Tag Archives: Book

What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? Now Available


What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?: Exploring the Foundations of the Faith is now available in paperback from Amazon. I’ll have a Kindle version available within the next day or two.

I want to offer a few reflections on writing and publishing this work. I’m glad that I did it, but it also tapped me out emotionally on a few occasions.  

First, what in the world was I doing writing a book?! It just feels so, well, presumptuous. And what a topic!? Who in the world am I to write such a bold title? I really hope nobody thinks this is a definitive work on the topic!

Then there was the reading and re-reading. I wrote and re-wrote it again and again. Every time I read it I was unsatisfied with some wording selection, or I found a minor typo. And every time I made an update I needed to wait another 24 hours for the self-publishing website to complete the review. I eventually discovered that perfection was elusive. At some point I needed to say: Enough is enough. I know it’s not perfect, and I hate then it never will be.

Finally, there’s the fear of putting my work “out there.” I cycle through moods of wanting to share with the world and wanting to make myself invisible. For that part of me that seeks anonymity, this is terrifying.

And yet, here were are. And, despite the fact that I’m 90% embarrassed that I have written and published this book, I’m 10% pleased. That 90% almost convinced me to pull the plug at the last minute. But that 10% is what kept me going throughout and to finally hit submit. So, why did I take on this project?

First, I’m a pastor and I saw an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus. This lies at the root of it. I get to spend a lot of time with young people and adults who have only limited knowledge of the faith, or whose knowledge is distorted.

I wanted a resource that I could give them that went beyond a pamphlet, but that wasn’t so dense or thick they would never read it. I wanted to show the simplicity of the gospel, but at the same time not be so simplistic that essentials were lost. I saw that there was a need to connect the dots between salvation, the Christian life, and the church. I knew of some other books that did something similar (think: John Stott’s Basic Christianity or N.T. Wright’s Simple Christianity) but nothing that was exactly what I was looking for.

Second, I know that my relationship gives me a voice other author’s might not have. No, I’m not the best writer or theologian out there. I’m no John Stott or N.T. Wright. But, I do have a voice, and I know those to whom I am speaking. To that degree this book is eminently local. In that sense it’s like a letter, written in a context, for people who I want to know and love Jesus.

So here it is, better or worse. I offer it to God as a meager offering. I pray he uses it in someone’s life to get to know Jesus, or get to know Jesus better.

 

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What does it mean to “glorify God”?

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

What does it mean to glorify God?

This is one of those questions I’ve always struggled to find a concrete answer for. John Piper in Don’t Waste Your Life offers a great illustration.

First, he says we shouldn’t think of the word glorify like we think of the word beautify. To beautify means to add to somethings beauty, to make it more beautiful than it already is. But we can’t add to God’s glory. We can’t make him more glorious, since He is already perfectly glorious.

Instead, he thinks a more helpful synonym is magnify. We can magnify in two ways, like a microscope or a telescope. A microscope makes something that is small appear large. This would be the wrong way to look at glorifying God. But a telescope makes something unimaginably great appear closer to what it actually is. To glorify God is to magnify God in this way.

Piper states in like this:

“God created us for this: to live our lives in a way that makes him look more like the greatness and beauty and infinite worth that he really is. In the night sky of this world God appears to most people, if at all, like a pinprick of light in a heaven of darkness. But he created us and called us to make him look like what he really is. That is what it means to be created in the image of God. We are meant to image forth in the world what he is really like.”

Further Reading: 
Don’t Waste Your Life

Introduction

I posted last Saturday that I just finished the rough draft for a new book I’ve been working on. To give you more of a flavor, here’s my initial draft of the introduction (though, the more I read it, I think the first part is more like a preface, and thus will need some revision.)

I don’t have a title for this book yet and am open to suggestions. Maybe the introduction will give someone an idea. If you have a good idea for a title, please let me know.

Introduction

 

I dedicate this book to the students of Attic After School. I have the privilege of volunteering at this program for 7th – 12th graders once a week. The goal of the program is to provide a safe place for students to experience the love of Christ. Every day we hang out, play games, talk about life, and have what we call a “talk time.” During these talk times one of the leaders shares a brief message from the Bible. I am honored with being the speaker on a regular basis. Through the interaction with the students during these talk times (and I love the interaction) and through our normal conversations I’ve discovered that students who attend this program come from a wide range of religious and spiritual backgrounds. Some know a lot about Christianity, but many only a little bit. Or, their knowledge is based on misinformation or misunderstandings. I have realized that I can’t assume these students have the same background that I had. This is good for me. It helps me to focus my efforts not only on giving spiritual knowledge, but on making it clear and understandable to a very mixed audience.

