Monday, August 30, 2010

"Sacred Week" in Hong Kong, pt. 1

“It took us 2 ½ years to get Gary here, but we’ve got him.”

With those words, pastor Tobin Miller welcomed Lisa and me to the Island Evangelical Community Church in Hong Kong on Sunday, for the beginning of what they are calling “Sacred Week.”

Lisa and I arrived late Saturday, picked up at the airport by Tobin and his wife Christina. Tobin had told me by email that due to the pressures of working in one of the world’s largest financial centers, Hong Kong families are perhaps “the most dysfunctional families” in the world. “It’s not uncommon when I’m doing a funeral to find out that a businessman had two other families that the first wife didn’t know about. And I’ve had Christian men do the same.”

The long hours at work, the tendency to have domestic help raise the kids, and the large amount of time spent apart all contribute to a sense of marital and family isolation. “I rarely find a single individual who tells me they want the marriage their parents had,” Tobin said.

On the trip from the airport, Tobin shared how, as a pastor who wants to reach Hong Kong, one of his greatest difficulties is that even Christians “use Hong Kong” instead of having a heart for it. “They’re here to make their millions in a few years and then move on. Hong Kong is something they use, not something they feel compelled to reach.”

After a fitful night of sleep, I woke early on Sunday and was the first customer at the Fit Fort Hong Kong Starbucks (doing my part to keep the international economy moving forward). Lisa and I visited the 11:30 service at IECC, and discovered that, apparently, worship songs are known around the world. Out of the six sang, we knew five of them by heart.

After church and lunch with the Millers, Lisa and I took a tram through the streets of Hong Kong, and then walked through Victoria Park. It was crammed with young women and virtually no men. About half of them had head coverings. Most laid out a piece of plastic on the ground, and gathered in groups, laughing and talking and lying around.

What struck both of us was the level of joy in that park. By and large, we were sobered by the somber mood that covers Hong Kong. People rarely acknowledge you, almost never seem to be smiling, and when I asked Tobin about it, he admitted that studies show the “happiness quotient” is about as low in Hong Kong as anywhere in the world. Since happiness has been directly connected to one’s personal relationships, it’s not a surprise that “the most dysfunctional families in the world” produce such somber people.

So why the smiles in Victoria Park?

“Those are the domestic helpers from Indonesia, enjoying their one day off a week.”

Domestic helpers are considered as having it worse than the families who hire them. Because they live with the families they work for, many will never marry, and most send all but their living expenses home to support relatives. Yet the level of joy in that park was off the charts compared to the people who hired them.

On Monday morning, Lisa and I went up above the city, to a trailhead at the top of Braymer Hill Road, where we found an amazing trail with some spectacular views of the city. I ran while Lisa walked, and we met back up about an hour later. The humidity level was high, but the climate felt much more conducive to running than anything I’ve experienced in Houston over the past month.

It has been a long summer, so today is meant to be an unusually slow day, getting ready for the teaching load that runs straight through from Wednesday through Sunday.

I so appreciate the many prayers that have already been offered on our behalf--ultimately, on behalf of the people of Hong Kong. Here's the schedule: (Hong Kong time, by the way, is 12 hours ahead of EST)

Wednesday evening: Sacred Influence (talking to wives)
Thursday evening: Sacred Parenting
Fri-Saturday: Sacred Marriage
Sunday: Pure Pleasure

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Joy of Serving with an Inexhaustible God

Ministry for God can be exhausting and frustrating. Ministry with God is one of the most energizing experiences we will ever know. The apostle Paul gives us a glimpse of this distinction when he writes, “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” (Colossians 1:29)

This is good news for pastors who feel like they have run out of sermon ideas; great news for those who are trying to love difficult spouses, children, or parents and who feel like they have run out of love; wonderful news for anyone called to any ministry at all. If we learn to be dependent on, and draw from, God, we never need to fear running out of ideas, love, or energy, for God offers to become an inexhaustible source for all.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade was a French Jesuit spiritual director who lived in the early eighteenth century. He left behind a “late blooming” classic entitled Abandonment to Divine Providence that wasn’t popularly discovered or widely disseminated until long after he died. In it, de Caussade captures dependence on the divine like few other authors I have ever read. Speaking of God he writes:

“Your inexhaustible action is the infinite source of new thoughts, new sufferings, new actions, new patriarchs, new prophets, new apostles, new saints. [We] do not need to copy each other’s lives and writing, but simply live in a perpetual abandonment to your secret operations.”

In other words, while we have much to learn from the great examples of successful parents and ministers, we shouldn’t feel the need to slavishly follow their methods. God, by his own power and inspiration, is raising up “new patriarchs, new prophets, new apostles, new saints.” While we would be foolish not to draw deeply from the wisdom of those who have gone before us, we also need to be careful about talking about the “old times”—even the very recent “old times”—as if they occurred with a different God at the helm or one who has lost his zeal for what is happening today.

De Caussade again: “We hear perpetually of the ‘early centuries’ and ‘the times of the saints.’ What a way to talk! Are not all times the successive effects of the divine activity that pours itself forth on all the instants of time, filling them, sanctifying them, and elevating them all?”

