Advent: Just A Piano Player

I am parked on a squeaky kitchen stool, a stack of neatly folded clothes at my elbow (thank you, husband); a cup of hot coffee beside me (thank you, husband), a bright swath of sunlight poking through the dusty, pock-marked windows. Half a dozen eggs are boiling on the stove and Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God is streaming through the speakers. fullsizerender-64

Sing out with joy, for the brave little boy is our Savior

Thank you, God. Thank you, husband.

I woke up this morning to the smell of coffee; I swore a cup was sitting on my bedside table, it was so pervasive and powerful. The other side of the bed was empty and I knew from the settled silence that I was the only one home. Fridays are my Saturday, and I sleep right through David’s wake up, trusting that he’ll get himself out the door and on the bus (he does). I wake up slowly, visions of laundry and slow movement in my head. Tony often rises early on Fridays and sets the stage for my arrival in the kitchen – hence the coffee, and sometimes a little love note.

It is something special, knowing that someone has prepared the way for me.

It’s a little thing, for sure, but it matters. Every other day of the week I make myself two cups in the coffee press, and I rarely leave any for him because half the time he bolts out the door with no time for caffeine; and yet he always thinks of me.

Moving slowly this morning, I am surrounded by reminders of grace; the warmth of the sun on my arm, the sound of music familiar and deeply resonant, a hot cup of coffee, neatly folded blue jeans. I consider the incredible experience of a community concert last night; groups of 13 and 14 year old children playing instruments and singing – not just showing up for the required concert, but sincerely and powerful creating art, making music in community.

I couldn’t shake the feeling last night that I’d heard some sort of siren song, some call to my spirit, an invitation to look back and remember. I sat in the auditorium where I’d first experienced the grace of the faith community I now serve, when I moved to this town some 12 years ago. Our church was smaller and simpler then, with one location instead of four. PCC was meeting in the high school auditorium when I arrived, broken, ashamed, five kids in tow, clueless about the future. I look back now and cannot even imagine how we got through the days, the weeks, the months…

Grace. All grace.

My mom suggested we try this new mobile church, and one visit was enough. Grace leaked all over me and my kids, and the gentle leading of the spirit put us in a unique position. A year later, I was still a mess, but I was part of this movement, making music and experiencing daily healing. Honestly, sometimes it was like being in a residential treatment center; the counseling, the community, the honest conversations, the challenges to accept the grace in front of me. The transformation (still incomplete) gave me life. My job healed me.

Last night I had the privilege of accompanying the Eighth Grade Chorus from the local school. It was transcendent; beautiful, with a passion unique to adolescents who have nothing but possibility ahead of them. And I remembered when we made music like that every week, when every Sunday felt full of possibility and beauty. When I was just a piano player; when my soul leapt and expanded and burst with every note, every cobbled-together worship song.

Just a piano player.

There was a moment when my boss turned to my friend and said, about me, She’s more than just a piano player, you know. I’ve never forgotten that validation; I went on to preach, to lead, to sit at the table where decisions were made. I was ordained. My job grew to represent the presence of God in places where I’d never been invited. A career opened up and it was exhilarating, affirming, exciting – and incredibly fulfilling. I’d trained as a teacher; I had five kids. I taught private lessons. I did some remarkable things in the musical realm. But suddenly, I had a career in ministry.

And even as I type this, as Jill Phillips sings It was not a silent night and I remember the moment five years ago when I was part of the team who pulled together the musicians to present that entire song cycle, with incredible passion and excellence, and I sang that song…as I type, tears are streaming down my face and I am wondering if, in fact, I’ve been missing the point.

But for the girl on the ground in the dark / every beat of her beautiful heart / It was a labor of love

Last night, sitting behind the piano – playing a small part in what was the best concert of a certain conductor’s career, the culmination of weeks of work for a group of adolescents who have not a care about what the accompanist was thinking – I was so happy. No – strike that; not happy, but fulfilledContentFull. It was a familiar seat, one that has often felt not enough, because I am capable of so much more, because I can lead, I can speak loudly, I can direct, I can organize, I can cast vision. Yet there I sat, silent and content.

Just the piano player. But it felt right.

My “career” has led me further and further away from music; the demands of our organization and the challenges of a multi-site model of church requires leaders to lead and manage and do big things, and isn’t that the way it works? Shouldn’t we climb the ladder and sit at a bigger table and achieve success at the top of the heap?

