Monday, February 12, 2018

Questions and Answers

From time to time, something I say during a sermon generates questions from the congregation.  This week's sermon produced several questions that I'd like to answer in this blog post.  You can hear the sermon on Luke 9.1-9 here.

What is the "kingdom of God"?  
Throughout the gospels Jesus refers to the kingdom of God several times (more than 100 times, in fact).  And in Luke 9.2 Jesus sends his 12 apostles out specifically to "declare the kingdom of God."  Bible scholars have pondered the exact nature of what the kingdom of God actually refers to, and there are many nuanced interpretations that remain today.  As I see it, the kingdom of God represents the new reality brought forth by Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection.  Jesus came to destroy the works father devil that first began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve fell into sin.  He came to redeem people from the effects of living in that fallen world, and to usher in a new reality of atonement, forgiveness, and righteousness.  Thus, when the 12 are sent out to "declare the kingdom of God," they are telling people that the destruction brought about by sin will be/has been remedied by the entrance of the Messiah onto the scene.  Jesus has come, and he will right the wrongs caused by sin and build a new kingdom of righteousness.

This kingdom is partially realized when we put our trust in Christ.  When we are saved from the consequences of sin and enter into the eternal life that God has prepared for those who trust in Christ, we become partakers (citizens) of this new kingdom.  We no longer live in a world where the eternal effects of sin are hanging over our head.  Instead, we live in a kingdom that is ruled by the righteousness of God in Christ, and we look forward to the full realization of that kingdom in this world when Jesus comes back.  Until then, Jesus builds his kingdom in the hearts and lives of those who will be his subjects.

Can we be witnesses for Jesus by how we live?
Yes.  The Bible clearly teaches that there is a marked difference between those who are living in the kingdom of God and those who are living outside of it (see Matthew 5.1-12, for example).  And when the world sees us living as citizens of the kingdom of God, they take notice.  They realize that we are different (Matthew 5.13-16).  Moreover, 1 Peter 3 says that wives are to win over their unbelieving husbands through their godly behavior.  So according to these scriptures and many more, we can be faithful, obedient witnesses for Jesus by exhibiting godly behaviors, actions, and attitudes for the rest of the world to see.

But it is important to note that this is only one part of our witness and/or testimony about the truth of the gospel.  The New Testament also clearly and explicitly says that faith comes by hearing, not by seeing.  In order for the message of the gospel to be communicated, it must be spoken.  After all, it would be difficult to "live out" the reality of the kingdom of God described above.  What kind of actions would you perform to communicate that the Messiah has come to rescue fallen sinners?  In order to communicate this message, we must speak.  The fruit of transformed lives and hearts bears witness to the truth of the gospel, but it does not explain the gospel.  In order to declare the gospel, we must speak.

The disciples worked powerful miracles when they preached the gospel.  Why don't we see those same kinds of miracles today?  
Luke 9.1 says that when Jesus sent the 12 out to declare the kingdom of God, he also gave them "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases."  The reason the disciples had this power was not to wow the crowds with their abilities or to perform magic tricks for entertainment purposes, but to act as signs about the truth of their message.  Remember, they were sent to "declare the kingdom of God" - this new reality that was being ushered into the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The proof of this new reality was that the disciples had authority over demons and the power to heal diseases.  Jesus didn't give the disciples power for the sake of them being able to do cool miracles, but for the sake of authenticating their verbal message.

It is my belief that we don't see these kinds of miracles accompanying the declaration of the gospel today because we don't need to see them - we've seen them already.  The authenticating signs and wonders performed by the apostles prove to us - just as much as it did to the people who saw them - that the new reality of the kingdom of God in the hearts and lives of people who follow Jesus is actual, and that it is true.  To require additional signs and wonders on top of the ones already given to us as proof seems to me to be redundant.

That being said, the power of God is still evident in his word when it is declared and shared.  It brings the power of conviction, repentance, faith, obedience, and a host of other actions that are simply impossible for sinful human beings to perform.  We cannot respond to the truth of God's word without his power to strengthen us to turn from sin and believe.  We cannot obey God's word without the power of his Holy Spirit to empower our obedience.  We cannot join God in his mission to declare his kingdom without his power to energize our efforts and strengthen us to care for those who are perishing.  God's word today brings with it no less power than it did in the first century.  That power just doesn't manifest itself in signs and wonders anymore.

