Outlive Your Life – Max Lucado

I have been delaying this review longer than I should because in all candor I did not want to write it. The book was disappointing in so many ways and while it was not totally without merit, I can think of a dozen or more books that would accomplish the goal of this one better, with more insight, and at a higher level of truth content.

I will say that Lucado has a very easy to read writing style. I added this book to my list in 2016 because I wanted to see what made his work so popular in Christian circles. Undoubtedly, his writing style is one reason. I also have to commend a clever use of word pictures and illustrations to get his point across. The book has more horse sense (“If we wait until everything is perfect, we’ll never issue and invitation.”) than it does actual biblical admonitions.

That’s pretty much all I can say that is positive. Perhaps the worst thing I can say, and I don’t mean it in any way other than a comparison of the books I reviewed this year, is that it reminded me a lot of  Joel Osteen. Of course the book is not as theologically bankrupt as Osteen’s was, but it is very similar in the way it relied on illustrations and stories to make points that may or may not be in the Bible. It seemed like Lucado’s chief goal was readability rather than fidelity to the truth. On one hand, readability is really important when communicating truth because if people put the book down after 10 pages the truth never gets out. On the other hand, if the way you keep people reading is by being clever, they’re never going to see Jesus.

One of the most troubling aspects of the book is the way Lucado just starts making stuff up about Bible stories without ever differentiating what is his imagination and what is in the actual text. He makes up facts that potentially change the meaning of the Scripture about Annas, Peter, Philip, Ananias/Sapphria, and others. It’s actually scary to think he’s so comfortable representing his musings about what happened as authoritative. I’m not saying we should never use our imagination – we’ve dedicated our Friday evening evangelistic study to that very thing – but we’re just so much more careful about stating what is God’s Word and what is us filling in the blanks.

Another disappointment from the book was how many different translations Lucado used throughout (eight in total). It seemed like he already knew what he wanted to say and just went looking for verses to back it up in whatever version made that easiest for him. Certainly sometimes there are nuances that our preferred version do not catch well, but it just strikes me as more honest to say that outright and take a sentence or two to explain it. Bouncing around between versions is at least lazy and potentially intellectually dishonest.

The book was not without any merit. The chapter on hospitality was pretty good. Some of the stories were helpful to illustrate rather than usurp a biblical point. In the end I simply cannot recommend it. If you are interested in a book that will help you think about what it would look like to invest your life in such a way that your impact lives on after you I would recommend John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life (free PDF available), Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, or Dave Harvey’s Rescuing Ambition. Another idea would be to read a biography of someone who left a legacy after he or she died such as John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken or Fox’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe.

Gaining by Losing by J.D. Greear reviewed

I mentioned at the beginning of the year that this book made my 2016 list because I knew I would disagree with the author on all sorts of issues around body life in a church but admired what I saw as a commitment toward church planting. The book confirmed both of those notions.

I think the book’s basic strength is that it’s written by someone who believes enormous churches where you cannot possibly know the people around you are a good thing. That’s because those churches, if they saw the issue of sending properly, have the most immediate opportunity to impact the landscape of Christianity in America. In one chapter, Greear explains that it’s wonderful to both be attractional (meaning to try to draw people into church gatherings for evangelism) and missional (meaning we need to go to non-Christians and proclaim the gospel to them in ways that are adapted to their language, background, and culture. The way he explains it is useful and a helpful bridge to people who still think inviting people to church is an effective evangelistic technique (which it almost never is now and will be even less so in the future).

One of the first things that hits you in the book is J.D.’s humility in admitting that he did not start off with the mentality and philosophy of ministry he promotes in the book. In several places in the book he comes back to where he had to make substantial course corrections and repent of sinful or bad motivations in order to get to where they are now.

His overarching point, made on page 19 and then throughout the book, is that since the God of the Bible is a sending, or missionary God, His followers should be as committed to it as He is. That has to include more than just writing a check to someone living 3000 miles away, it has to be a lifestyle. He effectively draws the comparison of the church as an aircraft carrier that equips the war planes then sends them out for battle as opposed to a cruise liner built for the comfort of its passengers or a battleship that does it’s fighting in limited amounts of big bangs (p 27-29). The idea culminates a few chapters later when he writes:

When the church begins to operate with the assumption that everyone is called, our approach to mobilization will shift dramatically. We won’t limit our mission engagement to a bulletin board in the lobby with images of people serving in New Guinea that church members should pray for, as important as that is. We will see every  member of our church as a potential missionary to be equipped and mobilized. Our goal is not to send some, or even our best, but to send all into the mission – to our city, across the country, or to the other side of the world.

