Category Archives: book review

My favorite reads of 2015

My annual booklists are admittedly strange.

They’re usually written before the review year–sometimes much before. The list is spread across a wide spectrum of sporadic themes. Usually, it’s where my own soul happens to be at the time. For example, this year’s contains leadership development, historical fiction, theology, and even secular philosophy. They are varying degrees of comprehension.

In other words, for some reason, the books I read are all over the place. I’m not sure why, but I think two parts of the reason is that

  1. I need a wide spectrum to hold my attention. And…
  2. They are usually what I need in that particular season.

This year, I read a book a week for the year. (see all of Chris Lazo’s books read in 2015). Below, you will find my five favorites and the reasons I liked them so much. Starting with #5….

#5 – A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. By Luc Ferry.

A Brief History of Thought is an introduction to philosophy. More than that, it is a narrative about how the biggest ideas in history have all attempted to prove their idea of “salvation,” either building on one another or tearing each other down. Of most interest to me, was the author’s treatment of Christianity. Luc Ferry, though a secular humanist, is sympathetic towards Christianity.

My favorite snippet: listening to Ferry describes how the juggernaut of Greek thought, after reigning for a thousand years, was quickly displaced by Christianity’s message of love and the afterlife.

Who should read it: If you want to a quick introduction to philosophy, or want to see how powerful the movement Jesus started originally was, this is a good one.

#4 – Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. By Simon Sinek.

Simon Sinek’s first book, was based on a Ted Talk he gavewhich argued that people do not want what you do, so much as they want why you are doing it. Leaders Eat Last is the follow up to suggest how that concept plays out in teams. His argument is that leaders must create environments of trust and sacrificial service if they want their teams to move from good to great.

My favorite snippet: when Sinek explains the biological origins of “trust.” His major point is that trust is a chemical reaction–you cannot force it, you can only create an environment for it to develop.

Who should read it: If you lead anybody, even your dog, you need this book.

#3 – After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. By N.T. Wright.

After our church went through the Sermon on the Mount, and afterwards, a series on character and spiritual maturity, this was one of the books that lit the fire (besides Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart which I read in 2014). Character is not the type of  This book is a primer but also a persuader about why you need to long for good character.

Favorite snippet: Wright’s story about a pilot, illustrating how it takes thousands of repeated behaviors to eventually do right what needs to be done right in the moment it is needed most.

Who should read it: you.

#2 – Sitting At The Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. By Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg.

Lois Tverberg is a wonderful researcher and writer. I love her appreciation for the ancient Jewish roots of the New Testament, and her books have made my faith, and reading of the Bible, come alive.

My favorite snippet: her explanation of the Messianic significance of the tassels on Jewish garments.

Who should read it: if you have trouble relating to the Bible when you read it (perhaps it feels outdated or removed from your contemporary experience); if you want to grow in your understanding of the Scriptures, Biblical culture, and the world that Jesus inhabited; or if you simply want to deepen and enrich your faith…this is the book for you.

#1 – All The Light We Cannot See: a Novel. By Arthur Doerr.

I don’t even know where to start on this one, so I guess with a short description. Set in WWII, this Pulitzer Prize winner waltz around the separate stories of a blind french girl with a love for seashells and a young german boy with a love for radios. As the girl is swept into the arms of the resistance, and the boy’s talent for electronics brings him invariably to the Hitler Youth, the centripetal force of their combined stories, tragedies, and hopes work to bring them together. I have not read a book this gripping and beautiful in prose since The Great Gatsby. 

Who: readers of historical fiction, WWII themes, or magical writing.

Honorable mention: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.

 

Book Review ~ Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Calhoun

I used to hate this book.

Someone gave it to me in passing a couple of years ago. I opened it the next day, skipped the introduction, and began reading from left to right, as quickly as possible.  The first chapter was on “celebration,” and the second was on “gratitude.” Since I felt devoid of both, reading about their explicit practice was too much for me to bear. I felt exhausted, and stopped reading the book altogether.

I know. Awkward way to start a book review.

But I’m reviewing the book because months later, a friend told me that I was not supposed to read it from back to front; and that reading the introduction was vital to my understanding the rest. So I sat back down with what I thought was a terrible book, and read the first twenty-three pages that night. Everything changed. That night.

What it’s about.

