Tag: byFaith Magazine

Writing About Reprobation

Writing About Reprobation

Writing About Reprobation

J. Mark Bertrand, April 2011

As a crime novelist, I know there’s more than one problem of evil. Setting aside the philosophical question, which has more to do with how to justify evil’s presence in the world, there’s the matter of how to live with evil, how to cope with its ever-present taint.

We can resolve to be good. But when it comes time to measure our actions against a moral yardstick, we’re forced to decide just how pure a deed must be in order to qualify. Nobody’s perfect, after all. If we’re honest, even our whitest whites can look a little gray.

To some, though, to admit even that much suggests despair, or at the very least cynicism. We all make mistakes but, we’re tempted to think, that doesn’t mean we’re all evil. Sure, there are evil people out there, and they do terrible things, but most of us are basically good–aren’t we? Just because things aren’t always black-and-white doesn’t mean we have to surrender to moral ambiguity, looking for ulterior motives behind every good deed.

Which means that when nice, churchgoing people find out the kind of books I write and start offering up creative ways to commit a murder, eyes glowing with delight, I shouldn’t read too much into it.

But I do. Because the tone of my work has been classified as “dark.” The word “gritty” was used so often to describe my first novel, Back on Murder, that I started to wonder if I had sand in my teeth. And there are philosophical––indeed, theological––reasons for this orientation of vision. It reflects my own take on reality, which for lack of a better term, I’ll describe as “noir.”

“Hollow hearts and depraved sensibilities”

The word is French and its use in this context dates back to the mid-1940s. When the German occupation ended and Parisian moviegoers flocked back to the cinemas, they had a lot of catching up to do: several years’ worth of American films hit the screen in short order. Viewing them all at once, cinephiles noticed that something had changed. The moral melodramas of old Hollywood had been displaced. The tone of the stories had grown decidedly dark.

The French coined a phrase for it––film noir––inspired both by the thematic cynicism and the chiaroscuro visual style (itself influenced by a generation of exiled film directors, most notably Fritz Lang). The name not only stuck but came to denote both the movies and their pulp fiction source material, books by authors like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), Cornell Woolrich (The Bride Wore Black), and Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me).

Although noir was all about cops and crime, it was worlds apart from the classic detective tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout. Because it was so frank about the nature of evil and didn’t pit righteous heroes against despicable villains, many dismissed the new movement as degenerate. But the hard, vivid writing made noir compulsively readable––even though, like any strong style, it was equally easy to parody. Today, we know noir largely through the familiar stereotype. Wherever fedoras and trench coats are worn, wherever cigarette smoke fills the air, wherever femme fatales swish by in their formfitting sheaths, blinking their soft and treacherous eyes, we know we’re in the land of noir.

Film noir reigned supreme from the release of The Maltese Falcon in 1941 until well into the ’50s, and there have been frequent neo-noir revivals both in film (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential) and fiction (such as Denis Johnson’s recent Nobody Move). Grandmasters of the genre like Hammett and Chandler are now widely appreciated for their literary talents, having transcended the pulp label. Graham Greene, who had at least one foot in the genre, has always enjoyed such recognition.

Many authors who have been influenced by the noir tradition write books that don’t fit the gumshoe mold. What they have in common is a tone, a certain attitude toward the pervasiveness of evil. Arguments about what does and does not constitute noir are rife within the crime fiction community (mirroring in many ways the arguments about what is and is not Reformed in our own faith communities). Otto Penzler, editor and owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, threw a Molotov cocktail into the conversation last summer by insisting that, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe notwithstanding, noir wasn’t about private eyes.

The protagonists of noir fiction, then, are not champions of a moral order; if anything, they are its victims.

To put it simply, private eyes are good guys, and there are no good guys in noir. No one reaches the end of the story without being compromised. Private eyes solve cases and right wrongs, but in noir there are no solutions. There is no final justice. As Penzler says: “The noir story with a happy ending has never been written, nor can it be. The lost and corrupt souls who populate these tales were doomed before we met them because of their hollow hearts and depraved sensibilities.”

Penzler’s use of theological language here is interesting. The souls in noir fiction are “lost” and “corrupt.” They are “doomed before we met them”––predestined to damnation, so to speak––because of their depravity. The protagonists of noir fiction, then, are not champions of a moral order; if anything, they are its victims.

This view of noir definitely fits the work of classic authors like James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. In Postman, lovers Frank and Cora get away with the murder of Cora’s husband, but instead of living happily ever after, she dies in an accident and he is wrongly convicted of her murder. From the beginning, the specter of damnation looms large in Frank’s mind. “Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference,” he says after the murder. “I had to have her, [even] if I hung for it.” Even on death row, where he’s counseled by a priest, Frank’s vision of the afterlife is a fantasy of being with Cora again: “That’s when it seems real, about another life, not with all this stuff how Father McConnell has got it figured out.” Doomed from the start, it seems there was never hope for a guy like Frank, a reality all the more troubling since the reader can sympathize with the man.

The moral failure that noir fiction assumes is not just individual, it is systemic, obsessed not with the bad apple or the single sin, but with a pervasive human corruption that makes a mockery of our pretensions to goodness, law, and order.

