Category: Books

Some Favorite Books from 2014

Here are a few books I enjoyed most during 2014. They weren’t necessarily published in 2014, but I sure did like them!

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A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural

Eminent sociologist, Peter Berger, coined the term “signals of transcendence,” referring to the latent signs of divinity in the human experience. Among those signs he includes: order, play, & laughter. A Rumor of Angels is on the shorter side and is a great intro to Berger’s writings.

 

 

 

 

 

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On the Brink: Grace for Burned Out Pastor

I’ve said a lot about On the Brink in former posts. It’s choc full of insights, not only for the pastor but for the congregation. It’s theologically rich, pastorally sensitive, challenging where it needs to be, and soaked in grace. If you want to give a pastor a gift, whether they struggle with burnout or not, this is a great book for every pastor to read.

 

 

 

 

UnknownA Moveable Feast

The book is a memoir of reflections from Hemingway’s time in Paris, where he lived with his wife and son in the twenties. If you’ve seen Midnight in Paris, you’ll recall all the artists and literary figures that lived there in this period. Hemingway was right in the mix, living in poverty, betting on horses, spilling ink in cafes, drinking lots of wine, and sizing up the likes of Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald.

 

 

 

 

 

51JW3SR41gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Called to be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity

I really enjoy the balance, clarity, and pull of Gordon Smith’s writing. His book, Transforming Conversion, was great. Here he argues maturity is a vital dimension of the church’s teaching that often goes neglected. He writes: “Congregations that do not pursue with passion and vigor a dynamic maturity in Christ are surely as fraudulent as a hospital that is not passionate and vigorous in its pursuit of healing and holiness.”

 

 

 

51eS-JT1QAL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Unbroken

Powerful story, great writing, and stirring account of Laura Hildebrand.

Unknown-2Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the CULTURE OF NOW

Americans can’t read and reflect enough on the sabbath. Once a cultural fixation, the sabbath has largely left the Christian field of view. Bruggeman argues that it is “the most difficult and most important” of the Ten Commandments. The Preface is worth the book, where he makes a distinction between the Adamic man–who creates through work, and the Mosaic man–who cultivates reflection and worship through inaction and devotion.

 

 

 

 

 

Defining Burnout (& Coming Back)

I recently shared a few thoughts on how to avoid burnout and promised to follow up by sharing some insights from Clay Werner’s very good book On the Brink: Grace for Burned-out PastorsBefore I do that, just a word on burnout as we move toward coming back.

What is Burnout?

The word “burnout” is often overused to justify not serving in the local church, while a person runs full throttle pursuing hobbies and extra work. A church member might say, “I just can’t serve in the kids ministry; I’m burned out.” A pastor may blame church expectations and ministry demands. He may say, “I can’t do it any more. I can’t lead these people; they expect too much. I fried.” But why are we fried?

Generic burnout isn’t a good enough reason to not serve or lead. We need to peel back the layers. What does “burnout” mean? Cessation from serving won’t cure it. It runs deeper. Here’s a provisional description of why:

Burnout is an emotional, psychological, and physical experience of utter weakness and inadequacy unmatched by a corresponding sense of spiritual weakness.

Ministry is Humanly Impossible

Typically, the principle issue behind burnout isn’t “ministry” but how you get ministry done. Doing it in our own strength is destined to burn out, like a fuse that has only so much length.

Ministry is humanly impossible, by design.

We are not enough; God is more than enough. We lack power to change; God is full of power and grace to change us. As a result, any kind of ministry or work done in our own strength will eventually deplete us. We need an alternate strength.

Burly Peter tells us, “whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:11). If we serve in the strength that we supply, we get the credit and the burnout. If we serve in the strength that God supplies, we get the grace and he gets the glory.

But how do we get that divine strength? By being weak.

Celebrating Weakness

We all want to celebrate personal strengths–strength finders tests, numbers of people baptized, how patient or servant-hearted we are, the power of sermons–but rarely do we celebrate weakness. Ironically, the gospel tells us that we become strong by being weak. Our moment of salvation is perhaps simultaneously our weakest and strongest moment. In the blink of an eye, we are leveled only to be raised up with Christ: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). The trouble is that we don’t practice or celebrate weakness. We try to move on in our own strength.

How does one “practice weakness”? Well, by acknowledging weakness, and not just to ourselves, to God. This happens in prayer.

Weakness in the prayer closet creates strength in the pulpit and pew.

