Recent book reviews at Seedbed.com

I wrote a couple of book reviews for Seedbed.com this spring and summer.

In April, I wrote about Sean Gladding’s latest book, TEN: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided, and Worn-Out Culture. Gladding explores the Ten Commandments through a story about Monday-morning congregants at a coffee shop.

This month, I wrote about Rob Renfroe’s new book, The Trouble With the Truth. Renfroe contends that living out an authentic Christian witness requires balancing grace and truth. “The Christian faith is not one instead of the other or one more than the other but both together in equal measure, because this is the nature of our God.” Our culture’s understanding of truth has rapidly changed and this is a challenge that must be met well by the church. 

Both are good books that will challenge their readers in various, helpful ways and I recommend them. 

Wisdom on Trauma and Suffering

When a friend, family member, or even acquaintance endures trauma and suffering, we want to help somehow. Yet we are perplexed about how to do so. There is a temptation either to offer trite platitudes (even spiritual ones, extracting phrases from Scripture in hopes that they will work) or to back away, paralyzed by the uncertainty of not knowing what to say and what not to say.

The New York Times’ David Brooks reflects on this conundrum in his recent column, The Art of Presence. I agree with him that we are a society more eager to fix than to heal. So, we often speak and act from a perspective of wanting to make people okay after trauma or tragedy. The language I just used to describe this betrays the folly of attempting it. A television program may need to wrap up the problem in 24 or 48 minutes, but people certainly don’t adhere to that timetable. He summarizes and comments on a recent blog post on Sojourners, a Christian website and magazine devoted to social justice concerns.

The blog post, A New Normal: Ten Things I Learned From Trauma, by Catherine Woodiwiss, is well worth your time to read, as is Brooks’ column.

I’ve begun to say often, “emotional maturity is such a significant component of spiritual maturity it can be difficult to tell the difference.” I find the Sojourner’s blog post and Brooks’ column helpful in cultivating the emotional maturity needed for a faithful, and spiritually mature, response concerning suffering, trauma, and tragedy. “Not that I have already obtained this,” to reappropriate the Apostle Paul’s words, “but I press on…”

My Favorite Books of 2013

Looking back over the books I read in 2013, here’s a list of those I most enjoyed and heartily recommend.

Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Chronicles of Narnia, volumes 4-7, by CS Lewis – Ben and I finished reading these together this year to complete the whole set, read in the order in which they were originally published: The Horse and His Boy, The Silver Chair, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Last Battle
The House at Pooh Corner, by AA Milne – Another book read to the kids. Classic stories.

History and Biography

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South, by Bruce Levine
The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro – The fourth volume in Caro’s series on Lyndon B. Johnson, this one covers his failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 1960, his Vice-Presidency under John F. Kennedy, his ascension to the presidency upon JFK’s assasination, and the first couple months of his presidency as he established himself and his administration.

Faith and Theology

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus, by Timothy Keller
Longing for Enough in a Culture of More, by Paul Escamilla
Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters, by Luke Timothy Johnson
Speaking of Sin, by Barbara Brown Taylor
The Illumined Heart: Capturing the Vibrant Faith of Ancient Christianity, by Fredrica Mathewes-Green
Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament, by Sandra Richter

Other Non-Fiction

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall – Really fun read by a good storyteller
The Post-American World, release 2.0, by Fareed Zakaria
The Rare Find, by George Anders
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathon Haidt
Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in LIfe and Work, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

What Big Goals Can Do For You

“Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

Most of you know I enjoy running. I completed a big goal in July when I ran the Irving Half Marathon. From the time I finished the race, I began thinking about what I had learned from training and accomplishing this goal. Having reflected on it, God has used this hobby to teach me about my life in Christ.

The most important thing I learned from my race was that making a decision to accomplish a big goal had the power to make other smaller decisions for me in advance, if I would let it. Decisions about sleep, my schedule, and diet/nutrition were not always easy to practice. Yet when their alignment with the big goal was clear, it was less about me pushing myself to stay disciplined. The big goal pulled me along, keeping my eyes on the prize and helping me stay focused.

So, what’s the parallel for our spiritual formation?

The decision to follow Christ is a huge decision. And, like any big goal we aim for, it has the power to make lots of small decisions for us in advance, if we will let it. Decisions about appropriate boundaries in our marriage and relationships, honesty and integrity in our work, financial generosity, and nonjudgmental love for people are not always easy to practice. Yet when we see the impact those areas make on the goal of spiritual maturity and imitating Christ in our everyday lives, it’s less about pushing ourselves to do the right thing. The big goal of growing in Christlikeness can pull us forward, keeping our eyes on heaven’s prize and helping us stay focused on what is really most important in life.

I imagine you’ve experienced this dynamic in some aspect of life–physically, career-wise, in financial planning, etc. If you’re married, I’ll bet the big decision about dating your mate made a lot of smaller decisions for you! The same can be true in our spiritual development. Keep your eyes on the prize. Prioritize growing in Christlikeness. It won’t be easy. But let God pull you down the path.