By insisting on noir as a literature of reprobation, however, Penzler excludes as many classics as he includes, and restricts the noir label’s use among contemporary authors to those slavishly following James Cain’s damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t formula. But a more expansive view may be a better fit, which means finding a common denominator in noir other than the protagonist’s lack of moral center. The moral failure that noir fiction assumes is not just individual, it is systemic, obsessed not with the bad apple or the single sin, but with a pervasive human corruption that makes a mockery of our pretensions to goodness, law, and order.

“None is righteous, no, not one”

It’s ironic that Penzler would throw the hard-boiled private eyes under the bus, since Raymond Chandler did the same thing to the consulting detectives of yesteryear. In The Simple Art of Murder, the grandmaster of noir debunked stories by such luminaries as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Their scenarios are so contrived, their solutions so unlikely that “they do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not really come off artistically as fiction.” For Chandler, it was important to do both. And he saw the difference between his own writing and what had gone before as essentially a question of realism: “If the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen,” he argued, “they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived.”

Writing about the world as it really is would change the moral landscape of the classic detective story, where the trauma of evil is often underplayed in favor of the logical puzzle presented by the murder. When critics attempt to explain the appeal of the classic tales, they often invoke the Garden of Eden. The murderer enters, serpent-like, into the ordered world (creation), and by killing his victim shatters it (fall), casting the sleuth in the role of redeemer setting the broken world to rights. There is an appeal to this structure––certainly to Christian readers––but perhaps there is also a reactionary bent. In an age of lost certainty, readers yearn for what Eugene Peterson describes as “moral and intellectual breathing room.”

The decline of the classic detective tale in favor of hard-boiled noir came about, historically, at a time of great social upheaval. The critic Julian Symons goes so far as to link the decline of the classic detective tale with the decline of religious conviction: “In a detective story, good people and bad people are clearly defined and do not change (except for the bad person who is pretending to be good). Policemen will not beat up suspects, nor will the criminal’s state of mind be considered interesting, since the policemen are on the side of light and the criminal on the side of darkness. Where an awareness of sin in religious terms does not exist, the detective as witch doctor [a figure to expel the guilt of sin] has no function.”

Dividing the world into good and bad people like this, pitting the “side of light” against the “side of darkness,” suggests a Manichean moralism much more than a Christian one. By positing a lost order susceptible to restoration by a lone, rational hero, the classic story offers an escape to readers who fear that, in the real world, no such restoration is possible. Noir fiction, on the other hand, looks that broken reality in the face. Sometimes it revels in the extent of the Fall and sometimes it’s horrified by it––but noir never denies that everything’s gone wrong.

For all its pretensions to realism, of course, noir is still a kind of fantasy. For all the fun he has poking holes in Christie’s plots–– “This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop,” he writes of Murder on the Orient Express. “Only a halfwit could guess it”––Chandler’s own plots could be famously incomprehensible (see The Big Sleep). However, the fantasy does serve a purpose. In the same way that the exaggerated fairy tales of Lewis and Tolkein are particularly adept at bringing certain moral themes into focus, the exaggerations of noir serve a thematic purpose: to highlight the fact of corruption. Noir fiction, then, is a form of anti-escapist escapism. By exaggerating the visible darkness, it keeps us from denying that all is not light.

Compared to the real world, noir fiction is highly stylized. But next to the stylized world of the classic detective tale with its drawing rooms and butlers and obscure poisons, the hard-edged world of noir seems real indeed. Chandler is best understood in the context of Christie, and noir’s insistence on total corruption is best understood in the context of a world that insists on its fundamental justice and orderliness.

It’s no accident, then, that noir has proven such an effective vehicle for political novelists wanting to criticize oppressive law-and-order regimes. Many of Graham Greene’s later novels illustrate this, as do the noir novels of French author Jean-Patrick Manchette and (one example among many) Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho books. Wherever a charade of goodness and law and order is perpetrated, noir-inflected fiction is likely to spring up.

Which is perhaps why noir can be such a beneficial influence now. An affluent church proclaiming a message of health and wealth projects its own illusion of order, propagating its own set of moralistic assumptions, dividing the world up according to its own criteria. In such a context, a message of reprobation (even an exaggerated one) might be what is required to bring the real depth of human depravity into the light.

“A sense of anguish and a feeling of guilt”

In their history of American film noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton note that some critics have even argued for the operation of an essentially Christian morality in noir. After all, in noir evil never goes unpunished. The problem, they argue, is that noir grants an attractiveness to evil that Christian moralists never could. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank knows it’s a sin to commit adultery and murder, but he never repents. He doesn’t throw himself at the feet of Father McConnell, confessing in tears just how wrong it all was. Instead, right to the very end, only erotic visions of Cora have any real meaning to him. This is not how a Christian moralist wants to see evil depicted, any more than he wants the forces of order (the police, the judicial system, the church) to be represented ultimately as tools of injustice. Whatever evil he allows in the story needs to be balanced by the end, or so Borde and Chaumeton seem to think.

I would say that depends on the type of Christian theology in view. What is true for a christened moralist does not apply to one who sees the corrupting effects of the Fall as all-encompassing, who sees man’s depravity as total and therefore regards man’s institutions as structures in need of direction, not good in themselves.

