It is all yellow in the Deep South. The Pollen-Apocalypse is upon us.
As a result, my 6 month old son, Leland, has been a sneezy, snotty, runny-nosed, and congested mess. He is not breathing well, therefore he is not sleeping well. He is not sleeping well, therefore he is whiny, exhausted, frustrated, and miserable. Because he is all of the above things, his mom and dad are weary.
Enter the bulb syringe. Affectionately referred to in our home as the “nose sucker.”
Leland hates it. It is pure torture for him. In his 6 month old mind, it is literally the worst thing in the world. I pin him down and suction crud out of his nose. He wails so hard I wonder if he is going to stop breathing. But if I stick with it, I’ll help him.
Strangely, I take no pleasure in the event itself, but I’m glad that I do it. He needs it and I’m his dad.
Further, I know what is best for him. I have a perspective he could never have. I also know what is best for our entire household, because I’m sensitive to how his allergies wear out his mother, and how they might have an effect on his brother.
I willing put my child through difficulty he neither understands or enjoys precisely because I love him.
Turns out, by the way, that I’m not the only Father who does this.
Please don’t think this account of why suffering comes to us is the only way to explain it (it’s not). Or that it explains every situation (it doesn’t). Perhaps not all suffering we experience is what my friend Matt calls, “soul making.” But it is a way to think of it.
One angle of vision on a very complex subject.
In the case of the nose sucker, it should be added that in the misery of it all, I’m with him. Giving all the comfort I can. Speaking tender words.
When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Sometimes I imagine a simple conversation between Jesus and all of us.
Jesus: “It is finished.”
Us: “What is finished?”
Us: “But you don’t know what I’ve done.”
Jesus: “Yes, I do. And now you know what I’ve done.”
Us: “But have you seen the evil and sin and death in the world?”
Jesus: “I have. And this is what I’ve done about it.”
Us: “This is a strange way to solve that problem.”
Us: “But I feel so far from you.”
Jesus: “Still finished.”
Us: “What if I’m not sure?”
Jesus: “I am sure.”
Us: “For me?”
Jesus: “For you.”
The finality of Christ’s work is a hard for us to believe. The life a faith can be a hard, murky struggle. But that doesn’t mean things are unfinished. To learn to believe, live in light of, seek the application of, and rejoice in, the finished work of Christ on your behalf is the basic task of the Christian life. And it’s not an easy thing to do.
But it’s the main thing. We do not move on to another thing because there is no other thing.
“Hence it is that the Psalter is the book for all the saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”
Martin Luther, “Preface to the Psalter” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 255-56.
If the idea of “hopeful realism,” the namesake of this blog, has been of any interest to you, please check out this video. My dear friend and poet, John Castling, has written a poem that captures the essence of a faith realistic enough to accommodate the horrors of a world stricken with death, disease, and violence, yet hopeful enough to accommodate the emptied tomb of Jesus through which New Creation and the eschatological age to come are penetrating our world. This is a poem about praying to God while grounded in the mesmerizing, complex world of of his self-revelation in Scripture, a revelation that is honest about pain, war, disillusionment, yet also about miracles, wonders, and divine rescues.
John is accompanied by my other unusually talented friends Hannah Bayley and Seymour Jacklin. The video editing and directing is done behind the scenes by Crystal Sherbondy. So proud of this piece of work, and so happy to be able to worship with these folks at Kings Church Durham.
The following is how I opened my class last term on the Old Testament Prophets at Cranmer Hall…
My son just finished reading The Goblet of Fire, my favorite book in the Harry Potter series, a series that bring us into an alternative world of magic and mystery.
In preparing for this opening lecture I thought of that curious communication medium Rowling created, a means of communication dreaded by all students at Hogwarts: the “screamer.”
It’s a letter that explodes with noise, voicing a message that will not be silenced, that cannot be muffled, that splits the soundscape with the cacophonous fury of the sender.
Rowling also imagines up that required textbook about magical beasts and monsters, a book that seems intent on assaulting and devouring the reader. A dangerous book, a book fanged and hungry, a book that is wild, feral.
As a class, we are not in Hogwarts, but we are gathered in a classroom to ready our souls and strengthen our skills for engaging a world full of darkness, deceit, and evil. And the books that will lie open before us in this class will place our sense of security and composure at risk. Our stability, our sensibilities, our own sense of what it means to be ‘spiritual,’ will be threatened.
The books of the Prophets are screamers. They are fanged and feral.
Erupting from the pages are emotions unbefitting for our society—yet they are the emotions of the God we worship. Erupting from these pages through the spluttering moans of those crushed beneath the weight of divine revelation are glimpses of a God “whose way is in whirlwind and storm,” as Nahum tells us. This Deity will not fit within the soundest of liturgies. He will not fit within pious songs of praise. Amos tells us: this is a God who “roars.”
What are we to do with such a ROARING GOD, a Stormy God?