Do we need to ask for God's power, or do we have it automatically?
All those who are trusting in Christ are empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish whatever it is that God has called them to do.  This power is given to us at the time of our conversion.  The Holy Spirit empowers us to combat sin in our lives, obey God's word, venture into ministry endeavors, and a host of other activities.

As believers, this power is available to us on demand.  It does not require a special prayer or incantation in order for it to be accessed.  It is not forced upon us, however.  For example, although Christians have the power to battle against sin and temptation in our lives, there are many times when we neglect to access this power, and instead give into sinful temptations.  When this happens, it is not that we do not have the power to resist temptation, but rather that we have neglected to use it.  We are not slaves to our sinful nature, and we do not have to obey it.  We have power over it, and a free will to refuse its enticing demands.  This ability only exists because of the power of God.  Yet, there are many times when we choose to not exercise or take advantage of this God-given power, because we still struggle against our flesh.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Glory of God in a 38-7 Loss

Like most Vikings fans, last night I watched our hopes of Super Bowl glory fade away into a familiar void of despair.  It's happened so often in my lifetime that it has become a familiar feeling: the Vikings will do well during the regular season, and then dash themselves against the rocks in the playoffs.  Even my son, at the tender age of 10, chose to play Minecraft on the computer rather than watch the game because, according to him, "They're just going to lose."  Such is life as a Minnesota sports fan (actually, if you're looking for a bandwagon to jump onto, check out the Timberwolves, who are having a great season).

Last week's "Minneapolis Miracle" that led to a spectacular first-round win against the Saints was the stuff of legends.  I was pleasantly surprised by the commentary of several Vikings players last week who, after the improbable win, gave glory to God: "It's probably going to go down as the third best moment of my life," Case Keenum said, "behind giving my life to Jesus Christ and marrying my wife."  Keenum preceded that sentiment with a huge smile and said, "God is SO good!"

The first words out of Stefon Diggs' mouth were "Glory to God, because without him, nothing is possible, and I wouldn't be here."  I was glad to hear Keenum, Diggs, and several other players glorify God for what he has done in their lives.

But...there's a problem when we conflate God with professional sports, and that problem is when you get blown out by the Philadelphia Eagles 38-7 a week later.

After the "Minneapolis Miracle" took place, and after hearing from players like Keenum and Diggs, I couldn't help but wonder what the Christian players on the Saints team were thinking: were they giving glory to God after just losing what was possibly the biggest game of their lives?  Were they giving glory to God after their almost certain victory was snatched from their hands in a matter of mere seconds?  I doubt it.  There probably weren't very many "All glory to God!" exclamations in the Saints locker room.  I don't know for sure, but I would guess that the same was true of the Vikings locker room after yesterday's blowout loss.  Case Keenum and Stefon Diggs probably weren't thanking God for all that he had done for them.

That's the problem when we associate God's activity in our lives with only the good things that happen: we begin to see God as someone who is only active in our lives when life is going well.  Too often we think that God rewards us with good things in life, or that our life will be free from difficulty or painful football losses.  We forget that God is sovereign over all things - the wins and the losses.  God is not in the business of handing out football wins to those who give him the most glory.  The reality is that all glory goes to God whether you win or lose.

Have you ever prayed a prayer that goes like this? "God, if you (fill in the blank), then I will (fill in the blank)."  For some reason we are tempted to try to strike deals with God in order to get what we want, or to think that our good behavior will somehow garner his reward of a smooth, prosperous life.  But then, when things go wrong, we are also tempted to blame God, and we can't possibly see how he could be glorified in our disappointments and failures.

The reality is that the Bible never guarantees that true faith in God will lead to a pain-free life.  We live in a fallen world where suffering is unavoidable.  Sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper - that's just the way it is.  But not only is that the way it is, that is the way God has ordained to bring the most glory to himself.  It sounds counterintuitive, but that's what the Bible tells us: that God can even use our disappointments, failures, and suffering to bring about his good purposes for us.

Nobody knew this truth better than Joseph (Genesis 37-50).  Time after time, Joseph does the right thing and follows God, and as a reward he gets thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and thrown into prison.  At every turn, Joseph does the right thing, yet God allows bad things to happen to him.  Compare that to how we often think that if we do the right thing, then good things will happen to us.  But that's simply not always the way it works in God's plan.  God is big enough and strong enough to even use our disappointments and failures and times of difficulty to accomplish his purposes.

