Sunday, December 29

What I Read in 2013

This was a sabbatical year, a teaching year, a traveling year, a shifting year.  This was the year of the guest room, the church plant, the identity shift.  In this year reading pushed me through the hard and in the end I found that I read (even) less fiction, more vision casting words and I discovered Barbara Brown Taylor. 

My List
  1. The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life by Parker J. Palmer
  2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  3. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
  4. Love Does by Bob Goff
  5. Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids by Kara Powell and Chap Clark
  6. Hearing Her Voice:  A Case for Women Giving Sermons by John Dickson
  7. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
  8. John for Everyone, Pt. 1 by N.T. Wright
  9. Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth by Thomas Ashbrook
  10. The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse by Michael Gungor
  11. Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace by Jan Johnson
  12. Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community by  Enuma Okoro
  13. John for Everyone, Pt. 2 by N.T. Wright
  14. Greater: Dream Bigger, Start Smaller, Ignite God's Vision for Your Life by Steven Furtick
  15. Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community by Christopher Heuertz
  16. Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table by Shauna Niequist
  17. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
  18. A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver
  19. Undaunted: Daring to Do What God Calls You To Do by Christine Caine
  20. Wonderstruck: Awaken to the Nearness of God by Margaret Feinberg
  21. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  22. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  23. A Praying Life by Paul Miller
  24. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  25. The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard
  26. Kingdom Journeys: Rediscovering the Lost Spiritual Discipline by Seth Barnes
  27. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
  28. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  29. A Reason for God by Timothy Keller
  30. The Burning Word: A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash by Judith Kunst
  31. When God is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor
  32. Wonderstruck (again) by Margaret Feinberg
  33. The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer
  34. The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning
  35. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters by David Kinnaman
  36. Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen
  37. The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities by S. Christopher Smith
  38. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright
  39. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl
  40. Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism by Carl Medearis
  41. The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith
  42. Signature Sins: Taming our Wayward Hearts by Michael Mangis
  43. Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture by Brandon Hatmaker
  44. Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay
  45. The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon 
  46. The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken by Naomi Zacharias
  47. Stitches: A Handbook of Meaning, Hope and Repair by Anne Lamott
  48. Unexpected Gifts (again) by Christopher Heuertz
  49. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

My favorites

Love Does by Bob Goff:  Seriously, let's stop standing around preaching love and just do it.  This was the most fun I'd had reading a book in a long time.

Abundant Simplicity by Jan Johnson:  A book is good when it inspires me to scour bookseller websites looking for similar reads.  It's the first I've read from Jan Johnson and I enjoy her easy writing.  This is one you read "in the midst" of activity.  Don't read it in preparation for simplicity.  Read it when you most need to make the adjustment.

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist:  Shauna obviously wrote out of who she is in this one.  Insightful and warm run-on sentences -- just the way I like her.  I always love to write after I read her.

Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor: Here's a tip: if you have any of her books abiding on your "to-read" shelves for years like I did, pull them off, sit down and read them.  Don't delay.  You will literally feel your heart grow.

The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard:  He's well respected for a reason.  I'm so glad he lived and gave us such wonderful insight. So honored to have finally read some of it.

The Burning Word by Judith Kunst:  This book was my summer practice, my sabbatical read.  It was with me when everything fell.  It inspired a sermon.  It and its practices was new water for my dying soul.

Compassion by Henri Nouwen:  When I wanted to cease thinking, cease growing, cease loving people I, of course, had to do the opposite. I had to move into the act of "suffering with."  And I had to teach others how to do it. Nouwen held my hand and showed me the way.

Unexpected Gifts by Christopher Heuertz:  I've read it twice now.  Once for me, once for the community we're building that needs to hear this message so we don't make the mistakes that sideswiped us all.  So we can learn to see the unexpected gifts of struggles and dissonance and not force each others hands.  Community really is everything.

Sunday, December 15

Third Sunday of Advent

Tonight we are halfway through the season of Advent. Being just a month, it feels like a pretty quick sprint.

Two weeks ago we lit the first candle, the Prophet's Candle or the Candle of Hope and we considered how even just a little light chases away the darkness.  How we, like the prophets, sit in this middle space between what God has done in sending Christ the first time and what he will do in sending him again.

