My Favorite Things of 2012

I started a new spiritual discipline a few years ago: to spend time at the end of the year reflecting on God's goodness to me by means of a "top 100" list of my favorite things in the previous year. It is an exercise in mindfulness, and gratitude. And editing, too, as I invariably have to cut the list to get it down to 100--which, of course, is a lesson in itself.

Unlike past years, I've elected NOT to include my favorite books among the "favorite things" list this year, for several reasons: there's not room, and I already list my top ten books and audiobooks on this blog at the end of the year as it is.

A couple qualifications. Each of the following should be prefaced with “By God’s grace." And, after the first few, the list proceeds in roughly chronological order, rather than in order of priority. So don't get all worked up about the order; they're all my favorites, okay?

Here it is, then--a look back on yet another year of blessing:

1. Celebrating our 35th anniversary by renewing our wedding vows in Gatlinburg
2. Dedicating Baby Ryder
3. Losing 40 pounds
4. Sunday lunches with the kids and grandkids
5. Seeing A Dangerous Method at the Esquire with Robin
6. Writing at Sitwell’s Coffeehouse in Clifton
7. 1000th Desperate Pastor blog post
8. 2000th prayer blog post
9. My fifty-fourth birthday dinner with the family
10. Friends of the Lane Library book sale at MUH
11. Eating at Mama’s Farmhouse in Pigeon Forge
12. Eating at the Peddler Steakhouse in Gatlinburg
13. My & Robin’s March visit with Rick and Glenn in Atlanta
14. Watching Foyle’s War with Robin
15. Sunday dinners with the kids and grandkids
16. Watching Downton Abbey with Robin
17. The Newport Gangster Tour (in May) with the lovely Robin
18. The June 25 Reds’ game with the whole family (and more!)
19. Watching Modern Family with Robin
20. Breakfasts on the deck
21. Getting book endorsements from Len Sweet, Eugene Peterson, Rick Hamlin, and others
22. Backyard pool parties with the grandkids
23. Eating at Montgomery Inn with the Phillips/Sellers wedding party (March)
24. A wonderful vacation with the kids and grandkids in Gatlinburg
25. Watching my kids with their kids
26. Signing the How to Survive the End of the World book contract
27. Writing How to Survive the End of the World
28. Writing How to Fall in Love with God
29. Writing the 30 Day Church Challenge book
30. Returning to SFOT to speak for the June staff conference
31. Presenting at the Mad Anthony Writer’s Conference in April
32. Performing Kyle & Shannon’s wedding
33. Preaching at Hamilton Vineyard
34. Preaching at Grace Pointe Community Church
35. Teaching the J-Term at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana
36. Eating at Payne’s in Gas City, Indiana
37. Mia’s third birthday party
38. Miles’s fifth birthday party
39. Calleigh’s third birthday party
40. Writing 8 sermons for publication
41. Reading dozens of books to the grandkids
42. Eating at Montgomery Inn with Ron and Mariruth (January)
43. Coffee and more at True West Café in Hamilton
44. The June Great Strides walk
45. Raising $3,000+ (with Robin) for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
46. Worshiping at Church of the Apostles in Atlanta (March)
47. Larry’s visit in May
48. Visiting Lawnfield (the Garfield home & museum) with Larry in May
49. Hostetler Heritage Tour in Silverton, Deer Park, Pleasant Ridge, etc., with Larry
50. Taking the grandkids to McDonald’s playland
51. Dinner at The Grand Finale with the lovely Robin, Rick, and Glenn
52. Taking the grandkids to the Cincinnati Children’s Museum
53. Getting books from Lane Library
54. Getting ebooks and audiobooks on Overdrive
55. Hiking in the Smokies
56. Driving tour of Milford Township on date night with Robin
57. Tour of the Cincinnati Observatory with Robin
58. Robin’s birthday dinner with the kids and grandkids
59. Preaching at Veritas Church
60. Taking Miles and Mia to the Butler County Fair
61. Watching The Forsyte Saga with Robin
62. Family Fun Day at Butler Rural Electric Cooperative with Miles and Mia
63. Getting a great deal on Robin’s Mazda 6
64. Signing the Brengle contract with Tyndale
65. Watching Daniel Deronda with Robin
66. Getting Robin an iPad, and watching her use it
67. Refinancing the house, paying off debt
68. “The Tempest” at Vinoklet Winery with Robin, Don, & Arvilla
69. Montgomery Inn with Aubrey, Robin, Don, & Arvilla
70. Reds v. Cubs with Don in August
71. Sunday morning worship at Camp Swoneky (Family Camp, August)
72. Macbeth at Seasongood Pavilion in Eden Park with the lovely Robin
73. Qualifying to go off the Medi-Share Restore program on Aug. 31
74. Watching The Pacific with Robin
75. Seeing my byline on a Christmas article in a Guideposts publication
76. Taking Starbucks to Aaron (and sometimes Nina) on Thursdays
77. Speaking at the SASF retreat at Camp Paradise Valley in Kentucky
78. Taking a couple days of R&R with Robin at Camp Paradise Valley in Kentucky
79. Dinner at the Dale Hollow Lake State Park Resort in September
80. Teaching a marriage retreat, preaching, and seeing old friends at Montclair
81. Publishing articles in The War Cry, Live, Christian Communicator, The Lookout, Bible Advocate, Herald of His Coming, Young Salvationist, and Seek
82. Listening to Page CXVI and Derek Webb at True West with Robin, Aaron, and Nina
83. Dinner at Fiesta Charra with Scott and Julie
84. Aubrey’s birthday dinner
85. Preaching at First Baptist in Oxford
86. Speaking in Dillenburg, Germany
87. Visiting the Wilhelmsturm with Robin
88. Tuesdays with Calleigh and Ryder
89. Our November visit with Bill and Lorraine
90. Preaching at Russells Point Church of God
91. Listening to Aaron and Nina and “Red Letter Rising” at The Upper Room in Brookville
92. Gethsemani prayer retreat with Robin in November
93. Watching Wreck It Ralph with the kids and grandkids at the Rave
94. Thanksgiving at Aubrey and Kevin’s
95. Dinner and Anna Karenina in Mariemont with Robin
96. Hamilton’s German Village Christmas Walk with Robin, Aubrey, Calleigh, Ryder, Jessica, Ezra, and Mira
97. Festival of Lights with Robin, Aubrey, Kevin, Calleigh, and Ryder
98. Awaited at Crossroads with the whole family
99. Seeing The Hobbit with Robin
100. Our family Christmas dinner

