A Praying Life

I shut off the mower’s whirring blades, removed my hearing protection, and there it was:  the splash and whoosh of the Atlantic Ocean, always restless, continually wearing away the granite at the bottom of the embankment in the back yard where I had been mowing.  Clouds above were heavy with rain; therefore, sunset would come early. Even so, I paused for just a minute to absorb the sound of waves, to note the gray, glassy swells, and to soak in the truth that the sound had been there before I could hear it. My listening did not bring it into being, but stopping to hear and to appreciate it had changed my view of the world.

Prayer has the same effect, it seems. God is always present, always moving, continually at work. It takes just a minute to remove my ear plugs (and my blinders) of busy-ness, anxiety, entertainment, and the endless drivel that occupies my gray matter during waking moments. Prayer is the conversation that welcomes God into my life, and lately, I’ve been absorbing the idea that it’s not self-talk that’s going to change me or my way of thinking. It’s more productive for me to turn that stream of words toward the God who is always there listening anyway.

Prayer is a Conversation with God

I am committed to the responsibility of praying for my family, and have embraced the privilege of praying by name each day for those closest to my heart, but there’s an emptiness in a prayer life that ends up as a shopping list. There’s a touch of the audacious in showing up with my list when that’s the only conversation of the day.

Reading Scripture, especially from cover to cover, the narrative arc from Eden to Golgotha shouts God’s involvement in the weaving of a story. The post-ascension Acts of the Holy Spirit set up one book-end on a continuing story, and that’s where we pick up the thread until the second book-end called The Revelation brings the story to its glorious conclusion. In all this weaving of story, God is no less present as the main character in these days of Google and Facebook than He was on Mt. Sinai. In spite of my persistent doubts, prayer is still a conversation with the God of the universe, even if my face does not glow after every encounter.

In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, he refers to this planet as “the Kingdom of Noise,” and since he was writing in the 1940’s, his readers would have been nodding their heads (and clicking their tongues in disapproval?) about the persistent background noise of “the wireless” in their homes–and maybe a Victrola? It’s no wonder that 21st century believers mistake prayer for a one-sided conversation. After all, podcasts abound, Alexa speaks audibly, and even my antiquated GPS (which I love) gives me spoken directions when I veer off course. In all the aural chaos, how are we to distinguish the voice of God from our own tangled thoughts?

I’m reading A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World by Paul Miller, and it’s about time! He writes from such an awareness of my frustration with prayer that it’s practically eerie, and yet I am encouraged by his insights to persevere and to cultivate a praying life that is commensurate with the way I talk (and write) about my relationship with God. For Miller, prayer “feels like dinner with good friends.” There’s no agenda other than simply enjoying each other. That’s the motivation that kept Jesus continually coming to the Father, and if “prayer is simply the medium through which we experience and connect with God,” (8) and if Jesus felt the need to pray, no wonder we humans are plagued at times by a sense of the absence of God.

Prayer is an Invitation to Come, Weary and Overwhelmed

If “a praying life feels like our family mealtimes,” it’s because “prayer is all about relationship.” (8) When we make it formulaic and tear it away from real life, we miss the point, and it becomes as dry and unappetizing as yesterday’s muffins. In a real relationship, conversations go down rabbit trails, but when that happens in prayer, we complain that we’ve lost our train of thought and are tempted to give up. When it seems as if all our messiness floats to the top like the layer of scum on dirty dishwater, we write ourselves off as hopeless and wish that we could pray with soaring syllables of praise. What a relief to read that prayer is an invitation to come, weary and overwhelmed! The God who made me wants to engage in an authentic relationship with the real me, not some super-spiritual version of me who shows up a few times a day for a quick conversation.

I’m still reading, and A Praying Life may be front and center on my Kindle for a long time, because I have a lot of bad habits to unlearn, and prayer is, after all, the journey of a lifetime.

Thanks for joining me along the way,

michele signature[1]

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, simply click on the title within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

 

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Leaning into the Risk of Motherhood

I can remember when I used to be an advocate for early demise. My fondest hope was to fulfill the biblical quotient for old age as well as I could, and then to exit stage left with as little drama as possible to make room for the next wave.

