What Does It Mean to Be a Prophetic Church?

What does it mean to be prophetic? The word is thrown around a lot, but depending on which circles you run in, it means something quite different. If you’re in the charismatic crowd, being prophetic means speaking the ‘now’ word of God— bringing ‘fresh revelation’, and possibly even doing it in a way that is spontaneous and disruptive to the plan or the schedule. But if you run with justice-oriented Christ-followers, being prophetic is being bold, confrontational, and possibly disruptive not to a plan but to an order, a societal framework. How could the same word have such different connotations? What can we recover from the Biblical roots of the prophetic role?

In the Old Testament, two words are used to describe the prophet. The earlier of the two is the word ro’eh, which roughly means, ‘the one who sees’. Later, the more common word used for a prophet is nabi, which can be loosely translated as, ‘the one who speaks’, particularly, on behalf of another.

A prophet is one who sees a different world, and says a different word.

Specifically, a prophet is able to speak a revealing word because he sees something others don’t, something hidden to others. This is why the woman at the well in John 4 called Jesus a prophet– he revealed the truth about the number of men who had married and abandoned her. And this is why Paul is a prophet– because the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed to him. If we bring all this together, we can outline a sketch of what it means to be a prophetic church.

A Prophetic Church…
1. Sees Jesus as King and His Kingdom arriving here and now.

One of the major themes in the Old Testament is that the Creator-God is the King of His Creation (many of the Psalms praise God in this way). When we read the first few chapters of the Bible through that lens, we begin to understand that human beings were created to reflect the wise and loving rule of God the Creator-King into His creation. This is what having ‘dominion’ means. Yet, the fall was a rebellion that forfeited that privilege.

Until…the True Adam came as the world’s True King. When Jesus announced His Kingdom mission in Luke 4, He quoted Isaiah 61, where the anointing of the Spirit is the empowerment to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner, and more. In Luke’s ‘Volume 2’— the Book of Acts— the Spirit is poured out on the Church so that this Kingdom mission can continue.

Paul argues through his letters in different ways that the Church participates in the Kingdom by confessing Jesus as ‘Lord’— the true sovereign of the world— and by living under His reign by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is at its prophetic best when it lives in a way the would make no sense unless Jesus is King, and His Kingdom really were arriving here and now. That is why a prophetic church does not divide up evangelism and miracles and justice. We see them as a threefold cord. A prophetic church announces the forgiveness of sins, healing for the sick, and justice for the oppressed in Jesus’ name.

2. Speaks the truth to power.

Our image of the prophet has to be shaped by the Old Testament’s regard for Moses as the greatest prophet in Israel. We don’t usually think of Moses as a prophet, but when we do, we understand that part of the prophetic call is speaking truth to power. In that light, Nathan’s rebuke of David and Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel all begin to make sense. Sometimes the prophet does the truth-telling through the voice of lament, as Jeremiah did.

Thus Jesus is prophetic not only because of His revealing the marriage history of the woman at the well, but also because of His confrontations with power. When Jesus overturned the tables of money-changers in the Temple, and when He defied Pilate— by reshaping his questions, refuting his claims to power, and even by refusing to answer— He was living out the prophetic vocation by speaking the truth to both religious and political powers. (Paul echoes these behaviors in his conversations with various religious and political rulers in the latter half of the Book of Acts.)

The early Christians were not killed because Christianity was a religion Rome did not like. Rome welcomed any and all religions, but they were particularly threatened by Christianity. Why? Because Christianity made a radical, new and exclusive claim: Jesus alone is the Lord of all, worthy of worship; all other gods must be renounced as false. Rome viewed this as a dangerous belief. And every time the Church gathered to worship, there were speaking the truth to power by confessing Jesus as the True Lord– using terms Caesar had applied to himself as political propaganda– and thus declaring the gods of Empire as false.

Every time we show the gods of our age to be false, and expose their claims as a lie, we are speaking the truth to power. We denounce the lie that economic prosperity is the source of joy, that sexual pleasure is the highest end of every relationship, that violence is the path to peace, that a people-group or nation matters more than another. Sometimes our voice is the voice of proclamation and confession; others it is the voice of lament. Both are forms of prophetic truth-telling.

