What Kind of Proverbs Person Are You?

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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

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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)!

Godzilla and the Weight of Guilt

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iSErSEp5iXkQA few nights ago our family went with another family to see the opening of Godzilla. Not only did it remind me of watching all the Godzilla movies on Saturday afternoons when I was growing up but I also found myself wanting to build a Lego city and then destroying it! I thought the movie was great not only in terms of scale and the tension that built through the movie, but also how it was a somewhat different take on the legendary Japanese monster.

I happened to read an interview in Rolling Stone online with the director, Gareth Edwards, who offered some insight on how he approached making the movie. He said,

“The best horror always begins with guilt, As cool as it is to see giant monsters smashing things, it’s always stronger if it feels like we sort of deserve it.”

I hadn’t really given much thought to the great horror movies beginning with guilt but it’s in quite a few that I can think of and it’s pervasive in Godzilla.

Guilt is that objective sense that I’ve done something wrong, I’ve violated a norm or my own conscience, or I’ve hurt somebody I love. Of course guilt can become neurotic where one feels like Ham in Toy Story and guilt gets connected to every little thing imaginable. But there is something visceral about guilt that seems to be universal. In a Godzilla sense then, I wonder if every one does feel that they deserve some sort of verdict of destruction

Franz Kafka (who wrote The Trial, a powerful book on this real, invisible sense of guilt), wrote in his diary,

“The problem that modern people have now is that we feel like a sinner though independent of guilt.”

Kafka is saying modern people have gotten rid of the idea of guilt yet for some reason they still feel like there’s something wrong with them. Because the modern person has rejected all objective truth and morals, there is no way for them to get to the objective “something” that’s wrong with them which they still sense. There’s no way for them to know…

The joke that often gets told is that all religions are the same: They all make you feel guilty, just with  different holidays. Actually, the gospel is exactly the opposite. The gospel assumes that guilt is already sensed as a present condition. There is a verdict that has been rendered and as Kafka pointed out, no matter how we try to spin or dismiss it, we sense it. The good news is that God’s solution to guilt is not to pile more guilt on but to actually deal with it at the source. You feel guilt because you are guilty, and there must be someone other than you who actually reverses the verdict that you sense has been cast over your life.

Horror movies, when done well are great reminders of the horror of the verdict. Edwards is correct when he says that intuit that we might actually deserve destruction. The gospel’s answer to this horror is what C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien might call the most plausible, persuasive true tale there is.

Who Should Observe Lent?

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2010-02-lent-bigWhen I was working for Residence Life in Davis, CA back in the day, my boss gleefully announced to the staff that he was giving up drinking beer for Lent. From the little I knew about Lent, I thought this was a noble decision on his part…. until I watched him get blasted on wine each weekend drinking enough to tranquilize a rhino.

What used to be a standard Catholic holy period has changed a bit. A few years ago I started to notice more and more young (as in age) Christians practicing Lent.  Actually the practice is old, probably one of the oldest of Christian holy days. The word “lent” is connected to the Latin word for “spring”, so it became a 40-day holy period beginning on Ash Wednesday leading up to Easter Sunday. Even as far back as Irenaeus (?-203 AD), one of the early church fathers, there was an emphasis on observing a period of time before celebrating Christ’s resurrection. Every day the early pagan converts to Christianity were taught for a 40-day period leading up to their baptism, during which they had to reflect deeply on their background in light of their newfound faith in Messiah.

Since Lent has predominantly been celebrated in the Catholic Church, how is it that Protestants are starting to embrace Lent? While it certainly is an individual decision, let me offer two reasons as to the value that Evangelical Christians might find in entering into a lenten period apart from any of the particular (and maybe troublesome) traditional nuances. First, there is a growing desire to re-connect to the rich history of the church. Without embracing a completely traditional understanding of Lent, well-intentioned, thoughtful Protestants want to recover a rich and meaningful church history. Not everything that’s cool happens to be new (you can read into this Lewis’ thoughts on chronological snobbery).

Second, in listening to my friends, it seems that the heart behind observing Lent is focused on fasting. They are less concerned with other aspects of Lent but instead seem to be eager to enter into fasting as a spiritual preparation for Easter. In the traditional sense fasting was connected to food, but it has grown into other things as well (e.g. fasting from video games, alcohol, etc.). I think this is marvelous that there has been this re-discovery of the spiritual value of fasting.

Fasting as a spiritual practice has always been valuable. The practice itself does not fix us or make us more spiritual in the sense that if we fast it will directly cure us of the myriad of addictions and unbridled emotions we have. In the same way, the primary reason why we practice Sabbath rest (or any of the disciplines) is not because it’s beneficial (“I rest one day so I can be reenergized to work hard for six days”). The main focus of the practice of fasting is God – what He wants to do in our hearts and what He wants to point us to.

It seems to me that what fasting does is simulate a “mini-suffering” (as do the other disciplines) as we voluntarily enter into a place where we deny ourselves something for a period of time. It is a willing and intentional “getting to the end of your rope” in order to depend solely on God. In the sense, it is has the same effect of external suffering which most people would agree is a major source of personal growth.  

The actual hunger for food in fasting reminds a person that what their soul hungers for ultimately is God Himself. The actual giving up of something reminds us that there are places in the heart where over-desire, over-love, over-importance, over-emotion, even wrong beliefs that we put too much weight on, “fill us”. Food, which is a good thing, can be used to mask deep vice in the human heart. God through His Spirit wants to fill even those areas of the heart. Fasting graciously points us back to God as the source of life and the ultimate Giver of good gifts. We cannot do life without Him!

But the practice of fasting also points us to Christ. My wife, Kay, reminded me that in Philippians 2, Paul speaks of Christ’s “setting aside” in becoming fully enfleshed. What He willingly gave up, He did so for his entire life. Further, while our sacrifices are not trivial, they are intended to lead us to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. We see this in Christ’s 40-day fasting period in the wilderness when He was tempted by Satan. During that time everything that Satan tempted Christ with was to get Him to avoid the Cross. What Christ did in His “giving up” was for our redemption!

The regimen of fasting for a prolonged period (40 days) right before Easter has great gospel implications! So are you open to fasting starting this Wednesday?

New Year’s Resolutions

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With the new year almost upon us it’s natural to start reflecting on the past and looking and toward the future. If you’re like me, you can relate to the realization that there are certain habits that I want to change or goals that I want to achieve. There is a certain role for fortitude that gets expressed through wanting to change to become “better”. We have all made these kinds of resolutions because we have a picture of the kind of person we want to become. Dallas Willard in his picture of sanctification (Christian growth) employs the model of VIM – vision (the kind of person you want to become), Intention (actually wanting to become that person), and Motivation (the inner power to change).

As the new year approaches I think ti’s safe to say that most of us have this belief that it’s not good to stand still as a Christian and that in some way we need to grow spiritually. This intention to grow in faith is absolutely critical. Why is it so important?

It’s a nightmare to let my “I want to’s” become “I wish I would have’s”. For instance, we have all said or thought things like, “I want to become more godly”, “I want to read the Bible with the goal of real inner transformation”, “I want to get involved with a group of people that have the gospel as central to all they do”, and the list goes on and on. If you say want it, why don’t you act on it? On one hand, we don’t want to be “that person” who wakes up one day and finds out that all of their “I would like to” have become “I wish I would have”. On the other hand, isn’t it hard to take the initial steps of intention to begin to move toward real personal change?

The more long-lasting problem with lack of intention is I have found it to be true that the older you get the harder it is to muster up intention. The more you tell yourself, I want to do change but I don’t want to put forth the effort, your heart will become harder as opposed to softer. The habit of sloth gets ingrained in such a way that often times people wake up too late for any sense of intention.

If there is no sense of getting after it (intention) Jonathan Edwards calls these merely “weak, dull, and lifeless wouldings (I would like to…).” In some ways it’s better to just call it as it is and not say things like “I really want to become this kind of person” if you don’t really have intention. I mean, isn’t that really a form of duplicity? As 2013 begins take a moment to think about the kind of person you’d like to become. In honesty with God, do you really want it? Are you really ready to put forth the initial intention? You won’t be able to change you completely but intention is your responsibility. The old Christians thought that sloth was pretty deadly, so much so that many speak of it as one of the most pernicious of sins, kind of the gateway to others…

So what do you think about getting going this year? Are you ready? How will this year be challenging for you? How would you like to grow? How do you see yourself getting out of a comfort zone this year? I’m ready to jump in as well!

Some Thoughts on Gratitude

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vintage-thanksgiving-autumn-background-happy-text-33330589This time of the year, it’s appropriate to give thanks, to express gratitude. I think we all are aware that it’s not primarily about what you have but expressing gratitude for what you do have. And so, in the spirit, of this time of year, here are a few thoughts to ruminate on about gratitude.

First, expressing thanks is not only a command (there are 45 separate commands to give thanks in the Psalms) but it’s a virtue, a internal character trait that helps a person do well in life. If you doubt that then look at people who simply gripe about everything. Exactly… being around people like that gets incredibly draining. So gratitude is something that we should cultivate in our lives all year round and not just one part of the year.

Second, and maybe this is intuitive, gratitude is something that is directed toward someone outside of yourself. Who wakes up on Thanksgiving and says, “Man, I’m so grateful to me!!” This is called “pride” and it’s epidemic in our culture that wants us to believe that we are the source of everything good. You see, pride is not only the opposite of humility/honesty but it destroys any sense of gratitude. A quick test… if you’re not grateful for  much then you filled with more of yourself than you realize.

Third, gratitude is cultivated by a sense that the gift is not deserved and it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Have you noticed when you receive a gift you aren’t “wowed” with yet  you offer the obligatory “thank you”? That’s not really gratitude. Contrast that with when you are given something by another that is undeserved and it feels like it is so big that it comes out of nowhere. What I’m getting at is the difference in response from my children when for Christmas they receive clothes and when they receive a new GameCube (that’s a true story)!

If t his is true then you can tell how spoiled a person is not by how much they have but their heart attitude toward what they do have. Spoiled people are bored, wanting more and never pleased with their current circumstances. No matter how talented you are or how much you have, if you cease to be grateful you will always feel like there is something lacking in your life, like you are never complete.

One  of the greatest tasks then in our life is to cultivate a heart that is truly grateful not just for the “stuff” that we have but more importantly to God who has given us life itself. All that we have is a gift from God (James 1:17)! This is our response to God who has given us all good gifts, demonstrated by His ultimately giving us His Son. May He awaken all of our hearts to gratitude on t his holiday where it’s appropriate to give thanks!