Mike’s Notes: November 2019

I started a monthly newsletter that launched yesterday. It’s simply called, Mike’s Notes and is meant to provide monthly notes with thoughtful resources for ordinary people.

The initial one is below. If you want to subscribe to get it emailed to you monthly, you can use the subscription box in the sidebar or follow this link (and make sure to check your junk mail and add mike@mikegoldsworthy.com to your contact list to ensure you’re getting it)

Thanks for being among the first to check out my monthly newsletter. I appreciate you subscribing. Contained each month are the kinds of things people tend to ask me about most often – resources – books I’m reading, things that are inspiring me or are interesting to me, stuff that’s making me think. I’m also including a regular summary of a thoughtful book. I’ve found that although I’d often recommend books to people, they didn’t always have the time to read them or they weren’t familiar with reading theological works, and so would give up. So, I wanted to be able to  help you with that, giving you a brief-ish summary of a book I’d love for you to read. 

I hope this is helpful for you.

Grace and Peace,

Mike

”What must be emphasized in all of this is the difference between trusting Christ, the real person Jesus, with all that naturally involves, versus trusting some arrangement for sin-remission set up through him – trusting only his role as guilt remover.” 

— Dallas Willard

Each month, I’ll provide you with a book summary of a book that I’ve found thoughtful that maybe you haven’t or won’t end up reading. Not a review, not an academic summary of the book, but rather the things that I would point out to you if we were sitting with coffee and I was sharing with you about this book. 

The Divine Conspiracy

I have often told people that outside of the Scriptures the most influential book on my life is The Divine Conspiracy. At the time that I first read it around 15 years ago, it challenged some theological categories that needed challenging, it helped me to think more robustly about the message that Jesus brings and it sent me on a journey down countless rabbit trails that have affected just about every nook and cranny of my faith. While this book is now old enough that it could walk into a bar and buy a drink, and as a result many of Willard’s ideas and teachings have become more commonplace in the church, I think it will go down as a Christian classic that people will read for years to come. 

I remember the way I felt both taken aback while also incredibly intrigued when I first read Willard challenging the way that we have typically talked about the gospel, as he challenged me to consider what Jesus’ own gospel was. 

“Jesus’ own gospel of the kingdom was not that the kingdom was about to come, or had recently come, into existence. If we attend to what he actually said, it becomes clear that his gospel concerned only the new accessibility of the kingdom to humanity through himself…The reality fo God’s rule, and all of the instrumentalities it involves, is present in action and available with and through the person of Jesus. That is Jesus’ gospel…New Testament passages make plain that this kingdom is not something to be ‘accepted’ now and enjoyed later, but something to be entered now.”

His gospel was not, “believe in me, so that I can be your ticket to heaven after you die, but was rather, “through Jesus the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:14-15) and it is something that can be experienced and entered into now. 

Willard challenges the way that we have often understood the gospel by showing the inadequacies of what he calls “Gospels of Sin Management”. He asks why the gospel isn’t actually changing people and the way we live and suggests that we have made the gospel about a theory of atonement (the work of Christ on the cross) that enables a salvation that is cut off from regular life (it is something we believe in, in order to secure our place in the afterlife). Willard suggests,

”But we get a totally different picture of salvation, faith, and forgiveness if we regard having life from the kingdom of the heavens (which Willard understands interchangably with kingdom of God as well as eternal life in John) now – the eternal kind of life – as the target.”

I had grown up being taught and hearing preachers and Sunday School teachers tell me that at it’s essence what Jesus did was provide an arrangement to get me a ticket into heaven after I died. Willard sets up a contrast with that way of understanding the mission and message of Jesus and its implications for us. ”What must be emphasized in all of this is the difference between trusting Christ, the real person Jesus, with all that naturally involves, versus trusting some arrangement for sin-remission set up through him – trusting only his role as guilt remover.” In fact, as Willard points out, the only time that eternal life is ever defined in the Scriptures is found in John 17:3, “This is eternal life that they may know you, the only real God, and Jesus the anointed, whom you have sent.” Eternal life, according to Jesus is not a destination or a post-death experience, but rather a real, vibrant, trusting relationship. 

In all of this, Willard is arguing that Jesus is not simply something that we have sort of esoteric beliefs about in order to arrange our afterlife condition, but rather we should be learning to live from him. We trust that he actually knows the best way to live and we apprentice (Willard’s preferred translation for ‘disciple’ in the New Testament) ourselves to him. It is not simply allowing Jesus to be a good moral teacher who we get advice from, but rather, because of the present availability of the kingdom, we can be empowered by him to live the kind of life that he lived. As Willard says in another of his books, “Christlikeness is possible”. The experience of the kingdom coming near in the person of Jesus enables us to become more like him, becoming more of who we were designed and created to be. 

”It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent…’Jesus is Lord’ can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying, ‘Jesus is smart.’ 

Because of that, Willard says that we should be willing to pay attention to the way that Jesus answers what Willard says are the two major questions that humanity always faces, which significant thinkers have always answered – what is the good life and who is a good person? 

Willard turns his attention then to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the longest recorded continuous teaching of Jesus. He sees this sermon as a teaching that answers both of those questions based on the present availability of the kingdom of God. While it would be too much to try and summarize all of Willard’s teachings about how we understand the Sermon on the Mount, it is worth highlighting a few sections that challenged my understanding at the time, and to keep in mind that he understands the entire sermon to be building on the idea of the present availability of God’s kingdom, while answering the questions of “what is the good life and who is the good person?”

