Three thoughts from my journey through Pilgrim’s Progress

Having found a lovely, dusty old version in a charity shop, in my time off this Easter I’ve been reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. 

If you haven’t come across it, in rather blatant form using aptly named characters, we follow the journey from The City of Destruction to The Celestial City of our central character, Christian. He is started on his journey by, yep, Evangelist, and along with his friends Faithful and Hopeful, he encounters such baddies as ‘Little-Faith’, ‘Talkative’ and ‘Obstinate’. I know.

If I’m honest, at times it was a bit of a struggle, I found I couldn’t read much in one go, but I’m glad I kept going. Three big things stood out from reading Bunyan’s take on the Christian life.

1) Bunyan expected the Christian life to be immensely difficult

The Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Doubting Castle (and its owner the giant Despair) are all – for Christian, Faithful and Hopeful – stops en route to the Celestial City. 

Encounters with monsters, scorn from onlookers, mockery from friends and family, temptation from false teachers are all par for the course. And for Faithful, as he and Christian arrive in the area most familiar to my modern eye, Vanity Fair, it ends in a brutal murder. 

Nowhere is there a hint of “your best life now”. For the Pilgrims, the journey is long, tiring and tough. And responsible advisers along the way, and indeed Evangelist right at the beginning, make sure they tell Christian this in no uncertain terms. Food for thought there in our evangelism. Come and have life, but come and die to find it.

2) Bunyan expected genuine Christians to get it wrong a lot

Refreshingly, Christian is not the hero of the story. I was surprised at how often Christian turns aside from the way, ignored the advice given to him, forgot truths he had been taught along the way and lost sight for a while of his pilgrimage. However, the Lord sustains him. He does remember. He does get up again. I took immense courage from this, that in our countless missteps, true believers are held in his grace as they come back to the way and walk again.

Interesting that what keeps Christian going seems to be in equal measure:

  • The certainty of salvation, in the form of a scroll he is given at conversion
  • The counsel and encouragement of his fellow pilgrims, who in turn often need his counsel and encouragement
  • The hope of the glories of the Celestial City

Let’s be friends that look back and look forward together.

3) Bunyan expected heaven to be absolutely mind blowing

The journey is treacherous, and long, but throughout it is clear that it is a journey worth making. His description of heaven, to the weak, wobbling but faithful Christian, as he enters the final hurdle, the River of Death, is quite beautiful:

You must there receive the comforts of all your toil, and have joy for all your sorrow; you must reap what you have sown, even the fruit of all your prayers, and tears and sufferings for the King by the way. In that place you must wear crowns of gold, and enjoy the perpetual sight and vision of the Holy One. You shall serve him continually with praise, with shouting and thanksgiving, whom you desired to serve in the world, though with much difficulty, because of the infirmity of your flesh. There your eyes will be delighted with seeing, and your ears with hearing the pleasant voice of the Mighty One. 

Lord, help me take up my cross, follow the narrow way, and do it gladly! For one day I will see you, and you will swap my toil for comfort and my sorrow for joy.

Book Review: Luke Cawley’s “The Myth of the Non-Christian”

It was a great pleasure to buy a copy of Luke Cawley’s first book “The Myth of the Non-Christian: Engaging Atheists, Nominal Christians and the Spiritual But Not Religious” and read it over two or three days this Easter. It’s also a great pleasure to recommend it. Here’s why:

As I see it, the book’s main premise is this: that “non-Christian” is so broad and vague a term that it is almost entirely redundant as a way to describe or relate to a human being.

Yes, technically, if someone is “not a Christian” they can accurately be described as a “non-Christian” – of course – but in this book Luke is suggesting we can do much better than lumping all the “others” into one big pot of people who don’t believe what we believe.

Instead, Luke wants us to see people as individuals. He wants us to respect the nuances in people’s life stories, experiences and worldviews. He wants us to engage with people in a way that is relevant to them, that listens as well as speaks and that is not only faithful enough to bring the essential, age-old good news of Jesus to people, but flexible enough to do this with people of all backgrounds, by intelligently and sensitively adapting our approach.

And so he dives into a refreshing, funny and at times bizarre series of stories, interviews and insights to help us do just that.

nonStyle: Stylistically, I personally found it a breath of fresh air. Luke’s not predictable or stuffy, which means this book is an exciting book, it’s not heavy. And it means even just the first page of each chapter is either some heart-wrenching or curiosity-tickling encounter from his travels as an evangelist, or some odd story from his own history of asking big questions about God and life. It’s a fun book to read.

