Month: November 2015

Advent Stories: The Shepherd

And sometimes I look for serious pictures of shepherds and realize this guy is my favorite anyway.

And sometimes I look for serious pictures of shepherds and realize this guy is my favorite anyway.

What do you mean I don’t know what I’m talking about? Listen, I’ve got big news here, okay? Just because I’m a shepherd, you think you can just ignore this? David was a shepherd, you know. Lived right here in Bethlehem, and he grew up to be the greatest king we ever had.

Amos the prophet was a shepherd. Yeah. Do I know what he prophesied about? Not a clue. Past the “Thus sayeth the Lord” part, all those guys run together for me. But he heard things from God and spoke ‘em loud. That’s what matters.

Jacob and his kids—the tribes of Israel, you might have heard of them—were shepherds too. Joseph gave them land in Egypt when he was king of the world and stuff, and they took their livestock and worked as shepherds.

And then the Egyptians made them slaves. So…not the best example.

Anyway, it’s a profession with a long and noble history.

Except mostly, nothing happens.

Oh, there are the other shepherds. We light a fire and drink a little and tell true stories about things that never actually happened.

But after the stories end, there’s just darkness and quiet and plenty of time to think over everything you’ve ever been afraid of. It’s enough to make you wish for a good, old-fashioned lion attack.

On the irritating nights when the others are getting on your last nerve, you think, “No wonder Judah sold his brother into slavery. If a caravan came by right now, I’d put everyone here up for bid.”

On the boring nights, you think, “No wonder Amos talked so much about judgment. At least that livened things up a bit.”

And on the lonely nights, you think, “No wonder David wrote all those Psalms. There was no one for him to talk to but God.” (more…)

Terrorism, John Brown, and the Wicked Witch of the West

I have this strange habit of reading books on planes that scare the person next to me. Happens every time. After the initial awkward introduction, the standard trapped-on-an-airplane question to a twenty-something with a book in her hand is, “So, what are you reading?”

And I answer, “A novel about the Holocaust.” Or “The memoir of a guy with an abusive father.” Or “A Shakespearean tragedy about racism and deception where all the good guys either kill each other themselves.”

“Oh,” they say, edging away.

The rest of the flight is relatively quiet.


Last night, I stood in line to board a plane, inching along and reading the story of John Brown sitting on his own coffin, riding to the scaffold in the pages of Tony Horowitz’s Midnight Rising. The biography details the life and violent insurrection of a religious extremist who believed himself appointed by God to kill for the cause of freedom.

I didn’t advertise the topic of the book to TSA agents as I went through security.

At one point, I glanced up and noticed that the girl next to me was also carrying a book—Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

I’ve never read the book, but I’m familiar with the musical, and began absently humming one of the songs. Two paragraphs, five shuffling steps, and one interview about the Paris terrorist attacks later, I realize which song I’ve chosen. The lyrics go like this: (more…)

Save Critique of Christian Culture for Something That’s Actually Happening

A friend asked me if I was going to write a blog post about the Starbucks Christmas cup controversy and why Christians are overreacting. I said no.

Here’s why: No one I know is outraged. I even have a Facebook page for work where I’m friends with hundreds of Christian fiction readers, most of whom are much more conservative than my personal Facebook friends, and none of them are outraged, or even annoyed, about Starbucks using red cups this year instead of snowflake designs.


All I am seeing from Christians is some form of: “This is not persecution,” “Snowmen weren’t Christ-focused anyway,” and “You would represent Jesus better by showing love to your barista instead of protesting for no good reason.”

Conclusion: I don’t think very many Christians are protesting this. I think a few people with an audience made a fuss without thinking…and now the real story is outrage at their (teeny tiny) minority opinion, not Christian outrage at Starbucks. I think bloggers and news outlets, Christian or secular, are using this as a way to get clicks by people who, rightly, think this whole thing is silly.

It bothers me that a lot of Christian writers are pretending they need to lecture “the church” and “Western Christianity” about protesting Starbucks when, as far as I can tell, that’s not going on. And it bothers me that other Christians are spreading their words around.

Why do we need to have headlines like “The Starbucks Outrage Is Everything That’s Wrong With American Christianity” when only a few people are outraged? Answer: we don’t. We’re basically telling people to shut up when they’re not yelling anything.

I think those type of articles are contributing to the wrong story about what Christianity is. By pretending there is a significant Christian audience that needs to be told that the Starbucks “controversy” is ridiculous, we are affirming that there are lots of Christians out there who are being un-Christlike and unthoughtful in how they approach this issue. And then the affirming comments stack up, proving that everyone agreed with us the whole time.

Let’s be real: right now, it’s cool to criticize the church. And when we need to apply a legitimate critique to a real issue, I think that can be very helpful and necessary.

This is not one of those issues.

Basically, my opinion is: Let’s save our critique for something that’s actually happening. Let’s not jump on every current event to be relevant by preaching a message that everyone we know already agrees with.

When the church really does protest something silly or treat people in an un-Christ-like way, then we can share memes and write blog posts and state our views on Facebook…but in a gracious way. Until then, let’s consider not adding to the hype.

One last thing: remember that “American Christians” (and every other type of Christians) are not just distant stereotypes. They are not trigger-happy protesters, shallow worship-is-a-rock-concert liberals, indiscriminate consumers of sub-par “uplifting and encouraging” art and music and movies, or overly-traditional courtship-advocating [insert-your-personal-issue-here] people who missed the point of the gospel.

They are individuals in the beautiful, broken community bought by the blood of Jesus and deeply loved by him.

Yes, Christians should be trying to be more like Christ, and voices that challenge and exhort can help with that. But be careful—be very, very careful—when you critique the church. Make sure you’re doing it in the right way, and for the right reasons, rather than loudly and publicly fake-shaming to get attention or approval.

Be careful because God loves the church, and so should we.

Jesus didn’t say the world would know his followers by our outrage about red coffee cups. Jesus also didn’t say the world would know his followers by our criticism of the (possibly nonexistent) outrage about red coffee cups.

Jesus said that the world would know his followers by our love for each other.

Sacred Spaces…With a Guest!

So, I am a fairly strict no-Christmas-anything before Thanksgiving sort of person.

In church yesterday we sang a song that is loosely about the advent of Christ and is on a Christmas CD. I had a serious moral dilemma about whether or not I could in good conscience sing it. Which was a good opportunity for me to reflect on my arrogance and stubbornness and how I can let petty things distract me from worship.

(I did end up singing. The fact that it felt like a painful betrayal is all kinds of ridiculous, and you should probably psychoanalyze me immediately.)

However, today I am joined by a friend, Stephanie Ebert, who has written an ebook collection of Advent reflections. I read through them last year and really appreciated the moments to pause and reflect on what Jesus’ incarnation in the midst of a dark world really means. She’s a very talented writer, and I always feel like I learn something when I read her thoughts. She agreed to share one of the reflections with you all today. (Don’t worry, people with a firm Scroogish-stance on these things…it’s not jingle bells and reindeer, just thoughts on the meaning of God With Us, which is pretty applicable all year round.)


Since Advent devotions are kind of important to have before December, I’ve broken my November ban on Christmassy things to have her join the blog with some thoughts on the sacred and the ordinary. If this intrigues you enough to buy the whole book, In the Valley of the Shadow Light Has Dawned (and it’s only $3.99!), I’d highly recommend it. You should also head over to her blog, check it out, and leave a comment for a chance to win a copy.

Okay, here’s Stephanie, everyone! (Don’t play Christmas music while reading this. I can only go so far.)

Sacred Spaces

Week Two: Incarnation

Day Four


They say there are no sacred spaces.

They say this is just a shelter to keep off the rain.

Everything is common.

Just bricks. Just cement. Just a scratchy brown carpet like you’d find in any building built in the 80’s. It’s just stuff—just a rain shelter.

And the Eucharist is just grape juice. Just brown bread.


But they forget that this stuff is the stuff that stars are made of.

These ever-spinning neutrons, these ever-firing neurons—this is life and this is all held together by the power of his command, and there are no ordinary things.


is charged with the grandeur of God.

We are the ones that make it common with our clunky muddy boots.

Our feet shod, we trample on holy ground.


They say there are no sacred spaces.

It is only Words that can be holy. Those are the truth.

But have we forgotten that the Word became flesh and lived among us?

He tabernacled, he took our ordinary lungs, and hearts, and fingernails and lived in them.

God, living in matter, saying, “This matters.”

Have we forgotten that Truth isn’t an idea but a person?

A person who trudged, who ate, who laughed, who burped, who worshipped, who sang, who cried, who worked, who listened, who slept?

A person who healed broken bodies? A person who fed hungry people? A person who turned water into wine?


God-with-us wasn’t tainted by the common-ness of skin and flesh and bones.

He made skin and flesh and bones holy.

And he made humanity a sanctuary.

Now we’re the temple.

There are no ordinary human beings.

Where is our reverence for each other?

We stand on holy ground.


Is nothing sacred?

It may be brown bread and grape juice, but this isn’t just a picnic under a rain shelter. Through our coming together, our prayers, our bowed hearts, our thankfulness, the Spirit working in us, in his church – this becomes Eucharist. It becomes a sacrament, a visible means of invisible grace. The common ordinary staples of life are sanctified, set apart, made holy. And when we remember together the death of our savior, and when we eat and drink together his grace is again freshly imparted to our selves, body and soul.


And he could have said, ‘Recite to the Lord the greatness of his power,” but instead he said SING! Use your voices, and fingers, and hands and body, and all the emotion with on you and sing to the Lord a new song, sing praises to his name. Make something beautiful, and let its beauty glorify the Lord.


It’s not just the idea of the greatness of God that matters. It’s the way we express it with our guitar strings and organ keys and violin bows and clashing cymbals.


Stuff matters.


We’re not just passing through the heavy chains of atoms and molecules until one day we’re liberated spirits. We are alive now, and because of Christ we will continue to be alive forever, with hands and stomachs and hearts and voices and so it’s not just stuff.


It’s not just a rain shelter.

It’s not just bread and grape juice.

It’s not just ideas.

It’s God with us.

It’s a world charged with the grandeur of God.

It’s Bach and Gregorian chants, Zulu choruses and violin concertos, ballet dancers and stained-glass windows, the Hallelujah chorus and DaVinci sculptures.


Because now that God has broken through, everything is sacred.


“The word became flesh and tabernacled among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only. No one has ever seen God, but Jesus, who is near to the Father’s heart, has made him plain to us.” ~from John 1:14 and 18

Today I Will Not Change the World

I’m convinced that a steady diet of missionary biographies and fantasy epics ruined me for ordinary life.

But really, though. In elementary school, I read Hero Tales (stories of the greats of the faith) and adventure books, paging through more death-defying situations in a week than even the most quest-prone hero could in a lifetime.

In high school, it was various martyr stories like Jesus Freaks, along with teen Christian living books like Do Hard Things or Make Your Mark that assured me that you, yes you, could change the world. And, of course, more fiction where heroes and heroines lived exciting lives and also managed to be incredibly witty. From Bonhoeffer to Atticus to Bilbo, my heroes were people who went out there and did stuff.

This was what my class chose as our senior quote. I was pretty sure it didn't really mean anything.

This was what my class chose as our senior quote. I was pretty sure it didn’t really mean anything.

Those were the stories that mattered, biography or fiction. The stakes were high, the choices were hard, and the lines were drawn between good and evil with people standing their ground on one side or the other.

There’s nothing wrong with that, really.

Except the years went by….

And I didn’t change the world.

And my life didn’t turn into a page-turning novel.

And I did some hard things—even some impressive things—and they didn’t make me feel fulfilled.

And most days were shockingly devoid of explosions, hostage negotiations, cryptic messages, or people shooting at me.

If I’m honest, I still feel a little disappointed about this. Most of my choices don’t seem to matter. Most of my days don’t seem worthy of a biography, or even a memoir. Most of my adventures are only daydreams.

I also get super stressed out reading articles like this one. Like, "What am I doing with my life?" sort of stressed out.

I also get super stressed out reading articles like this one. Like, “What am I doing with my life?” sort of stressed out.

This is why I identify with Naaman. Random Old Testament character, a foreign general who did nothing but win…and also get leprosy. When he hunted out the prophet Elisha for a healing, the prophet told him to bathe in the River Jordan, and he would be clean.

And Naaman stormed off, furious, complaining that Elisha should have done some hand-waving hocus pocus, or at least sent him to a cleaner, more dignified river.

His servants called him out on the real reason behind his protests: “If the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”

They’ve got you there, Naaman. You’re a glorious warrior, rich, brave, and in charge. You’d have taken any quest, any challenge, to get your health back. But the prophet—and the prophet’s God—didn’t ask you to do that. That’s not going to be your story. He asked you to do something simple. Something humiliating. Something you don’t quite understand.

He asked you to obey.

I understand Naaman’s resistance, even his anger. Sometimes I get angry too, or at least annoyed. Why isn’t my life more interesting? Why don’t story-worthy things happen to me? Why did God not set the stage, arranging dramatic events perfectly around me, so I could be the hero?

You can probably guess the answer: because I don’t need to be the hero. What I need is a little humility.

I need the faith to offer up my little choices to God. I need the wisdom to see the fight against sin as the epic, high-stakes battle it is instead of surrendering early. I need the courage to give God my tired days, my halfhearted efforts, my small obediences so he can use them in his story instead of focusing so much on being the star of mine.

Today I will not change the world. And that is okay, because that’s not what God has called me to do today. Today, tomorrow, the next day, he has called me to be faithful. And that’s what makes a good story in the end.