Musings: December 2017

Chopping up the last of my garden carrots and sweeping them into a snowy-day soup, I marveled at their color and texture, so much brighter and more tender than any store-bought veggie, even though they were yanked out of the ground by my exuberant grandson back in October. It’s clear that these orange roots were once a living thing, and in these days of rest and family vacation following a tumultuous year, a busy semester, and a vibrant celebration of Christmas, I feel grateful to be among the “living things” who are able to enjoy the vivid blue of a winter sky, the sound of “single-digit snow” squeaking under my snowshoes, and the warm presence of a tiny person beside me on the couch as we turn pages and share stories together.

On My Mind

In the spring, I began a slow slog through the book of Jeremiah. The challenge has been to dwell in the encouragement of Jeremiah’s faithfulness while he carried out an overwhelming (and discouraging) assignment from God, particularly when he was required, time after time, to deliver the somber message of judgment and exile.

Even so, like daylight shining through the cracks around a slammed-shut door, the promises of God shine through Jeremiah’s prophetic words. Reading Jeremiah 21:8, I understood that God’s reprise of Deuteronomy 30 was a renewal of His vows. Then, flipping pages back to its first mention and reading onward, I found a warning against the subtle slippage that erodes faithfulness one grain at a time.

“But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them,  I announce to you today that you shall surely perish …” Deuteronomy 30:17

Year end is a fitting time for assessment and reflection, so I’m taking the temperature of my own following heart these days and using Moses’ cautionary words as a wake up call:

  • What is my heart turned toward, what is it beholding, that may deafen me to the voice of God?
  • Am I spreading my worship thin, deifying substitute gods who draw me away from a faithful following, and a single-eyed service?

On the Blog

If you haven’t already filled your heart with enough Christmas cheer to last until December 2018, here’s a list of my Christmas offerings from December:

On December 1, The Redbud Post shared a collection of my Christmas book reviews for their theme of The Sacred Amidst the Secular.

My Sunday School teaching on the well-loved carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, found its way into a blog post that has enhanced my singing and my worship throughout this Season of Listening.

And . . .

. . . turning the corner into the New Testament as my patient husband and I finish up our 2017 read-through landed my thinking with the Acts-One Faithful who were given a command to wait in Wait for the Spirit of Christmas. Wait for the promise to be fulfilled. Wait for power from on high. Because Christmas is a celebration of waiting fulfilled, I spent some time pondering the path of the impatient in what Tozer has described as these days of “the interim time.”

I reviewed four books in December, and am happy to be maintaining this one-book-per-week pace. My Goodreads goal for 2017 was 52 books, and I read 57, so I’ll likely stick with a 52 book goal for 2018.

Love Big, Be Well by Winn Collier is an epistolary novel based on the sweet correspondence between a fictional pastor and his flock. It’s guaranteed to make the reader fall in love all over again with ministry and with the church.

Sing! by Keith and Kristyn Getty emphasizes the importance of congregational singing — it’s not just something we do to fill up the time before the sermon. Martin Luther said it well:  “Let God speak directly to His people through the Scriptures, and let His people respond with grateful songs of praise.”

Karen Wright Marsh wrote a book that gathers in one place her reflections on the lives of historical figures in church history, delivered in talks at the Bonhoeffer House on the campus of the University of Virginia. Each chapter of Vintage Saints and Sinners stands alone, but together, they’ll remind you that even the most celebrated of the “saints” were sinners too, and modern day believers can also travel a pilgrimage of faith that is both gritty and joyful.

Alexandra Kuykendall wanted to make some changes that would bring joy back into her celebration of Jesus’ birthday. She conducted an experiment that she hoped would help her to capture the essence of the season, and Loving My Actual Christmas is her lab report. She longed to set her family up for success by lowering expectations, lightening their load, and limiting their activity level. If you’re doing a post-mortem on Christmas 2017 and vowing to do better next year, here’s a great place to begin. The Perennial Gen very kindly shared my review over at their place because I was writing from the perspective of Loving My Mid-Life Christmas.

