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.

How to walk into church

hwic_265It’s important to be able to do things on autopilot. Can you imagine having to think through every step to riding a bicycle every time you got on? Or opening your users manual every time you wanted to watch TV?

However, sometimes, autopilot can be a problem. We visited our premature daughter at the hospital every day for over 3 months until she was able to come home. Many times after that day, I’d get in the car, and be almost at the hospital before I realised that I should have been going in the opposite direction.

I suspect that going to church is an autopilot experience for most Christians. Sunday comes around and we get up, head to church, sit in the same place, and do what we always do. Interestingly, the Bible teaches us that we shouldn’t head to church on autopilot. We should turn autopilot off and engage manual. Hebrews 10:24-25 teaches us:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

We are encouraged to meet together regularly so as to encourage and spur one another on in our Christian lives. I take this as encouragement to make church a regular and important priority. We are also urged to ‘consider’ how me do this, which I take as call to disengage autopilot. We are to think about why we go to church, what we will do when we are there, who will be there, how we might encourage them, and more.

Tony Payne’s brief book, How to Walk into Church is written to encourage us to switch off the autopilot and think how we can make our time at church amongst the most valuable activity we engage in each week. He writes:

We come not to spectate or consume, nor even to have our own personal encounter with God. We come to love and to serve.(p13)

This little book is firmly grounded in Hebrews chapters 10 to 12. We are introduced to the heavenly gathering called church and move to the implications of belonging to this church for how me spend our time together with other Christians in our local churches. Our churches are to be shaped by love, and this only happens as we make God and one another the purpose of our gathering. We meet to love, which means we meet so as to build one another by the truth of God’s word. Tony suggests that every time we walk into church we should be wearing a metaphorical t-shirt that says:

“God is important to me, and you are important to me”. And on the back it says, “And that’s why I wouldn’t dream of missing this.” (p37)

How to Walk into Church contains helpful suggestions for promoting ‘every member’ ministry. You don’t need to be the preacher, the Bible reader, or the song leader to be able to influence others. We can all strike up conversations shaped by the Word of God. We can look out for one another, notice who’s missing, and show hospitality to newcomers. If church has become a passive experience, then this book will help you to turn things back toward active engagement every week.

This brief book is one that I plan to use as a tool in our ministry. Our church has already purchased a box of these books and we are promoting them to our regulars. My hope is that the book can also become part of a membership toolkit. When people indicate that they’re keen to belong to our church, then we will talk through how they can contribute to the ministry. We may well give them this book, urging them to read it, jot down some notes and questions, and we’ll talk about it together. I will be recommending this book to churches, small groups, and individuals.

There are many strengths of this book, not least is that it’s only 64 pages and takes 30 minutes to read. Yet more importantly is that it is derived clearly from the Scriptures. Some books about ‘what to do in church’ simply springboard from the Bible into the pool of pragmatism.

Having read over this book a couple of times, there are improvements that I think could be made in a second edition. It’s a good book that could be even better. I’d like to be able to offer this book to anyone who comes to our church—whether they are Christian or not. Thus, I think the book would benefit by a clearer explanation of how to become part of the heavenly church, the church belonging to Jesus. While this point is made, a few pages completely devoted to the message of the gospel would strengthen its impact.
I’d also like to read more practical ideas for ministry at church. Perhaps in between chapters we could read some cameos of people in their service at church. Alternatively, each chapter could finish with some dot points of ideas, or even a section for personal reflection and prayer for the reader to map out some ideas for service.

I had an opportunity to raise these suggestions with the author at a recent conference and he was most receptive. I sensed that his desire is to serve the church by listening as well as by writing.

This review was written for The Gospel Coalition Australia

Wisdom in Leadership

wisdomIt’s a while since I’ve been as excited about a book on leadership as I am about this one. Craig Hamilton’s Wisdom in Leadership is a treasure chest of wisdom. It’s set to become my “go to” book for Christian leaders and I’ve already pre-ordered copies for each member of our church’s leadership group.

Craig has managed to successfully integrate Christ-focused biblical theology and gospel priorities with the best of the literature and practical wisdom. There is a depth of maturity about this book that belies the age of the author. He’s studied the Scriptures, he’s read widely from the best, and he’s tested and refined his wisdom in the course of his own ministry.

Wisdom in Leadership begins with a clear theological foundation that avoids the common practice of arguing prescription from the descriptions of leaders in the Bible. I’d buy the book for this section alone. It’s an excellent example of how to think theologically and then apply our thinking to what we do. The gospel of Jesus, the strength of God, the dependability of the Bible, the necessity of prayer, the significance of serving others, and the importance of being before doing — all take priority over the particulars and practicalities of leadership.

This is a big book. It’s almost 500 pages and it contains 78 different chapters. It’s really a compendium of quality advice on a wide range of leadership matters. When I first read it, I could imagine it being a series of short books on a range of leadership topics, or a long series of posts on a quality leadership website. But I love the fact that Craig has gathered so much together into one volume. It’s the type of book to write notes in, to return to topics over and again, and to dip in and sample, rather than having to read from cover to cover. I expect to refer to chapters and use them as discussion starters with different groups of leaders. I’ve already written summaries, comments, questions, and tips for application in the margins of my book. I’ve typed up a 20-page summary of quotes and ideas from the book, so that I can remember where to go for what.

Here’s a taste of quotes to whet your appetite:

“The biblical model of leadership” is a stupid title because of the words leadership, model, biblical, and the. I do want to make it clear, though, that I quite like the word ‘of’. (p 30)

You want to be a leader? Good. You want to be a great leader? You want to be the greatest? That’s good too. Be a servant. Be the greatest servant. Serve everyone you can. Everyone you meet. Be all about others; be in it for others. (p 53)

Who God wants you to be will always have an impact on what God wants you to do. Secret sins will choke your heart and erode your ministry. Deal with them tirelessly and repent of them quickly. (p 73)

Submitting to authority, being a follower, is a mark of maturity. Those who can’t follow, or are unwilling to follow another leader, shouldn’t lead. It’s a lack of character that needs to be addressed. (p 120)

Leading is pain. It’s part of the job. And if you’re planning on not being hurt then you’re planning on not being a leader. (p 135)

When it comes to how you view the world, the future, and your life, if you’re measuring your circumstances then you’re measuring the wrong thing. Your hope is not based on the shape of your circumstances but on the size of your God. (p164)

Having read this book for myself, I’m looking forward to working through it with others. I anticipate using it as a reference tool for many areas of leadership development. Wisdom in Leadership will help to get our leaders onto the same page, working together for common goals, with a unity of spirit and purpose.