3. Signposts toward the future.

Activism has many appealing qualities. It is better than doing nothing; it unites and mobilizes people toward a common cause. It can raise awareness and even adjust a widely-held cultural paradigm.

And yet, activism is not the same thing as being prophetic. The Church does not care for the poor or feed the hungry or speak for the marginalized for the same reason an activist does. They may be in the same march or use the same hashtag, but the Christian is motivated by something different than the activist. The Christian is not in this— ultimately— to create change or to solve problems. If this were so, then a Christian may weigh the odds of actually changing a situation before speaking up or acting. A Christian is driven to act and speak because she has seen a different future. Remember: a prophet says a different word because he sees a different world.

Every time the Church ‘welcomes the stranger’, forgives an enemy, shows mercy to the offender, or protects the vulnerable, we are a signpost to the future. We don’t do these things to be a good humanitarian or to solve a global crisis. We do it to point toward the day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, on earth as it is in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away, when suffering is no more.

Now more than ever, we need the Holy Spirit to help us live as a witness in the world of a different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom, arriving on earth as it is in heaven. May God give us the grace to live as a prophetic Church.

Building the Currency of Trust, Pt. 2

This is a follow-up post to the previous one on the ‘Currency of Christian Leadership’. In that post, I made the case that the Old Testament model of leadership was based on a kind of ‘divine right’ to rule. The ‘man of God’ ascended the ‘mountain of the Lord’, received the ‘word of the Lord’, and came and told the people what to do. But in the New Testament, because every believer has the Spirit of the Lord not just ‘upon’ them but ‘in’ them, the ground is level in terms of access to God and to His word. The authority to lead within the New Testament church seems to come from trust– when a person’s gifts and callings are evident to all, and their character has been tested, they are set into a particular office of leadership.

So the question is…

How do leaders earn the currency of trust?

There are many ways of answering this, and different words may refer to the same concepts or core ideas. But in my mind…

Trust is the result of transparency, consistency, and kindness.

Transparency.
By transparency, I don’t mean that we tell everyone everything. I simply mean that we don’t try to hide things from people, and, where appropriate, we give them access. Take the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15– the most pivotal staff meeting in all of church history. The key leaders from both Antioch and Jerusalem were there. Each spoke freely– and sometimes strongly. Then James, the trust leader of the group, made a decision that was, in his words, a judgment call. Then, the decision was clearly communicated– it was written down!– and personally delivered— Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch with members from the Jerusalem church who stayed for a few days, long enough to pray, prophesy, and encourage the church in Antioch. It’s also worth noting that the very contents of the council were disclosed to all– which is why we can read about in Luke’s volume 2, the Book of Acts!

As often as we can let people into the process, we should. Even if they aren’t weighing in on the decisions, it can be helpful to let them know what what into the decision. Provide context. Admit the limitations of your logic or even of the decision-making process. Acknowledge the inherent risks. Give them space to wrestle with it and to process it on their own. The worst thing to do is to keep people out or in the dark, and then try to serve up some spin or to try to manipulate them into feeling how you want them to feel.

Thus, transparency = humility + vulnerability.

Consistency.
Nobody likes to be boring, but a certain measure of predictability is associated with being trustworthy. For example, the faithfulness of God is likened to the surety of the rising sun. The sun does the same ole predictable thing every day (more or less!), and that is a sign in creation of the dependability and faithfulness of God.

For leaders to gain trust, their responses need to be consistent. We can’t say ‘Yes’ one day to a certain kind of thing, and then ‘No’ the next day to that same sort of request. They can’t change course every year, chasing a new trend or fad in church life. This doesn’t mean that we can’t listen to the Spirit or discern new vision or direct a new course. We can and must do those things. But it must fit within an overall framework of consistency. Paul’s frustration with Peter (as evidenced in Galatians) was that Peter would act differently around Gentiles depending on if members of the Jerusalem church were around! Paul thought it would cause confusion and instability to Gentile converts– and that it demonstrated a lack of integrity on Peter’s part.

Thus, consistency = reliability + integrity. 

Kindness.
I chose this word because, for one, a leader may be transparent and consistent, and still not good. Psyco-pathic serial killers can be the first two things! Kindness is not ‘niceness’; it’s a Christ-shaped kind of love that manifests in forgiveness that flows from a tender heart toward others.

