The Practice of the Presence of God

presence of god book

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawerence, Kindle edition. The text was originally written and compiled in 1692.

Timing is everything, at least that’s what the ubiquitous “they” supposedly say. In this case, I’d have to agree. The time was right for me to read The Practice of the Presence of God. I know that the time was right because, at almost any other time, I would have found it too mystic for my general sensibilities. However, these times are uncertain, and for the duration of this season and its fallout, I have a strong impression that Brother Lawrence’s admonition to purposefully focus on God will be the key to enduring whatever comes next.

Before I offer my overall impressions and brief excerpts, a little background may be in order for readers who are unfamiliar with this book, or with Brother Lawerence. From a brief biographical piece by Christianity Today:

[Brother Lawerence] was assigned to the monastery kitchen where, amidst the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning at the constant bidding of his superiors, he developed his rule of spirituality and work. In his Maxims, Lawrence writes, “Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?”

For Brother Lawrence, “common business,” no matter how mundane or routine, was the medium of God’s love. The issue was not the sacredness or worldly status of the task but the motivation behind it. “Nor is it needful that we should have great things to do. . . We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”

Brother Lawerence’s peace and communion with God became so well regarded that many people sought him out for spiritual guidance.

When I first started reading the book, my stoic, sola Scriptura mind was not entirely receptive. I’m not a Calvinist, but I see some of the merits in Reformed Theology, and one of them is the wholesale condemnation of relying too much on our feelings at the expense of the written word of God. I actually put this book aside for a bit to ruminate before picking it back up. It’s a short book, however, so once I went back to it in the wake of current events, it spoke to me in a fresh way. I realized that what Brother Lawerence referred to was not a contradiction of the Scripture, but was in effect a result of hiding the logos in my heart.

After getting past my initial reservations about the mysticism, and reconciling the veracity of Brother Lawerence’s recorded experiences and admonitions with the truth of Scripture, I was challenged with contemplating whether what Lawerence described is even realistic for a busy wife and mother with a busy life and days filled with lots people, places, and things to do:

Thus, I resolved to give my all for God’s all. After having given myself wholly to God that he might take away my sin, I renounced, for the love of God, everything that was not God, and I began to live as if there was none but God and I in the world.

I don’t live in a monastic order like Brother Lawerence did. St. Paul himself acknowledged that the married believer is naturally distracted by the things of the world in a way that an unmarried believer is not.

Nevertheless, I have come around to the conclusion that Brother Lawerence’s single-hearted devotion to remembering and focusing on the fact that God is always with us, and that Christ, the hope of glory, is indeed in us, is a truth within the grasp of each and everyone who is a believer. Is it a challenge? He admits as much:

I found a great deal of pain in this exercise, and yet I continued it even in the midst of all the difficulties that occurred, trying not to trouble myself or get angry when my mind had wandered involuntarily. I made this my business throughout the entire day in addition to my appointed times of prayer.

At all times, every hour, every minute, even at my busiest times, I drove away from my mind everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of God.

This has been my practice since the first days I entered into religion. Though I have done it imperfectly, I have found great advantages in this practice. I am aware, however, that all of these advantages are to be attributed to the mercy and goodness of God, because we can do nothing without him—especially me!

What is good is almost never easy to acquire, and while few of us postmoderns may ever reach the heights of spiritual fulfillment Lawerence described, we can, by God’s grace, achieve more than we have to date.

As far as the writing goes, the structure of the book lends itself to a bit of repetitiveness. Because these are mostly letters written by Brother Lawerence to various fellow Christian travelers to whom he is offering spiritual encouragement, this is to be expected. Lawerence had found the key to living at peace in a tumultuous world and rather than coming up with new or novel things to say to his friends, he continued to share with them what worked. Repetitiveness is often a very good thing, especially when are trying to internalize things that are particularly hard to internalize.

The biggest thing for me to embrace (and again, I don’t know if I ever fully will), is that despite my deeply flawed nature, I can have faith in God’s presence if I draw near to him rather than hide as Adam and Eve did:

I imagine myself as the most wretched of all, full of sores and sins, and one who has committed all sorts of crimes against his king. Felling a deep sorrow, I confess to him all of my sins, I ask his forgiveness, and I abandon myself into his hands so that he may do with me what he pleases.

