A Disruptive Gospel – A Book Review

Ipier_disruptivegospel_wSpine.inddn the first chapter of “A Disruptive Gospel” Mac Pier shares his own experience of coming to understand and embrace the gospel. He explains the gospel and then lays out five specific matters which we should organize our lives around if we embrace the gospel and Jesus. The five matters are: the gospel matters, church unity matters, cities matter, millennial leadership matters, and movements matter. Pier spends the rest of the book emphasizing these matters.

Pier reiterates his point about unity multiple times through the book. He writes, “Division in the church breeds atheism in the world.” His reiteration of this is great that it’s hard to think there isn’t some kind of back story. As much as he emphasizes unity within the church, it doesn’t seem that he is overly promoting ecumenical ministries. The bigger issue within cities is the segregation that exists within churches. The lack of integration within churches can be just as great of a hindrance to the gospel as disunity.

“A Disruptive Gospel” also promotes an awareness of, care for, and raising up of millennial leaders. Millennial leaders are the church of today and tomorrow, to disregard or ignore them is to almost purposefully seek the death knell of God’s church, although I don’t believe anything can kill God’s church. There needs to be strategic movements and intentional plans to seek ways to transition the youth of today into leaders by discipling them and investing in them. One leader shares, “Young people desperately want a ‘third place’ to connect, and very few churches provide that space. There is virtually no transition from youth group to a larger church gathering on Sundays.”

The movements that have occurred and are occurring within U.S. cities such as New York and Dallas are the focus of many of the early chapters within “A Disruptive Gospel.” Movement Days have been started within cities with the realization that cities shape culture, gospel movements shape cities, and leaders catalyze movements. The idea behind Movement day was to create a convergence between the prayer movements that are taking place within the church as well as the church planting movement that is taking place in the church. As Pier says, “What our cities need more than anything is a maturing and deepening of relationship between diverse Christian leaders within the same city. Missional unity is the ball game.”

Education and information are key factors in seeing a gospel movement take off. Pier writes, “We can love only that which we know. The more we know about our community, our church, or our city, the more we will care about its well-being. Research compels us to act.” How can we reach people that we don’t know and don’t know about? If we fail to know them, we will fail to love them. We need to become more aware of the people who Jesus wants to be a part of his kingdom, not necessarily the ones who are already in the kingdom and the church, but those who may be the furthest away.

Pier goes on to share about what is taking places within cities throughout the world. The United Kingdom. Dubai. Germany. South Africa. The Philippines. God is at work throughout the world and there is much to be learned about what is being done and tried all around.

The subtitle for “A Disruptive Gospel” is “Stories and Strategies For Transforming Your City.” The first half of the book seemed to move along fairly well. There were nuggets of information and good insights that I thought were really helpful. As the book moved on, the information seemed repetitive and dry, less about story sharing and more about information sharing. My interest waned as it went on. So, I could almost give two different reviews for the two halves of this book.

Overall, there was good information in here. That information could probably have been shared in half the space that it took. If you don’t mind skimming a book to find the nuggets that lie along the way, you might want to read “A Disruptive Gospel.” If you are expecting a book that moves along at a decent pace, holding your interest at every page, you may want to read something by the guy who wrote the foreword of the book, Tim Keller.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Hopes and Dreams

hopesanddreamsIf you follow the church calendar at all, you know that this past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. I had the privilege of kicking off our Advent sermon series called “He is greater than I.” Appropriately, the sermon was focused on Mary and her response to the news that she had received from the angel regarding her pregnancy.

As I weaved my way through Mary’s song in Luke 1, I couldn’t help but think about what kind of a disruption this might have been for Mary. Mind you, the place of women in the 1st century near East is not near where the place of women is in today’s society, but you still have to wonder what kinds of things Mary hoped and dreamed of for her future.

Regardless of those hopes and dreams, things turned out very different for the teenage girl. She had a lot of explaining to do and she probably had to put up with a whole lot of stares as she walked through town. Any chance of having been a wallflower was most likely lost as the world would eventually know her name and what she had done.

I wonder if Mary realized the full extent of what she was being called to do. Of course, that’s been speculated in the song “Mary, Did You Know?” The angel who appeared to her was pretty clear about what she was being asked to do and who Jesus was, so it’s hard to think she didn’t know. But then, what else she heard after “You will become pregnant….” might be somewhat questionable, considering.

Whatever Mary’s hopes and dreams may have been, they really paled in comparison to what she got. On a list of hopes and dreams, I’m not sure that anyone would consider “Mother of the Son of God” as one of the bullets, yet that’s just what she would become.

After my message this past Sunday, I was asked this question, “How do we reconcile God’s bigger plan with our own dreams or is it better just to skip them altogether?”

