Another Novelist to Consider Reading

Sep 16, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Reading Justin Taylor’s excellent series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading has gotten me thinking about good old Jeeves and Wooster. I’ve mentioned before my delight in P.G. Wodehouse.

Wodehouse (1881-1975) is hands down one of the best writers in the English language. Ever.

He isn’t profound. He isn’t penetrating. His books may not be dissected in lit classes. But his command of vocabulary and syntax is amazing. And his humor is, unlike many humorists, is actually very, very funny. There’s nothing like unwinding with a little Jeeves and Wooster after a four hour elder meeting to get the old egg cracking again, what? (Take my word for it, and read Wodehouse to understand my drift).

Reading Wodehouse spin tall tales about foppish socialites and an unflappable butler is reminiscent of the best (and cleanest) episodes of Seinfeld. The stories are about nothing, but the characters are so memorable (e.g., the newt loving Gussie Fink-Nottle), and the dialogue so perfectly ridiculous (“Hello ugly, what brings you here?”), and his insults so ingenious (“It was as if nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment”) that you can’t help grin, chuckle, and even occasionally cackle.

The next time someone looks at you cross, try this line:

She looked at me in rather a rummy way. It was a nasty look. It made me feel as if I were something the dog had brought in and intended to bury later on, when he had time.

And to express your discouragement:

I’ve examined the darned cloud with a microscope, and if it’s got a silver lining it’s some little dissembler!

For use with the outdoorsy members of your family:

I ordered another. If this was going to be fish-story, I needed stimulants.

Looking for a good put-down?

It seemed to me almost incredible that a fellow could be such a perfect chump as dear old Biffy without a bit of assistance.

Wodehouse had a genius for word pictures and similes:

Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.

His writing is also stuffed with biblical allusions and church-related hilarity. Here, for example, is a clergyman asking Bertie Wooster, who is secretly engaged in a gambling ring betting on the length of sermons, if his message might be too long:

You do not think it would be a good thing to cut, to prune? I might, for example, delete the rather exhaustive excursus into the family life of the early Assyrians?

And then there’s this allusion to Job 39:25 (which I had to look up):

He sat up with a jerk. The Biblical horse that said “Ha, ha” among the trumpets could not have displayed more animation.

For good measure, here are a few more of my favorite biblical references strung together:

There was a death-where-is-thy-sting-fulness about her manner which I found distasteful.

For the first time since the bushes began to pour forth Glossops, Bertram Wooster could be said to have breathed freely. I don’t say that I actually came out from behind the bench, but I did let go of it, and with something of the relief which those three chaps in the Old Testament must have experienced after sliding out of the burning fiery furnace, I even groped tentatively from my cigarette case.

Bertie Wooster won the Scripture-knowledge prize at a kids’ school we were at together, and you know what he’s like. But, of course, Bertie frankly cheated. He succeeded in scrounging that Scripture-knowledge trophy over the heads of better men by means of some of the rawest and most brazen swindling methods ever witnessed even at a school where such things were common. If that man’s pockets, as he entered the examination-room, were not stuffed to bursting point with lists of the kings of Judah.

And last but not least:

He fingered his moustache unhappily. He was feeling now as Elijah would have felt in the wilderness if the ravens had suddenly developed cut-throat business methods.

And as far as memorable one-liners, these have always stuck with me:

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say “when.”

For your own growth in writing and facility with the English language, and most of all for sheer delight, read P.G. Wodehouse. It doesn’t matter much where you start, but Right Ho, Jeeves is one of my favorites.

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Monday Morning Humor

Sep 15, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Some old school Monday Morning Humor, but still one of my favorites.

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A Prayer for Muslim Lands

Sep 12, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Samuel M. Zwemer (1867-1952), Hope College graduate, Princeton professor, RCA minister and “The Apostle to Islam,” prayed for the Muslim world like this:

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, who hast made of one blood all nations and hast promised that many shall come from the East and sit down with Abraham in thy kingdom: We pray for thy prodigal children in Muslim lands who are still afar off, that they may be brought nigh by the blood of Christ. Look upon them in pity, because they are ignorant of thy truth.

