“The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien [REVIEW]


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
by J.R.R. Tolkien, narrated by Andy Serkis
William Morrow, originally published 1954

Amazon Link | Audiobook
Link


Well, I did it. I finally did it. I finished Fellowship of the Ring. I had tried a few other times in my life and just couldn’t do it. But with some Amazon TV-show inspiration, an adult appreciation for slower narratives, and the help of Andy Serkis’ incredible narration, I did it!

And I really loved this book, especially once I slowed down and accepted it on its own terms. I still think Tolkien could have tightened this narrative quite a bit (many first-time readers have crashed on the rocks of its long travel sections or Tom Bombadil–still a baffling character to me). But Tolkien makes it all worth it in the end and makes me excited for more.

I came with minimal Tolkien or fantasy experience. I read and enjoyed “The Hobbit” as a middle-schooler, and I watched its creepy 1970s cartoon version a bunch. I’ve watched the theatrical versions of the movies once or twice, but mostly forgot them. I grew up hearing bad “Lord of the Rings” sermon illustrations. So if you are like me, what should you know about the book?

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Make Kingdomtide Great Again


I need structure in my life. I need routines. They help me focus on important things I can easily overlook. That’s one of the reasons why I have connected so deeply with the Christian Church Calendar. I wasn’t raised with it, but these seasonal themes and focuses give more shape to my spiritual life where it would otherwise be amorphous.

Today, I want to introduce you all to a lesser-known–but amazing–season of the Church Calendar that I’ve really enjoyed celebrating the past couple of years: Kingdomtide.

It starts November 1st (though in some traditions it starts earlier), and yes, I made a playlist for it.

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St Teresa & A Woman’s Longing to Preach


François_Gérard_-_St_Theresa_(detail)

Today is the feast day of Christian Church which honors Saint Teresa of Avila. She was a 16th-century mystic and Carmelite nun who traveled around teaching and writing mystical treatises on the interior life of maturing Christian spirituality and contemplative practices. (Here’s a great intro on her life.)

For me, reading her writings and about her life is one of the most powerful testimonies to a woman’s place in the Christian church. She constantly challenged the male power structures of the day and in many of her writings one can see how she goes to great lengths to address their concerns about a powerful woman, trying to demonstrate how a woman can teach and lead while also living in accordance to the doctrines of the scriptures.

And yet, more than any intellectual argument, it is her grace, maturity, and powerful insight into the Bible, the Christian Life, and the human soul that are some of the greatest apologetics for a woman’s full right to teach and preach and lead in the Church. In her magnum opus, The Interior Castle (which is breathtaking), she offers this lament, and I offer it to you on her feast day.

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Two Books for the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena


Nearly a decade ago, I wanted to pick a saint for myself whose life I could study and be inspired by. I ended up (accidentally) choosing Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century mystic, theologian, political activist, and (I’d say) preacher of the faith. She was the perfect choice, and today is the day set aside to meditate on her life and works.

Of all the saints I know, I resonate with Catherine’s energy the most. I really connect with the theology of some (Origen, most the Gregories, Augustine), the social and practical emphasis of others (Francis, Clare, Ignatius, Theresa of Calcutta), and the mysticism of still others (Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian). But only Catherine embodies for me all of these dimensions and the brashness and angst I carry with me regularly.

Catherine says and does some weird things. She overstates, goes too far, and is counter-productive in a lot of what she does. But she comes by it honestly and is clearly doing the best she can with what she knows and believes. She sharply argued with and called out Popes, rejected the leadership of church hierarchy, and followed her theology to its end, even when many called her a heretic (she has since been canonized as a theological Doctor of the Church).

And yet, with the world and people around her, and in her spirituality, she is so tender, sensitive, and romantic. There is a passion and ecstasy to her spirituality that can seem weird from the outside but so beautiful and inviting from within.

I resonate with all this. Bucking against authority to unhelpful (and often wrong) degrees, feeling misunderstood and unseen even while trying my best, phrasing things in ways that make sense to me while others stare at me in confusion, the tenderness and desire to sit with people in their pain, and the deep desire for ecstatic union and communion with God. These are all my vibe, and Catherine’s.

A decade on, I still wear my Catherine pendant daily, in order to carry her with me and keep her close. If you are interested in knowing more about Catherine’s life and spirituality, here were two of the books that helped me get to know and be inspired by her. Continue reading

A Prayer for Peace in Ukraine


O God, Creator of the universe, who extends your concern over every creature and guides the events of history toward the salvation of all, we acknowledge your strong love when you break the resistance of sinful humans and, in a world torn by strife and discord, you make us ready for reconciliation.

Renew for us the wonders of your peace; send forth your Spirit to work in the intimacy of our hearts, that we may fast and pray for nations in conflict, that enemies may begin to dialogue, that adversaries may shake hands, and peoples exist in harmony.

