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Posts Tagged ‘discipleship’


I’Related imagem focused on the books I’ve read this year. So this isn’t a best and worst list of releases in 2019. There are books new and old, but these are books I read in 2019. Some of these might be helpful to you, faithful reader, and I might provide fair warning on lesser books not worthy of your time.

My Favorites

The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God by Tim Chester & Jonny Woodrow. The ascension is a much neglected doctrine by Protestants, and this is a very good introduction to the subject, and necessity, of the ascension of Jesus. Jesus is the forerunner, the first man to enter the heavenly temple in the flesh. He does so as our covenant head, so we will surely follow. He currently intercedes for us as our Great High Priest for us. He’s also our King who pours out His Spirit and exercises His rule in providence. This is a Christ-exalting and encouraging book.

On the Brink: Grace for the Burned Out Pastor by Clay Werner. This was a timely read for me as a prolonged conflict had me on the brink. While the conflict continued well into the year, I was invested in making some of the changes I needed to make (though perhaps not everyone agreed about that). This book helped me not only stay in ministry but where I was called. I’m thankful for this book.

Habakkuk: The Expectant Prophet by John Currid. This was an expositional commentary that I found particularly helpful while preaching through Habakkuk. It addressed many of my exegetical questions and provided some great ANE background to help me preach the text better.

In Christ: In Him Together for the World by Steve Timmis and Christopher de la Hoyde. This comes from the same biblical studies series as the book on the ascension. This is a good introduction. It doesn’t answer every question you may have. They do approach it from the vantage point of church planting. In Christ we are safe from the wrath of God. Here they focus on our salvation in union of Christ. Our union with Christ is also relational, we are connected to Christ and now in the presence of God. We also grow in Christ as a focus of our sanctification. They then discuss the communion of saints, the relational realities of our union. They also discuss our mission and the realities of our struggles. This is a helpful addition to the recent spate of books on this important doctrine.

Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story by Christopher Yuan. Christopher himself has a very moving testimony. Here he brings the gospel to bear on our sexuality, interacting with many of the issues currently being discussed and debated thanks to ReVoice and the continuing cultural push to normalize homosexuality (please, don’t confuse the two). His book is applicable not just for people who struggle with SSA (he still does) but also single adults and married people. The fall affected everyone’s sexuality, desires and relationship. If anything, I wish this book was longer.

Busy for Self, Lazy for God: Meditations on Proverbs for Diligent Living by Nam Joon Kim (translated by Charles Kim) is a rare book on sloth. At times it reflects his culture, which most wouldn’t accuse of laziness. As he keeps to the proverbs, there is much good and challenging material for us to consider so we forsake our laziness. He does have a gospel focus, so this is not simply moralistic and guilt-producing.

A Journey to Wholeness: The Gospel According to Naaman’s Slave Girl by Mark Belz. This is an excellent addition to the Gospel According to the Old Testament series. As I stated in my review, if a book stirs up a desire to preach a portion of Scripture it must be an excellent book. At times he puts too many words in people’s mouths, or thoughts in their heads but he helps us to see the gospel clearly through this OT event.

Grace Defined and Defended by Kevin DeYoung is a treatment of the Synod of Dort (or Dordt) on its 500th anniversary. It is a helpful explanation of this important document seeking to resolve the conflict between the church and the Remonstrants. His focus is on how Calvinism is put forth, but includes how Arminianism is laid out in the series of questions by Jacob Arminius’ followers. This is not overly technical and would be helpful for laypeople.

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How it Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn. I loved this book which provided lots of information about the part of the country I live in today. There is plenty of background on the Earps and the conflict which gets simplified, reduced and distorted in movies. This will be of great interest to history buffs or people interested in the Old West. And it is very interesting.

The Wholeness Imperative: How Christ Unifies Our Desires, Identity and Impact in the World by Scott Redd. This is a timely book for our time with its discussion of desires and identity. He deals with already/not yet realities as he unfolds a vision of progressive sanctification moving us toward whole heartedness. It isn’t simply about the mortification of sin but more the vivification of virtue and devotion. This flows from the implications the Shema and our response to the God who is one or united.

Faith. Hope. Love. The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace by Mark Jones. This excellent book is in three parts, as you might imagine. Hope is the shortest, and love the longest because he explores the law as an expression of God’s love to us and our love to God and others. The section on faith explores the nature of saving faith. There is plenty to stir the soul here.

The Blessing of Humility: Walk Within Your Calling by Jerry Bridges. This is one of the last books he wrote. In this short book he describes humility using the beatitudes. As I noted in my review, this is a gospel-drenched book. The beatitudes describe who Jesus is for us, and who He is in the process of making us.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land by Eliot Clark. This is a meditation on 1 Peter thru the lens of mission. He plays off Peters theme of exile as he writes to a church in America that has been losing cultural power for decades. We increasingly feel out of place, like exiles. This should shape how we live, serve and make Jesus known. When we are grounded in gospel hope we don’t live in fear of what happens in our culture.

Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths by Dan Allender is one of my favorite books on leadership. Struggling this year, I read it again. It is still a great book about how God uses us, not in spite of but because of our flaws. We are jars of clay and the treasure is the gospel. You are the great leader, Jesus is. As we embrace our flaws and weaknesses we become better leaders.

Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God’s Unfolding Promises to His People by Jonty Rhodes. This is a great introduction to Covenant Theology. It is easy to understand, doesn’t get bogged down in minutia, has helpful diagrams so you can visualize the theology, and talks about how this matters to us today. His chapter on Jeremiah 31 is helpful in the intramural debate with New Covenant Theology to grasp the continuity and expansion of the covenant.

The Works of John Newton by … you guessed it, John Newton. This contains his letters, an autobiography, sermons, short treatises a brief history of the church among other things. I find so much pastoral wisdom in John Newton. He’s not profound like John Owen, but he is incredibly helpful in shaping the pastoral heart, and the Christian heart. He’s worth the investment of time.

The Mediocre

Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem by Robert Jones. This was not a bad book. It was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Jones failed to make some important distinctions and connections flowing from (perhaps) his different presuppositions. His goal was “getting rid of anger” rather than becoming slow to anger (like God), and how to “be angry and sin not.” As a result, there are biblical helps that are ignored by the author.

A Theology of Mark: The Dynamic between Christology and Authentic Discipleship by Hans Bayer. I bought and read it based on the subtitle. He does make some excellent points about it but I found the structure of the book to get in the way of really benefiting from this book as I’d hoped. I was left wanting more. It did, however lead me into preaching through Mark, so there is that.

The Downright Bad

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace by Harvie Conn. I appreciate the thesis of this book. It’s delivery is so dated and non-linear I just couldn’t finish it. I deemed it not worth my time and effort despite its influence on some people I respect greatly.

There are more I could have put here. There are other good books I read, but these are the best, and the most frustrating. Enjoy or stay away, as the case may be.

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IOut of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God. A Broken Mother's Search for Hope. became familiar with Christopher Yuan’s story when my wife gave me a copy of Out of a Far Country written by Christopher and his mother Angela. It is the story of his coming out of the closet, dropping out of dental school and pursuing a gay lifestyle, his parents’ initial rejection, their conversion and subsequent pursuit of Christopher and his conversion after being imprisoned as a drug dealer.

In the course of that story he mentioned the concept he called ‘holy sexuality’. At the time, I hoped he’d develop that further. Over the years I was disappointed that he didn’t. His name would arise periodically as a wave of controversies regarding how the church is to interact with people experiencing same-sex attraction arose.

The Revoice controversy was perhaps the worst of the lot. In many ways it seemed to be an exercise in talking past one another. At least that was my experience of many of those discussions and debates. These controversies reveal that the Church still needs to talk about how to faithfully and effectively serve those who experience same-sex attractions.

Recently I discovered that he’d released Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story in the fall of 2018. I bought a copy for myself, and by faith one for the church library. It was my hope that this could be helpful in helping us work through these issues.