On My Nightstand

It’s time for me to take another stab at G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and I’m planning to do a monthly pondering post about my reading here. More details to come in January!

 

 

On My Heart . . .

. . . is a load of thanksgiving for each one of you who reads, for you who faithfully comment, share posts, and encourage me along the way. I’m convinced that I’d be writing something somewhere whether anyone was reading it or not, but it’s so much more fun to know that others are with me in this faith journey, and that we are Living Our Days in community.

A Blessed Beginning of 2018 to You!

 


Join me over at Leigh Kramer’s place to read what others are sharing about their reading, writing, watching, thinking, and eating lives. The December musings are always the best!

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Toward a Sensitive Observance of Holy Innocents Day 2017

A few verses in Matthew are all that are granted to the tragedy of slain baby boys following the birth of Jesus. Christian Churches in the west have memorialized Herod’s paranoid panic as Holy Innocents’ Day, celebrated historically on December 28th, the fourth day of Christmas. In Medieval England, children were awakened to the solemnity of the occasion with a whipping. The Reformation effectively put a stop to the observance, but in Mexico the Feast of Holy Innocents is still celebrated as a mid-winter April Fool’s Day.

Consistent with our tendency to gloss over the unpleasant portions of Scripture, the church today skims quickly over the tragic tale. All the same, I’m wondering if that’s really an honest approach when 2017 has seen so much senseless carnage of innocent children.  There are children in famine-stricken Sudan, starving under the Khartoum regime. A dozen or more children have been shot and killed in pews and in their car seats here in the U.S. in the random violence that has characterized 2017.

Tricked out of a positive identification of his rival by the stealth of the wise men, Herod reduced a precious population of baby boys to a disposable demographic: male child, resident of Bethlehem and its districts, two years old and under. Herod’s extreme measures to protect his power from a child who might grow up to dethrone him is a theme we’d rather not think about at Christmas time.

Perhaps the early darkness of this season here in the Northern Hemisphere is the ideal setting in which to pause from our seasonal hoopla and allow our hearts to enter into the sadness and the grief that accompany the violent loss of a child. I find myself wishing that the weeping women of Ramah could have somehow joined the company of those who “sorrow not even as others who have no hope.”  With tears foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, it is unlikely that even one of those bereaved mothers ever realized that her boy child died in the place of the Savior of humanity so that Jesus could live and die in the manner God had ordained.

God’s economy is strange to us, and even if those Palestinian mums had been privy to the rich theology behind the survival of the one and only two-year-old whose parents had been warned in a dream, I have no doubt that there was not a mother in the lot who wouldn’t have traded all that promise of righteousness, all that prophetic fulfillment for one more day with her boy. Is there ever an era or a set of circumstances in which a bereaved mother does not sob ragged to frame these words:
Why my child?
Why not some other?

Let’s give the gift of prayer and support to those who grieve the loss of a child this Christmas season. As a mother of four living sons, I do not claim to understand the depth of truth behind Jeremiah’s cruelly accurate prophecy that they “will not be comforted,” but I do know what I have read from authors like Nancy Guthrie and Meadow Rue Merrill who have experienced the loss of a child and written about it. Their experience schools me in the truth that in spite of hopeful expectations, grieving mothers in Texas and Sudan will not soon be comforted:
Not by time.
Not by the kind consolation of thoughtful words.
Not by the probing questions — thinly veiled queries, which, over the years
will come to revolve around a single theme:
“Isn’t she over this yet?”

Let’s weep with them as they wait for their hearts to heal. Finding no ready answer to the evil in the world let’s discover that their suffering — all suffering — creates a space in which we wait for the deep comfort promised by another ancient prophet:

Healing for the brokenhearted.
Consolation to those who mourn.
Beauty.
Joy.
Praise.

