Books: Radical

April 17, 2011

 I finally finished David Platt’s book Radical yesterday. When I started it, back on Super Bowl Sunday, I couldn’t put it down. (Admittedly, it doesn’t take much to distract me from watching a football game.) Once I was offered the chance to take it home, and finish it at my leisure, I couldn’t seem to get interested in picking it up again.

That’s perhaps not too unusual a reaction. As one of the editorial reviews at amazon.com points out,

“Sometimes people will commend a book by saying, ‘You won’t want to put it down.’ I can’t say that about this book. You’ll want to put it down, many times. If you’re like me, as you read David Platt’s Radical, you’ll find yourself uncomfortably targeted by the Holy Spirit. You’ll see just how acclimated you are to the American dream.” (Russell D. Moore, dean, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

Most days I read for relaxation and intellectual stimulation. I like to sit in a comfy armchair, often with a snack or at least a beverage handy. Picking up a book that makes me feel guilty for time or money I spend on my own comfort doesn’t quite fit the picture.

When I did finally pick it up again yesterday, I had another surprise. Most of what I remembered about the book was the emphasis on American Christians needing to be willing to give up at least some of their material comforts and give to people elsewhere in the world who have so much less. Apparently I had pretty much finished that part of the book, because when I started reading again, it was all about needing to take the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to people who have never heard, so that they will not all go to Hell.

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Thanks

November 25, 2010

I have read, though I don’t know if it is accurate, that the Pilgrims would have considered what we call “the first Thanksgiving” more a harvest celebration than a day set aside for giving thanks. Not that they weren’t very thankful to God for the bounty He had given them, but that according to their custom, a day of thanksgiving would be a day of fasting rather than feasting.

While it seems entirely appropriate to enjoy a good meal with family and friends and to jointly give thanks for the food and fellowship, I can see the wisdom of a fast day to help focus our minds and hearts on all that we have to be thankful for. It’s so easy, in the preparations for a big meal – especially if company is coming – and in the enjoying of it (and then perhaps sleeping it off) to get wrapped up in the work and the fun and make the giving of thanks a relatively minor part of the day.

One of the purposes of fasting is to remove distractions – or to allow those that do come to reveal to us just how easily we are distracted, so that we turn to God for his grace in renewing our minds. The time that would be spent preparing food and eating it is instead given over to prayer. (I say all this, mind you, from a theoretical perspective, as I can’t think clearly at all if I don’t eat regularly. Any “fasting” that I do has to be a partial fast, limiting the kinds of food I eat but making little change to the quantity – other than not eating to excess, which I shouldn’t be doing anyway.) 

I have no plans to fast today, though the meal will be less elaborate than some years, when we had more people to share the Thanksgiving meal with us. I wasn’t even going to cook a turkey just for the three of us, but then someone gave one to us. There’ll be the mandatory mashed potatoes, and I’ll make corn casserole and green bean casserole, but that’s it. I bought a stuffing mix, but I think I’ll save it to go with leftover turkey sometime this weekend. Somewhere in the freezer I have a mini apple pie, which I’ll bake if I don’t forget about it.

I have to admit, it doesn’t feel a lot like Thanksgiving, or how I like to think of Thanksgiving. Our older son is away at college, having chosen not to come home for the weekend as he’d spend half of his time just in travel. My husband is sleeping as he has to report for work early this evening – one of the drawbacks to working at a retail giant like Wal-Mart on one of the biggest shopping days of the year (the doors open at 12:01 AM). Thanksgiving – to me – is all about sharing with friends and family, and that fellowship is what I give thanks for more than the food.

But today of all days I don’t want to get feeling sorry for myself, or complaining. So I will put together a list of things I am thankful for. And being the creative, word-loving person that I am, I had to think of a pattern to use to make the creation of that list more interesting and challenging. My younger son and I sometimes play a game where we think of words in a category, and each word has to begin with the letter that the previous word ended with. Usually the category is animals (e.g. horse, elephant, turkey, yak, kangaroo, owl, lemur, rhinoceros, slug, giraffe, etc.).

