Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Must-Read Review: The Dream Of You

We live in a culture that thrives on reminding us that we don't measure up, that there is something lacking. These messages are there to not only make us feel inferior but believe in the falsehood that we could be our best selves if we just wear certain clothes, drive a specific car, look a certain way that can only be achieved through a new diet or product or aging cream. These voices can become noisy and overwhelming - especially when played on repeat in our own heads. If that weren't enough, we go onto social media and really feel like we are missing out: the vacations everyone else seems to be taking and posting their amazing photos and videos on Instagram or Facebook. Or how our lives don't measure up to the Pinterest-perfect lives we imagine others able to achieve in their Martha Stewart like craft and cooking bliss. 

Into this quagmire of deception comes Jo Saxton to remind us that while we are, all of us, broken, that we are also fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator who loves us enough to call us "beloved." As she writes, "When the grit and guts of your broken identity meet the grace and goodness of God, it will reveal you, but He will transform you. You're in Him now, with all His resources available to you. You have access to His power, mercy, and grace."

Along with the stories of familiar biblical figures (such as Joseph, Esther, David), Jo shares her own story in a way that is truthful, vulnerable and healing to anyone who opens the pages of this book and allows it to minister to their hearts and souls. 

"He (God) doesn’t shame or condemn you for your past," she writes, "He breaks the chains of all the controlled you and limited your identity. He redeems your true identity, which was interrupted by your life experiences and crushed by the mixed messages of the world. He even redeems the dreams you had of the person you hoped to become. He redeems the Dream of You."

This is not another self-help book, but a book that shows each of us what it means to be whole, redeemed and having a purpose. It's about the transformation of not seeing ourselves (our false selves) as others have presented us as over the years but seeing ourselves in the identity that God first gave us. As she asks, "What was the dream you had of yourself from the very beginning? Before life interrupted, before anyone told you who you were allowed to be?"

It's a question that we should all pause and ask ourselves - repeatedly. It is a reminder that we have too often been distracted from that dream that God has given us and which we replaced with second-hand masks we have begun to wear in our desire to fit in. Fitting in is not the same thing as belonging and God is offering us true belonging.

"When we trade our identity for a perfectionistic alternative," Jo says,  "even when it’s for survival, it comes at a heavy cost. We lose our true selves and we lose our voice. We lose our spiritual authority, because perfectionism relies on our skills rather than God’s power. It costs us our purpose because perfectionism has a different purpose to the one God has given us. We lose our courage, because at the root of perfectionism is fear." 

This is a beautiful book that offers us a message of hope, insight and encouragement that will not leave you the same way after you've read her words. It is a book that you will want to read more than once.

Jo Saxton's official website:

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Abounding In Thanksgiving

"I am thankful for . . ." How many families in the United States will gather around the table before they eat their Thanksgiving meal. But sometimes we reach holidays not feeling thankful but worn down, weary and feeling anything but gratitude. It doesn't help when your week starts with a car that doesn't and, so much of what unfolds after, doesn't get any better. I can think of a million reasons to be ungrateful and to withhold my thanks. Struggles and difficulties often tend to choke out any ounce of gratitude coming from my lips or from taking root in my heart. 

Then I read what Paul writes in Colossians 2:6-7, "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving." 

Abounding in thanksgiving. I want to say, "Pass." I want to say, "Lord, sometimes you kind of suck." Especially when I'm feeling that he's not in my corner or not even there at all. 

As I think about those two verses in Colossians, the first word that popped out to me is rooted. Spiritually, this is one of my favorite words. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wisely understood that, "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul." Why? Because to be rooted is to be grounded To set down roots is to make a home, to find one's place in a community. Too often we only think of our spiritual lives as a journey, a getting from one place to another, and never stop to consider that rootedness is just as vitally important. To be in a place and be open and present to it. We have lived in the same house for over 20 years and yet I still discover new things around me, even in our own backyard. 

