Catch and Release

Proud, sad, excited, wistful, full of memories, full of hope, we say good-bye to our college-bound son on Monday.  What a privilege to know someone so well, to have such a vital connection and love, and then to let go.

Catch and Release

In the bedroom, one rectangle of light.  One

small boy.  A collection of plastic toy fish.

A small, curved finger pointing,

“My aquarium!”

And the fish swam in the

box of air between

screen and pane.

Later, on a different sort

of day, one rectangle of light.  One

small boy, brown head

just visible, eyes twinkling over the sill

as he climbs back into his




Heart leaping like a fish,

careful not to startle him,

she waits.

Small curved fingers grasp sill;

legs appear;

she nets the small, muscular body and slumps

under the weight of her catch.

Still later,

much later, one rectangle of light.  One

tall man, a collection of boxes and bags,

Straight finger pointing away toward a good

life, upstream, unpredictable.

She opens the window and

the east sprays morning sun

on memory.




Who Is This Man?

Matt Mikalatos, author of The First Time We Saw Him (TFTWSH), was clearly raised as a “church brat.”  This is an affectionate term in my home, since my husband and I are in the process of raising four of them, the eldest of whom has gone out and married a female of the species.  It is our earnest hope and expectation that they, in turn, will raise another generation of church brats.  Having said that, I will confess that I have puzzled over, read books,  led meetings, engaged in intense conversations, and initiated activities in my church to address and, hopefully, to  combat the myriad challenges posed by our beloved church brats.

Mikalatos frames the problem masterfully:  “The point is not to breathe new life into the Scriptures.  It’s to remind [them] that they’re already alive.”  As a staff member with CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) for fifteen years, the author brings to the table his experiences of cross-cultural ministry, his theological education, and his evident desire to know Jesus and to make Him known.  He’s on to something . . .

It is not merely that TFTWSH translates the most familiar Gospel stories into 21st century contexts and infuses them with present day props, although this is fascinating.  For instance, Mikalatos puts a cell phone in everyone’s pocket, casts the prodigal son as a star-struck runaway, and suggests that Jesus (Joshua) might have multiplied hot dogs and rolls from the pitcher’s mound in a minor league baseball stadium if the incarnation had landed Him in modern-day ‘Merica.  Teenage Mary, thrown across her pink bedspread working on rough drafts for the Magnificat with a purple pen; and Mary Magdalene, appearing as cash-strapped-college-student-turned-exotic-dancer certainly do their intended attention-grabbing job, but, remember:  church brats have seen all this before.  They know all about “creative methodology.”  Thanks to the 21st century attempts of all those flannelgraph companies trying to re-tool for the IPod generation, they’ve probably even been challenged in Sunday School to re-write a Bible lesson in a present-day setting.  They just would not have done it nearly as well as Mr. Mikalatos.

What blows the dust off the flannelgraph in TFTWSH is the author’s willingness to “go there.”  Ever since the Apostle John was penning letters from Ephesus, believers have been trying to take the skin off Jesus.  Like the New Testament Gnostics, we turn away from the humanity of Jesus, sanitizing our soteriology, taking the meat out of the incarnation.  Do we convey to learners and feel in our own hearts the utter horror Jesus felt as He anticipated being “beaten and brutally killed?”   Are we willing to admit that the Good Samaritan is not only a story about racism and cultural boundaries, but also one with serious gospel implications?  After all, the split between the Samaritans and the Jews started with religion.  If the hero is cast as a Muslim, we are forced to ask ourselves:   “Can it be that a Muslim, with his incorrect theology and his corrupted religious practices, could be held up as an example, as a part of the answer?  Could [Jesus] be saying that a man like that is somehow closer to eternal life than a respected pastor or a sharp seminary student?”

If we are to function as witnesses (clearly our job title, if we take seriously the words of “The Great Thing Entrusted to Us”), it is our job to answer the question:  Who is this man?  TFTWSH puts that question to God Himself by thoughtfully examining the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death,  and challenges the reader  to let that question pierce his own heart — to awaken to the wonder of Jesus.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

An Open Letter to My First Mentor

Happy Birthday, Joanne!

