Mark 11 and C.S. Lewis

This morning I revisited C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on Mark 11:24 in Letters to Malcolm. I like his take, and I’m going to quote him at length from his 11th chapter. He concludes by asking for his correspondent’s thoughts on the subject, and I oblige by giving some of mine below.

Here is Lewis:

The New Testament contains embarrassing promises that what we pray for with faith we shall receive. Mark XI:24 is the most staggering. Whatever we ask for, believing that we’ll get it, we’ll get. No question, it seems, of confining it to spiritual gifts; whatever we ask for. No question of a merely general faith in God, but a belief that you will get the particular thing you ask. No question of getting either it or else something that is really far better for you; you’ll get precisely it…

How is this astonishing promise to be reconciled (a) With the observed facts? and (b) With the prayer in Gethsemene, and (as a result of that prayer) the universally accepted view that we should ask everything with a reservation (“if it be Thy will”)?

As regards (a), no evasion is possible. Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted. At this very moment thousands of people in this one island are facing as a fait accompli the very thing against which they have prayed night and day, pouring out their whole soul in prayer, and, as they thought, with faith. They have sought and not found. They have knocked and it has not been opened. “That which they greatly feared has come upon them.”

But (b), though much less often mentioned, is surely an equal difficulty. How is it possible at one and the same moment to have a perfect faith — an untroubled or unhesitating faith as St. James says (I:6) — that you will get what you ask and yet also prepare yourself submissively in advance for a possible refusal? If you envisage a refusal as possible, how can you have simultaneously a perfect confidence that what you ask will not be refused? If you have that confidence, how can you take refusal into account at all?…

As regards the first difficulty, I’m not asking why our petitions are so often refused. Anyone can see in general that this must be so. In our ignorance we ask what is not good for us or for others, or not even intrinsically possible. Or again, to grant one man’s prayer involves refusing another’s. There is much here that is hard for our will to accept but nothing that is hard for our intellect to understand. The real problem is different; not why refusal is so frequent, but why the opposite is so lavishly promised.

Shall we then proceed on Vidler’s principles and scrap the embarrassing promises as “venerable archaisms” which have to be “outgrown”? Surely, even if there were no other objection, that method is too easy. If we are free to delete all inconvenient data we shall certainly have no theological difficulties; but for the same reason no solutions and no progress… The troublesome fact, the apparent absurdity which can’t be fitted in to any synthesis we have yet made, is precisely the one we must not ignore. Ten to one, it’s in that cover the fox is lurking. There is always hope if we keep an unsolved problem fairly in view; there’s none if we pretend it’s not there.

Before going any further, I want to make two purely practical points:

1. These lavish promises are the worst possible place at which to begin Christian instruction in dealing with a child or a Pagan. You remember what happened when the Widow started Huck Finn off with the idea that he could get what he wanted by praying for it. He tried the experiment and then, not unnaturally, never gave Christianity a second thought; we had better not talk about the view of prayer embodied in Mark XI:24 as “naif” or “elementary.” If that passage contains a truth, it is a truth for very advanced pupils indeed. I don’t think is is “addressed to our condition” (yours and mine) at all. It is a coping-stone, not a foundation. For most of us the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.

2. We must not encourage in ourselves or others any tendency to work up a subjective state which, if we succeeded, we should describe as “faith,” with the idea that this will somehow insure the granting of our prayer. We have probably all done this as children. But the state of mind which desperate desire working on a strong imagination can manufacture is not faith in the Christian sense. It is a feat of psychological gymnastics.

It seems to me we must conclude that such promises about prayer with faith refer to a degree or kind of faith which most believers never experience. A far inferior degree is, I hope, acceptable to God. Even the kind that says “Help thou my unbelief” may make way for a miracle. Again, the absence of such faith as insures the granting of the prayer is not even necessarily a sin; for Our Lord had no such assurance when He prayed in Gethsemane.

How or why does such faith occur sometimes, but not always, even in the perfect petitioner? We, or I, can only guess. My own idea is that it occurs only when the one who prays does so as God’s fellow-worker, demanding what is needed for the joint work. It is the prophet’s, the apostle’s, the missionary’s, the healer’s prayer that is made with this confidence and finds the confidence justified by the event. The difference, we are told, between a servant and a friend is that a servant is not in his master’s secrets. For him, “orders are orders.” He has only his own surmises as to the plans he helps to execute. But the fellow-worker, the companion or (dare we say?) the colleague of God is so united with Him at certain moments that something of the divine foreknowledge enters his mind. Hence his faith is “evidence” — that is, the evidentness, the obviousness — of things not seen.

