Musings – May 2017

There are 48 tomato seedlings on my deck, waiting to be transplanted into the garden.  Warm soil and optimism dictate the parameters of spring gardening here in Maine; therefore, even in the presence of the first, absence of the second may keep me from putting anything tender out into the elements until after Memorial Day.

I’m working at being more optimistic these days, partly as a public service — I’ll be much easier to live with — but mostly because my theology demands it.  The question I come back to (like that tune stuck in my head) is this:  Do I believe that God is good and that He loves me?  A.W. Tozer put it this way:

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

What words popped into your mind just now?
Loving?  Angry?  Judging?  Powerful?
Trustworthy?  Satisfying?

As the days lengthen and my thoughts turn to growing things, my hope is to allow the Spirit to form my spirit so that the truth that I believe directly impacts the way I order my days and the thoughts that occupy my mind.

On the Blog

When you spend your mornings wrestling through an advanced math class with your high school senior, when your mum passes away unexpectedly, and when your twenty-seventh anniversary comes and goes in the midst of it all, there’s a meeting place of events and emotion.  Many thanks to those of you who read  The Meeting Places and shared your condolences, your congratulations — and your thoughts on the horrors of trig!  I was thankful for cards with messages of love from family and friends, but was especially overwhelmed to receive cards in the mail from blogging friends — evidence that our worlds can come together in real life!

Because I got behind on my reading and writing in April, I reviewed seven books in May.  The most widely read of those reviews was on Lydia Brownback’s Finding God in My Lonelinessa thoughtful analysis of the reasons why we are lonely, and God’s redemptive purposes in it.

Be watching next month for my contribution to Sue Donaldson’s on-going creation, a community founded in the celebration of hospitality, Every Table Tells a Story.  She has flung her doors open wide to a variety of women who believe that there are lots of ways to nourish others around the table, and I’ll be sharing our family’s story on June 8th.  Be sure to check out the Facebook page and join the ongoing conversation there.

Family News

The death of a woman who is 88 cannot be termed a surprise, but it can be — and it was — a shock.  After an uneventful visit with my mother on a Tuesday afternoon, twelve hours later she was on her way to the hospital by ambulance. My prevailing emotion through out the entire experience has been gratitude.  God allowed her to leave this earth with so little drama — it was almost as if she faded away.

Thanks to our oldest son Isaac and his lovely wife, it looks as if there is finally going to be a Morin girl!  She is due to arrive at the end of September.

 

 

 

Wedding plans, bridal showers — and a triathlon!  Ethan, my number two son, is keeping us busy, and we’re thankful that he and his bride will be married on June 3.

 

 

 

Micah, our third son, is graduating from high school, so this month we celebrated him and his accomplishments with family and friends.  He has already landed a full-time welding position for the summer and will be headed off to college to study welding in the fall.

 

 

Parades, concerts, and his very last piano recital have been Joel’s contribution to May’s family calendar.  He and I are in competition for the greatest sense of relief that the school year is coming to a close.

Thanks for reading . . .

. . . and thank you for your input here, so often encouraging or sharing some insight that has come to mind during our visit around words — or even better, around The Word.  Since I’m busily working on memorizing Colossians 3, I’ll close with verses 1 and 2 (typed from memory, of course):

“Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

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As usual, at month’s end you can find me linking up and visiting around all the others bloggers who have shared their musings at Leigh Kramer’s What I’m Into party.

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.

Martin Luther in His Own Words

Five hundred years ago, the writing and teaching of Martin Luther set in motion within the church a series of reforms that were so widespread and foundational that we still speak of them as The Reformation.  In this anniversary year, much is being written about the lives of the reformers, but direct access to Luther’s commentaries, sermons, and lectures is an irreplaceable part of understanding the truth that triggered such sweeping changes in the way we understand justification by faith, freedom of religion, the nature of salvation, and the wonder of God’s grace.  Based on updated translations by Dr. Jack D. Kilcrease, he and Erwin Lutzer have compiled and edited Martin Luther in His Own Words so that the essential writings of the reformation are available as a resource for study and for inspiration.