Where Borde and Chaumeton shine is their description of the moral context of noir––a description that jibes with Raymond Chandler’s description of “life as it is really lived”: “It is one of the genre’s traits to be neither moral nor immoral, but ambivalent vis-a-vis morality (the ambivalence being more or less pronounced, depending on the case). [Noir’s] social universe is a world in which morality is breaking down: it retains the power to disturb our sensibility and to distort our vision of the real, but it no longer has the power to inhibit or to convince; and, in this twilight world, no new moral outlook is really in sight. In it, “vice” is seductive; it is nevertheless experienced as “vicious,” and the lawbreaker seems obsessed by a sense of anguish and a feeling of guilt. Set against this, the policeman, even when he doesn’t stink to high heaven, never smells very good: but one doesn’t see how to dispense with his services.”

This strikes me as a good description not just of a genre but of the world we inhabit. Our social universe is ever broken, ever breaking down, and knowledge of punishment––whether temporal or eternal––has little deterrent effect. We are seduced by vice, delighted by viciousness, and while this isn’t the only story to tell about us, it is a story we can’t lose touch with, as much as we’d like to.

So noir exists as the fiction of moral breakdown, the fiction of corruption, and yes, the fiction of reprobation. To its practitioners, this also makes it realistic fiction, because it depicts the world–this side of Christ’s coming–as it truly is: not a realm of Newtonian regularity on the path to an ever brighter future, but a shattered, dystopian place only putting on a show of law and order. And for an unreconstructed Calvinist, a hint of noir helps capture a world where it rains on the just and the unjust alike, where fools are rewarded and wise men punished, and where to the making of many books there is no end.
J. Mark Bertrand is the author of two crime novels, Back on Murder and the forthcoming Pattern of Wounds, and the nonfiction title Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World. He’s the writer behind Bible Design Blog, a site dedicated to “the physical form of the good book.” Bertrand is also a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.

Transforming Neighborhoods by Transforming Public Schools

Transforming Neighborhoods by Transforming Public Schools

Transforming Neighborhoods by Transforming Public Schools

Carolyn Curtis, May 2011

Despite our history of antagonism toward public schools, especially as a cultural darkness seems to have settled on them, it’s intriguing to wonder: what if Christians flooded public schools with practical help? What if Christians became more willing to enroll their children in public schools? And what if the lines between public and private educations began to blur?

Such “what ifs” describe a continuum of thinking and action in a growing number of Presbyterian churches. ByFaith spoke to laypeople and pastors in Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, and New York, asking what’s wrong with public schools, can we fix them (or even make a dent), and why should we consider supporting them now after so many years of building our own school systems that are safer, more academically sound, and biblically based?

Their answers may surprise you.

Some privately admit that helping public schools is the right thing, but they would never enroll their children in one. Others cite success stories of evangelism, discipleship, tutoring, and role modeling opportunities resulting from their personal involvement—factors that energize them to volunteer again. Some become involved but feel overwhelmed by what they describe as the cultural darkness, although they may stay with the effort because of the huge need. Others plow forward, convinced that engaging the public school community is part of God’s call.

An encouraging number told byFaith that they experience great personal joy in helping public schools. They see more reasons to rejoice, fewer reasons to grumble. They are tired of finger pointing, eager to serve. They are rewarded with a softening of their attitudes toward what they still may perceive as the sorry state of America’s public schools, because they see specific ways they are making a difference in lives of students, faculty, families, even the physical campus where they volunteer. These people see God at work in that environment, and they feel hope.

Transforming our communities

Many have caught the vision of leaders such as Drue Warner, director of Live, Work and Play Ministries at Atlanta’s Perimeter Church (PCA), who notes that churches have become more externally focused in the last decade. “We may have cared about our communities evangelistically, but we haven’t cared holistically about the needs of our communities. If we want to see God do a work of transformation in our communities, it really starts by building relationships with families, because there’s a lot of breakdown in families. And one of the best places to build a relationship with families is in our public schools. They’re the hubs of our communities.”

Warner recalls Christians’ earlier efforts to influence public schools, and “when it became obvious that we were not allowed to [lead with the gospel], we got mad and said, ‘Well, we’re going home.’ I think churches now have a perspective that is accurate, one that says, ‘You know what? We can preach the gospel in the public schools, and the way we’re going to do that is through our lives, by allowing teachers, students, families, and administrators to experience the love of Christ through our actions, with a goal of provoking them to ask questions, provoking them to curiosity.’ Once that happens, you can talk about whatever you want.”

Adds Warner: “The schools see through experience that the church is not here with an ulterior motive—our ultimate motive is to love, to serve, to bless. As they receive that, as they experience that, as they begin to trust us, to trust our hearts and motivation—they become very open and transparent. If we have a message of hope, they’re willing to listen.”

Warner shares an anecdote of how he found incentive after Atlanta’s large Perimeter Church had been casting a vision for members to invest themselves in public schools. He admits “though my heart wasn’t really in it, I felt like I needed to try this.”

He walked into a school, told administrators he lived in the community and was on staff at a church that encouraged members to volunteer at public schools. “Within half an hour they had me connected with a first-grade boy who didn’t have a dad at home. They said, ‘If you’ll come once a week and meet with him for 30 minutes over lunch, it would make a major difference in this boy’s life.’ I strolled out of there with a whole new view.”

