“CHOOSING OUR VOWEL CAREFULLY” by Timothy Shorey

What happens when two people meet over coffee or come face-to-face in conversation or in conflict? Here is a still more pressing question: what should happen? Are there oughts and ought nots that should govern how we listen and talk? The answer that we choose hinges on what we think it means to be human. In fact, how we define humanness will decide the quality of every relationship in our lives.

In simple terms that everybody can understand, our options appear to be three. Humans may be chimps—no more than accidental evolutionary cousins to tree-swinging primates. If so, we can and will relate to others as we’d relate to the orangutan on a safari or the back-alley rodent that is scouring through refuse for dinner. Humans may be chumps—no more than thickheaded, messed-up, seriously damaged moral and relational misfits. If so, we can and will relate to others as we relate to things that are broken beyond repair: by throwing them all away until we find one that works to our liking for a while. Finally, humans may be champs—created beings who are made to bear God’s image, transcend moral mediocrity, rule the earth, and inhabit eternity. If so, we can and must relate to others as we would relate to cosmic royalty—with nothing but respect.

Although only a single letter separates each of these options, they represent vastly different views of life and of what it means to be us. Everything good in human relationships depends on whether we choose the right vowel. As this book will argue, we are not chimps; though there is no denying that, due to cosmic rebellion and sin, we are spiritual and moral chumps. But, at the same time, we are much more than chumps. We are made to be champs—immortal sin-conquering and world-ruling victors.

Despite all our human failings, there is a word-defying quality about humanness that should be seen and known and felt. Each person exudes a beauty that is tinged with glory. Every human on the planet is a being that is worthy of wonder—an immortal who is poised on the cusp of eternity. As crusted with sinful grime as we might be, we are all divine icons and earthly images of the heavenly; we all have stories to tell and glories to share.

WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR

I have written this book to show how profound respect matters when we encounter one another on the countless battlefields of life. It is the fruit of thirty-seven years of pastoring that have included around fifteen thousand hours of counseling and thousands more hours of studying the Scriptures, reading about relationships, dialoguing across cultural and racial lines, and simply being with people. My experience tells me that what God says about human relationships and communication is for people of all ages and stages. More specifically, it’s for

  • anyone who isn’t a hermit;
  • spouses who want to bond and become one;
  • parents who want to navigate the minefield of their teens’ adolescence without losing life or limb in the process;
  • siblings who have turned their home into a Civil War Gettysburg;
  • pastors who want to lead humbly, as well as congregations who want to follow in kind;
  • pastoral teams who want to serve together with effectiveness and trust;
  • bosses and workers who don’t want the workplace to be a war zone;
  • the white, the black, the brown, and the officer in blue who deeply misunderstand and cynically distrust one another;
  • the liberal and the conservative who care deeply about the same things but find it hard to believe that they do;
  • people who are trying to share community life—whether in the hood, in a rural town, or elsewhere—without tearing one another’s eyes out.

This book will not address all the issues and conflicts that people may face. But it will address how to address them—and that, I believe, is what is needed most.

THEOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS

Let me set expectations. Respect the Image is part theology—a study of God. It is part anthropology—a study of humans. And it is part methodology—a study of principle and practice. It is a truth and life blend: doctrinal and practical theology in the same mix. Three great foundational truths undergird the practical teaching of this book:

  1. God talks and listens. God reveals himself in love and holiness and hears us in all our weakness, longing, need, and love. This truth dignifies and sanctifies communication. To communicate is to be godlike; to communicate well is to be godly.
  2. Humans are made in the image and likeness of God. As the “offspring” of God’s being, we are immortals conversing with fellow immortals. Consequently, we should reflect the image that we bear and respect the image that we share.
  3. In all our communication efforts, we need gospel assurance. Our comfort is grounded in the atoning death and perfect righteousness of Christ, which are both counted as ours through faith in him alone. Without this blessed assurance, guilt, regret, and insecurity will crush our spirits, stymie our communication, and leave our relationships in the shallows—if not in the grave.