I tend to walk the same paths when I go on nature walks. Each time I go on these walks, I see something different or I see something differently. Perhaps it's the season of the year that transforms the trees and plants around me. Right now, I see bare trees or ones whose leaves are golden or red. 

Even on my walks, when I stop and become rooted or present to the space I am standing in at that moment, I may see something I would not have seen had I simply kept plowing forward. Today, I saw a lizard sleeping in the warmth of the sun. There was such a look of contentment on his face that I actually felt jealous of him.

When I started my walk, I didn't feel grateful or thankful. I felt frustrated and upset. I felt perplexed by the lack of what I saw as God's concern for a situation going on in our family. Yet, as I walked, as I stopped thinking and, instead, started being mindful, my attitude began to change. Why? Because to be grateful is to be mindful. Gratefulness and mindfulness are connected. 

I was grateful for the beauty of the trees, grateful for that lizard, grateful for the reflection in the water . . . 

I was grateful that my two sons were walking with me. Sometimes in conversation. Sometimes in silence. I was grateful that they appreciated both.

I was grateful that my younger son had brought his nature journal along with him and would stop to take notes or to collect leaves that caught his eye and he found of interest.

"Cultivate the habit of being grateful," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude."

Emerson was right.

As I walked, I found myself cultivating gratitude. I found myself going from asking, "Why God?" to simply saying, "Thank you." 

Cultivation is not an easy process. It's not an instant or overnight process. One cannot easily or without work and effort cultivate a garden. Nor can one quickly or simply cultivate a spirit of gratitude. It is a daily effort. It is a choosing to say, "Thank you" even when we don't feel thankful. It is stopping, rooting ourselves to be present and looking for something in our lives to be grateful for. When we move from complaint to gratitude, we move from being self-focused to finding that sweet, tender movement of grace that runs throughout our lives but can often and easily go overlooked because we are too distracted by what we don't have or what's not going our way.

My younger son, as we walked, asked, "Are we going to say what we are thankful for tomorrow?" 

"Do you want us to?" I asked, curious to see if he would prefer to skip this and go straight to eating. 

"YES!" he enthusiastically replied. 

"Why do you want to?" 

"Because it makes me stop and think," he answered, "of what I am thankful for."

"And what are you thankful for?" 

"My family," was the first thing out of his mouth. "I am thankful for birds and for trees and for leaves and for this walk."

"Me too, buddy," I smiled. 

So often, he cannot see the good of the present because of the pain from his past (He spent the first eight years of his life in the orphanage system). He has a hard time of winnowing out the negative to find the positive. He sees it as all cut and dry, black and white. It's either all good or all bad. It's why I ask him each night, "Tell me one good thing that happened to you today?" Even on his worst days, when he has struggled and lost, when he's made a bad choice and is paying the consequences, we always stop to sift and find the glimpse of grace that is always, always there in our lives. It's important for him to find these small glimpses so that he can see the love of God is with him even when he makes mistakes, when he feels he's failed, and when he believes that there is nothing good about himself or good about his day. It's also a reminder to myself to do the same.

The Message translates those verses in Colossians this way, "My counsel for you is simple and straightforward: Just go ahead with what you’ve been given. You received Christ Jesus, the Master; now live him. You’re deeply rooted in him. You’re well constructed upon him. You know your way around the faith. Now do what you’ve been taught. School’s out; quit studying the subject and start living it! And let your living spill over into thanksgiving."

I love that last part. "And let your living spill over into thanksgiving." 

As my sons and I walked a trail we have walked so many times previously, this walk was different and unique because I found my life spilling over into thanksgiving, into gratitude, into grace. Gratitude reminded me that all of this is a gift: both the joy and pain - and that's the paradox. One would not find meaning in the joy if it weren't balanced out by equally finding meaning in the pain. All is precious. 

After my walk, I, like the poet e e cummings, want to shout out:

"i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes"

May we all be ever thankful for that "which is natural which is infinite which is yes."