As the friend is above the servant, the servant is above the suitor, the man praying on his own behalf. It is no sin to be a suitor. Our Lord descends into the humiliation of being a suitor, or praying on His own behalf, in Gethsemane. But when He does so the certitude about His Father’s will is apparently withdrawn.

After that it would be no true faith — it would be idle presumption — for us, who are habitually suitors and do not often rise to the level of servants, to imagine that we shall have any assurance that is not an illusion — or correct only by accident — about the event of our prayers. Our struggle is — isn’t it? — to achieve and retain faith on a lower level. To believe that, whether He can grant them or not, God will listen to our prayers, will take them into account. Even to go on believing that there is a Listener at all. For as the situation grows more and more desperate, the grisly fears intrude. Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe?  The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already.

What do you think about these things? I have offered only guesses.

Well, C.S., thank you for asking. Here is my response to what you’ve said.

I like your honesty very much. You confront squarely the difficulties and questions we face when we try to understand this idea of “prayer in faith.” And at the end of this passage, you’re honest about your assessment of your own level of faith — so honest it makes me squirm a little.

You talk about spiritual maturity in a way that makes sense to me. It makes sense to me that there are levels of faith, and these levels may correspond to levels of maturity in our relationship with God.

I wish, though, that you had acknowledged that our level of faith/maturity is not predetermined. We can all grow beyond where we are. When Jesus says to the disciples, “I have called you friends,” isn’t it usual to assume he’s talking to us, too? Once we’ve been reconciled to God, we all have the same capacity to grow into a deep and mature friendship with Him.

It makes sense to me that in this passage, Jesus is laying out a vision for who His disciples can become as praying friends. Maybe they aren’t there yet. I’m certainly not. But it is attainable; faith can grow, and with this growth, the possibility of removing mountains can increase. We aren’t doomed to stay where we are.

That’s the only thing I don’t like about this chapter in Letters to Malcolm — the implication that we are “habitual suitors.” Maybe we’re suitors. But we don’t have to stay this way. In fact, if we’re going to impute inevitability to an aspect of our Christian faith, it’s growth — not stagnation or “habitual” struggle — that should be inevitable. Growth — and it seems that much of Jesus’s teaching suggests that growth is the result of persistence — in faith, and consequently in faith-saturated prayer, should be our natural state of being as Christians.

Incidentally, after writing this post, I found this online study guide to Letters to Malcolm. I am linking it here for future reference.

Praying with Jayber

I’ve been rereading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. I’m bearing down on the end, but I wanted to quote this passage here (though it’s long) because it seems important and is indisputably beautiful.

It concerns prayer, and Jayber’s ongoing effort to understand what happens in prayer. It expresses some questions and feelings that probably all of us who pray have felt at one time or another.

What answer can human intelligence make to God’s love for the world? What answer, for that matter, can it make to our own love for the world? If a person loved the world — really loved it and forgave its wrongs and so might have his wrongs forgiven — what would be next?

And so how was a human to pray? I didn’t know, and yet I prayed. I prayed the terrible prayer: “Thy will be done.” Having so prayed, I prayed for strength. That seemed reasonable and right enough. As did praying for forgiveness and the grace to forgive. I prayed unreasonably, foolishly, hopelessly, that everybody in Port William might be blessed and happy — the ones I loved and the ones I did not. I prayed my gratitude.

The results, perhaps, were no more than expectable. I found, as I had always found, that I had strength, but never quite as much as I needed — or, anyhow, wanted. I felt that I might be partly forgiven, as I was partly forgiving; Port William continued to be partly blessed and happy, as before, and partly not; I was as grateful as I said I was. And so perhaps my prayers were partly answered; some perhaps were answered entirely. Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world. How would a person know? How could divine intervention happen, if it happens, without looking like a coincidence or luck? Does the world continue by chance (since it can hardly do so by justice) or by the forgiveness and mercy that some people have continued to pray for?

But why ask? It was not just a matter of cause and effect. Prayers were not tools or money…

Heron on the Kentucky River

Jayber is so tentative here, so full of questions. Yet he has committed himself to pray and to love — the two are so closely related as to seem like flip sides of the same coin — and from this point on he gives himself to the effort. Despite the unsureness he expresses about how measurably God answers, he is himself changed.

