Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

A few years ago my thinking was shaped about the process of spiritual formation by James K.A. Smith‘s book, “Desiring the Kingdom.” In it, he explains the role that “liturgies,” not only ecclesial, but personal and “secular” liturgies play in that formation.

For more on that book and its ideas, see: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why

In “Desiring the Kingdom“, and Smith’s related book You Are What You Love, it is clear that he has been highly influenced by Augustine, particularly Augustine’s “Confessions”. The idea of sin as “disordered loves” is particularly Augustinian, as is much of what Smith says about formation, namely that idolatry is more “caught” than “taught”, i.e. idolatry is less of a conscious decision as much as a learned disposition. not so much conscious decisions to believe falsehood, and more like learned dispositions, which is why people’s idolatries often reflect their environments. Since we “practice our way into idolatry,” we need to “practice our way into freedom,” through liberating practices which direct our loves.

I was surprised and excited a few months ago when I saw that Smith was featured in an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast, in which he clearly articulated the Christian hope of the gospel while talking about his new book: “On the Road with Saint Augustine“.

In this book, Smith not only details his travels to retrace some of the footsteps of Augustine, who was originally from North Africa, but came to Italy seeking success and influence in the civic realm, only to have the course of his life changed by meeting Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. As a result, Augustine later returned to North Africa where he became a bishop and influential Christian thinker, whose writings played a large part in the Reformation.

Augustine: the Father of Existentialism

Smith’s main point, however, is not to write a biography of Augustine, or a memoir of his travels, but to explain that Augustine is actually the father of modern existentialist thinking.

From Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus to Jack Kerouac, modern and post-modern existentialists who often describe life as “a journey” or “the road”, whether knowingly or unwittingly, got this idea from Augustine who articulated existentialist ideas and used the terminology of life as “a journey” and “the road” way back in the 4th Century.

The great difference, of course, which Smith is eager to point out, is that whereas the modern and post-modern existentialists (like Kerouac in his novel “On the Road”) like to describe “the road” as “home”, and assert that there is no ultimate destination to which the road is leading (i.e. it is only the journey itself which matters, not the destination) – this is not at all what Augustine taught or believed. Augustine asserted that life is a journey with a destination, and it is only in light of this destination that there can be joy and purpose in the journey. Augustine taught that there is indeed a true “home” which awaits us, the “home” that all of us long for and the search for which underlies all of our pursuits and endeavors; thus, “the road” itself is not “home”, and if we expect it to be, our lives will miss the purpose, meaning and significance they are meant to have.

Why you hated the ending of Lost

If you were one of the many people frustrated by the ending of the show Lost a few years back, here’s why it was so frustrating: the ending of Lost was the epitome of post-modern existentialist thinking, which says that it is the only thing that matters in the end is not getting all of your questions answered or understanding the meaning of things, but only the enjoyment of the journey.

The ending scene in which all of the characters come together in the future and hug each other, without answering the many unanswered questions that were posed on and with the island, is meant to communicate the idea that, with these characters, the viewers of the show had enjoyed 6 years of excitement, mystery, and community. These things, the ending insinuated, were the reward and the ultimate purpose, not having all the questions answered.

The ending of Lost was famously frustrating for dedicated viewers. Why? Because built into us (existentially!) is the understanding that there must be a destination, there must by a purpose, there must be a “home” – and that all of our seeking is not actually in vain, but our lives do have a purpose and what we long for does indeed exist.

This is the promise of the entire Bible – from Genesis all the way through Revelation. It is through Jesus Christ that God has provided the way “home” – and it is through Him that we will truly experience the meaning of our existence. This is what Augustine articulated so clearly and compellingly, and yet the modern and post-modern existentialists, while taking elements and motifs of his teachings, missed the ultimate point of both what Augustine taught and life itself.

Summary

In this book, Smith helpfully disseminates some core elements of Augustine’s teachings and connects them to the modern person’s hopes, fears, and dreams in a way that is helpful and hopeful, as he points us to Jesus as the answer to the great riddles.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope you will too!

