Thursday, February 4, 2016

Everywhere


Recently I read a poem by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire that moved me deeply. The words were a profound calling:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole
world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere

Our world is hurting everywhere. I can't help but think of the words of Saint Francis of Assisi when he said, "We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way."  

As believers, we should consider the purest theology to love others as they are, where they are. This means to sit with them and simply listen to their stories. Cherishing them. Jesus pursued us with love and we should do likewise. I like how Bob Goff put it in his book Love Does, "I used to want to fix people, but now I just want to love them." 

Love is being present with someone. We don't have to offer answers, but to just be with them. To simply hear what they have to say without waiting to say something back. 

This is a hurting world. I have written before, that by His wounds we are healed and from our wounds we help others to heal. What I mean by this is, when we go through struggles, hardships, and difficulties it should provide in us the empathy to understand the hurting of another. It is being able to simply tell someone, "You're not alone."  

To hold a hand. Share some coffee. To listen. To sit with. These are the acts of mercy, love and grace. They speak louder than words. 

The Psalms tells us that the Lord "heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (147:3). He did this by love and through love. He understood that ministry was more than preaching sermons, teaching parables, or speaking a word. Jesus was teaching us that healing oftentimes comes by us just stopping what we are doing, to go and spend time with someone who needs us to (the Samaritan woman by the well is a good example of this). 

Romans 12:9 starts, "Let love be genuine . . ." 

Without agenda. Loving someone just to love them, not to save them. 

It may mean that I stop what I'm doing to listen to a coworker open their hurts about how her husband has left her and she is tending to a mother who is going deeper and deeper into the mire of Alzheimer's. By taking that time to listen, I am showing her that she is important, that she matters, and that she is not alone. 

But helping to heal others hurts by our own woundedness also means having the courage to be vulnerable and open. In his book Abba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Inner Belonging, Brennan Manning writes, "If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others." 

And it is often that, as the Sufi poet Rumi wrote, "The wound is the place where Light enters you." 

When I do stop and share in the hurting of another, they see love and light that helps them begin to understand that it is a love and light that is rooted in God.  

Emmanuel means "God with us." And He is and He often is through others in our lives. But we have to see people not as projects but as human beings who suffer in loneliness, shame, fear, isolation, and disconnectedness. They need to see that we are there to listen and to love. By doing so we will show them the Beloved who is waiting to meet them where they are and let them know that they are never alone, that they are loved, that they are of the up most worth.

So let us go everywhere
everywhere
everywhere . . .

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Glorious Inheritance: Audrey Assad's Latest Work


Audrey Assad's Fortunate Fall was one of my favorite albums of last year and now her latest effort, Inheritance, will easily be one of this year's. I love that even before I'd heard a single track off this CD, I read that she described it as "A soundtrack for prayer." How many other contemporary musical artists create that kind of music?

Or how many would start off their album with "Ubi Caritas" the hymn of the Western Church as one of the antiphons for the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday?

But Audrey Assad is like no other artist (and she is an Artist) - and for that I am grateful because she brings a spirit to music seldom heard. Gentleness amidst the chaos and noise one is bombarded with on the radio. Her albums also show a deep richness from the growth of her spiritual journey. It comes from both the valleys and the mountain tops.

It's astounding to hear "Holy, Holy, Holy," "Be Thou My Vision" or "It Is Well" which I have heard hundreds of times and sung nearly as many in the plethora of church traditions I grew up in and yet these feel personal, original, and cause me to listen to them afresh. She draws you in with her gorgeous voice and you find yourself also drawing inward, as one does in prayer.

One of the hymns that many may not be as familiar with, but the title of which resembles my own spiritual journey, is "I Wonder As I Wander." I grew up hearing the one recorded by Julie Andrews and was played only at Christmas. The first time I listened to her recording, I got chills in the same way I did hearing the priests sing their vespers in Saint Andrews in Kyiv that snowy night we wandered in.

Of this album, Audrey has said:

I knew that Inheritance had to be much more than me going into the studio and
simply doing pretty renditions of hymns we all know and love. I couldn't be satisfied
with that - I had to make something both bright and dark - colored honestly with my
own doubts and weaknesses, so that the Lord who inspired these songs could be even 
more visible in it. Inheritance is an offering I am humbled, privileged and challenged
to make - and I pray it will be a gift to anyone who hears it.

