A parishioner recently asked me to share some Advent resources with them: books, readings, reflections, and the like. With more than half of Advent left, I wanted to post them here on my blog as well. May we all use this time to prepare our hearts so that we too might receive the baby Jesus faithfully this Christmas.

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It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.

[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]Phil LaBelle, 2017.[/featured-image]

It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”

Cheryl Strayed from Wild

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What most moved W.H. Auden about limestone was the way it eroded. Limestone’s solubility in water means that any fault-lines in the original rock get slowly deepened by a process of soft liquid wear. In this way, the form into which limestone grows over time is determined by its first flaws. For Auden, this was a human as well as geological quality: he found in limestone an honesty—an acknowledgement that we are defined by our faults as by our substance.” —from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]Photo Credit: Paulo Etxeberria Flickr via Compfight cc[/featured-image]

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Photo Credit: ravenmaven Flickr via Compfight cc

“These captives [taken by those of other cultures long ago] lay out in a stark and dramatic way what goes on in every life: the transitions whereby you cease to be who you were. Seldom is it dramatic, but nevertheless, something of the journey between the near and the far goes on in every life. Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. ”

— From A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

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My first foray into the Episcopal Church happened at a place called St. Francis.  I declare upfront, I knew nothing whatsoever about Francis when I arrived there as a 20-something.  Even though I began life as a Roman Catholic, we made the leap into Protestantism—a pentecostal church—while I was in second grade.  Fox’s Book of Saints hadn’t been required reading up till that point of my life.  And my charismatic pastors growing up paid no attention to anything marked as important by the Vatican.

So my introduction came when that Episcopal congregation held a blessing of the animals on the front lawn one October.  I came because it intrigued me to know that a priest would actually bless animals, and also to watch the ensuing chaos of cats and dogs together.  They remained respectfully suspicious without flair ups.  I’d have to wait nearly 20 years to see that by none other than my own beagle, Buster, a rescue that is disrespectfully suspicious of other animals, cat or dog.  But I digress.

I follow Ian Morgan Cron on twitter.  Ian’s also an Episcopal priest who ventured out of Evangelicalism, and wrote a smashing memoir—Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me, A Memoir of Sorts—that I am still reeling from a good six months after having read it.  One day he offered a signed copy of his first book Chasing Francis for any that would write a review.  I accepted, recognizing I didn’t need to leave a favorable one, but knowing Cron has writing chops and I wouldn’t be disappointed.  I wasn’t.

Chasing Francis, a work of fiction, follows the journey of a mega-church pastor, Chase Falcon, who loses his understanding of faith while preaching one Sunday.  This crisis brewed under the surface for many months, deep questions about pain and loss and God.  Chase always could produce the right answer, little tid-bits of the faith to answer any question that came his way; that is, until his questions got too deep.

After the elder board forces him to take a leave, he travels to Italy to meet up with Kenny, his mom’s first cousin.  Kenny had been a Protestant who became a Catholic.  Not just a run of the mill Catholic, he became a Franciscan priest.  Cron writes, “A conservative Baptist becoming a Catholic is like the pope becoming a Mormon.  The long-haul viability of the cosmos is drawn into question when stuff like this happens.”

Kenny and the other Franciscans Chase meets share the story of Francis, the most beloved of Saints, while he is on this extended pilgrimage.  Chase discovers the stories of Francis’ hagiography, like the one of the town and the wolf and of Francis and the Sultan among many others.  And ultimately Chase rediscovers a faith, much deeper and richer than before.

Cron is a master story-teller.  While we hear of Francis’ life, we also learn of the conflict brewing at Chase’s mega-church and a growing friendship.  The novel reaches its climax with Chase sharing what he has learned in a manifesto for the church.

And for me, as a priest and pastor of a congregation, the novel shines most brightly at that point.  Cron has written a guide about how to be the Church, learning from Francis, a church-planter and remarkable saint.  Ideas about transcendence and community and generosity.  I won’t tell you how the book ends, if the mega-church he started comes alongside their minister or not.  I will only say that Ian Cron has written a fantastic, captivating novel, and it includes a clarion call for the Church of today.

You can buy Chasing Francis online.

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I read Rachel Held Evan‘s fabulous book Evolving in Monkey Town (now called Faith Unraveled) recently.  Devoured it actually.  The last day or so.  It was that good.

