Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blessings in Books and Blogs (and other media)

How my spiritual life is continually enriched by others


I am so grateful for the privilege, as a pastor, of devoting significant time to study and the preparation of sermons and lessons. While others might find it hard or tedious, I find it challenging, stimulating, and life-giving. But I cannot let my study for lessons be my only interaction with the Scriptures, nor can I rely only on myself as a source of learning about God, the gospel, and the Scriptures. That is why I have developed the habit of looking for opportunities to gain insight and instruction from books, blogs, and media posts. I joke with other pastors that I'd enjoy hearing them preach, but I'm usually busy on Sundays! Now, through various means, the teaching of others is available to me (and to you, too).

My "go to" source of teaching for years has been books. When I read a book, an author can "preach" to me and I can take the time to highlight, reread, and sometimes "fact check" if a scriptural assertion is made. I don't always read authors I agree with--sometimes I want to see ideas I disagree with expressed well so that I can understand that point of view, or determine what might be right about the view or how to answer any errors I see. This isn't just about preparing for a message--often it is an area of spiritual life I am thinking about and I want to sharpen or deepen my understandings.

Here are two fairly recent examples. I read the book, The Trellis and the Vine, after getting it at The Gospel Coalition conference four years ago. I was challenged in my thinking about the issue of discipling in the church and it shaped a number of my ideas. It uses and builds upon a very simple illustration to point out the importance of a proper focus in this essential task. Later, when our staff was deciding to go through a book on the subject, it was easy to recommend that we use it, and we all benefited in the process. So, this book not only helped me grow, but became a tool I could share profitably with others.

On my recent trip to California, I started reading John Ortberg's book, Soul Keeping. Ortberg is one of those recognized as a leader in the field "Spiritual Formation," but he is a part of a larger school of thinking with which I have some disagreements. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, as I have when I've read a number of his other books. His transparency with his struggles and growth, and his wrestling with the question "what is the soul" were both a great encouragement to me. Have you ever tried to answer that question, by the way? Is your soul just your immaterial part (body and soul), or one of two immaterial parts (body, soul, and spirit--and if so, what is the separation of the soul and spirit), or the whole of you (as in, "there were 300 souls on board the ship"). Is the "soul" the same as the "self" (how would you feel singing, "Then sings my self, my Savior God, to Thee"). I've taught on this subject, and he didn't change my basic understanding , but he added dimension that I found helpful and stimulating to think about. He tells a lot of interesting stories as illustrations, and there are some moments when I was reading (and this has happened in some of his other books) where I just have to stop and take stock of my own heart. I could list a number of books that have raised a lot of questions that keep me thinking, and I would encourage you to continue to read good books. I have published lists from time to time, and I know my  companions on the pastoral staff and elders would have many more.

But you may think, "I don't have time to read much!" OK, if you have read all the small but powerful books that are out there (and I've found quite a few), would you consider blog posts? These are often shorter essays that can be read fairly quickly, but still pack a spiritual punch. In addition to my occasional blog posts (most of which you would see here first, anyway), I would suggest a few sources that consistently provide good reading. One is the website for The Gospel Coalition--tgc.org is the link. Here you can find various writers on manifold subjects. While not every article is a winner, most of them are very good. Desiring God Ministries (desiringgod.org) is another good source of material. And while John Piper is the driving content engine here, there are many articles by many others as well. It was from this site's link (on Facebook) Thursday that I read and referenced Rosaria Butterfield's powerful post on defeating sexual sin. My only gripe with the article was that it's title was accurate but limited. The content was applicable to defeating any pattern of sin. Click here for the article. For other materials I go to the websites and blogs of the following (note that this is not an endorsement of everything you find--if I have to say that, I can't recommend anything):  Ann Voskamp, Al Mohler, Tim Challies, the bloggers at "Mere Orthodoxy" and "Bereans at the Gate," Russell Moore, and Doug Wilson (his humorously titled site is "Blog and Mablog"--but he wrestles with serious stuff--not always in a gentle way). 

And if you insist that even that amount of time is hard to find, how about audio sources (video is good, too, but it requires you to sit and watch, while audio can be enjoyed while walking, traveling, etc.). In the past week, I have had my soul stirred by messages from Alistair Begg (Truth for Life), Matt Chandler (The Village Church), and most recently, by our Grace Family member and teacher J. R. Gilhooly. I was so well instructed and blessed by his recent chapel talk, "Why Did God Create the Devil?" that I have recommended it to a number of people and linked to it on social media. He does a great job of engaging his audience and moving us to consider why we are even asking the question!

My own soul (whatever it is) has been enriched over the last seven days by reading and by listening, and I'm so grateful to have these kinds of resources available--something most Christians over the ages never had. And so do you. I hope you will consider using them in the times between our corporate worship.