part of the functionality of the pastoral leadership. There’s nothing wrong with having one guy provide most of the preaching in a church, but he shouldn’t provide it all. And the service shouldn’t appear as a one-man show. Behind the scenes, church elders ought to exercise the Bible’s permission to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and check each other’s hearts. Elders ought to say “yes” a lot, but they are not supposed to be yes-men. And it ought not be inordinately difficult to fire a pastor who has disqualified himself. Whatever a church’s pastors are, the church itself will become. So if the pastoral team is “lead guy”-centered, existing mainly to prop up and orbit around the lead guy, guess what the church’s center will be?
Again, none of these things is easy to do. Tackling the celebrity pastor problem from any of these angles would likely require a fundamental and complex reconsideration and reconfiguration of the ways many of us do ministry, do church, “do” evangelicalism. But we leave these proposals unconsidered to our own peril. Ignoring these things certainly allows us to continue on as we’ve always done, indiscriminately adopting the values of the world in celebritizing our leaders and then acting shocked and angry when they fall under the pressure. But we’ve seen what happens when a ministry is oriented almost wholly around the platform of one guy. When he falls, the ministry does. Heck, set aside the notion of sinful disqualification. What happens to your satellite campuses when the big screen preacher gets hit by a bus?
Let’s figure this out, church.
* UPDATE: Previously mistakenly listed that blog post as by Challies, when it is a sponsored post from Biblical Eldership Resources. Apologies for the mistake. Still appreciate the post, paid for or not.
I’ll tell you why I hope Bigfoot exists — and why, in a way, I hope he is never discovered. Because it excites me to think that there are creatures out there God has made for his own enjoyment and to enhance the wonder of life on the earth.
I like to think about those creepy fanged fishies deep in the Mariana Trench, swimming around in the murky darkness of the oceanic fathoms, their dangling bioluminescence their only lantern into the future. Most of them we will never see — at least, not on this side of the new earth, where we don’t have the lung capacity or the mechanical capacity to withstand the pressure of such depths. There are species down there we have zero clue about. I think of exotic fish in clear pools of water in the darkness of undiscovered caves deep in the jungles that human feet will never enter. In the thickest centers of the wildest forests, there are species of insects and birds that are yet undetected.
And maybe there are Bigfoots in the North American woods. I mean, we didn’t know about the mountain gorilla until 1902! Can you believe that? An actual large primate we didn’t know anything about until the 20th century?
I believe that God made all things for his own glory. Anything that was made, he made and made for ultimately for that end — to reflect the wondrous creativity and power and love and God-ness of himself. And this is why there are some things we just don’t know about. If we could know everything, we’d be God. So I think God keeps a lot of things to himself. The answers to a lot of our “why” questions, for instance. And maybe, just maybe, giant frolicking sea monsters and fields of space flowers on some unreachable planet and big upright primates only detectable by the blurriest of camera lenses.
God has bathed this world in wonder in such a way that mere examination can’t do it justice. Recently noted atheist scientist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted, “I wonder who was the first person to see a bird soaring high above & think it a good idea to capture it and lock it in a cage.” Some wiseacre replied, “A scientist.”
Science can help us see the wonder, but it can’t quite figure out how to help us wonder at the wonder. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “In Science we have been reading only the notes to a poem; in Christianity we find the poem itself.”
And this is why I hope we never catch Bigfoot: If we did, the fun would be gone. The mystery would vanish — poof, with a whimper. We’d lose the wonder. He’d be skinned, flayed, vivisected. We’d have his brain in a jar at the Smithsonian. And we’d lose another increment in that feeling that there’s another world just around the corner. It’s better, for now, not to know.
I like that God keeps some things just to himself. It reminds me that he’s God and I’m not. It reminds me that this world he’s created is revealing his glory, not mine. This is part of the reason, I suppose, that when God responds to Job’s inquiries with an epic journey up the dizzying heights of divine sovereignty, he includes some stuff about sea monsters.
I like that God teases us with these mysteries. So long as the mystery of Christ has been revealed (Eph. 3), and we have all that we need to be saved and to work out that salvation, I am totally cool with these little misty visions haunting the created order, always one step ahead of us, peeking around trees, leaving mushy footprints, stray hairs, sketchy images. They help me delight in God’s delight. They help me remember this world is wondrous and it belongs to the God who spoke the cosmos into being without breaking a sweat.
His eye is on the Sasquatch, you know. Even if ours are not.