Ten Best Audiobooks of 2012

Twenty-two of the 127 books I read in 2012 were audiobooks, all but one of which I listened to on my iPhone (that one, Destiny of the Republic, was on a set of CDs borrowed from the library).

That's more seven more audiobooks than I read/listened to last year (often--not always--I will alternate reading between audio and hard copy, as I did with #1 and #3 below).

All but a couple were excellent, and ten stand out as the cream of the crop, both in the quality of the writing and the quality of the narration or dramatization:

1. Destiny of the Republic (Millard)

2. The Call of the Wild (London)

3. At Blackwater Pond (Oliver)*

4. Vanishing Act (Perry)

5. The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde)

6. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain)

7. The Woman in White (Collins)

8. The Moonstone (Collins)

9. The End of the Affair (Greene)

10. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Doyle)

Ten Best Books of 2012

The 127 books I read in 2012 may be the most I've read in one year--ever (I will be posting the complete list in the next day or two; I know you can't wait). Plus, 2012 was one of the best in terms of the number of really excellent books I read, which makes this end-of-the-year top-ten list harder than ever to compose. Some absolutely wonderful books are left off the list below, just because it's a top ten list and not a top fifteen or twenty list.

Also, just a word of explanation: the SOLE qualification for making this "ten best" list is the enjoyment I derived from reading. That's it. It's my list, not an application for The New York Times Book Review.

If you would like to know more about why a particular book is on the list, those marked with a † have been reviewed on this blog. Simply search for the title, or go to the category sidebar and click on "Book of the Week" to display all the book reviews and just scroll down until you find the one you're looking for. Also, each book's title is linked to the Amazon listing for that title, so you can learn more, read reviews, or purchase the book online.

1. Destiny of the Republic (Millard)*

2. Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Ellul) †

3. Viral (Sweet) †

4. A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Evans) †

5. Jesus, A Theography (Sweet and Viola)

6. 1929 (Larsson) †

7. The Hobbit (Tolkein)

8. The Call of the Wild (London)*

9. An Altar in the World (Taylor) †

10. The Machine (Posnanski)

Two novels, eight nonfiction. Two history (or three, if you count The Machine, which is about the Cincinnati Reds' 1975 season). One poetry collection. Two classics. Three audiobooks (marked with an asterisk). One ebook (The Machine). And two I had read before in the past (The Hobbit, The Call of the Wild), but which I just couldn't keep off this list.

2012 in Books

It is that time of year. An annual practice of mine for many years has been a review of the books I have read in the previous year. As I've mentioned before on this blog, I assemble a reading plan at the beginning of each year (the 2013 version of which I will post about Monday), and that guides roughly fifty percent of my reading through the year. Then, at the end of the year, I look over the books I've enjoyed, looking for balance and patterns, etc.

