Monday, August 1, 2011

Book Review: The Hardest Thing To Do

The Hardest Thing To Do, is the first of three sequels to The Hawk and The Dove trilogy, published by Crossway.

The title of this book was very accurate as far as I was concerned. It arrived in the mail at the worst possible time: I was facing a comprehensive summer school Psychology final in just a few days. It was a major temptation to forgo studying altogether and retreat to a fourteenth century English monastery.

Novels do not generally tempt me. The vast majority of my home library is non-fiction. I don't mean to be boring: I just am. However, if any of you take books by Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen on vacation, or read The Rule of St. Benedict because you are intrigued by church history, you know exactly what I mean. I am irresistibly drawn to the contemplative life.

Modern Christianity both baffles and mystifies me because it seems that at times we have traded the snapshots of community which we see in the New Testament for a business model from Forbes. In our desire to go wide and be successful, we have often, not always, but often, sacrificed going deep. The disciplines of a healthy spiritual life are foreign ideas that we yearn to try on for size. Living in community is something about which we only dream.

St. Alcuin's Abbey has both a business side and a spiritual side to maintain in order to survive. Penelope Wilcock manages to show the trials and triumphs, the conflicts and complications of making that work while weaving a tale about a man called to lead and protect the lives committed to his care. It is not enough to have the weight of the daily care of his imperfect flock; he also has to deal with an unwelcome and unworthy former Christian leader seeking refuge.

Penelope Wilcock did an exceptional job on portraying monastic life and the stress of Christian leadership. She graciously included a Glossary of Terms and schedules which explain the typical Monastic Day and the Liturgical Calendar for the novitiates among us.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Supernatural Turnaround

Isaiah 43:18-19

Forget about what's happened;
don't keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I'm about to do something brand new.
It's bursting out!
Don't you see it?
There it is!
I'm making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bible Reading

Since entire books have been written on the subject of reading the Bible, it seems ludicrous for me to write a single blog about it. After taking a few moments to peruse my library, I will dive in for the attempt.

Okay, dear readers, I will reward you for your patience, and as an added bonus, I will shock you at the same time. The winner of the best book to help you read the Bible is How to Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Here is the disclaimer: it is not a Christian book, per se. It is a secular book for learning to understand what you are reading.

I wish to concentrate on the chapter, How To Be A Demanding Reader. I will list a few excerpts in the following paragraphs which I feel apply in Bible reading, as well as other types of non-inspirational reading.

Ask questions while you read-questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading...There are four main questions you must ask about any book.


I will interrupt my notes from the book at this point to say that as Christian readers, we believe that the Bible is true, in the whole. However, our awareness of the truth of God's word will grow as we study it because according to Hebrews 4:12, "For the word of God is living and active." Furthermore, " judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."

This means that while we acknowledge the truth of the Bible before we start, we will have to weigh and examine it again and again as we read it because it will be judging the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. For instance, I believe that the Bible is true. If, however, I read that God hates lying, I will have a decision to make about that truth when I am presented with the opportunity to lie because it is easier than telling the truth on many occasions. When I decide to tell the truth anyway, I have affirmed the truth of God's word. If I decide that to lie, then I have not affirmed the truth of God's word.

Here are a few more noteworthy excerpts. Keep in mind that this was not written for Christians, but secular readers, and yet it applies in an excellent sort of way.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

There are all kinds of devices for marking a book intelligently and fruitfully. Here are some devices that can be used:

1. UNDERLINING --of major points, of important or forceful statements.
2. VERTICAL LINES AT THE MARGIN--to emphasize a statement already underlined or to point to a passage too long to be underlined.
3. STAR, ASTERISK, OR OTHER DOODAD AT THE MARGIN--to be used sparingly, to emphasize the ten or dozen most important statements or passages in the book. You may want to fold a corner of each page on which you make such marks or place a slip of paper between the pages. In either case, you will be able to take the book off the shelf at any time and, by opening it to the indicated page, refresh your recollection.
4. NUMBERS IN THE MARGIN--to indicate a sequence of points made by the author in developing an argument.
5. NUMBERS OF OTHERS PAGES IN THE MARGIN--to indicate where else in the book the author makes the same points, or points relevant to or in contradiction of those here marked; to tie up the ideas in a book, which, though they may be separated by many pages, belong together. Many readers use the symbol "Cf" to indicate the other page numbers; it means "compare' or "refer to.'
6. CIRCLING OF KEY WORDS OR PHRASES--This serves much the same function as underlining.
7. WRITING IN THE MARGIN, OR AT THE TOP OR BOTTOM OF THE PAGE--to record questions (and perhaps answers) which a passage raises in your mind; to reduce a complicated discussion to a simple statement; to record the sequence of major points right through the book. The endpapers at the back of the book can be used to make a personal index of the author's points in the order of their appearance.