The first of these truths inspires our worship and trust. The second honors those who bear the image and elevates our discourse. The third answers our guilt and produces confidence for the way ahead.

A WHOLE NEW WAY OF LIFE

This book is about life change.

Years ago, I counseled a couple who were on the brink of divorce. Theirs was an angry, loveless marriage, taped together by the couple of kids they shared. Children often keep rickety families together and afloat for a while; but in this case, the mess that Dad and Mom brought into my office was a perfect storm that was about to blow it all to oblivion. Their problem was an utter breakdown of communication. They had no idea they had each married an image bearer—an offspring of God. And, having no respect for the image, they had no clue how to converse with the immortal human being with whom they were living.

I took a few sessions to lead them to God, to the gospel, and to the COMMUNICATE principles in this book, drawing from the Word, from life, and from my own personal messed-up experiences. I have never forgotten the wife’s pensive pause when I finished my counsel to them. Clearly she was crafting a careful response, which finally came: “Tim, what you are asking us to do is a complete life makeover. This is a totally different lifestyle than we’ve lived to this point. I mean it. It’s a whole new way to live.”

She was right. Godlike love isn’t half-in. It goes after it all—whole and hard. If we really want profound respect and joyful love to mark our relationships, then we’ll have to buy into something more than three easy steps. We’ll need a complete heart makeover—a whole new way to live.

You will discover a love- and hope-producing message in the pages that follow. I pray that it will provide the help that you need to live life in a whole new way—to listen, to learn, to lament, to laugh, to love, and to linger, all in relationship with the people with whom your life intersects. These are the graces that make our human-to-human connections truer and deeper—the very things that make us like the God in whose image we are made.


“God Extends an Invitation” by Lauren Whitman

Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. (Ps. 62:8)

Think about the last time you received an invitation. Maybe it was an invitation to dinner at a friend’s house, a birthday party, or a wedding. Whatever the event, it is nice to receive an invitation because it means you are wanted. You have been included. Your presence matters to the one who sent you the invitation.

In the Bible, God repeatedly finds ways to invite his people to himself. When the invitation comes from him, we can draw similar conclusions. He wants us to come to him. He longs to include us in his plans. Our presence with him matters to him.

In today’s Scripture reading, you receive a particular kind of invitation. It’s an invitation to pour out your heart. This is a different kind of invitation from ones we’re used to. What does this invitation tell us?

First, the invitation implies that your heart is full. If you’re anything like me, your heart is filled with a mix of emotions, fears, doubts, and longings. It’s not all pretty. It doesn’t all make sense. It’s messy. It’s tangled.

Second, God knows that your heart is tangled and messy, and he still extends an invitation. This tells us a lot about him. He’s not saying to you, “Get your heart together, and then pour it out to me.” He doesn’t place that kind of condition on his invitation. Instead, you can come to him as you are. You don’t have to come from where you wish you were or as you think you should be. Come as you are right now.

Third, the psalmist also says to trust God at all times. He is always trustworthy. He can be trusted with what is in your heart.

Let’s put this all together as we begin this devotional. You have a God who wants to hear from you. He already knows what is in your heart—the emotions and hurt from your past that you still carry. He cares about what is there and wants to be near you as you face it. You can trust him with your heart. You can trust him with your messiness. In fact, he is so utterly trustworthy that the psalmist calls him a refuge, which is a safe place. He is a safe place for you. Think of the process of reading, reflecting on, and praying through this book as a process of pouring out your heart before God. Each day, God will invite you to bring yourself to him. As you respond to this invitation, trust that you are in the safe refuge of the God who loves you.

—Lauren Whitman, A Painful Past: Healing and Moving Forward


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Five Good Reasons to Read Hymns as Poems by Leland Ryken

Reading hymns as devotional poems is not a novel idea. Until the 1870s, hymn books were small, portable, word-only books three inches by five inches in size. They were daily companions to school and office and used in private and family devotions in the home.