This year for my “talk times”, I decided to simply walk through the basics of the Christian faith, one step at a time. This book mirrors that project. I have written this as a sort of handbook for those who are coming to the Christian faith for the first time, for those who are interested in rediscovering it, and for those who are new believers. My goal is to lay down a foundation of knowledge that can be built on later. Though I was thinking most of the Attic After School students, this is not only for them. Its application is for adults as well as young people. Christianity is relevant for all ages, and the simple truths of the Bible need to be returned to again and again, even by the most mature.

There are other books of this sort, the most famous of which is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I highly recommend it. I would also commend to you Simply Christian by N.T. Wright and Basic Christianity by John Stott. This book has a similar aim – to present the basics of the Christian faith – but differs in some important ways, not least of which is the obvious fact that those books are far superior. I wouldn’t dare to declare that this book fills some hole where others lack. There is nothing unique, certainly nothing original, in this book. But instead of just suggesting those books above I have written this one. Why? As a pastoral effort, as an attempt to provide a resource to those whom I have the responsibility to teach and care for. My prayer is that it would also prove helpful to you, dear reader, whether I had you in mind or not. You can be the judge of that.

How this book fits together

The structure for this book was first conceived in yet another pastoral context, as I was preparing to lead a class for those interested in being baptized as believers. That class is structured into three sections: salvation, baptism, and church. In my Baptist tradition was see baptism as a symbol of salvation, and we see salvation as a pre-condition for baptism (If that sentence didn’t make sense to you, don’t worry, it should be the end of the book). We also see baptism as deeply connected to church membership.

The first week we talk about what it means to be saved. Do we even need to be saved? What do we need to be saved from? How can we be saved? What must we do? The second week we talk about baptism as a symbol for salvation. The third week we try to show how both connect to church life.

This book has a similar structure, except that we replace a discussion of baptism with a discussion of the Christian life (baptism is now addressed briefly in Part 3). In Part 1 we talk about salvation. We talk about the Big Story of the Bible, about where we stand before God, about how we can be made right with God, and how we can be rescued.

In Part 2 we talk about the Christian life. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does the Christian life look like? Does the Christian life constrain or free us? If it frees us, in what sense does it make us free?

In Part 3 we talk about the church. What is the church? What does it mean to be a part of a church? Is the church important? Here, if anywhere in the book, I am trying to offer a brief correction to the direction Christianity has taken in our culture. Our culture is individualistic and consumerist and, sadly, so is our approach to church. We see church primarily as one method among many to reach a sense of individual spiritual fulfillment. I hope to convince you that this is not a healthy way to view church. Instead, I hope that you will see that participation in church life is a natural and necessary outcome of salvation, and a core component to Christian living.

Because this book is so short I had to leave out a lot of material, including some some core truths. This book doesn’t address all the core topics, and some of the topics it does address it does so only in a very limited way. I see this book more as a place to jump off  from than as a place to land. Still, I hope that you will see it as a cohesive whole. If there’s one dominant theme in this book it is this: God is a rescuing God. He sent His Son to rescue you. You can receive that rescue through faith. This rescue includes your eternal salvation, freedom to live a life for God, and inclusion into the people of God.


 

Book Review: Miracles by Eric Metaxas

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life
Story:

Here’s an interesting coincidence, especially given that I was reading this book: It took me about 5 weeks to finish the audio version of this book. I listened to it on my commute to and from work. I finished the book on September 12th. On September 11th, I thought about listening to sports radio since I’m a football fan and there’s always interesting sports talk on the radio on Mondays. I decided to listen to this book instead. And what miracle story would I hear on my commute but a story of how a woman escaped from the twin towers on September 11th! I don’t know what to make of this. Was it coincidence? Was it something more? Either way, it’s an interesting story.

Overview:

 

 

There are three major sections to this book aside from the introduction and the conclusion.

The first part deals with the miracle of creation, the fact that there’s something rather than nothing. Metaxas holds to an “old earth” view of the world but that doesn’t stop him from being amazed at creation or calling it anything short of miraculous. The chances of life existing apart from some Divine intervention is impossibly small and Metaxas’s description of this is really well done.

The second part deals with miracles found in the Bible. Here he focuses on God’s purposes in giving miracles: As a sign pointing to Himself.

