Searching For Sunday

Rachel Held Evans passed away today at the age of 37. 

I’m so sad and don’t know what to say.

All I can think to do is share this review of one of her books that she graciously sent me directly. It speaks to her impact on my life and how much she will be missed.

If you’re able, you can support her husband and two young boys here.

So church is, essentially, a gathering of kingdom citizens, called out – from their individuality, from their sins, from their old ways of doing things, from the world’s way of doing things – into participation in this new kingdom and community with one another.

imageThat’s the conclusion reached by Rachel Held Evans in her new book, Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving, And Finding The Church, wherein she describes her journey out of evangelicalism, through a church plant that didn’t quite get rooted, a break from church altogether, and into a deeper, richer and fuller understanding of what it means to be part of the body of Christ in the 21st century.

I read and enjoyed both of Rachel’s first two books – Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood – and have benefited from following her on social media and meeting her in person at the conference that spawned the book Letters To A Future Church.

But of all work, I can honestly say nothing has impacted me as much as this new book.

I’m not sure if I qualify as a millennial, but Rachel’s story of growing up in, moving away from and rediscovering ‘church’ resonated with me in deep ways, as if she was sharing my story and the stories of thousands of others in the same boat, beckoned to step out, in faith, to something different.

But this is distinctly her story, told through the lens of seven sacraments of the church, namely baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick and marriage. Interspersed throughout are tales from her travels, some hilarious, others heartbreaking, all with a heavy impact.

What struck me most – and what might cause many to strike back – is her telling of stories shared at a Gay Christian Network Conference, stunning example of how the church is meant to look more like a support group than a country club.

Reading on the train on the way home from work, tears came to my eyes as I thought of the church’s wretched history and its brilliant future, one based on embracing the call to love and live together, as described above.

Reading this book felt like I was having a good, heartfelt chat over coffee with a like-minded, like-hearted friend, grieving that which has gone wrong and celebrating a bright hope for the future of the church, of this world, and ultimately, in Christ.

Very much worth checking out.

Oh, and I’m going to frame this quote, I think.

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Comedy Sex God and me: A review of Pete Holmes’ book

My journey to Comedy Sex God began with Rob Bell, which is fitting because he’s the author of Sex God.

Similar themes, but less funny.

Rob is the former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI (not to be confused with Mars Hill Church in Seattle). I used to religiously download his weekly sermons, and was feeling a Bell-shaped void after he decided to take off for Los Angeles to pursue other ventures.

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It was 2013 and were planning a trip to Ottawa at the time, so I did a search for Rob Bell in my podcast app to help keep me entertained on the long drive. I came across his name listed beside this funny little logo and was interested to see how the author of Love Wins could make it even weirder. As it turned out, that book was the impetus for this podcast host to reach out to Rob, and I quickly learned that I actually had a lot in common with Pete Holmes.

We were both raised in the church. We both went to small Christian universities (I even knew people who went to his). We both liked to make jokes, although he’s admittedly a million times better at comedy than I could ever dream to me. We were both clearly fans of Bell’s, and welcomed his work as opposed to bidding him farewell like so many others still caught in the throes of evangelicalism.

I ended up listening to that episode more than once, and You Made It Weird has been part of my weekly routine ever since. I love the silly episodes, the spiritual elements of it, the Friends of Rob Bell series, the comedy guests, the inside baseball tales from the worlds of stand up and show business. I rarely take a week off.

On top of that, I devoured clips from Pete’s foray into late night television, his HBO specials, and especially the recently-cancelled Crashing, which I loved for all the same reasons I keep downloading the podcast.

So when Pete first announced he was working on a book, I knew it would be right up my alley.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy from Harper Collins and made my way through it over the course of a few days. Here’s a few thoughts on this delightful piece of work.

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I was already pretty familiar with Pete’s story from all of the above, but I really resonated with his early struggles with the church, particularly as it pertains to purity culture, the sins that tend to befall teenage boys, dealing with that guilt and shame, responding to countless altar calls and repeating the process over and over again.

Like I said, I too went to a Christian college, began to explore new/old ideas, and eventually left the church I grew up in.

Our stories aren’t quite the same (my wife didn’t leave me for a small Italian man, thank God), but I weave in and out of phases of deconstruction and reconstruction as a result of life circumstances, having my eyes opened to new ways of thinking while shelving old, harmful beliefs about faith and God’s role in the world in which we live.

I can’t say I’ve gone so far as to have my mind opened by psychedelics, and likely never will. Pete’s deep dive into Ram Dass is kind of where our paths veer most obviously. I’m interested in him and will check out his teachings, but I won’t be humping on a plane to Hawaii anytime soon. At the same time, I’ve kind of found a guru in absentia in Richard Rohr – another previous YMIW guest and a fave of Pete’s – and often think about planning a retreat to New Mexico to meet him.

