Book Review: Where Is God In My Praying? Biblical Responses to Eight Searching Questions

Where Is God In My Praying? Biblical Responses to Eight Searching Questions

Author: Daniel Simundson

Publisher: Augsburg Publishing House

93 pages

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Dr. Daniel J. Simundson, at the time this volume was published was professor of Old Testament at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary. Dr. Simundson had previously authored Where Is God In My Suffering? Biblical Responses to Seven Searching Questions, also published by Augsburg.

The eight questions Dr. Simundson addresses are: 1. Why Should I Pray? 2. Why Is It So Hard to Pray? 3. Must We All Pray the Same Way? 4. Can I Tell God What I Really Think? 5. Dare I Ask for That? 6. What Good Does It Do to Pray for Others? 7. Does God Always Answer Prayer? 8. Does God Need Our Thanks and Praise? Professor Simundson looks at each of these questions in light of both Hebrew Bible and New Testament texts.

In addition to these questions, Dr. Simundson also addresses other questions like: How do I know God is listening? Do our prayers actually affect what God will do? Will God be angry with me for saying that?

God created us to be in relationship with him. Through prayer, we can communicate our thoughts and feelings with God. God has commanded us to pray. When we find it hard to pray, we can read the Psalter and find examples of prayer for the entire range of human circumstances.

Sin and broken relationships; our contemporary secular world; worry over speaking the ‘right’ words; feeling our prayers go unanswered or answered with a “no;” all contribute to why we find it so hard to pray. When we are unable to pray, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).

There are, of course, many different kinds of prayers for the wide array of life’s circumstances. We can be utterly honest with God in our prayers. Biblical examples of this are Job, Jeremiah, and Jesus—among others. Prayers of lament, as in the Psalter, are often the best, most honest prayers.

Professor Simundson has a helpful discussion of both the downside and upside of intercessory prayer. He cautions against manipulating God and people by intercessory prayer. One example he cites is that someone may tell you: “I am praying that God will give you a wonderful spiritual experience so that you can see the light and leave that wishy-washy church and join up with some true believers” (pp. 67-68). He also cites biblical examples of intercessory prayers: Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Jesus’ prayer for his enemies. In both cases God does what God wants—he ends up destroying Sodom and we do not know how or if Jesus’ prayer had any positive affects on his enemies.

Regarding unanswered prayer, Dr. Simundson states that it is not likely that God is angry with the person praying; nor does he or she necessarily lack enough faith. Unanswered prayer does not necessarily mean that God is uncaring either.

In the Bible, God said no to Moses, Paul and Jesus. Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Paul did not have the thorn in his flesh removed. God did not remove the cup of suffering from Jesus.

According to Dr. Simundson, God doesn’t need out praise and thanks—however, God may like or enjoy our praise and thanks, as in the case of the father in the parable of the prodigal son’s return home. Our praise and thanks may also improve our quality of life by giving us joy and gratitude like the leper who was healed by Jesus. We can praise and thank God for the blessings of creation and for God’s saving work throughout history.

However, in times of great suffering, war, natural disasters, COVID-19, and so on; it may be more appropriate to cry out to God with prayers of lament. Even then, it is possible to praise and thank God; for ultimately his will and purposes shall prevail.

This little volume is beneficial to both pastors and laity (especially those who struggle with prayer) and is very easy to read—highly recommended!

Book Review: How Can I Believe When I Live In A World Like This?

How Can I Believe When I Live In A World Like This?

Author: Reginald Stackhouse

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

147 pages, Hardcover

Questions, questions, questions. Human beings are curious creatures; curiosity often leads to asking questions; and questions can and do result in growth, learning and more meaningful living even when questions are not answered satisfactorily. In Jesus’ public ministry, he would teach by employing questions.

