Unscripted by Ernie Johnson (Review)

Probably like many people, I know Ernie Johnson Jr. from his work as a broadcaster at Turner Sports, particularly hosting Inside the NBA on TNT. I knew next to nothing about him besides that, but when I found out he was coming out with a biography from a well-known Christian publisher (Baker Books) and this biography was being released right around the start of the NBA playoffs, when Johnson is more visible than at most other times of the year (good job on setting the release date, Baker), I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy.

The book is called Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments that Make Life Extraordinary. Johnson said he got the idea for the book after the ESPN program E:60 did a feature on his family. A recurring theme in the book is “blackberry moments,” named after an incident from Johnson’s childhood that he relates in the first chapter. He was playing in a Little League game that was delayed for a while when two of the outfielders, who had gone over the fence to look for a lost ball, ended up picking blackberries instead. Johnson defines a blackberry moment as, among other things, as “an unforeseen moment that catches you off guard and marks you forever” (189).

41EaV5FFk8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There are plenty such moments in the book, from Johnson’s childhood in Atlanta growing up as the son of the Braves’ play-by-play announcer, to his own work as a broadcaster, to his life with his wife and six kids (two biological and four adopted, including one with muscular dystrophy that keeps him in a wheelchair), to his becoming a committed Christian in the ’90s, to his fight against cancer between 2003 and 2006. There are difficult moments in all of these, but Johnson dwells on the unpredictable, joyful gifts that he has received throughout his life and that have made it all worthwhile. He tells a few “dad jokes” along the way, but rather than groaning at them, I found them to be an endearing part of his voice—they made him seem like a regular guy.

This is a good book for fans of Johnson’s work, of course—but even people like me who knew who he was, but didn’t even watch him that regularly, can get a lot out of this book. It’s not really about sports; it’s about how to navigate life. At one point Johnson quotes the Christian spiritual writer Dallas Willard: “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Johnson tries to eliminate hurry by looking for blackberry moments everywhere.

Note: Thanks to Baker Books for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Megiddo and to’ebah

This is the sixteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 26, AM

Our next stop after the area outside Nazareth was Megiddo, a site on the north side of the Carmel ridge, on the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley. In ancient times it was along the Via Maris, the main route between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and so held strategic and military significance for a long time. In the united monarchy of Israel, it is listed as one of three cities that Solomon fortified (along with Hazor and Gezer, 2 Kgs 9:15). There is a gate there that some archaeologists believe dates to Solomon’s time. In 609 BC, Josiah king of Judah challenged Pharaoh Neco in battle there and was killed (2 Kgs 23:29–30). The site was abandoned sometime during the fourth century BC.

Is8023Many people associate the name “Megiddo” with Revelation 16:16, which places a gathering of armies at a place called “Armageddon” (literally, “mountain of Megiddo”). Normally Armageddon is thought of as a battle, but a close reading of Revelation shows that the battle is never fought. Personally, since so much of Revelation is intended to be symbolic, and since there is no such place as the “mountain of Megiddo,” and since it’s physically impossible for the armies described in Revelation to gather in the space around Megiddo, I don’t think any literal future gathering for battle is likely to be fought at Megiddo. As Darrell Johnson says in his fine book on Revelation, “The name stands for the last resistance of the anti-Christ forces before the coming of the new creation” (Discipleship on the Edge, 290). Likewise, Grant Osborne writes in Revelation Verse by Verse:

We should begin with the connection of Megiddo with warfare, since so many battles were fought there (Judg 4–5, 7; 1 Sam 31; 2 Kgs 23; 2 Chr 35). It is also associated with the obstinate opposition of the world to God and his people, with the primary background being Gog and Magog (Ezek 38–39) and the mourning of the apostate nation in Zechariah 12:9–14, who here represent all the nations who have broken covenant with God. Thus the message in the name “Armageddon” would be that all who stand against God will mourn as they face God’s wrath. It stands for the assembly of all the sinful nations arrayed against God and his people as they come together in defiance to make war against God and the Lamb. (272)

The point Revelation is trying to make, I think, is that evil forces gather with a militaristic mindset, not precisely where. So at Megiddo, our group leader, Tim, (thankfully) didn’t talk about Armageddon. Instead, he talked to us about idolatry.

