- C. S. Lewis
I’m a fan of Ridley Pearson’s Lou Boldt police procedurals. But he seems to be easing off on Lou these days, which is understandable considering Lou’s age. Instead he’s moving into the currently hotter genre of the international thriller, with his Risk Agent novels starring John Knox and Grace Chu. They are contractors who do occasional work for Rutherford Risk, a private agency specializing in hostage negotiation and extraction. I liked the first book, so I bought this second one, White Bone.
The title is a reference to elephant ivory. In this story, Grace, a talented computer technician, is sent to Kenya to look into the records behind a spectacular – and cruel – crime, where precious vaccine was stolen and replaced with a dangerous substitute, resulting in many deaths. Suddenly she drops off the grid altogether, and John Knox – somewhat to his own surprise – is concerned enough to leave his mentally disabled brother, his only family and the center of his life, at home while he goes to Africa to search for her, clashing both with the police and with ruthless animal poachers.
What follows is a white knuckle adventure story. While John runs down slender leads with increasing desperation, Grace is forced to revert to her most primitive instincts in order to survive in a suddenly prehistoric environment.
The book delivered on its promises of suspense and adventure. I wasn’t enamored of it, myself, because wilderness survival stories aren’t a flavor of literature for which I have a lot of taste. But people who like that sort of thing will find Grace’s survival story riveting. I’ll admit I was also troubled a little by some of the other story elements. The book is pretty solidly in favor of shooting poachers on sight, an idea that bothers me because it puts animals before humans (though I probably wouldn’t be as troubled by Old West ranchers hanging rustlers, so that may be prejudice on my part). Also, there is a minor subplot involving a group of hostages, and no sympathy whatever is expended on them.
But White Bone is a well done, exciting thriller that will probably please many readers more than it pleased me. And I’ll read the next book in the series. Cautions for the sorts of things you’d expect.
In the mail the other day, I received a review copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina, illustrated by famous Swedish artist Elsa Beskow. Ms. Beskow’s illustrations are justly known throughout Sweden and the world as classic artwork, both for her own books and for stories by other authors. Of course, Andersen’s story of a tiny girl “no taller than your thumb” is perfectly suited to Ms. Beskow’s lovely watercolor pictures.
This edition of Thumbelina features beautiful framed, full-page illustrations. The illustrations probably come from one of the eight (!) fairy tale collections that Elsa Beskow illustrated. Like Beatrix Potter, Ms. Beskow was a close observer of nature, and her pictures remind me of Potter’s, except larger. The “largeness” of the world, from Thumbelina’s vantage point, is portrayed quite well in this book, and a child reader will identify with Thumbelina as she travels through the countryside until she finally finds a home with the tiny King of the Fairies.
Elsa Beskow also wrote thirty-three stories of her own in Swedish, many of which have been translated into English and published along with her original illustrations. In my library I have Ollie’s Ski Trip and Pelle’s New Suit. Floris Books, the publisher of this Thumbelina, also has available and in print: Peter in Blueberry Land, The Land of Long Ago, The Sun Egg, Princess Sylvie, The Children of Hat Cottage, Emily and Daisy, Children of the Forest and many more. If you like classically styled picture book art, like the picture on the cover of Thumbelina, and then you will probably enjoy all of Ms. Beskow’s books.
The author and her husband Nathanael Beskow, a minister, had six children—all boys. I’m sure she enjoyed creating the pictures for Thumbelina and feeding the “girl-y” part of her nature, while surrounded by all those boys.
Historian Thomas Kidd says he’s long had a theory about Christian colleges and universities. He thinks they “may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity.”
My theory is that if Christ is the center of a Christian university, that commitment can open the door for a real range of views on politics, because politics becomes a second-order priority. (Traditional seminaries, I would argue, are a different matter— there you must have stricter theological standards that tend to produce more uniformity in all areas of life and thought.)
He offered this theory to historian Molly Oshatz, who has written about hypersensitivity to differing points of view in elite colleges. She attested to the truth of this theory, citing experience at Florida State.
… my classes there included many students with strong faith commitments who were able to bring their perspective to the classroom in appropriate ways. Perhaps even more importantly, their fellow students responded to these contributions with respect and civility. A politically, religiously, and ideologically diverse student body, as well as a faculty that did not see their job as one of indoctrination, made for an excellent teaching environment.
I’m going to take a little time off from writing this week. To be honest, I’m tired and more than a little ready for a break.
So, what we’ll do instead of listening to me for the next few days is hear and discuss quotes from Wendell Berry’s 2015 book, Our Only World: Ten Essays. On these weeks of the U.S. political national conventions, I escape to Berry to find fresh air to breathe. Fitting in neither of the binary categories our system seems to want to impose upon us, Berry is a refreshing. And in the context of the information barrage we’re subjected to every day, here is a quiet, insistent voice of wisdom rising up from the land and local experience.
• • •
There is an always significant difference between knowing and believing. We may know that the earth turns, but we believe, as we say, that the sun rises. We know by evidence, or by trust in people who have examined the evidence in a way that we trust is trustworthy. We may sometimes be persuaded to believe by reason, but within the welter of our experience reason is limited and weak. We believe always by coming, in some sense, to see. We believe in what is apparent, in what we can imagine or “picture” in our minds, in what we feel to be true, in what our hearts tell us, in experience, in stories— above all, perhaps, in stories.
We can, to be sure, see parts and so believe in them. But there has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth. Genesis is right: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The phrase “be alone” is a contradiction in terms. A brain alone is a dead brain. A man alone is a dead man.
We are thus as likely to be wrong in what we know as in what we believe.
From “Paragraphs from a Notebook” (2010)
In Our Only World: Ten Essays
I have had this book on my TBR list for a few years, but I haven’t been able to find a copy anywhere, not in my big city library system, not at the local used bookstores. So when I found a copy at the Blooms’ little bookstore, I was delighted. Britisher Nevil Shute (Norway) is most famous for two of his other books, On the Beach, an apocalyptic novel about nuclear holocaust, and A Town Like Alice, a story of post-World War II development in the outback of Australia. However, I’ve enjoyed others of his books, too, including The Pied Piper, The Far Country, and Trustee from the Toolroom.
So, The Chequer Board begins with Mr. John Turner going to see a doctor, a specialist, for help with some troubling physical symptoms that have been interfering with his life and work as a sort of traveling salesman for the company, Cereal Products, Ltd. Mr. Turner’s life is about to take a “turn” for the worse when he receives the news from the doctor that an old war injury is about to take his life. Mr. Turner only has a few months, maybe a year, to live.
Dr. Hughes, who is a sort of framing narrator for the novel, appearing only in the first and last chapters, is not terribly impressed with his patient, John Turner, at first. The good doctor describes Turner as “not very prepossessing. He was about forty years old with a fresh complexion and sandy hair, going a little bald. He had a jaunty air of cheerfulness and bonhomie which did not fit in well with my consulting room; he was the sort of man who would be the life and soul of the party in the saloon bar of a good-class pub, or at the races. He was wearing rather a bright brown suit with a very bright tie, and he carried a bowler hat.” With the added information that this book was published in 1947 and takes place in about that year, can’t you just picture Mr. Turner, in all his florid, Willie Loman-esque splendor?
Mr. Turner reminded me of Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman) in other ways, too. Turner is a little bit crooked, we find out, not above taking advantage of an opportunity to make a good deal on the side or skim a little money off a sale. Otherwise, he says, the taxes would make it impossible for a man to get ahead at all. And he and his wife have settled into a rather typical middle class life, with not much in common, and a lot of low-level wrangling and mis-communication between the two of them. The news of Mr. Turner’s imminent death changes everything.
Turner begins to reminisce about the time he spent in hospital with three other injured servicemen, and he becomes fixated on finding the other three men and helping them, if they need help. As it turns out, Turner is more helped by the search and by what he finds out about his three fellow hospital mates than he is able to help them.
I must have been in just the right mood for this novel. There’s some World War II adventure involved, and themes of racial harmony and overcoming adversity, but it’s really just a gentle, rather philosophical, story about people muddling their way through life. my life is in sort of a muddle right now, and I appreciated Mr. Turner’s frequent, though cliched reminder that “we’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” In spite of its tendency to promote Buddhism and denigrate Christianity, the novel was still a comfort to me. It’s about normal, average people dealing with the war and its aftermath in interesting and somewhat unpredictable ways.
The characters do make frequent (and jarring to a 21st century reader) use of the n-word in reference to a black American soldier who was one of Turner’s three hospital mates. The word was fairly typical, I think, in 1947 in England and in America, and perhaps didn’t carry quite the same derogatory meaning in British parlance. Anyway, the book treats its black characters and other POC characters (Burmese) with respect and understanding, while showing how many people in the 1940’s did not do the same.
The title of this book by Mr. Shute is fun to think about, too. It could refer to the past events that Mr. Turner explores in the book, chequered with light and dark. Or the theme of white and colored people reaching for racial reconciliation and even community is another meaning that finds an apt image in the light and dark chequerboard. The idea that life is a sort of game in which one makes moves either good or bad, and that in consequence each person might be reincarnated as a higher or lower being than he was before is also alluded to in the title and in the story.
Tonight on my way home from work, I stopped at a sandwich shop (not a chain) that I like, and ordered their submarine sandwich. The girl who took my order was a cute Asian teenager.
As I sat and waited for a few minutes, there was a fellow employee there with her. He was tall, and fat, and bespectacled. About her age. He was earnestly trying to explain to her the wonders of a particular video game.
It could have been a scene from a TV comedy.
“My brother,” I said silently, “no joy will come of this.”
Peter Nimble is a blind orphan and a thief. His other senses are, of course, exceptionally sharp and perceptive. When he steals a box with three sets of magical eyes and receives a quest to travel to the Vanished Kingdom and rescue the people there, Peter Nimble is challenged beyond anything he has ever experienced in his thieving life. Maybe the Vanished Kingdom needs a blind thief, and maybe Peter Nimble needs to become a hero and find a real home.
Beautiful, humorous, and meaningful writing characterizes this fantasy adventure. The author also inserts little asides that illuminate and explain the story and the world of Peter Nimble. Here are a few sample quotes to whet your appetite:
“Now, for those of you who know anything about blind children, you are aware that they make the very best thieves. As you can well imagine, blind children have incredible senses of smell, and they can tell what lies behind a locked door – be it fine cloth, gold, or peanut brittle – at fifty paces.
Moreover, their fingers are so small and nimble that they can slip right through keyholes, and their ears so keen that they can hear the faint clicks and clacks of every moving part inside even the most complicated lock. Of course, the age of great thievery has long since passed; today there are few child-thieves left, blind or otherwise.”
“There is something wonderful that happens between true friends when they find themselves no longer wasting time with meaningless chatter. Instead, they become content just to share each other’s company. It is the opinion of some that this sort of friendship is the only kind worth having. While jokes and anecdotes are nice, they do not compare with the beauty of shared solitude.”
“If ever you have had the chance to spend quality time with a villainous mastermind, you will know that these people are extraordinarily fond of discussing their evil schemes out loud.”
“You may be thinking that his blindness is no handicap at all, and that it somehow gives him an advantage over the average seeing person. Some of you may even be thinking to yourselves, ‘Boy! I wish I were blind like the great Peter Nimble!’ If you are thinking that, stop right now. Because whatever benefits you may believe that blindness carries with it, you must understand that there are just as many disadvantages.”
Caveats: The story does include some rather violent and creepy images and episodes. There’s a murder of murderous crows who peck out Peter’s eyes and who peck another (villainous) character to death. There are gangs of evil apes and a few dangerous sea serpents. The children in the Vanished Kingdom are degraded and enslaved, and the adults are brainwashed into acquiescence. However, evil is ultimately defeated, and goodness and light win.
An interview with Jonathan Auxier in which he discusses the difficulties of writing a story from the point of view of a blind character.
