Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review: The Vertical Self by Mark Sayers

Mark Sayers has written an engaging study of the way modern people struggle with the question of identity. And when I say “engaging, I mean I couldn’t put it down.  We live in the age of the “horizontal self”, pressured to create public personas based on the images around us.  We brand ourselves in order to become socially acceptable and relevant. We compartmentalize our lives to fit in with different groups. Our horizontal selves worry about what others think, about status, about achievement, about today.
Whether we realize it or not, we’ve lost our “vertical selves.” The vertical self is concerned with character, holiness, contribution, eternity.  Even believers and churches fall prey to the trap of the horizontal self: we want to be Christian and cool too. We’ve chosen self over soul.
What is the answer? Discipleship and accountability. We must rediscover what it means to be holy.
I found the history of how we arrived here fascinating: when did it become cool to be cool, how the definition of “sexy” has changed, how we’ve traded spiritual holiness for secular holiness.  I will never look at another advertisement, movie, or staged political event the same way.  I highly recommend this book for everyone, Christian or not, because Western society is playing us for fools. And we’re playing along.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Giving Up

“What are you giving up for Lent?” 
I haven’t heard that question as much this year as in years past.  The practice of giving something up, of fasting, is what most people associate with Lent.  It’s a practice that I grapple with each year.  Should I fast from something?  What would it mean spiritually?  Would I fast alone--since it’s not a communal practice in any of the churches I’ve attended?
I never want to fast for the sake of fasting.  To do that would put fasting into the same category as New Year’s resolutions: easily made, easily broken. I don’t want a fast to become just a Lenten diet--abstaining from sweets and hoping to lose a pound or two.  I don’t have a good background in the spiritual discipline of fasting, so I’m unsure of how to fast so that it helps me grow closer to God.
So I did a little research.
Fasting is grounded in the scriptures that are read during Lent.  In liturgical churches, the verses read on the first Sunday of Lent are all from the story of Christ’s temptation.  After his baptism, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights. (Matt 4:2) Jesus experienced deprivation, hunger, and temptation.  We identify with Christ’s suffering through fasting.
Food fasts are the most common type.  My Catholic friends don’t eat meat on Fridays and some parishes hold a “fish fry” fellowship on Friday nights.  Believers who fast from food--sweets, snacks, or entire meals--often donate the money they would have spent to charity.  
A second type of fast is to abstain from something that is done purely for pleasure, such as watching TV or clothes shopping.  Unlike food fasts there’s no physical reminder of the fast, which practitioners use to help them grow spiritually.  Therefore the choice of fast needs to have meaning.  Would I fast from TV to see if I could do it--to develop self-discipline?  Or would I just record the shows on my DVR to watch after Easter?  What’s tricky here is that Lent shouldn’t be something that causes Jesus to become the spoilsport or believers to grumble like a kid on 40-day restriction. The idea behind this type of fast is to eliminate some of the clutter from the schedule--to allow more space for the Sprit to move.
The most important component to fasting, and one that can be overlooked, is to find out what has power and authority in our lives, what causes us to sin.  A mom and local blogger has declared a fast from yelling at her kids.  Some bishops have advocated giving up texting, social networks, and online gaming--getting out of the virtual world and reconnecting with the self, with God, and with those physically present in our lives.  The concept here is to identify, confess, and root out sin in our lives so that the Lenten fast will continue past Easter and become part of our Christ-filled lives.
So what am I giving up for Lent?   I’m taking aim at one of my gluttonous habits.  I’m a habitual evening snacker, eating for no reason other than the pleasure of eating.  So I’m giving up my post-dinner handfuls of whatever I can root out of the pantry.  When I get the urge to chew I’m reminded to be thankful for ways that God has blessed me and conscious of those who have little to eat. I read my Bible.  I even write about fasting.  And hopefully, I won’t give up giving up when Lent is over.  The next step in this process is to decide how to turn my fast into a blessing for someone else, perhaps a donation to our local food pantry or Salvation Army.
So how about you? Are you ready to give up?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ash Wednesday Reflections

When I was single, my friends and I would attend Ash Wednesday services at church, then go out for something to eat.  [Clearly, I did not belong to a church that emphasized fasting.]  As we sat around the table at Village Inn, we’d remark that perhaps we shouldn’t be sitting here, with our ash-marked foreheads, eating pie. Ash Wednesday seemed to call for something more somber. But there we were, marked for Christ, yet celebrating.
But that is what Ash Wednesday is all about.
Ash Wednesday services are sobering.  The ashes remind us of both our mortality and our sin. Play time is over. It’s time to sit up and pay attention. We’re taken back to the Garden of Eden--to man’s fall.  “From dust you are and to dust you will return,” Genesis 3:19 reminds us. With bluntness, scripture tells us that our earthly life is finite. 
Ash Wednesday services are honest.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” cried John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea. (Matt 3:2)  Jesus preached this very same message throughout his earthly ministry. (Matt 4:17)  The ashes we wear are an echo of the sackcloth and ashes worn in repentance. (Job 42:6, Matt 11:21) Ash Wednesday causes us to be honest with ourselves, to face our sinful nature and admit our need for a Savior.  With the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, we publicly proclaim this fact.
Ash Wednesday services are hopeful. In her book The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittister writes, “Clearly, the voice of Lent is not a dour one. It is a call to remember who we are and where we have come from and why.  The voice of Lent is the cry to become new again, to live on newly no matter what our life has been like until now and to live fully.”  While we have sinned, we are not without hope. As believers we are saved through Jesus, who forgives our sins and redeems us through his death and resurrection.  At the end of the service, everyone in the sanctuary bears the mark of hope, the ashen cross on our brows.  
Ash Wednesday services are joyful.  Because of Christ’s death on the cross, we have new life in Him. Scripture remind us that God remembers His people, that he will forgive our wickedness and remember our sins no more. (Heb 8:12)  Ash Wednesday causes us to confess, to turn away from sin.  We hear the good news. We wear the cross. Easter is coming.
We silently exit the sanctuary, foreheads cross-marked for Christ, hearts sweet with celebration.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lent: Spring Training for the Soul

