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.

Images and Idols: Creativity for the Christian Life

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Images and Idols: Creativity for the Christian Life is the first book in the new Reclaiming Creativity Series by Thomas J. Terry and J. Ryan Lister. They write in the foreword that the series began as a conversation between friends— one an academic and the other a performing artist. The artist creates the art. The academic analyzes and discusses the art, which as a teacher I would argue is somewhat an art form in itself. They both obviously have an interest in what creativity should mean and be in the life of a Christian. It’s an interesting question, and Images and Idols does a great job beginning the discussion.

Reclaiming Creativity

I’m trying to remember a time when I’ve heard creativity discussed in the local church, but I can’t recall an instance. Let’s be honest. When you think of famous artists, musicians, and writers; do God-honoring people come to mind? But Terry and Lister might argue that’s part of the problem, and that’s why we need Reclaiming Creativity.

Terry and Lister write, “We want to hit the reset button on the faith-creativity problem and help creativity be what God intended it to be: a composite of beauty, worship, and service.” Images and Idols is the first in a three volume series. It discusses the questions, “First, what does God have to do with your creativity? And second, what does your creativity have to do with God?”

Impulses

I’ve heard it said many times that Christian art, music, and writing should be the best out there. Christians often talk about creatives and say, “If they would only use that talent for God.” Yet, churches and Christians in general don’t foster and support creativity. It only seems welcome for decorating the fellowship hall for VBS, designing ProPresenter slides, or singing on the praise team. All of which are noble acts of service, but isn’t there more? Terry and Lister write:

So many have given up on their creative impulse because someone somewhere has somehow convinced them that creativity is pointless, excessive, immoral, or childish compared to the things of God.

The Divide

Terry and Lister point out that many creatives no longer feel valued or at home in the church. There is a underlying suspicion that seems to divide the Christian and creativity. They write:

…The problem of the creativity-Christian divide stems from the unfounded and specious commitment: God has nothing to do with creativity, and creativity has nothing to do with God.

Of course that’s nonsense, and Images and Idols spends the rest of the book using sound, biblical arguments explaining why. Terry and Lister write:

A world without God will always struggle to give you a reason for your creative impulse. Perhaps its survival or money or power or the self-defeating promise of immortal fame. But a world designed and upheld by God reveals something much more beautiful and profound:

Every act of creativity, in its essence, is an act of worship, a doxological expression of your true humanity and purpose.

What Should We Do?

So, how do those of use with a creative impulse live that out? How do we make sure that our creativity stays true to that doxological expression? Does everything we create have to be an explicit sermon or worship song? Terry and Lister dig deep into those questions. Honestly, there are so many good quotes I could share from this book. I’ll share one more that sets up the rest of the book:

No matter how it may seem, God and creativity have never been in opposition; they are, and always have been, connected. Consequently, if we are ever going to understand creativity properly, we need to know God. The reverse is also true. To know God means we have to see Him as the Creator and Lord of everything, including creativity.

Images and Idols succeeds in keeping a friendly, conversational tone. Terry and Lister discuss Marvel’s success with origin stories and Pixar’s commitment to revealing our humanity. They talk about how creativity can lead to self worship, and how to avoid that. They even throw in some great C.S. Lewis and Tolkien quotes. Most importantly, they stay true to their purpose. They answer what does God have to do with your creativity and what does your creativity have to do with God?

Images and Idols

As previously mentioned, Images and Idols is the first volume in a series. You can get a copy of the book HERE. The second volume, Redesigned Cathedrals, will “seek to bridge the divide between the church and the creative.” The third volume, The King’s Commission, discusses how Christian creativity can address “a culture starving for something better.” I’m looking forward to reading them all.

If you didn’t know, Thomas J. Terry is a member of the rap group Beautiful Eulogy and founder of Humble Beast Records. I believe Terry and Lister also work together on the Canvas Conference, which focuses on creativity and theology.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

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There’s something about Nick Hornby’s nonfiction that brings me joy. His writing is so conversational. It’s never stuffy, and there’s an intensity and unabashed honesty to it. I can read old “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” articles from Believer magazine for hours. Thankfully they’ve made them available online. Fever Pitch is no different. I enjoyed every word of it.

