Newness of Life

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

My friend’s father, a longtime educator, says he would often begin each new semester by holding up his gradebook to show the class that it was empty. Of course, this motivational tactic drew attention to the uncharted territory of the semester ahead, the empty gradebook representative of each student’s fresh start. In essence, my friend’s Dad was asking his students, “Where do you want to go this semester?” Whether you were an “A” student or a “D” student, the blank gradebook was both a new opportunity and gospel microcosm. The old was gone; the new had come.

Today we embark on a fresh journey into a new year. It is the season for resolutions and goals and people posting about their “word for 2018.” And buried within each of these is gospel hope, the hope of true transformation, expressed by Paul as “newness of life” in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 6:4). This is the universal human hope for saints and sinners, losers and winners. No matter our station, we all want one thing: new life.

That’s why this is one of my favorite times of the year. Are you grateful for a fresh start? Were you glad to see 2017 slip away? Did you embrace 2018 with open arms and a glad heart? Even if last year was a banner year for you, you’re likely inspired by the fresh opportunity the new year represents. Whether it’s an empty gradebook or a new calendar, this is the season for imagining the uncharted territory for the year ahead. Where do you want to go in 2018?

Let me make an appeal for including some spiritual intentionality as you plan for the year ahead. What is your spiritual direction for 2018? How can you maximize your Kingdom impact over these next twelve months? Is there one Word — a Christian virtue? an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit? — that you’d like to be written upon your soul this year? Perhaps these kinds of questions could lead us into the new life for which we all seem to be yearning.

Here are a few simple suggestions for walking in newness of spiritual life in the year ahead:

  • Choose a new translation for your daily Bible reading. Most of my Bible reading over the years has come from one of two translations: the NIV and the ESV. And you probably have a preferred version as well. But preferences can breed unhelpful familiarity, at least when it comes to hearing a fresh word from God. I have a friend who chooses to read the entire Bible each year, with an important twist: each year, he chooses a different translation. One year, he’s reading the New American Standard; the next, he reads the Good News Translation. According to him, this is an invaluable practice for spiritual growth. Rather than glazing over the more familiar passages in his “preferred” translation, reading from a different translation allows the text to “speak” to him in a new way each year. And I’ve found this to be true in my own devotional life as well. If you tend toward a word-for-word translation (like the NASB or the ESV), try a more idiomatic rendering like the NLT or a paraphrase translation like The Message. Conversely, if you prefer the more contemporary translations like the NCB or the CEV, you’ll probably discover new treasures in the “regal” tones of the King James Version or the New Revised Standard Version. This year, I’ll be reading from The Complete Jewish Bible during my devotional time, a translation I’ve grown to appreciate in the last year or so.
  • Mix up your Bible reading. Let me say this up front: if you’re fired up about your chronological daily Bible reading, just move on to the next bullet point. Because I don’t want to do anything to discourage you. But I also know that more people have read the book of Genesis in the month of January than any other time of year…and likewise, most of those same people abandon their daily Bible reading somewhere in February as they try to slog through Exodus and Leviticus. So if you’ve read this far, let me propose that you begin your 2018 Bible reading not with Genesis, but with one of the Gospels. There are four Gospels for a reason; I suggest reading one each season. After you finish reading through one of the Gospels, then go back and read an Old Testament text. Try reading Exodus and Hebrews simultaneously. Read Psalms 96-98 and Daniel before reading Revelation. Spend a month working your way through the wisdom literature of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and James. The point is…mix it up a little.
  • Commit to regular prayer journaling. A friend of mine convinced me of the importance of journaling a few years ago and in retrospect, I wish I’d started sooner. For starters, it helps me remember to pray. I’m much more likely to pray about things once I write them in my Moleskine, particularly the things other people ask me to be praying about. But the act of putting pen to paper is also an important part of the benefit in journaling. In our culture of busyness, physically writing in a journal is impossibly impractical. It’d be so much easier to just open up a digital file and type away, but that’s part of the point. Writing in a prayer journal is my daily act of resistance, my way of saying no to a culture that always demands more movement, more frenetic activity. Writing — not typing — forces me to slow down, to be still, and to recognize the limitations of my own mortality. This is the gift of journaling.
  • Commune with God holistically, wholeheartedly. What I mean is…don’t limit your spiritual life to Bible reading and bow-your-head-and-close-your-eyes praying. Get up and go for a walk and look for God. One of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson, says, “We need the ‘Emmaus walks’ where our eyes can become opened,” (Luke 24:31). We are more than rational beings, so our commitment to God must include much more than Bible study. And we are more than simply relational beings, so our commitment to God must include much more than reciting to Him our prayer requests. Make time to meet God in the movement of your days, not simply in the more quiet, reflective moments. As we used to sing, our God, He is alive. So get up and get moving and spend time walking with the living God (Rom. 6:4).