Although I gave an immediate answer, it’s something that I’ve pondered a lot since the asking. While immediate answers aren’t always wrong, I find myself continually asking myself questions long after answers to them have been given.

I had to think whether or not I had hopes and dreams for myself. If I did, what were they?

As I thought about it, it seems that my hopes and dreams as I have gotten older have grown broader than they used to be. While there are some specifics, I find myself looking at things more generally than I did before, when I was younger. My hopes and dreams center around my family, hoping for certain things for my children yet not living vicariously through them.

I want certain things for my children and my family. I want to experience certain things for myself. I want to be effective in what I do and even have some vocational hopes and dreams as well. But what happens if those dreams are never realized? What if they don’t align with God’s plan for me?

I think that I learned about disappointment before I even left middle school. So, suffice it to say that the fact that my hopes and dreams might be dashed hasn’t stopped me from still hoping those hopes and dreaming those dreams. If I’m honest, I think that I might even find that like Mary, my hopes and dreams actually paled in comparison to what reality became for me. That’s not to say that I haven’t faced my share of disappointments, struggles, and heartaches, but overall, my blessings have exceeded some of what I dreamed they might be.

As I have grown in my faith, I have realized that we can often get too specific in our asks from God. Don’t mishear me here, we need to ask God specifically for things, but I think we have a tendency to take it a little too far. I was the kid who had Jeremiah 29:11 as his senior yearbook quote, so I’ve had to grow into this myself. I think we get too hung up in whether God wants us to be an artist or an engineer, whether he wants us to have 2 kids or 4, whether we should rent a house or buy a house. I’m not saying that he doesn’t care, I’m just saying that when we ask those kinds of questions, we kind of miss the forest for the trees.

God’s got a much bigger plan and we are only a small part of it. When we get so focused on specifics, I think that we’re trying to make ourselves a much bigger part of the plan than we should be. We’re not insignificant, neither are our desires, but there are much more important fish to fry than some of the ones that I have spent my time frying in the past.

I probably dreamed of the wife and family that I would have, maybe obsessing a little too much on them before I had them, but now that I have them, I see that my dreams were tiny in comparison to what I actually got. I pursued one vocation for a decade until I stumbled into another one that I’ve been in for more than that. While I dreamed of what my career would be, I don’t think that I ever dreamed of what it has become. It almost seems as if my dreams have always fallen short of reality, although it might not have always looked that way to me.

I’m not going to sit here and mimic a certain Houston pastor who wants you to live your best life now. I won’t sit here and say that God will always let you have what’s best for you (although that may be true). What I will say is that God will always let us have what’s best for him, what will bring him the most glory. In mulling that over, we can’t forget that one of the things that brought him glory was also the thing that brought him pain, the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. If God’s glory is even costly for him, why should we think that it won’t be costly for us?

I think that what happens as we grow in our faith, our maturity, and our relationship with Christ is that our hopes and dreams align more with his plans for us. That’s doesn’t mean that we’re always aligned, but I think that we begin to want what he wants, making our hopes and dreams his will. Does that make sense?

I’m still hoping and dreaming, and I plan to until my dying day. The minute that I stop hoping and dreaming is the minute that I begin to give up, and that’s not something that I want to do.

I’m going to keep mulling this over, but for now, I’m going to go hope and dream some more! 

How’s Your Soul? – A Book Review

hows-your-soul“You can have millions in the bank, a Maserati in the driveway, and more Instagram followers than the pope, but unless your soul is healthy, you won’t be happy.” So Judah Smith writes within the first pages of “How’s Your Soul?” and then he spends the whole book talking through just what it means to take care of your soul.

As I dove into this book, I entered skeptically. I knew that Judah Smith had risen through the ranks to become one of the most popular hipster pastors of late. But was he for real? While I’ve read his book “Life Is…” the jury was still out in my mind as to where he stood. I’m fine with people writing encouraging and inspirational books, but I was wondering whether or not there was any depth to Smith. After all, there’s already one Joel Osteen in the world, I’d rather not see any more like him.

Judah Smith is the real deal. He’s funny. He’s quirky. He’s self-deprecating. He’s grounded. As much as he is all these things, he brings gospel truth, not compromising the message of the cross or the gospel and clearly laying out the essentials of the Christian faith. Smith writes with a winsomeness that allows for those who aren’t quite there yet in discovering who Jesus is. He’s not pushy or arrogant, but neither does he pull punches when it comes to the truth of the gospel. That won me over.

As Smith talks about the soul, he’s honest about the beginnings of our problems. He doesn’t shy away from the word “sin” and says, “…if we try to apply these…elements to our souls without dealing with the sin issue, it won’t work.” He’s also honest about the work that we do for ourselves and the work that God has done for us when he says, “Self-effort is noble and admirable, and it will carry you through some things; but a love birthed in self will never be strong enough for all things. We need a love that transcends human ability and experience.”

