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A prayer for patient trust

I recently came across this poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (recommended on The Habit podcast by singer Taylor Leonhardt). As one who is often impatient for the something new, I need this reminder to patiently trust in God’s slow work. Perhaps you do, too.

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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The enemy of hospitality

I’m busy. I’m tired. My home is untidy. My kids are too loud. My lunch break is too short. My pay check is small. I’m not good at small talk.

It’s easy to think of excuses for not showing hospitality—in our homes or elsewhere. It’s true: there are obstacles to overcome if we want to offer the kind of others-centred, grace-filled welcome the bible calls us to. But the greatest hindrance to our hospitality is not the size of our home, table or bank balance. It’s not our lack of cooking or conversation skills. What hinders us most from offering warm, generous hospitality is our pride. Pride is the great enemy of hospitality. 

Two Forms of Pride

Pride hinders hospitality in two ways. The more obvious way is when we fail to offer welcome to those most in need of it because we feel we are, in some way, superior to them. We may avoid people we judge to be less hard-working than we are. I work hard to provide a nice home and decent food for my family, we think. Why should I share my home and my food with them?

Or we may not be open toward a colleague who enjoys telling crude stories or sharing opinions we find offensive. It’s bad enough having to listen to that kind of talk at work, we reason. I shouldn’t have to hear it in my own home, too. Or we might fail to welcome people who are less popular or don’t appear to have any influence with others we want to impress. Why sit with them when I could be seen to be friends with X or Y?

The second way pride hinders our hospitality is through our desire for human approval. This is a more subtle form of pride, but it’s at the heart of many of our hospitality worries:

People will see what I’m really like—and they might not like me. 

I can’t cook as well as my friend—the food will be such a disappointment.

I find it difficult to make conversation—my guests will be bored. 

These fears arise when we focus more on what people think of us than on what God desires for us. We want people to think well of us; we don’t want to look inferior or inadequate to others. But hospitality makes us vulnerable—to disapproval, disappointment and discouragement. So if our fear of what people think of us is greater than our love for them, we will hesitate to invite others into our homes and our lives. We won’t offer the kind of generous, others-focused welcome the gospel calls us to. 

Going to War

Whether we withhold hospitality out of a sense of superiority or out of fear, the root issue is the same: we think more of ourselves than we should. And so we need to go to war against our pride. 

Biblical hospitality and pride won’t coexist. They contradict each other in every way. Hospitality is outward-looking and others-focused; pride is inward-looking and self-centered. Hospitality seeks to elevate others; pride seeks to elevate self. Hospitality prioritizes the needs and preferences of those it serves; pride prioritizes the needs and preferences of its owner.

So we need to choose: we can continue to let pride dominate our desires and priorities, or cultivate a heart that loves to welcome others as God our Father welcomes us. 

If we choose to cultivate a hospitable heart, there are a couple of principles that will help us in the fight against pride. 

1. Remember who God is.

When we meditate on God’s majesty, power, and splendor, it brings our view of self into perspective. We’re really not that impressive—so there’s little point pretending we are. When we remember that our purpose is to magnify the greatness of our God and call others to worship Him, too, then we are freed from our preoccupation with our own image or reputation. The goal of our hospitality is never to point to ourselves, but to point to Him. To reflect His generous, compassionate, undeserved welcome of us in the way we welcome others. 

2. Remember who we are.

When we’re tempted to think more of ourselves than we should, we need to remember that we are weak, sinful, and undeserving, but God has given us new life in Christ. When we are tempted to fear what people think of us, we can remember that God has exalted us with Jesus (Eph. 2:6). Our identity comes from Him, and is secure in Him. The high position we now have in Christ liberates us to serve others humbly, joyfully, and without fear. We risk nothing by seeking to invite, include and invest in the people God has placed us among, regardless of their response. 

Why not ask God to show you this week how you can offer humble hospitality that reflects his character and points others to him?

(This article was first published at Revive Our Hearts)

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Who is my neighbour?

I don’t know where to start!