As we relight the first candle we read another prophecy of Jesus spoken of in Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Last Sunday we lit the second candle, the Bethlehem Candle or the Candle of Promise and we considered how God's promises were kept in the coming baby in Bethlehem -- the ruler over Israel, the shepherd of his flock, strong and majestic who secures life for us. (Micah 5)

Prophecies aren't just predictions, they're promises from God himself. Jeremiah 3 tells us of one such promise:

5“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
and he shall reign as king and deal wisely,
and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.
And this is the name by which he will be called:‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

And now, already, we're halfway through.  In this season when we all have pushed through our own stories -- the end of semesters, the frigid cold, the shock in these last days -- have we also been pushing into the hope and the promises of God in this season? The year is ending and celebrations are impending.  Are we just pushing through, or pushing into?

It's a bit of a balancing act to walk through a season in both a state of reflection and celebration. And we feel that tension tonight. We've had food and drink and conversation. The white elephant gifts and the cookies and desserts are patiently waiting. But first we're reflecting, because without the reflection, the celebration is shallow. We don't do the reception without the wedding; the wedding gives us the substance for the reception. The reflection gives us the reason for the party.

So it seems to be the perfect night to talk about joy and, traditionally, this third candle is the Shepherd's Candle or the Candle of Joy.

Joy is a bit of an unnatural thing. We know the state of our world, of the hearts of people. We see what we do to one another -- and sometimes it seems there's no good reason to feel joy. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the slaughter of the children in Connecticut. It's only been a year. Friday was the shooting at Arapahoe High School.  In our neighborhood. We are not far from darkness. 

Somehow in order to breathe, to persevere, through the darkness we live in we need something to be the guide. And that's what I think joy is for us. I don't think it ever strays too far beyond reach. In the middle of contentment joy is there out loud, like paint on the walls. But in the middle of trial, it's there, hidden, padding the floor where we lie down in grief. Deep and steady and settled.

Having a sense of joy is somehow attached to our sense of something greater than ourselves. In short, joy is the steady push toward trust in God. Which means that it doesn't always have to be happy, just thankful or hopeful. It isn't something we reasoned into being, it is something we express through faith.

I looked to the scriptures to ask, "Am I far off? Does it seem to say that joy is not happiness, that it is more present than we acknowledge?" And here is what the scriptures told me: Joy is our strength (Neh 8:10), it is God's presence with us (Ps. 16:11), it is an apt answer (Pr. 15:23), it is justice done (Pr. 21:15), it is a gift from God (Ecc 2:26), it is the perfection of beauty (in the city of Jerusalem) (Lam 2:15), it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22).

My definition came a little clearer and a little wider.  Yes, it is a steady push toward trust in God, that is our action in pursuing it.  But in feeling joy I have to say that it is a finely sharpened pleasure or trust. I feel joy when I sense that what is right is what is happening.

The shepherds experienced this joy. Luke 2:8-20:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
The two hours I had to wait on Friday was long. My son called me from inside his school. He was the first to tell me of the shooting, my son who was in a neighboring school now in lock out. While we talked, I was first alarmed and then calmed that I would have all three of them back that day. But I had to wait to make the family right again.

Imagine waiting hundreds of years before things would be made right, before a promise would be fulfilled. Before a voice would be heard crying in a stable. Before my sons were present with me again. When we finally get what we're waiting for, we hug it so tightly and cry tears of joy. Tears of joy is an appropriate response when in a moment of tension, things are made right.

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
Glorifiying and praising God for making good on a promise that had been repeated for centuries is an appropriate response. The singing and the shouts are a fitting reply. The receiving of guests and gifts and banquets and dinners and celebrations are how we welcome that which is now our right reality.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Contemplation is an appropriate response to joy. When that which you've trusted in guides you into fulfillment, stepping back and considering how that story emerged is right. And the shepherds' final response was to take their experience back to their home and share their joy with others, because joy isn't something that happens to us but something we carry with us.  And, in the darkness, maybe it's the something greater that actually carries us and tells us that all things will be made right.

But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.  - 1 Peter 4:13

His glory came in that newborn baby. It's time for Joy.

Blessing:May the God who gives you a hope and a promise, give you joy as you follow him in ever brightening days and may you seek to join him in making all things right and spread his joy in strength and justice and beauty.

Thursday, December 5

Ere Long Gaudete*

When my oldest was small and grew frantic about himself, I would wrap my arms around him and hold him fixed and give him time to agree with stillness.

And when I let go of his arms he breathed free from all the self-imposed frustration over people and expectations and self -- a toe-headed leader in 5T shorts newly able to direct his emotions toward meaningful things.

