The4thDave Reviews: “Theological Fitness” by Aimee Byrd

“Rather, train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (I Timothy 4:7b-8)

As someone who has struggled with weight issues, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between physical discipline and spiritual training. So when I first saw Aimee Byrd’s book, Theological Fitness, I wondered if this would be a work-out version of the Daniel Plan. Thankfully, it is not. Rather than focusing on spiritualized workout plans, Byrd turns her attention in this book to the more valuable idea of spiritual fitness, theological training, and in particular the idea of perseverance.  She uses the metaphors and concepts of athletic competition and physical training and applies them the deep spiritual ideas—yet in an approachable manner that even non-athletes can enjoy.

In Theological Fitness, Byrd drills down deep into the richness of Hebrews 11:23: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” In a very conversational, practical way, she tackles some weighty theological issues, like the nature of standing firm and the importance of God’s covenants.

Without giving too much away, I want to share a few bits that have stuck with me through the reading of the book, and some takeaways I have. First, from the very beginning, I was grabbed by her discussion of unity (“Let us…”) and the idea of striving side-by-side that Paul addresses in Philippians 1. She writes that Paul’s particular wording in Philippians 1 evokes military imagery, which would resonate with a military community (as Philippi apparently was).  Part of “theological fitness” is linking arms with other believers and recognizing that you are bound together with the other members of the Body of Christ, which gives you a deep and abiding connection with other Christians.

The breadth of theological truth Byrd tackles in Theological Fitness is really admirable. She doesn’t shy away from the “big ideas” of Christianity, like the Trinity and the Incarnation. Rather, she presents them in a simple, straightforward manner so that even new or untrained believers can begin to grapple with these ideas.

I appreciate how Gospel-saturated this book is. Byrd has a firm grasp (pun intended) of how the Gospel of Jesus transforms and empowers Christians to hold fast to their confession. And even though this book is focused on Hebrews 10, Byrd weaves in other passages of Hebrews as well as a host of other sections of both the Old and New Testaments. This kind of “whole-Bible” exegesis makes the reading of the text so rich. For example, she connected the “creedal statements” of Psalm 110 to Hebrews 7, as she discussed the eternal priesthood of Christ. This provided a really rich comparison study.

The only cautionary note I would give—and it’s REALLY not even a “caution” as much as an FYI—is that Byrd is very much a Presbyterian (come to think of it, I’ve been reading a LOT of Presbyterians lately…weird), so her denominational distinctives  shine through a bit, particularly in terms of Covenant Theology. That said, even profoundly Dispensationalist believers can and will benefit from this book.

The big takeaway I have from reading Theological Fitness is that I really want to reread the “sermon-letter” of Hebrews, thanks to Aimee Byrd’s work in weaving together the themes of the book. I’m sure she would be happy to hear that.

Bottom Line: Theological Fitness is a fine book about Christian perseverance that I would commend to anyone. While it does not provide a deep or scholarly discussion of Hebrews 10 (and that’s not at all the intention), this book taps into some rich and thought-provoking truths that both recent and mature believers can appreciate and benefit from. Plus, any book on theology that draws on The Karate Kid to describe spiritual discipline gets bonus points from me.  Well done, Aimee-san.

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Note: I was provided a complimentary electronic copy for free by the publisher (P&R Publishing) through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. The preceding comments are my sincere opinions about the book reviewed.

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Grabbing a dog’s ears.

In Sunday School recently, we began working through the Sermon on the Mount, so this verse was pretty fresh in my mind: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Something I shared in the Sunday School discussion last Sunday was that peacemakers don’t pick fights with others, provoke fights between others, or extend fights that should be ended.

This also applies to social media.

I watched a heated exchange on social media recently between two people I believe are Christians. Brother “A” was calling out Brother “B” (a public figure) for what Brother “A” argued was sinful compromise. (The exact details here are not important, so I’m holding that info back.) The result of this challenge was pretty serious back-and-forth argument, with other people jumping in on both sides.

I agreed with Brother “A” and joined him by asking some (what I saw as even-handed and respectful) questions of Brother “B” about his position and argument. After a few interactions, I realized I wasn’t being a peacemaker; I was kicking up more dust. I tried to withdraw from the discussion as graciously as I could, because my participation wasn’t productive (something I should have realized much earlier).

