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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Infinite Immensity Of The Incarnation


As a child. I remember being intrigued upon hearing the pastor of the Presbyterian church we attended, preaching on the Word becoming flesh. If I had been older and exposed to the gospel of John, this would have been familiar to me, but, at the tender age of eight, this notion was completely foreign and puzzling. Now I had always been fascinated by language ever since my mother read to me The Tale of Peter Rabbit and of how the lettuce had a "soporific" effect on him. Having never heard this new word, I asked my mother what it meant and she explained that the lettuce made Peter sleepy.  From there, I fell in love with language and was that odd kid who enjoyed not only looking up new words in the dictionary but also reading the dictionary itself. This love never waned and was only furthered when I took a course entitled The History of the English Language in college. Certainly, if I ever had enough disposable income, I would purchase the complete Oxford English Dictionary, which is twenty volumes and contains 171,476 words.

Hearing the pastor speak of Word becoming flesh baffled me. What did that even mean? With my childish sensibilities and understanding, I could only envision Letter Man from The Electric Company TV show. Since it was the beginning of the Advent season, he also used another word that I was wholly unfamiliar with: Incarnation. Unfortunately, my parents would not allow me to bring a dictionary along with my children's Bible to church. And it was frustrating to me that I could not ask my parents what he meant as they would simply shush me to be quiet during the service. Of course, even after my mother tried to explain all of this to me in the car ride home, I just found it confusing and wondered why John had to be so cryptic.

Still, the idea of Word becoming flesh took hold of my vivid daydreamer's imagination, so much so that it has never left me in all these years.

The Incarnation, like so much of scripture, has become too familiar to us. We, in our mere nodding acceptance of the whole Jesus born as an infant, without understanding that with this very act the line between the possible and the impossible were forever erased. As Walter Brueggemann wrote in Names for the Messiah, "The old limits of the possible have been exposed as fraudulent inventions designed to keep the powerless in their places. Jesus violates such invented limitations and opens the world to the impossible."

The Incarnation reminds us that God's ways are not our ways at all. We would have preferred something grander and more elegant, but the Incarnation, like grace, is messy and unexpected (a joyous surprise no less) given in the most unexpected way, in the most unlikely of places and circumstances.

With Incarnation comes redemption: unearned and unmerited. A glorious gift. Unbreakable, undefinable grace offered not to the righteous but to the wayward to bring life and light to their unawakened hearts.  Christ, the Word made Flesh, to remind us that we were, all of us, created in his Father's image and that our lives were sacred. How we had forgotten this. As Madeleine L'Engle wrote, "There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation."

So the Logos came.

 And he could see the true and private self of each person he came in contact with and, in so doing, made their hearts gasp in gratitude because he did see them, the real them, and he loved them unconditionally and without reservation. This very love caused them to bathe his feet in tears and kisses and made them anoint him with costly oils and perfumes. They understood that the only true response to Incarnation is adoration.

We, who have become too familiar with the unfamiliar and try to reason with that beyond reason, have forgotten the truth and the power that this Word made Flesh was once the Word that made everything. All of creation came from this Word and that Word was love. Love was the impetus for creation and, after its fall, was the cause for the Incarnation. The Incarnation was God's way to remind us that all of life is Advent, that it's not a season but a daily reality.

Genesis 18:14 asked, "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?"


The Incarnation is the reply that there is nothing that is beyond the love of our Creator. That the wildness and strangeness and inexplicableness and joyousness of grace can never be sentimentalized or sanitized. It cannot be a mere child's story. The Divine Mystery became man. That which was greater than all of the universes was now contained in the form of an infant. Tiny, helpless infant who had to be nursed and changed and comforted and loved and raised and protected. Into the terror of darkness that filled the world and the hearts of those in it, came this light. Bright and unimaginable light. The infinite stepped down into the finite and became one. God left kairos into chronos. Beyond time into our time. Beginning and End, Alpha and Omega, the Resurrection and the Life in the form of a baby. God incarnate in Christ. God in human form. The immaterial became material.

The Incarnation has immense implications as the power to create everything from nothing becomes vulnerable revealing that true power comes from vulnerability. God becomes a baby

The Word had to learn words. The Logos had to learn language. And then he used those words as parables that, like all great stories, fill the hearer with surprise, confusion, and are challenged by them.

Christ left the heavens for the humdrum to reveal to us the reality that both are holy.

He entered into our own brokenness, loneliness, and desperate need. The Holy became humble to heal and bring wholeness. Christ became compassion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

"Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders that God loves the lowly . . . God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is not to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and the broken."

The power of all creation stooped down to lift us up because, in our own inadequacy, we could not do it ourselves.

Advent is the season of expectation that is met in Incarnation. It is the answer to the question that resonates throughout all of human history and is met with an emphatic, "YES! God loves us enough to become one of us." This is not an easy thing to believe but the most important things never are.

Yet the only proper response is not comprehension but adoration. The Incarnation is meant to be approached with awe and wonder and worship.



Friday, November 18, 2016

Image-Bearers


This election season has been toxic. Like many, as I watched it all unfold, I felt sickened by how all of this represented a country I love dearly and how what was being said aloud was reflecting what was deep in people's hearts. All of it made me think of Luke 8:17, "For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known and brought out into the light." All of the hateful rhetoric was being lauded as a candidate saying what we are all thinking. This horrified me. Did this language rooted in racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Muslim speak really reveal the hate and fear that underlies our nation?

When the election was over, I found myself feeling like someone just informed me that our country had inoperable cancer - and that we'd chosen it for ourselves. I found myself angry at those who voted for a candidate who so openly displayed and promoted, not our "better angels," as Lincoln said, but our baser selves. The part of us that is steeped in centuries of racism and discrimination. I feared that what people meant when they spoke of making America "great" again was some over-idealized, mythical and nonexistent America. A country that looked less like reality and more like reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. I heard talk of taking back our "Christian" nation. While our country has had patches that reflected Christ, overall, our history has shown more of our fallen state: from slaughtering Native Americans, slavery, the Jim Crow era, the continued inequality of women, and the new Jim Crow era with its backlash against Black Lives Matter without even attempting to understand why it's inappropriate to change it to "All lives matter." What I feared was that making America "great" again meant returning it to a time when white men held all the power. Certainly, it was white men who predominantly put Donald Trump in the White House. But what really bothered me about this was I am a white male. Even if I didn't vote for Trump, can I excuse myself from my race and gender?

The more I meditated on the election and what it meant, I realized that I had to reflect on myself. First, I have to acknowledge my own privilege and that it came at a price. Certainly the wealth and success of our country has often come on the backs and the blood of African Americans. I think of Thomas Jefferson who wrote the words, "All men are created equal." He understood this as a concept. And he did consider freeing his slaves because of that idea. But what stopped him? Wealth. He loved to live lasciviously. His comfort overruled his convictions. It would be easy to judge and criticize him for this, but how much of our country's wealth is still being created by slavery in other countries? Certainly I don't stop to consider them when I am purchasing clothing, technology or even the toys my kids play with or the candy we eat or the coffee I drink. Over this last year, I have looked more closely at my purchases and ensuring that they really were free trade and I've sought out organizations that sell the works of those who are attempting to better themselves and support their families in impoverished countries.

Yes, I must come to terms with myself as the oppressor. Intentionally or not.

I must look into my own heart and thoughts, the ones I keep hidden, and face that within me is the reality of having been born and raised in America and in the South. That I must constantly let the light of Christ shine on my own racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogny, and prejudices I might have against Muslims. To reject the hateful rhetoric that has been espoused, I must truly face it within myself. I cannot simply combat angry rhetoric with loving rhetoric, but with loving actions.

One of the ways I was convicted of this was when, as I drove to work in silence and contemplation, the Spirit spoke these words: Injustice happens when we don't see someone as the image-bearer of God.

Whoa! Those words weighed heavily on my own failure to do just that.

In Genesis 1:26, it's written: God spoke, "Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature" (The Message).

We are made in the image of the Trinity, in the image of God the Father, Son and Spirit. And I have to see not only myself, but others this way. We are made to "reflect" them in both our appearance, our actions and our "nature."

Christ told us that the greatest commands were to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and to "Love your neighbor as yourself." There's the rub, isn't it? Too many of us cannot love our neighbors because we do not love ourselves. Why? Partly because we do not think ourselves "beloved" or lovable. One of the first things I have begun to do during this time is to face the reality that within me is a deep well of loneliness and insecurity. When I act from that well and not from the Spirit, I find myself reflecting less the image and nature of God than the image and nature of fallenness. When I draw from that well, I offer not living water, but putrefied and contaminated filth (anger, jealousy, fear, distrust, ambition, selfishness).