Sunday, November 19, 2017

How To Think

How often have we asked someone, "What were you thinking?" It's meant to question someone's judgment or reasoning faculties. What we really mean is, "Were you even thinking?"  Sometimes we look at our culture and wonder if anybody is thinking.  Of course, more often than not, we find people going by what they feel far more than what they think. Nor do they want to be challenged in their thinking; instead choosing to go to media sites and channels that agree with what they already believe.  Too often we actively avoid questioning and thinking in order to be content with our preconceived notions, our cliches, our prejudices, our assumptions, our ideologies and our own conclusions.

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt writes about how the groups we are a part of do two things: bind and blind. They bind us together in a unified belief or cause or particular narrative. We are bound by our similarities in thought (religious, political, ideological). But they also blind us to dissent, other points of view, or alternatives. We do not listen and, because we do not listen, we do not really think.  We prefer not to be challenged or questioned. And we certainly don't want to question because questioning can often be unsettling and can start to chip away at the structures of belief that we have built for ourselves from our past experiences.

Albert Einstein said, "The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking." For many, that concept is troubling, disturbing and to be avoided. We don't want to change our thinking and become imprisoned by our own systems of belief.

Alan Jacobs in How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds tells how, "T. S. Eliot wrote almost a century ago about a phenomenon that he believed to be the product of the nineteenth century: “When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not." Eliot could have been describing our age of information overload but a real scarcity in wisdom. We have facts but not truths. Or we have now "alternative facts," which is a creative covering over of what, until now, has been commonly called lies and deceptions.

In our pluralistic society, people struggle to deal with differences. So often we draw our lines, proclaim that you're either for us or against us. Draw our lines, put in our boxes, check on our lists of what is and isn't acceptable. To truly listen and learn from another,we have to let go of our biases. Simone Weil believed, "Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached."

What does Weil mean by detachment?

Russell Shaw defines it this way, "To be detached, to practice detachment, is to establish and maintain a relation to everything and everybody in one's life according to which all things are valued by how much they help or hinder us in our relationship with God, the imitation of Christ, and the service of other people."

As Christians, how do we hold to the truths of our faith, while, at the same time being open to hearing what others have to say about what they believe, why they believe, and approaching them without judgmentalism or the attitude that we must change them. This requires mutual caring, kindness, patience, and building a trusting relationship. 

But are Christians good critical thinkers?

In an interview with Jonathan Merritt, Alan Jacobs (a Christian and professor at Baylor University), answered this with, "Christians of all people ought to be attentive to our own shortcomings, and the ways our dispositions of mind and heart and spirit can get in the way of knowing what’s true. After all, we’e the people who are supposed to believe that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things” and that sort of stuff. If we want to think better, then the first step should be to take those beliefs as seriously as many of us say we do, and to turn a ruthlessly skeptical eye on ourselves — before we turn it on our neighbors. There’s a line about specks in our neighbors’ eyes and logs in our own that applies here. There’s a lot more to say, obviously, but I think self-skepticism is the place to begin."

This is certainly true of Christians inability to come to terms with science. As Saint Augustine once warned: 

Often, a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.

Jacobs believes, like Saint Augustine, that we cannot put thinking as an opposition to faith.  In Who's Afraid of Postmodernism, James K.A. Smith writes, "We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity." One can see this lack of objectivity and this expression of personal certainty in the interactions on social media, where it is less an exchange of ideas than merely a trying to simply angrily post one's point-of-view and attack someone else's (someone who does not agree with you). Too often, we have lost the ability for reasoned civility. Yet the danger of this is that we do not take into account that, as Alan Jacobs writes, "... all of us at various times in our lives believe true things for poor reasons, and false things for good reasons, and that whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings. Thinking independently, solitarily, “for ourselves,” is not an option."

As Christians, it's not that we can't disagree with someone, but as 1st Peter 3:5 reminds us, "always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence." 

