• Wendell Berry, “To a Siberian Woodsman”


    Today was a day full of activity…meetings, emails, and phone conversations. The work of a pastor is not a weekend gig and neither is it a 9-5, clock-in/clock-out kind of vocation. I love serving the church, but it requires us to wear a lot of different hats. I do not mutli-task so well and it takes me some time to transition from one task to another.

    In the business of clearing out my inbox today (which I like not to be longer than 10-15 emails) I saw that I had received an email from a friend inviting me to read a poem he had recently come accross from Wendell Berry. I thought that in the fury of that moment a break from email to read a poem may be a perfect idea. So I switched gears. I took off my “office/admin/clearer-of-the-email” hat and put on my thinking cap. I am glad I did.

    The poem I read from Wendell Berry was “TO A SIBERIAN WOODSMAN (after looking at some pictures in a magazine).” Reading it stopped me dead in my tracks. I want you to read it too, but let me offer a few introductory comments.

    First, Wendell Berry may be the sanest man in America. No joke. Wendell Berry is a modern wise-man, a rare American-sage, who speaks with the authority of the aged. Granted he wrote this poem in the late 1960s, but it carries the weight of a societal elder who brings insight and counsel from another world. Berry is a prophet. This is true. He is also a farmer, which offers credentials much more believable than those so-called “prophets” with self-appointed titles, blogs, and  YouTube channels, “prophets” lost in a mixed up sea of conservative politics and a doomsday eschatology.

    Second, this poem is about love and peace and letting go of the idol of nationalism, at least these are some of the themes I drew from the poem. Feel free to draw your own conclusions, but do not read it with too critical of an eye. Do not read it with your defenses up. Do not read it looking for things you disagree with. There is time for critical evaluation, but as with all art, do not start there. Instead start with a mind and heart that is open. Read it multiple times. Remain open until this poem speaks to you and then, if you must, evaluate what you are hearing.

    I have probably said too much (or maybe I have not said enough!). Nevertheless I invite you to read and listen. Perhaps God will grant you ears to hear.

    (after looking at some pictures in a magazine)
    by Wendell Berry

    You lean at ease in your warm house at night after supper,
    listening to your daughter play the accordion. You smile
    with the pleasure of a man confident in his hands, resting
    after a day of long labor in the forest, the cry of the saw
    in your head, and the vision of coming home to rest.
    Your daughter’s face is clear in the joy of hearing
    her own music. Her fingers live on the keys
    like people familiar with the land they were born in.

    You sit at the dinner table late into the night with your son,
    tying the bright flies that will lead you along the forest streams.
    Over you, as your hands work, is the dream of still pools.
    Over you is the dream
    of your silence while the east brightens, birds waking close by
    you in the trees.

    I have thought of you stepping out of your doorway at dawn,
    your son in your tracks.
    You go in under the overarching green branches of the forest
    whose ways, strange to me, are well known to you as the sound
    of your own voice
    or the silence that lies around you now that you have ceased to speak,
    and soon the voice of the stream rises ahead of you,
    and you take the path beside it.
    I have thought of the sun breaking pale through the mists over you
    as you come to the pool where you will fish, and of the mist drifting
    over the water, and of the cast fly resting light on the face of the pool.

    And I am here in Kentucky in the place I have made myself
    in the world. I sit on my porch above the river that flows muddy
    and slow along the feet of the trees. I hear the voices of the wren
    and the yellow-throated warbler whose songs pass near the windows
    and over the roof. In my house my daughter learns the womanhood
    of her mother. My son is at play, pretending to be
    the man he believes I am. I am the outbreathing of this ground.
    My words are its words as the wren’s song is its song.

    Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us
    hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other
    with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger
    that I should desire the burning of your house or the
    destruction of your children?
    Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose the thought
    that we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and
    rivers, and the silence of the birds?
    Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
    to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?

    Who has imagined that I would destroy myself in order to destroy you,
    or that I could improve myself by destroying you? Who has imagined
    that your death could be negligible to me now that I have seen
    these pictures of your face?
    Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
    or laugh with you, or visit in your house and go to work with
    you in the forest?
    And now one of the ideas of my place will be that you would
    gladly talk and visit and work with me.

    I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
    As they are native I am native, and I hold to this place as
    carefully as they hold to it.
    I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the sycamore,
    or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the walnut,
    nor has the elm bowed before any monuments or sworn the oath of allegiance.
    They have not declared to whom they stand in welcome.

    In the thought of you I imagine myself free of the weapons and
    the official hates that I have borne on my back like a hump,
    and in the thought of myself I imagine you free of weapons and
    official hates,
    so that if we should meet we would not go by each other
    looking at the ground like slaves sullen under their burdens,
    but would stand clear in the gaze of each other.

    There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
    you in silence besides the forest pool.
    There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
    hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
    There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
    dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
    There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
    comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.

  • Teaching Christians to Speak Christian: 12 Essential Words

    Nicene-Constantinopolitan-CreedOne of the things I enjoy about distance running is the time it gives me to think. While on a long run this morning, I began to think about our task of making disciples of the Jesus way. I was thinking these things not because I am employed at a church and the word “Discipleship” appears in my title. I was thinking about these things, because I have been baptized into a community marked with this distinct vocation—to go into all the world and make disciples. On my run, I was specifically thinking of something I read from Stanley Hauerwas. In his new book The Work of Theology, he tackles a number of subjects including the connections between theology and ministry. As a self-proclaimed “high-church Mennonite,” Hauerwas cares deeply, and has written widely, about the importance of the church. Those who have been given the task to lead churches, we who are pastors, ministers, priests, and ordained clergy, are by nature theologically-driven people. Theology is after all what we say and what we think about God. Theology has (or should have) everything to do with our pastoral vocation.

    In the context of the connection between theology and ministry, Hauerwas writes, “one of the essential tasks of the theologian is to teach speech; it is to teach Christians how to speak Christian” (The Work of Theology, 111). I am surprised I had never thought of this idea before. Hauerwas is quite right. A part of my job as pastor and a member of the church Jesus is building includes teaching Christians to speak Christian. Words are important after all. Words have the power to shape the world we live in. We are a storied people in that we are the stories we tell and we are the stories we believe. While it may be theoretically possible to tell a story in images, good stories, well-told stories, are communicated with words. Learning new words give us the capacity to think in new ways, opening up new possibilities. In order to help Christians grow as true disciples, which includes a renewing of the mind, a reshaping of one’s worldview and beginning to think Christianly, we need to teach Christians the essential language of the Christian faith.

    So what are the core words that form the essential Christian vocabulary? I began to compile a list in my mind while running. I couldn’t keep all the words in my head so I grabbed my iPhone and used Siri’s assistance in recording the first couple of words that came to mind. I then took to social media and I asked my friends and followers a simple question: If the task of disciple making includes teaching Christians to speak Christian, then what are 10 words Christians should have in their vocabulary? Here is the master list I complied thanks to the help from my friends online:

    Salvation, Trinity, disciple, faith, hope, love, resurrection, Christ, Lord, Grace, church, surrender, Paschal mystery, relinquishing control, redemption, incarnation, transformation, justification, reconciliation, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, Father, intimacy, Eucharist, servant, Bible, prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, proper theology, formation, Jesus, fruit, repentance, holy, mercy, ministry, communion, apprentice, humility, covenant faithfulness, baptism, justice, peace, praise, Maranatha, and theodicy. Also mentioned: tithe, transubstantiation, and Shibboleth which were all jokes except “tithe,” that one was half joke/ half serious.