Pastoring in the Midst of Crisis

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The Expositors Collective steering committee: Mike Neglia, David Guzik, Pete Nelson, Nick Cady

This latest episode of the Expositors Collective podcast is one you should definitely check out: in it Mike Neglia, Pete Nelson, and I have a conversation about strategies and methods we are employing in order to pastor, shepherd, lead, and preach during this global pandemic which has caused so much upheaval in lives and in our churches.

Pete Nelson, by the way, was the founding pastor of the church I now lead in Longmont: White Fields Community Church. Pete now pastors in Thousand Oaks, California at One Love Church. Mike Neglia pastors a vibrant, thriving church in Cork, Ireland called Calvary Cork.

From preaching through YouTube and Facebook Live, to how to use the “premiere” features on those services instead of going live, to how to do fellowship through Zoom – as well as questions about doing communion remotely and what we miss about gathered corporate worship – it is an enriching conversation.

Here’s the link to listen: Episode 98 – Pastoring in the Midst of Crisis

As Mike always says: “May this episode, and everything we do at Expositors Collective help you in your private study and your public proclamation of God’s Word!”

Most Listened-To Sermons of 2019

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Our church’s website was recently updated, including a major overhaul of the sermon archive, which now allows you to browse by series and books we have taught through. Check it out here: White Fields Community Church Sermons

If you haven’t done so yet, you can subscribe to our podcast here, or just search White Fields Community Church in whatever podcast app you use. If you like what you hear, please rate and review us, as that helps boost us in their algorithm, and helps other people discover us.

I recently switched to the Overcast app for listening to podcasts. I like that it cuts out pauses and regulates audio to a consistent level, and allows me to make playlists. Overcast is only available for iOS, but the best app for Android, which has many of the same features is Podcast Addict. My wife’s biggest hesitation with switching to an iPhone recently was that she would lose Podcast Addict.

These sermons I preached in 2019 were listened to and downloaded the most:

10. Amos: Faith that Works

9. Daniel: How to Live a God-Honoring Life in a Hostile Environment

8. How to Be Right When You are Wronged – 1 Peter 3:8-22

7. What is Your Life? – James 4:13-5:6

6. Encouragement for the Fainthearted – 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12

5. Count It All Joy – 1 Peter 1:1-9

4. I Could Never Believe in a God Who: Condoned Genocide in the Old Testament

3. I Could Never Believe in a God Who: Hasn’t Proven His Existence

2. I Could Never Believe in a God Who: Does Not Affirm Some People’s Sexuality

1. I Could Never Believe in a God Who: Sends People to Hell

Analysis

A few things pop out at me from this list. First of all, the fact that some of our more recent sermons are in the top ten means that listenership to our podcast is increasing.

Secondly our biographical look at the prophets, called “Remember the Prophets” was a lot of fun. Those books and their authors are often overlooked for various reasons, but their messages are very important.

Finally, our apologetics series “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…” was our second consecutive year doing a series like this, and clearly it struck a chord with a lot of people. These kinds of series are helpful both for engaging with those who might be skeptical about Christianity, and for teaching Christians how to respond well to those who ask questions. Oftentimes many of us who are Christians struggle with questions even though we choose to trust God and believe. As the church we engage with those issues and equip others to do so as well.

What Didn’t Make the List?

Leave me a comment below and let me know which sermon from this year made the biggest impact on you!

If need to refresh your memory, a list of our past sermons from this year can be found here: White Fields Sermons

“I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me.”

A while ago I sat down with Pastor Jeff Figgs for the Expositors Collective Podcast. Jeff and I both host the Calvary Live call-in show on GraceFM (which also podcasts its episodes).