Perhaps that’s how you feel about hospitality. So many people are lonely and in need of encouragement and care. Then there are friends, neighbours, members of your small group, newcomers to church, work colleagues and extended family members. Maybe you find yourself wondering, Who should I prioritise spending time with? Who is it I am called to show hospitality to?

If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself more naturally drawn towards people who are easy to spend time with, who don’t demand too much, and whose circumstances you can relate to. I call this comfortable hospitality. But that’s not the kind of hospitality God calls us to.

The wrong question

In Luke 10, an expert in Jewish law asks Jesus how he can gain eternal life. It sounds like a good question, but the lawyer is testing Jesus. He knows he should love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and love his neighbour as himself—the problem is he doesn’t. So, to justify his lack of love, he asks, Who is my neighbour? Who is it I’m called to love as myself?

It’s the wrong question. The lawyer wants Jesus to tell him who he must love, and he wants an excuse for not loving others in the same way. He may as well have asked, Who do I not have to love? Who is excluded from this commandment? The Romans? The tax collectors?

Jesus responds with the story of the good Samaritan. You probably know the story: A man travels on a dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and is attacked by robbers who strip him, beat him and leave him half-dead. A priest happens to be travelling the same road but, instead of stopping to help, he passes by on the other side. Later, a Levite does the same. Both men are among the religious elite of their day but their religion does not extend to helping those in need.

We want to judge the priest and the Levite but, if we’re honest, we know how easy it is to ignore need—to pretend we haven’t noticed the neighbour struggling to start their car, or the person who always sits alone at church. We understand the temptation to walk on the other side of the street and hope someone else will stop to help.

Jesus introduces one more character to the story: a Samaritan. Samaritans were long-standing enemies of the Jews—in Jewish eyes, they were unclean outsiders. But when this Samaritan sees the dying man, he feels compassion for him. He bandages his wounds and takes him to an inn to care for him. He pays generously for the man’s ongoing care and promises to return and cover any additional expense.

The better question

Jesus follows up the story by asking, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The answer is obvious—the man’s enemy proved to be his neighbour. The priest and the Levite know what the law says, but the Samaritan puts it into practice. So Jesus tells the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” In other words, You go and love your enemies too. Yes, even the Romans and the tax collectors. To us he might have said, Even the difficult neighbour, the depressed colleague, the older acquaintance with unsavoury political views.

The lawyer assumes that there are some people who are his neighbours and others who are not. This enables him to put boundaries around his compassion and his welcome—he will love his neighbours but not his non-neighbours. We can be like this too. We ask, Who must I welcome? Who must I invite into my home? Who do I have to make space for? We may as well ask, Who do I not need to welcome? Who am I free to overlook or ignore? Who can someone else welcome?

But Jesus doesn’t divide the world into neighbours and non-neighbours like this. He says we should treat everyone as a neighbour—especially those who are most in need. He teaches us to ask the better questions: Who needs my welcome? Who do I have the opportunity to show generous hospitality to? Who has God placed in my path so that I may reflect his welcome?

These are the questions we should ask as we look around our church, our workplace and our neighbourhood. They will help us think about who God wants us to show hospitality to. They will keep us from comfortable hospitality that prioritises ease and convenience over another’s need. They will equip us to show love and compassion in the ordinary moments of everyday life.

(This article was first published at The Good Book Company)

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Cultivating a bible study routine

I’m a snacker.

I eat a good breakfast and a healthy evening meal, but I don’t really do lunch. Instead, throughout the day, I graze my way through whatever snacks are within reach—crisps, chocolate, cookies, cake. Consequently, by the evening my body is crying out for some real nourishment. Snacking offers instant relief from hunger, but it’s not long-lasting. It doesn’t truly satisfy. What my body really needs is a good, healthy meal.

It’s easy to have a snacking approach to bible reading, but quickly skimming over a couple of verses or a favourite Psalm in the morning isn’t going to keep us spiritually nourished and sustained for the long term. We need more.

For many of us, life is busy and we often feel over-stretched. I don’t want to compound any feelings of guilt you may have about not spending enough time reading the bible. But I do want to encourage each of us to make the most of the time we have. And that means replacing some of our snacks with a hearty meal.

