Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren

What comes to your mind when you read the word liturgy? The term unquestionably carries with it images of clerical vestments, brightly burning candles in sacred spaces, repeated prayers, and the fragrance of incense. The word liturgy also rings of church history. It has a backstory that includes the Protestant Reformation which saw the implementation of many changes in the church, including a massive revision of the liturgy. In her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (2016, InterVarsity Press), Tish Harrison Warren, releases the ancient word from its traditional roots and refurbishes the idea of theliturgy-of-the-ordinary liturgy into a heartfelt pursuit of integrating Christ into daily activities. Warren, an Anglican priest, writes: “If I am to spend my whole life being transformed by the good news of Jesus, I must learn how grand, sweeping truths — doctrine, theology, ecclesiology, Christology — rub against the texture of an average day. How I spend this ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life.”

In Liturgy of the Ordinary, Warren, whose childhood faith experience was in the Baptist tradition, freely declares her love of the Anglican church’s use of ancient liturgical practices. She also writes that she thoroughly enjoyed her time in seminary, which she describes as an interval of rigorous study and vibrant discussions. Moreover, it was in seminary that she realized the Christian life was not an odyssey to “get the right ideas in my head.” She eventually rejected the kind of Christianity which required that only her intellect be involved. She began to ask, “What would it mean to believe the gospel, not just in my brain, but also in my body?”

Drawing on James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, Warren writes: “We are shaped every day, whether we know it or not, by practices — rituals and liturgies that make us who we are. We receive these practices — which are often rote — not only from the church or the Scriptures but from the culture… The question is, ‘What kind of Christian is our liturgy forming us to be?’ ” (29)

As she chronicles the events of a single day in her life, Warren shows in Liturgy of the Ordinary that several of her own quotidian routines and responses had become a liturgy adopted from the influences of the current culture rather than thoughtful actions originating from her life in Christ. The author candidly investigates her desire to check-in with social media before she gets out of bed, acknowledges her lack of patience in coping with the frustrations of having small children, and admits to her anger when events at home seem to conspire to disrupt her work schedule. Warren then invites the reader into this question: “Could these menial tasks and trials be the place where one exchanges a faulty liturgy for a better one?”

Throughout the book, the author unselfconsciously writes of her less than glamorous life as a parish priest and mother of two youngsters. As she describes her daily routines Warren employs various liturgical filters to view each activity: the rituals of standing, kneeling, bowing are used to observe the lowly act of brushing her teeth; the presence of scripture and communion are her frames for a meal of leftovers; the practices of blessing and sending come to her aid as she struggles to face the daily irritation of answering emails. By linking liturgical practices with common routines Warren offers a way to transfigure tedious occupations into meaningful actions

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Places in Everyday Life is not a How-To collection of guidelines, it is a What-If conversation starter for creative changes. What if we brought the liturgy of Sunday worship into our weekday world? What if the fragrance of brewing coffee were the incense that turned our attention to God? What if the ringing of our cell phone were a reminder to pray? What if Jesus took precedence in our regular rituals?

Warren tests the typical understanding of liturgy throughout her book. She asserts the power of liturgy to help reshape daily drudgery into the delight of a Jesus-glorifying life while also dispelling the stiff and formal aura that can surround the traditional notion of the liturgy. The reader’s opinion of what liturgy is and how it intersects with everyday routines is likely to be wonderfully challenged and beautifully changed after considering Tish Harrison Warren’s refreshing book, Liturgy of the Ordinary.

The Bad Habits of Jesus : a book review

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The Bad Habits of Jesus: Showing Us the Way to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong

by Leonard Sweet

 

Happy New Year! Have you made any New Year’s resolutions yet? If not, maybe this is the year to think about initiating some “bad habits.” The Bad Habits of Jesus (Tyndale, 2016) by Leonard Sweet is a fascinating commentary on this very edgy aspect of Jesus’ ministry style. Sweet’s cliché-crushing book is captivating and provocative: while it extols Jesus’ reputation as a remarkable teacher, it also addresses many questions about Jesus’ radical approach to life. Sweet, with his sagacious wordsmithing skills, has given readers a world-tilting look at the way in which Jesus, through his unorthodox bad habits, refracted, refashioned, and redirected the Jewish lifestyle of his day.

