Favorite Books of the First Half of 2014

Here are some of the books I read from January to June that I enjoyed/appreciated most. 

Fiction 

  • Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (2004 Pulitzer Prize) 
  • The Runaway Jury, by John Grisham 
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (collection of ten short stories) 
  • A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the debut story featuring Sherlock Holmes) 

Theology and Spirituality 

  • Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness, by Wesley Hill (a gay Christian’s reflections on living a celibate life out of convictions about the gospel and Christian morality) 
  • Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate, by Justin Lee (a gay Christian’s account of coming to terms with being gay, exploring Scripture, and presenting a case for legitimizing gay relationships/marriage within Christian ethics) 
  • Behold the Pierced One, by Joseph Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI)
  • How to Be Rich, by Andy Stanley (on Christian stewardship and generosity) 
  • Ten: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-out Culture, by Sean Gladding (exploration of the Ten Commandments and significance for today)

Leadership and Ministry 

  • The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation, by Herrington, Creech, and Taylor (on the place of spiritual and emotional maturity in the life of a ministry leader) 
  • Rich Church, Poor Church, by Clif Christopher 
  • Effective Staffing for Vital Churches, by Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittain 

A Definition of Discipleship 1

“What is discipleship?”

That’s the question a friend asked me recently. I appreciated the opportunity to think about it and take a stab at boiling it down into a simple definition.

It is an important question to answer because we are called to discipleship when we become Christians. If you are not interested in being a disciple, you are not, by definition, interested in being a Christian.

Before sharing mine, let me affirm that there are lots of “right answers,” well-grounded biblically and theologically, to the question, “What is discipleship?” Mine is simply an effort that captures my reflections on Scripture and that seeks to express a practical theology of justification (being reconciled to God relationally) and sanctifcation (being restored as an image-bearer of God).

So, here is the answer I gave (with a little modification) and that I’m working with at present. I’ll share a couple of thoughts on the first half of the definition below and follow up with thoughts on the second half in the next post.

Discipleship is a process of learning beliefs and behaviors from Jesus about living as a son/daughter of God.

Process of learning: Discipleship is a journey. A disciple is a student or apprentice. It is not about “arriving,” but it is absolutely about advancing. In other words, being a disciple isn’t about doing enough to gain a status (the title of “disciple”), but about embarking on a journey. To be regarded as “being a disciple” demands walking the path, not just standing on it. Just like being a runner, guitarist, scientist, businessperson, teacher, etc, being a disciple involved submitting to a process, the aim of which is to mature and grow us in the vocation we have endeavored to take up.

Beliefs and behaviors: Discipleship is not merely about belief or merely about behavior. It includes both. Beliefs must lead to behaviors or they are not our true beliefs. Behaviors reveal our beliefs. Being a disciple is not only about adjusting our behavior, it is also about renewing our minds. Beware teachers who promote belief at the expense of behavior. Beware teachers who raise up behavior in a way that diminishes the importance of belief. To use some theological jargon, both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are vital.

In the next post, we’ll look at the last half of the definition, “from Jesus about living as a son/daughter of God.”

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.