top five books of 2015

This year’s “top five” (technically six) are near and dear to my heart. I always attempt to read broadly. This year I’ve especially seemed to have read from a broad spectrum of books. Most all of the ones that I read this year could have made this list. However, these were particularly engaging (and renewing)….

51ACcP3EhHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen is a book of hope. It reveals not only our capacity for ministering out of the healing the Gospel of Jesus provides, but the design of God as we minister out of that God-ordained healing. In a world defined by it’s brokenness, believers are defined by the healing that only those of the Kingdom embrace. If you are familiar with Nouwen then you know that every word of his writings centers upon spiritual formation and spiritual renewal. The Wounded Healer is no exception. If you are not familiar with Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer is an excellent place to begin.

for calvinismI thoroughly enjoyed reading two books designed to work in tandem with one another:against calvinism For Calvinism written by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olson. Horton is professor of theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Olson is professor of theology at Truett Seminary at Baylor University. Both men are friends, and wrote the forwards for one another’s book, each being fully respectful of the other’s theological perspective, all the while making a concise case for their own systematic theology and belief system (note the tulips full of life on the left and wilted to the right). Whether Protestant or Catholic, Reformed or Arminian, Hyper-Calvinist or Remonstrant to the core, one of the brilliant aspects of these two works is the call to fully understand and respect where one another’s beliefs are founded, even, and especially, when we do not agree with the conclusions drawn.

surprised by hopeSimply Christian, Simply Jesus, and How God Became King are some of my favorite books by NT Wright. Wright’s hardwired academic posture and intentional pastoral heart are evident in his writing and ministry (I listen to Wright’s podcast constantly in the car). Surprised by Hope has possibly edged out How God Became King for my all time favorite book from my friend Tom’s pen. Surprised by Hope (a play on CS Lewis’ Surprised by Joy) is not only extremely readable (Wright can tend to be unashamedly very academic) but also super applicable and engaging for today’s postmodern/postChristian culture. Don’t allow the subheading “Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” deter you. You won’t agree with everything in the book (if I only read those I full agreed with I’d only read me), I don’t, but you will indeed be challenged to think more critically in regard to the Kingdom of God and our role as those who are so blessed dwell within it.

interior castleWhen I propose these books each year I will often acknowledge that they have not all been written within the previous year or even previous several years. The Interior Castle is 427 years old. That’s probably a record for this venue. In The Interior Castle (El Castillo Interior), Teresa of Avila describes how, upon entering the “castle” (sense the concept of protection, safety, peace) through prayer and meditation, the human spirit experiences humility, detachment, suffering, and, ultimately, self-knowledge, as it roams from room to room. As we progress further toward the center of the castle, we come closer to achieving indefinable and perfect peace, and, finally, divine communion with God. Like her contemporary John of the Cross (cf. Dark Night of the Soul) Teresa is a Renaissance mystic. Out of the ancient mystic worldview we catch a glimpse of the contemporary call to spiritual discipline, humility, and to be overwhelmed by God.

eager to loveI’ve intentionally read much over the last number of years in pursuit of better understanding of, and better practice of, spiritual disciplines. My first book Renaissance: The End of Religion and Beginning of Something New focused on spiritual formation. My current work, Fortress: Timeless Spiritual Disciplines for Contemporary Christian Life, centers on spiritual disciplines (I’m only about a year into writing and still have several more before it’ll be released into the wild). I say all of that because much of my reading is bent in the direction of spiritual practices. Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi by Richard Rohr portrays the “alternative way” of following Jesus as revealed in the life of Francis of Assisi: one that disregarded power and privilege and held fast to the narrow path of the Gospel of Jesus. Rohr helps us look “beyond the birdbath image of the saint” to remind us of the long tradition founded upon his revolutionary, radical, and life-changing embrace of the teachings of Jesus. Rohr draws upon Scripture, insights from psychology, and literary and artistic references, to weave together an understanding of the tradition as practiced by Francis of Assisi. Rohr, a Franciscan priest, depicts how his own worldview and theology are firmly grounded in this way of life and teaching, and provides a perspective on how this “alternative way” to God can deepen and enrich our spiritual lives.

Well, there you have it. This year’s top five.

I read more than a dozen other books this year.

But if you ask me, these five are a perfect place to start.

Glory to God!

Jason

anyone

water“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink” (John 7:37).

Anyone.  Anyone who is thirsty.  Anyone.  Anyone who thirsts.  Anyone who has become dissatisfied with a lifeless life.  Discontent with existing but not living.  Anyone.

Jesus stands on the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles and declares that for those who are spiritually thirsty, living water is a present reality.

During the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles there were two primary ceremonies.  One was the Festival of Lights in which lamps were lit all around the Temple courtyard on the final night commemorating the restoration of the Temple by the Maccabees during the intertestamental period.  It is as the light of these lamps floods the Temple grounds that Jesus stands and exclaims, “I AM the Light of the World.”  Earlier on the final day of Tabernacles was the water libation ceremony in which water would be poured out before the people upon an altar symbolizing the water from the rock in the desert wandering (Exodus 17) through which God saved and provided for His people.  It is during this ceremony that Jesus stands and declares, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as Scripture reveals, streams of living water will flow” (John 7:37-38).

Ripples in the Blue WaterA few chapters earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus had spoken similar words to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst again” (John 4:13-14).

“This water” (I envision Jesus motioning toward the well).  Physical water.  The water of this world.  Or “living water.”  The choice is ours.

Why do we continue to believe that this world has anything to offer that satisfies?  Why do we find ourselves returning to the well of despair?  The well of heartache?  The well of futility?  Rather than drinking deep from the well of life?  The living water of the Kingdom of Jesus.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8a).

“As the deer pants for streams of water so my souls longs for you O God.  My soul thirsts for the Living God” (Psalm 42:1-2a).

Living God.  Living water.  Life that is life.  Life that is filled.  For anyone who is thirsty.  Anyone.

Glory to God!

Jason

getting off the ladder

princess in front of mirrorWhen we are children, we think about what we will become.  Who we will become.  We dream of who we will be.  What we will do.  The things we will accomplish.

It’s doubtful that we’ve all become cowboys, astronauts, and racecar drivers.  We learn to adapt.  We change our minds.  We face setbacks.

ladderAll of this thinking, however, is on a physical level.  No matter how high we climb the ladder our view is seriously impeded until we begin to see life through spiritual eyes.  Only when we get off the ladder and begin to ascend the mountain of God does the view ever change.  Only when we ascend the mountain does our perspective change.

The Psalmist exclaims to God, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:13).

The Apostle Paul pens, “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).

And in Ephesians 2:10 he affirms, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

mountainRegardless of vocation.  Regardless of situation.  Regardless of circumstance.  Regardless of victory or defeat.  To begin to see every moment of life as God-ordained.  Christ-centered.  Spirit-filled. And Kingdom-embracing.

God meets His people not at the top of the ladder, but upon the mountain (Hebrews 12:22).

Too often we assess our value as to where we are on the ladder (physical), rather than how we are living up to our calling as believers (spiritual).

When we get off the ladder and begin to climb the mountain of God it is then that we not only begin to become acutely aware of our calling in life, but it is then, and only then, that we begin to achieve the very things that our Father has created us and purposed us to do.

Glory to God!

Jason

“q” time

hourglassI wonder what is important to you?

Sometimes life gets in the way and what is urgent gets in the way of that which is important. The lines between what is urgent and what is important are often blurred.  A deadline that must be met.   A project that is past due.  A meeting that needs to be attended.  A person that requires your attention.  Are these urgent or important?  It very often might be that they are indeed both.

time bombOur priorities are easily revealed.  And it’s not as if the urgent mustn’t sometimes temporarily outweigh the important.  But the amount of time and attention we give to any particular person or practice tends to grant us insight into that which comprises our priorities.

We may say that our family is a priority to us, but if what our children see in us is that we are capable of granting all sorts of time and energy toward other people and other endeavors, and little time toward them, what does it communicate to them in regard to where they rate on our scale of priorities?  We may say (and even believe) that we love our spouse more than any other person on the face of the planet, but if we spend more time on the golf course or more energy at the office than we’d ever think about affording to them, what is communicated to them as to how intentional we are in validating the relationship that we share?  And what about God?  Where does He fit in?  We say that God is first in our lives?  Is He really?  How much focus is centered upon God during the course of your week?  Take church attendance out of the picture.  What attention does He receive?

tranquilSomehow we’ve found it extremely easy to con ourselves into believing that right theology equals right relationship.  The truth is, if our theology was right, we would find it all together impossible to think this way.

John Stott in his work, “The Living Church,” describes how on his calendar he would mark the letter “Q” on one specific day each month (Stott passed away in 2011).  The “Q” stood for “quiet.”  Once a month, on a day that he had designated and planned long beforehand, he would go to a quiet place.  Away from the office.  Away from the busyness of life.  Away from interruptions.  And he would spend 10 to 12 hours that day, by himself, “quiet,” with God.  One day a month with no agenda, other than “quiet” time with God.  Prayer.  Study.  Closeness.  Intimacy with God.  What does that say about Stott’s priorities?  What does it say about his desire to be with the Father?

What if you were to plan a “Q” day each month?  Or a “Q” hour each week?  Or “Q” time each day?

What would it say about your priorities?  How might it impact your walk with the Lord?

Glory to God!

Jason

the imagery of forgiveness

compassPsalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, has He removed our transgressions from us.”

Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord.  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

Micah 7:19, “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”

Jeremiah 31:34, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

snowGod reveals relationship in vivid metaphor.  Sin removed as far as the east is removed from the west.  The stark contrast of scarlet and snow.  Sins plummeting to the depths of the sea.  An all-powerful, all-knowing God choosing to forget, and remember our sins no more.

The imagery of forgiveness.

Our Father forgives.  He heals.  He restores.  He delivers.  He rescues.

Through divine prerogative and divine covenant and divine eyes He sees us not for our sin, not for our shame, not for our rebellion, but for who we are through Jesus.

seaHe sees us clearly and in such a way we often find it difficult to see ourselves.  As whole.  As holy.  As righteous.  As forgiven.

Galatians 3:27, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

He sees us through Jesus.

Glory to God!

Jason

jamming gears and Jesus

old large gears

“Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’  ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied.  When He was accused by the chief priests and the elders, He gave no answer.  Then Pilate asked Him, ‘Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?’  But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge – to the great amazement of the governor” (Matthew 27:11-14).

Pilate is amazed.  He’s dumbfounded.  His gears are seriously jamming.  Jesus won’t defend Himself against His accusers.  He answers Pilate when he asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  But he won’t answer those who oppose Him.  And Pilate doesn’t get it.  He can’t fathom why in the world Jesus doesn’t answer them.  But that’s precisely why.  Because His Kingdom is not of this world.  And so He refuses to answer.

Jesus doesn’t answer because He is in complete control.  Of Himself.  Of the situation.  It may seem as if things are spiraling out of control, but they are far from it.  God is sovereign.  Jesus doesn’t answer because “as a sheep before his shearers is silent he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).  Jesus is fulfilling the plan of God, the purposes of God, in every way.  And He knows it.  Though His actions He’s fulfilling prophesy.  Intentionally.  Jesus doesn’t answer because His critics wouldn’t listen even if He did.  Would it change their minds?  Their hearts?  No.  And so He doesn’t answer.

One more crucial reason that I believe Jesus doesn’t answer is because He knows who He is as He stands before the Father.  He is complete.  He is whole.  He is without blemish.  Without defect.  Without fault.  And ultimately, it matters not what the critics think of Him; of who they believe Him to be.  What matters is that He fulfills the will of the Father in His life.  Beyond that, does anything else really matter?

Who we are in the Father’s eyes matters more than everything else.  When it is all said and done, it’s really all that matters.

Glory to God!

Jason

playing hide and seek with God

hide and seek

Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse of Scripture that speaks to the hearts of many (it is Tiersa’s absolute favorite verse of Scripture).  “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord.  Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.  Plans to give you hope and a future.”

However I wonder how familiar we are with verse 13?  “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).

Perhaps we recognize the words.  But are we aware of the context in which they are found?

They are words spoken by God through the prophet, communicated to His people as they find themselves living in a world contrary to their calling.

Seeking God.  Pursuing God.  Searching for God.  In a world that is unfair, consumed with self, and spinning out of control.  Does that sound anything like our calling today?

“You will find me,” God declares, “when you seek me.  When you actively look for me.  When you search for me.  With all of your heart and with all of your soul.  With everything that you are.  Then, and only then, will you find me.”

Are we seeking God?  In our lives.  In our worship.  In our hearts.  In our motives.  In our families.  Are we seeking Him?  Do we long for Him?  With all our hearts?  With all our souls?

Did you ever play hide and seek as a child?  Sure you did.  Sometimes you were the one hiding.  Sometimes you were the one seeking.  But what about now?  Do you ever find yourself doing the same thing?  Do you find yourself seeking God one moment and hiding from Him the next?

Our calling is greater than that.

Glory to God!

Jason

ten words

blurred, man standing, subway

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).  Ten words.  That changed everything.

In an instant, everything changed.  It was all in God’s divine plan.  All in His divine providence.  All founded in His divine initiative.

Decades later (and especially a century later), the incarnation would be at the center of debate.  There were many who questioned the validity of the Word becoming flesh.  It wasn’t entirely Christ’s deity that was under scrutiny.  It wasn’t solely His humanity that was doubted.  It was the mental gymnastics required to accept that He was both.  Divine and human.  Simultaneously.  Upon initial consideration, can we blame them?  We have the benefit of 2000 years of theology.  But the reality that Christ was 100% God and 100% human, you have to admit, is a doctrine that must be based solely upon faith.  Because it makes no earthly sense.

But He was.  Christ was with God in the beginning (John 1:1).  And then He became (John 1:14).  He became, He took on flesh, and He lived and walked and ministered among us.  The incarnation is intended to blow our minds.  And it should!  That God was willing, that Christ was willing, to “take on the nature of a servant” and be made “in human likeness” and to become “obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:1-11) should amaze us!  It is certainly designed to.

walkAnd the amazement of the incarnation must not end there.  Because the wonder of it all is that Christ is “incarnate” in us (if we can use that terminology).  God is revealed “in the flesh” when His people live out our calling as those who belong to Him.

