August Books Notes and Deals

raj-eiamworakul-o4c2zoVhjSw-unsplash
Photo by Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash

The last set of book notes appeared in May, and I’ve read a few more books since then. The best books I’ve read more recently are A. J. Swoboda’s Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World and Timothy P. Carney’s Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. I found a few laughs in John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway… and, as I always do, enjoyed the insight of Stanley Hauerwas in his book Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries.

Christianbook.com is blowing out titles as the summer draws to a close. Some of those books are listed for under $5. For  friends who enjoy reading Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology is $3.99. Books about United Methodist membership vows, the denomination more broadly, and an account of the sacrament of communion are marked down. Richard Mouw’s Adventures in Evangelical Civility is $3.99, as is Stanley Grenz’s Prayer. Kuyper’s Stone Lectures can be had for $4.49 and N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Scripture and John Stott’s Basic Christianity are $5. Be judicious. Not every sale is a deal.

If you browse and find a title that interests you I haven’t listed here and want to know what I think, leave a comment and ask. I’ll tell you what I know.

As for Kindle deals, Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy is $2.99 and Nouwen’s Discernment is $1.99.

On a recent run to the library I scooped up several novels by Toni Morrison. I have a couple of books to read and review from InterVarsity Press. Tonight I’ll begin reading a book by Joseph Bottum called An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

Reading anything exciting? Anything you’d recommend?

I hope so. Peace.

The Patient Friendship of God

Master of the Universe, through your son you would have us be your friend. But what could it possibly mean for us to be friends of God? Friendship with other people is hard enough. To be your friend is quite simply unimaginable. Friendship with you is right up there with asking us to be friends with our worst enemy, but then, maybe you are our worst enemy. Maybe I am my worst enemy. So, if you are nearer to us than we are to ourselves, unless we become friends with you we cannot become friends with ourselves or anyone else. This business of friendship must take time, but thank God your patience with us gives us all the time we need. Make us your friends so that when the puzzled world cannot figure out what makes us Christians the same, they will say, “But see how they love one another.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries

In John 15:15, Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” What a profound statement.

Jesus is speaking with his disciples. In John, Jesus is offering his “last words” to his friends before being betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed. One of the last things that he imparts: “I have called you friends.” Why? “Because I have made known to you everything that I heard from my Father.” Jesus, the Son, withheld nothing. Not even his life.

Hauerwas’ thoughts on friendship mirror my own. “What could it possible mean for us to be friends of God?” He is right to observe our relationships with other people, even our friends, are “hard enough.” Friendship with God is all the more challenging because God, being God, knows us inside and out. God can bring us face to face with that which is most unlovable about us. How? By facing us with the reality of the cross.

In his prayer, Hauerwas leaves enough openings to allow us to make our own connections. In becoming friends with God we discover the love that enables us to truly befriend not only ourselves, but our neighbor. We find both strength and wisdom to love our enemies. We discover the hope that our enemies may even one day be counted as friends, a hope made possible solely by the power of God. God has also tasks us with work: Jesus, by counting us among his friends, commands us to befriend one another, and in being friends, so display love that leads to witness.

Being a friend of God should unsettle us, even frighten us. “You? Friends with me?” After all, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But this same fear should also fill us with reverence and awe, for, despite our expectations, friendship with God is not only possible, but is sure. God has made such friendship available in and through Jesus Christ. For people of faith, this friendship is not contingent, but is established. And God, being eternally patient, has given us all the time we need to become his friends.

Patient Observation

One of the best pieces of advice was from my Year Two teacher, on how to draw a bicycle: “Spend twice as much time _looking_ at it than drawing it”.

I apply that to so many areas. More time listening than talking. More observing than doing. The outcome will always be better.

Anna Debenham

This bit of wisdom appeared in a newsletter I receive. Drawing, classically defined, is learning to see. Before putting graphite to paper, before making a mark, when the page is blank, whether in the mind’s eye or in the reality resting fifteen feet away, we must look, and not only look, but see.

My drawing instructor, Chad Hines, would have us put what we see in boxes. He would have us break down what we drew into its constituent parts. To see the lines, see the curves, see the ellipses and circles. He would encourage us to hold the pencil lightly, differently, to make marks that were easy, light, and then to look, and to look again. He observed that sometimes the false lines reveal the true. What you thought you were seeing was not actually what was there. As you draw, you look upon your object, and then you look upon your sketch, and you compare. You adjust. You try to draw what you see, so others can see it too. Drawing is always illusion. The drawing is not the thing that was seen. But the drawing can be true. It can accurately represent a moment in time, an object in reality. But only if first you really look, and really see.

I agree with Anna. We’d all be better off, I think, if we spent more time observing than doing. Looking. Listening. Slowly. Patiently. With thought. With intention.