The experience was so beneficial to both the pastor and the boy that Warner and his wife feel compelled to enroll their daughter in public school, even though—with Warner on staff—the family would have a scholarship to Perimeter Christian School.

“We may differ on whether public education is redeemable, but there is no doubt that the families and faculty who live and work there are objects of the Savior’s redemptive love.”

Would they be throwing their daughter to the wolves? No, says Warner. In addition to a commitment to have direct impact on what she learns by being more involved in her public education, the Warners have made peace with the realization that it’s their job as parents to teach her the Bible. They characterize the education and environment at Perimeter Christian School as “great,” but think the decision for public schooling is best for their family because of the intentionality with which they will be involved in their daughter’s academics, plus knowing that giving her a biblical worldview and kingdom perspective is their responsibility.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’”

A critically acclaimed documentary film entitled Waiting for ‘Superman’ was released in fall of 2010. The film analyzed failures of American public education by following several students through the system. Conservative critics praised the film, despite the director’s liberal stance, saying it added useful information and ideas to the debate.

Members of Indianapolis’s Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA) several years ago gave up waiting for Superman—caped or otherwise—and began a deliberate effort to rejuvenate the city’s public school system. Pastor Jason Dorsey, his wife, and four children lead by example.

Some, like the Dorseys, enrolled their children in Indianapolis Public Schools. Others did their part to reverse the trend of white flight/socio-economic flight by selling suburban homes and moving close to the church’s urban location, making it easier to volunteer and—just as important—to care about the schools which became their neighbors.

Dorsey is part of a grassroots partnership of educators, civic leaders, and neighbors called IPS Renewal, which counts among its goals the recruiting of gifted teachers, administrators, and principals, and a reversal of suburban flight—and an end to socioeconomic/ethnic isolation—due to the quality of inner-city schools.

In addition to Jesus calling His followers to be salt and light in the world—not retreating from it—Dorsey cites the trumpet call to service described in Isaiah 58, adding that public schools need rigorous Christian engagement. “Public schools are the frontlines of social problems facing our cities.”

He volunteers on Thursdays for lunch duty at a high school and coaches the junior varsity baseball team. His message to the public school system, its students and families: “In your poverty, in your suffering the wounds of a broken family, in the absence of male role models, I stand with you.”

Dorsey has warnings. “It is a false belief to assume that public schools can’t provide our children with top-notch educations. Our four children are receiving rigorous, holistic educations in IPS.

“And Christian parents must remember that sending one’s child to a Christian school will not make that child a Christian; only God’s regenerating power will do that.”

Helping a struggling system

Individual feedback from volunteers in public schools is a mishmash of joys, concerns, surprising blessings, and discouraging letdowns. Some report that the entire emotional spectrum occurs in one day of washing windows for a school or tutoring children or helping teachers or delivering basic supplies such as pencils that, without donations, educators would pay for out of their pockets. As a result, some volunteers retreat from the effort. Others plow forward, returning to public school campuses day after day, certain that God called them to this environment.

Many volunteers are committed to activities such as tutoring, even stopping by a school on their way to work or during their noon hour to read to a classroom of rowdy students while a flustered teacher prepares another lesson or simply catches his or her breath.

“Hands-on is our best method of helping a struggling system,” explains Kim Blankenship, who works at Second Presbyterian (EPC) of Memphis. “Believers are called to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

Blankenship tells a familiar story among churches who partner with schools. Sandy Willson, senior minister, asked the Memphis school superintendent a question: “What can we as a church do to help?” The need was obvious; an overwhelming majority of the city’s students qualified for free lunches, an indicator of poverty, and graduation rates were among the nation’s lowest. The superintendent answered, “We’d love your help!” and recommended joining the Adopt-A-School program.

So Second Presbyterian began what Blankenship describes as a partnership with neighboring Berclair Elementary, where the need was great.

“A lot of our neighbors are in public schools … people we are called to love … and an awful lot of people are essentially dying in those public schools.”

She shares examples of educators who became so frustrated they had to scream to control their classrooms. Contributing factors, says Blankenship, were overcrowded classrooms that are underresourced and other behavior issues that are exhibited in the students.

“Little structured discipline exists in our public schools. Many of these children come from stressful home lives which carries over into misbehaving at school. Teachers deal with this by themselves all day, so when we come in we provide a different approach—we come to assist the teacher and love the children. Church volunteers provide a calming presence as soon as we enter, perhaps because we are someone other than the teacher or because the kids sense something special about the hearts of these Christ-centered volunteers.”

Among positive outcomes: Berclair Elementary now has higher teacher retention rates. The school passed its required standardized testing. Parent involvement has increased in activities such as cleaning up the school grounds. Adds Blankenship: “Teachers trust church volunteers enough to allow us access to all parts of life at Berclair, even to the extent of adding a desk in a classroom for loyal volunteers. Berclair is a positive and happy place to be, because we see the work of Christ being done and we see changes.”

Softening our attitudes

Leaders provide guidance about being realistic and softening our attitudes. Ray Cortese leads Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church in Lecanto, Florida. Warns Cortese: “I don’t think we need to soften our opinion of the limitations of any education that fails to recognize the heart of all truth—the reality of God. We do need to engage, though.

“Jesus associated with those far from God (tax collectors and prostitutes) much to the chagrin of the religious right of His day. He came to seek and to save the lost. Seeking connotes actively going to where the lost are. Those ‘lost’ in our communities are in public schools. If we are not there as teachers, coaches, mentors, etc., then we are not very wise seekers. We may differ on whether public education is redeemable, but there is no doubt that the families and faculty who live and work there are objects of the Savior’s redemptive love.”

Seven Rivers Church asked a member, a public school principal, if he would welcome workers onto his campus. His enthusiastic answer led to a church partnership with the school. The experience was so validating to the principal that he expressed his joy—tearfully—at an event, saying “My two worlds are finally coming together.”

Hearing this, member Wendy Busk realized that the principal “saw that his calling to education was fully embraced by his church—that we are ‘for’ him, and it was healing.”

Tim Keller, pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Church, makes the case that Jeremiah 29:7 “tells us to seek the peace and shalom of the whole city.” Keller adds: “A lot of our neighbors are in public schools … people we are called to love … and an awful lot of people are essentially dying in those public schools.” Keller points out that many kids leave a flawed public school system only to land back in poverty, incapable of getting into college or the job market.

“You can pick them up off the streets 30 years later and help them at the soup kitchen and feel really good about yourself, but if you’d actually made the schools better they might never have landed on the streets. Pragmatically, not even theologically, [helping public schools] is a way to help your community so that it doesn’t need to spend as much money on other social services later.”

“I love Christian schools,” Keller says. “I think they’re competition for public schools in a good way. Just like starting a new church is one of the best ways of renewing the older churches.

But if Christians withdraw; if we tell the rest of the world, we really don’t want to have anything to do with you, if we take that attitude about the public schools, then we’re abandoning the common good.”

Carolyn Curtis is an author, editor, and speaker living in Fort Worth, Texas.

Article originally posted by “byfaith Magazine”  at http://byfaithonline.com

Praying Beyond the Sick List

Praying Beyond the Sick List

Praying Beyond the Sick List

David Powlison, Issue Number 8, April 2006

It sounds so simple. Pastors could so easily pray for the sick—pointedly and intelligently—couldn’t they? But so often these prayers from the pulpit sound like a nursing report at shift change in your local hospital: “The colon cancer in room 103 with uncertain prognosis … the lady in 110 with a gall bladder that’s not yielding to treatment … the broken leg that’s mending well … the heart patient going into surgery on Tuesday under Dr. Jones’s skilled hands … .”

Visitors to many of our churches might understandably conclude that God isn’t very good at doing what we ask, that He is just there to perk up our health. Chronic illnesses gradually fill up our prayer lists, and deep down we know that every person in every pew will die sooner or later. Pastoral prayers, prayer meetings, and prayer lists can have the net effect of actually disheartening and distracting the faith of God’s people. Prayer becomes either a dreary litany of familiar words, or a magical superstition verging on hysteria. This kind of prayer either dulls our expectations of God, or hypes up fantasy presumptions.

Prayers for the sick can even become a breeding ground for cynicism: those who improve would have gotten better anyway, right? This is easy to believe as nature takes its course or as medical interventions bring about predictable results. Or those who don’t improve may be questioned about their faith. Prayer can become a breeding ground for bizarre ideas and practices—a spiritually sanctioned version of the exact same obsession with health and medicine that characterizes the wider culture, naming and claiming your healing, a superstitious belief that the quantity or the fervency of prayer is decisive in getting God’s ear; the notion that prayer has some intrinsic “power.”

Changing How We Pray

It’s hard to learn how to pray—for the sick as well as the healthy. How often do we make intelligent, honest requests for something we need from capable, trustworthy friends? Prayer is a lot like that. But somehow when the making of a request is termed “praying” and the capable party is termed “God,” things tend to get tangled. You’ve seen it, heard it, done it: the contorted syntax, formulaic phrasing, meaningless repetition, “just reallys,” vague non-requests, artificially pious tone of voice, air of confusion. If you talked to your friends or parents that way they’d think you’d lost your mind. But what if your understanding of prayer changes, and if your practice of prayer then changes? What then? What if the prayer requests you make—and the ones you ask others to make—change? Consider a few factors that can bring about such change.

The Sick: Keeping Spiritual Issues in View

First, notice a few things about James 5:13-20. This passage is the warrant for praying for the sick. It is certainly significant that James explicitly envisions prayer not in a congregational setting, but in what we might think of as a counseling setting. The sick person asks for help, meets with a few elders, honestly confesses sins, repents, and draws near to God. James describes earnest prayer as affecting both the physical and spiritual state of that person. Is it wrong to pray from the pulpit for sick people? Of course not. But we should consider that the classic text on praying for the sick describes something highly personal and interpersonal.

Notice also how pointedly James keeps spiritual issues in view. His letter is about growing in wisdom, and he doesn’t change that emphasis when it comes to helping the sick. What he writes is predicated on his understanding that suffering presents an occasion to become wise, a good gift from above: “Count it all joy when you meet various trials … If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask … .” He has already illustrated this regarding the issues of poverty, injustice, and interpersonal conflict. Now he illustrates it regarding sickness.