Indeed it is. A true gift that shows her vulnerability before God, which is unfamiliar territory in most contemporary Christian music. Because of this, she brings a depth seldom heard. While at the same time she stays true to the hymns and in their truth her voice comes through with a strength and clarity that is how worship should be. It makes us remember that we are worshipping a holy God and that we approach him as we are, with all of our doubts and desires, with fear and trembling, but offering all that we have on His altar. As Romans 12:1 tells us, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God - this is your true and proper worship." One hears her offering her voice and herself in each of these hymns and it is glorious and glorifying to God.

The power of hymns is their ability to bring a spirit of peace, gratitude and awe; Assad connects with that and helps us to connect in spirit, heart, and mind as we listen. She called this album a "soundtrack for prayer" and there are those who don't understand just how truthful that phrase really is. Lorenzo Candelaria wrote about the subject for the Huffington Post: Indeed, praying through music allows us to express our highest calling - to worship and praise God - in a way that no other art can.

Certainly Inheritance allows us to do just that.


Here are two beautiful videos for two of the tracks off this CD:





This is the link to her official website:


You can pre-order the album off of either iTunes or Amazon. It comes out February 12th. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Undivided


Too often the Church is the voice of Christ but never move to being his hands and feet in the community that so desperately needs it to be.

This is exactly what Southlake Church in Portland, Oregon did.

The documentary Undivided was about their church reaching out to one of the poorest, failing schools in their city. A synopsis for the film is:

In the 1960s, Roosevelt High School was the most outstanding school in Portland, Oregon, brimming with bright young students from the growing vibrant neighborhood. Fifty years later this institution was nearly empty and collapsing - enrollment down, facilities crumbling, sports teams a joke, and nearly 20% of the students technically homeless. Students with any means had left, finding safer and newer schools elsewhere, leaving the less fortunate students still at Roosevelt attempting to survive in a war zone. By 2007 things were so bad the superintendent of schools had slated the once grand school for closure. All that begin to change in 2008. SouthLake Church was like many suburban churches in the Northwest. It's gleaming facilities full of professionals, young people and traditional families eager to worship God and experience teaching in a comfortable and convenient environment. When Pastor Kip Jacob agreed to participate in a clean-up day at Roosevelt, he expected a couple hundred of his most faithful would show up, get their hands dirty for a few hours, then hop back in their SUVs and head home to the 'burbs. But what happened no one expected. UnDivided is a sobering, inspirational documentary exploring relationships forged between SouthLake volunteers and the kids at Roosevelt; revealing the daily challenges many students face in an under-served community and how church members individually and collectively can appropriately engage in those challenges; and it reveals how this involvement ultimately has a profound effect on the volunteers.

Here's a trailer for the documentary, which can currently be streamed on Netflix that shows the true power the Church can have in a community when they move beyond their walls, beyond their comfort zone, beyond their services and serve.


There's a quote they used in the film that came from President Theodore Roosevelt that I loved, "Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care."

Do our communities see that we care? 

Do they see the love of Christ in us through actions, without ever saying a word? 

We must love people without agenda. Period.


Jesus not only said this repeatedly, he did this repeatedly. He loved people into relationship with him. And we, as his Church, are to do likewise. "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, without works, is dead." (James 2:14-17). Are we a Church of words or works? Are we the hands and feet?


There are those in the Church who ask, "But what can I do?"  Jesus told you. "If you have two coats, give one away. Give food to the one who has none." See a need, meet a need. Simple as that. 

Hebrews 13:16 says, "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God."

1st John 3:17 warns, "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?"

It all comes down to the heart. Are our hearts closed to those who need to have love poured out on them extravagantly because no one else does? Does our heart beat for the same things as Christ's? For the poor and the marginalized?

Philippians 2:4 tells us, "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."


Are we?

As a Church, are we stepping out beyond the building to actually being the Church, the body of Christ?   