It morphed from a book about trying harder to a book exposing my innermost self. Calhoun spends the first few pages carefully articulating a theology of desire; that is, how our desires work, how sin distorts our desires, and how God heals them. Against this, I always thought of spiritual disciplines as pietistic acts of self-hatred—-means and methods for suppressing desires, not listen to them. Now, there is a clear thread of self-denial woven through all biblical disciplines; but self-denial is not self-hatred. As Calhoun explains, the process leading to self-denial must inevitably start with a degree of honesty and vulnerability. This means listening to our desires. It doesn’t mean they are right desires. It doesn’t mean God won’t change those desires. It just means they are true, and that they tell us something about ourselves. This makes the beginning of any spiritual discipline fairly straightforward: “We simply desire. We bring our ache for change, our longing for belonging, our desperation to make a difference” (19). All of this then sets us up for any spiritual discipline worth its salt: “they simply put us in a place where we can begin to notice God and respond to his word to us” (19). That’s just from the first few pages of the introduction! The rest explains how our desires help us find what discipline is necessary for spiritual maturity in any given area of our lives.

After reading this introduction, I felt a hunger in me begin to simmer, and skimmed through the various disciplines Calhoun lists to discover what I needed to single out the most in my life. The result has been spiritual, emotional, and even physical health; the thing I’ve learned the most through this process is that time spent alone with God is the best thing I can do for myself and others.

Book structure.

The structure of the book is easy to follow. After the introduction, Calhoun offers sixty-two disciplines (!). This large swathe of practices makes up seven larger groupings: worship, opening self to God, relinquishing the false self, community, hearing God’s Word, incarnating the love of Christ, and prayer.

Each discipline is given a page or two of summary, along with simple, practical instructions, Scriptures, and questions to not only discover which disciplines are right for each person’s desires, but also to guide the process of practicing them once the right discipline is found.

Why you should get it.

If you have ever felt a longing inside for something deeper in your spirituality, this might be the book for you. If you’ve ever felt a disconnection between your heart and your actions, this might be the book for you. Or if you just want to wake up every day and “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7)—in other words, to live everything Jesus taught and did at every moment of every day…this might be the book for you. Over the last two years, I have felt all of these things to the point of frustration. And this was book really helped me. It is the single most comprehensive, simple, and practical book on the disciplines I’ve ever read. I would probably still be depressed, teasing burn-out, and closed off to God (I share about that here and here) had it not been for the compassionate wisdom and simplicity of Calhoun’s writing. Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended by me.

It’s important at this juncture to know at the outset that spiritual disciplines are the means, not the end. Spiritual transformation is the end. Things get out of hand when these get mixed up. What transforms a person is not disciplines, but the Spirit of God in Christ indwelling the human heart. What disciplines can do is posture that person, already desiring God, to then receive from God and live for God; not just in moments of spiritual prosperity, but in the tedium of normal life. It’s this consistent Spirit-fanned flame of devotion, even if small at first, that causes the Christian life to soar long and true through circumstances and setbacks of any kind. Isn’t this the Christianity we long for? It is available to you. You just have to want it bad enough.

Purchase Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun here.

My five favorite reads of 2014

Let me define “favorite” and “of 2014.”

By “favorite,” I just mean impactful. But there are other things I consider too: if it was well written, if the author was able to carry me from beginning to end, if the ideas and concepts in the book were cohesive and well-developed, and if the writer has something to say that is worth reading.

What I mean by “of 2014” is not published in 2014–some of the selections are a decade older. They are simply books I read in 2014. I’m such a latecomer to books!

As a side note, this list is not written in order of importance. I’m lining them up as a narrative. I hope that storyline pops out in the descriptions about what has been most formative for me this last year. Without further ado…

The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard

It’s about time I read this one. The late Dallas Willard is one of the greatest thinkers of our day. I hesitate to say “Christian” thinkers, because he can flex his philosophical muscles with the best secular intellectuals of the century. Willard’s books often mix his mastery of the human personality with a deep admiration for the believer’s union with ChristThe Divine Conspiracy is his magnum opus. And what a great work it is! Taking the Sermon on the Mount as his cue, Willard pokes holes in flimsy, modern assumptions of Christianity that leave the confessor void of transformation or commitment. His premise is that being a “Christian” is to live vastly different in every area of life, because of the indwelling life of Christ. What follows is a four-hundred page juggernaut to convince you. By the time I was half way through this tome, I wasn’t just convinced, I was desperately hungry for change in my own life. One that can only be described as discipleship.

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero.

Emotional Health is a discipleship issue. Unfortunately, a lot of “discipleship” in the church consists of teachings and other knowledge gathering, with a dash of volunteering. Essentially, read more, do more. Scazzero opens with stories peppered throughout (both Biblical and personal) of why that doesn’t work. He immediately follows with examples of emotionally unhealthy habits (in case you are tempted to drop the book and think, “I’m emotionally good-looking”), before he explains what an emotionally and spiritually healthy person looks like, and how they become so. I found myself hooked. Mostly because the person he was describing so well, was me. He ends the last half offering a way out of the nightmare of emotional and spiritual immaturity. His solution involves getting mystical and contemplative, in a non-creepy sort of way.

