Friday, October 4, 2013

Beauty & the Bitch--Book Review

"True beauty comes and finds us and laughs that we were looking the other way. We as women have brilliant strategies for looking the other way. Fear and Control. Pride and Contempt. Addiction and Deadness. These giants rise in our hearts perpetually, surfacing in sophisticated ways when we are able to hide them and in humiliating ways when we can't. And, as we will explore each one in the sections of this book, these strategies are often the natural result of our very hard stories." –Jan Meyers Proett



As a counselor, I am always on the lookout for books that I hope will be helpful to my clients. Having often recommended The Allure of Hope to clients I was delighted when I read a blog by Jan Meyers Proett last December and learned she had written another book that would be released in a few months. (Read the blog post here: http://www.janmeyersproett.com/blog/2012/12/06/Beauty-Trumps-Bitch.aspx). As I expected, Beauty & the Bitch: Grace for the Worst in Me is a very good book and one I will recommend often. It's an excellent resource for people who want to be free and for people who don't realize they're imprisoned who might read the book simply out of curiosity about the book's title. Notice, I said it's an excellent resource for people, even though the book is written primarily for a female audience. However, it would be a mistake to look at this book, decide it's just for women, and pass over it. But more on that later.

First, there is the matter of the title. It is a little startling at first, but it is exactly the right title. Some won't like it and dismiss it as a book that couldn't possibly be "Christian" because of "that word." "Good" Christians don't talk that way, after all. (One wonders what those same folks do with the Apostle Paul's use of cuss words, provided they have a pastor honest enough and brave enough to tell the truth about some of the terms Paul and other biblical authors use. For example, Paul uses a word in Philippians 3:8 that is translated "garbage" in some translations and "rubbish" in others. The NET Bible translates it as "dung," and includes this translation note: "The word here translated 'dung' was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers"). I recall showing an article to a writing instructor at a conference, one I hoped to publish about finally waking up and engaging God in my wife's and my struggle with infertility. Early in the article I described my anger upon leaving an infertility clinic and included the words I'd said as I slammed my fist on the steering wheel. The instructor pointed out that although it was the correct word I would have to change it if I wanted to publish the article in a Christian magazine. In other words, it would be better to be dishonest about what I'd actually said than to use the word "hell" in any way other than to indicate "that place where people who aren't like us are going." And Jan's book was indeed passed over by Christian publishers who would have been happy to publish it if she would just change the title. Fortunately, Bondfire Books came along and recognized a very good book that needed to retain this title or be stripped of some of its impact. I'm glad Jan fought for the title and waited for a publisher with the vision and courage to go against the grain. What's important is that Jan doesn't use the word to shock or startle people, but to point out ways of relating that cover one's beauty. (If you want to read a couple of thoughtful blog posts about the title go here http://www.janmeyersproett.com/blog/2013/01/14/Sometimes-she-simply-raises-an-eyebrow.aspx and here http://www.janmeyersproett.com/blog/2013/07/08/It-is-all-in-a-name.aspx).

So why do I like this book so much? Why am I so eager to recommend it to clients? For one, it is a thoroughly biblical book. You cannot read this book without seeing Jan is a faithful and diligent student of the Scriptures, and not as a distant scholar, but as one who has soaked in Scripture and conversation with God. I love her use of Hebrew terms. She uses them to help us understand important terms that tell us more about God and more about what we really need in our relationship with him. They're not used in a "look at me, I know some Hebrew terms" way. I did find myself at times wishing there were a Glossary of Important Terms included in the book. If you're reading this on an e-reader be sure to bookmark the terms to refer back to, as they're vitally important to Jan's message.

Another thing I like about this book is Jan's vulnerability. She shares parts of her story and shows how it connects to her own reactivity in relationships, primarily with her husband. It's one thing to share parts of one's personal story and the hurts and harm suffered in childhood or dished out in adolescence or young adulthood. That is plenty courageous. It's entirely another matter, though, to share present-tense failings as Jan does in Beauty and the Bitch. It's the difference between feeling "less than" while reading one of the many Christian superstar books--I've made it and I'll show you how--and feeling "joined"--"you're a mess, I'm a mess, and here are some things I've learned along the way. Things like, "It's okay to admit that you are a bitch, but it's also crucial to see that there is beauty in you that wants to come out--will come out. That's the wonderful surprise: the life of God will always rise. There is a quality to a woman's beauty that is simply unmanageable. We can't produce it ourselves, but we can make our hearts a welcome, responsive place for beauty to live."

