An Encouraging Stat

It seems like society is full of gloom and doom predictions for Christianity, and sometimes those predictions can get us down. Doug Couch has a sign in his office that I really like that stands against that trend. It tells the truth about a philosopher who proclaimed the death of God. Here’s a picture:

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The news is usually better than we think it is. How do you think Bible reading stacks up against the Super Bowl? Most people know that the Super Bowl is the most watched television event in the country. Last year, nearly one third of Americans watched the big game.

Do you know how many people read their Bibles at least once a week? According to a recent Barna study, 37% of Americans indicate that they read their Bibles once every week or more. While a third of our country watches the big game one time a year—even more people open up the big book every week.

I don’t know about you, but I find that encouraging. There are people who want to do right. People are listening to God’s word. Whether or not you watch the game tonight, don’t forget that more people are tuning in to God.

(H/T to Faithlife Blog)

Good Questions

Business conceptOne of the best compliments a teacher can pay to a student is to say, “Good question!”  A good question demonstrates that the student understands the material well enough to ask an intelligent question and that the student understands the limit of his own knowledge. That level of subject- and self-awareness isn’t as common as any teacher would like.

Not all questions are good questions. When the student exerts no effort to think or see an obvious answer, his question does no good. When he intentionally misses something important, his question will not be good. Even absent those errors, it’s possible that a student’s question is just simply nonsense. Don’t believe me? Ask a teacher.

N.T. Wright wrote,

“Many of the questions we ask God can’t be answered directly, not because God doesn’t know the answers but because our questions don’t make sense. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, many of our questions are, from God’s point of view, rather like someone asking, ‘Is yellow square or round?’ or ‘How many hours are there in a mile?’”

He also wrote cautioning us about our study of God, because our questions and debates about God are often “like pointing a flashlight toward the sky to see if the sun is shining.”

God is open to our honest, meaningful questions, but Wright may have revealed why some of our questions go unanswered. Sometimes when I ask, “Why” – it’s just possible that my question, from an eternal perspective, just doesn’t make sense. Do you remember how God dealt with Job? God ended his silence by asking the questioner this question, “Why do you confuse the issue?  Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?” (Job 38:2 MSG)

Our goal is simple Christianity. Much of Christianity and life is simpler than we often make it, but we do need to remember that God is infinite while we are finite. Einstein said that we should aim to make everything as simple as possible—but no simpler. Never lose sight of the eternal majesty, prominence, and glory of God.

The Same Frequency

carFor Christmas, my family decided that it would be fun to do something together besides sitting around the couch staring at each other between meals. They found some cheap remote control cars and decided it would be fun to make a small race course in the house. Racing could keep us entertained for quite a while, and if that got old, it could always turn into an R/C demolition derby.

When we got the cars out of the boxes, we ran into one problem: all of the cars were on the same frequency. That meant that all of the cars would respond to all of the remote controls. If I hit the “go” button, all of the cars would go, until they got closer to someone else who was giving a different instruction. It was total chaos…it just didn’t work! When each car didn’t have an “authoritative controller” – it was the same as having no controller at all.

I’ve met a lot of people that work the same way. There is no priority or hierarchy in their lives. Every signal they receive gets treated equally. In their minds, the opinion of their friends is as credible as the newspaper which is as credible as the Bible which is as credible as their hair stylist. Their actions are determined by whoever they’re closest to at the moment—rather than what’s really authoritative.

Nobody is immune from this temptation. Even the great apostle Peter forgot his convictions about grace when he found himself in the company of “certain men from James” in Galatians 2:11-14. They overrode what God himself said when he said, “Don’t call unclean what I’ve called clean!” (Acts 10:15).

We need to be constantly on guard to make sure that we are listening to right source. Choose very carefully who holds the remote control to your life!

What I Listen To (2014 Podcast Report)

podcastIf you follow my writing at all, you know that I like to put together an annual “reading report.” It helps start a lot of interesting conversations about books I loved or hated, and it serves as  a way to remind me of what I’ve read. Every now and then, I’ll go back and look at a previous year’s report and discover a book I had totally forgotten about. The report is as much for my benefit as anyone’s!

