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Sunday, November 19, 2017

How To Think


How often have we asked someone, "What were you thinking?" It's meant to question someone's judgment or reasoning faculties. What we really mean is, "Were you even thinking?"  Sometimes we look at our culture and wonder if anybody is thinking.  Of course, more often than not, we find people going by what they feel far more than what they think. Nor do they want to be challenged in their thinking; instead choosing to go to media sites and channels that agree with what they already believe.  Too often we actively avoid questioning and thinking in order to be content with our preconceived notions, our cliches, our prejudices, our assumptions, our ideologies and our own conclusions.

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt writes about how the groups we are a part of do two things: bind and blind. They bind us together in a unified belief or cause or particular narrative. We are bound by our similarities in thought (religious, political, ideological). But they also blind us to dissent, other points of view, or alternatives. We do not listen and, because we do not listen, we do not really think.  We prefer not to be challenged or questioned. And we certainly don't want to question because questioning can often be unsettling and can start to chip away at the structures of belief that we have built for ourselves from our past experiences.

Albert Einstein said, "The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking." For many, that concept is troubling, disturbing and to be avoided. We don't want to change our thinking and become imprisoned by our own systems of belief.



Alan Jacobs in How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds tells how, "T. S. Eliot wrote almost a century ago about a phenomenon that he believed to be the product of the nineteenth century: “When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not." Eliot could have been describing our age of information overload but a real scarcity in wisdom. We have facts but not truths. Or we have now "alternative facts," which is a creative covering over of what, until now, has been commonly called lies and deceptions.

In our pluralistic society, people struggle to deal with differences. So often we draw our lines, proclaim that you're either for us or against us. Draw our lines, put in our boxes, check on our lists of what is and isn't acceptable. To truly listen and learn from another,we have to let go of our biases. Simone Weil believed, "Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached."

What does Weil mean by detachment?

Russell Shaw defines it this way, "To be detached, to practice detachment, is to establish and maintain a relation to everything and everybody in one's life according to which all things are valued by how much they help or hinder us in our relationship with God, the imitation of Christ, and the service of other people."

As Christians, how do we hold to the truths of our faith, while, at the same time being open to hearing what others have to say about what they believe, why they believe, and approaching them without judgmentalism or the attitude that we must change them. This requires mutual caring, kindness, patience, and building a trusting relationship. 


But are Christians good critical thinkers?

In an interview with Jonathan Merritt, Alan Jacobs (a Christian and professor at Baylor University), answered this with, "Christians of all people ought to be attentive to our own shortcomings, and the ways our dispositions of mind and heart and spirit can get in the way of knowing what’s true. After all, we’e the people who are supposed to believe that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things” and that sort of stuff. If we want to think better, then the first step should be to take those beliefs as seriously as many of us say we do, and to turn a ruthlessly skeptical eye on ourselves — before we turn it on our neighbors. There’s a line about specks in our neighbors’ eyes and logs in our own that applies here. There’s a lot more to say, obviously, but I think self-skepticism is the place to begin."

This is certainly true of Christians inability to come to terms with science. As Saint Augustine once warned: 

Often, a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.

Jacobs believes, like Saint Augustine, that we cannot put thinking as an opposition to faith.  In Who's Afraid of Postmodernism, James K.A. Smith writes, "We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity." One can see this lack of objectivity and this expression of personal certainty in the interactions on social media, where it is less an exchange of ideas than merely a trying to simply angrily post one's point-of-view and attack someone else's (someone who does not agree with you). Too often, we have lost the ability for reasoned civility. Yet the danger of this is that we do not take into account that, as Alan Jacobs writes, "... all of us at various times in our lives believe true things for poor reasons, and false things for good reasons, and that whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings. Thinking independently, solitarily, “for ourselves,” is not an option."

As Christians, it's not that we can't disagree with someone, but as 1st Peter 3:5 reminds us, "always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence." 


We are called to do more than change people's minds, but to change people's hearts. We cannot do this if we are hostile, belligerent, and angry. We must approach all with humility, gentleness, kindness and wisdom. Certainly we see a good example of this in the Apostle Paul, who understood different philosophies and religious beliefs, and could approach them with both this understanding and the ability to debate without anger or hatred, as Paul did with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Acts 17. As verses 32-34 tells us, "When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, 'We want to hear you again on this subject.' At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed."