If you’ve read widely in the world of leadership, management, teamwork, time management, change and the like, then Wisdom in Leadership will serve as a refresher course by selecting from the best of the best, adding some home-grown wisdom, and distilling it all through the lens of the Scriptures. If you’re starting out on the task of becoming a leader, or you’re training up new leaders, then I’d recommend saving a lot of time and money by starting with this book first.

This review first appeared on The Gospel Coalition Australia website.

Worth reading

NIV_blueWe’re not all natural readers, but my experience is that reading brings great reward. I struggle to read the great novels or works of fiction. But I’m a fan of sports biographies, and works on leadership, people, organisations, and new ways of thinking and doing. But hands down the most instructive, life-changing, and liberating book I’ve ever read—and continue to read is the Bible.

Apparently it takes less time to read than Game of Thrones and not all that much more than Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. And while these are great stories, the Bible is so much more. If you’ve never really dipped into the Bible, can I recommend you give it a shot. Grab a modern translation—replace the old King James with a New International Version or the Holman Christian Standard Bible—and give it a read. Maybe start in the second part, the New Testament, and discover the extraordinary account of Jesus. It’s a book of life and hope and, contrary to popular opinion, extraordinary relevance and applicability to life now.

If you’d like to read the Bible with someone else, this can make it easier and more fun. Let me know and I will see if I can arrange a reading buddy or even a reading group.

For those of you who have read the Bible—’have’ being the operative word—and want to dip into it again, here are a few suggested approaches to get you restarted.

  1. Read the whole Bible through in one year. A good option is to get a Bible reading plan and follow it. Such plans are available on line or on smart phone Bible apps.
  2. Listen to the Bible on your mp3 player as you travel to and from work, go on holidays, or exercise.
  3. Use some Bible study guide, such as those produced by Matthias Media, which help you through an entire book of the Bible. These provide some commentary and ask questions to assist your understanding and application of the passage.
  4. Get into a routine Monday to Friday that fits with work and other regularities. Don’t worry if the weekend doesn’t fit the routine – do something different on weekends.
  5. If you know another language then, after you have looked at the passage in English, read through it again in the other language. This with help you give more attention to the meaning.
  6. Read with a friend and discuss what you have learned. Or both of you read on your own and then make contact to discuss it together.
  7. Read the Bible out loud to yourself.
  8. Use Search the Scriptures – a three year Bible reading program. You can take this at whatever pace you desire. Maximum benefit is gained if you take the time to write your answers to the questions.
  9. Follow Don Carson’s For the Love of God to read the Bible over one to four years. Excellent commentary by Carson. Available free on the Gospel Coalition website.
  10. Keep a journal of what you have learned and intend to apply from your reading.
  11. Prepare for sermons and Bible studies by reading over the passages beforehand.
  12. Read a passage with a view to giving a very brief talk which explains it, illustrates it and applies it. Then you can talk to me about finding an opportunity to give it!
  13. Try the S.O.A.P. approach. Read or write out the passage of Scripture. Note your observations and questions of the text. Decide how you are going to apply what you’ve learned. Pray that God will give you understanding and enable you to put it into practice.
  14.  ‘Manuscript Discovery’ is a term given to the study of the text of the Bible without chapters, verses, paragraphs or headings included. This means you have to do more work, with the result that you learn more. You can do this yourself simply by printing out the text of the Bible from Bible Gateway and removing all added numbers and headings.
  15. Commit verses to memory.
  16. Type out the entire Bible.
  17. Come up with your own ideas… share them with others

Rejoicing in lament

Todd Stern’s review of Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings. This review first appeared on The Gospel Coalition website on 18 March 2015.

rejoicingWhen Christians are confronted with significant tragedy, we are often reminded of Paul’s words to the church at Philippi: “Do not be anxious about anything. . . . [There is] a peace that passes all understanding. . . . I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:6, 7, 13). While all this is wonderfully true, less often do we hear the line that immediately follows: “It was good of you to share in my troubles” (Phil. 4:14).

Dealing with our own troubles and sharing in those of others are among the most challenging aspects of the Christian life. It isn’t always easy to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). Foolish and insensitive things get said by well-meaning folks. J. Todd Billings’s excellent new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, will go a long way in equipping us to endure and to minister to one another in more theologically grounded and helpful ways.

How does Billings, professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, accomplish this task?

Writing from the Cauldron

If you’ve ever heard the harrowing words, “You have cancer,” you will quickly realize that Billings has “street cred.” He isn’t writing from a position of dispassionate analysis but rather from the cauldron, speaking openly and honestly of his experience of being diagnosed at age 39 with Myeloma, a rare and incurable cancer. Throughout Rejoicing in Lament he references his CarePages, an online journal for sharing with others the progression in his own thinking as he moves from the immediate upheaval surrounding the initial diagnosis to dealing with the “new normal.”

It is instructive how well reasoned even his early entries are. Even though Billings may have been surprised by the diagnosis, he was already well versed in truth, which enabled him to find solace and comfort in the only place it can truly be found—at the foot of the cross and in the pages of the Bible. Don’t wait for a crisis to read this book—strengthen your faith now, even in a peaceful season, by building these truths into your soul.

Praying the Psalms

Billings provides excellent instruction on praying the Psalms—particularly the psalms of lament—with all the honesty, struggle, and emotion of the Spirit-breathed writers themselves. He deals with these in detail throughout the book, teaching us how to fight our fears with faith and the language of Scripture. This discipline frees us to be honest and calls us to reflect on God’s wonderful promises, even when we can’t fully understand all that’s happening to us.

Billings helpfully explains that, as with Job, God does not owe us an explanation for why he allows severe trials. There is mystery here, yet we can rely on the truth that only he fully understands our suffering. We waste precious energy when we seek answers that only reside in the secret places of the Most High (Deut. 29:29).

Helping the Church

Billings also offers practical instruction for the church in chapters 6 and 7, “Death in the Story of God and in the Church” and “Praying for Healing and Praying for the Kingdom.” These chapters are particularly accessible and illuminating. The church is the place to run to rather than avoid when experiencing suffering. Sometimes we want to “grieve in private” or don’t want others to “see our pain,” but that can be profoundly counterproductive.

I hadn’t considered Billings’s point that the church is the one place where we celebrate birth, baptism, marriage, and death—a point that reinforced to me the importance of faithful perseverance in the church from cradle to grave.

Two Small Cautions

Lay readers (like me) should know in advance that Billings is an accomplished theologian and academician. As a result, some of the book’s language may be less accessible to the typical person wrestling with a trial of this magnitude. I’d counsel readers to stick with it, however, because there’s much gold to be mined in these pages.

A challenge in writing a book so tightly interwoven with the author’s experience is that he can share what he experienced and how he handled it, yet the reader’s experience may differ. While there may be certain commonalities in all Christian suffering, changing just one variable in a trial can make a world of difference experientially. Therefore, there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach. Questions that surface for some won’t rise for others. New and different questions may demand fresh and distinct responses.

I, too, have been diagnosed with incurable cancer. Even as I write this review, my chemo regimen is changing after 34 rounds because the tumors are continuing to grow. Additionally, today is the six-month anniversary of my wife’s death from her incurable cancer. I don’t have exactly the same struggles or questions as Billings: the “why” question hasn’t bothered me as deeply; I haven’t really experienced anger at God; and I find peace in the certain knowledge that he’s promised to “never leave us or forsake us” (Deut. 31:6, 8; Heb. 13:5). Billings implies at times that this sort of response is dangerously close to blind stoicism—but it might just be how God has prepared me to endure this trial. We all experience and respond to affliction in slightly different ways, and that’s okay.

Caught Up into His Story

All Christians can agree with Billings when he writes:

Even when we feel left in the dark, even when suffering and death seem senseless, we are empowered by the Spirit to groan, lament, and yet rejoice. God’s promise is trustworthy, and this same Spirit has united us to Christ, through whom we are able to call out to the Father as adopted children. We rejoice, we lament. In all of this, our own stories are not preserved in a pristine way; we are displaced (“I am not my own”) and incorporated into a much larger story—God’s story in Christ. (p170)

That message of truth needs to be heard loud and clear throughout the church, and Billings brings it home in a brilliant and powerful way. Whether you are walking with someone who is suffering, you are suffering yourself, or you want to be prepared to suffer, Billings can lead and guide you to do so in a God-honoring way.

Leaders eat last

leaderseatlastLeaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t by Simon Sinek is a thoughtful analysis of many of the problems created and experienced by leaders and organisations in today’s world. It contains case studies, research, and biological and anthropological explanations for why successful organisations are those that create strong and safe communities. While this book is longer than it needs to be, and possibly over reaches in its biological and evolutionary claims, there is much to learn and relearn in this analysis of human interaction. Leaders of all types, whether in families, business, churches, government or other organisations, will do well to review their leadership in the light of Leaders eat last. I’ve personally found many points for reflection as I’ve be pushed to evaluate my leadership and the organisation (church) that I lead.

While the title is a metaphor for selflessness, it resonates literally with me. In 2002, as I became the team chaplain for the Brumbies Super 12 Rugby Team, I met the assistant team manager, Garry Quinlivan. ‘Quinzo’ is a retired customs officer who devotes his time to serving the Brumbies players and staff. He works without pay, spending long hours preparing, cleaning, checking up on, and sacrificially caring for everyone. Many things stand out about Quinzo, but one thing has struck me over the entire time I have watched him at work—he always eats last! Whether it’s a social BBQ, a drinks break, team lunch, or celebrating after a win—Quinzo always eats last. He gives everything for the team. And, in turn, people love Quinzo—they would do anything for this man.

Leaders eat last has constructive advice to leaders who preside over toxic work places. Watch how you lead—you may be the problem! Though of course, many selfish leaders would never consider themselves at fault. They don’t pause to reflect on the climate they are creating. The push for profits, the obsession with numbers, and the focus on short-term results mask the damage many leaders are doing to people. And then they wonder why their outcomes and results are so poor.

Sinek makes much of the importance of creating a circle of safety in the organisation. This idea is taken from Aesop’s Fable:

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four. (p20)

When we are part of a strong circle of safety, we naturally share ideas, burdens, successes, and we build a culture of collaboration, trust, and innovation. Good relationships are key to people surviving, let alone flourishing. A healthy organisation will be built on good relationships between colleagues. People grow in their trust for one another and become willing to do more for each other and the organisation. By contrast, organisations characterised by suspicion, fear, and distrusting micromanagement, are destined for decline and failure.

Sinek suggests a number of strategies that leaders can adopt to build a healthy, positive, relational culture in their organisations:

Rule 1: Keep it real—bring people together. Efficiency doesn’t always equal effectiveness. Emails, intranets, and on-line people management systems won’t necessarily build deep, trusting relationships. Trust is not formed through a screen, it is formed across the table. It takes a handshake to bind humans … and no technology yet can replace that. There is no such thing as virtual trust. (p111)

Rule 2: Keep it manageable—obey Dunbar’s Number. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has found that people are not able to maintain close relationships with more than 150 people at a time. Traditional societies around the world tend to be organized in groups of 100 to 150. Larger groups require clear lines of organisation and specialist care to encourage cooperation and healthy relationships to develop. I suspect it is no accident that many churches seem to get stuck, never growing much beyond 150 people.