I want to share something with you that I find really useful that goes unused by many people. This is a report about the podcasts I listened to in 2014. If you’re not familiar with it, podcasting is basically “on demand” radio. You select the shows that you want to listen to, and your smartphone or tablet will automatically download the episodes so they’re just waiting on you. It’s a perfect way to make better use of your commuting or exercise time.

If you’ve got an iPhone, downloading is super simple. You already have a “Podcasts” icon. If you’re on Android, it’s a little bit more difficult. I downloaded the “Dogg Catcher” app. It manages all your podcasts for you.

One more note: each episode of each podcast is different. Sometimes a show will have a terrible episode or language. That’s what the “skip” button is for.

So without further ado, here are the podcasts I’ve been enjoying in 2014:

Freakonomics Radio
Steve Dubner and Steve Levitt try to answer societal questions logically. Frequently controversial, always interesting.

This American Life
This is the iconic public radio show from Ira Glass. The episodes are a collection of stories about some facet of life in America. They range the gamut from insane, to hilarious, to touching, to mind-numbing.

Radiolab
This is the show that got me into listening to podcasts. It’s science, tech, society, ethics…it’s an experiment on the radio. Really interesting stuff that makes you think.

Stuff You Should Know
From the HowStuffWorks.com team – each episode is about  random stuff. Recent episodes I heard include the GED, boomerangs, Cinnamon, Jim Henson, and “the hum.” Very random! Also from the How Stuff Works network…

TechStuff
A technology-related show that talks about the history, development, and controversies about tech both old and new.

BrainStuff
A mini-podcast, usually less than five minutes, about the same sort of stuff Stuff You Should Know would cover. How many times can I use “stuff” in a sentence?

The Moth
Storytelling. Hit or miss. This is usually the best or the worst. Each episode is just filled with storytellers, telling their tales live in front of an audience with no notes.

NPR’s Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!
News quiz show that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

iPreach from the Jenkins Institute
Dale and Jeff put this together for preachers. There’s usually a guest talking about his area of expertise or something special going on.

Theology Refresh from Desiring God
A short show with a well-known evangelical guest about some theological topic.

Rainer on Leadership
Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway, talks leadership. Aimed at church leaders, but much of it applies in the business world, too. Good show.

We’re Alive
The Zombie podcast finished its final season this year…and it was quite a run! This was brain junk food, but I liked it. Think of it as the Walking Dead for your ears.

99% Invisible
A show on architecture, design, and other behind-the-scenes topics. Good design, they say, is 99% invisible.

A Prairie Home Companion: The News from Lake Woebegone
I don’t listen to the whole episodes of Prairie Home Companion—I just get my favorite part of the show.

Five Minutes in Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary puts out short little episodes about key moments in church history. Good show.

StartUp
The story of Planet Money’s Alex Bloomberg starting a new business, as it happens, sort of.

Serial
Serial made podcasting history this year. It’s a spinoff from This American Life that tells one story, serialized over a season. The inaugural season was the story of a controversial murder case. I loved it.

ReplyAll
A show about the internet with all its weirdness.

What podcasts do you subscribe to?

 

 

2014 Reading Report

Here is the 2014 reading report!stackofbooks200

The goal for the year was 50 books. I didn’t quite get there—there’s only 47 on this list, but I had an opportunity to review a couple of unpublished books…and if you count Llama, Llama, Nighty Night and the rest of the series, I got about 7,000 in…

Living and Longing for the Lord: A Guide to 1-2 Thessalonians  – Whitworth
Solid piece on 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Short, lots of application. Doesn’t answer every tough question as much as you might like, but gives you some good resources.

Practice Resurrection – Peterson
Eugene Peterson takes on Ephesians. Good material about maturing in Christ as a church. Peterson is always poetic and just puts things well.

Fit for the Pulpit: The Preacher and His Challenges – various
Would make a good textbook for “Preacher and His Work”-style classes. Generally good. Sometimes states the obvious a little too much. (We should be moral examples? Really!? Never thought of that!)

Soul Detox – Groeschel
Basically an updated version of Winkler’s “Heart Diseases and their cures.” Would make a great sermon series or class book.  Deals with deception, “septic thoughts”, bitterness, envy, and more.