What are we to do with a God whose sight is so radiant and holy that it is unsurvivable, whose presence sends us fleeing into holes and cracks in the ground for dear life. This is a God who, as Isaiah tells us, can seize a man and whirl him around then hurl him away like a ball into a wide land. This is a God who has a sword, thirsting for the blood of his enemies (really?).
Yet we also find in the Prophets that this sword-wielding God whose way is in tornado and tempest is heartsick and heartbroken. The rage and fury arises from the beautiful flames of divine love. This God is a Lover, One who has wed Himself to a Bride; but that Bride has soiled herself in the filfth and rot of adulteries too sick and putrid to describe.
Hence, the mighty roaring.
To read the Prophets is to enter into the tempestuous heart of the great God, the God of Israel.
This Friday I am teaching at Cranmer Hall‘s “Explore Day,” from 10:30–4:00 (yes, there will be breaks in between, plus lunch!). The idea is to “explore” ministry-related themes in a biblical text (or collection of texts, as it were). Here is my outline for the day. If you are local and interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
Community and Ministry in the Gospels and Letters of John
“Narrative Ecclesiology”: The Johannine Community & the Johannine Vision of Community
No Christless Church, nor Churchless Christ: The Ecclesial Christology of the Prologue
Corporate “Divinization”? The Fourth Gospel’s Communal Vision of Divine Participation
Born from Above: The Church of a New Humanity
“Characterizing” Johannine Participation: The Man Born Blind, the Beloved Disciple, and Peter
The Ecclesiology of the Shema: One God, One Shepherd, One People
Low Church or High? The Johannine Ecclesial Practices and Leadership Structure
The Good Shepherd and the Cross: The Johannine Vision of Pastoral Ministry
John the Baptist and Celebrity Preachers: Christological Redirection and Ecclesial Assimilation
“Lord, what about him?” Vocational Envy and Ministerial Competition
Pastoral Hermeneutics and “Writing” as Ministry: John 21:25 and 1 John 5:13
“Paraclete”: The Ministry of the Holy Spirit
Building an Inclusive Community or an Introspective Sect? The Love Commands, Pastoral Ministry, and the Johannine Epistles
Conflict Management: “They went out from us”—A Johannine Vision of Broken Community
For all of the well-documented or potential problems with our social media-saturated lives, I find it helpful at the end of the year to retrace my timeline (Instagram happens to be my drug of choice) to remember, to figure out my own trends and tendencies, and to reflect on the Lord’s faithfulness and movement, sometimes in imperceptible ways, through the span of twelve months. Out of that reflection I give you my 2014 in review:
Isaiah 61 & the birth of Oak Church
This year has been the year of Isaiah 61’s sprawling vision of renewal and hope for me and my family. Not that we’ve necessarily experienced it every day and in every way, but that we’ve had our imaginations enlivened by it. This time last year, I could not have anticipated the Lord calling my family to go and plant a church. In early spring, through a sovereign tangle of circumstances the Lord orchestrated an opportunity to start another church in an emerging, diverse neighborhood in Durham, NC to which the Gathering Church was courageous and faithful.
My family and several others from the Gathering Church were commissioned at the end of the summer to form a new worshipping body at an old Baptist church whose congregation dissolved on Easter Sunday 2014. We set out with the start of a vision and a call but without much else, not even a name. Throughout the summer and even now, the Lord has begun to animate our imaginations and ambitions with Isaiah’s words of hope, healing, & hospitality. Our inchoate little congregation hopes to embody and experience all of these things as “oaks of righteousness for the display of His splendor” (Isaiah 61:3).
The first thing we did, even before settling on a name, Oak Church, was to plant a garden, with future hopes of involving and blessing our neighbors.
Our “kickoff event” in October was a Fall Block Party and Pig Pickin’ which saw more than 300 people from the Lakewood neighborhood join in to pick a whole hog clean (you’ll know what this is if you’re in the American South, not sure this has an European analog).
And we collaborated with the Hispanic Pentecostal congregation and Burmese refugee Baptist mission church that meet in our building for a lovely and hilarious Kids Christmas Pageant.
As you can imagine an endeavor like this, especially one with such a condensed timeline and intense amount of change, has occupied much of our time, thought, and prayer. It has been simultaneously the most gratifying and daunting task I’ve ever been involved in and has forced me to prayer and reliance on God and the folks the Lord has put around me more than I could have anticipated. It has reminded me that God really does make things new, and that faith amidst that sort of transfiguration requires patience, obedience, and the willingness to be surprised.
A year of great music
I was especially thrilled and privileged to get to see a couple of great shows at my favorite venue, Haw River Ballroom, a reclaimed mill just outside of town. Early in the year, a friend invited me to Jason Isbell and Holly Williams, both put our great records in 2013, but were actually able to deliver their songs live with more craftsmanship and personality than their great recordings. Later in the year Rach surprised me for my birthday with a rare midweek show to see the Lone Bellow. If you’ve never seen or heard them, make it a priority. I can only describe their stage presence as joyful. We stood close enough to see all of the small, almost undetectable little smiles, knowing nods, and slight gestures that come from a trio that knows each other, loves each other, and can flat-our sing together, and in so doing, draw a crowd into their joy.