Music
Church
Health
Humor
Reading glasses
Scouting
Grace
Education
Nature
Employment
Trees
Smiles
Snow
Web
Books
School
Library
Yummy food
Doctors
Singing
God

Feel free to add on!


The Pressure’s Off (cont.)

July 13, 2010

The heart of the New Way, according to Larry Crabb (whose website is even called NewWay Ministries), is “to value intimacy with God more than blessings from God.” The Old Way looks for satisfaction in success and pleasure, and deals with problems by trying to cope with them or make them go away. The New Way finds pleasure above all in simply being with God, and knows that problems cannot stand in the way of a relationship with God, and that sometimes problems help us to value that relationship more.

In contrast to the Adjustment Cycle and the Therapeutic Cycle (see my previous post on Crabb’s book), the Spiritual Cycle starts with brokenness.

You realize how arrogant you are. You don’t welcome trials. You’ve lived for no greater purpose than to avoid them or reverse them if they come. Your ambition has risen no higher than a life that works pretty well. Perhaps you’ve disguised your narcissism by dressing it up in Christian clothing. Find fulfillment in ministry. Clean up your life.

Next is repentance. Then you abandon yourself to God, resisting the urge to “drown your sorrows in any way you can” or to “nobly persevere and present yourself to others as a courageous martyr. Instead, you listen to the Spirit speak through the Bible.” Things that happen still may not make any sense, but you choose to trust that God is in control and that He is accomplishing His purposes in you. This leads to confidence that God is present, no matter how bad things seem. And that in turn leads to the freedom to be the person you’ve longed to be, bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

Some of my reactions to reading about all this:

  • I feel a sense of the brokenness Crabb talks about. I can’t claim to be truly motivated by a desire for God’s glory. I don’t desire God more than experiencing God’s blessings. I suppose in large part that’s because I have experienced God’s blessings, a great many of them, throughout my life. But I have had very few experiences of God Himself, and even those I’m not sure afterwards whether it was more than a combination of emotions and imagination.
  • I feel a bit of despair, doubting that I can ever progress beyond where I am. The ideas Crabb presents are not completely new to me. In college I first read J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, and realized that I knew a good deal about God but wasn’t sure I knew God much at all. Five years ago I read Cat and Dog Theology, and realized how much more like a cat than a dog I often am. (For a dog, his master is the center of his life. A cat does not think he has a master, and wants to be the center of everyone’s life.) Other books over the years have led me to what I thought was brokenness and repentance. But why do I seem to be still in much the same place?
  • At the same time, I find myself wondering if Crabb is putting too much emphasis on motivation. He writes about how both followers of the Old Way and New Way do many of the same activities. The difference is whether their highest motivation is to enjoy God’s blessings, or to know God and enjoy a relationship with Him. Certainly motivations do matter. The Bible consistently condemns pride, which has more to do with attitude than actions. But the Bible also many times contrasts good people and evil people based on their actions. Obedience to God and enjoying God are often linked, but I can’t think of a Scripture offhand that specifies enjoying God as the motive rather than the reward of right action.
  • If Crabb can tell how to make a relationship with God a matter of actual experience rather than abstract doctrine, so that I can say (as I have heard others say) that I know God is present, I want to do it. I don’t know if my motivation for that is right, though – is it because I want God to be glorified or because I want to enjoy the experience of knowing God? Since God means us to enjoy Him, I don’t think it can be wrong to want that. And anyway, whose motives are ever completely pure?

So what is it that Crabb says to do? He does finally give some steps to follow.

  1. Reflect on where you are.
  2. Recognize the fork in the road that is always before you.
  3. Refocus your goals.
  4. Realize what God provides as the means of grace.
  5. Reorient your prayer life to match New Way living.

I’ve always been good at reflecting on where I am. I’ve lost track of how many times a pastor or other counselor has said how good it is that I recognize where I am, what sinful attitudes and habits I have that I need to replace with godly ones. This step is important, but by itself it doesn’t do much.

