Devotional Recommendations?

Students and friends often ask me what books I would recommend for devotional reading.  I admit I am not entirely sure what sort of book they are looking for.  If by devotional they mean a book they can read a few pages each morning that will provide spiritual reflection throughout the day, then nearly anything can be a devotional!

One thing I have found helpful for devotional reading is Prayer Books, such as the classic Book of Common Prayer.  Such books provide prayers to read each morning, noon and night as well as scripture.  Or you can just use the prayers and then read whatever scripture you like.  Recently I’ve been using Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  Rather than reading the suggested scriptures, I’m reading my own bible passages of choice (two chapters of Exodus and one of the Gospels right now, if you’re curious.  Another prayer book I’ve appreciated is Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours.

IMG_3949

If you want to go a different direction, in the last year or so I discovered a whole series of devotional books that come from the work of some of the best spiritual writers throughout the history of the church.  All the books in the series are “Praying With…” someone and I’ve prayed with the likes of Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi.  I’ve long liked reading history and these sorts of works.  These books are nice because they give good background on each author as well as commentary on their work.  Each day includes scriptures, prayers and questions you can journal about or think on during the day.  Plus, you can get them used quite cheap!

Ultimately, this series points me to the best of what “devotional” literature can be.  It does not replace reading scripture; engaging with scripture should always be a part of our spiritual practice. Yet we recognize that we are influenced by our own culture and experience, so we look to spiritual guides from past places and times in whom the Spirit has worked.  Sitting at their feet, reading their words, helps us to grow.

Finally, if you aren’t sold on that series, I can think of lots of books that have been helpful to read a page or two a day.  Basically, a list of some of my favorite books!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Cost of Discipleship

Philip Yancey – What’s So Amazing About Grace

Richard Rohr – The Naked Now

Barbara Brown Taylor – An Altar in the World

Thomas a Kempis – Imitation of Christ

CS Lewis – Mere Christianity

 

 

Advertisements

The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma (Review)

Honestly, I did not expect much from The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. I had never heard of the author but I picked it up when I saw a few people recommend it on Twitter…and it was free for a few days. After reading some challenging books this summer, from philosophers who hurt my brain to early church writers who make me feel guilty for being rich (compared to most people in the world) I thought this would be a quick read to squeeze in before summer ended.

As I was reading, I found myself becoming more and more interested. This is not just your typical book on how to live as a Christian by a megachurch evangelical pastor (though I honestly have no idea if this pastor is “evangelical” or if the church he is at is “mega”). There is a lot here about living in the paradoxes, accepting God and the Bible for what it is without trying to iron everything out.

What really got me was when he talked about reading books. I found myself being convicted, even feeling guilty, for how I read. I tend to consume books, at times reading through them too fast so I can log another “read” here on goodreads or at least fit into the identity of people who see me as someone who reads a lot of books. In the past I would read, hoping to find the key that would answer all my questions. If I just read enough, or learned enough, than doubt would be vanquished. There is still a bit of that too, so today I often read to solve everything and to consume. Through this I often do find myself challenged (that last book by David Bentley Hart or those works of the early church fathers…wow, I can’t get that stuff out of my head). But I wonder if at times reading books is my idol.

It is ironic then that I wanted to consume this book quickly before summer ended. I work on a college campus, in campus ministry, so around this time of year my time for reading greatly diminishes. Yet in the past I still managed to read a lot, maybe too much. As I read this book I came to a decision that as the school year commences, I am going to intentionally NOT read as much. Of course, I still need to read to prep for teaching (hence that Jeremiah commentary). And I will read for pleasure, because it is fun. But I am going to lay aside the big heavy theological tomes, not because I do not have more to learn (believe me, I do, and there are some books I really want to read) but because I know enough (head-knowledge that is) to minister on campus. When I read it will be for teaching prep, spiritual development (yeah, I can’t get away from the church fathers) or for fun (hello biography of Napolean!). I also hope this will lead to more time for journaling, meditation and the like.