To inveterate book-markers, the front endpapers are often the most important. Some people reserve them for a fancy bookplate. But that expresses only their financial ownership of the book. The front endpapers are better reserved for a record of your thinking. After finishing the book and making your personal index on the back endpapers, turn to the front and try to outline the book, not page by page or point by point (you have already done that on the back), but as an integrated structure, with a basic outline and an order of parts. That outline will be the measure of your understanding of th work; unlike a bookplate, it will express your intellectual ownership of the book.

Back to my thoughts: some of you are completely horrified at several of the suggestions already.

I will address those horrors if any of you decide to comment on them. Otherwise, I will leave you in your horrified state.

Adding to Mr. Adler's ideas, I would highly recommend a few purchases to help you in Bible reading and marking. I hate bent corners in books; invest in small post it notes instead. Also, I have found that while marking has helped me a great deal to draw out thoughts and ideas from the Bible, that writing in my Bible can sometimes be unsatisfactory because the space is so limited. I recommend shopping around for a notebook that can hold your thoughts and is easily transportable. The other benefit of investing your time and money in a notebook is the ability to look back over what you have meditated on and find common themes of what God has been speaking to you, areas of struggle in which you have found an increased faith and confidence based on specific promises or just plain old encouragement that God is near when He seems a million light years away. Last of all, I recommend having a Bible that is already divided for you into 365 sections so that you can easily accomplish your daily reading without having to check lists etc. The big advantage for new readers is that you don't get stuck in endless days of Leviticus or Ezekiel, wondering why you ever started on this Bible reading journey in the first place. Each day will have some Old Testament, some New Testament, as well as something from the Psalms and Proverbs.

I would also like to point out some things which you are better off without. You are better off without daily devotionals, which in a weak moment could become your 'only' Bible reading for the day. This will horrify the fans of Oswald Chambers. So be it. It is best to actually read the Bible on a regular basis, rather than books about the Bible on a regular basis. You are better off without a commentary when you are doing your daily reading. Save them for research. Allow God's word to just speak to you first, in a fresh way everyday. I have some commentaries that I enjoy very much, but I don't pull them out until I have already tried to pull the meat from the bones for myself. If you have any of Matthew Henry's commentaries, simply set them on fire. Their best and highest use is to make a roaring blaze in your living room. This assumes you have a fireplace, and that you actually believe the Bible.

Well, I have other things to say, but they fall more into the category of hearing from God. I will have to save that for another day.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Believing and Waiting

Psalm 46:10 tells us to, "Be still and know that I am God." The implication here is that if we are never still that we will really never know God in the way that He intended. This puts a very high premium on being still before God.

Jesus put it another way when he was visiting with Martha and Mary. Martha was an angry, overworked woman with a lazy sister who would not get up to help even when the Son of God came over for lunch. It is funny that Jesus came to Mary's defense saying, " are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

We act on what we actually believe, not on what we say that we believe, which may be something else entirely. If we really believe what Jesus was saying, we will put knowing Him above serving Him because we believe that He wants a relationship with us more than he wants what we can produce by working hard for Him.

What I am trying to say is that being still starts with stopping, even if our busyness is due to church activities or helping the poor, or any other good works. We have to stop in order to be still enough to get to know God. This entire line of thought is based on the assumption that God wants to get to know us, and that He wants to spend time with us.

How can I really know that God wants to spend time with me? Doesn't the fact that I am so far less than perfect in my execution of the Christian walk cause Him to distance Himself from me? No, it does not.