Paul, writing to the Ephesian church, urges them to work toward unity with one another by being ‘kind, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ Jesus’ forgave them. If we want people to trust us, we have to show them that we are safe places for their questions, fears, doubts, and disagreements. If every time a person raises a question or expresses a concern, we shut them down and tell them to just ‘submit’, we may gain power, but we won’t win trust.

Thus, kindness = tenderness + safety.

One final question that might come up: How does a leader who is new to a community gain trust when they are given a position first?

First of all, there is nothing wrong with placing a person in a position of trust before they’ve had time to earn it themselves. This happens all the time, and to some degree it happened with Paul after his conversion. It took Barnabas vouching for Paul before the church began to trust him.Which leads to the second thing…

When a new leader is placed in a position of leadership before they have earned the trust of the people, they are borrowing the trust of established leaders. When I first arrived at New Life, I was allowed to lead worship before people really knew who I was. But the worship pastor at the time, Ross Parsley, was implicitly vouching for me by placing me up there. I was conscious that I was borrowing his trust– the trust that the church had in him. That meant I was a steward of the currency that he had earned. Let me say that again: A new leader is a steward of the currency of trust that the established leaders have earned. So, steward it well. [See ‘Figure A’ below (like my fancy sharpie drawing?)]

Figure A

And, work hard to earn trust for yourself. After all, the best case scenario is when you have earned the trust of new people that the established leaders never had, and in doing so expand the sphere of trust for the established leaders. [See ‘Figure B’ below]

Figure B

 

Anyway…these are just some musings paired with a really bad sharpie sketch. And again, there probably a half dozen other ways to say the same thing. I welcome your input as you wrestle with these ideas.

The Currency of Christian Leadership

 

Where do leaders in churches and Christian ministries gain their authority to lead?

It is tempting to simply say, ‘From God!’ There is, of course, some truth to this. All authority ultimately comes from God, and Scripture tells us that all who occupy positions of official authority do so because God allows it.

And yet, there is more to the situation. Romans 13 refers specifically to government authority. What about the authority to lead the people of God? Is the model of spiritual leadership different from general organizational leadership? And even if we would say that it is, the question is where do we look for our model of spiritual leadership?

Over the years, I’ve heard church and ministry leaders protect their power by admonishing others not to “touch the Lord’s anointed”– which they took to mean never challenging their authority. They squashed dissent and took control by using the Lord’s name…quite nearly in vain. Strangely, all the Biblical justification they used for their right to power was based on an Old Testament model of leadership.

Not everything from the Old Testament is different in the New, but leadership underwent a severe overhaul. A leadership mentor insightfully pointed out to me almost ten years ago that in the Old Testament the man of God went up to the mountain of God to get the word of God and then came down and told the people of God what to do. Think, Moses.

But in the New Testament, we are together a Kingdom of Priests; each of us has access to God, and the Spirit of God living within. A Kingdom of Priests was God’s original intent; it was the people of Israel who were afraid and refused, begging Moses to go for them. This inclination to have someone else in charge surfaced generations later when they pleaded with God, “Give us a king!” God wanted to be their King, to have each of them follow Him. But they refused. Strong human leadership is easier; it’s more convenient, and far more efficient. Just put someone in charge and let him delegate authority down.

Consider how the New Testament church appointed leaders. 1 Timothy 3 contains the New Testament guidelines for elders and deacons. Here is just one line from the long list of qualifications, and this is one for deacons:

“A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and household well.” (1 Tim. 3:12, NIV)

Follow me for a minute: Who was the best and greatest king of Israel? No brainer– David. Every other king is measured against David. Because of God’s love for David, He wouldn’t punish Solomon for his sins during his own lifetime. Even the best of the kings of Judah that followed couldn’t hold a candle to David. He was the greatest.

Yet David would not meet this New Testament qualification to deaconship. What did deacons in the New Testament church do? Remember Acts 6? Deacons were appointed to wait on tables to help with the care of the widows. Wait a minute. You mean David would not have been allowed to wait on tables in the New Testament church? Yup.

The greatest leader in the Old Testament would not have qualified for the lowest position of leadership in the New Testament.

Why?

