We all know how difficult it is to take time to spend in private worship. It is incredibly hard to set aside a consistent time to read our Bible. And yet at the same time, we all know how beneficial it is to spend time alone with Christ. Hearing Jesus speak to us through His Word is the delight of the Christian. It is the salve to our souls. It is rest for our weary hearts. And so most of us live on a roller coaster. Knowing how badly we need to spend time with Christ, but struggling to carve out that time.
Through out the history of the church, men and women have written guides to help us with this problem. Some of the oldest Christian literature we have are lectionaries, setting out a daily structure for scripture reading. In the early 1900’s, a twist on the lectionary was born, the devotional book. Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest has been one of the most beloved christian books of all time. In recent years, books just like it have become legion.
So what sets Heart of the Matter apart from other daily devotionals?
First of all, the writers of Heart of the Matter are fantastic. From Paul David Tripp to David Powlison, all of the folks from CCEF pitch in. If you are not familiar with these authors, this book is a great way to get familiar with them. Each devotional reading includes a text from scripture and is followed by a mediation signed by the author.
Secondly, having multiple authors helps with monotony. It is easy to get into a rut hearing just one voice. Heart of the Matter is great because each of the authors has their own style. Each day brings a fresh perspective and a fresh voice.
Third, Heart of the Matter is a book that deals with real life. With passages drawn from books like Recovering from Child Abuse, Grief, Depression, I’m Exhausted, Freedom from Resentment, and How People Change; each devotion connects to us where we are. Most devotions avoid any specifics so they can relate to a larger audience. The authors at CCEF know the sins that so easily beset us all and root them out, specifically.
Finally, Heart of the Matter is gospel focused. This is not a collection of guilt ridden passages encouraging you to “try harder”. It is a series of devotions that encourage you to run to Jesus and His cross. This devotional takes very seriously the hideous sin that lies hidden in your heart, and beckons you to run in repentance to your loving father.
I can not recommend this devotional highly enough. You can pick it up through New Growth Press for just under $20. This would make a great gift for Christmas and would be a great way to start the New Year. Or you can win one of two copies we are giving away. Just comment on this post, or share the link on twitter and Facebook. That means you can get up to 3 chances to win. The giveaway will end at midnight next Friday!
As we continue our look at family devotions, I wanted to take time out to talk about two fantastic resources for your family. Don’t forget that you can win one of two copies of Old Story New by commenting on Monday’s post.
Have you ever wished that somebody would release a product and the next time you turn around there is not one but two? For instance, if a few years ago you wished for a rewrite of Jane Austin to compete with the banal teen paranormal fiction that flooded the shelves, you would have had nothing. Then, BAM, Sense & Sensibility & Sea-Monsters AND Pride & Prejudice & Zombies both hit the market.
For a long time, parents were confined to children’s Bibles that bordered on ridiculous. Whether it was the “Bernstein Bear Bible” or the “Rhyme Time Bible” or any other children’s Bible, they all had several flaws. Some were so concerned with style, or rhyming, that they glossed over the actual point of the Bible Stories. Others did a great job telling the stories of scripture, if your measuring stick for “great job” is turning the stories into Aesop’s Fables. The options were either non-sense or moralism. Parents had to work hard to help the Bible’s along.
Over the past few years, this has changed. Two new children’s Bibles have been published and both are excellent! The Jesus Storybook Bible and the Gospel Story Bible would both be an asset to any family. The Jesus Storybook Bible is written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and is the product of applying the teachings of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City to a children’s Bible. The Gospel Story Bible, by Marty Machowski, comes from a Sovereign Grace church near Philadelphia. Both of these books are Christ-centered and look at every story through the lens of redemption.
The artwork in both books is very different, but very good. Jesus Storybook Bible was illustrated by Jago and features very stylized hand done drawings. Everything is rounded and fun. The colors are slightly muted and the text of the stories flows in with the art. This is particularly beautiful in the rendering of Psalm 23. The artwork in Gospel Story Bible, by A.E. Macha, looks a bit more modern. The colors slightly more vibrant, but the illustrations are limited (by in large) to one page opposite the story on the facing page.
The books are both meant for children, though each has strengths for different age groups. The Jesus Storybook Bible is more poetic in the way that it tells stories. It’s not singsongy like a Dr. Suess book, but it does compact a lot of meaning into a few words. It also spreads the stories out onto multiple pages. This is a big deal for parents of preschoolers. Turning pages is very important. On the other hand, The Gospel Story Bible takes time to explain many of the whys behind the stories. For instance, the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet includes a paragraph on the role of servants. Each of the stories is on a single page with an illustration on the facing page. There is far more to each story when compared to the Jesus Storybook Bible, but no page turning. Overall, the page turning and language of the Jesus Storybook Bible lends itself to preschoolers and the depth of each story in the Gospel Story Bible favors middle elementary school children.
