books, Christianity, Reviews, Writers/writing

Paul-A Biography by N.T. Wright

Paul: A Biography

by N.T. Wright

The title says, Paul: A Biography, which is simple and straightforward. But if you surmise from the title that N.T. Wright’s latest book is a dry and dusty retelling of Apostle Paul’s life, you would be completely mistaken. Written in 2018 and published by Harper One, Wright’s newest book might best be described as a probing exploration of the dangerous activities of a world-class, mission-minded Torah teacher. It is, indeed, the breathtaking story of the perilous calling of Paul of Tarsus, the brilliant Jewish thinker and preacher who faced beatings, stoning, imprisonment and death for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Messiah. Thorough, gripping, fast moving, eye-opening? Yes; Dry and dusty? Nope.

In Paul, Wright wants to upset our entrenched notions concerning the Apostle by asking numerous personal questions about him: What was Paul’s life like as he was growing up? Why was he so dead-set against the early Jesus followers? Did he understand what was happening to him on the Damascus Road? After the Damascus encounter, what did Paul think he was doing when he set off on his travels and why was he so successful at achieving his ends? These and many other questions about Paul are presented and investigated throughout the book, but first Wright sets the historical/cultural stage so that the reader can interpret the circumstances of the events knowledgeably. The author writes: “[When] we try to understand Paul, we must do the hard work of understanding his context — or rather, we should say, his contexts, plural. His Jewish world and the multifaceted Greco-Roman world of politics, ‘religion,’ philosophy, and all the rest that affected in a thousand ways the Jewish world that lived within it are much, much more than simply a ‘frame’ within which we can display a Pauline portrait.” (10 Kindle)

In the early chapters of Paul, Wright snags the reader with this biographical hook:

“Paul’s letters give us a few tantalizing glimpses of his life, and this is one of the strangest:

   ‘When God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, was pleased to unveil his son in me, so that I might announce the good news about him among the nations–immediately I did not confer with flesh and blood. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me. No, I went away to Arabia, and afterward returned to Damascus.’ ” (Gal. 1:15-17)KNT[1] (61 Kindle)

Wright looks at this somewhat odd statement from Paul and instead of giving the standard “Arabia was Paul’s first missionary journey” explanation, he opens a conversation about Paul and the prophet Elijah. Wright compares Paul’s zeal for his ancestral traditions to Elijah’s zeal to defeat the worshippers of Baal. He reminds us that it is Mt. Sinai in Arabia where the covenant between Israel and God was sworn and it is also the place where Elijah fled when Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life after the defeat of the Baal worshippers. Mt Sinai in Arabia is the very location where the once zealous, now hobbled, prophet Elijah, receives his assignment from the Lord to go to Damascus, anoint new kings and appoint the prophet Elisha to take his place. Wright explains that in Galatians, “Paul says that ‘he went away to Arabia’ — just as Elijah did– and ‘afterward returned to Damascus’ — again just like Elijah….”

“The parallel with Elijah — the verbal echoes are so close, and the reflection on “zeal” so exact, that Paul must have intended them — indicates that he, like Elijah, made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai in order to go back to the place where the covenant was ratified. He wanted to go and present himself to the One God, to explain that he had been “exceedingly zealous,” but that his vision, his entire world view had been turned on its head. And he received his instructions, “Go back and announce the new king.” (64 Kindle)

Have you ever thought of the Apostle Paul as a prophet? I had never once considered that possibility until reading Paul: A Biography. Wright’s book is filled with these kinds of “wake up and smell the incense” moments in Paul’s life.

 In Paul, Wright chisels away centuries of rock-solid, predominantly European-Protestant notions about Apostle Paul and offers us a fresh, bold look at the first-century, religiously zealous, faithfully Jewish person underneath. This inside look at Paul’s life and culture, and particularly his religious upbringing and early influences, adds a wealth of understanding to Paul’s astonishing meeting with Christ on the Damascus Road. Wright titles his book Paul: A Biography in order to make it clear that he is not writing another historical/theological study about Paul and his letters — Wright has written four books on those subjects — but a volume that is “searching for the man behind the texts.” I believe Wright has achieved his goal.

By following a timeline, an ancient map and reading Apostle Paul’s writings, most anyone can form an idea about Paul’s life and travels. But Wright provides the background for Paul’s letters, poems and prayers; fleshes out his friends and enemies; and offers a passionate account of Paul’s successes and failures, fears and triumphs. The result is that Paul, who, in his letters, consummately proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ as Messiah, is himself masterfully and marvelously made known by N.T. Wright in Paul: A Biography.