In the Old Testament, leaders got their authority to rule from “divine right”; in the New Testament, people get their authority to lead from earned trust. Every one of the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and even in Acts 6 when they chose the first 7 deacons has to do with trust. What kind of reputation do they have? Are they known for servanthood? Are they known for being people of wisdom, full of Spirit of God? Have they been tested? Do they have the abilities necessary? (Paul says specifically, “able to teach”.) He doesn’t ask if they’ve been prophesied over as children or if they have a calling on their lives or if they believe they are called to be a prophet to the nations or even if they’re anointed. He asks what sort of reputation they have. In essence, can they be trusted?

Trust is the currency of leadership in the New Testament era.

There are authority structures even in the New Testament church. It’s not spiritual anarchy. The church in Jerusalem was led by a council of elders, the head of which appears to be James. Authority is not a bad word. The question is how God wants to establish that authority publicly in the Church. From the examples in Acts and from Paul’s writings, the process seems to be as follows:

  1. God works in an individual’s life, giving gifts and the desire for leadership.     
  2. The individual gains the people’s trust by a servant’s heart, solid character, and by faithful and skilled service.
  3. The established leaders lay hands on him/her in front of the people, confirming his/her calling and setting him/her in office.

It is tragic irony that the Church so often resorts to an Old Testament leadership model, and not the one pioneered back in Jerusalem in the 1st century.

All authority comes from God; but leadership over others comes from the trust of the people.


How do leaders gain the trust of their people? More on that in Part 2 HERE.

How the Past Can Rescue the Present

At the start of new year, most of our attention is focused on what lies ahead. It’s really one of the few times we take our eyes of the present moment and begin to imagine the future. My wife and I love praying and planning for the season ahead.

But I also love studying the past. I’m not a history buff, but I enjoy learning about previous eras, particularly of church history. As a pastor, I am often comforted in knowing that the Church has faced challenges and dilemmas like the ones in our day before. We can learn from both the mistakes they made and the wisdom they displayed.

There are two types of snobbery when it comes to a view of time. There is the snobbery of progress— what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. It is the belief that everything newer is more evolved, more enlightened, more advanced or sophisticated. This is a temptation precisely because there are aspects of it that are true: we know more about how the human brain works, how addictions occur, how spirituality integrates holistically with emotions and actions; and on and on. But not everything current is an improvement. The passing of time is not the same as progress. And, as Lewis pointed out, a culture or society may forget what it once knew.

The second kind of snobbery is the snobbery of nostalgia. This is the view that everything older is better; that the more historic the thing is, the richer it is. The way things used to be is automatically assumed to be better than the way things are. This view fails to account for the problems and flaws of every paradigm, or the challenges in every age, or even the way an allegedly abstract principle is actually deeply shaped by the context of its geography, politics, and more.

So, why does the past matter? Why study it if its not actually better than the present? Why can’t we just concern ourselves with the ‘now’ work of God? Once again, C. S. Lewis offers an insight:

“…we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.”

Just as a person “who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village,” so the person who “has lived in many times” is “in some degree immune from the…nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

We study the past so that we do not become prisoners of the moment.

We study the past so that we can call into question the assumptions of our age.

We study the past so that we can gain an immunity from the myths of our day.

And so I press on…backwards to go forwards, free of the myopia of the moment. My current quest for chronological context includes reading this gem from Larry Hurtado (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh) on the unique qualities of early Christianity in the midst of both Jewish and pagan contexts.

Here’s one of the passages the struck me recently:

‘It is interesting that these pagan writers [in the first few centuries of Christianity] typically refer to Christians as dissonant and out of step, and as in tension with the larger culture of the time in some matters…Tacitus [the Roman writer around 112 AD who wrote on Nero’s accusations of Christians] claims that under Nero’s orders “an immense multitude” of Christians were arrested, who were convicted of “hatred of the human race,” and then were subjected to various forms of death.’

Huh. So, no matter how loving and kind Christians try to be, we still may be accused of being out of touch with the times (on the ‘wrong side of history’) and hateful? Well, now, that may challenge our paradigms.

But the rap on Christians in the first few centuries wasn’t all bad. Galen, a physician in the 2nd century, expressed ‘admiration for Christians, particularly for their courage in the face of death [not that the admiration for their courage was not a reason to rescind the death penalty!], their self-restraint in matters of sex, food, and drink, and their “keen pursuit of justice”.’ So, no need to tone down our admonishment of Christians today to embrace both a comprehensive view of justice and a temperate view of morality.