These are just a few suggestions for experiencing “newness of life” in 2018. May the next twelve months bring us closer to God and closer to one another.

Posted in Devotional, Discipleship, Faith, Friends, God, Gospel, Prayer, Quotes, Scripture, Spiritual Disciplines, Theology | 2 Comments

Best Songs 2017

This year, instead of a list, I give you a playlist.

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The Limitations of Our Resolve

I simply love this time of year. Sure, Charlie Brown was right; the commercialization of the holidays can be disheartening — and probably even dangerous to our souls. But the holiday season also prompts many to reflect, ever so briefly, on the birth of Christ, whose birth is hailed in the scriptures as “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” I don’t think it’s any accident that the good will we experience during this season (often called “Christmas cheer” or “the Christmas spirit”) just happens to coincide with more people thinking about Jesus than any other time of the year.

And for similar reasons, I also love the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. As 2017 winds down, we inevitably cast our gaze back over the past 12 months and we do something quite rare: we reflect. Our devotion to technology and entertainment and social media greedily laps up all available space, time previously given to acts of reflection. Look around the next time you stop at a red light or stand in line at the grocery store and count the number of people on their phones. Even if only for a half-minute, we take every opportunity to prostrate ourselves before these handheld altars. Believe me, I know how preachy all of that sounds, but it’s the truth: we are largely an unreflecting people.

But the end of the year creates a natural platform for looking back and, just as importantly, for looking ahead. This is the time of year that we make goals for ourselves, resolving to cross some things off of that bucket list or to lose those pesky 15 pounds. For a moment or two, we allow ourselves the gift of transcendent vision, to imagine our lives not as they are but as we would want them to be in the year to come. So we sign up for guitar lessons; we join a gym; we renew our passports and begin planning that trip to Australia. And I love all of this, because this type of reflection is purposed and intentional. It is reflection aimed at transformation. And I believe any time we are thinking about transformation, we are walking on holy ground.

The problem with most resolutions, however, is simple: we lack resolve. We want to learn to play the guitar, but we don’t want to build time in our schedule to practice. We love the idea of losing weight, but we’d rather hit the snooze button than get up and go to the gym. Nearly all of our attempts at transformation are predicated on our strength, our determination, our will power.

But true transformation is not simply a matter of will power.

True transformation is ultimately a matter of God’s power.

Again, I know how preachy that sounds. (I see some you rolling your eyes.) But this is one of the truths I hold most dear; I believe it with all of my heart, because it is my story. Transformation is God’s business. When your strength wears out (and it will), you recognize your complete inability to transform yourself. When your resolve wavers (and it does, quite often), you understand the limitations of your own determinations. We have limited power to transform because of the limitations of our resolve and our determinations. Our transcendent vision is grounded by earthly flesh.

But true transformation emanates from without, not within. This news is announced from on high with angelic host and the glory of the Lord: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” And this was the purposed intention of God, to intersect earthly flesh with divine power. To what end? Transformation. The Christian scriptures reflect on God’s transformative power: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 

In the year to come, may we all experience the transcendent power of true transformation. To God be the glory.

Posted in 2 Corinthians 5, Christmas, Culture, Devotional, Faith, God, Gospel, Jesus, Scripture, Theology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Best Books of 2017

Each year, I set myself a goal to read 52 books — one per week over the course of a year. I usually fall short of the goal; the last time I hit the mark was 2011. But it’s still the mark I shoot for each year.

