Archive for August, 2012

Uncommon Sense

August 17, 2012

A great and brief essay providing one argument as to why the idea of public education as a core function of our government ought to give us pause for thought.  Based on economics, no less!

Is it possible – or wise – to divorce ourselves from a state-funded (and State defined) educational system in an era where the expectation is that both parents should be working outside the home?  Is reducing the state’s role in educational mandates the equivalent of cultural suicide?  Or is it possible that people are ingenious enough to come up with alternative solutions to the one-model-doesn’t-fit-all approach that has dominated our country for most of the last century?
Hmmmm….

Definitionally

August 14, 2012

Thanks for another great blog-fodder recommendation.  I invite you to read the following editorial from the Washington Post entitled How Would Jesus Vote?

Right off the bat, we have problems.  Jesus wouldn’t vote.  Jesus didn’t vote.  Jesus is proclaimed by Christianity and its sacred text, the Bible, to be the Lord of all, the King of Kings.  He is far and above every earthly office and individual.  Jesus does not participate in the political machinations of our own choosing, He comes ultimately not just to subvert them but to eliminate them entirely.  Jesus was ostensibly killed for claiming to be the king of a people already subject to a temporal authority – the idea of him voting for a system of our own creation misses the point entirely, which is something both the liberal and conservative sides of our political spectrum forget all too quickly.  Neither side would be pleased with Jesus if He showed up again today.
The author moves on to cite how Christianity in the UK is viewed.  The author doesn’t delve in to whether or not this view is accurate.  It is convenient, and that’s enough.  The definition provided is not a view of Christianity, its a view of every major religion and philosophy that has likely ever existed, as well as every governmental system.  Any group of people trying to convince others to do what they want uses some variation of this definition to justify their actions and exhortations.  It is no more Christian than it is Hindu or agnostic or Republican or Democrat.  
The author would like this definition to be seen as consistent with the liberal political agenda of the day, leading the reader to the conclusion that the liberal political agenda of the day is actually the embodiment of Christianity and therefore deserving of the endorsement of the Son of God himself.  The liberal agenda seeks to be nice to others therefore Christians must accept it because this is what Jesus himself taught.
It’s flawed logic, but it is internally consistent enough so that readers may find it hard to determine just where it begins unraveling.  
Jesus did indeed call us to care for the poor.  More precisely, He calls every individual to have compassion for the poor.  He does not delegate compassion and care for the poor to an organization of any kind, let alone a secular political one.  I suspect Jesus would tell us that caring for the poor is an intensely personal attitude and action, not one that is fulfilled by paying taxes to an entity that determines how best to accomplish these goals on our behalf.  I am called to be concerned for the poor.  I am called to care for them.  If I create a system of government that also values these calls, it does not relieve me of my duty.  Nor am I obligated to assume that the system of government will respond to these calls in the best possible way.  Objecting to the State’s efforts to care for the poor on the grounds that they are inefficient or counter-productive to their stated goals is not equivalent with rejecting the Scriptural demand for me to care for the poor.  It does not mean I reject any State-sponsored program, it just means I have concerns about the systems we have.
Likewise, stating that there are plenty of people who will abuse a system of benevolence for their own personal comfort and goals is not the same as demonizing the poor.  Seeking to ensure that the poor are cared for well necessarily requires constant evaluation of the processes and procedures.  It requires that we admit that since we are all broken and sinful, some people will be tempted to abuse the systems and processes, and those administering them will be tempted to compromise them for our own reasons – personal and political.  
To accuse critics of welfare systems of being cold-hearted and unloving must have at its base the assumption that people are not intrinsically bad, but rather intrinsically good.  It must assume that people will not tend to take advantage of situations.  This is not a Scriptural, Christian assumption.  Jesus would be quick to point this out, as our fundamental brokenness was the reason for the Incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God Jesus of Nazareth.  
