Last week, thanks to some honest conversation with my wife and a few others, I realized I’ve been dealing with a bit of low-grade depression: still functional, but not functioning well, as my life was growing more out-of-balance. By God’s grace and the encouragement of those close relationships, I’ve been trying to get back on track over the last few days, but the struggle I’m having right now is about expectations–specifically, the expectations of others.
One of my most consistent worries is that I’m letting people down. I know everyone struggles with that from time to time, but it’s one of those things that I constantly have to check myself on. And the last 4-5 days have really been rough in that regard, because I’ve made some mistakes, missed some deadlines, or failed to follow-through on things that were expected of me (some expressed, some assumed).
At my lowest last week, I confessed to my wife how much I felt like I was letting everyone around me down and how I was feeling like a failure. What she reminded me of, and what I later heard reaffirmed in my reading and in Scripture, is that even when I’m struggling to meet expectations, my identity is not changed.
That’s a big truth that I have to hang on to on a regular basis: who I am is not what I do. Who I am is not what people think of me. Who I am is not ultimately based on me.
The Bible talks about born again believers being “in Christ,” which is an idea we don’t talk enough about in Evangelicalism. We can acknowledge it cognitively, but I don’t think we (maybe I should just say “I”) do a good job walking out what that means practically.
This is still something I’m working on and working through. But the baseline is this: no matter what I do, no matter how successful or unsuccessful I am at accomplishing my goals or executing my resposibilities, my identity must always be fully located in the fact that I have been washed, sanctified, justified, and glorified by Jesus. I am His disciple. I’m adopted by God and I am a co-heir with Jesus of the inheritance that awaits me.
So when I struggle to hit deadlines, when people are disappointed, when I just can’t get things right, I don’t give up hope or stop trying. I work and I strive, but I do so because it honors my God, not because I’m trying to earn or maintain my identity as a hard worker, dependable pastor, or exemplary husband and father. Those things are noble goals, but they must be located outside of my secure and unmoved identity in Christ.
So maybe a question you can consider today: What is your identity, and where does it come from?
Because the answer to that question matters an awful lot more than we realize.
One week of working from home in the books, and honestly, it’s been really great. Yeah, there have been challenges, and sometimes the temptations toward distraction lure me away from getting my work done.
But the best thing about working from home so far? I get to see my family a lot more. I can walk downstairs at lunch and eat with my girls. Sometimes, my wife brings our baby into the office and sits her down in a chair facing me for a little while so that she (my wife, not the baby) can take care of our toddler or knock out some church admin work. So, naturally, my productivity slows as I make faces as my sweet little one. And when quitting time hits, I’m not faced with 30-45 minutes of commuting–just a quick walk down 15 stairs.
Of course, things get a little hairy when you have little ones and are working from home. As evidence, I present what might well be one of my top-3 all-time favorite Twitter threads (click the link to dig in, it’s all gold):
Tell us about a young child but say “my co-worker” or “my friend’s co-worker” instead of their name. (Because, you know, this is reality now for some of us.)
Ex: My co-worker asked for yogurt and is now crying because I gave her yogurt.
If you keep checking back (and I hope you do), you may well find me getting a little stir crazy if this keeps up for a few months. But for right now, I’m feeling pretty good. And no offense to my office-mates, but I’m really enjoying hanging out with my current coworkers.
So my encouragement to you, dear reader, whether you are free to get outside and maybe go pick up food from your local restaurant (if so, please do and support your local businesses!) or you are sheltering in place (hang in there, California!), I hope you’ll take a moment and find five things to be thankful for, no matter what your circumstances are.
God has been generous to us, even if our current circumstances are challenging. Thank Him for His gifts, and enjoy them with gratitude.
I know this is something most people face from time to time, but for some reason, our block attracts the noisiest of neighbors. When the family across the alley who held block parties moved out, the family that moved in picked up where they left off. Though people come and go, the one constant is they all generously share their playlist with everyone in the neighborhood. Several times a day.
The neighbors on the side nearest the street have a really impressive stereo system in their detached garage. Even with the garage completely enclosed, the bass from their sound system reverberates throughout the entirety of my house. No exaggeration; the “thump thump thump-thump-thump” of whatever hip-hop artist they are enjoying reaches the farthest opposite corner of our upstairs. No part of the house is safe from its pulsating presence.
Most of the time, I get the privilege to ignore it, because I’m at work. My wife just endures it since she’s here at home all day. It doesn’t wake up our little ones during naptime, so she just ignores it.
Now that I’m working from home for the time being, I’m having less success ignoring it.
I went over and asked them to turn it down yesterday, which they did immediately, no issue. But it’s back up today, full-blast, rumbling through the wall as I’m trying to edit. Apparently they thought it was a one-time request.
Why do I bring this up? Two reasons:
One: In this time of unusual challenge, we’re all going to be a lot more uncomfortable than we like. It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna get worse, in all likelihood. And that means that we get to practice using forbearance. Do I like hearing the bassline of my neighbor’s stereo? Not particularly. Is it harming me or my family in any way? No. It’s a little thoughtless on their part, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. If it means not alienating a neighbor I don’t know that well and probably should get to know a bit better, then fine. I’ll just turn my podcast up louder. The way we bear with one another’s burdens, the way we show patience with other people’s thoughtlessness, will exhibit what’s really in our hearts and where our peace and hope is found.
Two: It reminds me to take a moment an consider what my “loud stereos” are. Because I’m sure there are habits of mine that annoy those around me. It would probably be a good idea to be mindful of that. Being home for an extended period of time is a blessing, but it also disrupts the rhythm of our household, and I know there are things I do (or forget to do) that get on my wife’s nerves. The more I’m mindful of that and try to address those issues, the better “neighbor” I can be to the woman under my own roof.
