Places to go, books to read

So, back at the turn of the year, I thought I would do a bunch of blogs on stuff I liked in 2017. Now that we’re more than halfway through the 2nd month of 2018, I am woefully behind. But because this stuff doesn’t have an expiration date, here’s some more stuff I enjoyed in 2017.

Places I visited last year:

  1. New River, West Virginia. Rafting the New River was one of the best things we did as a family in 2017. My next goal is to tackle the more difficult Gauley River before I’m too old to hold a paddle.
  2. Eagle Falls, Kentucky. Located just down-river from the way-more-popular Cumberland Falls, Eagle Falls has a similarly deep waterfall, without all the visitors and the guardrails. If I get back to Cumberland Falls State Park, my first priority won’t be Cumberland, but Eagle — with a goal of going during the summer so I can swim up to Eagle Falls.
  3. Cabins with friends & family. There’s something about spending time at a cabin by the water that helps put everyday life on a needful pause, even if for just 24 hours.
  4. Fred Howard Park, Florida. This fall, I enjoyed time with my wife at this public park on the Gulf Coast. I even did a bit of snorkeling — one of my all-time favorite activities.
  5. Fritz’s Frozen Custard, Missouri. On any trip to the St. Louis area, you need to go to either Fritz’s or Ted Drewes. My family has something of a running debate over which of these 2 has the best custard, but I don’t think you can go wrong with either one of them. If you want history and nostalgia, go to Ted Drewes. If you want good custard and don’t want to look like a tourist, go to Fritz’s. Or, cover your bases and go to both.
  6. World War 1 Museum, Missouri. This museum in Kansas City helps make WW1 real, with all of war’s death, destruction, and evil. Visiting this museum — and then watching Ken Burns’s series on World War 2 — reminds me how even the winners of war face terrible losses.

Also, in 2017, I read some books that I would recommend. If you’re a reader, pick these up. If you’re a thoughtful reader, buy these. If you don’t read, find someone to read these to you:

  1. Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer. Perhaps the best treatment I have ever read on faith, doubt, and the honest search for truth. Taylor writes as a believer in an age when faith is increasingly marginalized and mocked. Taylor honestly wrestles with reasons to disbelieve, and doesn’t offer 4 simple steps to know that everything you know is absolutely certain. Instead, he does something better: he takes a look at the options, and suggests a way forward that deals with the reality that any choice a person makes is ultimately a step of faith.
  2. Randolph Richards & Brandon O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Great insight into how we can read the Bible through a different mindset, one more in tune with its origins in the Mid/Eastern world. Just one example: Richards served as a missionary in Indonesia, where he learned that Sunday worship started at “midday” (siang). Being a westerner, Richards tried to tie that to a time on his wristwatch, but his Indonesian friends didn’t think of it that way. He finally came to learn that ‘siang’ was connected to temperature, not time. Once the morning turns hot, it becomes ‘siang’. But, he wonders: “How do you start church at ‘hot’?” In short, relationships trump schedules – the opposite of how we do it in the west.
  3. Alan Jacobs, How to Think. A much-needed rebuke of the current tendency to listen only to people we agree with — and to ostracize those we don’t. Jacobs gives a simple, yet challenging, call to listen and think better.
  4. N.T. Wright, The New Testament & the People of God. A thorough examination of the background of the NT, and how we should read it. Has reshaped my understanding of the story of God. Wright is an indispensable thinker and writer that every thinking Christian ought to know. (If this book is too long for you, he has plenty of other shorter, more accessible works, like: Surprised by Hope, and Simply Christian.)
  5. Shushaku Endo, Silence. Powerful fictional account of how far faith can take us, and how deeply challenging it can be to know what faithfulness looks like. The movie version that recently came out is equally good.
  6. Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised. An easy-to-read, but hard-to-forget book on grief, loss, and moving on. I would recommend this book to anyone who has faced loss of any kind — written by a man who has been there.
  7. Brene Brown, Rising Strong. A friend recommended this to me, and while not everything in it stuck with me, this definitely did: her insight that, by-and-large, people are doing the best they can, and so we’ve got to offer grace. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we accept everything they do. We’ve also got to establish healthy boundaries. It seems to me this is where we should meet everyone we encounter: at the intersection of grace and boundaries.
  8. Walter Wangerin, Paul. An account of the Apostle Paul and the early church that just rings true. Wangerin writes fiction that is deeply rooted in truth.
  9. Andy Crouch, Strong & Weak. Leadership is rooted in authority and vulnerability, Crouch writes. A true leader has to have both. I’m convinced he’s right.
  10. Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective. Rooted in John 15, this short book is rich with insight into how God calls us into intimacy, fruitfulness, and joy. A wonderful read, along with just about everything Nouwen wrote. Hardly anything he wrote was over 100 pages, but it’s amazing the spiritual insight and wisdom this man packed into the pages he wrote — as well as the life he lived.