And that is one of the beautiful things about Jan's book. The whole tone of the book, even as she is delving into things the "bitch" does, is that the badness that shows up can never outweigh the hope that there is a beauty that "wants to come out--will come out." She builds a solid, biblical case for why "beauty always wins."

As a man the temptation might be to read this book just to understand my wife better and to read it with a recognition of, "oh yeah, that's her." "Yes, she does that, as well." "Oh, so that explains why she acts that way." But if you're a man and you read it this way you'll miss a blessing. Sure, there might be something good about reading to gain some understanding of the battles women, your wife, are fighting. But there's another invitation here to read the examples Jan gives and see our own particular bent and acknowledge, "oh yeah, that's me." "Yes, I do that, too." "Oh, so that explains why I act this way." Jan has a deep understanding of what goes on in the human soul; she's counseled both women and men toward greater freedom, and this understanding can easily be applied to men. The wise statement that "whatever is not transformed is transmitted" is true of us, too, so we can certainly, and without a lot of effort, fill in our own examples of the bad stuff we do when we feel cornered or powerless.

I'm grateful for Jan's book. It's one I will reread, to inform my work with clients, to be a better man, a better husband. I've recommended this book to clients for a couple of months now and it's touching the hearts of my clients. I know it will deeply touch your heart, too.

Beauty & the Bitch: Grace for the Worst in Me is available in both e-reader and paperback formats. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/Beauty-Bitch-Grace-Worst-ebook/dp/B00DWN08UO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1380560289&sr=8-1&keywords=jan+meyers+proett


Sunday, January 6, 2013

My Favorite Books of 2012


My Books of the Year: These are some of the books that stood out to me in 2012 . . . which I'm posting mostly for my own amusement, I suppose.

The Fire of the Word by Chris Webb: Formerly of Renovare, this book is an excellent way to get an understanding of how to read Scripture with fresh, new eyes. If your Bible reading has grown stale this is a good book to inject new life into your reading.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron: This memoir is one of the best I have read. Cron is a fascinating storyteller. He has you laughing hard one minute and wondering how he ever survived the next.
[Sidenote: another great memoir that wasn’t a bestseller but should have been is Earthly Fathers by Scott Sawyer: http://www.amazon.com/Earthly-Fathers-Scott-Sawyer/dp/B005Q6H50G/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357522135&sr=8-1&keywords=earthly+fathers]

Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron—A novel that in some ways describes the journey I feel I’ve been on in recent years.

Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson, M.D.—This is a fascinating look at brain science and attachment theory from a psychiatrist who’s thought deeply about Scripture.

Do the Work by Stephen Pressfield-This book is primarily addressed to writers but really it’s great read for anyone taking on a project, starting a diet, or any kind of endeavor where you’re bound to meet inner Resistance.

The Summer of 43 by Joseph Bottum—This is a short book written this past summer during pitcher R.A. Dickey’s amazing season with the Mets. The author brought in a lot of baseball history, which I really enjoyed.

Wherever I Wind Up by R.A. Dickey—Oddly enough, Dickey’s autobiography was released during this past baseball season right in the midst of his greatest season as a major leaguer. It was a good season for any pitcher, not to mention a knuckleballer. I enjoyed it for several reasons, including the fact that I love hearing and reading other people’s stories. R.A. Dickey has a very interesting story. It was also fascinating to me because his book started out as an assignment from his counselor to write his life story. As a counselor, I also regularly ask clients to write their life story. I can’t help but wonder what effect it might have on my clients if they took the assignment as far as Dickey took his.

In the Presence of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham—I don’t know why I didn’t read this one when it first came out several years ago. Susanne read it this summer and said it was great. I had some time to kill one day in early July and thought, “I’ll just read a few pages.” Let’s just say that for the next several days I didn’t get much work done. Such an amazing story of Martin and Gracia Burnham,their captivity in the Philipines, their struggle to trust God and persevere through many months of captivity and near starvation and separation from their families. It tells of Martin’s eventual death, which is so truly sad to read about.

