Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Women that Rock My World: Two Book Reviews




Neither Anne Rice nor Sara Miles would be obvious choices to represent Christianity in American Culture. Rice is the renowned author of vampire novels and an erotic romance trilogy; Miles is a feminist lesbian former war-correspondent and chef. Both have walked difficult roads, far outside of, and often strongly critical of, the Church in America. And yet both experienced a conversion in their lives, not unlike Paul on the road to Damascus. While running from God, both were met by God and began new journeys as Christ-followers.

Miles told the story of her conversion in her previous book, Eat this Bread (read my review here). Out of that encounter came a passion to serve the people of her inner-city San Francisco neighborhood. She began a food ministry which has since grown to a city-wide endeavor. In Jesus Freak, Miles tells of the ongoing work of that ministry, and of her life, to feed the hungry, love the broken, heal the sick, provide for the destitute, offer friendship to the desperately lonely; to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the sharp brokenness of people's lives. This is a ministry to the immigrant, to the schizophrenic, to the addict, and to those who work amongst them. In beautiful prose, with humor and candor, Miles introduces us to the people of her world, tying them into the larger vision of the Kingdom of God. The parables of Jesus come to life in her community, and by revealing them to us, Miles challenges the rest of us to be about the work of God in our own world. This is raw, gritty stuff; often uncomfortable and painful, but it is the real stuff of life, and a prophetic message to the Church in America today.

Rice comes at it from a different angle; she is one who was raised in the church, but wandered away for many years. Only after decades of literary success and acclaim did she return to a faith she was convinced was dead. Whereas Miles came face-to-face with God in one completely unexpected moment, Rice came to a slowly dawning awareness that God had been pursuing her ever since she left. In her words, she was "Christ haunted." Drawn in by sacred images, by statues and paintings and the holiness of small South American sanctuaries, she felt her resistance fading, and finally stepped back into the embrace of God.

Both Miles and Rice offer the interesting perspective of newcomers, those looking at Christianity with fresh eyes. Both struggled (and continue to struggle) with the cultural and social trappings of the Church. Both describe the power of meeting Christ in the Lord's Supper, both speak of the impact of liturgy and art and language and song. Both have had difficulty bridging their progressive, liberal, left-leaning beliefs and ideologies with the conservate, fundamentalist, right-leaning American church. In fact, Rice would famously later 'quit the church in the name of Christ.' Miles, on the other hand, speaks regularly of her begrudging acceptance of the fact that, in the name of Christ, she willingly shares in the Kingdom of God with many who would cast her out, who disagree with fundamental issues of her life. In the words of one of the characters gracing the pages of Jesus Freak, "Since Jesus loves the knuckleheads who are running things I must try to, also, but I don't have to agree with them."

Rice reminds us of the beauty of God's presence in creation, in liturgy, in the soul's hunger for transcendence. Her descriptive passages of childhood memories of sanctuaries, flowering trees, and school gatherings remind us to open our own eyes to God's presence in the world around us. Miles reminds us of the image of God present in every human being, be they wealthy lawyer or tweaked-out crack-head. Her humor, and her obvious love for the outcasts and ragamuffins remind us to take people seriously - and not take ourselves so seriously. Both challenge the reader to take faith seriously; not as a hobby or accessory, but as the very thing that defines life.

Not that I don't find frustrations here, as well. Miles, in developing an earthy spirituality, grounded in the dust and grime of the Tenderloin, seems to miss out on the possibility of the supernatural showing up. Healing, to Miles, comes about when the soul is mended, when the heart is healed even if the sickness carries on. Comfort and hope are found in accepting the way life is and the way people are. Stories abound of people laughing in the face of death, or finding moments of grace in the midst of severe brokenness; on the other hand, the possibility that God might actually cure a disease seems missing. I agree that often-times the miraculous is hidden right there in the real stuff of life; sometimes, though, the miraculous blows us away and the lame do, in fact, walk again.

In Rice's case, the frustration comes in knowing the end of the story. Called Out ends so hopeful, with so much expectation; knowing that a decade later her frustrations overwhelmed that hope clouds the message. And yes, that frustration lies just as much with the Church as it does with Rice. We do lose sight of Christ in our debates over lesser things; we do focus too much on people's supposed sins, and don't care enough about their longings, their pains, their hopes and dreams. It's just sad that Rice felt the need to disassociate, giving up the possibility of engagement.

