The garden, the curtain, and the cross

(This post is by another member of my family, Sharon, who used this material with our three grandsons)

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This Easter Sunday morning our family, with our three boys aged 6, 4 and 2, finished The Garden, The Curtain and the Cross Easter Calendar. This is a 15 day family activity program. Each morning for the last 15 days our family has dug into God’s word together. Each family ‘devotion’ takes about 10 minutes. They creatively take us from creation, through the early Old Testament, to the crucifixion of Jesus, and finally to the book of Revelation. The activities are based on a children’s picture book of the same name.

The devotional material is probably aimed at a family with children a little older than ours—primary school-aged children and older. However, even our 4 year old was able to grasp the main concepts and came away challenged in his faith. The pack comes with a booklet of devotions to follow each day from the Sunday 2 weeks before Easter and an “advent” style calendar with 15 flaps to open revealing a picture related to each days study.

Each devotion starts with prayer and a question to get you thinking about the topic. A passage from the Bible is followed by questions about the passage and its application. The material has a guide for how to pray in response to each passage of the Bible, which I found really useful with my young family, as they are still learning to pray. Each day includes a ‘Let’s think a little more’ section, in which the main theme is explored further. We found the main content enough for our family so didn’t use this section.

I particularly loved the way the material walked you through the Bible, clearly showing God’s rescue plan and the reason it was needed. It places a big emphasis on the ‘Keep Out’ sign (angels with swords) that God placed at the Garden of Eden. It then draws a strong link to the curtain ‘Keep Out’ sign at God’s dwelling place in Israel, the temple. Finally, this is torn in two at Jesus’ death on the Cross. The way it explains these symbols, combining them with the pictures in the ‘Advent-style’ calendar worked really well for my boys. My 4 year old was able to remember and explain what the curtain meant for God’s people and how it being torn showed that we were allowed access to God through Jesus once again.

My favourite was day 6, when the solution to the problem of sin was covered. The Israelites needed a sacrificial swap to give them access to the Most Holy Place in the temple, a once a year sacrifice of two goats—one that is killed and one that is sent away— for their sins. The discussion questions and conversation that followed with my boys saw them really grasp their need for a swap and how great it is that Jesus has done this once and for all.

I am already looking forward to revisiting these devotions next year.

Postscript

Whether you’re reading this over Easter, Christmas, the school holidays, a COVID-19 lockdown, or any time really… this is a great resource for families. The Good Book Company are currently making available some related free resources. Download these while you can, and watch a video by the authors explaining why they have made this.

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Just Starting Out: Seven Letters to a New Christian

117888There aren’t too many books you can read, cover to cover, on a flight between Port Macquarie and Sydney, but Just Starting Out: Seven Letters to a New Christian by Al Stewart and Ed Vaughan is one. It’s short, pithy, punchy, and well worth the read. The book has been written for someone who has just become a Christian, to introduce them to some of the basics of the Christian life. They’ve chosen seven topics:

  1. Saved by God
  2. Trusting in God
  3. Living God’s way
  4. Listening to God
  5. Talking to God
  6. Meeting with God’s family
  7. Meeting the world

Each chapter corresponds directly to one of the seven Just for Starters Bible studies that were originally written for people who responded to the call to become Christians at the 1979 Billy Graham Crusades in Australia. These studies are more familiar to an older generation as the 7 Basic Bible Studies. Thousands of university students began Bible studies in their first year by working through these studies, and thousands more new believers have learned the basics of Christian life and doctrine by the same means. I remember these studies as a first year uni student, wondering why no one had taught me this stuff before. It was my introduction to basic Christian discipleship. I’ve since led hundreds of students through these studies, I’ve written talks to go with them, and I even worked them up into an ‘unpublished’ book in 1990! All this to say, I reckon it is so helpful for a new believer to be guided in the basics and not left to flounder around trying to work out how a new Christian is called to live.

So well done Al and Ed, and congratulations Matthias Media. This is an excellent resource. I envisage buying many, getting our church to buy many. God-willing, as we see people becoming Christians, we will pass on these books. Young people coming to grips with how to follow Jesus will find this book simple and clear. Older people, who’ve been around church for ages, but can’t really tell you what matters matter most, will benefit from reading through it. People who are unclear as to whether they are a Christian or merely a church-goer will gain clarity through reading this book. Mature Christians wondering how to get alongside a newby will do well to read this with them.

The style of the book—seven letters from a mature Christian friend, Michael, to a young believer, Dave—is reminiscent of The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. The conversational style is very engaging and carries the reader along. This book covers way more than 7 topics. Gems of wisdom on a range of topics are squeezed onto every page. It’s probably the type of book to read more than once, as I suspect you will pick up new things each time.

The best way to read this book is in tandem with the Just for Starters Bible studies. It’s the Bible bit that’s the most important. So use this book as a stepping stone to discovering more and more from the Scriptures.

Being a Small Group Leader

basglBeing a Small Group Leader is a new book written by Richard Sweatman. Richard oversees the small group ministry program at Hunter Bible Church in Newcastle. He’s been using this material to clarify expectations of leaders in their church for a number of years. Now Matthias Media are making it available to a wider audience.

Being a small group leader is an important responsibility and one that is variously understood and applied in different churches. In many ways, each church that seriously engages in small group ministry should consider producing a resource like this. Here are the qualifications, job description, and modus operandi for leaders. It’s a simple book to use as you recruit, train, encourage, and mentor your leaders. If you’re thinking of becoming a small group leader, then this is worth a read.

Richard identifies 5 core competencies for a small group leader:

  1. Knowledge of God
  2. Character
  3. Teaching ability
  4. Encouragement of others
  5. Leadership

Each of these competencies sit within a framework of grace. We will be more equipped in some than others, we will need to develop some more than others, but we must recognise that it will ultimately be God who develops these competencies in us, so we must rely upon him in prayer.

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As Richard considers each competency, he provides us with the grounds for the competency, a description of how it will be demonstrated in a small group setting, and some suggestions for developing the competency further.

Knowledge of God is more than what goes into the head. It impacts the heart and hands as well. This is relational knowledge, shaped by the Bible, contemplated and digested by the leader, and applied in words and action. This knowledge is important for more than individual and personal reasons. Leaders are called to set an example, teach, and guard God’s people in the truth. They need to know God well so as to lead others in relationship with him. Richard offers practical suggestions to grow in our knowledge of God through prayer, Bible reading, theological reading, and further theological training.

Character is that quality of being tested in life and proving solid. (p25) This area of competency matters because it’s really about applying our knowledge of God into our lives. Leaders are required to have integrity. Without it, people will not follow. Hypocrisy undermines leadership. But this isn’t a pragmatic competency—it’s one of essence. Richard outlines the Bible’s path to growing in character. It comes through prayerfully applying the word of God, in fellowship with others, as we face the trials of life. It is only by God’s grace that we can grow in godly character.

Teaching ability is the third competency identified in this book. Richard describes ‘the ability to teach’ as a skill, listed alongside many character qualities in 1 Timothy 3:

Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
(1 Timothy 3:1-7 NIV emphasis mine)

Richard unpacks this skill with reference to awareness of others; an ability to let the group discover things for themselves; an ability to explain things; and creativity and a sense of fun. I agree that these things will help a small group leader to teach well in a group setting, and that these are skills worth developing, but I wonder if there is something else going on with ‘ability to teach’.

Given that ‘ability to teach’ is listed alongside other character qualities, are we meant to understand ‘ability to teach’ as a character quality also? The one who is qualified to teach is the one who puts their words into practice. They teach through example as well as words. They teach with life and doctrine. I know that this overlaps with the former points of the knowledge of God and character, so maybe I’m pushing an unnecessary barrow.