In conclusion, be neighborly. Turn down your stereo. Pick up your dirty clothes. And pray that God would show you how you can love the people around you well. Even when they are blasting you with bass.
I think part of the reason I haven’t blogged consistently in the last few months is because I have been waiting to post something insightful and grand. I had this idea that I needed to transition into being this Serious Blogger and eventually Serious Author, so I needed to step up the quality of my writing. But I don’t need to do that right now. Right now, I think I just need to write.
This is probably just going to be a season of quick hits and short pieces. I still hope to make it worth reading for you, dear readers. I don’t plan on falling back into the “online diary” format I used in years past. But this next month or so may be a “priming the pump” period for the blog–short observations, anecdotes, recommendations for stuff I like. Hope you enjoy it.
Thank you for the opportunity to enjoy your free website / newsletter / social-media platform / app.
I find its content to be enjoyable / informative / amusing / life-changing, and was looking forward to enjoying it indefinitely at no cost to me personally. However, I was surprised and slightly concerned by a recent trend on your platform: suggestions that I should join your club / become a member / pay for additional access / join your Patreon / support you financially.
Really now, sirs, this is rather unseemly. Do you honestly believe that, after offering me worthwhile content at zero cost for mere months / years, you now expect me to help support your efforts / make your enterprise financially viable / allow you to pay your volunteers / help you offset the debt you incurred to start this venture?
Not only that, but I’m further alarmed by that fact that you are now limiting how much content I can download / receive by email / view on your site. After all these months / years spent giving you my minimal / half-hearted / devoted support, you are now putting the screws to your loyal readers / subscribers / listeners. And for what? A few measly dollars a month? Are you so petty, sirs?
I have been a loyal supporter, sirs. Not with actual dollars, naturally, but through my social media support–all my many clicks, likes, shares, and retweets. That’s valuable currency in this day and age, and I think should be more than sufficent payment in exchange for full and unrestricted access to your entire library of digital content, despite my infrequent and distracted use of it. Yet here I am, in digital West Berlin as it were, on the other side of your infernal paywall.
At any rate, I am writing to inform you that while I will not be supporting your art financially in any meaningful fashion, I am nevertheless quite disappointed that you have decided to sell out your principles and ask for remuneration in order to feed your family / provide healthcare for your children / pay off your crippling student debt / finally achieve your dreams of being a creative professional.
It’s people like you that give a bad name to the creative arts. For shame, sirs! For shame!
–Most People on the Internet
NB: I will still be subscribing to your free newsletter / podcast / blog for the immediate future, but I expect you to keep providing the same level of content output as before. Otherwise, I may have to snark about you on Twitter. Neither of us want that.
This week, I wanted to share the transcript of a sermon I preached about a month ago at a nearby Baptist church–a church that my home church is considering merging with in the near future. That congregation is made of mostly older adults (as opposed to our church of mostly young families), so this sermon provided a unique opportunity to focus my message to their particular church family. I hope it encourages you.
Greetings from the believers at Baptist Church of the Redeemer. It is a privilege to be back here with you, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. Our text for the morning is Psalm 71, so please turn there if you haven’t already.
It didn’t occur to me until it was pointed out by one of our elders that I would be the first man up after your pastor’s retirement last Sunday—no pressure! But as I was considering what to preach today, I realized that what I wanted to do most was to encourage you that our God is faithful in every season of our lives and every season of the life of our churches. My prayer is that you will see this clearly today.
If you are taking notes, you can break this sermon down into 3 sections: 1- The Security of God’s Protection (v. 1-6); 2- The Testimony of God’s Faithfulness (v. 7-16); and 3- The Witness of God’s People in their Later Years (v.17-24).
Number One: The Security of God’s Protection (v.1-6)
Let’s take a look at the first 6 verses of Psalm 71.
In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! 2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me, and save me! 3 Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man. 5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. 6 Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.
While this psalm is not directly attributed to David in a notation (as other psalms are), it does mirror the language of other psalms of David, which leads commentators to think that it was likely penned by David, sometime between the middle and (more likely) latter years of his life.
Notice right off the bat the personal language here: God is not some distant and unapproachable being. No, David proclaims that YHWH, the Lord God of Israel, is his refuge, his fortress, his God. He calls on the faithful, covenant-keeping God to uphold him in the face of wicked men and enemies who want to see him fall.
David asks God to deliver him because of God’s own righteousness—for the sake of God’s own name. We see this later in the history of Israel when God tells his wayward and rebellious people in Isaiah 48 that He will preserve them and deliver them for His own glory, even though they’ve broken His law. How often do we deserve God’s righteous punishment for sin, and yet because of His great kindness and mercy, He holds back from letting us be destroyed?
Look particularly at verses 5 and 6.
5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. 6 Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.
Consider for a moment David’s history: before he was a king, he was a shepherd boy who defended the flock against a lion and a bear. He was the brave young man who faced down the taunts of a giant in front of two standing armies. He withstood the jealous rage of King Saul, who sought repeatedly to take David’s life because he was anointed to be king over Israel instead of Saul’s son, Jonathan. Surely when David says the Lord is his hope and his trust ever since his youth, he’s thinking of these events and more!
Beyond that, though, David says that God was there from before his birth—that it was God who “delivered” him by His providence from the darkness of the womb. As Spurgeon writes, God has been faithful to David since before he was born. God knows who are His, and He cares for them. In the perilous hour of birth, God is present and cares for both mother and child.
Spurgeon goes on to call us to consider that childbirth is a daily miracle! Although each person fulfills their assigned role (the mother, the doctor, the midwife or nurse), yet it is God who carries us out of darkness and into light. What a beautiful metaphor this is for salvation. As Jesus told Nicodemus during their late-night conversation, you must be born again if you are to see the kingdom of God—born of the Spirit. While God does use human beings as his means of proclaiming the Gospel of salvation, it is God who brings us from death to life, God Himself who is the author of salvation. As Jonah proclaimed from the belly of the great fish, salvation belongs to the Lord!
