Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age [A Review]

Why do greater certainty and more control only heighten our fear for what remains outside our control—especially if the possibilities are so improbable?

—Bob Cutillo, MD

It is a curious thing that health care, whose very existence was once solely predicated upon helping people, has become an intimidating, monolithic, even frightening system that nobody fully understands and that can even ruin people physically, financially, and emotionally. It is not that anyone sets out with an evil gleam in his or her eye seeking to scuttle the lives of the medically needy; instead, we have arrived at the current state of health care rather unintentionally. The root problem is that we believe our health to be a possession to which we are entitled and our health care a service which we have purchased, and thus are owed good service.

This is at least the thesis of the recent book Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age by Dr. Bob Cutillo, a physician for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, Colorado. it is true, of course, that when you or I go to the doctor we do expect competent and accurate diagnosis of any issues we are suffering from. What happens, though, when the diagnosis is something that cannot be treated? We may rage and splutter at the doctor as if we are being short shrifted, but this belies the fact that we have forgotten that health is a gift, not a possession. Nobody receives a guarantee in the birthing room that he or she will live a long, healthy, and disease-free life. Every healthy day we live is undeserved.

31qfo2suwml-_sy344_bo1204203200_With a certain amount of irony, it is this acceptance of our true lot in life that actually leads to a better relationship with our health. Life is a gift, and when a doctor, medicine, drug, or procedure restores us back to health this is also a gift. When we receive the news that a chronic condition is incurable or that death is knocking at the door, we can receive that news with sorrow, but also with a certain measure of peace and contentment, because every good day we have ever lived has been given to us.

I personally have a complicated relationship with the medical establishment; luckily I only have ever been to the doctor for something really serious a couple of times, but the heartache of sickness and death is not far from any one of us. I have lived my life in the peculiar valley that many others dwell in; on the one hand there are those who insist that everything about the medical establishment is good and ought to be accepted uncritically if it is uttered from the doctor’s lips. On the other hand, there are those who swear off anything and everything that has to do with the AMA; healthy living is a specific formula of nutrition, vitamins, essential oils, natural remedies, and even things like homeopathy and reflexology. To be honest, one of the reasons I picked up Dr. Cutillo’s book was to see if he might provide a way forward.

Reading Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age did not automatically reconcile these two groups in my mind or even provide me with an obvious third way, but Dr. Cutillo did help me recognize and understand that the posture of control is evident in both of these groups—they just disagree on how to control life. Viewing life as a gift, however, offers a certain amount of liberty in both. You can receive the diagnosis from the doctor without being disillusioned when the news is bad.

If I have any critique to offer of the book, it’s that its target audience is not always clear. Sometimes it’s as if Cutillo is writing to medical professionals, and sometimes to laypeople. The result is a book that feels at some points laser-focused in its intent and at other points simply over my head. That is a relatively small critique, however, and in general there is plenty of food for thought for any reader. Though I would hesitate to call this a five star book, it nevertheless is one of the most interesting, applicable, and genre-crossing books I have read this year. I highly recommend it.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $10 or WTS Books for $16.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Cover photo courtesy of 强 石.

You’re Never Ready

You'll never sleep in again

About two months before I got married last summer I remember running into an older lady I knew only at a very shallow level. We exchanged a few pleasantries and when I told her about my upcoming wedding she burst out, “Oh! That’s so exciting! Are you planning on starting a family right away?” I was a bit taken aback, to say the very least. I thought it somewhat presumptuous of her to ask me that, given the near non-existence of any sort of relationship with her. “Ha ha, no,” I chuckled, “no, I don’t think we’re quite ready for that yet.”

“Oh, you’re never ready honey!” she admonished.

I thought it was maybe just her, but since then I’ve had about a half-dozen conversations along the same vein. I think I understand and agree with the basic premise of this snippet of common wisdom. Maturity is quite unlike the world of video games where you level up to unlock upgrades and abilities. In real life things are much messier and asymptotic, meaning that there may be a standard and a goal that you’re aiming for but under our human limitations you’ll always fail to reach. Sure, I buy that. I wasn’t ready for everything that being married to my wife brought and have had to learn some things mid-course.

But I wasn’t completely unprepared for marriage, either. Before I even got engaged, I spoke with wise spiritual mentors about the meaning of marriage. I asked married folks in circles of friends and family whether they thought it would be a good idea if I got married. I read a bunch of books regarding the meaning, purpose, and theology of marriage. When we got engaged we spent six weeks doing premarital counseling. After all that I walked into my marriage and to my surprise it was different than I had imagined. The challenges have been different than I anticipated. Sex is a lot different than I had anticipated. My role as a husband isn’t quite as easy to define as I had thought it would be. Things have been different, sure, but not completely so. I wasn’t ready for everything, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t ready for anything.

