“The New Normal” – a book review

New Normal pictureThe New Normal, A Diagnosis the Church Can Live With –  by Thomas Ingram

What does the phrase “new normal’ mean, anyway? It seems that “new normal” has been applied to almost every aspect of our culture since 2007, when the US economy faced its most challenging downward shift since the Great Depression of the 1930s. To my way of thinking, “new normal” carries a negative connotation. It means that our robust American quality of life has taken a big step backward, and it is not going to return to its previous, presumably healthy, levels of enjoyment or accomplishment. Therefore a different, less vital, more difficult way of  life has ensued which is here to stay, so get used to it – this is the new normal. The Church has certainly experienced its own downward shift over the last decade or so, with yearly membership numbers declining in all mainline Protestant churches, and disdain for Christian beliefs and values being the norm in our culture. Is this the Church’s “new normal”? Dr. Ingram’s book helps us to consider this question.

In his book, The New Normal – A Diagnosis the Church Can Live With,  Dr. Tom Ingram demonstrates that skillfully researching a patient’s health history, ordering appropriate tests, determining a diagnosis and designing a treatment plan to establish a “new normal” for an ill individual can be life changing for the patient.  Dr. Ingram also uses this medical model to evaluate the ailing 21st century Christian Church in America. In his concise and witty book, Dr. Ingram observes the Church’s overall health, both by looking at some of the history of the Church’s past challenges, and also by using data collected from a website he created recently called the tenthingsproject.com . This website provided a space where non-Christians could vent their frustrations with the Church and Christians. In compiling and comparing the past and present information in the church’s health history, Dr. Ingram skillfully helps us see the parallels that exist between the health challenges of an individual, and those of the post-modern church.

As is illustrated in The New Normal, when a diagnostician has completed the ill person’s work-up and meets with him or her to determine the next step in treatment, an important question is asked of the patient, “Are you ready to get better?”  At this point the patient has a choice to make, one that could represent a “new normal”. As is stated in the book, “It is a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple: for one answer requires nothing of the patient, while the other answer may take everything they’ve got.”

In the book we read that this same question, “Are you ready to get better”, can be asked of the Church. Dr. Ingram emphasizes this point by relating the story in John, Chapter 5, in which Jesus says to the paralyzed man by the Pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be made well?” Amazingly, the paralyzed man does not answer Jesus with a clear “yes”. How puzzling. Why wouldn’t the man eagerly say yes? Could it be that the afflicted man is not ready to change? Perhaps he does not want the dis-ease of being made able bodied, and therefore held accountable for his actions? Might the Church have the same paralyzing affliction, and be hesitant to get better for the same reasons? Is the Church’s “new normal” one of inaction and powerlessness in our culture?

Not necessarily, according to Dr. Ingram. The Church can still chose to be obedient to the One who is our source of life and health, and with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can initiate service to the ones most in need, most alone, most marginalized in our communities, and there bear good fruit to the Lord. In the chapter called Treatment Plan, Dr. Ingram offers some ideas for activities to get Christians moving, active and involved in rehabilitation, knowing that when we have served “the least of these, we have served the Lord.” In this way, it might happen that followers of Jesus could turn the idea of a “new normal” in the Church from a negative to a positive statement. Will this rehabilitation be easy – no. Dr. Ingram admits that asking the post-modern person to exchange self-absorbed living to sacrificial giving is only possible because “with God all things are possible.” Matt 19:26.   He states that the powerful inducement for this change is that the way, truth and life of Kingdom living, the person of Christ, is “with us” in all that He asks us to do in obedience to Him. We aren’t left alone by the  One who assures us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matt 28:20. He will be with us as we follow Him in the way, he will enable us to see Him as the truth we need to guide our choices, He will ultimately be our source of life during the tough times. He will be our “new normal” and our source of joy. That is definitely a “new normal” the Church can live with.

Book review:ME and WE – God’s New Social Gospel by Leonard Sweet

Book Review

ME and WE — God’s New Social Gospel  is a lively and lovely introduction to a re-imagined, metaphorically rich  present/future church. This church, Dr. Sweet contends,  must learn how to face three of the biggest challenges of today’s culture: individualism, racism and consumerism.