Likewise, the support of gun ownership is not tantamount to endorsement of violence and senseless killing.  The support of the right to bear arms is not generally so that seriously broken people can go out and massacre innocent people in movie theaters.  The support of gun ownership is directly related to the understanding that systems tend to be self-perpetuating.  Any government – even a good one – evolves into a system of self-preservation.  While it’s all well and good to argue that citizens have the right to revolution, pretty much before the ink dried on our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the State was already in the business of refusing to ever allow such revolution.  The Civil War was a pretty good test of this assumption.  
We can argue about the relative merits of preserving the Union from fragmenting through civil war, but the right to bear arms is most threatening to whatever power it is that originally granted that right.  People are forever finding ways to hurt one another, and banning firearms doesn’t change this.  But what it does potentially change is the ability for the State to arbitrarily enforce its will on its subjects with impunity through disarming them.  The Civil War was an actual war because the people had the right to bear arms.  If nobody was allowed to own guns other than the national army, it would have been a lot harder for there to be an actual war.  
From this perspective, the lesson of the Civil War is not just that preserving the union is a good goal.  It’s an object lesson on less-than-civil-disobedience.  It was a reminder to the State that people are not able willing, they are able to resist the demands of the State, protecting themselves with force if necessary.  
The violence we read about almost daily is not an issue of guns, per se, but an issue of broken people living out their brokenness. (I use the term brokenness here to indicate more specific psychological or emotional conditions, not generic Original Sin as earlier.)  Eliminating private gun ownership will not change this brokenness.  If we are serious about curtailing the kind of violent acts that dominate our headlines these days, we need to dig much deeper than just taking their guns away from them.
What would Jesus say about all of this?   Scripture is not just painfully silent on the idea of civil or not-so-civil disobedience, it is actually rather painfully vocal on the issue.  We are called to obey our civil authorities in Romans 13.  This passage has been repeatedly used both by those in power to justify their power, as well as by Christians to remind one another that the convenience of insurrection is not a holy right, but rather a usurpation of the created order.  The abuse of power is never justified, but neither is rebellion against power.  Which leaves American Christians in a sticky spot.  We claim in the Declaration of Independence that we have the God-given right to rebellion, but our real founding document, the Word of God, tells us we don’t have this right.  
Hmmm.
Perhaps private gun ownership is, in a wacky sort of way, a means of preserving secular liberty without sacrificing Christian obedience.  Perhaps the threat of having to violently subdue your constituents is enough to keep those constituents from ever having to sinfully engage in armed rebellion against the State.  Status quo is preserved, for better or worse?  
That sort of hurts my head, but it’s a topic I’d be very interested in discussing further!  Thoughts?
To sum up, this essay twists both the purpose of Christianity and the purpose of politics, fusing them together into a misshapen lump that accurately portrays neither one.  I support the idea of a government that tends to the poor, but it doesn’t relieve me of the personal responsibility of doing so as well.  My support of larger systems for helping the poor does not require that I never be critical of those systems if they seem to be failing in their purposes, or if they begin to demand more and more from me to compensate for their shortcomings and abuses.  
Likewise, my practical support for private gun ownership is not the same as the sanctioning of violence.  The removal of private gun ownership does not, in my opinion, promise to alleviate violence.  
As with most political discourse, this article commits the fallacy of false alternatives, presenting opposite ends of the spectrum as the only options.  Our need is to quit this way of thinking.  To start thinking in terms of solutions to problems, not as means to ensure the power of one group or another.  I don’t think this is going to happen, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t the best solution.
Regardless, Christians have to realize that Jesus is not interested in the promulgation of a particular party.  Both parties have ways that they seem to be closer to some of Jesus’ ideas and farther away from others.  One party is not God-pleasing and the other not.  Both fall short.  Far short.  Which should motivate us to keep talking with one another across the political aisle, rather than escalating the vitriol.  Again, I don’t think this is going to happen, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t a better solution until all of this gets dismantled with the return of Jesus.  