    These words are good, but I want to condense this list down to the essentials. Maybe 10 words is too limiting, so I am going with 12. These are essential words in the Christian vocabulary. There are more words to learn, for sure, but these are the essentials, the big overarching words, every Christian must have in his or her vocabulary.

    1) Jesus
    God’s Son, Israel’s promised Messiah, and the world’s true Lord and Savior; fully God and fully Man

    2) Trinity
    The one God of Christian worship revealed in a holy community persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

    3) Disciple
    A follower of Jesus who learns from him, obeys him, and lives according to his teachings

    4) Church
    The gathering of disciples devoted to worship, community, and justice

    5) Grace
    God’s expression of love in the world to sustain and transform

    6) Salvation
    God’s act of rescuing people from sin and death and bringing them into his covenant family

    7) Humility
    A lowly mind, thinking of other people as more important than yourself

    8) Ministry
    Finding greatness by serving the church and others according to the gifts one has received

    9) Formation
    Becoming like Jesus in thought, character, and action

    10) Forgiveness
    Removing a person from the penalty they deserve to promote healing and wholeness

    11) Love
    Seeking the good and well being of another with heartfelt devotion

    12) Resurrection
    The victory of God in raising Jesus from the dead and our future hope

    My description of each word is not intended to be complete, but to open up conversations about the essential words of our story.


  • Pope Francis before Congress [FULL TEXT]

    Pope_Franis_before_congressLike many people around the country I watched and listened with eager anticipation to Pope Francis’ address to a joint session of congress yesterday. I have followed some of the reaction to his address in the last 24 hours and as with anything touching on the subject of religion, and yes politics, some reactions have been good and some not so good. I encourage you to read the address in its entirety. The Pope speaks with the voice of a prophet, assuming a vocation similar to the Hebrew prophets where he both energizes and criticizes in what he says.

    I am aware we all read and listen from a certain perspective, a certain point of view. My encouragement to you is to try NOT to read it from the perspective of one political ideology or another, whether conservative or liberal. Also try NOT to read it from the perspective of denominational dogma, whether Catholic or Protestant. Instead try to read it from the perspective of Jesus. I am not Roman Catholic, but I believe in one, holy, catholic (meaning “universal”) and apostolic church. I am compelled by this ancient belief to listen to Pope Francis as a brother in Christ. While he does not mention the name “Jesus,” he quotes Jesus and it seems to me his words are filled with the Spirit of Jesus.

    Maybe pray before you read, perhaps you will have ears to hear.



    Mr. Vice-President,

    Mr. Speaker,

    Honorable Members of Congress,

    Dear Friends,

    I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.

    Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.

    Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

    Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States. Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and –one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.

    I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights. I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land. I also want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations, who are not led astray by facile proposals, and who face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults. I wish to dialogue with all of you, and I would like to do so through the historical memory of your people.

    My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.

    I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

    This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom”. Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.

    All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

    Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.

    The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.

    In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.

    Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776). If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.

    Here too I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his “dream” of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of “dreams”. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.

    In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this.

    Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

    This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

    This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

    In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.

    How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.

    It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (ibid., 3). “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (ibid., 14).

    In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference, I’m sure and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

    A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a “pointless slaughter”, another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

    From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223).

    Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.

    Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.

    Four representatives of the American people.

    I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

    In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

    A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

    In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.

    God bless America!

    (Here is a PDF copy of his address if you would like to download it.)

  • My New Book: Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright is Here

    bookcoverI am proud to announce the release of my new book: Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Reader’s Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God. It is now available in paperback and on Kindle.

    Everyone has heroes. When I was growing up, mine was Michael Jordan. I idolized him. My bedroom was a shrine to his basketball awesomeness. Like Mike. If I could be like Mike. Then I grew up and faced the facts: I wasn’t a very good basketball player. I also grew up in my faith. As a teenager I began to take my faith seriously and my heroes began to change.

    In 2007 I found a new hero and he wasn’t a basketball player. He actually grew up playing rugby.

    I was a young pastor, serving my first church, and I was on a bit of spiritual journey. I needed new heroes and I found one across the pond, a then bishop in the Church of England, Tom Wright or as he is better known in North America, N.T. Wright. He is currently professor of New Testament Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He is, without question in my mind, the most important and influential voice in the Church today. He also writes a lot of books and some of them are pretty big.

    I had a chance to meet him in 2014. He was lecturing at Christ Church Anglican in Kansas City. It was a ticketed event. I found out from one of the organizers that I was the first one to  purchase a ticket after they went on sale. I felt like a 12 year-old girl going to a One Direction concert. After the morning lecture I was able to meet him briefly at a book signing and although I was told he was not taking pictures, I snapped this picture with Tom.


    The book he was signing was Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a two-volume, 1,700-page densely-packed scholarly work on the theology of Paul. Tom has been working on this book for years or as he said in a recent interview, he has been working on Paul his whole adult life. It is a stunning academic accomplishment laying out in footnoted-detail what Paul was saying in his letters and what he was trying to accomplish. It is an important book, but I fear those who need to read it the most will have a tough time plowing through it. I took four months to read it and I ended up nearly 200 pages short. I had to take a break, before finishing it up.

    I have written Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright to make Tom’s work accessible. This book is like a road map to help you navigate through all the twists and turns as Tom works to reconstruct Paul’s world and his worldview, so we can see and understand what Paul has said about God, God’s people, and God’s future. These topics are massively important. Paul didn’t write philosophical discourses full of abstract speculation. He wrote real letters to real churches instructing them in the ways of life because something unbelievable had happened! The God of Israel, who is the God of all creation, had returned to his people and his work of new creation had begun! God has renewed his covenant and was in the process of renewing the minds of his people according to the new things he was doing.

    Paul wrote what he did because new life was springing up all around him and he wanted these small fledgling congregations loyal to King Jesus to begin to think Christianly, because God’s work of new creation is centered in and through his people. I could go on, but I really want you to read my book…and I need your help.

    My book is published by Doctrina Press, which is me. “Doctrina Press” is my own imprint. I have self-published this book, which means I am (among other things) the marketing department. I would love to have your help in promoting the book. Here are some things you can do:

    1. Check out the book on Amazon.com. The book is available in a paperback and Kindle edition.
    2. If you have friends who are interested in N.T. Wright and/or Christian theology, or who are serious students of the Bible, send them a link to the book on Amazon.
    3. Use your social media accounts to direct people to the book.
    4. If you have a chance to read the book, leave an Amazon review.

    I sent a PDF copy of the book to Tom not expecting a reply, but one day later I received a response. For me Tom Wright is a rock star, so getting his response was like getting an email from Bono. He thanked me and congratulated me for “ably summarizing” his big book on Paul. He said he was grateful, which made me happy. He also said that he wished I would have sent him my manuscript before I published it. He would have been happy to clarify some things. Dang! I should have emailed him earlier. He also said he would be “delighted” to meet with me if we were ever in the same part of the world at the same time. I have to find a way to make that happen.

    Anyway…check out the book, tell you friends, and let me know what you think.