Mr. Auxier also wrote The Night Gardener, another creepy tale with fantastic themes and images.
No one has perfected a method to restore poetry’s place in public culture. It is unlikely that the art will ever return to the central position it once held. But is it unreasonable to hope that poetry can acquire some additional vitality or that the audience can be increased? Isn’t it silly to assume that current practices represent the best way to sustain the art into the future? There are surely opportunities for innovation, renovation, and improvement. Literary culture needs new ideas.
Poet Dana Gioia learned “students actually liked poetry once they took it off the page.” He recommends exploring new ways to revive the place of poems in our lives.
Too bad the tall guy didn’t land his blow about nine seconds in. He almost had it won.
I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.
Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:
Sing in Praise by Opal Wheeler. I am familiar with Ms. Wheeler’s biographical stories of famous composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and others, but I didn’t know that she had written a book about hymns and hymn writers. In this volume, with beautiful full color and pen-and-ink illustrations, Ms. Wheeler tells the stories of such famous lyricists and musicians as Isaac Watts, Lowell Mason, Charles Wesley, and several others.
The Birds of Bethlehem by Tomie dePaola. “The story of the Nativity from a bird’s-eye view.” It’s Tomie dePaola—and an unusual Christmas story.
On A Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne. Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. A picture book biography of the great physicist. “And in his mind, right then and there Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road . . . he was racing through space on a beam light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”
D is for Democracy: A Citizen’s Alphabet by Elissa Grodin. Illustrated by Victor Juhasz. Part of a series of beautiful alphabet books from Sleeping Bear Press.
H is for Home Run: A Baseball Alphabet by Brad Herzog. Illustrated by Melanie Rose. Another in the Sleeping Bear Press series.
Daisy Comes Home by Jan Brett. A Chinese girl, Mei-Mei, raises “happy chickens” and sells their eggs in the market. The story reminds me of the classic Story of Ping because one of the chickens, Daisy, runs away from home because she’s tired of being pecked and pushed out of the nest by the other chickens. Lovely Jan Brett illustrations.
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be by Jane Sutcliffe. Illustrated by John Shelley. “On the front of the stone, he drew the outline of his David. Then all that was needed was to carve away what was not David. . . . Day after day Michelangelo worked furiously. Every night he went home floured with the dust of not-David. He combed bits of not-David from his beard.”
Cathedral Mouse by Kay Chorao. A small spotted mouse finds a real home in a big, beautiful cathedral. This one reminded me of Norman the Doorman by Don Freeman.
Ben Lerner’s elegant, amusing essay turns on a distinction between Poetry and poems. Poetry is Caedmon’s dream, a virtual ideal that actual poems can’t live up to. “The fatal problem with poetry,” Lerner writes, is “poems.” Every poet is, inevitably, “a tragic figure.”
Peter J. Leithart reviews Lerner’s 96 page essay on the aspirations and failures of poetry. “Poetry isn’t hard,” Lerner says, “it’s impossible.”
Speaking of the impossible: Wendy Cope.
He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts and that is that.
Fear and trembling. Paul uses this phrase a couple of other times (2 Corinthians 7:15 and Ephesians 6:5), apparently with the connotation of submissive humility and receptive meekness. It is an affections-full being put into one’s place, I think. A disposition appropriate to the circumstances. The command in Psalm 2:11 is “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling,” showing us that fear is not without activity and trembling is not without joy.
Here I remember Emma Thompson’s beautiful portrayal of Elinor Dashwood at the end of the film Sense and Sensiblity when Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars reveals it was his brother who got married, and not himself. Thompson’s Elinor is an expert at keeping her emotions bottled up—until this moment where we see “fear and trembling” brilliantly and movingly in display. It chokes me up every time.
Pent-up hopes and dormant affections brought near the super-electric current of a fearsome reality. The hair on our arms stands up, gooseflesh springing, a sense of fresh air and being winded at the same time. Overwhelmed. That’s fear and trembling.
As it pertains to having the living God draw near to us, fear and trembling assume it is truly God and the glorious Christ we have encountered and not some pitiful caricature. The god of the prosperity gospelists is a pathetic doormat, a genie. The god of the cutesy coffee mugs and Joel Osteen tweets is a milquetoast doofus like the guys in the Jane Austen novels you hope the girls don’t end up with, holding their hats limply in hand and minding their manners to follow your lead like a butler or the doormat he stands on. The god of the American Dream is Santa Claus. The god of the open theists is not sovereignly omniscient, declaring the end from the beginning, but just a really good guesser playing the odds. The god of our therapeutic culture is ourselves, we the “forgivers” of ourselves, navel-haloed morons with “baggage” but not sin. None of these pathetic gods could provoke fear and trembling.
But the God of the Scriptures is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). He stirs up the oceans with the tip of his finger, and they sizzle rolling clouds of steam into the sky. He shoots lightning from his fists. This is the God who leads his children by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. This is the God who makes war and sends plagues and sits enthroned in majesty and glory in his heavens, doing what he pleases. This is the God who incarnate in the flesh turned tables over in the temple like he owned the place. This Lord God Jesus Christ was pushed to the edge of the cliff and declared, “This is not happening today,” and walked right back through the crowd like a boss. This Lord says “Nobody takes my life; I give it willingly,” as if to say, “You couldn’t kill me unless I let you.” This Lord calms the storms, casts out demons, binds and looses and has the authority to grant us the same. The Devil is this God’s lapdog.
And it is this God who has summoned us, apprehended us, saved us. It is this God who has come humbly, meek, lowly, pouring out his blood in infinite conquest to set the captives free, cancel the record of debt against us, conquer sin and Satan, and swallow up death forever.
Let us, then, advance the gospel of the kingdom out into the perimeter of our hearts and lives with affectionate meekness and humble submission. Let us repent of our nonchalance.
Behold Your Queen! is a fictionalized version of the book of Esther from the Bible. The novel is by Gladys Malvern, a popular writer of what we would now call “Young Adult fiction”. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s it was called teen fiction or just children’s fiction for older children. Many of her books are set in either Old Testament or New Testament times and are embellishments on familiar Bible stories. Books such as The Foreigner (about Ruth), Saul’s Daughter (about David’s wife, Michal), Tamar, and Rhoda of Cyprus were favorites of mine when I was a teen, and as I re-read Behold Your Queen!, I was again impressed with how Ms. Malvern was able to make the Bible story come alive and make her characters into real, breathing people.
There are a few deviations from the Biblical story. In Ms. Malvern’s book, Esther gives only one feast for the king, her husband and Haman, the evil Amalekite minister. At that first feast, she begs for the lives of her people to be spared and denounces Haman as the enemy of the Hebrew people as well as the enemy of the king himself. The author adds many details and descriptions of Persian court life and of King Xerxes/Ahasuerus and other characters and settings in the story. However, the basic story is the same, and the author has the Jews give credit to Esther and to “Almighty God” for their deliverance from the hand of the evil Haman.
I’ve posted before about the book of Esther. It’s a fascinating story. Chuck Swindoll wrote a book about Esther called Esther: A Woman of Strength and Dignity. I also have a couple of other post about Esther, Soundtrack for the Book of Esther and Esther, Illustrated. On the latter subject, the “decorations” in Gladys Malvern’s Behold Your Queen! are done by her sister Corrine, who was the illustrator for most (all?) of Gladys’ books.
I had a fascination with historical fiction based on Biblical narratives or set in Biblical times for a while when I was a teen, and Gladys Malvern was one of my go-to authors. Others who wrote these kinds of tales back in the early to mid twentieth century or before were Lloyd C. Douglas (The Robe, The Big Fisherman), Lew Wallace (Ben-hur), Norah Lofts (How Far to Bethlehem?), Elizabeth George Speare (The Bronze Bow), Joanne Williamson (Hittite Warrior), Marjorie Holmes (Two from Galilee), Patricia St. John (Twice Freed), and Frank G. Slaughter (The Road to Bithynia and many others). All of these stories were more or less Biblically accurate and made me think about the Biblical narratives in new ways as the people in them began to feel like real people instead of the flannel-graph one-dimensional characters of my childhood understanding. Whether it’s by means of historical fiction or the kinds of imaginative Bible study, I think it’s important that the people of the Bible be understood in this way as one grows and learns more about them.
Last weekend I had the privilege of meeting a young man who told me he was converted during a men’s conference I preached a couple of years ago. As encouraging as that was to hear, the news was made sweeter when he told me the very first Christian book he read was Gospel Wakefulness. Two years later, he is growing by leaps and bounds in the faith and is prayerfully exploring God’s call to the mission field.
When we preach these sermons and write these books and articles and blog posts, we grow accustomed to hope-filled trusting that the Lord is using the material somehow, very often in ways we will never know about this side of glory. So I don’t know why I’m always surprised to learn how instrumental some meager literary offering has been in the life of some precious child of God. But this book Gospel Wakefulness, released in 2011, is probably the one I hear most about. I still receive messages regularly from folks who have found in the book some measure of hope or joy, some deeper level in their affections for Christ. (To be more specific, the chapter on depression is the section I hear about most.)
I’m really happy about this, and I’m sure it will sound prideful to some, but while I don’t think Gospel Wakefulness is my best work, it is still the book that best captures what motivates all my writing. It essentially represents the “vision statement” for my writing, my ministry, and my life. Readers who’ve followed me for some time will likely know that the concept of “gospel wakefulness” — which certainly is not original to me — was not born out of some theological speculation or desire to insert another “gospel as adjective” entry into the ever-growing resources of the young, restless, and Reformed (or whatever we’re calling it these days), but rather out of the dark well of my own life. Gospel wakefulness is something that happened to me. (I’ve shared this testimony in numerous places, publicly and in print, but it is probably most extensively retold in the last chapter of The Prodigal Church.)
Indeed, when I was originally trying to tease out what gospel wakefulness means — the shortest way to put it is “revival on the personal scale” — I had no clue there was a “gospel movement.” I was actually smack-dab in the attractional church I was trained for ministry in and trying to feel my way out. That gospel wakefulness eventually became a book was the result of numerous years of trying to wrap my mind and heart around the way that God’s grace saved my life.
I know 5 years is not a big milestone, especially not in “book years,” and especially not in a world where a new gospel book seems to drop every week (sometimes written by me!). But it’s a meaningful milestone to me and, I am learning, to others as well. I have to thank people like my long-time brother Bill Roberts (an original Thinkling!) for being the first guy to ask me to teach on the subject — which basically prompted me to learn how to articulate it. And also men like Ray Ortlund, as well as Justin Taylor and my friends at Crossway, who took the risk of publishing the eventual book.
About twelve years after God reached down into that little guest bedroom and woke me up and rescued me from despair, and five years after the book released, gospel wakefulness is still my life’s theme and mission. And if you’ve read it, I have to thank you too. I hope it has blessed you in some way and helped you enjoy the glory of Christ more than anything else.
“We have grown to associate morality in a book with a kind of optimism and prettiness; according to us, a moral book is a book about moral people. But the old idea was almost the opposite; a moral book was a book about immoral people.” ~G.K. Chesterton
Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.
Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.
After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.
The two sequels to Johanna Spyri’s beloved Heidi, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children, were neither written nor endorsed by Spyri, but were adapted from her other works by her French translator, Charles Tritten, in the 1930s, many years after the Swiss author of Heidi died. Nevertheless, I read them both when I was a girl, wanting more Heidi, and I found them to be satisfyingly Heidi-like in style and substance.
I decided to re-read Heidi’s Children, after purchasing a used copy from a friend. It’s really a beautiful and intriguing story. In Heidi Grows Up, Heidi goes away to boarding school and then returns to Dorfli to teach in the village school. Eventually, she and Peter are married (as everyone who has read Heidi would know and want them to do). Heidi’s Children begins in the springtime with Heidi and Peter expecting their first child.
Several things about the ideas and perspective in this book impressed me.