The text is arranged around the five solas of the reformation with supporting excerpts from books, catechisms, commentaries, sermons, and lectures that flowed from Luther’s pen:

Sola Fide:  Faith Alone

“A Christian is free lord of all and subject to none;
a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all and subject to everyone.”

From On Christian Liberty

Although Luther did not hold to mind/body dualism, he often used language of “spirit” and “flesh,” and this quote differentiates between the believer’s standing before God and her relationship with others on this planet.  Both statements are rooted in the writing of Paul who “made [himself] a servant to all” while at the same time urged believers to “owe no one anything except to love each other.”

Luther’s Commentary on Galatians further explicates this relationship between faith and works with the stunning conclusion that, while the works of the law do not assist us in salvation, it is only people of faith who are truly “doers of the law.”

Sola Gratia:  Grace Alone

“To fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly, and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment.”

From Preface to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Luther’s translation of the Bible eventually became the standard translation within the German-speaking world (equivalent to our English KJV).   In his introductions to each book, his teaching lived on long after his death, influencing both Tyndale and Wesley in their spiritual development.

In his teaching and his writing, Luther affirmed the role of the law as teacher, but declared its insufficiency to bring about righteousness since it is impossible for humans to consistently obey the law.  The role of the gospel is to pave the way for new life, a work of grace in which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believing heart.

Sola Scriptura:  Scripture Alone

“The clarity of Scripture is twofold, just as the obscurity is also twofold.  The one is external, placed in the ministry of the Word; the other internal, placed in the understanding of the heart.  If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scripture but he that has the Spirit of God. . . If you speak of he external clearness, nothing at all is left obscure or ambiguous.  But all things that are in the Scriptures are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world.”

From The Bondage of the Will

Luther held a high view of Scripture, affirming that, indeed, the  believer can understand what it teaches on a particular subject with careful teaching, and that knowledge of Christ’s saving death on the cross, the central teaching of Scripture, is through the Word and by grace.

Solus Christus: Christ Alone

“The sins of the whole world, past, present, and future, fastened themselves on Christ and condemned him.  But because Christ is God, he had an everlasting and unconquerable righteousness.”

From Commentary on Galatians:  Christ Took Our Sin

Death of the sinless Christ earned justification for those who believe.  Luther’s Christology differed from medieval theologians who were unwilling to accept Paul’s teaching that Christ’s work on our behalf was a sin-bearing work rather than merely a “superior moral behavior.”    He argued that if we do not believe our sins have been laid on Christ, “then it is up to us to bear them.”

Soli Deo Gloria:  Glory to God Alone

But let this be said . . . that we are to trust in God alone and look to him and expect from him nothing but good, as from one who gives us body, life, food, drink, nourishment, health, protection, peace, and all necessaries of both temporal and eternal things . . . as an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good and from which flows forth all that is and is called ‘good.'”

From The Large Catechism

When Luther and his colleagues discovered through visitations to country parishes that the state of Christian belief and practice were far from orthodox, he began writing summaries of basic Christian beliefs — not to replace the Bible, but to facilitate study of the Bible and worship with understanding of who God is and all that He has done.

Kilcrease and Lutzer provide just the right amount of editorial input and background material, and then allow the words of Luther to stand on their own.  Looking through the cultural lens of 2017, Luther’s quest for salvation and earnest pursuit of truth stands out in startling relief against our backdrop of spiritual malaise and cultural assimilation.  Thanks be to God that the realities trumpeted by Luther and his colleagues assure us that it is possible even today to embrace a livelier faith and that those who believingly follow Jesus Christ are privileged  and compelled to be among those who are always growing, always striving for clarity of belief and faithfulness in practice.  Because of the work of Christ and the revealed truth of God’s Word, by grace and through faith, we are always reforming — to the glory of God.

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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.”

Michelle DeRusha has written a biographical account of Martin Luther’s life through the lens of his marriage to Katharina von Bora.  Click here to read my review of Katharina and Martin Luther:  The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk.

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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.