Here's a link to the Be Undivided website (http://beundivided.com/). It is not only about the movie, but, more importantly about how others can reach out in their communities to show the love of Christ in a tangible way, without an agenda, but simply loving others and meeting their needs. How much different would our world be if we did this?


It's not about short term missions, but about long term commitment and investment: investing in people, schools, and community.

As the website asks, "Can you imagine 300,00 churches helping 100,000 schools?"

Their website shows how churches, schools, and individuals can get involved.

But will we?

Mother Teresa said, "There are no great acts, only small acts done with great love." Yet when each of us does one of those small acts how much more are they multiplied when millions of people do so? Those small acts can ultimately transform the world.




Sunday, January 31, 2016

The American Gospel Of Trump


"Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough 
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud."
- Psalms 123:3-4

I had not planned to write about Donald Trump. Ever. There are many, many reasons why I had never intended to write about this man and part of that was that this blog started out of the desire to share the realities of my family's life as we adopted internationally. As the shift in focus of this blog has necessitated a change (Cava deserves his privacy and for his story to be his story), I seriously considered to stop blogging altogether. What I've realized is that the focus, from the beginning, was not just about our adoption: it was about our faith and, at the roots of this blog's genesis, is the strong undercurrent of social justice. Now I know that last part concerns a lot of Conservatives because they hear that term "social justice" and immediately jump to the conclusion that it's part of the liberal agenda. Yet social justice is not a political idea, but a biblical one.

From the beginning of the scriptures all the way to the end, God is presented as a God who has a heart for the least of these (orphans, widows, immigrants, sojourners, refugees, the oppressed) and has used his prophets to be a voice for the voiceless when those in power no longer concern themselves with taking care of the poor and downcast. Social justice springs forth from repentance. First, personal repentance from sin and then a national repentance from those injustices they have committed against those who were at the bottom of the ladder. As Proverbs 14:31 starts, "Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker." When we neglect the poor, when we are a part of the problem whereby we want cheap goods at the expense of those in third world countries, then we are literally mocking God.

Therefore, I have had a very difficult time watching as Donald Trump continues to rise in the polls, especially among those who identify themselves as "Christian." This is a man who makes half-hearted references to the Bible in a cheap attempt to court the Christian, particularly the Evangelical, vote. And despite the fact that it is obvious that he is a man who does not believe, there are Christians who support him. Why do they support him?

Certainly not because the fruits of the spirit are shown in his life. Jesus said that we would know his followers by their love, but this is a man who intentionally stirs up hate and racism as he demeans blacks, immigrants, Muslims, and Syrian refugees. This last part is especially troubling since there are now reports that there are 10,000 missing refugee children in Europe and that many of them may have been kidnapped or forced into human and sexual trafficking (http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/10000-child-migrants-missing/ar-BBoVGK9). As Christians, our hearts should go out to people who find themselves persecuted within their own country and find themselves unwanted by so many others. Trump prays on people's fears that these refugees are nothing more than terrorists waiting to get us. Now I know and have heard from many that they agree with him on this point, but what did Christ say?  From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus went into the synagogue and proclaimed the promises of Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the the year of the Lord's favor."

Those who are oppressed, those who are poor, those who are enslaved (and there are more people who are in slavery now than in all of history), the widows, the orphans, the marginalized, the ostracized, the ignored, the refugee, the immigrant, the lowly. He promised us that we could always find him there, but do we find ourselves there? I can't help but look at the current Pope and see a man who shuns power and spends much of his time among the poor, even when he is touring other countries. Can you imagine one of our candidates stooping to wash the feet of a poor man?


The Messiah of the world came to this Earth as a servant. He rejected power and glory when Satan tempted him with both. He washed the feet of his disciples, even the one he knew would betray him. The King of Glory lowered himself to be amongst the lowest, while too many of our politicians appear to be using Jesus simply as a way to raise themselves up among Evangelical voters. They are using Jesus and the Bible simply as a means of trying to gain the very power that Jesus rejected. They want to make America "Great" again. Why aren't they working to make America compassionate? We live in a world that can no longer afford the American dream. 