1. Jesus is really alive.
The reality of Christ’s ascension, inextricable from the resurrection event, tells us that he did not raise from the dead only later to die again like Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son, Eutychus, or Tabitha. Jesus’ body will not be found because he took its glorified tangibility to heaven.
2. Heaven is thicker than earth.
We tend to think of heaven as the ethereal place of disembodied spirits. And in a way it is. But Elijah is there. And Enoch. And so is the risen, glorified, incarnate Christ. Jesus is there, taking up material space. He is touchable, present. Clearly, heaven is not less real than earth but more. It is a thicker reality than our four-dimensional space, more vibrant, more colorful, more real.
3. God’s plan for human dominion of earth is being realized.
The first Adam and his helper Eve were charged with filling the earth and subduing it. They screwed it up. But God’s plans cannot be thwarted. Man will reflect God’s glory in dominion over creation. In the Incarnation, then, God sends his only Son to right the course, reverse the curse, and begin the restoration of all things. The second Adam does the job, and even in his glorification, the incarnational “miracle of addition” (see below) persists, fulfilling God’s plan for man to reflect divine glory in dominion over creation. The God-Man, who is the radiance of the glory of God, rules over the earth and is even now subduing his enemies. “The ascension means that a human being rules the universe” (Tim Keller). Just as God planned.
4. The Incarnation is an enduring miracle.
The Incarnation was a humbling of God’s Son, but not a lessening of him. As I’ve argued in Gospel Deeps, the Son maintained his omnipresence even in his Incarnation. (Historical theologians have traditionally called this perspective the extra calvinisticum.) But what the ascension means is that Jesus Christ forever remains the Christ who is Jesus. He did not revert back to intangibility. But his ascended incarnational state then is not an eternal limitation but a part of his ongoing efforts to fill all things. He takes up more space in the heavens and the earth now, not less. The Incarnation is a miracle with no expiration date.
5. The ascension is gospel for sinners!
Why? Because if, among the many things the gospel means, it means we are united with Christ through faith, it also means that where he is we will be also. It means we will go to heaven in spirit, and heaven will come to us in body. The ascension is the full fruition of the promise of Christ’s resurrection being the firstfruits of our own. The ascension means the gospel is better news than we even thought, gooder than good! Because it holds out the promise, the blessed hope, not just of life after death, but as N.T. Wright says, life after life after death. What a gracious God we have!
Excited to announce today’s release of my new book, Unparalleled (Baker Books). I hope it will serve the Church well as we explore more of what it will take to share the gospel of Jesus with an increasingly pluralistic, irreligious, and spiritually hostile world.
Unparalleled is not your average apologetics work. Oh sure, it does contain the kind of information that will help Christians respond to common objections to the faith like these:
– The resurrection is just a Christian repackaging of pagan myths.
– All of the monotheistic religions basically worship the same God, so Christianity is just one expression of several legitimate faiths.
– Christians are the most selfish of all religious adherents and responsible for most of the wars and injustice in the world.
– Jesus never really claimed to be God.
These are the kind of new(ish) challenges believers need to be equipped for. But Unparalleled‘s greatest strength is in how it helps Christians not simply to win arguments, but to “win the man.” A lot of believers know the answers to basic apologetic questions. But not enough know a) how the tenets of Christianity are completely unique compared to other religions and philosophies, and b) how these unique claims and characteristics actually correspond to deep-seated needs and longings in every single human heart.
In other words, my hope is that Unparalleled doesn’t just help believers and unbelievers alike know how Christianity makes religious and historical sense, but how it actually makes emotional and spiritual sense.
Here are some endorsements:
Kyle Idleman, author of Not a Fan & Teaching Pastor, Southeast Christian Church:
“I love a book that helps me love Jesus more. Jared C. Wilson has a way of talking about Jesus that both informs and inspires. Whether you are just learning about the Gospel or have been following Jesus for many years, Unparalleled will deepen your understanding and appreciation for the Christian Faith, so unique and distinctive.
Russell Moore, President of the ERLC, author of Onward:
“Read this book to shore up your own convictions, but don’t stop there. Share it with someone who needs some light cast on who Christians are and what we believe.”
Jonathan K. Dodson, lead pastor of City Life Church, author of The Unbelievable Gospel and Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection:
“With characteristic wit and style, Jared weaves in and out of perplexing doctrines such as the exclusivity of the gospel, the baffling nature of the Trinity, and the uniqueness of Christ. While the topics are approached with reflective credibility, it is the storytelling that pins each point to the chest. As I finished each successive chapter, I found myself saying, ‘Now that was my favorite chapter’.”