At the beginning of Matthew 5, Jesus begins his sermon with what has traditionally been called the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the…” The way I had often understood these were as 8 qualities that I needed to pursue in order to experience God’s blessing in my life. I needed to become poor in spirit, or meek or a peacemaker. In fact, oftentimes I heard preachers or teachers doing all kinds of work to try and show how it was desirable to be poor in spirit or how meekness doesn’t actually mean meekness. I sat through teaching that these were 8 steps towards a better kind of life. Willard shows how this doesn’t make sense. One way he shows that is by offering Luke’s version of the Beatitudes which says things like, “Blessed are the poor” (not poor in spirit), or “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst” (not hunger and thirst for righteousness). I have never heard anyone take Luke’s version and say that in order to experience God’s blessing you must become poor. Or that as a part of 8 steps towards a better life, you needed to be regularly hungry and thirsty. As I began to agree with Willard’s interpretation of the Beatitudes and saw how pervasive and even harmful the other way of understanding it could be, I started calling this way of understanding them, “bastardizing the beatitudes” 😉 (which I feel pretty confident Willard would never say)

”The Beatitudes , in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God r good for human beings…They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus…The Beatitudes simply cannot be ‘good news’ if they are understood as a set of ‘how-tos’ for achieving blessedness. They would then only amount to a new legalism.”

For Willard, the Beatitudes are Jesus looking out into a crowd of people who don’t fit in, who have been told they don’t belong and are seen as less than in the current religious climate and declaring them as blessed because the kingdom has come near to them in the person of Jesus. It’s a flipping upside down of our expectations and the religious community’s expectations of who is blessed in God’s kingdom. 

That is how Willard understands the beginning framework of Jesus’ sermon, and then when we move to the end, Jesus uses several illustrations that I had also often misunderstood according to Willard. Jesus says to “enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). There is nothing in the context of Jesus’ sermon to suggest that this is about life after death salvation, as I had often been taught – saying that only some would be “saved”. Nor is it about believing the right things in the right kinds of ways. But, if we read Jesus’ sermon as a sermon as Willard suggests, then we understand it differently. 

”The narrow gate is not, as so often assumed, doctrinal correctness. The narrow gate is obedience – and the confidence in Jesus necessary to it…The broad gate, by contrast, is simply doing whatever I want to do…All this is the same as saying that, in actually doing what Jesus knows to be best for us, we build a life that is absolutely indestructible…”

The narrow gate that only a few will find is to live life in the way that Jesus has has shown us throughout his sermon. It’s to recognize the centrality of the kind of life that’s unpacked throughout Matthew 5-7 and to pursue that kind of life as an experience of the present availability of the kingdom. This, Jesus is saying, is the good life. And it’s a life that in my own experience I am often missing, and in my experience of the American church is sorely lacking. But, it is the kind of life that is found when we truly apprentice ourselves to Jesus. 

The pathway towards an apprenticeship with Jesus is as Willard suggests in many of his writings, is training ourselves through what are commonly called spiritual disciplines. Willard makes a concerted effort to make sure we understand that these disciplines or practices are never the point. The goal is not to read your Bible, or fast or experience silence or solitude. Those are simply the means by which we are being trained in order to develop a Christlikeness as is shown in the Sermon on the Mount. We are training ourselves “to remove our automatic responses against the kingdom of God, to free the apprentices of domination, or ‘enslavement’, to their old habitual patterns of through, feeling and action…The training that leads to doing what we hear from Jesus must therefore involve, first, the purposeful disruption of our ‘automatic’ thoughts, feelings, and actions by doing different things with our body.”

While he has written more extensively on spiritual disciplines in other places, he does spend a brief portion of this book encouraging their use as the means by which we are being trained as apprentices of Jesus. He reminds us that ”A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.” One of the disciplines he spends a bit of time advocating for is developing rhythms of silence and solitude. 

”Now it is solitude and silence that allow us to escape the patterns of epidermal responses, with their consequences. They provide space to come to terms with these responses and to replace them, with God’s help, by different immediate responses that are suitable to the kingdom environment – and, indeed, to the kind of life everyone in saner moments recognizes to be good…The cure for too-much-to-do is solitude and silence, for there you find you are safely more than what you do. Wand the cure of loneliness is solitude and silence, for there you discover in how many ways you are never alone.”

Willard ends his book by reminding us that Jesus insisted upon the present availability of the kingdom of the heavens, but also reminding us that there is a future aspect to that kingdom where God is reconciling all things. In borrowing from Saint Augustine, Willard uses the word, peace to describe this experience. ”It is…peace as wholeness, as fullness of function, as the restful but unending creativity involved in a cosmos wide, cooperative pursuit of a created order that continuously approaches but never reaches the limitless goodness and greatness of the triune personality of God, its source.”

Stuff That I’m Into Right Now

1. Açaí Bowls
A while ago, while trying to help me be intentionally pursuing more experiences of joy in my life, my Spiritual Director asked me, “is there any food that when you eat it, it brings you joy?” I had never thought about that question before, but the first thing that immediately came to mind was Açaí Bowls. There’s something refreshing and satisfying about them. For my Long Beach area friends, I’m a big fan of Simply O Juice Bar in Los Al. 

2. Ti Arto Pen and Baron Fig Confidant Dot Grid
For me, I have learned that there is something about having a good pen and a good piece of paper to do some writing on. Sometimes it’s brainstorming an idea and sometimes it’s as simple as a todo list. Either way, there is something satisfying about the tactile nature of a good pen with the right ink on the right kind of paper. The Ti Arto is a bit expensive, but, I love having one pen that feels good every time I use it. I have been using the Baron Fig Confidant Dot Grid for several years now as my go to notebook. The paper feels good, it lays flat when I break it in and has a nice look. I feel like I should be in a fancy outdoor cafe in Europe writing a great novel every time I use them

3. Scott Erickson Say Yes Tour
I went to this tour several months ago when it was in SoCal, and I find myself constantly thinking about it. I don’t know exactly how to describe it other than to say that it is part talk, part multi-media, part voluntary participation…all done in a way that engages you and moves you. I can’t recommend going highly enough, especially for those who have some kind of desire or idea for something more that you want to be doing, and also for those who are communicators to get a glimpse of a whole different way of communicating that we should be paying attention to. I genuinely found myself at times moving from laughing to crying.

