Prophets so rarely speak words I actually want to hear.

sunlight on 100s of stairs web

I huffed and puffed up this massive flight of stairs. I dripped sweat, my calves burned, but the exercise was physically good for me, and the view at the end of the journey was worth the difficulty. But, still, the process to get there was painful. I think examining our stories is somewhat like this hiking experience.

Perhaps the more accurate title for the post is “Best Books Read in 2017: Third Quarter Edition.” But, there’s a theme running through what struck me in each of these books: the role of stories in shaping the way we engage the world.

The stories we tell about ourselves and our history matter. So do the stories we hear and repeat about others. Sometimes the stories are conscious; sometimes they’re submerged in the hidden space of unspoken and unquestioned assumptions. We act them out as we live. For better or worse, we pass them on to our communities and to our children.

In the present day, I am more and more convinced that perhaps the most helpful thing I can do to love people is to become a more dedicated and intentional listener to the stories around me.

Love is never abstract. I don’t love people in the generic. I love the particular person with my actions. Listening. Looking her in the eye. Recognizing him as precious and worthy of respect.

It’s messy work, this love business. It defies the simplicity of stereotypes. It refuses to repay hurt with hurt. It listens to the story that chips at precious parts of our worldviews, and it asks with a searching heart, “God, what would you have me learn and repent?” And it trusts that somehow in the terrifying process God won’t abandon our hands while we stand on storm billowed waves like Peter.

The trouble with true prophets is they so rarely speak words we actually want to hear.

I want to be comfortable. I want to be right, and even better, filled with the gleaming power of self-righteousness. But, none of those things teach me how to love myself or anyone else.

None of these books soothed me, and yet this quarter’s highlights might take the prize for the best books I’ve read all year.

  1. Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective by Justo Gonzalez
  2. Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
  3. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It by Peter Enns
  4. Misreading the Bible with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien
  5. The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert

I struggled with listing Peter Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So because it may be highly controversial and terrifying for some readers, but for those struggling with how to reconcile history, science and the Bible as a living, truthful Word — Enns offers a refreshing approach that is neither shutting one’s eyes to questions or jettisoning faith.

I’d like to make Manana and Stand Your Ground required reading for white Christians. I don’t have the authority to do it that, and even if I did, I can’t control the audience’s receptiveness to either author’s point of view.

Both books challenged me on the underlying assumptions I make as a white Christian. I don’t often ask myself critical questions about why I trust Greek philosophers over Asian philosophers. Why do I try to synthesize Plato with Christian thought, but squirm at giving Confucius a similar benefit? What American cultural values — like those concerning property — have I absorbed and synthesized into my thoughts on Christian practice? What if those values were actually obstructing my ability to live out the calling Jesus has for me?

Rohr’s The Enneagram pinged the stories I tell about myself, and the fears of what others think about me. For those into the enneagram, I’m a 5. Looking at other’s lives, I’m insightful and a fairly decent advisor.

When it comes to my own life, however, I’m snail-paced at action. I will research a choice to death before leaping, if I ever actually make the jump. I feel forever woefully inadequate and unprepared to leap. I like to think that this deep-seated weakness of mine is somehow masked from everyone else, but of course, it is not. It is so glaringly obvious in the slowness to take a position after seminary, and the snail pace in committing to foster parenting. And to have it called out by a stranger so matter of factly, stung to the point of tears.

But, this is what the enneagram does. As Rohr and Ebert discuss, we discover which enneagram number is ours by the experience of deep humiliation as we read. It reveals what we’d most like to hide, and the point where we find ourselves most in need of the experience of grace.

So, what is it that I’ve learned in the last few months?

Instead of reading to find my positions reinforced, I find myself reading with a different set of questions. God, where are my assumptions about You causing me to worship a false god? God, where are my assumptions about others hindering my ability to love them? God, grant me the courage to stay curious.

I’ve hopped out of the boat I’d considered my safe haven, and now found myself standing upon the open waters of uncertainty. I’d like the safety of another boat to come along, but for now, I walk knowing that I’m headed in a direction I feel called to go. In this seasoning of questioning my assumptions, God has not abandoned me to my own devices. And, I find, this is enough for today. I’ll deal with tomorrow as it comes.

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