James’ focus on spiritual issues does not mean that people get sick because they’ve sinned. They do sometimes: IV drug use and sexual immorality do, for instance, lead to AIDS on occasion. People do reap in sickness what they sow in sin. But made into a universal rule, that idea is mere superstition. Remember Job’s heartless counselors.

God meets us in sickness, and we experience new dynamics through that meeting. Sickness can force us to stop and face ourselves, to stop and find the Lord. We discover sins we’ve been too busy to notice: neglectfulness, irritability, indifference, self-indulgence, unbelief, joylessness, worries, complaining, drivenness in work, trust in our own health and ability. As our need for Jesus’ mercies is quickened, our delight in God deepens. We will develop fruit of the Spirit that can develop no other way than by suffering well: endurance of faith, hope and joy that transcend circumstances, mature character, richer knowledge of the love of God, living for God not self, the humility of weakness, the ability to help others who suffer. (See Jam. 1:3; Rom. 5:3-5; 1 Pet. 1:6-8, 4:1-3; 2 Cor. 12:9f.)

And sickness, like any weakness or trouble, is itself a temptation. Whether you face life-threatening disease or just feel lousy for a couple days, it is amazing what that experience can bring out of your heart. Some people complain and grumble, getting grouchiest with the people who care most. Others get angry—at God, at themselves, at others, at the inconvenience. Others pretend nothing is wrong, denying reality. Others pretend they’re sicker than they are, seeking an excuse to avoid the responsibilities of job, school, or family. Some invest vast hopes, time, and money in pursuing doctor after doctor, book after book, drug after drug, diet after diet, quack after quack. Still others keep pressing on with life, doing, doing, doing—when God really intends that they stop and learn the lessons of weakness. Others become deeply fearful—“perhaps this is the big one”—imagining the worst, And others get depressed. Feeling lousy physically becomes an occasion to question the meaning and value of their entire existence. Some are too proud or embarrassed to ask for help. Others manipulate everyone within reach to serve their every need. Some brood that God must be out to get them, becoming morbidly introspective about every real or imaginary failing.

Sickness provides one of the richest opportunities imaginable for spiritual growth and pastoral counseling, as James 5 makes clear. Is God interested in healing any particular illness? Sometimes, sometimes not. But is He always interested in making us wise, holy, trusting, and loving, even in the context of our pain, disability, and dying? Yes, yes again, and amen.

People learn to pray beyond the “sick list” when they realize what God is really all about.

Longing for Christ’s Kingdom

Consider the vast biblical teaching on prayer. How many of Scripture’s prayers focus on sickness? A significant few, giving good warrant to plead passionately with God for healing. In Isaiah 38, Hezekiah pleads for restoration of health, and he is healed. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul prays earnestly three times to be delivered from a painful affliction—but this time God says no. Psalm 35:12-14 mentions heartfelt prayer for the restoration of the sick, and portrays this as a natural expression of loving concern. Both Elijah and Elisha passionately plead with God on behalf of only sons whose sicknesses end in death, devastating their mothers (1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4). In both cases God mercifully restores them.

Coming at the issue from the opposite direction, the Bible’s last word on Asa is negative because “his disease was severe, yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but the physicians” (2 Chronicles 16:12). He is chided for failing to pray through sickness. Prayer has varying degrees of intensity, with supplication and outcry being the strongest. It is striking how passionate and blunt the prayers for healing are. These passages vividly challenge the perfunctory and medicine-centric prayers that often are said, even by people preoccupied with praying for the sick. When you pray for the sick, and as you teach the sick to seek God for themselves, it ought to be a fiercely thoughtful firestorm.

However, the majority of prayers in the Bible focus on other things. As shorthand, here are three emphases of biblical prayer: circumstantial prayers, wisdom prayers, and kingdom prayers. Praying for the sick is one form of the first.

1. Sometimes we ask God to change our circumstances—heal the sick, give us daily bread, protect us from suffering and evildoers, make our political leaders just, convert our friends and family, make our work and ministries prosper, provide us with a spouse, quiet this dangerous storm, send us rain, give us a child.

2. Sometimes we ask God to change us—deepen our faith, teach us to love each other, forgive our sins, make us wise where we tend to be foolish, help us know You better, give us understanding of Scripture, teach us how to encourage others.

3. Sometimes we ask God to change everything by revealing Himself more fully on the stage of real life, magnifying the degree to which His glory and rule are obvious—Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, be exalted above the heavens, let Your glory be over all of the earth, let Your glory fill the earth as the waters cover the sea, come Lord Jesus.

In the Lord’s prayer we see examples of all three. They are tightly interwoven when we pray rightly. The Lord’s kingdom (#3) involves the destruction of our sins (#2) and our sufferings (#1). His reign causes a flourishing of love’s perfect wisdom and a wealth of situational blessing. Prayers for God to change my circumstances and to change me are, in their inner logic, requests that He reveal His glory and mercy on the stage of this world.

When any of these three strands of prayer gets detached from the other two, prayer tends to go sour. If you just pray for better circumstances, then God becomes the errand boy (usually somewhat disappointing) who exists to give you your shopping list of desires and pleasures—no sanctifying purposes, no higher glory. Prayer becomes gimme, gimme, gimme. If you only pray for personal change, then it tends to reveal an obsession with moral self improvement, a self-absorbed spirituality detached from engaging with other people and the tasks of life. Where is the longing for Christ’s kingdom to right all wrongs, not just to alleviate my sins so I don’t feel bad about myself? Prayer pursues self-centered, morally-strenuous asceticism, with little evidence of real love, trust, or joy. If we only pray for the sweeping invasion of the kingdom, then prayers tend towards irrelevance and overgeneralization, failing to work out how the actual kingdom rights real wrongs, wipes away real tears, and removes real sins. Such prayers pursue a God who never touches ground until the last day.