So here's a quick look back on last year’s reading, sorted by category:

The Bread of Angels (Saldana)

Destiny of the Republic (Millard)
Splendor of God (Morrow)
Stonewall Jackson (Charles River Editors)
The Autobiography of George Muller (Muller)

Hamlet (Shakespeare)
Gulliver’s Travels (Swift)
The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Doyle)
The Tempest (Shakespeare)
Les Miserables (Hugo)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain)
Macbeth (Shakespeare)
The Woman in White (Collins)
The Moonstone (Collins)
The End of the Affair (Greene)
The Call of the Wild (London)
The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Emerson)

Write Good or Die (Nicholson)
Building a Life Out of Words (Smucker)
Platform (Hyatt)

1929 (Larsson)

New authors:
Lonestar Sanctuary (Coble)
Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection (Estleman)
Two for the Dough (Evanovich)
Three to Get Deadly (Evanovich)
Vanishing Act (Perry)
The Alchemist (Coelho)
The Woman in White (Collins)
The Moonstone (Collins)
Tenebrae (Hill)
The Triumph of Love (Hill)
Somewhere is Such a Kingdom (Hill)

The Works of Christina Rossetti (Rossetti)
The Pig in the Spigot (Wilbur)
Tenebrae (Hill)
The Triumph of Love (Hill)
A Child’s Calendar (Updike)
Somewhere is Such a Kingdom (Hill)
At Blackwater Pond (Oliver)
Why I Wake Early (Oliver)
House of Light (Oliver)

Viral (Sweet)
Chancy (L’Amour)
The Cherokee Trail (L’Amour)
Code of the West (Grey)
Simply Jesus (Wright)
The Hobbit (Tolkein)
The Call of the Wild (London)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain)
Hamlet (Shakespeare)
The Tempest (Shakespeare)
Macbeth (Shakespeare)

The End of Religion (Cavey)
Healing Your Church Hurt (Mansfield)
Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Tverberg)
Weird (Groeschel)
An Altar in the World (Taylor)
Not a Fan (Idleman)
Sifted (Lawrence)
The Pressure's Off (Crabb)
Breakfast with Bonhoeffer (Walker)
10 Prayers You Can’t Live Without (Hamlin)
Torn (Lee)

Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Ellul)
Be Satisfied (Wiersbe)
Living on the Ragged Edge (Swindoll)
LA Year of Biblical Womanhood (Evans)

Biblical Fiction:
In Shady Groves (Lehman)

Mondays with My Old Pastor (Navajo)
Jesus Killed My Church (Bohlender))
Reimagining Church (Viola)

Related books:
Love Wins (Bell)
Erasing Hell (Chan)
Why We Get Fat (Taubes)
Eat to Live (Fuhrman)
Fully Alive (Davis)

Yellow Submarine (The Beatles)
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (Joyce)
Roo’s Big Nature Day (Hutta)
Dora and the Unicorn King (Reisner)
Digger the Dinosaur (Dotlich/Gynux)
The Pig in the Spigot (Wilbur)
Once Upon a Potty (Frankel)
I Love You, Stinky Face (McCourt/Moore)
A Child’s Calendar (Updike)
Weird Pet Poems (Evans)
To Everything There Is a Season (Dillon)
Dreamplace (Lyon/Catalanotto)
Lily and the City of Light (Bonilla)
The Numbers (Felix)
The Hair Book (Tether/McKie)
The Itsy Bitsy Spider (Wells)
Jack and the Beanstalk (Tyrrell)
Pooh’s 1 2 3 (Milne)
Winnie the Pooh Tells Time (Milne)
The Chronicles of Narnia (Sabuda)
Peter Rabbit Finger Puppet Book (Potter)
Baby’s First Nursery Treasury (Esposito)
It’s Not Fair! (Rosenthal)
The Pigeon Wants a Puppy (Willems)
Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? (Seuss)
You’re My Little Love Bug (Weimer)
When Cows Fly (Watson)
The Monster That Ate My Socks (Cosmo)
A Story About a Mouse Called Hector (Huseinovic)
Bartleby’s Book of Buttons, Vol. 2
Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak)
Touch & Feel Bible Stories (Caregan/Mitchell)
The Polar Express (Van Allsburg)
I’ll Follow the Moon (Tara)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Selznick)
Locomotion (Woodson)

With Christ in the School of Prayer (Murray)

Prayers of John Calvin from His Commentary on Hosea (Calvin)
The Hidden Life of Prayer (McIntyre)
The Disciplines of the Christian Life (Liddell)

Solitary (Thrasher)
Lion of Babylon (Bunn)

Other Fiction:
Her Royal Spyness (Bowen)
The Last Bookstore in America (Stewart)
Wolf Song (Fergusson)
Blue Hole Back Home (Jordan-Lake)
Martyr (Clements)
The Chicago Way (Harvey)
Saints Preserve Us (Ellwood)
The Case of the Violent Virgin (Aballone)
The Hangman’s Daughter (Pötsch)
The Crazy Mixed-Up Corpse (Aballone)
The Eye of Death (Rees)

Other Nonfiction:
The Machine (Posnanski)
What Would MacGyver Do? (Vaughan)
The Magic of Thinking Big (Schwartz)
How to Stay Alive in the Woods (Angier)
The Body Has a Mind of Its Own (Penfield)
The Greatest Stories Never Told (Beyer)
How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (Bennett)
Hello Goodbye Hello (Brown)
Lost in the Cosmos (Percy)

That’s 127 books all together, 26 more than last year (some are listed in multiple categories), and probably the most I've ever read in a single year. More classics than ever, except maybe when I was in school. Thirty-three ebooks. Twenty audiobooks. Another wonderful year of discovery and enjoyment.