Rule 3: Meet the people you help. Fund-raising workers who have personal contact with the people they help have far more success. We work harder and better when we can see our potential impact. If we are focused purely on names and numbers, then morale drops and the organisation suffers.

Rule 4: Give them time, not just money. Research has shown that we place a higher value on time than money. Giving time, attention, and energy builds relationship, fosters community, creates trust, and encourages loyalty.

Rule 5: Be patient—obey the rule of seven days and seven years. Building relationships of trust takes time. Gauging someone’s fit in an organisation or in a relationship takes longer than the time that we typically give it: ‘more than seven days, but less than seven years’.

Sinek teaches that becoming a leader involves the key ingredients of love and trust. Leaders must model and grow organisations shaped and characterised by care and strong relationships. They should work to provide safe environments for their workers to enjoy being productive.

It’s not hard to see the relevance of this book to many workplaces and community organisations. Many of us have experienced difficult work environments where the CEO or the boss is a large part of the problem. The drive for profits often leaves a wake of departures and problems for the organisation.

As a pastor, I see a number of lessons for myself and my colleagues. If churches focus on growing numbers, budgets, buildings and the like, then we can forget that we should be primarily about the love of God and a love for people. I’m called to put others before myself—to be a leader who eats last. Jesus is the great example of the one who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). In a sense, I don’t need the wisdom of Sinek—I need the vision and example of Jesus. However, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded by whatever means. If God can teach people through an ass, then he can certainly challenge me through a popular leadership book!

The sad reality is that there are too many people who’ve been hurt by their churches. I regularly meet people who feel they have been neglected, rejected, abused, or betrayed by their church or their leaders. This many be a one-sided analysis (it’s much easier to see how we’ve been hurt, than how we might have hurt others) but it’s a reminder to stay in touch with what the church is intended to be—the body of Christ, shaped by his love.

Leaders eat last has encouraged me to do some self-reflection. Is my leadership offering care and protection to those entrusted to me? Are we building a church community where it is safe to be weak and vulnerable? Are people more important than processes? Is maturity more valued than money? Where are my blind spots as a leader? What do I need to change or work at?

Christians get depressed too

depressedtooLast week I attended a half day seminar on mental illness. It was aimed especially at Christian workers, offering an introduction to the prevalence and complexity of depression in particular. It sparked my interest to refresh my understanding and delve a little deeper into this troubling matter. ‘Depression’ can be a polarising issue among people in general, and there are particular dividing lines among Christians. There are different schools of thought about what it looks like, how and why people become depressed, and what should be done to help people with depression. Christians get depressed too by David Murray is a short book (112 pages) that is well worth reading. It shows a good understanding of the complexity of this issue and argues for a decrease in dogmatism and an increase in humility.

Murray urges us to avoid simplistic extremes when considering the cause of depression. He demonstrates how Christian analysis has fallen into three camps: the cause is all physical; the cause is all psychological; or the cause is all spiritual. The problem with these positions is the word ‘all’. We are complex beings and it is unlikely that one factor alone can be found that explains the cause of depression. In the case of spiritual factors, Murray argues that spiritual problems are more likely to be the result rather than the cause of depression. This is not to rule out spiritual factors sometimes being the cause of depression. But we are urged not to jump to this conclusion any more than we would assume spiritual factors to have caused headaches, cancer or asthma. The second chapter of this book offers some helpful analysis of the approach and writings of Jay Adams and also the modern Biblical Counselling Movement.

This book seems especially aimed at helping the person who believes that having depression is incompatible with being a Christian. Murray shows how this is not the case, and provides biblical evidence for depression and faith in God coexisting in the one person. The book of Psalms illustrates this, with approximately one third of the Psalms demonstrating depressed thoughts and feelings.

Many factors can be involved in depression: life circumstances; unhelpful thought patterns; negative emotions and feelings; bodily symptoms; and changes to behaviour and activity. Acknowledging the complexity of causes and the variety of symptoms, alerts us to the benefits of a multifaceted approach to helping a depressed person. Murray suggests making helpful adjustments to our lifestyles in the areas of routine, relaxation, recreation, sleep, diet, and the like. He recommends addressing our thought processes and assessing our feelings. If making these adjustments doesn’t fix things, then he recommends seeking out trained medical help and possible medication. He also urges us to correct spiritual consequences and, where appropriate, spiritual causes of the depression.

The last chapter gives some good advice to non-professional caregivers. We are urged to learn more about the nature of depression, and there are some useful recommendations for further reading. Murray calls for sympathy for the person suffering depression. However , in my opinion, what he describes might be better described as empathy. We don’t all need to experience depression ourselves to be able to help those who do. Secrecy and stigma are among the problems to overcome in caring for a depressed person. There’s helpful list of things not to say to someone who is depressed. And there is an important section on helping someone who may become suicidal.

There are no easy answers and no quick fixes when it comes to depression. Ongoing support and understanding are required to be helpful and this book is a useful tool for becoming better equipped at both.

10-10-10

10-10-1010-10-10 by Suzy Welsh is a very simple and very practical decision making tool. It revolves around asking three simple questions: When faced with a dilemma, stop and ask, “What will the consequences of my options be in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years?”

This approach helps broaden the variables in complex decision making. It enables us to tap into our values and focus on our goals as we face the immediate crisis of making a decision. Some choices have long ranging consequences and other do not. 10-10-10 helps us weigh the different consequences of our decisions.

10-10-10’s applicability is wide ranging. “From college students to busy mothers to senior business executives, from artists to government administrators to entrepreneurs, 10-10-10 has shown its effectiveness in decisions large and small, routine and radical, changing lives for the better at home, in love, at work, and in friendship.”

While I appreciate the power of this decision making tool and recommend it to others, it doesn’t go far enough. And I mean more than extending it to 50-50-50, to enable decisions to be made with ‘whole of life’ implications considered.