So overall, I recommend this book. I can see it being greatly helpful for college students so I will recommend it to them. I could see it being helpful to any Christian. Thanks Ken for a great book.

The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa (Review)

Gregory of Nyssa was one of the Cappadocian Fathers, three Christian thinkers whose work was tremendous in the solidification of orthodoxy int he late 300s.  But they did not just write heady theological tomes, they also wrote profound works on spiritual life.  One of the best is the Life of Moses by Gregory.

If you want a great example of allegorical interpretation then you have to read this book.  Nearly every event in Moses’ life is shown to point to something deeper and more profound.  For early Christians like Gregory there was a literal sense of scripture, what it said.  But this was just the beginning, the real meat of scripture came in the spiritual sense through allegorical interpretation.  When we learned about this in seminary many seemed to scoff, as if allegorical interpretation meant anything goes.  The fear, or stereotype, was that the only limit here was the author’s imagination.

Truly, some interpretations can be a bit wacky.  But what holds this together is the focus on Jesus Christ.  Down to this day many Christians speak of Jesus on every page of scripture.  Writers like Gregory take the step to show how Jesus is on every page of scripture.  So if you want a glimpse of how this interpretation works, check out Gregory.

The other value of this book is Gregory’s idea of eternal progress.  For Gregory, only God is perfect and infinite  What this means, for us, is that our growth towards perfection – towards being like God, the process of sanctification – lasts forever.  We never arrive.  We are constantly growing for all eternity,  As Gregory puts it:

“The Divine One is himself the Good…whose very nature is goodness….Since, then, it has not been demonstrated that there is any limit to virtue except evil, and since the Divine does not admit of an opposite, we hold the divine nature to be unlimited and infinite. Certainly whoever pursues true virtue participates in nothing other than God, because he is himself absolute virtue. Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire participation in it, and since this good has no limit, the participant’s desire itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless. It is therefore undoubtedly impossible to attain perfection, since as I have said, perfection is not marked off by limits: The one limit of virtue is the absence of a limit”

One of my students stumbled on to this idea years ago, comparing our growth in Christ as to as asymptote in mathematics.  This idea is strongly put forth in one of my all-time favorite books, David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite.  It is moving and challenging.  I find it to be a true account of things, and incredibly encouraging.  It is encouraging because every little baby step we take today puts us further along the path towards God, a path, an adventure, we will be on forever.

Question and Answer Night (Weekly Word)

Last night we had a question and answer night at our CSF meeting.  Full disclosure – I am writing this at 5 PM, two hours prior to the event beginning, though this post will not go up till Friday.  So I do not know for sure what questions will be discussed.  But I do know that this is always a fun night filled with lots of ideas and dialogue and debate.

It is one of the nights that reminds me why I love campus ministry so much.

On Fridays on this blog I tend to write what I call “Weekly Words”.  These posts are intended for the college students in CSF, thus for Christian students on a secular campus.  Often I basically summarize what we discussed the night before, in case anyone was absent and wants to catch up.  I am thinking that, with summer break quickly approaching, that it would be fun to dedicate each Friday to answering some of the questions from our Q and A nights.  Or even answering new questions that come in via Facebook or email.

I have always hesitated at the title “question and answer” night though, because it seems presumptuous of me to imply I can offer a quick and easy answer to questions that have stumped people and caused debate for centuries.  We have moved to calling the night a “Spirituality and Religion Discussion” though that is vague enough that people ask what it means and the response is: “ask questions and pastor Dave will answer them.”  That said, I am always very clear that I am offering my opinion.  For some questions I offer what I believe is a straight up and certain answer.  Other questions I offer a variety of possible answers and encourage the students to pick one.  It depends on the question.

All that to say, if you have a question about God, religion or whatever, I’d love for you to send it in to me.  You can reach me via email (campusminister_dave@yahoo.com) or on Twitter (dmlhershey).  Starting in a few weeks, I’ll throw out some answers.

It should be fun!

Beliefs and Desires – Thoughts on Pascal’s Pensees (Listening to the Saints)

I used to write a “Weekly Word” every Friday, devotional thoughts geared towards the CSF students at PSU Berks.  This summer I am bringing the Weekly Word back in hopes of providing spiritual support to the students while they are home.

Blaise Pascal lived in France in the mid-1600s and by all accounts was a brilliant, well-rounded man.  He contributed both to mathematics and physics as well as to Christian philosophy.  I think he would fit in well on a contemporary university campus, at least on the academic side of things.  That is why I think looking at some of what he wrote will be helpful for college students.

His most well-known work of philosophy is called Pensees (thoughts).  Pascal had hoped to write a full defense of Christianity but died before completing it, the notes for this book were put together after his death and published as Pensees.  My theology professor in seminary considered Pensees one of his favorite books.  I read it probably about five years ago and I’ve returned to it recently, reading a few portions every couple days or so.  I am finding it more interesting the second time through, now knowing what to expect.  I think there is a lot of food for thought here for college students

Pascal writes:

The will is one of the chief factors in belief, not that it creates belief, but because things are true or false according to the aspect in which we look at them. The will, which prefers one aspect to another, turns away the mind from considering the qualities of all that it does not like to see; and thus the mind, moving in accord with the will, stops to consider the aspect which it likes, and so judges by what it sees – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 31). . Kindle Edition.

I’ve spent a lot of time in ministry studying apologetics, seeking to provide answers to people’s questions and objections to faith in Jesus as well as providing positive reasons a person ought to believe.  If you read much in Christian apologetics, you soon get the impression that there is a simple formula: present the evidence and any clear-minded, rational person will believe.  Not all write in this way, but many do.

It does not take long to see the problem with this.  First, many clear-minded and rational people do not believe in the Christian gospel.  Second, if you think about it, most of what we do throughout the day is not a result of rational thinking.  We do not take time to analyze every choice we make.  At times we seem to run on auto-pilot, making choices almost without thinking about it.  Think of the time you drove home and when you arrived you had no memory of your drive.  You were lost in thought and just going through the motions, motions you had gone through dozens of times.  Or think of your choice to go to the movies last weekend.  You probably went to one of the bigger budget, well advertised movie (and we say advertising doesn’t influence us!).  In the theater you had a moment of enjoyment in front of the big screen, pulling for the good guys and hoping the bad guys got justice.*

This is sort of what Pascal is talking about in the above quote.  It is our will, not just our belief, that moves us.  The will prefers some things, causing us to look at things differently. The will moves us to things we like, things we desire or love.  This may even get to the point where we believe something is bad for us but we like/desire it so can’t help but do it (stories of young men and women who struggle with pornography come to mind).

Along with this, Pascal realizes that we want people to like us.  Often we are unwilling to recognize our own shortcomings: “Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them, and to be unwilling to recognise them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 32). . Kindle Edition).  And we prefer people who support us no matter the decisions we make, rather than those who tell us hard truths: “For is it not true that we hate truth and those who tell it us, and that we like them to be deceived in our favour, and prefer to be esteemed by them as being other than what we are in fact? One proof of this makes me shudder” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 32). . Kindle Edition).

What is a true friend?  The person who affirms us no matter the decision we make or the person who has the guts to call us out when we make a wrong decision?  I think we all would agree, upon rational thought, that it is the latter.  But when it comes down to it, who do we surround ourselves with?  Are we putting our beliefs in motion, that we need people willing to challenge us in our lives?  Or do we go with what makes us happy, flattery and affirmation?

Pascal again:

They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 33). . Kindle Edition.

Human life is thus only a perpetual illusion; men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit; few friendships would endure if each knew what his friend said of him in his absence, although he then spoke in sincerity and without passion – Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 33). . Kindle Edition.

May we seek true friendship, finding people willing to love us for who we are and who challenge us to grow into even more mature people.  May we do this even when it hurts.

And may we realize that correct beliefs are only part of becoming a full human.  May we learn to love and desire, to will, things that point us closer to Jesus Christ.

*My thoughts in this regard have been influenced in recent months by reading some fantastic books by the likes of James K.A. Smith and Myron Penner, just to name a few.

A Review of Just a Few of Eugene Peterson’s Many Great Books

Sometimes when I begin a new book, I am gripped from page one and tear through the book rather quickly.  Other books are slower to grab me, it takes a few chapters, but eventually I get sucked in.  Then there are Eugene Peterson books.  Eugene Peterson is best known for his translation of the Bible, The Message.  He is a retired pastor and author of many books.  I really enjoy reading Eugene Peterson’s books, but for some reason I’ll read a chapter one day and not come back to the book for days after that.  It is not that I don’t like the books.  Far from it.  Perhaps it is simply that a Peterson book is not the sort you “tear through”.

Years ago in seminary we read Peterson’s book on the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of St. John and the Praying Imagination.  I also read A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.  Both were phenomenal books that I still return to if studying Revelation or the Psalms.

Then in 2005 (I think) I picked up Peterson’s new book, the first book in a series on Spiritual Theology, titled Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.  The book moved from creation to history to community.  The next year I read the next book in the series upon its release, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading.  In it I recall learning about reading slowly (which I was learning about anyway as I read Peterson) and lectio divina.

Then came The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way.  Peterson did a lot in this book to contrast Jesus to other ways available in the first century,such as the ways of Herod, Josephus, Caiaphas and the zealots.  Next came Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers.    The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem and, if I recall correctly (and after a brief glance at my goodreads review), how true spiritual conversations happen in the everyday and mundane of life.

Just last week I finished the final book in the series, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ.  In this one, Peterson takes us on a tour of the book of Ephesians, introducing us to the church in Ephesus.  The church community is at the center of this book, it is not too much to say that the way we grow up in Christ is to join others in community who are also moving towards that goal.

I highly recommend any of these books (and you can read any of them alone, the “series” is not one where each previous is a necessary read).  Peterson was a pastor and writes like one, any of these books could be a beneficial read for any Christian.  They are a bit more demanding then much of the fluff that litters the shelves of Christian bookstores.  That said, Peterson is no hip megachurch pastor with a book deal writing easy-to-swallow best-sellers.  His books come out of a lifetime of ministry, a lifetime of engaging with real people in the real challenges of life.  Plus, he is just a fantastic writer.  I think I read Peterson slowly because the writing is so good.  You can scarf down a burger and fries at McDonalds to briefly appease your appetite; reading Peterson is like enjoying a bountiful, five course steak dinner.

 

What A Student Who Loves Doctor Who Taught me About Faith

This article was written for my December newsletter, sent out to all supporters of my ministry at PSU Berks.  I thought it was worth posting here too.

On Monday, November 23 I found myself in a theater surrounded by “Whovians.”  For those of you who don’t know – a “Whovian” is a fan of the British television show Doctor Who, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.  The show’s recent popularity is due to its return in 2005 after a long hiatus.  Many young people on both sides of the Atlantic have become fans.

The show follows the Doctor, a Time Lord, who travels through Space and Time in the TARDIS that looks like a British police box.  When mortally injured the doctor can regenerate into a new body.  This is the reason the show has lasted for fifty years, with eleven (or is it twelve?) different men portraying the Doctor.

I first heard of Doctor Who a two years ago from a student named Elizabeth.  Elizabeth came to CSF to observe us for a project she had to do in one of her classes (a mini-ethnography).  We have had a few students come to CSF for this reason before and usually they don’t hang around after the project is over.  I don’t think Elizabeth planned to either, but she did.

She found a welcoming and life-giving community in CSF.  When she interviewed me for the assignment we discussed her Catholic faith and whether that was a barrier to being a part of CSF.  I recall explaining that CSF seeks to be a place where all Christians can come and grow in their faith in Jesus.  (Of course, we also hope to create a place where people who are not yet disciples of Jesus can come and learn too.)  I know there are things Christians disagree on, and we discuss such things sometimes, but we try our best to lay those aside on campus so we can focus on what really matters.  On a campus filled with broken people there are more important things to do then argue our particular theologies.  What matters on campus is learning to love Jesus and spread this love to others.

Soon Elizabeth became good friends with many members of CSF.  She was part of an especially tight-knit group of ladies.  The next year, which was last year, she served on our leadership team as secretary.  Now in her senior year she continues to be involved in CSF.  Just a few weeks ago I took a group of students to the Penn State football game to work in a concession stand with the CSF group up there. Elizabeth could hardly hold in her excitement as she got to see Hannah, one of her best friends, and one of the first students to welcome her to CSF two years ago.

Elizabeth is a huge Doctor Who fan.  When you meet Elizabeth you soon find someone who enjoys good books, movies and television shows.  I suppose this is appropriate for someone who is a professional writing major.  As Elizabeth talked about Doctor Who other students who watched it also talked about it.  Others of us were so intrigued that we soon began watching it too.

This is how I found myself in a theater full of Whovians the Monday before Thanksgiving.  Bryson is another of those students who first welcomed Elizabeth to CSF.  He is now at University Park but was home for the holiday.  I joined Bryson and Elizabeth in watching the 50th anniversary special in 3D on the big screen.  Fun, nerdy times!

One evening a few months ago I was at the diner with CSF students.   They were talking about Doctor Who.  There was probably a new student who had just confessed to not ever seeing it.  I recall Elizabeth made an interesting comment – “I never tell people to watch Doctor Who.  I just talk about how much I enjoy it and they want to watch it.”

“And there’s your lesson on evangelism for the night,” was my response.

Too often we Christians create this huge pressure to sell Jesus to unwilling customers.  We approach it like a used-car salesman.  We hate it though as deep down we feel dirty…kind of like our stereotype of a used-car salesman.  But this is not what evangelism is.

What if evangelism is simply talking about what we are passionate about, what defines us, and what if this is primarily Jesus Christ?  I don’t need to take a class to learn how to tell someone I love my wife.  If you spend time talking to me, my likes and dislikes will come out.  And just as people may watch a television show we are very excited about, they may decide to visit our church or crack a Bible due to our excitement.

I feel the need to add a caution – this is not a program.  This does not mean we need to artificially create a false-excitement for the Jesus.  When I talk about my wife, or a book I really liked, or a movie I saw recently, I don’t pretend to like it out of outside pressure to get you to like it.  I really and truly love something and it naturally bubbles out of me.

So the challenge for me, the challenge I give my students and those reading this now, is to get to know Jesus.  Read the gospels, encounter the real and amazing person at the core of our faith.  I believe through this you won’t help but talk about him.   As you do, you’ll find others are wanting to marathon the Gospels much like marathoning episodes of Doctor Who on Netflix.

The Beauty of Silence

“I really loved how we didn’t have cell phone coverage this weekend.”

“I wish there were more places back home where cell phones didn’t work.”

These were just two comments I heard from students as we headed home from our annual fall retreat this past weekend.  The retreat takes place at Sylvan Hills Christian Camp in Howard, PA, about 30 minutes north of State College.  It is the middle of nowhere and there is no cell phone reception.

In a world where we are glued to our gadgets at all times, this disconnection can be both scary and liberating.  I heard one student telling another that her parents are probably worried because they haven’t heard from her in nearly two days.  When I was at Penn State I went on a retreat to the same place and my parents probably had no idea I had left State College.  How the world has changed in just over 10 years!

It was appropriate to hear students make such statements, to reflect on the beauty of the silence and the joy of leaving some noise behind and getting into nature, because I had just talked about the spiritual discipline of meditation a few days prior.  Meditation, as Richard Foster describes it in Celebration of Discipline, is listening to God.  This is challenging because:

“In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry and crowds…if we hope to move beyond the superficialties of our culture, including our religious culture, we must be willing to go down into the recreating silences, into the inner world of contemplation” (15)

Why do we not hear God speak?  Perhaps part of the reason is that we can’t hear anything above the constant background noise of our lives.

