The Danger of Gospel Osmosis

Cross-posted at For the Church

We find ourselves in an age of a great renaissance. The gospel of Jesus Christ has resurfaced as both a means of entrance into the kingdom of God and the key to our growth in the kingdom. Churches, small group ministries, sermons, and the like are finding an infusion of life, centered on the unchanging and active power of the gospel. But amidst the hopefulness of this resurgence, there remains an ever-present dilemma. It’s the danger of gospel osmosis. It’s the threat of being in the proximity of the gospel but not being truly in its grip.

It isn’t enough to just know about the gospel. It isn’t enough to just know the language of gospel-centeredness. It isn’t enough to read Tim Keller and Jerry Bridges and the Puritans. It’s not enough to just listen to Matt Chandler and John Piper and R.C. Sproul. It’s not enough to just go T4G or The Gospel Coalition or the Desiring God conferences. It’s not even enough to go to a church that claims it’s centered on the gospel. While these are great things worthy of praise to God, they are only good to the extent that those things are leading to lives being transformed by the gospel.

The apostle Paul once had this same concern. Paul prayed this for his friends in Colossians 1:9-10:

we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Colossae was in response to a promotion of a form of knowledge by the false teachers of his time that was fruitless. In fact, Paul believed that this kind of false teaching led to the wrong behavior because it was disconnected from the gospel.

Paul’s logic in his prayer for the Colossian church went like this. Knowledge of the gospel should lead to wisdom and understanding – or said another way, it should impact the way that you live. True knowledge in wisdom and understanding of the gospel bears fruit. Knowledge of the gospel is not enough. It must lead to wisdom – to practical living empowered by the gospel.

Ray Ortlund says it this way in the context of the church community:

Churches that do not exude humility, inclusion, peace, life, hope and honesty — even if they have gospel doctrine on paper…undercut their own doctrine at a functional level, where it should count in the lives of actual people.  Churches that are haughty, exclusivistic, contentious, exhausted, past-oriented and in denial are revealing a gospel deficit. The current rediscovery of the gospel as doctrine is good, very good.  But a further discovery of the gospel as culture — the gospel embodied in community — will be infinitely better, filled with a divine power such as we have not yet seen. [1]

The responsibility that we have living in this resurgence of the gospel in our times is this: what are we going to do with it? Will we be good stewards of it or will we squander it? Will our lives be marked by the life of Jesus – a life lived with a laser-focus on God’s mission and not sidetracked by lesser things? Will our lives be marked by the death of Jesus – dying to ourselves for the sake of others and to our own self-salvation projects? Will our lives be marked by the resurrection of Jesus – believing the same power that raised Jesus from the dead that now lives in us to help us resist sin? To be marked by the gospel means that we are known by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our living – not just in our thinking.

In our time, there is a great temptation to be gospel-centered in name but not in deed. But to live out God’s will is to bear fruit through the gospel. It’s not enough for us to have gospel-centered doctrine on our websites and position papers and taught in it membership classes, it must be demonstrated. We mustn’t window-shop the gospel – we must enter and partake of its goods. It’s time to resist merely being puffed up with gospel awareness and instead, enter into the land of fruit bearing. We must desperately ask the Lord that he grace our church with not only gospel knowledge but with a gospel yield. With the Lord’s help and our humility, may we know the gospel deeply but also live out the gospel fully in our lives. Our lives and our churches depend on it.

[1] Ray Ortlund, “Gospel Doctrine, Gospel Culture,” https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/rayortlund/2015/09/17/gospel-doctrine-gospel-culture-2/, accessed April 25, 2017.

My Top 15 Books of 2016

I’ve always enjoyed reading but only in the last couple of years have I recovered a love (and a regularity) that was birthed as a kid reading the likes of Roald Dahl and J.R.R. Tolkien. Life has a way of pushing out the slower, measured spaces needed to read this type of literature but as I’ve prioritized this discipline, it has unearthed much fruit. This list is comprised of hard copies of books (seen above) that impacted me the most, regardless of publication date.*

And yes, this was “The Year of Keller.” Having already read his books on gospel life, the gospel of Mark, self forgetfulness, mercy ministry, urban ministry and preaching, I tried to make my way through the rest of his catalog this year and I almost did it. I’ll need to tackle his recently released prequel to The Reason for God and his book on Christmas, as well as his book on faith and work and he and his wife’s book on marriage in the upcoming year.

My favorite books from 2016:

15. Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide by Cameron Cole and Jon Nelson (ed.) (Crossway, 2016) // A blueprint for modern ministry to youth. No stone unturned. Clear and cogent.

14. The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing by Jonathan Dodson (Zondervan, 2014) // Contextualized evangelism for the 21st century. Astute. Challenges our gospel fluency.

13. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God  by Tim Keller (Penguin, 2016) // The new standard on prayer. Comprehensive. Personally reinvigorating.

12. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission by Larry McCrary, Caleb Crider, Wade Stephens, and Rodney Calfee (CreateSpace, 2013) // Affirms the concept that all are missionaries wherever they are. Strategic. Purposeful.

11. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller (Penguin, 2011) // Religion and irreligion are both ways to avoid God. One of Keller’s most potent insights. Humbling.

10. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters  by Tim Keller (Viking, 2009) // Delves deeper in idol diagnosis than any that have come before. Attacks culture’s biggest golden calves. Weighty.

9. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything by Fred Sanders (Crossway, 2010) // Foundational. Deeply biblical. Pastoral.

8. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller (Penguin, 2015) // Exhaustive. Hopeful. Takes into account the diversity of humanity and their responses to suffering.

7. Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore (B&H Books, 2015) // Penetrating. Ahead of its time. Foreshadowing. “A prophetic minority…”

6. Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves (IVP Academic, 2012) // Accessible yet deep. Clever. Stopped almost every paragraph to distill. Funny. My new favorite book on the Trinity.

5. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just by Tim Keller (Penguin, 2012) // Helpful. Incontrovertible. Puts to rest the debate on the Christian and church’s responsibility to the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the refugee.

4. How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith (Eerdmans, 2014) // Smith brings Taylor from the air to the ground. Profitable. Effective.

3. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller (Penguin, 2009) // Ground-breaking. Thorough. A new apologetic. In my opinion, Keller’s most important tome.

2. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith (Brazos, 2016) // You become what you set your affections upon. Visionary. Bettering.

And the book I read in 2016 that was my favorite was…

1.  The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism & Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson (Crossway, 2016) // I know this is #1 on most people’s year-end lists but I have to agree with them, this was the cream of the crop for 2016. An amalgamation of church history, biblical theology, and pastoral application masterfully woven together unlike any I’ve seen before. At it’s center is something as relevant as its ever been – the ditch of legalism or antinomianism as we seek to apply the relationship of the gospel with the law. And Ferguson swimmingly maneuvers in these difficult waters with deft and proficiency in a way that not only instructs the mind but reengineers the heart.

Honorable Mention:

Learning Evangelism from Jesus by Jerram Barrs (Crossway, 2009)
I Am: Exploring the ‘I Am’ Sayings of John’s Gospel by Iain Campbell (Evangelical Press, 2011)
Good News to the Poor: Social Involvement and the Gospel by Tim Chester (Crossway, 2013)
Delighting in the Trinity: Why the Father, Son, and Spirit are Good News by Tim Chester (The Good Book Company, 2010)
Reordering the Trinity: Six Movements of God in the New Testament by Rodrick Durst
Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions by Tim Keller (Penguin, 2015)
You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church…and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2016)
Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer by C.S. Lewis (Mariner Books, 2002 printing)
The Next Christians: Seven Ways You Can Live the Gospel and Restore the World by Gabe Lyons (Multnomah, 2012)
Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness by Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans, 1992)
Honest Evangelism by Rico Tice and Carl Laferton (The Good Book Company, 2015)
The Story of Everything: How You, Your Pets, and the Swiss Alps Fit into God’s Plan for the World by Jared C. Wilson (Crossway, 2015)
The Story Telling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables by Jared C. Wilson (Crossway, 2014)

*I enjoy other kinds of mediums of reading as well. I probably read the equivalent of another 5-7 books from the blogs, journals, and news sites that I save and read via Feedly and Pocket.

My Top 16 Albums of 2016

It’s that time of the year again. As is the case for me each year, I go with what moves move me. While I refer to year-end lists, many of my favorites won’t be found on their tabulations. In actuality, the major music publications and sites end up being fairly homogeneous anyways. Here is how I determined what swayed me musically in 2016. I peruse and listen to most of…

1. Spotify new music releases
2. Spotify “Discover Weekly” (an algorithmically personalized playlist of mostly new artists that I likely haven’t heard but fit my preferences)
3. Swarm.fm (aggregates new releases of my Spotify followed artists)
4. Allmusic new music releases
5. iTunes new indie releases
6. Metacritic new music releases

And since it’s 2016, naturally, here are my top 16 albums in ’16…

Top 16 Albums of 2016

16. Myzica: Love + Desire

“…a glossy slab of synth, breezy melodies and a jangly hook…” Paste Magazine

“It’s unpretentious, casual, authentic pop…” Nashville Scene

15. Paper Lions: Full Colour

“A heavenly fusion of modern sounds and glorious 80s influences, this is high rotation stuff…a work of masterful pop, capitalizing on four very talented musicians abilities and their clear love of all things 80s. It’s an instantly accessible, highly rotational outing…” The Lowdown Under

14. The Head and the Heart: Signs of Light

“The Head and the Heart moved away from ‘folksiness’ to embrace a bigger, bolder musical vision — one filled with louder guitars, heavier rhythms and bigger arrangements, all encased in gorgeous vocal harmonies…” The Current

13. Two Door Cinema: Gameshow

“…their twitchy but undeniably danceable electropop/rock has long been soul- and disco-adjacent.” Consequence of Sound

“Its main currency is glossy pop-funk with a twist of 1980s AOR sieved through latterday production techniques: a bit of filtered house here, an EDMish synth noise there.” The Guardian

12. Fort Frances: Alio

“Fort Frances’ Alio is a sort of record that breathes and exists somewhat outside of the sphere of the horizon-less Spotify shuffle. These are, pound for pound, the Chicago-based trio’s catchiest songs to date…they have created a bona fide rock album that not only ceases to forfeit the roots of where they come from but ramps up the urgency, musicianship and sense of adventurousness across the board.” Denim on Wax

11. Grouplove: Big Mess

“Grouplove’s newest piece delivered just what you wouldn’t expect: an odd-looking, weirdly-sounding collection of fond memories and brutal truths wrapped up in a fantastically-crafted manifestation of dynamic indie rock.”  Niner Times

10. Bon Iver: 22, A Million

“Bon Iver’s first album in five years takes an unexpected turn toward the strange and experimental. But behind the arranged glitches and processed voices are deeply felt songs about uncertainty… 22, A Million sounds only like itself. There are precedents for all of Vernon’s moves deep in the histories of rock‘n’roll and rhythm and blues and electronic music…But this particular amalgamation is so twitchy and idiosyncratic it feels truly singular. Its searching is bottomless.” Pitchfork

9. Wintersleep: The Great Detachment

“Every element of the album’s production – from the song writing through to the record’s mastering – shouts the band’s ambition, with songs featuring call-and-response and sing-along friendly lyrics, and the volume levels and EQs set for maximum punch over the radio waves. ” Renowned for Sound

“…in adding a layer of freshness to their sound, and a rousing new collection of songs to their catalogue, they feel like a band invigorated.” Loud and Quiet

8. Kwabs: Love + War

“[The] accommodation of opposites is one of the key attractions of Love + War, with the warm, intensely human timbre of Kwabs’s voice held in prickly equilibrium with the chilly electro arrangements…There’s a strange synergy in operation here, as their keyboard pads, handclap grooves and sharp, cracking synthetic snare sounds chip away at his humanity, while also steering him firmly towards the future.” Independent

“Kwabs certainly possesses a formidable vocal instrument – a luscious, impressively controlled baritone which one minute can soar with sublime grace, the next can make the skin crawl through deep, breathy intimacy.” Drowned in Sound

7. Francis: Marathon

“Swedish alternative musicians Francis return with their sophomore album, softening the experimental post-punk folk of their early music into more subtle, gentle melodies and contemplative lyrics. Francis have stripped their music to the bare bones…and embracing the simplicity of soothing guitar sounds and drum beats.” GIGsoup

