by the attic library

Reviewed by: John Woon, Family Connect 1 Small Group

Great writing has the power to stimulate our imagination, generate creativity, and help us make sense of the world. In this book, Philip Yancey described how the writings of John Donne forever changed the way Philip Yancey thought about pain and death.

John Donne in his spiritual journal “Devotion” mentioned that those times of affliction, the periods of sharpest suffering and pain, had been the very occasions of spiritual growth. Trials had purged sin and developed character; poverty had taught him dependence on God and cleansed him of greed; failure and public disgrace had helped cure worldly ambition. A clear pattern emerged: pain could be transformed, even redeemed.

But regarding death, which is the ultimate pain, John Donne in his earlier years regarded it as the great enemy to be resisted, not a friend to be welcomed as a natural part of the cycle of life. The Devotion recorded Donne’s active struggle against accepting death. Despite his best efforts, he could not really imagine an afterlife. The pleasures that he knew so well all depended on a physical body and its ability to smell and see and hear and touch and taste. But sickness and suffering had transformed Donne’s thinking over time.

Over time, Donne accepted “we all die”. When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language. Every chapter must be translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice, but God’s hand is in every translation, and His hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall be open to one another.

Donne wrote:

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so…

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.”

Have you wonder how to approach death and doubt the reality of afterlife? Let Philip Yancey lead you into the insights of John Donne whose writings may change your perspective forever.

Reviewed by: John Woon, Family Connect 1 Small Group

We speak of grace, but do we understand it? More important…do we believe it? What’s so amazing about grace? In this book, Philip Yancey gives us a probing look at grace: what it looks like … what it doesn’t look like … and why only Christians can and must reveal the grace the world is searching for.

Grace is the church’s great distinctive. It’s the one thing the world cannot duplicate, and the one thing it craves above all else — for only grace can bring hope and transformation to a jaded world.

Grace comes free of charge to people who do not deserve it. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Lewis himself fathomed the depths of God’s forgiveness in a flash of revelation as he repeated the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed. “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” on St Mark’s Day. His sins were gone, forgiven!

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more — no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less — no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.

Grace is unfair, which is one of the hardest things about it. It is unreasonable to expect a woman to forgive the terrible things her father did to her just because he apologizes many years later, and totally unfair to ask that a mother overlook the many offenses her teenage son committed. Grace, however, is not about fairness.

In his book, The Prisoner and the Bomb, Laurens van der Post recounts the misery of his wartime experiences in a Japanese prison camp in Java. In that unlikely place he concluded:

The only hope for the future lays in all-embracing attitude of forgiveness of the people who had been our enemies. Forgiveness, my prison experience had taught me, was not mere religious sentimentality, it was as fundamental a law of the human spirit as the law of gravity. If one broke the law of gravity, one broke one’s neck; if one broke this law of forgiveness, one inflicted a mortal wound on one’s spirit and became once again a member of the chain-gang of mere cause and effect from which life has labored so long and painfully to escape.

Reviewed by: John Woon, Family Connect 1 Small Group

In this book, Philip Yancey touched on these questions: Where is God when it hurts? How a good God can allow suffering? How can we cope with pain? How do we respond to people in pain? How could a loving God allow Auschwitz? One third of the world went to bed hungry last night, how can we reconcile that with Christian Love? Pain is real.

From another perspective, pain is the gift nobody wants. The mechanism of pain in the human body operates much like a warning system. When we hurt, what is our body telling us? Pain sensors loudly alert our body to danger. Pain should be viewed as a communication network. Pain sensors stand guard duty with the singular purpose of keeping us from injury. Pain is indeed a gift. It is effectively designed for surviving life in this sometimes-hostile planet.

Pain demands the attention that is crucial to our recovery. For example, guilt is a pain message to the conscience informing us that something is wrong and should be dealt with. Accept it as a signal alerting us to attend to a matter that needs change. First, the person must locate the cause of the guilt, just as a person must locate the cause of his/her physical pain. Much of modern counseling deals with the process of weeding out reasons for false guilt. But a further step must follow: a pathway out of the guilt by addressing the root cause.

But what about the ultimate pain that leads to no recovery — death? The one legitimate complaint we can make against pain is that if it could not be switched off.

For the person who suffers, Christianity contributes one answer. The entire Bible representing 3000 years of history focuses like a magnifying glass on the painful execution and death at Calvary. But death is decidedly not the end of the story. The resurrection and its victory over death brought a decisive new word to the vocabulary of pain and suffering: TEMPORARY. Jesus Christ holds out the starting promise of an after-life without pain. Whatever anguish we feel now will not last.