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It appears that, even during the time when the Israelites occupied Megiddo, there was religious dualism—Yahweh was worshiped along with the goddess Asherah. This from the article on Megiddo in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books: “It is likely that two deities, male and female, are represented in Shrine 2081, presenting at Megiddo a possible early manifestation of the dualism represented by the worship of Yahweh and his Asherah at Kuntillet ʿAjrud in the early eighth century BCE.”

It may seem surprising to those who have read the Bible all their lives that this kind of thing was going on. Weren’t the Israelites monotheists? Well, according to those who wrote the Old Testament, they were supposed to be, but all too often they worshiped other gods, or they practiced syncretism—the worship of Yahweh alongside other gods. The prophets of ancient Israel were always railing against this tendency in their contemporaries, calling idols to’ebah, which means “disgusting” or an “abomination”: “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable [to’ebah] to the Lord, the work of skilled hands—and sets it up in secret” (Deut 27:15).

Is8034In Jeremiah’s time, God was disgusted that the Judahites were likening him to the god Baal, saying he wanted child sacrifice. This was an abomination (Jer 32:35). Baal worship involving child sacrifice was abhorrent to the Greeks, and they put an end to it before Jesus’ day. But there were other things that were still going on in the first century that God also found disgusting. When Jesus entered the temple after his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he says the temple establishment is making it into a “den of robbers,” quoting a passage from Jeremiah that speaks of abominations going on in the temple itself:

“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things [to’ebah]? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!” declares the Lord. (Jer 7:9–11)

Jesus is saying that, just as the old temple was destroyed because the Israelites thought they could do whatever they wanted there and God would look the other way, so the temple of his day would be destroyed because the Jewish leaders blatantly disobeyed God in the temple itself through their greed. It’s a good reminder that religious activity is not what God wants. What does God really require? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).

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As Kingfishers Catch Fire (Review)

Eugene Peterson has long been one of my heroes. As I was studying to be a pastor, I would sometimes become anxious, thinking that I would have to become an über-extroverted CEO to keep up with contemporary expectations for what a pastor should be. I would be filled with dread and second-guessing until I went back and read some of Peterson’s writing on pastoring (like The Contemplative Pastor), and I would be reassured that I was not crazy to think that someone with my personality could do it, even in America.

Since then, I haven’t followed the path I thought I would. I love and am committed to the local church, but so far I haven’t ended up serving as a pastor. Peterson is still a hero, though, and I still turn to his writings for guidance not just on how to be a pastor in today’s world, but how to be a Christian—or even a human—as well.

9781601429674In mid-May this year, Waterbrook will publish As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, a collection of Peterson’s sermons from when he served Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. It’s the second of his books whose title comes from a single poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (the first being Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places). In the preface, he writes that the goal of all his pastoral work, including the sermons he preached, was congruence:

The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence—congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh. (xviii)

There are forty-nine sermons in this collection from the twenty-nine years Peterson was a pastor. They are divided into seven parts, with seven sermons each. Each part is focused on the books associated with a biblical figure: Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John. There is an introduction to each of these parts that sets the passages the sermons are based on in their biblical context. Peterson states outright that this is not a “best of” collection; rather, they are a representative sample.

Something is always lost when sermons are printed in a book, and no doubt that is the case here. But at the same time, getting a taste of these sermons is better than nothing, and I for one am grateful to have them. Each sermon is between five and six pages long, which is a good length to take one at a time as devotional reading.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Life of the Church (Review)

Moody Publishers has recently published three books on the church from Joe Thorn: The Heart of the Church: The Gospel’s History, Message, and Meaning, The Character of the Church: The Marks of God’s Obedient People, and The Life of the Church: The Table, Pulpit, and SquareThey are intended, respectively, to answer the questions: What does the church believe? What makes a church a church? and What should a church do?

Since I’m always interested in people’s visions of what the church ought to be and do, and I’m on my own church’s leadership team, I decided to pick up the third book to see what Thorn had to say.

9780802414694The book itself is short, almost a booklet (it’s 109 pages). It has a cool design that features the colors black and green, and Thorn himself seems like a cool guy (he has tattoos and wears shirts with epaulets). According to the book, the mission of the church is to follow Christ and make disciples in three environments: the table, pulpit, and square. The “table” is Thorn’s way of talking about a church’s inward community; “pulpit” represents the church’s worship gatherings; and “square” stands for the public square, i.e., the church’s activities in the surrounding community of participation, restoration, conversation, and multiplication.