“On first listening, each track could almost blur into one but there is something warm and welcoming about Marathon, and something sharply intelligent that invites you to delve a little deeper with each listening.” The London Economic

6. Cub Sport: This is Our Vice

“This is Our Vice is a glistening, hypercolour pop record, boasting hooks that could melt into your mouth…and hitherto-unseen production sheen. Sonically, the record sends guitars off into the distance, builds giant pyramids out of layers of synths and launches the intertwined vocal arrangements into the proverbial stratosphere.” Faster Louder

“Cub Sport‘s sound is grounded in Aussie indie pop, based around hook-filled melodies, anthemic choruses, and sophisticated arrangements.” Pop Matters

5. Eliot Sumner: Information

“Sumner changes things up a bit, going for a darker electro-rock vibe that perfectly propels her storytelling vocals. Her vocals sound eerily reminiscent of Sting – who by the way is her dad – with an androgynous, husky tone and studied intonation…the record is full of darker, 80s-tinged synths.” Seattle Music News

“As a whole, the album is nuanced; individually, the songs are flawlessly written, dark explorations of 80s genres. Sumner provides her own lush take on moody electronic rock, and rather than feeling pretentious, these songs are genuine, and masterfully executed.” Renowned for Sound

4. Local Natives: Sunlit Youth

“Far from the indie-folk of their earlier days, Sunlit Youth leans heavily on the synths and flirts with big-melody pop forms.” Pitchfork

“These are traditional Local Natives songs dressed in a glittering neon overcoat. The strings that marked the band’s early work are mostly missing, replaced by swirling synths that play against the guitar lines. Huge choruses are underpinned by throbbing grooves.” Consequence of Sound

3. Leagues: Alone Together

“Take the murkier aspects of Howard Jones, Human League, Gary Numan and New Order, fold in some dark, intermittently cynical, more often alienated lyrics and you’ve got an edgy, retro-leaning yet contemporary album as effective on the dance floor as it is at home…” American Songwriter

2. Frightened Rabbit: Painting of a Panic Attack

“With all of these factors in mind—frayed internal relationships within the band, general fatigue and a successful solo album—one would think that the writing would be on the wall for this record. But the end result is the exact opposite; Painting of a Panic Attack is a triumph for a veteran band and represents one of their best efforts to date…Frightened Rabbit evolve the right way with this release, changing their sound, but not so much that they lose their trademark sound. This is still the Frightened Rabbit we all know and love, as gloomy as we last heard from them.” Paste Magazine

“Painting of a Panic Attack is more a sensible repositioning than a reinvention…maybe Frightened Rabbit have just gotten too good at their formula for it to not seem self-aware. And too often, the title of Painting of a Panic Attack serves as an unintentional reminder of the way Hutchison comes across: like a television version of a person with a broken heart.” Pitchfork

And my top album this year…

1. Bear’s Den: Red Earth + Pouring Rain

“…this London-based band have carefully crafted a second album which showcases a euphoric step forward and poignant growth in their musicality…Every piece of Red Earth & Pouring Rain is so undeniably delicate and intricate, like an antique family heirloom, it even makes you question how hard you hit the play button for fear of damage. But it’s the aforementioned heartfelt lyrics that really make you take care.” Clash

“…it seems only natural that Bear’s Dan should expand their sonic palette too. The result is a record steeped in pop polish and the grandeur of Seventies and Eighties rock, yet rooted in the lilting folk of its predecessor.” Drowned in Sound

Honorable Mention:

Adele: 25
ANIMA!: self-titled
Barcelona: Basic Man
Bell X1: Arms
D.D. Dumbo: Utopia Defeated
Dawes: We’re All Going to Die
Glass Animals: How to Be a Human Being
Jack Garrett: Phases
Jarryd James: High
Jinja Safari: Crescent Moon
Joan as Police Woman: Let it Be You
Jones: New Skin
Joseph: I’m Alone, No You’re Not
Parachute: Wide Awake
POP ETC: Souvenir
Ready Set: I Will Be Nothing Without Your Love
Pete Yorn: ArrangingTime
Young the Giant: Home of the Strange

Here is a look back at my #1 albums from years past:

2015: Oh Wonder Self-titled
2014: Bear HandsDistraction
2013: Frightened RabbitsPedestrian Verse
2012: Sea WolfOld World Romance
2011: Foster the PeopleTorches

It is Finished

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Cross-posted at Gospel Centered Discipleship

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:28-30

In 1862, French poet, playwright, and novelist Victor Hugo released his magnum opus Les Miserables, considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. In 1998, Hugo’s masterpiece found its cinematic zenith in the Bille August-directed film by the same name. In both works, one scene stands out above the rest.

At the beginning of the narrative, we meet ex-convict Jean Valjean who has just been released from a nineteen year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Trying to get on his feet, Valjean attempts to find a place to live but no one would take him in except for one—Bishop Myriel.

It doesn’t take long for Valjean’s old temptation to rear its ugly head. When everyone is asleep one night, Valjean goes to the cupboard and pilfers some of the bishop’s silver. He makes a run for it but is eventually caught red-handed. The police bring him before the bishop.

Valjean stands before the bishop, being held by the police. Bishop Myriel looks at the police and proclaims something extraordinary. He says that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift. If that wasn’t enough, the bishop goes over to the mantelpiece, takes two silver candlesticks, and says that actually more silver had been forgotten by Valjean. He places the candlesticks in Valjean’s hands. The police have no choice but to let Valjean go free. But the story doesn’t end there.

After the authorities leave, the bishop looks at Valjean and says this to him, “Now, go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you needn’t come through the garden. You can always come and go by the front door. It is only closed with a latch, day or night.”

The bishop not only gives him mercy by forgetting the original crime and letting him keep the silver he stole, he gives him more mercy by giving him more silver. And then, he gives him even more mercy by giving him the best gift of all: his trust. The bishop does something so radically counter-intuitive to us. Something that feels so unnatural to us. He gives him unconditional grace.

