My Journey of Spiritual Reading

Tag Archives: life

Don’t Call it a Comeback

My life outside of this blog has been particularly active of late.  It is for this reason that one of the two people who read this blog recently asked me, “Where have you been?”  In response, I merely offer that I have been everywhere…but here.  As this blog is about my reading (or my sometimes lack thereof) not my life, I will withhold the commentary about where God has taken me over the past few months.  Suffice to say it is a good place, a place to which I have been led and I am very glad for it.  My new life (and it is a new life) is starting to find its groove and I think I may have some time now to devote to the chronicle of my reading journey.

What have I been reading in these silent months here at the melikereadgood blog?  That’s an easy one.  Since finishing Lewis’ That Hideous Surprise, I have read four books.

The Three Kings by Gene Edwards
This is a quick little book from the early 80s about the life of David.  You may consider it biblical   fiction in that it retains the biblical narrative of the Davidic story with certain artistic liberties taken.  The book centers around the relationship between David and King Saul and the later relationship between King David and Absalom   It is certainly not a heavy read, but I enjoyed it.  One of the interesting questions the book calls us to consider is, “What do you do when someone throws a spear at you?”  That question is timeless.  As I think back on the book, the words “modern melodrama” come to mind (point of fact, a dramatized version was also released after publication for churches to use in their drama ministries).  It gave me new and fresh things to ponder about one of my personal favorite Old Testament characters.  It is worth your time.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen
Nouwen’s studied, yet contemplative take on the parable of the prodigal was a pure joy to read. Using the framework of Rembrandt’s magnificent painting of the same name, Nouwen delves deep into his own life and calls the reader to do the same.  I would like to blog in-depth about how this book impacted me spiritually at a later time but for now, I will only say this book earns its moniker as one of the great modern christian classics of devotional literature.  I will read it again and perhaps soon.  I also have a new bucket list item – a pilgrimage to the State Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s tremendous piece of artistic brilliance with my own eyes.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat
Astute readers will remember my gushing praise for a book I read last year called A Stone of Hope which I labeled “the best surprise” of my 2012 reading journey.  Douthat’s tight, well-written, and scholarly look at the American religious landscape as we know it today may well be this year’s “best surprise”.  The book is worth the price of admission for his detailed look at the  prosperity gospel teaching and the god within theology that has made its way into far too many corners of the religious fabric of our culture.  Douthat posits that the current religious zeitgeist in America is a direct result of a decades-long move away from orthodox Christianity.  He meticulously shows how America is a much stronger place when good orthodoxy is at the center of our pluralistic religious scene.  He ends the book with a clarion call back to historic Christian orthodoxy (not just an Americanized  version).  It was a great book that I encourage everyone to read, no matter whether you are a believer or a seeker or an agnostic or a presbyterian (just kidding).

Cancer Ward by Alexander Soltzhenitsyn
This one has been on my radar for quite a long time.  I finally got around to reading it in the past few weeks.  I am about 80% finished and I am loving it.  My only previous encounter with Alexander was a few years ago when I read The Gulag Archipelago.  I had to drag my way through that one.  This one is much easier and much more engaging.  Set in a cancer ward in the earlier part of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn explores the human condition as his characters face humanity’s greatest plague – cancer – in each of their own particular ways.  As is usually the case with these Russians, there is the wonderful unforced meshing of the religious and the secular aspects of life that I really enjoy.  There’s community because we all live in community (whether we believe we do or not).  It’s grim because cancer is grim.  There’s hope because there is always hope.  But, how can there be hope with a terminal illness?  Ah, there is a question worth considering.  I have risen and fallen with each character as they attempt in various ways to assimilate their death sentence into their minds, hearts and lives.  I am almost finished but I can already give this book an unqualified recommendation to all.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
I would love to tell you that I read this book because I am working on a thesis about how the current pop culture interest in zombies informs our collective understanding of life, death, and the afterlife.  I wish I were that cool.  The reality is that I was looking for something to amuse (the archaic definition of “diverting the attention of so as to deceive”) me and this happened to be on the front page of whatever screen I was looking at at the time.  The only thing I have to say is, “It worked.”

