Friday, December 29, 2017

The Devout Life: a Review

Our church recently completed a sermon series on the book of Ephesians, and one of the repeated bylines for this series was the phrase:
“Bringing our behavior in line with our beliefs”.
And in a nutshell, that is precisely what Roger Helland’s newest book, The Devout Life, is all about — the eager desire to have a rich, full-life engagement with our faith that informs, encourages, invigorates, and challenges us in every area.

The subtitle of the book, reflected in the cover artwork, is “Plunging the Depths of Spiritual Renewal”, which aptly describes the attitude that Helland wants his readers to cultivate as they dive deep into their faith. This is a not a treatise on apologetics (defending orthodoxy) — it is a rallying call to a living, vibrant orthodoxy. It is an invitation to “go deep”.

Today, as many Christians wrestle with whether to defend the term ‘evangelical’, or write ‘Ichabod’ (the glory has departed) over its doors and abandon it, A Devout Life calls us to recapture the spiritual vibrancy that was at the heart of early evangelicalism. To that end, Helland has done a great deal of research into the Pietist movements, to (re)discover the spiritual practices that shaped their devotion to follow Jesus whole-heartedly.

Chapter by chapter, Helland explores the spiritual practices/disciplines of the early Pietists — each reader will no doubt find their own favorite topic — and each chapter concludes with thought-provoking questions for either group study or personal “how how will I incorporate this into my life” application. Some of the topics include: Continuous Christian Conversion, Transformational Use of Scripture, and A Peaceful Spirit, among others.
(I can’t pick a favorite chapter, honestly. I found so much in this book to be exciting and challenging, and you can’t really rip one chapter out of context and say, “Here, just read this one”.)
If I were a church-planter, this is one of the books I would work through with my planting team — right at the beginning.

If I were leading a church that felt a need to (re)discover the life-giving practices that first caused them to fall in love with Jesus, I’d challenge the leaders to invest significant time in a careful, unhurried book study.

I’d do the same for a home group or a house/simple church.

And as an individual follower of Jesus, wanting to go deeper in my spiritual walk but recognizing that magic-wand, fast-food-drive-through, just-add-water approaches simply don’t work, I’d read The Devout Life.

More than once.
One of the best books I’ve read in quite a while. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Tale of Two Attitudes

Have you ever had the experience of reading a familiar passage of scripture, and suddenly noticing a nuance here, or a tidbit there, that you’d somehow missed before?

It’s almost Christmas, and so I’ve been re-reading the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke — a great idea that the pastor at our church suggested a few weeks back.

The other day, I got on a bit of a roll in Luke's gospel, and kept reading several chapters into Jesus’ early ministry, as well.

In chapter seven, there is a familiar story of a Roman centurion, whose faith impressed the Messiah:
At that time the highly valued slave of a Roman officer was sick and near death. When the officer heard about Jesus, he sent some respected Jewish elders to ask him to come and heal his slave. So they earnestly begged Jesus to help the man. “If anyone deserves your help, he does,” they said, “for he loves the Jewish people and even built a synagogue for us.” So Jesus went with them. (Luke 7:2-6)
Okay, let’s pause there for a second. This is where a nuance I hadn’t noticed before began to stand out:

First, the centurion was smart: he sent Jewish elders to appeal to the Jewish Messiah.

Second — and this is the part that stood out — was the rationale that they used to try to convince Jesus to come: “he deserves this”.
He’s entitled. He’s earned it. Quid pro quo.*
*something that is given or taken in return for something else. (Dictionary.com)
The good news is, of course, that Jesus willingly went. But then the story gets even more intriguing:
But just before they arrived at the house, the officer sent some friends to say, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. I am not even worthy to come and meet you. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed…” (Luke 7:6-7)
Let’s pause again.

The centurion’s friends were using a “he deserves this” kind of entitlement approach. But the centurion, speaking for himself, says, “No, actually, I don’t deserve it… But I believe. Just say the word.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to the crowd that was following him, he said, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” And when the officer’s friends returned to his house, they found the slave completely healed. (Luke 7:9-10)
No quid pro quo. No entitlement. No merit-based appeal.

