Saturday, January 8, 2011

Words for the Year Ahead

In the postscript to his new book, The Radical Disciple, John Stott, now late in his eighties, says good-bye to his readers, reflects on the future of books and their influence in our lives, and says “let me urge you to keep reading, and encourage your relatives and friends to do the same. For this is a much neglected means of grace.”

I have certainly found books, and reading, an essential means of grace. For the past decade, most of my reading has been very purpose-driven, centered on youth culture, spiritual formation in the next generation, ministry leadership, mentoring of volunteers.

I’m excited to enter a new year with a new book list, focused more directly on one question: how do we live out Jesus’ words in John 14 and 15? What does it look like to be Jesus’ friends?

And what did Jesus mean when he said “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing? He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

There seems to be a deep divide down the heart of the modern church - shaped in large part by our response, or lack of response, to Jesus' words. On one side are those who have decided that we shouldn’t take what he said too seriously. When we pray for the sick, we pray for patience and fortitude, not for healing. When we arrange our lives, we set aside a circumspect amount of time and money for “the church” and spend the rest as we like.

We read the parts of the Bible that seem reasonable and easy, and skim past the rest. Words of comfort and encouragement are find, but the parts where Jesus' followers struggled with hearing, and living, the faith they were given? As one youth parent insisted, quite seriously, and indignantly: “No one should allow youth to read Romans!”

On the other side of the divide are those eager to hear, understand and live in a visible way the radical words of Christ, those hungry for something deeper, more real: unexplainable demonstrations of God at work in the world; radical disciples whose purposes reflect a heavenly kingdom; genuine communities of believers who share each other’s sorrows, eat, pray, love together, and welcome the broken, the homeless, the aliens, the lepers of our day.

Books won’t get us there, much as I love to read them. And yet, there are faithful writers who hold signposts that point the way. So here are some books I’ll be reading. I’d love to talk about them with anyone interested, and put them into practice with friends nearby.

Scripture by Heart: Devotional Practices for Memorizing God’s Word. Jashua Choonmin Kang (2010. I’ve noticed that one of the fastest avenues to change, in my own life, is through memorizing scripture. As I make God’s word a daily prayer, the Holy Spirit uses that word to transform me in ways I could never do myself. Kang’s book, featured in this month’s Christianity Today, sounds like a way to dig deeper into this avenue of transformation. Reviews say it's not well written (it's translated, a little awkwardly, from Korean), but winsome and compelling.

Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. Richard Foster (1992). I read this years ago, and in looking for a book for this list on prayer, have been encouraged to pick it up and spend more time with it. At the same time, I’m looking for something that goes deeper into healing prayer, so may be adding Andrew Murray’s classic The Ministry of Intercessory Prayer, (reprinted in 2001) which Foster has described as one of the best books he ever read.

The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling, John R. W. Stott (2010).   
At 88, John Stott has written his last reflection on the Christian life, looking at aspects of what it means to follow Christ that the church prefers to ignore: nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death. It’s a slim book (just 137 pages) but full of the wisdom of a lifetime of faithful study and witness.

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor (2009). “The daily practice of incarnation – of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh – is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper?” Brown Taylor is interested in the place where faith meets the minutiae of daily life: how we see ourselves in the mirror, how we experience pain, how we listen, or ignore, the mundane life happening all around us.

Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as A Christian Tradition.  Christine Pohl (1999). I’ve been noticing how much people are hungry for someone to extend hospitality, to build community – to take the first step. This can’t be a “program,” instead it’s a practice that needs to be recovered by all of us. According to my favorite book blog: “This book is one of the most important books of the last several decades, and has gotten the gracious practice of hospitality renewed attention.  Very, very good, and so important!  We've got other great books on this theme, some perhaps even more practical, but I think this is the very best.  A must-read.”

Jump Into a Life of Further and Higher.  Efrem Smith (2010). I’m reading Brown Taylor to help think about discipleship in my own (literal) backyard, Pohl to extend that into my community and church, and Smith, pastor and practitioner in urban settings, to help me think about reaching farther than the circumspect lines of my suburban community: “This is socially engaged spirituality, faith lived out in the pain of a needy world, eager to know God and jump into the fray to be used by God.” 

Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Spiritual Direction (2003), The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (2004), Desiring God’s Will: Aligning our Hearts with the Heart of God (2005), and Sacred Friendship: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction (2004).  David Benner. The first three are short (just over 100 pages) introductions to aspects of spiritual direction. The forth is longer, and offers practical application of some of Brenner’s ideas in settings of friendship, small groups, and marriage. Since spiritual friendship, or “deep church,” is an idea I’ve been thinking about, I’m thankful for the introduction to Brenner, and looking forward to seeing where this leads.

I’m also thankful for other suggestions offered – and intend to dig into them along the way, commenting and recommending as I go. 

Heaven is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God's Creation. Paul Marshall (1999)
Living Like Jesus: Eleven Essentials for Growing a Genuine Faith. Ron Sider (1998)
Not the Religious Type, Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. Dave Schmelzer (2008)
On Being a Theologian of the Cross. Gerhard O. Forde (1997)

The goal – always – is to hear clearly, to sconsider honestly, and to apply humbly the truth shared along the way.

God be in my head and in my understanding:
God be in my eyes and in my looking:
God be in my mouth and in my speaking:
God be in my heart and in my thinking . . .