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Posts Tagged ‘circumstances’


“That’s it?”

That was my general sense after finishing David Powlison’s book How Does Sanctification Work? after my study leave ended. That isn’t quite the fairest sentiment. It communicated some good things.

I found his similar book on sexual brokenness, Making All Things New, to be better. It too is short and therefore limited in scope. This one, on a much broader topic, seemed too limited in scope.

Powlison begins with an experience he and his wife had in reading Scripture. They read Deuteronomy 32:10-12. They each came in need of grace, but with different circumstances. God addressed each of them on the basis of His Word. Yet the Spirit “illuminated” (see WCF I) different aspects for them because they needed different aspects of the truth contained in that passage. There is a sense in which the means of grace as the same for us, but the way God uses them in “tailor made” to us and our circumstances. Sanctification for David and his wife looked both the same and different.

And so Powlison continues with the truth that there are many keys to sanctification. We often try to be reductionistic regarding sanctification. We pick one of many complementary truths as if it was the whole truth. As a result, we can easily go astray. What you have found beneficial in your circumstances and in light of your personality is not a magic bullet intended to sanctify everyone despite their different circumstances and personality.

In the midst of this he seems to allude to the recent controversy over sanctification in which a prominent Presbyterian pastor taught an essentially Lutheran view that sanctification is growing in our justification. Certainly, as we grow in our understanding of justification, it furthers our sanctification. But we must not conflate the two. And that certainly isn’t all that sanctification is. But it is not less than that.

For me, the third chapter was most helpful. It is called “Truth Unbalanced and Rebalanced“. I’ll let him briefly explain his point:

“Ministry “unbalances truth for the sake of relevance; theology “rebalances” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness.”

Timely words are selective, not comprehensive. They are not balanced in themselves and create a bit of an unbalance. He didn’t put it this way, but think of it as exerting more strength than usual to a person who is falling. We can over-correct but get them moving in the right direction where we then rebalance them. We are pulling people out of ditches or away from cliffs. There is not the time for comprehensive conversations in the moment. But we rebalance them by having subsequent conversations that are comprehensive. The “key” becomes integrated in a more holistic theology rather than a magic bullet.

“The task of ministry in any moment is to choose, emphasize, and “unbalance” truth for the sake of relevant application to particular persons and situations.”

This is the “key” contribution of the book. Dr. Richard Pratt expressed it as taking the proper medicine from the cabinet. Not all truth is pertinent to a particular circumstance. When the crisis is over, there is time for theological reflection to establish healthy patterns of living. You offer them “the rest of the story.”

Where he goes with all this is a view similar to the book How People Change. There are a number of interactive elements (union with Christ, focus on Christ’s work for us, God’s commands, fellowship with other Christians, suffering, my choices etc.). His point is that while all these are present and used by God in our lives, at any given point one may be more powerful than the others. We do well to remember that how God works in me and through me will not be the same as how He works in you and through you, at least at any given moment. My wife is a different person than I am, and the process of sanctification will look a little different in her life though the same general elements are there.

Sanctification ends up as something we cannot control or predict. God works in us by His Word and Spirit so we apply the Scriptures, understand our identity in Christ and our will and/or desires are shaped and molded (Phil. 2:12-13). He also uses other people and our circumstances in this gumbo of sanctification. People will bring us the Word and wisdom. Circumstances provide the opportunities to obey, experience consequences, limit or expand options. God is at work in all things things to conform us to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:28-9).

Powlison then gets personal. He tells his own story, first in terms of his conversion and then sanctification. He then tells the stories of Charles and Charlotte. In this we see the basic patterns at work in a personalized way. In this way the book is helpful for us. It arises from his decades of work as a counselor.

This could serve as a good counterpart or complement to Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, which is an exegetical look at sanctification. Both should help pastors, church officers and lay leaders walk people through God’s sanctifying work.

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Over the course of 2 chapters in Evangelism for the Rest of Us, Mike Bechtle covers 3 “F”‘s. In one chapter he covers the “conflict” between form and function in evangelism. In the second he covers fear which often keeps us from evangelism.

