Deep Discipleship by J.T. English

Deep Discipleship - greatlywondering.com

I was almost convinced that Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund was going to be my favorite book of the year, but Deep Discipleship by J.T. English gives it a run for that spot. Having facilitated Bible studies and small groups for years, I’m especially interested in discipleship and spiritual growth. Deep Discipleship diagnoses the churches’ discipleship problem and reframes key questions to point us to solutions that will grow robust followers of Christ.

What’s The Problem

English starts the book by diagnosing the discipleship problem in the church. He writes:

Over the past several decades the Western church has noticed alarming symptoms of our discipleship disease. Some of these symptoms include people leaving the church; students dropping out of church after high school; attendance dropping; and perhaps most important, a lack of seriousness among our people about what it really means to be a follower of Christ.

He goes on to say that the church has assumed that the problem is we’ve asked too much of people. So, what does the church do? Lower the bar of discipleship. I’ve heard it called “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf.”

The Danger of Misdiagnosis

Churches have created programs designed to entertain and keep as many people coming back as possible. We’ve watered down doctrine and deep biblical study. In exchange, pastors have developed quick self-help, step-based positivity messages full of tweetable quips and hip graphics. Essentially, the church has begun to use marketing and business strategy to gain and keep consumers, instead of using the Word of God to make and grow disciples of Jesus. 

English says the church has misdiagnosed the disease and prescribed the wrong treatment. He writes:

People are leaving the church not because we have asked too much of them but because we have not asked enough of them. We are giving people a shallow and generic spirituality when we need to give them distinctive Christianity. We have tried to treat our discipleship disease by appealing to the lowest common denominator, oversimplifying discipleship, and taking the edges off what it means to follow Christ.

The why Behind The What

If churches are bringing in crowds with slick marketing and  Bible-lite sermons, how can it be wrong? Don’t the ends justify the means? English addresses the question of “why does deep discipleship matter” in the first chapter.

English uses a short example from the prophet Habakkuk to illustrate that world history is heading towards the kingdom and prescence of God. That’s the future of the world. That’s our future. That should be our greatest hope and aim. He writes:

The main aim of this book, the call to deep discipleship in our churches, is for the sole purpose of pointing ourselves and those we lead toward the infinite beauty of the Triune God. Success in ministry is not found in building programs but in building disciples—disciples who love God with all of their heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27). Christ is the goal, not better or more impressive ministries. He is what we want. 

English argues that there are two challenges in our culture that the church has to overcome to have deep discipleship: Self-centered Discipleship and Spiritual Apathy. I found myself underlining and taking notes on so much throughout this whole book, but especially here in the first chapter. I don’t want to overload this review with quotes, but English nails the why behind deep discipleship in this first chapter. 

The What

Each chapter of Deep Disicpleship reframes a question that English thinks the church should be asking itself. The question in chapters 2 and 3 is “Where should we form holistic disciples?” English’s answer is in the church. Chapter 3 digs into where specifically discipleship should happen in the church.

These chapters hit home for me having just heard a deacon nominee give his testimony about growing up in the church, but not feeling like he was taught doctrine, theology, or spiritual disciplines. He had to go to seminary for that. I have a similar story and feel like I had to seek those things for myself outside of the local church. English makes a strong argument that the local church should be raising up its next deacons, Bible teachers, and even pastors. 

English writes:

Someone should be able to come to faith, grow in the faith, and walk in Christian maturity solely from being formed by a local church. That is the basic sequence of the gospel. We are orphans who have been adopted into Christ’s family. Then, as adopted infants, we learn how to grow into mature members of the household—all of which can happen in and through the local church.

English goes on to lay out four distinctives that make the local church the primary place for deep discipleship: place, people, purpose, and presence. He walks through an explanation of each. He also goes on to discuss the difference between learning spaces and community spaces and the roles they play in discipleship.

THe How

Chapters 4 and 5 really get into the meat and potatoes. They answer the questions “what do disciples need” and “how do disciples grow.” English was previously on staff at The Village Church where he developed what they call the Training Program. It’s a one year intense discipleship program within the church itself.  So, these aren’t just theories and concepts. He has very successfully put them into practice. These two chapters get into the practical “how do we do this?”

 Most churches are unsure how all of the pieces fit together—classes, curriculum, groups. What I like about English’s approach here is he leaves room for individual churches to evaluate their congregations and answer questions to determine what their church’s scope and core essentials are. It’s not a one size fits all solution. 

However, he does lay out three broad topics or buckets disciples need: Bible, beliefs, spiritual habits. He writes:

A healthy disciple must be growing in the understanding of God’s Word, founded on distinctively Christian beliefs and practicing spiritual disciplines. What does every disciple need? They need Scripture, doctrine, and spiritual habits.

Scope and Structure

Deep Discipleship gives enough examples, approaches, and questions to help churches determine the best scope and competencies for them. I especially appreciated the discussion on structured levels of discipleship, which allows people to eventually grow into leadership. 

As one example states in the book, people should not stay at an 8th-grade level of discipleship for 40 years in the same class. People should be continually growing in their faith and spiritual maturity. Eventually, they should be disciples who are making disciples, teaching Bible studies, and leading. Which leads to chapter 6.

Where do They Go

You may be asking where is evangelism in all of this? Chapter 6 is dedicated to how deep discipleship leads to evangelism. English writes:

A culture of deep discipleship is not intent on sending a few, but on sending all. A deep discipleship church is also a missional church. A church that trains also sends. Christian maturity does not hinder mission; it fuels mission.