Then I became a mother, and motherhood changes your mind.

Now, one of my fondest hopes is to see my sons in their prime and beyond, to bear witness to the salt-and-pepper, the graying temples, and the receding hairlines. I want to appreciate the deepening of laugh lines around eyes the color of the sea and to chuckle over the unruly eyebrows and the persistence of strength and muscle tone in a middle-aged runner’s scrawny legs.

It’s in the Blood

Motherhood has changed my mind and more, and Rachel Marie Stone suggests a physiological reason for the alterations that come with motherhood. Apparently, a woman’s body acquires cells from every pregnancy. Each baby she carries leaves behind a few cells that join with hers, so when we take the plunge into motherhood, we do not surface unchanged.

Birth is the metaphor that runs throughout Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light as it binds memoir to meditation and bears witness to the journey that has left its mark on the author. When Stone and her husband packed up baggage and boys and relocated to Malawi, they had not an inkling of what it would cost them to serve university students in one of the poorest countries in the world. Whether it was her training as a doula or her tendency since childhood to be drawn toward the things that scare her, she was drawn to serve in a hospital where maternal death was commonplace–even unremarkable.

When Rachel’s bare hands plucked a baby from a pool of its mother’s HIV-infected blood, she tried not to think about the consequences to her own personal health or to her family. Even so, as she waited for the test results to reveal the impact on her own HIV status, she had plenty of opportunity to ponder the fleeting nature of life and her persistent fears for the safety of her husband and her children. She expressed the angst with borrowed words from Kathleen Norris:

“One of the most astonishing and precious things about motherhood is the brave way in which women consent to give birth to creatures who will one day die.” (74)

An Earthen Vessel in Zomba

Living as a white woman in a Malawian city, Stone “wore shame like a scarf” because of her comparative wealth, her education, her access to medical care, and the fact that she was there in the country voluntarily and could leave at any time. In the city of Zomba they called home, she taught English with a cringe, wishing her students did not need to learn it.

She shared the lives, the meals, and the routines of Malawian women who became friends, all the while learning that “every act of eating and drinking in Malawi was preceded by strategic harm reduction acts” such as washing raw vegetables and fruit in a bleach solution and filtering water. Learning to fashion pottery from the clay taken from termite mounds (Yes, it was accumulated termite droppings . . .), Rachel savored the image of God as the Potter who fashioned her own vessel out of humble clay.

Beautiful Incarnation

One of the highlights of Birthing Hope is the theological ponderings that flow out of the narrative arc. For instance, so many of our anxieties are tied to our mortality and physicality, and yet the truth of the incarnation that anchors our hearts in hope for these frail bodies has been challenged, messed with, and diluted throughout history. This is tragic, because the reality that a Palestinian teenager gave birth to God in a body, that Mary was given the option to bend and break over scandal and risk around a fully human pregnancy gives meaning and purpose and fosters fellowship around our own human struggles that are firmly rooted in our feeble flesh.

From God’s perspective, the incarnation was a huge unshielding of His own heart as He brought into being the possibility of a Suffering Servant and the Perfect Sacrifice. What a precise picture of the mothering life! Starting with birth, and growing by leaps and bounds as small bodies grow into large and independent selves, the mothering journey is one huge unshielding process! And it is fraught with risk.

Birthing Hope is an invitation to enter fully into that risk, trusting that there is no contamination or sorrow that is not gathered up into the collective groaning that will be turned inside out and will one day weigh like feathers in the balance against the overwhelming weight of glory which comes from a life in which love is allowed to have the last word.


Many thanks to IVP Books for providing this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with complete honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light, simply click on the title within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you for joining me today on the path of hope,

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Where Wrath and Love Run Wild

If you Google the phrase “balanced Christian life,” you will find over 2 million results in the blink of an eye. Books, magazines, and sermons will rush to your aid in calibrating the conflicting priorities that characterize this following life. It was no surprise that G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts from Chapter 6 of Orthodoxy were not among the first wave of responses, and that’s likely because he found not balance, but conflict to be the chief virtue of the Christian life.