That’s kind of the point of Comedy Sex God, really. We’re all on different paths, but we all come from the same Oneness, and the more in tune we become with it and each other, the better off we all will be.

Pete referenced Bell in this book, and I know he has a relationship with others I admire, namely The Liturgists, David Bazan, and Rohr himself. Again, different streams, but all flowing from the same grand river.

The sections on meditation and breathing and Awareness were particularly meaningful for me, and I know these are practices I need incorporate into my life. Thanks for another kick in the ass, Pete.

I should add Pete is a really great writer, and both his comedy and his warmth come off the pages in droves. This book is hilarious, and I laughed out loud on several occasions; it’s also deeply moving, and I teared up more than once. It’s above all incredibly honest and vulnerable, and Pete’s authenticity is what draws so many to his work, myself very much included.

Right off the top, Pete writes “My mom always wanted me to be a youth pastor. When I become a comedian, she said, ‘Close enough.'” I’m a grown man with a wife and 3 sons, and Pete’s inner youth pastor speaks to me on a regular basis. It will come as no surprise that I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I hope you all read it, love it, and come to admire Pete as much as I do.

Book review: Holy Envy by Barbara Brown Taylor

After years of serving as an Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor began teaching Religions of the World at a small liberal arts college in Georgia. She guided her students through Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, discovering more about herself and her faith along the way.Image result for holy envy

She recounts stories about this in her new book, Holy Envy. The title speaks volumes; only does she allude to be very much attracted to elements of religions other than her own, she sees holiness in all of them. We are all created in the image of God, and religion – at its best – is humanity’s attempt to figure out what means.

There’s a million different ways to go about it, and certainly a fair amount of diversity within Christianity itself. Regardless of what you believe about God and Jesus, few object to the notion of a divine spark within us, and the call to love. As the author writes:

Yet this, in a nutshell, is the monuymental spiritual challenge of living with religious difference – and more centrally than that – of living with anyone that does not happen to be me. “Love God in the person standing right in front of you,” the Jesus of my understanding says, “or forget the whole thing, because if you cannot do that, then you are just going to keep making shit up.”

Amen.

We don’t need to be afraid of the differences between us; a lot of it comes down to using different languages and symbols to try and articulate the same things.

We are all made in God’s image, called to love each other and take care of this world. It’s OK to open our eyes and look around at what others are doing, and we don’t have to be afraid of otherness.

All that matters in the end is how we loved each other.

Thanks to Harper Collins Canada for hooking me up with a review copy of this book.

Book review: How The Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns

y450-274 “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

This is a common trope heard in evangelical circles, but it’s light years away from that simple, as Peter Enns explains in his new book, How the Bible Actually Works:
In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers – and Why That’s Great News (which I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of courtesy Harper Collins Canada).

His central argument is that God is not a helicopter parent and the Bible is neither an instruction manual nor a rule book; instead, it’s a a powerful learning tool that nurtures our spiritual growth by refusing to provide us with easy answers but instead forces us to seek and use wisdom.

The Bible itself is an embodiment of wisdom at work. Its ambiguity, antiquity and diversity dictates certain noticeable and intentional shifts as you move from Genesis to Revelation. That’s because each text was written at a specific time for a particular audience and in order to communicate something unique within that context, resulting in certain tweaks – big and small – as people grew in their understanding of who God is and the nature of his relationship with creation.

Through the pages of the book, Enns offers example after example of how the biblical writers exercised wisdom and made additions to or removed bits from previous pieces of scripture, showing us that the aim of the Bible is not to give definitive answers, but to discern what it means to live God’s way for our time; “thus the Bible, rather than closing down the future, sets us on a journey of relying on God’s presence to discover it.”

The Bible says a lot of things, many of which contradict each other, raise troubling questions about God, and appear to give answers to pressing questions that weren’t meant to be applied in 2019.

Wisdom, therefore, is needed not only to read the Bible, but also to continue on with the very biblical tradition of questioning, debating, and working out of the life of faith that its pages point us to.

It’s all far from settled, and that’s the point.

This is one in a long line of books about the Bible, but the best I’ve read in recent years, along with Rob Bell’s What Is The Bible? Do check it out when it becomes available on Feb. 19.

2018 Book List

As per tradition, here’s a list of books I read during the past year. My favourites are in bold, extra points for the italicized one.