Fever Pitch is Hornby’s memoir about his lifelong obsession with and commitment to Arsenal Football Club. (That’s a British soccer team for those of us in the United States). I thought it was the perfect time to read the quintessential book on Arsenal fandom since Arsenal’s manager for the past twenty-five years stepped down at the end of the 2017-2018 season. This coming season is a momentous new beginning.

Beginnings

Hornby’s love of Arsenal begins when he’s eleven, September 14, 1968 to be exact. His dad takes him to the match versus Stoke City. He writes:

I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.

1968 was a traumatic year for Hornby. His parents separated. He had to move to a smaller house and change schools. He got jaundice. Obviously, some of this played into what would become a full-blown obsession requiring counseling later. The book chronicles key moments and reflections through his life up to 1992— each chapter marked by a soccer match. That’s how important the team was to him.

Arsenal won the league and the FA cup in 1971. They call it the Double year. After that they had a lot of mediocre seasons through the 70s and 80s. They would be out of the running for the league title and out of all the cup competitions early. Hornby notes that the games were meaningless at that point, yet he felt the need to be at the home games, miserable in the cold. He remembers most of the games in detail. He can recount who scored, when, and how. And he didn’t keep a journal. It’s impressive.

Movie Adaptations

There have been several movie adaptions of the book. The only one I’ve seen was an American romantic-comedy that didn’t resemble the book at all. Does Hornby discuss his relationships in light of his obsession? Yes. Is it funny and sad at the same time? Yes, but it seems to be such a small part of the book to me.

Spoiler Alert: One memorable story is when he was at college and followed Cambridge United. They had to win their last game to get promoted to the next division. Hornby went on a double-date to the game with his girlfriend. When the opposing team scored in the last twenty minutes, Hornby’s girlfriend fainted. Did he help her? No. He prayed for an equalizer while his girlfriend’s friend took her to see the medics. Cambridge did score and was promoted, but he writes:

Thirteen years later I am still ashamed of my unwillingness, my inability, to help, and the reason I feel ashamed is partly to do with the awareness that I haven’t changed a bit. I don’t want to look after anybody when I’m at a match; I am not capable of looking after anybody at a match. I am writing some nine hours before Arsenal play Benfica in the European Cup, the most important match at Highbury for years, and my partner will be with me: what happens if she keels over? Would I have the decency ,the maturity, the common sense, to make sure that she was properly looked after? Or would I shove her limp body to one side, carry on screaming at the linesman, and hope that she is still breathing at the end of ninety minutes, always presuming, of course, that extra time and penalties are not required?

Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch not only covers Hornby’s life, but also discusses football hooliganism though the 70s and 80s, social class in the stands, the Hillsborough tragedy, racism in football, and the sense of belonging you get from consistently being in the stands at home games. Ultimately, that’s what Hornby’s obsession is about.

When Arsenal pulled out a heart-stopping, miraculous win against Liverpool in the last match of the season to win the league in 1989, Hornby writes, “After twenty-one years I no longer felt, as I had done during the Double year, that if I hadn’t been to the games I had no right to partake in the celebrations; I’d done the work, years and years and years of it, I belonged.” Isn’t that what we all want— to belong?

You can get a copy of Fever Pitch here. You can watch the documentary about the amazing game against Liverpool in 1989 on Netflix. It’s called 89.

Faith Among the Faithless

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In Faith Among the Faithless, Mike Cosper takes a fresh look at the Old Testament book of Esther. If you’ve spent much time in church, you’ve likely heard a sermon based on Mordecai’s plea to Esther that she is in her position “for such a time as this.” Well-meaning Christians use the phrase ad nauseam for encouragement and reassurance that they’re in the right place doing the right thing. It quickly becomes trite. Thankfully Cosper takes a different approach. Do we compromise our beliefs or fully assimilate with the culture around us? Do we grasp for power? Is there another way to live among the faithless? Faith Among the Faithless focuses attention on the relevance of Esther in our contemporary culture.