Who Is Jesus…Really – McDowell
Basic, light apologetic for the person and nature of Jesus.

Muscle and a Shovel – Shank
I wrote a more thorough review of this one earlier. While there is good in it, I think it is overly simplistic and not what I would recommend in most cases.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Skloot
Fascinating story about the history of the most significant cell-line in research science, HeLa. I promise, the book is more interesting than that sentence made it sound. The book deals with the cultural and ethical issues that we still face in science research. This was good.

Republic of Plato – Bloom’s Translation
This was fun! Read for a classics course at Knox on Plato and Augustine. Almost made me wish I had been a philosophy major. Didn’t fill me with hope for politics, but made me appreciate the City of God more!

Worst Ideas Ever: a Celebration of Embarrassment – Kline and Tomaszewski
Goofy gift-book. Reading about other people’s failures kind of makes you appreciate your own. Who really thought New Coke was a good idea? This book tells you.

City of God – Augustine (selections)
For the Plato and Augustine course. Glad I was exposed to this. When you read it, it’s clear why it’s lasted so long!

How to Knock Over a 7-Eleven and Other Ministry Training – Cheshire
Way better than I expected. Creativity, passion, and teamwork in ministry. It’s neat to peak in on other teams and see what they’re doing. Gets outreach out of a box.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – Gladwell
Really thought-provoking read. Sometimes little changes create the “perfect storm” that influence an organization or society for the good. Great stories and thoughts.

Living Jesus: Doing What Jesus Says in the Sermon on the Mount – Harris
Harris treats the Sermon on the Mount as, let’s say, a sermon from Jesus that we ought to pay attention to and take seriously. It was refreshingly simple and challenging. Kind of like the Sermon on the Mount…

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II – Freeman
While the title uses more adjectives than should be legal, the book lived up to it. Incredible story I missed in history class about an Allied airlift operation to rescue downed airmen in Yugoslavia. I didn’t know anything about the troubles in that part of Europe during the war. These men were way braver than I’ll ever dream of being.

The Hawk’s Nest – Hawk
Daily devotional book. Great stories, weak applications.

On the Decay of the Art of Lying – Twain
Funny look at honesty and the lack thereof. Very Mark Twain-ey. Read this at the beach.

How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck – Stockman
Simple tips for doing a better job with vide. Useful if you ever dabble in video—even if it’s just your camera phone and Windows Movie Maker. Doesn’t assume tons of knowledge or equipment or budget.

The Giver – Lowry
I think we read this in eighth grade. Wanted to re-read before the movie came out. Still a book that makes you think!

When God Winks at You – Rushnell
A look at coincidence. Feel-good stories, but not much substance. Mainly a collection of coincidence stories that are attributed to God. Some of them felt a little stretched to me. Light on scripture ideas.

Galatians For You: For Reading, Feeding, and Leading – Keller
Good companion to the book of Galatians. It is as reformed and Calvinistic as they come, but even for a cranky Arminian, there was plenty to appreciate. He does a good job keeping an eye on the overall argument of the book.

Paul for Everyone: Galatians (and 1 Thessalonians) – NT Wright
Good counter-point to Keller’s work on Galatians. New Perspective on Paul really shows here.

Moses: Freeing Yourself to Know God – Getz
Biography and lessons on Moses. Lots of application, but very quick to moralize a text and leave the ancient context. Still helps you see relevancy of Moses today.

Freakonomics – Levitt and Dubner
Economists “explore the hidden side of everything.” Interesting deconstruction of some common myths. Helpful in thinking about how to analyze problems and select solutions.

Love Does—Goff
Book of the year. Brimming with great stories.  Read this book. Now.

The Sticky Faith Guide for your Family — Powell
Suggestions and principles for putting your faith into practice at home.  Good material. Also reread the original Sticky Faith with our interns.

How to Speak to Youth and Keep Them Awake at the Same Time – Davis
Ideas for being relevant and interesting for youth.  Not bad, not great. (I got kind of sleepy reading it. Ironic?)

Autopsy of a Deceased Church – Rainer
Very short, quick read. I recommend all preachers, elders, and people heavily invested in a stagnant or declining church read this. Identifies a lot of what has gone wrong, hopefully, before it is too late.