Next time you are ready to act, next time you jump to speak, pause. Look. Observe. Think. Let a beat or two pass. Then, make a mark. Speak a word. Be truthful.

Disciplined Reading

Do not say…that one or two books is sufficient for instructing the soul. After all, even the bee collects honey not from one or two flowers only, but from many. Thus also he who reads the books of the Holy Fathers is instructed by one in faith or in right thinking, by another in silence and prayer, by another in obedience and humility and patience, by another in self-reproach and in love for God and neighbor; and, to speak briefly, from many books of the Holy Fathers a man is instructed in life according to the Gospel.

– Paisius Velichkovsky

Paisius Velichkovsky was an Eastern Orthodox monk and theologian. His observation is a rather simple one: we must learn wisdom from the bee, gathering wisdom diligently, broadly, and with great discipline. He exhorts us to read from the Holy Fathers, from the saints of old, who can instruct us in the Gospel and in Christian living. Our souls, being great things, need great nourishment. Like the bee, the gathering should take place daily, not from a paltry collection of sources, but from a diversity of literary riches.

I like to read and study. Not everyone is like me. Thank God. But if I could offer one bit of encouragement to others who, like me, are following Jesus, it would be to read a little more often than you do now. Begin with the Bible, particularly if Scripture is something you neglect. Scripture is a dietary staple. But then add to that a work of theology, or a historical work about a person who has been important to the Christian tradition.

Pay particular mind to your denominational heritage, if you have one (if you are a Methodist, read Wesley, if you are a Presbyterian, read Calvin, etc., etc.). I’d like the Baptists I know to be better Baptists, the Methodists I know to exemplify the best of their tradition, and on and on. Consider doing as Velichkovsky recommends: read the Church Fathers. Read Augustine. Read Athanasius. Read the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The old stuff is profoundly rich.

Choose one or two or three great theologians or renowned saints. Get to know them well, even if a little bit at a time. Pick up their work. Buy a book and learn about their lives. Read each day. Choose wisely. Stick with it. Observe. Learn. Apply. Grow.

LEGO: For Every Size of Imagination

e3fb2082011863.5d10fe8a88203This artwork from Asawin Tejasakulsin is absolutely brilliant, perfectly capturing the spirit and reality of working with LEGO. Check out the gallery. This too. And this. I first came across this design layout here.

I’ve had a longtime love affair with LEGO. I’m in the process of handing that same affection to my kids. I love the sets; I’m particularly fond of the Star Wars line. I build LEGO with my son, or I watch him build.

Occasionally we break away from the sets and come up with our own creations. My parents hung on a ton of LEGO pieces and eventually passed those on to me. We have plenty to work with. I’m always excited to see what my kids come up with.

Our creations are usually something like the dragon above, the seed of a grander vision. The small dragon is just as much of a wonder to behold as is the large dragon. Both spring from the imagination. Whatever we create, the important thing is that we can see it, we can share the wonder. We can celebrate what we do make. Then, the next time, we make something bigger, more detailed, grander. We learn and grow.

Nobody’s Gonna Get Hurt

This is a song about the lies we tell others. We also tell them to ourselves.

I’ve been a fan of Glen Phillips since singing “Thank You” in a service of worship many years ago in Kansas City. I’ve been singing that song since the day I first heard it. God’s love is everywhere.

“Nobody’s Gonna Get Hurt” is a song about the power of words and the deceptions that we persist in, the phrases we utter in our attempts to soften, dismiss, minimize, or distort the realities we face. Well meaning lies, whether meant to protect or obscure or outright hide difficult truths, nevertheless do harm, maybe not in the moment they are uttered, but in their corrosive effects over time. Sometimes silence is better, or a simple, “I don’t know.”

“There’s no price to love, there never was” are words that can only be said by someone who has never loved. Love involves sacrifice, and the deepest loves often come at the greatest cost. Look at Jesus.

“If it’s meant to be, it’s easy,” can only be said by someone who has never had to work for something eternally worthwhile. The easy things aren’t the only things that are “meant to be.” Again, look at Jesus.

“Broken hearts always mend” is a half truth. Sometimes the comfort we long for is elusive; we do not find it in this life. For Christians, hope must remain fixed on the day when God wipes away every tear. I find it interesting that in the new heavens and the new earth there will be any tears at all, but I find it more interesting that God will put a hand to cheek and wipe them away. Only afterward will God abolish death and mourning and crying and pain. Whatever caused the tears, the hurt and the pain, it is not dismissed, but met. It is met by God. Then and only then is it resolved and healed.

Our words have power. We must steward them well. Self deception, must be avoided; the first step in doing so is admitting we are prone to believe our own lies. We must also strive to tell the truth. To tell the truth one must know the truth, and be formed in such a way as to become a truthful person. For Christians, such formation is only possible through encounter with the God who is truth, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, truth in the flesh, truth for us.

