Thursday, December 08, 2016

Hidden Christmas: Timothy Keller Shares the Gospel With Clarity and Beauty

In recent years, Timothy Keller has become one of my favorite spiritual writers currently writing today. I have read a handful of his books in whole or in part. The "in part" comes because he writes so thoughtfully and deeply that I often find myself taking notes as I read, which means I don't always have time to finish his books before they go back to the library. Though I am thankful I can always check them out again!

Not long ago, I discovered he had written a new book entitled Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ. I got the news from Byron Borger on his terrific blog at Hearts and Minds Books. I trust Borger a lot as a reviewer, so when he placed this book in first place on his "must reads" for Advent, and wrote that he was "very grateful for its clear headed teaching" I went straight to my library catalog and put it on hold. Since it was already December, I thought I might have a long wait, but to my surprise and delight, it hit the hold shelf quickly...giving me some unexpected Advent reading.

When it comes to spiritual books, I am usually a sipper, not a gulper, but here's the thing -- I couldn't put this book down. It's true it's relatively short: just eight chapters and 144 pages, but not being able to put it down is not something I am used to saying about a book that is essentially devotional in nature. Keller draws on years worth of Christmas sermons he's given as a Presbyterian pastor in a handful of churches, and all I can say is I imagine he is a terrifically compelling speaker. These chapters are so clear, so cogent, and so soaked in the grace and goodness of the gospel that any heart hungry to grow closer to Jesus is going to love reading them.

Essentially what he does in each chapter is focus on a biblical text that relates some part of the Christmas story, and then dives deep for real and powerful truth about what that text means and how it can affect us when we embrace the truth of the text. The Scriptural passages he chooses are excellent ones: some of them are the ones you expect (the annunciation, the angels imparting the good news to the shepherds, the "people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light," the wise men making their visit, etc.) and some of them are ones you might not expect quite as much, such as the genealogy passages about Jesus' lineage, the word Mary receives from Simeon that Jesus is destined to cause the rise and and fall of many and that a sword will pierce her soul, and the words of the apostle John in 1 John chapter 1 about how he had truly seen and looked at and touched the Word of Life. In each of these, and other cases, he expounds so clearly and beautifully on the passage, bringing certain things about it to light -- some I had pondered before, and some I honestly never had thought of in just quite the way he was pondering it.

This is a book that both comforts and challenges us with the truth of the incarnation: that Jesus truly was God who took on human flesh and descended from heaven to share our lives and to rescue us from sin and death, a rescue we could never ever perform for ourselves. Over and over, he points to this truth, and doesn't just point to it, but invites us to embrace it in all its radical wonder and beauty. He reminds us of what our lives can look like and be like -- truly free and wonderfully saved -- when we trust in the truth of these accounts, look to Jesus, and really place our trust in him as Savior of the world and King of our hearts. 

His point in the introduction of the book is that "Christmas is the only Christian holy day that is also a major secular holiday..." although there are still glimmers of the reality it stands for in the ways that some secular people celebrate (putting up lights, listening to carols that still speak the gospel, giving gifts). His hope is that this little book can help people who celebrate Christmas without a full awareness of why they are celebrating to learn more about its real roots, because "to understand Christmas is to understand basic Christianity, the Gospel." So this is definitely a book you can recommend to friends who are not Christians, but who are open to reading and learning more about it.

On the other hand, it is also a book I think the church itself needs to read, so I also recommend it to brothers and sisters in the faith. For many of us, we have perhaps unconsciously fallen into celebrating Christmas in ways that dip far more into secular understandings that we realize. I don't necessarily mean that we buy totally into the season's commercialism (I know plenty of Christians who have simplified that element of the celebration, and who spend a good deal of time preparing their hearts and the hearts of their families through Advent preparation) but I think it's easy for all of us to fall into a simplistic sentimentalization of the story of Jesus' birth, perhaps partly because we've heard it so often and have so many nostalgic associations with it. Like our non-believing friends, we need to keep hearing the Gospel, even if we have already responded to it and given our lives to Jesus. We need to keep preaching (or letting other people preach) to our own hearts about how much we need God, how deeply he shows his love for us through the incarnation and ultimately through his suffering and death, how we need to rely on the resurrected Lord daily for his strength, mercy, and goodness.