Jeff grew up with a speech impediment, and in this episode we talked about the power of ministering out of weakness, and how doing so causes us to depend on the power of God.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul was defending himself against accusations that his many weaknesses and hardships with proof that he wasn’t really spiritual. In response to this, Paul said that God spoke to him, telling him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8). Paul concluded: Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

For more on this subject, check out the message I recently taught at White Fields called, “I Could Never Believe in a God Who Does Not Answer My Prayers”

Here’s an excerpt of the discussion I had with Pastor Jeff Figgs. You can listen to the entire episode here on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Upcoming Expositors Collective Events

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The Expositors Collective is a growing network of pastors, leaders, and laypeople which exists to equip, encourage, and mentor the next generation of Christ-centered preachers through two-day interactive training seminars, a weekly podcast, and ongoing mentoring relationships.

Howell, New Jersey: Sept. 20-21, 2019

Our next event will be in Howell, New Jersey on September 20-21, 2019 at Cornerstone Calvary Chapel.

Click here for more information and registration.

Upcoming Events in 2020

If you can’t make it to Howell in September, considering joining us at one of our events in 2020:

  • February 21-22, 2020 – Las Vegas, Nevada
  • May 8-9, 2020 – Seattle, Washington
  • October 2020 – Honolulu, Hawaii

These 2-day interactive seminars are for young men and women ages 18-34 who feel called to teach God’s Word and would like to receive instruction and ongoing mentorship in this area. If that’s you, then you won’t want to miss this – or if you know someone else who would benefit from this, send them our way!

For more information and to sign up, go to: expositorscollective.com
On the website you can see a list of some of the Bible teachers who will be coming to the event to serve as group leaders and speakers.

Spaces are limited, so sign up soon!

Podcast Update: New Content & New Ways to Listen

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They say that listening is the new reading. My friend’s tweet from this morning illustrates this growing trend:

I’m an avid podcast listener, and many of my friends are as well. I listen to podcasts while I drive, sometimes while I run, and often when I am doing busy work around the house.

Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

The Edison Institute did a survey of 1200 Americans about podcasting and determined:

  • Young people are listening to podcasts: 85% of podcast listeners are under 55.
  • The fastest growing demographic is among people aged 29-54, with 29% year-over-year growth in listenership.
  • Educated. 85% of podcast listeners have at least college education.

This week our podcast at White Fields Church added a few updates:

  1. You can now listen to us on both Apple Podcasts and Spotify
  2. In addition to our weekly sermons, we are now uploading a weekly conversation between me and Mike in which we dig further into some of the practical and theological issues related to Sunday’s message. (We post videos of these discussions on YouTube here).

Check out the latest episode in the player below (email subscribers click here). In this episode, Mike and I talk about whether babies go to heaven, if there is an “age of accountability” and if God judges people during this life, or withholds it until the “final judgment.”

Compelling Stories & the True Myth

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Have you ever noticed that many of the stories that you love, all have the same core elements?

This is a reality which played a major role in CS Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity, as he discussed it with his friend JRR Tolkien. I told that story in this post, called Addison’s Walk.

Lewis later articulated this concept in Mere Christianity, in which he described how the gospel story of Jesus Christ is the “true myth,” and the fundamental myth, which is written on the human heart, and to which all other myths point.

Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth

It isn’t only Christians who have observed this phenomenon. Joseph Campbell, an American professor of literature who researched comparative mythology, wrote a book titled, The Hero with a Thousand Facesin which he showed how there is a common structure in the mythological stories told in all human cultures of an archetypal hero. This structure has come to be known as the “monomyth.”

This podcast episode gives a very engaging description of the monomyth theory and how  Hollywood has now begun to use it as a formula for writing stories that people want to watch: Imaginary Worlds, The Hero’s Journey: Endgame

I first heard about The Hero with a Thousand Faces while recording a podcast episode for the Expositors Collective Podcast at a training weekend in Bradenton, Florida last December. That episode was released this past week, and you can listen to it here: Expositors Collective, Episode 45: Telling a Compelling Story.

The discussion in that episode is based on a talk I gave at that event on the topic of homiletics (the art of preaching), about how to use narrative format in order to craft compelling expository sermons.

Why Do People Like to Read These Kinds of Stories?

