Category Archives: Faith

God, hope, struggle, perspective, the Bible, church, love.

DIY Degrees: 18 Books for a Year of Thinking Christianly

If wishes were horses, beggars could go to Denver Seminary.  Alas, my horsiest wishes have not given me a wallet of fat cash to go back to school at the moment, but if I could, I would love to take classes on Christ and culture, philosophy, apologetics, and theology.  I’d take classes on Christianity and the arts, poetry, worldview, the Inklings.  In point of fact, I have listened to master’s level classes while I do the dishes, free classes provided by Gordon Conwell or lectures on Youtube.  Ryan Reeves has posted a wealth of material, entire courses on Lewis and Tolkien, Reformation history, and historical theology, enough intellectual stimulation to make the chores fly.  But as I watch my husband buckle down and tackle a Ph.D., I’m amazed at his tenacity, his focus.  Without the accountability, I’d never make myself read the challenging stuff, the brain-stretchers.

Why not?  Why can’t I make a decision, flip a switch, go to the library?  Well, I know me.  I know how I battle laziness and perpetual distraction.  I know how deadlines and threats motivate me in a way lofty dreams never seem to do.  But I also know that it’s silly on some level, childish, really, to wait to fork over vast sums of money to study books that are available largely for free.

One of the great wonders of the internet is the availability of other people’s must-read, must-see, must-do bucket lists.  You can hop on Goodreads and find out what your mentors want to read.  You can peek at Tim Challies’s book reading resolutions, the syllabus of any class at any school.  What a treasure!  A Do-It-Yourself degree!  Well, maybe not quite.  But a good place to start.

Here’s my thought:  even though I never quite accomplish all the things I hope to do, all of the goal-setting and dreaming has a way of changing me.  It’s like those prayers that God never answers in the way I want — the act of praying still changes my heart.  Thinking through what I want to read, what I want to learn, has a way of raising my sights.  Even if I get through only half of what I hope to do, that’s still a lot more progress than I’d make watching Gilmore Girl re-runs on Netflix.

As Challies has pointed out, lots of fantastic books (usually current bestsellers and classics) are available in audio format, and I can usually find a good audio book to download from my local library.  While I was thinking through my Thinking Christianly gotta-read list, I chose the first one I found available for download to start with.  I’m halfway through Tim Keller’s Reason for God, taking it up whenever I’m in the car or scrubbing pots.  I doubt very many of my theologically-heavy books will be possible to find that way, but the good news is that most of my just-for-fun books are.  That means I can listen to novels while I sort laundry and save the seminary stuff for actual feet-up-in-the-evening paper book reading or morning quiet times.

So here’s the beginning of my list — we’ll call it Year One.  I’ll aim for about a book and a half per month.  I’ll never finish!  But that’s no reason not to start.  I tried to balance old and new, exciting and daunting, theological (by which I mean theology in the academic sense — what do I really believe about the person of God) and cultural.

  1. Reason for God, Tim Keller
  2. Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon
  3. Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves
  4. Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson
  5. How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer
  6. Let the Nations be Glad, John Piper
  7. Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr
  8. Christ and Culture Revisited, D. A. Carson
  9. This Day, Wendell Berry
  10. Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  11. Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers
  12. The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis
  13. Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness
  14. The Only Wise God, William Lane Craig
  15. Wisdom and Wonder, Abraham Kuyper
  16. Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor
  17. Valley of Vision
  18. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance

What’s on your list?

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Perspective Podcast

Blessed to be a guest on Chris Arnzen’s “Iron Sharpens Iron” show this week!  Loved the opportunity to linger in conversation a while, and I hope it will give you some food for thought while you jog/do the dishes/drive a bus/bathe a dog.  (Does anyone do anything without multi-tasking any more?)    

Whatever Comes (a devotional for the day)

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us…”  (II Peter 1:3)

Everything I need.  Every little blessed thing I ever needed, or ever will– that’s what God gives me?  Then hiding behind what I think I need there must be a deeper need, not a bigger house, but contentment; not a squabble to end, but love.  And posted on that closet full of goodness is a sign:  “Free for the Taking.”