And yet, it may not be enough to keep people from viewing us– as Celsus the late second century pagan writer viewed early Christians– as ‘intellectually inferior people’.

There is so much more in Hurtado’s book that encourages and challenges me. And I think that’s the point: we need to study the past to see our own age more clearly.

We cannot compare the present to the future because we do not see the future clearly enough to know the implications of our theories and hypotheses. And we cannot live in the past as if the world remains unchanged. We must make two moves– the move to acquaint ourselves with the Church in previous eras, and then the move to see our own context with fresh eyes, and discern the Spirit’s work in us, here and now.

Better Sex, the Subjugation of Women, and Shades of the Real Thing

I’m blushing. I don’t write like this. I don’t like to talk like this in public. But when the public conversation is about a book and a movie that celebrates a kind of sexual expression, it is time to put a certain amount of shyness aside.

Before going further, I want to say that I know how people will view the response of Christians to this movie: Typical! Of course those prudish, old-fashioned nagging Evangelicals don’t like a movie about sex!

But while Christians are often vocal about what to boycott and what to ‘take a stand for’, we haven’t been the best about saying why. And in the few blogs I’ve skimmed from Christians, there is a lot of ‘Please just don’t go see it’ or ‘This is sin!’ talk going on.

So, this is my reluctant attempt to add to the dialogue by highlighting three things Christians affirm about sex, intimacy and our deepest longing:

1. Christians believe that the secret to better sex is not more erotic pleasure but more and truer intimacy. If you think that that the key to better sex is increased erotic pleasure, then any way of increasing erotic pleasure is something we should consider. This, by the way, has been the unstated presupposition of many Christian sex books, which are full of advice on how to spice up the marital bedroom. Christian readers have only paid attention to when to have sex– after you’re married!– and failed to recognize that these Christian sex-experts have the same faulty premise as a secular world: better sex comes from more pleasure.

But the Bible’s premise is actually quite different: better sex comes from more and truer intimacy. Sex is a physical enactment– the embodiment, if you will– of the one-ness between man and wife. (There is, of course, something to be said here about how the covenant of marriage is the only thing strong enough to protect and preserve the deep vulnerability that is necessary to develop intimacy.) As their lives have been made one and are becoming one– the ‘now and not yet’ of marriage– so sex becomes stronger and more meaningful.

2. Christians believe that all intimacy is the result of a mutual yielding, not one-side domination. When real intimacy and not raw erotic pleasure is the goal, you can never end up with abusive sex or sexual violence. The reason we detect contradictory voices in our culture– ‘Stop domestic violence!’ ‘End the subjugation of women’ and yet ‘I love “50 Shades”!’– is that we are thinking through the lens of pleasure and not intimacy.

Before Paul ever says a word about husbands and wives in his letter to the Ephesians, he admonishes us to submit to one another. Intimacy is the result of a mutual yielding. For two people to get close– friends, lovers, or even teammates and colleagues– each must give a little. Each must surrender a part of who they are for the sake of the other. This isn’t to be taken in a cold, contractual sense. It is the essence of self-giving love. The perfect picture of this is the Trinity, where personhood is not diminished but cherished as a result of mutual self-giving. A culture enamored with a picture of ‘love’ that looks like erotic pleasure from dominating or being dominated is one that has lost any sense of self-giving love.

3. Christians believe that sexuality awakens a thirst only spirituality can quench. Many of the Church Fathers linked the erotic language of the Song of Solomon to the church’s worship as the ‘bride of Christ’. (I know: you’re going to have to rethink your opposition to what you’ve dismissed as ‘all that Jesus is my boyfriend stuff’!) They saw baptism as a kind of wedding ceremony and the Eucharist as a kiss from Christ.

All this may sound strange, but they– and many Jewish rabbis before them– knew something we have forgotten: there is a link between sexuality and spirituality.

Actually, our culture is aware of this link as well, they’ve just inverted the relationship. See, for example, the popular song, ‘Take Me To Church’, which uses the language of spirituality to describe the experience of sexuality. It’s like Song of Solomon in reverse.

