Books: The House of the Lord

February 27, 2017

At a conference (for leaders of small churches) that my husband and I attended in October, one of the workshops was about the use of the Psalms in worship. That got me not only looking for ways to use them in worship (such as using them for the readings with the lighting of the Advent candles) but also to know them better personally. When the Bible study I lead finished a study on Jonah, we started looking at some of the Psalms.

So when I came across a book for sale about “inhabiting the world of the psalmist,” and noticed that the author was one of the keynote speakers from that conference in October,  naturally I was interested. In the House of the Lord: Inhabiting the Psalms of Lament by Michael Jinkins explores first the world of the psalms in general, and then the psalms of lament in more depth.

I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the psalms of lament. How do I identify with someone who has gone through such suffering as some of these describe? And to the extent I do identify with someone crying out, “How long, O Lord,” how does that shared sense of anguish help me deal with it?

I’m not alone in that discomfort. Jinkins notes that mainline Protestant churches rarely use psalms of lament in their worship, and if they wanted to sing hymns based on them would have trouble finding more than a few in their hymnals. Many people go to church to hear positive messages, and interpret complaints addressed to God as contrary to faith and thanksgiving.

When I mentioned this in a Bible study recently, someone’s response was that when times are hard, you’re supposed to focus on the blessings in your life and on God’s goodness. Why would you want to encourage people to bring up complaints to God?

Because, Jinkins says, “praise and thanksgiving divorced from lamentation, divorced from heart-felt observation of social injustices and the cries of the oppressed, divorced from a critical assessment of our role in human society, become expressions of vanity.” And because they can mask the voids in our spiritual lives, and give us fewer resources for working through some of the really bad stuff, the stuff we don’t talk about in church.

I remember a few times in my life when I found it difficult to go to church, when I was dealing with grief and found it hard to express emotion without breaking down in tears. There were no hymns we sang that gave voice to my grief, and when I tried to sing songs like “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today” or “O Happy Day,” the words stuck in my throat.

There are churches that use the psalms of lament much more, and Jinkins explains that these are generally made of of people in the lower socio-economic strata of society. They can identify with the psalmist when he speaks of suffering oppression, of being treated unfairly, of anger at seeing people prosper from their wickedness and of longing to see justice done.

For me, those are abstract ideas that I can understand but not really identify with from my own experience. (Not that I’ve never been treated unfairly, but not in any ways that significantly changed the course of my life.) Perhaps greater use of psalms of lament would help to identify with those parts of the body of Christ who do suffer in these ways.

Depending on how one classifies the psalms, forty to fifty of them are considered psalms of lament. So nearly a third of them. They include expressions of faith and praise and thanksgiving, but these are arrived at by going through the complaint and the grief.

We often find that spiritual growth comes that way in our lives, by going through trials and troubles. So why not have our worship services make more use of such psalms, as the ancient Israelites evidently did? As I am on the worship committee at church, this is more than just food for thought, but something to look for practical ways to use sometimes neglected parts of Scripture.


Books: Slow Church

December 18, 2016

When my husband and I signed up to go to a “Slow Church” retreat, we had little idea what it was about. Obviously, it must be something to do with not being in a hurry. But beyond that, the phrase meant nothing to me.

At the retreat, we each received a copy of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Chris Smith led the retreat, going over the ideas presented in the book he had co-written.

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Books: The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass: Adrian Plass and the Church Weekend

January 16, 2016

Looking at my 2016 Reading Challenge, I had wondered how I would find “a book guaranteed to bring me joy.” There are books by favorite authors that I know I will enjoy, but that’s different from books that bring me joy.

As it happens, I had already ordered the latest book in Adrian Plass’ Sacred Diary series, as a Christmas present for our whole family. We’re read – and re-read – all the previous books in the series, and I was happy to discover he had written a new one.

If you haven’t read Adrian Plass before, you might want to start by reading the previous five books, starting with The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4. Some reviews say his latest is not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the earlier books, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to my husband while he was reading just the first chapter.

I find it more quietly amusing – but then, I rarely laugh out loud. What I appreciate about Plass’ writing is how well he weaves together humor with wisdom and with a view of God who loves us more than we can imagine.

A lot of what passes for humor these days is just making fun of people, but while Plass gently pokes fun at human foibles, it is always good-natured fun. People do such foolish things, but it’s not a reason to despise or disdain them. (Though I don’t think I could stand spending much time around Minnie Stamp, a new character in this volume.)

