Saturday, January 29, 2011


Ever had somebody drive an ice pick into your ankle and then twist it around a bit? Neither have I. Nevertheless, that's what my ankle felt like last night. What started as a bit of tightness became agony like I've never felt before. And for no reason that I could see. No injury, no swelling, no rash. Just burning pain.

To make matters worse, the longer it stayed still, the more it hurt. Getting up and walking around a bit lessened the pain. For awhile. Then it came crashing back. So that was last night. Fall asleep for 20 minutes, wake to intense pain, walk around a bit, go back to sleep for 30 minutes. . .and repeat.

I had it looked at today by a professional. He said it didn't fit the symptoms for gout or a blood clot, so he really couldn't say what it is. But he did take some blood for tests, and he did get me some mighty powerful medicines to get me through the next few days.

Oh, and after I iced it most of today, it actually feels a bit better. So maybe it was just one of those unexplainable things that passes with time.

However, if I start speaking in tongues during my sermon tomorrow, it'll probably be the drugs. And if you see me limping around Chicago this week. . .now you know. I was living my own little Misery.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: In the Name of Jesus

Have you ever picked up a book and found it was exactly what you needed at that moment? That was my experience with Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus

Written originally as a lecture for the Center for Human Development, this small book contains Nouwen's thoughts on Christian Leadership in the 21st Century.  He speaks to three temptations facing ministers, and offers three spiritual disciplines to disarm those temptations.

Nouwen begins by speaking the question many ministers face: "After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger. I began to ask myself whether my lack of contemplative prayer, my loneliness, and my constantly changing involvement in what seemed most urgent were signs that the Spirit was gradually being suppressed."

Typical of Nouwen, much wisdom follows. His first 'temptation' is one that runs deeply in the church today: the temptation to relevance. To be important. To prove our worth with great wisdom and accomplishment. But, as he points out, "Many priests and ministers today increasingly perceive themselves as having very little impact. They are very busy, but they do not see much change. It seems that their efforts are fruitless. They face an ongoing decrease in church attendance and discover that psychologists, psychotherapists, marriage counselors, and doctors are often more trusted than they are. . .The secular world around us is saying in a loud voice, 'We can take care of ourselves. We do not need God, the church, or a priest. We are in control.'" The answer, according to Nouwen, is to give up our desire for worldly relevance and instead return our gaze to Christ. "The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God?" He then calls the reader to consider the discipline of contemplative prayer, saying that future leaders of the church need not be experts or professionals in their field, but people who 'dwell in God's presence, [who] listen to God's voice, [who] look at God's beauty, [who] touch God's incarnate Word, [and who] taste fully God's infinite goodness."

The second temptation Nouwen explores is the temptation to popularity, the temptation to success. Speaking of his training for ministry, he writes, "I was made to feel like a man sent on a long, long hike with a huge backpack containing all the things necessary to help the people I would meet on the road. Questions had answers, problems had solutions, and pains had their medicines." The problem is, that sets the minister up as the healer who helps others, rather than a member of the community itself. "When you look at today's church, it is easy to see the prevalence of individualism among ministers and priests. Not too many of us have a vast repertoire of skills to be proud of, but most of us still feel that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo." The answer, according to Nouwen, is to remove ourselves from the pedestals and truly identify with our local community. "We cannot bring good news on our own. We are called to proclaim the Gospel together, in community." The spiritual discipline suggested by Nouwen is the act of confession and forgiveness. ". . .ministers and priests are also called to be full members of their communities, are accountable to them and need their affection and support, and are called to minister with their whole being, including their wounded selves."

Finally, Nouwen attacks the temptation of Power. Often leadership becomes "a desire to control complex situations, confused emotions, and anxious minds." Or, as he later writes, "power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life." The discipline suggested here by Nouwen is an intense theological reflection, bringing our all our lives and activities under the leadership of scripture. "Theological reflection is reflecting on the painful and joyful realities of every day with the mind of Jesus and thereby raising human consciousness to the knowledge of God's gentle guidance."

I've read quite a few books on Christian leadership (and leadership in general), and while In the Name of Jesus is one of the shortest, it is also one of the most profound. It may not ever be the most popular, since it doesn't speak to building large congregations or having great success in life, but it's probably important for that very reason. Too many ministers (this one included) are prone to judge our lives by the world's standards, and Nouwen here is calling us back to our first duty of loving God, loving others, and living our lives under the lordship of Christ.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Communal Response to a sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

The world is too tempting, and our desires for comfort and fame too powerful.
We turn from God and choose glory, we hoard our wealth and doubt God’s provision.
In fear we use others to our end;
in pride we insult and gossip and bicker.
Instead of building God’s Kingdom, all too often we are builders of our own little kingdoms, protecting the walls of our hearts and lives while ignoring the lost and lonely outside.

