What Kind of Proverbs Person Are You?


proverbsThere was a time on Facebook when people were posting these self “inventories” – which state do you belong in (mine was Colorado), which decade best fits you (I grew up in the 70’s), and which Disney princess are you (I don’t even want to know…). I’ve been giving some thought to my own kind of inventory – which kind of Proverbs person are you? Over the next few blog posts I’ll try to offer some characteristics of people described in the book of Proverbs might give you some insight to where you are at.

I’ve had a long fascination with the Proverbs as not just fortune cookie kind of “wisdom” but actual wisdom on how to live life. The Bible indicates that there are two roads in life (Matt. 724-27): one is the wise road and one is the road of folly or foolishness that leads to death. In other words, we are on one road or the other and the stakes are pretty high, so much so, that if you are a risk-taker, it should cause you to pause and reflect.

If you start reading from Proverbs 1, it’s clear there is a “fabric” to life. Living life consistent “with the grain” of life leads to well-being while living “against the grain” will lead to despair – separation from others, from God and from life itself. In fact, what should be readily apparent is how unforgiving life can be when we make foolish decisions and compound them with more foolishness. Even if it seems like people get away with a life contrary to the one the Proverbs lay out, reflection should lead a person to see through the veneer. As you look at good and nice people, life might seem to go well for them but in actuality they are lousy and empty people…

Two quick things about wisdom. First, wisdom isn’t the same thing as gaining information. In other words, you can be incredibly smart but still foolish. You can know a lot about poverty yet be incredibly reckless in how you approach the complexity of it. You can know a lot about God while being incredibly dull when it comes to the reality of Him in your life. Second, becoming wise is a long process, like a journey, where one is traveling and accumulating wisdom. In fact, Proverbs is about training us to move from being a certain kind of dull person to a person who is wise, who has a certain competency (or skillful) in living life the way God made life to be lived (reality).  Gerhard von Rad described wisdom as,

“Wisdom is becoming competent with regard to the realities of life.”

One very quick aside. As von Rad states, wisdom actually makes one skillful in living in reality, or ordinary life. So whatever Judaism (and later Christianity) is, it’s not an escape from reality. I’m not sure where the image of the wise Shaolin priest came from, but Eastern religions are actually less connected to reality.  In a fascinating blog from 2003, John Horgan, a former Catholic, described why he decided to ultimately leave Buddhism behind. While Horgan comes from a religious background, he holds to scientific naturalism (that is, science provides the best method to describe what’s true about the universe and hence, it’s strictly about the material world). We might argue whether Horgan understands Christianity well, but the main reason why he ditched Buddhism is most important.

“But what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation. Buddha’s first step toward enlightenment was his abandonment of his wife and child, and Buddhism (like Catholicism) still exalts male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. It seems legitimate to ask whether a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood is truly spiritual.”1

The Proverbs put before us five categories – the simple or naive, the rebellious teenager, the lazy “dupe”, the scoffer or mocker, and the wise. There is a bit of overlap in the “foolish categories” but there seems to be a spectrum of severity from the rebellious fool to the lazy fool to the mocker. So the point of the book (consistent with a Jewish understanding of wisdom) is to get insight into people, particularly older to younger. It’s really about the process of discipleship or becoming the right kind of person who learns a particular skill – how to live life. In the next blog, I will start laying out characteristics of each of the people described. Maybe it will help you assess where you are in terms of foolishness and wisdom in order to become a better disciple.

1 John Horgan, Why I Ditched Buddhism, Slate Magazine, 2003.

Fifteen Books That Will Spark Spiritual Growth


216059With any new year approaching there’s always a hopeful sense of what the future will bring. Last year, I wrote a piece about fourteen things you could do to care for your soul that would move the spiritual yardsticks, even if slightly. If  you haven’t read it here it is (14 Things To Do To Care For Your Soul ) as it’s still relevant to a new year.

This year I thought I would list fifteen books I consider important for every Christian to read (Get it? 2015, Fifteen books?). These are books I have read at some point during the past thirty years that are aimed primarily at spiritual growth. You might think about taking one book at a time without rushing to get through them all in 2015.  Linger a bit with them as you would a conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee! The books are not ranked in order.

1. Devotional Classics by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith. The purpose of this book is to expose the reader to different spiritual writers through history, moving from the early church fathers (Gregory of Nyssa) to modern writers (C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard). The writings are short and edited a bit to make the readings more readable. You might take one reading per week, maybe with a few other people, to discuss and work through the questions, exercises, and reflections at the end of each selection.

