Book Tour – Night of the Living Dead Christian

I usually don’t go for books about zombies, vampires and werewolves or any other “sci-fi/fantasy” book for that matter.  But having read Matt Mikalatos’ first book Imaginary Jesus and knowing how completely off the wall that one was, I knew I had to give Night of the Living Dead Christians a shot.  We join Mikalatos on his one-man Neighborhood Watch tour and are soon up to our eyeballs in wacky encounters with the undead of various shapes and sizes.  Chief among them are his one of neighbors, Luther Martin, who has the misfortune to be a werewolf.  Determined to help Martin find a cure for this malady, Mikalatos and a few other sidekicks try various methods, including attending a church that ends up being full of brainless zombies.  The journey is hilarious and, when you least expect it, thought-provoking.  Interspersed between the off-kilter narrative are more heady chapters written by “Martin” as he contemplates his life as a werewolf and his journey through the various methods of losing his werewolfishness.

Although the narration is very quirky and often downright weird, the meaning of the book is surprisingly clear and well thought out.  As the book’s subtitle indicates, Night of the Living Dead Christian is about being transformed or more clearly perhaps, what it doesn’t mean.  The zombie Christians we meet along the way show the absurdities of those who blindly follow some Christian leader’s teachings without a second thought (giving a whole new meaning to “Brains! Brains! We want your brains!”)  Then there are the vampires, those who “steal the life force of others to increase their own longevity…to increase their own quality of life.”  And then there is the guy relentlessly hunting down these monsters, who is eventually revealed to be the embodiment of the law.

Through these characters, Mikalatos shows many of the follies bound up in the heart of a man and where true freedom is found.  Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book comes toward the end.  (SPOILER ALERT) Martin eventually finds freedom from being a werewolf, but not everything ends up perfectly in his life.  One night, he is found out in the rain, with his old wolf skin tied on with string.  “He thought that everything would be wonderful when he was born again, but he was wrong.” (p.234)  There is pain and a recognition of the struggle against the old flesh.  But as Mikalatos so beautifully points out, “It’s not all wonderful. It’s worth it, but it’s not wonderful.” (p.234)

Night of the Living Dead Christian is a fast read, but one that is chock full of thought-provoking situations.  I would recommend it not so much because of the zombie genre, but for the insightful glance into a struggle for transformation that should be in every Christian. (5/5 stars)

(Thanks to Tyndale House for providing a review copy of this book.)

Food for thought

“We spend so much energy wishing we were someone else.  Don’t waste your time on that.  Christ has completed the work for us.  We are his and he is ours, and in him we rest in triune love.  Why waste time thinking we are not sufficient and being jealous over those we think are sufficient?  We have already seen that no one is sufficient but Christ, and in him we are brought into union with the Father. That’s enough. What can you add to perfect love?

“The guy who slugs it out at work every day displays the kingdom when he is living for the love of the King.  He is faithful, loves his wife, leads his home, adores his kids and admits when he fails.  You and I will never hear about him, he will never be famous, and some of us would look at his job and think it is not a place you could live with passion.  But Jesus has become the object of his desire, and by the grace of Christ he displays the kingdom of peace, mercy, kindness, faithfulness, joy, and purity in every detail of his life.  He won’t preach a sermon on Sunday, but he will leave a legacy in his home and his workplace, where he did what God made him to do for the love of the King.”

(A Kingdom Called Desire: Confronted By the Love of a Risen King, by Rick McKinley, pp.124-125)

Book Review – The Greener Grass Conspiracy

Every now and then, I’ll come across a book that hits me right where I need to be hit.  Such is Stephen Altrogge’s new book, The Greener Grass Conspiracy which, as can be deduced from the title, is about contentment.

Altrogge points out virtually everyone’s complicity in this conspiracy of thinking that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  While he doesn’t necessarily present anything new and earth shattering, the down-to-earth perspective and humor he uses shone the light on my discontentment.   In one chapter, Altrogge points out the lies we believe in that fuel our discontentment, lies such as “God is withholding from me” or “God owes me” or “If I get it, I’ll be happy.”

Instead of constantly berating his readers for not having perfect contentment, he points the way to Godly contentment by showcasing the glories of the gospel.  He encourages the reader to focus on the blessings we have been given (such as life, health and/or food), but even with this his emphasis is to continually point to the cross.  That is not to say that Altrogge encourages a Pollyanna-ish attitude of just being glad no matter what our circumstances.  In Chapter 11, he specifically addresses those who are going through “the furnace of suffering.”  In this chapter, he says “I don’t want to give you pat, trite answers.  I don’t want to tell you just to trust in God and everything will be okay…I want to connect you to the only person who can carry you through and give you contentment in the midst of suffering.  I want to connect you to Jesus.” (pp.119-120)

Although it’s a relatively short book, this book to me is one that I need to read again, not only to be reminded of my lack of contentment in Christ but also to encourage me to do something about it.  The Greener Grass Conspiracy is a huge help in prying off the tinfoil hats of discontentment.