These three images make up a clever heuristic for thinking about what the church is supposed to do. I’m sure it will stick with me, and that I’ll continue to find this book useful. Finally, while there are many things in the book that churches from any denomination would agree with, when you read between the lines a bit it does seem clear that Thorn is writing from within the Reformed Baptist tradition. Readers of any denomination could benefit from this book, but those who share Thorn’s tradition will be the most “at home” in it.

Note: Thanks to Moody Publishers for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Hum of Angels (Review)

When you hear the word “angels,” what do you think of? Some spiritual being that accompanies people as their guardian? The chubby cherubs from that painting by Raphael? Or do you dismiss them as credulous superstition, the product of overactive imaginations, and leave it at that?

9781601426314New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has set out to clear up what exactly angels are in a book published last month called The Hum of Angels. The “hum” of the title comes from a story that he tells at the outset about a visit to a pet store. He was telling the attendant that there were no hummingbirds where he lived, but the attendant told him there most definitely were. You just had to have the eyes to see them. McKnight went home determined to attune his eyes to see hummingbirds, and now he sees them everywhere.

In that way, angels are like hummingbirds. They are all around us, McKnight says, but we need to train our eyes to see them. He doesn’t set out in this book to prove to the skeptical that a spiritual realm exists. Rather, his audience is people who already believe in something beyond the physical but aren’t so sure whether angels exist or what they are. “If you believe in God,” he says, “you also believe in angels.”

But how do you know what to believe about angels? You could listen to stories about angel encounters, but without some kind of other foundation for identifying what angels are it won’t be clear whether some of these experiences really involve angels or not. As a Christian (and a biblical scholar at that), it isn’t surprising that McKnight turns to the Bible to find out what it teaches about angels. And the Bible has a lot to say about angels. McKnight puts the core of what the Bible has to say about angels this way:

God is love.

All that God does is loving.

God sends angels to us because God loves us.

Love is a rugged commitment to be With,

to be For us so that we can

progress Unto Christlikeness.

Angels are sent to express God’s love

by being God’s presence with us,

by being God’s presence for us, and

to lead us into the redemption of Christlikeness.

He spends most of the book unpacking what the parts of this statement (which he repeats, with some variations, in almost every chapter) say about what angels are. I won’t get into the specifics, but here are a few takeaways from the book:

The Bible nowhere teaches that people become angels when they die. According to McKnight, “the model for what we will be like after death is not angels but the resurrection body of Jesus—who, again, did not become an angel” (20). Just in case it needs to be said, the moment when a friend says on Facebook about a departed loved one that “heaven gained an angel” is NOT THE TIME to instruct them on this point. But in light of how widespread this misunderstanding is, I do think churches ought to make a point of teaching on it.

Not all angelic visitations are from good angels. Angels always point to God, and “angels that don’t summon us to see God are not doing God’s work” (27). Angels are messengers of God’s love, and God’s love is more than the presence of positive feelings about someone. Love, McKnight says, “has a goal.” It “is not tolerance or deciding to put up with one another or doing our best to get along. Love, if it is Christian love, leads to mutual growth into Christlikeness” (42). Angels who do not point us toward God in Christ are what the Bible calls demons, or evil spirits. So modern-day “angel experiences that do not draw us to God’s Son must be held either loosely or not at all” (125).

The Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is not a pre-incarnate Jesus. Now, not all biblical scholars agree about this, so this shouldn’t be asserted dogmatically. But after looking at several passages, McKnight comes down on the side of believing that while “God becomes present to us in special ways in the Angel of the Lord” (85), that is not the same as saying it is the pre-incarnate Jesus.

The Bible isn’t clear about whether people have guardian angels assigned to them. It is clear that God does send angels to protect and guard and guide us, but it stops short of saying that each person has an assigned guardian angel. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom believed in guardian angels, though, if their opinion matters to you.

They probably don’t look like the chainsmoking angel on the cover of the classic Van Halen album 1984. Okay, McKnight actually doesn’t address this. But I think it’s a pretty safe assumption.Van_Halen_-_1984

Should you read this book? There are many books about angels out there, and I honestly haven’t read many of them so I don’t know how it compares to others. But if you are curious about angels, and what the Bible says about angels is an important consideration for you (and if you are a Christian, it should), then you may find this book helpful.

Note: Thanks to WaterBrook, the publisher, for a review copy of this book (even though they said they would send a hardcover and sent a paperback ARC instead). I was not asked to give a positive review.

