April 25, 2016

Our Tears in His Bottle (A Review of A Heart Set Free)

“You are very good at speaking truth, Megan.” 

From my end of the phone line I could picture my friend’s raised eyebrows, and I knew she hadn’t meant her statement in a good way. She had interrupted me just as I was in the middle of answering her “How are you doing?” with a theology lesson: “Well, God is in control of my life . . . His plans are perfect . . . This will all work out for his glory.” 

I am good at speaking truth. (Which isn’t all bad. More on this later.) And I’m even good at making room for other people’s emotions. But what I’m not always so good at is answering direct questions about how I’m doing. If I answered honestly, I might break down and cry or, worse, allow someone to think I don’t really trust the Lord. 

I do trust Him. Most of the time. I think. 

I picked up Christina Fox’s new book, A Heart Set Free, then, as a habitual truth-speaker who would rather ignore her emotions than invite them to come out of hiding and swallow her whole. Fox’s own background—as a counselor and someone who herself suffers from depression—means she often writes from the opposite perspective: a woman who has already been swallowed by her emotions and is now trying to get free. But I believe both emotion-captors (like me) and emotion-captives (like Fox) will find valuable help in this book’s pages. 

The subtitle of the book is A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament; in its twelve chapters, Fox takes the pattern of the Bible’s saddest songs and applies it to our right expression of emotion, particularly in prayer. 

Part 1 of the book lays out a biblical perspective on emotions. Fox describes the emotions of worry, fear, anxiety, despair, grief, sorrow, abandonment, rejection, and shame, and she considers how they become “uninvited guests” in our lives. From there, Fox moves on to set them in the context of creation, fall, and redemption and gives a hopeful and helpful reminder that “Jesus came to redeem all things—including our emotions.” 

The rest of the book focuses more narrowly on the psalms of lament and their use as a pattern to guide us. As an emotion-avoider, I found myself moved by Fox’s explanation of why we should lament: 
We need to lament not because we are without hope but because we have faith in God. We also need to lament so we can enter into the pain we often avoid in order to know the peace that God gives those who come to him in faith. We need to lament so that we can learn more about God, about his redemptive purposes in this world, about ourselves, and about our greatest need in Christ. And we need to lament so that we can experience more of God’s amazing grace. 
From there, Fox goes on to give us practical direction and encouragement to lament. Chapters 6 (“Crying Out to God”), 7 (“Asking for Help”), and 8 (“Responding in Trust and Worship”) are particularly good; here, Fox shows us what, exactly, the psalmists did in their distress and how we can follow their example. 

For truth-speakers like me, Chapters 9 (“Remembering God’s Faithfulness”) and 10 (“Speaking the Truth to Yourself”) are familiar territory, but, coming as they do after thorough and honest heart-examination, they are not a barricade against emotion but the next step on a journey toward healthy emotions. Fox writes: 

This is a crucial truth for us to learn from the Psalms of Lament. These heart cries follow a forward movement. They don’t simply express emotions and leave it at that, because though verbalizing what we are feeling does provide some relief, it’s not our ultimate destination. . . .we are ultimately moving toward a place of trust and worship. Learning to speak the truth back to ourselves, as the psalmist does, helps move us toward our journey’s end. 

In the introduction, Fox warns readers that her book is not a race but a marathon, and this proved true on one level. Her writing is simple and clear, so actually working through the chapters does not take long at all, nor does it make unreasonable intellectual demands. (This, I think, makes it an excellent volume to hand to a friend struggling with despair or anxiety. I’m quite sure that people suffering from emotional overload do not want to slog through obtuse and complex material in order to feel better, and Fox knows this.) 

The marathon nature of the book comes via the deceptively simple—and few in number—study questions at the end of each chapter. Though she is writing about the Psalms of Lament, Fox does not focus on expositing the individual psalms, choosing instead to explain the general pattern most of those psalms follow. The in-depth Bible study is left up to the reader, who will read, meditate on, and apply various psalms as she answers the questions. 

A marathon indeed—but one worth the time and energies of all who submit themselves—and their emotions!—to the “living and active” power of the Word of God. 

Fox, Christina. A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2016. 

April 11, 2016

A Soundtrack for Your Life

A co-worker and I were comparing notes about our husbands' similar, eclectic music tastes when she told me that her son, who is in grade school, enjoys the same music as her husband. As I was imagining Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" streaming through the boy's earbuds, she said, "He was born with a soundtrack for his life."

Music is important for the church, as well. We have been born again with a soundtrack for our lives. God, our Father, has gifted us with music and made it part of our worship. "He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God." Psalm 40:3

In my adult life, I have been blessed with musicians in my church. Most of them have been well-trained and very talented. Some of them have been members or regular attendees who sang along with us from the pews. A few were professional church musicians who played instruments or led the choir and orchestra. Some taught children in our music academy and, therefore, enlarged our orchestra. Others visited our church to give concerts of songs they arranged or composed.

Here are a few musicians who have recordings that make up the soundtrack of my life. You will notice that I am partial to traditional hymns played on the piano.

Timothy Shaw, an award-winning composer, was our church's music director for a few years. He is accomplished on the piano. His music career includes professional roles as an educator, music engraver and more. Shaw's website allows you to listen to his recordings, look at music scores and find out how to commission new music. CDBaby.com sells his three albums of hymns in CD or MP3, MP3-320, and FLAC formats.

Another composer, performer and recording artist is James Ward. He visited my church many years ago. He is the man behind the alternate tune for "Rock of Ages" (page 500, Trinity Hymnal). This arrangement is one of the congregation's top 10 favorite hymns. Ward is a full time music director at New City Fellowship (PCA), Chattanooga, Tennessee. His recordings and sheet music are available on his website's Music Shop. See iTunes and Amazon for other formats.

Gail Smith also visited my church. She is a composer/arranger of sacred piano music and a music educator. In addition, Smith was the pianist at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She offers CDs and many books on her website as well as information about concerts, workshops and lectures.

In addition to the artists I mentioned, my husband (the one with the eclectic musical taste) plays other Christian CDs and MP3s by people I have never met. What is on your play list? Please tell us about the music that encourages you to worship God.

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