Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Review: Bitesize Biography: Samuel Rutherford

Samuel Rutherford (Bitesize Biographies series) by Richard M. Hannula
EP Books (2014); 140 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour 

When my husband and I were newbie Presbyterians, we became acquainted with a haunting adaptation of the hymn “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” and soon learned that its lyrics consisted of strung-together quotations from the letters of Samuel Rutherford. We did a little research on this seventeenth century Scottish pastor and came to love his passionate and pastoral style of writing. (Note the title of my blog, and the quote along the side!) We were also surprised to find that Rutherford wasn’t exactly a household name, even among lifelong Presbyterians.

This little book by PCA elder Richard Hannula tries to remedy that, and it does so admirably. Like the other books in the Bitesize Biographies series, it pretty much offers just that: a major figure from history in easy, accessible morsels. At the same time, though, it’s not insubstantial: the reader gets an excellent survey of Rutherford’s life from his rural ministry in Anwoth, to his exile for opposing episcopacy, to his contributions in the Westminster Assembly, and places all of it within the wider religious and political controversies of the day.

It’s not just Rutherford’s name that’s little known, however. There are stories from his era that many Christians will only tend to hear if they have a penchant for history—such as the stories of pastors who were maimed, exiled, and martyred for writing and preaching in favor of Presbyterian polity and practice; and the great love for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper that both Rutherford and ordinary congregants wrote much about. These are not just “history,” but big pieces of a heritage that should still be formative today.

One of the best ways that Richard Hannula draws readers into that heritage is by packing the book with quotes from Rutherford, in hopes that they will be enticed to read the letters and sermons for themselves. He does this seamlessly and without distracting from the flow of the narrative. He also provides a list of Rutherford’s writings at the end of the book, as well as suggestions for those who are interested in doing more in-depth and scholarly reading about the man and his times.

In closing, here are a few of my favorites of those quotes. I hope that getting to know Samuel Rutherford will bless you as it has blessed my family.

“Grace tried is better than grace, and it is more than grace. It is glory in its infancy. Who knows the truth of grace without a trial? And how soon would faith freeze without a cross!”

 “Know therefore that this is a race of God’s choosing and not of our own; and the ill roads, the deep waters, the sharp showers and the bitter violent winds that are in our face, are of God’s disposing. We will not get a better road than our Lord allows us. He has called us to suffering, and not a stone is in our way by chance.”

 “Believe Christ’s love more than your own feelings. Your Rock does not ebb and flow, though your sea does.”

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Quotation I Wanted to Share

It is a devastatingly painful thing to be a weak Christian in the American evangelical church today. So much emphasis is put on . . . victory that there isn’t much room left for those God is holding on to with a strong arm, but who may know little of the joy of full assurance of faith and the satisfaction of growth in grace and obedience—at least in this life. . . They limp through life barely able to remember the truth or connect the mighty doctrines of the faith to their struggles in a way that would calm their fears and quiet their hearts. . .They cling to God desperately, but without ever feeling an assurance of his presence or an ability to rest in the love that surrounds them. . .I am convinced that these precious saints are among those Christ died for and are in their own way heroes of the faith, clinging to God in spite of the weakness of their faltering faith. They are the bruised reeds that we must not break and the smoldering wicks that our triumphalism would so easily extinguish. . .Can you imagine the surprise and delight on their faces to find themselves in heaven after all? On earth they could barely hope that the promises of eternal life were true and that God had actually saved them, and they never felt the joy of it during their lifetime. But once they get to heaven it will all change, and I imagine that they will perhaps spend the first millennium or two in heaven surprised and delighted simply to be there.

Barbara R. Duguid, Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness, pp. 150–152.

Oh, friends, if you recognize yourself as one of these “bruised reeds,” I hope you will draw some comfort from these words. He created your soul and wired your mind with unimaginable specificity; He has sovereignly allotted the strength of faith you will have, the things that will cut you to the heart or batter your conscience, the emotions you can’t even explain to yourself. This isn’t the last word about what He might accomplish in your life through sanctification, but it is always true that His grace is sufficient for your most particular weaknesses.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

More Thoughts on Identity; or, the Thirties Are Still Weird

"[D]espite having invested so much of ourselves in what we thought would provide a lasting sense of meaning, we hardly know ourselves in the midst of it…And the things that we once looked to for stability and identity begin to feel like burdens and obligations instead of blessings.” --Hannah Anderson

Reading Made for More kicked up some questions that have been naggingly persistent since I hit my 30s. Somehow I'd gotten the idea that once you achieve age 30, most of the "who am I, and what am I here for?" questions magically resolved themselves. Apparently, that is not so. Alas.