And yet…

What runs through my mind – as tears stream down my face – is that the meek are blessed; that there is something life-giving and affirming and healing to being small; being quiet. 

There is blessing there; there is something holy and sacred in that small, quiet space.

Is it possible that the circle would made complete by returning to being just a piano player once again? Could I stop shouting and leading and making big decisions and let go the notion that the next, best step for me is a higher rung on the ladder?

Behold our broken hearts; fallen far, we need you

Son of God, Emmanuel; Son of man, we need you

I don’t know. I don’t know what I don’t know, I can’t figure this out, but the tears that have soaked my face as I process all of this out loud are proof that deep in my soul, there is something going on here, some deep emotional connection. I have no doubt that all things work together for good, and that most of the time the journey involves simply reorienting myself to what that good might be, and then moving in that direction. See where God is working and then get involved, as Henry Blackaby said.

Behold the lamb of God, who comes to take away our sin

What am I called to do now, in this season? What is this unrest, this stirring? What have I to offer?

Remember now His mercy – and sing out for joy….

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Advent: The Valley Is Deep

Life is a balance of holding on and letting go.fullsizeoutput_7ec7

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Both phrases come to mind today as I sit and think, process, work, wonder, cry, sketch, scribble, pray, process, worry, fret, ponder.

(How many words can I list to describe the swirl in my soul?)

Following is a stream of consciousness that will hearken back to the days when my writing in this space was much more prolific and raw; unedited for consumption, heedless of reputation or position. In short, I’ve clamped up a bit in the last few years, ever mindful of Who I Am and What I Do (and yes, I struggle with an 0ften-ridiclous notion of self-importance…) Not that some wild rebellion is at hand, but the editing seems to be less needed at this point, and the price I’ve paid has created a deficit in available resources. So I’m just going to write my truth here.

I’m having a hard time sorting things out.

I am known for this, to some degree; my boss and friend will testify to the fact that eleven years of working together bears witness to a remarkably consistent cycle of Incredible Productivity followed by A Great Falling Apart. My husband bears witness to the same. Usually every six to eight months, sometimes longer; the Falling Apart is generally just a loss of self, of purpose; a need for recalibration and somebody outside myself to remind me who I am, why I matter, where to stand. I’ve often chalked that up to the frailty of my identity, the remnants of a high-achieving, Type-A, deeply insecure self. I’ve established a routine by which I can be okay with not being okay, mostly due to an incredible support system and a handful of deeply trusted people who are willing to indulge me at my neediest and bear with me until I can stand again, until I can produce effectively.

I’m having a hard time now, and – as always – after a few weeks of pondering/processing/crying, etc., and some well-placed conversations, things are beginning to sort themselves out. My head is clearing, my soul is feeling a bit more alive. But this time has been different, in that I found myself in the depth of a reaction I hadn’t yet experienced in terms of my emotional response to Not Being Okay. Usually it’s just about me and my insecurities, my feelings of failure or not being enough.

This time, that road less taken led me to a clearing in which only one option remained, one sign, one conclusion: I was done. 

I wanted to quit.

Not life; this is not the despair of life itself, but the despair and exhaustion of living life at this pace, which is to say my life, my race. My job. My work.

There’s this phrase from a letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians, found in the New Testament of the Bible; it’s something I’ve heard taught frequently, particularly in the old days, the fundamentalist teaching of my younger self. It’s been lodged in me since then, and it seems to be an unspoken tenet of my ministry work:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Run. Run hard. Win.

Surely there is context here; surely, there is a nuance to this text that makes room for seasons and situations. I know that to be true. But the bottom line is this; I have been running for the prize, taking to heart even the prior phrase, when Paul writes, “…I have become all things to all people…”

I have tried to be all things, to all people, running for the prize. Running hard.

And I am exhausted, empty-handed; offering pretty much nothing to anyone that is authentic. There is no prize in sight.

At least that is the way I feel right now. And I have learned this well; feelings lie. They must be tested against evidence. Feelings are not always fact.

But still, they matter.

For almost two years, I have tried to be all things to all people. I essentially took on three full-time roles at my workplace, which is not unusual. We are a church – a rapidly growing church. We take care of people. There is always, consistently, more work than there are people in place, and for my entire career here, everyone has pulled double or triple duty. It’s not a new thing.

(And let me add here, for clarity, that I place no blame for this on anyone or anything – not my boss, not my team, not my church. This is nobody’s fault; it is simply the recent reality of my life – and, I suspect, of others’ as well.)