Many thanks to Crossway for providing a review copy of this book.   (5/5 stars)

Book Review – Always True

In Always True, James MacDonald writes of how the Christian can have faith in God even in the most trying of difficulties.  He encourages the believer to “hang on” to God’s promises, showing how God always keeps his promises.  Each chapter is packed with Scripture verses, made even more noticeable in bolded font.  You can’t go two pages without your eyes being drawn to the bolded verse.  MacDonald uncovers five different promises of God that are “always true:”

1.       God is always with me (I will not fear)
2.       God is always in control (I will not doubt)
3.       God is always good (I will not despair)
4.       God is always watching (I will not falter)
5.       God is always victorious (I will not fail)

“God is always watching” – this promise was especially insightful.  Usually when we talk about God watching us, it’s in the context of making sure we are behaving.  But as MacDonald points out, God watches us because we are precious in his sight, similar to how parents lovingly watch their children.  And we are watched and loved not because we are valuable but because we are valued.

In his introduction, MacDonald pinpoints the struggle in the Christian walk – that of “holding on” while waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises.  He says “Today I believe; tomorrow (or at some point in the future) I receive.  The distance between today and tomorrow is called walking by faith.  The hard part is in the waiting between the promise and the answer.” (p.20)

Preceding each promise chapter is a chapter on the “Theology of a Promise” that focuses on God’s nature as it relates to His promises.  These are heavier on the theological side, but no less important.  It gives us a glimpse into the nature of God and why it is we can trust in his promises.  The last Theology of a Promise was the best.  In it, MacDonald shares how all of God’s promises are experienced in Jesus Christ.  “God has made no provision for you to live the Christian life on your own.  The Christian life is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)….Jesus Christ is the Christian life.  It’s not me acting like Jesus….It’s not you trying to please the Lord, or to thank Him, or impress Him, or even trying to imitate Him.  The core of this truth is: It’s Christ in me by His Spirit.” (pp.130-131)

The only minor drawback I might have with this book is that it doesn’t seem to be written to those currently suffering some trial.  While the theological truths are certainly there, I did not get a sense of compassion, a sense of “weeping with those who weep.”  The book came across as heavy on the theology of the promises of God but light on empathy.  I’m not sure I would give it to someone who, for example, had just lost a child.

That being said, MacDonald does an excellent job of pointing out how God’s very nature is one of promising and fulfilling those promises.  When all else fails, God’s promises are indeed Always True.

(Thanks to Moody Publishers for providing a review copy of this book)

Great quote by Augustine

Certainly we can never give thanks to Him enough for the fact that we live, that we behold the heavens and earth, and that we possess the mind and reason by which we seek to know Him Who created all these things.  But more than this: when we were burdened and overwhelmed with sins, turned away from the contemplation of His light and blinded by the love of darkness, that is of iniquity, he did not wholly desert us.  Rather, He sent to us His own Word, Who is His only Son, so that, by His birth and suffering in the flesh which He assumed for our sakes, we might know how highly God prized man; and so that, love being shed abroad in our hearts through His Spirit, and all our trials being thereby overcome, we might come into eternal rest and the ineffable sweetness of contemplating Him.  What hearts, what tongues, can claim that they are sufficient to give thanks to Him for all this? (Augustine, City of God)

Free Audiobook – Spiritual Leadership

This month’s free audiobook from Christianaudio is J. Oswald Saunders’ classic Spiritual Leadership, read by Grover Gardner.  Here is what Christianaudio has to say about the book:

Many books have been written concerning leadership. Some have been classics and withstood the test of time. Fewer combine Biblical wisdom and clarity with humility and servant leadership; Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders is one of those books. Required reading for many in leadership courses & positions, this classic book details the practices and hearts of some of the greatest leaders who ever lived. Sanders uses primary examples in Scripture (Moses, Nehemiah, Paul) and also some of the most important leaders of the last 200 years, such as C.H. Spurgeon and David Livingstone.

With more than 500,000 in print, Spiritual Leadership has proven itself a timeless classic in teaching the principles of leadership. J. Oswald Sanders presents and illustrates those principles through biographies of eminent men of God – men such as Moses, Nehemiah, Paul, David Livingstone, and Charles Spurgeon.

Christianity needs a powerful voice in today’s world. Such a voice can come only from strong leaders guided by God and devoted to Christ. Spiritual Leadership will encourage you to place your talents and powers at His disposal so you can become a leader used for His glory.

Use coupon code SEP2010 when checking out.

Containers and Content

Bob Kauflin posted this on his blog Worship Matters yesterday.  It is a great reminder of where our focus should be in worship.

Discerning The Difference Between Containers and Content

A few months ago I had the privilege of speaking to a few classes at Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. During a Q&A, someone asked me what things we can do to keep our meetings from becoming dull, rote, and routine.

