This week, I am sharing some spiritual practices for reflecting on the previous year and stepping forward into the new year.
Stepping Forward with Dedication
Related to this focus on God is a dedication of our lives from the inside out. Psalm 86 is a one of my favorite psalms. Verse 11 has become particularly important for me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name. (Psalm 86:11)
That phrase about God giving us “an undivided heart” is a powerful picture of what it means to live with focus on God and dedication of life. It means that the center of our being – our heart; the place from which our life flows – is dedicated to God entirely. There is a unity – an integrity – to it.
Francois Fenelon describes that in this way:
What God asks of us is a will which is no longer divided between him and any creature. It is a will pliant in his hands…which wants without reserve whatever he wants and which never wants under any pretext anything which he does not want.
The New Testament describes this a life given over to God with the word “discipleship.” Discipleship has God as its focus, and gathers our desires around God in such a way that our everyday living is ordered by God through the power of the Holy Spirit. We live dedicated to God from the inside out, both in our desires and in our decisions.
Dallas Willard says:
The priorities and intentions – the heart or inner attitudes – of disciples are forever the same. In the heart of a disciple there is a desire, and there is decision or settled intent. The disciple of Christ desires above all else to be like him…[and there is] the decision to devote oneself to becoming like Christ.
So we enter into this year not only with focus upon God, but also with our whole lives dedicated to God. We want an undivided heart – a life that has integrity in the fullest sense – both in the form of our desires and our decisions as disciples of Jesus.
So we can ask ourselves, “How will I order my life as a disciple of Christ this year? How will I bring my desires to God as part of my discipleship? How will I make decisions this year that reflection my discipleship to Christ? Is there any area of my life that is held back from Christ, such as time, finances, relationships, work?
Jesus said this: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45).
Moving Forward with Praise
The final word of the psalms, as seen in Psalm 150, is praise. Psalm 150 provides the capstone of the entire structure of the psalms. It is a psalm of high praise.
1 Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. 2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness.
6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. (Psalm 150:1-2, 6)
As we head into the year, we remember that this is more than the passing of time, more than the setting of priorities or establishing of resolutions, and more than the lament, confession, or thanksgiving. All of life, according to Scripture, is worship. We live in the daily presence of the Living God and He is worthy of praise. The end of our days, according to the book of Revelation, will rise up in the heavenly scenes of worship in the presence of God.
Julian of Norwich says,
All of the strength that may come through prayer comes from the goodness of God, for he is the goodness of everything. For the highest form of prayer is to the goodness of God. It comes down to us to meet our humblest needs. It gives life to our souls and makes them live and grow in grace and virtues. It is near in nature and swift in grace, for it is the same grace which our souls seek and always will.
The sum total of our life is a response of worship to God. As the calendar turns from December 31, 2019, to January 1, 2020, we continue to respond to the ultimate goodness of God with a life of worship.
And so, perhaps the end of the year can be more than just a celebration of an apple sliding down a pole in Times Square or a thronging party with friends and family. None of this is bad, but might we remember there is something more: worship of the Eternal Creator who has made us for Himself.
So, what are your plans for the New Year? In the midst of all that is happening as we count down the days and hours into the new year, let me suggest setting aside some space and time in our lives to look back and step forward.
 Francois Fénelon, “A Will No Longer Divided,” in Devotional Classics, ed. Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 49.
 Dallas Willard, “The Cost of Nondiscipleship,” Devotional Classics, 15.
 Julian of Norwich, “The Highest Form of Prayer,” in Devotional Classics, 77.
When I conclude a sermon series, I usually share the resources I used to help me study and prepare my sermons. Here is the second of two bibliographies for our recently completed series, “The Kingdom of God” (you can find the first one here). This bibliography has a backstory.
Before the pandemic we had a two-week series entitled “Faith and Politics” on the schedule with guest speakers NT Wright and Vince Bacote. As an extension site for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School we worked on a wraparound class for that series and I helped develop the first bibliography and reading list for that class, which was the genesis for what I’m sharing below.
As the pandemic accelerated, NT Wright was unable to travel in April (we rescheduled him for 2021) and we delayed the series on politics. I eventually re-worked the two week series on faith and politics into a broader five-week series on the kingdom of God. Thankfully, we were still able to have Vince Bacote join us and you can watch his lecture, as well as a follow-up Q&A, here: “The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life.”
It should go without saying that I do not agree with the perspective shared within all of these works. However, many of them which I disagree with are still important for any discussion of faith and politics.
