Is It Possible to Overcome Worry?

It has been said that “imagination” is the 21st-century equivalent to the scriptural word “heart,” the center of emotion and intellect in biblical physiology.  That may well be true, for many times it is my imagination that causes me to run aground in this following life.  As if there were not enough stressful events going on in the world around me, I waste my time pushing past the present and into “what if” territory.  Dr. Winfred Neely, with the help of the Apostle Paul, offers words for the worry epidemic that plagues our anxious world.

Ironically, for those who believingly follow Jesus Christ, worry goes beyond the vexing footfalls of a sleep thief, and stomps into the room as a perplexing theological ogre, for if I believe in the sovereignty of God, the burning question is:  Can God be counted on to protect me and the people I love from harm?

Obviously bad things happen to good people on this broken ground, and we wonder How to Overcome Worry when so often the ways of God are “shrouded in mystery.”  “Anxiety can reside in virtually every nook and cranny of human experience,” and yet the Apostle’s directive in Philippians 4 is clear:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Paul had every reason to worry.  He was writing from prison, and the Roman Empire was in the grip of the sadistic (and probably insane) Emperor Nero — an unlikely source of justice.  Did Paul have the ability to simply turn his worries off like a faucet?  Was he living on an ethereal, apostolic plane, completely indifferent to his surroundings?

Dr. Neely defines Paul’s use of the word “anxious” as “concern turned inward and deformed, divorced from the grace of God and rooted in unhealthy fear.”  He offers the encouraging insight that it is possible to be deeply engaged with the people and events of our lives and yet to be free from the vice of habitual worry.

If you struggle with worrying, you will also benefit (as I have) from these practical principles for experiencing the peace of God:

*** It goes without saying (nonetheless, I will say it) that clinical anxiety is a medical condition and if you suffer from this affliction, the advice offered in this book will not be relevant to that specific situation.  Dr. Neely is concerned with “anxiety as worry rooted in unbelief.”  ***

“God is commanding us to look to Him instead of turning from Him. 

Armed with the truth that anxiety is a choice, we conquer worry by taking everything to the Lord in prayer.

If Paul’s insistence that prayer is the antidote to worry seems like thin gruel and weak coffee to me, then I must examine my understanding and experience of prayer and the presence of God.  This 1961 quote from A.W. Tozer is true of my 2017 heart:

“Where sacred writers saw God, we see laws of nature.  Their world was fully populated; ours is all but empty.   Their world was alive and personal; ours is impersonal and dead.  God ruled their world; ours is ruled by the laws of nature, and we are always once removed from the presence of God.”

“Paul uses different terms for the different aspects of conversing with God.”

The words “supplication,” “thanksgiving,” and “requests” reveal facets of prayer that get at our neediness, the recognition that God has worked and will continue to work on our behalf, and that a right response to anxiety is to identify the thing we need and to take that need to God in prayer.  Dr. Neely examines the “asking, seeking and knocking” life as a condition of continuous and habitual expectation of answers and intervention from God.  It is a precious reminder that we bring our anxieties to God because we live in company with Him — not because He needs information (or my advice on how to solve the problem!).

“Worry is overcome by expecting peace from God.”

I will admit that I would prefer to get peace from circumstances that suit me:  a car that never needs repair, a calendar with no surprise entries, and a family that is not subject to any distressing events.  Instead, Paul points to a subversive way of life that short circuits my preoccupation with circumstances.  He did not wish away his prison cell as a condition for experiencing the peace of God, but saw the anxiety-inducing circumstance of imprisonment as a teachable moment in the school of trust.  He took from God a variety of peace that is not available elsewhere and which flows from the very character of God Himself:

“Since God is omnipotent, His peace is an all-powerful peace.  Since God is eternal, His peace is without beginning or end.  Since God is infinite, His peace is limitless.  Since God is holy, His peace is pure.”

Peace is an “apologetic.”