In his A Book of Hours, Thomas Merton profoundly wrote:

We are what we love. If we love God, in whose image we were created, we discover ourselves in him and we cannot help being happy; we have already achieved something of the fullness of being for which we were destined in our creation. If we love everything else but God, we contradict the image born in our very essence, and we cannot help being unhappy, because we are living a caricature of what we are meant to be.

There is such truth in this passage. When we both love God and allow God to love us, then we find ourselves at rest and not having to defend ourselves or our faith. Instead, we find ourselves better able to love other people. I find that when I am resting in God and not myself, I am more open to those around me. It makes me present, intentional, and available. I find that I am not snappy, irritable, impatient and wanting my way. When I rest in God, I am in and filled with His shalom (peace, well-being, complete) and can then extend that shalom to others. When shalom is within us, then it can flow out of us. I am to "strive for peace" and not to let the "root of bitterness" spring up within me.

To allow God to place me in this state of peace, I pray that, throughout my day, that I choose faith over fear, compassion over cynicism, hope over hate, and, above all, love over division, And when I pray this prayer, God makes sure that their are people placed in my path to see just how much I really mean it. I have to let go of my agenda and be present enough to see those around me as the image-bearers of God. Sometimes this is easy, other times it can be a real test. This election brought up my own judgmentalism when I would paint people with a broad brush of condemnation and dismiss them all as racists or bigots. But then I had to ask myself, do I see that person as having been "fearfully and wonderfully made" by God?

Do I see Donald Trump that way?

Most of the time, I have to admit that I don't and that I willfully don't want to. The same goes for the Evangelical leaders who enthusiastically and vocally supported him as they bowed to the idol of American nationalism. While I do not excuse their actions, I must continue to ensure that my anger doesn't turn to hatred or bitterness. I must not let the hate of others echo in my own life. My trust, after all, is in Christ and not in leaders of men.

I have struggled with Evangelicalism for some time now and no longer identify myself as one. I consider that name to have less to do with the call of Christ and more to do with a brand of conservatism that is tied to a political party and a rigid patriarchal structure.  An example of this is
overhearing a six-year old girl going up to her pastor at the end of the service and, with a broad smile, informed him, "When I grow up, I'm going to do what you do." Her expression became crestfallen when he replied, "You can't. Girls cannot be pastors."

I felt her rejection in that moment. I couldn't believe what he just said to her.

What does that teach her?

That her voice does not matter to God as much as a boy's. That she is inferior in the sight of God. How can a girl grow up to love a God that clearly doesn't value her as much as He does a boy? How does this show her that she, too, is an image-bearer of God?  When the Church silences the voice of women, they are quenching part of the power of the Spirit for God is both male and female, since both are made in the image of the Creator. To deny equality is to dishonor part of our very Maker, who is, portrayed in scripture, as both father and mother.

We must let go of our Patriarchal system and realize that our faith is not in the patriarchs, who were all fallen men, but in Christ. If Christ included women in his ministry, why then should we not do likewise?

Having grown up in conservative, Protestant Evangelicalism, I have been born into that complementarian society and struggled with its stereotypes of the roles of men and women are to play. It has been difficult for me not being the "bread-winner" but working part-time and being the one who takes care of the house and the kids while my wife works full-time. It hasn't been any less easy on her in a church where women traditionally stay home, many home school their kids, and do the grocery shopping and cleaning (Don't get me started on laundry). She finds herself as much as an outsider as I do.

Certainly, it has been hard for me to connect with many males in church when my interests also diverge from theirs: books, music, movies, and having favorite shows like Gilmore Girls. I am someone who doesn't view vulnerability as weakness, but I find that most men around me are incapable of letting their guards down to have open and honest conversations that diverge off sports and work. Having been mostly raised by a mother, I often find it easier to connect with women and to share with them. One of the things that drew me to my wife was her intelligence. She is far more practical and level-headed than I am. I tend to be more of a day-dreamer. God made us both this way and, though it doesn't fall into the gender roles that complementarianism assigns to us. I think we, in the Church, need to let go of such antiquated ideas that are held in place by fear.

There is this fear of relinquishing authority, but the fact of the matter is, only God has true authority and He is the one who created women as an "ezer" to men. (Ezer is not just a helper but is most often used in connection to God). There is a great danger to complementarianism as it stereotypes men as being less sensitive and women as more emotional (I can attest that this is not always the case). Or that men like sports more than women (just ask my wife who yells the loudest and pays closer attention to football).

The Church needs to let go of its patriarchal hierarchy. Philip the evangelist understood this. He had four daughters and all of them prophesied. Or how about the female prophets of the Old Testament? Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah among them. And let us not forget it was the women who followed Jesus, and not the men, who stayed by Christ as he hung on the cross. There are also women in leadership roles all throughout the early Church and Paul does not silence them. We must let go of strident rhetoric that would silence half the voice of God in our midst. We must encourage and exhort our daughters just as much as our sons.

For there to be equality, we, as men, must see women as image-bearers of God just as we are.

Colossians 1:15-17 tells us, "(Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

We were all created in him and for him and are held together by him. How then can we separate ourselves from other people?

As followers of Christ, we can't. For those who follow him, there is no stranger, no other. There are only neighbors we are called to love. How then can anyone who calls himself a Christian hold tightly to nationalism and a sense of narcissistic entitlement? How can we say that we choose not to welcome the sojourner, the refugee, the immigrant? It means that, if a national registry is created for Muslims, then Christians also need to register to stand in solidarity against religious persecution. We are to stand with those who would are oppressed and persecuted. We cannot distance ourselves by putting those of other nationalities or faiths into the category of "them" or "other." How many of us would wince if Jesus told the parable of the "Good Syrian" or "Good Muslim" instead of a Samaritan?

Before Merton (who echoed her), Clare of Assisi wrote:

We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means that we become vessels of God's compassionate love for others.

Once again, if we love God then we will love others. God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of sound mind. That means when we choose fear, we turn away from that which God has given us. We are telling our Maker, "We prefer to cling to our own prejudices, fears, and insecurities. We don't want your freedom." At that moment, we stop reflecting God and, instead, merely reflect our own broken selves and our actions are based not in love, but in selfishness and fear. When we realize that we are image-bearers of God, then we can become stewards of beauty and love within creation. Our actions come from a place where our own woundedness is expressed in vulnerability and humility, not to try and coerce others so that we can get our own way, but in an expression of Christ-likeness that offers up that by his wounds we were healed and by our own wounds we can help to heal others in his name and to his glory.

To let go of self, of ego is scary. In his book Breathing Underwater, Richard Rohr wrote:

Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often give a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of "Christian" countries that tend to as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious and addictive as everybody else - and often more so, I'm afraid.

I do not exclude myself from that assessment. Too often, I am me-centered, not Christ-centered. It's because I lose sight of my being an image-bearer and of those around me being the same. I lose sight that the world is filled with the glory of God. Too often my days feel more monotonous than miraculous because I have lost sight of the sacred gift they really are. I have to allow myself to be open to the reality that sea of humanity is where the ocean of God flows.

To be an image-bearer means letting go of my fears, my insecurities, my selfishness, my loneliness and my fighting for my own rights. As an image-bearer I let go of my own rights to speak out for those of the poor, those suffering injustice, for the widows and orphans, for those who find themselves forgotten on the fringes of society. I need to climb down, not up, the ladder of society because that's where Jesus is and where he's called me to.

This is not easy. I don't like addressing my own weaknesses, sins, and culpability. It's easier to denounce others than to deal with my own sinfulness, my own pride, my own failures and flaws. It means allowing Christ to transform my own pain so that I don't transmit it onto others. Following Jesus means admitting I am poor in spirit and, in my poverty, desperately in need of grace. It means I surrender all to him so that I no longer go through this world trying to prove myself to others, but I am freed up to love them instead of striving to impress them. It means I embrace and not eliminate others. When I am permeated by the love of God, I cannot help but live in and act on that love. It means I let go of trying to be perfect so that I can be present. It means I stop worrying about performance and focus on passion fueled by an understanding of not only my own belovedness but the belovedness of each and every person who comes across my path. It's not about doctrines or ideologies. It's about understanding the all encompassing grace of God expressed through Christ on the cross and the transformation that occurs when we surrender ourselves to a Father who runs to meet, embrace, and kiss us without hesitation or reservation.

I pray that I am becoming a better reflection of my Creator, that, as His image-bearer, I strive daily for "on earth as it is in heaven." That I may "put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24). I pray that I work towards restoration, which comes only when we offer power to the vulnerable and teach vulnerability to the powerful. And we must face that, if we live in this country, we are among the richest in all of history and that we are the oppressors. In his book Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing, Andy Crouch wrote, "To disengage from the profound needs of those caught in suffering is to reject the call to bear the image of God." We must own up to this. I must own up to this. Only then can any of us begin to change the culture around us.




Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Finding The Sacred In The Commonplace: An Interview With Tish Harrison Warren


As an avid reader, nothing excites me more than discovering a new author whose work resonates deeply within myself. Some I read their books and wish that I knew them personally so I could call them up and ask them to go for coffee and really great conversation. Tish Harrison Warren was one of those authors. When I got to read an advanced copy of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, I connected with her honesty, intelligence, wit and vulnerability. Reading her book made me wish that I lived in Austin, Texas (well, it's one of many reasons I wish I lived in Austin) so that I could talk with Tish about her amazing new book, which comes out in December.  I was, however, fortunate enough to get to interview her about her book, writing, authors who have impacted her, her life, her faith and taking the time to see the holy in the commonplace. 

What was the genesis for Liturgy of the Ordinary?

Tish: I struggle a lot with living the Christian life, day by day, in quotidian everydayness. I increasingly realized that I felt a lot more fear and anxiety entering an average day than when I did things that outwardly looked more risky. Out of my own wrestling with that, I wrote “Courage in the Ordinary,” and it seemed to really hit on something that a lot of people resonated with--I got emails and messages from so many people telling me how they wrestled with mundane-ness and feeling like a failure for being "average." I knew then I wanted to write more about the everyday. But I didn't want to simply write a book about the fact that our ordinary lives mattered to God, but how and why they matter. Then, I came across James KA Smith's writings on formation and cultural "liturgies." His work gave me a lens through which to understand how treasures can be found in a plain ole day. And that lens was the idea of formation. I wanted to wrestle with how our daily life forms us.

One of the things I liked about your book was that you constructed the chapters as an average day. What inspired you to use that type of format?

TishThank you! I had the idea about making the whole book centered on one day and, at first, I just wanted to do it because it made me smile. I liked the idea of having a whole book about a single, totally boring day, so some of it was sheerly a creative choice, for the fun of it. But as I began pressing into the idea, I realized I needed to keep that format because specificity was really important to me as I approached the subject. I didn't want to say generally, "Daily life matters." I wanted to speak about formation and worship as specifically as possible - in the most concrete way I could. I felt like I wanted the reader to come over to my house and for us to have a day long conversation where we could stop and say, "Okay, this moment. This dish. This tree. This fight with a spouse. This frustration. This toothbrush. How do these specific things have to do with God's work in the world and in our lives?" Since I couldn't spend one day with everyone, I made the book about one day. 

You are an Anglican priest, a wife, and a mother, as well as a friend, and neighbor. With those roles come all the responsibilities that come with them and being pulled in a million different directions at one time in a day. So how do you create space and time in your life for reflection and contemplation of the sacred in the ordinary? 

TishWell, it's hard, to be honest. A huge part of this for me is corporate worship. The Anglican liturgy shapes my imagination so water is never "just" water, a meal is never "just" a meal. The symbols of our worship sort of haunt me so I bring them into the day with me. I also think learning silence and contemplation is a discipline I'm constantly called to. It is often a painful lesson because my natural inclination is to be plugged in constantly, but, for me, even the small discipline of turning off screens to spend an empty half hour in silence before bed is really important (and a huge challenge!) I'll also add that writing this book was part of making space for reflection. As a writer, I've found I think with my hands more than my head, I type things and then go, "Oh yeah, that's actually what I think." I started the book with a rough sketch of the activities I'd write about in a day, but writing on them unveiled new facets of mercy in them to me. This was an exploration for me. 

One of the things I most took away from this book that many might simply overlook is the line, "If Christ spent time in obscurity, then there is infinite worth in obscurity." That's a profound thought that most people don't even stop to consider. Christ spent thirty years of his life in obscurity as a "tekton" or "carpenter" and only three years of his life in public ministry. Why do you think most of  us don't even see this as God's way of emphasizing the holiness of ordinary days?

TishThat's a great question. I'm not sure. But I think, in general, Western protestants and evangelicals don't reflect enough on the key place of the incarnation in our understanding of humanity and in our redemption. We tend to celebrate Christmas and skip right to Jesus's miracles, teaching, death, and resurrection, but Christ's radical self-emptying, taking the place of an average guy, is not often seen as a vital part of our redemption story. In many ways, the church fathers, particularly in Eastern Christianity do a better job at marveling at the incarnation. There's something so incredibly beautiful about the belief that Christ redeems by becoming--what he became, he redeemed. Because of that, when we spend time thinking about his incarnation and what he took on, we see what he redeems. 

One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, wrote a poem entitled "The Want of Peace," in which he said these words, "I lack the peace of simple things." Do you see this inability to see the sacred in the ordinary (or find "peace" in "simple things") as a serious spiritual problem in our modern culture?

TishYes, very much. And love that line by Berry also! 

In Liturgy of the Ordinary, you find beauty even in the frustrations and struggles, was it important for you to balance the daily problems you wrestle with and yet still find hope?

TishI wanted the book to approach a totally average day. Part of that, for me, is dealing with conflict and sin and frustrations and failures, so I knew exploring the “daily” meant exploring brokenness in me and also just the mundane annoyances of life. Exploring brokenness and sin as a Christian, if you go deep enough and spend enough time in the frustration and grief, always ends up a place of grace and mercy. Hope emerged somewhat naturally as I tried to hold struggles in one hand and the gospel in the other. 

You quote one of my favorites by Annie Dillard, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." The power of habits is something that runs throughout your book and in another writer whose work I love to read, James KA Smith, especially in his last work You Are What You Love. In what ways do you think the reader can begin cultivating the habit for the appreciation of everydayness?

TishStart by noticing what your habits are. For me, I live most of my life with my eyes half-closed. When I’ve spoken publicly about my book, the feedback I get most is, “I really have no idea how I even spend my day most days.” I think stepping back and noticing what we walk through and what we do in an average day and the formation and worship in that experience is key. So begin by observation. Then, as we walk toward counter-formation, start small, concrete, and, if possible, with others. Acts of counter-formation in our Christian life emerge from immersing ourselves in the scriptures and in the church, so a place to start is to begin asking how we can immerse our imaginations in the scriptures and in the worship of the church.

And how did writing this book help to reframe how you viewed your own daily habits?

TishWell, it made me notice my own patterns and liturgies more. It made me notice how saying, “Oh I’ll just stay up late to watch this random you tube video” was actually a pretty significant ritual that shaped me and a lot of my life and time. It also helped me see the formation and places of worship in my everyday. I think it made me a little more skeptical of the large, the grandiose, the promises of being “zapped” by some kind of spiritual revolution (whether that be an internal revolution of the heart or an external revolution of society). I know, in a deeper way, how all revolutions are actually really slow, small, and quiet and take time and discipline. God is very patient. More so than I am.

Something I picked up from reading the bio on your website was that you live in a house "chock full of books." As a bibliophile, mine is the same way, so much so that people would rather move my furniture than my books. Let's switch gears a moment, so that I can ask you what writers helped form the theology of Liturgy of the Ordinary?

TishWow! That’s a great question. Obviously, James KA Smith’s work makes a big impact on this book and I quote him often. A conversation about Courage in the Ordinary that I had on White Horse Inn with Michael Horton was also great fodder for this future book. I also think Eugene Peterson and his work were a big force in this book (and my life). I discovered Michael Ramsey’s work while writing this book and the way he can write so powerfully with deep orthodoxy while still maintaining gorgeous prose was inspiring. I also am really shaped by William Cavanaugh and I think his kind of grass-roots political ecclesiology made an impact on the book. There are others who I turn to for beauty, not so much theology (if it’s even fair to separate them).  Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorites as is Annie Dillard. They ask me to slow down and value the small and worthwhile beauty in something like a weasel’s skull (as Dillard does) or a turn of a phrase (like L’Engle). 

And what writers do you turn to for inspiration when you feel frazzled by the frenetic pace of a busy life?

TishI named a few above. But, additionally, poetry is important to me and my favorites that I go to often are Wendell Berry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Scott Cairns, and Czeslaw Milosz. I think this goes for music too…I think the musicians I like count as poets that I go back to. I have said (and stand by this) that when I doubt the resurrection, I go read Christian apologetics, but if I still doubt after that, I read Scott Cairns. I also love memoir and history and am starting to explore (but am a total novice here!) the Church Fathers.  I’m slowly reading Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, which is kind of mind-blowing.  And I always feel cliché saying this, but CS Lewis is a touchstone for me. I read something by him most every year. 

A question I like to ask people is: What works of fiction have expanded your theology and why?

TishSpeaking of Lewis, I go back to his Till We Have Faces again and again. It’s really influenced my view of God, of worship, and of struggle. The line at the end of that book is one of the most beautiful, painful, true, and brutal theodicies I’ve seen: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.”  

Also, I’m a big Flannery O’Connor fan (I named my daughter after her). Her very real, gritty view of sin and grace is deeply formative to me. 

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead may have influenced this book in particular because it is an up close view of the average, small local life of a pastor and of slow redemption. 

Lastly, what is your hope that the reader takes away from your book?

TishI want readers to approach their own days with a new kind of attention and insight about the sacred holiness in each of their days. And I want us to think about how we are formed (or malformed) by the way we rub against time, day in and day out. I hope readers will be able to receive a day in gratitude and meet Jesus in it.


Her official website:


My review of Liturgy of the Ordinary:



Monday, November 14, 2016

Judah & Tamar: What's This About?


As I have previously written, I am currently reading through the book of Genesis. I must admit, yet again, that a book I thought I knew so well has surprised me once more with something I had either overlooked or paid little attention to, especially since it's an odd story that is wedged in the beginning of the story of Joseph. In chapter 37 of Genesis, we are introduced to Jacob's sons, the youngest of whom is his favorite (always a great parenting decision to openly favor one child over the others). Joseph's jealous older brothers grow tired of his bragging about the dreams he's had where they, the elder brothers, bow down to their younger brother. So at first they plot to murder him and make it appear he's been killed by fierce animals. Reuben convinces them not to go through with this and to simply put their younger brother in a pit. While Reuben was gone, the others sell Joseph to some passing Ishamaelites for twenty shekels of silver. (Side note: it's interesting to me that the descendants of Abraham through Isaac are selling Joseph to the descendants of Abraham through Ishmael).  They then return to their father Jacob, with the coat of many colored soaked in goat's blood, and lie to their father that his son has been torn to pieces by wild animals. Jacob goes into serious mourning and we find out that the traders sell Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.

So ends that chapter with Joseph sold into slavery. All very familiar. Why? Because that story has been so often repeated in Sunday school lessons to children child. Or because Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote a musical about this tale called "Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Or because Dreamworks even made an animated film about Joseph. The story of Joseph has entered our collective unconscious so that many who've never even been to church or synagogue know it.

But wedged in between the selling of Joseph to Potiphar and the incident with Potiphar's wife is an abrupt cut from the story to one involving Judah and Tamar. If I were an editor, I would have told the author of Genesis to cut this story out since it doesn't further the plot of Joseph and actually breaks the flow of the narrative. Not to mention, this story is just bizarre. Yet, as I was reading it, I kept asking myself, "Why is this interruption in the storyline here? Why is it even included in Genesis at all?" I found that, long after I had closed my Bible, I kept wondering what is the context for this story being there and how did it connect within the narrative of Joseph redeeming his family from the famine. Certainly the story stands in stark contrast to the one of purity that comes after it with Joseph fleeing the sexual attentions of Potiphar's wife, but there had to be more than just a juxtaposition of morality.

So I decided to dig deeper and find out why does God even care to have this seemingly bizarre and morally perverse story in the Bible in the first place.

The story begins with Judah, son of Jacob, and who is the ringleader in selling Joseph into slavery. He sees the daughter of a certain Canaanite so he took her and went in to her. The phrases "took her" and "went in to her" are exactly the same ones used to describe what Shechem did to Dinah (to read more about that go to my blog Dealing With Dinah). Both men were overcome by their lust for a woman's physical appearance and would make Judah's later actions reveal the baseness of his character.

Later, we learn, the woman conceived and bore a son named Er (which means awake). Shua would have two more sons, Onan (meaning "pain" or "iniquity") and Shelah (meaning "that breaks" or "that unties").


We then jump forward in time to learn that Judah finds a wife for Er named Tamar (meaning "date" or "palm tree"). Here comes the first twist in the storyline because we learn that Er was "wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death." How would you live to have that as your epitaph on your gravestone?

Now in the Old Testament, in which tribes had a strong clan structure, they had what were called "Levirate marriages." According to Levitical law, if a man died and left no male heirs, his widow was to then obliged to marry his brother and the brother was obliged to marry her. This was done for two reasons:

1. To continue the brother's lineage
2. To protect the widow by ensuring that she had a provider and protector. This was critical in a culture whereby the women had no rights and were regarded more as possessions than as people.

According to the Midrash, Judah was the first to introduce the practice.

Judah then tells his second son, Onan, to "go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother."

Onan understood that any males he had with Tamar would not be considered his, but his brothers. On top of that, this male heir would inherit a double portion (meaning the child would get his brother's inheritance - not Onan - and would also inherit Onan's wealth and property). So Onan disobeys both his father's wishes and the law, he dishonors his brother and the widow when he "spills his seed on the ground." I'll leave that passage alone other than to say that this was not a one-time event.  Like his older brother, Onan is found wicked in the sight of the Lord, though this time we understand his wrongdoing, and the Lord kills him, too.

With his sons dropping off like characters in an episode of  Game of Thrones, Judah is now afraid that Tamar is cursed. He is highly reluctant to let his youngest son, Shelah, marry Tamar. So he concocts his own scheme, he tells Tamar to wait until Shelah is older. Judah has no intention of letting his last son marry her and, Tamar, will later understand this and take things into her own hands.

After the death of his wife, Judah spends time in mourning. Once that time is up, we learn that he goes up to Timnah, a Philistine city in Canaan, to check on his sheepshearers. Tamar hears this devises a plan to take care of her future since it is obvious that her former father-in-law will not be keeping his end of the bargain by letting her marry Shelah. So here's where the plot really thickens and wigs out, as only the Old Testament can. Tamar changes out of her widow's garments and covers herself with a veil.


Tamar then waited by the entrance to Enaim, which was on the road to Timnah. Judah, upon noticing her, took her to be a kedeishah (a sacred woman or temple prostitute). Once again, driven by his lust, Judah tells her, "Come, let me come in to you." Clearly Tamar understood her former father-in-law very well and counted on his desiring to sleep with her. It also reveals that Judah was not the least bit shy in his approaching her, so, clearly, this was not the first time he'd ever solicited a prostitute. He begins to negotiate with her and gives her a "pledge" of his "signet" (which was used to bind contracts by stamping the signet into the sealing wax on the document signifying who the owner was) as well as Judah's "cord" and "staff" (all of which were one of a kind and would signify who the owner of them was). After giving her these items as a pledge for later payment, Judah goes in and sleeps with Tamar. We find out that from this encounter she became pregnant.


Once more, the story jumps forward in time and Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant by "immorality" as the text informs us. What Judah doesn't realize is that it's his own, so he demands that she be brought before him so that she can "be burned." One might think that he was simply acting according to the law at that time, but he wasn't. Even in that culture, his response was extreme and shows the amount of hypocritical indignation he felt at her fallenness. As Tamar was being brought out, she sent word to Judah that "By the man to whom these items belong I am pregnant." I can only imagine Judah's expression as she asked him to identify his very own "signet, cord and staff." She clearly made her point because Judah replied, "Tzadakah mimeini" or "She is more righteous than I . . ." (Meaning he admitted that he did not keep his promise to her), since I did not give her to my son Shelah." This sentence is followed by the peculiar one, "And he did not know her again." What does that mean, other than he did not have any more sexual relations with Tamar? Well, we know that Judah returned from this foreign land to the land with his father and brothers.

The story ends with Tamar giving birth to twins (Perez and Zerah) much like Rebecca (Esau and Jacob). 

Like many stories in the Bible, this one has unexpected twists and consequences. But still, one wonders, "Why is it placed right there in the beginning of Joseph's story? Why is it there at all?"

It's a strange and immoral tale that hardly leaves one with any personal application. 

One has to understand that from this story dripping with sinfulness comes the very line that would "begat" King David and, ultimately, Jesus. In the beginning of Joseph's story, which will become one of the redemption of his family and Israel, is a bizarre one that led to the ultimate redemption story with the birth of Christ. God used a lineage twist that none of us would written. Certainly, I would have had Jesus descended from the line of Joseph, the pure and righteous leader, rather than his immoral older brother Judah. Yet, once more, God's ways are not my ways.


Within this patriarchal culture, the only power a woman like Tamar had was her sexuality. Women during this period had no power or authority. They could not testify in court and had to be doubly veiled whenever they left their home. Unmarried women were not allowed to leave home without permission from her father. Married women had to have their husband's permission. A man could divorce his wife for whatever reason he wished to, even if she burned his dinner. Women were easily abused and misused, and were treated more like slaves or property. A man could freely sell his daughter, this could even go so far as to selling a daughter who was raped to her rapist. If a bride was found not to be a virgin before the wedding night, then she would be brought to her father's door and stoned to death. 

That's why one cannot help but feel for Tamar within her culture and society. As a widow, she was nothing, insignificant and could easily suffer oppression and injustice without recourse. According to Professor Naomi Steinberg, during the time of the Old Testament, there were three types of widows:

1. The issa-almana (widow-wife) is a woman "who has redemption rights in her husband's ancestral estate which she exercises through her son" (an example of this is King Jeroboam's mother).
2. The eset-hammet (wife of the dead) is a woman "whose husband has died before fathering an heir to exercise the redemption rights to his ancestral holdings" This is where the Levirate law applies and this is where women like Tamar and Ruth fall.
3. Last is the almana. She is "the destitute widow, whose deceased husband has no ancestral land. This is the widow that is mentioned in correlation to the orphan throughout scripture. 

Without a husband or son, widows were often without financial support, were taken advantage of because of their destitution, and found themselves becoming further and further disenfranchised in that culture. Most faced dire and bleak prospects. When analyzing what could have become of Tamar, one begins to understand the desperation of her decision to deceive Judah. And it's yet one of many biblical tale of deceptions. Yet this one tells of a woman who was of no importance in her time and culture but was important enough to God that her story was not only recorded for all of history, but that from her would come Israel's King (David) and its Messiah (Jesus). Her narrative mattered. Her story was important. One more, God is showing me how He can use even the most broken of people to help something beautiful unfold to His glory.








Sunday, November 13, 2016

Outsider

New York Movie by Edward Hopper

The only dream I remember from my childhood is one in which I am awakened from my sleep by the sounds of a party going on outside. I get up from my bed, go to the window and look out on all my friends celebrating and having a good time. Even though they are all in costume with those large papier-mâché heads like one sees at Mardi Gras, I, somehow, know that beneath them are my friends. I look on their merriment with the understanding that I am not a part of it, that I did not know they were going to have this celebration because I was not invited.

All of my life I have felt like an outsider.

It was difficult growing up with that feeling: like one never belonged, to not "fit in," and to suffer rejection by others. Anyone who has ever felt this way or struggled with being an outsider knows the loneliness that comes with it. The filmmaker Tim Burton has filled his magical films with characters (best exemplified in Edward Scissorhands) who were outsiders. This stems from Burton's own experience. "If you've ever had that feeling of loneliness, of being an outsider," he has said, "it never quite leaves you. You can be happy or successful or whatever, but that thing still stays within you."

Just as in my childhood dream, I have been that outsider who observes others and trying to figure it all out. Certainly, my being a day-dreaming, shy, introverted, and solitary child did not help make my belonging or being able to join in easy for me. Over the years, I have dreaded social engagements like large parties because I most often feel lonely when I am around people. I find myself withdrawing within myself and wishing I was anywhere but where I was. My preferences are either at home, the library, a movie, a quiet walk in the woods, or somewhere I can be with my private thoughts.

It doesn't help that I am too conservative for my liberal friends and too liberal for my conservative friends. I have never been able to comfortably align myself to either political party, finding neither aligned themselves with the social-justice found in scripture. One of the places I have struggled the most has been in church despite having grown up in it. Part of the problem stemmed from my having been born a natural questioner. My mother and Sunday school teachers grew frustrated with a kid who asked, "If God knew man was going to pick the fruit then why did He put that tree in the garden in the first place? Why didn't He cast Satan to an uninhabited planet instead of earth? After Cain murdered his brother Abel, why is he afraid other people would harm him, since where did those cities of other people come from?"

One time, I remember asking my poor mother, "What if I weren't born in the United States and I wasn't born a Christian. What if I were born a Muslim or a Buddhist? Wouldn't I grow up thinking I was right?" My mother, like my Sunday school teachers, was unable to hold my questions and offer tenderness and patience with them. Instead, she answered, "Well, you weren't." "But what if I was?" "But you weren't. You were born here and you're a Christian, so there is no need to worry about it." But I did.

And what I learned early on from her and the Church was that my questions were unwelcome and a nuisance. So I stopped asking and struggled inwardly.  No one told me that it was okay to struggle, to question and that God was a big enough God to allow for them. No one told me, as Paul Tillich wrote, that, "Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith."

Thankfully and by the grace of God, I came across the music and the life of Rich Mullins. I remember how much I connected with him not only as an artist but as a Christian of deep questions and struggles. He once said, "It seems that I always am and always have been an outsider. I've never really fit in. I was always too religious for my rowdy friends - they thought I was unbelievably hung up - and too rowdy for my religious friends - they were always praying for me." It was from his deep sense of not belonging that Rich tried to include everyone, to create community for those who were, like him, outsiders. What struck me about this was that it mirrored the early Church, which drew the outcasts, the fringe, the marginalized, and those who so often went unnoticed by society. These were the people that Jesus drew to himself during his life and ministry.

Throughout the gospels, we get a picture of Christ as calling those who went uncalled. Look at those he called to be his disciples (that act in itself was unheard of, as rabbis never asked someone to be their disciple, instead the disciple must approach and ask the rabbi if he could follow him), they were all men who their culture would not have chosen (to read more about this, here is a link to a piece I'd written about it: Follow Me).

Back when I was in school, I hated physical education. Part of this stemmed from the coach picking two boys as captains and then telling them to pick their teams. The rest of us kids stood on the line waiting to be chosen. The longer you stood there, unpicked, the more humiliating it became. It was hard to watch one kid after another getting chosen before you. The worst was to be the two last kids standing on the line and, then, to finally be the very last one who has to be taken and was not chosen at all. This experience leaves a deep impression on a kid. It reemphasizes one's feeling of being unwanted and unliked. Yet I could not help but imagine Jesus standing there, pointing to the ones every other person would overlook, and telling them, "You. You are mine. I want you."  It's why I have always loved Christ, even when I struggled within organized Christianity.

Jesus always identified himself with the poor, the neglected, the broken, the hurting, the lonely, the outcast, the forgotten, the refugee, and those that were so often unwelcomed by the religious and the powerful. That is why the Church cannot be a voice for the voiceless if it keeps aligning itself with the powerful and prosperous. One finds him at the bottom of the social ladder, with the least of these, why he welcomed women and children, why he socialized with sinners and prostitutes, why he connected with undesirables and those who the world had turned their backs on. Jesus never meant for his Church to be accepted.  Francis Chan, in speaking of the modern Church, particularly in America, said, ". . . the Church needs a reset in a lot of ways. We have become somewhat irrelevant, sadly. But the path to relevance is not by trying to fit in. It's by standing out. It's not be by becoming popular but by becoming rejected." He warned of a Church whose eyes are too fixed on being popular instead of being Christ-like.

For years I hated being an outsider, but as I grow older, the more I realize it is a blessing and not a curse because it gives me a heart for those who feel left out, alone, and unwelcome. My own lonely childhood has allowed me to connect with my adopted son in ways that I never could have otherwise. It is what keeps me open to those who are hurting and in desperate need of being heard. Because of my own wounds, I feel compassionate towards the wounded. Because of my own questions and struggles, I am able to hold the questions and struggles of others. I think this is why those who aren't Christians feel comfortable coming to me. It is why I have a heart for orphans and refugees. It is why I long to build bridges and not walls to separate ourselves from those around us.

Because I so often went unheard growing up, I listen more to others now. Not just to their words, but to their hearts. I see the desire within all of us to be accepted, loved, and found beloved. It is why the gospel is really good news to me because it shows God, through Christ, opening his arms to welcome, to say all can come to the table. Christ shows us a God that says to those who have felt unloved and unwanted, "I see you. I love you. I choose you even when no one else will. You are of great worth." The good news is that God can bring beauty from the brokenness. We should never doubt this because if He could do it through the cross, He can do it through us.

The way of Christ is found not in the path of the powerful, but in the love of the broken for each other. When we attempt to align ourselves with those in power, we lose our true power as Christ-like servants who love the poor, marginalized and oppressed. That's why we must "clothe" ourselves "with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" as Colossians 3:12 commands us. We must see ourselves not in terms of political parties or countries, but solely in terms of Christ and his command that we love as he has loved because he has called us to be compassionate, not comfortable.

Henri Nouwen said it best when he wrote:

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.

That is what Christ did. That is what he's calling his Church to do.







Friday, November 11, 2016

Rest


We live in a world filled with unrest. Right now, the United States is full of political unrest. Tuesday night, as the results of the election were becoming more and more obvious that Donald Trump was going to be our next President, I went to bed with a heavy heart. Yet no matter how tired I was, I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned. I felt no peace about a country being run by a man who had run on a platform espousing hateful rhetoric and division, a man who stood in direct arrogance and contrast to Christ, something that so many other Christians were overlooking. I got only a few hours of sleep and when I awakened the next morning, I found myself filled with a mixture of emotions: anxiety, fear, discouragement, and depressed by the glee and delight many Evangelicals were expressing at the outcome (even those who, prior to the election, had expressed their distrust and dislike of this very same man).

I would find myself, over the next two days, comforting, commiserating, loving, listening and empathizing with many who felt themselves outsiders in their very own country (due to race, religion or sexuality). They shared their hurts and their hearts with me. I felt honored that they would trust their stories and their feelings to me.

The day after the election, I did not go on Facebook. I did not watch the news or listen to NPR. I prayed - a lot - for the division and the hardships our country will now face. I either drove in silence or I listened to music on my iPod. More than once, the hymn "It is Well With My Soul." One was a recording by Sara Groves and the other by Audrey Assad. Throughout the day, I would open my Bible. Each time, I was confronted with verses about how the Lord is with the humble, but brings down the proud, haughty and powerful. The last verse I read was the opening to Psalm 131, "By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion." And I did. I wept for my broken country.

While reading Saint Augustine's Confessions, I, like many who've read this monumental work, was drawn to these lines, "Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee."

Rest.

When we hear this word, we tend to think of taking a nap, going to sleep or on a vacation.

In Hebrew the word for rest is nuach, which means far more than our mere English word does. Nuach means everything from "calm" to "give comfort" to "put aside" to "settle" to "satisfy" to "wait quietly."

I had begun reading theologians like Saint Augustine because of Jeremiah 6:16:


Thus says the Lord:
Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.

This has been a year of being spiritually unsettled for me. A time of questioning what does it really mean to truly follow this Christ, to be confronted by his Sermon on the Mount, and asking, "Who is this God and this Messiah I claim to follow?"

Going deeper into scripture, reading commentary on it, reading a variety of authors in a wide range of denominations of the faith, I am trying to find my place within the Church. This is not a crisis of faith but a crisis of Church, that was only furthered by this election and what it meant as a witness to nonChristians who were clearly watching us and are now questioning how we can claim to love and follow Jesus but elected a man who was supported by white supremacists, who espoused rhetoric of hate, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia. I know there were people that I know who asked me this. I sadly replied, "I don't know. I truly don't." 

So I am praying and seeking God in this, to give me rest. In her novel Evensong, Gail Godwin has one character say, " . . . it is perfectly natural to yearn for a place large enough to contain all your unsightly edges and unsolved mysteries." On earth, that place is intended to be the Church, the body of Christ, but, ultimately, it is to be God.  Just as I feel like an outsider in my country (despite being a white male) and within my own denomination and church. 

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:28.

When I think of resting in him, the first word that always comes to my mind is compassion. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the word usually translated as "compassion" is the plural form of a noun that, in its singular form, means "womb." I love that idea. The compassion of God as a womb. Think of that. In the womb, we are safe. We are completely taken care of. All of our needs are met. We do not worry but simply rest and grow. That is exactly the rest God is calling us to in Him. 

Today, as I sat in the waiting room of my son's play therapist, an older woman came in. She was visibly distraught and in tears. She kept repeating the phrase, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," over and over. In talking to the receptionist, it came out that this woman was suffering from hallucinations and depression. They called the local hospital to send someone to pick her up so that she could be admitted there. Sitting in a chair, she began to call people on her cell phone. Again, she repeated how sorry she was, how she wasn't herself. She spoke of seeing people who had died. My heart went out to her and I just sat there silently praying for her peace, for her to find mental, physical and spiritual rest. With her, I thought of the second line of "It Is Well With My Soul": When sorrows like sea billows roll.

This woman was in the midst of that sea. 

Our country is in the midst of that sea.

People voted in anger. They voted in fear. Neither of which are fruits of the Spirit. 

During all of this, when I have felt so isolated and alone, I am reminded that I'm not, that it is "Well With My Soul" not because of the Church or the country but because of Christ and Christ alone. He is my "blest assurance." 

And I will seek out others of the faith who can do exactly what Henri Nouwen wrote:

We need loving and caring friends with who we can speak from the depth of our heart. Such friends can take away the paralysis that secrecy creates. They can offer us a safe and sacred place, where we can express our deepest sorrows and joys, and they can confront us in love, challenging us to a greater spiritual maturity.

I want to be with those who love with a Christ-like love that holds another's hurts, fears, doubts and struggles with compassion and without judgment. And I want to love in that way. One of my prayers I keep praying is:

Lord,

In a world of hurt, may I be part of the healing.
In a world of cruelty, may I bring compassion.
In a world where all want to be heard, may I be a listener.

That is my prayer.  To love others irrespective of race, religion, or sexuality. Jesus said, "You will know my disciples by their love." That is how I want to be seen by those who are watching. I was humbled that people who were not Christian, sought me out to have a conversation. That they trusted that I would hear them and love them. Because of the grace and love of Christ, I strive to reflect that in the world to all around me. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, "Every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God."

This total surrender gives us rest because we don't have to defend ourselves, our positions, our beliefs to others. Instead, it opens us up to truly and only love them. When we grasp that our God is not a tribalistic one but one that expressed His deep and abiding love for us through Christ Jesus, we can let go of our own anger, fears and narcissism. We see everyone as being created in the image of God and are loved by God and are expressions of God. Then we stop defending ourselves and defend those who desperately need us to. We become a voice for the voiceless, stand up for justice for the persecuted and oppressed, and love the lonely and the broken. When we are resting in God, we realize that Dorothy Day was right when she said, "The final word is love."

Jesus said that we were to, "Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind: and, to love your neighbor as yourself." I honestly think that the reason so many cannot love their neighbors is they cannot love themselves. And they cannot love themselves because they do not honestly believe they are loved or lovable. When we do not feel loved, we cannot love. When we realize that we are, ultimately, beloved of God then we can freely love others, unconditionally and openly just as Christ did. I pray that the Church realizes (not just as mental assent, but on a deeper, more lasting and spiritual level than head knowledge) this love, rests in it, and loves others with it with great joy and abandon.


Monday, November 7, 2016

Liturgy Of The Ordinary: A Must Read Of 2016



Back when I worked in a bookstore, there was the thrill of discovering new writers with distinctive voices and depth to their writing. Certainly this was the case when I came across Lauren F. Winner's Girl Meets God and Kathleen Norris' Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. After reading both of these books, I would thrust them into the hands of anyone I could interest with, "Here! You've got to read this!" And then I eagerly awaited each new work that both of these authors came out with. Though I no longer work in a bookshop, I still love having that excitement when coming across a new author who has something to say and does so beautifully them. This is precisely what I felt reading Tish Harrison Warren's marvelous book entitled Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life whose prose elucidates thoughts I have had but have not yet found own my own words to express them.

My favorite authors (such as Winner, Norris, Annie Dillard, Eugene Peterson) are the ones who are able to make me stop and take notice of those things that I so often in my daily life fail to see and appreciate. There is a sacredness to life that tends to get lost in the frenetic and busyness of our schedules and all that is required of us from our jobs, our families, our friends and activities (not to mention how much time social media and our smart phones take up). The liturgy of the ordinary of which she writes shows how the sacred and the secular are intertwined and that the holy can be found in the mundane and commonplace of all of our lives. 

Theres a Greek word kalchino  which means "to search for the purple fish." These "purple fish" were shellfish that were highly prized for their rich purple dye used by the Greeks. Divers went to the bottom of the sea to try and find these elusive fish. Later on, Greek philosophers would use the term kalchino to mean plumbing the depths of oneself.  This is the same attitude the contemplative has during prayer and lectio divina. What's amazing is how Tish Harrison Warren is able to do this with the overlooked and often forgotten moments of our daily lives (such as the simple but often tiresome task of making a bed) and then translate them to erudite but understandable prose that makes you reframe your perspective. Take how she describes something like the simple pleasure of enjoying a cup of coffee or tea in the chapter entitled Sanctuary and Savoring:

"Pleasure is our deep human response to an encounter with beauty and goodness. In these moments of pleasure - of delight, enjoyment, awe, and revelry - we respond to God impulsively with our very bodies: Yes, we agree! Your creation is very good."

Warren's writing is poetic without being sentimental and cloying: how she writes does not get in the way of what she has to say.  The beauty of the sentences are matched by her profundity, humor, and honesty. This book invites you in, as if you were listening to a close friend in conversation sharing. She's not afraid to admit her flaws and failures and foibles, such as the irritation that builds with attempting to find lost keys.

"I cannot simply will myself to, as Paul says, "do all things without grumbling or disputing" (Phil. 2:14). It's not enough to merely want to be more content or to tell myself to cheer up. I need to cultivate the practice - the habits - of meeting Christ in these small moments of grief, frustration, and anger, of encountering Christ's death and resurrection - this being story of brokenness and redemption - in a small, gray, stir-crazy Tuesday morning." 

I read that sentence and hollered, "Comrade!"

Ever since Brother Lawrence wrote Practicing the Presence of God in the 17th century, many writers have covered the holiness found in the quotidian aspects of our day-to-day lives, but Warren makes the material her own and brings her own fresh insights to a subject some might think has been mined enough. She writes in a way that anyone in there busy, hurried, frenetic and distracted lives can breathe, find a moment of stillness to read her compassionate and transforming words so that we stop and become more attentive to those moments we tend to give little awareness but form the days that define our lives. Warren helps us to see our lives as God sees them: multiple ways to worship Him (from laundry to raising kids to working at our jobs). To see all of this as vocation that ultimately has eternal impact. 

"Ordinary love," she writes, "anonymous and unnoticed as it is, is the substance of peace on earth, the currency of God's grace in our daily life."

We need writers like her to remind us of these truths, to reframe our fragmented days into infinite worth because our Creator does. Our lives are the liturgy. This means that they are filled with the mystery as well as the mundane. 

Liturgy of the Ordinary is the kind of book where the reader doesn't want to rush through it all slap-dash to get finished, but one where you want to savor and meditate on each chapter.  

This book, which releases in December 2016, would make a great gift (to oneself or to a friend or family member) as well as a great choice for any book club. It will definitely make it to my best of 2016 list.


Tish Harrison Warren's official site:




Sunday, November 6, 2016

Spiritual Soundtracks


Music has a huge impact in all of our lives. We can hear a song and it reminds us of a time and a place and a person. Songs can be healing or hurting depending on the memory that we connect to it. I can be sitting in one place, hear a song playing, and be completely transported to another one, in another time. There are songs that remind me of times in my life or of people who have been in it but are no longer here. Music creates soundtracks for our lives. They also can provide the soundtracks to our spiritual lives as well. I know that throughout my own life there have been singers and albums that have had huge impacts on my faith and shaped my theological perspectives. 

As a child who grew up in the 1970's, it was albums and a stereo system. My parents had a large and diverse record collection. Everything from the music they grew up with to Broadway musicals to Country to jazz to what was currently on the radio. I remember hearing lots of gospel and Christian music: everything from Second Chapter of Acts to Andrea Crouch to Keith Green. While those were the Christian singers of my parents, the first one I felt was truly my own and had the biggest impact on me was Amy Grant. First off, I'll admit it, I had a huge crush on her. I remember getting her albums as presents, starting with My Father's Eyes. It was for the Christmas of 1982, though, that I got the record that I remember best: Age to Age. The song most of us know off this album was her recording of Michael Card's "El Shaddai." This would be one I would love hearing her sing, but would suffer hearing other girls sing badly in Christian talent shows. My favorite song off this album was "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" written by a singer / songwriter who would have the biggest impact on my faith, Rich Mullins. 


When Amy toured for her album Unguarded, Rich would be her opening act. I saw this tour, but only remember her. As I grew up, I continued to love her work, especially her very raw and vulnerable album Lead Me On, the title track is my favorite song that she's ever recorded.  "Faithless Heart" addresses her own spiritual and marital struggles in a moving and deeply personal way. 

When I think about the Christian music of my youth, Amy Grant is always the first one who comes to mind. She would take hits from Christians over the years (including this year when LifeWay said they wouldn't be carrying her latest Christmas album because it wasn't "Christian enough." but I won't get started on that). Even now, she continues to be an example of me of someone who has success but has handled it with humility and grace and compassion.

"My experience," she once said, "is that people who have been through painful, difficult times are filled with compassion." 

That statement is deadly accurate of my next choice: Rich Mullins. 


No one in music (Christian or otherwise) has had as big an impact on my life and my faith as Rich Mullins. I see him as both poet and prophet, which can be a lonely place to be because both often say the things we don't want to hear or show us things we don't want to see. My first exposure to his music was not through him, but, as I wrote before, through Amy Grant's recording of his "Sing Your Praise to the Lord." I guess, like many, though, I would become aware of Rich through his anthem "Awesome God." The first album I owned by Rich was his Never Picture Perfect, which accurately describes not only him, but all of us. The song that stood out to me and continues to resonate ever since I first heard it in 1989 is "The Love of God." From its opening lines of, "There's a wideness in God's mercy / I cannot find in my own" I found myself blown away by the sheer honesty of his lyrics. Rich was the first singer I had ever heard record music about his struggles, his failures and his flaws, but that it ultimately came down to the grace of God. The image of God's love being "a reckless, raging fury" is one that has never left me. 

It's his 1993 album A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band that was a spiritual Sergeant Pepper for me. It was like no other Christian album I had ever heard. From "Creed" inspired by the Nicene Creed to "Peace (A Communion Blessing from St. Joseph's Square)" to the "Hold Me Jesus," Rich's poetry and honesty cut deep. I had never heard anyone (in music or otherwise) admit:

Well, sometimes my life just don't make sense at all
When the mountains look so big 
And my faith just seems so small

And yet I needed to. In the Church or my own home, there had never been an allowance for questioning or struggles or doubt. Rich was the first one to teach me that not only was this okay, but it was a part of true spiritual growth. "Closeness to God," Rich once admitted, "is not about feelings, closeness to God is about obedience . . . I don't know how you feel close to God. And no one I know that seems to be close to God knows anything about those feelings either. I know if we obey occasionally the feeling follows, not always, but occasionally. I know if we disobey we don't have a shot at it."

Along with doubt, Rich also taught me about social justice. His concerts were not only filled with his music, but with his wisdom. "Christianity," he said, "is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken." This statement would drive me back to my Bible to reevaluate, especially since our family was attending a Word of Faith church that was espousing exactly the opposite of this. Indeed, I found Rich far closer to the gospel than that church, where they had ushers seating doctors and lawyers at the front and the poor in the back. The more I studied scripture, the more I could see that God had a heart for the oppressed, the outsider, the forgotten, and those on the fringe of society. I began to see that the way of Christ is not a scrambling to climb up the ladder but a downward climb to be with those Jesus most identified with; the poor, the lonely, and the sojourner. And Rich lived this out: leaving success and Nashville behind to teach music to Navajo children on a reservation in New Mexico.

Rich also introduced me, like many others, to the writing of Brennan Manning, whose book The Ragamuffin Gospel. I would even be fortunate enough to attend one of his weekend retreats. Reading that book brought me to tears, especially when I read, "My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it." Wow! I had never heard that. Ever. In Church or outside its walls. I had grown up believing we had to earn the love of God. As a child I head that "God loved good girls and boys" and felt the pressure to earn His attention or affection for fear that He would withdraw it and I could easily and eternally be lost. Not a pleasant way to grow up as a kid. The message of grace was a much needed one and it began a slow process to, "Define yourself radically as one beloved of God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion" (Brennan Manning, Abba's Child: the Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging).


The last album Rich ever wrote, he never got to record because he was killed when his Jeep flipped over. His band, the Ragamuffins, would record what became known as The Jesus Record. Like all of Rich's music, it was filled with his unflinching honesty, his questions, and, ultimately, his dependence on the grace of God. "I would rather live on the verge of falling and let my security be in the all-sufficiency of the grace of God than to live in some pietistic illusion of moral excellence. My faith isn't in the idea that I am more moral than anybody else. My faith is in the idea that God and His love are greater than whatever sins any of us commit."