At the time of writing this volume, Dr. Reginald Stackhouse was a minister and professor at Toronto School of Theology, and formerly a Canadian Member of Parliament. In addition to the book’s title in question form, all seven chapters are also titled with a question: Chapter One: Why is This Happening to Me? Chapter Two: If You Could Be God for a Day, What Would You Do with a World Like This? Chapter Three: What Kind of World is This When the Innocent Suffer and the Evil are Rewarded? Chapter Four: Must We Just Suffer or Can it Make Us Better People? Chapter Five: Is This World a Fair Place if One Has to Pay the Price for Everyone Else? Chapter Six: Must Suffering and Death Have the Last Word? Chapter Seven: How Can a Person Make it Through a World Like This Successfully?

Dr. Stackhouse writes in a very accessible way, which engages the reader. He cites example after example of the wide array of situations that happen to humans and explanations of how they might be understood.

In chapter one, he states that the problem of evil and suffering haunted him as a pastor, professor and politician. One example is a parishioner who was given two months to live after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He cites Plato and Augustine, Leibniz and Voltaire, and then turns to the Book of Job, where he identifies six theodicies, that do not provide a definitive answer.

In chapter two, Dr. Stackhouse wrestles with questions like: What kind of God can allow the crib death of a newborn baby, and a bicycle rider on a country road to be run over by a careless driver? On the other hand, believing in nothing is not much better. In attempting to answer such questions, Dr. Stackhouse cites Justin an early Christian philosopher and martyr who found truth in the Bible as well as in the philosophy of the Greek Stoics. Their answer to suffering and evil was to “Trust nature,” and trust in providence. God ordained everything in life. By so doing, if we were God for a day, we could not do any better than God. Life events come together—in ways we sometimes shall never know—to find some kind of harmony and balance. Professor Stackhouse also turns to the cross of Jesus for an answer. “The message of the cross of Jesus can be applied to all innocent sufferers.” (p.52)

In chapter three, Dr. Stackhouse addresses the suffering of the innocent and the rewarding of the evil. Suffering does not always mean sin—nor does success always mean righteousness. One example of this given is his brother Benjamin, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and went on to live a full, meaningful life right up to the end. Professor Stackhouse also provides a thoughtful discussion of technological evil, institutional evil, and the evil of nature causing natural disasters. As people of faith, we believe in a God who suffers with us and shares our pain—that is the message of Isaiah’s suffering servant and Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.

In chapter four, Dr. Stackhouse describes how a bed-ridden parishioner cheered him up when he went to give him Holy Communion. Since evil is as prevalent in the world as is goodness, it is better that we try to learn from our suffering. He explains that a couple of ways to learn are what he refers to as “the law of compensations” and “the law of prospects.” A couple of biblical examples of these were the apostle Paul and Moses. A couple of political figures are also cited—Nelson Mandela and John A. MacDonald. The former released from prison and leading South Africa out of apartheid. The latter immigrating from Scotland poverty-stricken and becoming a Canadian Prime Minister. Jesus taught (Luke 9:23-25), that those who lose their life for his sake will save it.

In chapter five, Dr. Stackhouse unpacks the significance of the Latin word vicarius. He believes that: “Vicariousness runs through the Bible.” (p. 110) According to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, there is no greater love than to sacrifice one’s life for someone else. Human beings also need to realize their corporate identity to make sense of life. In sharing our common humanity, we are more compassionate toward others and more willing to make sacrifices and serve others.

In chapter six, violent examples like Tiananmen Square, the killing of Roman Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland, and Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, raise the question of whether suffering and death have the last word. Dr. Stackhouse agrees with philosopher Immanuel Kant who believed that human life is too short to gain justice in this world. Hence, for Kant a life beyond this one was necessary to right the wrongs suffered in this world if God is just. This, of course, is a problem for those who do not believe in a world beyond this one. However, citing philosopher Blaise Pascal’s “Wager Argument,” Dr. Stackhouse makes the case for believing in an afterlife. His conviction that there is was confirmed when he made a pastoral call on a couple who lost their thirty-year-old son who died in an accident. The father, in tears, said to Dr. Stackhouse: “There has to be something.” (p. 128) What we believe about death has a significant influence on how we live our life in this world.

In chapter seven, Dr. Stackhouse speaks of how much his parents’ beliefs gave shape to his own. His parents’ faith helped them stay together as a family and cope with the hardships of the Great Depression. “Although they [his parents] never used the term “mystery” to refer to God, I can see now that was how they understood him.” (p. 139) What happened in life was also a mystery and human beings, created in God’s image are a mystery as attested to in Psalm 139, we are: “fearfully and wonderfully made.” His parents, like Sören Kierkegaard knew that to be a human being means that there will be suffering. They taught Dr. Stackhouse that one cannot expect life without troubles—rather, one can trust that God will help us to cope with them.

This volume shall be helpful for clergy, laity and academics, I highly recommend it.

My New Book: Praying The Lectionary Cycle A

Please check out my new book Praying The Lectionary: Prayers Of The Church Cycle A, available for purchase from the CSS Publishing Company. This resource is for pastors and those responsible for preparing the Prayers of the Church for Sunday Worship. The lectionary readings are also listed for each Sunday of the church year. The prayers may be used as is, or edited to meet the needs and context of the worshipping community.

PLEASE NOTE, my correct bio is as follows: Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson attended and received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and his M. Div. degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatchewan, Canada. He recently retired as the chaplain at Bethany Meadows in Camrose, Alberta, Canada. He enjoys hiking, bicycling, traveling, reading and amateur photography. He is married to Julianna who is also a Lutheran pastor. 

Click on the image to view further information and purchase.

Book Review: When The English Fall

When The English Fall

Author: David Williams

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

257 pages, including Acknowledgments, An essay-The Root Of Apocalypse, and Questions For Discussion, paperback

David Williams is an American Presbyterian pastor, and this is his debut novel. As a first novel, it has gained considerable acclaim by various reviewers, and rightly so. Williams writes in a brilliant way, simple yet profound.

He describes this work as “Postapocalyptic Amish fiction,” (p. 247), and “an epistolary novel,” (p. 255). It is written as a journal by an Amish farmer, husband and father of two children. The daughter is afflicted with seizures, yet is given what some believe to be divine visions or insights.

Williams tells readers that the novel was inspired by at least three things: i) his study and curiosity of the Amish as a university student; ii) reading about the solar storm called the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859; iii) and his personal daydreams and creative imagination about the Amish.

The novel is set in rural Pennsylvania, in an Amish community. All is going reasonably well among the Amish, until an apocalyptic-like event occurs, which knocks out almost all of modern technology—everything from household appliances, to vehicles, machinery, etc. Banks are impractical since all the financial records were kept on computers. Martial law is imposed, travel is limited, the military does its best to keep law and order and oversee the distribution of goods and services. The weather wreaks havoc with high winds and heavy rains and flooding—damaging and destroying property.

More and more people are carrying guns and turning to violence. In one scene, Jacob the writer of the journal, thinks about his gun, which he uses only for slaughtering animals on the farm. These thoughts lead him to others concerning “the English,” a term the Amish use to describe all non-Amish people. He thinks the English keep many guns for very different reasons than the Amish. “It seems to me that it is all based on a feeling of fear. To keep a gun because you are afraid of dying, and because you want to be ready to kill another human being, it just feels like such a strange thing. So filled with pride, and so dead to God. I do not understand it. Why would I fear dying, when we all die?” (pp. 136-137)

As the violence of the many English moving into the Amish community becomes more threatening; Jacob agonizes over whether he and his family should continue to stay in the community or leave for what some Amish hoped would be a safer place to live in Ohio. Jacob consults with his daughter Sadie about it. “Which is God’s will? Both. Neither. And the many ways between. There are so many ways in between.” (p. 232)

I hope this spiritual-ethical dilemma serves to spark enough interest in those reading this review to find out for themselves what happens in the end.

I was impressed with the thoughtful way in which Williams emphasised the complex relationship between the Amish and the English. It was not a black and white one for certain—both were influenced for ill and for good by one another. One lesson to be learned from this novel is that we are our neighbour’s keeper, whether we are Amish or English. We all need one another as members of the human race, and we all have things to learn from one another.

Book Review: Basic Christianity 50th Anniversary Edition

Basic Christianity: 50th Anniversary Edition

Author: John Stott

Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

174 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Rev. John Stott died in 2011, at 90 years of age. He was a prolific writer of some 50 books. He was rector emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London; the founding president of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity; and served as chaplain to Queen Elizabeth. Stott was well known in Christendom as a conservative evangelical, and his best-selling Basic Christianity reflects this version of theology.

The book originally seems to have its roots in a series of talks that Stott gave at Cambridge University, appealing to students there. Eventually, Stott became a popular circuit public speaker at other universities around the globe. He had a mission-evangelism spirit which focussed on reaching out to students.

The format of this volume is as follows: Foreword, Preface to the 50th Anniversary Edition, Preface, The Right Approach, Part One: Who Christ Is, Part Two: What We Need, Part Three: What Christ Has Done, Part Four: How To Respond, and Study Questions.

In this 50th Anniversary Edition, Stott was somewhat sensitive to updating the language of the original volume to be more gender-inclusive. However, he did not rely on more up-to-date scholars in the body of his text, so his sources, other than the Bible are dated, and, to his credit, he admits this work is dated. Having admitted that, nonetheless the work is easy to read and quite accessible to readers-both Christian and non-Christian.

As for the content, Stott emphasises the orthodox view that God takes the initiative to reach humankind and the two natures of Jesus—fully human and fully divine and cites biblical references to make his case. Although he acknowledges Christ as sinless and the perfect exemplar view of atonement; he also emphasises the importance of a substitutionary view of atonement. His view of humankind also reflects the orthodox one that we are created in the image of God, and we are also fallen sinners who need a Saviour and are unable to save themselves. However, I thought in his discussion on humankind that he could have been more explicitly lucid in making the important distinction between lower case sin and upper case Sin. I also thought that he did not devote adequate treatment to upper case Sin as a state of being in rebellion against God and wanting to be god in God’s place. I was also disappointed in his rather degrading, misogynistic reference to Mary Magdalene in relation to Christ’s resurrection: “Again, we would have chosen someone with a better reputation than Mary Magdalene as the first witness.” (p. 67) In his discussion on the Ten Commandments, he would have been wise to mention that not all Christian denominations agree on their numbering. Instead, he presents the Reformed family of Christians version of the Decalogue, leaving the reader the impression that it is the only way to read, interpret and understand the Commandments. He is quite adamant on the familiar evangelical-fundamentalist language of making a personal commitment to Christ and the all or nothing approach to discipleship.

Stott cautions those Christians who are tempted to place too much importance on their feelings. He states that feelings come and go; and that trusting in God’s promises in the Bible are ultimately more reliable than feelings.

He also laments over some Christians who may describe themselves as “born again” never growing up in their faith. Stott states: “Others even suffer from spiritual infantile regression.” (p. 162) In response to God’s grace in Christ Christians, with the help of the Holy Spirit can grow in their understanding and in the sanctification process.

Stott also emphasises an active devotional life that balances prayer with Bible reading and study—again however his conservative, evangelical preference surfaces as he recommends reading the NIV translation rather than the NRSV.

In addition to an active devotional life Stott advocates membership and regular church attendance; involvement in social justice issues to serve the poor and neglected people in the world; as well as to evangelize the world by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This volume will likely appeal to conservative, evangelical Christians more than anyone else. The Study Questions may be helpful in facilitating small group discussions for adult church groups and students.

A Brief Book Review: A Rare Benedictine

A Rare Benedictine: The Advent Of Brother Cadfael

Author: Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter)

Publisher: Headline Book Publishing PLC

156 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Edith Pargeter, writing under the name of Ellis Peters, became a popular historical fiction and crime author with her Mediaeval super-sleuth Cadfael series.