If we want to get to know God better through his word, we will need to spend some time feasting on it—digging below the surface, asking questions, meditating on the truths we uncover, delighting in the God who reveals himself to us, and letting his word renew our minds and transform our lives (Romans 12:2).

That might sound overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need a seminary degree to learn how to feed your soul well. You can begin right now—at home. Here are 4 steps to help you get started.

Pray… for desire and discipline

The two biggest obstacles to regular bible study are a lack of desire and a lack of discipline. We can’t overcome these obstacles in our own strength, so we need to pray. First, we need to ask God to awaken our hearts to love him more and desire to meet him in his word. And then we need to pray for the discipline to make time, open our bibles, and get started.

I have a friend who feels uncomfortable praying for a desire to study the bible. She feels that she should naturally be enthusiastic about it—and that God must be offended when she isn’t. But God knows us intimately—he understands our thoughts, feelings, desires (and lack of them) far better than we understand ourselves. And so we can confess our lack of desire to him and ask him to redirect our hearts so that we will want to know him more deeply through his word.

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:2-3)

Pray that God will make you hungry for his word, but don’t wait for desire before you get started. I have often found that discipline fosters delight. As I discipline myself to study—even when I don’t feel like it—I begin to enjoy it more. My feelings catch up with my habits.

We also need to pray for discipline to study. There are so many demands and distractions that will keep us from opening our bibles if we let them. We need the Holy Spirit’s help to guard our time in the word. Why not look through your calendar at the beginning of each week and schedule in your bible study time—just like you would any other important appointment. Then pray for the discipline to keep that appointment. Of course, unexpected things crop up that genuinely need attending to, but, as far as you’re able, try to guard your study time and be disciplined to use it for study—not scrolling!

Plan

Whether you’ve got 10 minutes or an hour, your bible study time will be more fruitful if you have a plan.

Start by planning what you will study. Rather than jumping from one passage to another, choose one portion of scripture to feast on over several days or weeks. Lingering longer in one place will give you time to understand it more fully and let its truth take root in your heart. Start with a small portion: a New Testament letter, such as Colossians; or an Old Testament narrative, like Jonah. Plan to read through the text regularly so you become familiar with it.

Be realistic. If you’re in a particularly busy season, plan just one session each week for longer study but aim to read some or all of the text on the other days. That way, you’ll be able to reflect regularly on what you’re learning. You could also listen to it on an audio bible app while you’re driving. Don’t feel discouraged if you only manage to read a few verses some days—it will still do you good. Not all of our physical meals are spectacular feasts but they still nourish us. In the same way, these times of repetitive reading and reflection will feed our souls and help us become more familiar with the portion of scripture we’re studying.

Write out some simple questions that you can ask as you read through the text (I have these written on a card in the front of my bible):

What does it say? (Specifically, what does it teach about God?)

What does it mean?

So what? (How should I respond?)

For your longer study times, you may find it helpful to have some more detailed questions prepared—especially for your first study in a particular book/letter:

What genre of writing is this (narrative, history, prophecy, letter, etc)?

Who is writing?

Why are they writing—what is the context?

Where does this fit in the big bible story?

What is the main point the author is making?

You may want to use a study bible, commentary or online bible tool to help you answer some of those questions, but you’ll be able to work some of it out as you read and re-read the text and look up any cross-references given.

It’s also helpful to plan some accountability for your study times. Tell a friend what you’re planning to study and invite her to ask you how it’s going and what you’re learning. This will help you to be disciplined in keeping to your schedule, and encourage you to persevere as you see your progress. Your friend may decide to study the same bible passages so you can reflect on them together.

Prepare… to meet God

There are some practical things we need to do as we prepare to study. We’ll want to find a place to study, gather our bible, notebook, pens, and any study materials we’re using. But we also need to prepare our hearts and minds for something extraordinary. Because as we get ready to study his word, God is ready to meet us in it.