Carving Out Space

“The king said to him, ‘Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? I have hear that the spirit of the gods is in you…’” (Daniel 5:14)

In his book, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life, Jack Levison explores a number of biblical examples of the work of the Spirit in people’s lives. One of my favorite observations comes from the Old Testament. Daniel is a young man taken into Babylonian captivity yet groomed for leadership, having been recognized as a person of promise. His story of one of personal humility and boldness for God.

Looking at the whole story of Daniel, Levison observes: “Daniel doesn’t so much seek the Spirit as settle into the Spirit. He doesn’t crave direct and drastic displays of the Spirit’s power so much as carve out space for the expanse of the Spirit in the unseen crevices of his life. He doesn’t so much hunger for occasional outbreaks of spiritual power as for a simple life for the long haul.”

Think about that. Daniel’s life evidences the Spirit’s presence. But none of this is short-term fireworks. The distinguishing feature of Daniel’s life is a Spirit-filled “simple life for the long haul.” And the key to this “long haul” approach to life in God’s Spirit is Daniel acting to carve out space for the Spirit’s expanding place in his life.

So, how do we carve out space for the Spirit to expand in our our life? Holy habits and dispositions.

When we practice generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, and simplicity, space is carved out in our spirit and in our character, for God’s Spirit to expand and have greater influence in our lives. When we practice worship, scripture study, friendship, prayer, and service, space is carved out in our soul and in our schedule for God’s Spirit to expand and gain influence in our lives.

If the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), then the soil in which this fruit can grow is the space we carve out for God’s Spirit to guide our attitude and character.

The world, our nation, and our communities need people whose lives are directed by the presence of God’s Spirit.

The Life-Giving Word

I run in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding. (Psalm 119:32)

The verse above resonates with me because of the vivid picture of running within the path. Making the imaginative leap to our lives is not difficult. Like the conservationist carefully clearing and marking the trail or like the parks personnel diligently planning and laying the walkways, God’s Word creates a path for us to walk within. If the path seems confining, spiritual and moral wilderness is the alternative. The right path is a gift.

What I love best about this verse is how the boundaries of a path and the broadness of the person’s understanding are matched together. Other translations use images of a heart freed or enlarged. Both ways of rendering the original Hebrew phrase gets at the same idea. See the contrast? When our path has clearer boundaries, wisdom broadens. The reverse is also true. When our path’s boundaries are blurred or non-existent morally and spiritually, wisdom shrinks. Hearts are chained, not freed.

So, what paths does God mark off clearly for us as Christians? Sex is an obvious one. The traditional standard of sexual intimacy within the context of marriage is the Christian teaching. Walking terrain beyond this path fails to free hearts and broaden wisdom. Experiences? Yes. Wisdom? No. Let’s be clear about that. But let’s be equally clear that God’s path includes boundaries for stewardship and generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and compassion. Stinginess, judgmentalism, self-centeredness, hard-heartedness, and pride are at least as pernicious vices. Probably more, in fact, since their root systems are concentrated in the heart, mind, and soul. If we don’t perceive ourselves “sinning in the body,” sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t in any wilderness at all.

Yet, God does give us commands: the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandment of love of God and neighbor, the fruit of the Spirit—most of all, the life and teachings of Jesus. Even better, God makes choosing and staying on this path possible by the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in our lives.

Want broad understanding? Expanded wisdom? Strong, free hearts? The Psalmist is clear. Run in the path of God’s commands.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 6

In article 6 of John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he shows when he began preaching on Christian Perfection (or at least when he had preached on the subject at an early point). He shares a few extended quotations from his sermon, “The Circumcision of the Heart,” which he preached on January 1, 1733 at St. Mary’s Church, Oxford University.

The scripture reference is to Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 2, verse 29, which includes these words: “Circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (NIV). Paul is discussing the covenant relationship of the Jews to God. The physical sign of that covenant was circumcision. Paul wants his readers to know that the evidence of a person’s belonging to the covenant people of God is not simply the evidence of a physical mark. Rather, the true evidence is the difference that membership in that covenant community makes in one’s life — beliefs, worship, ethics, dispositions, character, use of time and money. In other words, it’s the difference between referring to the letter of the law and getting at the spirit of the law—that intangible part to which the letter of the law is really pointing.

In his sermon, Wesley states:

‘Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment,’ It is not only ‘the first and great’ command, but all the commandments, in one… In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness: the royal law of heaven and earth is this, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.’ The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end. One thing ye desire for its own sake,–the fruition of Him who is all in all.

God is not only the creator of all that is, “seen and unseen” (in the words of the Nicene Creed), but also the ultimate end or purpose of all that is. God is not only all creation’s source and origin, but also it’s goal. Not only where it’s all come from, but also where it’s all headed.

Our lives are shaped by where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and how we approach the journey in between. Wesley points out that we come from God, that we are headed toward God as King and Judge, and that the journey is meant to be one lived by grace, growing in love and complete dedication of one’s life to God. The beautiful thing about this is that the One to whom we are to give our whole lives, gives himself to and for us. The command that sums up all commands–the command to love, is the thing that most imitates God himself.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 771 other followers