Today, I felt that relief.  When the snow came again, winter white hug from God, it stilled my soul. I quickly accepted the closeness, content to wane, and halted in order to receive.

There, waiting for me to grab hold again, was joy. 

When I watched the cold blanket fall and the inches build up against the stoop, I submitted to the Almighty agenda.  And I grew straight instead of scattered.  Because when I stick with his presence I stay the course of joy.

I remember, right after our world spun out of orbit, that there was a beautiful day when I had peace that was truly beyond my understanding.  For that one day I felt like a visiting sojourner in a place of contentment and faith and knowing; it was beautiful and light and welcome.  Rightly judged, in the following days I was back in the stampede toward grief and pain.  When I asked a friend to suggest what that day of peace was even about she said, "Sometimes God gives us glimpses of what wholeness will look like later."

Today is that later time.  And it isn't cursory.  I've been sitting on it, testing it, seeing if it's fleeting or fast.  It's actually been a succession of days now. A new way of seeing that I've known before.  When we pray so long for wholeness and lightness and satisfaction it feels a tremendous gift when it gallops back over after months afield in someone else's pasture.  A return of something that was always mine in the first place.  I lay it across my shoulders like the shepherd with a hundred sheep again.

The snow doesn't bring it.  It just reminds me that the joy is here whether I want to live in it or not.  Because we can choose to live outside of joy; to chase it with cheating, snap its hindquarter with the whip of obstinance, spook it with entitlement while it's on a loose rein.  But joy is really ever present even when our attention is given to fear and jealousy -- and people and expectations and self.
"For the one who pleases him, God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy.                              -- Ecclesiastes 2:26
Like all gifts, we receive it. When we open up our hands to joy we get wisdom and knowledge too.  And wisdom says that this is my right way to go: engage the meaningful work in front of me, be present with the small son finally reading, love the new church growing in my living room, light the advent candles, cherish the husband and be still.

I let it fall around me, everywhere, grateful for each flake.  Carefully designed to be my liturgy of joy.


*Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus                          Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!                                            
(Out) Of the Virgin Mary — rejoice!
Tempus adest gratiæ                                                  The time of grace has come—
Hoc quod optabamus,                                                  what we have wished for,
Carmina lætitiæ                                                          songs of joy
Devote reddamus.                                                       Let us give back faithfully.

......linking up with shelovesmagazine LinkUP: Joy

Sunday, December 1

First Sunday of Advent

Tonight we begin our Collective.  I have the honor of giving the first words.  It seemed appropriate to leave them here as a marker, a remembrance of a first moment.  There will be moments for dialogue, silence and light. Thanks be to God.

It is fitting that we are beginning tonight. That we are beginning a community on the day when traditionally the church begins its new year called Advent. The Jewish New Year, the High Holidays Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were in September.  The secular New Year is coming, and the academic new year is well underway. 

We mark these special days with special celebrations. The Jews celebrate by blowing the shofar and casting off what's left in their pockets. We all celebrate our calendar New Year in Times Square or Paris with champagne and fireworks and kisses at midnight. In August or September we begrudgingly celebrate with new notebooks and routines and maybe coffee to get the brain working.

Tonight we celebrate Advent with light. We are now in a season of darkness. The leaves are fallen, the time change is behind us. We are well into the season of sleep and rest, of hard freezes and snow and are are fast approaching the longest night of the year, just days before Christmas. It is fitting to celebrate Advent with light.

This is a traditional symbol of Advent: a wreath of greenery with four candlesticks surrounding one pillar candle in the center. In the northern hemisphere the wreath is evergreen, which reminds us that we are eternal beings, that we are no longer without life in us. The circle is a symbol of eternal life, God's unending love, or even the long time when people lived in darkness waiting for the coming Messiah, the light of the world.

And then there is the light. In Advent, candle light is our symbol of hope. The use of light reflects what Luke’s gospel says about the advent of Christ:
Luke 1: 78-79 ‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Advent means, “coming.” We progressively light the candles, one each week as a way to mark the passage of time while we wait for the advent of Christ at Christmas. We come together in these weeks before Christmas as a way of expressing our anticipation for what God will do, and to give a faith-filled expression that we believe not only did he come the first time as a babe in a manger, as a suffering servant, as a teacher, a savior, a redeemer and risen Lord – but that he will come again to rescue and redeem everything.

Advent finds us caught in that middle place. We have seen the work of God and we are looking forward to that work completed.

