Archive for category: Books

On 6 Steps Through Cynicism (And a Book Birthday)

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” ― George Carlin

“Day by day, I’m leaning into it, being reignited by a personal revival. And by the grace of God, I just might see a full recovery from cynicism after all.” –Nish Weiseth, Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World. photo (2) We come weeping through the birth canal full of wonder, and grow into that wonder with tactile experience–the feel of the velvet blanky, the taste of the summer-ripe strawberry, the slimy lick of the puppy’s tongue. We grow, also, into the belief of taught ideals. “Jesus was a good man, a God-man,” they say, and so we believe. “The church is your family,” they say, and so we believe.

The experiences and ideals of our youth shape us. And though some things seem ever-true–the sweetness of the summer-ripe strawberry, for instance–other things seem to lose their luster. This, I think, is how cynics are born.

Allow me to walk you through the steps of cynicism.

1. Begin With a Grand Ideal

I bought the most youthful expression of Christianity, one accompanied by Kool-Aid, edible Goldfish, and the idealistic felt-board Jesus. Jesus gave me loaves and fishes (Goldfishes to be exact), and came to heal me of every disease. Jesus was my friend.

2. Learn Every Nuance of the Ideal

Idealistic Jesus was the perfect God-man, one who healed the sick, fed the poor, and advocated for the downtrodden. He was not so much above-the-fray as below it, he working up from society’s bottom. Friend of sinners, they called him. In fact, his friendship was so fierce that he died on the cross, rose again, and sent his Holy Spirit to indwell me.

Ah, the indwelling.

It is the indwelling that made it possible for me to be just like Jesus himself. They told me this with one caveat–you can be like Jesus if your belief is fierce enough.

3. Compare the Ideal to the Teachers of the Ideal

Jesus, poor and itinerant, was propped up by the teachers, who seemed to be less poor and less itinerant. In fact, they skewed the ideal, lived lives that proclaimed Security-Jesus, the Jesus that gave eternal life and a decent shot at an early retirement. He died to make them less poor and less itinerant, it seemed.

A preacher came to me, said (at least ’round about), “one day you’ll understand how important this building campaign is to Jesus. If we preach safe messages to secure donations, he’ll understand.”

4. Embrace the New Ideal or Become a Cynic

When the ideal was co-opted by a wholly different message (i.e., “Jesus friend of the poor,” become “Jesus the master mega-church builder”) I was left with two options. First, I could embrace the new ideal regardless of all internal angst and discomfort. Alternatively, I could choose to become cynical of the former ideal.

See how impossible a thing it is to actually be like Jesus, I said.

5. Hate the Ideal

When I realized the impossibility of Idealistic Jesus, I began to see hypocrisy everywhere–the faith-healer who was dying of cancer; the celibate priest who piddled around; the minister who refused to marry the woman impregnated out of wedlock. These things were askew with the espoused ideal, and so, in a sort of transference, I associated hypocrisy with an ideal that seemed a lie. And this is where the hate set in.

Hypocrite hating is an easy thing when I adopted the role of victim.

6. The Way Out

The way out is simple, but it’s not easy. The ideal is real–Jesus friend of sinners; Jesus the poor; Jesus the itinerant; Jesus working up from the bottom. I heard this story fresh, and believed. Then I set to looking less at the hypocrites and more to the true ideal carriers. I looked to the believers struggling for faith in the far east, or the ones being persecuted for the ideal in the Middle East. I looked more to the factory worker, or the businessman choosing morning prayers at his office. I chose to look at the housewife who instilled small virtues in her pre-schoolers.

I chose, too, to see the ideal in creation, in the coming spring and the turning fall. I found the ideal again in the taste of the summer-ripe strawberry. I believed the creative, age-old ideal of the genesis of things.

The way out of cynicism begins with a re-birth into fresh eyes–eyes that look with wonder on the ideal and bounce from the hypocritical co-optors.

*****

The details of my story would take too many words to write here. These are the sketches. But the truth is, my process does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, others have written better words about the topic. This being so, might I suggest a book?

Today, Nish Weiseth releases her book, Speak:How Your Story Can Change the World. In Speak, Nish devotes a chapter to her fall into cynicism, and how she found the way out. She writes:

“I haven’t always loved the church. In fact, I hated it for a good while. I know ‘hate’ sounds harsh, but when your heart gets racked by bitterness, cynicism, and anger, ‘hate’ is probably the best word for how it feels.”

If the story stopped there, it’d be tragic. But it doesn’t.

Nish pulled out of church cynicism with the help of stories from a few friends, and she’s written parts of this story in Speak. It’s poignant, and evidences how the stories of friends, how the power of a timely word can move one from the cynicism that kills into the fresh re-birth of the ideal.