This book offers helpful suggestions about how to grow as teachers. The bottom line is that you grow as a teacher by teaching. But it doesn’t hurt to get hold of some quality resources and to seek further input, feedback, and coaching. Interestingly, this book suggests other books as the place to turn for such training (see especially Growth Groups by Col Marshall).

Encouragement of others is the fourth competency listed for small group leaders. Encouragement is at the heart of Christian ministry. It’s more than saying nice things to people. It’s about valuing a person’s walk with Jesus and doing what you can to urge them to keep on following him until the end. It’s about leading people to keep trusting their Lord and Saviour whatever obstacles, temptations, or threats might come their way. Leaders are called to help people to stay the course.

This is about more than preparing and leading a group once a week. The challenge to small group leaders is to engage with the lives of the people in the group, to stay interested and connected throughout the week.  This calls for investment in prayer for others, thinking about others, reaching out to others, offering help, following up on how people are going, and more. Richard refers to some helpful books for leaders, including Encouragement: How Words Change Lives by Gordon Cheng.

Team Leadership is the last of the competencies. Competency in knowing God, growing in godly character, ability to teach, and encouragement will all be essential to good team leadership. Yet it’s more than the sum of these parts. Leadership involves inspiring others to follow. It requires abilities to organise and manage, to listen and to communicate, to exercise direction and to submit to authority, to be wise and generous, to overcome fears and to grow in confidence, to be dependable and to depend on others.

This book is a very good primer on leading Christian small groups as part of a wider church ministry. It’s practical and purposeful. It offers questions for discussion and application. It doesn’t claim too much for itself, and generously links to other resources to explore matters in more depth. It’s a helpful and humble book seeking to equip competent and humble leaders who will depend on God’s grace to lead others in following Jesus Christ.

If you are the leader of a small group, or training others in leading small groups, or recruiting small group leaders, or overseeing a small group program, then I’m sure you will find many uses for this book. It’s worth buying for yourself and others. If you are keen to dig further into small group ministry, then you might like to check out some of my earlier posts by clicking on the small group ministry category of macarisms.

Assisted Suicide

Assisted-SuicideThis book was hard to read. It wasn’t difficult to understand or even poorly written. In fact, it was clear, logical, and helpful. I found it hard because the subject matter is personal, heart wrenching, and has at times been too close to the bone. It brought to mind a conversation in our home a few years back. A friend was arguing that not only should voluntary euthanasia be legalised, but that doctors should be legally bound to offer it when asked. My wife, being a doctor, was horrified by the thought. Whatever happened to the Hippocratic oath? And I, being a terminally ill cancer patient, wasn’t feeling too comfortable with the intensity or insensitivity of the conversation either! And I still find this book a difficult topic to wrap my mind and heart around.

Assisted Suicide is another book by Vaughan Roberts in the Talking Points series. It introduces the reader to terms and ideas to build their awareness of the topic. But it also engages with the emotion that drives these discussions. It’s no small thing for someone to want to take their own life. And it’s no small thing to contemplate assisting another person to do this. The issues are very deep and very raw. Over the past few years I believe that I’ve increased in empathy for people who might contemplate such a step. The world of cancer, overwhelming pain, harsh treatments, no hope of a cure, massive financial burdens, impact on wider friends and family, the ugly reality of feeling like there is no point living, and that you are only a burden, takes people down this route. I’m not describing my own personal feelings, but I sense the deep angst experienced by others.

The arguments for assisted suicide are complex. They cross relational, psychological, medical, moral, philosophical, theological, economic, and human rights boundaries. Most significantly they cannot remain theoretical and intellectual matters because they impact people’s lives and deaths. This alerts us to some of the problems talking with one another about the topic. One person may be driven by the pain of a loved one, while another is concerned about precedents and dangers, another with the ethical implications, or another the pragmatics of an ageing population with increasing health issues. We must listen and listen carefully to each other as we grapple with the issues. It’s to easy to talk across each other without any real understanding.

Our religious beliefs will necessarily come into play. If I believe that death is not the end (as I do) and that there’s a resurrection and judgment beyond the grave, then I must consider more than eu-thanasia or good dying. If I believe in the propensity of people to act selfishly (and I do), then I must consider how to protect the vulnerable elderly and terminally ill from selfish decisions to ‘remove’ an inconvenient burden. If I believe in the inherent worth of every human being as one specially created in the image of God (as I do) then I will not measure the value of a person in terms of their utility or costs to society. And I am persuaded that my life is not my own to dispose of, as I see fit. If I believe in the limits of human knowledge and our propensity to act on impulse (and I sure do), then I will be very cautious before making such a massive decision as to take my own life, or ask someone to assist me, because of a terminal diagnosis. Remember, I was given around a year to live and I’ve now lived for nearly seven. Doctors and others only make predictions. They don’t have crystal balls.

When people are dying the issues are complex and deeply charged, so it’s worth thinking through what you believe, and why, in the cool light of day. This book offers talking points, but before that it offers thinking points. I recommend thinking over them. It’s a brief book and only an introduction to a massive topic. This will be enough for some. Others will want to delve more deeply into the issues. Assisted Suicide offers a Christian framework for the journey. If you are a Christian then I suggest you read it, preferably with others. If you’re not, then I believe you will still benefit by considering the issues raised by Roberts.

Personally, I believe it’s a massive mistake for a society to legalise, support or promote assisted suicide. There are plenty of options for helping people to die well, without helping them kill themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Transgender

bowieMy introduction to ‘transgender’ ideas took place in 1974, when I sat watching David Bowie on ‘GTK’ on our TV. My first album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s still one of my go to and favourite albums to this day! But it was the appearance of Bowie that messed with my head. It was hard for me as a 12 year old to look at this man. Was he man or was he woman? What did it mean to be somewhere in between? I felt uncomfortable with the image, but I loved the music. It wasn’t really transgender, but it made me feel that something was askew.

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.01.04 amAnd there was Lou Reed with his mascara, high heels, stockings and the seedy haunting lyrics of Take a Walk on the Wide Side with Holly, Candy, Little Joe and the others. Like most people, I sang along: ‘Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo…’ Impossible not to, really! ‘Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side’. I find myself singing along today when I hear this song. Why would I be singing along to a song about transvestite prostitution? A disturbing fact of music is that it sticks in your head, even when the lyrics might be distasteful. (Just ask any parent or grandparent who has heard the Baby Shark song—don’t kill me for mentioning it.) Why would I be singing along to a song about transvestite prostitution?

Back then such images were brash, confronting, distasteful (to me), and yet sometimes curious and seductive. Fast forward to 2018. Transgender is a big thing. It’s become a growing cultural and political avalanche. People don’t fit in their own skin. Growing numbers of people transitioning. Isolation and oppression. Arguments over pronouns. Debates over the rights of children, parents, teachers, doctors, governments. Identity politics. Cries for freedom. Chaos in sport. Confusion over toilets. Parents out of their depth. Fears of speaking up. Religious oppression. Male/female/other/custom forms. What does the future hold?

transTransgender: A Talking Points Book by Vaughan Roberts is a users guide to transgender from the perspective of an intelligent, sympathetic, well-researched Christian writer. The Talking Points series of books is particularly designed to encourage Christians to understand today’s big issues with a view to encouraging meaningful, gracious, and intelligent discussion on a range of ethical matters. Tim Thornborough, the series editor, writes:

The world is changing. Fast.
And not just about politics, technology, and communication, but our whole culture, morality and attitudes. Christians living in a Western culture have enjoyed the benefits of being in a world which largely shared our assumptions about what is fundamentally right and wrong. We can no longer assume that this is the case. (p7)

Roberts suggests that there are two common responses to the issue of transgender: ‘an unquestioning “Yuk!” and an unquestioning “Yes!” (p18) He warns us to avoid both superficial responses and work to understand people and what’s going on for them. The first point of understanding for many of us, is to understand the language, terms, and ideas that are being used. He quotes from the Stonewall website to explain terms such as trans, cis, gender dysphoria, gender identity, transitioning, and more.

