One of the reviews on the back cover of Marva Dawn’s The Sense of the Call declares “What a holy oddity Marva Dawn is.” I would have to agree. I found this book intriguing, beguiling, annoying, insightful and stimulating – sometimes all at the same time.

The subtitle of the book is “A sabbath way of life for those who serve God, the church, and the world.” And so, on the front cover, you have these two key words – “call” and “sabbath” – which become the substance of the inside of the book.

The underlying link that Dawn wants to draw between “call” and “sabbath” is not always clear, but it rests in an understanding of the Kingdom of God. Sabbath pertains to the ultimate rest of our souls in Christ and so is integral to living life within the Kingdom of God to which and in which we are called to activity and purpose in life. Dawn unpacks her intention for the book:

“For us to experience the fullness of God’s well-being in the midst of the rigors of our work, we who seek to serve the Church and the world constantly need a profound sense of our call. In a nutshell, the sense of our call is that God’s Kingdom reclaims us, revitalizes us, and renews us and thus reigns through us before others, on behalf of others, sometimes in spite of others, and always with others… When we grasp this sense of our call, we are set free for a Sabbath way of life: a profound resting in the Kingdom’s grace instead of perpetual struggle to “do our work”; an endless ceasing, by grace, of those attitudes and actions and attachments that hinder the Kingdom’s reign; an exuberant feasting that radiates the Kingdom’s grace-full splendor; an ardent embracing of the Kingdom’s gracious purposes.” (pp13-14)

It is difficult to critique Marva’s basic framework – it is not only carefully thought-through and deliberately articulated, it is obviously contained within a gospel premise and the uniqueness of Christ for salvation. Sometimes she is hard to grasp – I still don’t quite know exactly what she means by even the four section headings of “resting,” “ceasing,” “feasting,” and “embracing.” Sometimes her opinions on various experiences in the world (particularly with regard to frustrations with technology etc.) reflects her own perspective more than universal truth. Yet this thoroughly experiential, practical, spiritual, liturgical, contemplative book is well grounded and useful.

Indeed, this book is immensely practical. I found reading it to be an experience that was full of little “convictions” prodding my attitudes and actions and routines with quiet whispers of “does this match what you believe?” When I read a book and something strikes me I often make a note of it inside the front cover – in this book my notes have spilled over on to the title page.

I would recommend this book to any Christian – although I would probably qualify that by saying any Chrsitian who is serious about serving God in “the church and the world.” Without that inner motivation this book would be some nice thoughts, with that inner motivation this book does a prophetic task – speaking truth in ways that bug you till you take stock and consider not just the truth, but its application in all of life.

Perhaps the best way to communicate an overview of this book is to share some of these gems and give you a taste of this well-rounded meal that Marva Dawn offers to Christians who wish to live like they are just that – Christians.

With regard to patience:

“That is why we need utmost patience – or perhaps we should resurrect the old rendering, “long-suffering.” It will cost us loads of long hours, myriads of conversations, scads of sorrow, masses of disappointment and frustrations to engage people in the instruction and mission of the Kingdom. The only thing that makes it worth the bother is that the Kingdom is the only treasure worth having.” (p18)

With regard to being spiritual (I recently stole this concept for use in a sermon series on Ephesians 1):

“I use the word spiritual… not as it is usually used in English to denote some nebulous entity, some obscure dimension of us beyond the material. If we think of every aspect in our connection to God who is Spirit, as the whole spiritual sweep of our lives, then the term spiritual encompasses everything, for all of us relates to God – intelligence, attitudes, talents, affections, body, actions, our whole being.” (p40)

With regard to our direction in life:

“It is a beautiful mystery that we never quite know in what directions we might be led as we embrace our call… Mother Teresa was once asked about her summons to care for the needy, and she responded that she was not called to serve the poor. She insisted that she was simply called to follow Jesus and that’s where He led her.” (p65)

The point of church:

“…it is crucial that we keep remembering that the Church’s true work is not therapy. We have trouble recalling that because our society’s excessive consumerism is rooted in the significant turn that Philip Rieff documented in his well-known aphorism, “Religious man was born to be saved, [contemporary] psychological man is born to be pleased.” In other words, culturally, we have turned away from knowing that we are sinners who need a Rescuer from beyond ourselves to believing that we should be made comfortable and happy. We can see the effects of this societal expectation in those who complain that a worship service did not “uplift them.” Wouldn’t it surprise them to be reminded that its purpose is to kill them so that they can be resurrected into an entirely new creation?” (p132)