It’s a memoir by a twenty-something recovering evangelical (I should probably say “fundamentalist”) Christian who thought she had all the answers, that is until she had doubts herself.  Especially when it came to God being portrayed as cold, hard and uncaring by tossing thousands of people into hell each day.  Rachel is the daughter of a more conservative theologian and grew up immersed in the evangelical Christian sub-culture (one that is very familiar to me) in Dayton, TN, home of the Scopes Monkey trial, hence the name of the book.  Her questions often are met with pat answers to inferences about losing her eternal salvation.

Rachel tries to reconcile her ideas and faith in God with the world as she has come to experience it. But it’s hard when she has spent much of her life being told she needs to be ready for questions from unbelievers so they can be led to conversion.  She mentions attending an apologetics camp in the summer to learn the appropriate way to disarm combatants of the faith.

While she is certainly questioning her upbringing, I don’t hear much anger in her tone. She’s both grateful, it seems to me, for what she learned and also eager to evolve in her faith.  If she didn’t have the faith of her childhood, I don’t know how much evolving would take place.

As an Episcopal priest, I both laughed and knew exactly what she meant when she described an email sent by a concerned friend.  This friend had heard that she’d “become a universalist, or a Buddhist, or something really terrible like an Anglican” because Rachel questioned if God really created so many people in order to damn them to hell.  The response from that friend led to a great conversation of “pond-scum theology” in which we should just be happy God lets any of us receive eternal salvation since we are all so horrific due to our sin nature and our complete non-redeeming value.

She gets to the very heart of the matter when she writes, “If I’ve learned anything over the past five years, it’s that doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves. It helps us cast off false fundamentals so that we can recover what had been lost or embrace what is new.”  By writing that I’m sure she faced the scrutiny (and certainly the complete dismissal) of some still deeply entrenched in the more conservative circles of Christianity.  That she is bound for hell even writing that.

But questions about the wideness of God’s mercy when it comes to the execution of a Muslim woman in Afghanistan who would have been eternally damned (according to the worldview espoused in her childhood), and how to find heaven here on earth show that she has evolved in her faith.  Does she have all the answers? Heavens no.  But her questions are deeper, richer, and we are certainly blessed by finding our own story in hers and by asking better questions ourselves.

As one who has also evolved in the faith, has asked hard questions of God, and more importantly, in the issues of faith about God that I had always been taught, I found this memoir fantastic, poignant and very close to home. Even if your journey hasn’t been through a conservative Evangelical experience, I think you’ll find Rachels’ stories rewarding and thought-provoking.

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Last week I traveled to Portland, OR for the Storyline Conference put on by Donald Miller.  While there I got a free copy of Bob Goff’s new book called Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World, and I got a chance to hear Bob speak.

He blew me away.  Seriously.  The guy is a tsunami of love.  He told the gathering stories that fall under that cliche of truth being stranger than fiction. Like how he became an honorary consul of Uganda.  As in diplomat with cool Ugandan flags for his car.  Did I mention he’s a white guy from California?

Or how he does a lot of work sitting outdoors.  At Tom Sawyer Island.  In Disneyland.

I’ve never heard the word whimsey used so frequently, and yet I realized how desperately I wanted both whimsey in my life and the deep love that Bob had for every single person he meets.

When I got him to sign my book, he gave me a huge hug.  I’m an Episcopal priest who regularly  gets schooled on the need for proper boundaries; I don’t often do hugs.  He didn’t care.

And the book is like that.  Lots of stories of the way he does life and love.  Love is an active verb for him.  Each day is opportunity to experience life, get the bad guys (he’s a lawyer), and share love.  Who wouldn’t want more of that?

Each chapter is a stand alone essay on life, like the time a woman hit his Jeep and sent him flying or the one about the boat race or what happened to his wedding cake.  Bob then takes that incident and talks about what he learned from it, not in a pat-answer-make-you-wanna-throw-up-a-little-in-your-mouth way but a serious-questioning-faith-trying-to-make-sense-of life way.  And that makes all the difference.

The writing at times is a little repetitive, but it’s easy to overlook that when you have an engaging story. The world needs more of us to take just a few ounces of Bob’s charisma and love and share that with our world. An incredible life can be had by each one of us if we did more love and less fear.

Bob shows us how.