 

Grow Up! (The Practice of Resurrection)

One of my favorite fringe benefits in this mothering life is the broadening of my world.  I routinely listen to conversations about welding and truck repair, have sat through hours and hours of livestock shows, and a few weekends ago, I witnessed my first triathlon.  I watched in awe as, one by one, the participants crossed the finish line after a grueling half mile swim, 11 mile bike ride, and 3 mile run, and I asked myself this question:

“What would happen if I put one tenth of that kind of effort and focused attention into the areas of my life where God has put His finger and said, “Grow up!”

I’m working on that in a small and quiet way by memorizing Colossians 3.  Paul begins the chapter with a reminder that it matters what we think about, and that the resurrection of Christ from the dead resonates today in every decision to purposefully focus on the “things over which Christ presides.”  And since I do not hold to dualism between the secular and the sacred, that includes everything!  This mindset celebrates the largeness of God and invites me to exercise my imagination in a discovery of the beautiful and the sacred in my everyday routine.

Community and accountability are always key for me in a memorization project, so I’m enjoying the fellowship around Colossians 3 at Do Not Depart.  I invite you to join with us in memorizing and meditating on this important passage of Scripture.  Lisa has developed a variety of helpful resources to get you started, and they’re all available here.  There’s also a Hide His Word Facebook gathering where the focus is on encouragement to memorize Scripture in community.

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

Paul’s opening words in Colossians 3 remind his readers that the basis for all our right thinking and right behavior is the resurrection of Christ and the believer’s participation in resurrection living.  Eugene Peterson has been helping me in my understanding of this as I have read and pondered Practice Resurrection:  A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ.  “Jesus alive and present” changes everything, and “a lively sense of Jesus’ resurrection, which took place without any help or comment from us, keeps us from attempting to take charge of our own development and growth.”  (8)

Understanding the Practice of Resurrection Living

Mining truth from the book of Ephesians and laying it down beside the words of poets, novelists, and theologians, Peterson said-without-saying-it that a wide and rich reading life will enhance ones ability to read and learn from Scripture. Continually making “organic connection[s] from what you can see to what you can’t see,” he employs vivid metaphors to invite readers into Paul’s exhortation to practice resurrection:

  •  “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to live [or walk] a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (4:1)  In the Greek, the word “worthy” comes embedded with a picture of a set of balancing scales.  Does my life demonstrate a balance between my walk and my calling?  It is interesting that the entire structure of Ephesians models this balance with chapters 1-3 focusing on God’s calling and chapters 4-6 examining the believer’s walk.
  • Paul’s body of Christ metaphor emphasizes the homeliness of the church gathered.  On one level, we see a building; on another level, we witness the reality of people and relationships that make up the family of God; on a “spiritual” level there is the truth of the believer as the “dwelling place for God.”  With thirty plus years as a pastor on his resume, Peterson urges believers that “when we consider church, we must not be more spiritual than God.”
  • In the practice of resurrection, we work, but it is far more accurate to think that “we are God’s work and doing God’s work.”  This takes the focus off me (and all my valiant efforts to rescue God) and puts the spotlight on the truth that the entire revelation of God is the story of God at work alongside the invitation to join Him.

Understanding Prayer and the Church

When the Apostle Paul calls the church at Ephesus to grow up, his exhortation reverberates through the centuries, incorporating a call to live in fellowship with a local body of believers and to spend plenty of time speaking “the primary language that we use as we grow up in Christ” — this is prayer.  Ephesians resonates with prayer language and comprises some of the richest and most fluently theological material in Paul’s writings.  When my children began to reach the age when my own prayers for them seemed shallow and limiting, I memorized Ephesians 1 and the prayer in Ephesians 3 so that I could join Paul on our “knees before the Father” — instead of prescribing to God a plan of action that suited me.

The more I enjoy a book, the more difficulty I have in writing a review. Therefore, after having dog-eared pages and made a list of books that I need to read in follow-up, I feel as if I’ve only just begun to understand the words of Paul the Apostle and Peterson the Pastor on the practice of resurrection.  This may be the best possible outcome, for I’m seeing that “growing up in Christ means growing up to a stature adequate to respond heart and soul to the largeness of God.” (130)

This, of course, we know is a process that will take all the long leisure of eternity to realize.

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This book was provided by William B. Eerdmans 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.”

