A Summer Reading List

As regular readers of this blog know, I am at the tail end of a three-month Sabbatical from my ongoing ministry at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights in Pittsburgh, PA.  In several previous posts, I mentioned that I would provide some sort of a listing of the books that have held my interest this summer.  My hope is that you might see something here that strikes your fancy – and if you look at my list and see something missing, I’d love to have some suggestions from you!

Novels

Anything by Fredrik Backman I could find.  This guy is amazing.  Seriously, if you haven’t read any of his stuff, you should.  He’s really, really good.

  • The Deal of a Lifetime: This brief novella explores the relationship between a father and his son.  It raises questions of ultimate worth and value, sacrifice and love.  Very thought-provoking.
  • And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer: Another novella, this one painting an amazingly heart-rending image of the relationship between a boy and his grandfather (who is struggling with dementia).  The characters really come to life, and the struggle to maintain connection, love, and a sense of self draws the reader in.  I’m not crying, you’re crying…
  • Beartown: This is a novel about a town’s hockey team the way that The Old Man and the Sea is a story of a man on a fishing trip.  Beartown is a tiny town deep in the forest, and the last few decades have not been particularly kind to this community.  One of the things that has held the people here together over the years, though, is hockey.  So when Kevin, Benji, Amat, Bobo, and the rest of the young men’s team begin to make a run for the championship, the town goes crazy.  And yet something horrible happens – and the town has to think through important questions of friendship and belonging and justice and healing.  Decisions are made, and their effects are felt… And Backman captures the struggle beautifully.
  • Us Against You is the sequel to Beartown.  Here, we see the aftermath of the conflict and struggle that has been so gripping (for both the town and the characters in the book as well as the reader!).  Some of the plot lines for this may have been drawn straight from today’s headlines – it is a gripping witness to the power of love and friendship as well as the ways that our communities come to define us.

The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr.  This is one of my all-time favorite novels – an allegory to which I return again and again.  Chauntecleer is a rooster who rules over his land with wisdom and justice, and he finds that his territory has been invaded by lawlessness and desolation known as Wyrm.  It is at once a heart-breaking and heart-warming tale of redemption and hope.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher.  This is a laugh-out loud, snarky novel that is comprised exclusively of letters written by one Jason Fitger, a weary and wearisome professor of creative writing and literature at an undistinguished midwestern university.  In his letters, we come to know his failed love life, his unwise choices, and his passions.  This is a poignant and funny book that won’t take you long to get through.

Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  Clay Johnson is in a “beggars can’t be choosers” position when he is downsized from his tech job – and so he finds himself working the overnight hours at a most unusual book store in California.  Most of the very few “customers” don’t actually BUY anything – instead, they borrow large volumes from a special section of the store.  Clay is intrigued, and so he recruits some of his friends to help him explore and eventually discover the secrets of the store and its owner.  This is part detective story, part adventure or fantasy novel, and part ‘rom-com’.

The Bourne Deception by Eric Van Lustbader.  Because, well, Jason Bourne.

Brother Odd by Dean Koontz.  During my sojourn in Ethiopia, when I was without my own stack of books, I found this one that captivated me.  Odd Thomas is a young man with a strange gift/curse, and during his stay at St. Bartholomew’s Abbey he finds himself in a position to use this gift to help those around him avert tragedy.  It is a good story and like all good stories helps me to wonder about the ways that I see the world (or fail to).

Rushing Waters and Blue by Danielle Steel.  Each of these quick reads is a piece of brain-candy from an author who churns out books seemingly faster than I can churn out sermons.  The former is about a group of people whose lives become intertwined when the “storm of the century” floods New York City and forces them to consider what is really important about the things they own and the lives they live.  The latter is the tale of a female doctor who repeatedly thrusts herself into war zones and horrifying situations with a group such as Doctors Without Borders in an attempt to escape her “real” life.  That is all brought into question when a young homeless boy shows up in her life and calls her to think about who she really wants to be.

Theology and Spirituality

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans.  Evans is a remarkable author and a significant influence on me in recent years.  She writes with sincerity, humility, and approachability about the difficulties we encounter when we try to read the Bible literally – but about the joy and wonder that these same stories can bring us when we are able to see the mystery of God’s redemptive work in the world.  I’d buy anything she’s written!

 

 

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God by Eugene Peterson.  This is a collection of 49 of Peterson’s sermons that demonstrate how this pastor caught the imagination of his congregation in Maryland by telling them the heart of the message of Scripture.  There are seven sections demonstrating how Peterson preached in the company of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos – working his way through the entire Bible, yet pointing to One Story.  I don’t usually like books of sermons, but this one was, well, on fire.