Here is a more extensive book review I wrote on EHS.

The Five Disfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.

If Scazzero revealed how detrimental emotional immaturity can be to an individual, then Lencioni shows you how it can unravel a team, community, or even a simple group project. Lencioni is a fascinating writer who takes two seemingly opposite concepts–business and narrative–and combines them. What you have left is a masterfully told story that drives home principles of team health and dynamics. The storyline is so captivating that you never even know what hit you. In the final chapters of the book, Lencioni steps out of his storytelling role, to explain what just hit you. Even if you are not a leader, per se, so much in this short read will enlighten you to why things didn’t work very well on that project you were working on with so-and-so. It will also prepare you for how to work well with others. A necessary component in today’s world of team-oriented everything.

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun.

Contemplative spirituality and spiritual disciplines can sometimes scare Protestant evangelicals, because it reeks of a mystical nature. I really appreciated Calhoun’s ability to break these practices down with clarity and brevity, supporting them with Scripture, and showing the differences between Christian acts of spiritual discipline and the counterfeits offered by other world religions. Each discipline warrants no more than three pages, including an inspirational explanation, a tutorial, appropriate Scriptures, and a litany of ways said discipline can transform your life. As good as each of these are, the gold is in the introduction. Nowhere, in all of the titans of contemplative spirituality and disciplines, have I witnessed such an clear and enlightening vision for why a Christian should practice them, or how to practice them effectively. If you get this book (and you should), DO NOT READ IT WITHOUT FIRST READING THE INTRODUCTION. It is that good, and that necessary.

Sacred Reading, by Michael Casey.

This is an introduction to Lectio Divina, one of my favorite contemplative disciplines. It is the ancient practice of praying and meditating on the Scriptures, in a way that allows the Word of God to permeate, not just the intellect, but the heart. It is a slow reading of Scripture. It allows the reader of the Word to be read by the Word. Casey is filled with deep reverence and knowledge of Lectio, and his admiration for God’s word catches fire to the reader. A word of caution, it is not a manual for practicing Lectio Divina; for that, refer to Calhoun’s book on Spiritual Disciplines mentioned above; Casey’s Sacred Reading is a glimpse into a lifestyle of communion with God through His Word. It is meant to captivate you to a different way of reading.

The favorite of the favorites?

My number one book of this last year was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Scazzero. It’s affect on me was no doubt due to the journey I had been on at the time (which I talk about here). But as Scazzero points out, and as the experience of many other people I’ve talked to over the last couple months confirms, this is a topic that is as neglected by Christians as it is crucial for their maturity. This short read is a breathe of fresh air on a long pathway. So for all these reasons and more, this was the most impactful book on me in 2014.

What were your best reads of 2014, and why?

Book Review: Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, by Jeanne Guyon

Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ is a classic approach to contemplative prayer. It’s shaped by a longing to experience the indwelling union of God. Written in the 1700’s, it was banned by the church, and Jeanne Guyon was imprisoned. The sheer impact of Madame Guyon’s approach throughout the centuries at least demands our attention. John Wesley, Count Zinzendorf, Fenelon, Hudson Taylor, Watchman Nee. They were all influenced by this unassuming little pamphlet.

Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ (EDJC) sounds like a devotional, yet it functions like a manual–with progressive steps, each leading to new levels of experiential maturity. That was the greatest draw for me—few books on prayer are written with such practical vitality. Guyon’s entire premise is based on experiencing union with Christ, so the subsequent chapters involve some added measure of surrender. I found myself easily drawn to her style of writing. It felt less like a theological exploration of prayer, and more like sitting at the feet of an older woman teaching me to pray. There were several chapters where I had to put the book down and practice what I read. Some of her instructions were as rich as they were simple, and I would get stuck on one page for several days, enjoying the journey those few words would take me. I think the power in this book lie partially in its audience. Guyon is clear in the intial chapters that she is writing to people who don’t know how to pray—basically illiterate believers of her time. I think it caused her to trim the fat, so to speak. What’s left is a powerful example of contemplative-style praying.

