“Going Saint”

The memoir meets spiritual formation literature in Nathan Foster’s The Making of an Ordinary Saint; and in case the name “Foster” has a familiar ring to it, think “Richard Foster” of the seventies-era classic Celebration of Discipline.  Nathan is Richard Foster’s son, and a handful he was, apparently.  Now with addiction and bitterness in the rear-view mirror, Nathan is reporting on his alternative mid-life crisis:  no red convertible for him!  He took on a year of celebrating the spiritual disciplines (which ultimately became a four year project).

Most significant is Foster’s demonstration that the Christian life is not a check list, and the twelve disciplines he highlights should not be treated as such.  Rather they are an interconnected web of righteousness in which:

“God initiates and we respond.  When music sparks the love of God within us, we sing.  When nature speaks to our hearts, we give thanks . .  .[W]e acknowledge God and his beauty.  Prayer, fasting, and meditation allow us to tune in.  Submission, service, confession and simplicity create a humble posture.  Study teaches us how to tap into the frequency of gratitude.  Guidance shows us where to find God.”

“In a sense there is only one discipline:  an active response to a loving God. “

Nathan has overcome significant obstacles, and goes out of his way to help his readers to see that a life infused with prayer, fasting, solitude and some of the more strenuous disciplines does not necessarily come easily, even if your father is a spiritual formation guru.  Intentionality was the word that kept coming to mind as Nathan shared his experiences of “drafting [in a bike race as] a perfect metaphor for community.”  He took the risk, and God met him more than half-way.

Of particular value in this book are:

1.  The section of Further Reading, which provides resources specifically on each of the twelve disciplines Foster examines.

2.  Richard Foster’s introductory words at the outset of each chapter, which provide background and understanding of the topics.

3.  The portraits of “extraordinary” saints which come at the end of each chapter, profiling an historical figure who excelled in or had exceptional insight to the practice of that chapter’s discipline.

For anyone who would become something other than incidentally Christian, this book is a kick in the seat of the pants, a chat over a cup of coffee with someone who has made the effort, and an historical and theological argument in favor of the practice of the spiritual disciplines.

I received this book free from Baker Publishing Group. 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.

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Getting a Clear Sense — A Letter to a Much-loved Child

In Chapter X of John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin, he urges his readers toward a “clear sense” of:

1.   The guilt of sin — “It is one of the deceits of a prevailing lust to extenuate its own guilt.”

2.   The danger of sin — “Of being hardened by deceitfulness; . . . of some great temporal correction; of loss of peace and strength; . . .of eternal destruction.”

3.    The evil of sin — “Danger respects what is to come; evil, what is present.”  By this, Owen is referring to the unseen affects of sin in the Godhead and in the sinner’s spiritual endeavors.  This third aspect of Owen’s argument caused me to wonder, “How would Chapter X sound if it were framed in words coming straight from the heart of a loving Heavenly Father?”  A three-day power outage provided some time for reflection on the matter in the form of this sonnet.

Getting a Clear Sense — A Letter to a Much-loved Child

My child, if you would see sin mortified,

Let Spirit-voice be Nathan to your soul,

Awakening right judgment and clear-eyed

Assessment of your guilt. My grace extol.

Reject the dangerous way of tangled sin.

Accept this comfort:  “No condemnation!”

Look on My face, choose peace and strength within,

Proof of the Spirit’s mortification.

Shun evil if My glory you’d reveal

In ministry.  A temple undefiled,

A Spirit-habitation with My seal,

Rejoicing to be my obedient child.

Let danger, guilt, the evil of your sin

Cause gospel-tempered trembling within.

Essential for Teachers and for Learners

Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin:  A Book Review

I can’t recall the last time I devoured a book in one evening, but that’s what happened with Women of the Word.  I’m sure the reason is Jen Wilkin’s laser focus on the topics that (after my family) are most important to me — knowing the Bible and teaching the Bible.  I found the book to be immediately relevant and useful, not only in my teaching ministry, but also in my personal study.

Be advised that Jen Wilkin is not putting forth something that is earth-shatteringly new.  If she were, you shouldn’t read the book, because, truly, the only way to know, understand, and apply the Bible is to, well . . . read it.  This is what makes Women of the Word intensely practical:  Jen Wilkin acknowledges that studying the Bible takes time, that it is possible the reader will not understand it immediately, and that it requires significant effort.  She also makes an airtight case for the fact that reading and studying the Bible is worth all the effort one expends!

