Advent: Hope

Advent has become one of the most important seasons of the year for me. My recognition of this ancient Christian season – beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas – was born out of my frustration with the hyper-consumerism associated with the holidays. The discovery, as one who’d not grown up with an awareness of the church calendar, was a means to reclaim the weeks leading up to Christmas as a time for reflection and practices that prepared me to celebrates Christ’s birth.

More recently I’ve come to rely on the themes of waiting that are a part of Advent. These weeks remind me of those like Mary, who anticipated the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah. Each year I’m reminded that Christians are also a waiting people, longing for the day of our Savior’s return when all is made well and new, when justice and mercy are expressed with a perfection beyond our comprehension.

michael-washingtonI have found certain Advent devotionals to be helpful during the season, so I was thrilled when my very good friend Michael Washington decided to turn a series of beautiful Advent reflections into his first book. Hope: Meditations Before, During and After Advent is a gift for the church, especially in these days where hope can seem hard to grasp.

Michael’s book is unique among the devotionals focusing on Advent with which I’m acquainted. First, he chooses to focus solely on the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel. He moves slowly and meditatively through these verses, often lingering for a few entries on one verse. Second, he includes 90 reflections with the assumption that the reader may begin before Advent or end a few weeks after. I’ll make another suggestion: Given the shortness of these meditations, it would be easy to read one in the morning and another before bed. Or a third could be added at midday. Third, Michael chooses to be brief in each mediation. This economy doesn’t hinder the depth or insight of the mediations, but it does make the book exceedingly accessible, including for those who have no experience with Advent.

I’ll say a final thing to commend the book to you. Michael is a good writer and an even better observer of the human experience, particularly as it stumbles about the encounter with God. What he considers in these pages reveals this gift and  because of it we are better prepared for Advent and to the longed-for event to which the season points.

Embracing the Other

My review of Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s recent book, Embracing the Other, has been posted at the Englewood Review of Books.

She borrows from the Asian concept of Chi to “imagine God [in a way] that captures energies of divine love that are the divine essence and permeate the community of creation.” The goal of this reimagining project is a way of pursuing justice for all that, unlike so many theological expressions, does not privilege some at the expense of others. While affirming the historic understanding of the triune God, Kim leans heavily into the Biblical narratives of the Holy Spirit, from the Old Testament ruach to the Pentecost experience of the early church. Spirit God, in Kim’s language, subverts the colonized and systematized structures that have kept Asian American women and others from full participation in the family of God.

You can read the entire thing on the Englewood site.

5 Favorite Books of 2015

I read thirty books this year– not nearly as many as some of you, but respectable for me. A few were assigned by editors for review and some of these were lost on me, but for the most part I’d recommend my entire list to you. Still, each year I’m in the habit of picking five that are especially worth your attention. Here are this year’s five, in the order I read them. I’d be interested to know what you read in 2015 that is worth recommending.

Spiritual Friendship; Wesley Hill (2014).

Spiritual Friendship by Wesley HillEarlier this year I preached a series about friendship. This was something I’d wanted to do for a while but, each time I tried to prepare, found I had little Biblical imagination for the topic. I knew it was an important theme throughout Scripture – “I have called you friends.” (John 15:15) – but couldn’t recall reading or hearing anything theological on the topic. Hill’s book was not the only book about friendship I read, but it might have been the first and it began to make connections for me that I may have otherwise missed.

Hill, a theologian, writes as a “celibate gay Christian” who, over time, has come to see his sexual orientation as a gift for the church. This book seems to prove the point. While Spiritual Friendship will be encouraging to anyone committed to the traditional Christian sexual ethic, the book pushes far beyond sexuality to hold friendship up as a relational category worthy of our best efforts and thoughtfulness. The book’s title points back to a 12th century book by Aelred of Rievaulx who was one of the first to reflect theologically on friendship as a distinctly Christian way of relating to others. (I highly recommend this small book to you as well. Despite it’s age, the dialogical style and a helpful introduction make it relatively accessible.) Reading these books was something of a revelation to me, like uncovering long-forgotten wisdom. Within Christian subcultures that can idolize marriage and biological families, Hill reminds us that Christians have a much broader definition of family. And within this generous definition there is a special place for those individuals who love one another as friends. “If blood is thicker than water,” writes Hill, “then Eucharistic blood is thickest of all.”