A little later, Jayber continues,

Prayer is like lying awake at night, afraid, with your head under the cover, hearing only the beating of your own heart. It is like a bird that has blundered down the flue and is caught indoors and flutters at the windowpanes. It is like standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at a shut door.

But sometimes a prayer comes to you that you have not thought to pray, yet suddenly there it is and you pray it. Sometimes you just trustfully and easily pass into the other world of sleep. Sometimes the bird finds that what looks like an opening is an opening, and it flies away. Sometimes the shut door opens and you go through it into the same world you were in before, in which you belong as you did not before.

I find myself wishing for a little more assurance in what Jayber says. He doesn’t express any certainty that God answers his prayers. Yet in a way that’s what makes the passage appealing. I think it’s true to experience in this way. Answered prayer can’t be “proven” — it isn’t “tools or money.” If Jayber didn’t believe in its efficacy, he wouldn’t find himself drawn into a life of prayer. And throughout the flow of requests and agonies and offerings in prayer, Jayber is changed. He becomes increasingly taken up by the effort to love, and to “know in his heart” God’s love for the world. This prayer God surely answers; we can see it as we read.

I hope and believe this is true for all of us who pray.

Thanksgiving

5 By awesome deeds in righteousness You will answer us,
O God of our salvation,
You who are the confidence of all the ends of the earth,
And of the far-off seas;
6 Who established the mountains by His strength,
Being clothed with power;
7 You who still the noise of the seas,
The noise of their waves,
And the tumult of the peoples.
8 They also who dwell in the farthest parts are afraid of Your signs;
You make the outgoings of the morning and evening rejoice.

9 You visit the earth and water it,
You greatly enrich it;
The river of God is full of water;
You provide their grain,
For so You have prepared it.
10 You water its ridges abundantly,
You settle its furrows;
You make it soft with showers,
You bless its growth.

11 You crown the year with Your goodness,
And Your paths drip with abundance.
12 They drop on the pastures of the wilderness,
And the little hills rejoice on every side.
13 The pastures are clothed with flocks;
The valleys also are covered with grain;
They shout for joy, they also sing.

–From Psalm 65

Sacred Reading

If someone had mentioned “sacred reading” to me before this week, I would have assumed they meant a literary genre — a category of books focused on sacred topics.

But since delving into Thomas Merton’s Book of Hours, I’ve come to a different understanding. Or maybe it’s that Kathleen Deignan’s use of the term in her introduction to Thomas Merton’s thought supplies the label for something I’ve known in a groping, incompletely conceived way — something both my “25 Reasons to Read” page and my blog tagline by Muriel Rukeyser gesture toward, but don’t fully capture. I wanted to quote some passages from Deignan’s explanation of sacred reading, passages I’m sure to be musing over for some time to come.

Merton wrote that “the pleasure of reading and writing poetry… ‘helps me Godward’.” Deignan explains,

Extraordinary literary artist that he was, Thomas Merton had a remarkable capacity for lectio divina — sacred reading, or reading a text in a sacred way. Practiced by all religious traditions that prize their scriptures, the art of lectio divina is the very foundation of our experience of worship and its reverberation in the silence of contemplative life. But the scope of lectio is wide and deep, because the nature of the word is the same. Merton knew well that the Word of God is not only being uttered in the sacred scriptures, but more primordially in creation, more existentially in history, more imaginatively in works of art, more immediately and personally in human experience. Because he understood the dimensionality of the Word of God he understood how to read it in all its myriad forms…

How necessary, then, to learn to read the revelatory texts of scripture, sunsets, heartbreaks, aesthetic works, benedictions and catastrophe, prose and prophecy, and all the other miraculous and perplexing “words of God” endlessly being storied forth for our deep reading. They all invite our skillful practice of the Christian art lectio divina, one of the primary modalities of Christian transformation that brings us, in both our waking and our dreaming, to the wellsprings of contemplation, the ground of the life of praise.

I wouldn’t pretend to really grasp all that I read in this little book. It gathers excerpts of Thomas Merton’s writing and arranges them as prayers at dawn, midday, dusk and evening. There are seven days worth of prayers, and I can imagine returning to this book many times.

