Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom" By Henri Nouwen

  This has been a really slow reading month for me, which kind of came as a surprise considering I thought I would find plenty of time to read while recovering from surgery. But, as it turns out, major surgery takes a lot out of you and being on medication makes it hard for me personally to concentrate for long periods of time.  So it actually ended up being a pretty great thing that I picked up Henri Nouwen's book, "The Inner Voice of Love" at the beginning of the month, to carry me through the past several weeks!
  Now to be honest, when purchasing this book, I flipped through it and thought I'd finish it in a day; two days tops.  However as I began reading the introduction the author explained that this isn't that type of book.  Sure it's possible to read it in a few hours, but it's suppose to be more of a meditation type thing, a devotional, that you read little by little and soak in over an extended period of time!  That ended up fitting perfectly for me.
  Now, I originally heard of Nouwen 13 or so years ago when I was living in California doing a missions program in the inner-city.  I really hadn't thought about him much since then, until the beginning of this month when Jamie Torkowski (the founder of To Write Love On Her Arms.... whom I follow on instagram and twitter) kept posting quotes from another one of Henri's books and my pastor had mentioned him to me.  Not being one to turn down a suggestion, I checked him out again and while I must admit, sometimes I got lost in the sage of advice of it all, I could connect with a lot of what he writes and the story behind his writing (this book in particular was taken from his own journal entries that he wrote for/to himself during a really dark period of his life).
  While there were many quotes that stood out to me throughout my weeks of reading, there where two thoughts in particular that stuck out to me and that I continue to meditate on today....possibly because they fit together in many ways.  First, he writes, "When you really believe that you are loved by God, you can allow your friends the freedom to respond to your love in their way.  They have their own histories, their own characters, their own way of receiving lobe.  They may be slower, more hesitant or more cautious than you.  They may want to be with you in ways that are real and authentic for them but unusual for you.  Trust that those who love you want to show you their love in a real way, even when their choices of time, place and form are different from yours".  I needed to hear that, especially at a time when I have needed to rely on other people, ask them for help, have them come to me, and accept whatever of "themselves" they were willing to give.  To be honest, I often have a tendency to want to be more of a doer in my relationships.  I think I must do for you in order for us to be friends and that if I don't our relationship won't last.  Because of that I tend to not really focus on what others are doing for me, and sadly, in the moments I do focus on what others are giving to me, I often have trouble accepting it as is.  I, as many of us, like to be loved in certain ways and I expect people to see those ways and give me what I want/need as I want/need it.  But life's not like that...and it's helped a lot to truly meditate on this passage and allow it to teach me to begin to accept not only God's love but the love of those around me in whatever random ways they are able to show it.
  The other quote Henri shares that has definitely stuck out to me is that "No one person can fufill all your needs. But the community can truly hold you.  The community can let you experience the fact that, beyond your anguish, there are human hands that hold you and show you God's faithfulness".  I have only just begun to experience my first true sense of real community in the past few months through a life group I joined at my friends house.  It's amazing and scary, fun and embarrassing, open and vulnerable in more ways then I can even begin to explain to myself, yet it's also exactly what this quote suggests.... the human hands of God linked together to hold and to show God's faithfulness.  I am lucky to have this group. And I am also lucky to have other things in my life, like ...my friends, my family, my church.  For me, over the last few months in particular, church has been a hard place for me.  I have been dealing with so much and in so many ways I don't want to disappoint any of the people I care so desperately about there, that it's almost been easier to stay away and not let them see my struggle.  But I guess I am realizing that this isn't what God calls us to.  The church, His body, is His hands and feet and while yes, individually we will all disappoint and hurt each other, as a whole we can and do hold each other and carry each other to Jesus.  Instead of shying away when things get hard, I need to trust the God in the people of the Church will be there even when things aren't so pretty.