The fork in the road Crabb speaks of is the Old Way versus the New Way. The Old Way identifies my deepest personal longings – and sets me on a path to try to acheive them. The New Way identifies my deepest hunger, for God and His glory – as well as my deepest flaw, which is that I’ve been working so hard to achieve my personal longings instead.

New Way goals are

  • an encounter with God
  • a spiritual community where people are known, explored, discovered, and touched
  • transformation that makes us more like Christ

I think those goals sound appealing, but Crabb warns that unless we consciously focus on those goals, we’ll pursue those that come more naturally – “material affluence, personal and physical comfort, and socially acceptable effectiveness in arranging for the life we desire.”

Until I went on the Walk to Emmaus eleven years ago, I had never heard of the “means of grace.” The very idea sounded contradictory. Grace was something freely given, that one could not earn or bring about on one’s own. How could there be a “means” to get grace? But the explanation given there made sense. Through prayer, worship, the sacraments, and other means of grace, God gets our attention so that we respond to Him. (The Walk to Emmaus is a Methodist ministry; I think other traditions such as Lutheranism have a different understand of the means of grace.)

Crabb’s discussion of reorienting our prayer life was what I found the most helpful. It is the one place that he gives specific instructions (remember, I started out looking for a method to follow). There are four parts:

  1. Present yourself to God as you are.
  2. Attend to where you notice God’s presence or absence.
  3. Purge yourself of whatever, in that moment, might be keeping you from noticing more of God.
  4. Approach God with abandonment and confidence, dedicating yourself anew to coming to Him to know and enjoy and reveal Him, not to using Him to make your life better.

(He calls it the Papa prayer, and I have to admit that I did not notice until just now, setting italics on the words Present, Attend, Purge, and Approach, that Papa is an acronym of those four words. I had assumed it referred simply to the fact that God is our loving Father.)

The language of these instructions is familiar to me from meeting with a spiritual director regularly for a few years, a number of years ago. Crabb also talks in terms of spiritual direction, a practice most evanglicals are unfamiliar with but that is beginning to become known in evangelical churches. It is a special kind of Christian friendship, where one person helps the other listen to what God is saying – not just in the words of Scripture but through circumstances, emotions, the words of other people, etc.

During those few years my prayer life did seem to be deeper and richer and far more satisfying – not that finding it satisfying is a particularly good measure, but it did keep me showing up each morning, coffee cup in hand, to pray. Sadly, once I moved away and could no longer meet with her, it seemed that I couldn’t figure out very well how to listen to what God was saying without her. I started to wonder whether I had really been listening to God at all, or only to her.

Crabb specifically recommends spending five minutes at each part of the prayer. That’s long enough that I can’t just say well-practiced words and move on – I have to really think about it, examine myself, and tell God honestly what is on my heart and mind. But the five minute limit also keeps me from spending all my time on only one aspect of the prayer – and the “agenda” it sets helps at least a little in keeping my mind from wandering.

Presenting myself to God means telling Him “where I am” at that moment. I admit whatever is bothering me, whether it’s a fault in myself or someone else, my circumstances, even how I feel about Him. Of course it can be full of joy and praise – I just haven’t been there much in quite a while.

Attending to where I notice God present or absent is more difficult. For me, at least, this is partly because the intellectual side of my mind immediately says, “That’s silly! God is always present.” I think this is supposed to be more where I particularly felt God’s presence or absence, though I find that also hard to say. Examples of noticing God’s presence could be being struck by a particular passage of Scripture, hearing someone’s testimony of how God worked, or feeling great joy in worship. Sometimes it is simply feeling grateful for what God has given me. Laughter is one of those gifts I tend to notice – perhaps because for me it is not all that regular an occurence.

The “purging” part doesn’t seem to different from the confession of sin that I have been taught is always to be a part of prayer, except that it perhaps deals more with attitudes and motivations, while many Christians may think of confession as dealing more with actions. I’ve always been taught that confession has to go hand in hand with repentance, and repentance requires forsaking sin. But if my sin is not loving or trusting God as I should, how do I go about forsaking that, until I learn how to love and trust Him more?

