January 01, 2020

My Top 10 Books of 2019

It's been a busy year, a fact which becomes more vivid to me a I see precisely one post I've made since last year's Top 10. But I have managed to do a little reading, so I'll share some thoughts with you here.

Reading is one of those things which I never have time to do, but which is vital for the life of my mind, my emotional stability, and at times my sanity. So I make time to read. I'm not a voluminous reader, but I try to be a dedicated plodder. If you, too, are strapped for time, I commend this method to you.

This Top 10 list comes with caveats. Obviously it is limited to the books I finished in 2019, of which there were only 41. Second, I'm only allowing each author one Top 10 appearance. Third, I'm not counting in any of the books my wife reads to our family at night. Finally, if you're wondering why so few of my more biblical/theological reads crack the top ten: it's because so few are well written.

1. When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

I finished this book last night, and what a way to finish 2019. While some folks were watching the ball drop on TV, or out drinking, I sat in a rocking chair crying. Kalanithi was adept with the English language, very well read, and deeply thoughtful. These traits would have made for an interesting and enjoyable memoir, but the brutal turn his life takes, and the honesty with which he walks the reader through his experience makes for an emotional ride. His last paragraph deserves numerous re-readings.

2. The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson

In this book, Ferguson picks up what seems at first to be a dry subject: a dispute between Scottish Presbyterians in the early 18th Century. What he does with that, though, is weave a masterpiece of historical analysis, exegetical encouragement and exhortation, and pastoral guidance into one volume. I'm still not sure how he did it; but I'm very glad I pulled this volume off the shelf. The emphasis he places on preaching Christ and everything else in relationship to him rather than in abstraction from him was eye-opening for me. It made me re-evaluate the way I preach, the way I speak, the way I think, and even the way I feel as I meditate on Christ and his Word.

3. The Road, Cormac McCarthy

I've never read a bleaker novel. And yet the persistence of hope and the ferocity of love made this novel more than the black cover portends. It is dark, but not joyless. Fierce, but not unfeeling. Bleak, yes. But beautifully bleak.

4. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

Perhaps Hemingway's best known novel. Or novella, I suppose. I grabbed it at the library because I needed a short piece of fiction to read and give my brain a break from Bible commentaries and systematic theology. My brain got a break, but not my heart. It broke with every bite the sharks took. And Hemingway's prose is so punchy. I love it.

5. On All Sides Nowhere, William Gruber

Gruber is an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, who spent 7 years living up Alder Creek, in North Idaho. This is spitting distance from my roots, which is how I wound up reading this book. It was beautiful. Because of his place as an outsider, Gruber is able to see things that those of us raised in the area may or may not perceive as quirky or unusual. But rather than coming off haughty or aloof as most outsiders would in pointing these things out, he writes from the perspective of one who deeply loves the place and the people involved. 

6. The Gospel Comes With a Housekey, Rosaria Butterfield

The most uncomfortable book you will ever read. If you take the time to really consider her arguments, at least. Butterfield argues for a radically ordinary hospitality, a type of lifestyle which throws its arms wide open to those around us, spreading the love of Christ through gospel words, yes, but also through red beans and rice. Through hearts and homes that are open to loved ones, neighbors, and strangers. Through lives that don't fear the cost of love, because we love and worship a Christ who laid down his life in love for us. This is a clarion call to reorient how most American Christians live. But it isn't just prophetic, it's also practical, and Butterfield gives plenty of helpful tips and wise advice to accompany her manifesto.

7. 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup

The narrative of an African American man born free in upstate New York, kidnapped later in life and sold into slavery in the American antebellum south. So profoundly heartbreaking on the individual level, thinking about what this man and his family had to go through. But also societally. It is sobering to think that we were (not so long ago) a nation where people could be bought and sold like cattle. The amazing story of Northup's eventual rescue brings a happy ending to this otherwise grim piece of American history.

8. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

While we're focused on the grim, let's talk of Mice and Men. Wowza. I had somehow made it to 29 years old and never read this book, and was only familiar with pieces of the story. It had my stomach churning, even knowing how the end had to come. 