The title of the book does not prepare the reader for the beauty contained within it. I must say the book is beautiful, in many ways.  First, the book is beautifully planned: It is presented in three short parts. Part I is about the Me/We Gospel – A Biblical Story; Part II is about  Me/We Creation – A Birthing Story; and Part III is about the Me/We Economy – A Garden Story.

Second, the book is  beautifully written, especially Part II, which is a deep and meditative look at the need to sever the identification of black with evil and white with good. This imagery runs through the “whole range of human behavior”, according to Dr. Sweet, and deserves our honest attention as well as our best, prayerful efforts at correction.

Third, the book is beautiful in its application. Using the symbol of the menorah, Part III offers a seven-branched view to incarnating light and life giving practices. The emphasis is on relational theology and individual responsibility as we live together in God’s House and Garden communities — our churches.

Dr. Sweet notes early in the book that 19th century efforts at implementing a social gospel were a dismal failure. He warns, “Any attempt to see Jesus’s understanding of the kingdom of God as a political movement, an apocalyptic regime or social justice program– anything other than the revelation of God with a trinitarian personality and path to the heart — is to put ideology in the place of faith.”

My favorite description of Me/We social gospel living is the section on “Conserve and Conceive”. In Genesis, God asked Adam to “till and keep” the garden. Dr. Sweet prefers to use the phrase “conserve and conceive”. This term is then used to refer to a broad scope of holiness-living activities, beginning with conserving and conceiving “God’s creative identity in our current relationships and (to) conceive God’s creativity in new relationships. It starts with Me and moves to We… When Christ is in control and the body is being re-formed by the Spirit into wholeness and harmony, the body remains organic, living, growing, healthy. A Me/We gospel is a salvation gospel.”

I have been reading Dr. Sweet’s books for many years. He is a brilliant thinker and writer, and there is no missing the fact that the Lord Jesus is preeminent in everything he produces. But this book took me by surprise. I believe it is not only one of the most beautiful books he has written, but it may also be one of the most important.

 

“Fierce Convictions” by Karen Swallow Prior – a book review

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Book Cover for Fierce Convictions        I have just finished reading “Fierce Convictions —  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I knew a little about Hannah More (1745 – 1833) prior to reading this book, particularly that she was one of the Clapham Sect http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/119725/Clapham-Sect, with William Wilberforce and other abolitionists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England. But “Fierce Convictions” makes clear that there is quite a lot to know about Hannah More.

Dr. Prior has done a marvelous job of writing a thorough, balanced biography of Hannah More, who accomplished so many feats  in her lifetime that it’s mind boggling. One should remember that she did all these things: write acclaimed poetry and plays and a novel, start a school for women, speak persuasively to the upper classes of England about abolition of slavery and reach out to the poor of her area by starting Sunday schools which were vehicles for literacy, at a time when being a woman was a liability to doing any public work at all. Astounding.

Dr. Prior has given us a wealth of finely researched information about Ms. More’s successes and charming ways, but she also tells us about her failures and her blind spots, thus helping to form a better, more complete, more believable picture of the subject. We are also kept aware throughout the book of the historical and cultural period in which Hannah More lived, which for 21st century minds, had some very perplexing and troubling customs. As far as the readability of the book goes, there are quotes from writers of the mid 18th century that are challenging to be sure, but Hannah More’s life is so interesting, and Dr Prior’s writing is so engaging,  that it is worth the reader’s effort to work through those passages.

After reading this book, I have compiled the Top Ten Admirable Attributes of Hannah More:

  1. She was bright, articulate and witty.
  2. She was from humble birth, was modest and self-effacing.
  3. She was a Christian who grew in her faith, and changed her manner of living to reflect that growth, including modifying her opinion on the cruel treatment of animals.
  4. She wrote a play in 1763 at age 18. It was published in 1773. By the mid 1780s had sold 10,000 copies.
  5. She was unstoppable in her efforts to end slavery and to bring about moral improvement in England.
  6. She was able to cross societal boundaries, both to the upper classes and lower classes, with grace; she was able to cross religious boundaries with an open mind and heart.
  7. She was able to survive great personal setbacks and attempts to destroy her good name. She didn’t recover quickly, but she didn’t quit living her life.
  8. She was generous to a fault with her time, talents and money in her efforts to help those in need.
  9. She had great friends: Dr Samuel (“Dictionary”) Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Edmund Burke, Elizabeth Montagu, William Wilberforce, John Newton, John Venn, and many,many others.
  10. She wrote her bestselling, most imaginative, most widely read works after age 60.