His words are reminiscent of Augustine’s words when he writes, “As our souls find themselves in God, our lives will find their purpose, place, and value in him as well.” We will not find rest in our souls until we find that rest in God alone. He speaks of living lives that are surrendered and surrounded. We surrender to God and surround ourselves with others with whom we can walk. Even if we don’t fully get it or fully believe, it’s important to belong as we enter the process.

I appreciated what Smith said about belonging before believing. Too often Christians can be guilty of asking people to clean themselves up and then coming to Jesus. Smith encourages us to seek ways to allow for people to belong first rather than getting all the behavior right. It is a journey, we belong, then we believe, and then we behave. To try to behave first without belonging and believing is not only counterintuitive, it’s contrary to what Jesus taught us.

“How’s Your Soul?” was a pleasant surprise to me. There is no deep theology here, but that’s not what Judah Smith is going for, he’s just reminding his reader of the importance of soul care for living. It’s a fast read with some worthwhile truth. Check it out!

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

A Mile Wide – A Book Review

a-mile-wideBeing a disciple of Christ is more than simply wearing a label and living in a subculture in the world. True disciples of Christ are not simply looking for a surficial relationship that seems a mile wide but which fails to go deep. True disciples are seeking to be as deep as they can be and with that depth, they will automatically go wider.

Brandon Hatmaker’s latest book “A Mile Wide” is an invitation for those who truly want to seek after and follow Christ to trade in shallow religion for a deeper faith. He addresses this in two parts within the book. He spends the first have focusing on what the Gospel does to us, how it changes us and makes us different. The second half of the book focuses on that the Gospel does once it’s in us. It doesn’t just implant itself there, deep inside, to be hidden and unkempt, but instead it works its way out of us, working through us.

Brandon Hatmaker is very relatable through his writing. I feel like every pastor, at some point in his/her life, falls into the category of rebel. Brandon is there now and in that way, I can relate. He’s not rebellious simply to be rebellious, but to shake up the norms and the system and to wake us up out of complacent slumber. If we are truly to be impacted and transformed by the gospel and by Jesus, than we need to be willing to subject ourselves to the discomfort and disruption that causes.

Hatmaker writes, “We limit the gospel by how we define it. We try to control it by making it too much about us, our form, and our function. Thus, what we’re hoping to embody lacks perspective and empathy, the very things that make the gospel good news to others.” A call to the gospel is a call to put aside our creature comforts and pursue something more disruptive than we might even be ready to face. But if we are truly seeking depth, it’s only through our own transformation that we can achieve that depth.

In the second half of the book, Hatmaker calls us to see things with a different perspective. He tells us that trading shallow religion for a deeper faith will require us to view things differently. God’s kingdom. Mission. Justice. All of these things look different when viewed through a gospel lens and when we are seeking depth rather than breadth.

The reader is challenged to stay connected to the community around them rather than getting so caught up in “church” things that they effectively pull themselves out of the very places where they can be used. “Sometimes we add a church group to our schedules and end up pulling ourselves out of our most natural mission field. Perhaps instead we just need to figure out how to invest more deeply in an existing group of friends that aligns more naturally with our current schedule.”

He states that our lives can be divided into three categories: communion, community, and commission. When we find ourselves within the activities of the church, we are deeply engaged in communion but it’s the common language of community and commission that can be the bridge between believers and nonbelievers.

Hatmaker had me until the end of the book. His last chapter is called “A Fresh Perspective.” While I think it’s essential and important for believers to keep a fresh perspective, our perspective still needs to remain grounded in the gospel. It can’t be grounded in our culture, in our feelings, or even in our relationships. While those things are all important in our mission, they cannot drive the process of our shifting perspective. I fear that without the gospel grounding to inform and shape our perspective, we will find ourselves on some very slippery slopes, trading truth for feelings, emotions, and the unstable things of our culture.

“A Mile Wide” was a good book. I appreciate Hatmaker’s perspective. His challenge to trade shallow religion for deep faith will be met if the reader enters into the journey with an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to let transformation take place in them first.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Home – A Book Review

home - fitzpatrickOver the past few years, there has been an overabundance of books and movies published and produced about heaven. If you walk into any Christian book store, you will see the shelves lined with these books and movies. Some of them have even gone on to garner more expansive attention. While I haven’t seen the movies and I’ve only read or perused a handful of the books, I’ve gotten the basic idea of the premise behind them, and that idea is rarely about meeting Jesus face to face. Instead, it seems that these books have focused instead on the fact that a) death isn’t the end and b) we’ll get to see our loved ones in heaven.

