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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: Tim Keller

Breaking the Bread of Belief: Stars

jenmichel@me.com

(Today's post is the eighth in a series entitled, "Breaking the Bread of Belief." Read about beginning, dust, home, feast, naked, death, and altar). All images courtesy of Joetography.

* * * * *

Stars

Ryan and I are reading The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller with an engaged couple from our church. This quote, from Hannah Arendt, in chapter 3 was striking to me: "Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person's lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities." After eighteen years of marriage, I am realizing the power of a marriage promise. Yes, the promise binds me to Ryan, and I pray to be faithful to this good man. But in some fundamental way, as Arendt describes, our marriage promise also binds me to me: to the most loving, holy, reliable version of me I hope to one day become.

A promise can bind us to another. It can also bind us to ourselves.

God makes promises, too. And his identity is also bound up with his promises (cf. Heb. 6:13).

In Genesis 15:5, the LORD reassures Abram that his promises to him are sure. He had asked Abram to leave his home, to immigrate to Canaan, to trust him for children. But the years have worn long, and Abram, human as the rest of us, doubts. He wonders why, if God has promised him an heir, he has a household servant, not a son. "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" There is so little evidence for Abram to confirm God's word as true. How can Abram trust?

"This man shall not be your heir," God says. And then, for dramatic effect, he leads Abram by the elbow into the cold night air. The sky is electric with stars, luminous with promise. "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be."

This is magnificent scene, not least because God is patient with Abram. I think we imagine that doubt cannot be tolerated by God. (Read Dorothy Greco's terrific guest post on this.) We think God quick to judge the infirmities of our faith. But this is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the God who remembers we are dust (cf. Ps. 103:14).

The scolding, disappointed God is not the God of Abraham. And he is not the God of the stars.

This is our eighth word of faith: stars.

It is difficult to believe that God is generous.

Sure, we have the hucksters on television, the health-and-wealth evangelists crooning that we can have our big house and fancy cars and Jesus, too.

But aside from those flatteries, what do we really believe about God? Do we see him as generous? I'm apt to think we've more convinced that he's miserly. Yes, maybe there's goodness to expect from him, but we imagine it's distributed judiciously, sparingly.

We see God's goodness like the bag of chips my friend describes sharing with her two brothers after swimming lessons. They grew up poor. Treats were scarce. But if the three of them swam well, after their lesson, their mother toweled them off and marched them up to the vending machine. She would insert her handful of change, and one bag of chips would drop.

One.

The bag was mostly air. There were few chips to enjoy. But my friend and her brothers would dutifully pass the chips back and forth between them in the back seat of the car, thankful for what they had.

Never expecting—

Stars.

God made a promise to Abram, and he made good on it. He gave him a son and a line of descendants marching all the way to and beyond the birth of a little boy in the town of Bethlehem, Jesus of Nazareth. And now the God-Man is bringing all kinds of people into Abraham's family, His Father adopting them as his own. It's a family spanning continent and race, language and era.

These children are stars. And material proof that when God makes a promise, it is bound up with his identity.

Of goodness. And generosity. And faithfulness.

Holy Desire's Reconciliations: And St. Augustine's Confessions

jenmichel@me.com

Holy desire depends on acts of reconciliation. To want well, we must first learn to want God.

Which is first to say this: we must be taught to want. We don’t come naturally to holy desire. We don’t roll out of bed and instinctively pick up the will to live in and for and through Christ. No, if you’re like me, your most immediate thought upon waking (after, coffee!) is: I want this day (and ultimately my life) to go my way.

Holy desire has to be formed. And indeed, it is formed in each of us as we ourselves are, through conversion and communion with Christ, re-formed.

If anyone is in Christ, the old is gone, decreed Paul. The new has come!

New desires. A new will. Reformed ambitions and plans.

Yes, this is at the heart of spiritual transformation. Not simply that upon conversion, we come to new beliefs and new behaviors – but that, as those who are made new, we are oriented toward new loves.

This is an old idea, and Augustine, fourth-century Bishop of Hippo, is probably most credited with promoting the idea that our spiritual lives depend on holy desire. (I’m rereading The Confessions, which I can’t recommend highly enough for understanding where I began: Holy desire depends on acts of reconciliation.)

The confessions

Augustine understood that desire itself is not the problem. We aren’t wrong to want. Indeed, none of us can actually stop wanting. The real problem resides in our “disordered loves.” Either we love wrong things or we love right things in wrong ways, and we must learn to seek that which really satisfies.

Augustine knew that we must love God as our supreme good if this life – and our desires – were ever to know something beyond disappointment, something of satisfaction.

If we mean really to flourish, to be truly “happy,” we must be reconciled to our Creator, understanding that He is the source of what Jesus called, “living water.” He himself. (“You will never thirst again,” Jesus promised the Samaritan woman, cf. John 4.)