In this polarized age, information-overloaded cyber-world, we could do well to learn how to think and reason and love others.



Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Seek Out The People Of Peace


I love how when Christ sends out his disciples for the first time, he tells them, "Whatever house you enter, begin by saying, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not it will return to you" (Luke 10:5-6). He is telling them to look for the man of peace in each town or city that they enter. As I began to reflect on that concept of a "man of peace," (I am referring to "man" in terms of humanity, not just males), I started to wonder what exactly that looks like and am I one in my own city? Would my neighbors see me as such? What about my own family? Would Christ look at me as a man of peace?

Shalom. Peace. Completeness. Wholeness. 

How many of us truly picture ourselves using any of those synonymous words? 

I would struggle to on my best days, but I would be even more unlikely to consider myself a man of peace on the days where I quarrel and fight for my own way, for vindication or, even worse, retribution against those who've hurt or slighted me. I begin to inwardly pray those dark Psalms that many of us would like to pretend weren't even in the Bible. Instead of those Psalms, I need to meditate on Psalm 37:37, "Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace." Would I pray such a Psalm and think of myself in terms of being "the blameless" or "the upright?" Am I one whose future awaits me because I "seek peace?" 

Seek peace. I cannot do this outwardly until I have begun to do this inwardly.  As Thomas Merton once wrote, "We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves, because we are not at peace with God." That statement definitely rings true in my own life. I am not at peace because I do not let go of the masks I try to hide behind, or the walls I try to build up to protect myself, or my pretensions and self-doubt that hound me from day to day to day. I am not at peace because I do not always honestly believe that I am created in the image of God and that I am beloved of God. If I cannot do this, then I cannot possibly begin to love others in this way, the very way Christ has called us to love them. Do I let go of my own sense of self-rejection and understand in more than just a mental assent that I am seen every day through the gentle gaze of God who carries me in the palm of His hand and that I am near and dear to His heart? Do I let go of measuring myself by the standards of others? By the traps of success and popularity and power? As long as I am pursuing success, popularity and power, I will never know real and abiding peace. to hold on to the world is to let go of those things which are truly everlasting: peace, joy, love, gentleness, patience, mercy, and compassion, But first I have to let the Holy Spirit minister to me through those fruits before I can begin to share such fruits with those in my daily life. 

If I can find peace and contentment in God then I can draw from that well when chaos is all around me because who I am is centered not on myself or what I do or do not have materially, but solely and wholly on my Creator. If I grasp that I am accepted by Christ then I will be more likely to accept others. If I realize I am loved by Christ then I will be more willing to love others. If I understand who I am through Christ then I will act and respond in Christ-like ways. 1st Corinthians 6:17 says, "But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit." If I am united with Christ, then my spirit will resemble his. I will be more kind and compassionate, forgiving and loving. I also stop seeing others as enemies and begin seeing them as neighbors. And I am called to love my neighbor. 

When I am in the place where God is enough, peace will begin in me and flow from me. The root of all peace is found in God. Brennan Manning said, "We are enveloped in peace, whether or not we feel ourselves to be at peace. By that I mean the peace that passes understanding is not a subjective sensation of peace; if we are in Christ, we are at peace even when we feel no peace." Why? Because peace is a reality, not a feeling. Peace is not found in the acceptance of others, but solely in our acceptance from God. Peace is not found in the opinions of others, but in the understanding that we are beloved of God. The more we believe this, the more we are convinced of this, the more we realize the truth of this, then we know with all of our hearts and souls and minds that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of Christ. This is grace. This is freedom. This is peace. When we have that peace, we will walk in that freedom. 

In every encounter, we can choose to be this man or woman of peace. We can offer the words of life and love and healing and forgiveness. We can be the light in the darkness. Our vision will be not of pursuing self-interests but in being the sons and daughters of God whose sole purpose is to be peacemakers in this world, to help bring others to the wholeness that is found in Christ alone. 

