Radical(ly Normal)

“You don’t have to live crazy to follow Jesus.”  As the subtitle, that statement is a great summary of Josh Kelley’s new book, Radically NormalAs you may have already guessed, this book was written in response to some movements in American evangelicalism that lay a guilt trip on Christians for not following Jesus in radical ways (i.e. selling all and going on the mission field).  Kelley’s book is a fine complement to Matt Redmond’s The God of the Mundane (which I reviewed here).

Josh Kelley is the pastor of a smaller evangelical church in Washington State.  Having been raised in conservative evangelical circles, he had met Christians who were overly zealous (“Radical Randy”) and Christians who were too lazy.  These are two extremes: obsessive Christians and complacent Christians.  In this book, Kelley refutes both of these extremes and argues for a more biblical way: following Jesus in “normal” ways.  This is how he states his case – and what he unpacks in the book:

“[Many Christians] look at missionaries, street preachers, and pastors and feel certain they just aren’t on the same level as professional Christians.  Too many Christians feel guilty for their normal, everyday lives, which doesn’t involve performing miracles, standing behind a pulpit, or sharing the gospel in a distant jungle. …They live under the burden of believing that God would have been a little happier if they had sold everything and become missionaries….  I’ve come to believe that the entire system is absolute nonsense, a trap of the enemy that puffs up a few Christians and deflates the rest” (p. 35, 46).

From a different angle, Radically Normal might be viewed as a book that discusses (in a positive way) everyday Christian spirituality.  Kelley discusses evangelism, money, holiness, legalism, worldliness, suffering, and other such aspects of the Christian life.  I appreciated how he tried to stay balanced and level-headed throughout the book.  Using many personal stories, Kelley calls the reader to follow Jesus in a serious way, but he focuses on the Scriptures that talk about living “ordinary” lives while following Jesus.

I did put a few question marks in the margins as I read.  I’m not wild about giving up something for Lent or holding a Passover meal, as Kelley explained.  I also wish he would have spoken more about the church – he did, to be sure, in a positive way, but without much detail.  More emphasis on preaching and the sacraments would also have been nice, since God’s ordinary means of grace have everything to do with living ordinary Christian lives.

All in all, this book, Radically Normal, is a helpful evangelical counterpoint to the “radical” American evangelical emphases and movements (emphases and movements which have been around for more than 30 years).  It’s well written, not too difficult to read, and provides a good remedy for those Christians who feel guilty for not being radical.  Thankfully, you (usually) don’t have to quit your day job to follow the Lord Jesus in a biblical, God-glorifying way.

Josh Kelley, Radically Normal (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2014).

*Note: this book was given to me by the author (thanks Josh!) and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

shane lems
hammond, wi

What’s Best Next: A Brief Review

What's Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done Here’s an interesting book: What’s Best Next by Matt Perman.  It’s basically a Christian book about getting things done in a Christian way.  The book has seven parts (24 chapters) that span around 350 pages.  The book might be summarized like this: Glorify God in all that you do, love your neighbor, and do this deliberately/intentionally.

From a “big picture” view of the book, there is nothing overly innovating – this is basic Christian teaching.  Perman adds detail by weaving in helpful insights from “common grace” authors like Steven Covey and Peter Drucker as well as lessons from Christian authors like John Piper, Rick Warren, William Wilberforce, and Jonathan Edwards.

Here’s a simplified outline: 1) How to be God-centered in our productivity, 2) How being saved by grace frees us for joyful service and love, 3) Defining our mission – creating a mission statement, 4) Creating a flexible schedule, 5) Freeing up time, 6) Doing what’s most important first, and 7) Living it out.  There are also a few appendices that summarize the key thoughts and give more resources.

First, I’ll give my critiques.  1) The book was too tedious, wordy, and detailed for me.  I was overwhelmed with all the tips and insights and strategies and outlines.  At the halfway point of the book, I thought, “I can’t do all this stuff!  There’s just too much!”  If the book would have been shorter and more to the point, I would have liked it a lot more.  2) The way Perman used the popular “gospel-driven” phrase was confusing (GDP – Gospel-Driven Productivity).  He seems to be using the term “gospel” in a broad way.  That’s fine, but it is a bit confusing because everyone says “gospel-driven” this or that (it’s becoming a buzz-word, unfortunately).  I think a better term for his use would be “Scripture Based Productivity” (see p. 28).  He does discuss the gospel, but he also (rightly) uses the law for his counsel on productivity.

3) I disagree with Perman when he says “the ultimate result of GDP is the transformation of the world socially, economically, and spiritually, to the glory of God.”  4) A few times Perman used Scripture references in a way with which I wasn’t comfortable.  One example is where Perman says that “good works…are anything we do in faith,” including mundane activities of life like “tying our shoes” (p. 78).  He says a good paraphrase of Matt. 5:16 isLet your light so shine before others that they may see your clean parking lots and give glory to your Father in heaven (p. 79; quoting the Chick-Fil-A president).  A little nuance on these things would have been helpful (i.e. Westminster Confession of Faith ch. 16.).