Theologically, we’re all accustomed to paradox. God’s great rescue plan involved becoming a man while remaining fully God; we live by faith, all the while knowing that works are the evidence of that faith; and we accept the truth that, somehow, God’s foreknowledge does not diminish by one whit my freedom to act according to my own will.  It turns out that making peace with paradox at the theological level is a helpful skill in actually living the “balanced Christian life,” because Christianity finds its balance in the combination of “furious opposites.”  (143)

I invite you to a few moments’ pondering and delight in three “furious opposites” from Chesterton’s viewpoint, and then, from the biblical record:

1. Dignity and Humility

“In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures.
In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.”  (142)

“The Lord your God is in your midst,
    a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”   (Zephaniah 3:17)

 “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

2. Wrath and Love

“We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.” (144)

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29,30)

“Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21,22)

3. Meekness and Madness

“By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists. . . Historic Christianity rose into a high and strange coup de théatre of morality–things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are to vice.” (145)

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)


The Angle at which We Stand

In our 21st century quest for balance, it’s no wonder we’re knocked off our feet by the demands of a Lamb/Lion God, a Deity “slain from the foundation of the world” who has still retained “His royal ferocity.” And so we teeter first on one foot, and then the other as we take forgiveness with thanksgiving only to sin again within the hour. We recoil in horror over pornography and materialism, and we shed tears over child abuse and human trafficking, and then turn unsteadily to offer the peace of Christ and the welcome of the gospel to the guilty. We pray for grace to show up for the daily routines that mark a life of faithfulness and trust that these are building our faith muscles for “good things to run wild” in and through us.

Dwellers in Narnia soon encountered Aslan and learned that he “is not a tame lion.”  Dwellers of Earth are invited into “the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy” which is not “something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”

Rejoicing with you in this perilous and exciting following life,

michele signature rose[1]

As usual, your insights on Chesterton’s writing are welcome in the comments below, and if you are also inspired to create your own blog post, be sure to share the link with us so we can continue the conversation over at your place.

This post is part six in a meandering journey through Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton. If you’re just joining us, you can start here for the rationale behind this project. The journey through Orthodoxy has taken us into topics as diverse as parenting, the irony of free will, the humility of being right, and the miracle of God’s creative genius. Last month, we examined Chesterton’s thoughts on patriotism just in time for Memorial Day.

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How to Read the Bible without Dealing with God

If you want to live well and to share wisdom with your children and your neighbors about how they can also live well, the Bible will chart a sound course.

If you are looking for inspiration or comfort or if you are preparing a speech, you will certainly want to lift some of the soaring phrases from the Psalms or a stirring descriptive passage from Isaiah to adorn your thinking.

If you are curious about the future or have strong ideas about politics, you’ll find gasoline-words in the Bible to support your position and to throw on any conversation to keep the flames dancing high.

It’s clear that we can add the Bible to our rhetorical tool-belt and never once be singed by its fiery truth. However, this is not the reason the Word has been given, and in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eugene Peterson has written a practical guide for those who want to approach Scripture in the manner suggested to the Apostle John in his Revelation:

The voice out of Heaven spoke to me again: “Go, take the book held open in the hand of the Angel astride sea and earth.” I went up to the Angel and said, “Give me the little book.” He said, “Take it, then eat it.”

Ingesting the Truth

John was not the first man in history to eat a book. Apparently, Jeremiah and Ezekiel also ingested truth, and like John, their words reveal the metabolized essence of having been in the presence of God.

In an era in which English-speaking people can select from a menu of Scripture texts, the challenge is for us to begin reading them–and then, to take the next step and begin “reading the Scriptures formatively, reading in order to live.” (xi) To illustrate the kind of reading he’s advocating, Peterson employs the delightful imagery of a dog working with fortitude on a bone superimposed upon an image from the book of Isaiah of a “lion growling over its prey.” Apparently, that Hebrew word for “growling” is usually rendered as “meditate,” as in Psalm 1 where the righteous meditate on the Law of the Lord “day and night.”

As readers of Truth, we are called to take the Word into our being in a way that changes us. In John’s case, we can see from the text that eating the Bible was not an entirely pleasant experience. His stomachache is an important reminder that we may not find everything to our liking as we try to digest the hard truths of Scripture or the parts that seem strange to us.