Too many Christians have the false idea that if God is with us, then nothing bad will happen.  We have a tendency to think that God is with us during the good times, but not during the bad.  He's with us when we win the football game, but not when we lose.  We think of Bible verses like Romans 8.31 that say, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" as if they promise us a life without adversity.  But we leave out the verses that say we might experience suffering, famine, nakedness, peril, and many other obstacles (Romans 5.35-39).

We are tempted in the tough moments to question if God is with us, but the Bible assures us that he never leaves nor forsakes his people (Joshua 1.9, Deuteronomy 31.6, Hebrews 13.5).  Our hope is not in a God who keeps bad things from happening to us, but in a God who is with us in life and death, and who sees to it that nothing separates us from his love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.38-39).  No suffering, no disappointment, no failures in our personal lives can remove us from the reach of his grace or disrupt his eternal plan.

Imagine for a moment that you are one of Jesus' disciples, standing at the foot of the cross.  All of your hopes and dreams are nailed up there on that cross.  There's absolutely no way that you could ever imagine something good coming from having your Savior nailed to a cross.  But that was not God's plan.  God's plan was to use the horror of the cross for good, and so he did.  In order to rise from the dead, Jesus had to die; in order for him to be exalted, he had to be brought low; in order for him to be vindicated, he had to suffer.

The difference-maker is that we know that God is sovereign over all aspects of our lives - even failure, disappointment, and suffering.  And God promises that he will use all things to carry out his plans and purposes, even those things that are very painful in the moment.  Your sadness and disappointment and pain are not in vain; they are not meaningless; God can and will use them to carry out his plan.

Let's face it: disappointments and failures are coming in your life.  Don't fall for a fake Christianity that says that God is not in those times, or that he can't or won't use them for your good.  You have a Savior who suffered before he lifted up, who died before he rose.  And he said that those who follow him would suffer like him.  But even in the midst of that disappointment and pain, we can rejoice because we know that God uses all things for his glory and our good.

So even if something hard happens in our lives, we can say with confidence and sincerity, "All glory to God!" because we know that he will use this difficult thing for exactly that purpose.  And not only that, but we have the promise from scripture that God will use difficult times for our good - to shape us more into the image of Jesus.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Why Jesus Meant to Be Confusing

In the things that he said, Jesus was often cryptic and mysterious, as though he were telling riddles that his audience had to discern in order to understand what he was saying.  In Luke 8 his disciples ask him about the meaning of a particular parable he told and he says to them in verse 10: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that 'seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.'"

This statement is shocking on its face.  It seems to imply that God is deliberately hiding knowledge through parables from certain people.  In fact, that's what Jesus not only implies but declares outright in Matthew 11.25: " have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children."  But why?  Why would God want to hide life-giving information from people?  Is God vindictive and just plain mean?

Rather than God acting unjustly, there are actually numerous reasons why God would only grant understanding to some and not others, and none of them has to do with God wanting certain people to be condemned.  Indeed, God's desire is that all should come to repentance and faith (2 Peter 3.9).  So it is not accurate to say that God is purposely hiding the truth from anyone because he is vindictive or unjust.  Rather, the fact that the truth is hidden to some people tells us more about ourselves than it does about God.  That being said, there are several practical reasons why "the secrets of the kingdom of God" are given to some but not to others.  They include, but are not limited to, the following.

1. Jesus hid the truth for practical reasons.  Throughout the gospels there is what is known as the "Messianic Secret."  This refers to those times when Jesus healed people but told them not to tell anyone that it was him that healed them.  The reason Jesus did this was to control the timing of the events that would lead to his death.  Being the sovereign God of the universe, Jesus controlled even the timing of his own death.  He knew that if word spread too quickly and too far about what he was doing, it would hurry along the process that would lead to his arrest and execution.  So in some cases he insisted on secrecy.  The same could be said of his teachings: Jesus' ultimate message was that he was the Son of God, come to save all those who would believe from the punishment of sin and to bring them back to God.  The sooner that message got out, the sooner the religious leaders would get angry and call for his life.  So in one sense, we could say that Jesus veiled the content of his teaching with parables because he was working on a predetermined time table.

2. Jesus hid the truth because he wasn't going to be anyone's clown.  Another common aspect of Jesus' ministry is that he refused to be a clown.  There were many people who came to him only to see or hear what he would do or say next.  In other words, Jesus' ministry was attention-grabbing and provocative, and many people followed him just to see what miraculous thing he would do next, or what provocative statement he would make that would anger the establishment.  Jesus knew of this tendency, however, and so he refused to perform like a trained animal.  In some instances, he refused to perform miracles because he knew the people regarded him as a sideshow act.  So it makes sense that Jesus would mask his message in parables so as to not be regarded merely as a provocative communicator.  The things he said internalization and deep thought.  Parables don't make good one-liners or soundbites.