Do I need hope?  He is my living hope.  Do I need light?  The Lord is my light and my salvation.  Whether the deep need of my soul today is rest and healing, shelter and peace, or I need strength for battle, a sword and a shield, God is my fortress.  There is no lack in my life he cannot provide–wisdom, friendship, joy, or love.  There is no moment his eye is not upon me, no place his arms cannot reach, no depths to which he will not go to find me.  There is no calamity which takes him by surprise, no situation out of his gracious good will.  He is warmth and kindness.  He is unassailable in power, matchless in beauty, victorious over every enemy, gentle as a shepherd.

Why are you downcast, o my soul?  For I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

Charles Spurgeon wrote, “the Lord seems to say, ‘I am yours, soul; come and make use of me as you will.  You may freely come to my store, and the more you come, the more welcome you will be.’  It is our own fault if we do not enjoy the riches of our God…. Never be wanting while you have a God to go to; never fear or faint while you have God to help you; go to your treasure and take whatever you need– there is all that you can ever want.”

Lord, whatever comes, make me steadfast, make me rooted.

When you want to trade Little for Big.

They are still small, mini-people, with that baby fine hair and the imperfect use of pronouns.  But every single one already has strong opinions, big plans.  “Mine,” says one. “I want purple.”  She snatches a block, fierce and determined.  Her tower is prodigious (maybe six inches tall).  She guards it with a look that means trouble is coming; the boy next to her grins and his arm swings.  Purple blocks go flying.

She has built her little masterpiece with great care, but doesn’t yet know the rules of the game.  Nothing built under the sun will last.

Ecclesiastes says it loud and clear:  “I came to hate all my hard work here on earth, for I must leave to others everything I have earned.   And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless!  So I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world.” (Ecc. 2:18-20, NLT)  

It’s a knowledge that can drive you mad or set you free depending on your perspective.  Howard Hughes?  Crazy as a loon.  Ernest Hemingway?  Despondent to the point of death.  It was Hemingway who once wrote, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”  It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that life is short and work is hard.

Still, tilt your head another way and it’s a beauty that will knock you down.  Sometimes artists grab onto this, chiseling their sculptures in sand or ice or melting candles.  Even the medium they choose testifies to the truth:  life is so, so very short.  Like a fabulous sunset or a towering stormcloud, we live for a brief, incandescent moment, and then we are gone.  It's the blink-and-you'll-miss-it quality of life that makes it so precious.

But we little people like to do big things.  We want to build the Taj Majal, the Great Wall — but even those are an earthquake away from oblivion.  Our best efforts are more like the ancient mosaic archaeologists uncovered last year:  a happy skeleton with his wine bottle proclaiming, “Be cheerful, enjoy your life.”  Yep.  Chew on that irony for a minute.

So we squirm, we scorn our little lives.  We miss things of eternal value because they are small and transient, and we are reaching for grand and magnificent.  But what if the things that really last, that really matter, are intangible?  We see “through a glass darkly,” a wobbly, cloudy image of what’s real.  But one day we’ll step into the light and see clearly.

In an absolutely fascinating BBC video you can watch a Japanese pufferfish on the ocean floor–happy little guy, living his fishy little life far from Hollywood.  He seems to have found the secret of joy “under the sun,” embracing his momentary existence with verve.  He is just like us, small and insignificant, committed to projects that will soon wash away.  And yet in his own little way he whispers his winsome secret in his quiet corner of the sea.  It really is a marvel (you have to see it to believe it), but this engaging creature went undetected through all of history until just now.  The BBC comments, “Its fragility has no doubt played a role in this undiscovered secret. The structure has no permanence, or any need for permanence. Perhaps its simplicity has rendered previous witnesses confused or merely unimpressed.”  Think of it, such a wonder happening year after year, never seen or celebrated by the likes of us.  What kind of God bothers to make such crazy spectacles, only to keep them hidden for millennia?

My small son commented that our fishy friend has painted the sun, just as it would look from a rippling under-the-sea perspective.  I would like to say to Solomon that even “under the sun” there is beauty.