This book was definitely the kind of preaching I needed this Advent. I might add that this is the first Advent which I have ever celebrated that has felt overshadowed by suffering and death: I lost my dear mother a few days before Christmas last year and am missing her so much; I have struggled in almost eleven months of treatment for late-stage cancer; and (in a much smaller part of everything, but still part of it) I am having to move from the home where I've lived for nearly twenty years to a brand new place. Put it all together, and you can see that I am a woman in need of contemplating the Christmas story anew -- but then isn't this really a need each one of us has? Because we all live in a world that is full of suffering, pain, homesickness, brokenness, worry, fear, and yes, death. THAT is the world Jesus came to, and he came to it because it was filled with such things. He came to bring life and to be the light. He came to save us because we could not save ourselves. And he came to bring comfort and rest to the weary, because he loves us so.

I'm deeply grateful that Timothy Keller reminded me of the power and truth of the Gospel in such compelling and clearly ordered reflections. I needed those reminders this year. If you do too, I highly recommend you find and read a copy of Hidden Christmas. I loved gulping it down like a parched woman who needed a long drink of living water, but I plan to go back to it and sip again and again.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Just Keep Swimmin'....

I found this painting on Facebook yesterday (unfortunately forgot which page, and forgot to note the artist...I will have to go hunting). I think it's a beautiful image, which is part of why I'm sharing it. The other reason is that I'm using it this week as a prayer focus, to pray for my sister Martha, who is also keeping this image in mind as she prays for me.

I found the image not long after she told me she kept having an image in her mind of the two of us swimming toward our goals this week...which is funny, because neither of us really can swim!

M has a few very busy days: her annual board meeting, and a national convening for her organization. She has put a ton of work into prepping for both.

Me? We are completing our move on Saturday -- for real, we've hired movers -- and I start my clinical trial on Monday. And I don't really feel ready for either. And I'm exhausted. And struggling with some sadness and discouragement.

So "just keep swimmin'" feels appropriate somehow. I keep thinking of the buoyancy of water and feeling thankful for the ways in which God's love upholds us every day.

One gift today? It rained. Besides our wonderful sky light, one of the things I will miss most about the apartment we are leaving (the one we have been in for fifteen years) is the wide open view I have from my bedroom window. It's a view of a parking lot, where I love to watch the rain gather in puddles and shine in street lights, and a view of a tree lined street...with a number of trees that I have long called my sycamores. Although I am thankful that we are moving to a place with a tiny backyard, I will still miss this wide open view. The new "view" from my bedroom window is of a restaurant that sells chicken and has several neon beer signs in their windows. No trees from any windows but the sweet girl's room.

So I kept my blinds open all day, while I packed and sorted and spent a lot of time on the phone setting up things taking place next week (beginning of my clinical trial, internet wiring for the new house) and I kept an eye on my trees. I thanked God for the sanctuary that this room and that view have been for me, especially this year when I've had to spend a lot of time in bed.

It was a hard day in other ways I don't feel like going into. It's probably enough to say that I feel old and tired and broken tonight, but I just keep remembering I'm loved. And I just keep swimmin'.



Sunday, December 04, 2016

Emmanuel (God Has Come to Us): Advent Music

I keep going back to this beautiful song on the Biola Advent Project. You can hear it at this link. It's written and performed by an Anglican worship pastor, Marty Reardon. 

Come shepherds, come wise-men,
Both rich and poor alike,
Come Hebrews, come Gentiles,
Come every race and tribe,
For Christ is born the Savior's come to us!

Come children, come elders,
Come women and come men,
Come families, come orphans,
Come strangers and close friends,
For Christ is born the Savior's come to us!

Come wretched, come holy,
Both strong and weak in faith,
Come healed and come broken,
Come sinners and come saints,
For Christ is born the Savior's come to us!
Emmanuel, God has come to us!

