Finding Joy

Two years into this isolating pandemic, everyone seems at their wits’ ends. The toll has been high. Even those of us who are surviving seem to be doing so in less than impressive ways. The psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage we have sustained is yet to be fully ascertained. Our ability for civic or political dialogue has disintegrated. Health care workers are overwhelmed. Churches are zoom weary, and confused about how to care for one another. Our impatience and poor mental health has propelled us repeatedly to cry out, “How long? How long, O Lord?”

Compounded by the COVID variants, social distancing, and periodic quarantines, I have also felt mounting isolation from friends moving out of town, out of state, and from changing church homes and social circles. It is not easy to establish roots or navigate new relationships in a time of social distancing. More than any other time in my life, I am struggling to discern how best to remain connected to people. How do I build community, cultivate relationships, or maintain friendships when we are often physically closed off from one another?

The good news in this suffering is that this pain is a glorious indicator that we are still human. We need each other. We still long for companionship. That alone may save us.

I hold on to this truth, because, at times, it seems we have lost our communal identity and have replaced it with a predominantly individualized one. Even in the church, we abandon belonging and vulnerability for vapid words like “fellowship,” as in, “eating in the fellowship hall.” What can a phrase like that possibly mean during the winter of the Omicron variant?

Oh, sure, we recognize the Bible as boldly addressed to listeners in second person plural, but we don’t admit the full implications of what living joined together as the body of Christ means as a people of covenant, of companionship, of the enfleshed body of Jesus. We are not his body alone, or individually. We only belong because we are joined with him. And in being joined, we are not meant to separate. Our devotion to Christ roots us into our devotion to one another. Our allegiance to Christ compels us in our faithfulness to each other.

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

If given the choice, I would shrink my world to where only my feet could take me, but maintain the daily connections with people I love. It is the deprivation of deep-seated community, both kindred and casual, that hurts the most.

We are discovering what it means to miss the regularity of human interaction and the rhythms of connecting with even the most casual of acquaintances.

According to the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, joy is not a private emotion in Jewish faith, but a collective celebration. Recently, I read one of his last blog posts before he passed away a little over a year ago. As an introvert, I was challenged by being so inextricably linked to others. Both intuitively and scripturally, however, I know it to be true.

Sacks writes,

“It is easy to speak to God in tears. It is hard to serve God in joy…Joy, happiness, pleasure, and the like are all states of mind, emotions. They belong to the individual. We can feel them alone. Simcha, by contrast, is not a private emotion. It means happiness shared. It is a social state, a predicate of “we,” not “I.” There is no such thing as feeling simcha alone.”

Then, a bit later he discusses the Jewish nation being formed together as one, through both lament and joy.

“The nation was to be brought together not just by crisis…but by collective celebration in the presence of God. The celebration itself was to be deeply moral. Not only was this a religious act of thanksgiving, it was also to be a form of social inclusion. No one was to be left out: not the stranger or the servant, or the lonely (the orphan and widow).”

It is true that we are not able to lament well without community. We need others to see, acknowledge, and share our pain. In the same way, the joys and triumphs of life feel flat without communal celebration. We are unsure who we are without the hard work of living in community.

I am making no attempt at coming up with a national solution. Such a daunting task is well above my pay grade, and perhaps even impossible. My thoughts, and my pain, are deeply local and personal. Nor do I advocate dismissing CDC guidelines, or ignoring the well-being of my neighbor. My family and I are vaccinated; we mask; we will continue to be cautious about our time out in the presence of others.

My family is privileged in so many ways, but I think it is still appropriate to name the loss. We have been bereft of time with family and friends. I know you feel the loss, too. We feel the loneliness, and are unsure how to break out of this isolation. Many days it is difficult for me to accomplish the most rudimentary tasks. Instead, Rabbi Sacks has encouraged me to be braver in my questions, more audacious in my complaints to God.

  • How do we live as community when we are geographically separated?
  • What does practicing life together look like in times of COVID?
  • How can we faithfully pastor and mature one another in isolated situations?
  • What are our spiritual practices that will be life giving for us to share? Creeds? Prayer? Scripture reading? Listening? Transformative use of technology?

I am only beginning to form better questions. I have no answers.

Yet.

I suspect it will take awhile. I suspect that finding joy may be more frightening and more painful than I initially hoped. I brace myself in case the following may be required:

  • Love lavishly where you can as if you have never been hurt before.
  • Listen carefully as if it is the catalyst for change.
  • Draw people in as if no one is beyond the pale.
  • Live modestly, admitting you cannot take on everything at once.
  • Disagree humbly as if your demeanor matters.
  • Trust God wholly as if there was nothing you needed to achieve.