Scripture in Service to My Needs, Wants, and Feelings

This full-bodied entering into a text, essentially chewing on it, is the kind of reading that takes time and a lot more thought and focused attention than most of us are currently investing in our spiritual reading, and yet it is the words of Scripture, the sentences and paragraphs and trains of thought through which God has chosen to communicate His holiness, His wisdom, and His love to mankind.

Peterson floats a very plausible theory that readers of Scripture have replaced the inspired text with a new text of “the sovereign self.” Rather than taking the Truth of God’s Word into our jaws, and ultimately into “the tissues of our lives,” (20) we have replaced Father, Son, and Spirit with a new Holy Trinity.

The New Holy Trinity, Eugene Peterson, Eat This BookIf my needs become non-negotiable, if my wants have taken on the weight and urgency of a need, and if my feelings have become the sum total of who I am, then the Real Trinity and their communication to me through the Bible become nothing more than a tool in “service of [those] needs, wants, and feelings.” (33)

Rather than “privatizing” (46) Scripture by controlling and fragmenting its message, the believer is called to personalize its words and then to submit to their revelation of God’s character and will. The truth is that we are gathered into the narrative of Scripture; our story is enfolded into the overarching story of God’s people; and the “stories” that we share to illustrate a point are best seen as elements of one huge and coherent narrative.

Approaching the Bible with this in mind effects the way we read, teach, and apply its truth. I appreciated the clarity Peterson brought to five specific topics:

1.  The Reader as Exegete

Exegesis is a pretty intense term for “the discipline of attending to the text and listening to it rightly and well.” (50) In her role as exegete, the reader will pay rigorous attention to the words and their intent, proceeding with caution in order to get it right.

“Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully to what He says.” (55)

2.  The Obedient Reader

Peterson compares his reading of Scripture to his reading of a running magazine. When he was actively involved in running as a habit, he never tired of reading about it. However, when a pulled muscle interrupted his running routine, he noticed that his reading came to a halt. In the same way, spiritual reading is “participatory reading.” If we are not participating in the reality of the Bible, we will not have as much interest in reading.  Our reading should be formed around this question:  “What can I obey?” (71)

“All right knowledge of God is born of obedience.”    ~John Calvin (69)

3.  Let the Reader Beware!

As the residents of Narnia warned that Aslan is “not like a tame lion,” Peterson warns that the Word of God will not be tamed by the reader. It is a living Word, and it was first spoken into a particular context, a specific time and place and language. It was not given to make our lives more convenient or more manageable.

“We want to get in on the great invisibles of the Trinity, the soaring adorations of the angels, the quirky cragginess of the prophets, and . . . Jesus.”  (87)

4.  Reading as a Way of Living

Peterson’s thoughts about lectio divina with its four components (reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating) rescue the concept from the ethereal and impractical by acknowledging that “they are not four discrete items that we engage in one after another in stair-step fashion. Rather than linear, the process is more like a looping spiral in which all four elements are repeated, but in various sequences and configurations.”  Tying all our spiritual disciplines back to the Truth of Scripture grounds us in a true living out of their essence rather than a self-conscious performance mentality.

5.  Reading in the Company of Translators

The story behind Eugene Peterson’s translation of The Message Bible links every teacher, preacher, and student of the Word to the role of translator. Against the backdrop of historical translations from Hebrew into Aramaic, Greek, and all the various English translations, Peterson found himself having to translate again, from the pulpit, into “American English.” The formal process that resulted in The Message Bible took ten years and formed his thinking about the importance of remembering the humble origins of the Bible in its original writing. Since the days of Tyndale’s translation which was intended for “the boy that driveth the plough,” many traditional and more modern translations left Tyndale’s plow boy in a cloud of dust with a kind of language that obscured the Spirit-given perspicuity of the text.

Dealing with God is Not Optional

God intends to speak with clarity to His people through a written Word. Therefore, in reading His Word in the way He intends, dealing with God is not optional. Participatory reading, reading that is formative, hands over all preconceived ideas about God and eats, chews, gnaws and receives, with humble delight the wild and untamed words of Scripture so that reading and living become one offering and one way of being with God in this world.