The third part is a list of modern miracle stories. These stories include conversion miracles, healing miracles, visions of angels, and other stories. Metaxas limited the stories shared to ones that were clearly supernatural (not mere coincidences), were from people he personally knew or got to know, and were from people that he trusted to be telling the truth. The miracle stories were truly compelling stuff.

On credibility

But were the miracle stories true? Metaxas quotes G.K. Chesterton extensively at the start of the book from Orthodoxy. Chesterton argues that it is atheists who don’t take the evidence seriously when it comes to miracle stories. These stories, on their face value, have a ring of truth unless you by faith say that miracles can’t happen. You must either believe that the people telling the stories are either lying or crazy if you want to disbelieve their stories. Certainly, there are those who lie about or imagine such things, but I don’t think it makes sense to discount them all. Furthermore, many of these stories happened in public view and could easily be corroborated. In general, then, I’m inclined to believe them.

I still found myself to be skeptical. Why?

On my own presuppositions

First, I found myself disagreeing quite strongly with Metaxas’s political positions during the 2016 election. Some of his views made me question his judgment and/or honesty. Ultimately, I know that this reasoning is mostly illogical, though. The book should be judged on its own merits.

Second, many of the miracles happened to those of a charismatic and Pentecostal theological persuasion. Maybe I’m skeptical because I’ve seen some of their positions misused. Or maybe I’m skeptical because God’s working specifically in that community could undermine some of my own assumptions. (However, the miracle stories covered happened to charismatics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, and Lutherans alike.)

Third, one of the healing stories happened at a Benny Hinn crusade. This made me cringe. When I shared this with my Sunday night bible study group they helpfully reminded me that God has shown that he can work even through a donkey.

Conclusion

I believe in miracles, especially those miracles found in Scripture. I also believe that God continues to be active in the world today. The stories included in this book are incredible – and credible. The longer-term effect of this book, I believe, is to open my eyes once again to their possibility. Like many Christians, even I can get caught in a materialistic mindset and miss out on the active work of God. This was a good reminded of his continued work, as the one Outside creation, breaking into creation to point humanity back to him.

Book Review: Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah, like the book of Lamentations of which it is is a sort of hyper-contextualized commentary, offers a counterbalance to the dominant voices of triumphalism in our culture and reminds us of the role of lament in Israel’s history, and in ours.

Prophetic Lament works through the book of Lamentations chapter by chapter and theme by theme. It is not a traditional commentary. Instead it looks primarily at the “big picture” of the book, how it is structured (acrostics in four of the chapters), its genres (funeral dirge, city lament), its voices (the narrator, the people in the city), and its major themes. Rah then applies those big picture elements to the context of the American Church, primarily to issues of racial injustice.

Prophetic Lament offers balance to the more common voices in American Evangelicalism.

Rah calls for incorporating lament into our worship, instead of only praise and triumphalism: “The loss of lament in the American church reflects a serious theological deficiency.” He encourages us to listen to voices other than just white men. He reminds us of the reality of corporate sin and the need for corporate confession, instead of only viewing sin through a hyper-individualistic lens.

Other major themes include God’s sovereignty, including his sovereignty in judgment and the need to look at the raw and uncomfortable reality of the “dead body in front of us”, the ravages of sin and injustice in the world. Applying this to racial injustice Rah states “Our nations tainted racial history reflects a serious inability to real with reality. Something has died and we refuse to participate in the funeral.”

Prophetic Lament, like Lamentations, can be bleak. But, like Lamentations, the glimmer of hope resides not in our abilities but in God’s faithfulness to his covenant. God’s judgment comes out of his faithfulness to his covenant. And so, if God is faithful, it is that same covenant faithfulness which brings about ultimate restoration. That restoration, Rah reminds us, is finally found in the saving work of Jesus.

In the mean time we lament. We have failed to live up to God’s standards and so we repent where necessary, listening to the voice of those who suffer, advocating for our brothers and sisters, moving forward in hope that is anchored in the character of God.

I’m not sure if Rah always makes all of his points. The book deals with some highly controversial topics and I was not always convinced by his arguments. His applications of the text sometimes felt contrived. But overall he offers an important perspective. I agree that, in many ways, we as an American church have a hard time entering into sustained lament. We stick a toe in, perhaps, but jump out as soon as possible. We have a hard time listening to other perspectives (particularly in regards to race!) Perhaps we ought to begin by grieving together, acknowledging the ways we have failed. Ultimately I am grateful for the voices of those like Soong-Chan Rah, challenging the status quo.

