Review: Prayer in the Night

Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren. Downers Grove: IVP Formatio, 2021.

Summary: Both an introduction to Compline and a phrase by phrase reflection using one of the loveliest of Compline prayers.

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work,
or watch,
or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ,
give rest to the weary,
bless the dying,
soothe the suffering,
pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous,
and all for your love's sake.
Amen

Over the last year of the pandemic, I’ve posted on Facebook prayers, morning and evening, (“Collects”) from The Book of Common Prayer. The prayer above, from of the office of Compline, is one of my favorites, and often I think of particular people as I pray each phrase. During the pandemic this has included the working and weary medical personnel, the people keeping vigil for those in ICUs, the sick and sometimes the dying, those afflicted with long-COVID, and others who struggle with chronic pain and illness. Amid this all I think of the joyous including new parents, graduates, and all of us who have received vaccines. I think of angels watching over and guarding us in the vulnerable moments of our nightly rest. I rest in the care of the Lord who watches for love’s sake.

Thus it was with great delight that I discovered on opening Prayer in the Night that it is organized around this loved prayer. Tish Harrison Warren takes us through her own journey of praying compline, most notably one night with her husband in an emergency room as she hemorrhaged severely during a miscarriage. She introduces us to Compline, the last of the prayers of the hours or offices, to be prayed at night before retiring. She writes of how Compline helped her at a time of loss of a baby and of her father:

“Compline speaks to God in the dark. And that’s what I had to learn to do–to pray in the darkness of anxiety and vulnerability, in doubt and disillusionment. It was Compline that gave words to my anxiety and grief and allowed me to reencounter the doctrines of the church not as tidy little antidotes for pain, but as a light in darkness, as good news.”

Tish Harrison Warren, p. 19.

In succeeding chapters, Warren offers reflections on each phrase of this prayer that come out of her lived experience with praying it. She begins by discussing the God to whom we pray in the dark, and how the prayers operate as cairns, rock structures, that help us keep on the path when we can only feel our way along in fog or the dark. She then turns to the way of the vulnerable–those who weep or watch or work, taking the phrases in reverse order. She concludes:

“Taken together, working and watching and weeping are a way to endure the mystery of theodicy. They are a faithful response to our shared human tragedy–but only when we hold all three together, giving space and energy to each, both as individuals and as the church.”

Tish Harrison Warren, p. 75.

From this she turns to what she calls “a taxonomy of vulnerability.” She describes her renewed understanding of the care of the angels in our sleep as she prayed for her first child each night. Her reflection on sickness includes insights into the wonders of our bodies that we often take for granted until illness. In weariness we are offered rest, one to learn from, and one who intercedes for us. Prayer for the dying reminds us of our own death and how we are taught to live in light of it and our resurrection hope. Suffering and affliction take us into new places of dependence upon God in our weakness, and call the church into depths we are reluctant to go. Then there is the risk of disappointment in joy and our need to be shielded here as well.

Finally, Warren concludes by exploring how God invites us into a deeper encounter with his love. In the night. When we doubt. In our illness and vulnerability. In suffering and affliction. The love of God, revealed in Christ, is the last word of this prayer.

The writing about goodness, truth, and beauty one finds in Warren’s prose is humbling. All I can say is what is found in this book is so much better and richer than my summary. Warren helps me pray a prayer I’ve loved with deeper meaning and consciousness of my vulnerability and the depths of God’s care. She offers good direction for all of us facing “night” in our lives.

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

Review: See-Through Marriage

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See-Through Marriage, Ryan and Selena Frederick. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.

Summary: A fulfilling marriage is one that is transparent, about our joys and desires, our past and our failures, where all these things are brought into the light.

This book builds on the idea of 1 John 1:7:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

The authors maintain that in marriage, the most fulfilling marriages are honest marriages, where there are no secrets, where couples learn to bring to each other their joys and sorrows, their sins and failures, their desires and preferences. Part of what makes this scary is that we hide what we think will make the other love us less. Yet the vulnerability that tells the truth offers the chance to be loved even more–loved for who we are. Hiding actually distances us from each other.

They explore the lies we tell each other, the ways we hide, and what real transparency looks like. Transparency involves knowing ourselves–spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Transparency leads us into oneness. They explore the implications of this for our sexuality, for our communication, our friendships, and our experience of Christian community.