Quid Pro Quo

We live in a society based on conditions. When you look at the world around us, everything in our culture demands a trade of some kind. “You do this for me; I’ll do this for you.” “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” But unconditional grace? We just can’t seem to wrap our feeble minds around that. It doesn’t’ make any sense to us. We are so acclimated to a culture of quid pro quo that we believe everything must have a catch.

We impose this idea upon God as well. We think that in order for God to truly extend his mercy to us, we must give him back something in return. We feel like we owe him something. So we resort to a spiritual checklists because they feel much safer. We like conditions because they keep us in “control.” If we can complete our spiritual “to do” list, it gives us the illusion that things are good between God and us because we have played a part in it. Theologian Gerhard Forde can help here:

The gospel … is such a shocker … because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of god! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness-knows-where.

God’s grace isn’t conditional. It’s unreserved. It’s not a back-and-forth, two-way love. God’s grace always moves in one direction. And that is why it disturbs us. Forde continues:

How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat out, “you are righteous for Jesus’ sake?” Is there not some price to be paid, something (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such thing as a free lunch, can there?

That’s exactly what we do with God’s grace. We put conditions on it. We take a “yes grace but …” position. We think there is something that must be done on our end. There can’t just be free grace for the taking, can there?

The Beauty of Grace

The last words that Jesus spoke before he gave up his spirit on the cross were three words we need to massage into our hearts. “It is finished.” Grace announces that Jesus met all of God’s conditions on our behalf so that God’s mercy towards us could be unreserved. That’s the beauty of grace. It requires no work on our part. The work of redemption is complete in Jesus. In Christ, we are completely accepted. We are completely loved. In full. The work is done. It is finished.

This rightly rages against our insatiable need to work for our salvation. When we look to the cross and see the Savior of the world proclaim that the work is finished, it disorients us because we are a “conditional” people. Work, not rest, is our modus operandi. But that is exactly why Jesus breathed out those three words. God knew we would need to hear over and over, “Your effort is not needed. It is finished,” because to rest feels like a waste of time.

But deep gospel rest is exactly what we can find in the finished work of Jesus. Our hearts can truly engage with the words from Hebrews, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10). Entering spiritual rest means that we are resting in Christ’s finished work on our behalf—not our work or our reputation or our accomplishments. It means we are swapping effort for rest. It’s at the heart of what Jesus achieved on Calvary’s cross.

As we hear again the crucified Jesus’ final words this Holy Week, hope is uncovered. We are saved solely by grace through Christ’s work. In Jesus, we can be forgiven. We can be made clean. We don’t earn it. We simply receive grace because that’s the only way grace is received. Grace isn’t grace unless it’s unconditional. It looks as if there is such a thing as a free lunch after all.

Limitless Grace for Limited Leaders: How Accepting Our Boundaries Frees us to Flourish as Pastors

cliffs edge

Cross-posted at For The Church

Since the day our church was planted, our pastors have fielded many questions on the topic of mission from the younger generations in our midst. “Do we have a plan to serve the poor?” “How are we going to plant missional communities in the most underserved parts of our city?” “How soon are we going to be able to bring the gospel to the unengaged peoples in the world?” Our standard (and honest) answer has been that we have a heart for any place where Jesus is not truly known. But we look at the work and our five fish and two loaves and know that the Great Commission is a God-sized task.

One the one hand, we love their ambition. It challenges and sharpens us. It’s easy, even as pastors of a church plant, to suffer from missional drift. On the other hand, the pastoral wisdom that comes with experience and age makes us cautious. We know that we can’t achieve everything that needs to be done missionally. We find ourselves speaking the truth in love that there are confines to what only one church can accomplish.

I recently was reflecting our church’s missional ambitions and I began to feel a deep sense of conviction about something. I began to see inconsistency in the way I shepherd others with their dreams of mission versus the way I shepherd my own heart in ministry. I warn others of the dangers of trying to do too many things missionally but struggle with warning my own heart of the hazards of not understanding the “perimeters” of my pastoral abilities. I remind others that God will clarify those few things we must do missionally but struggle with reminding my own heart that God has set boundaries of gifting for me in ministry to “move” within. I even preach to others that we should have faith that God will help us do a few things well but struggle to preach to myself that I’m only a small part of God’s eternal plan.

So why am I nervous to admit that I can’t do everything that needs to be done? I think it’s simple. I am afraid to to confess that I have limits. I’m afraid to admit that I have God-allotted periods and boundaries of my dwelling place (Acts 17:26). And I’m afraid that will render me unimportant.

In a 2012 New York Times article entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” Tim Kreider says:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Kreider is touching on something we would do well as pastors to hear. And there’s so much more. The clamor to be the smartest person in the room, the pressure to make everyone like us, the temptation to be the biggest church in our city – these are attempts to make our lives exceptional. But admitting that we have boundaries means that we have to accept that much of our ministry “busyness” is a veiled attempt to make much of ourselves and not Jesus.

Jesus didn’t seem to struggle with limits or boundaries like us. In Zack Eswine’s book, Sensing Jesus, he says:

“Limits repulse the driven. The driven therefore struggle with the sense of place that Jesus had…[But] the holy One of God became a man – and this incarnation included limiting himself and inhabiting a locality on the earth.”

This is the heart of Philippians 2. Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. This was a “limiting” act on the part of Jesus.

Why was Jesus willing to do this? Jesus was inclined to live within earthly boundaries because he had a white-hot focus on one thing: joyful obedience to his Father that would lead him to a cross for our sake. This should reorient us all. Eswine again, “The divine condescension to locality challenges my ambition that is restless to embrace various things at once.”

See, if the God-man Jesus was willing to live within human flesh and in a local place that would ultimately lead to him sacrificing his life for ours, we can joyfully accept our lesser limits too.

This is where limitless grace meets limited leaders. We can only rest in our limitedness when we see that Jesus limited himself by leaving the culture of the Trinity and entering the culture of man for our sake. His act of incarnation and redemption settles our need for significance on this side of eternity. Healthy leaders accept their limits because when we look to Jesus, we see the ultimate limitation – God becoming flesh and blood to bring us spiritual rescue. And as we rest in this truth, we can let the unlimited One and his limitless grace give us courage to be the limited leader that we are and in the end, flourish for the good of our churches and the gospel.

