Monday, March 20, 2017

Reclaiming Hope


For years I considered myself apolitical. Yet I have found, as I have gotten older, that to not be political is to be political. It's difficult to be part of either political party when neither holds firmly to the beliefs that I do. In many ways, I'm conservative and, in others, I am liberal (particularly in regards to social justice).  I have never voted straight party ticket but have thoroughly investigated and checked the stances on specific issues for each candidate and then voted according to my conscience and after much prayer.

Growing up in a very conservative Republican and Protestant home, the closest my family had to a saint was Ronald Reagan. My mother's ideal for me was to be like Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox's character on the TV show Family Ties).  I was taught that I was:
1. A Christian
2. An American
3. Southern
4. Republican
And all of those things were blessings of God.

This is how I was raised yet, as I got older and the more I read my Bible, I began to question. Yet I struggled to find a candidate who I could fully support.

In 2008, a candidate ran on the platform of hope and the dignity of all. Despite the odds, Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States. It was an historic election that made many wonder if our country had turned a corner, particularly in regards to race.

Now, over eight years later, we have watched as all of that has changed into fear, distrust and discrimination. During this last election, I, like many, grew weary of the polarizing divisiveness of American politics and of the system itself. Many are losing hope.  The author, Michael Wear, writes, " . . . I believe it is an error to identify Barack Obama - or any candidate or political movement - as the source of our hope. But at the same time, I do not want to dismiss his 2008 campaign as an illusion, to reduce it to a cautionary tale of the dangers of political commitments. There was real promise in that moment. Many hundreds of his campaign staff would say he changed their lives. For thousands of volunteers, first-time voters, and all who felt their voices were finally heard in our political process, the Obama campaign affirmed their dignity. If only politics did this all of the time."

At the age of twenty-one, Michael Wear served in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Obama. Reclaiming Hope is part memoir, part political observation and a book of ultimate hope and faith. Wear writes candidly and honestly about the highs and lows surrounding that administrations achievements. He also writes openly of something many overlooked or dismissed: President' Obama's strong faith.  Seldom did the media cover it, partly because many in the White House did not want them to just as there were many in the Democratic party who were unhappy that Obama continued the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership (which was started under Bush and many on the left felt should've been abandoned). Obama championed vocally for the inclusion of not only that Office but voices of faith to be heard. He was disappointed when many in the Evangelical Church either doubted his Christianity and falsely labeled him "Muslim."

Wear writes, "In 2010, respected academics David Campbell and Robert Putnam concluded in their landmark book, American Grace, that partisan politics were directly to blame for the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans. 'The growth of the nones,' Campbell argued, 'is a direct reaction to the intermingling of religion and politics in the United States.' Evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt was more blunt in his assessment: 'As American Evangelicals have become more partisan, American Christianity has suffered as more shy away from the faith."

Yet, despite many people's claims to the opposite, President Obama's Christian beliefs showed up again and again in his speeches, especially those given at each National Prayer Breakfast.  He referenced his Christian faith more than the sainted Ronald Reagan. He spoke of how his beliefs shaped so much of how he viewed the world, others, and reaching out to help those in most desperate need. He spoke of being the Good Samaritan and he was "... the politician who injected the phrase 'I am my brother's keeper' into the political lexicon."

Michael Wear's book is balanced in his assessment of his former boss. He writes of watching the President change his position of gay marriage, as well as his attempt to find common ground between those who are Pro-Life and Pro-Choice to create ways to lessen the number of abortions in the United States. He also writes of achievements such as including the adoption tax credit and making human trafficking a major priority for his administration. This is an honest appraisal that balances both the highs and lows of being a Christian in the center of the public square.

Instead of the politicization of religion that so many in office use as a way to get elected, Michael Wear rights of the compelling need of real faith to intersect with politics. For those who have abandoned hope, this book is much needed and one will rediscover the reason for hope in the last two chapters. This is the hope that is more than a political slogan or bumper-sticker.