And SoCal friends, I recently was able to work with Scott to bring his show to Long Beach on December 14. Get your tickets here

4. Starbucks Medicine Ball
I just got turned onto this secret menu item a month ago, and my family already makes fun of me for how often I order it. It’s essentially steamed lemonade, two kinds of tea and honey. It’s great when you’re starting to feel a sickness coming on, or have a scratchy throat from public speaking. In addition to being helpful, I was shocked at how good it actually tastes. Give it a try when you’re feeling a bit under the weather. 

5. Patheos Blog: Hey, John MacArthur. You have a culture. It’s called white (Christian) patriarchy.
In the wake of John MacArthur saying that Beth Moore needs to “go home” and all that statement entails, there have been a lot of people offering thoughtful and impassioned defenses of women in ministry, of supporting and advocating for the significance of women’s voices in the church and the problems associated with systemically oppressing those voices. Those are all important things that need to be said. This article by Kristin Du Mez addresses those things with a slightly different narrative, focusing on a female Bible translator named Kate Bushnell. I’ve appreciated most of the things that I have read in response to this event, but this article created a particular interest because of what this Bible translator experienced. I have learned over the years to try and read articles like this with my defenses down in order to hear and receive an experience that is different from my own. 

What I’m Reading

Here’s some of the books that I’m currently in the midst of or have just recently finished that you may find interesting…

The God Who Trusts by Curtis Holtzen

Dr. Holtzen is a Philosophical Theologian who I got to know originally when I took a class with him at HIU and have recently enjoyed knowing him as a colleague. He offers an argument that in order to love, God actually needs to have faith, and that he has faith in you and I. If God is love, and if love always hopes (as 1 Cor 13 says), then it’s interesting to think about what it means for God to hope, and what that means for his character and our interaction with him. 

Lost Connections by Johann Hari

I picked this up after listening to the Goop Podcast episode with him on it. Hari as a journalist is trying to understand what really causes depression and anxiety and what we can do about it. He does a good job of deconstructing some of the common assumptions and cultural myths that many of us have bought into.

The Pioneers by David McCullough

I often say that if I had been reading books like McCullough’s when I was in school, I may have actually really enjoyed history class. This is his latest work telling the story of the settling of the Northwest Territory, particularly through the lens of one city in Ohio on the Ohio river and a handful of people involved in that city in various ways. 

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

I rarely listen to audiobooks, but had enough people tell me that was the best way to engage this book, that’s exactly how I “read” this book. Each chapter is like a well produced podcast of the chapter. Gladwell is always great, and this may be my favorite book of his. In the midst of a contentions time in our country, he writes about how we make sense of interacting with and understanding people we don’t know and strangers. Like everything he does, it’s interesting, drawing on several different data sets to make connections you may have not considered before.

That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox Scholar who is unpacking and offering a defense for his view of Christian Universalism or what some call Universal Reconciliation. This is one of the three major accepted Christian views of Hell and Hart offers a impassioned defense both biblically and philosophically for why he thinks this is the best way to understand the afterlife and God’s relation with all of humanity. While a lot of people won’t agree with Hart on this book, I think this will become one that many will read and wrestle with and will become one of the essential readings on trying to understand various points of view on Hell. Be warned, however, if you do read it, that Hart comes off arrogant in his own confidence. It can be a turn off to some. For me, it made me laugh out loud quite a bit.

Things I’m Watching and Listening To

Brene Brown: The Call to Courage on Netflix 

I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a Brene Brown fan. Her book, Daring Greatly was significant for me in giving some language and direction for what it looks like to pursue what she calls whole-hearted living. Her Netflix special came at a good time for me, entering into a new season that requires new kinds of vulnerability (like starting this newsletter). Watch this for a good reminder on not letting yourself be defined by scarcity and uncertainty. 

Preach Podcast: The Rise, Fall, and Return of VeggieTales

While I knew a lot of the details of the rise and fall of VeggieTales from Phil Vischer’s autobiography, Me Myself and Bob, I found this 2 part podcast to be interesting and well done. If you grew up on VeggieTales, used to watch them in your college dorm, or show them to your kids and wondered what happened, this will give you some insight into their story as well as some thoughts to consider on what happens when you start to make God your excuse to pursue bigger and more all with a covering of spiritual language. 

Goop Podcast: Why We’re the Loneliest Society

I’ve never listened to this podcast before, but saw this particular episode recommended by someone on one of the social medias, and decided to give it a listen. I’m so glad I did. Johann Hari deconstructs the way that many of us have understood and treating anxiety and depression, and offers better solutions. After a few friends in the psychology field told me that what he was saying isn’t just some pop-psychology but is consistent with what is talked about in their field, I immediately bought his book, “Lost Connections”

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A Personal Update

This morning I let Parkcrest know that Allison and I have decided that I will be stepping down from my role at Parkcrest and August 4th will be my last day as Lead Pastor at the church.

Over the years, it has become increasingly apparent to both Allison and I that I’m unable to maintain a healthy soul while serving in the role of Lead Pastor at Parkcrest. So, we had to come to a realization that not only is it not healthy for me to be in this position for the long term, it’s not healthy for the church either.