The main purpose of a book of hours is to remind us to simply stop, to swerve out of the noise of life for a few moments at regular intervals during the day and to reorient — to aim our souls toward God. Probably the most revelatory thing about the book for me is that it showed me how difficult this is for me to do. I’ve long valued my morning time with the Lord, but to find four times during the day — even brief ones — during which I can stand aside and compose myself before him is very, very difficult.

“But we’re supposed to pray without ceasing,” I can imagine someone saying. “Can’t we shoot up prayers in the midst of living all day long? Why should we have to pull the car over and stop for a few minutes?” Well, sure. I’m an expert at such toss-ups. But all I can say is that we’re creatures of body as well as of soul, and if I make my body stop and kneel, or go “into the closet and close the door” (as Jesus put it), my mind and heart are more likely to follow.

There are some aspects of the contemplative life that I relate to, and some that I don’t understand. But I appreciated having this book on hand. This, combined with Os Guinness’ Prophetic Untimeliness, has made me very aware of the noise level of life and of the church. One of these days I’ll have a post ready on it.

Praying for Strangers

There are so many ways a book like this could go wrong. It could be super-saccharine. It could be self-righteous, or narcissistic, or overly introspective. It could be pushy. But in telling the story of a year in her life — the year her two sons were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, and she made a New Year’s resolution to pray for a stranger every day — author River Jordan walks the path of authenticity, earns my liking and my trust, and inspires me.

Praying for Strangers introduces us to the people Ms. Jordan met in the course of her journey, giving us a glimpse of their stories and describing their reactions when she let them know she was praying for them. More than a call to prayer, she felt also a call to boldness in letting each day’s stranger know that they stood out to her in some way and she would be thinking of them and praying for them. Their reactions were almost always positive. With respect for them, Ms. Jordan shares some of their struggles and reflects on the ways her experience of meeting and praying for each one challenges and humbles her.

Occasionally as I go about my business, a face stands out to me and I pray for the person — the beleaguered mother with the cart full of children in the checkout, the grim-faced librarian coughing into her sleeve, the person lost in thought and sipping tea by the window at Barnes & Noble. But to approach them and introduce myself and tell them? To ask their name and whether there’s anything I can be praying for? That would be new territory, to say the least.

It was new territory for River Jordan, too. I found myself relating to some of the people she prayed for. But most of all I found myself relating to her. She is no more a spiritual superhero than I am, and she is not a natural extrovert either. Yet she manages to step out of herself into a new kind of compassion, and the experience yields rich insights into herself, humanity, and prayer in general. Prayer, she muses at one point, “is perhaps one of the greatest human connectors in this world. A chain that runs from one carbon life-form to another, an unseen force that makes a strong vertical leap into the mysteries of the unknown. The place where they might be captured, opened, and answered.”

If I have any reservation at all about the book, it’s that at times, Ms. Jordan’s tone can take on a bit of a New-Age, humanistic tone. There is no attempt to anchor her comments on prayer to a biblical context. But this didn’t lessen the book’s power for me. I feel a little bit like I do when I read Frederick Buechner: “Is this author believing something different than I do, or just shunning the usual language and cliches? Is he tentative because he’s on the fence, or is he just more careful with his semantics than others?” Ultimately, I guess it’s obvious that I concluded we’re on the same page in the substance of our faith. Some of the tentativeness I sensed actually makes the important point that you don’t have to have to be SuperChristian, you don’t have to have all the answers, in order to step out of your comfort zone and care about others.

All of us meet people in need, all of us want to help, but we don’t have great human or material resources at our beck and call. This book reminds us of what we can do for one another by appealing to the good and generous Father of Lights. Reading it has been an encouragement to me, and I’ve found myself looking harder at the people I meet. I’m grateful to Sherry for bringing it to my attention back in April.

There is a book trailer featuring River Jordan talking about Praying for Strangers here.

The Love Exchange

There’s more to prayer than petition. Most of us know this. But how good are we at cultivating the other elements of prayer? How persistent? How comfortable?

Twice lately, I’ve read of the importance of adoration in a daily time with God. The first source is Andrew Murray’s Deeper Christian Life. The second is Margaret Therkelsen’s Love Exchange: An Adventure in Prayer. It was published in 1990, and I read it back then; in recent weeks I’ve read it again. It’s not a scholarly book, but a personal one describing its author’s prayer journey and sharing one of her central practices.