We wait for another coming of Jesus, and we long for the hearts of grieving parents to find reconciliation with God through His Son so that shortly after these brokenhearted mothers see His face, they will see, once again, the face of their child.


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A Day Like No Other Day

It was a day like any other day in the life-long ministry of Zacharias the priest.  With Elisabeth’s goodbye kiss still warm on his cheek, he went about his business, reporting for duty in his scheduled commitment to serve in the Temple.

It was a day like no other day when the honor of entering the most holy place fell to Zacharias, and his aging eyes found the burning incense eclipsed by angel light. Startling and strange, the heavenly messenger’s words hooked unbelief, earning Zacharias a nine-month sentence of mute pondering.  God’s four-hundred year silence was broken, leaving an elderly couple blinking and gasping at this new way of understanding the word impossible.

“Well stricken in years” is the delicate, traditional rendering, a state that would have made for a challenging pregnancy in any era — even if you are carrying the forerunner of the Messiah.  Like a spavined barn with tar paper siding, Elisabeth’s olden frame would have been covered with skin already stretched and sagging, but with joy she bore the bone-on-bone pain of an aging back and a heavy load.

Did she understand that her glorious passage from barren to fruitful was more a rending of history than a miracle of gynecology?

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It was a December day like any other.  There was dog hair that needed to be vacuumed.  There were lessons that needed to be prepared.  There were emails unanswered and dishes unwashed.  By my calculation, Advent season includes the routine preparation of at least seventy-five meals on top of all the other holiday baking and decorating.

It was a December day like none before. Sitting at the dining room table with my Bible open to the pages between the Testaments– the ones that follow the scalding prophetic words and precede the red letters of grace–I imagined myself into the sandals of the faithful. Pausing in this liminal space, I wondered about waiting and the nature of a sinewy watchfulness that keeps on trusting in the fulfillment of a centuries-old promise in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

From the outside, I think it must look like everyday life:
–Elisabeth, hands resting upon implausible roundness as she tries to decipher Zechariah’s chalkboard scribbles;
–Mary, silently pondering a secret that would rock her teenage world and send the tongues of Nazareth wagging;
–Anna, keeping her open-ended vigil, not knowing that the waiting would soon be over and her eyes would see salvation in an infant’s small appearance.

Attending to the faithfulness of these women of Christmas puts parentheses around a moment, as I try to identify with the generations who lived their days in the in-between. Sure, God had promised that a Messiah would come, and those who knew the Scriptures seemed to have a lot of details about it. Even so, for those who held the promise close to their hearts, it must have seemed as if God had pressed history’s pause button, and they had been left standing in a freeze frame, waiting for deliverance.

Fast forward over two thousand years from the dawn of Anno Domini, and we’ve lost that connection between expectation and faith. High-speed internet and Amazon one-day shipping are relics of my forward-leaning Religion of Next. I wear my hurry like an ill-fitting cassock, proclaiming by my words and deeds the counterfeit gospel that God is in the slowest hurry I’ve ever seen. In a fast-forward life, anticipation fades like childhood memory and the long-forgotten sound of Christmas bells.

When Christmas becomes separated from Truth, it lands in my December like a burden–just one more thing in the multitude of things that need to be checked off my list. But, if I stay present to the wonder of Word made flesh, my blunted perception is sharpened just enough to hear God’s present-day proclamation in words that bypass angel lips and star song, but land in power on the believing heart:

Nothing shall be impossible.”
God is with us.”

Words spoken into that long ago in-between resonate for today’s waiting.
Simple Truth schools me in the authentic gospel of expectation in which the power and the presence of God bursts through all the shallow frippery and hoopla of a holiday run amuck.
Entering the holy place of the in-between, Truth feeds an advent of belief. For, like Elisabeth, I, too, live in hope for that which is yet unseen, my heart pregnant with anticipation of the Coming that is yet to come.

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This post appeared first at SheLoves Magazine.

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Wait for the Spirit of Christmas

“Wait,” He said, and locked His gaze with eleven pairs of eyes brimming with question marks.