Practicing the Three Strands of Prayer

We could give countless examples of these three strands of prayer operating wisely. Let me note a few. Consider the Psalms, the book of talking with God. About 90 psalms are “minor key.” Intercessions regarding sin and suffering predominate—always in light of God revealing His mercies, power, and kingdom. The battle with personal sin and guilt appears in about one third of these intercessions. Often there are requests that God make us wiser: “teach me,” “make me understand,” “revive me.” God reveals Himself (“for your name’s sake”) by changing us. Many more psalms reveal requests to change circumstances: deliver us from evildoers, be our refuge and fortress amid suffering, destroy Your enemies. These, too, are always tied to requests that God arrive with kingdom glory and power. God reveals Himself by making all these bad things and bad people go away. Then there are the 60 or so “major key” psalms. In these you see emphasis on the joy and praise that characterize God’s kingdom reign in action.

Look at the prayers of Philippians 1:9-11 and Colossians 1:9-14. There is no mention of circumstances, no requests to be healed, fed, protected, or for other people to change. The requests focus entirely on gaining wisdom in the light of the coming glory of God’s kingdom. These two prayers plead with God on behalf of other people that two kinds of love would deepen: May God make you know Him better. May God make your love for people more intelligent.

Look too at Ephesians 1:15-23 and 3:14-21. These intercessions focus on wisdom in the light of Christ’s glory. Again, there are no circumstantial requests. In fact, there aren’t even requests to grow in intelligent love for others. But Paul zeroes in on what we most need: I ask that God would make you know Him better.

Praying Beyond the Sick List

Why don’t people pray beyond the sick list? We want circumstances to improve so that we might feel better and life might get better. These are often honest and good prayers—unless they’re the only requests. Unhinged from the purposes of sanctification and from groaning for the coming of the King, prayers for circumstances become self-centered. Learn, and teach others, to pray with the three-stranded braid of our real need. You will pray far beyond the sick list. And you will pray in a noticeably different way for the sick.

David Powlison is editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling and is a counselor and faculty member of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). Dr. Powlison s the author of Speaking Truth in Love (Punch Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2005.)

© 2006 Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. This article is adapted from one published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling Vol. 23 No. 1.

Luther’s Simple Way to Pray

In the spring of 1535 Martin Luther’s barber and good friend, Peter Beskendorf, asked Luther for his advice on a simple way to pray. In response Luther wrote a 34-page booklet. A portion of the introduction reads as follows:

Dear Master Peter:

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 that I! Amen.

First, when I feel that I have become cool and joyless in prayer because of other tasks or thoughts (for the flesh and the devil always impede and obstruct prayer), I take my little Psalter, hurry to my room, or, if it be the day and hour for it, to the church where a congregation is assembled and, as time permits, I say quietly to myself and word-for-word the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do.

It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas that tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs, which so hold your attention and involve you that noting comes of prayer for that day.

It may well be that you may have some tasks which are as good or better than prayer, especially in an emergency. There is a saying ascribed to St. Jerome that everything a believer does is prayer, and a proverb says, “Those who work faithfully pray twice.” This can be said because believers fear and honor God in their work and remember the commandment not to wrong anyone, or to try to steal, defraud, or cheat. Such thoughts and such faith undoubtedly transform their work into prayer and a sacrifice of praise….

Yet we must be careful not to break the habit of true prayer and imagine other works to be necessary which, after all, are nothing or the kind. Thus at the end we become lax and lazy, cool and listless toward prayer. The devil who besets us is not lazy or careless, and our flesh is too ready and eager to sin and is disinclined to the spirit of prayer….

For more information on Martin Luther’s simple way to pray, contact Serve International / P.O. Box 71716 / Marietta, GA 30007 / 770-642-2449 / www.kingdomprayer.org.

Pursuing Beauty in Light of the Gospel

Pursuing Beauty in Light of the Gospel

Pursuing Beauty in Light of the Gospel

Susan Fikse, Issue Number 30, January 2011

I didn’t eat yesterday
And I’m not gonna eat today
And I’m not gonna eat tomorrow
’Cause I’m gonna be a supermodel!
So beautiful, beautiful
I’m gonna be a Supermodel
I’m young and I’m hip—
So beautiful, beautiful

Jill Sobule’s lyrics to “Supermodel” may seem ridiculous, but for many 13-year-old girls, these words voice a dream. In a culture obsessed with celebrity, fame, youth, and beauty, what better way to achieve significance than to join the glamorous world of supermodel celebrities?

Seeking to find acceptance and significance in a confused world, girls pursue what appears to matter most: a “perfect” external package. Clearly, even celebrities themselves can’t measure up to the airbrushed image of perfection that beckons from glossy magazine covers. What drives 23-year-old celebrity Heidi Montag to undergo 10 plastic surgeries in one day? We watch in disbelief, maybe even disgust, yet many follow her straight to the operating table. Cosmetic surgeries increased more than 66 percent from 1997 to 2009, costing Americans nearly $6 billion. And that doesn’t include Botox injections or hair implants.

