My Top Ten Reads for 2013

My top ten (actually, there are like 20 books listed) reads of 2013, covering a variety of genres, and in no particular order!  Links are either to my review posted on this blog or to the Amazon listing for the book.

1. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster

This is one of those books I always wanted to read.  It is a classic and for good reason.  I read it as part of preparation for teaching on spiritual disciplines on campus and it was incredibly helpful.  This is highly recommended for any Christian.

Honorable Mention – The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard; Knowing Christ Today by Dallas Willard

2. Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey

This book is a joy to read and will move you deeply.  It ought to be read by both men and women!

3. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation by John Fea

There is a lot of bad history out there.  These two books are the opposite of bad history.  Both tackle topics that people continue to debate today and both do so thoroughly and as near objectively as possible.

4. The Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart

My brain still hurts just thinking about this book.  Hart is a tough read.  If you want to start, a good entry into Hart’s writings is The Doors of the Sea.

5. Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson

Two beautiful, heartbreaking novels.  After you read them move on to one of her books of essays, such as When I was a Child I Read Books.

6. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Another book I should have read years ago.  Best book on Christian community ever.  I actually wrote several blog posts on this book which can be found here.

7. The Children of Hurin

More Tolkien? Yes please.

8. Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller

One of the best books on Christian vocation and work I’ve read.

9. The End of Apologetics by Myron Penner and The Swedish Atheists, The Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails by Randal Rauser

Apologetics have long helped me in my faith, though I have become more skeptical of some shallow arguments Christians use over the years.  Rauser’s book is one of my favorites ever, written in dialogue format and putting good arguments in the mouth of both sides.  Penner’s  book puts into words some of my own questions in regards to apologetics.

10. A Memory of Light – Wheel of Time book 14 by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan

Nerd alert!  Like many, I waited for the final book in this fantasy series for years!  It did not disappoint.


Free Hot Chocolate, Candy Canes and Prayers

“Oh, and we’ll also offer to pray for people.  We’re Christians, its what we do.”

I don’t recall if those were the exact words Andrew, president of CSF, and I wrote in the event registration form, but they were close.  For the last couple years CSF has done a sort of “Christmas outreach” during the last week of class.  We order hot chocolate from the dining halls, set up a table and offer free little cups of hot chocolate to students as they walk by.  We also have a basket full of candy canes and other chocolates.

We also put out a box and ask students if they have anything they would like us to pray for.  As we said, we’re Christian Student Fellowship, so we pray.  It goes with the “Christian” territory.  We also figure that even students who may be a bit leery to prayer most of the time would not mind any bit of help they can get with finals week approaching.

The event was last Wednesday and I left after helping set up.  When I returned hours later the prayer request box was overflowing!  If you wouldn’t mind, feel free to offer a pray for some of these requests, listed below:

*Please guide me in the right direction when it comes to my love life.

*Pray for me to pass my exams.

*Also pray that the new year is good to me. Pray for my friend Maria and for her pregnancy to go well. Pray that God brings peace to the Latino Unity Club and most of all pray that God is in control of all our lives.

*Pray for mom

*Please pray for me to pass all my finals – 13 people said this

*My niece is very sick and needs prayer

*I pray for forgiveness and peace and true happiness

*Please pray for my uncle in the hospital – not sure what is wrong yet.

*I’d like to pray for everyone and their families as we come close to holiday break. Also for everyone to do good on their finals. Also for my aunt who is in the hospital.

*Need prayer for finals week; and for my first Christmas without my family

*I pray that I will work hard on my finals but more importantly that everyone has a safe and warm place for Christmas.

“Dear God, I would like to thank you for all my blessings. I believe in you and trust you to break curse of bad things happening.

*I would like you to pray for those on campus who lost people around this time of year; and those dealing with the aftermath of losing loved ones, that things will get better.

*Pray for PSU Berks

*Pray for my family and that my life will get together

*If someone could please pray for my mother and aunt; its their first Christmas without someone special

*Pray for strength, understanding and wisdom; for transferring from this school and for God to guide me

*My friends to focus on studying instead of going out and partying.