So how do we respond to such gracious Divine care, from the very beginning of our existence? In Matthew Henry’s commentary, he writes about this section: “The consideration of the gracious care which the Divine Providence took of us in our birth and infancy should engage us to an early piety and constant devotedness to His Honor. He that was our help from our birth ought to be our hope from our youth. If we received so much mercy from God before we were capable of doing Him any service, we should lose no time [now that] we are capable.” In other words, as soon as we can consider God’s faithfulness to us from the earliest moment of existence, it should compel us to love Him and follow Him in all things. How can we respond any other way?
If you’re here today, and you don’t follow Jesus, first, I’m glad you’re here. And I want you to think on these things: God has given you life, breath, and all good things. Yet, because we are born rebels, we break God’s law as soon as we are able to do so. We are, all of us, sinners by nature and choice. Because of this, we are all deserve God’s righteous condemnation. Yet, because God is patient and merciful, he didn’t destroy us instantly, but instead has provided a way for sinners like you and me to be declared not-guilty, washed clean, and made brand new—and this is only through Jesus, the Son of God, wholly God and wholly man, who lived the perfect life we couldn’t live, and then died in our place, paying the penalty of our sin, fully satisfying God’s righteous wrath against us, and 3 days later, rising to life again, demonstrating that Jesus is Lord and King over all things, including death, and that His sacrifice satisfies the just judgment of God.
If this good news of Jesus is something new to you, or if you want to find out more about it, please come talk to me after the service.
Let’s look at the next section.
Section Two – The Testimony of God’s Faithfulness in All of Life (v. 7-16)
7 I have been as a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge. 8 My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all the day. 9 Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. 10 For my enemies speak concerning me; those who watch for my life consult together 11 and say, “God has forsaken him; pursue and seize him, for there is none to deliver him.”
12 O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! 13 May my accusers be put to shame and consumed; with scorn and disgrace may they be covered who seek my hurt. 14 But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more. 15 My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge. 16 With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.
Notice in verse 7, David says he has been a “portent” to many. Your Bible may translate that a bit differently; some versions may say “sign” or “marvel” or “wonder.” All these words point to the fact that this believer in the one true God is a bit astonishing to the people around him. In fact, God’s people are always going to be distinct, strange, perhaps even a bit unsettling to nonbelievers. “You mean, you actually believe all that? You really think that God is there and listens to you? You’re willing to do what? To go where? Are you crazy?” Peter writes in I Peter 2 that the church is to be a people of God’s own possession—or as the King James translates it, a “peculiar” people. In I Corinthians 4, Paul writes that God uses the righteous persecution faced by the apostles as a spectacle for the world, for men, and for angels—a testimony to all who see them of the power of the Gospel. Or, as Paul would say later in II Corinthians 2, those who are following Jesus bear the aroma of death to the unbelieving world. The church stands as a proclamation of God’s great mercy to those who would be saved, but a proclamation of God’s coming judgment to those who refuse to turn from sin and believe in Jesus.
How does David respond to God being his refuge against those who gawk at him? In verse 8, he says that his mouth is filled with God’s praise and glory all day long. Verses like this challenge me to ask: what is my mouth filled with? More pointedly, what is my social media profile filled with? Is it praise to God, or anxious worry and frustrated clamor? (Should I save that question until after November?) There is no room for murmuring or backbiting when your mouth is full of praise. As James says in James 3, a fresh spring shouldn’t produce salt water.
Take a look at verse 9 and following. [read 9-11] David is asking God not to abandon him in his twilight years. In Charles Spurgeon’s “Treasury of David,” a rich commentary on the Psalms, Spurgeon reminds us that the world casts off its elderly, but God never does; even those who are weary and infirmed are held fast. If we look later in Israel’s history, to the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah 46:3-4, we hear God’s reassurance to the remnant He will save from His people Israel that He will not change—from birth to death, He will still be their God.
3 “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; 4 even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.
David’s cry to God is that He would not abandon His servant in the twilight years. He says that his enemies are surrounding him, waiting for God to abandon him. This is sometimes the way of this sinful world—godless men try to prey upon older folks, to stoke their fears, to deceive, to try to get them to slip up. David here expresses a concern that many people have. But look how David responds, after pouring out those concerns to God.
12 O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! 13 May my accusers be put to shame and consumed; with scorn and disgrace may they be covered who seek my hurt. 14 But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more. 15 My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge. 16 With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.
David prays like a child in the dark, reaching for His father’s hand—and I don’t think there’s one of us who is too old to do that: to call out to our Father in need and desperation, trusting him to answer. David asks His Father to turn the accusations, attack, and shame back on those who would do him harm. Rather than being crippled by worry about the threats of his enemies, David says in verse 14 that he will choose to hope in God and praise Him more and more! Instead of giving in to fear, David defies those who seek his destruction by doing what? Proclaiming God’s faithfulness. Testifying of what he has experienced of God’s salvation and righteous works. Their number, he says, is beyond calculation.
I love verse 16: “With the mighty deeds of the Lord God, I will come.” David brings his testimony of God’s power and faithfulness into battle—his greatest weapon is praise. He carries the testimony of God wherever he goes. And don’t miss this—what he’s bringing isn’t human wisdom or philosophy, but the pure testimony of someone who has experienced firsthand what God does for His people.