I like how he states there are no graduates from these discipleship programs. There are only “commissioned participants.” The chapter goes on to discuss that they don’t just emphasize people being called to national or international missions. Those are obviously important. However, they also discuss those who are called to serve in the church as volunteers, people who minister to their neighborhoods, those called to missions in their secular occupations, as well as those being called to vocational ministry.

Deep Discipleship

English closes Deep Discipleship with a chapter on how to implement this model in your church. As in previous chapters, the recommended questions and approaches leaves room for churches to find what will work for their individual congregations. This is not just a discipleship model for megachurches with large staffs. English discusses how this approach can be scaled for churches of all sizes. 

Deep Discipleship is probably the most practical and important book regarding discipleship in the local church that I’ve read. I can’t recommend it enough to those looking to grow deep, robust followers of Christ. I’m sure I will be coming back to this book over and over through the years. You can get a copy here.

Live Not By Lies | Rod Dreher

Live Not By Lies CoverHistorians are going to have a wealth of events to study from 2020.  Perhaps more than the year 1968. No doubt one thing they will analyze will be the unabashed rise of totalitarianism in the West, which is the topic of Rod Dreher’s new book Live Not By Lies. Dreher analyzes the rise of what he calls “soft totalitarianism” in the US by talking to people who lived through totalitarianism in the Soviet Bloc. As he did in his book The Benedict Option, Dreher focuses on how Christians can preserve their faith during these troubling times.   

What is This?

If you’re wondering what totalitarianism is—

According to Hannah Arendt, the foremost scholar of totalitarianism, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. As Arendt has written, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.”

I grew up in the 1980s during the Cold War. It seems bizarre to me to even need a discussion on the dangers of totalitarianism; yet, here we are. From cancel culture having people fired for differing opinions on Twitter to mobs screaming at passive diners to raise their fists in solidarity at restaurants, totalitarianism is being accepted. Let’s be honest. It’s even being celebrated by some. I realize that not everyone will agree with that statement. Many will not agree with Dreher’s conclusions in Live Not By Lies, but it’s very difficult to ignore the facts. 

The same..

Dreher interviews Christians who lived through brutal totalitarianism in the Soviet Bloc, and here’s what he found:

What makes the emerging situation in the West similar to what they fled? After all, every society has rules and taboos and mechanisms to enforce them. What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this similarity: Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups—ethnic, sexual, and otherwise—and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.

…but different

These Christians survived absolutely brutal persecution. Dreher describes horrific torture methods used by the Soviets. Many of the people he interviews or their family members spent decades in prisons or gulags. As Dreher examines how they maintained their faith, it’s obvious that there are differences in the totalitarianism we face. In some ways, what we face is even scarier. Dreher writes:

To be sure, whatever this is, it is not a carbon copy of life in the Soviet Bloc nations, with their secret police, their gulags, their strict censorship, and their material deprivation. That is precisely the problem, these people warn. The fact that relative to Soviet Bloc conditions, life in the West remains so free and so prosperous is what blinds Americans to the mounting threat to our liberty. That, and the way those who take away freedom couch it in the language of liberating victims from oppression.

structure

Live Not By Lies starts with a brief history of the rise of totalitarianism in Russia. He looks at the sources and the parallels with what is happening in the US today. Dreher analyzes what he considers the two factors driving “soft totalitarianism” today: the social justice movement and surveillance technology, which has become a huge part of our consumerist culture.

The second part of the book examines forms, methods, and sources of resistance. Dreher attempts to answer the following questions by examining exactly what the Christians in the Soviet Bloc did in order to survive:

Why is religion and the hope it gives at the core of effective resistance? What does the willingness to suffer have to do with living in truth? Why is the family the most important cell of opposition?… How did they get through it?… Why are they so anxious about the West’s future?

difficult topics

Obviously, this is a contentious topic. Live Not By Lies discusses some difficult topics. Dreher has already been attacked and criticized. He doesn’t seem to accept the media-driven narrative of the death of George Floyd and the social justice movement. How exactly does he describe the soft totalitarianism affecting the US? Dreher writes:

Today’s totalitarianism demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs, many of which are incompatible with logic—and certainly with Christianity. Compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations that, thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit…

Today’s left-wing totalitarianism once again appeals to an internal hunger, specifically the hunger for a just society, one that vindicates and liberates the historical victims of oppression. It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of “victims” to bring about “social justice…”

This is what the survivors of communism are saying to us: liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized is fast turning into a monstrous ideology that, if it is not stopped, will transform liberal democracy into a softer, therapeutic form of totalitarianism.

The rub

For Christians, therein lies the rub—“liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized.” Aren’t Christians supposed to care for the weak and marginalized? The answer is yes. Christians should and do care for the weak and marginalized. The problem is ideology in these movements is king, and the ideology is ultimately atheistic and therapeutic. Christianity is allowed as long as it bends to the ideology, not the other way around. 

These movements are trying to use totalitarianism to create a utopia based on their ideology. As Mark Sayers says in one of my favorite quotes, “They want to create the kingdom of heaven, but without the King.” That is their end goal. Ask yourself, what is the end goal of Christianity? What happens when the goals of the ideology clash with Christianity?

Dreher writes:

In therapeutic culture, which has everywhere triumphed, the great sin is to stand in the way of the freedom of others to find happiness as they wish. This goes hand in hand with the sexual revolution, which, along with ethnic and gender identity politics, replaced the failed economic class struggle as the utopian focus of the post-1960s radical left.

original sin

It all goes back to the original sin: the individual wants to be a god. The individual wants to create his or her own brand of heaven where the only sin is anything causing unhappiness. In that kind of culture, even using the pronouns “his or her” is controversial because it could offend someone. Dreher writes:

Christian resistance on a large scale to the anti-culture has been fruitless, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Why? Because the spirit of the therapeutic has conquered the churches as well—even those populated by Christians who identify as conservative. Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith, because the therapeutic society that has formed them denies the purpose of suffering in the first place, and the idea of bearing pain for the sake of truth seems ridiculous.

