A review of Jake Owensby’s “A Resurrection Shaped Life”

There is a temptation in our instant gratification culture to skip past the difficult stuff.  By way of the well-worn refrain, “its Friday, but Sunday’s coming,” Christians prove ourselves to be complicit in this system of ignoring the pain that life so often brings.  The truth is, however, that we cannot get to Easter Sunday without living into the hard truth and searing pain that is Good Friday.  In A Resurrection Shaped Life, Jake Owensby invites readers to experience the fullness of the life of faith – only getting to resurrection once we’ve admitted that death, pain, and grief are real forces acting on our lives.

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A Resurrection Shaped Life is a relatively short book. Six chapters, each with a set of reflection questions at the end, give the reader the opportunity to mine deeply the truths contained within.  Like a beautiful Burial Office service, Owensby bookends the difficult, but rewarding, work of redeeming grief and shame through the power of the resurrection with a stunningly powerful prelude and postlude.  If you are prone to skipping the prologue and epilogue of a text, take note that these seem to be intentionally named differently in order to invite you in to an experience of the holy.  In that same vein, Owensby does a masterful job of taking commonly used theological words and concepts and turning the crystal on them in unique and solidly orthodox ways.  He has keen ability to make what is old new again.  Just to name a few, he offers crafty redefinitions of compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

My nerdy excitement about theological definitions aside, what really drew me into this book was the way in which the author weaves together his own personal story with God’s story as told through Scripture.  Again and again, Owensby cracks open his own life story, difficult as it is, in order to help the reader see how the story of God through Jesus Christ seeks to redeem hardship, not simply take it away, through resurrection living.  The stories will be hard for some to read.  I’m not one who is prone to the expression of human emotion, but even I found myself caught short in the stories of his abusive father and the death of his young sister.*

To get to resurrection living, Owensby is unafraid of taking us all the way through Holy Week.  Through the careful weaving of story, he takes us deep into angst, fear, sadness, and anger, and brings us back out on the other side with grace, compassion, and justice.  I would heartily recommend this book as a text for Lenten devotion.  An individual, or better yet a group of people committed to meeting weekly – a Sunday school class, contemplative prayer group, or even a church staff, could read one chapter a week for the first five and half weeks of Lent, and then re-read the whole book, a chapter a day, through Holy Week.  No matter how you read it, A Resurrection Shaped Life offers readers the opportunity to find themselves within the stories, to reflect deeply on God’s dream for each of us in creation, and to take seriously the work of redeeming grief, shame, and loss.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Jake Owensby’s A Resurrection Shaped Life and read it prayerfully.  You will not regret it.


* I should note, these two stories are unrelated, as far as I can tell.

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Clemenceau’s Daughters – a book review

When I was first asked to write a book review of Southern Yellow Pine Publishing’s newest author, Rocky Porch Moore’s first novel, I was nervous.  First of all, I’ve never done a book review on this blog before.  Outside of the assigned book reports I’ve had to do throughout the years, I’ve never reviewed a book for public consumption.  Second, a four-fingered man could count the number of novels I’ve read on one hand.  Having scammed my way into a free pizza with the Book-It program for many years, I graduated from high school having not read a single book from cover to cover.  Since then, I’ve learned to enjoy reading, when it fits my particular areas of nerdery like theology or church history.  I just don’t do fiction.  Last, but certainly not least, Rocky is a parishioner of mine, what if I didn’t like her book?

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While my first fear is still alive, the others faded away almost immediately as I opened Moore’s debut novel, Clemenceau’s Daughters.  Much in the way that I wouldn’t say I liked Slumdog Millionaire, or I enjoy the Passion Narratives, the sheer intensity of Clemenceau’s Daughters precludes me from saying I liked it, but the truth of the matter is, for a guy who doesn’t do fiction, I could not stop reading this book.

The story moves quickly.  So quickly, in fact, that at points I found myself wishing the action would slow a bit so I could catch my breath, but it continued, nearly unabated.  Just when I felt like I was catching up with where the author was taking me, we started on another adventure, and I found myself enjoying the next ride as much as the one before.

Moore is a master of imagery.  The book, which jumps between the mountains of north Alabama in the 20th century and the rolling hills of feudal France, is filled with vivid descriptions.  As I read, I could feel the heat of an Alabama summer day, feel the sting of a hand raised in anger, and smell the stench of a drunk who won’t dry out by morning.  No matter where the action takes place, one gets the sense that Moore had been there before.

I hope you’ll take the time one evening to pour yourself a bourbon, sit by the fire, and experience the adventure that is Clemenceau’s Daughter.