I have to stop here and remind you: Church, you have that, too. You have a story. You have a testimony of how Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sin, how He brought you from death to life, how He made you a new creation. You have testimonies of how God has been faithful time and time and time again. No matter what the world brings against you, no matter what the Enemy accuses you with, no matter how age or sickness or suffering may try to take away your hope—you come bearing the mighty deeds of the Lord God. Don’t forget that. He has done great things among us.
In preparing for this sermon, I was reminded of the story of an early church martyr named Polycarp. This was around 155 AD, under the Roman emperor Trajan. Polycarp was an old man, perhaps in his late 80’s to mid-90’s, who was still serving as the Bishop of Smyrna (a coastal city in what is now modern-day Turkey). He had been a friend and student of Ignatius, another church leader who had been martyred some years earlier. It happened that a group of believers who had been rounded up, had refused to deny Jesus, and were put to death had infuriated the bloodthirsty pagan mob because of how they boldly proclaimed Jesus was Lord, all the way to the end. The mob then cried out for Polycarp to be arrested and killed—he was known in that region as being a pastor and church leader. Polycarp’s congregation urged him to hide from the Roman soldiers, but after several close calls, he turned himself in. The Roman official gave Polycarp a chance to recant, since he was so advanced in years. The official said, “Just say ‘Away with the athiests!’ and you can be released.” The Romans called the Christians “athiests” because they denied Roman gods. Polycarp then turned to the Roman crowd and shouted “Away with the athiests!” After this, he was told to curse Christ and swear by the emperor, and he would be freed. Here’s how Polycarp responded: “For 86 years I have served Him, and He has done me no evil. How can I curse my King who saved me?” The Romans threatened Polycarp with being burned at the stake, and he responded that this fire will last a moment, but the fire of Hell is eternal. As he was about to be burned, Polycarp prayed aloud, thanking God that he was deemed worthy to join the martyrs and suffer with Jesus.
An old man—a man that the world would have passed over without a thought—stood firm and proclaimed the mighty deeds of God, and his testimony still rings out almost two thousand years later.
Let’s move on to the final part of the psalm.
Section 3 – The Witness of God’s People in Their Later Years (v. 17-24)
17 O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. 18 So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. 19 Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? 20 You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. 21 You will increase my greatness and comfort me again.
22 I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. 23 My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed. 24 And my tongue will talk of your righteous help all the day long, for they have been put to shame and disappointed who sought to do me hurt.
Again, David recalls God’s faithfulness throughout his life and asks God not to forsake him, so that he can proclaim God’s might to the next generation. See, David understands that in his later years, he still has a mission to complete. I think this is the same mission for all of us, when we reach this stage of life: our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to proclaim the goodness of God to those coming after us.
As we see so many fall away over the years of their lives, we must marvel in gratitude over God’s preserving grace as we grow older. Those whom God saves, God keeps to the end. David had seen what happened to Saul when he turned his back on God in disobedience. David’s desire is to continue proclaiming God’s goodness, even as age and infirmity may limit him. He wants to train the next generation to follow God, just as he was trained. This makes it all the more important that older saints never stop being disciples first, and never stop learning all they can about the Scriptures. When you do that, like David, you can delight in God’s righteous character and deeds, as we see in verse 19.
In verse 20, David notes that God has “made [him] see many troubles and calamities.” Because we know that God is sovereign over all details of our lives, we can say with confidence that whatever we have to face in life, we know that God is in control of it. We can further say with Paul in Romans 8 that God is using all of these experiences—even the most painful ones—for His glory and our ultimate good, to make us more like Jesus. So, like David, we can say with confidence that God has brought us through “many dangers, toils, and snares.” But God is still faithful, and he will revive us again. And here’s the thing: there may come a day, if the Lord tarries, that we will each face the final enemy, death. But even then, we can echo David’s words in verse 20: “From the depths of the earth, you will bring me up again.” This is the hope we have as believers in Jesus Christ. Because we have repented of our sins and trusted in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, just as He was raised back to life again, we know with confidence that God will bring us up again from the depths of the earth, and that on the last day, we will be raised to glory.
So how do we respond to these great truths? The way David does: we sing. As one pastor said, “redeemed people are singing people.” When we meditate on how God has been faithful to us since birth, and will be there to carry us when we breathe our last, we can respond with singing, with shouts of praise, and with testifying of God’s help all day long.
This is the exhortation I want to bring to you this morning, College Park: remember what God has done for you; recall His mighty works; look to Him to hold you and guide you into the next chapter of your life as a church; and never stop proclaiming His goodness.
And if I may add, specifically for those of you who are in your later years, who perhaps have known and served the Lord a long time: we need you. We need your faithfulness. We need your testimony. We need your wisdom. I say this for myself, as a man who has been married for less than 6 years, with a toddler and an infant at home: I need your prayer and your counsel. I need to hear your stories of God’s faithfulness.
And whatever happens in the next few months with this potential merger, I want you to know that you, brothers and sisters, are not done by a long shot. God still has work for you to do for His Kingdom and for His glory. So be ready to step into what comes next.
Let me close with one more story: As I was preparing for this sermon, I was using that Matthew Henry commentary, as I noted. It actually belonged to my grandfather. As I was flipping the pages, I found his old American Legion membership card (he served in the Navy during the Korean War). He must have been using it as a bookmark. It made me laugh because I do the same thing with business cards or random scraps of paper. My grandfather was a middle-school teacher by profession, but he was also an ordained Baptist minister. For decades, he and my grandmother would gather a kids’ Sunday School class and Vacation Bible School in the large basement of their home for the local children in the neighborhood who didn’t have any other church influence in their lives. He would pick them up every Sunday morning in their minivan, and then drop them off afterwards. Not only that, but my grandparents were faithful members in their local church and served well into their retirement years. My grandmother still plays piano and organ when she can make it to church. My grandfather eventually developed Parkinsons, which would slowly take his mobility, his speech, and finally his life, a little over a year ago.