Written in short, fast-paced chapters, Sweet has chosen to present fifteen of Jesus’ surprising behaviors — activities that would probably raise eyebrows in polite society even now. Jesus frequently did and said things in his ministry that pushed past well-established societal and religious boundaries. As Sweet reviews these controversial events he brushes back familiar notions about the accounts as though they were cobwebs and presents to the reader fresh and culturally perceptive impressions of the incidents.

One insightful chapter in The Bad Habits of Jesus is “Jesus Spent Too Much Time With Children.” Sweet explains that children in Jesus’ day were considered, at best, to be nuisances. With that in mind, one can imagine the confusion and irritation of those who heard Jesus proclaim that to enter the Kingdom of God one must become like a little child! Sweet asks, “Why was Jesus’ sensitivity to children so heightened, which was so strikingly out of sync with the dominant cultural norm of his day? Maybe Jesus was stalked by the nightmarish Massacre of the Innocents that attended his birth… The Prince of Peace entered this world only to prompt the piercing cries of innocent children being slaughtered. It was a soundtrack surely his soul could never mute.” (115,124)

Another chapter that I value highly is “Jesus Enjoyed the Company of Women (Not Just Men).” Jesus, who was unmarried and had an inner circle of twelve male disciples, was unfailingly kind and compassionate to the women who came to hear him. Sweet writes, “In the Scriptures, we see numerous encounters Jesus had with women. In addition to the woman at the well, Jesus did not scold the woman who touched his robe as he traveled, but commended her faith. He did not automatically condemn an adulteress but spoke with her and forgave her sins. He healed a woman with demons, believed to be Mary of Magdala, who then became one of his most trusted disciples. We know of women who funded Jesus ministry…” (151-152) Jesus’ association with women astonished everybody, says Sweet, “even his own disciples.”

As the consummate rabbi, the deeds and words of Jesus — including the disturbing ones — were intended to teach about God and God’s Kingdom. The subtitle of Sweet’s book points this out telling us that Jesus’ bad habits are meant for “Showing Us The Way to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong.” Here is the counterintuitive, paradoxical outcome for Jesus’ startling conduct: undeniably good results came from what was judged to be bad behavior at the time.

It might seem that a book about Jesus’ bad habits could leave a poor impression of Jesus on the reader, but rather, in giving us the lowdown on Jesus’ bad habits, Sweet has lifted Christ high revealing his love and compassion for the marginalized, the penalized and the disenfranchised.

The Bad Habits of Jesus: Showing Us the Way to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong by Leonard Sweet is crisp and refreshing; it will certainly prompt the reader to reconsider the well known and often quoted stories about Jesus. The book’s short, stand-alone sections make it a great volume to read on the run; it would also be a great book to read with friends, especially so because a discussion guide is included in the final chapter. Treat yourself to a copy of The Bad Habits of Jesus and meet the passionate, spirited Messiah who amazed the masses and scandalized the religious authorities of first-century Jerusalem. It’s the perfect book to start the new year — you might even find a few bad habits of Jesus that you want to develop as you enter 2017.

Giving Blood – A Book Review

41HXk4yhp2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_“There’s no blood on the pulpit this morning.”This is what Mabel Boggs Sweet, mother of Leonard Sweet, the author of Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching, would say if she were listening to a bad sermon. Mabel Boggs Sweet was a preacher herself and, therefore, had earned the right to make such an assessment. But then, don’t all of us who listen to a preacher’s message make a judgement every week about what we have heard? What makes a sermon bad or good? Why is it some preachers can make us levitate with joy as we listen to them, and some make us want to leave the building through the closest exit? And especially in this visual age, how can a preacher deliver a dazzling, image rich message? Is there a way to preach to and reach this generation of sermon listeners?

Giving Blood (2014 Zondervan) was written to offer a fresh transfusion of life to those who have been called to write and deliver sermons. Dr. Leonard Sweet, who is one of the most creative and engaging preachers you will ever hear, has written over 1500 sermons and understands the process, pain and passion of this vocation. He also understands that it is way past time that preachers were equipped with skills to interact in the TGIF – Twitter, Google, Instagram, Facebook – world. Drawing on his background in semiotics, preaching and teaching,  and incorporating the use of narraphor (narrative + metaphor),  Sweet expertly and invitingly encourages preachers to review, rethink  and renew their approach to telling the story of Jesus. “Semiotic preaching differs from traditional sermon building in its insistence on seeing the sermon itself as an incarnational medium..In semiotic preaching we return to the roots of our faith, and to a form of conveying truth favored by Jesus himself.”

