Email 1 (3/23/2020)

So, I’m turning 40 this year. One of my goals for the year is to read back through my 40 favorite books. I broke that down into two categories. 20 favorite novels or “fun” books, and then 20 formational books, books that have shaped me, my ministry and theology.

As I’ve been reading back through the formational books, a common theme that has stood out is the incarnation: the “in the flesh” reality of the God we meet in Jesus.

My theology, my philosophy of ministry, is so tied to this idea: (a) that God came toward us, became a human being to with us, and (b) that our call then is to “incarnate” that good news for other people, to be a flesh and blood presence with other people.

Quick side step: all throughout human history (and the story of Scripture) we see people trying to de-incarnate God, depersonalize God. This is what the writers of Scripture call idols. 

God is not anti-idol because he hates statues or because he thinks art is dumb. He is anti-idol because idols are relationship killers, they keep God at a distance, they fundamentally work against incarnation.

“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” Jonah 2:8

The coronavirus crisis creates a conundrum for incarnationalsists (a made up word). In a world where we socially distance ourselves from flesh and blood out of love, in a world where we can only be with each other digitally, what does that mean for presence, relationship, and withness?

Personally, this really messes with me. And not just theologically. I am not a big showy person. 

I don’t like the cameras 

and the flash 

and the “look-at-me” tendencies of online church.  

When your world turns around, 

when up becomes down, 

when the old patterns don’t fit the new paradigm, 

what do you do

Paul, the guy who wrote most of the New Testament, wrote all that stuff because he couldn’t be with people

So, he wrote a bunch of letters. And in many of his letters he expressed his grief at not being able to be with the people he was writing to.

Romans 1:11, II Timothy 1:4, Phillipians 1:8, I Thessalonians 2:17

“I long, I long, I long to see you, to be with you.”

And so that’s where we start:

With the grieving of distance.

The longing to be together.

And the writing of letters.

More to come on Wednesday.

Grace and Peace,


40 for 40 (2020 Books)

Yesterday I published my 2019 book list. Check it out.

Today, let’s talk about 2020. Happy New Year!

I turn 40 this year. This milestone is obviously a time to pause and reflect, and one thing I’ve decided to do is to set a very different reading goal for the coming year. (My other big goal is to try to run a marathon).

This goal comes from two places. First, our church community is thinking a lot about spiritual formation and disciplines this year. One of my personality traits is to constantly seek and acquire new information. This is not a bad thing. But sometimes I can get caught up in needing to always be reading the “new” thing.

So part of my goal this year is to cut down the flow of new information, go a bit slower, and revisit some of the things that have formed me over the years.

Which leads to part 2: I’ve read a lot of things and been deeply formed by a lot of what I have read. There are a number of books that have been extremely important at different moments, but many of them I haven’t revisited. Some of those moments are now many years old. I’m interested to see: were these books I loved about that moment in time, or was there something timeless about what I was encountering?

Either way, it will be an interesting means through which to reflect on my 40 years. My hope is to then post something here about each book, what the original moment was like, and what it was like to read that book again at this stage of life.

A few ground rules: I could only pick one book from an author, even if I REALLY like that author (I did make one exception to this rule, but rules are made to be broken). I also sometimes picked a book that was more representative of the author, and not actually the book I enjoyed the most (this will make sense later on when I do the reviews). I also picked 39 because I want to leave room to remember something or change the list if needed. Finally, I tried to pick books from many different eras of my life.

Here’s the list:

  1. The Holy Longing
  2. A Community Called Atonement
  3. Surprised By Hope
  4. An Unstoppable Force
  5. Reaching Out
  6. The Divine Conspiracy
  7. Jesus Wants to Save Christians
  8. With Justice For All
  9. The Gift of the Jews
  10. Persons in Relation
  11. The Drama of Doctrine
  12. Tattoos on the Heart
  13. Blue Like Jazz
  14. Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places
  15. Five Smooth Stones For Pastoral Work
  16. The Shaping of Things To Come
  17. Searching For Home
  18. To Change the World
  19. Church Next
  20. You Are What You Love
  21. Between Two Worlds
  22. A Band of Misfits
  23. What the Dog Saw
  24. Traveling Mercies
  25. For The Time Being
  26. Everything is Illuminated
  27. A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius
  28. And The Mountains Echoed
  29. Book of Lost Things
  30. High Fidelity
  31. The Fortress of Solitude
  32. My Name Is Asher Lev
  33. Franny and Zooey
  34. The Fault in our Stars
  35. Plainsong
  36. The Kid From Tomkinsville
  37. Angela’s Ashes
  38. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  39. The Tender Bar
  40. The Hate U Give