Trusting God in spite of anxiety-laced circumstances puts the power of God on display.  This in itself is a huge motivation to live in light of the truth of Philippians 4:6,7, and the practical truth offered in How to Overcome Worry is neither new nor earth-shattering.  Dr. Neely prescribes active meditation upon the truth of God’s Word so that it penetrates our mind and our emotions (and I would add:  our imagination!).  Instead of shoving aside troubling thoughts with a scroll through Facebook or a comforting snack, what would happen if we consciously placed those thoughts before God and put ourselves at His disposal?  Is it possible that we, like the Apostle Paul, would find His grace to be sufficient, if our worst case scenario came true?

How to Overcome Worry is not, in itself, a solution to the problem of anxiety in the life of the believer, but it is a helpful signpost, pointing the way to the promises of Scripture which are based upon the character of God.  It is a counter-cultural call to the peace that comes with both the acceptance of present circumstances and trust for a future that lies in the hands of a sovereign God.

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This book was provided by Moody Publishers in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Listening to the Stories

The unexpected takes many forms.  A single phone call can change the shape of an entire day — or a lifetime.  A trip to the grocery store can yield blessing or bane, and this truth about life compels me to keep my ears open to the stories that are unfolding all around me like an invisible news feed:  unspoken needs, latent yearnings, veiled expectations all presenting as everyday life.  In What She Was Saying, Marjorie Maddox uses the tip of her pen to capture a series of vignettes that articulate life with all its spoken and unspoken panorama of the unexpected:

Sky Divers, beware in a world where the unforeseen shows up “in the guise of wind “and dumps a parachute’s invisible freight!

UPS Guys, know this:  The multiperspectivalism of a neighborhood renders you, The Man in Brown, as many things to many people.

People of faith:  Understand that the Bible’s spare narrative may not intend to convey vulnerability, but it is there between the lines, waiting to be discerned so that the disappointment of Peter’s wife or the desperation of Lot’s daughters can be mined in Flannery-esque prose that does not blink at unpleasant truth.

As I turned the pages of What She Was Saying and listened to the voices of a returning soldier, a teenage beauty queen, and a ninety-three year old with twenty birthday cakes in her freezer, I was reminded with poignancy that much of what I “write off” among my fellow travelers on this narrow path is really their way of seeking community.

As I traced themes of parenting and childlessness,  baseball and racial reconciliation, aging and the nature of beauty, I was surprised to observe that controversial issues are hardly ever linear, but instead come stacked like Matryoshka dolls, one inside the other, with the unexpected finding that the biggest argument may inhabit the smallest space.

What She Was Saying (and a polar fleece blanket) were the perfect companions for an afternoon of babysitting a napping grandson with a nasty cold — and also for an infusion of fresh vocabulary and exposure to a writing style that opens my mind to new possibilities.  Reading between the lines, I’m finding myself even more grateful for nearly twenty-seven years with a patient man who has always been willing to hear What [this woman] Was Saying — even in the days when there was no time for writing it down.

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This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

More from Marjorie:

If you enjoy poetry, you’ll love True, False, None of the Above.  Based on her reading, her teaching, and her embrace of a life of faith, Marjorie’s poetry examines important themes with clarity and an open-mindedness that spurs the heart on to more pondering.  You can read my review (written from a beach chair) here.

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Together through the Doorway of Marriage

For Martin Luther’s fifty-seventh birthday, his wife designed, commissioned, and then presented to him a carved doorway for their home.  It’s elegance incorporated numerous features that demonstrated Katharina’s knowledge of and devotion to her husband; however, there is no way that she could have realized how completely appropriate her gift would be.  Michelle DeRusha’s biography demonstrates that the radical marriage of Katharina and Martin Luther was itself a threshold into a new way of understanding marriage, and it opened the way toward a more biblical expression of the life of two-shall-become-one.

By the time Martin and Katharina began their unlikely life together, Martin’s theological shot heard ’round the world had already set off the Reformation in Western Europe, and both the bride and the groom had already logged decades of life in cloistered communities.  For Martin, this had been by choice and against the wishes of his family, while Katharina had been placed in a convent by her father at the age of six.