Do people in heaven celebrate birthdays?  Probably not, but more important for you (and tragic for me) is that this is the tenth time you have celebrated a birthday in heaven.  Another thing I’m not absolutely clear on is whether you are aware of this birthday greeting; whether you are privy to some of the milestones, triumphs, and failures I’ve missed sharing with you over the past ten years.  I’ve gotten used to thinking of you as a member of my “cloud of witnesses.”  I hope I’m right.

One of the reasons that I’m ok about admitting my uncertainties (that I have not yet developed a theology-of-everything) is that from the time I was sixteen years old, I witnessed your questioning spirit, your curious mind, and your whole-hearted  “pressing on to know the Lord.”   I wanted to know Him, too, so I trailed along behind you.   In fact, I wish I could ask you now if you ever thought of yourself as my “mentor.”  Evangelicals weren’t throwing that word around in the seventies.  However, they were throwing a lot of other words around, and you were curious about all of them.  Journaling, conversational prayer, the role of women in the church — you shared your books with me, we wondered out loud together,  and something stronger than heredity was passed along.  As we talked, you were teaching me how to think about faith, but I picked up other things as well.   When I clean out a mixing bowl, my spatula “chases the batter into the pan,” just like yours did.  I wouldn’t be caught dead without a supply of English muffins in my freezer so that when a crowd of teens lands on my doorstep, I can feed them “pizza babies.”

Crucially, from you, I learned to love the Word of God, because of Who it points to and because of the very sound of it.

When I asked how you happened to be quoting Psalm 8 from memory in a devotional, your reply was stunning to me:  “I liked it, so I wanted to memorize it.”

“Huh, why not?”  I said, and I am still saying it.  Whenever I review Philippians 2, I can hear your voice saying it with me over the engine of a VW Rabbit.

When we prayed together, I believed that God was listening.  Eventually, I began to believe that He would listen when I came to Him alone.

From you, I learned not to take myself too seriously.  Your daughter’s wedding in the apple orchard yielded some amazing black and white photos.  For instance, the bridal party and guests with heads bowed in prayer at ceremony’s end, barefoot brides maids in the tall grass, and the mother-of-the-bride with her head thrown back, eyes closed, apparently in deep, thoughtful meditation.   “Wow, that was some prayer time, ” I observed.

“I was just trying to keep my nose from running, ” you said.

Another uncontrollable force in your life was the kitchen table, always covered with an assortment of books, mail, loaves of bread, and magazines.  Whenever we talked on the phone, you were cleaning off the table.  ALWAYS.   Here’s what I’ve realized about that:

Like me, you had a husband and four kids. Like me, you were very active in your church.   Unlike me, you had a career outside the home.

I will never know what sacrifices you made to spend time with me.  So now, on your birthday, I want to remember what I have received so that when the opportunity arises, I will choose availability over “me-time”; vulnerability over “image management”; relationships over the elusive merit-badge in housekeeping.

I have not even begun to build into the lives of others in the way that you did, but thank you for showing me that it can be done, and that the Great Commission is not always fulfilled with a passport and a suitcase.  Sometimes two people sit at a messy kitchen table, and the Spirit is there, and disciples are made.

Linking up today with Leah Adams and a great group of writers and thinkers at The Loft.

Heeding the Angels’ Command

Be Not Afraid:  Facing Fear with Faith by Samuel Wells

A Book Review

Most of the fears that plague us are, fortunately, more mundane than a celestial visitation.  Or is it fortunate, after all?  In taking our fears for granted, we may miss the message they carry to our hearts, for fear is revelatory, churning our soul and our stomach until we discover what we value.

[Fear] is an emotion that identifies what we love.  The quickest way to discover what or whom someone loves is to find out what they are afraid of.  We fear because we don’t want to lose what we love.  We fear intensely when we love intensely . . .

With this in mind, Samuel Wells takes aim for the places in us where fear abides.  Gut, head, heart, and hand — these are the targets for Samuel Wells’ reflections on overcoming fear.

Wells sets his sites on six huge nemeses that keep us awake at night  (death, weakness, power, difference, faith, and life itself), and then chisels away at them in essays that are both incisive and surprising.  His connections between the Bible and life inspire a simultaneous “Wow” and “Of course!” For instance,  having loved Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven since college days, and having taught Jesus’ parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep countless times, how have I missed putting them together?