A word about the organization of the book. Sweet uses blood as a metaphor throughout his book as the framework for the content. The title, sections, chapters and “labs” are all identified with names that are related to blood: blood types, streams, flow, cells, vessels, thinners, poisoning, etc. Rarely does a metaphor lend itself to such broad use without breaking down somewhere. Yet in Giving Blood the metaphor of blood holds up throughout the book’s entirety, and in all its applications.

Many people consider the use of the word “blood” to be politically incorrect and offensive, and therefore to be avoided at all cost. Sweet mentions in the Introduction that he did his best to come up with another more suitable less controversial metaphor for preaching, but could not find one. “Something kept pulling me back to this biological symbol for life and the organizing symbol of the Christian faith. The metaphor kept me in its grip no matter how hard I tried to wrestle free. What you hold in your hands is my surrender and my limping free of that street fight.” I believe the reader will see that using blood as the metaphor for preaching in Giving Blood was not only the right choice but its use brings unity to the many facets of the topic in an ingenious way.

For anyone who is interested in sermons and preaching for any reason, including critiquing a weekly sermon, I recommend reading Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching. Even as a layperson, it was a fascinating and enlightening book.

Full disclosure: I am not a preacher, pastor, elder or deacon, but I do participate in a weekly church service. I read an early version of this book. My opinions are my own.

 

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.

 

The Wedding Guest – Part 3

Cake topper courtesy Amy Cloutier Photography

Cake topper photo courtesy Amy C Photography

 

The day of the wedding finally arrived, and wouldn’t you know, after weeks of beautiful weather, it was pouring down rain. And yet, the excitement of the day couldn’t be washed away by the deluge.  All of the wedding party went to the church early in the morning to make final touches to the decorations in the sanctuary and the reception hall, which was adjacent to the sanctuary. Flowers, candles, punch bowl, tea service and candy bowls (filled with pastel M&M’s) were all in their places, looking elegant and joyful and completely ready. When Bailey checked on the wedding cake – a very large, beautifully frosted and decorated confection –  she saw Sheila’s solution to the cake topper dilemma. At the bridal table, directly in front of the bride and groom’s places, was a miniature wedding cake, an exact replica of the one made for the reception, and on that marvelous little cake sat the wedding gift from Mara. The cake topper with the plastic figures of the bride and groom in front of a plastic lace heart looked lovely. Sheila had indeed found the best answer to Bailey’s dilemma. There might not have been any sunshine in the Michigan sky at that moment, but when they saw the miniature wedding cake crowned with Maya’s gift, there was plenty of sunshine in the hearts of the wedding party.

The wedding, which was at 5:00 pm, was beautiful. The sun had made its glorious appearance just after 1:00 o’clock, and showed itself in all its summer finery for the rest of the day. Mara, who walked proudly down the aisle with the mother of the bride, had a front row view of Bailey and Thad as they, through their wedding vows, pledged their love to each other.   At the reception, Mara’s chair was placed very close to her special friends. From that vantage point she was able to see and enjoy her gift to the newlyweds throughout the reception,  as did all the other guests at Bailey and Thad’s wedding that happy summer afternoon.

The crescendo of excitement for the wedding slowly descended into a general buzz of talk, laughter and best wishes for the couple. Some hours later the newlyweds made their way to the airport to leave for their honeymoon – destination, Hawaii! Those left behind after the plane’s departure spoke of the beauty of the wedding, the joy of seeing family and friends who had come from near and far.  The guests also shared anecdotes from the day, one of which explained that Sheila’s beautifully decorated miniature wedding cake with topper had been given free of charge to Bailey and Thad!  The energy and creativity that had been on display for the special gathering had been captured, as much as it was possible to do so, in pictures and stories and memories. The family and friends of the newly married couple returned to their homes having fulfilled their congenial duty as loving witnesses to a marriage.