Like Henri Nouwen, I must ask myself, "Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come."

Let me resolve, every morning, to pursue and seek peace, to offer and extend peace, and to love all with a love that conquers hate, prejudice, fear, and greed. May I be the man of peace who knows peace so intimately that when others come into my house, that peace rests on them. What a glorious world it would be if we all became those people of peace.










Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Fairy Tale Faith


While at lunch with a good friend one day, he asked me about my faith. He started off by stating, "I'm not religious ..." To which I replied, "Good. Neither am I." He looked at me a bit askance.  I had to briefly explain, "To me, religion is what happens when faith is replaced by fear."  While he nodded, I still think he saw me through the lens of religious. Then he dropped his question on me, "How can you possibly believe something so implausible?"This question was not meant to be rude or offensive. He was genuinely asking because he was seeking. My first thought was to respond in an Alice in Wonderland fashion, "Are you kidding? I believe in at least six impossible things before breakfast." But I refrained. How does one explain why one believes? It may seem simplistic, but I believe because I choose to believe, I wanted to belief. And part of my desire to believe came from what many might consider an unexpected source - fairy tales.

In his book The Alphabet of Grace, Frederick Buechner writes, "Fatherless at ten, I may simply have dreamed some kind of father into some kind of life somewhere else. I have always loved fairy tales and to this day read E. Nesbit and the Oz books, Andrew Lang and the Narnia books and Tolkien with more intensity than I read almost anything else. And I believe in magic or want to... All of which is to say I am a congenital believer, a helpless hungerer after the marvelous as solace and adventure and escape." When I read that passage, I completely and totally understood exactly what he was saying because, while I did not lose my father, I am someone who believes because I, too, am "a congenital believer, a helpless hungerer" because something stirred inside of me when I first encountered fairy tales and magic and adventure.

My great-Aunt Annie gave me my very first collection of Grimm's fairy tales as a birthday present. It was a cleaned up, kid-friendly version of Grimm's tales. Like many my age, I was a child of Disney and had first encountered fairy tales not on the page but on the big screen. Films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Peter Pan and Pinocchio were the gateway into fairy tales. I fell in love with the idea that there was more than the world around us, that there was magic, that the world did indeed have darkness and evil but that it could be overcome. To me, there were no more beautiful way to start a story than those glorious words, "Once upon a time . . ." To hear those words was to be a magician conjuring a spell of enchantment that would not release the listener or reader even when they came to the ending of "And they all lived happily ever after."

Fairy tales begin in a place of childlike wonder. So, too, does faith. Just as I delighted in "Once upon a time," so, too, did I find delight in the words "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). Both seemed spectacular and wondrous. As in my favorite fairy tales and stories, Genesis begins in a kind of forest. We are let in on good and evil, and of choice, and how, like Snow White, Adam and Eve eat of a cursed fruit. And, in that moment, it appears as if evil has one.


Of course, for anyone familiar with fairy tales begins to realize, is that light always overcomes the darkness, good overcomes evil, and dragons exist but can be defeated. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in an essay entitled "The Red Angel":

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Fairy tales do not deny the darkness, the evil lurking not only in witches, but even in the common heart of parents (a common staple is the wicked mother or stepmother and the obliging father who goes along with his wife's wishes to do away with the kids). There is darkness in the forest of the world that those who would become heroes, princes or princesses must enter and overcome. Those stories put us all in the role of Alice in Wonderland, Lucy in Narnia, Frodo in Middle Earth, or Wendy in Neverland. 

I will never, ever forget reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for the very first time. I drew in a deep breath when Lucy passed from the wardrobe into Narnia and saw that streetlamp standing there in the snow. The brilliance of Lewis for putting such a commonplace object into such a magical setting, transforming it from a mere, ordinary streetlamp into some extraordinary. I got that same thrill when I saw a streetlamp in Kyiv that reminded me of the one in Narnia, and I (secretly) hoped to encounter Mr. Tumnus the faun.



Narnia, like any good fairy tale, made me long for a world just beyond our own. One of my favorite details from the Narnia series is that Aslan sang the world into being. What a wonderful detail for Lewis to imagine. In my longing, I went into my own closet but found that I could not push past the clothes, that there was no portal to a magical place. C.S. Lewis said, "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the logical explanation is that I was made for another world." 