*****

I think what I love most about this song is the wonderful realization that Emmanuel has come to be with us -- ALL of us. There is no one who is not included in his love. He has come to be with us all, to love us all, to reconcile us all to the Father. He wants to welcome us all into his everlasting kingdom, the kingdom that will never be destroyed.  I am feeling unutterably grateful for the good news of the gospel.

Pencil Poised...Subversive Spirituality, Here I Come

I practically got shivers when I opened up my new-to-me copy of Eugene Peterson's Subversive Spirituality. 

This is a collection of Peterson's essays that I have loved, and returned to over and over, for years. For some reason, however, I just never owned my own copy. I would trot to the seminary library whenever I wanted it. And I would photocopy the essays that I especially needed to have on hand -- I know I've got copies of several of them stuffed into various binders and journals (I've come across them in the archaeological dig we've been going through as we pack and move).

I was placing an order for another old book that means a lot to me (the out of print Prayer and Temperament) on Advanced Book Exchange the other day. ABE is an amazing place to find bargains on older, used books. I've been wanting a return to some of the essays in Subversive Spirituality again, and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I could probably find a used copy very cheaply. And would you believe I found one for $3.65 and free shipping?

Granted, the copy is dog eared -- literally. The top right hand corner is bent. There are a couple of small tears in early pages, and a place in the opening chapter where it looks like someone must have had a paper clip for years. Those opening pages are a little worn and wrinkled looking, but the pages improve as it goes on (sadly, it looks like whoever owned it previously didn't get very far into reading it). But I don't mind the imperfections, especially because it has *no marks* -- no underlines, no highlighting, no nothin' of the sort.

Which means I get to mark it up. Oh happy me! I've got my pencil poised and ready, because it feels like I bump into something almost every paragraph that makes me say "oh!" or catch my breath, or decide I need to remember or to share. In fact, you may be seeing quite a few quotes make their way here over the next weeks and months as I meander my way through.

Just to get things started, here's a wonderful quote from his essay/lecture on the gospel of Mark:

"The Bible as a whole comes to us in the form of narrative, and it is within this large, somewhat sprawling narrative that St. Mark writes his gospel...Gospel is a true and good form, by which we live well. Storytelling creates a world of presuppositions, assumptions, and relations into which we enter. Stories invite us into a world other than ourselves, and, if they are good and true stories, a world larger than ourselves. Bible stories are good and true stories, and the world that they invite us into is the world of God's creation and salvation and blessing...Within the large, capacious context of the biblical story we learn to think accurately, behave morally, preach passionately, sing joyfully, pray honestly, obey faithfully."

Friday, December 02, 2016

John Donne's "Annunciation" (Advent Reading)

One of the many Advent meditation sites I'm enjoying this year online is The Advent Project created by Biola University. It combines Scripture, music, art, poetry, and devotional reflections each day. A winning combination.

Today's poem on the site was John Donne's "Annunciation." I had almost forgotten how much I dearly love this poem. Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb  -- one of those lines that comes back to me, year after year, sometimes unexpectedly, springing on me with the great joy and deep love of the God who willingly descended to be one of us, to be with us, to love us back home to the Father.

Annunciation
by John Donne

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death's force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker's maker, and thy Father's mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

25 Ways You Can Celebrate C.S. Lewis

It's the Literary Day of Days! That's what I call November 29, the day we celebrate the birthdays of Louisa May Alcott (1832), C.S. Lewis (1898), and Madeleine L'Engle (1918).

In keeping with a list of ways to celebrate Alcott, which I first posted four years ago, I thought I would have fun posting a similar list in honor of Lewis. With Alcott, all ideas were inspired by Little Women and Little Men. With Lewis, I decided to keep my inspiration to the Chronicles of Narnia, though I certainly could have widened the field through many of his other writings. Narnia felt like the best place to be today though.