A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community by John Pavlovitz.  I’ve read this guy’s blog a lot, and he always makes me think.  This book is no different – it offers his very cogent reflections on how, frankly, the organized church is so apt to act in ways that would probably mystify Jesus.  He calls his readers to explore notions of radical hospitality, authenticity, genuine diversity, and a dream of community.  This man tells the truth.

Everyone Belongs to God: Discovering the Hidden Christ by Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt.  This work is a collection of letters written by a 19th century (and early 20th century) pastor to his son-in-law, who was a missionary in China.  Writing before the “War to End All Wars” and the cosmic events of the last century, this man offers some incredibly sage advice to his son-in-law on being more concerned with following Jesus than in propping up an institution or corporation (such as the church or the German Culture, each of which he had been commissioned to represent in China).  Blumhardt’s thought is free, it is godly, and it is inviting as we consider just how wide and deep the Gospel really is.

Spiritual Economics: The Principles and Process of True Prosperity by Eric Butterworth.  This was sent to me by a dear friend from High School, a man whose leadership abilities and passion for learning I really respect.  I was suspecting that this would wind up to be a “prosperity Gospel” book, but it wasn’t. Butterworth builds on the principles espoused in the Unity Church and New Thought Movements with which he was deeply associated.  If I were to categorize this volume in a single genre, it might more likely be “self-help”, because Butterworth really attempts to coach the reader through seeing “abundant life” in their everyday existence.

Miscellaneous

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough.  I have long been an admirer of our nation’s 26th President, and to be honest, I thought I was going to be reading a biography of that guy.  But subtitles matter, and I quickly realized that this was a biography of the boy who would become that president.  This lengthy and well-documented work (David McCullough, anyone?) covers only the seventeen years from 1869 when little “Teedie” is ten years old to 1886 where the future president returns from his time in North Dakota as a genuine “cowboy” – ready to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, move through his grief, and take hold of that which was to come.  I was drawn into many aspects of his story, not the least of which is McCullough’s long exploration of Roosevelt’s severe asthma and its possible causes and the affects that this disease had on him and those around him. It is a well-written social history, a compelling story, and a richly-researched peek into the life of this world-changing man.

The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth  by Christopher L. Heuertz.  This is a verrrrrry deep work – I have to read and re-read these chapters slowly – that explores an ancient conception of personalities and the ways that we are “wired”. He does so in the clear and consistent posture of one who wants to follow Jesus.  I’m working through this book with a group of pastors and of all the ones on the list this summer, this is the one that feels the most like work to me.  But I’m learning… so there’s that!

From Brokenness To Community by Jean Vanier.  This is the only book I had with me for five days while my luggage was misplaced in Ethiopia.  It is a book that has had a deep, deep impact on my life over the years.  Vanier lectured to students at Harvard about the improbability of him – a seasoned Navy Veteran, a doctor and student of Philosophy, and an intellectual’s intellectual – being called to care for and learn from those who have been deeply wounded in this life.  Vanier left his posts in academia and the military to go and live with, serve, and learn from a community of people who were profoundly disabled.  Most could not move or speak, and yet Vanier found there a path to discipleship that was truly surprising to him and to anyone who thinks that Jesus always wants us to be on top and first and “successful.”

I hope that taking a peek at my list might help you to think about what you’re reading that has gotten you interested, or passionate, or wondering…  Happy Reading

On Saying Who You Are…

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds. For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio.  While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…

Lucia got a new lunchbox from her great-grandmother – to help her get ready for school!

My time of rest, study, and reflection at Seneca Lake was transformed for about six days with an infusion of time with people I love dearly.  In addition to a few close friends from Pittsburgh, the time was fundamentally shaped by the ability to share this place with, at various times, my wife Sharon, my daughter Ariel, and my granddaughters Lucia and Violet. Ariel and the girls arrived on Wednesday, and we had some wonderful experiences, including pie and pearsauce making, swimming, reading, and lots of bubbles.  Ariel left as Sharon arrived on Friday evening, and we had a couple of fantastic grandparenting days with the girls.  Sharon was constrained to leave on Sunday morning, and that evening Ariel returned to pick up Violet – leaving Lucia and me to a couple of days of Camp Grampy.

In the midst of all this, the cabins around mine were inhabited by other families on different missions.  Lucia watched one child, an 8 year old girl, wistfully, and wondered if she’d like to play together.  Her nervousness prevented her from making a move for a day or so until, with Sharon’s encouragement, she went over and broke the ice. The child was happy to come to Cabin #4 and roast some marshmallows and make some popcorn.  As all of this was unfolding, of course, Sharon and I were doing the kinds of things that grown-ups do in these situations: we were trying to get Lucia to make an accounting for herself.  “Tell her who you are, sweetheart”, we said. Of course, what we meant was “tell her your name, and maybe how old you are…”

It’s pie time!