God is the hound of heaven who searches us out and knows us; God in Christ is the good shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to come and find us; God in Christ is the women who cared so much that she set everything aside to find us . . . Faith is not a heroic journey:  faith is the acceptance of being found.

With an eye for detail balanced by an ability to see Scripture as a whole, Wells crisscrosses between the testaments ( Red Sea crossing to Jesus’ baptism); points out startling similarities between biblical narratives (“If you are the Son of God . . .” was hurled at Jesus in His temptation as well as on the cross); and skewers his reader with theological concepts that are practical and convicting (“The Trinity isn’t a support structure for the Father to be the star.”)

Samuel Wells develops his arguments with a writing style that is as methodical as an equation and as poetic as the gospel.  The progression of thought in his view of healing as the “sandwich filling” between salvation and eternal life occupied my mind for an afternoon on a riding lawn mower.

With humor that is really more a crooked smile than a chuckle, he quotes C.S. Lewis, referring to him simply as “one Irish writer,” and laments the lack of dentists and deodorant in first century Palestine.  Many evangelicals will find that when Wells uses the term “baptism,” we would use the term “salvation,” (and he makes the connection himself in his chapter called “Born Again”), but based on Chapter 21, Wells would say that we should not fear that difference.

Fearless, the author takes on the language of “Father,” challenges us to shed the “cloak” of status,  and invites the body of Christ to use the language of lament to look squarely into the sadness of AIDS.  Most practically, the three words, “Can We Talk,” will go with me as a bridge into my next confrontational conversation.  Most unforgettably, the author brings the journalist’s “Five W’s” into Isaiah 43 to address the “profound and justified fears that can bring us to our knees: death, pain, guilt and isolation.”

I recommend a slow and thoughtful reading of Be Not Afraid, although you will be tempted to take it on in great gulps.  Since Wells has presented it in thirty-one chapters, a chapter a day for a month would be delightful.  And life-changing.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

The Companion in Her Darkness

Darkness Is My Only Companion by Kathryn Greene-McCreight:  A Book Review

In putting forth “A Christian Response to Mental Illness” (the book’s sub-title), Kathryn Greene-McCreight has skillfully woven theological reflections on mental illness with the account of her own struggle with bipolar disorder.  The result is a seamless consideration of everything from diagnosis and medication to vivid recollections of how it feels to be the body that houses a manic brain. 

McCreight faced very real challenges during her years of intense struggle. Chapter 12 (How Clergy, Friends and Family Can Help) and the conclusion with the author’s seven lessons learned from her affliction could be stand-alones for anyone struggling with mental illness or endeavoring to be of help to someone else. 

The harvest of wisdom presented in DIMOC might best be summarized using some of the Scripture references that served as hand-holds on her climb toward healing:

Isaiah 45:15 — During a depression, when God seemed distant (or non-existent), the author followed Isaiah’s lead in addressing God directly, “even in God’s apparent absence.”  Raw examples of her prayers during deep depression reveal her struggle.  Her use of biblical and historical prayers, such as this by Samuel Johnson,  gave words to her longing for stability and productivity:

Grant, I beg you, merciful Lord, that the designs of a new and better life, which by your grace I have now formed, may not pass away without effect.  Incite and enable me, by your Holy Spirit, to improve the time which you shall grant me; to avoid all evil thoughts, words, and actions . . .

Isaiah 42:3 — Feeling like a “bruised reed” and a “dimly burning wick”, Greene-McCreight found that worship was indispensable.  “Borrow from the faith of your brothers and sisters in Christ,” is her advice.  She begged God for strength not to commit suicide, for the sake of her husband and children, and for the sake of her ministry:  “I cannot allow myself so to undermine my very life’s work.”

I Peter 5:8-9a — Swinging between mania and depression, the author continually felt the need to “keep alert,” but references to “the devil” or anything pertaining to her Christian faith occasionally caused tension with her care-givers.  In her book, she shares wisdom gained in navigating the path of mental illness with both Christian and unbelieving professionals. 