We are called to do more than change people's minds, but to change people's hearts. We cannot do this if we are hostile, belligerent, and angry. We must approach all with humility, gentleness, kindness and wisdom. Certainly we see a good example of this in the Apostle Paul, who understood different philosophies and religious beliefs, and could approach them with both this understanding and the ability to debate without anger or hatred, as Paul did with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Acts 17. As verses 32-34 tells us, "When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, 'We want to hear you again on this subject.' At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed."

In this polarized age, information-overloaded cyber-world, we could do well to learn how to think and reason and love others.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Seek Out The People Of Peace

I love how when Christ sends out his disciples for the first time, he tells them, "Whatever house you enter, begin by saying, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not it will return to you" (Luke 10:5-6). He is telling them to look for the man of peace in each town or city that they enter. As I began to reflect on that concept of a "man of peace," (I am referring to "man" in terms of humanity, not just males), I started to wonder what exactly that looks like and am I one in my own city? Would my neighbors see me as such? What about my own family? Would Christ look at me as a man of peace?

Shalom. Peace. Completeness. Wholeness. 

How many of us truly picture ourselves using any of those synonymous words? 

I would struggle to on my best days, but I would be even more unlikely to consider myself a man of peace on the days where I quarrel and fight for my own way, for vindication or, even worse, retribution against those who've hurt or slighted me. I begin to inwardly pray those dark Psalms that many of us would like to pretend weren't even in the Bible. Instead of those Psalms, I need to meditate on Psalm 37:37, "Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace." Would I pray such a Psalm and think of myself in terms of being "the blameless" or "the upright?" Am I one whose future awaits me because I "seek peace?" 

Seek peace. I cannot do this outwardly until I have begun to do this inwardly.  As Thomas Merton once wrote, "We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves, because we are not at peace with God." That statement definitely rings true in my own life. I am not at peace because I do not let go of the masks I try to hide behind, or the walls I try to build up to protect myself, or my pretensions and self-doubt that hound me from day to day to day. I am not at peace because I do not always honestly believe that I am created in the image of God and that I am beloved of God. If I cannot do this, then I cannot possibly begin to love others in this way, the very way Christ has called us to love them. Do I let go of my own sense of self-rejection and understand in more than just a mental assent that I am seen every day through the gentle gaze of God who carries me in the palm of His hand and that I am near and dear to His heart? Do I let go of measuring myself by the standards of others? By the traps of success and popularity and power? As long as I am pursuing success, popularity and power, I will never know real and abiding peace. to hold on to the world is to let go of those things which are truly everlasting: peace, joy, love, gentleness, patience, mercy, and compassion, But first I have to let the Holy Spirit minister to me through those fruits before I can begin to share such fruits with those in my daily life. 

If I can find peace and contentment in God then I can draw from that well when chaos is all around me because who I am is centered not on myself or what I do or do not have materially, but solely and wholly on my Creator. If I grasp that I am accepted by Christ then I will be more likely to accept others. If I realize I am loved by Christ then I will be more willing to love others. If I understand who I am through Christ then I will act and respond in Christ-like ways. 1st Corinthians 6:17 says, "But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit." If I am united with Christ, then my spirit will resemble his. I will be more kind and compassionate, forgiving and loving. I also stop seeing others as enemies and begin seeing them as neighbors. And I am called to love my neighbor. 

When I am in the place where God is enough, peace will begin in me and flow from me. The root of all peace is found in God. Brennan Manning said, "We are enveloped in peace, whether or not we feel ourselves to be at peace. By that I mean the peace that passes understanding is not a subjective sensation of peace; if we are in Christ, we are at peace even when we feel no peace." Why? Because peace is a reality, not a feeling. Peace is not found in the acceptance of others, but solely in our acceptance from God. Peace is not found in the opinions of others, but in the understanding that we are beloved of God. The more we believe this, the more we are convinced of this, the more we realize the truth of this, then we know with all of our hearts and souls and minds that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of Christ. This is grace. This is freedom. This is peace. When we have that peace, we will walk in that freedom. 

In every encounter, we can choose to be this man or woman of peace. We can offer the words of life and love and healing and forgiveness. We can be the light in the darkness. Our vision will be not of pursuing self-interests but in being the sons and daughters of God whose sole purpose is to be peacemakers in this world, to help bring others to the wholeness that is found in Christ alone. 