How many times have you been told, or instructed someone else, to “say who you are”? Wouldn’t life be a series of existential crises if we really had to do that all the time? I mean, really say  who we are?

“Um, hi…. I’m an extroverted grandfather with this particular set of insecurities; I have these hopes, these skills, and an overinflated sense of my abilities as a bowler and baserunner… I like to cook and read and tell stories, but I’m afraid that sometimes I like telling them more than you like listening to them… My favorite color is red, and I really like to watch movies and talk about them with people, but I’m reluctant to invite you to do that because I’m afraid you’ll think that’s odd…”

You see what I mean?  If we really had to tell people who we are – what particular bundle of emotions, insecurities, strengths, confidences, and behaviors make us into ourselves – well, it would just be exhausting.

And yet that is one of the prime tasks of a Sabbatical, I think.  I’m supposed to step away from all the things I normally do  and spend some time thinking about who it is that I’m supposed to be.

The girls loved having the chance to sing along (and help play)!

In an odd, and yet beautiful way, this became clear to me during a conversation I had with Lucia while the two of us were out on the boat the other day.  She asked what day it was, and I mentioned that it was Sunday.  She thought about that for a moment, and then she said, “But you didn’t go to church, Grampy. You always go to church – even when it’s not Sunday.”

I said that yes, typically that was true, but that this summer I was spending my time in a different way.  She continued, “So you are taking a break from working at the church, Grampy?  Are you sad about that?”

I replied that there were a lot of things that I missed about being connected with so many of the people who are so important to me, but it was important to the church and to me that we have a little break.

After a brief interlude, she wandered into my lap and said, “Well, I’m glad that you are taking a break from your church job so that you can keep on doing the job that you don’t get a break from.”  I asked her what that was, and she said with a big smile (and perhaps, a little condescension in her voice, although I might be making that part up), “Taking care of ME! You can’t always go to church, and MorMor can’t always go to her work, but we can always take care of each other, Grampy.”

The kid is not wrong…  Like many of us, I suspect I spend a little too much energy conflating what I do  with who I am.  The weekly Sabbath is an opportunity for us to do this with some regularity, of course (“Remember the Sabbath… and remember that you are fundamentally a person who has been freed from bondage” [my very loose paraphrase of the 4thcommandment]).  We are invited to stop our striving and our doing and our working and to remember that there is One who is and does and makes and heals and reconciles in a way that is not dependent on our ability to accomplish those things.  A pastoral Sabbatical is a longer, much rarer (my last one was in 2010) invitation to allocate time in a different way so as to more fully embrace the times and the people with whom I’m presented with the energy I’ve been given.

It was great watching the kids get more comfortable in the water!

MorMor’s love for puzzles is taking root in this generation.

I am deeply grateful for this rare privilege I have had this past week to spend such intense time exploring life in the company of my daughter and granddaughters.  Stretching out and reading stories, making pie, building fires, wishing we could catch some fish, telling silly jokes, and just, well, being ourselves in front of each other.

I’m hoping that you have someone with whom you are free to be you today, without having to explain too much of anything. In addition, I hope that you are able to find some time to think about who you are supposed to be  as well as all the stuff you have to do.

One of the great opportunities of “Camp Grampy” was our plan to spend a night sleeping on my boat “Visitation”. Here we are setting off.

No toilet on the boat? Think again! Lucia getting her “bucket potty” ready for the night.

We did a lot of fishing, but precious little catching.

Lucia asked for the camera so that she could have a picture to remember what I look like when we fish together. Now you can know this, too!

It turned out that there were TOO MANY MOSQUITOS for us to sleep on the boat, but that didn’t stop us from getting breakfast at the Boat Restaurant! I asked Lucia if she wanted to eat at the restaurant, and she said, “Grampy, do you think that they will have biscuits and gravy?” That’s my girl!

She took a lot of “nature photos” – here, capturing a dandelion so that she can share it with her teacher.

The nighttime view from Cabin #4. I could do worse, my friends. I could do worse!

An Appreciation for A Faithful Guide

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds. For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio.  While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…

I took a rather circuitous route to the Pastoral Vocation.  As mentioned in the previous post, I spent many years specializing in “youth” ministry – it took me more than eight years to complete my Master’s Degree and satisfy my denomination’s requirements for ordination – a place I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go.