9. Biblical Preaching, Haddon Robinson

I don't read a lot of "ministry skills" type books (which might explain some things), but this classic is apparently a classic for a reason. I found Robinson's little text a very helpful refresher not just on the mechanics of sermon prep and delivery, but as a reminder that the preacher stands before the people weekly as a messenger of the Most High. He'd better have something to say, and say it clearly. 

I read, or rather listened, to several Twain books this year. This, as most, was of very uneven quality. Moments of brilliance. Moments of not so great. An awful lot that isn't really extreme in either direction, but makes you chuckle. However, what made this book stand out were some of his reflections on his daughter Susy. It revealed a side of Twain that you aren't going to acquire from Tom Sawyer or A Connecticut Yankee. 

Honorable Mention:

Peace Like a River, Leif Enger
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Enjoy Your Prayer Life, Michael Reeves
Unreached, Tim Chester 
Speaking of Jesus, Mack Stiles
The Superstition of Divorce, G.K. Chesterton
The Meateater Fish and Game Cookbook, Steven Rinella
Roughing It, Mark Twain
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
Whose Names are Unknown, Sanora Babb
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
Hondo, Louis L'Amour
Everyday Church, Tim Chester & Steve Timmis
With a Shotgun Behind the Door, Carl Hoisington
Connecting, Larry Crabb

Other Books I Finished in 2019:

Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
The Wisdom of Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton
Long Story Short, Marty Machowski
A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein
The Navigator, Reuben Foster
A Peculiar Glory, John Piper
Losing Your Zip, Michael Eckers
The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
What I Saw in America, G.K. Chesterton
Sackett, Louis L'Amour
Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein
Discipling, Mark Dever
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain
The Grand Design, Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock

April 15, 2019

Book Review: Unreached

Here's some brief thoughts on Tim Chester's book, "Unreached":


January 04, 2019

My Top 10 Books of 2018

I like to read. I love to read. But very rarely am I happy with the amount of time I have to read. Many people are in the same boat, so it's always fun to give my suggestions based on the previous year's reading.

I don't track what all I read in a year, given that I pick up and put down so many books. Sometimes I'm purposely dipping into a section of a longer book, or re-reading a section from an old favorite. And I start countless books and stop-either to begin again later, or to never pick them back up.

This Top 10 list comes with caveats. Obviously it is limited to the books I finished in 2018, of which there were only 28. Second, I'm not including re-reads in the Top 10, otherwise The Great Divorce would likely be the top book. Also, I'm only allowing each author one Top 10 appearance, though Tim Chester and Sherman Alexie probably deserve to appear multiple times. And finally, I'm not counting in any of this the books my wife reads to our family at night, otherwise Anne of Green Gables would be making an appearance. Montgomery is hilarious.

1. Tim Chester, A Meal With Jesus
This book was simply fantastic, and is underlined, dog-eared, and marginally noted to near destruction. Both my wife and I devoured it. (The pun wasn't intended, but it was fitting.) Do you want to be challenged to look at food and your home in ways that are more focused on the gospel and radically self-giving love? This will give you theological footing, and ideas where to get started.

2. Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well
Prior engages the classical virtues and their role in our lives via a discussion of great literature and the role it can play in forming said virtues within us. The entire book is worth reading. However, if you're on the fence, pick it up and read the chapter on Kindness. It's worth the price of the volume.

3. Sherman Alexie, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me
Sadly, Sherman Alexie has become better know this year as the one of the many famous men being called out in the #MeToo movement. Be that as it may, he remains one of the most powerful writers I have ever read, and this memoir about himself, his late mother, and their relationship is as powerful as anything he's written. For my more uptight readers, you might want to pass him over due to explicit content. But if you want to think deeply about the complex relationships in your own life, this book will stir you to do so.

4. Steven Rinella, Meat Eater
Don't overlook this if you aren't a hunter. Rinella is a man with a great gift for the keyboard. You'll think though the outdoors and the human interaction with nature from a lens which you likely haven't before, regardless of your background. And if you like a good hunting story, there are plenty of those here, too.