By providence, I have become a spokesman for reclaiming the great hymns as devotional poems. Here are five reasons for you to share my great discovery.

1. Hymns should be read as poems because that is what they are. As hymn writers themselves attest, every hymn begins as a poem. It becomes a hymn only when the poem is matched to music and then sung. A hymn begins as a verbal text that possesses all the features of a poem, such as composition by lines and stanzas, presence of rhyme and regular meter, and use of imagery and figurative language to embody the meaning.

2. We should experience hymns as poems so we can absorb their content. When we sing a hymn, we are not in control of the pace. We are hurried forward by the need to keep up with the singing. We cannot hit a pause button. As I have become more and more accustomed to experiencing hymns as poems, I have come to see what a small percentage of the content of a hymn is available to me when I sing it.

3. We should read hymns as poems so we can unpack the meanings of the poetic language. Poetry does not carry all its meaning on the surface, nor is that meaning immediately obvious. Images and figurative language require analysis and pondering. Additionally, since by ourselves we do not see everything that is present in a poem, the accumulated insights of literary scholars and ordinary readers are an immense asset.

4. We need to experience hymns printed as poems so we can see their unity and coherence. The biggest revolution in my experience of hymns came when I saw them printed as poems, with the lines and stanzas and rhyme scheme clear to view. Hymnbooks actually print hymns as prose. Printed as poetry, hymnic poems reveal how carefully their authors achieved stanza-by-stanza coherence within their compositions.

5. Experiencing hymns as poems opens the door to seeing the craftsmanship of their authors. As I have edited two volumes of hymnic poems accompanied by five-hundred-word explications, one of the most gratifying discoveries I have made is that the best hymnic poems measure up to all the literary qualities of the poems I have taught in the classroom for over half a century. This applies particularly to their verbal beauty.

—Leland Ryken


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“A LARGELY UNADDRESSED PROBLEM ” by Joel Beeke & Nick Thompson

The day has finally come. You have survived seminary, sustained your ordination exams, and been called to pastor a local church. You experience a profound eagerness in your soul as you step out to follow God’s call. You have a hopeful expectation that the sheep entrusted to your care will be built up in faith and holiness through your labors. You have a sanctified aspiration to bring the gospel to lost souls. You have an energy and excitement about the things of God more far-reaching than you have ever experienced before. What an awesome privilege it is to be a pastor, you think to yourself. 

Soon, however, this sense of ministerial privilege begins to wane. What is the cause of the decline? The prospect that initially appeared bright as the noonday sun has quickly been overshadowed by the clouds of ministerial problems, and in particular, ministerial opposition. On the day of your ordination, dealing with criticism was the farthest thing from your mind. And as you think back on your seminary career, you can’t recall ever being taught how to handle such verbal opposition. But here you are, only months into the ministry and already the target of negative words. Perhaps it is your preaching they are unhappy with or the fact that you are not as gregarious as their previous pastor. Whatever it might be, you find yourself receiving verbal backlash. Sure, you expected such opposition from unbelievers. But from your own sheep? The disillusionment begins to sink in. It becomes a daily fight to keep the joys of knowing God, proclaiming His Word, and serving His people from being swallowed up by the harsh words of your congregants or colleagues in the ministry. 

This is by no means an uncommon experience. While not every pastor experiences serious criticism from his people in the first months of his ministry, every pastor will meet with it sooner or later. As an old Dutch saying goes, “He who stands in the front will soon be kicked in the rear.” 

While being criticized is a common pastoral experience, it is, by and large, an unaddressed problem. The majority of men being trained for gospel ministry are not being taught how to handle and respond to such verbal blows. And the consequences of this neglect are grave. A lack of training can quickly lead to disillusionment regarding the ministry, and in far too many cases, even resignation. Being on the receiving end of criticism for any length of time can result in exasperation, insomnia, cynicism, burnout, and even despair. 