The candles in the wreath have meanings that differ depending on the tradition you journey from. The colors may be purple and rose or blue. Ours are white, purely out of preference, because white seems to be a color of hopeful expectation, but maybe it means something different to you. The focus is not on the candles, but on Christ who is our light.

The candles for us won't stray from the traditional meanings: all are geared to unfold the story of redemption through the coming of Jesus. The first is the Prophet's Candle or the Candle of Hope.

“The prophets were people who stood on the borders between heaven and earth, between our present time and God's future time. They came to know God so well (a very painful experience, as some of them discovered) that they could discern the shape of his plan: to rescue the world through the sufferings of his chosen one, his anointed, the Messiah."

“They knew that God had more grace coming – grace that would rescue people from where and what they had been, and would give them a wonderful, glorious new destiny and hope.” (N.T. Wright)

There are over 300 prophecies from the Old Testament that point us to Jesus and that we can actually see him fulfilling in the gospel narratives. Tonight we'll just read one from Isaiah 60:1-6:
1 Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
3 And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
4 Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lor

Isaiah gives us both of the stories, both the darkness and the light. And he describes – this is what it will look like when the light comes. He had a foot in both worlds and knew this is what we need and this is what it will look like when our needs are met.  But we can't rush right to the light. We wouldn't even want to unless we were made aware of our darkness.

When we come into Advent we are confronted with darkness.
No candles are lit yet.  We are still sitting in it.

What would be exposed in your life if light were to hit it? That you are only concerned with your immediate interests? That you believe you are somehow unfit to carry hope for the future? That you live under a suffocating blanket of doubt regarding faith? That really as close as we are, we’re strangers and you don't really want to know what it means to be a good neighbor? That you tell yourself untruths about your worth and our identity?

That's the darkness. That's the need. That is actually what the prophets spent much of their time exposing. They knew the light was coming and they said, “Knowing this, do you still want to hang onto that?”  What would the prophets speak to you?

In the passage in Luke the darkness is chased away by the tender mercies of God.

In the passage from Isaiah the darkness is chased away when a great community of people gather together around the unifying Lord.

What would chase away your darkness? What would light look like for you? [Light the Candle]   Would tender mercies look like a friend who could listen and help you sort out your true self, from your false self? Would it look like being freed from addiction and temptation by the renewing of your mind? Would it look like a progressive movement toward character and away from just trying to be good? Would it look like a chance to be a part of a great community, perhaps this one, that walks together toward the light of Christ? Would it look like drawing more deeply into love, more deeply into trust?

What do you need to hear from God, what do you need Jesus to be to chase away that darkness?

God doesn't leave us in darkness.  While he meets us where we're at and loves us in spite of all things we've said and done and been, he continually moves us into light.  When he created the world, it all began in darkness and because God has always been, he somehow was there existing in that darkness, just as he is with you in yours. 

But he also began by giving light.  And then in the next act of creation he diffused the atmosphere and condensed the water down into ocean so that light could be more clearly seen.  And then on the fourth day he created the sun, moon and stars... a little more light, and a little more and then some more. It doesn't take much to dispel darkness, but God does more than push it aside.  He overcomes it. 

John 1:1-5
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

In John's passage, what chases away the darkness that existed before the creation of the world is the Word, the God that made all things, the God that came to the world as the light of men offering life.  Jesus is what light looks like.

We gather here tonight not to count down the days before Christmas, but to enter into life with Christ. We don't participate in the “coming” of Christ as spectators, but as those who, like the prophets, live with one foot in the world and one in the kingdom of God. We don't come and say, “Come, Lord Jesus and take us straightaway to peace” instead we say, “Come, Lord Jesus and end our darkness.”

You go tonight in the way the prophets did, knowing what God has done, and knowing what he wants to do. You go knowing that God has more grace coming – grace that can rescue you from where you've been and what you've done and grace that will give you a wonderful new destiny and hope.

Community Prayer:
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. 
Captivated by the darkness, we ignore your glowing ember. 
Intimidated by the glare, we hide from your warmth. 
Confused by the shadows, we misunderstand your vision. 
Compelled by the light, we embrace your promise. 
Jesus, source of light, remind us again that you burn and beckon in our darkness, even here, even now. 
Come, Lord Jesus. End our darkness.
Ending Blessing:
By the tender mercy of our God, may the dawn from on high break upon us, to give light to we who sit in darkness and to guide our feet into the way of peace.