My Top 15 Books in 2015

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One of my new year’s resolutions for 2015 was to read more. The first five years of church planting left little time to read but I’m glad to say that there was a significant uptick in this department in 2015. I read more this year than I have in a long time. And by read, I mean physical books. I regularly read what accounts for probably another 5-10 books a year if you add up all the words in blogs, journals, and news sites that I save and read via Feedly and Pocket – but for this list, I’m sticking with the ink on paper variety.

Here were my favorite books of 2015. Not all were written in this past year. Still yet, they comprise the books that impacted me the most:

15. Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church by Gene Getz (Moody, 2003) and 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons (not pictured) by Benjamin Merkle (Kregel, 2007)

One of the projects I have the privilege of working on this year on behalf of our church’s elders was our position paper on church polity. While I read over a plethora of resources, these two books were indispensable. Getz’s book seemed to most closely parallel our church’s polity – which is not pure congregationalism or Presbyterianism but rather what we call “elder-led, member-engaged” – and both books helped us determine practicalities that will serve us well moving forward.

14. Preach: Theology Meets Practice by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert (B&H Books, 2012)

This is the resource we used with our preaching lab participants at Mercyview in 2015. I’m cheating a bit here because I read it in December 2014 in preparation for the 9-month lab that took place between February through October of this year. As I did, I was immediately struck by it’s accessibility and humility. A great book to help teach the framework of gospel-centered preaching without getting bogged down in the minutiae.

13. Gospel Centered Discipleship by Jonathan Dodson (Crossway, 2012)

I finally got around to reading Dodson’s book on discipleship this year and I’m glad I did. It’s easily the best modern text on discipleship to come out in the past few years. I particularly appreciated how he talks about the “three conversions” that successively happen in discipleship – conversion to Christ, his church, and mission. This grid assists disciplers in patience with those they disciple because this is a progression towards spiritual maturity.

12. God Redeeming His Bride: A Handbook for Church Discipline by Robert Cheong (Christian Focus, 2012) and Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus by Jonathan Leeman (Crossway, 2012)

One of the pieces of the polity paper I developed this year was an extensive treatment on the issue of church discipline. While I disagree with Leeman on who holds the final authority for discipling members and leaders, his book is a must read on this issue. He and Cheong are the leading voices in the resurgence of restorative discipline in the church and their books are essential for anyone looking to understand this important practice of the church.

11. Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ by Bob Kellemen (Zondervan, 2015)

Though written primarily for biblical counselors, Gospel Conversations has a broader application in giving anyone language and skills for relating effectively to others. And in the arena of counseling, Kellemen can always be trusted to write from a firm gospel-centered approach. Here is my review of the book I wrote in November: http://www.graceuntamed.com/book-review-gospel-conversations-by-robert-kellemen/

10. Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Tired of Taking Sides by Scott Sauls (Tyndale, 2015)

This book is on many year-end lists and rightfully so. In his introduction, Sauls says, “When the grace of Jesus sinks in, we will be among the least offended and most loving people in the world.” In Jesus Outside the Lines, Sauls successfully weaves the grace of Jesus into the clash of opinions and activism of our age. To understand how to winsomely engage in culture, this book is a must read for all Christians.

9. The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry by Jared Wilson (Crossway, 2013)

The first of two of Wilson’s books on this year’s list. This book has served the elders of Mercyview tremendously during our bi-monthly meetings as we process our hearts in ministry on the issues Wilson tackles in The Pastor’s Justification like freedom, holiness, humility, and confidence, among others.

8. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson (IVP, 1980)

Admission: I’ve had this book in my library for many years and thought it was Peterson’s book on discipleship. I was wrong. We preached through the Psalms of Ascent this summer and this is what A Long Obedience is about. Peterson was my go-to resource (although I didn’t always agree with his interpretations) because he unpacked these psalms with his usual inventive and “heart-level” writing. Great inspiration from a very accessible “commentary” on the Psalms of Ascent.

7. The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy by Tim Keller (10 Publishing, 2012)

I read this on the heels of our annual men’s summer retreat on the theme of pride and humility as suggested by our retreat speaker. A super-short resource (only 46 pages) but power-packed with gospel goodness on why true joy comes in life when it isn’t about us.

6. The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund (Crossway, 2014)

I devoured this little book (a part of the 9 Marks “Building Healthy Churches” series) on the plane rides to and from the Desiring God Conference for Pastors in February. Ortlund is one of my favorite preachers and writers out there. In The Gospel, writes with such wisdom and humbleness. It is chock full of the practical implications of a gospel-rich church culture and it gives a vision to any church who desires to place Jesus at the center of its ministry and mission.

5. The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo by Jared Wilson (Crossway, 2014)

It’s not easy to critique the pink elephant in the room: the attractional church. Some will cry in defense Paul’s edict, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some,” while others will criticize too heavy-handedly. Not Wilson. I was impressed with the way in which he took the middle ground and truly was “gentle” in his approach. Rather than condemning, he asked open-ended questions as if he wanted us to see the answers in the questions. At the risk of sounding dramatic, all pastors should wrestle with Wilson’s thoughts in The Prodigal Church – the future of much of evangelicalism depends on it.

4. Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes by Zack Eswine (P&R Publishing, 2014)

We preached through the book of Ecclesiastes passage by passage in the fall of 2014 and spring of 2015 and this was my favorite commentary to learn from and it was all I could do not to quote this commentary in large chunks in my sermons (sometimes, I did!). In my opinion, Recovering Eden could easily be read as a traditional “book” because it it doesn’t feel like a commentary – yet it is every bit of one. Part of the reason it doesn’t feel like a commentary is that Eswine doesn’t follow the book chronologically but rather weaves themes throughout Ecclesiastes into a collective whole. And to boot, Eswine is the quintessential wordsmith in the vein of authors from another age. He writes as a theologically-robust poet and his insights into the human heart are inescapable. Grab Recovering Eden if you want to understand the plight of the soul and how the God “above the sun” is its answer.