Jesus is with us as we open its pages. His Spirit is ready to guide our minds into understanding and our hearts into obedience. We may sometimes be unenthusiastic or half-hearted as we approach God’s word, but he is always whole-hearted and enthusiastic in his desire to meet with us. Isn’t that astonishing? The God who spoke stars and solar systems into existence is ready and eager to speak to you and I through his word. He wants to reveal more of himself to us—so we can know him in deeper, richer and fuller ways than we thought possible.

So as we approach bible study we want to prepare to encounter him. If I’m honest, I don’t always open my bible with this expectation. Sometimes the familiarity of the habit inhibits my sense of wonder and anticipation. I’ve found it helpful to pray, with the Psalmist:

“Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things out of your law…Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.” Psalm 119: 18, 37

Praying like this before opening my bible reminds me of the joy and privilege that awaits me. It redirects my attention away from the trivial and toward the eternal. It refocuses my gaze from myself to my Saviour.

Practise!

Bible study takes diligence and patience. Some passages are hard to understand—and even harder to apply. The rewards aren’t always instant, but it’s worth persevering. And, as with any habit, it becomes more natural the more we practise, so don’t be discouraged if you find it hard at first.

Remember the goal of bible study: to know and enjoy our majestic, holy God, and to be transformed into the likeness of his Son—bearing fruit that will last into eternity. Anticipating this delight should spur us on to persevere when study seems hard or when distractions press in.

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18

(This article was first published at Servants of Grace)

An irreversible transformation

“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19)

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks decorating our hallway and stairs. It’s been a tiring job but the result is incredibly satisfying—especially because it looked so bad before I started. Typically, we only truly appreciate the new and improved “after” when we’ve experienced the inadequate and dissatisfying “before.”

In the second half of Romans 5, Paul uses a series of contrasts between Adam and Christ. His goal is to show that Christ’s obedience is far greater than Adam’s disobedience; that it is powerful enough to overcome the consequences of Adam’s sin. In verses 18 & 19, he summarises his argument and explicitly states the destiny-changing consequences of Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience for those who belong to each of them. We get to see both the “before” and “after” of our life in Christ. As we consider these verses, they should lead us towards deeper humility and greater assurance.

From condemnation…

Paul returns to the comparison he started in verse 12: one man’s sin resulted in condemnation—death—for all people. As the head of humanity, what is true for Adam is true for each of us. We inherit his sinful nature. It’s not simply that we follow Adam’s example in trading God’s rule for self-rule—although we do. And it’s not only that his sin is attributed to us because he is our representative. Rather, our human nature changed as a result of Adam’s sin. We became sinners—unable not to sin. We may like to think of ourselves as good people who sometimes “slip up” but that’s just not true. We are sinful people who, because of common grace, sometimes do right.

This is a humbling truth. We are sinful at our very core—and there is nothing we can do about it. However hard we may try, we cannot change our nature. We can’t “unbecome” sinners, and we can’t avoid sin’s consequences. Our condemnation comes not from what we do, but from what Adam did. His trespass resulted in a change in human nature and condemnation for all people. But while this truth humbles us, it doesn’t leave us hopeless. Adam’s sin doesn’t have the last word.

To justification

Just as Adam’s trespass resulted in condemnation and death for all people, so Christ’s righteous act resulted in justification and life for all who are in him. At first glance it may appear that Paul is saying all those condemned by Adam’s sin will be justified by Christ’s righteousness, but that’s not what he has been arguing throughout the passage—or in the earlier part of the letter. No, Paul wants to show that, in Christ, we can be just as assured of justification and life as we were assured of condemnation and death when we were in Adam. Christ’s righteous act is sufficient to secure righteousness for all who belong to him—’those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift’ (v 17). The consequences of Adam’s sin are far-reaching—it impacts all humanity without distinction or exception. But Christ’s righteousness reaches just as far—he gives life to all who receive him (John 1:12).

All of us belong to Adam or to Christ and our destinies are determined by their actions. Those who belong to Adam live under the sentence of death because of Adam’s sin. But those who belong to Christ can be certain of eternal life because of his righteousness. Both Adam’s act of sin and Christ’s act of righteousness are eternally significant, but Christ’s act is far more powerful. It can overcome the consequences of Adam’s sin.