The Narrative

Cosper retells Esther’s story using… well, story-telling techniques. He shows, instead of just telling. He paints vivid pictures of Xerxes’ banquet hall and parties. He takes the reader down dark back corridors for hushed conversations between Mordecai and Esther. He reveals Hamon’s inner thoughts. Cosper writes of Xerxes:

The king was “merry with wine” (1:10), which is a polite way to say he got drunk and stupid. The citizens of Susa were stunned by the spectacle of the “King of Kings”—glassy-eyed and tongue-tied, staggering through a crowd of peasants. Xerxes began shouting for the queen.

Does this take some elaboration and imagining? Sure, but Cosper is careful to stay faithful to the text. It’s the story-telling technique in Faith Among the Faithless that brings a freshness and sense of intrigue to the narrative.

The Insight

Interspersed in the narrative of the story, Cosper provides well-researched historical details and his own insights into what this all means for contemporary readers. This is the meat of the book and what makes it unique. Cosper writes:

The truly dangerous idea in Persia and Babylon (and the only real heresy) was to believe that your religion was the one true religion. It disturbed the tidy order of things. It made for religious dissidents, and it caused friction amid polite pluralism. In our world, the same is true, although for different reasons. Where their world was overtly pagan, ours wears a mask of secularism.

In our age of secularism, many Christians call for Daniel as a role-model. He lived and worked among the Babylonians, but he refused to comprise his beliefs, even under threat of life and limb. Cosper says there’s a problem with using Daniel as the role model we should follow. He writes:

Most of us aren’t a Daniel. In fact, we are far from it… Christians in general consume as much mass media and are as addicted to pornography, as likely to divorce, as consumeristic, and as obsessed with social media as the rest of our world. Again, we’re immersed in a secular age, and it’s had a profound effect upon us.

Esther’s story is different from Daniel. She was born in exile. It’s all she knows. She’s disconnected and out of touch with the practices of her people—the practices that were supposed to separate them from the pagans around them. She lives a life of compromises. She sins. Cosper points out that her great moment is not a show of force, but of vulnerability. We are far more like Esther than Daniel, and her story has a lot to teach us. Cosper writes:

Esther’s story reveals a way forward in a culture where people of faith find themselves at the margins of society. She neither clutches for power nor seeks self-protection. Instead, she faces reality, embraces weakness, and finds faith, hope, and help from a world unseen.

The Conclusion

Faith Among the Faithless is an important book. It doesn’t gloss over the difficulty of living as a Christian in a secular culture. It doesn’t minimize or ignore the compromises and sin. There are no saccharine calls to just love and embrace joy. The book of Esther doesn’t mention God. It’s two main Jewish characters are exiles who have assimilated to the pagan culture around them. Cosper writes, “I believe that’s why God is ‘hidden’ throughout the story. It is the story of a group of people finding their way back to God through a darkened world; finding their voice for faithful, vulnerable witness; and seeking to ensure that the generations after them don’t make the same mistake.” We all need that story. You can get a copy of Faith Among the Faithless here.

Sex in a Broken World | Paul David Tripp

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We all know we are surrounded by sexuality. It permeates our entertainment, our advertising, our identities, and even our news. Almost none of what we see regarding sex is presented from a biblical perspective. As Paul David Tripp emphasizes throughout Sex in a Broken World: “I’m deeply persuaded that when it comes to sex, we’ve gone culturally insane. The level of functional delusion, of self-deception and self-destruction, that accompanies the way we approach it is simply crazy.” In Sex in a Broken World, Tripp points us to the One who brings peace and order to the craziness. He reminds us that there is hope for those who feel controlled, abused, ashamed, and broken by sex.

Sex in a Broken World begins with several scenarios of both men and women, adult and teenager. These are people struggling with sexuality, with pressures, with addiction, with desires. One scenario ends with a woman asking, “How can I serve a God who hardwires me with desires and then tells me he’ll discipline me if I fulfill them?” This leads to her feeling depressed and confused. Undoubtedly, many people will identify with some of these scenarios and will ask similar questions.