Genesis for Normal People by Peter Enns and Jared Byas—It’s an interesting look at the Book of Genesis by Old Testament scholars who have a different view of Genesis than the one I’ve held all my life. It’s an easy read and has some great humor sprinkled throughout. They addressed some explanations I heard growing up and in Bible college that never made sense to me and offered some explanations that do make sense. While I cannot say I’ve changed my entire view of Genesis I can say I’ve enjoyed reconsidering some of my views.

Sanctuary of the Soul by Richard Foster—I’ve read, and love to read, books on lectio divina and contemplative prayer. I have several excellent ones. Reading Foster’s book, though, you understand why he’s the guru to many of the authors on spiritual formation. While reading Foster’s book I felt like I really wanted to be like Foster, not because he was tooting his own horn, but because he’s taken his relationship with God so seriously, tended it so well, and really has the life of Jesus formed in him. Of course, I really mean that I want to be like Jesus, but I say this of Foster meaning the same thing I think the Apostle Paul meant when he told some of his followers to be like him, to follow his example. Foster’s is an example I want to follow.

Surfing for God by Michael Cusick—There are better-known books on sexual addiction but there are none better than this one (see my earlier review here: http://chuckroberts.blogspot.com/2012/05/review-surfing-for-god-discovering.html). Most of the Christian books on sexual addiction are frustrating because they take the try harder, do better, white-knuckling approach that has nothing at all to do with the Gospel of Jesus. Read Cusick’s book and you’ll come away with a comprehensive understanding of addiction, any kind of addiction, and the path to freedom. By the way, after Thanksgiving I was privileged to serve as a counselor at a retreat for men struggling with sexual addiction. More are planned, including one scheduled for early May. Find out more about it here: http://restoringthesoul.com/mens-living-free-66-hour-intensive-workshop/

Junia is Not Alone by Scot McKnight—I like anything Scot McKnight writes, and this one is no different. It takes a historical look at women in the Bible and church history and makes the case for women to play the role they were always intended for, preaching and teaching right alongside the men.

When a Daughter Dies by Ben Witherington III—His daughter suddenly died a year ago around Christmas. This short ebook talks about his and his wife’s process of grief. As a New Testament scholar, he has much to say about what the Bible does and does not say about dealing with grief.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book Review, Surfing for God


Review-Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle; Michael John Cusick
by Chuck Roberts, MA, LPC 

"If you are losing the battle, please read closely: following Jesus consists of so much more than trying harder and white-knuckling your way through it. You can be free. God has charted a path to freedom that men before you have walked. You can discover this path leading to authentic transformation in your soul, a path that consists of so much more than sin management. You also need to know that your masculine soul is deeper and truer than your desire for porn." -Michael J. Cusick

 Back in January I found out that one of my former professors was about to publish a book about sexual addiction. As a counselor who is always looking for resources to recommend to my clients, as well as reading for my own continuing education, I immediately contacted Michael Cusick to inquire about the book. He graciously sent me a PDF of the book for me to read in advance, with the caveat that it was for "my eyes only." Since then his book has caused me no small amount of trouble. I work with sex addicts in my counseling practice. Most of them show up at my office carrying a mountain of shame, wanting desperately to be free and wondering if that's possible any longer. Within the first few pages of Michael's book I knew I was holding a gem, a resource that would be lifegiving to my clients. The "trouble" I jokingly refer to is that I've had to tell clients the past couple of months, "there's a really helpful book on its way if you can just wait a little longer." Good news, it's almost here! (It's now available for pre-order on Amazon).

 So Michael Cusick is a favorite former professor of mine, and perhaps I was predisposed to like his book, just as I've loved books by other favorite former profs. But I can honestly say I had no idea what I was getting when Michael sent it to me. I had no idea it would be this good, this compelling.

 Surfing for God is an all-encompassing book about sexual addiction, including a look at "Your Brain on Porn," with helpful explanations that make brain science understandable and interesting to one who's struggling. Michael does a thorough job showing the things going on in a man's soul that makes porn attractive and addicting. Those tempted to believe there's a surface reason with a quick and easy fix are invited to consider deeper, soulish reasons we get addicted.