As a Christian, I believe that we all make decisions with eternal consequences. Choices made today and tomorrow will have implications for more than this life alone. If I choose to shut God out of my life for the next 10 minutes, and the next 10 months, and the next 10 years, then I run the risk of distancing myself from God for all eternity. My choice is to trust God with the complexity of day to day, month to month, year to year decisions. I believe that God has secured my eternity through Jesus Christ and that every decision I make should reflect this reality.

The words of John Newton, in his famous song Amazing Grace, come to mind:

When we’ve been there 10,000 years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun

Let’s make our decisions by weighing up the consequences for 10 minutes time, 10 months time, 10 years time, and 10 thousand years into eternity. I’d love to cooperate with Suzy Welch in a Revised Edition called 10-10-10-10!

The morality of God in the Old Testament

Layout_GenesisHow are we to understand the Israelites being commanded to wipe out all the Canaanites in Deuteronomy and Joshua? What do we make of the various Psalms that call down curses on the enemies of the writers and God? Perhaps, like me you are troubled by these things (and others) in the Bible. Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, point to these things as evidence for the moral corruption of God (who they believe is really a fiction). Christians come under attack for their beliefs in a God, whom some describe as a moral monster. Some would say how can Christians criticise the recent actions of the IS in Iraq or Syria, when the Old Testament provides evidence of God’s people doing similar things, and at the behest of God?

Let me say that this isn’t really the atheist’s problem—this is a problem that the Jews and the Christians need to deal with. For the atheist, the problem is not with God, for he/she/it doesn’t actually exist, but with the people who claim to believe in God. Their criticism is fundamentally toward religious people justifying their immoral behaviours in the name of an imaginary divine being. However, for the Christian who believes that God is real, that he has revealed himself to people, and that he is involved in human history—there are real issues to consider when it comes to trusting that God is morally pure. This is an issue that I’m keen to explore further.

In considering this matter, I’ve recently read a brief book by G.K. Beale, called The morality of God in the Old Testament. The book focuses on the commands of God to destroy every man, woman and child of the Canaanites (e.g.. Deuteronomy 20:10-18) and also on the imprecatory Psalms (e.g.. Psalms 7; 35; 55; 58; 68; 79; 109; 137) which call upon God to judge and destroy his enemies.

Beale explores various proposed solutions to deal with the difficulties raised by these passages. First, he describes how people argue that wartime ethics differ from peacetime ethics. While this may be true, it doesn’t account for the commands to kill non-combatants. Secondly, he explores the suggestion that the command to kill women and children is not meant to be taken literally, but is a metaphoric way of describing a total victory over the Canaanites. Beale demonstrates that while there may be something in both these suggestions, neither adequately explain the texts.

Instead Beale offers a fivefold approach to engaging with these issues. His approach gives important nuance and perspective to interacting with the difficult moral issues of the Old Testament.

  1. God’s wiping out the wicked Canaanites as a demonstration of his justice;
  2. God’s extermination of the Canaanites as a purifying of uncleanness of the Promised Land as an Edenic sanctuary;
  3. God’s self-sufficiency and independence from creation;
  4. suspension of ethical obligation by typology and intrusion of final judgment;
  5. suspension of the law of neighbour love. (p33)

Beale argues that we need to recognise the uniqueness of the Canaan episode. It does not offer a paradigm for continued activity in the Old Testament, let alone the New Testament. Instead, it should be seen as a once-only, historic actioning of God’s redemption of Israel, as the nation enters into the land of promise. This salvation/judgment event is also to be understood as a type of what is to happen through Christ’s first and second coming.

There is more to his argument than this, but he demonstrates how it is important to allow Scripture to be understood in it’s full biblical context. The critiques of Dawkins and others show absolutely no understanding of the overall shape of the Bible or the saving purposes of God in the Old and New Testaments.

I still find the matters being described troubling, but no more so than the reality of death and the promise of eternal judgment for all who dismiss God. As a Christian I need to grapple with why God allows any suffering, evil or death, and especially with the moral rightness of God judging people for eternity. It’s sobering to remember how much my own moral failings corrupt my ability to recognise what is right and true and perfect. It’s totally presumptuous (and deluded) to think that I can stand morally superior to God, and judge him for his actions. This becomes clearest to me when I am reminded that God loved the world so much, that he sent his only Son, Jesus, to die in our place, so that all who trust in him will not perish but have everlasting life. Such is the moral character of God.

How can I be sure?

sureJohn Stevens’ little book, How can I be sure? And other questions about doubt, assurance and the Bible is definitely one that I will be recommending to others. It’s clear and simple, without being simplistic; it’s empathic and it uses the Bible well. The author understands that doubt is a complex beast, displayed in a variety of forms, and arising from many different causes. I personally found the book to be inspiring and reassuring. It resonated at times with my experiences of doubt, and some of the causes; and it took me to the places where I’ve found reassurance. While recognising that everyone’s circumstances are different, my prayer is that it will do the same for others. All in all, this compact book is one of the better books on doubt and assurance I’ve read.

If I’m going to engage with a book dealing with these topics, I want to know that the author has a firsthand personal understanding of the matter—and Stevens does. He writes about the impact that his father dying of lung cancer had on his faith. It rocked his world, not simply as an intellectual challenge to the goodness and sovereignty of God, but with personal pain and experience. He took some years to recover from the anguish of this time. Stevens has also explored these issues with many in his church over the past twenty years. This has helped him to grasp the different forms that doubt can take in people’s lives, and to apply his thinking to how the Bible helps each one. The book engages the reader by presenting a mix of personal stories of doubt. People have trouble believing due to their struggles with personal sin, unanswered prayers, the challenge of other religions, relationships with people who have different belief systems, God seemingly remote or out of touch with this modern world, feeling overwhelmed by all around who don’t hold the same beliefs, or questioning whether their ‘conversion experience’ was real. Recognising this complexity is so helpful, and many more scenarios could be added, because doubt is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. Doubt could mean a lack of certainty about the future, or a questioning of what we believe, or a lack of assurance, or unbelief. The first three types of doubt will likely be common experience for all Christians and if they are unchecked they can lead to the more dangerous position of unbelief. This book helps us to engage with our doubts as part of the normal experience of living as a Christian.