3. A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships by Paul Miller (Crossway, 2014)

As Recovering Eden was a commentary that didn’t feel like one, The Loving Life wasn’t one that easily could be used as one. Miller takes us on a comprehensive journey through the book of Ruth, meticulously uncovering gospel gems all along the way. It expertly handles the theme of how grace empowers love, particularly in the context of community, in ways that I’ve not seen since reading Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From Ruth to Naomi to Boaz, we see types of Christ in The Loving Life, but most of all, we see Christ!

2. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller (Viking, 2015)

When I first heard Keller was working on a book on preaching, I have to admit I couldn’t wait. Many of us have “endured” by deciphering his extensive preaching syllabus from his time teaching homiletics at Westminster. I even have a friend who transcribed his well-known “Preaching to the Heart” talks from Gordon-Conwell in 2006 word-for-word to try to aggregate his thoughts into one resource. But this year, Keller released Preaching, distilling his many years of experience into one tome. And it is brilliant. The end notes alone are worth the price of the book. Alongside his instruction in the “how to” of preaching, I found his ability to mentor us in reading culture as equally important. To communicate the gospel is to contextualize the gospel. Borrowing heavily from philosopher Charles Taylor, Keller does this masterfully in this book. The new standard in preaching in the “late modern” times we live in.

sensingjesus

1. Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being by Zack Eswine (Crossway, 2013)

I started reading Sensing Jesus about the time another book by Eswine called The Imperfect Pastor was released. I soon found out that The Imperfect Pastor was Sensing Jesus rebooted, just a bit more compressed and focused. Eswine, as stated before, it a dazzling word slinger so I get why Crossway did this but I’m glad I read the more expanded version of this book in all of its requisite strength. Now, to the book. It’s extraordinary when a work is so well done you feel like you’ve read something that has changed you on the spot but this is exactly what happened with Sensing Jesus. Eswine has the ability to tackle difficult idolatries of the heart with a patience, gentleness, and personal confession that is rare in today’s writing culture. And no one gets a free pass. Eswine swings to both sides of the soul spectrum to bring godly confrontationIn particular, Part 1 of the book entitled, “Exposing Our Temptations,” Eswine skillfully unearths the three primary temptations of the human heart – being everywhere-for-alls, fix-it-alls, or know-it-alls. In fact, everyone should print out the introduction to this part of the book (pp. 55-56) and post it in a prominent place in their home or office – it’s that important to keep in front of you. The closing line of the introduction summarizes the overall motif of Sensing Jesus perfectly: “Jesus invites everywhere-for-alls, fix-it-alls, and know-it-alls to the cross, the empty tomb, and the throne of his grace for their time of need.” Eswine’s Sensing Jesus helps us “sense” this great truth – the throne of grace is always available for approach and forgiveness.

 

My Top 15 Albums of 2015

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This has been the best year for music I have ever experienced, hands down. It may be that I have figured out how to listen to more music in a shorter amount of time and in the end, I’ve been exposed to more great music than ever before. Here is my weekly process. I peruse:

1. Spotify new music releases
2. Spotify “Discover Weekly” (an algorithmically personalized playlist of mostly new artists that I haven’t heard of, that also fits my somewhat narrow likes)
3. Allmusic new music releases
4. iTunes new indie releases
5. Metacritic new music releases
6. America’s Music Charts new entries (those that charted for the first time that week)

As for my rankings each year, I go with my gut. I don’t let year-end lists sway me very much other than to see if there were any records I still need to listen to. In fact, you probably won’t find many of my favorite albums on other’s lists. Most major publications/websites all seem to like the same people anyways – with a few exceptions, of course.

So, without any further ado, these are the top 15 albums that moved me in the year ’15…

15. Susanne Sundfør: Ten Love Songs | Off-kilter electro-pop beamed in from another planet, menancing, eerie and resolutely downbeat but always accessible.

14. Wildcat! Wildcat!: No Moon At All | Indie-pop, dance-rock “anthems made for night driving toward nothingness, the neon nihilism of the most American of all cities not named Chicago or Las Vegas.” Pop Matters

13. Low: Ones & Sixes | Slowcore vets keep the airy, luscious backing vocals and sparse, gritty instrumentation rolling on their newest, but up the ante on an immediacy and liveliness missing from their most recent records.

12. Swiss Lips: Overflowing Futures | I want to dance with somebody! An album of previously unreleased material and remixes that is better than its straight-ahead self-titled release earlier in the year that straddles early 80´s disco and modernity.

11. Lemelo: Red Right Return | Subtlety and minimalism reigns supreme on this organic dream pop, accented by smoky, intimate vocals.

10. Pure Bathing Culture: Pray for Rain | Blurred around the edges but with real substance – glazed, left-field pop at its best.

9. Chad Valley: Entirely New Blue | Soulful, digital dream-pop that is uplifting yet intermingled with a slightly melancholic atmosphere.

8. COIN: self-titled | An amalgamation of post-80’s nostalgia and California pop, as mellow as it is vivacious.

7. Lost Lander: Medallion | Built around synths, communal vocals, and chamber elements, the sophomore effort from these Portlandians has a breathtaking bounciness that makes it soar.

6. WATERS: What’s Real | Equal parts radio rock and heart-on-sleeve-indie vibes, purring with high- strung guitars and convulsive percussion.

5. The Japanese House: Pools to Bath In EP and Clean EP | A stellar showcase of talented songwriting and exquisite musicianship – soothing, hypnotizing, electro-folk.

4. The Dø: Shake, Shook, Shaken | The ridiculously catchy shift in sound fits. Restless electro-pop replete with sparkles and musical curiosity.

3. JR JR: self-titled | Whimsical and addictive indie pop that is bursting with sleek intensity. Even better than its predecessor. Not a track to be missed here.

2. Everything Everything: Get to Heaven | No sophomore slump here. Complex art-pop, boisterous and unorthodox, that mirrors the broken, discomforting world we live in.

And my top album this year…

ohwonder

1. Oh Wonder: self-titled | The hookiest melodies you ever did hear betwixt haunting and subdued chill synth-pop and delicate vocals from this UK duo. Every track is truly confident and sublime – which is rare for any album. Best of the year.