Weakness in the midst of counseling a friend launches arrow prayers to heaven for wisdom. Weakness in community group ask God for the desire to pursue others not just take. Weakness is a way of life. When prayer suffuses our ministry, we’re alive to God and fueled by an endless source of strength.

Inviting Strength

In my own life, I’ve had seasons where I’m more faithful in concentrated prayer. For me, this happens in the early morning, before my family is awake. Kneeling before God, a posture that reinforces my weakness and opens me up to his strength, my prayers range from adoration to petition. Other seasons are characterized by more continual prayer, praying throughout the day. Pulling back from a sermon to ask God for help and leading. Prayer while driving with my family. Prayer in response to a need on the spot. Prayers spontaneous praise to God. Both are important. Practicing both continually opens us up to God’s divine strength.

Among the considerable demands on my time not one demanded that I practice a life of prayer. ~ Eugene Peterson

When either of these practices of weakness ebb, I know I’ve lit the fuse of my own strength, and its a matter of time before I “burnout.” When I refuse to pray, I am saying that I am strong; that I am enough; that “I’ve got this,” when nothing could be further from the truth. There are invisible forces working against me, an unwieldy flesh working to wreck me, and temptation all around me. I am not enough, but God is more than enough for me.

We fuel up against burnout by simple, regular dependence on God. In many respects, it’s that simple. The trouble, however, is that we complicate it with our strength. We forge unhealthy overworking patterns developed by idolatry which zaps us of divine strength. God places suffering in our path, and unless we retreat into him, we will be broken down and wrecked. He’ll even discipline us through suffering to show us just how weak we are and how great he is, which can lead to righteous power and peace (Heb. 12), if we will allow it.

Life is complicated. God knows every strand. We overwork and back ourselves into a corner. Christ is enough for every twist and turn. Suffering breaks down our door, but the Spirit is behind it, ready to blow strength into our weakness.

We just have to tell him, “I am weak.” We must invite Strength. Only then can the healing begin.

Insights on Prayer

In his new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (if that subtitle doesn’t hook you, I don’t know what will!), Tim Keller outlines a pattern for prayer. He suggests five elements to form a framework for prayer: evocation, meditation, Word prayer, free prayer, contemplation (240-262).

Keller is not saying this framework should be written in stone or practiced woodenly, but that does bring together necessary elements for a thriving relationship with God. If you’re a church leader, it would be wise to assess which of these elements need attention, not only in your own life but also in general in your own community.

I thought I’d share a few reflections on prayer that were triggered by this framework.

Prayers That Go for a Walk

A few years ago, I began praying the Lord’s Prayer every morning, personalizing each phrase. It has been wonderfully instructive. For instance, opening with “Our Father” has helped me ground prayer in relationship and not request. When my opening address to God is as “Father,” I am immediately reminded that I am “son,” his son. I haven’t earned my way into this relationship, nor can I disqualify myself from being heard by him.

However, I noticed over time, despite this rich sonship, I began to feel badly if I didn’t get all the way through Jesus’ pattern prayer. This would make me want to pray longer or, more likely, pray quicker. Keller reminds us that contemplation  is a time to sense God. Drawing on Luther, he notes that Luther described it as a time to “let his thoughts go for a walk” (251). When one thought stood out, Luther felt free to follow the Holy Spirit into it, and that here

the Holy Spirit himself is preaching and one word of his sermon is better than thousands of our own prayers…

This insight has brought me greater freedom when praying the Lord’s Prayer, but more importantly, encouraged me to follow the Holy Spirit more, to participate with him in prayer, and in freedom follow his leading in prayer. When our prayer is “on the clock,” it can be very difficult to get lost in God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. Allow yourself the freedom and joy of prayers that go for a walk.

Pray the Text

Before moving to free form prayer, Luther often found something in the biblical text as a basis for praising repenting, or resolving. People often struggle to know what to pray or what God’s will is. When we are moved to prayer with God’s word, we can have full confidence that we are praying his will (properly interpreted). Textual prayers are answered prayers. God loves to keep his word. When we “pray the text,” we not only gain confidence but also power. The Spirit works through God’s revealed word to accomplish his will in and through us.

Not too long ago I spent some time discussing public prayer with a group of elder candidates. Among other things, I encouraged them to pray the Word. It is important that our prayers are shaped by God’s word, and that God’s word shapes our church. I encouraged them to pray the Word into our church. If small groups and discipleship groups grasped this, it would unleash greater power in prayer. Why? Because God keeps his word, and delights to reveal his will through it. We are, after all, a Word-shaped people.