  So, while I guess this isn't much of a book review as it is a personal sharing, I would recommend this book and I would also suggest that you take the author seriously in reading it little by little, letting each thought and phrase soak into you and begin to change your heart.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"The Ragamuffin Gospel" by Brennan Manning

  "If Jesus appeared at your dining room table tonight with knowledge of everything you are and are not, total comprehension of your life story and every skeleton hidden in your closet; If He laid out the real state of your present discipleship with the hidden agendas, the mixed motives and the dark desires buried in your psyche, would you feel his acceptance and forgiveness?". Could you imagine... Jesus sitting there at the head of the table... looking straight at you.  Would you feel his love?  Would you sense His acceptance?  Or would you cower in fear?
  As Brennan Manning says in his decades old book The Ragamuffin Gospel, "sooner or later we are all confronted with the painful truth of our inadequacy and insufficiency.  Our security is shattered and our bootstraps are cut.  Once the  fervor has passed, weakness and infidelity appear.  (And) we discover our inability to add even a single inch to our spiritual stature".  And it's in those moments...when we seemingly hit our spiritual rock bottom... that we hopefully encounter God and in turn can say along with Manning, "my deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it".
  Maybe it's just my misinterpretation of the world, but it seems to me in our day and age there is this sense that if I believe God exists, I'm good.  There is nothing more to it.  There's no life change... no moment of realization of the amazing grace of God.  We just have this head knowledge of some big guy in the sky whose watching over us, but it has no real meaning for our day to day lives... there's no hope, no freedom, no gratitude or sense of rejoicing.  Manning explains how "in earlier times it did not take faith to believe that God existed... almost everybody took that for granted.  Rather, faith had to do with one's relationship to God... whether one trusted in God.  The difference between faith as belief in something that may or may not exist and faith as trusting in God is enormous.  The first is a matter of the head, the second a matter of the heart.  The first can leave us unchanged, the second intrinsically brings change".
  I think it's that moment "When we accept ownership of our powerlessness and helplessness, when we acknowledge that we are paupers at the door of God's mercy, (that) God can make something beautiful out of us".  That's when God moves from something out there, to the center of our lives.  We so badly...or maybe I should just speak for myself and admit that I so badly... want to feel like I am in control and like I can do good and make myself acceptable to God.  I try to cover up and hide my faults and wrong doings and perform for God.  But even the Bible says that "We are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in God's sight" (Isaiah 64:6).
  It's the moment though when you recognize the truth of that verse, but then allow "the focus of your life (to) shift from your badness to His goodness and the question to become not what have I done, but what can He do, (that) release from remorse can happen;  (and) miracle of miracles, you can forgive yourself because you are forgiven, accept yourself because you are accepted and begin to start building up the very places you once tore down".   It's the moment when true faith comes into being. As Manning says, "Christianity happens when men and women accept with unwavering trust that their sins have not only been forgiven, but forgotten".
  I am not making much sense am I? And I am in no way doing this book justice.  Brennan talks so honestly and eloquently in his book about grace and what God truly accomplished on the cross, and none of this even begins to touch the surface on that. 
  For me, I needed to read this book again to be reminded of hard truths like "if in our hearts we really don't believe that God loves us as we are, if we are still tainted by the lie that we can do something to make God love us more, we are rejecting the message of the cross". But also I needed to hear comforting knowledge that "it is this risk ....to bring the truth of ourselves just as we are, to God just as He is, ... is the most dignified thing we can do in life" and that "we may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievements, we may not be wealthy or powerful or spiritual, we may not even be happy, but we are nonetheless accepted by God (and) held in His Hands".   And maybe you need to hear that too. 