Nazareth, or Why Standing in the Exact Spot Is Overrated

This is the fifteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

After I returned from a trip to Israel last summer, I decided I would write a series of reflections on most places we visited before I forgot them all. Now it has been eight months since I got back, and over two months since I wrote the last post.

Life has been busy.

But entering the season of Lent, and beginning to look ahead to Good Friday and Easter, has made me want to pick up this task again. I last wrote about Mount Arbel, a quiet spot overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We visited there in the early afternoon of June 25, and from there we went to a rocky place along the Jordan, north of the Sea of Galilee, where three of our group were baptized. That evening, we went on a boat out onto the sea itself. The next morning, we packed up and left our hotel in Tiberias. Our first stop of the day was Nazareth (sort of).

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June 26, AM

I say “sort of” because we didn’t actually go to Nazareth. Nazareth is a modern city, and while there are churches built on various holy spots, it doesn’t look like the ancient Nazareth where Jesus grew up. So Tim, our leader, took us to a hillside that in ancient times lay somewhere between the Jewish town of Nazareth and the Roman city of Sepphoris, a few miles to the northwest.

The reason Tim took us there is that this site was apparently once a quarry. While Jesus is normally thought of as a carpenter (the common translation of Mark 6:3), the Greek word used to describe him is tektōn.tektōn could have been a skilled worker in a number of building materials, which may have included wood but also stone or metal. Tim asked us to imagine Jesus coming out here as a tektōn, working with the stone that would have gone to buildings in Nazareth or Sepphoris.

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This place may have seemed a little farther removed from history than some of the other places we visited, where there is greater certainty that Jesus or some great biblical figure was very close. That is true, but this entire trip the idea was to travel as pilgrims, not as tourists. A tourist, camera always at the ready, would care more about standing in the exact spot where something happened, but a pilgrim is different. Pilgrims are more interested in having a closer experience of God, whether they are standing in the exact spot or not.

A few days ago I listened to a podcast from New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, where he was talking about a recent trip to Israel he had taken with a group of students. On the podcast, he sums up what sets pilgrims apart from tourists (as well as archaeologists and historians):

Sometimes we can get a little negative about people going to these places because they believe that is exactly where Jesus was born, or where he died, and we can throw up historical dust into the eyes of people and say, “We’re not for sure.”

I think that we need to distinguish between a tourist, an archaeologist/historian, and a pilgrim. A tourist is curious. We’re over there trying to see things. We’re there to see, to take pictures, to take selfies, to remember. An archaeologist/historian is going to toss the dust up and say “We’re not sure, we’re not sure, we’re not sure.” But the pilgrim doesn’t care that much if it is the precise location because they’ve come to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or the temple in Jerusalem, or the Mount of Olives, or Gethsemane, or Capernaum, or Nazareth, or Sepphoris because they think it is a thin place, and they’ve come to pray and to seek God. …

We need to recognize that space can sometimes become a thin place, a thin space where we encounter God.

McKnight talks about “thin places”—an idea that originated in Celtic Christianity to describe physical places where a person can have a fuller sense of who God is. This idea can be, and has been, abused, with people believing relics from that place have magical properties and charging large fees to enter and so on. At its best, though, I think there’s a lot of truth to this idea of thin places.

There are thin places that invite reflection and meditation—places where you feel closer to the heavenly realm where God and his angels reside. These thin places are not so much about standing in the exact spot where something happened long ago, trying to document every inch of it. They are, for me anyway, more about being in the same area where God performed a great work, understanding that it was an ordinary place that is much like the place where you live. They are places where you realize that the same God is still working his purposes in the world and inviting people to listen and join in with what he is doing.

P.S.—In case you’re interested, here is the podcast I referenced above. The quote starts at about the 12-minute mark.

Arbel and the Balance of Community and Solitude

This is the fourteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 25, PM

After leaving the impressive ruins of Beth Shan, our group went north to Mount Arbel, which is just west of the Sea of Galilee. There we had lunch (our standard bologna pitas) and then walked out to the east end of the mountain, where we could see a panoramic view of much of Galilee.

