A God-Infused Life

Monk Habits for Everyday People by Dennis Okholm:  A Book Review

I get it!  A habit:  a piece of clothing worn by a member of a religious group; a usual way of behaving; something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way.

“Everyday people” need not wear the habit, but we can do the habit of everyday spirituality, and this particular Protestant needs that kind of reminder.  First of all, I value  having a name for spiritual disciplines and behaviors; and monastics, having built a life around spiritual practices, have forged a vocabulary that is both instructive and practical for one whose goal in life is to seek God.  For instance, when I think about my conviction that one should “hang in there” with one’s church family through thick and thin as “the discipline of stability,” I am reminded that my commitment is truly to the body of Christ, not merely to a particular group of delightful believers whom I happen to enjoy — most of the time.  When I hold my tongue instead of complaining about the sock on the living room floor — again, this is the discipline of restraint of speech.

Second, there is an intentionality to serving Christ that gives dignity and purpose to every task.  Monk Habits for Everyday People high lights this truth very practically.  Apparently, hospitality is a key discipline in the life of the monastery.  Me, too!  However, raising four boys and our 150 pound St. Bernard in a fixer-upper has always made inviting people into my home  an exercise in vulnerability.  Even if I managed to get the house “picked up” before company arrives, certainly the dog will throw up by the front door just as the guests drive in.

“No matter,” says the Benedictine monastic.  “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for He himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'”  So, we swoop up the vomit with the paper towels, wash the hands, open the door, and hope the aroma of beef stew in the crock pot and apple pie cooling on the counter top cancels out the, um, other odor, while making our guests the focus of our love and attention, since they have been sent to us that we may serve Christ in humility.

I long for the holistic perspective that the satisfaction of our spiritual needs is as essential as habitual times of eating meals.  For me, this will mean prayer over the dish water,  attention to the silverware, and to the needs of the dear hands that used it.  Monk Habits for Everyday People is an invitation to change my world, in the tradition of Brother Lawrence (a Carmelite monk) who “practiced the presence of God,” and found, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that “without the burden and labor of the day, prayer is not prayer, and without prayer, work is not work.”

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Consequences Trump Intentions

A Book Review:  Same-Sex Marriage by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet

If Siskel and Ebert could ever have agreed on a movie to watch together, and then have agreed in their enjoyment of the movie and let the world be privy to their discussion of that movie, it might have sounded a bit like McDowell and Stonestreet in their dialogue on so-called same-sex marriage.  Somehow, while scratching their heads about how they even came to be talking about it, this pair of apologist/cultural commentators hold Romans 1 in one hand and John 3:16 in the other, and manage to arrive at a helpful, practical, and yet scholarly consideration of an issue that will inevitably affect all biblically sensitive Christians — if it hasn’t already.

As I read their Guidance for Everyday Questions (Chapter 12) my mind was drawn to a Marvin Olasky interview that I recently read in World Magazine in which Jay Richards from the Institute of Faith, Work, and Economics made an important point about economics which applies to any intellectual discipline:  God cares about both intentions and consequences, but in matters of legislation “the motives of the members of Congress who vote on the bill do not matter.  They could have 535 different motives, but that policy is going to have the same effect either way.” In this vein, McDowell and Stonestreet argue very effectively that compassion, recognition of true and abiding love, and concern for the “rights” of an individual, while they sound like moral high ground and win support, do not hold a candle to three facts that require a descriptive approach to the subject of marriage (because it is a feature of reality like gravity) rather than a definitive approach (because it is not a cultural construct we can redefine at will.)  These are:   (1)sex makes babies; (2)society needs babies; (3)babies deserve mothers and fathers.   Through creative use of humor, personal experiences, and excellent interviews with authorities from a variety of disciplines, they demonstrate that the Christian is called to a life of love, regardless of essential disagreements among individuals, and that the issue of so-called same-sex marriage is “a fruit, not the root” of a culture that has been marinating in wrong ideas about marriage, love, relationships, and commitment for decades.

Now, having said that, I will confess that the sheer simplicity of that argument left me numb by the time “What is Marriage?” had been dissected, poked at, and analyzed from three different perspectives, rather like what happens in the brain when pondering the spelling of a common word.  What is marriage anyway?  However, I believe that the authors’ risk of reductionism paid off in the end, demonstrating that what we are really lamenting is not the introduction of a “different view of marriage” but, instead, the loss, over time, of the willingness to fight for strong marriages — especially in the church, where we think we know better (and should).