Here is a look back at my #1 albums from years past:

2014: Bear HandsDistraction
2013: Frightened RabbitsPedestrian Verse
2012: Sea WolfOld World Romance
2011: Foster the PeopleTorches

Book Review: Gospel Conversations  by Robert Kellemen

kaboompics.com_Vintage restaurant

Two years ago, as I was preparing for a new year with the incoming interns at our church, I was searching for a resource that would assist them in better connecting relationally with those they would one day minister to. With well over a decade in ministry under my belt, I know that effectiveness in ministry is not just what we say but how and when we say it. In fact, if you neglect your emotional intelligence as you minister to others, you will most definitely come up against frustration.

After culling the available resources at my disposal, I came across a resource called 5 GRACE Biblical Counseling Skills by Bob Kellemen. This great little resource – a 25-page PDF developed from a larger work by Kellemen called Spiritual Friends: A Methodology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction – was perfect for our interns. Though written primarily for biblical counseling contexts, I was struck by its potential broader application in giving anyone language and skills for relating effectively to others. And after using this resource for the last two years, it has done just that, exceeding my expectations.

I recently had the privilege of poring over Kellemen’s newest book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ and Kellemen – the executive director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, the founder and CEO of RPM Ministries, and Vice President of Institutional Development and Chair of the Biblical Counseling at Crossroads Bible College – has provided us with another outstanding resource. In Gospel Conversations, Kellemen accomplishes exactly what he set out to do with this resource, “…to give careful thought and attention to how to use the gospel to encourage one another to resist temptation and to respond with suffering with love for God and one another.” (15)

In Gospel Conversations, Kellemen provides a comprehensive and highly practical manual to equip pastors and lay persons alike around what he calls four “compass points”: 1) sustaining (offering biblical care for hurting people), 2) healing (offering biblical comfort and encouragement for suffering people, 3) reconciling (offering biblical help for people struggling against besetting sins), and 4) guiding (offering wisdom for people growing in Christ).

A Deep Appreciation

I sincerely appreciate Kellemen’s emphasis on the centrality of the gospel. He says that a gospel conversation is to “promote personal change centered on the person of Christ through the personal ministry of the Word.” (16) Too often in our ministry towards others, we default to first giving “common sense” advice (this seems to make the most sense) or “street smarts” advice (this is what I’ve experienced, so it must be true).

While experience and logic can be helpful tools in conversation, they should not be the starting point nor the grid we continue to press help and change through. The gospel, as understood in the Scriptures, should be the focal point and end game for our conversations in ministry. Kellemen says as much, “The essence of gospel conversations is helping one another to understand and apply the gospel to the details of our lives as saints who struggle with suffering and sin.” (16)

Here’s a great example. In chapter nine of Gospel Conversations, “Reconciling through Grace-Maximizing,” Kellemen does a masterful job of explaining the tension between helping expose heart sin and its affects relationally, rationally, volitionally, and emotionally and the importance of applying the comforting grace of Christ.  He says, “Since little counsel can be received when the conscience is in intense turmoil, biblical counselors refuse to let sin overwhelm the conscience. The worst sin of all is denying grace…Sin can be forgiven, but believing sin can’t be forgiven leaves [one] hopelessly despairing.” (285)

So what to do? Be quick to extend the Spirit of sonship. Kellemen says that that this “liberates the spiritual conscience, causing it to understand that it’s now under freedom of grace and forgiveness of God.” (285) To this end, Kellemen says that to calm the conscience, we may need to remind our friend that “Christ always loves you accepts you” and ask the very practical question, “What scriptural meditation can you use to keep this truth in the forefront of your mind?” This is just one of many illustrations of how Kellemen weaves the tapestry of grace throughout this book. The “axis” that Gospel Conversations revolves around is rightly the liberating grace of God in the person and work of Jesus.

A Minor Caution

For the lay person wanting to grow in their ministry effectiveness in relating to others, Gospel Conversations may be somewhat challenging to navigate. Though it is not, as Kellemen says, “your father’s textbook,” it truly is a highly robust “how to” handbook (read, a 393-page opus). Kellemen successfully leaves no stone unturned in his attempt to provide, as he says, “an experiential training manual.” (17) For someone not accustomed to this kind of writing, it may take some time to digest. There are many hypothetical situations, acronyms, diagrams, and questionnaires to meditate on and absorb throughout the book. But for those willing to dig in, it will be worth the effort.

I wholeheartedly recommend Gospel Conversations for anyone desiring to grow in their ability to connect the gospel in conversation to those that they minister to.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

 

Fatal Attraction: All That Glitters is Not Gold, Part 2

Anaconda

Cross-posted from Gospel Centered Discipleship

I’m a sucker for the occasional B-movie escapism. Replete with a low budget, painful dialogue, and a severely undefined story arc, it can be the perfect silliness for a Friday evening. Enter Anaconda. As only 1997 could deliver, the film chronicles a documentary crew headed into the jungle to shoot footage on a mysterious Indian tribe. On their way, they pick up a stranded man who then takes the team hostage on his quest to capture the world’s largest and deadliest snake: a record-breaking green Anaconda.

The thrust of the storyline in one sentence (spoiler alert!) is: people scanning the crest of the river to determine where this deadly snake might be. That’s it. You can imagine the dialogue: “Is that it?” “Did you see that?” “I think I heard something” “Watch out, I see it coming!”

I’ve been thinking lately about the ways we pursue happiness and my drifted to Anaconda. Though most of us wouldn’t articulate it this way, we stroll through our human existence, scanning the surface of our hearts until we find what we think we are looking for. Our time, our energy, our attention, and even our money is devoted to a quest of self-assurance and self-significance.

The Great Hunt

We want to be loved. We want to belong. We want to make a difference. We want to feel important. And we’ll look endlessly until we have found something we think might satisfy us—much like the documentary crew looking for what lies at the crest of the river. But the fruit of our self-salvation projects lie at the surface of a greater hunt in our lives.

Want happiness? It’s important to identify what is at the surface of our hopes and desires. In order for us to find real satisfaction, we must start here. We must ask, “Is that it?” “Did you see that?” “I think I heard something” “Watch out, I see it coming!” The Bible calls this self-diagnosis idol detection (1 Cor. 10:14). Today, we discussing step one of this self-diagnosis: unearthing those idols that lie on the surface.