Leaving the monastery was controversial for Martin, but there was no question that his gifts and background would pave his way into a well-defined role within his new freedom.  Things were not so simple for a 16th-century woman. In addition to the fact that single women were not even recognized as citizens in Germany, Katharina was, by birth, a member of the landed-gentry and, therefore, ineligible to pursue employment of any kind.  Her only option for survival was marriage — at the ripe old age of twenty six.

Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but Katie von Bora showed no signs of of caving to desperation, and she made it abundantly clear that she had no intention of marrying just anyone.  At one point she even boldly suggested that she would consider marrying Luther . . . if she were asked.  Why she considered a forty-two year old man (who, at any moment, could be found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake) to be a good catch is anyone’s guess.

From the groom’s perspective, Luther’s decision to tie the knot with Katharina was as reasoned and deeply theological as his basis for untying the knot with the Catholic church.  While he cited pleasing his father and antagonizing the pope as desirable outcomes of marriage, it seems that, primarily, he chose marriage out of love for Christ and a desire to model “the redeemed Christian’s relationship to God.”  With such an unusual beginning, it is not surprising that the Luther’s marriage paved new ground.

From Martin’s Perspective

Marriage ousted Martin from his ivory tower.  Michelle DeRusha records many of the idealistic or cavalier statements from his single days, and they were clearly made by a curmudgeonly man with no idea how to manage life on this planet. He waxed eloquent (and inaccurate) on topics ranging from the role of women in the home to something he called “bridal love,” but when married life began in earnest, there was no sign at all that he could actually live by his own tenets.

From the outset, Katharina dealt with all things practical including the management of and the procurement of supplies for the abandoned monastery the Luthers called home and which functioned more like a bed and breakfast than a family dwelling.  Martin trusted Katharina with the delivery of his manuscripts to the printer, and he left most of the business side of his work in her capable hands.

Marriage tested and clarified Martin’s theology, for this marriage of convenience actually grew into a relationship based on love and mutual respect, showing him “again and again that a love for others, as much as a love for God, was at the core of his beliefs.  The Protestant Reformation would have happened without the marriage of Luther and Katharina.  But Luther would not have been the same Reformer without Katharina.” 

From Katharina’s Perspective

Katharina’s escape at age twenty-four from the convent where she had lived since the age of six gives us a clue as to the mettle of this woman for whom,up to this point, every single life decision had been delivered to her as a fait accompli.  While marriage to Martin Luther handed Katharina the key to citizenship and an established role in society, it was her own determination by which she walked through the open door of their home and immediately set things in order.

The new Mrs. Luther took some getting used to in Martin’s circle of friends and colleagues, and, while she spoke with respect to her husband, she would not be bullied into becoming a shadow in her own home.  Her curious and lively mind found its way into participation in the theological discussions that were standard fare around her table — while she prepared and served what must have been huge quantities of food.

Martin and Katharina were a parenting team, and the death of their oldest daughter nearly undid them both.  Michelle DeRusha shares numerous clarifications about life in early modern times, but the most poignant is the harsh reality that 16th-century parents formed bonds with their children that were every bit as deep as those of 21st-century parents — even though their children died at an alarming rate.

It is revealing of attitudes of that day that only eight of Katharina’s letters were saved — none of which were addressed to Martin, but which, sadly, document the hard path of her widowhood as she wrote to friends and acquaintances to “call in favors” or to remind people of their responsibility for her and her children after Martin’s death in 1546.  Katharina’s final years must have been haunted by a sinking sensation of deja vu, for the very same traditions and expectations that had made her life as a young single woman so perilous were still in place to make her life as a widow untenable.  The era’s idealized model of a meek and silent widow assumes that someone would have already made practical provision for her.  Unfortunately, Martin failed to do that, so it was up to Katharina to make her own way, and she did — but it wasn’t easy, and the stress and privation likely led to her demise at the age of fifty-three.