Gloria Furman, cross-cultural worker, author of The Pastor’s Wife and Missional Motherhood:
“Unparalleled is a reliable guide of clear and artfully illustrated truths about Christianity. I always appreciate how Jared’s compassion comes alongside his candor as he gives perspective for our near-sighted faith. Unparalleled is going to help many people to see the unseen.”
Sam Allberry, Associate Minister of St. Mary’s Church, Maidenhead, England, and author of Is God Anti-Gay?:
“Jared Wilson has written a compelling, attractive and lively account of what makes Christianity so distinctive. This is a great book for any Christian wanting to be refreshed in the faith, and for anyone else looking for an excellent introduction to it. Highly recommended!”
Thomas S. Kidd, Distinguished Professor of History, Baylor University:
“Jared Wilson’s Unparalleled is a stirring reminder of just how different Christianity is from any other faith. Readers will come away emboldened to witness for Christ, and encouraged in the grace we have in Him.”
Read more about the book (and see more words of commendation from some really cool people) here.
Unparalleled is available wherever Christian books are sold.
The counter-intuitive truth is this: getting bigger does not mean getting less vulnerable. It very often means the opposite.
Not a single one of us wishes, really, for failure. Oh, sure, there are certainly some spiritual masochists out there, Christians who take great pride in the ministry of Isaiah — “I’m losing 90 per cent? I must be doing something right!” — but there’s a reason God provoked Isaiah’s commitment to the mission before giving him his depressing orders. None of us would want to sign up for that.
When we find ourselves in difficult ministries, where the word seems out of season and the soil inordinately hard, despite our sincere and faithful efforts to share the gospel in contextualized ways and love and serve our neighbors with gladness and kindness, many of us battle discouragement, but we at least theologically understand that sometimes God gives and sometimes he takes away.
There is something biblically beautiful, actually, about such littleness. It appears to be the primary mode of thinking of the apostles about themselves. Paul boasts, but he boasts in his weakness. He considers his successes garbage compared to Christ’s glory. It is God’s bigness he is concerned ultimately with, not his own or that of the churches.
So when we are made little, we can find ourselves in the heart of John the Baptist’s prayer, that Jesus would increase and we would decrease. It’s not the ideal place to be in terms of our dreams and ambitions, but relying totally on God’s sovereignty is right where God wants us. It’s not a call to passivity or to excuse-making. But even the most diligent of workers can say that God has called him to be faithful, not successful.
And then God grants many much visible success. Sometimes God’s people succeed greatly at things he hasn’t actually called them to do, but sometimes in his strange wisdom he grants extraordinary, legitimate successes to his children. But with such glories should come many cautions.
We all prefer success to failure but, really, success is more dangerous. In failure, we know we rely totally on God’s approval and sustaining arm. In success, it is easy to begin looking around, surveying all the territories claimed, all the peoples gathered, all the ministry renown redounding, and we think, “Well, lookee here. Look what has been built with my talents, my gifts, my skills, my strategies, my visions, my sweat, my sacrifice.”
It is perfectly normal for humans to prefer success to failure. You’d be a weirdo if you didn’t. And yet it is perfectly normal for humans to taint all their successes with the swelling of their big fat heads. You’d be a weirdo if you didn’t.
And so we remember the Holy Spirit, the sovereign breath of God Himself in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), without whom we could not receive one single stinking thing (John 3:27). It is the Spirit who directs our paths while we’re making our big plans (Proverbs 16:9) and hijacks our mission statements (James 4:13-15). Oh, we can produce some very exciting enterprises, we can get a lot of stuff done if we’ll just have that can-do attitude and take-charge spirit and gung-ho personality and yada yada yada. That Babel tower was pretty tall too.
Don’t run ahead of the Lord God. You may find yourself in the midst of a great, booming success and therefore very, very vulnerable.
And the dirty little secret is that you don’t really need it. If God wants you to have it, that’s great. But you don’t need “more” to be satisfied in God, to be fully justified by Christ, to be fully filled by the Spirit. God does not measure success the way we do. So whether you are struggling or succeeding, the best position to take is always that of prayer so that you know how to have little and how to have a lot, how to do “all things” through Christ — not know-how. Only Christ is inexhaustible.
Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
— 1 Corinthians 10:12
“Americans must count religion in order to see or show its value . . . To them big churches are successful churches . . . To win the greatest number of converts with the least expense is their constant endeavour . . . Numbers, numbers, oh, how they value numbers! . . . Mankind goes down to America to learn how to live the earthly life; but to live the heavenly life, they go to some other people.”