Heidi’s and Peter’s attitude about marriage, unremarkable in the 1930’s when this book was published, seems charmingly antiquated in these oh-so-enlightened times:
“. . . with Spring would come one of the greatest joys that a young wife can experience. For both Peter and Heidi felt that no marriage was complete until it was blessed with children. Spring held this promise. Even at the wedding the great event had been prepared for and the cradle had stood ready. This was the custom. Often at a Grisons wedding, the cradle was prepared and a child walked with the bride and groom carrying wheat. This was a sign that the marriage would be fruitful, that there would soon be children.”
Who would think that almost a century after the time of this story, people not only would see children as a nuisance and even a curse rather than “one of the greatest joys” and a blessing and a promise, but would also devalue marriage itself to the point that it has become an unnecessary burden or a meaningless “piece of paper” to many?
I also like the way Heidi and Peter live with their extended family and in community. Heidi’s grandfather, the Alm-Uncle, lives with them, and so does Peter’s mother, Brigitta. Jamy, the village school teacher and a school friend of Heidi’s, boards with the family, and Jamy brings her little sister, Marta, to live with the family as well. Other visitors, such as Klara and Herr Sesemann, are in and out, and it’s just a wonderful picture of a loving community, several generations, helping and serving one another.
I also liked the themes of courage overcoming fear, forgiveness and understanding, visual images and stories as vehicles for knowing God and His love. Little Marta is a good replacement child character for little Heidi, and the grown-up Heidi is someone an adult reader feels as if she would like to have for a friend. Altogether, the Heidi series is a delight, even if the authors are two different people. Tritten writes of his justification for writing the sequels in his foreward to Heidi’s Children:
“I knew Madame Spyri as well as one human, even of a different race, could know another. Every book she wrote was a labor of love for the children she knew so well. Each was written in memory of that little ‘lost one’ who used to ask her to tell him what lay beyond ‘forever after.’ I know that she never refused to grant a child’s wish as long as she lived.”
The gospel is an old hymn. The gospel is sheet music printed in antiquarian typeface on a yellowed page in a dusty book. It’s the “old, old story” and the “old rugged cross.” It is four verses—and please don’t skip the third verse to expedite the invitation! The gospel is an invitation to a bygone time that feels new again, even in our age of ever-dawning progress and modernity. The gospel gets “dug up” and “trotted out” and sung ironically and apologized for by leaders too clever for their own good. But then it lands in the ears of those led as sweetly familiar, warms their souls like celestial comfort food, and it always gets sung louder than those Jesus-is-my-boyfriend ditties.
At first glance, the gospel of the kingdom is not much to look at. Too many evangelicals tend to take it for granted. It sits in the splintery pew rack of our imagination like some hallowed curiosity. And, when bored with the latest distractions, we happen to take it up again and turn to our favorite number, it’s like coming face to face with an old friend. It’s like we never neglected it. We pick up right where we left off.
I notice this phenomenon every time I hear audiences sing actual hymns during congregational worship time. It’s even noticeable at student ministry events, although you wouldn’t expect it to be so. It is young people, we assume, who find the old hymns most musty. “They only want the new stuff,” the common wisdom says. But I’ve spoken at more than a few student ministry events, and while most Christian teenagers seem engaged enough during worship music of all kinds, I hear the difference when some leader, immersed in the fog and lasers of newness, “dusts off” an oldie. The kids sing.
I notice this in plenty of other venues as well—at church services, men’s retreats, and Bible conferences. Why?
I don’t think it’s just because hymns are familiar. These audiences know the new stuff too. In fact, the new stuff dominates the worship scene for a reason. I think the persistent resonance of hymns does have something to do with the fact that hymns—for church folks, anyway—are historically familiar. These old songs take us back to simpler, more formative times in our life of discipleship, and few things beat nostalgia for warming the heart. But I don’t think it’s simply nostalgia that makes the hymns so affectionately singable.
I think many of the old hymns, the ones that have endured—and plenty of the newer hymns too, actually—tap into a deeper reality than a lot of the more explicitly emotive stuff. In a strange way, the old gospel hymns affect us more emotionally by not dealing primarily with how we feel. There are plenty of emotional exclamations in the old hymns, of course—“How marvelous, how wonderful!,” “Then sings my soul, how great Thou art,” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” etc.—but these songs don’t make the emotional the primary point. They make the emotional the response to something much sturdier—namely, the gospel.
Most of these old hymns follow the gospel storyline. The first verse usually presents the problem of sin in some way. The second and third verses typically introduce Christ and his cross, the work of the Spirit, or some other proclamation of redemptive narrative of the gospel. And the last verse typically puts the Christian in heaven, focusing on the blessed hope of Christ’s return and our glorification.
The classic hymns, like the gospel they help us exult in, are much bigger than they appear.
This is why I say my gospel is like the old hymns: I very often treat the gospel like something I’ve moved on from, but every time I bring it back to mind, every time I put my stupid little eyes on its familiar truths, it transports me to a more beautiful, more powerful, more helpful place than any of these newfangled messages I flirt with every day ever could.
A lot of the new songs—not all of them, of course, but a lot of them—head straight to how I feel about Jesus but never take me into the depths of why I ought to feel that way. We’re summoning the wind, calling down the fire, pleading for rainfall. (I begin to wonder if I’m worshiping God or reciting some kind of medieval weather report.) I’m telling God what I want, what I need (what I loooong for, ooooohh).
But what I really need is to rehearse what he’s already done for me, what he’s already done in Christ that has satisfied my desires, met my needs, and answered my longings. In the rush to emotional outburst, I miss affectionate remembering.
Here, I’ll tell you what it’s like: The difference between a lot of modern, emotional worship songs and the classic, gospel-rich hymns is the difference between the romantic ruminations scrawled in a pre-teen girl’s diary and the decades-long marriage etched upon the hearts of a tired-but-God-dependent man and wife. We take our old marriages for granted too; they become too familiar to us, old hat. It is hard to muster up the romance of the newlywed days, well nigh impossible to dig up the gosh-darn “twitterpation” of wet-eyed, dimple-cheeked courtship. In a hard-earned marriage between two survivors of the early mutual surprise that they married a more sinny sinner than they anticipated runs something deeper than mere feelings and stronger than flimsy romantic greeting card proverbs. In long marriages between two Jesus-followers we find a bedrock of true affection.
It’s not for nothing that God categorizes the relationship between his son and Christians as one between a groom and his bride. And just as in worship music and marriage, keeping the relationship fresh means frequently revisiting some old, familiar truths.
— this is an edited version of an excerpt from my forthcoming discipleship book (2017, Baker)
Recently, the subject of church discipline has hit the radar in many circles due to some high-profile controversies and scandals. The way some churches appear to poorly exercise church discipline is as distressing as the way many Christians reacted to the concept. There has been a collective incredulity about church discipline as some kind of “strange fire” in the evangelical world.
I can’t help but think that this aversion is partly because, as God has built his church, his church leaders have not always kept up with what makes a church a church. So even to mention the idea of a church disciplining its members strikes tenderhearted and undereducated Christians as weird, mean, and legalistic. How do we work at keeping church discipline from seeming weird? Here are five ways:
1. Make disciples.
Many local churches have simply becoming keepers of a fish tank. A surface level of fellowship is often in place, but the central mission of the church—to make disciples—has been neglected. Instead, churches are structured around providing religious goods and services, offering education or even entertainment options for their congregational consumers. People aren’t being trained in the context of ongoing disciple relationships. But this is largely what “church discipline” is—training.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” — Matthew 18:15
In discipling relationships, we are always disciplining one another, not chiefly or only in the fight against sin but largely in our encouragement of each other, edifying one another, teaching one another, and sharing one another’s burdens. In short, disciples know each other. And so Matthew 18:15 might be happening all the time, perhaps weekly within loving relationships where there is no imminent danger of somebody being kicked out of the church but rather a constant iron sharpening of iron.
In churches with healthy discipleship cultures, church discipline is going on all the time in helpful, informal, everyday ways. When the more formal processes of church discipline become necessary, they are much less likely to be carried out too harshly or received strangely. The church will already have a positive training context for knowing that discipleship requires obedience, correction, perseverance, and mutual submission.
2. Create clarity about church membership.
In many churches, there is no church membership structure at all. But even in churches that maintain formal church membership, the expectations and processes are unclear. Prospective church members need to provide more info than merely their profession of faith, previous church membership, and the area of service they are interested in. They need to know what the body is promising to them and what they are promising the body. If church membership is a Christ-centered covenant relationship—and it is—their needs to be a clear, mutual promise between all invested parties that their yes will be yes and their no will be no, so that there can be no surprise when someone’s yes to sin is received with a no from the church.
3. Teach the process.
I remember a church meeting once upon a time where elders were sharing the grounds for dismissal of the lead pastor. The evidence was extensive and serious, and there was plenty of testimony about the elders having sought for years the pastor’s repentance and his getting counseling to no avail. One woman, visibly upset, shouted, “Where is the grace?!” The whole idea seemed weird and unchristian to her. She did not have the biblical framework to know that the last several years’ of pleading for the pastor’s repentance was a tremendous act of grace, and that indeed, even his dismissal was a severe mercy, a last and regrettable resort in seeking to startle him into godly sorrow over his sin. But churches aren’t accustomed to thinking of discipline that way; they think of grace as “tolerance” and “niceness.” This is because we don’t teach them well. Consequently, grace becomes cheap.
For some, church discipline will always be objectionable because it seems outdated and unnecessary. But for many, their objection is a reflection of simply not knowing what the Bible teaches on the matter. If a church never broaches the subject until a church’s response to someone’s unrepentant sin must be made public, church discipline will always seem alien. “What are you doing bringing all this law into a place that should be filled with grace?” And the like. So we have to preach the relevant texts.
One word of caution, however: Some churches love teaching the process of church discipline out of all proportion; they love it too much. In some church environments, church discipline is mainly equated with the nuclear option of excommunication and the leadership of the church is not known for its patience but for its itchy trigger finger. Teaching the process of church discipline is not about filling the church with a sense of dread and covering the floor with eggshells. It’s about providing enough visibility about the guardrails and expectations that people can actually breathe more freely, not less. Church discipline—rightly exercised—is motivated by real, sorrowful love and concern.
4. Follow the process.
Once again, we fail our congregations when we don’t begin church discipline until we feel pressed to remove someone from membership and refuse them the Lord’s Supper. It’s as if there aren’t previous, patient, hopeful steps in Matthew 18. Even the context of Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 5:13 appears to demonstrate excommunication is the final straw, not the only one. If we will follow the biblical process of church discipline, beginning with confidential and humble rebuke of a brother’s or sister’s sin, if unrepentance persists and the circle of visibility widens, expulsion will be seen as a regrettable and sorrowful necessity, and as something intended for a person’s repentance and restoration, not for their punishment.
5. Practice gospel-centeredness.
God will get the glory and our churches will give him glory when church discipline is practiced in the context of a grace-driven culture. You can expect church discipline to seem unnecessary and legalistic in churches where the gospel has not had any noticeable effect on the spirit of the people. But in churches where God’s free grace in Christ is regularly preached and believed, church leaders will be regularly setting aside their egos and narcissistic needs and the laity will be bearing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things, and believing all things (1 Cor. 13:7), including that while no discipline feels pleasant at the time, in the end it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb. 12:11).
1. I’ve heard it attributed to Tim Keller that you have to preach at least 200 sermons to get good. (Or something like that.) I think this is generally true. For those gifted to preach, it does take a long time to hit your stride and become reliably good, and even then, you keep growing and refining. For those who aren’t gifted to preach, I think even reaching the 200 mark shows no discernable growth. Someone is ungifted to preach when they’ve been at it a long time and show no real development. Sermon 201 is probably not noticeably improved from sermon 1.
2. I personally favor the use of manuscripts, but I understand they’re not for everyone. If you can’t preach from a manuscript without sounding like you are reading a manuscript, it’s probably not for you.