I bring this up because as I looked at that American Legion card, I was reminded of a few things that disease and age could not steal from my grandfather. First, illness couldn’t take away his legacy of faithfulness. That card was updated less than 10 years ago—which means that even as he was likely starting to feel the effects of the disease, he was still studying the Scriptures. He was still a disciple. The last time I saw him, a few years ago, even as he had trouble speaking the words, he told me he wanted me to take whatever I wanted from his theological library, to use in my own studies. I relied on his commentaries to help prepare for this sermon. But more than that, all the way to the end, my grandfather was a man of prayer. Over and over, he and my grandmother reminded us that they prayed for us every day. The greatest gift an older saint can give to their family and their church is the gift of prayer.
Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in the faith—pray for those of us who are following behind you. Tell us your testimonies. Proclaim God’s faithfulness to each new generation, so that we all will stand together in wonder, praising our faithful God as one people.
This book may be an early candidate for top-five reads of the year, because I think it’s one of my favorite books of the last few years. Ferguson uses an event from church history called the Marrow Controversy in the 18th century as the springboard for a discussion of the key theological ideas involved: the relationship between grace and works, assurance of salvation, and the believer’s union with Christ. Every time I sat down to read a bit more of this book, I came away encouraged. Ferguson’s insightful commentary on the facets of this semi-obscure theological debate helped me to sharpen how I think and speak about the love of God in Christ Jesus. I would strongly, strongly encourage you to pick this one up.
This slim volume of baseball essays by Bart Giamatti, former Harvard president and commissioner of Major League Baseball until his untimely death, is a quick and delightful read. Giamatti’s command of imagery and metaphor was masterful. His essays, especially the most famous entry “The Green Fields of the Mind,” are like rich dark chocolate for the lover of words–roll it around on your tongue a bit, read a few lines out loud, savor the sound of them. Even if you don’t like baseball, you will appreciate the deft and delicate intricacies of Giamatti’s writing.
On an unnamed island ruled by an oppressive regime, random things are suddenly outlawed and immediately begin to disappear and be forgotten. So begins the plot of Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, and when I first heard the concept, I immediately put the book on my library hold list. In the end, I found the book to be enjoyable but not as moving as I had expected. I’m not sure if that’s due to occasional stilted writing (perhaps an issue of translation from the original Japanese?) or because it felt very self-consciously *literary,* and I find myself enjoying high-brow literary fiction less and less lately. In any case, the concept is intriguing, and the climax of the book is quite unexpected as it dips its toe into urban fantasy. If you’re interested, it’s worth your time.
If you are a Christian of almost any tradition, you were likely taught the “Lord’s Prayer” (a/k/a the “Model Prayer”) at some point in your theological training. Many of us who grew up in the church have recited it from early childhood. This level of familiarity might often cause us to gloss over this short but powerful prayer without considering its ramifications. In this fine little book, Dr. Mohler works through each phrase of the prayer and spells out some of its world-shaking implications. The writing is very accessible and approachable, and while some of the content may seem like review, it’s all worth reviewing. The things we’ve known the longest are often the things we need to be reminded of most often.
Truth be told, this isn’t the type of book I’d have picked up in years past. It’s only on my shelf because it was a giveaway book at last year’s Southern Baptist Convention, and you know how much I love free books. Obviously, being a lay elder at my church makes a book on church budgets a bit more meaningful to me than it would otherwise; much more so that I providentially have this book on my radar as our church is potentially merging with another local church, so the discussion of church budgets is a pertinent one for us. That said, I was surprised how much I enjoyed and benefitted from this short and practical volume.Even if you are “just” a church member in the pews, I think you’ll also benefit from Dunlop’s thoughtful discussion of the “why” of church budgets and his framing of how our church budget shows what our local church values. I definitely recommend this one, especially for anyone involved with church finances or who is interested in thinking through the topic.
There you go, folks. My first five completed books of the year!
What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments below!
Hey y’all! Wanted to drop another short post here with some recommendations for podcasts I enjoyed through the month of December and am eager to keep enjoying into the new year! Here we go!
American Elections: Wicked Game— This podcast by Lindsey Graham (the creator behind the podcast Terms, not the congressman) begins with the question: Was there actually a “good ol’ days” before partisan rancor dominated American presidential politics? (In a word: no.) Each week, AE:WG explores the history of presidential elections, covering each election in order from 1789 to 2016 (leading right up to the week before the 2020 contest in November). I’m 4 or 5 episodes in, and I’m loving this. It’s well-produced, well-researched, and engaging. While I have to assume that there will be some perspective-shading when we get to the more modern elections (because there always is, no matter who’s writing it), I hope it’s this enjoyable all the way through. You can bet I’ll be eagerly listening to find out.
The Redeeming Productivity Show — Reagan Rose hosts this look at how our theology must necessarily guide our desire for productivity. In one of his earliest episodes, Rose details how even the most popular productivity and efficiency gurus today all have an ideological and even theological underpinning, and he encourages his listeners to consider that everything–even productivity–is shot through with theology. This podcast is quickly becoming a favorite. If you’re interested in the productivity/efficiency/creativity space like I am, put this one in your podcast feed.