Meanwhile, Brother A was still throwing strong words at both Brother B and those who defended him. Having just realized I was not following Jesus’ command to be a peacemaker, I figured I would send a message to Brother A, to encourage him to be careful of his tone as well…

You know how some actions, if you saw other people do them, you’d try to talk them out of it? You’d say, “Dude, this isn’t going to end well for you. Please stop.” But when you’re the one doing it, you think, “This is totally going to work out” ; and then you’re shocked (shocked!) when it doesn’t?

Messaging a stranger who’s in the middle of a Twitter debate, to encourage them to be more gracious, is a really good example of this.

Aside from a few online interactions, I don’t really know Brother “A” personally, and he doesn’t know me. So let’s just say my private exhortation to him wasn’t received well. At all. His frustration turned on me, and it took me a while to backpedal and apologize. I realized that, in my presumption, I had overstepped a boundary and tried to correct him when I had no right to do so.

Proverbs 26:17 says, “Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.” The idea here is that you shouldn’t be surprised that when you grab a strange dog by the ears and get your hand bitten. Dogs may put up with their master grabbing their ears–there’s relationship there. But if it’s not your dog, expect to get snapped at.

Disciples of Jesus are called to be peacemakers–this is absolutely true. We should strive to broker peace between people and people, and to help sinners find reconciliation to God through Christ.

But when it comes to conflict between two human parties, the difference between peace-making and meddling is relationship. If you don’t have a relationship with anyone involved, your uninvited “contribution” will not be well-received.

There may be exceptions to this argument, but I can’t think of any at the moment.

Lesson learned: if you want to help make peace between two people in conflict, wait to be invited, or build on a relationship that’s already in place.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get this bite-mark tended to.

Poor in Spirit.

The last few weeks have been really draining for my wife and I. Nothing as dramatic and life-altering as some of you dear friends are experiencing lately, and I humbly acknowledge this. Nevertheless, they have been a bit wearying, as we both have been attending to a host of small responsibilities and issues that have nibbled at the edges of our physical and emotional energy like hungry little fish. It reached a breaking point this week, as both my wife and I had days where we just broke down in tears.

Last night was my turn, as I lay on top of the bedspread and just wept, recounting for my wife the litany of weights and responsibilities I feel like I’ve been carrying around in my pack for months. The irony is, I know exactly what I would say to a brother who came to me with this same list of concerns: “Dude, believe the Gospel and walk in that truth!” Thankfully, I have a godly wife who loves me and will press the Gospel into the broken and fearful places in my heart.

I’m still fighting off the fear of failure, of letting down the people in my life who depend on me to be wise and capable and dependable. I’m still uncertain of what decisions to make in the next 6 months, decisions that will affect my family’s financial and spiritual life. I’m still worried about losing focus and breaking my commitments to financial and physical discipline. And I’m still struggling to find spiritual refreshment after being dry and withering in soul for the last few weeks, as all my time in the Word of God has been spent in preparation to teach. (This is a destructive habit I am ALWAYS in danger of falling back into.)

Providentially, the subject matter of my studies lately has been the Sermon on the Mount. This means that over and over, I’ve been thinking over the first words Jesus spoke in that sermon: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Over and over, this verse has popped up in my study, in my lesson outlines, in my encouragements to others. Yesterday, it finally dawned on me that I really need to apply it to my own heart right now.

In the midst of spiritual dryness, in the midst of fearful worry about not being “enough” to take care of what God has given me, in the midst of recognition that I need to grow in my marriage (more on this later), this verse stands as a comfort and a command. It’s too bad that I’m often too proud or too busy to remember it until God has seen fit to lay me flat on my back, crying on my bed.

