31 December 2008
Some books that might interest you for 2009:
The Plot Against America (Roth). Outstanding novel asking the question what would have happened to America had the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeated FDR just prior to America's entrance into WWII. Written from the perspective of one of America's most influential Jewish thinkers.
Life of Pi. All the rave the last few years. You can't go wrong with this novel. It's a modern Old Man and the Sea/Moby Dick meets Lost. Sort of. There are some great moments in this book. My two favorite . . . both of which I'm using in my book this year (Jesus Feast--shameless plug) . . . 1) The conversation with his three religious leaders (Buddhist, Christian, Muslim) near the beginning of the book--that was interesting. I would have added some different things had I been the spokesperson for Christianity :) 2) His section on fear is brilliant. Overall that's the strength of the book I think. Fear is woven into creation, humanity and how we "cope" is shaped by our ability to be okay with dying. Dying, after all, isn't the worst thing that can happen to us. That will preach!
Writing for Story. If you are a writer or storyteller or preacher or simply want to read about the way in which good stories are constructed, you have to check out Jon Franklin's book. The two short stories included are worth the price of the book alone.
Ultramarthon Man. Not my typical read but I promised my brother (who's becoming a top-notch triathlete) I would read it. Overall, crazy read. You can read it in a day. It's wild. If you love to read about extreme feats, the connection of our physical bodies and spirituality, this is a book you'll enjoy.
Everyman (Roth). There is some adult content (beware). But if that bothers you, don't read half the Old Testament. Roth tells a story like very few. This book is about meaning, narcissism, death, religion, the afterlife, the meaning of God, and family. Powerful story of the "everyman" in American culture and how we cope with mistakes, loss, and death.
Becoming a Dad (James and Thomas). Great book. I absolutely loved it. For any new dads out there (like moi), it is a pastoral guide to finding your voice as a dad and husband in a time of transition.
Out of the Darkness (Rice). Anne Rice's memoir, as memoir's go (one of my favorite genre's), is a decent read. Rice is the author (among other books) of Interview with Vampire. This memoir is essentially about returning to her Roman Catholic roots. Deeply insightful.
Last and perhaps least. If you are really feeling brave, you might want to check out A Theology of Public Life and Soul in Society. Both are highly academic but full of insight, historical perspective and new ideas about plowing ahead as the church struggles with her identity in American culture.
UPDATED: I forgot to mention the leadership analysis book, The Four Colors. It's based on the Birkman test, for leadership guru's out there. I am a lock, stock, and barrel "green" category. Good read. Thanks to my friend John Laster for this book.
The lineup for the next few weeks looks like this:
Acedia and Me (Kathleen Norris--one of my favorite writers on the planet).
The Four Agreements (Ruiz)
Three Cups of Tea (Mortenson and Relin)
Like You'd Understand Anyway (Shephard)
A Mercy (the great Toni Morrison).
What books moved you the last few months?
29 December 2008
The Cowboys suffered a brutal loss to the Eagles yesterday. Besides the Lions, that might have been the biggest story of the day. I thought Romo was going to light them up. Did Jessica make the trip?
I've been doing a good deal of research on the ancient city of Corinth for an upcoming Wednesday Night series Patrick and I are doing from First Corinthians at Rochester Church.
What a fascinating city.
On the "honor and shame" culture of Corinth.
*"Public recognition was more important than facts and where the worst thing that could happen was for one's reputation to be publicly tarnished. In such a culture a person's sense of worth is based upon recognition by other's of one's accomplishments," (B. Witherington). This sounds strangely familiar.
*"To be Corinthianized" was to be immoral and materialistic. Corinth was known for being one of the most competitive cities in all of the Roman Empire. It was the first Greek city to have Roman Gladiator contests.
*Some temple meals were followed by sexual favors by hired women.
And, for some reason, Paul thought this was the urban context in which the Jesus Story could flourish. Who would have guessed that a vibrant, diverse (albeit messy) church could emerge from such a place?
28 December 2008
My brother and sister-in-law are in Australia diving. They are now both certified scuba-divers. Here's a note he sent our family today. Obviously, he's a little braver than me.
P.S. I've attached a photo from one of our dives.
Any other scuba-divers out there?
