Dan Allender is one of my favorite writers and speakers. His talk at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit several years ago, The Intersection of Character and Leadership, was very formative for me. I also thought he sounded exactly like John Malkovich, which is cool. Soon after hearing his talk I picked up his classic book Bold Love, devouring it with sheer delight (and holy conviction).

Somehow his book Sabbath wound up on my bookshelf, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to read it until now. This is an excellent work, and in it Dr. Allender paints a compelling vision for the keeping the Sabbath not as a boring and burdensome day of religious practice and secular neglect, but as a day full of joy and goodness. It is a radically new (for me, at least) understanding of the Sabbath.

9780849901072The question at the top of the back cover stopped me in my tracks: “What would you do for twenty-four hours if the only criteria were to pursue your deepest joy?” I had never thought of the Sabbath that way, and the very act of asking the question filled me with great fear and delight. Really? Could I really do that on the Sabbath? I thought I was supposed to be bored and useless on the seventh day? Can it really be a day full of joy, delight, and *gasp* sensuality?

The dominant image in my mind of the Sabbath is of taking a nap on the couch—which sounds pretty nice, actually. But to have permission to take a walk in the woods, to pursue photography, eat a sumptuous meal, drink wine, smoke a fine cigar, listen to beautiful music, enjoy the wonderful company of friends, and to have sex intimate times with my wife? No, not the Sabbath. Your heart’s not supposed to come alive on the Sabbath. It’s a time of fasting from life and enjoyment, not finding the fullness of eternal life on one sacred day each week.

But, according to Allender at least, I’ve been wrong about the Sabbath all my life. Look at his three basic premises of the Sabbath, and see if they don’t undo your own understanding of the seventh day:

The Sabbath is not merely a good idea; it is one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus did not abrogate, cancel, or annul the idea of the Sabbath. In the Ten Commandments, the fourth (Sabbath) is the bridge that takes us from the first three, which focus on God, to the final five, which concentrate on our relationships with others.

The Sabbath is a day of delight for humankind, animals, and the earth; it is not merely a pious day and it is not fundamentally a break, a day off, or a twenty-four-hour vacation.

The Sabbath is a feast day that remembers our leisure in Eden and anticipates our play in the new heavens and earth with family, friends, and strangers for the sake of the glory of God.

I strongly encourage you to read this book and contemplate how you can obey the fourth commandment, and in that obedience may you find rest, joy, and great delight.

Eugene Peterson’s book Run with the Horses has been around for a long time, but I didn’t pick it up until I was so powerfully struck by Jeremiah 12:5, the verse from which the book’s title is derived. This has become a bit of a “life-verse” for me, one that has struck me time and again when faced with anger or despair.

If you have raced with men on foot
and they have worn you out,
how can you compete with horses?
If you stumble in safe country,
how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?

Run with the Horses is a pastoral commentary on the book of Jeremiah. It is not exhaustive, though it covers the most significant events of Jeremiah’s life and ministry. The book is subtitled “The Quest for Life at Its Best”, which is subversive because few of us would like at Jeremiah’s life with envy. He was a melancholy outcast who struggled mightily with the weight of his calling and the resistance with which it was met. He lived through the most trying period in his nation’s history, and ultimately died an ignoble death in a foreign land.

55208498Peterson opens with an exploration of chapter 12, where Jeremiah bitterly complains about the resistance his message has met and the unfairness of life in general. God’s response is what we find in verse 5: “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”

Life is difficult, Jeremiah. Are you going to quit at the first wave of opposition? Are you going to retreat when you find that there is more to life than finding three meals a day and a dry place to sleep at night? Are you going to run home the minute you find that the mass of men and women are more interested in keeping their feet warm than in living at risk to the glory of God? Are you going to live cautiously or courageously? I called you to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence. It is easier, I know, to be neurotic. It is easier to be parasitic. It is easier to relax in the embracing arms of The Average. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not more significant. Easier, but not more fulfilling. I called you to a life of purpose far beyond what you think yourself capable of living and promised you adequate strength to fulfill your destiny. Now at the first sign of difficulty you are ready to quit. If you are fatigued by this run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities, what will you do when the real race starts, the race with the swift and determined horses of excellence? What is it you really want, Jeremiah? Do you want to shuffle along with this crowd, or run with the horses? (21-22)

That is the question, as Peterson sees it, that God posed to Jeremiah. It is the same question he now poses to us. We can get worn out by this life, bitterly devolving into a grumbling mass; or we can step outside the rat race to where the thoroughbreds run and test our legs there. “Some people as they grow up become less. …Other people as they grow up become more. Life is not an inevitable decline into dullness; for some it is an ascent into excellence.” (25) Such was the path of Jeremiah.

Peterson sketches Jeremiah’s faithfulness to God through all the horrors of his life: mockery, rejection, famine, siege, desolation, and exile. Through it all he chose to run with the horses, to not be sidetracked by bitterness or disappointment. He was melancholy, but still he hoped in God.

This is an excellent book for everyone, but especially for those pursuing full-time vocational ministry. There is much to be learned from Jeremiah’s life and ministry, particularly for those of us who would dare to speak God’s message.

I’ll leave you with some of the most provocative words I’ve ever read: “It is easier to define oneself minimally (“a featherless biped”) and live securely within that definition than to be defined maximally (“little less than God”) and live adventurously in that reality.” (22)

Greg was as involved in the life of the church as anybody. He faithfully attended services. He served behind the scenes. He was involved in a small group. He even brought his friends and helped lead some to Christ. And then he was gone. Angry. Disappointed. Deeply hurt. And now Greg is the most ardent atheist I know.

It seems that our local churches are responsible for more hurt than healing. Whether that’s true or not, there are an awful lot of Gregs out there. Hurt. Bitter. Even to the point of unbelief. I’m sure we can all think of a Greg or two in our own lives.

