Snappy Prayers | Joseph Heller

“Now, I want you to give a lot of thought to the kind of prayers we’re going to say. I don’t want anything heavy or sad. I’d like to keep it light and snappy, something that will send the boys out feeling pretty good. Do you know what I mean? I don’t want any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff. That’s all too negative. What are you making such a sour face for?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the chaplain stammered. “I happened to be thinking of the Twenty-third Psalm just as you said that.”

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955, 2011), 191.

The Bible Tells Me So … | Peter Enns

The cover of Enns' The Bible Tells Me So ...Fear not.

Those two simple words comprise the most common command in the Bible. Ironically, though, many Christians live in—if not precisely fear—at least a certain uneasiness about scripture. Here are some of the big issues:

  • How could God command the genocide of the Canaanites?
  • How could God annihilate the entire human race in a flood?
  • Why do different passages of scripture take opposing views?
  • How can Genesis speak intelligently to the modern world?
  • How did Jesus and Paul get away with interpreting scripture so … creatively?

Many Christians repress or explain away these issues, but deep down, the tension remains.

Peter Enns confronts the questions head on. His solution is simple: the Bible isn’t an instruction manual on God, it’s the account of how flawed human beings experienced God.

Reading the Bible responsibly and respectfully today means learning what it meant for ancient Israelites to talk about God the way they did, and not pushing alien expectations onto texts written long ago and far away. (65)

If the Bible is analogous to incarnation (fully God and fully human), Enns swings the pendulum from our longstanding Evangelical Docetism (not fully human) towards the Ebionism (not fully divine) side of the spectrum.

Now, you may not agree with Enns. Many people don’t. (There’s a great joke in the Acknowledgements section about the “Evangelical Witness Protection Program.”) You do have to respect a man who is so transparent with his views that he lost his teaching post at Westminster Theological Seminary. He also handles these issues with a genuine laugh-out-loud sense of humour.

Whether you agree or not, “fear not.” God is more than big enough to handle our questions.

—Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So …: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York: HarperOne, 2014).

Economy of Sin | Wendell Berry

Why God might particularly favor a nation whose economy is founded foursquare on the seven deadly sins is a mystery that has not been explained.

—Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon, 1993), 85.

Ponder and Pray | Victor A. Shepherd

The cover of Shepherd's Ponder and PrayDevotional writing frustrates me. If I’m going to set aside time every day to read about scripture, I expect more than cute anecdotes and generalized applications. Much of what I’ve read makes me feel like I’ve spent ten minutes in the Hallmark aisle of a drugstore rather than seated before my Creator.

Ponder and Pray is different. Full disclosure: Victor Shepherd was one of my most influential professors during seminary. I started these readings with high expectations and I was not disappointed. Despite being written over 30 years ago (the original copyright date is 1984), the meditations were so rooted in scripture that they were thoroughly relevant.

The meditations are written in two parts. The first half unpacks a scriptural idea such as the cross, repentance, or joy. The second half is a prayer which is as lengthy and important as the prose that precedes it. Shepherd spent as much time preparing the prayers as he did the meditations—and it shows.

I think it would be fitting to close this review with the last lines of the last prayer in the book:

Eternal God, you have quickened our zeal for the day when we shall stand before you without spot or blemish. Then increase or faith, deepen our repentance, magnify our ardour, that our prayer may be the cry of our ancestors, “Come, Lord Jesus!” And unto you we ascribe all glory, honour, dominion and power, now and ever. Amen. (98)

—Victor A. Shepherd, Ponder and Pray: Seven Weeks of Meditations and Prayers for Personal Enrichment During Any Season of the Year (Mississagua, ON: Light and Life Press, 1993).

Quotesplosion! Victor Shepherd Edition

Every weekend I post a quote from a book I’ve read. These are culled from my pencil-scrawled marginalia: underlines, vertical lines, stars, and circles. Occasionally a book comes along that is so jam-packed with profound quotable material, it would overrun my Weekend Wisdom category for months! Victor Shepherd’s short devotional, Ponder and Pray is one of those books.

Instead of making you wait and read these over the months to come, I’ve decided to collect all the best below. Enjoy!

Meditations

Surely there are as many ways of encountering Jesus Christ as there are ways of falling in love (11).

Faith is neither wistfulness nor wishful thinking, nor hoping for the best. Faith is a peculiar knowing which arises from our Lord’s having met us and seized us and put his mark upon us (19).

Without the Spirit we merely “say prayers”; with the Spirit we pray. Without the Spirit we move mechanically through religious exercises; with the Spirit we worship. Without the Spirit a congregation knows only middle-class manners. With the Spirit it is bathed in love. Without the Spirit there is a weekly religious address; with the Spirit there is a witness manifestly inflamed and empowered (60).

Sin is telling God to “buzz off”. The telling may be explicit and fully conscious. But most often it is implicit and disguised. In any case the bottom line is the same. God is told to get lost (62).

Our grip on God, however weak in itself, will ever be strengthened. The one who wearies not seizes us so as never to let us go (73).

Speaking even the truth will edify only as we speak it in love. Our truth-telling must intend the well-being of another (80).

Temptation sticks and penetrates precisely when pleasure is waning and joy has not yet taken hold. Joy, life-contentment, sheds temptation (86).

Prayers

Free us from our possessions, lest we become possessed by them as surely as evil spirits possessed others (29).

Illuminate your kingdom so brightly for us, we ask, that repentance will appear the only sensible course for us to follow (69).

Just as your kingly nearness formed and informed the ministry of our Lord in his days upon earth, so may your kingdom loom so large before us, so attractive, so necessary that we shall gladly leave our lesser loves and loyalties to become citizens of a new city and dwellers in a promised land (72).

—Victor A. Shepherd, Ponder and Pray: Seven Weeks of Meditations and Prayers for Personal Enrichment During Any Season of the Year (Mississauga, ON: Light and Life Press, 1993).

Sabbath as Resistance | Walter Brueggemann

The cover of Brueggemann's Sabbath as ResistanceI remember the uncertainty in my mind the first Sunday I went to work.

Raised in a Pentecostal church, I was well aware of the classical prohibition against Sunday shopping. Still, when our small-town IGA decided to open on Sundays, I was scheduled to bag groceries. Fortunately, my church (and family) was grace-filled enough to also recognize the value of making a bit of money to pay for college.

In Sabbath as Resistance, Brueggemann takes a huge step away from these cultural issues (which are now firmly in the rear-view mirror of most North American Christians). Instead, he interprets the fourth commandment in light of other Old Testament passages.

Unlike some of the shorter prohibitions against murder and theft, the Sabbath command is quite robust:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11 ESV)

The essence of this command, for Brueggemann, counteracts life in Egypt where the Israelite’s worth was determined by their around-the-clock brick making ability. Sabbath reminded Israel that they were more than producers and consumers.

This command is incredibly life-giving. In consecutive studies, we see how it has the potential to free us from anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and even multitasking!

If you’ve ever felt overloaded with the simple task of living in our consumer-oriented society, this short study is gold. Mediate on these passages and learn the freedom that comes when we resist “the seductions of Pharaoh”.

—Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).