Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review: After You Believe by N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham (UK) in the Church of England and one of the world’s leading Bible scholars. He has been a guest on Dateline NBC as well as NPR’s program Fresh Air and has taught New Testament studies at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. He is also a prolific author, his most recent publication being Surprised By Hope which is an excellent overview of the importance and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection for the Church today.

After You Believe is a follow up to Surprised by Hope. Here, Wright argues forcefully for the necessity of Christian character, i.e. living the virtuous life. It is one thing to do good once in a while but to be good is a different story altogether! The book is divided into eight chapters with a section for further reading:

  1. What Am I Here For?
  2. The Transformation of Character
  3. Priests and Rulers

4. The Kingdom Coming and the People Prepared

5. Transformed by the Renewal of the Mind

6. Three Virtues, Nine Varieties of Fruit, and One Body

7. Virtue in Action: The Royal Priesthood

8. The Virtuous Circle

Wright advocates for Christians to live a virtuous life not because we are trying to get into heaven or get some award now, but because Jesus died and rose from the dead he made us priests and rulers over creation. We were created for good works, to share the life of the kingdom in the here and now. This main theme is woven throughout the book in various ways. He uses some personal anecdotes along the way to drive home his point. Although I thought he could have used more personal examples from his many years of parish ministry as examples of his main thesis.

After You Believe is not a book for a neophyte or beginner. His writing style is also not the easiest to read, sometimes you feel like you are sitting in a lecture hall rather than listening to a conversation. Furthermore, the book includes too many parenthetical statements and Wright tends to meander through side commentary from time to time, which I found a bit distracting. However, this being said, After You Believe does provide readers with a sound scriptural and theological commentary for the necessity to lead a life worth living, a life focused on Christ and the kingdom of God.

Click here for more information about After You Believe by N.T. Wright

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lectio Divina Part 2: Reading Scripture Prayerfully

Practicing lectio divina requires time. You cannot practice lectio if you are in a hurry. You have to take time away from family, friends, and busywork and find a quiet place to sit. I like to sit in my office because I know that it is usually quiet there and I feel comfortable. Other people may find another place in the house or maybe in your backyard or on your front porch. You have to literally remove yourself from all distractions. Open up your Bible and read a few passages from scripture. The rule of thumb with lectio is less is more. Find a short passage, even a few verses and read them several times over. For example, let’s imagine that you begin reading the first few verses of Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want;
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Make sure we read each word slowly. Read the first verse, “The Lord is my shepherd.” What does it mean that the Lord is your shepherd? He is not just any old shepherd but your shepherd. If the Lord is a a shepherd, this means that we are his sheep. How are we like sheep? Do we always follow him where he leads us? Are we always obedient to his every command? Likewise, how does God restore my weary soul in times of doubt or distress? In the ancient Near East shepherds led their sheep out from the dessert areas and into the lush green valleys near streams and rivers so that the sheep could find food and water. He would walk in front of them with his staff while at the same time making sounds with his mouth or with a bell so that the sheep would know where he was. If a few sheep were hanging at the back of the herd the shepherd would go and get them. He led them across small streams, slept outside with them in the evening, and brought them to dry ground during a rainstorm or during inclement weather. In other words shepherds was totally committed to taking care of their sheep. You might also refer to Luke chapter 2 where we encounter the shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks. They were camping outside with their sheep under the moon and stars on that first Christmas morning. The shepherds did not just let their sheep wander around, they watched over them.

Therefore, after reading just a few verses from Psalm 23 and learning a little more about sheep and shepherding in the ancient world, we begin to see how God is our shepherd, taking care of our needs, giving us what we need when we need it. He watches over us and leads us to still waters. We are not alone, as the prophet Isaiah says, “God is with us” and God was, is, and always will be with us.

If we begin reading the scriptures with lectio in mind we will begin to unlock the vast meaning of the words on the page that will come to life for us. However, you will also find that when practicing lectio you will return to God’s Word again and again throughout the day. As you walk your dog in the evening you may remember that the Lord is your shepherd. While driving to work in the morning you might think about the Lord leading you to the still waters and no matter what happens with that big decision that you have to make at work, you will be okay with the results. Later at home in the evening you might recall that as a sheep you need to listen to God’s voice throughout the daytime, reflecting on your life in terms of your work, family, friends, and Church. You might be inspired to offer a prayer after reading the passage asking God to continue to watch over his sheep and for us to be more obedient to him. Thus lectio is a way that we can prayerfully read scripture and use the scripture as a vehicle for our prayer.

Resources for lectio divina:
Bianchi, Enzo. Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1998

Peterson, Eugene Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009

Studzinski, Raymond Reading to Live: The Evolving Practice of Lectio Divina Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publication, 2009

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lectio Divina---Reading Scripture Prayerfully Part I

There are many was to read scripture. Sometimes we read scripture in order to learn more about the culture and world in which the scriptures were written. We learn about the various languages, people, and places. Then we read scripture for the content, we try to understand the words, phrases, and meanings. We consult Bible dictionaries, concordances, and Bible atlases which help us learn about the message in the words of the Bible. Then we can read scripture in a prayerful manner, which we call lectio divina, holy or divine reading.

It is tempting to read the scriptures quickly and then move on to the rest of our daily activities. We are very busy people. We live fast pace lives. Our bodies and minds are constantly moving a mile a minute. When we sit down for five minutes for some rest we still might be thinking: What do I have to do later today? What time is my lunch meeting? Who will pick up the kids from school? Do I have enough time to finish my errands? Where is my “to do” list?

When reading scripture we can easily get distracted. We begin reading a passage from scripture and we get distracted by so many thoughts and we miss the message of the scripture lesson. Lectio divina forces us to slow down.

Lectio divina requires that we need to take time with each passage, think about what we are reading, and then ask ourselves: how can this scripture passage be understood or applied in my life today? What is God saying to me now? What difference can these words make in my life? When reading the Bible slowly we allow the words to run over us like water running over our head, slowly seeping into our very skin and bones. So too, we read the Bible in a slow way, allowing the words to flow across our minds and hearts. Lectio divina, or simply called lectio, is a slow, meditative way of reading scripture by which the reader ruminates or actually chews on each word, considers what the word means, and how it connects to the rest of the scriptures. Lectio takes time and cannot be rushed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

I am not going to review this book here because I already reviewed it in America Magazine which you can find in the link at the end of this post. However I see that An Altar in the World is now out in a paperback version. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for some good thoughtful Lenten reading. Barbara Brown Taylor has just been named on of the top ten most influential pastors in America. Her writing style is elegant which shows in her work. Her main thesis is that we need to do a better job of identifying God's work in the world, in humanity, and in nature. If you want a book that is a delight to the mind and heart you won't be sorry with An Altar in the World.

Examination of Conscience

One spiritual practice that I use regularly use is the examination of conscience. This is a spiritual practice that can be done anywhere and anytime. You can do it while taking a walk, while on the treadmill at the local Y, or while driving to and from work.

The examination of conscience is a way that we stop and reflect on the past events of the day. How are we doing so far? Have we hurt anyone? How can we improve the rest of our day? Sometimes I do the examination at the end of my day before I go to bed and sometimes I do it twice a day, once in the afternoon and then once again at night.

Five basic steps in the examination of conscience:

1. Gratitude: thank God for, work, friends, and family.

2. Review the past events of the day from beginning to end.

3. Sorrow: is there anything that we have done to hurt anyone? Did we not show love when the opportunity presented itself?

4. Forgiveness: ask God for forgiveness

5. Grace: ask God for the grace and help to get through the rest of the day and to try to grow in his love.

The examination of conscience is not long, you only need a few minutes. Try to practice the examination of conscience during the season of Lent.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

Lent starts this week. Eastern Orthodox Christians begin Lent on Sunday and Western Christians (Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, etc..) begin Lent on Wednesday which is referred to as Ash Wednesday. I wish everyone a good Lenten season as we make our pilgrimage to Easter Sunday.