Approaching God because I want Him – well, to me that’s the goal of all this, not something I know how to do yet. At this point my prayer (as it has been for years, it seems) is more along the lines of “I want to want God more.” How do I manage to pray that for five minutes?

So far I haven’t managed to finish the twenty minutes without my mind completely wandering. But I am reassured by one thing – the focus of this isn’t on “getting it right.” The whole idea of the book is that “the pressure’s off” because God loves us and doesn’t wait for us to get it right before He shows up in our lives.


Spiritual sobriety

April 6, 2010

A little over a year ago I wrote a post about getting hungry for God. One suggestion was to avoid “spiritual junk food” – filling up on activities that look to something other than God to fill a longing that only He can satisfy. I don’t know if I keep filling up on junk food, but I continue to have trouble even wanting to pray.

Today I read a sermon that uses a different metaphor. Lack of interest in spiritual things, John Piper suggests, is due to “the addictive, inebriating power of worldliness.” When you’re drunk, you’re not just filled with the wrong thing. Your judgment is impaired, so it’s hard to even recognize that you have a problem, let alone work on fixing it.

I’ve only been drunk once in my life. I was in grad school at Middlebury College, and one evening I had three glasses of wine to drink. The wine was free, and I was curious why people found it appealing to drink. I suppose I felt relaxed (though no more so than when reading a good book), but other than that I felt no effect except a bit of drowsiness – until I got up and tried to walk back to the dorm.

I don’t think I weaved so unsteadily that I drew anyone’s attention, but I’m sure I couldn’t have walked a straight line. I went back to my dorm and to bed, then got up to go to the bathroom and throw up. In the morning I felt fine, but for well over a year after that I felt slightly queasy just from the smell of wine.

One time was enough, though, both to keep me from ever drinking more than one serving of alcohol at a time (it’s not hard to refrain, as the only drink I like is a White Russian), and to give me an indelible mental picture of how alcohol affects one’s ability to function.

So the idea of being spiritually inebriated makes sense to me. When under the influence of the wrong ideas, attitudes, and desires, one’s perceptions are warped. It doesn’t even have to mean believing outright lies or doing obviously wrong things. A distorted view of reality skews things so that little things seem big and big things seem little, and the good gets in the way of the best. The things that come between me and God are usually perfectly good things, in themselves – they’re just getting in the way of what is more important.

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Updating my blogroll

January 4, 2010

I’ve recently added some blogs to my computer’s list of Favorites (or bookmarks, or whatever your computer calls the shortcuts you store for easy access), and I decided it’s time to add them to my Blogroll also. That way I can find them easily no matter what computer I’m using, and you can check them out also to see if they’re worth adding to your computer’s Favorites.

One evening I was doing a search regarding the Bible and inerrancy after reading a good post on the subject at Parchment and Pen. One site I landed at was Dr. Platypus, and for a while I got sidetracked from my search, exploring and enjoying Darrell Pursiful’s blog. I’m still waiting for him to fix the link to his Bible reading plan (you can read his post about it but not access the plan itself), which particularly interests me.

Another blog I found that evening was Undeception. Besides some thought-provoking posts about the Bible, I also found several interesting posts regarding evolution. Unlike most blogs I visit, this one doesn’t have – as far as I can find – anything about the person who writes it. All I can tell is that his name appears to be Steve. But I appreciate the kind of discussions that Steve’s posts fuel, as well as the content of the posts themselves.

My new favorite, though, is Bob Hostetler’s Prayer Blog. I was looking for some poem-prayers that I had found and printed over a decade ago. I’m sure I still have them somewhere, but it seemed easier to find them again on the internet than to find them in my house. Much to my delight, I found some if not all of them (I found all the ones I remembered I was looking for), plus some that are new to me, among the prayers here.

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Praying for strangers (part 2)

December 4, 2009

Only hours after I posted “Praying for strangers” last night, someone wrote a comment to let me know that there were issues with the veracity of the emailed request I quoted. My heart sank. I hate forwarded emails that take advantage of people’s willingness to believe what their friends send them. Usually I check them out at snopes.com, and sometimes reply back to the sender with what I found out.

This time I didn’t. Perhaps because I was thinking more about the larger issue of praying for strangers. Perhaps because it just didn’t press my “this sounds bogus” button. At any rate, this morning I did check snopes.com, and their explanation is not quite so simple as “True” or “False.” It actually is marked “True,” because in June 2001, Gary Hogman did send out an email requesting prayer for his wife Cindy, who was battling cancer. As of February 2002, her cancer was in remission, and when the snopes.com article was written up in November 2006, she remained cancer-free.

The email I received, however, had added a few (untrue) details as it spent the years making the rounds of cyberspace. Unlike other variations, it at least got the last name spelled correctly. But it falsely placed Gary Hogman in Iraq, and naturally gave the impression that Cindy’s cancer was a current event.

So what happens to the (possibly millions of) prayers made on the Hogmans’ behalf in response to an email that has taken on a life of its own? Were my prayers yesterday “wasted”? After all, what point is there to praying for healing of a cancer that is already in remission?

One of the articles I read yesterday reflected on how God is outside time, and does not need our requests to be chronologically prior to His answer. Sometimes someone has requested I pray for an event taking place at a certain time, such as a job interview or surgery. I get busy, and forget to pray at the designated time. When I remember later, I pray, but I wonder if it can affect the outcome that has already happened, even though I don’t know what it was.

I have been taught that yes, such prayers can make a difference, because God knows those prayers that will be said in the future and can respond to them just as well as to those said in the past. So could my prayer yesterday have helped Cindy back in 2001, when I had never heard of her? I don’t see why not. The whole logic of the role our prayers play in God’s purposes is beyond our understanding. Adding the issue of timing really doesn’t really change it all that much.

Still, this incident reminds me why I generally respond most to requests that are closer to me, because I know the people involved. There’s nothing wrong with praying for hard-to-verify emailed requests. But our energies are better devoted to those whose lives we can touch personally, not only with our prayers but also with more tangible acts of love.


Praying for strangers

December 3, 2009

This morning I received an email [12/4/2009 See today’s post regarding the veracity of this email], forwarded several times already, and asking that I forward it on also. It is a request for prayer, from a soldier serving in Iraq, for his wife to be healed of stage 4 cervical cancer. Here is his request:

My name is Gary Hogman. Some of you receiving this know me, some do not. My wife, Cindy, is 32 years old and has just been diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer and her chances for survival are very slim. She was pregnant with our second child and had miscarried recently at 3 months, and now we know why. This is a request for you to forward this e-mail to everyone you know asking for prayer. The more people that pray for her to be healed, the better. Pray and forward. It only takes a second to hit ‘forward’. Please do it and don’t delete this, your prayer can, and perhaps will, save her life. Please pray and ask everyone you know to pray for the HEALING of Cindy and the removal of all cancer in her body, so she may enjoy all that life has to offer, and to continue to be the wonderful mother to our 5-year-old son Michael. The power of Prayer is unsurpassed. I want the whole world to have her in their prayers the next few weeks. God will hear our cry.

I do not normally forward emails from people I do not know, even when they have been forwarded to me by people I do know (as this was). I suppose in part it is distaste for the widespread practice of forwarding all sorts of stuff to everyone in your address book, whether they are likely to be interested or not. Part of it is that I cannot verify the contents of such emails – I do not want to try to figure out which are legitimate ones worthy of being passed along and which are not, and I would rather forward none of them than all of them.

I also shy away from asking total strangers to pray for me, and I am not comfortable with receiving such requests from strangers. I don’t mind praying for strangers, but I was taught somewhere (I can’t recall where, exactly) that one of the first prayers to make is asking what/whom to pray for, and that I need not add every prayer request I hear to my prayer list. God leads us to pray for those people and situations that are closest to us (that closeness may be geographic, emotional, or one’s sphere of influence to assist practically in meeting the need). He may lead us to pray for strangers, but the mere awareness of such a request does not constitute God’s leading to pray for it.

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