Monday, March 26, 2018

Luther on Prayer

Sometimes I come across resources that are simply excellent, but I know not many people are going to attempt them. The writings of Luther could well fit into that category. However, if you are at all tempted to read some of Luther, his comments on prayer would be an excellent place to start.

Inspired by Keller's Prayer, I ordered a little book containing two of Luther's Works: Little Prayer Book, 1522 and A Simple Way to Pray, 1535. Both were treasures waiting to be discovered.  The whole volume is under 100 pages, and in a modern writing style, which I trust has retained the essence of Luther's German but in a way I can actually read, understand, savour and appreciate. They are extracted from a larger body of works, and the authorial comments (by Mary Jane Haemig and Eric Lund) help the reader to understand Luther's points and flow.

I'm not going to give an extensive review. Not only do I feel ill-equipped to review Martin Luther, but there is a vast chasm of time and experience between my life and his. Instead, I'll share with you some of his words and main points.

Little Prayer Book, 1522

Luther encouraged all people to earn and know the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord's Prayer:
"Indeed, the total content of Scripture and preaching and everything a Christian needs to know is quite fully and richly comprehended in these three items. They summarise everything with such brevity and clarity that no one can complain or make any excuse that the things necessary for salvation are too complicated or difficult to remember."
So the commandments teach us our failings, the creed shows us where to find healing (grace) through God and his plan in Christ, and the Lord's Prayer teaches how to bring all this to God in prayer.  Luther then spends considerable time expounding what it would mean to break each commandment and what it would be to keep each. These would bring any believer in humble repentance before God.

The same detail is then given to the creed in sections and the Lord's prayer (and shorter to the Hail Mary, which I chose not to spend much time in).  The depth of his thought brings the reader to a truer understanding of what it really means to trust in Jesus and follow him with your whole life.

Here is just a section on possible prayer on Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven:
"Your will is at all times the best, to be cherished and desired above everything else. Therefore have mercy upon us, O dear Father, and let nothing happen just because it is our own will. Grant and teach us a a deep patience in times when our will is preventing from happening or comes to nothing. Help when others contradict our will by what they say or do, do or leave rundown, that we not become angry or vexed, not curse, complain, protest... 
Grant us grace to bear willingly all sorts of sickness, poverty, disgrace suffering, and adversity and to recognise that in them your divine will is crucifying our will."  
Regarding the Lord's Prayer:
"I am convinced that when Christian rightly pray the Lord's Prayer at any time or use any portion of it as they may desire, their praying is more than adequate. What is important for a good prayer is not many words, as Christ says in Matthew 6, but rather a turning to God frequently and with heartfelt longing and, doing so without ceasing... get accustomed to praying this plain, ordinary, Christian prayer. The longer one devotes one's self to this kind of praying, the more sweet and joyous it becomes."

A Simple Way to Pray, 1535  

Written as a letter to his barber, this is more of a guide to prayer for a friend.  (you can view some of it online here)

With a wonderful starting line:
"I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I! Amen."
He proceeds to model how to pray through the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments in depth. There is a richness here which is so encouraging. He evens warns people against using his actual words so that they don't become rote, but rather using it as an example from which to spur you on in your own prayer.

About the Lord's prayer:
"It is the very best prayer, even better than the Psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it. What a great shame that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world!"
About morning prayer:
"It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Diligently guard against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while, I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get your away from prayer into other affairs that so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day. This is especially so in emergencies when you have some task that seems as good or better than prayer."
This letter is where the idea that Keller quotes from Luther about praying 4 ways from a passage comes from:
  • Instruction – what is the point of the passage, and what does God intend for the passage for me? This may be obvious or make take some thought.
  • Thanksgiving – praise God for it.
  • Confession – confess in response to it.
  • Petition – ask God to act, for change in me or others.
And some comments on Amen:
"Finally mark this, that you must always speak the “Amen” firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say “yes” to your prayers. Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, “Very well, God has heard my prayer, this I know as a certainty and a truth.” That is what Amen means." 
I was encouraged and refreshed by this volume.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

This is an epic tale of life in the Middle Ages in southern England. (Or if you can credit the non sequitur of our book cover "A timeless story of passion and idealism set in the midst of the Middle Ages"!)

Set around the priory of Kingsbridge, the monks rule the town and the prior Philip longs to build a cathedral. The local earl of Shiring is against the plan, wanting the money from such a project to go to his own pockets.