*Conflict within the US and middle east to subside.

*I pray that I do well in college. I want to pray for protection now and over the break and make sure my friends all have a safe break and see them next year.

*Good health to all our loved ones

*Pray for my relationship and my mistake to be forgiven ; pray for my family

*Pray that these people find truth

*May God bless you

*God help me with my math exam.

*God bless my family and loved ones. And Pray for my enemies.

*I pray my mom makes it another year

*Dear God. May I pass all my finals and classes with As. I want to keep my family and friends healthy and happy.

*Going through tough financial times – hoping next year will be good and God ; for a wife and spiritual guidance

*Keep my cancer from ever coming back

*Family unity; spiritual strength; heal my heart from pain

*Winter is bad because I have Seasonal Anxiety Disorder

*I hope I do well on my finals and get accepted into graduate school

*Strength fro my family who is suffering from loss of my grandfather

*For God to take away my greed for money and lustful addictions; strength to follow God’s path and to spread the Gospel

*Watch over my family; protect me and Marco

*Pray that I pass my bio 129 final. Its very important to me. I will study very hard; also to get help on my other finals

*Please keep my family safe and warm; hope all have a blessed and safe break

*Trying to get answers to some things in my life and pray that I may have discernment to know what God is talking to me

*Pray for those that have little or nothing

*Help my parents to love each other again

*please bless my family and friends with whatever daily trials they undergo

*Pray for Laney in hopes she can become healthy enough to spend Christmas with her family and become cancer free (This one has actually taken a turn for the worst, which you can read more about here.)

*For Pat and his fathers health; that he makes it through the holidays

*My health, my boyfriend and his family, my family and for this school – Amanda

*My little brother Nicholas – has a rare genetic disorder called Microdeletion of the 17th chromosome (Koolen de- Vries Syndrome)

A List of Good Works! The Rule of St. Benedict Chapter 4 (Listening to the Saints)

Chapter four of The Rule of St. Benedict is a list of good works Christians ought to do.

Seriously, its just a list of  about 100 spiritual acts. Is there use in such a list?

My Facebook feed is daily filled with shared articles on all sorts of random things (“17 Questions Elf Left Unanswered“, for example).  I may shy away from reading a long blog post, especially without any headings, but when it comes to a list I will probably quickly peruse it.   And I am not unique in this, studies have shown that we read differently online.  While I can sit and read hundreds of pages in a book, on the internet I am drawn to lists.  When it comes to the internet, we tend to skim and scan.

So a list like the one Benedict gives us in chapter four may be the perfect thing for the contemporary reader.  Go ahead and read it right now for free.

It is not surprising the list starts with love God and love neighbor, since Jesus put those as the top two commandments.  The next few are from the Ten Commandments, followed by a few on caring for the poor and needy in the world.

Its a great and helpful list.  I think the goal of Christian life is to move beyond such lists, to train ourselves to do such things naturally, without having to consult the list.  But as we start it may not be bad to make our own list, to identify actions we want to do and others we want to stop.  It is like following a recipe in cooking, following the directions to the letter will help make a good meal.  Likewise, making a list and following it can be a good first step of living well.

But beware seeing the list as the be-all and end-all.  If you see success in following the list as the final goal, you miss the final goal which is having your character shaped to be like Jesus Christ.  A list points you in the right direction, but won’t, by itself, take you the whole way there.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (Review)

John Fea’s book tackles a debate that consistently goes on in our country. What debate? The title makes it obvious – was America founded as a Christian nation? If you listen to some evangelical Christians, especially those who are followers of David Barton, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Likewise, those on the other side respond with an equally unequivocal no.

This reveals part of the problem and challenge – this historical debate plays out in contemporary politics. What happened then is used to pitch ideas on what ought to happen now. Sadly, people want to use and manipulate history to get their own point across.