You can read all about this amazing woman in “Fierce Convictions — The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I believe that this book should be on the reading list of every young woman. I have asked our local library to purchase a copy for their shelves, and will encourage them to include it on the list of suggested books for Women’s History Month 2015.

This is Dr. Prior’s second book, the first being “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.” I look forward to reading many more books from Karen Swallow Prior.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was sent an Advance Reader’s Copy of “Fierce Convictions” by Nelson Books for the purpose of reading and reviewing the book. My comments and opinions are completely my own.

On your mark… get set… PLAY!

Can you recall the last time you thought of the Christian life as playful? Me either. In fact, I believe most people would be very reluctant to put the words “playful” and “Christian” in the same sentence. Imagine then, how surprising and intriguing it was to see that someone had written an entire book on the subject.  I recently finished reading the book The Well-Played Life – Why Pleasing God Doesn’t Have to Be Such Hard Work by Leonard Sweet.  From beginning to end, the book tells the tale of the pleasure God takes in people, and how, as we humans progress through the Three Ages described by Dr. Sweet, we should live in a way that returns the compliment.  Suggestions for joining in the fun of “playing with God in the Garden” – the best metaphor for discipleship according to Dr. Sweet – are skillfully and imaginatively presented in The Well-Played Life.

Why is it, do you think, that Christians are perceived as hardworking, humorless party-poopers? The Well-Played Life examines how this image came about and reminds us that the only people who can redesign this perception are Christians. Contained in the chapters are many vivid examples of joyful, exciting and God-pleasing events in scripture, especially in the life of Christ, which can inspire us to look at our lives as believers not as work, but as happy, creative activity. In the early pages of the book there is a very provocative thought tossed out to us: ”It’s time to abolish work. It’s time for a theology of play.”

Using the frame work of the Three Ages – First Age (0-30) Novice Players; Second Age (30-60)Real Players; Third Age (60-90+) Master Players ,  Dr. Sweet defines each age, pointing out their challenges and strengths under chapter headings such as Follow the Leader, Cave Dwellers, Play in the Dirt, Rock-Paper-Scissors,   and Angry Birds. But don’t get the notion that this book is all cotton candy and Skittles.  It is filled with goodness, truth, and beauty as well as puzzlers, pointers and playful practices for those who wish to live “in sync with the Spirit,” in Dr. Sweet’s words.

I must admit I had fun reading this book, but it also convicted me.  I saw that at times I am among the rock-faced-and-rigid barrier of believers that can be so intimidating to those who don’t yet know Christ. I would rather be identified as a member of the family of living stones that form the spiritual dwelling of a joy-filled Jesus. If that transfiguration is going to happen, I better get praying, and playing.

A summary of this book in less than 140 characters:  When we are clothed in God’s glory, we are in our play clothes.

Disclaimer –  I was sent a free copy of the book The Well-Played Life – Why Pleasing God Doesn’t Have to Be Such Hard Work by Leonard Sweet  from Tyndale Momentum.  My opinions are my own.

Moonlighting

English: Laurium Historic District Laurium MI

English: Laurium Historic District Laurium MI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In November of  this year, my friend Tracey Finck and I flew to Ocean City, NJ, to meet with Dr. Leonard Sweet http://www.leonardsweet.com/index.php author, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior http://www.liberty.edu/academics/arts-sciences/english/?PID=7627, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, and nine other people who gathered together to talk about  books. This event was called an “Atlantic Advance”. “Advance” is a term created  by Dr. Sweet which is meant to be used  in place of the word “retreat.”  Retreat, in the parlance of most of the Jesus followers I know, is a word that describes a time set aside by believers to seek a quiet, secluded place to pray, meditate, read scripture and have some time feasting  alone with the Lord. But the word “retreat” also has the connotation of turning tail and running away in defeat. In Dr. Sweet’s view, Christians should not be retreating, but should always be advancing through the ups and downs of our Christ-yoked walk. Thus, even though our group did gather in a quiet (only because it was the off season) city, in a fascinating 1903-era boarding house removed from the present  century  by its  architectural details and wrap-around porch; and even though we had times of prayer and scripture, and a few hours intended for solitude, the 13 roomies at the 2013 Atlantic Advance moved ahead on the sacred journey en-masse, with lots of laughter, a fair amount of tears, stimulating book-related conversations and amazing, verging on miraculous, shared meals. I understand the term “Advance” now.