So now, I’m going back to the start, returning to my first love. Today, I’m reminding myself that I am secure in Christ, and that my God is sovereign over all the details of my life and will provide everything I need to serve Him and others in all the ways He has given me to do so. I need to keep reminding myself of it. I’ve fallen out of the habit of preaching the Gospel to myself. When that happens, I forget that it still applies to me, that I’m still poor in spirit and wholly dependent on God for my life.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. You who recognize that you are busted, broken, empty, incomplete, insufficient–you are blessed. You who are weeping and weary, too tired to think straight, too frustrated to know what to do next–you are blessed. You sinners who have finally come to your senses in the pig-sty and realize that you have scorned the love and provision of your gracious Father–you are blessed.

Because it is only at this point that we can be filled. It’s only at this point that we are able to receive the Kingdom, graciously provided by our Shepherd-King who is a friend of sinners, a Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief.

Christian, repent and believe the Gospel. You still need it every day. I still need it every day. It’s still Good News for us.

Hold that thought.

Just wanted to give you an update: I’m working on some interesting posts for this here blog. But it’s going to take a little bit longer, because the whole “real life” thing keeps encroaching. Soon, very soon, I will get to the point where I’m posting on a regular 8am M-W-F schedule again. Thank you for your patience.

In the meantime, please pray for our brother Webster and his sweet wife, Sheena. Sheena just had pretty major cranial surgery, but she is now recovering in the hospital and seems to be doing pretty well.  So pray for her continued recovery, and for God to provide their needs so that this difficult season doesn’t have any long-lasting financial impact on their household.

(To be clear, I don’t know anything about their finances, but I know that heavy-duty medical care is really expensive. So praying for provision is totally legitimate.)

The4thDaveReviews: “Luther on the Christian Life” by Carl Trueman

Growing up as a typical Southern Baptist, my knowledge of Protestant history is a half drawn pencil sketch of Martin Luther, the Puritans, and a handful of American luminaries like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. (We also heard the names Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong but just associated them with giving up the change in our piggy banks.)  If you asked me to sketch out my knowledge of Martin Luther, my understanding of the German reformer would fit easily on a post it note: ex-monk, 95 Theses, “Here I Stand,” and that’s about it.

That’s why Carl Trueman’ s new book Luther on the Christian Life (part of Crossway’ s series on Theologians and the Christian Life) is so important for the evangelical church. Books like this will help us understand the history of Reformation thought and keep us from misappropriating theological figures for our own purposes (as some say we’ve done with Bonhoeffer, for example).

In Luther on the Christian Life, Trueman provides a brief but detailed sketch of Luther’s life and historical context, before diving into Luther’s teaching on the preaching office, the doctrines of Scripture and righteousness, the role of the sacraments/ordinances, the reality of the spiritual warfare, and the roles of domestic and secular responsibilities in the life of a Christian.

What makes this book stand out from other discussions of Luther’s theology, according to the afterword by Luther scholar Martin Marty, is that Trueman is not himself Lutheran, which gives him enough critical detachment to honestly evaluate some of Luther’s peculiar views and human failings. While Trueman doesn’t dive into some particularly murky issues in Luther’s works, he does address them fairly without glossing over uncomfortable subjects.

Another strength of this book is Trueman’s writing style: straight-forward and wry, academic without being stuffy, and clearly pastoral. Trueman draws clear contrasts between Luther’s theology and modern-day evangelical belief (including the fact that Luther would not consider many non-Lutherans to even be Christians due to our beliefs about the sacraments). Trueman’s commentary and obvious efforts at thorough research make this a valuable addition to any church library or pastor’s study.

Normally I try to address discrepancies or weaknesses in every book I review, but I have to admit, I’m hard-pressed here. I know the author himself would be willing to admit places where his text may be inadequate, but I can’t put my finger on those. While I can’t speak to the real accuracy and fairness of the material (as I am not well-versed in Luther), it seemed to be extremely well-balanced.

On the whole, I found Luther on the Christian Life to be fascinating, challenging, and encouraging. I’m walking away from it with a deeper understanding of Luther the man as well as Luther the theologian, and now can appreciate and articulate where my theology differs from his. In an era of denominational mash-ups, making helpful doctrinal distinctions are becoming more rare and thus more needed. For that, I’m very thankful.

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Please Note: I received a complimentary electronic copy of the book from Crossway for the purposes of review, as part of their “Beyond the Page” bloggers program. My thoughts and opinions of the book are unbiased and freely offered.