Soon, life slipped  back to an identifiable rhythm for the families of Bailey and Thad, and everyday  happenings came back into focus. The honeymooners had been gone for three days and would not return for another week.   Jan, Bailey’s mom, was concerned about Mara, and wondered how she was dealing with her new  home, but understood that the little girl would probably not come to visit until Bailey and Thad came back from Hawaii.  One morning, though, as Jan went out the front door of her home to go grocery shopping, she found a little figurine and a message written on notebook paper. The figurine was a small Hawaiian hula girl with wings – a Hawaiian angel? Maybe another gift found at the Community Free Store? The message said: “Dear Bailey and Thad, I Hope You Had a Great Time at Your Honey-Moon in Hawiia. LOVE! Mara”.

The little emblem of angelic protection and message of love to Bailey and Thad acted as a form of reassurance to Jan, and others, that Bailey was doing well – and perhaps this was the best possible gift that the young couple received for  their wedding.

“Don’t neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it” Hebrews 13:2

Hula girl angel

Music, minor miracles, and more

My cousin Randy Plut (pronounced “ploot”) came for a three day visit last weekend – it has been twelve years since his last trip to Minnesota. Randy has always been an amazing guy. He is the oldest of my close-in-age cousins. His brother Rick and sister MaryAnn made up the trio of cousins with whom my sister Margie and I spent most of our time. Randy, Rick and MaryAnn had myriad talents, not the least of which was a great sense of humor – among the cousins, it was always thus. Their dry wit, an eye for weird comic situations, and impeccable timing made being with them a whole lot of fun. It was at my cousins’ home that Margie and I met many of Randy’s high school pals, one of whom was John Swartzwelder, who would become the legendary writer of the animated sitcom, The Simpsons. I think an off-kilter sense of the comical is part of what drew Randy and his friends together in high school. I recall great conversations and laughing many an evening away with my cousins and their friends in Aunt Lillian and Uncle Bob’s living room.

Greater than Randy’s talent in humor is his talent in music. Before he was ever a witty teenager, Randy was a serious and accomplished musician. His instrument is the piano, which he plays like a wizard, shape-shifting without a pause, by memory alone, from classical pieces to country western to ragtime to the Beatles, the tip of his tongue poking out between his lips from time to time, the only evidence of the intense level of his concentration. It has always been thus for Randy, with family members and friends watching and listening in wonder over the years.

Randy is also amazing for having recently survived a cardiac arrest that was as near fatal as it could be. He survived it because, by the grace of God, just as Randy collapsed, his sister MaryAnn came to his house, understood the situation and called 911 for help. Randy spent quite a while in the hospital and has no recollection at all of the entire month of January 2013, the month his heart attack occurred. In fact, it was a great surprise to him to learn, as he improved during his hospital stay, that he had a new job! He had applied for, and won, a new position just prior to his heart event. Randy now has a pacemaker, an incredible invention in its own right, and one that should help Randy avoid another cardiac collapse, may it ever be thus.

We spent the last night of Randy’s visit to Minnesota at the home of one of my nieces, Michelle Rogers. Michelle and her husband Bill  graciously invited my husband, John, Randy and me for dinner.On entering Bill and Michelle’s home that evening, Randy noticed the piano in the living room, so after we enjoyed a delicious meal together, he offered to play the piano for us. We were all delighted to be a part of the audience, and Randy did not disappoint – he was phenomenal! It is a very rare thing to witness the level of skill and creativity of an artist like Randy, say, at a concert hall or on TV or the internet, but to experience performance mastery of Randy’s kind in the intimacy of a family home is mind-boggling. Bill and Michelle made sure their three children were part of the experience, and the kids enjoyed Randy’s playing along with us. Randy asked them if they had any songs they would like to hear, which he then played for them without hesitation, sheet music or batting an eyelash. We adults were astonished at Randy’s skill, whereas the kids took things in stride. What? Wait a minute – wasn’t this a minor miracle occurring before our eyes? But kids are kids. How could they gauge how remarkable Randy’s performance was? I know I was pretty oblivious to Randy’s immense talent when I was a youngster. I took his proficiency at the piano for granted and had no way of knowing the rarity of Randy’s gifts. Understanding of this kind only comes with maturity. It has always been thus, I believe.