  • Radical Authenticity, Sexuality, And Spiritual Transformation

    (One of the reasons I haven’t blogged here very often is because I have been blogging once a month for Missio Alliance. The following blog was first posted on the Missio Alliance blog on November 14, 2014. I thought it would good to post it again in light of the current conversation in the church regarding sexuality and personhood.) 

    authenticity“But God wants me to be happy, right?” As a pastor living in North America in the 21st century, I have been asked this question more than once. Christians conditioned by a me-first (and “me-always”) culture default to this one abiding principle: the universe exists so I may indeed be happy. I am not opposed to happiness per se. It is a product of the work of the Holy Spirit. Happiness, or “joy” if you prefer, is both in Jesus and connected to the mission of Jesus. He said, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John 15:11 NLT). The issue is not whether or not God wants us to be happy, content, joyful people; the issue is how do we define happiness and more importantly, where do we find this happiness?

    The trans-cultural pursuit of what we may call “happiness” is really “wholeness,” becoming complete human beings. We were each created in the image of God, but as a master artist, God has created us uniquely in his image. We are to reflect God’s image into the world and echo back the praise of creation to God, but the ways in which we reflect God’s image will be based on how God has uniquely formed us and how he is re-forming us to be a unique expression of the image of Jesus. This transformation and wholeness allows us to be our true selves and enables us to overcome the internal obstacles to experiencing the happiness we all so desperately long for. Along this track of genuine, Jesus-formed, character transformation the church carries forward the mission of Jesus. Where we get off track is when we exchange the process of spiritual transformation for the acceptance of radical authenticity.

    The mission of Jesus is to redeem and restore God’s good world including humanity, God’s image-bearing creation. God created us to be whole, body and soul, so our true selves could emerge from the rubble of our false selves bent out of shape from the forces of corruption running rampant in God’s world. Radical authenticity is the mistaken task of being true to your self, determining what seems natural to you, and rejecting all outside influences, conventions, and moral knowledge. Being “true to yourself” enthrones the false self and follows the royal decrees of this self calling it “spontaneity,” “freedom,” and “being who I am.”

    N.T. Wright in After You Believe describes radical authenticity as the self-talk that goes like this:

    Be yourself; don’t let anyone else dictate to you; don’t let other people’s systems or phobias cramp your style; be honest about what you’re really feeling and desiring. Get in touch with the bits of yourself you’ve been screening out; make friends with them and be true to them. Anything else will result in a diminishing of your true, unique, wonderful self.

    Wright adds:

    Some people mistake (this way of thinking) for the gospel itself.

    Radical authenticity follows Shakespeare’s axiom: “To thine own self be true,” to which I reply, “Yeah, but what if you are jerk?” This kind of authenticity misunderstands the gospel and sadly misdirects the mission of the church. The gospel does not invite us to look outside to the rules or inside to our authentic selves. The gospel invites us to look to Jesus. We do not find our true selves, our uniquely-created-in-the-image-of-God selves, by looking inward at the false self, but by looking upward to Jesus. In speaking to the crowds following him, Jesus said: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” (Mark 8:34-37 The Message). Jesus wants us to discover our true selves, but it is found in first dethroning the false self with all of it’s wants, wishes, and desires and doing what may in fact be the most unnatural act of all: allowing that self to be crucified and buried, so God can resurrect the true self in a slow methodical process of spiritual transformation.

    Never has this course correction from radical authenticity to spiritual transformation been more urgent than in light of the current cultural discussion regarding sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual ethics. The church has failed in the past when we make conversations regarding sexuality merely a matter following a list of rules: Do this and don’t do that…or do this and try not to do that…or do this and if you do that, don’t tell anybody…or do this and if you do that, confess it privately and try not to do it again. Our sexuality is too complex, too connected to our internal life, to merely manage it by a list of rules. Plus spiritual transformation, as an integral part of the mission of the church, has never been a process of following the rules.

    When it comes to sexuality, radical authenticity has condition people falsely to assume that they must be free to express sexual desires according to the norms established by the false self. They reason: I have these desires. I have this sort of sexual orientation. I would be inauthentic and untrue to myself if I do not seek to fulfill these desires. Within this context, Christians across the spectrum of sexual orientation not only live out of their false self, but worse yet, they assume their identities, their true selves, are primarily tied to their sexuality. We have allowed the worship of Aphrodite to misshape us into people who define ourselves first and foremost by our sexual identity. We should certainly not ignore our sexuality, but we must tear down the altar to Aphrodite and submit our sexuality to a process of spiritual transformation where we can find our true selves with a much more modest view of our sexual identity.

    Spiritual transformation is not looking at the false self as the unblemished picture of who we are supposed to be. Spiritual transformation is the work of the Spirit to conform us into the image of Jesus for the joy of God the Father. We can be happy, joyful people. We can discover our true selves, but we cannot find out who we are supposed to be if we start with the false self. We have to place ourselves, all of ourselves including our sexuality, in the hands of the Holy Spirit and allow him to form us, mold us, change us, to reflect the image of Jesus. This work of transformation not only brings us the happiness we are looking for, but it ultimately brings joy to the heart of God our Father, because the Father loves the Son. As the Father sees the image of the Son being formed in our hearts and lives he exclaims once again: “Behold my son! The one that I love!” Dedicating ourselves to radical transformation as a direct rejection of radical authenticity is the only way forward if we are preserve the mission of the church.


  • Buffalo River Trail Hike (Boxley to Kyles Landing): May 22-24, 2015

    2015-05-22 19.00.20

    The Buffalo River Trail (BRT) is a 36.5 mile hiking trail in Northern Arkansas about an hour or so East of Springdale. The Buffalo River is a National River running 135 miles through Arkansas. It is a popular destination for float trips. There are a lot of trails in this area, but the BRT is considered the best hiking trail in the area and some of the best hiking in the Ozarks. The entire BRT runs from Boxley to Pruitt. We ended up doing just over half of the trail from Boxley to Kyles Landing. My oldest son Wesley and I were hiking this trail for his 16th birthday. We talked about maybe coming back for his 18th birthday and doing a float trip down the river.

    For our hike we used Tim Ernst’s trail guide. It had some good maps and descent descriptions of the trail, but it was written primarily for day hikers. There was no mention of campsites in the guide, making finding a campsite at night a bit of a challenge. While there was an ongoing description of the trail, it was written in paragraph form separate from the map, making it difficult to read and hike at the same time. With that said, we only lost the trail once and found the guide helpful in making our way down the trail.

    DAY 1

    We left St. Jo at 6:40 a.m. in order to get to Springdale, Arkansas by lunch time to eat at where else, but Zaxby’s, our favorite chicken place.

    2015-05-22 11.22.05 HDR-1

    We drove another hour and half to Ponca and made it to the Buffalo Outdoor Center (BOC) by 1 p.m. When we dropped into the river valley we lost cell phone signal and never got service again. Grant at the BOC said there is no service along the trail, but that there are courtesy phones at the campgrounds which we would be hiking through and we could get a call out there to the ranger’s station or to the BOC. We dropped off a spare key and signed forms for them to shuttle our car to the end of the trail. We had a good experience at the BOC. As a river and hiking outfitter, they are fully stocked with whatever you need (last minute) for the trail. Their shuttle service is a bit pricey. It works like a valet service. They pick up our car from the trail head, keep it at their facility, and then drop it off at our desired location. After leaving the BOC we drove on to the Boxley trail head and locked up our car. We snapped a quick picture by the first sign and blaze and we were off at 1:30 p.m.

