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Just for today, Ashley Cleveland’s memoir, Little Black Sheep, is free as an ebook.

I’ve written about her memoir here: Zig zagging step by step
“..she grew up white in the refined, rich, and religious south of the United States where going to church was what nice people did–along with living secret broken lives. Ashley tells her journey from respectability to grace, with a whole lot of detours in between. When she was a teenager, she decided to follow Jesus, but she kept stepping off the path. Again and again, she gave in to her particular temptations: drugs, sex, alcohol. Again and again, she’d return to God and ask forgiveness. Again and again, God took her back. For years, her life was one endless zig zag. Zig onto the path, zag off the path….”

And you can find some quotes from her book here: Speaking of taking it one day at a time

It’s a powerful story of what hope can look like in someone’s life over the years: true, desperate, gritty, unfailing, impossible, redeeming.

Here is the Davd C. Cook publisher link which will point you to several ebook retailers, and gives a video where Cleveland talks about the book. You can get the Kindle version here on Amazon.

[And for those of you who are music lovers, I’d recommend her album, God Don’t Never Change ]

A few months ago, I read a memoir of sorts, “Washed and Waiting” by Wesley Hill. I’ve called it the struggles of a saint, not because Hill is extraordinarily holy, but because saint means ‘one who is made holy’, and we, the beloved of God, made holy by Jesus, are called to be saints [Romans 1:7].


“The fresh start of the gospel is God’s Groundhog Day. Only everyone around us has a memory as well. And yet each day God gives me another chance. Each time each moment I come to God and ask forgiveness I am washed. There is never, ever, a refusal on his part.”


“Jenna described that dark time and told me something that has remained with me ever since: “I just wanted to be whole again, Wes, and I thought that by pretending it wasn’t there, the depression would just go away. But ignoring is not the path to redeeming. If I wanted this depression to be redeemed, I had to face it head-on.” I tried to swallow the lump in my throat, realizing those words were for me. Ignoring is not the path to redeeming.”


“Once Tara described an experience she had had while studying in England for a semester. She had been striving to understand and be what she thought she should understand and be. Finally one night, in a service at Coventry Cathedral, she relaxed and submitted to God’s wound-mending embrace. She felt that God loved her just as she was. I read Tara’s description of that night at Coventry several times, and I realized, with a cold, smarting sense of mingled sadness and helplessness, that I knew very little, firsthand, of what she was describing. My first thought as I got out of bed every morning was not, I am the beloved of God. I had not mastered the discipline, as N. T. Wright calls it, of looking to the cross of Christ and seeing evidence there that I am loved extravagantly and inexorably by the self-giving triune God.
…It has taken years for me to learn, bit by bit, this spiritual practice of meditating on the love of God and to understand that it is central to my struggle… I consciously began the daily effort to view myself as God’s beloved, redeemed by the self-gift of Christ.”


“When I cannot feel God’s love for me in my struggle, to have a friend grab my shoulder and say, “I love you, and I’m in this with you for the long haul” is, in some ways, an incarnation of God’s love that I would otherwise have trouble resting in.
…No longer was I simply struggling; I was learning to struggle well, with others, in the presence of God.”


“I’d suggest that living with unfulfilled desires is not the exception of the human experience but the rule. Even most of those who are married are, as Thoreau once said, “living lives of quiet regret.” Maybe they married the wrong person or have the pain of suffering within marriage or feel trapped in their situations and are unable to fulfill a higher sense of calling. The list of unfulfilled desires goes on and on.”


A friend said to Hill:
“Imagine yourself standing in the presence of God, looking down from heaven on the earthly life you’re about to be born into, and God says to you, ‘Wes, I’m going to send you into the world for sixty or seventy or eighty years. It will be hard. In fact, it will be more painful and confusing and distressing than you can now imagine. You will have a thorn in your flesh…that is the result of your entering a world that sin and death have broken, and you may wrestle with it all your life. But I will be with you. I will be watching every step you take, guiding you by My Spirit, supplying you with grace sufficient for each day.
And at the end of your journey, you will see My face again, and the joy we share then will be born out of the agonies you faithfully endured by the power I gave you. And no one will take that joy— that solid resurrection joy, which, if you experienced it right now, would crush you.’
God is the author of your story. He is watching, supplying you with his Spirit moment by moment.”

What God is doing

October 14, 2015 — Leave a comment

Along with reading the stories in scripture of how God has worked, I also find it encouraging to hear the stories of people who are living now. Reading memoirs is a wonderful way to see God being present with people in their struggles.

“Memoirs and autobiographies [give a] valuable kind of learning…not a definition of grace to be memorized, but the experience of grace as perceived through the window of another person’s life…”       Richard Lischer

Rose Marie [the mother of Paul Miller] grew up with a schizophrenic mother and began following Jesus as a teenager. But for many years, her life of faith was one of trying to control her circumstances and avoid painful memories as she describes in Nothing is Impossible:

“I kept God at a distance, building walls of self-protection and self-reliance. I said I was a Christian but my life said, “I can manage without God.” When crises came, the walls went higher. But there came a day when building walls did not work and I was left with, “I don’t believe God exists, or if He does exist, He is a dark cloud over my life— a cloud of fear, guilt, condemnation, and loneliness.” Into this dark cloud God spoke, not with an audible voice, but with life-giving words. God, for whom nothing really is impossible— not even changing a self-righteous, independent, desperately-trying-to-keep-it-all-together pastor’s wife— gave me Himself.”

Rose Marie is honest enough not to end her story there, in what sounds like a triumphant final victory. She continued to struggle, make mistakes, and fall back on using God:

“… when the youngest of the four rebelled and left home angry and bitter, eventually living with drug dealers, I realized that much of what I had done was motivated by wanting a perfect family that did not embarrass me. Her younger sister, our fifth child, was influenced by her and also went her own way. It was a very sad and humbling time. I had missed the fact that only God changes the heart. I was expecting all my work to do what only God can do.”

She continues her story to the present day, now in her 80s, working with women in London, and still discovering her never-ending need for God’s grace.


Joni and Ken tells the story of Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband Ken, and how once they were married it wasn’t quite ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ As the years went on, Ken became overwhelmed by caring constantly for Joni. As she lived in extreme, chronic pain, he sank into depression and emotionally they drifted away from each other. Eventually they found their way back to God and to each other.

“When I wake up an hour or two from now — and I know I will — please let me see You, feel You. I need You, Jesus! Let me know that You’re there and that You’re with me. You have said You will never fail me or forsake me. Please, Lord … may I sense that tonight at some point?”
Later that same night, when [Joni] woke up again, pain seemed to fill the whole room. The atmosphere was thick with it, like a heavy fog off Chesapeake Bay, with dark spirits darting in and out of the mist, taunting, jeering, whispering nonsense. More frighteningly, she could feel her lungs filling up.
She called Ken, and he came to her, stepping into the dim illumination of the bedside lamp. It was the third time that night she needed him, but there he was once again, so patient, so kind, so ready to help, deep love and concern written across every line of his face. He turned her body to another position, pushed on her abdomen, helped her blow her nose. Spoke words of quiet encouragement. Stroked her hair. Chased away the demons with words of prayer as he worked.
Suddenly, Joni turned her head and looked up at him, eyes wide with wonder. It took him by surprise. Was she hallucinating? What was she seeing? “You’re Him!” she said. “I … I don’t understand, Joni.” “Ken … you’re Him! You’re Jesus!” Fresh tears began to flow, and he dabbed them from her face with a tissue. “I’m not kidding. I can feel His touch when you touch me. I can see Him in your smile. I can hear Him in the tone of your voice . Right now! I mean it,” she said with a sob. “This is what I prayed for. You are Jesus!”