When I finish up my current read this week, I’ll be at 40 books for the year. (For point of reference, I read 44 books in 2016.) Here are the best books I read in 2017. (If you’d like to see my lists from previous years, click here.)

  1. “The Road Back to You” by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile

    The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. This book has been a revelation for me this year, both personally and professionally. The Road Back to You was my introduction to the Enneagram, an ancient personality typing system aimed at increasing self-awareness by helping you understand your true self. I first read this book during a time of great emotional crisis last winter and it immediately proved invaluable, giving me the language I needed to fully understand what I was experiencing. But more importantly, Cron and Stabile walked me through some of my unhealthy tendencies based on my Enneagram type. Unlike most personality inventories, the Enneagram addresses who you are in various stages of health, pointing out your worst proclivities right alongside some of your best. I literally wept at times as I read this book. It was like looking into a mirror that reflected my truest identity. I know how dramatic that sounds…but it’s just true! The Road Back to You has helped me to understand the death of my father as perhaps the most formative event of my life…at least in terms of shaping my personality. This book is one of the best resources I’ve come across to facilitate honest self-reflection with the potential for spiritual transformation. The Road Back to You prompted me to do a deep dive on the Enneagram (I’ve read somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 additional pages on the Enneagram this year), but Cron and Stabile have written a highly accessible and practically grounded introduction to this tremendous self-discovery tool. I’ve given away more than a dozen copies this year and I plan to continue to do so in the years to come. Far and away the best book I’ve read this year.

  2. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown. Another book that hit me at just the right time. When Brené Brown talks about courageously facing the wilderness, I’m all ears. “True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are.” Brown writes with her trademark mix of insightful research and compelling narrative. A great read.
  3. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir by Neil White. I wrote a great deal about In the Sanctuary of Outcasts earlier this year — about White’s vision of sacred community and his conversation with Ella about repurposed Coke bottles. I could’ve written much more about this powerful reflection on hope and true human connection. I love this book!
  4. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion by N.T. Wright. Wright’s most recent work is rightly considered a companion piece to his outstanding Surprised by Hope. If you’re not familiar with Surprised by Hope, Wright argues that the Bible’s central message is NOT about escaping the earth to “fly away” to an ethereal heaven “when you die.” Rather, the biblical hope is centered on the in-breaking of the Kingdom NOW, heaven coming to earth in the way Jesus teaches us to pray (Matthew 6:10). In Revolution, Wright continues this line of thought by realigning our understanding of the cross within the overarching biblical motif of new exodus and new creation. This is an important book by the foremost NT scholar of our day.
  5. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis. I read this book against the backdrop of our summer vacation to Washington D.C. Ellis makes our founding fathers — revisioned here as founding brothers — both fascinating and accessible. A great read for the history buff.
  6. Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing by Andy Crouch. Crouch, the editor of Christianity Today, compellingly argues that strength and weakness are not necessarily opposed, but rather, they are twin polarities of true human flourishing. He calls us to think critically about both authority and vulnerability and the wise exertion / pursuit of each.
  7. Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night by Jason Zinoman. This look back over Letterman’s storied broadcasting career was both nostalgic and unnerving.
  8. Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, & Ella Morton. This book needs to be on your coffee table. These 450+ pages will remind you of both the beauty and wonder of the world we inhabit. From the front flap: “Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 600 of the most curious and unusual destinations around the globe. Here are natural wonders — the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand, or a baobob tree in South Africa that’s so large it has a pub inside where 15 people can drink comfortably. Architectural marvels, including the M.C. Escher-like stepwells in India. Mind-boggling events, like the Baby Jumping Festival in Spain, where men dressed as devils vault over rows of squirming infants.” And on it goes. Your bucket list just got a little bit longer.
  9. Do We Teach Another Gospel? by Jay Guin. This one is specifically written for members of churches of Christ. I’m still working on this one, so it may rise or fall by the time I finish. But you can download a free copy here if you’re interested. I’m about halfway through and I’m tracking with Guin. Of course, many will disagree with his conclusions, but you can’t criticize his methodology or his commitment to the biblical text.
  10. Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and Devils for Doubters and the Disenchanted by Richard Beck. Beck helps us recover just a bit of our enchantment with this profound work on the nature of spiritual warfare.
  11. Messianic Judaism: A Modern Movement with an Ancient Past by David H. Stern. I continue to be challenged by Stern’s writings. If you don’t have a copy of his Jewish New Testament Commentary, you’re missing out.
  12. The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth by Christopher L. Heuertz. Yet another Enneagram text I read this year. A deeper examination, I would recommend reading The Road Back to You first.
  13. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary by Jonathan T. Pennington. Pennington’s argument is right there in the title — the Sermon on the Mount holds the key to more than simply “blessedness” (as our translations render the Beatitudes); rather, Jesus opens up a life of true human flourishing with his call to radical discipleship.
  14. Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John by Randy Harris and Greg Taylor. A great examination of the Gospel of John’s call to “faith in” Jesus Christ.
  15. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Timothy Keller. Keller’s work on work is a standout.

 

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Christmas 2017

Here’s my Christmas haul from the people who know me well. Great music from Stapleton and The War on Drugs. Non-fiction on Christian mysticism (my current theological interest) and Revelation (twin teaching and preaching series in the queue for early 2018). Great fiction by Robert McCammon (based on the strong recommendation of a good friend). A planner to organize my life. And plenty of caffeinated warmth for the long winter ahead. My people certainly know me well!

I hope you and yours are having a restful holiday season. Merry Christmas!

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2017 Best Albums

Nostalgia reigned supreme in popular culture in 2017, probably because so many people are longing to live in any time other than the present. Is there a better way to explain the popularity of Stranger Things, little more than an ode to 80s culture right down to the grainy soft-VHS opening credits and the blockbuster horror film soundtrack? Or why we keep returning to the cineplex to see the Millennium Falcon on the big screen? Or why the Super Nintendo Classic console outsold not only the company’s new fangled Nintendo Switch, but also PS4 and XBox One in the last quarter? Nostalgia entertainment has become the comfort food of choice for Gen Xers, whisking us back to the (falsely) remembered simplicity of our childhood.

Which means, in about 15 years, you’ll want to invest heavily in fidget spinner stock.

The nostalgia trend has also left its mark on the 2017 music landscape. As I write about my favorite new music of 2017, you’ll hear me hail some of my favorite artists as bastions of “real country music” — my way of heaping praise on artists who sound more like 1978 than anything you’re likely to hear on the bro-country airwaves in Nashville today. I fell even more in love with the sound of The War on Drugs this year, a Philadelphia indie band with a knack for updating the traditional classic rock sound. And even those bands whose songs evoked the original feeling we’re longing to recapture — looking at you, U2 — asserted themselves anew in 2017. It’s no mystery that the highest grossing tours of the year include Guns ‘N Roses, Metallica, Depeche Mode and U2’s The Joshua tree tour.

But again, all of this nostalgia is indicative of something deeper. We’re increasingly consuming media as a form of escapism, a reliable way to at least momentarily fix our attention somewhere else…any where else other than the present. It says something that some of my favorite artists released songs this year entitled, “Anxiety“, “Pain“, “Doomsday“, and “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” 2017 has been that kind of year.

But as always, art reflects culture while seeking to transcend it. And this year has produced some truly uplifting music. In the end, it might be that we’re not really nostalgic for the way things used to be, but rather, we are simply for something that has yet to be fully experienced. And this is the beauty of art. It inspires hope.


Anyway, here is my list of my favorite albums released this year:

  1. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound”

    Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound. Like most people, Jason Isbell asserted himself into my consciousness with 2013’s Southeastern. Following his 2012 rehab stint, he emerged clear eyed and focused with a work of art borne out of a period of life he compares to a “dungeon.” And this liberated perspective sustains Southeastern though some of its bleaker moments. Isbell continued his hot streak with 2015’s Something More Than Free and he completes a rare trifecta with this year’s The Nashville Sound. For starters, the music is amazing; the 400 Unit have never sounded better. But with this latest batch of songs, Jason Isbell unquestionably cements himself as a master singer-songwriter. He channels world-weary troubadour on album-opener “Last of My Kind” and working class angst on “Cumberland Gap.” But the soul of the record is “White Man’s World”, a timely lament of race, gender, and class that is one of the most important songs of 2017, in my opinion. He takes aim at the male-dominated Music Row landscape (“Momma wants to change that Nashville sound / But they’re never gonna let her”) and uses that as a bridge to address broader social injustices. In short, this is country music with a soul. “Hope the High Road” forms a powerful companion piece to “White Man’s World“, unapologetically defiant in its refusal to wallow, opting instead for the higher ground of optimism. Even if that’s not your thing, I dare you not to get misty-eyed when you hear Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, on “If We Were Vampires“, the most beautifully affecting love song of the year. Even some of the album’s quieter moments are revelations of incredible depth — back side cut “Molotov” is a moving meditation on the compromises that come with aging made tolerable with a loved one by your side. From top to bottom, The Nashville Sound is an incredible album, my favorite music of 2017. Download this: “If We Were Vampires“, “Hope the High Road”, “Tupelo”, “White Man’s World”, “Molotov.”

  2. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding. Their follow-up to 2014’s Lost in the Dream is a gorgeous major-label debut. Signing with Atlantic Records has simply given the band more toys with which to play as they create an even grander musical palette. This is 80s rock with a fresh coat of paint. If Dylan and The Police had a baby, it’d sound like The War on Drugs. One reviewer at Pitchfork calls The War on Drugs “a fascinating study in influence; it’s hard to think of a band with more obvious touchstones that also sounds so original.” That’s a great description of a band that should be headlining arenas. Download this: “Holding On”, “Pain”, “Nothing to Find”, “You Don’t Have to Go.” 
  3. Chris Stapleton, From A Room, Vol. 1&2Technically, Stapleton released two albums this year, one in May and one in December. But these songs were recorded in the same sessions in RCA’s historic “A Room” studio and I’m combining them into one killer double album. Stapleton still looks and sounds like he just left a gig at The Boar’s Nest on the Dukes of Hazard, and that’s what I love about him. Download this: “Second One to Know”, “Broken Halos”, “A Simple Song”, “Scarecrow in the Garden.”
  4. John Moreland, Big Bad Luv. I came across Moreland earlier this year and really fell in love with his Americana sound. It’s rare that the first song on a record is my least favorite, but Big Bad Luv keeps getting better from the first note. Download this: “Slow Down Easy”, “No Glory in Regret”, “Latchkey Kid.”
  5. Josh Ritter, Gathering. Ritter is as reliable as they come. I can always count on a couple of truly great songs with each Ritter LP. “When Will I Be Changed” is one of the best songs released this year. Download this: “Showboat”, “When Will I Be Changed”, “Thunderbolt’s Goodnight.” 
  6. Sam Outlaw, Tenderheart. Outlaw was a Spotify find earlier this year. As you can tell from this list, I was in an Americana / country mood for most of the year. I wish this artist had more of a following; I think he’s great. Download this: “Everyone’s Looking for Home”, “Diamond Ring.”
  7. Ryan Adams, Prisoner. For months, this was the only 2017 release I could really get into. I love the alt-country groove Adams has settled into recently. Download this: “To Be Without You”, “Do You Still Love Me?”
  8. Son Volt, Notes of Blue. This was another early 2017 listen that had staying power for me. I’d forgotten how good Son Volt could sound. Download this: “Promise the World”, “Back Against the Wall.”
  9. U2, Songs of Experience. U2 have received some major love since releasing Songs of Experience earlier this month. Hailed as a counterpart to 2014’s Songs of Innocence (i.e., that U2 album you still can’t delete from your iTunes library), this batch of songs resonates sonically. But Bono’s earnest optimism comes off as a bit hokey here. Still, there are a couple of really great moments. Download this: “Lights of Home”, “13 (There Is A Light).”
  10. Danny & the Champions of the World, Brilliant Light. They may hail from London, but they make some fine Americana. Download this: “Waiting for the Right Time”, “Consider Me.” 

There’s my list for 2017. I’d love to know what music you’ve loved this year.

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Our third Rudolph Run! Ho Ho Ho!

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