Form vs. Function

He begins with a pastor taking “greet one another with a holy kiss” literally. Strangers were asked to kiss one another on the cheek. In some cultures this is perfectly normal. In Western culture, not so much. The function Paul has in mind is a warm greeting. He wants to further brotherly & sisterly love in the church through warm greetings. The form that took in his culture was a “holy kiss” the form it takes now is a hug, side hug, hand on the shoulder, hand shake etc. But not kissing.

This terminology would be helpful in the “head covering” debate. The function is to affirm authority in covenantal relationship (read: marriage) in worship. The form changes by culture. In Western culture, a woman wearing her wedding ring indicates she is married. She honor that in worship as she prays and (in Paul’s day at least, prophesied).

“Much of our misunderstanding of Scripture today stems from emphasizing form over function.”

In discussing evangelism we often get caught up in questions of form, as if one form of evangelism is right and the others are wrong. The real question is what is the best form of evangelism for a particular person in a particular set of circumstances talking to a particular person to fulfill the function God has established. As with the head coverings question, there is a particular function that God has called us to. The form that takes may differ. It is the function that matters. But we often focus on form and judge those who use a different form than us (we could also talk about style of music in this way).

I agree with Bechtle that many of our most heated intramural debates are about form and function, or between principle and preference as a friend puts it. But not all, or even most. Sometimes we really are wrangling about the meaning of Scripture. But often enough we are only wrangling about our preferred form of applying that biblical principle or function.

Because of who we are (personality, gifts, experiences, white middle class) and where we are (North America, Tucson, a suburb etc.) and the person to whom we are speaking (older Jewish man, upper middle class, from the Midwest) and where (kids’ birthday party) the form evangelism takes may differ. In this case, it was a simple statement since I didn’t really know the man but he talked of keeping Torah. So I sowed a seed with “If we can keep Torah, why did Jesus have to die?” I didn’t want to throw down with a stranger on another stranger’s back patio. So a simple comment may produce a nagging question in a man’s mind.

I was faithful in bearing witness in those circumstances. Could I have been more faithful? Possibly. Could I have used a different method? Sure. Was the method I used “wrong”? No.

One of the things Bechtle has not mentioned (yet) is cultural IQ (or emotional IQ either). Both have some role in all this. For instance, in a highly authoritarian culture, it would be unthinkable for a younger man to question an older man’s point of view. Even though we were both in America, his sub-cultural presuppositions could include this. We want to further the gospel, not set up additional obstacles. We want the offense to be the cross, not us.

Bechtle lays out a few different methods in summary. The traditional approach (approaching strangers with a particular method like the 4 Spiritual Laws to quickly share the whole salvation message). This also includes methods like Evangelism Explosion, street witnessing etc. He mentions an approach that became popular in the late 80’s or so, “lifestyle evangelism”. This was a more relational approach, and long-term approach. We could fight over which is better. Or we could realize both have strengths and weaknesses, and appropriate places and uses.

“The important thing is to look at the function of evangelism- to being people to the Savior. All methods people use are just forms to accomplish that function.”

This means that I might use different methods. I can’t use lifestyle evangelism if someone wants to talk with me on the plane. I probably shouldn’t use the traditional method with my boss. What matters is making Christ known to that person in an appropriate fashion in those circumstances. While you may be the “only Christian they ever meet” it is unlikely unless you are on a plane in Iraq. So, don’t feel the need to close the sale, so to speak. Love them.

The reality is that you don’t know how God will bring a person to Himself- the particular evangelistic method during which the coin finally drops and they get it. I know of one man who found a tract in the gutter while on a walk. He picked it up, read it and became a Christian.

Who you are is an important part of this. Bechtle tells of a bartender who became a Christian. As you might imagine some in the local church urged him to change jobs. They grew frustrated when he didn’t. More so when his plans to go to seminary didn’t include ending his career as a bartender. His reasoning? “Who do people share more openly with than their bartender?”. This was a good pool for him to fish for men and women. And the church nearly split since this involved the controversial aspect of alcohol. He is bringing the gospel to them where they are, not where he wants them to be. This man’s ministry isn’t for everyone. Sharing the gospel in bars is not wise for an alcoholic.