It is timely to consider this biography of a marriage in the year that marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, for the truth from Romans 1:17 that fueled the up-ending of Martin Luther’s theology continues to leave its mark on the way we view marriage within the context of the Gospel to this very day.  When Martin and Katharina, “his rib,” walked together through the doorway of marriage, Martin wrote that they had embarked upon “a chancy thing” for “marriage does not always run smoothly.”  Five hundred years later, that’s still true.  And it is also true that there is grace for this — and that the righteousness which is “of God, by faith” is available in Christ for those who commit their lives (and their marriages) to Him — by grace alone.

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This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Intrigued by the author?

This is Michelle DeRusha’s third book, and came about as a result of a chapter devoted to Katharina Luther in 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.  I’ve reviewed the book here, and you can get further information about Michelle’s faith journey and writing life through listening in to this podcast episode of Living a Redeemed Life in which my friend, Holly Barrett, interviews Michelle.

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Staying Strong in the Seasons of Life

Because we started our family later than some, my husband and I are well into our fifties and are still up to our fetlocks in parenting.  Because our oldest son and his wife started their family earlier than some, we are also beginning the season of grandparenting.  Since I’m a bit over-the-top in the whole planning and structure realm, I guess I thought that we’d get a break in between these two seasons to re-tool, become wise, and maybe . . . finish our house.

Sarah Geringer reminds me that God’s timing is perfect, and in her devotional Newness of Life, she invites me to examine my life in terms of thresholds with a determination to view each season with confidence and anticipation of all that God will do —  even when the seasons overlap in ways that I did not foresee!  She is writing from a season of pre-teen children with its financial pressures, time constraints, and quiet doubts.  Set against the backdrop of Ecclesiastes 3, her own story and the words of tired King Solomon make it clear that God is at work in orchestrating the big picture:  birth and death, planting and harvesting, tearing down and building up, grieving and dancing.  And, thankfully, He is also present in the seasons that, to us, seem to be less momentous:  the scattering and gathering, keeping and throwing away, silence and speaking.

I have had a tendency, in the past, to view the momentous words of Scripture from a distance.  After all, when does a homeschooling mother of four who lives on a country hill with spotty Internet service ever encounter a season that tips on a balance of war and peace?  How about on a Sunday morning in a house with one bathroom and six people who need showers?  It turns out that this life of mothering and sock sorting is a great test case for the long view that says there is “a time for every activity under heaven.”  The truth of the gospel is also present in those long ago Old Testament lines of poetry, for each threshold of life is one more occasion in which to witness the newness of life that Jesus ushered in, that we might have life “to the full.”

Listen to the implications:

“In your seasons of birth and death, Jesus remembers you.
In your seasons of planting and harvesting, Jesus bears fruit through you.
In your seasons of killing and healing, Jesus transforms you.
In your seasons of tearing down and building up, Jesus is your cornerstone . . .
In your seasons of war and peace, Jesus empowers you.”

Hildegard von Bingen famously said, “I am a feather on the breath of God.”

When the unpredictability of life is viewed from this angle, there is beauty and a keen anticipation of what God will do next.  In times of transition, our response is key.

What will you do with the newness of this particular season of your life?

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This book was provided by the author in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Great news!

Sarah has released her new devotional The Fruitful Life, just in time for this Lenten season.  Click here to read more about it or to pick up your copy!

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

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Join the Women of Easter

Some were mentioned by name.
Others were never identified, but throughout the life of Jesus, we learn that there were “certain women” who traveled with Jesus, who welcomed Him when he needed a meal or a place to stay, who “provided for Him out of their means.”  It is significant that there is no record in Scripture of any of these women flagging in their loyalty, denying Jesus, or abandoning Him when the chips were down.  A group of them were present at the cross, and then, without even realizing the significance of their actions at the time, certain women showed up at the tomb and bore witness to the resurrected Christ.

It was clear that God had chosen them to be there.

Liz Curtis Higgs honors The Women of Easter with her carefully constructed re-telling of the final weeks of Jesus’ life.  Liz focuses on Mary of Bethany, Mary of Nazareth, and Mary Magdalene, but also shares the stories of other women as they meander across history’s stage.  Rather than lifting her protagonists out of the story one by one with three distinct bios, she considers them in context as they interact with each other, with Jesus, and with other major players within the narrative arc of Scripture.