We have written this book to address this largely unaddressed problem. Helpful material has been written on the subject; as our footnotes will make plain throughout, there are valuable resources dealing with different facets of ministerial critique. But to date, we are not aware of a book that deals comprehensively with the various dimensions of criticism in the Christian ministry from a biblical and Reformed perspective. Such a work is urgently needed for pastors today. 

Pastors and Their Critics is broken into four parts. In part one, we lay the biblical foundations for coping with criticism. Broadly tracing the theme of verbal flak from Genesis to Revelation, we seek to ground our understanding of the criticism we face today in its proper biblical and redemptive-historical context. In part two, we provide practical principles for coping with criticism in the ministry. This section comprises the bulk of the book, setting forth the biblical wisdom necessary to receive and respond to criticism in a God-honoring, Christlike way. In part three, we offer practical principles for constructive criticism in the church, discussing how to give criticism as a pastor and how to foster a culture open to criticism in your local congregation. We conclude in part four by setting forth a theological vision for coping with criticism in the gospel ministry, followed by an appendix addressing how to prepare while in seminary for the fires of criticism. 

If you are not a pastor and have no aspirations for pastoral ministry, this book is still for you! While we have chosen to focus more narrowly on gospel ministry, the main truths and principles found herein apply to every Christian and every vocation. None of us are exempt from receiving or giving criticism. Thus, we encourage you to take up this book and read! 

Pastors and Their Critics has been a joint collaboration, but because of Joel’s forty-plus years of pastoral experience, almost all the real-life scenarios found in these pages are his. He rather humorously, yet seriously, asserts that this is finally a book he feels qualified to write because he has had plenty of experience coping with criticism! Rather than continually clarifying this and drawing unnecessary attention to the author, we have decided to only make note when a personal example is from Nick’s experience. We trust this will not cause confusion. 

As will become clear in the pages ahead, learning to cope with criticism and to give criticism in the Christian ministry is largely a matter of the heart. There are painful lessons we must learn here, and they are seldom learned quickly or easily. For this reason, we encourage you not to breeze through this book in an hour, but to prayerfully ponder and slowly digest it. 

We pray that God will use Pastors and Their Critics to work the sanctifying influences of His Word in your soul and ministry, enabling you to endure with joy through the furnace of criticism and come out the better for it. As with any other cross, criticism cannot be so heavy that God’s grace cannot sustain you under its weight and enable you to profit from its pain. 

—Excerpt taken from the Introduction to Pastors and Their Critics


Author Interview with Lauren Whitman

Today’s author interview is with Lauren Whitman. She is the author of the new book in our 31-Day Devotionals for Life series, A Painful Past: Healing and Moving Forward.

  • Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in south Florida with my parents and older sister. I went to college in Florida and met my husband, Chad, soon after college. After we got married in 2006, we were both looking at different graduate schools in various places throughout the country. We knew we didn’t want to stay in Florida long term, so we decided to continue our graduate school search from New York City. We both love big cities, and we had an incredibly fun adventure living in Manhattan for 15 months. During that time, I was researching counseling programs and the women’s ministry coordinator at my church introduced me to biblical counseling. I decided to pursue my master’s degree from the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) through Westminster Theological Seminary’s program and Chad and I moved to Pennsylvania in 2009. We never left! I did a counseling internship at CCEF and they hired me as a counselor after I graduated. At CCEF, I have a job that suits me well because I get to counsel, which is my first love, and I also get to play with words, which is my second love. In addition to counseling, I also serve as an editor for the Journal of Biblical Counseling (JBC). I get to think deeply with authors about counseling theory and methodology, and this work invigorates my counseling. And my counseling informs how I edit and my own writing for the JBC, so it’s a very nice feedback loop. 

Chad and I have two children, and in our spare time we like to get outside with them and explore trails and creeks. Pennsylvania has a lovely landscape. We also love to cook and grill, and we have people over for meals as often as we can. My children and I also love to tend to our rain garden and do a daily check-in to monitor and marvel at all the different flowers in their various stages of growth. 

