Soul Espresso

It was 5:00 a.m. on one of the coldest days of winter. I was a freshman in college. My friend Mitch Mitchell had told me that the first ten people to a local coffee shop got a free drink. I didn’t know what coffee tasted like, but free sounded good.

I ordered a mocha latte. Mitch proceeded to chug four shots of espresso before falling asleep on the opposite side of a chess set.

I have never liked ‘drip’ coffee, and still don’t drink it often—but since that morning I have loved espresso drinks.

Espresso is unique. Invented in Italy, it requires high temperature and high pressure to saturate the water with coffee. Once it is exposed to oxygen, the composition of espresso begins to change, which is why it is usually either combined with water or milk, or drank immediately. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the high-pressure concentration of truth: spiritual espresso. I discovered that potent and concentrated spiritual truth can come in a very small package. Here are three examples:

My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers

“Beware of posing as a profound person; God became a Baby.”
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, November 22

This classic devotional has been in print since 1924 in 39 languages. An old friend gave me My Utmost for His Highest as a high school graduation present, and I came to know Christ about two months later. The gift, at first unwanted, was not a waste. I was recently carrying one of Chambers’ books at a conference, and a friend told me “that’s a four-pages-at-a-time book.” I told him, “yeah, I can barely read one subsection before I have to stop and think and pray.” That’s what I mean when I call these writings spiritual espresso.

Oswald Chambers died at 43, but his wife Biddy had transcribed hundreds of his talks verbatim and spent the rest of her life publishing them. He was a YMCA chaplain to British soldiers during World War I in Egypt. He believed in a concept he called “seed thoughts”: simple but true statements about God and life could change your entire way of thinking. He had a bulletin board on which he posted a thought daily. (When the camp flooded, he posted, “Closed during submarine maneuvers.”) While My Utmost shows this tendency, his wife compiled an even briefer devotional called Run Today’s Race which better illustrates Chambers’ tendency for potent, concentrated thought.

George MacDonald: An Anthology by C. S. Lewis (compiler)

“The Lord cared neither for isolated truth nor for orphaned deed.”
C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology, Entry 54

Oswald Chambers said about George MacDonald that it was “a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that [his] books have been so neglected” (Christian Discipline, vol. 1, pp. 44-45). C. S. Lewis compiled MacDonald’s best “seed thoughts” into an anthology, which I facetiously call “C. S. Lewis’ best book.”

Systematic statements take you to a conclusion; once you arrive at that conclusion, you find your thought finished for you. Seed thoughts are different. They live and grow over time, and are not conclusions in themselves. This is one thing Chambers and MacDonald had in common; they asked questions as well as they answered them. The goal here is not to produce in you a thought, but to get you to think.

Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, p. 1

A third book that packs a lot of depth in a few words is Knowledge of the Holy. But then, Tozer has an unfair advantage here: if you want to go deep, there is nothing deeper to write about than God Himself. All of these authors are at their best when they take you to the Source of our faith without speculating, arguing or equivocating. “The knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).

But there is another connection that I have omitted. Chambers was an avid reader and quoter of poetry. MacDonald wrote volumes of poetry himself, as did C. S Lewis. Tozer compiled his Christian Book of Mystical Verse, stating that his best devotional times were alone with a Bible and a hymnbook. What is there about poetry that relates to the spiritual life?

Distilled Language

One American poet laureate said that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Bad poetry, like bad stories, have a lot of words with little meaning. The best poetry has few words with great meaning. Even Bible expositors often quote hymns or Christian poetry to add something that an exposition can’t. The apostle Paul quotes Greek poetry at least three times in the New Testament. He encouraged the use of song as part of Christian teaching in Colossians 3:16: “…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Songs often communicate our deepest thoughts the most simply. They can contain the gospel in a concentrated form, capable of being understood by children.

Embedded in a few of Paul’s letters are extremely concise statements of Gospel which some people think were actually early Christian hymns. Two examples include Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16, quoted below in verse:

God was manifest in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.

Most amazing of all, Jesus quotes the ancient hymnbook of his people from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) As today, Jewish hymns were often titled after their first line. (If I shout “amazing grace” in a room full of Christians, a few might erupt, “how sweet the sound!”) So some scholars think Jesus could as well have shouted “Psalm 22” from the cross, pointing the Jews to a song that prophesied nearly a dozen circumstances pertaining to his crucifixion and resurrection. In just four Aramaic words, Jesus communicated great truth about who he is, his own death, his victory over it—and the prophetic power of one ancient worship song written in a heart of affliction.

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