So if you are reading this book because you are struggling with a problem of doubt at the moment, be encouraged! The fact that you doubt does not mean that you can’t be a Christian. “Doubt” is not the same as “unbelief”. However, you can’t afford to ignore your doubt, treating it complacently or just hoping that it will go away. You must deal with it so that it does not develop into unbelief, and use it as an opportunity to develop a more confident, resilient and mature faith. (p18-19)

Stevens answers the important question “How can I be sure that I’m really a Christian?” by pointing not to us, but to God’s love for us in Jesus. There are dangers in becoming too introspective about this issue. We can end up placing confidence, or lack of, in ourselves rather than the gospel. If we base our assurance on a response we previously made at church, or at a Simply Christianity course, or on a university camp, or an outreach event, this can lead to a misplaced and false assurance. We are not made right with God because of our response, but because of God’s gracious work in Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf. For me, who had made decision after decision to become a Christian (again) in my teens, it was realising the truth of Romans 5:8-9 — that Jesus had paid for my sins past, present and future — that led to my assurance before God. While this book generally leads us away from introspection, it does call us to examine the evidence for our lives being changed. The Bible pushes us to look for evidence that our faith is real and we should expect to see our lives changed by the Spirit of God at work within us. On three occasions, Stevens recommends that we keep a spiritual journal to chronicle the evidence of God working in us and changing us. I must admit that I worry a little about this strategy. It’s not that I’m opposed to journalling, it’s more that documenting our experiences will always provide fickle evidence at best. I’d recommend that if we’re going to journal, we spend even more time documenting the promises of God that we discover in  the Bible. God’s promises remain trustworthy, whereas my experiences lead me here and there. If I want clear evidence that God loves me, then I need to look at the cross, not what happened in my life last week or last year. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes in his book Spiritual Depression, after looking at Psalm 42-43, we need to spend more time speaking to ourselves (about God), than listening to ourselves (about why God is absent or doesn’t care). The chapter on overcoming doubt is practical and helpful. Stevens recommends the following strategy:

  1. Admit that you are struggling with doubt and seek help.
  2. Come to Jesus for help with your doubt.
  3. Seek the help of mature believers with your doubt.
  4. Identify the root causes of your doubt
    1. Doubt rooted in our bodies: Physical causes of doubt.
    2. Doubt rooted in our minds: Intellectual causes of doubt.
    3. Doubt rooted in our hearts: Experiential and emotional causes of doubt.
    4. Doubt rooted in our spirits: Spiritual causes of doubt.
  5. Addressing the causes of doubt.

In the end, the Christian faith stands or falls on whether Jesus really was the Divine Son of God who took on human flesh, was crucified and rose again after three days. If this really happened, then we can be sure that God exists. We can know what God is like because Jesus fully reveals him to us. We can be sure that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is true because Jesus tells us so. We can be confident that God is love, and that he will accomplish his good purposes for his people. We can trust that our sufferings are part of his good plan for us, even though we may not understand how, because we can see that Jesus entered into glorious new life after suffering on the cross. We can trust that Jesus will return to bring true justice and remake our broken world. If we can be confident about Jesus, then this is the basis from which we can address all our doubts. (p71-72)

This book will point you to Jesus as the basis of your assurance and the antidote to your doubts. Any book that does this is worth a read, I reckon.

Be the best bad presenter ever

I’m a regular preacher (again) and I’ve preached my fair share of dud sermons. Mind you, I’ve also listened to plenty of dud talks from others. What gets me most is when there’s a disconnect between the message and the medium, or the message and the messenger. It’s difficult to listen to an important message that completely lacks passion. It’s frustrating to have to fight to understand where the talk is going, when there doesn’t seem to be any logic or coherence to the message. It’s deadening to listen to the speaker drone on and on without changing pitch or tone or volume or speed.

badpresenterBe the best bad presenter ever: break the rules, make mistakes, and win them over by Karen Hough caught my attention. It sounded like a book that might have something useful to say to preachers and presenters alike… and it does. Hough critiques 14 rules that are commonly given to public speakers and shows how they can actually get in the way of good communication. She speaks of the respected rules for speaking and why you should break them—mercilessly. This book is built on the conviction that you are part of the message. People want to connect with you, not a proxy of you. If they know you care deeply about your message then they will forgive your clumsiness and mistakes. Passion overrides technique.

I will list the rules Hough says to break, and follow each with the alternative:

  1. Your purpose is to give a good presentation
    “Good” is to a presentation like “fine” is to a compliment. Your purpose is to make something happen!
    What purpose does your presentation serve? Having a searingly clear purpose will filter out all the silt from your presentation. Think of the purpose as the destination—the outcome of your presentation. What do you want to have happen? What change will come from you taking the time to talk to these people? (p15)
  2. Give informational presentations
    That’s about as exciting as watching grass grow. Take action!
    Remove inform from your list of acceptable actions. Replace it with words such as motivate, convince, teach, inspire, anger, entertain, invigorate.
  3. Practice in front of a mirror
    Mirrors are just a one person show. Practice often, out loud, and on your feet.
    Why would you want to submit your audience, and that critical speech, to your first unpleasant dry run?” (p32-33)
  4. Picture the audience in the underwear
    Stupid visuals distance you. Connect with your audience. Who really wants to visualise Bob from accounting in his underwear?
    You’re not there to impress your audience with how remarkable you are; you’re there to communicate with them. Become more “audience involved” and less “me involved”. Self-consciousness results from too much attention to yourself, which puts others—your audience—in the background and you in the front. (p42)
  5. Open with your introduction and close with questions
    Like a dreaded college lecturer. Bookends will hook your audience and send them out singing.
    People form opinions of others within the first seven to thirty seconds, so a hook must grab people’s attention right away. Give people a reason to listen. Use the power of repetition to teach your main points. Finish with what you want your audience to take away. The risk of finishing with questions is they can take the audience anywhere and completely away from your talk. If you take questions have a closer afterwards.
  6. You either have confidence or you don’t
    That’s bogus. You can teach your body confidence. And your body is your most powerful tool.
    Hough comments on research that shows how by changing our bodies we control chemicals that affect our confidence. Body language and tone of voice are both critical features of good communication. (By the way, this is why email is such a poor communication tool for influencing others. It has neither body language or tone of voice.)
  7. What you say is most important
    It’s how you say it that matters.
    I don’t agree with this contrast. It’s a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’. Truth matters, but so does how we communicate truth. Hough talks about the tools of articulation, volume, pitch, timbre, speed, connection to breath, and silence.
  8. Scan the back wall to simulate eye contact
    Scanning is fake.
    Far better to plant a friend in the audience and make regular contact with them—especially if they agree to smile at you regularly!
  9. Stand behind the podium
    Podiums are really, really awful.
    Body language is important. People want to see you, not a piece of furniture, so step aside and feel free to move around.
  10. Explain each topic
    Tell stories! Stories are the most powerful way to share information.
    Why does this remind me of my good friend Chappo! He was the master story teller, and as he did he explained his topics better than most. People like to hear about people rather than concepts. When it comes to preaching, stories are an excellent way of showing how it all works.
  11. Have all your bullets on PowerPoint slides
    Bullets are so called because they kill good presentations. PowerPoint numbs the brain. You are the presentation.
    Personally, I loved this chapter! I’m over PowerPoint. PowerPoint is a scourge—on our ability to communicate effectively and keep an audience awake. Worse yet, it has become a substitute for us. (p97) PowerPoint is a lot like email: it’s a perfectly good tool that should make our lives easier, but it’s become a time-sucking, efficiency-mauling monster. (p98)
    If we are going to use PowerPoint, Hough recommends three simple suggestions:
    10/24 Only ten words per slide, and never smaller than 24pt font
    Don’t read your slides. Your audience is quite capable. Use them to illustrate.
    Prefer pictures to words. They will stick in people’s minds.
  12. If something goes wrong, act like nothing happened
    Everyone knows what happened, and ignoring it is weird. Acknowledge it, deal with it, and move on.
  13. Ignore your nerves, and they will go away
    Only zombies never get nervous. Nerves are good—breathe and embrace them.
    The truth is, nerves are a great bad thing! They are the body’s way of telling you that you care, that this is important. (p115) A helpful strategy for coming our nerves was developed by Dr Andrew Weir: breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds; hold that breath for 7 seconds; release the breath through your month with a whooshing noise for 8 seconds. This technique is used to help your body calm down.
  14. Control you emotions at all times
    Passion and emotion are okay.
    Emotional intelligence is a key concept in managing yourself as a presenter. (p121) Don’t fake it, and don’t be controlled by it, but expressing your true self appropriately to the context is important.

If you’ve been presenting or preaching for a while, and you have a feeling that you’re not really connecting as you should; if people complain you’re a bit hard to understand; if you don’t seem to be motivating change in people; if you think your talks could do with a tune up; then I recommend taking a look at this book.

Serious hope for Adam

hope-beyond-cure

A review of Hope Beyond Cure by Adam Scott, first posted by Dave Miers

“It’s actually very serious.”

That was the last thing I wanted to hear from the doctors treating me.

An MRI had apparently revealed a large arterial tear in my neck and the consensus was that I’d probably had a stroke.  It all started feeling very serious.  I was 28 years old, laying in a hospital bed, surrounded by pensioners who were apparently healthier than I was – go figure!

It was the first time in my life that someone spoke candidly and clinically with me about the reality of dying and it was terrifying. I’d always expected dying to be a future, far-off, unfortunate but inevitable reality, but someone with more authority on the subject was telling me that perhaps my presumptions were wrong.

That’s probably why I’ve appreciated reading Hope Beyond Cure by David McDonald as much as I have. It’s a book written by a pastor who was humble enough to admit that facing death can be terrifying and perhaps our presumptions are wrong.

The opening chapters recount the events leading up to his cancer diagnosis and the emotional turmoil that followed. He talks openly about how the insidious nature of his illness filled him with fear, doubt and hopelessness. It’s a gutting and incredibly humble way to start a book about hope: in the context of a terminal illness.

Given how raw and real the book begins, you’re left with the impression that the kind of hope it’s going to dish up is going to have to be robust enough to withstand a daunting prognosis and remain relevant in the face of death. That’s not an easy task given that hope has become synonymous with wishful thinking in our culture.

For example, Ben Folds sings a song called Picture Window that talks about hope that’s cruel and inappropriate in the context of a terminal illness. He sings:

“you know what hope is,
hope is a bastard,
hope is a liar, a cheat and tease,
hope comes near you, kick it’s backside,
got no place in days like these”

Hope Beyond Cure engages with the kind of false hope that Ben Folds sings about and exposes a few of our favourite places to find it. Whether it’s in medicine, positive thinking or relationships, David gently points out that they all leave us exposed and each can be the very thing that Ben Folds describes: a liar, a cheat and a tease. They’re false hopes because none of them can promise to endure in the face of death.

Off the back of that David argues that we need something solid to anchor hope in. Because death is a serious business, we need a equally serious hope – not wishful thinking or clutching at straws. We need a serious hope that aims even higher than a cure for the illnesses that will ultimately take us, a hope that will flavour life and endure in the face of death. That’s the kind of hope that David ends up introducing when he talks about Jesus.

Hope in Jesus isn’t cruelly inappropriate wishful thinking. It’s all the things false hope isn’t: true, trustworthy and reliable. It doesn’t become inappropriate or irrelevant when we’re facing death, and because of that, hope in Jesus is worth having.

