Archive for January, 2013


Why People Follow John the Baptist instead of Jesus

January 21, 2013

God has called me to love everyone. But I don’t like everyone. I naturally befriend people who are intelligent, have a sense of humor and show a life of integrity. One particular man who exemplifies all of those qualities has been a friend of mine for many years. We enjoy each other and find we agree with each other on many things.

sparksBut he did something that confused me years ago and it has never sat right with me since. During this season of our friendship, he gave me a number of books to read. Many of them were written by Dr. T. Austin Sparks (known to many of his readers and followers as TAS). For the sake of clarification, let’s put Dr. Sparks in the category of a Holiness preacher. I knew of his writings before my friend showed them to me, and honestly I don’t care for them. Let me quickly explain.

Dr. Sparks writes mainly about the dangers of sin. I have no problem with any preacher or writer pointing out sin. We humans are an unhealthy race, and we occasionally need to be shown that unhealthiness before we can grasp what it means to live better. But Dr. Sparks is of that race of preacher/teacher that will not teach on anything else. I never heard him preach in person (he died in 1971, the year I became a Christ-follower), but I have been told by those who did hear him  he rarely smiled or joked around when he preached. Though he was not a “hell-and-brimstone” preacher, with acidic tones and booming voice, his content fit that category.

What confused me is why my friend would digest a steady diet of this type of teaching. I asked him and he seemed annoyed I would even question it. “Mike, I thought you appreciated someone who is biblical and encouraged people to live in holiness”. I assured him I did – and do. But I do not agree with any ministry that focuses completely on the negative aspects of our existence without constantly bringing this back to the glory of New Life in Christ.

Here is what confuses me. This kind of preaching still exists and people prefer to listen to it, for reasons I am suspecting are not healthy in themselves. Along with Sparks, there are other prominent scarecrow preachers like Leonard Ravenhill, John McArthur, Paul Washer, Mark Driscoll (though sometimes Driscoll is just bombastic) who have huge followings. Some people tell me it is because sin is increasing in our day and we need more of this type of preaching to stem the tide of wickedness.

Do we? Does that really work? My observations tell me otherwise. Sin is no more or less prevalent today as at any other time in history. The increase in so-called “prophetic preaching” feeds on three things in the human soul:

1. Our innate guilt for many things we have done wrong and never settled.

2. The constant doubt that we are acceptable to God or anyone else.

3. The need to feel superior to others, even if it means we must demean ourselves to get to that place.

I find those who like holiness preaching of this brand already lead pretty decent lives and are probably least in need of the type of preaching these guys specialize in. So why do so many good-thinking and well-meaning Christians follow these Scarecrows of the Faith?

I think the answer is found in the disciples of John the Baptist. John inherited a mantle from a long line of gloom and doom Old Testament preachers. His ministry was stark (he dressed in old rags and lived on locust nuts and wild honey), he called people names, rattled all their cages and asked them if they were ready to die soon. He wore the calling of Elijah well. In fact, Jesus confirms that he is Elijah – or at least that he carried on the same ministry as Elijah did.

But at some point, that all changed. The day that Jesus came down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, the entire understanding of sin and the Kingdom of God forever shifted. From that point on Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Those who followed John were encouraged from that point on to follow after Jesus. But even after John told them “He (meaning Jesus) must increase and I must decrease”, some of John’s followers couldn’t get the hint. In some ways, not even John the Baptist could fully release his ministry, even after Jesus came along. I get that. Once a prophet, always a prophet.

For instance, John and his followers taught a rigid discipline of fasting. Jesus and his disciples often went to banquets – and they were duly criticized for doing so; not only by the Pharisees, but also by the followers of John.

Listen. I know this world can exhibit evil and will not be entirely cleaned up until God remakes it all. And I know that even followers of God need to be reminded to clean up their room and play nice. Sometimes, they need to be told in clear tones not to cheat on their spouse or their taxes. But I don’t see the point of someone preaching only about sin and leaving Grace, Joy, Forgiveness, Laughter, Fellowship, The Power of God and a hundred other great Jesus teachings lying on the shelf.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ time looked for reasons why natural disasters happened to people. They pinned the blame on the sin of a victim’s parents, on his lineage and even some sin the victim must have committed. The Pharisees found a woman committing adultery and flung her into a market square, daring Jesus not to condemn her.

Instead, he asked them all if there was a person among them who had not committed sin recently. If they had, he welcomed them to stone her first. No one did. No one could withstand the glare on his face!

When all had left, this man of Righteousness, this preacher of Holiness, this Prince of Peace just said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more”. He didn’t follow her down the road heaping condemnation on her head.