The love exchange described here starts as a daily pattern: spend some time expressing your love for God, and then spend an equal amount of time affirming his love for you by faith through meditation on Scripture passages. “When we first begin this spiritual exercise it is shocking to see how little we love him,” Therkelsen warns. But keep at it. Love grows as it’s repeatedly affirmed, and so does our receptiveness to God’s love.

What starts as a daily practice becomes an avenue to what some have called holiness: a closer walk with God, a deeper flow of the Holy Spirit, a lifting of the self into God’s self-denying love for others, an increased sensitivity and power to intercede.

Margaret Therkelsen was my piano teacher in college. As a freshman I majored in music, and as a sophomore I continued to study piano with her. But even then she was in the midst of a change of direction, from piano performance to counseling and ministry in the area of prayer. As a visiting high school senior, I remember being deeply impressed as this tall, striking woman with such keen eyes and such a charismatic personality listened to me play. She taught me a lot at the keyboard, but it turned out that her main contribution to my life over the next few years wasn’t musical. I didn’t end up pursuing a career in music, but I did benefit from many conversations with her during those two rather turbulent years, conversations rich with wisdom and full of the assurance that God cared about me.

Reopening this book has brought her voice back to me in a poignant way. But it also challenges me and inspires me in my prayer life, particularly in the art of intercession. We may tend to think of intercessory prayer as exclusively verbal: someone expresses a need, someone else describes the need to God and asks him to do so-and-so. But intercession includes more than this, too — more work for the soul to do, and something other than advising God. How else could Daniel be in prayer for so long in the Old Testament? Or Elijah? Or [fill in name here]?

Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell brought up the idea of substitution — taking someone else’s worries or burdens off their shoulders, and carrying them in their stead. It was in a fictional setting, but this to me is a picture of intercession, and The Love Exchange suggests a similar vision. In John 14, Jesus says that whatever we ask in his name we will receive, but what does it mean to ask “in his name”? This book got me thinking about how crucial it is to abide in, and to intercede from within, his love — ours for him, his for us, his for the world and for the person for whom we pray. This is one result as we mature in our grasp of “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God.”

I appreciated this book because it gave me a glimpse of the vistas of prayer that remain to be discovered. I’m not very far along the path, but this book sheds some light on the territories ahead.

The Way of a Pilgrim

What does it mean to pray without ceasing?

No, really. Specifically. In practice.

How do you pray without ceasing? Do you discuss every little decision you face during the day? Do you give God status updates every minute? Do you shut yourself away from human society altogether, and interact only with God?

This Orthodox classic puts forth a different way, one that rang strangely in my evangelical ears, but which inspires a whole new conception of what continuous prayer means.

The Way of a Pilgrim is written by a narrator whose name we never learn, walking through Russia and Siberia with a knapsack containing his Bible, dry bread, and the Philokalia. The manuscript was preserved by a monk and was first published in 1884. The pilgrim wants to understand how the unceasing prayer recommended in Scripture is possible. Early on, he meets a “starets,” or spiritual father, who explains to him the “Jesus prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”  The starets assigns him to say the prayer, mantra-like, 3,000 times a day. Then 6,000 times. Then 12,000 times. Then without limit.

This is a very different conception of prayer than I’m used to, one that doesn’t center around communicating with God about ideas, events, people or interior states. Eventually it becomes merely a habit, something most evangelicals (and Americans in general) would shun because it’s so not about inventing something fresh and individual. But this pilgrim experiences deep results spiritually.

I should point out that he practices the types of prayer more familiar to me as well, as when he recommends to a maiden fleeing an unwanted marriage that she would be better off praying earnestly for God to change her circumstances than running away. This isn’t a rejection of more… cognizant? conscious?… prayer. But it is an introduction of another kind, one that becomes a training of body, mind and heart. Eventually, the pilgrim speaks of his amazement that he can live with two consciousnesses, one continually in prayer, the other conducting the business of daily life.

One thing that initially bothered me was the pilgrim’s desire to be alone. The Great Commission being what it is, I think that even those of us with a monastic impulse to retreat into solitude need to challenge that by living our faith in community. But this didn’t end up bothering me for long, because this pilgrim is given many opportunities to interact and minister among people, despite the transient nature of his relationships.