    2015-05-22 13.44.12 HDR

    We crossed the road (Hwy 21) and immediately had to stop and take off our shoes and socks to cross Smith Creek. Thanks to my brother’s wise advice, I packed my camp shoes which made it easy to cross the creek. To do it again, I would have put on my camp shoes at the trail head and worn them across the road and across the creek. We passed two women who were going the opposite direction and we headed on around a field.

    We began hiking up some small ascents and we were both surprised how thick the undergrowth was. It had been raining pretty steady in the area the last few weeks which meant streams were full, but it also meant undergrowth and grass with high. After walking through a grassy area Wesley starting counting the number of ticks he was knocking off his legs. He was up to three in the first two miles of the hike. At one point the grass was five feet high. No joke. I should have packed my weed eater.

    2015-05-22 14.50.20

    We caught a nice bluff view, before walking on a country road for a half mile or so. The trail jetted off the road and back down into the woods. We crossed a few streams along the way. As expected every stream and runoff had water moving. We were able to cross most streams without getting our feet wet for the most part. Some runoffs had rock beds that were slick, but we crossed through with no problems. We took a break at one creek running down the bluff. It has a nice cascading waterfall down it.

    2015-05-22 15.30.35

    We crossed Arrington Creek at about the 3-mile mark. It had a nice campsite, but we were wanting to make more miles before making camp. We passed a number of blow downs along the way. Some looked recent. At one blow down over a large, rocky runoff we lost the trail. We looked around for a bit, before we saw a blaze on the other side of the runoff. According to the guide book we were using, the trail is not blazed, which is true…sorta. We did find either a blaze or a wooden sign of some sort anytime there was a sharp turn or intersection on the trail. The signs were helpful.

    We continued to climb up the trail after Arrington Creek and Wesley continued to knock off more ticks. I had to pull three off his legs. By 6 miles in, Wesley already counted 12 ticks. I really regretted not spraying down our gear and clothes with Permethrin. We stopped for a break and Wesley put moleskin on two hot spots on the balls of his feet. They weren’t blisters, but they were getting red and sore. We crossed Dry Creek, which wasn’t dry and then crossed into a private property. When we arrived at Running Creek, we looked for a camping spot, but it looked like the creek and surrounding area was on private property. When we crossed the creek, we found goats!

    2015-05-22 19.22.45 HDR

    Apparently, whoever owns the land around this area is a goat farmer. We saw two fire rings near the creek, but it looked like those spots were all on private property. Bummer. We hiked back across the creek and looked for trees off the trail to hang our hammocks from. The challenge was to find trees near the creek, off the trail, and NOT on private property. We looked for a while and finally found four trees that would work even through the ground was on an incline. The good thing about hammocks is that you do not need level ground, but a step incline makes for a tough first step in the morning. I set up our hammocks while Wesley gathered fire wood. We were set up in the woods just on the other side of the property line, but still close to the creek.

    2015-05-23 06.29.54

    We had finished setting up around 8:30 p.m., just as it was getting dark. We chose a flat spot near the creek to cook supper and build a fire, even though it was on private property. We ate mash potatoes and Turkey sausage bites and Wesley stretched out his pad next to the fire.

    We both went to bed by 10 p.m. I stretched out in my hammock and fell a sleeping listening to the sound of the creek.

    DAY 2

    I woke up at 6:15 a.m. to light rain falling on my tarp. It was a cool morning. I couldn’t see my breath but I shivered a bit as I changed into my hiking clothes. I warmed up as I gathered water and grabbed my food bag. The rain picked up some so I sat on a rock under my tarp as I boiled water for coffee and oatmeal. Breakfast hit the spot. I was ready to hike. I woke Wesley up at 8. We were hiking by 9.

    2015-05-22 19.15.54

    We had to cross Running Creek again which meant we had to stop dry our feet and put our socks and shoes back on after crossing the creek in our camp shoes. The trail began to ascend up out of the Running Creek, I am glad I didn’t wear my rain jacket even though it started raining a bit. We began to make some miles in the ran, hiking on a pretty muddy trail. In crossing a draining stream running down the bluff, I stepped stepped too quickly on the slick open rock face and fell on my right side. I fell on my right arm and shoulder with a quick THUD. I hiked nearly 100 miles last year on the AT and didn’t fall once. I am out here two days and I fall in the first 10 miles. Lessons learned. Step slowly on slick rocks. We kept walking and as the rain let up, I shot a quick video.

    We made it to the Ponca landing and saw a number of people with canoes and kayaks getting ready to put in. We thought we might eat lunch there, but there wasn’t a picnic table on anything. This was not a campground, just a landing. The Buffalo River looks like great destination for a float trip. Wesley and I talked about coming back down here with some guys and doing a float trip, maybe for his 18th birthday. We went under the bridge (Hwy 74) and hiked on.

    2015-05-23 12.43.15We made it to the Steel Creek Campground at 12:15 and the sun came out! We set up by the restrooms and laid out our gear dry. We ate lunch and enjoyed the sunshine before heading back down the trail at 1:30.

    The terrain was rocky and steep in places, but we were rewarded with a great view of the river and surrounding bluffs a couples miles outside of The Steel Creek Campground. This was the best view of the hike. Parts of the Buffalo River Trail here in Arkansas reminds me of the Appalachian Trial in Georgia.

    2015-05-23 14.43.04 HDR

    2015-05-23 14.49.20 HDR

    As we continued to climb, Wesley’s knee began to give him trouble. His knee really started to hurt on the downhill towards Beech Creek. As we were making our biggest climb of the day, a 700 foot ascent over 2 miles towards the Slaty Place, Wesley really started slowing down. The knee along with some pretty bad chaffing began to wear him down. He powered through, refusing to switch packs with me. This section of the hike was really similar to the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT had higher climbs, but the terrain on this section of the Buffalo River Trail was just as steep and rocky as parts of the AT.

    2015-05-23 17.05.58

    He was in pain and I knew it, but he continued to say he didn’t want to quit. We talked it out and made the decision to get off the trail at Kyles Landing tomorrow. The only solution for a bum knee and chaffing is rest. So the decision was an easy one. I am in pretty decent shape and I could tell this trail was taking a toll on my feet in legs. It felt like I was getting a blister on the bottom of my right toe, probably from hiking with wet feet most of the day. The descent down from the Slaty Place to Indian Creek was wet and muddy. We made it to Indian Creek at 7:15 and found a great spot to make camp!

    2015-05-24 09.51.35

    Wesley collected firewood and I set up the hammocks. A group of hikers we saw at the river overlook hiked joined us at our camping spot. I cooked supper near the fire ring. Ramen and beef jerky were on the menu for tonight. I do not eat Ramen back home, but I crave it on the trail. I talked with the other hikers who were a part of a hiking club in the area. A girl who hiked in after us built the fire. Another one had an interest in the AT. I told stories from my section hike on the AT last year and they had a lot of gear questions. Wesley went to bed a little before 10. I stayed up yawning until about 10:30 p.m. It is hard to pull me away from gear conversations. One of hikers had girl scout cookies, which she shared, and we all enjoyed sitting around the fire, eating cookies, and telling hiking stories. I got into my hammock and was again lulled to sleep by the sound of running water.