My hope for the students, and myself, is that they would take time to find a quiet place where they can commune with God.  I hope they come to know that the same God they met this past weekend in the woods is still there on campus.

The Journal of John Woolman – A Not-Review

John Woolman was a Quaker who lived just prior to the American Revolution.  But he is not known for anything to do with that, for he was fighting a much bigger fight, speaking our against slavery while the vast majority of people in the colonies still accepted it.  Woolman did not just speak out about it, he put his words into action.  If he was employed to write a will for someone, he refused to write the portion of the will that spoke of ownership and passing on of slaves.  He encouraged the people to free their slaves.  During his travels he would often stay with other Quakers who were slaveholders.  In such situations, he insisted on paying for the hospitality he received.

You can read Woolman’s story in his journal.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – one of the best qualities of e-books is the cheap availability of classic works.  Maybe I would never have read Woolman’s journal, which would have been to my own detriment, if I had to buy a hard copy.  But at 99 cents?  I will go so far as to say any Christian with an e-reader ought to purchase this book.

Woolman’s journal does not just reveal his anti-slavery work.  It also sheds a light on a man who lived a simple, Christ-centered life.  His words on overcoming the desire to get more stuff and instead being content with just enough to meet your needs are beautiful and challenging:

My mind, through the power of truth, was in a good degree weaned from the desire of outward greatness, and I was learning to be content with real conveniences, that were not costly, so that a way of life free from much entanglement appeared best for me, though the income might be small. – The Journal of John Woolman, Quaker (and Other Selected Writings) (A Christian Classic!) (Kindle Locations 314-316).

Along with his thoughts on simplicity, I was struck by how he learned to be silent until led to speak by God.  It seemed that, like many of us, when he was younger he would often enter into an argument, believing he had the truth and had to share it (and in being against slavery, he was correct in this).  But over time he seemed to have learned, as we all need to, that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak:

It was my concern from day to day to say neither more nor less than what the spirit of truth opened in me, being jealous over myself lest I should say anything to make my testimony look agreeable to that mind in people which is not in pure obedience to the cross of Christ – The Journal of John Woolman, Quaker (and Other Selected Writings) (A Christian Classic!) (Kindle Locations 1224-1226).

I think his words in regards to business would also be good for Christian (or all) business leaders:

As he is the perfection of power, of wisdom, and of goodness, so I believe he hath provided that so much labor shall be necessary for men’s support in this world as would, being rightly divided, be a suitable employment of their time; and that we cannot go into superfluities, or grasp after wealth in a way contrary to his wisdom, without having connection with some degree of oppression, and with that spirit which leads to self-exaltation and strife, and which frequently brings calamities on countries by parties contending about their claims – The Journal of John Woolman, Quaker (and Other Selected Writings) (A Christian Classic!) (Kindle Locations 1439-1442).

I was renewedly confirmed in a belief, that if all our inhabitants lived according to sound wisdom, laboring to promote universal love and righteousness, and ceased from every inordinate desire after wealth, and from all customs which are tinctured with luxury, the way would be easy for our inhabitants, though they might be much more numerous than at present, to live comfortably on honest employments, without the temptation they are so often under of being drawn into schemes to make settlements on lands which have not been purchased of the Indians, or of applying to that wicked practice of selling rum to them – The Journal of John Woolman, Quaker (and Other Selected Writings) (A Christian Classic!) (Kindle Locations 1532-1536).

If this was a real review, I could be a bit critical.  The journal is a bit slow at times, with a lot of “we traveled here and slept here and met this person and so on and so forth.”  Some questions are left unanswered as the journal only provides a glimpse into his life that a biography would fill.  One example is his wife.  What happened to her?  He does not mention her much, that is for sure.  But such things aside, this is a Christian classic.  So I’ll just leave you with a few (a bunch!) more quotes that I found challenging, thought-provoking and inspiring:

The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable.

Travelling up and down of late, I have had renewed evidences that to be faithful to the Lord, and content with his will concerning me, is a most necessary and useful lesson for me to be learning; looking less at the effects of my labor than at the pure motion and reality of the concern, as it arises from heavenly love. In the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength; and as the mind, by humble resignation, is united to Him, and we utter words from an inward knowledge that they arise from the heavenly spring, though our way may be difficult, and it may require close attention to keep in it, and though the matter in which we may be led may tend to our own abasement; yet, if we continue in patience and meekness, heavenly peace will be the reward of our labors.

 

True charity is an excellent virtue; and sincerely to labor for their good, whose belief in all points doth not agree with ours, is a happy state.

To keep a watchful eye towards real objects of charity, to visit the poor in their lonesome dwelling-places, to comfort those who, through the dispensations of Divine Providence, are in strait and painful circumstances in this life, and steadily to endeavor to honor God with our substance, from a real sense of the love of Christ influencing our minds, is more likely to bring a blessing to our children, and will afford more satisfaction to a Christian favored with plenty, than an earnest desire to collect much wealth to leave behind us; for, “here we have no continuing city”; may we therefore diligently “seek one that is to come, whose builder and maker is God.”

To consider mankind otherwise than brethren, to think favours are peculiar to one nation, and to exclude others, plainly supposes a darkness in the understanding: for as God’s love is universal, so where the mind is sufficiently influenced by it, it begets a likeness of itself, and the heart is enlarged towards all men.

If we, by the operation of the Spirit of Christ, become heirs with him in the kingdom of his Father, and are redeemed from the alluring counterfeit joys of this world, and the joy of Christ remain in us; to suppose that one in this happy condition can, for the sake of earthly riches, not only deprive his fellow creatures of the sweetness of freedom, which, rightly used, is one of the greatest temporal blessings, but there with neglect using proper means for their acquaintance with the Holy Scriptures, and the advantage of true religion, seems at least a contradiction to reason.

 

How I Spent My Summer (well, part of it)

My introduction to Dallas Willard came in my first semester of seminary when we were assigned read his Renovation of the Heart in a class called Shaping the Heart of a Leader.  We read other books on the soul of a leader, but this was the most difficult one.  I do recall the professor admitting this was a tough book.  But the assumption seemed to be that we had all read The Divine Conspiracy in bible college, so time to move on to other books by Willard.  What about those of us who did not attend bible college?  Oh well.

I did read The Divine Conspiracy on my own a few years later and consider it one of my favorite books.  I wish I had read it when I was younger!  And I imagine that if I ever dive into Renovation of the Heart again, I’ll get it a bit more.  But those were the only two books by Dallas Willard I had read.  I always wanted to read more, so this summer, motivated by his death and the books being on sale on Amazon (geez, that sentence just sounds morbid), I did.  I figured if I was going to claim him as a favorite author, I should read more than two of his books, may he rest in peace.

Knowing Christ Today: How We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (2009)

I started with this book, one of Willard’s more recent ones.  His purpose in the book is to argue that Christianity, discipleship to Jesus, rests on actual knowledge.  Our world tends to reserve “knowledge” for one sort of thing, such as science.  Religion, it is said, is mere opinion.  Hence people can assert that all religions are the same, since they are all equally devoid of truth or knowledge.  But if there is truly spiritual knowledge, truly a way things really are, then religion is more than mere opinion.

Honestly, having read my share of apologetics books, I did not expect apologetics here.  So I was somewhat surprised when Willard began rehearsing familiar arguments for God’s existence and miracles as part of his reasoning for why we can trust spiritual knowledge.  I am not sure how I expected him to argue for how we can trust spiritual knowledge when I began the book, but I didn’t expect arguments for God’s existence.  That said, apologetics of the usual sort only supplies a portion of Willard’s arguments (plus, his casting of the arguments is a bit different then those familiar with them might expect).  He goes on to talk about how we can know Christ where we are.  His method for this are the spiritual disciplines, “time-tested spiritual practices that can help us in our learning process.”  In other words, we grow in knowledge as we interact with God.  It should be said then that while we can trust spiritual knowledge, it is still not the exact same as scientific or historical knowledge.  We can trust all these things, but we learn what each says in its own way (i.e., the scientific method is not how we learn spiritual truth).