 

Those may not be the worst conclusions, but they certainly aren’t the best conclusions either. If heaven is simply about escaping hell and seeing the people we love, I think we’ve missed the point. Couple that with the fact that many of the conclusions in these books are based not upon the Bible but on a person’s own dreams or near-death experiences. There may be a place for fiction and dreaming, but we still need to rely on what God has given us in order to determine, to know what is to come. If our only basis of what we know about heaven comes from these books on movies, we may have the tendency to be driven by an emotionalism rather than something more concrete and reliable.

 

Into this landscape comes Elyse Pitzpatrick’s book “Home.”

 

There is a sense in all of us, writes Fitzpatrick, an unfulfilled desire and unmet need for home that cannot be fulfilled. No matter what we try to do to fill those desires, Fitzpatrick suggests that this desire in us is meant to create in believers a dissatisfaction that can only be filled by our real home, which is not the earth. She writes, “Perhaps one of the reasons why God chooses to leave us in this terribly broken world with its various disappointments is to create in our souls a certain dissatisfaction, an insatiable hunger for home.”

 

As Fitzpatrick weaves her way through “Home,” she continually relies on the Bible and the writings of theologians and others. She continually points back to the Bible to frame what we know and what we can expect. She acknowledges the discomfort of living in a world ravaged by sin but reminds the reader that God’s intention for creation was something so much more than that.

 

Fitzpatrick shares her own experiences as well as the experiences of others. As I read some of the accounts of her friends, my heart ached for them. There is no question that this world is not as it should be. But in the midst of it all, Fitzpatrick points to the hope that we should have as followers of Christ. While things are bleak, disheartening, and somewhat depressing at times, the ache we feel inside is for what is to come. She suggests that the more we let the thought of our true Home slip away, the more difficult it will be for us to hold on to hope.

 

The humility with which Fitzpatrick writes is a winsome quality of this book. She honestly confesses that her life has not been filled with many of the struggles of others. While she hasn’t been without difficulties, she acknowledges that things have been fairly good. She writes with a sense of comfort to point those whose experiences haven’t been quite as joyous and carefree to the hope of which she writes. Even when she’s done, she humbly concludes with these words, “All that we have been through in these pages filled with black lines, all the drawing, erasing, and redrawing I’ve done for you are at best pencil sketches by a woman in a dungeon, trying to sketch a world I’ve never seen, seeking to employ words I’m not skilled enough to arrange, trying to create for you something more than a child’s stick-figure drawing.”

 

For me, “Home” was a refreshing read. It was evident that Fitzpatrick had done her homework in scouring the Bible as well as the writings of those who have studied the idea of heaven in the past. While there were moments when I felt like she was lost in the prose, the material which she was writing is so necessary to remind us all of what is to come.

 

There are much more scholarly works written about heaven, some of which Fitzpatrick makes reference to within her book. “Home” is an easily accessible book that is helpful to point people towards what is to come, not based on emotions, feelings, dreams, and other things, but based on what God has given to us as a revelation of himself and what he is bringing to us. This book is worth the read, especially for those who might be struggling most with finding hope in the midst of the brokenness that they are experiencing in this world.

 

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Bethany House Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Unparalleled – A Book Review

unparalleledWe live in a world where anything goes when it comes to beliefs. It’s okay for you to believe in what you believe as long as it works for you and doesn’t negatively impact me. The problem when we embrace this is that we can quickly devolve into people who lack any real conviction, who aren’t quite sure what they believe, and who don’t legitimately think for ourselves when it comes to our beliefs.

In the area of beliefs and faith, Christians have always spoken about the uniqueness of their faith. When confronted with the idea that all paths lead to God, Christians will swiftly respond by saying that Christianity is unique as it stands in the lineup alongside all of the other major world religions. Jared Wilson takes this idea a step further in his book “Unparalleled” by saying that the uniqueness of Christianity is also the thing that makes it so compelling.

Out of the gate, Wilson writes that, “Christianity has never made converts primarily by winning arguments but rather by capturing hearts.” Although this book falls into the category of apologetics, Wilson isn’t out to win arguments, he is convinced that the truths of Christianity will be as compelling for others as they have been for him. He writes with a style that doesn’t beat down, but gently leads along.

Throughout “Unparalleled” Wilson hits on some of the main, unique tenets of Christianity. He writes about the Trinity, the three persons of God, speaking to their uniqueness and how the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit give us a better understanding of our own human need for connection and intimacy.

Wilson writes of the uniqueness of Jesus, asking the question as to whether the God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is the same God. He arrives at the conclusion that, “…to worship God at the exclusion of Jesus is to worship another god altogether.” For those who are seeking to be more inclusive, this conclusion will not be very appealing. Wilson goes on to write, “If one does not affirm that Jesus is God, one does not worship the same God as Christians.” It is through the uniqueness of Christ that we understand the essence of Christianity and the salvation that is offered.

