Good Stuff I’ve Read

We live in an information-saturated world. A lot of what we read is skewed, or unhelpful. But underneath the avalanche of data and detritus, there is good stuff to be found. And when I find good stuff, why should I keep it to myself? Here’s some of what I’ve read recently that I think is worth your time. See if these enlighten/encourage/educate you like they did me:

A 92-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Denver still teaches piano. Did coronavirus stop her? Are you kidding? Not only is she continuing to do lessons online, she recently hosted her students’ spring recital on Zoom.

This week, I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein. I can honestly say that I don’t really understand physics anymore than when I started. I resonate with Chaim Weizmann, who went with Einstein on his first visit to the U.S. – and who would later go on to become the first president of Israel. About their voyage by ship from Europe to the U.S., Weizmann said, “During the crossing, Einstein explained his theory to me everyday, and by the time we arrived I was fully convinced that he really understands it.”

Though clearly a genius, Einstein was no … Einstein when it came to relationships. He was married twice, and struggled to stay connected to his two sons. Near the end of his life, in a letter to his long-time friend Michele Besso, Einstein marveled at Besso’s lifelong marriage to his wife. Your most admirable personal trait, Einstein wrote to Besso, was living in harmony with a woman – “an undertaking in which I twice failed rather miserably.”

Which leads into another book I’m enjoying: a collection of letters from C.S. Lewis, compiled in the book Yours, Jack. In a 1944 letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis describes how he would meet his brother, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams at the local pub for regular conversation:

…the fun is often so fast and furious that (others) probably think we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking Theology.

What it would have been like to have a seat at that table! And then, there are these insightful words on love and marriage:

The modern tradition is that the proper reason for marrying is the state described as ‘being in love’. Now I have nothing to say against ‘being in love’: but the idea that this is or ought to be the exclusive reason or that it can ever be by itself an adequate basis seems to me simply moonshine. …Doesn’t the modern emphasis on ‘love’ lead people either into divorce or into misery, because when that emotion dies down they conclude that their marriage is a ‘failure’, though in fact they have just reached the point at which real marriage begins. It would be undesirable, even if it were possible, for people to be ‘in love’ all their lives. What a world it would be if most of the people we met were perpetually in this trance! (C.S. Lewis, letter to Mary Neylan, April 18, 1940)

This week I was on a video call with 3 counselors at a local middle school. When one of them announced that pools would be open May 25, the others whooped and hollered like middle school kids. It’s been that kind of year. This 4-minute video gives you a taste of how these past couple of months have challenged our teachers. If you’re a teacher or school employee, thank you! Now more than ever, we realize how important you are!

Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan’s Friday column, I came across Samuel Pepys’s daily diary – part of which he kept throughout the plague of 1665-66 that killed nearly 1 in 4 Londoners. I’m planning to read his diary, day-by-day – 355 years later, to the day. We’ll see how that goes….

Finally, a reason to smile: this 70-second video of a woman who found a way to hug her mom on Mother’s Day – with necessary coronavirus precautions!


Would you rather…?

In my work helping schools connecting students to adult mentors, I’m always on the lookout for good ways to help get both sides talking. One way to get conversation going is by asking good questions. One such type of question starts with, “Would you rather…?”

Would you rather have a rewind button or a pause button for your life?
Would you rather be poor and work at a job you love, or rich and work at a job you hate?

And this one: Would you rather have no one come to your wedding, or your funeral?

Once, I asked this question of some high schoolers, and their answers were largely along the lines of: “My wedding. Who cares about my funeral? I’ll be dead.”

I get it; I see where they’re coming from. But my answer would be the opposite. I’d rather have nobody at my wedding. While it was nice to have family and friends there, when I got married, I really only needed 2 other people: the minister, and, of course, my bride.

(Ironically enough, we’re now living in a time where weddings – and funerals – may have to look something like this for awhile. I recently did a funeral where there were 6 people present – all immediate family. My nephew is scheduled to get married next month. Sadly, he and his fiancée may not have a choice how they answer this “Would you rather?” question.)

