Here are three things I came across this week that encouraged/challenged me.
First, I enjoyed this prayer from The Divine Hours: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”
Second, in thumbing through my copy of Calvin’s Institutes this week (I’m currently re-reading a section of it), I came upon this quote that I had written on a sheet of paper: “When we are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness (which would but worsen our pain and sharpen our minds to revenge), and remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation” (1. 17. 8).
Third, I enjoyed John Webster’s (1955–2016) sermon, “Waiting Patiently” (James 5:7–11) published in Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian. He begins like this: “Patience is the virtue in which we allow our lives to run their allotted course in their allotted time. As we exercise patience, we let our lives and the lives of others follow the path which has been laid down for them, without railing against the constraints which that imposes on us. Patience is the virtue of waiting” (211). He then concludes with these pointed words: “Patience means freedom. It means freedom from the burden of frustration and disappointment. It gives us the real, deep freedom of accepting that we are who we are and where we are, and that in those things we discover the purpose of God. It liberates us from the myth that we can flourish only if we are somehow set free from all constraints and all inhibitions—from all those people and situations and hindrances that press in upon us” (216–217).
The start of a new year is often accompanied by fresh commitments to read the Bible more consistently. I trust that’s one of your goals this year as well. If so, perhaps recalling Scripture’s role in God’s plan of redemption will help us follow through in this objective.
Specifically, I want us to see that the Bible itself is an ingredient in God’s work of redemption.
Our Triune God communicates in order to establish fellowship with his creatures. God sends his Word (Isa. 55:11) to both save and sanctify. God used the Scriptures to effect our regeneration (Jas. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23) and persists in using Scripture to advance our sanctification (Jn. 15:3; 17:17; 2 Cor. 3:18). In theological terms, the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to conform us into the image of the Son of God. This should be all the motivation we need to inhale the Scriptures daily.
The reality of God’s Scriptural revelation, I think, calls us to happily acknowledge God’s goodness, humbly embrace God’s commands, and heartily entrust ourselves to his care.
Let’s happily acknowledge God’s goodness: “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way” (Psalm 25:8, emphasis mine). Have you considered what your life would be like without God’s Word? It’s a scary thought for me. I would be lost in the enveloping fog of my own invented reality. I would enthrone myself as Lord, deify my own reasoning capabilities and divinize my own moral standards. I would tell myself—and self-righteously announce to the world—that I dared to question authority and refused to submit to anyone but myself. In actual fact, I would be in the tyrannical grip of my own fears and desires. Thankfully, we have a word from God because we have a good God.
Let’s humbly embrace God’s Commands: “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9). We know all too well that life outside of God’s gracious rule is dehumanizing and soul-deadening. We have the scars to show it—the lingering residue of guilt and shame; the ever-present reality of broken marriages and relational strife; the aftereffects of poor choices and how they spill over into the lives of our loved ones. Sin enfeebles our lives. We’ve learned the hard way that enslavement to Christ is the only genuine path to freedom. Therefore, we pray with John Donne (1572–1631):
“Batter my heart, three-personed God. . . .
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me” (“Batter My Heart”).
Let’s heartily entrust ourselves to his care: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (Psalm 25:10). Steadfast love and faithfulness are not abstract concepts. They have a name. Jesus is steadfast love and faithfulness incarnate. He kept God’s covenant and testimonies for us.
And our access to this Christ is found in Scripture. It is there that we sit at his feet and ponder his work. May he have his way in our lives in 2022.
And so we pray:
Almighty God, and most merciful Father, we humbly submit ourselves, and fall down before your Majesty, asking you from the bottom of our hearts, that this seed of your Word now sown among us, may take such deep root, that neither the burning heat of persecution cause it to wither, nor the thorny cares of this life choke it. But that, as seed sown in good ground, it may bring forth thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, as your heavenly wisdom has appointed. Amen. (Middleburg Liturgy)
These are the most engaging and memorable books I read this year.
Joshua Mitchell, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. A clear and compelling case regarding how identity politics borrows from (and perverts) the Christian worldview.
