“No poet in the world has written a more beautiful short story.” –Alexander Schröder, about the Book of Ruth
The church where I pastor started this year by going through the Old Testament book of Ruth. Ruth is a short book nestled in between some of the most pivotal and epic stories God’s people would ever pass down through the generations: you’ve got Samson, Joshua, Gideon, and the entrance into the Promised Land on one side and King David, Solomon, and the best and worst of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel on the other.
But there in between is Ruth—part tragedy, part romance, part survival story, and all heart. Goethe called it, “the loveliest complete work on a small scale, handed down to us as an ethical treatise and an idyll.”
When I prepare sermons, I edit with a particular eye. I’m working to put together the key themes and events of a Biblical text in such a way that they take a room full of people to the foot of the cross—to that place where our deepest needs are met in God’s gracious provision.
I believe the power of preaching resides with the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of God’s people. At the same time, I also believe God wants me to care deeply about the craft of preaching and my personal development as a communicator. Those two truths make sense together. I approach sermon writing as a skill, an art, and a God-directed mystery, and I want to be more skilled, more artistic, and more God-directed as I grow.
My friend Charlie Peacock (husband of Rabbit Room Press’s own Andi Ashworth) recently posted this comment and the following link to an interview with Paul Simon on his Facebook page. This is the story of a man in a rich, challenging, honest process.
“It’s heartbreaking how divisive people can be when it comes to their opinions about God. There’s nothing so destructive as when the conversation is reduced to: You’re an idiot if you believe – you’re an idiot if you don’t. Like Coltrane, Johnny Cash, Bono, and Dylan, the great American songwriter Paul Simon keeps bringing his spiritual search into the public square in winsome and graceful ways. Here’s a transparent, honest interview that Paul did with PBS earlier in the year. This is how you talk about your spiritual life and quest in public without coming off as a lightweight, a bully, or a know it all. This is human, artistic process where every sphere of life and curiosity finds it’s way into your art. The art informs the world but turns back to you, continuing to inform you, bring you pleasure, and inspiring your ‘eyes to see and ears to hear.’”
What did I think would happen? I suppose I hadn’t really thought about it. Still, what actually did happen came to me as a bit of a surprise.
The concert started at 7:30, the doors opened at 6:00. At around 5:00, I stopped by the venue to buy my ticket. What did I see? A line. There was a line. Fans were already gathering so they could get right up to the front of the stage—fans wearing Stryper t-shirts and holding records they hoped to get autographed.
Why did this surprise me? It wasn’t that Stryper had fans. Of course they had fans. The surprise was how willing these fans were to identify themselves as such. And even more, how unwilling I was to do the same.
Lest you think I’m using Stryper or their fans as the punch line of a joke, let me explain myself. For close to a decade of my life, when I told people I was a Stryper fan it was a badge of pride. Then there came another decade where, when I mentioned liking them, people thought I was joking and I sheepishly denied it. Now I’m in a decade where people buy music, concert tickets, and t-shirts for ’80s big-hair metal because they think it’s “ironic.”
“We will rock the hell out of you.” –Stryper
Last weekend when I heard about a certain concert happening in my city that night, I sent out a tweet that has been bugging me ever since. I twote:
What bugs me most about that tweet is how much effort I spent qualifying something I genuinely wanted to do. “I may or may not…,” “Don’t Judge Me…” Insinuating that if I go, it’s for nostalgia. Why did I feel the need to distance myself from going to see the one band who has probably received more of my money and bedroom wall space than any other in the history of the whammy bar?
For those unfamiliar with Stryper, a little history might be in order. They formed in the early 80’s, appearing on LA’s Sunset Strip music scene with other big-hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Cinderella, Poison, and Ratt. If you know these bands, you get the picture—long hair, spandex, ear rings, make-up, lots of promises to rock people—no matter where they’re from—and to rock them for seemingly unending periods of time.
