50/50 Reading Challenge Update: April Books

April has turned out to be my least successful month so far in the Reading Challenge.  I’m not surprised or the least bit discouraged, though.  Writing some of the last papers of my undergraduate career, compiling two portfolios, and dissecting the data that comprises my capstone research project must be worthy reasons to slack off in the pleasure reading department.  Graduation is looming large and I have a pile of books just waiting for that time when I’m my own person once again. I’m anticipating that I’ll make up lost ground pretty quickly in the next few months.

As April draws to a close, I’m only working on one very interesting and very short paper for an on-line Culture and the Arts class, and the completion of a very long and very involved research study requiring a twenty page paper (which is almost written) and a thirty minute presentation.  The light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to blind me.  I couldn’t be happier!  I also couldn’t be happier with the two books I did manage to finish in the midst of all that other madness this month.

April Books

The Shadow of the Wind

  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  At its core, Shadow if the Wind is an atmospheric coming of age tale about a motherless boy set in Barcelona, Spain after WWII.  When Daniel is eleven years old, his father, a bookshop owner, takes him to a secret library containing rooms full of old and forgotten books.  He is allowed to choose one book to keep and care for.  The book he chooses, or rather the book that chooses him, is called Shadow of the Wind.  The author, Julian Carax, is shrouded in a mystery that consumes Daniel and propels him on a life and death adventure.  The story of Daniel, and consequently of Julian, is wrapped in an excellent depiction of Spain struggling to recover after WWII.  Rich and detailed character development made the reading intriguing and pleasurable.  Just one warning: Shadow of the Wind is rather dark and spooky, addressing heavy subjects like evil, regret, cowardice, and the consequences of beliefs and actions (well-intended or otherwise).  It is an excellent and very satisfying read, but don’t expect too many warm fuzzies. (4.5/5 stars)

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

  • An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.  A quote from the prologue:

“What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of life on earth.  My life depends on engaging the most ordinary activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.  My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the spiritual, the body and the soul.  What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”

From this staring point, Miss Taylor proposes that the whole of the natural world is The House of God, or Bethel (from the Hebrew).  Altars exist anywhere in this world where we human beings have met or meet up with God.  To the author, a Yale-trained Episcopal pastor turned world religions professor, God is “the Really Real” or “the More” that we humans are always searching for.  In essence, the altars are places of relationship: with our own bodies and selves, with the natural world, with other human beings, and with God.  These relationships and experiences draw us close to “the Really Real” God of the universe.

Each chapter of the book is dedicated to a single practice that helps us to recognize God in our everyday lives.  Some of the most significant practices to me are Paying Attention (Reverence), Saying No (Sabbath), Being Present To God (Prayer), and Pronouncing Blessings (Benediction), but I could easily devote entire posts to many of the practices in the book.  No practice takes special knowledge, skills or tools.  They just require a focused awareness and a desire to recognize and experience God for who he is.

For anyone the least bit curious about a meaningful spiritual life beyond the four walls of the church, this is a fabulous book with real life applications.  Very wise and sincere counsel is packaged in Ms. Taylor’s engaging and accessible writing style.  I think An Altar in the World might be one of the best books I’ve read this year…   (5/5 stars)

A Limited View of Heaven

On numerous occasions, my kids have asked me what heaven will be like.  They are usually looking for some kind of physical description of the place or a schedule of events.  They know about the streets of gold and gates of pearl, but that just isn’t very satisfying for a 13, 11, and 8 year old.  I’m pretty sure their concept of heaven would equate to an eternity of summer vacation – no school, no homework, and no bedtime.  Add a continual smorgasboard of junk food, and unlimited use of Wii and Facebook  and now we’re talking  paradise.  Instead of an eternity of worship, heaven would be eternal play and chillin’ with friends.  Through the eyes of my kids, this is what a real heaven would look like.

I personally have to admit that the “streets of gold” thing doesn’t really excite me either.  But I understand that God is just telling us that the most valuable things on earth will be the things that we walk on in heaven.  I am pretty sure that we have nothing in this fallen creation to compare to what is in God’s dwelling place, no good frame of reference.  This sinful and imperfect world often takes my breath away and it is just a shadow of what heaven will be like.  Paradise will be breathtaking and perfect – exactly what it should be.  And not knowing all that heaven is doesn’t bother me.  If God offers it as part of the gift of salvation I know it has to be good.

I think I have sufficiently established that we can’t really know what heaven will look like.  It will just be a fantastic surprise when we get there.  However, there is one aspect of heaven that I am very sure about.  My sinful nature will not follow me there.  And this reason alone is enough for me to long for the place.  In the book of Romans, Paul succinctly sums up this human condition of sinfulness.

  15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.  21So I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  22For in my inner being, I delight in God’s law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  24What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?         Romans 7:14-24 (NIV)

Lately, I‘ve been feeling that Paul was thinking specifically about me when he wrote these verses.  He describes my current struggles with incredible accuracy.  His despair and frustration are mine as well.  I feel like a country divided against itself, a civil war raging within my body.  I love God and desire to live my life for him.  My heart knows his love and my mind understands His will for my life.  My soul desires the completeness that only Jesus Christ can give.  And yet, my own will, that sinful nature I was born with, is persistent and powerful.  Temptations are absolutely everywhere.  And let’s face it.  Many sinful things are fun, exciting, and even satisfying (at least in the beginning) or they wouldn’t be temptations.