– Kanzo Uchimura, “Can Americans Teach Japanese in Religion?”
He’s right. We are obsessed. We are obsessed with bigger, better, faster. We define success according to quantity and presentation. We reckon churches increasing in size as effective.
And so our heroes are the big church guys. They speak at the conferences, they publish the books, they exert the influence.
But the guys at the “little churches” have just as much, if not more, to teach us about how to shepherd and how to disciple.
Disclaimer: I do not believe that big = bad. Nor do I believe that small = good. I just don’t believe that big = good and small = bad, which seems to be the prevailing and operating assumption of the vast majority of American evangelicals. In the same way, because I don’t believe that big = bad, I don’t believe that all megachurch pastors are idolaters of ambition. Little church guys can be just as idolatrous of ambition, perhaps more so if they are discontent with the relative smallness of their churches.
I’m not proposing an either/or here, but a perspective corrective, an invitation to open up one’s view to encompass more than just what is most visible.
Trigger warning: Generalizations.
Here are some reasons we ought to seek out and listen well to (and perhaps even give large public platforms to) the guys who pastor small churches, especially if they’ve been doing it for a while.
1. The little guy who’s been little for a while can teach you about contentment. While the big guy is constantly looking to make that next quantum leap in ministry, the little guy has been learning to be content with what God has provided. The content little church guy is not motivated by the same preoccupations of the discontent big church guy, and while his ministry may not be bigger, his peace and his joy probably will be.
2. The little guy knows about pastoring. As in, actually pastoring. Shepherding. The big church guy probably knows a lot about managing people, organizing people, probably even inspiring people, but the little guy knows his people. He knows who’s struggling with what, who’s fearing what, and he’s spent time in the trenches of pastoral ministry, actually “curing souls.” The little guy sees his flock more often than a few hours on the weekend from the stage. He tends to his flock, because he has to. And over years of doing this, he may not have cutting edge creativity or a conversational preaching style, he may not be dynamic or arena rousing, but he will have learned the art of pastoring.
3. The little guy makes for a better mentor. Not necessarily because he has more time. In fact, he probably has less time because he cannot delegate as often as the big guy with staff support. But the little guy has spent his time pastoring in biblical categories, making visits, gaining the wisdom of engaging people who are dying, divorcing, falling away. The big church guy can pass on skills, systems, techniques, tips, quotable quotes, book recommendations. He can pass on the business acumen of church growth. But the little guy more often makes for a better heart to heart, because he’s not passing on concepts, but convictions.
4. The little guy who’s been little for a while is seasoned. The guy who’s grown his church from 100 to 4,000 in four years is successful. That is a remarkable achievement. But if I wanted to be mentored by a battle-hardened minister, a guy who’s seen increase and decrease, who knows what it’s like to have much and have little, a guy who’s had his hands to the plow without looking back for the long haul, facing opposition and criticism, who has not banked his success on attractional programming but on the long-term investment of faithful pastoring, I would go to the guy who’s had a church of ~150 for 15 years or more.
5. The little guy knows what really matters. He is not as often caught up in ecclesiological oneupmanship. He is not easily impressed by or easily dismissive of big churches or their pastors. Being dismissed or considered irrelevant by the big guys doesn’t matter much to him, because he knows what matters. He’s not a slave to statistics but has his finger on the pulse of his congregation. He is measuring success by faithfulness to his calling and the health of his congregation. He goes through difficult times in his spiritual walk, perhaps deals with doubt and disappointment, but the course of his ministry does not follow the spirit of jealousy or ambition. The little guy really knows what “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means. He doesn’t know it as a concept or an idea, but in his life and in his ministry and in his gut.
Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.
— 2 Timothy 4:2
I’m not a big fan of overdoing it. Not a huge proponent of overcooking your sermons, overproducing your worship service. But there are a few things I think pastors probably could do more of than they already do, no matter how much they already do. I think pastors ought to:
I’m not sure I’ve met a pastor who reads too many books. He might be out there; in fact, I’m sure he is. But most I meet don’t read enough, and many I meet hardly read any. But I’m less concerned about books than I am the Scriptures, and in particular, whatever biblical text a pastor is fixin’ to preach on.
I once attended a Christmas Eve service where the pastor preached on Matthew 1:19, going on and on about how Joseph was “just a man” — you know, an ordinary guy, a regular Joe just like you and me. It was meant to show how God can use run-of-the-mill people for great things. You know, Joseph was “just a man.” The problem with this sermon was not the point; it’s that the point didn’t go with the text, because Matthew 1:19 doesn’t say Joseph was “just a man” but that Joseph was “a just man.” This preacher devoted an entire sermon to a basic misreading of the text.
