Review: The Possibility of Prayer

the possibility of prayer

The Possibility of PrayerJohn Starke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: We both long for a rich prayer life yet think it impossible for all but the spiritual elite; this work points to the possibility and practices that invite us into that life.

Many of us approach this matter of prayer deeply torn. We long for a rich relationship with God, and yet our fast-paced, disruptive lives, makes such prayer seem the preserve of a spiritual elite. We long for transformation, yet struggle with prayer seeming to be a non-productive practice in our “show me the money” world.

John Starke names the issue for us:

   The Bible challenges our utilitarianism. The prayers in the Psalms use words of waiting, watching, listening, tasting, and seeing, meditating and resting. It’s remarkable how inefficient these actions are. They aren’t accomplishing anything. There isn’t a product on the other side of these prayerful actions. Yet over the years they bring steadfastness, joy, life, fruitfulness, depth of gratitude, satisfaction, wonder, an enlarged heart, feasting, and dancing. (p. 7).

Starke contends that the possibility of prayer rests in a God who became incarnate in his son and who cares so deeply for us that he knows our tossing at night as well as the hairs on our head. While we pray in our nooks and crannies, we also pray in the heavenly places with Christ, entering into relationship with a God who is gloriously “heavy” [the meaning of glory], holy, joyful, beautiful, relational, and available. He suggests as we read scripture considering how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might be speaking to us, inviting us into deeper communion with the triune God.

He addresses one of our greatest barriers, which is a reactionary heart and way of life, a habit of the heart where we ignore living out of an inner life and are shaped by our responses to circumstances that only the slow, quiet work of prayer may shape. Prayer can be painful because it calls upon us to expose our vulnerabilities, and our sins to God. Learning to pray means learning to wait, to dwell or abide with God amid the ordinary, the mundane, when nothing special seems to be happening between us and God.

Starke then considers the practices that take us into this “possible” life of prayer. He focuses on the practices of communion, meditation, solitude, fasting and feasting, sabbath, and corporate worship. I particularly appreciated the chapter on fasting and feasting, particularly Starke’s recognition that we more often associate spirituality with the fasting side of this rather than a rhythm of both. I also found this striking  insight from Psalm 77:10-12 on the distinctive character of Christian meditation:

The psalmist is not engaging in passive exercises. This is not the gentle emotional work of relaxing and trying to empty your mind. It’s fighting. These are intentional habits: I will appeal; I will remember; I will ponder; I will meditate. Christian meditation is fighting, grasping for joy, It’s intentionally and regularly remembering and pondering the history of God’s power for his people. If you coast, you lose. (p. 111).

Starke offers spiritual wisdom borne of his own spiritual journey and pastoral ministry among busy New Yorkers. He encourages us that engaging with God is possible for ordinary saints if we begin to pursue the slow, quiet ways of prayer, and persist in a relationship that, over time, can bring great joy and transformation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Teach Us To Pray

teach us to pray

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.

Review: Simple Prayer

Simple prayer

Simple PrayerCharlie Dawes (foreword by Mark Batterson). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Helps us understand how the “simple” prayers of scripture and those from our hearts may lead us into deep relationship and communion with God.

I suspect that any of us who have set ourselves on the path of following Christ have struggled with prayer. For me it has been the movement from worrying about having the “right” words, to wrestling with things like prayer lists with long recitals of requests to beginning to wonder if I needed so many words and discovering that I didn’t need to fill the silences. Somewhere it dawned on me that the prayer the Lord taught his disciples can be spoken in fifteen seconds, and yet volumes have been written about it.

Charlie Dawes, in this book, observes that prayer can be simple, and yet not simplistic, that in prayer, deep can commune with deep without lots of words. Much like time with a person we love, we may enjoy a deep intimacy captured in a few words: “Lord have mercy,” “Your kingdom come,” “Forgive us our sins,” and “Father, forgive them.” In the Introduction to this book, Dawes writes,

“Simple prayers are all around us. They are found in Scripture. They are hidden in our daily lives. They swirl around our hearts and minds and rest on the tips of our tongues. Simple prayers are for both the novice seeker and the well-worn traveler on the journey of faith. Where do you find yourself at this moment? Are you new to faith? Have you been on this faith walk for years? Do you feel like you are losing your way? Do you feel the wind at your back propelling you into unchartered waters and have a rising anxiety about the unknown? Maybe you are looking for a way to deepen your prayer life. Then it is time to simply pray. We can trust that before we even articulate our thoughts, emotions, or needs, God already knows and desires to respond. A simple prayer paves the way for us to know and be known by God” (pp. 9-10).

The author begins by saying more about what he means by simple prayer, which is often the use of a single word, or short phrase, often drawn from scripture to capture  our particular longing for God and God’s presence. Then in succeeding chapters he writes about different simple prayers–the prayer of the heart, the prayer of faith, the prayer of forgiveness, the prayer of unity, the prayer of restoration, the prayer of finding your way.

Chapter seven focuses on simple words to pray–a single word or very short phrase. Here is one example:

“You know me. To be known by God is more than saying that God is aware of us; it is to say that God desires to inhabit every detail of our lives. God is not looking for a social media relationship with us, a relationship from afar. A need for intimacy is woven into us, and we all wander until we find our home in God. I remember watching the sitcom Cheers when I was younger. I loved when Norm would cross the threshold of the bar, and everyone greeted him with a loud, “Norm.” He was beloved, he was known. Take a moment and pray this simple prayer: You know me. Allow each repetition of this prayer to provide more and more assurance to your heart that you are indeed known by God. Your actions cannot undo this and you cannot earn it. You are not known as the sum of your skills or achievements. You are not embraced by the love of God because you have accumulated wealth or possess status. You are known because you are the beloved of God” (pp. 111-112).

What I appreciated about this work was that it articulated a way of praying focused less on methods or tasks, and more on intimacy with the one with whom we engage. It suggested what it might look like to “pray without ceasing” where we carry a word or phrase that we breathe before God throughout the day, like the Jesus prayer. This is prayer which liberates us from the temptation to “be heard for our many words,” tiresome for both the person praying and the one listening–what a mercy that God is so patient with so many of us! It is prayer without pretense or performance, just a few honest words that, like the Lord’s Prayer, may express volumes.

I don’t think this is all that may be said of prayer. Not all our models of prayer in scripture reduce to a word, a phrase or a few phrases. But if you have found the world of many words wearying and long for a more unvarnished, honest, and intimate relationship with God, these “simple prayers” may take you into new depths.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Praying For Your Pastor

Praying for your Pastor

Praying For Your PastorEddie Byun (foreword by Chip Ingram). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A practical guide both advocating for the importance of prayer for our pastors and offering a practical rubric in the form of the acronym PRAYERS.

“I often tell my congregation, “Your prayer support is my life support.” Someone who has been rescued from drowning or is recovering from a serious injury like a gunshot wound may need to be put on life support for a period of time. The injured person doesn’t have the strength to keep going by himself, so he needs the help of something outside of himself in order to allow his body to rest and to be strengthened to health again. In many ways, the pastor is under a wide range of attacks from the enemy. The attacks may come in various forms, such as gossip, criticism, slander, sickness, or even threats. There are days when your pastor feels emotionally burned out, physically exhausted, and spiritually weak. She feels she just can’t go on. These experiences are far too common and come far too frequently. These are the times when pastors need the life support of our prayers to keep them going. You may not know the struggles your pastors face today, but you can know that your prayers will make a difference in their lives” (pp. 22-23).

So writes pastor Eddie Byun in what is both an impassioned plea and practical guide to pray for our pastors. Throughout this book Byun uses both statistics and personal stories to describe the challenges pastors face that leads to so many dropping out of the ministry. He believes that one of the most important things churches can do is to mobilize teams of people to pray for their pastors.

Byun goes on to provide a simple rubric around the acronym PRAYERS to guide those praying for pastors. Each chapter in the book is organized around one letter in the acronym:

  • Protection: Against temptation, evil, and the enemy and praying through the armor of God (Ephesians 6:14-17).
  • Rest: For physical, emotional, and spiritual rest, for unhurried times with the Lord, against burnout and for times of refreshing.
  • Anointing: For growing intimacy with the Lord, greater consecration, and for power to be released in your pastor’s life and ministry.
  • Yielded heart: Daily transformation by the gospel, obedience out of love and gratitude for the cross, trust and obedience, growth in treasuring Christ.
  • Effectiveness: Wisdom, increased fruitfulness in life and ministry, in people being saved and discipled, and faithfulness to the end.
  • Righteousness and integrity: A strong foundation in one’s life, that all that one does is motivated out of love and honor for Christ.
  • Strong marriages and families: protection of marriage and family, support in the church to encourage pastor in marriage and family life, and strong discipleship of children with parents who live their faith.

Each chapter fleshes out these themes, provides discussion questions, prayer points, and action plans one may take to form and guide a prayer team. Reading this book challenged me with regard to how much (or little) I pray for my pastor and reminded me of the challenging character of his work as well as how thankful I am for him, and other pastors I’ve known who faithfully shepherd God’s flock.

It also reminded me again how important it is for all of us in ministry to have prayer teams. I am blessed with ten people who have committed to pray for me daily and I truly believe they have been instrumental in God’s work through the ministry in which I engage. Byun, in his concluding chapter quotes Deuteronomy 4:7 which says, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” He observes that while God is always present, there is a special way he is present to people when we pray for them. I know I need this, and I know those who pastor our churches need this. Byun’s book makes this case and shows us how we may get started.

When We Can’t Pray for Leaders We Don’t Like

pray-for-leaders-and-nations

When I wrote the other day on “Praying for a President You [Don’t] Like” I got as much feedback as I have gotten on about anything I’ve written, except when I’m talking about food with Youngstowners!

There were quite a number, perhaps a majority who felt this gave words to what they struggled to find words for. Some even wanted to reprint the post. I’m glad that my own process of giving voice to things I have deeply felt helped others.

Here is one comment that has had me thinking:

“I want to be at a place where I can pray for this President. I’m not there yet. I started to read Bob’s prayer and had to stop.”

There were others who had similar thoughts. I know many women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ persons, immigrants, (or Democrats!), and many others who are troubled by statements, things promised, or ideas put forth and how they were said in this campaign.

I’m grateful for that honesty. I thought this comment itself a great and honest prayer. To say, “God, I want to be at a place where I can pray for this President. I’m not there yet” seems to me to be enough and more than enough. A wise person said to me, “pray as you can, and not as you can’t.”

This brings me to a concern of whether it is right to pray for someone who commenters described as “evil”, “self-serving”, “narcissistic” and so forth. I sense some think that these qualities are irreversible. I find myself more reserved in such judgments, perhaps because I don’t have to look hard to find instances of these qualities in my own life. Even if there is a quantitative difference between me and another and a seemingly irredeemable character to the person, I think of Hebrews 10:31 that says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The verse refers to those who hold the knowledge of the truth in contempt. I would not want any human being to face this, and if I think this a possibility for a person, I pray that God would extend mercy and transformation to spare them this “fearful thing.”

I do find myself pleading for this man (and any president) because both his and the nation’s destiny are at stake. I think of Luke 12:48 which says, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” I believe every leader will give account not only to their people, and in the case of presidents to the bar of history, but also to God. The apostle Paul, who calls upon us to pray for leaders said this during the reign of Emperor Nero, who wrought terrible havoc and even turned Christians into human torches to light Rome. Perhaps what helped Paul pray for even despicable leaders was the prayer of another martyr, Stephen, for those who stoned him while Paul (Saul) looked on. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Some seemed to wonder if praying for a leader is tantamount to blessing, condoning, and submitting to what they do, particularly if it is evil or unjust. I have sometimes prayed that God would limit and thwart the evil particularly corrupt leaders have perpetrated. More than that, Christians have always believed that if the choice is obeying human authority or God, God wins hands down. Not only have Christians refused emperor worship, but they have sheltered fugitive slaves and disobeyed fugitive slave laws (in the US), they have sheltered Jews or others who are objects of genocide, often at the risk of their own lives, they have refused to participate in unjust wars, and more. They have marched, sat down, and boycotted. I can pray for liberty and justice, and my commitment to these inalienable rights may also require me to obey a higher law when human laws command idolatry or violate the rights to life and liberty of others.