This king, full of mercy and goodness, very far from chastening me, embraces me with love, invites me to feast at his table, serves me with his own hands, and gives me the key to his treasures. He converses with me, and takes delight in me, and treats me as if I were his favorite. This is how I imagine myself from time to time in his holy presence.

Timing is everything, and this was the right time for me to read this book. At no time is the reality of God’s presence more important than when we are facing the unknown and the reality that we are not as in control of our life’s trajectory as we imagined.

4 out of 5 stars.

Sick of Me

sickof me2

Sick of Me by Whitney Capps, published in 2019. 192 pages.

I started reading this book a few weeks ago, but due to a hectic schedule including family obligations, school obligations, and two trips in as many weeks, it has taken me quite some time to write up a review.

In general, I tend to shy away from Christian books that are new, and this is doubly true if said new Christian book is written specifically with women in mind. Nearly without fail, such books contain cultural nods to emotions and feelings and water down theology in ways I find intolerable. I am not a woman who often trusts my feelings (I know me too well!), and I am not interested in a concept of God which encourages me to elevate my feelings beyond that which is warranted.

Thankfully, Mrs. Capps takes an admirable turn at laying out the case for why we need to get our feelings in check. One of my favorite quotes in this book is found on page 25, and it gets to the heart of what the book is trying to express:

Take one of the more popular passages we flip open to affirm the peaceful, easy life of Christ: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This is Matthew 11:28-30. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not super familiar with a yoke. So, I did a little research. A yoke is a curved piece of wood that was fitted to oxen to keep them pulling a plow, cart, or otherwise heavy load. It was affixed using metal rods or a noose of rope around the animals’ necks. It was used to keep them from taking an easier path, ignoring the lead of the one driving the plow. Yokes were meant to keep them in line. The more they resisted or struggled, the heavier the yoke felt.

After explaining to the reader what a yoke is, she comes back around to the way modern Christians often misuse the aforementioned Scripture:

You’ve probably read it or heard Matthew 11:30 quoted when life gets wicked hard. We love to chant the life-affirming truth that Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden light. But friends, it’s still a yoke. His yoke is definitely easier to carry than the world’s but it’s still a yoke.

For me, that was worth the price of admission. Whatever issues I have with the overly personal tone of a book focused on theology, it was easily forgiven because Mrs. Capps doesn’t engage in the normal female Christian writer ego-stroking. You know the spiel: “You are enough”, and all that good stuff.

In fact, her thesis, if you will, seems to be that we focus so much on being “transparent” about our faults that we forget that the gospel is about being transformed from where we are to the image of Christ. More importantly, we need to get over ourselves and turn our attention to pleasing our Lord more than feeling better about our broken selves. In other words, we’re really not enough, and in our well-intentioned attempts to avoid living life feeling condemned, we forget that we do need to feel convicted.

Overall, this book added value, and it would be especially useful to women who are more immersed in the usual content aimed at modern Christian women. It’s 1000 times better than books such as Girl, Wash Your Face. No book is a replacement for The Book, which Mrs. Capps is also careful to point out on p. 107, but women are starved for truth, and while this book isn’t perfect, it’s closer than most being marketed to women from houses like Thomas Nelson, et. al.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

Lenten Reading List

Lent begins today, and I’ve prepared a reading list for the next few weeks.

It’s a fairly short list, to be read one book per week or so. I’ve turned to Goodreads for synopses of the books.

The Knowledge of the Holy by popular evangelical author and Christian mystic A.W. Tozer illuminates God’s attributes—from wisdom, to grace, to mercy—and in doing so, attempts to restore the majesty and wonder of God in the hearts and minds of all Christians. A modern classic of Christian testimony and devotion, The Knowledge of the Holy shows us how we can rejuvenate our prayer life, meditate more reverently, understand God more deeply, and experience God’s presence in our daily lives.

  • Sick of Me, by Whitney Capps. I picked this one up in an effort to put my dollars where my mouth is and patronize an independent Christian bookstore. I just started it, and it’s surprisingly astute for a modern book. And I do get sick of me sometimes, so…

Our world is filled with fake facades, from the unrealistic filters used on social media to the “holier than thou” personas seen in certain hypocritical believers.

To combat the fake trends, a new trend has emerged—one that fights the facade with transparency and vulnerability. Instead of being filtered or super-spiritual, we’re told to be real and honest. And rightly so. We should be getting real with each other about our junk.

But should we stop there? Should we gather to simply commiserate about our current version of “me”? Is community about more than just feeling understood by one another in our hard places, or does God have actual change in store for us beyond brokenness

In Sick of Me, Whitney Capps shows us that spiritual growth means being both honest and holy—that we can come to Jesus just as we are, but we cannot stay that way. While virtues like vulnerability, honesty, and humility are desperately needed, we should fight for more. After all, the gospel is a change-agent.

  • Hinds Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard. I’ve been meaning to read this one for quite some time, and what better time than Lent, when we are focused on the holy and redemptive work of Jesus:

With over 2 million copies sold, Hinds’ Feet on High Places remains Hannah Hurnard’s best known and most beloved book: a timeless allegory dramatizing the yearning of God’s children to be led to new heights of love, joy, and victory. In this moving tale, follow Much-Afraid on her spiritual journey as she overcomes many dangers and mounts at last to the High Places. There she gains a new name and is transformed by her union with the loving Shepherd.

Brother Lawrence was a man of humble beginnings who discovered the greatest secret of living in the kingdom of God here on earth. It is the art of “practicing the presence of God in one single act that does not end.” He often stated that it is God who paints Himself in the depths of our souls. We must merely open our hearts to receive Him and His loving presence.

As a humble cook, Brother Lawrence learned an important lesson through each daily chore: The time he spent in communion with the Lord should be the same, whether he was bustling around in the kitchen—with several people asking questions at the same time—or on his knees in prayer. He learned to cultivate the deep presence of God so thoroughly in his own heart that he was able to joyfully exclaim, “I am doing now what I will do for all eternity. I am blessing God, praising Him, adoring Him, and loving Him with all my heart.”

This unparalleled classic has given both blessing and instruction to those who can be content with nothing less than knowing God in all His majesty and feeling His loving presence throughout each simple day.

Are there any books you are planning to dive into as we pray and contemplate during this Lenten season?

 

 

 

 

One Wintry Night

one winry night

One Wintry Night, by Ruth Bell Graham. Richard Jesse Watson, illustrator. Originally published in 1994. 72 Pages.

This review is late, using our traditional Western calendar, and I am regretful that I forgot to post the review in a more timely manner. However, since Orthodox Christmas has yet to arrive and many people celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas which extend until  January 5, this review is not as thoroughly untimely as it appears at first glance.

On Christmas Eve night, our family read this book together and it occurred to me that despite my intentions, I hadn’t offered reviewed this book as a wonderful addition to a family’s Christmas library. Despite the date, I’m offering it now.

One Wintry Night is the Christmas story, from Genesis to the Crucifixion, as told by a woman to a young boy who finds his way to her home after getting lost on his hike through the mountains near his home on a cold, wintry night. She begins the story by telling the boy that if the baby born to Mary was coming to “save His people”, then someone must be in trouble, and needs to be saved. From there, she goes back to Genesis and begins in the Garden of Eden.

Much like Adam and His Kin, which I reviewed some time ago, this book offers a loose dramatization of life in Eden, and in the life of the Biblical people whose narratives Graham touches on as she sets the stage for Christ’s advent into the world. Because it is a dramatization, she takes a few safe liberties. By safe I mean that while not found verbatim in scripture, the narratives she constructs are not in opposition to the tone and message of Scripture. However, her ascription of thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the Biblical protagonists are her own.

The illustrations in this book are striking, to say the least. Richard Jesse Watson’s beautiful work is a highlight of this book, taking it to a higher level of beauty and invoking wonder even for people like me who know the Biblical narrative well.

I highly recommend this book. If not for this Christmas, definitely for next. It is technically a children’s book but is enjoyable for people of all ages.

5 out of 5 stars.

 

Confessions of a Food Catholic

food catholic

Confessions of a Food Catholic, by Doug Wilson. Published in 2016. 212 pages.

A friend loaned me this book to read and I was very interested to see what, exactly, it is all about. I wasn’t sure what Doug Wilson could possibly mean by the term “food catholic”, but eventually the idea became crystal clear.  If I had to summarize the general thesis of Confessions of a Food Catholic, I’d say it’s this:

The fact that the church has joined the world’s food fads, crusades, and trends has created a situation where the simple and joyful yet profound Christian experience of braking bread with other believers is being tainted and hindered. He argues that we all need to learn to accept what is set before us with thankfulness, and stop pretending that we are going to be irreparably damaged if we accept one dish of sweet Sister Jones’ homemade macaroni and cheese because “carbs” or “gluten” or “Monsanto” or whatever other excuse we can conjure up to resist being gracious towards our sisters and brothers in Christ. That is what I would describe as the thesis statement of Wilson’s book.