Out of the 13 book lovers who attended, 6 people were pastors, so over the course of the weekend we heard some wonderful stories about other pastors. As I listened,  it occurred to me that I knew a pastor story. The story didn’t get shared, though, because, 1. I am not a pastor. 2.  Permission had not been granted to tell the story, and 3. I wasn’t absolutely sure how the story went because it had been 30 years since the time of its telling. Happily, I recently met with  the friend who  told the story so long ago. She, Brita Hillstrom Ylitalo, confirmed that what I had recalled was basically correct,  clarified some of the details and gave me permission to tell this, as did Kirsti Uunila, whom I have not met personally, but who gave me permission via facebook . Thanks to both of them.

Brita, of Finnish descent, grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where there are a lot of Finnish people. Many of these hard-working, entrepreneurial and  friendly folks have a common bond in religion, primarily the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church.  Brita and her large family were deeply committed to this very conservative Finnish  church, and were close friends with the head pastor there at the time, Reverend Paul A. Heideman. One summer  when Brita was 15 years old, Rev. Heideman and his wife Eva  opened their home to a niece. Her name was Kirsti Uunila. Kirsti was also in her middle teens and she and Brita became fast friends.  Brita said that she and Kirsti were like shirt and pants, spending time at each other’s homes 3-4 times a week, if not more, often sleeping overnight. During these sleepovers, the girls would stay up talking and laughing late into the night, and were scolded by the adults in both households about being too loud, with threats of separating the girls from each other if they couldn’t settle down. The Heidemans especially were very particular about noise levels because their bedroom was directly above Kirsti’s, and Aunt Eva protected the Reverend’s time of rest.

It was during one of the sleep-overs at Kirsti’s, Brita explained, that an astonishing event occurred.  Suddenly, in the dead of night, a hymn sung by Rev Heideman burst loud and clear through the floorboards. This awoke the girls, who giggled to think that if this song was loud enough to wake them up, Aunt Eva must really be irritated since the person whose rest she was protecting was making all the noise! But the commotion from the upper bedroom  didn’t stop with one hymn. After the song came an opening prayer, then another song from the hymnal, then a portion of scripture. And next? Yes, a sermon. By this time, Brita said, she and Kirsti knew they were experiencing something extraordinary. They each were quiet as they lay in their matching twin beds, marveling and listening, experiencing the Holy Spirit’s power in the middle of the night, receiving the word of God in the sanctuary of the old Heideman house in Laurium, Michigan. The sermon seemed to be custom designed for them, as it was about living one’s life with intention, staying alert to God’s leading even in one’s youth, and in Rev. Heideman’s wonderful old-world style, he spoke about deflecting the slings and arrows of the enemy and seeking forgiveness of sins as a source of consolation and strength.  When the sermon ended, there was the closing blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”  A final hymn was sung by Rev. Heideman,  then silence. The midnight service was over and the girls fell back to sleep.

The next morning Kirsti and Brita waited to hear what the Reverend and Aunt Eva had to say about the sermon in the night, but neither adult said a word, nor did they act as though anything unusual had happened the night before. To the young girls’ amazement, life went on in its usual routine. They ate breakfast, dressed in their summer garb of t-shirts, cut-off jeans and tennies, and resumed the pattern of traversing back and forth between their homes as they filled the carefree day with activity.   Summer went merrily along. Life went merrily along. Brita and Kirsti grew up, graduated from Calumet high school and went their separate ways, staying in touch, but never living close by each other again.

One summer evening many years later, as Brita and I were putting our own children to bed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior, Brita shared this story with me. We laughed and I marveled at the tale. After the kids were finally down, we each took a cup of coffee from the percolator in the kitchen of the old house, and talked for a  long time about the peculiar calling that is the life of a pastor. How they are called by God to expound His word to a gathering of believers on a weekly basis, but their calling might also include some moonlighting – literally.  They in fact, might be moved in their sleep by the Holy Spirit to preach to a couple of teenage girls in the middle of the night to encourage them to stay alert to the things  of the Lord  as they make their way into the world, as they advance, toward the life that awaits them.

Isaiah 52:7

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”

Tattoos on the Heart: a book review

Laura Bush talks with members during a discuss...

Laura Bush talks with members during a discussion at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been a long time since I have read a book that completely took over my life, but this weekend Tattoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle did just that. I was mesmerized, horrified and enthralled by this book. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is the pastor of Dolores Mission, a Catholic church located in gang-land central in Los Angeles. The book is a collection of stories primarily about  young people who have come to Boyle and Homeboy Industries to find a way to leave gang life. The stories in themselves are jaw droppers, but Boyle doesn’t display them for their shock value alone. He loves the young people, the homies, he lives among, and helps us to see past the raw, bloody landscape of their daily lives to the value and preciousness of the individual.

Believe it or not, Tattoos on the Heart is often a very funny book. Boyle’s sense of humor is sublime, and he shares many instances that made me laugh out loud – in public places, too. I also wept at the author’s description of the hopelessness that so many of the kids face, and at the mindless murders that occur between enemy gangs. Boyle writes that after the funeral of one young man, he realized that he had officiated at 8 burials in three weeks, all gang related deaths.

What I ultimately appreciate about this book is that Boyle introduces big, beautiful ideas in the midst of the most horrible conditions in life. Ideas like kinship, success, compassion and gladness. Boyle could have stayed with the sensational stories from the ghetto. It would still have been a fascinating book. But he didn’t. He has a poet’s eye and a lover’s heart, and because of that he teaches the reader to get beyond the blistered warzone of the barrios he describes to the beauty within the young people he has come to know. It’s a good skill to learn, no matter where you live, and Greg Boyle is just the one to teach it through the book Tattoos on the Heart.

Why you should read this book in less than 140 characters: Wildly funny, heart-breakingly sad, profoundly wise. Be careful, it might change you.

Parables with RVL and a few close friends

Heart of Jesus

Heart of Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently returned from a retreat in Kalamazoo, MI. There were about 200 women/friends who attended, some from as far away as California. Wish I had words to explain how powerful the Coffee Break Ministries weekend in the Parables was.  The retreat leader was Ray Vander Laan, a teacher and preacher who has spent years studying the scriptures from a first-century Jewish perspective. http://rvl-on.com/about/

I have noticed in my reading of current Christian thinkers and speakers, that there seems to be a big focus on the importance of story in sharing the message of Jesus Christ. This weekend, Ray Vander Laan, also known as RVL, again brought up the importance of story, and especially that the Bible is ONE story. (This is also an emphasis in a wonderful book I recently reviewed in this blog by Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet called Jesus A Theography. See link at the bottom of page).

Here is the scripture that united RVL’s  teaching over the weekend: Matt 13:52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”  RVL told us that the majority of the time when Jesus taught through parables, he used metaphors, symbols, types and motifs that his audience was well acquainted with from the text. Using parables, Jesus told stories that his audience thought they knew, but Jesus would change something in the setting, or expand the theme, or add a different character so that the parable took the listeners by surprise, and engaged their thinking. RVL taught that in the parables, Jesus would say in various ways that: 1. He is God 2. The kingdom of heaven is at hand 3. I am the Way, follow me.

RVL taught on three major parables, and a couple that are less well-known. He would give us the Jewish back story of each parable, then go through the text with wonderful pictures, maps or videos of the Holy Land so we could get the visual context – all of this was interspersed with Jewish phrases, words or scripture that we would that we repeat after RVL in Hebrew, jokes and short self-deprecating stories of his trips to Israel,  and words of wisdom from RVL’s  rabbi friends, etc. If I were to use one word to describe RVL’s teaching style it would be “passionate”. This man obviously loves the Lord and the text, and is very committed to inviting his students to share in the same “walk”.

One of the last parables we read was the Prodigal Son. At the end of the lesson, I lost my concentration  and composure.  I covered my face with my hands and sat there, unable to hear anything that was being said, although I knew RVL was talking. It wasn’t strictly an emotional response, but more of a realization deep in my core about how much it cost the Father (Jesus in this parable) to restore his lost son. All of this was my reaction to the phrase in the text that says (Luke 15:20) “he ran to his son”, which RVL had spent a lot of time and energy explaining to us earlier in the day. My view of the story of the Prodigal Son has been changed forever, I think.