He then addresses a topic that I call being “inoculated against the gospel”. Some people are resistant to the gospel because of false understandings of Christianity furthered by some methods of evangelism. Many think they are Christians because they walked the aisle or raised their hand, not because they believe in Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended. You have to “unevangelize” them as a friend says. I did this once when a couple came into my office wanting to be married in our facility. They said they were Christians and I simply asked “What does it mean to be a Christian?”. After hearing their answers (moralism- at which they’d failed because she was pregnant), I was able to unpack the gospel for them and they believed. But many in the community were inoculated.

“Finding common ground means we have to go where the fish love and live among them in an honest way. … Most people would rather come to your house for a barbeque than spend Sunday morning in a church service.”

There is no one size fits all method. But a wise evangelist will use a variety of faithful methods that fit the particular situation and person. That may mean opening up your home for Christianity Explored, regularly having coffee with a co-worker or neighbor to talk about life or many other forms that fit you and them.

The Fear Factor

Most people avoid public speaking. They’d rather die.

Most Christians have plenty of fear regarding evangelism. Fear is to be expected. Some of us allow fear to become a prison.

Bechtle notes two types of fear. There is the fear that keeps you from doing things you shouldn’t do. Fear causes us to analyze whether or not we should do something. I felt that fear while I was roped up and ready to slip over the side of a cliff. I went over, and the ropes kept me safe as I slid down to the base of the cliff. But standing in the path of a moving train, the fear means I should get out of the way.

There is also the fear that comes from a challenge. Most athletes and actors feel fear before a game or performance. It isn’t debilitating. It is a creative tension. Many of us experience this at work when we take on new responsibilities, make a presentation etc. It gets to whether or not I am the best or appropriate person to do something. It is not about danger but about gifting. Some people work thru the fear and accomplish great things (or ordinary ones). This is the fear that I want my kids to face so their lives don’t become really small.

Evangelism is about the latter fear (unless you live in an oppressive system that prohibits evangelism). When we try to share our faith in ways that don’t “fit” us, we feel more fear. Don’t wait until you are “fear free” because there should always be that creative tension. “Eustress is the creative tension that helps us to perform.” It is stress, but not the kind that destroys us.

“Fear is like putting too much tension on a string or expecting it to sound like another instrument. Our job is to discover what kind of instrument God made us to be and allow him to play through us.”

It is discovering the best (not only) way for you to do evangelism. This is about intentionality; how you will plan to go about evangelism. Circumstances may arise when you share in a different way due to the circumstances.

Introverts tend to gravitate to relational evangelism. These are to be genuine relationships, meaning you are their friend even if they never come to faith. In the course of life together there are moments to bring the gospel in, hopefully moving them closer to faith. There may even be moments for great boldness or confrontational discussions. But it is within the context of friendship.

One day you may find yourself on a plane talking (likely against your will) to a stranger. You don’t say “not my gifting” but “Jesus, help me be faithful”. You may share the gospel in a way you are not comfortable. And that is okay. Finding the way that best fits you is not an excuse for never using a method that doesn’t.

Our desire is to feel strong and confident. But often that is not God’s goal.

“God doesn’t work around our weakness; he works through our weakness. Confidence comes through competence. Praying for boldness doesn’t mean doing things we’re not wire to do. It means asking God to work through us, helping us to do the things he has called us to do.”

God has called all His adopted children to evangelism. The form will differ. Don’t be dissing someone else’s form. Some speak. Others write. Some speak to strangers. Others to family and friends. Some in their neighborhoods. Others to Sunday School classes full of kids or in worship services. Someone wrote the SS curriculum through which thousands of people will hear the gospel. That’s a form of evangelism we don’t notice, particularly if our view of evangelism methods is very narrow.

He then deals with some of the more person specific fears we experience and that keep some from evangelism: rejection, failure, not having answers etc. He provides some responses to those fears. These get back to the reality of justification, adoption and sanctification (theology matters!). I’m accepted by God through Jesus Christ even if my message (and even me) is rejected by others. I’m accepted by God through Jesus Christ even if I don’t lead many/any to Christ (that I know of). I’m loved and accepted by God through Jesus Christ even if others see I’m a sinner or that I don’t have all the answers. The fact is God is working in me just as much (or more) than He is working in them. God is not in a rush regarding your sanctification. Nor is He in a rush for their conversion. Relax, resting in the love and patience of God.

