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July 30, 2014

We’ve got an Amish community not too far from here. It is the place to go when you need to stock up on produce, farm-grown foods, or heirloom-quality furniture. It is also known as the place to go if you really just need to see some Amish people doing what they do. And a lot of people like to do just that—to go and look, to go and gawk.

Even though we’ve got an extensive group nearby, we recently found ourselves in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, North America’s best-known Amish community. (Full disclosure: Our actual travel objective was Harrisburg and the overrated Civil War museum there, but every hotel in the city was completely full.) We did not stop on the road outside Amish farms to watch them do their work, and did not go on a bus tour, but we couldn’t help but see horses and buggies around town, and, of course, plenty of the distinctive Amish clothing.

As we headed north, back toward our home, I started to think about the Amish and why we find them so endlessly fascinating. Though they are small in numbers, everyone knows who they are and everyone knows at least a few of their unique customs; though so much of their religious practice appears insufferable, they are regarded as Christians who love and practice grace. They are the heroes of a million stories, the subject of a thousand documentaries. Why are they so fascinating? I have a few ideas.

The Amish challenge us. In a world where we are so completely dependent on our high-tech devices, the Amish somehow manage to survive without them, and even appear to thrive without them. Where we are convinced that newer is better and that we are only ever one innovation away from joy, the Amish seem plenty happy to do without. If you spend time around the Amish, or if you begin to learn about their ways, you necessarily find yourself asking questions like: Do I really need my smartphone? Are all of these devices really bringing happiness? What have I lost in all of this innovation? The Amish challenge so many of our deeply-held beliefs and assumptions.

We want to figure out the Amish. We are fascinated by the Amish because we so badly want to figure them out. Where they proclaim that they have great uniformity in their lives and laws, we see great contradictions. Their faith appears contradictory: They speak about the grace of Christ but live by law; they extend grace to those who harm them, but shun those who leave them; they rejoice in their salvation, but do not share Christ with others. Their laws appear contradictory: The men can have buttons, but the women must use straight pins; connecting to a phone network attaches them to the world, but connecting to a road network does not; they rely on doctors and lawyers, but will not allow their own children to be educated beyond eighth grade. When I see the Amish, with all their strengths and weaknesses, all their grace and legalism, I look for a key that unlocks it all. I look for knowledge that makes it all make sense.

The Amish recall a simpler time. Where life today is marked by endless complexity, the Amish are known for their quiet simplicity. As they go about their lives, they draw us to a simpler time. In some ways the Amish live in the best of both worlds—the world today and the world of centuries ago. They live their day-to-day lives in that simpler world, that quieter world, that slower world. But, when necessity dictates, and law permits, they take advantage of modern innovations. They use horse-drawn buggies to get to their worship services, but hire drivers to take them to the store. They have no electricity in their homes, but give birth and die while connected to modern medical equipment. Their simplicity attracts us. It draws us.

July 30, 2014

Here are some new Kindle deals: A Fistful of Heroes by John Pollock ($3.99); Taking the Bible At Its Word by Paul Wells ($3.99); Table Grace by Douglas Webster ($3.99); Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition by Calvin Miller ($1.99); Preaching With a Plan by Scott Gibson ($1.99).

The Parable of the Lawn Mower - Here’s a helpful little parable to help explain why we must preach the gospel rather than only attempting to display it.

The Gospel and the Shower Curtain Liner - Read this one for the great illustration of the shower curtain liner, and the idea of cleaning up ahead of the cleaner.

Two Questions - Kevin DeYoung has offers two questions that may just help your church’s ministry.

The Exclusivity of Treasure Pursuit - Paul Tripp distills it all the way down: “it’s spiritually impossible to pursue the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of self simultaneously.”

Books for Pastors - Westminster Books’ sales this week are geared toward pastors. There are lots of good titles there at very reasonable prices.

Am I in Trouble? - Here is some encouragement for those who haven’t opened their Bibles in too long.

The love language of all marriages is self-denial. —Burk Parsons

Parsons

July 29, 2014

Life is complicated. Life is full of responsibilities and opportunities, planned duties and serendipitous possibilities. There is so much we could do, but so little we can do. Many of us battle our whole lives to focus on those few, significant items that we should do must do, and yet so few of us ever feel like we are even nearly succeeding.

Help is here in the form of Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism. While it is not a perfect book, and while it benefits tremendously from adding a good dose of Christian thinking, it is one of the most helpful I’ve read on that constant battle to focus my time and energy on the right things.

McKeown believes in what he calls Essentialism and describes the basic value proposition in this way: “only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” The Essentialist pursues fewer but better opportunities and is rigidly disciplined in rejecting the many to devote himself to the few. It is “not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.”