The Great American Rorschach Test

World Cup season is upon us with play beginning last Thursday afternoon (the US get its first match later today), which means going on facebook or twitter involves wading through a morass of deeply divided opinions and perspectives.

Some of my friends love soccer and are reveling in the World Cup, and others think it is stupid and they want the world to know!

Playing and loving soccer (as a red-blooded US citizen), for the past 20 years, I’ve learned that soccer is the great American Rorschach test.

People will see in it whatever the want to see: everything from feminine floppers and over-paid divas who undermine traditional concepts of competitiveness to the beautiful game enjoyed by all the world. It is either everything that is right or everything that is wrong with the US, the earth, sports, politics, and people. I would argue that this is part of what makes soccer so special and so popular: people talk about it and they talk about it passionately.

(A quick aside: I cannot for the life of me understand why people love MMA or boxing. But they do. I cast my vote with my eyes: I don’t watch it, and I certainly  don’t tweet about how stupid I think it is. If you think soccer is dumb, I have one piece of advice: do what I do with MMA…DON’T WATCH).

Let me address a couple of common issues with the game, and then I’ll give you my true theory as to why American’s struggle with soccer (and why I don’t think it will ever fully catch on here, even if we produce a Cup champion).

Typically, the first target of derision is focused around flopping. I don’t think people who complain about this truly understand what a flop is. A flop is not any time a player falls on the ground. Put 22 men out on a pitch, running around at full speed, chasing a ball, and they are going to run into each other and fall down. Ninety percent of “flops” are, upon seeing a replay, truly fouls or incidents where a player is knocked over (or stepped on, or kicked…none of which, by the way, feels good).

There are flops, no doubt about it. It is a skill and a strategy, and it can be used to great effectiveness and it can certainly be abused. But, sometimes it is the only strategy a team might have if they have any hope of surviving a match. The reality, though, according to the numbers run in Soccernomics is that penalties have a very low determinant on who wins the game. Talent and home field almost always trump referees and penalties.

Which leads to another common complaint: the referees are terrible, too arbitrary, too subjective, and have too much influence on the outcome of the game. The same article I referenced above makes the case that while there are always those glaring exceptions (as there are in any sport), the referees have little influence on the outcome of the game compared to other factors.

Moreover, what is interesting to me is that many of the same people who complain about soccer refs complain about instant replay in other sports. Especially IR in baseball in which the “human element” and mistakes/subjectivity by umpires is almost held as sacred (so what do you want, the right call or the human element?).

The NFL, NBA, and MLB have all had significant incidents of referees directly influencing the outcome of the game, but this is never held as a criticism of THE SPORT, only as criticism of the referees. In soccer, the failures of refs are always as a failure of the game itself.

Undoubtedly both of these issues are frustrating, and to a casual fan I can understand why they are difficult hurdles to jump over.

But, here’s the real reason I think American’s struggle with soccer. It’s not the refs, it’s not the flops, it’s not even the low scoring.

Soccer is about the process. It is messy and gray and the results don’t always match the process. It is, inherently, the most unjust of all of the major sports. And, quite frankly, the rest of the world is a little more familiar with injustice than Americans are.

I love soccer, but the most frustrating aspect of the game for me, is that a team can posses the ball for 60, 70, even 80 percent of the time, play dominantly, and lose 1-0 because of one perfect counter attack by the other team (by the way this is the strategy the US has used to great effect in it’s strong showings at the World Cup in 2002 and 2010).

In other words, one team can dominate the game and still lose. It’s unjust.

The goal of soccer is not goals, it is creating dangerous, high quality opportunities to score. Create enough opportunities and goals will come. Over time, the team that is able to consistently do that will win many matches. A team can’t control goals, but it can control the process that leads to goals.

