Saturday, October 28, 2006

sabbath reading

This summer, after returning from Africa, I had the opportunity to exhale and take a little extra time to read, study, and reflect. The following books are the ones I found to be most helpful, stimulating and encouraging.

Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen. This is Nouwen’s most recent book, and it was actually written posthumously by two of his former students/apprentices based largely on Nouwen’s university teaching notes on the subject. It’s an outstanding book and it shows us how to live in sync with God and how to find wisdom for our long walks of faith. And hey, getting Nouwen as a personal mentor ain’t bad either!

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N.T. Wright is simply a masterpiece! It’s not a simple read, but it cuts to the core of what it truly means to be Christian and why the deepest longings of our heart make so much sense. It felt to me something like a postmodern version of C.S Lewis' classic, Mere Christianity. My blog post below, “echoes of africa,” borrows heavily on Wright’s thinking, so read that post to get a feel for where Wright will take you in this brilliant look at the very nature of God and his followers.

The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, is a provocative look at emerging culture and a stimulating exploration of the kind of church it will take to reach the postmodern world. Their understanding of what it means to be church is radically different than what most followers of Christ have come to experience as church. I love what they write, and I’ve had a taste of a new kind of church through our involvement in NieuCommunities. But I suspect their way of being church will still, for at least a few more years, be primarily attractive to counter-cultural people rather than popular culture. But if you have a bent to challenge the status quo and connect with people who just don’t “get church” as they see it lived out in their neighborhoods, Frost and Hirsh will get you thinking!

Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp is a full-on challenge to those of us who call ourselves Christians to cease playing at faith and to become radical followers of Christ. He challenges the softness that often characterizes our faith and our churches. He offers a different kind of discipleship, a different kind of following God that involves sacrifice, risk, and asking our world and ourselves the uncomfortable questions. Throughout the book I found myself wondering, “Just how much have I unknowingly become culturally captive? How much of my faith is more middle-class conservative America than it is Christ-like?” Don’t read this book if you’re looking for confirmation of what you already practice. But if you’re ready to take a hard look at the way you follow God in light of Scripture, Camp will take you on a profound ride.

Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor. This book was recommended to me by a good friend who has left the church, but not God. In fact, his relationship with God is as rich now as it has ever been. Taylor is an Episcopal priest, and this is her personal story about breaking free of the religious machinery of the priesthood in hopes of finding a fresh and freeing faith. This is a warm, thought-provoking, sometimes sad, but very well written book. I wouldn’t want to give up as much as she has to enjoy a life-giving faith, but after 20 years of voactional ministry, there are certainly parts of her journey I resonate with.

On the lighter side, I had a blast reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This historical fiction follows the lives of a handful of historians who are searching for the tomb of Vlad III, the 15th century Romanian prince who fought against the Ottoman Empire. He was also called Vlad the Impaler, and his life is the stuff of the legend of Dracula. This is a fascinating tale that takes you on an investigative journey through Amsterdam, France, Istanbul, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Fascinating stuff…especially if you’ve already visited many of these places or have always wanted to!

echoes of africa

I have friends who tell me that God has told them—presumably in an audible voice—to do certain things or to not do certain things. I don’t know about you, but God has never actually spoken to me like that. I sometimes wish he would, but unless I’ve just missed it, he has chosen not to. What I hear—and I hear it more with my soul than with my ears—sounds more like the echo of a voice than it does the voice itself. It’s the echo of a voice that sometimes sounds near and sometimes far more distant, but it’s real and it compels me to move in the direction I sense it coming from.

To live in South Africa this past year was a remarkable gift for us in many, many ways. But the greatest gift of all was being in a place, and having the time and space, to listen for that voice and to feel it bouncing off the walls around us. I don’t want to imply that our experience in Africa was picture perfect, because it wasn’t. In fact it was sometimes grueling, occasionally dangerous, and it revealed things in us that weren’t always pleasant to see. But there was something about the rhythm and fullness of life there, something about our interactions with the world around us and the people near to us that was actually telling us something about God. If what we were experiencing was perhaps the echo of the voice of God, what was the voice calling us to? What is the voice telling us about what we are all created for?

In Africa we heard the echo of a voice that calls us to beauty. The beauty of an African sunset, or the graceful strides of a cheetah in the wild are breathtaking. God created us to enjoy beauty. To preserve and protect it. To invite others into it, and even to help create it for others to experience. Beauty doesn’t have to be extravagant. In fact, it's usually the simple and natural beauties that we enjoy most. In Africa we experienced a piece of God’s Eden, and in it we heard the echoes of a voice calling us to create beauty for others wherever we go.

We also heard the echo of a voice that calls us to live in deep relationships. We were made for each other…to enjoy each other…to challenge each other…to make each other better. Our experience of community wasn’t always pretty, and at times we were even disillusioned. But we learned to fight for community. We learned how to fight fair and what is worth fighting for. We experienced a taste of doing life together that was more holistic than anything we had previously experienced, and even though it was often hard, it was so worth it.

In Africa, where countless cultures have thrived and faded throughout the ages, spirituality takes on many diverse and nuanced forms. But in just the sheer volume of religious expressions we heard the echo of a voice calling us to spirituality. It’s in our blood as humans. We were made to be spiritual. Whether it is sought out in the designer religions springing up throughout the west, or in the ancient rites of the people of Africa, we are all created to be connected with the Divine Presence. And so we worked hard in South Africa to create a place where people could linger long with God and have the opportunity to get soaked in his presence just as they were meant to be.

But there is another echo we heard in Africa, the echo of a voice that has been far too faint in my life, far too distant. It’s the echo of a voice that is calling us to justice. It doesn’t take long in a place like Africa to see and feel painful injustices that have gone on far too long. My eyes were opened to see just how far out of joint and brutalizing our world really is. My eyes were also opened to truths in the Scriptures that I had missed before. I found myself immersed in the gospels this past year, and for the first time I was reading the words of Jesus not just as the words of the One who gives life, but as the words of a subversive, provocative revolutionary who was set on overturning the unjust status quo of the 1st century world. And in his story I realized just how domesticated my faith had become.

You don’t have to go to Africa to see gross injustices. Sure, they’re more conspicuous there than they probably are where you or I live. But there are certainly injustices all around us. We simply need to hear the echo of the voice that calls us to act on behalf of the marginalized, the poor, the weak, and the defenseless just as Jesus did and just as he calls us to.

Beauty. Relationships. Spirituality. Justice. Those are words that are true about our God and worth pursuing with all we’ve got, whether we live in Africa or Anaheim.