“Jesus had never said, “I am the power cord; you are the iPhone.” He said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” If [Joni] wanted that life — and she did — there couldn’t be any disconnect. Abiding was what desperate people did who realized they had no life, no power, no resource within themselves.”


Life Lessons from the Hiding Place might be better titled, “Life Lessons after the Hiding Place” because it is the story of Corrie Ten Boom’s life after she was released from the concentration camp. She faced a life without much hope: she was a single 52-year-old woman, who had suffered the loss of her father and sister, and who now faced the challenge of making a new life in war-ravaged Europe while sensing a call to continue what she had been doing before the war: sharing the love of Jesus, and telling how He had ministered to her in the concentration camp.

“As Corrie recounted [her experience], one of the neighbors said, “I am sure it was your faith that carried you through.”
“My faith? I don’t know about that,” replied Corrie. “My faith was so weak, so unstable. It was hard to have faith. When a person is in a safe environment, having faith is easier. But in that camp when I saw my own sister and thousands of others starve to death, where I was surrounded by men and women who had training in cruelty, then I do not think it was my faith that helped me through. No, it was Jesus! He who said, ‘I am with you until the end of the world.’ It was His eternal arms that carried me through. He was my certainty.
“If I tell you that it was my faith, you might say if you have to go through suffering, ‘I don’t have Corrie ten Boom’s faith.’ But if I tell you it was Jesus, then you can trust that He who helped me through will do the same for you. I have always believed it, but now I know from my own experience that His light is stronger than the deepest darkness.”

Other memoirs I’ve posted about in the past:
Rich Mullins: Like an Arrow Pointing to Heaven

Little Black Sheep by Ashley Cleveland

Isobel Kuhn Omnibus

What memoirs would you recommend?

Because the world is a broken place, filled with broken people, it’s not easy being a child. Other children, tired and pressured adults, unhappy siblings–just about anyone a child relates to can be a source of tension and anxiety.

But the reverse can be true as well. Every time we interact with a child, we have the opportunity to make a positive difference in his or her life. And “How to Really Love Your Child” is a kind of primer on how we can best do that, applicable to anyone who relates to children, not just parents. If you have a child or a grandchild, a niece or a nephew, or even a child you interact with regularly in your neighborhood or church, you will find this book helpful.

how to really love your child

I read this* while on vacation with five children and found it immediately practical. The insights are clear yet very profound. It only took me a few hours to read the book but I reflected on it for several days and discussed some of the ideas with the other adults.

wonderful Vermont beach

wonderful Vermont beach

The chapters that were especially helpful for me were on the love a child needs and the anger a child expresses. The first reminded me how vital it is for a child to feel loved unconditionally.
“There is no way to over-love a child; none of us, for that matter, can ever receive too much genuine love. Children need so much of it…”
In the press of daily life, it is so easy to forget or overlook this. A child constantly needs to experience love in action.

The second reminded me that at times, when a child is angry, he or she is not always so easy to love. Campbell gives some real-world advice on being with a child who is whining or crying (which as we know happens just about any time you are with a child!), It was comforting to read that some of my impatience in those situations is normal and yet can be overcome.

a peaceful moment playing together perfectly

a peaceful moment playing together

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

Lucy & Clara MFA, Franks & Littletons 116

Who are the children in your life?
What can you do to love them this week?

I read the “How to Really Love Your Grandchild” version–and have a loanable Kindle copy if you are interested.

A nice companion to Campbell’s book is “Finding Home: An Imperfect Path to Faith and Family” by Jim Daly. This memoir is a powerful story about how love and its absence can affect a child, and how a loving adult can make a difference to a child.

Usually we read stories about drunks who then become Christians. That’s the encouraging progression we’re used to seeing in people’s lives. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sober Mercies by Heather Kopp is the memoir of a Christian who became an alcoholic.

With searing and painful honesty, she shares her descent into a very messy darkness and then how she found her way back to life as a recovering alcoholic.

For several years after she started following Jesus as a teenager, Kopp rarely drank. But slowly she began to drink more, and eventually she became addicted. Although alcohol didn’t satisfy her, she found herself pulled back to it again and again. Drinking became another way of life for her, one of hangovers and blackouts.

Trapped in the grip of addiction, she experienced the particular shame that a Christian drunk feels. Because for those who are already saved, “to even admit that we have become addicted feels like a betrayal of Christ’s work on the cross… in order to shield those we love, and to protect God’s reputation (and ours), we try to hide our problem…it’s our desire to maintain a good witness that turns us into sneaks, liars, and hypocrites.”

I don’t know about you, but that sounds familiar to me. How many times have I done something even though as a Christian I’m supposed to know better, to act better? How many times have I begun to think I’m worthy of grace because I have cleaned up my act in a few areas of my life– even if there are many other parts that remain messy and broken?

Kopp’s experience reminds us that when we receive God’s gift of salvation our problems are not solved once and for all. I want to cling to the fairytale of faith: Once upon a time, there was a sinner who found Jesus. She became active in a church, developed a love of prayer and Bible study, and lived happily ever after. But what often happens next is not happiness but struggle and heartache.


We continue to carry longtime brokenness; we fall back into old destructive habits. We can become frustrated and angry that the problems of our past have not disappeared. Then we discover how difficult it can be to live out our faith in God’s redeeming grace.

And we find ourselves developing new bad behaviors and attitudes. We may trade our messed-up life for a proud life. A dishonest life may be traded for a judgmental one. A rigid, authoritarian life can be traded for a slow descent into addiction. Only now we feel more stuck than before because good people don’t do bad things, especially good Christians. Like Kopp, we may try to bargain with God, hoping to find a way to hold on to our unsatisfying craving that is destroying our life.

Kopp finally hit bottom after years of being an alcoholic. At that point she had to begin to face unpleasant truths. Perhaps most importantly she had to accept that her own strength of will and ‘clenched-fist prayers’ weren’t enough to free her from her desire to drink. She started on the road to recovery only when she surrendered completely.

Hadn’t she done that already when she became a Christian? Yes, and probably many times afterwards. But surrender isn’t a one-time act. It’s easy to think of it as the first level on a video game that you have to pass to reach the next level. Sober Mercies reminds us that as recovering sinners, we will never leave the ground floor. Every single day we will need to experience God’s grace. And the only way we can do that is to admit who we really are and what we’ve done, and then surrender our will to God again.

Kopp’s story echoes those we read throughout the Old and New Testament of people who entered into a covenantal relationship with God and then wandered far away. When they turned back to come home, they found their loving Father waiting to redeem their life again.

Recovering from an addition is a hard battle. As in Kopp’s case, there are rarely overnight miracles. But step by step she begins to recover her life, her marriage, her senses. She regains joy and true freedom. This is a story of great hope: God never gives up on us, and when we return to Him, He helps us put our life back together using His love and grace as the glue.