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Though this mountain isn’t mentioned by name in the New Testament, Tim sat us down at the overlook and talked about the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:32–56). He believes that, afterward, Mount Arbel is probably the solitary mountain where Jesus went up to pray (Matt 14:23; Mark 6:46). He reasoned that it is the largest mountain in the area, and its name means “mountain of God.” After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus wanted to be alone to pray, and he prayed all night. If he were on Arbel, he would have been able to see the disciples out on the lake. Then, in the early morning, he went out to them on foot.

fullsizeoutput_2732It’s certainly possible that Arbel was the place where Jesus went to pray, especially since the Gospels are unclear about where the feeding of the 5,000 took place. Luke seems to set it in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), though Mark says the disciples left to go to Bethsaida afterward (Mark 6:45). John says the disciples set out for Capernaum afterward (John 6:17); Matthew just says “the other side” (Matt 14:22), and both Matthew and Mark say they ended up at Gennesaret (Matt 14:34; Mark 6:53). I don’t ascribe much importance to these kinds of geographic puzzles one sometimes finds in the Gospels, though. They can usually be chalked up to the Gospel writers not caring as much about geography as modern people do, modern people not always knowing how ancient people used place names, or both.

At any rate, Jesus withdrew to a mountainside after feeding the 5,000, and Arbel is as good a place as any for this to have happened. In fact, even if Jesus didn’t go to the top of Arbel on this particular occasion, it’s hard to believe that he never went there. It is, after all, the highest spot for miles around, and it had a reputation for being a special spot for communing with God. It may also be the site of the Great Commission, which is said to have taken place on a mountain in Galilee (Matt 28:16).

So after Tim’s talk, most of the group climbed down the north side of the mountain. It was a steep descent, and it was 100 degrees that afternoon, so we had the option of going down that way or returning to the bus the way we had come. I decided, after hearing about Jesus’ withdrawing to pray, I wanted to spend some time in solitude instead. After waiting for most of the group to disperse, I meandered across the mountain by myself and prayed, with the only sounds I heard coming from the rustling grass and the goats at the base of the mountain.

fullsizeoutput_272eAfter leaving Arbel, we drove to a spot on the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee. We had to search around to find a spot, since it was Sabbath and there were quite a few people enjoying the Sabbath along the river. On the way, as our driver tried to navigate a series of hairpin turns, the bus stopped and our Israeli guide Ariel got out. He opened the luggage bay underneath us, got out a rock the size of a large throw pillow, and laid it next to the road. With the extra bit of traction, the bus was able to proceed.

When we got there, three of our group were baptized, first giving their testimonies of how they came to know God and what he has meant to them. After the baptisms, all of us had the opportunity to remember our own baptism. Though the rocks were slippery and there was only about two feet of water, we had a wonderful time of meditation on what it has meant for us that Jesus has called us to follow him. Then we finished the day by going out on the Sea of Galilee in a boat.

This was a day when I thought a lot about the interplay between solitude and community. I’ve always enjoyed solitude; when I read Henri Nouwen’s short book Out of Solitude many years ago it spoke to me because I often find it easier to communicate with God, to feel his presence, in solitude and silence. I loved the group experience of this trip, but I relished those times, like up on Arbel, where I had the chance to be alone for a moment.

But I’m also prone to overdo the solitude thing. Nouwen writes that it is in solitude that Jesus found the courage to do his Father’s will. His time in solitude drove him back out to service in the world. If I were him, I would have wanted to stay up on the mountain, but that would have defeated the purpose of solitude.

I’ve done it enough times to know that when I don’t let solitude drive me out to engagement, I can get anxious or depressed. I can start to soothe myself and fill time by eating or watching stupid television or listening to podcasts I’m not even excited about. What I really need is to listen closely for when I’m being pushed back out into the world, and let solitude lead me into greater caring and greater engagement with community.

Beth Shan and Looking for the Unimpressive

This is the thirteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 25 AM

On the day after going north of the Sea of Galilee to the Golan Heights, we went south 12 miles to a place that was called Beth Shan in the Old Testament. It was in Egyptian hands for a long time, and then occupied by the Canaanites during and after the arrival of the Israelites (Josh 17:16). It was in possession of the Philistines during the early Israelite monarchy; the bodies of Saul and his sons were hung on the city wall there after their deaths (1 Sam 31:11–13).