We are all created in the image of God, and that, Wilson says, should impact the way that we look at others. Not only should it impact the way that we look at others, but is should also impact how we treat others as well. He writes, “Human life is sacred because God created it in his own image.” But Wilson is quick to point out, acknowledge, and confess that, “There have been too many prominent examples of professing Christians treating others as less-than-human.” In other words, while this is how we should act and view others, we certainly don’t always get it right. I appreciated this admission and the humility behind it.

Wilson covers the idea of grace, salvation, and the end of all things. He speaks to the impact of sin in this fallen world and the fact that salvation within Christian theology is something that comes from outside of ourselves. This external salvation is a unique concept compared to most other major religions who teach of a salvation through the efforts of the individual.

At one point, as Wilson writes about the brokenness of humanity, he writes, “The worst storms I have faced in my life have not occurred outside of me but rather have been found inside of me.” While I think I understand what Wilson is getting at, I’m not sure that I can completely agree with his statement. Yes, I can attest to the fact that, oftentimes, I am my own worst enemy, but in my own life, there have been significant storms that I have encountered that have occurred outside of me. These storms are a result of living in a fallen and broken world, there was no individual cause for some of them, and I would argue that they didn’t happen inside of me.

There is nothing in “Unparalleled” that is groundbreaking or new to me. Wilson has an engaging writing style and he gets his points across with clarity. While I was reading the book, I kept wondering to whom the book was written. Was it written for believers in Christ, those who are already convinced? Was it written to those who need to be convinced? It seems that it could be beneficial for those who are searching, not yet having come to the conclusion that Christianity is both convincing and compelling.

To those who believe in Christ and accept the claims of Christianity, Jesus is unparalleled, as is the salvation that he offers. If you are in a place of searching, needing to be convinced of Christianity’s claims, this might give you an overview or a snapshot of these claims. There are far deeper and more exhaustive books on the claims of Christianity that may serve you better, but for a basic overview, this might work. It’s not a must read, in my opinion, and anyone who is seeking something more academic may best be served elsewhere.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Selfless Sacrifice

I’ve been thinking about sacrifice lately. It might be because I’ve been reading and preaching through the Book of Hebrews at my church. It also might be because of the selfless act of a friend of mine that I’ve witnessed.

I have a friend who is an outspoken follower of Jesus. I don’t say that as a derogatory thing at all. He is bold about his faith and he is an inspiration because his faith is not limited to words alone, he lives it out. He lives it out in a big way.

Not too long ago, my friend was thinking about how he could make a difference. Honestly, I think he’s been asking that question a lot. He and his family are always helping others out, serving other people, finding ways to show people the love of Christ. He’s not one to simply sit on the sidelines and wait for opportunities to come to him, he goes out and seeks those opportunities.

He was led back to a mutual friend of ours who had donated a kidney to a friend years ago and began to inquire about the possibility of doing the same thing. While he didn’t necessarily have a friend who needed his kidney, he knew that there were many people out there who were waiting for transplants. He wanted to make a difference.

When I got wind of his plan, I’m not sure what my first reaction was, well, other than grabbing my side and rubbing my abdomen as I thought about what I would do with one less organ rumbling around inside there. I do know that there were many words that came to my mind. Bravery. Selfless. Sacrifice.

Sacrifice.

It’s a word that we generally use when it comes to our veterans and members of our armed forces. They sacrifice themselves for our freedom. Their sacrifice is costly. They may lose life, they may lose limbs, they may lose a lot of things, but they consider it worth it for the benefit of others.

Selfless sacrifice.

I’m not sure whether or not it’s possible to have a sacrifice that isn’t selfless. Of course, the way that some people throw around words, I’m not always sure that we fully grasp exactly what a sacrifice is anyway.

Whenever I think about sacrifice, I am always drawn back to a familiar passage in 2 Samuel. David is king and he wants to build an altar to sacrifice to the Lord. So, he searches for a location and then consults the owner. The owner wants to give David the land but David refuses to take it for free. He says this in 2 Samuel 24:24, “But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them.”

Now, David was king, so he had plenty of money. I guess there might be an argument made that David really wasn’t making a sacrifice, but it’s his words that stand out to me. “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

Sacrifice is costly.

I went to see my friend in the hospital after his surgery. I was moved to tears at what he had done. I was moved to tears that his sole motivation was to give God glory in his sacrifice. I was moved to tears because I felt like my friend was more selfless and brave than I ever could be.

I don’t think that we are all called to make the same sacrifices. Frankly, I’m not sure that anyone would ever want my organs as a bunch of them aren’t really functioning well at the present time, but what else is it that I am called to give up, to sacrifice? If I give something up, am I doing it to get accolades and glory for myself or for my God?