Vacation Bible School

The following was from a piece of writing I did a few years ago during our church’s Vacation Bible School. It is VBS time again at our church and I was reminded of it as we made our way through the camp this year.  I thought I would share it on my blog. Hope you like it!

Interesting Side Note:  I was reading the Seven Storey Mountain for the first time during this episode.  I have read it twice more since then culminating in last month’s read which you can read about here.

The theme of our VBS this year was “God is with you wherever you go.” What a great theme for a bible school! We had fun, we sang songs, we talked about service to God and man, we played games, and we studied bible characters. It was a wonderful time with a great group of kids. It was a week of pointing kids towards Jesus. Those kids just about wore me out, but it was a good kind of tired, the kind that you are glad for.

Perhaps my favorite thing that happened this week occurred in a very small, out of the way corner of the children’s building and involved the smallest children present at Vacation Bible School. Our challenge for the day was to GO TELL and our Bible story focused on the the women coming back from the tomb and telling everyone that Jesus was alive.

After the opening rally, I had a break so I went to my office to read a new book I started (a great book called The Seven Storey Mountain). In the hallway adjacent to my office, I could hear the pre-K group getting ready to come down the hall. The ground below shuttered as if a great herd of stallions were about to break out upon it. And boy did they! They came careening down the hallway and with all the strength that their tiny bodies could muster they exclaimed, “Jesus is not dead. Jesus is alive!” My whole office shook with fervor of their gospel as did my heart. They repeated their message over and over as they made their way down the hall and out of the building.

It was a very poignant moment. Out of love, pure and undefiled love, they sought to share the gospel story to anyone and everyone with whom they came into contact. It did not occur to them that what they were doing might be politically incorrrect. They had no understanding of such a thing. Their abstract little minds could not imagine it to be so. Neither was it merely a good idea or a metaphysical concept they were declaring. This was no watered down or half-hearted Word they proclaimed. It was truth! And with the kind of faith that all of us should have, and the power of the very Spirit of God in them of which they know only enough to trust completely, they spoke boldly the truth of the gospel. Jesus is alive!

The greatest moment of VBS at my church was in a hallway adjacent to my office with hardly anyone else around. The loud and living Word of truth echoed throughout the cinderblock walls and the glossy tiled floors. It reverberated into my cold heart and there something amazing happened, the gaze of my soul was drawn back to my Savior. Can you imagine?  A bunch of three year olds tore through the church and at the same time, they tore through my heart and I was changed. Amazing.

Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:4

The Fall According to Athanasius – Pt. 2

“For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”

What is death?  Death, as Athanasius is discussing it, is more than mere biological death.  Death is non-existence, it is the absence of life.  The phenomenon of non-life is what we are calling death.  What is life?  What we mean by life is more than biology and blood.  Life is a gift to us from our Maker.  We have life only through Him.  Not only that, but our desire to fully live, to be alive in the purest sense, is also a gift.  We, as a race, are imbued with the desire for real life.  We actively seek it.  Therefore, death, this absence of life, is not something that we would naturally choose for ourselves.

How, then, would any thinking person ever choose death?  Under normal circumstances, I don’t think they would.  If we say that we instinctively want to live and not die, then the only way that a person would willingly choose death over life is if they were deceived into thinking that death was life.  And this is exactly what happens in the Garden.  This story of the Fall is indicative of what continues to happen in mankind today.  Deception is the trick that death uses to get its foot in the door.  Once there, it begins to wreck havoc upon us.

If our sin nature can be described as imagining our existence apart from God, then sin begins to exert its control over us at the point where we choose death over life (or choosing life apart from God as opposed to Life with Him) because we mistakenly think that death is life.  Once we do this, we begin to come under the  dominion of death and we are powerless to stop it.  This is the process of corruption of which Athanasius speaks.