3. Jesus hid the truth because he knew that some people don't want to hear the truth.  This, again, is a very practical reason for Jesus veiling the truth of his teaching: why give people the truth when they refuse to hear it?  The notion that some people don't want to hear the truth is a common refrain throughout scripture.  When God commissioned Isaiah to be a prophet, he told Isaiah to go and preach to the people even though God already knew they wouldn't listen (Isaiah 6.9-10).  Jesus' teaching ministry, on the other hand, was veiled in parables so that those who sought understanding would find it, and those who did not, wouldn't.

4. Jesus hid the truth because some people won't believe the truth even if they hear it.  This reason is similar to number three above, but differs in that some people seem open to the truth but refuse to ever acknowledge it or act on it.  This is made evident in Matthew 11 when Jesus cries out in woe against unrepentant cities.  In these particular cities, the works of God had been performed marvelously and miraculously, right out in the open for everyone to see.  But rather than respond to these miraculous works, the people just ignored them and went on about their business, making their ultimate condemnation even more just.  The same is true of Jesus' teaching.  Jesus, knowing that even if these people knew the truth of his words that they wouldn't act on it, hid the truth from them.

5. Jesus hid the truth because understanding comes from a place of humility.  God has a track record of hiding things from the wise and proud and revealing it to the simple.  People can't figure out God on their own, no matter how hard they try.  And if they think all of their knowledge and wisdom will be enough to help them reach God, they're sorely mistaken.  God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4.6).  If you think you've got it all figured out, it's actually proof that you don't.  For this reason, Jesus taught the truth in parables that could be discerned by the humble, but which confounded the wise.

6. Jesus hid the truth because understanding is given to those who want to understand.  In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says that "Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom..."  The Jews of Jesus' day didn't want to understand the truth that Jesus was teaching - they just wanted to see signs.  And Greeks, Paul says, want wisdom more than truth.  In other words, neither Jews nor Greeks were too interested in understanding the truth.  They had already determined what they wanted, and none of it had to do with Jesus.  But for those who do want to understand the mysteries of God, God is gracious and is willing to give them understanding.  Paul also says that "to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."  Those who want to see Jesus will find him.  Those who want to know the truth will be given understanding.  Jesus differentiated those who wanted truth and those who wanted something else by veiling his teaching in parables.

7. Jesus hid the truth because understanding comes from God, not from human effort.  Finally, we simply have to come to the somewhat difficult realization that God grants understanding to those whom he will.  In God's sovereign wisdom, he has granted understanding to some and not to others.  So then, regardless of how much they try to puzzle out the truth of Jesus' teaching, they never will, because it has not been granted to them.  This is why some of the smartest biblical scholars in the world are not Christians.  They have monumental intellectual capabilities, but the mysteries of the kingdom of God cannot be discerned naturally, they must be known spiritually.  In this sense, then, when Jesus spoke the truth of God, those to whom God had granted understanding understood, and those to whom God had not granted understanding, were left in confusion.

Regardless of why Jesus was sometimes confusing in his message during his ministry, rather than the reality that Jesus was sometimes intentionally confusing leading us to accuse God of some sort of injustice, it should instead cause us to seek understanding.  It should cause us to ask God to show us the mysteries of his kingdom, and to give us the knowledge we need to be saved.  It should inspire us to study God deeply, to know him, and to rely on him for all wisdom and knowledge.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Joy to the World

In Matthew 2 and Luke 2 we read about two groups of men who were invited to visit the newborn Jesus after his birth: the Wise Men from Matthew 2, and the Shepherds from Luke 2.  Both groups of men learned of the birth place of Jesus and visited his family in Bethlehem, and both groups of men left that encounter overflowing with joy.  In the sermon I preached this week, we learned that the source of the joy of the Wise Men and the Shepherds was not that they got to cuddle a cute baby Jesus, but rather that God was true to his word.  The Wise Men "rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" when the star came to rest over the town of Bethlehem because it was evidence that God was faithful to his promise to send the Messiah, and that he would be born in Bethlehem.  And the Shepherds came away from their encounter with Jesus "glorifying and praise God for all they had seen and heard," because everything they had seen and heard happened exactly the way that God said it would happen.

