Reading for the Reformation

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This year, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On Oct 31, 1517 the German monk, Martin Luther, nailed 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg as a way of publicly interacting with the Catholic Church, and the Pope, over various issues and abuses he noted in Church. With the invention of the printing press the writings of Luther began to spread quickly and mounted a challenge to the ecclesiastical and political structures of Luther's day. From those initial 95 Theses a movement began that has deeply shaped the world today.

I am a lover of history, and a lover of theology. While one of my earliest critiques of those who talked about Reformed theology was that they seemed to only go back to the sixteenth century, I am confident more than ever that the truths that Luther and Calvin and other "Reformers" spoke of went back directly to Jesus and Paul. They were, in fact, taking us to the intended meaning of the Scriptures themselves when they talked about justification by faith alone. The Reformers developed their teaching on the sovereignty of God, the depravity of humanity, the unmerited grace of God, and the security and perseverance of the saints to glory from a clear and sound method of Biblical interpretation. Reformed theology, is in my opinion, simply Biblical Christianity.

In light of that this year I am building into my reading life a few works on the Reformation that I would recommend to you. They are no more than 250 pages each and are written for the general public. I am going to read Luther on Galatians this year, probably in October, specifically so I get a primary source on the Reformation. I hope these will be of benefit to you, and challenge you in your own understanding of theology and history so that you will grow. Here's to a happy 500th anniversary!

Best Albums of 2016

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I know its a few days after the New Year but I wanted to highlight some of the music that made my favorites in 2016. This last year I picked up a Spotify account to see if streaming music (versus owning music) would impact the way I listened to and enjoyed music. For one thing it opened up my horizons. No longer was I limited to just the music I had purchased via iTunes, but now I could actually listen to artists I was unfamiliar with and unsure of. The Spotify account allowed me to take a risk and find new artists. It also helped me feel okay about not liking certain albums or artist because I wasn't on the hook financially for an album I purchased. In some way the Spotify account solidified what I liked even more, and I went out and purchased several of those albums.

Last Christmas my wife purchased a turntable for me so I have a growing vinyl collection and that influenced the music I enjoyed the most as well. Something about the pops and deep tones of a vinyl album just makes the music sound better.

Here are the albums that were my favorites (and therefore my best) of 2016.

1. Medicine - Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors

Technically a 2015 album, however I didn't discover it until this last year. With the release of Live at the Ryman this year it makes the cut because much of that live album was Medicine. Two songs in particular hit the roof for me: Avalanche and American Beauty. Overall the album is a tour de force in Americana Folk. Getting to see them (partly) live at St. Andrews in Detroit was a treat as well this year. I am looking forward to Souvenir later this year.

2. HARDLOVE - NEEDTOBREATE

Honestly, it was a fair and long fight between HARDLOVE and Medicine this year, but I came back a little bit more to Medicine. HARDLOVE was my summer jam. It will be firmly fixed in my heart whenever I think of my summer vacation to Colorado and driving across the plains of Nebraska in the family minivan. Few albums are complete from first to last, but I felt that from MOUNTAIN, pt. 1 all the way through to CLEAR this album was the complete package lyrically and musically.

3. The Narrative - Sho Baraka

Yes, this is a hip-hop album. No, I am not an expert on hip-hop. Yet I've felt it important to listen to other cultures, especially outside of my own experience, so that I can understand and grow as a neighbor and friend to others. The Narrative

is important to me this year because I've been growing in my understanding of the deeply seated racism that exists in our country and in our churches. Sho's song, "Maybe Both, 1865" challenged my thinking beyond my white, suburban, middle-class presuppositions.

4. Liturgy of the Seasons - The Crossing Music

Apart from the Best of Journey album that I received as my first vinyl record this quartet of albums themed around the seasons of the year from The Crossing Church in Columbia, Missouri were my next foray into vinyl. They are beautiful rearrangements of hymns and worship music. They have stayed with me all year long and have began to be incorporated into our singing as a church family.