Both of these books are reformed, Christ-centered, and gospel-focused. You can’t go wrong with the content of either.
The Gospel Story Bible is setup in 156 stories with 78 of those coming from each testament. The idea would be to study each story for a week, using the devotionals that correspond to the Bible. This means your family could spend 18 months in the Old and New Testaments. The Jesus Storybook Bible is setup more like a traditional children’s Bible. It includes the “greatest hits” for kids; stories like Jonah, Namaan, and David. It only has 44 lessons, divided evenly between the Old and New Testaments. If you spent a week on each story, you could complete the entire cycle in just under a year.
So what do these two books cost? The Jesus Storybook Bible can be had for around $10 from a variety of online retailers. The Gospel Story Bible is a little pricier, selling for around $20 with the publisher having as good a deal as anyone.
So which of these two great Bibles are best for your family? The simple answer is the one you will read. If you prefer one, great! If you are still looking for something to tip the scales, I would point to the age of your children. If your kids are in preschool, go with the Jesus Storybook Bible. If you have older children, you should consider the Gospel Story Bible.
If you have been reading along with the post last week, you know that my experience with family worship has been a pendulum between big ideals and difficult implementation. I get the feeling that most regular people like us struggle with this. Unless you are a super-parent or have angelic children, family devotions are hard. That probably bears repeating, because it is encouraging to remember that it is a struggle for others.
There is no silver bullet that will make kids sit quietly at night. There is no magic potion which will make your 4 year old engage with you and the Bible each evening. Corralling all the kids before the earliest of bedtimes can be a tough task. Thankfully there is a new resource to help out parents like us. With kids like ours.
Marty Machowski is a pastor who is the author of the Gospel Story Bible. Along with this he has helped to design a 3 year curriculum based on the Gospel Story Bible. Last year New Growth Press released Long Story Short, the Old Testament companion to Old Story New.
Old Story New corresponds to the 78 New Testament stories of the Gospel Story Bible. Each story has 5 evenings worth of lessons (which easily correspond to school-nights) in Old Story New. These nightly lessons are not overly long or complex. Each week contains a sort of rhythm that goes like this:
- Sunday: The story of the week is introduced. There are vivid modern stories and illustrations that help your kids understand the story for the week.
- Monday: There is a short review followed by a chance for your family to dig deeper into the story for the week.
- Tuesday: This lesson always focusses on connecting the story to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Wednesday: This lesson is similar to Tuesday, exploring the passage. But each week there is a prompt for the kids to ask the parents a question about how the story connects to their loves. This is a fantastic exercise.
- Thursday: The final lesson of the week always branches out to the Old Testament to connect the story to the Psalms and Prophets.
Each day also contains questions, with the answers already written in. Additionally, there is a prayer starter every day. This layout and pattern makes it incredibly simple for anyone to begin to have family devotion time with their kids. Even parents who may be young in their faith can use this devotional. It keeps us from accidentally moralizing the stories. By providing answers, it also helps parents stay focussed in pointing their children to Jesus.
Another strength of Old Story New is the connection to the Bible. While the lessons are based in the Gospel Story Bible, the readings each night of from mom and dad’s Bible. This is incredibly important. Most family devotions are either based solely on some sort of children’s Bible, or solely on mom and dad’s Bible. Old Story New is based on the stories out of the companion children’s Bible, but each day has a reading from scripture. This balance is the best part of the devotional. While our children may not understand every word, they can begin at a young age to engage the scriptures. Old Story New gives parents handles for introducing their kids to the Bible.
The book is aimed at elementary aged kids, though there are some helpful tips on adapting it to younger or older children. But it is ideal for a kids in the middle of elementary school (ages 6-10). If your church uses the Gospel Story curriculum, like we do here at Surfside, the devotional is a perfect companion. Students are introduced to the story at church and then through the week look at it again with their parents.
I highly recommend Old Story New for your family. It is an incredible resource and companion to the New Growth Press children’s resources. You can click here to pick up a copy from New Growth Press (cheaper than Amazon!)
Or even better, Get One for Free! Leave a comment here about one of your failures or successes in family devotions; or tell us about the best idea for family worship you have seen. Next Monday, I will randomly select two of the comments and send them a free copy of Old Story New!