Having grown up reading the Oz series and loving the classic film The Wizard of Oz, I could only hope that, in lieu of a wardrobe, a tornado might lift me up to a another faraway land. When I was an elementary school aged boy, I remember the power going off in our house. My sister cried out and my mother rushed to check on her. While my mom was gone, I stood at one of the windows of our house and watched as a small tornado went through our backyard. As I watched, I waited in anticipation. Was this my ticket to Oz? No such luck! The tornado only picked up our neighbor's small work shed and deposited it in another neighbor's yard. 

But that's the wonder of fairy tales, they both transport us to another world and help us to begin to understand and make sense of our own. Just as fairy tales do not hide evil, they also do not gloss over suffering or pain or hardships. Hansel and Gretel's parents are driven to abandon their children in the forest because of starvation. That fairy tale centers around food, hunger and deprivation. The forest is fraught with dangers. The world is filled with both those who would help and those who would harm us on our journey. Fairy tales teach us that our choices determine our character, our outcome and how we treat others will impact how our stories unfold. J.R.R. Tolkien writes that fairy tales "do not deny the existence of . . . sorrow and failure, the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of the deliverance, it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." Fairy tales show us that there are these depths so that we also grasp the joy of deliverance from utter destruction and death. The darkness makes the light that much sweeter when it comes. 


Yes, there are dark forests where one can wander and get lost. It always appear as if Frodo and Samwise will not make it to Mount Doom to destroy the ring, that Dorothy and her companions will not make it to the Emerald City to see the wizard, that Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace won't be able to defeat the Darkness, that Snow White is, in fact, dead. There are setbacks and failures. There are hindrances and wrong paths taken. There are risks involved. We are all cowardly lions who must learn to be brave. We are all Edmunds who must be redeemed so that we can take our rightful place in the kingdom. We are all beasts who must be seen as worthy of love for what is inside of us. Transfigurations and transformations are the stuff of the magical and the miraculous. 


So fairy tales prepared me for Abram and Sara setting off for another land, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, of Daniel in the lions' den, of Incarnation and Resurrection. Why? Because fairy tales prepared me for wonder, for marvels, for the numinous, the unexplainable. As a children, we love fairy tales but, as we get older, we put them away as childish things. Yet Christ has called us to become like little children. Why? Because of that sense of wonder, of possibility, of understanding that we cannot always understand and that there is an impossible possible. 

Fairy tales made me into a story-loving child. Scripture did the same. Both taught me that to get to the magical kingdom, one had to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Neither fairy tales nor the Bible is fanciful. They show that amidst the possibility of destruction and death, there is always hope.  Like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, scriptures teach us that God uses the weak, the foolish, the small. 

Like the fairy tale, we watch in horror and fear as Christ goes to the cross and dies. Like in Tolkien's Middle Earth, we fear all hope is lost, the war is over and evil has triumphed. But both remind us that all hopes hinge on the return of the King, who will lead us to victory and a new earth. 


George MacDonald (both a pastor and a writer of fairy tales) wisely understood, "If both Church and fairy-tale belong to humanity, they may occasionally cross circles, without injury to either." Both stretch our imaginations. Both ask us to believe the unbelievable, to embrace that the impossible is possible, that the world is filled with miracles and a deeper magic. We all long for another world because we understand that there is more than this one, that something else lies just beyond the horizon, within our hearts and our dreams, that remind us this is not all there is. As Frederick Buechner writes in Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, "But we are also from somewhere else. We are from Oz, from Looking-Glass Land, from Narnia, and from Middle Earth. If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still." You must become as a little child. 

Why? 

Because children believe in the possibility. 

Grown-ups dismiss fairy tales, fantasy and faith as mere escapism, but, as J.R.R. Tolkien once said, "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape? . . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!" Is that not the gospel? To set the captives free? How many of us "adults" are prisoners of our own unbelief and unwilling to accept what Madeleine L'Engle calls the "most glorious impossibles" (such as walking on water and raising the dead). 


