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First let me say, I read this FAST (book club night was upon me!) so my reading didn’t come with a lot of time to ruminate along the way.  That means I got a full overall impression quickly, and then BAM it was off to the book club discussion.  (Unfortunately, this timing led to my making some observations at the book club meeting that were probably much muddier than I had hoped they would be, expressing vague uneasiness but unsure quite why.  But then I’m known for thinking out loud and regretting it later.)  Even now, though, having had some time to process the full message, the word I would still give to the flavor of this rumination is “unsettling.”

A great deal of that unsettled feeling is probably exactly what Platt fully intends this book to accomplish, for which I am grateful.  We all need a kick in the pants from time to time, and I have to say, mission accomplished.

Platt’s premise is a big “what if”:  what if Christians stopped crafting their religion to fit neatly inside our materialistic, self-actualizing, self-centered American-Dream culture, and really lived with complete abandon, as Christ called people to do (“he who hates his life…”, “no one who has left home or brothers or…”, “go and sell everything you have…”).  In other words, following Christ surely means that in many ways our lives should look very, very different from a typical American life, and this difference involves way more than just what we do on Sunday, or what we don’t handle don’t taste don’t touch on other days.  And I thoroughly agree, of course.  I also agree that the majority of the American church (and, really, churches in most places where following Christ does not come with a threat of persecution, even death) is perfectly content equating “following Christ” to a plan of self-improvement with religious jargon, good-doing (when convenient), and basically huddling up with other like-minded P.L.U.s (People Like Us) to pursue our little kingdoms:

In our Christian version of the American Dream, our plan ends up disinfecting Christians…isolating followers of Christ in a spiritual safe-deposit box called the church building and teaching them to be good.

If this state of things doesn’t give me pause, I’m in trouble.  I should hope the book makes me uneasy!

So I recommend the book for the reasons above if you suspect your complacency needs a kick to the curb, but let me add just a few hesitations that also had me unsettled, and not in such a good way:

  • Sometimes Platt will throw out a proposition, acknowledge that the proposition is problematic in some ways and could be misconstrued or misapplied, and end up with a posture of something like “but still…”.  For example, he calls into question the building of multi-million-dollar church buildings, but admits he pastors a mega-church with just such facilities.  What to do?  It gives one pause, yes.  Yes.  Surely we ought to be disturbed by the disparity of wealth here.  What to do?  Not sure, but we’re disturbed by it, so that’s good.  So let’s think about.  Now let’s move on.  (I exaggerate, of course, but if you’re going to throw the Big Questions out there, ya gotta give me a little more than “I’m still wrestling with this.”  The elephant is still in the room, and you’re writing a book about it.  Are you saying it’s wrong to build a big, comfortable church, or not?)
  • Platt repeatedly assures us that he’s not saying that having material things is wrong, just that wealth is treacherous.  But often his illustrations seem to point to zeroing out our bank accounts as long as there is someone in need.  For example, he tells the story of a time when John Wesley suddenly regretted the pictures he had bought for his walls because when a shivering chambermaid came by and he noticed she had no coat, the money left in his pocket after purchasing the pictures was not as much as he would have liked to give her.  Wesley is left wondering what God will have to say about that tradeoff (adornment for his walls vs. a coat for the poor shivering woman).  Platt says, “Were the pictures that Wesley had hanging in his room wrong in and of themselves? Absolutely not.  But it was wrong—very wrong—to buy unnecessary decoration for himself when a woman was freezing outside without a coat.”  My problem with this is, define a “necessary decoration,” and tell me when there is ever NOT a woman freezing outside without a coat.  I don’t mean to sound callous, and those moments when God convicts an individual to sacrifice something are certainly that crystal clear and very important, but the problem of disparity of wealth, while it does sometimes come down to specific moments of choice like these, is not as simple as his comments often make it sound.
  • Platt comes awfully close to calling into question the salvation of people whose response to grace is not “abandon everything else to experience him”  (p. 37-39).   Should/must we lay everything on the line for him?  Yes.  Do all truly saved Christians do that?  No, not all the time.  They do it increasingly consistently, if there is the seed of new life in there, but it typically grows and matures in fits and starts.  I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone whose initial fervor did not waver from time to time as babies came and bills came and life happened.  Were they not saved, then?  Oh please, please be careful how and when you challenge people’s confidence in their salvation.

