Thursday, March 26, 2015

Read any good books lately?

I wanted to share my reviews of four books I've read recently.

The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming, by Rod Dreher

Dreher is a blogger and columnist with whom I was not familiar, but this memoir is one of the most moving books I've ever read.  Dreher grew up in rural South Louisiana along with his younger sister, Ruthie.  The two were opposites in nearly every way.  Dreher was a bookish outcast as a teenager; Ruthie was the homecoming queen.  Dreher couldn't wait to leave his stifling hometown, and made good on his promise, becoming a successful writer in far-off places like New York City and Philadelphia.  Ruthie, meanwhile, married her high school sweetheart and never had any desire to leave St Francisville.  She was utterly devoted to her parents and the community, while Dreher had a distant, difficult relationship with his family, especially his dad.  When Ruthie was struck with terminal cancer, Dreher and his wife felt called to move back to his hometown to help out.  The experience changed them deeply.  As they watched an entire community rally around their family, the Drehers began to consider what was previously unthinkable: Making St. Francisville their permanent home.  Dreher had always seen his sister's life as small and insignificant; but now he pondered trading a life full of international flights, appearances on CNN and dinners at five-star restaurants for a place where sameness was considered a virtue.  Dreher tells this story so powerfully, so skillfully, I felt like I  knew these people well.  I felt the sorrow and joy in equal measure.
Truth be told, part of me resonated with this story because, like Dreher, I too grew up in a small town and left it behind.  I too have a sibling who has chosen to raise his family there, near our parents.  Unlike Dreher, I don't have a complicated relationship with my extended family, so the book made me think about how life would be different if Carrie and I lived in Hope instead of Houston.  But this isn't really a book about the virtues of small-town living.  Ruthie and the other people of St Francisville are depicted realistically; they are loving and incredibly generous, but also small-minded and suspicious of outsiders.  The key here is that for the first time, Dreher found real community; neighbors who care for one another and do life together.  Dreher describes his faith journey in great detail, but this isn't really a book about theology. It's more of a call to find roots, whether in a small town or a big city.  It won't necessarily make you want to sell your house and move to the country, but it will make you want to meet your neighbors...and that's a good thing.

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life, by Eric Metaxas.

I've read several of Metaxas' books, including his biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Boenhoeffer (the latter was a best-seller).  He's an excellent, engaging writer, and this time, he turns his attention to the miraculous.  This is really two books.  The first half is an exploration of the concept of miracles.  In many ways, it reads like an apologetics book, as Metaxas defends the rationality of believing that biblical miracles like the creation, Jesus' healings, and the resurrection really took place.  I especially liked his notion that solar eclipses are evidence that our world was intentionally designed.

But it's the second half of the book most readers will enjoy.  In this section, Metaxas tells the stories of real-life miracles experienced by people he knows personally.  Some are even miracles he experienced himself, including his conversion. I found these stories utterly gripping, and highly credible.  As I was reading this book, I felt a strong desire to pray with greater boldness.  Metaxas does not offer unbiblical promises; he has no explanation for why God intervenes supernaturally in some cases, but not most.  But after reading this, I am more convinced than ever that God is still in the miracle-working business.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God, by Tim Keller.  

If Metaxas' book made me want to be more bold in prayer, this book made me want to be more intentional about truly experiencing God.  Keller is one of my favorite writers and preachers, with a terrific writing style and a brilliant mind.  In this book, he first examines what prayer is meant to be--is it a way of knowing God better, or a way of changing the world for good?  Keller's conclusion is that prayer should be both.  There are stretches in the early sections where Keller critiques other books on prayer; I found these sections a bit more tedious than the rest of the book, but I see why Keller felt they needed to be included.  The rest of the book is a look at what prayer can and should be, as found in Scripture and the writings of stalwarts such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the Puritan writer John Owen.  The genesis of this book is the profound growth Keller experienced in his own prayer life during and after a bout with cancer, and my favorite portions are when he gives practical steps to experiencing more of God in prayer.  I must admit, it took me a long time to finish this book, because I had to stop after two or three pages at most to process what I had just read.  So this is a challenging book, but a rewarding one.

The Son, by Philipp Meyer.

And now for something completely different...This is a fiction novel, and one not in any way intended for a Christian readership.  Meyer's book interested me for two reasons: it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2014, and it's about Texas.  The Son is a true epic, spanning nearly two centuries.  It tells the interrelated stories of three members of the same family.  In the first story, Eli McCollough, the first male child born in the new Republic of Texas, is abducted by Commanches at the age of 13.  Eli's family is slaughtered in the raid, but the boy adapts to his new surroundings, becoming a fierce Commanche brave himself.  The story follows him through years with the tribe, and the life he builds after rejoining white society.  The second story is about Eli's son, Peter. The two men are polar opposites; while Eli is a hard-nosed Texas legend, Peter is an idealist and romantic.  His story arc takes place in the early 1900s, during the Bandit Wars in Deep South Texas and Mexico.  Eli and Peter disagree on how their Mexican neighbors (including some who owned land in Texas before white people arrived) should be treated, and this dispute--and the violence that ensues--threatens to tear the family apart, The third story concerns Jeannie McCollough, Eli's great-granddaughter, who has far more in common with him than with her grandfather Peter.  Jeannie grows up in a time when women are expected to simply marry and bear children, and ends up building an oil empire...then wondering if it was all worth it. These three separate stories from vastly different times are interwoven, so that a chapter about Eli is followed by one about Peter, then by one about Jeannie.  This makes for confusing reading; Meyer has helpfully placed a McCollough family tree in the opening page of the book, and I found myself flipping back to that page nearly once per chapter.