Now, that’s an extreme example, but there’s plenty of us who have preached sermons based on cursory readings of our biblical text. It’s a great reminder to try to get over-familiar with your text!
It’s not a last resort; it’s not a first resort; it’s an all-inclusive resort! “Pray without ceasing.” Prayer is essentially acknowledged helplessness — prayer is faith actualized, an emptiness and needfulness expressed — and we are never not in need of God’s grace, presence, and power. Therefore we can’t pray too much!
Maybe your church excels at this, but it’s become pretty routine for a church to ensure low attendance by scheduling a prayer service. Pastor, the first thing you ought to do about your people’s reluctance to pray is pray. Pray for for them. And with them. And by them and in front of them.
A few years ago I spoke to a parachurch rep who spent many Sundays in our area visiting local churches to network and talk about his ministry. He remarked on the amount of prayer in Middletown’s worship service, saying that in his travels he found it rare that a church spent much time in prayer. And lest I sound like I’m really trumpeting the prayerful devotion of my ministry, I should mention that whenever we internally discussed strategically shortening our worship service, the extended prayer time was usually the first point of evaluation. We all had to constantly fight against the temptation to find prayer expendable. But whether you have extended prayer in your formal gathering or not, we should all have extended prayer in our daily lives. This is double, triply, quadruply true for pastors. I really don’t know if any of us are ever in danger of praying too much.
This point will be the most difficult to grasp, I suspect, so don’t under-think it! I am not arguing for passivity or laziness or a failure to lead or anything like that. I’m also not suggesting we become meddlers or given to speculation, much less paranoia or internal accusation about others. I just mean we ought to consider our flock more. Definitely more than we currently do. We ought to consider their hearts, their minds, their motivations, their fears, their idols. We ought to think about the people in our care as sacred beings made in the image of God, beset by all kinds of temptations, plagued by all kinds of worries, burdened by all kinds of sins, wounded by all kinds of memories, traumatized by all kinds of violations, and so on and so on. The minute we don’t consider the flock as “sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless,” is the minute we drift away from compassion for them.
Pastors treat congregants like statistics, warm bodies, butts in the seats when they under-consider them — when they under-think. Don’t write off needy people, don’t flatly reject critical people, don’t wash your hands of sinful people. Think. Think biblically, pastorally, spiritually, self-reflectively. And then do it some more.
Read, pray, and think — three things you can’t do too much. Overdo it, brothers.
I’ll be speaking at the TGCLA ministry equip event this coming Tuesday, April 19. Details:
8:30am – 12:30pm
Location: 1530 E. Elizabeth Street, Pasadena, CA 91104
This event is free for TGCLA members, and $15 at the door for non-members. Lunch and snacks will be provided. Click here to register.
8:30-9:00am: Arrival, breakfast snacks
9:00-10:00am: Session 1, The Pastor’s Vindication
10:30-11:30am: Session 2, The Church’s Validation
11:45-12:30pm: Q&A over lunch
Please REGISTER to RSVP so we have enough seats and refreshments for everyone!
I think I understand what Steven Furtick is trying to say in this now-infamous clip from a recent sermon, but it is so problematic on so many different levels, it is difficult to know where to start untangling it. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ Todd Pruitt has done a good job of outlining the significant theological problems with Furtick’s statements here.
Furtick is wanting to emphasize that the gospel is better than the law (I think), and this is true enough. In fact, we should all be eager to emphasize that, as Paul does in 2 Corinthians 3. The gospel’s superiority to the law is the essence of sound Christian preaching, because in fact the gospel (not the law) is the essence of sound Christianity. (In fact, I wish Furtick’s regular preaching offered up more of the emphasis of the finished work of Christ rather than regular sets of steps and tips and pick-me-ups based on human potential, which, whether he realizes it or not, is a pretty legalistic way of preaching.) But there is a biblical way to express this important truth, and then there is Furtick’s way. Furtick’s way is to say that God breaks the law “for love.” But this only makes sense of his illustration, not of anything the Bible actually teaches.
See, many people tend to think that when the Father sent the Son to die on the cross to forgive sins, he was in some sense “breaking the law.” That line of thinking is what I suspect is at work in this sermon clip. Like, because of Jesus, God is letting our law-breaking somehow slide.