The story spans some 30 years from 1135 and covers the building of the church with all the challenges of architecture encountered by senior builder Tom. At the same time, there is the tale of Aliena, the previous earl's daughter as she struggles to survive and return her family to their previous state, and her spurned fiancé William, a spiteful cruel man who long bears a grudge.

The interwoven lives of all means Archer has write a captivating story of the Middle Ages and the lives of nobility, the peasants and the various levels of clergy. At the same time the real events of history are played out with various Kings seizing the throne and their rulings affecting the lives of those at Kingsbridge.

As our children get older I am reading adult fiction with an eye to whether I would recommend it to them also. I would hesitate letting younger teens read this one because of the sexual violence. There's a fair amount of rape and most of the sex scenes described or alluded to are non-consensual, with some distasteful characters persisting in such behaviour. While it is probably accurate for the times and displays the power that men and nobles had, my young teens don't need to be reading about it yet.

It's the first book in a trilogy by Archer. This one was published in 1989 and the final one was just released in 2017. Reviews of the other two still to come. Great epic reads, all of them.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Developing a Healthy Prayer Life

Developing a Healthy Prayer Life: 31 Meditations on Communing with God, James W. Beeke and Joel R. Beeke (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010)

A talk series on prayer has led me again to investigate resources for prayer. I have come across some good ones.

This very short offering (under 100 pages) is designed to be used as a devotional, with 31 brief chapters covering numerous aspects of prayer. Starting with a definition of prayer as “the act of forging a connection between two specific points: our human needs and the resources of God offered to us in Christ”, it’s then extended to include expressing desires to God, embracing God’s will, confession, and worship. The reader is invited to be both challenged and encouraged by prayer, and to be changed by it.

They begin by addressing the question: “Who should pray?” and address some excuses why people don’t think they should pray, concluding “You are too sinful not to pray; sinners are the very people who need prayer. Therefore, pray.”

The following 29 chapters focus on different aspects of prayer, such as pray in Christ’s name, pray believingly, pray humbly, pray boldly, pray intercedingly, pray thankfully, pray dependently and pray against besetting sins. Each were instructive, helpful and bible based.

Some helpful things along the way:
“Prayer requires faith: believing in God, trusting in God, and placing our expectations in God.” (Ch 3) 
“You need humble boldness – humility when viewing your sinful self and boldness when viewing a reconciling Christ.” (Ch 7) 
[Regarding praying with thankfulness] “First we are to be thankful for mercies received… Second, we are to be thankful for trials endured… Third, we are to be thankful for the absolute goodness and infinite mercy of God expressed in His actions toward us in both prosperity and adversity.” (Ch 11) 
“In our prayer, God does not note the expressiveness of our voice, the multitude of our words, or regard the eloquence of our expressions. Rather, He observes the sincerity of our heart. To pray sincerely is to pray without pretence or deceit.” (Ch 17)

“We are to pray dependently, not independently, True prayer weans the petitioner from self-reliance.” (Ch 23) 
“Unfulfilled prayer can serve as a means to produce far deeper and more valuable benefits that those we originally requested. Unfulfilled prayer can teach us patience and contentment, surrendering and bowing before God…. Unfulfilled prayer can serve to teach us humility and dependency, to trust more in God and less in self.” (Ch 24) 
“Thoughtful prayer moves us from weakness to strength and from strength to glory. It binds us to God and comforts us in distress, pray not as a last resort, but in the increasing knowledge of God and His will." (Ch 30)

There was an appendix at the end with 31 Marks of True Prayer – they were helpful to read but I would have appreciated an explanation of where they came from, they seemed to be sourced from elsewhere.

I did have a couple of hesitations:

  • Chapter 29 was about praying with scripture. I wasn’t sure why this was placed so late in the order, it would have been much better to have this much earlier. Indeed, there was no real logical to the order of the chapters.
  • It was very disappointing that in 2010 they chose to use the KJV translation for all bible quotes. It makes the bible almost inaccessible to modern readers. Even the small number of suggested written prayers modelled the use thees & thys whereas all the other writing was modern. This implies you need to use different language for both bible reading and prayer than you use in daily life. It’s very unhelpful.
  • It would have been both instructive and encouraging to have a short prayer or aid to prayer at the end of each devotional. Modelling such prayer, not just talking about prayer would have been beneficial.