3. When I started preaching, I used outlines (2-3 pages). I expected that as I got more experienced and confident in the pulpit, I would be taking less material. The opposite has proved true. The longer I go, the less I trust myself to speak without the train-track of my manuscript (usually 10-12 pages).
4. I don’t think short messages are usually very good, but there’s nothing worse than a sermon that is too long. Don’t try to say everything. Do the text justice, proclaim the gospel, and don’t feel the need to turn your weekly sermon into a conference talk. For most preachers, I suspect 30-40 minutes is probably the best range, but, again, a bad sermon can’t be too short.
5. I believe that your devotional prep should take longer than your exegetical prep. Don’t overcook your sermon, but don’t pressure-cook your communion with God.
6. Thinking missionally, I think there is some truth to the admonition to “preach to who you want.” But it’s not for no reason Peter says to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Preaching to the congregation of your vision is often a great way to lose the congregation God in his wisdom has given you.
7. Work with the text on your own first, consult commentaries last. Always better to borrow than to steal.
8. I think topical sermons are fine so long as they’re preached expositionally.
9. If Christ is as glorious as he says he is, making him the point of the sermon—no matter the text—makes the most sense.
10. Preach a biblical text. The only reason not to is if you think your ideas are better than God’s.
11. A steady diet of “how-to” sermons doesn’t make Christianity more accessible or relevant to people; it actually, over time, burdens them and makes them feel constantly on spiritual probation.
12. It takes some people all the faith they’ve got that week to get through the church doors on Sunday morning. Why would we want to offer them anything but good news and the comfort of Christ?
13. If the Bible is right when it says the gospel is the power of salvation—and it is—and if the Bible is right when it says it’s only by beholding Christ’s glory in the gospel that people can be transformed—and it is—it doesn’t make sense to marginalize the gospel or save it for special occasions.
14. Preaching expositionally with the unity of the whole Bible in mind is a great way to make sure you’re emphasizing both law and gospel according to their biblical proportions.
15. Obviously, if you’re faithfully preaching God’s Word, it doesn’t really matter if you’re preaching from a music stand, lectern, high-top table, or with no stand at all, but I personally do like a good old-fashioned wooden pulpit, because I like the way it reinforces the idea that God’s word is solid, firm, “big,” an anchor in the stormy seas of life. A good solid pulpit conveys aesthetically the authority and the firmness of God’s Word. Again, no reason to be dogmatic about something so preferential, but maybe consider what your preaching environment communicates?
16. The sermon can serve as a biblical course of correction to pervasive disobedience in the church and a spur to repentance, but please don’t use your sermon to passive-aggressively address problems (or problem people) in your congregation. No subtweet sermons.
17. I learned early on that homiletical rants directed at certain subgroups—young men, for instance, who need to grow up or whatever—tended to be ignored by those who most need to hear them and instead hurt the hearts of sensitive souls who don’t necessarily need them. When I would yell Driscoll-like at young men especially, I learned that those in my crosshairs didn’t think what I was preaching applied to them and that I was stepping all over men who were already working hard. This is immature preaching. There are better ways.
18. You can’t make everybody happy. That’s not the point of preaching, anyway. Don’t preach as an employee of the church. Preach as a servant of God, accountable first and foremost to him.
19. Personal illustrations should mainly serve in the area of confession or self-deprecation. Always holding up yourself as a good example is a fantastic way to preach yourself instead of Christ crucified.
20. A simply good preacher who can look in the eyes of the flock beats a really great preacher on a video screen any day.
21. Passion, brother, passion. Give us your theology, yes. Don’t short-shrift us on the text. Don’t confuse yelling for preaching. That’s not what I’m saying. Give us your rhetoric and your logic sure, but give it to us affectionately. “Preaching,” as Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, “is theology coming through a man who is on fire.” (See also #5 above.)
For those who care about such things, I thought I’d share some of my upcoming speaking dates for the rest of the year. If you’re in any of these areas and able to attend, would be great to meet you.
August 25-27, 2016 – ERLC National Conference. Nashville, Tennessee. Looking forward to joining a panel on cultural engagement with Daniel Patterson, Matt Anderson, Trevin Wax, Jackie Hill Perry, and D.A. Horton.
September 11-14, 2016 – Ocean City Bible Conference. Ocean City, NJ. I’ll be speaking three times at this conference on the attributes of God and the glory of Christ.
September 26-27, 2016 – For The Church Conference. Kansas City, MO. At the third annual FTC conference — themed Portraits of a Pastor — I am tasked with presenting on “The Pastor as Shepherd.”
October 3-5, 2016 – Spurgeon Fellowship. Western Seminary, Portland, OR. I will be speaking 4 times at this event on the topic of pastoral ministry and the gospel.
November 3-5, 2016 – Doxology & Theology Conference. Louisville, KY. Hosted at Southern Seminary. This year’s D&T Conference is held in honor of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I will be preaching a plenary session on “Faith Alone” and leading a breakout on gospel-centered worship.
November 14-15, 2016 – Acts29 Europe Pastors Conference. Belfast, Ireland. Details still TBA.
Pastoral ministry is not the most lucrative of occupations, except when it is. On average, pastors are not paid enough. But very few of us have any grounds for complaint. In general, if it’s riches you’re after, ministry is likely not your first choice, unless you’re gunning for a time slot on TBN.
But there are times when we are not exercising our pastoral duties for any reason other than to pay our bills; this is pastoring for shameful gain, no matter the dollar amount.
Shameful gain doesn’t have to be about money, though. There are lots of things we can be shameful in our hopes to gain. It could be attendance numbers, pledge cards, altar call respondents, prestige, power, book sales, Twitter followers, blog subscribers, pats on the back . . . The list is endless.
Almost ten years ago some friends and I planted a church in Nashville, Tennessee. God did not give us tremendous numerical growth. We were faithful to his calling, best as we understood it, but his plan was not for our increase. As the pastor of this church, I often took this very personally. I come from the land of the Bible Belt, where megachurches are flowing with soy lattes and money. There is a Six Flags Over Jesus on nearly every corner, and here we were, a little missional church plant, commemorating many Sunday services with more people in our band than in the pews.
It was a struggle on a soul level for me each week as our music would begin. I would make my way out to the foyer to pray. I would beg God to send just two more people, just one more, before I had to get up to preach. It wasn’t the Bible Belt or megachurchianity that made me seek my validation in attendance; it was my own flesh. And there was the whisper of the devil, tickling my ear with his forked tongue, accusing me of my worthlessness, which only made me seek my worth in wisps and fog all the more.
Then I moved to a different place and pastored a different church. Ironically enough, though I left a town of nearly 1.6 million for a town of less than 1,000, my church was about eleven times the size of my previous church. In six years we about quadrupled in size. We kept growing the entire duration of my time there, and Lord willing, they will continue to grow. By the most common of church measurement standards, things are good. But the struggle never left.
The dirty little secret underneath the desire for shameful gain is this: there’s never enough.
One of the most helpful things I’ve ever heard on these matters comes from a pastor named Justin Anderson who realized the dream. “I’ve seen the “promised land,” he said, “and it’s just ok.”
Refreshing is what that word is. Anderson elaborated:
For the last couple years, I have been living the dream. Our church has seen explosive growth, people be saved, baptized, and join groups all the time. We have four campuses, thousands of people, and a great staff. Finally, all the toil of church planting has paid off and the prospect of megachurch stardom was a reality.
Most of us want some version of this in ministry. I finally reached the promised land, and I can report that it’s just OK. Don’t get me wrong: there were parts that I loved, but at the end of the day there is always more to do, always another idea, hill to climb or battle to fight—it never ends.
There is much wisdom here for all of us, big church or little church, succeeding or struggling. There is wisdom here for pastor and laity alike.
Too often we envision “successful ministry”—this vision may look different from person to person, church to church—and pour our energies and affections into seeing that vision become a reality, assuming that once we finally “arrive,” things will be better, easier, finally and ultimately fulfilling. This is, functionally, idolatry. It is a creation of a false heaven, not simply false in its falling short of the real Paradise but false in its inclusion of talent, acquired skills, and grit to reach.
Don’t settle for the false heaven of a “successful ministry.” Because real success is faithfulness. Big church or small church, growing church or declining church, well-known church or obscure church—all churches are epic successes full of the eternal, invincible quality of the kingdom of God when they treasure Jesus’ gospel and follow him. Jesus did not give the keys of the kingdom with the ability to bind and loose on both sides of the veil only to those who’d reached a certain attendance benchmark. So do well, pursue excellence, and stay faithful. God will give you what you ought to have according to his wisdom and riches.
The reality is, as Anderson is able to reveal from that fabled other side, there is no promised land until the promised land of the real heaven. We always think things will finally be . . . well, final when we get “there,” wherever “there” is for us. But there is no there. There’s only here. Because once you get there, there becomes here, and there’s a new there. On and on it will go until our discontentment with ourselves is shaped by the contentment found in Christ and our yearning for thisworldly “theres” is conquered by the vision of the everlasting “there.”
A vision of the everlasting riches of Christ is the antidote for pastoring for shameful gain.
I got this email this morning and I'm about ready to boycott Penzey's. - update: I sent an email letting them know that as soon as they stop shoving their politics down my throat, I'll start shopping with them again.
It reads like this
In our celebration of the one-year anniversary of Marriage Equality we've arrived at Garlic/Yellow and Parsley/Green recipes. If you missed our previous Cayenne/Red and Now Curry/Orange recipes click here:Guacamole, Butter Chicken and Cumin Rice with Saffron or Curried Potato Salad with Craisins. As part of our celebration, now through June 27th with any $5 purchase you can get a free half-cup jar of your choice of any of our featured Rainbow Spices (up to a $6.95 value).
And yes, Marriage Equality is totally about cooking. What separates humans from everything else that came before us here on earth is our million-year symbiotic relationship with cooking. Once we were animals. We could see the benefit in looking out for ourselves, and looking out for the herd, but that was about it. Through tens of thousands of generations of mealtimes spent together around the fire, we became something more. Those trillions of meals created a much larger circle around the fire, and in that process so much more was set in motion.
Without cooking, we would never have come to understand how much we all benefit when we take care of everyone, even those we do not even know. The gift of cooking is the gift of our humanity. Without cooking, there would be no religions teaching us that how we treat others is every bit as important as how we treat ourselves. Without cooking there would be no governments ensuring that even the least privileged among us also have a pathway to success.
Cooking is the best thing ever. And now, through cooking, we've arrived at this day where everyone has the right to be married, where everyone has the right to be a family!
Well, there you have it. Every time you cook, keep in mind that you made gay mirage possible! Through evolution.
Our church worship gatherings ought to be welcoming and comprehensible to unbelievers who are present, but many churches actually structure the entire worship service around them. There is no real biblical precedent for this, and furthermore, it’s not the most effective way for your church to reach lost people, anyway. If your church orients its weekend gathering around “reaching seekers,” it’s quite possible it has adopted some of the working assumptions outlined below, programmatic arrangements that I want to argue actually turn the biblical shape of evangelism and mission upside down.
How might your worship service be upside down?
1. Emphasizing feelings before and over doctrine.
I know, I know. Many of us come from hard church backgrounds where doctrine was all that mattered and people were cold or harsh or uncaring about their neighbors. That’s another way to be upside down. But in many evangelical communities today we see a downplaying of theology and doctrinal truth to make way for personal feelings and relational connecting. The problems with this approach are numerous, but the two main problems I’d cite are these:
– Feelings about God detached from knowledge of God tend to reveal more that we are worshipers of feelings, of ourselves.
– Just as serious, perhaps, is the problem of expecting lost people to sing songs about their feelings about a God they don’t believe in. Too many of our Sunday morning worship sets get the cart of affections before the horse of belief.
This is all besides the persistent problem of singing theologically shallow or doctrinally vacant songs to begin with. But just in terms of missional or evangelistic strategy, helping folks sing about how the God they don’t (yet) believe in makes them feel is wrongheaded. It’s upside down.