Many thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you for taking part in this conversation in the art of spiritual reading,

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

 

Following the Trail Back to Hope

Sometimes it’s the very thing that makes you wild, the thing that feels as if it may be your undoing, which ultimately saves your life. For me right now, the pebble in my shoe is a 15-foot speed boat parked parallel to the north side of our house. The college-aged son is a project magnet who resurrects dead motors for fun and profit, so this is just the latest in a parade of snow mobiles, outboard motors, go- carts, and things that go vroom which have come to heighten the hillbilly panache of this country hill in Maine.

On the other hand, when I recall that his tinkering has made him eminently employable, and when I consider all the lesser things an almost-19-year-old could be doing with his free time . . .

And so, annoyance finds its grumpy way back to gratitude, and I follow its trail to the other transitions–much grittier and more sensitive–that need to happen around the fault lines in my following life:

  • The dizzying yo-yo of the number on the scale holds me in awareness of this truth: It is only by grace that we ride the bucking bronco of temptation to its mastery;
  • An overwhelmed middle-age brain keeps me depending upon God for strength in my weakness and for the next sentence whenever I teach or write;
  • My slow-to-hear-quick-to-speak way of finishing peoples’ sentences and igniting small, unnecessary brush fires reminds me every day to put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience just as I put on my shoes or my makeup.

Meaningful change often follows on the squeaking hinges of regret and repentance.

The Transition to Hope

In the waning weeks of Israel’s existence as a nation, Jeremiah tutors my soul in this spiritual discipline of transitioning from annoyance to hope. The record shows that he had invested 23 years of his life faithfully delivering an unpopular message of God’s impending judgment to a people who much preferred happy talk from lesser prophets with dubious motives. His reward for services rendered was a sentence of house arrest in the palace of disgruntled King Zedekiah.

Transition into Hope, G.K. ChestertonAs Babylonian armies camped around Jerusalem and hammered together their siege ramps outside the city walls, Jeremiah purchased a field in an act of unreasonable hope. Of course, according to G.K. Chesterton, “It is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all.”  Pushing against hopelessness, Jeremiah handed over his seventeen shekels because, in his mind, God’s promise of restoration and return to the land was as real as the shining silver in his hand.

When the siege ramps of despair are already leaning against the walls of my heart, that trail back to hope seems like more of a journey than I can manage. And of course, it is–apart from God. Likewise, reading on, I see Jeremiah, by a power that was not his own, transitioning into a glorious paean of praise:

“Ah, Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and outstretched arm. There is nothing too hard for You.” (Jeremiah 32:17 NKJV)

Seeing this, the “Ah” of Jeremiah becomes an “Aha!” on my lips as I discover, as if for the first time, that there is nothing—no transition, no messy in-between—too complicated for God. He stands ready to help when I lean into the impossible or find grace to forgive the unforgivable. His Great Power is put on display in surprising ways as His outstretched arm effects the miracle of another day’s transition into hope.


 

Thank you for joining me today on the path toward hope,

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

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I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

The Missionary Experience: A Path of Faith in the Midst of Paradox

Starting in the book of Acts, the history of missions is characterized by controversy. It may have begun when Paul and company set out with freshly-minted instructions from the Jerusalem Council, defining the parameters of the message they were sharing. It was certainly evident when the citizens of Lystra decided to fold Paul and Barnabas into their eclectic assortment of deities–and then to take up stones against them. And remember the story of New Testament heroes of the faith clashing over personnel issues and going their separate ways for a season? Throughout history, according to His own counsel and sovereign wisdom, God has chosen to put the transmission of the Gospel into the hands of His fallen and often short-sighted children, and the effects of that have made for some fascinating reading.

A Train-Wreck of Two Cultures Colliding

Over fifty years ago, Eleanor Vandevort came home from South Sudan in the wake of political unrest. Her thirteen years of language acquisition, Bible translation, literacy work, and relationship building were cut short with no certainty as to their effect or ultimate impact. When she set down the account of her struggle and her achievements in A Leopard Tamed, she was a woman ahead of her time, asking questions few in the golden age of U.S. missions were asking and even fewer wanted to entertain.