Most people come to the Bible with two wrong assumptions:  (1)It’s all about me; (2)I want God to speak to my heart.  Women of the Word argues for a one hundred eighty degree change of focus:  (1)Let the Bible speak of God; (2)Let the mind transform the heart.

After a thorough argument for Biblical literacy, Jen Wilkin sets forth a very helpful guideline for achieving that very thing.

1.  Study with Purpose — View all of Scripture in light of the big-picture redemptive story arc that transcends all the “small stories.”

2.  Study with Perspective — Understand the author, his context, his audience, his purpose, and his style/genre.

3.  Study with Patience — Allow yourself to sit in the uncomfortable seat of “I don’t know,”  before consulting commentaries.

4.  Study with Process — Ask yourself three questions:  What does it say?  What does it mean?  What is God saying to me about change?

5.  Study with Prayer — Always.  Pray about purpose; pray about perspective; pray for patience; make prayer part of the process.  Always.

The author proceeds to demonstrate this approach with a study of James 1, and then concludes with an entire chapter of helpful guidelines for teachers.  I found this to be the most valuable section of the book (and the reason I stayed up past my bedtime!), because it felt like sitting down with someone who loves to teach and hearing her heart.

I am very excited about applying the concepts of this book, and, specifically, have been challenged to hold off on the commentaries, make better use of cross references, and to start providing printed pages of the text to my class so we can mark them up together.  Goal for the near future:  writing weekly homework questions to guide my students’ reading assignment.

Women of the Word will continue to serve as a reference for me, and I recommend it to teachers and learners who want to sharpen their ability to hear God speak to them from His Word.

Disclosure:  I received this book from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.

The Most Important Thing You Can Do for Your Son

A Mom’s Prayers for Her Son by Rob & Joanna Teigen:  A Book Review

There’s nothing like becoming a mother to ratchet up the frequency, sincerity, and desperation of one’s prayer life.  My husband and I had four boys in eight years, and I was horrified to realize that a new blender comes with more instructions than a new baby.  Furthermore, the advice that comes from well-meaning friends and relatives is usually a confusing kaleidoscope of conflicting information.

Sometimes, even as we pray, we reveal that same lack of focus.  During the toddler years, we pray that our boys will be healthy, strong and creative, knowing all the while that their vigor, power and ingenuity may be the death of our living room furniture..  As they grow, we pray that they will be humble servant-leaders, even as we storm the heavens on their behalf that they will make every team, nail every audition, and excel in school.   Then, just as most mothers are becoming hormonally-crazed, middle-aged, and exhausted, their sons begin to test the limits of parental authority, the reality of their faith, and their mother’s sanity.  What are the right words to pray, when you’re no longer sure what you want God to do?

Rob and Joanna Teigen have issued a call to prayer for the mothers of sons, and they have taken it a step further by offering the gift of words for all seasons of our boys’ lives.  A mom who wishes to pray for her boy during good times and bad will find help for all the “whens” of life:   when he’s going through a storm, when he’s grieving, when he’s stressed, when he needs to be generous, when he’s making plans for his future, and even when he’s having fun!  The seventy-seven written prayers are interspersed with encouragement to pray for all the many facets of a young man’s life, as well as personal accounts  from popular authors or bloggers who have seen God work in the lives of their sons through their motherly prayers.

I especially appreciated the realism which infuses the book.  Christian mothers have been counseled over the years to dance dangerously close to the edge of determinism in their parenting:  “If you, the mother, do or pray for “X,” then you can be assured that your believing child will do “Y.”  Joanna maintains this view:

“No matter how much I care for and love them , I can’t make them who I want them to be.  I can’t keep them safe.  I can’t control their future or their choices.  I can’t be the perfect mother I tell myself they need.  I look at them and at myself and realize that without God, we are lost.”

This book is a treasure that will encourage a lifetime of intercession, and also stands to enhance the mother/son relationship by increased understanding.  This is a book that I will give to my daughter-in-law as she and I together pray for my first grandson.

I received this book free from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. 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.