Our post-modern, post-Christian world has elevated subjectivism and the rights of people to define themselves, rather than be defined by others. This is certainly the spirit of our age and an undergirding conviction for those who define themselves not by the gender they were born with, or ‘assigned’ at birth, or the composition of their chromosomes, but how they feel inside. Facebook has gone with this view of individual personal autonomy, and now offers over 70 gender options for people to express their ‘authentic’ self. Huge debates rage over how to respond to gender dysphoria, especially in children and adolescents. Should puberty-suspending hormone treatment be provided to pre-adolescent children experiencing gender dysphoria? What if such dysphoria swings, changes, or disappears over the years that follow? Does a child have the right to seek such treatment against parental wishes? Does the education department, medical system, or another state body have the right to override parental permission? Such questions are highly charged, politicised, and deeply distressing to many. How are we to think through and decide on these things?

Transgender offers a Christian perspective on human identity, where it comes from, how it has been damaged, and some of the implications for human struggle and human flourishing. Roberts engages well with the teaching of the Bible and the implications of creation, fall, and regeneration. His book offers a framework for careful reflection on the matters of gender confusion: who I am, how I am, and what I can be?

I recommend this book for all Christians who desire to be better informed and equipped to understand people and society, who want to be able to engage on passionate matters without coming across as bigoted, unkind, or even hateful. It’s a helpful book for those who aren’t Christian, but want an insight into how Christians might be grappling with these matters. This book should be read by parents whose children are facing a world far more confusing than the one they grew up in. And this book is also designed to be read with others, and discussed together. If you are part of book club, then when your turn comes around, why not suggest a Talking Points Book, such as Transgender. You could read it one week and discuss it the next, and the next, and likely the next.

 

The Gospel Comes with a House Key

9781433557866_grandeInspirational. Provocative. Enticing. Raw. These are some of the words that quickly come to mind as I reflect on Rosaria Butterfield’s new book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key. Let me confess, I didn’t read this book. I listened to Rosaria read it. She kept me captivated from the minute I left Canberra until I drove into my street in Bonny Hills. Eight hours of ‘radically ordinary hospitality’.

If you haven’t come across Rosaria Butterfield, let me introduce her briefly. She grew up in an atheist family and went to a Catholic school. She found herself attracted to the lesbian and homosexual communities at an early age, pursued studies in literature, and eventually became a professor in English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. Rosaria was a influential radical and a leader in LGBTQ rights. In an earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria describes how she set out to write a book critiquing Christianity, and how in the process she became a Christian herself.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a book about the importance of hospitality. Not the hospitality of tea parties and lace tablecloths. This is a long distance from ‘entertaining’ others. This is radical and ordinary, and it is motivated and shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s about welcoming strangers and turning them into neighbours. It’s about welcoming neighbours and inviting them to become extended family.

Rosaria’s conversion came about over many months of dinners at the home of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. They demonstrated to her the deep difference between acceptance and approval. They accepted Rosaria for who she was. Her beliefs, lifestyle, aspirations, and politics were no barrier to real welcome, hospitality, acceptance, and friendship. Her experience of God’s grace through the hospitality of a Christian couple has radically shaped her desire to pass it forward. Together with her husband and family, they welcome anyone and everyone into their home, and they do it not occasionally, but on a daily basis. Their modest and functional home provides a safe haven for many in their community. They share meals, discuss current affairs, explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus, assist the needy, provide a refuge for discarded and abused, provide warmth, and model genuine love and friendship to others.

It’s a costly process. They give time and love in spades. Their food bill each week is double or triple what they would spend on themselves. Rosaria is making extra food literally every single day. When a family is in crisis, she is out delivering homemade meals. She makes regular offers on a social media app to the entire local community of 300 homes to assist the needy. All this on top of caring for her own family, supporting her husband in the ministry of their church, looking out for wider friends and family in need, studying the Scriptures, praying for many people, and even writing books. It’s a family lifestyle. The children consider it normal to reach out to others and invite people into their home. Her husband takes this attitude of hospitality to the jail, where he provides support for men who society has rejected and forgotten.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a gripping read because it is so real and raw. Rosaria tells story after story. We learn of her mother who absolutely hated Christianity and made life hell for the family. We meet the bloke across the street, his pit bull, and his drug addicted girl friend, and the account of the DEA raiding the house to dismantle his crystal meth lab. And we learn how God worked through the patience and love of Rosaria’s family to introduce these people and many more to the saving love of Jesus.

There is nothing showy about this hospitality. The regular menu revolves around rice and beans and the occasional chicken. Chairs are optional. Dogs are welcome. It’s barebones, rough, honest, and unpretentious. It’s attractive and daunting at the same time. Rosaria doesn’t have all the time and resources at her disposal, but she finds them and makes them. It’s costly and sacrificial.

There’s a warning too. Those who will find it most difficult to offer hospitality to the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, the unloved and unlovable will more than not be the rich—people like me, and maybe you. Those who have the most, fear they have the most to lose. They can’t risk their carpet, or their dining setting, or their polished reputation, or their safe, self-contained lifestyle. It’s hard following Jesus if you’re well off. Jesus had meals with ‘sinners’ and prostitutes. He met with lepers and social outcasts like the tax-collectors. He didn’t care about his reputation. He was willing to be waylaid and interrupted. He taught us what hospitality should really look like.

I asked myself a couple of questions after finishing this book:

  1. How much of my hospitality is merely catching up with friends, rather than reaching out to care for the needy or the alienated? How much of my hospitality is literally the philoxenia—love of strangers—that we find in the New Testament?
  2. We have a nice home, fairly new, matching furniture, close to the beach. Will I ensure that our home is for people? Will I care more for the welfare of those around us, than the welfare of our couches and coffee machine?

“Please God, help me to love others before myself. Help me to love people more than things. Help me to be generous with my time, gifts, possessions, and particularly our home. Teach me to become more and more hospitable. Teach me to delight in the love and care of those around me. Move me to share the great news of Jesus Christ with strangers and neighbours as you give me opportunity.”

 

The Friend who Forgives

forgiveNow that I’m a grandpa, I’m on the look out for great kids’ books. We’ve still got a few at home that our kids haven’t taken with them, but we’re keen for some new ones for when the grandkids come to visit. So I was pleased when the The Good Book Company sent me a new children’s book to review. It’s The Friend who Forgives: A True Story about how Peter Failed and Jesus Forgave, written by Dan DeWitt and illustrated by Catalina Echeverri.

Firstly, this is a beautiful book. The pictures are captivating—not just for kids, but adults too. They are lively, funny, colourful, and expressive. And the words, too. They’re written in a clear, simple, conversational style, that works for adults and children. The listener is drawn in with the occasional question. And most importantly, it’s beautifully theological. It introduces the readers and listeners to the wonder of Jesus’ forgiveness.

IMG_1171We tested the book yesterday with our nearly five year old grandson. He’s not reading yet so Nona read it to him. He listened intently, answering appropriately, and told me he enjoyed it at the end. We’ll read it to him again, next time he comes over.

But this is a review and not the ramblings of a grandpa. I need to mention the inside back cover. It helpfully reminds the readers that this is a ‘tale that tells the truth’. DeWitt explains that this story is taken from the New Testament Gospels. This is God’s revealed will. It’s anchored in history and it has significance for us. I think it would be worth reading the account from an easy-to-read Bible with the children from time to time, so they make the connection with the Scriptures.

I do have one concern about this book. It uses the words ‘forgive’, ‘forgave’, ‘forgiven’, ‘forgiveness’ without giving an explanation of what the word means. Not all words need explanation, but I think this one does. It’s central to the book and our grandson couldn’t tell us what it meant. When we thought about it, we realised that it is a difficult word to define simply. I recommend that you work out a simple explanation of forgiveness to share with the children who read this or have it read to them. Perhaps, you can think of an example or two they will quickly understand or identify with. Maybe, the author could add another page at the start or back, with a ‘For the reader’ section, defining and describing forgiveness.