I’ve always had more than one job to do. But this latest venture, for me, was different. It required more presence, more energy – and there was no room for stepping back. The leadership mantle was weightier – at least as I understood and interpreted it. I put my head down and worked hard and tried to do all that needed to be done.

A few months ago, that season ended; I handed over those leadership reins to an extremely qualified, gifted, anointed man. There is no doubt in my mind that it was the right thing at the right time. But the recovery process; the resulting shifting of tides in my soul and spirit – well, that has taken me completely by surprise. Something new unfolds every day, and I am caught off guard by just how great a toll was taken.

I’m not sure it’s necessarily worse than other work-surge experiences I have had, but I am different these days. In some respects, this year was filled with grief and sorrow, some of which has gone unprocessed. There are some things I learned about myself that shift the axis of understanding.

The biggest thing I think I am seeing now is this: That in these past few months, I learned what it means to not only follow Christ, but to live with His people. This may seem a ridiculous notion – I can see you rolling your eyes, DUH –  but hear me out; I am introverted, I am artistic, I am insecure, I struggle. I hate parties and small talk. I’d rather sit home all day and read than do anything else, and often I am tempted to do just that. If following Jesus meant a duet – one in which I got to play the piano and just chill in the corner – I’m totally, completely in, and extremely comfortable.

But this sacrificial, disciple life is not about comfort, and what I learned in these past two years was to embrace the messy discomfort of people who are, day in and day out, part of the fabric of life, as well as part of my responsibility in that as a pastor, I am called and ordained to represent the presence of God in a leadership role.

I learned to be a pastor in these past two years, and I learned that I could live in that place and feel woefully inadequate, markedly incompetent, and wildly full. The contradiction is, I think, the very essence of what Jesus means by offering an abundant life, because we can’t ever quite get away from the crappy parts of our existence here, and yet we can indeed live out of an abundance, a posture of receiving and redemptive gratitude.

Eugene Peterson says:

If we are going to enjoy and celebrate and live this gift of place in which the Lord God has placed us, we are going to have to embrace the people around us with the same delight as we do the hawks soaring above us and violets blooming at our feet. Men and women, children and the elderly, the beautiful and the plain, the blind and the deaf, amputees and paralytics, the mentally impaired and the emotionally distraught – each a significant and sacred detail of nature, of God’s creation. Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places

Yes.

I’ve been a worship leader – a musician; we stand on the platform and lead in front of the congregation. But as a pastor, I stood WITH people. I learned to live in this place, and I learned  to not be afraid of having people as community; I discovered what it meant  to be part of a tribe and to wear the pastoral robe and to be okay with failing in community, with others, rather than just in front of others. For the first time in my life, I walked into a place without my children in tow, without the identity of Oh, you’re Sarah/Shannon/Sydni/Daniel/David’s mom and your children are so wonderful and how do you do it all??  I walked in with nothing but myself to offer, and I was accepted and welcomed and I thrived and I felt at home.

There is another “DUH” element to this, isn’t there? This is probably a normal, accepted thing for most of humanity. But it was new to me; new and fresh and affirming and exhilaration – all the while, exhausting and disappointing. It was real. 

And obviously, this is part of what is necessary for healthy life, for a soul to thrive and expand and thrum with possibility. It is core to that abundant life, that we do it not in abstraction, but in truth and with daily discourse and conversation. It’s obvious; but in my line of work, it is a challenge, to say the least.

And so my transfer of roles, my changing position as a result of the growth and expansion of the organization and the ever-present demands of 52 Sundays a year, has resulted in so much more than new job, a new department, an altered organizational structure. There has been a very real loss to my soul, to an expanded part of what I discovered about living as intended, which – as Peterson says – should be to the glory of God, and cannot be done abstractly.

I don’t know who my people are now. They are there, surely; they have answered texts and phone calls and sent emails and hugged me. But the essence of a weekly gathering for a communal celebration of the fact that we made it through another week, that there is grace, that mercy found us again, that we are still walking in light, that we are loved, that we know one another; I have lost this.

It will be found again, I am certain. There is an unrelenting sense that God has tugged me into this place, that although I am distressed, I am not abandoned. There is something ahead of me, something that will require saying Yes to that thing and No to many others. I am not alone in this valley. I am secure in this wilderness.

