Monday, April 27, 2020

Review: Becoming Sage

Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife by Michelle Van Loon, Moody Publishers, 2020, 201 pages.

When I was a young adult, I had dreams of what life would be like after the next 30-40 years. Now that I have reached this stage, hardly any of those expectations turned out as I had hoped. I could either be thrown for a loop or see this as an opportunity to grow. And this pursuit of Christian maturity in midlife is the topic of Michelle Van Loon's new book, Becoming Sage.

She writes that we often get the wrong idea that maturity is a given once we reach a certain age. We also get the wrong idea that discipleship is only for the young. But "maturity is not a destination but an on-going process." (pg. 10) This time of life with its disappointments and unexpected turn of events is an invitation to become sage - "a way of life in which a person expresses experience, knowledge, insight, and self-mastery." (pg. 11)

In the first section of the book, Michelle addresses defining and understanding maturity. Midlife is an opportunity to assess our Christian growth and see where we may have gotten lopsided. She describes discipleship models that emphasize one aspect of ourselves over the others leaving us imbalanced. For example, discipleship that is more imitation fueled by peer pressure or an overemphasis on mental knowledge that neglects character formation. However, true wisdom should be holistic and integral to all areas of our lives -  heart, soul, mind, and strength. She then uses the life of King David as an example of stages in our faith from its beginning through the end of life. As we age, the zeal, energy, and certainty of youth begin to be tested when our growth doesn't follow a neat and tidy trajectory. We also begin to realize that the strength of a younger faith won't automatically give us success later in life. But these challenges can bring humility, greater communion with God, and the desire to pass on what we know to the next generation.

The second section of the book focuses on becoming sage in specific areas in midlife and beyond. These are:

  • the local church
  • family
  • friendship
  • our physical bodies
  • our legacy (financial and otherwise)
  • mental health
  • vocation
  • facing our mortality

Within these topics, Michelle discusses issues such as finding one's place in a youth-focused church, the loss of a spouse and other family changes, loneliness, aging bodies, and financial challenges. She also addresses the importance of emotional health for our spiritual well-being and coming to terms with our callings.

Becoming Sage is not a to-do list or how to become a mature believer in 12 steps. Neither does the author make her experience prescriptive for her readers, which I greatly appreciate. Rather Michelle brings to our attention areas that are worth examining before the Lord in the light of his Word. Some of these are often overlooked when it comes to discipleship such as the challenge of aging bodies and the struggles of mental health. I especially liked chapter 9, From Doing to Being, on vocation. I could relate to her example of looking too often in the mirror of other people's expectations to discern direction for one's life. I was also encouraged that God does not waste any of our losses and that what moves us to tears may help clarify our callings. There was a good balance of personal examples and topic content, and the chapters flowed well together. Even though one isn't supposed to judge a book by its cover, I think the cover is beautiful.

So if you want to be encouraged to press on to spiritual growth in midlife, I highly recommend Becoming Sage.

Loving God heart, soul, mind, and strength is not separated into four different-but-related silos of our lives. Each is meant to be integrated so our one-and-only life is lived in growing communion with God. Becoming sage means becoming whole. (pg. 29)

I received a copy of this book from Moody Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, April 20, 2020

We're not so far from Philippi

In Philippians, 2:5-11, Paul asks the Philippians to have the mind of Christ. Specifically, he wants them to emulate the humility of Christ. Jesus Christ, the incarnate son of God, equal with God, the one who refused to "grasp" at his equality with God, in the form of God, took the appearance of a man. God came down to earth and met us in the form of Jesus. That's pretty significant.

There is more. Not only was Jesus found in appearance as a man, but he was in the form of a servant. By the way, from a literary standpoint, this is a wonderful parallel. The word used for "form "in v.6, "morphe," is the same word used in the phrase, "the form of a servant."

