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May 04, 2011

For the Love of IndiaIn the summer of 1805 a young man set sail on the long, perilous journey to India. He left friends, family and prospects behind in order to serve as a missionary in a foreign land. Already suffering the tuberculosis, the disease that had claimed the life of his mother and would soon also claim his two sisters, he forsook the prospects of a comfortable life as a minister or scholar and traveled to the far side of the world. He did so for the love of India, for the love of the gospel and ultimately for the love of God.

Henry Martyn was a brilliant scholar who studied at Cambridge and won the coveted title of Senior Wrangler which was bestowed upon the student who won the Cambridge University annual mathematics problem-solving competition, and was thus recognized as the University’s best undergraduate mathematician. While he was a brilliant mathematician, he also had a natural proclivity for languages. After his conversion as a young man his mentor Charles Simeon encouraged him to abandon his intention of becoming a lawyer and to dedicate his life to serving God as a missionary. Martyn was subsequently ordained in the Church of England and traveled to India as a chaplain of the East India Company. He was to live only six years after arriving in India, but in that time he produced an incredible body of work. He translated the New Testament, the Anglican Prayer Book and the Anglican Marriage Service into Hindustani; he translated the parables for use in his schools; he also ensured that the Persian translation of the New Testament was the finest possible, translated the Psalms in Persian and oversaw the translation of the Arabic New Testament. This translations were ultimately printed and distributed in the tens of thousands.

Henry MartynWhile he is remembered primarily as a translator, Martyn was also a pastor and preached on a weekly basis. He desperately desired to see lives changed, yet in his ministry witnessed not a single conversion. While this often left him discouraged, he took refuge in knowing that he had preached the gospel and left the listener without excuse. After his death it was discovered that several people were converted through his ministry and we can only wait until eternity to discover how many were saved by the reading of the Scriptures he translated.

Throughout his ministry Martyn suffered from poor health and often terrible loneliness. He desperately loved a woman he had left behind in England and often wished that he had been able to marry her and enjoy her companionship. Yet he labored on, finding his joy and strength in the Lord.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay memorialized Martyn as follows:

April 21, 2011

Managing Gods MoneyI have a love-hate relationship with money. I think most people do. On the one hand money is a necessity—a resource we depend upon, a resource we need if we are to live and thrive in this world. On the other hand money is spiritually captivating, a resource that offers a particularly insightful look into our hearts. Money is the topic of Randy Alcorn’s new book Managing God’s Money. This is a biblical guide to managing our money with an eye to eternity.

March 28, 2011

Heaven Is For RealEmbarking on a short tour of the afterlife is all the rage, it seems. Don Piper got it started with 90 Minutes in Heaven, a really bad book that sold millions of copies. Then there was 23 Minutes in Hell, another bestseller and another awful book. And now hot on their heels comes Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. It’s currently sitting atop the New York Times list of bestsellers and has over a half million copies in print. I wonder if I’m the only one who finds it a mite suspicious that now that these books are selling like proverbial hotcakes, more and more people find that God wants them to tell their stories of heaven and hell. Probably not.

Heaven Is For Real is written by pastor Todd Burpo and it tells the story of his son Colton who, at age 4, visited heaven. His visit came while he was on the operating table after suffering a burst appendix. He told his parents his story several months later and his parents then waited 6 or 7 years to record it in a book. That book has shot to the top of the charts, resulting in many of you sending me emails to ask, “Have you read it?” So I went ahead and read it. Because that’s the kind of guy I am.

You will probably not be surprised to learn that this is not a good book. What I want to do here is offer a very brief review and then I want to tell you why you can legitimately dismiss this book and all the others like it, because I think that’s where many of us feel the tension—what gives me the right to dismiss another person’s experience?

I’ve already given you the broad outline. Colton dies (or something close to it) and visits heaven for an unknown period of time. He returns to his body and over the months and years that follow tells his parents about his time in heaven. He tells about spending time with Jesus, about meeting the sister he never knew he had, about fluttering around with wings, about the pearly gates, and on and on. Along the way you’ll get descriptions of Todd’s various afflictions and you’ll read the fine details of Colton’s battles with constipation and the great relief he experienced passing gas. Riveting stuff, this.