It is a tall order, but if it leads to greater peace and a better community, and a more joyful way, it is worth the effort.

Please share. What has been the most helpful for you to reconnect with others?

What has been the most difficult?

What has been the most satisfying use of technology or creativity for you during this pandemic?

Bookish Highlights of 2021

According to GoodReads, I read 88 books in 2021. I report this more as a confession than anything. Honestly, I probably should slow down. This is a higher number than I typically consume in a year. In the last few years, I have largely read nonfiction, and specifically theology, at a rate as if my life depended on it. Maybe it did. Or if not my life, my very soul. But I am starting to realize that reading goals need not (should not) be measured in numbers, but in something much more elusively slippery and subjective: freedom, growth, spiritual maturity, expansiveness, empathy, and healing. And sadly (or fortunately) these are not so obviously quantifiable.

Something else that can be difficult to appraise are others’ opinions on what constitutes a “good book.” Because of this, it may be pointless to list my stand-out reads for this year. Even so, here I go. If for no other reason, I list them here for my own benefit. Perhaps two or three years from now I may look back at this post and see what was occupying my time and my thoughts, and I may smile, or realize how far I have come.

Many books on this list have been recently published in the last year or so. A few are older. A few appear in my “most excited to read” queue from last year. I read a scant number of novels and a hefty stack of theology.

In order to make it easier on myself to decide, and so I wouldn’t be comparing a children’s novel to the latest social critique, I list my favorites in five separate categories: fiction, children’s fiction, general nonfiction, literary criticism and writing, and theology and worship. Even this was hard. I have made some great reading choices this year! I am interpreting my “favorites” to be the ones that made the most positive and strongest impact on me.

FICTION

Favorite:

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Knopf, 2020

Honorable Mention:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Knopf, 2014

CHILDREN’S FICTION

Favorite:

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri, Levine Querido, 2020

Honorable Mentions:

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo, Candlewick Press, 2002

The Vanderbeekers: Lost and Found by Karina Yan Glaser, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020

GENERAL NONFICTION

Favorite:

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr, Brazos Press, 2021

Honorable Mentions:

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Vintage, 1994 (originally Dial, 1963)

How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice by Jemar Tisby, Zondervan, 2021

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes du Mez, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020

Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Laura M. Fabrycky, Fortress, 2020

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2013

On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodiversity by Daniel Bowman Jr., Brazos Press, 2021

Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus by Rachel Pieh Jones, Plough Publishing, 2021

Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren, IVP, 2021

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May, Riverhead Books, 2020

LITERARY CRITICISM AND WRITING

Favorite:

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing by George Saunders, Random House, 2021

Honorable Mentions:

Steeped in Stories: Timeless Children’s Novels to Refresh Our Tired Souls by Mitali Perkins, Broadleaf Books, 2021

A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by Michael Mears Bruner, IVP Academic, 2017

THEOLOGY AND WORSHIP

Favorite:

Preaching the Luminous Word: Biblical Sermons and Homiletical Essays by Ellen F. Davis, Eerdmans, 2016

Honorable Mentions:

Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer by Rowan Williams, 2014

Glimpses of New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts by W. David O. Taylor, Eerdmans, 2019

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright, HarperOne, 2008

Systematic Mythology: Imagining the Invisible by Jennifer Agee, Wipf & Stock, 2018

Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians by Lucy Peppiatt, Cascade Books, 2015

I would love to hear from you.

Did you read more novels than ever before?

Did you learn something new?

What was your favorite read in this past year of the lingering pandemic?

Advent Reversals

Reading the Bible primarily as a pattern or blueprint for our life can lead to some dangerous theological misunderstandings and misinterpretations, not to mention that we may easily miss the beauty of Scripture itself. However, all the authors of the Bible certainly make use of distinct literary patterns. One of these patterns is the repetition of role reversals.

One of the most striking is God’s response to patriarchal systems in the ancient world. Although twins, the younger Jacob is God’s chosen recipient of promised blessings, and not the first-born Esau. It is through Jacob, renamed Israel, that God chooses to bless a nation, then the world. God demonstrates his wisdom and freedom in how he acts beyond human sensibilities. Later, Ephraim inherits a greater portion than the older Manasseh. The younger will serve the older. David is anointed as king before seven older brothers. The meek will inherit the earth. The humble are exalted. Not because God is contrary, fickle, or unjust, but because he is just.