2018 Reading List

  1. Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry
  2. A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry
  3. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  4. Own The Moment by Carl Lentz
  5. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
  6. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
  7. The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
  8. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
  9. Paul by N.T Wright
  10. The Two Towers: The Treason of Isengard by  J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry
  12. Grateful by Diana Butler Bass
  13. The Lifters by Dave Eggers
  14. Robin by Dave Itzkoff
  15. Britt-Marie Was Here by Frederik Backman
  16. The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen by Lisa Gungor
  17. Us Against You by Fredrick Backman
  18. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
  19. The Devil In White City by Erik Larson
  20. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
  21. Eager to Love by Richard Rohr
  22. A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Sarah Arthur
  23. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  24. The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequist
  25. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans
  26. Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
  27. You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers
  28. My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgard
  29. A New Harmony by John Philip Newell
  30. God Over Good by Luke Norsworthy
  31. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
  32. Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde
  33. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
  34. Remembering by Wendell Berry
  35. I Declare War by Levi Lusko
  36. Faith For This Moment by Rick McKinley
  37. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  38. God Has A Name by John Mark Comer

Book review: Faith For This Moment by Rick McKinley

In his new book Faith For This Moment, Portland pastor Rick McKinley asks, What does it mean to be the people of God now?

Today, many Christians in America feel like exiles within their own country. Some yearn to return to the Christendom of an idealized past. Others seek to assimilate the values of our culture into the church. In between are those uncomfortable with either extreme–exiles looking for a new way of understanding what faith looks like in a polarized, pluralistic, post-Christian culture.

In Faith for This Moment, Rick McKinley comforts and equips the spiritually homeless. He shares how people of faith from other times and places lived faithfully, prophetically, and imaginatively, compromising neither their principles nor their compassion and never giving in to despair. For those searching for a better way to live out their faith in our complex cultural moment, this is it.

We live in a crazy time here in North America, and people of faith seem to be either holding onto their beliefs so tight that they forget to love their neighbours, or have become so closely tied to the culture that there’s nothing indistinguishable about them.

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McKinley offers helpful analysis about living in exile and living in the heart of Christendom, and offers timeless practices that we can employ in order to keep the heartbeat of Jesus going in this time and beyond.

“We are called by God to love our neighbour and our enemy, to embrace rather than demonize those who, we disagree with,” McKinley writes. This book certainly helps re-centre the reader towards those ends.

Book review: I Declare Way by Levi Lusko

I Declare War is a new book by Levi Lusko, the lead pastor of Fresh Life Church – a multisite church located in Montana, Utah, Oregon, and Wyoming that he and his wife Jennie planted in 2007.

The basic premise is this:

Win the battle with yourself by declaring war on your darkness, demons, and self-sabotaging tendencies. Discover the thoughts, words, behaviors, and power you need to achieve ongoing victory. You might not want to (or even know you need to) declare war, but it’s time for you to want to enter the fight. It’s likely you are your own worst enemy. Learn to get out of your own way and discover the secret weapon to winning the war within.

Lusko specifically targets our thoughts, words and actions and outlines how we can gain control over these areas in order to win the war within ourselves.

In all honesty, I’m a bit torn after reading this book. On one hand, I readily acknowledge I struggle to do the best and right thing when it comes to words, actions and even thoughts. I am can be grumpy and snippy, spend time doing things that aren’t beneficial to my life, and get bogged down in anxious and depressive thoughts. I know this needs to change, and Lusko offers some helpful tools towards that end.

Having said that, I’m not big on war metaphors, and using examples from the real world (or even biblical tales) wherein there’s a hero on one end and, well, death and destruction on the other … there’s better language to use, in my opinion.

There’s not much new in this book, but that’s the thing, I think – these are timeless struggles and timeless answers, and we all need the reminder every now and again.

Definitely worth a look and there’s some helpful nuggets in this one.

Book Review: A Light So Lovely by Sarah Arthur

The one thing I can say for sure about Sarah Arthur’s A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time is that it made me want to drop everything and read anything her subject has ever written.

In the year in which L’Engle would have turned, and when her most popular book was released as a major motion picture by Disney, Arthur – through personal reflection, second-hand stories and interview – paints a picture of the woman behind so many great literary works, writing specifically about her imagination, her faith, her pattern of defying categories, and what readers today can learn from her legacy.

From the official description:

Bestselling and beloved author Madeleine L’Engle, Newbery winner for A Wrinkle in Time, was known the world round for her imaginative spirit and stories. She was also known to spark controversy – too Christian for some, too unorthodox for others. Somewhere in the middle was a complex woman whose embrace of paradox has much to say to a new generation of readers today.

Sarah definitely seems like the right person to write this book. A graduate of Wheaton and Duke, the former long-time youth pastor she serves as preliminary fiction judge for the Christianity Today Book Awards & has been writer-in-residence for the Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary. She’s also written a fair bit in her own right, including some devotionals based on the Lord of the Rings books.