Every one of Colton’s experiences, or very nearly every one, follows a pattern. He tells his father some little detail. His father experiences a gasp or feels his heart skip a beat. “I could hardly breathe. My mind was reeling. My head was spinning.” A Scripture verse comes to dad’s mind that validates the experience. Colton gets bored and runs off. Repeat.

March 21, 2011

33 MenAs a social experiment it could hardly have been devised better. Put 33 men 2300 feet underground and seal them in with limited supplies and with no guarantee that they will be rescued. Then leave them there for 69 days. What would happen? Would they divide into packs and begin to destroy one another a la Lord of the Flies? Would they resort to cannibalism? Would they resort to homosexuality? These are the questions people were asking when just such an accident happened at the San Jose copper-gold mine in the Atacama Desert near Copiapo, Chile. 33 men were trapped when a slab of rock the size of a skyscraper came between them and the outside world. And all the world watched to see if they could be saved from their tomb.

The last man was rescued from that mine on the 13th of October, 2010. On February 14, 2011 33 Men hit store shelves, a book detailing the disaster and response. 4 months. That hardly seems like enough time to write a book, not to mention fact-check it and edit it and print it. But I’ve got to say, this isn’t a bad book at all. It’s well-written and engaging and, as far as I can tell, quite accurate.

What I find particularly interesting is not the disaster in itself. A mine collapsed, men were trapped and a massive rescue operation was launched. It’s a good story. But what was even more interesting to me were the social, psychological and spiritual dynamics. What would happen when 33 men were trapped deep underground, completely isolated for 17 days and then then in touch with the world but still cut off for a further 52 days? What kind of society would develop? How would the men behave?

February 22, 2011

EndgameThere can be a very fine line between genius and insanity. Such was the case with Bobby Fischer—perhaps the greatest chess master to ever play the game, but a man who seemed to live his life teetering on the brink of insanity. Fischer is the subject of Endgame, a compassionate but honest new biography written by Frank Brady. It offers an insightful look into the life of a strange, tortured individual whose intellect was matched only by his pride.

Bobby Fischer grew up fatherless, raised by a caring but doting mother, one who was convinced of his brilliance but unequipped to deal with him on her own. Fischer was an obsessive child who, from a very young age, was drawn to puzzle games. He viewed the game of chess as the ultimate puzzle—one that could not be solved, but one that could be mastered. And he sought to master it, dedicating almost every waking hour, year after year, to honing his skills. Even as a teenager he made his mark on the chess world, steadily rising through the ranks and eventually rising to the pinnacle as the World Chess Champion.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Fischer, apart from his brilliance, is his ego—an ego that seemed to know no bounds. He was remarkably self-assured and utterly convinced that he was the most brilliant chess player in history. All honor, all adoration, all acclaim belonged to him alone. He would demand recognition and demand honor. When he felt he had been slighted in any way he would respond with fury and outrage. He would turn down tens of millions of dollars if accepting the money would in any way prove a blow to his pride.

November 29, 2010

UnbrokenThe book is always better than the movie, right? It seems that way to me, even with movies as good as the Lord of the Rings series. The movies were amazing, but the books were still better. It seems inevitable that Unbroken will appear on the silver screen before long (and, if the rumors are to be believed, it will star Nicholas Cage). Before it does, make sure you read the book. Unbroken is, in a word, amazing—easily one of the best books I read in 2010. It’s written by Laura Hillenbrand who also penned Seabiscuit. This new book has shot straight to #2 on the New York Times list of bestsellers just days after its release.

Unbroken tells the tale of Louie Zamperini, a character who is so much larger than life that I can’t believe I hadn’t encountered him before. Zamperini grew up in California in the 1930’s, a troublesome kid who was constantly stealing, constantly fighting, constantly getting into trouble. He was that kid, the kid who was known by the police, the kid who was every teacher’s nightmare. He was also lightning fast, eventually becoming a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team where he ran the 5,000 meter race and even had the opportunity to meet Adolf Hitler.

