A Few Good Books – 3

(Third and final in a series)

Regular readers of these posts will know that I have been offering a list of several of my favorite Christian books, a list which I’m ready to wrap up today. Just to review the requirements for inclusion: written in the last hundred years, non-fiction, only one book per author, only five books in total. The first two books discussed were Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, and What’s So Amazing About Grace?, by Phillip Yancey.

Number 3: God Came Near, Max Lucado

I went back and forth about this choice; in fact, when I originally began putting this list together, I had a different Max Lucado book in this slot. (Check out the “Honorable Mention” category, below.) Many Christians would list Max Lucado as their favorite Christian author, and I would be hard pressed to argue against that opinion. Six Hours One Friday and No Wonder They Call Him the Savior were the first two books of his that I read, and I remember how deeply moved I was by his writing.

The complete title of this book is God Came Near: Chronicles of the Christ, and that is a pretty good summary. In God Came Near, Lucado explores the implications of the humanity of Christ. My favorite chapter is, “The Question for the Canyon’s Edge,” based on the encounter between Jesus and Martha, after the death of Martha’s brother, Lazarus.

Number 4: A Drink at Joel’s Place, Jess Moody

This little book is based on a radical notion – there are a lot of ways in which the church should be more like the neighborhood corner bar. (The TV show Cheers, with its promise of a place “where everybody knows your name,” is another example of this idea.) The title comes from the story of the birth of the church in Acts 2. When Peter and the other apostles, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, were accused of being drunk, Peter pointed the audience to Joel 2:28 ff.

In this book, Jess Moody explores the idea that a church should deliver on its promises, that accepts everyone who walks in the door, and that offers excitement and fellowship. He emphasizes the need for the church to stay relevant to the culture around it, and he also goes on to argue for a quality that is sorely lacking from many churches (and especially lacking in many pulpits!) today – PASSION!

I have thoroughly enjoyed this little book every time I have read it, and as in so many other ways, I am deeply indebted to my friend, mentor, and former professor, Dr. Mark Berrier, for the recommendation.

Number 5: A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card

The church in America today is often criticized for being out of touch with the harsh realities around it. We put up fake smiles and phony friendliness, offering facile, “bumper sticker” platitudes and coffee mug theology, while ignoring the complexities and pain of the world around us.

And then we wonder why the world has written off the church for being clueless and irrelevant.

Michael Card is a brilliant Bible scholar and writer, who first came to public attention through His music. (If you’ve heard Amy Grant sing, “El Shaddai” or “Emmanuel,” then you’ve heard his music.) Besides his music, he has also written a number of really good books, including one I like called A Violent Grace. In A Sacred Sorrow, he argues that the church today has lost the ability to LAMENT, and I think he’s absolutely right. When you read the psalms, for example, you come face to face with the honesty of someone struggling with the pain of a bad situation. But you would have a hard time finding music in most churches today that cry out with that level of transparency.

Here, Card examines four people from the Bible – Job, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus – and considers what each of them can teach us about growing closer to God through our pain. Rather than avoiding hard or uncomfortable conversations, Card invites us to be honest enough with God to trust Him with our pain. I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re feeling angry or questioning about God, and some well-meaning friend has told you that “you shouldn’t feel that way.”

Honorable Mentions

Want more? Here are five additional recommendations –

  • The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis (or Miracles, or The Problem of Pain)
  • The Bible Jesus Read, Phillip Yancey
  • The Applause of Heaven, Max Lucado
  • Your God is Too Safe, Mark Buchanan
  • An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, Rich Mullins

Good luck, and God bless.

Seeking Shalom

One of the most fascinating Hebrew words in that language’s vocabulary is the word for “peace:” shalom. It can be used as a greeting, both at the meeting of friends, as well as leaving; when someone wants to ask, “How are you?”, the question is literally phrased, “How is your peace?” And a typical blessing would be, “Shalom aleikhem” – “Peace be unto you.”

Far more than just the absence of conflict, “shalom” can mean wholeness, health, or even prosperity, depending on its context. It refers to a sense of completeness and well-being in every phase of one’s life, but especially in terms of one’s relationships with others.