Just faith in Jesus’ character, and faith that He had the authority to heal.

And the centurion was right, on both counts.

Monday, December 18, 2017

No Cheese, Please, It's Christmas

Sometimes, writing a blog post near Christmas can be a tough gig.

As a song-writing friend remarked recently, there are two traps to avoid: sappy sentimentalism or excessive cheesy-ness.

(Or a noxious combination of both, perhaps?)

We are a society obsessed with “Christmas cheer”, and yet some aspects of the Christmas story contain a strange combination of joyful celebration, and dark foreshadowing.

The shepherds were blown away, and multitudes of angels rejoiced (Luke 2:8-20), and yet when the Magi showed up a couple of years later, an evil king slaughtered babies in an attempt to murder the Messiah (Matthew 2:16-18).
In other words, heaven and earth rejoiced, and evil began sharpening its long knives.
Even when wise old Simeon, waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the Messiah, finally held the baby Jesus in his arms, he was overcome with joyful celebration, and yet prophesied to His mother that “a sword will pierce your soul” (Luke 2:25-35).

And as the story of Jesus unfolds — both in the Gospels and later in the book of Acts, as the apostles spread the joyful news around the known world — there is the same recurring theme of joyful celebration and evil reaction. In those who saw their need for a Savior, there was rejoicing and a desire to spread the news; in those who thought they were fine just the way they were, there was outrage and a desire to shut Jesus up.
Jesus came to offer forgiveness of sins, and that is a serious spiritual business to be in.
No wonder Satan pulled out all the stops to derail Jesus’ mission: from Herod’s slaughter of children, to the direct temptation of Jesus, the violent reaction in His own hometown, the seduction of Judas the traitor, and culminating in the blind & murderous rage of the religious leaders conspiring with a pagan government to crucify their own Messiah.
God had the last laugh, of course, when He raised Jesus from the dead three days later. There was rejoicing again, in heaven and earth (even if the disciples were in hiding when the good news came).
And from the book of Acts onward, there has been this same strange combination of joyful celebration and evil reaction. Nobody likes to be told they are a sinner in need of a Savior, even if it’s the truth (nothing new there).

In the 21st century, we are (still) a society that — like the Pharisees of old — thinks we’re fine just the way we are, and the message that we need our sins forgiven seems, well… somehow lacking in Christmas cheer.

Yet in those who have received God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, there is definitely a sense of joyful celebration. Lest we forget, on the night of Jesus’ birth, the message of the angel was: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
And for those who willingly admit their need for a Savior, there’s nothing cheesy about it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

the Color of Gossip

You’ve probably heard that certain emotions have been assigned their very own signature color:

“Green with envy.”

“Red-faced [embarrassment].”

“Black-hearted [cruel].”

“Yellow-bellied [cowardly].”

Can anyone tell me: Which color is best for gossip?

I’m leaning toward a darker, murkier shade of yellow. The base color being yellow makes sense, because gossip is a cowardly attack — a verbal form of stabbing someone in the back.

But it should be darker than normal, methinks, perhaps a pool of vomitous sludge. Something that, if you saw a puddle of it on your kitchen counter, you would immediately put on a hazmat suit to avoid any direct contact while disinfecting your entire house. After all, it’s pure poison — toxic enough to destroy friendships and community.
“A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28).
The trouble is, while nobody wants the reputation of being the ‘town gossip’, too many of us are still interested in hearing what they have to say. Let’s get real about this: if we listen to gossip, we’re participating in it.
“Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down” (Prov. 26:20).
Gossip is known by its fruit. It comes in bundles, like software, usually packaged with its closest relatives:
“I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder” (2 Cor. 12:20).
So, if you value an authentic community of faith, the next time you hear gossip bubbling nearby — or notice a Gossip Addict on a self-righteous high oozing around the church lobby — treat it like a leaky bucket full of radioactive mucus.

Run.

You don’t want to get any on you.