The Twilight Zone Podcast— I’ve been a fan of The Twilight Zone since I was a kid, but it’s only been in the last year that I’ve gotten to enjoy Tom Elliott’s episode-by-episode recap and analysis. If you grew up watching TZ and want to revisit some favorites, I’d encourage you to check out Tom’s podcast and download those episodes. Not only is his soothing British accent a auditory pleasure, but he provides some thoughtful analysis and helpful behind-the-scenes research to enhance your appreciation of Rod Serling’s masterpiece. Tom’s just finished his analysis of Season 3, and is gearing up for the somewhat-controversial fourth season of TZ. I’m excited to hear what’s in store.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones Sermon Podcast— I was first exposed to Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones about 10 years ago, but it’s really been in the last year that I’ve come to appreciate The Doctor’s preaching. It’s sometimes described as “logic on fire,” and rightly so. While his delivery may seem stiff at times, especially at the beginnings of his sermons, his passion for the truth explodes in his preaching. What I most appreciate is that no matter when he preached the sermon (anytime from the 1950’s to the 70’s or later), he doesn’t use too many contemporary analogies or illustrations, and his messages thus become more timeless and applicable. I’m so thankful that the MLJ Trust has preserved this treasure-trove of audio teaching for later generations. It’s well worth your time to check it out.
Fiction Podcasts — Okay, this last one is a cheat, but I’ve just recently started listening to fiction podcasts again. This is essentially the resurrection of the old-time radio serials of the 1930s and ’40s, but in 21st-century form. There are some really fascinating audio dramas being produced and released for free (with commercials) in recent years. I’ve downloaded 3 or 4 podcasts to check out but not yet listened to enough to recommend any of them fully (like Welcome to Nightvale, Blood Ties, and Dust, a sci-fi anthology show). The podcast I mentioned earlier (Terms by Lindsay Graham on the Wondery Network) is an excellent bit of political intrigue that sadly has only seen one season produced–and was left on a cliffhanger! All that to say, if you haven’t yet checked out serialized story podcasts yet, you should look around for some. While there are sometimes content concerns for sensitive listeners, there’s a whole world of options out there for you to enjoy.
What podcasts are you enjoying most, as you head into 2020? Recommend your favorites in the comments!
It’s a yearly tradition, so I can’t resist. Here’s a quick list of the books I finished* in 2019:
[*Since I always have several books in-progress, I count finishes and not complete reads in my yearly lists.]
>>Somewhere The Band is Playing – Ray Bradbury (novella)
>>The Tech-wise Family – Andy Crouch
>>Them – Ben Sasse
>>All Things for Good – Thomas Watson
>>Family Shepherd — Voddie Baucham
>>R.U.R. – the brothers Cajek (play)
>>Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>The Gospel and Personal Evangelism – Mark Dever
>>Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport
>>Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View – Wingard, Eliff, Chrisman, Burchett
>>Understanding the Lord’s Supper – Bobby Jamieson
>>Evangelism – Mack Stiles
>>Mortal Engines – Phillip Reeve
>>Forever and a Day – Anthony Horiwitz
>>The Dichotomy of Leadership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>Civil War: Spiderman – various (graphic novel)
>>The Spy who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre
>>Family-Focused Faith – Voddie Baucham
>>Competing Spectacles – Tony Reinke
>>A Murder of Quality – John LeCarre
>>The Looking-Glass War – John LeCarre
>>What is a Healthy Church Member? – Thabiti Anyabwile
>>Side by Side – Ed Welch
>>Enjoying God — RC Sproul
>>Deep Work — Cal Newport
>>Bad Blood – John Carryrou
>> Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John LeCarre
>> Fellowship with God – Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
>>The Go-Getter – Peter Kyne
>>Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual – Jocko Willink
>> The Apostles Creed – Al Mohler
>>Prayer – John Onwuchekwa
>>The Church – Mark Dever
>>Essential Readings on Evangelism – SBTS
>>The Need – Hannah Phillips
Did Not Finish (DNF)
August – Watchmen: The Annotated Edition – Moore/Gibbons (While the annotations were fascinating, this critically-acclaimed graphic novel was just too dark and depressing for me to enjoy, so I bailed about a quarter of the way through.)
Total Read: 35, including a novella, a play, and a graphic novel
The Split: 11 fiction, 24 non-fiction (16 specifically theological books)
Most Read: John LeCarre and Jocko Willink, each with 3; Mark Dever, with 2
Top Five Recommendations from My 2019 Reading:
Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin — This memoir/motivational book by former Navy SEALs sounds a little more Rex-kwan-do than it really is. Willink and Babin use real-world military experience as metaphors for best-practices of personal responsibility and individual discipline. While the book is very intentionally geared toward the business world (both men are now corporate consultants in their civilian careers), the ideas and insights are definitely applicable. Willink’s follow-ups are also worth a look, if you appreciate his style of writing, but this one is the must-read of his work.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John LeCarre — LeCarre is rightly considered one of the best spy-genre writers of the 20th century, and this story is one of his best, full of intrigue, betrayal, love, deception, and a moving consideration of the toll that even cold wars can take on the conscience. It’s not as flashy as one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, but it’s certainly more thoughtful and substantial. The ending of Spy will stick with you long after you turn the last page. If you haven’t dug into this genre of fiction, this one is a great entrypoint.
Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport — I’ve written about his one pretty extensively already, so I won’t rehash it here. Suffice it to say, this one is a book that I’m glad I read and took summary notes on, because I want to keep coming back to Newport’s idea of intentional, limited digital technology use as a way to limit the negative effects of social media and online life.
Bad Blood, by John Carryrou — I don’t often read current-year exposes or true-crime non-fiction, but I first heard about the fascinating freefall of Theranos on a podcast early this year, and the story intrigued me enough to want to dive further in. Carryrou is a reporter who first broke the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, one of the biggest scams in American medicine and technology in the last few years. He details the story of this brilliant young woman whose charisma and drive to succeed helped her to perpetuate a multi-million-dollar medical research scheme that eventually exploded in her face. Some of the events are so outlandish as to defy belief in even a fictional account. I really enjoyed this one. You will, too.