Impact personally: The result of reading it for me as a follower of Jesus was that I felt that the duty and privilege of sharing Jesus with other human beings around me was strangely do-able. Not in a “this has all the answers way”, but almost the opposite of that. There is no one way to do this! It’s speaking to people, listening, asking questions. It’s relating. It’s being real. Even I can do that.

Impact in terms of ministry: And as someone who is training students in evangelism with UCCF at the moment, it left me feeling a great desire to be MUCH more creative and at much more liberty in the different ways we try and reach people. I would love all my students to read it, but particular those who are at smaller, newer universities seeking to reach a quite different group of students than at a redbrick or collegiate uni.

You can get it here. And follow Luke on Twitter here.

Or if you’re in Birmingham, ask Kristi Mair, cause she’s got some copies. I think she knicked them off the back of a lorry.

Five books I’ve found really helpful in 2015.

Reading is the best. And reading is fun. And reading is vital. And reading is hard. And many other things.

I’m really thankful for the people who keep nudging me to read, recommending books to me, and even though I go weeks and weeks and weeks without really doing that, and then binge a bit on days off, I’m very glad that I’ve been able to sit on trains, buses, station platforms, sofas and a bed and learn from wiser people through reading what they wrote.

These are the things I learned from the top five books (of like seven and a half read, to be up front) that helped me most as a Christian in 2015. Bible and Four-Four-Two magazine excluded.

5) Ministry on My Mind, John Newton

johnnewtonMore of a long pamphlet than a book, this is a collection of John Newton’s (as in Amazing Grace) random musings on entering pastoral ministry / being paid to do gospel work. It’s a beautifully written collection of his personal experiences as well as reflections on bits and bobs of Paul’s letters, and has been very helpful personally and in preparing for the 9:38 student conference in Birmingham, helping studes think about it themselves. The most interesting and encouraging insight to me was his re-telling of how he himself came to the decision to go and be ordained. No writing in the sky, but “my own serious deliberations, the advice of my best and most judicious friends and of course prayer”, or, in effect, what do I think? What do the best people in my life think? What does God think?

4) A Meal with Jesus, Tim Chester

mealwithjesusRe-read this with some lovely people in our Churchcentral Life Group this summer, and was again so helped by it and inspired! What was God’s big strategy when he came to the earth? Knowing all the answers? Filling stadiums? No. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. Tim Chester unpacks this one core idea and reflects on food in the Bible, and while touching on communion, thankfulness and eating disorders, mainly unpacks the everyday opportunities meals and coffees and pints give us for relationships. Too weak to be an evangelist? Have a deep love for Jesus and share meals with people, and you’ll soon be doing it! Too busy to evangelise? 21 opportunities a week to share a genuine interaction as equals, friends, without adding anything to the diary. Such a helpful book because it is deeply theological while in almost every sentence being obviously applicable.

3) Preaching, Tim Keller

preachingWas recommended this by a friend, and enough people I respect loved it, that I picked it up this term, but was pretty reluctant if I’m honest. Surely this would be as dry as it comes? But not so. Two big ideas – preachers need to be faithful to the text, and preachers need to be engaging to the culture. And beautifully written! Kind. Wise. Less like a textbook and more like a granddad sitting down sharing wisdom with his grandkids. I didn’t find it intimidating but inspiring. Really helped me “go again” thinking about this whole topic, as a young and only-occasionally speaker, by lifting my eyes to what is possible – being genuinely faithful while being genuinely engaging, not choosing between the two. Smashing.

2) Disciplines of a Godly Man, R. Kent Hughes

discilpinesHas a book ever had a less attractive cover? Or a more intimidating title? I don’t think so. Hence why it’s taken four and a half years to get to it having been bought it by some mates at Uni. In a way I’m glad it took me this long, as I think the whole idea of “discipline” – working hard to try and be godly – has been such a consistently confusing idea to me as someone who had his eyes opened to grace, grace, grace. I know there’s this danger of being a “legalist” – someone who thinks God loves him more based on a good day (or reading a book with the words disciplines and godly in the title), and less on a bad day. But then the New Testament is full of “work out”, “do”, “do not”, “train yourself”. Having thought about this lots and being in 3% less of a muddle recently over it, I landed in this book and so glad I did. Basically, it’s 16 areas of life – fatherhood, speech, work, church, family and so on – with the biblical basis for working hard at it, musings on the costs/benefits of ignoring/working at it, and then practical steps to grow in godliness. It must have taken years to write, with reflection questions, examples, case studies and all good extra stuff like that. My favourite chapter was the final one – which spoke of how to genuinely put these things into practice, emphasising the need for realism, working on three things this year with clarity and energy not 16 with broad guilt and then inevitable discouragement. New Years Resolvers, take note.