May all commit themselves to the sincere search for true peace which will extinguish all arguments, for charity which overcomes hatred, for pardon which disarms revenge. Shatter the proud hearts causing death and suffering in Ukraine, and bring your peace to all. We beg you, do this. Amen.

Mary: Ordained as Prophetess, Priestess, & Queen


Tanner-the-anunciation-mary

One of the beautiful things about Catholic theology is that it sees story as one of its main interpretive filters. Protestantism, on the other hand, focuses much more on historical context and the text itself.

To modern ears, the Protestant ways sounds great, but there’s one big problem: this is not how most of the biblical writers, Jesus, the apostles, the early church, nor most of church history have ever treated the Bible. They were and have been much “freer” with the text (yes, often to a fault). Catholicism’s rootedness in ancient ways of reading invites them into new dimensions and interpretations.

Take Mary, for example. Catholics see her foretold in the Old Testament just as much as Jesus is. They see her in prophecies and allegorically represented in other women. They see parallels between her and the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, and the Temple, saying they all carried the Holy of Holies within them, and were revered for it.

There are three biblical offices of authority among God’s people: Prophet, Priest, and King. Christians see Jesus as the fulfillment and highest expression of each of these, but in the Advent event, you can see Mary serving these functions as well. So today, as a Protestant, I want to sit with this and revel in some beauty and divine mystery.

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Advent & Restlessness


For an Advent devotional, I’ve been using God is In the Manger, excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermons and letters. Below is a profound insight I came across. I encourage you to read this slowly and really take it in:

Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them and people who look up with reverence to the greatest in the world.

Thus Advent can be celebrated only by those whose souls give them no peace, who know that they are poor and incomplete, and who sense something of the greatness that is supposed to come, before which they can only bow in humble timidity, waiting until he inclines himself toward us—the Holy One himself, God in the child in the manger. God is coming; the Lord Jesus is coming; Christmas is coming. Rejoice, O Christendom!

Only the restless can truly celebrate Advent. For someone whose brain runs a million miles an hour, whose mental processing and angst run non-stop, who lives with much spiritual, emotional, and existential restlessness, this gives me hope, even for a moment.

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“Foundation & Empire” by Isaac Asimov [REVIEW]


Isaac Asimov, Foundation and EmpireFoundation and Empire
by Isaac Asimov
Spectra, originally published 1952
(Amazon Link)


It’s weird. I think this is a “better” novel than the first, though it is not as “interesting” or impactful as the original Foundation novel, hence the lower rating. I appreciate how Asimov, in this book breaks the formula of his previous book a bit. It doesn’t cover as much time, it’s not as many small stories, but a few larger chunks of narrative. So rather than feeling like a short story collection, it feels more like a proper novel.

In this book, we continue the history of the Foundation–the eponymous organization created in the first book as a haven for human knowledge in anticipation of the Galactic Empire’s imminent collapse.

The first book saw the Foundation come out victorious over several enemies due to the careful planning of the mathematician-prophet Hari Seldon, who anticipated a series of what became known as “Seldon Crises” based on the natural profession of nations. In this book–again, following historical precedence–we see what happens after the Foundation becomes the de facto Empire, having conquered those competing interests in volume 1 to find themselves now looking very much like Empire they hated.

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“Foundation” by Isaac Asimov [REVIEW]


Isaac Asimov, FoundationFoundation
by Isaac Asimov
Spectra, originally published 1951
(Amazon Link)


Okay, in preparation of the upcoming television series, I finally read Foundation, Isaac Asimov’s first book in what is widely considered the greatest science fiction series ever written.

As one who usually doesn’t seek out science fiction in his reading, I’ve got to say, this was fantastic, and represents what everyone says about the best sci-fi: the actual science and premise itself isn’t so much the point as it is seeing the human condition play out against its backdrop. On those terms, this book is a masterpiece and success in nearly every way.

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Cultural Vignettes at the End of a Life


I’m still going through some of the materials from a recent course I took on death and dying, and reflecting on the lessons I learned, especially as I engaged much of this course around my deepest experience with death–the passing of my grandfather in 2010.

I previously spoke about how this shaped me personally and vocationally, and how I often felt I was on the outside looking in, taking in the scene at my grandparent’s house almost as an observer. No doubt this retreat into my mind was protective, for better and worse.

But one thing this granted me was the chance to look at this from a bird’s eye view and observe some of the subtle cultural dynamics here, ancient and modern, and their collision with human tendencies around death and grief.

Death–awaiting it, grieving it, and even approaching it ourselves–is wrapped up in a myriad of cultural forces that shape our inner and outer lives. One could even argue that most (perhaps all) of our cultural rhythms are a response to mortality: a denial of it, a distraction from it, outliving it, or an attempt at delaying it.

My grandfather passed passed away the day after Christmas, so our grief and vigil in that last week happened against the backdrop of the holiday (and my birthday, which was another odd dynamic). It was an unusual paradox, to say the least.