Here’s the point: sexuality awakens us to a deep thirst– the longing to be fully known and fully loved– which only spirituality can quench. This is why even before talking about mutual yielding, Paul the Apostle spoke of being filled with the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God who fills those who belong to Christ, who communicates to each believer their deep belovedness in Christ, and who reminds us how fully we are known and how deeply we are loved.

There are a whole lot of people whose thirst for intimacy has been awakened. They are more aware of a longing to be known and to be loved this weekend than perhaps at other times. Beyond boycotting a movie, Christians can be the ones who speak loudly and lovingly about the only place where we are fully known and fully loved: in Christ.

Forget Following Your Dreams

Follow your dream. Write your story. Live an epic life.

I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it.

This has long been the fodder of daytime talk shows and popular self-help books, but when did Christians start talking like this? When did we create conferences, ministries and enterprises out of teaching people to discover their dreams and craft their lives in the pursuit of them?

This was not how the people of God used to make sense of their lives and of their purpose.

Nehemiah sat and wept when he heard the condition of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah said the word of the Lord was like fire shut up in his bones.
Jesus was moved by compassion.
Paul was constrained by the love of Christ.

Not one of these were peering into their heart, tapping into their dreams and longings, and then projecting them outward into a plan for action.

Was Augustine following his dream when he gave up his career for a life in service of the church? What soul-searching, script-writing technique was Francis engaging in when he renounced his wealth and devoted himself to rebuild the church? Was Cranmer pursuing his passion when he refused to recant his convictions before being executed? Whose dream was Hudson Taylor chasing when he sailed to China?

‘Dream’, of course, can be a slippery word. What do we mean by ‘dream’?

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream…but if you listen to the content of that dream— and pay attention to his life as a whole— it was more like a prophetic imagination, a vision of a world not yet visible, of a Kingdom still arriving. It didn’t arise out of a restless boredom from spending too many hours in a cubicle. His ‘dream’ was not anything like the thing to which our use of the word refers. I can’t help but wonder if the ‘dream’ rhetoric in our day isn’t just overly self-conscious and semi-public angst-filled musings.

Vision’ is not much better. Hijacked by a corporate culture fixated on maximizing every opportunity, ‘vision’ can be overly goal-oriented and results-driven.

Passion’ gets closer, mostly because its roots are in the notion of suffering, particularly suffering for the sake of another. After all, whenever we begin with ourselves, we are off on the wrong foot. Purpose is often discovered in service of another.

A word that is missing in our day, a word that brings to bear a whole set of virtues largely absent from the ‘dream’ rhetoric, is burden. Burden implies a weight, a weight that someone else placed upon you. Burden is not what you asked for but what is being asked of you. Burden is not thought up or dreamed up. Burden burns.

The rhetoric of dreams has helped us find the courage to take risks. That’s a good thing. But risk-taking in itself is not a virtue. No one, from Aristotle to Aquinas, would have seen it as one. Taking a risk is implicated in virtue if the telos— the goal— of that risk was virtuous. If one joined a battle to defend a vulnerable village and it involved taking a risk, the goal was virtuous, therefore the act was virtuous. But to make risk-taking in itself a virtue is lunacy.

So while the rhetoric of dreams may have led us to find our courage, there are other virtues we need. We need to recover the virtues of faithfulness— even in the mundane; we need the virtue of selflessness, so that we can sacrifice and serve. These virtues help us not only to create but also to preserve, not only to start but also to stay. Such virtues do not arise from the current rhetoric of dreams; they are the result of surrendering to a burden.

My prayer for you is not that you will have big dreams; it is not even that you will take the risk to follow your dreams; and it is certainly not that all your dreams will come true.

My prayer for you is that you will be gripped by a holy burden, that there will be a fire of the Spirit raging within your bones, that you will be moved by compassion. Dreams can make fools who rush into action; burdens make prophets who weep and fast and pray.

My prayer is that you will not make heroes out of dreamers, but that you will contemplate the saints who lived and died under the weight of a holy burden.

May you never set out to find your life; may you always be led to lose it.

My Favorite Reads of 2014

As 2014 comes to a close, I’m thinking about the books that inspired me, enlightened me, challenged me, and fired my imagination this year. I must add the qualifier, though, that these are not necessarily books that were released in 2014; this was simply the year I read them.