5. P.G. Wodehouse, Leave it to Jeeves
Do you like to laugh? Read Wodehouse. Do you want to laugh so hard your sides feel like splitting open? Read Leave it to Jeeves.

6. Charles Mann, 1491
Here is a long and sprawling book which covers aspects of history, anthropology, and lots of interesting fights recorded in a readable and journalistic style. Mann introduces readers to ideas about the pre-Columbian Western hemisphere, its peoples and climate, that a least for me were fairly unfamiliar. It did what a good book ought to do-left me wanting to know more on the subject.

7. Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych
A burning satire of the sort of life so many of us live. This was my first foray into the Russians, and was certainly rewarding enough to encourage me to pursue further adventures in their novels.

8. Jesse Mecham, You Need a Budget
Of all the books I read this past year, this might be the one which has had the most real-life impact for me. I grew up in home where money was not so much handled as waved at as it flew through the checking account. I have spent the past 10 years or so roughly repeating this cycle in my own life with various cycles of debt thrown in for good measure. I've read plenty of Dave Ramsey and Larry Burkett. But Mecham gave me a system that made sense to me and made me feel like budgeting was not only imperative, but achievable. I now have money in my bank account. This book is to thank for that.

9. J.D. Payne, Apostolic Church Planting
I've read a few books on church and church panting this year. Payne's is not wholly unique, but it is refreshingly biblical. In brief fashion, he lays out what he sees as the central tenants of church planting in the New Testament. His central insight is this: new churches should be formed from new believers. As we began our own church planting journey, I was convinced on an intellectual level that he is right. That has since moved to conviction that this is not only descriptively true, but prescriptively as well.

10. Randy Newman, Questioning Evangelism
Are you a Christian who feels a nagging sense that you ought to be more open and bold with your faith? Do you feel at the same time that dropping a Romans road in the middle of most of your conversations could be a relationship killer? Newman argues (and shows, so many examples!) a better way. What if you actually just took an interest in people, asked questions so that you could get to know them, and then were honest in your relationship and shared where you were coming from, too? What if you learned to ask questions that opened up conversations instead of shutting them down? A helpful book.

Honorable Mention:
- George Orwell, 1984
- Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult (Read it!)
- Sherman Alexie, The Business of Fancydancing
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves
- Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church (I was torn about whether this or Meal with Jesus would be the Top 10 nod)
- Jen Wilkin, Women of the Word (Good for guys too!)

Other books I finished this year.
- Luther Standing Bear, Stories of the Sioux
- Karl Wetter, Poems Along the Trail
- Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child's Garden of Verses
- C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (the 4th time I've read it; a top 2 Lewis book for me)
- John Stott, The Radical Disciple
- Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church
- Aubrey Malphus, The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting
- Shakespeare, Hamlet
- Geronimo with S. M. Barrett, Geronimo's Story of His Life
- Stephen Mansfield, Mansfield's Book of Manly Men
- Ernest Loosely, When The Church Was Very Young
- Theodore Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life

January 03, 2019

Fruitful Labor

I sat at the table, drinking my daily cup of coffee. Enjoying the treat of having cream in said coffee, I opened my Bible to Philippians 1. The pastor had preached from that chapter yesterday. Reading aloud to the four year old on my lap, verse 22 struck me.

"If I am to live on in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me."  (ESV)

In verse 21, Paul declares that, "to live is Christ, to die is gain." This is the better known verse. And in many churches we hear frequent reminders of why death is gain. "My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" (v23). But why can Paul say to live is Christ?

Because of his certainty of the truth of verse 22. That is, there are no doubts in his mind that an extension of his life would serve Christ and His church. More life equals more fruitful labor.

Is this true for me? Do I walk in that same confidence? Is my desire to live a long life tied to fleeting things like seeing my grandkids, having a successful elk hunt (someday, maybe), or having the opportunity to travel? Perhaps I could get some of those books written that keep kicking around my head. These things aren't bad. They aren't wrong to desire. But Paul is on a different wavelength.