There’s no moral failing or secret story. This is the simple story.

I share a bit more in this video about what’s next for me as well as some of the next steps for the church. I’d appreciate you taking a few minutes to watch it.

It’s been a privilege and honor to serve at Parkcrest for 19 years, and 11 of those years as the Lead Pastor.

I have a lot of hope and excitement for the next season of Parkcrest and I hope that you’ll join with me in praying for this next season. If you’re a part of Parkcrest, I look forward to seeing you over the next several weeks as I wrap up my time as Lead Pastor and as we anticipate great things ahead together.

For future connection, the best way to get ahold of me will be at this email address – mike@mikegoldsworthy.com

Grace and Peace to you friends

On Jerry Jr, Trump and Widespread Evangelical Support

In 2016 I published a short book about the collision of the Kingdom of God and politics. It was taken from a series of sermons that I gave in 2012 before that election, which feels like a different world from the political world we are in now. It was largely written in response to the errors that I had seen in the Religious Right (and in the Religious Left, but much more so in my own personal experiences with the Religious Right) in trying to utilize a political system as the means to achieve kingdom ends. I still believe that is the wrong way to pursue the Kingdom of God, but as with anything, the current cultural moment raises new issues and asks new questions that need to be addressed.

In addressing politics and faith over the years, one thing I have discovered is that when people are reading or listening to me, they have desire for me to equitably attack “both sides” whenever we are discussing something. In these kinds of conversations people will often say something like, “why aren’t you attacking the Democrats (or Republicans) more?”. My concern and calling is not to critique the politics of either Republicans or Democrats or really any political party, but rather to call the church to be the people of God in this present moment. In the places where it seems to me that we are missing that, I will speak up. I am not concerned with trying to have an equal balance of critiquing the donkey or the elephant, but rather continuing to call people to the way of the Lamb.

On January 1, the Washington Post ran an interview with Jerry Falwell Jr that exposed some of the destructive thinking that has become far too prevalent in the church today and it needs to be addressed. I am not someone who feels the need to comment on everything someone says in the name of the church or in every current event, otherwise I would simply spend all of my time responding because the opportunities are endless. However, when something seems to me to be pervasively widespread, continual and destructive to my understanding of who the church is called to be, it merits some kind of response.

Falwell, as the president of the country’s largest Christian University, has been a supporter of President Trump from early on and apparently reconciles the discrepancies of his faith with some of Trump’s behavior and policies that are contrary to that with a description of two different kingdoms – an earthly kingdom and a heavenly kingdom. He describes essentially separating each of those kingdoms and engaging in each of them in different ways. While, I would agree with him that they are separate kingdoms that function in very different ways, I do not believe that the New Testament, nor the way of Jesus in general calls us to treat those as separate ways of engaging the world around us. Nor are they coequal ways of engaging different spheres of our lives. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus expected his followers to operate out of and being agents who are a part of bringing the reality of God’s kingdom to the experience of our lives here and now. For the follower of Jesus, God’s kingdom is not meant to be some kind of spiritual experience that has no bearing on the reality of our lives, but instead is actually meant to be the driving force that affects all of how we live, the choices we make, the way we treat other people, what we value. Jesus would say it this way at one point, “seek first the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness…”

There is indeed an earthly kingdom. A way in which the world operates and the values it ascribes to. It is also a driving force that affects all of how we live, the choices we make, and the way we treat other people. It is not a value system that the people of Jesus are meant to separate out as another realm where we operate differently. Instead, the people of God are meant to be bringing the way of God’s kingdom into those spaces. At times, it even means operating subversively against the way in which the earthly kingdom operates. A people who operate in God’s kingdom are not just concerned with the ends that are achieved, but also the means by which we get there.

I didn’t realize how pervasive this dualistic view of how we interact with the world actually was until I read this interview with Falwell. It helps to make sense of so many other things that seem to have gotten out of place for those of us who claim to follow Jesus in recent years. For instance, when white evangelical Christians are the group most likely to be against accepting refugees, more than any other group identified in the polling, that runs against the way the church has functioned in caring for refugees and the calling of the Kingdom of God. Or when the opinion of evangelicals regarding immigrants is more shaped by President Trump and political narratives than by evangelical leaders or by the Scriptures. The ability to separate out our faith from our worldview is disconcerting at best.

As Falwell suggests, the United States may not have an obligation to love our neighbors or care for the poor (we can argue that on another day), but followers of Jesus do. For followers of Jesus to desire and pursue things that are contrary to that, is explicitly contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Just because politics are not the means by which we pursue kingdom ends, does not mean that we actively utilize politics in ways that are directly contrary to kingdom ends. I don’t know of any Christians who think in this way who would advocate for policies that would increase abortions or ones that would strip the church of it’s non-profit status and protections, or to disallow Christian colleges from gaining the advantage of federally supplemented loans. While I would argue it’s not the best use of our calling as a church to try and utilize political means to pursue those things, it is not something we actively work against.

When I released “In God We Trust,” one of my concerns was that the broader church that I found myself a part of was too tied into and overly linked with a political party. Some seem to have now gone a step farther, in becoming even more linked with a particular person. Falwell was asked if there was anything that Trump could do that would endanger support from himself or other evangelical leaders. His answer was simply “no.” As a friend of mine put it, “Regardless of who it is, this is what’s called a cult.” I am not sure I understand it or fully get where this blanket support is coming from, but the unquestioning evangelical support of President Trump has me perplexed. In fact, white evangelicals are the only major religious group to continue to have a favorable opinion of President Trump.