Our bus let us out near the base of the north side of the tell and we walked up to the top, where we were met with a view of the impressive Greek and Roman city that later grew there, called Scythopolis. It is not mentioned by name in the New Testament, though during that time it was the westernmost city of the Decapolis, the only one west of the Jordan River (Matt 4:25). It is mentioned a few times in the Apocrypha (Jdt 3;10; 2 Macc 12:29–30). It later became a center of Christianity, was conquered by a Muslim invasion of 634, and was destroyed by an earthquake in 749. The area continued to be occupied, and the name of the ancient city is preserved in the modern town of Beit She’an.

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This site is much grander than the little fishing villages like Capernaum and Chorazin where Jesus spent much of his ministry. There was a bath house, an amphitheater, and many public buildings and temples. As we walked through the excavated town, I reflected on how even the most impressive societies can come to ruin.

I grew up in the evangelical Christian subculture in the United States (and when I say “evangelical” I’m not talking about a voting bloc but a group, found across different denominations, that has a particular focus on the cross, the Bible, conversion, and active participation in God’s mission in the world). The evangelical subculture is often the opposite of impressive. With some exceptions, much of the art has been derivative and kitschy, and the intellectuals among us have lamented how evangelicals as a whole can be anti-intellectual (though Mark Noll has more recently expressed hope regarding evangelical scholarship).

fullsizeoutput_272cBecause my first experience of Christianity was as part of a subculture, I have received over and over, both explicitly and implicitly, the message that Christianity is something that you are supposed to leave behind when you gain an understanding of the world outside that subculture. You’re supposed to grow up in the church, and then when you become an adult, you realize the world is more complicated than you originally thought and leave Jesus behind.

Maybe because I’ve always had a contrarian streak, I have never been comfortable with this assumption. In fact, I have gone the other way: when I realized that there was a bigger world outside my subculture, I decided to go deeper—not back into my subculture, but into Jesus and the broad, deep story of his church. And I discovered that not only was he bigger than the subculture I had been a part of, but he was big enough to encompass the wider world.

is737Our group leader, Tim, reflected that there are impressive stones at Scythopolis, but the Bible says we who follow Jesus are living stones (1 Pet 2:4–5). We are a place that says to the world, “The presence of God is here”—a temple. This temple may not be outwardly impressive in the eyes of the world, but neither was Jesus. Neither were the little fishing villages where he spent most of his time compared to the glittering Scythopolis.

When I see a place like Scythopolis, I think of the culture that currently holds sway, that I feel pressure to conform to. I realize that this culture that seems so powerful now will be gone soon. There are many wonderful things about the United States and its culture, but it will not last forever. Jesus and the group of people he gathered around himself came before it, and will remain after it.

I encourage you, then, to look for the little and seemingly unimportant ways in which God likes to work. Advent is a perfect time to do that, as we reflect on how Jesus came not as a powerful king but as a baby born into poverty and scandal.

How to Build and Maintain a Vision: A Review

Andy Stanley is the pastor of a group of churches in the Atlanta area that started with North Point Community Church, and he is on the list of pastors whose recorded sermons I periodically listen to (Tim Keller and John Ortberg are the others). In 1999 he wrote a book, Visioneering: Your Guide to Discovering and Maintaining Personal Vision, that was later reissued in a revised and updated version.

41mstogyjlThe book is loosely structured around the biblical book of Nehemiah, following Nehemiah’s transition from cupbearer to the king of Persia to governor of Judea as he sought to make the vision of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem a reality. The “visioneering” of the title is “the course one follows to make dreams a reality. It is the process whereby ideas and convictions take on substance. … If I were to boil it down to a formula, it would look something like this: VISIONEERING = INSPIRATION + CONVICTION + ACTION + DETERMINATION + COMPLETION” (9). It is moving from what is to what can be in any area of life, big or small, in your career, family life, or church.

Along with the book of Nehemiah, the book is also structured around the 20 building blocks that Stanley says are involved in pursuing a vision:

  1. A vision begins as a concern.
  2. A vision does not necessarily require immediate action.
  3. Pray for opportunities and plan as if you expect God to answer your prayers.
  4. God is using your circumstances to position and prepare you.
  5. What God originates, he orchestrates.
  6. Walk before you talk; investigate before you initiate.
  7. Communicate your vision as a solution to a problem that must be addressed now.
  8. Cast your vision to the appropriate people at the appropriate time.
  9. Don’t expect others to take greater risks or make greater sacrifices than you have.
  10. Don’t confuse your plans with God’s vision.
  11. Visions are refined—they don’t change; plans are revised—they rarely stay the same.
  12. Respond to criticism with prayer, remembrance, and if necessary, a revision of the plan.
  13. Visions thrive in an environment of unity; they die in an environment of division.
  14. Abandon the vision before you abandon your moral authority.
  15. Don’t get distracted.
  16. There is divine potential in all you envision to do.
  17. The end of a God-ordained vision is God.
  18. Maintaining a vision requires adherence to a set of core beliefs and behaviors.
  19. Visions require constant attention.
  20. Maintaining a vision requires bold leadership.