“Without you,” Augustine asks, “what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?”

Augustine knew how easily we want things that bankrupt us, how diligently we pursue the pleasures, which are only ever promissory notes.

“Transient things . . . rend the soul with pestilential desires; for the soul loves to be in them and take its repose among the objects of its love. But in these things there is no point of rest: they lack permanence.”

Until we desire God first and him fully, we are the wanderers. Tim Keller describes it like this: “No matter what we put our hopes in, in the morning, it is always Leah, never Rachel.” (See Gen. 29:25)

So the first act of reconciliation required of holy desire is this: to God. It requires we confess the age-old sin, as Augustine describes it, “committed . . . when, in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things which, are at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law. These inferior goods have their delights, but not comparable to my God who has made them all. It is in him that the just person takes delight; he is the joy of those who are true of heart.”

Desire God first. Repent of loving anything more than him.

Then, having been reconciled to your Creator, reconcile yourself to his Creation.

And this is where I think I say something surprising: enjoy the world.

Augustine knew it made no sense to say, “Love the Creator, and hate His creation.” Or, “Want God, and leave off wanting what he has made.” This would be to betray the very DNA of Genesis, where God makes a good world, a world to delight the senses, a world made for marvel and pleasure.

I understand this better when reading John H. Sailhamer’s, The Pentateuch as Narrative. (If this were the only commentary I owned, I could die a happy woman.)

Sailhamer notes that while God repeats his approbation of his creation (“It is good”) all throughout Genesis 1, he does not call “good” the separation of the waters and the sky (v. 8). Why? Why is this not good in God’s estimation? Or at least, why has he deliberately decided against calling it “good?”

Sailhamer: “The ‘good’ which the author has in view has a very specific range of meaning in chapter 1 – the ‘good’ is that which is beneficial for humankind. . . The heavens were made and the waters divided, but the land, where human beings were to dwell, still remained hidden under the ‘deep.’ The land was still ‘formless’; it was not yet a place where a human being could dwell.”

The point of Genesis 1 is this: God was making a home for his people. The land, only in the measure that it became habitable, could be called good.

Indeed, we were made to want for the world.

Which of course now puts us in the terrible bind in which we find ourselves: the broken world post-Genesis 3 never satisfies us as we want and need it to. It is deformed, corrupted by the rebellion of humanity who would supplant the Supreme Good for lesser goods.

Enjoy the world. Yes, this can an imperative of holy desire. But enjoy them in God, anticipating the better world to come.

Augustine again: “Let these transient things be the ground on which my soul praises you, ‘God creator of all.’ But let it not become stuck in them and glued to them with love through the physical senses.” Love the world as you see all its goodness authored by He who is Good. Appreciate creation’s beauty as you behold the One who is beautiful. Pleasure in His pleasures – and learn to praise.

Holy desire depends on acts of reconciliation.

Through Christ, we are reconciled to God - we who have abandoned the Supreme Good for lesser things. Forgiven of our idolatry, our disordered loves are reformed.

Then, reconciled to our Highest Love, we love the world and experience it as the foreshadowing of that which is to come.

God is in our desire, behind our desire, before our desire, beyond our desire. God is using this potent, sometimes gnawing gift of desire – which springs from God’s own heart – to lead us, like with bread crumbs, to a door which we might not have otherwise chosen or even recognized in this life. Inside that door is home.

– Br. Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Books I've read this year (and my top recommendation)

jenmichel@me.com

I began the year with an ambitious reading list. You can find it here and laugh at the foolish notions January can put into a woman's head. So far, I've read:

The Fruitful Life by Gerald Bridges (My most recent issue for Today in the Word was about the fruit of the Spirit. This book was a good resource for that particular topic. I'd recommend it as a resource for newer believers.)

Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller (This book is especially appropriate for me since the book I'm writing is on the subject of desire. Keller has terrific insights to help us explore what motivates some of our chronic sin patterns.)

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith (I am now an official Smith groupie. This book is a more academic and theologically profound treatment of desire than mine will be, but you'll probably see lots of Smith in my book. And Jamie, if you're reading, will you write my foreword??)

Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson (Ok, confession. I've only finished the introduction and half of the essay on Darwinism. She's brilliant. And I am not.)

Still by Lauren Winner (I blogged about this book here.)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (I felt good for having read it, but this, unfortunately, was the biggest pleasure of the experience.)

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler (I blogged about it here.)

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (I started out LOVING this book. I was listening to it on audio, but I got tired of it and didn't finish.)

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (I am reading this now. Can you believe I have a Master's in Literature and this is my first Wharton?)