For now, why don’t you make a comment or suggestion on this post. How would you explain forgiveness to a five year old?

Caring for One Another

caringWho of us wouldn’t want our churches to be genuine communities of meaningful, caring relationships? Perhaps this is your experience already. People invest in each other, they look out for one another, they show genuine interest, they seek help, they ask what they can pray and then they pray. They do more than offer support to others, they show deep empathy, compassion, and practical care. Maybe this is a bit of overreach, but you see glimpses of it and you want it more and more. Right?

If you’re a pastor or church leader, there is a danger of burning out due to the endless expectations that people place on you. Are you tired and weary from being expected to be the ‘minister’ to everyone? Do you wish that some other people would step up a bit, or that other leaders would share the load? Do you long for a community where everyone is looking out for one another?

Or are you getting disappointed that ministry has become more and more like social work? Are you worried that people’s health and finances and relationships are what seem to matter most? Do you lament the lack of spiritual engagement between people throughout the week, and worry that Sunday conversations rarely get beyond small talk?

Let me offer a suggestion for taking things deeper.

Ed Welch has released a new book called Caring for One Another: 8 Ways to Cultivate Meaningful Relationships. Get yourself a copy, read it, and start getting those around you to buy in. Following on from one of his previous books, Side by Side, he provides a simple and practical resource for equipping Christians for real interpersonal ministry. It’s a brief book—8 short chapters that get us thinking about how to encourage each other to live in the light of the gospel of Jesus. There are great ideas, Biblical foundations, practical recommendations, and each chapter finishes with questions for discussion and application.

This book is intended to be read with others. I can see it providing a good tool for one-to-one meetings with key leaders, or in small group leader training, or with a pastoral care team. It’s not specifically a book for leaders—it’s intended to mobilise everyone in the church to be encouraging and building each other—but I’d start by working these things through with leaders and then mobilise them to equip others.

Welch’s book is less of a ‘how to manual’ and more of a ‘keys to the heart’ guide—but practical and hands on nonetheless. He shows deep understanding of God’s part and our part in God’s work of changing people. Humility, prayer, understanding our weaknesses and sin, reflecting carefully on suffering, and knowing the power of God and the gospel are all critical. Caring for One Another moves well past the theoretical. It aims to grow intentionality and to activate us in relationship with each other. It’s grounded in a deep understanding of how people tick and it’s littered with great ideas and suggestions for making things happen.

I’ve read through this book quickly, but I plan to go over it again, and probably again, and again, by reading it with others. I recommend you do too.

Welch writes in his closing:

Caring for One Another has identified ordinary features of person-to-person engagement. There is nothing new here. The purpose has been to remember and live out applications of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But in that, the very power of God is further on display, and the church is strengthened and drawn together. (p67)

Resilience – A Spiritual Project

resilienceResilience and burnout are big issues in work and ministry at present. In the field of Christian ministry the statistics of burnout seem alarmingly high and the focus on building resilience is both urgent and important. Kirsten Burkett has provided a great service by sharing her research into these areas in her latest book Resilience: A Spiritual Project. This isn’t a popular level book. For a start it’s published by The Latimer Trust, as the 84th of their brief academic studies. While only being 46 pages in length, it includes another 9 pages of bibliography, comprising mainly of academic journal articles. But don’t let these things put you off. Resilience: A Spiritual Project is compact, yet thorough, and I found it engaging and easy to read. While much of her book is surveying and summarising findings in the literature, Dr Birkett draws us to practical conclusions with profound pastoral implications.

Dr Birkett writes as an experienced researcher, academic, author, and teacher. However, she does this in sync with her experience of grappling with burnout herself, and with an eye to equipping men and women in pastoral ministry. She understands the particular dangers and threats for those engaged in a profession where resilience is needed to fuel perseverance and endurance. Most profoundly, Dr Birkett draws on the wisdom of the research to argue that resilience ‘can be learned’ and ‘people can be trained against future stress’ (p17). She is also careful to emphasise that resilience is not a cure all. Sometimes people are simply tired and need to slow down, rest, or take time out. Other times people are overwhelmed by sadness, grief, or trauma, and just need time to weep and mourn. However, she writes:

If we keep resilience in perspective, as ways of helping healthy people stay healthy and of helping ill people recover, it seems to be an extremely useful construct. Human beings are resilient — we could hardly have survived this long otherwise. (p25)

Dr Birkett demonstrates in her book that there are significant overlaps between resilience research and Christian spirituality. Many features identified in the literature as important in building resilience, find expression in biblical expressions of Christian faith in action. She examines the following areas:

  • Adversity leads to strength
  • Sense of meaning and purpose
  • Transcendence
  • Hope and optimism and positive emotions
  • Altruism
  • Self-efficacy: God efficacy
  • Forgiveness
  • Social network

If you have a good understanding of the life of a Christian then you will hear the resonance already.

We believe that God works to strengthen and transform his people through adversity. Suffering is not to be sought after, but it is to be expected. ‘What people need, it seems, is not a stress-free life, but the framework to treat stress well; to use it as a stimulus for growth, rather than buckling under it’ (p33).

We believe that we have been created for a purpose, essentially for Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16). We are not the product of chance and time. There is meaning, purpose, significance, and eternity. We may not always understand our suffering but God, in his wisdom, uses it to produce good (Romans 8:18,28).

We believe, not in some external transcendent force, but in a God who is accessible and invites us to come to him in our times of need. God has come to us in the incarnation of Jesus. God dwells in and among his people by his Spirit. We have access to God through the death and resurrection of his Son, and so we are invited to come before him in prayer, and present our requests to him rather than staying isolated in our anxiety.

We believe there is good reason for hope. Our faith is built on hope in the promises of God. God has shown he is faithful in Christ Jesus and because of this we can have joy even in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 1:3-7).

We have deep reason to love others. We did nothing to deserve it, but God has loved us, at enormous cost, through the atoning death of Jesus. This leads to a purposeful altruism, motivated by God’s work in and through us. At the heart of this is power and willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. We can shed our anger and avoid bitterness.

We believe, not in self-efficacy, but in the efficacy of God. There is honesty in Christian understanding that we are not equal to all tasks. We don’t need to be demoralised by our continual sub-par performances. We’re not required to grow super powers. Our sovereign God knows our needs and will accomplish his purposes for our good. This is stress-relieving.

We believe that God has given us a community. We are adopted into his family and called to love our brothers and sisters. Hospitality and care are part of the fabric of our relationships.

You see, in other words, God is in the business of building resilience in his people. How then should we train Christian ministers for resilience? Dr Birkett nails it with her insight:

It would seem we do so by training them to be Christian. (p38)

Read that again! Building resilience comes from Christian discipleship.

Building resilience in Christian leaders isn’t simply the domain of Christian psychologists, as important and as helpful as they can be. It should be the fruit of putting a deepening understanding of God and his ways into practice. It should come as we soak ourselves in the Scriptures and turn to God in prayer. Resilience should be the outworking of good doctrine and faith working itself out in love. There are no silver bullets, no secret elixirs, when it comes to avoiding burnout. But, as God’s children, we have a Father in heaven who knows us, loves us, guides us, equips us, heals us, and sustains us. Let’s turn to him in our hour of need.

Resilience: A Spiritual Project is a word in season.

Black Box Thinking

blackboxYes, I’m trying to get my writing mojo back. People say the way to start writing is to start writing. People are profound sometimes! So back to reviewing a few of the books I’ve been reading. This book was recommended to me by a friend who suggested it might be helpful to leaders in our network around the country.

Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success and why some people never learn from their mistakes by Matthew Syed identifies some important blind spots. People are always telling us that we should learn from our mistakes, fail forward, and change the way we go about things so that we keep on improving. The problem is that we so often repeat our mistakes, get stuck in ruts, and fear making changes.

This book takes its title from the little black boxes fitted to aeroplanes. I understand that planes are fitted with devices to record the electronics of the aircraft and to record the interactions of the pilots. These devices are stored in ‘indestructible’ black boxes that can be retrieved in the case of accidents. Apparently these black boxes are now orange, not because orange is the new black, but because orange boxes are easier to locate when rubble is scattered far and wide. What a great example of black box thinking!

Going back to 1912, plane crashes were considered normal and inevitable. Half of US army pilots died in air crashes, even during peacetime. Fast-forward to today and plane travel is one of the safest means of transport. There are very few deaths and the accident rate is about 1 in 2.5 million flights. There are many reasons for this tremendous improvement, but at its core there is a mindset in the aviation world that says, “We must learn from our mistakes.” The black box is a tangible expression of this attitude. When something goes badly wrong, it must then be examined with a fine tooth comb to make sure such mistakes don’t happen again. This is a life and death imperative.

This mindset is not seen everywhere else. People are reluctant to own up to their mistakes. We’d prefer to rationalise things, pass the blame, gloss over what has happened, and avoid scrutiny or accusation. Human pride gets in the way. Syed contrasts the slowness of the health profession to learn from mistakes with the progress of the aviation industry. When doctors make mistakes they get hammered by litigation, public shaming, deregistration, increased insurance costs, and the like. So who wants to admit fault? In both arenas, people’s lives depend on learning from mistakes and making changes to avoid things being repeated.

I depend greatly on the proficiency and safety of both the medical and aviation sectors. Both these areas matter to me. But there are other lessons I am interested in. As one who now leads are network of churches, or denomination, I am concerned about the systemic failure of churches to learn from their mistakes. The recent Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, has reveal some appalling accounts of denials, cover ups, and codes of silence. Black box thinking requires the truth to be revealed, serious questions to be asked, and future problems avoided.

We need to learn from our mistakes. Even more so, we need to repent of our blatant sin. The problem with sin is that it leads to shame and so we cover ourselves. We’ve been doing it since the beginning. God calls us to confess our sins, to be honest with one another, to take heed of our failures, and to spur each other on to love and good works.

But it’s not simply in the areas of heinous sin that we need to develop black box thinking—it’s in the day to day of our ministry. It seems that many churches are trapped in patterns of mindless repetition. Q. “Why do we do what we do?” A. “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”  And we wonder why people have stopped coming!

Whether it’s church, school, business, club, or whatever, we need to keep thinking about what’s not working, why it’s not working, what needs to change, and how we can change it. Review should me commonplace and regular. Action—reflection—reaction should be our normal pattern. Failures should be seen as opportunities to make changes for the better. Mistakes should be valued as triggers for improvement. You’ve probably heard the Michael Jordan stories of countless missed shots, errors of judgment, lost games—all viewed as opportunities to learn, grow, succeed, and become arguably the greatest basketball player in history.

Syed challenges the popular view that success is primarily based upon innate qualities such as talent and intelligence. He describes this as a Fixed Mindset. He argues that we need to develop a Growth Mindset, where success can be achieved though dedication and hard work. People are capable of achieving more if they are willing to learn and make changes and if they are willing to practice until perfect.

In my world of Christian ministry I want to make a plea for black box thinking. Let’s learn from our mistakes and failures. Let’s ask the difficult questions. Let’s normalise reviews and feedback. And this will require humility from everyone, and especially from pastors and leaders.

Allow me to illustrate with 7 suggestions for black box thinking for pastors:

  1. Pastors would benefit from professional supervision. Taking timeout to reflect and learn from our practice will improve our ministries. Find someone who can speak into your circumstances and help you to develop black box thinking.
  2. Pastors should seek feedback on their sermons from people they trust. I’ve heard depressing tales of ministers unwilling to provide support and feedback to their trainees because they won’t accept critique themselves.
  3. Pastors can build a culture of learning from mistakes by reviewing what they and the church do on a regular basis. Go with the natural rhythms. Monday is a good time to review the services on the weekend—what worked, what didn’t, what could be done better next time? Once a quarter would be a good time to make adjustments to our regular programs. Why not introduce a major annual review, such that every year things change and grow for the better?
  4. Pastors could organise to get together with peers from time to time to share successes and failures. Being open with one another builds a culture of humility. Iron sharpens iron. You can learn from one another’s mistakes and avoid falling in the same traps. Go to a conference or two where you can learn from others.
  5. Maintain the discipline of reading books that will keep building your competencies. Begin regularly with the Bible and ask God to deepen your love and understanding of him. Read a commentary to enrich your understanding of the Scriptures, something on leadership to challenge your practice, a book on culture to evaluate how well you understand your world, and so on. Ask others you trust what they have found useful.
  6. Become more thoughtful. Think about your thinking. Keep some notes and look back over them. Journal lessons you have learned. Set goals for change.
  7. Pray. Ask God to shine a light into your thinking, feelings, emotions, relationships, decisions, plans. Look into the ‘black box’ of God’s word and make the necessary changes.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)

Thinking, Fast and Slow

thinkingI could never have imagined myself reading a book by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, but I have, and to my profit. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has helped me understand more about how I think, make decisions, communicate, and respond to the words and actions of others.

His basic idea is that we have two different modes of thinking and processing information. The first mode is automatic and impulsive. It’s our knee-jerk response that enables us to take short cuts and move on with ease. The second mode is more deliberate, focused, logical, and it’s necessary for making truly wise choices. Some of us tend to react instinctively, go with our guts, and sometimes miss things that are critical. As an ENFP (Myers-Briggs Type), I’m one of them. People need to spend most of their time in the first mode because we haven’t got the time or the stamina to carefully examine every decision we make. Some things just need to be automatic. However, we can become lazy thinkers, and take short cuts when we shouldn’t, and not slow down when we really should.

We are all prone to making snap choices—weighing up people and situations in an instant. We oversimplify, latching on to something we like and assuming that we will like everything. This can lead to major errors in judgment. Let’s say I’m considering someone for a job. I learn that they love fishing, camping and four-wheel driving. This leads me to gravitate towards them. We spend time chatting about our common interests, places we’ve been, experiences we’ve had. I like them. Hence, there is now a bias toward preferring this person regardless of what experience they might have had in the job, how competent or incompetent they are, whether they are a team player or prima donna, or any other critical criteria. This has been called the halo effect. We assume they will be good even though we know very little about them.

Similarly, I might know some details about a person, such as where they trained or who they’ve worked with previously. I associate what I know about them with an ideal that I’ve created. If I’ve had positive experiences with the people they know or with the training organisation they come from, then confirmation bias may lead me to make assumptions about them and not do due diligence to get more relevant information specifically about them. I wonder how many people employed on the ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ principle, have turned out so differently to what was expected. Taking short cuts might save time in the short term, but may lead to drawn out disasters in the longer term.

Kahneman discusses how we perceive statistics, memories, risks, choices, and more. He shows how our perspective shapes how we respond to things. For example, if a shopkeeper is told that there is a 1% chance that someone entering her shop will be a shoplifter, then she might not worry too much. But, if she was told that of the 1000 people who will come through her shop this week, 10 of them will be shoplifters, you can imagine she will be on high alert for who they might be. The statistics are identical but each statement offers a different perspective.

Context is also important for weighing decisions. If two people are both promised that by the end of the year they will each have a net worth of $100 million, then you’d expect them to be equally happy, wouldn’t you? If one of them was me, I’d be ecstatic. Who wouldn’t be happy with $100 million? If I told you that the other person was Mark Zuckerberg, whose current net worth sits at $75 billion, you can see how context changes everything!

