17 March 2011

"Life is not a short story.

God on Mute (Amazon link)
I am not the star."

These words are from Pete Greig's God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer. The book has been around for several years, but I've just recently been immersing myself in it, partly just to stay sane as much of the planet seems to be in meltdown.

Greig goes on:
...We too contribute what we can to the epic story of God, a tale with many characters, vast battle scenes, a million interweaving subplots and many perplexing twists and turns.

In the book of Revelation, the prayers of the ages are described as incense rising to the throne of God. Its an insight that can help us make sense of the part our unanswered prayers will ultimately play in the fulfillment of God's epic. In Revelation 5, John sees the Lamb that was slain standing before the throne of God with sole authority to unlock the scroll of God's purposes in salvation and judgment. In the midst of this extraordinary scene, John sees our prayers, gathered together and soon to be poured out in one vast Amen: "The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" (Rev. 5:8).
This is no glib piety. Greig gets to this point in the last part of the book, after a hard pilgrimage through personal and historical suffering—his own wife's brain tumor and epilepsy, tragedies in his own circle of dear friends, and the unvarnished stories of Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel, and many others.

Thoughtfully, with a winsome combination of humility and unflinching directness, Greig works through a series of reasons why prayers don't seem to be answered. Blogger/reviewer Ron Cole provides the following helpful summary, based on the study materials at the end of the book--but you really do need to read the whole treatment:
  1. Common Sense; Am I asking God to do something stupid, meaningless or illogical?
  2. Contradiction; Are my prayers likely to be conflicting with those of someone else?
  3. Laws of Nature; Are my prayers potentilly detrimental to the natural order or to the lives of others?
  4. Life is tough; Am I expecting God to spare me from stuff that's just common human experience because of the Fall?
  5. Doctrine; Does my prayer reflect God's character and his promises in the Bible? Might it be out of line with his will for my life?
  6. Second best; Although my desire in prayer is for something good, is it possible God has something even better in store for me?
  7. Motive; Are my prayers essentially just selfish?
  8. Relationship; Is there an opportunity here for going deeper in my relationship with God?
  9. Free will; Am I expecting God to override someone's free will?
  10. Influence; Am I trying to exercise ungodly power over a person's life in prayer?
  11. Satanic opposition; Is my prayer in line with God's will but experiencing resistance from the powers and principalities Paul spoke about?
  12. Faith; Do I really believe God can do this?
  13. Perseverance; Do I want it enough to keep praying?
  14. Sin; Getting brutally honest, is there some secret sin sin you need to confess?
  15. Justice; Am I actively seeking to express God's love for the poor?
  16. None of the first 15; Am I trying to find answers where I need instead find trust?
Back to the quotation I began with: "Life is not a short story. I am not the star." To me these words link directly with one of the central invitations of evangelism: "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28--see context.) One perfectly valid way of seeing this invitation is to focus on the individual recipient--the person who, by doing you the amazing honor of believing your testimony and accepting this invitation, steps over the threshold of conversion. If you have testified with integrity, you will not have implied that Jesus' "rest" involves a quick supernatural escape from the hazards and temptations of this life.

But I also find it incredibly helpful--and also incredibly poignant--to focus on the word "all": "Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden... you will find rest for your souls."

Come to me, all you who find yourselves without hope, without purpose
... who face persecution
... who face jail time--innocent or guilty
... who worry about radiation affecting your young children
... who are in a church that preaches "salvific stinginess" instead of "salvific generosity" (thanks, Richard Mouw)
... who are reaching for the bottle even though you promised not to
... who are seemingly not as lucky in life as the people who avoid you on the street
Come to me, all who can't imagine how you're going to go on another day.

My imagination won't stop there.

Come to me, lowly Egyptian soldier drowning in the Red Sea after God's miracles allowed the Israelites to defy your Pharaoh.
Come to me, dear woman being raped by that wicked gang outside her "host's" door. (Judges 19-21.)
Come to me, Talmudic scholar, taunted by Nazi soldiers in yet another cruel roundup.
Come to me, wartime citizen of Hiroshima, citizen of Nagasaki, as your body is vaporized at a speed beyond even the speed of prayer.