Reading Ramblings – August 19, 2012

August 12, 2012

Date: August 19th, 2012,
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:
Proverbs 9:1-10; Psalm 34:12-22; Ephesians 5:6-21; John 6:51-69

Contextual
Notes:
We remain in the longest season of the Church
Year, the non-festival season of Ordinary Time. Except for a few
other festival Sundays, Ordinary Time will continue until the
beginning of Advent. This time of the liturgical year focuses us on
the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in light of the
resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The readings will not
always neatly line up together to form a common theme, but the Gospel
and the Old Testament readings will normally support one another.

This is the last week of reading
Gospel lessons from John rather than the appointed Gospel for the
year, Mark. We will return to Mark’s Gospel for almost every Sunday
through the end of the Church year, moving on to Luke for the First
Sunday in Advent – at the end of November. As with the previous
two weeks, our excursion into John’s Gospel is to further flesh out
the implications of the feeding of the 5000 as recorded by both John
and Mark.

Proverbs 9:1-10: Once
again we have the metaphor of feeding at play in the Old Testament
lesson which complements the Gospel emphasis on eating. In Proverbs,
Wisdom is frequently personified as a woman – a literary device
that is relatively common in Ancient Near Eastern literature.
Throughout Proverbs Lady Wisdom is contrasted with the harlot, the
seductress that entices people to their ruin.

Lady Wisdom’s house is set at the
highest point in town, where all can see it and know where it is.
She is not in hiding, but is available in plain sight to anyone. Not
only this, she is active in inviting people to sit at her table and
dine with her, gaining wisdom through this process. She invites the
simple, which sounds offensive to us, but one must admit their
simplicity and need for wisdom before they are willing and able to be
taught. Simple here doesn’t mean stupid necessarily, but reflects a
state accurate for all people – we all could be wiser. Only mockers
would reject such a notion – they are too busy trying to seem wise
through their belittling of others. The truly wise person is the one
who, as Socrates is noted to have claimed, really understands how
little they know, and how deeply they need to be taught. The highest
level of wisdom and knowledge is to be found in reverence and worship
of the God who created us.

Psalm 34:12-22: We
continue reading the Psalm we began last week. Last week’s section
(vs.1-8) focused on praising the Lord, exhorting the hearer to join
in the praise that is due him for his glory as well as his care for
those who love him. This week’s verses continue the latter theme,
reminding the hearer that the Lord looks after those who love him,
but will set himself against the evil of those who reject him and set
themselves against both He and his people. I think verse 11 would be
good to include in this reading, as the author sets out to teach the
hearer what it means to fear the Lord. What does it mean to fear the
Lord? To live as the Lord has created us to live, in accord with
both the natural law of creation and the revelation of God’s will in
the Ten Commandments. Living in this way is not only natural and
best, it also is the proper way of worshiping God. The one who
claims to love God but refuses to live the way God has created them
to live is not being honest with himself, with God, or both!

Ephesians 5:6-21:
Paul continues to exhort the Ephesian Christians to live lives
consistent with their salvation in Jesus Christ. They do not live
lives of godliness in order to earn the love of God, but as a
reflection of their understanding of that love as expressed through
the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised returnn
of the Son of God. Paul’s exhortations are not just to be good,
then, but rather to be consistent. Live who you are! You are not
strangers to God any longer! Don’t live like it! Those who claim to
love God while flaunting his love in flagrant disregard for his will
are deceivers. Paul’s exhortation to live wisely echoes the theme of
the Proverbs text for today. What is wise? To find out what pleases
God and live that way (v.10). What pleases God? That we might trust
in His Son for our power and strength in this life and the next,
living lives that evidence this trust.