This process begins to overtake us in many ways.  Death’s corruption of us moves on unhindered to complete fruition unless acted upon by an outside force.  It becomes easier and easier for us to choose death over life, because we become more and more blinded to the reality of our existence.  Soon, we are lost, blind, and dying, yet, we have no idea that this is the case.  We wrongly think we are smarter than ever, seeing clearly to the path of true living.  There is no way out of this process of corruption of our own making.  The vicious cycle folds back onto itself.  This is the terrible domain of death.  We are dying and we don’t even know it.

Consider the modes of living that the world would espouse to us as real life.  It usually falls under one of these headings: Money, power, knowledge, and fame.  That part of us that can imagine our lives without God would tell us that these things, or the pursuit of them, is life.  Therefore, because we all want to live, we design our lives around these things and we order our relationships and time to give us the best of these things which we think lead to life.  We try to take what we can from whom we can by any means we can, and we have the hubris to say that this is life!  All the while, we are in actuality moving further and further away from Him who is life.  As we continue along this process of complete corruption, we slip further and further from the truth.

And so this corruption eventually leads us back to the place where we were before Life was breathed into us, that is non-existence, for there is no existence apart from God.  We truly become that which the world would tell us we are in the first place – insignificant animals, byproducts of the alleged master of the universe, scientific process; aware only of our most basic consciousness and ultimately relegated to the biological dung heap of the cosmos.  At the end of our physical life, death takes off its mask to reveal its true nature and intention.

So, with the Apostle Paul, we cry out, “O wretched man that I am!  Who will set me free from this body of death?”

Anna Karenina and the Balance of Life

Last year I decided to read through 3 of the great Russian authors of the last 150 years or so.  (I’m sure there are other great ones but these are the only three I really knew.)  So, I read The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I read through it and enjoyed it, though I felt like I needed a Prozac prescription while I was reading it.  After completing the first phase of my goal.  I then proceeded to read The Brothers Karamazovby Dostoevsky.  It was another incredible read and another prescription of Prozac.  Darn these Russians!  They have a knack for messiness of everyday life, which can be very depressing sometimes.  However, all is not lost.  There are little slivers of hope and redemption lining the walls of these characters and their adventures.  And faith is a very real and gritty part of that very messiness, as it is in my own life.

So….at my glacial pace of reading (thank you television) it took me about 9 months to complete these books.

Then in December I started the third installment of my Russian journey – it was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  You can find a description here.  This was perhaps my favorite of all three.  Of course, the immediate question is: Did I go for the Prozac again?  Well, there is certainly tragedy and the Russian angst that I felt with the other two books.  Anna, the title character, wore me out to the point of exasperation.  She evoked in me anger, repulsion, excitement, disdain, sorrow, remorse, and pity all at once.  She was a character who decided to do what she wanted and to live for no one but herself.

But her story was intersected by another, more hopeful character – Konstantin Levin.  The book could have easily been titled “Konstantin Levin” instead of “Anna Karenina.”  I almost wish it had been.  As the reader follows Anna spiraling down the vortex of her own self-centeredness, the reader also watches Levin ascend to a higher place with each and every chapter.  He is the self-less counterbalance to Anna’s ever-present narcissism.  Though their lives only come together briefly in the book, their stories form the two pillars around which the whole massive tome comes together.

I think the Russians understand the need for a counterbalance.  In the Gulag Archipelago, it was the good people of Russia that withstood the ferocity of tzars and dictators.  In The Brothers Karamazov, it was the humble younger brother Alyosha that served to counter the sensualist older borther Dmitri.  Anna and Levin.  Weight and counter-weight.

This understanding that the universe, and our lives hang in a sort of balance is something that Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Dostoevsky all show through their stories as a spiritual principle of life.  My flesh stands in stark contrast to the holiness of God.  My bad love is but an echo of the good and perfect love with which God fills my soul.  My mistreatment of others is counter-weighted by His grace toward me.  Balance.  That is why I think the story could have been called “Konstantin Levin.”  They are both a part of the whole.  The story of Anna Karenina needs the story of Konstantin Levin and it is incomplete without it.  It is a spiritual principle these Russians are so good at showing us.  Good needs bad to show us how good the good really is.  It’s just as true for a story as it is for a life.