The god preached in this kind of scenario is really the false god of antinomianism (“against the law”) because he can only forgive sins by in some way compromising his holiness. In other words, he sort of tips the scales towards his mercy and away from his righteousness. A lot of Christians tend to think of God’s work like that — as if, with Jesus, he’s kind of bending the rules. He sacrifices one part of his self (holiness) in order that we might take advantage of another (love).
But the one true God does not compromise one bit. He bends no rules! In fact, he punishes every single sin. Not a single sin throughout all of history slips through the cracks.
So how can he forgive sinners like us while maintaining the perfection of his holiness? He puts our sin on Jesus Christ.
God has declared that he will by no means clear the guilty (Nahum 1:3). So he instead makes guilty people righteous! But to do this in a way that is just, he must make a righteous person guilty. And he accomplishes this, the Bible reveals, by punishing our sin by punishing his son Jesus.
In this way, all sin is accounted for. Whether by the wrath of hell or by the wrath of the cross, every single sin is accounted for. And in this way, the grace of God is revealed. Christians therefore believe that if anyone wants to stand before a holy God and be declared holy enough to escape judgment, they must reject trusting in their own good works and instead accept the good works of Jesus Christ as their own.
The cross of Jesus Christ, then, shows us how God is both perfectly holy and perfectly loving, simultaneously and totally just and yet totally gracious. He doesn’t bend any rules or break any laws, as the spirit of antinomianism would suggest. It is in fact through the very cross of Christ that God, according to the Apostle Paul, “showed his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
The Christian God is both just and justifier, and he does his justifying as an act of sheer grace, forgiving sinners not by their obedience (because they could never obey well enough) but by Christ’s obedience, which is perfect and thus perfectly fulfills the perfectly holy law of God.
In fact, when you do a bit of “reverse engineering” on the atonement knowing this, you can see that in fact it wouldn’t be very loving at all for God to have broken his own laws to save us. Because an atonement made by a law not perfectly kept is no atonement at all. If God broke his law to save me, I am not saved, because what is needed is perfection. It would not be perfectly loving for our holy God to apply to me an imperfect atonement! But in fact the gospel announces not just that my sins are forgiven, but that I am counted righteous in Christ.
I have received the righteousness of Christ, which means that’s his perfect obedience to the law of God is considered as my own perfect obedience to the law of God. That’s how gracious God is! He has broken antinomianism for love.
And now, in the spirit of this grace, I pursue obedience of God with gratitude and freedom and joy — not because I am saved by my righteousness but because, in a sense, I am saved from it.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. — Matthew 5:17
(A portion of this post is a slightly edited excerpt from my forthcoming book Unparalleled: How the Uniqueness of Christianity Makes It Compelling)
I went to India in 2012. While there, I was invited into the home of a family that I, and the people I was traveling with, had met. The second time we were invited and came over, the father of the family said he had a message from God for each of us.
I don't remember what he said about the others. But I remember what he said to me. And I have thought about it thousands of times since.
He told me that many people would move faster than me. That I would see others zoom through life in front of me. And my pace would be slower. But, that I would have the faith to see me through. I would make it to the end.
I didn't know what to do with this message at first. It wasn't what I wanted to hear honestly. But, even though I try hard to not let these words inform the world around me, I can't help but see truth in this message.
I have always felt a little behind. A little slow. I've felt like the world was slipping out of my fingers. I'm a late bloomer. It takes people a little more time to get to know me. I don't impress people the first time I meet them. I'm terrible in auditions and interviews. I don't make friends very easily. When I feel low, I might equate these facts to being less than. Then I remember what he said. And hope springs.
So, I give it time. I keep going. I give myself grace to go at my own pace. I carry the hope of finishing. I keep showing up. I move forward one step at a time. I tell myself that it will be okay. I will make it to the end. I will get to the finish line. I will see things through. I will find what I've been looking for. What I've wanted. I will find life. I will find hope and grace and love. People will see. I will see.
I may be a slower pace but I am not less than.
When we take up our ministry crosses and die to our visionary selves and follow Christ’s way of “doing church,” we show how costly grace really is. We show how powerful it really is.
Ironically, however, the way to show the enormous costliness of grace is not to heap on people an enormous burden of instructions. The logical mind wouldn’t think it should work this way. But you demonstrate how valuable grace is by emphasizing grace over the spiritual “to do” list. If you want to uncheapen grace, actually, you will throw it at everything.
If instead we treat grace like it’s just for conversion, we hold it cheap. If we assume grace, we hold it cheap. If we “of course” grace, we hold it cheap.