[1] The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright. (Harper Collins, 2011)

Am I smarter now?, Christianity, Happy Thoughts

Promises…

It was Sunday morning before church when I saw it. It was resting in midair, between the rose bushes and our neighbors weathered garden shed. I thought it was an aberration of some kind – a mirage or a hologram or, God forbid, an hallucination. Perhaps it was a distortion of a lawn ornament — I was looking through the wire mesh screen of the sun porch, after all. But no, it was indeed a rainbow, a segment about 2 feet in length and 18 inches wide, floating in the spray of the neighbor’s lawn sprinkler.

It was breathtaking! I walked out of the sun porch, down the wooden steps, and across the dry grass toward the rainbow. It didn’t move or disappear as I feared it might. I took a short video of it, hardly daring to believe it would actually show up on my phone, but it did. I stared at the rainbow as it hovered. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I marveled and thought,  “Look how close God’s promises are to us. They are invisible most of the time but they are as real as this rainbow and as beautiful.”

Eventually, Ron, our neighbor, turned off the sprinkler and the rainbow disappeared. Still, I have the jewel-like image stored on a video clip, which you can see at the bottom of this page, and it is in my memory and in my heart, too.

A  dear friend, Tracey Finck, and I have been encouraging each other to look at life with a view to recognizing God’s “holy possibilities,” but the visit of the rainbow brought an additional way to look at our journey here: with the assurance of God’s holy actualities. God’s promises, which are as ancient as the sign of the rainbow, are not simply elegant theological statements, but they are also beautiful, dependable, and mysterious holy actualities.

And that’s a happy thought.

https://youtu.be/EChwmZfQszM

Christianity, Church life, Reviews

Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind by Mark Brouwer

Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind:

Overcoming 7 Obstacles to the Important Work of Your Life

(Mission House Publishing, 2018)

by Mark Brouwer

Good answers always start with good questions. Here, from author Mark Brouwer, are some good questions that were the basis of his book Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind:

“When people are drawn to do important work to help others, what is it that:

  • causes them to quit?
  • diminishes their effectiveness?
  • prevents them from even starting in the first place?”

Drawing on years of personal experience in spiritual leadership, coaching and recovery group leadership, and insights from mentors in his field, Brouwer has responded to those questions with solid, valuable answers.

Early on, Brouwer presents this caveat: “Be prepared to read more about problems than solutions. This book is organized around seven roadblocks that prevent or interfere with our engagement with meaningful service. As you read, you’ll likely notice that I spend a lot more time describing each problem, and much less time suggesting remedies…. As Charles Kettering put it: ‘A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.'”

Brouwer does an excellent job of defining the roadblocks to meaningful service in these seven sections: Losing Touch With What You Really Care About; Getting Overwhelmed by the Needs You Encounter; Struggling With Not Having Enough Time; Living With Confusion; Stress Burn Out; Conflicts and Difficult People; and Discouragement. But he also includes plenty of helpful, immediately applicable suggestions for dismantling some barriers, even if you are not in leadership. In Section 6, Brouwer writes about the feelings of discouragement that can arise in a community from frequent conflicts with difficult people. His comments about how to approach conflict and what it means for a community to achieve harmony rather than unity are important, constructive words that can be used in many situations.

If you are navigating a rough patch in your calling as a leader right now, pick up a copy of Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind: Overcoming 7 Obstacles to the Important Work of Your Life by Mark Brouwer. You will find this book contains thoughtful advice for individuals, delivered with sensitivity and a sense of humor. It also presents help for teams of people in the private or public sector by examining how systems and organizations work – and don’t work. In addition, Leaving Your Mark offers guidance from one who lives the busy day-to-day patterns of life in the church and who maintains the assured viewpoint that, “True community is not efficient – time is the price we pay for authentic community.”

Mark Brouwer has asked good questions, and through research and collaboration, he has produced a book that has good answers. These answers are beneficial on a personal, team and community level. If you have been harboring questions about your calling, you may find your good questions answered here, in Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind.

Christianity, Family Life, Kids, Stories, Thinking back, Uncategorized

Reading is more than what you think…

I am saddened by the number of people who are suspicious of and even offended by fables, fantasy,  and allegories. Imagination was an ever-present commodity in my home as I was growing up. My brothers and sisters and I walked around with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. Music was a continuous soundtrack in our home- always in the background, but often the main event, too. We children envied and emulated the quick-witted and clever around us. Mother recited long rhymes at the drop of a hat, and quoted poems & silly songs during our bath times or in other mundane, potentially boring (for her?) situations. We listened to the opera every Saturday (“Texaco Presents… the Metropolitan Opera!”) as we youngsters cleaned our large, old, kid-filled home.

