Too much, too little

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-2-45-24-pmMy new year resolutions for 2016 included reading a book a week. The plan was to finish 52 books before the end of the year. I wasn’t following a recommended reading list, but there were a few books that I was keen to knock over. Someone had suggested mixing things up with a range of genres and topics. There were issues I was interested in researching and their were numerous new books that piqued my interest. During this time I also discovered audio books and bought myself a kindle. So my list represents an eclectic mix of styles, difficulty, issues, media, and… quality. Yes, I also discovered that some books had done little more than steal my time.

Here is my list:

1. Forever, Paul Tripp
2. The Story of Everything, Jared Wilson
3. Why Trust the Bible, Greg Gilbert
4. Ordinary, Michael Horton
5. Seven Practices of Effective Ministry, Andy Stanley
6. The Martian, Andy Weir
7. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper
8. The Rider, Tim Krabbé
9. The Churchill Factor, Boris Johnson
10. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
11. Sex and Money, Paul Tripp
12. Side By Side, Edward Welsh
13. Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp
14. Lectures to my Students, Charles Spurgeon
15. Creating Community, Andy Stanley and Bill Willits
16. Knowing God, J.I. Packer
17. Do More Better, Tim Challies
18. Teaching Isaiah, David Jackman
19. Organising love in church, Tim Adeney and Stuart Heath
20. Mission Drift, Peter Greer and Chris Horst
21. Why bother with church? Sam Allberry
22. The Cross of Christ, John Stott
23. Taking God at his Word, Kevin DeYoung
24. Zeal without Burnout, Christopher Ash
25. Living Forward, Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy
26. Seeking Allah Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi
27. Praying the Bible, Donald S. Whitney
28. Word-filled Women’s Ministry, Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson
29. Living in the Light, John Piper
30. What’s Best Next, Matthew Perman
31. The Ideal Team Player, Patrick Lencioni
32. Who Moved My Pulpit? Thom Rainer
33. Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch
34. Big Blue Sky, Peter Garrett
35. Wild at Heart, John Eldredge
36. The Life You Can Call Your Own, David Aspenson
37. I am a Church Member, Thom Rainer
38. Unashamed, Lecrae Moore
39. Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer
40. The Gospel, Freedom, and the Sacraments, Barry Newman
41. Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness
42. How to Read Proverbs, Tremper Longman 3rd
43. Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
44. Shattered Shepherds, Steve Swartz
45. Canon Revisited, Michael J. Kruger
46. What is a Healthy Church Member? Thabiti Anyabwile
47. Center Church, Tim Keller
48. The Gospel and Mental Illness, Heath Lambert
49. True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts
50. A Model of Christian Maturity, D.A. Carson
51. Why Your Pastor Left, Christopher Schmitz
52. Independent Church, John Stevens

I’m not planning in this post to a comment on each of these books, but rather to share some overall observations, and in no particular order.

True to form, I didn’t read many novels. It’s rare for me to read fiction. But, on reflection, it would do me good to read more. Sitting in a hammock, reading The Martian, took me to another place! This book, together with Boris Johnson’s riveting biography, The Churchill Factor, were my most relaxing reads of the year. They both helped me to forget about my life for a while.

Audio books have been a great find. They’ve made long car trips pass effortlessly and they’ve redeemed so much wasted time in daily commutes. Some books are more suited to this media than others. If you’re grappling with a new topic and need to take notes, then it’s probably not the best approach. I’ve found great reward in using audio books to ‘re-read’ a few important books that I have been deeply influenced by in years past. Packer’s Knowing God, Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students, Stott’s Cross of Christ, and Tripp’s Dangerous Calling had all previously left their mark on me. Hearing them over again was an excellent way to refresh.

Much of my reading has focused on thinking through ministry, mission, and leadership matters. Life Together is a classic that I come back to regularly. What’s Best Next is full of wisdom, but way way way too long. Zeal without Burnout is a simple book that I anticipate revisiting over and over.

Center Church has been sitting on my shelf for a few years. It’s been too intimidating to start, but people keep referencing it, so I decided to dig in and give it a go. This is Keller’s magnum opus on church and his philosophy of ministry. I haven’t digested everything as yet. Much was stimulating, but some parts were just annoying. Maybe I will attempt a serious review sometime in the future.

