Practicing Silence – Part 2

I closed the year 2013 with a reflection (see below) on Sarah Coakley’s essay entitled “Prayer as Crucible” in How My Mind Has Changed (Essays from the Christian Century, edited by David Heim, Cascade Books, 2011). Professor Coakley writes about what happened to her as a result of an ongoing practice in Transcendental Meditation—one very effective way of practicing silence.

She described her experience this way: “Underneath was an extraordinary sense of spiritual and epistemic expansion—of being taken by the hand into a new world of glorious Technicolor, in which all one’s desires were newly magnetized toward God, all beauty sharpened and intensified. Yet simultaneously all poverty, deprivation, and injustice were equally and painfully impressed with new force on my consciousness.”

I can imagine that many people would want the first half of that, but not so much the latter half, since we live in a world in which every newscast wants us to know about the very worst that is happening in the world. Presumably, it was the first half of Coakley’s experience that made the second part bearable.

Shortly after reading Coakley’s essay, I picked up a copy of Jefferson Bethke’s book Jesus > Religion (Thomas Nelson, 2013), in which I found the amazing suggestion that what young people fear most today is silence. Bethke looks at how incessantly connected young people are to their iPods, social media sites, and cell phones, and concludes that the most intolerable thing must be silence.

I wonder if one reason young people might fear silence is that they know by some instinct that what awaits them through silence is a driving deep within themselves. Perhaps they sense that what awaits them, should they dare, is what Coakley found: a great, intense magnetizing toward God in which, yes, there may be tremendous beauty, but there might also be a too-terrible, too-painful encounter with the poverty and injustice in the world.



We like obedience in our pets; we’d love it in our toddlers and teenagers. But how many of us like to apply it to ourselves? Most of us have grown up with “free will” and “freedom” as integral parts of our psyches.

Preachers know this, so it’s easy to see how they might not want to push on the Biblical texts requiring obedience. Nonetheless, those texts are hard to miss, since they are all over the place. I’ll include two or three at the bottom of this post for those in the mood for scourging.

So … how fascinating to find a novel built around the concept of holy obedience. Lisa Samson‘s 2009 book The Passion of Mary-Margaret relates the story of a religious sister whose focus her entire life has been the religious life – but then she receives the divine instruction to marry a man who had once been her childhood friend but had since entered into a sordid life involving prostitution and heroin.

What’s the likelihood that you would feel compelled to be obedient in that situation? Lisa Samson is a writer who knows her way around a difficult theme, and this is a book worth reading. Now for those few (of many) passages I promised:

Romans 2:13: “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

Luke 11:28: “He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

Job: 36:11: “If they obey and serve him, they will spend the rest of their days in prosperity and their years in contentment.”


Precious Reading Time

“Reading time, like writing time, is precious. Don’t waste it on mediocre books,” wrote Kate Southwood in a recent blog. Seems like I am always finding books that leave me thinking – books that I don’t consider mediocre – and the most recent of these is What Jesus Meant (Viking Penguin, 2006) by Garry Wills, emeritus professor of history, Northwestern University, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

The book discusses various ways that we have complicated Jesus’ message or tried to not hear what the Gospels report that he said. “More than any other teacher of nonviolence … he was absolute and inclusive in what he forbade,” writes Wills. Referring to the passage of specific instructions in Luke 6:27-38, Wills adds, “Tremendous ingenuity has been expended to compromise these uncompromising words. Jesus is too much for us. The churches’ later treatment of the gospels is one long effort to rescue Jesus from his ‘extremism.'”

Many people associate Jesus and religion as inseparable from each other, but Wills points out: “The most striking, resented, and dangerous of Jesus’ activities was his opposition to religion as that was understood in his time. This is what led to his death. Religion killed him.” Wills writes of Jesus’ active opposition to all formalism in worship, and as to what Jesus might think of religion today: “it would probably look all too familiar, perpetuating the very things he criticized in the cleanliness code, the Sabbath rules, the sacrifices, and the Temple.”

Wills declares at the outset that the book is not meant to be scholarly but to be devotional: a profession of faith. Jesus came to “instill a religion of the heart.” The test of whether we have lived our lives in accordance with what Jesus meant is simple: “Did you treat everyone, high and low, as if dealing with Jesus himself, with his own inclusive and gratuitous love, the revelation of the Father’s love, whose sunshine is shed on all.”