They face us with a choice:

   Being completely known and still completely loved is perhaps the greatest human desire. We long for a connection so deep and so unshakable that no matter who we are or what we do, we will still be counted as lovable. The desire drives us all forward, but not always to the same destination. It either will drive you to present a version of yourself that is more readily loved and accepted by others or will drive you into the shadows in hopes of not being exposed for who you truly are (pp. 46-47).

They tell stories of how they and other couples faced this choice and what it looked like to face fear and step into the light of transparency with each other. They offer questions at the end of each chapter for personal reflection or study together.

The patterns of transparency or hiding that couples develop early in their marriages are vital to the health of a marriage. This seems like a book particularly framed for couples in the early years of marriage, though it can be helpful at any point. This is not so much a book for a marriage in trouble, where the help of a counselor may be important, but rather a book that both prevents problems, and paints a vision of what marriage is meant to be.

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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: Strong and Weak

strong and weak

Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores two qualities that we often think opposed to one another and argues that strength and weakness are paradoxically related and that human beings flourish to the extent that they can appropriately exercise strength (authority) and weakness (vulnerability) together.

We often tend to think of strength and weakness, authority and vulnerability as mutually exclusive qualities or at opposite ends of a continuum. Yet the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Andy Crouch, building on this idea argues that strength and weakness are paradoxically related and that excellence in leadership and human flourishing occur when both are present in one’s life together. Rather than being at opposite ends of a continuum, he sees them as the x and axes of a 2 by 2 grid:

2 by 2

Excerpted from press kit for this book

Crouch defines authority as “the capacity for meaningful action” and vulnerability as “exposure to meaningful risk.” He would contend that when we oscillate between quadrants II and IV, between strength and weakness, we are making a false choice. True flourishing occurs in quadrant I where we embrace both the capacity for meaningful action and exposure to meaningful risk. This leads to flourishing not only of the individuals who act in this way but of those around, as he describes in the instance of his sister’s daughter Angela, who has lived eleven years so far with Trisomy 13, a genetic disorder where a person has three copies of chromosome 13, which has meant that parents and other caregivers have exercised both capacity for meaningful action and been exposed to meaningful risk for Angela, who cannot care for herself.

In successive chapters, Crouch explores life in each quadrant. Those in the quadrant of suffering have exposure to meaningful risk without the capacity for meaningful action. Illness and poverty are places where this is experienced, yet even here, when the gospel is embraced, hope and dignity is restored and there is a kind of strength in weakness allowing persons to move to quadrant I. Conversely, those in quadrant IV exercise authority without vulnerability, where the protection of oneself and one’s position means the exploiting of others.

Quadrant III is the quadrant of withdrawal. It is the safety of one’s parents’ basement–no meaningful action in a world of video games, and no risk in the provision of food and shelter, sequestered away from the world. Crouch invites those who have withdrawn to take two steps–into the natural world of creation, and into the relational world of doing real things with real people!

Perhaps the most interesting chapter was one where he explored the challenge many leaders face of living with overt authority and hidden vulnerability. There is the President of the United States, who has such significant authority, that he receives a unique briefing of the dangers facing the U.S., a briefing he can discuss with few or any of those he meets in the remainder of the day. Similarly, many business leaders cannot speak of the vulnerabilities of their companies, but must take meaningful action to address them for their communities to flourish.

His concluding chapters talk about choosing of vulnerability, to literally be willing to put one’s life on the line in the pursuit of meaningful action with exposure to meaningful risk. This is transformative leadership, where one both experiences being truly alive, and where others are helped to flourish as they see our strength in weakness.

This is a much shorter work than either Culture Making or Playing God. It builds on the latter, which explores the use of the gift of power redemptively, but the length is appropriate to elaborating this single critical paradox of strength and weakness. One question the book raised for me is what is the hope for those in quadrant IV, the exploiters? Crouch warns of the judgment and the fall of those who choose this path. And perhaps those who are strong without being vulnerable are a version of the rich young man, for whom entry into the kingdom is so hard, yet not impossible (we have the counter-example of Zaccheus).

Since most of us will exercise some form of authority in some dimension of life, as parents, coaches, managers, leaders, committee chairs or in other forms of leadership that draw upon our capacities for meaningful action and expose us to meaningful risks, this is an important book for both our flourishing in such roles but for the flourishing of the broader communities we serve. It may be simpler to embrace one or neither of these two elements of the paradox, but this would be to sacrifice flourishing for a much smaller life for oneself and for those whose lives we touch. Living in the paradox seems more challenging, but somehow much richer. Clearly, Crouch has given us much to chew upon.