My favorite podcast episodes from 2017

In the shower today, I got an idea. (By the way, why do some of my best ideas come in the shower?) As we wrap up 2017, I thought I would share some of my favorite things from the year. Stuff I read, places I visited, music I’ve listened to. All of those, and more, will follow in blog posts to come.

I’ll start this series by sharing my favorite podcast episodes of the year. First, some housekeeping items: the podcasts didn’t have to come out this year; I just had to listen to them this year. Some of my favorites come from podcasts I listen to religiously. Some have no particular religious content. One is a series; another is an ongoing random conversation that I listen to when I have ten minutes and I don’t feel like starting something serious or new.

Anyway, enough caveats. Here’s the list, in no particular order:

  1. Unbelievable: “Can science, God (or both) explain the human quest for meaning?”, 7/22/17. This podcast usually brings together a Christian believer and an unbeliever for a honest, intelligent, and (usually) civil conversation about the most important questions of faith, life, and reality. This particular episode has two Oxford profs debating the meaning of life. Even if you don’t listen to the entire episode (and you may not want to), at least fast-forward to about one hour in, where the host, Justin Brierley, asks a materialistic scientist: What is the meaning of life? His answer, I think, is honest, and is the approach a truthful person has to take if we truly are here by chance, and chance alone.
  2. Love + Radio: “The Silver Dollar,” 2/27/14. This is a conversation with an absolutely fascinating individual, Daryl Davis. He is an accomplished musician, a student of history, a friend to Klan-members — and a black man. Davis may be one of the few people in our culture who moves beyond rhetoric and rage to really reaching across the aisle. And let’s be honest: an African-American reaching out to members of the KKK — that’s a huge aisle.
  3. Radiolab: “Match Made in Marrow,” 11/9/17. This is a beautiful piece of radio, dealing with faith and doubt. It is presented with an honesty and openness to faith that, honestly, I seldom experience in radio that comes from the world of NPR. (BTW: I really enjoy NPR; I just wish they could see their own bias against faith and the faith perspective. But alas, like so many of us, they can’t see what they can’t see). But this episode is different. It is truly moving, for it takes seriously the Christian faith, and presents it in a way that is breathtaking. If you listen to only one of my recommendations, you’ve got to listen to this episode.
  4. Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast: Interview with Jon Acuff, episode 157, 9/12/17. Jon encouraged me to be more focused on reading. He also challenged me to rethink how I start my sermons. And he challenged me to make the most of the time I’m given.
  5. Poddy Break with Tim Hawkins. No particular episode here; I simply enjoy listening to comedian Tim Hawkins banter with other comedians, his crew, and whoever wanders close to the microphone. Whenever I need a smile, or I simply don’t want to start something heavy, I can count on some laughs with Tim. But it’s not all fun and games. For a funny guy, Tim has some helpful insights that show up between gags, like this line: I’m not on stage to get laughs; I’m there to give them.
  6. John Ortberg’s messages. Again, no particular episode to recommend; John is just my go-to sermon podcaster. He consistently balances biblical and human insight that is both profound and practical.
  7. On Being with Krista Tippett: Interview with Martin Sheen, 12/16/15. I dialed up this interview after getting through all episodes of The West Wing on Netflix. (Before this summer, I honestly don’t think I’ve watched every episode of any show, ever.) I enjoyed The West Wing, I guess, because I am fascinated by the presidency. (If I had another life to live, I might have chosen to be a presidential historian.) Sheen clearly brought his spirituality into his role as President Josiah Bartlet, and while he and I would have some significant conversations about the root and the results of that spirituality, it’s refreshing to hear a Hollywood star unashamedly address matters of faith, God, and prayer.
  8. Kingdom Roots with Scot McKnight. Nearly two years ago, McKnight, a New Testament professor at Northern Seminary, began a weekly conversation about God’s kingdom, its biblical roots, and its current fruits. Each 30-minute episode is short enough to be digestible, yet deep enough to make me think. I went ahead and started at the beginning, so I’m still listening to episodes from 2016 — but I figure, Why not listen to every episode? So far, it’s definitely been worth it.
  9. 30 for 30: The Lights of Wrigleyville, 11/28/17. As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I was intrigued to hear about the evolution of lighting at Wrigley Field. The first night game at Wrigley was poetically held on 8/8/88. As a Cardinals fan, I can also laugh that the night poetically ended in a rainout.
  10. In the Dark: 9 episodes, plus a post-podcast update episode. An engrossing and thorough look at the first truly public child abduction in the U.S. The reporter digs into how the Jacob Wetterling case was (mis)handled, and the impact Jacob’s case has had on how we respond to abductions — and abductors. Well-researched, well-written, emotional, and thought-provoking; in short, what a podcast series should be.

So, that’s what I listened to this year that I’m still appreciating. How about you?

Is Faith on the Decline in the U.S.? Yes … and no

Courtesty of Ross Douthat’s column (well worth a read, by the way), I came across this fascinating study. It contends that religious faith is not diminishing in the U.S. — rather, it’s nominal faith that is on the decline. The authors contend that it is those who loosely hold to their beliefs that are increasingly letting go of the traditional ways of expressing their faith.

Their first piece of evidence: a chart that shows that the percentage has remained essentially unchanged of those who have a “strong affiliation” to their faith — it has hovered around 40% for the past 25 years. During that same period of time, those who don’t have a strong affiliation have dropped from the mid-50s to just above 40%. And those who claim no affiliation has doubled in 25 years.

Likewise, church attendance is dropping among those who “attend sometimes.” Those who claim to “never attend” a church service now is a group that includes more than 20% of the population. But those who attend multiple times a week — while it is a small percentage of the population — is a line on the graph as straight as the lives of the people it represents.

And there are many more insights in the article. Take a look for yourself. It’s well worth it — even if only to look at the charts and what they represent.

And what they represent is fascinating. Yes, religious commitment in the U.S. is diminishing. But it is diminishing among those who are loosely affiliated, not among those who have a strong connection to their faith.

What can this teach those of us who would consider ourselves in the “strong commitment” category? For one (as the authors of the study themselves point out): We are increasingly preaching to the choir. We should expect that, as a general rule, fewer and fewer people in our culture who are not connected to church will consider giving church a chance. For most congregations, the “seeker movement” is over. Or probably should be. If you’re trying to keep your church on the cutting edge, you may only be reaching the religiously-interested-but-disconnected hipster; you’re probably not reaching the not-interested-thank-you hipster.

Which means, of course, that we need to increasingly find ways to engage others on their turf. We should not expect the “not-interested” crowd to come to us; we’ve got to go to them. Which, come to think of it, we should have been doing all along.

I was recently at a Bible study where I was told that one of its newest participants was a teacher, and had gotten connected because their church was so faithful to volunteer at her school. Bonnie noticed (not her real name), and the church’s love and concern for her kids reached her, and she began attending church. She then volunteered for the church’s weekend cafe, and had recently began participating in this small group.

Even though for 5 years now Bonnie has been in what this study would call the “strong affiliation” category — she still is figuring this faith-thing out. One of the passages we read that night at the study was from 1 John. Bonnie had prepared that week, and so had read it. Or thought she had; but instead of reading 1 John, she read from the Gospel of John. When she found that out, she said to all of us: You mean there’s more than one John? D–n! Later, the leader had us turn to Romans, and Bonnie asked, slyly but honestly, Is there more than one Romans?

As our society becomes increasingly secularized, those of us who have been around church for a long time need to extend plenty of grace to those who haven’t. Those who do get connected to church are going to come knowing a lot less about Bible and faith and God. Which to me means that if the Church is going to reach folks outside of the strongly committed segment, we are going to have to ramp up our discipleship and teaching ministries. The days of “feel-good” sermons and “fun-and-games” youth ministry are over. The next generation of believers is going to need much more than that.

And one more thought: We in the Church must first be known for what we are for, not for what we are against. If we are going to reach people with the love of Jesus, then we are going to have to lead with the love of Jesus. I mean: isn’t that what Jesus did? I find it immensely fascinating and instructive that the kinds of people Jesus ticked off were the kinds of people we often try to assuage. And the kinds of people Jesus went out of his way to engage, we often try to avoid. (For example, see Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown in Luke 4; or the next chapter in Luke, where Jesus heals a guy who can’t walk and gets into a row with some religious types; or the next chapter, where those same folks protest the timing of Jesus’ healings; or the next chapter where Jesus heals the kid of a hated occupier, and then lauds his faith; or the next chapter, where Jesus heals a demonized Gentile pagan, and then sends him out as one of the first missionaries. And that’s just 5 chapters in just one of the four gospels. If you need more examples of the ways Jesus interacted with the kinds of people we avoid, and avoided the kinds of people we tend to interact with, keep reading. There’s plenty more material.)

None of this is about criticizing the church, or those who work in it. I deeply value those who give themselves fully to lead and love others. It’s hard work. There are no easy answers. I know. I’ve been there, and I have the t-shirt to prove it (a bunch, in fact).

But it’s time for those of us who are strongly connected to church and faith — for those of who are serious about the call of walking in the way of Jesus — to find ways of engaging a culture that increasingly doesn’t care, and doesn’t know why it should. And it probably will be less about what we do on Sunday mornings, and more about what we do the rest of the week.