Month: December 2011

the best 5 books I read this year

The gap between Christmas and New Year usually affords some time for reflection — as well as watching the cricket, lazing around with family and friends, and generally trying to recover from overindulging at Christmas!

In this spirit, I want to share with you the best 5 books I’ve read this year. Not all of them are new. But I’m sure they’ve all shaped my thinking, feeling and acting.

So, here they are (in no particular order):

  1. Karl Barth’s Earlier Theology by John Webster. Webster carefully draws out the key themes of Barth’s earlier theology (examining lecture cycles and published works dating from between the second edition of Barth’s commentary on Romans and the Church Dogmatics). He shows how Barth consistently returned to the knot of ethical questions left by the Renaissance — What does it mean to live a fully human life? etc — answering them on the basis of the Reformation’s radical recognition of God’s sovereign freedom and grace. Massively stimulating!
  2. Galatians Anchor Bible Translation and Commentary by J. Louis Martyn. Martyn’s translation (and explanatory notes) have the same invasive and subsequently illuminating character he claims Paul’s thinking in Galatians does. While not always convincing, Martyn is totally worth reading. And the whole ‘apocalyptic turn’ in theology and biblical studies sparked by this commentary is tremendously generative.
  3. To Change The World by James Davison Hunter. No surprises here I guess. I blogged enough about this when I was reading it. But even though some of my initial ardour may have cooled, I still believe Hunter’s project and approach is precisely what’s needed as Christians continue to wrestle with how to engage in the public sphere.
  4. Joined-up Life by Andrew Cameron. Not only is this take on Christian ethics deeply insightful and brilliantly constructed — each chapter makes a relatively simple point, but taken together they provide a remarkably nuanced map of what Cameron calls the ‘ethical field’. But the language Cameron chooses also has the capacity to bust through so many of the log jams in contemporary ethics and Christian living (my copy has “That’ll preach!” scrawled in the margins more times than I care to count).
  5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Yep, one of these books is not like the others. It’s a novel. And even though I didn’t manage to read many of the parenting books on my list before my son arrived, I’m sure Franzen’s riotous catalogue of family malfunctions convinced me that — no matter what we try — we all mess up our kids in our own unique ways.

Maybe you could share one or two of the books that have shaped you most this past year?

o that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence —
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil —
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

In the approach to Christmas this year, I’ve been rolling these words from Isaiah 64 (verses 1 & 2) around in my head. Because they shed so much light on what God was up to that first Christmas.

Speaking out of the depths of Israel’s disappointment and painful — though richly-deserved — judgement, Isaiah puts into words what must have been a common longing. The longing for God to intervene in their plight. Personally and dramatically.

What’s fascinating is that this longing for an expectation-shattering apocalyptic intervention of God is actually a longing for God to do his characteristic thing (verse 3):

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

Of course, Isaiah knows that Israel’s plight is self-inflicted. It’s the holy and true God’s response to their unholiness and failure to worship him.

And yet, Isaiah also knows that God is Israel’s Father(!). And this stokes his almost outrageous confidence to plead with God to reverse their situation. To relent. For the sake of his people, his holy city and temple, and — underwriting all this — his own name and reputation (verses 8-11):

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Your holy cities have become a wilderness,
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem a desolation.
Our holy and beautiful house,
where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire,
and all our pleasant places have become ruins.

Ultimately, Isaiah even seems to be convinced that God won’t be able to help himself. He won’t be able to do anything but — stunningly and surprisingly — bring salvation through the disaster of judgement overshadowing their current experience:

After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

This is what God was doing that first Christmas. Fulfilling Isaiah’s desperate plea for him to turn up in person to save!

what if you feel disappointed with God? (coda)

When I was growing up there was a guy in our neighbourhood that all the kids made fun of.

He muttered to himself. Wore rags. Smelled funny. And collected empty drink cans — filling his garage with them.

I don’t think I ever spoke with him. So I don’t know his story. All I have is speculation. As well as the adult realisation that he was catastrophically broken. One of those people who had been let down by life — whether in one big way or in innumerable smaller ways.

Truth is, we’re all that guy.

In our own way, we all have our garages full of something. We’re all eventually overtaken by our brokenness and disappointment. Left to cope with the fallout of things that happen. Ultimately, inhabiting our own private Chernobyls.

Like I said when I started this mini series, I’m increasingly sure that sooner or later disappointment will be the pastoral issue for me and my peers.

Whether we’re dealing with it ourselves. Or standing beside those who are. Or perhaps desperately trying to fend it off — either by playing life completely safe or by constantly recalibrating our trajectory in order to present a moving target.

But this is where Christmas holds such good news for us.

Because, according to the birth narratives in the New Testament, Christmas is all about God breaking into our desperate and disappointing circumstances.

It’s about God not playing life safe or standing at a distance. But coming to be with us. Plunging fully into our mess and brokenness — not shying away from the messiness of being conceived by a not-yet-married teenage girl in an honour-shame society.