I wonder, though, if such questions are partly a function of privilege. Because I grew up under particular expectations, with the freedom to devote my early adulthood to certain pursuits -- i.e. academics, and perhaps more broadly to "finding my niche" vocationally -- I've been afforded the leisure, and the shelter, to think about these things. Arguably too much. And having spent my 20s that way -- dreaming vaguely of becoming a writer, then navigating the endless stream of applications, exams, and other qualifying events to prove myself worthy of being called a scholar -- it's little surprise that it's taken years to realize that those things aren't me. That they might be part of the work to which I'm called, but they are not where my real identity and worth reside. And then to wonder where, and who, is the "self" underneath all that. What does it really mean to find an identity apart from those things?

Whatever their source, the questions assume greater urgency when the things I've invested myself in reveal themselves to be unstable and not life-giving in and of themselves. When writing loses the joyful savor it held through all my growing-up years, and there is no promise I will ever get that back again. Or when I hit the first major academic crisis of the past two decades, and realize I've come so far only to question whether college teaching is truly my work. No matter how diligently I've resisted being one of "those" grad students whose studies consume their life, is it any wonder I've emerged with a shaken sense of self? And I don't think I'm alone.

At moments like these, hearing that my true identity is found in Christ does feel like a hollow platitude. I know that it's truth. I don't want to feel disappointed by that exhortation; believe me. But it doesn't necessarily help me understand how that truth works itself out in me. Maybe it says too much too soon, kind of like promising a grieving friend that God is in control, in a way that only tends to underscore His seeming absence.

One thing that bugged me about Hannah Anderson's book, yet also encouraged me, was that she doesn't try to answer the "yes, buts" in a definitive way. Coming from her, though, the "identity in Christ" refrain doesn't fall as flat. Her understanding seems to be both more mundane and more expansive. As long as we are fulfilling the tasks of reflecting God's image -- living in close communion with Him, being in relationship with other people, and participating in the stewardship of God's creation in some way -- all these things done through Christ by the power of the indwelling Spirit -- then we ARE living out our "true identity." Because we are made in His image, we have the freedom to live out that identity in any way that faithfully represents His character. That is liberating news to hear. It lifts some of the burden of, "But I didn't achieve X by age 30; therefore I'm a failure," or "That other person does Y and Z so well; why can't I?" (Or the far uglier versions that too often inhabit my mind.)

On the other hand, it's also a bit terrifying. When you've spent most of your life working to establish yourself on the approval of others, more or less following their scripts for what counts as success, the prospect of living differently can feel crushing. Coming to know yourself as Known -- created to be such -- is hard, humbling work. It can feel like inching along a cliff in the semidarkness, unable to discern how far the drop might be, or whether there's a safety net. (Oddly, clinging to my well-worn, familiar supports, those incomplete versions of "me" I've worked so hard to construct and maintain, doesn't make me feel as secure as I thought they would.)

It is good to remember that He is kind, and more patient than I am. And the things He makes reflect His beauty, which is more solid and abiding and glorious than we can imagine.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Early Fall Update (Part 1 of 2)

I don’t know who all has been praying for me, but thank you. The transition to the new semester has gone better than I had really dared to hope. Several months ago, I could not have imagined that I would be able to get through an eight-hour work day, much less have energy to make dinner afterward, or turn around and work on my dissertation the next morning. My energy levels have improved pretty dramatically (helped somewhat by the discovery that coffee is powerful). The loosely structured, lengthy summer was exactly what I needed (and no doubt a big part of what’s helped me feel better and more ready to tackle things), and the more regimented schedule is exactly what I need now.

It is worth saying that, unless I were truly under the gun to finish a chapter, I still don’t think I could get through a full day of working solely on my dissertation (at least not without plenty of existential angst and pitiful whimpering). The partitioning of energies seems to be the only thing that makes this work. And that is useful information to have as I think about what might come after I graduate.

I’m in awe of people who can work demanding jobs while carrying a full course load. I don’t think I could have handled that. But for whatever reason, my current 20-hour-a-week job seems—so far—to lend itself pretty well to the way I approach the dissertation stage. I like having a totally distinct set of responsibilities that I don’t have to carry with me into the other set, and vice versa. And I like getting up early in the morning (!) and being able to do several different kinds of things over the course of the day. Again, these are things I would never have learned about myself if not for the struggles of the past two years!

For the time being, the dissertation progresses somewhat slowly, since I haven’t yet managed to balance writing and work as equitably as I will probably need to. Between full days at work, then making and cleaning up from dinner, and getting some time with my husband, there really isn’t space for writing during the first half of the week. But the good thing is that it’s progressing, even though it feels like it’s inching along more days than not. I am going on 70 pages at this point, and once adrenaline kicks in, I shouldn’t have trouble hitting my goal of 100 pages by Christmas. As long as I set goals focused on tangible output rather than time spent, and don’t worry too much about comparing my process to anyone else’s, I seem to do pretty well. As soon as I start comparing myself to other students, or trying to adhere to a certain pattern for what dissertation work should look like, I start to falter.