Many Christians don’t evangelize because of the 3 “F”‘s. Questions of form vs. function, and fears plague them. The Enemy is satisfied. The Father wants to help us discover the best form for us, and to press through creative tension to be faithful witnesses.

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It has been a while since I invested in one of the “dead guys”. When I saw Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Your Love for God by John Flavel, I thought I should read that. I am glad that I did buy it and read it.

This relatively short book is only comprised of 4 chapters. The great bulk of the book is the 3rd chapter. I read the book “devotionally”, after my daily time in Scripture. In the large chapter on the special seasons in life I would read one of the 12 at a time.

This is a typical Puritan work. This means Flavel looks at the subject from a variety of angles, dissecting it to pieces. If you aren’t used to this, it can feel wearisome but the repetition is important to driving the point home. This particular edition doesn’t give all the Scripture references to his quotes and illusions. That is unfortunate since it isn’t always obvious to the modern reader. This edition does have an introduction by J.I. Packer prior to Flavel’s own introduction.

If you think of the Christian life as one of dependence and discipline, this book focuses on the discipline while assuming the dependence. He does make some comments about our utter dependence upon God but you need to keep this in the forefront of your mind or you’ll take a very man-centered, fleshly approach to what he says. His focus is on our devotion, and at times he could do a better job reminding us of our gospel dependence or the gospel context that he assumes.

He begins with What the Keeping of the Heart Supposes and Imports. Since Adam’s rebellion humanity has been a rebellious creature prone to self-deception. Even the Christian, though regenerate, is still a sinner and prone to wander as the song goes. Keeping the heart presupposes regeneration. You can’t keep a heart of stone. It must be a heart of flesh. “Yet sin often actually discomposes it again; so that even a gracious heart is like a musical instrument” that needs to be tuned. This presupposition of regeneration is why I say he assumes the gospel thru much of the book. It is like the first verse of Exodus 20 which must not be forgotten while you read the rest of Exodus 20. Regeneration sets the gracious framework we are so easy to forget.

Keeping of the heart includes observing the frame of our heart, humbling ourselves for our sins and disorders (including our sinful desires), persistent prayer for purification, the making of vows to walk more faithfully, a constant zeal for the condition of our hearts and knowing that we live before the face of God.

The second chapter deals with some reasons why we should keep our hearts. Such reason include the glory of God (would he be a Puritan without starting here?), the assurance of salvation (tied to the sincerity of our profession of faith), the beauty of our conversation or sanctified living, and a different focus on the assurance of salvation focusing on the witness of the Spirit. God doesn’t assure wayward hearts. Implied here is the distinction between union (unchanging) and communion (changing). Keeping the heart is also essential to the improving of graces in our lives (seeing our need we pray and grow, for instance), and greater stability in times of temptation and testing.

As I said, the bulk of the book is concerned with particular seasons in life when keeping the heart is most difficult and yet necessary. Our circumstances do matter. We live out our faith in changing circumstances. Some of these circumstances require more attention on our part. Each of us is prone to greater weakness in some circumstances than others. Those circumstances include prosperity, adversity, trouble among God’s people, public distraction, outward deprivation, and more. 12 of them to be exact. He also lays out reasons why we should take heart in the midst of these circumstances, as well as the dangers presented by them. We often live like all seasons are the same. They aren’t. Differing seasons uncover different sins in our hearts. We need to engage our hearts in these circumstances to know the graces we need in our times of trouble or ease.

When in the midst of our circumstances, we would benefit from going back to that section of the book to remind ourselves of our great need and danger in those circumstances.

The final, and brief, chapter focuses on “improving and applying” the subject. He laments the weakness of the church of his day (what would he say about ours?), which indicate the great need of this book and its message. He largely focuses on revealing our need for grace so we will seek it from Jesus, the fountain of grace.

Modern writers don’t write books like this. And it is a shame. So it is important to read these older books that do address these spiritual subjects our time neglects (at its peril). This is a book most living Christians should read. They would find it helpful for keeping there heart before God, seeking His gracious Son.

 

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In my personal Bible reading I’m currently in Jeremiah. Though it is not a happy book, joy breaks through. But mostly it is “Jerusalem is going to fall to Babylon, and the people will go into exile.” There is a stubborn refusal to listen to Jeremiah (and therefore God) as he reminds them of the covenant curses from Deuteronomy that they deserve because they have forsaken the Lord their God.