About the joy of adversity:

“Somewhere I heard the quotation, “You can acquire anything in solitude except character.” We need the whole community to test us, to refine us, to enable us to develop aspects of character including strength, kindness, and wisdom that we cannot gain without trials. We all need critics and rebukers, malcontents and misfits – even if (especially if?) these cause us pain – so that our feasting is virtuous and honorable.” (p219)

About community as a vehicle of evangelism (a concept that we’ve considered a lot at Connections):

“…What if churches recognized that the major means for evangelism in the early Church was the remarkable unity existing among individual members in the community of saints and the harmony between what they believed and what they lived? In other words, they were a Body of people demonstrating an alternative/biblical manner of being.” (p236)

And finally, on the slowness of ministry (something all church planters should consider):

“Many people want to do ministry in a grand, glamorous way. But the work of spreading the gospel happens with continued, often hidden engagement over the long haul. We can’t nurture faith or live it in the world in one dramatic quick fix of heroism; it is more like a long pregnancy (sometimes years long
!) till Christ is birthed in others (see Gal. 4:19-20).” (p257)

One of the reasons, I have discovered, that I like blogging is the opportunity to express my thoughts about things that I otherwise wouldn’t, but should. One of the biggest examples of this is reviewing books that I read. So here is my first blogged book review. As I finish a book, I’ll hope to review it here, for my own edification if nothing else!

So here’s hoping this first review doesn’t cause my blog to be filtered by overzealous keyword filters!

Tim Alan Gardner’s Sacred Sex is one of the better Christian books on sexuality that I’ve read. It differs from the “stock standard” (and now somewhat outdated) Christian books on sex, such as Ed Wheat’s Intended for Pleasure, LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage, or Penner’s The Gift of Sex in that it’s consideration is not so much about sex education of the practical tips for newlyweds variety. There isn’t a single “diagram” in the book! Gardner’s emphasis is to consider the spirituality of the sexual (and thus, of course, marital) relationship.

The author’s intent is to help couples experience a joy and freedom and strength of relationship that is born out of a sense of God’s delight, God’s presence, and a unity that is precious and holistic. The point of the sexual relationship is about this unity. The subtitle says it all – “A spiritual celebration of oneness in marriage.”

This doesn’t mean that Gardner is afraid to confront the issues. He acknowledges the reality that sex is handled by the world in a destructive manner – he talks about the “horsemen” of sexual abuse, pornography, “casual” sex, and broken promises (including adultery). He is frank about the poor state of the sex lives of many ordinary marriages – differing appetites, mishandled communications, and resigned indifferences.

He is, as they say, “frank but not crass,” occasionally blunt, but never titillating. In short, he handles the subject well. I can see why those who have worked with people who have struggled with pornography or other sexual addictions have said that this is one of the few books on sex that they would recommend to people in such a situation.

A premise of the book is the inherent interplay of marriage covenant, sexual relationship, and intimacy and oneness. A definitive quote comes from page 196 of the book:

Since marriage has always been defined by God as two becoming one, the sexual union of a wife and husband is the perfect, God-intended oath sign that a marriage has been established. We speak an oath with our vows; we seal that oath with our bodies. Together, our words and our action form a covenant. And once again we see why God so forcefully opposes sex outside of marriage. It’s not because He is a kill-joy Creator who goes out of His way to steal our fun, but rather because He created sexual intimacy to be so much more than self-pleasure. Sex is not only part of the covenant of marriage, but it functions in the creation of the covenant. Sex is the divine seal.
Moreover, sexual intercourse reestablishes the covenant each time it is celebrated…
This covenant theology of marriage and sex ties together everything we’ve been discussing: the holiness of sex, the mystery of sexual oneness, and the worship that happens when we acknowledge God’s presence during our intimate celebration. All these aspects of sacred sex are protected by this elected relationship of obligation. The marriage covenant is what drives us towards each other in times of joy and in times of sadness. It’s what causes us to ache to be with each other when we’re apart… Each time we enter into the holy act of sex, we again pronounce our solemn declaration: “I do. I still do.”

This book isn’t for everyone. Unmarried persons, I suspect, would find little immediate application. Those who have a significant amount of brokenness in their sexuality and background would need more than this book to find healing and restoration.

In the end, this book serves as an affirmation of marriage and celebrates and promotes oneness and intimate celebration that cements a God-ordained covenant through whatever stages of life, situations or occurrences might come along. A recommended read for any couple.