Ray Ortlund, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Glory of Christ. A vision for the local church worth our blood, sweat, tears, and prayers.
John Owen, The Glory of Christ. My favorite kind of theology to read: Captivating and worship-evoking.
John Owen, On Spiritual Mindedness. Tons of takeaways and heaps of wisdom.
Peter Wood, 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project. If you care about the topic, you’ll want to read it. You’ll also want to track down and read the sources cited in the footnotes.
Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul. An enchanting book, worthy of a slow read. Nearly every paragraph is memorable.
Jonathan Pennington, Small Preaching: 25 Little Things You Can Do Now to Make You a Better Preacher. Short chapters chock-full of wisdom. It helps that Pennington is a skilled writer. A win-win!
George Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God. Next to Thomas Watson and John Owen, Swinnock may be one of my favorite Puritans to read. This is a fine example of theology set to music, sure to lead readers into praise and adoration. Probably the best book I read in 2021.
Craig Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism. More reasons to embrace the pro-Nicene tradition. Here’s a memorable paragraph:
“The pro-Nicene theology that emerged in the fourth century as the consensus doctrine of God in the Christian church was not a result of the imposition of Greek metaphysical ideas onto the Bible, as if Aristotle was preferred over Moses, Isaiah, and Paul. Rather, on the crucial issue of divine transcendence, Aristotle was corrected on the basis of Moses, Isaiah, and Paul. . . . [Jürgen] Moltmann’s project is built on a faulty foundation because he simplistically equates the use of Aristotelian concepts with the uncritical use of such concepts, as when he writes smugly, ‘Aristotle’s God cannot love’ (Crucified God, 222), as if no one from Athanasius to Aquinas had noticed the fact” (210, 210n11).
Here is a list of the most memorable articles I read in 2021:
Carl Trueman, “The Failure of Evangelical Elites”
James K. A. Smith, “I’m a Philosopher. We Can’t Think Our Way Out of This Mess.”
Brendan Case and Ying Chen, “What Home-Schoolers Are Doing Right,” Wall Street Journal (November 11, 2021): A19.
Here are some books I’m looking forward to reading in 2022:
Fredrik Backman, Anxious People: A Novel.
John Koessler, Folly, Grace, and Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching.
As we head into Christmas week, I encourage you to meditate on this prayer below by Herman Witsius (1636–1708):
Christ Jesus, you are true and eternal God, and true and holy man–all in one. You retain the properties of both natures in the unity of your person.
We acknowledge you, and we worship you. We come to you and fall at your feet. We look for salvation from your hand alone.
You are the only Savior. We desire to be your exclusive property. We are by your grace, and will remain that way forever.
Let the whole world of your elect, with us, know, acknowledge, and adore you, and thus finally be saved by you.
This is the sum total of our faith and hope. This is the height of all our wishes. Amen.
Source: Robert Elmer, ed. Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans.
John Piper once wrote, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.” Though true in every dimension of my life, three sentences related to pastoral ministry have been meaningful to me that I would like to share with you.
The first morsel comes from Andrew Purves: “Ministry kills us with regard to our ego needs, desire for power and success and the persistent wish to feel competent and in control.”
Here’s the backstory.
In 2013, my family and I sold our home in Florida and moved to a small, rural community in northern Iowa, where I began my first pastorate. Though once a thriving church, by the time we arrived it had been in decline for more than a decade. On a good Sunday, we had forty people.
In the weeks leading up to the move, we attended church like we always do. I don’t remember much of the pastor’s sermon that morning, but I know that toward the end of his message he invited the congregation to write down one prayer request, and trust God to answer it in the upcoming year. I wrote down, “I want to feel competent as a pastor.” (Cue laughter track.)
Feelings of inadequacy plagued me even after four years of Bible College and three years of seminary. If anything, the long season of preparation made it worse. I felt pressure to justify my seven-year investment and didn’t want to disappoint my family, friends, mentors, and those who had supported us financially. To top it all off, I had serious doubts about my ability to revitalize a dying church—to bring it back to its glory days, when “it was a race to the back pew,” as one member jokingly put it. It felt like the future of the church was riding on my ability to increase attendance and expand the budget.