    DAY 32015-05-24 08.46.10

    I slept great last night. Fell asleep fast and only woke up twice. We camped again by a creek with a little waterfall, which made for an excellent backdrop for good sleep. I woke up once to rain hitting my tarp at 4 a.m., but fell back asleep until 6:30. It was light rain so I grabbed my food bag and water and started breakfast. I enjoyed my coffee and oatmeal while listening to the new Mumford and Sons on my phone, all from the comfort of my warm and dry hammock. The rain stopped and our camp started waking up about 8 a.m. It looks like nine of us made camp here last night. Wesley was awake, but stayed in his hammock resting his knee. I walked down to Kyles Landing at about 8:30. It was a short walk as we camped only 1/2 mile from Kyles. I found the courtesy phone that Grant told me about. I called the Buffalo Outdoor Center and they said they would bring the car to Kyles Landing but it may be early afternoon before they could get there.

    2015-05-24 09.56.44I walked back to camp and told Wesley. We decided to lounge around camp and enjoy this creek-side camping spot while the sun tried to peak through the trees. I caught up on blogging and enjoyed the sound of the water and the birds overhead before we packed up and hiked out at 11 a.m.

    We got to the registration area at Kyles Landing where I made the call to the BOC early that morning and there was our car! We changed clothes and drove out. As we got a cell phone signal, I noticed I had a text from my brother saying a big storm was coming through our area. As we drove to Springdale the rain started coming down hard. I did want to hike on today, but I knew we made the right decision. Hiking in the rain with a knee issue and chaffing would have only made those two issues worse. Sometimes you have to listen to your body and make the right decision even if your heart wants to press on.

    All in all it was a great hike. Moments of suffering. Moments of discomfort. But a lot of fun and a memorable experience for Wesley and me.

    2015-05-23 11.14.13

    2015-05-23 11.48.30

    2015-05-23 11.50.50-1

    2015-05-24 08.59.01 HDR

    2015-05-23 06.52.50

  • Berryman Trail Hike: April 9-10, 2015

    2015-04-09 13.26.49 HDRThe Berryman Trail (BT) is a 27-mile trail in between Steelville and Potosi about an hour south of St. Louis, Missouri. The BT is a loop, making it possible to hike the trail over 2 days without needing a shuttle. I hiked the trail with Ben, my brother Jeff, and my friend Dave from St. Louis. Ben and I have hiked two other times (here and here) and my brother and I hiked the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail last summer. This was Dave’s first hike.
    We started the BT on Thursday, April 9 at 1:15 p.m. Our plan was to begin with the eastern loop, hiking the trail counter-clockwise. We headed out under sunny skies and it was in the upper 70s. I had read that the eastern side of the loop was the “dry side,” meaning less water. After days of rain in the area, we found all the streams to be full. I only carried a liter of water and filtered water out of one of the streams when I ran out. We hiked through a a mixture of hardwoods and pines on a beautiful day.
    2015-04-09 15.36.31 HDR
    It seemed like we had a stream crossing every few miles or so. We enjoyed finding creative ways to cross the streams without getting our feet wet.
    2015-04-09 15.45.55 HDR
    It turned out to be a hot day with the temperature reaching near 80 degrees. There were no tough climbs but we tackled more steep ups and downs on this side of the loop than we would on day 2. We all had AT&T phones and cell service was spotty. We found a signal from time to time.
    2015-04-10 09.57.27
    We arrived at the Brazil Creek Campground at 6:00 p.m., completing 10 miles on our first day. Before we left from the Berryman trail head, we dropped a vehicle at the Brazil Creek Campground because there was a 60% chance for severe thunderstorms. We stashed a pop-up canopy and four chairs in Dave’s vehicle at Brazil Creek. Once we arrived at camp the clouds started rolling in so we set up our shelters first. Dave, Ben, and I were all hammocking. Jeff brought his tent. We set up the canopy over the fire pit and gathered some firewood to keep the wood dry whenever the rain started. But the rain never came.
    2015-04-10 07.11.02
    We built a small fire and started cooking supper. I ate mash potatoes and turkey bites, one of my favorite meals on the trail. Ben had a weather radio and we listened as severe thunderstorm warnings and tornado watches were issued for our area. The winds blew up to 20-25 mph. We watched storm clouds come and go and heard thunder in the distance but all the severe weather went around us. We only had a few sprinkles. We never needed the canopy.
    2015-04-10 07.11.39 HDR
    I slept pretty good in my hammock. My new underquilt worked great but the winds continued to rattle my tarp until midnight. Lows dropped down to the low 40s and I woke up cold at about 5 a.m. I used my 40 degree down bag as a top quilt. I should have used my 20 degree synthetic bag. I got up at 6:00 a.m. and built a small fire. I was never shivering cold and I couldn’t see my breath, but it was chilly. After heating water for coffee and oatmeal and after the sun began to peak through the trees, I started warming up.
    2015-04-10 07.10.54 HDR
    Brazil Creek was a nice campground. No running water or privy, but it was right by the creek and it did have a picnic table, which is always a plus. It looked to be primarily a horse camp, but there were plenty of flat spots for tents and trees for hammocks. We hit the trail at 9:15 a.m. thinking we had a 14-mile day in front of us but it ended up being a 17 miles to get back to the Berryman trail head. Some of the maps online for the trail are old. We figured out that trail maintainers have rerouted certain sections of the trail to do more ridge walking, following the contours of the bluffs instead of dipping down into the valleys. You do not need a map to hike this trail, but if you are looking to hike the BT and want a map, use this one.
    2015-04-10 09.25.23 (1)
    It was cool when we started hiking, but it warmed up quickly. We continued hiking through pines and hard woods. There was even a couple of “views,” at least views for the Ozarks. The second day seemed to have less ups and downs than on the eastern side of the loop. We continued hiking until noon, when we stopped for lunch by a stream. I set up my hammock to enjoy lunch “off the ground.” I love hiking with a hammock because where ever you go you always have a place to sit.
    2015-04-10 12.27.22
    When we were stopping for lunch, two other hikers stopped to chat for a second. They were day hikers, hiking the entire trail that day. One of the guys was from Columbia and the other was from St. Louis. We talked a bit about the BT and gear and then they mentioned that they hiked on the AT last May. They hiked from Springer Mountain to Dick’s Creek Gap in Georgia in May, a couple of weeks before Jeff and I hiked the entire Georgia section. Funny. Small world. These were the only people we saw on the trail.
    As we wrapped up lunch, I laid back in my hammock and thought about taking a nap, but we  had miles to go before we got to camp. We packed up and headed back down the trail. The longer we hiked, we realized we had more to miles in front of us than expected, which was fine with me. It was sunny and 65 degrees. A great day for hiking.
    The western side of the loop overlaps with the Ozark Trail.
    2015-04-10 11.12.05
    The Ozark Trail (OT) is a collection of trails in the Missouri Ozarks, 390 miles worth. There are plans to connect all of the trails to create a continuous footpath, but right now there is 200+ miles that are connected. While hiking, I thought about doing a long section hike on the OT, maybe 100 miles or so. Maybe summer 2016. Who knows?
    There were a number of access roads crossing the BT, but there were signs at every intersection. There was no way of losing the trail. I appreciate the volunteers who have kept the trail in good shape. We passed a couple a new blow downs and one tree that had recently been struck by lightning, presumably from storms the last couple of days. We didn’t see much wildlife on the trail. I heard turkeys early in the morning and we saw one tree frog, a chipmunk and a squirrel, and one small black snake. We stopped at an artisan well on the trail at the Edward Beecher Recreation Area. This would be a great camping spot. We filled our water bottles from the spring without filtering and then pressed on.
    2015-04-10 14.30.48
    We pushed on realizing we had seven miles to go. I noticed the conversations came to an end as we continued to hike, a sure sign we were getting tired. We took a short break and I checked for a cell signal and got one! I laid down on the ground and rested on my pack. I texted home and posted some pictures from our break spot and then we made the final push to camp.
    2015-04-10 16.26.45-1
     We made it Berryman Trail head about 5:45 pm and I shot a quick video.
    Jeff and I collected firewood, while Ben and Dave  drove over to the Brazil Campground to pick up Dave’s vehicle. We set up camp and started supper. We could have driven home, but I would not have gotten back to the house until 11 p.m. I am glad we decided to camp a second night. We ate supper and I built a good-sized fire.
    2015-04-10 20.21.35
    Ben drove into town and returned an hour and a half later with pizza and gummy bears. Even thought I had eaten supper, I ate a slice of pizza. I figure I burned enough calories hiking 17 miles that day. It was a cloudless night and the stars were out as we sat around the fire. We headed to bed around 10:30 p.m. or so and I was fast asleep within about five minutes. I slept good. I did wake up at 4 a.m. a bit cold. I realized that my underquilt had slid out from underneath my hammock. My mistake. I hung it too lose under my hammock. A mistake I will not make again. I fell back asleep and woke up about 6 a.m.
    I boiled water for coffee and oatmeal. Ben stoked up the fire and we warmed up. It was about 4o degrees or so. We packed up and headed home about 8 a.m. I am looking forward to my next adventure this summer on the Buffalo River Trail.
  • Lent 2015