1) The Plausibility Problem, Ed Shaw

But by far the best, most helpful, tear causing, edshawemotive, informative, important book I read this year was the Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw. Written by an evangelical Christian (which I am) who is sexually attracted to those of the same sex (which I am, at the time of writing, not), it’s an incredible insight into the reasons why this man thinks choosing to be celibate for the rest of his life is not, ultimately, after the tears, and pain, that still come, a “loss” but a “gain”, because he’s got Jesus Christ.

I am not qualified to write on “following Jesus is so good that I can choose to be celibate and trust him with his instructions on sexual activity”, but Ed Shaw is. It’s such a brave book, and such a sensitive book, and so practical, tackling the underlying reasons why our culture can’t even begin to stomach the notion of celibacy for Jesus (the cultural assumptions like ‘we are what we do sexually’, that ‘identity is tied up in sexuality’, that ‘to rob someone of sex is to rob them of intimacy’). But I genuinely think it’s all of these things only because it’s written by someone who has walked this path, made these decisions, cried these tears and yet asserts plainly and warmly that Jesus is the best thing that’s happened to him, not the worst. He’s a celibate man, attracted to men, who is very, very, very glad he’s a Christian.

As someone who is tempted to think loving our gay friends and family = pretending the Bible doesn’t say what it says, and sadly sometimes tempted to think being faithful to Jesus = being a bit awkward and confused by gay people, this book is just the most helpful thing around, tackling those two equally wrong ideas at their root. I am so thankful I read this book, I really want you to read it. Ed Shaw is one of the bravest people, and God calling him to write this book was a really, really, really, really, really good idea.

Read it in 2016.

Five books I found helpful last year…

Do you ever think: “Reading a Christian book sounds like a good idea”?

Do you ever think: “I want to know Jesus more and grow in my walk with him, and God seems to have used reading Christian books in the lives of those I admire and want to follow”? Do you ever think: “Reading what a wiser Christian has to say on an aspect of the gospel or of the Christian life is a no-brainer”?

I do. And yet with the wealth of resources out there, it’s very hard to know which book to pick. How are you meant to know which ones will be helpful? There’s just so many.

Well, wiser folk than I have recently been helpfully sharing their top books of the last year (Matthew Weston, Tim Challies, Cat Caird, Kevin DeYoung). This has given me lots of new books on new topics which I can trust will be decent, having had a recommendation.

I’ve been really helped and guided by people doing such lists, so here’s one of my own. It’s considerably more limited, but might offer one or two people just one or two places to start. So here’s my top reads of 2012.

1. The Good God, by Mike Reeves

Some of you (if you’re students) will have heard me talk about this book a whole lot, but I think with good reason! It changed my entire view of God, and therefore my view of everything… and many others say the same (check out this review from Newfrontiers-er Andrew Wilson – it’s excellent reading in itself! – who called it “the best Christian book I have ever read”)

This book is short, funny, quick and easy to read, but none of that is why you should read it. The reason you should read it is because it’s a book all about God… not the dictator god that atheism rejects (rightly), not the headmaster god, the grumpy god, the resentful god, the unhappy god, but the Good God – the Trinity, a Father who loves a Son, the outgoing, bustling, life-giving, exploding-with-love God of the Bible. He really is that good – and Mike Reeves helped me see that more clearly than ever before. Buy it, read it, read it again, give it away to your mate, and then begin that cycle all over again.

2. A Meal with Jesus, by Tim Chester

First a book on the Trinity, and now a book on how Jesus ate his food… I can hear you saying it already… “You’re really scraping the barrel now Rich!”

No! This wonderful book helped me see the beauty of the gospel of grace (meaning I wanted to share it), and helped me see the ease and simplicity of sharing this gospel (enabling me to do it!). No secret formula… just you, some non-believers, some good food, some good wine, and see what happens.

This book is the book I’ve recommended to friends and churchies most frequently this year, the book that most surprised me (I read it with my supervisor last year and I thought I’d hate it!), and the book that has most transformed the way I think about sharing the gospel. It’s also a book I’m enjoying re-reading with Relay Rob and some of his really engaging students at Aston CU. Tim Chester tracks Jesus through Luke’s gospel in six excellent chapters, allowing us a seat at the table with the Lord as he ate at six different meals.

Seeing just how shocking Jesus was in choosing to eat – in THAT culture – with tax collectors and sinners drew me to love the love of Jesus, and long to share it with my family and my pals.