I agree with his overall thesis, but as is often the case when I read Doug Wilson’s writing, I ran into something that short-circuited his execution. I found his extensive insertion of caveats in the first three chapters problematic. In a world where almost nothing goes without saying anymore, I can appreciate the compulsion to say things like, “If you are deathly allergic to milk, I don’t expect you to risk your life eating sweet Sister Jones’ mac ‘n’ cheese in some misguided attempt at Christian unity”. What I don’t appreciate is feeling the need to say it over and over…and over again.

Thankfully, as the arguments unfolded and Wilson began to tackle the myriad individual food causes and crusades which have infiltrated the church world, the book gradually became much more pleasant to read. The secondary thesis, if you will, is almost as compelling as the first. I don’t necessarily agree with every assertion Wilson makes, but I do agree with this overall idea:

I am an active participant in my food chain, and I occupy a particular place in it. My moral duties are strongest right next to me, and they are weakest (to the extent they exist at all) at the far side of the food chain.

This is not to say that moral responsibility cannot be transmitted along the food chain. Surely it can, as when my buddy shoplifts something from Safeway so we can share it for dinner. Eating stolen goods that I watched get stolen is morally problematic, and I cheerfully grant it. But I am here talking about my supposed complicity in the strange oaths that the foreman in the Texas pecan orchard swore at his underpaid migrant workers, in the season before those pecans from said ranch made their way through thirteen other morally problematic checkpoints on their way to my pie. p.109

The numerous documentaries produced for the sole purpose of “informing: and inducing guilt into the American populace about the foods we eat has reached such a level of absurdity that even I, a girl who has to be careful about jumping on bandwagons, have learned to tune them out. I’m still a sucker for a good health fad, but I can no longer be bothered to bear guilt for Jose and Juanita’s suffering experienced on the tomato farms of South Florida.

I certainly believe that when we know better, that to the extent that we can, we should do better. I might be proving Wilson’s point here to a degree, but I don’t think it’s wise to ignore medical knowledge and advancements which offer information we can act on and to build on, especially in the areas of health and wellness. However, as Wilson aptly points out, every generation believes it has the lock on the truth about any number of things, and ours is no different. We should keep that im mind.

Touching on everything from our misguided expectation that a government which ushered corruption into the food industry should somehow fix it, to the ironic reality that the people who browbeat us the most about our food choices abhor our faith and values, Wilson offers a lot of food for thought here. He certainly opened up my thinking in ways that will help me to be a little more conscious of the areas in which I have raised food choices to the level of moral authority on par with The 10 Commandments.

Overall, it’s not a perfect book, but it is a worthwhile admonition.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

 

In His Steps

In His Steps, Kindle Edition, by Charles M. Sheldon. Originally published in 1896. 156 print pages.

In His Steps is the classic Christian novel by Charles M. Sheldon. It is, I think the first fictional work I’ve read in quite some time that ran counter to my usual experience of reading fiction much more quickly than nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent a couple of extra weeks both reading this book and contemplating my review of it.

I know what I think of the book, and I know what I am supposed to think of this beloved and renowned work and its author, and my challenge is reconciling my two warring perspectives of the book. Last night, as I was falling asleep, it hit me. Dubois’ theory of double consciousness strikes at the heart of my wrestling with this book. In reality, this inner conflict is hardly isolated to the realm of race in America. I am increasingly able to see how, given our history of merging the political and the religious, the American Christian, sans vigilance, can be afflicted by this same phenomena of double consciousness. We’ll get back to that in bit.

Since I both liked and struggled with In His Steps, depending on the scene it which it was set, we’ll start with a brief synopsis of the plot of the story.

The Rev. Henry Maxwell, pastor of First Church of Raymond, experiences a crisis of faith after a homeless man enters his church and challenges him and his congregation concerning the veracity of their faith in action. A few days later Jack, the homeless man, dies. Maxwell grapples with everything the man said to his congregation that day, and begins to earnestly pray and reconsider his and his congregation’s comfortable, self-satisfied faith. Not only is it void of personal sacrifice, but it is more of a merit badge signaling class and decency than evidence true, Christian discipleship.