Stryper, from the beginning, occupied rarified air. If you were going to make it in that industry, there had to be something about you that 1) made you stand out, and 2) made people like you. With their yellow and black attire and their commitment to singing plainly about their faith in Jesus and the free offer of the Gospel, they certainly stood out. However, I expect both of those characteristics made the “make people like you” objective a little more of a battle. Why? Because lyrically and morally, they were swimming against the current of their competing colleagues’ core values.
“One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.” – Annie Dillard, Total Eclipse
Oh, to have been present at San Diego’s Glorietta Bay on July 4, 2012.
If I add up all the Fourth of Julys, Friday Nights at baseball stadiums and New Years celebrations, I bet I’ve seen close to fifty different fireworks displays over the course of my life. I’ve seen them from my seat in the third balcony at Busch Stadium, from the bed of a pickup truck in rural Indiana, and from a community college front lawn in Kansas City. There was even the fortuitous occasion where I was sitting in the window seat of a Delta flight over St. Louis thirty minutes after dark on Independence Day. Dozens of bursts of light dotted the landscape below as far as I could see. I was surprised by how small they looked from 30,000 feet.
Then there was the time I lay on the pavement of the casino parking lot in an Indian Reservation in central Washington where normal zoning and safety laws did not apply. The rockets burst in the sky directly overhead, raining down little bits of acrid paper all around us.
But nothing I’ve ever seen could come close to what the people of San Diego witnessed this past Fourth of July. What was supposed to be a twenty-minute display ended up lasting just fifteen seconds as a malfunction in the detonators caused the entire display—hundreds of individual fireworks—to all go off at once.
I want to tell you a story—a true story.
The snow had draped everything in a pillowy blanket of white that looked like something straight out of a Thomas Kincade painting. As a country kid, I preferred being outdoors. So when the snow stopped, I layered up, put on my boots, gloves and hat and went out to stand in the middle of the glory God had put on display.
I remember it like it was yesterday. The roads were all but impassable, so I stood alone and uninterrupted. It was bitterly cold—the dry kind that freezes the lungs when you breathe. Everything was so still that the sound of my boots crunching through the surface of the snow muted as though I were in an acoustically perfect concert hall.
I stood at the end of my driveway looking as far as I could past the stand of blue spruces draped in snow to my right when out of the corner of my eye I saw something out of place. There in a 30 foot spruce I saw something amid the alternating layers of bluish-green and pure white that was the color of ash. Unable to make out what it was, I went over to investigate.
One of my greatest joys as a writing pastor is that every year I am obliged to spend several weeks focusing on the two most earth-changing events in history–the birth of Jesus Christ, and his death and resurrection. You cannot make sense of one without the other. I’m currently working on a Lenten Narrative to follow last year’s Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative. With the season of Lent starting this week, I thought I’d offer here a chapter from Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative that looks at the incarnation of Jesus through the lens of his purpose for coming: to defeat the death I deserve and raise me to newness of life with him in his resurrection.
Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative
Chapter 24: The Hearts of Many Revealed
The old man was a member of the old guard, the last of a generation of faithful ministers in Jerusalem’s temple. He was something of a fixture—the kind of man who seemed to have always been there. It was hard to say whether Simeon smelled like the temple or the temple smelled like Simeon, but the minds of those who passed him in the street would often drift to notions of smoke and blood and a guilty resolve to attend to their worship more regularly.
The old guard to which he belonged was on a permanent watch. They were waiting for something in particular, something unique, something wonderful. The years had taught Simeon patience, so he was good at waiting. Still, he felt an unrelenting sense of urgency. He always had. He was waiting for the consolation of his people Israel. He had been waiting a long time, and his people even longer.
Back when The Rabbit Room first went live, part of our mission was to indulge in the pleasure of good and beautiful art. We launched with the understanding that there would always be plenty of sites online where readers could form a community around picking apart and criticizing what they didn’t like about certain music, books and film, but that this wouldn’t be that sort of place. Here at the Rabbit Room, we would focus our energy on the books, music, film and ideas that made us want to gather our friends, sit them down and oblige them to discover the Josh Ritters, Hurt Lockers, and Peace Like A Rivers of the world.