Experience What You Have

In Christ, we all have things–blessings–that we don’t experience (166-67). Prayer affords us the opportunity to experience those blessings, to encounter our theology so to speak. Keller points out that Paul frequently prays for churches to experience things they already have: “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” or “to know the love that surpasses knowledge” (see Eph. 3:14-19). There is knowing, and there is knowing. Prayer brings us into an intimate knowledge of God. Keller writes:

It is possible for Christians to live their lives with a high degree of phoniness, hollowness, and inauthenticity. The reason is because they have failed to move that truth into their hearts and therefore it has not actually changed who they are and how they live.

Prayer bridges the gap between knowledge and knowing. When we humbly seek God, and ask that we would experience what we already have, we begin to change, to encounter, to see the unseeable beauties of God and be floored. There are tremendous truths that need to be experienced such as: “fully loved, fully accepted” or “forgiven and free.” Ask God to allow you to experience what you already have in Christ Jesus.

For a brief time you can get Prayer at Westminster Bookstore cheaper than Amazon, plus your purchase supports a kingdom ministry instead of the Amazon behemoth. They also have one of my favorite books on sanctification on sale for 3.99.

Learning Burnout Before its Too Late

Remarks about “celebrity pastors” are everywhere (mind you it takes “celebrants” to reach such status). Unfortunately, some of these pastors have followed a tragic, Aristotelian arc–starting in a good place, gaining influence, and then falling. Before joining the scoffers, we do well to heed the wisdom of Solomon,

I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction” (Prov. 24:30-32).

It is foolish to mock those “who lack sense,” but it is wise to watch and learn. This is true and helpful for everyone, not just pastors.

Learning the Signs of Burn 

A few years ago I began watching pastors burn out and leave their churches. Some left out of exhaustion, others out of moral failure. Aware that, I too, could face a similar fate, I began reflecting on my own motivations for ministry and evaluating my habits. During this time I read Leading on Empty, which helped me identify the physiological warning signs of burn out. It helped me understand that a general lack of motivation may be the result of overworking and under-resting, which depletes serotonin levels. We’re not made to run full throttle for long. As a result, I stepped away from speaking engagements for about a year. I focused on my family and church.

It was also helpful to read about the tendency to withdraw from things the pastor finds difficult, such as counseling or preaching, depending on the pastor. Burnout is accompanied by a malaise that dulls a person’s senses. He begins to lack excitement for anything. Natural strengths slowly become weaknesses. A couple of these warning lights lit up, which with my fresh understanding, helped me make changes. Burnout is preventable. And the pastor is responsible for how he responds to ministry pressures, congregational expectations, and outside demands. Most of all, he has to be aware of God in Christ, to walk in the Spirit. Studying about God is not the same as walking with God. Awareness is very important.

Reactivating Devotional Habits

In addition to these warning signs, I reacquainted myself with life-giving habits. Knowing my soul lifts when I spend time in creation, I began to walk the quai next to Town Lake, praying out loud and listening to God. I returned to one of the two devotionals I read, Near Unto God by Abraham Kuyper. While most of his writings are theologically robust, his devotional takes those seeds of strength and waters them with contemplative reflections, all relating to the necessity and goodness of being near to God. It was in this season that I fell upon a quote that flies me:

Love for God may be fine sentiment. It may be sincere and capable of inspiring holy enthusiasm, while the soul is still stranger to fellowship with the eternal, and ignorant of the secret walk with God.

In essence, Kuyper is saying that it is possible to love the ideas of God without loving God himself. While we may be tempted to judge this slicing the theological bread too thin, this warning is not without warrant. After all, it was Jesus who warned “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:23-24). You can preach, perform miracles, and grow a church all in the name of Jesus without Jesus even knowing you. This led me to some deep repentance, and the quote continues to pop up and correct me. I recently preached a sermon on this.

I also reread some of Eugene Peterson’s grounded, incisive, and pastorally enriching books. These things helped me revalue time with God for a season, as well as adjust some habits. I began to pray on my knees more, where I sense God’s greatness in a way that is hard to grasp sitting or standing up. My devotional line continued to be jagged but evened out a bit. The sense of God’s nearness rises and falls but he remains ever-present and with me. Faith has to lean forward or its not faith. It has to grasp at promises that are true, not be bullied by feelings that moor in untruth.

Then, this summer in the midst of a difficult season, I retreated to the Avon valley in Colorado, where I collapsed on a bed and began reading Clay Werner’s On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-out PastorI’ll pick up with some of the gems from Werner’s book in my next entry.