Take away pride of intellect and blindness of heart, and reveal to them the surpassing beauty and power of thy Son Jesus Christ. Convince them of their sin in rejecting the atonement of the only Savior. Give moral courage to those who love thee, that they may boldly confess thy name.

Hasten the day of religious freedom in Turkey, Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Africa. Send forth reapers where the harvest is ripe, and faithful plowmen to break furrows in lands still neglected. May the tribes of Africa and Malaysia not fall prey to Islam but be won for Christ. Bless the ministry of healing in every hospital, and the ministry of love at every church and mission. May all Muslim children in mission schools be led to Christ and accept him as their personal Savior.

Strengthen converts, restore backsliders, and give all those who labor among Muslims the tenderness of Christ, so that bruised reeds may become pillars of his church, and smoking flaxwicks burning and shining lights. Make bare thine arm, O God, and show thy power. All our expectation is from thee.

Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son in the Muslim world, and fulfill through him the prayer of Abraham thy friend, “O, that Ishmael might live before thee.” For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Surely this prayer from 1923 is worth praying every bit as much now as then. It’s amazing how the needs and challenges are still the same generations after Zwemer’s prayer.

The paragraphs above, as well as other writings from Zwemer, can be found in Islam and the Cross: Selections from “The Apostle to Islam” edited by Roger Greenway.

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Blessed Are the Meek

Sep 11, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Meekness is hard to define. It is not a subservient groveling. It is not a spineless acquiescence. The Greeks had no respect for meekness because they equated it with servility–people taking advantage of you, people walking all over you, people punching you in the gut as you thank them for the pleasure of being hit, that sort of thing.

But that’s not what the Bible means by meekness.

Meekness is a combination of patience, gentleness, and a complete submission to the will of God. Meekness is learning to be self-controlled instead of needing to be in control. Meekness is opening your heart instead of clenching your fist. Meekness is the firm resolve that it is always better to suffer than to sin.

Meekness is one of the great virtues of the Christian (Col. 3:12). The world may have no place for it, but the Bible does.

Moses was the meekest man on the earth (Number 12:3). And if you know anything about Moses, you know he wasn’t born with a meek personality. He killed somebody! We are not talking about a personality trait. You can be soft or loud, introverted or extroverted and still have meekness. Moses had to have meekness pressed into him by life and by the Lord.

Or think of Paul. There were big time issues in Corinth, and Paul wasn’t afraid to talk tough. But his first approach was to plead with the saints by the meekness and gentleness of Christ (2 Cor. 10:1).

If you think meekness is for losers, then you think Jesus is a loser. The Son of Man was a meek man (Matt. 11:29). Of course, that’s not the only thing to say about Jesus, but it’s one thing we can say.

When you are confronted, when you are wronged, when you get all hot and bothered and you’re tightening up inside, what does meekness look like? When you come after your adversaries is it with a whip or with a weep? Who’s sins upset you more, the sins of your neighbors or your own? Meekness is not about being a doormat. It’s about being dignified, even in the face of confusion, anxiety, and injustice.

Blessed are the meek, for they–of all people!–shall inherit the whole wide world (Matt. 5:5).

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Three Questions to Help Diagnose Possible Football Idolatry

Sep 09, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

I don’t think being a huge football fan is automatically, or even normally, idolatrous. I’ve loved watching football as long as I can remember. It’s one of the many habits of sports fandom I picked up from my dad. Each year when I start to get sad about the inevitable ending of summer, I am cheered to think that with everything we start to lose in the month of September–daylight, heat, leaves, pool time, vacations, sleeping in–at least we gain football.

Americans love football like the rest of the world loves. . . .football. Except in our football the actions takes place six seconds at a time and the players pretend they are NOT hurt.

Wherever there is a consuming passion for anything that is not God there is the danger of idolatry. And football is certainly a consuming passion for many in this country. So what are some of the signs that football has grown to idolatrous proportions in the heart of the Christian?