There is always an assurance that we are loved by a God who not only loves us but actually likes us. I know I find that hard to accept, though I’m not sure exactly why. Because I don’t think someone who knows all there is to know about me would like me? Because I think I need to want to work hard for God’s approval, otherwise I’d take it easy? Or because so few Christian books seem to convey that same message?

If I tried to convey what Plass’ books are like, I’m sure I’d fall far short. So if you have a chance to read some, find out for yourself.


Books: Barchester Towers

September 7, 2015

I picked up this audiobook some time ago and was intrigued by what I read on the back cover about it. But it said it was a sequel, so I figured I ought to read the first book first to properly enjoy it. And the library didn’t have the first book on CDs.

A few weeks ago, though, I was chatting with my friend who works at the library (and leads our monthly book club), and she was suggesting books on CD I might enjoy. One she suggested was Barchester Towers, and she assured me that it didn’t matter whether I had read the first book, and that this one was better anyway.

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Books: Vanishing Grace

December 24, 2014

Almost twenty years ago I read a new book by Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace? It was one of the best Christian books I had ever read, and I wrote a review on the website of an internet bookseller I had recently discovered (but most people had probably not heard of), amazon.com. Since then I have enthusiastically recommended the book to others.

So when I saw recently that Yancey had written a follow-up, Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?, I was eager to read it. I chose to request it from the library, however, rather than order my own copy, as few books have turned out to live up to their glowing reviews as well as What’s So Amazing about Grace?

And while I wanted Yancey’s new book to be as good as the other, I just didn’t find it nearly as compelling. It asks some good questions, and could start some good discussions. But if I wanted to help someone understand grace I’d still recommend the first book. And if I wanted to lead a discussion I’d recommend the first book, and then ask some of the questions raised in this book, without necessarily spending a lot of time on Yancey’s answers.

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Books: Sparrow Migrations

June 19, 2014

The premise of Sparrow Migrations intrigued me – “a 12-year-old boy with autism, witnesses the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ from a sightseeing ferry and becomes obsessed with the birds that caused the plane crash.” Other characters are on the ferry or the plane that landed in the Hudson, and while they seem to have nothing else in common with each other, their lives intersect over the course of the novel.

In an author Q&A, Cari Noga explains that she wanted to write about “ordinary people transformed by an extraordinary event –and by each other.” Furthermore, she wanted to make it a “braided narrative” – “multiple story lines that intertwine.” So once she had an initial idea for the novel, she had to find some other characters and conflicts to form the other strands of the braid.

I was not at all surprised to learn that the idea for the story started with Robby, the boy with autism. He is the most fully-developed character. The parts of the story dealing with him and his parents, and their struggles in parenting someone with autism, draw the reader into the characters’ minds and emotions in all their complexity as they deal with a variety of situations. Since the author and her husband have a boy with autism, it is hardly surprising that she can portray their experiences so well.

The other characters, in contrast, were add-ons created for the sake of the “braided narrative,” and their conflicts are those that the author thought would be interesting to deal with. Noga presumably does not have the same personal experiences to draw on with a couple dealing with infertility or a pastor’s wife dealing with homosexuality, and these characters do not come across with the same depth. Read the rest of this entry »


Books: The Story of the Christian Year

January 6, 2014

The Wee Kirk conference we attended in October had a book swap. I took a book which I had not found particularly interesting, and came home with The Story of the Christian Year by George Gibson. I enjoy reading history, particularly when it relates to something else I have a strong interest in (in this case, the Christian church), and the origins of the church year is a topic I had read very little about.

I grew up familiar with at least some seasons of the church year. Lighting Advent candles was the natural lead-in to Christmas, and our Advent calendars always started with the first Sunday of Advent, not with December 1 as I see so many of them today. Lent I considered something for grownups to be concerned with, not children, but I knew when it was and that it ended with Holy Week, which included Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then of course Easter.

When I began to attend a fundamentalist church as a teenager, I was surprised to find that people there not only did not celebrate these days and seasons, they did not even know what some of them were. Those who did know about them considered them unbiblical, remnants of the Roman Catholic church that mainline Protestant churches had retained because of their own low regard for Scriptural truth.

For the years that I considered myself a fundamentalist, I adopted that attitude myself. After all, the church I had grown up in had never preached the Gospel clearly. It wasn’t until I went to a fundamentalist church that I learned that I needed to admit that I was a sinner, that Jesus had died for my sins, and that I trusted him for salvation. The church I had grown up in was seen as “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5 KJV), focusing on the outward forms rather than the truth.

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