Revelation 3:20 tells us that Jesus stands at the door of our hearts and knocks. He wants us to be listening for His call, to respond to His voice, to open up our hearts and to fellowship with Him. This verse is often used as a proof text with the unsaved by eager evangelists, but it was actually penned to the Laodicean church by John the Apostle. This particular church was very backslidden, and Jesus gave them several warnings. He called them lukewarm, needy and blind. Part of the answer to their problems was simply that they needed to see themselves as they were, and repent. Jesus was pursuing them while they were still all messed up. He pursues us all the time, not just when we are doing well, but all the time.

If we just stop long enough to be still, we can begin to be in a place where we can hear His voice. We start by just believing that our God wants a relationship with us, and waiting for Him.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Making Disciples Instead of Consumers

For years I have heard the Great Commission from Matthew 28:18-19 explained from pulpits to emphasize that we should be making converts and disciples. Usually when I sense that the sermon is going to go in this direction, I have a certain amount of intrepidation because it usually means that we are about to launch a new program which will require me to step out in an uncomfortable and/or awkward way in evangelism, or in a time-consuming way to cover the latest fad in church discipleship which usually includes buying into a system which has suddenly appeared on the local church landscape, complete with co-leaders and classes and crowd control. Sometimes either of these will also mean buying a book, and listening to sermons which really came out of chapters from the book and don't contain a great deal of original thought, but it worked in someone else's mega church and by golly, we are going to force it to work at Church X, whether it actually does or not. Sometimes it seems that the local Christian bookstore profits more from Christian fadery in evangelism and discipleship than the local church does. I said sometimes. I am sure that there are some great programs out there. Somewhere.

At this point, I would like to point out that reading my blog is free, and I am too lazy to copyright what I am about to tell you about discipleship. Here it is: if you have a Bible, a small notebook, a pen, a church home and a life, you have everything that you need.

Actually, the ideal would be to have more than one Bible, but just one will work, if it is in a translation that you can understand. (Did I say a paraphrase? No, I did not say a paraphrase.)

The scary part is coming next. It is all based on the idea that God still speaks to people through the written words in the Bible.

Now it will get even scarier: God not only wrote the Bible, but He invites every member of the body of Christ to meet with Him personally every day to discuss it.

This is where even devoted Bible reading Christians tend to fall off of the map, and it is exactly where I want to begin.

Many times Christianity looks like a bad marriage where the husband and wife are simply not connecting with each other. At all.

6 a.m. Good morning, honey. It's good to see you. I have a lot to do today. I am a little worried about it, and I have a head ache, but I trust that it will go alright. Thanks for listening.

Noon. Thanks for the lunch, honey. I hope that you know I think you are great. I hope I don't get fat from eating all of this.

5 p.m. I'm home from work. Gosh it was a hard day. I feel stressed. I am taking the dog on a walk with my i Pod. I'll be back later.

11 p.m. I can't stay awake any longer. Good night, honey.

Can you see what's missing? There is no interaction or responsiveness to one another. It is just one person talking all the time. This person is not even taking the time to listen to what the other person may have to say in response. Isn't that how we pray? Isn't that how we read our Bibles? What if it could be different? Would you want it to be different, or would that be too threatening? To what extent are you open to the idea of spiritual intimacy with God? Does the very idea that God may want to speak to you personally sound heretical?

Jeremiah had something to say about this. Rather, God had something to say to Jeremiah about this practice in Jeremiah 2:13.

"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water."

Augustine was correct when he said that there was a god shaped vacuum in the heart of every person. The problem is that if we neglect filling it with a living relationship with God, we will most definitely fill it with something else. If we are not listening to the the Lord speak to us by His word and in prayer, we will seek an alternative.

God states that His desire is that our relationship to Him would be as refreshing as a spiritual spring of living water, and informs us that any other choice will not hold life giving water at all, just like a broken cistern can't hold water. Broken cisterns are unsatisfactory to us, but they are abominable to God.

I want to challenge your thinking in this area, not to intimidate, coerce or condemn, but to point out that if you are unfulfilled in your current spiritual walk that maybe the Lord is less than thrilled with it as well. Maybe you are zealously clinging to the broken cistern of how you've always done it, while He is wanting to send you a txt and invite you to something you've only ever dreamed about...

(To be continued)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fresh Blog

Welcome. I love the smell of a freshly sawed blog.