“Wait. I have been your constant companion for three years, walking long deserted roads, sharing our meager meals, sleeping under the stars. I have answered your questions and rebuked your faithlessness, and now it is time for me to return to the Father. But I tell you this: If you could choose and if you knew what I know, you would choose the Helper I am sending over my presence beside you. Don’t try to go forward on your own. Wait for the Gift.”

Imagining myself into the upper room, in the company of the Acts -One-Faithful, I wonder:  Could I have waited in faith for ten long days between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost? Is it possible that I would have persevered in the cloud of unknowing until the tongues of fire landed and the Wind swept in a new era of redemptive history?
Or . . .
Would I have waffled and sown doubt into the gathering, nervously rehearsing Jesus’ words, calling for conferences in which we’d put our heads together — wondering if we’d heard correctly, or if we had misunderstood His intentions.

“He said Jerusalem, right?”
“What was the word He used?”
“Baptized?”

The record shows they waited, and the promise was fulfilled. The power came down, but not merely as a force or a tingle of energy. Once again, God had sent a Person into time and space to accomplish His purposes and to reveal God-nature to the bumbling race of humanity.

Likewise, today, God the Holy Spirit is a Person Who comes to us, bringing power that holds us in the faith. When the Spirit comes rushing in at the beginning of our following lives, His mission is to initiate an ongoing love affair with God. Miraculously, we become little-Christs, and the Word becomes flesh once again, in our lives and in our deeds.  This is the Gift of Christ to those who “tarry” and are “endued with power from on high.”

A Celebration of Waiting Fulfilled

However, the sad truth that weaves its way through Christmas season 2017 is this:
We’re just fresh out of patience.
The idea of waiting for ten days for anyone or anything is unthinkable. We want to know the mind of God, discover our unique purpose in life, and celebrate Christmas wholeheartedly, dagnabbit, and we want to do it right now. In the impatience of our ceaseless striving, we forget that Christmas is a celebration of waiting fulfilled. It’s the vindication of Old Testament believers who spent long uncomfortable lives clinging to wispy words of prophecy and trusting in God’s good intentions toward them. It’s the season of Mary’s yes to a nine-month obedience and of open-ended journeys prompted by stars and visions.

When I forget the overshadowing Spirit and the power of the Most High, I have lost the Spirit of Christmas. The boundaries between who I am and Who God is become fuzzy and indistinct. It becomes easier and more tempting to arrogate to myself prerogatives that are not mine to exercise. The Christmas Spirit is reduced to a warm fuzzy feeling that can be duplicated by a serving of eggnog or an evening of gift wrapping by candlelight.

Living in “the Interim Time”

Make no mistake: when Jesus promised power from on high, it was a far-reaching offer that spanned the centuries. That’s good news, for we also live in a world of waiting. The only difference is that now Wi-Fi, CNN, the Hallmark channel, and our frantic pace distract us from our true situation, which A.W. Tozer describes as “the interim time”:

“We live between two mighty events — that of [Jesus’] incarnation, death, and resurrection, and that of His ultimate appearing and the glorification of those He died to save.  This is the interim time for the saints — but it is not a vacuum.  He has given us much to do, and He asks for our faithfulness.”

It is the Spirit of Christmas Who will bring about this faithfulness in His people. The same Spirit Who “hovered over the face of the waters,” also seeded life into Mary’s womb and empowered a motley crew of ragtag fishermen to turn the world upside down.   He will show up to guide present day followers as well, even in seasons when pursuing our calling feels as vague as following a star in the East. Our waiting is no more absent of activity and life than a drop of pond water.

Thank you, Spirit of God, for this season of hope in which we celebrate your exquisite timing.
Empower us to view our waiting and our wondering as an opportunity to receive your grace for that moment, to be “endued with power from on High” so that we may become fiercehearted women of Christmas like Anna and Elisabeth and Mary who waited in hope throughout their interim time. May we rejoice in anticipation as they did, knowing that patience is the bridge that joins time and eternity, and Your promised presence is a fresh offering every day.

