2Q13 Book Briefs

These are the books I read from April through June this year. I just switched from a seasonal list to a quarterly list, though my reading habits and desires continue to be greatly influenced by the rhythms of the seasons. I am also working through Carson’s commentary on John and The Valley of Vision this year.

The Atonement – Loraine Boettner (1941); Kindle // Read in the weeks leading up to Resurrection Sunday. Short but encouraging exposition on the centrality and magnitude of the death of Christ.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of HereticsRoss Douthat (2012); Print // Read for an informal book discussion with guys from church. Interesting journalistic sociological/historical look at the demise of orthodoxy in the 20th century and the importance of its resurgence.

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation – James K.A. Smith (2009); Print // The most thought provoking book I’ve read in a while. False dichotomies aside, it’s an interesting work on worship, our most basic motivators, and cultural liturgies. Smith argues that our doctrine and belief should flow from our worship and practice, and not vice versa.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan (2012); Print // Really fun summer read. Mysteries of a secret society for bibliophiles founded by one of the first book printers pursued by young technophile designer types. Nerdy and technical at times, in a charming, fun sort of way (if that’s possible).

Poetry as a Means of Grace – Charles Osgood (1940); Print // The first chapter alone is worth the print-on-demand fee of this out-of-print gem. Praises the merits of reading poetry and adopting a poetic giant into one’s life. Originally written for pastors, but beneficial for laity as well.

A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World – Paul Miller (2009); Kindle // More casual and informal than I expected, though that’s not a bad thing. Helpful in cultivating a more aware, consistent, and relationship-oriented prayer life. Chapters on helplessness and praying without ceasing were especially good.

Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us – Michael Moss (2013); Print // This book made me never want to buy anything processed ever again – organic or not. Journalism at its best: this is not an alarmist work but a well researched and well written expose. Brief summary here.

The Selected Poems of Wendell BerryWendell Berry (1999); Print // Like Berry’s fiction, themes of nature, place, marriage, death, and land saturate his poetry. Down to earth, understandable, yet profound. Favorites include: The Broken Ground, Marriage, and We Who Prayed and Wept.


Mangoes and stones

I bought Mikayla a mango the other day. They were on sale at the grocery store, and I thought to myself, “Self, that would be a fun, delicious treat for Mikayla to try.” A good gift for her, so to speak.

In line with how my mind jumps from random topic to random topic, I started thinking of Matthew 7:11:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

This passage is perhaps the most precious and profound passage of Scripture that I have appreciated most since becoming a father. In this passage, Christ isn’t speaking to the wicked Pharisees, who are easy to criticize and who are easy self esteem boosters. No, Christ is speaking to His disciples, the apostles, those paragons of truth and boldness later in the New Testament.

Two thousand years later, this passage is also spoken to us as Jesus’ disciples, and we are grouped with the disciples as “evil.” We sing with David, “I am evil, born in sin.” Though we are evil and born in sin, we still don’t give our children a stone instead of bread or a snake instead of fish. “How much more, then, will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Remember that we’re not happy-go-lucky, health-and-wealth Christians. Thus, the “good things” here are not only the bountiful, easy-to-spot, good gifts God lavishes on His own. It’s not just the mangoes. Everything that comes from His hand is ultimately good: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6).

The Lord knows what we need even more than a loving father knows what his children need. I know (imperfectly) when to give my kids good gifts and when they need loving discipline. If that’s the case for lowly, evil me, how much more can I trust God when He gives me what I need, and more perfectly than I know what I need? Good and bad, easy and difficult, plenty and want, edifying and sanctifying. What does this truth say about me when I question His purposes?

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)

Exporting what we don’t have?

You’ve probably heard the phrase that someone is “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good” or vice versa. But is it also true that it’s possible to be too overseas minded to be any local good? Doug Wilson thinks so, applying Matthew 23:15 to current “missional zeal” in his brief post titled “Here and There Both.”

What you practice at home is the show you take on the road. What you grow in your fields is what you load on the trucks. Compassing sea and land doesn’t generate a new message. The way you live when you get on the plane is going to be the single best indicator of how you live when you get off the plane. In short, don’t expect geographical location to fix anything. The principle is this: you export whatever it is you are manufacturing…Not only do you export what you have, you cannot export what you don’t have.”

Reading, PA, by J. Kourkounis, New York Times

Wilson is absolutely not against foreign missions. But his point is that there is a nuance; this is a both/and situation and not an either/or. If someone feels called to overseas missions, one of the signs church leadership can look for before confirming their call is to see what their local missions efforts look like. Or, if someone has been approved for foreign missions work, what are they doing in the meantime before they are sent?

I think this can be generally applied to those of us who aren’t explicitly called to missions, too. Are we praying, thinking, loving, giving, and acting locally as well as globally? Are we concerned for the Amish in Lancaster or the white middle class family down the street to hear the gospel, and burdened for those in the country’s poorest city (Reading, PA) in addition to the lost in Eastern Europe and the starving and orphaned in Africa? Wilson writes:

“This is why reformation and revival in our churches here is a necessary precondition for effective evangelism there. Say that someone says he has a real burden ‘for the lost’ in Wango Bango. Say that the person at church he is speaking to suggests they spend that afternoon going door-to-door at student housing for the local university. There are lost people here too. Suppose further that the evangelistic ardor of the prospective missionary suddenly wanes. This is a bad sign, and it is a bad sign of what I am talking about.”

I want to be careful because there is definitely nuance. I know that the church, the body of Christ, is a complex, diverse organism and not everyone can be the hands of giving or the feet of going or the mouth of preaching – and not everyone can be all of them at once. So I agree, to a point, with Wilson that “The first step in foreign missions is domestic mission. The first step toward Africa is right across the street.” I’d also recommend the related book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, by Corbett and Fikkert (Moody, 2009). Is Wilson right? Does his position need to be nuanced more? Is he way off?

Christ’s Ascension and Ministry

This post may be a bit premature considering we are in the midst of the Lenten season and Ascension Sunday is not until May 13. Nonetheless, I was struck in Luke’s account of the ascension in Luke 24 and Acts 1 about the continuing role of the ascended Christ to his elect. The Reformation Study Bible’s notes on the ascension helped crystallize my thoughts as well. As explained in the notes, the ascension of Christ established three facts:

1. Christ’s personal ascendancy: Not necessarily a literal ascending upwards into the clouds as his final destination (it is instead a sign of exaltation, authority, and God’s presence), but a coming into His rule over the universe at the Father’s right hand.

2. Christ’s spiritual omnipresence: Seated at the right hand of the Father, Christ is accessible to all who call upon His name.

3. Christ’s heavenly ministry: Interceding for His people for the Father.

This third point especially struck me. Intercession does involve supplication on our behalf as we pray, which is how I mainly thought of Christ’s intercessory ministry. But if Christ’s intercessory ministry was only this supplication on our behalf, it would be left as merely one of reactive sympathy, without the status or authority (p. 1505) that He rightly possesses.

The other main aspect of this intercession that was lost on me is “intervention in our interest…In sovereignty He now lavishes upon us the benefits that His suffering won for us. From His throne He sends the Holy Spirit constantly to enrich His people and equip them for service.” As Paul writes in Ephesians 4 in the context of the Body and unity, when He ascended, “He led a host of captives and He gave gifts to men.” When Christ does make requests of the Father, but He also providentially and sovereignly works on our behalf for our good by continually giving us gifts. His intercessory ministry is anything but passive or reactive, but is living and active!

A Prayer for the Broken Hearted

Here are the lyrics to Chelsey Scott’s beautifully haunting “A Prayer for the Broken Hearted” from the new Indelible Grace acoustic album. The words are an adaptation of an old Puritan prayer (from the Valley of Vision).

No day in my life has past
That hasn’t proved me guilty;
Prayers are uttered too fast
From a heart that’s cold and empty.

Oh blessed Jesus,
May we find a covert in Thy wounds;
Though our sins, they rise to meet us,
How they fall next to the merits of you.

Oh, all in me calls for this,
It calls for my rejection;
This heavy unrighteousness,
Oh, is there no protection?

My best services are rags;
My best deeds are filthy.