Just this morning, out of nowhere – because we haven’t talked in weeks and she doesn’t know the state of my heart – a friend sent a song link to me in a text. She wrote, I double dare you to listen. The song is titled I’m At Peace, and it started with a woman standing alone in a field, and then there was a grand piano in the field with her, and that was a bit odd, I admit; but the point was made. The invitation was there. I am welcome to open my arms and claim that truth.

I’m struggling, with all that I’ve outlined here, and other things that weigh upon me; family, the future, finances, a broken oven, a pile of recycling that needs to go to the dump. My kids. My parents. Etc. I’m not okay at the moment.

But, in a bizarre paradox, I am okay. Because I am here, and I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling, and I am embracing the not okay with the firm conviction that whatever is stirring up the murky depths of my soul will find release. Upon its leaving, another layer of this ‘brutiful’ life will be revealed, and my soul will be grounded once again.

Until the next valley.

But that’s okay. There is peace to be found.

Fear not, keep on; watch and pray / Walk in the light of God’s highway…

I’m holding on You, Lord / You’re holding on to me…

Advent: Darkness

I am inclined to write during this Advent season. I have no idea what, in particular; there is no theme. I anticipate a lack of consistency, which is a theme of my life lately, to be honest. But having just whirled through the Thanksgiving holiday and weekend, which included the 21st birthday of my next-to-youngest offspring, I am bedraggled and worn. I have long proclaimed Thanksgiving as my favorite holiday, and it has been, mostly. But everything changed this year. Not all the kids were around the table on Thursday; they are growing older, and they have responsibilities and commitments to a larger family than the one in which they were born. Wings are spreading; souls are stretching. There are changes afoot, and some of those changes are pulling at the seams of my maternal identity. I’m not sure, exactly, where to stand and how to navigate these days.

I thought I’d have most of it figured out by now, you know. And certainly there are some things I understand; there’s not much that scares me when it comes to parenting, but that’s mostly because I’ve fallen down and gotten back up enough times to know that you do what you have to do, even if you’re scraped and bloodied from the trials; and, inevitably, it gets done. The grace of God availeth much.

But as the days and months and years unfold, it becomes obvious that there’s a lot I have yet to figure out, because I don’t even know it exists yet. I told one of the kids this weekend that I would parent them – in the active verb sense – for as long as I lived, and what that active verb looked like would be different for each child, because they are different people with different needs. And that’s the thing that I didn’t expect; as challenging as it was to raise five kids when they were younger, in diapers, in school, in need – that was nothing compared to the challenges of figuring out where to stand in my relationship with them as young adults.

But oh, it is a rich and beautifully rewarding experiment, for sure. I treasure my kids. I am often in awe of the lives they are creating.

But some days I just don’t know where to stand. I don’t really expect to “figure this out”; I think a still small voice has whispered to me that the ride will continue to be a fast one, full of curves and unforeseen roadblocks and interruption and much that we couldn’t have possibly planned for. You steady yourself and wait for what comes, surrounded by grace and hopeful that there will be more when you need it.

Advent is a season of waiting. There is, at the heart of this season, an anticipation. There are shadows. There is the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; these weeks leading up to Christmas Day are all about the waiting.

And the walking.

And the waiting some more, eyes searching for the light. the-people-walking-in-darkness-have-seen-a-great-lighton-those-living-in-the-land-of-deep-darkness-a-light-has-dawned

When Despair Takes Over

We are exhausted. Worn out, most of us. I see it in online dialogue, it underscoresfullsizerender-63 meetings at work and Sunday gatherings. It rumbles even under our celebrations; we are tired, and weary, and worn.

Even in my own house, here at home; the evenings are made for collapsing, it seems, or curling up on the couch, mute, or literally pulling the bedcovers over our heads.

There are moments, to be sure – bursts of joyful glory; the Cubbies finally won the World Series, and that in itself gives us some glimmer of hope; maybe things don’t always have to stay the same. Maybe losers sometimes win. Maybe we can rise above.

But that hope is fleeting.

I’ve never felt more ‘American’ than I do these days, but it’s a different sort of patriotism. Usually, we wave the flag and celebrate freedom with declarations of our independence, our good fortune, the thrill of victory and the underlying conviction that God did, indeed, shed his grace on us. We are hashtag-blessed and we know it and we proclaim it with joy. But in the throes of an election season that has revealed the dirt and grime of not just the candidates, not just the process – but of us; well, that blessing seems to have been yanked from our shoulders and stomped on. The heels of a sneering enemy is grinding our optimism into the dirt – and what are we, if we cannot be hopeful? We are obstinate and self-righteous and we seem to have forgotten that we are all – ALL – made in the image of God.