What can we do?

Honestly, the scariest part of all this is we unsuspectingly welcome totalitarianism. We live in a far more technologically advanced society than the 1980s Soviet Bloc. The opportunities and ability to surveil private life are unbelievable. As Dreher says, “There’s nowhere left to hide.” It’s almost cliche to point out anymore. We are far more similar to the society in Huxley’s Brave New World, than we are Orwell’s 1984. Why? Because we happily invite our oppressors into every aspect of our lives, as long as we’re kept happy with endless entertainment and shiny consumer goods. We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to suffer. Dreher even recounts how one Soviet Bloc survivor he talked to is horrified at the use of smartphones and Amazon Echo in US homes. They lived the nightmare described in 1984.

The subtitle to Live Not By Lies is “A Manual For Christian Dissidents.” The second part of the book specifically gives the strategies the Christians in the Soviet Bloc used to maintain their faith and survive. If you haven’t guessed it, the title of the book has a lot to do with it. The title comes from a quote by Solzhenitsyn, a Christian who survived the gulags. And yes, their Christian faith was crucial to their survival. In fact, much of what our society wants Christians to let go of turns out to be crucial for surviving totalitarianism. Let’s not fool ourselves. There will be suffering, but we must persevere.

conclusion

This is a difficult topic. It’s hard to hear these comparisons and read these stories. It’s difficult to step outside the ideologies and narratives that seem to want to help people and really see what the end goal is. I think the strategies presented in the second part of the book will be essential in the coming years. Live Not By Lies is not a happy book, but it’s a necessary book. I recommend you read it and ask yourself the hard questions.  You can get a copy of the book here.

Finding the Right Hills To Die On – Gavin Ortlund

Finding the Right Hills to Die On - greatlywondering.comFinding the Right Hills To Die On: The Case for Theological Triage by Gavin Ortlund is definitely a book for our times. Although, if you think back through the history of the church, you’ll see it’s a book for any age where Christians disagreed on various secondary doctrines. In other words, someone should have written this book a long time ago. Ortlund’s premise is simple. Not every doctrinal hill is worth fighting for and dying on. Not every doctrine is worth sowing division among believers and splitting the church. The question is how do we determine which doctrines are worth fighting for and which aren’t?

Theological triage

Ortlund writes in the introduction, “There’s an old saying (I can’t remember where I heard it): ‘There is no doctrine a fundamentalist won’t fight over, and no doctrine a liberal will fight over.’” That’s an oversimplification, as old sayings often are. However, you don’t have to look far to find the grain of truth in it. Ortlund goes on to write:

This book is about finding the happy place between these two extremes—the place of wisdom, love, and courage that will best serve the church and advance the gospel in our fractured times. In other words, it’s about finding the right hills to die on.

Al Mohler’s idea of “theological triage” inspired the idea and subtitle for Finding the Right Hills To Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. In the medical world, triage is the process of prioritizing, when faced with many injuries, what injuries get treated first. What gets the quickest and most attention? You don’t want to be treating a sprained ankle when someone is bleeding to death a few feet away.

I remember watching M.A.S.H as a kid. When the helicopters brought the wounded in from the battlefield, Hawkeye and the other doctors quickly went from one gurney to the next determining who needed to go immediately to the operating room, who could wait, and who was too far gone to help. That’s the triage process.

Ortlund writes:

Sometimes we flatten out all doctrine—either because we want to fight about everything or because we want to fight about nothing. More commonly, we have some kind of functional theological triage, but we have not thought it through very self-consciously. As a result, it is determined reactively by our circumstances and temperament rather than proactively by Scripture and principle.

Categories

Ortlund proposes four basic categories to help determine which hills are worth dying on. Doctrines that are—

  1. essential to the gospel itself”
  2. urgent for the health and practice of the church”
  3. important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.”
  4. unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.”

The goal in all of this is the unity of the church. Ortlund points to Jesus’ prayer in John chapter 17. Jesus prays in verse 23, “I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.” Jesus prays for unity. The ultimate purpose of this unity is not just internal church health, but the advancement of the gospel.

Finding The Right Hills To Die On includes two chapters on both the dangers of sectarianism and doctrinal minimalism. I may be overemphasizing this point, but it’s important to note that Ortlund is not recommending that we ignore heresy for the sake of unity. He calls ignoring heresy doctrinal minimalism, which he labels dangerous. Ortlund doesn’t even recommend that we ignore differences of opinion. He points out that throughout church history people have been martyred for various nonessential doctrines. What he recommends is that we have a thoughtful process to determine which differences of opinion or errors are worth causing division in the church.

pRactical application

Part 2 of the book demonstrates the practical application of “theological triage at work.” Ortlund walks through each of the four categories he suggests using specific doctrines as examples. He suggests helpful questions to ask oneself, or for churches to ask themselves, to determine where doctrines rank for the individual or the church.

For example, Ortlund uses the doctrines of the virgin birth and justification by faith alone as examples of the first category—doctrines essential to the gospel itself. He walks the reader through the thought process for why he places those doctrines in that category. He looks to scripture, church history, and previous theologians to demonstrate how he came to his determination that those doctrines are essential and worth fighting for.

I found it extremely helpful that Finding The Right Hills To Die On includes the differences in opinion of very well-known and respected theologians throughout church history on secondary and tertiary issues. It’s eye-opening to realize that Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, John Owen, John Knox, Martin Luther, and so on did not all agree on every doctrine. Yet, most thoughtful and reasonable Christians would not call them heretics.