So without further ado, here are 25 ways you can celebrate C.S. Lewis:



Explore an old house.
Quibble with your siblings (but make sure you make up).
Open a wardrobe door and peek inside. You never know…
Take a walk in the woods, preferably a snowy woods if you can find one. (Don a warm fur coat if you have one; let it remind you that you’re royalty.)
Lean up against a lamppost.
Carry someone’s packages.
Have a splendid tea. Or enjoy a fish and potatoes supper.
Learn how beavers build their dams.
Remember you’re a daughter of Eve or a son of Adam.
Stay on the lookout for Father Christmas.
Don’t forget to clean your sword.
Don’t be afraid to anoint someone with a bit of healing cordial.
Let your mind and heart linger on Aslan.
Let out a ROAR!
Romp with a cat.
Recall the beauties of a blossoming spring.
Hang out at a railway station. (Listen for the sound of a beautiful horn.)
Set up an archery contest with friends.
Enjoy time with a pet mouse. You might want to name him Reepicheep.
Imagine climbing inside a favorite painting.
Take a long boat trip.
Recite some of Aslan’s instructions from memory.
Gallop across a desert on a horse.
Plant an apple tree.
Climb a mountain – go further up and further in!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Reading Round-Up: Beginning of Advent

I haven't done a normal "reading round-up" post in so long. The beginning of Advent (my favorite season of the year in many ways) feels like a good time to do so, especially since my headaches, while still present, are getting better enough for me to be able to focus more on reading again. I'm still struggling with staying awake when reading (mostly because higher doses of pain meds make me sleepy) but I am finding I am able to read more again, and that's always a blessing.

Here's a peek at what I've been working on in recent days and weeks....

Andy Crouch's Strong and Weak is a beautiful little book that's all about what it means to flourish. Crouch (whom I've had the blessing of hearing speak) talks about embracing both our authority and vulnerability as image-bearers of God. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, who embraced both of those better than any human being before or since, we can find our way into true flourishing instead of falling into the traps and sins of exploiting others or withdrawing from suffering into safety. It's a really good book, one that I think has plenty of insights for anyone, but maybe especially for those who are leaders or serving in ministry.

I'm about half-way through Majestic is Your Name: A 40-Day Journey in the Company of Teresa of Avila. These "40 Day" journey books came out in the early 1990s, I think, and I don't know if they're all still in print, but I like the concept -- you get excerpts from the saint's writing, accompanied by daily Scripture readings and prayers. I am enjoying what I am learning from Teresa and feeling especially comforted by her picture of the soul as a castle. How good it is to remember that our hearts are throne rooms for Jesus!

I've been reading essays in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity with the sweet girl for school. It's been a while since I've revisited the book (such a classic) and I am loving doing so with her, especially as we talk our way through Lewis' ideas. I have her reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for literature right now (she's heard it read more than once, but this is the first time she's really studied it as literature) and the essays are helping us think through some of Lewis' "big ideas" that come through in all his writing, children's stories as well as essays. We've talked about forgiveness, pride, and charity -- important virtues and vices.

November is a Lewisian month, so I am also enjoying Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis's Chronicles (bits of which I am assigning to the sweet girl as well). Some lovely essays here by Joe Rigney, who really loves and understands the Chronicles well.

I've discovered a new-to-me poet: Philip Terman. He's a Jewish writer that I stumbled across a few weeks ago on the Writer's Almanac. I put his collection Our Portion on hold, and it's been wonderful to have it on nights when I am too tired to keep my eyes open with longer work.

I actually finished a novel -- yes, I managed a bit of fluff! -- from the new book shelves at the library. I picked up Nina Stibbe's Paradise Lodge on a total whim, and I'm glad I did. It was funny and acerbic and incredibly British. It's set in the 1970s and stars Lizzie Vogel, a teenager whose first person narration was so funny and strong that it carried me through even though reading novels has not been easy for me for a while. I think I probably picked it up because I saw that Lizzie was learning about life working in a nursing home, something that sounded interesting to me (having grown up with my grandmother living with us for several years, and having spent a lot of volunteer hours in a nursing home as a young adult). Those scenes in the nursing home, as she works with the elderly, are some of the best -- the most homespun, poignant, and funniest.

Natalie Babbitt's recent passing (she was the author of the well-known middle grade novel Tuck Everlasting) sent me to the library shelves to read her first picture book: Nellie, A Cat on Her Own. A sweet fantasy with especially sweet pictures...and Babbitt herself was the illustrator. It was neat to find out that she was an accomplished artist as well as writer.