The same God who raised up Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon, today has raised up Rick Warren, Beth Moore, Ed Young, and Mark Driscoll. The same God raised them all, and He is neither limited nor tired nor running out of creative energy. Just because he has blessed Rick, Beth, Ed and Mark doesn’t mean he is spent, taking a break, or has inspired his “best sermon.” He’s got plenty more where that came from—the inexhaustible well of divine energy, provision, wisdom, love, and gifting.

Let’s rest in God—in whatever ministry we find ourselves in. If we are truly relying on him, we can’t grow weary, we can’t run out of ideas, we can’t be incapable of serving, because no matter how naturally gifted Rick, Beth, Ed or Mark might be, none of them can even approach the creative genius, never-ending mercy, and ever-flowing love of God.

De Caussade counsels, “Had the saints of the first days any other secret than that of becoming moment by moment what the divine action wished to make of them? And will that divine action fail to shed its glory until the end of the world on those who abandon themselves to it without reserve?”

If your church is 50 strong; there’s nothing holding it back from becoming 500 strong. Even if your church is already 25,000 strong, there’s nothing holding it back from becoming 50,000 strong. You might have preached your best stuff, but God has more. You might have already launched the most effective evangelistic methods you’ve ever employed—God has newer and better ones. You might have tried everything you can think of to repair your marriage or reach out to a rebellious child or kick an addiction. God’s not done, He’s not retired and He's not even weary. On the contrary, He is an inexhaustible source, just waiting for dependent souls to tap into his love, wisdom and enabling power.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Wives Who Need Extra Prayer

In the decade since I’ve written Sacred Marriage, numerous wives have made me increasingly sensitive to several situations that make marriage even more difficult than it already is—long-term unemployment, serious illness, addictions, mental illness, and the like. I’d like to use this blog post to request prayers for two groups of wives in particular who deserve extra prayer: military wives, and minority wives. Would you please consider adding them to your prayer list, and if you have influence at your church, consider creative ways to support them (and perhaps post some of those ways in the comments section)?

Military Wives
The special pressures military families face are enormous—keeping intimacy alive during long stretches of deployment; young men remaining sexually pure when they are away from their wives for months at a time; the frequent trauma soldiers suffer on the battlefield and the resulting psychological hurdles they face when they return; the complete upending of “normal routine” when dad leaves home, and when dad comes home. (Of course, many of these issues are equally true when it’s the wife who is on deployment.) I met a military wife two weekends ago who, with tears in her eyes, thanked me for Sacred Marriage, telling me it helped save her marriage, and then expressing, with great sadness, that almost all of their military friends are now divorced. I looked at the baby in her arms, and the little boy standing by her side, and was deeply moved at her desire and determination to hold her family together, in spite of the odds against them. Our soldiers serve our country at great personal cost, far beyond the battlefield. Let’s keep praying for them.

Minority Wives
I recently received an encouraging but heart-rending email that raised an issue about African American families. Sandra writes: “I am an African-American woman… There are some differences regarding some of the particulars of the issues we face, e.g., most of the Black women I know are all working wives and mothers and we do not have the luxury of being stay-at-home moms, etc. We deal with hubbies who come home facing racism and we ourselves face that in addition to all our other problems. Will you pray for me and other Black women who want to live godly lives but who feel marginalized and feel that life just ‘isn’t fair’ because of the additional cultural issues we face along with our marital issues?”

Let’s all pray for these groups. Even more, let’s try to serve them. For military families, I’ve given away two copies of Devotions for Sacred Marriage so that spouses who are separated can read through the same book during a deployment and have something to talk about when they touch base on the phone or through Skype. If you have the resources, consider buying two copies of this book for military couples that you know, and write in the front that you’ll be praying for them as they face their unique family challenges as they serve our country. If you know of a couple that could use these books, but you can’t afford to provide them, please let me know; Lisa and I will do what we can.

For minority wives—can I encourage the white suburban, stay-at-home moms to get to know their black sisters in Christ and begin praying for them? Not only can whites learn a lot from their black sisters, but perhaps you can also help support them in practical ways. The shared experience of being married can fuel an active friendship. And seeing how someone is directly affected by society’s prejudice as well as present and past injustices is helpful for all of us to “bear one another’s burdens.” One of the gifts you might give these wives would be Sacred Influence—that’s the book Sandra was referencing when she reached out to me.

