Book Providence and Boats

I believe in book-providence. As I am a Presbyterian, perhaps that’s not very surprising. One of our gifts to the Christian communion has historically been this reminder of God’s sovereignty and the manner in which events—planned and unplanned—will eventually fit into the plan God intended from the start. “How Providential!” we say. “Book-providence” refers to something a bit less dramatic than all that. Certain books seem to find me precisely when it’s time for me to hear what they have to say. In my business, we call that a Spirit-nudge, a Matrix-Oracle-tinged collision of a human hunger and God’s sustenance at just the right time.

Predictably, in excess of freedom, I sometimes try to make it happen all on my own. I’ll buy a book or check one out from the library that fits my current image or sense of what it is I need to learn. I suspect Spirit looks on such hubris with a heavy sigh and a smile, “There she goes again.” I sit to feast on such a book and it sits there in my lap, saying almost nothing of interest to me. I take it back to the library or put the book on the shelf with a sense of guilt or remorse for having either wasted the money or the time at the library for something that clearly wasn’t connecting with my prayer-life, discipleship, what-have-you. I forget about it, or more importantly, I lose the image I had grasped in my mind about where I am in Spirit’s learning/teaching.

It could be days, months, or even years later when I’m browsing my book shelf with an aimlessness or restlessness of spirit. My eyes light on a book that surprises me with its title or cover or topic. I pick it up out of curiosity, often not remembering when or where I got it. And in just the right amount of ‘will,’ the words jump off the page at me. I can hardly put it down. Something in its pages feeds something I did not know was hungry. I hear or see or sense a vision or Presence outside my ken or expectation. Book providence.

Books finding us precisely when it’s time for us to hear what they have to say. Authors’ voices on their own experience that come at a time when a particular loneliness opened us enough to hear new things. Never in the control of human will or imagination, but often requiring an intuitive, or even counter-intuitive willingness of human beings to venture into the risks of faith, a path of offering into the larger world what has been nourishing of self or community in unseen hopes that it will be received in grace, with grace, for grace.

Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr found me in this fashion about 3 weeks ago. I meant to browse a chapter over dinner then treat myself to a movie. Pulled into his text, I cancelled the movie-plan and devoured the text in one sitting. I’ve been ruminating on pieces ever since. While his words may or may not be fodder for such “book providence” for your learning, he does chart a pertinent path for all of us to consider on the formative journey of deepening discipleship.

Rohr observes much evidence suggesting at least two major tasks to human life. “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion.” (xiii). He acknowledges that North American, Westernizing culture is very much a “first task” culture. We are intent on surviving successfully, whatever survival or success comes to mean in media-speak. Caught in the thrall of a (perceivedly) successful church pastorate or regular affirmations of our gifts for ministry, we often miss the “tasks within the tasks” we are about, that drive us. Rohr calls this “what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.” (xiv).

He’s getting at a root of curricular intent in Formation/Integration, in the challenges of training Spirit-led leaders for the church and world: if you think you’re doing what you’re doing for the only reason you are aware of, you are indubitably missing all kinds of other reasons you’re also doing what you’re doing.  How’s that for complicated?! Shaping one’s container for Spirit’s journey may seem so obvious to some of us, until we meet others whose shaping-container seems no less valid but so very different from our own. What makes it even more difficult, of course, is that this “task within a task” observation is scriptural. Think of Joseph. Ruth. Deborah. David. Peter. Each purported to be doing one thing while God had completely other ‘ends’ in mind, in the long run. None of us can really know, though we are gifted with conviction.

The formative journey in companionship, then, is learning new skills of paying attention, seeking integrity in the task within the task. Rohr argues that when we learn these things, the first task of life (shaping the container) opens into the second half of human living (filling the container with Godly surrender, whatever God places within). “Integrity largely has to do with purifying our intentions,” Rohr writes, “and a growing honesty about our actual motives.” (xv). No work is more demanding, and nothing else quite requires covenantal companions as much as this does.