Sober Mercies also reminds us that moral failure is not limited to the pastors and Christian celebrities we read about in the news. There are hiding, hurting, desperate people in church who have been Christians for years. They attend worship services, they are members of a Bible study, they are part of a church ministry. Someone may be sitting next to me in the pew week after week struggling with a shameful secret, and in need of redemption now more than ever.

Someone just like me.

Hello, my name is Annie, and I’m a sinner who needs Jesus. Still.

What about you? Are there areas in your life where you wandered away from God’s transforming grace?

What Christian sinner needs you to love them with fearless honesty and compassion?

Here are some memoirs by fellow travelers that I’ve enjoyed this past year:
The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail
by Margot Starbuck
A mediation on the fatherhood of God after growing up adopted, and her search to make her velveteen rabbit faith into real faith.

The Pastor
by Eugene Peterson
Worth reading if you know a pastor [even if you aren’t married to one], this book gives a window into a faithful servant who has loved people and told God’s story

A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny
by Amy Julia Becker
The challenging and inspiring story of a Princeton grad loving her child with Down’s Syndrome

Redeemed:Stumbling Toward God, Sanity, and the Peace that Passes all Understanding
by Heather King
As I wrote last year about this book, “Through episodes and events in her life [divorce, cancer, the death of a parent], Heather King chronicles the power of Christ to take a person out of the mud and mire and set them on a rock solid foundation that can weather the harshest storms. But she doesn’t describe her transformation with a sense of personal triumph, rather with a hard-won obedience to the One who knows better than she does.”

And what will I be reading during my vacation?
Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt
by Andrea Palpant Dilley
A woman’s journey from faith to post-modern confusion and back. Dilley writes: “The divine hiddenness that once drove me from the church now brings me back to the sanctuary every Sunday. That distance seems like less of a gap and more like a gift, a space I can travel, a place where my longing draws me upward toward God.”

Many years ago, I read two books by Dr Paul Brand, co-authored with Philip Yancey, In His Image,and Fearfully and Wonderfully Made. Both books draw upon lessons Brand learned in his pioneering work with leprosy patients.** Full of amazing insights about the human body and the Christian faith, they are well worth reading, or re-reading.

But this post isn’t about Paul Brand. It’s about his mother who had her own fascinating story. Granny Brand started out her life as Evelyn Harris, the daughter of a rich British merchant. In her late twenties [a hundred years ago], she gave up her comfortable life in London and went to work in the mountains of southern India. There she married Jesse Brand and settled into a remote area where people struggled with sickness, poverty and hopelessness. The Brands cared for the people, sharing the good news of the gospel and caring for those who were ill. They had two children, Paul and Connie, who were eventually sent back to England for schooling. Then Jesse died of blackwater fever. Evelyn went back to England on furlough, and spent time with her children. But at the age of 49 she returned to India. For the next 20 years she continued the work, sometimes living in rugged mountain villages and sometimes working on the plains, based in Madras.

Her biography** does not dwell on her faults but it’s clear that she was not always easy to work with. She could be critical , strong-minded, and stubborn. But she was also passionate to help people in any way she could and her life is proof that the God doesn’t seem to mind using imperfect, exasperating saints.

Just before she turned 70, following the policy of the mission, she retired. And then she joined Caleb’s Crew**. Instead of returning to England, she settled once again in the southern mountains to start a new work. For 25 more years, until her death at the age of 95, she continued bringing hope and wholeness to remote villages. She helped eradicate the painful guinea worm parasite, fought marijuana growers, led Bible studies, took in foster children. Granny Brand is a great example that there’s no age limit on having a vision and making a difference in the world. Given that our life expectancy has increased over the last century, that’s a valuable lesson for all of us, no matter what age we are.

But I think the most notable success of her second career was not how God worked through her, but how God was able to work in her. Miraculously, He softened her, healed old bitterness, replaced irritation with love. When Paul Brand visited his mother towards the end of her life, he noticed a spiritual strength she had not shown before. And he found her younger–not in her body, but in her spirit. She had a deeper joy and peace. “This is how to grow old,” her son wrote.” Allow everything else to fall away, until those around you see just love. They will also see your own life renewed and they will recognize the love to be the love of God.”

What an encouraging illustration that we are never too old to be changed. God never gives up working in us. Regardless of what decade we are in, the power of the Holy Spirit can do the impossible in us, smoothing away our rough edges and healing wounds we thought were permanent.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. II Corinthians 4:16

**Links and Notes
** “Before Brand, it was widely believed that those suffering from Hansen’s Disease lost their fingers and feet because of rotting flesh. Instead, Brand discovered, such deformities were due to the loss of ability to feel pain. With treatment and care, he showed, victims of the disease could go indefinitely without such deformities.” [obituary in Christianity Today]

**Granny Brand: Her Story by Dorothy Wilson Clarke
There is also a brief biography of her here

**Introduction to the Caleb’s Crew series

Once upon a time, before food blogs and before the Food Network–but not before Julia Child–there was an Episcopal priest by the name of Robert Farrar Capon [Don’t ask me why he went by three names. Perhaps because he was Episcopalian…] He was a good pastor, fond of eating and drinking with sinners, just like his Master. He also enjoyed cooking as much as eating, and theology as much as writing, a rare combination. Then he put all of these talents to use and wrote The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. It’s called a reflection and not a cookbook because although he does guide the reader through recipes, the book is not just about cooking, but also about savoring food, and of course, about God.**

The book is framed around a simple premise: one leg of lamb for eight people, four times. You’d think that would take about five pages at most. But Capon is a preacher, a very good one in fact, and he’s engaging, funny, and easy to listen to. However, don’t worry. The book is not written from the pulpit, but in front of the stove where he ruminates as he works. The result might be what you would get if Babette, the wonderful cook in Babette’s Feast,** decided to write down how she cooked her amazing meal. I doubt she would give any recipe that could be reduced to a 3 x 5 index card. It might even have 45 steps.** In the eponymous** movie version**, Babette doesn’t come across as talkative, but I think in her more exuberant moments she would end up writing something like The Supper of the Lamb.

Capon’s** instruction to slice an onion leads to a ten page meditation. There are discourses on knives and cutting and water and meat. He is an amateur in the true sense of the word: someone who cooks out of love not duty.** He is filled with a holy joie de vivre that echoes God looking at the His creation and saying it was good.

“Every real thing is a joy, if only you have eyes and ears to relish it, a nose and a tongue to taste it. But more than that, food and cooking are among the richest subjects in the world. Every day of our lives they preoccupy, delight and refresh us. Food is not just some fuel we need to get us going toward higher things. Cooking is not a drudgery we put up with in order to get the gruel delivered. Rather, each is a heart’s astonishment. Both stop us dead in our tracks with wonder.

Rereading this book [I first read it over a decade ago in the middle of my once-a-month cooking phase], I see the errors of my ways, given what I wrote about making Boeuf Bourguignon. To complain of labor, in Capon’s view, is to complain of love, for what we love we are willing to work for. If I have a problem then, the fault is not in Julia Child or French cooking, but my acceptance of the gospel of speed and efficiency.