The same evangelical leaders who spoke out against Bill Clinton during the Lewinskly scandal saying that his character matters because character is significant in leadership, then defended Trump as a candidate saying things like “his character doesn’t matter because we aren’t electing a pastor”. When things like that happen, you begin to wonder if there are different standards for evangelical leaders depending on whether or not you have an R or a D after your name on the ballot. In fact, one of the most significant swings that has happened in evangelicals’ worldview, is a complete about-face in the way that character matters in leadership. We do not have to hold a President to the same standards as a Pastor of a church to say that character matters in leadership. Nor do we have to change our values in that regard in order to align with specific policy decisions.

There may be policies that Trump supports and advocates that can be within a kingdom framework. I personally was glad to see the prison reform legislation pass and would love to see more work done there. That does not mean, however, that you need to give blanket support to all of his policies. It doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to his dishonorable and immoral behavior as President. It does not mean that we adopt shifting worldviews in order to accommodate our politics or our chosen political candidate. We can be nuanced and thoughtfully Christian without offering blanket support of a political party or of a particular person.

Frankly, I don’t understand what has been happening with the blanket support of Trump and his policies amongst white evangelicals. I’m not interested in “would Hillary have been any better?” kinds of debates, nor am I interested in calling Trump the new Hitler. I’m not interested in rehashing the election or telling you who to vote for. I’m simply interested in the church being the church. I’m interested in the people who call themselves followers of Jesus living in the ways of the Kingdom and letting that shape their worldview. I’m not interested in Christians needing to comment on everything that Trump says and does that is contrary to the way of Jesus. But I am interested in not giving blind allegiance and support to him as he does those things. I would find myself offering the same critique if the larger church system that I find myself a part of offered the same kind of widespread, pervasive support of a different candidate, party or policies that seemed to me to be destructive to the church. I am in no way partisan but rather try to find myself on the side of the church and who she is called to be.

I’m reminded and regularly challenged by a word of caution offered by Jesus, when he said, “what good does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet forfeit their soul?” My calling is not to engage in partisan debates, but rather to point the church to where we may be losing our soul.

Top Books 2018

Top Books 2018

This year I decided to try something different with my reading, I did my best to track every book I read with goodreads. And while I don’t think I nailed it perfectly, there are some I would forget to include or others that I would forget to update after I finished reading, it seemed to be a pretty handy way to keep track of and review what I read this past year. I’m sure it’s way more powerful than that, but I’m becoming the old guy who doesn’t always understand how to properly use these new hip gadgets.

This year, I’ve read 43 books so far, which puts me at the top end of my goal to read 25-50 each year.

In case you are looking for some suggestions on books to buy for Christmas presents, I thought I’d offer what I thought were the best books that I read this year.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler

This was easily, hands down one of the best books I read this year. I met Kate at a writer’s bootcamp a few years ago when she was working through the concept of this book, which made it a joy not only to read but to see it sit on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks. Kate has done her doctoral work in the history of the faith healing movement in America, and while she was doing her research, became incredibly ill, eventually fighting cancer as a young mom. She wrestles with faith, easy answers and is humorous, thoughtful and vulnerable as she does. If we are friends, I have probably already recommended this book to you this year.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

This is another one that I probably recommended to you already as well. Newport is a professor at Georgetown University and has taken to learning to make a science out of developing the skills to focus on significant work, what he calls deep work. He argues that most of us don’t actually engage in that sort of work anymore because of the amount of distraction that we allow in, and he offers larger thoughts about how to do that as well as practical suggestions

Becoming Dallas Willard by Gary Moon

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I have a proclivity towards wanting to learn from Dallas Willard. He was the kind of man that I would want to become and so I find myself more and more drawn to learn not only from his teachings but from his life. This was a great biography by one of Dallas’ disciples that was interesting and insightful. If you’ve been impacted by Willard and his teaching, it’s worth reading.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

One of the things that I did this year was to intentionally get books from the library that would be different from what I’d normally read. I used their online app and would only get library books available for download on the kindle, which has limited my selection, but it’s also brought books to my attention that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. This was a fascinating biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House on the Prairie series. It was an honest look at the realities of the country, homesteading and the move west during that time, how she turned herself into a successful writer and what her family life was actually like. I found myself often telling other people stories from her life as I read it

Robin by Dave Itzkoff

I’ve long considered Robin Williams to be brilliant, but I honestly didn’t know much about him. This was another great biography that felt both honest and honoring.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Isaac was reading this for school, so Allison and I decided to read it along with him. I had forgotten how good this book is and how much I enjoyed it. If you’ve never read this modern classic or if it’s been a while, it’s a good one to pick up.

Cross Vision by Greg Boyd

Boyd is fascinating in that he lives at the intersection of being a biblical scholar and a local church pastor. The way he processes faith and the Scriptures are always intriguing to me and I often want to learn from him however I can. He had recently finally published his magnum opus work, a two volume treatise on dealing with the violence of God in the Bible, called The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Cross Vision is essentially the abridged version of that much larger, scholarly work. Greg works to make sense of the pictures of a violent God, with Jesus as his starting point of what God must always look like. He has produced an important work, taking seriously the nature of Jesus and the Scriptures. If you’ve ever struggled with making sense of the violence of God in the Scriptures, this would be a great book. It’s Greg being pastoral with his scholarly work, so it’s very readable and does not feel overly scholarly in its tone or content

High Fidelity by Nick Hornsby

I had never read any Hornsby books, and a friend had chastised me for that this year, telling me I needed to give High Fidelity a shot. I not only really enjoyed this one, but I ended up reading 2 more by Hornsby this year after it. I’m not quite sure how to describe Hornsby and his writing, as I don’t read a ton of fiction, but I found myself drawn in by the characters he creates and like I was being casually told a story by an Englishman in a bar.