The problem is that we don’t use this “Never Ready” advice anywhere else in life, and nor would we want to. Imagine if my wife walked into her engineering firm right out of high school and asked for a job. “I know that I’m completely unqualified for this job, but they say you’re never quite ready so I figured I’d just dive in and learn by doing!” Right. Imagine if you enlisted for the army and you heard this: “We were going to put you guys through boot camp, but they say that nothing can prepare you for the horrors that await you on the battlefield so we’re just going to skip basic training and send you straight off to Iraq.” Right.

The premise of GK Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting hill is that the presidency is chosen by random lottery and paints a picture of how ludicrous it would be if we put a completely unqualified individual in as president. Yet somehow when it comes to parenthood, when it comes to being responsible for a completely helpless human being for 18 years we have an astonishingly blasé attitude that since you can’t fully prepare, then you might as well not bother at all and just do it.

I know that I’ll never be ready, but I’d like to take a few years to at least prepare somewhat. I’d like to develop a strong and healthy marriage between my wife and I before we add a child into the mix. I can’t imagine having to try to get your sea legs for marriage and parenthood at the same time. How does the gospel inform my theology of parenthood? Do I want to raise my children in a rural, suburban, or urban context? What are my convictions regarding corporal punishment? How do you teach a child the meaning of both justice/judgment as well as mercy and grace? Folks often say that the last child gets the best parents, but what if I didn’t just assume that my first child will function as a guinea pig to teach me how to be a good parent? What if I could be a decently good parent to each one?

Only the Lord knows the future for my marriage, but as far as it depends upon me I want to be a good steward of my children when/if God entrusts them to me. I know that at the end of the day the only reason that I can possibly be a good parent is because of God’s grace, but in my eyes that is no excuse for being rash.

Am I being naïve? Is there some piece of the puzzle that I’m missing? Am I right to believe this?

Religion vs. Relationship

It’s not knowing ABOUT God, it’s about KNOWING God, or so the folk theology goes today.

It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship. However you slice the pie, it’s something we’re incredibly concerned with today.

Jesus is my boyfriend
What’s your relationship status?

Such pop preaching has arisen for various reasons, but I’d wager that our primary goal as Christians to say such things is to somehow lure non-Christians into our churches. If we can somehow convince them, the de-churched, that we’re really not like the churches that they originally ran away from (we swear!) then they’ll come back.

“Oh man, did you hear?” They’ll say. “There’s this dope new church in town that’s about relationship, not religion! This really makes me want to wake up early on a Sunday morning instead of sleeping off yet another hangover with my girlfriend. This suddenly does away with the massive loads of emotional baggage I have with Jesus.”

Call me a cynic, but I don’t see that a change in terminology has drawn any new non-Christians through our doors. For all our donuts, coffee, and lighting, the offense of the gospel still remains, well, offensive. Calling Christianity a relationship instead of a religion might provide a short-term boon, but in the long-term all we’ve really done is modernize our jargon.

Again, call me a cynic, but what are we supposed to do once a “seeker” peels away the layers of our new slang? The gospel is still (hopefully at least) underneath. If the offensiveness of the gospel is why they left, the only way we can get them to come back is to jettison the gospel!

The word “religion” likely came from Augustine as he sought a descriptor for the “covenant relationship” found in Christianity. Denotatively the word religion speaks of covenant relationship and worship. Certainly it also has connotations of obligation and rite that we are loathe to associate ourselves with, and I would be the first to confess that I’ve jumped on this relationship bandwagon.

Lest you hear me condemning you, let me say clearly that this is more of a reflection than a cultural critique. This is me, wondering if what we’re doing is a good thing, if it’s actually going to change anything. Under the old banner of Christian religion, people went to church, spent time with The Lord on their own, guided their children in the pathways of righteousness, helped the poor and needy, and even gave their lives up for the cause of Christ. What’s changed, other than the paint? If that lifestyle didn’t look attractive in Times New Roman in the pew hymnal, it’s not going to look much different in Helvetica on an HD projector. The flesh is still the flesh, and it still wars against the Holy Spirit. If we can trick the flesh into coming for the ambiance and the hipness, it’ll still tune out when we get to Jesus. Should we ditch it all then? No. But we ought to recognize that it’s no silver bullet.

We are called to faithfulness in the preaching of the gospel and the discipleship of others. Fruitfulness belongs solely to the Holy Spirit. If we try to take his job and forget our own, then what have we become but a business in the lifestyle and entertainment industry? Let’s be content planting the seed or watering the garden. If growth comes, we can know it was from The Lord.

