Wednesday, December 26, 2012

10 Best Books of 2012

In no particular order...
by Shawn Duncan

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman.  This was a pure delight for the imagination!  Read it while in Pasadena at Fuller taking a class.   A much needed refresher after being in class all day.  If you ever wanted reflections on the afterlife to invite you to live this life more fully, these parables will do the trick!

When I Was a Child I Read Books, essays by Marilynne Robinson.  If you want thoughtful, critical engagement with contemporary culture, religion, politics, and the intersection of all three, this is it.  I will gladly read anything she writes.  I encountered her first as a novelist, and her pen as an essayist is just as fascinating and transformative.

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Heifetz and Linsky.  This book was suggested to me by a coach of sorts from The Missional Network who helped me through a personal leadership assessment tool.  This book is about how to lead in turbulent, adaptive times in ways that allow you to personally survive as you challenge the systems around you.

The Hobbit, Tolkien (illustrated by Wenzel). I must confess that I had never read any Tolkien until discovering this brilliantly illustrated version in a used bookshop in Minneapolis this fall.  I fell in love with this story right away.  It would take a longer post to tell you why Bilbo Baggins is giving me life right now. 

Still: Notes on A Mid-Faith Crisis, Lauren Winner.  If you want an honest memoir of how real spirituality works out in the complex paths of real life, read this... now.  The spiritual life comes with no quick fixes or easy answers... better, it often comes with no fixes and no answers.  Winner's wit, bite, and transparency give life to a religious world filled with corrosive kitch and simplistic rhetoric.

The Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle.  Sometimes fiction brings clarity to the obscuring noise of political discourse.  This story parallels an undocumented man and his pregnant wife living in desperate poverty and want with a family living in a culture of wealth and abundance in Southern Cal.  Compelling, heart wrenching, true, and important.

The Rule of Saint Benedict, a contemporary paraphrase by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  Benedictine spirituality has been vital for me in the last couple years.  This version updates the language and style to make RB a bit more palatable to contemporary readers.  I found it refreshing.  I needed it.  

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon. No matter your profession, vocation, calling, or hobby, creativity is a must.  No matter your (see the above), creativity is hard.  This little book was fun and provided a spark of renewal for me.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris.  Like L.Winner above, Norris brings a voice of authenticity, substance, and nuance to religious literature.  This is a fascinating memoir-like book that recounts her journey back into Christianity - told through chapters defining common religious terms like grace, conversion, repentance, etc.  Rich. Restorative.

In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad. While preparing to teach a class on Christianity and Islam, this book was suggested to me by a local Muslim leader and friend.  Compelling, informative, and thoughtful.  Gave me new eyes for understanding this man whose experiences have shaped the world in significant ways for 1400 years.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Advent: Why I Can't Let Go... Even When I Want To

Advent approaches.  I can feel it in my bones.  In the deep caverns of my soul whisper-soft chants of "Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest" begin to echo and rise up within me.

If I can point to the reason why - today - I still call myself a Christian is because of the Incarnation.  I mean no disrespect to the crucifixion or resurrection.  I have no desire to diminish their significance in cosmic history, human history, nor my own history.  I can simply say that right now the reason I consider Christianity worth my life and devotion is because of the answer we give to the question, "Who is God?"

Many individuals, cultures, world religions, spiritual traditions, religious sects, etc. have their own unique way of answering that question.  Some of those answers I find laughable, some inspiring, a few despicable, some compelling, a handful truly confusing.  But there is one answer to that question that grips me in a place too profound to define.  There is one answer that keeps me hanging on when every other piece of evidence - or lack thereof - demands that I let go and walk away.  And this answer keeps me hanging on NOT because it is so reasonable, so verifiably provable, so perfectly suited to what I need.  This answer holds on to my life when I no longer want to hold on because it is so ridiculous, so profane, so completely other to what I want or would create on my own.

The answer to "Who is God?" that has so beautifully damaged my imagination and wondrously imprisoned my soul is that  God is the One who implanted Himself into the woman of a Jewish, teenage peasant to make His arrival through a slimy, fragile human birth.  

God is the One who asked the blasphemous mouths of His creatures to teach Him how to talk.

God is the One who asked the wandering, faithless feet of His creatures to teach Him how to walk.

Who is God?

God is not some unknowable, mystical, ethereal, spiritual, incorporeal, shapeless Supreme Being above the clouds.  God is one of us.  God is the One who became a human being.  

God entered into the madness, chaos, and sheer meaninglessness of human life with us.

"For in Christ all the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form." (Col 2:9)

And... this foolish project is the very way He plans on redeeming the sewage ditch that is humanity.

It is my hope that this Advent season we confront Jesus in ways that make us feel like we have never met Him before.  It is my hope that this Advent season we meet Jesus in ways that make us realize we have no idea who He is.  It is my hope this Advent season we encounter Jesus in ways that offend our sensibilities, crush our dreams, and rip apart our imaginations.

Because it is only a God like that who is worth our devotion.  Any God that makes sense, that retains all power, that acts in perfectly acceptable godlike ways is not worth holding on to.  It might be worth fearing or worshipping or serving or sacrificing to in order to keep oneself protected and blessed.  But the God of Advent, of Incarnation is worth so much more.

Let's remember that the feeding trough in which Infant God was placed was but the first of many things that should offend us.

Let me start by listing all the rumors that I've heard about Jesus, which are the reasons why I simultaneously don't like Jesus and am compelled to follow Him wherever He takes me:

Jesus spat on religious tradition

Jesus undermined God's laws

Jesus partied with the law breakers and cheaters

Jesus was an iconoclast

Jesus was a socialist

Jesus excused sin

Jesus was a drunk

Jesus was a lazy, unemployed mooch

Jesus hated the productive, wealthy, hard-working citizens

Jesus was inappropriate at best with women and flat out sinful at worst

Jesus was a homeless vagabond

Jesus channeled demonic forces

Jesus refused to condemn the God-mocking members of government that rejected God's laws

Jesus undermined the family

Jesus dodged questions, refusing to state clearly what he believed

Jesus teaches impossible things

Jesus doesn't want believers, he wants followers

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

These Words Terrify Me

A prayer from Thomas a Kempis in his famous Imitation of Christ.

"Let your presence wholly inflame me, consume and transform me into Yourself, that I may become one spirit with you by the grace of inward union and by the melting power of your ardent love... What wonder if I were completely inflamed by You to die to myself, since you are the fire ever burning and never dying, a love purifying the heart and enlightening the understanding."

This prayer is the heart of this blog and the purpose of Christian spirituality - the continual loss of self (evanesce) with an ever-increasing presence of Christ in us (emerge).

This prayer, also, scares me.