Like I said, I know why my friend did what he did. It’s an incredible inspiration, example, and reminder to me that sacrifice is costly. It’s an incredible reminder to me to seek out ways to make a difference, just as my friend is doing. It’s an incredible reminder to me to strive and seek to be more selfless than I am.

As I readied myself to leave his room, I grabbed my friend’s hand and thanked him for being an inspiration. As I walked out of that room, I lifted up another prayer for my friend and his wife, but also for whoever would be the recipient of his sacrifice. Someone else would find new life because of what he was giving up. New physical life. I know that his prayer was that they would find new spiritual life as well, and that’s just what I prayed!

 

Manger King – A Book Review

manger kingIt’s pretty easy to get caught up in the rush of the Christmas season every year, being whisked away amidst the Black Friday deals, Santa Claus lines at the mall, and all the things that have a tendency to pull at your wallet and vie for your attention starting the day after Halloween (or earlier in some places and stores). If you’re one who believes in Jesus and considers the Christmas season to be reason to celebrate his birth, it’s always good to have a means to stay focused on “The Reason for the Season” as the busyness and distractions ensue around you.

Enter John Greco. John has put together a thoughtful, informative, and well-researched collection of “meditations on Christmas and the gospel of hope” called “Manger King.” Through these meditations, Greco focuses the reader on the story of Christmas reaching back far into the Old Testament, past the birth of Christ, and to his expectant return one day. He relies heavily on Scripture and personal stories to assist in this feat.

Greco is self-admittedly a fan of Andrew Peterson and his song cycle “Behold the Lamb of God.” For anyone unfamiliar with Peterson or his song cycle, he masterfully tells the story of Jesus starting back with Moses, painting the picture of “the true tall tale of the coming of Christ” as he weaves through the story of Israel, including the Passover, the deliverance from Egypt, the birth of Christ, and the sacrifice that Christ made as the lamb of God.

In much the same way that Peterson tells the story through music, Greco tells the story through words. He uses his gift of storytelling and prose to fill in the back story of Christmas, exposing some common assumptions by reflecting on what the Gospels say and taking into consideration some of the contextual elements of the story that might easily be glossed over by the casual reader of the Gospel accounts. As he writes, “We’re missing out if we gloss over certain points or ignore how God himself tells the story. No matter how comfortable and familiar our nativity scenes may be, we’re only cheating ourselves if we hold on to tradition at the cost of truth.” He urges the reader to cast aside the comfortable and familiar for the more appropriately correct interpretations of what the Gospels say.

The chapters and reflections in “Manger King” are short enough to be able to take a journey through them on a daily basis as you venture into Advent every year. While they connect with each other, they could easily act as standalones which step through Advent in a methodical journey, helping to focus the reader on Jesus Christ and the bigger God story that Christmas means to us.

While I didn’t find much new information in “Manger King,” I’m not sure that could be said of those without a theology background or seminary degree. Greco’s thoughtful engagement with the material and his treatment of it is thorough enough to be worthwhile for the academic reader but not so academic that it would leave the average “Joe” or “Jane” in the dust. He is passionate about this material and that passion shows up in how carefully and thoroughly he treats it.

Greco adds an appendix in which he more exhaustively treats the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke of Jesus’ birth. Within the appendix, he dispels notions of an inn in the modern sense of the word, shepherds and wise men together at the manger, and even the public shunning of Mary at her unwed pregnancy. It’s a helpful reference for those who want to dig deeper into the Christmas story without having to do all of the research on their own.

Greco proves that the story of Jesus is so much more than the birth account found in Luke 2, the genealogy in Matthew 1, and the other information found in the Gospels about Jesus’ birth and early years. “Manger King” is a helpful tool and even devotional for the Advent season. It’s a reminder to us all that, “the men and women God used were somehow unique, altogether different from you and me. But they were ordinary, sinful, broken people. What made them special was God’s Spirit – the same Spirit who dwells inside all those who know Christ today.”

Christmas books will come and go, riding the latest trends and promoting the most popular themes, but “Manger King” is a book that focuses us on what’s most important about Advent and Christmas. It’s worth a read, whether you’re a novice at this Advent thing or you’ve delved into the material before. Pick up a copy to help you reflect on just how essential Christ is to Christmas and what a gift the world received when he came.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from the author. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Into the Fray – A Book Review

Into the FrayIn his previous book, “The First Time We Saw Him,” Matt Mikalatos retold some of the stories from the Gospels in modern language. His gift for storytelling and narrative was evident as he wove and reimagined these stories together, putting them into a language and context that makes sense in a modern setting.