Lent--the very name conjures up images of self-denial, of giving up chocolate or television.  Perhaps it evokes memories of fish sticks served in the school cafeteria on Friday.  Perhaps it means nothing at all. 
What is Lent?  Who celebrates? Where did it originate?  And does it hold any relevance at all for Protestant Evangelicals?
Lent--the 40-weekday period preceding Easter--begins on Ash Wednesday. Catholics traditionally celebrate Lent as a time of penance and fasting, a time of self-examination and recommitment.  Protestants, on the other hand, are mixed in their observance of Lent. Some attend Ash Wednesday services and observe Maundy Thursday with communion.  For others, it’s merely a passing reference to the days before Easter.
There’s no scriptural command to observe Lent.  It developed from three traditions. Early Christians observed a brief fast in the days before Easter, a fast that lengthened over time to 40 days.  The second tradition included a period of intense preparation that new converts underwent before baptism on Easter Sunday.  The third tradition involved welcoming back penitent sinners who had fallen away and wished to rededicate themselves to Christ. Lent, therefore, became a time of dedication, of self-scrutiny,  and of bringing oneself under the Lordship of Jesus Christ once again.
Evangelicals are mixed in our feelings toward Lent.  Scripture tells us that we don’t need to observe special days or seasons. (Gal. 4:10)  Yet Paul allows that some may consider one day more sacred and regard that day as special to the Lord, while another considers each day alike, but still gives thanks to God. (Rom 14:5-7) There is room for the work of the Holy Spirit in each heart.
So why should we care about Lent?
Perhaps the best analogy I’ve heard this year is that Lent is a Christian’s “Spring Training.”    Each spring professional baseball players come together to practice as a team, to work out the problems of last season, and get themselves into shape. Everybody’s supposed to report-- eager, young rookies, seasoned players, out-of-shape nobodies and sleek superstars. Everyone needs to prepare for the regular season.
Likewise we can use Lent to get ourselves into spiritual shape.  We come together as a community of faith--from the weakest sinner to the prayer warrior. We examine ourselves and strengthen our souls through Bible study, prayer, and worship. We pray for the Holy Sprit’s guidance. We renew our commitment to Christ.
Lent commences on February 17, 2010 with Ash Wednesday.  Interestingly enough, this year it’s the same day that pitchers and catchers begin reporting for Spring Training.  
Are you ready to report?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Book Review: Mom's Bible--God's Wisdom for Mothers

Just in time for Mother’s Day, Thomas Nelson has released the Mom’s Bible: God’s Wisdom for Mothers. The Biblical text is the New Century Version (NCV), a more sophisticated revision of the International Children’s Bible.  Although adults might balk at a Bible with a 5th grade reading level, the NCV is a solid translation based on Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, assembled by an experienced team of scholars.  What this translation loses in the poetry of the 23rd Psalm and other beloved verses, it makes up for with direct language which makes more obscure verses a bit clearer.
Notes by Bobbie Wolgemuth and others set this Bible apart specifically for moms.  You’ll find what you’d expect here--profiles of Biblical moms and lessons on Godly character.  A section entitled, “Answers to Questions Kids Ask” is worth the read. The topical index is really just an index to the various groups of notes: "Our God is . . .", "Walking In . . .", etc.
There’s nothing particularly new in the notes that I read. However, in the center of the cyclone that is motherhood, it helps to be reminded of what’s true and encouraged in my walk. And the Mom’s Bible does just that.  I found that, while I enjoyed the notes, the real appeal was the translation. The smoothness of its natural language appeals to the storyteller in me.
If you’re going to buy mom a Bible this year, why not make it one that she can read with her children?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Pig Wig and the Pleasure of Reading

My 5-year-old is learning to read.  We're still a long way from War and Peace, but as a parent, teacher, and librarian, I'm thrilled to watch this process unfold. I studied reading methodology in college: learning the language, memorizing books, the "a-ha" moment when the brain decodes a word in an unfamiliar context.  It's much more fascinating in person.

I remember when he'd sit down with a book and "read" it to himself, using the same inflection that I used on each page.  I wish I could have recorded some of these moments, but he would have stopped if he knew I was watching.

Last summer we discovered a series of books by Yukiko Kido and Harriet Ziefert.  He's read Pig Wig and Stop Pop. They're simple--3 sections of word families, 1 word on a page, and short sentences at the end of each section.  Today I found Snow Bow at the downtown library.  It was waiting in his car seat when I picked him up from school.  I love hearing him sound out the letters and puzzle through the complexities of consonant blends.  Each word read is a little victory;  a sentence like "Feet meet on the street," a triumph.

He already knows the pleasure of listening to a good story being read or told.  Someday he'll have the pleasure of getting lost in a really good book.  His journey is just beginning.