May Review - A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society
by Eugene H. Peterson
InterVarsity Press, 2000 -  212 pages.   Available here

(This revised and expanded edition includes the Psalms of Ascent in The Message translation as well as a new epilogue. Also available from IVP is a companion volume, A Long Obedience Journal.)

Just the other day I was taken back to a book on the  Ascent Psalms (120-134) that I initially discovered while attending Regent College written by pastor-theologian, Eugene Peterson, called "A Long Obedience In The Same Direction". 

What took me back in my memory was a newly released online video by Fuller Studios which featured Bono from the rock band U2 joining in conversation with Peterson at his rustic home at Flathead Lake, Montana. As Bono walks the path up to their home he is welcomed by Jan Peterson in a most grandmotherly way. Immediately Eugene's raspy sage-like voice brought me back to the courses we studied on the Psalms and Spirituality.  I can literally hear his voice in my head: "There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness."

At that time Peterson was still working on putting his Bible translation together, known as The Message, which began with him translating a single Psalm afresh from the Hebrew for one person. From there he realized he had been working through the original biblical languages all his preaching life to touch our world with God's Word. He launched into the New Testament - as soon as I read it I worked at memorizing the Gospel of Mark as a one-person play. I remember Eugene graciously calling over his assistant to meet me when he heard, and how impressed he said he was - by me, a young nobody student. That is the warmth of the man.  From the rave reviews of New Testament followed the daunting theologian's task of completing the translation of the entire Old Testament. 

I can't recommend A Long Obedience enough as a classic meditation on both the Psalter (specifically the Songs Of Ascent) sung by the Jews when they would "ascend" to visit the Holy Temple three times annually for the festivals). It is also a serious call to devotional life which is at the heart of what this 'instant society' needs: an honest journey in faithfulness. 

I read in an  interview that Bono is considering getting the phrase as a tattoo, but apparently he is more concerned in living it out with his family and his art. (http://www.atu2.com/news/carla-and-bono-intimacy-is-the-new-punk-rock.html)

Permit one more sample from A Long Obedience: "Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying. And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time. It is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it. That is not hoping in God but bullying God. I pray to GOD - my life a prayer - and wait for what he'll say and do. My life's on the line before God, my Lord, waiting and watching till morning, waiting and watching till morning."

As the video unwound my heart called out for More!

More of an Irish boy and a Pentecostal boy growing up on opposite sides of the world, brought together by the Psalms – two artists moving in very different worlds sitting down to share the honesty of the Psalmist's words before God. Peterson calls us to authentic relationship with God. This is a book for modern pilgrims who want to learn to live in communion with God. Our shared task is to find common words to bear witness to the mystery of life in relationship with God. 

Comments instantly buzzed as I shared the video. "I could have listened for hours," wrote one. Another person commented that seeing them together made her cry but she didn't know why. I think it had something to do with the brotherhood between generations which bound two poets from different worlds together in Christian hospitality. She liked that. We need more shalom, that tranquil harmony that comes from the Prince of Peace himself. 

Link to the 21 minute film just released. 

http://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/bono-eugene-peterson-psalms/?utm_campaign=fuller-studio-launch&utm_medium=email&utm_source=imodules-d04262016&utm_content=bono-peterson-psalms-video

For further exploration:

Bono has since written an introduction to The Psalms, describing King David as the biblical Elvis. The man writes more than songs, he examines his soul, and ours as well.  He says, “Some nights I would half remember and invoke the Psalmists words directly over the plangent opening fanfare of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, a song which is an invocation itself. No matter how good or bad a U2 show gets, this is one of those moments when the unreliable arrival of the divine presence in the house is more, not less, likely.”

February Review - Sideswiped With Melancholy

Here's something a little different. A 2-in-1 book review: Something old and something new, something borrowed and definitely something 'blue'.

Lincoln's Melancholy - How Depression Challenged A President And Fueled His Greatness, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, and Sideswiped - Three Keys To A Fresh Start After Suffering A Broken Heart, by Michael Voll. 

One old and one new biographical exploration of brokenness; depths of the soul not well understood for many centuries. These are two stories for our time as depression is the number one disability we are facing today, ten times worse than it was 50 years ago. We're obviously not just talking about having 'the blues'.

From a young age the sensitive Abraham Lincoln experienced psychological pain and distress - and he eventually learned how to adapt and endure. First there were the deaths of his mother, aunt, and uncle due to terrible illness, the loss of his brother in infancy, a long absent father courting a new wife, then the passing of his very close sister during a still-birth delivery. Lincoln's fiancé passed away. Later four of his five children would die.

Suicidal thoughts plagued him more than once. At age 32 after a series of crises he surmised frankly, "I am now the most miserable man living." He endured a long process of trials, from whether he must die to how he must live. Here was a man who felt deeper and thought harder than most others.

When introduced in 1860 as a candidate for the presidency men threw hats into the air, shaking the hall so much that the awning over the stage collapsed; "the roof was literally cheered off the building." 51 years old, Lincoln was finally at the peak of his political career, with momentum that would soon sweep him to the nomination of the national party and then to the White House. Yet to the convention audience Lincoln didn't seem thrilled, or triumphant, or even pleased. On the contrary, said a man named Johnson, "I then thought him one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw." The next day the convention closed. The crowds dispersed, leaving behind cigar stubs and handbills - and Lincoln. The lieutenant governor of Illinois, William J. Bross, saw Lincoln sitting alone at the end of the hall, his head bowed, his gangly arms bent at the elbows, his hands pressed to his face. As Bross approached, Lincoln noticed him and said, "I'm not very well."

Often Lincoln wept in public. His law partner William Herndon said, "His melancholy dripped from him as he walked." Only in our recent generation have we been able to look back at the immense collection of literature, manuscript archives and oral histories with surprising fresh perspectives on this so-called melancholy.

Lincoln was able to identify and express his suffering as a broken person. In his mid-life he looked for ways to cope with his depression, both a time of pain and growth as he looked for greater purpose. All his suffering then began to bear fruit. As President during the civil war Lincoln drew upon his qualities to move through pain instead of avoiding it. He used his humor, poetry, his profound insight and truthful ability to look at the world as it was, his creative responses to adversity, and his humble determination in the face of great difficulty. This made Lincoln a great world leader who managed to incorporate the coping strategies he developed over a lifetime of persevering to guide America through its greatest turmoil.

Abraham Lincoln fought depression all his life, and if he were alive today, J.W. Shenk believes his condition would be treated as a "character issue" - that is, as a political liability. His condition, he insists, was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation.    

Lincoln's melancholy is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see that life more clearly, and discern its lessons. Shenk observes that: "In a sense, what needs 'treatment' is our own narrow ideas - of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be, and will be, squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain; and finally, of mental trials as a flaw in character and a disqualification for leadership."


One book is an unearthing of leadership life-lessons to be treasured; the other book, hot off the presses, traces a journey through loss and grief being lived out in the present tense.  One is a study of the diverse perspectives of depression over centuries, the other a personal faith journey through it, and not around it. 

Sideswiped-3D-image-218x3001.png

In Sideswiped we learn how Michael Voll married his high school sweetheart and entered Christian ministry as a youth pastor. Life was rolling along smoothly when suddenly things literally went sideways. A tragic single-car accident in the winter of 2001 took the life of his young bride before his eyes.
Fourteen years later, with an enlarged ministry, he has now been able to write about his journey with the goal of sharing empathy and wisdom with others who have also felt 'sideswiped' in life.


In a recent television interview, Michael was asked how we can help when someone is going through a difficult time without being hurtful. We must be careful with our words and always offer loving comfort, sometimes without any advice at all. We must commit to being there for someone over the long term. 

Inevitably, there is a process of denial, bargaining, anxiety, anger, cynicism, depression, guilt, lack of focus, sleep deprivation ... not in easy-to-predict steps, mind you. One can never tell what wave of emotion will sweep over you next, nor when it will return with vengeance. Sometimes you will weep uncontrollably, other times no tears will come when you need them. All of this can lead to what has been called PTFD or 'post traumatic faith disorder' where you feel like God has let you down. There is a much much older phrase for it, known as 'The Dark Night of the Soul'. 

It is in these times, Michael writes, that you find your true friends, your most meaningful relationships (unlike Job's so-called comforters) as love and compassion is poured out in ways big and small. Michael's stories will touch your heart and equip you to help people experiencing brokenness and not compound further harm. 
 