    lent_2015Lent comes early this year. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season, is tomorrow. Christmas Day is the same day every year on the calendar. Easter moves around…something about the phases of the moon. I’m not sure. Lent has been a part of the Christian tradition for a long, long time; I have only been observing Lent for six or seven years. My mistake.

    Lent has become a regular part of the year for me. I look forward to it, not in the same way I look forward to Christmas or Easter (Have you ever tried frozen peeps!). I look forward to Lent because it has been a time-tested practice of the church to grow in faith and identify with Jesus. Lent is a season on the church calendar the 40 days before Easter that helps us to prepare for Easter. It is designed to be a time of confession, prayer, repentance, fasting, and “giving something up” in order to identify with the sufferings of Jesus. Every Sunday is a mini celebration of the resurrection, but Easter Sunday is the ultimate celebration of the resurrection. For those of us following Jesus resurrection is a BIG deal. So for many of us the season of Lent has become a big deal. Lent is important as a way to prepare for Easter, because…

    You cannot know the joy of the resurrection without enduring the sorrow of the cross.

    Lent gives us a slow, winding, meticulous way to reflect on the sufferings of Christ culminating on his death on the cross. Lent is not convenient. Lent is not comfortable. It does not fit our consumer-driven sensibilities. It does help to form us in Christ-likeness. It does help expose our idols. It does help us to grow up.

    At Word of Life Church, we are venturing out into the Lenten season with four Ash Wednesday Services (7 a.m., noon, 5:30 p.m., and 7 p.m.) and then we are praying every day (except for Sunday) in our Upper Room prayer chapel at 12:15 p.m. These prayer gatherings will follow a Midday Prayer Liturgy that will sound and feel the same every day. We are baptizing people on the first Sunday of Lent and we are offering Lenten Small Groups on Sunday morning immediately following the worship service. We have also put together a Lenten Scripture Reading Guide to focus your Bible reading on the sufferings of Christ.

    For me personally, I am reading three books: Simply Good News by N.T. Wright, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers compiled by Andrew Louth and Maxwell Staniforth, and Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words by Rod Bennett. I try to pick books to read during Lent with a particular focus on Jesus. This year I wanted to read from some of the writings of the church fathers. I threw in an N.T. Wright book in the mix just because.

    I invite you to join us on this Lenten journey. Pick some meals or days during the week and fast. Give something up. Seek out silence. Repent. Give yourself to prayer. Join a small group. Read. Read slowly. Read contemplatively. Expect things to change. And most of all, look for Jesus.

  • Reflecting on 2014 with Just a Little Patience

    As I sit here waiting for some friends to come over to the house for our New Year’s Eve celebration, it’s a good time to reflect a bit on the calendar year that is passing. I was recently asked to recount what had happened in 2014 and share any aspirations I had for 2015. The first thing that came to mind about 2014 was a little truth that became real for me this year. I think I am further down the road in becoming a patient person. What I have learned is this:

    Almost all wisdom can be summed up in patience.

    I have known for quite some time that patience is a Christian virtue, a fruit of the Spirit, the calling card of the aged sages. I have never really been a patient person. I have been in a hurry for seemingly all my life. When I was 13 years-old, I wanted to be 16. When I was 16, I wanted to be 18. When I was 18, I wanted to be 25. It was not until my early 30s when I begin to really practice the patience I had heard about for so long. In my early 30s I was pastoring a church and learning the slow, difficult process of loving people on the way to becoming more like Jesus. In my vocation as a pastor I adopted patience as a philosophy of ministry; it is the way pastors love and serve their congregations. We do so with patience.

    I had learned to serve God’s people with patience, but I don’t know if I had reallybecome a patient person at that time. I was still unsettled, discontented, and unsure about myself. I pursued further education and began to write books, which were deeply satisfying, but not enough to change me. Then came 2014. I turned 40 years-old. The transition from 29 to 30 came and went without much thought, but turning 40 was a big deal for me. If by strength we are given 80 years of life then I had reached the halfway point. I turned 40 in the most memorable way. I woke up on my birthday at the Hawk Mountain Shelter on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and by the early afternoon I was standing on top of Springer Mountain in North Georgia, the Southern terminus of the AT. By the end of the day, I was standing2014-06-15 19.20.47 under the iconic arch at the visitor center at Amicalola State Park bringing the end to a 17-mile day and a 100-mile hike that had started 8 days earlier in Deep Gap, North Carolina. Long distance hiking requires a lot of patience. I could drive 100 miles in less than 2 hours. By foot, it took me 8 days. I did a lot of thinking on the trail, a lot of thinking about they kind of person I wanted to be in my next 40 years of life. I thought a lot about patience and about being present to the present moment. I think I am getting closer to being a patient person.

    My wife Jenni and I recently (re)watched Seven Years in Tibet with Brad Pitt. The movie reminded me of the great patience and contentment of the Buddhist people. What drives them towards patience and contentment is different than what drives me as a follower of Jesus, but the patience is the same. I can rightly look at practitioners of Buddhism and call them wise as they reflect the patience I see in Jesus. Please do not misunderstand. I am committed to the Christian faith. I am committed to God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am committed to allowing the Holy Spirit to produce the life of patience in me. I am equally committed to admiring all who exhibit patience. I asked my wife if she thought I had become a more patient person. Her hesitation and silence told me all I need to know; I still have a long way to go. She agrees I have become more patient but we both agree I have not yet arrived.

    Now back to waiting for my friends to arrive.

    Waiting. This is what patient people do.

  • N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul: Part 9: Paul in History

    I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, creating an outline of the book as a part of a class I am teaching at our church. This is the ninth and final blog in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Check out the previous posts here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

    I had promised a PDF copy of this outline when it was complete, but I now have a different plan. The complete outline turned out to be 22,555 words, which is 50 pages single-spaced. Instead of uploading the PDF, I am going to format it as an ebook and make it available as Kindle download. Who knows maybe I will release it in print form too. We shall see. If you simply cannot wait for the ebook, let me know and maybe…just maybe…I will email you a PDF copy. 