Amen.

 //

Photo by Joanna Kosinska from Unsplash

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Loving My Mid-Life Christmas

For the past several years, change has been the only constant in our Christmas celebration.

Grown up sons marry, pack up their collection of treasured ornaments, and hang them on their own trees. College guys come home when they can and join in the fun on an intermittent schedule. Teens branching into individualized creativity grab an ax, stride manfully into the woods, and return bearing a Charlie Brown tree for their bedroom, which they will festoon with enough lights to interfere with normal sleep patterns.

Our Christmas gatherings have become a moving target with a schedule that requires both flexibility and diplomacy, but I’m learning to appreciate the Christmas that is and to let Christmas past be past — fondly remembered but not slaying my enjoyment of the here and now.

Alexandra Kuykendall, author of Loving My Actual Christmas, struggled with loving “Christmas present” as well. Visions of Pinterest perfection left her exhausted and so done with Christmas that she finished the season by stripping the decorations off the tree and stuffing them into their boxes, not caring if she ever saw them again.

In addition, Norman Rockwell gatherings around a flawless feast didn’t match the reality of the recent loss of her father and the empty chair at the table

Alexandra wanted to make some changes that would bring joy back into her celebration of Jesus’ birthday. She conducted an experiment which she hoped would help her to capture the essence of the season, and Loving My Actual Christmas is her lab report. Each of the four weeks of Advent and the lighting of each of the four candles represents a theme, so the Kuykendalls implemented those themes as the framework for their actual Christmas.

Who among us doesn’t appreciate a little more Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love in our celebration of Jesus?

I’m sharing my review of Loving My Actual Christmas over at The Perennial Gen, so I hope you’ll click on over and join us there. Insights from the book may be just what you’re looking for to align your own celebration with the reality that surrounds you, and while you’re visiting, be sure to check out the collection of other posts.

You’ll be inspired by the wisdom there as you put down solid roots into the dirt and light of midlife.

 

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Additional Resources

Alexandra shares even more details about her Christmas experiment on her own podcast, The Open Door Sisterhood. She also engaged in a soulful and enlightening conversation on the Ears to Speak podcast, episode 5 in which she discussed the Christmas realities of budgets and complicated relationships, planning realistic and joyful traditions, and her journey of discovering how to live out a Christmas that is full of love and is spiritually intriguing to the people around you.

This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

A Season of Listening

Christmas is the season of listening. We gather around the story of Luke 2, as it’s read aloud. We hang sleigh bells on our Christmas trees and on our door knobs and enjoy the nostalgia for days when holiday traffic was all “over the river and through the woods.” Carols ring out in the most unlikely places and carolers freeze their fingers and noses to spread the joy of music to their neighbors. Brass quartets suddenly play to packed halls, and Salvation Army bell ringers lighten our hearts with a reminder to share.

Even those who totally miss the point of Christmas listen ardently to a genre of music unique to the season and fine tune their ears to the glad tidings of dramatic price reductions and the great joy of “no interest ’til next year!”

But then, there’s the carol that, on the down beat, demands a listening ear:

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

 

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is deeply theological and yet joyfully singable, which is no surprise, coming as it does from a collaboration between theologian Charles Wesley and composer Felix Mendelssohn. (According to Wikipedia, George Whitefield even had a hand in it!)

The message of the carol offers a theological basis for a unique Christmas listening, particularly in reference to the carol itself, for how ironic is it for us to sing all four verses of a song beginning with “Hark!” and then to zone out on the words as they come effortlessly to mind?

When the familiarity of the words stands like a giant barrier between your heart and the truth, it’s time to slow down for a deeper pondering of Christmas. After all, this is no small event. Because of the newborn King, a giant rift in the universe has been healed.

Have You Noticed?