I had hoped and expected to teach in my fifth year, but since that didn’t work out, I was offered the opportunity to work as a graduate research assistant in my library’s Special Collections department. I hope to explain this in more detail in a later post.

I have to say, I was a little bit crushed when teaching didn’t work out. Not even so much because of the teaching itself, but because it threw my career expectations into yet more of a muddle. I’m not sure what this will mean for my future career in academics.

However, it must also be said that I’m happier than I’ve been for a long time. There are plenty of struggles, certainly; but I no longer feel trapped in a routine that wasn’t serving me well at all, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself it was right. Thank you, again, for praying.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

In God's Image: Notes on Made for More by Hannah Anderson

I can’t remember a time in my life when I felt totally comfortable with what was expected of me as a girl or woman in a given setting. Whether as a little girl, as an undergraduate at a women’s liberal arts college, or a thirty-something in a socially conservative denomination, I’ve always felt like a bit of a square peg. Over the past year especially, I’ve been longing for a book that would help me discern God’s calling underneath those disparate experiences.

 Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God's Image by Hannah Anderson

This is a book targeted to Christian women which actually “[calls] women to recover an understanding of ourselves that is more basic than our gender” (11) by recovering the basic doctrine of being created imago dei, in the image of God. This is important because most of us spend a lifetime searching for our identity in various roles, relationships, and attainments—all things which have a way of changing when we least expect them to. Even when these things are good, “we realize that they didn’t fulfill us the way we had expected; despite having invested so much of ourselves in what we thought would provide a lasting sense of meaning, we hardly know ourselves in the midst of it…And the things that we once looked to for stability and identity begin to feel like burdens and obligations instead of blessings” (19, emphasis mine). Oh boy can I identify!

Our true identity is found not simply in who we are as individuals (the point where our culture stops short), but in who our God is. Because we are made in His image, we exist to reflect and represent him on earth. This involves three things: living in dependent communion on God, living in relationship with other human beings, and stewarding God’s creation. Because of the fall, however, “our capacity to live in this reality has been fundamentally corrupted” (48). When we start to build our identity around things other than God, we begin to resemble caricatures, failing to reflect the depth and richness of God’s nature. And when those things are threatened, we feel like our very personhood is under attack (51). So how do we rid ourselves of these false identities and have the reflection of God’s glory restored to us? By losing ourselves in Christ and being indwelt by His Spirit.

Finding our authentic selves in Christ has endless implications for our daily lives. As God reorders our affections, teaching us to love the right things in the right way, we can begin to reflect His love to those around us. [Great quote: “In [Christ], we discover that loving like God does not mean finding a balance between two extremes but in discovering the depth of what love truly is. His love is not a muted, muddied love, a milky attempt to negate holiness with kindness, but an infinitely complex, nuanced expression of what it means to love like God.” (82)] Our souls enlarge to image our God’s generosity (94). We start to view education and theology as crucial to becoming image bearers, not limiting them according to career aspirations, or gendered concerns. We view our work as sacred, not because of the tasks we perform, but because it images our Maker; indeed, even the most mundane work is dignified because Jesus “stooped from glory” to serve us (120).

Some of my favorite parts of the book are when Anderson discusses God’s providence in shaping us through the circumstances of our lives. God has formed our personalities and ordered the details of our lives to reflect Himself uniquely. And if we don’t understand “why” things are this way—well, that’s to be expected: “The truth about imago dei identity is that we really cannot measure the scope of our lives; we cannot fully understand ourselves by this present moment alone. Discovering who God has made us to be requires both this life and the life to come. This ‘timelessness’ of identity is the direct result of being made in His image…Because God is eternal, we are destined for eternal life as well.” God uses the individual moments of our lives “to bring us into union with His own eternality” (164–165). I had never thought about my identity in this way before, but it made me realize how near-sighted my perception has tended to be. How freeing to recognize our limited perspective! This knowledge, Anderson concludes, frees us to face each new cycle of life—even death, that greatest threat to our identity—with the promise that God uses each of them to display more of Himself in us, until the glorious day when we will be truly like Him.

What I loved about this book is that it is biblically sound, and rather than focusing on a handful of passages, it looks at identity in the context of the full story of redemption. Furthermore, on that solid Scriptural basis, Hannah Anderson has a gift for expressing doctrinal truths in a clear and digestible way. Concepts like idolatry, union with Christ, sanctification, and ultimately the gospel are explained with little recourse to “theological” terms—this not only impressed me, but helped me personally. For example, I have sometimes chafed at the language of “identity in Christ.” I knew it expressed a biblical truth, but it wasn’t clear to me why, if what ultimately matters about me is my identity in Christ, anything else about my personality or circumstances should matter. Though not intended this way, the phrase had begun to sound, to my ears, like a platitude dismissing anything in my life that caused me dissatisfaction or grief. After reading Made for More, I’m beginning to see that it isn’t about papering over the distinctive things about me (things God created!), but about understanding them all in light of God’s providential, glorifying work in me.