  • When did you first want to write a book?

My desire to write a book grew as I gained more and more experience as a counselor. I very much love the counseling space and the opportunity to go to the deepest and most important matters of people’s lives and hearts. And as a Christian, I love to think about how God meets us in those places and how I can represent him well by how I connect with people. So my writing is an extension of my counseling in that it is another way to connect people with the Lord. I aim for my writing to be like my counseling—creative and engaging in ways that reflect who God is and how he comes close to us in the tender places of our lives. 

  • Have you always enjoyed writing?

I have! I don’t remember dreading it as a student. And now writing as an adult, I have almost always found the writing experience to be satisfying because as content unfolds it usually lands in ways that are surprising and delightful. That is the Spirit’s grace! When we are writing about Scripture, it is an exploratory journey that the Spirit guides. 

  • What inspired you to write this book, about this topic? 

Nobody can live in this world and not encounter various kinds of sad, grievous effects of the fall. We all have a personal, particular story of sin and suffering. And some people have had such hard events in their past experience that it can make living well today difficult. It can make having hope for the future seem futile. These are the kinds of people on my heart for this devotional book. I write to them because I want them to know God’s comfort and to experience the form and shape his comfort takes. The people who feel shattered in life are on his heart and he has so much good news for them today, tomorrow, and for the rest of their lives. Though his healing usually isn’t instantaneous, he does invite us into a process of healing, and the book guides the reader through aspects of that healing process. 

  • What book are you reading now?

I am reading the seventh Harry Potter book. Since I read so much non-fiction in my work for the JBC, I try to read fiction in my free time. This year I have been re-reading the Harry Potter series and am now on the last one. I have a lot of admiration for how Rowling created these characters that are so easy to attach to and a world that is so easy to immerse yourself in, and I find the books to be such a fun respite. 

  • What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

First, don’t skip steps of pre-writing! It’s a mistake to just sit down and write. If you plan through an outline, then you are forced to see if there is a logical progression of your thoughts and give yourself chances to map out a flow that makes the most sense for your topic. Second, once you start writing, don’t be unwilling to delete portions of what you wrote. It’s easy to get attached to what we have put on paper because it took time, energy, and effort. But sometimes you have to just let it go, and growing in discernment as to when those times are will help you become a stronger writer. Finally, when you have a solid draft, read it out loud. The cadence and diction will stick out to you and give you the chance to make your written prose sing. 

  • At what time of day do you write most? 

As a working mother, I have had to learn to be flexible and take opportunities to write when I get them! Thankfully, I can come in and out of a writing project in spurts and don’t need large chunks of time at once. 

  • Favorite sport to watch?

I don’t follow any sports, but I certainly don’t mind watching basketball. I appreciate the gracefulness and agility of basketball players. I also like that it is not a contact sport and so it’s less likely that someone will get hurt! 

  • Favorite food?

My married name conceals my heritage, but I come from an Italian family and from a long line of excellent cooks. So I most love the Italian dishes I grew up with and now cook for my own family (though there are still a couple of recipes that I still just wait for my mom to cook!). 

  • Favorite flavor of ice cream?

I will always pick a Ben and Jerry’s flavor. Six months ago, I would’ve said Phish Food because I love the marshmallow swirl. But I recently discovered The Tonight Dough, which has peanut butter cookie dough, and I haven’t bought Phish Food since then! 

  • Tea or coffee?

Coffee. I didn’t drink coffee until I lived in Amsterdam for a year when I was 22 years old. In Amsterdam, going for a coffee meant that you’d be sitting down with another person to have a meaningful conversation. So I made myself start to drink it then as part of that experience of connecting with others. And then of course I fell in love with it, because coffee is delicious and the most wonderful drink in the world. I start to look forward to my morning coffee the night before! 

  • How can readers discover more about you and your work?

Website: laurenwhitman.info


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