What I’m Reading: Ruthless Trust

Have you ever read a book that did not really grab your attention initially, only to pick it up later and have an entirely different perspective of the book?  That was my experience with Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning.  I actually read this book several years ago.  I enjoyed it, but it was not one of my favorites by Manning.  (Abba’s Child was perhaps one of the books that have had the greatest influence on me!)  But recent circumstances prompted me to read it again and it turned out to be exactly what my soul needed to hear.images

Manning calls the act of trusting in the love of God the second conversion.  Many may accept God’s gift of grace, but then live out their Christian lives never fully understanding what it means to trust God with their whole being.  One reason for this is a loss of God’s transcendence:

The loss of a sense of transcendence among today’s believers has caused incalculable harm to Christian spirituality and to the interior life of individual Christians.

Busyness, stress, fear, and image management all contribute to this loss of transcendence.

On a personal level, the last six months have brought much change, stress, and transition to my life.  From buying a house to moving to a new city to unexpected expenses to unplanned life events, I found myself just trying to keep my head above water and get through all the transition.  But I also discovered just how little I trusted God.  Trust is easy when life is going well; difficult times will reveal just how much we actually believe that God loves us, hears our prayers, and is shaping us through our circumstances for our betterment.

Hence, the prompting for me to re-read this book.

Through short, easy-to-read chapters, Manning describes the many-faceted aspects of trust.  Some of the more poignant aspects that I needed to be reminded of included:

  • “The foremost quality of a trusting disciple is gratefulness.”  Gratitude is accepting the invitation to celebrate life one day at a time.  This includes all that life throws at us, whether good or bad.  When we live in a state of stress and anxiety over our circumstances, we will certainly experience a loss of gratitude.
  • “Trust cannot be self-generated.”  We cannot determine within ourselves to trust God more with additional effort.  The paradox is that the harder I try to trust, the more I am actually relying on myself and less on God.  Trust develops when I allow myself to be loved by God completely, releasing the need to be in control of my circumstances.
  • To be fully present to whoever or whatever is immediately before us is an act of radical trust.  Worrying about the present and past, endless self-analysis, and constant planning of our future all rob us of the ability to be fully present in each moment.

These, and many more points, served as timely reminders of what I had evidently lost sight of.  Trusting God is an act of surrender – surrendering control of outcomes, future plans, agendas, and expectations.  It is a daily act that allows us to meet God in each and every circumstance, knowing that no matter what the outcome, we are loved and valued by the Creator.

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What I’m Reading: Seasons

I read a book a couple months ago titled Grateful by Ryan Sprague.  Sprague was a member of the 1999 National Championship football team at Florida State University and the book recounts his journey from walk-on to starting tight end his Senior season.  I enjoyed reliving many great memories of that season and Sprague’s insights into being a part of that team.

SeasonsNow Sprague has written a second book, Seasons.  Seasons remains in the world of college football, but takes an entirely different perspective on the subject – this time imparting wisdom to the athlete who is about to embark on college life.  But this wisdom is communicated in a unique way.  Seasons is the story of a recent high school grad named Justin Foxe.  J (which is how everyone knows him in his town) has received a football scholarship to the state university.  But before the summer ends and two-a-days begin, his grandfather has planned a day for a number of different people to come spend some time with him, talking about how to prepare himself for life as a student athlete.  The advice ranges from dealing with adversity given by a local college coach to faith dispersed from a professor to leadership from a CEO.  Other topics include dealing with the media, decision-making, and integrity, among others.  The book’s storyline makes for an enjoyable and engaging read.

While written specifically for student athletes , the book contains welcome advice for any high school grad advancing to their next phase of life.  In fact, being well past my own college days, there is much in the book that served as great reminders for jobs, relationships, and life goals.  Seasons has application well-beyond the narrow target audience.

For more information on the book and how to order, visit Seasons web site.

What I’m Reading: Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament

I cannot recall when or why I added this book to my Amazon wish list – it was probably footnoted in some other book I had read –  but it resided there for quite some time before I finally picked it up.  I even began reading it about six months ago and got sidetracked reading other things.  So I was pleasantly surprised when I finally worked my way through Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John Walton.

In this book, Walton does a comparative study of the Old Testament along side other cultures of the time to see what can be drawn from the literature of the Ancient Near East (ANE).  Being a comparative study, Walton does not offer an apologetic of ancient Judaism, nor does he try to establish which cultures may have borrowed stories from their neighbors, sorting fact from fiction.  Rather he sets out to establish some commonalities to better understand the writings that make up the Hebrew scriptures: “There is simply common ground across the cognitive environment of the cultures of the ancient world.”

As Walton’s insights relate to the Ten Commandments, I have already shared some observations on my Ten Essential Words site.  I encourage you to check out my posts Written On The Human Heart and The Name of God for these thoughts.  Otherwise, here are some key points I took from this book.