I’ll hesitantly divide my favorite music releases into two categories. My hesitation comes lest I reinforce a sacred/secular divide I’m not too keen to endorse. My first category would be listening music and my second would be music for the Church. They are not mutually exclusive, and their content doesn’t necessarily fit tidily in Saturday night/Sunday morning hermetically sealed containers. Because life just never does.
Some of my favorite Listening Music this year comes from Durham’s Hiss Golden Messenger (think Van Morrison meets Tom Petty), Damien Jurado (I’ll admit it’s kinda cult-y, but I think that was the 70’s Jesus People-fueled intent), Ryan Adams (I’m so glad he seems to have gotten an editor in his life, maybe Mandy Moore?), Beck (gorgeous, wall of sound type stuff. For all the different ways Beck has sounded over the years, I’m not sure he’s ever made a bad album), Blake Mills (so underrated, some of my favorite tones on any record for the last several years. Soulful and innovative, but not too weird.), Floating Action (Groovy, as always. Perhaps Seth Kauffman’s most accessible album to date), Ray Lamontagne (A definite new direction, I think for the better. You can hear the help from Dan Auerbach, Richard Swift, and FA’s Seth Kauffman).
Here is a Spotify playlist of some samples of these tunes:
2014 was also a really good year for lower profile (meaning not the million-selling, CCM variety) Music for the Church. I’ve come to greatly admire what Door of Hope church in Portland, OR (check out a conversation I had last year with Evan Way) is doing using some great indigenous talent and being unbelievably generous with what they produce. This year they released two of perhaps their finest releases in Liz Vice’s There’s A Light, and Evan Thomas Way’s Only Light.
Rain for Roots, a Nashville-based mom-folk collective, also released their second volume of children’s songs called the Kingdom of Heaven is Like This, an edifying and non-insulting singsong take on some of the gospel parables about the coming Kingdom. Sandra McCracken and Co. have managed to achieve the remarkable feat of writing imaginative, simple (not in a pejorative way, ask any songwriter about trying to write simple songs), kingdom-oriented, and abundantly scriptural tunes for parents and kids. I can’t stress how much I love these, not least because of how much I normally dislike some of Sunday School songs.
A minor subplot of 2014 was Donuts vs. Scones.
Judging exclusively from my Instagram feed, some have wondered whether our kids subsist exclusively on donuts. The answer: disproportionately, but not exclusively. With a developing donut culture like Durham has, it’s difficult not to celebrate life’s greatest joys, like birthdays, out of town guests, or…Tuesdays, with sprinkles. I’ve also taken up scone-baking for our Wednesday morning Common Prayer group. This quest for the perfect buttery coffee companion is the labora to my ora. The kids seem to prefer donuts.
Getting to know these little strangers that I call my kids
It’s been strange and satisfying to realize that perhaps the most prevalent and challenging call to love my neighbor as myself in 2014 happened within the perimeter of my own home. These little neighbors, as they grow and learn and develop are largely strangers even to themselves. This year has been the year that I’ve gotten to see Noa, our 3 year old, become the extroverted, outgoing little pink-loving, gibberish-song-singing girl she is.
This year has also being the year for my 1 year old son, Titus, and I to become friends. I’m incredibly thankful to the Lord for the ways that we’ve grown together over the course of these 12 months. I don’t know that I ever would have anticipated the challenge of connecting and caring for someone you unequivocally love, but have to work for intimacy and ease. Perhaps another post at another time will allow me to process what this was like more fully, all I know is that I’ve closed the year feeling like I have two little friends who I know better, love more, and who teach me more than I knew about all sorts of things before this year started.
Finally, the Lord gave me the great privilege of partnering (a little) and spectating (a lot) on my wife’s little kids’ apparel business. It’s been incredibly gratifying to see Rach get an idea, teach herself a craft, hone that craft, and then come up with strategies and goals to execute and meet. Her little Etsy shop, Bullpin Apparel, came about after seeing how most kids clothes and baby apparel we were being given or buying for our kidswas poorly made, generic, overly merchandized and strangely/extremely gendered (Little Princess in pink/Little Slugger in blue, etc).
Rach started screen-printing on some of the best onesies and tees tied to the city that we love (the Bull City), as an expression of care and attention, wit and creativity. I’ve been awed at how generative this little enterprise has been for her, for us, and for others. I’ve loved seeing her love of others come out in the way she creates and meticulously fulfills orders by hand (including one custom order that she received from a mom-in-labor for their kid to come home in). I’ve been inspired by how generous she’s been, including donating a portion of every sale to our friends who are starting a local hospitality home for young men. And all of this not even in the past year, but since June!