Of course there was a lot more to the weekend, especially the fun of chatting with friends on a long car ride and being graciously welcomed into the home of Michigan friends who were as  generous as they were delightful to be with. Still, the take-away for me is the power of the stories in scripture. I believe it is through the reading of scripture and the revelation of the Holy Spirit that we experience not just the history or culture of ancient Israel, not just the content of black print on white pages, but we see the very heart of God, the One who loves us  here and now, and who wants us to return that love with all our  heart and soul, strength and mind.

http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-A-Theography-ebook/dp/B0078FA9OW

The Completest Thing

Reading Material into 2011

Reading Material into 2011 (Photo credit: Bob AuBuchon)

Have you ever experienced an event that was perfect from start to finish? Dr Stephen Maturin, one of the main characters in Patrick O’Brian’s spectacular naval series “Master and Commander”, uses a particular phrase  when one of his tricky espionage escapades, difficult emergency surgeries, or challenging nature observations succeeds without a flaw; he says, “It was the completest thing.”

Last Friday night was just such an event for me. Several weeks ago a friend, Tracey Finck, told me that writer and speaker Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer – Pastor,Martyr,Prophet, Spy was going to be at Bethlehem Baptist church in Minneapolis, and she asked me if I would be interested in attending. I think I jumped out of my chair, yelled “Yes! and circled the date on my calendar before Tracey had finished speaking. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to hear this excellent writer speak about a man who was one of the most outspoken opponents to Hitler during the Third Reich. Both Tracey and I had read Metaxas’s book, and had been amazed at how in-depth the biography was, and how powerfully the author had conveyed the role that family, education, faith in Jesus and courage had played in Bonhoeffer’s life. (Read Tracey’s comments on the book here: www.traceyfinck.com)

The evening would have been wonderful if all we had done was attend the lecture, but we had also been invited  to have dinner  before-hand with Ben and Betsy Alle, Tracey’s daughter and son-in law, who attend Bethlehem Baptist  and were the first to pass on  the information about the upcoming event. Plus, the “we” had grown to include Becky Hagstrom, a friend of Tracey’s – so the evening became kaleidoscopic, and was turned into a beautiful, multifaceted celebration of making new friends, enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal (lasagna,salad,homemade bread,individual mini chocolate-molten-lava-cakes with whipped cream and espresso!) and gracious conversation, topped by an incredible lecture that was as funny as it was profound and challenging.

We also had the honor of meeting the delightful Mr.  Metaxas.We spoke with him briefly, had a book signed,  and took a few Kodak-moment pictures – along with the 1300 other people who were at the lecture. Metaxas said he would stay until midnight if that’s what was needed to greet those who wanted to meet him. I wonder  how late the meet and greet went? We were fortunate to be almost at the head of the line, and saw Metaxas sprint from the front of the church to the table where the signing took place – in the back of the church, of course.  Eric Metaxas embodies energy, humility, wit and  intelligence wrapped up in a life committed to furthering the Kingdom of  Jesus Christ – it was inspiring to see and to be a participant in the Bonhoeffer Tour.

But was this all? No. On the way home there were cold coffee drinks and snacks  –  a drive-home picnic prepared by Tracey – plus we discussed the lecture and associated subjects on the hour-long commute. Oh, and did I mention it was a lovely winter night with a full moon?

God’s favor and blessing  were wonderfully evident that evening, and I will always treasure the memory of it.  Plus, I also think that now I truly understand what  Dr Stephen Maturin means when he says, “It was the completest thing.”

Smile! It’s Gaudete Sunday!

Willis Patterson, John McCollum, Richard Cross...

Willis Patterson, John McCollum, Richard Cross with Kurt Yaghjian as Amahl and Martha King his mother in the 1963 production (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Icy conditions kept me home from church today, the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday. How is this possible, you ask? Well, we do not park our vehicles in the garage (the explanation for this will have to wait for another blog entry), therefore the rain that fell all day yesterday, which turned to sleet and then snow when the temperature dropped overnight, produced a thick  layer of ice on the car and froze the car doors shut. It also turned our driveway into a frozen, lumpy, slippery obstacle course. The time I allowed myself to free  the ice-imprsoned  car was not enough to get the job done and arrive at church on time – not by a long shot. Very. Frustrating. Especially since this is one of my favorite Sundays of the year. Even as a kid I loved the third Sunday in Advent.  One reason was because it has a cool name; who can dislike  the  word ‘gaudete’? It is pronounced gow (as in cow)-  day tay.  Even saying it brings on a smile, which is very appropriate because the translation of the word gaudete is: “be joyful” or “rejoice”.