Yes, even her.

Yes, even him.

We are this, I think; weary, worn, tired, exhausted, anxious. All around me right now, people are jacked up. People prone to mania and anxiety are pulled hard into that affliction. Outbursts, anger, threats of harm – every day some news arrives at my door, via text or call or email or conversation, of people who seem to be spinning out of control.

And the opposite side – the giving in, giving up; the heavy despair of depression seeps into every nook and cranny it can find. We are slowed, numbed, surrounded by fog. We can’t think straight, much less find hope.

It seems rather bleak, and we seemed to be racing toward some end point – November 8 -that will offer some release of all this pent-up worry; and yet that in itself is cause for concern, because what comes after? Who are we? Who will we become?

Even the most die-hard political operative is probably willing, at this point, to crawl under the collective covers and hide.

I hate this season, mostly because there is pain lurking in my own family and I feel powerless to give relief. My profession compels me to open my hands and receive the heartache, the tears, the exhaustion that runs rampant in those who are suffering, and mostly there’s little to do but simply be present. To pray. To encourage. And with that, I am also simply a human; I see and hear of friends hurting and suffering and I am well-aware of how little can be done.

Despair is easy to come by, these days.

I had lunch this week with a friend whom I would not include in these descriptions. He feels alive these days, in a new way. His eyes are seeing with fresh vision and he wants to tell his stories. He said, I have lived my entire life in a depressed state. It is gone now. I feel alive. There is something he is experiencing that runs contrary to everything I just detailed above.

I smiled and said, What’s that about? What’s happening? He skirted around a bit, spoke of a few changes in his current lifestyle, but then he mentioned a medical issue that he has. Not life-threatening at the moment, but enough to keep him on his toes – and his friends and family know it.

I keep getting messages from people, just saying they care. I’m not dying, but people are just letting me know they care. It means so much – more than I can say. 

This morning, I awoke with the heavy awareness of the pain around me – but I had this in my heart, too; and I wonder, if only for the next five days, whether we might be able to collectively ward off the specter of depression and anxiety by bringing some light into the worlds of our friends and acquaintances. I wonder if the little things might be enough; I wonder if a few texts that says, Hey – I care about you. You matter to me. I love you. – might help turn the tide, push back the demons, invite in the healing.

As I wrote this morning, proverbs kept poking at my brain. I know there are several places in the Bible that mention the power of words; I went to look for something that applied specifically to what I was thinking and feeling today. I found this:

Gracious speech is like clover honey – good taste to the soul, quick energy for the body.-Proverbs 16.24 (The Message) 

That’s rich; that’s good. That’s what I wanted to say. Let’s give one another some gracious speech, some quick energy; lets speak to our souls. Let’s be kind; let’s make an effort to bring life to those around us as we navigate these next few days. Call somebody up and say something nice.

But then something else happened.

You know how sometimes God speaks in weird little ways? Coincidences that you can’t really deny?

My eyes scanned through the rest of that chapter, just in case there were other mentions of the power of words. I landed here, at the end; the final verse says:  

Make your motions and cast your votes,  but God has the final say. (Proverbs 16.33, The Message)

Well, then.

I feel quite put in my place, but with a gentle hope and caring correction. All the words I say don’t mean squat, put in proper perspective.

And I’m okay with that. It’s rather comforting, to be honest.

And yet – what we do and say can make a difference, so let’s speak life these days. Pick a few people and reach out. Let them know you care, just because. Let’s help one another. Let’s find our hope. Let’s bear these burdens, together.

Let’s believe the best; let’s love each other through.

(Go see for yourself, here.)

#31Books: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

If you have sat at a table with me discussing spiritual matters, you’ve probably heard me reference The Message at least once. Some folks I dearly love and respect scoff at me, but I stick to my guns. Reading Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible alongside one of the more standard (i.e. literally accurate) translations (NIV, NASB, NRSV) has been an incredible source of growth for me.

I’m a huge fan.

In recent months, a video began to circulate on various social media feeds; a short film by Fourth Line Films that captured a poignant, powerful conversation between Bono and Peterson. Bono is also a huge fan; I’m in good company. Catching a glimpse of their kitchen table conversation about the Psalms sweetened my affection and allowed for a deeper connection as I continued to dig into Peterson’s other writings.

(Go on; go watch the video. Because BONO, and a beautiful lake cottage in Montana. Just go watch.)

So – back to The Message; it resonates. Phrases like this, from the NIV…

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Psalm 8, NIV

….morph into this, from The Message:

God, brilliant Lord, yours is a household name. Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you; toddlers shout the songs that drown out enemy talk and silence atheist babble. I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous, your handmade sky-jewelry, moon and stars mounted in their settings. Then I look at my micro-self and wonder, Why do you bother with us? Why take a second look our way? Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods, bright with Eden’s dawn light. You put us in charge of your handcrafted world, repeated to us your Genesis-charge, made us lords of sheep and cattle, even animals out in the wild, birds flying and fish swimming, whales singing in the ocean deeps. God, brilliant Lord, your name echoes around the world. Psalm 8, The Message
Not better, not deeper or more insightful. Just fleshed out somehow, added to. Like walking around to the back of a thing and seeing a little bit more than what you can see from the front. Both together are rich and redolent and these additional words seem to change me. They infect and inspire my spirit. The create powerful truth that moves me in a profound way.
So this book, A Long Obedience, came across my desk with the potential to be a big influence regardless of the content, because I’ve got such a sweet spot for the author. And yet.. I will say that have a few other pieces of Peterson’s work, and in the past they have failed to compel my attention to the degree I had expected.
So, quite honestly, my expectations for A Long Obedience were somewhat low. Even though I liked the video and love The Message.
But this book ended up on my short pile of You really have to read this tomes, and that’s how I commend it to you today. It was a delightful, life-changing surprise.

You really should read this book.

You might not find the content enticing after a quick look at the tag line: “Discipleship in an instant society”. Right away I’m thinking Dang, I know I spend too much time on Facebook and my attention span is taking a beating….this book is gonna shame me….
And I confess that my first encounter was less than scintillating, when I cracked it open and read the premise.
“The fifteen Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) that provide the text here for developing discipleship in an instant society….were likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals…”
The book sat on my shelf for a year.
But I picked it up late last spring, and began to sit with it every day, and what transpired in my soul and my approach to the Divine presence we call God has been as powerful as any other spiritual watershed element in my life. Peterson helped me see these Psalms as honest and accurate depiction of the human experience from all angles, and to catch a glimpse of what spiritual communities have experienced for centuries as they strive to honor the Creator and honor one another in and out of the motions of living. It took me several months to finish this book – but only because I would read a few paragraphs and then give myself a chance to respond. I kept a sketch book and some pens with the book, and with every cup of truth from the text, I allowed the words to stir and ferment inside my soul, as I  reflected on what this might mean for me here and now. I savored this book slowly and carefully, daily, for what turned out to be about 12 weeks.
Old school Christians  would call my engagement with this book ‘Daily Devotionals’ or ‘Quiet Time’, but – forgive me – I can’t stand those words. The idea of a segment of my day devoted to reading or learning seems to me a ridiculous little box for God that restricts him from other parts of my life. And the notion of ‘quiet time’ never worked for me, because being quiet probably meant I was going to doze off. Quiet time=nap time. No offense toward anyone who enjoys daily devotionals or quiet time, but the rebel and realist in me has always pushed back against those terms.
But I’ll say this: For several months, I sat dailyquietly, my attention devoted to setting aside time to study and contemplate this book, and it changed me. It was my Daily Quietly Devoted Time, and I guess it’s all a matter of semantics.🙂
I’ll not detail a lot more about the book, only tell you that I read it and I’ll commend it to others from this day forward. But I’ll share this, from Peterson’s musing on Psalm 131, about a topic I continue to wrestle to this day. Perhaps this will give you a glimpse of the treasures within.
It is…difficult to recognize unruly ambition as a sin because it has a kind of superficial relationship to the virtue of aspiration – an impatience with mediocrity and a dissatisfaction with all things created until we are at home with the Creator, the hopeful striving for the best God has for us – the kind of thing Paul expressed: “I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” (Philippians 3.14) But if we take the energies that make for aspiration and remove God from the picture, replacing him with our own crudely sketched self-portrait, we end up with ugly arrogance… Ambition is aspiration gone crazy. Aspiration is the channeled, creative energy that moves us to growth in Christ, shaping goals in the Spirit. Ambition takes these same energies for growth and development and uses them to make something tawdry and cheap, sweatily knocking together a Babel when we could be vacationing in Eden. …Our lives are lived well only when they are lived on the terms of their creation, with God loving and us being loved, with God making and us being made, with God revealing and us understanding, with God commanding and us responding. Being a Christian means accepting the terms of creation…. (A Long Obedience, p 152-153)
A girl like me needs words like those.
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Also – I discovered a brilliant little coffee shop in Bon Air. Here’s to the good folks at Perk!