Review: Christ-Shaped Character

Christ Shaped CharacterChrist-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Cepero, through personal narrative and formational teaching and practices, traces a path of growing to be more who we truly are as reflections of Christ through the embrace of love, faith and hope.

As a teenage follower of Jesus, I often agonized as I considered the high ideals of the Christian faith and the reality of my often-misbegotten attempts to follow Christ. I despaired with how far I fell short, and it was only gradually that I began to understand that, nevertheless, Christ had chosen me to be his and that the formation of my character was something to which he was deeply committed and would work out through the journey of a lifetime.

In this book, Helen Cepero believes that the three great virtues of love, faith, and hope of which Paul speaks provide that path along which we might walk by which Christ forms us both in who we truly are and as reflections of his own character. The table of contents for this book might be helpful for prospective readers to see how Cepero unfolds this:

Introduction
Part I: Choosing Love
1. Choosing Life—Living as God’s Beloved
2. Compassionate Hospitality—Choosing the Other
3. Forgiving as We Are Forgiven—Loving the Unlovable
Part II: Choosing Faith
4. Following Jesus—Learning the Language of Desire
5. Embracing Vulnerability—Finding Strength in Weakness
6. Living with Integrity—Sustaining a Life of Commitment
Part III: Choosing Hope
7. Paying Attention—Watching for God
8. Seeing Blessing—Living into Possibility
9. Trusting in Christ—Improvising a Life
Appendix 1: Journeying Together Along the Pathway of Love, Faith and Hope
Appendix 2: Bibliography
Notes

Each chapter begins with a personal story related to the chapter theme, followed by a “taking a closer look” section in which she invites the reader into a journalling exercise, a prayer practice that relates to the theme, a closing discussion of what it means to chose to embrace this aspect of love, faith, and hope and some prompts for further reflection around listening to our own stories, to the story of scripture, and to the continuing story of love, faith or hope. The book concludes with an appendix giving ideas for group discussion of the book and an extensive bibliography of further readings around love, faith, and hope.

Cepero’s personal stories were what engaged me the most and they reflected her own journey along the path she commends for us. They were not self-indulgent reflections but rather windows onto the choices into which she believes each of us are invited. For example, the chapter on embracing vulnerability describes her own desperate vulnerability when she belatedly brings her desperately ill, weeks-old child to an emergency room, facing her own failure as a mother by surrendering her son to those who might better care for him. She then leads us into seeing how the embrace of our vulnerability is the doorway into knowing the compassion of God for us in our weakness.

In a later chapter, she begins with the story of lying in a hospital bed after one of many surgeries to correct a hip dysplasia. She describes the visit of a pastor who sees her not as physically damaged but as intellectually curious. When others bring her stuffed toys, he brings her books and blesses an intellectual and spiritual curiosity that led into Cepero’s life calling. She uses this to speak of the power of blessing another and embracing that blessing of hope in one’s life.

I am thankful for the unnamed pastor in this story. I had the privilege of working alongside Helen Cepero at a conference for graduate students and faculty in 2002. Her insight and formational pastoral care toward participants in the track we were working in was a gift to us all, a blessing. I came to know her as someone authentically living into the journey she describes and maps for us in the pages of this book. If you’ve struggled, like me, with the disparity between your life and your sense of the Christ-shaped life, I would warmly commend this book.

The Month in Reviews: February 2015

February is always a short month. It was also a “full court press” month in my work with travel and several major events. Somehow I managed to finish nine books this month ranging from another John Scalzi novel to The Bully Pulpit to a fascinating book on the value of vulnerability and a thought-provoking treatment on the idea of revelation (not the book but the concept) by a young Catholic theologian. Here’s the list with links to the full reviews:

1. Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation by Preston Sprinkle. Sprinkle thinks a more nuanced view is needed of the continuity between Judaism and Paul than is proposed by “New Perspective” theologians.

Paul & JudaismBully PulpitDaring Greatly2. The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. A magnificent work that introduced me to the lesser know figures of William Taft and the muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell who set a high bar for investigative journalism. Of course, there was also a fascinating portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, as well as the complicated relationship between him and Taft.

3. Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown. Brown explores how the courage to be vulnerable leads us to personal wholeness, human connection, better parenting, and more effective organizational life.