Tomorrow I'll post my ten favorite books of the year.

A Shocking Book

Justin Lee's book, Torn (Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate) is a shocking book. It was written by a young man who loves Jesus Christ and is also gay.

But that's not why it is shocking.

It shocks me that the author, who realized in his teens that he was gay, long after he had committed his life unreservedly to following Jesus, can write so honestly of some of the treatment he's received from Christians without sounding angry or bitter. The grace with which he writes is an example of the grace Jesus gives.

It shocks me because Lee handles the Scriptures with a maturity, vulnerability, and sophistication that many older, more "educated" students and teachers of the Word could learn from.

It shocks me because of the equanimity and magnanimity (and probably other imities) with which the author treats those with differing views--and whose views are likely to remain opposed to his.

It shocks me because its Christlike honesty, sincerity, and tone are long overdue, and give this book the potential to bless not only many individuals, but the whole church as well.

If we will listen.

This Holy Feast

In what has now officially become a Christmas tradition here on the Desperate Pastor blog, here is the earliest Christmas sermon still extant. It was written and delivered in A.D. 386 by John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople:
BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

I came across this video a few days ago on Michael Hyatt's blog, which I read daily. It's a great presentation by David Allen (Getting Things Done). Simple but good.

What a Church Should Teach

Churches teach many things. Some intentionally, some unintentionally. In the course of a year, a church may teach on marriage, finances, controversial social issues, etc. Good stuff. But the really crucial things a church should teach its members is a much shorter list. Maybe something like this:

1. How to love
2. How to pray
3. How to repent
4. How to give
5. How to serve others
6. How to read and study the Bible
7. How to live justly
8. How to show mercy and grace
9. How to worship
10. How to forgive

What Infuriates Jesus?

What [Jesus] deemed to be the severest of all sins (self-righteousness) is what many contemporary Christians view as a mere misdemeanor. And the sorts of sins toward which Jesus had great compassion and patience are what many Christians place at the top of the totem pole of "serious sins," deeming them to be felonies. Don't be deceived: the "odious complacency of the self-consciously pious" is what infuriated our Lord most.

(Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Jesus: A Theography, 208).

Breakfast with Bonhoeffer

Jon Walker has done something special in his book, Breakfast with Bonhoeffer: How I Learned To Stop Being Religious So I Could Follow Jesus. He has written a thoroughly honest book about his own very real (often overwhelming) trials that encourages readers who may be going through struggles of their own. And through it all, he weaves piercing insights from the writings of twentieth-century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Walker walks a fine line in writing so vulnerably of disappointment, divorce, depression, debt--as well as many struggles that DON'T start with D. The fine line, of course, is to relate his own suffering and grief without being maudlin, and while still making it possible for someone who is not suffering so much (or who is suffering differently) to identify. And he succeeds.

I was often amazed at Jon's story, but also at his ability to apply Bonhoeffer's insights not only to to his life but to mine also. And the intersections of Bonhoeffer's life--which ended in a Nazi prison camp just days before liberation--and Walker's...and the reader's...will make this a book not only to read, but to reread.

Whether you are hurting, healing, or happy, you'll find Breakfast with Bonhoeffer a rewarding book. You don't even have to read it at breakfast; it reads just as well at other times of the day! And you will probably want to look for Jon's other books, too: Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship and In Visible Fellowship: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer's Classic Work Life Together.

Church of the Week: The Salvation Army, Middletown OH

The lovely Robin and I met her mom and dad for worship yesterday morning at The Salvation Army in their new digs on Central Avenue in Middletown.

We have many dear friends who worship at this corps (as Salvation Army churches are called), and it was such a joy to renew fellowship with them--including some we hadn't expected to see, like Majors Norm and Ruby Zanders, whom we assisted as cadets in 1979. We were greeted the moment we entered and welcomed generously.

The morning worship started soon after we entered, and we didn't have time to greet everyone we wanted to see (some of whom were already in their places, in the band, for example). It happened that the worship featured many of the children of the corps and the enrollment of new junior soldiers. It was a charming and heart-warming time (I especially loved the junior timbrel presentation!). Oh, and after church, the new corps officer (Lt. Bryan Demichael, who arrived in Middletown with his wife, Lt. Laura, last July) took us on a thorough tour of the facility. We are so happy for our friends, and so grateful to have worshiped with them again!

Still More Monday Morning Inspiration

Q: How many pastors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Okay, okay, I'll get dressed and get to the church right away. Which light bulb is it?