These insights will help us to be more effective communicators. Pausing to consider how people might ‘see’ what we are saying, will move us to take the extra step to get our message across more clearly. So often we think if something has been said then it’s been heard. But is their perception the same as our intention? It pays to be clear and it pays to enquire as to whether we’ve been understood.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book to get us thinking about our thinking. While much of what we do needs to be quick and automatic, there are some areas where we need to disengage cruise control and put our minds into manual. In my work as a church pastor over many years I can see times when I took the lazy option and endured the consequences of not thinking hard or long enough. Now, I watch others fall into similar errors of judgment. While we know there is always more than meets the eye and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we get lazy, we’re attracted by the short cuts. I hope that I will grow in wisdom, be a better judge of people, make smarter decisions, and communicate for effectively, as I seek to think both fast and slow.

 

 

 

My Donkey Body

It’s a small world, sometimes. Last weekend Fiona and I were camped in the shearers quarters at Lake Menindee, together with the members of Saltbush Church from Broken Hill. We hadn’t been there before and it’s quite a while since we were anywhere so remote. Over breakfast I met John Wenham, and I jokingly said that I had a few books written by him at home. Turns out that I had read books by his grandfather of the same name, also a few by his dad, and a couple by one of his uncles. I’ve since read a book by another of his uncles, Michael Wenham, called My Donkey Body: Living with a body that no longer obeys you. Wow, so many books in one family!

donkeyMy Donkey Body recounts Michael Wenham’s journey with a rare form of Motor Neurone Disease (MND). If you’re unfamiliar with this disease, think Stephen Hawking. The motor neurones that transmit instructions from the brain to the muscles deteriorate and cannot replace themselves. The brain keeps working but it becomes unable to get messages to the muscles to do their work. The person becomes more and more debilitated and eventually the muscles that keep you alive stop working. MND is a terminal illness and there is currently no known cure.

Michael Wenham is a Christian, who tells his story of discovering and living with this disease from the perspective of faith. My Donkey Body is a sad, gripping, and often humorous account of one man, together with his wife and family, coming to grips with weakness, disability, frustration, pain, and ultimately mortality. As a preacher, whose voice was his tool of trade, he recounts what it’s like to lose control over your vocal muscles. He shares about the humiliation of being picked up out of the gutter by strangers and relying on his wife to wipe his backside. There’s nothing romantic about MND.

I checked with Google and discovered that Wenham continues to blog, write articles, and he has done some very moving video interviews. Wenham has now been living with this disease for many years. While his physical abilities have declined, his mind has remained sharp. He engages with real issues of relationships, health, religion, dependence, living and dying. Wenham has engaged with Stephen Hawking and provided informed and sympathetic rebuttals to Hawking’s dismissive critiques of any afterlife. He has written against legalising assisted suicide for the terminally ill like himself.  He opposes the creation of human stem cells for the purpose of experimentation, even if it should provide the cure for MND. His arguments aren’t a bigoted bias toward regressive religion over against progressive science. Rather, they arise from one who knows suffering and mortality, but who deeply respects that all persons are made in God’s image. He demonstrates powerfully that people are not valuable according to their utility and value to society (however that might be measured), but because God has made them human. Every person matters.

Wenham argues for the importance of knowing God and having faith in God’s power and goodness. He’s prepared to ask the hard questions and admits to not having all the answers. Being a Christian doesn’t take away the pain or the suffering. He argues with CS Lewis:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don’t understand.
(quoting CS Lewis A Grief Observed p23) in My Donkey Body p128

I am grateful that Michael Wenham took the time and made the effort to share his thoughts. Much of this book resonates with my experience of receiving a terminal diagnosis, coping with physical and mental pain, losing things that have shaped my identity, and asking questions of faith and doubt. Yet my circumstances have taken a turn for the better. Many of my disabilities have been replaced by renewed abilities. And that brings it’s own dangers and threats—especially the risk of forgetting how much I need God.

There is something about weakness that drives us back to our Father in heaven. I need to be reminded that this life is a gift from God. Every day is a day for rejoicing. Nothing should be taken for granted. The less I remember my dependence on God, the bigger an ass I become.

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Expositional Preaching

helmCoaching and playing don’t always require the same skill set. Not every player will make a good coach and not every successful coach will have been an elite player. Look at some of the men coaching gymnastics. It’s hard to believe they could have ever mastered the pommel horse or uneven bars for themselves, but they can be brilliant at training others.  The successful coaches are somehow able to deconstruct each aspect of each move, and train their athletes to weave their brilliance in seamless performances.

Every now and then we see a player with a deep awareness of the game. And not just their contribution to the game, but the game itself, and how every part works together. Steve Larkham, the Australian rugby great, was a player like this. He’d weave his magic and he’d create the opportunities for others to weave their’s. Larkham not only did, but he knew what he did, and he could pass this on to others. He coached as he played and it was no surprise to see him coaching after he stopped playing.

So what does this have to do with expositional preaching? Nothing. I just love gratuitous sporting illustrations!

Seriously though, many great preachers function at a very high level of unconscious competence. They communicate with clarity and depth. They shine a light on the riches of God’s word and they impress it on the hearts and minds of their listeners. We come away from their preaching with ‘our hearts burning within us’. But don’t ask them to train other preachers. They can’t even tell you what it is they do. They’re at a loss when it comes to coaching.

Recently, I attended a preaching coaching workshop at Moore College. I’m so glad I did. For me it was Preaching Coaching 101. Keep it simple. Break things down. Clarity. Simplicity. Specificity. Depth. Grace. Gospel. Theological. Heart. Mind. Affections. Motivations. Exegesis. Contextualisation. And more.

I love preaching, but I also love listening to great preaching. We need more and more passionate, humble, empowered, clear, focused communicators of the Word of God’s Spirit. We need people who will dig deeply into the text and fire it deep into the psyches of the listeners. We need preachers who handle the Scriptures with care and expect God to transform their listeners. This means both getting the message right and getting the message across.

Enter David Helm and his sharp little book, Expositional Preaching: How we speak God’s Word today. Our coaching workshop leant heavily on Helm’s approach to expositional preaching. Helm has learned much from the likes of great preachers like Dick Lucas and Kent Hughes, and it shows. Like a master coach he has broken down the art of preaching so as to pass it on to others. Helm is persuaded that we need to do two things well: Get it right and get it across (p36).

I’ve listened to the audio book of Expositional Preaching and now I’m digging into it more thoroughly with my paper copy, and a pen and a highlighter in hand.

Helm addresses the dangers of merely coming to the Bible to find something that fits with what we want to say. He asks the question “Who will be king? Me? Or the biblical text?” Helm is persuaded that we must let God speak and not get in his way with our hobby horses or attempts to be ‘relevant’. This must involve careful exegesis and theological reflection, but it will also require an investment in careful communication. Helm covers both sides of this equation in his book.

Expositional Preaching provides an introduction to the necessary building blocks for preparing messages that will communicate God’s message to contemporary listeners. If I can shift my metaphors, Helm’s book offers us a recipe for preaching that is nutritious, well presented, and full of taste.

It’s probably aimed at new preachers—ministry trainees, students in theological colleges, people starting out on a lifetime of teaching the Scriptures. For me, it’s an excellent coaching manual for those of us who feel we can do, but who have trouble in identifying what we do and why we do it and how we do it. If we seriously want to equip people who are passionate and skilled in biblical preaching, then I recommend we recruit David Helm as our coach—or at least work seriously through his coaching manual.

Heaven, how I got here

heavenI miss Chappo! Yesterday I saw someone reading one of his books and I felt a pang of grief. He was so good to talk with, to chat to about real stuff. He’d always keep pointing me to Jesus. He loved Jesus and wanted nothing more than for others to love him too. Chappo might not be here—that’s because he is now with the risen Jesus—but I still have his books. My favourite is A Fresh Start. It’s clear, fun, engaging, serious, Biblical, and helpful, all rolled into one. It’s a great explanation of what a Christian is and how you can become one.