At times, her terminology has a Roman Catholic feel. This makes sense, as Guyon is apparently a Roman Catholic. I tend to veer away from Catholic books on contemplation. A Catholic might practice the same discipline as observed by a Protestant, and yet with entirely different motivations. Catholic contemplatives often practice spiritual disciplines believing that their asceticism will impact their salvation in a positive way. Protestants firmly reject this. We engage spiritual disciplines, believing that all we receive from God we receive by grace. And so the purpose of the disciplines is not to twist God’s arm, but to posture our restless hearts to experience his grace. That alone is a big difference between these two theological titans, and reason alone to generally reject Catholic books on contemplation. I think this is a healthy apprehension, summarized best by the late Lutheran theologian, John W. Doberstein,

It is not true that prayers and books of devotion, even the so-called “classics of devotion,” can be used indiscriminately. Many of them are infused with a mystical tradition which is completely alien to the gospel and can only be confusing to the evangelical user of them. Prayer and liturgy are realized dogma, doctrine which is prayed; but if the doctrine is false, putting it into the form of devotion does not make it any less false. The Roman Catholic forms of spiritual exercises can never be a pattern for us, though they have crept into many popular Protestant manuals and discussions of prayer and meditation. The difference that separates us is that all Roman Catholic meditation rests upon the dogmatic assumption of synergism. (The Minister’s Prayer Book, XIV-XV)

The Catholic influence alone would put up my defenses with this book, but Guyon kept evading many of my fears. In certain places she spoke of God’s gracious sovereignty with such brazenness, that I actually began to wonder if she was a closet Calvinist! For example, she asserts, “You can be sure you would never consent [to union with Christ] if it were not that God takes it upon Himself to act upon you…God must take responsibility for bringing man into union with Himself” (130-131).

I wonder if it were quotes like–usurping the works-based theology of the Catholic church–that resulted in her imprisonment. I can certainly understand. She said many things that initially rubbed me the wrong way. But was I simply biased and unteachable? So I tried to read it with an open, but discerning mind just to be sure. Unfortunately, some books have so much to “discern” that I wonder if they are worth reading at all! However, with EDJC, I’m torn. If it’s the case that Guyon was veering from her Roman Catholic roots, my opinion of this book would change drastically, and I would feel free to recommend it. At the moment, I don’t think I could give this book to a believer who was weak in their faith, or lacked sound theology or discernment. It’s one of those. But for Christians who have been trained with discernment, there are few books on prayer that were as exciting for me to wade through as this. It may be worth the effort for you.

Overall, it was refreshing. It is leaps and bounds more impactful than many modern books that opine for chapters on end about the technique and beauty of prayer without ever actually praying.

My final verdict: proceed with both caution and curiosity.

Get the book on Amazon.

Book Review ~ Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero.

I looked at my therapist one morning and replied with a fresh wind of confidence,

“I think I know what’s wrong with me now: I’m spirituality mature, but emotionally immature. I have a lot of spiritual knowledge, but I’m not very good at managing my emotions.”

To give you a little background, I was in a season of my life where I was trying so hard to be spiritual and productive for God, yet feeling more stagnant and disconnected from him than ever.

His eyes widened as he replied, “You need to read this book right now.”

The book he recommended was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (EHS), by Peter Scazzero.

Until this point, I’d never really heard about it, even though it’s been around for a while. I was curious about why the good doctor seemed so convinced I needed to read it. When it came in the mail, I took one look at the subtitle and laughed. It said,

“It’s impossible to be spirituality mature while remaining emotionally immature.”

Before cracking open the first page, I knew this book was written for me. Chances are, it’s probably written for you too.


You only have to look at the title to guess that EHS is all about emotional health. 

Broadly speaking, emotional health has to do with expressing or managing the emotions we feel. Practically speaking, it plays out in the way we interact with others. Scazzero’s entire premise is that without emotional health, you have no spiritual health either. The two are inextricably woven; really, the book is about both emotional and spiritual health. For a person to grow into a healthy disciple of Christ, they need to be concerned with managing emotions and cultivating their spiritual life (contemplative spirituality he calls it). The unambiguous diagnosis that emerges from the book, however, is that many contemporary Christians neglect either emotional health, or contemplative spirituality in the process of discipleship. But if you lack either of these, you aren’t growing in a meaningful way at all. What is absent in most Christian’s lives is not contemplation–otherwise, this would be a book about the spiritual disciplines. What’s missing is a Scriptural plan for managing emotions. Says Scazzero,

When we do not process before God the very feelings that make us human, such as fear or sadness or anger, we leak. Our churches are filled with ‘leaking’ Christians who have not treated their emotions as a discipleship issue. Grieving is not possible without paying attention to our anger and sadness. Most people who fill churches are ‘nice’ and ‘respectable.’ Few explode in anger—at least in public. The majority, like me, stuff these ‘difficult feelings,’ trusting that God will honor our noble efforts. The result is that we leak through in soft ways such as passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., showing up late), sarcastic remarks, a nasty tone of voice, and the giving of the ‘silent treatment.’ (143-144)

Scazzero’s book structure is simple.