A fish that makes God smile.  A sandcastle that will soon erode away.  A life that flashes by, but touches other lives that touch other lives that touch other lives…

A diaper changed.  A nursing home visit.  A cup of hot chocolate for cold, homeless hands.  A field plowed and sown, weeded and fertilized, not just the once, but year after year after year.  Choosing joy when your heart aches and it would be so easy to just give up, choosing to serve when you’d rather sleep.  These little things are slow, unseen, difficult, and generally monotonous.  They remind us that we have more in common with strange, small fish than Michelangelo, and even Michelangelo is more fishy than forever.

Don’t be too quick to exchange Little for Big.  Maybe in the end, a little love is all that lasts.

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photo credit:  BBC

Glory in the Grilled Cheese

What’s a good career path for a girl who just wants to change the world?  Stay at home mom, right?  Wait…

I’m a person who feels strongly what Courtney Reissig calls the “pull of the spectacular.”  I want my short life to count.  I want to do eternal things with the days I’ve been given.  I wanna imitate the disciples, 12 ordinary guys who turned the world upside down.  And the world needs changing.  It’s so broken!  There is so much injustice, so much poverty; it breaks my heart.  In college, I studied great writers, great thinkers, great teachers and revolutionaries.  I studied the lives of missionaries and politicians, and I wanted to be one of them.

I’m all about doing big things.  If I help to plan an event, I want 1,000 people to show up.  If I write a book, I want 1,000,000 to buy it.  I want to do big things for God, but that’s not the commission He has given me.  Evidently, He wants me to do small things with great love.  He wants to take center stage, not to shine a spotlight on me.

So I’m a stay at home mom.  I don’t even have a dozen children to boast of, just three.  I spend my days assigning books to read, catching up on a sinkful of dirty dishes, and cooking.  I don’t even cook amazing gourmet meals — we eat a lot of cereal.  My house is always in need of a good scrub, and I’m perpetually behind on school with the kids.  So what does it mean to be faithful in exile as a mom?  It’s what my husband calls “the peculiar glory of humble circumstances.”

First, I think being faithful means having faith.  Having faith, as we teach our little ones, that “God is great,” and “God is good.”  He is mighty, He is thoughtful, and He is sovereign over all of the little details of my life.  He doesn’t need me to accomplish great things; He’s got “great” covered.  Just as I can trust Him for my salvation, I can trust Him to make all things beautiful in His time—including all the little details of my life.  And little things can be eternally significant, like little mustard seeds that grow up into towering trees.

I think being faithful means loving God—ridiculously.  It means worshipping Him with a glad, full heart, day in and day out, even when my days kinda start to look the same from one to the next.  My primary contribution to the world is to adore and enjoy Jesus with my husband, with my children, with all of y’all.  It’s not about me at all.

I think being faithful means loving my neighbor extravagantly.  In this case, my most obvious neighbors are Michael, Josh, Abbey, and Patrick.  When I wash a pan that somebody made a grilled cheese in, I am loving my neighbor.  When I do the bills, I am loving my neighbor.  It’s not glamorous, but it is God-honoring.  And frankly I don’t even do it for my family, I do it for Jesus.  Whenever we give a cup of cold water in His name, He receives it as a gift to Himself.

And finally, I think being faithful in exile means remembering that what matters eternally far outweighs what matters for a fleeting moment.  Love is significant, because it plants seeds that bloom in eternity.  Our lives are really, really short, but every moment that we dedicate to the Lord will have long-lasting impact.

We are in exile here, in a broken and fallen world.  There are “thorns and thistles” — obstacles and tediousness and heartache galore.  As a stay at home mom, I experience this exile as a long wait, a wait for Home.  And whenever I can serve with humility and love, I am reminded of Jesus’ exile here on earth.  He did not seek fame and fortune; He came to love extravagantly, to serve ceaselessly, and to lay down His life for you and me.  Any frustration I feel at being mired in little chores is swallowed up by awe when I consider the God who came to our little earth out of a great, great love.

This post was written for a quick testimony at church.  We’ve been walking through the book of Daniel (check it out!) and considering what it means to be faithful in exile.  Each week someone from the congregation has shared what faithfulness looks like in their unique context.  This was me taking a stab at it.