Like Henri Nouwen, I must ask myself, "Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come."

Let me resolve, every morning, to pursue and seek peace, to offer and extend peace, and to love all with a love that conquers hate, prejudice, fear, and greed. May I be the man of peace who knows peace so intimately that when others come into my house, that peace rests on them. What a glorious world it would be if we all became those people of peace.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Fairy Tale Faith

While at lunch with a good friend one day, he asked me about my faith. He started off by stating, "I'm not religious ..." To which I replied, "Good. Neither am I." He looked at me a bit askance.  I had to briefly explain, "To me, religion is what happens when faith is replaced by fear."  While he nodded, I still think he saw me through the lens of religious. Then he dropped his question on me, "How can you possibly believe something so implausible?"This question was not meant to be rude or offensive. He was genuinely asking because he was seeking. My first thought was to respond in an Alice in Wonderland fashion, "Are you kidding? I believe in at least six impossible things before breakfast." But I refrained. How does one explain why one believes? It may seem simplistic, but I believe because I choose to believe, I wanted to belief. And part of my desire to believe came from what many might consider an unexpected source - fairy tales.

In his book The Alphabet of Grace, Frederick Buechner writes, "Fatherless at ten, I may simply have dreamed some kind of father into some kind of life somewhere else. I have always loved fairy tales and to this day read E. Nesbit and the Oz books, Andrew Lang and the Narnia books and Tolkien with more intensity than I read almost anything else. And I believe in magic or want to... All of which is to say I am a congenital believer, a helpless hungerer after the marvelous as solace and adventure and escape." When I read that passage, I completely and totally understood exactly what he was saying because, while I did not lose my father, I am someone who believes because I, too, am "a congenital believer, a helpless hungerer" because something stirred inside of me when I first encountered fairy tales and magic and adventure.

My great-Aunt Annie gave me my very first collection of Grimm's fairy tales as a birthday present. It was a cleaned up, kid-friendly version of Grimm's tales. Like many my age, I was a child of Disney and had first encountered fairy tales not on the page but on the big screen. Films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Peter Pan and Pinocchio were the gateway into fairy tales. I fell in love with the idea that there was more than the world around us, that there was magic, that the world did indeed have darkness and evil but that it could be overcome. To me, there were no more beautiful way to start a story than those glorious words, "Once upon a time . . ." To hear those words was to be a magician conjuring a spell of enchantment that would not release the listener or reader even when they came to the ending of "And they all lived happily ever after."

Fairy tales begin in a place of childlike wonder. So, too, does faith. Just as I delighted in "Once upon a time," so, too, did I find delight in the words "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). Both seemed spectacular and wondrous. As in my favorite fairy tales and stories, Genesis begins in a kind of forest. We are let in on good and evil, and of choice, and how, like Snow White, Adam and Eve eat of a cursed fruit. And, in that moment, it appears as if evil has one.

Of course, for anyone familiar with fairy tales begins to realize, is that light always overcomes the darkness, good overcomes evil, and dragons exist but can be defeated. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in an essay entitled "The Red Angel":

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Fairy tales do not deny the darkness, the evil lurking not only in witches, but even in the common heart of parents (a common staple is the wicked mother or stepmother and the obliging father who goes along with his wife's wishes to do away with the kids). There is darkness in the forest of the world that those who would become heroes, princes or princesses must enter and overcome. Those stories put us all in the role of Alice in Wonderland, Lucy in Narnia, Frodo in Middle Earth, or Wendy in Neverland. 

I will never, ever forget reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for the very first time. I drew in a deep breath when Lucy passed from the wardrobe into Narnia and saw that streetlamp standing there in the snow. The brilliance of Lewis for putting such a commonplace object into such a magical setting, transforming it from a mere, ordinary streetlamp into some extraordinary. I got that same thrill when I saw a streetlamp in Kyiv that reminded me of the one in Narnia, and I (secretly) hoped to encounter Mr. Tumnus the faun.