In “Into the Fray,” Mikalatos reimagines the Book of Acts. He asks the question about the Gospel, a term that is taken from the Middle English word that means, “good news.” While some claim to be able to describe and tell the Gospel in a nutshell, Mikalatos says that the full gospel, “can’t be presented in fifteen minutes or in a sermon or in a series of sermons.” In fact, he says, “Every new understanding we gain about the person and character of Jesus is the good news, and he is an infinite being.” If the Gospel is really the good news about Jesus and what he has done and offered to us, then we might be doing something wrong as many who aren’t part of the church don’t really know just what it is that we are trying to offer to them. If it’s good news, we might need to present it in such a way that lets it be distinguishable as such.

“Into the Fray” is the retelling of the Acts of the Apostles, which Mikalatos believes to be a terrible name. After all, the stories told throughout Luke’s book are not so much about the acts that were accomplished by the apostles but the acts accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts tells stories about people who are ordinary rather than extraordinary. The only way that these people become extraordinary and accomplish the astonishing is through the receiving and the power of the Holy Spirit. As one of the characters retelling the stories puts it, “It’s not the people who are extraordinary. It’s what’s inside them.”

In the stories and in his own narrative throughout “Into the Fray,” Mikalatos pushes against some of the preconceived notions and accepted norms of evangelicalism. Who is in and who is out? What does a “real” Christian look like? He reminds the reader of the apostle Paul’s words that our fight and battle is not against flesh and blood. People are not the enemy. He calls us to question the things that we have called to be sacred just as Peter was given a vision of eating the very things that had been off-limits according to the old covenant.

Mikalatos reminds his readers that we are called, as followers of Christ, to make pure Jesus followers, “people who come close to Jesus and become more like him.” He says, “As we become more like Jesus, we behave more like him, thus naturally stopping sinful behavior and embracing pure, beautiful, godly behavior.” Considering that the Book of Acts is full of stories of people who have been changed and transformed by the Holy Spirit and an encounter with the living God, it’s a good reminder that we aren’t called to change people or get them to act a certain way, we’re simply called to introduce them to Jesus and teach them all that we have been taught about him.

We enter into conversations with those who are far from Jesus by finding connection points. Sometimes those connect points are cultural or musical while other times they are spiritual. Sometimes, we find common points, points of discussion and conversation around another religion that someone has chosen to follow. Those can act as starting points, springboards into other conversations. Mikalatos write, “It’s not that the conversation ends there or that we’re allowing other religions to dictate our own. It’s that we’re sorting through two belief systems and finding the places they overlap and starting the conversation there.”

Throughout the book, Mikalatos admits to the reader that he is in process himself. He admits his own tendencies towards Pharisaism and judgment. He writes, “Whether I look at my own heart or at Christian culture, I see evidence of areas where we refuse to interact with others because, at the heart of it, we see ourselves as better, more clean, more correct, more holy, more spiritual, more righteous, more dedicated, more committed, more insightful, more innovative, or more traditional.” He reminds us that God has admitted those into his kingdom that didn’t necessarily meet the standards that were expected or even called for.

Mikalatos pushes just enough to be provocative but not so much that he becomes antagonistic or belligerent. His provocation isn’t simply for provocation’s sake, but with the intent of helping the reader to reimagine some of the stories from the Bible. He has a knack for taking them out of the context in which they were written them and transplanting them into our own context, staying true to the essence of the stories while retelling them in such a way that they are easily understandable.

“Into the Fray” ends with a discussion about story, the parts of story that matter, and how we tell our story. Mikalatos writes, “Our stories matter. We all know that a witness is someone who saw something. And as John said, our story is the story of what we have seen, what we have heard, what we have looked at, and what our hands have touched.” We tell our stories to let others know just what God has done in our lives. We come to the place in our stories and say, “That’s when God showed up,” and that’s when all the change took place. Sometimes, as followers of Christ, we make our stories simply about what happened up until our meeting Jesus, but we can’t forget that’s only the beginning of the story.

Mikalatos talks about his experience with creative writing. His ability to craft stories is evident throughout “Into the Fray” and he sticks with this strength. It might not be everyone’s style, to rethink and reimagine stories from the Bible that already seem perfectly understandable just the way that they are. If that’s your thoughts, this book is probably not for you. If you want to stretch your imagination about how some of these stories may have played out in a modern context, then “Into the Fray” is a worthwhile read. You will be challenged and stretched to think outside of the comfortable places where you’ve come to reside. If you let yourself, Mikalatos and his ability to tell stories may just help you see just how much the Holy Spirit is capable of doing as you experience some heart and life change of your own through these stories.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Jared, Josh, and Jesus

jared and joshUp until a few weeks ago, I had no idea who or what Ashley Madison was. While I probably knew that websites and services like Ashley Madison existed, I didn’t know them by name. Maybe I hoped that they weren’t true, kind of like those stories that you hear about as a kid that you keep hoping beyond hope aren’t true. Maybe it was a case of “ignorance is bliss” for me and I didn’t want to know that Ashley Madison existed.