Danger Signs

John Owen did not exactly hang a sign saying, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” over the door of this chapter, but he has given a stern warning to those who would dally with sin.  Over all six of Chapter 9’s ominous symptoms, Owen’s exhortation from Chapter 2 hangs like a dark banner:

“Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

Self-restrained Puritan writers apparently do not use exclamation points, but I hear one there.

Make no mistake — Romans 8:13 Spirit-orientation is still the basis for Owen’s writing, but he is issuing a warning:  “this kind goes not out but by fasting and prayer.  Extraordinary remedies are to be used” in the event of these “dangerous marks and symptoms”:

1.  Sin under the skin

Sin that is habitual and persistent is obstinate.  It dies hard.  Squeamish, I recoil from Owen’s analysis of Psalm 38:5, but what is more tenacious than a festering wound which has begun to stink?

“Old neglected wounds are often mortal, always dangerous.”

When a believer cozies up with his sin, “it grows familiar to the mind and conscience,” is no longer repulsive, and Owen sees no light at the end of this dark choice.  “Unmortified lust” in the Christian is difficult to distinguish from  “the dominion of sin” in the unbeliever, and will never “die of itself.  If it be not daily killed, it will always get strength.”

2.  Sin by any other name . . .

When the heart begins to rationalize, danger lurks.  Excusing a sharp-tongued reply to my twelve-year-old with the mitigating factor that I am tired from a late night of Bible study is a “desperate device of the heart in love with sin.”  While I should be pleading the gospel at my heart’s first rebuke, my diva-heart seeks to “disentangle [me] from under the yoke that God was putting on [my] neck.”  Then, having cast that conviction aside, along comes the thick, anaesthetizing bandage of self-pity on my conscience.  “If only I were more rested I could be more patient.”

“Applying grace and mercy to an unmortified sin” is dangerous business.

3.  Sin under the radar

Choosing NOT to be vigilant is a choice to be negligent.  Therefore, temptation that creeps up on us and has become full-blown sin before we know it, confirms the fatal outcome of James 1:14,15.  Again, “be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

4.  Crime and Punishment

A righteous life motivated only by fear of hell or public censure is no different from “living in the practice of sin.”  Since the believer’s only real weapon against sin is the grace of God (Romans 6:14), placing himself back under the law yields no deliverance.

“What gospel principles do not do, legal motives cannot do.”

5.  Sin as heart monitor

Persistent sin in the life of the Christian should prompt a desperate question:  Is this perplexing sin a sign of “God’s chastening hand?”  Owen resolutely points the believer to an unflinching examination of his own “heart and ways.”

“A new sin may be permitted, as well as a new affliction sent, to bring an old sin to remembrance.”

6.  Sin that numbs the soul

When the sword of the Word cuts,

but the flesh has deadened into callous;

when God Himself strikes at the cords of sin,

but the soul scrambles to maintain the tie,

to disdain the warning,

“that soul is in sad condition.”

When in the grip of sin, the soul may be unable to discern its own plight.

Is the struggle against sin a Romans 7 brotherhood with Paul, or is there a more urgent message?  What exactly are you contending with, O my Soul?

Answer:  The Hound of Heaven is at work.  This is grace.

50 World Changers

50 Women Every Christian Should Know by Michelle DeRusha:  A Book Review

The fifty women profiled in this feat of meticulous research were definitely world changers.  Covering over 900 years of Christian history, Michelle DeRusha has included the familiar names of recent history (Flannery O’Connor, Ruth Bell Graham); the less familiar names of previous centuries (Susanna Wesley, Lottie Moon); and then some obscure names from the distant past (Hildegard of Bingen, St. Birgitta of Sweden).  She has drawn back the curtain on their background, the influences that shaped their decisions, and summarized their contribution with a winsome style that resists caricatures and stresses uniqueness.

Yes, Hildegard and Birgitta had some ideas and experiences that might not go over well with the ladies missionary fellowship.  Yes, Katie bought some property without Martin’s approval; and, perhaps, Sojourner, Jarena, and Elizabeth could even be accused of having abandoned their families for the sake of their ministries.  From start to finish, the book portrays real women, warts and all, who held to their convictions and did not abandon the church, even though many influential women of history (their peers) erroneously concluded “that religion was detrimental to the cause of women’s rights.”