There’s another side to all of this: getting involved in praying for others’ marriages and trials is one of the best things you can do for your own marriage. Praying for someone who has it just as difficult as you do, or perhaps is on an even more difficult road, puts our own struggles into perspective. When we start caring for the relationships of others, God often gives us a renewed heart and affection for our own relationship, making this is a win-win request.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why Pleasure Matters: We Don't Want to See You Naked

My friend Ben Young took pity on me.
“Those jeans are way too baggy,” he said. “And that shirt doesn’t fit you at all.”
My clothing choices had long been a frustration for my wife, and here my friend was backing her up.
“See, that’s what I’m always telling him,” Lisa chimed in.
As far as I was concerned, since the jeans cost $24.99, they fit.
Ben introduced me to a couple lines of clothing that “make clothes to fit guys built like you.” He explained that “modern fit” means “chubby,” and look way too “billowy” on me, and then introduced me to “slim fit” shirts, much to my wife’s delight.
I actually found the experience liberating rather than humiliating, for this reason. I hate to shop. The only thing I hate more than trying on clothes would be eating cottage cheese. (I hate cottage cheese so much I can’t stand even watching someone else eat cottage cheese.) When my wife hands me five items of clothes and says, “Here, try these on,” she might as well be saying, “Here, have a carton of cottage cheese.”
But Ben’s advice meant I could skip checking out 90% of the clothes out there—I knew they wouldn’t fit, and I didn’t have to shop in those stores or on those racks. Some may say my world “shrank,” but from my perspective, I gained a lot of time and avoided a lot of pain.
It’s like that with pleasure. God knows what pleasures “fit” our souls. There are certain pleasures that might seem to come cheap, but they don’t fit who he made us to be—and so he wisely says, “Avoid them.” Other pleasures would cause problems—not just rubbing us the wrong way, but they could actually be destructive or soul-killing. Instead of suffering the consequences, we can listen to God—as I listened to Ben—and stop shopping in those stores.
Letting God tell us what pleasures fit our life is liberating, not confining.
The problem is, some of you don’t want to wear any pleasure at all. Out of arrogance, you think you can subsist on religious duty, self-discipline, and a pride-based piety. Rather than clothe yourself with pure pleasure, you walk around naked.
Can I be honest with you? We don’t want to see you naked. “Naked” Christians—those who deny themselves beyond what God calls them to deny—often become judgmental legalists. They live without joy, without satisfaction, and they are unable to truly love, for they simply cannot take pleasure in any one else’s pleasure.
Not only does this set them up for an eventual fall, it robs them of a worshipful heart, and it destroys their witness.
Such Christians rightly understand that we must avoid, at all costs, those pleasures that would destroy us, the pleasures God warns us away from. But they make a grave mistake when they conclude that all pleasure is to be avoided.
My theological mentor, Dr. J.I. Packer, writes, “Contempt for pleasure, so far from arguing superior spirituality, is actually…the sin of pride. Pleasure is divinely designed to raise our sense of God’s goodness, deepen our gratitude to him, and strengthen our hope of richer pleasures to come in the next world.”
God’s bride is to be beautifully dressed—not naked. Let’s clothe ourselves with good and holy pleasures, embracing what God, in his word, tells us fits, and rejecting those clothes that are not made for us.
I’ve been so encouraged by the emails and conversations testifying to the ministry that has come out of Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good? If you’re one of those Christians who are suspicious of pleasure at best, take the liberating step of learning about how God uses pleasure for his good purpose. And if you know someone who’s trying to walk around “naked,” do them a favor—give them a copy of the book and let them know their attitude doesn’t honor God or help us reach the world.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Numb Lips? Boston Marathon Weekend Report

This entry is a bit different from my normal topics, but I've received a sufficient number of inquiries about how Boston went that I've decided to answer them this way. For all those who are interested, here's a recap of the entire weekend.

Boston Marathon Weekend Race Report

Lisa, Kelsey and I flew into Boston on Friday. I’d recommend this for anyone doing the marathon. It’s such a special weekend, you really need the extra day to soak it all in. And you don’t want to fly in Saturday and then spend all day Sunday—the day before the race—on your feet. Budget if you have to, but figure out a way to squeeze in that extra night at the hotel.

We checked into the Hotel Commonwealth, a wonderful hotel on Commonwealth Avenue, directly across the street from the famous Citgo sign, which marks the one-mile-to-go point on the marathon course. We could see the sign out our window. The Hotel Commonwealth has excellent rooms and outstanding service. It’s not part of any chain, and is located right next to a “T” (subway) line. It’s also just a block away from Fenway Park. It’s a bit isolated from the Back Bay area where all the marathon stuff takes place, but we’ve stayed there two years in a row and have greatly enjoyed it.

Saturday morning we visited the expo, but it was so crowded I didn’t stay very long. Last year I went to the expo on Friday evening, which I highly recommend. It’s just too packed on Saturday. But this year, we arrived in Boston too late to do that.

We got a treat Saturday night when a friend I met while speaking in Boston, Doug McRae, said he had some tickets to Fenway Park. Turns out the season tickets are actually part of Curt Schilling’s last contract (Doug is in business with Curt on a common venture). We didn’t stay till the end. Kelsey had her race the next day, and as it turned out, the game went past midnight.

On Sunday morning, Kelsey smoked the Boston 5k, finishing it in 20:02, and coming in 4th out of her age group. She easily would have gone under 20 minutes, but there was a slow crowd in front of her ignoring the 6:00 per mile pace sign, and it took her a good ½ mile to break free. It was funny watching her at mile 2. There was a significant gap in front of her, and about 8 middle aged men pacing off of her. Kelsey’s not tall—about 5’ 2’’—and the fact that these guys were riding her heels was amusing.