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Vigil & Vocation: My Grandfather’s Death & My Life


Two weekends ago was the birthday of my late grandfather, who died a decade ago. I just finished a social work class on end-of-life issues, and that class had me thinking a lot about him, the impact of his death, my own life and legacy, and how that has all changed and morphed over these past ten years.

So I’m going to spend a few posts reflecting on this. Today I wanted to share how the experience of his death shaped my life personally and professionally.

But first, a little about him. Due to a mispronunciation by the first grandchild, we called my grandfather “Peep”; and Peep and Mammaw’s house was where the entire family came for weekly dinners and holidays. He was the quintessential man of his age: the quiet, stoic, Texas man’s man. He was my mother’s father, the patriarch of the family, and exerted a great centrifugal force in the system. His death left a large hole which I don’t know we’ve recovered from, honestly.

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Race, Liturgy, & My Great Awokening


My wife will tell you I have a “both sides” problem. I reflexively think through hard things by trying to see them from all sides and treating them equally. But inevitably, while this makes me think I’m acting “enlightened” and “objective”, that’s largely an illusion–and quite often, it does more harm than good.

At least when I employ it, it gives me a false sense that I am hovering above the conflict and that I am not actual mired by my own bias, defensiveness, and not actually being affected by the conflict itself.

But too often, rather than nobly making space and elevating other perspectives and voices, it leads me to prioritize my own voice and simply invalidate that of others.

And that’s precisely what happened in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin.

After Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman, I watched the struggle and lament from black America, and felt an odd disconnect. I felt like I could “see both sides” and “understand” why white America was confused why this particular moment was so galvanizing for blacks.

I wrote a blog post about my frustration that me, as a white man, did not feel like I was culturally “allowed” to speak to these issues. The post is bad. I’m still incredibly embarrassed and ashamed of it–but I’ve kept it online (with a note) to document change and repentance.

I had great friends that really laid into me about that post. They took me to task, were patient with me, fully articulated their thoughts, and demonstrated the implications of and ideas behind the things I was saying. It gave me a lot of pause and made me wonder what I was missing–because while I trusted them, I simply couldn’t see what they were seeing.

* * * *

Around that time I watched a special by the comedian Dane Cook at Madison Square Garden. His final joke of the night was about religion. To set it up, he began with “I was raised Catholic…” but was interrupted by cheers in the crowd.

He stops, takes note, and says, “Peace be with you!” and in return tens of thousands of people responded in unison with the ancient liturgical reply: “And also with you”.

Now, huge numbers of those people had probably abandoned their Catholicism long ago, and yet the repetitive week-in, week-out liturgy of their Catholic upbringings had embedded itself in their psyches so they knew how to reflexively respond in that moment to the words of the liturgy–even if they had left the Church decades prior. 

I don’t know how or why this happened, but it was in that moment that everything my friends had been telling me about race and privilege clicked for me.

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Ascension: Our Glory & the Bible’s Hinge


jesus-christ-ascension-icon

Yesterday in the Christian Church Calendar was Ascension Day, where we celebrate Christ ascending into heaven after his resurrection and now sitting at “the right hand of God the Father.”

The Useless Ascension

“Ascension” doesn’t get a lot of attention nowadays in the Church. This, in spite of the fact that it’s an essential part of all the Church’s earliest doctrinal formulations. Additionally, the New Testament sees it as the primary proof of Jesus’ divinity and “lordship” and it’s the subject of the most-quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament: “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'”

Maybe we neglect this because the Ascension isn’t really a “doctrine”–it’s an “event” and a “declaration”; and we western Christians love our systematic “doctrines” that we can pick apart ad nauseam and/or figure out how to “apply it to our lives” so we can feel like “good Christians.”

But honestly, the Ascension isn’t “useful” to us in that way. There’s not much we can “do” with it.

Which is precisely why it’s so valuable. More than many other aspects of the Gospel and Christianity, the Ascension isn’t an “idea” to mull or unpack, but rather “news” to receive and let it act on us.

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For Holy Saturday: Breathing Death, Thousands of Times a Day


It’s Holy Saturday in the Christian season of Lent. It’s on odd day that not a lot of traditions know what to do with. There is so little known about what was happening cosmically or theologically. All we know is that Jesus was dead, silent, and his disciples rested, for it was the Sabbath.

Traditionally, this day is seen as a day of rest. No special services, acts, or practices. Just stop. Be quiet and silent, on this final day of Lent before the Easter celebration. When you take it seriously and follow-through on your practices (which I certainly have not this year), there can be a growing tension throughout Lent. Holy Saturday is the day you can breathe a little.

Breath. Death. Silence. Rest.

That’s what I know of this day.

With that in mind, I would like to turn your attention to this short but powerful video from Frank Ostseski, a speaker and teacher on caring for those at the end of life. This video was sent to us for the End-of-Life Care course which has been the basis of many of my Lent meditations this year. I encourage you to watch it. It’s not long.

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