With her characteristic humor, insight, and thorough research, Liz shares powerful wisdom from the lives of first-century women that (if we let it!) will impact the way we follow Christ in the 21st century, because, the truth is that you can spot a Woman of Easter by the way she lives:

 Women of Easter are transformed by seeking what is “needful.”  

Mary of Bethany understood that there is a time for bustling around and being productive — and there is a time for quietly listening.  Big Sister Martha must have eventually absorbed some of that lesson along the way, because when their brother Lazarus died, “she who served the food also dished out the truth: “It is for Your coming, [Jesus,] that the world has waited.”  God had chosen one of His faithful women to make the bold proclamation that Jesus’ decisive “I am” was a revelation of His identity.   Martha’s response was a resounding, “Yes, I see that YOU ARE!”

Women of Easter recognize that Jesus endured the cross because we were “the joy set before Him.”

Mary of Bethany understood that when she anointed Jesus’ feet with valuable oil, she was performing an act of worship.  John 12 informs us that “Martha served” that day, and so together, the sisters showed up and met a need in preparation for Jesus’ future act of redemption which, at the time, they could have only dimly understood.

All our worship and all our acts of righteousness flow from the cross.  Just as Jesus took joy in the small gift of a widow, He sees our small gifts, and He rejoices, calling them “good.”

Women of Easter know when to stand back and watch Jesus at work.

Mary of Nazareth (Jesus’ mother) shows up in quiet maturity at the Wedding in Cana, and she set the stage for her Son to perform the first of many signs “through which He revealed His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.”  Scripture does not record Jesus saying, “Thanks, mum!” but actions speak louder than words, for while He was hanging on the cross in agony, He made provision for her future by asking John to take her into his home.

While four soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, four women stood with Him in quiet support:  Mary, Mary’s sister (possibly Salome?), Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  These women were standing on a risky piece of real estate, for the Romans were not above inflicting the same terrible punishment upon families of an enemy of the state who was being crucified.  With Jesus’ feet only about a yard above the ground, these women were witnessing His suffering close by — and even so, Jesus was utterly alone in His anguish.  It could not have been an easy vigil for these brave women, but they kept watch while Jesus shook hell’s gates.

Women of Easter stay close to Jesus even when hope seems gone.

While there is no Scriptural evidence that Mary Magdalene was actually a harlot, the Bible does inform us that Jesus cast seven demons out of her.  Her background is . . . challenging, perhaps; nonetheless, she “is mentioned by name fourteen times across all four gospel accounts.”  Loyal, fearless, and willing to do whatever she needed to do to support her beloved Teacher, Mary Magdalene showed up at the garden tomb, not really sure how she was going to achieve her goal of rolling away a huge stone in order to attend to Jesus’ body.  My take-away from this is that when we show up for the impossible, we might be surprised at how God takes care of the details.

Women of Easter realize that it’s all about relationship.

Our first-century sisters didn’t realize that they were going to be eye-witnesses to the most important event in history.  They came to the tomb to attend to the dead body of a much-loved friend/relative and found a living, breathing Savior!  Then, having been commissioned by the risen Christ to share the good news, Mary Magdalene trumpeted the truth that changes everything:  “I have seen the Lord!

Liz shares the encouraging truth that even the very first Easter was not a picture perfect affair.  No.  It was “full of disbelief, fear, and confusion” as even Jesus’ closest disciples struggled to absorb the truth.

Likewise, with our Easter bonnets askew and our Resurrection Sunday dinner menus still up in the air, we are invited to come, by faith, to the empty tomb.  We are invited to rejoice, and we have been charged with the privilege of sharing the good news. By faith, we, too, are The Women of Easter.

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This book was provided by the publisher through Blogging for Books in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews 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.