He knows that by pressing on in service of Christ (see chapter 3), he will be doing work of value. So life, though hard, is worth it. Communicating the gospel is worth the pain of chains. Sharing Jesus' love outweighs the perils of shipwreck. The weight of caring for the churches is overwhelmed by the joy of seeing them grow. He knows his labor will bear fruit. He knows Christ will build his church. He lays hold of the promises, and he presses on. His life was one of fruitful labor. Would that mine might be as well. 

May 07, 2018

The Problem of Porn

The following are my notes from a training session I led at a meeting of volunteers for a youth ministry. We discussed the pervasiveness of porn, its devastating effects, and how to help someone struggle against this sin. Hopefully some of the links are beneficial to you, as well.

The Problem of Porn

Why Does Pornography Matter?

Pornography would matter, if for no other reason than the staggering number of people who access it regularly. Asking if pornography matters, in this sense, is like asking if Facebook matters or if cars matter. It’s important to understand simply because of its ubiquity.
  • 13% of all internet searches are for erotic content; that number jumps to more than 1 in 5 for mobile searches.
  • 20% of 16 year olds and 30% of 17 year olds have received a sext.
  • 66.5% of young men and 48.7% of young women said viewing pornographic materials was an acceptable way to express one’s sexuality, according to a 2007 study. [Note: this is before the introduction of the smartphone.]
  • While women and girls are a growing market for pornography, men are still 543% more likely to view pornography.
  • 9 in 10 internet pornography users only access free material, yet internet porn is still a 3 billion dollar per year business.
  • Among boys, 90% are exposed to porn before age 18, 83% have seen group sex online, 69% have seen same sex intercourse online, 39% have seen sexual bondage online, 32% have seen bestiality online, and 15% have seen child pornography.
  • For girls, 60% are exposed to porn before the age of 18, 57% have seen group sex online, 55% have seen same sex intercourse online, 23% have seen sexual bondage online, 18% have seen bestiality online, and 9% have seen child pornography.

The following effects are associated with direct exposure to pornography as a child or adolescent:
  • –Lasting negative or traumatic emotional responses. –
  • Earlier onset of first sexual intercourse, thereby increasing the risk of STDs over the lifespan. –
  • The belief that superior sexual satisfaction is attainable without having affection for one’s partner, thereby reinforcing the commoditization of sex and the objectification of humans. –
  • The belief that being married or having a family are unattractive prospects. –
  • Increased risk for developing sexual compulsions and addictive behavior. –
  • Overestimating the prevalence of less common practices (e.g., group sex, bestiality, or sadomasochistic activity), and developing an accepting attitude toward such.

  • Other points: long term behavior, increased risks of sexual violence, use into adulthood leading to reduced job productivity, inability to form real relationships with women...please take the time to download and read that full covenant eyes report! Also, look at a couple of the further reading articles.