God sees our tendencies toward abusive power and domination, and works to correct them and undo them. He accomplishes this in ways that, if we have eyes to see, command our astonishment.

From the first pages of Scripture, however, we read of the “second-born” Eve being extracted from the side of Adam, the first created in the image of God. In this version of the created order,* if we follow this biblical pattern, we might expect Eve to become the chosen of God, while Adam serves. But, no, they are co-workers, tending the garden, friends with God. This justice and solidarity in all relationships is what God is patiently working out in us.

During Advent, as we contemplate the Christ’s arrival, we wait with Mary and Joseph. What is striking about Gabriel’s visitation is that Mary, not Joseph, receives a vocation. Certainly Mary’s humility and willingness to trust YHWH is the avenue through which Jesus is born.

But Matthew clarifies Isaiah’s ambiguous noun, “a virgin shall give birth” (Matthew 1:23, Isaiah 7:14). Of all the ridiculous things! This is God’s work, not from human passion or decision, and unequivocally not a man’s decision.

“Here am I. Send me,” says Isaiah.

“Here am I. Let it be,” says Mary.

The Spirit overshadows Mary, and without the presence or participation of any man, she gives birth to God-with-us. Mary birthed the Savior of the world without male initiative.

In the events leading up to the first Christmas, men are secondary, sometimes quiet, submissive, silently obedient. Joseph wordlessly submits to God in a dream. Sometimes, they have been stripped of their voice, like Zechariah, who must learn from the Lord how to be silent and let others speak.

Eve, the mother of all, and Elizabeth, the mother of the Advent forerunner John the Baptist, choose their words carefully. “Look what the Lord has done. With God’s help we have produced a son!” While the Spirit’s same work has removed Elizabeth’s disgrace of barrenness, Mary’s disrepute blooms from her supernatural fertility. The women believe, trust, and are given a prophetic voice. Mary and Elizabeth laugh, open their mouths in astonishment, and join in communal dissent. They call out oppressive regimes and decry injustice against the poor with proleptic boldness.

“He has scattered the proud…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones.”

Luke 1:51-52

And so, from the beginning of the Christmas story, we see the pattern of God’s role reversals in the calling of Mary and Joseph. It is Mary who carries God into embodied flesh. It is a woman, no, a young woman, barely more than a girl who, with God’s help, produces the salvation of us all.

And so, from the very beginning, the kingdom of God takes us by surprise, turning things upside down, inverting our understanding of who and what this season of Advent and Christmastide are all about.

Behold, the kingdom of God is upon us. (Luke 17:21)

*Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 offer parallel accounts with slightly different chronologies and emphases. The first, man and woman seem to be created simultaneously. The second, woman is pulled from man’s ribs as he sleeps.

The Spiritual Discipline of Noticing

One of my friends has started posting his intriguing photos of repeated archways and spiraling staircases at the university where he works. They are always close and unusual angles. They make me question how far over he was leaning when he took the photos and how many times we walk by the quotidian, oblivious, not because of lack of vision, but simply from lack of practice.

With the beauty of autumn has come micro shots of varying fungi and bug’s eye views of petals and changing leaves all across my social media pages. I have loved every one.

While grand, panoramic scenes are beautiful in photographs, there is something to be gleaned from all these close up views and tiny noticings. They provide the visual illustration our imaginations may require to shift from what large lessons God may have for us in our life to accepting the small, simple joy and goodness in our day.

This leaf may not change the trajectory of my life, but it may be sufficient for me to refocus and begin to see the tiny ways God wants to heal me, to speak to me, and through me.

In other words, in a world where we might be quick to blame social media for the FOMO or for breeding attitudes of one-upmanship, I have been gifted the reminder through your fall leaf photos and family pumpkin patch visits and fungi foraging, that God is always here, present with us, and his beauty, although terrific, is also tiny and mundane, and oh so near us.

As my guys were growing up, most of our home school weeks involved at least weekly outings to nature trails. Some of these would be planned events with specific agendas: dissecting owl pellets at an ornithology center, bird watching, tree identification, nature doodling,etc. Mostly, however, they were devoid of any real purpose other than being outside together. These visits and hikes have trained our minds to listen for our surroundings, to look for the unexpected. These nature trail walks have provided the backdrops to impromptu conversations, to empty space as margin for our thoughts and relationships. I pray they have been part of our spiritual training to notice and see things we may not have otherwise.

Theologian and Milligan University professor Philip Kenneson explains in his book Practicing Ecclesial Patience: Patient Practice Makes Perfect that he encourages all his students to take Vertebrate Field Biology.

“Bird Watching? What could possibly be so important about bird watching?

This: it trains you to pay exquisite attention to something that has always been right in front of you.

You discover the subtle differences between kinds of warblers, thrushes, and sparrows. You find out that they all have names and uniques songs. All of a sudden, you begin to see, really see, these birds all the time. And you begin to hear their songs, their amazing music, not because they weren’t there to see or hear before, but because you had never really paid attention before… It opens up a whole new world, and the new world it opens is not just about birds. Because once you learn how to pay attention to the glory of birds, birds that have always been there, you begin to wonder what else you’ve been missing, what else you haven’t been paying attention to.” p. 11

What is it we are called to notice? Of course nature and the changing seasons around us, but also our feelings, both positive and negative, both uplifting and anxiety-inducing. We ask God to train us to notice the feelings in others, to notice our own desires and how God may want to use those desires in his mission for the world. We may notice obstacles and wonder why they bother us so much. We may notice opportunities opening for us and startle that they both excite us and unnerve us. We may learn to pay attention to scripture more closely and ask better questions of the text.

Bird watching and fungi photos may help facilitate these spiritual disciplines.

So, how do I begin to allow God to train me to see more clearly, to pay attention to the movings and breathings of the Spirit within me? It takes practice and reflection and it may take a community of believers, whether an organized group, or one or two faithful friends, to help us lean in to the gentle promptings of how God longs for us to see the world.

While reading a Gospel passage, we might ask –

*Where is God in this story?

*What does this passage tell me about God?

*Is Jesus responding the way I would respond in this situation? How is he different?

*What seems to be motivating Jesus in this passage?

*How might this passage be inviting me to transform?

“Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”

Psalm 119:18, NRSV

“Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!”

Luke 10:23, NRSV

“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.””

Luke 7:13, NRSV

What is inviting you to notice more this season?

What everyday sights are prompting you closer to Jesus?

Ordinary Days and Death

A childhood friend whom I have not seen since we were young passed away last week from renal cell carcinoma after heroically battling the heinous and aggressive cancer for over a decade. He was actually my younger brother’s friend, both Star Wars aficionados. They spent hours planning out light saber battles. We often worried they would eventually pass out in the middle of their sweat-soaked Nerf basketball games. It is hard to imagine some version of that little boy is no longer here.

He was willing to travel for a cure. He tried new methods and treatments. He never rejected the option to undergo another round. He took his daughter to dances. I have no idea what the silent nights were like as he went to sleep, or the days he sat in hospital rooms, but I am told his determination to remain positive was fierce. He suffered well. I don’t know details, and honestly, I am not sure how appropriate it is for me to comment on his ordeal. I was not present. All my information is second and third-hand at best. But this I know: his example in his last years and days matter. I wonder if he knew others were watching, admiring, witnessing him live out the good news, even from a distance. The cancer was the evil, the bad news, the untrue thing in his life. And somehow, he held on to hope and joy. I don’t understand how. But I am so thankful for it.

The apostle Paul poses the question to the Corinthians,

“O Death, where is your sting?

O Hades, where is your victory?” (I Corinthians 15:54-55)

Except, we know exactly where the sting is, because we feel it. The sharp pain and suffering from sickness and loss and death is all too familiar. And sometimes it takes our breath away with its injustice.

In his book Art + Faith, artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura reminds us that Jesus “wasted” time weeping with Mary at the death of her brother Lazarus. He knew he would shortly raise his friend from the dead. He knew Lazarus’ resurrection would prefigure his own resurrection soon to come.

“Often, Jesus does call us out of despair. Jesus doesn’t want us to be stoic, but rather to be honest about our pain.” (p. 110)

It is nearly impossible to overemphasize how much Jesus cares about us, how much he cared for Mary and Martha and Lazarus. His ache and his tears were not mere sympathy. They were visceral. He wept.

Later, Fujimura points out,

“[Jesus] does not see us simply as instruments of his purpose for salvation; he sees us as human beings in our full reflection of God. Jesus is not only our Savior, but he stands with us as he did with Mary at Bethany, to weep with us as a true friend.” (p. 142)

His love is great, and so he suffers greatly with us.