John 6:51-69:
Jesus
continues not just to challenge but to call to faith his hearers in
Capernaum after the feeding of the 5000. They are perplexed by what
He says, challenged by the notion that they must eat his flesh.
Jesus responds that his flesh and blood must be found in them for
them to have life. He links this teaching back to the beginning of
the discussion and bread from heaven. Jesus is
the bread from
heaven, and therefore has life in him and those who have him in them
have eternal life in them. There is no life without him.

Jesus’
language would have brought to mind in his hearers the sacrificial
system of the Temple, and the assertion that blood is life, and
forgiveness is related to blood. The blood of animals was the means
by which the sins of God’s people were forgiven. Jesus was now
building upon this in an unexpected and challenging way. It was not
adequate to have the blood of animals sprinkled on
them for forgiveness. Rather, they must have the blood of Jesus in
them for forgiveness and eternal life. He makes himself into a
sacrifice in these verses, clearly indicating that Jesus was fully
aware that it was through his death, through the shedding of his
blood that all creation might be reconciled. Those who could accept
this, who would not reject the wisdom of God being taught to them
would have eternal life. Those who mocked and would not accept would
not receive this eternal life.

This is hard teaching to say the least, and the last of the reading
focuses on this. People today who struggle with the demand of faith
and obedience in Jesus Christ are not alone in their rejection. Many
who followed Jesus – not just to Capernaum but perhaps for longer
than that – abandoned him because his teaching was so radical. We
should remember this as we speak the Gospel to others – it is not
an intuitive thing! They must be willing to accept the wisdom of
God, which so often looks like foolishness to our world! But when
they accept the wisdom of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ,
they are brought into eternal life!

Just Read It

August 10, 2012

From a FB buddy of mine, who’s comment along with the posting was something to the effect of “Because the Bible should be read in monotone” (<-heavy sarcasm on his part).

Several things come to mind.  First off is more of an exclamation – hey!  At least Alec Baldwin is going to church!  Then the questions start.  What does “very theatrical” mean?   How often is Alec there, participating as a non-reader?  Does he hog the spotlight at all of the events one person says he shows up?  What is the make-up of the congregation?  What style of worship do they have?  
Their response to him is completely inappropriate, regardless.  Who is the pastor and what is their approach in handling a celebrity in their midst?  
Ministering in an area that is a popular escape destination for the rich and famous, I’ve spent more than a few minutes figuring out how to reach these people.  Not to ask for money or photo-ops or endorsements or to sponsor anything, but just to sit down and talk with them about their lives and the life of Christ that may or may not be within them.  How would their presence change our community?  How would it change our community if they were actively participating, and if they were generous?  
It’s quite a conundrum, keeping the focus on Christ in a celebrity culture, if those celebrities begin showing up for worship.  Frankly, I think it’s a risk that’s more than worth taking.  A risk that is necessary to take, to be more frank.  As with all of us, celebrities live in a bubble that the Gospel insists on popping.  Theirs is a higher-profile bubble, but one that is replete with challenges and stresses, not just the perks and trappings of American nobility.  They need unconditional love as much as I do, even if they’re far better looking than I am.  
So Alec, you’re welcome to worship here at our church.  Tell your friends.  We don’t want your money or publicity photos or celebrity YouTube endorsements.  Your time in worship here will not be about you, but about Christ.  So if you want to read the lessons on Sunday, I’ll put you into the rotation with our members who share their talents with our community in this way.  Like them, I’ll expect you to try and do what I do when I preach – stay out of the way of the Gospel.  As much as possible and reasonable, allow yourself to slip into the background, and allow the Word to take center stage.  I won’t hold it against you that you’re famous, and I’ll do my best to see to it that the congregation doesn’t either.  
Just sayin’.  

Ugh – Mea Culpa

August 9, 2012

I hate being negative.