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

Now that sounds good! That sounds like what we all want—a clear design to our lives that simplifies decision-making and amplifies each of the opportunities we pursue.

McKeown leads the reader to Essentialism in four parts:

  1. Essence. He begins by looking to the essence of Essentialism and the realities that make Essentialism a necessary but difficult practice today.
  2. Explore. Here he describes the way an Essentialist needs to think so he can pursue the highest possible contribution toward the best goals.
  3. Eliminate. Having determined the best goals, the Essentialist now needs to begin eliminating anything that will compete with the pursuit of those goals. “It’s not enough to simply determine which activities and efforts don’t make the highest possible contribution; you still have to actively eliminate those that do not.”
  4. Execute. And then comes the heart of it all—living in such a way that you now execute on those few goals, and continuing to follow the discipline of it.

McKeown promises his book “will teach you a method for being more efficient, productive, and effective in both personal and professional realms. It will teach you a systematic way to discern what is important, eliminate what is not, and make doing the essential as effortless as possible. In short, it will teach you how to apply the disciplined pursuit of less to every area of your life.”

And I think it can do that. It is chock-full of excellent insights and quoteable phrases. It is the kind of book you can use to implement systems in your life, or the kind of book you can plunder for its big and important ideas.

Yet the Christian reader will want to read it with some discernment. This is a book that benefits from an infusion of the biblical ethos. As the book reaches its end, McKeown expands Essentialism to all of life and here he stops quoting business gurus and begins quoting religious gurus; the last chapter is easily the weakest and one that can be skipped without any great loss.

July 29, 2014

Here are today’s Kindle deals: A Model of Christian Maturity by D.A. Carson ($2.99); Connected by Erin Davis ($4.99); Holman Quicksource Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls by Craig Evans ($2.99); Redeeming Church Conflicts by Tara Barthel ($1.99); Holman Quicksource Guide to Christian Apologetics by Doug Powell ($2.99); Holman Quicksource Guide to Understaning Creation by Mark Whorton ($2.99); Which Bible Translation Should I Use? by Andreas Kostenberger ($3.99).

An Open Letter to the Caliph - Tim Keesee has penned an open letter that is worth reading. “You and your Caliphate are destined for failure. Of course, all empires, caliphates, and reigns of terror eventually come to an end, but something else is happening — another kind of failure in your command over the Islamic world.”

The New Face of Richard Norris - This long article about Richard Norris, who underwent a face transplant, is fascinating, and introduces some important ethical issues. (Note: the article is at the GQ site, but I’m linking to the printable page, so everything there should be family-friendly; at least it is as far as I can see.)

Making the Bible BeautifulBibliotheca is a massively successful Kickstarter project that attempts to make the Bible beautiful [again]. This matters, and here’s why.

Coffee Shops and Productivity - Here’s some guidance on when coffee shops may and may not help your productivity.

Cold Case Christianity - Cripplegate has a review of a book I really enjoyed (and recommend).

The whole life of man until he is converted to Christ is a ruinous labyrinth of wanderings. —John Calvin

Calvin

July 28, 2014

I saw it the other day. I saw that thing I want, that thing I am sure I need, that thing that holds the key to my happiness. With it I will be complete. Without it I will always be lacking.

And there it was, right before me. I saw it. I longed for it. I felt that longing, that desire, in my chest, or was it my stomach? Did my heart really skip a beat? There it was, so close, but it wasn’t mine. It was there, yet just out of reach.

In that very moment the thought flashed through my mind: If God really loved me, he would give it to me. God doesn’t love me enough to let me have it. And in the wake of the thought, a question: What can I do to make him love me enough? What can I do to make him love me enough to give it to me?

The insanity lasted all of a minute. Probably not even a minute. And then I knew. It’s not that God loves me too little to give it to me. He loves me too much. He loves me too much to give me that thing I am convinced I need. He loves me too much to give me something that will compete with him. He loves me too much to give me anything I may love more than I love him.

Whatever it is—an object, a person, a position, a recognition, an award—God expresses his love in withholding it from me. He knows me far better than I know myself. He knows what I need, and he knows what I don’t need. He knows what would soon step into that place he reserves for himself.

I can go my way content. I can go my way knowing that God has given all I need and withheld all I cannot handle. I am content with what God has given—it is for my good and his glory. I am content with what God has withheld—it, too, is for my good and his glory.