But again, there is more. Not only did Jesus take the form of a servant, it led to his death. And not any old death. It was death on a cross; a shameful death reserved for the lowest. Jesus, equal with God, descends to the lowest. That is the picture of humility Paul calls for.

To the Philippians, this idea of descending would be shocking. In the culture of the day, attaining recognition and esteem was a virtue. One was meant to ascend, not descend. It was seen as a virtue to surround oneself with influential people so that he could ascend himself. Patronage and relationships of reciprocity were what enabled one to rise. But it does not foster unity in the Body of Christ.  The new ethic in Christ was at total odds -- and likely in competition -- with the prevailing ethic of the day. Paul was calling the Philippians to a radically different way of living.

We're not so far from Philippi ourselves. In our current culture, numerous ways of gathering patronage and relationships of reciprocity are only a click away. What else is Twitter in the end, but a relationship of reciprocity? "Follow me, and I'll follow you." The old Genesis song could be the Twitter anthem. There are "influencers" who have managed to gain enough people to "like" them so that they can be called "influencers." They may not even have to have any credentials other than the persistence and the time to foster relationships with people online. We live in a culture that values ascending. Why else do we revere celebrities? Or assume that because they are celebrities they must be good and nice people? Why else do we assume that a celebrity Christian is a nice person, when in reality he/she could be a total boor? We, like the Philippians, allow ourselves to buy into the notion that ascending equals virtue.

The Christian life is not about ascending; at least not in the way that is popular. The only "ascending" we can be assured of is to be resurrected in the eschaton and given a glorified body to live with Christ forever. There are no promises of ascending in this earthly life. In fact, we may actually be lowered by any manner of things that are completely out of our control. Do you want to see someone lowered? Watch him as he gets the cancer diagnosis. Or watch her as her child dies. Or yes, as people lose their loved ones, and are not able to be with them because of a world-wide pandemic.

I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I suspect that one of the many reasons why Christians become discontent is that they want to ascend. But worldly success or the admiration of others is a shallow goal. It is fleeting. The rush lasts a moment, and then we're looking for our next fix. Better to follow the path of Jesus who, after being lowered, was raised.

Our destiny is not the same as Jesus' was. He was destined to be raised and given the name above all names (Phil 2:9). That is not our destiny. But our destiny is to be with the one whose name is above all names. And our destiny as Christians is to worship him along with the entire creation. That is an eternal goal which will never be fleeting.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Lessons from the Empty Nest

I read a book a few years ago, Unashamed by Heather Nelson, that undid me. Her chapter on parenting and shame deeply convicted me, and I went to my daughter in tears asking for her forgiveness. That undoing was the beginning of a positive change in our relationship. Better communication, better listening, and better understanding along with the help of a great Christian counselor. We're still learning and growing, but I am also aware of the times when I failed her and probably contributed to some of the issues she is presently dealing with. This knowledge is one of the reasons why I want to swoop in and make things all right thinking that perhaps I can make it up to her and undo the past.

This very issue came up in a recent conversation when I was beginning to worry about her, though I said nothing. Thankfully, my daughter could read between the pauses and picked up on my fear. She called me out to her credit. When I finally admitted that my desire to try to help her stemmed from wanting to make up for the past, she reminded me that I can't atone for myself. And she also gently reminded me that's why I need Jesus.

The gospel is the only remedy for mom guilt. I can't atone for my sins as a parent, which is why Jesus died. I could never be the perfect Christian parent, which is why Jesus lived. And his atoning work and righteousness revealed apart from the law is received by faith - in him - alone.

As hard as I tried and still try to be a good mom, God is her perfect parent, the all-wise, all-loving Father who is really responsible for all the details of her life. I will fail again, but He cannot. I will misjudge and misunderstand, but He sees and knows perfectly. My presence and influence are limited now. He never leaves nor forsakes. He restores. He renews. And the only way she could be disinherited is if her Father becomes displeased with the work of the Son.1 As a middle-aged empty-nester, I need that fatherly care just as much.