24 December 2008
Advent reminds us that when God came among us in Jesus, he did not come as a ghost, hologram, vision, or media stunt. He came to us through a teenage girl not properly married. God came to us, not in the pomp and circumstance of royalty, but in the humility of a working class commoner. Jesus was born to a father who worked tirelessly with his hands and a mother who, most would say, wasn’t fit for the task of raising a child, let alone the child upon whom millions would rest their hopes for salvation.
Yet, in contemporary religious
In other circles of Christianity, however, Protestants snicker and scoff at such notions. “They worship Mary. Those people are strange. Why do they spend so much time talking about Mary and not about Jesus?” Part of that observation is fair, but part misses out on what’s really happening in the Jesus Story.
Church tradition teaches us that Mary is the “god-bearer” . . . the theotokos. Mary is literally the one who agrees to bring God into his own world, though it will cost her everything: her fiancé’s trust, her parent’s adoration, and public standing. The story comes to a grand crescendo and for a brief moment pauses, waiting to see what Mary’s answer will be. “You can decide to be a daredevil, a test pilot, a gambler. You can set your book down and listen to a strange creature’s strange idea. You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand. You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body” (Barbara Brown Taylor in Gospel Medicine, 153). This is the meaning of theotokos. Mary is courageous enough to smuggle (tokos) God (theo) into our world.
Even in our modern, technology-driven world, risk-takers are needed. Moms who take great risks for their children. Moms who risk societal shame for the sake of their children’s spirituality. Moms willing to go to great lengths to make sure their children know that it is God— not Caesar, the U.N., the President—who rules our world and invites us into relationship with him.
When mothers commit to this story, the outcomes are unpredictable. Mary could not have known how her son would alter the course of human history. She could not have possibly been able to gage the effect that her spirituality would have on Jesus— the single greatest influencer of spirituality, politics, and man’s search for meaning and for God himself.
I’ve often wondered about the relationship of Jesus’ development to his own parents. We know that Joseph moves to the backstage in Luke and Matthew’s account. Some church historians believe that Joseph died not long after Jesus became an adult. Mary, however, is in the story from beginning to end. One of her other sons, James, would become a pillar of the
If you look twice at Mary’s story, you don’t see a statue planted on someone’s front yard or tucked away in a church sanctuary. Here’s what you see: A young mother, a mere teenager, hovering over her first born. Her other children would come quite normally (thank God!) but her firstborn is different. Angels, visions, visitors all point out that this boy is God’s agent of liberation. If you look close enough you can hear Mary singing over her sleeping child. Joseph is in bed, and she slips into Jesus’ room to remind him who he is, where he comes from. She begins to sing the same song God placed in her heart a few years prior. “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” (Lk. 1).
When we say “yes” to God, he always answers with a resounding and eternal “Yes!” God’s yes to Mary is good news. God takes the messy, mixed, complicated, deep, and true spirituality of Mary and blesses the entire world.
23 December 2008
James McBride wrote a book about his mother, capturing the hearts of many readers. The Color of Water is a tribute to Ruth McBride Jordan who raised twelve children on her own in the Red Hook Housing Projects of Harlem, New York. “As a boy . . . James knew his mother was different. But when he asked about it, she’d simply say, ‘I’m light skinned.’ Later he wondered if he was different, too, and asked his mother if he was black or white. ‘You’re a human being,’ she snapped.’ On another occasion, after a rousing experience in church, James asked his mother if God was white or black. ‘God is a spirit . . . neither. God is the color of water.’”
James’s step-father died when he was fourteen. His biological father— a devout Christian who started the
The Color of Water is the story of his mother’s improbable life—the story of a rabbi’s daughter (she was Jewish ethnically but later became a Bible believing Christian because of the acceptance she experienced in the black community): born in Poland, raised a southerner, abused by the men in her life, only to escape to New York City to make a new life for herself and her children.
In the end, all twelve of her children attended college: they became doctors, lawyers, teachers, and psychologists. From the projects to Harvard, their mother’s eccentric ways and unrelenting love pushed them to seize all that life offered. In retrospect, all of her children now realize their mother’s love was like the power of the moon. “It’s what made the river flow, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, and thus completely ignorable.”
There are two simple reasons why this story captured my heart and imagination the first time I read it. First, it brought back memories of my own mother and her deep commitment to her children.
I am not supposed to be here on planet earth. According to the doctors, prior to my birth, I did not exist. My mother was convinced she was having twins, but her doctor insisted that she was only bringing one child into the world. If you are wondering about the ultra-sound, in the late 1970’s it was still controversial to use this particular modern technology for fear that the procedure could harm baby or mother.