Even though he is a “big church” guy whose Facebook page looks like a rock concert, in the book he does warn big churches trying to be attractional that many times they can “substitute the gathering power of entertainment for the transforming power of the cross.” It’s a helpful warning to those trying to walk the line J.D. is walking and while I bet he and I would see the line at very different places, I’m glad to see that someone who claims to pastor 6,000 people believes there is a line at all.

The chapter on racial reconciliation was useful mostly because it didn’t just repeat the same drivel that is spouted from many church leaders today. He actually talked a little about what it would take for the church to truly be reconciled across racial lines. I think he overplayed the hand that God expects us to primarily reach unbelievers who are a lot like us, but overall it was well done. One quote in particular was worth sharing.

“Multicultural engagement within your city, like international missions, is something that all believers are expected to participate in, but that God moves certain believers to pursue with focused intentionality. The apostle Paul was in that category. Some of us (under the leadership of the Spirit) need to make this cause our cause. After all, it makes no sense to send people 10,000 miles across the globe to reach people of other cultures when we won’t send people ten miles across our own city to reach people in different neighborhoods. Why would we cross the seas but not the tracks?” (p172)

The flow of the book seemed a little choppy to me, mostly because he “chapterized” the core principles that they emphasize at his church. I’m sure it fits their mostly white, suburban, middle class, enormous church but a lot of it didn’t really fit my world at all and a lot of his talking points wouldn’t make much sense to the mission field God has given us. That’s okay because we have our own core principles but in some ways it interfered with the value of the book for me. Still, as I reviewed my kindle version I noticed at least one highlight in each chapter although there seemed to me more highlighting early on.

By the end of the book I was convinced J.D. was someone who really loved Jesus and wanted to see the knowledge of His glory cover Raleigh Durham like the waters cover the sea. I was also convinced I wouldn’t last more than a month at his church. The book is a worthwhile read for anyone looking for examples of the kind of culture necessary to be a church that is really focused on the Great Commission. It’s a fairly easy read for a 250 page book and most readers could complete it without any problems.

2016 Reading Results

Well, I didn’t get as much of my reading list completed as I had hoped for. A few unexpected books had to be read and my Master’s thesis took a little more out of me at the first part of the year than I expected. There is only so much reading my non reader brain can handle. My original list with the rationale is here 2016 Reading List, which focused on things I would not normally pick up and the recommendations of friends. I posted reviews of many of the books I read on this site. I will repeat this approach in 2017. Here are the top five books and why:

Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley – Wonderfully written book that challenges both right wing and left wing assumptions about what makes for a good education system. Turns out something like common core is important and per pupil spending is not. Very easy to read and I really appreciate how the author, who admits to being left of center, challenged so many of the bedrock principles of the NEA.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – I suppose it’s not surprising that I liked this book as much as I did given millions of other people did too. I finished it faster than any book its length in my life and still cannot get over how much this book displays the outrageous goodness of God to Louie in so many different circumstances. The movie was good and captured many things brilliantly, but missed the core point Louie would want made, namely the lovingkindness of Jesus to love him so patiently so long.

Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen Ambrose – I would not have supposed that a book on the people who built the transcontinental railroad would have been as compelling as it was. Ambrose did a masterful job of presenting these real life characters and introducing me to Theodore Judah. My next pet, even if it is a rock, will be named Judah.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – I don’t really read fiction that much because normally I think the truth is funnier, but this was a good recommendation and after the first 200 pages or so it really picked up. The book is massive, so finishing it at all was almost as much of an accomplishment as learning to enjoy fiction for what it is.

Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send by J.D. Greear – This book gets an honorable mention simply because I wish more leaders in evangelical churches would read it. I have too many friends in too many churches that live as if the only way to “win” is to grow the number of people attending each weekend when J.D. makes a case that winning only happens when disciples are made and the New Testament pattern seems to be a distributed model where Christians spread out rather than cluster together in little like-minded bubbles.

Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869

I really had no idea what to expect from this book. I’ve always appreciated the author, especially as it relates to Band of Brothers, but I’d never really thought about the first transcontinental railroad before. I got the book used at our local “friends of the library” book store and figured it would meet my goal for the year of reading a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t normally select.

I really enjoyed the book. Ambrose does a good job of making the arduous work of building a railroad at a mile per day or digging tunnels at a couple feet per day easy to read and even compelling. He does in this book what he does best, making the most of the biographical sketches of the key players while he records the history of building the railroad. The level of detail of these men was more than sufficient for me and I would say I feel like I know Durant (and wouldn’t trust him with my dog) and would like to shake the hand of General Dodge. Most of all, I have untold respect for a man I’d never heard of before, Theodore Judah, whose imagination, hard work, and relentless passion were the reasons this railroad got designed and built in the first place. After becoming enamored with him, I became quite upset to read that he died prior to seeing his vision fully realized.