We had a late lunch at the Paramount in the Beacon Hill area. The restaurant is famous enough and popular enough to have an attitude. They won’t let you sit down until you order and pay for your meal, even though the wait was over 30 minutes long. But the food was worth the wait. Lisa and Kelsey were angels, standing in line while I sat down outside the restaurant, to preserve my legs.

We got back to the hotel where I visited with David Droste and his wife. I met the Drostes when I spoke at a church just outside Detroit, though he is now a pastor in Arizona. David ran 30 marathons before he qualified for Boston, and on that attempt made it by just 2 seconds. It’s a great story of perseverance.

We had dinner with Doug and Julie McRae, along with Bob and Doreen Marvel (Bob’s a pastor in Bellingham, WA), at Sportello, an Italian restaurant that has a café feel to it. The food was excellent, and the company even better. It was the perfect evening before a marathon.

I rarely sleep much before a marathon, and this one was no exception. It was frustrating, as there was no pressure on me at all and no reason to be uptight. I’ve already re-qualified for 2011, so there was nothing on the line. But I was very grateful when I finally fell asleep around 1:00 a.m. and then woke up at 3:30. At least I got over two hours. After waking up, I thought about something that could carry me through the race: pondering what would complete consecration to Christ actually look like, if every moment of every day, and every relationship, and every circumstance, was lived in intentional consecration to Christ?

The weather on race day was perfect. Doug McRae’s continued kindness made for an even more pleasant morning, as he offered to drive me and Bob Marvel to Hopkington. I was a bit worried about doing this, as the organizers warn you not to, but it saved us 90 minutes in the morning (leaving our hotel at 7:30, as opposed to leaving around 6:00 for the buses), and spared us a 40 minute school bus ride out of Boston. Unfortunately, the shuttle ride from the drop off point to the Athlete’s Village took longer than the drive from Boston. I’m still glad we did it, though, and learned a valuable lesson: most worry isn’t worth the bother.

It’s a weird feeling, driving to the start of a point-to-point marathon. For much of the way, Doug was driving 60 to 65 miles per hour, yet it still took us almost 40 minutes. It gets you thinking, “And I’m going to run back in 3 ½ hours?”

I wasn’t at the Athlete’s Village for long, though. Non runners should stop reading this paragraph, as you’ll be grossed out by what I share, but for male runners, this is as valuable a tip as you’ll ever get. I read in a blog post about an ingenious “personal porta potty” and decided to try it. The porta potty lines at most races are so ridiculously long, another runner came up with a suggestion that proved to be brilliant. You cover yourself with a lawn and garden variety black plastic bag (lots of people wear these at the start to stay warm and keep out the wind, so this is pretty inconspicuous). You have an empty, wide mouth bottle of Gatorade with you (don’t try this with the small bottles). Slip the bottle up the plastic bag while you stand nonchalantly in an out of the way place, and nobody will know the difference. This saved me in the Athlete’s Village. Lest you nonrunners think this is gross and absurd, as soon as I finished I turned around and a male runner three feet away was openly urinating on the ground. You can’t run Boston without seeing hundreds of people (including many females) relieving themselves in the woods next to the course or around the Athlete’s Village. This Gatorade bottle method is about as discreet as it gets and saved me 15 minutes of time.

I now had no excuse—I knew my body was trained, I had gotten a little sleep, there were none of my common sinus issues, and though I felt a bit queasy, it seemed like a day for me to go hard. But I would eventually make a costly mental error.

Back in corral 10, it took me almost 9 minutes to reach the starting line. The crowd noise is off the charts here, and the start is downhill, so you have to be very careful. My early pacing was sensible and strong—no complaints there. Having run this course before, I knew it should feel slow and easy, and it did. I soaked in the unique Boston enthusiasm, and enjoyed the course experience. I finally had to make a pit stop around mile 9, and that’s when I made the costly mental error.

The stop cost me over a minute, so I vowed that would be the last, and began severely restricting my water intake. That was really dumb. It was much too warm to cut back as much as I did, and I’d pay a price for it later. To make things worse, my upset stomach couldn’t handle the gels very well, so, while I got 2 down, I couldn’t handle the 3rd and ended up tossing it, nearly full, aside. That’s not enough carbohydrates, especially when you’re restricting your Gatorade since you don’t want to make a pit stop. It was a mistake that someone who has only run a couple of marathons might innocently make, but since this was my 9th, it was just flat out stupid.

There are many famous points on the Boston course, perhaps the most famous of which is Wellesley College, just before mile 13. These coeds line the fence with signs saying, “Kiss me, I’m graduating.” “Kiss me, I want fast babies.” “Kiss me, I’m Jewish.” “Kiss me, I’m from Oregon.” “Kiss me, I won’t tell your wife.” Why college coeds would want to kiss sweaty middle-age runners who have already completed 13 miles is beyond me. And when you have daughters that age, you look at the invitation very differently.