Sideswiped helps us understand that suffering is not absent from the Christian life. He quotes Paul Tillich: "Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith." What Michael has discovered is that brokenness does not disqualify from leadership, rather when worked through it qualifies your character as an authentic person that hurting people will truly listen to. It gives perspective, grounds you in reality; when rightly dealt with it makes one better, not bitter. Suffering produces perseverance - grit and determination.

So there is HOPE: Hold On Pain Ends. 

Michael was 'Sideswiped' twice. Once by loss, then, by the grace of God, the blossoming of a new love. Michael has had to re-learn how to do pastoral ministry as a wounded healer. Through painful experiences he can offer practical wisdom on what helps, and also what doesn't, as someone goes through the grieving process in their own unique way.

God is not waiting on the mountain-top to see if we can make it through the difficult journey on our own. He promises to be with us through the dark valleys of the shadow of death. The beautiful gifts of compassion and depth of understanding come from all the wounded healers who, like Michael, have been touched by grace.

January Review - Preaching

Preaching by Timothy Keller, approximately 6 hours reading time. 

They say, 'It takes one to know one!'  If that's so then it's probably a good thing that this New York Times best-selling author is also a pastor and  preacher.  

I went over this book three times, not because it is a 'comprehensive text' but for much the same compelling reason as Rev. Fred Fulford, who says it has helped the most of anything he has read since Bryan Chapel's 'Christ-Centered Preaching'."  Fred  estimates this to be the best book he has read on Preaching in a decade.  

Timothy Keller offers up fresh insights on communicating the essence of the Christian faith, whether it is delivered via a Sunday sermon - or a chat in a coffee shop. 

Well-known for his other solid books like, 'Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering',
'The Reason for God', and
'The Meaning of Marriage',
Keller here offers another practical resource for anyone who wants to connect the Gospel better with an increasingly secular age. 

The truth is, it isn't easy nowadays to communicate what it really means to be a follower of Christ in a compelling, life-changing way.  I agree with Keller's feeling that even pastors have difficulty applying the Bible to people's lives so that they encounter Jesus. 

In studying the 33 words translated as 'preaching' in the New Testament, Keller finds the ministry of the Word of God is not just public speaking before an audience.  Teaching and admonition can be on a much  more informal level in the home or casual one-on-one.  Citing 1 Pet. 4:10-11, the gift of speaking is broadly understood as counsel, instructing, teaching or evangelizing; Keller including today's  small groups and blogging as examples.

Not really a how-to book, Keller suggests that what takes us from good to great preaching comes from the Holy Spirit's anointing.   Central to this book is the insistence (see 1 Cor 2:1-5) that our preaching should have nothing but Jesus as the main theme, just as the early Church's preaching did, yet only with the older testament as its text.  This follows the disciple's discussion with the resurrected Christ on the Road to Emmaus who explained who He was from all the scriptures (Luke 24:27).   We must confine ourselves to Jesus but we never need become repetitious. 

We are preaching in service to the text almost desperate with love for the word and love for people, as matter of life and death. We must preach the gospel every time to the culture, with wonder at the greatness of what we have in Christ.  A saying Keller likes is 'Let the lion out!'  We don't need to overly defend our view of the authority of Scripture.  Preach, and it will defend itself. 

Contextualization is a key concept in this book. We care enough to confront, while realizing the madness of Christianity to people in the secular age.  The preacher must watch for terminology and insider language (we vs. them) of what I like to call the distraction of 'churchianity'.   The apostle Paul confronted culture and yet found catalyzing points for the listener.   Preaching must build on exposition and culminate in application laying the heart bare to Christ.  With people so highly mobile today, Keller majors on expository preaching and also offers topical preaching because we want the hearer to have as wide a range of teaching as possible.

Grace salvation works out in obedience as a loving response.  Both legalism and antinomianism reject grace. They are twins of self-salvation stemming from a belief that God does not truly  love us.  Grace is the antidote to doubting cynicism. 

But some have asked:  Is the sermon form dead?   Do we need to adapt in order to confront?  Keller urges us to find the most loving way - we both care and confront a society that is not as hostile as it is ignoring of Christianity.  Secularism has its own set of beliefs but are they largely invisible to those who embrace them.   We need to hold a light to the hidden belief web of  modernity's sovereign self.   Ultimate meaning cannot be found philosophically because the question of identity is not 'Who am I' but 'Whose am I'. He names us as ourselves, as His child.  We need Someone from the outside to tell us of our worth.  