War came in 1941 and, like so many men his age, Zamperini joined up, enlisting in the United States Army Air Force. He was made bombardier in a B-24 bomber and posted to Hawaii. He took advantage of all the world had to offer, drinking and carousing with the best (or worst) of them. On May 27, 1943, while searching the ocean for a crashed plane, his own plane suffered mechanical failure and plunged into the ocean. Zamperini survived the crash along with two other members of the crew. They were adrift in the Pacific for 47 days, living off whatever rain fell from the sky and whatever food they could somehow pluck from the ocean. Though one of the men eventually succumbed to starvation, the two who remained were eventually “rescued” by the Japanese Navy, some 2,000 miles from where the plane had crashed.

Zamperini’s war was about to get far worse.

November 09, 2010

Handels Messiah Comfort for Gods PeopleI always feel like a bit of a poser when I say this, but I absolutely love Handel’s Messiah. Though I appreciate small amounts of classical music (to use the term in a broad sense) I am largely a rock ‘n’ roll type. Yet there is something about Messiah that grips me. I find myself listening to it throughout the year, again and again, year after year. I’ve listened to recordings hundreds of times and make it a habit to attend a live performance every Christmas season. I can’t get enough.

I was rather excited to see a new book releasing this fall titled Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People. Written by Calvin Stapert, professor emeritus of music at Calvin College, the book serves as a guide to Handel’s great masterpiece. As the publisher says in the one-sentence pitch, “If you want to enjoy and appreciate Handel’s beloved Messiah more deeply, this informed yet accessible guide is the book to read.” I’m inclined to agree.

While I love Messiah I have often struggled with the knowledge that I do not really understand it very well. I’ve always known that if I just knew a little bit more about this form of music, if I just understood the context a little bit more, the Baroque style, my appreciation of Messiah would necessarily grow as well. But I am not at all musical. The last time I played an instrument was in primary school and that instrument was a recorder. Any time I’ve sought to learn more, I’ve quickly gotten lost in the technicalities of the musical lexicon.

However, this book has finally helped me see Messiah more clearly. Here is how the author describes what he has sought to accomplish in his work. “The three sections of this book aim to increase understanding from three different perspectives. The first section traces three histories—the history of oratorio up to Messiah; the history of Handel up to Messiah; and the history of Messiah’s inception and reception. Although I think these histories can contribute something toward a greater understanding of the work, I tell them primarily because they reveal a series and confluence of remarkable and unlikely events that led to the making of Messiah and from there to the phenomenon that it has become.”

October 27, 2010

Letters to a Young CalvinistThere are many books out there that describe Reformed theology and that invite people to become part of the Reformed tradition. However, most of these books are a product of the years before the advent of this young, restless, Reformed reality that is all the rage today. Most such books predate the New Calvinism.

New to the field, and largely distinct from the rest, is Letters to a Young Calvinist by James K.A. Smith. This is one of the few books to speak directly to this new young, restless, Reformed movement. Written in the form of letters from a mentor to a young man who is investigating Reformed theology, the book offers a winsome 125-page introduction to the tradition and to the way it works out in real life. The author says “These letters don’t offer an apologetic defense of Calvinism, trying to defend it against all comers; rather, I envision the addressee of these letters as someone who has already become interested in this tradition and is looking for a guide into unfamiliar territory.”

Smith leads the young recipient of these letters into the tradition in a systematic way. He begins with words of welcome, expressing the way that Reformed theology leads us to seek out and discover deep wells of the Scripture. For example, “I think it is one of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition that it has a long history of encouraging curiosity about creation. Unlike some of the places you and I have been, which really discourage questioning in order to get people to toe the party line, the Reformed tradition has long encourages a kind of holy intellectual riskiness.”

He warns of one of the most perilous sins of the Reformed: “Now is as good a time as any to warn you about one of the foremost temptations that accompanies Reformed theology: pride. And the worst kind of pride: religious pride (one of Screwtape’s letters speaks quite eloquently about this). This is an infection that often quickly contaminates those who discover the Reformed tradition, and it can be deadly: a kind of West Nile virus.”