Reading George Herbert

Photo by Jonathan Singer on Unsplash

Lord, who hast formed me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee

– George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”

“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.

“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.

Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”

God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).

The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.

I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.

But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.

New Job!

Dreams come true, and God answers prayer.

Last week I began work as the Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. I’m thrilled beyond measure, unfathomably grateful,  excited, and deeply gladdened to enter service in the Office of Spiritual Formation, working under the direction and guidance of Dr. Angela Reed, Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Spiritual Formation. I’m also very thankful for the leadership of Dean Todd Still, whom I have become further acquainted with during the interview process and during my first few days in office.

I’ll follow in the footsteps of Bill Walker, who has been in the role for the past two years. Bill has been a tremendous friend and colleague. He has done excellent work in the classroom and behind the scenes in the Spiritual Formation office. I pray God’s blessing on him as he returns to his roots in Austin, Texas, where he will serve as Director of Vocation at Christ Church of Austin.

It’s an incredible opportunity for me that involves the sweet coalescence of personal history, hopes, passions, and aspirations. Stated differently, this is very, very cool.

So what’s the job?

All kinds of people are part of the Truett community. Some have discerned a vocation to the pastorate, others seek a deeper faith through theological education, and still others  have yet to discover why God has brought them to seminary. Many are from the Baptist tradition, though not all. There are multiple degree programs and certificate programs. The seminary exists “to equip God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s a big mission that serves a broad diversity of people.

The Spiritual Formation office supports this mission. We do so by praying for the students, faculty, and staff who are part of the seminary community. We also coordinate and offer instruction in one distinct and vital aspect of the seminary’s curriculum: Covenant Group.

Covenant Groups are like small groups, and every seminarian takes part in these groups as part of their course of study. A major part of my new job responsibility is to coordinate these groups, recruit mentors, and shepherd students in meeting this requirement. The model is evolving, changes and refinements are being made. But the basic concept remains steady. When students begin study at Truett Seminary, they are placed in a small group of ideally six to eight colleagues, assigned one group mentor, and then participate together for four semesters in a course of study.

Covenant Groups receive instruction in biblical, historical, practical, and theological approaches to the Christian spiritual life. Each student is required to read assigned texts, to participate in their groups, and to practice spiritual disciplines individually and together. The groups allow space for testimony and ministry to one another, as well as for discernment and mutual counsel as each student listens for God’s will for their life. At the conclusion of four semesters together, our goal is for students to have a firm grasp on their story, to identify ways God has formed their identity in Jesus Christ, and to gain clarity in how God is calling them forward into a deeper, fuller faith as disciples, heralds, servants, and ministers of the gospel.

We also hope these groups nurture friendships, create community, and allow for collegiality to develop among our students. We hope our mentors are seen not only as guides or teachers, but as encouragers and helpful counselors. Community is indispensable for our students as they carefully study and practice the Christian life. Covenant Groups provide a space for a body within the Body of Christ, a place where the ideals we speak of concerning the church can be lived out among a small fellowship of disciples.

I’ll help recruit, train, coordinate, and support the mentors who lead these groups. I’ll also have the opportunity, in concert with Dr. Reed, to teach courses and offer lectures that are part of the Covenant Group curriculum.

While Covenant Groups are my most significant responsibility, I’ll also work with Truett’s Spiritual Direction Training program. As a certified spiritual director, I’m excited to continue that ministry within the context of this program.

I mentioned that the opportunity to join the Truett family was a “sweet coalescence” of my history, hopes, passions, and aspirations. Twenty years ago, while I was an undergraduate at Baylor University, I dreamed of one day serving in higher education. I wanted to be a Christian scholar, serving the academy and the church. I had models to follow in Dr. John Wood, Professor Robert Reid, and Dr. Larry Lehr, people who embodied ideas that I wanted to adopt for myself. There are other examples I could name. My highest hope and my biggest dream was to one day serve in this capacity at Baylor University–as a learned teacher, mentor, and friend.

Furthermore, one of the important figures in the history of Truett Seminary was a man named Paul W. Powell, who served as Dean from 2001 to 2007. Before he served as Dean, Paul was an evangelist, pastor, and Texas Baptist statesman. When I was a boy he was my pastor at the Green Acres Baptist Church of Tyler, Texas. His life and ministry had an effect on multiple generations of my family. Paul baptized me. Later, he preached the charge at my ordination at the First Baptist Church of Allen, Texas, which is pastored now as it was then by Pastor Chad Selph.

The chapel at Truett Seminary is named in Paul’s honor. I’m thankful to be serving in a place that has been marked by his legacy. By witnessing Paul’s life, reading his little books, and hearing stories about him, I’ve been deeply inspired to work diligently for the Lord while it is still day, while we still can, to do all to the glory of God, for “night cometh,” therefore “Go into all the world.”

