Archives for December 2011

What I Miss About My Evangelical Days Part Nine

In part one I wrote about Christian books and bookstores, in part two about worship (particularly music), in part three about Bible study, in part four about involvement, in part five about prayer, in part six about ordination, in part seven about emotion and in part eight about baptism and three fold communion.

This is the final part of this series (except for a wrap up post on Monday!). In this final post I want to talk about something I have been missing acutely lately. I miss the focus on small groups and accountability that I had in the evangelical church.

From the time I was in junior high or high school I was involved in a small group. This was a group of people that met a couple of times a month. It allowed people to go deep with one another and was a relationship that lasted over time. We would read the Bible together, pray together, and talk about what was happening in our lives.

When I was in college I was in a “Life Transformation Group” with two other people. It was a powerful experience. We confessed our failings to one another, shared requests for prayer, held one another accountable to daily prayer and Scripture reading, and prayed for each other. I felt seen by these people and held up in my spiritual walk.

I know that accountability can have a negative ring to it. The idea of confessing failings or sin to another person seems punitive and guilt inducing. But I think it’s too easy to try to do this Christian life alone. To make it so private that there is no one who really knows us.

In the mainline church we are leery of being public about our faith. And granted, people who have been public with their faith have given lots of Christians a bad name. But that’s even more reason for us to be living out our faith and able to articulate our faith in way that isn’t insulting. Christian faith is a communal act at it’s best. It’s not meant to be kept private and hidden. Accountability is about more than just making sure you are saying the right number or prayers or studying Scripture each day, it’s also about holding us to what the way of Jesus calls us to. Instead we don’t even articulate our faith to each other, or to our own families. We might have some kind of spiritual practice but we don’t talk about it. And we certainly don’t ask others to talk about their spiritual practice.

I have heard that folks who are part of the Iona community at least once a year get together and bring their checkbooks. They open them and really talk about what they are spending money on. That’s accountability. That allows us to know that we don’t make choices in a vacuum; that the things that we do affect other people. It’s not about guilt but about living responsibly and becoming more like Jesus.

I miss having someone in my life who helps me to stay on track. I miss having a small group that I know is praying for me and I for them. I miss sharing scripture with a small group of people who is struggling and growing together. I miss someone knowing me; knowing where I am on my spiritual journey, what I’m struggling with, what I’m pressing towards. I miss someone asking me how my prayer life is going. I want people challenging me to grow.

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What I Miss About My Evangelical Days Part Eight

In part one I wrote about Christian books and bookstores, in part two about worship (particularly music), in part three about Bible study, in part four about involvement, in part five about prayer, in part six about ordination, and in part seven about emotion.

In the tradition in which I grew up we practiced the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist in a very different way than the mainline church (and even some other evangelical churches).

Baptism was only for adults (or for people who were old enough to articulate their experience of salvation). The church did dedications for children, but baptism was something different. I appreciated the symbolism of adult baptism. It was a public expression that someone had decided to follow in the way of Jesus. And it was done by full immersion. In some churches this was done in a baptismal pool in the church, but other places did it outside, in rivers or oceans, in swimming pools, etc. It was someone saying that they were prepared to die to their old way of life and be resurrected into the life of Christ. It was a powerful moment.

Often, someone significant to the person being baptized did the baptizing. Maybe it was a parent or a mentor. Or maybe it was the person who first told them about Jesus. I appreciated that this was a communal act. The minister wasn’t the only person to do the baptizing.

There is something powerful in adult, full immersion baptism. It’s a marking of time; It’s a public commitment.

Our church practiced the Eucharist by partaking in what was called “three fold communion”. The service would start out with the washing of one another’s feet. We would get down on our knees and take someone’s foot into our hands and wash it in a bowl of water. We remembered that following in the way of Jesus means serving others.

Then we would gather for a full meal together. The Love Feast. A sharing of food and fellowship.

Then we would celebrate the bread and the cup.

All of the elements were present each time we did communion (which means we did communion less often as it took a lot longer); It was a reenacting of Jesus’ meal with his disciples. I love the symbolism of all of the various parts; how they draw us both into the story of Jesus but also into the community with each other.

I miss these powerful symbols. The way they ignite the imagination. The way they remind us of our commitment and our community.

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What I Miss About My Evangelical Days Part Seven

In part one I wrote about Christian books and bookstores, in part two about worship (particularly music), in part three about Bible study, in part four about involvement, in part five about prayer and in part six about ordination.

I miss the sense of emotion that I found in the evangelical church. When I was involved in the evangelical church my emotions were often engaged in worship. And not just in worship, but even in my personal devotional life.

When I was coming out (and that was one of the catalysts that led me to examining the evangelical church and theology, though not the only one) I turned away from any sense of emotion. Instead I went to the intellectual. I didn’t feel like I could trust my emotions: I needed to read scholars and facts. And I lost any sense of emotion in my worship all together.

The mainline church isn’t good at emotion. They frown upon spontaneous expressions of joy or sorrow in worship. They keep things tight to the chest. We are “better” than that raw emotionality. We are more sophisticated or intellectual than all of that.