I am an adult who adores fairy tales. Like Buechner, I return to them again and again for pleasure and to rediscover the magical truths they impart. Many of my favorite theologians are also writers of fairy tales and fantasy (MacDonald, Lewis, Chesterton, L'Engle). Returning to Narnia, Wonderland, Oz, Neverland, and Middle Earth continue to tap into that place in me that hears the whisper in this world that there is another to come, that we will live in an endless ending. I will continue to delight in E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin and J.K. Rowling.  I will lose myself in the stories of Hans Christian Andersen who wrote that, "Every man's life is a fairy tale, written by God's finger."

"A faith that moves mountains," said Rich Mullins, "is a faith that expands horizons, it does not bring us into a smaller world full of easy answers, but into a larger one where there is room for wonder." This is what fairy tales ushered me into. They have led me into realizing that a story much greater, much more wonderful and one that ends with a kingdom without tears, pain and sorrow is what awaits us when our king welcomes us into a world that is more than mere wishful thinking. Faith, like fairy tales, offer us powerful and hopeful affirmation of what lies ahead. We will then enter Aslan's Country where we are in a story "which goes on forever, an in which every chapter is better than the one before."

This is why I cherish and cling to my fairy tale faith.


“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.”  
J.R.R. Tolkien

Friday, November 10, 2017

Sara Groves: Abide With Me



Sara Groves' last album, Floodplains, was a profound and deeply personal album that showed her artistry had grown richer and more spiritually penetrating than anything one hears on Christian radio these days. It was a wrestling with and a coming to an understanding of grace even in the midst of depression. How does Sara Groves follow up such a masterpiece? By returning to the roots that underlie all of her music: hymns. Like any great psalmist, Sara Groves has not been afraid to both question and praise. Now she offers up her rendition of hymns that are familiar and beloved to those who have sung them for centuries in the Church.

Sara begins the album with one of my favorites, the Eucharistic hymn "For The Beauty Of The Earth." Written in 1864 by Folliott S. Pierpoint, it begins:

For the beauty of the earth,
   For the beauty of the skies,
For the Love which from our birth
   Over and around us lies:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our Sacrifice of Praise.

I love how this hymn connects the beauty of the natural world and creation to its Creator. It is the finding of the holy in the commonplace. Sara Groves approaches this hymn, as she does with all of those on this album, with a gentleness, a tender and open heart, and a voice that expresses the lyrics with a grace that swells in heart. 


This album was recorded in a 105 year old church and one cannot simply listen to these hymns, one finds oneself singing along. There is something nourishing about singing songs that are both personal and congregational at the same time. To hear Sara singing each hymn, one hears her heart and her love for the language of the hymns. When she sings "The Love of God" (the sixth track on the album), her melodic voice reminds us all of this song's truth:

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure -
The saints' and angels' song.

With simple orchestration, her voice stands out and draws the listener in to its warmth and solace. Seldom does she stray from the original hymns and I am grateful for this. There's a reason that hymns have endured for so long and I often find myself distracted by so many artists tampering with or trying to contemporize them to make the hymns more relevant. There is an expanse to hymns that cover the width of the human experience: both joys and sorrows, praise and lament. It is more than mere symbolism but that we find ourselves within the words we have sung for so long on Sundays. There is also something miraculous about singing them while among other believers or those who long to believe or wrestle with believing. We find solace and the sacred in hymns. They bring us to the table, to the cross, to the heart of God. They rise from within our breath and Spirit upwards in praise, even when we are at our lowest and loneliest. 

One can certainly hear this in hymns like "Abide With Me":

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me

Listening to Sara sing these hymns, I can see how they were with her during the recording of Floodplains. These are hymns that are balms and reminders that God is faithful. "My last album found me on the Floodplain," Sara said, "reflecting on the kind of provision that comes when I find myself in a place where I cannot rescue myself. Abide With Me is a collection of hymns and songs that were with me on the Floodplain." Of the hymns she chose, Sara said "These songs have risen to the top of a lifetime of hymns and songs, an in a season where language is difficult and caustic, form new sentences of hope and solace for me. I hope they do the same for you!"