Disequilibrium

“Tom doesn’t need our worn out clichés. Tom needs the truth of the gospel message packaged in the unwavering love of the messenger. Tom needs to be invited into our homes, with his husband and kids, where a great steak, some good wine is waiting on him, prepared by people who love him enough to point him to the one who gave his life for him.”

If you’re up for a good, quick read fit to challenge your biases and opinions, check out Bryan Loritts’ latest post, “Tom“.

The Silence of God

What would it be like for God to be silent for 400 years? That thought has always nagged at me. I mean, think about it. God had consistently spoken with the people of Israel for their full history through his prophets, and then after Malachi, boom. Silence. 400 years. It’s just such a long time.

Silence
Silence over Clear Creek last night.

My wife Kylie and I have pondered that question this year, as we’ve been reading through the Bible chronologically (PDF). Yesterday we read the book of Malachi, and with the end of September came the end of the Old Testament. After spending 3/4 of the year reading the OT this way, you begin to gain a massive sense of perspective. Not only in respect to Israel’s story, but perspective in the sense that we as Christians spend 99% of our time in the New Testament. When we venture into the OT, it’s either into Genesis 1 to get angry at each other about the origin of the world or into Proverbs to find a tweetable verse.  There’s a few other stories that we sprinkle into childrens’ Bibles, but I think it’s fair to say that until I really spent intimate time walking through the entire story step by step, I didn’t really comprehend what the OT was about.

And so here we found ourselves a few weeks ago, fast nearing the end of our journey in the Hebrew Bible. It was so fascinating, so alive, and yet so unfulfilling. Like a good mystery novel, God kept dropping foreshadows and cliffhangers like a boss. What is he getting at? What on earth is Daniel talking about with these seventy weeks? Why is Branch always capitalized? Why are all of my thoughts in italics? We spent some time talking about the 400 years of silence that occurred after Malachi and before John the Baptist, and we lamented the fact that our reading plan didn’t really let us see that. Suddenly an intriguing idea popped into my head: what if we tried to experience that somehow? What if we took a week off of our reading plan to feel what it’s like to not immediately satisfy all of our questions?

So that’s what we’re doing this week: trying to experience the silence of God. When I woke up this morning, it felt admittedly odd. I wanted to read the next installment in our reading plan. I wanted to hear from God. What happens next? And yet all I heard was silence. I desperately worked back through what we had already read. I worked through Daniel a little bit, but it only heightened the poignancy of my questions. Is there any hope? Malachi said God was going to send a messenger! Where is he?

Silence.

Ours is a week. Theirs was 400 years. Can you imagine?

A Night to Remember

What an incredible evening.

I had such an excellent time.

This tastes amazing!

These were a few of the enthusiastic comments we heard about our Welcome to Golden Party this past Sunday evening.

Image

And truly I must say that it was quite an extraordinary party. Nothing crazy happened–it was just very fun. It’s easy for me to get lost in the praise, and to begin thinking to myself, “Wow, Ben, you did an excellent job. You’ve really got a knack for this.”

It’s really easy for me to conveniently forget that just a week ago I was wandering through the pines of an existential crisis on the top of a nearby mountain while a pile of worry and fear suffocated me. We’re not going to have enough food! Nobody’s going to come! Will we get any new students, or will it just be a big Christian huddle? I did such a terrible job of including people in the planning of this party.

As the afternoon rain clouds rolled in and forced me to retreat to lower elevations, the facts began to overwhelm me: if this party was going to work, it was going to be God’s grace. If people were going to come, it would be God’s grace. If there was going to be enough food, it was going to be God’s grace.

Once the party was over, my heart bubbled over with pride. I did such a great job! I really learned a lot from last year. I’m so glad that I made such a simple plan. If only everyone else could plan something as well as I could.

Good grief, self, what happened to God’s grace?

I am so prone to elevate myself to divinity when things go well and lower myself to the gutter when things go poorly or they may go poorly. God so easily becomes State Farm to me–he’s that Good Neighbor Who’s There, who I can call upon when I need help but stays in his own home the rest of the time.

Lord, please forgive me. Give me the humility to give you the honor. Create in me a mind that trusts you at all times.