Sometimes my life feels like one continual struggle between following God and following me and this struggle often wearies me to the core.  I know I will never be able to reconcile these two opposing desires in my lifetime.  Paul understood this as well.  “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”   The desperation in these words is almost tangible.

God doesn’t leave us in this wretched state, though.  Christ is the answer, his death covering all our sins, past, present and future.  In my life, I do not have to be a slave to my sinful nature.  Even when I do give into temptations, I am already forgiven.  And because God is all-powerful, He enables me to resist temptation when I ask for His help.  There is hope in the knowledge of this.  I thank God I don’t have to deal with my dark side alone, but while I am on this earth I will always have my sinful nature with me.

Heaven is a different story all together.  The minute I pass from this world to the next I will shed the sinful part of myself.  I can almost feel the heavy weight of that burden falling away.  No more split personality, goodness and evil mixing like oil and water.  My focus will be singular – to worship God in all the forms worship takes in heaven.  I will finally be completely and wholly the person God intended for me to be with absolutely no more sin.  And no more temptation to do the wrong thing.  I will be a country united and real peace will reign in my soul for the very first time.  Hallelujah!

I realize that heaven is so much more than simply losing the sinful part of me.  Seeing heaven with such a narrow perspective is like describing an elephant by looking at his trunk and nothing else.  At this particular time in my life, however, liberation from sin is one of the things I most look forward to.  Streets of gold and walls of jasper are nice and all, but freedom from my bad self and the weight of sin – now that is heaven indeed.

Work Your Style

Twice a month, my husband and I teach a Sunday School class of very clever and insightful fourth graders.  The curriculum we use focuses on a “virtue” (honor, self-control, honesty, etc.) each month and uses Bible stories and verses to illustrate the importance of that virtue.  Interactive, fun activities enhance the learning process.  A few months ago, maybe January or February, the topic of the month was worship.  One of the follow-up activities helped the kids discover their individual styles of worship.  Worship styles are the ways and experiences we use to draw us close to God and lead us into heart-felt worship.

This concept of worship styles intrigued me – I had never heard of it before – and I thought it would be an interesting idea to blog about.  Of course, when I went looking for the notes for that lesson to clarify the particulars for this topic, I couldn’t find them.  Undeterred, I headed for the world wide web.  What did we ever do before the Internet?  Not only did I find an expanded list of worship styles, I came across a quiz that takes the guesswork out of discerning what my particular worship style is.


Worship Styles:

Activist:  draws near to God through bringing about social change

Ascetic:  draws near to God through solitude and simplicity

Caregiver:  draws near to God through caring for and serving others

Contemplative:  draws near to God through personal adoration and heartfelt devotions

Enthusiast:  draws near to God through celebration and mystery

Intellectual:  draws near to God through the mind

Naturalist:  draws near to God through nature

Sensate:  draws near to God through the senses

Traditionalist:  draws near to God through ritual and symbol

(This list was taken from the website listed above.  It was originally produced by Gary L. Thomas, Sacred Pathway – HC, Copyright 2000.)

I’ve discovered that I am a naturalist, with a healthy measure of intellectual, contemplative, and ascetic thrown in.  Really, there is only a three point difference between naturalist and ascetic in my quiz results.  But I would have described myself as a naturalist even without the help of the quiz.  Worshipping God comes very easily to me when I am surrounded by His incredible craftsmanship.  For me, God’s creativity, his power, majesty, and constancy, and even his love and goodness are most easily perceived through His creation.

Some of my most intimate and meaningful worship experiences have taken place in outdoor places.  Several years ago, I was standing on a trail on Mount Rainier, above the aptly named Paradise Inn.  As I looked across those endless jagged mountain peaks and into the deep, river-worn gorge below, I was overcome with the sensation that I was standing at the very feet of God, gazing into eternity.  His presence was almost tangible, his majesty and love mind-blowing.  I could not help myself, I had to worship him.

Two summers ago, I snorkeled for the very first time while vacationing on St. John, USVI.  In that crystal clear, bathtub-warm water I was introduced to an watery world of color and diversity.  Again, I was struck by the richness of God’s creativity and imagination.  And I recognized His great love for us, giving us such beatuiful things to enjoy and care for.   I felt the peace and presence of God and honored Him as I floated above the schools of blue tang, the purple sea fans and yellow coral formations.

I don’t have to go to far away or exotic places to commune with God in nature.  The other day I had a truckload of errands to run across much of the county.  It was an exceptionally lovely spring morning – clear sunshine, the perfect temperature, living things blooming everywhere with that fluorescent green color that is so specific to spring.  Lancaster county has a quiet, subtle kind of beauty any time of year, but on this particular morning I was completely overcome with its pastoral lushness.  Praising God came very easily and my errands seemed like much less of a burden.

Knowing my worship style enables me to actively seek out those experiences that most effectively draw me closer to God.  I have, however, found a few things to be true about my personal worship.  When I am working out my faith on a daily basis and living for God’s purposes in my life, worship opportunities crop up everywhere.  My spirit is free and willing to participate, whatever the style of worship.  When I am living my life for me, allowing sins to pile up like smelly laundry and tuning God out, even the very best worship experiences in my preferred style can pass me by unnoticed.  Keeping my heart open and receptive to God is the real key to meaningful worship. So, how about you…

What is your worship style?