Well, that didn’t happen. I soon realized that I was unprepared for the task and had no idea what I was doing. (The members caught on to this quickly.)
Truth be told, I didn’t just feel incompetent. I was (am?) incompetent. But Andrew Purves’s quote helped me see that God was providing me with an opportunity to forsake self-reliance and role my cares on to the resurrected Christ (Ps. 55:22; 2 Cor. 1:8–9).
I now see that my plea for competence was really a desire for control. But I’m not in control. I can’t control results. I can’t control what others say. I can’t control people’s responses. There’s a whole bunch of things I can’t control! Thankfully, grace flows downhill (nod to Jack Miller).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) penned my second ministry-shaping sentence. In the course of outlining how a pastor should relate to his congregation, he wrote, “When a [pastor] becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.”
You’ll need to replace Bonhoeffer’s phrase wish dream with today’s concept of visionary leadership to appreciate his counsel. Contrary to nearly all pastoral leadership books currently on offer, Bonhoeffer urged pastors to receive their congregations, not envision one. Yes, pastors should have a biblical vision for their church. And no, Bonhoeffer’s admonition doesn’t preclude pastors from praying that a gospel culture would flourish in their midst. But it does mean that pastors should love the people in their congregation more than their vision for the congregation.
This rang true with me when I first read it, and still does to this day. Yet many of the books that I’ve read on leadership gave the impression that I should be willing to sacrifice the people currently in my church for the sake of “the vision.” But that counsel never sat well with me. Further, in talking with congregants led by “visionary leaders,” I’ve discovered that most of them feel like they’re just along for the ride. They don’t feel served by their pastors; they feel used by them. And usually the pastor’s “visionary leadership” just leaves congregations busier and more tired.
Bonhoeffer’s quote reminds me that my calling is to lead God’s people to love him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves. That’s the biblical vision. That’s what we work and pray toward. But I have no power to make it happen (see sentence number 1!). My calling is to plant the seeds of the gospel and then stick around long enough to see if anything happens.
My third ministry-shaping sentence comes from Eugene Peterson: “Pastoral work . . . is that aspect of Christian ministry that specializes in the ordinary.”
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was resistant to this idea initially. It felt like such a letdown. It seemed too . . . well . . . ordinary. What about all the glitz and the glam? All the pastors I followed on Facebook and Twitter couldn’t wait to get to church on Sunday for their “epic” and “extraordinary” services and preach their “life-changing” messages. These status updates included pictures of them standing on a platform preaching in front of hundreds and thousands of people—all eager to hear their pearls of wisdom. Let’s just say that was not my experience.
I know the comparison game is deadly, but it was hard to resist. If successful pastors lead large and extraordinary churches with countless conversions taking place each Sunday, then it was clear where I stood. For my own sanity, I needed to change my outlook—and delete my social media accounts. Peterson’s words helped me not become another statistic—quitting the ministry in my first five years.
I had to learn that ministry is made up mostly of ordinary days, working with ordinary people, who face ordinary struggles, work ordinary jobs, have ordinary marriages, ordinary kids, and ordinary struggles. They wash dishes, take out the trash, change diapers, and raise kids. That’s life. It’s filled with blessedly mundane moments. My calling is to help God’s people notice the subtext of their lives—to pay attention to how God’s fashioning them into Christ’s image in the midst of it all.
I like to say that ministry is meandering through life with people. I’m not qualified to lead them into the Promised Land, but I can walk with them through the wilderness years. And by God’s grace, it’s what I plan to give my life to.
In the swirl of a life always in motion, it’s hard to see how God is penciling his character into our souls. But when I reflect on how God dropped these three gems into my life right when I needed them, I can only say: God is generous beyond calculation. He is sovereign over all the details of our lives, including what we’re reading.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
 Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 21.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christianity Community (New York: HarperOne, 1954), 29–30, emphasis mine.
 Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 112.