Free Preaching Conference

I just learned via the WillisWired blog that last March's Preach Better Sermons event, a free online preaching seminar, will be replayed on Wednesday, December 5, 2012 beginning at 12:00 noon EST. The event's speakers included Andy Stanley, Louie Giglio, Perry Noble, Jud Wilhite, and Dr. Charles Stanley, among others.

Preaching Rocket is replaying the 3-hour online event on Wednesday, December 5, 2012 beginning at 12:00 noon EST. Click here for more information!

More Monday Morning Inspiration

Q: How many pastors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Really? You call me at 7:30 on a Monday morning to ask that question? Nice.

Church Signs With Moveable Letters Should Be Outlawed (Pt. 12)

A bonus...This church sign comes with a prayer, sincere and heartfelt, from me: "Please, God, make it stop."

Why We Are Stuck

"There’s a reason why churches and denominations are in decline," writes Tony Morgan in this compelling blog post. "We continue to be religious about using the same methods hoping and praying they’ll somehow generate different results. That’s a recipe for decline and ultimately death."

I agree, not just about the specifics he highlights, but about the bigger picture as well. Denominations, churches, and pastors, in general, embrace tradition in areas in which innovation would have an impact...and embrace progress in areas that have very little impact (or that were impactful five or more years ago, but are much less so now!). I'm not just throwing stones; I've been as guilty as anyone. Well, except for that one guy.

Read the whole thing here.

Apostolic v. Rabbinic Preaching

Call me crazy (I've been called worse) but it seems to me that the vast majority of preaching, teaching, and leading in the American church today ignores what Ray Ortlund points out in this excellent (as usual) post on his blog:
There are two ways to read the Bible. We can read it as law or as promise.

If we read the Bible as law, we will find on every page what God is telling us we should do. Even the promises will be conditioned by law. But if we read the Bible as promise, we will find on every page what God is telling us he will do. Even the law will be conditioned by promise.

In Galatians 3 Paul explains which hermeneutic is the correct one. “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18).

So, if we want to know whether we should read the Bible through the lens of law or grace, demand or provision, threat or promise — if we want to know how to read the Bible in an apostolic rather than a rabbinic way — we can follow the plot-line of the Bible itself and see which comes first. And in fact, promise comes first, in God’s word to Abram in Genesis 12. Then the law is “added” — significant word, in Galatians 3:19 — the law is added as a sidebar later, in Exodus 20. The hermeneutical category “promise” establishes the larger, wraparound framework for everything else added in along the way.

The deepest message of the Bible is the promises of God to undeserving law-breakers through his grace in Christ. This is not an arbitrary overlay forced onto the biblical text. The Bible presents itself to us this way. The laws and commands and examples and warnings are all there, fulfilled in Christ and revered by us. But they do not provide the hermeneutic with which we make sense of the whole. We can and should understand them as qualified by God’s gracious promise, for all who will bank their hopes on him.

Preacher or Pastor?

Rick Warren explains the difference (from a recent episode of The Exchange).

A Preacher's Prayer

Dear Lord, you have sent me into this world to preach your word. So often the problems of the world seem so complex and intricate that your word strikes me as embarrassingly simple. Many times I feel tongue-tied in the company of people who are dealing with the world's social and economic problems.

But you, O Lord, said, 'Be clever as serpents and innocent as doves.' Let me retain innocence and simplicity in the midst of this complex world. I realize that I have to be informed, that I have to study the many aspects of the problems facing the world, and that I have to try to understand as well as possible the dynamics of contemporary society. But what really counts is that all this information, knowledge and insight allow me to speak more clearly and unambiguously your truthful word. Do not allow evil powers to seduce me with the complexities of the world's problems, but give me the strength to think clearly, speak freely, and act boldly in your service.

Give me the courage to show the dove in a world so full of serpents. Amen.

Simply Excellent

Every time I read an N. T. Wright book, I ask myself, "Why have I not read everything this man writes?" The answer is that he seems to write much faster than I can read. And yet, his books are impressively, incredibly profound.

That is certainly the case with his latest, the newly-released Simply Jesus. In it, he thoroughly and thoughtfully answers the questions "Who is Jesus?" and "What is and was the purpose and message of his life?"

Wright (who is an Anglican bishop and accomplished scholar) masterfully orients the reader to the time and worldview of Jesus day, as a necessary prelude to unpacking Jesus' words and actions, which reveal his true purpose and message. Then he proceeds to show some important ways those things differ from what the "skeptics" and "conservatives" in and out of the church have focused on. For example, he says,
The gospels are not about "how Jesus turned out to be God." They are about how God became king on earth as in heaven (p. 149).
And also,
It will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people "how to get to heaven." That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won't do. The whole point of Jesus's public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave "earth" behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on "earth" (pp. 144-145).
I found especially intriguing his depiction of the "perfect storm" of circumstances and forces into which Jesus came, his explanation of the ingredients of the Exodus narrative as a template for understanding the Jewish worldview of Jesus' day, and his elucidation of Jesus himself as a "walking, living, breathing Temple" and as "the walking, celebrating, victorious sabbath" (p. 138).