Here are three questions to help in your self-diagnosis:

1. Is ministry and worship on the Lord’s Day compromised by my allegiance to football on Saturday and Sunday?

It’s a bit of common grace goodness to unwind during part of your Saturday watching college football. My Sunday scruples are even sufficiently lenient that a little football on Sunday can be enjoyable (and usually a nice precursor to a nap). But let’s keep our priorities straight. And twelve hours of football on Saturday, only to be dead tired for church on Sunday, is not the right priority. Some Christians drive hours every Saturday to watch their team live on the field. If that’s a way to spend time with your family and enjoy being outside seven Saturdays this fall, that’s great. If it means you miss attending your own church for the next three months, not so great. And when it comes to Sunday, football should not dictate whether we can attend a Sunday school class, whether we stay for the missionary potluck, whether we can invite a new family over for lunch, or whether we can come back for evening worship. Football is fun–in its place. Football in the place of worship is, well, worship.

2. Are my emotions all out whack?

This was a bad weekend for my football teams. The Spartans lost a marquee match-up to the Oregon Ducks. The Big Ten embarrassed itself all day Saturday. And on Sunday the Bears looked bad in losing to the underdog Bills. The only bright spot was tight end Julius Thomas going off against the Colts–a three touchdown performance which allowed me to beat my 11 year-old son in fantasy football. Talk about a Pyrrhic victory.

How do you feel when your team loses? I don’t think you have to feel especially chipper about it. We root for our teams for all sorts of reasons: regional pride, family tradition, loyalty to our alma mater, comradery with friends. A little bummed-out-ness is fine. The opposite of idolatry is not emotional detachment from most of life. And yet, some of us need to get a grip. It’s a game! A game with a ball, played by men in tights. Caring about your son’s JV scrimmage is no excuse for berating other grown men (let alone children).

Go ahead and root your guts out for the Fighting Turkey Vultures but don’t be a bore to your wife and a louse to your kids just because they lost a nail-biter to the Flying Turnips in overtime. If the good news of Jesus’ resurrection can’t outweigh the bad news of your team’s minus 3 turnover differential you’ve got some heart work to do. Cheer when your team wins and kick the dirt when they lose, but don’t show up to church a sourpuss and don’t sit their emotionally unengaged during the worship of our Triune God when everyone knows how you can jump, jive, and wail for a perfectly placed pooch punt. Where your heart leaps out of your chest, there your treasure is also.

3. Can my conversation go deeper than football?

Sports is a great entry point for many conversations. It’s more interesting than the weather and safer than politics. And in a town like East Lansing, virtually everyone knows something about Michigan State football and basketball (even my wife knows a little!). I don’t feel bad talking about sports in the church lobby or across the lawn in the neighborhood. But the point of wading through the shallow section of the pool is to get to the deep end. Don’t stop at sports. Don’t settle for being the guy who knows only one question: “Did you catch the game?” Press on to more important matters. Redeem the time in between commercials. Don’t waste your tailgate.

I see no problem in caring about football. But the man or woman who cares only about sports doesn’t care about nearly enough. Go ahead and give football a little bit of your weekend. Just don’t give it your worship.

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Monday Morning Humor

Sep 08, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Who thought this was remotely a good idea?

Which is still not as bad, or as funny, as this church mishap.

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Keep Feeding, Even Those Who Do Not Know What It Is to Be Fed

Sep 05, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Wise words–dare I say inspiring words–from Harold Best in one of my favorite books on worship:

Sunday worship time as intellectual coddle time is out of place. Pastors may be tempted to ease up, to soften the depth and width of their teaching. They may pay too much heed to pollster talk about shortened attention spans, limited cognitive styles, socio-aesthetic preferences and generational groupthink. They may be tempted to forget that preaching under the power of the Spirit and the authority of Scripture is miraculously different from producing a sitcom. But then they will find that their congregations will become more and more difficult to please, even though the content is made more and more accessible.

I write these words on behalf of all ministers whose task in this shallowed-out culture is exceedingly trying. One of my fellow administrators at Wheaton College used to say this: “People want you to lead until you do.” I believe this applies to the corporate life of the church and to the kind of congregation that wants to “be fed” until it is truly fed. Then the pastor is often accused of not feeding. I beg pastors to stay with the truth, no matter the cost, and to challenge the extensive-mindedness of every living image of God. There are more people interceding for you than you might know. Since God is for you, who can be against you? (Unceasing Worship, 67-68).