A Cross-Shaped Gospel (Book Review)

A Cross-Shaped Gospel

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

A few months ago I purchased my first crock pot at a yard sale for $5, and it has served me well. I’ve enjoyed many scrumptious soups and stews out of it, and it is basically the easiest way to cook, in my opinion. All I have to do is drop a few ingredients in, add some water, and then turn it on and let it set for 5 hours or so and then I have a delicious dinner on my plate. One time, however, I started it too late and it wasn’t quite finished in time for dinner. I had added lots of tasty vegetables and a plethora of pungent herbs and spices, but it just wasn’t quite done cooking and none of the flavors had really melded yet. You could taste the pizzazz of each ingredient, but that was exactly the problem; they hadn’t blended to become one soup yet.

This was my general impression of A Cross-Shaped Gospel, by Bryan Loritts. There are so many incredible things that he touches on in this book, topics that he addresses, and idols that he attempts to knock down, but in the end the book just feels like a collection of excellent sermons and less like, well, a book. If you’re unfamiliar with Loritts and his ministry at Fellowship Memphis, I’d suggest you check it out. It’s an interesting, gospel-centered multi-ethnic church in the heart of the Bible Belt where racial tensions still run high. Loritts’ passion for breaking down racial walls runs deep in this book as he scripturally defends a conception of the gospel that is not just vertical (my relationship with God) and not just horizontal (my relationship with others) but a holistic integration of the two.

The book is broken up into 10 chapters, which could be roughly summed up in three different sections: introductory groundwork (1-2), applications (3-5), and purpose (6-10). To lay the groundwork, he argues that if the gospel is only news about one’s relationship with God, then we are simply ignoring the second-greatest commandment to love our neighbor (Mat. 22:36-40) and the many eloquent treatises Paul writes on racial and economic reconciliation and the breaking down of dividing walls (Eph. 2:14 for example). On the flip side, if we embrace the so-called “social gospel” which disparages the vertical nature of the gospel as overly spiritual, we will also be ignoring scripture and selling the good news short of its fullness. One of Loritts’ excellent points made early on in the first chapter is that man’s search for meaning (who am I? Where am I going?) finds its answer perfectly in the two dimensions of the gospel. Vertically, you are in Christ, reconciled to God. Horizontally, you are part of God’s plan of redemption to reconcile this broken world to him. Loritts muses that “Humanity’s problem is not that men and women aren’t looking for the answers to these questions; it’s that most of them will spend their lives filling the blank spaces of their souls with the wrong answers” (p. 14). In chapter two he does a neat job of hanging the horizontal beam of the gospel on the vertical, thus creating a gospel that is shaped like a cross.

The second “section” of the book is where Loritts attempts to draw out implications of what it all means. Digging into the ridiculously charged arena of politics he attempts to suggest a cogent explanation of how Christians ought to interact with politics in general and with those of opposing ideologies. He exhorts the reader to first of all care about politics, and second to remember to place political concerns squarely on top of their theology. Loritts knows how to bring the conviction, but I felt vaguely lost at the end of the chapter, thinking that I still didn’t have a clear understanding of what gospel-centered political involvement looks like. The next two chapters deal with racial reconciliation and socioeconomic diversity. It’s blatantly obvious that he has thought deeply about these two subjects, and his cry for me to see others as brothers and sisters in Christ penetrated my soul and made me weep over my sinful attitudes and behaviors in these areas. These two chapters are worth their weight in gold, and are achingly practical for real life.

In the last half of the book he strives to illuminate for the reader the purpose of a cross-shaped gospel, and clarify why this matters as much as he says it does. Immediately he draws our eyes up toward heaven and sets our sights on the glory of God as the ultimate reason for action and involvement in the world. He explains why Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the archetype for the Christian life of forgiveness and selflessness and then goes “further up and further in” (to steal a phrase out of CS Lewis’ book) as he sets the stage for what a cross-shaped gospel looks like over time. In the final chapter he urges the reader and even the culture to take him seriously, and to share the good news of righteousness and justice in the cross. Unfortunately, this whole part of the book felt rather unstructured. As I said earlier that doesn’t mean that he isn’t saying good things, but rather that I didn’t catch the logical flow of thought very often.

So I stand on what I said at the beginning. This book has massive potential. The things he says are clear-eyed and compelling, and don’t easily leave the reader in the place where he or she can sit on the fence. If you were to read these chapters as transcripts of sermons, I’m sure the Lord would soon get to your neighborhood and cause you to want to change your life. It is too bad, then, that I can’t give this a higher review. I want to see the world come that Loritts dreams of, but I think that this book needs to sit in the crock pot for a little while longer. I hope to maybe see a second edition in the years to come which is more streamlined and logically sound.

You can purchase A Cross-Shaped Gospel on Amazon for $11.81.

One last, nagging question: why is the bottom left corner of the cover painted orange? what’s the significance of that? Is it just to be hip or does it mean something?