A Light So Lovely is a great look at what makes the author of Wrinkle in Time click, and I’ve put a bunch of the great author’s books on hold at the library as a result. Anyone interested in her work should check this out, but it’s also a great introduction and surely a gateway into the greatness of L’Engle.

Book Review: At Second Glance,’The Call’ by Os Guinness Gets a Hard No

The Call by Os Guinness was quite big when I was in college. First published in 1997, it was either required or recommended reading for students just a few years later, and it remains a treasured source of wisdom for those who ask these questions: Why am I here? What is God’s call in my life? How do I fit God’s call with my own individuality? How should God’s calling affect my career, my plans for the future, and my concepts of success?

There’s more than 100,000 copies of this book in print, and in this newly updated and expanded anniversary edition, Guinness explores the truth that God has a specific calling for each one of us and guides a new generation of readers through the journey of hearing and heeding that call, one that is “for all who desire a purposeful, intentional life of faith.”

I remember reading it circa 20 years ago and being encouraged and challenged, and thought it might be worth revisiting now that I’m in my later 30s and still asking some these questions. The thing is, my perspective on them has changed quite a bit, and I’m not the same person and don’t hold all the same beliefs that I did back then.

So as I cracked open this Guinness afresh, some immediate flags were raised. It became more clear to me that he was writing from a position that I have moved far away from (ie: a literal reading of the Bibile), and something further prompted me to do some digging. A quick search found him saying “President Trump is God’s wrecking ball stopping America in its tracks (from) the direction it’s going and giving the country a chance to rethink,” and Christians should love people who are in the homosexual lifestyle like they do people in prison.

Any concept of God’s call that allows for support of or even a positive take on Donald Trump and speaks at the LGBTQ community this way gets a hard no from me, and puts a huge cloud over this book that didn’t allow me to read much further than the first few chapters.

Here’s some more context on Guinness’ stance on Trump, which isn’t outright supportive but remains unfavorable. 

Book review: The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen by Lisa Gungor

In early 2015, our third son Henry was born.

Shortly after his arrival, our midwife pick up a slight irregularity in his heartbeat, and after taking him to see a pediatrician and a specialist, it was determined that he would need to be admitted to hospital for a procedure to repair the issue.

All this within the first 5 months of his life.

The procedure went well, although he did develop a blood clot that caused us to stay at the hospital for longer than anticipated, and required regular needles and much more follow up than we initially thought.

But, he was fine and healthy, and continues to grow into a strong young boy.

While this was all going on, I had purchased Gungor’s One Wild Life season pass, giving me access to a trio of new albums released roughly within a year.

The first album featured a song called ‘Light’ that resonated with us very deeply with respect to Henry.

Your eyes, they opened
And love was spoken
The tears came tumbling down

Your heart was broken
The words were spoken
The tears came tumbling down

[Chorus]
And the blind gained sight
As we met our light
Oh the joy and fight
The gift of life

Cut to last March, when Lauren and I went to see Lisa and Michael play an acoustic show in Toronto, a Gungor event that included some Q&A.

Having heard on the Liturgist Conversations podcast that they were both working on books, I took the chance to ask what they were about and when we could get our hands on them.

Michael responded briefly about his work, then gave Lisa the floor. She talked about their journey together, and Amalie and Lucie, and how her book would revolve around the birth of the latter.

Lucie, as we learned, was born with Down syndrome and heart complications, and her name means light.

Lisa’s response to my question, then, was an introduction to the very song that meant so much to Lauren and I, and I knew then that I needed to read her book asap.

All the more when, two months later, we learned that Lauren had been diagnosed with breast cancer, further shaking our foundation and putting life in a whole new, flickering light.

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Sure enough, Lisa’s book more than lived up to expectations as one of the best memoirs I’ve read in a long time.

In it she writes about her experience growing up in the church, her relationship with Michael, their start as a band, and of course their marriage, their doubts and unbelief, gains and losses, and their daughters, both of whom helped put everything else in perspective in their own unique ways.

Lisa and Michael’s story is much different than ours, beginning with the fact they’re Grammy-nominated musicians who now live in Los Angeles and hang out with people we can only admire and respect from afar.

But it’s also not that much different, having been raised religious and in a culture of purity before marriage, struggling to learn what it means to be a husband and a wife as well as parents, and suffering through loss and trial along the way.

At the end of the day, it’s important for someone to acknowledge that the effects of trauma last far beyond the event itself, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not alone; Lisa wonderfully expresses both in meaningful ways in this book.

I wanted to add a quote to this review, but I didn’t even mark the book up with pencil as I usually do because the whole thing is entirely underline worthy.

All this to say – please pick up this book, listen to Gungor and support their music, and be thankful that Lisa was willing to let us into her story in this way.

Like this song, it’s a gift.