In this corrupt world of high-fructose corn syrup, mass slaughterhouses, and food products created only to tempt and never to satisfy, cooking real food and eating it with friends is a very holy act. That’s why holidays like Thanksgiving are good for us. It’s a day that slows us down and gives us a chance to savor the bounty of God’s culinary creativity with the dear family and friends He has graced us with.

Happy Thanksgiving. May you enjoy your banquet feast and remember the Giver of all good gifts.

**Links and notes
**Capon on why he wrote the book:
“The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers—amateurs—it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: it is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral—it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.”

**summary of Babette’s Feast

**post about my Waterloo: making Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon

**I will give a special prize for the person who knows how many times I’ve been able to use my new favorite word, eponymous, this year.

**The movie version of Babette’s Feast has the distinction of being the first [but not the last] Danish language film to receive the Academy Award for best foreign film.

**I wonder if Capon developed a love of cooking because his last name is a kind of prized cooking bird [actually a castrated rooster].

**Capon on being an amateur:
“The role of the amateur: to look the world back to grace… Instead, the world looks as if it has been left in the custody of a pack of trolls. Indeed, the whole distinction between art and trash, between food and garbage, depends on the presence or absence of the loving eye. Turn a statue over to a boor and his boredom will break it to bits…on the other hand turn a shack over to a lover; for all its poverty, its lights and shadows warm a little….”

The death of Jesus allows us to look into our Judge’s face and see a Bridegroom. This is the heart of the good news, the gospel: Jesus has been punished for our sins so that the floodgate of God’s affection can be loosed on us like a healing river! He died that we might dance.

Scotty Smith

I’ve just finished reading Objects of His Affection by Scotty Smith. As an extended meditation on how our hearts can become alive to the compelling love of God, the book is a perfect complement to my recent reflections about being God’s beloved. Smith explores why we can have such a hard time really experiencing God’s love, taking his personal story as the prism.

Chapter by chapter, he reveals the fallout in his life after his mother died in a car accident when he was 11. In the years that followed, she became a taboo subject in the family. In high school, he began to follow Jesus but there was a gap between his knowledge of God’s love and his experience of it.

Two things started to define Smith more than the fact that he was God’s beloved: his busy, noisy heart, and that he hadn’t dealt with his mother’s death. As a result, God’s love was blocked in his life, both to him, and through him to others. The result was detachment, busyness, withdrawal, passivity, fear, coupled with an arrogant, wordy spirituality [that’s not a typo– wordy is exactly the word Smith uses].

“A wall of self-protection, a commitment to controlling my world, and a lifestyle of staying busy took over. For the next season of life, theological knowledge and ministry became a substitute for learning how to relate to people and to love well.”

But God continued to love him. Smith discovered that “in the theater of His word, through the care of friends, by the pain of suffering, with the help of all kinds of allies, God pursues and calls to us.” It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually Smith was able to face his mother’s death, talking to his brother and father about her. As a result, an obstacle to accepting love and loving well was removed from his heart.

I was especially interested to read this book because Smith’s story parallels my own in many ways. Though I was only a baby when my mother died, I too grew up carrying an unknown loss, and then came to Jesus and had a deep experience of God’s comforting love. I easily took on the view that because Jesus was now living in me, everything would be wonderful. But there was a large part of me that remained closed off. No one–myself, God, family, friends, was allowed to open that door. Like Smith, I eventually came to a crisis point and discovered that carrying the unacknowledged burden of my mother’s death for so many years had warped and deformed my heart. First came spiritual and emotional surgery, then reconstruction. The healing did not happen overnight, and it often seemed more painful than the pain I hadn’t allowed myself to feel. But I didn’t do this on my own and I like the analogy Smith uses about God’s approach to repairing the sorry condition of our souls:

“To be a Christian is to be accepted by God on the basis of the tarp of his righteousness,which he graciously places over us in Christ,
not on the basis of our efforts to reconstruct or remodel our own lives or even the degree to which the project has progressed.
In fact, God doesn’t only provide the tarp, he is the whole construction team,
actively working in our hearts to make us more and more like Jesus.”

As God continued to work in me, His love began to transform the broken places in me. His instruments for healing included friends and family and a wise therapist. I look back now many years later truly amazed at the changes that have resulted in my life. There’s been a domino effect of grace. One experience of God’s mercy has lead to the next.

As Smith says, “As our heart gets unstuck, the river of God’s grace and mercy can flow through it with greater ease and healing….we are redeemed to become conduits, not merely receptacles of God’s love and compassion…the whole point of the Christian life is to bring glory to God as more and more obstacles to loving well are removed from our hearts.”


More on being beloved

July 19, 2011 — 1 Comment

This past week, I faced taking a driving exam. I can’t remember the last time I took a test that really counted, the kind that affects your future. It was probably 25 years ago when I applied for a job as a copyeditor. I failed, but all’s well that ends well. I became an acquisitions editor instead, a job for which I was much better suited.

But last week the stakes were higher because if I failed, I faced the prospect of not being able to drive in this country. It wasn’t like I could go out and find another country to drive in. Of course I’ve been driving a long time. Piece of cake, you might think. Not really.

First, there was the challenge of answering 40 tricky questions on a very different driving code. Then, the driving part was held in a small parking lot that looked like an obstacle course where I had to execute maneuvers like parallel parking into a tiny space. But what really made me blanch was taking the test in French. It’s true that I’m a Francophile at heart, but unfortunately love of French and fluency in French are not the same thing. In my dreams, I speak like a Parisienne, but when I wake up I hover somewhere around the intermediate level. I make a mistake as frequently as you see someone committing a driving infraction here.** I didn’t know the words for clutch, merge, marking, and road shoulder, to name a few.**

So I experienced a certain anxiety whenever I thought about taking the test. I experienced even greater anxiety at the prospect that I might fail.

Then I remembered my recent post about God’s label for me, beloved.** This became an important touchstone for me in the days leading up to the test. Every time I considered the possibility of a negative outcome, I countered it with “Yes, but no matter what happens, I will remain God’s beloved. I may fail, but that won’t change what God thinks of me.”

I also began reading Henri Nouwen’s gem of a book, Life of the Beloved. In it, he details God’s view of me:

“I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are Mine and I am yours. You are My beloved, on you My favor rests. I have molded you in the depth of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of My hands and hidden you in the shadow of My embrace.

I look at you with infinite tenderness, and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide My face from you. You know Me as your own as I know you as My own. You belong to Me.”

I was amazed how powerful these reminders were for me. The growing balloon of anxiety kept getting punctured and I experienced something else Nouwen wrote:

“Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do…As long as ‘being the Beloved’ is little more than a beautiful thought or a lofty idea that hangs above my life to keep me from becoming depressed, nothing really changes.

What is required is to become the Beloved in the commonplaces of my daily existence and bit, by bit, to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless specific realities of everyday life. Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to me from above down into the ordinariness of what I am, in fact, thinking of, talking about and doing from hour to hour.”

How true this is. I’m beloved no matter what happens, regardless whether I
pass or fail,
win or lose,
miss the train or catch it,
get a clean bill of health or discover I am sick,
find myself approved by the world or rejected by it,
speak a foreign language like a five-year old or like a native.

