Review: Deepening the Colors

Deepening the Colors

Deepening the ColorsSyd Hielema. Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2014.

Summary: An exploration of the question of “what is my place in God’s world?” that proposes that as we live into our calling to pursue God’s kingdom, our vision of our lives and the world grows ever deeper and richer.

In the tradition in which I grew up there was a great emphasis on becoming a Christian, but much less of a focus on what it meant to be a Christian.What is God’s purpose for the world, and how does the way I live my life fit into that? This delightful book by Syd Hielema explores this question and does something more that I have come to see of value. He describes what it looks like to live that life over the course of a lifetime.

He begins by quoting a passage from The Last Battle in which Peter and Lucy and Edmund, and others pass into Aslan’s country. They find that it looks like Narnia, only the colors are deeper and richer, more vivid and real. This metaphor of deepening colors serves as the basis for the title and a way of expressing what happens in our lives as we follow Christ.

It begins with understanding that the Jesus we fall is the king of the new creation, his coming kingdom and that our lives are about pursuing that kingdom through following Him. It is to live as a “called” person as part of a new community as well as a new creation. This means living into our identity as redeemed image bearers of God, a daily putting off of an old self committed to false gods; a daily putting on of a new self that will reflect the glory of the living God. This happens through the practice of “truth-walking” habits, spiritual practices that help us walk more deeply into the richer colors of truth.

As we walk in truth, God’s transforming work shapes every part of our lives–minds, bodies, emotions, actions, aspirations, and relationships. It leads in turn to the growth of wisdom in our lives expressed in being careful observers and listeners, practicing thoughtful and civil discourse with others, thinking critically about what we hear, practicing self-reflection, and not jumping to hasty conclusions. All this ends up in more deeply understanding our calling in the world as those who bear the image of the King, and share in his rule in the world.

Hielema makes a most helpful observation at the end, that it is less that God has this “plan” for our lives that we find or miss. Rather, we are “called” by God, something far more personal that implies an ongoing conversation. He provides helpful principles for discerning this call, this conversation.

All this comes off in a conversational style that shows how deep theological truths bear on understanding the purpose of our lives and how we should live in the light of that. It also is realistic about the lifelong process in which God “deepens the colors” of our lives. It offers hope to those who may wonder if they will ever “catch on” and become the people God has redeemed them to be,.

This is one of those books published by a small, Reformed college press that might easily be overlooked. It was recommended to me by Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Books. I’m glad I picked up this little gem that reminded me of things learned gradually by experience over many years. This book won’t help you understand God’s “plan” for your life, but rather help you begin to understand the ways God calls and toward what ends he calls us that we might be attentive to hear, and follow, and understand.

Review: Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery

CDMThe main idea of “contagious disciple making” is both simple to summarize and presents a real challenge to the contemporary church. It is to model and encourage trusting obedience to Christ as we discover his will in scripture, and to share these discoveries with others. This simple and compelling idea is a breath of fresh air for a Western church long on talk and short on obedience.

The authors (father and son) have been involved in church-planting movements throughout the world resulting in thousands of churches being planted under indigenous leadership in each country. This was not always the case and the first part of the book recounts the “re-thinking” that took place for them in moving from attempting to plant churches that conformed to Western ideals to launching Disciple-Making Movements. They argue, to begin with, that the task of church planters is not to contextualize the gospel but to “deculturalize” it–to help people discover the message without Western cultural or denominational accretions.

What is crucial is simply building relationships within the appropriate structures, often family or tribal or village, where one can lead people in discovering for themselves from the Bible the basic message of the gospel, and even as they are learning it and beginning to act on it, to share it with others. Even before becoming disciples, proto-disciples are making disciples. From the start, and at every phase, an emphasis on obeying what one discovers, and inviting others to discover and obey is central.

The disciple-maker facilitates discovery and encourages obedience. This is so different from a teacher-student model that focuses around transfer of knowledge. Instead of creating perpetual learners, disciples quickly learn to become disciple-makers themselves and continue to perpetuate this with those they lead in discovery. The approach is one that respects and holds up the priesthood of all believers rather than a cult of experts.

The second part of the book explores practices around this core mindset that have proven important to these movements. Parts of this reiterate the focus on disciple-making from the first part and seem repetitive at times. But the authors also cover the importance of prayer movements, the nature of discovery groups, how churches are established out of these, and the development of leadership through mentoring that concentrates not simply on action but also character.

I found two sections particularly thought-provoking. One, concerning engaging lost people, talked about identifying the “silos” in which they live — the different affinity groups by family, village, or interest that bring people together. Rather than seek to “extract” people from this group, the Watsons advocate disciple-making within these groups so that families, villages or significant parts of affinity groups come to faith, rather than isolating a single convert from the former “silo” of which they were a part.

The other section concerned finding the “person of peace” in this silo, the person sufficiently spiritually receptive to host the disciple-maker as they form discovery groups. They recommend not attempting to plant in a particular “silo” without having the support of such a person.

There was much that I found to be refreshingly helpful. I work in university ministry that incorporates much of what these authors recommend, building groups around discovering what it means to follow Jesus in scripture, defining leadership in terms of those who are making disciples with others, doing all this in a context of prayer, and even thinking about the different “silos” on a university campus.

At the same time, I found myself wrestling with a tacit anti-intellectual, anti-theological emphasis that focused on the Bible and nothing but the Bible. I’ve seen too many unorthodox movements that are able to appeal to the Bible to say that relying on people’s personal discoveries from scripture to counter false teaching.

Also there is the question of Christian witness and discipleship in centers of learning and culture. While it is true that unlearned disciples who had been with Jesus confounded the religious elites of their day (which underscores the priority of trusting and obeying Christ!) I would contend for the value of coupling that devotion with the development of a Christian mind that is both theologically acute and culturally astute for engaging these culture-shapers. Just as a willingness to learn gaming is important to reaching a “gamer” silo (an example used by the authors), this intellectual work, which underlines the value of the theological enterprise and the intellectual work Christians are doing in many fields, should be encouraged for those engaging the intellectual world.

Yet the authors’ challenge to churches long on words and experiences and short on consistent obedience is one that needs to be heard. The authors contend that “A church that condones disobedience to God’s laws cannot stay a church. A church that does not practice grace and mercy cannot stay a church” (p. 159). Any of us seeking to plant or develop a ministry or church do well to heed this.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

A Healthy View of Health

Last week, I posted reflections on our pastor’s message on the Christian in Sickness under the title “A Healthy Attitude Toward Sickness“. This past Sunday he spoke on the Christian in Health.  One of the assertions he made at the beginning caught my attention. This was that, when we consider things on a global scale, health is not the standard experience of human existence, but rather sickness in some form or other. Instances of full, abundant health are the welcome exception. Some of the sicknesses may be chronic, such as inadequate nutrition or chronic parasitic afflictions or malaria. In other cases, infections or illnesses readily treated through our advanced medical care go untreated and may threaten one’s life or quality of life in serious ways.

Many of us tend to enjoy health for relatively long stretches of time, where we begin to assume this is the norm and a right rather than a gift. This was brought home to me recently when I was bitten by a dog tick in my backyard, and spent two weeks of watchfulness for a possible serious illness that could result from that bite. I’ve spent the past 24 years working in that yard and this never happened before. Several years back, I was running half marathons, and in the midst of this contracted cellulitis in my right arm that got so bad I was hospitalized and put on intravenous antibiotics because other antibiotics were not working. Had these not been available or worked, I’m not sure I’d be writing this blog!

Rich’s point was not to get us to live in dread fear of the next looming sickness but rather in recognizing health as a gift to respond in worship, service, and friendship. God is the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17) and when we enjoy health, thanksgiving and worship make sense. We are also healthy to serve, including serving the sick, and healthy in order to enter into community “just because”, rather than because there is some need we or others have. Sometimes it is just a joy to hang out and enjoy good things together.

As I’ve reflected on all this, I’m struck with one further thought about health. When we are healthy we have some sense that “this is how life was meant to be”, and I believe that is right and not to be denied. Sickness, suffering, and death were not God’s original intention for human beings, nor are they the ultimate end for those who trust in Christ. Our moments of health are glimpses of our once and future destiny and pointers to the new life already at work in us, even while we deal with the physical decline of these present bodies (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

In many areas of the Christian life we share our future hope by bringing it into the present. We look forward to God’s peace where the lion and lamb will lay down with each other and we pursue peace. We look forward to God’s people from every nation gathered in worship and seek to reach those from every nation with Christ’s gospel. We believe in a renewed creation in the new Jerusalem, and so we seek to tend God’s present creation toward that day. And similarly, it seems to me that our belief in new, resurrection bodies no longer subject to illness, pain and death should move us to the work of not just comforting and caring for the sick, but as much as possible to not only alleviate but to prevent the suffering of illness, and particularly for those who lack these resources. For example, things as cheap as mosquito nets, and low cost water purification systems are saving the lives of thousands of young children. I work with young, mostly healthy graduate students, many doing biomedical-related research. I see this work as an act of worship providing means to extend God’s gift of health to many more people.

So I would suggest that one further way we might think about the gift of health is as an opportunity to seek the blessing of that gift for others who don’t have the same access to it as do we. Along with health, God gives gifts of expertise, skill, financial resources and time. How might we use these to extend the gift of health and the experience of the goodness of God to others?

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper Blog.

Review: The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ

The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ
The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ by James Bryan Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

None of us really WANTS to ruin our lives. Yet we often do, James Bryan Smith contends, because we don’t build our lives on the teaching of Jesus and let him shape our character. In this book, the second in his Apprentice Series, Smith takes us through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His foundational contention is that the gospel of the kingdom Jesus preaches is not about getting us into heaven but rather getting heaven into us, the transformation of our lives as Christ’s new creations, which is what this sermon is all about.

Along the way, Smith takes some reads on the sermon that might be different than you’ve heard before. This begins with the beatitudes, which he argues describe the people who are included in the kingdom. In the command concerning murder and anger, he argues we often live with False Imperative Narratives such as “I need to be perfect all the time” that are sources of fear and anger and that trust in Christ in our brokenness is key to being liberated from anger’s destructive power. Similarly, living in the joyful gratitude for our desires liberates us from lust’s power. Our trust in the security of the kingdom’s promises means we needn’t lie but can tell the truth. We love and forgive our enemies as the apprentices of a Savior who did the same thing from the cross.

One of the most challenging chapters for me was the chapter on vainglory–the practice of doing things to be seen by people. In this, as all chapters throughout the Apprentice Series, Smith includes Soul Training exercises. For this one it was the exercise of secret service, of serving others without letting other, or even the person served, know if possible. The Soul Training exercises throughout provide very practical ways to begin allow Christ to form his character in our lives. In his chapter on avarice and the choice of two masters, money or Jesus, we are encouraged to practice de-accumulation by getting rid of five things. In the chapter on worry, he gives a very specific exercise for turning worry into prayer and releasing this to God. His challenge in the chapter on judgment is to live a day without gossip!

The concluding chapter comes back to where he began, the vital importance of building our lives on the teaching of Jesus in intimate fellowship with him. He shares with us Madame Guyon’s advice to her daughter on living a day devotionally as a means of helping us to develop a “rule” for our days–practices that help us remain in the presence of Jesus throughout each day.

I worked through this book with a group, which is Smith’s recommended way to use this book. I actually had previously read the book but found that working through this deepened my engagement with the practices he commends and provided for many significant conversations with each other on living the good and beautiful life that drew me closer to five others as well as to the Lord whose teaching we were considering.

View all my reviews

I also reviewed the first book in this series, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows.