New Book on thriving in Radical Discipleship

We Need Boring Christians

A lot of folks are finding their way to the blog via Relevant Magazine’s re-posting of an article I wrote in August called “We Need Boring Christians” (you can click on the link to the left to read it).  I thought it might be helpful to point interested readers to a new book written by a friend of mine that promotes to-the-death passion in mission service.  I just got the book for Christmas (thanks to my sweet wife!), so I have not yet had the chance to read it.  I can make the recommendation in confidence, though, because of my confidence in the author.

The basic gist is that Carissa has served over a decade as a missionary through some of the most daunting, deflating, and dangerous circumstances of anyone I know or have ever heard tell of.  Her life is indeed “biography-worthy” (a phrase I use in the Relevant article).  What she is doing in the book is offering the practical wisdom and missional vision that extends beyond the excitement of an energetic 20-something with an airline ticket in hand and a burning ambition to change the world.  To be clear, I love the iconic 20-something with that itinerary and uncontainable fire—not only have I been one, but I have worked with hordes of them during seven years of college ministry.  Carissa has been one, too, and she has hosted a great number of those passionate young folks as interns in her overseas ministry.  But passion alone is not thick enough as a resource when you are squirming in pain from malaria, wondering how you will offer breakfast to the abandoned kids under your care, and facing not only physical threats from fellow humans but spiritual threats from dark, supernatural powers. 

All at the same time.

This new book offers counsel on developing a passion that endures and sustains through heaps of pain and disillusionment.  Join me in giving it a read….

On the hyperlinked Name

I just activated a Twitter account.  My entry into that social medium has been quite befuddling—not sure what I am to post or what to look for in the posts of others.  A new book project is now in the works with Cascade Books on media and theology, so I decided to indulge myself with Twitter (for research purposes, of course).

A casual glance at Tweets did, however, allow me to notice Publishers Weekly reporting that print book sales are up right now.  I have conveniently hyperlinked that phrase so you can instantly launch from this post to the PW article if you would like.

If you are still with me, resisting the urge to click that underlined phrase in calm, sky blue, then I thank you.  Nicholas Carr has written that the type of reading rewarded online is distracted reading—the hyperlinked text promises adventure, like a surprising new detour branching off in a promising new direction (still with me, or did you follow the link to Carr’s blog or to his book’s page on Amazon?).

An interesting phenomenon of the Internet’s textual dimension is what I just did with Carr’s name.  The underlined blue signifies a portal.  Click his name and you are directed to his very own plot of digitized real estate on the Web.

Paradoxically, the Internet is an invisible world that only exists visibly (at least for most of us who have never seen any of those databank-thingys that apparently exist out there in material form).

If you are going to be somebody in this strange invisible-visible realm, your name should appear underlined, and not in dull black but cool blue.

If your name is not adorned so, your identity in this world is, well, a bit diminutive.  Online validation occurs by the accumulation of “hits.” If your name cannot represent some site to which hits are directed, I am afraid to say that your cyber-self status is rather low.  Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek chatter, but I think it is important to recognize that the Internet in many respects depicts that bedeviling inevitability for any society—stratified echelons.  You have your online commoners and your online elites.

It is regularly emphasized that the Internet democratizes media.  This is certainly true to an extent.  Media-production has historically been the domain of the powerful, but now any of us can make a video and publish it on YouTube…

Wait… did I say anyone?  I suppose one would need a video camera and one of those cords that hooks up to a computer.  Ah yes, one would need access to that computer.  So we have eliminated massive swaths of humanity already.  (Follow the underlined blue to read a previous post on this called “History, Media, the Bible, and the Poor“).

Computer and Internet access is bound to expand and increase, so the democratization of media is indeed underway.  Well and good.  But we should recognize that the Internet is nonetheless a tiered, stratified society.  Those who names do not appear on the Google search are nonexistent citizens in that realm.  And the property owners can be easily identified… just look for the underlined blue.

 

[What do you think, dear readers?  If I am going to be writing a new book on media stuff, I should take advantage of the access this quasi-democratizing realms avails for input.  Would you agree or disagree that the Internet is a stratified society?  I am shooting from the hip here, thinking aloud, and eager to learn… and commenters with un-hyperlinked names are warmly welcomed!]

Coffee in Durham, England

Today (Saturday) is the first day of Christmas Break for the Byers family in England.  It’s close to noon and the four kids are still in pajamas.  Except for the three-year old who decided his morning would be more fun in just is Thomas the Tank Engine skivvies.  Odd, since the rest of us are quite cold even with all our clothes on.  My wife and daughter have just convinced themselves that it is snowing.  Oh, ok, “It just stopped” said my wife.  Oh, wait… there is another flake.