God mourns our death. He weeps over the disruption in communion and relationship, and he weeps because we find ourselves suffering these consequences. While we fear death, God mourns over it. His compassion is great enough that he empathizes with us. More than that, however, because God is eternal and because he is suffering Love, he is the only one who is capable of understanding the profundity of the loss we experience, that he experiences, at our death.

And so, Jesus wept (John 11:35). He wept at the inevitability of the death of Lazarus. Although he waited to return to Bethany, he knew Lazarus would eventually die. Whether as the Triune Creator, or as the first century carpenter, Jesus had seen all the death he had wanted to see. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of all his saints.” (Psalm 116:15) Here, the Holy Spirit through the psalmist intends not that God wants death, but that God deeply cares for the lives and souls of God’s own creation. We are precious in the eyes of the Triune Creator.


The life of my brother’s friend was precious and all too brief. Yet God holds him up proudly. I am grateful to have heard of his determination and hope and faithfulness.

And here is the truth: there are people hanging on because of your kindness, because you are quietly modeling a life of deep trust in God, because your graciousness is a rarity in their world, or because they have heard of something good you have done. You don’t know when, nor for how long, the gospel will be preached because of you.

Waste time weeping. We are all precious.

Ellen Davis and the American Sycamore

Recently, I have made a new friend. I have been spending time with Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis. Well, at least through her books and sermons. Her love of the text and the imagination and reverence with which she plays with the biblical narrative resonate with me. I am impressed with the fluidity by which she moves between ancient story and modern principles.

Yesterday one of my appointments was cancelled, so I had some extra time to wander on a nearby nature trail. I visited another friend, this one arboreal. My American Sycamore. Its white bark was stripped as high I as high could reach. Its skin was soaked from all the recent rain, and thickened, peeling from decades of aging and weathering.

I touched it. Palm against bark. I always do when I pass by. We acknowledge one another, and we pray together. It has always lived its days perfectly to the glory of God. I cannot boast as much.

Some of us are coming out of mourning. We have all had a difficult year and a half with the pandemic. Many of us have experienced the death of loved ones, prolonged illnesses, isolation and loss of jobs and friends. So many of us are still in mourning. Some of us are just grieving over petty sorrows. Yet, honestly, who ever thinks their sorrow is petty? What does it all mean? How can we move forward when we feel our spiritual and emotional wheels spinning? We are heavy. And we carry wounds and scars that we would rather hide than expose.

Ellen Davis and the Sycamore have helped me recognize some of the lessons around growth and spiritual insight, vulnerability and community. Dr. Davis encourages us to listen to the wisdom and the illumination of lament.

In Preaching the Luminous Word: Biblical Sermons and Homiletical Essays, Davis includes the sermon “Faithful Mourning.” It is her way of addressing the strange statement in Matthew 5, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Living faithfully in sorrow is a form of self-renunciation that reaches to the bottom of your identity, as you learn to let go of what you could not have imagined being without: a healthy body, a marriage, a profession, someone whose life was as precious to you as your own. [It] means forswearing resentment at the loss of those old necessities, ceasing to hold over God’s head your idea of how things ought to be, and thus gradually becoming free to discover sufficiency, even abundance – abundance in the midst of loss…

The comfort of the mourner is the coming into being of a new self, previously unimaginable to you…

-Ellen Davis from “Faithful Mourning”

Uncovering who we really are is certainly uncomfortable, but it is the trailhead to transformation. It is the beginning of offering ourselves as a gift to others. And having something to offer, well, that is a gift all in itself.

One Big Thing

It is hard to say for sure, but I might be the only person in my neighborhood who owns a Tolstoy t-shirt. While putting it on a couple of days ago, it got me thinking about Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”

In the essay, Berlin discusses the broad philosophical and didactic strengths of the worldview of a variety of writers. Using the premise of the Greek poet Archilochus, he sets out to name whether a writer is a fox, who knows many things, or a hedgehog who knows one big thing. Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, and Aristotle are foxes. Dostoevsky, Plato, Nietzsche, and Pascal are hedgehogs.

The bulk of the essay is a discussion determining where Tolstoy fits in. Primarily, the goal is to dissect his view of history. Tolstoy’s individualized view stands in direct contrast with many of his contemporaries. He rejects the historical approach that major world events are carved out by larger than life figures. Rather, it is the ordinary, everyday person who creates meaning and trajectory out of the minutiae. Berlin subsequently decides the great Russian writer is naturally a fox, but is frustrated by his determination to be a hedgehog.