I will offer three awards:

  1. Diamond Award—a small and precious gem.
    Shattered Shepherds, Steve Swartz.
    A must read for those who’ve been devastated by their ministry going wrong.
  2. Kodak Award—for under-developed and over-exposed ideas.
    Wild at Heart, John Eldridge.
    A best seller that is more pop culture than biblical wisdom.
  3. Orange Award—fresh and healthy, but could sting if it comes into contact with an open wound.
    The Gospel, Freedom, and the Sacraments, Barry Newman.
    A very fresh socratic-style approach to revisiting what the bible says about baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Overall, I think I’ve probably read too much too quickly and taken too little in. I don’t remember much about some of these books and I haven’t allowed sufficient time for important discoveries to take root. Unlike previous efforts, I’ve neglected to annotate most of these books, failed to record important ideas and quotes, and not written summaries or reviews. For these reasons, some of these books are going back onto the desk for another go next year—a little more slowly, and a lot more carefully.

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Guidance on guidance

There seems no end to books on divine guidance and discovering the will of God. How do you know what’s worth reading? Proverbs says to seek advice before making a decision, so let me offer mine. I’d steer clear of books that claim to teach you how to listen to God’s voice outside the Bible. The assumption of these books is that Scripture is insufficient and you need to discover additional messages, directly from God to you, in order to discern his will.

My contention is that God doesn’t contradict himself. So his words in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 that “all Scripture is God-breathed” and will make the person of God “complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work” must be taken seriously. The Bible gives us everything we need for life and godliness. This must be our framework for approaching guidance and seeking God’s will. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek the counsel of others, read extra books, or weigh up the options. The Bible itself affirms the necessity for using wisdom in making decisions. In fact, we have whole books devoted to helping us do this—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job—and parts of many others.

If you want to read books on guidance, and I recommend you do, then read books that will point you to understanding God’s revealed will in the Scriptures. This means that the best book on guidance and for guidance is the Bible itself. And every other book must be measured against how faithfully it represents Scripture.

Here are a few that I’ve found helpful…

decisionI first read Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen in 1982, when I was grappling with where my life was headed and what God wanted me to do. It revolutionised my thinking, pointed me to the freedom God has given us to make decisions, and lifted the burdens of guilt and insecurity from my shoulders. It’s a large book, but very easy to read. My only warning is that you must read past the first section of the book. No more spoilers.

limgres-22_2The person who has given me the most direct guidance about guidance is Phillip Jensen, who was the chaplain at UNSW where I studied Social Work in the early eighties. He helped me to love and trust the Bible, and I went to more than one conference where he taught us the importance  and relevance of the Bible for understanding God’s will for our lives. Much of what I learned during this time is in included in an excellent little book called Guidance and the Voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne. This book addresses an important matter that many overlook—and this is where God guides. To understand what God wants us to do with our lives, we must first understand where God is taking history. A clear grasp on salvation history and the purposes of God in Jesus give the essential perspective for understanding God’s will for each of our lives.

justdoLet me also recommend a third book on guidance that, I suspect, has been deeply influenced by both books above. Just Do Something by Kevin de Young is another short, clear resource for grappling with questions of God’s guidance. Some people get paralysed, wondering and confused, because God doesn’t seem to have revealed his specific will for their life. Every little decision becomes a blockage rather than an opportunity. This book aims to overcome the inertia of people waiting for God to reveal which step to take next. We have the Bible, God has revealed his plan for us to love him, to trust and obey him, and to enjoy the abundant freedom that comes from living this way.

Finally, any book on guidance is only as useful as how it gets used. A map may include the best routes and most precise details for getting from A to B, but if we don’t follow its instructions it becomes functionally useless. Let’s not render God’s word obsolete in our lives. Rather, let’s unfold the map and follow where it leads us.

 

 

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Hope when your child has cancer

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 10.45.28 AMThis interview by Dominic Steele with his friend, Andrew Barry, is deeply moving and profoundly encouraging. Andrew’s son has very serious cancer. His situation has moved me to pray for him regularly. In this heartfelt chat Andrew talks about suffering, marriage, family life, work, treatment, salvation and what it means to have an eternal perspective. Take the time to watch it all and grab the tissues! Click on this link to watch the conversation.

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Qualifications to read the Bible in church

bible-readingLooking for people who can read the Bible out loud in church? Trying to fill the Bible reading roster? Building a team of Bible readers? Then let me ask you “What qualifies someone to be able to read the Bible?” Do they need to have a background in performing arts? Or perhaps have been a newsreader in a previous life? Should they audition for the task? Or complete a training course for reading in front of others? Is volunteering enough or is vetting needed? What makes a good Bible reader?

I’m sure that there are plenty of good ideas that will help people to read well in church, but I wonder if we might overlook the most important qualifications. Here are four qualifications to keep at the top of your lists.