I would have easily bought this book. You should too. Unless you’re in my congregation.  I’ll let you in on that “caper” (as Bob would call it) pretty soon.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Bob Goff as part of the “Storyline Conference.” I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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I’ve always liked Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day.”  He plays Phil Connors a weatherman who has made his way to Punxsutawney, PA to see if the groundhog—also named Phil—will see his shadow or not.  Phil the weatherman is not pleased about being there.  He’s covered this story for four years running and can think of a gazillion other places he’d rather be.  He covers the story, tries to get out of town but is unable to due to a blizzard, and can’t wait for February 3 to arrive when he climbs into bed that night.

Except it never does.  Phil Connors wakes up back at the morning of Feb 2, and the whole thing begins again.  For everyone else it’s as if the day is new.  For Phil, it’s a living hell.  He remembers the day fully, what happened, what people did or said.  He’s an automatic repeat.  And it keeps going. He wakes up the third day, and fourth and… you get the picture (or remember the film).

Early on he gets so depressed, he just does himself in at the beginning of the day so he doesn’t have to live through it again.  He wakes up the next morning back at Groundhog Day.  Then he tries to use his previous days’ experience to his benefit, trying to get his producer into bed with him or robbing the armored car.

He’s miserable.

Until he turns the corner, and starts realizing that if he is doomed to live this day over and over and over again , then he will make it the best day ever.  He saves the person who is choking. He shows up at the right time with a jack and a spare tire for the old woman who gets a flat. He is compassionate and merciful and exudes joy and care.  He’s in heaven.

I say all of this as a lead in to Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins because I think Bell is saying some of the same things.  His main thesis is that many of those in Christendom focus on getting to heaven, that faith is a ticket out of here for some place in the future, after our lives are over.  But they forget about today unless it’s about making conversions, helping others to get the ticket to heaven.  And today and what we do now is really, really important to Rob Bell.

Bell argues that we can make our own heaven and hell right here, right now, by the choices we make.  And often these choices seem disconnected to faith.  He writes, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.”  Those hells on earth are places of famine, war, brokenness in our own lives, hatred, greed.  It is the stuff of individual and corporate sin, and it does create hell on earth.

Where Rob goes with this—and the point at which many of his detractors leave him (if they even read his book; I think many didn’t give him that courtesy)—is by saying that the creation of heaven and hell based on our actions and choices continues past our earthly death.  In other words, while many Christians say that this life is all you get to make a decision about being a follower of Jesus, Rob argues that God’s love is so expansive that there will still be time after death to respond to that love. (By they way, Bell gets this from that most beloved of Christian authors of the last century, C.S. Lewis (see The Great Divorce or even The Last Battle))  It helps him come to terms with the reality of untimely deaths (like a teenager killed in a car accident) or those who’ve been harmed by the church and cannot accept Christianity for whatever reason.

Rob Bell is full of compassion in this book.  And that might make some people edgy because many of us want to have clear definitions about who is in and who is out.  When you start muddying the waters like that, some want to get defensive (and they have), and some even claim Bell is destined to hell (ironic, given his book, but there you are).

There is a full chapter devoted to asking a simple but profound question: Does God get what God wants?  He asks this because Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”  In other words, if God wants this, and God is all-powerful, does God get this desire?  Of course, Rob balances this with God’s biggest gift to us: our freedom to choose life or death.

Is Rob Bell a universalist?  Not really.  He even says as much when he writes, “As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.  Not true.  Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true” (155, emphasis mine).  Jesus does matter.  But, and this is where many get tripped up, maybe not Christianity.

Jesus the Son of God matters.  Christianity the institution and religion, not so much.

Do I agree with him? In some ways, yes. This work, while quick and written from a high and general level, gives some clarity for me.  And I would whole heartedly agree that Jesus is the way.  That he matters.  That through his work on the cross and by his resurrection life and love are extended to all.  Will that continue on past this life?  Rob makes a  biblical case that it does (again, C.S. Lewis says so too), but I need to chew on that one.

I think at the end I need to, as a professor of mine once said, put this in my theological pipe and smoke it for awhile.  This book and its emphasis on love will be a balm to many damaged by the church, by Christianity, by friends or relatives whose view of Christ has been dominated by anger.  And if that is what it does, then I believe Rob has done work for Christ in bringing healing to a broken world.  In other words, love does win.

I hope you’ll read it.  You can get a copy at Amazon or the local library (which is what I did).  And I’d love to talk more about this, so leave your comments.

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