Sometimes, I feel like that’s all I do here on this blog.  I criticize.  I evaluate.  I dissect.  I fall into the classic role of critics everywhere, spending more time on what is wrong than what is right while not contributing anything original to the mix other than my criticisms.  This struck me after posting up my last criticism.  It has struck me from time to time over the past few years, and it bugs me about myself.
In many ways the work of a critic is easy.  We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.  We thrive on negative criticism – which is fun to write and to read.  But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
– Anton Ego, Ratatouille – 
Yes, I don’t care for the approach that the author in my last post uses.  But at least he’s trying something.  He’s attempting to engage and challenge the paradigms that whirl around us and so often leave us feeling like helpless sock puppets without hands to animate us.  We grow frustrated and bitter and cynical and resigned.  Knowing all too well what can’t possibly work, we end up critical and mocking of those who are trying.  All our efforts are failures in some way.  Every record awaits the moment of falling into obscurity, eclipsed by better efforts from others.  
But despite the obscurity, an accomplishment was reached, at least for a moment in time.  
How do Christians engage with an increasingly hostile culture around us?   I sat with a congregation last Sunday that is struggling to figure out what this looks like in their own tiny community, faced with being unable to support a full or even part-time pastor.  How do we break through the invisible wall that has been erected between Christians and the culture around us?  They wanted an answer, and I could smile sympathetically and assure them that no such thing exists.  Not in a pre-packaged format that works every time and every place.  I felt wise in saying that.  But they were right in asking the question, and my wise answer doesn’t change the fact that just because an easy answer isn’t available, doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer.  
I don’t think you can break through that invisible wall between Christians and our culture.  But I think that you can reach individuals.  And when we reach enough individuals, the wall disintegrates, and we become the culture to a certain extent.  Or more accurately, we move the wall so that we are on the other side of it, the side we want to be on, the side of acceptability and popularity and status quo.  This often is what I hear as the goal of Christians – to move the wall back to where it was 50 or 100 or 500 years ago.  Choose whatever date you want, the goal is always to be on the other side of the wall again.  The good old days.
It’s an understandable impetus.  Unfortunately, we are not called to this task as Christians.  We are called only to give witness to what the Creator of the Universe is doing in our lives.  I believe that is a story that has to be shared individually.  One-on-one.  With the people that are passing in and out of our lives and who have granted us, by the existence of relationship with us, the ability to speak about our God.  I believe that we are called to this speaking not simply based on the results we are going to see, because we are not promised that we will see the results.  We sow the seed anyways, because the point isn’t ourselves but the seed.  
I struggle constantly with how to do this.  I reject certain methods that don’t appeal to either my personal style or abilities, or because they don’t seem efficacious.  I embrace others that seem more comfortable or hold more promise.  I’m no different than everyone else in this respect – I’m scared of rejection.  More accurately, I’m scared of being ignored, of being judged irrelevant, unworthy of even the dignity of a rebuttal. 
As such, it’s easier to just critique others than to offer my own attempts.  A lot easier.  I apologize for often taking the easy way out.  And I hope we can keep each other accountable to contributing more and critiquing less.  

What’s the Point?

August 9, 2012

Thanks to Doug for the pointer to this blog site and this particular post.

I’ll say that I like the idea, or what I think the idea is:  Let’s not beat around the bush, but let’s be bold in speaking the truth.  The question is how and where we speak that truth, and the importance of quoting the next few words of that verse (“speaking the truth in love“, Ephesians 4:15, emphasis mine).  I think it’s fascinating that this verse is not talking about evangelism, but about how Christians are to be unified around truth, and that truth will be beneficial not for reaching the lost, but for building up the faithful.  
Towards that end, his first example of “Getting Right to the Point!” makes sense in terms of content.  It’s challenging self-identified Christians to compare their stance and the stance of their pastor or congregation to the stance of this author – who claims (not incorrectly) – that his stance is the right and proper and true one.  While we could quibble about semantics, we won’t get bogged down at that level right now.  The goal is to unify Christians around the objective truth of the divine authority and reliability of Holy Scripture.  Fair enough.
As such, why not just do direct mailings to local churches, rather than publish this in the newspaper?  This is an in-house argument.  While an objective truth is being proclaimed to people regardless of their faith, the clear intent of this particular writing is to address other Christians.  It would make a lot more sense to me to just directly address the people you fear are not grounded in this shared objective truth despite considering themselves Christians.  It will cost more, but it may be worth the additional cost to save some of the negative publicity (I believe there is such a thing) that it would generate in the local paper.  
It will be interesting to see the additional pieces that are created, and to hear about the response to them.  