It's not enough to quote the Bible, one has to live it out in their lives. Yet Trump has said to Anderson Cooper of CNN, "Why do I have to repent or ask forgiveness when I am not making mistakes? I work hard. I'm an honorable person." This is a smug answer full of pride and arrogance. It goes against everything that Christ taught or lived out. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All are called to repent of their sins because all have sinned against a holy God. The Gospel is this very fact that "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever should believe on him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). God stooped low to love us. Jesus gave up power to become one of us, to love us back to his Father. He is not concerned with popularity or power. Because of this, many were disillusioned with Christ and turned away from him (one of those was Judas who thought Jesus would be the Messiah to deliver Israel from Rome, not from their sins).

Does Donald Trump then reflect the modern Church in America?

Is he a reflection of our desire for celebrity, money, success, power and the American dream?


I think so. 

I think the modern Church is far too happy with the moneylenders in the temple because those are the ones running so many of these mega-churches who preach not the gospel but the American dream. Their Jesus is not the servant, their God is not one who offers his only Son for the sins of the world. They want a God who serves them and "blesses" them with prosperity (health and wealth). They ignore the very fact that Jesus came to give comfort to the afflicted. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head, he did not have a mansion, a private jet, or great wealth that he had stored up in banks (even if any of those things had existed during his time). Too many of us identify with the rich young ruler than we do with the Savior we claim to follow.

He rejected popularity because he saw that people were praising him and seeking after him for all the wrong reasons. The same ones who shouted "Hosanna" to him one day were shouting "Crucify" him the next. Why? Because he doesn't allow us to be comfortable. He cannot be bought and sold. He is not a commodity. Jesus challenges us and confronts us. The Bible is not a tool to promote ourselves, but a two-edged sword that cuts deeply into the root of our heart and causes us either to accept its truth and change or reject it for those things the world has to offer. Jesus wants disciples not followers. His kingdom is neither conservative or liberal. He is interested in his kingdom and not countries. And his kingdom is based on compassion, mercy, grace, and love. 

Too many of our churches are places to avoid God rather than to encounter and be confronted by Him. We have allowed our churches to be places of entertainment or worship-tainment instead of places where we go with a holy fear and trembling to worship a righteous God. The Church is too full of fashionable faith and trendy worship that is based on getting goosebumps or good feelings. They are places of performances and celebrities, which is its own form of idol worship.

So is it any wonder then that there are those who call themselves "Christian" who would seek a candidate who is a celebrity, who promises them power again, wealth, and greatness? But we have to see that this is what Satan and not Jesus offered. 



Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Setting A Table


Recently, I happened to open my Bible to one of the most famous Psalms: the twenty-third. The line that jumped out at me was verse 5, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies . . ."  The literal translation for "table" is "spread." I like how Eugene Peterson translated it in The Message as, "You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. . ."

What this conjures in my mind is the image of Downton Abbey where they are served those grand feasts regularly. And as anyone who's ever seen Downton Abbey knows, these banquets are not just thrown together. They are well thought out, planned and prepared for. These are an occasion.


It also presents Jesus in the role of a servant. He is serving us a feast in the midst of our desert and in the presence of those who wish ill of us. This verse shows how hospitality is a trait of God. And He is preparing this feast just for us. Unlike Downton Abbey, there is only one guest: us. God honors us with a feast in a place of desolation, in a place where death's shadow looms. A feast for one. Imagine that. Picture in your mind the most delicious foods all prepared for you and you alone. 


Is this not a beautiful image of grace? Of His love for us? Of His tenderness towards us?  
It's not just stop and rest, it is not just Him providing, it is God telling us, "Even in the midst of your troubles, I give you this time of joy and feasting." In Judaism this is called hakhnasat orchim ("bringing in the stranger") or gemilut hasadim ("giving of loving kindness"). The Hagadah even commands, "Whosoever is in need, come and eat." This is what Jesus is doing. And like hosts are commanded to do, he will make his guest feel comfortable and at home. All the guest is expected to do is show gratitude.

During biblical times, to share a meal with someone was more than just sharing food, it was sharing life. It is an intimate act of friendship. Think of how many were drawn in to the love of Jesus simply by his sharing a meal with them. Why? Because they understood that he was offering himself, communion with him, fellowship with him. Through meals he brought in tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. It was his way of loving the alienated, the lost, the broken, and the hurting. This is what he is doing in this verse of the 23rd Psalm. He is showing us his love and care as he tends to us with a banquet. The creator of the universe serves us at his table. This time he is not feeding 5,000. No, he is feeding just us. And as he does so our enemies look on. They watch on as he provides provisions and comforts. "My child," he says, "this is all for you." 

As if all of this is not enough, Jesus anoints our head with oil. In Arabic, they translate it as "aromatic ointments." These were used during this time at great feasts to honor the guests. Our Savior is honoring us? He serves and honors us?

In this one Psalm, Jesus has gone from being our shepherd to our host and servant. Is it any wonder then that this Psalm ends with the words:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

In the midst of our troubles, our wilderness, Jesus will do more than just provide. He will love us until our cups runneth over. He has graciously received us and is offering us the table of fellowship. He is giving us consolation and joy, blessedness in our time of want, comfort in our time of fear, safety in the presence of our enemies. Jesus like his Jewish ancestors at the Passover Seder is telling us, "Let all who are hard-pressed come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share this Passover sacrifice."  

All of this is for our benefit. All we need is offer our gratitude. Like the example rabbinic sage Shim'on Ben Zoma gave of  how a good guest is to respond, we should simply say, "Look how much this householder has done for me! He has brought me so much meat, such fine expensive food! How many cakes has he set before me! And all that he has done, he has done just for my benefit."

This is our Savior. This is our God. This is his love for us. He simply wants us to enjoy the feast.






Monday, January 25, 2016

Drones, Technology & Benjamin


One of the things I most admire about Benjamin is that he dreams big and he pursues his passions with his whole heart. Technology is something that has always interested him and, though I don't always understand what he's talking about, I have done my best to encourage him in his endeavors. Just like writing is for me, coding and programming are part of how he communicates.

At school he's in TSA (Technology Student Association) and their drone club. This sparked his interest in drones. For Christmas he got his very own drone. Now he loves flying it and taking aerial photos:




Benjamin has the mind of an inventor, entrepreneur, and altruist. With the help of one of his teachers, he worked to fund getting his high school a 3-D printer. Now he is focused on creating a drone club in his area. His hope is to raise the money to supply drones for kids in our area that can't afford to buy them.

If you would be interested in reading more about it and possibly donating, please feel free to go to his Indiegogo site:
https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gastonia-nc-teen-drone-club--4/x/13240473#/

Here is the link the blog he just created that will be used once the drone club gets up and going:
https://sites.google.com/site/gastondroneclub/

He also has his own technology blog at:
http://avidtechnerd.blogspot.com/

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Faith & Fiction (How Books Impacted Belief)


For anyone who knows me even a little knows that I love to read. I cannot remember a time when I did not love books. I love the way they feel in your hand and the way they smell (Glade really does need to come out with a "New Book" scented candle). The true test of whether or not I should continue to date a girl was if she could hang with me in a bookstore. My wife clearly won that endurance test. For all of my life, I have tried to sneak books with me whenever I had to go to any type of social event. Even now, I usually have a book with me and there is at least one in my car's glove box just in case. I often carry more than one book with me just in case I'm not in the mood for one (usually it's a novel, maybe some poems, a biography, or nonfiction book, or short stories - yes, it's very Rory Gilmore of me). If you don't get that reference here's a clip and, yes, it hits home for me:



To say books are important to me is an epic understatement. I try not to miss a single library book sale. Of course, waiting in the line to get into the book sale is difficult for me because I'm convinced that everyone in front of me will buy all of the good books before I get there. It's not a problem. Really. It isn't. A problem, a real problem is not having a book with me. If your not a book lover, too, then don't judge me. 

Books are important to me, to my life, and shaped the way I am, including my faith.  The first books that had a huge impact on me were C.S. Lewis' Narnia series. I can remember how magical The Lion, The Witch,and The Wardrobe was for me. Stepping through a wardrobe, the snow, and then that lamp. It was the lamp that grounded the magic into reality for me. It was sheer genius on Lewis part to have that lamp. When we went to Ukraine, I got so excited as we were walking down the snowy sidewalk and I saw this one and just had to take a picture of it:


I looked all around for Mr. Tumnus to step out carrying his packages. Alas, he did not. 