Competing Spectacles, by Tony Reinke — I’ve written about this one as well, so I’ll just reiterate that this book is an important one for our visual and digital age, because it not only addresses the artifice of digital spectacles, but it focuses on how it affects our hearts and souls as people made in the image of God. This theological aspect is something missing from many other analyses of the affect of screen culture on human life.
And as it happens, Competing Spectacles is the free audiobook for the month of January over at ChristianAudio.com, so if you are interested in checking it out, you should head over and sign up to get your free download. (No sponsorship/affiliate link there–I just found out about this today and wanted to share!)
What was the best book you read in 2019? Let us know in the comments!
After a [checks]month-long break[seriously?], I’m back in the saddle and ready to re-engage.
December was…full. Good–but full. Work demands were high, church demands were a bit high, and honestly, I really wanted to reconnect with my family more. That was my “theme” of the month that I wrote down in my snazzy “Monk Manual” journal (I’ll have an update post on that sometime this month): the theme of “Connection.” So I focused on connecting with my family and friends.
This month’s theme? “Restart.” So here I am, readers!
I passed the 1-year boundary on the #52Stories project, but I do want to finish that, so I’ll try to round that out in the coming weeks. I may or may not continue the Minor Prophets series. Let me know if you want to see more of those.
Coming Up: Later on today, I’ll toss up my 2019 Reading List because, by golly, some traditions must not be abandoned. On Friday, I’ll post a Friday Five with some podcast recommendations, so keep your eyes peeled. That’s all the blog planning I have in me at the moment. (Have you subscribed to email updates? That makes things much simpler. Check out the widget to the right or below the posts, depending upon the device you’re using to read this.)
Happy New Year! Take a walk, drink some water, do something nice for yourself, and we’ll see you in a bit.
Buckle up, gang. Here’s my “capsule-review-style” run-down of the stories I’ve read this fall that haven’t yet made it into a #52Stories post. This one may take a little while, so pack a lunch.
And I’ll go ahead and tag this with a big [SPOILER ALERT], because who has the time to be coy?
#30: “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)
The Premise: Montressor finally gets his revenge on the unsuspecting (and ironically- named) Fortunato.
The Payoff: I read this story in high school and decided it would be fun to revisit. It was…not fun, exactly, but not bad. The narrator, Montressor, begins the tale by arguing that Fortunato deserves revenge for his alleged injuries or insults, though it’s clear that Montressor isn’t looking for equal justice. He’s a madman, a villain in the truest sense, and the little we see of Fortunato gives no justification for Montressor’s dastardly plot. It’s revealed at the end of the story that this wicked deed was done 50 years prior, though the way Montressor obsesses over the slights Fortunato gave him sounds like the wounds are still fresh. While this story doesn’t have the impact of some of Poe’s more famous tales, it’s still worth a look if only to demonstrate how to give the villain center-stage.
#31: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
The Premise: A wife is made to take a long rest in a country estate…until she notices something unusual with her room decor.
The Payoff: I missed reading this story in college, but I’m glad I came back to it now. This tale of psychological horror is the story of a caged woman losing her sanity. The nameless narrator is the wife of an authoritarian doctor who infantilizes and controls his wife “for her own good.” The wife’s thoughts and feelings are downplayed or dismissed, and though she is being kept in the country house for the improvement of her health, it begins to take a toll on her sanity. What’s so effective about this story is that it’s not clear if there is actually any supernatural element to it. Gilman gives us a truly unreliable narrator, but leaves just enough doubt that you’re tempted to believe her. At one point, I wondered if her husband John was actually gaslighting her to cover up an affair, or if he was just a know-it-all chauvinist and she was losing her grip as a result. This one was wild, and I would definitely recommend it.
#32: “Something From Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman (1993)
The Premise: This charming children’s story follows the life cycle of a beloved blanket.
The Payoff: I didn’t realize that this was a children’s book until it arrived from the library. I found it to be a delight to read, both for the way the story was written and the detail that the illustrator put into each page. In this Jewish folktale, a tailor makes his baby grandson a beautiful blue blanket, and as the boy grows, the blanket is transformed over and over, becoming smaller and smaller each time. By the end of the book, the blanket is all used up and lost, but the story and memory remains, which is the final point. This is a sweet book. Pick it up at your local bookstore or library, and share it with your kids (or other people’s kids whom you know and like).
#33: “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell (1936)
The Premise: A British imperial officer stationed in Burma must deal with an elephant-sized problem.
The Payoff: In “Shooting an Elephant,” the narrator, a British officer stationed in the British colony in Burma, is forced to address the situation of a potentially wild elephant that killed a man and may need to be destroyed. This essay by Orwell may or may not be be based on personal experience, but it is surely a sobering critique of British imperialism and mob mentality. Orwell describes both the self-hatred of a soldier forced into a task he doesn’t believe in and the hatred he feels for the locals he is tasked with overseeing. Themes of racism and the fallout of imperialism loom large in this story, as the officer is essentially forced to put down an elephant that has already calmed down after killing a man, specifically because the officer feels pressure from the crowd to do so and he’s afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t kill the creature. The narration is in turns self-critical and self-pitying, and while the reader might feel some sympathy for the crowd dynamics at play, the narrator doesn’t seem to be presented as heroic or victimized. At the end of the day, he must take responsibility for his actions (morally, if not legally, as his actions are exonerated by his superiors). The metaphor for Britain’s treatment of conquered nations is transparent.
#34: “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury (1946)
The Premise: Sim is born on a planet where people live only 8 days, but he knows there’s more out there, including a possible way of escape.