Bibliography for “Faith and Politics”
Augustine.City of God. Edited and translated by R. W. Dyson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. (1278 pages – Augustine’s magisterial exploration of the relationship between the city of God and the city of earth)
Robert Benne. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010. (120 pages – written out of frustration with current failures of thinking, Benne offers some core convictions about Christian political engagement and how that should shape public policy and political action)
________, ed. Five Views on the Church and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. (240 pages – part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints series, this book offers outlines of political thought from Anabaptist, African America, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed perspectives, with responses to each outline by others)
Gregory A. Boyd. The Myth of a Christian Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. (207 pages – written around the 2004 election, Boyd’s central thesis is “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry”)
John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007. (1059 pages – Calvin’s treatment of law and government were defining for Protestant theology since his time)
D. A. Carson. Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012. (255 pages – an evangelical New Testament scholar offers a revision of Niebuhr’s typology of Christian cultural engagement with a chapter on church and state)
Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. Jesus for President. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. (355 pages – the authors offer a progressive evangelical theology that critiques American Christianity’s subjugation to empire)
Andy Crouch. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. (284 pages – while not strictly about politics, Crouch offers a modern approach to broader cultural engagement for evangelicals)
Patrick J. Deneen. Why Liberalism Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019. (264 pages – an evaluation of why liberalism – in contrast to communism and fascism – is the only remaining viable ideology of the 20th century, but also how inherent features of the success of liberalism are generating its own failure)
Jacques Ellul. The Subversion of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986. (222 pages – Ellul was an influential and iconoclastic 20th century thinker, and this book specifically looks at the deviation between the life of the Church and the teachings of Jesus)
________. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018. (238 pages – a historian’s evaluation of factors, particularly a politics of fear, that contributed to 80% of white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump)
Frances Fitzgerald. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. (740 pages – a Pulitzer-prize winning historian offers an insightful history of how evangelicalism has shaped American culture and politics)
George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee, eds. Christian Political Witness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014. (240 pages – a collection of essays on biblical, historical and theological proposals for thinking responsibly about the intersection of church and state in the contemporary cultural situation)
Martin Luther King, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003. (736 pages – a collection of the most important writings and speeches by the premier leader of the American civil rights movement, including his invaluable “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”)
Richard J. Mouw. Political Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973. (111 pages – Mouw reflects on the inadequacies of separatism and activism, while also pointing to an alternative of appropriate political engagement as part of the evangelistic – outward – activity of the church)
Reinhold Niebuhr. Major Works on Religion and Politics. Library of America. New York: Library of America, 2015. (850 pages – Niebuhr was one of the premier thinkers of the early 20th century and his political thought continues to influence writers and practitioners, including Barack Obama)
H. Richard Niebuhr. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1951. (259 pages – this classic work provided the most enduring typology for evaluating Christian engagement with culture since its publication)
Mark A. Noll. God and Race in American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. P., 2008. (226 pages – the premier historian of American evangelicalism evaluates the way that religion and race have factored into American politics)
Oliver O’Donovan. The Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology. New York: Cambridge U. P., 1996. (304 pages – a work of systematic Christian political thought, combining Biblical interpretation, historical discussion of the Western political and theological tradition, theoretical construction and critical engagement with contemporary views)
C. C. Pecknold. Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010. (196 pages – a brief guide to the history of Christianity and politics, showing how early Christianity reshaped the Western political imagination with its new theological claims about eschatological time, participation, and communion with God and neighbor)
Elizabeth Phillips. Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum Boos, 2012. (208 pages – This is a concise and accessible advanced introduction which distinguishes various approaches to political theology, and which explores several of the central issues addressed in political theologies)
James K. A. Smith. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017. (256 pages – the third part of Smith’s cultural liturgies series offers an Augustinian model for engaging the current political situation in our culture that is rooted in worship)
Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976. (128 pages – demonstrates how the gospel may be read as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised because of Jesus entrance into the pain of the oppressed)
Tom Wright. God in Public: How the Bible speaks truth to power today. London: SPCK, 2016. (190 pages – a little known work of NT Wright that, while somewhat English in application, offers an approach to biblical theology that throws fresh light on political and ethical problems of our day)
When I conclude a sermon series, I usually share the resources I used to help me study and prepare my sermons. Here is the first of two bibliographies for our current series, “The Kingdom of God.” Next week I will share a second bibliography specifically related to faith and politics that I leaned on for the last two weekends of this series.
