When I was a teenager, I suffered from anxiety, depression, and what appears to have been obsessive-compulsive disorder (disorders with which I have learned to cope, but still battle from time to time even now). I hit the age of 16, and suddenly a massive load of pressure and stress collapsed on me. There was long-enduring family dysfunction and brokenness. There was my own sense of deep sinfulness and a longing to “get it together” spiritually, even as my efforts became frustrated again and again. There was isolation and loneliness. There was an awakening to the truth of my own mortality. This was a heavy load to bear at such a young age. I confessed my sins again and again, only to find more in need of confessing. I purged my belongings. I washed my hands again and again. I attempted to scrub my mind of any and all sinful thoughts. I read the Bible and attended church, desperately anxious for a sign of God’s love and favor. I was a living shell of a person.
Recently, I received a bit of a promotion as a blogger. I was approached by the editor over at Patheos Evangelical and asked to come blog for them. It’s a great opportunity, and I’ve decided to accept the offer. I signed with Patheos last week and hope to move my blog to their site later this month.
This opportunity has given me opportunity for some soul searching–and lots of prayer.
As a blogger, I feel a pull in two directions. First of all, there is the constant need to market myself, to promote my writing, to sell my “brand,” and to get people to click on posts. To accomplish these goals, I need to be relevant and fresh. I need to write about things that people are talking about. I need to be part of the public conversation. I need to align myself with popular hash tags. I need to read the latest books and watch the latest shows. I need to get noticed.
There is nothing inherently evil about marketing. I live in a capitalist society, and marketing is how you get people to pay attention in this society. I have the vocation of writer; I believe I have meaningful things to say, and I hope to find an audience willing to hear these things. This is more than a pursuit of fame: it’s a calling. It is absolutely true that I need to market myself in order to fully fulfill my calling, in order to share my message.
But at the same time, I am pulled in what feels like the opposite direction. In my race to keep up with current events, to read what everyone else is reading, to follow hash tags, to give my “two cents” about every water cooler topic, sometimes I find myself losing what makes my voice particular in the first place. I am reminded of a woman who attended a church I worked at once. She would often come to the senior pastor and ask to be put on the Scripture-reading schedule because (in her words), “Everyone loves to hear me read.” The temptation with blogs and social media is to elevate my view ridiculously high and convince myself that every topic needs a personal statement from me. After all, everyone loves to hear me blog, right?
Sometimes I find myself getting addicted to affirmation. Affirmation is great. I appreciate it a lot. But sometimes a quest for affirmation can make me lose my sense of mission. When no one but God is watching, what is going on in me? Am I cultivating paths of discipleship in areas where no one sees? Am I taking the time to reflect, to go more slowly, to grasp my sense of mission and my message? Or am I careening along, worried that the world will pass me by if I dare stop and reflect?
Here’s the balance that I hope for: A humble willingness to engage deeply in some conversations, knowing that not all conversations will be possible if I can ever hope to listen instead of blasting the world with my voice. A willingness to write a little less in order that the writing and engagement might be careful, thoughtful, and faithful–not reactionary. An understanding that this is about relationships with people and demonstrating God’s love, not about (as Margaret Manning said at the LCMC Annual Gathering earlier this month) marketing Jesus as “the best product ever.” My mission includes a refusal to be about critique alone; rather, it is an attempt to build up far more than I tear down.
This is why Sabbath is important. I take a break from email and social media and the internet once a week. It’s not a legalism; there are a few occasions where I need to use the computer, and so I do. But the break from the relentless pace of the internet is a helpful rest to my mind. It re-centers me on my mission. It reminds me that I don’t balance the world on my shoulders, but that I serve the One who’s “got the whole world in His hands.” It reminds me that even though I feel like I have a message, it’s meaningless if I forget who I am and Whose I am. Most of all, it reminds me that this work is God’s, not mine. I can trust Him that whatever I really need to get done can get done in the time I have.
I welcome your prayers as I take my writing to a new platform.
(By the way, you’ll still find me blogging here until I transition over. And my writing and editing website will remain here even after the transition.)