And yet in September, 1990, it happened.  Not only had I jumped through all the hoops, dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s – lo and behold, there was a congregation that wanted me to serve as (Associate) Pastor!  One of the first things I did as a pastor was to dip into my book allowance and buy a slim volume entitled Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity  by Eugene Peterson.  I’m sure that it was the best ten bucks the church ever spent on me.  I recall sitting in my study, reading portions of it out loud to anyone who happened to have had the poor timing to be walking past or telephoning me at the moment.  My takeaway from that book was that while the church really did want me (or someone like me) to take care of the business of being the religious institution that counted for respectability in the neighborhood, nobody in the congregation would really ever give a rat’s patootie about the three things that constitute the core of the Pastoral Vocation: prayer, studying scripture, and offering spiritual direction.

Peterson proved prophetic in many ways: I’ve often received memos for failing to account for some particular budget anomaly, and I’ve been reamed out more than once for choosing the wrong music, and I’ve been challenged on many occastions for being too political (or not political enough) from the pulpit.  Sessions and Presbyteries and Assemblies care about results, about data, and about growth.  Eugene pointed out to me early on that nobody was going to bug me about the most important stuff – the stuff that kept me alive, and that really mattered to people when they were calling from the ER or wondering what had happened to their marriage or how they might survive the loss of yet another child.

I grew to see Eugene Peterson as a guide in ministry, and I devoured his writing. And then about a dozen years ago: a great gift.  I was facing a challenge in ministry for which, to my knowledge, neither he nor anyone else I trusted had written a book.  And so I wrote a letter (on paper, through the snail mail!) to Eugene, then living in (semi) retirement in Montana. I asked if he might mentor me through this particular challenge, and after a few weeks I received an invitation from Eugene to call him at his home (on his land line!).  We met several times in person and more frequently via telephone for the next eight months or so, and I was greatly blessed to be the recipient of his wisdom, his energy, his insight, and, most especially, his care.  That time made me a better pastor and a better person.

In my previous post, I wrote about the joys of learning from someone younger than me. When I’d finished Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired, I went in the other direction and picked up the last book that Eugene published prior to his death. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God  is a collection of 49 sermons (yes, there are seven units that contain seven messages each) that Eugene originally preached to the congregation of Christ Our King parish Bel Air, Maryland.  What a joy it has been to hear these words in his deep and gravelly voice – words that bring me into consideration of The Word; words that ask important questions and point to great beauty and poke holes in easy answers.

For instance, in a sermon on Psalm 23 he writes, “Our lives are lived in the company of both the Shepherd and the shadow…Life in the desert for both Shepherd and sheep is no soft, sun-drenched idyll on a south sea island.  It is menaced by the dark shadows of the beast-infested valley. The threats to life are all around, but the presence of the Shepherd guides and leads, dispersing the threats.” (pp. 101-102)

In his introduction to the sermons on prophecy, he writes, “Everyone more or less believes in God or gods.  But most of us do our best to keep God on the margins of our lives, or, failing that, we refashion God to suit our convenience.  Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call.  And prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be… The unrelenting reality is that prophets don’t fit into our way of life. For a people who are accustomed to fitting God into our lives or, as we like to say, ‘making room for God,’ the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss.  The God of whom the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, wehave to fit into God.” (pp. 115-116)

In reflecting on his growth in wisdom, he said, “Not everything I did or said took place behind the pulpit or in the sanctuary.  Not everything I was learning about grace and holiness was coming out of the Bible.  I was also being tutored by a woman recovering from a heart attack, by a family struggling in poverty, by young people finding words to express their newfound faith honestly and unpretentiously, or, in the words of our text, by hearing wisdom crying aloud in the street (Proverbs 1:20).” (p. 185)

In this, his final volume, I hear Eugene reminding me of truth I first encountered three decades ago: that the Christian life is all about congruence – it’s not about some extraordinary event or immersion or experience that we get once in a while, but then it’s business as usual; rather, faithful Christian living is done Monday – Sunday in workplaces and schools and hospitals and homes.  Our calling as believers is to look for ways to participate in what God is doing in each of those places; my calling as a Pastor is to point to how that might happen and invite your consideration of that as it does its quiet work in your own heart.

It’s only a hummingbird, and not a kingfisher – but she was a welcome companion all morning!

I’ve been reading his work and drafting this appreciation seated at a picnic table overlooking a lake in Eastern Ohio.  As I’ve been doing so, a number of hummingbirds have been flitting in and out, buzzing me, chasing each other, and sipping on the nectar in the feeder. This is not a gift I deserve nor one for which I could have planned, but at this season in my life and ministry, I am grateful for such reminders of grace and beauty and perseverance and delicacy and energy.  My prayer for you today is that you have the presence of faithful mentors and guides who help you to see what really matters in the world and in your own life. Thanks be to God!