To qualify for reading the Bible out loud in front of church you must be…

  1. One who trusts that the Bible is the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Only if you appreciate the author will you read with the attitude needed to pass on a message from God. We’re not reading shopping lists or Facebook posts. We’re communicating the very words of God.
  2. One who reads the Bible regularly for your own instruction, edification, comfort, encouragement, or rebuke. We mustn’t cause one another to stumble in hypocrisy by asking them to do something in public that they don’t do in private. Let’s get our own house in order before calling on others to do the same.
  3. One who understands the meaning and implications of the Scripture you are reading. This will require studying the passages of Scripture beforehand. If we don’t understand what we are reading, then we won’t communicate the message clearly or faithfully to others. We might need to look up a commentary or spend time with the preacher in advance to help us fully grasp the meaning. The key to good communication is understanding what you are saying.
  4. One who prayerfully seeks to apply the message to your life. This will require us to read over the text well before reading in public so that we can meditate upon it, pray about it, and determine what difference it should make to our life.

Does this all sound a bit much? Does it sound more like the qualifications for the preacher or teacher? Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul called Timothy to devote himself to it.

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.  (1 Timothy 4:13)

There’s an obvious lesson in all this for service leaders and preachers. If we want good Bible readers at church, then we need to find suitable people and give them plenty of time to prepare. We should be willing to work with people in helping them to understand, apply, and communicate the Scriptures. Extra work? Absolutely—and worth it.

Now to go and put this into practice.

Posted in Christian living, Leadership | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Apprenticeships for ministry

IMG_2710Once upon a time Christian ministers were viewed with respect. Ministry was voted among the more trustworthy of professions, but not so much any more. The appallingly bad behaviour of some has damaged the reputations of many.

The solution is simple. People serving in ministry must first be Christians—born again by the Spirit of God. Genuine ministry isn’t something you can fake. There’s no place for bluffing your way as a leader in God’s church. Leaders must first be followers—followers of Jesus. Pastors (or shepherds) of the flock need to understand they are first of all sheep, and they always remain sheep, guided by the Chief Shepherd.

Ministry is about God and people and life. It’s about change and transformation, character and integrity, truth and love. These aren’t the lessons you learn in the lecture room. You can’t download them from the internet, or glean them from books. These lessons are taught by God in the business of life. They come through practice, experience, application, devotion, heartache, weakness, and failure.

Those who would lead God’s people are to watch their lives and doctrine carefully (1 Timothy 4:16). Of course, this means hard work in studying the Word of God, but not in academic isolation. It’s not simply the head, but also the heart and the hands that need to be changed.

It’s for these reasons, and more, that I worry when people are in a hurry to go to theological college in preparation for a life of ministry. I worry when people dismiss the idea of growing into their ministry now, to work out if they are suited for more ministry later. I’ve observed impatient men and women dismissing the idea of practical training and jumping quickly into academic training.

Don’t get me wrong—theological education is so important for training in Christian ministry. But training must also be personal and practical and relational and communal.

For this reason, apprenticeships can be an excellent format for helping people to assess their suitability for Christian ministry. Spending time with a trainer, growing in life and ministry together, can offer an excellent opportunity to work out what it means to serve and lead others in the ways of God. You can focus on ministry competencies, while growing in theological conviction, and building Christian character.

If you are serious about preparing for a life time of ministry, then I encourage you to consider a ministry apprenticeship. You can talk with me or contact the Ministry Training Strategy.

This is not a solicited or paid advertisement!

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Two massive questions faced by those with cancer

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 2.31.57 PMSince receiving my cancer diagnosis, many have assumed that my big questions are “Why?” and “What?” Why am I going through this? Why did God let it happen? What did I do to deserve it? What could I have done to prevent it? What specifically caused it?

The truth is that I haven’t been too obsessed with either of these questions. I’ve been more impacted by the questions “Where?” and “Who?” More particularly… “Where am I?” and “Who am I?”

Where am I?

When cancer hits, life shifts course. The journey changes for the worst. Our plans are detoured, deferred, or destroyed. We feel confused and disoriented, out of control and sometimes totally lost. We’re not where we want to be. We’ve got things to do, places to see, people to meet, tasks to complete, dreams to be realised. But we discover our course has shifted and we might never find our way back.

There is a blessing to be found when we discover we’re lost. It’s time to take a look at the GPS. Time to get our bearings. The truth is, we’ve never been in control and our destinations have never been certain.