I felt strong rhrough mile 16, knowing that’s where the hills—and Boston—really start. This is where I passed Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father and son team whose inspirational video I’ve used in many talks. They’re still going at it.

I trained hard for the hills and the work paid off. I knew I was on a good pace and mentally decided to let myself slow down a little over the hills, intending to fly down the final 4 mile downhill stretch.

Once I crested the last hill, though, and started down, I could sense my body shutting down. The dreaded “wall” was upon me. Bonking at mile 22 was predictable, given how dehydrated I was. I started stopping at the aid stations, but it was too little, too late. While I didn’t completely fall apart, and never walked, my pace slowed to the point that I was now running over 8 minutes a mile. I stopped thinking about "consecration" and began thinking only about survival. I felt better than the guy who collapsed just a couple minutes in front of me, though. When I passed him, he was lying on the ground surrounded by medical personnel performing CPR. Through the news, I learned later that his heart had completely stopped, but they got it going again and he recovered. If you're going to have a heart attack, the Boston Marathon is actually one of the safest places to do it.

It’s excruciating, knowing you’re on a downhill stretch, but not being able to take advantage of it. And the crowds here are legendary. They’re screaming for the last three miles, packed onto the sidewalk. But my tank was empty.

I passed my hotel with one mile to go, part of me desperately wanting to jump off the course, take the elevator, and collapse on my bed. The final 200 yards on Boylston street felt unusually long, but I staggered in at 3:31:28, which put me at a 7,300 finish—not too bad, since my number was 10626.

My friend Bob Marvel, who finished 90 seconds ahead of me, was wonderful at the finish area. I was wiped out.and resembled Lot’s wife—nothing but a cake of salt. My black hat was covered with white patches, as was my shirt—signs of severe dehydration. I immediately drank three bottles of water and was still thirsty. Bob helped me get to Lisa and Kelsey for the long trip back to the hotel (the one disadvantage of staying at the Commonwealth). After 9 marathons, I thought I had experienced it all, but during the walk back, my lips went numb. That’s something new.

Lisa and Kelsey continued their angelic ways, taking me back to the hotel, getting me a chai and then some chicken noodle soup. I laid down for a bit while they went out, and met up with them for a walk around the North End in the evening. We ate at a funky pizza place called Ernestos, and then had dessert at Moderns pastries. We were told “Tourists go to Mike’s, but the locals go to Modern’s.” Lisa and Kelsey had eaten at Mike’s the day before, and said they liked Mike’s better.

My final thoughts? I thought I could beat the course this year with more thoughtful training, but the topography still shredded my legs. Next year, I think I’d like to run it just for fun, making myself hold to a 3:45 finishing pace, just to soak it all in. To excel at Boston, you just may need to be stronger than I am. Or maybe I’d have to up my mileage considerably, but that would be hard to do, given my primary responsibilities.

But if you’re a runner and wondering if Boston lives up to its hype, let me say, yes, it does. It’s worth the sacrifice. The Boston marathon is a tremendous experience and deserves the reputation it has. The course is unique and historic. The crowd support is off the charts. The expo is amazing. And the sense of satisfaction when you get to wear the finisher’s shirt and coat makes the experience last and last. My quads may be screaming at me as I write this, but I still can’t wait to go back and do it all again.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What Can Evangelicals Learn from Catholic Worship?

On Good Friday, I visited my son, a sophomore at Notre Dame. We went to the Good Friday service at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, on Notre Dame’s campus. It was packed, standing room only, fifteen minutes before the service started. I was struck by several things that Roman Catholics do in their worship services that evangelicals could learn from.

(Keep in mind, over the past fifteen years of being an author and speaker, I’ve attended worship services in literally hundreds of churches, somewhere between four and five hundred in all, so I think I have a pretty broad understanding of evangelical worship. When I make generalizations about evangelical worship, I’m not referring to just one or two churches.)

One of the first things that struck me took place in the first ten seconds. Just about every evangelical church worship service—even on Good Friday—begins with a guitar. This may be a matter of personal preference, but I think the singularly worst way to start a Good Friday service is by strumming a guitar. Because most worship leaders are musicians first, it rarely occurs to them to start out with something that doesn’t have them front and center, and second, doesn’t have them holding their instrument of choice.

At the basilica at Notre Dame, the “worship leaders” began in the back, slowly making their way up front, holding a cross, with a deep bass drum keeping pace. It was an appropriately sober and somber beginning that took you out of your day and thrust you into the reality of the sacredness of Good Friday. Nobody was focusing on any worship leader; our thoughts were drawn to the cross making its way forward.

Secondly, I was astonished by the breadth of Scripture shared during the service. Various people read, chanted, or sang at least four, and possibly five, full chapters of Scripture. Evangelicals take pride in our stance on the authority of Scripture over tradition, but most evangelical worship services barely reference Scripture at all. Instead, we are beholden to cliché-ridden songs, often written by the worship leader him/herself. There is a commendable humility in a form of worship that assumes God’s thoughts are more powerful and more important than our own.