Another unspoken, but pretty obvious reality concerning our DNA can be summarized by slightly modifying that wonderful Buechner quote Eric Peters likes to put before us—“the story of any one of us [here at the Rabbit Room] is in some measure the story of us all—[we’re nerds of varying degrees].”
Todd and Christie Bragg gave me a gift, and I’m going to attempt to regift some of what they gave me with these words. Todd turned 40 the other day. It was Sunday, December 18—the day of the Behold the Lamb of God concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Christie put together a huge after party for Todd in the upper balcony of the Ryman. She invited what looked like at least a hundred friends. But it wasn’t just a party. It was a surprise party.
Todd is a drummer in Nashville and he’s worked with countless musicians in this town over the years, so he knows a lot of people. But Todd is not just a drummer with a lot of connections. He’s a very kind and generous friend who, when you’re talking with him, treats you like you’re the only person in the world. So this party wasn’t just a room full of business associates. I imagine most all of them would call Todd not just a friend, but a dear friend.
[Editor's Note: We want to take a moment to celebrate the release of Russ Ramsey's first book. He's worked long and hard on it we're anxious for each of you to enjoy the fruits of his labor. So congratulations, Russ. I'm happy to add the title of "Author" next to your name on the masthead.
Here's the first chapter of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative. If you'd like to download a sample and see what the actual book looks like inside, you can do so here. --Pete Peterson.]
He did not have a home.
People said he survived on little more than wild honey and locusts, and by the look of him, it couldn’t have been much more. He wore a coat of camel hair he cinched together with a leather belt, just like the prophet Elijah had done.
Normally he was the one people stopped to behold, but at this particular moment, as he stood waist-deep in the Jordan, anyone looking at him saw that his attention was fixed on the man from Galilee headed his way. His face wore a mix of astonishment and joy as the man approached.
“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
“Let’s spend the afternoon at the art museum.” How do those words make you feel? Many, if not most of us, would probably admit to some apprehension. Why is this? Most of the art museums I’ve been to have been really affordable if not free, save for the suggested donation. So it’s not the money. And every one I’ve ever visited has been a beautifully designed facility. So it’s not the architecture either.
So what restrains our excitement about a day in a building full of art? May I suggest it is the art? I don’t mean to suggest the art is bad. Of course it isn’t. The apprehension many of us feel is due to the fact that art is demanding. It hangs on the wall with its amigos calling “look up here, look up here.” A day in an art gallery will wear you out and you’ll wonder how the simple act of looking could be so exhausting. The answer is, of course, that there’s nothing simple about really looking at art. If you let it, a great painting can demand as much from you as reading War and Peacein one sitting.
A few years ago there appeared a post here about The Jesus Storybook Bible. That post was my introduction to the writings of Sally Lloyd-Jones. I don’t know what Sally’s writing process is like—if she tucks away in the corner of a coffee shop or spreads out at her own kitchen table, and I don’t know if she types her words into a computer or writes them by hand on a yellow legal pad. What I do know—and what is obvious to anyone familiar with her work—is that she is a disciplined, careful, whimsical and dead-serious writer of children’s literature.
Have you ever looked at an actual Rembrandt? I mean really looked? I have. And at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it’s exhausting. Why? Because Rembrandt was a master. If you will dare to look, he will provide more than you can take in. This is what masters do.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch painter who lived from 1606-1669, and has been widely regarded as the greatest painter Europe has ever produced. Even while he lived people called him “the master,” and eager, rising artists would study under him, trying to reproduce his technique and form. The result of this, as German art historian Wilhelm von Bode noted, was that “Rembrandt painted 700 pictures. Of these, 3,000 are still in existence.”
Follow me a bit further, if you will, down the road I started in my previous post about the woman who anointed Jesus on that Wednesday evening of that first Easter week. Mark writes, “While Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman [...]
(I’ve included the primary Scripture reference for this meditation at the end of the post.)
The first several days of the first Easter week were filled with tension and anger from Jesus’ opponents and unflinching resolve from Jesus. He had been on the move, juggling His time between Bethany, Jerusalem and the Mount [...]