And so we repent, admitting our failures, our pride and doubt and fear.
With David we cry out “Have mercy on me, O God, and cleanse me from my sin.”
With the disciples, we hear the call of Christ to “follow me,” and we stand, turn, and follow.
We repent of our pride and pray for humble hearts;
we repent of our greed and pray for generous hearts;
we repent of our anger and pray for loving hearts;
we repent of our comfort, and pray for hearts willing to give it all away for the sake of Christ.
We repent, turn, and follow, knowing the new life God offers is better than the life we now live.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: Common Prayer

Praying The Hours, or Set Prayers, is an ancient custom that Evangelicalism has been relearning in recent years. While The Church has incorporated communal common prayers since the time of Christ (following in the even more ancient practice of our Jewish roots), it is a practice mostly ignored in evangelical protestantism until the last decade. Thankfully, it seems to be making a comeback.

Many books are being written about the subject, like Arthur Paul Boers' The Rhythm of Grace, and Scot McKnight's Praying with the Church. In addition, many prayer books are being published to help people in their journey into this old way; books like Celtic Daily Prayer, the youth-oriented Book of Uncommon Prayer, and Phyllis Tickle's monumental Divine Hours. These join the more traditional communal prayer books published by churches and denominations, such as the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the New Zealand Prayer Book, and the Presbyterian Book of Daily Worship.

One of the newest additions to this collection is Common Prayer, published in late 2010 by Zondervan and assembled by Shane Claiborne, Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro. Common Prayer contains morning prayers for every day of the year, with an extra week added for use during Holy week. It has a shorter evening prayer for each night of the week, and a midday prayer for use throughout the year. In addition, it has a collection of Occasional Prayers for various situations; among them are a House Blessing, a Prayer for Adoption, Prayer for Healing, and a Prayer for the Death of Someone Killed in the Neighborhood. Finally, there is a short songbook at the back, a collection of music from a variety of traditions, including African spirituals, hymns, chants from the Taize tradition, and Mennonite worship gatherings.

Common Prayer is ultimately meant to be used in community, reflecting Claiborne's roots in the New Monasticism movement. It certainly can be used to guide one's personal prayer life, but most of the prayers are designed in a responsive manner. Some readers will be surprised at the political nature of the book. Claiborne is one who believes faith impacts the way we walk in the world, and is no private matter. To this end, Common Prayer is liberally sprinkled with stories of saints new and old who have impacted the world for Christ. Some are not so surprising - Brother Lawrence, Cyprian of Carthage, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are all highlighted. Others might catch the reader off guard just a bit - Dorothy Day, Clarence Jordan, and Oskar Schindler.

Besides sharing the stories of individuals whose lives reflected Kingdom values, Common Prayer also highlights historical events both good and bad. October 10 remembers the Women in Black and their vigil against war in Serbia. October 16 remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis. August 21 remembers Nat Turner and a slave revolt in Virginia. March 21 retells the story of protest and violence in South Africa. February 25 remembers the Hebron Massacre and ongoing tensions in the Middle East. Each of these prompt us to consider Christ the peace-maker, and to continue to pray for God's Kingdom to reign on earth.

In addition, paragraphs appear throughout asking us to consider issues such as living our liturgy, practicing confession, and being thoughtful about creating sacred spaces. Also included are short teaching pieces on practices such as the Eucharist and church seasons. Each month concludes with a short list of suggestions for Becoming the Answer to our Prayers (the title of an earlier book by Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove).

In other words, there is a lot packed into this book. It takes prayer out of the context of 'personal religious practice' and sets in within the larger framework of the Kingdom of God on earth. It asks the user to dig deeper in prayer, but also to spread our arms wider around our fellow Christians and the world.

Of course, to fit all that in meant they created a rather large book. At almost 600 pages, this isn't an easy book to lug around in your backpack, or store in your church library. On the other hand, it's a well-crafted book whose cover, binding, and weight add to the substantial nature of the content. A few basic prints of woodcut art add to the beauty found inside. People used to the idea of common prayer might find this book a refreshing wind blown into their ancient tradition; those new to the idea will find it simple enough to engage and learn this meaningful practice.

In order to expand on their ideas, a website has been created with prayers for the day, .pdf files of the songs included in the book, and information regarding the contributors and their communities.

Special Thanks to Zondervan for providing a copy of Common Prayer for the purpose of this review.