There was another member of the audience who did seem to understand the unique quality of the evening, though. Max, the family dog, knew something special was happening. He sat by the piano, listening attentively while Randy played, and a after the recital was over, he left one of his favorite toys at Randy’s feet as a token of his appreciation. Is this a typical occurrence? Has this always been so, that dogs are aware of and admire the finer things of life?

On the ride home from Bill and Michelle’s, after saying our farewells to Randy and wishing him the blessings of health and happiness for the future, I thought about the wonderful evening we had shared, about the passage of time, and the sparing of Randy’s life in 2013. Life is an extraordinary gift, and the gifts God gives to us as individuals are also extraordinary. This is something that I want to grasp more completely. But perhaps one has to pray for the ability to comprehend this, … perhaps it has always been thus.

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” Psalm 139:6

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!”

Leonard Sweet, Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. Really?

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t expect to encounter a connection between Leonard Sweet, Leo Tolstoy and a character in the book Anna Karenina on Facebook this morning, but social networking is often an exercise in serendipity, isn’t it? One of Leonard Sweet‘s intriguing status updates on Facebook today was this statement  :

insects crawl; fish swim; birds fly; animals run; humans pray.

Several comments were posted in reply on Dr. Sweet’s timeline, but one that was particularly thoughtful was from Derek W. White : “Redemption is when preying humans become praying humans.” This was given a thumbs up by many readers.

There was one brief question in response to the post, also: “Comment pray vs. prey?” This triggered an avalanche of thoughts about the book Anna Karenina that friend, Tracey Finck, and I have been reading together for several months.

In this marvelous classic, Tolstoy   has something to say about  “pray vs. prey”, I believe.   Konstantin Dmitrievitch, also known as Levin, is one of the main characters in AK. His story and that of his wife,  Kitty, runs concurrently with the story of Anna and her lover, Vronsky. Levin is consumed with big questions: ” Is there a God? Why are we here, and how are we to live? If in fact we decide life is worth living, how do we live successfully? How should we treat our neighbors and those below us in society as we try to succeed in life? Upon what information should we depend for guidance in these things?” Through various situations we observe Levin grappling with his thoughts, and because of Tolstoy’s astonishing skill as a writer, we experience the good and bad times  of 19th century Russian life with Levin and  Kitty.

In the final pages of the book, we struggle with Levin as he tries to cope with the reality that during his wife’s long and difficult labor, he called out to God several times for mercy, a God in whom Levin had previously asserted that he did not have faith. From the time of the birth of his child, he constantly ruminates on his inconsistency and is deeply perplexed by it. He does not give in to despair over the troubling event, though. The responsibilities of being  a husband, father and a landowner demand his attention, and he answers the demands by being physically involved in the labor of farming. But farming  also brings forward great life-questions. From beginning to end in the book, the land, its  potential and profitability, and the people who work it and their cares, always present situations that display whether or not the land owners and workers deal righteously with each other. Now at the end of the book, it is harvest time once again, and  Levin works alongside the peasants whom he pays to care for his land. One of them is named Fyodor.   Fyodor and Levin address fair dealings between landowners and workers in the following conversation:

Fyodor came from a village at some distance from the one in which Levin had once allotted land to his cooperative association.  Now it had been let to a former house porter.

Levin talked to Fyodor about this land and asked whether Platon, a well-to-do peasant of good character belonging to the same village, would not take the land for the coming year.

“It’s a high rent; it wouldn’t pay Platon, Konstantin Dmitrievitch (Levin),” answered the peasant, picking the ears off his sweat-drenched shirt.

“But how does Kirillov make it pay?”

“Mituh!” (so the peasant called the house porter, in a tone of contempt), “you may be sure he’ll make it pay, Konstantin Dmitrievitch!  He’ll get his share, however he has to squeeze to get it!  He’s no mercy on a Christian.  But Uncle Fokanitch” (so he called the old peasant Platon), “do you suppose he’d flay the skin off a man?  Where there’s debt, he’ll let anyone off.  And he’ll not wring the last penny out.  He’s a man too.”

“But why will he let anyone off?”

“Oh, well, of course, folks are different.  One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch is a righteous man.  He lives for his soul.  He does not forget God.”

