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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Tips for the Tactical Fight

by Hugh Hewitt“. . . without preparation, there is no success, and without success, there will be no influence.  With power, authority, and influence come responsibilities, however, and a host of temptations.  Seeking the former without succumbing to the latter is hard to achieve initially, much less to maintain over time.  It is my hope that this book will be of some help in both tasks” (p. x).

Hugh Hewitt has indeed written a helpful book.  Nonetheless, In, But Not Of has its troubling points.  The author is fully aware of the tensions inherent in the subject he explores.  In fact, the title—a well-worn phrase among Christians—captures the essence of this tension.  Called to be in the world but not of it, Christians must walk a fine line as they seek success in life while avoiding the worldly pitfalls they will no doubt come across on this journey.

Hewitt’s short book is about “Christian ambition—about the desire to help shape the world in large ways, and to do so in conformance to Christ’s teaching” (p. 5).  He is convincing in making a case for the “restoration” of ambition in Christian circles and the need for godly men and women to possess it.  He also establishes a two-level hierarchy of pursuits or “battles.”  The “big battle” is focused on winning souls, “changing the trajectory of a soul’s path . . . a matter of infinite consequences” (p. 20).  Hewitt’s book is for those looking to make a difference in the second-order battlefields of government, business, and culture by using their abilities “to protect and extend religious liberty . . . protecting America from its enemies and extending the influence of Western democracy around the globe” (p. ix).

Hewitt is concerned about the trend in recent decades of Christians abandoning the serious pursuit of success in the world.  Instead, many have chosen to devote their lives to ministry.  Hewitt acknowledges the overriding importance of this kind of work and applauds the efforts of those committed to it.  He reserves his criticism for Christians who have disengaged from the world to seek shelter in the imagined insulation of church life or have adopted bifurcated lives in which their spiritual beliefs hold no sway over their careers.  These men and women have opted for a less strenuous path, away from the battlefields of first- or second-order significance.  Hewitt hopes to inspire those with talent and skill to use the gifts God has given them to serve Him where it counts.

In, But Not Of provides useful counsel along these lines.  The practical tips it contains are most relevant for folks in their twenties and thirties.  Still, even someone in his early forties like me could stand to be reminded about the importance of building relationships, practicing humility, and cultivating the discipline of deepening one’s expertise while broadening one’s interests.  In fact, this blog is a result of my taking Hewitt’s advice.

Nonetheless, the book’s focus is on one’s walk in the world—not on one’s Christian walk.  That’s okay so long as the reader continuously keeps the larger context in mind.  But it’s easy to let the “big battle” fade into the background.  Without this context to frame it, much of Hewitt’s advice can be inadvertently taken as self-serving.  There are reminders about taking time to grow spiritually as one scales the rungs of ambition on the ladder of success, but readers just beginning this climb could easily get the impression that such concerns are secondary to the long-term accumulation of influence.  The chapter advising career-builders to join a church and participate in a community of believers seems like a special plea.  Should talented, ambitious followers of Christ require persuasion and prodding to worship God on a regular basis?

by Darrow L. MillerThankfully, this book is not Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.  To be sure, Hewitt clearly wants to channel young Christians to pursue influence as a means to a worthy end.  But his emphasis on preparing for and pursuing secular success as a Christian makes one’s Christianity seem like an “add-on”  rather than the central idea that underpins, organizes, and drives everything a believer envisions, strives for, and eventually produces.  In this regard, In, But Not Of suffers by comparison to, say, Darrow Miller’s LifeWork in which one’s Christian faith serves as the basis for a distinctively Christian calling—a “lifework”—done explicitly, directly, and fully to advance the kingdom of God.  (And Miller’s is not a book written specifically for pastors or full-time missionaries.)

Finally, Hewitt’s intended readership seems a bit exclusive.  He didn’t write this book for the woman who finished in the top third of her class at a state university and aspires to be a special education teacher . . . or the young man who worked hard to attain B’s and C’s in high school and then sets out to become the best police officer in his county.  Hewitt’s book is meant for the guys and girls heading off to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton after graduating at the head of their class while serving as editors of high school newspapers and becoming fluent in French during their spare time.  Maybe a lot of these obvious candidates for future success and influence have failed to excel spiritually.  Maybe they haven’t quite gotten the point about what being a Christian means.  If so, then these kids do, in fact, need to read a book like this one.  In, But Not Of will provide them with helpful guidelines for achieving success in a generally godly way.  Whether or not they will become inspired to pursue God’s purpose for their lives (and careers) is less certain.  Though rich with “tactical” advice, the book’s strategic vision is not as developed as it should be.  Moreover, it lacks a compelling framework that ties both levels together to encourage the pursuit of a life lived wholly and productively for God.  Read it with those shortcomings in mind.

