The unique giftedness of Hannah More

TIN-124FierceConvictions_largeHannah More was an accomplished and gifted author and philanthropist best known for opposing the slave trade and promoting education for women in 18th-century British society. Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions is a crisply written, rigorously researched biography that charts More’s “extraordinary life” through the events, works, and relationships by which her legacy was made.

From her youth to her elderly years, More devoted her gifts and talents to serving others. In tracing the various chapters of More’s life, Prior consistently highlights More’s admirable traits—her intelligence, wit, eloquence, and compassion. This is a woman who counted literary giants and historical icons such as Samuel Johnson and William Wilberforce among her closest friends and whose poetry, novels, and plays were praised for capturing “the vitality of the moral imagination.”

But Fierce Convictions is no glossy, idealized portrait of a historical figure. Prior embraces the complexities of More’s personality, including her vices and biases, and the rejections and hardships she suffered alongside her victories. By doing so, she allows More’s biography to serve as a beautiful testament to what God can accomplish through us—imperfect as we are—when we entrust our unique giftedness to the work of advancing justice and mercy.

Perhaps some readers will finish Fierce Convictions eager to read Hannah More’s literary works and find out more about her historical context. More importantly, however, this book will likely reinvigorate readers in their own faith-led journeys by showing that our “facts and our wishes can produce great stories when serving things much grander than ourselves. And that the stories we tell ourselves and others matter.”
(Banner review)

Bahamas is Afie: Warm music with lyrical depth

61Opll2DjTL._SY355_Afie Jurvanen is a Canadian of Finnish descent who has a recent history of playing guitar with notable musicians such as Jack Johnson, Great Lake Swimmers, and Feist. In 2009 he released his first solo album under the recording name Bahamas.

Bahamas Is Afie, Jurvaven’s third and latest album, is a unique fusion of folk and pop rock with a dash of jazz. Through first-person lyrics, he sings about new attractions, difficult partings, shaking off bitterness, and owning up to blame. On the track “Can’t Take You with Me,” for example, Jurvanen soothingly sings: “I can’t take you with me now I know it /Though the love was in me I did not show it.” That is just one of the many melodies on the album enhanced by orchestral accompaniments.

Several songs showcase Jurvaven’s graceful mastery of the guitar; he is reportedly self-taught, which makes his playing all the more impressive. This fresh and pleasant album bears repeated listens and will satisfy listeners looking for warm, mellow music with lyrical depth.
(Banner review)

Saint Saviour’s songs of quiet strength

British singer-songwriter Becky Jones adopted the moniker “Saint Saviour” after seeing it while running in the St. Saviour’s Dock area of London. Those who appreciate the lyrical honesty of the psalms may also be drawn to the intimate beauty of In the Seams, which lets listeners in on the intricacies of Jones’s inner life.

“I’ve made considerable mistakes/tried to be/someone else,” Jones confesses in a delicate, ethereal voice on the first track, “Intro (Sorry).” Throughout the record, her airy vocals are accompanied only by piano, acoustic guitars, and cinematic arrangements by Manchester Camerata, a chamber orchestra.

This collection (her second) is indeed plaintive in places—yet it is never entirely despairing. Many of the verses describe painful experiences such as romantic betrayal and childhood bullying, but the choruses are often calls for forgiveness and reminders of life’s promise. These songs of quiet strength are fitting companions for a pensive walk or a tranquil hour at home.
(Banner review)

Andrew Peterson after all these years

TIN-100 After All These Years_mediumSinger-songwriter Andrew Peterson entered the contemporary Christian music scene in 1996 with his first album, Walk. Since then he has released nine more studio albums—in addition to bootlegs, compilations, and live recordings—and been consistently acclaimed for his thoughtful, Scripture-infused pop-folk songs.

Peterson’s newest album, After All These Years, is a retrospective collection of early songs rerecorded alongside a handful of new tracks. There are songs of overflowing gratitude to God for his faithfulness as seen through gifts of relationship and creation’s beauty (e.g. “Dancing in the Minefields,” “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone?”).

But when it comes to expressing the wounded state of the world—from broken marriages to war to grief—Peterson does not balk at expressing the pain and fear that can arise when God seems silent or hidden.

This album is Peterson at his best, offering longtime fans and new listeners an unflinching and deeply felt documentation of this artist’s life and work.
(Banner review)

The broken favored — an Advent devotional

For Advent 2014, two ministries of the Christian Reformed Church — World Renew and the The Office of Social Justice – are together providing a daily devotional series called “Reconciliation: Breaking Through.” I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute this year. You can read my devotional below–but even before you do that, I highly recommend signing up to receive this excellent series in your inbox and catching up the devotionals here.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Luke 2:14

All my favorite people are broken
Believe me
My heart should know . . .

This forthright acknowledgement of human frailty is the refrain of a beautiful 2011 song from the folk group Over the Rhine.