So, We’re Moving

August 8, 2012

Which means my attention has been significantly diverted, and my postings may be sparse for the time being.  Please continue to send me links to anything interesting you’ve seen or read that might be good blog-fodder.  I have less time to troll for blog-fodder and always appreciate knowing what is of interest to you!

Reading Ramblings for August 12, 2012

August 5, 2012

Date: August 12, 2012,
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:
1 Kings 19:1-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:17-5:2; John 6:35-51

Contextual
Notes:
We remain in the longest season of the Church
Year, the non-festival season of Ordinary Time. Except for a few
other festival Sundays, Ordinary Time will continue until the
beginning of Advent. This time of the liturgical year focuses us on
the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in light of the
resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The readings will not
always neatly line up together to form a common theme, but the Gospel
and the Old Testament readings will normally support one another.

For the next few weeks, the
lectionary takes readings from John rather than the appointed Gospel
for
the year, Mark. These out-of-sequence readings are not
really out of sequence – they are the latter 2/3 of John 6, in
which John records the conversations and events following the feeding
of the 5000 and the walking on the water that we have read the past
two weeks in Mark 6. The lectionary allows us to follow more deeply
what the significance is of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, and the
teachings that followed from it.

1 Kings 19:1-8: Once
again the Old Testament reading focuses on God feeding his faithful.
This time He miraculously provides super-powered bread and water for
Elijah. Eating of it is enough to sustain Elijah for 40 days as he
flees the revenge-minded Jezebel and her servants. Elijah has
reached the end of his rope. He has served the Lord faithfully (read
chapter 18!), but he is at the end of his resources. He is tired and
fearful and resigns himself to death. But instead of death, the Lord
feeds him and sustains and empowers him. Eating and drinking what
the Lord provides him doesn’t just refresh him for a few minutes, it
empowers Elijah miraculously to run for 40 days to safety. We might
be inclined to wonder why God didn’t just confound Elijah’s enemies
(or destroy them!) rather than lead Elijah to run for 40 days. But
the important thing is that God sustains Elijah. He feeds him and
the eating and drinking of what the Lord provides is enough to
provide Elijah far more than any other food could.

Psalm 34:1-8: Taste
and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge
in him!
In light of the reading from 1 Kings we have a vivid
image in our minds of what this looks like. Elijah tasted of the
Lord’s goodness, and was blessed by hiding in him. This did not
result in all of Elijah’s troubles disappearing, but rather it
resulted in the Lord’s glory through them, and the strengthening of
Elijah’s trust in God through them. The language of deliverance in
this Psalm affirms that the Lord watches over his own. We might
object that there seem to be many times when we suffer and are not
delivered out of it the way this Psalm states. But God has promised
to deliver us from our greatest suffering – an eternity of
separation from him because of our sin.

Ephesians 4:17-5:2:
How is it that the Christian is supposed to live? Differently, to
be sure. The behavior of the worldly-minded is due to their lack of
knowledge about God and what He has done for them. If they only knew
and trusted in this, how differently they could live! Faith in God’s
gift in Jesus Christ transforms and renews our mind so that we think
differently, we see the world differently, and this should be evident
in changed lives. It isn’t a matter of having to do something to
please God – pleasing God becomes the natural byproduct of a
transformed mind and a heart of faith.