Is the human brain affected by pornography?
  • The human brain is an organ that constantly is changing itself; the use of pornography “builds highways” along particular routes upon which it will want to travel again.4
  • As William M. Struthers of Wheaton College explains, “Men seem to be wired in such a way that pornography hijacks the proper functioning of their brains and has a long-lasting effect on their thoughts and lives.”
“The simplest explanation for why men view pornography (or solicit prostitutes) is that they are driven to seek out sexual intimacy,” he explains. The urge for sexual intimacy is God-given and essential to the male, he acknowledges, but it is easily misdirected. Men are tempted to seek “a shortcut to sexual pleasure via pornography” and now find this shortcut easily accessed.
In a fallen world, pornography becomes more than a distraction and a distortion of God’s intention for human sexuality. It comes as an addictive poison.
Struthers explains:
Viewing pornography is not an emotionally or physiologically neutral experience. It is fundamentally different from looking at black and white photos of the Lincoln Memorial or taking in a color map of the provinces of Canada. Men are reflexively drawn to the content of pornographic material. As such, pornography has wide-reaching effects to energize a man toward intimacy. It is not a neutral stimulus. It draws us in. Porn is vicarious and voyeuristic at its core, but it is also something more. Porn is a whispered promise. It promises more sex, better sex, endless sex, sex on demand, more intense orgasms, experiences of transcendence.
Pornography “acts as a polydrug,” Struthers explains. As Dr. Patrick Carnes asserts, pornography is “a pathological relationship with a mood-altering experience.” Boredom and curiosity lead many boys and men into experiences that become more like drug addiction than is often admitted.
Why men rather than women? As Struthers explains, the male and female brains are wired differently. “A man’s brain is a sexual mosaic influenced by hormone levels in the womb and in puberty and molded by his psychological experience.” Over time, exposure to pornography takes a man or boy deeper along “a one-way neurological superhighway where a man’s mental life is over-sexualized and narrowed. This superhighway has countless on-ramps but very few off-ramps.
Pornography is “visually magnetic” to the male brain. Struthers presents a fascinating review of the neurobiology involved, with pleasure hormones becoming linked to and released by the experience of a male viewing pornographic images. These experiences with pornography and pleasure hormones create new patterns in the brain’s wiring, and repeated experiences formalize the rewiring.
And then, enough is never enough. “If I take the same dose of a drug over and over and my body begins to tolerate it, I will need to take a higher dose of the drug in order for it to have the same effect that it did with a lower dose the first time,” Struthers reminds us. So, the experience of viewing pornography and acting out on it creates a demand in the brain for more and more, just to achieve the same level of pleasure in the brain.5

  • The Greek Word from which pornography is derived is the word pornea and is used 25 times in the NT. Related words occur another 30 times. Is this subject serious to God? Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 5:3
  • We don’t have time to go through this here, but one of the most helpful things for me personally was building my own understanding of relationships, sexuality, what it means to be male and female, what it means to be made in the image of God, etc.
  • Sex is meant for procreation, pleasure, and as an act of covenant union. Paul picks up the last of these three in Ephesians 5:31-32 and says it refers ultimately to Christ and the church. Which means that using porn (along with any other act of sex outside the Biblical pattern) is ultimately an act of blasphemy.

What Can We Do About It?
  • The good news is, neuroplasticity works both ways. If porn pathways aren’t reinforced, they’ll eventually disappear, so the same brain mechanisms that lay down pathways for porn can replace them with something else.6 The damage is done by porn is real, but it is also doesn’t need to be the final word. Romans 8:1
  • Don’t shy away from this topic in conversation with teens!
  • If you overhear or are told outright by a teen that they use pornography, don’t be surprised. Look at the numbers, it can’t be surprising to us if these kids (or our kids) are included.
  • Also, don’t downplay it. Though everyone is doing it, it remains a big deal. We still don’t see the long term effects this is going to have on our society as a whole. And the effects on the individual are devastating, and if not repented of, damning.
  • So, be calm, but clear. This is not freaky or unusual, but it is unhealthy and dangerous on multiple levels.
  • If a kid is looking for help, accountability, etc, be that for them! Pray with them, encourage them, check up on them. Long Obedience!
  • What is the only way toward change? Point them to Christ.
  • Warnings only get us so far, as important as they may be. We need a new affection.7 Matthew 5:7

Additional Reading:
  • Rid of my Disgrace, Justin and Leslie Holcomb (Crossway, 2011)
  • God, Marriage, and Family, Andreas Kostenberger (Crossway, 2010)
  • Human Trafficking: Modern Slavery in Iowa, Storm Lake Tribune, http://www.stormlakepilottribune.com/story/2399091.html

1 All of the bullet points in this section are sourced from Covenant Eyes 2015 Pornography Statistics packet, available for free at: http://www.covenanteyes.com/resources/download-your-copy-of-the-pornography-statistics-pack/. They also have an overview at: http://www.covenanteyes.com/pornstats/

May 05, 2018

A Brief Philosophy of Ministry

A Brief Philosophy of Ministry

Biblical ministry is centered on Christ and Him crucified1. Without the message of reconciliation2 offered by God3 to sinners4, there is nothing for us to minister. “Christ is the center of Christianity; all else is circumference.”5