This is true of any sport. You will hear batters, in baseball, talk about their swings and trying “square the ball up,” knowing that that’s really all they can control. In football, teams focus on execution: blocks, patterns, reads, etc, but no sport is as fundamentally process oriented as soccer.

To be a soccer fan is to embrace process over results, mess over order, and injustice over deserved outcomes. Again, the rest of the world is more comfortable with these ideas than we are.

I hope soccer continues to grow in popularity, but I also know that it’s never going to be huge here in the US. This world cup has already been pretty fantastic and it’s only going to get better from here, so if you are ready, now is a great time to jump in and embrace the messy, injustice of the world’s beautiful game.

“The Details Matter…

“Art becomes craft when inspiration is expressed in detail…the more someone or something matters to us, the more the details relating to them matter to us. When someone creates out of love, it is visible in the details. When something matters to us, the details matter. Moving the dream into the details is the true art of craftsmanship. It is here that we move into the tension of creation and refinement. It’s easy to dream but too easy and too tempting to become lost in our dreams.”

– Erwin McManus [The Artisan Soul]

“Moments of greatness…

“Moments of greatness are far more appealing than a lifetime of faithfulness, but it is through a lifetime of faithfulness-a lifetime of integrity, in which we have chosen to be strong and courageous-that we will look back and realize that our lives have become masterpieces.”

-Erwin McManus [The Artisan Soul]

The Joy of Walking Around the Block

I wrote on Monday about my fight against nostalgia this fall. I want to say again that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking about the past, reminiscing, or cherishing great moments we have experienced.

But dangers lie there, and we can get stuck in the past pretty easily.

We can also get stuck dreaming about the future. This tends to be the temptation for me. Instead of being present in the moment and enjoying what is going on right now, I just look ahead hoping for something better around the corner.

Part of that is because the present can kind of stink. Our dryer broke on Sunday. Tuesday morning I walked into the office and the floor was covered in water and there was a stream gushing out of a wall. Not how I was hoping to start the day. If it isn’t water, it’s something else: unexpected extra work, interruptions, annoyances. And then there’s the big stuff: the phone calls you don’t want to receive, tragedy, and life altering moments.

All of this makes it easy to retreat to the past or dream about the future…anything to take our minds off the present.

We are having a January “heat” wave here in Boston so my wife and I took our daughter for a walk on Monday afternoon. She’s only 16 months old, so we hold her hands and walk on either side of her while she toddles in between.

And she has a blast. Giggling, barking at dogs, smiling, pointing at everything, and then there’s the pure, full-bellied laughter and joy that comes from being swung between mom and dad.

Marina has me beat at being present in the moment and enjoying whatever is right in front of her.

Why do we lose that as we get older?

Here’s to being more like Marina. Here’s to being more present.

Relational Gift Giving

For the past two seasons we’ve done a relational gift exchange with our community group. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Everyone thinks about and writes down something they want to do/a way they could be served/something relationship building that isn’t too weird (i.e. ‘a date’). Gifts have been anything from borrowing someone’s favorite book, to help with shopping, to a plate of brownies, to jars of soup, to collaborative painting, to watching sports. Be creative, and be relational!
  2. The gifts are then shuffled and then randomly passed out to everyone in the exchange.
  3. Gifts are written anonymously but read out loud so that everyone knows what is available.
  4. Starting from the youngest the game then revolves around typical “white elephant” rules: stealing gifts (up to 2 or 3 times depending on the size of the group), or standing pat, until the last person has gone.
  5. Set a time line for when the gifts need to be “given” (a couple of months is probably a good idea…people get busy and things can be forgotten).
  6. Have fun, make memories, take a picture, and get more creative next year!

On Being Nice

“I gave myself one big warning: if you become a professional Christian, you better not be nice. Niceness is not a biblical virtue; in fact, I consider it a vice. Nice Christians pretend things are fine when they’re not, say one thing and do another, and avoid difficult conversations. Niceness is rampant among Christians and it does damage. The real virtues of our faith such as honesty, love, discipleship, repentance and reconciliation require looking life full in the face and speaking truth as best we can.”

– Jennel Williams Paris