I realized that I’d omitted a photo of my bride from previous posts at the lake. She is here on the weekends and source of great comfort and joy!

I’d Rather Explore Than Explain

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds.  For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio.  While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…

I know that you don’t hear this often enough, but there are a lot of perks to getting old(er).  I know, I know, our society tells us that age is the enemy and we have to pretend to be 29 forever.

No thanks.

Here’s one of my favorite things about getting older: there are more and more younger people from whom I can learn!  When I started in ministry, I wanted to do youth ministry.  I wanted to serve in this way, I thought, because I had so much to offer these kids.  I knew more than they did about so much: life, the universe, and everything.  They should be glad  to have me in the room.  And, truth be told, I was pretty good at it.  I mean, I did  know some stuff.  And I taught a lot of kids.

But the longer I’ve been doing this, the more things have become mutual.  When I first started, I talked a lot. Seriously – I don’t know how some of those folks ever put up with me.  In my mind’s eye, I’m insufferable.  But now, I find myself listening more and more.  So often, it’s young people who challenge me to be better than I am, who invite me to grow, who push me out of my comfort zone.

One such voice for which I’m supremely grateful is a young woman named Rachel Held Evans.  She caught my attention almost ten years ago when, in response to the devastation wrought by a tsunami in East Asia, she published a poem on her blog called “Natori” (the name of a town in Japan that was devastated by that horror).  Here is that poem, along with the photo that inspired it:

Natori

Some people have pastors who explain these things
but I don’t
know why she sits alone amidst the bodies that the water left behind—
bodies of houses, bodies of cars, bodies of boats, bodies of people—
knees bent,
arms clasped beneath bare thighs,
held together by the stiff embrace of a sob,
or why the earth shook,
or why the water came,
or why she has taken off her boots,
or why she sits alone amidst the bodies that the water left behind;
I only know that I don’t
want a pastor who explains these things.

I read it, and I thought, “YES!  Exactly!  God forbid that I become a pastor who tries to explain things.”  I wanted to use that poem in a sermon, and so I emailed her for permission.  She responded with grace and an open heart, and we exchanged a number of emails about what it meant to explore and preach in places of pain and confusion.  I began to devour her writing: her memoir Evolving in Monkeytown  (later retitled Faith Unraveled.) was a book I gave to a number of young people who wanted to believe, but they weren’t sure that their faith would end up looking like that of their parents.  A number of us at Crafton Heights were glad to have had the opportunity to read through Searching for Sunday  together as we talked and prayed about what makes church, well, church.

Rachel Held Evans died tragically in May at the age of 37, apparently as a result of a series of infections that led to swelling on the brain.  When she died, I posted Natori on my Facebook page because after thirty years of doing funerals for people younger than I am, I still don’t know how to do it well, or why those things happen. And I’m done trying to explain much of anything.

One of the volumes to which I’ve been looking forward this Sabbatical is one that she authored last year, entitled Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.  Listen: if you’re looking for a seminary text filled with source criticism and ancient languages, this book isn’t for you.  I mean, she doesn’t even use the word “hermeneutic”, so far as I can recall. But if you wonder how in the world a collection of documents pulled together by a group of committees over a three thousand year time frame can be authoritative and helpful for life in the 21stcentury, this is a great read.

She takes on some of the most confusing and challenging aspects of the Bible, including the patriarchal, violent, gruesome, and just plain confusing texts and she helps the reader to see the Bible for what it is (a living, breathing work that can equip us for faithful living in God’s world) while freeing folks to go beyond seeing it as a static rulebook bearing the marks of a world that no longer exists.  Her scholarship is first-rate, and she weaves in thought from all manner of authorities in such a way as to allow readers to imagine that we’re in the same room with a group of these folks and overhearing their discussions about the topic at hand.

For instance, in the section on miracles (entitled “Fish Stories”), she writes,

So perhaps a better question than asking ‘Do I believe in miracles?’ is ‘Am I acting like I do?’.  Am I including the people who are typically excluded? Am I feeding the hungry and caring for the sick? Am I holding the hands of the homeless and offering help to addicts?  Am I working to break down religious and political barriers that ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities and people with disabilities? Am I behaving as if life is more than a meaningless, chaotic mess, that there is some order in the storm?

In this work, as in every other experience I’ve had of her, she is genuine and transparent and honest – even with, or perhaps especially with, her doubts and questions.

We need more of that in the church today.