Anyone who is interested in the life, ministry, and message of Jesus would do well to read this book. Though I haven't read everything N. T. Wright has written, Simply Jesus is a good example of why I plan to.

Church of the Week: Redeemer Fellowship Church, Bardstown, KY

The lovely Robin and I, while on prayer retreat this past weekend, sought out Redeemer Fellowship Church in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Redeemer is a fairly new church, that has also planted a new, separate church in the same facility. Redeemer meets on Sunday mornings and the newer church, Grace Fellowship Church, meets on Sunday evenings. The two churches have their own pastors and separate elders and members--but share a facility.

We entered into a spare entryway and helped ourselves to coffee and hot chocolate. We were quickly recognized as visitors and welcomed repeatedly and sincerely by several folks, including the pastor, a young transplant from Scotland.

A five-piece band led worship singing, interspersed with Scripture and communion (four communion tables were set up around the perimeter).

Matthew spoke for roughly 45 minutes (the service lasted 90 minutes, of which we were told by one of the folks who welcomed us). His text was Matthew 18:15-20. I only wish he had let his Scottish brogue have full rein.

We had a great time among a friendly group, and found their approach intriguing. The church's website is

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The Best of All Possible Beginnings

We profess to believe that this present age is passing. We say that this world is not our home. That we’re “just passing through,” as the old Gospel song says. That “Jesus is coming soon.” But is that how we live?
Read more in my recent post on the ACU Press Book Club blog: "The Best of All Possible Beginnings."

The Casualty is Grace

Churches designed for saved people are full of hypocrites. You pretty much have to be a hypocrite to participate. Transparency and honesty are dangerous in a church for church people. Consequently, the casualty in a church for church people is grace. It's hard to extend grace to people who don't seem to need it. And it's hard to admit you need it when you aren't sure you will receive it.

(Andy Stanley, in Deep and Wide)

Monday Morning Inspiration

Q: How many pastors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Leave me alone, it's Monday.

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16 Books That Molded Me

I have read at least 1,750 books in my lifetime. Probably more, but that is the number
I have recorded as having read at least once. I've written elsewhere on this blog about my reading habits (here, here, and here, among others). Many of those books have had an impact on me; some, I could even say, have molded me. Here are sixteen that have had an inestimable effect on my life and habits:

Heart Talks on Holiness, The Renewed Mind, and The Cost of Discipleship (molded my early spiritual life)

Mere Christianity and Evidence That Demands a Verdict (molded my early thinking as a Christ follower)

Mr. Jones, Meet the Master and Biblical Preaching (molded my preaching)

Hand Me Another Brick and Spiritual Leadership (molded my leadership)

With Christ in the School of Prayer and The Divine Hours (3 vol.) (molded my praying)

Managing Your Time and Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (molded my rhythms)

User-Friendly Churches, Postmodern Pilgrims, and The Contemplative Pastor (molded my pastoring)

As I look back over the list, I realize that some of those affected more than one area. And, of course, some were formative, while others were influential much later. But all, in one way or another, have had a substantive effect on me, my life, and my ministry. And, while I could easily list another sixteen or more, these stand out.

Tears Are Telling

"Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next."

(Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, p. 383)

5 Good Reasons to Choose a REAL Book

I love books. I love reading. I didn't think I would quite take to the electronic publishing phenomenon when it first came around, for several reasons. I like the feel of a book in my hands. I like the smell of a book. I like the tactile and visual experience of reading an actual book.

But I've been surprised. I read a lot of ebooks, maybe 70-80% of my reading these days. One reason: I can take hundreds of ebooks along when I travel, and they weigh no more and take up no more space than a single book. Also, I can obtain an ebook almost instantly, which is a great help when researching and writing.

But still, there remain good reasons not to give up on traditional books. One of my favorite blogs, WiseBread, featured this article on "5 Reasons to Choose Traditional Books Over E-Books":
I love reading, and as a homeschooling family, there are usually between 12 and 15 books being consumed by our family members at any one time. While I am a huge proponent of technology, and I can appreciate the ease of carrying digital titles on my iPad for quick reading when I’m out and about, if given the choice, I’ll still pick the old-fashioned variety most every time. Here’s why...
Read the rest here.