A call to humility

Ortlund closes the book with a call to humility. He writes:

The greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility. A lack of skill can simply be the occasion for growth and learning, but when someone approaches theological disagreement with a self-assured, haughty spirit that has only answers and no questions, conflict becomes virtually inevitable.

I know I personally need to learn and apply that. When discussing doctrines with people who have differing opinions, too often I find myself valuing being right, rather than valuing their relationship and the unity of the Church. In the age of Twitter and discernment blogs, Finding The Right Hills To Die On is a valuable book. You can get a copy here.

Books To Be Quarantined With

Books | greatlywondering.com

I stole this idea from Seth Lewis’s Blog, because I really like this idea of books to be quarantined with. It’s kind of like books to be stranded on a deserted island with. Haven’t we all kind of been involuntarily sent to the deserted island of our homes? Anyway, it got me thinking of what books I would recommend. So, instead of binging on Netflix or playing marathon sessions of Animal Crossing, check out some of these books.

Fiction

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart—What could be more appropriate; yet, I have a feeling that a lot of people don’t even know about this book. A mysterious disease wipes out the vast majority of the human race. The book doesn’t really go into any details of the disease or how it happens, but instead focuses on how people go on—first, with one man who seems to be have been immune and then, gradually, with the other survivors he meets.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens—This is the epitome of Dickensian novels. It’s long, but remember, you have a lot of extra time on your hands. Even though it has a lot of pages, it doesn’t feel long. It was released in installments. Read it leisurely. Don’t be discouraged by the title. It’s full of great characters. There’s mystery, drama, and social commentary. You will be transported to another time and place.

Peace Like A River by Leif Enger—This is a classic, but I bet you haven’t read it, have you? I’m a sucker for stories of journey-filled quests. A little brother travels cross-country with his father and sister to find his outlaw big brother. There’s humor, tears, and miracles. You can’t help but love these characters, and the prose is beautiful.

NonFiction

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer—Yep, another really appropriate choice, because we’ve essentially been forced to clear our calendars and slow down. However, this book will give you some practices to help you slow down for good and improve your spiritual life, instead of just using the free time to gorge on entertainment. Ultimately, the practices will help improve your life in general. I review this one at length here.

Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson—Feeling like you should be creative and productive during this isolation? Adorning the Dark will inspire you. This is part memoir and part book about creativity. It reads like a conversation with a good friend who happens to be a songwriter, recording artist, poet, and author. I also review this one in depth here.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman—This was an eye opening book that completely changed how I viewed culture. It was written in 1985, but it’s eerie how relevant it is now. Just look at this quote: “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” Prophetic?

Graphic Novels

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud—This category may be new to some, so this is a great place to start. “Graphic novel” is just a pretentious way of saying long comics, but they typically deal with more topics than just superheroes. There’s a certain amount of magic that drives the image and text on the page to your brain, which brings it to life. This is another eye opening book.

Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman—(content & language warning) This is a classic in the graphic novel category and a perfect example of how comics can deal with poignant topics. This is a holocaust story. I think what really makes Maus interesting is how Spielgelman weaves together his father’s Auschwitz narrative, his own difficult relationship with his father, and Spiegelman’s struggle to make sense of it all by writing the book.

Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire—(content & language warning) This one is actually in several volumes, because it was a comic series. I’m also a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories, and this one includes a quest and cross-country journey. So, it’s one of my favorites. The thing about post-apocalyptic stories is they almost always include glimmers of hope. Gus is a character you will empathize with. I didn’t want to put this one down.

Keep in mind Amazon is not shipping most books right now. You may want to opt for digital versions or find them from other retailers. I’ve seen several smaller booksellers running great deals with free shipping. Spend your quarantine wisely and enjoy.

Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund

greatlywondering.com - Gentle and Lowly

Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund feels like being wrapped in a warm, Puritan weighted blanket for your soul. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but here it is. It’s theologically rich, and at the same time easy to understand and encouraging. I have a feeling it’s going to be one of my favorites of the year.

Ortlund uses Matthew 11:28-30 as his primary text. It’s a favorite of mine:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

There’s so much hope and promise packed into that short passage. It has been popular lately for good reason. John Mark Comer focuses on the same passage in his book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. Ortlund’s approach is a little different. Gentle and Lowly focuses on the fact that this is one of the rare times that Jesus tells us about his heart—the very core of who he is.

How We View God

We tend to think that God is just barely putting up with us, especially when we are struggling with sin. I remember my hyperactive cousin testing my uncle’s patience when we were kids. His dad would take off his belt, snap it, and say, “One more time and see what happens!” That’s kind of how we think God deals with us.

Ortlund writes that this book is for—

Those of us who find ourselves thinking: “How could I mess up that bad—again?” It is for that increasing suspicion that God’s patience with us is wearing thin. For those of us who know God loves us but suspect we have deeply disappointed him. Who have told others of the love of Christ yet wonder if—as for us—he harbors mild resentment. Who wonder if we have shipwrecked our lives beyond what can be repaired… It is written, in other words, for normal Christians.

Ortlund points out that when Jesus tells us about his heart and who He is at the deepest level, he doesn’t mention impatience. In fact, he doesn’t say he’s demanding or strict or tough. He doesn’t even say he’s generous or joyful, though he is. He says, “I am gentle and lowly in heart.”

The Flow Of Mercy

Well, what does that mean? That’s what Ortlund spends the rest of the book examining. He uses a wealth of cross-references from both the Old and New Testaments, scripture speaking to scripture. Ortlund also uses the Puritans as guides. Gentle and Lowly draws from Thomas Goodwin, Sibbes, Bunyan, Owen, and Edwards. The Puritans have the reputation of being focused on the wrath of God. After all, Edwards wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but here Ortlund points us to how they treasured God’s mercy.