Although there are probably a number of ways to answer that question, what came to my mind was the difference between containers and content in our meetings. “Container” describes what’s going on during a particular portion of the meeting. In a more formal church the containers might be listed out in a bulletin and include things like Call to Worship, Prayer of Confession, Assurance of Pardon, Worship in Song, Pastoral Prayer, Giving of Tithes and Offerings, Lord’s Prayer, Sermon, the Lord’s Supper, and Benediction. In a less formal church containers still exist, but are generally assumed. They could include the “worship time,” “ministry time,” announcements, sermon, testimony time, special song, prayer for the sick, welcoming of guests, communion, and the closing song.

In either case, we can get caught up in focusing on the “containers.” How they fit together, how much time each one requires, whether or not we’re approaching them with creativity, and other administrative and aesthetic questions. We think the meeting has gone well when we fit all the “containers” in to the allotted box of time, or when things flow smoothly. “Worship didn’t take too long.” “Smooth transition from announcements to the special song.” If we’re really on top of things, we assign a theme to the containers so that they all relate to the same topic or have a similar focus.

The problem with this thinking, as helpful as it may be in some ways, is that we can neglect what actually fills those containers. In other words, the content. No liturgy in itself – traditional, contemporary, emerging, orthodox, or otherwise – has the power to change a person’s life. Yes, God instructs us to do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40), and liturgies and forms make a difference, but our greatest concern should be using every opportunity in our meetings to magnify the greatness of God in Jesus Christ in people’s minds and hearts. To rehearse, celebrate, and be changed by the gospel. (For an in depth treatment of this topic, check out Bryan Chappell’s Christ-Centered Worship.)

When we focus on content more than containers, no part of the meeting has to be “routine.” Each container becomes an opportunity to experience the glory of Christ in a unique way. Here’s what I mean.

The “call to worship” becomes more than a perfunctory few words to start the meeting. It’s a personal invitation from God himself to encounter his presence in the midst of his people, to dwell on his greatness and goodness, and to remind ourselves that we have been called out of darkness to proclaim his excellencies.

“Worship in song” becomes more than a set list, a pre-sermon filler, or a time to try out a new song or arrangement. It’s an opportunity to revel in the glorious gospel, to display the unity Jesus has made possible through his substitutionary death, to watch the Holy Spirit stir up deeper affections for God’s worth and works, and to teach and admonish one another.

“Tithes and Offerings” becomes more than an awkward moment where we make sure the church has enough money to make it through the week. It’s a time to remember that God always does more than we could ask or think (Eph. 3:20), that our giving is always a response to his overwhelming generosity toward us, and that we have experienced the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor, so that we by his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

The “sermon” becomes more than a pastor proving his relevance or persuading people they should come back next week. It’s a transcendent, sacred moment when God addresses his people God’s eternal and unchanging Word, when hearts are opened before the living God, Holy Spirit surgery is done, and life-changing gospel hope is imparted. It’s also a time to educate people on how to read, study, interpret, and apply Scripture.

The Lord’s Supper becomes more than an interruption to the meeting or a dutiful, uninformed response to Jesus’ command. It’s seeing the gospel in visible form, experiencing real spiritual union with Christ and each other, and declaring to ourselves and each other that the Lord really is coming again.

Prayer provides more than an opportunity for the tech crew and musicians to move things around and get in place. It’s conversing with our heavenly Father, expressing our desperate need, expecting him to do abundantly more than we could ask or think (Eph. 3:20), asking him to conform our hearts and wills to his own, and teaching the church how to pray.

Even the announcements are an opportunity to demonstrate how the gospel motivates us to do what we do, provide testimonies of how individuals are joyfully laying down their lives, make known what God’s grace is accomplishing, and highlight ways people can live out their faith before a watching world.

Whenever we do something repeatedly, week after week, we have two tendencies. One is to revert to a formalism that requires no faith or Spirit-given power. It’s easier. It’s more efficient. And it’s deadening.

The other tendency is to become more creative with the containers at the expense of what’s being said. That too is deadening. Focusing on content over containers doesn’t negate creativity. It just gives it the right focus, direction, and purpose.

As we think about, plan for, and lead our meetings, let’s never lose sight of the fact that gathering as the church is one of the most significant events on earth. More dramatic than any movie, more exciting than any sporting event, and more life-changing than any political rally. We are the people of God, met together in his presence, joining with innumerable saints and angels in heaven, proclaiming the greatness of the Lamb who was slain, edifying each other through the use of spiritual gifts, and being transformed into his image as we feed on his Word and behold his glory (1 Pet. 2:9-10; Mt. 18:20; Heb. 12:22-24; Rev. 5:9-10; 1 Cor. 12:4-7; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Cor. 3:18).

How can that ever be dull or routine?