Happy 80th Phyllis Tickle

Today marks the 80th birthday of one of the greatest minds of Church in the 2nd half of the 20th and opening decades of the 21st centuries, or as she call is, “The Great Emergence.”  It may be a particularity of our times, what with life expectancies near 80 and the relative ease of communication, that we are able to fete amazing people while they are still around to know it, but I’m grateful for the chance to wish Phyllis Tickle a happy birthday and give thanks for her prolific and ongoing ministry even as she prepares to retire from public life in early 2015.

I first met Phyllis Tickle not in person, nor on Facebook, nor through one of her many book, but rather through the eyes of Diana Butler Bass in a class that I took in the Spring of 2005 at Virginia Theological Seminary entitled “The Church in Post-Modern Society.”  As Diana shared with us the work of Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, Marcus Borg, and others, and as I got to know both in print and in person folks like Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Nadia Bolz-Weber, it became clear to me that Phyllis was already being recognized as the Godmother of Emergence/Emergent Christianity.  Since then, she has changed the conversation of Church in post-modern society with her book “The Great Emergence.”  Seriously, you must read this book.  Go buy it now.  I’ll wait.

In the years that have followed that class, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Phyllis in person.  I’ve sat at her feet for a weekend long conference.  I’ve read several of her books.  She’s even read my thesis proposal, and I’m certain she has no clue who I am.  Every encounter I have with Phyllis Tickle leaves me believing that a) she’s a woman of deep faith, b) that her prayer life is unbelievably strong, c) that she cares for the Church, and d) that her heart is enormous.

Thank you for inspiring me to be a better pastor, preacher, writer, and theologian, Phyllis.  Best wishes for your birthday and here’s hoping for many more to come!

A lot can change in three years

During the time of Elijah’s ministry, while the LORD was particularly angry with Ahab and his Ba’al worshiping wife, Jezebel, God shut off the rain in the fertile crescent for three years.  It was a drought of epic proportions.  It was a mess in those days, and people were hungry everywhere.  Which is why Elijah’s seemingly simple request, “bring me a morsel of bread” brings forth such a dramatic reaction from the Widow, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”  Elijah, however, has been shown the bigger picture.

Three years ago this week, oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig first rolled ashore on the beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.  I preached on the Widow of Zerephath story the following Sunday (you can read it here), during a time of much anxiety, when it was impossible to see the bigger picture.  Now, as the Lectionary cycle comes back around to Proper 5, Year C, I find myself looking back over the last three years and realizing that what was once a colossal mess has turned out to be a great benefit for my neck of the woods as for the second year in a row tourism numbers are record breaking, building has increased, and life in south Alabama is pretty darn good.  After 18 months of buckling down, caring for one another, and sharing the resources that were available in the midst of a crisis, South Alabama is stronger today than it was in early June 2010.

Just like the story of Elijah and Ahab, however, we haven’t yet touched the root problems that caused the mess in the first place.  We still hunger after cheap oil, and oil companies are still cutting corners to sell cheap and rake big profits, but the word I felt compelled to speak then remains true today, “God is here.”  But boy, what a difference three years makes.

A Pentecost Blessing

I’m about as loosey-goosey as one who has twice taken a vow of loyalty to the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” can be, but the reality of my low-church, liberal reading of the rubrics, is that here at Saint Paul’s, our worship has a strong Episcopal/Anglican identity even if we do wear cassock-albs and there is nary a chasuble in sight.  For example, rather than offering any blessing that might come to mind in the closing minutes of Sunday worship, we tend to use the blessings suggested in The Book of Occasional Services (2003) instead.

As I read the Gospel lesson for Trinity Sunday, it brought to mind the powerful words of the single blessing option for The Day of Pentecost (which, I would argue is appropriate straight through ordinary time), and while there is a blessing provided for Trinity Sunday, because of the lectionary’s prescribed texts for Year C, I would instead recommend using this blessing at the end of services this weekend.

In John 16, Jesus tells his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

The Pentecost blessing reads, “May the Spirit of truth lead you into all truth, giving you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to proclaim the wonderful works of God; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always. Amen.

While our cultural context is ever evolving (or devolving, as the case may be), it is the Spirit whose job it is to guide us into all truth.  Sometimes, this means making tough decisions toward new theologies.  Sometimes, this means being the conservative voice in a culture that seems to have lost its way.  Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, it means living into the mantra of Kairos Prison Ministry: listen, listen.  Love, love.

As I prepare to be the celebrant at three services for Trinity Sunday, I do so fully prepared to ask for myself and on behalf of my congregation, that the Spirit of truth might lead us into all truth, and that we might we made willing enough to go there.

the hallmark of discipleship

I’ve spent the last 24 hours at the feet of Mirabai Starr, a writer, translator, speaker, and teacher who focuses on the spirituality of medieval mystics and inter-spiritual experience.  As one who lives in the world of the spiritual but not religious, and grew up in the me generation, I’ll reserve comment on her position of privilege that makes room for syncretism.  What I do appreciate is that her focus is on love.  I am especially thankful for it as I read the Gospel lesson for Sunday, in which, Jesus says,

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

I think Mirabai Starr would say that without love, we aren’t doing religion right, no matter what that religion is.  I can only speak from my perspective, as an ordained minister in The Episcopal Church, and say that I can tell when I’m not doing it right when there isn’t love.  It is the hallmark of discipleship, that hallmark of faith.  Love is the way in which the Spirit pours out of us.  This became clear to me in our last exercise of clergy conference, that Ms. Starr pulled from a book entitled, “Writing Down the Bones.”  We were invited to write, stream of consciousness like, for 5 minutes each on two topics.  Here is my writing practice.

I see the face of God when…

  • FBC wakes me up in the morning, blanket in hand, ready for the adventure of a new day
  • SBC fusses in the middle of the night and then goes back to sleep – thanks be to God
  • SHW and I work out our life together with joy and vigor
  • I see someone finally “get it”
  • I finally “get it”
  • I stand in the pulpit and attempt to speak a word that makes sense to more than just me
  • TKT and I are able to spend a day listening, thinking, hearing what God has in store for us next
  • I step foot in Ms. Cashion/Ms. Carpenter’s class room on Thursday at 9am
  • I move from sarcasm to joy, which doesn’t happen very often
  • I engage in stupid theological conversation with friends from throughout my life on Facebook and Twitter
  • I get to use the gifts that God has entrusted to my care
  • When I let go of my guilt and frustration over pastoral care, which I’m terrible at, and just do it.
  • I listen to the Avett Brothers or Mumford and Sons or any time someone does something they love with passion and joy
  • I talk to Bob Graves
  • I open a book that most would say “ugh” about and find that I really, really enjoy a ridiculously minute detail on the stuff that defines my vocation
  • I get on a boat, any boat

I don’t see the face of God when…

  • I don’t look for it
  • I move from joy to sarcasm, which happens very often
  • I run because I have to not because I want to
  • I do anything because I have to, not because I want to
  • I don’t engage in my spiritual practices of scripture reading, reflection, and prayer
  • I forget that I’m an introvert
  • I think that it all depends on me
  • SBC doesn’t go back to sleep
  • I watch the news
  • I think more highly of myself than I ought
  • I don’t think high enough of myself
  • I chase after the things of this world: money, success, power, prestige
  • I live into my guilt and frustration over pastoral care, which I’m terrible at, and find excuses not to do it
  • I seek the negative
  • I forget to take care of myself

As I reflect on it, I see the face of God when I’m loving: God, others, and myself.  When I don’t see God, it is because I’m not loving.

Our Entree into Holy Week

There was a time when Christians gathered as many as seven times a day for corporate prayer.  Gradually, it became three.  Then two.  Then once a day.  Eventually, the habit of corporate prayer dwindled in common society so that our common practice of gathering only once a week, on Sunday morning, became the norm.  I could sit here and type a whole list of laments about this fact, but my primary concern is that Scripture is just not heard, read and interpreted, very much any more.  It has left us Biblically illiterate, and has, imho, caused a lot of our current religious partisanship as loud voices have vied for the role of “The Interpreter of Scripture.”

Anyway, all of that is to say that as we arrive at our lesson from John’s Gospel appointed for Sunday, we begin, in earnest if not in reality, our entree into Holy Week.  The story of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany happens on the eve of his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem during an event that we call “Palm Sunday.”  It’ll take us two weeks to get from here, through the dramatic events in Jerusalem, to the cross and tomb.

Because of this fact, and in the realization that, while I don’t preach either of the next two Sundays, I will preach 5 times in 13 days, so I should probably begin thinking about those sermons.  I printed out lessons, found some helpful commentaries, and realized that last year, I bought a new book that I forgot I owned.  Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright have written what is ostensibly a response to Borg and Crossan’s “The Last Week,” entitled, “Jesus, the Final Days.” In the opening essay, Evans argues that four things took Jesus to the cross, and they have nothing to do with his generally do-goodery or the hypocritical Pharisees and their fear.  Evans argues that Jesus ended up dying at the hand of Rome because:

  • He entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
  • He turned the tables in the Temple Court
  • The Parable of the Vineyard
  • His being anointed in a clearly Messianic way by Mary of Bethany

I found this last point to be particularly interesting, as the political ramifications of this event were lost to me.  I recommend this book to my fellow preachers who are looking at the daunting onslaught of Holy Week.  After all, if N.T. Wright is on it, then it has to be good.