Lastly, serving in the area of Spiritual Formation aligns with my research interests. I’ve been reading stuff in this area for years. I’m a nerd when it comes to Christian discipleship and formation. Plus, I’m a Christian educator. I want to teach what I’ve learned. I believe in the importance of an intellectually informed faith, rigorous and challenging theological instruction, the formation of character, love for God, and service to the world.

I look forward to serving the seminary community as we create an environment where students can be formed in the way and likeness of Christ. A couple of my friends know that means I will be quoting a lot of Dallas Willard, and they are right. Guilty as charged.

But that won’t be all. Hopefully, the person I quote most will be Jesus. He’s the Master. And I hope to serve him well in this new capacity of service with Truett Seminary. If you are ever in Waco, make an appointment to see me. I’d love to show you my desk, give you a tour, hear what you’re up to, and talk about all the good and great things taking place in this vibrant, thoughtful, and committed community of faith.

Pray for me.

I’ll pray for you.

Let’s keep our eyes open, see what God will do.

The Secrets of God

fonsi-fernandez-726000-unsplash
Photo by Fonsi Fernández on Unsplash

At first we want the consciousness of being guided by God, then as we go on we live so much in the consciousness of God that we do not need to ask what His will is, because the thought of choosing any other will never occur to us. If we are saved and sanctified God guides us by our ordinary choices, and if we are going to choose what He does not want, He will check, and we must heed. . .God instructs us in what we choose, that is, He guides by our common sense, and we no longer hinder His Spirit by continually saying–“Now, Lord, what is Your will?”

– Oswald Chambers, “The Secret of the Lord,” My Utmost for His Highest

Chambers follows a citation of Psalm 25:14 with a question, “What is the sign of a friend? That he tells you secret sorrows?” Chambers, rightly, says that many are glad to share their troubles, not only friends. No. A friend draws near not uniquely by sharing their woes, but instead when disclosing “secret joys.” When do we receive secret joys from God? Chambers answers with a question: “Have we ever let God tell us any of His joys, or are we telling God our secrets so continually that we leave no room for Him to talk to us?” If God has secret joys to share, surely we want to hear them. Hush. Listen.

Chambers identifies an ever-present Christian concern: knowing the will of God. We often seek the will of God by asking, presenting our requests. We pray, desiring assurance that every choice, every avenue we take, every word we utter, every feeling we have, every thought that crosses our mind, is, with certainty, according to the will of God. But Chambers gently reminds us that answers come with listening and through relationship, the means by which God “gets us in touch with His purposes.”

How does God do so? We listen for the voice of God in prayer; we also study the Word of God in Scripture. God has spoken, and God speaks. We also remain mindful that when we face trials and tribulations, it is through those circumstances that God conforms us to the likeness of Jesus, refines us by the fire of the Spirit, and matures us in faith. We look upon our days with and through the eyes of faith, trusting that God is there, present, with us, has not left us nor forsaken us, and is, right now, renewing our minds, hearts, souls, bodies.

Sanctification is a promise. God does set us apart as holy and will, by grace, render change in those who sincerely trust him–of outlook, understanding, feeling, or hope–at God’s own rate of speed. Our arrival at that place of transformation is often by a circuitious route that we would not choose nor could ever design. It comes when God confides in us, guides us, teaches us, instructs us, not only in what we should actively avoid, but how we are to be and become: people of love, gentleness, wisdom, discernment, service, truth, joy, peace, and humility.

Chambers is clear in reminding us that God knows every detail of our lives. God shares “amazing intimacy” with us. God knows us best, tending to our “tiny things,” in which God reveals his grace. As grace takes effect, we speak differently, we feel differently, we think differently and believe differently, we become like God by learning the way of Christ from Christ and in Christ.

The brilliance, I think, in Chambers’ meditation is the suggestion that we are not always consciousness with regard to how or why God has brought about our harmony with God’s will, our freedom in Christ, and our accountability to the Spirit. We desire God’s guidance. We draw near to God. Then, we find ourselves doing things that stem from being bathed in God’s grace, immersed in God’s Word, and present to God’s Spirit. We don’t always perceive it. We should. Chambers says God “guides our common sense,” which might also be said as, “God gives us wisdom” or “adjusts our judgment.”

That which seems natural to us was once unnatural. Our common sense would not be common apart from the God who is truth. The supernatural has taken up residence in us, the Spirit of God has made a home in us, and God’s immeasurable grace has done a quiet work in making us something we could never have become without The redeeming work of Jesus.

To walk in the will of God as though it were the only way to walk, the most natural way, is an incredible testament to the gracious action of God. God has shared “secret joys” with us, the greatest of which is God’s very self. God is there to be known, and God makes that knowing possible.