As we see our political system so mired down in ugliness and we seem more and more divided on issues, we should heed the words President Obama spoke at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast:
"At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another; to have a serious and civil debate. And this erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among our citizens. It poisons the well of public opinion. It leaves each side little room to negotiate with the other. It makes politics an all-or-nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on the truth. And then we lose sight of the children without food and the men without shelter and the families without health care. So what's the answer? Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility."

Yes, our political system desperately needs civility.

Our social media needs to be open to polite discourse that, while it does not always have to agree, it should always be respectful without breaking down into coarse, vulgar and incendiary comments.

All of us needs to truly and prayerfully be "empowered by faith."

Faith in what?

Not in a political candidate or party. As Wear writes in the introduction, "Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics o have their inner needs met. Politics does a poor job of meeting inner needs, but politicians will suggest they can do it if it will get them votes. The state of our politics is a reflection of the state of our souls."

Indeed.

Wear offers us more than politics, more than false hope and how we can truly reclaim real and lasting hope.

It doesn't matter whether you're Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal, there is something in this book for everyone. This was one of the books I was most excited about this year and it did not disappoint. It's no wonder that it's gathered endorsements from J.D. Vance, Tim Keller, Russell Moore, Ann Voskamp and Sara Groves among others.


Michael Wear's official website:

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Assimilate Or Go Home: A Beautiful & Necessary Book Of Refugees & Stateless Wanderers


D. L. Mayfield starts off her book with failure. She writes of showing an apartment of full of devout Muslims The Jesus Film. What I love about how she narrates this experience was the fervent desire to proselytize and play the missionary. Realizing that the "heavy yoke" of her desire to convert was slipping off her shoulders, Mayfield sat there and listened to the rhythms of a foreign language and, instead of worrying about converting them, she simply entered their lives and loved them. She writes:

"Slowly, I started to enter more fully into the world of my refugee friends. As the days and months blended into years, I experienced strange paradoxes. The more I failed to communicate the love of God to my friends, the more I experienced it for myself. The more overwhelmed I felt as I became involved in the myriad of problems facing my friends who experience poverty in America, the less pressure I felt to attain success or wealth or prestige. And the more my world started to expand at my periphery, the more it became clear that life was more beautiful and more terrible than I had been told. The differences, although real, started to blur together a bit. Muslim, Christian, Somali, American. We were being told to assimilate or go home, but we couldn't do that either."

We live in a climate that has become hostile to refugees, immigrants and migrants. Somehow there is a fear of contamination, especially if they are Muslim. Xenophobia is rampant as so many of our political leaders and a great number of people in this country want to ban foreigners, particularly Middle Easterners, from entering the United States.

D.L. Mayfield writes with thoughtful honesty and deep humility. Growing up Evangelical, she had a heart for converting the world for Christ but found that what was needed was loving the world because she, herself, was being converted daily to become more like Christ. What began with eager enthusiasm crashed into the hard realities of being a missionary. She discovered that chasing spiritual highs would leave her continually unsatisfied. Mayfield admits that she had to learn to stop seeing herself as "the generous benefactor" when she would discover "just like the Bible said, it was the poor, the sick, and the sad who would be blessed in the kingdom of god - and they would be the ones who would reveal it to me."

The book is written as essays to mirror the four general stages a refugee goes through in acclimating to their new lives: anticipation , reality, depression and acceptance.  She deftly connects her own spiritual journey using these four stages as she moves from religion to the kingdom of God. The more she was drawn to this kingdom, the more she found herself drawn to the margins, to the "stateless wanderers of the earth" where Jesus said he would always be found. "I used to want to witness to people," she writes, "to tell them the story of God in digestible pieces, to win them over to my side. But more and more I am hearing the still small voice calling me to be the witness. To live in proximity to pain and suffering and injustice instead of high-tailing it to a more calm and isolated life. To live with eyes wide open on the edges of of our world, the margins of society."

D. L. Mayfield has an intelligence and compassion that comes through in her prose. She is a skillful storyteller who is not afraid to reveal her failures as she questions her own motives for why she really was working with the poor Somali Bantu refugees in Portland, where she lives.  Her story is coming to the realization that following Christ isn't about simply believing in Jesus and going to heaven. As she writes, " . . . reading Jesus's words it becomes apparent that the kingdom is very much about the here and now, changing the world to reflect what God desires: the oppressed would have justice, the poor would be fed, and the stateless wanderers would be taken care of."

The books title, Assimilate or Go Home, confronts the reality that so many in this country and in the Church have. Be and act like us, or go away. With the huge crisis of global refugees the world is currently facing, this book takes on a deeper and more painful meaning. Reading this book, one sees the hardships that come with refugees who struggle to but cannot seem to assimilate in their new country with its culture and language. It's a complex issue that Mayfield writes about with compassion as well as frustration. Being present to their pain and suffering and poverty is hard, tiring, emotionally exhausting. "I realized I was tired of being comfortable with sickness and death and inequality," she says, "so, too, was I tired of being overwhelmed with all of the places it seemed God was absent."

Yet there is nothing more Christ-like than loving others in the midst of their trauma and poverty. To speak up and be a witness against a system that's broken and in desperate need of repair. Mayfield, despite the hardships, remains hopeful, remains engaged, remains involved. Like the author, all of us need to be present and in "proximity to the pain and suffering and injustice" so that we, too, can be a witness. It's about leaving the mission field to find, instead, community. Assimilate or Go Home is a must-read.


Check out D. L. Mayfield's official website Living in the Upside Down Kingdom:


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Return to the Ragamuffin: A Review Of Brennan Manning's A Ragamuffin Gospel


Years ago, I became aware of Brennan Manning through the musician Rich Mullins. Having grown up in the Church, I most often heard sermons about personal holiness and more on sin than I can even begin to count. Yet, what I seldom, if ever, heard were messages about the grace of God. Oftentimes salvation seemed like a tenuous thing that could easily be lost with just the wrong choice and that we had to cling tightly to Jesus for dear life. It was exhausting,

And then I read The Ragamuffin Gospel and wondered why it took me so long to read these words - words that could free a person from the bondage of performance and fear. Manning wrote about grace in a way that I had never heard or read about it before, though he sent me scrambling to my Bible to encounter that this was the very message Christ taught and lived. How had I missed it for so long? How had so many pastors gotten it so wrong? Why was there so much legalism and so little of the unconditional love of our Abba?

"My deepest awareness," Manning writes, "is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to deserve or earn it."

What?

That's not what I had been taught. Where was the wrathful judgmental God who kept lists and checked off every mistake, every sin and every failure?

I longed to read the words of truth that I encountered in The Ragamuffin Gospel. "The deeper we grow in the Spirit of Jesus Christ," he writes, "the poorer we become - the more we realize that everything in life is a gift. The tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving." Gone was the drudgery and being begrudgingly obedient out of fear of hell, but of willingly following Christ not our of fear but out of love and a desire to know and experience more of him day by day. To realize that I was, indeed, a "beloved" son of God.

After I first read this book, I bought extra copies and began to give it out to everyone I could think of and thrust it into their hands with, "You must read this book. It will revolutionize and change your life."

I gave it to every broken and hurting sinner and saint I knew. And it did change lives. They, like me, saw God afresh and anew. We see our Creator not through the restrictive eyes of pharisaical law, but through the loving eyes of Christ.

"For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to to God," Manning says, "it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, 'Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened,' He assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way."

Christ knew that we would and he lovingly chose us anyway. "I know you will doubt. I know you will fail and stumble. I know you will be hard-headed and hard-hearted sometimes. I know you will feel lonely and rejected and hurting. I know you will despair and question. But know that I love you. I call you  mine even when you cannot believe it, even when you cannot feel it, even when you abandon me, I will not abandon you." This is the Jesus of the gospels. This is the Jesus that Brennan Manning served and loved and wrote about. This is Jesus.

It was many years after reading The Ragamuffin Gospel that I was fortunate enough to get to attend a weekend retreat he held. I think it was around the time that his book A Glimpse of Jesus: The Stranger to Self-Hatred was published. Just as I had been when I first encountered his books, I needed to hear the words Manning spoke. Many of those gathered for the retreat, found themselves in tears from his message. They were words that provided deep healing and profound wisdom and grace.

At one point, towards the end of the retreat, he told the story of Don Quixote who saw the prostitute, Aldonza, whom he renamed Dulcinea, not as a whore but referred to her as "My lady." While she could not see herself as anything but worthless and cheap, Don Quixote chivalrously saw her as moa lady and someone whom he offered his honor and service to. Isn't that how Christ sees all of us? It's exactly the point that Manning made. Christ saw past our sins and called us "My beloved."I can still hear "Dream the Impossible Dream" playing on his cassette recorder as he had us all close our eyes and listen to the lyrics of this Broadway song from Man of La Mancha. Grace was more than a dream. It is a daily reality that so many miss out on because they so seldom encounter it in the Church or much of Christian writing.

Manning writes from sheer honesty and rawness about his own flaws and failures, especially in regards to his alcoholism. But from the depths of his pain, he understands the beauty and great gift that grace truly is. We are, all of us, broken and in need of a healer, in need of mercy and forgiveness. We are, all of us, ragamuffins.

If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend that you do. Just as I thrust it into the hands of people I knew, I will tell you, "You must read this book. It will revolutionize and change your life."

It surely did mine.


Brennan Manning on God's love:


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice Of Asking Questions


I was raised to take scripture seriously as the Word of God, but when I simply didn't just take what I was being taught at face value, but had legitimate theological questions, I was made to feel ashamed of them. Questions sparked fear in my Sunday School teachers and in my parents. Questions created doubt within me. Doubt, not in God, but in myself; in that I was made to feel that to ask a question was somehow wrong. For years I suffered under that fear. Oh how I wish I had encountered a book like Casey Tygrett's Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions a long time ago. 

As he writes, "Questions require us to see the kingdom of God as it is and as it can be in this moment, this time and this place in our story." Questions begin in curiosity. Curiosity and questions lead someone beyond their own limitations to the endless possibilities established by the creative act of grace. Questions don't necessarily lead to doubt but to deeper thinking. 

So why do so many fear questions? 

The author states, ". . . questions make us vulnerable, revealing that we don't know the answer, and not knowing the answer makes us feel weak. We begin to realize how truly unguarded and fragile we are when we ask our deepest questions." 

Yet Casey Tygrett shows how, in asking, we receive. Not always answers, because Christ came not to give us answers but himself.  And Jesus loved questions. Tygrett points this fact out, "Jesus in the Gospels engages with nearly 183 questions. Sometimes he asks, sometimes he's responding, but what I can't shake is that in the nearly three years Jesus had to transform the narrative of the people of God he often chose to ask instead of tell." I love that. As someone who was born questioning, I love a savior who delights in them, who understands how questions spark more questions and deeper thought to what he was asking or teaching. 

Questions, like the very Incarnation, are unsettling because they force us to expand our thinking. Christ calls us to question ourselves: our identity, our priorities, how we interact with others, how we love God, ourselves and others, and do we forgive as we are forgiven.

Christ understood that when we question, we are actively thinking, not just passively accepting. Questions open up our minds to more than the here and now, that when we question we are not settling for the status quo but striving to make and shape ourselves and the world around us into the kingdom of God (Christ always preached the kingdom not as some future place we go after death but what we are to strive for in our daily lives in the very places that we now live in). Questioning means that the person is not taking anything for granted but wants to comprehend truths beyond the shallow surface that so many simply glide along on. It is becoming like a little child and asking, "Why?" Such is the kingdom of heaven, as Christ reminded his disciples. 

Faith is not about finding better answers but in forming better questions. It's about letting go of expectations to experience the miracle that can be found in my daily life if I am present to it. This book offers followers of Christ the impetus to explore not only the questions that the author raises, but their own and to know that it is not only spiritually okay, it's desired by our Creator. Becoming Curious is a work that one can return to again and again to stir up the sediment of one's thoughts and return to a more reflective frame of mind. 

You can pre-order Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions which will not be released until May 2017 by InterVarsity Press. 


Casey Tygrett's official website:
http://www.caseytygrett.com