Tripp writes:

 If you’re in any of those situations, this is what you need to understand: you live in a deeply broken world that simply does not function as God intended… you will never completely understand our deep struggle with human sexuality unless you first understand the context or the environment in which the struggle takes place.

The Bad News

Tripp calls this the “bad news.” As the title of the book clearly states, we live in a broken world. He goes on to walk through Romans 8:18-39. Paul assumes we are going to suffer in this world. We are living between the already, but not yet. Christ has come, and we are saved. Yet, we are still living in the world waiting to be perfected in His image. If suffering is part of all of our experiences, we should expect to experience it in regards to sex as well.

Tripp writes:

You will suffer the reality that right here, right now, sex doesn’t function the way that God intended. You will face the redefinition, distortion, and misuse of sex. You suffer the temptation to take your sexual life outside of God’s clear boundaries.

That’s the bad news, but Paul doesn’t stop there. Paul points us to grace. Tripp writes, “He doesn’t promise us that we will not suffer… No, he promises us that in all these situations he will be with us, in us, and for us. God is the grace he offers us.” In fact, it is in the context of this passage in Romans that Paul states that powerful promise of “If God is for us, who can be against us.”

Hard Truths

What I love about Tripp’s writing is that he doesn’t offer fluff. He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t blow smoke. As a former co-teacher of mine use to say about students, he doesn’t give us too many fuzzy wuzzies when what we need is pricklies. I want that hard truth. Tell me like it is.

At the same time, I know not everyone appreciates hard truths. They knock the breath out of us sometimes. Tripp doesn’t just leave us that way. He brings us back to hope and the breath of life. He goes on to explain God’s grace in light of sexual struggle in detail.

He then explains that the problem is not just the environment, but ourselves—our hearts. He writes:

You see, the humbling truth is that when it comes to sex, we don’t have a thing problem; the thing (sex) is not evil in itself. We don’t have an environment problem, as if our surroundings cause the difficulty. No, we are the problem.

Again, there are some hard truths here. Making ourselves and our comfort, pleasure, and control the center of our universe violates the very nature of the world. God did not design us or the world to work that way. Tripp writes:

You see the problem is not that your heart has the capacity to desire; the problem is ruling desire. Let me say it as I’ve said it before: the desire for even a good thing becomes a bad thing when that desire becomes a ruling thing.

Heart Problems

Monasteries, boycotts, and situational awareness won’t solve the problem, because the problem is our hearts. We are self-oriented and pleasure-addicted. As Tripp says, “This side of eternity, your heart is susceptible.” We have to know, understand, and believe this in order to embrace the fact that we can’t save ourselves. We can’t fix the problem.

Tripp goes on to examine pleasure in the next chapter. What is this thing that draws us to it and takes over our hearts? Pleasure is to be God glorifying, but pleasure demands boundaries. Pleasure without boundaries is not God’s design, and it doesn’t work.

Tripp writes:

Here’s the question: What are you asking of your pleasure? You have been designed by God for pleasure. You have been placed by God in a pleasure-saturated world. You have been hardwired with the senses to take in and enjoy the pleasures around you. In short, you are a pleasure seeker. The issue is what kind of pleasure will you give your heart to, and what will you ask of pleasures?

Pleasure is meant to glorify God, but when we ask pleasure to do things it simply can’t, things go terribly wrong. For example, using sex to establish power and control ends in damage and destruction of yourself and others. Using pleasure as a spiritual refuge from troubles will never satisfy you and will only compound problems. Pleasure was never meant to be used to establish our identities, our peace, or our contentment. It can’t save us.

Sex in a Broken World

What’s the difference between big-picture sex and little-picture sex? Tripp spends three chapters explaining what is probably the most shocking, but one of the most important concepts: Sex is an act of worship. Little-picture sex—the isolated, individualization of sex—violates that concept. He writes, “Worship of anything other than God always ends in the worship of self and the individualization of things that are designed by God to connect us to things that are bigger than our wants, needs, and pleasures.”