Politics Sermon Resources for Pastors

Over the past month I’ve had several conversations with Pastors who have never addressed politics from the stage at their church in any way, and are feeling like they need to say something in some kind of way this year. While my book on the subject has been a helpful starting point for many, it was written more as a prophetic challenge to the church in the way that Evangelicals have engaged politics.

Because of the nature of this election, I felt that what our church needed was not that kind of challenge, but instead more of a pastoral approach to help find a way forward in the midst of so much political chaos, so many voices and opinions and way too much noise about it all.

So, this weekend, we launched a 2 week series at Parkcrest called “Keeping Your Head Above Water.: How to Keep From Drowning in the Political Chaos” Because a few people asked me if they could have access to these resources, I thought I’d post them here as well in case it could be useful to you and your church.

Here is a link to files that you may find useful, including the manuscript from my sermon this weekend, the sermon notes we used in church and the graphics that we utilized. Below is the video of the message as well. I realize that there are only 3 Sundays left before the election, so wanted to make what we had available as soon as possible. After I preach this next weekend, I will make that sermon available as well.

Feel free to use what’s helpful, we just ask that you find a way to give appropriate credit for the materials.

How Much Is That Stew Worth? from Parkcrest Church on Vimeo.

 

I Accidentally Published a Book Today

So, apparently I accidently published a book today.

It wasn’t an accident that it was getting published. We had been working on it for a while. I just didn’t realize it would actually happen…and that it would happen today.

4 years ago, I was tired of the way that I was seeing Christians engage in politics and decided that I wanted to help initiate a different kind of conversation that I wasn’t seeing many people have. I preached a 2 week series called “In God We Trust?” It stirred up more conversations than just about anything else I had preached before.

As this election began to move closer, I began to see some of the same disturbing trends and at times even worse. So, decided to try and take what we talked about 4 years ago and see if we could turn it into a short book. Short enough that people would actually read it, but still with enough substance to invoke conversation.

My hope is not to give final solutions and answers as to how Christians are to engage (or not engage) in the political process, but instead, my hope is to raise some new conversations that not many are having. Sometimes we need a bit of a jolt to the system so we can step back to try and see the forest in the midst of the trees.

If you’re tired of the rhetoric around politics and have this sense that evangelicals are being used as political pawns…then this book is for you.

If you have an uncle who you hate to be around during this political season because of how obsessed he is with politics…this would make a great “Happy Super Tuesday” election present.

If you’ve read the stats of how the younger generation is being driven away from the church because of how politically involved the church is and you want to figure out a way forward…this book is a great starting point.

If you don’t want easy answers and want to struggle through things on your own and have the space to come to your own conclusions while being challenged by others…this book will mess with you a bit without giving a bunch of easy answers.

So, I’d love it if you’d consider buying this book. But here’s the deal, my biggest hope is to in some small way begin to change some of the conversation that at least some followers of Jesus are having when it comes to politics. So, buy one for someone else too.

If you’re a part of Parkcrest, we will have copies available on a Sunday, sometime in the future. I’m not exactly sure when, but it won’t be for at least another 3 weeks. Because, like I said…I accidentally published a book today.

If you’re a church leader and want to utilize this for groups in your church or use it as a way to have a larger conversation about faith and politics as the election season continues to heat up. Let me know and if you’re buying more than 25 copies, we can offer them at a discounted rate.

If you have an event at your church or organization and need a panelist or speaker regarding faith and politics, I’d love to be a part.

I (obviously, since I didn’t even realize it was being published today) don’t have a marketing plan. So, I would love it if you would help me out and help get the word out. We’ve got to start having a better conversation about faith and politics. Lets get that ball rolling.

For my friends who already tweeted, instagramed, facebooked, sent me pictures of their receipts from purchasing it. Thank you! I had no idea you would do that and I’m so grateful!

And thanks to my friends Ashley Miller who helped me edit it and actually make it readable and Brent Otey who did a killer cover design.

Here’s to having a better conversation about faith and politics

Lets Have Better Conversations

A few weeks ago, for the third year I attended the Q Conference in Boston. This has turned into one of the year’s highlights for me and I was glad Allison got to attend with me for the first time this year. Much has already been written about some of the significant conversations that happened there.

What I left realizing, however, is that one of the things I most appreciate about Q, is the space to have thoughtful conversations, where there’s space to dialogue, hear multiple perspectives and be challenged. Not only from the stage, but also in conversations around lunches and coffees, in the hallways in-betwen and during sessions. I told someone recently that I love going to it because Q has become in a lot of ways, my tribe. Not because we all believe the same things, or because everyone is a pastor in a church like Parkcrest, but because it’s a space for the kind of dialogue that I find myself often longing for and it’s a group of people who are looking for that same thing.

This year, unfortunately, one of the things that happened was because of the sensitivity of LGBT conversations regarding the church that seemed to become one of the predominant themes, there were quite a few people who felt the need was not for dialogue and discussion. People who weren’t looking for safe, thoughtful conversations, but for the conference to take a stronger stand – either more conservative or more progressive, depending on which viewpoint you came into the conference with. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking simply mimics the incredibly divisive and polarized climate in our culture at large – one where you need to show strongly which side you’re on. Rather than approaching these kinds of dialogues in humility, we approach them with the arrogance of being right and needing the conference that we attend (not the one we put on…but attend) to affirm what we already believe.

Researchers have written a bit about what is now being called “The Backfire Effect”, which essentially says that when we’re presented with facts that objectively counter what we already believe, we won’t change our beliefs, but will actuall dig our heels in more to what we already believe to be true. Being presented with actual facts that push against what we already believe backfires by causing us to become more entrenched against those actual facts. We suffer from Confirmation Bias, where we search out information that affirms what we already think, rather than allow ourselves to be challenged by something that may force us to change what we think, or even the way in which we think it.