2. Giving lost people religious homework.
The dominant style of preaching in the so-called “attractional” or “seeker-targeted” worship service is of the “practical application” variety. In these sermons, teachers attempt to make the Bible more relevant (as if it’s somehow irrelevant without our help) but offering a weekly set of steps or tips to make Christianity more applicable to daily life. You will freqeuently see individual sermons or whole sermon series devoted to “Making Life Work” or “Succeeding at Home” or “Becoming a Better Whatever.”
This is not to say, of course, that the Bible is impractical or that there aren’t lots of things to do in the Bible. The Bible has lots of commands! It is imminently practical and applicable to daily life. The problem we face, however, is that the practicality of Christianity is aimed solely at, you know, Christians. What I mean is, the expectation of obeying and pleasing God is placed on those who have both a heart changed to desire obedience and the Spiritual power to carry it out.
In the seeker-oriented teaching, however, we direct a steady diet of how-to at people who have yet to receive a heart of want-to. Unbelievers should hear the commands and applications of God’s designs, sure. But the primary thrust this application of the law has on unbelievers is one of conviction, not empowerment. In fact, the commands of the Bible—whether they are of the “don’t commit adultery” variety or the “love your neighbor” variety—have no power in themselves to help us. They can only tell us what to do (or not to do); they can’t help us do them.
The only thing the Bible calls power (to save us, to transform us, to motivate us) is the gospel of Jesus Christ. So it’s a little strange to make sure the dominant thing lost people hear in our church service is a list of things to do rather than the thing that’s done!
If your weekend teaching is heavy on how-to’s for the lost, you’re giving religious homework to a bunch of spiritual corpses. You might even be increasing the sin in your church with such a practice. Regardless, it is philosophically and theologically upside down.
3. Offering a gospel invitation after a legal message.
This is probably one of the primary ways the attractional church goes about the weekend preaching upside down. The pastor has spent 30 to 45 minutes encouraging a lost person to do a bunch of things that please God, and then afterward adds on an invitation to receive Jesus.
This kind of heavy law/added gospel message creates a kind of spiritual whiplash, as a teacher now invites someone to believe something the teacher has not spent much time communicating and in fact has spent most of his time operating as if it’s unnecessary. As I said above, the Bible assumes the kind of obedience to God that pleases God comes after our heart has been changed by grace. Simple religious behavior modification doesn’t glorify God; it glorifies self. If we preach a sermon on behavior modification and then try to invite people to receive grace, it seems disjointed, strange. It’s like you’ve suddenly changed the subject.
I remember hearing a well-known attractional pastor preach a sermon directed at women in which he said over and over again that God finds them captivating. (The tone of the message sounded like God worships women.) Then at the end, in his invitation to receive Jesus, he said God would cover their ugliness and shame. It was a strange message tacked-on to a sermon in which he belabored how much God found women beautiful and captivating only to now learn he thinks they’re ugly and need him.
This is an extreme example, but I think it is a fitting one, given how much evangelical preaching these days treats hearers like they are “good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, people like them,” like they’re beautiful unique snowflakes with endless potential, and then wants to somehow segue into the utter emptiness and need we have apart from God. Wait a minute, we think, You just went on and on about how awesome I am. Now you say I’m not? It’s upside down.
This kind of sermon arrangement is also out of proportion to biblical teaching. In Paul’s letters, for instance, he always begins with some kind of gospel proclamation. In length, it is scaled to the proportion of the letter itself. So, for instance, in Romans, the gospel story takes more chapters than it does in Colossians or Philippians. Then, he moves on to the practical matters, because the practical matters flow from the grounding of our justification. Doing flows from being. But in so much attractional teaching, the tacked-on invitation seems to make being an afterthought to doing.
It’s upside down.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” — Matthew 10:34-36
A curious thing happens when a church and its shepherds are committed to this radical notion of gospel-centrality. If we will focus on the biblical Jesus, we will tend to be motivated to reach and primed to attract the same kind of people the biblical Jesus did. And while most church folks like the ideas of mission and church growth, when the rubber meets the road in your proclamational engagement, you will find quite a few of those same agreeable souls eager to pump the brakes.
Why does this happen?
Well, the same gospel that by its nature unifies also tends to divide. We don’t usually expect this kind of division in a local church —we are typically otherwise fearful about conflict arising from music styles, programming choices, and personality types—but the gospel can divide a church just as easily as it might a family. But actually there’s nothing more prone to stirring up mess than the grace of God that has arrived to create order.
Whenever the gospel is faithfully preached, people get poked in the idols. And people don’t like that.
How does this happen?
Here are three common ways the gospel might cause division:
1. The gospel critiques the self-righteous.
The very news of the good news is that we are saved not by our works but by Christ’s work. Our righteousness merits us nothing. In fact, our righteousness can often “get in the way” of our believing in and enjoying the finished work of Christ. People who are preoccupied with their own performance, how they come across religiously, or their position in the church as based on their gifts, intellect, tenure, or social standing often find the regular and copious teaching of grace discombobulating.
I once followed up with a long-time church lady on a sustained absence from worship, and was surprised to hear her say she had stopped coming because we had a certain man serving as a Sunday morning greeter. I asked her if he had hurt her in some way or if she knew of some ongoing sin in his life we ought to know. She couldn’t really speak to either of those concerns but instead said many people in our small town remembered what he was like (before his salvation), so it was not good for our image to have him be the first face somebody saw.
Before he came to Christ, he was sort of an “angry cuss” and given to drunkenness too. He was, by God’s grace, not like that any more—in fact, many of us who only knew him post-conversion only knew how incredibly friendly and joyful and generous and helpful and eager-to-serve this guy was. But she could not forget his past. He was not the “right sort.”
She said to me, “I just like things black and white. This is too much gray.”
Really, it was the opposite. The gospel had washed him white as snow, but in her mind the “math” of the gospel didn’t add up. It messed with her sense of propriety and religious decency. She was suffering from what Dane Ortlund calls the “moral vertigo” of the gospel.
You will see this response happen quite often among the self-righteous and the religiously proud, and in fact, if you preach grace hard enough, you will begin to expose over time self-righteousness and religious pride in people (maybe even yourself) where you didn’t even know it existed.
2. The gospel frustrates the hobby horse riders.
It’s not just those who love the Law too much who get aggravated by gospel-centrality, it’s also those who love anything else too much! Pastor long enough and you will meet a variety of interesting and relationally taxing hobby horse riders. A brief survey of the kinds of people you will meet in your church neighborhood:
The culture warrior who’s frustrated you’re not patriotic or political enough.
The end-times junkie who’s frustrated you’re not eschatological enough.
The self-styled academic who’s frustrated you don’t really “dig into the meat” of the Greek participles or whatever.
The activist who’s frustrated you don’t give people enough social justice for homework.
That is a small sampling. Really, there can be as many frustrated people as there are hobby horses, but those are some of the more common ones. I’ve been hounded by theology nerds, accused by culture warriors, and worn out by the activists. You cannot expect the preaching of grace to always be met with grace in return. You should in fact expect that being single-minded about the gospel to frustrate those whose minds are set on something else.
3. The gospel irritates those who don’t want to change.
The gospel announces that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, but this faith, as the Reformers say, isn’t alone. Sanctified works flow from the sanctified heart. The gospel actually changes us. The Holy Spirit actually changes the hearts of sinners who now want to please God and grow in the likeness of Christ. That’s just one way change is effected by the gospel of Jesus.
But a church that embraces the gospel as its one thing begins to change too. Its preaching and teaching changes, and thus its discipleship and its counseling. Its interests change, its emphases change, its reason for being changes. And it will grow—if not numerically, at least Spiritually.
It has become a ministry truism—because it’s true—that church folks want to change until they actually do. And every church says it wants to grow. But actually growing will show whether that’s true or not. Most people don’t like change. People who are not set on the gospel especially don’t like change. So when the gospel begins to change a church, and as the gospel grows a church, it cannot help but change—you can’t grow and not change!—this really freaks people out.
I asked for a meeting once with a couple whose complaints and criticism (against me and against the ministry in general) were beginning to concern me. Most of these complaints were carried out behind my back and only later revealed by third parties or heard through the grapevine. So I began by asking if I had offended them in some way or hurt them, if maybe their complaint was driven by something I had done that I didn’t know. They could not put their finger on anything specific I had done to deserve their complaints. Instead, the husband offered this: “The church has changed. It’s not the same as it used to be.”
He only elaborated briefly, but apparently the church had grown enough numerically that it didn’t feel the same as it did “in the good old days.” He didn’t know everybody like he used to. This obviously made him uncomfortable. It made him uncomfortable enough to seek to subvert the ministry and the growth of the church.
These are not uncommon divisions. And they can prove subtly problematic and increasingly toxic in a church, especially when people disturbed by the gospel begin to gather likeminded grumblers and gossipers. It doesn’t take a majority of people to split a church, in fact. It only takes a determined minority working against an unguarded, unprepared leadership. If you are committed to gospel-centrality, in fact, don’t ever assume this couldn’t happen to you. In fact, you should prepare for the powerful gospel to do its glorious sorting of belief from unbelief.
And you should use these challenges to further encourage your resolute centrality on the gospel! Another concerned church member who once hijacked a church meeting with some out-of-the-blue concerns that were new to me said to me when I followed up with her privately: “Jared, we know your thing is the gospel. And you do that really well. But sometimes we just need to hear other things.”
Whenever your church, your fellow leaders, or you yourself get tired of the gospel’s meddlin’, that’s when you know to bring a double dose.
“Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” — Galatians 4:16
I haven't known what to pray for many years. I sit near my bed each night and stare at a wall. I conjure up a couple of words that I don't usually mean. But, today, I start to understand what they mean by the groaning of the Holy Spirit. My prayers are without many words. Just an aching of the heart. A leaning in toward God. Whispering the names of those I love. Begging for relief. Because, I need prayer more than ever right now. I need to believe that God is real. That He is here. And that He is working. That's what prayer is. It's a desperation for God. An acknowledgement of some sort of faith. I have no idea what you're doing, God. But if I don't trust you are doing something all I have is despair. And so I pray. Because I have not much left.
I discovered last week by clicking on Marvin Olasky’s Twitter link to the 2016 Books of the Year Award announcements from World Magazine that one of my own titles had made their grade. Thanks very much to the team at World for selecting my book The Prodigal Church as their Book of the Year in the category of “Accessible Theology.” As Jason Allen, the president of the seminary where I’m employed, quipped, “Infinitely better than winning the Inaccessible Theology Award!”
Here’s an excerpt from Olasky and Sophia Lee’s breakdown:
Jared C. Wilson’s The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (Crossway) articulately points out problems in many “seeker” or “attractional” churches that emphasize self-improvement or life-enhancement rather than God-enhancement: “If the purpose of worship is to feel good, we stop worshiping God.” He’s concerned when a church seems more like a concert and when Bible study leaders ask not, “What does this text mean?” but, “What does this text mean to you?” He notes, “Preaching even a ‘positive’ practical message with no gospel-centrality amounts to preaching the law. … Don’t treat the Bible as an instruction manual. Treat it as a life preserver.”
When Wilson scrutinizes worship, he asks, “Does this element exalt God or man?” He notes that “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.” Here’s his summary of Christian exceptionalism: “Grace is what makes Christianity unique among all world religions and philosophies. … 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 somehow become gods ourselves.”
The Prodigal Church is our “accessible theology” book of the year because every church, no matter the denomination, struggles in our age of entertainment with how to attract people to church without distracting them from the gospel. An important understanding for both youth ministries and adult evangelism is: “What you win them with is what you win them to.” Instead of adding on programs, churches should win attenders to an understanding of the gospel’s astounding message: The work is already done.
Also, congrats to the other finalists in this category, including a fellow Baker Books author, Caleb Kaltenbach.