Other books I'm starting or hoping to start soon: Ann Voskamp's The Broken Way, a couple of older prayer resources -- Praying in Color and Prayer and Temperament, and Joanne Fluke's Christmas Caramel Murder (more fluff...you know how much I love to think about how I would re-write or edit Fluke's books!). I've got some Advent resources on hold, but I don't think they're in yet...though I need to re-check my library bag. I was so tired when we went to the library on Saturday that I might have missed some of what we picked up on hold.

It's good to be reading again.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Creativity Comes Knocking

I've always thought that creativity comes knocking at the most unusual times. I've written about this on my blog before (although where and when my tired mind doesn't remember at the moment!) and I stand by it. When you're a writer, it doesn't always seem to matter what's going on in your life, how busy or sick you are, or how you're feeling. Sometimes creativity just waltzes up to the front door, rings the bell zestfully, and slides right in as soon as you open the door even a tiny crack.

That's what happened to me in the wee small hours of the morning last night. Yes, another night when, exhausted as I was, I still woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. Not even quiet music or soporific reading can get me back to sleep right now once I'm up, probably because some part of me is usually aching or hurting. So I give into the wakefulness for a while and see where it leads before I finally begin to nod off again.

Last night it led me to an unexpected place: a children's book idea I had quite a while ago. I should say it was a book idea that the sweet girl and I had together. I came up with it first, but she and I talked about it one morning. It was quite a long while ago, before I got sick -- I would say at least a year and a half ago? Maybe two? Who knows. But here it was again.

I'm not going to share the idea right now because it's in that brimming, simmering, almost vaporous stage where I feel like if I share too much about it, it could pop like a bubble and disappear. Well, okay, I shared about it with my dear husband at lunch (in between my final radiation appointment and our next visit with Erin in the hospital). He liked it, and being the creative guy he is (one reason I married him was because I knew he would forever be my writing partner!) bounced some ideas around about it with me, which made me even more interested in pursuing it. I feel like I'm in that stage where I sit up like an attentive puppy with my ears cocked and my head turned sideways, eyes on whatever might happen next so I can jump.

Part of the reason I brought it up with him at lunch is because the ideas, which started coming between one and two a.m. last night, started falling like a gentle rain again during the first part of my radiation treatment. In some ways, that didn't surprise me. I always try to arm myself with things to think about before those start, so I can begin to meditate as soon as the treatment starts. I have a small piece of oval foam I have to hold onto while I am lying on the table and the treatment goes on (to keep my arms and shoulders in place). My legs are bent over another piece of foam. The mask goes on over my face, and my head is bent back on a sort of neck brace. My kind radiologist brings a blanket to cover me. (They didn't stock them today becase it was Sunday, but he knew I'd want one and nabbed me the last one!)

Once I am in position, I stay in that position for about forty-five minutes, listening to meditative music. If I choose to keep my eyes open, then I am looking at an image of green trees against a blue sky (which they keep on the ceiling). Most of the time, however, I choose to keep them closed, especially because there are times when the arm of the radiation machine (what I have referred to as the "robot" all week) zooms over right in front of my face, and it's a little alarming to have it so close. I tend to breathe better and relax more with my eyes closed. And then I begin to think about whatever I've chosen to fix my mind on, often a verse.

I did that today, pondering my morning devotions from Jeremiah 16 and 17, but then I let my mind wheel to the idea for the children's book. And sure enough, the ideas began to flow. And I really, really like these ideas! They are coming together in ways that just make creative and beautiful sense.

Although there have been many times in my life when I have been surprised by creativity's visits, I think this may take the top spot. I am exhausted right now on every level, particularly physically and emotionally. I don't know if I have the strength to do much with these ideas as they come, but I confess I've begun doing a bit of jotting in my journal, and that some of the actual possible writing is starting to flow through my mind. I am also discovering that the ideas are feeling a bit like crepe paper streamers -- you know the ones you get and twist together to decorate a wall or ceiling for a child's party? You unroll them and weave them together and there is just something very satisfying about it when they start to come together and look the way you want them to.

Maybe it's time to throw a party -- even if it needs to be a small, quiet one for a while -- for creativity, my unexpected but still very welcome guest.