Monday, May 15, 2017

Book Review: The Imperfect Disciple

The Imperfect Disciple. Jared C. Wilson. 2017. Baker Books. 240 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: My gospel is a little sweaty and ragged around the edges. The print is smeared a little bit, and it’s flat and conformed to the contour of my upper thigh from hiding in my front pocket. Maybe your gospel looks like mine. Sometimes it can feel weird to show it to somebody.

Premise/plot: Jared C. Wilson addresses the subject of Christian discipleship in his newest book. What does it mean to follow Christ? What does it mean to be a disciple? What does the 'Christian life' the 'Christian walk' look like in the real world, in the honest-with-yourself world? Wilson writes, "This book on following Jesus is for all of you people who, like me, are tired of the mass-marketed, self-helpy “be a better Christian” projects."

My thoughts: I really enjoyed reading this one. IT was quite a joy to read a solidly biblical book after reading Madeleine L'Engle's horrid theological ramblings. I love how he begins each chapter with a "my gospel" statement. Here are a few of my favorites:
  • My gospel is well worn. Its pages are thin from use. I’ve run over it and over it—by myself and with others, and for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to wear completely out. It feels like cloth now, delicate and soft. I dare not replace it, though, because it’s the only one I’ve got. I bring this gospel out when I’m discipling others—Okay, wait. Discipling is not a word we find in the Scriptures. Nor do we find discipleship, for that matter. Let me start over—I bring this soft-as-cloth gospel out of my pocket when I am helping others follow Jesus.
  • My gospel is smudged. It doesn’t seem at first glance much to look at. If I had inadvertently dropped it on the sidewalk, you might step over it like you would a penny. Who stops for a penny? 
  • My gospel is an old hymn. My gospel is sheet music printed in antiquarian typeface on a yellowed page in a dusty book. It’s the “old, old story” and the “old rugged cross.” My gospel is four verses—and please don’t skip the third verse to expedite the invitation! My gospel is an invitation to a bygone time that feels new again, even in our age of ever-dawning progress and modernity. My gospel gets “dug up” and “trotted out” and sung ironically and apologized for by leaders too clever for their own good. But then it lands in the ears of those led as sweetly familiar, warms their souls like celestial comfort food, and always gets sung louder than those Jesus-is-my-boyfriend ditties.
  • My gospel has been both a welcome mat and a place mat. It is a little messy. Scrape it with your fingernail and you’ll disturb the crust of dusty footprints and dribbles of spaghetti sauce. This gospel gets passed around a lot. It’s been under a lot of noses, in front of a lot of eyes. We’ve held hands around it, held it together before our faces like a shared song sheet at a Sunday night hymn sing, perhaps even wiped our tears with it. This gospel has all of our DNA on it, I’m afraid.
  • My gospel is burning a hole in my pocket. It’s an ember smoldering, singeing my threads and my thigh. It is leaving a mark. It is branding me. It cannot be contained. My gospel is a wildfire waiting to happen. It scorches dry earth, lays waste to dead limbs.
  • My gospel is a Narnian wardrobe. It seems simple enough from the outside—discernible, shaped, and dimensioned. But when I get myself inside of it, the dimensions expand. Its inside is bigger than its outside. 
  • My gospel is a time machine. It goes all the way back. And it goes all the way forward. At the same time, for all time. My gospel fits in my pocket, and yet when I grasp it with my trembling fist, it takes me everywhere and everywhen. It gets my name in the Lamb’s book before time began and it puts my name over the door of some heavenly abode as yet unseen. I’m getting ahead of myself. 
  • My gospel is a handful of crumbs. It does not look like much. But it is more than enough. Some see the crumbs and move on. The plate seems distinctly un-regal; the illusion of this meager offering does not comport with the desires of their belly-god. Some hear in the call to feast on the words of the Lord a provocation calling them in some way a dog, and they scamper away yelping rather than leaning in, head bowed to be patted. My gospel is fuller than it appears, more satisfying. A morsel of grace is vastly delicious, greater in taste and sustenance than the biggest buffet at the world’s shiniest banquet. My gospel is desert manna, a widow’s miracle-cake, Elvish lembas bread. You must trust me on this.  
I love how basic and yet comprehensive it is of the Christian life. It covers prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, worship, evangelism and missions, etc. It is authentic and straightforward. It is a call to turn your eyes upon Jesus. It is a call to LOVE.

Favorite quotes:
You introduce the truth of Romans 8 to every corner of the room, every dark place in your heart, as often as you can, as much as you can, as fiercely as you can. Every day. It has to happen every day. Because what’s wrong with you and me is that we’re still on this side of glory, and so long as we’re on this side of glory, there will always be more sanctifying to go through. This is how I like to think about discipleship, then—not just following Jesus, but refollowing Jesus every day. We go off track so easily. Bit by bit, day by day, turning and returning, we reorient the engine of our life around Jesus. The problem is the same every day but the mercies are new, and the disciples of Jesus will plunder them with abandon. He wants us to! You’ve got to maintain your soul this way or you will not maintain it at all. You’ve got to hook your soul on this anchor called Christ or you will lose it, I assure you.
There is virtually no part of Jesus’s life and ministry that isn’t vastly misunderstood. We have turned the incarnation into a once-a-year precious moment, the parables into moralistic fables, the miracles into production values. We’ve managed to somehow turn the message of the cross into one of mere martyrdom (which scandalizes almost nobody) and the reality of the resurrection into a metaphor for turning over a new leaf (which convinces fewer still). And then you come to the Sermon on the Mount. This is our Lord’s pièce de résistance, his monumental line in the sand for all humanity. This is the passage of Scripture from which fans of Jesus most often quote. “Don’t judge.” “Love your enemies.” “Turn the other cheek.” All of which they’re quoting out of some lame self-interest. They think they’re being revolutionary when really they are only backing religious business as usual—using holy words for personal gain. We are idiots when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount. And, in fact, the Sermon on the Mount makes us idiots. We come up against it and see what it makes of our striving, our ambition, our jockeying for position, and it puts us in our place. But rather than humble ourselves before it we try to co-opt it and spin it, turn it into a set of Christian fortune cookies. No portion of the Sermon is more ripe for this thievery than the introductory announcement we have traditionally called the Beatitudes.
Our discipleship has to deal with this tension—the tension between the glorious reality we believe in and yearn for and the hard reality we currently live in every day—or else it’s not the real Jesus we’re following.
You and I come to Jesus looking for some kind of pick-me-up, and Jesus offers his flesh. We come looking for Jesus the Life Coach when what we really need is his glory. We need to behold him.
The law is good and holy and necessary. The glory of the law is incredible. But the glory of the law is fading; it is passing away. The glory of Christ so exceeds the glory of the law, as Jonathan Edwards once said, it is like the sun rising in its strength and eclipsing the stars.5 In verse 11 Paul describes the glory of Jesus revealed to us in the gospel as “permanent,” implying that the glory of the law is somehow temporary. If you think about it, we won’t need the law in the new heavens and the new earth, because there will be no more sin to restrain, no more curse to adjudicate, no more death to administer. But the glory of Christ? It will be the virtual sun of the new heavens and new earth, enlightening all the restored creation with its cosmic beauty. Yes, the gospel is better than the law. And yes, in fact, beholding is better than behaving. This is why, as odd as it sounds, making your entire Christian life about trying to look like a good Christian is a great way to become a terrible Christian. Or at least a weak and defeated one. This is so important to understand. It is crucially important. It is so important that I want to violate a cardinal rule of sophisticated composition and employ every means of emphasis that I can to restate it: YOU CANNOT GET POWER TO OBEY THE LAW FROM THE LAW ITSELF!!! POWER TO CHANGE CAN ONLY COME FROM THE GLORY OF CHRIST!!! Man, that looks terrible. Please forgive me for that assault on the eyes. But it’s an idea worth looking foolish to emphasize because it is so counterintuitive to the flesh, so contra the wisdom of the world—and contra most religious ideology—that it’s worth writing it like some junior high school girl’s tweet about Justin Bieber. This idea ought to be tattooed on our inner eyelids. And if you just happened to pick this book up in a store and flipped through it, this would be the one idea I’d want to catch your eye. We think we know what will do the job of making us holy: us doing the job of making us holy. And seeking holiness is integral to discipleship. But more central to our discipleship is the news that actually makes Christianity Christianity: we are holy not because of what we’ve done but because of what Jesus has done. This is why the good news is so good! The essential message of Christianity isn’t “do” but “done.” The good news is news, not instruction, and it announces to us not “get to work” but “it is finished.” And so it turns out that the direct route to God-honoring behavior is born not of good behavior but of good beholding.
We have at our fingertips the very revelation of God to us, and yet we treat Scripture like a blunt instrument, like a dry reference book, like a prop for our propaganda, anything but the wellspring of God’s truth to be drunk deeply from. If we’re going to look at following Jesus as “abiding in Christ,” we have to dwell in God’s Word. This means meditating on Scripture, chewing on it, and savoring it. This does not come easily at first, but the more we do it, the more natural it will feel. After a while, we will experience having been shaped by the message to automatically live the message. But this all begins with simply listening.
The Bible is a book that teaches us how to read it as we read it.
The glory of Christ is actually blaring from the pages of the Bible. God is not only not giving you the silent treatment, he is practically yelling. The problem is not with his voice but with our ears. The more and harder we listen, however, the more of heaven’s glorious music we will hear, and thus the more of heaven’s glory we will see. And then our soul finds the rhythm of heaven.
Our daily life communicates where our hope and trust is placed; we are actually “praying” with our words and deeds every day. Many of our prayers may look like this: My self on earth, Awesome is my name. My success come and my will be done. Give me lots of things I want (but think I need). Don’t even think about debt (unless it’s someone else’s). Don’t worry about giving in to temptation, because you deserve it. Deliver me from guilt anyway. For this life is mine, and the world revolves around me. Amen. Okay, so that’s pretty silly. But don’t we live like that, or at least fight the temptation to live like that, all the time?
The truth is there is always something to be afraid of. And the more bored you are with the things of God, the more vulnerable you will be to this fear when difficulty comes. And this is why you can hardly go anywhere in the Bible without bumping into the words, “Don’t be afraid.” Some say it’s the most frequent command in the Scriptures.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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