There have been many developments in the Ebola news story since I posted about the way Ebola in the U.S. has brought out some of our sinful nature’s tendency toward fear of “the other.” In particular, I expressed concern that prejudice toward Liberians and other West Africans would go wild as our fears increase. And I cited evidence that the Liberian Christians in Texas are experiencing a certain degree of prejudice just by nature of their country of origin, even if they they have been in this country for years.
On October 15, Amber Joy Vinson, another nurse from the Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas that treated Thomas Duncan, was diagnosed with Ebola. It came to light that Vinson had traveled via airliner to Cleveland and back despite sustaining a low-grade fever at least on the trip home. Passengers on Vinson’s flights as well as passengers who flew on the same airplane later before it was taken out of commission were notified to monitor their temperatures, although the CDC continues to say that their risk of acquiring the illness is minimal. It now appears Vinson self-reported her low-grade fever to the CDC but was given the all-clear to fly, a decision the CDC has now acknowledged to be a mistake. Vinson is now at Emory University Hospital receiving treatment.
Meanwhile, the first nurse who contracted Ebola from Thomas Duncan, Nina Pham, is being treated at the National Institutes of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
In addition, a hospital worker who handled bodily fluid samples from Thomas Duncan was discovered to be currently on a cruise ship. Although this health worker is currently symptom-free, the worker has self-isolated on the ship.
Today, President Obama appointed an “Ebola Czar”, Ron Klain, to oversee the U.S.’s handling of this health concern. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reports today that out of 9,216 cases of Ebola worldwide, 4,555 people have now died.
In the midst of the dismaying news regarding Ebola worldwide, I continue to worry that our fears will get the better of us, that our fears will rage out of proportion to the threat, and that we will spend so much time looking self-protectively inward that we will ignore those who are facing far more threat than ourselves. A blog post by a Lutheran pastor, Erik Gronberg, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area said this far better than I managed to say it in my previous post:
This is very real for us here in the Metroplex. But I have a feeling it will be increasingly real for people around this country and ultimately around the world. It is easy to close ourselves off. To spread rumor and fear. To blame and to stereotype. It is harder, much harder, to have courage. To insist that hospitals quickly establish protocols for healthcare workers. To give generously to help stop the spread of this disease where it is most devastating. To recognize that thousands die in this country each year from diseases like the flu or from inadequate access to general health care.
I am afraid. Afraid that instead of mobilizing the massive resources and potential of our great nation to combat this crises here and abroad we will turn inward. “Let them descend into chaos and death” we will say. That the mission to proclaim good news will fall short. That we will lock our gates to our homes, neighborhoods, and ultimately our nation. That even in the church the mission of God in the world will be forgotten in our fear. That the one who can destroy both body and soul will win.
I agree heartily with Pastor Gronberg. Notice, he walks a careful line between cavalier ignorance of risk and the panic that draws us inward.
But I want to be gentle here too. Many of us are afraid. Ebola is a terrifying disease, and even the minor chance that it could spread in our own country is certainly terrifying. I am, without a doubt, a hypochondriac on a good day when there’s no Ebola to worry about. It’s ok to admit we are afraid. What is happening in Africa is a really frightening scenario. Because our world is so interconnected these days, we can easily picture and imagine Ebola happening en masse here too.
But, friends, we have to keep our fear in proportion to the facts. We have to remember and pray for those at most risk: health care workers and close family and friends of the afflicted. We have to let our feelings of fear drive us to prayer for those suffering in earnest in West Africa.
Some have wondered if we should stop traveling on mass transit at all in this country since a few people who might have had exposure to Ebola or who might have been carriers of Ebola have been on airplanes and a cruise ship. Again, we have to put our fear in proportion to the actual risk. There is no such thing as a completely risk-free decision in a broken world. However, there are better risks and worse risks. No, there is no way to be 100% percent sure you won’t come into contact with Ebola (or whooping cough or flu, for that matter) unless you lock yourself in your house . But you can have a pretty decent idea that you are pretty safe.
Here’s something I discovered growing up with a lot of anxiety, fear of germs, and fear of anything that wouldn’t be perfect: closing yourself off to the world has its own risks. You don’t get to build up your immune system as much. You begin to cultivate fear and anxiety as a regular response to life. This is damaging to mental health and to physical health. You miss out on the joy of life.