Since we are all rather festive, I figure I’ll make an indulgent post about coffee establishments here in Durham. (I may have to stop if the snowing continues).  Though most of my sermon prep, writing, and theology reading used to be done at Primavera Coffee and sometimes Urban Standard and O’Henry’s in Birmingham, AL, I spend little time in coffee shops here in England.  Part of it is price.  But I also have a designated study desk in the Theology Department, and it is hard to do the type of concentrated reading and writing required for a doctoral thesis in public venues!  So I get coffee at Whittards (or Square Mile Coffee Roasters, by mail order), grind it at home, and then use a French press (“cafetiere”) to brew the stuff in the study room.

England lends itself to drinking coffee.  The climate demands that you end up with a hot drink in your hands—windy, often dark, sometimes very cold, and frequently raining… now that’s good coffee weather.  And pedestrian sections mean that there is a high concentration of shops.  Durham is a smallish city, but in the pedestrian centre of town we have close to ten places to get a cup of tea or espresso, most them pretty good.  Here are a smattering of them….

We’ll start with Esquires.  They have the advantage of having one of the best locations for any coffee shop I have seen, poised on the bank of the River Wear and right on the edge of Silver Street Bridge.  The wifi is free and they have a spacious upstairs that is usually quieter than the street level (and you can see the castle from the upstairs windows).  Another plus: a great babychanging facility in the bathroom.  I usually get an Americano when I am scouting for a cup of joe.  My opinion is that Esquire’s espresso is so-so.  Some other Brits I know esteem the place for its frillier drinks, but not so much for the coffee.

Just past Esquires, a couple of nondescript alleyways cut down and northward from Silver Street and spill out onto the river edge.  There is a pub down there, and also a great coffee shop called Leonard’s.  It is a favorite around here.  The espresso is very good, and—an extra touch—the hot drinks come in a groovy-handled mug (see the pic).   Leonard’s has a great atmosphere with the the feel of an old house, it’s layout triangular from being at the corner of a street and a sharply angled alleyway.  It’s a classy little place with an upstairs, hot meals, and the best muffins in town (no wifi, but again, the muffins and espresso are so good).

Leonards Coffee House

Costas and Cafe Nero are standard chains here in England.  We have one of each.  I prefer Nero’s—the espresso is great for a franchise place and, though it gets a bit crowded, the darker setting and lower ceilings give me that sense that I am hunkered down in a shelter over my hot drink, a sense I love while drinking my coffee.

Durham just got a Starbucks.  I managed to wait about 6 weeks before I tendered my pence for a cup of Christmas Blend.  I have nothing against Starbucks, per se.  But as an American, I tend to wince over some of our most commercial cultural exports.  Then again, I love a Big Mac and I love a Coke with  pizza (which is on the lunch menu in the Byers home in a few minutes, by the way).  And this new Starbucks in Durham has one of the best atmospheres of any I have darkened the door of.

I have to mention Vennel’s.  I think of it mainly as a restaurant, but I hear they have the best filtered coffee in town.  Getting to it is a blast, because you have to walk up a narrow passageway/tunnel thing (it’s called a “vennel”) to find it. The seating is outdoor and indoor.  Only been there a few times, but it is one of our favorite places in town.  Many of the tables inside are old sewing machine cabinets, and the floor and walls are all old wood.  The hug fireplace would be a great place to have a bowl of soup and a cup of tea.

Vennel's: Photo from thisisdurham.com

My favorite coffee shop is Flat White.   I think the espresso is probably a touch better than anywhere in town.  It is literally a hole in the wall with a wall.  What I mean is that the place is tiny and seems hollowed out of the masonry work in Elvet Arch, and then there is this massive, stone wall awkwardly occupying a huge portion of the already tiny room.  The limited seating, like Vennel’s, is provided by old sewing machine tables.  There would be room for more of them, of course, were it not for that stone wall along opposite the barista’s bar.  I used to do masonry work, so I think of possible ways to remove it.  Dynamite comes to mind—I am not much of a business man, but I do know that optimizing space could create more profits.    But then it turns out that the stone obstacle is a section of the old city wall—we’re talking about a 700-yr old piece of craftsmanship.  Forget extra sewing machine tables—nothing makes the atmosphere of a coffee shop like a 13th century wall.  And besides, whenever I get coffee these days, I get it “take away” (read “to go,” if you are American).  It’s cheaper… and I’ve got a thesis to write.

Flat White (photo from The Northern Echo)

Joy to the World

The familiar hymn says, “Joy to the World, the Lord has come.”

If you’re like me, you pass over these words as if they were no big deal. But wait a second.

Our God — holy, living, true, glorious, high and exalted — came?

The Word became flesh and….dwelt. among. us?

So, Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room.

Make space in our hearts and lives for this really real reality: Our God here. This coming has consequences. It requires response. — Heaven and nature sings.

