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Gene Veith's Spirituality of the Cross

Given the busyness of Advent and Christmas, the book club elected to move their meeting time back to the first Sunday in January.  We will meet after church again and are looking for volunteers to help cook the meal.  

Gene Veith's The Spirituality of the Cross won the vote for next book to read.  Gene Veith has an active and interesting blog, updated daily at geneveith.com.  He has written much about our faith, especially on the topic of vocation.  A discussion thread on his book will follow in a few weeks.

December Nominees

Nominations for December's book club include:

Life in a Jar:  The Irena Sendler Project by Jack Mayer.  It's available in audiobook and eBook.

God's Smuggler by Brother Andrew.  It's available in audobook and eBook.

Humor on the Way to Heaven by Janet Gillespie-Orsborn.  Janet is engaged to Larry Orsborn and visited Holy Cross last Lent with him.

Spirituality of the Cross by Gene Veith.  This is available in eBook.

Life in a Jar tells the true WWII-era story of a Polish Catholic social worker who organized her fellow workers to save thousands of Jewish children, "talking mothers out of their children."

God's Smuggler is a classic true-life tale of smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.  Brother Andrew's famous prayer at the border was "Lord, make seeing eyes blind," carrying Bibles in his Volkswagon Beetle.

Humor on the Way to Heaven has a youtube video to tell its story, here.  The book is written from the experience of caregiving at life's end, shining a light on the humor that can be found even in the midst of grief.

Spirituality of the Cross shows why the "Lutheran spirit" runs counter to (and deeper than) so many of the spiritualities of this age.  For an explanation of what Veith means by "spirituality of the cross," read this short piece.  The full book paints the picture of a Jesus-centered spirituality that we live day by day in our vocations

November Book: The Screwtape Letters

November Book Club will meet after church, November 26 to discuss C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.  This was one of the closest votes yet, with two of the books just behind.  I suspect we will take up one of the other nominees in future months.

You can find The Screwtape Letters in many different formats.  It has gone through several printings and has a number of audiobook options, ranging from John Cleese to Andy Serkis.  (Do watch on the audio versions that some are abridged.)

On Fasting

In one of the earliest Christian writings outside of the Bible, we read that the first Christians regularly fasted twice a week (Didache, 8).  For many modern Christians, however, fasting is not a spiritual tool regularly handled.  Some will attempt some kind of fast during Lent; some never at all.

That leaves us with basic questions about what fasting is for and how to practice it. ¬†The Bible does not obviously answer those questions because the first-century audience included many people who assumed basic practices of fasting. ¬†When Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, He also assumes fasting, saying, ‚ÄúWhen you fast‚Ķ‚ÄĚ (Matthew 6:16).

Looking through the Old Testament, we can see different kinds of fasting.  Individuals fast when they are grieving (2 Samuel 1:12; 3:35) and when they are seeking the Lord (Esther 4:15-16; Daniel 9:3).  Communities fast in repentance (Judges 20:26; Jeremiah 36:9; Jonah 3:5) and in solemn preparation to receive atonement (Leviticus 16:19-21).  In the New Testament, the church fasts before the start of ministry (Acts 13:2; 14:23).

There are also notable moments where fasting is expected but doesn’t happen.  In Matthew 9:14-17, the disciples of John ask Jesus why they and the Pharisees fast but Jesus and His disciples do not.  Jesus answers that His disciples will fast, but not as long as the bridegroom is among them.  In that exchange, Jesus connects fasting with mourning (9:15).  David is also considered remarkable since he did not fast for his child who died (2 Samuel 12:16-23).  David indicates that he mourned and sought the life of the child while he was alive, but that once the child had passed, the child was with the Lord (12:23).

These instances of not-fasting help us see what fasting is for.  Fasting is a physical expression of mournfulness, recognizing our absence from God.  This is why it is anathema for Jesus to see a person who fasts become proud while fasting (Matthew 6:16-18; Luke 18:12-14).  You are doing fasting wrong if you are pleased with yourself for what you are doing.

The right spirit of fasting is expressed by the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28).  When she does not hear an answer from God, she persists in prayer.  She does not look for the full meal, for even the crumbs of the Lord’s table will satisfy her.  The person who fasts is trying to decrease the satisfaction taken in the lesser good (usually food), in order to heighten appreciation of the greater good of God’s gracious presence.

Looking back, then, to the kinds of fasting we considered in the Bible, we can make better sense of them.  Fasts for public grieving or public repentance invite the community to join in the grief of the shared loss or shared sin.  These fasts cannot be hidden fasts, as Jesus enjoins in Matthew 6:16-18, because there is little temptation to individual pride.  Furthermore, there is love to be shared if the community bonds through a shared fast.  It is the private fast done individually for self-discipline that Jesus insists be done like almsgiving and prayer, without any attention drawn to the self.

Luke 18:12-14 describes a man who does all those good deeds- praying, fasting, and giving away his property- but not being justified by what he does. ¬†He is left to his pride because his acts are self-worship. ¬†Jesus explains how this works (or doesn‚Äôt work) in Luke 7:36-50. ¬†The man who thinks he has little to be forgiven for loves little, but the ‚Äúsinful woman‚ÄĚ who grieves her sin becomes full of love when she is forgiven much. ¬†Christian fasting, therefore, will uncover our need for forgiveness, preparing the ground for rich seeds of Gospel love. ¬†Unchristian fasting hides the need for forgiveness by imagining how much better the life is directly because of the fast (or almsgiving or prayer).

Therefore, it is dangerous in fasting to give up something you think you maybe need to be giving up anyway. ¬†The New Testament makes it clear that there is no holiness to be found in a particular diet. ¬†‚ÄúFood will not commend us to God. ¬†We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do‚ÄĚ (1 Corinthians 8:8). ¬†‚ÄúDo you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach and is expelled‚ÄĚ (Mark 7:19). ¬†If, instead of following Jesus and Paul, you try to combine a fast and a diet because you need to lose some weight, too, the spiritual self-discipline gets lost in the earthly gains. ¬†It is hard to suppress pride when you are feeling healthier.

In the first century, remember, food was not primarily seen in the prism of health concerns we have today.  Food was not just for nourishment, but also for fellowship (Luke 15:2) and celebration (Luke 22:15-16).  Withdrawal from food was not only seen as physically debilitating (Matthew 4:2) but also lonely (John 4:31-32).  The choice not to eat was clearly one in which you temporarily gave up an agreed upon good thing in order to get a more secure hold on the only eternal good.

This is why discussion of fasting needs to also discuss the breaking of the fast.  When you return to the minor good once more, it is a Gospel moment, a celebration of God’s gracious giving.  Consider the fast Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 7:5.  Husband and wife fast sexually in order to devote themselves to prayer, but their return to one another is assumed.  When David breaks his fast, his actions also are focused on sharing comfort as God’s gift (2 Samuel 12:24).

The pattern of fasting, therefore, is separation from an earthly good to give mournful focus, disciplining our pride.  Then, when this is accomplished, we come back to God, receiving His gifts with joy and thanksgiving.  This is the rationale of another ancient Christian practice, to fast before receiving the Eucharist, breaking your fast with the Bread of Life.

There may be other earthly fasts we attempt to control our earthly lives. ¬†Before a surgery, we stop eating. ¬†If we find smartphones taking over our lives, we force ourselves to power down. ¬†If sports or news are enraging us, we go take a walk. ¬†If clutter closes in, we konmari away. ¬†If acid reflux is churning, we limit ourselves to one deep fried twinkie a day. ¬†These things can all make us healthier in this life. ¬†But food will not commend us to God, and neither will landline phones, cable cord cutting, and emptied closets. ¬†Indeed, you can praise God, thanking him for the opportunity to launch an angry bird, to cheer a touchdown, and even to take a bite of deep fried goo. ¬†‚ÄúFor everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer‚ÄĚ (1 Timothy 4:4-5). ¬†That is the ironic goal of fasting, to come back to His creation in thanksgiving.

November Book Club Nominations

The first book nominated (by two different people) for November's book club is Mission at Nuremburg by Tim Townsend.  This history tells  of Lutheran pastor and Army chaplain Henry Gerecke, who was tasked wtih ministering to the Nazi war criminals after WWII.  Before ministering to the men who had planned and executed the holocaust and war that wracked the world, Gerecke visited Dachau.  He was horrified at what he saw.  Nevertheless, he believed Jesus had died for even those Nazis.  When Gerecke's assignment was ended, the prisoners wrote letters to Gerecke's wife begging he be allowed to continue his ministry to them.  The Bible speaks of "overcoming evil with good."  How would some of the men harboring the greatest evil history has recorded respond to the good of Christ's call to repent and find life in Him?

Mission at Nuremburg is available in hardback, paperback, and ebook.

The second book nominated (again by two different people) is the classic Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  An Oxford don, Lewis (1898-1963) came to faith late in life, but once he believed, he wrote one Christian classic after another.  The Screwtape Letters imagines a series of letters written from one demonic tempter to another.  How do the tempters try and break our faith, pulling us away from God?  That's the funny and imaginative story Lewis spins.

Screwtape Letters is available in any format books can be found.  KY libraries offer both the ebook and the audiobook. 

The third book nominated (one of last month's nominations, now renominated) is Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, available thrugh KY libraries as an ebook.  One of our members says, "This book from the middle of the 1980s warned how television was degrading the way we thought about religion, politics, and education.  Postman's book hasn't only been vindicated in the past decades, it becomes even more relevant in the smart-phone age.  If warnings about having a television in the living room were true, how much more is it true when so many people carry a TV in our pockets?"