#31Books: Outrageous

My daughter, Shannon, loved soccer. She began playing as a child in Texas, and when we moved to Ohio, she got connected with a great program called Ambassadors Football Club. We encountered many good people and excellent coaches, and one of the biggest disappointments of our move to Ohio was having to leave the Ambassadors program.

Through Ambassadors, we became acquainted with Aaron Tredway, and through continued connections with folks at Good City Concepts, I got wind of Aaron’s newest book.

I’ll admit to a fair bit of skepticism; I remember Aaron as an incredibly charismatic coach and speaker, and a few of the Big World Little Ball videos I’ve seen were funny and intriguing, but I wasn’t sure about his writing credentials. To be honest, I expected another How-To-Have-A-Cool-Spiritual-Life! with a dose of cheerleading; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Aaron, and I didn’t have much to go on in terms of what his written work might reflect, except I knew that he was an advocate for Jesus. So, my expectations were not – shall we say – outrageous.fullsizerender-56

What a wonderful surprise. Seriously.

Aaron sets up the book by likening an outrageous life to Jesus’s declaration that he comes to give us abundant life.  This whole challenge to ‘Awake to the Unexpected Adventures of Everyday Faith’ (the subtitle) was not what I imagined – which, I confess, was some sort of step-by-step chapter book on how to love Jesus!! and be cool!! and do over-the-top awesome things!!! and soccer!!!

Not at all, and thank you for that, Aaron, because I’m just too stinking tired to try to be more outrageous.

That’s not the point, not at all. This is a book of stories – great stories – and by stories, I mean it is like sitting down over a good meal with this guy and listening to him tell you, firsthand, about where he was last week, and who he met, and what happened. It’s not pushy, preachy, or cheesy. It’s just cool. Aaron is an adventurer, a world traveller, with access and experience in places I’ve heard of but know little about, and this book is crammed full of sentences and paragraphs that are amazing, intriguing, and funny; and they teach me a bit about these places and people that I don’t know much about. The genius of these stories and the way they are woven together is that they arouse tremendous empathy and a real sense of care, for people and places I’ve never seen. There’s a thread of compassion and connection through these bits and pieces of everyday faith and awareness.

Here’s a short excerpt that kind of lets you know what you’re in for, from a tale about an invitation to travel to the Republic of Congo to play soccer against a team of pygmies:

One player had decided that since the pygmies play in the nude, he didn’t need to pack many clothes, so he filled his suitcase with five hundred individually packaged Slim Jims instead. 

He hangs out with some interesting people.

Outrageous is a collection of Aaron Tredway’s stories, and the cool thing is that the outrageous claim rests simply on those stories, and there’s enough there to say, Hey, dude, seriously: that’s outrageous. 

And they all point to something Divine, Something or Somebody bigger than what we see, and that’s the resounding point of this book – and of his life, I think. Aaron doesn’t try to tell us what an outrageous life should be, or even give us a few pointers on how to have one. He just tells his stories, and that’s enough.

You’ll see.

I really encourage you to pick up this book (find it here). It’s encouraging and intelligent; it doesn’t pander. And it’s authentic. And funny.

And outrageous, which I find inspiring.

Thanks, Aaron.

#31Books: The Jesus I Never Knew

Timing is everything, and this book came along at just the right time. I can’t say that it’s still on my shelf because of the quality of the writing or the profound revelations within, but I can tell you this:

The Jesus I Never Knew changed my life. 

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We were transitioning from a fundamentalist, Southern Baptist environment to one that pulsated with grace (thank you, God), and my head was spinning just a bit. I identified as Christian and was raising my kids as such; in fact, I was learning to embrace this Hi, I’m a mom of five and my husband is a minister! identity a little too completely, to the neglect of having a sense of self that was anything more than that – but there’s a different blog post, for some other time… Something had been changing in me, in my marriage, in my life as I related to God and the church and what comprised our social and spiritual network. The Southern Baptist teaching that surrounded me was one of rules and regulations, of clear-cut divisions identifying right and wrong, good and bad, holy and profane, in and out – with little in between, and obvious direction as to where Good People belonged. I’d appropriated that teaching, but it wasn’t working so well.

