Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: The Call To Wonder by R.C. Sprul Jr.

As part of the Tyndale Bloggers Network I will occasionally review books provided to me by the publisher.  

My father-in-law passed away recently.  While in Michigan for his funeral, I brought the new book by R.C. Sroul Jr., The Call To Wonder.  When my sister-in-law saw the book on the end table, she mentioned that Sproul’s wife had just passed away and that she had been reading his blog posts (you can find his blog here).  This brought perspective to my reading.  As an author he wrote about loving God like a child.  Now as a widower that childlike relationship with God is severely tested.  As he wrote the book, he was comforting his wife in her struggle through cancer treatment.  As I read the book, he was grieving the loss of his wife to that cancer.  Stethoscope to his chest, I can hear his heart through these words bound in this small book. 

The book focuses on children as a model.  Sproul considers their trust, their wonder, and their desire to please as parallels between the innocence of children and our approach to God.  He does so by using examples from his own children.  These are wonderful parables, stories of children that are personal, intimate, and real. At times these are tender stories.  His chapter on his special needs daughter, Shannon, aka Princess Happy, is particularly touching (chapter 6, “the Call To Joy). Her fascination with balloons and her “love affair with sunbeams” (p. 144) are examples of how “Shannon lives in a constant state of wonder because she receives the grace and beauty of God for what they are and sees them wherever they are – which is everywhere” (p.143).  This tenderness gives way to conviction.  His suggestion that his children are his spiritual betters (p.23) may mistake the model for the reality, but the model is an effective mirror.  I can see the deficiencies of my faith in the ways of children. 

So Sproul calls me to treat God as “completely and utterly trustworthy” (p.46); to take in the universe “as a child takes in a fireworks show” (p.61); to resist the temptation to tame the God of surprises (p.4); and to ardently desire to please God as a child longs to please his father (p.86). These are hard principles, even in the placid seas of familiar routine - how much more in his wild torrent of spousal death.   And yet, if his blog posts are any indication, he is seeking to practice what he preaches.

But as a book critic, I cannot not merely listen to his heart.  At some point I must set aside the stethoscope and pick up the scalpel. The book is built on Mathew 18:3, where Jesus says, “Unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (NIV).  When Jesus tells us that we must become like children, he is using a simile, a form of comparison using the words “like” or “as.”  The simile has meaning in as much as we understand the connection between the two things being compared. 

If I use snow as the object of a simile, that may be because snow is white, or cold, or impermanent. I may be referring to any of those attributes - it is unlikely I am referring to all of them.  The simile cannot mean whatever we please.  Context will help determine which of these referents I have in mind. 
When Jesus calls us to be like children it is within a discussion of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  In verse 4 he clarifies his intent.  “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  The key to greatness is humility.  A child is a picture of that.  We should show the same dependence.  Nothing in my hand I bring.  Simply to the cross I cling. The chapter on “The Call To Trust” has its finger on this.  Other chapters, like the Call to Wonder, the Call to Please, The Call To Joy are interesting, but not outgrowths of Jesus’ call to be like a child.  None of these are hinted at by the simile. 

This isn’t heretical, but it does seem sloppy, particularly as he uses his tendency toward deep theological reflection as a contrast to his children’s model of faith.  Like writing a note about how wonderful my handwriting is, in a scribble that is barely legible, there is deep irony in ribbing himself for being ”quite the theologically sound fellow” (p.136) and then carelessly interpreting his key text.  

Still, this is a worthwhile read.  Even if the lessons learned can’t be hung on the passage he relies on, they remain valuable lessons. Some are lessons I need.

Most helpful for me was his suggestion that we feel loss most profoundly when it is in contrast to previous blessing (pages 169-172).   I miss my father-in-law because he was such a blessing to have had in my life.  So rather than be embittered by the loss, I should be grateful for the blessing.  To get bogged down in “why, God?” is to miss out on “Thank you, Lord” ( I comment more on this lesson in my previous post "Entitlement").

To get hung up on one deficiency would be to miss this and other valuable lessons offered in this book.  There is a place for a scalpel in your reading.  But in this case, make sure to rely most heavily on the stethoscope.

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Silent Saturday

We’re not quite sure what to do with that long Saturday, bounded by the vulnerability of Good Friday and the victory of Easter Sunday.  It’s a bit awkward.  We’d like to cheat on it, quickly empty the cross and rush to the resurrection.  Time in the tomb seems like wasted time. We get edgy, impatient for the resolution.  Why bother with Saturday. It seems like a day full of nothing. 

Of course, that’s what the Sabbath is about; work ceases, even if just for a moment.  There’s a stillness about it.  But on this Saturday it’s not a peaceful stillness.  It’s a stillness that longs for resolution.  Saturday gathers all Friday’s suffering and moves toward all Sunday’s glory but does so with an agonizing pause. 

What do we know of that Saturday?  Only this - Luke tells us that the women who had been following Jesus prepared spices and perfumes, but they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment (Luke 23:56).  They wait.  And maybe that’s all we need to know.