To be fair, Platt’s book is purposefully short and he acknowledges that he’s not setting out to write a treatise on how to solve world poverty.  His critics have mostly faulted him, with some reason, I think, for having a simplistic approach to the world’s problems, even a “White Messiah neo-paternalism” (Bradley).  But Platt’s intention is simply to sound an alarm to a sleepy church, much as Keith Green was doing when I was a young believer, and to get us to open our ears to what God might call us to sacrifice now, in this stage of our lives, in this stage of the world’s needs.  We have to do that over and over as throughout our lives our own little privileged world will inevitably lull us to a complacent (and self-indulgent) status quo.  Many have called us to this woodshed over the years; Platt is but the latest.

At the end of the book, Platt makes some specific suggestions on what to do to re-engage, if re-engaging is called for:  word, giving, prayer, community, serving the world.  No surprises here.  He’s more specific in his challenges than the way I’ve worded them, but their essence is the ancient disciplines that true believers have practiced for centuries.  These will of course jump-start any walk of faith if we have been neglecting them.  NOW I’m with you, Mr. Platt.  And by the way, this is why my favorite chapter in the whole book is the one on the gospel, the raison d’etre of mercy and evangelism in the first place.  So those disciplines you propose, if we practice them faithfully (there’s the rub) and let them do their work of deepening our love of Christ and our appreciation of this gospel, will change everything, including transforming our begrudging “what must I do?” to an eager “what is needed?”

Continuing in the Disciplines/Foster series – Chapter 3, Prayer

Overall, Foster’s chapter seems to be promoting prayer not as an isolated activity, but as a way of life, or perhaps as life itself. The “heroes of prayer” he describes would probably all find it unthinkable to pass a day without talking with the Lord, and really I think we would feel very much the same way if we lived in constant, conscious communion with the Father, the way Jesus did. Now true, Jesus had seen the Father — had come from the father — so it seems like it would have been quite natural for him to be thinking about his Father all day long, drawing all his direction and strength from him. But whether or not that kind of constant praying-like-breathing (as Foster describes it) comes easy to us or not, we can be sure that if Jesus made a point of devoting himself to much prayer, rising early to do it, sometimes spontaneously breaking out into prayer as he observed what God was doing among people (Matt. 11:25 ff), then certainly this way of going through life is to be cultivated by his followers! Paul directly tells us, “be constant in prayer” and “pray without ceasing“).

Foster limits most of the chapter to “learning to pray for other people with spiritual success” (1978, p. 32) — in other words, intercession. Remember that intercession is only one part of prayer, though, and I think not even necessarily the most important part. To me, the Psalms that are prayers excel most in praising and magnifying God; recounting to him (and to the pray-er himself) what God has done; confirming to God that the pray-er will choose faith, will choose to obey, will choose to look to God and to his word for direction; and bidding his own soul to trust God in all things, because He is trustworthy. Many of them also ask God for vindication, rescue, mercy, and so on… and a few of them are intercessory prayers for all the people of God. But the prayers of the psalmists are examples of the very thing Foster says on the first page of the chapter: “to pray is to change.” As we taught all year in Anchor last year, prayer re-orients our hearts: toward what God says is true about himself, what He says is true about us, and what He is accomplishing in the earth.

Given the importance, then, of the worship and testimony and submission functions of prayer, it puzzles me a bit that Foster would just hone in on intercession, but there it is.

Feel free to add comments with your current experience with prayer, thoughts on prayer, or if you’re familiar with Foster’s chapter in Celebration of Discpline – any reactions?

Foster emphasizes — and most of the other sources I’ve been reading keep repeating — that the whole point of meditation is greater obedience.  If meditation does not lead to more profound devotion to Christ and his work, more love for others, more service and humility, then it is an empty pursuit, or, even worse, a selfish, alienating one.

Though some of Foster’s comments can seem just a little bit “out there,” Reformed tradition does include meditation (sometimes called other things, but of similar intent and focus).  There is no reason to shy away from it, and every reason to learn to practice it, provided we keep Christ at the center of it in every way:  Christ as its motivation, its destination, its focus.  Check out these reputable seconds to Foster’s motion:

  • Ken Boa (whom I cited in the very first posting) explains meditation as step two in a four-step process of a devotional practice called lectio divina (reading scripture – meditating on it – praying through it – contemplating over it).  He separates meditation from contemplation (Foster uses these more interchangeably), and has this to say about meditation:  “As you move from reading to meditation, you are seeking to saturate  and  immerse yourself in the Word, to luxuriate in its living waters, and to  receive  the words as an intimate and personal message from God. The  purpose of meditation  is to penetrate the Scriptures and to let them  penetrate us through the loving  gaze of the heart.” So, for Boa, meditation is an extension of reading the scriptures, much like Foster’s suggestion of reading a text and then reading again, slowly, engaging the imagination and the senses to really read attentively, putting yourself in the scene to absorb what’s going on.  “Meditation,” Boa says,  “is a spiritual work of holy desire and an interior invitation for the Spirit to pray and speak within us (Romans 8:26-27) in such a  way that  our whole being is transformed into greater conformity with  Jesus Christ. It is  an intentional process of building our passion for  Christ by meeting with Him  and spending time with Him to know Him more  clearly, to love Him more dearly,  and to follow Him more nearly. By  meditating on God’s truth, we are inviting Christ  to be formed in us  (Galatians 4:19) by a deliberate dwelling on His words.” (Read more from Boa on lectio divina here – scroll down to the part on devotional spirituality.)
  • “If we willingly banish holy meditations in our solitary hours, Satan will soon occupy our minds with sinful imaginations. … God’s words must be laid up in our hearts, that our thoughts may be daily employed about them” Matthew Henry
  • “Memorization is the first step to meditation.” Jerry Bridges
  • “The hearer of God’s word ought to be like those animals that chew the cud; he ought not only to feed upon it, but to ruminate upon it.”Augustine
  • “In meditation, the whole man is engaged in deep and prayerful thought on the true meaning and bearing of a particular biblical passage.  … Sustained imaginative reflection is, if I am not mistaken, so rare today that few of us understand its power to motivate.”J.I. Packer
  • “Meditate upon what you read:  stop not at the surface: dive into the depths.  Be not as the swallow which toucheth the brook with her wing, but as the fish which penetrates the lowest wave.  Abide with your Lord: let him not be to you as a wayfaring man, that tarrieth for a night, but constrain him, saying, ‘Abide with us, for the day is far spent.’  Hold him, and do not let him go.   … It is instructive to find meditation so constantly connected with fervent prayer:  It is the fuel which sustains the flame; why are many of us so exceeding slack in it?”C.H. Spurgeon (a Spurgeon sermon on meditation or “musing” can be found here.)  Ah, Spurgeon.  Your words expose my shallowness, every time.
  • The Dutch Reformed writer Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711) actually eased my mind a bit about the idea of “rising up” that Foster describes on p. 27 (1978).  Brakel says, “This is a spiritual exercise in which a godly person–having a heart which is separated from the earth and lifted up toward heaven–reflects upon and engages his thoughts toward God and divine things with which he was already previously acquainted.  He does so in order to be led further into divine mysteries, to be kindled with love, to be comforted, and to be stirred up to lively exercises.” LOTS of good information and history about the disciplines from a reformed perspective can be found here (the section on meditation starts on page 30.)
  • Puritan pastor Jonathon Edwards describes an episode in which meditation led him to overwhelming, deep worship.  It is recounted in a chapter on Edwards by Donald Whitney (“Pursuing a Passion for God through Spriritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathon Edwards”) in a book called A God Entranced Vision of All Things (edited by John Piper).  You can actually download and read the entire book for free here.  The episode I’m referring to is on page 113.  Pretty stunning, given how I had pictured the Puritans (particularly Edwards)!

So… slow down.  Chew your bread.

(Chapter-by-chapter of Celebration of Discipline.)

Though some of the wordings Foster chooses in this chapter rub me a bit the wrong way, I have a hard time not agreeing with most of what Foster is laying out about our common predicaments with the disciplines. From the first line, “Superficiality is the curse of our age,” to the ending discussion of the dangers of the disciplines becoming too legalistic, what Foster is saying rings true to my experience. I do tend to think of the disciplines as the hallmarks of Great Christians (and perhaps not for silly little me), I have experienced the futility of trying to “do better” without addressing the heart issue of sinful rebellion that causes my behavior, I experience the constant teetering on that ledge between “let God do it all” (antinomianism) and “I will help God accomplish my sanctification by trying harder” (synergism – 2nd definition).

At the bottom of this post, I am suggesting some topics I would love to hear your reactions on.

If I haven’t brought up a topic you want to discuss, please feel free to start your own thread by using this post’s “comments” button.  Maybe if you start your comment with the words “TOPIC THREAD” you will get some discussion on that topic.

My questions:

Foster capitalizes “Disciplines,” and calls them “classic Disciplines” (1978 p.1, and see footnote). What did you know or think about the disciplines before exposure to this book? Do you think it should be capitalized? Different authors on the subject use different lists of disciplines, and categorize them differently. (Since that’s true, as you go through this book you might even want to come up with your own list of what you consider biblically commanded disciplines, and tradition-created disciplines. You could use your own names for these practices, too.)

What do you take Foster to mean by “the deep” (as in, “launch out into the deep,” p.2), by “beyond the physical world” and by “the nonmaterial world” (1978 p.2). Is all this the same thing (to him), do you think? I found myself wishing he were using more biblical language here (though he does appeal to Ps. 42:7, a passage about which commentators disagree as to meaning). Is there biblical language for what you think he’s getting at?

Do you agree with Foster that modern (i.e. mid-20th century) sensibilities have jaded us to the existence of another realm — the “spiritual world” or the “inward life,” as he calls it? (1978 p.2-3) Does this topic make you nervous? Do you think the spirit of our current age (turn of the 21st century) is as material as he describes on top of p. 3?

Have you experienced either success or defeat in attempting to change a sinful habit by sheer willpower? What is the danger in being successful at it? What is the danger when we fail? (according to him OR according to you?) What do you think of his term “will worship” (1978 p. 5)? Does it ring true?

Do you find his metaphor of the path on the ledge (I would say “ridge”) helpful? (1978 p.7) Which side have you typically leaned to, or has it changed over the course of your life? What passages in the Bible do you find particularly helpful or clear in explaining the relationship between our responsibility and God’s work in our sanctification?

I’m realizing that the brisk pace of the online book club I’m running is keeping me from my main blog, and since that book club blog is now private, and since my entries can communicate and provoke discussion without my reader(s) tracking along in that book… why not do double duty with those blog entries?  These will be thoughts on each chapter as I work through this book again.  But really, given that the disciplines’ goal is deeper love of Christ, these posts will be  just what the blog subtitle up there says:  thoughts on “living life in the deep love of Christ,” through the application of the disciplines.

In teeing up this book club, I came across some weirdly vehement objections to this book (online you can find anything…). If you spend much time googling & reading about this book, you find some wildly opposing views of its worth. There are those who come close to calling it a dangerous heretical tool of Satan (many of these people also believe C.S. Lewis was unregenerate, and unfortunately many of them are of the angry-reformers variety). Objections include the fact that Foster is a Quaker (i.e. dangerous left-winger emotionalist) or that he is too close to Catholicism (i.e. the enemy; not good reformed people like us and thus unable to contribute meaningfully to a discussion on spirituality)  or that the emphasis on the disciplines constitutes a synergystic attempt to work for salvation.  Some dislike that Foster relies too much on the mystics of old (quotes St. John of the Cross and Bernard of Clairvaux) in a new-agey kind of way, and draws on the writings of Thomas Merton (mystic, some say New Ager). I see grain of truth in all of this: yes, he’s Quaker, and yes, he quotes these sources heavily, and yes there are dangers in leaning too heavily into mysticism.  I see that there is reason to take care, to be circumspect as I go.  I just wish people on the internet wouldn’t …  oh, never mind.

Others see this book as a new Truth with a capital “T.” Rave reviewers seem to think that Foster’s work somehow provides what’s missing in Scripture about HOW to live the spiritual life (yikes! and I think Foster would also say, “yikes!”).

People love/hate his book for lots of different reasons, and some of the wilder claims people were making made me wonder if they were reading the same book I’ve come to know and appreciate!

So. What to do?

Pull out my trusty Ken Boa handbook to all things topically Christian (Conformed to His Image), and see what he says. He’s so balanced you almost can’t figure out where he stands on issues such as this, but he will reliably give you both sides of the picture, every time, and point out the pitfalls of both extremes. And he’s Monergism.com-approved (truly, that helps me. So many names and titles to keep up with, and the editors at Monergism are pretty reformed and picky).

On this topic, the spiritual disciplines, Boa acknowledges Foster (almost has to), as well as Dallas Willard and others who have studied and written extensively on the classical disciplines as practices that can help us in our sanctification, our abiding, our growth in Christ-likeness. He acknowledges them without censure, in fact — though in other parts of his book he covers (very thoroughly, very well) both the benefits and pitfalls of mysticism.