I’ve never seen an episode of 19 Kids and Counting either. I’ve heard the Duggars name tossed around here and there, but I just kind of figured they were one of those crazy homeschool families that all of my homeschooling friends didn’t want to be associated with and all of my non-Christian friends wanted to label as “those weird Christians.”

While I eat at Subway from time to time, it’s not among my favorite places to go, regardless of its ties to my home state of Connecticut. I’ve not found myself gravitating towards the Subway diet and Jared’s connection and promotion of the food chain has had no influence on my preference or lack thereof for it.

And then, like that, all that I needed to do to hear about Ashley Madison, Josh Duggar, Jared Fogle, and the downward spiral of all of the above was to turn on the TV or hop on the internet. These names were plastered all over the screens. While it’s been said that no publicity is bad publicity, I don’t think that this is the kind of publicity that you ever want.

I mean, who wants everyone to know that the values that you touted and stood so strongly in favor of were actually a sham and that you had been living your life as a phony and a hypocrite? Who wants everyone to know that the position that you had gained to influence the world for good had actually been turned around and used for bad? Who wants everyone to know that despite the “put together” outward appearance that you had been conveying, there was a whole lot of other stuff going on beneath the surface? Who wants everyone to know what evil REALLY lurks in the hearts of men?

News of Josh Duggar’s involvement with Ashley Madison, as is often the case with the downfall of vocal Christians, was cause for rejoicing for those who consider Christianity to be a sham and who are looking for any and every possible way to disprove it because of the imperfections and flaws of its followers. It made me wonder if every ideology that was ever embraced should be questioned because of the flawed and imperfect people who embrace it.

It’s so easy in the midst of all of this to point fingers and say, “That would never be me,” but I’ve lived enough life of my own to know that the distance between me and an act of indiscretion is probably much shorter than I can even imagine. How many times have we heard someone publicly condemn a behavior only to be found guilty of that very behavior not too far in the future? How many times have we judged a person’s behavior without actually examining our own heart to see what really lurks there beneath the surface?

I’m not saying that what Josh and Jared did wasn’t wrong, it was and there are consequences for bad behavior, but instead of pointing fingers, maybe it’s an opportunity for us to examine ourselves and see if there are safeguards, guardrails, and other protections that we need to put in place in our own lives to avoid making some of the same mistakes. Not that we’re all just one step away from an affair or from being charged for child pornography and soliciting minors for sex, but maybe there are other things that seem more innocuous in comparison from which we are only one step away.

There have been times when I’ve stopped to look at my heart and I’ve been ashamed of what I saw there. There have been times when I’ve realized that as much as God has transformed some areas of my life, there are some other areas that need far more transformation than I’d like to admit. There have been times that I have begun to fully appreciate and understand just how deeply I need to be saved. There have been times when I see just how far I fall short of representing him and of being made more and more like him every day.

I don’t know what’s lurking in the hearts of Josh Duggar or Jared Fogle, but I know what’s lurking in my heart, and it’s not always pretty. I guess admitting you’ve got a problem is the first step towards fixing it. I’m not perfect and I won’t stand up and attest to any contrary admission. I need Jesus. On my own, I could be the subject of countless headlines, the recipient of endless public ridicule and scorn. On my own, I would simply do my best to present a whitewashed image of who I am while desperately hoping and praying that no one peeked to see what was really inside. Just like the Wizard of Oz said to the misfits seeking answers and gifts, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” On my own, I could do a really good job pretending that I had it all together and that the filthiness of sin hadn’t touched me.

I need Jesus.

I am striving every day to allow my life to be changed and transformed by a power that lies outside of me. I am striving every day to stop pointing my fingers so desperately at others in an effort to make me feel better about myself. I am striving every day to let the trips, falls, and failures of others act as a mirror instead to help me see just what’s lurking inside of me that desperately needs changing. I need these things to be revealed in me so that I know what needs to be changed.

Tomorrow, there will be another story in the news of someone who has fallen from grace, someone who has pretended to be something that they’re not. Tomorrow, there will be another story in the news of someone who has done something that appalls us, that may even make our skin crawl. Maybe instead of pointing our fingers at them, we need instead to take a closer look at ourselves to find out just what we’re pretending doesn’t exist within our own hearts. I think if we spent a little more time looking at our own areas in need of transformation, we might fixate less on what needs to be changed in others, and in the end, maybe we could actually help others with their stuff after we’ve allowed transformation to happen in ourselves.