The doctor congratulated both my parents when my twin brother was born thirteen minutes prior to my grand entrance. My dad went into the waiting room to tell everyone and then proceeded to grab a bite to eat at the McDonald’s across the street from the hospital. My brother had already been finger-printed, weighed, and photographed. When my father returned, the doctor (and by now, my mom) had some additional news. “Phil, you have two sons now.”
My mom’s love for me was never less than her love for my sister, Kelly or my brother, Jason. She loved all of her children equally—with disregard for “balance”—she loved us with every fiber of her being. The Color of Water reminded me of my mother’s unwavering love and affection for her children. Lost in the story of James McBride in
The second reason The Color of Water resonated with me is that it reminded of the universal human truth that our mothers are perhaps the single greatest influence on our spirituality and who we believe God is. When I entered kindergarten in
As I look back, I realize that my mother’s love and constant presence (“Is that the right decision?” “Are you telling the whole truth?”) gave me a framework to understand the way in which Scripture describes God. A mother’s love is the seedbed for authentic spiritual connection to the world around us. God knows our thoughts. He loves us unconditionally. God has our name engraved on the palm of his hand. He delights in our lives. He holds us close to his bosom when we are in grief. He weeps for us as a mother hen gathers her chick’s. He will provide food for our belly and clothes for our body—so don’t worry about tomorrow, God will take care of us just as he does the birds of the air. The only way I could dare believe in a God I could not see is because I had a mom whose presence was with me regardless of if we were in close physical proximity together.
I am fully aware that, for men and women who cannot have children or for those who’ve had a difficult relationship with their mother, this is a subject that perhaps conjures unwanted memories. However, in the story of Advent, good news awaits for all who dare to remember the Story.
22 December 2008
Yesterday was Glen's first-ever homecoming to Detroit in his NFL tenure and he did not get to kick in front of friends and family because he was playing perhaps the worst team in NFL history.
That's how bad the Lions are this year.
Their timing couldn't be any worse. We're proud of Glen for sticking to his dream (he used to kick in his spare time while he was at RC) . . . not so much for the Lions.
The men keep their coats on. It is cold inside this church. They sit at tables, hungry for food, and listen as a woman tries to rouse them with inspiration.
"I AM ..." she yells.
"I AM ..." they yell back.
The lighting is dim. Some men hold their chins in their hands.
"SOMEBODY!" she yells.
"SOMEBODY!" they yell back.
It is a gym floor on a basement level, but two nights a week it is something else, a safe haven, a place to sleep during the frozen Detroit winter. Most folks come here for one reason.
"BECAUSE GOD ..."
"BECAUSE GOD ..."
They have no place else to go.
Click HERE to read the whole thing.
Kara wrote a great blog about our vacation last week. She's great with photos.
Randy Harris is doing an interesting Advent series right now. I'm listening to each one a few times. I've introduced him to some of my Methodist and Presbyterian friends at Columbia Seminary and they love him.
Book reviews to come for the book-junkies out there.
21 December 2008
To learn more about this creative project (bringing together music, film, books, and theology) click HERE. Great work Lee. As always, you help us to see the Jesus Story in our midst.
Our family has great news today, for my brother-in-law (my sister's husband) returned home from Iraq today after one full year of military duty. Major Stemitz received a bronze medal while serving in Iraq, but, I suppose, he won't want to discuss it too much at Christmas this year. He rarely talks about his work, passions, and accomplishments. This is his third war (two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan). Ray--we love you. We're glad you are home to be with your new wife and daughter. They missed you as much as it is humanly possible to miss someone. We cannot wait to spend Christmas with you. The best gift we've ever received.
20 December 2008
[L]ife’s only true opponent. . . . Your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a snake. Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to gallop on the spot. Your ears go deaf. Your muscles begin to shiver as if they had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing. Your heart strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much. And so with the rest of your body. Every part of you most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear. . . Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your allies: hope and trust. There, you’ve defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.
The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you, (Life of Pi, 203-204).
13 December 2008
The three most important ingredients to ensure a great vacation are:
1. The people who go with you.
2. Where you go.
3. The books you take with you.
So, let’s do inventory.
1. Kara is coming with me. She’s the best travel partner. She loves adventure. She loves to eat good food. And, she doesn’t mind that I love to read on vacation.