Near the end of Called Out, Rice writes, "The Lord Jesus Christ is where my focus belongs. And my commitment to Christ must remain unchanged." Near the end of Jesus Freak, Miles writes, "But Jesus is real, and so, praise God, are we." In the end, that's what is important in these two books. They are the autobiographical struggles of women trying to follow Jesus in the midst of a fractured world. Through fits and starts, failures and glorious successes, they continue on that journey. Through it all, they keep Jesus at center, and challenge the rest of us to do so. Neither is a sinless Saint, but both responded to the Call, and both are witnesses to the power of God's Spirit to change lives. They are, in many ways, examples of 21st century saints, following Christ in spite of long odds, and inviting us to do the same.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A few random things

In case you haven't seen it over on our facebook page, The Signature Brass Quintet is playing the national anthem at next Monday's Tacoma Rainiers baseball game. Game time is 1:35, so I assume we'll play around 1:30. However, we've been given permission to play in the concourse for 30 minutes or so before the game, entertaining the guests as they head to their seats.

In addition, we'll be playing at the Pacific Avenue Street Fair in Tacoma on Sunday, June 10, from 3-4 p.m. It's at Stewart Middle School in Tacoma.  We'll do a mixture of jazz and Sousa marches and show tunes and classical and other fun stuff, tailored to the festive atmosphere of the moment.

Finally, I've been asked once again to play the national anthem and Taps for the Day Island Yacht Club Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony at Fair Harbor Marina, this Monday at 10:00 a.m.

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Speaking of good music, you need to go listen to this.

And this.

Although you only have a few more days, so hurry.

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 In the 'just my opinion' department. . .last month I was reading some articles on the LA Times website when up popped the 'you've read your month's limit of free articles! To read more, you have to pay!' announcement. Shortly before that I had been poking around the Modesto Bee's website, and got the same announcement. Now comes the announcement that the Sacramento Bee is going to charge for access to their site. I'm curious to see how it all works out in the long run. As for me. . .I'll be avoiding those sites now.

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Here's an interesting tidbit about life on the Key Peninsula. A few weeks ago a homeless woman made her way onto the peninsula; an African-American, she was pushing a shopping cart full of supplies, and carrying signs talking about love and peace and the like. This is not your typical homeless person out here. Our homeless live back in the woods and are relatively stable, unlike the transients who you find in larger urban areas. So this woman stood out a bit.

Which meant that, by the third day, everybody out here had noticed her and was talking about her. All you had to ask was "So have you seen the woman with the shopping cart?" and everybody had a story. Some had seen her all the way down by our church; others had seen her in Key Center; others had passed her in Wauna and Purdy. Last Saturday, Craig and I were talking about her as we headed back from leading the youth group on a day hike, and wouldn't you know it - there she was, up the hill from Purdy.

I know some people checked in with her, so she wasn't ignored. But it's more the nature of this place that within a few short days, everybody knew about her, everybody was talking about her, everybody had seen her. I love that about rural communities; one thing out-of-the-ordinary happens, and in a flash, everybody knows.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The worst job I ever had

In the great big scheme of things, I haven't had all that many jobs. Delivery boy, pool cleaner, dish washer, paperboy, youth pastor, choir director, copy editor, pastor. I can't exactly claim to have experience across a vast spectrum of employment practices. But there's one that counts as The Worst Job I Ever Had.

It wasn't the month I spent crouched in an empty hotel swimming pool, grinding the paint off with heavy machinery that left my arms aching. That was pretty bad, especially having to be covered head-to-toe and breathing through a thick mask, all during hot summer days. I went home feeling dead every night, but I didn't necessarily mind the heavy labor (as a side note, this was during the Oliver North trial - I remember taking lunch breaks at the hotel and catching bits and pieces of good ol' Ollie up there on the stand).

But that still couldn't compare to The Worst Job I Ever Had.

Which would have been the year I spent as a clerk in a Christian bookstore. I had taken the position to supplement my meager part-time youth pastor salary, and really, what could be better for a young man in ministry than working in a Christian bookstore?

It turned out, a lot of things would have been better.

I was listening to Susan Ashton on spotify last week, and for a moment it all came back. It reminded me of one night in particular; Brian and I were working, but no customers had stopped in all evening. Finally one teenage girl walked in, one who stopped by pretty regularly. She was a big fan of The Choir. Brian and I were a little tired of the sappy muzak we'd been playing all night, so, for her sake, we put in a Choir tape. She lit up with excitement that we'd play her favorite music. She even bought something that night.