I greatly appreciated Ortlund’s ability to take dense passages from the Puritans and translate them into easily understandable language. For example, after quoting portions from Thomas Goodwin’s The Heart of Christ, Ortlund writes:

Translation: When you come to Christ for mercy and love and help in your anguish and perplexity and sinfulness, you are going with the flow of his own deepest wishes, not against them. We tend to think that when we approach Jesus for help in our need and mercy amid our sins, we somehow detract from him, lessen him, impoverish him. Goodwin argues otherwise.

What About Wrath?

Ortlund is aware that there could be a tendency to overlook other aspects of God while focusing on his affectionate heart. He addresses that concern early in the book. Gentle and Lowly doesn’t overlook or downplay the wrath of God in any way. He is careful to judge everything against what the Bible says. This is by no means a theologically weak book. Ortlund writes:

…the wrath of Christ and the mercy of Christ are not at odds with one another, like a see-saw, one diminishing to the degree that the other is held up. Rather, the two rise and fall together. The more robust one’s felt understanding of the just wrath of Christ against all that is evil both around us and within us, the more robust our felt understanding of his mercy…

He goes on:

Throughout the rest of our study we will return to the question of how to square the very heart of Christ with actions of his or biblical statements that may seem to sit awkwardly with it… In short: it is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be over celebrated, made too much of, exaggerated. It cannot be plumbed. But it is easily neglected, forgotten. We draw too little strength from it. We are not leaving behind the harsher side to Jesus as we speak of his very heart. Our sole aim is to follow the Bible’s own testimony as we tunnel in to who Jesus most surprisingly is.

Wring It Dry

Everything in Gentle and Lowly is grounded in scripture. I used to wonder how pastors could take just a few verses and talk about them for forty-five minutes. Ortlund points out that the Puritans would take a single verse and “wring it dry” for an entire book. Many chapters of Gentle and Lowly begin with a single verse, but then dive into every word in the verse and what it means in relation to Jesus’ heart.

The book flows naturally from defining what gentle and lowly means, to Christ being able to sympathize with us, on through how Christ’s heart demonstrates his great love for us. Along the way, the book dismantles our human assumptions that God is somehow like us, which is a good thing. The truth is much more encouraging.

His Natural Work & His Strange Work

My favorite chapter is “His ‘Natural’ Work and His ‘Strange’ Work,“ which I felt especially reveals our common misconceptions about God and his feelings towards us. The chapter opens with Lamentations 3:33—He does not afflict from his heart. Ortlund illustrates how This verse tells us that yes, God does afflict, but the promise is that it is not His heart. He finds no joy in it. He argues that even the Old Testament is leading us to a savior whose heart is gentle and lowly.

The chapter uses Thomas Goodwin, Jonathan Edwards, Lamentations, Hosea, and Jeremiah to unpack what exactly is God’s natural work. None of those sources are exactly hesitant about God’s wrath; yet, they all point to God rejoicing in doing us good rather than afflicting us. Ortlund writes:

Edwards, Goodwin, and the theological river in which they stand were not mushy. They affirmed and preached and taught divine wrath and an eternal hell. They saw these doctrines in the Bible (2 Thess. 1:5–12, to cite just one text). But because they knew their Bibles inside and out and followed their Bibles scrupulously, they discerned also a strand of teaching in Scripture about who God most deeply is—about his heart….

Left to our own natural intuitions about God, we will conclude that mercy is his strange work and judgment his natural work. Rewiring our vision of God as we study the Scripture, we see, helped by the great teachers of the past, that judgment is his strange work and mercy his natural work.

Why We Need The Bible

Which leads me back to one of my favorite quotes from Gentle and Lowly:

This is why we need a Bible. Our natural intuition can only give us a God like us. The God revealed in the Scripture deconstructs our intuitive predilections and startles us with one whose infinitude of perfections is matched by his infinitude of gentleness. Indeed, his perfections include his perfect gentleness.

I found myself wanting to highlight quotes on just about every page of Gentle and Lowly. If you need an encouraging and Biblical book in these uncertain and difficult times, I highly recommend picking up a copy. It releases on April 7, 2020 from Crossway. I’ll leave you with anther favorite quote from the book:

Christ was sent not to mend wounded people or wake sleepy people or advise confused people or inspire bored people or spur on lazy people or educate ignorant people, but to raise dead people.

Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson

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Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson is one of those books that feels like you just had an enlightening conversation with a wise friend. I lost myself in the conversation and time flew. Before I knew it, it was over, yet I felt full and happy and inspired. Something about the way Peterson writes just pulled me in and made me feel like we were hanging out on the couch talking about creativity, songwriting, and life in general. That’s kind of what Adorning the Dark is.

Peterson writes: “…this book is a glimpse into my own faltering journey as a songwriter, storyteller, and Christian. It’s a love song, if you will, about the life God has given me.” That “faltering journey,” as he calls it, made for one of the best books on the creative life that I’ve read.

Scared and Sacred

Adorning the Dark takes us back to Peterson’s beginnings as a young songwriter and poet and walks us through what he has learned over the years living not just a creative life, but a creative life as a Christian. He talks about his early days with a Tascam recorder in high school and borrowing $3,000 from his grandmother to record his first independent CD in Nashville. Yes, a physical CD. He walks us through early tours, family life, and on through to today.