In the first half of the book, he explains “what an emotionally unhealthy spirituality looks like” (p.2). You won’t get far in the book before you know whether the book is for you or not. In chapter three, he offers a clear solution: a marriage of emotional health with contemplative spirituality. This is the hinge of the book. The remaining half of the book offers a pathway to EHS. One that actually works.

Of the various pathways to Christian spiritual formation, there are two streams from which I have thoroughly benefitted: the Reformed tradition, with it’s panoramic view of God’s glory and emphasis on the Scriptures; and the Contemplative mystics, with their emphasis on the indwelling presence or God. One thing that always struck me about these two streams is their respective vernacular when it comes to growing in Christ. The Reformed tradition often speaks of looking outward to God who is holy other, and the contemplative stream often uses refers the believer inward to God who dwells within. One of the things I appreciated the most from Scazzero is that he marries these concepts together, as mutually compatible. He isn’t the first one to do this—there is a rich history of Reformed contemplatives at our fingertips who teach these things. Unfortunately, many of today’s books on spirituality are weighted in only one of these directions. It is refreshing to hear both “inward” and “outward” coalesce in Scazerro. For example, when he explains how emotional health keeps us from “self-absorbed narcissism” (61), while contemplative spirituality keeps us from getting exhausted as it “binds us to the living God” (155). In other words, emotional health keep us from imploding; contemplative spirituality keep us from burning out.

But it’s not for everyone.

The draw of this book lies in the problem it’s attempting to discuss. If you are emotionally stable, deal with conflicts well, have a rich inner life, processed your past hurts constructively, and are deeply self-aware of your own weaknesses, it’s probably not going to impress you very much. But if even one of these things rings a bell, you need to get this book.

As the beginning of my post betrays, I have experienced firsthand the frustrations that come with trying to grow in my relationship with Christ. In most cases, it’s because attention is brought to bear on only one area of life, such as the intellect, or habits. But the human personality is complex and beautiful. As the Psalmist said, “the inward mind and heart of a man are deep” (Ps. 64:6). While emotional health is not all that makes up a person, it is an important and deeply-encompassing part of the human soul, and ironically, one of the most neglected areas of discipleship in the church. For that reason, I highly recommend this book to anyone who feels spiritually dry, spiritually stagnant, or on the verge of burnout. I also recommend it for anyone that just wants to walk deeper with God and others.


Where to buy it.

Buy the book here!

Book Review ~ Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, by Ruth Haley Barton

“I cannot transform myself, or anyone else for that matter. What I can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place, by developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep me open and available to God” (12).

Sacred Rhythms is an introduction to spiritual disciplines. It’s about creating space and cultivating rhythms that allow you to enjoy God.

I know this an older book–it’s from 2006–but it so resonated with me because of its personal effect on my soul. I am a pastor–which assumes, to some degree–that I am being spiritual quite often. That’s open for debate. I know one thing for certain: I can keep myself busy. But is business necessarily spiritual? Is productivity? Success? Barton argues that those things can actually be harmful to your spiritual health when they are able to wield control over your life (a condition she calls Christian fatigue syndrome). As a “minister,” there were many opportunities to get involved with spiritual activities, a lot of opportunities to make myself busy, and even a heightened knowledge of the Bible that I developed over time.

But something was still missing.

I made the process too intellectual, too rushed, too goal-oriented. Some of this led to a feeling of disconnection in me from the very God who lives inside of me. That’s probably why I loved this book. It clearly explained what was wrong with me for many years, and offered a simple invitation back into the arms of Christ.

If you have enjoyed the recent series here on the blog, Contemplative Approach to Spirituality, and want to know and learn more, you’re hard-pressed to find a better place to start. Here’s a bit of what to expect in the outline–three basic parts.

1. Introduction to Spiritual Transformation

I felt like Barton was talking to me in the introduction. I put my highlighter down when I realized that I wanted to highlight every single line on the first three pages–it really defeats the purpose of highlighting when you do it on every line. After the first three pages, the rest of the introduction is preparing you for what to expect in the writing: book outline, practical instruction, group suggestions, etc. But it’s in the next chapter when things really get rolling.

