Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but it was much different than I expected. My awesome friend Laura gave it to me as a baby shower gift, and I was SO excited about it. I had been wanting to read something about Anne Lamott for awhile.

Basically it was a book about Anne’s life– a memoir. I appreciated her wit and firecrackerness. She is quite the woman. ๐Ÿ™‚ Some parts edged on sacra religious, in my opinion, but she never said that it wouldn’t.

I think if I had to choose an adjective to characterize this book, it’d be “raw.” It reminded me that Christianity isn’t always neat and in a box…that people are complex and have a lot of stuff to work through in order to see a clearer and clearer picture of God the Father. I mean, we all do, but it’s easier to see that when you’re looking from the outside, in.

And the beauty is that God accepts us where we are, even if we don’t have a perfect picture of him. How great is that?!

Daughter of China

I received this book from Jake’s mom while Jake and I were dating/newly engaged my senior year of college…and I JUST NOW got to it– how horrible is that?! ๐Ÿ™‚ Actually, I think this was perfect timing for such a book as this.

Sometimes I forget about the persecuted church– I think that this past year has been a time of healing for me— after all that happened with jake in 2005-2006, I was ready for a year of rest. A time when I didn’t have to think about suffering and heartache and unfairness. I think the Lord was very gracious with me- to let me fully heal from all of that, giving me a time of true rest under His hand of protection.

But, I think that that time of healing is over, and that I’m ready (and God is ready) to allow me to see things- and feel things- that are not fair, that don’t make sense, and that make the world seem not all right.

And although this book is a fiction piece, it still reminded me of the realness of suffering believers around the world; believers who pay quite a high price for following and sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Some believers in the U.S. have said that suffering is not necessary to follow Christ- that that was just a theme of some of Paul’s letters, and a result of the culture in the days the N.T. was written. I don’t buy it though. Because it does happen today in the world. And I know all too well the perspective and understanding and closeness of sharing in Christ’s suffering brings to believers. On one hand I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but on another, I pray that everyone goes through it. And that they would come out strong, with a better understanding of God’s love, grace, and reallness.

So, content of this book? It was a good read, but it doesn’t really matter the storyline. What will stick with me is the clear face of the persecuted church that this showed me. And the necessity and beauty of us sharing in Christ’s sufferings, to the glory of God.

What’s So Amazing About Grace?

What’s So Amazing About Grace? is the third book that I’ve read by Philip Yancy, and like the other two, this one did not disappoint. Yancey is a revolutionary for his time- a prophet for sure, but one filled with compassion and grace. It’s unusual to find someone who is quick to challenge and call things out that he thinks are wrong, but yet do so in a manner that the message is conveyed, and received, with grace and humility.

The book is divided into 4 sections. The first section introduces the idea of grace and forgiveness, helping the reader get a grasp on what it is, and he gives a lot of stories to inspire the heart towards a better understanding of what it is.

The next section narrows the focus a little, and hones in on what grace looks like played out in the world. When talking about authentic forgiveness, he emphasized how forgiveness has to begin in a person’s heart, and is applied one person at a time. When thinking about racism in America, especially before and during the civil rights movement, we have to realize that the attitude is not going to go away because of some new law or a public apology is given to all African-Americans. The reality is that each person has to have authentic forgiveness in their heart, and then extend that to each person they meet. Forgiveness is always personal, and always affects one person at a time.

In part 3, Yancey walked the reader through some issues surrounding power, moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament. In the O.T., there was kind of hierarchy set up with who could approach God, who could be touched at certain times, who could come make sacrifices (and in a non-human way, certain animals that were clean and unclean). But when Jesus came, he was touching the lepers, who were unclean. He was associating himself with tax collectors and prostitutes, the outcasts of society. Those people who by the O.T. law, would have NEVER been able to approach God. Yancey also gave a lot of stories about interacting with the gay community (even now that I use the term “gay community”, I feel like that’s not a fair way to distinguish them). He has friends that are gay, some a part of the Church and some not, and how he extends grace to them is amazing and inspiring. Interacting with that community is still a hot topic among the Church, so his words are still powerful and need to be heard.

One chapter talks about legalism. Grace can make legalists very very nervous. It makes them/us afraid that after learning about grace, and receiving grace, that we’re going to abuse it. And some people do, it’s true. But i think that those who experience it and then choose to abuse it are probably not really being affected by it.

The last section of the book deals with faith and grace and politics. Yancey’s view is that the church and the political realm should be kept separate. He gives example after example of hwo when the two are married together, things turn ugly. Politics is build on a structure of power and hierarchy that is not what the Church was designed to be built on. Politics is always led by rules of ungrace, where the Church’s actions should always be led and filled with grace. How can the two mingle together?

His three conclusions about church-state relations:
1. Dispensing God’s grace is the Christian’s main contribution.
2. Commitment to a style of grace does not mean Christians will live in perfect harmony with the government.
3. A coziness between church and state is good for the state and bad for the church.

These last few chapters really made me walk through some of the issues surrounding the Church’s role in lawmaking and leading the nation. It’s a sticky situation.

Some final thoughts:
– I think that if Philip Yancey walked into a room, he would find out what he and the person had in common before finding out what the differences are. One reason I think this: when giving some examples of grace-filled ministries, he chose to highlight ones that were founded by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson…people who are very fundamentalist (which are the kind of people that turned Yancey off to God when he was younger), but who he thinks are doing some great things in the community. He’s committed to a grace and unity that many of us youngin’s just don’t have (even if we *say* that we really are committed to unity).
– After reading in this book about the differences forms of legalism, and talking to friends about what legalism is and isn’t, I’ve come to the conclusion that we really don’t have a good grasp on what legalism is or is not. I think that it is something I want to learn more about from Scripture, and try to get a better understanding of.
– I want to be better about being a grace-giving person in the community…not just among the Church. I really want to show the world that the Church loves because Jesus loved us. We’re sinners saved by grace.

Walking the Small Group Tightrope

Small groups can be tricky things to lead. Every group is different because it is made up of unique individuals who have different personalities, different expectations, and different past small group experiences. I’ve led several small groups over the past several years…some of them have been ultra-challenging, and others seemed to go quite smooth. This book laid out 6 of the challenges that every small group will face to one degree or another…and how to find a balance between the 2 extremes in each case (like walking on a tightrope).

1. Balance between truth and life; Goal: Spiritual Transformation
This is the challenge of the CONTENT of the study- is the study hang out too much around the theoretical, the information? Or does it take truth and make it apply to real life? Groups that focus too much on the “life” aspect are those where everyone is just giving advice/helping solve each others’ problems without the study of Scripture.

2. Balance between care and discipleship; Goal: Intentional Shepherding
How does the leader/facilitator of the group handle group time? Is it spent talking about each other’s struggles/problems the whole time (nurturing the group)? Or is it all about disciplines and information transfer? This is similar to the last one, except this is more of a challenge for the leader specifically because it’s more about their leadership style.

3. Balance between friendship and accountability; Goal: Authentic Relationship
The key between this delicate balance? p. 73- “Deepening friendships must intentionally bring increasing accountability into the relationship.” When does the next step towards accountability happen in a group? Too early and it can scare people off or make them close up (if trust hasn’t been established yet). Too late and it doesn’t challenge the group to meet the goal of the group. This is a balance that, from my experience, gets much harder as the size of the group gets larger.

4. Balance between kindness and confrontation; Goal: Healthy Conflict
I haven’t really been in a group where there has been any type of confrontation, so I’m not sure what this would look like. We’ve had discussions about things that have been hot issues, but I can’t recall it ever getting tense. Maybe that means as a leader I fall too heavily on kindness because I never allow the group to get to a place where confrontation is needed.

5. Balance between task and people; Goal: Serving Together
At Willowcreek (where the authors are from), small groups are not just bible studies, but they are also ministry serving teams as well. For example, the group of greeters may meet for 30 minutes every sunday before the service to pray together, talk about what’s going on in each others’ lives, etc. Or, the group of elders are not just a business-type team, but they are in a small group together. They use the time that they are doing some sort of task, and making it into a time of bible study/devotion/prayer/etc. This allows well over 75% (probably somewhere around 90%) of those who are a part of the church to be involved in some type of small group. So, if you’re not a believer, but you’re handing out bulletins or opening up a door for someone, you’re going to begin to experience a small group. And their goal is for people to move from task small groups to deeper small groups over time. I think this is an awesome idea, and it makes a church as big as Willowcreek much larger, and it shows their intentionality and buy-in to the fact that life change happens in small groups.

6. Balance between openness and intimacy; Goal: Inclusive Community
Do we leave room for someone else to join the group? Or do we quickly become ingrown?

In the back of the book was a leader’s guide as to how to facilitate discussion and activities on these issues. I’m thinking about using some of them in our small group training at the BSU coming up in August.

Do you have any experiences with any of these challenges? If so, leave a comment!!

The Master Plan of Evangelism

Although first published in 1963, this classic book on evangelism and discipleship has not gone out of style. Robert Coleman does a great job of presenting a biblical and simple description of how Jesus shared the good news of the new Kingdom.

The message of the book is simple- as Jesus demonstrated for us, we are to go into all the world to make disciples– sharing the good news with them, and after they receive it with gladness, to disciple them into men and women who will themselves be disciplemakers. The emphasis is not placed on evangelism OR discipleship, but evangelism AND discipleship.

I like how he emphasized that the emphasis is not numbers of converts– but about the quality and quantity of the disciples that are made. God’s about people being developed into new creatures who are in turn sharing their faith and discipling others.

There wasn’t any idea presented in the book that was new to me (and in a way, that’s a good thing!), but it was a great great reminder and revisioning of what my life is to be about.

And as a sidenote, as I was reading it, I got really excited that Jake and I are being entrusted with making disciples of Jesus– with our children. True life-on-life discipleship in its purest form. What a great task!

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, is based on a true story of one female professor’s experience before and during the revolution in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This book stretched me in my reading abilities. Although the vocabulary was easy and the chapters were small, the ideas presented were challenging to me– especially when they were presented through the reviews of various books including some by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. I was familiar only with a few of the books of these authors, and even then, it’s been awhile since I’ve read them.

The author uses these authors, and other forbidden western authors, to help explain and make parallels to what was going on in the hearts, minds, and souls of the women of Iran. The women that she talks about are mostly younger women in her classes whom she continued to meet with even after not being able to teach in the Universities anymore. I loved hearing about the lives of these young women, mostly my age, as they secretly met in the professor’s house, discussing these ideas that were forbidden. Whenever the young women would enter the house, they would be able to take off their drab black and dark blue coverings, and reveal the uniqueness of themselves underneath it all. It really represented to me that although women in some countries make look similar in their Muslim garb, underneath they are very very different — the same as you and me, really.

My favorite part about this book was trying to put myself in their shoes– and realizing their courage, their strength, and most importantly, their humanity. With many bad stereotypes flying around the U.S. about middle-eastern men and women, it was refreshing and helpful to be able to take a candid peek inside the life of many ordinary citizens of Iran.

Organic Baby: Simple Steps for Healthy Living

This was an unexpected read. I was at the public library, looking for a different book, and this one was on the new release shelf. I had a few minutes to wait while Jake was upstairs looking for a different book, so I sat down in a comfy chair, cracked it open and began perusing. I didn’t get very far before Jake was done, and as I went to put it back, Jake suggested I check it out– why not? So, that’s what I did.

This book is very aesthetically pleasing. I love the graphics, the colors, the feel, etc. But you know what your momma always told you– don’t judge a book by its cover.

This book had some great information for those people who really want to have a sterile, healthy environment for their baby. I guess I do too, but after reading this book, I don’t think that I will be an overprotective mom in this category. The author informs the reader of all the chemicals and potential germs that are found in matresses, teething rings, plastic bottles, shopping cart handles, etc. I’m sure these things are accurate and possible a concern, but I can’t shelter my child his/her entire life, and there are simply dangers that I’m willing to not worry over. Yikes! How horrible is that?

Let me give you an example:
She talks about how vinyl blinds are bad, because once the sunlight hits the blinds, chemicals deconstruct and go into the air, causing harmful chemicals to be inhaled by us, which later in life causes cancer. Yikes! I have too many other things to worry about; this is not on my list. But i’m sure it’s on others’, and I admire the time and effort and money they’ll put into all of this. But I guess i’m not as big of a hippie as i once thought :).

One thing I really liked about this book was that we need to be simple, not getting caught up in materialism and producing as little waste as we can. And I also got a cool idea of making some of my own baby food, once i have time, and freezing them ice cube trays to thaw out individually when it’s meal time. I probably won’t do that all the time, but when I do have the time, it’s a great idea!

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Eugene Peterson is a pastor, author, scholar, and poet. He’s written almost 30 books, but he’s most famous for the Message. He writes a lot of books aimed at pastors, whom he sees as under-prepared and over-tempted, just as he felt that he was back in the day. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society was his second published book (1980).

Peterson has a pastorly way of writing. The text for this book are the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), which were Psalms that the Hebrew pilgrims sang on their trips up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals. Not only were they actually ascending as they travelled (Jerusalem was the highest city in Palestine), but also metaphorically- the trip to Jerusalem represented a life lived upward toward God.

Peterson begins the book by expressing his sadness and confusion as to why Christians today typically do not pray through the Psalms…he says that in the past, that’s been something very common and helpful in the life of the Christian. He hopes that by using these Psalms as a text for the book, he’ll help some re-discover, or discover for the first time, the importance and deep connection with the Lord that praying through the Psalms brings.

Each chapter is written around a Psalm:

Psalm 120: Repentance
Psalm 121: Providence
Psalm 122: Worship
Psalm 123: Service
Psalm 124: Help
Psalm 125: Security
Psalm 126: Joy
Psalm 127: Work
Psalm 128: Happiness
Psalm 129: Perseverance
Psalm 130: Hope
Psalm 131: Humility
Psalm 132: Obedience
Psalm 133: Community
Psalm 134: Blessing

All of the chapters were really good, but I think the one that impacted me the most (i.e. the one that I reflect on, or that the Holy Spirit recalls to my mind on a weekly basis), is the chapter on Hope. Everyone suffers. No matter who you are, how much money you have, how many friends you have, or what your job is. This Psalm encourages us to wait and watch in the face of suffering. Suffering, for the Christian, is never ultimate– it’s never the bottom line. God is at the foundation, and he is at the boundaries. We can trust Him. By waiting and watching, we are showing that we believe and trust that “God is actively involved in his creation and vigorously at work in redemption.”

What does living in the face of suffering with hope look like? It doesn’t look like doing nothing. “It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions.” It doesn’t look like desperate manipulation. It doesn’t look like scurrying or worrying. And it’s not dreaming or spinning an illusion to protect us from our boredom or pain. “It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do… it is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time….it is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it.”

I love this because it helps me to better understand what living out of hope looks like. Because I’m a type A personality (or maybe just because I’m human), I tend to both worry and quickly come up with a solution to whatever problem or difficulty or suffering that I am facing. Suffering is so uncomfortable that I often subconsciously think that suffering is the result of something that is wrong– that I did something wrong, or someone else did something wrong– and there is a quick solution out there that I just have to find, or something that I have to do, in order to relieve the suffering. Sometimes this looks frantic. Sometimes it makes things worse. Sometimes it relieves the suffering, but it also leaves a residue of shallowness.

The lesson here for me? To wait, to trust, to allow suffering to exist in my life by waiting and watching for what I need to do, if anything, and to live out of hope that God is indeed actively involved in my life, and that I need not worry that He has abandoned me in my time of need.

Velvet Elvis

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this book. Sadly, most of it has been made by people who have never read it themselves, only read about what other people thought about the book.

I’ll admit that at first, I did NOT like this book at all. It scared me because I took everything he said as what he was promoting and believed. But that was before I really *listened* to what he was saying. After I began to read it that way, I felt much more at ease.

Kelly and I led a group of girls through this book, and although the small group experience was really amazing, in hindsight I wouldn’t have. I think that this book is best absorbed with personal reading and digesting, with an overall discussion with a group of people at the end of the book, not with each movement (i.e. chapter).

Each movement had things I agreed and disagreed with, but that’s what made the book beautiful. It’s written for those who are on the brink of checking out of the church. They’ve had it up to “here” with hypocritical Christians, shallow churches, and a dillused view of Jesus. With that in mind, I can totally see how this book would help give those people hope again– hope that things don’t have to be the way they are, that God had something more in mind for the Church, and that Jesus was a radical lover of people who was serious about advancing the Kingdom of God. And to that, I say amen.

Here are some things that I really wrestled with, but ended up liking …
* “Central to the Christian experience is the art of questioning God.”
I’d grown up thinking questioning God was wrong. Just obey– don’t ask questions. No doubts allowed– that means lack of faith. But, I think I’ve been convinced that asking real, raw, vulnerable questions of God is vital and shows evidence of a real relationship with God.

* “The Bible is a communal book.”
Reading Scripture and living the Christian life in community. Why does the pastor get to say how to interpret Scripture? Because he’s got some degree under his belt? No way. God has gifted all the members of the local body, and God isn’t going to give one person all the pieces of the puzzle. Instead, we each come with lots of experiences in which God has taught us things, and a mind to think. So, when we all come together, we can all talk about our interpretation of Scripture, and then together see where the Lord leads us as a community.

*”Christian is a great noun, but a poor adjective.”
All truth is God’s truth. And if a Muslim points out truth, he/she is pointing out an aspect of God. Same with a Christian, or an atheist, or a Hindu. Christians don’t have a corner market on God. He reveals Himself to all kinds of people, and sometimes other people have it right and Christians don’t. We have to be willing and able to recognize God’s fingerprints in the world, and point it out to those around us. This is what Paul did, and this is what we do when we go to different states and nations to spread the Gospel. We’re not bringing God there, because He’s already there and active. We just are called to be tour guides– to point Him out. So, in a way, “unreached people groups” are not really unreached– God’s already working there.

*”Salvation is the entire universe being brought back into harmony with its maker.”
Yikes, that sounds very….new age-ish to me at first. But as I heard him out, I heartedly agreed. Jesus dying on the cross was not ONLY so that we could have a “personal relationship with God.” It was also for the restoration of the entire world. Jesus came to unveil how the world works– how God created things to be. So, salvation not only affects us as individuals, but more importantly (?) as communities.

*”This is why litter and pollution are spiritual issues.”
Taking care of the environment, whether or not global warming is true, is VITAL in our relationship with God. When God created Adam and Eve, he COMMANDED them to care for creation– to lovely use it and creatively order it. Many Christians think that we can do whatever we want, because it’s “all going to burn anyway.” But, I’m sure those are the same people who think they deserve to have things they want because “God blessed me/America with the resources.” When in fact, when they use more than their fair share, they’re robbing people in other countries of the resources. God has just been revealing all of these connections to me between the earth, the global community, and how when we do one thing here, or they do one thing there, there is ramifications around the earth. And we have to be less selfish to realize that. I guess kinda like the butterfly affect. But, my, how I have digressed :).

He says some things that I don’t agree with, or I think that was a little careless in what is communicated, but, he clearly communicates to the reader not to take what he says as truth, but to test it, to pray about it, to take what is good and leave behind the bad. He says that God has spoken and the rest is just commentary. And isn’t that we do? We just give commentary. No one can change what God said, so as long as we hold the Word (read: written and non-written) in high esteem, I think we’ll be okay :).

Kite Runner

Kite Runner was 371 pages of goodness. The author, Khaled Hosseini, was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and later moved to California. He was the son of a diplomat whose family received political asylum in the U.S. I didn’t read about the author until after I finished reading the book, which shed a whole new meaning on the book. Although this is a work of fiction, I can’t help but think there may be some deeper meaning behind why he wrote this book.

The main character is named Amir, and he is born to a wealthy family in Kabul, Afghanistan. Also living with him was a boy named Hassan, who was the son of his father’s servant. This novel is about his life, which is quite the story.

Because I highly recommend this book to everyone, I don’t want to give too much away. But, it’s definitely not a “feel good book.” It takes a good look into the reality of being human– showing the complexity of a person who goes from being very selfish to perhaps very selfless.

What I really loved about this book was the way the author gave the reader SO much insight into the culture of Afghanistan- the people, the traditions, the dark side, and the beautiful side. I loved how he built on the tradition of kite-running, which is still a part of Afghanistan culture today.

I also remembered how important it is for communities to serve and minister to the international communities in their midst.

Overall, this book was an emotional roller coaster that leaves you thinking about it long after you finish reading it.