I think it is reasonable for those who have been in close contact with Ebola patients to self-isolate until the incubation period is past in order to ensure public safety. It is reasonable to avoid contact with those who have been in close contact with such patients or their bodily fluids. It is not reasonable to distance ourselves from anyone who has traveled internationally in recent months or anyone who has traveled on an airplane. It is not realistic or especially helpful to do so. Unless a person on a plane has had close contact with someone who is symptomatic, we do not have reason to worry about being around air travelers. After all, even if there were some strange improbable scenario in which an air traveler unknowingly came in contact with an Ebola patient on a plane, until the air traveler himself became symptomatic, he would be unable to pass the illness along. If you know someone who has stomach flu symptoms or a fever, you should avoid that person regardless of whether they have traveled on a plane or not–not because they in any likelihood have Ebola, but because you may get stomach flu. Common sense is very helpful in times of general panic.
In regard to travel bans from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, I think this is one option we can consider in order to stop the spread of Ebola as long as it can be done with the following considerations appropriately and mercifully dealt with:
–Aid workers are able to easily travel to and from the afflicted areas in West Africa in order to alleviate suffering on behalf of the afflicted African nations, and in order to prevent the spread of Ebola to other nations.
–U.S. military who are selflessly serving in West Africa are able to return home.
–Screening continues at international entry-point airports in the U.S.
–Afflicted West African nations are able to continue to get the supplies, food, and other necessities that they need for survival.
My initial concern with a travel ban was that it would simply follow in the tradition of xenophobia, but I am coming to realize that it might be possible to use it as a common sense tool to stop suffering and affliction if certain humanitarian concerns can be appropriately dealt with. I will continue to pray for leaders both in our nation and around the world that they might make wise decisions from calm minds and not from a state of panic.
Note: If you are particularly concerned about the Ebola outbreak, the CDC’s website is a good source of concrete facts.
Raise your hand if the news these days is making you scared. Raise your hand if you feel like locking yourself in your house with bleach and hand sanitizer. Raise your hand if you’re scared to fly on a plane because you fear a fellow passenger might have Ebola.
I’d have to raise my hand to all those questions. I believe in reaching out to the stranger in theory, but in practice it’s downright scary. Even though we live in a privileged country where we are probably safer than most other places on earth, the threats of disease and terrorism feel uncontrollable. My gut reaction is to shut myself away. Stay clean, stay healthy, stay safe. Distance myself from the threats “out there.”
We hear the call to strengthen the nation’s borders not only so that we know who is entering and leaving, but so that we can keep out the “other.” We hear the call to cut off travel to and from African nations afflicted with Ebola (never mind how this would cut off aid workers from going to help the suffering). We hear hostility lobbied at the Liberian community in the United States. We hear fear and rejection.
In a recent interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin, Bishop Nathan Kortu of New Life Fellowship Church in Euless,Texas (outside of Dallas), said that his community is suffering greatly. They are currently dealing with the double trauma of mourning family members in Liberia who have died from Ebola and simultaneously dealing with local community hostility and prejudice toward them as if all Liberians might be Ebola-carriers. He says:
You know, when people identify you as a Liberian, they’re going to think that you are an Ebola patient. So that is really a problem now for our community because some people here, they were born here, some of them never been to Liberia for 30 years.
Later in the interview, he adds:
Ebola is a disease that does not discriminate. So anybody can be infected with the disease. It’s not just Liberians, it’s not only Africans. So we need to educate the public that this is a disease. It’s not for just one group of people.
Simultaneously, we see good examples of Christian love and care. George Mason is Senior Pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church, the church where Thomas Duncan’s fiance, Louise Troh, attended and where Duncan’s memorial service was held, writes that when he heard of Troh’s situation, he instinctively wanted to visit her and offer pastoral care. He believes that the Scripture and good teaching he received throughout his life gave him that gut-level reaction to reach out with love rather than fear. He adds that his entire congregation supported him in his outreach, adding,
We encountered Ebola because one of our members came face-to-face with it. And to echo the words of the Apostle Paul, when one member of the body hurts, the entire body feels pain.