The fourth book nominated is Andy Andrews' The Noticer.  This book is available in every format, but not through our libraries.  The Noticer is part fiction, part allegory, part inspiration.  This book is about perspective, imagining a mysterious old man wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and leather sandals who shows up in people's lives when everything seems to be going wrong.  The old man offers a little perspective, noticing things that might just change some lives.

October Book Club

October Book Club will meet on Sunday, October 29 after church.  We will talk about Jen Hatmaker's The 7 Experiment over lunch.

This book is about creative ways to try fasting.  Hatmaker's concern is excess and the negative effect excess has on our lives.  She describes how her family tried limiting themselves in seven different ways each month for seven months.

In some ways, I think we will find we are continuing a theme with this book.  Last month's book, Salvation on Sand Mountain, was about Applachian Christians reacting to secularism by turning to an extreme:  snake-handling.  Hatmaker's book was born from an experience when taking in hurricane refugees.  A boy walked into their Austin, Texas home and said, "Dad!  This white dude is RICH!"  The comment stuck with her.  She writes, "I was so blinded, I didn't even know we were rich."  Austin, Texas may be as culturally distant from Sand Mountain, Georgia as you can get and still be in the American South.  Yet both Covington and Hatmaker were compelled to find unusual ways to separate themselves from the culture we live within.

There is a big difference.  Punkin Brown and Dennis Covington turned to something which the church had no experience in 2000 years of doing as a part of Sunday meetings.  Jen Hatmaker is trying to revive a practice that has been continuously used throughout church history.  None of us were interested in snake handling ourselves; some of us may well be interested in trying our own version of the 7 experiment.  Those not inclined to try the particulars of the 7 experiment will continue fasting in other ways, both as part of the church at large in Advent and Lent and individually according to our own callings.

James 1:27 says, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep onself unstained from the world."  How do we keep ourselves unstained from the world?  That's the bigger question we'll keep discussing.  But Hatmaker also raises interesting and funny points about fasting in particular.

Nominations for October Book

We have three nominations for the next book. 

7 by Jen Hatmaker is available on audiobook in the KY library system here, and in many other forms through regular booksellers.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman is available as an eBook in the KY library system and as an audiobook you can buy, as well as in a number of paperback editions.

The Spirituality of the Cross by Gene Veith is available to buy either as eBook or regular paperback, including a revised and expanded edition.

Regarding 7, a member says, "I liked 7 because it was funny, a quick read and made me think long and hard about the things we take for granted.  Also, I believe, it is helping me be a better steward of our earth, my time and money."  Hoopla says of 7, "Do you feel trapped in the machine of excess? Jen Hatmaker was. Her friends were. And some might say our culture is. Jen once considered herself unmotivated by the lure of prosperity, but upon being called rich by an undeniably poor child, evidence to the contrary mounted, and a social experiment turned spiritual journey was born. 7 is the true story of how Jen took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence. Food. Clothes. Spending. Media. Possessions. Waste. Stress. Jen and her family would spend 30 days on each topic, boiling it down to the number seven. Only eat seven foods, wear seven articles of clothing, and spend money in seven places. Eliminate use of seven media types, give away seven things each day for a month, adopt seven green habits, and observe seven sacred pauses. So, what's the payoff from living a deeply reduced life? It's the discovery of a greatly increased God, a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends a social experiment to become a radically better existence. 7 is funny, raw, and not a guilt trip in the making, so come along and consider what Jesus version of rich, blessed, and generous might look like in your life."

Regarding Amusing Ourselves to Death, a member says, "This book from the middle of the '80s warned how television was degrading the way we thought about religion, politics, and education.  This book hasn't only been vindicated in the past decades, it becomes even more relevant in the smart-phone age.  If Postman's warnings about having a television in the living room were true, how much more is it true when so many people carry a TV in our pockets?"

Gene Veith explains why he wrote¬†The Spirituality of the Cross: ¬†"I aimed the book partially at those people today who say they are 'spiritual'¬†but not 'religious.'¬†That is a huge cop-out, of course. But some of these folks are looking for something that they aren‚Äôt getting from much of the Christianity they encounter. Contemporary versions of Christianity have often drifted away from the depth, the complexities, and the mysteries of the Christian faith. They have reduced them to simplistic dogmas, jolts of experience, or feel-good platitudes. But the fact is, Christianity has its spirituality‚Äďnot the vague cloudy idealistic mysticism that is usually associated with that word, but rather mysteries grounded in the Incarnation of God, His death on a bloody piece of wood, His physical resurrection, bread, wine, water, and our own ordinary callings of everyday life. That spirituality can still be found in the Lutheran tradition, though Lutherans today have often forgotten it just like everyone else."

Send an email to Pastor to vote for which book you want to read next.  Books that get some votes but not the most will be nominated again in future months.

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