What are we to do with this? Tripp walks through 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Taking all of those hard truths into account, we have to turn to the scripture and the Lord over and over every day. Tripp walks through what obedience looks like. He walks through how sex is all about relationship. Finally, he gives some very practical thoughts on the gospel and how it applies. These are practical thoughts that people who are struggling with shame, guilt, and hopelessness need to hear because we simply don’t talk about these issues like we should in the church.

I’d have a hard time trying to think of a group that would not benefit from reading Sex in a Broken World—marriage counseling, teenagers, parents, those struggling with sexuality or pornography, the list goes on. It’s a topic that surrounds us, but we often feel ill equipped or ashamed to discuss. This is truly a helpful book on a difficult, but crucial topic. You can get a copy of the book here.

Manhattan Beach | Jennifer Egan

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Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is an adventure story at heart, and I’ve always been a sucker for adventure stories. Egan’s novel set in 1940s New York is beautifully written and well researched. This is a much more traditional novel than Egan’s Pulitzer winning Visit From the Goon Squad.   It is certainly not perfect and suffers from some of the typical hokey-ness of historical fiction.  Yet, Egan has crafted something more than just a page turner. She captures the deep seated human longing for purpose and identity.

Beginnings

Early in the novel, a young Anna, her father Eddie, and Dexter Styles meet on a cold Manhattan beach during the Depression.  Eddie is looking for work so he can buy his brain-damaged daughter, Lydia, a wheelchair. Dexter, a mid-level gangster on the rise, needs a bag man. Anna is a precocious child refusing to flinch at the icy cold water on her feet. She’s proud and sensation seeking. The sea provides many things for these characters—escape, cleansing, joy, death. The symbolism (because the sea is always symbolic in literature) suggests there is more hidden beneath the surface, out in the deep. Nothing is quite what it seems with these three characters, and their paths weave and intersect throughout the novel.

The next time we see Anna, the heroine of the story, she is 19 and working a boring inspection job in an office of the naval yard to support her mother and Lydia. World War II is in full swing. Eddie has disappeared without explanation, and Anna has finally come to terms with the fact that her father is not returning. Anna has little desire to become like the other girls in the office, who long for marriage as a way out of the tedium. Anna’s mother is obsessed with caring for Lydia, providing only the best shampoo and constant attention, though Lydia seems oblivious.  Egan writes about young Anna:

 “Each time Anna moved from her father’s world to her mother and Lydia’s, she felt as if she’d shaken free of one life for a deeper one. And when she returned to her father, holding his hand as they ventured out into the city, it was her mother and Lydia she shook off, often forgetting them completely. Back and forth she went, deeper—deeper still—until it seemed there was no place further down she could go. But somehow there always was. She had never reached the bottom.” 

After her father’s disappearance, Anna dutifully assists her mother, but longs for something more, something personal and all her own. 

Longing

Anna sees the deep sea divers at the naval yard, and becomes determine to become one. Anna feels “a seismic rearrangement within herself.” She longs to be on the bottom of the sea, in the dark, tied to the world only by a line that supplies oxygen, but doing work with purpose that supports the war effort.

Egan’s research into the diving process and her descriptions are beautifully detailed. Anna fights against the 1940s misogyny and proves herself to be one of the best divers. This skill is essential for the plot, but is also essential for what it represents. Anna has created a new identity for herself where she feels free.  She feels exhilarated by the weight of the diving suit taking her to the dark bottom. She loves the excitement of letting go of the guiding line and being completely on her own to find her way where very few have ever walked.

We all have this longing to a certain extent.  Those who know God, run away at times, letting go of the guiding rope, because we want to feel our way along on our own. It exhilarates us. Those who don’t know God, are groping along the bottom in the dark, searching and searching. Oxygen is running out and the pressure of the deep is forever increasing.

It has been that way since the fall when the serpent deceived Eve in Genesis 3:5, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” But we are not God. Without the guiding rope, who can we signal to that we are ready to come up? There is no swimming to the surface in a 200 pound dive suit. In fact, Jeremiah writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) Anna’s desperate and dangerous actions through the novel illustrate this profound searching and sickness. 