In their hearts humans plan their course,
    but the Lord establishes their steps.  (Proverbs 16:9)

I need to let go of the belief that I can make my life happen the way I want. I need to humble myself before God and recognise that it’s his overall plan that will prevail. I don’t even know what will happen tomorrow, but I can know the One who does. I can rest secure in the knowledge that my detours and diversions can never separate me from the love of God.

…neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:39)

Who am I?

So much of our identity is tied to what we do and what we hope to do. Our jobs, hobbies, relationships, achievements, physical prowess, intellectual acumen, brushes with fame—they all make us into somebody. Yesterday I heard Usain Bolt say that winning the Olympic 100 metres three times in a row will make him immortal. If only!

Cancer can strip us of all that makes us who we are. Our dreams are destroyed and our hopes are dashed. Sickness keeps us from the very things on which we pin our identities. Who am I if I’m no longer an athlete, a lover, a worker, a success? Am I stuck being a patient, an object of sympathy, a statistic? Is my identity now shaped by my disease? Am I a victim, a survivor, a success, or a failure? It’s no wonder confusion reigns.

Again, there is blessing to be found in the moment of crisis. I need to be reminded that I’m not the sum total of what I think, own, achieve, say, or hope for. My identity isn’t something that I need to build for myself. God has made me in his image to reflect his glory. He has redeemed me through the death of his Son to be adopted as his child. I am richly blessed in Christ. God has given his Holy Spirit as a guarantee of a deep personal relationship with him and a glorious eternal future.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.  (Romans 8:16-17)

Cancer cannot take this away from me. My identity is to be found in God, not in my circumstances. So long as I look to my circumstances, I will remain confused and lost. Far better that I keep my eyes fixed on Jesus.

…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Don’t fear the questions. Only look to God for the answers.

Posted in Journey with Cancer | 1 Comment

So many reasons to be thankful

Someone contacted the church office recently, wanting to know if I was still alive! A fair question really—they’d read my book and suspected the worse. Well, despite my lack of blogging recently, I’m alive and enjoying the life God has given me.

This week I’ve celebrated my fifth birthday since diagnosis. And today my CT scan showed that I am still no evidence of disease. It’s over three years that I’ve been N.E.D. I’d prepared myself for bad news—somehow expecting that I’d have to change my name to E.D. But my results show no change. Thank you God!

Most of you will not know that it’s now nine months since my last cycle of chemo. It’s a real joy not to be poisoning myself every three weeks. Some of my regular side effects have disappeared. Others like fatigue, chemo brain, and anxiety continue. It’s been wonderfully liberating not having to plan my life around three weekly cycles of sickness.

Four years is a very long time to have non-stop chemotherapy. It’s tough physically and emotionally. It’s hard to keep getting poisoned when you are not sure if it is working or necessary. I was prepared to stay the course whatever, but a number of doctors raised questions about whether, after showing good results for so long, it might be worth taking an extended break. So in November last year my break began. I’ve had three scans in this period, and each one has show N.E.D. My break continues.

IMG_2721I described my circumstances to people the other day as like being in a battle zone. Through the years of chemo it was like I was wearing body armour to protect me from the enemy. At the beginning the enemy lines were clearly visible. After I became N.E.D. it changed to a fight against a hidden opposition—like terror cells that can pop up anywhere. I didn’t know where or when or how the enemy might appear, what shape it might take, or what it might do to me. My oncologists believed the enemy remained real and would seek any and every opportunity to attack. So the body armour was essential—I was urged to stay with the chemo indefinitely. The strategy was vigilance, protection, prevention.

Now that I’m not taking regular chemo, it’s like going out without the body armour. The enemy may or may not be present—there is no way to be sure. There are risks. The cancer may raise its head again. We cannot know. I’ve received mixed advice from the medical experts. They cannot tell me anything decisive. Scans are clear, but their scope is limited. Nothing microscopic will ever show on scans. Some say the cancer is still there—simply because they don’t believe treatment can cure my cancer. I’ve been described as a ‘super-responder’. My results are off the charts and there is no data out there to definitively advise me what to do.

So I will stay in touch with medical updates, clinical trials, and the latest in treatment strategies. I will keep talking to my ‘cancer buddies’ about what they are experiencing and discovering. I will continue three monthly CT scans and introduce six monthly MRIs of the brain. I will gradually increase my exercise and try to eat well. But mostly, I will remember to number my days, using the time that God has giving me to trust him and live for him. I will thank him for his saving love, for his gift of life, for the blessing of family and friends, and for the honour of praising him.

IMG_2716I want to honour my family for supporting me on this long and often painful journey. It’s been hard for them and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

Like my tee shirt?

Posted in Journey with Cancer | 8 Comments