The Radical Simplicity of Looking Up

It’s nearly time.
Even two weeks ago, standing thigh-deep in snow beside the bush, I could see that the buds had begun to swell large, and so it won’t be long until I lop off some of the bush’s waywardness and then arrange the bare branches in a vase of water.  I will begin watching every day for the delicate, vivid yellow flowers to announce that spring is happening in my house — no matter what’s happening in the great outdoors on this country hill in Maine

It was for this:

  • the intimate observation of seasonal changes;
  • the beauty and joy of a handwritten letter in which grace comes in the letting go;
  • the thoughtful glance skyward;
  • the face-to-face rebuilding of a broken marriage — it was for this very thing that Esther Emery unplugged her life from the Internet in November 2009.  For one year, she lived a life without email, without a cell phone, and without a debit card.  No Google, no on-line shopping, no text messages.  She walked away from her blog, an encouraging Facebook community, and any trace of an on-line presence in a leap of Stop-doing-everything-you-know-and-start-doing-everything-you-don’t-know Faith.

What Falls from the Sky shares this journey in four parts that correlate with four glorious gifts from the sky:  snow, rain, sunshine, and fog.

  1.  In the season of snow, Esther quit her job and made a cross-country move to Boston with two small children in support of her husband’s career. This obvious high-intensity-tumult actually pales in comparison with the angst of her Internet withdrawal. Against the backdrop of a snowy New England winter, she began to stop looking for her significance in terms of her electronic self.  This unplugging left Esther with plenty of space for wrestling with her ambivalence toward her non-traditional up-bringing and for discovering that “the alternative to screen time is table time.”  She cut her ties with the bulimic teenager she used to be and turned her eyes away from the theater she loved; and then tied on a striped apron and began trying to decipher her husband’s recipes for cranberry muffins and lentil soup.  Like a snow globe turned upside down, her values swirled, but then re-settled into new patterns in which compassion trumps achievement and humility suddenly has equal footing with leadership.
  2. It was from this humility that Esther traced her spiritual re-awakening.  Words from the Bible fell like rain on parched ground as she gulped down the Revelation first and then watched spring come through the lenses of Genesis and Thoreau.  A celebration of Easter in community introduced her to the  beauty of “borrowed” power from the crucified and risen Christ and the truth that this is “not theoretical at all.”  The vulnerability of Good Friday left Esther defenseless against the claims of Christ upon her life, and she was captured by the forgiveness that conquers fear, the “Jesus of the brokenhearted, the Jesus of the suffering.”  Ironically, as her spiritual life came into focus, the material world also became sharper, and she and her husband, Nick, took on the joint task of digging themselves out of debt and handling their finances as a team.
  3.  Under the bright light of summer days, Esther began to examine her motives for stepping away from the Internet.  Is this really about spiritual formation?  Or is it about self validation?  As her life changed and she and her husband grew closer, they began to feel as it they were on a boat, moving further and further from the shore — and further and further from the other people in their lives.  Esther’s perspective on the church is refreshing:  I read and re-read with a smile her assessment of church meetings as “jovially disorganized.”  Too, her tenacity in sticking with her commitment to fellowship is a grace sadly lacking even in more seasoned believers.  To her surprise, “the God she believed in” directed her path to Nicaragua with its enculturated gospel and its unmitigated poverty, where she slept in a room in which the ceiling was carpeted in bats and concluded that “this is what you get, I guess, if you say ‘anything’ somewhere where God can hear you.”
  4. The fog of reverse culture shock was waiting at the airport for Esther when she returned to her ecstatic family, deepening her realization that it would not be possible to drag others, still in the center, out to her “edge” because they had not traveled her road.  Ironically, when her family’s apartment is burglarized, one of the items stolen is the laptop containing all the notes and files she was in the process of recording during her disconnected months.  A tentative foray into gardening, and a commitment to inter-dependency and to the growing health of her marriage all began singing into Esther’s life the same song in different keys: “things grown again.”