The journey of container-shaping also requires sustaining a creative tension particularly difficult for Christians: living both law and freedom at the same time. Both are necessary for spiritual growth. And living, not necessarily understanding. Paul says it in Romans and Galatians. He learned it from Jesus “who says seven times in a row “The Law says…but I say” (Matthew 7:21-48), while also assuring us that he “has not come to throw out the law but to bring it to completion”” (35-36). Regardless of our intentions, we with Western dualistic minds “do not process paradoxes very well. …very few Christians have been taught how to live both law and freedom at the same time” (36).  The contemplative path is the only one I know so far that shapes Christians for such a tension.

So I ask, with an impish smile: how do you understand the “container” of your life, for God’s purposes, within the paradox of law and freedom in our tradition? Have you dressed up what you’ve been taught as God’s Way, disguising reliance on your own or your community’s competence with biblically-accurate words and phrases? That was my favorite of choice. It wasn’t until I began to track my actions, ask intimate companions in a covenantal circle for feedback, that I saw both my ego at its boat-building work in the sand and the rippling waves of grace just off the shore. Professional viability requires practice of good competence, after all. We negotiate the tensions here. We spend part of our time building a convincing, viable boat, knowing that the invitation is actually to invite ourselves and others to set sail in the boat of the Spirit. The boat was not the point. The life of Spirit is. Trusting God’s directions over 88-fathoms of deep-sea water and Leviathan.

Or perhaps your container is scriptural authority… the norms of your believing community? Perhaps your ‘container’ is a denominational identity—in my case, “being a good Presbyterian”—or defined professional role like pastor, educator, deacon, etc.? Perhaps you choose “social justice” or “liberation of self and other” as your container. Whatever you decide as “your own container” here amidst learning the historic-Christian-faith: how established is it and how open are you to having it shaped anew? How is Spirit inviting you into living the paradox of law and freedom, underneath and beyond your understanding?

The invitation to you here is toward shaping a ‘container’ that will last, which means one that must be refined in God’s potentially painful but purifying ways through doubt, failure, “lack of faith,” sustenance of creative tensions. These are the difficulties-opportunities in which seminary students think they are losing their way but which are actually the exact fodder for refining “blind faith” into one sturdy and supple for a much longer journey, a much more powerful witness. It is so human to attempt avoiding doubt or failure, and to assure everyone that our faith is unbroachable. Meanwhile, we miss the holy free-fall required to learn dependence upon the One who called us in the first place. We miss the reality that faith-fractures actually grow stronger faith, if we hold on long enough to welcome the Physician.

Then it gets even more ironic, which philosopher-theologian-poet Søren Kierkegaard identifies as a prime characteristic of faith. However you answer this question of container—crucial to answer and commit to faithfully within covenantal community—the container is not actually the point. It’s only the first half of what God holds in store.

Nothing to do but smile at yourself, saying, “There I go again.” Do the work. Shape and be shaped into a container. But prepare for the point that lies off shore…in God’s good time.


8 Comments so far
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Book-providence – that’s a new term for me and I’m sure I’ll be using it soon. I have had that experience and it always amazes me. This article is one of those moments. As a new pastor and a new student I am experiencing much reshaping and had to take a moment today to think about my roles; then had to stop again to consider the real work. The I read this article, a step in the right direction. Thank God for providence.

Comment by phyllis lemon

I think the part that’s difficult for me entering the answer to calling at the age of 48, is to learn to give into the reshaping process and try not to “guide” it somehow. After a career of more than 25 years that has been constantly growing in terms of responsibility and competence, it’s a difficult place to find myself in. That starting over and having no idea what is expected of me nor exactly how to achieve it. “What is the “career ladder” here?” I keep asking. And the silence in return is uncomfortable and difficult to manage. So the idea of reshaping is one that leaves me wondering how it will happen and what the end result will be. And, what I’m hoping to learn, is that those questions don’t matter. It just is a matter of letting God take care of the answers while I seek the guidance of the Spirit in all I seek to do. I’m right there with you picking out books I don’t ever read.