I am not going to take the time here to flesh out Tolstoy’s changing view of art, his rejection of the Orthodox faith, his attitude toward the Russian peasants, that is, his version of the “noble savage,” or as the Russians express it, the “holy fool.” We might talk about his iconoclast lifestyle and the antagonism and abandonment his family endured because of the way he chose to live out his life. He was an anomaly and deeply troubled. This author of such monoliths of world literature as War and Peace and Anna Karenina seemed to have an uncanny understanding of human nature. His characters were sympathetic and full of pathos, but he himself, seemed to lack the empathy for those closest to him.

But if we believe in inspiration in any sense, we know that any author’s work is always wiser and deeper that the actual flesh and blood human. Tolstoy’s artistic and pedagogical ideas were constantly in conflict with his relational or incarnational ways of being. He was never able to live up to what he taught through his novels, his short stories, or his essays. He was a disappointed man. A man who lived with high ideals, but without grace for others or for himself. That may sound harsh, but it is hard to feel generous toward a man who is so exacting, who lived in close proximity to his family, and yet so emotionally removed from them.

It forces me to draw in my breath when I wonder how I am living out my days. How big of a disparity is there between the needs I see right in front of me and my otherworldly ideals? What is that place of grace and understanding within the so-called “thin places” of the physical and spiritual worlds, the now and the not yet?

When I look at Berlin’s list of the foxes and the hedgehogs, I can’t help notice I am immediately drawn more to the hedgehogs, even to the ones I don’t necessarily agree with. I feel Tolstoy’s dilemma. After so much striving, wouldn’t it be satisfying that you at least knew one big thing? This puts me in mind of the apostle Paul, who was well educated and extremely focused. Yet he claimed,

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.

I Corinthians 2:2-5 (CSB)

Paul acknowledged his own baseness. He placed his confidence in the grace and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. With all Tolstoy had going for him, it hurts me to think he never knew that joy. Even at his death in a remote train station, running away from home at the age of 82, he was still trying to do it all himself, and knew he was failing.

What about you, are you drawn to reading foxes or hedgehogs?

Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

What do you think of Tolstoy’s attempts to live by his ideals?

“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak in my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray – but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”

-Levin in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

A Holy Place

There’s a chapel in the north transept of Vienna’s Stephansdom just off the nave or center aisle. It is not a corner which receives many visitors or tourists, and that is why I liked it so much when I lived there in the early nineties. It houses no grand altar; there is no ornate, baroque fixture. The smooth, rounded, grey walls extend clear to the buttresses. Every time I entered the dim room and sat at one of the few pew benches, I had to take a minute for my eyes to adjust. The only ornamentation or focal point was Jesus himself hanging on an unadorned cross barely above eye level. His feet were hung at chest height, so it was not difficult to reach out and touch them. The entire chapel was stone grey. This was a chapel designed solely for prayer and meditation. It was my holy place.

Except when it wasn’t. I was young and, at times, arrogant and thoughtless. If, on the rare occasion, I had brought someone with me, we would be shushed by the rare worshipper for whispering. This was not a chapel you came to as a tourist. You were not encouraged to come and take a look around. People came to pray. In the city center, the cathedral’s north and south towers rose in all their Gothic glory overwhelming those emerging from the depths of the Stephansplatz U-Bahn station. The blue, green, black, yellow and white mosaic-tiled roof caught the eye of even the most casual pedestrian. In that busy city, off shopping streets full of history but modern sensibilities, I wonder how many prayers were formulated over the centuries in that tiny chapel room. How many in the few years in which I made my way into its walls as I sat, struggling to discern the trajectory of my life in such a transitional phase?

I grew up in a Christian tradition that did not particularly recognize holy places. The world was the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. We did not need special places in order to pray or worship God. God was both omnipresent and omniscient. I could talk to him anywhere. Except when I couldn’t. To paraphrase Pixar’s The Incredibles, if all places are equally holy, then maybe no place is. Certainly, I still believe God is everywhere. There is no place I go where he has not reached before I arrive. And yet, it is important to acknowledge my need for the the sacred space. Maybe it is better to say I more readily recognize some spaces as holy.

There’s a great American sycamore on one of the walking trails I like to frequent. It is my favorite sycamore, maybe my favorite tree. I usually say I am going to “visit my friend.” Its branches extend high and bisect far horizontally across the trail, nearly reaching out over the creek. There is nothing other than its size that might make someone stop, but I always do. The smooth, rounded white bark settles me. This tree has obviously been there a long time. I lay my hand flat against its skin. I usually stop for a moment of meditation or a breath prayer. It is a holy place.