But Speak isn’t just a story of rebirth; it’s a book about the power of stories, how stories can change things. Nish writes from personal experience, yes, but she also delves into the stories of others, offers proof that there is power in the collection of our experiences. She shares how the power of these collective experiences change individual lives, how those individual lives change societies, and how those changed societies change the world.

It is true: stories change things. No one knows that better than Nish. So today, as you ponder your own story, perhaps your own shedding of cynical skin, would you consider picking up a copy of Speak? You’ll be glad you did.

(For more on Speak, visit Preston Yancey’s site. He makes a startling confession: “I wish I wrote you this book.”)

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Home Behind the Sun and an Analog Resistance (Part II)

There is an American Sycamore in my backyard. Its canopy was raised in the early years of its growth so that all its energy was directed upward. It is an adult now, a hulking beast of a tree whose lowest arms shoot from its body thick as tree stumps. Its broad leaves are like small veined fans, and they catch the wind and swoosh what might be praise if you listen closely.

This is my Father’s house. I am a child in something brilliant.

In the early evening I sat under the arms of that tree with a newish piece of spiritual literature. It was a preacher’s book, straightforward and without nuance. The metaphors were stripped to the bare minimum and otherwise, only instruction remained. “This is how we must now live!” it exclaimed. It lumbered along, offering wisdom—no doubt—without art and beauty. The work sought less to persuade and more to instruct me in the ways of quitting stupidity.

The book in itself had been well received, and don’t get me wrong, it contains more than few good words. I remember, though, its release day, the way the machine spun up. (You know the machine; the one that demands content, content, content from them and dollars, dollars, dollars from us.) There was an effective marketing campaign, and the author made all the conference rounds. I’m sure it sold one-bazillion copies.

The veil was thin—the author was the guru and I was the student. There was no “us-ness,” in the pages. Instead, the author was reaching down to me, instructing me on the ways in which I could act better, or be better, or live more up to the Christian standard.

This brings me to the meat of the matter—I’m reading a great deal of dichotomized, us-and-them literature these days. We are the preachers and you are the congregants. We have the message, and you need to hear it. We start the movement, and you need to join it. The ease of social networking and mass marketing amplifies these messages.

Here is the irony, which is not lost on me: from time to time, I’m a part of this same dichotomizing machine. From time to time, I use the same dividing tactics in my writing. From time to time, I might claim that the yous need my language. I am, after all, only human. I have not learned the simple praise of the sycamores just yet.

*****

Author, preacher, mega-conference speaker: engage me with the us-ness of your humanity. I am weary of being force-fed answers. Engage me with art and metaphor. Engage me with good metaphor, mediocre metaphor, or bad metaphor; I’ll take whatever you have to give. Lead me to the water and let me drink; stop strapping me to the waterboard and suffocating me with Truth.

*****

I’ve been reading Home Behind the Sun: Connect With God in the Brilliance of the Everyday, by Timothy Willard and Jason Locy. I would be remiss if I did not tell you that Tim and I are friends, that we shared a memorable moment trout fishing on a firefly flecked evening that framed the spring-fed waters of the Spavinaw. Even still, and with as much unbiased fervor as I can muster, let me tell you something: this book is different. There is an us-ness in the pages.

When Tim and Jason released Home, the marketing machine spun up to a dull whisper. One evening the book wasn’t there. The next it was. It was that simple. There was very little fanfare, and aside from the glowing reviews from astute preview readers; Willard’s and Locy’s sermons were not trumpeted in the temples to whet our appetites. This, I think, was the most appropriate way to release Home.

Home reminds us that the beauty of God can be found in the everyday life of the working class, the proletariat. God is for us the people. He is found by the mechanic in the garage, the father who dallied about with women for years before finding grace, the NFL player who found comfort in his child’s death. God is found in a winter’s sunrise, in the cup of coffee at the local truck stop diner, in the meadows of Yosemite. God is manifest in the extension of forgiveness to our neighbor, in the dancing of our children. God is here, in this one world, amidst us. He is delivering messages of his Brilliance.

The Brilliance exists for us, for we-the-people. It is outside of marketing machines, and us-versus-them ministry. It is outside the mega-movements, the corporate structures, the Jesus machine. It is outside of the academy and the pseudo-academy. It is a message that exists outside of digital platforms and marketing machines. It is in the coffee shops, the garage, the bedroom. The Brilliance transmits a populist message—Christ is for the normal, everday, working-class Christian.

Engaging the Brilliance is a form of analog resistance.

*****

Now, do not get me wrong. I hope Willard and Locy ride the speaker circuit. I hope they make use of the machine, the digital frameworks, the mega-church podiums. I hope that their words gather the momentum worthy of them. After all, the machine itself is not bad. It is a good and worthy tool, especially if the author or preacher has a God-word to delivery. (Simply put, the machine simply is.)

I hope, though, that as they make the rounds, the blog tours, as their book is reviewed, that Home continues to point to an eternal truth.

God created this world in its Brilliance. He created the sycamore, the Spavinaw, the family for us. God created this world for the people. And we-the-people are capable of deciphering this brilliance if we’ll open our eyes and take a gander. We the people are capable because God made himself “with us,” Emmanuel.

Pick up a copy of Home Behind the Sun. Remember the God that is for us, the people.

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Home Behind the Sun and an Analog Resistance (Part I)

Saturday, I saw the Brilliance.

In my thirties, I’ve seen how the best of us–even the very best of the good ones–find ourselves at the crossroads of quandary. The world can be a brutal and dark place, can’t it? There are wars and rumors of wars, turmoil and rumors of turmoil. Children are objectified, hyper-sexualized for profit. The vestiges of our egocentric culture press in, distract us, inflate pride in spaces like Facebook and Twitter. Children grow sick. Spouses have affairs. Jobs come and go. Good men are stripped from the earth too soon. And these things–these ways in which the world comes up shadows–can mess with faith of any believer. They distract us, make us believe that there is too much darkness.

In the shadows of life, is there any light of God?

This weekend, I packed the car with fishing rod, a hammock, a brown-bag lunch, and a copy of Home Behind the Sun. I pulled from the driveway, headed toward the tailwaters of Beaver Lake, the sanctuary first created by God in the seven days of Genesis, and later augmented by the Corps of Engineers in 1966.  The tailwaters are a refuge of sorts…

Continue reading about the Brilliance at Amber’s.

*Photo by Mike Rusch.

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On Sabbath as Rest, Resistance, and Recovery

This month, at the behest of Kelley Nikondeha, I’ve been reading Walter Brueggemann’s book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. It’s been a grand read, a short one beneficial for all those inundated by the anxieties of our fast-paced society. Today, I’m sharing a few reflections from Brueggemann’s book.

*****

“YHWH governs as an alternative to Pharaoh, there the restfulness of YHWH effectively counters the restless anxiety of Pharaoh.”*

In the Spring of 2012, I found myself consumed by metrics. Our youngest son, Titus, had not been gaining weight, and our local doctors began requiring weekly weigh-ins. We were asked to log his food consumption, and began tabulating his caloric intake with near neurotic precision.

After months of struggling to pack on a few pounds, Titus began losing weight, and we landed in Arkansas Children’s Hospital where a team of doctors determined that he was “acutely malnourished,” and diagnosed him with “failure to thrive.” He was a slight child, caving in on himself.

In this season of struggle, the pressures of work were unrelenting. I practice law by day, and though my colleagues were generous (more than generous, in fact), the time away from the office began to take a toll on my practice. My metrics were slipping; I was, in an economic sense, experiencing my own failure to thrive.

There was no rest for the weary, and my life became sort of anxious cycle—from the frying pan of the office to the fire of family distress, and back again the next day. All the while, the metrics kept slipping, and slipping, and slipping: less weight gain than expected; fewer dollars collected; less new business.

I created pharaohs from whole cloth, watched them lord over me with whips. “More bricks!” they shouted. “More weight gain; more business!” And under the weight of these anxieties, I gave up and reached for the bottle.

Continue reading at Kelley Nikondeha’s site. (Really… go there… continue…)

 

*Quote taken from Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now,  by Walter Brueggemann.

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On Micha Boyett’s Found

Today I’m reviewing Micha Boyett’s book, Found. All block quotes in this piece are taken from Found. For more on Micha, visit her website, michaboyett.com.

1.

“It’s just that all the answers of my evangelical past—read more Scripture, pray longer, try harder, serve more people—have become heavy burdens in my life. I can’t do enough to prove myself spiritually fit.” ~ Micha Boyett

In the fall of 2012, I quit praying.

Our youngest son’s health was failing, and we were trapped inside a Children’s Hospital, watching him waste away. I prayed every prayer I could muster, prayed for healing, for life, for the doctors to discover the underlying condition. I prayed prayers of faith, and lack of faith. I gave God the grand out–if it be your will. I prayed early morning prayers, and prayers while doing late-night loads of laundry in the hospital commons.

And then one night, I stopped praying altogether.

There are times when doubt is not a creeping, sneaky thing. There are times when you cannot work your way out of doubt. There are times when doubt is a hound of Hell with iron teeth clamped around your throat.

2.

Identity issues are very real things.

In my mid-thirties, I uncovered a deep distrust for the evangelical platitudes of my youth. I’d done most of the right things—read scripture with continuity, prayed continually, joined the ministry machine for a stint. I was a bootstraps kind of believer, hoping that by enough tugging I might pull myself up to heaven. I wouldn’t have told you this, of course. I would have told you that I believed in grace.

“Can you try so hard to be perfect that you miss God? I wondered. Maybe they’re missing God.”

3.

When Micha was in eleventh grade, an itinerate preacher—a well-meaning one, I’m sure—visited her church in the Texas flat lands. A young fellow, he told the church-goers that if they “trusted Jesus enough,” they could “go an entire day without sin.” By implication, I suppose he might have opined that by trust and pure-D old boot-strapping effort, one could string a lifetime of sinless days together.

And there, among the flat-land throng was Micha, she with a budding intuition. Go without sin? Is such a thing possible?

“I knew I was a sinner. I knew I was supposed to be a better witness for Jesus. But these words, this sermon, did not free me. The words squeezed my insides. They felt wrong.”

4.

In one’s early days, life is filled with notions of grandeur, of world-changing, of exploration. By our late-twenties and early thirties, so many of us are filled with notions of survival, instead—make it through another day at the office; change one more poopy diaper; arrive at church at some point after the opening hymn but before the benediction.

Micha dreamed of taking on Africa, of becoming a missionary to unreached peoples. This, she thought, was the pinnacle of Christian sainthood. Perhaps she thought that this sort of devotion would prove her fidelity toward God. Perhaps she believed that by good, holy work, she could reach heavenly status. No matter, by her thirtieth birthday, she’d walked far from those youthful dreams, was raising a child in the congested heart of San Francisco, groping for connection with God.

“I’ve realized that just about everyone is like me, second-guessing, longing for courage to find awe in the world.”

5.

Prayer does not have to be a complicated act, an exercise in the effluence of words. Prayer can be simple, an act of understanding that the everyday, mundane tasks can be done as unto God. This, is Boyett’s grand claim, and she derives it from the Rule of St. Benedict.

It is a grand and freeing claim, indeed.

By contemplation, by study, by visiting the monks who have devoted their lives to prayer and service, Micha learned the solace in the simplest prayers, prayers like, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

She breathed this prayer in rhythm over the waters of the South Platte, fly-line unfurling on the waters. She found that even fly-fishing can be done as unto God. She has learned the way of simple prayer—perhaps the way back to prayer.

“Our prayer should be free of preoccupations and it should normally be short.”

6.

“Prayer is not as hard as I make it out to be. Again and again, lift and unfold. Lay that line out, let it meander a little. Do it again. I am not profound. I am not brave in spirit. My faith is threadbare and self-consumed, but I am loved, I am loved, I am loved.”

Is prayer about moving mountains in faith? Is prayer about finding healing in an Arkansas hospital room? Is prayer a form of magic, a spell to be cast over the problem du jour?

No. This sort of prayer, I think, is born from the same bootstrap mentality that says you don’t have to sin. This sort of prayer is more about the pray-er, more about the need and the faith, or the standing required to conquer a thing.

Jesus taught us to pray more simple prayers, prayers that connect us to the very fabric of God and his universe. Boyett the Benedictine, the Mama Monk, teaches us the way of this sort of prayer, too. There is freedom here.

7.

“I feel like the water must have felt when Jesus changed it to blood red wine.”

Sometimes epiphanies are sudden things, they come up like a west Texas thunderstorm, change the landscape of everything all of the sudden. Sometimes, though, they are slower working. Sometimes they start at the surface and work their way down to the fabric.

Was I praying all wrong back in those Arkansas Children’s Hospital days? Was there a reason my prayers ricocheted from the ceilings? I don’t know. I know some simpler prayers might have done me well, though.

As for you: do you believe that God likes you despite your own broken prayers, your inability to measure up, to go a day without sinning? Do you believe that you identity is found in your endless doing, your striving. Do you wonder whether you’ll ever pile up enough works to reach the heavens?

There are gems in this book of Boyett’s. She sneaks its Benedictine shots in with the grace of a God-bearer and the chops of one with a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. She writes beautiful sentences, allows the reader his own slow epiphany.

God’s love is not only for the deserving doers, the perfect prayers, Micha might say. Instead, it is for the everyday common man, for those too tired to try measuring up to some silly standard. And yes, most of our standards of measuring are silly.

Grab Found. Benedictines, Baptists, and low-church Evangelicals welcomed.

bookLG-found2

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