That’s why it’s so interesting to me that when God was warning the Israelites about the impending Babylonian captivity, God told them, “Seek the peace (shalom) of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7). In other words, God is telling them not to act like a bunch of strangers, but to settle down, live their lives, know their neighbors, and make a difference in the city there.

It seems to me that’s a message we need to hear today.

So many times people seem to not care about what’s happening in the lives of neighbors around them. Their attitude seems to be that they will go to work, go to church, care for their families, mow their yards, and they go about their business with a sort of, “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone” attitude. Unfortunately, that’s not what God asked of them.

Even many Christians seem to approach life by saying, “This world stinks, life is not fair, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Heaven will be better, so let’s not worry about doing anything now, and God will make everything right in the sweet, by and by.” But when Jesus commanded His followers to pray to God, “Thy Kingdom come,” He meant NOW, not someday.

What things are going on around me that don’t look like the Kingdom of God? Is there any injustice? How can I speak up against it? Are there businesses that take advantage of people? Am I willing to spend more somewhere else, in order to work for justice?

What about loneliness? There will be no loneliness in the Kingdom of God. So who of my neighbors is lonely, and how can I be a better friend?

There are other examples, but you get the picture.

Of course, I certainly understand from the Christian point of view, that the Kingdom of God will not come in its full glory and power until Jesus returns. But that doesn’t let me off the hook for doing what I can, in the here and now, to work to bring it about, wherever and however I can.

The word “seek” implies action, activity and effort. Diligence and persistence. When you’re seeking something, you’re not going to be easily distracted or discouraged, and you don’t plan to give up until you get it. So if God tells us to seek shalom – peace – then that means we keep working, we keep striving, we keep dreaming, of a society where we enjoy peace and wholeness, health and well-being, in every phase of our lives.

The Bible calls Jesus the “Prince of Peace (Shalom),” and He has called His followers to be “peacemakers.” God promised that it was in seeking the peace and well-being of the city around us, that we would find peace and well-being in our own lives.

Shalom. st_francis_prayer_2

No Need Among You

I was blessed last week to be able to attend the “No Need Among You” Conference in Waco.  This is an annual conference that brings together churches, para-church ministries, non-profits, NGOs, and other groups whose focus is serving and working among lower income and inner-city populations.  The conference is sponsored by the Texas Christian Community Development Network.

The conference title is taken from two scriptures.  One is Deuteronomy 15:4-5, which says,

However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.

The other is Acts 4:33-35 –

33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

(Quotations from the NIV, emphasis added.)

How am I to think about the poor?  What kind of responsibilities do I as a Christian have towards them?  Even asking those questions causes some people to become defensive.  Others will immediately begin offering excuses for why they can’t, haven’t or shouldn’t offer help.  There will be stories about welfare scam artists, professional freeloaders, and abusers of the system.  Some will even cite scriptures such as, “You will always have the poor with you” (John 12:8), and “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

Do those stories exist?  They do.  Are they true?  In some cases.  Are those scriptures correct?  They are.

None of which relieves me of my responsibility before God to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien and the stranger among us.

First of all, in regards to those Bible verses, even a beginning Bible student can tell you that one should always let the context of a particular verse guide your interpretation of that verse.  In John 12, Jesus is NOT giving us an excuse for failure to address problems of economic disparity; rather, He is teaching us that we should set appropriate priorities for how we invest our resources.  He was acknowledging the reality of a situation, not expressing His approval of that situation.

And in 2 Thessalonians, Paul was correcting a lazy bunch of so-called Christians who had talked themselves into thinking that because Jesus’ return was imminent, they didn’t have to work to provide for themselves or their families, and could instead live off the generosity of other believers who were footing the bill for lunch.  This laziness, masquerading as spirituality, is what he was addressing.

Nearly everyone agrees that there are those who abuse the system, and take advantage of other people’s desire to help.  Does that mean that we should encourage fraud and ignore waste?  Of course not.  Our systems should be as streamlined and fraud-free as we can make them.  But that does NOT take away from my responsibility to live a generous, open-handed life, and to love and care for those God puts in front of me.