Apparently, this is an image that is shocking for much of America to see and hear. Few people expected a predominantly Anglo congregation in an affluent section of Dallas to stand by a Liberian immigrant forced to live in quarantine. But as those inside our congregation know, this is what we do. This is what it means to be a church.
We can say a lot of negative things about some Christians’ reactions to Ebola in America. But, honestly, when I critique fellow Christians on this, I have to stop and remember that my knee-jerk reaction to the “Other” and to crises like Ebola is often fear too. I give thanks for the good witness of fellow Christians who think first of the neighbor in need and not of themselves. I need to keep listening to their voices and being spiritually formed by the Scriptures that call me to reach out to the other rather than to retreat into my own private, “safe” world. I give thanks that God continues His work of death and resurrection in each of us as we walk the path of discipleship with Jesus. May those who do not believe in Jesus increasingly hear faith and not fear from those of us who do believe.
Islamophobia is on the rise in America–and, sadly, particularly in the Christian community. It’s whispered in gossipy comments about our President (“you know, he’s a secret Muslim”). It’s present in scary-music You Tube videos that go viral as they attempt to inform us about massive Muslim population growth (some manipulation of facts included). And it was especially present in the reprehensible op-ed piece by Gary Cass, recently published by Charisma News, “I’m Islamophobic, Are You?” Charisma was shamed into taking the post down, but one had to wonder why a mainstream Pentecostal website published it in the first place.
Cass’s piece is still readable on his own website, but I have chosen not to link to it. In his piece, he argues that all Muslims want to kill non-Muslims. He says that there are only three possible solutions to dealing with Muslims in America. First, conversion, but he argues that God hates Muslim Arabs, and although there might be one here or there who come to faith in Christ, “History does not record a mighty move of God in saving masses of Muslims. I believe the scriptures militate against mass Muslim conversions.” Since conversion is out, Cass argues that the next alternative is “D.A.M.N.: Depart All Muslims Now.” But since most people’s beliefs about Muslims are “irrational and stupid,” Cass argues this is not likely to happen. Finally, since he has discarded options one and two, Cass argues, “The only thing that is biblical and that 1400 years of history has shown to work is overwhelming Christian just war and overwhelming self defense.” Then he tells his audience to buy a gun and prepare their family. Finally, he closes his piece with this horrifying language:
We will have to face the harsh truth that Islam has no place in civilized society. Muslims cannot live in a society based on Christian ideals of equality and liberty. They will always seek to harm us.
Now the only question is how many more dead bodies will have to pile up at home and abroad before we crush the vicious seed of Ishmael in Jesus name?
Wow. Just wow. I have heard plenty of veiled Islamophobic beliefs, but this is so blatant and aggressive that I can hardly believe it was published by a mainstream publication. I would not be shocked if some radicalized Christian takes this his post as a mandate to kill and terrorize Muslims here in the U.S.
I want to stand against this kind of hateful, dangerous nonsense which goes completely against the spirit of faithful Christianity and utterly misrepresents the God who we serve. Here are 4 reasons why Christians absolutely must take a stand against both blatant and veiled Islamophobia.
1. Love your neighbor.
No one likes to be characterized by their worst representative. Imagine if all Christians were judged by those who shoot abortion doctors or by the Crusaders or by Fred Phelps. Does the presence of violent so-called Christians mean that Christianity is inherently violent? In the same way, it’s unfair and untrue to argue that “every Mosque in America is conspiring to kill you.”
As Christians, our number one mandate is witness to Christ (more on this below). We absolutely discredit our witness and align ourselves with the forces of evil when we engage in bearing false witness and fear-mongering. Consideration and respect rather than aggression is a witness to Christ. God calls us to love our neighbor. We do this by being willing to see our neighbor as a real human being, not a two-dimensional bogeyman. We do this by being willing to put ourselves in our neighbor’s shoes. What would it be like to be Muslim in a country where lots of people are afraid of you and hate you? Wouldn’t it be terrifying? Hate crimes against Muslims are a real thing, and they’re motivated by ignorance.
What if, instead of proclaiming jihad against Muslims, we got to know them? What if we chose to know them as they really are? What if we dared to let them know that we are their friend, and they have no reason to fear us? Just try to argue from Scripture that that is not a Biblical response to our neighbor in our midst.