As a child, I longed for a wardrobe instead of a closet. Closets don't lead to magical lands. Wardrobes do. I found this out because no matter how much I tried to push through my closet, I always came to the wall. "Aslan, take me away," I cried out like that woman in the TV commercial who asked the same thing of Calgon.  

I loved the Pevensie children and wanted so much to be one of them. To enter Narnia. To meet all of the magical creatures. To come in contact with Aslan the lion. This quote really stuck with me:

They turned and saw the lion himself,
so bright, and real, and strong
that everything began to look
pale and shadowy compared to him.

I would imagine that is how the disciples felt when they saw Christ after the resurrection. Resurrection was something I learned about through Aslan going to the stone table to die for Edmund's betrayal. That also taught me about love and grace. 

Aslan also taught me that Jesus was not some meek and mild Milquetoast of a guy. No, like Aslan, the new Testament makes you realize, "Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. but he's good. He's the king, I tell you."

This was my indoctrination into the magic of theology and I didn't even know it. This would also be the series that gave me my love for the writing of C.S. Lewis that I continue to marvel at his genius, his insights and wisdom, his wit, and his love for the magical; after all, he made a wardrobe and a streetlamp into something transcendentally un-ordinary.


Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was the next book to really open my mind to the awesomeness of God. It was the doorway to science and that there are truths bigger than mere explanations. As she wrote, "Don't try to comprehend with your mind. Your minds are very limited. Use your intuition." Even now it astounds me at how deep her book was. I immediately connected with the bookish, shy, awkward outsider Meg Murry. Like Lewis, L'Engle was great at weaving theology into her fiction. "We look not at things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal but the things that are not seen are eternal." How many other children's writers do you know that work the words of Saint Paul into their fiction?  This helped guide me into understanding as she writes that, "Some things have to be believed to be seen." She introduced me into paradox, into the battle between darkness and light, that one cannot be ruled solely by the mind and intelligence but that it must be balanced by the soul and the heart. It was also the first "banned book" I'd ever read. I would later to go on to read her Crosswicks Journals and Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.


Science fiction and fantasy lend themselves to theology. There are so many parallels to the Christian walk in this journey to destroy the one true ring, but what J.R.R. Tolkien taught me was in this one line, "Not all those who wander are lost." This has summed up my entire spiritual walk. I am by nature a wanderer, wonderer, and filled with questions. This line has shown me that all of these things are okay because all of them make me delve deeper and wrestle more with scripture. I can't take things at face value. Like those in the fellowship, my journey is seldom on a straight path from A to B. I get sidetracked, backtracked, and overwhelmed by the task before me. But never do I take it lightly. Tolkien was so right when he said, "There is nothing like looking if you want to find something." His books showed me that it was okay to do just that.


I cannot even estimate the importance of To Kill A Mockingbird on my life. This novel has made me rethink my own thoughts of the world and how one has to let go of childish things to truly see the light and darkness that is really there before me. Atticus Finch has been a character that I looked up to, admired, and aspired to be. He taught me the importance of empathy and imagining myself in someone else's shoes. It is this that has most impacted my faith. How so? Because it means I listen to others and what has either led them to or away from faith. It has allowed me to approach their stories with tenderness and not judgment. This has made me open to dialogues and share my own story with compassion and light. Atticus has also shaped my view of fatherhood and what it means to be brave.


No one better understands grace than the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. His works are profound theological works that wrestle with the best and worst of man's nature. When I first encountered his works, I was knocked off my feet. I had never read anything like this before. "The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man." WOW! 

"If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be permissible . . ." Dostoevsky attacked nihilism and the belief in nothing. 