Paul fills out the details of these acts in verse 19. Adam’s trespass was not an accidental “slip-up” but a conscious act of disobedience. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of life in Eden, it was a deliberate act of rebellion against God’s command. In contrast, Jesus lived a life of obedience, culminating in his obedient death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). Adam disobeyed by eating from a tree, Christ obeyed by dying on a tree. Adam’s disobedience made us sinners—both in our status before God and in our nature. But Christ’s obedience guarantees that all who are in him will be made righteous—in our status before God (our justification) and in our nature when the Spirit completes his work of sanctification.

An irreversible transformation

It is humbling to grasp that this righteousness cannot be obtained through our own obedience (even if we could obey fully), but through Christ’s. It has to be this way. Because our condemnation comes not simply from what we have done but from what Adam did, so too our justification must come not from what we do but from what Christ—our new representative head—has done. We may be tempted to think that we can make peace with God by our own acts of righteousness, but Paul wants us to see that we are helpless sinners who must depend on the righteousness of Christ as our only hope of salvation.

But it is also gloriously assuring. In Christ, we are transformed from one humanity to another—there has been a change in our spiritual DNA. Even though we continue to sin in this life, our new status is irreversible. We are considered righteous—acquitted of all charges of disobedience. Christ’s obedience has secured our justification. His Spirit enables us to live out our righteousness as he transforms us day-by-day into the likeness of Christ. And one day, his work will be complete. We will live sinlessly forever—with our Champion and with all who have been transformed from one humanity to another.

(This article was first published at Servants of Grace)

An Invitation to Extraordinary Hospitality

Oh no! You’re not going to tell us we need to have more people round for dinner, are you?

That was my friend Debbie’s response when I told her that I was writing a book about hospitality. I was surprised: Debbie is a fantastic cook, confident and outgoing, and always seems to have people staying in her home. But even she evidently feels over-burdened and exhausted by the idea of hospitality.

I have felt like that too.

One low point came after a particularly long morning at church. I had arrived early to practise with the band, played for the service, had long conversations with a few people I knew were struggling, prayed with a couple of others, and was now trying—unsuccessfully—to extract my kids so we could get home. A well-meaning woman drew me aside and suggested that I think about having more people round for lunch on Sundays. She was concerned that my husband had been the pastor of our church for a couple of years and there were people we still hadn’t had over. Yes, I had small children, worked part-time and was involved in several different ministries; but another local pastor’s wife always had ten people over for Sunday lunch, she pointed out, while I only ever seemed to invite a few at a time. I went home feeling guilty, discouraged and exhausted. The idea of hospitality had become a burden.

A few years later, I was teaching on the New Testament qualifications for church leaders (in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). As we noted that an elder must be hospitable, I found myself asking, Does Paul really mean: “His wife (if he has one) must be great at cooking for loads of people?” What if he doesn’t marry? What if he marries a wife who struggles with anxiety or depression—or an eating disorder? What if he suffers with those things himself? What if he lives in a tiny flat with no dining table? What if he’s an introvert? What if…?

It is not just church leaders: the Bible calls all followers of Jesus to “practise hospitality”, regardless of marital status, salary or house size—and to do it “without grumbling” (Romans 12 v 13; 1 Peter 4 v 9). But nowhere does it talk about tableware or traybakes. Neither does it link hospitality with expense, exhaustion or an extroverted personality. So I don’t want to do that either. I want to show that hospitality doesn’t have to be exhausting and overwhelming. And that is because it is not so much about what we do, but why we do it.

I want to invite you to join me on a journey, learning to welcome like Jesus does. You won’t need a large house or a dining table that seats eight—Jesus never hosted a fancy dinner party! You won’t need a big food budget or lots of free time. You won’t even need to be especially outgoing or confident. You just need to delight in God’s welcome and desire to reflect it to those around you.

I imagine that, like me, and like Debbie, you feel very ordinary. I don’t want to persuade you otherwise—we are ordinary. But our God is extraordinary. He invites us to reflect him in ordinary places to ordinary people—and he can do extraordinary things through us as we do.