Third, the priest gave a homily that was precisely 12 minutes long (yes, I timed it). I couldn’t tell you what his point was. The language was flowery, delivered dramatically, but if there was a compelling thread, I couldn’t find it. What I found tremendously refreshing, however, is that the priest’s name wasn’t listed in the bulletin. He wasn’t even introduced. I’ve told my son that I may be held account on the Day of Judgment for all the time wasted on this earth as church members had to listen to me being introduced. I always tell churches that shorter is better, but the fact that the priest’s name wasn’t mentioned at all spoke of how the message is more important than the messenger. That’s another refreshing change.

Other elements were singularly Catholic—venerating “the wood of the cross,” making the Mass the center piece, but here’s the thing: when we left, our minds were filled with what Christ did on Good Friday. We weren’t impressed with any individual’s musical talent or any speaker’s oratory. The only one who impressed us was Christ.

In evangelical worship, two individuals are almost solely responsible for a “good” service (as defined by those who attend)—the worship leader and the teacher. If one or both are “on,” people will be satisfied. At the service at the basilica, no one individual could either make the service succeed or doom it to fail. There really wasn’t a central worship leader, not in an evangelical sense, and the teaching time was only 12 minutes out of 100.

Personally, I like a longer sermon—especially, one with a clear point. And of course, as evangelicals, my son and I didn’t participate in the Eucharist. But here’s what evangelicals can learn from worship, Roman Catholic style:

• Let’s break out of our guitar rut, if only for one week out of the year. It’s possible to lead worship without strumming six strings.
• Is it always necessary to have the worship leader front and center, all eyes focused on him/her? Can’t we find a way to facilitate a focus on Jesus?
• Isn’t it possible that hearts would be informed, transformed, and blessed by more Scripture, and less bad poetry put to music?
• Has the teaching aspect of evangelical worship created a problem of personalities, in which the success of the service is largely dependent on one individual?
• How can we model more humility in our worship so that, when people leave, they think more about God and less about his servants?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Can You Give Me A List of the Christian Classics?

I liked your post on reading the Christian classics. Do you have a list that you recommend?

Here you go, in chronological order. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’ll get you started.

Anonymous, The Didache (First century)
This is a preserved oral tradition focusing primarily on how home churches can incorporate gentile converts into the Christian fold. A fascinating look at early Christian life.

Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine (c. 400)
Long considered the classic of all time, many modern readers will find this book difficult reading with scattered wisdom. The genre itself will seem unfamiliar and slightly wordy to many evangelicals.

John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (c. 640)
The classic of eastern Christendom, written to monks, this book calls for a high commitment and chronicles some rather harsh ascetical practice.

Brother Ugolino, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (Late thirteenth, early fourteenth century)
A narrative account of Francis of Assisi and his early followers. While the historicity of many accounts are suspect, the model of devotion and the earnest application of a simple spirituality emphasizing poverty, simplicity, and prayer is truly inspiring.

Johannes Tauler, Sermons (mid-fourteenth century)
Johannes Tauler, a Dominican monk, was a disciple of Meister Eckhart and a key voice of the influential German mystics. He spent the bulk of his life in the Order of Preachers, and his writings had a significant impact on Martin Luther, who called Tauler’s sermons “pure theology.”

Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing (late fourteenth century)
This book is very mystical, but with real gems sprinkled throughout. Evangelicals might find the full “program” of little interest or benefit, but those who take the time to read it will find considerable wisdom.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (late fourteenth century)
One of the distinctives of this book is that it is the first Christian classic, indeed, the first English book, that can be identified with certainty as being written by a woman. As an evangelical, I must confess my own uneasiness with a book based on “divine revelations,” particularly when some of those seem to go against evangelical understandings of Scripture. Accordingly, I read this book like poetry—not to get doctrine, not to take it literally, but to benefit from, and be inspired by, the fine prose and passionate surrender to God that is a hallmark of feminine spirituality.

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418)
This is probably one of the most popular spiritual classics of all time. À Kempis focused on rigorous spiritual training as a necessary part of Christian living. His work is a good counter to “soft” Christianity.

Lorenzo Scupoli, Spiritual Combat (sixteenth century)
A practical primer on the nature of sin, temptation, and spiritual warfare, this fine book was immediately recognized as a masterpiece of holy wisdom. Though written in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, it was soon adopted by the Orthodox Church as well, where it was published as Unseen Warfare.

Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola (1548)
Full of very practical advice for monks, this book also offers many helpful insights for evangelicals.

John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul (c. 1587)
John was recognized as a highly gifted spiritual director (he was Teresa of Avila’s director for three years). In these works he provides many helpful insights into the spiritual life, especially the stages that Christians go through. One of my favorite writers, John of the Cross wrote with an unparalleled passion for God.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (sixteenth century)
Rewritten and updated throughout his life, Calvin produced one of the premier works on the Christian life. You don’t have to be Reformed in theology to enjoy the spiritual insights and commentary that fill this work of spiritual genius.

Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle (1588)
This is a relatively short book on prayer, emphasizing spiritual visions leading to spiritual betrothal and marriage.