I’m still processing the book in my thoughts. There are several things I appreciate and feel challenged by. One is the concreteness of its interpretation of unceasing prayer. Is it really possible to keep one part of your mind in prayer at all times — not just frequently, but continually? When I think about it, it seems quite likely that it is possible. I seldom give my whole mind to anything. There are always several lines of mental activity going on, for all of us — an amazing human capacity that our technologies can exploit with destructive results, turning our God-given complexity into mere distractibility.

Another thing I like about this book is its insistence on the primacy of prayer — a theme being developed in our church these days as we seek to become a “house of prayer,” and an exhortation that I always need to hear. There is a sequel to this book, The Pilgrim Continues His Way, which I will probably read as well. But I’m going to close this review with one example of the pilgrim’s words on prayer. The book is filled with gems, but this is one of my favorite passages:

My late starets of blessed memory also used to say that the forces which are against prayer in the heart attack us from two sides, from the left hand and from the right. That is to say, if the enemy cannot turn us from prayer by means of vain thoughts and sinful ideas, then he brings back into our minds good things we have been taught, and fills us with beautiful ideas, so that one way or another he may lure us away from prayer, which is a thing he cannot bear. It is called ‘a theft from the right-hand side,’ and in it the soul, putting aside its converse with God, turns to the satisfaction of converse with self or with created things. He taught me, therefore, not to admit during times of prayer even the most lofty of spiritual thoughts. And if I saw that in the course of the day, time had been spent more in improving thought and talk than in the actual hidden prayer of the heart, then I was to think of it as a loss of the sense of proportion, or a sign of spiritual greed. This is above all true, he said, in the case of beginners, for whom it is most needful that time given to prayer should be very much more than that taken up by other sides of the devout life.

Intercession

There seems to be a fresh spirit blowing through our church. People speak of a discontent with the status quo, and a desire for a fresh infilling of God’s spirit. Every Sunday at the conclusion of the service we are given the opportunity to pray at the altar, and it’s not the slightest bit contrived or high-pressure — just an invitation to pray, for the church and for an increased openness to God. Talking with a friend from out of state the other day, we learned that the same thing is happening in his church. They’ve had full altars for several Sundays running, with many of those kneeling coming to the Lord for the first time.

I think too of what has happened at our old church, in which the strongholds are finally breaking. God is in the process of restoring and healing there. He is rescuing his flock, as promised in Jer. 23.

When I listen to people talk and think about what’s happening, I am reminded of Francis Frangipane’s teaching that there will be a great coming together, a great “repairing of the breach,” in the church before Christ returns. “There will be a time of unusual grace,” he writes, “in which the living church of Jesus makes ‘herself ready’ (Rev. 19:7).” He goes on to describe “an unparalleled season of preparation,”

in which those who are alive in Christ shall realize a level of holiness and blamelessness of the quality in which Jesus himself walked (I Thess. 3: 1-13; Eph. 5:26-27; Phil. 1:9-10). The result of this new level of holiness will be a new level of unity. Fault-finding and gossip will disappear. In their place will be intercession and love. Wholeness will return to the church.

All I can say is, that’s an exciting thought.

I mentioned that our pastor is emphasizing prayer, personal and corporate, in these days — for preparation and purification, for the lost, for the church, for boldness. I like Frangipane’s words about intercession:

You do not have to go to college to find fault with the church. In fact, if you remember, you could find fault with the church even before you became a Christian. You do not need skill to find fault. But if you want to be like Christ, you have to die for people’s sins. You have to be an intercessor who “stands in the gap.” The “gap” is the distance between the way things are and the way things should be. You stand in that space, cast down the accuser of the brethren, and intercede! Have you seen something that is wrong? It is only because Jesus wants you to stand in the gap and see it changed. That is the only reason.

If you want to be like Jesus, you have to die for people’s sins. I’ve never heard it expressed that way, but that packs a punch!

We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! (I Cor. 13:12)

Hearing God

Dallas Willard’s Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God is less a how-to book than a renovation of our commonly accepted ideas about prayer. Quietly but assuredly, it confronts the skepticism that God would speak regularly and understandably to his children. It meditates on the qualities of God’s voice and emphasizes the disciplines that give us (as Jesus called it) “ears to hear.” Above all it places prayer in the context of a life totally committed to walking with God, and growing in friendship with him:

In our attempts to understand how God speaks to us and guides us, we must above all hold on to the fact that this is to be sought only as a part of a certain kind of life, a life of loving fellowship with the King and his other subjects within the kingdom of the heavens.