Narnia, like any good fairy tale, made me long for a world just beyond our own. One of my favorite details from the Narnia series is that Aslan sang the world into being. What a wonderful detail for Lewis to imagine. In my longing, I went into my own closet but found that I could not push past the clothes, that there was no portal to a magical place. C.S. Lewis said, "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the logical explanation is that I was made for another world." 

Having grown up reading the Oz series and loving the classic film The Wizard of Oz, I could only hope that, in lieu of a wardrobe, a tornado might lift me up to a another faraway land. When I was an elementary school aged boy, I remember the power going off in our house. My sister cried out and my mother rushed to check on her. While my mom was gone, I stood at one of the windows of our house and watched as a small tornado went through our backyard. As I watched, I waited in anticipation. Was this my ticket to Oz? No such luck! The tornado only picked up our neighbor's small work shed and deposited it in another neighbor's yard. 

But that's the wonder of fairy tales, they both transport us to another world and help us to begin to understand and make sense of our own. Just as fairy tales do not hide evil, they also do not gloss over suffering or pain or hardships. Hansel and Gretel's parents are driven to abandon their children in the forest because of starvation. That fairy tale centers around food, hunger and deprivation. The forest is fraught with dangers. The world is filled with both those who would help and those who would harm us on our journey. Fairy tales teach us that our choices determine our character, our outcome and how we treat others will impact how our stories unfold. J.R.R. Tolkien writes that fairy tales "do not deny the existence of . . . sorrow and failure, the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of the deliverance, it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." Fairy tales show us that there are these depths so that we also grasp the joy of deliverance from utter destruction and death. The darkness makes the light that much sweeter when it comes. 

Yes, there are dark forests where one can wander and get lost. It always appear as if Frodo and Samwise will not make it to Mount Doom to destroy the ring, that Dorothy and her companions will not make it to the Emerald City to see the wizard, that Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace won't be able to defeat the Darkness, that Snow White is, in fact, dead. There are setbacks and failures. There are hindrances and wrong paths taken. There are risks involved. We are all cowardly lions who must learn to be brave. We are all Edmunds who must be redeemed so that we can take our rightful place in the kingdom. We are all beasts who must be seen as worthy of love for what is inside of us. Transfigurations and transformations are the stuff of the magical and the miraculous. 

So fairy tales prepared me for Abram and Sara setting off for another land, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, of Daniel in the lions' den, of Incarnation and Resurrection. Why? Because fairy tales prepared me for wonder, for marvels, for the numinous, the unexplainable. As a children, we love fairy tales but, as we get older, we put them away as childish things. Yet Christ has called us to become like little children. Why? Because of that sense of wonder, of possibility, of understanding that we cannot always understand and that there is an impossible possible. 

Fairy tales made me into a story-loving child. Scripture did the same. Both taught me that to get to the magical kingdom, one had to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Neither fairy tales nor the Bible is fanciful. They show that amidst the possibility of destruction and death, there is always hope.  Like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, scriptures teach us that God uses the weak, the foolish, the small. 

Like the fairy tale, we watch in horror and fear as Christ goes to the cross and dies. Like in Tolkien's Middle Earth, we fear all hope is lost, the war is over and evil has triumphed. But both remind us that all hopes hinge on the return of the King, who will lead us to victory and a new earth. 

George MacDonald (both a pastor and a writer of fairy tales) wisely understood, "If both Church and fairy-tale belong to humanity, they may occasionally cross circles, without injury to either." Both stretch our imaginations. Both ask us to believe the unbelievable, to embrace that the impossible is possible, that the world is filled with miracles and a deeper magic. We all long for another world because we understand that there is more than this one, that something else lies just beyond the horizon, within our hearts and our dreams, that remind us this is not all there is. As Frederick Buechner writes in Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, "But we are also from somewhere else. We are from Oz, from Looking-Glass Land, from Narnia, and from Middle Earth. If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still." You must become as a little child. 