Hearing her sing "Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus" reminds me of the church I grew up in and how those in its small congregation. I remember how the older members sang this hymn in a way that reminded those who were younger that these were more than mere words to be sung but had been lived out during their decades of life. 

Sara Groves has given us another album that continues to reveal not only her talent and gifts, but offers us something we so desperately need during this time where so much is fractured and divided, where vitriol and anger seem the norm: comfort. Abide With Me is an album that rebuilds, restores and renews those who listen and sing along to it. She has given us a gorgeous reminder that she sings of in "Lead On O King Eternal": 

That your kingdom come
And your will be done
Right here, on the earth
Like it is in heaven

To end this treasure of an album, Sara finishes with her own "He Has Always Been Faithful"pared down to its simplest and purest form. Her voice makes one ache with the realization of what she's singing: that God has always been faithful to us and always will be.

This is a much needed record to help hearts heal, to remind us that we are to be the kingdom of God here on earth, to rejoice with those who rejoice, to mourn with those who mourn, and to let our love reveal the light that guides us all on. These hymns touch us emotionally and theologically. No matter where you are on your spiritual path (mountaintop or valley), this is a glorious reminder that hymns connect us to the past and point us to our future hope. 


Sara Groves' official website:

Abide With Me's official release date is November 17th


Monday, November 6, 2017

A Must-Read Review: Glory Happening


We so often miss the sacred because we're looking for the spectacular. The holy is most often found in the ordinary. This is something I am learning daily in my own life. It's often easier to feel connected to God when I am walking in the woods, or standing at the edge of the ocean, or looking out over a mountain range. But what about in the quotidian moments that fill my life far more than those?

In folding laundry?

Making dinner?

The tasks that too often feel more like drudgery than liturgy?

Yet one of my favorite verses is in the Bible is when God tells the prophet Jeremiah to instruct the people of Israel, as they go into Babylonian captivity, "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce" (29:5). Why does He do this? Because he wants them to make a normal life even amidst exile, to plant gardens and eat from the fruits of their labors. God is a God who is so regularly found in the little minutiae of our day to day lives. Scripture is filled with such passages and, yet, so much of spiritual writing is more concerned with less mundane tasks than the sacredness of reading a story to your child before bed.

In her book Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Everyday Places, Kaitilin B. Curtice writes in poetic, profound words how it is precisely in such mundane moments that the miraculous and the magnificence are found: whether it's watering plants, sharing a meal, or riding a stationary bike at the local YMCA that one most encounters the presence and love of God. It is the ordinary that is joyfully extraordinary.

Curtice writes small snapshot glimpse into her life and into the grace that can be found in family, community, and in finding one's own identity. Each chapter begins with a quote and ends with a prayer that reads like Psalms. She is a contemplative storyteller whose personal narratives gently lead the reader into meditating on one's own life, instead of merely telling a moral or spiritual lesson. Like any great writer, she shows, not tells the reader to Pay Attention. It's not just practicing the presence, it's being present.

Though a slender volume, you want want to rush through quickly but will love savoring, reflecting, and entering into the holiness that is found in the hours and days that comprise our lives.

The philosopher Simone Weil wrote, "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul." Curtice clearly sees this spiritual need to be tethered and finds ways to be so in something as simple as the companionship of a dog.

If you're looking for a beautiful book that will nourish and nurture a desire to open your eyes to the awe and wonder of the Divine in the daily, then I highly recommend this book.




Kaitlin B. Curtice's official website:

Friday, November 3, 2017

Bless Those Who Curse Me? Are You Crazy?


"Bless those who curse you," Jesus said in Luke 6:28, "Pray for those who mistreat you."

Is it any wonder that his family thought he was crazy? I read statements like those and I cannot help but question him. This is not easy to hear and it's even harder to live out. It's also very difficult to teach to a child who is being constantly bullied at school. How does one even begin to bless those who would curse and mistreat us? Why would we even want to? It is certainly more natural to want to retaliate and strike back (either physically or verbally). One does not see others blessing those that they even disagree with on social media. Comments under posts tend to fall on the side of vitriol and harsh condemnation. Did anyone take Jesus aside and say, "Lord, that's not how the world works"? Of course, he would probably have just responded with, "I know, but that is how the kingdom of God does."