The source of the joy of the Wise Men and the Shepherds was not anything external, but rather the certain reality that God is true to his word.  When they discovered and believed this truth, all they could do was overflow with joy.

Let's face it: the Christmas season can be difficult.  On the one hand, our culture tells us to be happy and joyful, and to enjoy our friends and family and food and gifts.  But on the other hand, those times and seasons that are supposed to be happy and joyous occasions can be stressful and frustrating, and can be times when we feel our pain and suffering most deeply.  Some people weep through the Christmas season because it is the first time that they have spent the holiday without a loved one who has passed away.  It's hard to have the joy of Christmas when you're grieving loss.  Others wonder how they can have any joy in their lives when they don't agree on anything with their spouse, and they're not even close to seeing eye to eye.  Parents wonder where the joy of Christmas is when their children have wandered so far from their family and so far from God that it seems like they'll never return.  It's common for these supposedly joyful seasons of the year to instead magnify all the things in our lives that aren't going the way we'd like them to.

But like the Wise Men and the Shepherds, our joy in life should not be determined by external circumstances.  This is not to diminish the difficult things that happen in our lives, but rather to declare that the difficult things - and even the positive things - that happen in our lives cannot determine our joy.  The reason for this is that the external circumstances of our lives change.  Marriages do fall apart; families do crumble; unexpected health diagnoses do come; your body will break down over time.  So if your joy is based on the condition of your marriage or your family or your health, then prepare to live in despair.  If your joy in life is derived from circumstances, then prepare to ride a torturous rollercoaster because circumstances change, and sometimes life is downright miserable.  Sure, sometimes things go well, but give it time.

Rather than finding our joy in the circumstances of our lives, we should take our cue from the Wise Men and the Shepherds, and find our ultimate satisfaction in the faithfulness of God.  I don't mean to trivialize any of the deep and difficult troubles that you experience, but even in light of those difficulties we need to remember that God's word is true.

If you can't rejoice this Christmas because you are grieving the fresh loss of a loved one, you can rejoice because God's word is true.

If you can't rejoice this Christmas because your family is in shambles or because your marriage is falling apart or because your children are wayward, you can rejoice because God's word is true.

If you don't know what to do in your specific situation, you should rejoice that God does, and whatever he says about it is right and true.

If you don't feel like you have the strength to make it, you should rejoice in the fact that God does, and that he has promised to give you his own strength, and his promises are always kept.

If you don't feel like you could cry anymore than you have this Christmas, you should rejoice that God's word says that he is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit, and his word is true.

Those who trust in the Lord have a joy that is not derived from circumstances, but from an unshakable, indestructible trust that God's word is true.  No matter what comes down the pike in your life, you can "rejoice exceedingly with great joy" because you know that God's word is true; he is faithful to his promises.  That was the joy of the Wise Men and the Shepherds, and let that be your joy this Christmas and beyond: God is faithful; his word is true.

And the wonderful thing about Christmas is that it reminds us that anyone can have this kind of joy in their lives.  When the angel appeared to the shepherds, he said, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."  The good news of the faithfulness of God is for all people.  Anyone can come to God and experience the joy of his faithfulness.  Through repentance and faith in Christ you can have the joy of knowing for certain that your sins are forgiven and that the punishment your sins deserved was taken by Jesus on the cross.  God has promised to do this for anyone who will call out to him in repentance and faith, and if you will trust in him, you too will find that God's word is true, and that will lead to your joy.  No matter what debilitating circumstances you're in at this very moment, even if your suffering is self-inflicted, this joy is for you.

It's easy to get lost in all of the cares and concerns of life and be overwhelmed by our circumstances.  It's easy to take God's faithfulness for granted.  It's easy to have an entitlement mentality when it comes to God's faithfulness to his promises.  Don't have that mentality.  Instead, allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the glorious truth that God is faithful, and that he will do what he has said he will do: he will be with you, he will strengthen you, he will provide for you, and he will help you.  That's who he is, in truth.  Let that truth wash over you, and then respond like a shepherd: glorify and praise God for all that you have seen and heard.

Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!  Let earth receive her King!  Let ev'ry heart prepare him room, and heav'n and nature sing!