You can find a loving conception of monotheism in both Judaism and Islam, but only in Christianity does this love manifest itself in a one-way work of salvation of sinners apart from religious effort. For this reason, C.S. Lewis has famously said of Christian faith, “We trust not because ‘a God’ exists, but because this God exists.”
There are of course many Jews, Muslims, and Christians who believe all three faiths worship the same God, but through different expressions. We see this view suggested even in the Muslim’s Koran:
Do not dispute other than in a good way with the people of Scripture, except for those of them who do evil; and say: “We have faith in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. Our God and your God are One, and to Him we submit [ourselves].” (Surah 29:46)
Jews and Christians, also, have so much good theology in common. It has become common among people in both faiths to refer to “Judeo-Christian values.” This is a real thing, and in many cases, a completely legitimate expression. In a 2007 interview, then-President George W. Bush said this: “I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. That’s what I believe.”
This belief is practically mainstream within all three of those faith traditions. But I think we come at this answer too easily, too thoughtlessly, simply assuming that because these three religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are all monotheistic and share some historical heritage, they must worship the same God. Because lots of people worshiping one God does not mean they are worshiping the same God.
Do Jews and Christians worship the same God?
This is a very complex question, actually, but the short answer is: no.
You may of course flinch at such an assertion. It is not a necessarily popular belief, even within evangelical Christianity, where many simply believe Jews worship what they know of God. It is said that they worship the one true God, but simply have an incomplete vision of him. But couldn’t this be said of any religious faith whose object of worship bears striking similarities with the God that Christians worship?
Complicating the question are the various threads within both Judaism and Christianity. One Jewish scholar has said, “The fact is that there is no single Jewish understanding of God.” This makes it difficult to distinguish Christianity from Judaism, if only because we aren’t dealing with Judaism so much as Judaisms. On the other hand, Christianity has remained almost entirely unified for two thousand years on the central matters of its theological claims. But one stark contrast between the Christian view of God and the Jewish view is on this thing called grace.
Now, drawing the line at the concept of grace may seem too narrow a division. The God revealed in the Jewish Tahakh displays abundant grace constantly. Christians would affirm that. But we also believe that we must believe about God what God has revealed about himself, and in fact that to disbelieve what God has revealed about himself and to worship some version of God we prefer is in fact to worship an idol. In the historic account of the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf, in fact, we see that Aaron and the Israelites attributed their worship of this false god to God (Exodus 32:5).
When Christians talk about grace, however, the thing that makes Christianity utterly unique among all faiths, we aren’t simply referring to a disposition of God or a personality trait. We are referring to those things too, of course, but more specifically, we are referring to the way God has expressed his grace, namely through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
It is at Jesus, in fact, that Judaism and Christianity part theological ways.
This is not simply a matter of opinion. It is a matter of diametrically opposed truth claims. And we see this opposition recurring over and over again throughout the teaching ministry of Jesus depicted in the Gospels of the New Testament.
In John chapter 8, the orthodox Jewish leaders are once again spying on Jesus, trying to trip him up, expose him, defame him, and shame him. You have to understand that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not fringe characters in the Jewish religion. They were the religious elite, of course, but theologically speaking, the represented mainstream, “contemporary” Judaism. They shared much of the same theology as Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees represented the faithful reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. They believed in the covenantal history, in a future resurrection, and in applying the revelation of God to everyday life. They would be the equivalent, probably, of the fundamentalist strain of Christianity today—culturally zealous and a little rough around the edges, but on all the majors, pretty much theologically correct.
So it is no little thing that Jesus and the Pharisees butt heads here in John 8. This is not simply a clash between nice Jesus and mean leaders. It is much more than that. It is a fundamental disagreement on the very identity of God.
Jesus is doing what Jesus always does: making everything about himself. In this instance, he claims to be the Judge, the Light of the World, the way to freedom from sin, and a few other equally provocative things. This is not the kind of thing a normal religious leader says. We don’t tend to take seriously religious leaders who make such claims about themselves.
Jesus then says something even stranger:
Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56-58)
What does he mean?
Jesus is saying two incredible things here. First, he claims to be in existence before Abraham. This is an overt claim to preexistence, in fact to eternality and omnipresence. And by saying “I am”—asserting that thousands of years ago, not only was he, but he currently is—he is applying the sacred name of Yahweh (“I AM”) to himself. This may sound subtle, but it’s not subtle at all. Jesus is in fact claiming to be God. We know the orthodox Jews understood him to be making this claim, because the very next thing they do (John 8:59) is pick up stones to kill him, which is exactly what a good Jew would feel inclined to do when confronted with such blatant blasphemy.
Again, this is not merely a matter of opinion. This is not simply a case of the Jewish theologians worshiping the same God in a different way. If Jesus is in fact God, and you try to kill him, how could we say in any legitimate way that you worship and believe in God?
Jesus makes this very point, actually, in the same chapter.
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:39-47)
To summarize, Jesus is saying that if somebody worshiped the true God, they would worship him, because he is of the same nature of the true God. And he is saying that if anyone rejects him, they reject the one true God. And further, he is saying, that if anyone—including these orthodox Jews—do not believe in him, they are more aligned with the enemy of God, Satan himself.
I share that lengthy passage above so you will see that I am not making this up. Jesus said it. And you are welcome to disagree, and you are welcome to be offended. But you should plainly see that Jesus is himself saying that to reject him is to reject God, deny the truth, and reveal oneself as being “not of God.”
In John chapter 10, verse 30, Jesus doubles down on these claims, and says, “I and the Father are one.” Once again, the Jewish theologians take up stones to murder him, which they would not have done if all he meant was that he and God were “on the same team.” John 10:33 makes their motive explicit:
The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”
I believe it is very important that we understand this important contrast if we want to understand both orthodox Christianity and the orthodox Judaism that develops from the time of Christ onward. The conflict between Jesus and the unbelieving Jews of his day did not rise or fall on how nice Jesus was compared to how mean the Pharisees were. That’s a very superficial reading of Jesus’ relationship with the religious leaders, which is probably why it’s the most common understanding in the secular world of why Jesus was killed.
But while Jesus was a faithful and religious Jew, his beef with the Pharisees and scribes was not simply some intramural personality clash. It was a fundamental clash of worldviews. Namely, Jesus was orienting the world around himself, putting himself in the center of everything. He was in fact claiming to be God. And if he was right—as I believe he was—then to disagree with him was to disagree with God. To deny him was to deny God. To reject him was to reject God. And to worship someone at the exclusion of Jesus, is to worship another god.
Christians believe that God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin named Mary and grew and developed into mature, real, tangible manhood.
So, do Jews worship the same God as Christians? The Christian faith has its roots in the Jewish culture and religion, and the two faith traditions share a common sacred history, but as it really counts—meaning, as it really applies to a relationship with the supreme deity who actually exists—the answer is no. Because if God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, if indeed Jesus Christ is God, if indeed God is a Trinity, then to reject these truths about his very nature—which is not the same as being mistaken about certain attributes of God or not understanding certain aspects of his personality—means rejecting God himself.
Jesus Christ makes all the difference in the world.
This post is an adapted excerpt from my book Unparalleled: How Christianity’s Uniqueness Makes it Compelling
 C.S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief,” in “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays (San Diego: Harcourt, 1988), 25.
 Mona Moussly, “Bush denies he is an ‘enemy of Islam’,” Al Arabiya News (October 5, 2007)
 Alon Goshen-Gottstein, “God Between Christians and Jews—Is it the Same God?” (pdf) Paper presented at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture
The number of days
in between these brutal frays
grow too few
we can't get some relief
it threatens our belief
that hope is here
that God is real
that love can heal
I am crippled by my sadness
I am paralyzed by the madness
I've forgotten the face of gladness
It eats at me
like a disease
my eyes glued to a screen
is darkness our new reality?
I can't get some relief
my joy stolen by a thief
What a mystery
Surely not just my history?
Can it be my present and future
can it close these wounds as a suture
I should number my days
but I am numb in my ways
I should stand and fight
but that demands some might
I am so fragile
with shaken faith for quite awhile
All I can do is keep breathing
Lacking in motivation
to do anything of meaning
Sleeping through the light
Blinded by the night
I hate this state that I relate to
sedated by my own fears
I admit I'm hiding, I'm not
crying for change
or justice for the slain
but I can't take the berating
and hating and fighting
Sad for the lives I never knew
that left this earth too soon
Sad for the meaningless arguments
That lead us not a step toward agreements
but push us farther into isolation
so much for a united nation
Sad for my personal enemies
Oh me of selfish tendencies
the demons that are stored inside
that I keep alive
because it's easier than to try
No easy way out
But surely there is something
we can do about
these evil acts
lay off the facts
the statistics, the data
look in the faces
they are not nameless
and weep, that's a
brother, a mother, a friend
ask for this to end
And Lord, help my unbelief
You are my only relief
The preacher paced the stage, staring earnestly out into the congregation. It was time for his weekly invitation. He asked for respondents to raise their hands. Not a single hand was raised. But he had no way of knowing this because he was on a video screen.
I found myself at the nearest campus of this multisite church on assignment from the pastor himself, a man who had recently hired me to do some freelance research work for him. Visiting one of his many remote services was supposed to help me get a “feel” for his ministry. It certainly did. But I couldn’t help but be struck with the feeling that this way of doing ministry couldn’t really help the preacher get a “feel” for his congregation.
I don’t know what you think about video venues or the multi-site model of church growth in general, but this experience and others has only affirmed some of the concerns I have about the disconnect between preacher and flock, a growing dilemma in all kinds of churches, big and small.
Indeed, this dilemma isn’t merely limited to multi-site, “video venue” churches. Pastors of growing churches of all sizes will continually struggle with staying familiar with their congregations. And the temptation to become more and more isolated becomes greater as more complexity is added to an increasing church.
And of course, it’s impossible for a preacher of even a small church to be best friends with everybody in his church, and it’s impossible for preachers of larger churches to know everybody well. But the preacher whose ministry is becoming more and more about preaching and less and less about shepherding, the preacher who is becoming less and less involved with his congregation, is actually undermining the task to which he is trying to devote more of his time! Good preaching requires up-close shepherding.
The ministry of preaching cannot be divorced from the ministry of soul care; in fact, preaching is actually an extension of soul care. There are a host of reasons why it is important for pastors who want to preach meaningfully to know their flocks as well as they can, but here are three of the most important.
1. Meaningful preaching has people’s idols in mind.
As I travel to preach in church services and conferences, one of the first questions I usually ask the pastor who invited me is “What are your people’s idols?” I want to be able not to just drop in and “do my thing,” but to serve this pastor and his congregation by speaking as well as I can to any of the hopes and dreams he can identify within his church that are not devotionally attached to Christ as their greatest satisfaction. Sadly, some pastors don’t know how to answer the question.
When Paul walked into Athens, he saw that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16). That said, he didn’t simply regard this as a philosophical problem but as a spiritual problem that grieved him personally. And when he addressed it, he did so specifically, referencing their devotion to “the unknown god” (17:23). And whenever Paul addressed specific churches in his letters, you will see that the kinds of sins and falsehoods he addressed were very specific. He didn’t speak in generalizations. He knew what was going on in these churches.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that you begin embarrassing or exposing people from the pulpit. But it does mean that you are in the thick of congregational life enough to speak in familiar terms.
Until a pastor has spent quality time with people in his congregation, the idols his preaching must combat with the gospel will be merely theoretical. All human beings have a few universal idols in common. But communities where churches are located, congregations as a subculture themselves, and even specific cliques and demographics within congregations tend to traffic in more specific idols and patterns of sin.
Knowing firsthand your flock’s misguided financial, career, and familial hopes will help you know how to preach. It will help you pick the right texts and the right emphases in explicating those texts. This is what makes preaching a ministry, and not simply an exercise.