It got me thinking that we could do with some more books like A Fresh Start. It’s a while since I’ve read a simple and engaging book that explains the significance of Jesus and calls people to respond.

Last night, Good Friday, I sat down with my Kindle and thumbed through the books that I’d bought cheaply, but hadn’t got around to reading. Colin S. Smith’s book, Heaven, how I got here caught my eye. I decided to take a look, hoping it wasn’t another of those ‘heaven tourism’ books. My Kindle told me that it would take about an hour to complete. Just what I needed before I went to bed.

Heaven, how I got here tells the story of the thief on the cross from the thief’s perspective. Of course, we only have a brief glimpse of this man in the Scriptures and only a few of his words are recorded, so there is much that has to be ‘imagined’ in this account. However, I would describe Smith’s narrative as a ‘Biblically informed imagination’. The author draws all his important insights from the Scriptures themselves. Profoundly important theological insights are ascribed to the dying thief as he reflects on the significance of the innocent Jesus, dying at his side.

Why has he be condemned if he is innocent? How can God allow him to hang on the cross if he is the promised Christ? Smith highlights one reality that I’d only ever glossed over—that Jesus died before this man. He watched as Jesus died. He had time (albeit agonisingly brief) to reflect on what Jesus had said and done. The thief heard the taunts and attacks thrown at Jesus. He saw close up the injustice and horror. He witnessed the devastating words of Jesus, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” and his final cry “It is finished.” He experienced the total darkness in the middle of the day, the shudder of the earthquake, and the acclamation of the centurion, “Surely this man was the son of God.”

This book is tonic to those for whom the cross has become mundane. It brings us in, close and personal. We can almost hear and touch and see and smell the events as they unfold. But the real strength of this book lies not in reminding us of the horrors of crucifixion. It lies in the awesome significance of what Jesus achieved, not only for the thief, but for you and for me. Heaven, how I got here is good news to all who think they have no hope of forgiveness and a challenge to any who think that it’s what they do that will get them there.

Another author in the family

P1070341Over the past couple of years my father has been working on his memoirs. He’s been reflecting on more than eight decades of seeing God at work in and through his family, in many different locations. In the last few days these words have been delivered—printed and bound—to his home. Dad has called his book From Donholme to Nareen Terrace, and he has shaped the book around each of the places he has lived. I’m glad the book has a title, because otherwise I might be tempted to call it The Book of Norman! (That’s got that joke out of the way. It was bound to emerge at some point.)

I am eagerly waiting to get my hands on a copy—not least to reflect on my own life through the lens of my father. But more so, to read and learn from the experiences of my dad. It is a joy to see this book come out. Roughly six years ago, my father was diagnosed with cancer and we all wondered how long he would be with us. Then my diagnosis made it seem highly unlikely that we would have much of a future together. Tomorrow marks my father’s birthday, and how great it is to be able to look back and celebrate the goodness of God over 82 years.

Maybe you know my father. Perhaps you’ve shared a part of your life with him. If so, there’s a chance you might even get a mention!

Let me know if you’d like to buy a copy. Perhaps I can get a job as a promoter.

Then again, I should probably read what he has to say about me first!

Gospel DNA

gospeldnaDNA is who we are. It’s you and I boiled down to our most basic fundamental parts. It’s our point of difference, our unique identifier. It’s the building block of our health and biological integrity. DNA gets passed from generation to generation during reproduction. Zillions of pieces of code are transmitted intact so that new things grow. Occasionally there are mistakes in the code. Sometimes things go wrong—like in me! I have a genetic mutation. My second chromosome has flipped around, fused with the fifth chromosome, and created a genetic short circuit, thus producing cancer of the lungs.

What about other bodies? What about the body of Christ we call the church? How is it reproduced? What keeps it healthy? The answer is Gospel DNA. The gospel gives spiritual life to churches. People respond to the gospel in repentance and faith, are thereby incorporated in Christ’s body, and knit together by his Spirit. Healthy churches reproduce this gospel DNA without allowing mutations to develop.

Richard Coekin’s new book Gospel DNA is a spiritual health manual for evangelical churches. He focuses on what he calls an ‘electrifying training seminar’ for church leaders. You and I might know it as the Apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders recorded in Acts 20:17-38. In a handful of verses, Paul condenses the essence of what it takes to grow and reproduce healthy gospel-shaped churches. He identifies the matters that matter to God, responsibilities of leaders, the convictions that must shape all we do, and the threats to healthy church growth and reproduction. Richard Coekin spends 22 chapters exploring 22 verses of the Bible that are nothing less than a masterclass for gospel ministers.

I’ve long turned to Acts 20 for encouragement and inspiration for the work of gospel ministry. Simply being reminded that the church belongs to God and has been purchased by his blood, is enough to call me back into line. Paul’s words refocus my lens when I’m pulled here and there by the pressures and challenges of leading a church. They retune me to the matters of first importance to God. They remind me what the church is, why it matters so much to God, what will see it grow bigger and stronger, and warn me to stay alert to attacks.

This book isn’t so much a commentary on Acts 20:17-38 as it is a reflection on the Apostle Paul’s ‘ministry values’. No doubt Paul had more to say to the Ephesian elders, but the message that Luke records takes us deep into his core values of gospel ministry. Richard Coekin works off Paul’s script to explore these values in greater detail, by taking us to other parts of the Bible that expound each value. He explains their significance for promoting faithful and fruitful gospel ministry, often illustrating from his own experience with the Co-Mission network of churches in the UK.

I’m keen to get multiple copies of this book so that I can start reading it with others. In fact, I recommend the churches and leaders in our FiEC network make use of this book as a training manual. It’s a book to read slowly, chapter by chapter, pausing to review, discussing how we can apply its lessons, and making plans to change for the better. Gospel DNA is an excellent resource to use in personal ministry, training our leaders, enriching our elders, inspiring our potential missionaries, and preparing our future church planters.

(Richard Coekin, Gospel DNA: 21 Ministry Values for Growing Churches, The Good Book Company, 2017)

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.

The Power of I Am

iamI am grieved. I am angry. I am appalled. I am not going to buy this book. I am calling people to stay clear of this false gospel. There—I’ve said it. This is fundamentally false teaching. Some might say this is blasphemy. I’d say it’s ignorant and dangerous at best. It’s popular. It sells. And it’s toxic. This is not what our world needs. This is not what our God is offering. This is graceless, hopeless, truth less, and fruitless. If this is indicative of what this man teaches, then keep your distance.

Why the rant? Because I just visited my local Christian bookshop and found this volume prominently displayed in the new release section. I stayed a while and skim read the book. I arrived home, gathered my mail, and found this same book on the recommended Christmas reading list of a Christian bookshop catalogue. So, woe to me if I do not speak. If a blind man prepared to step off the edge of a cliff, I would take hold of him tightly. If my grandson picked a toadstool believing it to be a mushroom, I would snatch it from his mouth. So I say, beware this book. It might look real, it might look healthy, it might even reference the Bible again and again, but it will leave you unwell.

Pardon my naivety, but I opened this book expecting to read of the wonder and power of Yahweh—the one true God, the great I AM or maybe to be reminded of the wondrous I AM sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Instead I read the narcissistic promises of a ‘name it and claim it’ speech-faith preacher. Rather than hearing the call to humble myself before the God of all the earth, I am told to banish all negative thoughts and place ‘me’ at the centre. I am told to be positive or be quiet. No!

Osteen calls his readers to Speak These “I Am”s over Your Life

IMG_1527  IMG_1528

Please, whatever happened to I am undeserving, I am weak, I am a slave, I am rejoicing in suffering, I am being poured out like a drink offering? Where is the call to lose our lives for Christ’s sake? Why has the glory of God been replaced with the glory of self?