The4thDave Reviews: “Blind Spots” by Collin Hansen

So I’m going to venture a guess: most Christians probably assume on some level that the way they live out their faith is the right way. Justice warriors, doctrinal stalwarts, innovative contextualizers–we all see our faith a certain way, and we think that if only those other Christians would get back on mission (i.e., the way we see/do things), the church would get back on track.

Anyone want to cop to this attitude? Just me? Okay, then. (Cowards.)

In his new book, Blind Spots, Collin Hansen turns the mirror onto Christians like me/us. His short but powerful book pokes around in the heart of evangelicalism and reveals that we can easily become blind to our own weaknesses, even in the midst of doing the work of the Kingdom of God.

Continue reading

Young, Ranting, and Reformed.

For once, I kept my foot out of my mouth. Chalk it up to the grace of God.

I had a dilly of a post ready to go today. I’m telling you, it was a stinger: a polemic against the type of non-biblical garbage Christians post on social media that completely undercuts their testimony of Jesus being Lord in their lives. It was clever, it was tightly argued, it had an altar-call ending.

But it was not pastoral. It wasn’t kind. It didn’t take into consideration that each of us is at a little bit different stage in our growth and maturity.

This morning, on the bus, I started reading a book called Blind Spots by Collin Hansen (review coming probably next week). From the outset, Hansen punched me in the gut a bit as he talked about how we talk about the church being divided, but we’re quick to publicly point out the mistakes of others. In our rightful defense of truth, we miss grace. We expect everyone to be just like us and develop blind spots to our own weaknesses.

I realized that today’s planned post was polemical but not pastoral, critical but not constructive. So with literally seconds to go, I stopped it from going live and threw it back in the drawer for a while. I need some time to smooth out the jagged edges and sand down the splinters.

Here’s the irony: the big finale of the post was the statement that our social media interactions preach a sermon about who we are, who Jesus is, and what we believe. However, the post I wrote to communicate that truth was less like Jesus than it should have been. Maybe it was preaching a true sermon after all; out of the abundance of the heart, the blogger types.

Don’t misunderstand me: I believe that hard words make for soft hearts, so hard truths are necessary. There are times to cry out woes against the spiritual hypocrisy of hardened, self-righteous religious folks. (Folks like me.)

But I realized that some of things I was addressing and considering in my critique were being posted by people who are still really young in the faith and don’t know any better, or who may not really be believers at all. In such cases, my mission isn’t to call down shame on them, but to come up beside them and lovingly challenge and correct foolish behavior. In fact, for most of the people I’m thinking of, a word or two might be all that’s needed.  Those with hard hearts may need more than that, and if so, then a private word is still the wiser path than oblique public scorn.

So. Consider this a public example of how God is revealing my inner Pharisee and slowly, so slowly, refining my heart so that I will be a better disciple and pastor. Learn from my mistake. Hold-fire on that rant you want to post. Consider your words, consider your people, and consider if delivering the truth more graciously may help it be received more readily.

Something to think about this weekend.

Peace and grace to all who love the Lord Jesus Christ.

Not just the capital of Ecuador.

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about weight loss on here, and for good reason: I haven’t been losing.

As I mentioned back in February, my wife and I tapered off our excitement about following the semi-Paleo for several months. By the end of March, we were barely sticking to the plan. Then my wife went to visit her sister, and went with her to her nutritionist.

Cue the dramatic “BUM-BUM-BUUUUUUUMMMMMM.”

We’ve gone full keto — as in ketogenic. (EDIT: Okay, it’s “modified ketogenic.” Not a pure keto plan, but very similar.) Basically, drastically reducing your carb intake so that your body starts burning fat instead of sugar for energy. It’s supposed to be good for weight loss and controlling blood sugar (and seizures, apparently, which is weird).

I’m pretty sure I can already hear some of you health-minded folks loading up all your concerned comments about high-fat, high-protein diets. Hold your fire, please; I’ve been doing research, and continue to do research, so I’m aware of potential pitfalls with that kind of dietary shift. And to tell you the truth, there’s still some part of me that’s wary this is just a gimmick diet. But I have committed to my beloved spouse that I’m going to give this a real try with her, so I’m in for the penny, in for the hopefully-many-fewer pounds.