C. C. Caragounis. “Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 417–430. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
“The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.
“The Church as a PoliticalForce” – I’m thinking about faith and politics a lot right now both because of our current teaching series on the kingdom of God, but also because I want to equip myself and others with a thoughtful and biblical understanding of faith in the public square. Here is Peter J. Leithart on this topic, giving specific attention to the book of Acts and the ministry of Paul. The last paragraph of this article is a very clear and helpful description of the tension and opportunity. (If you’re interested in this topic, you may want to consider joining us online this Monday night at 7 PM (CST) for Dr. Vincent Bacote’s lecture at Eastbrook, “The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life,” followed by Q&A.)
“Your Preaching Is Not God’s Work. You Are God’s Work.” – Todd Hunter has always been an important voice on evangelism, spiritual formation, and ministry. Here he offers some important insights for preachers as part of his own change of mindset based on a conversation with an invaluable mentor. Preachers, we need to learn and re-learn this lesson.
“Gaslighting” – Here is Alan Jacobs on the overuse or misuse of the term “gaslighting” and why it does not always apply or make sense in its contemporary use. “One of the more pernicious quirks of English usage to arise in the past few years is the employment — by a remarkably large number of people, it seems to me — of the term ‘gaslighting’ as the default explanation for disagreement. Nobody just disagrees with me anymore, they’re trying to gaslight me.”
“Here Are The 50 Books Nominated for 2020 National Book Awards” – Everyone probably knows that I am a book guy. I love reading (although I didn’t as a child) and was an English literature major in college. Well, one area of interest for me is book awards and seeing what books are nominated for awards and why. I always find a book or two that captures my attention (plus a few that I wonder how they made it to the list). Here is the latest list of the National Book Award nominees for 2020.
Music: Julianna Barwick (featuring Jónsi), “In Light,” from Healing is a Miracle.
[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]
Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, is one of my favorite books of all time. In this book, Willard explores what discipleship is all about through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. Much of Willard’s work in the book builds from the accessibility of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ. This is at least part of what I was trying to speak about in my message this past weekend at Eastbrook, “The Holy Spirit in Us: Living in the Kingdom of God Now.” Here is an extended quotation from Willard on the kingdom of God that I find particularly helpful.
“Now God’s own ‘kingdom,’ or ‘rule,’ is the range of his effective will, where what he wants done is done. The person of God himself and the action of his will are the organizing principles of his kingdom, but everything that obeys those principles, whether by nature of by choice is within his kingdom.
“The Old Testament book of Psalms comes to a joyous, breathtaking celebration of God’s kingdom in Psalms 145-150. The picture there presented must be kept in mind whenever we try to understand his kingdom. Then we will not doubt that that kingdom has exited from the moment of creation and will never end (Ps. 145:13; Dan. 7:14). It cannot be ‘shaken’ (Heb. 12:27f.) and is totally good. It has never been in trouble and never will be. It is not something that human beings produce or, ultimately, can hinder. We do have an invitation to be a part of it, but if we refuse we only hurt ourselves.
“Accordingly, the kingdom of God is not essentially a social or political reality at all. Indeed, the social and political realm, along with the individual heart, is the only place in all of creation where the kingdom of God, or his effective will, is currently permitted to be absent. That realm is the ‘on earth’ of the Lord’s Prayer that is opposed to the ‘in heaven’ where God’s will is, simply, done. It is the realm of what is cut out ‘by hands,’ opposed to the kingdom ‘cut out without hands’ of Daniel, chapter 2.
“Thus, contrary to a popular idea, the kingdom of God is not primarily something that is ‘in the hearts of men.’ That kingdom may by there, and it may govern human beings through their faith and allegiance to Christ. At the present time it governs them only through their hearts, if at all. But his kingdom is not something confined to their hearts or to the ‘inner’ world of human consciousness. It is not some matter of inner attitude or faith that might be totally diconnected from the public, behavioral, visible world. It always pervades and governs the whole of the physical universe—parts of planet earth occupied by humans and other personal beings, the satanic, slight excepted for a while….
“So when Jesus directs us to pray, ‘The kingdom come,’ he does not mean that we should pray for it to come into existence. Rather, we pray for it to take over at all points in the personal, social, and political order where it is now excluded: ‘On earth as it is in heaven.’ With this prayer we are invoking it, as in faith we are acting it, into the real world of our daily existence.”