  • “There is no such word as ‘religion’ in the languages of the ancient Near East.”  What we today call superstition was in the ANE a recognition that deities were active in the world around them and most every event could be interpreted as the workings of a deity.  The categories of sacred/secular and natural/supernatural are ones that we have come up with relatively recently, and I wonder if it is a good or bad thing.  Certainly we have more scientific and naturalistic explanations for everyday phenomena, but at the same time has this dulled us to the spiritual world?  A popular expression today is, “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  This would be utter nonsense to the world of the Old Testament.  Nowadays, we live compartmentalized lives keeping science, religion, politics, ethics, and even faith all at a safe distance from one another.  Perhaps it is time to reintegrate our modern lives.  As Walton summarizes, “Life was religion and religion could not be compartmentalized within life.”
  • The role of ethics and morality in the ANE.  Walton uses morality to mean inner convictions and ethics to refer to societal expectations.  While some may contest these definitions, I believe they are helpful ones.  Most of the cultures of the ANE operated on the basis of ethics, and this was a major distinction between Israel and the surrounding cultures.  In giving the Ten Commandments, Yahweh was making a covenant with Israel and that covenant was shaped by morality.  The Old Testament throughout stresses the importance of the condition of the heart – morality, and not ethics.  I wonder about the implications of this dichotomy for our culture today, where political correctness (ethics) rules and those in power get to define what that means.
  • What the gods want.  The gods of the ANE were unpredictable, easily offended, and often harsh in their anger.  Circumstances could help one perceive that a god might be angry or offended, but rarely would the actual offense be known.  Thus, the role of prayer and ritual was to appease the gods.  “This is the plight of those who live in a world without revelation.”  And this is another area in which Israel’s path diverged from that of its neighbor.  That Yahweh could be known and prayer could help one understand what pleased and offended Yahweh represented a new way of relating to deity.  Today, as people of faith, we can take for granted things like prayer, revelation, and morality, but these practices represent a major step forward from other ancient religions and even from much of what passes as spirituality today.

While Walton set out to do a comparative study of the cultures of the ANE, I found myself doing my own critical study between the Old Testament and today’s culture.  There are many points where it can be questioned whether much of our enlightenment has led us in the right direction.  I leave you with one final quote from Walton that captures this tension:

A modern empiricist historian’s response to ancient transcendent historiography might be; “it has not provided information that is reliable, since it is so full of deity.”  The ancient historians’s response to modern empiricist historiography might be: “it has not provided information that is worthwhile, since it is so empty of deity.”

God’s Plan Or Personal Responsibility?

No doubt overshadowed by the shooting in Colorado was something that caused a bit of a stir earlier in the week.  George Zimmerman, who now infamously shot and killed Trayvon Martin, gave an interview to Sean Hannity.  When asked how things would be now if he had responded differently, Zimmerman answered this way:

I feel it was all God’s plan and for me to second guess it or judge it …

He then trailed off, not finishing the sentence.  Martin’s parents were understandably upset by that statement.

Now I am not writing to judge Zimmerman’s much scrutinized intent in the shooting.  I’ll leave that to his due process.  But I too was frustrated by the implication of Zimmerman’s statement – the implication being that the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was part of God’s plan.

Unfortunately, it is a belief that is expressed all-to-often in religious circles.  The logic goes something like this: if God is all-knowing and in control of all that happens, then everything that happens must be part of God’s plan.  And the extrapolated extension of this logic implies that if something bad happens or I make a make an ill-advised choice, not to worry – it is all part of God’s will.  Taken to its full extent, this logic essentially relieves me of any personally responsibility for the choices I make.  It is all God’s will.

I wonder if the misuse of God’s plan or God’s will isn’t the result of some confusion around two scriptural ideas.

  • The first stems from a familiar passage from the book of Romans: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  I have heard people basically take this verse to mean that if my intentions are good, then everything that happens, happens for my good and must have been part of God’s plan.  But that isn’t the truth being express in this verse.  What is being expressed is that no matter what is happening – whether good or bad, whether good intent or royal blunder – God can use that event to shape me for the better.  There is a difference between God using a bad/negative/evil event to shape us for the better and God being the cause of that bad/negative/evil event.
  • The second emerges from a much deeper theological issue.  It is often expressed as a theological dilemma by both the believer and the sceptic: if God is all good and all powerful, then why is there evil in the world?  Why do bad things happen?  Many believers, holding that God is all good and powerful, simply presume then that everything that happens is part of God’s plan.  I would hold, however, that in order for free will to exist, God allows for actions to have consequences and as a result, bad things do happen in the world.  There is a difference between God allowing something to happen and God willing something to happen.  Entire books have been written on this important difference.

Granted when pressed, many people of faith may stop short of holding to the fullest extent of that logic.  Which is why I believe it is important for people of faith to be careful how the language of “God’s will” is utilized.  I do believe that God can take this tragic shooting and make George Zimmerman a better person for it, which is perhaps what he was trying to express.  But I do not believe that the shooting of Martin was part of God’s plan.  The same can be said for the shooting in Colorado.  And that difference is important.

Amen

I was reading a newsletter I periodically receive from an organization called Contemplative Outreach. While perusing the newsletter, there was a thought-provoking article on the profundity of the word Amen. The article begins:

If you asked me for one piece of advice about contemplation, I would say to take to heart the meaning of one word: amen. If you asked me how you should relate to God, how you might pray, I would whisper, “Amen.” If I practice only one simple thing at the end of my own life, I hope it will be amen.