Many times these idols are easily discernible. You can identify them by listening to your prayers. What do you ask God forgiveness for? Maybe it’s an anger problem. Maybe it’s an issue with lust. Maybe you have bitterness in your heart towards another. Anger, lust, and bitterness are exterior sins indicating deeper root sins. These are branch idols. You can see them easily but the root sins are what’s actually feeding them.

Hunting for Your Idols

Here are some questions as you look for your surface idols.

  • Do I need to be esteemed by people?
  • Do I demand order in my world?
  • Do I compare myself favorably to others?
  • Am I angry or defeated if things are not accomplished immediately?
  • Do I have to be the center of my family life, my job, or my church?
  • Do I dictate that people must submit to me?
  • Do I think my opinions are all-wise and correct?
  • Do I do whatever pleases me?
  • Is my appearance—whether religiously or physically—ultimate?
  • Do I desire to be accountable to no one?
  • Do I have to win at everything?

If you notice, these questions require a sense of self-awareness. Tim Keller says that one way you can identify your surface idols is by looking at your most uncontrollable emotions.

Just like a fisherman looking for fish knows to go where the water is rolling, look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong . . . when you ‘pull your emotions up by the root,’ as it were, you will often find your idols clinging to them.

So what are your surface idols? Look at where the water is rolling on the crest of your heart and you will locate them. It’s an essential first step to reversing the fatal attraction of idolatry in our lives.

Next time, we will look at why we can’t stop at just identifying our surface idols if we want to find true significance and happiness. To find real peace and contentment in life, there is something that lurks beneath the surface that we must address because our surface sins are only symptoms of much deeper sins.

Fatal Attraction: All That Glitters is Not Gold, Part 1

stlouis skyline
I was just a young boy when it first happened. Gazing out the window of our sedan, my heart leaped when I saw a cityscape scuff the sky. I was mesmerized.

Growing up in small-town southeast Missouri, the tallest building I had ever seen was our town’s three-story red brick high school. Now in my purview was a gray jungle spattering the horizon, with yellow lights placed perfectly like stickers in rows. Bright lights, big city.

The jutting skyscrapers and surrounding city felt like Oz. But unlike the movie where this magical land was just a dream, this was real. And this material city had a certain allure to it. One that I haven’t been able to get away from since. Looking upon the urban panorama as a child, I had no need to click my heels. I was home. It had captivated me. Why?

Underneath the awe, it promised me something that I thought I wanted. Fulfillment, significance, worth. Even as a young boy, those yearnings were there. And they were being tugged at.

All of us could make a short list of the things that have caught our fancy. But many of us could take that same list and wax eloquently about how things have failed to deliver what they pledged. That’s the problem with allurement. All that glitters really isn’t gold. Sometimes our magnetisms are just gold-plated rubbish.

The Bible calls our misguided pursuits of what charms us idolatry. And we aren’t talking golden calves here either. As a Christian, idolatry is anything that supplants God in my life with a lesser god. It’s an inverted move of the soul. When our hearts engage in idolatry, we have to ask ourselves the question that the Avett Brothers sing: “Are we growing backwards with time?”

Theologian Doug Stuart masterfully explains idolatry’s attraction in Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary). He says there are a few things in an idol’s appeal:

Idolatry obliges: Fashion your god out of stone or wood or precious metals and a god would enter the idol. No need to wait on a god to answer your prayers anymore. Summon him and get what you want without delay.

Idolatry gratifies: The motive of idol worship was to get what you needed, when you needed it. It was entirely centered on the person seeking — not the one being sought.

Idolatry numbs: Ancient idolatry took the place of fervent spirituality. It stimulated vain religious hullabaloo. It anesthetized individuals because what kept you good with the gods was not relational but sacrificial. Bring your gods a scapegoat for your sin and you were exonerated.

Idolatry indulges: Find a divinity that meets your needs and bow down to it. Or better, find a few idols that meets your specific desires and worship them. The glut of deities available created a smorgasbord approach to spirituality. And why not? One God over all? Hogwash, they would say. Find whatever works for you.

Idolatry reassures: Worshiping an invisible deity was not comforting. A god you could see — now that was the ticket. Tangible divinities make more sense, don’t they? Surely, the gods would want us to see them instead of placing our faith in the unseen.

Idolatry impresses: With an invisible deity, it was almost impossible to astonish your fellow man with your sacrifices. An unseen God who looks at the heart — above all else — has no usefulness in vain, repetitious activities. But bring a costly sacrifice to a lifeless idol? It was a sight to behold. And the bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the show.

It’s easy to see what the central “thing” is in idolatry. It’s not the wooden or golden deity esteemed. It’s actually us. It’s the individual. Our personage is principal when we chase after blessing. We are the “blesser” and the blessed – we fashion divinity for our own sake.

So what’s the big deal? The raw truth about replacement gods is that they don’t deliver. The illusion of interim happiness is just that – a mirage. And therein, we find the treadmill we all run upon.

We run from one promising oasis to another only to find its promise evaporates before our eyes. But we are so desperate to belong, to be loved, to feel significant, to feel secure, the never-ending hunt overtakes us. Before we know it, we are knee-deep in our own despondency and we scan the horizon for something new that allures.  Something novel that will once-and-for-all deliver the goods.

In its truest sense, idolatry is a fatal attraction. It’s not that it literally kills us in an instant (although, I guess it could in some instances). It is more a slow slink backwards within the soul.  It’s the actuality of the question the Avett Brothers sing about: “Are we growing backwards with time?” We are. And it’s more than “growing” backwards – it’s that we are “dying” backwards. It’s a dawdling succession of little deaths, decision by decision, day after day.

Pastor and author Greg Dutcher says it this way: “Idolatry … is not a showboat. It does its best to work in subtle ways. Like a puma lying low in the gentle grass, taut muscles held in place like a coiled spring, sin waits in the ‘safest’ of places. … it waits patiently for a chance to creep in unaware.”

That is why it is a fatal attraction. We are typically naive to its creep. And at the right time, it pounces on our insecurity. It ambushes our anxiety. It attacks our uneasiness.

The good news is that there is a new way to be human. We can reverse our worship and find what is behind the delusion of our self-made gods. But first, we need a deep diagnosis. It’s one thing to understand the category of idolatry. It’s another to isolate what deity (or deities) you bow down to.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.