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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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,
”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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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”