Interestingly, when Joseph Campbell was asked why he thought it was stories contain these common elements, which are all present in the biblical narrative, his response was that the reason people write in this way, is because it is what other people like to read. However, in that response he fails to answer the question and get to the root of the issue, which is: Why do people like to read these kinds of stories?

As Christians, we would agree with Tolkien and Lewis, that the reason for this is because we are created by God, and this story is the true story of the world, which we intuitively know because God has placed it in our minds and put it in our hearts.

This same theme was identified by Don Richardson, a missionary to Papua New Guinea who discovered that there are common virtues and mythologies held in all cultures in the world, and that these shared stories create a basis by which the gospel can be shared cross-culturally, even to people who have never been exposed to the gospel before. He documents and explains this in his books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts.

Popular Examples

In our interview, Mike mentions a clip from the Simpsons in which Homer says something profound about the Bible: “Everybody in this book is a sinner… except for THIS GUY!” Here’s the clip:

I recently found out that at the end of the series, J K Rowling revealed that Christianity inspired Harry Potter. In an interview, she stated how she always thought that the influence of the biblical narrative was so obvious that every reader should have noticed it, and that the Bible verses on Harry’s parents’ gravestones “sum up and epitomize the entire story.”

What does all this mean for us?

It means that when you read a story that compels you, when you watch a movie that makes you cry, when you read a news story about heroism that touches your heart, there is a very profound reason for that: that story resonates with and reflects the true story of the world, the gospel story of Jesus Christ – the true story of the ultimate problem, the ultimate peril, the ultimate act of sacrificial love, the ultimate story of good overcoming evil, and the ultimate hero.

If you follow the ladder all the way to the top, it will lead you to Jesus. As you enjoy these stories, don’t fail to recognize that what you truly long for in your heart of hearts is nothing less than Jesus himself and the redemption that is found in him!

Why Gossip is Like Pornography

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I listened to a great podcast the other day featuring Scott Sauls of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, about his new book, Irresistible Faith.

One thing he said really stuck out to me: that gossip is a form of pornography, because when you gossip you are essentially “undressing” a person, exposing things about them which are intimate, vulnerable and private — in order to get a cheap thrill out of them, and to gratify yourself by feasting upon them in your mind.

Scott went on to say, that when we gossip, we are objectifying a person — turning them into a thing in order to gratify yourself at their expense, without making a commitment to them.

I think Scott is right. But that brings up a few other questions which people often ask when it comes to gossip:

What Constitutes Gossip?

Since many of our personal experiences involve other people, it would be really hard to say anything without talking about somebody else. How do we differentiate between healthy forms of mentioning or talking about other people, and unhealthy forms, which constitute gossip? What exactly is gossip?

One dictionary defines it as: “Unconstrained conversation or reports about other people.”

The word “unconstrained” is key.

Another definition is: “The sharing of sensational facts about other people.”

The word “sensational” is key here, because it shows a motivation: the key is to titillate, to impress, to entertain. The problem is, it is done at someone else’s expense.

Hurting Rather than Helping

Looking at Bible verses which talk about gossip (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:20, 1 Timothy 5:13), gossip clearly is linked to slander, thus it comes from a negative spirit bent on hurting rather than helping.

None of Your Business

Gossip is excessive interest in someone else’s affairs, for the purpose of entertainment. Paul calls it being a “busybody” (1 Timothy 5:13), i.e. someone who is involved in something which is none of their business.

Why is Gossip Wrong?

Besides the self-gratifying nature of it, what is so bad about gossip?

1. Gossip is Divisive

A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:28)

2. Gossip is Poisonous

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7-8)

Many times I have observed people’s minds being poisoned in regard to how they think about another person because of gossip.

3. We Will Have to Answer to God for How We Use Our Words

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” – Jesus (Matthew 12:36)

Some Guidelines for Talking About Others

1. Use Words that Build Up, Rather than Tear Down

One of the reasons people tear others down with their words is because they feel that by making other people look bad, it makes them look good in comparison. In fact the opposite is true: when we speak poorly of someone, it makes us look bad, even if we are too foolish to realize it.

‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.’ (Ephesians 4:29)

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

2. Let Your Speech be Motivated by Love for the Other Person

People often talk about their children, but they almost never gossip about their children. Why? Because people love their children, and love protects rather than exploits someone’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

‘The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of sense. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value. ‘ (Proverbs 10:20-21)

Podcasts I’m Listening to Right Now

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Craig Groeschel said, ‘You become like who you listen to.’ I heard him say that in his podcast…because I listen to his podcast.

In no particular order, here are some of the podcasts I’ve been listening to lately:

There are a few others I subscribe to and visit from time to time, and of course you should totally subscribe to the White Fields Community Church podcast, so you can listen to my sermons, as well as those of our other teachers and guests.

What podcasts do you listen to? 

Leave a comment with your recommendations for good content that you enjoy and that you think other people should check out.

“You are Free” vs. “You Must Not”

I recently listened to a podcast episode featuring Lysa Terkeurst of Proverbs 31 Ministries, as she recounted her story of almost losing her marriage to infidelity and then almost losing her life to cancer.

Lysa’s story reminded me of the verse we’ve based our recent study on at White Fields, called Remember the Prophets, which comes from James 5:10 – “My brothers and sisters, remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.” Lysa struck me as someone who is an example of patient endurance under suffering.

In the interview, Lysa mentioned something interesting: Compare the first words that God spoke to the man and compare them with the first words that the Enemy spoke to the people in reciting God’s message to them:

The first words God ever spoke to man were: “You are free”

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

The first words the Enemy spoke when reciting God’s words were: “You must not”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)

Same Words, Different Emphasis

First of all, the serpent did misquote God by saying that God had commanded them not to eat from any tree in the garden.

But the other thing the serpent did was to change the emphasis or the tone of God’s words to the people.

Whereas God had emphasized their freedom, the serpent emphasized the restriction.

That’s an important difference! Does God give commands? Of course. Does God prohibit some things? Absolutely. But the reason for God’s commands and prohibitions is for our good, to promote our freedom!

God had told them that the reason for the the prohibition (eating from the one tree) was because if they did they would die. Nothing restricts your freedom more than dying! In other words: God’s prohibition was to protect their freedom.

True freedom is often found in submitting to the design for which you were made. For example: A BMW automobile gives you incredible freedom to get around, and do so very quickly! But in order for you to have that freedom, you have to follow a few rules due to the nature of the BMW. For example: it’s not made to go underwater, so if you drive it into a lake, you will lose the freedom the car provides! If you fail to change the oil, fill up the tires with air or put gas in it, you will lose the freedom it provides. All freedom, in other words, depends on following the rules of the design. Therefore the right prohibitions can serve to protect freedom.

The serpent’s emphasis was on the restriction, not the freedom. He painted God as an insecure, petty kill-joy, who was trying to restrict them merely for the sake of restricting them. Many people view God in this way today as well.

“For Our Good Always”

This past Sunday, in studying through Hosea (listen to that message here: Hosea: Living Out the Gospel) we talked about how God’s commandments are for our good. As I often say:

Sin isn’t bad because it’s forbidden, sin is forbidden because it’s bad.

In other words: When God tells us to do something, or not to do something, it is because He loves us and wants the best for us.

In Deuteronomy 6:24, in describing the God’s law, Moses describes it in this way: God’s law, which was for our good always… 

The emphasis is on our good and our freedom. The idea that God is petty and arbitrarily restrictive is wrong, and leads us to question God – as the serpent led the first people to do.

Consider this great quote from Charles Spurgeon:

When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin. But when I found God so kind, so good, so over-flowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could have ever rebelled against one who loved me so, and sought my good.

When you clearly see who God is and understand His love for you, it makes you want to do what He says, because you know it’s for your good.

As Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:11-13)

Did you see that? It is the grace of God that teaches us to reject ungodliness! May we see God’s grace and love in his instructions to us.