The Payoff: Bradbury’s story is about a race of humans who crashed on a planet so close to the sun that their lifespan is reduced to 8 days, birth to old age. While the story is set in a far-off future of space exploration and advanced technology, the new lifespans reduce the humans surviving on this planet to neolithic cave dwellers who can only come outside for a few hours before the deadly heat or deadly cold kills them. The main character, Sim, is described as “the 5,000th in a long line of futile sons,” yet he is born with the collective memory that there might be a way to stop the aging process by escaping the planet. I have to admit, this is the second time in this project I’ve been disappointed by Bradbury. This is an interesting idea, but he doesn’t do anything with it. Sim and his mate Lyte eventually reach the capsule and survive past the 8th day. They go back to rescue others and bring them to the capsule, and the remnant of humanity escapes the 8-day cycle of birth and death. In the end, it feels like a dream. And that’s it. I was pretty disappointed, both times I read this.
#35: “A Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell (1924)
The Premise: A big-game hunter washes ashore on a private island where another famous hunter is eager to introduce him to a new challenge.
The Payoff: This story is one of those tales in which you’ve already heard the twist (General Zaroff is hunting humans!), but it was interesting to see how Connell works out the story. There’s a pretty obvious set-up at the beginning, as Rainsford scoffs at the idea that hunting is not sporting for the prey, stating that the animal has no understanding. When the hunter becomes the hunted (wah-waaah!), his tune changes. Zaroff is presented as a paradox–highly civilized yet showing no value for human life. In the end, Rainsford survives by incorporating skills and traps he learned in his big-game hunts around the world, as well as his experience in the Great War. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere as well.) His personal mantra was that he mustn’t lose his nerve, though as the prey, he now understands the fear of death in a way he hadn’t before. And while he is ultimately triumphant over the sociopath and his henchman who were hunting him, the ending is still a bit unsettling. In his vengeance, Rainsford is as much beast as man.
#36: “Lady of the Skulls” by Patricia McKillip (2005)
The Premise: Adventurers journey to an enchanted tower in search of treasure and an audience with the mysterious Lady of the Skulls.
The Payoff: This one took me by surprise, because it’s essentially a story about relationships, cosplaying as Lord of the Rings. The lady in question is a woman who was taken from a tavern (by the curse of a sorcerer) and put in an enchanted tower reflecting “the tower in her heart.” When the latest band of adventurers arrives in search of treasure and glory, she critiques and mocks their pomp and bravado. The author satirizes fantasy fiction that treats women as either set-dressing or idealized archetypes (the pure, untouchable maiden; the enchantress; the prostitute). Through the words of Lady Amarynth and the knight Ran, McKillip both critiques and employs fantasy tropes to describe how men and women idealize or vilify each other as a means of self-protection. By focusing this fantasy story on “one of those faceless women who brought you wine in a tavern,” McKillip forces the reader to re-examine the cliches of this genre and what they say about gender. I liked how this story shifted my perspective.
#37: “Raised in Captivity” by Chuck Klosterman (2019)
The Premise: A man finds himself sharing his first-class plane flight with an unexpected fellow passenger.
The Payoff: The titular story of this bonkers collection is short and to-the-point: the narrator is taking his first ever first-class flight on a business trip, and when he opens the lavatory door, he sees a full-grown puma. Once he establishes he’s not hallucinating, he has a conversation with another passenger about how this could have happened. That’s it. And while that description may not sound compelling, this story made me laugh out loud. Klosterman takes an insane premise and leans right into it. The dialogue is funny in an almost self-aware way. It’s unclear over the course of the story if the narrator’s new friend might even be in on it. I just loved this story, as well as this collection–I found myself reading the next six or seven stories, and frequently guffawing or gasping. Klosterman is a TRIP.
#38: “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” by Grace Paley (1974)
The Premise: A middle-aged woman has a romantic relationship with a non-committal cab driver, to poor effect.
The Payoff: Okay, I’ll say from the outset: I just didn’t like this one. I couldn’t really connect to the main character Alexandra. I thought Dennis the cabbie/rock-singer was a shallow jerk. It’s not a bad story, to be fair. I can see Paley’s skill; she’s not a bad writer, and the characterization was mostly effective. I just didn’t enjoy reading it. I don’t have much more to say about it.
#39: “Tower of Babylon” by Ted Chiang (1990)
The Premise: The men of earth built a tower to reach heaven, and God didn’t stop them.
The Payoff: I didn’t realize, until I saw the cover of the movie tie-in edition of the story collection, that Chiang wrote the story that became the movie Arrival (which I really quite liked). So that set up my expectations for “Tower of Babylon,” which is an alternate-history take on the Tower of Babel. In this version, the tower keeps being built until the people actually reach “the vault of heaven,” a granite ceiling hanging above the cosmos. Once they punch through, the main character finds himself carried upward in a flood of water, but instead of being destroyed by God’s wrath, he is deposited back near where he started. He later compares the physical reality of the world to a cuneiform cylinder, with the top being connected to the bottom. There’s obviously a fantastic element to this story, both in the descriptions of the tower and the resolution of the story. What surprised me was that Chiang seemed rather respectful of the Biblical source material and the discussion of God (YHWH) throughout the story. Once I realized the story was Biblical alt-history, I was bracing for the inevitable blasphemous critique of the God of the Bible. As far as I could tell, that really didn’t happen. Other than the obvious difference between the two stories, Chiang is careful to write this fictional account as ancient near-eastern folklore rather than a 21st-century satire of religious belief. This fact makes me want to read more of Chiang’s work–not because I am looking for more religious stories, but I find myself willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if he dabbles in religious themes again.
That’s all for now. Thirteen stories left in this project, with one month to go. Coming up this month: my thoughts on stories by Ambrose Bierce, Phillip Van Doren, James Joyce, Isaac Asimov, Truman Capote, Robert Heinlein (again!), Chesterton, O’Connor, Harlan Ellison, and a few others. It’ll be a photo finish, but I’m looking forward to it.
Your Turn: Have you read any of these stories? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!