If you were part of this year’s book discussion group around C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, you’ll be interested to know that Eugene Peterson references the book in his appendix as recommended reading on the practice of resurrection with these words:
“The last novel [C.S. Lewis] wrote, Till We Have Faces, he thought was his best.  I agree.  But it is also the most difficult, the most demanding.  The root of the difficulty is that it is about the most demanding of human tasks, becoming mature, growing up to the measure of the stature of Jesus Christ.”

As with all of Peterson’s Conversations in Spiritual Theology, this volume is best read in concert with the text.  When I read through and later taught the book of Revelation, I used Peterson’s Reversed Thunder to help my understanding and then wrote about it here.   Currently, I’m reading a leisurely path through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah alongside Run with the Horses.  And . . .one last thought:  if you are ever curious about what it might have been like to sit under Eugene Peterson’s preaching ministry for a series of decades, he has released a collection of his sermons this year, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, and I happily reviewed that book here on the blog.

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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.

Laughter on the Pathway of Lament

When we read about women in the Bible, there’s a tendency to flatten them out into cardboard characters, one-dimensional and distant.  Kate Merrick was in that camp as well, intimidated by the fabulous woman of Proverbs 31, judging Bathsheba, missing the depth of Mary’s sacrifice in saying yes to God, and brushing Sarah off as that old lady who had a baby.

Then, her nine-year-old daughter died of cancer.

Desperate for moorings in an ocean of loss, Kate looked to the Truth of Scripture and found there a community of women who had suffered as she was suffering.  When she delved into their stories, her collision course with bitterness and despair slowly turned toward joy and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.  In And Still She Laughs, Kate Merrick is still writing from that liminal place between tangible grief and the new normal that finds its way to the surface, so her words are raw and real, and just about right for me in these days following the death of my mum.

Like breaking in a new pair of jeans, like the bathing suit that fits everyone differently, like a water balloon that if you let just a little bit out it might explode on everyone, Kate employs multiple metaphors to bring her readers into the world that opened up to her when she joined the ranks of the bereaved.  Still longing for the old jeans, and having realized that grief looks different on everyone, she encourages readers to throw her book across the room if it helps — and then to come back to it later at a different stage of grieving.

A Path Through Grief

Since a Western understanding of living “blessed” only served to drive Kate further into bitterness, she turned to the stories of biblical women, for whether one reads Bathsheba as roof-top temptress or helpless victim, the ultimate outcome of King David’s moral lapse was the loss of their baby son.  Bathsheba’s story became a virtual grief support group for Kate since so many of their story-points coincided:

When I was the only woman I knew who had experienced death so close to my heart, I remember how she had too.  . . She whispered strength, dignity, and fearlessness.  When I was comforted with a pregnancy, I remembered that she had been too.  She showed me how to be loyal to another child while grieving the first.  She held my hand in the gloom, leaned close to my ear and whispered, ‘Me too.'”

Then there was the dawning realization that, like Sarah, grief and bitterness were leading Kate toward a “bitter, hardened laughter, like a waste product of a sick heart.”  Sarah’s Old Testament story sounds idyllic from a distance:  remarkable beauty, a godly husband with unlimited assets, a bevy of servants, and exotic travel opportunities — and Kate is convinced that Sarah “was covered in swanky accessories.”  (Sure, why not?)  But then, there were the empty arms, and the seemingly empty promises of God:  Sarah had waited so long that even good news elicited bitterness, bubbling forth in a sneering laugh alone in her tent.

Opening the heart to a journey of grief puts a mother in company with Mary, who demonstrated that a yes to God can lead to a sword through the heart.

“The yes doesn’t always make sense.  We don’t fully understand how God works, but we read in 2 Corinthians 1:20: ‘For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory.”

Ultimately, Kate realized that her bitterness was directed toward God.  She had lost sight of the truth that, in her suffering, Jesus was suffering with her.  In the midst of our own Romans 8 groaning, we need to hear, again and again, that we are foreigners on this planet, but we do not grieve without hope.  Like Mary, Bathsheba, and Sarah, we are citizens of heaven and live in anticipation of a day in which death will be swallowed up in life, the empty arms of grieving mums will be filled, and the laughter our hearts long for will never end.

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This book was provided by Thomas Nelson 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.”