I suppose one of the most thought provoking comments made in the book was near the end when Ambrose suggested that of all the generations who witnessed change, those alive during the 2nd half of the 19th century America probably experienced more personal change than anyone else in history. They got the railroad, the ability to move freely across great distances, the telegraph, electricity, the end of slavery, and much more. Yes, something like the internet was massively disruptive in everyone’s lives but he could be right that it was this time period that changed the most considering prior to these inventions people more or less communicated and did commerce in the same was as Alexander the Great.

I would certainly recommend it. I suppose the highest praise I can offer the book is that it made me, a non-reader, want to read more detail about certain elements he covered in the book such as the real truth on relations between settlers and Native Americans and the development of corporations.

Thanksgiving in Zephaniah

We spent our Thanksgiving service thinking about the idea of thanksgiving from the book of Zephaniah. I got the idea because Zephaniah 3:17 has been such an encouragement and cause for thanks in my own life, I wanted to spend more time tracing where it came from. We made the point that since thanksgiving requires an acknowledgement of a benefit received or promised, the degree to which you see yourself benefiting from God’s work on your behalf will determine your level of thankfulness

The book is addressed to the southern kingdom of Judah during Josiah’s reign. The first two chapters are pronouncements of judgment on first Judah then on the nations surrounding her. One of the things that struck me was that God’s judgment began with Judah, and the prophet spent as much time pronouncing judgment on Judah as he did all the other nations covered combined. The other thing that seemed really important was that according to 1:12, God’s judgment was not just directed at those who violently opposed Him but those who were simply ambivalent toward Him. All those who did not respond to God’s goodness with thanksgiving were equally doomed.

The reason for thankfulness is that God has made a way of escape from His judgment. Last week as we were discussing the persecuted church around the world we mentioned that God only promises escape to those who seek Him (Heb 2:3), and the escape from persecution might just be death, so we continued by asking what kind of escape had God provided for those who trusted Him?

The answer is twofold. First of all, God provides an escape that includes far more than just a lack of judgment – it includes great blessing. God does not just restore sinners to a “fresh start” where they can start digging their hole again, He actually grants them His favor by giving them the status of Jesus. He takes away both His judgments AND Judah’s enemies, and when He’s done he hangs out with His people (v15). We looked at several verses in chapter 3 that show us that it’s actually God who is doing the work to restore these lost sinners (esp. 3:9-13). He is the one who gives His people a pure heart with pure speech, and unites us and removes our shame. And it’s not because we’re so great that we deserve it – the passage describes those over whom God rejoices as lame, outcast and shamed (3:19).

So when God rejoices over lost sinners turning to Him with loud singing (3:17), He is actually rejoicing over Himself and His work on our behalf. When you consider how necessary it is for God to work in this way, it’s not hard to acknowledge the benefit those who put their faith in the one true God have received. That’s the key to growing a thankful heart.

I am an illegal immigrant

Mercifully, the election season has only a few days left. This cycle, perhaps more than any other, has brought out the worst in people who seem to value political power more than things like integrity, compassion, faithfulness, or unity. We have the two most hated political candidates in history, and this is precisely what America has asked for. It’s a scary time in some ways.

One of the things that I have been most discouraged by is the way that professing Christians have rallied around Donald Trump. I get why secular humanists like Hillary Clinton, but I don’t know what Christians, especially evangelical Christians, see in Donald Trump. His signature goal is to build a wall to keep out all those rotten illegal immigrants. I agree that we are a nation of laws and laws do matter, but somehow Christians have forgotten that we too illegal immigrants in the way that we talk about this topic.

First of all, we forget that we are “aliens and strangers” in our current land (1 Peter 2:11). Whether that is America or France or China, all Christians are supposed to live in such a way that we understand that we have no claim to this land. Our citizenship is primarily in heaven (Phil 3:20) and we ought to live like our loyalty lies there first. This world hates us more than Donald Trump hates illegal immigrants or Syrian refugees, primarily because it first hated Jesus (John 15:18-21). The world system does not want us here and does not give its permission for us to be here. Today we consider the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and the fact that we have this day is proof enough that Christians outside of America are very much treated as the illegal immigrants we are. American Christians would do well to wake up and let our spiritual status inform some part of their political fury against those who are here illegally so their families can survive.

More than that, I am an illegal immigrant eternally. Only through the grace and mercy of another am I able to consider Heaven my eternal home (2 Cor 5:1). I wasn’t born there and don’t deserve citizenship there in any way. My eternal zip code should be Hell. Christians born in America often seem to think that they did something special to get here when in fact they did nothing more than the “anchor babies” many of them hate so much. I am not saying we shouldn’t take our American heritage seriously – we should. I am saying that the vast majority of people participating in Donald Trump rallies miss the fact that they expect the grace and mercy of another to be activated for their eternal residence, but they are unwilling to consider the place of extending grace and mercy toward those who would make a temporary residence in America. This kind disconnect is the evidence those who hate the church use to discredit the whole faith and that criticism is fair.