I don’t know anyone but a fool or fanatic or lawless person who welcomes the chance to engage in civil disobedience. All the more reason, it seems to me to pray. Paul urges such prayer for leaders “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life.” We may not always be granted it, but it is never wrong to seek God’s shalom.

I’ll conclude with a friend’s comment that summed up well for me why we pray even for the leaders we don’t like:

“A true show of our character as people of faith is whether or not we can truly love our enemies, and one way of doing that is praying for them, regardless of how distasteful we find them to be. God is not incapable of changing and softening any of our hearts, including those of our leaders. Praying for the leaders that you despise requires the grace and maturity to put aside anger and hurt to appeal to God on their behalf (and the behalf of your nation, state, city, etc.).”

Praying for a President You [Don’t] Like

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President Donald J. Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

Sometimes I’ve questioned friends of mine who are people of faith who constantly criticized the current president in social media, whether his last name was Bush or Obama. I’ve asked whether they prayed for their president as much as they posted against him. For any who claim to be attempting to live a biblically informed life, the Apostle Paul writes:

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2, ESV).

I find myself a bit in the place of the friends I’ve chided. While I don’t make a habit of endless posts on political matters on Twitter or Facebook, which I just think is tiresome and disproportionate to the realities of life, I have to admit that this is not the president I wanted. That person never made it out of the primaries (yes, I’m going to leave you guessing!). But there is no wiggle room, at least for me, out of Paul’s injunction. And so here’s how I will pray for our incoming president.

O God, you rule over all things, and so even though I can’t make sense of it, this man will preside over our nation. Have mercy on him, and on us! He needs your mercy. He has been entrusted with and will answer for much as he presides over one of the great nations of the world. He can do great good or great harm, and one way or another will give account for his stewardship of this trust.

Grant him a humble heart as he comes to grips with the huge task before him, greater, really, than any single person can handle. May it drive him to his knees in the most fervent prayers of his lifetime, and take him to a new place of recognizing his need for the good will and aid of all the people he serves.

He will need wisdom beyond all the experience he has acquired. Grant him to cherish this more than gold or silver. Give him wise counselors who will not be an echo chamber of his own thoughts but will have the courage to say the hard thing. Grant him the greatness of soul that listens to the hard word for what can be learned, no matter who is speaking it.

I am fearful, Lord, when I hear we are in a “post truth” era. O God who sees into and discerns the heart, give our president the awareness that every word is spoken before one who is Truth, and who sees the things that are concealed. Grant him to grow in integrity and be led by truth in this office, that he would see the horror of deceiving those he serves.

I long for a society where “liberty and justice for all” is not just a pledge but the daily pursuit of our president and all our public servants. Grant our president as one who has come from the place of privilege and power to set an example of using these, and when necessary, laying them aside to lift up those without place or power. Grant him and all our public servants, and especially those who administer justice, to be impartial toward friend and enemy alike, in the righting of wrongs.

I do long for a peaceful and quiet life, not only for myself but for all people. Grant our president to pursue the things that make for peace, between parties, between peoples of different ethnicities, between our social classes, our religious groups, between men and women. Grant the greatness of soul that uses the gentle answer to turn away wrath and to plant a life giving tree in desert lands.

Grant our president a courage that is not rashness and a resolve that is not bravado in the service of justice and the proper defense of our land. At the same time, grant him a generous heart both for our people, and for the peoples of the world who share our humanity.

Finally, guard our president from dangers physical and spiritual. Protect his marriage from the estrangements that pressure can bring and his family from the dangers of the public spotlight and the temptations to undue influence.

O Lord, it strikes me that it would be a hypocrisy to pray these high and noble aspirations for our president, but to excuse myself from these same things. Grant the grace, power and courage to all who seek you to live up to these things, both for your glory, and the good of humankind. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I apologize if this is more “religious” than is to your taste. I like what Jim Wallis, the founder and president of Sojourners has said, that “faith is always personal but never private.” Authentic faith, it seems to me always has both public implications and public consequences. At very least, putting this prayer out to you, I hope will have the consequence of committing me to pray it, or prayers like it for our president. I hope you will hold me to that, and if you share my convictions about a biblically informed faith, join me in those prayers. Our president, our nation, and our world needs them.

[In response to comments on this post, I wrote a follow-up titled “When We Can’t Pray for Leaders We Don’t Like“]

Review: Church for the Fatherless

church for the fatherlessChurch for the Fatherless, Mark E. Strong. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: Mark Strong chronicles both the crisis of fatherlessness in our society and the vital role the church can play in equipping fathers and caring for the fatherless.

Perhaps the most stunning statistic in this book was that 24.7 million children live in a home without their biological fathers. Countless others are not included in these statistics, including those with “absentee” fathers who formally reside in their homes, and those who have reached adulthood and bear the wounds of growing up fatherless. The impacts of fatherlessness include inward pain, poverty due to the loss of the father’s financial support, teen pregnancies, which occur at a much greater rate in the absence of fathers, criminal activity, and lower educational attainments.

Mark Strong details these impacts in the first part of his book and then calls the church to engage what he considers society’s most pressing problem. Strong speaks out of his experiences as senior pastor of LifeChange Christian Church in Portland, Oregon. He provides a straightforward account of what churches can do and calls on us to do it!

He begins by discussing how churches can embed valuing the fatherless in their corporate life, even as the Old Testament scriptures did for the people of Israel. He calls for awareness, avenues of ministry, and awards for progress. He describes in the next chapter how their church has gotten the message out, including providing a template for a sermon series.

One of the most important collections of insights can be found on the chapter on equipping men to be fathers. Strong develops a list of biblical values from Old and New Testaments and describes a curriculum built around these values.

He does not stop there. He also considers the work of mentoring the fatherless, providing father substitutes for those who have grown up without fathers and his fourfold mentoring strategy of There-Share-Care-Prayer. He then goes into greater depth of the vital importance of prayer for the fatherless and provides a reproducible prayer guide. Then he reaches the pinnacle in a chapter on God the Father, who truly can address the father needs of the fatherless. In a chapter that follows, he recounts how the fatherless have experienced healing from the wounds of fatherlessness. He then concludes with a chapter on how to start.

There is nothing fancy about this book. What you have is a pastor sharing his heart for the fatherless, and the ministries he has been involved with and the resources he has found helpful. Most compelling to me was the weaving of scripture and prayer throughout. It seems that anyone working with youth ministry could profit from reading this book. It also points up how critical intergenerational ministry in a church can be as men act as mentors to boys and young men who struggle with fatherlessness. This is a book that challenges churches to not just focus on strengthening the family but to be the family of God to those without fathers, to those who have no family. And it is a book of hope, telling the stories of the difference everyday faithfulness has made in the lives of the fatherless.

 

The Month in Reviews: May 2015

May continued the trend of listening to non-Westerners discussing theology. I read a travel narrative on prayer and a business narrative rooted in a study of Joseph the son of Jacob. In the history category, I worked may way through a sprawling history of Scotland and a parallel biography of Grant and Lee and their Civil War commands. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s musings on the English language, a work that dealt with 145 “myths” about Christianity, and a plea for “slow church”. For some reason, I didn’t finish any fiction in May, but look forward to a review of the Pulitzer Prize winning All The Light We Cannot See which is one of the best works of fiction I’ve read in some time.

That said, here is what I reviewed in May with links to the full reviews:

MythsA Year of Living Prayerfully1. Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell. Under eight headings, this book offers 145 short essays responding to lies, legends, and half-truths about Christian faith in contemporary discussions, giving concise, thoughtful and catholic responses (in the sense of representing the wide swath of Christianity) helpful both to the person exploring the faith and to apologists and others who proclaim it.

2. A Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock. Jared Brock and his incredibly patient wife Michelle go on a year long pilgrimage that takes them to the Vatican to meet the Pope and to Westboro Baptist Church and many other places alternately delightful and weird in a quest to deepen their prayer life.

slow churchMother Tongue3. Mother Tongue: The English Language, by Bill Bryson. This amusing and informative book surveys the history of the English language and all its vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations and why it has become so successful as a world language.

4. Slow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Accidental ExecutiveCrucible of Command5. The Accidental Executive, by Albert M. Erisman. A former Boeing executive reflects deeply on the biblical character of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and amplifies on these reflections from his own experience in business leadership and interviews with other executives in a highly readable account suitable for discussion groups in business and church settings.

6. Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, The Peace They Forgedby William C. Davis. This is a dual biography of Grant and Lee that studies their contrasting origins and yet similar qualities of command through back and forth narratives covering similar periods leading to their climactic confrontation, the peace they established, and its aftermath.

Preaching the NTScotlandEvangelical Postcolonial Conversations7. Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha, and L. Daniel Hawk. This book arises from a roundtable that sought to apply postcolonial concepts to re-visioning evangelical theology and praxis, coming to terms both with how colonialism shaped evangelical theology and mission and what it means to listen to the voices of the formerly colonized.

8. Scotland: A New History by Michael Lynch. This one volume work provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Scotland from the Roman invasions, through the kingdoms of the Picts, the Wars of Independence, the rise of the House of Stewart, the Treaty of Union in 1707, the commercial and intellectual zenith of Scotland in the late 18th/early 19th century and its continued efforts to define its relation with the U.K down to the time of writing in 1992.

9. Preaching the New Testament edited by Ian Paul & David Wenham. The contributors to this volume consider how the character of the genres and sub-genres of the New Testament shape how these texts are preached with faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text but also to the type of text they are preaching. Essays include not only discussions of genres but also issues in hermeneutics and homiletics as they bear on the teaching of the New Testament.

Best of the Month: I would have to go with Slow Church. The authors of this book propose a different way of thinking about the church from so much of the mega-church and church growth models that have dominated evangelical discussions of what the church ought to be.

Quote of the Month: I chose this one from Exposing Myths about Christianity: 

“Original sin is actually a democratic idea. Without believing in original sin, one person might pride himself or herself on being better than another and one group or race or nation might claim to be better than others. The idea that absolutely everyone is a sinner makes it much harder to be arrogant and judge others” (p. 263).

In addition to the review of All The Light We Cannot See, look for reviews of a book on preaching centered around Christ, even when working from Old Testament passages, Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, and a book on caring for the creation that seeks to develop the biblical ethics behind our care for creation. Time allowing, I also hope to review David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.

Perhaps from all these choices you will find a good summer read. Happy reading!

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

Review: A Year of Living Prayerfully

A Year of Living PrayerfullyA Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock, Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2015.

Summary: Jared Brock and his incredibly patient wife Michelle go on a year long pilgrimage that takes them to the Vatican to meet the Pope and to Westboro Baptist Church and many other places alternately delightful and weird in a quest to deepen their prayer life.

OK. I was really prepared not to like this book. It appeared to be a knock-off of A.J. Jacobs’ A Year of Living Biblically and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Frankly, I thought the cover a bit cheesy (although reminiscent of Jacobs’ book).

I was pleasantly surprised. What I found instead was an alternately amusing and thought-provoking spiritual pilgrimage that not only deepened the writer’s prayer life but challenged mine.

Beginning with a conversation that described the movement from crisis praying to kingdom prayer, Brock and his wife embarked on a journey taking him to New York, Israel, Europe, Asia, England and back to his home in Hamilton, Ontario. They began by praying and celebrating Sedar with a group of Orthodox Jews. Daily prayer with the men of the synagogue renews his thirst for prayer.

In Israel they encounter the crassness and commercialism that exploited the center of three major faiths. Brock can only pray for Jerusalem’s shalom, and in that the shalom of the world. He goes to Mt. Athos in Greece and experiences both silence and the Jesus prayer. Then they head off to Italy and through a strange set of circumstances, a meeting with Pope Francis.  Francis says that “prayer was opening up your heart to God” and asks them on parting to pray for him. From there, they went on to Spain and hiked a short distance of the Camino in winter and looked in vain for one who received the Campostela (a certificate for hiking the equivalent of 124 miles).God answers their prayer while waiting in line at the airport behind a man who had done just that. He spoke of completing the walk in silence, communing with God. France, the kitchen of Brother Lawrence, and Taize’ were their next major stops. Most moving was the account given them of the assassination of Brother Roger, who founded Taize’, and those who continued the prayers, and extended forgiveness to a woman who did not know what she was doing.