Smith suggests that the best one-word summary of Reformed theology is grace. He speaks of grace going “all the way down,” by which he means that grace infuses every part of Reformed theology. And, indeed, Reformed theology is a theology of grace—grace in every part. He says (rightly!) that Reformed theology is not all about election and predestination; they are components of the theology but they are not all there is to it. “I often feel that Reformed theology is ill served by a myopic focus on these things, as legitimate as they are.” And he emphasizes that Reformed theology is inherently unfinished. “It seems to me very un-Reformed to prop up Reformed theology as a timeless ideal, a consummated achievement, when one of the Reformers’ mantras was semper reformanda—always reforming. You shouldn’t expect a lifetime of pursuing the truth to result in constant entrenchment into what you thought when you were twenty.”

October 18, 2010

At Home by Bill BrysonHome. I love home. I love my home and I love the very idea, the concept, of home. God is good to give us home, to give us a place where we can just be, a place where we can center our lives. Think about your home, think about how good it is to have a place of your own, a place where you have your stuff and your people and where you live your life, and you’ll realize what a calling it was for Christ to have no home, to have no place to call his own.

We look at home today, we look at private life, and tend to assume that things have always been as they are now. And yet this is not the case. The home and the private life have developed over time, slowly evolving into what they are today and slowly evolving toward what they will be tomorrow. Home and private life are the twin subjects of Bill Bryson’s new book: At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

Bryson recently purchased an old Norfolk Church of England rectory as his home and it provides the starting point for his investigations. “Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two. Why not pepper and cardamom, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five?” Those mundane observations and the questions they generated got him started in his quest to understand home. And somehow he makes home, the most mundane place in our lives, utterly fascinating.

If you had to summarize it in a sentence, you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly.” Do you enjoy your home and all its comforts? That’s because we humans have been working tirelessly for all these millennia to make home a place of comfort. Slowly, slowly we have gotten to the point we are at today.

October 07, 2010

JournibleWhat happens when you smash a Bible together with a journal? You get a Journible (get it?). What’s a Journible? Well, essentially it’s a Bible study tool. It’s a book, rather like a journal, with a place to write a Scripture text on the right leaf and a place to write notes and observations on the left. It’s rather difficult to describe, so let me turn to the official description to see if they can do better.

The Journible™ series of books are hard-backed with gold foil and a bookmark ribbon. As you open the book, you will see chapter and verse numbers on the right-hand pages. These are conveniently spaced according to the length of each verse. However, these pre-formatted lines are left blank for you to hand-write your Journible™ book of yourself. The idea for this comes from Deuteronomy 17:18, where God commands the kings of Israel to hand-write their own copy of the Torah, or book of the law. The purpose of this was so that they would carry it with them always, read it, learn from it, and lead the people accordingly. It’s interesting to note that 3400 years later, educators have been discovering that most people learn kinesthetically, by doing or writing things out for themselves.

From these two ideas together then, comes the conception of this series of books: The 17:18 Series. As you look at the left-hand pages, the lines are left blank for personal notes and comments on the text. There are also some questions scattered in light print throughout these pages. These questions are meant to guide you in thought as you study the book of Proverbs and to help you understand the types of questions you should be asking of the text.

Does that make sense? If you want to get a bit more of a taste, here are two page samples you can download: Galatians sample page | Proverbs sample page.

You see how it works? Every day you right a Scripture text on the right side of the page and then you write notes and observations on the left. Occasionally there will be a question there to guide your notes and focus your study. And that’s it. It’s meant to be a tool that will help you get into the Word as you write it out yourself and as you seek to understand and apply it. How cool is that?

Why would you buy one? For your personal devotions; as a gift for someone else; as a tool for group Bible study or youth group Bible study; as a means to help you memorize long portions of Scripture.

One of the unfortunate things about Journibles is that they suffer from quite an ugly and uninformative web site. The site really does not offer a good view of what will actually show up at your home should you order one. I had seen the site and been unimpressed; it was only when I bumped into a Journible at a conference that I was impressed. So you may just have to take my word for this one.

You can buy Journibles (exclusively for the time being) at Reformation Heritage Books. The current volumes are:

  • 1 Timothy - Hebrews
  • Galatians, Ephesians, Philipians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
  • James - Jude
  • John
  • Proverbs
  • Romans

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