Because children believe in the possibility. 

Grown-ups dismiss fairy tales, fantasy and faith as mere escapism, but, as J.R.R. Tolkien once said, "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape? . . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!" Is that not the gospel? To set the captives free? How many of us "adults" are prisoners of our own unbelief and unwilling to accept what Madeleine L'Engle calls the "most glorious impossibles" (such as walking on water and raising the dead). 

I am an adult who adores fairy tales. Like Buechner, I return to them again and again for pleasure and to rediscover the magical truths they impart. Many of my favorite theologians are also writers of fairy tales and fantasy (MacDonald, Lewis, Chesterton, L'Engle). Returning to Narnia, Wonderland, Oz, Neverland, and Middle Earth continue to tap into that place in me that hears the whisper in this world that there is another to come, that we will live in an endless ending. I will continue to delight in E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin and J.K. Rowling.  I will lose myself in the stories of Hans Christian Andersen who wrote that, "Every man's life is a fairy tale, written by God's finger."

"A faith that moves mountains," said Rich Mullins, "is a faith that expands horizons, it does not bring us into a smaller world full of easy answers, but into a larger one where there is room for wonder." This is what fairy tales ushered me into. They have led me into realizing that a story much greater, much more wonderful and one that ends with a kingdom without tears, pain and sorrow is what awaits us when our king welcomes us into a world that is more than mere wishful thinking. Faith, like fairy tales, offer us powerful and hopeful affirmation of what lies ahead. We will then enter Aslan's Country where we are in a story "which goes on forever, an in which every chapter is better than the one before."

This is why I cherish and cling to my fairy tale faith.

“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.”  
J.R.R. Tolkien

Friday, November 10, 2017

Sara Groves: Abide With Me

Sara Groves' last album, Floodplains, was a profound and deeply personal album that showed her artistry had grown richer and more spiritually penetrating than anything one hears on Christian radio these days. It was a wrestling with and a coming to an understanding of grace even in the midst of depression. How does Sara Groves follow up such a masterpiece? By returning to the roots that underlie all of her music: hymns. Like any great psalmist, Sara Groves has not been afraid to both question and praise. Now she offers up her rendition of hymns that are familiar and beloved to those who have sung them for centuries in the Church.

Sara begins the album with one of my favorites, the Eucharistic hymn "For The Beauty Of The Earth." Written in 1864 by Folliott S. Pierpoint, it begins:

For the beauty of the earth,
   For the beauty of the skies,
For the Love which from our birth
   Over and around us lies:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our Sacrifice of Praise.

I love how this hymn connects the beauty of the natural world and creation to its Creator. It is the finding of the holy in the commonplace. Sara Groves approaches this hymn, as she does with all of those on this album, with a gentleness, a tender and open heart, and a voice that expresses the lyrics with a grace that swells in heart. 

This album was recorded in a 105 year old church and one cannot simply listen to these hymns, one finds oneself singing along. There is something nourishing about singing songs that are both personal and congregational at the same time. To hear Sara singing each hymn, one hears her heart and her love for the language of the hymns. When she sings "The Love of God" (the sixth track on the album), her melodic voice reminds us all of this song's truth:

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure -
The saints' and angels' song.

With simple orchestration, her voice stands out and draws the listener in to its warmth and solace. Seldom does she stray from the original hymns and I am grateful for this. There's a reason that hymns have endured for so long and I often find myself distracted by so many artists tampering with or trying to contemporize them to make the hymns more relevant. There is an expanse to hymns that cover the width of the human experience: both joys and sorrows, praise and lament. It is more than mere symbolism but that we find ourselves within the words we have sung for so long on Sundays. There is also something miraculous about singing them while among other believers or those who long to believe or wrestle with believing. We find solace and the sacred in hymns. They bring us to the table, to the cross, to the heart of God. They rise from within our breath and Spirit upwards in praise, even when we are at our lowest and loneliest. 