John
6:35-51:

Jesus is continuing to interact with the crowd that followed him from
being fed the night before. They are confused by his teaching and
his confrontational style. They want never-ending bread, but Jesus
has more than earthly bread in mind and seems frustrated at their
inability or unwillingness to hear what he is saying to them. Jesus
compares the food the Israelites ate – manna and quail miraculously
provided by God – to himself. The Israelites ate food that was
sent from heaven, and they still died. But Jesus is himself the
greater gift, the food that can feed the world not just temporally
but eternally.

Jesus hammers this point home over and over again. When the Jews
object to his self-proclamation, Jesus returns them to Scripture.
They aren’t just to take his word for it, but to search the Word that
has already been given to them by God the Father. That Word, when
listened to, leads the hearer to the Son of God and the life that He
offers. If we grow frustrated that people in our lives do not see
the truth of Jesus Christ, we need to lead them to the Word of God
which will point them to him.   

Run. Hide. Fight.

August 5, 2012

An interesting public service announcement from the City of Houston on how to survive an “active shooting event”.  I guess that’s opposed to an inactive shooting event, which wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.  

Part of me wonders if this is even necessary.  Are these three options common sense?  Could there be more specific recommendations about what to do in each of these three options?  There are a few helpful hints such as silencing your cell phone.  But what about instructions for those who are licensed to carry fire arms?  I’m sure that the City didn’t want to inadvertently create a promotional video for conceal & carry permits, though it doesn’t seem like a totally inappropriate response to the rise in shooting incidents, either.  
What else would you recommend to others in an active shooting event?  