2. Invitation to Spiritual Transformation

This is, in my opinion, the fulcrum of the book. Barton spends some time here whetting the appetite of the reader, exposing our need, and pointing us towards our truest desires. Since disciplines can seem a laborious drudgery to the uninitiated (or the badly initiated), this chapter is valuable in dispelling myths, and revealing our deep spiritual thirst, as well as the value in posturing ourselves to receive from God’s endless wells. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. But it gets better.

3. Seven different types of disciplines

This section on disciplines are pure gold. Each of the remaining chapters explain a spiritual discipline. Collectively, they form a well-balanced diet of the Christian life. The disciplines are solitude, Scripture (lectio divina), prayer, honoring the body, self-examination, discernment, Sabbath, and The Rule of Life.

The flow of the chapters are what drives each discipline home.

Instead of bombarding you with practical instruction or ancient sayings, Barton appeals to your deepest desires, and pulls you into a story that you want to be a part of. The danger in plunging into spiritual disciplines is two-fold: You don’t realize you need soul-care, and are cavalier with it; or you approach it as another to-do list, and end up more exhausted than ever. However, I think Barton pirouettes around these issues gracefully.

Each chapter begins with her personal experience to draw your attention. Then she explains the inner desires the practice effects. After she persuades you of your need, the practical steps for getting started are laid out to be received. There is no chance of getting lost in some author’s convoluted sayings–Barton offers detailed, clear explanations on how to engage each particular discipline. Peppered throughout are historical insights, careful attention (and mercy) on our weaknesses, and expressions of the practice from Scripture. By the time I finished each chapter, I wanted to put the book down and seek the face of God.

I’ll conclude my review with eight quotes from the book…

This is fundamentally what spiritual disciplines are all about: choosing a way of life that opens us to the presence of God in the places of our being where our truest desires and deepest longings stir. (13)

A prayer welled up from the depths of my being, a prayer so full of desire that it was barely articulate: “O God, give me more moments like this–moments when I am fully present to you and to others in love.” (21)

Your desire for more of God than you have right now, your longing for love, your need for deeper levels of spiritual transformation than you have experienced so far is the truest thing about you. (24)

Solitude is an opportunity to interrupt this [vicious] cycle by turning off the noise and stimulation of our lives so that we can hear our loneliness and our longing calling us deeper into the only relationship that can satisfy our longing. (36)

We need a way of approaching Scripture that will move us very concretely from our over reliance on information gathering to an experience of Scripture as a place of intimate encounter. (54)

One thing I know for sure about prayer these days is that we do not know how to pray. It is only the young in Christ who think they know how to pray; the rest of us know we are beginners.(63)

One of the deepest longings of the human heart is to be known and loved unconditionally (91)

Sabbath keeping is a discipline that will mess with you, because once you move beyond just thinking about it and actually begin to practice it, the goodness of it will capture you, body, soul, and spirit. (133)

I think every Christian should familiarize themselves with spiritual formation and the practices that cultivate it.

I also believe the person who would experience immediate benefits from this book are those who are spiritually dry, fatigued, or just burnt out on the church, God, or Christianity. Sacred Rhythms takes advantage of the Christian’s existing union with Christ–not by shaming you into to trying harder–but by posturing you in your weaknesses towards the One who already lives inside you.

And as a result, this may be my favorite book I’ve read all year–I’ll let you know in December. Until then, get this book, and drink so deeply!

You can find the book on Amazon: Sacred Rhythms.

Top 5 books I read in 2013

I don’t know what others mean when they say “top 5 books,” but for me, it’s pretty straightforward:

  1. What I enjoyed reading most
  2. What impacted the way I think most
  3. If it uncovered a new idea for me
  4. If I was carried through the entire book
  5. I would recommend it to others
  6. I would read it more than once

Ok, let’s get started at the top of the list…

1. When the Church was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community, by Joseph Hellerman.

Ever feel frustrated over the individualism and consumerism punctuating the American church? Ever wish your local church was more like the family you read about in the book of Acts? Do you long for revival in your city? This is the book you need to read. But brace yourself–you’re probably not impervious to Hellerman’s piercing diagnosis. Of all the books I read in 2013, this gave me the most chills, the most hope, and the most excitement for the future. But it cost me dearly.

2. Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, by Michael Reeves.

The Trinity is simultaneously the most important Christian belief, and the most difficult to understand (one might think). Reeves delivers it simpler than vanilla, and more delicious than salted caramel. In fact, his adjectives often remind me of food, with lines like, “Such is the spreading goodness that rolls out of the very being of God” (29), or “The Father, Son and Spirit have always been in delicious harmony” (59). These simple, yet vivid descriptions of the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will cause you to reel in joy, and desire to get caught up into the same.

3. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry, by Michael Lawrence.