Vanishing Evangelical – Miller
Calvin Miller is a favorite author of mine. He argues that the mainstream “success” of American evangelicalism is actually what has undermined its future. I think he’s right.

Unlikely Disciple – Roose
Roose follows his mentor (A.J. Jacobs) by making himself a human guinea pig. He’s an agnostic who enrolls at Liberty, one of the most conservative religious universities in the country. I didn’t expect much from this book, but he had more reasonable insights than I would have expected. There is benefit in seeing the “Christian sub-culture” from outside eyes. As a FHU graduate, Liberty had more in common with Freed than I might have thought.

How Do You Kill 11 Million People – Andy Andrews
Let me get this out of the way: this isn’t a how-to manual. (Hope you’re not disappointed!) How the decay of truth in politics leads the way to even greater problems. Did a good job describing the problem, but didn’t help much in terms of offering a solution.

Simply Christian – N.T. Wright
Wow. Wright identifies what everyone hungers for (justice, beauty, relationships, etc.) and shows how God works in these things. He talks about the simple story-arc of creation, fall, and re-creation. Excellent.

You and Me Forever by Francis and Lisa Chan
Christian couple’s marriage book, similar to Piper’s “This Momentary Marriage.” Trying to remind couples that their marriage is not their most significant relationship. Has a neat his/hers style of writing. If you like Chan’s style, you’ll like this.

When Mountains Won’t Move by Hawk
Jacob Hawk’s look at our response to suffering and pain. What do we do when things don’t go our way? Simplistic, but some helpful material and steps to deal with suffering.

Preaching with a Plan by Scott Gibson
How to construct a plan to move people in the direction of spiritual maturity. Good emphasis on the purpose of the plan.

Five Secrets and a Decision by Dale Jenkins
Simple book based on the author’s dad’s instructions to newly baptized converts. Short, simple, helpful.

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Peterson
Peterson uses the Psalms of Ascent to help us think about a life of discipleship. A tough read, but worth it.

Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
We need grace. Grace is for those who need it, not the perfect. Encouraging read from an interesting life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons – edited by Robertson
Advent sermons from the life of Bonhoeffer. Interesting to see how he preached and wrote during some of the most challenging times in modern history.

Developing a Series by Jonathan Malm
Predominantly about the marketing and communication aspects of a sermon series. Some good ideas for getting your message out further.

Purple Ducks by Humek
A spiritual memoir that kind of reminded me of Blue Like Jazz. Main idea is that we all want to be included. Okay.

Bethlehem road: A Guide to Ruth – Whitworth
Great guidebook to the book of Ruth. Major focus on God’s providence during suffering. Best offering of Start2Finish books so far.

Simply Jesus by N.T.  Wright
Excellent, excellent, excellent. Helps set Jesus against the backdrop of the collision of Judaism, Rome, and the mighty acts of God. Must-read if you’re studying Jesus seriously.

10 Questions about Prayer Every Christian Must Answer by Alex McFarland and Elmer Towns
Covers lots of interesting questions: do we change God’s mind in prayer? What happens when prayers ‘collide’? Great questions, but the answers were a little weaker than I had hoped.

Now I Know by Dan Lewis
Now I Know More by Dan Lewis
Interesting trivia book(s) based on Dan’s daily email. Lots of fun “behind the scenes” stories. Short, simple chapters.

Simple Church by Rainer and Geiger
Guide to cutting “church clutter” and being intentional about making disciples.

 What are YOU reading in 2015?

The New Wears Off

newwearsoffYou probably already know this about me, but I’m a sucker for Christmas. I love the lights and decorations and music and all of the little extras that we don’t normally have. When else do we get to wear goofy hats and give each other presents and just have fun? I always feel a little bummed out after New Year’s Day rolls around and the holidays are over. It’s the same cold weather outside and darkness way too early, but without the lights or the mistletoe. Something even happens to the gifts we get—the new wears off! Before we know it, we’re back in the routine of things, back to normal.

One of my favorite “new year’s passages” is Lamentations 3:22-23. It’s in the middle of a book in the Old Testament that is describing a train wreck. Jeremiah looks at Jerusalem and sees the pain and the suffering that sin has caused. He sees God’s hand against his people, instead of for it. It breaks his heart. He cries out, “This is not how it should be!” and weeps. The result is this little book, Lamentations. It’s not the happiest book in the Bible by any stretch.