We don’t know how to be challenged in what we think anymore. We don’t know how to have engaging, thoughtful and respectful dialogue with someone who believes differently than we do, especially with subjects that have become incredibly divisive. When we talk about people and subjects such as our LGBT friends, the role they play in the church and how we understand sexual ethics to be at work today, we haven’t figured out how to not dig our heels in and openly dialogue with those who end up opposing the viewpoint we hold.

As one scholar recently said to me, “This is the most challenging issue I’ve seen in my life for pastors.” There has to be a space for those of us in influential roles to be able to have open, honest dialogue, without feeling like you need to pander to one audience or another. Q has been that space for me for a few years now, and I hope it will continue to be, rather than being coopted by either conservatives or progressives making sure that their agenda is being pushed to their appropriate level of satisfaction.

What we need are more conversations. Conversations like the one that Dan Cathy and Shane Windmeyer had a few years ago. We like to spend a lot of time arguing about what is sin and what is not, while Jesus spent a lot of time with people. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have those hard conversations, but it does mean that at the core of Christianity is incarnation – beliefs that are not divorced from humanity. The Word becomes flesh, not the other way around.

What I left Q with, was a deep appreciation for how hard it is to create a safe space for hard conversations. It’s more than putting differing viewpoints on stage. It’s more than giving out a book with multiple viewpoints to read. It’s an ethos of a people who are willing to respectfully dialogue with others. One of my hopes and prayers is to see more of this kind of ethos spring up in Christian communities across the country.

New Beginnings While Searching for the Old

I’m not blogging very often these days, but when I discovered a few weeks ago that my website had been hacked and that everything I had written had been wiped out, I decided to see if I could figure out how much I’d lost. I found that I started blogging almost 10 years ago, and as best as I can tell, I wrote close to 1,000 posts. 

This was in the days before The Facebook or The Twitter, so there’s quite a few things I’m not sure would constitute a blog post anymore. But still, most of it was lost in the hacking. I’m working on getting some of it recovered, by essentially paying a high schooler to search the internet archives to see what he can find for me, but the majority of it seems to be completely lost. 

A few people said to me, “this is a great opportunity to start fresh”, which is true and a nice way of looking at it – but honestly, I’m pretty bummed to lose what I wrote. It was a chronicle of what I was thinking at the time and how I was processing leadership, becoming a father, theology, and what I thought was funny. I was writing when I was working on my Master’s Degree, when I had my first kid, and when I became Lead Pastor. I was also blogging my flight numbers so Allison would know when I was flying, my story of inventing the Frappuccino (so that I had a source I could reference when I was changing the wikipedia entry) and pictures of Santa bowing down to Jesus Christmas Ornaments…so not sure whether or not those get to count as a loss. 

I was having lunch with a theologian today who made the comment that at the end of his life, Martin Luther said that if he could recant 95% of what he had written, he would. He had grown and changed beyond what he had written. If you’re not growing and changing in how you lead, how you understand God, how you relate to Jesus, you’re probably stuck in an unhealthy place. There has to be room, especially for those who lead and teach, to be able to process new information, to question old assumptions and to publicly adapt and even contradict themselves. 

It reminds me of conversations that I have sometimes with married couples who are having a hard time. The husband will say, “but she’s different from the person that I married…she’s changed.” To which, I’ll usually reply, “Did you want her to still act like the immature 22 year old who didn’t have responsibilities now that she’s 45?” Of course she changed…that’s a part of the maturation process. 

That’s a long way of saying that over the past 10 years I’ve come to understand some things differently. In theology, I’ve developed a more robust understanding in some areas, I’ve changed my understanding in others, and have had wrenches thrown into things I thought I had figured out. My understanding of effectiveness and success in church has evolved. My sense of humor…well, it’s pretty much still pretty much the same…I guess that hasn’t changed much. The past 10 years has seen some of the most significant amount of change in my life. 

But, some random hacker, for a reason I’ll probably never know, robbed me of the ability to go back and see all of the process of that growth. I should be able to recover some of it, but most of it will be lost. At one level, I should probably be glad, because unlike Martin Luther, I won’t need to recant what I wrote because it’s gone and no one (not even my grandma!) saved it. So, there’s several things I probably should have to answer for in some way, but never will. 

This is how we move forward. We don’t forget what was behind, but we don’t let it define our future. So we search to understand our past because it helps us to make sense of our present, but we can’t live beholden to the past, otherwise we’ll never move forward. 

So, I guess, here’s to new beginnings while we keep searching for the old…

On Women in the Church…

Today, I was challenged in a sermon by one of the best preachers I get to hear on a regular basis. That preacher happened to be a woman. Rachel crafted a fantastic message that was funny at the right moments, insightful, vulnerable and challenging at the same time, which is not easy to do. I had sat in the sermon prep meetings and knew most of the examples she was going to use, I knew what she was going to do to wrap up the message and some of the ways that she would get there, but even knowing all of that, she put it together in a way that regardless of knowing what she was going to say, it still provoked and challenged me. That’s something only a skilled, gifted communicator is capable of doing. 

If our church did not allow her to preach, we would be missing out on that gift. If she was relegated to only teaching children or women, I would have missed the challenge that I received today from her teaching, and so would the 50% of our congregation that happens to be the same gender as me.

The church that I grew up in didn’t have space for women to lead and teach in that kind of way. In fact, I don’t remember a woman ever even doing something such as serving communion. I don’t know if it was an official policy or a stated theological position, but it was just known that didn’t happen. They could teach my Sunday School class, but heaven forbid that they were allowed to pass out the elements of communion to the congregation, much less explain those elements or ever teach the congregation. 