Today I read chapters 37 and 38. Jeremiah is still standing though yet another Davidic King has fallen due to disobedience. Now it is Zedekiah, the uncle of the previous king Jehoiakim. The person-specific curse for Jehoiakim was that he would die at the hands of Babylon, and there would never be a son of his on the throne. Zedekiah is on the throne precisely because the word of the Lord through Jeremiah came to pass. Let that one sink in.

You might think this would prepare Zedekiah’s heart to listen to Jeremiah. You would be wrong.

Zedekiah the son of Josiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made king in the land of Judah, reigned instead of Coniah the son of Jehoiakim. But neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the Lord that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah 37

But Zedekiah does not completely ignore Jeremiah. In the next paragraph we read:

King Zedekiah sent Jehucal the son of Shelemiah, and Zephaniah the priest, the son of Maaseiah, to Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “Please pray for us to the Lord our God.” Now Jeremiah was still going in and out among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison.

The King won’t listen, which means he refuses to repent. He doesn’t want to change direction, to change how he views this, to return to the Lord with all his heart. His circumstances are that Babylon has been laying siege to Jerusalem and the population is hiding there while the food runs out. Jeremiah says that repentance means surrendering to Babylon so the people will live. There is the promise, based on Deuteronomy 30, that God will restore them to the land and give them a heart for him (also expressed in the promise of the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 and 32). He’s having none of it. He is steadfast in his sin. Soon he would put Jeremiah in prison.

But he wants prayer. Egypt has given them a temporary reprieve. He wants it to be a permanent one. But Babylon is going to defeat Egypt and return to the siege of Jerusalem which will result in Jerusalem’s walls being breached, the city burned, many of the people dying and the rest being carted off to Babylon (except the poorest of the poor, and Jeremiah).

How like us that Zedekiah is. We sow sin and reap the whirlwind. Our lives can be in a complete mess because of our lousy choices, our refusal to listen to God in the first place. In those circumstances God still speaks to us through the Word, “Return to me!” But we often refuse. Yet we ask people to pray for us. We ask for prayer about our circumstances. Our circumstances, not us. We want our circumstances to change, but we don’t want to change no matter how messed up we are.

In other words: we want to live at ease in our sin.

We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful intervention of God who gives us a heart for Him. We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful working of the Holy Spirit to give us a longing to change, to become different people, ones who are godly. We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful union with Christ who does restore His image in us.

What do you want to see changed today? While your circumstances matter, they matter because it is through them that God works for the good of those who love Him, which is making them like His Son. Pray for your circumstances to change. But also pray for God to change YOU in light of your circumstances. We need to change, and only He can change us, so pray.

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This weekend I read Zack Eswine’s short (140+ pages) book Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. I wasn’t depressed, but I was preaching on Psalm 42-3 on Sunday. I had been meaning to read this book earlier, but other volumes always seemed to jump to the front of the queue. So, with a long weekend, the time was now.

I had already done much of my preparation and even written the sermon when I started the book. I added a few things as a result of the reading I’d done by Saturday night. I also changed my introduction.

“I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” Charles Spurgeon

What I discovered is that many people have never heard a sermon on depression. That is depressing. Just about everyone struggles with depression at some point, but for some it is commonplace and debilitating. The Psalm in question is one of the places where we learn that godly people can be downcast. It is no sin, but a manifestation of living in a fallen world.

Eswine’s book is written, or seems to be, with the depressed in mind. The chapters are short since often their attention spans are short. This is no tome, but meant to encourage people and let them know they are not alone in suffering from this malady. He also points us to Jesus who knew such negative emotions as the Sin-Bearer.

“Broken hearted one, Jesus Christ knows all your troubles, for similar troubles were his portion.” Charles Spurgeon

There are three main sections of the book: Trying to Understand Depression, Learning to Help Those Who Suffer from Depression, and Learning Helps to Daily Cope with Depression.

Old SpurgeonThe first section helps some to name their experience. That may sound strange, but let me explain. For years I would get bad headaches and would want to sleep. These were different from what I was used to. One day someone told me they were migraines. I never would have imagined that I had migraines. Other people get those, not me. This is how many think of depression- that’s for other people. Eswine takes some of the mystery out of depression by reminding us how common it can be, and various ways depression is experienced (just as the Psalmist seems to do).