(This is an extract from the introduction of my new book, Extraordinary Hospitality (for ordinary people): 7 ways to welcome like Jesus. You can read the complete introduction here.)

Hospitality in lockdown?

My book, Extraordinary Hospitality (for Ordinary People), is released in a couple of months. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned while writing it, so it was great to be interviewed by Sarah Dargue for her blog. She asked,

What does it look like to develop a hospitable heart, amidst the restrictions, tiers and unending limbo we find ourselves in? Where have you been challenged and encouraged in this, and how could this limbo season be used for God’s glory?

Here’s my answer:

If it’s true that we become what we behold, the key is to lift our gaze from our own fears, frustrations and failings, and onto our God. As we reflect more deeply on his incredible generosity and compassion in welcoming us into his family, our hearts will be more tender towards others who need that same welcome. As we contemplate Jesus’ sacrifice for us, we will be more willing to embrace the inconvenience of trying to do that – even as we struggle with restrictions and uncertainties.

I have been especially challenged during this season to look for ways to offer friendship to those who live alone or who are especially anxious about the virus. Lockdown life has been exhausting, and it’s tempting for me to hide myself away and enjoy some solitude (I am an introvert!). But when I reflect on Jesus’ earthly ministry and, in particular, his compassion for the hurting and helpless, I am moved to reflect that in small ways as I have opportunity. I have also been encouraged by the example of church family members who have faithfully and persistently pursued those who are on the fringes of church life. Their willingness to spend time calling, messaging, and extending love to people they are not especially close to – and who may otherwise be left out – has spurred me on when I am weary and reluctant to sacrifice my time and energy on behalf of others.

I wonder if we’ll be surprised at the fruit we see from this season. It’s tempting to believe that God is most glorified through big, impressive acts of service rather than in small acts of kindness and welcome. But Jesus calls us to everyday faithfulness – to serve the people he has placed us with, using the gifts and opportunities he gives us. As we look and pray for ways to share his generous, compassionate heart through simple words of encouragement and ordinary acts of kindness, he is glorified. 

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

You can read the script of the full interview here.

Extraordinary Hospitality (for Ordinary People): Seven Ways to Welcome Like Jesus is released on April 1st, and is available for pre-order here

Top 5 books of 2020

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One of my goals for this year was to read less. I have not been successful.

To be clear, it’s not that I no longer enjoy reading. I just felt towards the end of last year that I was consuming too much to be able to process properly. I wanted to create more space to reflect and respond to what I read. But it’s hard to break habits. And there was lockdown!

So I have continued to read widely and voraciously. And, because other activities have been suspended, I have also taken time to thoughtfully apply what I’ve read.

I have tried to focus most of my non-fiction reading on specific areas of discipleship I want to grow in and issues I want to think through. I’ve appreciated the way various books have complemented each other and given me a broader perspective on some topics. And it’s always a joy to stumble across writers whose work is new to me. His testimonies, my heritage was particularly helpful in this regard.

This year’s favourite biographies/autobiographies are Born again this way by Rachel Gilson, and Fierce Convictions: The extraordinary life of Hannah More by Karen Swallow Prior. I’ve read a wide range of fiction, including some new-to-me authors, but my focus during the first part of the year was on the stories of African-American slaves – I am recommending a few of those below. Although upsetting to read, this is history we can’t ignore. Mother to Son by Jasmine Holmes (recommended below) is a helpful read for those wishing to understand some of the tensions, fears and heartaches our brothers and sisters of colour continue to experience – even in the church.

I’ve read several short, popular commentaries this year. Among my favourites is Destiny by David Gibson. I couldn’t quite fit it into the top 5 books, but it’s a highly recommended walk through the book of Ecclesiastes.