What challenges will you be facing in the coming weeks? What voice will you tune into?
Will you listen to the voices that shout, “you are no good, you are ugly, you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody—unless you can demonstrate the opposite”?
Or to the voice that says,
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost…
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Isaiah 55:1-3

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35

**Links and Notes
** Here’s a question that isn’t on the driving test:
How many driving infractions do you see here every minute?
a] none
b] three
c] five
d] seven if there is no police around
Correct answer [on the exam there is often more than one right answer]: b and d

**French driving vocabularly:
clutch = l’embrayage
gear = le levier de vitesse
merge = se rabattre
marking = jalonnement
shoulder = l’accotement

** My identity crisis

P.S. I passed the test–more about that in future posts.

I’m nibbling my way through Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another short but pungent book. In the early 1930s Bonhoeffer helped create the Confessing Church which opposed the Nazi regime. As Hitler’s darkness began to grow, Bonhoeffer led a seminary and wrote Life Together based on that experience.

In it, he cautioned against a person “looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere” and to watch out for the danger of “confusing Christian fellowship with some wishful idea of religious fellowship.” The natural desire of a devout person to join a community is not the same thing as being part of the body of Christ.

Christian fellowship is not an ideal we aspire to; it’s something we participate in simply by being followers of Jesus. It’s a spiritual reality, not a psychological or emotional experience. It’s not a country club, or Scouts, or a sports team, or an educational association. It’s not a nationality or a culture, it’s not an affinity group. As Bonhoeffer says, “For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. He is our peace. Through Him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.”

My brother [or sister] is that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, delivered from his sin, and called to faith and eternal life. Not what a person is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our fellowship is what the other person is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.


God has put his Word into the mouth of people in order that it may be communicated to other people. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother or sister. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his fellow Christian as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.


You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what He is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now He’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as He cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.
Ephesians 2:19-22 The Message

This Week’s Special
You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly.
You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all.

Ephesians 4:4-5 The Message

“I myself can never get enough of other people’s personal essays and memoirs. I think we’re all hungry for stories, hungry to make sense of the world, hungry to know we’re not alone. And we’re all really, really hungry to laugh. Not that every memoir has to be funny, but if you look hard enough at any human life, it’s a mixture of the lowest tragedy and the highest comedy. That’s why when you find a person who can tell his or her story with self-deprecation, insight and humor, you know you’re really onto something.”

That quote from Heather King aptly describes why I enjoy reading other people’s stories. That includes her own spiritual memoir, Redeemed: Stumbling toward God, Sanity, and the Peace that Passes All Understanding.

One reviewer said Redeemed “deserves to be as popular as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.” I’ve only seen the movie version of EPL, but I’m not sure that’s the right comparison. Redeemed is more thematic than chronological. The gory details of her private holocaust as an alcoholic are found in King’s first memoir, Parched. Here she picks up the story as she comes to believe in God and then follow Jesus.

As King begins to grow in her faith, she faces the challenge of dealing with the leftover damage from her former life. Through episodes and events in her life [divorce, cancer, the death of a parent], she chronicles the power of Christ to take a person out of the mud and mire and set them on a rock solid foundation that can weather the harshest storms. But she doesn’t describe her transformation with a sense of personal triumph, rather with a hard-won obedience to the One who knows better than she does. She seeks to take God at His word instead of sliding into a self-help gospel [what John Ortberg calls the Moral Therapeutic Dream**] even when this brings her discomfort. She joins the Catholic church and lest you think it is more socially acceptable these days to be a Catholic Christian than an Evangelical Christian, she tells how she was mocked at a meeting of artists when she identifies herself as a Catholic.

You could think of her as a Catholic Anne Lamott, only she doesn’t come across as snarky.** Although she’s now feasting at her Father’s table, she hasn’t forgotten the pathos of eating eat with the pigs or crawling home for forgiveness. She manages to write about her former lifestyle with what I can best describe as a wise and compassionate humility, holding on to truth and love at the same time.

King deals with her past as a self-described “broken-down alcoholic, drug-addicted, sex-and love-obsessed depressive” just as a priest friend of hers, Father Terry, described how to handle someone who’s difficult:

“…you’ll find that the person is generally trying to force you into one of two positions: into either being a doormat or into assuming an adversarial position—it’s as if the person wants to get you to teach him or her a lesson, to get you to return his or her psychological violence with your own. And he [Father Terry] said there’s a middle way—the way of Christ—which is to stand tall and hold the other person accountable, but with total love: not by accusing, or pointing the finger, or laying out your case, but by refusing to pretend that you don’t see what you see or smell what you smell.”

It’s that attitude that enables her to give a compelling account about why life with the pigs isn’t as fulfilling or rewarding or enjoyable as proponents of secular moral freedom would like us to believe. “How can I abort my own child, then purport to abhor the mind that would plan 9/11? It’s not the same thing, but it is the same principle: I’m more valuable than you; you’re in the way; one of us has to go.”

King takes the same thoughtful stance when she describes her journey to move her attention off of herself and focus instead on the praiseworthy Shepherd of her soul:

What if I quit feeling guilty and ashamed; what if I believed I really had been forgiven? What unimaginable freedom might I enjoy if I ceased thinking of myself as congenitally damaged and defective?…what if my emotional fragility was ‘just a manifestation of my oh-so-inflated ego? What if I’d just been protecting myself: from taking risks, yielding control, having some fun? What if I could just pick up my mat, like the paralytic Jesus cured—and walk?
[On the other hand]I can’t ‘put on the new man’ by an effort of will. I don’t have to try harder, I have to resist less. I have to be willing to try a new way and to let the old way go.

Here is a wise guide worth reading, a prodigal daughter who has returned home and is honestly struggling to learn what it means to be beloved.

**The basic beliefs of Moral Therapeutic Deism
Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, says the primary expression of faith in our day is Moral Therapeutic Deism. This religion is characterized by five beliefs:
“–There is a God who created earth and watches over it
–God wants people to be nice, fair and good (as it taught in the Bible and most other religions)
–The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself
–God doesn’t need to be involved in your life except when there’s a problem that needs Celestial Performance Enhancement
–Good people go to heaven when they die.”

**Heather King’s blog

I’m currently reading Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God, one of the most profound books I’ve read in a while. He takes the parable of the prodigal son but spends as much time [if not more] on the elder son’s problem , and then directs both sons to the extravagant, celebrating, feast-giving father.

Keller points out that the elder son is just as lost and sinful because being religious, the life of doing good, is a dead end. And that’s my problem with being a Christian. After being deeply aware of my need for God’s love and grace, after acknowledging that I’m being completely unable to save myself, and then accepting the free gift of Jesus, I slip back into my default pattern.

Most of the time this isn’t the younger brother, do-what-you want mode, but the elder brother, rule-keeping mode. I change slowly from having a relationship with Jesus to a religion about Jesus, where good behavior and moral purity and doing the right thing are what count. I lose sight of God’s grace. I lose sight of my brokenness. I slip back into a focus on righteousness rather than on an experience of God’s redeeming love.

As I thought about this, I realized that many hymns talk about the experience of the younger son coming to Jesus. But few address the problem of the elder son: pride and trusting in my own righteousness. Going from the pig pen to the father’s house makes for a good testimony. Being angry and bitter and selfish in the father’s house doesn’t.