 Michael doesn't sugarcoat anything, he tells it straight about the damage porn does to relationships and the the soul. And he does it in such a hopeful way. There's an unhurried sense about his writing, such that I came away feeling a deep rest about how much God loves us, how committed he is to our freedom, and that we don't have to hurry to "get ourselves fixed" so he can stand to be around us. Intimacy with God is available now and it's the pathway to freedom.

 I like the focus on centering prayer. I've been guiding men in the direction of lectio divina and centering prayer, and it was reassuring to see that direction confirmed by someone with far more experience working with men who are sexually addicted.

 If you've ever been addicted to something--and I believe that's everyone currently breathing (e.g. some are addicted to power, some to approval, some to helping; it's more than porn or chemical substances)--this book will help you. If you struggle with sexual addiction you will definitely be drawn to the book. Drawn, because it's full of good information and clearly organized, but especially because you're getting it from one who struggled and suffered with a sexual addiction and found freedom and can offer the rich hope dripping from the pages of this book.

 Some books start strong but lose momentum halfway through; the author said some compelling things early in the book and the rest seems like filler to make the book a certain length. Surfing for God starts strong, with an intriguing story in the introduction about a skylark losing its feathers, gets you fully in its grip with Chapter One, "Getting Your Feathers Back," and finishes even stronger, with a Conclusion titled, "Becoming the Hero That You Are." All the while you feel like you're taking a leisurely walk or getting coffee with a friend.

 If you've struggled for very long with a sexual addiction you want to be free of you have likely tried many approaches and read several books to help you figure things out. Reading one more book may be the last thing you want to do, but please read this book. I promise you, you won't be sorry.

 You can read the first chapter of Surfing for God here: http://surfingforgodbook.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Surfing-for-God-Chapter-1.pdf

Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle by Michael John Cusick

Thomas Nelson; Paperback, 224 pages; and Kindle:  http://www.amazon.com/Surfing-God-Discovering-Beneath-Struggle/dp/0849947235/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336493302&sr=8-1
  

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Is the Self-Checkout Lane Really Faster?

I have to admit I was a little intimidated when grocery stores first came out with the self checkout lanes. Actually, I think a lot of people must have been intimidated by them because they didn’t seem to be very busy back then. I’d stand in the “express” lane—in quotes because of the inevitable person who ignores the 15 item limit—and look longingly at the empty self checkout lane and think about how much quicker I could be out of the store if only I could use that lane.

Eventually I was with my wife at the grocery store and she headed to the self-checkout. “It’s really easy,” she said, and lo and behold it did seem easy enough to give it a go myself. The next time I was at the store I tried it and now I use it almost exclusively. I’ve gotten pretty proficient with it, too, I have to say.

But now I’m beginning to wonder, is it really faster to use the self-checkout? For one thing, many shoppers have also figured out that it’s easy to use. That’s freed up a a lot of time for store employees to look at National Enquirer and People magazine, but it’s created long lines at the self-checkout.

It’s not a flawless system by any means, which is one of the reasons for the lines getting longer. You see, the most intimidating thing about using the self-checkout is dealing with “The Voice.” The Voice can be very hard to please. She’s got a certain way of doing things and she doesn’t like it when you don’t do things her way. In fact, if you don’t do it her way she’ll just stop working. And there are a lot of things she doesn’t like. If you get something just slightly in the wrong place she says, in a voice you wish was just a little quieter, “PLEASE REMOVE THE LAST ITEM FROM THE BAGGING AREA.” Sometimes it’s not always clear what you did that ticked her off, but nonetheless, she’s intimidating enough to make you scramble to figure out what’s upsetting her. Sometimes it’s something like not putting the milk in a bag that upsets her, and if you can’t figure it out fast enough she just shuts down and says, “an attendant has been notified.” Except the attendant is over at the customer service desk trying to line up a date with a coworker. Or reading People magazine.

But even if you didn’t have to contend with those issues, you’d still be facing the biggest challenge of all when it comes to self-checkout. I’ve “patiently” (in quotes because the APA rules state that anytime patient or one of its derivatives is used in a sentence along with my name it must be in quotes) waited in the self-checkout line and observed the following: one, friends and family members gathered around the checkout carrying on a leisurely conversation while just as leisurely checking out their groceries. I have to say women are the big offenders on this one. If you see guys gathered around one they’re just trying to figure out how to use the danged thing. Second, I’ve watched parents whose toddlers wanted to help check out the groceries, so you stand there while Billy selects the item he wants to scan, which happens to be the item Sally is holding, which, of course, starts a fight. Eventually, a truce is agreed to and Billy scans his item. Then it’s Sally’s turn, except she wants to check out the item that Billy hurriedly picked up . . . which, OF COURSE, starts another fight. And then you’ve got your shoppers who really should just go through an attended line but who insist on using the self-checkout, except they just can’t ever get the hang of it, so you stand there and wait while the attendant walks over from the customer service desk to check out their groceries.

Yeah, I know, I know. I’m really turning into a crotchety old man. Still, I think I’ve listed enough legitmate issues to force a rethinking of the whole notion of self-checkout. Don’t you think?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Get Twitter, Bash Christians!

As a 21st century Christian, I just want to say how grateful I am for modern technology and all it does for us. Oh, how I love my iPhone! Just ask my wife. The other night we went out for dinner and when we got to the restaurant I realized I’d left my iPhone home on the charger. We joked about the trauma it was going to cause me, but it was no easy thing, you know. It was the first time we’ve been apart in over 20 months. Do you remember the first time you left your child in someone else’s care? Yeah, like that. I’m always plugged in, just a few moments away from checking email or reading or posting Facebook status updates. You name it, there’s a lot I can do with that iPhone, including getting myself a Twitter account and bashing other Christians with it, if I decide to.

Yes, we should be truly grateful, for about the time all the old ways we Christians had for bashing other Christians were getting stale and boring, along came Facebook and Twitter to take us to new heights. See, we’ve always been good at beating up our fellow believers, but let’s face it, the old technology, if you even want to call it that, didn’t make it very easy. If you had a pulpit you could attack people from it, but that excluded most folks. The rest of us had to resort to spreading gossip one person at a time, hoping others would join in and help us get the word out that someone had a suspect theological view or was slipping in some area of his walk with God. That, or we could write an open letter, I guess, but that could take weeks, months even, to effectively question another’s theology or character, and if you were a nobody they might not find out your views anyway. I mean, who cares about an open letter from, well, from Chuck Roberts, for instance?

Thankfully, those days are over, which made it so much easier for Justin Taylor last Saturday when he wanted to get the word out about Rob Bell’s new book being full of heresy. By the end of the day it was a top ten trending topic on Twitter. That just wouldn’t have been possible in the old days. Personally, I can’t understand why Rob Bell didn’t tweet something back at Justin Taylor (and all the other Christian leaders who soon jumped on the Taylor bandwagon) unless somehow in all this heresy Bell’s gotten himself mixed up in he’s gotten the goofy idea that Jesus doesn’t like that sort of thing.

By now I’m sure you see through my tongue-in-cheek portrayal of my gratitude for the technology that makes a mess like this possible. Really, I’ve just been sad about it since I first read of it on Sunday morning. Sad, because it’s no way to treat another person, Christian or non-Christian. Sad, because the news of it is everywhere—including CNN.com--for the world to read about Christians bashing other Christians.

I want to be clear that, while I am no theologian, I do care about good theology. I believe it’s important to determine what’s true and to teach it, live by it. Theology affects every detail of our lives, so yes, it’s extremely important. I just believe love is even more important, more important than being right. I think Someone Else believed that, too.

Since what we believe about God matters so much, bad theology certainly needs to be confronted. But not in an unloving way. Not through Twitter. Try sending one of those old-fashioned letters first. You know, the old technology. If Rob Bell is teaching universalism, the idea that everyone gets into heaven, no matter what they believe or how they’ve lived, then I’ve got a problem with that. Is that what his new book is teaching? Who really knows? His book hasn’t been released yet. Justin Taylor just read a few advance chapters and rushed to his Twitter account to out Bell as a universalist. It reminds me of a time a man confronted me about a book I was taking an adult Sunday school class through, saying, “I’ve read the first chapter and the last chapter and skimmed the rest of the book and I don’t agree with a word that man says.” But at least that was said in a private conversation and not blasted to the world.