The next Sunday, Rev. Maxwell enters the pulpit a changed man, with a renewed passion for Christ and the gospel message. After shocking his congregation with a sermon and prayer lacking the rehearsed polish and poise they have become accustomed t, he ended the morning’s worship by challenging his congregants to embark with him on a new journey. Specifically, he has resolved to filter every life decision through prayer and the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”

So WWJD wasn’t just a 90s slogan that looks good on t-shirts and rubber bracelets!

Initially, about 50 of his congregants join him in prayer and resolve to do nothing without prayerfully and earnestly considering whether Jesus would do the thing in question. The results are remarkable, and many of the players involved encounter situations where their commitment to living as they believe Jesus would come at great personal sacrifice. Some lose jobs, some lose money, and others find that relationships are tested. However, having pledged wholeheartedly to embrace the Christian promise that every one that has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred times, and shall inherit everlasting life, they forge on in faith.

There were a few who fell away when difficulties arose, but overall, the town itself was reinvigorated with all that was taking place. I especially appreciated the way that the congregation of First Church of Raymond left their cushy, prosperous lives and donated time and energy to minister to the people in the roughest, most obviously sin-scarred parts of their town. It was a picture of revival that any Christian can’t help but be moved by.

In addition to the self-sacrifice and commitment to being the hands and feet of Jesus outside the four walls of their brick and mortar edifices, there were others who were committed to transforming their entire city for the glory of Christ. Commitments to be more active in promoting Christians in politics and shutting down saloons to curb liquor consumption was a theme that ran strong throughout the book. It’s also where my wrestling began until I recognized that this is not a new problem and that W.E.B. DuBois had expressed it well describing the freed slaves in America trying to reconcile their American citizenship with an oppressive culture constantly reminding them of their foreignness. Before I explain further, here’s a portion of DuBois’ original quote:

“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Now I’ll rework it to show how it directly relates to the conundrum of the American Christian, particularly in light of our traditional intertwining of our faith and our governing principles:

One ever feels his twoness, — an American citizen, and a citizen of heaven; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one fleshly body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

As I read the portions of In His Steps from my current spiritual (and political) vantage point, I couldn’t help but fell a sense of wariness at the notion that Christians can somehow “Christianize” the dominant culture as many of the well-meaning actors attempt to do in Sheldon’s city of Raymond, and later as the book’s setting moved to Chicago. The whitewashing of external unpleasantness can make it easy to become complacent about our need for repentance. The temptation is strong to believe teetotalling, calf-length dresses, and sin locked away in the dark is evidence of our spiritual fitness. Michael Horton expands on this way of thinking in his piece on American captivity of the church.

Because of my tendency to inwardly squirm with discomfort at the idea, I had to remember that books are written relevant to the time and place in which they were written. Once I was able to remember that, I was able to relax and enjoy In His Steps a lot more and understand why it has remained a beloved book, touching the hearts of generations of Christians new and old for over 100 years. We would all do well to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?” in our day to day living, and then act and love others accordingly. Against such things there is no law.

4 out of 5 stars

Organizing the Reading Queue- Again

As part of my September reset, I decided developing a reading plan is as important for an aspiring book blogger to solidify and set a firm agenda for the books I want to read and review for the final quarter of 2019.

My list consists of 7 books I hope to read and review by year’s end. That might not sound particularly ambitious, but my schedule has become quite packed this school year so for me, it’s pretty ambitious. The only reason I even hope to finish is that three of the books on this list are in the process of being read. Two of them are near the halfway point.

Here’s the fourth quarter reading queue (not to be at all tinkered with by distraction or whimsy!):

Fiction

 

Christian

 

Nonfiction or Historical

  • Setting the Record Straight: African-American History in Black and White, by David Barton. I’m more than halfway done with this one as well, so expect a review soon.
  • The White Horse King: The Life of King Alfred the Great, by Benjamin R. Merkle. This one is probably going to take the most time and be the last book review of 2019.
  • The Offline Dating Method by Camille Virgina is a soon-to-be-released manual to help women break away from the online dating nightmare and learn how to attract and connect with men in the real world. The early reviews seem to indicate that this author’s approach is helpful when it comes to real world socialization in general, and not just romantic connections. Being blissfully married with a robust social life myself, I’m interested in this book for reasons of curiosity and to examine its viability.

What are you reading or looking forward to reading?