Do not lose heart, brother pastor. Keep leading and keep feeding. Preach your heart out this Sunday and leave the rest to God. He loves your church, loves the lost, and loves the glory of his name even more than you do.

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The Ninth Commandment is About Much More than Lying

Sep 04, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

I love every bit of the Heidelberg Catechism, mostly for its Christ-centered comfort. But when read carefully, the Catechism is also tremendously challenging.

No more so than in its explanation of the ninth commandment. We may think of if as a prohibition against lying, but the Catechism rightly sees it as much more. In fact, when I read Q/A 112 of the Heidelberg Catechism I count nine things we are to do in obedience to the ninth commandment.

1. God’s will is that I never give false testimony against anyone.

2. I twist no one’s words.

3. I do not gossip or slander.

4. I do not join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without a just cause.

5. Rather, in court and everywhere else, I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are devices the devil himself uses, and they would call down on me God’s intense anger.

6. I should love the truth.

7. I should speak the truth candidly.

8. I should openly acknowledge the truth.

9. I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.

Yikes. Count me convicted. Am I really like the devil when I reinterpret every story to benefit me and purposefully reconstruct the facts of every narrative to make my point? How easy it is to assume the worst about those I don’t like or don’t know, especially people who seem bigger than me (athletes, politicians, celebrities), unlike me (different faith, different color, different politics), or far from me (in physical or relational distance). How challenging it can be in pressure-packed moments to speak the truth candidly and openly acknowledge it. How unpopular and difficult it is to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.

In our digital age of pervasive punditry, instant analysis, and perpetual outrage, surely the breach of the ninth commandment is one of our besetting sins.

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Five Tips for Leading Your Small Group

Sep 02, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

As school starts back up, so will plenty of church-sponsored and church-related small groups. Some will study the Bible. Others will read a Christian book together. Almost all will have a designated leader or leaders. While knowing your Bible and having Christlike character are the more important factors, there are also a number of skills which go a long way in leading an effective small group.

1. Communicate early and often, and then follow through.

A good leader is always leading. If you wait until the meeting to lead, it may be too late. In this era of easy communication, there is no reason leaders can’t remind the group of upcoming dates and assignments. Make sure everyone knows what is expected. Conclude every meeting by highlighting what’s next–what should be read? when is the group meeting? where are they meeting? who will be leading the discussion? Then before the next meeting send out a reminder email (or call or text or tweet or Facebook post). People forget. People are lazy. People get busy. People need lots of friendly reminders to stay on task–especially students.

As for the meeting itself, respect people’s time. Get things started promptly and end at the agreed upon time. Sure, emergencies come up. There are exceptions to almost every rule. But people need to know that they can count on you to get the meeting started and ended on time.

Whenever possible, keep things consistent. Changing dates and times almost always leads to dwindling numbers.

Ask people for specific commitments. Don’t do everything yourself. Get someone to bring a snack, another person to organize the upcoming barbecue, and someone else to open in prayer next week. This not only builds up others, it will encourage greater participation. Asking for commitments is better than making a general invitation.

2. Think through your questions ahead of time.

If your group consists of nothing but very mature Christians who have known each other for years you may be able to get away with little preparation. But that’s not the make up of most groups (and if so, it’s probably time to mix things up a little for the sake of newcomers and those just starting out as followers of Christ). Make sure your questions are crisp and clear. If you aren’t sure what you are asking, you can be sure no one else will either.

If the selection you are studying (in the Bible or in a book) is hard to understand, you may need a number of knowledge questions. Don’t make them so obscure that only seminary trained Christians would know the answer. But don’t make them so painfully obvious (e.g., fill in the blank questions) that everyone is embarrassed to venture forth an answer.

Don’t stay at the level of knowledge only. Ask questions which call for analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Prepare final questions which get at the heart.

Be creative in how you phrase your questions. Don’t just say “What do you think?” or “How do you feel about this?” or even “How can we apply this to our lives?” Ask questions like:

  • What is one thing you want to see change in your life as a result of this study?
  • What new promise can you take with you into the week?
  • What did you learn about God?
  • Where have you seen these things lived out well?
  • How does this relate to the cross?
  • How does this resemble our church for good or for bad?
  • Where is this a struggle for you in your marriage?
  • What do you have a hard time believing in God’s word?