You can read an excerpt from And Still She Laughs and check out the book trailer here at Ann Voskamp’s place.  

There’s lots more of Kate Merrick’s great story telling here on her own blog.

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.

 

A Story of Waiting

Twenty minutes on ice.
Twenty minutes on my feet.
Then back to the couch and the ice pack —  and that was how I made it through the early days of mothering.  Degenerative disc disease and pregnancy make for some painful and complicated logistics when they converge, but, oddly, it’s not the pain I remember most. What I remember most clearly is the frustration of being limited and the discipline of resting that was required for healing.  The real suffering seemed to be in the waiting.

Anyone with a chronic condition of any type is familiar with the rhythms of hope and despair that go with waiting.  Ann Swindell was diagnosed at the age of eleven with trichotillomania, defined by the American Journal of Psychiatry as a “poorly understood disorder characterized by repetitive hair pulling that leads to noticeable hair loss, distress, and social or functional impairment.”  It is inexplicable and incurable, and it remains part of Ann’s life as she writes Still Waiting: Hope for When God Doesn’t Give You What You Want.

Ann lays her own story and struggle alongside the biblical account of the Bleeding Woman in Mark 5.  Remember the story?  After waiting — and bleeding, and consulting experts and spending all her net worth on cures that fell flat — for twelve years, this woman came to Jesus, depleted and out of options.  She was miraculously healed, and this is where her story and Ann’s diverge.  Nonetheless, Ann feels a special kinship with the Bleeding Woman simply because of the shared brokenness of waiting and of clinging to hope.

Waiting Is Part of the Groaning

Paul’s soaring words about hope and redemption in Romans 8 do not bypass the truth that all of creation deals with brokenness in some way — and, therefore, we wait.  And while we wait because of this general and widespread brokenness, it is also true that we are broken because we are waiting.  Underneath all the good that was happening in her growing up years and into young adulthood, Ann struggled with the shame and desperation that centered around a pair of hands that would not stop pulling out eyelashes and eyebrows — in spite of resolutions and wearing gloves and goggles and wrapping tape around her fingers.

There’s a misconception in the 21st century church that we can be “#strong” by ourselves, that all weakness is evil, and that healing is God’s will in every situation.  It’s a pretty insupportable position in light of Paul’s words in II Corinthians 12:9:

 “And [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

When Waiting Is All You Can Do

From experience, Ann offers principles that allow believers to experience the freedom of waiting well:

  1.  Lay down the false notion that you can fix yourself.  Waiting well requires a surrender of the illusion of control and self-sufficiency.
  2. Do not “create your identity around what you don’t have.”  Even though it is tempting to fixate on lack, whether it is infertility or singleness or a chronic condition, the believer’s true identity is tied up in Christ who names and claims and loves. Until Ann stopped thinking of herself as damaged goods, she could not share her burden and receive the compassion of others.
  3. Relinquish what God has withheld.  I was so happy to find Elisabeth Elliot’s wisdom shared in the pages of Still Waiting:  “. . . the deepest spiritual lessons are not learned by His letting us have our way in the end, but by His making us wait, bearing with us in love and patience until we are able honestly to pray what He taught His disciples to pray:  Thy will be done.” (96)
  4. Allow a soft heart to protect you from bitterness.  Making the choice to be offended by God’s sovereign will “puts us in the judgment seat over God.” (105) Ann found that the understanding and kindness of others and the Truth she found in Scripture were key to accepting the will of God in assigning to her this particular trial, this particular chronic condition, this particular set of challenges and temptations to despair.
  5. Scorn shame.  As Jesus took the cross, he silenced shame once and for all.  By confiding in a few safe people and by embracing the strong truth of Romans 8:1, Ann began to live in light of God’s love and acceptance even in the midst of the daily struggle.

Standing with Those Who Wait

Whenever authors share a unique journey of living with and overcoming obstacles, readers come away with insights that make us more sensitive to the pain of others as well as helpful ways of responding.  One of the chief sources of pain in managing a chronic condition is loneliness.  That would have been particularly true of the Bleeding Woman in Scripture, but it is clear from her actions that, somehow, she had managed to keep a shred of hope alive that kept her thinking, “If I can just get close to Jesus . . .”  Encouragement to draw near to God will make it easier for those who are waiting to let Him worry about the outcome.  Our unconditional acceptance and friendship may be the very thing that makes the presence of God palpable to those who wait.