A Huge Improvement

From the "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip by Stephan Pastis:

Introverts and the Church

I have posted before on this blog about introvertedness and the church, so it may come as no surprise that I found the following TED video by Susan Cain (which I watched on a recent flight) interesting and informative:

That video spoke to me as an introvert, of course, but also as a pastor, showing to me (again) how unwelcoming the church can be to introverts when, for example, we insist that visitors stand up and be recognized (or, worse, introduce themselves), that people greet those around them during a service, or make them turn to their neighbor and repeat a phrase, or break up into small groups for prayer or discussion, etc. All of that may not be a problem for the extrovert but displays insensitivity toward the 30-50% of people who are introverts. Of course, over time, introverts will learn to stay away from churches that do that, which is not what anyone wants.

That's not to say we should never stretch introverts. But it wouldn't hurt a bit for pastors and churches to heed Susan Cain's helpful suggestions. Like everything the church does, just a little sensitivity in this area could change lives.

The Preacher and Translator

The lovely Robin and I had a marvelous time this past weekend participating in the JESUS IM FOKUS congress in Dillenburg, Germany. It is a biennial gathering of roughly five hundred youth and children's ministry workers from Brethren churches from all over Germany, Austria, etc. (I'm not sure where exactly Et Cetera is, but I hope to visit someday).

It was an honor and joy to speak four times over the weekend to the assemblage on "Healing for Hurting Hearts." But relatively inexperienced as I am speaking with the help of a translator (who has become a dear friend), it was a challenge.

Speaking with the aid of a translator required me to rethink my delivery. I had to shorten my sentences. I had to pause often in the middle of a thought. I had to restructure some portions, because in German the verb comes at the end of a sentence. And so on.

But, of course, every preacher is a translator. We must consider much more than grammar and sentence structure. We must discern where people are, and meet them there. We must find common ground with the people to whom we are called to speak. We must connect with them before we can connect them with God through his Word. We must make our speech accessible. We must make our speech attractive. We must make our speech effective at moving hearts and minds toward a worthy goal. We must work within the limitations of language to communicate a message that is limitless in its power. And so on.

Sounds hard, doesn't it? It is. Which makes it even more discernibly miraculous when some gifted souls among us make it look easy.

Jesus: A Theography

I wasn't as anxious to read Jesus: A Theography, by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, as I have been other books by these authors, who are among my favorites. It sounded serious, and I'm not a real serious guy. It sounded, well, technical, I guess. And challenging. Maybe even dry (though I've never read anything by Sweet or Viola that could be called "dry"). But I read it anyway, and I am so glad I did.

It is an astounding accomplishment. The authors call it a "theography" because it tells the story of Jesus, the God-man, as told not just in the Gospels (which more or less chronicle his thirty-plus years of earthly life and ministry), but as told from the first lines of "the First Testament" in Genesis to the last words of "the Second Testament" in the Revelation. In doing so, they show compellingly, thoroughly, and engagingly how the whole Bible reveals Jesus.

It left me shaking my head. How could the authors have said so much, so well, so consistently? And how could I have missed so much over so many years as a Bible student, preacher, and follower of Christ? And how much richer would my learning, teaching, and living have been through the years had I read this book long ago? Nearly every sentence in the book brims with beauty, power, and fresh discovery. I took more notes and highlighted more passages than perhaps any book I've ever read--and that's saying something! It even made me repent of those times when my wife and I were in school together and I teased her for often highlighting nearly a whole page at a time, stressing to her that when everything is important, nothing is. But in the case of this book, I recant those words.

I couldn't more highly praise Jesus: A Theography. I couldn't more enthusiastically recommend it. I honestly think everyone should read it.

Church of the Week: Airport Chapel, Frankfurt, Germany

We didn't have time to go looking for it, but when the lovely Robin and I happened upon the Christian prayer room in the Frankfurt International Airport, we took a few moments to stop in.

Very modern. Spartan, even. But not without its charm, though it could use a bit more subdued lighting.

Interestingly, the Frankfurt Airport provides SEPARATE prayer rooms for different faiths. We saw signs for a Jewish and a Muslim prayer room nearby.

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A Filled-Up Soul

"A haunting memory sticks from years and years ago, when news came of a young husband in our congregation who was dead by an errant shot during a hunting trip. It was my lot as the family's pastor to rush to the home and sit with the family. As I drove away from my home, I found myself asking, "And what shall I give this family? My spiritual resources are dry. All I have is words, but my spirit seems empty." It was a most miserable moment, a scary one for a youthful pastor. And one of those times when I determined I would never again be caught with an empty soul when others needed spiritual resource.

"I came to see that I owed my congregation a filled-up soul. They needed this far more from me than all the church programs and visions I could put before them. Whether they encountered me in the pulpit or on the streets of our community during the week, they needed to know that if (perish the thought) there was only one human being in their world who had some experience in the presence of God, I would be that man."

(from Gordon MacDonald's A Resilient Life)

The Autobiography of George Muller

The Autobiography of George Muller tells the story of a remarkable man of faith. Redeemed by Jesus Christ from a life of selfishness and profligacy, Muller (1895-1898) left his native Prussia for England in 1829. There, he entered into pastoral ministry and, after some experience as a preacher, began a series of ministries--a Bible institute, Sunday school, orphan homes, etc.--in Bristol. But that's not enough half the story.