Vandevort’s narrative centers around her work among the Nuer, a remote and primitive culture eking out a living on dry, flat, hard-packed land bordering on the Sobat River in South Sudan. She was fortunate, early on, to connect with Kuac (pronounced /kwich/, rhyming with quite), a young man who had been educated at the mission-sponsored village school and was, therefore, a valuable informant for learning the language and reducing it to print.

What followed from Kuac’s conversion, subsequent education, and eventual call to pastor the church in Nasir is a glorious triumph of light over darkness–and it is also the story of a train wreck of two cultures colliding in one frail human soul. With vivid descriptions of the Nuer way of life, this 50th anniversary edition transported me to a land of unique beauty alongside unimaginable hardship and hopelessness.

As Eleanor learned to respect and collaborate with national believers who did not share her affinity for logic, efficiency, or planning, she also gained a sharper image of God in the context of heathenism, for He has made it clear that He loves the entire world, even the parts a North American Christian cannot comprehend:

“Try, if you can, to fathom Him, to draw His picture with clear, solid lines, to pin Him down. Just when you think you have God in focus, He moves, and the picture blurs.” (11)

A Bridge that Spanned Two Cultures

In 1949, at the tender age of 24, Eleanor Vandevort embarked upon her career as a Bible translator, joining the ranks of Wheaton College classmate Elisabeth Elliot and her peers who put their hands to the plow with no thought of turning back. It was an era in which the boundary between Christian culture and Western culture was decidedly blurred, so Vandevort was nonplussed to find that she had arrived in Africa bearing a message that would meet a need the Nuer did not even know existed.

With Kuac’s help, Eleanor slowly acquired a working command of the language with its fourteen vowels, three levels of tone, and absolutely no Christian jargon. Learning her way into those speech patterns helped in building the bridge that spanned the two cultures. However, observations throughout the book reveal a growing awareness that along with the Gospel, she and her fellow missionaries were sharing a full menu of lesser messages, some merely lamentable and others disastrous:

  • “I was incredulous that after fifty years of missionary work among these people, there was no striking hunger on the villager’s part to hear the Gospel. I wondered where the people were who reportedly were crying out for the Word of God.” (34)
  • “As far as I could ever tell, Christian behavior patterns were outlined by the missionaries and were not born out of the Africans’ own experience with God.” (22)
  • “It was painful and disappointing to be making friends with people for whom my ideas were nonsense. The more I came to know them, the more I realized the barrier of taboos between us. But my disappointment went deeper. It stemmed from the fact that God was not shining in the darkness as I had prayed and hoped for and expected.” (39)
  • “Is my scientific orientation to life, which has removed me from the constant threat of death, the factor which stabilizes my faith? Or, in that I need not fear God physically as the heathen do, has this freedom set me adrift from God, missing Him altogether?” (46)
  • “How does a person decide that he’s not going to be afraid of death?” (83)
  • “The many problems of translation exploded my theories of Bible translating, and precluded the possibility of producing an exact and therefore inerrant–as Evangelicals used the term–translation of the Scriptures. (95)
  • “We did not foresee that our things would become more important to the people than our Gospel, that they would want them. No one was to be blamed for this, but as it was turning out, were we not becoming more of a stumbling block than a help to the people?” (187)

Leaving the Results in God’s Hands

As a young missionary, Eleanor Vandevort began to realize that the methods she had inherited from her forebears were an imposition upon the culture. From the tone of voice used when speaking aloud in prayer to the denominational distinctives around church government, Christianity and its trappings became an ill-fitting garment in a world that required Christians to address issues such as polygamy, marriage to the dead, animal sacrifice, and grisly coming-of-age ceremonies.

The prevailing idea among Presbyterian missionaries was that “what was good for Calvin was certainly good for the south Sudan.” Within a context of very isolated and individualized people groups, the concept of “a congregation” was strange enough, but then they must “call” a pastor and provide for him. “It would hardly have occurred to the people to pay a man just for talking about God. . . In that as Christians they were now to believe that God works by the faith of His people, it would seem likely that they would wonder at having to pay a pastor at all.” (82) Then, they must submit to the leadership of the Presbytery with decisions handed down from the UPC of the USA.