Men We Reaped; Jesmyn Ward (2014).

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn WardOne of the difficult and disorienting realities I notice in our city is that African American women and men are subject to violence in ways that are utterly foreign to most white people. There are the spectacularly tragic cases that make the news – Chicago police killed a college student and a 55-year-old woman the day after Christmas – and then there are the quieter, more common stories of friends and family members succumbing to violent ends.

Jesmyn Ward noticed this contagious violence when five young men – each from her small hometown in Mississippi – died within four years. These deaths included her brother’s, whose story weaves through her own as she traces their childhoods and adolescence through landscapes that are sometimes kind and often dangerously inhospitable. The book is a memoir, beautifully written, and so avoids sweeping conclusions about why Black and Brown people in this country are subject to such vague and persistent trauma. But Men We Reaped does better than give us statistics and explanations; here we have the beautiful and sad stories of three-dimensional people whose lives are no less meaningful for the wicked predictability of their untimely ends.

Between the World and Me; Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015).

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesI’ve talked more about this book than any other this year. Earlier I wrote about how Between the World and Me and me reminded me of how James Baldwin wrote about the impotence of white Christianity. Coates has written a memoir, his second, in the form of a letter to his son. The book is consciously post-Ferguson, made more poignant as we see video-recorded police brutality through Coates’ adolescent son.

As an atheist Coates does at least two things masterfully that Christians should notice. The first is the priority of flesh and blood in these pages.

But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

There is no easy theorizing or theologizing here; Coates is relentless in reminding the reader that the natural end of racist violence is the destruction of individual bodies. Though Christians would theoretically want to add to Coates’ description of the body, the reality is that we have often said less. In our priority of spirit and soul, we are guilty of a particularly racist gnosticism.

The second thing Coates does is to tell the truth about Black bodies and the suffering they endure as if there were no white people reading. I’m not sure the author would put it this way, but there seems to be a purposefulness about how direct and honest he is. There are no escape routes for the good white person, only complicity. (In a group conversation about the book, a young African American man admitted his discomfort about how plainly Coates writes in a book that will be read by so many white people. I understand this to be intentional on the author’s part- an intentional ignoring of the inescapable white gaze.) As a Christian I’m forced to ask why Coates’ atheism seems a more stable platform for truth-telling than so many forms of American Christianity. I happen to believe that Christianity contains within it the resources for such piercing and courageous truth, but rediscovering these resources will necessarily begin with repentance which, not coincidentally, would be one of the appropriate responses to this beautiful book.

Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home; Pope Francis (2015).

Laudato Si- On Care for Our Common Home by Pope FrancisIn this short book Pope Francis has made unmistakable something that should never have been debatable in the first place: care for the natural environment is a moral act, one that Christians are meant to have a natural affinity for.

Laudato Si is a uniquely Christian take on our environmental crisis. As such Pope Francis highlights things like humanity’s commonalities, the impact of climate change on the poor, the non-utilitarian nature of people, a realistic assessment of technology’s ability to solve environmental destruction, and an appreciation for how creation reflects aspects of God’s character. The book is gracious and pastoral but its greatest strength is making plain the distinctively Christian contributions to the environmental movement. There was a well of course sense as I read the book along with some sadness that the thoughtfulness and compassion exhibited by the pope isn’t always what Christians are known for when it comes to caring for our common home.

Citizen: An American Lyric; Claudia Rankine (2014)

Citizen by Claudia RankineAs with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Claudia Rankine’s collection of poetry is intensely focuses on the particularities of Black and Brown bodies and experiences. The book’s heavy, glossy pages include occasional selections of art and various prose poems, many related to widely known moments of recent racial injustice. But the bulk of the book is given to stories, told to and arranged by the poet, of particular moment of racial dissonance and prejudice.

At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!

I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.

Aloud, you say.

What? he asks.

You didn’t mean to say that aloud.

Your transaction goes swiftly after that.

I don’t read enough poetry to say much more about this book other than that it completely pulled me in. The poetic prose, artwork, and singular moments created an atmosphere that, from a variety of angles, asked the questions implied by the title: Who is a citizen in this country? Who decides? Is citizenship in America a goal worth pursuing?

Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament Soong-Chan RahWe’re less than two weeks away from a new year and the current one feels like it has overstayed its welcome. Soong-Chan Rah subtitled his latest book: All Call for Justice in Troubled Times. And the times do seem troubled, don’t they? Of course, it’s doubtful that this year has been measurably more difficult than others, or that the times we live in are harder than any other point in history. But our access to instant updates about the latest global catastrophe along with technology that is pulling back some of the veil that has long obscured our society’s injustices can make these days feel especially raw, like a wound that never gets the chance to heal.

There are, of course, many Americans who’ve never been afforded the delusion that all is well in this country. For these citizens the stream of videos displaying police brutality, to take just one, unavoidable example, is not new information but confirmation writ large of an old and lived experience. And throughout Prophetic Lament Rah is viscerally aware of these experiences but he seems to be writing primarily to those who have been reading their news feeds with horror. Can this really be happening in our country? 

The rationale behind Rah’s chosen vehicle to address these previously unaware – blissfully unaware, dangerously unaware – Christians is not immediately obvious. Prophetic Lament is a commentary on the Old Testament book of Lamentations. Rather than reading as a typical commentary with foci on individual verses, original languages, and such, the book reads as an extended essay that swerves consciously between the experience of Israel’s exile and reflections on contemporary events, particularly issues of justice that have often escaped white churches.

(It’s important, I think, to again point out that Rah seems to be writing to a white Christian readership. “The American church avoids lament,” he writes and I have to believe he doesn’t mean the whole American church but a particular evangelical variety.)

Lament is the absolutely essential theme that runs throughout the book and the many facets of this spiritual/emotional practice/response are on beautiful and provocative display. Those of us who’ve been formed to varying degrees by expressions of Christianity that are triumphalist, individualistic, and consumeristic desperately need to learn the language of lament. Within my own church and community I find myself returning regularly to the lament psalms and prophets whose language and theology is indispensable in times of tragedy and entrenched wickedness.

Lamentations is a book that can and should speak into our current circumstances and, in Prophetic Lament, Rah has given us an accessible introduction for our troubled times.

Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys

Rescuing the Gospel from the CowboysI learned a lot while reading Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, but finding a succinct way to describe the book and what I learned is proving difficult. Though it wasn’t his first book, in some ways this one feels like the opening salvo from an author who had a lot more to say. Sadly, Richard Twiss died before this book was published. I suspect his legacy and teachings will be represented well by his friends, but many readers will finish this book with a peaked interest that cannot be met by the author. This is our loss, though from the little I know about Twiss – I heard him teach twice – I suspect he wouldn’t be too concerned.

In some ways Rescuing the Gospel reads like a summary of a lifetime of academic and personal research. The book is this and more. Readers like me, who have little background with Native American expressions of Christianity, need to be prepared to step into this world with little handholding. At times the book can feel a bit “inside baseball” but Twiss offers enough context to keep us novices from getting lost. At its heart this is a book about the myriad of ways Native American peoples have suffered the short-sighted and ethnocentric evangelism efforts of the dominant American culture. Twiss compellingly includes first-hand accounts along with his research to show how ugly these approaches can be.

These stories were entrusted to me to take care of as gifts. They are accounts of personal pain, oppression, faith and spiritual growth representing the parallel journeys of thousands of Native/Indigenous people in North American and around the world. Their pain is the direct result of the colonialism, paternalism, and ethnocentric theology…

In contrast to what can only be called colonialism, Twiss articulates a “Decolonizing Contextualization Movement.” It would be a mistake to understand this movement as simple window-dressing on the previous Christian mission strategies among Native Americans. Though this movement prioritizes tribal practices and customs like native dance and the pow wow, these are reflections of theological convictions, namely that God was at work among the indigenous people of North America long before anyone called it North America. For Twiss and others like him, the gospel requires a continuity with the past that honors culture and history.

There is, of course, a history of doing theology this way. The early Christians were fond of looking back at their favorite Greek philosophers for resonance with their Jewish savior. It is evidence of a Christianity that was captive to race and empire that kept (and still keeps!) missionaries from expecting similar resonance from Native American people. It is also evidence of the need for a profound and ongoing repentance that must exist within those of us in the dominant culture.