“To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  Verse 27 comes at the conclusion of an entire section of Paul’s letter to the Colossian church which centers upon the incarnation of God in Jesus.  He then transitions to the incarnation of Christ, in us!

That a holy God would, through His perfect Son, reside within an unholy and imperfect people should amaze us!  It is certainly designed to.  Our reality as those who have been sanctified by the Spirit purposes you and I to reveal His deity in our humanity.  In our divine and human nature(s).  Christ is us, the hope of glory.

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).  Ten words.  That changed everything.  Ten words.  That change us still.

Glory to God!

Jason

you are not alone

Angel Sculpture Christian Stock Image

“God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like Him.  There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:16b-18).

There’s a lot that has brought the Apostle John to this point in his first letter.  There are those who feel as if they have the market cornered on God and who readily belittle others who they consider as “less spiritual.” John writes to encourage those who are taking criticism and who are truly seeking to have high view of God and humble view of themselves.

The theme of “love” is a thread that runs throughout John’s literature.  John assures that the very nature of God is love.  The Apostle affirms that love is not only the foundation of our relationship with the Father, but is foundational in our relationship with others.  With both those whom we agree and those we do not.

Everything of course is encompassed within Jesus’ beautiful message: “God so loved…” (John 3:16).

But here in 1 John, the Apostle moves from “love” to “fear.”  “There is no fear in love.”  “Perfect love drives out fear.”  The connection to love (and context of John’s message) is enveloped in relationship.  Relationship with God.  And relationship with others.  And what I believe our Father through His servant John hopes to communicate with us in this is that for those who are in a right relationship with God fear is not a part of the equation.  The perfect love of God revealed in the Gospel of Jesus drives it away.  However, if we were to be honest, we each, very often, have our fears.  And even though John is speaking of eternity and how there is no fear (“condemnation” to use Paul’s word – cf. Romans 8:1) for those who are in Christ Jesus, I wonder what might be weighing on your heart and mind right now?

I wonder: What is it that you’re afraid of?  What is it that is causing you concern right now?  What is it that is weighing you down?  What is it that is keeping you up at night?  What is it that is dividing your attention?  What are your fears?

Because the message of Jesus can be summed up in these words: “You are not alone.”

Jon Walker in his book, Costly Grace, writes: “Fear whispers in our ear that we face danger alone, that God is unaware of our plight and that Jesus is unavailable in our time of need” (p217).

You are not alone.  You can trust God.  You can trust our Father.  You can trust Him.

You are not alone.

Glory to God!

Jason

un-sin me

snowHoliness.  Not the easiest concept for us to grasp.  Oh I think we have an idea of holiness when it comes to God.  But I wonder if we see it and believe it in ourselves?

So often we struggle with self.  We struggle with self-doubt.  And we struggle with self-righteousness.  The question should never be: How do I see myself?  The question should always be: How does God see me?  And, how do I see God?  This places us and God where we need to be.

Isaiah steps into the Temple and he’s not expecting much.  But when he opens his eyes to the wonder and power and holiness of God, it’s then that Isaiah the priest becomes Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 6).

God is holy.  He is pure.  He is righteous.  He is worthy.  We understand His holiness no more clearly than when we are confronted by His magnificence and our own inadequacy.

But in this we find the beginning of our dilemma.  Because no one knows us better than us.  No one knows our inability to measure up to God better than we do.  The Gospel calls us not only to salvation, but to see ourselves through the eyes of God.  As those who have been made holy through the holy sacrifice of Christ.  Holy not because of us, but because of Him.  Holy not because of us, but in spite of us.

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Colossians 1:21-22).

Holy in His sight?  Without blemish?  Free from accusation?  Yes!  How?  Through Jesus.  God sees us as holy because He sees us through the lens of Jesus.  And this is what we call “Gospel.”  This is what we call “Good News.”

We’re tempted to not believe it.  Maybe we understand it intellectually, but we struggle with allowing it to take hold of our hearts.  Because doing so compels us to relinquish control.  And to allow God to be God.

When King David prays to God, “Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7b), literally in the Hebrew his prayer is: “Un-sin me….”  “Cleanse me.  God, take away my sin.  Make me whiter than snow.  Remove all my sin stain.  Remove my guilt.  Make me pure.  Righteous.  Holy.  Accomplish that which I cannot accomplish on my own.  Make me more like you.”  And the amazing thing is, through hearts that turn to Him, He does just that.

To see ourselves as God sees us grants significant insight into faith.  It empowers us to live more into (and out of) the lives that He has created for us to live in Christ Jesus.

Two questions remain: Will we allow Him to make us holy?  And, do we believe that He can?

Glory to God!

Jason