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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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.

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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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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 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.

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God Bless the Whole World — No Exceptions

I started listening to NPR a few years ago because I had entered a season of needing to hear a different voice, of wanting to listen to viewpoints and encounter opinions that I did not share.  In these days of challenging conversations around politics and race, it’s important for me to remember that I am called to love, to trade my litmus tests for conversations with real people.  In navigating the deep divides within the church on everything from immigration and the role of women to worship style and the definition of family, more than ever the body of Christ must be the force that passes through our differences all the way to grace.  Deidra Riggs reminds me in ONE that Unity in a Divided World must be an intentional thing, something that we pray for and work toward.  Jesus modeled this focused attention in His prayer recorded in John’s Gospel:

20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

This begs the question for this middle-aged, stodgy, and opinionated soul:  Can I love my neighbor “without being concerned about whether [my] neighbor is right?”  King Solomon and Parker J. Palmer invite me into a Third Way in which my soul hears well and is, therefore, enabled to choose the God-honoring, others-serving path that may go against the grain.

Ambassadors of Unity

Deidra traces the path of reconciliation that leads to oneness, urging readers:

  • to ask challenging questions about our motives for living toward the homogeneous and the “safe”;
  • to offer and to seek forgiveness;
  • to continually remind one another that we are one.

The Two Chairs

Whenever people come together, there are two chairs in the room.  One is the seat of justice, and the other is the seat of mercy.  “Only God has the credentials to sit in both of those seats and perfectly administer both justice and mercy,” (64) and while we may crave justice, it is critical to recall that God “does not ignore our broken hearts” when He invites us to sit in the seat of mercy and to view life from the perspective of someone who has wronged us.  (75)

When Jesus prayed for his followers (present and future), He would not have been blindsided by the fact that an outcome of His magnificent creativity would be uniqueness — manifested in differences of opinions.  It would be alarming if we all walked in lockstep on every issue.

“Oneness is not about conforming.
Oneness is about transforming.”  (97)

The oneness that Jesus prayed for us is bigger than our position on an issue or our political affiliation.  The challenge is to love well — especially if disagreements make love an unlikely thing, for then the radical love of God is put on display.

Going to Ferguson

Because her heart was broken, and because she needed to see the fallout from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Deidra boarded a plane and spent three days in the sweltering heat, living in the midst of the tragedy and joining in the lament.  Two years later, when Alton Sterling was killed, she used the internet as a virtual gathering place in which the “Prayers of the People” became an invitation to come together around shared grief.  Looking squarely at tragedy, acknowledging together that we live in the space between what is and what will be can be the starting place for God-initiated transformation leading to oneness in heart and in mind.

Spiritual Integrity

Like Deidra, I am the bologna in a generational sandwich.  Mine comprises an elderly mother on one side, and on the other, a range of adult and teen sons.  Add to this a quest for a vibrant marriage, ministry, blogging, and the occasional cup of tea with a friend, and the tendency is to fragment, bringing only part of the self to each aspect of life. Unity in a divided world requires personal and internal oneness which brings a screeching halt to the sacred/secular dichotomy and nullifies the “requirement” that I be all things to all people.  Only Jesus can do that, and it turns out that His prayer in John 17 is a prayer for integrity, a heart’s cry from the Son to the Father against the “massive fault line that runs through the center of my soul.” (156)

The unity that Jesus prayed for among those who believingly follow Him is a product of the “oneness within each follower.” (157)  Spiritual integrity de-emphasizes lines of division, assuring our hearts that all of life is sacred.  We care for and respect our one-and-only heart through radical practices of grace, going home to our roots for restoration, and recalibrating our perspective through regular observance of Sabbath (which Eugene Peterson defines this way:  “Take nothing for granted.  And do it every week.”)

Gathered under God’s loving wings, may we look around us at all those within His vast circumference and find, to our great surprise, that this is what it means to be One; that this shared protection and provision is proof that God loves the whole world and delights in each one of us — no exceptions.

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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.”

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.

Stepping Heavenward: A Timeless Classic

“Write what you know.”
It’s good counsel, and, if followed, results in a kind of authenticity that can’t happen if the author attempts to write outside her realm of real-life experience. Maybe that’s why people are still reading Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss, a fictional journal that follows the life of Katherine Mortimer from her first entry at age 16 [“How dreadfully old I am getting!”] to her final entry just before her death.