The Political Disciple

The Political Disciple | Vincent BacoteMy friend, Dr. Vincent Bacote, has written a book that ought to be of interest to a surprisingly wide selection of readers given it’s modest length- fewer than 100 very readable pages. Any book that discusses Christianity and politics is bound to raise questions so Dr. Bacote clarifies and limits his scope right from the beginning. “[T]he big question I am trying to answer is: Can there be Christian faithfulness in the public realm? If politics refers to our lives as citizens, then what does it mean to be Christian and a citizen of a county, state, country, or world?”

I say that The Political Disciple will be interesting to many readers – regardless of one’s interest in politics – because of how Dr. Bacote engages the topic. In large part this involves his own story of discipleship, including the questions many of us have asked about what aspects of so-called secular society, including but not limited to politics, are worthy of Christian engagement. By telling portions of his own particular story story Dr. Bacote invites us to consider our own interaction with the complexities of American citizenship. And while he’s quick to point to how ugly citizenship can be, giving a few pages to the sadness he felt at the not-guilty verdict at George Zimmerman’s trial, Dr. Bacote thinks American Christians have a long way to go in our thoughtful engagement with political life. “[W]e should at least begin with the commitment to be good citizens before resorting to revolution.”

Of course, what a particular Christian thinks being “good citizens” means will determine whether our non-Christian neighbors experience our citizenship as good or not. One such friend contacted me last week as he listened to a NPR story about conservative pastors running for political office as a response to the recent Supreme Court ruling about same-sex marriage. For this good friend, these pastors’ notion of being good citizens felt anything but good. Thankfully, Dr. Bacote ends the book with three areas of faithful citizenship that should resonate with Christians while remaining good for all of our neighbors. These areas are lament, tempered expectations, and humility that anticipates suffering.

You’ll need to read the book to see how he unpacks these three areas and I hope you will. American politics generally seems fractious and alienating and Christian involvement in politics often bears the same unimaginative characteristics. In contrast, the political vision in these pages is gracious, humble, and imaginative. Dr. Bacote had better watch out; if this vision catches on he might need to write a longer book.

5 Favorite Books of 2014

I’ve done these year-end, haphazard lists of my favorite books for a bunch of years now, mostly to remind myself of the past year’s reading. I finished fewer books than normal this year, in part because of a seminary class last winter. I’ve not included the book that would have topped the list, the Library of America’s collection of James Baldwin’s essays. I’m still happily working through those 800 pages and finding it so relevant and helpful during these days of protests.

What did you enjoy reading this year?

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Charles Marsh (2014).

Strange GloryDietrich Bonhoeffer continues to be a someone I turn to regularly- his books on discipleship and community are well worn on my shelves and his letters from prison are a voice I need to hear regularly. I think one of the things that continues to draw me to the German theologian is the access we have to his personal life. Reflections by his friends and associates over the years have more recently been joined by a good documentary and a very readable biography. Now we have another biography, this one by Charles Marsh who has long been a student of Bonhoeffer. (I heard him read from a paper about Bonhoeffer at a theology conference and it was clear how long this scholar has studied and been inspired by his subject.) Marsh is the rare scholar who who presents history in a compelling manner without downplaying any of the important nuance- his The Beloved Community about the Civil Rights movement is a great example of this achievement and another book to add to your list. Marsh’s biography digs relatively deeply into Bonhoeffer’s time New York and especially Harlem where he was influenced by Abyssinian Baptist Church. There’s more work to be done on this period of Bonhoeffer’s formation (this recent book looks promising) but Marsh helps us see the important connections between the African American church and Bonhoeffer’s ability to resist the Nazis from a very early date. It’s a connection we need to pay attention to today.

On Immunity: An Inoculation; Eula Biss (2014).

On ImmunityIn her first collection of essays, Notes from No Man’s Land, we have the best writing on race by a white person. Well, at least I can’t imagine writing that is so beautiful and aware about an American subject so ugly. In her second book – part history, part memoir, part social criticism – Biss turns her keen observation on immunizations. Huh? It seems a strange topic to be sure, but the book is full of insight and reflections on the assumptions and metaphors that have shaped American people’s fears of being contaminated by disease. Much of what is written about immunizations these days is preachy and condescending; Biss is neither, in part because of her the anxieties she experienced – and discloses in the book – as a new mother. I learned quite a bit about immunizations that I hadn’t considered before. For example, while it tends to be middle class families who in recent years have refused immunizations for their children, it is poor children who suffer these choices. This is due to something called herd immunity in which a small percentage of under-immunized children (often poor children whose families struggle to keep us with the immunization schedules) are protected from disease once a large percentage of the general population has been immunized. A middle class child is less likely to suffer the consequences of not being immunized than is her under-immunized, poorer classmate. Anyway, the book is full of these kinds of insights, delivered is Biss’s beautiful and disclosing prose.