I want to be clear about another thing. I appreciate Justin Taylor and the Gospel Coalition. I appreciate Taylor’s leadership in putting together the ESV Study Bible, which I love. I am a frequent reader of the Gospel Coalition blog. I’m pretty certain I’m closer in my theology to Justin Taylor and the Gospel Coalition than to Rob Bell. Yet I am often troubled by what seems to be the arrogant mindset of so many in the Reformed movement. There’s so often an air of “we are the beacons of truth. Thank God for us, but it sure does get tiring dealing with all these theological midgets.”

Why is it that so many in Reformed circles seem so mean-spirited? I’m surprised by so many in the movement who write great tomes about Jesus and Paul and issues like forgiveness and yet feel free to say brutal things about another believer in a public forum. How does a good man like John Piper end up reTweeting the link to Justin Taylor’s blog on Saturday along with the words, “Farewell Rob Bell”?

Some apparently interpreted Piper’s words as meaning, “Rob Bell, you’re dead to me.” I think (I could be wrong) he was saying, “you’ve left the faith, so farewell, Rob Bell.” Interesting, because if I’m right it means Piper once considered Bell to be part of the faith, which, I would think, now leaves him open to criticism from others in the Reformed movement who considered Rob Bell to be gone from true Christianity a long time ago. The same way so many Reformers savaged Piper a few years ago for having the audacity to invite the likes of Rick Warren to speak at his conference. It also surprised me that Mark Driscoll joined the fray on Saturday. The same Mark Driscoll who once complained about the way John MacArthur took him to task in a magazine when he said he would have been willing to fly to Los Angeles at his own expense to hear MacArthur’s concerns privately. To be fair, Driscoll didn’t exactly bash Bell. But he did Tweet the link to Justin Taylor’s blog post with the words “Rob Bell Universalist?” That effectively helped spread the word to Driscoll’s many followers, giving them the opportunity to join the pile-on of Bell.

Again, do I think bad theology should be confronted? Yes! Quietly. With love as the guiding motive, not “being right.”

Still, it makes me long for the old days when we used to sit around the youth group bonfire and sing “and they’ll know we are Christians by our truth, by our truth, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our truth.”

Or was that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Letting God and Jesus Have a Turn

The other day I was trying to wake Linnea up to get ready to go to her day school. Waking her up is seldom easy, but I was trying to be extra gentle this morning because she’d been sick the past two days. On about my second or third trip into her room to say, “C’mon, Linnea, it’s time to get up,” she turned her head toward me—she was lying on her stomach—and said, “shhh, Dad, I’m praying.” “Oh, okay,” I said, and walked out of the room. I figured either she really was praying (her prayers have amazed me at times) or she’d stumbled onto a surefire way to play me for a fool. I was fairly convinced it was the latter, but, in the event she really was praying I didn’t want to interrupt. And I sure didn’t want to get in the way of what God might be doing in the heart of my little girl.

A few minutes later I went back to her room. She was lying on her back now with her hands pressed together like a steeple. Once again, I figured she was either pretty darned consistent; she’d heard me coming down the hall and put her hands together like praying hands to help convince me, when in reality she’d grabbed a few more minutes of sleep, or she really had been praying. A few seconds after I entered the room she said, “Okay, I’m done,” and climbed cheerily into my arms.

“What were you praying for?” I asked.

“I was praying for Uncle Rodney (Susanne’s uncle was in a motorcycle accident last Thursday) and for your shoulder to get better.”

“That’s great,” I said. “I appreciate you praying for me.”

Ten minutes later, as we were eating breakfast, Linnea said, “Dad, I’m sorry I took so long praying, but I was letting God and Jesus have a turn.”

“Letting God and Jesus have a turn. What do you mean?”

“I was letting them say something. It’s nice to let others have a turn, you know.”

“It sure is. And what did God and Jesus have to say?”

“They said they want Uncle Rodney to feel better, too, and for your shoulder to feel better and for me to not be sick.”

“Well that’s great. I sure appreciate you praying.”