I really enjoyed how he weaves his journey as an artist and life in general into his thoughts on creativity. Peterson writes about the creative spark that can come in so many ways. Chords, melodies, and lyrics come during walks in the woods or sitting in a soybean field. Ultimately, it’s all a form of worship. Yet, it can be overwhelming and perhaps a little prideful to think that we can create something that honors a big God. On top of that, artists of all types tend to build their identity on being “a creative.”

Peterson says in those scary moments when we’re looking at a blank page we may ask ourselves, “Who do I think I am anyway?” He writes:

Stop a moment and look around. This is our Father’s world. We are sacred, you and I. And that’s the answer to the question that started this chapter: Who do I think I am, anyway? We need not look anywhere but to the eyes of our Savior for our true identity, an identity which is profoundly complex, unfathomable, deep as the sea, and yet can be boiled down to one little word: beloved. That’s it. And that’s why it’s so silly (and perilous) to use your gifting to clothe yourself with meaning. Those clothes will never quite fit.

Behold The Lamb

Peterson also spends time discussing the creative community. A big part of that comes from the idea he had years ago to do a Christmas tour with songs that don’t sound like typical Christmas songs. It’s kind of a concept Christmas tour. I give him extra points for mentioning Queensryche and Tesla concept albums. I feel like I’m one of the few who will get those references.

In the process of putting that tour together, he brought together all kinds of friends and artists, and continues to do so. He remembers one year that he got sick the night before a show at the famous Ryman Theater. Peterson looked around at the musicians backstage and realized it would be fine whether he was there or not. He writes:

I ended up being able to sing that night, but that year and every year since my enjoyment of the show was amplified by the simple truth that it’s not my show at all. I’m pleasantly expendable, delightfully unnecessary.

We’re not invited into this because God needs us, but because he wants us. In the words of Laura Story, all creation’s revealing his majesty. We’re invited to join with all nature in manifold witness to his great faithfulness—and since creation is going to declare it either way, we might as well jump in with our halffinished songs and join the chorus.

They Won’t Create Themselves

As Peterson weaves and flows through the years, there are multiple times when the conversation returns to the work of being creative. Yes, it’s work. It’s practice. It’s failing and trying again and again.

One of the reasons I resonate so much with Adorning the Dark is because I can still remember sitting in my room late at night in the 90s with a 4-track recorder, a drum machine, and a guitar working on songs for hours. Sometimes the band I was in didn’t like the songs that took me hours to hash out. Ultimately and thankfully, very few people have ever heard any of that teenage angst. Yet, I wouldn’t change anything, because I learned something valuable in those hours. It was work, and there was something satisfying and mysterious in the process.

Peterson writes about the work and the struggle and the process:

If you wait until the conditions are perfect, you’ll never write a thing. It’s always a matter of the will. The songs won’t create themselves, and neither will the books, the recipes, the blueprints, or the gardens.

House Buying and Beekeeping

I also appreciate how Peterson includes regular life throughout Adorning the Dark. He talks about his family, the story of buying their house and property, and how they renovated. He builds a stone wall with a fancy archway. He’s a beekeeper. In all of those things, this prolific recording artist and author isn’t performing some secret day to day rituals or practices the rest of us don’t know.

I don’t know how many books on the creative life you’ve read, but there’s often a cliquish sense of otherness or elitism. As in, “I’m a creative, and to even begin to understand my words, you have to join this exclusive group and be a creative too.” There’s nothing pretentious in Adorning the Dark. I love how Peterson includes songwriters, poets, writers, painters, and also pastors and teachers writing sermons and lessons. It all feels like a friend sharing his tips and wisdom with you. Peterson writes:

So when I teach, I try to offer a handful of principles that I believe are helpful for cultivating a writing life, principles that can be applied broadly to several disciplines. See, I don’t think the artist’s life should be exclusive to artists. People who make their living in the arts aren’t any more interesting than everybody else. I used to think, arrogantly, that once I was a Real Author or a Professional Musician, people would be impressed. I’m here to tell you they really, really aren’t—not for long, at least. Hearing your own song on the radio is one of the coolest experiences in the world, and so is seeing your book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. But after the thrill fades, you’re still just plain old you.

Ultimately, Adorning the Dark is about how we (as in everyone) can use our God-given creativity to bring light and truth into the world. It was joy to read. You can pick up a copy here.

You can listen to Andrew Peterson talk about Adorning the Dark, spirituality, and other good stuff with Jared Wilson here.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry – John Mark Comer

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The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer is a combination of a book on slowing down and a book on the spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines or practices have been in vogue lately, but Comer’s book is the real deal. Of course, the spiritual disciplines force us to slow down, so the combination works well.

Western culture in particular loves the idea that the secret to life is ambition, assertiveness, busyness, multitasking, and constant hustling. There’s no time to sleep or rest. Rise and grind is the motto of the day. However, the truth is we live in a culture of low-grade exhaustion and anxiety. Something is missing, and no matter how hard we hustle, we can’t quite grasp that elusive happiness hustling and grinding promises. That’s where the spiritual practices come in. Comer calls them “the way of Jesus.”

What’s the secret?

Comer bases his premise on Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30.

Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Jesus calls the weary and burdened to himself and promises them rest. How do they get it? Take up His yoke and learn from Him. Comer writes:

What if the secret to a happy life—and it is a secret, an open one but a secret nonetheless; how else do so few people know it?—what if the secret isn’t “out there” but much closer to home? What if all you had to do was slow down long enough for the merry-go-round blur of life to come into focus? What if the secret to the life we crave is actually easy?

I’ll admit as I read The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry I thought to myself, “This is all great stuff, but I’m really not that busy. Life is pretty relaxed.” Funny how God works. Almost immediately after finishing the book I was asked to teach two classes, coach my son’s team which practices 4 days a week, and take care of the lines on the team’s field, all in addition to my full time job. My schedule is now full. I have this impending sense of not having enough time to get it all done. I keep coming back to Comer’s book and the spiritual practices he lays out for our hyper world.