Know what I’m realizing? Carbs are everywhere. Everywhere. That breath of air you just inhaled? It’s full of carbs. Go ahead and mark it 8, dude.

Kidding aside, it’s been challenging to make the necessary adjustments, but I’ve also eased my way into it. (Someone’s got to eat the not-quite-on-plan food around the house. I am that hero.) But I’m getting down to the meat of the meal plan, so to speak, and it’s…not easy. I’m sure I haven’t even hit the hard part yet, but I’m seeing how it’s going to push me.

At this very moment, I’ve got a rumbly belly. Good thing is, my brilliant wife sent me with a bunch of chow to hold off the hunger pains. Thankful for her.

After a week or so of her fully on board, and me slowly coming on board, we are collectively down about 15 pounds. I know that’s just the big drop that happens on Week 1 of any new eating plan, but it still makes me hopeful. We’ll see in a month. (Yes, I’ll talk about this again.)

Not only that, but once I stop coughing up solids (I’ve been sick for the past week or so), I’m starting a Couch-to-5K program. Yeah, boy, getting back to run/jog/waddling.

It’s the beginning of May. Time to shake off the pollen-coated funk that’s knocked me down for weeks and get serious about getting healthy again.

Who’s with me?

Sharing is caring.

It took me a while before I enjoyed sharing my Sunday School class with a co-teacher. Why? Three reasons:

  • I love teaching the Bible. The hour I’m in that classroom every Sunday morning is my favorite hour of the week. I get really excited about planning each series of lessons and doing all the study that goes into lesson prep. I love learning the truths of Scripture and teaching others what I’ve learned. I enjoy the discussions that follow the lesson, and seeing that my people were “getting it.” It has been a joy of mine for almost 10 years.
  • I’m proud. See, sometimes in the past, when I would sit and listen to other teachers teach there would be a moment of pride or even judgment as that wicked little voice in my head snickered, “I could have done that better.” It’s often not even true, to be honest. But it’s hard to resist the temptation of rating, ranking, and comparing yourself to other teachers. Maybe that’s just me. I have a proud and sinful heart.
  • I don’t know how to sit and just be a learner in that setting. I can listen during sermons, no problem. But in that classroom, it’s hard for me to let go. It’s hard for me not to take over discussions. And I don’t think it’s just a pride thing. I really do love talking about it and making connections to help people understand doctrinal concepts. Sometimes it just comes out and I’ll go off on a tangent until my sweet wife places her hand on my arm and reminds me to cool it.

After a while, though, I learned to get over my pride and trust that “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “worse,” and it certainly doesn’t mean “wrong.” God has been gracious in challenging me on this. And I have had the benefit of really good co-teachers, including a couple last year who were a huge blessing to my wife and I for the few months we had them in our church. When they moved away in November, I was sad to see them go. And while I can admit I did like getting back to teaching every week after that, I knew it couldn’t last forever.

It took me a little while to admit it, but I finally acknowledged it’s almost time for me to take a step back and just be a disciple for a while. I need to focus on building up my young marriage and digging into seminary studies to gear up for the next season of ministry.

I have a new co-teacher. I like him a lot; he’s a solid dude. He’s about 10 years younger than me, full of energy and eagerness, and he’s passionate about doctrine and people. I have the privilege of helping prepare him to take over full-time at the end of August.

There’s a problem, though. Part of me still doesn’t want to share time this summer. See, we’re starting a series next week on the Sermon on the Mount that will take us through the summer. I’ve wanted to teach through the Sermon for YEARS. And now, I have to split time with this new guy so that I can train him to replace me.

Ephesians 4 says that God has given pastors and teachers to the Church to build up the body of Christ and help it grow to maturity. Part of that ministry is to train other teachers to take up the work alongside you. Paul poured into men like Timothy and Titus and trained them to be faithful ministers, because Paul knew part of his job is to entrust the work of ministry to others who would come after him. I know this is my job, too, but it’s hard for me to share what I enjoy so much. Which tells me this is exactly why I need to do it—for the good of my people, for the good of the church, and for the good of my own selfish heart.