There are also many strengths of the book.  I appreciated his emphasis on getting the most important thing done first.  I appreciated his emphasis on loving our neighbors and serving them in everything we do.  I resonated with his discussion of having direction, purpose, and passion in life – aiming one’s life at God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.  It is true: we shouldn’t be lazy Christians who don’t think about what we’re doing in our lives and with our lives.  His emphasis on routines and basic schedules was good.  Perman also noted that we don’t have to be slaves to our schedules, but said flexibility should be built into our lives and schedules.  Finally, he was right on when he said we should always treat people as people (not products!) when we interact with them in a “scheduled” way.  There is a lot of wisdom in this book.

Is this book for all Christians?  Probably not.  If you’re a structured person who knows the basics of what it means to love and glorify God while serving others, you might not need this book.  Some of Perman’s suggestions are common sense for people who know how to manage time (i.e. “plan your day”).  I also hesitate to recommend it to average Christians who don’t have time an energy to read a huge and tedious book like this.  I wouldn’t hand it out to a stressed-out mom who is at her wits’ end, since the book would be a big overload for her.  It’s not a book for everyone.

So who should get this book?  Christian readers and thinkers who have a tough time managing their schedules/lives.  If you need help with scheduling and time management, and if you like detailed and longer reading material, you’ll like this book.  If you’re a reader whose life is an unscheduled whirlwind, I recommend this book!  What’s Best Next would be a great addition to a Christian college business class reading list.

Matt Perman, What’s Best Next (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013).

shane lems
hammond, wi

Luther and Wingren on Vocation

Product Details Since I’ve been doing reading on vocation lately, I thought I’d share this great quote by Martin Luther followed by the commentary of Gustaf Wingren.  It has to do with how vocation is related to “love thy neighbor.”

“If you are a craftsman you will find the Bible placed in your workshop, in your hands, in your heart; it teaches and preaches how you ought to treat your neighbor.  Only look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel, your articles of trade, your scales, your measures, and you will find this saying written on them.  You will not be able to look anywhere where it does not strike your eyes.  None of the things with which you deal daily are too trifling to tell you this incessantly, if you are but willing to hear it; and there is no lack of such preaching, for you have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools, and other implements in your house and estate; they shout this to your face, ‘My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his.’”

Here’s Wingren’s commentary:

“Thus a Christian finds himself called to drab and lowly tasks, which seem less remarkable than monastic life…and other distractions from our vocations.  For him who heeds his vocation, sanctification is hidden in offensively ordinary tasks, with the result that it is hardly noticed at all that he is a Christian.  But faith looks on simple duties as tasks to which vocation summons the man; and by the Spirit he becomes aware that all those ‘poor, dull, and despised works’ are adorned with the favor of God ‘as with costliest gold and precious stones.’  The monk is always uncertain about his works; but in work which really contributes to the neighbor’s well-being and is commanded by God, peace and certainty are found” (p. 72-73).

Though it isn’t the easiest book to read, Gustaf Wingren’s Luther On Vocation is a wonderful resource on the topic of Christian vocation.  And the above quotes are some great words to remember: when we go about our daily Christian life of faith – whether in the home, tractor cab, or office (etc.) – we can serve our neighbor and be sure that God is pleased with us and glorified in what we do.

rev shane lems

The God of the Mundane

Product DetailsTo bring God glory and honor, the Christian doesn’t have to change the world or do all sorts of spectacular things for the good of the Kingdom.  A follower of Christ can serve the Lord well in an obscure, behind-the-scenes, everyday manner (whether trimming lawns or teaching driver’s education).  Christians can please God without ever doing anything special or extraordinary.  To live “a quiet life” (1 Tim. 2.2) is to live a Christian life.

So argues Matthew Redmond in The God of the Mundane.  In a world of fame, glamor, stardom, and super-sizing, this book broadcasts a message every ordinary Christian needs to hear: you can serve God well right where you’re at.  “This little book is not a call to do nothing.  It is a call to be faithful right where you are, regardless of how mundane that place is” (loc. 1102).

“It is encouraging that there is a God of the mundane, because lives are just that – mundane.  This is good news for those who have tried trying to live fantastically.  And this is spectacular news for those who have been tempted to think their lives escape the notice of God because they are decidedly not spectacular” (loc. 245).

Redmond isn’t ambiguous in speaking of vocation: “[The Apostle Paul] never asks [the recipients of his epistles] to stop being who they are.  He never challenges them to go anywhere.  We don’t even get hints that lead us to believe he is making them feel guilty for living in comparative comfort compared to his lack of it.  That’s weird.  And it’s weird because this is so common in our pulpits and in conferences held for zealous college students” (loc. 291).