2. The blessing of the “other.”
As sinful human beings, we are geared toward fearing the “other.” Someone who is different from us can be frightening.
But, Biblically, we are not called to fear the other, but to realize that we have much blessing to gain from the presence of the “other.” We see in the story of the Good Samaritan, the one who is of a despised class and ethnicity (and religion!) turns out to be the one who blesses one of God’s chosen people. When we dare to love and know people, we so often find out that we become the ones who are blessed.
What surprises might we find if we get to know Muslims? How might we learn from them? How might their friendship enrich our lives?
3. The mission field at our door step.
I’m not arguing that we make our Muslim neighbors a project (I will love them whether they convert to my faith or not), but I do argue unapologetically that God loves Muslims, and Jesus died to save them too. Enough of this nonsense about God hating Arab Muslims. It’s time to remember that we Gentiles were also outside God’s covenant, but as Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). God longs to bring every person who is far away from Him near.
It is desperately frustrating to see the self-centered Church of Jesus in America missing an incredible opportunity that God has brought to our doorstep. It used to be that if you wanted to be a missionary, you had to travel to a far-away land. But God has blessed us by bringing the mission field to our doorstep. If we respond by turning inward, resorting to hate and violence, and trying to protect our comfortable little world, I honestly wonder what God will say to us on Judgment Day. I really do. The goal of the Christian faith is not to protect what I have, but to reach out to demonstrate and speak the Good News to our neighbors. We are all missionaries, and God has brought the world to our doorstep. What a blessing!
4. Love your enemies.
Someone will argue, “But what about Muslim extremists? There are certainly some of those hiding in our midst. And those people are dangerous!” Look, I’m a realist. I know there are some people here that want to do us harm. It’s a fringe element, but there are some. But here’s the thing: we do not get a pass to fail to love our neighbor just because our neighbor has declared himself our enemy. We don’t get a pass on loving members of ISIL or AL-Qaeda. Rather than a Satanic call to “crush the vicious seed of Ishmael in Jesus name,” Jesus gave us this call:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.–Matthew 5:43-48, NIV
Of course, nations must sometimes intervene and engage in just war against those who terrify and destroy the innocent. But our call as Church must not be conflated with some warrior mandate. Our call as Church is to sacrificially love and bear witness.
I hope at least one person reading this post will be willing to reject fear and hatred and turn to their Muslim neighbor with the embrace of God’s love. Let’s reject our self-centered, comfortable American Church and dare to reach out to those who are good and those who are bad. Let’s dare to know them. Let’s give thanks that these precious people who God loves are now in our midst. And let’s show them that we think so.
There is a popular narrative in Christianity and it goes like this: God has a great purpose for your life (read: success), and if you just believe in Him, things will go great and God will exceed even your wildest dreams. Just obey God and you will be so happy you did because you will have an amazing future.
If you wait for sex until marriage, you will have a mind-blowing sex life. Also, your marriage will be an epic love story. Your idea Christian spouse will make all your dreams come true.
If you preach the Bible at your church faithfully, tons of people will come and fill the pews (or stadium seats). Large numbers of people will follow Christ for the first time, and many will plug into your ministry and grow deeper and deeper in faith.
If you parent according to the Bible, all of your kids will grow up to follow God, marry Christian spouses, and make more Christian babies. Your beautiful family will be the envy of everyone.
If you seek God’s guidance as you pursue a career, you will find a perfect fit that will fulfill you beyond your wildest dreams.
Like all misbeliefs, there is an element of truth to these ideas. God’s way is best. Ultimate fulfillment is found with Him. But the truth of the matter is that Christians come to this fulfillment by following their Master in the way of the cross. The Christian journey is a journey of surrender to God, whether that surrender leads to earthly happiness or not. Fulfillment often comes in the middle of suffering, not in the middle of success. Some of the times in life when a sense of God’s presence has been strongest to me have been times of profound suffering. Christians do not seek pointless suffering, but when it comes, we recognize it as an opportunity to be faithful to God.
In the book of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego provide a beautiful example of faithfulness to God regardless of the outcome. When they are commanded to bow down and worship an idol in order to escape a fiery furnace, they refuse, saying:
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
–Daniel 3:17-18, NIV
Imagine! These humble Biblical heroes refuse to demand something from God. They believe He is all-powerful, but they trust He will decide what is best. This humble trust in God regardless of outcome is so refreshing in the midst of a Christian culture that so often expects “positive outcomes” from faithful choices.
Recent events have given us two more Christian heroes in this train. Two humble missionaries who were serving God perfectly anonymously until dramatic events made them household names. I speak, of course, of Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. Both served quietly and selflessly through Christian missions organizations in Liberia. When Ebola hit, they did not run away, but stayed and worked to the point of exhaustion, putting their own lives at risk in order to care for the real people who were suffering so desperately. Then both of these humble servants contracted the disease themselves. Brantly relates that at that time, only one patient under the local doctors’ care had recovered–and he did not have the hemorrhagic symptoms that Brantly later developed. In a quiet, measured voice, Brantly told NBC’s Matt Lauer:
As I sat there facing my own possible death from Ebola, I said, “God, I know You can save me. I know You can. But even if you don’t, I want to be faithful to you. I won’t deny you.”
Similarly, Nancy Writebol told ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser of her trust in God regardless of the outcome:
I wondered at times whether I would live or die…[God’s] presence really was with me — and I knew that, I could sense it. … I am so thankful for His mercy and His grace.
These missionaries do not believe they or their faith is anything special in comparison with those who died in Liberia. They are simply grateful and eager to continue to serve the One in whom they have placed their trust. Both missionaries have also continued to shine a light on the suffering of those afflicted with Ebola in Africa and to ask for prayer and advocacy for that community. Dr. Brantly told Matt Lauer that he remembers the names and faces of every person who died of Ebola under his care. The possibility that both missionaries might return to Liberia remains an open question.
How very different this is from the Christian narrative that says, “Follow God and all your wildest dreams will come true.” Dr. Brantly and Nancy Writebol dared to dream another dream. It was a dream of God’s presence through good and bad. A dream of the joy of following Him even when it meant profound suffering. It was a dream in which they were even willing to risk their lives to serve Him. They did, in fact, recover. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did walk out of the fiery furnace, not even smelling like smoke. God is a God who can bring real, actual earthly deliverance. But that is not the point when it comes to our journey as Christians. Hebrews 11 makes this clear. This chapter lauds the great faithful deeds and successes of Bible heroes. But then it introduces a different group of “successful” believers. Those who endure and hold on to faith even when walking through the darkest of valleys:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
–Hebrews 11:35b-40, NIV
If you wait for sex until marriage, you might still have sexual difficulties. You might struggle to connect with your spouse. You might suffer from pain or infertility. At the very least, you will have times when your sexual relationship is not exciting or fulfilling.
If you wait for sex for marriage, your marriage might still be a big struggle. You might experience tremendous conflict and misunderstanding. Your differences might make your marriage extremely difficult and often unfulfilling.
If you preach the Bible at your church faithfully, people might get offended and stop coming. You might get fired. You might trudge through day after day of faithful service wondering if what you are doing is making a difference to anyone.
If you parent according to the Bible, your kids still might get into trouble with drugs or sex. They still might turn away from God. You might end up wearing holes in the knees of your jeans on countless sleepless nights for their sake.
If you seek God’s guidance as you pursue a career, you might struggle to find any shining, sparkling “difference” you are making and simply put one faithful foot in front of another. God might be the only One who notices.
None of us gets to decide which outcome we will receive in the walk of faith. One thing is certain: we will experience times of the cross in this life. In those times and in times of joy, we are simply asked to trust in the Faithful One. We are asked to humbly serve Him through good and bad. And just as Brantly and Writebol describe, His peace which passes all understanding will hold us up. For we are not alone as we walk the path of the cross. He carries us.
Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird:
…for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.
And in the movie Shadowlands, a character says,
We read to know we are not alone.
Books have meant so much to my life. They have been there for me when I had no one, and they have given me hope. They have formed my view of the world. Here are 15 of the most important ones in my life, and why they matter to me.