The Great Enemy of Spiritual Life

Comer starts with a great chapter titled, “Hurry: The Great Enemy of Spiritual Life.” He basis the chapter, and really the title of the book, on a conversation he had with his mentor, John Ortberg. Over lunch, Ortberg told John Mark about a phone conversation Ortberg had with Dallas Willard. Ortberg asked Willard, “What do I need to do to become the me I want to be?” Willard told him he had to eliminate hurry from his life.

Ortberg made note of that and asked, “What else?’ There was a long silence. Willard replied, ““There is nothing else. Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

Comer immediately resonated with that, and he asks how would you answer the question, “What do I need to do to become the me I want to be?” More than likely your default answer isn’t going to be eliminate hurry. Comer writes:

But read the Bible: Satan doesn’t show up as a demon with a pitchfork and gravelly smoker voice or as Will Ferrell with an electric guitar and fire on Saturday Night Live. He’s far more intelligent than we give him credit for. Today, you’re far more likely to run into the enemy in the form of an alert on your phone while you’re reading your Bible or a multiday Netflix binge or a full-on dopamine addiction to Instagram or a Saturday morning at the office or another soccer game on a Sunday or commitment after commitment after commitment—in a life of speed.

Love is Incompatible with Hurry

Comer goes on to point out the old adage, “If the devil can’t make you sin, he’ll make you busy.” I know so many people who would greatly object to that. They tend to think their busyness is a form of righteousness, but think about it. Comer writes, “Both sin and busyness have the exact same effect—they cut off your connection to God, to other people, and even to your own soul.”

Now, Comer admits there is a healthy kind of busyness. If your life is full of things that matter—God, relationships, serving—that’s healthy. Jesus had a full life. Having a lot to do is not the problem. We all have to work to survive. The problem is having too much to do and most of it being trivial and meaningless. That’s the kind of busyness that leads to anxiety and exhaustion.

What did Jesus say is the greatest commandment? “To love…” Comer writes:

Hurry and love are incompatible. All of my worst moments as a father, a husband, a pastor, even as a human being are when I’m in a hurry—late for an appointment, behind on my unrealistic to-do list, trying to cram too much into my day. I ooze anger, tension, a critical nagging—the antitheses of love.

A Way of Life

Part 1 of the Ruthless Elimination of Hurry describes the problem. Comer goes into the history of how we got this way. He writes, “the modern world is a virtual conspiracy against the interior life.” These chapters include a wealth of research and excellent quotes, if you’re not convinced yet. He even includes a list of symptoms to examine yourself against.

Part 2 of the book lays out the solutions. Obviously, the Sunday School answer is “follow Jesus.” Thankfully, Comer shows us what that might look like. He writes:

Put simply, it’s to organize your entire life around three goals:
1. Be with Jesus
2. Become like Jesus
3. Do what he would do if he were you

The whole point of apprenticeship is to model all of your life after Jesus. And in doing so, to recover your soul.

Unhurry Your Life

Part 3 of The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry dives into the spiritual disciplines or practices, which help lead to goals 1-3 listed above. I have always been interested in the spiritual disciplines ever since my pastor gave me a copy of Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. So, I enjoy reading different people’s takes on the disciplines, probably because I still struggle to practice them.

Comer focuses on the following disciplines: Silence & Solitude, Sabbath, Simplicity, and Slowing. I’m pretty sure he’s not Southern Baptist, but he did a good job with the alliteration.

Comer pastors a church of primarily young people in Portland, so his approach to many of these disciplines is very modern, fresh, and practical. I especially appreciated his chapters on the practice of sabbath and simplicity.

A Quiet Life

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry clearly lays out our modern problem using a variety of sources. The quotes alone are brilliant and pointed me to great sources for additional reading. The book lays the groundwork for the solution based on the way of Jesus, and then offers four practices to help unhurry your life. Comer’s writing is smart and engaging. He says he wants you to feel like you’re having a conversation with him over coffee. I think he succeeds. I highly recommend this one.  You can pick up a copy here.

John Mark Comer also cohosts the This Cultural Moment podcast, which is very smart and helpful. Check it out.

On The Road With Saint Augustine by James K. A. Smith

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On The Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K. A. Smith takes us on the spiritual journey of Augustine, as he travels Africa and Italy searching for purpose and meaning. Smith hones in on the human heart’s longing for road trips—journeys. Our hearts long for something that leads us out on the road. Usually, those journeys lead to some destination, the events along the way often more important than the destination itself, but then we go back home. However, our true spiritual journey is to a home we’ve yet to see. We all start as prodigals, and the question is do we finally run home to the Father. On the Road with Saint Augustine lets us ride along on both Augustine’s and Smith’s journeys.

Smith writes in the introduction:

This is not a biography. This is not a book about Augustine. In a way, it’s a book Augustine has written about yo. It’s a journey with Augustine as a journey into oneself. It’s a travelogue of the heart. It’s a road trip with a prodigal who’s already been where you think you need to go.

I admit I’m a sucker for stories about journeys. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was my favorite as a kid. That being said, Smith’s writing is engaging and Augustine’s journey is engrossing. I never thought I’d say this about a book focused on an early church father and philosophy, but it’s a page-turner. I didn’t want to stop reading.

On The Road With Saint Augustine is so engaging because Smith emphasizes that the saint knows exactly what we’re going through as we fight the pull of the world to find true meaning. Smith writes:

He only knows you because he’s been there, because he has a sense of the solidarity of the human race in our foibles and frustrations and failed pursuits. If he jackhammers his way into the secret corners of our hearts, unearthing our hungers and fears, it’s only because it’s familiar territory: he’s seen it all in his own soul.