It is significant, I think, that only the last dozen or so of the collection would have had running water and indoor plumbing.  It is also significant that many of them inhabited periods of history or geographical locations in which literacy and education for women were frowned upon.  Often, against the norms of society (Victorian England) or against strong religious beliefs (Hinduism), a concerned father would see to his daughter’s education, putting in her hands the tools of influence.   Most of the women profiled in the book suffered hardship or grief that led them to either seek God for solace or to seek opportunities for service to others in order to rise above their despair.

I was especially fascinated by the chains of influence that became apparent as I worked my way through the book chronologically.  For instance, Clara Swain’s medical work in India paved the way for Dr. Ida Scudder; prison reformer Elizabeth Fry influenced the work of Florence Nightingale.  Links continue to be added to this chain as great role models of the 20th century such as Elisabeth Elliot and Helen Roseveare have revealed in their writings the influence of these 50 great women.

And now, the baton is in our hands.  It is of paramount importance that 50 Women Every Christian Should Know  should become part of the reading experience of our generation of women, of our daughters, and of our grand-daughters.  Reading about women who died for their faith, who made significant sacrifices to know Him and to make Him known, who persevered through the apparent silence of God only to hear Him speak — this is inspiring to our own faith and vision as we strive to become “heroines of the faith” in our day.

I received this book free from Baker Publishing Group. 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.

Image Management and the Gospel

Over-eating is an embarrassing sin.  There may be a few others that rival the obvious and detectable nature of its presence in a person’s life, but I don’t think so.  Those extra calories are there for all the world to see, filling up waist bands, bulging behind buttons, and squishing out over a starched collar.  I hate it.

But — do I hate this “galling, disquieting, and perplexing” sin because I see that food has become an idol, a replacement for God?  Do I hate that my first response to any negative emotion is the comfort of food rather than the sufficiency of the Comforter?  Am I at all concerned with more “burdensome” sins of slothfulness, lack of self-discipline and immature conflict management that might contribute to the more obvious sin of over-eating?   Chapter 8 of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin forces me to ask probing questions about whether I hate “sin as sin,” meaning anything that “grieves and disquiets the Spirit of God,” or if I am chiefly interested in image management, expressed in the all-important question, “Does this make me look bad . . . or weak . . . or fat?”

Granted, being overweight has become one of the “safe sins” in the Christian world.  Elisabeth Elliot used to quip, “No one has the right to talk about weight.  If you don’t struggle with it, you don’t know what you’re talking about; if you do struggle with it, you haven’t got any room to talk.”  (I guess that puts her in the former category and me in the latter.)  At any rate, I can’t help but think of Screwtape’s instruction to his tempter-in-training, recommending the gentle slope into sin.  While God would desire to use dismay and alarm over sin “to awaken thee to the consideration of thy ways, that thou mayst make a thorough work and change in thy course of walking with him,”  Screwtape would prefer that we choose to live with it, peaceably co-existing with root causes, while fruitlessly battling symptoms with every weight-loss fad on the market.

Owen’s premise is that “a sense of the love of Christ in the cross” is our only hope in arriving at true mortification of any sin — in contrast to mere image management which is only concerned with the sin’s effect on my own peace of mind, reputation, or comfort-level within my own skin.  He reiterates the primary principle in compelling language:

“Without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.

“It is not only an intense opposition to this or that peculiar lust, but a universal humble frame and temper of heart, with watchfulness over every evil and for the performance of every duty, that is accepted.

“He then that would really, thoroughly, and acceptably mortify any disquieting lust, let him take care to be equally diligent in all points of obedience.”

While it is true that we need only to look within our own hearts to observe the life cycle of a besetting sin, Owen graciously draws a road map, tracing the “eruption” of sin from the heart to the mind, and into sinful behavior, but the Holy Spirit will not cease to persevere in His relentless pursuit of our wayward hearts:

“Here is one, if he could be rid of the lust, I should never hear of him more; let him wrestle with this or he is lost.”

Here’s a question to wrestle with:

If you could over-eat [or fill in the blank here with your own idol of choice], and never have to experience negative consequences here on Earth in this body, would you still seek to mortify that sin?  I intend to think carefully about this one, because the answer reveals whether I am more concerned with “the trouble of sin” or with “the filth and guilt of it.”

Resurrecting this post today for the #livefree Thursday community!