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Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Book Comments, Vocation

 

Dreaming and Doing

“Dreaming about a thing in order to do it properly is right; but dreaming about it when we should be doing it is wrong.” – Oswald Chambers

Oswald Chambers explores the fine line between taking the time to discover God’s will and using this pursuit as an excuse for procrastination due to a lack of faith, courage, or desire.  How often do I think of a good idea but then balk at working to bring about its actual fulfillment?  It’s not that I stumble as I begin to move in response to God’s prompting.  That wouldn’t be too bad . . . forward progress at least.  It’s that I don’t move at all . . . like I am nurturing a secret hope that mere imaginings at the threshold of faith would be sufficient.  But God says, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”  He bids us to love not “with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (John 14:15; 1 John 3:18)

Despite the noble goals to which it aspires, simple dreaming is thin soup compared to the sweet spiritual food that nourishes the followers of Christ—those who walk in His steps.  “Dreaming after God has spoken is an indication that we do not trust Him,” writes Chambers.  To truly follow, we must wake and rise.

We might look to the example of Joseph for inspiration here.  In the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel, Joseph encounters God through the medium of dreams no less than four times.  The passage describing the birth of Jesus in this account is basically a story of Joseph’s faith and obedience.  The man makes what he feels is a good decision to divorce his betrothed quietly.  It’s a decision reflecting a balance of justice and kindness.  Yet after hearing the angel of the Lord in a dream, he doesn’t just listen . . . he changes his mind in faith and embraces the shame along with the hope that Mary’s child is indeed the promised Savior.

Joseph continues to hear from God in dreams, and his responses take his family from Bethlehem to Egypt . . . then back toward Judea and on to Galilee.  We can safely assume, I think, that Joseph wrestled a bit with these decisions.  They involved, after all, matters of life and death.  But we can also assume that he spent little time looking to the Scriptures for an explanation once he received his instructions.  Joseph, no doubt, acted without the benefit of God connecting the dots between prophecy and fulfillment as He did for us through Matthew.  In Joseph’s case, God spoke in dreams, and, each time, the dreamer woke to follow in faith.

 

Sirius Thoughts from “Azkaban”

by J. K. RowlingI read J. K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter book earlier this year and found it the most rewarding volume of the series so far.  (I have not tackled Book #4 yet.  This decision to proceed slowly through the series has baffled the rest of the readers in my family—four of whom had devoured all seven books in a matter of weeks and thus could not understand why I would want to read anything else . . . let alone how I could sleep at night knowing Voldemort was out there somewhere scheming and growing in strength.)

The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets—though entertaining—struck me as “accidental adventures” when I began the series late last year.  In those tales, Rowling frequently moves the plot along by way of the chance encounter.  Someone forgets something somewhere; goes to a place he or she would not have been otherwise; and so “coincidentally” discovers a bit of information that invariably leads to the next encounter or adventure (this seems to be the case especially in Book 2).  In contrast, The Prisoner of Azkaban flows along with a more sophisticated, compelling storyline.  It is almost certainly helped by a structure that differs from its two predecessors:  the climatic confrontations toward the end of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber, as well as the obstacles Harry and his friends must overcome immediately prior to each of these scenes, are very similar in construct, if not in detail.

Some thoughts that came to mind as I read The Prisoner of Azkaban:

== Rowling has multiple “lines of intrigue or surprise” that she develops and sustains until weaving them together at the book’s climax (i.e., what is the “Grim”?; what (or who) is Scabbers really?; what is Hermione’s secret?; is Sirius Black really the “serious bad guy” he is presumed to be?).

== The development of Hermione’s character.  Rowling works hard to make Hermione bolder and more aggressive (Harry and Ron appear to be rubbing off on her).  She speaks truth to power more than once . . . but especially in attacking the silly mysticism of Professor Trelawney.  (Hermione is not alone here.  With humorous effect, Rowling subjects Trelawney’s strain of postmodernism—represented by her contrived predictions and fanciful interpretations—to outright mockery throughout the book.)

== The idea of the “dementors” as the guards of Azkaban Prison and the kind of punishment they inflict seems very clever.

“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth.  They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. . . . Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you.  If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself . . . soulless and evil.  You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.” (p. 187)

Dementors are monsters that thrive on the stolen happiness of others.  Their “kiss” consumes a person’s soul.  Agents of wrath, they are employed by a higher power to administer justice—however evil and cruel they themselves may be.

== The development of Harry’s character.  As Rowling reveals much more of the mystery surrounding the history of her protagonist, she allows him to grow.  While this growth is necessary for the storyline to ripen, it is—thankfully—not forced.  Harry overcomes the urge to mete out revenge when he spares Black in the “Shrieking Shack.”  When an old friend of his parents admonishes him, Harry appears to “get it.”  Indeed, Professor Lupin’s reprimand is worth quoting:  “Your parents gave their lives to keep you alive, Harry.  A poor way to repay them—gambling their sacrifice for a bag of magic tricks.” (p. 290)  As followers of Christ, we are not called to “repay” Him.  But, I have to ask, what will I do in light of the sacrifice He made for me?

== Sirius Black reminds us how absolutely critical it is to remember who we are in times of trial.  “‘I don’t know how I did it,’ he said slowly.  ‘I think the only reason I never lost my mind is that I knew I was innocent.  That wasn’t a happy thought, so the dementors couldn’t suck it out of me . . . but it kept me sane and knowing who I am . . . helped me keep my powers . . .’” (p. 371)  Black endures the suffering at Azkaban only because he was innocent.  He wasn’t happy, but at least he knew who he was.  This knowledge—a sort of faith, even—served as the basis of a deep, abiding hope.

== Black forcefully rebukes Peter Pettigrew, declaring the fear of death to be no justification for treachery.  When Pettigrew rationalizes his betrayal of James and Lily Potter by indicating that his only choices were to cooperate with Voldemort or to die by his hand, Black lashes out:  “Then you should’ve died!  Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!” (p. 375)  That is the choice we must all be prepared to make—to stand for good . . . to stand for truth . . . to defend the innocent against darkness and evil, even if taking such a stand means suffering and death.

== Albus Dumbledore’s observation on the limits of power.  Dumbledore accepts Harry’s explanation of Black’s innocence, but—apart from physical evidence—he has “no power to make other men see the truth.” (p. 393)  This wisdom reminds us that, in the end, men must choose for themselves what they believe.  As witnesses for the gospel, we must trust in the grace of God and rely on the Holy Spirit to grant others repentance, “leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:25)

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2012 in Book Comments, Harry Potter

 

A Full Understanding

“I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” — Philemon 6

When we think about evangelism, our tendency is to focus on the immeasurable riches of God’s grace that others are blessed to receive through us.  Given the definition of evangelism, this is actually quite reasonable.

But Paul’s passing exhortation in his letter to Philemon points to the reward a believer may enjoy when he shares the gospel as he ought.  To be sure, there is a certain exhilaration that comes from advancing God’s kingdom as “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).  But Paul identifies another consequence to sharing one’s faith–namely, enhancing one’s understanding of the joys we have in Christ.

When we engage in thoughtful conversation about the Word of truth and life, we are obliged as a matter of course to consider more carefully what it says.  We search for an effective way to communicate the Savior’s love for others and their need for Him.  In the process of seeking this new wisdom, we become like a teacher who discovers–to his utter amazement and delight–an unexplored vein of knowledge in the subject he loves and yearns to master.  With a odd blend of giddiness and solemnity, we hold a candle at arm’s length and step further into a darkened room with bated breath.  We find ourselves deeper … perhaps just a bit deeper … inside the holy of holies and see more clearly the manifold pleasures of God.  In sharing our faith, we come closer to grasping “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”  The curtain has been pulled back for us even further.  Through teaching and sharing, we ourselves learn deeper, more wonderful truths.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2012 in Bible Reading, Evangelism

 

The Promise Fulfilled

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” –Matthew 1:1

Here begins the first account of our Savior’s earthly ministry … and a list of Hebrew names that nearly tempts a hurried reader to skip down fifteen or so verses to the birth of Jesus.  It takes discipline to keep one’s gaze from gliding over the lines too swiftly in search of something tangible.  Let us get to the “real” beginning of the story!

Even if we insist on skimming over Amminadab, Abiud, and others, we mustn’t dismiss the significance of this passage.  The genealogy, as we know, establishes the royal lineage of Jesus through Joseph.  But it also places the coming of Christ in the context of God’s covenant with Abraham.  In a way that is certainly more subtle to the modern reader than it would have been to his audience, Matthew erects Jesus as the complementary “bookend” to Abraham–as something of a conclusion to the history of the Hebrew people that began when God bid the latter come to Canaan.  Matthew’s introduction paves the way for a gospel account that alludes to the New Covenant and a revised understanding of the notion of God’s chosen people.

God promised Abraham that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).  By connecting Jesus to Abraham, Matthew is making clear to his readers that–in Christ–God has fulfilled this promise.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Bible Reading, Promises