Those of us who live a following life are characterized by waiting.  Although healed spiritually, every believer waits in hope for the gift of full restoration.  We serve an “on time God” — not an “on demand God” and our waiting is best managed through a focused attention on the next step of obedience in the present.  As we come alongside those who are dealing with a painful and open-ended season of waiting, may we find grace to understand that our waiting cultivates longing for all that God has in store for us.  In the meantime,  it’s o.k. to keep on asking God for the healing our hearts long for — as we remind one another that God is trustworthy, even when the answer we receive is, “Wait.”

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This book was provided by Tyndale Momentum, the nonfiction imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 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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Along with reading Still Waiting, I enjoyed getting to know Ann through listening to a couple of podcasts in which she was interviewed by the host.  

On Living a Redeemed Life, Holly Barrett and Ann chatted about her background and writing career.  It was a delightful visit!

In Melanie Dale’s podcast, Lighten Up, the conversation centered around Ann’s struggles with trichotillomania and her advice for writers in developing a unique voice.

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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.

Attending to the Details of Congruence

No one has to remind the forsythia bush outside my dining room window to break forth into yellow luminescence as an announcement that spring has come.  The sassy gray squirrel steals shamelessly from the bird feeder “according to his kind,” and the chickadee scolds and stitches up the air behind her — because that is what chickadees do.  Of all God’s creation, it is only humanity that struggles toward congruence of our inside with our outside, of our calling and our walking.  Gerard Manley Hopkins captures the beautiful true-to-essence behaviors of stones and dragonflies, of violin strings and bells in his classic poem As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire and nodding in agreement with his conclusion, Eugene Peterson has borrowed the title for his 2017 compilation of sermons taken from 29 years of preaching from a pulpit in Maryland.

Peterson concludes that part of spiritual formation is living into this congruence between “the means by which we live” and “the ends for which we live.”  For humans, this is not a mindless outcome of biology and physics, but rather a living out of the Christ life, one glorious manifestation of Hopkins’ “ten thousand places” in which Christ plays.

This witness from a poem — along with his realization that there was a disconnect between his preaching and his deepest convictions of what he should be doing as a pastor — marked the beginning of a new way of viewing ministry for Eugene Peterson.  He began to see his congregation “just as they were, not how [he] wanted them to be.”  He stopped viewing them as “either problems to be fixed or resources to be exploited.”  The new collaborative relationship, in worship and in life, is reflected in this collection of forty-nine sermons arranged in seven sections:

Part 1:  Preaching in the Company of Moses

Although Peterson addresses his introductory material to those who preach for a living, those of us who teach or write (for a life) will be enriched by insights like this:

“Is it possible to take the Torah apart historically and then put it back together again as a book of faith with theological and literary integrity?  I think it is.  It is not only possible but worth any effort it might take.”  (6)

With that in mind, the seven sermons in this section are designed to “nourish the storytelling imagination” (7) through stories in Genesis that reveal the nature and character of God.  Abraham, the friend of God; Moses, the signpost pointing to Christ; and a stunning analysis of Leviticus 19:18 that takes the focus off the law and the lists and puts it on love:  “the primary verb in our Scriptures.” (37)

Part 2:  Preaching in the Company of David

Sermons based on the Bible’s prayer book, the Psalms, drive home the truth that “prayer is an act of attention.”  Reading through the Old Testament right now with my patient husband, we are hopping back and forth between David-on-the-run and David the lyricist.  Since “everything that happened in David’s life became prayer,” I am encouraged to let my own context flow seamlessly into conversation with God.  Seven sermons from the Psalms bridge Old and New Testaments with surprising connections that encourage me to look for ways in which  my own story is woven around and through listening prayer.

Part 3:  Preaching in the Company of Isaiah

I saved this chapter for last (like dessert) because Isaiah is my favorite prophet, and I was not disappointed.  The jarring realism of the prophetic word gets ample play in Peterson’s analysis:

“Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call.  And prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be.”