In the middle of that book is this gem: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”

God’s mercy isn’t like Christmas. It isn’t like a birthday gift or even like a new car. The new doesn’t ever wear out on God’s mercy. Sometimes I forget it, neglect it, or even take it for granted—but God’s mercies remain as shining and spectacular as they were the day he first invented them. That’s what keeps us going!

Christian Resolutions

CandHresolutionsThe most common New Year’s Resolutions in America are to lose weight, volunteer, quit smoking, pursue education, get a better job, save money, get in shape, eat better, and manage money better. Those goals are really good ones that can improve our lives and make us more useful for Kingdom work. After all, better health frees us to serve others more freely and honors God who indwells our bodies. Better money management makes us better stewards and more able to help others.

I wonder how many people make resolutions with the specific aim of growing in faith? If you haven’t decided what you want to work on in 2015, can I offer a few possibilities?

  • Read the Bible daily. (Maybe read the entire Bible, or the New Testament?)
  • Pray more frequently and fervently. Keep a prayer list or prayer journal.
  • Take steps towards reconciliation in a broken relationship
  • Be more consistent in worship attendance
  • Share the gospel in a little way each week
  • Identify a weak spot in your discipleship, make a plan to address it, and be accountable to someone in your progress
  • Look for something that you have never done, that you’ve put off, that you need to. (Baptism? An apology?)
  • Step out of your comfort zone
  • Begin attending Sunday School or Wednesday Bible Study
  • Read (or listen to) a Christian book
  • Balance your life by honoring the Sabbath principle
  • Begin using one of your talents or interests for God in a new way

Resolutions can be a great tool. Will you use yours for the highest good?

(If you’re interested in a stunning example of this, check out Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions.)

God with US?!?

immanuel03Immanuel: you remember what that means, right? God is with us. When Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus in Matthew 1:18-15, he reminds us that this is a name given to Jesus.

Sometimes we say something so many times, it loses its shock. GOD?! With US?!?

God was with us in the garden. Adam and Eve would walk with him in the cool of the day. But that was before sin. After sin, God walked. Adam hid. They didn’t walk together. They couldn’t! Sin got in the way.

Along the way there would occasionally be someone who trusted God so fully, who followed so closely that they could be described as walking with God. Enoch walked with God—and didn’t die. But as for the rest of humanity, God was no longer “with us.” Not like before, at least.

The prophets were men who walked closer with God than most. And the closer you are to God, the closer you want to be to God. The gap between man and God is so painful to men of God. Isaiah wrote,  “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.” (Isaiah 59:2) Jeremiah said, “Your iniquity have turned these away, and your sins have kept good from you.” (Jeremiah 5:25)

Fortunately for us, the prophets weren’t the only ones grieved by the distance between man and God. God himself was grieved. He didn’t create us to abandon us. He wanted relationship with us. It gives him no pleasure to pronounce judgment on us.

So God gave instructions to the prophets. He told Isaiah to tell the people, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) He gives us a glimmer of hope that God and man can be together again. He gave Ezekiel, the prophet in exile, a picture of a perfect city. Instead of naming that city “Eden” or “Jerusalem” or even “Burns,” the last words of the book of Ezekiel are brimming with hope: “And the name of the city from that time on shall be, ‘the Lord is there.’” (Ezekiel 48:35)

God with us. That’s Immanuel. That’s what happened in Bethlehem. God came down, to be with us. He crossed the lines and became one of us to save us. He came to be with us so we could be with him. Jesus is good news!

Against the backdrop of war-torn Europe, Helmut Thielicke wrote these words about Immanuel:

“Jesus Christ did not remain at base headquarters in heaven, receiving reports of the world’s suffering from below and shouting a few encouraging words to us from a safe distance. No, he left the headquarters and came down to us, in the front-line trenches, right down to where we live and worry about what the enemy may do, where we contend with our anxieties and the feeling of emptiness and futility, where we sin and suffer guilt, and where we must finally die. There is nothing that he did not endure with us. He understands everything.”

Jesus is good news. God himself is with us!