As we call out cultural norms, we affirm and contrast with biblical themes.  To contextualize is to persuade in familiar ways.   By supplementing the biblical text with contemporary thinkers in quotations and anecdotes that reach a secular mindset,  Keller gives ample examples for the preacher to springboard from as he synthesizes multiple scripture passages with a variety of impactful quotes.  
He recommends that preachers diversify their conversation partners in order to demonstrate an understanding of disbeliefs.   This comes by listening well and acknowledging the hard questions are there. On occasion, agree to disagree in sermons. 

We are all, believers or not, shaped by our culture.  Engaging it in challenging gospel preaching equips the believer as it also witnesses to the unbeliever.  We end up doing evangelism and spiritual formation at the same time, with our audience ranging from the sceptic to the committed Christian (see Mark 4 soil conditions).
 
You can't touch hearts - the mind, will, imagination - unless your own heart has been moved:  humbled, wounded, healed, exalted.  Preaching has nothing to do with acting or manipulation.  With a well prepared and thoroughly prayed through sermon, you can then preach it and experience your sermon.  As Whitfield said, "Thunder and Lightning can never be put down on the page."  So when was the last time you heard preaching with tears of joy?  Do we evoke wonder with analogy, word pictures, and extended metaphors, putting fresh words to familiar concepts?

Keller prefers a variety of application be woven throughout by asking direct questions , warning, encouraging, comforting, urging and stirring up.  Let the text and not your temperament control.  We will at times be warm as well as forceful. 

Spiritual fruit is held up as more important to the pastor than even gift-skills.  We need true grace in operation, not mere gifts.  Encouragingly, Keller speaks of a 'compensatory godliness' whereby wisdom and love make up for shortcomings such as shyness, cautiousness, etc.  With loving boldness we can preach in humility and power. 

Beyond information, Keller describes the worshipping sermon as most complete.  It is preaching from the heart - powerfully, wondrously, affectionately, authentic - Christ adoring.   In closing a sermon the following is suggested. "You can't live like this.  But One did, and you can begin to live like Him."  Christo-centric through and through. 
 
In this accessible guide for pastors and laypeople alike, Keller helps listeners learn to present the Christian message of grace in a more engaging, passionate, and compassionate way.

November Review - Courageous Leadership

A Review of Courageous Leadership by Bill Hybels (Approximately a 9-hour read.) 

[I wonder if this title isn't 'Courageous' because Hybels submitted the manuscript to his wife to edit out all his jokes?]

Courageous Leadership is actually based on more than a 100 pages of sermons collected over all of Bill Hybels' time of "repeated challenges" at Willow Creek.  It has taken that long for this book to brew. 

Picture this book as a life-line thrown out to a desperate person dog-paddling for life in dark, frigid waters.  Or,  if you're a strong young athletic swimmer, you may figure you're going to make it on your own.   In other words, an energetic person in (a younger stage of) ministry may get bored with a book like this.  For example, I've heard that some Omega intern leaders at Summit Pacific College found it to be so with this book assignment. 

Maybe the clarion call of this book comes to the leader who's been in it for the long haul with seemingly everything on the line.  Can I go on?

Perhaps about now some of us are reading this review and thinking, I could've written that book. Well, that could be true after a few decades of leading like Bill Hybels, but the real question I'd challenge you with is, Then why haven't you?

Are you demonstrating servanthood and doing deep community?  Are you talking about the local church being the hope of the world or are you viewing things with a critical eye, with a note of bitterness?  Is your vision producing passion to mentor and equip people with new gift discoveries who will in turn build other leaders?  Are you employing strategies in your church that will help it heal and grow and develop into a vital force in your community? 

If your leadership is not all about what you've just read then I'd recommend you stop thinking about writing a book like this and read a book like this!  The truth is we all need a courageous spark to rekindle our calling. 

Crucial to all of the above, according to Hybels, is putting together dream teams of leaders with deep character, competency and chemistry.  Choose with care and lovingly invest in those who show 'street smarts'.  Coach and release people into influence.  Celebrate and reward behaviour you want repeated in your volunteers.  Try using these four powerful words: I believe in you.  

Speaking of 'courageous', Hybels recommends making a top-ten pain file to share with other leaders.  The bottom line to the importance of mentoring is that leaders learn best from other leaders.  Impressively, 75% of Willow Creek's core leadership comes from within the church.  He talks about the beauty of the Church, its power, potential and vitality to literally transform the world we live in like nothing else can. 