December’s Books: Top 5 books of 2020

  1. The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Earley
  2. His Testimonies, My Heritage edited by Kristie Anyabwile
  3. Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne
  4. Surprised by Paradox by Jen Pollock Michel
  5. Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortland

The Common Rule: Habits of purpose for an age of distraction

common ruleI read several books about habits last year but didn’t discover this one until a few months ago – it was recommended by a few writers I enjoy. It’s easy to become over-busy, anxious and stressed as the demands of modern life and distractions of social media compete with our soul’s desire for rest and freedom. Justin Earley offers 4 daily and 4 weekly habits designed to reorient our hearts and minds towards the life of love and peace we were created for. Each habit is simple, ordinary and realistic – for example, spending an hour each day away from the phone, or a weekly conversation with a friend. But these simple practices form a pathway to personal transformation and deeper intimacy with God and neighbour.  “Rule” implies restriction but, rightly applied, these habits are gifts that push us towards a richer enjoyment of life rather than resigned endurance. This is a book I’ll be returning to often.

His Testimonies, My Heritage

heritage29 reflections on Psalm 119 written by a diverse group of exceptionally gifted women – what a treat! This book is filled with wisdom, insight and honest conversation from godly women whose unique voices and experiences blend together beautifully as they offer praise to our great God. I love Psalm 119 and read it often, but reading through the eyes of these sisters, I saw things I have never seen before. I was moved by many of the personal stories the authors shared, but much more by the glory of the God they point to as they reflect on his word. It is humbling to witness the unwavering faith, certain hope and deep joy of women who cling to God’s promises through trials and suffering.  It is a privilege to learn from them. This book will refresh and encourage weary hearts, and gently lead them back to the life-giving word of God. (And it’s not just for women!)

Union with Christ: The way to know and enjoy God

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I LOVE this book! It was always going to be a delight to think more deeply about the doctrine of Union with Christ, but Rankin Wilbourne applies this glorious truth to the questions, concerns and struggles of daily life with a lively and infectious enthusiasm that both excited and surprised me. His writing is clear and practical, engaging and tender. He writes with a pastor’s heart, showing his readers how the ideal Christian life portrayed in the New Testament really can be a present day reality. Those who have not previously considered the implications of Union with Christ will be stunned by how many aspects of life (all, really) are impacted by this truth. Those who have spent years contemplating the doctrine will be thrilled to discover again, in fresh ways, the wonder of this mystery.

Surprised by Paradox: The promise of And in an either-or world

paradoxJen Pollock Michel is one of my favourite writers. She thinks deeply and communicates clearly. Every sentence is beautifully crafted. I loved her previous two books so waited with anticipation for this one. I was not disappointed. With warmth and wisdom that is typical in her writing, Jen Michel invites her readers to embrace the mysteries of faith – the wonders that cannot be reduced and squeezed into human categories. To make peace with the tensions of kingdom life. As she works through the biblical themes of incarnation, kingdom, grace and lament, Jen shows the beauty and richness of a both . . . and faith. She inspires delight in the unanswerable. She leads us into greater awe and worship of the God who transcends our understanding. 

Gentle and Lowly: The heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers

gentleI know everyone is recommending this book, but there’s a reason why. Dane Ortland offers a work that is both deep and accessible, truth-filled and tender, inspiring and comforting. Starting with Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:19, and drawing heavily on Puritan writings, he aims to take his readers into the heart of Christ. To show how gentle, compassionate, patient and inviting he is. How tender-hearted towards his beloved brothers and sisters. How eager to forgive and welcome and comfort. These precious and beautiful truths are presented in language befitting of them. Dane Ortland is a skilled writer – he uses words and images that engage the heart as well as inform the mind. Reading this book was a deeply worshipful experience for me. It’s impossible to read it attentively and not be encouraged, refreshed and wowed by the heart of our Saviour. It’s definitely one to read slowly – and then read again and again!

Further recommendations from this year’s reading:

Destiny: Learning to live by preparing to die by David Gibson

None Greater: The undomesticated attributes of God by Matthew Barrett

Worthy: Celebrating the value of women by Elyse Fitzpatrick & Eric Schumacher

Beautifully Distinct edited by Trillia Newbell

Habits for our holiness by Philip Nation (I know, another book about habit!)