    Part 9: Paul in History
    Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapter 12-16

    I. Bringing It All Back Home
    N.T. Wright has taken us into Paul’s world, particularly the world of pagan religion, Greek, philosophy, and Roman politics. We have seen Paul’s Jewish context and his Jewish worldview, two things which formed the foundation for a detailed examination of Paul’s theology summarized by three themes—monotheism, election, and eschatology. These three Jewish concepts were massively rethought and reworked in light of the coming of Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Spirit. Now Wright wants to bring it all back home with an exploration of Paul’s theology at work in Paul’s world with a spotlight on 1) Paul in the politics of the Roman Empire, 2) Paul in the world of religion, 3) Paul and the philosophers, and 4) Paul in his native Jewish world.

    II. Paul and Caesar
    “Every step Paul took, he walked on land ruled by Caesar.” (1271) The language Paul used to talk about Jesus did not derive from the empire; it was a direct confrontation to the empire. Paul expected the Jewish Messiah to judge the nations and bring salvation and peace to the world. The nations had their leaders, but this was temporary. Paul preached the Gospel of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, which created communities loyal to Jesus as Lord, Savior, and Son of God, titles already used in the empire to speak of the Caesar. While those in authority are to be respected, the idolatry and arrogance of Caesar was challenged by these communities loyal to Jesus the Messiah. Paul does not proclaim Jesus as a better version of Caesar, rather the Gospel of Jesus subverts and overtakes the Gospel of Caesar. “In a world where loyalty to Caesar had become one of the major features of life, it could be that the Christians were ‘working out their own salvation with fear and trembling’, and coming to realize that, somehow or other, if Jesus was lord Caesar was not.” (1302)

    Paul does not endorse the Roman way, but calls for submission to Roman authority as a way to live wisely in the empire. Followers of Messiah in these scattered communities of faith are able to respect those in civic authority knowing they are ultimately held accountable by Jesus the judge and ultimate ruler. Earthly rulers will stand before the judge as will all people. Paul advocates a different kind of politic centered in and around the Messiah which creates a certain kind of revolution, but not a kind that separates us from the culture. “(Paul) saw the gospel of Jesus the Messiah as upstaging, outflanking, delegitimizing and generally subverting the ‘gospel’ of Caesar and Rome.” (1306) Living as loyal subjects of the Messiah does not require either “Constantinian compromise” or “Anabaptist detachment,” but rather a visible witness to a “gospel-shaped and gospel revealed new world of justice and peace.” (1318)

    III. Paul and Pagan Religion
    Religion in the world of Paul did not teach people how to behave as much as it provided signs, myths, and rituals binding people together. “Paul was indeed teaching, operating and living within something we might very well call religio, however much it had been redefined.” (1332) The use of Jewish Scriptures and the worship of one God would had seemed unique to pagan onlookers. Yet it was the one God of Israel, one Lord, and one Spirit that bound together the followers of Jesus the Messiah. Baptism as the initiation into the Christian community and the celebration of the Eucharist formed the primary rituals for Paul’s communities. “The eucharist thus clearly functions for Paul as a rite, complete with traditional words; as a rite in which a ‘founding myth’ was rehearsed, though in this case the founding myth’ was an actual event which had occurred not long before; as a rite in which the worshippers share the life of the divinity being worshipped, though the divinity in question is a human being of recent memory; as a rite dependent on a prior sacrifice, albeit the very strange one of the crucifixion of that same human being; as a rite which should bind the community together….” (1347-1348) This would look like a religion, but one that had never been seen before. It had all the marks of ancient religion but it was infused with theology in a way that was unique.

    IV. Paul and Philosophy
    “Jesus is not simply one person whom one might know certain things. He is the one in whom the very treasures of knowledge itself are hidden.” (1361) Greek philosophers were interested in three topics: logic (what we know), physics (what is there), and ethics (what we do). In the Greek mind, theology was a subset of physics, but Paul would challenge such a view as the God of Israel was not a thing in the material universe.

    Regarding questions of logic, Paul would argue “there is a deeper darkness and a new dawn” in terms of knowledge (1362). Greek philosophy was about coming out of the darkness in order to see what others could not see, but Paul would argue for a deeper darkness. He wrote to the Ephesians describing Gentiles who were “darkened in their understanding” (Ephesians 4:18). They live in darkness as they have lived lives with distorted habits of behavior rooted in a hardness of heart the result of humanity going terribly wrong as described in Genesis 3-11. Jesus is the light of the world that has provided the true light that can consume even the deepest darkness of the human heart.

    Regarding questions of physics, Paul remains steadfast as a creational monotheist. The God of Israel has created all things. Paul writes, “All things created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15). Even in their darkness, humanity could see God’s divine attributes in creation, but because of their darkness the light of the one God is necessary to see all things as they are. As the creator, the one God will ultimately call all things into account.

    Regarding questions of ethics, the dominant logic of the Greek philosophers was once humanity can discover what is, human beings should then go with the grain of the way things are. The Stoics saw divinity in everything, so right living was a matter of going along with nature as it is. The Epicureans saw the gods as far away, but admit gods set up things before their departure, so, like the Stoics, we should just go with the flow of life. In stark contrast, Paul’s ethics were tied not to the ways things are, but eschatology, how things will be under the reign of Messiah. Paul’s inaugurated eschatology announced the coming of the light of truth, beauty, and goodness has come. Therefore we should live in the light of this new world, the one that has come and is coming. “Paul believed that the world had been renewed in the Messiah; that those who were themselves ‘in the Messiah’ had also been renewed as image-bearing human beings; and that the task of such people was to live in accordance with the new world, rather than against its grain.” (1371) The arrival of this new world marked the “rehumanizing power of the gospel of Jesus.” (1376).

    V. Paul and His Jewish Context
    “He came with a Jewish message and a Jewish way of life for the non-Jewish world. He did not see himself as founding or establishing a new, non-Jewish movement. He believed that the message and life he proclaimed and inculcated was, in some sense, the fulfillment of all he had believed as a strict Pharisaic Jew.” (1408) Paul was an apostle to the Gentile nations as a Jewish thinker.

    A. Paul’s Jewish Identity
    Paul was a Jew by birth and he had no modern notions of converting to another religion. He did not compare religions or offer something in the Messiah to replace religion in general or the Jewish religion in particular. He was not attempting to start a new religion or replace religion with something called “faith.” He was extending to non-Jews the opportunity of membership in the renewed-covenant with the God of Israel. Paul did have an encounter with Jesus the Messiah which solidified his call and it became the impetus towards rethinking and reimagining what it meant to be a Jew. Paul admits he died to the law. He had been crucified and raised with the messiah. His identity was no longer Jewish but “Messiah-ish.” Paul was a Jew ethnically but it was not his primary identity. “Paul’s life and work is not a ‘system’, not a ‘religion’, not an attempt to forge a new social reality in and of itself, but a person: the crucified Messiah.” (1146) In Messiah, Paul found his identity and called people to imitate him as he imitated the Messiah.