Friday, December 15, 2017

2017 Books

Over my my other blog at the church website, I recently posted my top 10 books of the year that challenged me spiritually.  Of course, I read other books this year that didn't necessarily challenge me spiritually but that I found enjoyable.  I figured I'd do a second top 10 list here.  Some books appear on both lists, but there's a good amount of diversity.  This is a list of the 10 (and a half - more on that in a minute) books I found most enjoyable or most appreciated this year.  Click on the thumbnails to find the books on Amazon.

10.5 - Tyranny of the Urgent by Charles E. Hummel.  The first book on this list doesn't count as a full book (hence, it's #10.5) because it's very short - actually it's only a booklet.  This is an important book.  It was recommended to me just last month, and since it's very short it's very easy to read.  The book(let) is important because most people find themselves too short on time.  And being a pastor, I know firsthand that when people are short on time, the first thing they usually sacrifice is church involvement.  It doesn't have to be that way, though.  And in fact, as this book explains, you don't even have to be short on time at all.  You need to learn to budget and use the time God has given you wisely and well.  This very short book will help you do that.

10. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.  When the school year began, my son started reading this book for school.  He loved it, and he recommended that I read it too, so I did.  He kept telling me that it had an unbelievable ending, and it does.  It seems that fiction I read and really enjoy tends to be young adult fiction (go figure).  One of the things I liked about this book was what seemed, to me at least, to be the old fashioned style of writing and dialogue used.  It doesn't shy away from difficult vocabulary.  And although the setting of the book is modern times, it almost feels like it was written 50 years ago.  It's a fun, low-key adventure story (by the way, I'm currently reading through the second installment in this series, and enjoying it).

9. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi.  We go from the young adult fiction of the entry above, to the horror of a mass murder scene by the infamous and now deceased Charles Manson.  This book was recommended to me by a Facebook friend about how circumstantial evidence is worthwhile evidence and can be used to form conclusions.  That's definitely the case with this book.  The book details the murders of the so-called "Manson Family" and the court case that sent most of them to jail for life.  This book is not for the faint of heart, as it does describe the mass-murders that took place at the end of the 60's, but the process of walking through the trial and hearing how the evidence was presented is fascinating. (Reader beware: this book obviously contains depictions of graphic violence, murder, and contains foul language.)

8. Lucky Bastard by Joe Buck.  Let me start by apologizing for the title, which was, in fact, enough to scare me away from this book for a long time.  It turns out that the title is actually very descriptive of Joe Buck's life.  And like it or not (I, for one, do not), Joe Buck is a mainstay in professional sports, especially Major League Baseball, if for no other reason than that he rides the coattails of his now deceased and legendary father, Jack Buck.  I don't really like Joe Buck.  I think his play-by-play announcing style - especially for baseball - is awful.  As I listen to him, it is obvious to me that he is calling the game in such a way so as to set himself up for a really catchy or observant statement when a big play develops.  It's ridiculous (plus, he's obviously biased for big market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox).  Anyway, none of that has anything to do with the book.  The book tells his story, all the way from being born out of wedlock - the result of an adulterous affair his father had with another woman - to the advancement he received in baseball announcing due to, well, luck.  As I implied earlier, I hesitated to read this book mostly because of the vulgar title, and also because it was Joe Buck's life story.  But I was actually taken in by his descriptions of growing up around the game of baseball, and what it's like to be an announcer. (For some reason, I have a deep fascination with play-by-play baseball announcing.  Most of my childhood baseball memories are narrated in my mind by Herb Carneal and John Gordon.)  If you like baseball - and even if, like me, you don't like Joe Buck very much - you'll enjoy this book. (Reader beware: this book contains plenty of foul language and irreverent humor.)

7. The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan.  This book was recommended by a somewhat high profile preacher that I follow on Facebook.  The book is the memoir of Andrew Klavan, who was born and raised a secular Jew.  The book details the account of his spiritual journey and ultimate awakening to the truth of the gospel.  It's a fantastic journey to see how God can intersect the life of anyone he chooses, no matter their circumstances or surroundings, and tear down the most prideful of hearts.  Plus, Klavan is a great writer and narrator, if you decide to get the audiobook.  I definitely had some theological and practical differences with Klavan along the way, but his story is encouraging and a worthwhile read.  

6. The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe.  The Kingdom of Speech is perhaps the most interesting book I read in 2017.  It argues against the evolutionary hypothesis as a legitimate explanation of the origin of life, and it does so in a fascinating and entertaining way.  The basic premise of the book is that evolution cannot account for the creation of human speech.  A layman's look at the field of linguistics simply yet comprehensively demonstrates that the gift of speech could not have evolved.  Plus, it's a rather short read.  (Reader beware: there is some brief foul language.)