Ecclesiastes and Pretzels

Grisham, Hemingway, Melville, U2, The Byrds, Dave Matthews, and debatably, Pink Floyd.  What do they all have in common?  They’ve all borrowed (stolen?) from Ecclesiastes.  Who can blame them?  What is not to love?  This is the book for our times:  from drinking to free love to despondent fatalism, it’s like the lyric sheet of our postmodern age.  And yet…

My husband Michael says every time he embarks on preaching a new sermon series through a book of the Bible, that book becomes his new favorite.  So when I gush about Ecclesiastes lately, he sorta smiles with that knowing kind of smile you reserve for the little kid who’s going on about Spiderman.  “It’s good, right?  And next month when you’re reading Ephesians, it’ll be good too.”  But oh my goodness.  I love this book.

7f741f5c86250ef4af7c7d5222865eccI have always had a soft spot for Ecclesiastes, ever since writing a paper on The Sun Also Rises in college.  Hemingway was such a peacock, strutting around with his pithy declarations about the vanity of life—how could a 20-year-old English major not have a literary crush on the man?  He spoke for a jaded generation, much like my own.  How can there be meaning in a world of war and suffering?  How can our sadness and loss be redeemed?  Hemingway would probably say, it can’t.  And yet…

You gotta love a book that grapples (in the place of justice, even there was wickedness—3:16), a book that doesn’t pull punches (all things are full of weariness, a man cannot utter it—1:8), a book that dives deep (In the day of prosperity be joyful and in the day of adversity consider:  God has made the one as well as the other—7:14).  When non-Christians sneer at my Pollyanna faith, let them take a crack at Ecclesiastes.  It’s more bracing than a bottle of whisky, more honest than their “find your own truth.”

Philip Ryken says, “Ecclesiastes is not the kind of book that we keep reading until we reach the end and get the answer, like a mystery.  Instead, it is a book in which we keep struggling with the problems of life and, as we struggle, we learn to trust God with the answers even when we do not have all the answers.”  Like the difference between art and propaganda, Ecclesiastes has no problem leaving you with your mouth ajar.  It presents a puzzle to be solved, a question to be considered.  It is not easy.  And yet…

I love Ecclesiastes, because it is a book of joy.  It is a book which lets you fall down the rabbit hole of our culture’s hollow promises and see them for what they are—empty.  Then, just when you’re starting to feel serious vertigo, it lands you on solid ground—real truth and beauty.  Like Bunyan’s Christian crying out to Hopeful as they cross the river into Heaven, Ecclesiastes says, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

You won’t find any answers in pleasure, treasure, philosophy, or toil.  Just ask Tom Brady.  Ask Jack from 30 Rock, or John D. Rockefeller, or anyone who’s ever won the lottery.  Hang out in a nursing home, and ask the residents what mattered most.  And then ask Ecclesiastes.  Bring your doubts, your fears, your losses, your dreams.  As Derek Kidner put it, “in the final chapters he has good news for us, once we can stop pretending that what is mortal is enough for us, who have been given a capacity for the eternal.”

What is mortal is never enough for a person with the capacity for everlasting joy.

Ecclesiastes is like the pretzels freely given at a bar to make its patrons thirsty.  If you aren’t thirsty yet, a few verses in?  You will be.

Do you remember that scene from The Hobbit—when Bilbo and pals were lost and woozy from the suffocating air of a cursed forest?  Bilbo groggily climbed a tree—up and up until he broke out above the canopy and sucked in fresh air with a gasp.  His head cleared; he spotted in the distance their destination; and suddenly he understood what to do.  Sometimes you have to get a better vantage point to see the big picture.  As I said in Thirty Thousand Days, “In all the days of our earth-bound lives, there is only one thing essential to the journey, one thing which is the solution to all our woes, one thing capable of bringing light, clarity, joy, purpose or meaning into our existence. God alone is not bound to the sour sadness of the fall. He is above, beyond, and outside this sin-sick planet, not stuck ‘under the sun’ with us.”

I am so thirsty.  You?