It's hard to escape the implications of that word "all." You believe that it applies to you yourself--and it most certainly does! But by saying "yes, I'll come, I'll take your yoke upon me," you are joined with a cosmic community who are experiencing this all-important promise together. That promise, that blessed invitation, cannot be nullified by accidents of nature or the cruelty of humans, as real as those things continue to be, every day.

The New York Times' long-anticipated pay wall is going up: The paper's Web site will begin charging for access beyond 20 visits per month. Early reactions are summarized by Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast. I'm among those who feel that the wall is both too high (too expensive) and too porous. Back when certain "premium" Times content was behind a wall, it was not difficult to find alternate routes to that content--primarily their columnists. In this new plan, I'd be willing to consider paying for any access beyond the front page if the amount were reasonable.

Maybe it is unbelievably selfish and unsustainable for us consumers of news to assume that we should get free access to content that obviously costs a lot to provide. But the problem isn't our selfishness, it is the highly fragmented nature of the medium. If you asked me to list how many Web sources I use to try to stay informed, they'd add up to several dozen. Many of them would be entitled to use the same arguments for a pay wall that the NYT uses, but relatively few of us who are not media professionals would be able to pay $15 per month to each of thirty or forty sites.

But isn't the NYT in an obvious "elite" category? I used to think so, but their coverage of Israel and Palestine, the war in Iraq, and politics in Russia has proved to be disappointingly conventional. The Times' selling point for me is not the superior quality of their journalism, it is (1) some of their columnists (it's hard for me to imagine doing without David Brooks or Gail Collins) and (2) the sheer comprehensiveness of the paper's scope. But the paper's elite brand is, for me, now more myth than reality. As for how the whole industry will cope with the task of finding a viable business model, I found that this column and the comments that followed seemed to be a pretty good summary of the dilemmas faced by both publishers and readers.

Here's a scary thought: Google is making large amounts of money by, in essence, offering text (including links to other companies' news feeds) for free. What is stopping them from spending some minor part of their huge income to set up their own news operation? It's not something I want to see happen, but I can't help wondering why other distributors of text can't find a way to package their deliveries in a more profitable way.

Interaction lists organizations providing aid to Japanese disaster recovery efforts.

"On being a wealthy Christian." "I know there is a Calvinistic streak in Quakerism that leads us to believe we are blessed by God if we are wealthy [true?]; and there is a sense of pride in that wealth having come by honest and virtuous living; but our wealth is blessed by God only if we are ready to part with it."

Some fresh gospel blues recordings, thanks to a division of Fat Possum records, according to the Chicago Reader.

Forgive the shaky camera--I'm just glad someone was there to record this! Birmingham England's Joanne Shaw Taylor isn't just good, she clearly loves what she does!


Nancy said...

Thank you, Johan. I just uploaded "God on Mute." Another book that encourages intercessory prayer in situations where one wonders if it does any good at all is Gregory Boyd's "Satan and the Problem of Evil" (one in a series of three books).

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you for the recommendation!

I should have added one relatively minor complaint about the digital version of God on Mute. New chapters start with an elegantly-designed image-based page that I found almost impossible to read. I sent a letter of complaint to Kindle, who offered to refund my money but said that the publisher was responsible for that design decision.

Anonymous said...


Didn't know what I was getting Izzy and me in for when I contracted to teach Forum class at Reedwood this Sunday!


Johan Maurer said...

Vail--Yes, you and Izzy have great timing. I hope the service will be recorded. What are you going to speak on at the Forum?

Anonymous said...

Johan --
Left for Portland Friday -- and so this is my first chance to reply. My topic was "1755-1757 - The separation that did not take place" (about Woolman, Benezet, Samuel Fothergill & 18 other Friends who signed a declaration that they would not pay taxes to fund the French & Indian War -- the first ever Quaker civil disobedience involving non-payment of taxes).
And Cameron DeWhitt was fabulous!