Book Review: A Praying Life

August 2, 2012

A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller

NavPress, 2009
I was gifted with a copy of this book by the woman responsible for prayer ministry at our congregation, Lois.  She is an active advocate for the power of prayer and an appreciated and valuable contributor to the ministry not just of our church but Christians everywhere.  
I’ll repeat my usual spiel about how reviewing a book that someone else tells you was hugely impactful for them is fraught with peril and yahda yahda yahda.  But at the end of the day, if we don’t talk about things together, then there’s not much point in sharing things in the first place.  The sharing begins a process, and what ultimately matters is the process and where it leads us in our lives and not the specific items being shared.  For the most part.
I’m not familiar with this author, and only passingly familiar with NavPress.  Their emphasis as a publisher is on discipleship-oriented materials, so not surprisingly, this book is not so much an auto-biography (though there is a fair amount of that present) as a primer on prayer and how to do it.  Prayer is a difficult thing to write on because for all the focus that is placed on it in Christian life & discipleship, the Bible is very, very sparse on actual information about it.  While it is clearly something we are to be doing, there is very little time spent telling us how to do it or when to do it or why to do it or what to actual do or say.  Which means that anyone else who purports to answer these questions is doing so not based wholly on the inspired Word of God, but with a healthy dose of their own ideas thrown into the mix.  Sometimes those ideas can be very helpful, as with any good theology.  Sometimes, not so much.
I like the early emphasis Miller places on the humanity of God.  I wish Miller was more specific in a Trinitarian sense – God the Son is a person, yes.  I don’t think it’s a descriptor that adequately or correctly fits either God the Father or God the Holy Spirit.   
However my biggest beef with the book is that Miller omits a rather powerful aspect of our lives and world – the presence of evil.  He critiques cynicism, and rightly so.  He exhorts people to a richer understanding of what it means to be part of the vine and praying as such, and rightly so.  But I don’t remember seeing any significant passage devoted to the fact that Christians have an active enemy.  A defeated enemy, to be sure.  But an enemy that is still very real and very dangerous to the people of God.  
What results is a book that focuses on us doing what we need to, the way we ought to do it, so that our prayers are better informed and crafted and God does what we want.  Without the real treatment and recognition of evil – evil inside of us, evil around us, evil as part of the brokenness of the Fall that pervades everything (even things that have been redeemed), Miller misses a critical element of Biblical Christianity, and therefore a critical element in discussing prayer.
This is best illustrated in Chapter 23.  Here, Miller recounts the story of a woman originally related in a Philip Yancey book.  It is a painful story to read, full of suffering and sorrow and despair.  At the end of her story, she asks a spiritual mentor for a response, an answer to why God has seemingly not answered her prayers.  The mentor is unable to give one.  Miller quotes Psalm 22 as echoing the woman’s situation – the feeling that God has abandoned her.
Then Miller begins dissecting.  He’s convinced there is a reason this woman’s prayers haven’t been answered, and the reason is likely within the woman herself.  He’s convinced that there are reasons for her suffering that are the blame of others, and he wants to highlight that.  Ultimately, he reasons that the woman suffers and her prayer life and relationship with God has suffered because she does not see her life as a story that God is working out in his timing, not hers.  Miller seems intent on justifying God, of providing an excuse for God so that He is not somehow implicated in the suffering of this woman.  
However suffering is front and center in Scripture.  The idea that the people of God are going to suffer and experience pain and sorrow in their lives – in large part because of their identity as people of God – pervades all of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  Suffering is real because sin and evil are real – both within us and around us.  Creation is broken and while that brokenness is being fixed, it hasn’t been fixed yet, and in the meantime people are constantly shredded and torn by the jagged edges. Even Christians.  
I believe that Miller intends a distinction between suffering and our response to it.  But particularly in this chapter, it felt as though that distinction was lost.  He came off far more judgmental than empathic.  This woman suffered for reasons, and Miller seems to think that once those reasons are ascertained, the suffering can be mitigated or even eliminated.  He cites Job as an example of a ‘purer’ faith, but Miller’s approach sounds a lot more like Job’s friends, insisting that there was a reason that Job was suffering and that he should seek that out to eliminate the suffering.  Likewise, I suspect Jesus would disagree with Miller’s technique at least in part, acknowledging that suffering is part of this life and is not always directly related to our actions and choices (Luke 13).
We could get into a discussion on whether or not it’s appropriate to pray for a parking space, but that seems unnecessary.  What we pray for may differ markedly from one person or another, just as how we pray will differ markedly.  Which is where Scripture leaves us.  It leaves us with the revelation that there is a God who loves us deeply enough to suffer and die on our behalf.  It leaves us with a model prayer that the Incarnate Son of God taught his followers.  It leaves us with exhortations to prayer and relationship with God,  but it avoids defining the how.  And while we can learn much from others, we have to be careful when the experience of one leads to judgment against a brother or sister in the faith.  We are poor judges of faith, and Scripture makes it clear this isn’t our job.  Sometimes, like Job’s friends at the end of Job 2, we’re called to sit down in the dust with one another in the face of suffering.   It isn’t until we start trying to fix things that we can get off track.
Evil is real within us and around us.  God allows that evil to play out oftentimes, even as He has assured us that evil has been defeated in the death and resurrection of the Son of God.  We will suffer in this life and our prayer life will reflect that suffering if it is honest.  Yes, we can strive for perspective, but sometimes the best we can do is to grip tightly to the base of the cross and trust that what is broken and twisted in our lives is only going to be fixed when God’s kingdom comes in fullness and power, and not before.
As such, how and what we pray will in large part be a matter of individuals working out what seems to be best between they and their Creator.  I don’t believe that an effective prayer life necessarily means a long laundry list of answered prayers, as that reduces prayer to a wish list.  But prayer should lead the prayer into a deeper relationship with her Creator as guided and informed by Scripture.  Period.  That’s not really enough to write a book on, and it means a lifetime of
learning.  But maybe that’s OK.  Maybe that’s part of what keeps the relationship alive, and keeps us alive in the process.  
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As a final, totally inappropriate note that ties in vaguely with this topic, The Onion was kind enough to publish this very cynical but humorous spin on death and the ways our culture attempts to take away the sting of death even without the empty tomb.  I know, I’m bad.  Very bad.