Francis de Sales, Introduction to a Devout Life (1609) and Spiritual Conferences (post 1610)
Introduction is a unique spiritual book in that Francis wrote for laypeople, not a religious community. His desire was to see ordinary tradesmen learn to grow spiritually, recognizing that they needed different advice than members of a religious community. This book is very practical with several helpful meditations. Spiritual Conferences is a series of talks given to the Visitation nuns, so you can compare how Francis speaks to religious people. The modern version is entitled The Art of Loving God.

John Owen, Sin and Temptation (1656-1667)
This is actually a compilation of three of John Owen’s treatises that have now been collected by Dr. James Houston. Owen’s teaching on sin and temptation is must reading for every Christian.

Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin (1669)
Classic Puritan work, written in a classically Puritan style, developing an applicable and insightful theology of what sin is, why it is so serious, and how it affects the Christian life. Originally published as Sin, the Plague of Plagues.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)
Pascal was a brilliant man in both science and devotion; the Pensées comprise an unfinished collection of his random thoughts. It’s haphazard reading, but there are some real gems for those who wade through the collection.

Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ (late seventeenth century) Originally published as A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, Experiencing the Depths explores a life of unceasing prayer, meditation, and contemplation, emphasizing abandonment and union with God.

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (1692)
Brother Lawrence was a very humble man with an extraordinary sense of living in God’s presence. This little book includes several letters and conversations Brother Lawrence had with others who wanted to learn from his experience.

Francois Fénelon, Christian Perfection (1704-1717)
Along with John of the Cross, Fénelon is one of my favorites. He wrote as a wealthy mystic living in the upper strata of French society. The temptations faced by the elite several hundred years ago are remarkably similar to those faced by middle-class evangelicals today. This is one of the most helpful spiritual classics I’ve read; it’s one you may want to read over and over.

William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728)
This is a rigorous treatise written by a devout Puritan. It is very helpful and challenging but could be dangerous for a person who isn’t rooted in grace because it might lead some into an unhealthy legalism.

Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746)
Discusses those who are “truly pious” by examining and discussing various religious affections. Edwards is another of my favorites.

John Wesley, Wesley’s Journal (eighteenth century)
An astonishing, convicting, inspiring and compelling day-to-day account of a man on fire for God, earnestly seeking to build God’s Kingdom, and inviting us to share the journey.

Henry Drummond, The Greatest Thing in the World (late nineteenth century)
Drummond was one of D.L. Moody’s favorite “counselors” for those who responded to the famous evangelist’s appeals. He received considerable fame in his own right for his work applying the theory of evolution and natural laws to the spiritual life. This work consists of a series of addresses given by Drummond between 1876 and 1881, originally published under the title The Ideal Life.

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (twentieth century)
While it may be premature to call a book less than a hundred years old a classic, this treasured devotional is surely deserving of the title. Chambers was renowned for his work with the YMCA, and his daily thoughts breathe an astonishing depth of insight and devotion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937)
A ringing indictment of “cheap grace” and a call to experiential faith. Bonhoeffer warned that cheap grace was ruining more Christians than legalism, and sought to call the church toward the costly grace of discipleship.

Lewis, C.S., The Screwtape Letters (1944)
Among the most creative of all classics, this book brilliantly exposes the nature of temptation, spiritual warfare, human nature, and a life of faith.

A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (1948)
A classic call to an experiential, intentional, and transformational faith. I’m holding the line at books written prior to 1950 to deserve the title “classic,” but I believe it likely that Tozer will still be read 100 years from now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Isn't it Dangerous to Read From, and Quote, Christian Classics from Other Traditions?

After I preached at one church, an earnest young man came up to me and said, “What you shared is so important for the church to hear; it was truly inspired. But why did you have to quote enemies of the Gospel to make your point?”

I had quoted Francis of Assisi and an Eastern Orthodox monk.

“Francis couldn’t very well have been a Calvinist with a Calvinist’s system of thought, could he?” I asked, knowing I was in a Presbyterian church, “Seeing as how Calvin wasn’t even born until Francis had been dead for almost three hundred years. And while evangelicals certainly have disagreements with certain points of Eastern Orthodox theology, do you really want to write off the wisdom this wing of the church has gained over the past two millennia? The Orthodox claim to historicity is as strong, if not stronger, than any other branch of the church!”

I have gained so very much from reading widely and seeing how different generations and different Christian perspectives have broadened my understanding of the journey of faith, which is why I believe it is silly for us to avoid the devotional writings of ancient Roman Catholics (many of whom wrote before the Protestant church was even born) or Eastern Orthodox Christians (because they’re writing from an eastern perspective). My persistent use of quoting them is deliberate and intentional. God has used them in my life, and continues to use them, in ways it would be difficult to overstate.

If you give the classics a fair reading, you’ll be surprised by how much they agree on. For example, Lorenzo Scupoli, who worked in the Counter-Reformation in the 17th century, often sounds suspiciously like John Calvin, the innovator of the Reformed system of thought, in a surprisingly large number of areas when both talk about relating to God, growing in character, and cultivating the life of Christ in our souls.