Meyer is not a Texan himself, but he has certainly done his research.  The chapters about Eli, particularly life among the Commanches, feel authentic and are riveting.  This is an extremely brutal book, unsparing in its violence and in the level of detail about, for instance, the Commanche process of taking apart and using a buffalo after a hunt.  Commanches, Rangers, Mexicans, Texans, oil men and northeastern elites are all presented realistically; there are no good guys here, nor villains.  Each of the stories has its own moments of triumph, but ultimately there's more heartbreak involved.  From a faith perspective, the characters range from nominal Christianity to outright unbelief.  Ultimately, this is a story of how the same forces that make a family "great" can also destroy that same family.  I can recommend this as a terrific read, but not for the faint-hearted.

Saving Room for God

If you’ve ever raised a small child, you know the “joy” of denying them what they want.  When Kayleigh was very little, we used to go to a Mexican restaurant whose owner liked to give her a bag of M&Ms every time we went in.  This was very generous, but it also made life a bit difficult.  Neurologists tell us that the human brain isn’t fully developed until we’re in our mid-twenties.  Our pre-frontal cortex is incomplete, and that means we don’t correlate actions with consequences, and we don’t have impulse control.  Which explains why car insurance companies charge so much to people before they hit 25; and why young people are especially susceptible to addiction; and why teenaged boys who otherwise seem intelligent can do incredibly stupid things; and why it’s an exercise in futility to try to convince a three-year old that she shouldn’t eat candy before dinner.  So Carrie and I had to come up with elaborate strategies to keep Kayleigh from seeing the candy or thinking about the candy until the meal was done.  In fact, we came up with a code for talking about M&Ms in front of our daughter, “You take her for a walk, and I’ll go get the upside-down Ws.”  Now, if you don’t have kids, you may be wondering, “Why not just give her the doggone candy?”  Because candy is nice, but one cannot live on it.  Our daughter needed real food.  If we had let her eat candy whenever she wanted, that’s all she ever would have eaten.  Since she wasn’t old enough to understand that logic, we had to be the bad guys.

As Christians, we often think that our main problem is all the toxic stuff in our lives, meaning the overt sins we commit.  “I have these dark, evil thoughts.  I get angry all the time.  I resent someone who hurt me.  I have a porn addiction and a nasty tendency to talk about people behind their back.”  We see all those things as like arsenic, slowly killing us spiritually.  That’s certainly true. But I would argue that our main problem isn’t the poison, it’s the stuff that’s the spiritual equivalent of M&Ms.  It’s all the stuff in our lives that isn’t really evil; it just crowds out any room for a real relationship with God.  We read passages like Psalm 63:1, My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.  Or Psalm 73:25, Who do I have in heaven but You? And I desire nothing on earth but You. If we’re honest, most of us would say we don’t really feel that way about God very often.  Some of us would say “I’ve never felt that kind of hunger for Him.”  If you resonate with that, it’s not because you’re some sort of spiritual loser; it’s just that you’re filling up on other stuff.  Spiritual junk food is crowding out the hunger you should have for the only thing that satisfies.  So what can we do about that?

Sunday, as I continue my sermon series on spiritual disciplines, "The New You," we'll look at a discipline custom-designed to help us overcome the junk food so we can feast on the Bread of Life.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Our Lifeline

A few weeks ago, I participated in McNamara Elementary’s career day.  I spoke to a fifth grade class and a third grade class about what I do. There was some pressure; there were policemen there, EMTs, doctors (all in uniform) and a woman from the SPCA with a truckload of adorable animals.  When I walked into the third grade class, a little boy asked, “Are you from the FBI?”  He was very disappointed.  The kids asked some interesting questions.  One girl asked, “How much money do you make?”  The boy next to her shook his head and said, “Kids these days…”  Another little boy asked, “What do you believe about the Rapture?”  My favorite question was from a sweet, shy little girl who asked, “How do you talk to Jesus?”  That’s the very question I plan to address this Sunday.  We’re in a series right now called “The New You.”  God wants to renovate our lives.  He’s like a master home builder who has generously donated His time, skills, tools and materials to help you completely remake your home, but who insists we work alongside Him.  The “work” we do to become a new person is not “trying really hard not to sin.”  That never works out.  Instead, we get changed as we encounter God through spiritual disciplines, like meditating on Scripture, which we talked about last week.  Each week, I’m sharing a different discipline with you, and challenging you to practice it for a week.  This week, we’ll talk about prayer.   

In a way, it seems silly even to talk about learning how to pray.  Jesus once compared prayer to a child asking her father for a piece of bread.  No child has to be taught how to ask her father for something.  In the same way, prayer is simply us telling God what is on our hearts.  In some ways, we make prayer seem more complicated than it should be, thinking we have to be in a specific posture--kneeling, eyes closed, hands folded.  Show me that in the Bible!  Some of my most powerful prayers have come when I was driving or jogging.  Actually, praying while jogging has a double benefit--I’m connecting with God, and because people think I’m talking to myself, they leave me alone!  So the last thing I want this sermon to do is make any of you think, “Wow, it’s really hard to do prayer right.  I just won’t pray at all.”  Share with God whatever is on your heart, whenever you feel the need, in whatever language is most natural to you.  But hopefully there comes a time in a child’s life when she moves beyond just asking her father for things, and starts really spending time with him just for the sake of it.  I want to talk today about how we can truly connect with God in prayer.  Numbers tells us that Moses would spend time in God’s presence, and God would speak to him face to face, like a man speaks with his friend.  I believe God wants that for you and me, too. But how can we have that kind of relationship?  We'll find out, as we look at Jesus' prayer life this Sunday.