The Literary Confessional

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Photo by Hans, CC0 1.0 Universal via Pixabay

I’ve just begun a delightful little book, I’d Rather Be Reading, by a kindred spirit, Anne Bogel. In her opening chapter, she talks about literary confessions, the guilty secrets of bibliophiles, such as the important literary works they haven’t read, or didn’t like.  That got me thinking about some of my own literary confessions:

  • I just don’t get why everyone loves the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
  • Great American Read just named To Kill A Mockingbird its “Great American Read.” I think East of Eden by John Steinbeck a far better literary work, which didn’t even make the list.
  • There are at least a couple series that I really like that I have never finished. I’ve nearly finished them and have all the books. I guess I don’t want them to end.
  • I am ashamed how little of Shakespeare I have ever read.
  • My unread books might outnumber the ones I’ve read.
  • We didn’t have “young adult” fiction when I was a young adult–and now I feel too old to read it!
  • There was a period when I binged on Tom Clancy novels.
  • I’m reading Cloud Atlas right now, and liking it more than I thought I would.
  • I have not read a single Harry Potter story.
  • I avoided reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle growing up, but have enjoyed his Lanny Budd books, perfect on my Kindle for morning workouts on the treadmill.
  • I loved Calvin’s Institutes. Calvin loved God, and wrote with precision.
  • I think John Henry Cardinal Newman had great ideas that get lost in an effluvia of words!
  • I think most theologians could use a good dose of G. K. Chesterton in their writing.
  • I’m a sucker for a good baseball book, or even a bad one!

I could go on, but my literary soul already feels better…and it is time to give you a turn at the confessional.

So, what are your literary confessions, those guilty secrets of which you would like to unburden yourself with other bibliophiles? It is even OK to confess your outrage at some of my confessions!

Review: Teach Us To Pray

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Teach Us To PrayGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A concise guide to prayer based on the Lord’s prayer, with a central focus on the coming of the kingdom and a dependence upon the Spirit expressed in thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Perhaps one of the most common struggles for many Christians is the practice of prayer. Little wonder that the disciples, observing Jesus at prayer, ask him, “teach us to pray.” In this small but rich book, Gordon T. Smith considers the practice of prayer through the lens of the model prayer Jesus gave his disciples in response to their request.

Smith begins with the observation that the whole prayer turns on the central request, “thy kingdom come.” He writes:

When we pray “thy kingdom come,” should not our prayer be an act of recalibration? Could our praying be an act of intentional alignment and realignment? That is, in our prayer our vision of the kingdom purposes of God will be deepened and broadened; we will be drawn into the reality of Christ risen and now on the throne of the universe. And thus through our prayers we not only pray for the kingdom but come to increasingly live within the kingdom, under the reign of Christ. (p.11)

From our longing for the kingdom come flow three movements in prayer, each of which Smith takes a chapter to cover:

  • Thanksgiving: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by recognizing how the kingdom has already come and is at work both in our lives and in the world. We celebrate the goodness of God, dwell in the love of God, and in suffering both lament (an acknowledgement and cry to the God we even yet believe is good) and trusting thanksgiving for that goodness and what is formed in us through suffering.
  • Confession: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by acknowledging where we are out of line with God’s intentions, accept responsibility, seek God’s mercy, and both receive and grant forgiveness, as we embrace the way of truth and light.
  • Discernment: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by asking and listening for God’s direction for how we may participate in his kingdom purposes. We learn to hear the voice of the Spirit through the noise of our lives as we pay attention to whether this direction is congruent with scripture, whether we have reached a place of holy indifference, and find affirmation within the community to whom we are accountable.

If these three movements arise from the centrality of the kingdom of God, they crucially depend upon the Spirit of God. The Spirit helps us see the good works of God, reveals our sin and humbles our hearts, and guides us in consolation.

Smith also emphasizes throughout the book how each of the three movements are realized in the Eucharist, as we give thanks for the work of Christ, come in repentance acknowledging the reconciliation won through the body and the blood, and strengthens us to say what we need to say and do what we need to do.

A concluding chapter then considers both corporate and personal prayer. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, Smith commends the Psalms as both Israel’s and our prayer book. An afterword deals succinctly and helpfully with petition.

This is one of those books one can give a person just beginning in the practice of prayer, while enriching and deepening the practice of those who have prayed for some time. Smith shows us how prayer connects to a whole life lived around “thy kingdom come.” He weaves the importance of our dependence upon the Spirit, the richness of the scriptures and especially the Psalms, and our gatherings around the Lord’s table. And so we are taught to pray.

Confession

We just arrived back home from a visit to one of the churches that funds our college ministry. It was a wonderful time for catching up with old friends and making some new ones. But one conversation sticks in my mind, because it is a conversation that I seem to have been having in one form or another over the past months. It was with a mom who was talking about one of her children who has distanced herself from the faith of her childhood. No resentment of parents with whom she is on good terms. Nevertheless, she cannot embrace the faith she grew up with.

This is not a new story. It happened with friends of mine in my generation. But it seems it is happening to an unprecedented degree among the generation known as Millenials according to David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking FaithI’ve not yet read this (though it sits on my Kindle) and perhaps after this conversation, I should. What strikes me is that my generation has failed the rising generation in not living the light and love of the message of Christ when we knew better:

  • We often preached the authority of the Bible selectively to point out others sins while conveniently leaving out our own. We preached about social causes that upheld our politics and ignored biblical teaching that would favor “the other side”.
  • We allowed ourselves to be seduced by political parties instead of living prophetically as the people whose Lord is greater than all our modern Caesars.
  • We sang “O How I Love Jesus” but lived “O How I Love Walmart” (or Macy’s, or Saks depending on how well off we were).
  • We wanted our kids to remain untouched from the world but communicated that their success in academics and work was actually the really important thing.
  • When they came to us with hard, searching questions that we had suppressed in our own minds years ago, we said “not now” or “just believe” or “what are you trying to do, stir up trouble?” Or we gave simplistic answers to thoughtful questions that conveyed, “we got nothin'” (when sadly, if we did our homework we would find that we did).
  • We claimed to be “colorblind” which was true in the sense that in most of our churches you could only see one color.
  • We said “Jesus is Lord of all” which really meant he was Lord of all of our Sunday mornings, and personal devotions and relatively little else. For many of us, Sunday and Jesus had little to do with Monday through Saturday.
  • We fought to teach creation and “intelligent design” and often formed the most powerful resistance to efforts to care for the creation and protect God’s creatures.

At least in these ways we have failed. I could make the list longer and no doubt there are things I am blind to. Certainly my friends will protest the wonderful exceptions. They are right, and yet as I look at the history of the last thirty years, I think we did a pretty poor job on many counts. I have no defense. All I can say, insofar as these things were true of us, is that we were wrong, we have sinned, and desperately need forgiveness.

I sense among many younger writers who have hung in and are rethinking the call of the church, that they are saying, “we will do better.” I seriously hope they are right. I am also chilled as a child of the Jesus movement that we were saying the same things. Maybe the only thing that can save any of us from failures of my generation is to recognize the hubris of thinking we can do better. If looking at ourselves through the eyes of the rising generation is humbling for us, I hope it might also be instructive for those who follow.

Perhaps what we can do together in the time that remains for us is to learn anew radical dependence upon Christ to heal us, and as we read the scriptures together, to challenge each other to the radical obedience of pursuing all that is written there, not just our favorite verses or hobby horses. I long for more conversations with this generation where people are saying, I am following Christ because of the integrity of my parents and the people their age, where people are drawn once more to Christian communities because they are so radically different than the culture around them.

This is my confession…