He tackles a number of the issues that lay at the heart of the various controversies. It is not a big book, so it sticks to the point and does not overwhelm with information. At times he interacts (briefly) with opposing views. That can be too brief at times, for instance his discussion of Matthew Vines on the issue of ‘bad fruit’.

He begins with the reality of God’s Story which is intended to help us to understand and shape our story. This refers to the history of redemption (creation ==> fall ==> redemption ==> consummation) found in Scripture intended to help us to understand life and the world. He moves into questions about identity, the image of God, and the reality of sin. He then introduces holy sexuality and dives into the issues of temptation, desire, orientation and then marriage and singleness. The book concludes with how to assist those who struggle with sexual sin in terms of sanctification, discipleship, and outreach. As you can see, the breadth of material covered is impressive.

TImage result for rosaria butterfieldhe book begins with a forward by his ‘big sister’ Rosaria Butterfield. There is some irony there. She was a lesbian professor/academic who became a Christian in the process of writing a book critical of the Religious Right due to the friendship that developed with a Presbyterian pastor and his wife. She left academia and ended up marrying a pastor. She regrets the work she did in laying the groundwork for the changes in our culture we’ve seen in the last 15 years regarding marriage and benefits.

He is a man who was gay, dropping out of dental school to basically live the party life. To support himself he became a drug dealer and ended up in prison. He saw a Bible in the trash and grabbed it because he was bored. He became a Christian and after getting out of prison went back to school and entered academia. He remains single, experiencing same-sex desires but seeking to live out a holy sexuality.

Rosaria’s forward covers some ground he will as well: union in Christ, the development of sexual orientation in the 19th century, that the real issue is not homosexuality but unbelief (which keeps us in Adam).

“The idol of our historical epoch is this: your sexual desires define you, determine you, and should always delight you.” Rosaria Butterfield

Yuan begins with discussing paradigms. Our identity shouldn’t be based on sinful practices, or what we can’t do (anymore). He expresses his frustration with the dynamics of the discussions, particularly the heterosexual-homosexual paradigm. I share his frustration. Between Christians as least, we should try to use biblical language. Too often I find people, both conservative and liberal, using cultural language for a very theological discussion.

He shares the story of Andy who was a classmate of his who was married. Eventually Andy left his wife because despite his prayers, God didn’t take those same-sex desires away. We’ve all known a guy like Andy. I know a few. Some left the faith without getting married. Others left their wives and their faith, leaving a trail of wreckage because they had to be “true to themselves”.

At some point people started to confuse their desires with their identity. Some conservatives further this despite their intentions in how they shape the gospel differently for people who practice homosexual sex. What many people with same-sex attractions hear is “If I am my desires, then who I am, not just my actions, are condemned. As I continue to feel these desires, I must still be condemned.” People like Andy are tempted to change their convictions because they confuse those desires with identity.

He notes that until the mid-1800’s, sexuality was about behavior, not orientation or identity. Carl Westphal was one of the earliest to use homosexuality to describe a person’s nature rather than behavior. Yuan does some philosophizing about the rise of identity through Romanticism and nihilism.

Sola experientia (‘experience alone’) won over sola Scripture (‘Scripture alone’).”

We do need to have a biblical anthropology, and speak consistently with that. I agree with Yuan and Butterfield that due to our union in Christ our identity is Christ. Where I ‘depart’ from them is in mandating that people speak the same way. Part of the Revoice controversy was about using the term “gay” or “homosexual Christian”. They were following Wesley Hill who says in his book Washed and Waiting that Christian refers to his identity and gay/homosexual his struggle (page 22). I don’t get bent out of shape when I understand that. Not the preferred terminology, but he’s often communicating with people who aren’t Christians and don’t typically speak about same-sex desire (they use the language of identity and orientation).

This is a practical difference, not a theological difference. In her book Openness Unhindered she has a chapter, Conflict: When Sisters Disagree, about this capacity to love people who speak differently. But her comments about the PCA and Revoice appear to have a very different approach. I’m a little frustrated with my sister. It’s okay- she’s still my sister!

YuImage result for christopher yuanan brings us back to Genesis for the imago dei and the reality of sin. These are foundational concepts that need to be addressed in these discussions. He speaks covenantally about our fall in Adam. We are guilty of our covenant head’s disobedience. We now have a fallen nature. This moves us into the reality of indwelling sin or a sinful nature. If we are off here, then the rest of the discussion will really miss the mark. If we make the wrong diagnosis, we’ll apply the wrong cure. This cuts both ways, for the culture war conservative and the progressive accommodationist.

To a sinner, sin feels natural and normal. This is because we have a darkened understanding and our thinking is futile (Rom. 1). ALL sinners have sinful distortions of our sexuality. We all want to live beyond the boundaries God has established for our sexual behavior in one way or another. Our problem is sin (the condition or state), not simply a particular sin. The person engaging in same-sex activity also sins in other ways. The issue is not simply same-sex desires and activity but sin (Adam’s and their own). Salvation is about sin, not simply sexuality. The goal is not heterosexuality but living in obedience to God through the grace of God.

Here is part of where things get murky in many debates I’ve had with people. I think Yuan is helpful. Here is some of what he says within this biblical framework:

“I’m not saying the capacity to have same-sex attractions or temptations is actual sin. However, the concept of original and indwelling sin fits every description of same-sex sexual orientation. Original sin is an unchosen condition, and indwelling sin is a persistent pattern of sinful desires or behaviors.”

He will later draw an important distinction between temptation and desire. Here is the distinction between a temptation to commit a sinful act and committing a sin. Some see the temptation itself as sin. Butterfield has a few confusing paragraphs in Openness Unhindered; confusing because they seem contradictory (first she says temptation isn’t sin but homosexual lust is- she could be using those terms to refer to temptation and inordinate desire respectively and then we’d be in agreement- see below). I wish Yuan spent time parsing John Owens seeming distinction between temptation and falling into temptation (which I think is that same distinction).

“Again: temptation is not a sin. But what you do with it may be.” Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered, pp. 83

“In addition, temptation is not a sin, but temptations to sin are never good. They are never from God. Therefore, patterns of temptation can never be sanctified.” Rosaria, pp. 123.

“Moving up the scale, homosexual or heterosexual lust is a sin- even the unintentional and persistent kind that springs up like a hiccup or a reflex.” Rosaria, pp. 123

This doesn’t make same-sex temptation okay or neutral. Nor is it ‘sanctifiable’. If acting upon such temptation is sin (it is!), then we should mortify those desires of the flesh as Paul tells us to do (Rom. 6 & 8). We are to make no provision for them because we’ve put on Christ (Rom. 13).

In some discussions I’ve brought up temptations to commit adultery or engage in pre-marital sex (heterosexual lust). Some who ardently oppose homosexuality, and are critical of organizations like Revoice say those temptations are ‘normal’, or ‘not contrary to nature’ as if one gets a pass because those are heterosexual sins. Such a view is quite unbiblical. Yuan confronts that common, faulty, view. Holy sexuality is not for homosexuals alone but for all Christians. We are to be chaste outside of marriage and faithful in marriage.

“Chastity is more than simply abstention from extra-marital sex; it conveys purity and holiness. Faithfulness is more than merely maintaining chastity and avoiding illicit sex; it conveys covenantal commitment.”

Yuan then focuses on temptation. This section could use some more work. For instance:

“As God, Jesus did not sin and in fact is incapable of sinning (this is call impeccability).”

He doesn’t address Jesus as man, who specifically obeyed as man in our place for our salvation. There is a huge mystery here that Yuan pretty much ignores. It was as man, additionally, that he may be made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10). Jesus resisted sin “all the way” while we often give up well before that. We don’t really know how powerful temptation is.

But Yuan correctly reminds us that as fallen humans (despite being united to Christ) we will experience temptation. This includes same-sex temptation (something some others I know seem to reject based on their understanding of regeneration). The issue is not whether you will be tempted, but what you do with it no matter what the temptation is. We are to be vigilant and put it to death!