Faith and Culture
“How (Not) To Be Secular” by James K. A. Smith

Eminent Oxford chair of philosophy, Charles Taylor, wrote a tome (900 pages!) on how we got to be the ‘secular age’ that we are (in the West), and what it means for people of faith. It’s said to be a landmark work but remains largely inaccessible to the average person. Enter, Jamie Smith, philosophy prof at Calvin College. In a tenth of the length (90 pages or so!), Smith gives us the basic overview of, and a critical engagement with Taylor’s work. The result is that pastors can now understand a bit more about the world in which we are trying to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel.

Favorite snippet: The ‘secular age’ is like a playing field above which the dome has been closed, but everyone is so consumed with the game on the field that no one even asks about the stars. (In other words, we aren’t preaching to people who already feel a “God-shaped” void.)

Theology
“Evil and the Justice of God” by N. T. Wright

I’ve read (just about) every one of Wright’s ‘pop’ level books, which, as it turns out, still require some serious thinking. I’ve also read significant sections of his thick academic books. I have to say, this is pretty darn good summary of some of his best (and least controversial) ideas. Academics will quibble with the sweeping statements and broad brush strokes with which he paints the biblical narrative, but for the layperson, this is just what we needed. The book gives an outline of the ‘new problem of Evil’, a description of what God in the Old Testament did to limit and contain Evil, how Christ took the weight of Evil (its force and its judgment) on Himself, and how Christians live (and forgive!) in light of this reality. Readable and concise, it’s the perfect book to start with for those unfamiliar with Wright.

Biblical Studies
“Reading Backwards” by Richard Hays

How do the Gospel writers use the Old Testament? Do they read ‘scriptures’ as predictive prophecies? As a failed ‘Plan A’? How would a ‘figural reading’ open up new horizons of understanding? Written from a series of lectures given by Hays, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, there are insights on each of the 110+ pages that are enough to fuel a dozen sermons. Hays works through each Gospel, showing how each Gospel-writer’s use of Old Testament language and imagery articulate their belief that in Jesus YHWH has come to Israel at long last. There is some technical (academic) language and a fair amount of Greek, but not so much as to be ignored outside the academy. Trust me: this is a preacher’s treasure trove.

Worship and Liturgy
“Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy” by Melanie C. Ross

You wouldn’t expect a professor of liturgy at Yale to give an even-handed defense of ‘free church’ (read: non-denominational) ecclesiology and worship expressions, would you? That’s more or less what Ross does. She refuses the well-worn critiques by academic liturgical snobs (my word, not hers!). Yet, she names the flaws of the free church movement and its worship practices, in part by rightly tracing its roots to the Frontier Revivals. Her inclusion of two chapters based on her in-depth field work with two non-denominational churches (non-mainline denominations) add texture to her argument. The result is a promising bridge that gives us language for conversing across the ‘camps’ and opens the door to mutual learning.

Sociology (ish)
“Watching the English” by Kate Fox

This is just plain fun. I read it (or most of it) for two reasons. One, my sociologist supervisor (I have two supervisors for my doctoral research– a theologian and a sociologist) said it’s a fascinating example of ‘participant observation’, a technique employed by anthropologists and sociologists– and one I’ll need to learn for my field work next year. Secondly, having traveled to England 8 times in the past 16 months, it not only helped me understand my professors and peers, it gave me a good chuckle every time I read it.

Fiction
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

OK, this is where you either love me or hate me, or at least get concerned about my salvation. Here’s the deal: I started reading these books this year because I wanted to see if we’d ever want our children to read them. And because I needed something to keep the ‘reading muscle’ in use when the ‘grappling with tough theological concepts’ muscles were tired. I viewed it as a low-weight, high rep workout for my noggin.

What I discovered is an extraordinary work of literature that belongs among the best ‘world-making’ like Tolkien’s books. (Baylor lit prof Alan Jacobs agrees.) Furthermore, the arc of the story bends toward the great themes of sacrificial love and courage, which, of course, reminds me of another Story. (Tim Keller agrees.)

For those concerned about the ‘magic’, a few notes:

Anyway, the fun for me was reading many of these books whilst on a train from King’s Cross station in London up to school in Durham, where many of the scenes from the first few movies were filmed. So, will I let my children read them? Probably. But when they’re a lot older– since they don’t have to wait a year for each book now.

Alright. Those are some of my favorite reads from 2014.

How about you?