This is the sort of book that is more rewarding the more you put into it. In fact, I read the original version a while back and was not particularly struck by it. It had some good advice, but wasn’t life-changing. This time, I spent more time trying to apply what Stanley was saying to my own life (there are application questions at the end of every chapter, as well as a group discussion guide at the end), and I found it to be much more useful. I recommend this book to anyone, particularly any Christian, who has some idea of where they would like to be, but is looking for practical steps on how to get there.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book through Blogging for Books. I was not asked to give a positive review.

 

Faithful No Matter the Cost: A Review

I have never gone to L’Abri, the Christian community and study center that Francis Schaeffer founded in Switzerland, but I was greatly influenced by it growing up. My mom had been there in the ’70s when she was sorting through what she believed, and in our house there were several of Schaeffer’s books. I went to a L’Abri conference in Greensboro, NC with her in the late ’90s, and listened to the lecture tapes I got there for several years afterward.

Os Guinness is an English social critic who was a leader at L’Abri in the late ’60s. He has gone on to do a variety of things since then, but his connection with L’Abri is what originally turned me on to his books. I think the first one I read was The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (1998), which came out while I was in college and helped me sort through what I was thinking about career and vocation. In the last several years he has written a book every year: A Free People’s Suicide (2012, and my current favorite of his), The Global Public Square (2013), Renaissance (2014), Fool’s Talk (2015), and this year Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization.

9780830844654This latest book is a call to Christians in the West to be the “impossible people” of the title. The term “impossible man” was used to describe the medieval reformer Peter Damian, who attacked evil within the church. While some in his time criticized him for being purely negative, his great passion was for faithfulness to the gospel. He was later recognized for this positive passion and was canonized. Guinness calls Christians to have this same passion for faithfulness: “Living before the absolute presence of God, we are called to be faithful, and therefore unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable and unclubbable. We serve an impossible God, and we are to be God’s impossible people. Let us then determine and resolve to be so faithful in all the challenges and ordeals the onrushing future brings that it may be said of us that we in our turn have served God’s purpose in our generation. So help us God” (223).

Those who have read Guinness’s earlier book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times may wonder how this book relates to that one, since the subject matter appears similar. Guinness makes this comparison:

Impossible People is a companion to my earlier book Renaissance, which came first for a reason. In that book I explored the reasons for our response of assured faith in the gospel—which must be forever unshakeable—and it concluded with hope. I deliberately reversed the normal order of “challenge and response” and put the response before the challenge. Such is the character and record of the gospel of Jesus that we may trust it absolutely however dark the times and however bleak the challenge. Doom, gloom, alarmism and fear are never the way for the people of God. We are to have “no fear.”  Impossible People addresses the challenges we face and subjective side that is our response to these challenges—the gospel carries its own inherent transforming power, but we need to trust it, obey it and live it—against all the odds and at any cost. (33)

Guinness spends the bulk of the book, six chapters, enumerating various challenges Christians face in the West: secularism, modernity, spiritual warfare, social constructionism, atheism, and generationalism. Then he spends a final chapter setting forth some tools Christians should use to discern and engage the times they live in.

Guinness is a skillful writer, and I enjoy everything he writes. This book was no exception, yet I am also ambivalent about it. I agree with him about many of the challenges he sees facing the church in the West, but I think splitting the “challenge and response” into two books has caused him to focus unduly on one side in this book. There seemed to me to be not enough space spent on the proper response Christians ought to have to these various challenges. The book felt incomplete in that regard. Also, since each of the challenges he enumerates is complex and could warrant a separate book on its own, I thought some of his critiques were too broad-brushed and lacked the power to resonate with anyone but those who were already convinced.

So if you want to read Guinness’s thoughtful take on the current cultural climate, I would recommend reading Renaissance first (read my review of that book here). Then, if you’d like more detail, read Impossible People.

Note: Thanks to the publisher, InterVarsity Press, for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.