The very nature of grace throws off all measurements of balance. You don’t balance out law with grace, or vice versa. They don’t keep each other in check. Thinking so reveals a misunderstanding of both. Trying to strike a balance between the two is to envision them as equal but opposite forces, as if they are synonymous with legalism and license. We think the way to balance away from legalism is to get some license in the picture and call it “grace.” If we fear that “grace” is creating too much license, we seek to balance it out with a little law. But either option, to borrow from Lewis who is borrowing from Luther, is “falling off the horse on the other side.” Tim Keller writes:
Christians typically identify two ways to respond to God: follow him and do his will, or reject him and do your own thing. Ultimately this is true, but there are actually two ways to reject God that must be distinguished from one another. You can reject God by rejecting his law and living any way you see fit. And you can also reject God by embracing and obeying God’s law so as to earn your salvation. The problem is that people in this last group—who reject the gospel in favor of moralism—look as if they are trying to do God’s will. Consequently, there are not just two ways to respond to God but three: irreligion, religion, and the gospel.
In reality, both irreligion and religion are fundamentally self-salvation projects. They are equally self-righteous, even though the former is predicated on being automatically righteous and the latter aims to earn righteousness. So there is no wisdom in seeking to balance “grace” and law this way. (When Keller refers to doing “balanced ministry” in his book, he doesn’t mean to set gospel against law but to set the gospel as a third way, the biblically-harmonious way.)
The parable of the prodigal son certainly shows us the two ways to reject the father in the lost son’s irreligion and the older brother’s moralism. And one thing we notice about the prodigal son’s repentant moment in the pigsty is that he rides the pendulum to the other side:
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants’.” (Luke 15:17-19)
He went where we all impulsively go to please the Father: to the law. He cannot fathom that after spending up all his Father’s mercies, there will be any left. “I’ll go work for my dad.” And thus he shows how alike he is in the flesh with his older brother, who’s only distinctive quality is that he’s been trusting in his works all along. The lost son wants to trade in his penitence for the merit system. He wants to trade the leaven of Herod for the leaven of the Pharisees. When navigating this divide ourselves, we ought to pay attention to C.S. Lewis, who said:
For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left.
That’s not just a reaction; it’s an overreaction. That’s instinctively where the lost son goes, falling off the horse on the other side. But that’s not the way to show grace’s value.
In many attractional churches, they talk up grace a lot but actually preach law (advice), which shows how cheaply they hold grace. This is not how the Bible writers gave instructions. You don’t find any applicational exhortation that is disconnected from gospel proclamation. For the New Testament authors, especially Paul, the practical matters of the faith are inextricable from the explicit emphasis on the finished work of Christ. So in Paul’s epistles, we see him begin every message with an extended gospel presentation. The longer the letter, the longer the gospel foundation. See for examples the first ten chapters of Romans, and the first couple chapters of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.
Paul even bookends his letters with gospel proclamation. Every one of his epistles begins with some form of the greeting “Grace to you” and ends with some form of “Grace with you.” These customary salutations contain an important spiritual truth—when we begin reading one of Paul’s Spirit-breathed letters, we should realize that grace is coming to us through the words of Scripture, and when we are done reading, we should realize that we have just received a divine grace in receiving God’s word. But this opening and closing reveal an important theological truth too: all of the Christian life is of grace. It is grace that saves us, grace that sustains us, and grace that will lead us home to heaven.
So when we preach steps and tips but only assume grace, we are withholding from people the actual power they need to experience God’s love and obey him.
Grace is what makes Christianity unique among all world religions and philosophies. Only the Christian faith has grace. No man would have made this up. We love our merit badges too much. None of us would have come up with the concept of divine unmerited favor. None of us would have invented the notion that we cannot be good enough or smart enough, that we could not become somehow gods ourselves. We would be too busy building our own Babel towers, monuments to our own personal awesomeness. Instead, this alien thought comes down from the heavens, delivered by the one true God, that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Therefore, when we assume or obscure or otherwise deemphasize grace while at the same time emphasizing “practical application,” we de-Christianize our Christianity. Thomas Smith offers a personal illustration:
Several years ago I was invited to speak with several other preachers at a summer family conference. One of my colleagues spoke each night on the Christian family. What became more striking with each installment in this series was there was nothing distinctively Christian about any of it! We were given, night after night, good advice, sound wisdom, entertaining anecdotes, but we were not told what made the Christian family unique and distinctive from, say, a pious Jewish or Muslim family. This example could be repeated infinitely on a large variety of subjects.