They say you never outgrow being a parent. Well, you never outgrow being a child of God.

1. If you want to be encouraged, here are some messages on the doctrine of adoption. The source of that sentence is from the first talk by my pastor. (My struggles came to light the evening after the conference when adoption was fresh in my mind. God is so kind.)

(This post was originally shared on my personal blog in September 2019)

Monday, April 6, 2020

And we're back!

The last time we posted here, we lived in a different world. Now, there is only one news story, and that is the virus we are living among. It has been a head-spinning kind of change.

How is everyone doing, living with being shut in? Without work? With kids at home? Being forced to homeschool kids? Perhaps you're dealing with a case of COVID-19 yourself or among your family. Perhaps you're scared. Perhaps you haven't left your house in weeks. There seems so much that needs to be said, but I think I'm not alone in feeling like I don't have the words to say.

Becky, Persis, and I are all well. And we are all dealing with being quarantined, attending church online, and relying on God for daily grace and peace. If I was feeling challenged to have a better prayer life (I think I always feel that way), I certainly have a reason to focus even more now.

Many people are trying to find ways to occupy themselves in a time of being at home, and one way is reading. And anyone who has read our blog before knows we love to read. A friend decided she wanted to read Shakespeare. My favourite play is Macbeth.  I suggested she try it. A couple of days later, she texted me and said she found it hard reading. It wasn't the language, she said, it was the abrupt way the play began. And when I thought about it, it was a bit abrupt compared to a modern novel. A Shakespearean play is much different from other dramatic works, let alone literary genres. My friend confessed that she didn't think she was a good reader.

In a culture which is increasingly image-driven, hasty, and reliant upon concise, tweet-length communication, reading anything can be a challenge. If one has not been in the habit of reading, getting back into may be a bit of a challenge. But it's a worthwhile challenge. I'm still in school for the next couple of weeks, and I'm devoted to writing a term paper and studying for a Hebrew exam, but I read fiction before bed. Reading is somewhere to put my thoughts at the end of the day. I am also journalling regularly, but sometimes, I just want to be lost in something else. But if someone is not used to reading, what does she do?

I want to share today two books that deal with how to read; how to get the most from your reading. The first is a classic, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's  book How to Read a Book. I read this book when I first began homeschooling. It outlines four levels of reading: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. It also discusses how we read different kinds of books differently. For example, we wouldn't read a poem in the same way we would read a science textbook. There are different strategies as we approach the book. One of the things which is valuable about this book is that it discusses how to read science and mathematics. It includes a list at the end of the book of suggested works to read. I benefitted from the book, but I will warn you, it's not the most engaging read. It can be quite dry at times, but it's worth a look

The second book is Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Educated Mind. The edition I have is the first one, and apparently, there is a newer one. This book draws on her homeschooling principles from her book The Well-Trained Mind. I really loved this book, and I preferred it over How to Read a Book. Bauer talks about the levels of reading with terms drawn from classical education: grammar stage reading, logic stage reading, and rhetorical stage reading. Grammar stage reading would be like Adler's elementary stage reading. Bauer suggests having notebooks for our reading, summarizing what we read and writing down our thoughts. I liked this idea a lot, and it's still something I do. Bauer does not cover ways to read science or mathematics as Adler has done, but she does have a chapter which focuses on drama. This is a book geared toward adults who want to improve how they read. She also gives suggested books to read, and also provides specific editions of the works she recommends.

With more time on our hands, reading is a great way to focus our minds. It can be an escape, yes, but it can also give our minds something constructive to do; to help us to process things better and evaluate things better. Reading a good book is certainly more edifying most days than a constant diet of virus news or listening to talking heads chew the events over and over. Be informed, of course, but do take some time to engage your mind in something else.

And speaking of books, I think in the days ahead, there may be some posts sharing some suggestions.

Everyone stay safe.