This book didn’t answer all my questions, especially those about the relationship between gender and the soul, and the ways these teachings play out with respect to things like vocation and family. But exploring those questions isn’t really the point of this book (so if you’re interested in exegetical arguments over certain passages, look elsewhere). Indeed, it’s not that those aren’t important, but that to have a hope of addressing them well, we need to start from a higher level, more foundational truth about who we are. Made for More is a gentle, wise resource to help us do exactly that.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"To be truly hospitable"

 "To be truly hospitable is, to some extent, to lose control of one’s space and time -- to be open to the disarray and interruption of embodied life. Perhaps hospitality is most nearly proleptic* when it bears the unruly wounds of the risen Christ." -- Amy Laura Hall
*As far as I can gather, "anticipatory of a future event," in this case life under the reign of Christ?

Some years ago, I gleefully (not to say pretentiously) copied this quote, from Amy Laura Hall’s book Conceiving Parenthood, into my Facebook profile, longing for such happy disarray in my soon-to-be-married life. Of course Dr. Hall’s book focuses on the “disarray and interruption” of welcoming children into one’s family, in contrast to a cultural obsession with planning and perfection. Undoubtedly, that was the way I thought about it, too, and no matter what I claimed to the contrary, the picture was terribly romantic in my mind. All the more because of its messiness (and the cleverly worded, too-pious essay about grace that would result . . . !).

The reality, quickly discovered, was that there’s nothing romantic at all about losing control in this way, whether the anticipated guests are those of an evening or of a lifetime. For me, being “truly hospitable” was all about control—more like a desperate, panicked grasping for pretended control, just long enough to fool others, if never myself, into believing that my home was a fit place for company.

As a newlywed, I heard people fret about the disheveled state of their living rooms in a way I suppose was meant to be both self-deprecating and reassuring. Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Oh, but you don’t understand. My apartment is a health hazard.” No matter how far in advance I planned to invite someone over, the day would certainly find me collapsing into a tearful huddle of shame and anxiety. My failure wasn’t just that I didn’t have the “perfect” home; I didn’t even know how to keep mine decent, even if I weren’t depressed about being underemployed and out of sorts in Berkeley. My mindset was that hospitality couldn’t happen until I could demonstrate my worthiness. So my failure to reach that point wasn’t just a matter of forgetting to check a few items off my to-do list; ultimately, and more critically, it was a moral failing, too.

The problem, of course, was that as long as I was focused on the monumental cleaning job (no doubt exaggerated in my own mind) instead of looking forward to the imminent guests, my heart wasn’t in a place where I could welcome them, no matter what the condition of my kitchen. While it was true that the basic housekeeping needed to be addressed (how I wish I’d sought help with these things instead of being too embarrassed to ask!), I wound up with nothing left over to give, if and when it was completed.

Since settling in St. Louis, I've begun to know something of the joy of welcoming others into my home—at least a little. In truth, there is a very long way to go. The base anxiety still lurks. These days, the fear has moved past “I’ll never get everything cleaned in time,” to one that might be more insidiously prideful: “But I can’t have people over—my decorating scheme is ‘Books and More Books.’ Our couch is old, and we don’t even own a proper dining table!” Again, I don’t want to risk hospitality until I’ve asserted the proper amount of control over my unruly space. It is much more to do with my own self-perception than with the desire to make others feel at home.

The truth is, I’ll always find reasons to delay hospitality. I will never achieve it as if it were a set of principles to study and apply. There will always be more learning experiences, and there will always be self-doubt. I just have to risk it, and learn not to let insecurities strangle generosity.

I don’t know what Hall means by the latter part of that quote. I suspect she’s saying that real hospitality means being willing to give up an image of myself as fulfilling the right level of domesticity, as if it were ever about me to begin with. Even if what I can offer is frankly inferior, externally speaking, to what my peers might be able to do; even if it means losing face before others and not just in my own mind. I can’t be open to others when I’m jealously protecting those things. On the other hand, if my heart is open to Christ, my home will be, too—and Christ will cover all the insufficiencies of my effort. I want guests to leave having encountered the beauty of Christ here, and while that doesn't exclude the material, it goes well beyond it, too.

And this time, I won't be too embarrassed to ask. I would love to hear—what is one lesson you’ve learned about practicing hospitality, on a heart/attitude level rather than a strictly practical one?