Perhaps this book’s greatest offering is its first and last chapters.  It opens with an historical perspective on the breakdown of marriage and ends with a Q&A approach to rubber on the road — how does a thoughtful, compassionate, and biblically astute person respond to everyday scenarios involving same-sex couples?  The authors do not bash or rant; they promote clear thinking on a sensitive and potentially divisive topic. They concede, realistically, that “same-sex marriage” is here; it is a consequence of our nation’s journey “away from God’s intent for sex and marriage,” fueled by legislation and judicial action that may or may not have arisen from good intentions.  There is, however, no admission of defeat, but instead, a message of hope:  it is not too late to build, pray for, and “stir up one another” toward a positive and healthy marriage culture, lived out before a bruised world in need of the truth.

 

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

There’s More to this Book than Its Bright Orange Cover!

When I  began hearing about The Ride of Your Life by Mike Howerton, I confess that it sounded like a guy-version of the mommy-blog:  “I was folding laundry this afternoon, when I just happened to think of I John 1:9 . . .”   Who knew that, without even straining the metaphor,  there could be lessons about riding a bike that would apply to establishing margins in your life; overcoming  fears that lead to regret; or even recognizing and then following your passion?

By the end of Chapter Two, I had repented of my disdain and was skipping ahead to read all the well-chosen epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter.  By the end of Chapter Six, I was beyond loving the book.  I had come to love the author.

Quietly, patiently, with the voice of a pastor and the heart of a dad, Mike reminds us that God holds us until we are strong (Lesson 1:  No fear).

He emphasizes the importance of pedaling hard, especially when the terrain is rough (Lesson 2:  Balance).

He warns that our focus will determine our ultimate destination (Lesson 3: Steering).

He differentiates between slamming on the breaks and simply slowing down (Lesson 4:  Braking).

Then, most essentially, he helps the reader apply the first four lessons when, catastrophically, the wheels come off, the bike swerves madly, and we hit the ground hard (Lesson 5:  Starting from a standstill).

The Ride of Your Life is a vulnerable sharing of Mike Howerton’s own experience that, sometimes, even though we are pedaling our hearts out, even though we seem to be on course — we wipe out.  It is at this point that the simple lessons of learning to ride a bike take on special significance because, unless they have become second nature to us, it’s hard to remember them with blood on our faces and scrapes on our knees.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Catch and Release

Proud, sad, excited, wistful, full of memories, full of hope, we say good-bye to our college-bound son on Monday.  What a privilege to know someone so well, to have such a vital connection and love, and then to let go.

Catch and Release

In the bedroom, one rectangle of light.  One

small boy.  A collection of plastic toy fish.

A small, curved finger pointing,

“My aquarium!”

And the fish swam in the

box of air between

screen and pane.

Later, on a different sort

of day, one rectangle of light.  One

small boy, brown head

just visible, eyes twinkling over the sill

as he climbs back into his

second

story

bedroom.

Heart leaping like a fish,

careful not to startle him,

she waits.

Small curved fingers grasp sill;

legs appear;

she nets the small, muscular body and slumps

under the weight of her catch.

Still later,

much later, one rectangle of light.  One

tall man, a collection of boxes and bags,

Straight finger pointing away toward a good

life, upstream, unpredictable.

She opens the window and

the east sprays morning sun

on memory.

 

 

Who Is This Man?

Matt Mikalatos, author of The First Time We Saw Him (TFTWSH), was clearly raised as a “church brat.”  This is an affectionate term in my home, since my husband and I are in the process of raising four of them, the eldest of whom has gone out and married a female of the species.  It is our earnest hope and expectation that they, in turn, will raise another generation of church brats.  Having said that, I will confess that I have puzzled over, read books,  led meetings, engaged in intense conversations, and initiated activities in my church to address and, hopefully, to  combat the myriad challenges posed by our beloved church brats.

Mikalatos frames the problem masterfully:  “The point is not to breathe new life into the Scriptures.  It’s to remind [them] that they’re already alive.”  As a staff member with CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) for fifteen years, the author brings to the table his experiences of cross-cultural ministry, his theological education, and his evident desire to know Jesus and to make Him known.  He’s on to something . . .

It is not merely that TFTWSH translates the most familiar Gospel stories into 21st century contexts and infuses them with present day props, although this is fascinating.  For instance, Mikalatos puts a cell phone in everyone’s pocket, casts the prodigal son as a star-struck runaway, and suggests that Jesus (Joshua) might have multiplied hot dogs and rolls from the pitcher’s mound in a minor league baseball stadium if the incarnation had landed Him in modern-day ‘Merica.  Teenage Mary, thrown across her pink bedspread working on rough drafts for the Magnificat with a purple pen; and Mary Magdalene, appearing as cash-strapped-college-student-turned-exotic-dancer certainly do their intended attention-grabbing job, but, remember:  church brats have seen all this before.  They know all about “creative methodology.”  Thanks to the 21st century attempts of all those flannelgraph companies trying to re-tool for the IPod generation, they’ve probably even been challenged in Sunday School to re-write a Bible lesson in a present-day setting.  They just would not have done it nearly as well as Mr. Mikalatos.