By the way, This savior reigns. While humankind celebrates, so do the fields, rocks, hills and plains.

For the earth, the biggest-news-ever is too much to handle. The earth itself cannot contain the excitement.

While men their songs employ, the creation itself repeats the joy.  Repeats the joy. And repeats the joy. If we don’t celebrate, the rocks and trees would….Of course, this is God we’re talking about. And He has come.

The Savior who came, will also come. We celebrate his Arrival, but we also look forward to his Re-arrival.

Then, not quite yet, but then, sins and sorrows — though plentiful now — will not be able to grow, thorn won’t even infest the ground. Because he, the one who came, brings his salvation and redemption as far as that age-old curse is found.

Because, He — no one else — rules the world with truth and grace. And despite evidence to the contrary — in fact, at this very moment — he is already making the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love.

Joy to the World, the Lord has come. It’s a gospel song. And it just so happens to be all our hope.

Our God came and He will come. And, in the meantime he comes. In the very ordinary realities of our lives, he arrives.

So let’s celebrate.

Advent Calendars, Kids, & the Need for Jesus to Come

A dear friend of mine gave my family an Advent calendar five years ago.  It is a special delight, this calendar, with its tiny little cabinets storing various characters of the Nativity scene.  Grasping the tiny nob on the tiny doors to pull out a sheep or an angel and then carefully hanging that sheep or angel on the proper hook in the provided Nativity background is an extraordinary tactile and visual experience for my children.  We have four of them, so the excitement bounces and rebounds off each of them as we gather around the calendar to remind ourselves of Advent and the “real meaning of Christmas.”

So you can just imagine the sweetness of the scene, right?  Fire in the fireplace / holiday tunes on the iPod / cute little kids adorned in soft, fuzzy pajamas / my wife in a warm sweater and still sporting that scarf that matches her enormous brown eyes / me tenderly explaining the prophetic voices in Israel’s past, summoning hope that had reached a fevered pitch by the time Caesar made census plans / my wife and I tag-teaming the questions about who “Caesar” was or what a “census” does—this is a family holiday scene, merry and adorable.

Except that this is not really how it works.

Now, to be sure, the kids are all cute in soft, fuzzy pajamas, and my wife is looking great in her new scarves she bought for this northern England wintry weather.  But to begin with, it is really hard to get all six of us in the same place at the same time.  Our house is quite small, so we are never far away, but washing dishes, changing diapers, playing with Star Wars toys, doing long divisions homework, coloring a landscape scene with aliens and bad guys—all these activities are hard to draw away from for a ceremonial five minutes before the Advent calendar.  And then we seem to never remember exactly whose turn it is to put the Advent character onto the Nativity scene.  Maybe we skipped someone’s turn because they were having a bad attitude, and that threw us off a bit… who knows.  But every kid knows it is really their turn, not their siblings turn.  And they each remember perfectly who went the night before, though each of them always supplies a differing report in spite of the perfection of their memories.  And then a fight breaks out, someone indignantly puffing about how so-and-so got to go first this year and they also got to go first last year and how so-and-so’s placement in the rotation will have them getting to open up baby Jesus on December 24, which is most unjust and unfair, the only sensible and fair and just option being that the one with the complaint gets to open the cabinet with baby Jesus.  All this fighting over baby Jesus goes on while “Joy to the World” sounds out through the Bose in the other room.  And so I get annoyed and start fussing at any little voice that barks with self-assertions over whose turn it is or is not while holding one child who is crying with hurt feelings and trying in between my irritable disciplinary orders to talk about the role of shepherds in the ancient world and how Mary and Joseph must have felt so frightened though excited after those angelic encounters, all over the sound of at least one kid crying.

Merry Christmas, ho ho ho, and peace on earth.

So maybe not every night goes exactly like the one I just described above.  But many of them do.  Now my kids are all super awesome and the oldest ones who can understand the story truly do love Jesus.  And even though I get irritable, I really love Jesus, too… at least I am certainly enamored with Him and I want to love Him more.  But all that family ruckus seems like a terrible and dishonorable way to celebrate Advent.

Then again, our ridiculous familial strife around the cute little Advent calendar perfectly illustrates why we need Advent.

Fighting over whose turn it is to open the little cabinet with baby Jesus shows just how badly we needed baby Jesus to come.

The Nativity scene reminds us of what happened on the first Christmas.  The quarreling scene reminds us of why it had to happen.

Whether chestnuts are roasting on your open fire or whether there are fiery tempers ablaze amidst family members, both can drive us into gratitude for the coming of Jesus.  The sweetness of the holidays can help us rejoice in Christ’s coming.  The ugliness of the holidays can remind us of why He came.

Advent blessings, to you and yours….