“How thinks of God?  How does he live for his soul?” Levin almost shouted.

“Why, to be sure, in truth, in God’s way.  Folks are different. Take you now, you wouldn’t wrong a man….”

“Yes, yes, good-bye!” said Levin, breathless with excitement, and turning round he took his stick and walked quickly away towards home.  At the peasant’s words that Fokanitch lived for his soul, in truth, in God’s way, undefined but significant ideas seemed to burst out as though they had been locked up, and all striving towards one goal, they thronged whirling through his head, blinding him with their light.

Here I think is an answer to the question “pray vs. prey?” on  Leonard Sweet’s Facebook status. Tolstoy goes on to say this through Levin:

Where could I have got it? (The answer to his perplexing questions)  By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbor and not oppress him?  I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul.  But who discovered it?  Not reason.  Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all who hinder the satisfaction of our desires.  That is the deduction of reason.  But loving one’s neighbor reason could never discover, because it’s irrational.”

As in the conversation between Fyodor and Levin, Jesus shows us the way of life in the kingdom of God through this revealed truth: we are to love our neighbors, not prey on them. Additionally, we are to pray to God not just to bless our friends and family, but also “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” Luke 6:27. That is not rational, but it is “thinking in God’s way” as Fyodor says. It is righteous living, and it’s an example of how redemption turns preying humans into praying humans, as Derek W. White said; a phenomenon that numbers of others, including Leo Tolstoy, Leonard Sweet and many Facebook friends,  have found to be the best way of living with the difficulties of daily life.

How to Read an Eye Chart

I haven’t been hanging with three-year old kids for a long time, and I miss it. I didn’t realize this until today. I work at a medical clinic, and every now and then a child who has come in with an adult needs to be cared for while their grown-up has an exam, or x-rays or blood drawn. Today I happened to be available to watch over a three-year old girl whose real name I never learned. The name she wanted to be called was “Tangled”.

“Tangled?” I asked – twice. She simply nodded. Now if I had been chummy with more three-year olds, I would have known that “Tangled”is the name of a Disney movie, a re-make of the Rapunzel story. But, alas, I have been buddying with people my own age, so I was completely in the dark. Thankfully one of my co-workers enlightened me. This happy, lively, three-year old “Tangled” had long, straight brown hair with bangs, fair skin and blue eyes. The top of her head did not quite reach my hip, so as we walked along the clinic hallway hand in hand, I saw only the top of her head. I began to chat away on subjects that I thought might interest my young companion.   “Tangled”, on the other hand, wasn’t much into conversation. She was scoping the place out,  and soon her gaze landed on the sticker holder. She said nothing but looked intently up at the wide array of stickers on the display rack.

“Would you like to pick out a sticker or two?” I said. I saw the top of her head bob up and down. “Which ones would you like?” I asked, waving my hand in front of the stickers like Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune. “Princesses, farm animals, monkeys, cars?” She shook her head no. “Have you got any “Tangled?” she asked. I searched high and low for the sticker of her choice but came up empty. I offered her everything we had, but she said “No thank you.” I forgot that three-year olds were so definite about their choices. She had her eyes on the prize and stayed with her decision, although the monkey stickers almost won her over.

Mom hadn’t emerged from the exam room yet, so we went for another stroll around the hallways when I spotted the Kindergarten Eye Exam Chart on the wall. We walked up to chartKindergaten Eye Charttogether and looked at it. One by one, I pointed to the symbols on the chart, asking her to name them.  She got them all – the heart, the star, the cup – and she even correctly identified the ship and the moon. “Very bright three-year old,” I thought to myself. Then I pointed to the flag symbol, not really expecting her to know what it was. “What is this,”Tangled”? Can you tell me something about this shape?” I asked. She looked at it for a moment and then she glanced up at me and said, “It means my Daddy is gone to fight in the war.” Stunned speechless, I stared down at my little friend.

Her Mom came out of the room then, and “Tangled” ran off to join her. I waved goodbye, and stood in front of the eye chart for a few minutes. What a profound answer that little one had given about the flag. Clear, definite, precise – she couldn’t call the symbol by its specific name,  but she knew what it meant to her: Daddy, his absence, his important work. I think she passed her eye exam with flying colors, don’t 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