Honorable Mention

Several other albums hit the register for me this year including Sandra McCracken's God's Highway, Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool and the Lumineers' Cleopatra. If music was a commodity then I suppose we'd be rich, full, and happy for centuries with what 2016 gave us. I am all the more excited about what artists and songs will speak to my heart and soul in this next year.

Discipleship Machines?

I have a friend who makes YouTube videos. Peter goes out to his shop in his garage almost every week and does some wacky thing with wood or epoxy or gummy bears or any combination of the three and creates a video of his project. Usually these projects end up being reduced to a set of steps that a fairly intelligent person could take and reproduce themselves. Just follow the steps, duplicate the process, and you can possess a fancy ring made out of colored pencils, super glue, and resin coating.

Often we think of discipleship as being something like that. Follow the steps, do what we’re supposed to do and we’ll be a saint in no time. Or we might see our spiritual formation to be something like climbing a ladder. One rung at a time we take the next step and move forward. Or, our growth spiritually is like a journey to a far away place. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress illustrates for us what we imagine this development to be like. One step in front of another, from here to glory as we trudge along. “Upward and onward!” might be the battle cry.

As helpful as those images can be to our imaginations and pursuit of spiritual growth, I often wonder if they are failing to tell the entire story? Don’t get me wrong, Christian living is biblically envisioned as a pursuit or a goal, even a race. We are called “sojourners” in this world. But when we think about spiritual growth we often merely allow it to be a linear project. And when something is defined by linear steps it can become very easy to think that by taking those steps we can mass-produce a project. Consider our “Automation Alley” environment. Ford and others were clever in building not just a automobile (which had already been done). They were geniuses for automating the process of building thousands of automobiles. It worked for machines. I’m not confident however that this sort of automation is possible in making disciples.I don’t think the New Testament writers had this in mind either. There doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” process or class to discipleship.

Paul, instead, envisioned it this way. He called our spiritual formation saying, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15). Paul describes our maturity as growing up. He describes the end result of our discipleship just a few verses earlier by saying that we “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13, NIV). To put these two verses together Paul is directing us to the fact that our discipleship process is to grow up to the fullness of Christ. Elsewhere he comments that our transformation is “into the same image” as we behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18). Simply put, discipleship is growing up to look like Christ.

This helps me because it allows me to grow into a person instead of trying to reach a far away goal. The little “wins” that come along today won’t ultimately determine my spiritual success. Nor will the temporary and momentary sins and sufferings that slow my progress and my growth. I will grow to become like Christ. I’m not some project that is either a success or failure. I’m called to a person, to be like a person, and to grow as a person. Not a machine. The plan of discipleship is to be like Christ. If that means taking a class to know his Word better, good. If that means spending time in relationship with others who are wise and helpful, good. If that means walking into the valley of the shadow of death through some difficult providence, this is well and good too. I am growing up into Christ. I am not being molded into a machine.

A Disturbing Lack of Effectiveness

God in his dealings with the church betrays a disturbing lack of interest in effectiveness as we have defined it. He does not seem interested in numbers. The people he sends to us are not strategic at all. They are a rabble who look more like the laborers, hookers, and marginal people that Jesus consorted with in the Gospels than the gifted individuals we had hoped would fill our ranks. And they are far from effective.

John Koessler, The Radical Pursuit of Rest31-32. 

The Bohemian Temptation

This temptation [knowing better than God] presents itself today. We can sit and watch the Twitter feed, critiquing the methods, models, and ministries of others; from the comfort of our couches we can speculate on how it could be done better. We can devise all kinds of theories, read all the right books, engage in online debate, blog our opinions, yet the whole time be disconnected from actually having skin in the game. Even when our heart is for God’s kingdom, if we are not careful we can find ourselves critiquing from the sidelines of God’s activity within history. There is a world of difference between pundits and prophets.

Mark Sayers, Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014). 157.