What blows the dust off the flannelgraph in TFTWSH is the author’s willingness to “go there.”  Ever since the Apostle John was penning letters from Ephesus, believers have been trying to take the skin off Jesus.  Like the New Testament Gnostics, we turn away from the humanity of Jesus, sanitizing our soteriology, taking the meat out of the incarnation.  Do we convey to learners and feel in our own hearts the utter horror Jesus felt as He anticipated being “beaten and brutally killed?”   Are we willing to admit that the Good Samaritan is not only a story about racism and cultural boundaries, but also one with serious gospel implications?  After all, the split between the Samaritans and the Jews started with religion.  If the hero is cast as a Muslim, we are forced to ask ourselves:   “Can it be that a Muslim, with his incorrect theology and his corrupted religious practices, could be held up as an example, as a part of the answer?  Could [Jesus] be saying that a man like that is somehow closer to eternal life than a respected pastor or a sharp seminary student?”

If we are to function as witnesses (clearly our job title, if we take seriously the words of “The Great Thing Entrusted to Us”), it is our job to answer the question:  Who is this man?  TFTWSH puts that question to God Himself by thoughtfully examining the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death,  and challenges the reader  to let that question pierce his own heart — to awaken to the wonder of Jesus.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

An Open Letter to My First Mentor

Happy Birthday, Joanne!

Do people in heaven celebrate birthdays?  Probably not, but more important for you (and tragic for me) is that this is the tenth time you have celebrated a birthday in heaven.  Another thing I’m not absolutely clear on is whether you are aware of this birthday greeting; whether you are privy to some of the milestones, triumphs, and failures I’ve missed sharing with you over the past ten years.  I’ve gotten used to thinking of you as a member of my “cloud of witnesses.”  I hope I’m right.

One of the reasons that I’m ok about admitting my uncertainties (that I have not yet developed a theology-of-everything) is that from the time I was sixteen years old, I witnessed your questioning spirit, your curious mind, and your whole-hearted  “pressing on to know the Lord.”   I wanted to know Him, too, so I trailed along behind you.   In fact, I wish I could ask you now if you ever thought of yourself as my “mentor.”  Evangelicals weren’t throwing that word around in the seventies.  However, they were throwing a lot of other words around, and you were curious about all of them.  Journaling, conversational prayer, the role of women in the church — you shared your books with me, we wondered out loud together,  and something stronger than heredity was passed along.  As we talked, you were teaching me how to think about faith, but I picked up other things as well.   When I clean out a mixing bowl, my spatula “chases the batter into the pan,” just like yours did.  I wouldn’t be caught dead without a supply of English muffins in my freezer so that when a crowd of teens lands on my doorstep, I can feed them “pizza babies.”

Crucially, from you, I learned to love the Word of God, because of Who it points to and because of the very sound of it.

When I asked how you happened to be quoting Psalm 8 from memory in a devotional, your reply was stunning to me:  “I liked it, so I wanted to memorize it.”

“Huh, why not?”  I said, and I am still saying it.  Whenever I review Philippians 2, I can hear your voice saying it with me over the engine of a VW Rabbit.

When we prayed together, I believed that God was listening.  Eventually, I began to believe that He would listen when I came to Him alone.

From you, I learned not to take myself too seriously.  Your daughter’s wedding in the apple orchard yielded some amazing black and white photos.  For instance, the bridal party and guests with heads bowed in prayer at ceremony’s end, barefoot brides maids in the tall grass, and the mother-of-the-bride with her head thrown back, eyes closed, apparently in deep, thoughtful meditation.   “Wow, that was some prayer time, ” I observed.

“I was just trying to keep my nose from running, ” you said.

Another uncontrollable force in your life was the kitchen table, always covered with an assortment of books, mail, loaves of bread, and magazines.  Whenever we talked on the phone, you were cleaning off the table.  ALWAYS.   Here’s what I’ve realized about that:

Like me, you had a husband and four kids. Like me, you were very active in your church.   Unlike me, you had a career outside the home.

I will never know what sacrifices you made to spend time with me.  So now, on your birthday, I want to remember what I have received so that when the opportunity arises, I will choose availability over “me-time”; vulnerability over “image management”; relationships over the elusive merit-badge in housekeeping.

I have not even begun to build into the lives of others in the way that you did, but thank you for showing me that it can be done, and that the Great Commission is not always fulfilled with a passport and a suitcase.  Sometimes two people sit at a messy kitchen table, and the Spirit is there, and disciples are made.


Linking up today with Leah Adams and a great group of writers and thinkers at The Loft.