Confession: like Rachel Held Evans, I am often bewildered or infuriated by the Bible.  I am angry at the church.  I don’t understand what God is up to.  But the Story!  Ah, the Story!!!  It has  me, and I cannot let it go.  Or, perhaps more accurately, it won’t let me go.  There are days when I want to throw my hands in the air and say, “Seriously? THIS is the best you can do today? What the hell?” (I know, that’s not what most folks want their pastor’s prayers to sound like, but some days, that’s the best I can do).  And yet I keep on praying.  Because, to echo this young woman who has taught me a lot, “I am a Christian because the story of Jesus is still the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.”  And the reality is, I’m not looking for someone who will explain away all the difficult things in the Bible or in my life.  But I will always, always welcome someone who is interested in exploring difficult places with me.  Thank you, Rachel, for that.

I would heartily encourage you to learn more about this bright light that shone too briefly, and to read this book.  You can get a free preview, download a study guide, and learn more about this work by clicking here.

Oh – and for those of you are are convinced that I’m here at the lake, eating fresh fish every day… I think it would be fair to say that I don’t have Seneca Lake quite figured out yet.  Which is OK, because I have more time for reading!

Does the camera really add ten pounds?

Important Correction to “Finding and Losing Words”

A note to those of you who subscribe to these posts by email:
Something happened in that I hit “publish” in the last post before I was able to complete it.
Because I’m more of a “word” guy and less of a “tech guy”, I don’t know how to remove that post and send you a completed on.

To that end, you can view the new and improved version by clicking here.

I am honored by the grace you show me in your willingness to read my words.  I do not take that for granted.

Humbly,
Dave

On Losing… and Finding… Words

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds.  For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio.  While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…

In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary underwent a significant revision.  This 10,000 word volume is the standard dictionary offered for elementary school children in the United Kingdom.  That such a revision took place is not surprising at all.  Language, like most other living things, evolves and changes.  While the language that British schoolchildren use in the 21stcentury is the same as that used by the scholars who translated the King James Bible, the vocabulary is not.  We all know different words now than our grandparents did.

 

Yet this change caused something of a controversy.  It was a non-issue at first, but it has grown into a protest and even a debate.  An alert reader noticed that many of the words that were removed from the “new” dictionary were associated with wonder and the natural world.  Words like “acorn” and “buttercup” and “cauliflower”.  They were replaced by terms like “analogue”, “broadband”, and “cut-and-paste”.  A group of literary figures such as Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale and others) and Sir Andrew Motion (former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom) decried the loss, pointing out that an increasing amount of research indicates that having familiarity with and spending time in the out-of-doors is essential to the healthy development of children (one study indicates that 40% of young children never play outside!).

Ten years after the change was made author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris responded by producing a captivating volume entitled The Lost Words: A Spellbook.  It is, my friends, a thing of great beauty.

The first page reads as follows:

Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children.  They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed – fading away like water on stone.  The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, branle, conker – gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren… all of them gone!  The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words.  To read it you will need to seek, find, and speak.  It deals in things that are missing and things that are hidden, in absences and in appearances.  It is told in gold – the gold of the goldfinches that flit through its pages in charms – and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, but the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.

I don’t know that I have ever read a “spell book” before, but this one is amazing.  First, it is large – perhaps 11 inches by 15 inches.  But more than that, it is visually stunning. For each “lost” word there is an incantation – a poem, a song, a hymn to that which has been named, and then a two-page watercolor.  Each image is more arresting than the last!  And the text? Ah, it is musical as well.

The image for “Dandelion” in The Lost Words.

The first entry is for “Acorn”:

The watercolor for “Acorn” in “The Lost Words”

As flake is to blizzard, as

Curve is to sphere,
as knot is to net, as

One is to many, as coin is to money,
as bird is to flock, as

Rock is to mountain, as drop is to fountain,
as spring is to river, as glint is to glitter, as

Near is to far, as wind is to weather,
as feather is to flight, as light is to star,
as kindness is to good, so acorn is to wood.

 

Many of the words refer to birds.  My favorite “spell” in the entire volume is for Heron:

This is not the best photo of a Great Blue Heron I’ve ever taken, but it’s the best I could find today…

Here hunts heron. Here haunts heron
Huge-hinged heron. Grey-winged weapon.

Eked from iron and wreaked from blue and
beaked with steel: heron, statue, seeks eel.

Rock still at weir sill. Stone still at weir sill.
Dead still at weir sill. Still still at weir sill.
Until eelless at weir sill, heron magically…
     unstatues.

Out of the water creaks long-legs heron,
old-priest heron, from heron in all sticks
and planks and rubber-bands, all clanks and
clicks and rusty squeaks.