But in normal times, if no one came to my funeral, what would that say about my life? If the only people at my funeral were the minister and my family – in other words, those who have to be there – what kind of impact would I have had? If the church is empty at my funeral, there’s a good chance it’s because I lived an empty – even selfish – life.

The writer James Davison Hunter tells of a woman who worked as a grocery store checkout clerk. Not a very glamorous position, certainly, but she recognized that these few feet of space were her “sphere of influence.” So, she chose to love – right there. Everyday she greeted customers with warmth, remembering their names and asking about their families. She would end their brief time together by saying that she would pray for their families.

As a result, her line would back up – because so many people wanted to get in her lane. People were willing to wait in line — when’s the last time you heard of that happening? — because she genuinely encouraged them.

And when she died, years after she had retired, the church was packed for her funeral visitation — as people came to share how she had blessed them in her checkout lane.

I bet I know how she would have answered the question, “Would you rather people come to your wedding or your funeral?” Through her job — one very few would want, and most would just “get through” — she chose to be a blessing.

So, what about you: Would you rather have an expensive, elaborate, picture-perfect wedding (and life)  — or would you rather live your life in such a way that people pack your funeral as a testimony to a life well-lived?

Ephesians 5: Submission, Slavery, & Siblings

Last year, I did a 2-month interim preaching gig for a nearby church. I decided to use our time together by walking through Ephesians. Using a tree as a metaphor, I started by talking about our foundations – the roots of our faith, as found in the first 2 chapters of Ephesians. We then went into the “trunk” – what holds us together in unity.

But there was a final section – one that we didn’t reach during the time I was with them. It was “fruit” – what we produce when we’ve got healthy roots and a strong, united body. And a big part of the fruit that we read about in Ephesians comes in chapters 5-6, where Paul addresses the household: husbands & wives, parents & children, masters & slaves.

Honestly, when I planned this series, I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle that section. As an interim preacher, did I really want to talk about wives, husbands, and submission? Wouldn’t it be easier to stick with non-controversial passages? On the other hand, I’m just the fill-in guy – maybe I was the one to talk about something that isn’t as simple as we sometimes make it.

As it turned out, I never made it into Ephesians 5. The church found a permanent pastor just in time – right before I got to that section. I’m glad for that congregation, and excited about what God has in store for them. Even so, it leaves me chewing on what I would have said – what I still would say – about Ephesians 5 & 6.

And then I began reading God and the Crisis of Freedom by Richard Bauckham – where, in chapter 1, he dives into this section of Ephesians. And while he doesn’t say much about husbands & wives, he does say this about masters & slaves: “…The way the master-slave relationship is here transcended is not by making everyone masters.” In a easy-to-overlook statement, Bauckham points to a profound interpretive key to this passage: Jesus came, not to raise us all to be “masters of our domains,” but to be servants of each other. He came to set us free – and to use that freedom to love and serve others.

As Bauckham points out, Jesus moves us from the category of “ownership” – of who is “in charge” – to the place of “belonging.” In the family of faith that is inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Christ, all are gifted by One Spirit in One Body, as servants. And where servants are involved, it’s not a matter of power or privilege, but opportunity.

Which means, it’s simply not true that the New Testament treats slavery as acceptable; instead, Paul undercuts it at its very root, which is all he and his fledgling community could do. Paul completely upends the Roman structure of power, by saying that in the Church, no one truly owns or controls another – not slave master, not husband, not parent. Rather, in the Church, we all belong to each other, and we mutually submit to each other (which is where he starts, in Ephesians 5.21). Deeper than husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave – the label we all carry in the Church is sibling. In Jesus, we are first brother and sister – equal in our need for him, and equal in our opportunity to serve.

So, if I ever get an opportunity to teach on Ephesians 5 & 6, I think I’ll say something like that. Because there is nothing more transformational than the revolutionary grace of Jesus Christ that calls us to serve one another in love.