Since our conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about “letting God and Jesus have a turn.” I’ve read a lot about prayer lately, contemplative prayer in particular, and one author suggested that perhaps too many of our prayers are taken up with our talking when, if it’s really a two-way conversation, we should be spending some of our prayer time just listening. It’s rare that I do that. I’m not a great prayer warrior; not nearly as committed to prayer as I both want and sense I need to be. I wonder what I might hear if I let God and Jesus have a turn sometimes? It can’t hurt to listen. Maybe a five year-old has something to teach me about prayer.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Christmas Reflection

Joseph, the Obedient Father

If you were God and you were working out an elaborate plan whereby one member of the Trinity would visit humankind, be born as a baby, and grow to manhood before revealing himself as the Messiah, you wouldn’t want him growing up in just any old home, right? Not that Jesus could have turned out badly, but because you’d want him in a caring environment where his parents saw to his physical and spiritual well-being. Much is made, as it should be, of Jesus’ mother Mary. She was a remarkable young woman whose words “let it be to me according to your word” should be our heartbeat. But we don’t hear as much about Joseph and I think that’s too bad.

We’re introduced to him in Matthew 1, where, after a long line of “___ the father of ___ and ___ the father of ___,” there’s “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born . . .” Right away you know something is different, which we know is the Virgin Birth, as we’re told in the following verses. Verse 18 tells us that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph and “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Except Joseph didn’t know the Holy Spirit part. Not yet.

I’m a marriage counselor and a large part of my practice is helping couples whose lives have been ravaged by an extramarital affair. I’ve sat across from couples and watched as the offended spouse battled with the shock and disillusionment of the betrayal. Their world has been turned upside down; everything they thought they knew is now up for grabs.

Was this what Joseph was feeling when he discovered Mary was pregnant? Did he sit there in disbelief as Mary told him (assuming she told him; Scripture doesn’t say) she’d been visited by an angel and that her pregnancy was the Holy Spirit’s doing? I’ve heard offending spouses weave some pretty remarkable explanations for the cause of their affairs. Was Joseph’s head spinning as this discovery was made? I don’t know, but I think we do an injustice to Joseph if we don’t consider the real possibility that he was feeling some of this. They were betrothed, which was a far higher level of commitment than engagement in our culture, and in our day, finding out the one you’re engaged to has had an affair is plenty bad. Our culture has cooked up the awful practice of “friends with benefits.” Betrothal was like marriage without benefits. You weren’t yet living together, there were no sexual relations, yet it would take a legal divorce to end the relationship. Surely Joseph and Mary had talked and dreamed together about their future. Their marriage might have been arranged yet it’s pretty clear they loved each other. We know from the text that Joseph loved Mary, which I’m going to get into shortly. We’re not told this by Scripture, but I’m assuming Mary loved Joseph because she had such incredible greatness of heart. With a heart like hers how would she not have loved Joseph? So undoubtedly they’d dreamed of the life they’d live together, the children they’d raise to be faithful to the Law, the carpentry trade he’d teach their boys. Was that spinning wildly in Joseph’s mind as he learned Mary was pregnant?

I think it’s clear that Joseph loved Mary because of verse 19: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Don’t get hung up on the divorce part. The Law allowed for that. It also allowed for Mary to be exposed, disgraced, and stoned to death. Joseph had a good heart; he wanted to continue his faithfulness to the law but in a way that would not hurt Mary. That’s sacrificial love.

Did Joseph know the extent to which Mary’s “out of wedlock” pregnancy would affect the rest of their lives? Did he know that his son’s parentage would be questioned, and those comments would call Mary’s integrity into question? Did he anticipate that he would be talked about, laughed at, as he went about his business in Nazareth? “Hey, there’s Joseph. What a rube! How na├»ve is that, to marry a girl who couldn’t even stay faithful during their betrothal?” Or, more likely, “well we know what you and Mary have been doing.”

I don’t know, I can only presume, what Joseph was thinking. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe not. What I’m sure of is that Joseph was a good man, just the sort of man you’d want to raise your son. He was a just man, faithful to the law. And he was led by God. Matthew 1:20 says “behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” In 2:13 it says “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” And again in 2:19 it says “an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.” Just like Mary, Joseph had a good heart. The angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says “marry this girl” and he does. He shows up again and tells Joseph “move to Egypt and stay there until I tell you” and he does. The angel of the Lord shows up yet again and says “it’s time to go home to Israel but don’t settle where Archelaus is” and he obeys. Mary said “behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In his own quiet way Joseph said that, too.