This is why John Fea’s book is so important. It is a thorough, well-researched but also easy to read study of the history surrounding this question. Fea is a historian and spends an early chapter talking about what historians do. History is not just reporting what happened, as some think. Instead history is interested in causality, why things happened as they did. And history is incredibly complex. Further, historical evidence is not the same as legal evidence. Here Fea uses Barton as an example, as someone who says we ought to let the Founders speak in accordance with the legal rules of evidence. Fea points out the problem – lawyers are only interested in evidence as it builds their case (as is Barton and others like him). History does not work this way. One example of how it is different is simply that contexts change – words mean different things in different times and thus it is hard work to know what people meant when they spoke. Or at least, it is not as simple as just hearing their unedited words.

Following this, the first part of the book is an overview of the history of Christian America, part two examines whether the American Revolution was a religious act, and part three examines specific Revolutionary era figures.

So is America a Christian nation? Fea’s answer is complex, like history. For example, in federal documents there is no endorsement of a religion, so some could answer no, America was not founded as a Christian nation. Yet when state constitutions are examined, many did have an official state religion, which could lead to a yes answer. In the end Fea does not really give an answer. When looking at the reasons for revolution given by the leaders of the revolution in the decade leading up to it, it is clear they were not driven by Christian values Yet ministers did use the Bible to support revolution. Of course, when their Biblical interpretation is examined it is seen to not rest on any sort of Christian tradition, instead it appears they bought into the ideas of the day, the idea of revolution, and built whatever biblical case they found around it.

Perhaps what was most interesting was Fea’s examination of various founders. Today these long-dead men are propped up to support one side (Washington was a Christian!) or another (Jefferson was a deist!). Fea shows their religions were more complex then that. For example, it is anachronistic to project our religion onto them. Washington was a lifelong, involved member of his church. But he was so in the context of his day, he was no 21st century conservative evangelical. Just as today, there were a wide variety of religions as there are a wide variety of people.

Overall, this is a fantastic book and a must-read for any who want to enter the “was America founded as a Christian nation?” debate.

Walking with the Saints- The Rule of St. Benedict Chapters 1-2

What are the attributes of a good leader?  There are myriads of books out there on leadership, from leadership in the corporate world to leadership in the church and a good bit in between.  Specifically speaking about leadership in the Christian community, there is a lot out there.  Often when leadership is discussed in Christian circles the idea of “servant leadership” comes up; Jesus showed us how to truly lead by becoming a servant to those he led, leading from below rather then above.

This sort of servant leadership is the cornerstone of what leadership means from a Christian perspective.  When we turn to St. Benedict, a disciple of Jesus who lived half a millennium after Jesus, we find more teaching on leadership.  Benedict’s writing comes from a different context then Jesus’ as well as a different context from our own.  He is giving instruction on leadership within a community of celibate monks.  That said, his words resonate with truths for leaders in churches today.

When, therefore, anyone taketh the name of Abbot he should govern his disciples by a twofold teaching; namely, he should show them all that is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words; explain the commandments of God to intelligent disciples by words, but show the divine precepts to the dull and simple by his works. St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 184-186). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

One thing I take from this is the lesson to not just tell people what do do and how to live, show them.  Demonstrating how to live by your own works and actions ends up being much more long-lasting.  People will forget most of what you say, but they’ll remember your actions.  I recall when I was a student in college and going through a bit of a rough spot.  My campus pastor took time to listen and pray for me.  I am sure he told us often that we ought to be willing to pray for others when they need it.  But his actually doing it is what I remember.