Stephen Mansfield’s book ReChurch attempts to address those who have been burned by churches. With humor and common sense, he offers a tough love approach for people who have been victimized by a vindictive pastor, a controlling elder board, or a judgmental congregation. Though it may not be best-suited for folks like my friend Greg, who have taken their pain and turned it into a reason to not believe, ReChurch is an excellent book for those who are in the process of dealing with their church hurt.

2cf83y8Mansfield’s approach is that of a coach rather than a counselor. He is primarily concerned with what you do now that you’ve been hurt. How do you move on from here? He gives practical advice for how to forgive those who have wounded you. He takes a common sense approach to learning the lessons of the experience and finding wholeness after. He’s tough. There is no coddling here. He doesn’t tell you it was all their fault and you’re blameless in the affair. He encourages you to look into your own heart and find your contribution to the mess.

For the victims of church dysfunction, these words may be hard to hear. When we’re licking our wounds we want to be reassured that we’re perfectly innocent. It wasn’t our fault. We were just walking along, whistling a hymn and enjoying God’s creation, when we were blindsided by a pastor’s betrayal, harsh criticism from the elders, or rejection from a key church member.

But Mansfield won’t let you go there. The first question he tells you to ask as you begin your healing process is: “Of the things your critics said, what do you now know to be true?” (67) Sure your critics were mean. But were they right? Even just a little? ReChurch is full of difficult moments like this because Mansfield is convinced that our self-justification is keeping us from redemption and restoration.

This book is not what I thought it was going to be. I expected a book about how to deal with difficult people who happen to be pastors, how to navigate church conflict, or even how to survive the realization that your church (and the people in it) aren’t perfect. Thankfully, ReChurch is about none of those things, because none of that would help you to heal and eventually re-engage in church. What Stephen Mansfield gives us in ReChurch is a long look in the mirror at our own contributions to our church-related pain and a strong exhortation to forgive those who hurt us. This, he says, is the path to redemption and restoration.

Questions: Have you ever left a church because you were hurt, or known someone who has? Where are you with that pain, now? Do you think you were justified in leaving, or do you regret it? How do you counsel others dealing with church-related pain?

Maybe I was 12 years old. Or 13. Either way, I was deeply entrenched in the most awkward phase of my life when my giant Greek youth pastor, Mike Sares, asked me and a friend to appear with him on television. Our task was to prerecord a series of introductions for Christian music videos that would play at 4:00 in the morning on the local NBC affiliate. I was extremely nervous. It was the ‘90s. We didn’t get multiple takes. It was bad. “That was great,” Mike lied.

pure-scum1Shortly after that, Mike left Toledo for Denver. I hope it wasn’t because he realized that nobody in the youth group had the potential to become an on-air personality. If I had told him then that I would go on to graduate from Ohio State with a degree in Theatre and become a preacher, he probably would have looked at me askance and said in his deep voice, “Hmmm.”

Mike’s new book, Pure Scum, is the story of Scum of the Earth Church, which he started with a small gathering of young adults (including the late ska band Five Iron Frenzy) in downtown Denver. On the back cover of the book, the bio says that Mike “was hoodwinked by the Holy Spirit into pastoring the folks who became Scum of the Earth Church in Denver”. Hoodwinked by the Holy Spirit. That sounds about right.

They call it “church for the left-out and the right brained”. They reach out to Goths, punks, skaters and the homeless in the heart of Denver. They share a meal in the middle of their church service every Sunday night. They sent out my friend Joshua and his new bride Liann in a converted veggie-oil bus/mobile home to share the love of Jesus all over the country. This is how they do church; and it’s beautiful, authentic, and life-changing.

Tim Keller’s book, King’s Cross, is the compilation of his sermon series through the Gospel of Mark. The book is divided into two parts, corresponding with the major shift in Mark 9: Part 1 is “The King: The Identity of Jesus”, and Part 2 is “The Cross: The Purpose of Jesus”. In this work, Keller has truly mastered the art of turning a sermon series into a single book. (I should say that he has given me hope that, one day, I too could write a book from a sermon series. But that’s a journey for another day.)

Tim-Keller-Kings-CrossKing’s Cross “is an extended meditation on the historical Christian premise that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection form the central event of cosmic and human history as well as the central organizing principle of our own lives.” (x) His aim, which I believe he accomplishes, is to show that the life of Jesus (and his death and resurrection) explains our lives. This theme appears again and again as, in each chapter, Keller brings the reader around to the love of God we find only in Jesus. If you’ve read any of his other recent books, you know that this is vintage Keller.

The book is truly an exegetical sermon on the Gospel of Mark. Keller never deviates from the text, but walks slowly through Mark’s Gospel with an insightful and engaging style. This is not an academic book, but as we’ve come to expect from Keller’s books, you will be intellectually challenged and emotionally broken. He has a way of speaking to both the heart and mind that is extraordinary, and is one of the marks of a truly great preacher. In fact, young and aspiring preachers would do well to study Keller’s style and work, learning from him all that they can. His books have taught me to, above all, remain Christ-centered in my preaching, no matter the text. If all of Scripture points to Jesus, then so must all of our preaching.

King’s Cross has also inspired me to preach through the Gospel of Mark from Christmas to Easter, even though there is no birth narrative in his Gospel. Shoot, I may just stand up and read a chapter a week! (Just kidding, that would be plagiarism.)

If you want to understand Mark’s Gospel or if you want to get to know Jesus much, much better, you should read King’s Cross. I would also highly recommend this book to those who don’t know Jesus, but are curious about him. While it’s not the shortest book in the world, Keller’s style is very accessible to people from all walks of life.

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