At this year’s General Assembly of the PCA, I received a preview copy of New Growth Press’s small group materials. I was excited because I am a big fan of New Growth Press and their partnering organization, World Harvest Missions. As a pastor, finding small group material is often the rough equivalent of getting a root canal. Trust me, I hate the dentist; this is the most horrifying analogy I can come up with. You are constantly being torn between material. You have to make a choice between material that is Christ centered and material that is easy enough for lay-leaders to use. You have to choose between material that is well packaged and material that is banal. Rarely can you find something firing on all cylinders.
When I received the copy of Gospel Identity, I immediately tore into it. It is an excellent booklet for small groups. I want to point out some of it’s strengths and caution you about a minor weaknesses. First and foremost, what I loved about Gospel Identity was the way it pushed groups into the scripture. This was not like some other small group studies that focused on how you felt, with broad discussion questions. Instead the lessons drove you straight to the heart of scripture. As it directed you to read and study passages together, it asked penetrating, helpful questions that were easy to understand. Sometimes other small group resources ask questions that leave you wondering what they are getting at. Gospel Identity avoids those pitfalls.
Secondly, the book has a brief small group leader briefing that helps leaders get their “sea-legs” leading a group. At the end of the book, there is a leaders section with suggested answers to the questions in the lessons. The authors are careful to teach leaders not to use these answers as a crutch but rather as a “push” to get the group past a place where they may be stuck.
Third, the book is focused on pushing us deeper into our relationship with Jesus. This is not an intelectual exercise, meant to make us smarter; the studies are well-designed to push us, as C.S. Lewis said, “farther up, farther in”. This really comes out in 4 great statements from the introduction:
- Cheer up! The gospel is far greater than you can imagine.
- Cheer up! You are worse than you think.
- Cheep up! God’s Spirit works in your weakness
- Cheer up! God’s Kingdom is far more wonderful than you can imagine.
These statements clearly set the tone of the studies that follow.
Finally, I loved this material because it pushed people not just to the cross of Christ but also towards one another. The small groups, if run as suggested in the book, move back and forth between interaction in the group at large and discussion in smaller “micro-groups” of 2-3 people. This allows for more introverted members of the groups to still interact. It also creates a greater sense of intimacy, allowing members to open up in a deeper way to an even smaller group. These “micro-groups” are then encouraged to pray for one another and call one another during the week. This whole concept is so much better than the typical discussion-video-discussion format used by small groups. Instead of focusing on videos, groups focus on knowing each other.
The only drawback to the curriculum is its dependance on the leaders of each group. While it is set up well for leaders, if the leader is uncomfortable with the message of grace and sanctification by faith, they could accidentally derail the materail. If a church were to implement the materail, I would suggest that leaders meet together to go through the material in their own small group to familiarize themselves with the study and to be shephered through it themselves.
Overall, I would highly reccommend this material. You can see the publishers page where you can download a free chapter or purchase the book by clicking here. It is also part of a 3 book series, so in all there is 30 lessons available at this high caliber!
New Growth Press is a publisher that I support whole-heartedly. Over the next few months, I will be partnering with New Growth to give away some of their newest rescources for you and your family, so stay tuned!
I’ll admit it; I get literary man crushes. In the past this has included John Irving, John Frame, Peter Leithart, and Chuck Klosterman. (Incidentally, my current infatuation is with James K.A. Smith)
Chuck Klosterman is primarily a pop-culture essayist who has written for just about every magazine in print. Some of these essays have been compiled into the books Sex, Drugs, & Cocoa Puffs and Eating the Dinosaur. Some of the sections in these books I miss (because Klosterman is 10 years older than I am), but most the time they are brilliant. Two in particular stand out. The first was an interview of Britney Spears for Esquire magazine. This interview took place just was her second album was debuting. It was during the time she was going from teen-pop sensation to super-megastar. In the interview, Klosterman ask her about being a sex symbol. She spends the rest of the article denying the idea that she is known for her sexuality and attributes that to “pervy old men” who are reading too much into her songs. He concludes the piece by pointing out that she is either the most brilliant person he has ever met (because of how well she keeps up her facade) or the most niave. The second article is about how The Empire Strikes Back defines generation X. Both are brilliant.
Chuck Klosterman has also written fiction, but I hadn’t read any of it until now. Downtown Owl is a tale of 3 people who live in a very small town in rural North Dakota. The book is told almost as journal entries from these three characters as they live in the isolated town of Owl.