2. We are doing our first ever cruise. I can’t wait to scuba-dive in
3. Last but not least, books. I’m taking Plot Against America, Everyman, Writing for Story, Called out of Darkness, and Becoming a Dad. It’s a good mix: two novels by one of my new favorite writers, one book on writing by a Pulitzer winner, one memoir from Anne Rice, and one book about parenting.
It will be a week of Sabbath. Rest. Space. Time. Food. Kara. Water.
Sabbath is spiritual.
If you are busy and burned out, Sabbath is God’s remedy.
11 December 2008
Today, their final exam consisted of only one essay question: what does it mean to be the church in a post-modern culture? It's one of the most important questions many churches ask . . . it's one of the most tragic questions some churches fail to ask.
I'm curious . . . readers in the blogosphere . . . what practices do you think are extremely important for churches to participate in as they travel on the journey?
09 December 2008
The spare bedroom has experienced a transformation of sorts. The ceiling is white. The walls are a cool shade of green. The furniture has been replaced. A baby crib now sits where the bed used to. A miniature soccer ball, football, and basketball rest on top of a shelf. Who knows, Baby Graves (name still TBD) might be an artist or musician or writer or photographer . . . he might not even be interested in his dad's sports (basketball and baseball). That's fine with me.
This room used to be my least favorite in the entire house. The living room is for sports and good movies (and Gilmore Girls). The kitchen is for laughing, preparing, and joking. The dining room is for the occasional special meal. The den is for reading by the fireplace. The nook off the den is for writing blogs like this and papers for grad school. Our bedroom is for sleeping, one of God's magical gifts I'm convinced.
I never knew what to do with the yellow spare-bedroom. It just kind of sat in our house, with little attention. Occasionally I'd sleep in there if Kara was sick or just sick of me (yes preachers can be difficult to live with). Or, I'd hang my clothes for the next work day in there.
Things are different. The former room known as the yellow room is now my favorite room of all. It's become a sanctuary of sorts. Partly because of the work Kara's put into it. Mostly because it is a symbol of new life and new possibilities. The little life that will spend so much time in this room is proof that God works in the subtle, the whisper, the ordinary seasons of our lives.
I think I'll go to the sanctuary now. The yellow room. And pray for all of God's children.
08 December 2008
My brother has not looked back since doing his first triathlon. He did another one in August and is now training for a big triathlon in Florida, set for the end of April. All of the money he raises goes toward cancer treatments for Haley Ray--a five-year-old from Ann Arbor fighting Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia for almost 2 years now. She will be undergoing chemotherapy and steroid treatment until July of 2009.
To donate money to this, or to learn more about Team-In-Training, read here.
If you have a desire to become a good (or even decent writer), Stephen King has much to say on this subject. I just finished On Writing and have a great deal to digest.
King says that if you want to be a good writer, you have to become a voracious reader.
I also appreciated his metaphor on writing that drives his entire thesis. King had a huge desk that used to sit in the middle of his austere writing room. The desk was mammoth. After bouts with alcohol and drug addiction, King realized that he'd tried to make his life fit into his writing instead of allowing his writing to flow out of his life. Now, he has a simple, unimpressive desk in the corner of his writing room to remind him that art is not meant to dominate life.
I really like that.
05 December 2008
Abraham then looks up. He sees the men coming. He looks again. Abraham teaches us an important lesson: seeing is not the same thing as perceiving; looking is not the same as comprehending what’s taking place. What’s his immediate inner-thought? Robbers? Young teens selling steaks out of the back of their old truck? Abraham meets the men as they approach and recognizes there is something “other” about them; something worthy of prostration. Abraham does what a good ancient Near-Easterner would do . . . he offers them food, drink, rest, and most importantly, shade. Like the Godfather, Abraham makes and offer these visitors can’t refuse. The Big Three accept his offer and this sends Abraham into frenzy. His idea has consequences for those who are still in the tent.
Sarah is inside the tent minding her own business. Switching between the weather channel and Oprah (o.k. . . . Dr. Phil), Sara hears Abraham run inside, breathing heavily. “Sarah, we have guests. We have guests.” Sara thinks to herself “another great idea from my husband to be carried out by me. Lovely. Just lovely.” “Make bread, lots of it,” Abraham declares!
Just as fast as he’s entered, Abraham leaves. A cloud of dust where he used to stand . . . Abraham is outside preparing the main course—beef: it truly is what’s for dinner. Once the meal is ready, the father of Jewish and Christian faith “set it before them (the Big Three); and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.” Just as Ugandans and Hondurans did for me when I stayed in their home/hut . . . people of generosity love to watch their guest eat—it gives them great joy. They are so concerned with your well-being; the thought of eating never crosses their mind.
Things are just now heating up in the story.
The Big Three turn and ask Abraham a rather odd question, “Where is your wife Sarah?” Uh-oh. Is Abraham going to sell her out again? Surely he won’t tell them too that Sara “is not my wife . . . you thought Sara was my wife . . . ha . . . no she’s my sister.” Not that again.
Apparently Abraham has learned his lesson. Three weeks on the couch will teach a fella. “My wife is in the tent.” What Abraham is told next will forever change his life and life on planet earth. “Sara’s going to have a son” says one of the men. “Yep, when the time is right. You heard me. She’s going to have a boy.” Sarah is eavesdropping at this point (Oprah is on commercial break). The narrator pauses to let you know an important detail: THIS IS CRAZY. Abraham is old. Sarah is old. Two old people do not cancel out “old” . . . it just makes you really old. This is exactly what Sarah’s thinking (the story-teller is no longer interested in Abraham). After all, she’s so far past menopause; it might as well be the name of a foreign country. Sara does what we all do in the face of ludicrous information—she laughs. Hard. Intense. Pointed laughter. Sara can’t stop laughing. It’s the kind of laughing that happens in church at the worst possible moment (during a prayer, in the middle of a funeral) and the harder you try and stop, the worse it gets.
Just when Sarah catches her breath she laughs again at the thought of the claim. Pay attention to the details of the story for Sarah laughs mostly not at the notion of being 90 and pregnant (material enough for beginning comedians) but at the notion of what it would take for someone her age to get pregnant in the first place. In verse twelve, the text reads, “After I have grown old . . . shall I have pleasure?” The word for pleasure is “ednah” which denotes sexual gratification. Sara is laughing because she literally can’t remember the last time she had sex with Abraham. Or . . . she can remember and quite honestly she doesn’t think she’s up for it . . . not in her currently physical condition, anyway. Conceiving a child usually requires that you increase your sexual activity. For an older woman, the prospects are humorous. That ship has sailed baby. No way. Now how. More laughter . . .
God asks Abraham why Sarah is laughing (as if God doesn’t know). And he asks the question that runs all the way through the drama of Jewish and Christian scriptures “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” It’s the same idea Jesus captured when he told his disciples that anything is possible with God (Mt. ). It’s the question the young parent asks when she finds out their daughter has Down Syndrome. It’s the question the young man asks as he buries his 45 year-old wife who’s just died of cancer? It’s the question the Old War Vet asks as he stares into his 12th beer of the night as he sits alone at the bar in a run-down part of town.
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
That was, of course, a retelling of Gen. 18:1-15 and the Hospitality Story.
04 December 2008
Check it out.
For tickets to this year's show, click HERE. Read about the great event HERE. Chris and Vicki Lindsey (et al) are incredibly talented.
03 December 2008
Kara wrote a blog about it today with great photos. Read it HERE.
I am now officially taking basketball recruiting letters from (ONLY) Duke, Kansas, and Gonzaga. Please let the respective programs know. Coach K sent me a text tonight during church.
01 December 2008
I called home to tell Kara the good news. "We should celebrate by going to dinner tonight," I said with a good amount of passion. "Sounds great, I'm in," Kara responded. I should note here that since about the middle of October, Kara has been craving steak on a regular basis. Angus. Sirloin. N.Y. Strip. Makes no difference.
"We could get steaks!" I added.
Fast forward three hours later . . . I came home from work, sat down on the couch, looked Kara dead in the eye and uttered words I now regret, "Kara--let's just stay home tonight. I'm tired. We can celebrate the book contract later. I know . . . I will make some tomato soup."
A death glare that rivals anything Hitler, Pol Pot, or Mussolini came my direction. Not only was I a) changing date plans (something that I should know by now is a death wish) but b) I was asking my pregnant wife to give up eating steak for c) tomato liquid. The perfect storm began to come together.
Being the perceptive man I am . . . (and feeling the death stare like a 125 degree heat lamp) I immediately said, "Or . . . we'll get steaks. Steak sounds good. I'll get my keys. Grab your coat."
Lesson #437: If you promise your pregnant wife the very food she craves, you'd better deliver. Your life is on the line.