Comment by Richard Jarvis

I like the book-providence idea – I will feel less guilt and more excitement when a book calls to me on the bookstore shelf and “I just have to buy it.” Just the other day, I was in Charleston. SC for my niece’s wedding. My sister and I went shopping at the famous mall. In one of the staff, in the midst of scarves, the book: Live with Intention by Maryanne Radmacher was displayed. I just had to have it; the title alone drew me to it. The intro talks about “learning to live in your own flame.” I’ll keep you posted!

Comment by Jane Peoples

My container has become filled less of world than the substance of consonant living with God. This means that some days there is nothing in the container which can not be thrown out for the pigs to devour. Other days and even moments, His illuminating touch takes my breath away and I seem to almost drop the precious container He has made me into.

I, too, buy books with very little reason at first. I then discover with a fresh look at a pile of random papers and books the jewel intended for the moment He desired to make known in my mind. How cool it is to have aha moments. Some folks go through life unaware of the grace which flows from the hand of the Lord.

Comment by rob hart

I like the term “book-providence”. Well, admittedly, I like it when anyone starts off a conversation with acknowledgement of God’s providence. This concept is the theological life-blood that sustains me from day to day. Though I am not a fan of bumper stickers, I cannot help but smile when I see one that reads “Relax, God is in control”. Most christians (specifically in my own Baptist denomination) will readily agree when someone says “God is sovereign”. Yet the sermons are primarily choice-driven and the culmination of the service (and sometimes the measure of its success) is the “alter call”. It is not my intent at this time to present a theological argument on the subject, but I will say this: when It comes to the paradox between Law and freedom, I am persuaded to lean toward freedom. When it come to the relationship between our human will and Gods sovereignty, I am persuaded to default to soveriegnty.

Comment by Brian Sullivan

Dr Hess,I really appreciated this blog. Speaking of “Book providence,” this blog really taught me thing or two about “Blog Providence.” This blog was exactly what I needed. Deep down inside, I really needed this blog. It spoke to the under the surface feelings of Holy Spirit inspiration that from time to time I have the opportunity to acknowledge after reading a great book. Subconsciously, I have taken this inspiration as a Holy Spirit nudge. However this nudge usually comes to me in many different ways within relatively close time periods. Therefore, I have all of this nudging, but I end up getting lost in what project I need to endeavor first. Because of my indecisiveness, I end up trying to do everything at once which results in total failure. I wonder if this is normal? If so, what is the common solution to this problem?

Comment by Lance Jones

“It is so human to attempt avoiding doubt or failure, and to assure everyone that our faith is unbroachable.” As I reflect on this statement by Rohr, I find myself thinking about all of the times I had to be strong when all around me was falling apart; or acting out in confusion and later getting home to look back on God’s peace that surpasses understanding and how awesome God is for helping me. It is never really about us at the end of the day. It is always about giving God the glory in all that we do. My faith as a minister may be at a particular level and when circumstances come, God comes to strengthen me and to lead me and guide me . As long as I rely on him, I can do all things through Christ Jesus, when my human fraility and human thought processes begin to doubt, waiver, cry, feel lost or confused. I thank God that he works with me behind the scenes so that I can show strength when His people need it and display courage when it is time to venture out in unchartered waters. When I talk to God at home, or with ministers who respect my privacy, and give me honest feedback, I can grow and test the container to make sure it is not superficial,but always abounding in the work of the Lord and growing in faith.

Comment by Charlotte Edwards

You know it is interesting the point you made about living out the paradox between freedom and law. That is something that I was not really taught. Growing up I went to a ultra conservative church where most of the focus was on the law. We had to live a certain way. I am excited to go through the container shaping. I realize times are going to be tough but I am ready. I want to become the woman I was created to be.

Comment by Michelle Wilkey

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