One of the most remarkable things about the New Testament is the way that its writers deal with thorny ethical issues. Every ethical requirement, every matter of conduct, is rooted in the redemptive accomplishment of Jesus Christ.
So Paul says, “I resolved to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). If Christ alone saves, if Christ alone is worthy, if Christ alone is the power and source of all blessing and treasure, what is it with the attractional church’s highlighting application as some graduation from the conversion experience? We don’t begin by the Spirit and continue by the flesh (Gal. 3:3). We are not followers of Christ-and-something-else-ianity.
We can uncheapen grace when we’ll open up the treasure chest of the Scriptures and start handing out Christ. It is from his fullness that we receive grace upon grace (John 1:16).
 Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2012), 63.
 C.S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night,” in “The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, 1987), 94.
 Thomas N. Smith, “Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing: Preaching Christ as the Focus of All Reformation,” in Reforming Pastoral Ministry ed. by John H. Armstrong (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2001), 109.
This post is an adapted excerpt from The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo
I've always been really bad at body awareness exercises, which usually surprises me because I consider myself a spiritual person. Or maybe that is my downfall. I felt awkward and didn't know what I was doing most of the time, but I set aside 20 minutes and told my body it could do whatever it wanted. Then I was supposed to try to be aware of what my body was telling me.
I had to be in my room because my roommates were home and the only place I have to sit is on my bed. I wasn't sure which position I should take so I moved around a couple times. I tried to stay "open" but I found myself pulling my knees to my chest. I guess that's what my body wanted to do. I wasn't sure what my body was saying to me (or if it was talking at all). I could hear my roommate talking on the phone. But I leaned in and focused.
My neck hurt. But it's been in pain since November. Maybe I should go to a doctor. Maybe that is the message my body is sending. But, I've known about that pain. I've just been ignoring it. Forgetting for days that it's there until it decides to remind me again.
I found my mind wandering. To my life in Michigan, my dreams of what my life could turn out to be, my loneliness, my fear -- you know, the usual.
Other than that, I didn't really "feel" much or gain much insight.
I wanted to try to connect the dots and come up with something deep and meaningful from those 20 minutes but everything just feels silly. There was nothing deep that happened. It was frivolous and awkward. And I think that is the point. I've been trying to conjure up some answers or explanations and I fumble around with words -- because I have to. People are calling on me to make my answer.
But, maybe it really is that simple. Maybe I'm just trying to find a comfortable position, trying to stay open but sometimes needing to be closed off. And there's a pain in my neck that I've been ignoring. And maybe I should get some help. Maybe I should do something about it.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. – Zechariah 9:9 ESV
I’ve spent a lot of time recently writing about current events. These things may be important, in a way, but they are temporal and will quickly pass.
I may lose some sleep over who will be the next president of the country I live in, and I’m not saying that doesn’t have weight and import and historical ramifications. But our true King has already come, and is coming again. In contrast to our politicians, and every politician who ever stumped a speech anywhere, our King is completely righteous. Our political leaders and systems won’t save us, ultimately. Only he comes bringing salvation. And in contrast to every blowhard who ever beat his or her chest from a podium, our King is humble. He humbled himself for us all the way to the cross, and he now has been exalted by his Father to the highest place imaginable and even beyond our imagination; every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that he is Lord!
Thank you Lord Jesus for your indescribable gift!
From Mona Charen: Disqualified
Donald Trump has incited violence at his rallies, denied but implicitly condoned the roughing up of a female journalist (did you notice that he put Corey Lewandowski on stage with him last week?), promised to restrict the First Amendment after he’s elected, and on and on and on. The truly mind-bending part of all this is that large segments of American society and of what used to be called the conservative movement are not repelled and outraged by this. Some seem downright attracted by the bully boy talk from this strutting ignoramus. Trump’s rise has revealed that the bedrock values of our party and our country are not nearly as solid as we had hoped. Some Republicans (Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Rick Scott, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham) seem to have no floor beneath which they will not stoop to defend this would-be authoritarian. As Heather notes, their only response to Trump’s viciousness is to point out that the left commits its share of outrages. Well, yes, but first of all, not presidential candidates, and second, are you just against the left or are you opposed to criminality and authoritarianism? Because, as we learned in the the 20th century, the political spectrum is not an axis — it’s a circle. The authoritarians and totalitarians are on one side of the circle (call them fascists or communists, there isn’t too much difference from the point of view of those who care about liberty and human decency) and the democrats and libertarians are on the other side.
The willingness of people who call themselves conservatives to throw their lot to a “strongman” may be the most depressing thing about this election season, thus far.