You get the picture. There are hundreds of good questions you can ask on any given week. Few of them will come to you on the spot without any preparation.

3. Be mindful of group dynamics.

Being a leader is much more than opening and closing in prayer. You should do whatever you can to foster a warm, welcoming environment in your group. This means being especially mindful of new people. The 30 minutes of hang out time before the study may be a sheer delight for the old-timers, but for new people it’s bound to feel anxious and awkward. As a leader, you should do whatever you can to make them feel at ease. Ask them questions. Get the group to introduce itself. Have an exercise ready to encourage group sharing. The less people know each other the more structure is needed.

Keep in mind that newcomers may not know your history, your humor, or your theology. I made the mistake once of teasing one of our longtime small group members about not yet being convinced of paedobaptism. It was playful banter between me and these friends, but for the new folks visiting it sent them the (wrong) signal that credobaptists weren’t welcome here. I later apologized and explained that I was only joking with my friends and that we’d love to have them (the new couple) in our group. My bad.

One of the hardest and most important things a leader must do is try to include as many people as possible in group discussion. Obviously, the aim is not to make quiet members feel embarrassed, but often the quiet members simply need to be asked. A good leader won’t allow every discussion to be dominated by the same two or three people. He will specifically call on those who haven’t said much. He may need to gently add from time to time,  “Let me see if anyone else has something to add before I come back to you.”

A good leader will be sensitive to the mood of the group, discerning whether there is hurt, confusion, sadness, or frustration that needs to be addressed. Don’t just play traffic cop. Be a shepherd.

4. Know how to handle conflict.

The worst fear of most small group leaders is that they will be called upon to quell some raging inferno of disagreement. Thankfully, most Christian groups (in my experience) play pretty nice (almost to a fault). Angry conflict is rare, but it does happen. Depending on the circumstances, here are some of the things you may want to say in the midst of disagreement:

  • Sam, it sounds like you are trying to say XYZ. Am I hearing you correctly?
  • Amanda has offered a different interpretation. What do the rest of you think? How should we interpret this verse?
  • I know it’s hard to talk about such a controversial or painful topic, but I don’t think we should we run away from constructive conflict. I’d love to hear what everyone else is thinking.
  • This is an important discussion, but it’s not really involving the whole group. It would be great if the two of you could get together and continue the conversation at a different time.
  • It sounds like I may have done something to upset you. Why don’t we talk about it after the meeting is done?
  • Guys, I’m happy for us have disagreement in this group. But that sounded personal. Let’s try to be gentle even when we are passionate.

There may be times where the leader needs to be even more direct. You may have to shut down the conversation, explicitly correct a wrong interpretation, or reprove someone for speaking in a harsh and unedifying way. While we don’t want hot-headed leaders who make conflict worse, neither can we afford passive “leaders” who put their own people-pleasing and fear of man above the good of the whole group.

5. Plan for prayer.

If you expect prayer to just happen it will only barely happen. There is nothing wrong with 60 seconds of prayer to begin and end a meeting, if that’s your plan. Just to know that without preparation, that’s what will almost always happen. Effective times of prayer–whether short or long–take intentional planning. Are you going to ask for prayer requests? If so, how will ensure your “prayer” time is not all sharing with almost no praying? What are prayer requests from previous weeks that need follow up? How long do you want the prayer to be? How many people are you hoping will pray?

Leading in prayer requires clear direction. Don’t be afraid to call on certain individuals to pray (usually not newcomers). Remind people that their prayers can be short (in fact, you may want to encourage them to be short). Guide people through different topics (family, church, nation, world, etc.). If your prayer time is generally brief, consider setting aside a meeting every few months for nothing but prayer. We’ve often done this in our group, usually separating men and women for these most extended times of sharing and prayer.

The biggest difference between a small group that is spiritually, relationally, and biblically edifying and one that feels like an awkward waste of time is leadership. Good leaders do not always get good followers. But it almost never happens that you get good small groups without faithful, wise, skilled men and women to lead them.

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