Like the author, Katherine lost her father at a young age and suffered from a variety of physical ailments.  The intersection between fiction and reality becomes even more pronounced as Katherine struggles to allow her suffering to “do its perfect work” in her life.  Through weariness and discouragement, through joy and fresh resolve, the message of Stepping Heavenward is ageless and relevant to wives and mothers set in all times (and might just encourage their men-folk, too).  Written in 1869, the quaint style and slow pace is charming, and I smiled at the extreme modesty of that era in which babies just appeared in the narrative with only veiled references to pregnancy (and certainly none whatsoever to the delivery!), and I winced at the eagerness of mothers to have their children’s gums lanced to ease teething discomfort [really??] and at the prevalence of infant mortality and debilitating illnesses.

These were hard times compared to the 21st century, and yet Elizabeth harnesses Katie’s sufferings and points her readers to a God who “notices the most trivial act, accepts the poorest, most threadbare little service, listens to the coldest, feeblest petition, and gathers up with parental fondness all our fragmentary desires and attempts at good works.  Oh, if only we could begin to conceive how much He loves us, what different creatures we should be!”

It was heartening to see Katie’s trajectory of growth and to receive her offerings of homely wisdom:

“One must either stop reading the Bible altogether, or else leave off spending one’s whole time in just doing easy, pleasant things one likes to do.”

(And this was written in the days before binge-watching Netflix was a thing . . .)

In an era when women were not encouraged to read deeply or to flex their theological muscles, Elizabeth Prentiss offered solid teaching on various topics, all embedded within the narrative arc of Katie’s life.

On the sacred versus secular dichotomy:

“You speak of going back to your music as if that implied going away from God.  You rush from one extreme to another.  The only true way to live in this world, constituted just as we are, is to make all our employments subserve the one great end and aim of existence, namely , to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

On mothering:

“What a fearful thing it is to be a mother!  But I have given my children to God.”

“When you speak contemptuously of the vocation of maternity, you dishonor, not only the mother who bore you, but the Lord Jesus Himself, who chose to be born of a woman, and to be ministered unto by her through a helpless infancy.”

On perfectionism:

“I am a little afraid of ‘good people.’ I fancy that they are always criticizing me and expecting me to imitate their perfection.”

On prayer:

“I have learned, at least, to face and fight such distractions, instead of running away from them as I used to do.  My faith in prayer, my resort to it, becomes more and more the foundation of my life, and I believe . . . that nothing but prayer stands between my soul and the best gifts of God.”

On perseverance through trials:

“There is no wilderness so dreary but that His love can illuminate it, no desolation so desolate but that He can sweeten it.  I know what I am saying.  It is no delusion.  I believe that the highest, purest happiness is known only to those who have learned Christ in sick-rooms, in poverty, in racking suspense and anxiety, amid hardships, and at the open grave.”

If the author’s name, Elizabeth Prentiss, rings a bell, check your nearest hymnal, for in addition to Stepping Heavenward, Elizabeth also wrote “More Love to Thee,” and I will share the lyrics below.  You can also click here to see a YouTube video of the hymn sung by Fernando Ortega.

More love to Thee, oh Christ, more love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea
More love, oh Christ, to Thee
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest
Now Thee alone I seek, give what is best.
This all my prayer shall be
More love, oh Christ to Thee
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Elizabeth Prentiss wrote with the aim of encouraging others along the path of a fierce discipleship.  I’ve been intending to read Stepping Heavenward ever since the days when Elisabeth Elliot was recommending it on her radio program, and now, since it is in public domain, it is available very inexpensively in various editions.  The author joins Peter in exhorting her readers to “think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.”  The struggle to pray, to be patient, and to care for others is very real, but so is the comfort that God brings to the heart that looks to Him for daily strength.
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I read this book in community with Emily Whitten as part of a series called World Radio Classic Book of the Month.  Each month, Emily introduces World Magazine readers to one more timeless treasure.   Last month my high school senior and I dove into Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell.  I encourage you to subscribe to World Magazine for sound words about news and culture, and then to join Emily and me for the upcoming series of classic reads which I believe will include Knowing God by J.I. Packer (and who doesn’t want to read or re-read Packer?).

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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.

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.”

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.