Saturday is the day of waiting.  We want a speedy resolution; God says wait.  We’re to resist the urge to allow Sunday to seep over into Saturday to claim an early victory.  “…if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Ro. 8:24).

Walter Brugemmann says it so well, “Ours is the long journey of Saturday.  Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”  Most of life is lived between tragedy and triumph.  We have the promise, but not the fulfillment…so we wait.

The waiting of a single person to see if God has marriage in their future.
The waiting of a childless couple hoping for a positive pregnancy test month after month.
The waiting of a sick patient to see if treatment has been successful.
The waiting of a spouse who is trapped in a hurting marriage that seems unlikely to change.
The waiting of a family for their prodigal child to return to God.
The waiting of an unemployed worker who is sinking ever deeper into financial trouble.
The waiting of a grieving individual for the pain to pass.
      The waiting of a suffering patient for God to take them home.
The waiting of a teenager who never seems to measure up to her parents expecations

The waiting of an unanswered prayer,
       An undeserved hurt,
              An unexpected tragedy,
                   An unexplainable mystery.

Lewis Smedes said “As creatures who cannot by themselves bring about what they hope for, we wait in darkness for a flame we cannot light.  We wait in fear for a happy ending we cannot write.  We wait for a ‘not yet’ that feels like a ‘not ever.’” 

It’s the story of Psalm 27.  Between the tragic reality “Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence” (v.12) and the anticipated victory, “I am still confident of this:  I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (v.13) is the patient waiting “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”(v.14).

So when we're in the midst of a difficult situation - a situation that yearns for resolution.  When when we face the silence of God, thirsting for a single word.  There is a word that breaks the silence.  "Wait."  It is a long Saturday.  But eventually the sun will rise on Sunday and the waiting will be over.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Through this season of Lent I have been writing about my decision to fast one day a week through breakfast and lunch (A Lenten Neophyte).  Even this small sacrifice has been a valuable tutor in my life. 

After stumbling out of the blocks on my first day of Lenten fasting (Loving God More Than Timbits), I regained my footing and successfully fasted through breakfast and lunch the next day.  It was not without difficulty, but it was without incident.  I arrived home from work hungry, but pleased.  My stomach was empty but my self-discipline stood firm.  I had sent a message to my stomach.  My love for God outweighed my love for Timbits or the myriad of sweets that surround me at work.  Three cheers for me.  Time to celebrate.

In the day that followed I found myself using my previous sacrifice as a justification for indulgence.  The rationale was simple: since I skipped two meals yesterday, I would make up for it today. 
            An uncommon midmorning snack;
            seconds at lunch…on dessert…candy first, then a donut;  
            Munching on chips on my way home from work;
            A generous bowl of ice cream before bed.

This was far more than my usual caloric intake.  I was making up for lost ground and restoring the cosmic balance.  It would not do to follow up a day of fasting with an average day of eating.  Sacrifice one day teetered the scale.  I would totter it back into balance with indulgence the next.  My anguished stomach had earned some brownie points (a misnomer, in that there is widespread agreement that these points are redeemable for all manner of edible indulgences and not merely brownies).  Now was the time to cash in my chips.  It sounded reasonable.

After my wholly justifiable binge, I got to thinking about this being a familiar pattern. Sacrifice here entitles me to indulgence there.  It seeps into more than just my discipline of fasting.  I rationalize my failures as reasonable indulgences.  I deserve this extravagance to balance our deprivation.  It is, after all, only fair.

Ironically, I only call for fairness when I get the short end of the stick. I don’t demand deprivation after I have experienced abundance.  I don’t seek out pain to balance pleasure. The burden of deprivation lingers longer than the satisfaction of abundance.
Truth is, I don’t really have an issue with unbalanced scales, so long as they are unbalanced in my favor.

But what if I took a different angle?  I recently finished a book by RC Sproul Jr. entitled The Call To Wonder (a book I will review here in the near future).  In the last chapter he talks about his wife’s struggle with leukemia.  As she reflected on the possibility of her death, she feared not for herself, but for her children and husband who would have to live through this loss.  Sproul allayed her fears by showing her a different perspective.  The grief of loss would be countered by the joy for what they had had. 

He says it better than I can, “One cannot - or at least ought not - acknowledge the pain of loss without giving thanks for what has been given…My love for these children drives me to empathy for this potential loss.  It in turn makes me stunned that their heavenly Father should have blessed them to have had this woman for a mother” (Sproul, p.170). 

This was a helpful viewpoint.  The emphasis shifts from bitterness due to deprivation to gratitude for undeserved blessing.   Not stuck in the grief of a mother’s death, but moving forward with gratefulness for a mother’s life.  The emphasis is placed, not on deprivation, but on plenty as undeserved.  I feel entitlement far too much.  The blessings of life are undeserved, not something I am entitled to.  Deprivation then becomes something not to be compensated for, but something to be accepted. 

Fasting is not a set up for binging.  It is an opportunity to demonstrate contentment in hunger.  Discovering that God is sufficient, I don’t have to compensate with double dessert the next day.  If he is sufficient, then no compensation is necessary…though my stomach is trying to convince my fingers to type otherwise.

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