Mitch is a junior at Owl highschool. He is the backup quarterback of the football team and archenemy of the philandering coach/teach Mr. Laidlaw. Mitch’s portion of the story is the best part of the book. It asks questions about the nature of friendship and lonliness. Mitch can be summed up with this: he has no posters on the walls of his room and doesn’t understand why his friends do. Whether it is because Klosterman could be slightly autobiographical or not, he writes his best when he writes as Mitch. His explanation of why a local huligan could beat up the local sports star is hilarious.
Julia is a young woman who has moved from Minneapolis to Owl to teach social studies. She goes from being a slightly more attractive than average college girl to the most popular woman in Owl. Her story is an exploration of personality. Who would you be, if you moved to a new place where you were all of the sudden more attractive and interesting than you had ever been. Julia’s story is probably the least enjoyable.
Horace is a lovable if not grumpy old widower. Most of his sections of the book take place in diner where he spends his afternoons “sitting on the third stool, drinking 3 cups of coffee, each with 3 teaspoons of sugar”. His story focuses on ideas like fate and predistination. He is a well drawn character. Klosterman makes you simultaneously root for and pity him.
It is also worth note, that I was able to listen to this book on CD. Each character was read by a different reader who was able to really bring out nuances of the sketches. Overall the book was an enjoyable read, even if it did pull a Chinua Achebe at the end.
For whatever reason, Kevin DeYoung and his slew of coauthors have been on my reading list a lot lately. This week I read Why We Love the Church, and loved it.
First of all, they had me when they used the text of The Church’s One Foundation, one of my favorite hymns.
But the biggest thing I loved about the book was it’s subversion of 2 popular narratives in the life of Christianity. The first is that the church is dying and the second is that the church is inneffective.
Prognosticators have been trying to bury the church as a bygone institution for a while now. Barna and Viola have tried to give evidence that the church is not going to be here for much longer. Furthermore, the church (as we know it) was probably a bad idea to begin with. DeYoung and one of his elders, Ted Kluck show this is just not the case. Instead of appealing to culture and statistics, they instead point us back to the scriptures. Not a bad idea.
The second thing that DeYoung and Kluck show is that the idea that the church is ineffective is a myth as well. It’s pretty popular to show how the church is failing at reaching the rising generation. Again instead of appealing to the fact that it is pretty common in every generation for people without kids to wonder away from church, they appeal to scripture. Do we really believe that the gates of hell can not prevail against the church? If we trust Christ, we have to.
This was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. And what better way to honor it, then quoting the hymn is uses:
The church’s one Foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is his new creation
By water and the Word:
From heav’n he came and sought her
To be his holy bride;
With his own blood he bought her,
And for her life he died.
Elect from ev’ry nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food.
And to one hope she presses,
With ev’ry grace endued.
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.
The church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
To guide, sustain and cherish
Is with her to the end;
Though there be those that hate her,
And false sons in her pale,
Against or foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.
‘Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till with the vision glorious
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious
Shall be the church at rest.
Yet she on earth hath union
With the God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with thee.
A few years ago, a friend asked if I had read the book Bullpen Gospels. I told him that I had heard of it, but never read it. When I asked him why he brought it up, he responded, “my girlfriends dad is mentioned in it, and not in a very positive light”. I was intrigued and I had heard good things about the book. Just a few weeks later, the author was picked up as a big league invitee to the Rays spring training. The Rays Index carried a piece he wrote about the first fime he faced his new (and shortlived) teammate, Manny Ramirez. I was hooked and immediately downloaded the book. I must have read it in just a few days and loved every page. I became mildly obsessed with the author Dirk Hayhurst. (Blog & Twitter) The Bullpen Gospel’s is the laugh-out-loud tale of minor league hijinx with a more serious set of themes deftly woven into its pages. (I thought I had written a review for the blog here, but I guess I just posted elsewhere. I’ll fix this soon.)
Out of My League picks up where the Bullpen Gospels leaves off. Dirk opens the story, still living on the floor of his batty grandmothers house. He has met a girl on e-Harmony and is trying to make a relationship work while hocking TV’s at Circuit City. The book then traces a two part storyline as Dirk makes his way through triple-A and eventually to the big leagues; all the while maintaining a long distance engagement and cross-country wedding planning.
While the book is not quite as funny as the Bullpen Gospels, it is far more piognant. There is a scene that humorously encapsulates the book. Dirk, who has just been called up to the bigs, is sitting on the bed at his 5-star hotel talking to his fiance who has flown out to see him. He is eating $100 room service pancakes while he bemoans the way that “the Show” changes people. He complains about his triple-A frineds who don’t act the same, who are aloof. The scene drips with irony and reminds me of the scene in Wayne’s World, where Wayne and Garth are trying to be eloquent about the way fame/money/endorsements change people, all while prominently pitching products. Very funny.