Now heron hauls himself into flight – early
aviator, heavy freighter – and with steady
wingbeats boosts his way through evening
night to roost.

I fancy myself a wordsmith, and I recognize that in holding this volume I am in the presence of one who is far more skilled than I could hope to be.  I drank in the spells, and I fawned over the images.  And when I had read, or re-read, or re-re-re-read this volume, I put it down and I couldn’t stop thinking about the words that I use and those that I hear.

To which sounds will my lips give life? With what vocabulary shall I seek to offer, reflect, impart, share, and live out the blessings under which I’ve walked for nearly six decades? I am aware that these words were edited out of the children’s dictionary because someone decided that they were not helpful or useful in preparing children for success in the 21stcentury.  And I have no quibble with making sure that children know what a “blog” is and how to access their “voice-mail”.  Yet I want to live in such a way that the old magic is not lost, and that the children who follow me will know the music of the wren and the wonder of a dandelion and the slipperiness of a newt.

This is a photo of a Dark-Eyed Junco (western coloration) I took in Grand Teton National Park in June 2019.

True story: in February I took my five-year-old granddaughter to a nature program at the National Forest near her home in Ohio.  The children’s presentation was about “hibernation”, and the Rangers had a variety of animal skins and other props on hand to talk about this mystery of the natural world. As the presentation began, one of the Rangers described hibernation and then said, “Of course, not all animals hibernate.  Here in Ohio there are some animals that do, and some that don’t.”  He asked the children to call out names of animals that might hibernate – in Ohio or elsewhere.  Bear, turtle, frog – the list was compiled.  And then he asked for examples of creatures that do not hibernate.  My granddaughter’s arm shot up.  “Dark-eyed Junco!” she exclaimed with pride.  The Ranger stood still for a moment until his colleague said, “She’s not wrong, Bill.  Juncos don’t hibernate.”  The first Ranger said, “I know that, Karen.  Of course I know that.  It’s just that I’m trying to remember if I ever heard a five-year-old use the word ‘junco’ in a sentence before…”

That’s my girl!

Listen: God has given us the gift of speech and the tool of language.  My deep prayer is that in my daily life, I am demonstrating concepts like love and justice and commitment and compassion and forgiveness and challenge and hope and faith and grace and reconciliation and integrity.  My deepest prayer is that each syllable I utter may be a benediction:  a “good word” or a “word of blessing”.  I’m not there yet, but then again, I’m not dead yet.  I hope that you will join me in choosing to use and to inhabit these words so that the children around you will surprise the folks in their worlds as they demonstrate these concepts each day!

For more on this remarkable book, visit this site.

And Now for Something Completely Different

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds.  For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake Park  in Eastern Ohio.

As I write these lines, I am deeply aware of the privilege I enjoy in being “on Sabbatical”.  Most of my friends do not have the opportunity to simply step away from the day-to-day-ness of their work and family in order to wander and wonder in ways such as I have done.  I know some folks in academia who are given “sabbatical time”, but they are expected to produce something at the end of that: a book, a groundbreaking insight in their field study, or a fat grant for the university.  Clergy Sabbaticals, however, are different.  The purpose of these seasons (I last was granted one in 2010) is to intentionally step away from the practice and context of ministry for a specific amount of time.  There are several benefits for this to both the clergy and the worshiping community:

  • Such intentional disconnection is a great antidote to burnout
  • There is a great relief and release that comes from not having to “produce” something 24/7/365 – by design, I am not supposed to be coming up with sermon ideas, outreach programs, policy manuals, etc.
  • The congregation is forced to consider who they are going to be in the absence of a long-time pastor. Let’s face it – I have an inordinate influence on the day-to-day life of the community. For three months, someone else is picking the songs, preaching the Word, tending the sick, crafting the policies, and changing the light bulbs.

A Sabbatical, at least for me, is really different from a vacation. A vacation is a brief escape either from something difficult (“Wow, the pressure from this job is really building. I just need to get away!”) or to  something marvelous (“Who knew that there were so many birds in Costa Rica?”).  As most of you reading this will recognize, when one takes a vacation, it’s an interruption of normal tasks and duties for a brief span and then those are all re-engaged fairly quickly upon re-entry.

With a Sabbatical, though, it’s a more intentional setting aside of the daily practices, behaviors, and in my case, environment. I didn’t plant a garden this summer, because I’m not going to be home.  This week, I’m missing (like nobody’s business, I might add) the Youth Group Mission Trip.  I can’t  preach, lead Session meetings, or do Fall program planning.