Thankfully, we have Paul as an example of a Pharisee/elder son turned grace-saved follower of Jesus. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for it righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing. [Galatians 2:20-21]

That’s something I need to remind myself of over and over again. I need to run a self-righteousness check. I need to remember every day that the gospel is not about good behavior or spiritual perfection. And it’s not about personal freedom and self-discovery either. It’s about going home to the Father and being welcomed back with open arms and invited in for the celebration of a lifetime.

The Prodigal God is a short book, maybe 20,000 words at most. But don’t let that fool you. It’s not a quick read or a bedtime snack. You’ll want to savor how Keller redefines sin and lostness and hope. I find myself reading a paragraph or two and then stopping to reflect. If you were only going to read one new book this year, this is the one I’d recommend. And then I’d suggest reading it again next year.

You can also listen to the sermons Keller preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, which formed the basis for the book. All seven are available for free mp3 download.

There are times when you can’t get out into nature or even watch Planet Earth. Then a book about nature may be the next best thing. So here are my top three nature books to bring to a windowless prison cell. [Though I wouldn’t bring them to a desert island where I would have the sunrise and the night sky, and the ocean, and fish, and soft sand, and one glorious palm tree.] Each one is a personal account about a period of time spent alone in nature–in New England, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the Utah desert.

1] Walden or A Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau is the grandfather of nature writers, describing the two years he spent in a ten by fifteen foot cottage, living off the grid [such that it was back in 1845]. He’s not solely focused on the creation around him; he philosophizes and talks about visitors too. His style is wordy and for a modern reader used to reading prose edited on a computer, it can take a little effort. But if you only read the chapters on sounds, his bean field, and the ponds, you would get enough flavor of the book and be transported to the New England woods.

2] Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey
I first read Desert Solitaire in preparation for a trip out west. Abbey was a park ranger at Arches National Park in Utah in the 50s. He is the most curmudgeonly of this trio, with a few rants about insensitive tourists [one chapter is titled “Industrial Tourism and the National Parks”]. But he loves the land and can wax eloquent rocks and water and mornings in the desert. It’s a short easy read that may make you squirm a little.

3] Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

Dillard’s style is more poetic and reflective than the other two as she follows a chronological year along Tinker Creek. She has a special knack for connecting nature to God–in fact she called this book a theological treatise and says she is “a poet and a walker with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts.” She’s big on bugs and on exposing the harsher side of the natural world. Sometimes Pilgrim reads like a journal, sometimes like exuberant poetry. [Eudora Welty, the doyenne of the Southern short story, didn’t know quite what to make of the book when she reviewed it in the New York Times.*]

I love the very end of the book:
“And like Billy Bray I go my way, and my left foot says ‘Glory,’ and my right foot says ‘Amen’: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.”

Snack bar item: a trio of salads

*Eudora Welty’s quizzical review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I loved Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz but frankly five years later, I can’t remember much of what it was about–just that it was a great ride of a read. However, five years from now, I’ll remember what A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is about: my life is a story that I’m writing.

Miller describes how the main elements of a story make up our own lives. Every story has a main character [that’s me] who wants something [ambitions, dreams, hopes] and has to overcome conflict [lack of money, lack of opportunity, lack of support, lack of courage] to get it [either succeeding or failing].

And this story, which God has given me the freedom to write, is just a short chapter in the biggest story–His epic story that covers all of history with a cast of millions and more conflict than five siblings in the back seat of a car.

In true form, Miller tells stories about some incredibly inspiring real people, many of whom started organizations out of their desire to care for people. By the time I finished reading, I felt I had sampled the ten course meal in Babette’s Feast.*

I also came away with a desire to be more thoughtful about the story of my life. It’s easy to go through the months and the years on autopilot. As fall begins, it’s a perfect time to pull back and examine if and how I want to revise the story I am living.

What’s my plot?
As Miller says, “All of us are living stories, and those stories teach other people to live stories. And what our stories are about matters, not just for us but for the world.”

Every day I have a new page to write. What will I write on this page? What do I want this chapter of my life to be about? What do I want the whole book of my life to tell?

What’s my driving desire?
The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. “If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories.”

What do I want? What treasure am I hunting for? What mountain do I want to climb? What am I living for? Where is my heart?

What are the obstacles before me?
As Miller reminds us, things don’t always go well in a story. In fact, they never go well in a story. “You could say that a story is an experience that goes badly.”

What will I have to overcome to find my treasure, to climb my mountain? What conflict do I have to face? What are the dark forces working against me? What change am I resisting? [In stories, characters almost always have to be forced to change.] What will I have to sacrifice to get what I want?

How does it fit in the ultimate story?
What does God think about my driving desire? My plot? My character? How does my story fit into His epic? What is His ultimate story for me?

Another way to look at it, as Tim Chester points out, is that everyone has their own version of the ‘gospel’ story:

creation – who I am or who I should be
fall – what’s wrong with me and the world
redemption – what’s the solution
consummation – what I hope for

Miller himself goes through an awful experience and ends up in the pit of despair. “I didn’t want to get well, because if I got well, nobody would come and save me anymore. And I didn’t want to get well, because while I could not control my happiness, I could control my misery, and I would rather have had control than live in the tension of what if. “

But at the end, he has grown and changed.
“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation…
…in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just a condensed version of life, then life itself may be designed to change us…”

I came away from reading this book with a profound sense of hope. My story is not finished. New chapters await me. Though I will not escape hard times, the Master Author will work with me to weave my story into His grand triumphant story. And I will live happily ever after.

Snack Bar Item: *Babette’s Feast
Highly recommended

*Links to some of the stories Miller tells:
Jim Besinius:Bully-proofing youth
Gary Haugen: International Justice Mission
Bob Goff and Restore International
Blood:water Mission
And Miller’s own:
The Mentoring Project

Outlier: something that lies outside the statistical norm.

Outliers is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while, mainly because Malcolm Gladwell overthrows many of our common assumptions about what makes a person successful. And he does it in an easy story-telling style.

America likes the idea that anyone, if he or she works hard enough, can achieve great things. But Gladwell presents research from psychology and sociology to show that external factors–our family, our community, our culture, the historical moment–play a great role as well.

The first chapter, “The Matthew Effect”, opens with a quote from the parable of the talents. For some reason he uses the King James Version: For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. [Matthew 25:29] If you ever have doubted that a Bible translation can help or hinder one’s understanding, here’s the same verse in the New Living Translation: To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.

Apparently, this is not only a spiritual principle but a phenomenon in worldly pursuits too. So the rich get bigger tax breaks, the best students get the most attention etc. It also turns out that another ‘talent’ people can have is to be born in the first three months of a twelve-month selection period. Both in sports and academics, this factor makes a big difference, thanks to the maturity gap between a child born in in month one and a child born in month twelve. If you’re choosing the best 8 year-olds for an elite team and the cut-off is January 1, chances are a child born in January is going to be faster and stronger than one born in December [given the same amount of innate physical talent]. As a result 40% of professional hockey players in Canada are born in the first three months of the year, and only 10% in the last three months.

Another chapter entitled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” illustrates how our culture can shape our performance. A strong hierarchal culture [often Asian or South American] can result in a co-pilot not speaking up when a pilot is clearly doing something dangerous. You’ll be happy to know that airline experts have now changed pilot training in order to compensate for this [in part by having English be the language of the cockpit, since it is a less hierarchical language.]

But the most fascinating chapter to me was “The 10,000 Hours Rule” where Gladwell shows that given a certain amount of base talent, the primary difference between an elite performer and other performers is the number of hours spent perfecting their discipline, whether it is a musical instrument, chess, fiction writing, criminal activity, or sports. This ‘rule’ can explain the success of the Beatles and the achievement of Bill Gates, both who had the opportunity to put in those long, long hours of practice. 10,000 hours works out to 20 hours a week for ten years. That’s a lot of rough drafts or arpeggios or free throws or programming hours.

This got me thinking about the spiritual realm [not ‘spiritual performance’ since that strikes me as an oxymoron]. Someone once asked me if I was a ‘practicing Christian’. He meant, I think, if being a Christian was a religious label or something I did, like a doctor practices medicine. But it struck me that ‘practicing’ is a good word to describe what it means to follow Jesus, as in working to improve or master something.

Too often, I’ve expected spiritual growth to happen faster in my life, without me spending much time or effort at it. I’ve acted like the work of the Holy Spirit is a light switch I turn on and presto, instant change. But if I thought of myself like a vine or a tree, I wouldn’t expect to become a mature follower of Jesus overnight. [on olive tree can take seven years to bear fruit, a grape vine four years.] What would my life look like after spending 10,000 hours studying God’s word, talking with God, serving God through caring for the poor and the oppressed, and laying down my life for others?

When I underestimate the amount of time and attention I need to work on becoming Christlike in a particular area of my life, I’m apt to easily give up. I become discouraged or lose interest or turn apathetic. One of the lessons I learned from the six-month prayer challenge was that spending time day after day after day for six months made a real difference in developing my prayer muscle [so much so, that I’ve started a six-month training program to focus on another area.]

Following Jesus isn’t a sprint. I don’t even think it’s a marathon, an image that calls to mind agony and grueling effort. It’s a lifelong walk on a path that leads to heaven, one hour at a time, one step after another.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
Phillipians 3:12-14

Fruit to go

June 8, 2010 — Leave a comment

About a month ago, I came to the end of my six month prayer challenge. It was a great experience for me and I plan to post more about it in the future, especially because I’m not really ‘finished’. I’m still praying about the things and still chewing over the verse: “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you. This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” [John 15:7,8]

This past week the ‘remain in Me’ part came to the fore again, and reminded me of one of my all-time favorite spiritual classics, Abide in Christ by Andrew Murray. Actually, Murray’s book fits in well with my recent posts on grace, because he puts a big emphasis on God working in us, rather than us earning salvation.

As I’ve been thinking about abiding and letting God flow through me, I’ve realized I tend to seek spiritual riches for myself. I spend time with God, and stuff myself with wisdom and love and grace and all sorts of wonderful things…but only for myself. And at the same time, I can slip into making spiritual growth a kind of personal achievement rather than as a way to produce a crop ‘to my father’s glory”. I become a bloated dead-end branch rather than a channel. So when I read this quote from Abide in Christ, it struck a chord in me:

“We all know what fruit is: the produce of the branch, by which men are refreshed and nourished. The fruit is not for the branch, but for those who come to carry it away. … A fruit-bearing tree lives not for itself, but wholly for those to whom its fruit brings refreshment and life.”

After I read that, I went to the little gym where I work out [it may sound glamorous but take a look at the tiny unheated, windowless garage]

I just happened to have my camera with me and for some reason, I decided to wander through the little orange grove on the property.

There I saw a vivid object lesson of what happens when fruit isn’t harvested:

Amazing, isn’t it? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen rotting oranges on a tree before. It’s not a pretty sight and it’s a real waste, when you think about how wonderful fresh squeezed orange juice is here.

What I take away from this is not an exhortation to work harder at producing fruit [that’s God’s job], but to share generously and freely, rather than hoarding the fruit for myself. I’m not sure exactly what that means , though one thing that comes to mind is this blog, which I started as a way of sharing my reflections. Another thing that comes to mind is not turning church into a holy huddle but reaching out to people I don’t know who may be visiting or lonely. And a third thing is the reminder that the whole point of producing fruit, like everything else in my life, is to glorify God and bring honor to Him. It’s not about me.

Abide in Christ, free ebook version.
His language is a little dated [it was written in 1895 after all] but the 31 chapters are short. A meaty one-month devotional.
A brief biography of Andrew Murray
post where I talk about: the six-month prayer challenge
post where I talk about:Fresh-squeezed orange juice

And in case you’re interested:
Why I’m going to put my links at the bottom of my posts from now on

I live in a place where there are only two English-language bookstores within shopping distance. One is the size of a one car garage, the other is an hour and a half away. So in the ex-pat community, books get passed around frequently. And they are often deposited on one’s doorstep like a box of kittens when someone leaves the country. I pick through the box and put whatever looks remotely interesting into one of my many stacks of ‘books to read.’ That’s what happened with this fat Isobel Kuhn omnibus a few years ago.

I had never heard of her before, but Caitlin had read her story of serving God in China and recommended it. I’ve always enjoyed reading biographies and memoirs. When I was growing up, I chomped my way through a young adult series on early Americans–Lucretia Mott, Molly Pitcher, and Francis Marion the Swamp Fox are three that stick in my mind. [I think the fascination of looking into someone’s life is also one of the appeals of blogland.]

Still, Isobel Kuhn stayed put and gathered dust. You know, so many books, so little time. But one day I picked it up, in part because earlier this year, a half-dozen Chinese showed up at church. Our international church is a real parade of nations, and countries seems to come in waves. We used to have a slew of South Africans, then Australians, then Brazilians. This year, Finns and Chinese are in ascendancy. I think it’s the first time the church has been blessed with Chinese from China since I’ve been here, thanks to a telecommunications project that China is helping with [and using English as the common language].

It turned out Henry was from southern China. A place that sounded like “Yngnyng’. Then I asked him to spell it: “Yunnan” “Oh, I said, “You-nan”. It just so happened that’s the province where Kuhn and her husband worked, nestled between Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. In the thirties and forties, when the Kuhns lived there, this was a true backwater place. In the US with our system of highways, it’s hard to grasp the concept of what it means to live at the edge of the world. For Kuhn in China, it meant living in a tiny village in a remote mountain canyon, a two-week truck ride from the province capital, a long way from the comforts of Vancouver where she grew up. Or in this country, it means a five hour drive on a one lane road, to reach a village with no running water or electricity like this:
The omnibus includes three of Kuhn’s books. The first, By Searching, tells the story of how she came to follow Jesus and then set sail to work in China, for the China Inland Mission [founded by Hudson Taylor]. The second, Nests Above the Abyss, focuses on the growing church among the Lisu people, and In the Arena tells about some special challenges in her life and work there. The Lisu lived in fear of demons and had no word for forgiveness or compassion or justice. But there was an extensive vocabulary for how to skin a person alive [the common method of punishment].

The stories she tells are inspiring and stirring and challenging. She doesn’t give a bird’s eye view of what happened, but a personal, up-close view. Always, her focus is not on the life she lived, but on what God taught her and did in the Lisu people around her. She doesn’t gloss over her faults and failures and struggles [or of the growing church], but she keeps coming back to how God demonstrated His faithfulness. The church was founded on indigenous principles: self-governing, self-supporting, self-disciplining, self-sending. The foreign workers worked alongside, as they were invited, but it was the Lisu believers who went out and shared the gospel with other villages and tribes.

She doesn’t tell the story chronologically since she’s not writing a history but looking at different aspects of life and faith. I especially loved reading the chapters that put the spotlight on different believers–humble illiterate mountain people–as they grow in faith and become saints. I was inspired to read her own faith journey too, and the many amazing answers she received to simple prayers. She was a person who lived out The Praying Life.

And it was exciting to see events through her eyes as the Lisu people started to follow Jesus and establish churches, going from a handful of believers to a quarter of the population in sixteen years. 70 years and one long Communist regime later, it’s about half of the Lisu population. So it’s like reading a Lisu version of the book of Acts which makes a perfect post-Easter read. The resurrection of Jesus was only the beginning…

The books are available individually through Amazon sellers or at the OMF online bookstore. If you were only going to get one, I’d start with Nests Above the Abyss.

Snack Bar item: Soul food–for a full and satisfying feast

If you’re interested to learn more about the history of the church in China or to get a better sense of the area, there’s also a blog, Searching for the Footprints of God in Southwestern China, that talks about the province next to Yunnan, with beautiful pictures.

I’m halfway through the six-month prayer challenge and my touchstone has been: “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ASK whatever you wish and it will be given to you. This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” [John 15:7,8]

The center of these verses, and the prayer challenge, is the simple command “ask”. But what a big word that is. “Ask whatever you wish” brings to mind winning a contest where you get to run around a store with a shopping cart and pile up everything you can into it. Or being a kid in a candy store who is told ‘take whatever you want’. Or going to ask Santa [in a Thai department store].

Did Jesus really mean ‘whatever I want’? I go back and forth on this. My mind fills with things I’d love to have. And then I think it can’t be all about getting what I want.

Last fall, we hosted a seminar based on “The Praying Life” by Paul Miller which is one of the all-time best books on prayer. [I’m sure that my embarking on the six-month prayer challenge was partly inspired by reading this book.] One of the first chapters talks about learning to pray like a child and points out that when children talk with their parents, they are focused on themselves, talking about their feelings, their problems, their life. And when they ask their parents for something, they are persistent, they whine, and they use every angle to get what they want. [If it has been awhile since you’ve been around a three-year old, or can’t remember your own childhood, trust me. This is exactly how a kid asks.]

As Miller puts it, children ask for “everything and anything. If they hear about Disneyland, they want to go there tomorrow. How often do little children ask? Repeatedly. Over and over again. They wear us out. Sometimes we give in just to shut them up. How do little children ask? Without guile. They just say what is on their minds. They have no awareness of what is appropriate or inappropriate.”

Case in point: I was in the car with Sam as we drove past a car showroom with a miniature dune buggy on display, just about the perfect size for a tall almost-three year old. And what did Sam do when he saw that wonderful little vehicle? “Hey Dad, can I have that?” And how did John answer? Something like ‘no’. But you can’t fault Sam. He knows his father is the giver of good gifts. He knows his father loves him. He knows he certainly can’t get the dune buggy on his own. The only way is to ask his father.

As we grow up, we learn to dial down our requests. But Jesus says we need to become like children to enter to the kingdom of heaven. And children ask for things because although they have desires and needs and wants, they don’t have a lot of power or resources or independence. And that does pretty much sum up my general state of life as much as I’d like to believe otherwise.

During the seminar, we stopped and jotted down a list of things we wanted. I felt a little shy about doing it. It felt a little selfish. But it was a helpful exercise. How can I ask if I don’t know what I want? Then we went over a list of things we tend not to talk to God about:
“Mundane things: too unimportant
Personal things: too selfish
Change in others : too controlling
Change in me: means admitting a problem
Things we are good at: too easy, we don’t need help
Material things: too selfish
Overwhelming impossible needs: too impossible.”

My six-month prayer challenge is focusing on that last category: impossible things. Sometimes asking feels great, like filling up that shopping cart. And sometimes it feels humbling and scary, admitting once more that I need something, and I haven’t gotten it yet.

Ask. That’s what Jesus tells us to do. Ask. That’s my part. Ask. And ask again.

The rest is in God’s hands.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

[we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this special post]

I was all set to blog about one of my bedtime snack books.* Then I started reading If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg because I’m working on a character who is stuck in his life and I thought it might give me some insight into him. But as it turns out, I think I’m really reading this book for me.

It’s about risk and following God and believing Him to work in our lives, drawn from the gospel account where Peter gets out of the boat in the middle of a storm and walks on water to Jesus [Matthew 14:22-33]. Given my non-love of sailing, it would be more accurate for me to say it’s about getting into the boat. Or maybe that’s the prequel: If You Want to Sail on Water, You’ve Got to Leave the Shore. At any rate, I resonated with what Ortberg has to say.

Obviously his main idea is that we have to get out of the boat. He says that when Jesus passed by the boat in the middle of the storm, it was similar to God passing by Moses so Moses could see His glory [Exodus 33:22]. Peter says “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Ortberg makes the point that Peter’s goal is not so much to walk on water, but to come to Jesus, and he asks for a command which he then obeys. This is so much deeper and richer than our saying, “I think I’ll just hoist myself over the side of this boat and go for a little power walk.” There’s a God-directed goal and obedience at work.

Ortberg discusses how we need to use the talents God has given us, and how fear is not a good motivator. Fear will never go away, so it’s better just to forget that it’s there. Then he mentions that people who take God-directed risks usually pray a lot. “There is something about getting out of the boat that turns people into intense pray-ers, because they are aware that they cannot accomplish things without God’s help.”

He tells a story about a man who became a Christian and came to where Jesus said, “Ask whatever you will in my name, and you will receive it.” In typical new Christian enthusiasm he decided he needed to pray for something, and he thought he’d pray for Africa. A friend suggested he might want to narrow it down to a country. So he did. Then the friend challenged him to pray for this country every day for six months. [They actually made a monetary bet about whether something extraordinary would happen in that time frame.] The story of what happened is one of those incredible unbelievable stories, about as unbelievable as–well pick your favorite one from the Bible.

Ortberg asks “What are you praying for?” and suggests committing yourself to pray every day for six months and seeing what God will do.

As soon as I read Ortberg’s idea, I knew I was up for it. There are some things going on in my life that I’ve been praying for a lot recently, and I think this challenge is just what I need to keep my eyes on Jesus as I follow him in the middle of the storm.

I don’t think there’s anything magical about six months or about praying every day. Prayer is not putting quarters in the bubble gum machine until the big prize comes out. But there’s no downside to talking over the big things in my life with God every day for six months and reminding myself, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” [John 15:7,8]

What about you? What’s going on in your life now? Would you like to join the challenge? One thing, every day, for six months, now until May. Are you interested in coming along on the journey? Pass it on to your friends. As Arlo Guthrie sang in “Alice’s Restaurant” if three people do it, it’s an organization; if fifty people do, it will be a movement. And all we have to do is pray.

[*Don’t worry, I’ll serve the other post next week. It’s not perishable, plus it fits in nicely with the six-month challenge.]