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.