It’s about God making himself vulnerable. Vulnerable to disappointment, to being let down, betrayed, arrested and ultimately crucified.

It’s about him taking our brokenness upon himself. And making it his own. In order to overcome it for us.

The good news is that in the midst of our brokenness and disappointment, joy, hope, peace and comfort have arrived!

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

what tactics will you adopt this Christmas?

I seem to spend more and more of my life thinking about Christian apologetics and cultural engagement. It sort of seeps into everything — filling in the gaps around whatever I’m thinking and reading about.

This has certainly been my experience this year when it comes to Christmas.

In the days of my youthful zeal I used to get grumpy at the many ‘distractions’ on offer in Christmas. (In reality, a whole lot of my grumpiness probably stemmed from having to buy presents for people — instead of just getting them like I did as a child.)

To me the tinsel, presents, indulgent meals, parties, family get-togethers, and all the rest, looked like they were obscuring the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas. Symptoms of its hijacking by consumerism. And I resented them all.

As a result, my conversational tactics were primarily oppositional. I always had my eyes peeled for opportunities to expose the lies and point to the truth that Christmas is really about Jesus.

But I’ve done an about face on Christmas — and on the sort of tactics that are appropriate.

Maybe I’m getting soft as I get older but I’m far less inclined to be so sharply oppositional these days.

For all their ability to hypnotise, I’ve come to see the good in the ways we celebrate at Christmas. (And maybe that’s their problem — not that they’re bad but that they’re too good, and our hearts too ready to wrap themselves up in them.)

And so rather than attacking the trappings of Christmas, this year I’m going to try to enjoy them in a way that acknowledges the coming of Jesus at their heart — and highlight that in my conversation.

What tactics will you adopt this Christmas?

what if you feel disappointed with God? (part 2)

In my previous post, I shared an email from a friend wrestling with feelings of disappointment with God — especially when it seems like he isn’t answering our prayers.

My friend and I are still very keen to hear how you’d respond.

But I promised I’d tell you what I said — not because I think of myself as some sort of pastoral counselling expert but because I’m keen to be sharpened up and better equipped to lovingly answer this sort of question.

So here it is:

Whoa! Big questions. And good ones. I feel privileged you’ve asked me.

It’s taken me a little while to think — and, more importantly, to pray for you.

Although I don’t know (or necessarily need to know) much about the circumstances that you’re going through that’s prompted these questions, I can tell you that they’re not uncommon or unusual — not at all.

I’ve certainly felt like prayer is talking to a wall (in my head) more times than I care to count.

I’m not 100% sure I know why I often feel this way. Maybe it stems partly from my innate, sinful sense of entitlement (‘God owes me’, etc). So that when I don’t get what I ask him, it’s because I’m asking for the wrong things or with wrong motives.

But I suppose a whole lot of it stems from the nature of the gospel we believe — God’s wisdom and power exerted in the folly and weakness of the crucified Messiah. That was the whole vibe of Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’, right? That God’s glory was concealed in the unspectacular brokenness and humility of the cross. That certainly makes sense of my own experience of the Christian life … most of the time (although I hunger and thirst for the day when that won’t be true — and dryness and the apparent absence of God will be less than a shadow lingering in my memory).

I guess, for me, there are two things I try to remind myself (usually it’s Natalie who reminds me better than I remind myself) to draw out of this sort of experience:

First, I try to remind myself that I need to develop ‘bifocal vision’ — seeing and not denying the stuff in life that’s making me feel flat/disappointed/let down by God, while at the same time entrusting myself to the God I know is good (because of Jesus). Of course, this is easier said than done!

Second, I also try to remind myself that when I think about God being in control, hearing and responding to prayers, etc — that he’s the Father (and my heavenly Father through the Lord Jesus) before he’s the Almighty; or, rather, that he’s the Almighty as the Father. After all, he’s Father — and Son and Spirit — in himself eternally, well before he’s the almighty and sovereign Creator and Ruler of anything.

That means that I entrust myself to him in prayer fundamentally because of the relationship I have with him as my Father. He wants me to call out to him and ask him for things — especially those things he knows that I need. So his sovereignty is actually fuel for my prayers — since I’m praying to someone who is able to give me what I need and what will help me thrive and flourish.

I hope that’s helpful and not too theology-heavy.

Lots of love in Christ,


There was more I wanted to say (and thought of later). But I’m keen to know what you reckon about what I did say.

what if you feel disappointed with God? (part 1)

I heard someone say recently that what they appreciated most about Christianity in their teens was forgiveness — because, like most teenagers, they were grappling with guilt. By contrast, in their twenties it was a sense of direction and purpose in life. And now increasingly since they hit their thirties it’s hope — since things are messier and haven’t necessarily turned out as they planned.