Looking back several decades, I see now that I initially gravitated towards those rules because I was floundering on my own. I remember quite clearly my ‘prayer of salvation’, which was not in a church revival meeting but in my mom’s sewing room in their house in Grand Prairie, Texas; and I wonder now about that ‘salvation’ terminology’, because it wasn’t until much later that I began to understand that until I let loose of trying to control everything around me – to rescue myself and everybody else through the sheer force of my will – that I could walk in freedom  But there was a moment when a counselor said the right thing and asked some hard questions, and I got honest with myself and realized that I was searching for a philosophy of life, or some sort of guiding principles that would help me navigate an incredibly confusing time. Raised in the church, I had a relatable vocabulary and a sense of worship, but no personal understanding that would connect the theological knowledge I’d appropriated in Methodism with day to day life.

I ‘got saved’ while lying on the brown shag carpet, surrounded by bits and pieces of thread and fabric remnants, the Bible open to the gospel of John; and by that, I mean that I cracked my heart open to the experience of God, rather than just knowledge.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

I said, I don’t know if this is how it works, but I have messed things up and I don’t know how to get it right, and if this is how You operate, then I’m in. 

That was a good thing. I went back to the Dominican Republic, where I’d been teaching school, and I finished the year reading the Bible and having some conversations about theology and trying to learn a bit, here and there, while still navigating the mess of my life – managing my worst impulses and propensity to self-medicate through power struggles and relationships. And it was good.

And then I came back to the States and started a new job and found a church full of nice people and started playing the piano there and found a collection of rules and regulations that seemed to work for all the nice people, and I jumped in with both feet. For a decade, my type A, get-it-done personality leaned hard into being A Good Christian and, for all intents and purposes of that qualification, I did a pretty good job.

But the whole notion of what it truly means to follow the guy who came on the scene telling the religious, rule-following folks that they were getting it wrong (“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites….you snakes, you brood of vipers….” comes to mind…) is that it is NOT about following rules and regulations.

It’s following a clear representation of who God is and how He sees people and how He challenges us to see ourselves. 

And that’s a very different understanding of Jesus; for someone like me, who grew up going to Sunday School with nice people, memorizing the books of the Bible in order and getting stars on the attendance chart every Sunday. Someone who learned that good behavior is expected and affirmed, and that if you are pulled to explore bad behavior, just do what you can to keep it hidden and you’ll be fine.

Someone who opened up to welcome a new way of living and got handed a prototype of a Good Christian Woman, with instructions to just Be Like That.

Someone who assumes that being Christian means being like Christians.

That’s not it.

This book, peeled off of my parents’ bookshelf on a trip to Powhatan, Virginia, long before I moved here; during a time when the earth was shifting beneath my feet, when I was quite apprehensive and unsure about what would happen next – this book changed everything. I count it as one of the most important things I have ever read in my life, because the timing was perfect; and it presented a perspective that allowed me to find my footing in a mess of theological, social, spiritual, and emotional turmoil that was slowly eroding my ability to function.

The Jesus I Never Knew pushed me to read the gospels for myself. I read the book of John – which I had done before, more than once – but I read it without blinders, without direction; without external commentary. I read the story of a man who walked the earth claiming to do the will of his father, who healed people miraculously, who spoke hard truth to power, who offered kindness to the poor and broken outcasts. I read the story of a man who was really not of this world, one who broke rules and lived outside the accepted roles of behavior for reasons that were based on righteousness and dignity. Verses that had been preached and pushed upon me in the past out of context now appeared with greater clarity and a resonance; I read them in context and discovered a richer, deeper meaning – one that often was not easily tied up with ribbons and bows and presented as part of a We are right; everyone else is wrong social order. The gospels thrummed with life and passion and power and true invitation as I read them for myself.

I still have some resentment towards the fundamentalism I experienced; it stirs in my gut even now, and it leaks out on the page. Sorrow is what I feel as well; sorrow that Jesus is so easily hidden by our processes, our rules and regulations and neatly tied packages.

But truly, he is so easy to love, seen for who he is.

Philip Yancey’s book details his own disillusionment with what he had been taught and even his own preconceptions. In the end, he was changed.

So was I.