Biblical Theology (BT) is that area of study that looks at how the entire Bible is unified by a single story. There are some BT books that show you the story or themes unfolding through the Bible in a narrative fashion. Others, like this one, show you how to interpret the story itself. Not only does Lawrence nail this topic, but he is very comprehensive, including exegesis, systematics, and other areas of Bible study that intersect with BT. He masterfully lays it all out with practical, and fascinating precision. This is a book I am constantly referencing.

4. Preaching Without Notes, by Joseph M. Webb.

If you preach, you might consider this method. Preaching without notes brings the speaker to life, allows engagement with the listeners, and forces the preacher to condense their (oft-times scattered) ideas to a single, unforgettable point. Even the days I choose to use notes–which has it’s own merits–I still reference this book for it’s helpful methods. To preach without notes, there must be a fundamental shift in the way you think about the sermon itself, and that affects how you construct one. Unlike many books on preaching, this one is as practical as you get–if you really want to preach without notes, this one will do it for you in a week.

5. A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, by Noah Lukeman.

If you like to write, blog, or even tweet, I suggest you read this book. “Why on earth would I read about something as dry and lifeless as punctuation,” you say? Because stylistic punctuation, as this book argues, is what breathes life into your sentences. You’ve never been more romanced by a semi-colon or thrilled to wield a dash than after reading this book. The best part is, Lukeman writes the book with flair and style, often using punctuation in the very way he instructs throughout the book. For example, there are nicknames for every punctuation mark; the period is the Stop Sign; the semicolon is The Bridge; the dash is The Interrupter. And of course, there is a cornucopia of classic writers to give you examples of all of these.


Honorable Mentions.

These are on this list, because they are game-changers, and it would be a crime to keep them off even though the ones above were my first choices. 

  • The Cross of Christ, by John R.W. Stott
  • Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study, Constantine R. Campbell.

Obviously, I haven’t read every book that has ever been written, so take my list with an appropriate grain of that salt. Here’s the list I was working from.

What were your favorite reads of 2013? I’d love to hear.

Book Review ~ The King In His Beauty, by Thomas R. Schreiner

I had this book on my wish list the year before it came out. 

For the following reasons. First, Dr. Thomas Schreiner is one of my favorite scholars. I read through his prestigious commentary on Romans, and developed a deep appreciation for his scholarly writing voice, and well as the sheer width of his focus. Second, Biblical Theologies are a favorite area of study for me—at least for the last year. It is often entrenched in complexity, so Graeme Goldsworthy’s definition will serve the purpose of this blog post well: Biblical Theology is “the study of how every text in the Bible relates to every other text in the Bible” (Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, 40). To boil it down further, it’s the unifying storyline of Scripture, which I address more in this blog postThird, the name alone is awesome: The King in His Beauty. This just makes me want to pick it up and swim in glorious truth!

Now that I’m done with this hefty book (700+ pages), I’ve provided a not-brief summary of what it’s about, some reasons for reading it, potential drawbacks, and a few concluding remarks. Let’s go for a swim!

SUMMARY

The King in His Beauty is foremost a Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Biblical Theology (BT) may sound confusing if you’ve never heard the term before, because we sometimes use the word “biblical” when referring to something correct or orthodox; so it may sound like we are talking about a theology that is orthodox. But that’s not what we are talking about (although it assumes the theology is correct!). BT is an area of study, dealing primarily with the story of Scripture, a search for the “center” to that story, and the process of how God reveals that story. Think of it as a view of the Bible from 30,000 feet: you are taking it all in at once.

Schreiner’s intent with writing a BT is simple: to focus on a prominent Biblical theme as it is unfolding so that the average, non-academic reader can understand and enjoy. As Schreiner moves through Scripture, he does so in segments which I’ve found very helpful in following both his train of thought, and the storyline of Scripture. The segments are as follows:

  • Creation to the Edge of Canaan (Genesis-Deuteronomy)
  • The Story of Possession, Exile, and Return (Joshua-Esther)
  • Israel’s Songs of Wisdom (Job-Song of Songs)
  • Judgment and Salvation in the Prophets (Isaiah-the Twelve)
  • The Kingdom in Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts (Matthew-Acts)
  • Eternal Life in the Gospel and the Epistles of John (John, John’s letters)
  • The End of the Ages Has Come according to the Apostle Paul (Paul’s 13 letters)
  • Living in the Last Day’s according to the General Epistles (Hebrews, James, 1&2 Peter-Jude)
  • The Kingdom Will Come (Revelation)

As Schreiner moves through these segments of Scripture, he shows them all anchored in the prominent theme of the Kingdom of God, or as he refers to it, The King in His Beauty. He argues that the Kingdom of God, defined as the rule of God spanning the cosmos, including human beings, by means of covenant, and expressed in judgment, “thematically captures the message of Scripture” (xiii-xv).