Keep in mind, I don’t read the classics for training in systematic theology or doctrine; I read them for the passion and understanding they bring to the spiritual life. In the classics I have witnessed a beautiful tapestry of common truth that gives stunning witness to the accepted faith of the wider Christian Church—elements of the Christian life on which the most zealous and thoughtful adherents speak in virtual unanimity.

I don’t agree theologically with everything that John of the Cross or John Climacus writes. I certainly do not accept Julian of Norwich’s Revelations as true revelations, treating her work more as poetry than divine showings. But in total, their devotion fans into flame the burning embers of my faith.

Ralph Venning, a renowned Puritan preacher from the seventeenth century, actually urged his church members to read John Goodwin’s A Being Filled, even though Goodwin was a thoroughgoing Arminian (and thus at odds with Venning’s theological Calvinism). Venning’s defense of this advice is similar to my own approach when recommending the classics: “Though I confess myself not to be of the same mind and opinion with the learned author in some other controverted points, yet I cannot but give my testimony concerning this piece, that I find an excellent spirit moving on the face, and acting in the heart of it, to promote the glory of God, the power of godliness, and consequently the good of men, especially of Christian men.”

R. Somerset Ward, the Church of England’s most influential spiritual director in the 20th century, puts it this way: “Herein lies the great justification of the practice of devotional reading. It is, in fact, the use of, and cooperation with, the great process of inspiration which is forever going on in the world: a process whereby the power and wisdom of God is continually flowing out into the world to aid the growth and development of man’s soul.”

Wisdom forgotten is wisdom lost, which is why I doubt I’ll ever write a book without quoting widely from the great works of the Christian faith.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Should Christians be Called Sinners?

Dear Gary,

In Devotions for a Sacred Marriage, which has vastly blessed me and my wife, I noticed you address all believers as sinners. But Gary! Since we all write, are we all writers?

Our self-image (Identity) should not be defined by our sinful character, appearance, performance and social status but by our position in Christ. The Bible does not identify believers as sinners; it identifies believers as saints with capacity to sin. A saint is literally a holy person, but the designation does not describe our growth in character.

Although the New Testament gives us plenty of evidence that the believer sins, it never clearly identifies the believer as a sinner. As believers, we are not trying to become saints; we are saints who are becoming like Christ. In no way does this deny our continuous struggle with sin as you know, but it does give us hope for the future.

Though many Christians are dominated by the flesh and deceived by their ignorance. But telling Christians they are sinners because they do not act like saints seems counterproductive at best, usually to the loss of their self esteem and this is inconsistent with the Bible at worst. Apostle Paul uses words like carnal and babes in Christ.

Referring to believers as sinners fits the description of those who have not come to repentance nor accepted faith in God, since the rest of the scripture clearly identifies believers as saints who still have the capacity to sin.

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1Tim 1:15). The reference to “the ungodly and sinners” a few verses earlier (v.9), along with other New Testament uses of the term “sinners” shows that the sinners whom Christ came to save were outside of salvation rather than believers who can still choose to sin.

And if after receiving Christ as our Lord and saviour; we still see ourselves as sinners; then something is definitely wrong with our perception that need healing for making Christ’s work and gift of no effect.

This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. Please reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.


Dear E.,

Thank you for such a thoughtful question. Though you challenge an important point, you do so in a spirit of mutual edification, for which I am grateful.

When you ask, "Since we all write, are we all writers?" my immediate response, to be honest, was "yes!" We might not all be professional writers, but we are all writers. And since every Christian sins, I think it is appropriate to still call us sinners. To carry your own analogy out, we might not all be "professional" sinners--people who sin without repentance, no visible transformation, and no conviction--but we are forgiven people who still fight the sin nature and oftentimes succumb.

It was interesting to me that you even quoted 1 Timothy 1:15, but left out Paul's own admission, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worse." The way the Greek is to be understood, Paul does not say, "I was," but clearly, "I am." Paul is literally saying, "I am the worst of sinners."

Embracing this (I believe, biblical) truth has helped me to 1) live in God's grace, which I need on a daily basis; 2) guard against the effects of sin in my relationships, thoughts, and actions.

I believe this is further supported by 1 John 1:8, in which John says, "If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." In context, John seems to me to be talking about an indwelling principle here, not just facts. It takes me back to your original analogy of a writer: if I write, I'm a writer. If I sin, then I'm a sinner. A saved sinner, a forgiven sinner, but still, a sinner. I am also, as you so ably represent, a saint. I see evidence of God's grace increasing in my life, thoughts, heart, and character, but I am still very much a work in progress, and the day I stop seeing myself as a sinner is the day I believe I give sin an upper hand.

So, biblically, we don't have to choose between "saint" and "sinner." We are both: forgiven saints, and sinners progressing toward a greater righteousness. We should, with gratitude, embrace our identity as declared saints, and with humility, wrestle with the reality of our sin nature.

That, at least, is the biblical foundation from which I was writing.