With the structure of a memoir and the tone of an Old Testament prophet, What Falls from the Sky kept me reading and curious simply from the sheer impossibility of the experiment.  How does a woman who has “walked away from her faith” and become an “outspoken critic of Christianity” with a significant online presence (and a husband who is an atheist) make a journey away from the internet and toward a following life?   How can the experience of “looking up” for an entire year — noticing the sky and the seasonal changes, delighting in the company of her children and the deepening of her own inner life — how can this bring about a transformation that heals the ragged edges of a heart that needs to forgive and to be forgiven?  Esther Emery has crafted a travelogue for any heart that longs to recognize itself from the inside out, without the aid of the electronic mirror, and to embark upon a life that has been transformed by the resurrected Jesus Christ.

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This book was provided by Zondervan through the BookLookBloggers program in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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

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A Mosaic of Images on Joy and Prayer

I come from a tradition that is suspicious of written or scripted prayers, believing that spontaneity is a sign of sincerity and casting askance glances at those who must borrow the words of others in order to talk to God.  Then I became a mother and realized that not only were my own words in prayer untrustworthy at times, but there were also events in life for which words would not come. Praying the examen of conscience at the end of a day has often given my tired brain a place to go and an outline to guide my conversation with God.

Light When It Comes by Chris Anderson is a guide book for the practice of “paying fierce attention” to life in order to enhance one’s prayer life and to ensure that we catch all the stories that matter.  At the end of the day, it is helpful to me to remember that I have an audience with God and to review the events of the day with thanksgiving, paying attention to emotions, to the ways in which guidance has come and miracles have happened.  It is also a time to offer up all the failings and disappointments for forgiveness and grace and to make plans for a more Christ-centered tomorrow.

In the midst of this reflection, I find that life distills down to a series of moments.

“The only place I can be is the moment.
Everything else is an abstraction.” (25)

Chris Anderson intersperses his teaching on joy and prayer with vivid re-tellings of moments from his own life in a way that I found to be jarring at first:  a story about a yellow warbler calling “sweet-sweet-sweet-sweeter-than-sweet”  jostles around between a vignette from a funeral and a description of the sound of his son playing the harmonica with a Bruce Springsteen CD.  Eventually, though, these disjointed stories began to “appear in their real potency,” just as the unsettling stories of Scripture do when we let them speak for themselves and to communicate beyond the stained glass and the flannel boards.

Reviewing the events of the day in the presence of God is an opportunity to face the darkness as well as to remember the joy.  This too is part of the paying attention, part of the humility that acknowledges that “God is greater than our hearts and He knows all things“– including the things we wonder about.

The author examines servanthood from his perspective as a church member and a deacon, acknowledging his own mixed motives (the only kind of motives available to humans), and the thirst that tries to satisfy itself with something other than Living Water (Praise?  Order?  Certainty? No, these do not quench the thirst . . .)

He portrays service as a learning process:

“Whatever else it is, the story of Jesus is the story of letting go and the giving up we have to do every day of our lives.” (86)

This paying attention to life means that God shows up in surprising ways:  in the midst of confusion, on the days when I don’t like myself, when what I really need to do is to stop analyzing and to start trusting. It is a recognition of the humility of a simple “and” when viewing the pieces that make up the mosaic of our lives, not striving for or forcing our way into “thus” or “therefore” before light has come, but offering up the individual events, both good and bad, so that the creation of the mosaic is, in the end, left to God.

Chris closes with two premises that bring the pieces together into a joyful whole:

  1.  “God is present in every moment and in every molecule.  His grace and His love are nowhere less than complete and full, anywhere in the universe, anywhere in time.
  2. The love of God and the grace of God are freely given, are nothing but gift, [and] there’s nothing we can ever do to earn them.  No matter how much I read or pray or do good works, I will never be more loved by God than I am in this very second.  Yes, we should strive to be better, we should strive to be more moral and faithful people, but not in order to merit the love of God but rather as a loving and grateful response to it.”

Having said all that, it is not in premises that Light When It Comes urges us to find our life, but rather in the blessed randomness of holy joy that flows into the wildly disjointed pieces of our moments and our days, making of it all a gift.

//

This book was provided by the William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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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.