A right reading of the prophets protects us from dividing the secular from the sacred, setting off a safe place for a tame God to act, and then tending to our own business in the “real life” category.  “Prophets will have none of this.”  Everything is God’s, and the flood of His holiness knocks down the dividing walls and brings everything under His scrutiny and jurisdiction.

Part 4:  Preaching in the Company of Solomon

I doubt if I’ve heard seven sermons in my whole life taken from Old Testament Wisdom literature, so I’m in dire need of the enhanced “quotidian imagination” Peterson writes of: an “imagination soaked in the ordinary, the everyday.”  With characteristic clarity, Peterson notes a “polarity” among these books in which the Song of Solomon and Job contrast ecstasy with devastation while the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contrast the sacredness of the everyday round with the determination to persevere in spite of the mundane details.

“In these books, human experience as the arena in which God is present and working is placed front and center.”

Part 5:  Preaching in the Company of Peter

In addition to his letters, Peter’s voice vibrates behind Mark’s in the second gospel.  With this in mind, the “incarnational storytelling” of the New Testament takes on an electrical quality.  Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ” arises from three years of intimate research, meals on the road, sharing of daily space. While we may struggle to embrace the human side of the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, Peter would have had no doubt.

When he made his insightful statement that Jesus is “the Christ,” what Peter was really saying was this:  “You are God among us.”  And no sooner had he come to this elaborate conclusion, but God the Son began the process of introducing the notion that He would die.  Nowhere else do we witness this degree of conceptual whiplash between the idea of Jesus as “God through and through” and “human through and through.”

Peterson’s inclusion of his sermon on “the manure story” feels almost like bonus content, for it presents a four verse parable about an unproductive fig tree as an invitation to join God in the slow (and sometimes messy) solution to a presenting problem:  Be quiet in the presence of death while waiting for new life to emerge.

Part 6:  Preaching in the Company of Paul

Prolific Paul is described as “the gold standard in the world of theology,” and Peterson dips his brush into seven of Paul’s letters to illustrate four elements of Paul’s “theological imagination:

  1.  His submission to Scripture —  “Paul is not an independent thinker figuring things out on his own. . . As he writes his letters, Paul’s mind is entirely harnessed to Scripture.” (269)
  2. His extravagant embrace of mystery — “There is a kind of mind, too common among us, that is impatient of mystery.  We want to know what is going on.  But such impatience short-circuits maturity.” (271)
  3. His use of language — “Ivory tower intellectuals and rubber-hits-the-road pragmatists like things organized and orderly.  That is not the kind of language we find in Paul.  Paul uses words not to define but to evoke.” (272)
  4. His words came to us through letters in accessible terms – “Theology is not talking about God but living in community with persons in relationships . . . [Paul’s} theology was written in community with a host of people in the context of living out the faith.”  (273)

Part 7:  Preaching in the Company of John of Patmos

John’s writing emphasizes Jesus’ conversations and His prayers.  As a lover of the Word, Peterson throws the spotlight on John’s easy familiarity with the Old Testament:  in Revelation’s 404 verses, there are 518 references to earlier scriptures.  John wrote in three different genres, but all with the heart and soul of a pastor, communicating in love to a group of believers.  Perhaps it is for this reason that Eugene Peterson’s pastoral heart is apparent in this final section:

“As it turns out, in this business of living the Christian life, one of the most neglected aspects in reading the Scriptures is reading them formatively and imaginatively, reading in order to live.

“Worship God. . . Worship gathers everything in our common lives that has been dispersed by sin and brings it to attention before God.”

As Kingfishers Catch Fire captures the heart and wisdom of a pastor with a sense of calling and a deep knowledge of Scripture.

With an overwhelming volume of content available online and so many new books being published every month, these “kingfisher sermons” stand by themselves in their timeless application of Scriptural truth to boots-on-the- ground living.  I can’t think of a thing on Netflix or anywhere else that I would bother to “binge watch,” but I most heartily enjoyed (and highly recommend) the “binge-reading” of Eugene Peterson’s sermons.

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This book was provided by Waterbrook, a division of Penguin Random House via 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.”