And then there was the Mass — especially Sunday High Mass — a holy, ritual-filled hour that taught us the transcendence of God, the reality of miracles, and the glory of heaven. Truth, beauty, goodness, all around. Sorrow, alcohol, and physical abuse all around, too. But a book or the movies could serve as a way to cope with pain and confusion, calm one’s fears and present the possibility of a future happy ending. “Bookish tendencies”  are good skills to have when it comes to dealing with the harsh realities of home.

I think my childhood reading of myths and fables helped to teach me to read between the lines in real life — which is another survival skill, by the way.  I am thankful for the books of C.S. Lewis, Edward Eager. and J.R.R. Tolkien both for the comfort their works provided and the skills their stories brought with them. So, my advice to you is to read a wonderful book of fantasy soon, then trust your imagination to lead you to a deeper understanding of the world around you,

Christianity, Stories, The Glen Workshop, Writers/writing

Final day of “Fun With Flannery”

What?! It’s over! Fun With Flannery is finished?? NO! Rats! Dang. Phooey. Sadness… sigh.

 

Flannery

But what an amazing week of discovery it was, led by Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. A teacher I know frequently warns his students, “Don’t miss your moment!” This workshop was certainly the moment to experience an immersion into Flannery O’Connor –  her writing style, her art and her calling.

The larger context of the Fun With Flannery class is The Glen Workshop –  a marvelous week long art-and-faith event which seems to defy everyone’s attempts at describing it. I like the paragraph on the landing page of The Glen’s website:

“Situated in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains [in Santa Fe, New Mexico], the Glen Workshop is equal parts creative workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat. The Glen’s arresting natural environment is contrasted by its casual and inviting crowd of artists, writers, musicians, art appreciators, and spiritual wayfarers of all stripes.”

If as an artist you are dry as dust, this gathering of kindred souls in the High Desert location of St John’s College, where The Glen takes place, will drench you in beauty, friendship and inspiration. The Glen Worksop is sponsored by Image Journal which is out of Seattle Pacific University,

But back to Flannery O’Connor. All thirteen of us Glensters agreed that the most surprising discovery of the workshop was the power of reading O’Connor’s stories aloud.  As we listened to a story, often read in long sections, Flannery’s uncanny insight into the human heart became more illuminating, more comical, more touching,  more shocking.

In addition, each short story video Dr. Prior presented gave us a new picture of a Flannery story, illustrating how wondrously visual she is in her writing. Color, setting, sunlight, shadows, symbols — all play a part in an O’Connor short story. “Flannery has a purpose for everything she puts in her stories, ” said Dr. Prior, “Nothing is extra, nothing is wasted.”

What about the violence contained in O’Connor’s stories? It wasn’t long before the class could see the paradox that Dr. Prior suggested was in Flannery’s work:  Violence was a means of grace for her characters. Violence was O’Connor’s method to force her figures to shake-off the blinders of the skewed moral judgments and cliched thinking that plagued them. As we students progressed through nine short stories together, we found that the lens we used to study Flannery’s tales transfigured itself into a mirror which reflected back to us our own flawed judgments and prejudices.  One commentator in the documentary we watched on Flannery’s life, called Uncommon Grace (2015), said that O’Connor was “continuing Jesus’ work by telling parables to the modern world.”  After spending a week deep-diving into Flannery O’Connor’s life and art, I believe she was indeed a parable teller of extraordinary skill.

Flannery O’Connor died in 1964 at age thirty-nine from lupus, an autoimmune disease. At that time, according to Wikipedia, Flannery’s oeuvre included two novels, three short story collections, and five other works. An addition to her work, a prayer journal, was published in 2013. I am hopeful that more of Flannery’s work will be published in the future.

 

 

Christianity, Stories, The Glen Workshop, Writers/writing

Flannery rules…

 

Can this be day three of Fun With Flannery? Again we had a deep and insightful discussion which included viewing a movie  based on O’Connor’s short story, “The River.” We will also watch a film version of her short story “The Comforts of Home” in a future class. The film interpretations of O’Connor’s stories have added significantly to our discussions and understanding of Flannery’s work. So grateful that Prof Prior has included them in the class. Paul Anderson, Director of Programs at the Glen Workshop, was gracious enough to take a class picture of the Flannery Glensters. Good country people, every one of them.😊