Book Review: Blue Like Jazz

An unusual book you might want to read is Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003). Miller calls his work new-realism essays. I’m not sure I know what “new-realism” is; I might have said that his essays work very hard to be unflinchingly frank about where he is in relation to his faith, his relationship with God, and his relationship with other people. That position, not always pretty, moves in the course of the book.

Humor comes through Miller’s writing often, as when he muses about calling God “Father”: “I wonder why it is God refers to Himself as ‘Father’ at all. This, to me, in light of the earthly representation of the role, seems a marketing mistake.”

Miller’s text can be hard-hitting, such as this confession early in the essays: “I couldn’t give myself to Christianity because it was a religion for the intellectually naïve. In order to believe Christianity, you either had to reduce enormous theological absurdities into children’s stories or ignore them. The entire thing seemed very difficult for my intellect to embrace.” The book is often critical of Christianity and church life, but no less critical of Miller’s own behavior and shortcomings as he struggles toward maturity.

The essays reflect Miller’s growth in Christian spirituality over time as he comes to accept God’s pure and furious love: “I have come to understand that strength, inner strength, comes from receiving love as much as it comes from giving it. I think apart from the idea that I am a sinner and God forgives me, this is the greatest lesson I have ever learned. When you get it, it changes you.”

A movie has been made from the book, but I haven’t seen it and so can’t comment, but the book was worth reading and worth using as a mirror.


Practicing Everyday Spirituality as a Detective

The First Rule of Ten: A Tenzing Norbu Mystery, by Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay, is a fascinating work of fiction that does a surprisingly good job of combining a detective/mystery with a dharma-focused life. This sounds almost impossible. When I mentioned to a friend who is Buddhist that I was reading a novel about a Tibetan Buddhist monk who becomes a cop in Los Angeles, she said flatly: “No Buddhist monk would ever become a cop!”

Tenzing Norbu was reared in a monastery in Dharamshala, India, but his personal dream was to become a detective. He fulfilled the dream but never lost the impact of his years of training. When he needs to reach out to his childhood friends, who are still living as monks in India, he makes contact spiritually and receives their guidance. And when he gets into a tough spot, not knowing which way to turn in trying to solve a series of murders, he asks the unseen realm: “How can I discern what lies beneath … How can I use my skills and presence to ensure that the highest good is accomplished? … May answers come to me by easeful attraction rather than stressful pursuit, and may all beings benefit from these inquiries.”

Tenzing’s First Rule is that if you’re open to learning, you get your life-lessons delivered as gently as a feather, but if you’re defensive, stubborn, and refuse to pay attention, the sledgehammer will fall!

The book relays a full-blown mystery, is fun to read, and depicts a person living his spirituality despite being in a role not commonly associated with spiritual matters. Hay House published the book in 2012, and I hear that The Second Rule of Ten is on the way. Can’t wait!


Book Review: Same Kind of Different as Me

In case you’ve wondered how much sheer love can accomplish, here is a book to read: Same Kind of Different as Me, by Denver Moore and Ron Hall, published by Thomas Nelson, 2006. The book is a memoir and the “sheer love” is put forth by Hall’s wife, Deborah (also called “Miss Debbie”), who has a vision for helping the homeless through volunteering at a Fort Worth, TX, Union Gospel Mission.

Ron Hall is a wealthy art dealer who has grown accustomed to functioning amid rare art pieces, expensive toys, and extremely rich patrons. He can barely believe his ears when he hears his wife commit that he and she will spend every Tuesday serving food at the shelter, but he loves his wife enough to give it a try and at that early point he’s still hopeful that he can meet the commitment without actually coming into contact with the homeless. His wife has other plans, centered around one homeless man in particular, Denver Moore.

The book would be worth reading solely for the wondrous unfolding of Moore’s character, as we see him move from a stony-faced, poverty-stricken, illiterate man who earns respect with his fists, to a man who will stay awake all night in order to keep praying for “Miss Debbie” when she is dying of cancer. Even more than with Ron Hall, we see what can happen when unconditional love is showered upon an individual. No fictional account could have made believable the friendship that evolves between the two men.

Asked what message he hopes readers will get from the book, Denver Moore replied: “You never know whose eyes God is watching’ you through.”


Book Review: The Edge of Grace

Christa Allan’s 2011 book, The Edge of Grace, is a fiction approach to answering the question: Can a person be gay and a Christian at the same time? There are still plenty of people around who gasp at putting the two key words in the same sentence, but Allan takes on the job of depicting the subtly progressive movement of perspective and attitude.

The lead character, Caryn, is a recently widowed mother who has all she can do to grieve the loss of her husband, rear their young son, and operate a struggling catering business. Now, on top of all that, she suddenly has to adjust to the new information that her brother, with whom she had previously been close, is gay. Despite the moments of well-described heartache, the author applies many leavening touches of humor, as in this early glimpse at Caryn’s relationship with her next-door neighbor: “I must have looked like Martha Stewart, the prison months. But Julie looked me over and didn’t say anything about my stupor or my morning bed-hair, which probably poked out from my scalp like clusters of brown twigs.”

Caryn will need Julie’s level-headed support, and a good deal more, when the story takes a serious turn with the hate crime that nearly kills her brother. From there, the reader is privileged to share the twists and turns of Caryn’s process of growth and acceptance, forgiveness and self-forgiveness. For all of us, there is learning available at the edge of grace.



Book Review: Lost December

My good friend Linda recently gave me a copy of Richard Paul Evans’ book Lost December, suggesting that I read it and pass it along to someone else when I was finished. It’s a compelling, simply told, modern-day presentation of the Prodigal Son story found in Luke 15. The main character is named Luke, and he warns readers in the Prologue that they won’t like him … but I did.

The only hard parts to read are the excruciating details of the young man’s financial demise at the hands of his “friends,” who lure him into distant countries where he (more they than he) wastes his trust-fund fortune in reckless and loose living, similar to the boy in the New Testament story. You know that he will not wake up from the nightmare until he is down to nothing, and in this case, he is left curled in a fetal position in a parking lot, bloody, all possessions gone except for the boxer shorts he happened to be wearing. All the friends are gone by this point too, as well as his father, whom he believes he has hurt and betrayed too severely for pardon.

Fortunately the book is divided almost exactly in half, with the first half recounting the dive to the bottom, and the second, the climb back to the top. Of course, the father is key to the story, and the costs to the father of his son’s decisions are more fully drawn than in the Bible story. A lot of elements are more fully drawn in Evans’ account, and that is the strength of this book, which shows how this ancient Biblical story could actually happen in modern-day settings with modern-day people. And the portrayal of kindness and aid from the man who saves Luke from probable death is so well drawn that it made me wonder why the Bible story had no such person but only a briefly mentioned hog farmer who allowed the boy to feed the swine.

The long-anticipated reunion with the father does, of course, occur, but I have to say that the sweet scent of hope that rises out of this book stems more from the attitudes and behaviors of Luke as he gets his feet back under him than from anything else. That sense of hopefulness alone makes this book worth reading.

Thank you, Linda.


Book Review: 40 Ways to Get Closer to God

Every so often a really practical, spiritual book comes along, and even though that sounds like a contradiction in terms (practical, spiritual), it’s impossible not to pick it up and see what can be learned.

One of those books is 40 Ways to Get Closer to God, by Jerry MacGregor with Keri Wyatt Kent, just out from Bethany House Publishers. I encourage you to get a copy and study it. The book is organized into 40 days, so rather than chapter headings, you find “Day Twenty-Eight,” for example, which happens to be about letting go of worry and instead choosing to trust: “Trust is not based on our circumstances, but rather on our decision to believe God is in control.” Each day’s chapter has a discussion of the spiritual discipline described along with a challenge of how to put that discipline into practice immediately.

In his blog, MacGregor writes: “if you read this book, you’re not going to glow in the dark. It’s not one of those, ‘I worked to be perfect … now YOU can be perfect like me’ type of books [but] if you and I sat down at Starbucks to talk about this topic, the things in the book are exactly what I’d say.”

Just imagine: 40 practical ways to get closer to God! Surely a few of them will fit exactly where you are today.