And so instead, I wander. I wonder.  The first month of this Sabbatical was a wonderful healing time with my wife.  In the past three years or so, there have been some traumatic events in the community and in the lives of people about whom I care deeply.  When something horrible happens, I remember what a privilege it is to be a pastor… and yet, each time I enter into the grief of one I love, I battle enemies with names like “loss”, “depression”, “anger”, or “burn-out”.  Taking a few weeks and not worrying about what day it was or who would remember to let the gas company in or turn off the exhaust fan after worship was a wonderful way for Sharon and me to remember that before we said “yes” to either Carnegie Mellon or the Crafton Heights church, we said “I do” to each other.

“Home Sweet Home” for the next three weeks.

The view from the porch…

The time in Africa was strenuous in a number of ways, and yes, I did engage in a number of behaviors and practices that required a lot of concentration and energy and leadership. However, the nature of that work was such that it was virtually all done in a context that was new.  I was so busy in Malawi, South Sudan, and Ethiopia that I literally didn’t have time to worry about what was happening in Crafton Heights. I prayed for folks there every day, but I was forced by virtue of distance and geography to fully disengage from the ongoing ministry of that place.  Those who know me well will gladly point out that I can be a “hoverer”.   I’m involved. I’m always around, always “nudging”, tweaking, and inserting myself.  I simply couldn’t do that while in Africa, and that meant that while I was tired at the end of the days, I was not as exhausted from the level of emotional investment and involvement.

The final leg of this Sabbatical experience will be a huge shift again.  For most of these next three weeks, I’ll be alone in a small cabin in Eastern Ohio.  There’s a big lake, and I’ve got a dock for my boat.  I’ve brought a pile of books, a few crossword puzzles, some exercise equipment, and my binoculars.  My goal for August is to stretch and to grow and to improve my inner life so that when I am granted the privilege of re-engaging in my “normal” life, I’ll be able to do so from a posture of strength and health with plenty of reserve.

Because most of my days will look the same, and I won’t be running to catch flights in tiny airports or encountering amazing new natural wonders each day, these blog posts will be different.  I hope to share a few images of my life here, to be sure; but I also hope to share with you some of the ideas and content that will be shaping me.  There’s a separate “page” on this blog that is labeled “What I’m Reading”, and I try to update that once a month or so.  But I’ll be more intentional about offering reflections on a more accelerated reading schedule this month.  I suspect that will be of more interest to some of you than others, but that’s my life…

Today I’ll consider one of the most important books I have ever read.  It’s an incredibly slim volume (about 50 pages) entitled From Brokenness to Community.  The author, Jean Vanier, had been a Naval Officer in two countries (Canada and the UK), a Philosopher, and a University Professor. However in 1964 he invited two men with mental disabilities to move into his home with him in France.  From that humble beginning arose a network of communities known as L’Arche– or, “The Ark”.  He began a movement recognizing the power and dignity of the disabled, and developed an amazing theology of power and wholeness that is rooted in the understanding that some of the most precious human gifts are rooted in weakness and in welcoming the poorest and most vulnerable into our midst, it is we ourselves who are blessed.  From Brokenness to Community  (one of two books I had with me during my week in Ethiopia without luggage) is a transcript of two lectures that Vanier gave at Harvard University in November 1988.

There are a lot of sections of this brief work that are underlined, but this morning I’ll focus on just this: “…we believe that our knowledge and theology are important only so long as they are used to serve and honor the poor.”

That is who I want to be! I read this book on a plane flight from Rochester NY to Washington DC in the early 1990’s.  It was so long ago that this is what I did: I got off the plane and I found a pay phone  in the airport and I called the church where I was serving. I gave the secretary there the name and publisher of the book, and I asked her to try to find out how to order me 15 copies so I could share them with my friends.  Can you imagine? No cell phone, no Google, no Amazon… just words that seared themselves into my soul and changed my life.  If you want a copy, you can find it by clicking here. Or, if you want to go “old school”, send me an email or a text and I’ll send you a copy myself.  It is a deep and profound work, and I would commend it to your reading!

Of course, the other thing I need to say about the last month of Sabbatical is that this State Park was not chosen entirely at random!  It’s situated about halfway between our home in Pittsbugh and my daughter’s family in Ohio.  That means that from time to time, I’ll be able to entertain visitors from either Pittsburgh or Ohio.  Yesterday gave me the opportunity to re-connect with some pretty amazing and special people who I haven’t seen for a long, long time.  And it was good!

Ariel and Drew and Violet touring the lake…

Ice Cream is a staple, and, well, “sharing is caring!”

One of the best parts of being “Grampy” is having plenty of lap space. While Violet was up here teaching me how to “high five”…

…her sister Lucia was down here playing ‘hide and seek’!