Lamenting with Christ

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In his Life Together, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer encouraged his readers to read the Psalms with and through Christ. I think he meant a couple of things by this. One, that we read them messianically. We read the Psalms seeing their ultimate fulfillment through the life and suffering of Jesus, even though, historically, they may have originally had a different context. Another way we read them with Christ is as his body, the church. While we trust in Jesus’ reappearance one day, we also trust in his immanent presence here alongside us. If we believe the Kingdom of God is the truest truth, if we understand that the veil between the spiritual and the material, between the heavenly and the earthly, is thin, indeed, we profess a sacramental trust in God’s presence and we can know that Jesus himself mouths the words with us just as surely as our brothers and sisters form the vocatives and plosives of the sacred prayers given to us by David and Moses and the sons of Korah. We get more uncomfortable, however, when we reach the psalms of lament.

I have lamented often this past year. Sometimes my lament has been selfish and myopic. Sometimes I have grieved for others, and over others. I have lamented more this weekend. A little boy shot in Chicago. A young man, barely of age, is gunned down in Minneapolis. In my own city of Indianapolis eight people were killed in a Fed Ex shooting. These are markers of hatred, mental illness, the glorification of violence, and the brokenness of the world and culture in which we live. Whether or not we agree about how we should proceed as a society, we must recognize, if we profess Jesus, that this is a travesty, and that we have created it. Our sin, our fallen state, our denigration of our fellow humans has entangled us in a problem so intricate we cannot easily unburden ourselves. Not until we admit our culpability, our fragility, and the glory that every one of us carries within us, even those of us who are the most different from us, because of our genesis, by the very breath of God.

If we shy away from the keening voices near us, we plug our ears to God, who is for the downtrodden, the oppressed, the weary, the ashamed, the neglected, and the despised. It is Jesus who was once all of these. And he stands in their place reaching his hand out to them and extending his other hand toward us, so that he might bridge the gap between mourning and joy, between broken and renewed, between slain and resurrected. He can only reconcile us if we are willing to “weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15 ESV)

Because Jesus’ sweat burst through his pores as blood, because he wailed the psalms himself while in agony at his shameful death, because he thought of the psalms at all, so we use the words of Christ to cry out for our sin and shame and deliverance.

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” (Psalm 22:1 KJV)

God is not so weak that he is not able to withstand our cries of pain and anger and loss. We do not want to slip into vindictive attitudes, but we look to God for justice and for peace. Lord, keep our hearts. Protect them from bitterness. But, listen. Do listen to our confessions. When we mourn, we are like God. When we lament, we agree with God that the world is not as it should be, that we are not what we hope one day to be. When we cry out to God in the psalms, we are confessing our belief that he hears and that it is in his hands that all will be made new.

We cry out to God on behalf of those recently lost. We mourn. We mourn

Daunte Wright

Adam Toledo

Amarjeet Johal

Jaswinder Singh

Amarjit Sekhon

Jaswinder Kaur

Samaria Blackwell

John Weisert

Karli Smith

Matthew R Alexander

the as-of-yet-unknown people who died in the Austin, TX shooting earlier yesterday.

Below is Psalm 140, written by King David, a man wrecked by violence. Notice how the psalm relies on God’s omniscience and justice to protect him. Notice how we might wince at the harshness of the prayer, but lean in to the concern for the afflicted. Notice how, in the end, the psalmist lands in the confidence and presence of the Lord. It is an extreme version of the prayers of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) and Mary, (Luke 1:46-55) lifting up the poor and oppressed. While the prayers of these pregnant mothers were psalms of praise, Psalm 140 solidly remains an outcry against violence and injustice. It is an honest lament for today, “holy and acceptable to God,” our spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)

“Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men;

preserve me from violent men,

who plan evil things in their heart

and stir up wars continually.

They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s

and under their lips is the venom of asps.

Guard me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;

preserve me from violent men,

who have planned to trip up my feet.

The arrogant have hidden a trap for me,

and with cords they have spread a net;

beside the way they have set snares for me.

I say to the LORD, You are my God;

give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O LORD!

O LORD, my Lord, the strength of my salvation,

you have covered my head in the day of battle.

Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked;

do not further their evil plot,

or they will be exalted!

As for the head of those who surround me,

let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!

Let burning coals fall upon them!