Smith walks us through Augustine’s insights into finding oneself, friendship, sex, ambition, family, justice, and death— all of it just as relevant today for wanderers as it was in the 4th century. Smith throws in ample philosophy; with Camus, Derrida, Heidegger and more. My personal favorite is his discussion around the existentialists and Augustine.

I really enjoyed On The Road With Saint Augustine. It’s an insightful journey you won’t regret. You can pre-order your copy here.

Biblical Spirituality – Christopher W. Morgan

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The number of people saying that they are spiritual but not religious is increasing. Meditation and yoga are growing in popularity. Recently, Democratic Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson’s tweets  went viral with their Oprah inspired spiritualism. People are desperately searching for something spiritually meaningful in their lives. I greatly appreciate Biblical Spirituality, edited by Christopher W. Morgan, and published by Crossway. It offers a clear, biblically based and practically helpful study of spirituality.

Trajectory of Spirituality

Biblical Spirituality starts with a chapter on the “Trajectory of Spirituality.” It states:

Talk of spirituality can be vague and loose, detached from Scripture while appearing biblical, and so clarity is crucial as we consider formation and our spiritual journeys.

This book is rich in theology and scripture tying our spirituality to the gospel. It avoids the pitfalls of wishy-washy postmodern spirituality with clear exegesis of scripture and historical scholarship. If footnotes are your thing, this book will delight you.

Outline

Biblical Spirituality dives into spiritual formation in the Old Testament. It then moves to spirituality in the New Testament. Chapters are dedicated to examining spirituality as presented by Jesus (who the book says is the supreme authority on spirituality), James, and Paul. There is a chapter examining the heritage of evangelical spirituality, looking at Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and J.C. Ryle. It rounds out with chapters on the history of spiritual disciplines in the Christian tradition, the spiritual and embodied disciplines, and spirituality in the workplace.

The first half of the book or so builds a solid foundation for a theology of spirituality. The later chapters focus on the history of Christian spiritual practices and practical application. Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life is one of my favorites, so I really enjoyed reading how spiritual disciplines have developed. Whitney’s book is one they recommend.

Embodied Disciplines

I also thought the chapter on embodied disciplines was unique. It is the most practical chapter. It makes the argument that there is a divide in contemporary evangelicalism. Christians tend to focus on spiritual disciplines, promoting spiritual life and spiritual solutions. Yet, they tend to neglect their bodies. As an example, the chapter states of Christians, “Protestants are the most overweight, with Southern Baptists claiming the top spot on the obesity scale.” The chapter gives practical embodied disciplines for health, stress, rest, sex, and nutrition. Some of the practical tips seem obvious, but simply look around. You’ll find they’re not being practiced.

If you have questions about spirituality and spiritual disciplines, Biblical Spirituality will give you a solid foundation and clear answers. It also points to many resources for practical applications. You can get a copy here.

The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Earley

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I’ve been looking forward to The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose For An Age of Distraction since I first heard about it a few months ago. It didn’t disappoint. After suffering a health crisis from living and working a overpacked, chaotic schedule with little sleep, Earley realized he needed to make a serious change for the sake of his health and his relationships. Earley, working with his wife and friends, established a set of practical habits around the ideas of loving God and loving neighbor.

Earley writes:

It’s utterly important to learn the right theological truths about God and neighbor, but it’s equally necessary to put that theology into practice via a rule of life… Only when your habits are constructed to match your worldview do you become someone who doesn’t just know about God and neighbor but someone who actually loves God and neighbor.

Common Rule

The Common Rule is a set of four daily habits and four weekly habits. I would call many of these habits spiritual disciplines, which has always been a topic that interests me, but I realize that phrase may feel stuffy for many. Earley defines habits as “a behavior that occurs automatically, over and over, and often unconsciously.” He goes on to quote a study by Duke University that found that as much as 40 percent of our daily actions are not conscious choices, but habits.

The problem is that means many of the important things in our daily lives are happening unconsciously. And if you aren’t choosing your habits, someone or something else is. Earley writes:

We have a common problem. By ignoring the ways habits shape us, we’ve assimilated to an invisible rule of life: the American rule of life. This rigorous program of habits forms us in all the anxiety, depression, consumerism, injustice, and vanity that are so typical in the contemporary American life.

A Big Problem

Of course, the other problem is many of us don’t want to choose our habits. Choosing means we have to slow down and face our thoughts. It means we have to sometimes stop striving and sit in silence. That terrifies us. Let’s be honest. Most of us want to stay so busy that we don’t have time to think or sleep, because that would mean we have to admit to ourselves that we are finite. We justify it by telling ourselves we’re “called” or saying there’s just too much to do.

Earley writes, “Our habits often obscure what we’re really worshiping, but that doesn’t mean we’re not worshiping something. The question is, what are we worshiping?” Earley quotes James K. A. Smith who writes that worship forms us and formation is worship. “As the psalmist put it, those who make and trust in idols will become like them (Psalm 31:6). So we become our habits.” Our habits are daily liturgies of worship. Are we worshiping ourselves or our creator?

Practical Resources

The Common Rule is not just theoretical. It is an incredibly practical book, perhaps more so than many of the Christian living books I’ve read. Earley clearly walks through each habit and gives a wealth of practical suggestions to get started. He even gives adjustments to the Common Rule for people in various phases of life and occupations. His website is also extremely helpful. If you’re looking to start the new year by making some important changes to your daily life, I recommend checking out The Common Rule. You can get a copy here.