The second reason to love Gaudete Sunday was that it is the Sunday to light the pink candle on the Advent wreath. In our house we had a traditional advent wreath on our kitchen table. The wreath had four candles; three white and one pink. It was something to look forward to, this lighting of the pink candle. Finally – color and light together! Here was sparkling beauty meant to give relief to your eyes and heart during the long, dark winter days, while also presenting the promise of the coming spring.

The final reason to love Gaudete Sunday as a kid was that this was proof that we were actually getting close to Christmas. Somehow the  calendar  lacked the ability to measure time in an encouraging manner. Waiting day by slowly-dragging-day for the 25th of December to arrive was torture, where as counting by weeks using the Advent wreath was quite satisfying; “Three weeks down, and one to go until Christmas,” is what Gaudete Sunday made clear to me.

But what to do today, at home alone on Gaudete Sunday? After a few minutes of thought,  I lit three candles on the advent wreath, and found the CD of the one-act opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, called  Amahl and Night Visitors. This hour-long opera tells the story of a poor widow and her crippled son who welcome  three royal visitors who are on their way to visit the new-born King.  The CD is of the 1951 Christmas Eve production by the NBC Television Theater. You can see the entire 1951 performance, including an introduction to the opera by the composer, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hzx-s46vjpY

In the past, the story and the music of Amahl and the Night Visitors had been be able to break through the icy condition of my heart, and warm it up to receive the good news of Christ’s birth with thanksgiving and joy, and today was no different. Happily, the beautiful little opera changed the frustration and difficulties of everyday life into a time of worshipping the Lord.  And I guess that  is the real meaning of Gaudete Sunday, isn’t it?

“You turned my mourning into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”Psalm 30:11

The Church in an Age of Crisis: a book review

First Baptist Church of Minneapolis in downtow...

First Baptist Church of Minneapolis in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just finished reading James Emery White’s latest book The Church in an Age of
Crisis, subtitled 25 New Realities Facing Christianity. The timing of the
reading of this book coincided with the end of the 2012 Presidential
Campaign.
If you were paying attention at all to the campaign, you would have
seen and heard many of the 25 new realities in Dr. White’s book showcased:
marriage, the modern family, celebrification, media supersaturation, and the new
American dream, to name a few. Not all of them were debated as part of political
platforms, but all of these topics were on display in some form or
another.
One section of the book, titled “Forgetting How to Blush,” could
have used the campaign video sometimes referred to as “The Virgin Voter”, as an example for the
chapter. That video upset me, but even more unsettling to me than the video is
that “The Virgin Voter” was apparently an effective political campaign tool,
because the party that made that video is now in office. (There is a link to the video at the bottom of the page) Dr. White points out in The Church in an Age of Crisis, that one of the new realities facing Christianity
in America is understanding that there isn’t much that can be put before the TV
viewing public or You Tube fans that will cause them to question whether what
they are seeing is morally acceptable or not. Point taken.
In his book, Dr. White refers to the men of Issachar – men who “understood the times and knew
the best course for Israel to take.” The emphasis of the book seems to be that
Christians need to understand the times in which they live. I think The Church
in an Age of Crisis offers us good way to do that. Not all the information
contained in the various chapters is particularly new, but reading about the
issues  with the understanding that most of these new realities have come
about in the last two decades, makes the message of the book compelling.
I have to admit, reading The Church in an Age of Crisis was a bit of a downer, but
it was worthwhile for the truth that it speaks to those of us who sometimes long
for simpler times.

Tip: The most encouraging section of the book is contained in
the Afterword; don’t miss reading it.
Review in 140 characters (or there abouts): Straight talk to Christians about the real world in which we live, and the
real hope we need to share.
I received a free copy of this book for the purpose of reviewing it. My review, whether positive or negative, is solely my own opinion

http://youtu.be/L4gpdHLY6VQ