Hybels is about putting vision into action and boldly making others aware of the needs, especially those he described (at the 2015 Global Leadership Summit) as "afflicted with affluence".  Make your requests specific.  Invite people boldly to join in the vision.  Ask them to do something.  Many are just waiting to be asked to participate. 

Grand, God-honouring visions are at the core of ten different leadership styles described in this book.  Hybels calls for 50% of one's time to be put into self-leadership.  The focus on majors just feeds ego.  Perhaps the hardest person to lead is ourselves.  I regret at this point that he does not make more of our brokenness, with less of an emphasis on leadership strengths and a little more on knowing our limits and building up weak areas.  This kind of honesty requires not only courageous but safe community. 

The following reflective questions drawn from the book aid in self-discovery and thus self-leadership:

- Am I fasting and praying?
- Have I quieted the noise in my life and waited on God in solitude?
- Is my calling sure and my vision clear?
- Am I developing my gifts?
- Is my character submitted to Christ?
- Can I sustain my pace?
- Is my love for God and people increasing? 
... Does your love for the church need re-igniting?  How will you do that?

Without God at the centre of all we do our leadership abilities will not count for much.  Hybels uses one biblical phrase repeatedly, “fulfill YOUR ministry”; not the one you dream of  (2 Tim. 4:5).  It's not about your accomplishments, rather, it is about what you don't do.  Exercising the 'No' muscle when tempted to take on opportunities that are not your assignment is a Holy Spirit issue.  We must be listening. 

We need courage to persevere.  The context of 2 Cor. 4:17 shows our troubles to be both light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory.  How do we persevere? With our eyes fixed on Jesus' example.  He had a 3-year plan that led to the cross.  Be steadfast, immovable.  Endure, entreats Hybels, because our work is not in vain.  Soon we will see the Son who persevered to the ultimate end and fulfilled his ministry. 

Why is this book entitled Courageous Leadership?  Not because it makes a catchy title.  Frankly, it's because Hybels has seen too many drop out in failure; because it took thirty years of mistakes to make this book; because, in the final analysis, only the Church can change the world.  This is our mandate, to lead courageously.  And, if we 'stay the course' like a sailing friend instructed Hybels, we will steer out of the deep-waters image with which we began.  

Book Reviews & Summaries

An Introduction:

Look, I know you're busy and reading takes up that precious time after which many other things are clamoring.  Even as you read this you may feel too rushed to continue. Please do!   I can hardly even get a reply from some leaders about books they'd recommend without hounding them repeatedly - let alone getting them to share insights they have gleaned. Frankly, that troubles me. It makes me wonder just how much we're really reading and how widely. 

How do you explore the interior world of your life,  peer into the mist of who we really are?  Can you Google that? (Actually, I did Google how to grow inwardly and came up with a site on ingrown toenails.)  One of the best ways to grow is through studies of other lives - the flow of time over an emerging life and the wisdom that it draws out. 

We can learn a great deal from the lives of other leaders, through their study and through their stories. The way to become a better  writer, and speaker, is to read and write as much as you can.  C.S. Lewis observed that, "In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself...I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see ("An Experiment in Criticism"). 

This is not just a service to intellectual types. Stories shape us too.   I want to put that in the mix.  Reading widely is the key to enriching your life.  Put down that remote and try out a book.  Audiobooks might work well for you.  Audible.com, part of Amazon's network, has a vast selection from which to choose - especially if you are commuting or are exercising, for example.  Many of the great books were designed to be experienced out loud.  

"Read  everything  you  can— editorials,  short  stories,  histories, biographies, novels, poems, plays. The world around us is filled with words; take in as many as you can, and then give us some back."  (Prof. Dorsey Armstrong, Purdue University: 

"Analysis and Critique:  How to Engage and Write about Anything")

We welcome suggestions from your own favorite reading list.  Hopefully you are part of a reading group. This quest into good reads may give you some fresh books to pick from. Perhaps you could even start a reading group. Being a part of one has provided some of my best small group experiences.  

This will help you persevere in your reading as well as gain insights from one another.  

Our goal is to give you motivation and support in your reading.   We'll grow together because, "We're better together,"  as someone once wisely said.