Fathers

Anna’s father Eddie is trapped in a different search for identity than Anna. He’s a family man in the 1930s with a disabled daughter, Lydia. His difficulty handling Lydia’s disability is compounded by The Depression and lack of work.  His relationship with his wife, Agnes, quickly deteriorates. Egan writes:

Agnes cleared the toques and sequin chains from the kitchen table and set four places for supper. She would have liked for Lydia to join them, would happily have cradled her in her own lap. But that would ruin the meal for Eddie… Agnes was only half-present—distracted, as Eddie often remarked. But in caring so little, he left her no choice.

Eddie doesn’t need the weight of a dive suit to take him to the bottom.  He feels as if he is already there and drowning.  He’s working as a bag man for Dexter to provide for his family, but he wants change. Discretion and the ability to go unnoticed are key to his line of work. Yet, he states outright, “I cannot accept this,” thinking of his life. Eddie’s disappearance drives most of the mystery in the novel.

Gangsters

Of the three characters, Dexter seems to have everything he needs, but he is no different than Anna or Eddie.  He moves between two worlds that must never touch.  He has married a wealthy banker’s daughter, lives in a mansion on the beach, and frequents the country club. Yet, heads turn and there a whispers. He is a mid-level gangster who worked his way through the ranks.  Now he is running several nightclubs, but he’s discontent. He wants a change.  He wants to go straight.

Although the book is set primarily in New York, Egan doesn’t focus on the typical New York landscape and busy streets.  In fact, she largely ignores the common and familiar surface to focus on the unique subcultures that consume Anna, Eddie, and Dexter. Going deeper, beneath the surface, permeates the novel. However, none of the characters ultimately find what they are looking for without tremendous loss. 

Manhattan Beach

In one of the most moving scenes in the novel, Anna takes Lydia to the sea, against the wishes of her mother.  Anna believes that perhaps the sea will release Lydia from her catatonic state. She’s right and wrong. In an almost incomprehensible stream of babble, Lydia opens up, “See the sea. Sea the sea the sea the sea… Kiss Anna Bird Cree cree See the waves hrasha hrasha hrasha.” It is a beautiful scene of hope, but there are consequences.

Like Anna, we often believe that pushing out on our own and doing what is right in our own eyes are small victories. We are proud of ourselves. Today’s culture celebrates “becoming yourself.” There are always consequences, and they often devastate us.  Psalm 118:27 says, “The Lord is God,  and he has made his light to shine upon us.” Without that light, we are blind on the ocean floor groping in the dark.

You can pick up Manhattan Beach here.

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture

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Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture is one of the most helpful Christian-living books I’ve read in a long time. David Murray has experienced burnout in his pastoral life to the point of harming his health. He brings a wealth of wisdom to the subject. Don’t think this book is just for pastors. It’s valuable for everyone who feels worn down and exhausted by life.

Repair Bays

Murray structures the book around the concept of taking your car to the garage. Each chapter is a “repair bay.” Murray quotes Brady Boyd from Addicted to Busy, “Ultimately, every problem I see in every person I know is a problem of moving too fast for too long in too many aspects of life.” Murray is not calling for Christians to drop out of service and kick their feet up. He is calling for them to take care of themselves, so that they can serve well.

Adrenaline-Drunk

Do you know anyone who can’t stop working? There’s just too much to do, and it has to get done. How about someone who has trouble sleeping because they just can’t stop thinking? Do you know anyone who has to always have plans, every evening? It’s constant movement. People are constantly on the go. They can’t sit still. They’re adrenaline-drunk and exhausted.

Murray writes in Reset that our busy-ness and burnout is often a theological problem. Murray says that many people’s fundamental and foundational error is we forget a fundamental and foundational truth—God is our Creator. He writes:

Lots of people call God Creator, but live like evolutionists. It’s as if life is about the survival of the fittest rather than about living like a dependent creature—trusting our Creator rather than ourselves—and according to our Maker’s instructions.