During the season of Lent the Eastern Orthodox use the Prayer of St. Ephrem. Ephrem lived in 4th century Syria and wrote several hundred hymns, prayers, and commentaries on Scripture. Below is the Prayer of St. Ephrem:

O Lord and Master of my life
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy brother

Yea of Lord and King grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother

For thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

This prayer is very rich in meaning and continues to inspire and encourage Christians in their walk of faith. Hopefully it will inspire and encourage you as we make our way to Easter.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Some Thoughts on Desire

The following reflection is taken from the work of the spiritual writings of Margaret Silf---Wise Choices:

Now take a look at the deeper level of desiring: Is there something you've always wanted to do but never managed?

What are your unfinished dreams?

If you had your life over again, what would you change?

If you only had a few months to live how would you use the time?

If a significant sum of money came your way, how would you spend it?

If you were granted three wishes, what would they be?

Is there anyone, or anything, for whom you would literally give your life?

Take time to ponder these questions and see where God is leading you right now, this very moment. Reflect on these questions for the rest of the week.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Book Review: Jesus Freak by Sara Miles

I'm not sure what to make of Sara Miles. She reminds me of the Old Testament prophets who proclaim the Word of God but no one likes it! She is one of those authors who cuts right to the chase, telling the truth and not caring what you think about it since the truth is the truth is the truth. If you want to be challenged, inspired, and enlightened then I recommend you pick up Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, and Raising the Dead and read it.

Jesus Freak is a follow up to her previous book Take This Bread which is a series of reflections of her adult conversion to Christianity and starting a soup kitchen at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Fransisco. Her stories of being a "newbie" in the faith combined with the colorful people and personalities whom she encounters is a hoot.

Sara's main theme that is woven throughout both books is that the basic gospel commands of love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and kindness is for ALL OF US and we are all responsible for one another. Jesus Freak is organized into six chapters

Come and See
Raising the Dead
Follow Me

The book is peppered with Sara's daily encounters with the poor and destitute, with mentally ill street people, single mothers, widows, and orphans. She encounters people of all colors and races and backgrounds, Russians, Koreans, Mexican, black, white, straight, gay, believers, and non believers alike. Some people are nice and kind and others are not. Some are downright obnoxious and irritable. Yet Sara reminds us that they are all God's children and whether we like it or not these are the ones whom Jesus has given us to take care of while we are on this earth. While reading Jesus Freak I kept thinking of Matthew 25, "I was in prison and you visited me, I was hungry and you fed me....."

Sara's writing is clear and conversational you would think she is right there in the room with you telling stories about her life. Yet she also irritated me to high heaven, reminding me of my baptismal duties which I often want to forget. You mean I actually have to go out of my way to help someone? Yes, Sara would say. Like a prophet Sara reminds the Church of its basic duties which is all too often forgotten. Read Jesus Freak, read it now, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Practicing the Presence of God

All too often people expect God to reveal himself like he did to Moses on Mt. Sinai in the burning bush or wrestle with Jacob in the middle of the night. These grand epiphanies do not happen very often. However, if we are not careful we can go through life and not realize that God is constantly revealing himself to us through his creatures and creation; this is what some spiritual writers and saints have called practicing the presence of God or seeing God in the everyday.

Yesterday I was taking a walk with my dog in the snow. Everything looked so pristine and crisp and clean, little icicles hanging off of trees, blankets of snow in the fields, and birds hunting around for something to eat. If I was in a rush I would have neglected to notice the goodness of creation, that God created the stars in the sky and the trees and the animals. Yesterday I stopped for a moment and realized that despite the fact that I don't enjoy either shoveling snow or driving in it, I did enjoy the gorgeous landscape and the sun shimmering over the snow capped wheat fields nearby. Yesterday I experienced the goodness of creation---remembering that all of this is a gift from God. This is what practicing the presence of God means, always remembering God each and every day.

What do you notice about creation?

How do you see God in everyday things?

How do you practice the presence of God?