The real story of Muller's life consists of page after page, month by month and year upon year, of his resolute dependence on God for his (and hundreds of employees' and orphans') daily bread--quite literally at times. He determined from the beginning of his ministry that he would take any and all needs to God and him alone. Rather than appealing to donors or crowds for support, he would "take it to the Lord in prayer," as the hymn says, and await God's timing and God's supply. And, time after time--often before he (and sometimes others among his partners in ministry) finished praying--he received answers to his prayers.

This book is not like any other autobiography. Rather than presenting a narrative of his pursuits and accomplishments, it relates only those excerpts from his journals that pertain to his stated life goal: encouraging and edifying the church by showing the outline and fruits of a life that is lived and a ministry that is run in complete and constant reliance on God, in faith, through prayer.

The Autobiography of George Muller accomplishes that. It impressed upon me the need to pray more, but not only that. It showed the littleness of my faith and my native impatience. It exposed my idolatrous self-reliance. And it made me hungrier for God, and for his hand on my life, in things both large and small.

Faithbook Community Church?

Chet Gladkowski, on, posed the question: "Does Facebook have anything to teach the church?" He suggests that "Facebook has...[filled] a hole we, the Christian community, have created through absence and neglect." And then he offers five insightful answers to his question.

I think he's dead on. And I think you should go here and read the whole thing now.

Church of the Week: First Baptist Church, Oxford, OH

What a joy it was to worship, teach, preach, and fellowship yesterday morning with my friends Rev. Darryl and Cheryl Jackson at First Baptist Church in Oxford, Ohio.

The morning began with a lovely Bible study. I taught from Exodus 32, with reference to my book, American Idols, on the slippery slope to idolatry.

After Bible study adjourned, we all prepared for the worship service of the morning. The lovely Robin and I got to greet so many friends, old and new, and basked in the warmth and welcome that were extended to us, and the wonderful prayer, praise, and worship music that were offered to God.

Pastor Darryl gave me a generous introduction, and I preached as well as can be expected, from 1 Samuel 14, drawing from the last chapter of my book, Quit Going to Church. Though I'm usually accustomed to "amens" and "preach-es" and "come on, nows" only from my wife (and under her breath, at that), I was blessed by the feedback to the message, and thoroughly encouraged and enriched by the fellowship before, during, and after.

First Baptist Church just celebrated their 147th anniversary (from 1865!) last week, is located at 6701 Ringwood Rd., on the northwest end of Oxford, Ohio, the home of Miami University. I've worshiped numerous times with this family of faith, in their previous location on Vine St. in Oxford and their current facility, occupied since 2006, and have never failed to be blessed and uplifted by them and by the presence of God in their midst.

A Free eBook About Pastors

Charles Edward Jefferson was born in Cambridge, Ohio, and graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1882. He graduated from Boston School of Theology in 1887, and was called in September of that year to the Congregational Church in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He left there in 1898 to become the minister of the Broadway Tabernacle in New York, where he remained for thirty-one years, becoming pastor-emeritus on his retirement in 1930. He served just two churches in his lifetime.

Shy and retiring, he was renowned for his simple and straightforward preaching. Yet in this book he calls pastors to view their primary role not as preachers but as shepherds of the flock of God. He describes the work of the shepherd: to prod, provide for, and protect the sheep. He also writes of the pastor's two greatest temptations, and shows how they may best be avoided, and concludes the book by encouraging pastors to seek the reward promised to those who shepherd the flock with gentleness and faithfulness.

The free ebook can be downloaded here.

Help for the Preacher

The Lord always helps me when I preach, provided I have earnestly sought Him in private. A preacher cannot know the hearts of the individuals in the congregation or what they need to hear. But the Lord knows; and if the preacher renounces his own wisdom, he will be assisted by the Lord. But if he is determined to choose a subject in his own wisdom, he should not be surprised when he sees little fruit resulting from his labors (George Muller, from The Autobiography of George Muller, p. 32).

Fully Alive

I already knew Ken Davis was a funny man. I've heard him speak. I especially like his "Dunkin Donuts" story. So I expected his new book, Fully Alive: A Journey That Will Change Your Life, to make me smile, even laugh.

It did that. But it did much, much more than that.

Halfway through the first chapter, I was in tears--and not from laughter. I was moved. And it wasn't the last time, either.

I identified with him when he spoke of his "manatee moment." I loved his story of his three-year-old granddaughter praying for him. I was inspired by his account of Olena's adoption. I cried again when he told the story of his daughter Traci, who stopped telling him, "I love you," at the age of thirteen. And, throughout, I was motivated to live more fully alive for the rest of my life.

Perhaps most importantly, before I finished reading Fully Alive, I knew exactly to whom I'd be passing the book...and its life-changing message.