2. Meaningful preaching has people’s suffering in heart.
I can tell you firsthand that my preaching changed after I’d begun holding people’s hands while they died and hearing people’s hearts while they cried. Until you’ve heard enough people share their sins and fears and worries and wounds, your preaching can be excellent and passionate, but it will not be all that it can be—resonant.
Many preachers carry the burden of God’s Word into the pulpit, and this is a good thing. Receiving the heavy mantle of preaching hot with Christ’s glory, being burdened to proclaim the Lord’s favor in the gospel is a noble, worthy, wonderful task. But the preacher must also feel the weight of his people in that pulpit. He must ascend to preach having been in the valley with them. His manuscript should be smudged with the tears of his people.
Knowing what sufferings afflict his people on a regular basis will keep a preacher from becoming tone-deaf to his congregation. He won’t be lighthearted in the wrong places. It will affect the kinds of illustrations he uses, the types of stories he tells, and—most importantly—the dispositions with which he handles theWord. I have seen preachers make jokes about things people in his congregation were actually struggling with. And I’ve been that preacher. We come to lift burdens, but with our careless words we end up adding to them.
Preacher, do you have a genuine heart for your people? I don’t mean “Are you a people person?” I mean, do you know what is going on in the lives of your congregation, and does it move you, grieve you? Have you wept with those who weep? If not, your preaching over time will show it.
Think of Moses’ grief over his people sins (Exodus 32:32). Or of Paul’s abundant tears (Acts 20:31, 2 Corinthians 2:4, Philippians 3:18, 2 Timothy 1:4). Think, also, of Christ’s compassion, seeing into the hearts of the people (Matthew 9:36). You may believe you can work these feelings up without really knowing your congregation, but it isn’t the same, especially not for them. It’s not the same for them in the same way that hearing a stirring word from a role model is not the same as hearing a stirring word from your dad. Preacher, don’t take to your text without carrying the real burdens of your people in your heart.
3. Meaningful preaching has people’s names in prayer.
Every faithful preacher prays over their sermon. They pray that God’s Word will not return void (Isaiah 55:11). They pray that people will be receptive. They pray that souls will be saved and lives will be changed. These are good prayers. Better still is the sermon prepped and composed with prayers of John Smith and Julie Thompson and the Cunningham family on the lips of the preacher. Better still is the sermon prayed over in pleadings for Tom Johnson’s salvation and Bill Lewis’s repentance and Mary Alice’s healing.
Paul repeatedly tells the people under his care that he is remembering them in his prayers (Ephesians 1:6, 2 Timothy 1:3, Philemon 1:4). And since he is frequently naming names, we know he doesn’t just mean generally. And while Paul did not have one congregation to shepherd up close but rather served largely as a missionary church planter, he nevertheless worked hard to know the people he ministered to from a distance and sought to visit them as often as he could. How much more should the local church pastor develop relationships with his people! He should know their names and he should carry their names to heaven in prayer.
It is important to know who you’re preaching to. It’s important to know that Sister So-and-So doesn’t like your preaching. It’s important to know that Brother Puff-You-Up likes it too much. It’s important to know that the man in the back with his arms folded and his brow furrowed isn’t actually mad at you—that’s just how he listens. It’s important to know that the smiling, nodding lady near the front has a tendency not to remember anything you’ve said. When you know these things, you can pray for your people in deeper, more personal, more pastoral ways. And your preaching will get better. It will be more real. It will come not just from your mind and mouth, but from your heart, your soul, your guts.
This all assumes, of course, that you are interested in this kind of preaching. If you see preaching as simply providing a “spiritual resource” for interested minds or a pep talk for the religiously inclined and not as bearing prophetic witness from the revealed Word of God to the hearts of people, then you can safely ignore all the points above.
Originally published at 9Marks.org.
Paul says of the Corinthians, “you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us” (2 Cor. 3:3). Therein lies the difference between disciple-producing and decision-producing.
The way we are typically programmed to measure the success of our ministries sets us up for hollow victory and desperate failure. But this is not to say we should never do any measuring. It is only to say that what we measure and how we measure shows where our confidence lies.
For instance, not all attendance increases are created equal. Joel Osteen boasts the largest church in North America, but it is not likely that the majority of these attendees are feeding on the gospel, because Osteen does not preach it as “of first importance.” For that matter, the Mormons, whom Osteen considers fellow Christians, are growing in numbers and influence. There are many false religions with many adherents around the world. Clearly, accumulating numbers cannot be our primary measure of success.
But in the attractional church, growth in numbers is often seen not just as a measure of success but as a justification for any methodology used to get them. Numbers become not just a metric to track growth but a badge of honor and a demand for validation. It is not uncommon to see the leaders of attractional churches tallying each week in public venues the number of “decisions” made. (This is at least a more honest label than “salvations,” since it would seem presumptuous to declare the number of souls changed by virtue of the number of feet down an aisle or names on a card.) Where any church sees the fruit of gospel preaching, both in professions of faith and in the baptisms by which the professions are announced, we all ought to rejoice with those who rejoice. But we also ought to caution those who publicly tally to check their own motives and observe their disciples’ fruit. Biblical credibility is not found in big stats.
Apparently this phenomenon is not new, as Spurgeon once responded to it himself:
Do not, therefore, consider that soul-winning is or can be secured by the multiplication of baptisms and the swelling of the size of your church. What mean these dispatches from the battlefield? “Last night fourteen souls were under conviction, fifteen were justified, and eight received full sanctification.” I am weary of this public bragging, this counting of unhatched chickens, this exhibition of doubtful spoils. Lay aside such numberings of the people, such idle pretense of certifying in half a minute that which will need the testing of a lifetime. (The Soulwinner (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker, 1995), 13.)
The attractional defenders of such number-crunching will say that numbers matter because every number is a person and every person matters. Absolutely right. But every person is a soul, and when in our zeal we pronounce the state of a soul that has not been invested in over time and cared for, we do no one’s soul any favors.
Another thing we often hear as a church growth truism is that “healthy things grow.” And as I said before, yes, they often do. But not always.
Pastoral ministry is about souls, not stats. If your number of souls grows, fantastic. To God be the glory. Let’s just remember that we are responsible mainly for the care of the souls, not the accumulation of them.
In the end, this is good news. It is good news because it means God’s approval of us is not based on our ability to produce statistics. We are not called to be successful but faithful. We may plant, we may water, but it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6).
When we pastors cling to the gospel ourselves, it will shape us, giving us the mind and heart of Christ for our people. As Christ shepherds our hearts, let us shepherd the hearts of our people, with deep love and spiritual affection seeking their good above our own comfort. And in the end, they may be our boast (2 Cor. 1:14).
(This is an excerpt from my book The Prodigal Church)
Well, maybe not everything. But below are my answers to some pretty common questions. If I miss anything you’re interested in hearing me on, please use the comment section. Other writers’/editors’/publishers’ mileage may vary, and my responses are obviously limited to my own perspective and experience.
How difficult is it to get published?
Pretty difficult and becoming more so each year. The likelihood of your signing a book contract increases, however, if you are able to meet the three following standards to a significant degree:
1. A strong voice
2. A unique or needed message
3. A platform of some recognition
The stronger you are at #’s 1 and 2, the less #3 matters. The stronger you are at #3, the less #’s 1 and 2 matter.
The added problem is that everybody trying to get published thinks they have a strong voice and are providing a needed message. This is true for many but probably not for most.
How can I improve my writing?
Read a lot (and widely).
Write a lot.
Join a writers’ group that provides good, constructive feedback.
What books on writing would you recommend every aspiring author read?
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
On Writing by Stephen King
There are others I’d recommend based on one’s individual interests and gifts, but those are my two go-to rec’s.
Do I need an agent to get published?
Probably. If you are trying to write for the general market, most certainly. If you’re trying to write for the Christian market, more than likely. Fewer and fewer publishers are accepting unsolicited submissions. It’s not because they hate you or want you to jump through hoops. It’s because the number of people trying to get published increases every year, and it’s simply inefficient and unmanageable to try to keep up with and give a fair hearing to every submission. An agented manuscript has the benefit of a previous editorial filter. The editor(s) know that an agent would not be pitching a book if he himself didn’t think it would be successful. (The agent is not going to pitch work he doesn’t expect will make him any money, in other words.)
Check a publisher’s submission guidelines on their website, if they provide them, or look for their guidelines in the current edition of The Writer’s Market Guide. Some houses still accept unsolicited manuscripts—a few smaller publishers actually prefer them—but if you submit an un-agented proposal, you should prepare yourself for a long wait. Your manuscript is likely to hit the “slush pile” and be sorted through by an intern or assistant.
How do I get an agent?
There are guides and directories listing literary agents available at your local bookstore or via Amazon or even online. See what kind of manuscripts they represent. Look to see what authors they represent, if they list them. This will help you find the right recipients of your query.
Like publishers, agents will list their submission guidelines so you know what material and information they want to see when you contact them.
Do I pay an agent?
Yes and no. You do pay your agent but through your publisher. Agents typically represent authors based on a percentage (usually in the range of 10-20%, most frequently 15%) of the publisher’s payments on works accepted for publication. Sometimes you may need to reimburse an agent for office costs above the norm, but that’s not very typical. I have worked with two different agents over the last ten years and neither has ever charged me anything out of pocket. Occasionally a publisher has neglected to deduct my agent’s commission from their payment to me, which then makes me responsible for sending them a check out of my payment myself. But I’ve never had to pay any fees or anything like that to my agent.
Word of advice: There are lots of folks out there ready to take advantage of aspiring writers, so be on your guard. A reputable agent will not charge you anything to consider your query. A reputable agent will not ask you to pay a reading fee or other fee to consider your work. Reputable agents work primarily on commission. They receive a percentage of any monies you earn on publishing deals, per your contracted arrangement. If you pay them money ahead of time to represent you, you are de-incentivizing them to work hard to get your work seen by editors. And those kinds of agents aren’t well respected by publishers anyway.
Do I pay a publisher?
The above is also true for publishing houses. If a publisher wants you to pay them to put your book in print, it is, as we used to call them back in the day, a “vanity press.” Self-publishing is a growing—and in many cases, legitimate—market but there are, again, lots of places out there poised to capitalized on your ambition for their own interests, not yours. Publishing a book should be win-win for author and publisher. Self-publishing ventures are very often lose-win, with the author getting the short end.
Self-publishing makes the most sense if you already have a platform from which to distribute and market your books (eg. You don’t care about resourcing the general market but prefer mainly to resource your local church or stock a book table at speaking engagements). If you’re going the self-publishing route, do your homework. My guess is that you tend to get what you pay for and the cheaper presses aren’t worth the investment. There’s always Kinko’s.
Should I have a publicist?
Should you be one of the fortunate few to sign a book contract, it may be worth adding the work of a publicist to your marketing arsenal. Many publishers already have staffers designated for this work. Some will hire outside publicists or publicity firms to assist in marketing your book. It always depends on the marketing budget allotted to your book by your publisher. If you’re a new or relatively low-profile author, the bulk of publicity efforts will probably rest on you. If you’re a lower-profile author at a big publisher trying to promote quite a few high-profile authors, you will likely find that most of the publicity efforts are directed in the higher-profile authors’ favor. This isn’t always the case, but it’s normally the case. The growing expectation these days from publishers is that an author will carry most of the weight of promotion themselves. (I know—it feels gross.)
How long does it take to write a book?
Depends on the book, depends on the writer. The publishing process itself is usually run on a track of 1-1.5 years. Unless you are signing a contract for multiple books at once, you generally have 12 to 18 months from the time of contract signing to the time a book finally appears in print. You can generally assume 6 months to write the book and then the better part of a year for all the editorial processes involved in producing the finished product. This is not just because of the physical work of printing a book but because of sales plans, marketing strategies, catalog placement, and a whole host of other efforts that publishers engage in to run their business successfully.
How much input do I have in the editorial process?