I appreciate Redmond’s breakdown of how the guilt of doing nothing in life works:

Stage One: I feel guilty about doing nothing.  Stage Two: Therefore I must get on with something obviously significant.  Stage Three: Now we judge others by this standard.  If they are not doing something obviously significant then we automatically say to ourselves or to them and certainly to others, ‘They are not serious about their faith!  If they were, they would do…’” (loc. 712).

What is Redmond’s radical call?  There is no radical call.  That’s the point.

“Be nobody special.  Do your job.  Take care of your family.  Clean your house.  Mow your yard.  Read your Bible.  Attend worship.  Pray.  Watch your life and doctrine closely.  Love your spouse.  Love your kids. Be generous.  …Expect no special treatment.  And do it all quietly” (loc. 1096).

I highly recommend this book for average Christians who think they are doing nothing for Christ.  If you feel like your job in hospital billing, irrigation, or basketball coaching isn’t good enough, get this book.  The God of the Mundane is sort of a modern-day application of Luther’s excellent discussion of vocation coupled with his theology of suffering (not glory!).  This book might go against the flow of some things you’ve heard in evangelical circles, but it’s a good counterpoint that is definitely needed.  (By the way, you can get it for under $5 on Kindle.)

Matthew Redmond, The God of the Mundane (n.l. Kalos Press, 2012).

rev shane lems

sunnyside wa

Radically Ordinary

Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream One major and glaring weakness in David Platt’s bestselling book, Radical, is his failure to discuss vocation – the places and positions God has called his people to in this life.  I do agree with Platt that the church in the United States is much too “Americanized” and some of us need to get off the couch and take our faith much more seriously, but I don’t appreciate his guilt trip that might lead readers away from their God-given vocation.  As one friend of mine said, Platt would have done well to deal with Paul’s epistles, specifically the application sections.  And might it also be said that Platt’s huge vision is somewhat American itself (i.e. focus on the big, extraordinary, and glamorous)?

Not every Christian is called to be a missionary and sell everything he/she has.  All Christians should be ready to give an answer for their hope in Christ (1 Pet. 3:14), but not every Christian is called to be a pastor, teacher, or evangelist (Eph. 4.11).  There are modern-day Timothy’s, but there are also modern-day Lydia’s.

So what is vocation?  Gene Veith says it well – in a Luther-like way:

“Though [God] could give [daily bread] to us directly, by a miraculous provision, as he once did for the children of Israel when he fed them daily with manna, God has chosen to work through human beings, who, in their different capacities and according to their different talents, serve each other.  This is the doctrine of vocation” (p. 14).

Veith goes on to say that God could just create new humans from the dust, but instead he chose to create new life through a mother and father, and calls them to raise children in love.  He could just heal people without any means, but instead, he has gifted certain people to work as doctors, lab technicians, and pharmacists.  He could put a sort of force field around people, but instead he has given us soldiers and policemen to protect us.  This is vocation: God calls his people to different tasks and jobs in which they can serve their neighbors and glorify God in doing so.  Veith: “The purpose of vocation is to love and serve one’s neighbor” (p. 39).

“…Vocation is played out not just in extraordinary acts – the great things we will do for the Lord, the great success we envision in our careers someday – but in the realm of the ordinary.  Whatever we face in the often humdrum present – washing the dishes, buying groceries, going to work, driving the kids somewhere, hanging out with our friends – this is the realm into which we have been called and in which our faith bears fruit in love.  We are to love our neighbors – that is, the people who are actually around us, as opposed to the abstract humanity of the theorists.  These neighbors constitute the relationships that we are in right now, and our vocation is for God to serve them through us” (p. 59).

If you’re a Christian mother raising messy kids, or if you’re a Christian father who drives for UPS, don’t feel guilty that you aren’t “radically” serving the Lord.  Sure, you should pray for missionaries and support them as you can, but God has put you where you are.  You’re not a “lesser” Christian because you haven’t sold everything and gone overseas for six months or more.  You run into your neighbors every day, and your duty is to love and serve them in your vocation, where the Lord has put you.  And he is glorified when you do so.

If you’ve read Radical, please read Veith’s God at Work to learn a more balanced approach to the Christian life.  There are no guilt-trips in Veith’s book and it is a more edifying and encouraging approach to serving God and neighbor.  And remember Luther’s teaching: “A maid is more godly than a monk.”

Maybe someone should write a book on how “ordinary” Christians glorify God in their “ordinary” life – but would people purchase a book about regular Christians who stock the shelves of Safeway, clean hotel rooms, sell car parts, or fix laptops?

shane lems