2. Radical by David Platt. While I have a few concerns about how sustainable the radical life is (as Platt describes it) over the entirety of one’s life, that does not take away from the jarring impact his words have on my own tendency to choose comfort over discipleship to Christ. Bottom line: it’s hard to read this book and feel ambivalent. One of my favorite memories is going through Platt’s book with eighty young adults talking and dreaming about giving our lives to something bigger than ourselves.

3. The Great Omission by Dallas Willard. I have been asked, “Which Dallas Willard book should I start with?” I’ve had students in seminary class who have gotten lost reading The Divine Conspiracy and even Renovation of the Heart. Willard was a philosophy professor at USC and his writing style is not light so it takes a certain commitment to actually sit, read, and reflect. I would suggest reading The Great Omission, a series of short, straightforward chapters about recapturing discipleship in the church today as a way to introduce yourself to his writings and then from there move on to Renovation of the Heart.

4. The Pensees by Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a mathematician and theologian in the 1600’s. Following a dramatic conversion experience with God, he wrote the phrase, “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, certainly, heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. Joy, joy, joy, oceans of joy!” on a piece of paper and sewed it into his jacket lining where it remained until he died. The book is a collection of “pensees” (pronounced pon-seas), translated “thoughts”. There is no real order to them but others have tried to organized them systematically (see Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft) to help frame moving from the problem to the solution. This, I believe, puts Pascal’s famous Wager in a better context, allowing us to understand it’s evangelistic value better.

5 & 6. The Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller. There is no modern writer that I know of that is both as brilliant or as “down to earth” as Tim Keller. You can sense as you read the book that his goal is much like the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s aim which was to “smuggle Christianity back into Christendom” (we could also say this about C.S. Lewis and Pascal as well). The contrast between the younger and older brother in the familiar “Parable of the Prodigal Son” should deeply convict us our waywardness either by rebelling or by being morally good. Counterfeit Gods, likewise, points us to the incessant desire toward idolatry as we take people and things and make them ultimate in our lives in an attempt to fill an infinite hole in our hearts with the gospel as the solution.

7. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (translated by William Creasy). The great value of Creasy’s translation is it updates the language making it much more readable than earlier translations. The book is generally thought of as the second most read Christian book behind the Bible. While there are a few chapters where his “Catholicity” comes out, the vast majority of the book can (and should) be read devotionally by Protestants.

8 & 9. Formed For the Glory of God by Kyle Strobel and Beloved Dust by Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin. I include Kyle Strobel in my list because of his work studying Jonathan Edwards. What I appreciate deeply is the connection he makes between Edwards’ theology and his practice (much like Edwards himself). This is important because we want to connect good thinking with good practice, good theology with good application. Strobel’s focus on Edwards’ understanding of the “means of grace”, those practices that are essential to spiritual growth, re-captures a robust understanding of both mind and heart. This is also true of his and Goggin’s newest offering Beloved Dust, which focuses on the practice of prayer.

10. Reflection on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. This is one of Lewis’ lesser known writings penned in 1958. At the urging of one of his friends, Austin Ferrer, Lewis’ writing is much more devotional in nature than apologetical. It’s a great book to supplement reading through the Psalms devotionally each morning.

11. Finding Calcutta by Mary Poplin. Maybe this has meaning because of my time in the very poor parts of Calcutta and seeing the Mother Teresa’s ongoing work in the city. A friend, Bob Alexander, introduced me to the book a few years ago and I’m so glad he did! Poplin’s spiritual journey from agnosticism to faith in Christ put in the context of Mother Teresa’s life and work is soul stirring. What you will find is the simplicity of Mother Teresa’s lived out theology as she gave her life away to the poor of Calcutta even when her spiritual life was struggling.

12. Loving God by Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was a Catholic monk who was part of, what’s known as a Cistercian abbey. His influence was extensive not only as a Catholic reformer of sorts, but also an “abbey planter”. By the end of life his he had planted either directly or indirectly seventy abbeys. What throws evangelicals for a loop is that he is considered a Catholic “mystic”. That is, Bernard held to, “I believe that I may experience” with a focus on the love of God and union with God as stirring the heart. Yet because of his commitment to Scripture and a robust theology, John Calvin quoted Bernard numerous times in his devotional tome, The Institutes. Imagine a Protestant reformer referring to a Catholic! This is his most well known book on the “stages of love” as one grows in love for God over the course of their life. Here’s an edited translation that reads quite well – (Loving God)

13. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Put in the historical context of World War Two, Bonhoeffer’s classic still rouses the lukewarm heart to the great cost of following Christ. Dallas Willard referenced Bonhoeffer as it relates to the cost to following Christ in The Spirit of the Disciplines: If one is not willing to belly up to the bar (my paraphrase of paying the cost) to follow Him then one should wonder where they even stand with God. Man, that will preach….

14. Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace. Lovelace is Professor Emeritus of church history at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. The book provides a unified vision of the individual’s spiritual growth and periods in history when it erupted into corporate spiritual revival. Ok, so the book is a bit academic! However, Lovelace’s thoughts on the modern confusion on justification and sanctification and the “sanctification gap” are money. Deeply convicting and, even though it’s a bit academic, devotional.

15. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. No, he’s not the guy who had a giant blue ox named Babe. The book is considered one of the best examples of religious English literature by using an allegory of the Christian’s journey toward heaven. If the old English weighs you down there are more accessible modern translations. By the way, I’m not opposed to these “translations” at all. If the “translation” retains the thrust of what the author is trying to get at  yet makes it more accessible to the modern reader, then I’m all for suggesting them as a way to get people to read the classics. Here’s an example: (Pilgrim’s Progress).

I’m sure you have thought of classics that I haven’t listed. I wish I had more space to include some of the Puritan works (John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation is on deck waiting to be read) as well as men like A.W. Tower and more of the Christian mystics (Teresa of Avila). Space would only allow so much, but please feel free to add any books that have not only challenged your thinking but led to a more devoted walk with Christ. Enjoy and here’s to 2015 being a year where our hearts are knit more closely to His (Ps. 86:11)!

An Unbroken Life


unbroken-cover_custom-0a55df2637ae96369dd0302be5ad4de816c6b0ab-s6-c85One day when I was speaking with my friend John Coulombe in his office, thinking about ways we could intentionally mix generations at church, he had a brilliant idea… “Let’s call Louie and see if he will help us!” What I came to realize is that he was calling Louis Zamperini whose biography was documented in the book, Unbroken. The conversation was short mostly because we woke him up from a nap. But in the short conversation my sense was that he was genuinely excited about helping but his schedule was pretty full as this was the early stages of turning Laura Hillenbrand’s best seller into a script.

At some point in the near future I will get a chance to see the movie and I will probably leave inspired by the courage of someone who went through horrific abuse and torture. What do we do with stories like Zamperini’s? What is it about his heroic life that catches our attention and inspires us? The story resonates with our need for an example, a heroic pattern.

James Houston in his book, Mentoring as Discipleship, unpacks the heroic pattern as the chaos of life is met head on by a determined and courageous attitude.

“…the quest to be challenged by something, accept it, and rise above it. For some, this thing is to climb the highest mountains, to sail the oceans single handedly, to create Olympic sports for the disabled, or whatever gives the plain challenge that it is ‘there to be done,’ or ‘to be discovered’ or ‘to be found out.'”

Surely this is inspiring when we hear stories of “average” people who face insurmountable odds and conquer. It’s like so many movie posters,  “A testament to the power of the human spirit!!!” Yet, if we were honest we would readily admit that while we love stories like this, we also recognize that our lives are less than consistently heroic.

This comes out clearly in Hillebrand’s book. Despite the fact that Zamperelli was unbroken by “the Bird’s” torturous methods, his ability to forgive was much more difficult to stand up under. Yet, when his life was changed as a result of a Billy Graham Crusade, he forgave his captors, beautifully captured in Hillebrand’s words,

“At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.” 

In Acts 5, Peter speaks to the High Jewish Council…

The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”(ESV)

The word for “Leader” is sometimes translated as “Prince” or “Captain”. It’s the same word used in Hebrews 12:2 translated as “Author”. Interestingly enough, the same Greek word archegon was used in ancient Greek mythology to describe Hercules as being the champion and trailblazer. Archegon really means, hero!

What Peter is saying is that Jesus is our Hero. What’s true of heroes?

1.) They are committed to some greater good

2.) The greater good is often at the cost of their own quick happiness

3.) It can include sacrificing their own lives so that what happens to them should happen to you.

4.) We live our lives through heroes. In some way, the life we live is somehow through them in that their failure is our failure, their success is our success.

Jesus is the supreme archegos as the heroic has been fully revealed in Christ. The fact that I inconsistently face difficulties in life won’t crush me if I know that there was One who actually was broken for me. My ability to be “unbroken” in life is not because of my fortitude or inner strength. If that’s the case, I will always disappoint myself because my ability to be “my own hero” is severely limited. The vision of the Hero is met fully in Christ, who gave Himself for me. His death is somehow my death and His life is somehow my life. In that way can enter into the heroic only because we know history’s true Hero.

Tensions We Face in Discipleship: The Buffered Self


I few weeks ago I touched on one of the larger tensions in following Christ as working out how much of growth in the Christian life is up to me. What I suggested is the way that you were rescued is the same way that you progress – God’s grace. While grace is not opposed to our effort, it is opposed to earning or making ourselves presentable to God through our own effort. So growth is God’s work in my heart as I participate with Him (consent to) that work.

But there are other tensions in following Christ. Take for instance, can you actually be a follower Christ on your own? Maybe this is more of a western problem due to a rampant attitude of individualism. Philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age describes the modern person as the “buffered self”. This is the individual that is self-contained: I determine what I do, who I am, and what I will be. If the older notion of human purpose was to live for the glory of God, we now live for ourselves and God exists to sustain me or make me happy. If a person used to look outside of themselves for instruction on how to live, now people look to self for the answers (or Google in the privacy of their home or smartphone).

This just isn’t a problem with people don’t need God. Even people who are religious have subtle motivations that lead them to buffer themselves from others. A person can regularly show up on Sunday morning and no meaningful connection to others during the week. Whether a person lets kids’ activities rule their life or simply keeps their faith private by walling others out, the erroneous belief is growth can happen individually without others.

Why is this belief wrong? Because if a person buffers themselves effectively from others with no meaningful relationships, it will be impossible to live out the “one another” commands (some 50+ in the New Testament). Besides that, you need others to speak truth to you, not only cheering on the good character traits that are blossoming through God’s work in your heart but also confronting your less than stellar moments when those poor character traits leak out of your heart. It’s only the “buffered self” that isn’t willing to hear about selfishness, coveting, narcissism, laziness, and the list goes on ad nauseam. People are God’s gift to us because who else will encourage us but also tell us how incredibly broken we are?

How do we overcome the tendency to buffer ourselves from other? At least one way is to move beyond sitting next to someone shoulder to shoulder on Sunday to a place where you sit face to face, maybe around a table, or even better in someone’s living room. C.J. Mahaney in his book “Why Small Groups” quotes theologian Bruce Milne, “The Christian life is inescapably corporate.” Milne is simply saying that the way God constructed the discipleship pathway is it inescapably includes others. One application of this would be, this fall jump into the pathway of being an intentional disciple by joining a small group (in our case a Life Group)!

Thoughts on Discipleship


In Dallas Willard’s book, the Great Omission, he makes the claim, and I agree, that making disciples has largely been omitted by most churches today. Willard observed that churches are more interested in making converts than making disciples, thus relegating disciple-making to the margins. Over the years, as I have thought about disciple-making, practiced it and as I have read numerous books on the subject and spoken with people from churches and parachurch organizations where disciple-making is a priority, let me offer a few thoughts.

First, there seems to be a “corrective” going on. Consistent with Willard’s statement about making disciples vis-a-vis making converts, it seems that there is a growing emphasis on recapturing learning how to make disciples. My observation is that while “getting people in” has been a large part of modern evangelicalism, many are now realizing  that we have unwittingly contributed to the “thinness” of people’s faith by focusing primarily on “getting people saved.” I’m certainly not advocating that the gospel message of salvation ceases to be announced. But I have noticed that there are a growing number of thoughtful people who are equally concerned with providing a structure for people to actually grow in grace and faith (apart from the explicit or implicit message that it’s about obedience now that you’re “in”). More on this in a later week…

Second, it seems to me that disciple-making is less of a standalone subject. In previous days “discipleship” seemed subject matter that seemed to be focused on basic Christian skills: reading the Bible, fellowship, prayer and evangelism. Discple-making was connected to an underlying belief that once you learn how to do these basic things then you will become mature. But the consensus today is that discple-making is less like a “classroom feel” and much more open to the relational element of learning and growing together in all areas of life. Today disciple-making has become more wholistic focusing on mission, work, marriage, the kinds of apologetics that connect to real life, etc. All of this is an outworking that it’s best to think of the Christian life less in a compartmentalized way and more as the wholeness of person in all of life, connected to the heart.

It’s always struck me as a bit reductionistic to simply say that spiritual formation is the same thing as discipleship. It might be more accurate to say that spiritual formation lends itself to approaching disciple-making in a particular way. A good friend of mine in describing his book on Jonathan Edwards, told me that he wrote the book to get theologically minded people to think more about the heart and to get those who focus solely on the heart to think about good, robust theology. In that sense, making disciples is going to be this project of treating the whole person, focusing on truth and grace, while pointing them over and over to the Savior, who is the embodiment of truth and grace.