What I’m Reading #2

I’ve been trying to be more intentional about reading lately. Moving my TV out of my bedroom has helped a little, and I’m also working on keeping a rotation of the kinds of books I’m into going. See, I am incapable of reading just one book at a time, but too often that means I end up with a  stack of 7 unfinished books taunting me from my nightstand. So I’m trying to limit myself to 3-4 books in these categories:

  1. Nonfiction (usually theology or history).
  2. Fiction.
  3. Audiobook (usually comedy, but not always).
  4. Spiritual/theological, if not already taken in spot #1.

This seems to be working pretty well so far. It gives me enough variety that I’m not bored while keeping me from totally overwhelming myself. And here’s what this system has allowed me to finish lately:

1. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

20342617Everyone–and I mean everyone–needs to read this book. And I mean needs. Good grief. Just Mercy is gut-wrenching and inspiring, horrific and hopeful. Bryan Stevenson is an incredible witness not only to the need for change in our justice system but also the need for healing and connection in each one of us. He puts a magnifying glass up to the brokenness in our prisons and communities and then turns it on his own life and heart. I have no words for how incredible the story and the storytelling here is. Go read it.

“There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.” — Bryan Stevenson

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Good Intentions, Bad Gifts, and Their Usefulness

A week or two ago, someone left a bunch of donated sweatshirts for me at the church’s welcome desk. I was mildly irritated. Although it is very likely I had had a conversation with someone about this, probably on a Sunday morning,* I could not remember the context. And so it felt like one of the many instances in which a well-intentioned person thinks they know what is needed and gives that thing when perhaps it is not, in fact, what is needed.

For example, last year, several people at church donated blankets to be used at the winter overflow shelter. This makes complete sense–except that there had already been a HUGE donation of blankets made, and the shelters actually had too many blankets. The shelter monitors were begging us not to send any more blankets.

Case in point: always ask whether something is needed before you just drop it off somewhere. So many nonprofits wind up with piles and piles of stuff (sometimes very nice stuff!) they can’t use, either because it’s the wrong stuff or because there’s too much stuff or because they don’t have a system in place for distributing the stuff.

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Who Do You Say That I Am? (Luke 10 Sermon)

This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC on Sunday, October 25, 2015. The text was Luke 10:25-28. This was the final installment in a series called “Games People Play.” This week’s game was Twenty Questions. Congregants were given a fortune cookie containing a slip of paper with the question “Who do you say that I am?” on it.

When it comes to answering questions, Jesus is about as helpful as a bathing suit in a snowstorm. Jesus never gives a straight answer. More often, he answers a question with another question, or with a seemingly unrelated story, or by writing in the dirt with his finger.

Because of that, Jesus would not be very Twenquesgood at the game Twenty Questions. To refresh your memory, in Twenty Questions, one person chooses a subject or object, and the other participants ask up to 20 questions with “yes” or “no” answers to help them guess what it is.

Jesus isn’t big on “yes” or “no” answers. And the legal expert who questions Jesus in Luke 10 isn’t playing by the rules either—I thought about putting in a lawyer joke here, but there are a lot of lawyers in this church, so let’s move on.

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A Great Thanksgiving for All God’s Children

Yesterday was World Communion Sunday, and my church had planned its annual Worship in the Park, where we relocate to a local park for outdoor worship and a shared meal. Thanks to Hurrcane Joaquin, we had to move worship back to the church–so one staff member cleverly dubbed it “Worship in the Ark.”

Our focus for the day was Mark 10:12-6, the passage about Jesus welcoming children to come to him despite the disciples’ protests. We were keenly aware on this day of the need for us to broaden our conception of who count as God’s children–particularly refugees and immigrants as we hear news of the Syrian refugee crisis. This and more informed my attempt to craft a Great Thanksgiving liturgy for communion for ALL God’s children.

Since we were going to be in the park, this was written without including the usual congregational responses. It was shared in two voices, mine and our senior pastor’s. I share it here with permission to use and adapt it, as long as credit is given in some form.


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Stop Blaming Shootings on Mental Illness

If you’ve tuned in to any of the inevitable debate around guns following yet another mass shooting in Oregon (how truly awful is it that I can say “yet another”?), you have probably heard something to the effect that mental illness is the cause of these tragedies.

To all the media outlets, special interest groups, and individuals perpetuating this myth, I want to say, gently but firmly:

Stop it.

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Sticks and Stones (1 Samuel 17 Sermon)

This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC on Sunday, June 21, 2015. The text was 1 Samuel 17:32-49. You can download a PDF here

Over the last two months, the Rev. Dr. Bill Medlin has set the bar unfairly high when it comes to humor in sermons. I spent some time this past week agonizing over how I was going to hold a candle to his talent for telling jokes. Then I remembered a family story that made me think I shouldn’t even try.

My grandfather is a retired Methodist minister who also had a penchant for joke-telling in sermons. In one transition, a group of congregants put their heads together on a perfect gift for him as he moved to a new ministry. It was a book entitled, “Jokes We Hope Tom Will Tell Again.” When my grandfather opened the book, he found it was full of blank pages.

Whatever my heritage may be in terms of humor, perhaps today is a good day to forego jokes. Today, myself and countless other pastors are climbing into their pulpits wondering what in the world we can possibly say in the wake of the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. On Wednesday evening, a group gathered for Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street in Charleston. They welcomed a stranger into their midst. After an hour, that man opened fire.

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What I’m Reading #1

As a kid, I was a huge bookworm. I read constantly, delighting in everything from the classics to R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I spent my entire childhood with several books at various stages of completion stacked on my nightstand.

Then, I went to college. Reading for pleasure took a back seat, though I did push back in my sophomore year and reread C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia as a protest against the headiness that had taken over all of my reading time. I stayed on through graduate school, the reading load becoming even more impossibly large. I read some books I hated. I didn’t have time to read a lot of books I think I would have liked. And once I finished my assigned reading (if ever I did), the only thing I wanted to do was turn on Netflix.

When I graduated in 2012, I took a break. For about 6 months, I’m not sure I really read anything. Some articles, poetry, maybe parts of a few books. But bookworm Sarah was nowhere to be found. My dad kept asking me, with not a little concern in his voice, what I was reading, and I kept saying–uh, nothing, really.

I did eventually pick up a book again. And slowly, I’ve rediscovered my love of reading. I’ve found new ways to enjoy it–in the hammock on my front porch, in bed while my dog snores in the corner. And having good material has been helpful, which is why I’m writing this blog. I’ve read a lot of great books recently, and I want to share them. So let this be the re-beginning of something I used to do in my old blog–sharing what I’m reading now and sharing what words are giving me joy.

1. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Gregory Boyle

51nC9KaNROLI had heard of Father Greg Boyle’s incredible work with Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program in Los Angeles, a few years back from a friend who visited. But my interested was rekindled when I heard this interview he did with Krista Tippett of OnBeing. It was utterly lovely, and I immediately ordered his book, Tattoos on the Heart. The day I started it, I got halfway through. Father Boyle (or “G,” as the homies call him) is an incredible human being living out the gospel in a way few people do. This book is hilarious and heartbreaking, and I think everyone should stop and read it right now.

“If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.” — Gregory Boyle

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