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus even states, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Prior to this, he said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." What he's doing is reminding his listeners of what they had been taught in the Temple. This was Rabbinic teaching. Yet Jesus follows what they have heard with, "But I tell you..." Imagine being in church and having Jesus say, "I know what you have heard preached, but that's wrong. Here is how it is supposed to be lived out."

I must admit that, in my own life, this is a verse that I would love to overlook and pretend did not exist. One of many really. Growing up, a very short and even shyer kid, I was bullied a lot in school. Afraid to get into trouble, I often did not strike back. Every night before bed, I would pray that the bullies would stop or, at the least, find somebody else to pick on. Every morning before school, I would pray that God would cause them to have a change of heart or transfer them to another school. But, to my dismay and bewilderment, God did not seem to hear or answer my prayers. Soon turning the other cheek became me bloodying the other child's nose because I had had enough. My thoughts were, "I gave God a chance. I tried to pray for those who mistreated me, but that didn't work. At all." And, for years, the idea of forgiving them was something I would smirk off with, "Yeah, right." If I'm going to pray for my enemies, then I'm going to do it Old Testament style with vengeance and fury and wrath. I would pray Psalm 109 where the Psalmist not only wants his enemy's days to be few but also wants his enemy's children to wander about and beg. I love the idea of asking God to curse and smite, to dash their babies against the rocks. Why not? For all the pain and humiliation and hurts I suffered, why shouldn't my enemy be struck down by God? "As Rich Mullins once joked, "Vengeance is mine, thus sayeth the Lord, but I just want to be about the Lord's business." It's a joke I can too easily relate to. When we are hurt, we want to hurt others. When we are wounded, we want to wound. We prefer to drag down rather than raise up those who have injured or slighted us in any way.

We live in a culture of act and react; not bless and pray for those we disagree with and, especially not, our enemies. Just look at our politics. No, we prefer to draw lines in the sand and to believe in an us versus them mentality. You're either for us or against us. If you don't agree with us, then you are our enemy. There is no common ground, no compromise, no finding a place of meeting and understanding. W have stopped listening and started demanding. We want our way or the highway.


When Jesus refers to "love your neighbor" in Matthew 5:44, he was drawing from the Levitical concept of neighbor which was solely "thy people" and enemies were everyone else. And, just as he does with everything else, Jesus turns that on its head and upturns this law in the same manner he did the tables of the moneylenders in the Temple. He doesn't allow us to just love our people (whether that be our literal family, only those of our nation or race or religion or sexuality, or our own political party) but to view everyone as our neighbor and not our enemy. He gives us no out, no escape clause, no loophole. Christ does not allow us the self-pleasure of retaliation or leaving someone else out of the club. All are welcome to the table. When he makes a table for us in the presence or our enemies, as the Psalm says, it is with the hopes not of excluding them but in drawing them in to his love. It's a feast to tell them, "This is how I treat my children. Come, be one of them."

As I'm teaching this to my younger son, who is perplexed and baffled by a God who would ask this of us, I am teaching myself and find myself just as baffled and perplexed. It is a struggle to do this. It is a dying to self and self-interest and self-preservation. It's much more natural to bless those who are like us, who agree with us, who are nice to us. It's so much easier to curse or cuss (as Southerners would say) those who we dislike, who are our enemies, or we disagree with, or who even cut us off in traffic. But cursing darkens both our hearts and our world when we choose it. There is no light shown when we view someone not as having been created in the very image of God, but as our enemy and as an other. If God did not curse us when we were yet enemies to Him, how, then, can we do otherwise to those who have injured us?

Forgiveness and blessing are not easy to offer but it's what's required if we are to become like the Christ we claim to follow. As Henri Nouwen wrote, "Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family." 

So I will pray that I can pray for my enemy. I will strive and fail and strive some more to bless those who curse me. The decision to love and actually love another is always difficult and makes us vulnerable and open to rejection and suffering. That's what we see in the life of Christ. His example is that to love is to be broken, but to be broken is to be whole and filled with Shalom so that we can offer Shalom to those most in need of it - those who have hurt us because they, themselves, have been hurt. 