    B. Paul and Israel’s Scripture
    Paul was a reader of Israel’s scripture and he did not randomly pick verses from the Jewish scripture (the Old Testament) in order to make them fit what he is writing. Paul was well aware of the context of the specific verses he quotes. The larger context in the Old Testament was on his mind when he uses particular quotes from the Old Testament. He understood the tension present in the Old Testament between the promise of God and the commands of God….that is, the promise to bless/save/redeem the world through the people of Abraham on one hand and the system of blessings/curses in the torah based on Israel’s response to the covenant on the other hand. This tension seemed like “two voices” or “two movements” in Israel’s narrative history. Nevertheless the entirety of Jewish thought (including Jewish scripture) was, for Paul, rethought, reworked, and reimagined in light of the coming of Jesus the Messiah and the Spirit.

    In reading and using Old Testament scripture in his writings, Paul is reworking it in the larger context of Israel’s narrative history. “Paul reads Israel’s scriptures as a vast and complex narrative, the story of the faithful creator, the faithful covenant God, the god who in Israel’s Messiah kept his ancient promises and thereby created a people marked out by their pistis, their own gospel-generated faith or faithfulness. The scriptures do not so much bear witness, for Paul, to an abstract truth (‘the one God is faithful’). They narrate that faithfulness, and in doing so, invite the whole world into the faithful family whose source and focus is the crucified and risen Messiah.” (1471)

    VI. Paul’s Aims and Achievements
    “The Messiah and the redemption of history…has to do not simply with ‘spirituality’ or ‘religion’, not with an escapist salvation in which of the world ceases to matter, but with the challenge to action in the world itself.” (1474)

    N.T. Wright drew upon the words of Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt to describe the Jewish desire to move in action in the present. He quotes Arendt who wrote:  “We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.”

    This decidedly Jewish impulse was present in Paul. He was not a detached thinker, but a doer. He was a thinker no doubt, but he was not content with merely dreaming up some good ideas and talking about them. The God of Israel had returned to his people. Messiah had come and the Spirit of Yahweh was dwelling within the human, flesh and blood temple of his renewed people, and above all, God’s act of new creation had begun! God’s action prompted Paul to act. So what was Paul trying to do?  “Paul’s practical aim was the creation and maintenance of particular kinds of communities; that the means to their creation and maintenance was the key notion of reconciliation; and that these communities, which he regarded as the spirit-inhabited Messiah-people, constituted at least in his mind and perhaps also in historical truth a new kind of reality, embodying a new kind of philosophy, of religion and of politics, and a new kind of combination of those; and all of this within the reality we studied in the previous chapter, a new kind of Jewishness, a community of new covenant, a community rooted in a new kind of prayer.” (1476)

    Paul did not write philosophical essays or political manifestos; he wrote letters to churches. Paul’s aims and intentions are wrapped up in the planting, building, and flourishing of the local church. (Side note: Paul and the Faithfulness of God is the fourth in a series of academic books on “Christian origins.” According to Wright, his next volume in this series after the Paul book is a book on Christian missiology.) These aims or goals can be best described as a ministry of reconciliation.

    A. Reconciliation
    The words “mission” and “evangelism” in our modern context have departed somewhat from what they meant during the time Paul was planting churches throughout the Mediterranean world of the ancient Roman Empire. Evangelism for Paul was not a matter of “saving souls for heaven,” a phrase we never see in Paul’s writings, or anywhere in Scripture for that matter. When Paul was traveling, preaching, teaching, writing, and suffering on behalf of the church, he saw himself as engaging in the ministry of reconciliation. “For Paul, everything grew into the field of God’s new world.” (1488) Those who are in the Messiah have entered into God’s new world. Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ [behold] new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 ESV). This new world is a world reconciled to God and those who are in Christ are a reconciled people. This new world launched with the resurrection of Jesus is the first stage of the renewal of all creation.

    These new communities formed around the Messiah would appear to the outside world to be a new school of philosophy, a new kind of religion, a new political movement heralding a new king and a new way of being human. “If we do not recognize Paul’s churches as in some sense philosophical communities, religious groups and political bodies it is perhaps because we have been thinking of the modern meanings of such terms rather than those which were known in Paul’s world.” (1492) These reconciled communities were to be a prototype of what is to come, demonstrating to the world what it looked liked to be reconciled to one another and reconciled to the God of all creation.

    Paul saw his ministry of reconciliation, and indeed the ministry of the church, as “temple-building” and not “soul-saving.” His mission was to build the communities as mini-temples where there Spirit of Yahweh would dwell. Individuals experience the Spirit, but each individual reconciled to God, indwelt by God’s Spirit, living in God’s new world, served as a signpost to a larger truth, namely the faithfulness of God. These new temple communities were made up of Jews and Gentiles living in unity. The Gospel Paul preached was for the Jew first but also for a Greek, an unquestionable “Jewish message for the non-Jewish world.” (1498)

    B. Paul’s Work in Caesar’s World
    Paul would not have seen the modern subjects of theology and politics as separate and unrelated themes. Paul was a Roman citizen, but his allegiance was to the Messiah and this double position was consistent with Paul’s eschatology. The age to come had broken into history, but it is not here in it’s fullness. Jesus the Messiah has been highly exalted over all earthly political figures, but Caesar still reigns. The Messiah’s reign was best seen within the local communities worshiping Jesus the Messiah. Caesar, to some extent, had tried to create such a religion within the empire whereby he would be the object of people’s devotion. Caesar’s reign over his empire would not endure as long as Jesus’ reign through his church.

    Not only did Paul see Jesus’ reign as superior to the reign of Caesar, he saw an “integrated vision of the one God and his world.” (1508) Paul would agree that all truth is God’s truth and he regularly affirmed the goodness of creation. God’s kingdom in and through the reign of Messiah was a physical, earth-bound kingdom. “Paul’s aim was to be the temple-builder for the kingdom, planting on non-Jewish soil little communities in which heaven and earth would come together at last, places where the returning glory of Israel’s god would shine out, heralding and anticipating the day when God would be all in all.” (1509) He proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and trusted the power of the gospel message to transform the lives who received it. Paul’s theology was important, but it was to be lived out in these gospel-formed communities.

    Reconciliation and integration are good ways to sum up Paul’s theology. We who study Paul’s theology in communities of our own should expect the reconciliation and integration of those who see justification as primarily God’s legal action (juridical or forensic) and those who see justification as primarily God’s invitation for us to join him (participationist). Our study of Paul should lead to an end to the squabbling between those of the old perspective and those with the new perspective(s) on Paul. We should hope to see an integration of those who are interested in Paul’s historical context with those who are interested in Paul’s theological perspective.

    In the end, we like Paul, are best served when our life of study and participation in the community of faith are sustained by prayer. “The renewed praise of Paul’s doxologies takes its place at the historically situated and theologically explosive fusion of worlds where Paul stood in the middle, between Athens and Jerusalem, between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world, between Philemon and Onesimus, between history and theology, between exegesis and the life of the church, between heaven and earth.” (1518) Paul is a central figure in Christian theology.

    Wright ends the book with these words: “Paul’s ‘aims’, his apostolic vocation, modeled the faithfulness of God. Concentrated and gathered. Prayer became theology, theology prayer. Something understood.” (1519)

    VII. Final Thoughts
    Theology matters. History matters. Wrestling with Scripture matters. These tasks matter because God has been faithful to his covenant. His reign has begun! New creation has begun and we get to participate in it as people of the Messiah as the new temple indwelt by the Spirit.