Christian faith does not offer a peaceful way to come to terms with death. No, it offers instead a way to overcome death. Christ stands for life, and His resurrection should give convincing proof that God is not satisfied with any ‘Cycle of Life’ that ends in death. The problem of pain will have no ultimate solution until God recreates the earth; and we are sustained by faith in that great hope. This faith lies in one person, a faith so solid that no amount of suffering can erode it. To view the role of pain and suffering properly, one must await the whole story.

Reviewed by: John Woon, Family Connect 1 Small Group

In matters of faith, many people occupy the spiritual borderlands – a no man’s land in a region of conflict, a disputed territory in between both sides of conflicting armies, serving as a buffer zone. They occupy the borderlands because they cannot set aside the feeling that there must be a spiritual reality out there that must exist beyond everyday routine of life.

If we remain in the spiritual borderland, what on earth are we missing? Is there really a God? Is there life after death? Is religious faith only a crutch? Or a path to something authentic? Does religious faith make sense in a world of the internet? Does faith delude us into seeing a world that doesn’t exist? Or does faith reveal the existence of a world we cannot see without it?

No society in history has attempted to live without a belief in the sacred, not until modern times. We now live in a state of confusion about the big questions that have always engaged the human race, questions of meaning, purpose and morality. Eliminating the sacred changes, the story of our lives. In times of greater faith, people saw themselves as individual creations of a loving God who, regardless of how it may look at any given moment, has final control over a world destined for restoration. Now, people with no faith find themselves lost and alone. With no overarching story, or meta-narrative, to give promise to the future and meaning to the present.

If God exists, and if our planet represents God’s work of art, we will never grasp why we are here without taking that reality into account. Perhaps it is because we lack contemplation. The goal of contemplation is to see life as God sees it, a unity of two worlds (spiritual and material) and not divisions. We tend to approach life as a sequence rather than as a series of moments. We schedule our time, set goals, and march onward towards their achievement. Phone calls, or any unscheduled event, is viewed as jarring interruptions. How different from the style of Jesus, who often let people – interruptions – determine his daily schedule. He gave full attention to the person before him, whether it be a Roman officer, or a nameless woman with a hemorrhage of blood. And he drew lasting spiritual lessons from the most ordinary things: wild-flowers, wheat crops, vineyards, sheep, wedding, family.

All of life involves a clash between impulse and inhibition, between our fallen nature and the image of God. A sacred view of life calls for simple trust that the One who created the human creature has our ultimate good in mind. In his book, Philip Yancey invites us to join him on a journey of discovery and consider “rumors of another world” that could point the way to a new life of beauty, purpose and freedom.

Reviewed by: John Woon, Family Connect 1 Small Group

Philip Yancey described his book “I was just wondering” as “a book of many questions and a few answers.” Why did God stay silent during the Holocaust? Is it true that sufferings ought to be tied to behavior? Did God send AIDS as a specific, targeted punishment to those engaged in promiscuous sex or share dirty needles? Is Christian fundamentalism causing more harm than good, portraying the world as a bad place, that sex is bad and that it leads to difficulty in achieving emotional intimacy during adulthood? Do Christians have a right to impose their values on a pluralistic society? Affluence has brought us in this life what former generations could only anticipate in heaven; has the biblical promise of such a heaven state lost some of its luster? Could Christian faith really bring order to a chaotic world? Is Christianity still relevant today?

Philip Yancey wrote: “God does not promise to solve all the problems we have, at least not in the manner we may wish them to be solved. Rather, He calls us to trust Him, and to stay faithful.” Consider this doctrine: the timelessness of God. For thousands of years Christians have cited proverbs such as “A thousand years is a day in God’s sight,” to express their belief that God somehow views time differently. He is outside time and space. We see human history as a sequential series of still-frames, one by one, but God sees the entire movie at once, in a flash. God does not “foresee” us doing things, He simply sees us doing them, in an eternal present. Trust God. The Apostle Paul clung to the promise of a perfect world to be granted to us someday, of which we have a foretaste in this life. But he never denied the tedious, often painful realities of this life. How could he, with his days so full of shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings, and the nagging pain of his mysterious “thorn in the flesh”? In short, Paul portrays the triumph of eternal victory but also the poignant “not yet” of our current state.

The questions raised in this book and the perspectives Yancey puts forth is — just as he described in the book’s forward — subjective, biased, personal, and necessarily incomplete. This book will challenge the reflective reader with eyes to see and the imagination to ponder.

“When Yancey couples his vibrant curiosity with his felicitous style and then begins reflecting on everything under the sun, the result is a collection of stimulating observations bound to nudge and encourage a reader’s own reflective posers… Enthusiastically recommended.”

-Library Journal

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