Wesley refers to Jesus using 11 different names in the four verses of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Each one is theologically dense and rich in promise:

  1. Newborn King,
  2. Christ,
  3. Everlasting Lord,
  4. Offspring of the Virgin’s Womb,
  5. Incarnate Deity,
  6. The Godhead Veiled in Flesh,
  7. Emmanuel,
  8. Prince of Peace,
  9. Sun of Righteousness,
  10. Desire of Nations, and
  11. Second Adam.

Any one of these names has enough embedded truth to warm a cold December heart.

We love to sing about “peace on earth and mercy mild” at Christmas time, and the angel’s message urges us to pay attention to the source of true peace and reconciliation. We are invited to “rise” and to “join the triumph of the skies” that teemed with worship on that dark hillside so long ago. The carol borrows words from Hebrews 1 to remind us that we are in “the last days” ushered in by Jesus’ arrival “late in time.”

The incarnation is a durable truth that yields richness even on a rainy Thursday in August, but at Christmas time, we’re invited to dwell in its enormity, and I’m thankful that when God revealed Himself to humanity, He did not say, “Here I am! Find a way to come to Me!” Instead, he “lay His glory by” and “raise[d] the sons of earth.” He said, “I’ll come to you, and I will raise you. I will take you with Me”

The season of listening is also a season for new beginnings, not because of ritual New Year’s resolutions that follow on its heels, but because of “the woman’s conquering seed.” The safe delivery of a warm and swaddled newborn triggered a chain reaction of spiritual warfare. It began in the slaughter of infants with Herod’s bloody and paranoid sword, which was parried by an angelic warning and a flight to Egypt. Later, a test of wits in the wilderness was countered by Words of Truth that exalted Living Bread. Then, at “an opportune time,” a wooden cross and a grisly death ushered in the crushing power of resurrection to “bruise in us the serpent’s head.”

Listening for Christmas truth sheds glory everywhere. When my son’s jazz band plays Feliz Navidad, I pray for our post-Babel world. As I tap my foot to its non-traditional rhythms on the floor of a drafty New England church, I remember that the Yin of my cold and snowy Christmas has a Yang of 90-degrees-and-Christmas-at-the-beach for those who live south of the equator. The effects of the angel’s message are world-wide; the invitation is to “all nations.”

It is my hope that you are among the listeners this Christmas, that your ears are tuned to the whisper of truth amidst the noise of holiday hoopla, and that Jesus is making His “humble home” in your heart. Because of His coming, you can know God personally.

Blessings to you as you rejoice in the “light and life” He brings.

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Thank you to my friend Abby from Little Birdie Blessings for the uniquely crafted image, complete with musical angels.

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Word Made Flesh — A Celebration of Reading for Advent

In the month of December, the Christmas story often stands alone, lifted with huge parentheses out of the New Testament — maybe delivered in Linus’s hushed boy soprano, and then tucked away with the durable resin nativity set and the white twinkly lights until next year. It’s a great story, so it’s easy to see why authors of every creed are drawn to its rich narrative.  Left in context, of course, it holds a pivotal place in redemptive history, and since it is a Word that was given to us (John 1:14), it is natural to use words and the magic of story to give substance to our celebration.

For me, every holiday is made more festive by the inclusion of books that heighten my understanding and appreciation of the occasion and that encourage me to enter in, to be present to the beauty. That’s why I’m sharing a collection of books that will bring the sacred into your everyday celebration of Advent. Click on over to the Redbud Post to read a joyful sprinkling of content from A.W. Tozer, Madeleine L’Engle, Sarah Arthur, and Luci Shaw.

Letting our hearts rejoice in the incarnation reminds us that even within the hectic pace and hoopla of Christmas celebration, we, too, can make the Word become flesh once again, in our lives and in our deeds.

I hope you’ll join me, and may your heart be encouraged in joy!

Redbud Writers Guild

For regular encouragement, like the Redbud Writers Guild page on Facebook!

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.