The book was not written for scholars, but is scholarly (the footnotes are a feast!). So as he teases out the theme of God’s Kingdom in the Bible, he stays out-of-the-way, yet within close distance to the events as they happen, speaking with a depth of clarity and simplicity even in such seemingly abstract books as Amos or the Psalms. It is this simple clarity on complex topics that makes Schreiner magical. Here are a few other delicacies in the book… Read the rest of this entry

Book Review ~ Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat

“America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in it’s place.”

This introductory remark encapsulates the main theme in Ross Douthat’s book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” that the undermining of Christianity in America today is due to a deep chasm of cafeteria spirituality left over by mainline churches in decades past.

This thesis comes through two sections:

  1. Christianity in Crisis
  2. The Age of Heresy.

Introducing the first section, the New York Times columnist prepares a rather exciting taste of the Church’s glory days through the beginning of the twenty-first century before issuing a scathing diagnosis on mainline churches for botching everything up. Douthat argues that the church typically wavered between accommodation and resistance when faced with cultural difficulties. A single, albeit notorious, example of this were the tired arguments over biological evolution and the book of Genesis which helped excuse the church to the margins of the scientific community. Conservatives and Evangelicals came out swinging on a variety of similar issues, but left a lot to be desired. In the end, the fundamentalism that emerged from the fight was Read the rest of this entry

What is there for singles on Valentine’s Day?

I know this is the day for celebrating romance, as it should be; marriage and relationships are a gift from God. But so is singleness. And on a day when many singles feel lonely, undesirable, or at the very least, bored, I hope this look back into church history reveals God’s kind intention for your singleness.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and a key player in the first Great Awakening published a fifteen-point expository sermon on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians entitled Thoughts On A Single Life (1835). I will summarize each of his extensive points so that you can soak it all in.

  1. Singleness can be as holy as marriage
  2. Christians often view singleness as a spiritual malady to be fixed by marriage
  3. Paul commands certain people to remain single because they can concern themselves more with the things of God (1 Cor. 7:8, 27, 28, 32-35)
  4. Paul wishes that all men could be single like him
  5. Singleness, it turns out, is a gift that God bestows on people, either for a season or for good
  6. Those who are given the gift of singleness have great advantages to enjoy…
    • being “without carefulness”
    • without the necessity of “caring for the things of the world”
    • desiring only to “please the Lord”
    • concerned for being “holy both in body and spirit.”
    • able to be “attending upon the Lord without distraction.” Wesley then compares the single person to Mary who is enabled by her freedom to “remain centered on God, sitting…at the Master’s feet, and listening to every word”
    • a blessed freedom from the “‘trouble in the flesh’ which must more or less attend a married state”
    • to experience “liberty from the greatest of all entanglements, the loving one creature above all others,” for Wesley later writes of how conceivably difficult it is “to give God our whole heart, while a creature has so large a share of it!”
  7. You have leisure to wait upon God in public and private…whereas those who are married are distracted by the “things of the world.”
  8. You can devote all your abilities, time, and energy to God.
  9. You must pray for God to help you see the value of your singleness
  10. You must pray for God to protect you in your singleness
  11. You must surround yourself with like-minded single people of the same sex
  12. It’s silly to hang out carelessly with the opposite sex if you are trying to enjoy singleness
  13. In fact, avoid all self-indulgence that weakens your desire for God. Wesley does not here advocate the avoidance of pleasure, per say, for God gives you all things to enjoy. Rather, he  implores you to “avoid all that pleasure which anyway hinders you from enjoying [God]”
  14. Enjoy all the advantages of singleness to the fullest, and you may find that being single gets easier.
  15. Don’t worry yourself about what is better between marriage or singleness, because perfection does not consist in an outward state but in “absolute devotion of all our heart and all our life to God.”

Wesley is saying that the reason you are single is so that God alone can preoccupy your affections.

So if you are called to be single for good, know that this is a blessed calling, and one which God deems so respectable and difficult that He must call and anoint certain people to be so. But O! the joys of this kind of single life! For even if you are called to marriage one day, yet are single now, know that God designed your singleness to draw your eyes towards a better Love than this population can supply.

I pray our Valentine’s day be filled with the love of the Father in Christ Jesus by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as “every pleasure of sense prepares us for taking pleasure in God.”

You can purchase John Wesley’s full sermon Thoughts on a Single Life here

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