Reading List: August and September

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Moving and gripping story. I found the author's voice a little distracting toward the end, but finished the book very inspired by Bonhoeffer's example.

The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss

Best fantasy book I've read in several years. Like Gene Wolfe meets Lloyd Alexander. Short chapters, quick pacing. Almost impossible to put down. This is a story about stories, about how legends are made ... told from a first-person point of view.

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 2) by Patrick Rothfuss

A follow-up to The Name of the Wind. Follows the hero, Kvothe, as he takes a year off of school and throws his legend-making into high gear. Awkward in some places, but left me wanting more.

Welcoming the Stranger by Matt Soerens and Jenny Hwang

Another excellent book on the immigration conversation from a Christian perspective. A bit dated (the conversation shifted recently), but helpful nonetheless. I was really moved by their work with the Exodus narrative.

Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters by Tom Wright

Wonderfully written, easy-to-read and insightful commentary on Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Perfect devotional read.

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson

No one speaks to my soul like Peterson. I find his challenge to be "unbusy" phenomenally challenging. I keep coming back to these books over and over again (This is one of four books he wrote for pastors).

In Progress:
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Luke by Justo Gonzalez

*I also had the opportunity to write a reader report for an in-progress book contracted by InterVarsity Press. I can't review the book here since I'm an anonymous reporter and the book is still being edited. That said, the book is going to be terrific and I'm really grateful to help out my favorite publisher.

Prayer is no small thing

Somedays, all you can do is pray.

Maybe you don't have the resources to help.
Maybe you're not invited.
Maybe you don't know what to say.
Or think.
Or do.

Maybe you don't have the time.
Maybe you don't have the energy.
Maybe you don't have the patience.

But prayer is no small thing.

I often feel guilty when prayer is my only option. I feel like I should be doing more. If I'm honest with myself, I feel like I should be doing something real. Even though my theology says that prayer is real, it doesn't always feel real.

"Prayer is no small thing" I keep telling myself.

Jesus prayed and calls on his disciples to pray. The church throughout history has prayed, prayed in tough situations, tougher than anything I or my community has ever gone through. God's people will always pray. Prayer is a distinguishing mark of the people of God.

Prayer is no small thing. Which is why you should pray.

Short prayers. Long prayers.
Desperate prayers. Expectant prayers.
Prayers filled with mountain-moving faith.
And prayers for faith to keep praying.Quiet and loud prayers.
Liturgical prayers and prayers that bubble up inside you.
Prayers offered up in community.
In solitude.
For prayer is no small thing.

What does prayer look like for you? What makes it tough? What makes it worth doing?

Fight Another Day

You turn and you run to get away
To live and to fight Another Day
But I don't know
If you should go
Today may be Another Day

How do you decide when the time is right to fight?

A Plan for a Retreat Day

Yesterday, I wrote about my decision to take a retreat day ... and all the hesitations that come with that decision. [You can read that post here: Better to Retreat than Collapse].

But when I finally overcome those hesitations and schedule a retreat day, how do I make the most of it? You may be wondering the same thing. You may want to take a retreat day, but not know what to do.

Here's what yesterday looked like for me ...

Set an alarm. This is a work day, not a day off.

Get out of the house. Brush your teeth, take a shower, eat breakfast, pack your bag, kiss your wife/kid/dogs and leave. There are too many distractions at home. You need to get away from chores and television and the internet. Those things are good, just not on a retreat day.

Unplug. Turn off the phone. Don't plan on answering e-mail.

Go to a neutral location. Go to a place where your work won't come looking for you.

Start the day with centering prayer. Centering prayer is the prayer of non-performance. Find a comfortable but not too comfortable place to sit. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. And sit in the presence of God. Don't praise God. Don't confess sin. Don't ask God for help. Don't thank God for his goodness. There's a time for all that praying. Centering prayer just involves sitting with God. It's a prayer of presence, not of performance.

I start my retreat days with centering prayer because so much of my ministry-life requires production and performance, creativity and initiative. My non-productive side, my dependent side, my just-to-be-with side flattens over time. And centering prayer re-rounds it out.

Engage in reflective journaling. I use this model during my retreat days: Back, In, Around, Forward. I look over my shoulder, in my heart, at the ground around me and off to the horizon. I try to discern what God has been and is doing. I search out thoughts and emotions that have been buried under the avalanche of busyness. For me, this exercise takes 2 hours.

Feast on Scripture. Read a whole chapter or a whole book. At my last retreat day, I read Jonah. Yesterday, I read Ephesians. I circled into the first chapter, covered it in honey and set it to memory. I read it and wrote it and preached it aloud and prayed it. God always does something in me as I feast on his word.

Eat lunch. I always try to find a fun restaurant for retreat day lunches. It's good to take a break from rest-work and not just go back to busy-work. During my regular workdays, I usually work straight through lunch. So stopping for lunch is a nice change. Yesterday, I had a great meal at a local diner and finished a book I had been wanting to read.

Take a nap. Seriously? Seriously. Set an alarm. Sleep for 15-20 minutes. Find the time by limiting your lunch break to 40 minutes. Rest-work can be exhausting.

Spend the afternoon in active, restorative activity. Create something just for you. Write a short story or a poem or a song. Go for a walk in the woods. Learn something new. Do something with your hands. Yesterday, I listened to a couple of church history lectures while making an awesome, from-scratch meal for my family. The work of chopping and measuring and watching and waiting combined with hearing the stories of Erasmus and Luther and thinking through how to apply the lessons from their time to our time ... that was good for me.

Say "Thank you" to God. As your retreat day draws to a close, thank the One who watched over your ministry, even while he watched over you today.

Finish by serving. Do something special for your family or a friend or a neighbor. We retreat so we can come back and serve. We want to come back more generous, more compassionate, more helpful and more holy and more human. Look for a way to help someone as your return from your retreat. God's blessings to us should overflow quickly in blessings for others.

That's it. That's my plan for a retreat day. If you ever take retreat days, what's your plan?

Better to Retreat than Collapse

I decided to take a retreat day today. I've been putting it off for weeks, knowing it was needed but hesitant to take it.

"What will people think of me?" I wondered.

Taking a retreat day looks like a luxury for folks in the working world. My friends work hard: early mornings and late nights. Weekends. Their schedules are set by someone else. My taking a day off to reflect and pray and read ... that's something they would love to do, but can't. So I feel guilty taking a retreat.

Taking a retreat day reveals my weakness, reveals that the work of preaching and praying doesn't come easy to me, that there's strain. There's a part of me that wants to project to the world that my work is effortless, that it's all joy, that it's easy. I don't want them to see me strain, to see me sweat, to see me rest. So I feel embarassed taking a retreat.

Taking a retreat day allows God to confront me with the reality that my drift is to substitute an authentic relationship for him with a working relationship with him. Vocational ministry tempts us to treat our Savior and Lord as our Boss and Paycheck. And retreats force us into uncomfortable places where we're reading without preparing, praying without interceding, growing without performing. Though the correction provided by retreat days puts me back on track with the sort of relationship I want with God, I hate that I need that correction. So I resist taking a retreat.

I find that my tendency is toward busyness. Always going, always doing, always producing, always busy. This path earns respect and protects my ego and allows me to tell a generous story about myself. But this path also leads toward collapse.

Eugene Peterson shares these wise words in his book The Contemplative Pastor:
The word 'busy' is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection.
So, I'm taking a retreat today, with all the guilt and embarassment and resistance that comes with it. Better to retreat than collapse. That's what I keep telling myself.

Community in Tragedy

The best response to tragedy is unity.

As the aftershocks of the terrorists attacks on September 11th rippled across the United States, we all responded by locking arms. We were all New Yorkers. We came together.

Think about great, recent national tragedies: Hurricane Katrina, the shootings at Virginia Tech, September 11th. When these things happen, people pitch in to help. People forget their differences. People show amazing love and compassion and unity.

In the small picture we see this as well. When families tragedies occur, when businesses collapse and cancer appears, when the shadows loom large on the horizon, people come together. At our best, we respond to tragedy by coming together.

What is it about tragedy that tightens the bonds of our community?

For one, I think tragedy puts things in perspective. Our differences seem petty when seen in the light of tragedy. Our squabbles and fights seem less urgent. Our emotions of anger or jealousy all of the sudden feel optional, not necessary, and so get set aside. And when the barriers are removed, we naturally lean in to each other.

I also think that tragedy gives us a feeling of being overmatched. We know we can't stand up to it on our own. Our resources aren't enough. Emotionally, financially, spiritually ... we need help. And so we reach out to others and find them reaching out to us. And this creates community, at least in the short term.

I wonder also if God hasn't made us in such a way that we turn from isolation to community in the face of tragedy. What if there is something buried deeply in the human psyche that longs for deep connection with other people, for union and for unity? In times of peace and comfort, that longing for community gets dulled, muted but the other good and beautiful things that fill this world. But when faced with terror and horror and sadness and tragedy, those diversions are stripped away and our longing for community rises to the surface. We reach out to the people around us. We reach out to God.

As we remember the tragedy of September 11th today, let us continue to come together, to reach out, to connect and care and love.

The best response to tragedy is unity. There's no reason for unity to fade when the shadow of tragedy moves on. Let us come together. Let us stay together. United. How wonderful would that be?

A Little Theology Behind Talking to Strangers

How do you feel about talking to strangers? 

I feel uncomfortable talking to strangers on campus. My mother taught me not to talk to strangers (unless they said our secret password ... which was "jellybean"). I’m sure she meant this only as a childhood precaution. But somehow I carry an awkwardness around strangers into adulthood.

Do you share my awkwardness?

Despite my discomfort, over the years I’ve been blessed by talking to strangers at the start of every new school year. I’m going to do it again this year. And I think you should too.

Here are two theological reasons why …

For New Students
During my first week on campus, Clint and Krista visited my dorm. They welcomed me, gave me snacks and invited me to Small Group. That Small Group led to Urbana and another Small Group and before I knew it, I discovered a compelling calling for my life.

Talking to Clint and Krista was one of my best decisions ever.

The Bible encourages us to talk to strangers. We are reminded of a time when Abraham talked to strangers and they turned out to actually be angels (Check out Hebrews 13 and Genesis 18).

Now, Clint and Krista weren’t angels. And you may not encounter angels this school year. But, in the Bible, God sends out angels as messengers. In fact, the Greek word “angelos” from which we derive the English “angel” actually just means “messenger.” And I believe God may have messengers on campus waiting for you.

What if God sends people your way with a message? They might approach you as strangers. They may have an invitation for you that could change your life.

Does that make it a little more exciting to talk to strangers?

For Returning Students

When I remember my first year on campus, I’m filled with gratitude that Clint and Krista broke through their stranger shyness to talk to me.

Do you have memories of strangers welcoming you to campus?

Throughout the Bible, memory of the past shapes the ethic of God’s community. We remember when we were slaves to sin and so pursue humble relationships. We remember when our people were slaves in Egypt and so extend justice to those who come here from other places. (See Ephesians 2 and Deuteronomy 24)

Do you remember when you were a stranger to campus?

Somebody, somewhere did something to make space for you. What would it look like for you to go and do likewise?

What are your plans to talk to strangers this week?
Why do YOU find yourself wanting to talk to strangers?

Where does sin come from?

I've had great apologetic conversations with students over the years. Every year, I seem to hear this question: "Where does sin come from?"

Think about it.

Christians claim that God created the world and everything in it. Christians claim that God created the world good and very good. But in our day to day lives we experience evil. Where does evil come from?

The basic Christian answer is that evil comes from sin. The world is broken from its foundation because of sin. Sin permeates everything and corrupts all that it touches, giving birth to evil and death.

But where does sin come from?

Tim Keller, a pastor in New York City and an InterVarsity alum, has an excellent reflection on this question over on his website (Click here to listen to Dr. Keller). One quote from his answer always jumps out to me:

My Old Testament professor, Meredith Kline used to say "Sin sprang to life in the heart of Satan. And where God hath shut his holy mouth, I should be afraid to open mine."

This is a spectacular, biblical answer. When we first encounter sin or evil in the biblical narrative, it already exists in Satan. God makes no claim to it and is never seen endorsing it. God always opposes sin. Sin doesn't have its origin in God. Sin sprang to life in the heart of Satan.

This month I've been reading Paradise Lost by John Milton. In this 17th century epic poem, Milton imagines Sin as a character, a woman springing fully-formed from Satan's head. Writing this, Milton linked the Christian narrative to the ancient Greek myths, where Athena is born from Zeus' head. Do you remember that story?

Milton was trying to answer the question about the origin of sin. Where does sin come from? It just leaps into existence. And Lady Sin tells us something about her corrupt Father Satan, just as Athena's wisdom and strategic acumen reveal something about the god Zeus.

For generations answers like these, mythic and narrative answers to the origin of sin, satisfied all (or most) askers. And yet, we don't find these answers satisfying. We feel like there has to be an answer behind the answer. We want there to be something more.

Why are we unsatisfied with the answers we're given?

I have a theory. I'm not sure if it's right. Let me know what you think.

Over the generations we learned to live as if we live in a closed universe, a rational universe, a knowable universe. This philosophy has roots in Christian theology, the "fides quarens intellectum" of Anselm. And this presupposition lies beneath our philosophy of science, which explains why science gets so quirky around the edges of our knowledge base. Talk to quantum physicists and evolutionary biologists and you'll hear brilliant people theorizing at the limits of their ability, straining their powers to grasp that which has yet to be discovered.

There's something beautiful beneath our scientific philosophies.

But there is one (or at least one) presupposition that we make in our pursuit of a deeper and more meaningful understanding of our world: we assume that the whole story is our story.

We assume that we stand at the center of the story, rather than at the center of a set of chapters that include us. Most of us have the humility to admit that we aren't alone in the story or even the main characters in the story. Religious people will point to God or gods or angels. Even the non-religious may include animals and trees. But we assume we have access to the whole story, that our involvement runs throughout.

And according to the biblical story, that's just not true.

There are chapters of the big story that don't mention us. There are whole sections of the story that don't connect with us at all, some where we play on the edges, some where we're referenced but don't appear, some that predate us and some that focus entirely on someone else.

CS Lewis wrestles with this idea toward the end of A Horse and His Boy, when a young man asks a lion for details about his friends fate and past and future:
"'Child,' said the Lion, 'I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.'”
The hard truth about the origins of sin is that it begins in someone else's story, in Satan's story. Though it spills over into our story, through it impacts us deeply, Sin sprang to life a few chapters before our characters appeared. What we know, we learned second-hand.

The question raised in our chapters of the story isn't "Where does sin come from?" but "What will God do about sin?" and "How will humans respond to sin?"

This will have to do until we have an opportunity to read the story in its entirety. At the very least, this gives me peace.

What about you? How do you answer the question: "Where does sin come from?"?