This is not a call for amnesty or open borders or anything like that. I would most likely oppose anything like that politically. It is a call for Christians to talk about these issues as though they understand something of the life of a illegal alien. It is a call to resist the urge to fight harder to stop people from entering the country illegally than to introduce the very same people to the One who holds the keys to a much better, and eternal, residence.

No go for Joel

One of the things I wanted to do with this year’s reading plan is to read a lot of things I would not normally choose. These books span a wide range of topics and ranged from the excellent Smartest Kids in the World to the mind boggling Fear and Trembling and lots of good stuff in between.

I have been pretty critical of Joel Osteen for a long time based on what I have seen of him on TV and read in snippets. I also had the chance to meet dozens of people coming to hear him speak in Atlanta which you can read about here. I became convicted that if I was to be fair, I should actually read something he wrote from start to finish to give him a chance to dispel my concerns. I picked up a used copy of Become a Better You for that purpose. The book is nearly 400 pages long and provided Osteen a solid opportunity to put forth his view of God, man and the world.

I try to commend the commendable, so let me start by saying it’s easy to see why so many people like Joel Osteen. Not only does he reek “positivity”, he has great stories to back up his points. Whether it’s talking about how ancient warfare including plugging up an enemy city’s water supply as a bridge to talk about shutting down pathways God chooses to bless us or telling a story of a real person living out what he teaches with good results, this is compelling. He has an excellent manner of drawing people into the content he wants to pass on to them and I wish I was better at that.

The other thing that may not be commendable but explains a lot of his popularity is that while in the whole, he seems to be a false teacher (which I’ll detail in a minute), he is so close to the truth in many places. He tells people to run from temptation, that life starts in our hearts, to let God be their vindicator rather than hold a grudge, not worship the approval of others, to defeat bad habits by replacing them with good ones, and many more ideas that are basically biblical. It should not surprise us that God’s truth, delivered incrementally, would actually be compelling to many people.

The problem is that he uses these points to teach a message that is not in the Bible. He wants people to run from temptation not because sin is an abomination to a holy God but because it will drag you down and prevent your happiness. He tells people to let God set the agenda for their life because God has a great destiny for them on earth. He encourages people to celebrate the victories of others because that way God will give them victories. He consistently, almost exclusively, treats God as some kind of captive to our happiness rather than what the Bible teaches which is God exists for His own happiness. In almost every case where Osteen started with something going in the right direction, he ended with a totally man-centered, Godless application. That isn’t to say he didn’t have some good horse sense in the same way that Dr. Phil does, I’m just saying that when he starts out saying something is Biblical virtually always ends it with false teaching. He misquotes the Bible and takes whole passages out of context to make the point he wants to make. Osteen would benefit from reading something simple like How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth or Living by the Book.

He may have covered this in other books more but even in this one, you can see the basis for this false teaching. Osteen believes that the best possible thing that can happen for you is to be happy right now. I wonder how he would handle Jesus’ statement that people who are slandered, persecuted, or killed for their faith are blessed. Osteen completely misses the gospel and only once or twice in the entire book even mentions the word “sin” or applies the doctrine of sin in any way. As as result, he does not tell people to repent and turn to God by faith – he tells people to rub their genie lamp and get some stuff by faith. Just like the people I met years ago at Philips Arena, there is no chance anyone reading this book will get a picture of the God of the Bible because I don’t believe Joel Osteen knows the God of the Bible. Christians should absolutely cling to the promises of God by faith regardless of circumstances, but Osteen over and over tells his readers to cling to promises that God never made (abundance, long life, success, material prosperity, career advancement, good health, debt free living, great relationships, etc.).

And this leads to my final criticism, namely that there is nothing supernatural or eternal about what Osteen puts forward in this book. I may have missed something but it seemed that 100% of the blessing he believes God wants to give his readers are material things. Even when he gets close to the truth, where things fall apart is the expectation that everything in this life will go great. This is simply the exact opposite of the Bible story that tells us things were great (Gen 1-2), then sin entered the world and stained it (Gen 3), then God instituted His rescue mission, (Gen 3 – Rev 20), and one day all will be made new in eternity (Rev 21-22).

None of this gives me pleasure to write, and I know that but by God’s grace I would be worse than how I’ve portrayed Osteen in this review. I frequently pray that God would not let me be a Demas – a companion of Paul who was praised in the book of Colossians but had abandoned Paul (and Jesus) by the time Paul wrote 2 Timothy. May God have mercy on Joel and draw him to Himself in a real, soul-saving way.