At the heart of Out of My League is a story about idolatry and dreams. Sometimes we think that acheiving a certain something will make us happy. We think, “If I just had x, I would be happy”. The trouble is that when we do finally get x, it doesn’t satisfy like we expect. Out of My League is an honest tale of the way that getting what we want can kill us.
Even if you don’t like baseball, the book is a fun read and a great tale of love and life.
Dystopian litterature has always held a dear place in my heart. I love the way the future
provides such a poignant way to critique the present. Though it was written in the early 30’s Brave New World endures as a scathing condemnation of where the culture could wind up. Huxley is very conscience to play up the pseudo-religion of the future. He cleverly replaces all of the trappings and replaces much of the symbolism of the church with that of the cult of the state/Our Ford. Crosses are replaced by T’s (in honor of the Model-T), communion is replaced by a communal orgy, and swearing with taking Henry Ford’s name in vain.
All of this dark humor is meant to be a cautionary tale of where we as a society may be headed. What is striking to me, is how he perceives/lampoons Christianity. The whole book shows that Christianity was left behind because of its ethereal insistence on the other world. Our bodies don’t matter (or so Huxley observed Christianity to teach) so in the cult of Ford, only our bodies matter. Christians insist (again according to Huxley) on strict aesceticism and so the cult of Ford is incredibly hedonistic.
So the question is whether or not Huxley’s perception of Christianity is true Christianity.
About 75 years before Huxley wrote Brave New World, there was a huge shift in the landscape of Christian theology. The prevailing theology began to shift away from an earthy faith to a spiritual faith. This change mirrored the change in the dominant view of the end times. As evangelicalism emerged in the early 20th, it was born in the climate of waning amillenialism and growing premillenialism.
In some ways popular premillenialism shares a number of things in common with one of the first Christian heresies, gnosticism. Both view teach that the physical body and physical earth are relatively unimportant. They both emphasize the spiritual nature of our faith and see our bodies as cages for the true us. Both tend to emphasize strict discipline and denial of bodily pleasure.
In some ways the Christianity that Huxley caricatures is an accurate portrayal of prevailing faith around him. Thankfully this is not the whole story. Throughout the past few centuries, the Reformed church has held up the view that we as humans are bodily beings in our creation, fall, redemption, and glorification. Our bodies and pleasures are model in the second person of the Trinity, the eternal man.
I am a firm believer that every Reformed pastor should have a favorite Arminian. It’s good for the soul and it helps keep tabs on your blind-spots. When I was in college, I bought a bunch of books at an estate sale that had interesting titles. In particular, two books on pastoral care by William Willimon struck despite our very different views on the nature of God’s sovereignty, Willimon became a go to source on pastoral care.
He may have been supplanted as my favorite Methodist. Telling God’s Story by John Wesley Wright is one of the best books on preaching I have ever read. A while back I spent an entire semester reading books on preaching and as far as methodology of deliverary, none of them hold a candle to Wright.
What I found so good about Wright’s book was the way that he recorded a number of things that I have done in my preaching for years, that I never quite knew how to explain. There have been an onslaught of books in the past 10 years about narrative preaching and most of them have been lack-luster. Many of these books have been overly simplistic.
“Uh, stories are good, you know. People like stories and you should tell more of them. It would even be cool if your whole sermon was a story, eh?”
Obviously that is a bit exaggerated, but the nuts and bolts how to make transitions and structure a sermon were missing from these books. Wright walks through the how-to’s of narrative sermon, showing why each piece is important. He gives particular attention to two ideas; the comedic verse tragic nature of sermons and concept of a sermonic “move”.
Wright points out that much of the churches current preaching is falling deaf ears because it has become routine and people see it coming. He calls this sort of preaching comedic. He goes on to compare it to I Love Lucy. There is going to be a problem and that problem will neatly wrap up in the way that you expect it to in about 25 minutes. Wright shows how this caricature is far too similar to most of our preaching. He suggests instead a type of preaching that tragically reveals the disconnect between who we are and who the Biblical narrative calls us to be. He says that this type of preaching should feel more like Romeo & Juliet. The ending of the love story makes us uncomfortable. Wright says this is precisely what sermons should do.
Wright says that one of the ways we should accomplish this is sermonic “moves”. These moves differ from points in that they are not just pieces of information to build on, but connections between the text and the listener. These moves form the basis of the sermon and serve to connect us to the text and to show how the original hearers would have moved through the text as well.
Overall, I cannot recommend this book any more highly. It is a perfect complement to books like Greidanus’s Ancient Text Modern Preacher.