A ministry centered on Christ will take a certain shape: namely, that of prayer and of the Word6. Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for him that he may speak boldly7, turns his every thought of the Philippians vertical in prayer8, and asks the Romans to join him in the struggle of prayer.9 The same apostle commends to his protégé Timothy the preaching of the Word as a right response to the decaying nature of humanity and the sufficiency of God’s revelation in Scripture to save and transform.10 Paul also makes clear that those called and gifted by God to minister are to do so for the purpose of building and equipping the body of Christ11, and such an endeavor will be futile and ultimately unsuccessful if not dependent upon God’s revealed truth and supernatural enabling by the Spirit. So it seems apparent that from New Testament precept and example, Word and prayer take preeminence in gospel ministry.

It also seems clear, though, that life matters. The life of the minister is closely tied to the message12, because those in the pews, as well as the watching world13, aren’t going to be able to neatly separate the two. And this leads to what I would see as an important implication, namely, that the minister lives a life seen and shared with the members of the body. Peter exhorts elders to shepherd the flock of God among them14, being examples to them. The specific language of being an example, as well as the metaphor of the shepherd with sheep, speaks to the proximity and familiarity which Peter assumes. There is a sense in which the dinner table15 is as important as the pulpit in ministering to people.

The last point I’ll make here is tied closely to the preceding one. That is that New Testament ministry is in its nature more organic than programmatic. The main metaphors and descriptions in Scripture referring to the Church, (eg, body16, temple17, house18, people19, etc) speak to an intimate unity and interdependence that is to display itself in love.20 Such love exists only within the context of real and honest relationships, and while programs may certainly have a place in fostering or facilitating them, programs can never replace such relationships. There is a danger that can come from slipping into a “Church, Inc” mindset, that views programs and numbers as indicators of spiritual health, when our Lord places primary value on love and faithfulness.21

Perhaps this could be encapsulated in four D’s:

  • Dependence: Ministry must be ever dependent upon the Sovereign Lord of all, and we acknowledge this in our commitment to prayer. In the words of the hymn, “I need Thee, O I need Thee; Every hour I need Thee.”22

  • Doctrine: Ministry must be devoted to the doctrine laid down in the Scriptures, for the Word of God alone is the foundation upon which we must build our life, rest our hope, and form our thought. It is here we hear the Gospel, here we find truth, here we see God. True and biblical doctrine must not be replaced or subverted.

  • Daily: Ministry must consist of a daily obedience to the Lord lived out before His people, and before the watching world. Holiness is not optional for any believer, but this is even more true in one called to teach.

  • Dirty: (stretching to keep the alliteration? Perhaps.) Ministry can’t be contained entirely within neat programs or the four walls of any building. Biblical ministry is a ministry to people, which inevitably involves relationships that will help us understand why the Biblical writers must so often say, “love the brotherhood.”23

In conclusion, the most important aim of any human action, including ministry, is the glory of God.24 It is for this reason we have been saved25, and it is this truth, that He alone is glorious and wise26, that we will sing through all the ages.27 Soli Deo Gloria.

1 1 Corinthians 2:2
2 Colossians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 5:18
3 John 3:16
4 Romans 5:8
5 John Stott, Basic Christianity. I gave away my copy, otherwise I’d have the page number, publisher, etc.
6 Acts 6:4
7 Ephesians 6:19
8 Philippians 1:3-4
9 Romans 15:30
10 1 Timothy 3:1-4:6
11 Ephesians 4:11-12
12 1 Timothy 4:16
13 1 Timothy 3:7
14 1 Peter 5:1-3
15 1 Timothy 3:2
16 Colossians 3:15
17 1 Corinthians 3:16
18 1 Peter 2:5
19 1 Peter 2:9
20 John 13:34-35
21 Revelation 2:2-5
22 “I Need Thee Every Hour,” Annie S. Hawks
23 1 Peter 2:17
24 1 Corinthians 10:31
25 Romans 1:5
26 Romans 16:27
27 Revelation 5:11-14

About Me

Follower of Jesus. Husband of one. Father of four. Pastor at Remsen Bible Fellowship (remsenbible.com).