Remember, the enemy of our souls is called Satan. The name means “Accuser”. Unfortunately, instead of giving our Adversary a counter-attack from the pulpit, where the love of God and the cleansing of the blood of Jesus could be spoken triumphantly, we sometimes echo the words of the Calumniator all too easily.

Of course, there are those who feed God’s people with a steady diet of Youtube videos, hackneyed cliches and positive thinking. I sometimes think the Scarecrows believe they are countering that unhealthy pap by focusing continually on sin. As we were reminded in Kindergarten, two wrongs don’t make a right

If you have become hooked on the Holiness Scarecrows, maybe it is good to mix some grace in your diet. Otherwise, you may get spiritually constipated.


My Best Books of 2012

January 1, 2013

During 2011, I read a total of 111 books. I saw a definite drop off during 2012 where I only read 87 books. There are several reasons for this: first, the books I was reading were much longer than the ones in 2011 and my counseling load almost doubled from the year before, making it much more difficult to read. But in some ways I feel like the books I read during 2012 had much more impact than the 2011 slate of books.

Many of the books that I read during 2012 were not necessarily written during 2012, and therefore this is not a list of the best books of 2012. Most of these books were written within the last three years, but a good number were written many years before and I’ve just become aware of them during this last year. A few of them I’ve read before and I was coming back to them this last year.

Best Psychology Book-“The Brain That Changes Itself”by Norman Doidge. This is a groundbreaking book related to the theory of the plastic brain. This theory proposes that our brains are not static organs unable to change or make significant adjustments. The “plastic brain movement” has proven that almost any area of the brain can be reconditioned for a different purpose. This book is a crowning achievement of many different plastic brain endeavors.

Best novel-“11-22-63” by Stephen King. King is the world’s best-selling novelist and his latest work may be one of his two or three best books ever. The premise of this book is based on the question “What would happen if someone went back and prevented Pres. Kennedy from being killed?” The answers will surprise you.

Best Reread from Days Gone by- “White Fang” by Jack London. Though I had read all of the books by Jack London related to the gold rush into the northern part of Canada and the United States when I was a boy, reading this book again after all these years gave me a new appreciation for the story writing abilities of London.

Best Science Fiction– “Blackout And All Clear” by Connie Willis. Willis is clearly one of the greatest science fiction writers of our day, but she also likes to write historical fiction. This book (the two books actually function as one) combines both her science knowledge and her love of the history of World War II.

Best Sports Book-“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. In some ways this is so much more than the sports book. Is a book about survival, about the human condition, about God’s working in difficult situations and how young man’s love of running and staying in shape kept him alive when most would have died.

Best Self-Help Book-“Strength Finders 2.0” by Tom Rath. The Strength Finders survey is given much more latitude in this book. As you work through it to find your strengths and your dynamics of achievement, this book will put it into a matrix that will help you find a job; perhaps even your best job.

Best Crime/Mystery-“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. This devolves into one of the most brutal and honest account of what can happen when two people love themselves more than each other and they are too smart for their own good.

Best Christian/Devotional-“Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young. This is a day by day diary which uses Scripture portraying it as God speaking directly to the ones reading the book. It is one of those books that calls to mind the best devotional books of the early 20th century.

Best Hard Science Fiction-“Rule 34” by Charles Stross. As a science fiction fanatic, I make a distinction between regular science fiction, fantasy and hard science fiction. Hard SF focuses on the scientific principles involved in story, whereas regular science fiction is more concerned about the plot. This book by Stross is a tremendous example of a well-written science book set in the near future.

Best Fantasy Book-“Name Of The Wind/The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss. I read these two books in 10 days-they were that infectious. Rothfuss has sneaky habit of writing extremely slowly and this is going to make the third book so tantalizing and frustrating to those who read the first two.

Best Sequel-“A Dance With Dragons” by George RR Martin. Martin’s work is an acquired taste and very few people liked the first two books of the series. But each one seems to be getting better than that last.

Most Disappointing Book-“Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon. I’ve loved the work of Chabon for many years since I read his book the Yiddish Policeman’s Union. But this one failed to move me in any way. It is the story of a West Oakland neighborhood falling into disrepair, unable to rescue itself from the inevitable destruction. I wish I could say there was a plot twist that makes this easy to read, but there just isn’t. I was very disappointed at this work by very good writer.

Best Historical Book-“Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly. Though O’Reilly probably did not write the majority of this book (co-writer Martin Dugard did), his well-known name added a lot of new readers who would have passed by this historical account. This is the first in a series of books highlighting some of the great presidents, especially those who were assassinated. At every turn, there are surprising and enlightening facts about Lincoln’s life that will inform even the person who does not like history.

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