Grant me hear Thy shoring voice,
That in Thy wounds is pardon;
Grant me see Thy willing choice
To make my hard heart softened.

Keep the broken-hearted sure,
Clinging to Thy cross, our cure.

Oh blessed Jesus,
May we find a covert in Thy wounds;
Though our sins, they rise to meet us,
How they fall next to the merits of you.

Corporate Prayer of Confession

The liturgical style used at our church (Covenant Reformed Church [URC] in New Holland) is one part traditional Reformed and one part covenant renewal. We start with a call to worship and psalm/hymn of praise, followed by a section titled in the bulletin “God renews His covenant with us.” We read the law, confess our sins corporately and privately, receive assurance of pardon, and (sometimes, and not permanently) celebrate the Lord’s Supper during this time.

This old Puritan prayer was what we used as the corporate confession of sin a couple weeks ago. I thought it was powerful and well-written, so I wanted to re-post it here. I have researched the original source, but I have not found it yet. I have a feeling it is contained in the Valley of Vision.

Our God – Eternal Father, You are good beyond all thought, but we are vile, wretched, miserable, and blind; our lips are ready to confess, but our hearts are slow to feel, and we are reluctant to amend our ways.

We bring our souls to You; break them, bend them, and mold them. Unmask to us sin’s deformity, that we may hate it, abhor it, and flee from it.

Our faculties have been a weapon of revolt against You. As rebels we have misused our strength, and served the foul adversary of Your kingdom. Give us grace to bewail our insensitive folly. Grant that we may know and remember that: when we are tempted to sin, the way or the transgressor is hard, evil paths are wretched paths, and to depart from You is to lose all good.

We have seen the purity and beauty of Your perfect Law, the happiness of those in whose heart it reigns, the calm dignity of the walk to which it calls, yet we daily violate and condemn its precepts.

Your loving Spirit strives within us, brings us to Scripture’s warnings, speaks in startling Providences, allures by secret whispers, yet we choose devices and desires to our own hurt, impiously resent, grieve, and provoke Him to abandon us.

All of these sins we mourn, lament, and for them cry pardon. Work in us a more profound and abiding repentance; give us the fullness of a godly grief that trembles and fears, yet ever trusts and loves, which is ever powerful, and ever confident. Grant that through the tears of repentance we may see more clearly the brightness and glories of the saving cross. Amen.

Len’s Blessing

Over Christmas break, Elizabeth and I spent a night with the Richards in Williamsport. While there, Len gave me a hand-written copy of the blessing he read at our wedding two and a half years ago. I thought I’d type it out and share it on the Internets for posterity’s sake. This blessing and my Dad’s prayer are some of our favorite memories of our wedding day. Now I just need to watch our wedding DVD and transcribe my dad’s prayer.

For Joel and Liz,

As each day unfolds, the Lord calls us to approach that day as one filled with wonder, amazement, and opportunity. A gift from God to be used to bring Him honor and glory. We are called to fill each day with all the love that lives within us, with goodness, with charity, with kindness, with generosity. May your life together take shape day by day. May these vows of marriage in the name of Jesus Christ be the cornerstone on which your life is built. May the visions you both hold dearest be those that come to pass. May the lives you touch and the friendships you make be those that endure.

As your hearts are full of love, may the world always be filled with the beauty that He gives to us. May you always realize how precious the gift is that God has given to you both – the heart of the one you love. May He bless you with many merry days. May everything you do in life reflect that special glow of the Holy Spirit who dwells within.

May contentment always latch your door. May the Lord make your relationships a great and holy adventure together. May you surrender to the King – your conflicts and your burdens. May you always be guided in the ways of holiness. May your relationship together be as a burst of light; a fount of love and wisdom for you both, for your family, for your community, for our world. May you always remember that in each other you have the most beautiful woman, the most beautiful man. Yes, even the strongest one in whose loving arms you are repaired and made whole all over again. May you remain forever young in your marriage. May you grow each day in wisdom and in your desire to serve one another as you both serve the King of Kings – our Lord, our Savior, our God, Jesus Christ.

In His name we pray, Amen.