The song—titled simply “All My Favorite People”—is not meant specifically for the Christmas season (although the band does have several lovely Christmas recordings). Even so, its lyrics linger fittingly in my mind these Advent days.

Broken is an important word to dwell on while pondering how Christ entered humanity so he could serve as an atoning sacrifice for us—God’s conflicted, hurting, and estranged children. In order to understand Christ’s reconciling work, we have to recognize that we are all deeply broken, so very much in need of a Savior.

In this season of reflective expectation, I am also pondering the phrase “favorite people as I revisit the Incarnation story. For most of us, a large part of Advent anticipation is eagerly awaiting celebrations with friends and family—our favorite broken people. Every year, I am grateful to lean into the narrative of hope together with those I love, with meals and songs and lights. I know that these people are gifts from God.

At the same time, though, I know this narrative extends far beyond the men, women, and children whom I know well and hold dear. Nor can it be celebrated as a narrative meant only for the people whom the world holds dear. Worldly favor falls crookedly, curved by injustice and fear. Most of our economic and political systems favor the strong over the weak—the wealthy over the poor and the healthy over the sick. These are haunting indicators of humanity’s woundedness.

All of our favorite people and places and nations and institutions are broken. This our hearts should know. The good news—the news made known through the miraculous reality of the Incarnation—is this: all of God’s broken people are favored.

Mary was a young woman living in obscurity and poverty; yet she found great favor with God, and so carried his Son. Shepherds, in Jesus’ time, had little stature; yet they were the first to hear the news of Christ’s birth from the angels’ holy mouths. And when these angels famously proclaimed that a child—a Messiah—had been born in the tiny, no-name town of Bethlehem, they pointed to this gift as evidence of the Lord’s generous favor.

From the family down the church pew to the stranger in another country to the friend across the table—all of us are beloved and worthy, broken and chosen. And we have unique gifts to offer as we aspire to unite the fractured pieces in our time, until God’s ultimate reconciliation comes to pass.

This broken person is God’s favored child.

If we let this refrain shape our interactions with others, I believe that even our imperfect efforts to promote mercy and encourage peace can become powerful testaments of the radical inclusivity of our Father’s grace.

(Originally posted here over at The Office of Social Justice – December 8 2014)

Eugene Cho on cultivating a heart of justice 2009, Seattle pastor Eugene Cho and his wife, Minhee, founded One Day’s Wages—a grassroots movement aimed at alleviating extreme poverty around the world. His book Overrated is in part a behind-the-scenes look at the convictions and issues that led to this organization’s creation and that drive its work today. While the book is deeply personal, it is a call for all followers of Christ to examine the attitudes and actions that arise as we attempt to impact the world for the better.

Working from Scripture, his own experiences, and the words of other ministry leaders, Cho challenges readers with examples of how efforts to help those in need can sometimes be ineffective in addressing the core causes of poverty and even harmful to those we are seeking to help. He also shares inspiring examples of people using their creativity and generosity to bring about lasting change.

Cho’s tone is conversational, even confessional, as he offers up what he has learned through coming alongside nonprofit professionals and the very people hurting as a result of systemic injustice. His voice flashes with humor without straying into flippancy, which helps him to carry even the hard stories and difficult facts graciously. Even when those stories and facts are convicting, they are also encouraging in that they help us serve better.

In an era of quick-click charity, Cho emphasizes cultivating a heart of justice out of a deep calling rather than an “emotional idea” by “tak[ing] more time to listen, pray, and allow the injustices of the world to break us in lasting ways, as opposed to wanting to immediately make an impact.” Perhaps this is one of the most powerful takeaways for readers. (Banner review)

Don't be overwhelmed. It's not our calling to save the world. Do what you can. Do it well. Do it with love.God doesn't challenge us to just change the world. He invites us to change.

Pausing over scripture with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

The Bible can trouble us, comfort us, and perplex us. Sometimes even just a few words can bring us to a stop. In What’s in a Phrase? Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre invites readers to join her in quietly and prayerfully contemplating passages that have caught her attention over the years. As McEntyre notes, hers is a book shaped by lectio divina, the ancient Benedictine practice of spiritual reading. That practice is built on the belief that “allowing associations to emerge around the phrase that stopped us is an act of faith that the Spirit will meet us there.”

In over 50 brief yet pensive reflections, McEntyre uses etymology, theology, history, literature, and her personal experiences to explore the subtleties and possible connotations of phrases such as “in the beauty of holiness” and “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Her thoughtful and vulnerable pondering leads her to pose the very questions at the heart of any spiritual journey: “What is the church?” “Who are the poor?“ “What does it mean to be known by God?” This book embraces the Bible as God’s living Word—mysterious, powerful, and meant to be engaged. The structure of What’s in a Phrase lends itself for use as a daily devotional, but the book could also be read straight through or even worked into teaching materials for educators and spiritual leaders.
(Banner review)