What really reassures me, though, is that Boa’s summary statements on the topic of the disciplines are awfully similar to the very statements by Foster in chapter 1 of CofD that led me to want to study this book again. Boa says this:

Dependence [on Christ’s work in us] is critical, but there is no growth in the Christian life apart from discipline and self-control (“discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” – 1 Tim. 4:7). Spirituality is not instantaneous or haphazard; it is developed and refined. The Epistles are full of commands to believe, obey, walk, present, fight, reckon, hold fast, pursue, draw near, and love. The spiritual life is progressively cultivated in the disciplines of the faith; you and I will not wake up one morning to find ourselves suddenly spiritual. …We must choose to have our minds and emotions guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

Exactly.

The folks at DesiringGod.org have a new website, and have figured out how to keep Piper’s good words in the ears of loyal listeners, even while he’s on sabbatical:  roll out some of the greatest hits from the last few years.

I subscribe to their podcast and very often my walks with Riley (panting in the heat) get extended because Pastor John hasn’t wrapped it up yet (no complaints, just saying).  This morning his sermon from Dec. 28, 2008 reminded me of why I pray and, disturbingly, why I don’t sometimes.  Often.  Too often.

Piper’s admonitions about prayer are simple:  pick a place and a time, and show up.  Every day.  Use God’s word to pray and focus.  Pray concentrically (start with self and family and move out to wider circles).

He makes a great connection between John 15 (Jesus words about “asking anything in my name”) and a passage from Zechariah 13:

The Shepherd Struck

“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who stands next to me,”
declares the Lord of hosts.

“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered;
I will turn my hand against the little ones.
In the whole land, declares the Lord,
two thirds shall be cut off and perish,
and one third shall be left alive.
And I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call upon my name,
and I will answer them.
I will say, ‘They are my people’;
and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”  – Zech. 13:7-9

Did you catch what the suffering is for?  Refining and testing, until there’s nothing left but to call upon his name, and call him who he is:  My Lord and my God.  That’s what his people, his remnant (the one third), do, in suffering (and out of it, too, hopefully!).  In the place of complete powerlessness, desiring God’s will to be done in my life–in other words, praying in Jesus’ name–is the most powerful prayer I will ever pray, and one which he always answers YES to.

If you get a chance, listen to this one in the car with your family or on a walk with your dog.

And on a lighter note…

The announcement from Monergism today that the large-print edition of the ESV Study Bible is now available disturbs me in two ways:

1) I realized I was seriously considering whether having one might be a good idea for me, as constantly having to search for my magnification 2.75’s is really starting to annoy me.  All of a sudden not being able to read anything within 24 inches of your nose is a cliche that just isn’t funny anymore.  And I’m not even 50 yet.  (In fact, I’m wondering if the grumpiness of some women of a certain age might be wrongly attributed to hormones when it’s really just the exasperation that comes with keeping track of eyewear.)

2) I had to wonder:  is a large print edition of this Bible really safe for those aged enough to need it?  Have you tried to lift the regular-print version?  Now, I love my ESV hardback, but unless I’m accessorizing with an ergonomic (but stylish) tote bag to schlep it in, I don’t try to carry it around with me if I can help it.  It weighs 4.2 pounds.  I looked it up on Amazon.  That’s substantial.  That’s almost a bag of flour.  Guess what the large-print version weighs:  5.4 big ones.  If Mommaw fell asleep with this on her lap, she could wake up with some serious leg numbness.  So, until they come up with a lighter weight paper, I’m disinclined to order this for any but the sturdiest of elderly friends.

My solution to the Bible portability problem is that I’ve bought a smaller version of the ESV that feels and looks like a journal, and I use this for porting around.  It has an elastic cord that wraps around the cover so if you throw it in your tote the pages won’t fall open.  It also makes a great devotional Bible for someone who’s too inclined to consult the study notes before she’s tried considering for herSELF what a passage is saying.  Its wide margins (with lines just begging you to write your thoughts in) are perfectly suited to stage one of inductive study:  just notice what’s there.  Ask questions.  Think about context.  Write what you observe.  Then, when it’s time to do what I was itching to do all along — find out from those who know, what Greek word they rendered as “heart” here, and where else he uses that term — I can get my forklift out and consult the big ESV.  Or even better, I could go online and look.  Provided I can find my reading glasses.

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