He then moves from James 1 to James 4 to discuss desire, or inordinate desire. For many, the same-sex desires are not primarily erotic. It is about romance and being together. He notes that in many lesbian relationships romance drives the relationship, not sexual desire. This means that the problem isn’t just about sex, but the inordinate desire for a person of the same sex: friendship gone wild. Here he draws more upon Augustine than Owen. People can fall prey to “co-dependency, relational idolatry, sinful fantasies” and more.

“Nonsexual romantic desires are essentially yearning to become one with and be permanently and exclusively united to someone we hold dear.”

His discussion of marriage is short but helpful. Sadly some take “it is not good for man to be alone” out of context and make marriage about companionship. Marriage is about far more than companionship. It is about fulfilling the creation mandate together. Yuan gets that and explains that (citing Christopher Ash in the process). When we make marriage about companionship, the end of loneliness, we more quickly make marriage idolatrous (or disposable when this primary ‘goal’ isn’t met). Marriage becomes about me and my feelings, not about covenantal union to fulfill God’s mission. It isn’t less than companionship, but far more. Marriage is about someone who is the same but different. The same creature but the opposite gender. Like but not like.

Yuan also upholds the dignity and goodness of singleness. All people are single for much of their lives. They are not less than whole people. Jesus was not less of a person because he was single. At times in this chapter he seems to display some characteristics of New Covenant Theology rather than Covenant Theology. Yes, we must be born again but we still have the truth that “this promise is for you and your children” (Gen. 17 ==> Acts 2). God works through generations as well as in individuals. I also disagree with some of his implications about 1 Corinthians 7 while agreeing with his main point. Singleness is not a lesser state or a death sentence.

Singles should be able to have vibrant relationships with their spiritual family. Couples and families need to do better in caring for single adults and inviting them into the web of relationships. Singles (and the infertile) can have spiritual descendants through evangelism and discipleship. God provides plenty of meaning in life for those who are not married. Being single is a calling all have at some point (sometimes more than once), a calling we can walk faithfully in because of the indwelling Spirit.

He then moves back to holy sexuality and the process of sanctification. Justified and sanctified Christians experience temptations. Some still experience same-sex temptations. We are already new creatures in Christ, but not yet completely new. We are in process, in part because God is humbling us and one way to humble us is the presence of temptations.

“… because of our union with Christ, we can hate our sin without hating ourselves.”

He then deals with some bad theology by Matthew Vines. Vines interprets “bad fruit” to mean physical harm or emotional despair. Theology that produces hardship and distress is false doctrine, in his view. Therefore because so many homosexuals struggle with suicide, the teaching of the church must be wrong. Yuan takes him quickly to task. “Bad fruit” is sin or the lack of repentance. There is no true discipleship without denying oneself, which is painful. He also takes on Jen Hatmaker who blames so much suicidal ideation among gay youth for the church’s historic (biblical) stance on same-sex relationships. Yuan notes studies in secular countries, quite accepting of same-sex relationships, which also have similarly high rates of suicide among homosexuals. The problem is not the church’s teaching.

He moves into reminding us to be compassionate toward those experiencing same-sex desires, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. His parents rejected him before they were Christians and then loved and pursued him after they converted. He brings us to the parable of the Good Samaritan, reminding us that the original audience were to see themselves as the beaten man. We’ve received compassion from Jesus Christ, and compassion we should show.

He also provides some guidance for outreach. Often we need to listen and ask questions. They often believe we hate them. Like his parents, we may have to love them for a long time in tangible ways. He also provides some practical advice for when someone opens up to us.

Lastly he provides some basic instruction on discipleship. He pushes that you need a mentor, not simply a friend or counselor. This means that the local church, and ordinary means of grace, are central. Yes, we need peers but we also need older more Christians speaking into our lives, challenging us and calling us to deny ourselves and follow Jesus. We need to have the right goal in mind: holiness, not heterosexuality.

At the end of the book there is an 8-session study guide to work through the material. He wants this book to be helpful to people and churches. I think it will be helpful for the Church to sort through ministry to people with same-sex desires. I hope it will help us to sit and listen to one another, understand what people mean, identify the common ground (rather than assume it or the areas of disagreement) so we can move forward helpfully. Our desire should be to see people caught in this sin come to saving faith in Christ, and then to walk faithfully in holy sexuality for their good and His glory. This is a book worth reading.

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Theology of Mark: The Dynamic between Christology and Authentic Discipleship (Explorations in Biblical Theology)I first heard of A Theology of Mark: The Dynamic between Christology and Authentic Discipleship by Hans Bayer in a Facebook thread. It sounded intersting as the comments described a theology of discipleship rooted in the identity of Jesus. I had been thinking about discipleship recently in terms of our congregation. Not many people seemed to be moving toward greater maturity in Christ (which is a very subjective thing to look for in others, I know). I decided to preach a sermon series on Mark focusing on following Jesus. To prepare for this series I bought the book and slowly made my way through it.

This book is part of the Explorations in Biblical Theology series edited by Robert Peterson. Both men teach at Covenant Theological Seminary, the PCA’s seminary. Bayer is chair of the NT department. I’m not familiar with his work.

Based on the thread I had fairly high expectations. Those were not quite met. Perhaps I was looking for something different than what his goal was.

The first major section deals with Mark as Biography and the Message of God’s Eternal Rule. In that section he deals with Mark’s genre, structure, purpose and framework. As that title of the section notes, he approaches it a biography and therefore rooted in history. He’s not denying it is a gospel account, but focused on its historical character (as opposed to myth). He also brings in its transmission as a memorized account of a witness. Rabbi’s disciples didn’t generally have libraries, they memorized the Scripture and just about everything else.

“… Mark functions within Greco-Roman and Jewish conventions of his time which intend to give reliable biographical data while not giving an exhaustive life story.”

Mark is mostly narrative which focuses on the acts of Jesus more than the discourses we find in the other gospel accounts. In this way Mark invites the reader to participate in what happens, and then challenges him with the implications.

The two main flows of thought/action are the relationships between Jesus and His disciples and then Jesus and His opponents. We see demonstrations of Jesus’ authority followed by calls to follow Him.

Bayer identified the main thematic framework as the in-breaking of God’s eternal rule. In keeping with Calvin’s observation at the beginning of the Institutes, this causes us to examine who God is and who we are. These are the two questions Bayer returns to throughout the course of the book. This is what I was interested in. I just thought it would be developed differently- don’t ask me how.

“Human independence and God’s sovereign rule cannot, in the end, coexist. One of these forces has to yield. Jesus’ call to repent and surrender is thus to be seen in the advancing messianic kingdom of God.”

The second section of the book develops the dynamic between God’s Messiah and authentic disciples. He addresses what discipleship is and what it looks like.

Bayer argues that God confronts our self-determination rather than just calling us to doing “Christian things”. He is resisting moralism at this point. Christ is offering “radical, sustained inner change.” There is a shift in identity that needs to take place, something that is at the crux of some of the current controversies today. We need to see Jesus as Messiah for who He is (His nature, authority etc.) to challenge our view of ourselves as autonomous or self-determining. The disciple is a saved sinner, not an exalted good guy. We are not perfected at conversion, or most of Paul’s letters would make no sense.

Adam’s sin brought about alienation from God, self and creation. Jesus comes to restore a proper relationship to God, self and creation. Bayer brings this reality up often. Ours is a fundamental brokenness that Christ has come to heal. This is not in the place of reconciliation and redemption from sin, but complements reconciliation and redemption. It is a more holistic approach to both sin and salvation. In light of this, Bayer identifies Jesus’ core characteristics and argues they are what Jesus is doing to reproduce in His disciples. He mentions the ordinary means of grace, particularly Scripture, used by the Spirit to transform us. He also notes that these attitudes and behaviors are “before God, toward ourselves, and others” which reminds me to Relational Wisdom 360‘s “SOG” (self-awareness, other-awareness & God-awareness). He has a chart showing how these core characteristics of discipleship are revealed in Messiah, the Twelve and all disciples.

Discipleship “involves cutting all ties and dependencies (including  idols and addictions) that inhibit our full availability to Christ and thus obedience to God’s will.”

Bayer brings us from the double crisis to the tri-fold resolution that produces the 8 core characteristics. Discipleship is not an individual affair. In addition to the vertical dimension with Jesus, there is a horizontal dimension. Jesus doesn’t train one discipleship alone, but in groups. And they “live” in groups. Discipleship is reciprocal. Jesus disciples us as we disciple one another. All of us are still growing and confronted by Jesus.

Bayer then brings this into the 21st century. He addresses contemporary spirituality and how it compares to the call to discipleship in Mark’s gospel. He helps us to make the epochal adjustment from Mark to the audience we are addressing. At times it seems a bit abstract, and at others he returns to the double crisis and the 8 core characteristic traits. As part of this he discusses self-denial, interacting with Bonhoeffer in particular (including an appendix on the subject). Self-denial is not about hating yourself or abasing yourself. It is a rejection of self-determination and control over our lives. It is about living in submission to Jesus instead of our wants and desires.

This volume is not very long. It is not exhaustive in its approach to Mark, meaning it is not intended to be an exegetical volume or commentary on Mark. He wants to help you see the big picture of Mark to help you make sense of Mark’s gospel so you can teach it more effectively. For that it is a helpful volume.

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Often Philippians is called “the Epistle of joy.” There is much there about joy. But as I preach through it, I’m discovering it is also “the Epistle of conflict.”

On Sunday I preached on Philippians 4:1-3. It was a short week of preparation, and a busy few days for the holiday. After I preached the sermon, I wish I had developed a few things more thoroughly. I needed to meditate on this text more thoroughly (more so than usual, I suppose).

Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

This passage begins with a reference to the conflict without. Paul calls on them to “stand firm”, applying the realities of gospel humility and discipleship he’s been discussing since the 2nd chapter of this letter. They are to stand firm against the Gentiles who persecute them, and the Judaizers who seek to lead them astray into ritual. Both are enemies of the cross.

They were to stand together as “my beloved brothers (a better translation of the phrase), whom I long for, my joy and crown … my beloved.” Philippi was a Roman colony. Many of the people gained their Roman citizenship by their service in the military. They were familiar with fighting formations requiring them to stand firm together. Now they stand no simply as fellow soldiers but people bound in love by Jesus.

Image result for roman phalanx

Our conflict with them is about the claim of the gospel. It is about the contrast between living as good citizens of Rome versus living as citizens of the heavenly city (1:27; 3:20).

In this conflict we are truly enemies, citizens of two different and warring kingdoms. They may use earthly weapons against us, but we are not to use earthly weapons (material or immaterial) against them. We’ve been given the armor of God (Eph. 6).

We can find points of commonality with the surrounding culture. We won’t disagree on everything. Those points of commonality are windows of opportunity for the gospel (to borrow Rick McKinley’s terminology).

What we cannot do is compromise. Acknowledge common ground, but not compromise. There are also windows of opposition we must contend with. They must be converted, which includes changing their views that are out of accord with sound doctrine. Stand firm in the face of an intimidating enemy though outnumbered. Our God will be faithful.

But remember that at the moment, they are your enemy, not your brother, and should be treated as one.

Paul then addresses conflict within the congregation. You can’t stand firm together if you are at odds with one another. Internal conflict distracts us from mission, even if it is about how to carry for the mission.

Paul urges both women to work it out, come into accord. First this indicates that women are important and do important things. They were gospel partners with Paul. Their conflict was not incidental to church life but threatened it. No conflict between siblings in Christ is insignificant. They must be worked out, and both parties bear responsibility to do so. It was not just Euodia’s responsibility. Not just Syntche’s responsibility.

Image result for slippery slope

If we think of this in terms of the slippery slope of conflict these women were likely “peace-faking” by engaging in flight. They were avoiding each other, operating on opposite sides of the room, refusing to acknowledge each other. Perhaps there had been times of peace-breaking, fighting. There may have been verbal assault. Nothing as serious as Cain deciding to kill Abel, but still attacks upon one another.

Image result for cain and abelThey weren’t living like people who were beloved brothers & sisters. Instead they were treating one another as enemies. They needed help to begin treating one another as beloved siblings. They needed help to get on the same page when it comes to worship, discipleship or evangelism. Those are things that matter, but frequently we act like our way is the only way. The need to agree with one another is even more important when we are fighting about things unrelated to the gospel (carpets, paint, loans or which property to buy).

Paul calls the “true companion” to act as a mediator to make peace, a peace rooted in Christ’s dying on the cross for our sin. Unity was to be restored by repentance and reconciliation, which are impossible apart from the gospel which makes us sons of God in the first place. Because of the gospel we treat the sins of our brothers differently than the sins of our enemies. This is important because of how we engage in conflict. The issues we disagree on are likely not sinful. What is sinful is our peace-faking and breaking. That sin is contrary to our status as brothers. In the conflict with the world it is in keeping with our status as enemies.

We are to once again find the common ground, the places we agree. Stand firm in your agreement. Then find a place of principled compromise among options that fit within biblical boundaries. You don’t compromise with the enemies of the cross, but you do with your beloved brother.

Sadly we often reverse this. We compromise with the world and stand our ground with our brothers as if they were our enemies.

Paul wants gospel partners to sort it out, as much as it depends on them. He knew the pain of a sharp disagreement that dissolved his partnership with Barnabas (Acts 15). We know he reconciled with Mark. We don’t know about Barnabas.

Paul recognizes that we engage in two different conflicts: within and without. How we respond is different. Don’t reverse them or you’ll really mess it all up. Get it right and you’ll see the gospel work powerfully in your community.

 

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The first section of Organic Outreach for Churches by Kevin Harney covered motivation: love for God, the world and the congregation. He calls this the heart of the congregation. In the second section he addresses the mind of the congregation. The focus is on the administrative structure expressed by the heart that seeks to reach out with God’s love to the world around it through the congregation. Put another way, the first task of leadership is to cultivate love for God, the lost people around us, and our congregation. Until this is done, the administrative structure should not be changed. To borrow terminology from another book on ministry, there needs to be a vine before you put up the trellis.

“When our hearts are filled with love for God, for our community, and for the church, we are ready to strategize about outreach.”

This is one of the positives of his approach. He is talking about outreach as a (church) community project rather than focusing on preparing individuals to share their faith.

The first step in this process is the mind-shifts Harney believes need to take place so we can be productive. Here they are:

  • From random to strategic outreach
  • From famine to funding (making money available for LOCAL outreach)
  • From believing to belonging (as the first step in the process)
  • From us to them (regarding focus)
  • From programs to praying
  • From mush to clarity (regarding your beliefs)
  • From fatalism to faith

These are important shifts, though I would be hesitant to fully embrace the 4th one (us => them) for reasons I will develop below.

I will throw out a reminder. This all takes time. This morning I read about the building of the temple by Solomon. It took 7 and a half years. Just as the temple wasn’t built in a day, neither will a congregation’s outreach ministry. People are often harder to mold than stones. This is about cultural change, and that takes time, and undetermineable period of time.

He then develops the idea of from famine to funding, because you’ve gone from random to strategic outreach. Many churches provide money for missions, elsewhere. By someone else. Funding missionaries is a great thing. The point is not to eliminate funding to foreign (and even local) missionaries and ministries. The point is to add funds for your congregation to reach the people around you.

This also means that everyone is getting involved instead of paying surrogates to do the work for you. Not everyone will have the same role; the different gifts of God’s people will be engaged. This is one of the mind shifts he neglected: from them to us. No longer should outreach be the work of a chosen few who work on behalf of the rest of us (surrogates). An outreach committee would lead the strategies that involve everyone in various ways (even if all you can do is pray because you’re home-bound).

One common problem Harney experiences is that ministry leaders see outreach as an optional thing that competes with their ministry instead of being something that their ministry also participates in. As a result, they can ignore events, schedule competing events etc. The goal is for each ministry to see their place in outreach. To see it as part of their mission. The Outreach Team is then viewed as influencers. He finds it most helpful if all the ministry leaders comprise the Outreach Influence Team.

Harney then moves into the 6 Levels of Influence. It all starts with God. As a loving, eternal community (Trinity) God is a missionary God who has been sharing His love with people since the beginning of time. Between God and the world, Harney lists the Outreach Influence Team Leader, the Outreach Influence Team, ministry workers, and ministry participants.

To put it simply, the team leader encourages the team to maintain focus and develop the ways their ministry participates in outreach. The team provides training for workers in outreach, which helps instill the vision for outreach to participants so they begin to engage in praying for others, inviting people to events or ministry functions etc.

Then he moves into raising the evangelistic temperature utilizing the one degree rule. This is about accountability. And while it can be helpful, knowing the perversity that remains even in Christians, it can easily lapse into legalism and self-righteousness (self-condemnation if you aren’t doing enough). It is here that he starts to sound more seeker-driven than seeker-sensitive. It was here that I began to grow frustrated.

Why was I frustrated? The easy answer would be my flesh is resisting the call of God to engage in this process. I don’t think that is is (though he did talk about lots of meetings and I’m currently have meeting fatigue).

The other answer is a glaring lack of ecclesiology in the book. It is assumed, and you know what happens if you assume. Part of ecclesiology is the mission of the church. When there is no clearly developed mission of the church, an author’s emphasis becomes the mission of the church. There are subtle statements in this section that indicate that he thinks outreach trumps the rest, shapes the rest. Like most books on a particular goal of the Church, it becomes out of balance and begins to veer down dangerous roads.

Let me explain. I take a tri-perspectival view of worship (and most things, to be honest). I express this as worship is intended to exalt God, edify the Church and evangelize the world (in terms of unbelievers present). Worship cannot focus simply on evangelism as in the seeker-driven model. I think we should be sensitive to “seekers” (I don’t really like that word). By that I mean we explain things. We periodically explain some of what we do in worship. In preaching we explain “big words” and call people to faith for both conversion (justification) and sanctification.

Our mission, as expressed in the Great Commission, is not to simply make converts but disciples. We are to present people to Christ in maturity. Yes, you have to start with conversion but that is not the end all and be all of church life. Outreach is a part of our mission, not the mission.

If we are asking about outreach temperature, we should start asking about your marriage (if you are married), parenting, sex life, work life etc. because all of these are about being faithful to Christ in our context. Suddenly we have a long list, and even more opportunities to become self-righteous Pharisees boasting of our outreach righteousness, or parenting righteousness.

Taking part of the mission as the mission is just plain dangerous. No one comes out and says that, but it is expressed in terms of the “most important” part of our mission, or main emphasis requiring “inordinate amounts of time”.

So, while I agree that outreach should permeate all of our programs so it is an organic thing for the congregation, I don’t agree that it supplants or overwhelms all of the other ministries of the church. Our discipleship ministries should be welcoming to outsiders (and people should invite others as well as pray for the lost), should connect everything to the gospel (including calling people to faith as well as expressing that faith) as well as prepare people to share their faith (preferably in a tri-perspectival way, which is a separate blog post). Our worship should not be reduced to altar calls, “love songs” to Jesus with a great beat etc. I’m still a “Word & Sacrament” guy. Evangelism as well as exaltation and edification take place as we sing the Word, pray the Word, listen to the Word (preaching) and see the Word (sacraments). God works in that to bring people to faith as well as build people in their faith. We explain things, we don’t eliminate them precisely because worship is also for God and His people, not just the people who don’t believe yet.

Precisely because there is no explicit eccesiology, Harney is beginning to slip down this road though he may not realize it. There are some things that slow it: being clear about what you believe. He hasn’t gutted the faith like some do. But I find him beginning to move out of balance in this second section. In the third section, we’ll see where his trajectory leads us.

 

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I’ve been reading Jared Wilson’s blog on and off since his days in TN. I’ve read some of his books and found them profitable. So when the opportunity arose to read & review his latest, The Imperfect Disciple, I took advantage.

Chapter 1 begins with a quote from John Newton which sets the tone for what is to come: “In short, I am a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistence.” This book is a neo-Calvinist version of Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality. As Wilson notes in his introduction, this is for the average Christian who just plain struggles and feels like a total loser when reading books on discipleship, if they ever dare to. The focus here is certainly not “try harder and get your act together”. The emphasis is that God works immeasurably beyond what you manage to do because He’s rich in grace and you are united to Christ. How’s that for a nutshell?

“A message of grace will attract people but a culture of grace will keep them.” This is at least the 2nd book he’s used this in. But it is a great quote.

Jared Wilson’s style is decidedly in the popular vein. It is conversational, and not concerned with sentence and all that jazz. Each chapter begins with “My gospel is…” followed by a story that generally doesn’t portray him in a positive light. He’s not looking down at you (us). He is not the Tony Robbins of discipleship (or the David Platt/Paul Washer intent on making you feel guilty for being an ordinary person).

He addresses many of the ordinary disciplines or means of grace from a different point of view than usual. He uses some unusual terminology at times. One of the strengths is that he focuses on the reality simul justus et peccator, at the same time we are just and sinners. We do not, and cannot get our act together this side of death or Jesus’ return. We will continue to struggle with sin (including sloth), temptation and spiritual drift. In talking about this in chapter 1, he addresses some people’s tendency to blame their spiritual problems on their church upbringing. This is particularly common among progressives who grew up in more fundamentalist or even evangelical churches. While our family and church backgrounds may have been messed up and wounded us, we were all born in Adam and are sinners. We are all messed up even with others messing us up more. We never escape Romans 7, yet we always have the hope expressed in Romans 8.

“So while the storm of Romans 7 rages inside of us, the truth of Romans 8 has us safe and sound. Within the spiritual ecosystem of God’s saving sovereignty, in fact, our struggle is like the little squall stirred up in a snow globe.”

In the second chapter he calls discipleship followship. We follow Jesus and help others follow Jesus. This is true, but we also learn and teach others and are therefore … disciples. Often we can make it difficult, he says, for others to follow Jesus by confusing wounds and sins. Both persist, but the gospel addresses them in different ways. We forgive those who wound us, and God heals us with the balm of the gospel. Sins, which sometimes flow from wounds, are forgiven and God calls us to repentance and self-denial at times.

The third chapter focuses on beholding Jesus glory as opposed to seeing Him as a life coach or self-help advisor. Jesus changes us as we behold His glory (though this is not the only way He changes us). We are on a quest to discover glory, often in the wrong places like porn, wealth accumulation etc. I look for glory in sports. Not my glory but the athletes’. So he encourages us to look to Jesus and His unchanging glory.

He then addresses time in the Scripture to hear the rhythm of the gospel. We are immersed in the rhythm of our culture and need to be renewed by the rhythm of the gospel in Scripture. It isn’t just the details, but beginning to grasp the big picture of Scripture. It took him some time to get to the point of the chapter, listening to the rhythm. This another way God transforms us as He renews our minds.

There is another rhythm he mentions next, that of spilling your guts: prayer. We live in a busy culture and often suffer from hurry sickness. We don’t have time to pray (or read, or …). Prayer is how we process His words to us, and our circumstances (hopefully in light of His Word). Even better, Jesus lives forever to intercede for us in order to save us to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25).

Then Wilson discusses a much-neglected aspect of discipleship in our culture: community. While we are personally saved, we are joined to Jesus into a community, the Body of Christ. We need one another to grow into maturity. Sanctification is not a self-help, or do-it-yourself, project. Community is also where self-denial, humility, considering the needs of others becomes necessary as we follow Jesus.

“The Christian life must be walked within the encouragement, edification, and accountability of Christian community. … To abide in Christ necessitates embracing the body of Christ as God’s plan for the Christian life.”

In a strange turn of events, he puts forth “Nine Irrefutable Laws of Followship”. He throws out some biblical imperatives that are part of healthy Christian living: be loving, be joyful, be peaceful, be patient, be kind, be good, be faithful, be gentle, and be self-controlled. This is a description of what Jesus is making you because it is a pretty good description of Jesus. These are also the fruit of the Spirit.

He then moves into our union with Christ. We are not who we will be, and still struggle with something of an identity crisis. There is much we don’t like about ourselves. Thankfully, our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). In the midst of this he talks about idolatry via Genesis 22. We lay down all our idols to pick up Jesus. Our idols can’t make us what we want to be, only Jesus can. Our idols can’t give us life (they steal it), only Jesus can.

“You may see yourself as worthless and faithless, but God never has to look for your righteousness, because since you have been raised with Christ and since Christ is seated at God’s right hand, your holiness is also seated at his right hand.”

He then moves into a discussion of suffering. We often feel forgotten or abandoned by God when we suffer. Jared is honest about a deep, suicidal depression he experienced. There is no pit too deep for Him to reach us, but He also lifts us higher than any idol can or than we can imagine going. There is grace in the pit, and grace lifts us to God’s presence in heaven.

“It’s true that sometimes God doesn’t become our holy hope until God becomes our only hope.”

The final chapter, Lurv Wins, is rooted in a scene from Annie Hall and reminds me of Rob Bell’s book. He never mentions Bell’s book, and the content isn’t the same as Rob’s book. He’s not advocating “Christian Universalism” but talking about heaven. The point of heaven is Jesus. He’s not an add-on, a bonus or merely a means to the end. What we experience there will be more than words can express. In Scripture, when people go to heaven they are overwhelmed, struck down as if dead and filled with dread. Our hope is not an earthly hope, but one that can only be satisfied in the unmediated presence of God. Earthly hopes keep unraveling, but that one will be greater than we can imagine.

“Grace is all-sufficient for glory. Grace doesn’t just go all the way down to our weakness and suffering; it goes all the way up to our deliverance, all the way up to the throne of God, where our Savior is seated at the right hand of the Father and where, because we have been raised with him, and seated with him in the heavenly places, we also have a place.”

While this, and the book, is generally good, at some points this casual or conversational style makes for some “sloppy” theology. One is something I noticed in Unparalleled as well regarding justification. “It’s not just that God wipes our sinful state clean (justification); he also writes onto the slate of our heart the perfect righteousness of Christ (imputation). (pp. 166)” Actually the first is “pardon” and justification includes both pardon and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

He also hit one of my pet peeves: “He predestined this very circumstance. If I believe that, I can be patient.” (pp. 160) The word he wants is ordained. Predestination refers to salvation/damnation, not ordinary providence. Just one of those things that bugs me since technical terms exist for a reason and sloppy usage ends up changing the meaning and makes theological discourse more difficult (as Sproul notes in a book I am currently reading to review). While not an academic book, I’d hope he could communicate the proper use of technical terms.

He also makes a false distinction between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant on page 122. “The old covenant was made with God’s chosen people, and the new covenant is made with God’s called-out people.” Was not Abraham called out in Genesis 12? Was not Israel called out of Egypt? Was not Israel called out from the nations to be a people of God’s own possession? Are not we chosen (Eph. 1, 1 Peter 1 for starters)? The word ecclesia, which he might be basing this on, is used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, to refer to the assembly of the Israel. Israel was …. the church! The OT was largely written to the community of faith called Israel, which so often struggled to believe. The NT was largely written to the community of faith called the church which was grafted onto the vine of the True Israel- Jesus.

Another head scratcher was on page 40: “We are idiots when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount.” I won’t get into the nature of the beatitudes and the 3 uses of the law at this point (he could use some brushing up there too), but just the use of idiots to refer to us. It strikes me as contrary to another part of the Sermon on the Mount.

Being a Baptist, he also leaves out the sacraments as a part of the rhythm of grace God has given to us. Baptism begins our discipleship (based on the grammar of the Great Commission). But we are imperfect disciples, and that includes Jared. His book isn’t perfect but it is a very good and helpful book. It is worth reading and is accessible to those who are struggling with the fact they are quite imperfect.

[I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.]

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Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.

 

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The next of the Mistakes Leaders Make is to spend too much time on hurting people and not enough time developing future leaders. Dave Kraft is not the only one to warn of this propensity. It comes up in The Trellis and the Vine.

He isn’t saying churches, and leaders, should not care for the hurting people in the congregation. He is saying that you need to make sure you spend time cultivating future leaders too. The hurting can often demand your time. The hungry usually aren’t calling you to set up appointments.

“If all the leader’s time is devoted to shepherding and counseling hurting people to the exclusion of nurturing hungry future leaders, the ministry cannot continue to grow as God would desire.”

So it can be easy, particularly as a smaller church pastor, to focus too much energy on the hurting.

I suspect some of this has to do with gifting. The more priestly pastors are highly empathetic. They will spend lots of time working with the hurting. They will not place as high a value on the future. They won’t be preparing future leaders as much as a pastor with a strong prophetic or kingly gifting.

(more…)

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One of the things I don’t like about buying books on line is that you really can’t flip through it (Amazon is trying) and see if it is what you are looking for in the first place. The Walk by Stephen Smallman is one of the books I wish I’d been able to flip through. It was recommended in another book about discipleship. Since he’s in the same denomination in which I serve it, unlike the book I had read, would come from a more consistently covenantal perspective. This is not to say this is a bad book, because it isn’t. It just isn’t the book I had thought it would be. I was looking for a more theoretical book that had application. This is a book intended to actually be used to disciple new and renewed followers of Jesus. I guess I should have noticed that subtitle. But I do have a good resource to recommend to those, or use with those, who want or need to be discipled. One of the strengths is the progression that he uses from basics to discipleship thru the gospel on to mission. The goal is not information accumulation, but growth in grace, sanctification into greater obedience and maturity to disciple others and join Jesus in His mission (2 Cor. 5).

“If ‘going to heaven’ is the key objective of evangelism, perhaps that begins to tell us why discipleship is viewed as optional by so many ‘converts.'”

It is a 12 lesson course that could be used in SS, or throughout a year in a small group. He has a reading plan that goes with each lesson which he refers to often (largely Mark and Romans). He also has a reading plan in an appendix that can be used afterwards. We aren’t talking a verse to proof text. These are longer chunks that coincide with the material in the chapter. They build on one another to develop the context of the larger text. It gets people reading the Bible, since this is a large part of discipleship. (more…)

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Certain titles attract your attention as a pastor. Jonathan Dodson’s Gospel-Centered Discipleship has one of those titles. There is a discipleship crisis in the American Church. We too easily lapse into moralism or legalism instead of pursuing a healthy biblical vision of holiness. Or, some churches barely pursue any form of discipleship. Wanting to strengthen our discipleship, I was drawn to this book.

It is hard to live up to the hype. This is an inconsistent book. There are some very good, even excellent sections. And then there are sections, even chapters, that were frustrating, confusing and not very helpful.

Dodson is heavily dependent on Keller, Owen, Edwards, Lovelace and Piper. The best portions of the book bear their mark. Those sections focus on how the gospel keeps us from both legalism and license. The gospel calls us to holiness- godly character and actions- but also provides the proper motivation and power for that holiness. Our sinful hearts default to trying to be good according to our own wisdom and power. So, we slip into legalism, rules and try to obey in the power of the flesh. Dodson does a good job of stressing the importance of the gospel for sanctification.

“The gospel is necessary for getting right and doing right with God, for salvation and sanctification.”

One of the strengths of the book is the chapter on Gospel Motivation. There is explores how the gospel produces “religious affections” which are the motivation for godly living. He also discusses the role of confession and repentance in the process of sanctification.

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In his first letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul mentions how the gospel came with power. This power was seen in that they turned away from idols to serve the living God. They were converted. Conversion involves a putting away of idols. There just seems to be no way of avoiding this reality. All of us depended on something to save us: our goodness, our IQ, our race or background, some ritual (circumcision, baptism, walking the aisle …). Finally we turned from them to a God who can really save us- Jesus!

But our hearts didn’t stop their nefarious work of producing idols to either supplant or supplement Jesus. Nothing ultimately can, because He is all-sufficient. But we are foolish and sinful. We are prone to wander, distracted like a kid in a toy store.

This is the season to contemplate the death and resurrection of Christ as our Substitute. Too often we are prone to focus on our justification. But we can’t stop there. We have to move into our sanctification. Why? Because Jesus did. And Paul did.

I’m preaching out of Luke 9 this week. It is the passage where Peter makes his profound confession that Jesus was the Messiah. Not that he understood all that it means. Jesus proceeds to tell the disciples just what it means. He moves to his death and resurrection. This is the means by which we are delivered from the wrath of God that is justly due our sin.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He moves into discipleship. If we are united to Christ and he is the suffering Messiah, we too must lay down our lives and suffer as we follow him. There are the three commands: deny yourself, pick up the cross and follow me.  In other words, this is the path of sanctification. There is no coming back- we are on a death march. We do this in the hope of life everlasting, that Jesus is true to his word and his work is sufficient.

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Uneven.

If I were given one word to describe Disciple: Getting Your Identity From Jesus by Bill Clem, that is the word I would use. It is published as part of the RE:Lit line and has a forward by Mark Driscoll. It comes with blubs by people like Paul Tripp. In other words, it intrigued me.

Bill is trying to create a paradigm shift in how we think about discipleship. Someone in the church I pastor has been asking me questions about discipleship recently. My answers were in many ways close to what Bill is shooting for. But this runs against the grain of a church shaped by life in America which is filled with standardized tests and a concept of time consumed by efficiency. Programs aren’t discipleship. They can be a means of discipleship, but aren’t necessarily discipleship. Communicating theological knowledge and understanding isn’t either (though people need to grow in their biblical and theological knowledge to grow as disciples).

Bill Clem’s premise is that disciples primarily image God to the watching world (and unseen world). We were created in God’s image. As image bearers, Adam and Eve were to reflect God’s glory, and represent Him to the rest of creation. In their sin, the image was marred.  In redemption, Christ’s work in us (sanctification) is to restore that image in us. We reveal God’s character and represent Him more clearly over time. This premise is a giant step in the right direction. It is a necessary corrective to our thinking about discipleship.

Back to my one word assessment of the book. There are some very good chapters in this book. They are filled with red ink from my pen. And there are some chapters that have little additional ink, or the red ink is expressing my confusion. There were times when I was really tracking with Bill Clem, and there were times when I was under-whelmed or just plain frustrated.

“To disciple people is not to make them like everybody else; it is to shape them into the image of Jesus.”

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0a5b8d457c3755711406e2dd6c4dac8aRadical by David Platt is one of the books that has been enjoying lots of word of mouth among American Calvinists (mainly neo-Calvinists) since its release.  When I had the opportunity to get a review copy, I took it.  I wanted to read it to see what the buzz was about, and the topic interests me.

“I am convinced that we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe.”

Years ago, I preached my Advent series from Revelation.  One of those sermons was on the dual strategies of the Evil One to destroy the church.  The Beast represents governments that persecute the church.  The Prostitute represents seduction, as the world seduces the church such that she slowly becomes like the world.  In some countries the church experiences persecution, but here in America we face the Seductress.  It goes without saying that the message was not well received by some.  So, that being said, I get what David Platt is trying to say in his book.

This is not a new subject.  Michael Horton has written numerous books on the subject of how American Christianity has been warped by American values (instead of the influence going the other way).  People like Ron Sider, Francis Chan and a host of others have tackled this subject in the 25 years since Christ rescued me.  In fact, this book is part Horton (he stresses some theological ideas contrary to American thought- Calvinism), part Francis Chan (a ‘radical’ approach) and part Ron Sider (“pack your bags, we’re going on a guilt trip).  Which makes this a difficult book to review.

“A command for us to be gospel-living, gospel-speaking people at every moment and in every context where we find ourselves.”

Radical is not as good as the hype nor as bad as most (poorly informed) critics make it out to be.  But let me start with some good things, because there are things I appreciate about the book.  There are things the American Church needs to reckon with regarding how we’ve been seduced by our corner of the world.

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Life has a way of becoming complex.  And people have a way of accumulating stuff.  It isn’t just the hoarders you see on TV.  All of us are prone to collect something.  I collect books and music.  Okay, I used to collect music until I got married and my disposable income had different uses.  I may start again, but at least it take up more space in my house, only my hard drive.  I’m sure you collect something: stamps, baseball cards, coins, dolls, coke logo items ….

In the 5th chapter of The Radical Disciple, John Stott talks about Simplicity.  He returns to the discussion of materialism from the first chapter here.  He tells a far too uncommon story of a man whose life was unencumbered by the possessions he could own, but rather he lived a life of great generosity.

I often say that government abhors a vacuum.  All left over revenues will be spent.  Rare is the government official who cuts a budget.  I remember someone is an organization saying “we’d better spend it or they’ll cut our budget for next year.”  It becomes about power and status.  This is who we are.

The followers of Jesus should be committed, not to power and status, but to simple lifestyles.  This does not mean living in a cardboard box, but recognizing God does not give us all He gives us for us to spend on us.  Did you get that?  I know, it doesn’t roll off the tongue.

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It is really strange that maturity would be considered a neglected aspect of discipleship.  I know I mention it regularly in preaching.  But, seeing as how the evangelical world is fairly shallow spiritually, John Stott is probably wise to bring it up in The Radical Disciple.

Stott begins by lamenting the explosive growth of the Church in the non-western world because it is about as superficial as the Christianity of the West.  Thanks to satellite and the internet we get to share our ignorance with them.  The world over, the Church is lacking depth in biblical knowledge and therefore character, or maturity.

The Scriptures, on the other hand, instruct us that such immaturity is “unnatural”.  Babies are meant to seek milk and grow up.  There are many Scriptures like 1 Corinthians 3, Ephesians 4 and Hebrews 6 that remind us that it is natural that we move toward maturity.  If we aren’t, there is some sort of dysfunction taking place- just like a teenager who doesn’t get taller and stronger.

The end of Colossians 1 is my “mission statement” as a pastor.  I strive to present everyone mature in Christ.  Since we are “in Christ” or vitally united to Him, “to be mature is to have a mature relationship with Christ in which we worship, trust, love and obey him.”  One of the problems we face is that people tend to create a Jesus in their own image (based on ethnicity, politics or ethics) rather than becoming conformed to the likeness of the real Jesus.  This is what idol factories do.

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  Jerome

Instead our “image” of Christ must also be shaped by Scripture.  It, not our preferences or vain imaginings, must determine who we worship.  That is because, according to Scripture, we become like what we worship (this is one of the problems with idols revealed by the prophets).

Back to Colossians 1, unlike many pastors or evangelists, Paul was not content with conversions.  He saw evangelism as leading directly into discipleship.  We are not to merely make converts, but disciples (Mt. 28).  We are to strive in His power to present the as mature in  Christ by proclaiming Christ to everyone.  We have lots of work to do.

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In his (possibly last) book, The Radical Disciple, John Stott addresses the 8 characteristics of discipleship that he believes are most lacking in western forms of Christianity.  So, I’ll spend a little time going over what he says about them.  The first is non-conformity, but before we get there a few words from his preface.

“For genuine discipleship is wholehearted discipleship … Our common way of avoiding radical discipleship is to be selective.”

This is the nature of the human heart.  We think that we are obedient if we keep some of this demands.  But Jesus’ call to discipleship requires that we follow with all our heart, and all that we are.  We do not pick and choose the ways we will love Him any more than we should pick and choose how to love our spouse.

“Escapism and conformism are thus both forbidden to us. … We are neither to see to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world.”

This is the point of Jesus’ statement about us being “in the world, but not of it.”  Stott summarizes it well.  He specifies a few challenges we face as we try to live this out.  The first is pluralism.  While maintaining humility, we need to affirm his uniqueness in incarnation, atonement and resurrection.  As a result, Jesus is “uniquely competent to save sinners.”

Materialism is another challenge.  We are not to be like some obscure philosophers who denied the reality of the material world.  Materialism is a “preoccupation with material things”.  In the parable of the Sower, Jesus mentions how such a preoccupation stifles spiritual life.  We are not to live for this life.  We are to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel- self-denial.

The next challenge is ethical relativism.  Postmodernism’s attack on absolute truth has seen a reject of absolute moral standards.   One of those is the attack on “traditional marriage”.  Some churches are even beginning to question this.  They say that Jesus never addressed homosexuality.  Jesus did address marriage, and in a way that eliminates non-traditional marriage.  He quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in discussing marriage.  God made men and women in His image, and then gives the biblical definition of marriage: a man united to his wife.  Jesus affirms this view of marriage as God’s view of marriage (Mt. 19).  One of the key elements of true discipleship is the Lordship of Jesus.  He, not culture, defines right and wrong for us.

“To confess Jesus as Lord but not obey him is to build our lives on a foundation of sand.”

He also notes narcissism as a serious problem that we face.  The church has often bought into the therapeutic pseudo-gospel which advocates self-love (thank you Robert Shuller).  The point of agape, as he mentions, is sacrificial love.  Self-love, on the other hand, is a sign of the last days (2 Timothy 3:2).  Self-love actually sabotages the love of community that is a reflection of the gospel (God is love, an eternal community of love).

These are some important trends and pattern which challenge us.  We cannot risk conforming to the materialism, pluralism, relativism and narcissism of the culture.  True disciples are conformed to Christ, not the world.  But they don’t escape the world in a holy huddle either.

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One of the hot books among Reformed pastors these days is The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.  If you haven’t heard of them, it may be because they are Australian.  The fact that these brothers are from “down under” shows up in some of the words and spellings utilized in the book.  But that does not mean the material is irrelevant to churches here in the States, or elsewhere.

My friend Morgan had an extra copy and passed it along to me.  I’m glad, I’m reading it as I prepare for my new call in Arizona.  The subtitle is The Ministry Mind Shift that Changes Everything.  That is a mighty bold claim, but how we think about ministry determines how we go about ministry.  Marshall and Payne are noticing some wrong ways of thinking and going about ministry.  Their goal is to reorient the church to a more biblical understanding and therefore practice.  In other words, orthodoxy leading to orthopraxy.

What did they notice?  One of them spent some time pondering their landscaping.  There they noticed a beautiful trellis and a meager trellis.  What was more important than the relative beauty of the trellises was that one had a thriving vine on it, and the other didn’t.  One trellis was beautiful, but it’s purpose was not to be beautiful, but to support a thriving vine.

Ministry has become, for many, more about having a beautiful trellis than a thriving vine.  This is the opposite of what ministry is about in Scripture.  This is there thesis.  Just as the vine needs the trellis, churches need the proper structure and support for the church to grow.  But a good vine dresser spends most of his time on the vine, not the trellis.  Most pastors spend most of their time on the structure instead of the Body.

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I’m not a big Leadership Journal guy.  I find much of what they put out less than helpful.  But they have an interview with Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village.  Matt is one of the new generation of church leaders who embraces conservative, Reformed theology but recognizes this isn’t the 1500’s or 1950 either.

They discuss sanctification, and its connection with discipleship.  I really appreciated one of the phrases that he used.

“It’s okay to not be okay, but it’s not okay to stay there.”

Sanctification is a process, and a difficult, long often exasperating one.  The other day I was screaming “I hate me” because I cannot separate my sin from me (another good point Chandler discovered one day after a friend admonished him).  All the bad things I do flow from a tainted, ugly heart.  At times this is more clear than others.

“Some people are meant to wrestle with their sin a long time before God brings them to freedom, but let’s wrestle. Let’s fight. Let’s do something besides just complain.”

But we are not to do this alone, but together.  Discipleship, according to Jesus, includes teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Mt. 28).   He and Darren Patrick, pastor of The Journey, put together what they call Greenhouse which tried to balance the relational/organic with the structure/system.

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In this day and age ministry has become more about systems, programs and administration than it was in centuries gone by.  Sometimes we need to re-assess.  One way to gain a bit of historical perspective is Peter Beale’s translation of Martin Bucer’s book on pastoral ministry called Concerning the True Care of Souls.

Bucer was one of the Swiss Reformers in the 16th century.  He spent most of his ministry in Strasburg.  It was there that John Calvin, booted out of Geneva, spent his time until the city elders came to invite him back.  He learned much about pastoral ministry from Bucer.  Later he would accept the invitation of Thomas Cranmer to go to England, teaching at Cambridge.

He begins this theology of ministry with short chapters on the nature of the church and Christ’s rule in His church.  This lays the foundation for lays ahead.  The next chapter is on how Jesus carries out His pastoral office through ordained ministers.  We are to understand Jesus at work among us through ordained ministers for our salvation and well-being.  Yes, this despite the faults and frailty of ministers.  There is another short chapter on the types of ministers/ministries Jesus uses.

After a few more short chapters we hit the core of Bucer’s book- the tasks of ministry.  He begins with how lost sheep are to be sought (evangelism).  The bulk of the book is taken up with the restoration of stray sheep (church discipline).  He then moves on to how the wounded and sick sheep are to be healed (more church discipline), how weak sheep are to be strengthened & healthy sheep are to be guarded & fed (discipleship).

He spends so much time on church discipline for a few reasons.  He served in the context of a state-church.  As a result, there were many church members who were so in name only.  Some were obviously lost, forsaking the worship of God.  Others were wayward, bearing no fruit of regeneration.  There was much work to be done.  Imagine if pastors here in America had responsibilities for whole neighborhoods or towns.  They would be responsible not just for church members (people who showed up to worship services) but all the people living in the geographical bounds.

The second reason he spends so much time on this was because many thought this a “roman” practice.  He shows the biblical grounding of church discipline, and distinguishes it from some of the abuses that took place in the Roman Church, as well its neglect among some Protestants.  He also draws heavily on the Early Church Fathers.

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Somehow I missed this episode of “Flip that Church”.  I’ve got a post on what the Reveal survey revealed and that Willow Creek admitted they’d misjudged things.  I missed the follow-up, what they were doing differently.  It really sounds like a complete change of ministry philosophy.  Sounds like they discovered the “traditional church” had the right ideas.  Hmmmm.

Today, Greg Hawkins, executive pastor at Willow, recapped the study and then shared some changes that the church is now making in response to the research. He said they’re making the biggest changes to the church in over 30 years. For three decades Willow has been focused on making the church appealing to seekers. But the research shows that it’s the mature believers that drive everything in the church—including evangelism.

Hawkins says, “We used to think you can’t upset a seeker. But while focusing on that we’ve really upset the Christ-centered people.” He spoke about the high levels of dissatisfaction mature believer have with churches. Drawing from the 200 churches and the 57,000 people that have taken the survey, he said that most people are leaving the church because they’re not being challenged enough.

Because it’s the mature Christians who drive evangelism in the church Hawkins says, “Our strategy to reach seekers is now about focusing on the mature believers. This is a huge shift for Willow.”

Mature believers matter?  How very interesting.  This is a weakness of the “church plant craze.”  I am pro-church plant; don’t get me wrong.  But some planters completely dis’ established churches.  They want to reach the unchurched, which is awesome, but they often begin to too few mature Christians in the core group.  As a result they are like the parents on octuplets, over-burdened and wishing they could bail.

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