Several years ago, I remember bringing in a woman who taught at our church. In the packet she sent before she came, she asked if she was allowed to quote the Bible while she taught, if she could stand behind the podium or needed to be in front of the stage, and if what she was doing was allowed to be called teaching or if we needed to simply call it her “sharing” instead. Apparently those are all things she’s been asked to do at churches that she has been invited to speak at before, so as to not appear to be teaching. 

A friend told me once about a marriage series that the Pastor at his church was preaching. He had asked his wife to share one of the messages with him, in order to give a perspective from a wife on marriage. Sounded great since that is not always done in churches, where men typically dominate the preaching conversation about marriage (as well as everything else). When it came time for his wife to teach, however, he introduced her by saying, “Now men, my wife is coming up here to teach the women. You are welcome to listen in as she does, but you need to know that she is here to speak to the women.”

This has been on my mind this week. I don’t know if it’s because of what happened with The Nines Conference last week where there was only 4 women out of 112 speakers to church leaders. Or maybe I’m a bit more mindful of it as I read Sarah Bessey’s thoughtful and well-written book, Jesus Feminist.It could be because of what happened to a lament that April Diaz wrote about women in leadership in the church, which was stripped from a book before publication.  Maybe it’s because I have a daughter, and I’ve been thinking about the kind of church environment that I want her to be able to grow up in and what it looks like as she grows to be able to be empowered to use the gifts that God has uniquely given her in the same way that I’ve been empowered to use mine.

Whatever the reason, this has been on my mind. As as I think about it, I am incredibly grateful for the church that I have the privilege to be a part of. I’m grateful for the honest wrestling with Scripture that has led us to recognize the contribution that women have in all places in the church. I’m grateful to get to sit under the teaching of a gifted communicator like Rachel. I’m grateful for the wisdom of all of our Elders, including two women. I am grateful for the ability for women to lead and serve based on their gifts and not their gender.

Yet, at the same time, I am grieved that in many places in the church, that is not reality. I’m grieved that not only are there incredibly gifted women who have no place to use their gifts in the church, but I’m grieved by what those churches are missing out on. The women in our churches have much more to contribute than just a perspective on “female specific topics”, and many churches are missing that. I’m grieved as I read the stories of women who feel silenced, oppressed and not valued in the churches that they love. 

So, to my friends who lead churches where there are incredibly gifted women who don’t fit into the narrow roles that you have defined as acceptable for them. As you find yourself in battles as they try use their gifts, and you don’t have a place for them…Send them my way. We have a church full of strong, capable women serving and using their gifts, but I could always use even more role models for my daughter. I don’t know that I have a better answer than that. I can’t change your church, but I can keep making sure that there is space in the one I lead for people to serve with the gifts God has given them, regardless of gender. 

Sermon Prep – Follow Up to SermonSmith Podcast

Recently, John Chandler interviewed me on his new podcast, SermonSmith. It’s a great podcast, interviewing pastors about sermon preparation. It’s such a significant part of the job, that not a lot of people are talking about. If you preach or teach on a regular basis, I’d highly recommend checking it out.

On the podcast I mentioned that I am not a good extemporaneous speaker. I ramble, I repeat myself, and I forget half of what I wanted to say. Which is exactly the case when John interviewed me. Before he called me, I had thought about all kinds of things to say about my sermon prep, and proceeded to forget most of it when we talked. 

So, I thought I’d follow up here with a few things I didn’t mention in the interview.

Sermon Prep is incredibly hard work for me

It does not come easily or naturally for me. I enjoy teaching, but the preparation for the teaching is something that I agonize over. I can read and study if it has nothing to do with something I’m preparing to teach on, and I enjoy it and get a ton out of it. But, when I’m studying for a specific sermon or series, it is incredibly hard for me. For me, it’s a discipline that I have to intentionally engage in. For those who just naturally engage in it…I hate you… :)

I’ve had to learn the discipline of holding onto sermon illustrations

My temptation is to have something happen or to come across something that I think will be a great sermon illustration, and then to want to use it that weekend. Because of how I use Evernote (something I talk about some in the podcast), I am able to file that illustration in order to use it when it would work best, rather than trying to cram it into a message just because it is there (which is what I used to do).

A lot comes to me through in-direct study

Although I do record and catalogue quite a bit as I mentioned in the podcast, I also am constantly taking in information that I don’t capture. Listening to podcasts, reading books, magazines, newspapers, etc – there is a constant influx of information. All of that information is in some ways, synthesizing in your mind, and at times you’re making connections without a focused effort to. You will have a thought, that you think is original, but it’s really not, it’s simply coming out of a collection of things that you have in some unintentional way synthesized in your brain. So, I try to take in a lot of info, and sometimes something comes out of it.

Sunday forces me to have to ship

Seth Godin talks about how professionals always ship. They don’t just talk about an idea, they actually ship an idea. If Sunday didn’t show up every week, I wouldn’t ship. The impending Sunday forces me to have to come up with something. People are showing up and I’ve got to have something to say. On Monday, I may have had a great sermon the day before, but the next one is what’s on my mind now. In some ways, that showed up in the interview. John asked me for an example of something I had done in a previous sermon, and I honestly couldn’t think of it, because the way that I work, I have to move on to the next one.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to what I do in sermon prep than just that. I talk more about it in the interview, which you should check out, not because of me, but more because of the others who are being interviewed. I’m already trying new things, and incorporating new ideas into my sermon prep because of it. Thanks John for doing this, it’s a much needed discussion.