Crybaby image credit: Shutterstock

July 28, 2014

Here are some new Kindle deals for you: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by Bruce Ware ($1.99); Engaging with the Holy Spirit by Graham Cole ($0.99); Walking in the Spirit by Kenneth Berding ($0.99); The Holy Spirit by Kevin DeYoung ($0.99); He Who Gives Live by Graham Cole ($2.99); Resolving Everyday Conflict by Ken Sande ($1.99); Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars by Stephen Miller ($3.99); How to Read the Bible in Changing Times by Mark Strauss ($1.99). (Also, today’s Gold Box deal is a tempting one: The Blu-ray extended editions of The Lord of the Rings for $37.99.)

The Loss of Pastoral Credibility in the Age of the Internet - “The Internet has introduced a new level of visibility to areas of our social life, exposing certain uncomfortable realities.” Alistair explains how the credibility of pastors is suffering as a result.

Build Character, Not Platform - There is a time for both, I guess, but I love Derwin Gray’s focus here: Worry less about building your platform, and focus more attention on character.

15 Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Hymnals - You probably won’t agree with everything he says, but the article is well worth some reflection.

Unrequited Love - I found this interesting: Why Evangelicals feel great affection for Jews and why that affection is not reciprocated.

Preaching about Body Image - There’s something to be said for this: Pastors ought to preach about body image.

What peace can they have who are not at peace with God? —Matthew Henry

Henry

July 27, 2014

Today I have the privilege of preaching, and preaching to many who do not yet know God. These words from Philip Ryken (drawn from his excellent commentary on Luke) have added urgency and motivation. Here he explains Luke 13:22-30, where Jesus explains that many will seek to enter and will not be able.

What terrible suffering there will be for everyone who gets shut out from God’s kingdom. To make sure we know what is at stake, Jesus speaks with perfect clarity: “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourself cast out” (Luke 13:28). Jesus was speaking plainly about the pains of hell.

Hell will be a place of anguish and affliction. It will be a place of remorse, as people cry bitter tears of grief for all that they have lost. It will be a place of rage, as they gnash their teeth in angry defiance of God. It will be a place of regret, as people mourn the folly of their unbelief. Apparently they will have some awareness of what they are missing. Jesus describes them standing outside his kingdom and looking in to see the prophets and patriarchs. They watch the guests arrive to feast in the house of God.

How galling it will be for them to know that they themselves were once on the guest list, but that they declined the free invitation of Jesus Christ. They had once been close to eternal life, yet now they will end up so far away from God! “To have been so near to Christ on earth,” writes David Gooding, “without receiving him and without coming to know him personally, and therefore to be shut out for ever from the glorious company of the saints, while others from distant times and cultures have found the way in—who shall measure the disappointment and frustration of it?”

As much as anything else, hell will be a place of lost opportunity. This conversation started with a question about how many people would be saved. Rather than talking about numbers, Jesus confronted the crowd with their own need to find the one narrow door to salvation. What he especially emphasized was the need to find that door before it is too late. People wanted to know how many (how many people would get in), but Jesus wanted them to think about how soon (how soon the door would close for all eternity).

Time is running out. There is a time limit on the free offer of salvation.

July 26, 2014

Vacations are [almost] always wonderful, but home is always best. As good as it was to be away for a while, it was even better to get back to my home and my routine and my normal life. I guess I’m kind of a boring person, but I value such things! Anyway, here is some recommended weekend reading for you:

This week saw the release of the first trailer for the forthcoming 50 Shades of Grey movie. Aimee Byrd says the whole phenomenon is 50 Shades of Strange, and especially when Christian women are unabashed in their love of the books.

My kids and most of their friends are obsessed with Minecraft, something I am largely okay with, especially when they play socially, hanging out in big packs in our living room. This article tries to get to the bottom of all that enthusiasm.

If you are on or near Canada’s East Coast, or just looking for a great excuse to go to Prince Edward Island, The Gospel Coalition Atlantic conference looks like it will be a really good event, and especially because the crowd won’t be too big. They’ve also introduced a women’s track this year. Aileen will be representing 20Schemes in the exhibitor’s area, so be sure to stop by and say hi to her.

Here’s an interactive introduction to the First World War. Isn’t it amazing to see what amazing rich content the web can bring us today?

Scott James recently wrote about The Virtue of Unread Books. I like this: “the array of books in our home is intended for ongoing, well-rounded usefulness. They’re there to show us what’s possible, not venerate what’s already been. Even the history books, which are expressly about what has already been, are there to light an inquisitive fuse and point us forward into new exploits.”

Kylie has written sweetly of those times when grief rears its painfully beautiful head

All my theology is reduced to this narrow compass – “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” —Archibald Alexander

Alexander