Nearing the end of her time in South Sudan, it was evident to Eleanor that Kuac was floundering in his role as “Pastor Moses.” (Upon ordination, national pastors took on a biblical name which, in Kuac’s situation, was never adopted by his people because it was unpronounceable and meaningless to them.) With the introduction of a money-based economy and the acquired need for clothing, furniture, blankets, soap, and utensils, Kuac was under pressure to become something for which there was no precedent in his experience or in his history. When the mission withdrew their support and yet continued to expect Pastor Moses to pay the expense of travel to official church meetings, it became clear that the white man was dictating “what was to be done from behind the Bible without having to submit to the discipline involved himself.”

Therefore, when Eleanor received word from the Commandant of Police in December of 1962 that she was no longer welcome in South Sudan, she wondered, with a sinking heart, what would become of her translation work and of the ministry. The Arab military government had already imprisoned Kuac numerous times in an effort to stamp out Christianity through fear. Like Elisabeth Elliot in These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?she was called upon to leave in God’s hands the results (or lack of same!) of any work to which He had called her.

To Know, to Believe, and to Understand

From her home and new career in the United States, Eleanor heard of war coming to the Sudan, and then coming again.  Her story challenges many of our western assumptions about missions, while underscoring the sovereignty of God. He is free to work in a nation –or in a young, white, and slightly perplexed former missionary–in any way He deems fitting. As believers who are committed to the fulfillment of the Great Commission, let us also read and love God’s words to Isaiah, setting forth the purpose of our witness on this planet:

“You are My witnesses,” says the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
That you may know and believe Me,
And understand that I am He.”  (Isaiah 43:10)

In our witnessing and serving, the path of God may cut through mystery and paradox. Sometimes the greatest test of faith is to know, believe, and understand the power and presence of God, even when the evidence we receive is not what we had expected.

Many thanks to Hendrickson  Publishers for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase A Leopard Tamed or These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?, simply click on the title (or the image) here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

I appreciate your joining me today in thinking through the conflicts and the joys of the missionary experience,

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Musings: May 2018

Every spring, property owners here in Maine cede our rights over to the blackfly population. With their serrated jaws and overwhelming numbers, they swarm by the hundreds, drawn by breath and body heat, and driving even the most determined souls back into the safety of our homes. When my four sons were all small and yearning for the great outdoors after a long winter, I would pile them into the car and drive to a playground in town, just to escape the bloody, itchy, swollen mess the black flies inflict, aided by their buggy-brand of saliva which is both an anticoagulent (so the blood flows freely!) and an anesthetic (so you don’t realize they’re feasting on you!).

Apparently, early settlers here in Maine welcomed spring in spite of the blackflies, because it meant an end to their diet of un-refrigerated bear meat. The first dandelion greens were perfect medicine for the bleeding gums and boredom that accompanied the winter menu. The local lore is that black flies disappear after the first thunderstorm of the season, and, while I’ve never verified that scientifically, I can attest that they are usually still in full swarm mode when we begin planting the garden at the end of May.

On the Hill

Graduation

Our number two son graduated from University of Southern Maine in May, and it was delightful to celebrate that rite of passage with him and his lovely wife.The college guy is home, but working 60-hour weeks at his summer job and taking an on-line class, so it’s a stretch to call this “summer vacation” for him. On the home front, the school year is winding down with year-end concerts and an end in sight for the homeschooling routine. Meanwhile, the lawn-mowing business is booming.

On the Blog

Caregiving, Sandwich generation, Elderly parentsOn the first anniversary of my mum’s passing, I was invited to share my caregiving story at The Perennial Gen. It was so encouraging to hear the experiences of many others as they offered insight and support in the comments there and also here at Living Our Days.