There never has been nor will there ever be another Rich Mullins and the world is all the less for it.


Lastly, is the singer / songwriter whose music and witness has picked up where Rich left off - Sara Groves. I first became aware of her with her hit song "The Word" released in 1999 on the album Conversations. Yet it was the songs that didn't make the airwaves that I connected with. Songs like "Painting Pictures of Egypt" (a song that's chorus starts off with, "I've been painting pictures of Egypt and leaving out what it lacks / The future feels so hard and I wanna go back") to "Cave of Adullam" (where, like David, she calls out for God to speak to her in a place of loneliness and depression).  She would add to the depth and beauty of her songwriting skills with her next to albums All Right Here and The Other Side of Something.

In 2005, she released Add to the Beauty, an album that she said focused on the concept that, "God has invited us, as mere human beings, to add to the beauty of his plan and creation." With her title song, Sara sings in the chorus, "And I want to add to the beauty / To tell a better story / I want to shine with the light / That's burning up inside."

Isn't that what God has called us to do? It always amazes me when I look about at His wondrous creation that He has invited us to be co-creators so that our art and our lives might glorify Him. Her song tells of how this is done in "loving community" and "helping a soul find worth." That is something I aspire to in my daily life with all I come in contact with. I love how she expresses it as, "This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful / This is grace, an invitation." What a lovely image: grace as an invitation, a welcoming, to be beautiful and that God is inviting us to "add to the beauty."  Each day I challenge myself to do this, to move beyond myself and my needs to the needs of others to be seen and heard and loved. Each night, before I go to bed, I ask myself: Did I? Did I invite someone in to grace by my words or actions?

"Loving a person just they way they are," Sara sings, "it's no small thing." I love the truth she expresses about the need but also the struggle that comes with loving other people. Listening to her, you know that she is speaking from her heart in her songs.

There's a lot of pain in reaching out and trying
It's a vulnerable place to be
Love and pride can't occupy the same spaces baby
Only one makes you free

Like Rich Mullins, Sara Groves is vulnerable in her songs. She writes about the struggles of not only faith, but in marriage and parenting. Yet her music never comes across as defeatist or cynical, but trusting in hope. Add to the Beauty is filled with songs that are a combination of loving and thoughtful. There's an intimacy to her voice that draws the listener in and causes a deeper connection with Sara as more than an artist but as a person. That's rare in music, especially the commercial driven music that fills the radio, including Christian radio. When one listens to such stations, one cannot help but lament the sameness of the worship music that they play. While I can get swept into a worship song like "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail Me)," I cannot help but think how Rich Mullins would never have been welcome there just as artists like Sara Groves, Andrew Peterson, Audrey Assad, and Sandra McCracken (among others) are not played on them today. These songwriters, like the Psalmists, create art that not only glorifies God but presents the whole gamut of the spiritual journey (the valleys as well as the mountaintops, the belief and the doubt). It seems to me, that Christian radio is the lesser for not allowing such artists on their airwaves because it gives those listening the false sense that there are no struggles in belief. I cannot write about the number of times that music by Rich Mullins or Sara Groves has spoken to the place where I was, spiritually, in my life and made me feel less alone and more understood.


Certainly I deeply connected with Sara's next album Tell Me What You Know. This album moved beyond just the personal spiritual path to one that is drawn to making a difference in the world, one with more of a heart for social justice. This was no more clearer than in her song "In The Girl There's A Room." This is the song that introduced me to the work done by Gary Haugen and International Justice Mission. After hearing it, I went to our local library and checked out Haugen's book Terrify No More. It opened my eyes to the horrific world of human trafficking, particularly sexual trafficking. I would go on to read more of his books like Just Courage and The Locust Effect. In Just Courage: God's Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, I was cut to the quick by this passage:

Jesus asks parents to make yet another choice. Are we raising our children
to be safe or to be brave? Are we raising our children to be smart or
to be loving? Are we raising them to be successful or to be significant?
How does God raise his children? In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis
made an observation that is worth lingering over. "Love," Lewis wrote, 
"is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness . . . Kindness
merely as such cares not whether its object becomes good or bad,
provided only that it escapes suffering." My vulnerabilities as a parent
are such that sometimes I simply want my kids to escape suffering.
But if I keep them completely safe, they will never have the chance
to be truly good or truly brave. Is that what I want?

Reading those words, I had to ask myself, "Is that what I really want for my two sons?" It's a tough question, as a parent, to ask oneself. The path of faith is never one of safety but of selflessness and servanthood. "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me," Jesus asks and, do I want my kids, to turn away with, "That's too hard" or "That's too scary" or "No thanks, I prefer safety and comfort." What do they see me doing in my own life?

This is further repeated in the song "When the Saints" in which she begins, "Lord I have a heavy burden of all I have seen and know its more than I can handle" and she makes a connection between Paul and Silas in prison to the work of the Underground Railroad, the missionary work done by the Eliot family after he was murdered by the tribe he went to witness to, the work of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and the work that men like Gary Haugen are doing for IJM rescuing girls from sexual trafficking. And how, like these saints, she wants to be one of them making a real difference for Christ in this world.

The song that caused a change in the life of my family and I was her haunting "I Saw What I Saw" about her trip to Rwanda and seeing the aftereffects of the genocide. For us, when Sara sings:

Your pain has changed me
Your dreams inspire
Your face a memory
Your hope a fire
Your courage asks me what I'm afraid of
(What I am made of)
And what I know of love

These words resonated with us in regards to orphans and adoption. When we were first considering international adoption, we found ourselves overwhelmed by fear (a large part of that was in regards to the financial cost of adoption which is high), but Sara's words, "Your courage asks me what I'm afraid of" challenged us. Compared to the reality and fear hat orphans around the world face in their daily existence, what was our fears in comparison? What were we made of? How can we claim to love Christ if we weren't acting in that love when we were so clearly called to adopt?  And how could we not respond to show what we know of love to a child who has never experienced love, either that of the parent or God, before?

Whenever we started to doubt, "I Saw What I Saw" both encouraged and compelled us to not waiver and give up.  After we adopted and with all of the struggles that comes with that, it was her song "Miracle" off the album Invisible Empires that resonated. My adopted son struggled in school with behavioral issues that stemmed from fear and the inability to communicate with anyone, as he didn't speak any English. At first, he could not get through a single week of school without being suspended. One morning, before school, I just drove him around in my car and prayed for him. When I put on music to shuffle on my iPod, it was "Miracle" that first played. The opening lines are:

Lay down your arms
Give up the fight
Quiet our hearts for a little while

I prayed those words for my son. I prayed that he would feel a sense of peace that day and not feel the need to react and act out fearful aggression. I prayed that his heart would be quieted. As I prayed, her calm soothing voice singing, calmed him. The anxious rocking ceased and he listened to her voice, even though he didn't understand her words. That was one of the first good days he had at school. Even now, almost four years later, I cannot hear that song without thinking of that morning.


I love the sensitivity and wisdom of Sara's music. All of her experience has culminated into the masterful album Floodplain. This record is the most profound of her career. It is not only the most emotionally personal but also the most spiritually deep. Listening to this record is like sharing an intimate conversation with a close friend. Each of the songs off this album connects with me in a penetrating way. Like Sara, I am at a place in my spiritual journey where I am looking for something richer and of greater scope than the language of my "Native Tongue." This blog started as a part of that desire to connect with the more ancient ways of the Christian Church (stripping bare what I believe to ask, "Who is God? Who is Christ? Why do I believe what I believe? And to discover the width and breadth and depth of the Church and doctrine). As she sings:

Looking for a language that is older still
The taproot of a living Word
Resonating echoes of an Eden song
Waiting to be heard

For me, those words were connected to my own reading of the words in Jeremiah:

Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is,
and you will find your soul (6:16).

That's where I am on my spiritual journey and is the starting point for this blog and my searching. 

All of these singers have been instrumental in the shaping of my own faith, how I view the world, how I view the Church and finding a way to trust God and living life fully aware. Their music has inspired and challenged and comforted me. To each of these artists I am sincerely grateful and thankful for the gifts they share with us by using their talents to minister, to glorify God, and to touch the lives of those who listen.

These are just three examples of  the spiritual soundtrack of my life. What is yours? I would love to hear from you about yours.


Official websites of the artists mentioned:


Amy Grant


Sara Groves