7 Questions that Diagnose the Idols in Your Life (via gods at war)

While on our recent trip to South Carolina we stopped in Kentucky to visit some friends. At a restaurant on the river we met up with Corky, the pastor who performed our wedding. Corky is on the pastoral staff of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville and was gracious enough to give me a copy of Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart by Kyle Idleman, who is the teaching pastor of Southeast.

The book is all about idolatry and its modern manifestations. I’ve listened to several messages on idolatry, all good, but it’s always been a bit unclear to me what makes something in your life an idol, that is, something that misdirects my worship away from the Creator onto the created thing. gods at war provides some nice perspective and clarity on this and other points.

Idleman also offers a “spiritual arteriogram,” a list of questions which are designed to help the reader diagnose where his heart is, and what false gods (idols) might be receiving undo worship. Here’s his list:

1) What disappoints you?

“When we feel overwhelmed by disappointment, it’s a good sign that something has become far more important to us than it should be. Disproportionate disappointment reveals…” displaced longing.

2) What do you complain about?

Similar to above but this one is more about expression. That means this might be a good question to ask someone else for input on.

3) Where do you make financial sacrifices?

“Where your money goes shows which god is winning in your heart.”

4) What worries you?

“Whatever it is that wakes you – or for that matter keeps you up – has the potential to be an idol”

5) Where is your sanctuary?

That is, where do you go when you’re hurting?

6) What infuriates you?

7) What are your dreams?

What do you think of his list? What other “diagnostic questions” might you add?

Book Recommendation
Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart

Can a rubber band help you overcome lust?

I read a negative review of Clean: A Proven Plan for Men Committed to Sexual Integrity (my review here) titled “Practical to a Fault.” The reviewer objected to Weiss’ strong psychological approach to overcoming lust. Weiss, a Christian psychologist who specializes in counseling men who struggle with sexual addictions, understands how the mind works.

Weiss notes that sex, or even just sexual images or fantasy, produces a powerful chemical effect on the brain. On the positive side this has the ability to form a powerful bond between husband and wife. On the negative side, when this occurs outside of marriage, it “programs” the male mind to have strong lustful desires for other women, or particular “types” of women. Weiss calls these misdirected imprints land mines.

Weiss suggests that, since we understand how the mind works, we can counteract the normal cycle of chemical re-enforcement when we need to using some form of negative re-enforcement. For instance, he gives this advice:

“Get a rubber band and place it around your wrist for at least thirty days. Every time you lust, objectify, double take, rubber neck, or have a past image hit your brain, snap the rubber band.”

In his counseling, this technique has proven very effective. He explains, “Men have told me over the years that this negative re-enforcement has shut down as much as 80 percent of their lust life and reduced the power of land mines within a month.”

I am not a psychologist so I will defer to Weiss and trust that this indeed does work, from the perspective of behavior modification. But, and the reviewer raised this question, does this kind of technique undermine the work of the Holy Spirit in character transformation?

I think the short answer is “No.” I have no problem with this kind of counsel and, in fact, I am grateful for it. Why? Because, while we are not only physical creatures with physical minds we are physical creatures with physical minds and we have been called to make every effort to obey God with every aspect of our beings, spiritual and physical.

That said, this kind of practical advice only works, from a Christian perspective, within a broader context. If this constituted the whole of Weiss’ work I would have objected. And so, if you are seeking and using this kind of psychological, counsel, I offer the following words of caution.

#1: Psychological advice that replaces the idea of sinfulness with sickness falls short. For Weiss, the reality of the sinfulness of lust causes him to find every solution available. Weiss has no problem using the term “sex addict” but, for him, that doesn’t remove the sinfulness of the addict’s behavior.

#2: Psychological advice that ignores the power of the Holy Spirit falls short. When God raises us to a new life, that is a supernatural event. Sanctification is a supernatural event. But, God can, and does, use natural means (smacking a rubber band) to produce supernatural results (sanctification).

#3: Psychological advice that only deals with behavior modification falls short. Behavioral modification without consideration of spiritual transformation is nothing more than legalism. We need to be transformed from the inside out, starting with our most fundamental beliefs. Modifications to behavior are the result, not the cause, of complete spiritual transformation and victory over sin.
Book Recommendation
Clean: A Proven Plan for Men Committed to Sexual Integrity