I’ve been to Bible college, been to seminary, and studied theology for years. Every theologian has his atonement theory, her way of explaining the process of salvation accomplished by Christ on the cross. It’s easy to begin to view this most amazing event in history with a theoretical, jaded eye. Nothing has ever driven home the power and reality of redemption for me like this masterful fantasy book for children. Aslan, dying on the stone table at the hand of the White Witch for treacherous Edmund. And then the “deeper magic still” coming upon him so that “death begins to move backwards.” When I get tired of theories of the Gospel, I read this again and reconnect with the heart of the Gospel. It’s powerful stuff and it never grows old.
My one and only seminary book entry in this list. For those who want to read the most important theological writings by Martin Luther, this book is a splendid, accessible, and elegant introduction. Key theological documents as well as letters and sermons are included, along with Lull’s introductions which provide helpful historical context for the readings. Important historical and devotional reading, steeped in Scripture.
3. From Bondage to Bonding–Nancy Groom
The shelves are lined with vapid self-help books that tell you what you want to hear. This book is different. It is the single deepest, most challenging book on codependency that I have ever read. I first read it when going through and recovering from a terribly wounding church experience. A Christian counselor, to whom I will always be grateful, introduced me to the book and challenged me to grow in emotional maturity and authenticity. I found I could only read a chapter at a time because the book confronted me with difficult truths about myself. But there is power in the truth and as I read, I began to experience the first waves of wholeness. I also experienced the Gospel–not just for the people I served in the Church–but for me. This is a life-changing book.
4. The Shipping News–E. Annie Proulx
I have written previously about how much I love this book for the way it makes resurrection take on flesh and bone:
In this story, Quoyle, a ne’er-do-well haunted by his past, the generational sin of his family, his impotence in life and ambition, his failure with women, and the messages of shame constantly being thrust upon him finds redemption and healing. He grapples profoundly and honestly with the darkness. But the story ends with a storm which shakes his community, which unseats the power of evil heritage in his life, and which brings one member of his community to a miracle of actual resurrection.
In both the film and book, the closing language of resurrection blow me away. This is not at all a “Christian book,” but without a doubt its author is using the Christian image of resurrection to evoke the new life and healing that can come to a broken life. There is rich material here for meditating on the hope of new life. This story has powerfully impacted my own life in my experience of family brokenness and dysfunction. I have sometimes felt shame for these things in my life, but Quoyle’s story of redemption brought me hope and gave me a concrete visual for what redemption can look like. Not the mere abstract language that we sometimes throw around in the Christian community, but redemption in real flesh and blood.
5. The Kite Runner–Khaled Hosseini
What happens when one terrible sin from your childhood continues to haunt the rest of your life? Is there any way to be good again? In this masterpiece by Khaled Hosseini, this is the core question. Do human beings fall beyond redemption–or can they be made new? I wrote here about the way The Kite Runner moved me with its hopeful journey through evil and sin to redemption.
6. Amos: To Ride a Dead Horse–Stanley Gordon West
Who could be a more unlikely hero than an elderly man recently moved into a nursing home? After his wife is killed in an accident that he survives, elderly Amos Lasher gets sent to the Sunset Home, where he suddenly is at the mercy of the sadistic head nurse, Daisy Daws, a fiend that gives Nurse Ratched a run for her money. Abused and taken advantage of, Amos overcomes the odds and the way he conquers the evil forces against him is a stand-up-and-cheer triumph. It’s also a powerful parable about self-sacrifice.
7. The Goldfinch–Donna Tartt
People either love or hate this book. I adored it (but I do admit it took me a while to get into it). A true storyteller, Donna Tartt weaves the magnificent story of “modern waif” Theo Decker, a boy of 13 who loses everything when his mother dies in an art gallery explosion. In the chaos after the explosion, Theo is given a priceless painting to which he clings in fear and longing. All alone in the world, Theo must learn to fend for himself, but his abandonment leads him down some dark paths in the process. Is hope possible for a boy (and then a man) who has lost everything and who has become lost in bondage? As the book slowly weaves around your heart, you will root for Theo and fall in love with the vivid characters of this masterful novel.