So as an aid to consider prayer from multiple angles, it's a very helpful book with instructive prompts and challenges. With each chapter only ~2 pages, it's very, very readable. One a day would indeed be excellent food for thought over a month, and a way to analyse your prayer life in light of the teaching of scripture.

Note: it only appears to still be easily available as an eBook.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Fitz and the Fool

Fitz and the Fool Series, Robin Hobb

The fifth and final series of Robins Hobb's world of the Elderlings was only just finished last year. Good thing I only found this series in the last 12 months, or I (like millions of other fans) would have been waiting a long time for this one!

Back we return to the Six Duchies and Fitz. About 20 years have passed, he is now happily married and living at the estate at Withywoods, and the Fool has been absent since the events of series three.

Really there isn't any point saying much more. If you aren't already reading this series (13 books in so far) you won't understand the details, and those still working their way through them won't want me to spoil anything.

It's enough to say it's a cracking end to the whole series. All our favourite characters are woven in again, not just in the Six Duchies, but in the Rain Wilds, Kelsingra and on the Liveships as well. These books occupied me completely on holidays and got me through a few rough days with a tummy upset too. It was a fitting completion to a very impressive series, which has clearly been a life's work for Hobb, who has been writing them since 1995.

I have noticed with authors that write a series over the course of their lives that you start to feel you know them a bit: what they care about, their worldview, and their value system. You also can glimpse  how their attitudes or values change as the years go on. I felt the same about Jean Auel and Diana Gabaldon. I assume any writer's values and beliefs come out in their writing. It's an interesting privilege to be allowed, just a little, into someone else's mind and how they express it creatively.

Friday, March 2, 2018

High School Musical

This fun, musical about life in high school seems like it was meant to be the clean, modern version of Grease. When I say clean, I mean really clean – no bad language, one kiss on the cheek and everyone grows in character. Even the clothing choices are mostly appropriate.

When Troy and Gabriella meet on holidays at a ski resort, they are unceremoniously shoved together and made to sing karaoke. Initial horror turns to fun and interest as it turns out that (wow!), they can both sing really well. Fast forward to the next semester and Gabriella (no way!) turns up as a new student at Troy’s school. Troy is captain of the basketball team whereas Gabriella excels in maths and science. But both start to wonder if they should try out for the high school musical. Obviously, there is a lot of romantic interest between them, but as I said, it’s all very chaste.

Friends try to convince them to stay in their own cliques (with a catchy song ‘stick to the status quo’). The overarching message of the movie though is that it's OK to be a bit different, and to do the things that you like – whether it’s singing, dancing, baking, academics or sport. Positive messages abound throughout– kids learn to encourage their friends into different interests, the teachers while caricatured at points do help the kids out, and parents are positive role models. The basketball coach / dad in particular makes it clear to his son in the end that he wants him to enjoy playing rather than concentrate on winning. The brother/ sister duo of Ryan and Sharpay who run the Drama club even learn to cope with the intrusion on their domain, and their antics are fun to watch in the process.

The songs aren’t really anything special (the music from Grease is certainly much much better). One review suggested the songs sounded like offcuts from a Paula Abdul album and the lip syncing is pretty bad. But the energy is fun, lighthearted and enjoyable.

Moving on, it's as much fun watching #2 and 3. Continuing with comparisons, it seems to me that High School Musical 2 is trying to be a conservative Dirty Dancing. It's summer and Sharpay is living at the country club. She wants Troy in the show and fixes it so he has a job there. He manages to get all of the crew from East High employed for the summer. This one is much more about Ryan and Sharpay's shenanigans and there is tension developing between Troy who is favoured, and Gabriella and the rest of the gang.

High School Musical 3 is Senior Year and while looking forward to prom and graduation, there is uncertainty about everyone's future. Where will they go to college? What will happen to Troy and Gabriella's relationship?

As with the first, there are a lot of songs and dance routines. Few will stay with you for long (unless your children listen to them on constant repeat), but they are fun to watch and the choreography of all the large dance scenes is pretty impressive.

All three (ages 10, 12 and 14) enjoyed these and laughed at the jokes. Husband and I liked the positive messages and that they were funny (sometimes laughing at, sometimes laughing with). Troy and Gabriella kiss properly in #2 & 3, but as with the first, there is no bad language, the interactions are pretty chaste, and all the characters tend to improve and learn. Definitely a bit of enjoyable family fun.