Lila; Marilynne Robinson (2014).

LilaI’m real biased on this one as I’ve read and own most of what Robinson has written. This novel was anticipated highly by a lot of folks and you can easily find summaries and reviews online. The book comes back to the stories of a few individuals in a small town in Iowa previously covered in Gilead and Home. Here we get the perspective of the title character, a drifter turned wife to the old preacher featured in the other two books. She’s a fascinating character, unpredictable and somehow relatable. This latter trait is no small feat by Robinson – she allows Lila to be incredibly unique without ever sliding into a metaphor – and is accomplished by Lila’s voice, especially her probing questions. The good reverend (and he is good which must be one of the more surprising elements of these books) does his best with her questions about ultimate things, but like the rest of us there’s only so much that he can say. For someone like Lila, who has experienced the worst of this world, can his restrained yet hopeful answers ever be enough? There’s not much that happens in a Robinson novel, not noticeably anyway. But her ability to see the rapid twitching below the surface, the back and forth that is emotional life, is unparalleled and is all the action I require in a good novel.

God, Sexuality, and the Self; Sarah Coakely (2013).

God, Sexuality, and the SelfSarah Coakley is smart – like chair of a department at Cambridge smart – and I know she means for this first in a four volume systematic theology to be accessible to ordinary readers like me, but dang! Despite all that surely went over my head, I deeply appreciated this book and professor Coakley’s approach. And that approach? Here’s the opening paragraph:

Institutional Christianity in in a crisis about ‘sexuality’. Its detractors in the supposedly secularized and liberal climes of Northern Europe who nonetheless yearn for what they call a satisfying ‘spirituality’, see this crisis as a sign of its failure to engage the contemporary world. Its conservative defenders, to be found mainly in religiously observant parts of North America and throughout the southern hemisphere, take it as an indication of cultural decadence and a deficiency in scriptural obedience. Probably both sides are right, but perhaps neither, exactly; this book notably does not aim to slave the problems in the terms currently under discussion. Instead, it aims to go deeper; to come at the issue that is now called sexuality through a different route – that of the divine itself.

This approach is what makes this book so important, and, hopefully, the ensuing volumes so promising. Coakley is suggesting that Christians have access to ways of being and talking about so-called sexuality that are available only through our attachment to God. Thus, for Coakley, prayer and the Holy Spirit are not afterthoughts to conversations about theology, they are at the center.

A final note: In addition to a mind-boggling academic career, Coakley has served as an Anglican priest throughout her career. Despite the thick ideas found in this book, she clearly has the church in mind as she writes. This is not an academic who has become enchanted with her voice or ideas; she’s writing for people like me and you and for the unity of Christ’s church.

God, Christ, and Us; Herbert McCabe (2003)

God, Christ, and UsI could, and maybe should, read this collection of sermons and lectures by Herbert McCabe every year. McCabe, who is a relatively new name, died in 2001 and was a Catholic priest, writer, and academic. This book is all I know of McCabe’s style and it may differ in other books, but in this collection he is direct and clear. He says things about Christianity that make me think, Well of course, but who says that? For example,

And the point of the cross is not that it is any kind of achievement. It is not heroic; it is absurd. Jesus is saying (and Peter understands this) not that he is going to have a heroic courageous death but that he is going to be defeated, going to fail, to be humiliated. This is what shocks Peter and this is what should shock us if we really grasped it.

And this from another sermon:

Death, human death, is in the first place an outrage. I mean it is outrageous in a way that the death of other animals is not; because in human death nature takes back more that it has lent to us. Every human death is a kind of murder.

This book would be real comfortable on your night stand or stacked with your Bible for morning reading. The writing is simple but never simplistic and, most wonderfully, the gospel is always made more strange and more beautiful in these pages.