Let not a free-born be preferred to a freedman, unless there be some other reasonable cause. But if from a just reason the Abbot deemeth it proper to make such a distinction, he may do so in regard to the rank of anyone whomsoever; otherwise let everyone keep his own place; for whether bond or free, we are all one in Christ, and we all bear an equal burden of servitude under one Lord, “for there is no respect of persons with God.” We are distinguished with Him in this respect alone, if we are found to excel others in good works and in humility. Therefore, let him have equal charity for all, and impose a uniform discipline for all according to merit.St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 191-195). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

This reminds us to not show favoritism.  I know I tend to gravitate towards people I like.  This often means I want to be around people like me, who have similar interests.  This is a trait to beware of, because a leader needs to make an effort to reach out to all people in the community.  An effort must be made to transcend barriers.  Don’t show favoritism to the biggest financial givers or the people you find it easiest to talk to.  Again, this is hard for me, but I know I must at times turn away from students I already enjoy talking to in order to engage others who I may not know well, who are shy or have such different interests that I am not sure how to talk to them at times.  It is about being adaptable, as Benedict goes on to say:

The Abbot ought always to remember what he is and what he is called, and to know that to whom much hath been entrusted, from him much will be required; and let him understand what a difficult and arduous task he assumeth in governing souls and accommodating himself to a variety of characters. Let him so adjust and adapt himself to everyone – to one gentleness of speech, to another by reproofs, and to still another by entreaties, to each one according to his bent and understanding – that he not only suffer no loss in his flock, but may rejoice in the increase of a worthy fold. St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 204-208). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

This is tough stuff, talk of high callings, adjusting to everyone and so on.  It is not easy, though the payoff (“rejoice in the increase of a worthy fold”) is worth it.

I skipped chapter one and was not going to mention it, but all I have written so far on chapter two brings my mind to one great quote from chapter one.  Benedict is talking about different kind of monks and slams one sort:

Living in two’s and three’s, or even singly, without a shepherd, enclosed, not in the Lord’s sheepfold, but in their own, the gratification of their desires is law unto them; because what they choose to do they call holy, but what they dislike they hold to be unlawful.St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 165-167). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

The easy way is to find a community, religion or God who simply tell us what we want to hear.  This sort of life is to choose what we want to do and then, in retrospect, call it holy.   Whatever is disliked is called unlawful or evil.  Makes me think – when we read the Bible do we do so looking for affirmation of what we already believe (Of course Jesus is a capitalist! No, he’s a socialist!) or do we allow the Spirit and the Word to confront our beliefs? Are we open to being shaped by the truth outside of us or do we assume we already have the truth and are just searching for affirmation?

A Review of Just a Few of Eugene Peterson’s Many Great Books

Sometimes when I begin a new book, I am gripped from page one and tear through the book rather quickly.  Other books are slower to grab me, it takes a few chapters, but eventually I get sucked in.  Then there are Eugene Peterson books.  Eugene Peterson is best known for his translation of the Bible, The Message.  He is a retired pastor and author of many books.  I really enjoy reading Eugene Peterson’s books, but for some reason I’ll read a chapter one day and not come back to the book for days after that.  It is not that I don’t like the books.  Far from it.  Perhaps it is simply that a Peterson book is not the sort you “tear through”.

Years ago in seminary we read Peterson’s book on the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of St. John and the Praying Imagination.  I also read A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.  Both were phenomenal books that I still return to if studying Revelation or the Psalms.

Then in 2005 (I think) I picked up Peterson’s new book, the first book in a series on Spiritual Theology, titled Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.  The book moved from creation to history to community.  The next year I read the next book in the series upon its release, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading.  In it I recall learning about reading slowly (which I was learning about anyway as I read Peterson) and lectio divina.

Then came The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way.  Peterson did a lot in this book to contrast Jesus to other ways available in the first century,such as the ways of Herod, Josephus, Caiaphas and the zealots.  Next came Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers.    The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem and, if I recall correctly (and after a brief glance at my goodreads review), how true spiritual conversations happen in the everyday and mundane of life.

Just last week I finished the final book in the series, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ.  In this one, Peterson takes us on a tour of the book of Ephesians, introducing us to the church in Ephesus.  The church community is at the center of this book, it is not too much to say that the way we grow up in Christ is to join others in community who are also moving towards that goal.

I highly recommend any of these books (and you can read any of them alone, the “series” is not one where each previous is a necessary read).  Peterson was a pastor and writes like one, any of these books could be a beneficial read for any Christian.  They are a bit more demanding then much of the fluff that litters the shelves of Christian bookstores.  That said, Peterson is no hip megachurch pastor with a book deal writing easy-to-swallow best-sellers.  His books come out of a lifetime of ministry, a lifetime of engaging with real people in the real challenges of life.  Plus, he is just a fantastic writer.  I think I read Peterson slowly because the writing is so good.  You can scarf down a burger and fries at McDonalds to briefly appease your appetite; reading Peterson is like enjoying a bountiful, five course steak dinner.


What A Student Who Loves Doctor Who Taught me About Faith

This article was written for my December newsletter, sent out to all supporters of my ministry at PSU Berks.  I thought it was worth posting here too.

On Monday, November 23 I found myself in a theater surrounded by “Whovians.”  For those of you who don’t know – a “Whovian” is a fan of the British television show Doctor Who, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.  The show’s recent popularity is due to its return in 2005 after a long hiatus.  Many young people on both sides of the Atlantic have become fans.

The show follows the Doctor, a Time Lord, who travels through Space and Time in the TARDIS that looks like a British police box.  When mortally injured the doctor can regenerate into a new body.  This is the reason the show has lasted for fifty years, with eleven (or is it twelve?) different men portraying the Doctor.

I first heard of Doctor Who a two years ago from a student named Elizabeth.  Elizabeth came to CSF to observe us for a project she had to do in one of her classes (a mini-ethnography).  We have had a few students come to CSF for this reason before and usually they don’t hang around after the project is over.  I don’t think Elizabeth planned to either, but she did.

She found a welcoming and life-giving community in CSF.  When she interviewed me for the assignment we discussed her Catholic faith and whether that was a barrier to being a part of CSF.  I recall explaining that CSF seeks to be a place where all Christians can come and grow in their faith in Jesus.  (Of course, we also hope to create a place where people who are not yet disciples of Jesus can come and learn too.)  I know there are things Christians disagree on, and we discuss such things sometimes, but we try our best to lay those aside on campus so we can focus on what really matters.  On a campus filled with broken people there are more important things to do then argue our particular theologies.  What matters on campus is learning to love Jesus and spread this love to others.

Soon Elizabeth became good friends with many members of CSF.  She was part of an especially tight-knit group of ladies.  The next year, which was last year, she served on our leadership team as secretary.  Now in her senior year she continues to be involved in CSF.  Just a few weeks ago I took a group of students to the Penn State football game to work in a concession stand with the CSF group up there. Elizabeth could hardly hold in her excitement as she got to see Hannah, one of her best friends, and one of the first students to welcome her to CSF two years ago.

Elizabeth is a huge Doctor Who fan.  When you meet Elizabeth you soon find someone who enjoys good books, movies and television shows.  I suppose this is appropriate for someone who is a professional writing major.  As Elizabeth talked about Doctor Who other students who watched it also talked about it.  Others of us were so intrigued that we soon began watching it too.

This is how I found myself in a theater full of Whovians the Monday before Thanksgiving.  Bryson is another of those students who first welcomed Elizabeth to CSF.  He is now at University Park but was home for the holiday.  I joined Bryson and Elizabeth in watching the 50th anniversary special in 3D on the big screen.  Fun, nerdy times!

One evening a few months ago I was at the diner with CSF students.   They were talking about Doctor Who.  There was probably a new student who had just confessed to not ever seeing it.  I recall Elizabeth made an interesting comment – “I never tell people to watch Doctor Who.  I just talk about how much I enjoy it and they want to watch it.”

“And there’s your lesson on evangelism for the night,” was my response.

Too often we Christians create this huge pressure to sell Jesus to unwilling customers.  We approach it like a used-car salesman.  We hate it though as deep down we feel dirty…kind of like our stereotype of a used-car salesman.  But this is not what evangelism is.

What if evangelism is simply talking about what we are passionate about, what defines us, and what if this is primarily Jesus Christ?  I don’t need to take a class to learn how to tell someone I love my wife.  If you spend time talking to me, my likes and dislikes will come out.  And just as people may watch a television show we are very excited about, they may decide to visit our church or crack a Bible due to our excitement.