This resonated with me. Along with many of my peers I’m moving into that phase of life when most of the ‘big’ decisions — whether and who to marry, what job to do, etc — have already been made (or made for me).

And so one of the biggest pastoral issues looming on my horizon is disappointment — disappointment with life and with God.

This was brought home to me recently when a close friend emailed me a question (I have permission to share it):

I think this is a 101 question but I am going through some stuff and its making me ask…

Why do we pray?

I know that God listens and answers. But when it seems like he doesn’t answer the way I want, I feel let down by him all the time. It’s almost like I have this attitude: “As if prayer would make a difference”.

I am astounded that I am thinking this way.

I don’t doubt that he exists or what he did for me in Christ is important. And I know that he hears my prayers. But I feel like I am talking to a wall.

In good times I pray: “I believe help my unbelief”. But…

Before I fill you in on what I said, I’d love to hear from you. How would you respond? What biblical passages and themes would you drawn on?

how to renarrate your humanity in the light of the gospel

I’ve had the privilege of spending the past few days wrestling with what it means to be ‘in Christ’ at the annual National Training Event for the university student movement I’m part of.

One of the highlights has been working with a small group of students to unravel 1 Peter 2.18-25 — reflecting on how to read and make sense of any part of the Bible as we went.

Peter is addressing the question of how Christian slaves should to respond to conflict and especially to harm done to them, e.g., by abusive masters. His answer is to point to:

  1. The pattern Jesus himself left — particularly in his betrayal, rejection and humiliating death (verses 21-23).
  2. Christ’s achievement in dying for us, freeing us from sin’s dominion so that it’s now possible to follow in his steps (verse 24).
  3. And the promise that God has graciously returned us to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.

Perhaps we could say that Peter is inviting any slaves among his readers — and by extension all of us — to renarrate our humanity in the light of the gospel.

Not that we’re to stoically pretend we don’t experience conflict or get hurt. But that we’re to retell our story so it doesn’t end with us trapped in a seemingly inevitable cycle of tit-for-tat.

Instead, our story should end with us entrusting ourselves to the the one who can be trusted to do what’s right. And so to open out onto the broad horizon of forgiveness and reconciliation. Not primarily for our own emotional health (as important as that may be). But, in the wider context of 1 Peter, for the sake of mission.

I can’t think of a richer way to express this insight than John Howard Yoder does in Body Politic (quoted recently by Joel Willits):

To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended. To be human in the light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue. When we do that, it is God who does it. When we do that, we demonstrate that to process conflict is not merely a palliative strategy for tolerable survival or psychic hygiene, but a mode of truth-finding and community-building. That is true in the gospel; it is also true, mutatis mutandis, in the world.

how to renarrate hardship in the light of the gospel

Even from what little I’ve read so far, James K. A. Smith’s Desiring The Kingdom is a book bristling with insights.

One of the most potentially fruitful insights is the chapter he devotes to exploring how the different elements of Christian liturgy can ‘school’ our desires and worldview. For example, Smith argues that the role of scripture reading and preaching is to renarrate the world.

And it’s really true, isn’t it?

How many times have you had the experience of being able to see aspects of your life or situation differently as the result of reading something in the Bible or hearing a great sermon?

This even seems to be the more or less explicit aim of many parts of the Bible — as is certainly true of a passage I heard preached on recently: 2 Timothy 4.9-22.

There, Paul mentions the costs of his ministry — costs like the grief of saying good-bye to people (verses 9-13) — the conflicts and sometimes very deep hurts that characterised much of it (verses 14-18), as well as some of the people and relationships that could perhaps be regarded — especially by Type A personalities — as obstacles to the tasks of ministry (verses 19-21).

These hardships could easily have made him feel frustrated and bitter. Of anyone, surely Paul had reason to feel God owed him a comfortable, conflict-free, strength-to-strength experience on the home stretch of ministry.

But Paul recasts each of these hardships instead. The costs he recasts in terms of generosity. The conflicts in terms of opportunity. And the people and relationships in terms of priorities (reflecting God’s own priorities).

It’s important to see that Paul is renarrating his experience here. He’s not denying the reality of the hardships. But he is ensuring that the story doesn’t end there.

So what makes possible this radical renarration of his tough experience of ministry?

Ultimately, it’s only the gospel promise and reality of God’s presence and grace. And that’s the very thing with which Paul concludes this passage — both wrapping up his final letter and issuing a standing invitation to renarrate our own hardship in the same way:

The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.

summer reading (2011-2012)

Summer’s arrived. And so has my summer reading!

As well as trying to reel in Moby Dick, I’m hoping to read:

In one way or another, the key theme is shaping up to be Christian formation — the why, what and how of seeing people matured as fully devoted, thriving and proactive disciples, disciple-makers, servants and children of the Father.

Basically, I want to figure out how to foster a culture that reflects and promotes the gospel.

So any suggestions for extending or deepening this list will be gratefully received!