There is too much here to summarize. Suffice it to say I’ve found lots of opportunity to journal as I’ve read this book. Willard is a writer of such insight and substance that one could almost wish there were a little more fluff mixed in, to give me an opportunity to catch a mental breath. It’s not written in a particularly lively or flashy style, nor is it geared to impress. But the wisdom in these pages insists on careful, unhurried reading with lots of opportunity to pause and stare out the window. It’s fitting that each chapter ends with some questions for reflection.

Probably what I found most nourishing was the picture of “our communicating cosmos,” the title of chapter 4. For the Christian, the world is created and sustained by the Word of God, and the discussion of just what that means — and how it relates to our communication with God — spoke to a kind of despair I am often aware of in myself. I don’t want to live in a giant machine, but the world of modern conception is a mechanical one whether you look at technology, science, economics or corporate life. I loved being reminded that it’s God’s world and resembles a thought more than a machine. (Of course it’s elaborated so much better in the book…)

Even among Christians, we can adopt deterministic attitudes not only toward God’s purposes, but toward his way of interacting with us. Willard coins the term Bible Deism to describe the belief that God has spoken through his written word, and then, basically, left. Such a belief leaves us essentially on our own. Though Willard repeatedly affirms the importance of reading and meditating on the Bible (at one point he calls it “the permanent address at which the Word of God may be found”), he reminds us that the Bible itself is full of evidence that God speaks through other means as well.

Nowhere do we find a chatty or idolatrous God who can be made to speak on demand or give us our desires after the manner of a genie in a bottle. Willard reveals a much more stern and glorious picture of a loving God, close by and eager to maintain a cooperative relationship with us, ready to honor our choices along the way — for better or for worse:

We are hindered in our progress toward becoming spiritually competent people by how easily we can explain away the movements of God toward us. They go meekly, without much protest. Of course his day will come, but for now he cooperates with the desires and inclinations that make up our character, as we are gradually becoming the kind of people we will forever be. That should send a chill down our spine.

The Practice of the Presence of God

Recently, a few friends and I realized that though we all possessed this book, none of us had read it. We’d felt that we should read it, and perhaps had tried, but none of us had succeeded. Then both Dallas Willard and A.W. Tozer made passing references to it. I decided my time had come.

Regarded as a devotional classic, Brother Lawrence’s reflections on learning to pray without ceasing contain their share of wisdom and exhortation. What he describes — the art of doing all that his hand finds to do to the glory of God, the discipline of keeping his mind trained on God at all times — is a worthy subject. For anyone who has felt the inadequacy of prayer as exclusively the use of words to “talk to God,” these letters provide gentle confirmation that prayer includes thinking and doing and listening as well as talking. Dallas Willard describes prayer as “talking to God about what we are doing together,” and Brother Lawrence offers an extended example of this.

My copy begins with notes of four conversations with brother Lawrence, followed by fifteen of his letters. The collection was compiled by M. Beaufort, Grand Vicar to M. de Chalons. I found the notes difficult to absorb; they’re simply lists of insights gleaned from brother Lawrence. The letters, because they represented whole units of thought, were easier to deal with.

It’s a highly regarded little book. Nevertheless it bothered me to be reading letters Brother Lawrence writes “only upon the terms that you show my letter to nobody. If I knew that you would let it be seen, all the desire I have for your advancement would not be able to determine me to do it.” Maybe I should have stopped reading at that point. I found it interesting, too, that the letters compiled in this book are written by a man who speaks of himself more than once as “not finding [his] manner of life in books.” I couldn’t help wondering how he would feel if he knew that the extreme quietness and humility of his inner life had been made “famous” in a book.

I’m still puzzling over Tozer’s comment in his chapter on divine omnipresence that to the “convinced Christian,”

‘the practice of the presence of God’ consists not of projecting an imaginary object from within his own mind and then seeking to realize its presence; it is rather to recognize the real presence of the One whom all sound theology declares to be already there, an objective entity, existing apart from any apprehension of Him on the part of His creatures. The resultant experience is not visionary but real.

Is Tozer saying that Brother Lawrence practices imaginative projection? This wasn’t my impression of Brother Lawrence’s style of meditation. Maybe I missed something. Or maybe Tozer is warning against a popular misconception of the ideas in this book. ? If anyone else has read both books, please feel free to share your thoughts on this question.