Perhaps the most important chapter is the second-to-last where he discussed pluralism.  If, as Willard argues, there is spiritual knowledge and this truth rests in Jesus Christ, then how one handles diversity and disagreement becomes vital.  In other subjects where knowledge exists, those who take a minority view may be shunned – think of those who question the received view of science or history.  Religion, more like politics or philosophy, has a myriad of views.  Willard greatly emphasizes humility and that even though there is spiritual knowledge, we know that none of us are perfect in our understanding of it.

Overall, this is a fantastic book.

The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teaching on Discipleship (2006)

This book is the compilation of a series of essays and other works from Willard.  The overall theme that holds all works together is that there has been a great omission from the great commission.  The Great Commission comes at the end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus commands his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded.  Willard sees a contemporary Christianity that has failed to “make disciples”.  This is not just about obedience to rules, it is more akin to apprenticeship to Jesus.

The positive of this book is that since it is a compilation of many points, the most important points of Willard’s thoughts are repeated throughout.  For that reason, I almost think this would be the best book to suggest to someone who has never read Willard but wants to.  It is not as heady a read as Knowing Christ Today or The Divine Conspiracy.  Willard often goes back to the importance of spiritual disciplines here, emphasizing that God’s grace is not opposed to effort but to earning.  This is one of the clearest lessons to come through my reading of Willard.  The Protestant Reformation did right in returning the Church to the truth of God’s grace, that nothing we do can earn God’s love.  But over the years this has grown into an almost knee-jerk reaction against any sort of effort.  It is as if the idea of training yourself in your faith by certain disciplines is seen as working to earn God’s love.  Willard identifies this as the reason why so few Christians mature in faith.  We expect God to just zap us and automatically change us and it does not work that way.  Like anything else we must train ourselves, never forgetting that in this we are not earning God’s love for we are already loved.

The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988)

This is the last one of Willard’s book I read, and it may be my favorite.  Many themes he only touched on in his later works are fleshed out fully here.  Willard does not go into great detail on the disciplines, though there is one chapter on them.  The emphasis here is more on why such disciplines are so important.  Willard often says grace is opposed to earning, not to effort and this book, to some degree, is a detailed explanation of how this is the case.

Willard argues that the choices we make will shape who we become.  Thus we can either take steps, discipline ourselves, to become disciples of Christ or we can do nothing.  This doing nothing is a choice too and our natural inclinations will put us on a path.  So if we resist disciplines for fear of works-righteousness we will find ourselves never really changing into a more Christ-like person.  Having been around the Christian church my whole life, I think Willard is right on.  We go to church week after week, maybe read the Bible occasionally because we feel like we have to but year after year most of us find our lives to be more or less the same.  We cry out to God asking for our sins to be purged, before living a life filled with choices that contribute to those sins becoming habits.

While this is my favorite of the three books, I do wish Willard had spent more time on practical issues.  Specifically, how does this apply to people with families and jobs?  I can see the college students I work with diving into the practices.  But what happens to solitude when you are caring for a toddler all day?  How does silence happen between the noise of kids and coworkers?  As much as Willard talks of these disciplines as time-tested, most examples throughout history are still superstars of faith – monks and other unattached people who had the flexibility to do such things.  I do think the disciplines can be applied to the daily life of normal people with jobs and kids.  I just think how that happens is different then how it may happen for students, single people, the elderly or anyone else.  It is not a one-size fits all sort of thing.

Overall, fantastic books.  Do yourself a favor if you want to grow in faith in Christ – read Willard.

Knowing Christ Today – 5 stars

The Great Omission – 4 stars

Spirit of the Disciplines – 5 stars