One can certainly hear this in hymns like "Abide With Me":

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me

Listening to Sara sing these hymns, I can see how they were with her during the recording of Floodplains. These are hymns that are balms and reminders that God is faithful. "My last album found me on the Floodplain," Sara said, "reflecting on the kind of provision that comes when I find myself in a place where I cannot rescue myself. Abide With Me is a collection of hymns and songs that were with me on the Floodplain." Of the hymns she chose, Sara said "These songs have risen to the top of a lifetime of hymns and songs, an in a season where language is difficult and caustic, form new sentences of hope and solace for me. I hope they do the same for you!"

Hearing her sing "Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus" reminds me of the church I grew up in and how those in its small congregation. I remember how the older members sang this hymn in a way that reminded those who were younger that these were more than mere words to be sung but had been lived out during their decades of life. 

Sara Groves has given us another album that continues to reveal not only her talent and gifts, but offers us something we so desperately need during this time where so much is fractured and divided, where vitriol and anger seem the norm: comfort. Abide With Me is an album that rebuilds, restores and renews those who listen and sing along to it. She has given us a gorgeous reminder that she sings of in "Lead On O King Eternal": 

That your kingdom come
And your will be done
Right here, on the earth
Like it is in heaven

To end this treasure of an album, Sara finishes with her own "He Has Always Been Faithful"pared down to its simplest and purest form. Her voice makes one ache with the realization of what she's singing: that God has always been faithful to us and always will be.

This is a much needed record to help hearts heal, to remind us that we are to be the kingdom of God here on earth, to rejoice with those who rejoice, to mourn with those who mourn, and to let our love reveal the light that guides us all on. These hymns touch us emotionally and theologically. No matter where you are on your spiritual path (mountaintop or valley), this is a glorious reminder that hymns connect us to the past and point us to our future hope. 

Sara Groves' official website:

Abide With Me's official release date is November 17th

Monday, November 6, 2017

A Must-Read Review: Glory Happening

We so often miss the sacred because we're looking for the spectacular. The holy is most often found in the ordinary. This is something I am learning daily in my own life. It's often easier to feel connected to God when I am walking in the woods, or standing at the edge of the ocean, or looking out over a mountain range. But what about in the quotidian moments that fill my life far more than those?

In folding laundry?

Making dinner?

The tasks that too often feel more like drudgery than liturgy?

Yet one of my favorite verses is in the Bible is when God tells the prophet Jeremiah to instruct the people of Israel, as they go into Babylonian captivity, "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce" (29:5). Why does He do this? Because he wants them to make a normal life even amidst exile, to plant gardens and eat from the fruits of their labors. God is a God who is so regularly found in the little minutiae of our day to day lives. Scripture is filled with such passages and, yet, so much of spiritual writing is more concerned with less mundane tasks than the sacredness of reading a story to your child before bed.

In her book Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Everyday Places, Kaitilin B. Curtice writes in poetic, profound words how it is precisely in such mundane moments that the miraculous and the magnificence are found: whether it's watering plants, sharing a meal, or riding a stationary bike at the local YMCA that one most encounters the presence and love of God. It is the ordinary that is joyfully extraordinary.

Curtice writes small snapshot glimpse into her life and into the grace that can be found in family, community, and in finding one's own identity. Each chapter begins with a quote and ends with a prayer that reads like Psalms. She is a contemplative storyteller whose personal narratives gently lead the reader into meditating on one's own life, instead of merely telling a moral or spiritual lesson. Like any great writer, she shows, not tells the reader to Pay Attention. It's not just practicing the presence, it's being present.

Though a slender volume, you want want to rush through quickly but will love savoring, reflecting, and entering into the holiness that is found in the hours and days that comprise our lives.

The philosopher Simone Weil wrote, "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul." Curtice clearly sees this spiritual need to be tethered and finds ways to be so in something as simple as the companionship of a dog.

If you're looking for a beautiful book that will nourish and nurture a desire to open your eyes to the awe and wonder of the Divine in the daily, then I highly recommend this book.

Kaitlin B. Curtice's official website: