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)!

Martin Luther’s Potty Mouth…

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Martin-Luther

Back in April, I was with Sean McLeish and Derek Rishmawy in Orlando for a conference. Seriously, Derek is a blogging machine! I asked him how he came up with so many topics to write on and his response was something like, “When you read something… when something strikes you or comes to mind, write about that.” Ok! Derek, see if they accept these kinds of articles on the Gospel Coalition website…

When you think of Martin Luther (1483-1546) what comes to mind? Of course most would identify him as the person who initiated the Reformation in the 16th century. But what you might not know about about Luther (nor was it in the movie with Joseph Fiennes) was his rather “earthy” personality.  What I mean by that is… well… Luther had a reputation for having a potty mouth. This week I was reading about the 2004 discovery of Luther’s toilet where he evidently pondered much of the Ninety-Five Thesis (Toilet where Luther strained to produce the Reformation). Luther had a severe problem with chronic constipation which might explain why he was so intense all the time…

Luther had a strong fascination with flatulence. As a young Catholic monk, Luther had quite a heavy conscience that required him to confess his sins constantly. Evidently when he went to confession he would confess so much that the supervising Father finally told Luther that he was so obssesed with his own sin that he would likely confess his own fart. Luther’s more famous quote was, “I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.” Wow… what kind of odor would chase the devil away?

I’m certainly not an advocate for Christians adopting foul language in their everyday conversations. However, as I was thinking about this, I recollected Philippians 3:8 where Paul in contrasting “all things” with knowing Christ used the Greek word, “skubala”. Unfortunately, the word gets sanitized as it’s translated from Greek to English. The real thrust of the contrast is compared to knowing Christ, everything is (here it comes, but I’ll be sensitive)… crap. You get what Paul is saying. Compared to surpassing greatness of knowing Christ, all of it, everything that I think brings me meaning, identity and security is like a pile of human excrement. The metaphor that Paul uses here is powerful because it wells up strong feelings in us and shouldn’t really be sanitized because it loses it’s ability to shock our genteel Christianity into reality! Maybe there should be room for a rare but well-placed bomb…

Those who know Christ long for the day that contrast gets deeply settled in our hearts and, in the thinking of Dallas Willard, as sincere followers of Christ are intentionally rearranging the affairs of their life to that end.  Do you engage with Christ to that end? And all of this with the hope that one day He will redeem even our own flatulence…

Reading Calvin Devotionally

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It’s been awhile since I posted my thoughts. To be honest, I think I needed a month or so to stabilize, kind of get my heart right knowing that the next few months will “a ride”. I’m not sure how much of this journey I’ll share on a blogsite but I’d be more than happy to describe what it’s like in person.

That said, I have to be honest that in my stubborn past, I refused to read John Calvin for a number of reasons. First, some (ok, a lot) of the Reformed-type people I know came across as boorish. it seemed like we could never have a conversation about life without somehow getting back to theology proper, particularly the issue of predestination. And it seemed like even as a young believer I was an object being smashed with a hammer into a pigeonholed pentagon… And second, I thought Calvin himself was wound a little too tight. Without even considering his historical context, while I was thankful for the Reformation, I refused to read Calvin because it was too cold and precise theologically. I remember a post of Tim Keller’s where he described many people’s reaction toward Calvin as someone with a “dismal reputation as a pinched, narrow-minded, cold and cerebral dogmatician.” Uh… yea… that’s pretty close…

A few months ago, I started a project by reading Calvin in a different way. For sure, I had to wade through some of the topics that I initially had avoided Calvin over. Most every morning I have read Calvin’s Institutes devotionally. That is, rather than reading him critically (that’s in the good sense of the word), I’ve read him with an open heart. In the beginning Calvin begins by positing two forms of knowledge – knowledge of God and knowledge of self. Knowing God and knowing self are both important, and are not separate but interlinked. But which comes first? Of course, he holds to knowledge of God. But putting that aside, what if I read Calvin with an open heart to see myself in light of knowing God more?

So when I came to some of his famous chapters on election and predestination (which are way less than I originally had assumed), here’s what it did in my heart. Apart from any logical or biblical argument that Calvin puts forth, what my heart sensed was deep gratitude that in some way salvation was wrapped up in His initiation in my life. I don’t know how much my agency played a part but my heart was settled in the fact that somehow, in God’s wisdom, His lovingkindess was made known in my life through Christ. For the time, it was ok to “sit in it” and not try to figure it out.

All that to say, in honesty, I’ve been surprised how devotional his writings are and how wrong I was!

Why observe Advent?

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Today marks the beginning of what Christians call the season of Advent. The word originally means “coming” and it has a deep and rich tradition in the church where His people anticipate the coming of Messiah for a four Sunday period prior to Christmas. Of course, it’s not obligatory for Christians to observe Advent but why would evangelicals give time and space to Advent? There are a couple of reasons that come to mind…

First, I think there is something about Christmas that is more about anticipating the presents than it is about anticipating Christ. What I mean is that early on in our lives we have been trained to “long for” and anticipate that glorious morning when we would open the Christmas presents. This is sometimes where we forget that the Jews anticipated a Messiah that had been prophesied from their own prophets. Advent is to remind us to “long for” what we really need… a Savior. When we forget to remember what the Jews wanted to badly we also forget what we need so badly… rescue… salvation…

But second, advent was not only to remind people of His first coming but also His second coming. If the word means “coming” then Advent is the time of year that we intentionally remember not only of the appearance of Messiah in a field in Bethlehem but His return. The first time He came it was a babe in a manger. The second time He comes will be as the conquering King. Jesus is mentioned as saying twice in Revelation 22, “Behold I am coming quickly…” Advent is the time of year that we acknowledge with our lives that our Savior is returning and to be on the alert!

In many ways, the romantic picture and presents of Christmas tend to take away from His future return. For sure the message of Christmas is “God gave”, but during Advent let’s not forget that He will return. He has promised to return and so He will. May all of His people then during Advent live lives of “Maranatha”… Our Lord, return quickly

Vocation

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I’ve agreed to teach a seminar/class on the subject of vocation for the church starting in January! I’m not sure what night it will be offered but I’m looking forward to a rich time of thinking deeply about the subject of vocation/calling with others and incorporating aspects of spiritual formation. In fact, I’m hoping that this becomes a distinctive of the young adult ministry… equipping adults to live out Kingdom priorities in the midst of their vocation and figuring it out with each other!

Overall, my sense is that there is much confusion about vocation and calling and I hope to reduce that. One of the most obvious problems is that there seems to be a split between vocation and calling. When I use the word “vocation”, what do you think of immediately? Most people would probably respond something like, “my job.” But if I asked for their calling, I would probably get blank looks. If people were completely honest I think they would ask me, “How were you called by God to ministry?” In other words, vocation is for the average person and callings are reserved for those in Christian work. Somehow we have perpetuated this idea that the two are different. But are they?

I hope to tackle a number of questions. Here are a few William Placher lists in his book, “Callings” (I might even make this required reading for the class).

  • How do I know what I’m called to do?
  • Is there one right answer to the question of my calling?
  • Can I make a mistake, and not do what God has called me to do? if so, what are the consequences?
  • Can my vocation change?

As I’m in the prep phrase for the class are any other questions I should tackle? What have you wrestled with as it relates to vocation and calling? What aspects of your work need to clarified with the biblical understanding of work? As always, I’m looking forward to any feedback you have!

Disciples…Then and Now

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This morning I was reading Jesus’ teaching early in his ministry on the side of a hill on the north part of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 5-7). In a rabbinic way he is teaching the reality that the eternal Kingdom has broken through into history. As an introduction to the last parable contrasting a man who build his life on rock versus sand, as a way to summarize he says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

In what way are you learning how to become this person who intentionally builds his or her life upon Him as the solid foundation? What plan do you have to actually become like Jesus? Dallas Willard writes that this is what it means to be a follower of Jesus (or disciple): systematically and progressively rearranging the affairs of your life to the end of becoming like Him.

Now to be certain, we can’t do this in our own ability. Grace is both necessary and sufficient. Here are some self reflection questions then…

  1. How is intention to grow in following Jesus manifested in your life? How is learning how to be a good boy/girl or doing the right things different than the heart of a disciple?
  2. What drives the gospel deeper into your heart? Into those nooks where you largely function out of self (self-importance, self-justification, self-promotion, self-reliance)?
  3. Is this something you do alone? Or do you find yourself standing with others who cry out for the same things in their life?
  4. What do you do when you see how deep the roots of sin in your life are? Are you willing to take an axe to the root as Thomas a Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ
  5. How are you, in turn, making disciples (assuming that Matthew 28:18-20 was not just the spiritual elite or professionals)?

Making disciples is what we all are commanded to do and it all turns on our own following after Jesus. Dallas Willard is absolutely correct when he says that the heart and intention of the disciple has always been the same since the original disciples. It is the growing desire to follow after their Savior and Master, systematically and progressively re-arranging the affairs of their life to that end.

 

Gospel #6 – Thy Kingdom Come

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If you were asked to communicate what the gospel is to someone else, what would you include? In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul includes both Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection. Think about it.. what if you didn’t mention anything about the resurrection and just spoke of His death on the cross? At the core of the gospel, Christ’s work not only includes His death but His resurrection from the dead. This should give us a final clue as to what the gospel is.

Tim Keller offers a concise definition of the gospel as, Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever (Leadership Magazine, The Gospel in All its Forms). All I want to point out is the word “restores”. What’s clear about the gospel is it not only deals with the issue of sin, but it includes God’s promise of a future-restored Kingdom with the fullness of Isaiah 52 – shalom, happiness or welfare, and the completion of salvation.

Understood this way, the gospel is (here’s the big word), eschatological! it is the good news that the resurrection of Jesus was the inaugural event proving God’s commitment to finishing what He began. When we take part in the sacrament of communion, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 we re-enact the gospel until He returns. The gospel always comes with this sense of future orientation as fulfillment, consummation, complete transformation. So when we read the Bible, we live between  two poles: the original Garden of Eden and the future redeemed Garden.

The danger is if we leave this eschatological piece out the gospel becomes stunted because now it’s simply about converting people. Or maybe the subtle message is that this life stinks but it’s really going to be good when we go to heaven. The gospel is much larger in the sense that it includes the deep valuation of life right now while acknowledging that we are all in a process toward a final end state. This is wonderfully good news! What God began not only in me, but in the world He will finish and not even death has the power to nullify His redemptive work.

This is one of the reasons why acts of justice toward the marginalized, poor and oppressed is gospel-centered. It’s not an add on after we get saved. Caring for the poor is what comes naturally to those who understand the robustness of the gospel. We don’t usher in the Kingdom by our actions. However, when we act in such ways, we at least model what this future Kingdom will be like. We act in redemptive ways because we know that God is redeeming the material world, not a part of it but all of it! Grace not only is the way “in” but grace restores what sin marred.