If they abuse my help and kindness, that’s between them and God. My job- my calling- is to help.  And to love as Jesus loved, without judgmentalism or limit.

Go read Amos.  Learn how God feels about the poor, and those who abuse them.  Perhaps the prophet’s sharpest comments are directly at the religious people who sat by and let others take advantage of the poor without doing anything to stop it, sometimes because they are so busy their religious ceremonies.

Merchants who have one set of scales for buying, and another set of scales for selling.  Exploiting those who can least afford it by charging outrageous prices.  Failing to pay fair wages, and finding reasons to withhold even what is owed.  Some of the very things that business owners today – sometimes even “pillars” of the local church – are still doing.

They call it sharp business practice.  God calls it something else.

Fine, you say.  I don’t own a business, I’m not cheating anybody, I want to help but don’t want to enable someone’s drug habit or other destructive lifestyle.  What can I do?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are five suggestions:

1.  Get informed on what poverty really is, and the face of poverty in America today.  Turn off the TV, spend a little less time on Facebook, and read these books if you really want to see things from another perspective.

Every Church MemberWhat Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty, by Bill Ehlig and Dr. Ruby Payne.  Ruby Payne is well-known for her groundbreaking research and helpful organization of economic classes and how people in one class use “hidden rules” to survive.  This particular edition is geared towards helping church members understand this complex issue and have a Nickled and Dimedpractical framework for channeling their desire to help.

Nickled and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich.  From our middle class perspective, we tell people, get a job, get off welfare, support yourself.  Start out with “unskilled” jobs and work your way up.  But here’s the secret: there was a time in America when a minimum-wage job was indeed a ticket up to the middle class, but generally speaking, it is no longer that way.  In this book, Ms. Ehrenreich tells the story of going around the country for a year, working as a waitress, a nursing home aide, a Walmart employee, and trying to make a living at it.  Remember the old joke about, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts”?  That applies to this book.

When Helping HurtsWhen Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  This is another book that will challenge you and what you think you know.  Beginning from a Biblical perspective of understanding how the Fall has corrupted our world, the authors show way our usual “band aid” approach of trying to give poor people things brings unintended consequences, and actually can end up doing more harm than good.  You’ll never look at a food pantry, clothes closet or Thanksgiving basket the same way again.

2.  Cultivate relationships with people who are different.  It’s easy to stay within our little cliques, to read only those who agree with us, to gravitate towards others of our own background and status.  But that is not community.  God compels us to go out into the highways and byways, to reach out to the lonely, the marginalized, the forgotten among us.  Go next door and meet your neighbor, even if they are different from you.  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

3.  Tip the maid.  You may think your hotel room is overpriced, but I guarantee you, the lady cleaning your room is not getting rich off the deal.  She is helping to subsidize your trip.  Give her a tip when you leave, and more than just a buck or two.  And for Christ’s sake (and I mean that with all reverence), do NOT leave her a gospel tract.  A $10 or $20 bill will do fine.

4.  Support local businesses, farmer’s markets and buy Fair Trade Certified goods.  Yes, I know FTC coffee is more expensive, and cantaloupes are cheaper at Walmart.  But when we shop with a conscience and with some awareness, we are having an impact that goes far beyond just the dollars that we spend.

5.  Get involved at church.  Help transform your church’s outreach from relief to one of empowerment and development.  (Read “When Helping Hurts” to understand the difference.)  Start a financial ministry so that people don’t have to borrow money from a payday lender.  Turn your food pantry into a food co-op.  When you sit on the budget committee, advocate for giving the janitor a living wage, and hire him 40 hours a week so he can have health insurance.  Yes, I KNOW  that might mean not paving the parking lot this year.

Which option do you suppose God is more interested in?

Run to the Darkness

(Thanks to David McQueen and Keith Roberson for their “tag-team” sermon that got me to thinking about this.)

People run OUT of burning buildings.  That’s simple human self-preservation: get as far away from danger as possible.  Yet we know there are those who run INTO burning buildings.  We call them firefighters.  We also call them heroes.