Thursday, November 2, 2017

It Is Well With Those Who Mourn


Our world groans in mourning.

Every time one turns on the news, there is tragedy and suffering and sorrow.  People are hurting and afraid.

"Blessed are those who mourn," Matthew 5:4 tells us, "for they shall be comforted." I am hoping in the truth of that verse.  It's a struggle when I'm at work and get a phone call I didn't expect or want. After I got off the call, I'm standing there in a Wal-Mart toy department and all I want to do is weep. But I can't because if I start crying, I'm afraid I won't stop. I'm exhausted enough already. It's been a very rough year so far and I felt overwhelmed and defeated and broken. I did the only thing I could do at the moment, I left the store and went out to my car.

I leaned my head against the steering wheel and asked, "God, where are You in all of this?" I felt abandoned and alone. "Look up," my Spirit stirred within me. I did and I saw a tree whose leaves were a glorious Autumn red.  There was a reminder: Even in the midst of suffering, struggles and heartbreak, look for the beauty because it's always there.


In the midst of my lament, my grieving, God used a daily miracle that is often overlooked (a tree in a parking lot) to remind me that He has not abandoned me, that I am not forsaken or alone. He is faithful, even when I cannot see that faithfulness in my present circumstances. A verse I have been meditating on a lot these days is 1st Peter 5:7, "Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you." Cast, in Greek, means to set down or toss. I think of the disciples (before they were, while they were still fishermen) casting their nets in the hopes of gathering a great haul of fish. I think of myself casting my cares in the hopes of gathering grace, mercy, and comforting.

"Blessed are those who mourn." That is better translated as "It is well with those who mourn." When I read that verse that way, my mind begans to recall the lyrics to the hymn "It Is Well With My Soul." This is a hymn I find myself singing or listening to quite a lot this year. The lyrics to this beautiful hymn begin:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul
It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

What rings true to me about this hymn is that it does not say that those "sorrows like sea billows" rolling will not come but that even in the midst of storms one is taught to say, "It is well, it is well, with my soul." Those are not easy words to sing in the midst of a storm where the waves crash over and batter you to the point where you fear you are going to go down into the sea and drown. I would prefer there be no storm, no sea billowing, for all to feel well instead of my having to trust and believe that all is well with my soul. Why? Beause the storm means I have to trust not in my circumstances but in my Savior. Like the disciples, I am afraid and I look in the front of the boat to see my Savior sleeping. "Doesn't He care about me? How can Jesus sleep when I'm going through these trials, through this valley, this wilderness, this storm?" 

Curious about the story behing this hymn, I researched its author, a man by the name of Horatio Gates Spafford. He was a very prominent Chicago lawyer and a devout Christian. He lost his fortune when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Spafford had invested heavily in real estate. This happened shortly after the death of his son. In the hopes of finding repite for he and his family, Spafford planned a trip to Europe so that they could rest and he could help his friend, Reverend D.L. Moody, on one of their mission campaigns in Great Britian. At the last minute, he had to stay behind for an unexpected business development. Spafford put his wife and four daughters on the ship  S.S. Ville du Havre with the expectation that he would follow behind in a couple of days. 

According to reports, the ship was struck by the Lochearn, an English vessel, and sank in a mere twelve minutes. The few survivors were taken to Cardiff. In Wales, Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband that she alone was saved. Their daughters had tragically died. Spafford immediately set off to be with his wife. During that voyage, he would pen the hymn that became "It Is Well With My Soul." From his pain, he penned a hymn that would give comfort to so many others who faced their own tragedies over the years. Despite his own suffering, Spafford trusted in a God who transforms tragedy into grace. 

The words of that hymn are soaked in hope despite the hopelessness of the circumstances they were written under. "It is well with those who mourn," those like Horation Spafford, because they shall be comforted. So much so that as he is passing the very area where his daughters died, Spafford could write, "Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul." 

No matter how bad the storm looks, look up, for there is grace on the horizon. We are never alone, never abandoned, never forgotten and, because of that, we can, like Spafford, proclaim, "It is well, it is well with my soul."