5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  This book has been on a lot of Top 10 lists across the internet, and created quite a buzz earlier in the year.  It's a gripping true story about a young boy's growth into adulthood in "hillbilly" culture and turbulent relationships he has along the way with his parents, grandparents, and his culture in general.  At times the tale is tragic, and at times, funny.  The book is almost too complex to describe here.  Although not written from a Christian perspective, you will be challenged to think long, hard, and biblically about poverty, justice, social classes and stigmas, human nature, personal responsibility, sin, family relationships, and a host of other issues.  (Reader beware: this book contains plenty of foul language and depictions of drug and alcohol abuse.)

4. Dodge City by Tom Clavin.  I am fascinated by the old west, whether in book, movie, or TV form (I think my favorite fill of all time is "3:10 to Yuma").  Dodge City tells the story of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, the two lawmen who attempted to tame the "wickedest town in the American west."  It was fascinating to be able to separate the fact from legend when it came to Earp, and to learn more about Masterson - someone whom I knew virtually nothing about before the reading of the book.  Much to my delight, the book also contained biographic information about Doc Holliday and even an historical recounting of the gunfight at the OK Corral.  There is a ton of historical information in this book that I ate up, and you will too if you're even remotely interested in the old west. (Reader beware: this historical book contains descriptions of violence, gunfights, prostitution, and other morally suspect activities that were common parts of early American life.)

3. Silence by Shusaku Endo.  Although written in the mid-20th century, earlier this year a movie of the same title was released, and I began to learn about the story of Silence.  I did not see the movie, however, but instead decided to read the novel.  Considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, I found it very interesting, very engaging, and a good look at suffering for Christ, albeit from a Roman Catholic perspective.  The novel tells the story of a 16th century young Portuguese priest who goes on a missionary journey to Japan to see the oppression that Catholic missionaries and Japanese Christians have suffered at the hands of Japanese persecutors.  What he finds is the barbaric treatment of priests and Japanese Christians, and even suffers the same himself.  The title of the novel is derived from the central question of the story: "If God can see the evil that happens, why does he remain silent?"  Unfortunately, Endo offers no answer to the question, and perhaps there is not one from the Catholic perspective.  We do have answers, however, and that's what I found frustrating about this book: I wanted to shout out to the characters and encourage them with truth as they struggle with the difficult questions of life.  This book caused me to think a lot, however, which is what good books do.  (Reader beware: this book contains mild depictions of torture and violence.)

2. Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton.  Also written in the mid-20th century is this biography of Martin Luther.  2017 was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and so it seemed appropriate to me to read about the principle figure of the Reformation.  Bainton's biography was recommended to me as the standard of Luther biographies, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Martin Luther is a complicated character, and it was an enjoyable and educational process to read more about the man's life, ministry, and role in history and western culture.  As Bainton correctly asserts in the book, Luther remains one of the top-five culture-shaping characters in all of human history.  (Here I Stand is available in the Riverview Library)

1. The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson.  The Wingfeather Saga is yet another young adult fiction entry on this list and is, I think, the best thing I read all year.  To be fair, this is not just one book, but a series of four books, and I was taken in by each one.  So much so that as soon as I finished the books on my own, I began reading them from the beginning to my children.  Currently, we're working our way through the fourth book.  The books tell the story of one family - the Wingfeathers - and particularly the children: Janner, Kalmar, and Leelee, and the adventures they have as they discover their true identities and the implications it has for the world in which they live as they battle against the Fangs of Dang and their master, Gnag the Nameless.  An appreciation for fantasy literature is certainly helpful, but definitely not required.  There are fascinating and excellent examples of good biblical character traits in these books, including heroism, sacrifice, courage, bravery, and countless other noble and biblical virtues.  And Peterson brilliantly creates a whole new world filled with unique creatures and challenges.   It's a great series for kids, and especially for boys, with perhaps one of the best endings I've ever read in a series of novels.  The series begins slowly in On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and continues with North! Or Be Eaten and then becomes mysterious with Monster in the Hollows and concludes fantastically with The Warden and the Wolf King.  Don't let the fact that this series is young adult fiction discourage you from reading it.  I can't recommend this series highly enough for children and adults alike.  (The Wingfeather Saga is available in the Riverview Library.)