He brings us often to Spurgeon who struggled with depression all of his adult life. This is important for us to see that being depressed itself is not a sin and that real Christians can and do get depressed. There are also a variety of causes of depression: body chemistry, spiritual problems and circumstances. These interact with one another, and all are traced back to Adam’s sin in Eden. We are embodied spirits, so there is interaction between physical and spiritual realities. Not every depression is caused by spiritual problem, but every depression will have spiritual consequences. Because some have a genetic predisposition to depression means that they have a weakness, not that they are weak people. We all have weaknesses. But we don’t want to point a finger and condemn those who suffer as weak.

“Our misery has poisoned us with a tragic arrogance. Our pains have deluded our reasoning.”

In the second section he notes that diagnosis is not the same as a cure. There is no magic bullet for depression. It doesn’t take away the struggle, but helps us to understand some of the dynamics of depression. We can start to analyze ourselves and say “That’s the depression talking.” Depression obscures reality. It even lies to us (“It will never get better.”) and we struggle to sort out fact and fiction, like Peeta in The Mockingjay we have to ask “Real? Not real?”

He reminds us that not all who seek to help are helpful. Sincere people can do harm while they seek to help. We are also reminded of the Man of Sorrows who is able to help because He has experienced these cruel realities.

The third section is largely about coping with depression. He discusses feeding hope, one of the spiritual realities depression robs us of. Pouring out our soul, and filling it with truth is important. But it isn’t a cure-all. He mentions other ways we can care for ourselves in depression: rest, laughter, medication etc. Taking medication doesn’t make you weak or weird. You are not a 2nd class kind of Christian. It is the use of appropriate means, particularly when combined with other means like counseling. The medication helps you to function so you can talk, work and relate to others. I recommend keeping DVDs and books that make you laugh. They can serve as another life preserver when you feel like you are sinking down. These things are not substitutes for Jesus unless you use them to avoid Jesus.

“Our way of fighting is to hide behind Jesus who fights for us.”

There is also the dark reality of suicidal thoughts. Many in deep depression consider ending the deep, unending pain they feel. It doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians. It just means their suffering is incredibly profound. Eswine handles this wisely.

There are benefits that come from such sorrow. These are not reasons to choose depression, but the good God works out of our depression which we might not experience any other way. We are able to exhibit more empathy with those who suffer. We are also better able to understand our weakness and profound need for Christ in all things.

“Perhaps, nothing in life reminds us that we are not God, and that this earth is not heaven, like an indescribable distress that sometimes defies cause and had no immediate cure, or no cure at all.”

I would recommend Zack Eswine’s book to pastors and counselors. It is not technical but is written quite simply so the former can understand depression if they haven’t experienced, and helps the latter to communicate about it simply. It is also a good book for those who suffer. They will remember they are not alone, but always upheld by One who was acquainted with sorrows. He draws much from the words of Spurgeon, as well as William Cowper and others.  It is not an academic treatment, but a very heart-felt one.

P.S. If you leave a comment about how depression is demonic, I will delete it.

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I wish I had more time to read books on history and historical events. There are so many topics I want to learn about. But when the title of your book is Shot All to Hell, you go to the top of the queue. Mark Lee Gardner likes to use “hell” (or h-e-double hockey sticks as Radar used to say) in his book titles. I’ll have to get his To Hell on a Fast Horse which is about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Here Gardner tackles the attempted robbery that ended the James-Younger gang.

I saw this book last winter while wandering SkyHarbor airport while CavWife and kids ate breakfast before they went east for a vacation. It intrigued me, so it ended up putting it on my wish list and got it Christmas (thanks, CavWife!). As a result I read it while on my Christmas vacation. I’ve been a bit busy so I’m finally getting to this.

“They excelled at deception- they had to.”

Gardner notes that it presents a peculiar difficulty in writing about outlaws since lying is a way of life for them. Their own testimony in books, newspaper articles and to friends tends to be unreliable. He looked at other eyewitness testimony as well. This may be as close to the truth as we’ll get to the Northfield Raid.

He begins with the Rocky Cut train robbery which has been attributed to the James-Younger gang to introduce us to them. His point? They knew what they were doing, which makes the failed robbery in Northfield all the more interesting.

“Before September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang had never been challenged, denied, or defeated.”

If they had high school yearbooks then, they would not have been voted “Most Likely to be Famous Criminals” or infamous criminals. They appear to have come for generally good homes. The Younger family was wealthy enough to have slaves prior to the Civil War, and they were “well-schooled, church-going Missourians.” The James brothers grew up as the sons of “a cultured, college-educated Baptist minister.” They too owned slaves.

That is important because both families supported the Confederate States in the conflict. This is what changed everything for both families. Both families suffered at the hands of Kansas jayhawkers. The sons would meet as part of the Quantrill Raiders where they became familiar with  bloodshed and utilizing guerrilla tactics. The war hardened them, and the South’s defeat set the stage for their life of crime which they seemed to view as vigilante justice.

“Circumstances sometimes make people what they are,” Bob once said. “If it had not been for the war, I might have been something, but as it is, I am what I am.”

The book is quite entertaining. I often pondered what it would be like to put together as a movie. As with the real story there are explosive bursts of excitement including the failed robbery and shootout, and then the gunfight that resulted in the capture of the Younger portion of the gang.

Woven into the story is the story of the man Jesse hoped to kill in Minnesota- attorney Sam Hardwicke. Hardwicke was instrumental in a Pinkerton raid that intended to apprehend the James’ boys but resulted in the death of young Archie. This is part of what drove the gang to MN in the first place.

The story brings in the advances in safes that made life difficult for the erstwhile robbers. Gardner also delves into the conflicts and arrogance of the men leading the search for the gang. He also notes the conflicts within the gang, particularly Jesse and Cole Younger’s struggle for power.

It is a story of violence, near misses, second chances and imprisonment. It is a fascinating story, and Gardner tells it, usually, in a very interesting manner. The details of their escape makes you wonder if they wished they’d just been captured in the first place. It was, at times, that unpleasant.

If you like history, and tales of the old west, this is the book for you. Circumstances shape and mold us, opening us up to particular temptations. Sometimes they help us make excuses for ourselves. You will see in them your own tendency to justify your own indiscretions. Lastly you see that sin has a bitter price, and you will pay it eventually.

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The Psalms are good medicine for the soul. While they are honest about how hard life is, they restore God to the center of our very messed up lives. Many people are unfamiliar with Hebrew poetry, and struggle to understand and apply the Psalms. This is not helped by the fact that we don’t always, or often, know the context of particular psalms. It is like peeking in someone’s journal as they wrestle with their circumstances.

Dale Ralph Davis is a former OT professor (he has numerous acclaimed commentaries) who is a pastor. He is able to get into the nuts and bolts of the Hebrew for us, and yet this is not an academic exercise. He reveals the pastoral sensitivity throughout the book.

The book is The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life. Davis looks at the first 12 psalms. They read like they are adapted from sermons. For instance, this line:

“So .. how happy the man who does not … He is counter-cultural. He is, in a word, different. He is not just a nice, easy-going, tolerant chap who likes to share a Lowenbrau with you. There’s a difference between the righteous man here and what my culture calls a ‘good old boy.'”

Do people drink Lowenbrau? Is is still sold? You get the point though. Davis does live in the real world. He helps us to understand the Psalmist’s world and connects it with ours. These are not happy psalms, but about the muck of life. This is, therefore, a serious book about how to live as a Christian in the real, and fallen, world. This is in sharp contrast to many popular books that somehow give the impression that the Christian life is one of relative bliss and ease. There is no “best life now.” This is the kind of book people need to read, a book they should read.

While it could be good to read it in the midst of difficulty, we should prepare for hard times. People used to have “rainy day funds”, money set aside for unexpected expenses. Credit cards have made dealing with such things easier (and gotten us into plenty of trouble at times). People don’t prepare for broken bones or cars by saving money ahead of time anymore. There is little forethought.

We should have spiritual forethought, and not just financial forethought. We should invest in our spiritual life so when the muck of life comes we are prepared, ready and able to stand firm. This book helps us do this. When hard times comes, it is good to go back. I’d recommend investing in your spiritual life by getting this great little book that brings you to the hard places of life and shows you how God is there and at work in us and our circumstances.

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