Theology of Sleep

Murray discusses how God has given us rest, exercise, and fellowship, all of which slow us down and keep us well. He spends significant time on sleep and rest, mainly because it’s one of the things that people abuse the most. He writes that “there are few things as theological as sleep.” He argues that we preach a sermon to ourselves in regards to sleep. If you’re not getting enough of it because you can’t stop thinking of all you have to do, He writes that you’re preaching the following five points to yourself:

  1. I don’t trust God with my work, my church, or my family.
  2. I don’t respect how my Creator has made me.
  3. I don’t believe that the soul and body are linked.
  4. I don’t need to demonstrate my rest in Christ.
  5. I worship idols.

That’s convicting to read, but like all good pastors, Murray is helping us see where we have fallen short and points to Christ. He goes on to give practical advice about how to get better rest, but more importantly he writes:

Ultimately, sleep, like everything else, should lead us to the gospel and the Savior. First, it prompts us to think about death, that we all shall close our eyes in sleep, and wake up in another world (1 Thess.4:14).

It also teaches us about our Savior. The fact that Jesus slept (Mark 4:38) is as profound as “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). It reminds us of Christ’s full humanity, that the Son of God became so frail, so weak, so human that he needed to sleep. What humility! What love! What an example! What a comfort! What a sleeping pill!

Reset

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture is well researched. Murray pulls valuable insight from a variety of sources, but frames it all with scripture and God’s instruction for how we are to take care of ourselves. The metaphors he uses will likely resonate more with men. He has written a follow-up book with his wife called Refresh, which focuses on women. I highly recommend this book. You can get a copy of Reset here. You can pick up a copy of Refresh here.

The Character of the Church

Joe Thorn - Character of the Church

 

The Character of the Church by Joe Thorn is the second book in Thorn’s trilogy on the church. The marketing copy says each book can be read in an hour. I didn’t test that claim, but they are short and easily read. Thorn avoids theological jargon and explains everything in everyday language, so the series is great for new and mature believers alike. The Character of the Church addresses the question of what makes a church.

What are the defining elements of a biblically-sound church?

When I hear longtime believers rave about “cool, relevant” churches and I see people drawn to churches with productions rivaling broadway, I think this book isn’t just for new believers. There are essential elements that make a Christian church. We need to all remember and be concerned with those elements first and foremost. Thorn writes:

What makes for a true and healthy church can be boiled down to five essentials: (1) the right preaching of Scripture, (2) the proper administration of the ordinances, (3) the development of biblical leadership, (4) the gracious implementation of church discipline, and (5) a clear focus on the mission that Jesus gave the church.

The Character of the Church is structured around those five essentials. Thorn carefully explains what each means and looks like in a healthy church. Some of the finer details around these topics can be controversial. I appreciate that Thorn is never heavy-handed in his approach. However, he doesn’t back away from difficult topics. He delivers clear answers backed by scripture. Granted, he is Baptist and his explanations are from a Baptist perspective. For example, not everyone will agree with his explanation of why he doesn’t practice infant baptism or why he practices immersion. But his explanations are clear and based on scripture.

Difficult Topics

“Fencing the table” is another example of a difficult topic that I think is explained really well in the section on the Lord’s supper. A family member recently asked me about this, which made me realize a lot of people don’t understand the warning that is given before the Lord’s Supper. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it explained before now. Thorn writes:

“Fencing the table is protecting people from partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. This includes receiving it as an unbeliever, an unrepentant believer, and a member of the church currently under restrictive church discipline… Fencing the table is done primarily through public exhortation and warning.”

This concept comes from 1 Corinthians, and the book goes on to give an example of what an elder or pastor may say before delivering the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

The Character of the Church

I greatly appreciate the chapters on biblical leadership and church discipline as well. I don’t think I have seen those two topics explained this clearly and concisely anywhere else. Overall, I think this series and The Character of the Church, in particular, is a great resource for believers. I think Baptist churches would do well to use these books in new members and new believers classes.

The Character of the Church is published by Moody Publishers and For the Church. You can pick up a copy here. If you haven’t heard Joe Thorn and Jimmy Fowler’s podcast Doctrine and Devotion, you should check that out as well.