Anyone who ingests American media—from watching an NFL game, surfing the Internet though Google searches, or even reading Ladies’ Home Journal—absorbs the same overwhelming message. Beauty, youth, and thin thighs are worthy of exultation. As Christians we know the bathroom scale doesn’t measure the value of our lives. But, do we examine our own choices in dieting, concealing wrinkles, spending on the latest fashions, or whitening our teeth in light of the gospel?

As Christians, we have a better answer than “beauty is only skin deep” to offer a culture with misguided—and potentially dangerous—ideas about what makes a person beautiful. However, in answering our culture’s errors, we often commit our own, focusing on a legalistic list of acceptable choices or focusing solely on the spiritual while denigrating the physical. These answers fail to acknowledge that the human longing for beauty reveals our need and desire for the source of true and lasting beauty. As theologian T.M. Moore writes, “Our souls are impoverished and even wounded when we fail to attend properly to our need for beauty.”

What lies beneath our culture’s obsession with appearance and perfection? How can Christians embrace our human appetite for beauty as a yearning for transcendence and articulate an alternate vision—one that points our culture toward the ultimate redemption of all things?

A Toxic Environment

In his documentary America the Beautiful, Darryl Roberts sets out to answer the question: “What causes us to obsess over physical beauty and not appreciate the things that truly make women beautiful?” His conclusion that the fashion industry and media are culpable of exalting an unrealistic ideal comes as no surprise to most observers. Last year, The New York Times implausibly suggested that the quickest way to lose weight was to secure a photo shoot for a magazine cover. Celebrities Kelly Clarkson, Kim Kardasian, and Jessica Alba were all “digitally reduced” for magazine covers. Clothing designer Ralph Lauren continues to suffer boycotts for publishing a bizarre image of model Filippa Hamilton, who was so disfigured by digital alterations that one magazine compared her to a “string of spaghetti.”

Jonathan Edwards on Beauty

Perhaps Jonathan Edwards is best known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Given this reputation, few people imagine the New England pastor to be a foremost thinker on beauty. Yet, a new compilation of Edwards’ works, The Essential Edwards Collection, devotes an entire volume to Jonathan Edwards on Beauty.

Editors Strachan and Sweeney write, “The study of true beauty was for Edwards the study of God…. The Lord had in fact crafted a great plan by which to express beauty and to make His glory known…. He set in motion an arc of glory that began with Himself, moved to creation, continued with the incarnation of Christ, moved next to the church, the bride of Christ, and is consummated in heaven, where the Holy Trinity dwells.”

Edwards’ theology from his earliest days as a Yale scholar focused on the transcendent glory of God as its centerpiece. Any beauty that we see in creation begins and ends in the Lord, argued Edwards. “There is an infinite fullness of all possible good in God, a fullness of every perfection, of all excellency and beauty, and of infinite happiness…,” he writes. This infinite fountain of light, good, knowledge, moral excellence, and beauty becomes a “fountain flowing out in abundant streams, as beams from the sun.”

Carolyn Costin, founder of Monte Nido, a treatment center for people with eating disorders, marvels at the absurdity of paying $30,000 a week to supermodels who are the same height and weight of girls in treatment for anorexia nervosa. Though images on magazine covers and TV ads may seem harmless as we pass them in the grocery store or while flipping channels, they trigger a dangerous reaction in the most vulnerable viewers. Costin describes those who develop eating disorders as cultural “canaries in the coal mine.” In the past, Canaries were used to test the toxicity of mines because of their acutely sensitive constitutions, ensuring safety for the miners coming behind them. Costin suggests that those suffering from eating disorders are a signal, a warning sign showing us what’s happening in a culture where what you look like is more important than who you are.

The most imperiled in this toxic environment are young women, says Alison Cross, a licensed professional counselor and member of East Cobb Presbyterian Church (PCA) church in Georgia. Cross explains that young girls get the message early on, and as early as age 5 can identify what is deemed beautiful and what is not. They quickly learn to equate thin with beautiful. An American Diabetes Association study revealed that 55 percent of girls ages 7 to 12 said they want to be thinner. It’s not a far step to high school, where 11 percent of students are diagnosed with eating disorders.

That’s why Cross speaks to young women as part of her Body, Beauty, and Bravery Project. “We don’t want to give media the power of defining what beauty is, she says. “Instead, we can develop an awareness of the messages [out there] and how we incorporate them into the ways we view ourselves.” It’s important, Cross says, that we reject those messages and that “we speak up for ourselves and each other.”

Many secular solutions end with this message: Refuse to believe the media hype, and value yourself for who you are. That’s an important place to start—especially for the girls who’ve been bombarded by the images, who’ve been told, day after day, that they, when compared to some notion of the perfect ideal, are woefully flawed. But this solution falls far short of offering a compelling alternative. The truth is, if we fall short of supermodels, actresses, and star athletes, how can we measure up to the Source of all beauty? In order to fulfill our quest for beauty, we must acknowledge the hidden search for love and acceptance, attachment and belonging that drives our striving for external perfection.