As the article points out, amen literally means, “so be it” or “let it be.” It is a way of releasing that prayer “into God with a radical trust that nothing more needs to be said.” In any given situation in our life, it is a way of expressing surrender to God, “Not as I will, but as you will.”

It was not only a needed reminder for me personally, but a meaning that I think needs to be reclaimed by many people of faith.  Consider the ways in which we utilize that simple word, Amen, and the meanings inferred from our usage:

  • At dinnertime, it has come to mean, “Time to eat.”
  • Concluding a prayer, it often means, “I am finished talking to God now.”
  • A friend of mine once described Amen as hanging up the phone – conversation over – instead of simply being a pause until we pick up the conversation with God later in the day.
  • If you grew up in the Baptist tradition, Amen is often a way of expressing agreement with what has been said, often loudly and with enthusiasm – AMEN!  The louder the Amen, the more the person agreed!  Can I get an AMEN?
  • In other religious circles, it has just become another religious expression, spiritual sounding but devoid of any real meaning.

Notice how none of these common uses comes anywhere close to expressing, “So be it.”  Far from being just a word tacked on to the end of a prayer, Amen can be a prayer all by itself – a single word to express what is in the heart, while at the same time deferring our plans to God’s plan.  Since reading that article I have found myself  simply whispering Amen several times throughout the day.  I am learning that when there is so much I want to say to God, sometimes Amen is all that needs to be said.

Tis the Season

Each year at Christmas time, I go through my annual scrum between the festivities of the season and the longing for something deeper, more meaningful at Christmas.  I know I am not the only one that feels this annual tension of the holidays, yet sometimes it feels that way.  Some of these tensions for me include:

  • The hustle & bustle of mall shopping versus times of peaceful solitude
  • Buying presents for everyone on my list versus a longing for more simplicity in my life
  • Going to holiday parties versus a deeper engagement in the season of Advent
  • Big, slick Christmas productions versus an alternative to the over-marketed season

So, once again, I find myself anticipating all that the holiday season brings, yet wanting a retreat from all the activity. I recently pulled out a prayer book that walks through the Advent season to try to answer some of that longing for balance and perspective, and to counter some of the frenzy of the holidays.

So what about you? Are there any tensions you feel during the Christmas season? What are they?

Or is it just me? Tis the season…

Uganda 2011

This next week I have the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in Uganda, Africa.  People ask me if it is a missions trip, and the answer is … sort of.  You see, my brother and his family work at an orphanage in Jinja, Uganda and a couple of us from the family are going over to visit.  You can learn more about the orphanage here.  So while in Uganda, we will have the opportunity to work on projects around the orphanage and bring supplies for the kids.  Additionally, I have the opportunity to teach in a couple local churches.  We will also be going on safari and, of course, spending time with family.  It’s going to be a great trip!

So while this may not be a “missions” trip (though shouldn’t every trip be seen as an opportunity to be “missional”?), there are some things I have learned from from previous experiences in places like Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Rwanda.

  • A chance to unplug from the Matrix.  Trips such as these are an opportunity to step away from our tech-driven culture of iPods, laptops, smart phones, video games, cable TV, and other gadgets.  Ok, so I’m taking my iPod.  But when I am forced to unplug from my world, I find I am much more engaged in the real world around me.  I have come to believe that our tech-saavy minds crave distraction.  When we pull the plug on the constant noise, we begin to engage at a deeper level.
  • Wrestling with my own lack of contentment.  I am often struck by the level of joy and contentment I see amidst a lack of material possessions and sometimes, outright poverty.  Certainly, when we encounter places of poverty, there are thing we can do to meet tangible needs.  We should strive to clear economic hurdles and bring more opportunity to these places.  But I contrast this with the glut of possessions and opportunities most of us live with, which is often accompanied by a lack of contentment and an absence of joy.  I feel the restlessness in my own spirit and wonder how it can be so prevalent when I have been given so much.
  • Good intentions gone bad.  It isn’t fun to talk about in church, but I have also, at times, seen the best of intentions cause more harm than good in the name of missions.  A 200-machine computer lab in a remote village school comes to mind, of which only one or two computers were actually operational.  Once the group that funded and set up the project went home, there was no one around to service the simplest of technical problems.  I remember speaking to a man waiting for his home to be built.  All the supplies were gathered and the village was more than capable of constructing the house, but the project was put on hold several months so that a youth group had something to do on their missions trip.  These stories and more remind me to test my motivations, making sure that real needs are being met as opposed to engaging in activities that make me feel good, but offer little tangible help for those who need it.
  • An opportunity to serve … and be served.  Of one thing I am confident, that I am served and ministered to by the people I meet on these trips far more than I serve or minister to them.  I usually enter into these opportunities focused on ways I can help or the supplies I can bring; I usually leave feeling like I was given far more than I gave.

If you remember, please pray for us over the next couple of weeks.  I’ll write about the trip when I get back!

Peace