The setting is the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul, at Shrewsbury, along the Wales and England border. Readers are taken on a journey with super-sleuth Cadfael as he solves the kidnapping of a prominent abbey resident; leaves behind his worldly life to become a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey; keeps secrets surrounding a pair of engraved silver candlesticks; and tracks down a would-be murderer and robber of the abbey treasury.

As in her other Cadfael novels, Ellis Peters has created in this her first in the Cadfael series an engaging page-turner, which many may choose to read in one sitting.

Cadfael, once again—with the assistance of divine providence—is the protagonist who methodically applies his observatory powers and deep insights into the complexities of the human condition to enhance the unfolding of justice and mercy.

Highly recommended summer reading for all historical fiction and crime novel buffs. I would give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: Straight from the Heart

Straight from the Heart

Author: Jesse L. Jackson

Publisher: Fortress Press

324 pages, plus Preface and Editors’ Introduction, hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Reverend Jesse Jackson is an ordained Baptist minister, who has a passion for social justice. He has travelled widely, and been active in a variety of human rights organisations. In some respects, he has served as a contemporary prophet on behalf of African-Americans—following the tradition of the ancient biblical prophets. He was also an unsuccessful candidate who ran for President of the U.S.A.

An articulate public speaker, this volume consists of Reverend Jackson’s speeches, divided into the following chapters: Political Progressive, Human Rights Advocate, Preacher, Comforter, Evangelist for Educational Excellence, Peacemaker, and Corporate and Cultural Critic. Each of these chapters contain several addresses.

Reverend Jackson is a rhetorical master at catchy turns of phrases. The speeches reflect the ‘signs of the times’ of mainly the U.S.A. during the 1970s and 1980s—with some references to other nations and contexts, e.g., apartheid in South Africa. One of the more tedious characteristics of Jackson’s addresses is that some of the same material shows up over and over again.

The following quotations epitomize the Reverend Jackson as prophet, social justice and human rights advocate, political analyst, and spiritual mentor for African-Americans.

When the Word (the spiritual) becomes flesh (the actual) and dwells in our hearts, that’s called good religion.” (p. ix)

The absence of segregation is not the presence of social justice or equality.” (p. 20)

We must choose the human race over the nuclear race.” (p. 21)

Centuries of crime and terror upon which this nation was built are beginning to show their effect and result.” (p. 49)

Our nation has become divided with narcissism, self-love, and white-skin worship.” (p. 49)

Reganomics wants to use the powers of the federal government to redistribute income and wealth upward from the poor to the rich.” (p. 52)

Not everyone can be famous, that is, well known; but everyone can be great because greatness lies in service, and everybody can serve.” (p. 77)

This day the God that we serve—if we will just trust him in all our ways—will still raise us from the guttermost to the uttermost. He will raise all of us from disgrace to amazing grace.” (p. 113)

Conscience is the pursuit of higher law, the authority to discern just law from unjust law. It is a just law because it has universal character.” (p. 147)

I know it is not your aptitude but your attitude that determines your altitude, with a little intestinal fortitude. No matter what yesterday’s strife, today is still the first day of the rest of your life.” (pp. 154-155)

When the philosophers have philosophized and the theologians have theologized and the poets have framed their verse, we are all driven to rely on the everlasting arms of Almighty God.” (p. 163)

And so we say, “Down with dope; up with hope” because we cannot be what we ought to be if we push dope in our veins rather than hope in our brains.” (p. 206)

Wherever racism manifests itself, the seeds of insecurity, ignorance, fear, hatred, and genocide are always present.” (p. 252)

The black church—whatever it is and ain’t—historically has been and today remains the greatest contributor to sustaining us and allowing us to progress.” (p. 305)

For we believe that in the end might is not right, but right is might. We believe that the pen is mightier than the sword, that a nation’s conscience can be stirred and moved if the truth is told with conviction and with power.” (p. 324)

Even though the Reverend Jackson’s speeches date back to the 1970s and 1980s, there is much here that remains applicable to our contemporary context.

Those interested in social justice, human rights, faith, ethics, and African-American history, religion and culture shall likely find this volume worthwhile.