Again, this depends on the writer and depends on the project. And it depends on the publisher, of course. Some publishers I’ve worked with wanted a lot of input and collaboration on cover design and the like and some did not. A project is usually assigned a marketing and promotion team in addition to editorial review. Some houses are very open to cooperation; some prefer their authors to trust their design and marketing expertise and hand off direction to them. But nearly all publishers want their authors to be happy with their finished projects, so you will more than likely always see things like book covers, page proofs, advertising copy, and marketing plans for your feedback or approval before they are made official.
Will I make a lot of money writing books?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Probably not. Your agent will be tasked with negotiating an appropriate contract based on your platform, recognition in the market, project strength, priority in the publisher’s catalog, etc. If you are a relatively unknown, you should be prepared for a nice little advance that, if you work hard to promote your book, you could probably “repay” your publisher for and begin to earn royalties over in a couple of years. Most authors I know have no complaints about income generated from their books—a few do, but it’s not my place to air their grievances ;-)—but there is a reason most authors I know have kept their day jobs (and it’s not greed). Most writers do not make a lot of money from book publishing. Again, this is not to say they aren’t appropriately compensated. It’s only to say that the dream of quitting your job to go live in a cabin in the woods and write books is just that—a dream. Many writers, given the amount they make off a book when factored against the amount of time invested in writing, editing, and promotion, could be more efficient earners if they worked on an assembly line down at the local auto plant.
Lots of nitty-gritties folks are interested in but don’t want to make a long post longer. If you have a question for me on writing, publishing, etc., comments are open.
How do we become holy without becoming 'holier than thou'?
By actually becoming actually holy.
Holiness and holier-than-thou-ness aren't parallel phenomena. They run on different tracks. If someone is growing in arrogance, pride, and self-righteousness, by definition they are not growing in holiness.
The problem arises in equating holiness with religious behavior. Holy people do obey God, of course. But the character of holiness, in which the Spirit does his progressive sanctifying work in our hearts (and therefore in our thoughts, speech, and actions), produces qualities of humility, gentleness, kindness, and self-control. Any arrogant fool can abstain from certain sins or give to charity and what-not. The Pharisees certainly did that, and all our legalistic contemporaries do too. But that is not real holiness. That is moralistic separatism or some such thing.
Therefore, it is impossible to become both holy and holier-than-thou. To grow in one, is to atrophy in the other.
But I am grateful that while I still struggle with a variety of sins, most especially the root sin of pride, I have God's promise that he will complete the work he began in me, and that Jesus is both the author and the perfecter of my faith.
“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
I do my darndest not to post on political stuff. I don’t even like engaging in a lot of “cultural commentary,” as I am not fond of letting the headlines drive my writing. I was adamantly opposed to this when I was responsible for a church pulpit each week, and I’m generally averse to it from the bully pulpit we call the blog. But I thought I might share a few thoughts about the current options facing Americans in the foamy churning of our current election cycle, especially in light of the guest post by Nick Rodriguez over at our brother Thabiti’s site yesterday.
Mr. Rodriguez attempts to make a case for Christians’ principled voting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I say “attempts to make a case,” because I think his reasons are understandable but lacking — especially as it pertains to principle. In fact, his reasons amount mainly to politics — making sure Trump does not win.
I do not want Trump to win. I do not want Clinton to win. At this point it seems clear that our next president will be one of these two. It does not seem at all clear (to me) which one would actually be worse for our country. I suppose that comes down to what you expect your president to do for the nation and for you as a voter. I’m not even sure at this point that one would be significantly worse than the other. They are both terrible options for some reasons that overlap but mostly for reasons that are different. Maybe for you this is simply a case of “picking your poison.”
But not for me. I refuse to play this game. I refuse to see my right to cast a vote as a zero sum endeavor. In my estimation, the operating value in voting Trump/Clinton to ensure Clinton/Trump doesn’t win is not principle at all, but politics. It’s a power move. It’s believing that what matters is party control.
Well, I’m done with that. And I know a lot of evangelicals, mostly the younger ones, are done with it too. The establishment has gamed the system into an utterly corrupted state. Each party has been cruddy for quite some time. We’ve always had to make some compromises, hold our noses from time to time. But now the politickers have gone too far. They want to force our hands, but I am keeping mine in my pockets.
If you’re voting politics over principles, it’s not clear at all that Secretary Clinton, due to being a “known quantity,” should be the clear choice, since it’s theoretically possible that Trump might appoint conservative Supreme Court justices or what-have-you. But the only reason you’d vote for Trump would be to prioritize the politics of power over principles, since this man would arguably be the most unqualified leader of the free world in our history. And both options — as candidates — are, in their own idiosyncratic ways, amoral zeroes. You want me to avoid the race-baiting, womanizing, greedy and boorish dullard by voting for the abortion-consecrating, national security-compromising, rapist-supporting liar? Or vice-a versa? No.
If you’re voting principles over politics, you realize there are more options on the table. Or off the table and out the door and down the sidewalk from the polling center completely. If you want to maintain your right to refuse complicity with institutional evil — and I do not use that word evil lightly — you can vote for a principled third party candidate or you can not vote at all.
I know, I know. That latter option likely has some of you clutching your pearls and thinking of the children. But I don’t care about your pearls. Our children, on the other hand . . . well, they’d be better served by not having to hear that their moms and dads once chose an evil because it had the right letter after its name. If the ship sinks, voters, it won’t be my fault and it won’t be the fault of anybody who votes neither Trump nor Clinton. It will be the fault of all those who vote for either one of these two (no matter which one of them wins). It’s your fault for putting power over principles over and over again and then insisting we all play along and then chastising us when we don’t.
King Nebuchadnezzar once commanded his people to worship an idol. The “clear choice” would be of course to comply. You could sort of cross your fingers, right? Like, you could do it but not really mean it. I mean, better to compromise a little than to die, right?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” — Daniel 3:16-18
But is it as serious as all that? Don’t we want to win?
I say if it means bowing down, no.
Don’t I care about our country?
Yes. Which is why I cannot support a morally bankrupt candidate to lead it.
Yes, I love my country. But in fact, I love my Lord more. And speaking only for myself, I cannot even think how I might justify to him having compromised my conscience, which is captive to his word, in the pursuit of some fleeting sense of cultural control and institutional power.
“Of two evils, choose neither.”
– Charles Spurgeon
(Photo credit: CNN)
We are not meant to be “perpetually solemn,” according to C.S. Lewis. “We must play.”
This is something children understand instinctively. They don’t even have to be reminded to play. They just do. Part of growing up is realizing that there are times you shouldn’t be playing, of course, but part of growing up ought to be remembering that there are times we should!
The spirit of play is part of the creativity of rest. Little kids get out of breath. They get flush cheeks. They come falling into the door at dinnertime after a long afternoon playing in the neighborhood smelling like little puppy dogs. They have skinned knees and grime under their fingernails. There are rocks in their pockets and grass stains on their sleeves. Their hair is messy and their eyes are wide. It’s hard work playing so well. They cannot wait to get back outside and do it all again. This is all so God-glorifyingly beautiful.
The average eight-year-old boy on your block is a little Michelangelo of play. Take his toys away, and he will make a tower with the cushions, a battleship with a cardboard box. He will have at you with a wrapping paper tube. (And his little sister throws the most delightful tea parties for invisible royalty the likes of which no fairy tale could ever imagine.)
Why is playing hard so important? Because in our play we create and imagine and therefore tap into the very creative heart of God. We echo his story with our narratives of play. This is why on the playground little boys are playing cops and robbers or doing battle and little girls are playing house. They are vanquishing evil, subduing the earth, building civilization. And because all of this effort reflects the heart of the great Author of everything, their hearts never grow weary of it, even if their bodies do. G. K. Chesterton connects the divine dots for us:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. (Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane, 1908), 108–9.)
So we must rest well by playing hard. We must work hard at resting! The author of Hebrews knows our self-justifying exaltation of works, and he challenges us to channel our efforts into seeing the goodness of pausing:
So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest . . . (Heb. 4:9–11)
The author of Hebrews knows that getting us to rest can be difficult. He reveals this in his primary focus—getting us to distrust that our work can merit us salvation. And this holds true through the application—trusting that resting well glorifies God and gives witness to the gospel.
We need to remember to play hard. We need to take having fun seriously. This means remembering to do it, for one thing! It means not thinking of rest, play, or fun as beneath us. But it also means being mindful in our rest, play, and fun that these things are gifts from God meant to help us celebrate being made in God’s image as Creator and project in some way the creative story he is telling with the universe.
(This is an excerpt from my book The Story of Everything: How You, Your Pets, and The Swiss Alps Fit Into God’s Plan for the World)
The sun beat on the roof of the old bluestone church. Inside it was dark and cool. I waited for my Aunt Ruth’s wedding rehearsal to start. I was seven, and Evy, my three-year-old sister, were to be flower girls for it. We were nervous but excited. We would spread out the brides train when she got up to the front of the church. Evy and I would carry little white baskets with rose pedals inside, and were to wear long yellow dresses, with ruffles along the neck line, and around the hem.
Many Christians know from the church’s teaching on the flood of Noah’s day, that the rainbow originally was a sign of God’s promise not to destroy the world by water again. This understanding makes the modern co-opting of the rainbow symbol for gay pride seem so egregious. But the rainbow is a symbol of justice too.
“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you,” . . . And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Gen. 9:9, 12–13)
The rainbow now designated the sign of God’s promise not to visit wrath on the earth by way of a flood again. But larger than that, the rainbow is another sign of God’s promise to remove his wrath from his children.
The Hebrew word for bow in this text is the same Hebrew word used for the kind of bow one uses in battle, as in “bow and arrows.” God is talking about laying down his weapons. In his commentary on Genesis, Marcus Dods writes:
They accepted it as a sign that God has no pleasure in destruction, that He does not give way to moods, that He does not always chide, that if weeping may endure for a night joy is sure to follow. If any one is under a cloud, leading a joyless, hopeless, heartless life, if any one has much apparent reason to suppose that God has given him up to catastrophe, and lets things run as they may, there is some satisfaction in reading this natural emblem and recognising that without the cloud, nay, without the cloud breaking into heavy sweeping rains, there cannot be the bow, and that no cloud of God’s sending is permanent, but will one day give place to unclouded joy.
We keep seeking peace, peace, where there is no peace, and we only find our true lasting eternal joy-saturated peace when it comes by the Spirit of God straight from Father God in the gospel of the Son of God. In Christ Jesus’s work we see that God “lays down his bow.”
And we can keep seeking peace even in God’s good gifts—work, family, recreation, food, art and culture, the great outdoors, and sexual “freedom”—but we can’t find the peace that endures forever until we find it in the gospel. Because justice, while ordained by God, when administered by man can never truly satisfy.
But the covenant of grace is administered by God himself. So when we seek peace there, we truly find it. It’s not tainted by sin because God is holy and his Son is sinless.
Until we find peace in the gospel, we find only the search for peace and therefore no peace at all. In Isaiah 57:21 we read, “There is no peace . . . for the wicked.”
But to those who’ve put on Christ’s righteousness, who’ve gotten into the ark of the cross, Isaiah 26:3 says: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
The rainbow, then, is a sign of God’s promise that he has hung up his bow, and it’s a reminder to himself of his grace toward the earth. In the same way, the cross is a sign of God’s promise that he has hung his Son up to die, and it’s a reminder of his grace toward you that because Christ has taken the wrath, the wrath is taken.
To tout the rainbow, then, as a symbol of man-centered pride, is to urge the Lord, actually, to take up his bow again, to take it back in hand and draw it back. Celebrating pride is courting condemnation.
Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” – James 4:6
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. – Colossians 3:5-6
A variation on this material appears in The Story of Everything.
“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)
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
We have to laugh or else we will cry. Here is what happened to Todd Starnes in 2013. Facebook
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
THE HOLY ONE OF GOD (6:69)
but the glory of kings is to search things out.
Now it is your turn. What are some of your happy childhood memories?
Click here to see the Grace Belle Slightam Edson page on findagrave.com