I feel the need to add a caution – this is not a program.  This does not mean we need to artificially create a false-excitement for the Jesus.  When I talk about my wife, or a book I really liked, or a movie I saw recently, I don’t pretend to like it out of outside pressure to get you to like it.  I really and truly love something and it naturally bubbles out of me.

So the challenge for me, the challenge I give my students and those reading this now, is to get to know Jesus.  Read the gospels, encounter the real and amazing person at the core of our faith.  I believe through this you won’t help but talk about him.   As you do, you’ll find others are wanting to marathon the Gospels much like marathoning episodes of Doctor Who on Netflix.

Our Effort and God’s Empowering – The Rule of St. Benedict: Prologue

I have enjoyed and benefited from working through the classics of Christian literature over the past few years, reading such great authors as Augustine of Hippp, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, John Woolman, Brother Lawrence and others.  My next to work through is The Rule of St. Benedict.

Benedict of Nursia lived from about the year 480 until 547 in Italy.  His Rule is a book of teachings for monks living in a monastery under an abbot (a father).  The book has been incredibly influential in the Christian world, primarily for those living together in community as monks.  Though it has been primarily used in this way, it has powerful things to say to all sorts of Christians.  Each chapter is fairly short so it is easy to use as a devotional book.

Benedict writes in the prologue

“Our hearts and our bodies must, therefore, be ready to do battle under the biddings of holy obedience; and let us ask the Lord that He supply by the help of His grace what is impossible to us by nature. And if, flying from the pains of hell, we desire to reach life everlasting, then, while there is yet time, and we are still in the flesh, and are able during the present life to fulfil all these things, we must make haste to do now what will profit us forever” (St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 149-152). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition).

A lot of time and energy has been spent by philosophers, theologians, pastors and many others trying to figure out how God’s sovereignty relates to human freedom.  I first encountered this challenge while working at a summer camp in college.  The camp was Presbyterian (and amazing, one of the best experiences of my life, but that’s another story) so during training we were taught Calvinism, TULIP.  Since then Calvinism has had a renaissance with the “young, restless and reformed.”  Of course, these questions were around long before then and will probably be around into the future.

After spending my own time trying to figure out what I think, reading books and articles and scripture, I have come to more and more appreciate the sort of thing St. Benedict says.  In other words, I appreciate not dwelling on it, embracing the mystery, and moving on.  Truly, we must be “ready to do battle.”  Humans must take action. Make a decision. Do something.  Yet the Lord will “supply by the help of His grace.”  We can’t do it alone.  We need help.

How does that work?  What is the balance?

Does it matter on a day to day basis?  As I think about this, I am challenged to put down the next book discussing God’s sovereignty and human free will and instead to go out into the world and help my neighbor, friend or enemy in whatever way is needed.

I have come to think this is what the Bible teaches too.  We don’t get philosophical treatises on these mysterious subjects.  Instead we are left in mystery and pointed to people doing great work.  This work is clearly empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, but is also happening because real life humans are making choices.

God’s strength? Human freedom?  Why not both?

Now let’s go do some good in the world…

Advent – Calendars, Traditions and Jesus Storybook Bible

This is a picture of our way cool Advent Calendar.  We bought it last year in an effort to start a family tradition.  Each day Junia gets to open the corresponding box and get a little present.  Sometimes it is a dollar, or a small bath toy, or a piece of candy.  Last year I made a list of twenty-five scripture readings to lead us up to Christmas and the birth of Jesus.

I did a bit of internet research, trying to figure out what to do this year.  Through  this I came across a few blogs that mentioned the Jesus Storybook Bible.  It seemed like a pretty neat Bible so we got it.  The plan is to read a story a day, first the twenty-one stories from the Old Testament followed by the three from the New Testament centered on the birth of Jesus.

I love the holiday season, though it can get hectic at times.  My prayer is that this daily family activity will keep Emily and I centered as well as begin to pass on the faith to Junia.

What are you doing for advent?