8. Blue Like Jazz–Donald Miller
I don’t agree with everything Donald Miller has done and said since he wrote Blue Like Jazz, but that doesn’t change the impact the book has had on my life. Above all, this book taught me the importance of humility in Christian witness. The story of the “confession booth” at Ren Fayre is forever etched in my memory: Christians confessing to nonbelievers the way we have sinned against them. The secular students breaking down in tears. This is what real Christianity looks like.
9. The Complete Stories–Flannery O’Connor
You can never go wrong reading Flannery O’Connor. Above all, her short story “Good Country People” nails it. In O’Connor, you frequently see how original sin is hidden deep in the hearts of the religious people along with the irreligious. The banality of sin and evil hit you between the eyes as you recognize yourself and the other “nice people” that you know as arrogant, self-centered sinners. Perfect for the “nice” culture of the Midwest where many try to convince themselves that the only sin they’re guilty of is eating that extra piece of cake.
10. Dakota–Kathleen Norris
I fell in love with this book in college and with it was lured to the Great Plains where I lived for 3 1/2 years. I came to realize that I am not quite as solitary as I wanted to believe I was, but the honesty, beauty, and call of the artist found in this spiritual memoir continue to resonate with me today. It is largely because of this book that creative nonfiction came to be one of my favorite genres. And I deeply admire the artful way in which Norris writes about her Christian faith. No easy answers here, but deep, quiet conviction.
11. Through Gates of Splendor–Elisabeth Elliot
My parents served as missionaries for a few years, and this book was one of the most influential on their lives. In it, Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of her husband and four other men who longed to share Jesus with those who had never heard of Him. In the course of their outreach to a remote tribe in Ecuador, the five men were killed by the group they sought to reach. In an incredible act of love and mercy, Elisabeth and her young daughter and one of the other missionaries’ sisters later returned to the tribe, befriended them, and ultimately led them to faith in Christ. The kind of humble sacrifice found in the lives of these missionary heroes is very rare today, but continues to inspire future generations. Through this book, I learned that serving Christ was not about what I could get for myself, but what I could give in service.
12. All Joy and No Fun–Jennifer Senior
Since becoming a parent, I have read no other book that so perfectly captures the dilemma of modern parenthood as this book. Instead of telling me how to better parent my child, this book resonantly describes what it is to be a parent. It details the affect of parenting on parents, particularly in a time when children are now “economically worthless but emotionally priceless” (in the words of sociologist Viviana Zelitzer). Senior made me feel less alone: of course my life was more difficult now that I had kids, but it was also richer and more rewarding. The latter part is often acknowledge in parenting literature, but the former is not so readily talked about.
13. The Weight of Glory–C.S. Lewis
This book taught me that the “not-yet-ness” I feel in relation to even the best things in my life is a sign to point me to heaven. Earth will not finally satisfy me. Because my home is beyond.
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
14. The Hiding Place–Corrie ten Boom
This well-crafted Christian classic tells the story of one warm and loving Dutch family who defies the Nazis. During the WWII period, the ten Booms hide and protect Jews in their home, their deep faith guides their decision. Corrie ten Boom and her family are sent to a concentration camp for their good deeds, and her father and sister ultimately die there. Corrie honestly tells of her battle with unforgiveness and hatred. She emerges from the concentration camp, eventually is able to forgive, and becomes one of the greatest ambassadors for Christ of the modern age.
15. The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor–Jonathan Rogers
A devout Catholic and unapologetic original, novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor was preoccupied with sin and redemption. Despite this fact, she was frequently misunderstood by religious people. I think she is the master of how to engage in the arts as a devout Christian, and I see her influence in countless narratives in literature, film, and books. Take this tidbit, quoted in Rogers’ book:
I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
This is why O’Connor so often offended religious people. She was trying to take them by the scruff of the neck to give them a hard dose of the reality already present in the world. Deep embedding in reality prepares people for grace. Most of us don’t want to see. Instead we want what O’Connor called “religious propaganda” that confirms what we think about ourselves and the world already. But propaganda makes poor art, and O’Connor believed that if a work failed as art, it would fail as a delivery of truth as well. I admire her for this, and it is her work and beliefs about art that I return to again and again.
What 15 books would be on your list? Comment below!
photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/76686348@N05/7982852568/