The section that hit me the hardest was that parable called "The Grand Inquisitor." It is during this section that Dostoevsky has Christ on trial by the Grand Inquisitor after having returned to earth amidst the Inquisition. It shows how religion, even now, fears the power and freedom that Jesus has to offer man. They fear it and him and despise even the notion that they are not in control. This section is told by the older brother Ivan to his younger brother, Alyosha, the novice monk in an attempt to get him to renounce his faith. The parable ends with Jesus silent, as he was with Pontius Pilate, and kissing the Grand Inquisitor on his "bloodless, aged lips." Though the "kiss glows" in the Grand Inquisitor's heart, he still moves forward with killing Jesus all over again. 


It was after having read The Brothers Karamazov, that I discovered my favorite Dostoevsky novel The Idiot. In this work, he writes of a pure soul entering the sinful, selfish and violent world of Saint Petersburg. Prince Myshkin is described as a "positively good and beautiful man" and as "an idiot" by those who encounter him. Dostoevsky imagined Myshkin as a "Christ" figure who is both loved and rejected by the world around him just as they confide in but don't understand him. One of my favorite lines from the novel is, "Compassion was the most important, perhaps the sole law of human existence." It was through not only his difficult life but in writing his complex novels that Dostoevsky understood grace in a world that was harsh and unforgiving. He once said, "The Genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Faith does not . . . spring from the miracle, but the miracle from the faith."

Dostoevsky' works have not only taught me about grace but about how those who believe will always be on the outside, viewed as odd, viewed as "idiots."



The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton is referred to as a "metaphysical thriller." Chesterton was a brilliant and hilarious man who easily debated atheists like George Bernard Shaw, who was also a friend of his. One of Chesterton's famous quips was, "The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people." I would later discover his monumental works such as Orthodoxy and Heretics but first I came to him through this novel about Gabriel Syme, who's recruited by Scotland Yard, to a secret anti-anarchist police corps. There are elements of Christian allegory woven into this mystery that describes a world of "wild doubt and despair" and about ultimately finding faith and hope. It's a surreal work with a profound message.


How does one truly explain the Southern Gothic world of Flannery O'Connor? She once said that, "The freak in modern fiction is usually disturbing to us because he keeps us from forgetting that we share in his state." Her strange short stories reveal biblical truths like the last shall be first in a comical and tragic way such as in "Revelation."  Flannery O'Connor presents this most magnificently as the character of Ruby Turpin, who believes herself to be superior to others, especially blacks, in the end gets a vision of heaven that horrifies her as she sees souls winding their way there. Those that Ruby deems "proper" Christians are in the back of the line, while in front of them are those she deemed inferior: minorities, the lame and crippled, and the poor. O'Connor said of her writing, "All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal." O'Connor wrote her stories from a state of belief and the notion of "help me in my unbelief." Her stories, like she said of the South, weren't so much "Christ-centered" as "Christ-haunted." It was reading her short stories in college that led me to reading her amazing letters Habit of Being as well as her novel Wise Blood and her prayer journal. Nothing challenged me like her writing. As she so aptly put it, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."


I love the work of Wendell Berry, both his fiction and nonfiction. His humane vision and his stressing of good biblical stewardship of the land has influenced my thoughts on the environment. My first experience with his fictional town of Port William came with Jayber Crow and the community of that fictional place. It is essentially a love story in which the love of a woman draws a man to the love of God. As Berry writes, "Young lovers see a vision of the world redeemed by love. That is the truest thing they ever see, for without it life is death."  But my favorite quote and the one that rings truest to me was:

As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me
that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came
instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry
religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the
roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and
publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership
of all that is here. 


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 about the elderly congregationalist pastor Reverend John Ames. It is supposed to be an epistle to his seven year old son so that he will understand something about his father once he's died. It's also about his faith and how it cannot always be expressed in words. Robinson deftly weaves theology and Calvinism throughout this novel in the most masterful way that I didn't believe possible for fiction. She is a gifted writer whose books I cherish (from Housekeeping to the two other books in this trilogy Home and Lila, as well as her collections of essays). A line that I love from this book is, "Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense." I wish more Christians had that attitude when talking sharing their faith. Maybe if they did less in an attempt to convert as a way to share their story. As Reverend Ames puts it, "Christianity is a life, not a doctrine . . . I'm not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I'm saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own."

These are just a few of the works of fiction that influenced my faith. What are yours?