Let them be cast into fire,

into miry pits, no more to rise!

Let not the slanderer be

established in the land;

let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!

I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted,

and will execute justice for the needy.

Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;

the upright shall dwell in your presence.

Psalm 140 ESV

Zoom Church

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In the last year much has been written and discussed regarding how the COVID virus and quarantines have impacted how we worship, interact, and live as the community of God. The pandemic has not been the only thing, however, that has altered the way my family worships on Sundays. Church hurt has also contributed. Because of this, our family has been worshipping with a smaller group to maintain spiritual accountability. The pandemic, nevertheless, has certainly made it more problematic in terms of meeting together. Initially, our families met in small groups in homes, then outdoors when the weather warmed up. Later, we moved inside into our living rooms, donning masks and eliminating our Eucharistic meal in favor of the simplified cracker and juice.

The group we are meeting with is a bit of a mixture, but that is the kingdom of God, right? They have been a lifeline to me, providing encouragement, strength, and a reminder that we are bound by elements that transcend this world. They have been a stabilizing force at a time when I could easily have succumbed to debilitating discouragement.

As the weather warms up, some of us may be ready to take some baby steps forward in visiting other churches. Or not. Above all, we pray for our hearts to be protected. We pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us toward people who will minister to us, and to prepare us to minister to others. While I am deeply grateful for the people who have held my head above water, in a spiritual sense, it is difficult to foresee how long our particular version of faith and liturgy practices will continue. For now, zoom church is a solid place holder until we can return more fully into the life together, worshipping and serving in specifically embodied ways.

In the meantime, I am left with ambiguous feelings regarding our connection-disconnection. On the positive side, we have been persistent in meeting together, keeping tabs on one another, helping one another out in ways both small and large. Although it is not ideal, maintaining a connection with like-minded people of faith, with specific people, has been a rock-solid stabilizing force these last several months. On the less positive side, Zoom is awkward. It is difficult to have meaningful dialog with a group of people virtually and simultaneously, that is, living and engaging in the ordinariness of our daily life.While the technology is a blessing, it is also a barrier. The screen often feels to be a barrier to living incarnationally. At least to me. And yet we press on.

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Jesus promised, “…where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) Virtual church may not be our primary or permanent way of worshipping. But does the Spirit remain with us even through a Zoom link? I believe the answer, beyond any feelings or social sensibilities, is yes! He does. Zoom seems to exacerbate the spiritual and emotional distance we feel from one another. Yet, with a proper theological understanding of God’s immanence, and an emphasis on Jesus’ incarnation and suffering alongside us, we can more readily accept the mutuality of Christian service and leadership. Christ’s presence is the reality we are caught up into each time we participate in the communion. Even if we drink from Dixie cups.

Communion- the bread and the wine- the Eucharist- the body and blood of Christ

Because we have taken a bit of a break from institutionalized church, we have been freer to “try things on for size,” both in our thinking and in our practices. This has allowed some of our group, who may never have been given the opportunity, to find their voice and gain experience in presenting lessons, devotionals, and homilies.

We may soon be facing decisions around whether or not to disband or how to seek out established churches, but for now we are maintaining our current format. It is our basis for spiritual healing. We pray; one family leads us in song, accompanied simply by an acoustic guitar. We read scripture. We keep a rotating volunteer schedule for someone to lead us in our thoughts for the day. Past topics have been our newness in Christ, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the use of psalms as lament, an imaginative retelling of the demon possessed pigs, and the temptation of Christ in the wilderness for the start of Lent. We participate in communion and prayer with crackers and juice. Then, we circle back around to a discussion time around the devotional or homily.

Christians throughout the ages have survived various trials and challenges in meeting together: catacombs, hiding in homes, prisons, etc. Looking broadly at this will help us retain our hope and our faith in the future as the church. Not the revoking of religious or civil liberties, nor world wars, nor plagues or persecutions have irrevocably destroyed the faith of Christians. Those of us who claim the Resurrection as the historical and theological event around which our lives orbit will not be eradicated by lesser events in human history. If we are clear about why we gather, if our theology informs the weekly practice of the Eucharist, if we pray with an acknowledgement of Christ in our midst, then our hope will not be dependent on our current location, nor will it flounder in our current circumstance.

As individuals we may falter, but God’s church as a whole will continue, and we will meet in cathedrals, sanctuaries, store fronts, living rooms, parking lots and parks, on Facebook Live and Zoom calls until he makes his glorious appearance once again. Persistently, “we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13)