Monday, January 17, 2011

At least the NBA gets one thing right

I don't like the NBA. I've never enjoyed basketball as much as baseball or football. And since the travesty of the Supersonics' "relocation" to OkayCity, I've pretty much ignored it. But there is one thing the NBA gets right - the NBA finals always match up the best team from the east and the west. So even if your team doesn't get in, at least you have some regional affinity toward one of the teams. You can have some ownership, some reason to root for a team from your area to cream those thugs from the East Coast.

This year, even the BCS got lucky enough to match up teams from opposite sides of the country, and in an inverse way, it made rooting for one team over the other an easy pick. Oregon is a hated rival, and it gave all of us out here great satisfaction to see them go down to Auburn.

But look at the final four teams in the NFL playoffs. They all reside far up there on America's right shoulder, where all the dandruff from Canada falls down. Green Bay, Chicago, New York, Pennsylvania. . .that entire region probably makes up, what, 15% of the county? Sure, Green Bay-Chicago is a storied rivalry, but it means as much out here as an Oakland-San Francisco World Series means to people in Florida. I'm sure at ESPN studios in New York this seems like Christmas came again, with all the action right in their backyard. But there's a huge country out here that no longer has any ownership in any of these teams, and therefore no longer really cares.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

In the CD player

Two CDs I picked up last month that have been getting regular play at home and in the office:

This year's Christmas selection. I kept hearing Alison Krauss singing the Wexford Carol on the radio, and said to myself, "I didn't know Alison Krauss did a Christmas album. That's wonderful!" But it's not AK that did the Christmas album, it's Yo Yo Ma, who did a Christmas album with a lot of guest artists, AK included.

It's not really a Christmas album, per se, although it includes "The Wexford Carol," "Joy to the Word," "The Wassail Song," "Happy Christmas" and "Auld Lang Syne. It expands on the idea of Christmas and becomes a Celebration album, full of holiday songs and joyful songs from around the world. James Taylor sings "Here Comes the Sun," Amelia Zirin-Brown sings a soulful "This Little Light of Mine," Wu Tong and the Silk Road Ensemble perform "Kuai Le," and the Assad family perform "Familia."

Listening to this album feels akin to gathering with a group of musically talented friends, spending the evening sharing talents and stories from their traditions. Chris Botti's trumpet shines on "My Favorite Things" and "Auld Lang Syne." Diana Krall's lush vocals and smooth piano dance across "You Couldn't Be Cuter." The old master Dave Brubeck takes a turn on "Joy to the World." Chris Thile's mad mandolin skills fly around "Dona Nobis Pacem" and "Touch the Hand of Love" (in which he backs up Renee Fleming's glorious vocals. Alison Krauss mourns the previously mentioned "Wexford Carol." Jake Shimabukuro pulls his ukelele out for a spin on "Happy Xmas (Was is Over)." Joshua Redman graces us with "My One and Only Love." Natalie McMaster rips into a dance with "A Christmas Jig/Mouth of the Tobique Reel." And threading all these various pieces is the repeated refrain of "Dona Nobis Pacem," improvised upon time and again by the various artists.

This album goes in a lot of directions, from Spanish dance to Canadian reel to Christmas carol to experimental mandolin to smooth jazz to Americana to classical to gospel. It never settles into any genre or feel for very long, before somebody else picks up the pace and runs in a different direction. What does hold it together is the cello of Yo Yo Ma, and the passion of the friends he chose to partner with. At the end, once the instruments are put away and the voices grow quiet as they head into the night, one is left with the warmth of joyful celebration exhibited with such passion and talent. And you can't quite wait for it all to happen again, soon.

It's difficult to know how to describe Eric Whitacre's choral music. Except to say it's necessary. It's beautiful. It's ethereal, dreamlike. Ebullient and Ethereal. One can hear the angels singing. It hearkens back hundreds of years to Tallis and Taverner, and yet feels ahead of its time. Beginning with texts culled from classic literature, Whitacre paints tapestries of sound; tight, shimmering chords, blocks of sound carrying one after another, gentle melodies and complex harmonies. In many ways restful, peaceful, gentle, and yet profound and moving all the same.

Eric Whitacre is probably the closest thing there is to a choral superstar; choirs love his music, and I've even heard him a few times on Classic King FM, Seattle's classical music station. Some criticize this success (composers aren't supposed to be famous unless they're dead; otherwise they're 'too commercial' or they've 'sold out'); others who think choirs still ought to sound like Mitch Miller probably won't quite get Whitacre. But I've been enjoying him for a few months straight now, and am saving my pennies up to buy his latest CD.

If you're curious, here's a sample, and a wonderful example of the use of technology to create something worthwhile and beautiful.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Counterpoint: First sunset of 2011

Leaving Edmonds. That's a blue heron sitting up there. 

Across the Puget Sound, looking toward the Olympic Mountains