4. 30 Events that Shaped the Church by Alton Gansky. Gansky gives us a highly readable narrative of key events throughout church history. I would have wished for more from outside the western world and more about the African-American church’s contribution, particularly around civil rights.

Essential EschatologyRevelation30 events5. Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel Through Church and Scripture by Matthew Levering. Levering is a Catholic theologian publishing with an evangelical publisher who both upholds a high view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible while also arguing for the important role of the church in its councils, liturgy and leadership for mediating a clear and unified understanding of that revelation.

6. Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope by John E. Phelen, Jr. Hope is a theme of this book that explores how our future hope may shape our present lives.

7. The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi. The second in “The Old Man’s War” series which explores the ethical landscape of enhanced human clones grown specifically to become Special Forces troops in the midst of a riveting plot.

Ghost BrigadesProtegeShepherding God's Flock8. Protege’: Developing Your Next Generation of Church Leaders by Steve Saccone with Cheri Saccone. The Saccones outline five key elements of their leadership development work: Character, Relationships, Communication, Mission, and Entrepreneurial Leadership.

9. Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond edited by Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner. The contributors to this volume do just what the title proposes, albeit from a common, shared Southern Baptist perspective.

I thought this month I might start including my “best book” recommendation, and “best quote” simply for your enjoyment!

Best Book: Hands down, it had to be The Bully Pulpit for its exploration of presidential influence, the role of the press, and the fascinating portraits of Roosevelt, Taft, and the muckraking team of journalists that gathered around McClures.

Best quote:  Consistent with my best book recommendation, but cited from Daring Greatly is this quote from Theodore Roosevelt in a speech at the Sorbonne in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Previews for March: A collection of essays on Christian political witness, a book exploring the future of higher education, a mystery by Michael Innes, a narrative on the rise of Amazon, and her founder, Jeff Bezos, and the place of paradox in our spiritual journey.

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” category on my home page. 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: Daring Greatly

Daring GreatlyI can’t seem to get away from Teddy Roosevelt! Brene’ Brown begins this book with a quote from a speech of his at the Sorbonne in 1910 in which he talks about the man in the arena being the one who counts and not his critics, the man who strives for great things at great cost. Her title is drawn from these words:

“…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….”

Brown describes her research into vulnerability as one that led her to a personal breakdown, which her therapist described as a spiritual renewal. She traces her research course, which began by exploring human connection and discovered in her interviews that the fear and shame of disconnection is what came up over and over again. She says she was hijacked by her data into researching shame, and the flip side of this, a shame resilience that enables people to overcome shame and live “wholeheartedly.” Wholeheartedness comes from a sense of one’s basic worthiness, cultivated through a variety of practices such as letting go of perfectionism, of numbing and powerlessness, of scarcity fears, of the need for certainty and more.

A key to wholehearted living that “dares greatly” that is at the core of this book is the embrace of vulnerability. Vulnerability requires courage and a willingness to press against all the “vulnerability myths” shared by both women and men. But it leads to compassion and connection, nowhere illustrated more than in Brown’s concluding chapter having to do with vulnerability and parenting. I found myself saying “Amen” and “Amen” and wishing that my peers in parenting could have heard this sooner and not inflicted so much pain on each other around being the perfect parent. Her stories of being imperfectly vulnerable with her children and allowing them to dare greatly, even if this just meant showing up, were worth the price of admission.

I found her insightful in the ways we shield ourselves from vulnerability through foreboding joy, where we do not allow ourselves joy because we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, through perfectionism, where we think that by doing things right we will never know shame, and through numbing, by which we deaden ourselves from the painful things in life. Instead, she advocates practicing gratitude in the moments of joy, appreciating the “cracks” in our life that shed light on our humanness, and learning how to feel and lean into our hard feelings while setting proper boundaries.

She also challenges organizations to “mind the gap” and practice “disruptive engagement”–developing awareness of the gaps between strategy and culture and the ways we discourage engagement through corporate shaming practices. Bringing the best that we have often involves vulnerability and risk in disruptively engaging broken corporate culture.

I found this a helpful book that was immediately applicable for me in several situations in which I was mentoring young leaders facing the choices of “safe” disengagement or vulnerably stepping into their work as leaders. Vulnerability is scary for all of us and yet ultimately the only path to real connection and real greatness. Brene’ Brown helps us on that path through her stories and research, even while helping us to see that each of us makes that path our own by walking into vulnerability.