Normal human reaction is to get away from gunfire, especially if you’re unarmed.  But soldiers routinely run TOWARDS gunfire, especially when a buddy is in trouble.  And medics will do this, even though they are unarmed, to save a life.  Heroes in action.

These are examples of physical courage in the face of danger.  But there is another kind of courage, just as rare, and just as worthy of celebrating.  It is the kind of moral courage that runs into the darkness where another person is trapped.

As humans, we were meant to live in relationship with others – family members, co-workers, neighbors.  We were meant to live in community, to provide mutual support and encouragement.  But relationships are messy.  If we want to enjoy truly mutual relationships with others, that requires that we make ourselves vulnerable.  It also requires that we allow others to be vulnerable to us.

And there’s the problem: we like to keep our emotional distance.  Oh, we’re fine with relationships as long as they’re on the surface, or as long as it doesn’t require too much of a commitment from us.  But when a neighbor or a co-worker needs someone who is willing to listen, to “weep with those who weep,” to be willing to just make an investment of time, are we willing to be that person?

So I come back to our opening thoughts.  We admire the courage, the loyalty, the selflessness of a firefighter who would charge into a burning building, or a medic who races into a combat situation to save a life.  Are we willing to do the same thing for someone who needs a friend?

The world is desperate to see the love of God.  The world is aching to see Christians who will live out what they say they believe.  Are you willing to be that person?  Am I?

Are you willing to be the one who goes to the old man who lives down the street, and has no one to talk to?  Would you spend an hour a week just sitting with him and listening?

Or how about the single mom at work.  Will you be the one who reaches out to her and offers to baby-sit for a little while just so she can go buy groceries without the kids?

When Jesus said He would build His church and the gates of hell would not “prevail” against it, what did He mean?  That Hell would attack the church, but that the church would never fall to those attacks?  Well, that’s certainly true, but I think that interpretation misses the point.

I mean, think about it: Gates are for DEFENSE!  When Jesus said the “gates of hell” would not stop us, He’s telling us THAT WE NEED TO ATTACK HELL!!! Storm the gates! Rescue the prisoners trapped there!  Find those who sit in darkness and bring them out.  Somebody cared enough about you and me to go get us; now we need to go get someone else.  This is what the Kingdom of God looks like.  Each one matters.  Each one is important.  And no one gets left behind.

Be a friend to the friendless.  Be a neighbor to the lonely.  Be a brother or a sister to the one needing a family.  Be the hands and feet of Christ, reaching out to care for the least of these.

A few years ago, Kathy Troccoli released a song written by Chris Rice and Helena Teixeira: “Go Light Your World.”

There is a candle in every soul
Some brightly burning, some dark and cold
There is a Spirit who brings fire
Ignites a candle and makes His home
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world


Frustrated brother, see how he’s tried to
Light his own candle some other way
See now your sister, she’s been robbed and lied to
Still holds a candle without a flame
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the lonely, the tired and worn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world


We are a family whose hearts are blazing
So let’s raise our candles and light up the sky
Praying to our Father, in the name of Jesus
Make us a beacon in darkest times
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the helpless, deceived and poor
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world

Take your candle. Run to the darkness. Go light your world.

A Worthy Investment

Happy New Year!  Those words automatically conjure up several thoughts – the ball dropping in Times Square, celebrations with family and friends, and if you’re Southern, black-eyed peas.  It also brings to mind the idea of New Year’s Resolutions.

I’ve noticed that when it comes to resolutions, many people seem to be in one of two groups.  Either they embrace the concept completely, and make lists of changes they’re going to make in their lives, or else they totally reject the idea, and refuse to set for themselves any kind of personal improvement goals.  All you have to do is watch the numerous television commercials for gyms and weight loss programs to know what the most commonly voiced resolution is.

For Christians, one frequently heard resolution is to “Spend more time reading the Bible.”  That’s a fine goal, but unfortunately, many of those expressing that thought set themselves up to fail.  They get some kind of daily reading guide from their church, with frankly unrealistic goals, they work at it for a day or two, and then get behind.  They figure that if they’re behind, they need to catch up, so they double up on the daily readings, but despite their good intentions, they get further behind.  By the middle of January, they’ve given up on the whole idea, and heaped more guilt on themselves for “not being a better Christian.”