A couple days later Brian and I were almost fired. Our customer had been back to the store the next day, and shared with the manager how pleased she had been with hearing The Choir in the store. She praised us highly. But The Choir wasn't on the approved play list. That list mostly included Southern Gospel, easy listening, and Sandy Patti. So, in spite of the fact that nobody was in the store that night, in spite of the fact that this customer was giving us a huge compliment, the manager almost fired us. But, to show his 'gentle' side, he let us off with a warning, that if we ever pulled 'a stunt' like that again, we'd be out the door.

There was so much wrong with that job. From the management treating employees poorly (one friend reached his 5-year anniversary working there. To thank him, they gave him a 10-cent an hour raise. His first raise, his only raise, in all the time he worked there), to the crap we had to sell in the name of Jesus (and when I say crap, I refer both to the shlocky and the heretical crap on our shelves), to the customers who would come in only to argue about stupid issues like the Inspired King James Version vs. all those satanic fake translations like the NIV, or whether or not Santa Claus was a demonic conspiracy to destroy the faith of children. Maybe the lowest point for me was witnessing a young mother using her 5-year-old son to shoplift tacky Christian jewelry. The kid was pocketing the jewelry even as she watched. Genius, really. If he got it out of there, good for them. If he was caught, she could reprimand him and apologize, explaining it away as youthful ignorance. Way to 'train up your child in the way they should go,' lady.

The store was part of a chain that was ultimately owned by the same people who owned Radio Shack, so I don't think they cared about ministry, so long as they made a profit. But even there, they were idiots. Based out of Nashville, they perpetually sent us products that were hot-sellers in Nashville. But we were in Southern California, a long way physically and socially from Nashville. Customers would ask for Crystal Lewis, but they sent us Verne Tripp sings the Gospel Greats! We'd tell corporate that we had 20 requests for the Prayer Chain, only to be told "nope - people want Verne Tripp sings the Gospel Greats!" So we'd have 40 copies of Verne Tripp singing the Gospel Greats, all sitting unsold on the shelves, while turning away the customers who wanted Dakota Motor Company.

And then there was all the heretical stuff we had to sell - the health and wealth, the Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn and Charles Capps and the Rhema Word-of-Faith stuff. It killed me to ring that stuff up and send it off with customers, even while knowing it was preaching a false gospel that God despises. But it was a hot seller, and I was there to sell stuff for the company, so who was I to say anything?

But sometimes we'd put in a Susan Ashton tape, and for a moment, grace would fall. Something about her gentle voice, couple with her talent for meaningful lyrics, would speak to me, reminding me that there was more to Christianity than the commercial aspects I was witnessing. That there was hope beyond all this mess.

And eventually, the church where I worked decided to pay me enough that I could quit that job. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. Looking back, leaving that place might have saved my faith. I'm sure it's a coincidence, but they closed down, went out of business within the next year or two. And I can't say I was sad.

So there you go. No point to this story, really, other than to share the Worst Job I Ever Had. And to say that I know first-hand what it's like to get dumped on by supposed brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, it was in a Christian bookstore/coffeehouse a few years later that I met my wife, so I can't say they're all bad places. Just that one where I worked in the early 1990s in Upland, California.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: One.Life



Are you a young person, trying to make sense of where your life fits into the larger scheme of this world? Are you out of college, hoping your life will mean something, and not just disappear into the haze of meaningless that is our culture? Have you hit middle age, and find yourself feeling like "there must be more to life than this?"

If so, then Scot McKnight's One.Life is the book for you.

It is McKnight's intention that life is supposed to be more than the humdrum of mindless entertainment, empty pleasure, vacuous reality-show stories, accumulation of stuff, boredom, disappointment, silly fights with friends, and all those other things we fill our lives with. Instead, we are given one life to live, and called into a glorious adventure of love, service, compassion, meaning, and world-changing work.

However, that can only happen when people truly and fully give their lives over to Jesus, letting Jesus lead, following his dreams, surrendering everything to his lordship. In McKnight's words,

Christianity isn't enough. Religion isn't enough. Being accepted in a church isn't enough. Climbing the corporate ladder isn't enough. Solving intellectual problems isn't enough. Chasing the American dream isn't enough. Friends aren't enough. Science isn't enough. Food and drink aren't enough. Fame isn't enough. Nothing's enough. The only thing that is enough is Jesus, and the only way to get to Jesus is to follow him, and that means one thing: giving your One.Life to him and following his dream.