Apart from a Quaker prayer service and an attempt to meet Billy Graham, who was too frail to do so, the next part of the book gets weird. They visit a “nudist church” and meet some very unconventional Christians carrying out ministry to a population few try to reach. They are encouraged on their own to try sitting naked before God in prayer. They meet a physician who prays as well as heals the sick, humbly and with sometimes miraculous results, and then attend a Benny Hinn crusade that seems more about prosperity (at least Benny’s prosperity) than a gospel of healing. Then weirdest of all, they visit a Tony Robbins conference that ends with walking on burning coals. This section closes with a visit to Westboro Baptist Church and the determination to pray down the love of God upon this benighted and hate-filled church.

After a risky journey to North Korea and a visit to Yonggi Cho’s church in Seoul, the Brocks end up in England visiting Keswick, where he finds the photo of a young Scotsman who was one of the first Hundred who followed Hudson Taylor into missions with China Inland Mission. The young Scotsman was his great-great-grandfather. He is challenged by the “boiler room” in Spurgeon’s church–the prayer meeting that fueled Spurgeon’s ministry and the prototype of modern 24/7 prayer. He ends in his home town of Hamilton, at a site of a revival in the 1850s that was part of the Third Great Awakening.

The narrative is broken up with quotes by either the individuals he is meeting or famous “people of prayer”. One of those I appreciated most was this by St. Teresa of Avila: “You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him.” Brock’s writing style is conversational and even colloquial at places making the book an easy read. Yet I had several “takeaways”:

  • The silences as well as our words are important, not only in singing but in prayer.
  • Prayer is about communing with God, about being in God’s presence and carrying that through our lives.
  • Prayer is something done in and through our embodied life.
  • Finally I was struck anew with the transformative power of prayer.

I will close with this quote from Karl Barth found on page 308: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Perhaps in such a disordered world, living prayerfully may be the sanest response.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Upcoming Reviews of New Works: March 2015

One of my “blog resolutions” for this year was to review more recently published works. I still will review “backlist” works simply because they are of interest to me, and I hope others as well. But I also realize that reviews of new works are helpful to others who hear about a recently published work and are deciding whether to read them. Here are some of the books on my TBR pile that I anticipate reviewing in the next month or two (links are to the publishers’ websites):

Minds, BrainsSufferingCollege Disrupted

1. Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods by Malcolm Jeeves. Probably the oldest book on the pile with a 2013 publication date but dealing with a number of the current issues in neuroscience research and the implications of this for what we believe about what it means for us to be human and even the implications of claims for a “God spot” in the brain for our belief in God.

2. Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Richard Rice. I’m part way into this book on six different ways Christians deal with suffering, the problem of evil and God. Very clear, with numerous personal stories and yet good theological and philosophical depth.

3. College Disrupted by Ryan Craig. This book deals with the rising costs of college education and the ways college education is becoming “unbundled” to deal with these costs through MOOCs, other forms of online education, and cobbling together degrees through courses from various institutions.

A Glorious DarkNonviolent ActionA Year of Living PrayerfullyAccidental Executive4. A Glorious Dark by A.J. Swoboda. This book is described as dealing with the tension we often experience between what we believe and what we experience.

5. Nonviolent Action by Ronald J. Sider. Sider explores the common ground between just war and pacifism theorists on the ethical requirements upon Christians to pursue where possible nonviolent solutions to conflict.

6. A Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock. Brock is a young activist who spent a year on a global “pilgrimage of prayer”. This book is his account of that journey.

7. The Accidental Executive by Albert M. Erisman. The book’s subtitle is “lessons on business, faith, and calling from the life of Joseph”. Erisman is a former Boeing executive.

These aren’t the only books I anticipate reading but are some of the new (or newer) titles you can anticipate on the blog! I realize that all of this is non-fiction. If any of you have suggestions of quality fiction you think I should read, I’d be glad to hear from you!

If you want to be sure to catch the reviews of these and other books as well as other thoughts on books, reading, and life, I hope you will consider following the blog. If you have a WordPress account, just click the “follow” section of the black header. If you do not, just click the blue “Follow” button that appears near the top of my pages and WordPress will send you email previews of my blog posts.