(There’s more that we could say about THAT phrase, but we’ll save it for another day.)

If you started going to a gym, and hired a personal trainer to help you with an exercise plan, I guarantee you, you would NOT start out with a goal of a two-hour workout and jogging around the block 50 times – you’d start with smaller goals.  Set some reasonable goals for yourself, work up to them, give yourself a chance to succeed, and then set some new goals.  The same is true for daily Bible reading.

Of course, there is a sense in which we just need to do it, and quit whining about it.  Like anything else worth doing, daily scripture reading requires a certain level of discipline and commitment.

My brother David is the senior pastor at Northside Christian Church in Spring.  He and I were visiting over the holidays, and we had been talking about me following a low-carb diet because of my diabetes.  We discussed how that it really wasn’t a diet, as much as a lifestyle change.  Nobody is really standing over me making me do this – it’s just the right thing to do, so I do it.

The conversation turned.  I knew I was going to be writing about this subject, so I asked him if he had any suggestions for ways to make getting into the habit of daily Bible reading easier.  He just looked at me.  “Why do we need to make it easier?” he asked.  “I know what you mean when you say that, but it’s kind of like the low-carb thing – it just needs to become part of your regular make-up.  If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing.  We need to quit trying to make it easier.  Nothing worth achieving ever comes easy.”

Hmmm. When did little brother get so smart?

So, if you’ve always promised yourself you were going to read the Bible more, but didn’t know how to begin, here are some suggestions.

1.  Start with a reasonable goal.  Most plans that take you through the Bible in a year require you to read FOUR chapters a day to stay on target.  That’s a lot for someone who hasn’t worked up to it.  So forget that.  I’d suggest ONE chapter a day, at least in the beginning.

2.  Read something that makes sense to you.  For goodness sake, DON’T start in Genesis.  It’s okay in the beginning, but once you get into the geneaologies of the various clans, you’ll be bored.  Instead start with James, in the New Testament.  It’s extremely practical, and only five chapters long.  One chapter a day, and now in less than a week, and you’ve read all the way through a book in the Bible!  Then go to Mark – sixteen chapters, lots of action, a fast-moving story.  Now suddenly, in less than a month, you’ve read through TWO books!

3.  Get a translation you can understand.  Unless you’re an Elizabethan literary scholar who loves Shakespeare, this probably means the King James Version is NOT what you need.  Personally, I prefer the NIV, but there are many good choices.  If you want a fresh perspective, you might try “The Message.”  It’s a paraphrase, rather than a literal translation, but it has some good insights.

4.  Have a definite time and place for your reading.  It can be over coffee at your kitchen table, on your back porch, or first thing when you get to work, but you need to cultivate the habit of doing this at the same time every day.  That helps make it automatic for you.  And no whining about not having time – every one gets the same 24 hours a day.  Drag your butt out of bed 15 minutes earlier in the morning if you need to, just like you would for any important appointment.

5. Get an accountability partner.  Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!”  If you and a friend are encouraging each other, you stand a much better chance of succeeding.

Some other thoughts –

Don’t forget to pray.  I don’t mean close your eyes; I mean be in a prayerful attitude.  Ask the Father to reveal His heart to you through the pages of His word.

Don’t substitute devotional books for the Bible.  Devotional books are good, and certainly, they’re better than nothing when it comes to personal reading, but they are not a substitute for scripture.  Before you read what Max Lucado or Chuck Swindoll says about God’s Word, spend some time in it for yourself.

Don’t let it become something just to check off a list.  There’s very little benefit in that.  Psalm 119 is a meditation by someone who is simply in love with God’s Word.  Learn to hear God’s Spirit speaking to your spirit.

In Isaiah 55:11, God promises that His word will not return void – that is, empty, without effect – but will instead accomplish the purpose for which He sends it out.  But we have to do our part, to “hide it in our hearts,” and to “meditate on it day and night.”  So let me encourage you to make it part of your daily life, or if it already is, let me encourage you to continue.  It’s an investment of your time that will pay eternal dividends.