Towards the end of the book David writes this:

“I have no idea how many days, weeks or months I have before me – few of us do. Our times are in God’s hands and he alone knows when they will come to an end. But we don’t need to fear that day. In the resurrection of Jesus, God has taken away the sting of death. As Paul reminds us:

“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

In the years that followed my injury, I’ve had countless scans. Apparently, there’s no longer any evidence of that terrifying time. I’m really glad about that, but the truth is one day something else is going to break and the wheels will fall off. That’s why I’m so thankful that real, authentic, robust hope is what I have – it’s what we need to endure in the face of death and to flavour life in the here and now.

Hope Beyond Cure says that hope is found in Jesus and I couldn’t agree more.

Stabletalk

MembershipI’ve been asked by the Brumbies CEO to contribute a regular piece to their in-house newsletter. This is my first contribution:

In my first contribution, I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve picked up from a book by Patrick Lencioni called The Five Dysfunctions of Team. This is one of the best books I’ve read on teamwork and I think it has much to offer our organisation, both on the team and admin sides.

The five dysfunctions can be summarised as follows:

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust 

This occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses or needs for help. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is impossible.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict 

Teams that are lacking trust are unable to engage in unfiltered, passionate debate about key issues, causing situations where team conflict can easily turn into veiled discussions and back channel comments. In a work setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, inferior decisions are the result.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment 

Without conflict, it is difficult for team members to commit to decisions, creating an environment where ambiguity prevails. Lack of direction and commitment can make employees disgruntled.

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability 

When teams don’t commit to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven individuals hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that may seem counterproductive to the overall good of the team.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results 

Team members naturally tend to put their own needs (ego, career development, recognition, etc.) ahead of the collective goals of the team when individuals aren’t held accountable. If a team has lost sight of the need for achievement, the business ultimately suffers.

I raise these insights not because I think the Brumbies suffer badly from these dysfunctions, but so we can be vigilant in not allowing them to sabotage our efforts and prevent good results. It’s worth asking ourselves once or twice a season whether any of these dysfunctions are raising their ugly heads. We pride ourselves on being family at the Brumbies, but even families can develop bad patterns of relating to one another. Every season our family changes. Even one new member makes a difference to the whole. This coming season we will have new coaches, management, admin staff, and players. So let’s work to develop trust among each another, so that we’re not afraid of constructive conflict, we build commitment, we increase accountability, and we achieve great results.

Is God anti-gay?

gayChristians have bad press when it comes to homosexuality. This hasn’t been helped by the bigotry and hatred of the Westboro Baptists in the United States and their appalling website godhatesfagsdotcom. The assumption by many is that all Christians are homophobic and therefore God must be anti-gay. The reality is the opposite—John 3:16 famously declares…

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

By extension, this also means…

For God so loved gay people that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Sam Allberry’s little book, Is God anti-gay? And other questions about homosexuality, the Bible and same-sex attraction is an excellent guide to this issue. It’s not shaped by politics, sensationalism, or right-wing ideologies. It’s not seeking to ride the trends of culture or church opinion. This book is an attempt to seek the mind of God honestly and sensitively from the Bible.

Allberry writes with sympathy for the matters at hand. He discloses to his readers that his own sexual orientation is homosexual. However, he does not presume to speak for everyone for whom homosexuality is an issue. As a Christian, and minister of a church, this has caused him to grapple seriously both with Scripture and it’s application in his life. He prefers not to describe himself as ‘gay’ but rather as ‘someone who experiences same-sex attraction’. He writes:

But describing myself like this is a way for me to recognise that the kind of sexual attractions I experience are not fundamental to my identity. They are part of what I feel but they are not who I am in a fundamental sense. I am far more than my sexuality. (p8-9)

Allberry explains that the way to understand homosexuality is to view it against the backdrop of God’s good purposes for gender and sexuality. We need to understand what it means to be made in God’s image, to understand one-flesh union in marriage, and to explore God’s reasons for the gift of sex. We must also recognise that in our fallen world there will be many temptations to live alternatively to God’s ways. Some of these pressures come from the outside, others come from within us. We will all face trials and temptations of different kinds—this doesn’t mean we blame our DNA or upbringing or culture, but that we seek God’s help to trust and follow him.

While acknowledging that God’s design for sex as outlined in the Bible is heterosexual, within a loving and faithful marriage relationship, this doesn’t mean that God is anti-gay. It is, however, a significant call to trust God when our preferences and passions don’t align with his. Allbery reminds Christians who are attracted to persons of the same sex, that they should take the opportunity to talk to God about it—about our confusion or distress, our temptations, or our failings and sins. He reminds us that particular feelings do not disqualify or define us as Christians. All Christians struggle with a multitude of feelings and temptations. What matters is how we respond to these things. We are also reminded that Christians need to be willing to support one another in these matters.

Sadly, many churches do not engage well with matters of sexuality, and especially with homosexuality. Many people with same sex attraction have felt deep rejection at the hands of Christians. There is much for our churches to change in how we engage with people whom God clearly loves.

Allbery offers helpful advice to Christians in engaging with people who are homosexual in orientation. He prefers to start at the centre and work outwards, rather than start at the edge and work in. The matter of sexuality is not of first importance. Jesus’ death and resurrection take centre stage. This is where God is most fully revealed. It shows his heart towards all people.

This is what I most want people to know—for people to be bowled over by the God of the cross and resurrection. And, once gripped by this, to help them think through what trusting in this God will involve—what will need to be given over to him, including our messed up sexuality.

But I want the conversation to take place in the context of the gospel, rather than start with their sexuality and try to get from there to the gospel … So when a gay couple start coming to my church, my priority for them is the same as for anyone else: to hear the gospel and to experience the welcome of a Christian community. (p63-64)

I found this book to be very helpful in understanding issues of same-sex attraction from the perspective of the Bible. It is written with warmth, insight and compassion. It upholds the dignity of all people, and it demonstrates the depths of God’s love for all, regardless of sexual orientation or anything else. I commend it especially to Christian people wanting to understand the mind and heart of God in todays cultural climate.

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