Humble Calvinism by Jeff Medders

Seeing green: Don’t let envy colour your joy by Tilly Dillehay

Together through the storms by Jeff & Sarah Walton

As kingfishers catch fire by Eugene Peterson

Mother to Son by Jasmine Holmes

Born again this way by Rachel Gilson

Fierce Convictions: the extraordinary life of Hannah More by Karen swallow Prior

Love big, be well by Winn Collier

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Incidents in the life of a slave girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs

Uncle Tom’s cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

12 years a slave by Solomon Northup

Continue reading “Top 5 books of 2020”

An Advent carol

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It’s officially Advent, so it seems appropriate to share my favourite Advent carol. Written in 1744 by Charles Wesley, it’s a prayer based on words from Haggai 2:7. 

I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,” says the Lord Almighty. 

Wesley was concerned about the class divide in Britain during the 18th Century and, in particular, the desperate situation of the orphans living in poverty around him. Reflecting on the prophet Haggai’s words, he wrote a prayer which he later adapted into a hymn:

Come, O long-expected Jesus, 
come to set your people free!
From our fears and sins release us, 
Christ, in whom our rest shall be. 

Israel’s strength and consolation, 
born salvation to impart; 
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart. 

Born your people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King;
born to reign in us for ever,
now your gracious kingdom bring.

By your own eternal Spirit,
rule in all our hearts alone;
by your all-sufficient merit
raise us to your glorious throne. 

As we sing these words, we enter into the hopeful longing of faithful Israelites – waiting for the Messiah to come and bring freedom from the burden of sin and rest from their enemies. The promised King who would come to deliver his people and rule over them with righteousness and justice.

But we also sing as those who, having been delivered from sin, still wait with hopeful longing for the final return of our King and the consummation of his kingdom. For release from the consequences of sin that still burden us. For an end to all oppression and injustice that, like Wesley, we witness in our communities and throughout the world. We wait for true rest, unending joy and eternal peace. 

And as we wait, we pray for the King to reign in us by his Spirit. To rule our hearts so that we will be agents of rest and joy and peace to those still burdened by sin and oppression. 

Create or Consume?

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A few weeks ago I listened to a conversation between Dan Darling and Jonathan Rogers in which they talked about the tension between consuming and creating. To create something beautiful – whether it’s words, music, art or anything else – necessarily involves a degree of consumption. Ideas are mostly inspired and shaped by what we see, hear or experience. It’s often seeing or hearing what others have produced that inspires creativity of our own.

Humans need to consume because we are not God. We are not all-seeing, all-knowing, ever-present, so we need to hear and learn from those who know more than we do. But, as Dan Darling says, part of being an image-bearer means that we can’t always consume. We must also create. This is how we image a creative God. We don’t simply consume creation; we cultivate it. We create new things with it. It’s helpful – even necessary – to read, listen and absorb promiscuously (to adapt a phrase from Karen Swallow Prior), but there has to be a point where we stop consuming and start creating.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I completed a book manuscript a few months ago and, for a while, I’ve felt depleted of any creative thought. The juice has run dry. I have no words left to share. I understand this is not unusual, and I’m happy to take some time to feed my thoughts and imagination with input from others. But at some point, I need to output again.

This is harder than ever in our social media-saturated age where every App feeds the temptation to consume. Faced with endless opportunities to discover, learn and gather information, we take in more than we can begin to process. Output slows until we’re almost standing still, exhausted by endless input.

As I try to rebuild some creative rhythm, Jonathan Rogers is helpful:

“The internet should be an interruption to work, not the other way round.”

In other words, creating is the norm; consumption a short interruption to aid the work. I’m still thinking about what this should look like for me, but I’m trying to be more aware of how much I consume compared to what I produce. Today that’s looked like putting the commentaries away and actually writing my bible study. Other times it’s meant turning off Spotify or YouTube and practising my own arrangements on the piano.

The activity of creation is much harder than the passivity of consumption. But there is joy and satisfaction in imaging our Creator God as we cultivate the gifts he has given and walk in the works he has prepared (Ephesians 2:10). Our goal is worship. In all our creativity, we seek to worship God ourselves, and reflect his goodness to others so they might worship him too. Remembering this goal is a powerful motivation to create rather than consume.

So perhaps there’ll be more on the blog this season. And maybe you’ll join me in looking for ways to reflect our creative God each day.