Psalm 71:3 — Fighting the stigma of hospitalization, Greene-McCreight eventually realized that even this was God’s provision for her safety.  He was her “strong rock,” and she clung to Him in the structure of the Book of Common Prayer; in the initially unthinkable provision of electroconvulsive therapy; and in the simple grace of molding a clay vase that turned out well.

II Corinthians 12:7 — The “sufficient” grace of God gave the author vision to meet mental illness as a test, to be “met like all other tests:  with prayer that God will see us through it faithfully.”  Hymns were spot lights on the grace of God, often just a phrase such as, “the soul that to Jesus has fled for repose / I will not, I will not desert to its foes . . .” 

When she referred to the overwhelming assortment of medications prescribed to control the symptoms of bipolar disorder, the author compared them to Saul’s armor, weighing David down, and ultimately cast off.  She longed to do the same, but persevered.  Another verse comes to mind as confirmation that Kathryn Greene-McCreight has earned the right to speak into the emotionally charged issue of mental illness and Christian faith:

“One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.”  I Kings 20.11

Greene-McCreight has worn the armor, she has fought the fight, and at the book’s conclusion was still in the battle.  Thus follows her exhortation, that in all our afflictions, physical, mental, and otherwise, we look to the encouraging truth of Revelation 7:16-17:

They will hunger no more and thirst no more;

the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,

and He will guide them to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Christ, the Lamb, enters our affliction and becomes the Companion in all our darkness.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Rain from the Desert

A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves:  A Book Review

From time to time, everyone walks through desert-days.  The sustaining dream has fizzled and the bud of the new one has yet to form; the approving eyes of those-who-matter have focused elsewhere; the taken-for-granted vitality which makes all things possible has evaporated, replaced by pain, discouragement, drought.  The prophet Isaiah has written lyrics for when the scorching comes:

The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your soul in drought,

And strengthen your bones;

You shall be like a watered garden,

And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

Isaiah 58:11 could hang as a banner over Marlena Graves’ journey.  Her “God-bathed wilderness experiences” have informed every aspect of her life today and infused beyond-her-years maturity into the life of the thirty-six year old author.

Through captivating use of story, Graves takes us behind Moses’ eyes to view his self-inflicted desert days; lowers us through the roof  with the paralytic of Mark 2; and drums her fingers on the waiting-table with Abraham, looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise.  The result?

Clarity!  In the Biblical accounts, no one emerged from the wilderness unchanged.

Moses found grace to become  the most humble man on earth.

The paralytic discovered what is was to be seen, welcomed, forgiven, healed.

Abraham, the father of finagling, submitted to the plan of God and became the father of nations.

My appreciation for A Beautiful Disaster was enhanced by my reading of Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Everyday PeopleIn an attempt to blast fellow Protestants out of six hundred years of smugness (“See, we were right to protest!”), Okholm examines the spirituality of Benedictine monks; i.e. communities who emphasized a deeply rooted spiritual life that would take them through the desert.  When Marlena advises us to slow down and attend to the days and the minutes of a waiting time, she is encouraging the practice of stability — paying attention to the people and the lessons of the present moment.  When she urges us to keep silence and to embrace solitude as holy things, we are being pushed toward the first words of Benedict’s rule:  “Listen carefully, my son, to the Master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Far and away, my favorite chapter was number seven:  “Waiting around for God.”  I have stood beside Marlena Graves countless times in my life, straining to see around the billowing daytime cloud and the nocturnal pillar of fire, impatient and insistent that they were blocking my view of the road ahead.  Perhaps she, too, has read wise counsel from Elisabeth Elliot for times of waiting and wondering:  “Do the next thing.”  In the economy of the wilderness life, the gift of waiting becomes a fasting from the need for control.

Marlena Graves weaves her own desert tale with the lessons of humility, adoration of God, and the deep sense of His adequacy. She emerges with her childlike curiosity restored, an unshakeable trust in God’s love for her, and a heightened ability to attend to and minister to the needs of others.

Her invitation to the reader through the pages of A Beautiful Disaster comes through in elegant prose:

Bloom in the desert.

Be healthier, humbler, more compassionate as a result of the lessons learned in the desert; go forward “like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”