Read more about Eugene Peterson and As Kingfishers Catch Fire at these sites provided by Multnomah.

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The Meeting Places

Some mornings the new mercy arrives at 4 a.m., looking like a slice of lemon yellow sunrise behind ragged lavender clouds.  My early morning drive to the hospital sent me due east.  Not knowing what I would find there, I thanked God for the mercy of ambulances and strong men who lift gently and answer questions with thorough patience.  When I arrived, I thanked Him for a thoughtful son who showed up unexpectedly and stood in a cramped, curtained room waiting for inconclusive test results.  There were no windows in this meeting place to announce daylight’s arrival, but this one thing I know:  by the time the coastal mist had burned off and blue sky had chosen the morning, Mum was already in heaven.

That afternoon, three generations gathered around spaghetti and salad and pictures from my mother’s albums.  Remembering and wondering and making ten thousand phone calls filled in the spaces of that whole day, but this is a homeschooling family, so the following sunrise was succeeded quickly by breakfast as usual — and trigonometry.  My graduating senior will tell you that trig has a language all its own, but what I see in these days of comings and goings is a charming branch of mathematics that assures me that there is a relationship among all the parts. If I know the measure of an angle and the length of a couple of sides, I can figure out the whole triangle.  This is oddly comforting on the morning after an abrupt departure that followed a mere three hours in the emergency room — a flight that somehow connects the vast horizon of heaven to the granite outcroppings and furrowed garden soil that comprise my everyday world.

Momentous Milestones

Poet Luci Shaw compares the death of a parent to standing on the top rung of a ladder.  Suddenly there you are, at the top, hands grasping at nothing, “no one above you to compass the wideness of space.”  Mum had long ago ceded the role of family matriarch to me, her older daughter, but even so, the generational ladder is filling up behind me and every milestone feels momentous.  For example, this year marks a perpendicular line that perfectly bisects the span of my days.  At the age of 27, I married an unreasonably patient man, and this month marks our 27th anniversary.  Finally, I have been married for as many years as I was single, my life folding over onto itself with a neat center crease like a greeting card — or a church bulletin.

This intersection of halves has set me to wondering:  would the single me even recognize her married counterpart, all settled into gardening and homeschooling, and happy to spend any amount of time alone with a book and a pen?  At the same time, my married self looks back with astonishment at all the energy and emotion that was spent like water in those early decades.  Surely there’s some way to capture and recycle it?

Of course, all this comparing and contrasting of the two halves is one more evidence that I “see in a mirror dimly.”  So, as I grab my cuff and vigorously wipe away as much of the fog as I can, the clearing surface reveals an aging faith along with this aging face.  The girl who loved theology — but was pretty sure she wasn’t smart enough to declare it as a major —  would be astonished at all the reading and re-reading of sacred words, the taking of notes and the building of outlines that goes on in this graying head.

The Truer Meeting Place

Paul writes about this kind of growth in a letter to the Ephesians that emphasizes wholeness and a maturing process that is endless, for today it is incomprehensible that I could be “like Christ in everything . . . so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.” (MSG)  Meeting myself in the middle and saying goodbye to my mother allows all that is past to strike a sympathetic chord with the future.  I’m encouraged to move forward, mindful of my weaknesses and stubborn sin tendencies — but not defined by them.

Madeleine L’Engle once said in her later years, “I am still every age that I have been.”  She may have worked that out through her career as an author, but with my mother’s departure, I’m seeing it happen in real life.  Already the past ten years of cantankerous demands and stubbornness are being swallowed up in memories of better days when she laughed at her own jokes and answered the phone with a high pitched “hallooo” (that my sister and I always made fun of).  Her older grandsons remember stale Oreos and boxed macaroni and cheese served with joy while they watched Teletubbies on her t.v.

Perhaps this miracle of memory foreshadows a truer meeting place that will become reality once faith has become sight; when the energy of the twenties; the ambition of the thirties; the settled contentment of the forties; and the ripening wisdom of the fifties and beyond all meet, join hands, and dance in a full-hearted, completely mended consummation of a life, “fully mature . . ., fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13 MSG)

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Mum, my curly haired baby sister, and me — probably in 1965.

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.