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spiritual life

Compartmentalized

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One thing I learned at a very young age was not to talk about church stuff at school. Mention God or Jesus in elementary school and you immediately got pegged as a goody-two-shoes. But it wasn’t just church stuff. You also didn’t dare talk about your family. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers were off limits. If you talked about your mother, you were a Mama’s boy. If you mentioned a sister, you had to endure crass comments about them—or fight, which was forbidden. Even a father could set off a competition as you and an opponent—a politically correct term for your worst enemy—one-upped each other in an effort to prove that the father in question was better, bigger, faster, stronger.

As I matured, these simplistic rules gave way to more nuanced guidelines, but the fundamental lesson seemed to be the same: don’t talk about your life in one sphere while you’re in another sphere. So except for the most mundane banalities, we don’t talk about work in church; we don’t talk about family relationships at work; we don’t talk about our private lives anywhere. We become compartmentalized.

At church we think church thoughts and say church-y things: “God bless you.” “I’ll be praying for you.”

At work we think work thoughts and say work-y things: “I need it done ASAP.” “Call or shoot me an email if you need anything.” The unspoken part is “anything work-related.”

At home we think home thoughts and say home-y things: “What’s for dinner?” “Where’s the remote?” “Why can’t you learn to pick up after yourself?”

And in our private, innermost being we think private thoughts that no one—thank goodness—ever hears: CENSORED.

We live lives divided neatly into compartments. At least we hope to. Sometimes things go awry. Maybe it’s your eleventh grader who just told you she’s pregnant. Maybe your wife discovered your online pornography habit. Maybe your boss is hinting that your position is being considered for termination. Maybe your prayers aren’t being answered, and you aren’t sure you trust God.

When such things happen, there is spillover. Your private life suddenly affects your work. Your home life suddenly affects your religion. Your loss of faith affects everything. It’s quite natural to suppose that becoming healthy again means getting everything back into its compartment. But what if it’s not?

What if we were never meant to live so divided from ourselves? What if we were meant to live just one life, whole, integrated, and pure? What if we dismantled the compartments? What if we used God talk everywhere? What if we let others know about our pain and failure—not in a self-absorbed way, but transparently and naturally, as if we were talking with real friends who could share our burdens instead of talking to contacts we were trying to leverage or impress?

I’m not suggesting that we banish small talk or only engage with one another at some deeply personal level. I’m merely suggesting that each of us should be the same person in every context. It’s not easy. It requires integrity. It requires intentional effort. It requires being your own leader. Back in grade school, if I had had integrity—a certain knowledge of my identity coupled with a steadfast resolve to be myself—I would not have been intimidated by those who teased or threatened. I would have stood my ground, for courage arises from integrity. I am calling for integrity instead of compartmentalization.

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The Discipline of Grace

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The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges is one of the best books I have ever read on how to live life as a believer. One of the persistent difficulties in the church is the idea that God’s approval must somehow be earned, that when a believer sins, God becomes angry and punishes him but that when he does what is right, then God is pleased and blesses him. Yet this misconception is directly contrary to the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Somehow in going from salvation to sanctification, the extraordinary message of the gospel becomes forgotten, and believers turn to performance and good works in an effort to win favor with God (or, less charitably, to put God in their debt). So Bridges writes a prescription that serves as a refrain throughout the rest of the book: “Preach the gospel to yourself every day.”

In order to make sure his readers understand what he means, he then provides an excellent summary of the gospel, and the most salient feature of that gospel is God’s grace, his undeserved love and favor toward people. It is this grace that enables believers to pursue a life of holiness. By insisting on and holding together both grace and discipline, Bridges avoids two errors. The first focuses too much on grace and denies that believers have a role in their own perfecting. The second goes the other way and treats as grudging duty what should be joyful privilege.

The final chapters detail five disciplines necessary for pursuing holiness. These are not the religious disciplines one might expect: prayer, fasting, meditation, service, and so on. No, they are spiritual disciplines that deal much more with attitude than with action.

Throughout the book, the author draws liberally on Puritan theologians, often paraphrasing their prose for today’s audience. Nevertheless, the book is not for the casual or fainthearted reader. It requires but also amply repays patiently intent reading. Bridges is never glib; his writing cannot be skimmed. He deals with concepts that are inherently complex, even seemingly paradoxical, so his prose is likewise careful and precise. My only complaint is that at times his tone becomes somewhat scolding; at times he seems to assume that his readers are reluctant to follow him and in need of reminders of their duty. But this is a niggling objection to an otherwise excellent book.

This book is for any believer serious about becoming more like Jesus in his or her daily life. It is not a book of stuffy rules but of vivid principles. Those who read it with understanding will be changed by it as they put its principles into practice. Highly recommended.

I reviewed this book as part of the NavPress blogger review program, which provides free books in exchange for reviews. I did not receive any other payment for this review.

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Shaun of the Dead

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I watched Shaun of the Dead for the first time a couple of days ago. It was funny and profane and not at all horrifying. I had seen Hot Fuzz, so I was looking forward to seeing Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in this film, encouraged by my older kids who thought I would like it. Shaun of the Dead follows the fortunes of a young retail clerk who has just come to realize that his life is at a standstill. His career is a dead end, his girlfriend has just dumped him, and his flatmate is holding him back. He decides to retake control of his life just as his community is overrun by zombies. Shaun must rescue his friends while fighting off the undead.

The humor in Shaun of the Dead is what I would call frat boy humor. Much of it consists of profanity and crude references to sex. According to IMDB, the f-word occurs 77 times in the film. No word on who did the counting, but it was certainly prominent. Nevertheless, the funniest parts are when the characters are finally laying bare their own desires in their relationships in dialogue made ludicrous by the backdrop of zombie hands at the windows and the sounds of zombie moaning. It was also funny to see one of the characters literally disemboweled and torn limb from limb.  (On a side note, the next day after seeing Shaun, I saw Euripides’ The Bacchae, which also features a man being torn to pieces at the bare hands of other humans. The Bacchae makes zombie movies seem rather tame.)

What really got me thinking, however, was the character of Ed. Ed is Shaun’s flatmate. They were best friends at school. Ed is crude and dirty, lazy, slovenly, and disgusting. Shaun’s other friends can’t understand why Shaun sticks with him. In fact, Ed is Shaun’s Id, the infantile part of Shaun that revels in whatever is disgusting or shocking. In order for Shaun to bring order to his life, he has to have some control over Ed. As the movie is ending, we think at first that Ed is dead. Shaun, reunited with Liz, has taken control of his life. But the last scene shows him going out to the shed where he has Ed, now a zombie, chained and under control but still able to play video games and make him laugh. The Id is not gone but tamed.

Long before Freud described the Id, Saint Paul described the flesh (often called the sinful nature in modern translations), that part of a person that continues in rebellion against God even when the person has made every conscious effort to surrender. Saint Paul’s prescription for the flesh is death. It cannot be tamed, and even when killed, keeps returning to a semblance of life and trying to regain control. The flesh is the zombie in each of us. The trouble with the flesh is not merely that it does things unacceptable in polite society. It is hostile to God and tries continuously to undermine the work of the Holy Spirit. As often as it raises itself up, it must be killed again—not tamed or kept in chains but put to death. Only constant vigilance with the grace of God can protect us from the flesh.

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