Joel Osteen, follow the example of Volkswagen, and recall your fraudulent books.

ESV Men’s Devotional Bible

ESVLast week I received a free copy of the ESV Men’s Devotional Bible. I was surprised as I couldn’t remember ordering it. The accompanying letter asked if I would be willing to review it. Normally I would read a book from cover to cover before writing a review. I can honestly say I’ve only read a small portion of this volume over the past week. But I have read other versions of the same book. Some years I’ve read it through more than once. I’ve read this ESV translation and I’ve also read other translations, such as the NIV and the HCSB.

So, on the basis of my previous readings, let me say this is a must read. It’s living and active. I believe it’s the word of God himself through multiple human authors over multiple centuries in multiple real life contexts. It’s an awesome collection of works, of different genres, revealing a coherent narrative. It’s helpful and practical. It’s graceful and glorious. It’s simple and sometimes complicated. It shines a spotlight on the Almighty God and climaxes in the revelation of his Son. It holds a mirror to my heart. It gives me hope beyond my circumstances. It speaks into every context of my life. It liberates me from religious law keeping. It guides my decision making. It offers me deep wisdom. It inspires me from grace to grace.

I must confess this book sometimes spends too much time on my shelf. It gets reduced to a means for ministry rather than being a gateway to intimacy with God. I turn reading into a chore rather than a delight. I rush my way through this volume rather than pausing to meditate on the beauty it reveals. And so I miss out.

I’m grateful to be asked to review this Bible because it gives me cause to open this book of books and look again on the glory God.

But, I have a feeling that the publisher may desire something a little different from a review! Perhaps a comment on this particular publication. And not just the text of the Bible, but the other bits they’ve added. So here goes.

This Bible’s appearance is plain and yet formal and sophisticated, even professional. It’s black with page numbers and headings printed in gold text. This looks impressive, but I find the headings hard to read in certain light.

This is a devotional bible, especially for men. I like the idea because men need to read the Bible—and yet often don’t—and Bible reading should lead to devotion to God. Various authors have contributed brief articles to assist us to reflect on the meaning and application of Bible as we read. I know a few of the authors and I’m encouraged that they have a deep respect for the Bible. They are keen to let it speak for itself. There are 365 of these scattered throughout, so this might give you an idea about how to pace yourself in your reading. The articles I’ve read have all highlighted important truths in the text, and not simply used the Bible passage to launch into another issue. Some have been more applicational and devotion-inspiring than others.

In addition to the daily devotional comments, there are some slightly longer articles of particular relevance to men. These include such topics as  work, singleness, identity, fathering, pornography, life in the local church, doubt, and more. While none of these matters are uniquely relevant to fellas, they cover topics that I often hear men asking about.

Each book of the Bible is preceded by a brief introduction to orient us as we start our reading. While many of the comments can be discovered through the process of reading, it doesn’t hurt to see a map or some key landmarks before we embark on our journey.

Sometimes I worry about extra stuff that gets printed in Bibles. The mere fact that additional text has been bound together with the Word of God can confuse the novice reader. Which bits have authority and which sections should I be evaluating for their accuracy and relevance? There is a good argument for printing a companion volume to the Bible—perhaps one you could slip inside the cover or packaging of the Bible. At least this way, it will be clearer what is human and what is divine. They could have matching covers and cross-references to help you turn to comments on the text you are reading. But I haven’t been asked to design my own devotional Bible!

A related danger of printing articles on topics as ‘part of’ the Bible is that they can too easily be regarded as the last word on the matter. What do you do if you find yourself disagreeing with part of this volume of the Bible, even if it’s not really part of the Bible? The discerning reader can make these assessments, but the novice needs to be guided to make the appropriate distinctions.

If you are a bloke who desires to read the Bible to get to know God more closely then this publication might help you to get on with it. You don’t need a ‘devotional’ Bible to do this, but having the wisdom of some Christian brothers guiding you along the way might help you—especially in some of the more difficult sections. To be honest, I don’t mind if you read this particular ‘model’ of the Bible or not. I’d just love you to discover the delight of reading God’s life-giving, life-shaping Word—whatever the packaging.

 

When Cancer Interrupts

when-cancer-interrupts-1Books on cancer—I tend to buy them, read them, and subject them to greater scrutiny than many other books. When Cancer Interrupts by David Powlison is more of an essay than a book, being only 20 pages in length. And this is one of it’s strengths. People facing such trauma as a cancer diagnosis are unlikely to settle down with anything that seems too heavy or unwieldy. Let me say at the outset that I am very encouraged and positive about this little book. But before I explain why, I need to express my only criticism and a plea to the author and publishers.

Please chop out the following sentences in the opening paragraph!

It is a bit like coming home after an evening out to discover your home broken into, every drawer ransacked, and your most treasured possession stolen. You feel betrayed. The enemy got inside.” (p3)

No it’s not! I’ve had the experience of having our house broken into a number of times. I’ve had my wedding ring stolen. I’ve had my motorcycle stolen. We’ve had treasured gifts to my wife stolen. But, with respect, this is nothing compared to being diagnosed with terminal cancer. This illustration trivialises the impact of being told that your life is now effectively over. Life is not equal to stuff.

Take out these sentences and I’m engaged. You understand my plight. You sympathise with my fears. You invite me to journey with you in your book.

Personally, I don’t think you need any metaphor. Just tell it like it is. You’ve been through it four times. Wow!

Having got that off my chest, let me say how wonderful this booklet is. I’d make this a go to book in ministering among those with cancer and their carers. In fact, I’d love it to be available online as a free pdf to get it out there as easily as possible (I had to order my copy from the USA).

Powlison brings comfort and hope by pointing his readers to the beautiful words of Scripture. I found myself saying “Yes. Yes. Yes.” as he quotes the words of the Spirit.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way.
(Psalm 46:1-2)

He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
(Hebrews 13:5)

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
(Psalm 23:4)

When Cancer Interrupts takes us on a journey from fear to faith. It sympathises with our troubles; understands our uncertainties, pain, and fears; recognises our questions; identifies with our loss; feels our vulnerability; and calls us to acknowledge our struggles.

We are reminded that God is always with us and he invites us to cry out our troubles to him. He listens and cares. Rather than God being absent in the face of a serious cancer diagnosis, he remains close. God is the rock solid constant. He calls us to live out our faith in the midst of our fears. While we benefit so greatly from the love and support of close family and friends, Christ walks closely with us even through the valley of the shadow of death. He will stay with us even when and where others cannot.

Powlison calls us to cling to Christ by faith when we face the trials of cancer. I found the following words to be especially helpful and wise.

If your faith does not come to life in your weakness and need, then fear and false hopes take over. “I’m deathly afraid” and “I can beat this” are evil twins. On the one hand, fear bullies you into putting your ultimate hope in something that’s never good enough—doctors, percentages, treatments, a cure, strategies for self-healing, keeping yourself busy, self-numbing. On the other hand, pride and self-trust seduce you into thinking that you don’t need to be afraid, that faith is a crutch for weak people, and that you can be stronger than cancer and stronger than the shadow of death. (p14)

I find this to be so true. People speak of battling cancer, struggling against cancer, fighting the cancer. They’re admired for their strength, for being champions. And sadly we also describe losing the battle or giving up the fight. Why can’t we be allowed to acknowledge our weakness, our needs, our frailty, our dependence of people, medicine, circumstances outside our control, and ultimately our need for God.

This is not a self-centred or self-help book. It takes us to God, invites us to rest in him, and shows how we can reach out, even in our sickness, with love for others. Little things can make such a difference. And God is in the business of working his strength through our weaknesses.

If we don’t know the love of God in Jesus Christ, then this book points us to the source of life and hope. If we do know him, then we are called to come to him in our times of need.

David Powlison, thank you for writing this little book.