And finally, the BEST book I've read so far and one that I suggest you IMMEDIATELY reserve at the library or buy on your Kindle:

Lit by Mary Karr

I love spiritual memoir, and I suppose this book fits into that genre, although it certainly wouldn't figure as "typical."

First prayer that Mary Karr ever prays?

"Higher power: where the f--- have you been?"

This is a book that is jarring and raw. Mary Karr has bled this book from her veins, and I cannot believe how stunningly powerful it is without the least hint of having been overwrought. I am in LOVE with this book. I want everyone to read this book. And if it didn't break every rule about writing, I would now end this sentence with a thousand and one exclamation points.

!

Later, I'll tell you more about the writing wisdom I took away from Karr's book. But for now, get the book and READ IT.

!

Easter's Hope: What IS will not always BE (And some recommended book titles)

jenmichel@me.com

I have been struggling to bring myself back here. To this blog. I don’t know that I’m struggling to write. Maybe that’s true, too. But maybe what’s most true is that sometimes I’m afraid of the vulnerability that is forced upon me when I come to the keyboard and publish raw, unedited thoughts.

I don’t always like myself. And I can’t imagine that you always like me either.

Writing scares me like that.

When I first started writing, I did it for purely selfish reasons. I did it for myself. I drove myself to the discipline because of my own inner tumult. I had to rescue my thoughts from their indistinct form, and I needed my thinking to take shape.

I needed to understand. And I needed to hear my voice.

But of course that really doesn’t sound all that spiritual, does it? Except if we were to begin believing that part of the process of drawing closer to God is drawing closer to oneself.

What have we to bring to God except ourselves?

Easter reminds me of this. I have nothing, NOTHING, to offer to God.

And God has everything, EVERYTHING, to offer to me.

I tell Ryan yesterday that I think I like Easter more than Christmas, that if there is one day of the calendar year that I cannot live without, it is Easter and its promise of new creation.

Because I am so tired of myself: the jealousies, the indifference, the fragility and fear, and I am longing for the moment of final rebirth, of reconfiguration, when I shall see Him and be made like Him.

Because I am so tired of this world and its perpetual ache. Even this week, I await news of a friend’s death, hating that cancer can ravage the body of a young woman, a mother. This should not be.

But Easter reminds me that this will not always be: me and the world, freighted by our sin and suffering. The first Easter has inaugurated a new order of reality, and it’s the reality of the kingdom of heaven coming to earth.

“The resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or theologian, not as an odd event within the world as it is but as the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new world. The claim advanced by Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.”

 

(N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)

So what is Easter except hope, hope that what is will not always be?

Hope is a certifiable promise of God, verified in history when Jesus of Nazareth gave himself into the hands of Roman soldiers to be executed and three days later, left behind his grave clothes.

I believe in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“Even in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know.” (Lauren Winner, Still)

* * * * *

I know that some of you who read my blog aren’t followers of Jesus Christ. And I’m really so glad you are here, humbled that you choose to read.

If you’re interested in exploring the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I want to commend to you Lee Strobel’s, Case for Christ.

If you’re interested in exploring the implications of this historic doctrine of the Christian church (what does it mean?), read N.T. Wright’s, Surprised by Hope.

If you simply want an introduction to the Christian faith (and have some critical questions to ask), Tim Keller’s, Reason for God is excellent.

And if you just want dialogue with someone, feel free to email me: jenmichel@mac.com.

 

 

 

 

 

No confessions today: and why God may not give you what you want

jenmichel@me.com

The piece I told you about yesterday - the one where I go live with shame - will run tomorrow. If you are looking for it today, alas, your curiosity will simply have to idle. I'll tell you when it's up at her.meneutics, ok? Promise.

And in the meantime, I'll share something I'm learning from Tim Keller and his book, Counterfeit Gods.

"Why is getting your heart's deepest desire so often a disaster? In the book of Romans, Saint Paul wrote that one of the worst things God can do to someone is to 'give them over to the desires of their hearts' (Romans 1:24). Why would the greatest punishment imaginable be to allow someone to achieve their fondest dream? It is because our hearts fashion these desires into idols. In that same chapter, Paul summarized the history of the human race in one sentence: 'They worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator' (Romans 1:25). Every human being must live for something. Something must capture our imaginations, our heart's most fundamental allegiance and hope. But, the Bible tells us, without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, that object will never be God himself."

God may spare you your worst disaster by refusing to give what you ask.

"Sometimes God seems to be killing us when he's actually saving us."

We can't always presume to understand the good that God intends for us. But it is good, whether it feels like it or not.

So if today, you're troubled by prayers that aren't answered and wondering whether God is standing idly by, He is not. He is working actively for your good.

But it may be that your good requires that He withhold something from you.

This, too, you can trust by faith.