  Maybe you, like me need to read and re-read this book until it makes sense an engrains itself into your heart.  Because ultimately the Ragamuffin Gospel is the Gospel of God... the story of His grace... and that's the only thing we can truly place our hope in! So, don't let my rambling and lack on congruency distract you.  Take the time, read Brennan's words for yourself and allow God to speak to you through them!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"One Thousand Gifts: a Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are" by Ann Voskamp

  "Sometimes you don't know when you're taking the first step through a door until you're already inside", that's what Ann Voskamp says in one of the opening chapters of her book One Thousand Gifts.  To be honest, in some ways my own life feels like a series of stepping into new doors and new rooms that I've never knew existed, or was to afraid to peer inside because of who or what I thought it would make me, not realizing in the moment I was even doing so.  Lately, I've been a little less afraid... or rather a little braver in the midst of my fears.  For the first time ever I find myself realizing that maybe the way I've looked at the world has been wrong.  Maybe the reason why I think things are a certain way, isn't because they are that way, but because I've blinded myself to the truth... afraid of what that truth might be.  This kind of living though, has come at a cost.  Over the years I've become quite pessimistic.  I always see how things can/will go wrong.  I dwell on the brokenness and the hurt of myself, others and the world around me.  I question everything... even God.  But I'm silent about it all... keeping all those things wrapped up tightly in the caves of my heart.  I don't want anyone to know, anyone to see.  But maybe... just maybe... I am the one who needs to have her eyes opened... and maybe in the opening of my eyes I will release me grip and become more real with myself and the world around me.
  I think Ann Voskamp does a great job of showcasing how to do just that in this book.  Sewn throughout the chapters and pages you can see her very person journey not only from depression to joy and ingratitude to gratitude, but also from hidden doubt to firmly planted faith.  She asks in the very beginning of the book, "Can there be a good God? A God who graces with good gifts when a crib lies empty through long nights, and bugs burrow through coffins?  Where is God really?  How can He be good when babies die, and marriages implode, and dreams blow away, dust in the wind?  Where is grace bestowed when cancer gnaws and loneliness aches and nameless places in us soundlessly die off without reason, erode away?  Where hides this joy of the Lord, this God who fills the earth with good things, and how do I fully live when life is full of hurt?  How do I wake up to joy and grace and beauty and all that is the fullest life when I must stay numb to losses and crushed dreams and all the empties me out?".  We've all been there haven't we?  At least I have... in the dark quiet nights of loneliness or the pain of suffering loss.  We sit there in these moments and we wonder, "where is God? Does He even care?" and if we are lucky, if we listen closely enough, we might actually hear His answer....or we might not.
  It's in these moments of not that we start to doubt...walking ever so slightly away from faith.  But, as Voskamp says, "Perhaps the opposite of faith is not doubt.  Perhaps the opposite of faith is fear.  To lack faith perhaps isn't so much as intellectual disbelief in the existence of God as fear and distrust that there is a GOOD God".  She follows that up with the idea that maybe "that which tears open our souls, those holes that splatter our sight, may actually become the thin, open places to see through the mess of this place to the heart-aching beauty beyond.  To Him.  To God whom we endlessly crave".  What a thought...albeit not new... to think that maybe the brokenness of our lives are the cracks not only through which God can shine through us, but also through which we can see Him!  Maybe it's like Ann says, "When we lay the soil of our hard lives open to the rain of grace and let joy penetrate our cracked and dry places, let joy soak into our broken skin and deep crevices, life grows".  I want to see life grow in me again, don't you?!
  This whole book is the story of Ann Voskamp's dead things coming back to life... of her finding God in the midst of looking for His blessings.  After writing down, day after day, week after week, month after month, a list of over 1000 ways God has shown His love and blessing and love towards her... His gifts".. she reflects that "the secret to joy is to keep seeking God where we doubt He is", advice that we all need to hear, because it's so easy to close up and shut down in those moments when He seems most absent.  But as Ann learns in all her listing and her noticing of God in the mundane and holy moments of life, "Nothing I am counts for anything, but all that I count of Him counts for everything"!.  She says,  "While I may not always feel joy, God asks me to give thanks in all things, because He knows that the feeling of joy begins in the action of thanksgiving" and that "it's impossible to give thanks and simultaneously feel fear".  I have so much to learn!  And yet maybe this... the seeing and giving thanks for the blessing that Voskamp talks about again and again in her book... actually is the key.  Maybe in doing so we discover, as she did, that the answer to the question can God be trusted is found only when we take the time to "count blessing and find out how many of His bridges have already held".  I guess it's time to start my own gift list!  How about you?