McKnight makes clear that he is redefining a common misunderstanding of Christianity; namely, that following Christ is about making a one-time decision, and then spending the rest of our lives trying to follow a bunch of rules. Instead, the author slowly builds up his central theme, which is that followers of Jesus follow Jesus, devoting their lives to the Kingdom vision of Jesus.

The earlier part of One.Life is spent sketching this vision of discipleship even as he defines what, exactly, the Kingdom Vision of Jesus is (think peace, compassion, justice, and wisdom). In the latter chapters of the book, McKnight addresses some of the specific issues and contexts with which people struggle - why is the Church important? What does the Kingdom have to do with sex? How do I follow Jesus in a 'secular' job? Finally, the last few chapters are given to exploring God's Kingdom in light of eternity, God's nature, and the work of Jesus at the cross.

One.Life is a powerful book that is also accessible, fairly easy to read yet full of profound insight. There is so much confusion in the world about what it means to be a Christian (and let's be honest: to many, 'Christian' is not a good word). McKnight has offered a positive, hopeful, meaningful vision for what life can and should be, a life that finds its meaning simply by following Christ through the ordinary moments as they come.

Thanks to Zondervan for offering One.Life as a free gift to Ministers in the Evangelical Covenant Church at our Midwinter Conference.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Journal of a fishing expedition

Six of us left Gig Harbor early morning Tuesday last, pumped up with coffee and dreams of giant steelhead lurking in an Alaskan river. Six of us rushed through SeaTac, still a block or two away from the gate when we heard "Last call for boarding Alaska Airlines Flight 61 - You should be on the plane by now!" Six of us ran to the gate, barely making it onto the flight.

Four hours later, we were on the ground in Yakutat, pop. 600 plus-or-minus depending on the season. And two hours after that, we were on the Situk River, fly rods in hand, licking our chops in anticipation of these legendary fish.

Here's how it's supposed to be: an epic run of steelhead every spring, with a guarantee of 20-30 caught per day. Thousands and thousands of fish running upriver to spawn; the chrome of the steelhead hens flashing by in pursuit of gravel beds far upriver.

How it did work out. Southeast Alaska saw record snowfall this winter. Where the ground is usually free of snow by late April, here we were in early May with 3-4 feet of snow still covering the earth. All that snow, mixed with rain, is melting into the river, keeping it at record heights for this time of year. And keeping it cold. Fish need a water temperature in the mid-40s. It was still in the mid-30s when we arrived. Hence. . .there were no fish in the river.

Well, that's an exaggeration. There was one fish in the river, at least.

First day, fishing in the river, no fish hooked, no fish caught.

Second day, floating the river, a couple fish hooked into. One landed.

Third day, floating the river, four hooked into, two landed.

Fourth day, we split up. One party floated, while one hiked upriver a ways. Floaters hooked one, landed none. (That's 12 hours of fishing, for one hooked.) Walkers hooked about four, landed two or three.

Fifth day, we all walked up. 8-10 fish were hooked. I think two were landed. At least we saw more flitting through the water. Oh, and we also saw a moose grazing by the river bank.

Afternoons, at the boat ramp, notes were exchanged with other anglers. Same story. Epically disappointing year. Mornings and evenings at the B&B, stories were shared with other groups. Same story. The worst year ever seen.

Oh, and this. It rained a lot. And hailed. And snowed. Ever sit in a boat in the middle of a river having hail come crashing down on you, all while you're trying to untangle the mess your line just made on that poor cast?

As for me. . .I hooked one fish all week. An hour before it was time to go home. Fought it momentarily, but then it got away. So that was my trip. Flying to Alaska and back, floating rivers through cold rain, falling through holes in the snow, waking too early and going to bed too late, freezing my fingers, all to briefly hook into one fish.

And almost drown, when the drift boat wedged up against a tree and almost flipped. But Erik saved us all, for which I am thankful.

Oh, and then all 6 enjoyed a nice dinner at the lodge before heading home. Enjoyed it too much, since we got to the airport late and barely made it on the plane. Leaving our luggage behind for another day.

Still, through it all - the rain and snow and hail and wind and cold and lack of sleep and lack of fish and smelly guys and greasy eggs for breakfast and trail food for lunch and travel difficulties. . .it was the best time I've had in a really, really, really long time.

Oh, and I should say something about the dozens of bald eagles lining the river bank, standing guard over the river as we floated past. They were beautiful.