Chester argues that if we love Jesus, and we eat meals with people (nothing more complicated than that, and we do it 21 times a week anyway…) then we will be doing mission. We tend to make it evangelism very complicated, but “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. Simples.

3. Dealing with Depression, by Sarah Collins and Jane Haynes

This lovely little book is small enough to fit in your back pocket but was profoundly helpful for me and many others I know this year. It’s not a brand new book, and it’s certainly not handling a brand new topic, but this is one of the most sensitive and robustly Christian introductions to the topic of depression that I’ve read. I gladly recommend it!

It’s no quick-fix, self-help tripe, so look elsewhere if that’s what you’re into. No, it’s boldly realistic, confidently Christian, appropriately careful, and it oozes sensitivity, gentleness and love – something that, amazingly and sadly, books on depression often lack. This helped me and numerous friends a great deal throughout 2012, and though it is very much only an introduction to the issue, it is my recommended starting place.

4. Knowing God, by Jim Packer

First given a copy of this by my Staff Worker while at Uni, I was nudged to finally read this by Brum student Ben McNeely, and we’re now reading it as a group of guys in Birmingham CU on a Tuesday morning over a fry-up! This is somewhat a Christian classic, that has shaped the lives of Christians for years, and it’s been doing the same for us. Packer beautifully unpacks different aspects of God’s character, from his love to his grace to his justice to his glory in such a way as to draw the reader to not be content with being puffed up with head knowledge, but in a way that informs the mind and thrills the heart! I love God more because of this book, and am enjoying sitting at Packer’s feet with some brothers at Brum. Read it! A chapter a night would take 20 minutes… it would be an excellent month!

5. A Praying Life, by Paul Miller

This was on the staff study programme and is the best book on prayer I’ve read. So gospel-centered, the first section speaks little of prayer and just helps you see just how much God has done in saving us! We really are his children! The implications of that are that we can pray!!! Not waiting til we feel more holy, but right now! In the thick of the mess and the dirt and the chaos, our Father enjoys even the thought of hearing us speak to him! And the implications of this are that we should plan to pray more often, more boldly, more honestly, and the book finishes with a few chapters of really practical tips on prayer diaries, prayer cards, when to pray… some of which hasn’t really worked for me, but some of which is still helping me now to enjoy prayer as a child of God. Get it!

Books for those “heading home for the holidays”

This is primarily just to point those who were at UBCU’s Summer Training seminar this morning to three books I mentioned and used heavily thinking about how to witness to non-Christian family. If that’s not you, then I really recommend them for the summer anyway! In terms of growing to love God, live life and reach our friends and family, these have been key for me.

The Good God – Mike Reeves

In the seminar, we looked at how it is our heart that determines how we will speak of Jesus over the holidays (Luke 6:45). Thus, the key is to have a heart that loves him. But we can’t just choose to love him, that’s not how our affections work. Take a good film, for example, we don’t decide that it’s going to be our favourite, it simply becomes our favourite. We see it, and we love it. We simply look, and we find that we do love!

This book is one place that God shines brightly, warmly. Mike looks deeply at who God is and why he is “good”. If we look at this good God, we will be drawn to love him. Please, please don’t read this book ’cause I told you. Read it ’cause you want to be warmed by the sunshine of the Gospel.

Maximum Life – Julian Hardyman

We also saw today how far from packinging a heaven v hell message into every conversation, we can be liberated by realising the scope of the gospel. The breadth of it. Isn’t it frustrating that our family and friends aren’t interested in Alpha courses and weak squash? If only they were interested in the things Jesus is interested in…

Well, we saw that through the “good” and “very good”-ness of the good God’s creation, everything in life bares the DNA of it’s creator, the one that breathed it out. This includes skiing, snooker, samba, music, maths, Mario Kart, the vast wide sweep of all of life comes from God and thus is GOOD!

Thus, there’s really no excuse for being a boring, hobby-less Christian. This book stirs our excitement, breaks our narrow view of “godliness” and opens the door to a godly life filled with much more than our “Christian” things, because it shows all things to be fundamentally Christian!

Do your friends think you’re dull? Do your family hint that they think you lock yourself away and don’t “have fun anymore”? Well this summer, this could be a book to help you greatly, as it is helping me. Plus, knowing that everything comes from Jesus, our evangelism becomes a broader, much more engaging thing as we realise that therefore everything points to Jesus!

Bringing the Gospel Home – Randy Newman

This is a great book for those specifically in non-Christian families. It’s a really helpful sweep of some of the ideas in the seminar and much, much more. Very practical. Really, really encouraging for those of us who struggle with this! Very helpful.