Taming Anxiety over the UnknownAs a Redbud Writer, I contributed an article to the May Redbud Post, and enjoyed interacting with that community around the topic of Taming Anxiety. The truth is that whenever the unexpected happens, I’m thrown against the framework of my theology. Will it hold? Does what I believe about the sovereignty of God accommodate a veering turn that was not anywhere on my road map? With anxiety over the unknown comes a greater need for and reliance upon a sinewy faith in God’s good intentions toward me in this following life.

Resolve: The power of God is at work within my will, but it does not take the place of it.

 

And then, I was grateful to contribute to the daily conversation over at (in)courage with this post about the partnership of obedience that characterizes this following life.

 

Book reviews continue to be a great gathering place in these parts, and it was a delight to feature four books in May:

Katherine Clark’s story began on a routine Friday, volunteering at her son’s school. However, when she rounded the playground equipment in a schoolyard game of tag, one of the children bounded into the air from above and crashed into her head. She landed on the ground, paralyzed from the neck down, and Where I End: A Story of Tragedy, Truth, and Rebellious Hope is her memoir of that collision and of her faithful response in the re-telling of it.

The Clarks learned that grief is “the faithful response to loss.” (211) In excerpts from Care Page posts that were written during Katherine’s hospitalization, John Clark (Katherine’s husband) shared the family’s story of laughter and tears. Their grief over all that was lost with the accident was tempered by hope and gratitude, “the sense that God [was] not only near, but that He [was] doing something mighty and altogether lovely in [their] midst.”

 

It was a pleasure to review Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Theologians on the Christian Life). Author, Joe Rigney presses into Lewis’s expression of his theology and considers its outworking in life on this planet. While it is true that C.S. Lewis was careful to remind his readers at every opportunity that he was not a biblical scholar nor a theologian, nonetheless, his writing has had an almost unparalleled impact on the way we think and talk about the Christian life. It is at this intersection of theology and practice that Rigney engages with Lewis’s words.

One of my favorite characteristics of Lewis’s thinking and writing is his ability to turn ideas on their heads until they suddenly–and unexpectedly–become very clear. Rigney’s goal in writing is not to explain Lewis so we don’t need to read him, but instead to create an appetite for his work, which he has definitely done in my case by quoting from The Weight of Glory, reminding me of the brand new copy that’s waiting for me on my bookcase.

 

I had been waiting for the release of Leslie Leyland Fields’s new book, a collection of 40 essays written by and for women over 40, and since I’m doing my own personal research on that season, it was a joy to read and to review.

Leslie Leyland Fields has hung a glorious and fitting banner over these years past the mid-point: The Wonder Years! With gathered wisdom,The Wonder Years: 40 Women over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty, and Strength shares insight from warrior-women who have lived and loved past the mid-point, offering both a resource and a tribute to women over forty.

 

In Almost Entirely: Poems (Paraclete Poetry) the reader is treated to the process of a woman becoming. As one who is “predisposed by nature to question everything,” (17) poet Jennifer Wallace reconciles her doubts with the presence of a God who is well able to take in hand her persistent wondering. In the process, God shows up in both surprising and ordinary ways, and the reader wins and is blessed by reflections that excavate grief and plumb the depths of disappointment with God and the journey toward peace and hope.

On My Mind

Memorial Day weekend was a busy time here on the hill. Trumpets are in demand, so our youngest participated in two different events, and we all managed to gather for the traditional hamburgers on the grill followed by apple pie. In all the rush, it’s pretty easy to forget the main reason we celebrate patriotic holidays. Even so, I wonder if patriotic holidays might be a great excuse for a little “peace seeking,” a perfect opportunity to fly the flag, sing the songs, and practice a little “irrational optimism.”  G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is still on my night stand, and I shared thoughts here from chapter five on patriotism and “irrational optimism.” When our love for country is formed around a deep belief that God is at work in our circumstances, we are better equipped to look for Him to be at work in our country and in our world.

Patriotism, Pessimism, Church, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton,

When the family gathered on Memorial Day weekend, we planted all the seeds and set the gardening process in motion for another year. It was an amazing gift to receive so much help this year! My garden is one way that God really demonstrates that He is at work, and I’m looking forward to participating once again in the glorious rhythms of seed time and harvest.

Thank you for the encouragement of your company and the gift of your time here,

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase any of the titles listed in this post simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.