Emotionalism can be dangerous in worship. I have seen it lead youth to heights that left them in depression when that high couldn’t be sustained. I have seen powerful speakers play on powerful emotions to elicit a response. I have seen people get carried away in music.

But there is also a danger in never being emotional, in keeping everything in our heads and not allowing it to penetrate our hearts. We can wall ourselves into a faith that it purely intellectual. A faith that lives only in books and sermons and not in our hearts and lives.

I think the Spirit often moves in ways that we would read as emotion and when we shut ourselves off from emotion we close ourselves off to the working of the Spirit.

One of the hardest things for me has been trying to reintegrate my heart with my head. To keep my intellectualism alive but also to allow the Spirit to move in my heart. To let myself be carried away sometimes, to realize that not everything in the world can be explained and intellectualized. I want to be able to feel emotion in worship. I want there to be things that propel me out of my head and into my heart.

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What I Miss From My Evangelical Days Part 6

In part one I wrote about Christian books and bookstores, in part two about worship (particularly music), in part three about Bible study, in part four about involvement, and in part five about prayer.

The next thing I really miss from my Evangelical days is the different understanding they have of ordination. It’s a much different process in the Evangelical church. There isn’t as much emphasis on degrees and ordination councils, exams, interviews, etc. It’s much more about one’s calling by God.

I’ll state up front that this can be problematic. First the glaring problem: Women can’t be ordained. There are people who are pastors of churches who are ill equipped for the job. There can be an anti-intellectualism within the Evangelical church and a sense that you’re actually a “better” minister if you don’t go to seminary; that somehow you’re more called or more “real” or something. This style of ordination can also lead to abuses as there aren’t very many checks and balances and not much oversight, especially in non-denominational churches.

However, if I’m being honest, there aren’t a lot of checks and balances in congregational polity either. The denomination may have a hand in ordaining you, you may have to pass the council and a psych test, but then there isn’t much oversight once you are ordained.

What I appreciate is the serious emphasis that is placed upon calling. Upon knowing your calling and following it. There is also an understanding that all people are called to something, not just pastors. I see less of the “professional clergy” thing happening in the evangelical church. In the evangelical church the people in the congregation can baptize folks, can preside over communion, can preach or teach.

One can become a pastor when one is still young. In the mainline churches, because of the requirements for ordination, it’s almost impossible to get ordained until at least 25 (and that’s if you go to seminary RIGHT out of college, get through the in discernment process with absolutely no snags, etc.). We’ve made it so that young adults basically can’t be clergy.

In the mainline church ordination sets up this class of “professional clergy”. It’s a bit of a hierarchy, but by and large a false one as I’ve noticed that people in mainline congregations don’t really understand the vocation of minister. What is does is set apart clergy as better theologically trained (which many times translates into the congregation feeling that they don’t even need to read the Bible because they have professional clergy to do it for them) and as knowing how to run a church. In the evangelical church there is an understanding of being a pastor as a vocation. The pastor is someone who serves the church. They aren’t set apart as a professional but more as a shepherd. And the congregation understands that the role of the pastor is to be someone set apart.

How are we progressives articulating what it means to be a pastor? Are we even bothering to articulate it?

If I’m honest, I don’t feel that seminary prepared me for parish ministry. It certainly gave me a lot of theological knowledge that I needed, but no practical skills (except for the ones I learned in my field education). It also separated me from the life of a congregation for three years and cost me a boat load of money.

I think there is a better way. What if we apprenticed people who felt a call to ministry with established ministers? You learn by doing. What better way than to get in there and do it, while also having some oversight. One could take courses, but seminary could be cut down to two years probably. If the apprentice if working closely with a minister we can learn more about them than we ever could with psych testing (which one can lie their way through). While we’re at it, let’s get the apprentice a spiritual director and a therapist.

There are lots of folks who went to seminary, who got through the ordination process (with its papers and interviews and tests) and who have no social skills and not much practical ministry experience.

And let’s get back to the idea of ordination being a community of people recognizing and honoring the call of a person. Let’s take seriously the idea that when we lay hands on someone we are ordaining them to serve a particular community and we are affirming the gifts we see in them.

I want there to be a recognition of the moving of the Spirit, of the call of God on a person, of the community coming together and offering a blessing and a sending in a way that is much more organic than what I see happening in the mainline church.

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Christmas Reflection 2011

Every year at the church I work at, the Sunday after Christmas (or, in the case of this year, on Christmas) is a service of lessons and carols. This year I was assigned “Once In Royal David’s City”. The following is the reflection I offered.

Once in royal David’s city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

Once In Royal David’s City was originally published in 1848 and was specifically written to be a song for children, particularly to teach them about obedience. One of the verses that we no longer sing says:

And through all
His wondrous childhood,
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly mother,
In whose gentle arms He lay.
Christian children all should be,
Mild, obedient, good as He.

It’s a nice sentiment. But Jesus wasn’t mild and obedient. He ran away from his parents as a child, he turned over the tables in the Temple as an adult, he was arrested and crucified as an insurrectionist against Rome. This is not the tale we tell in our Christmas carols.

We paint pictures of a picturesque Bethlehem, a quiet manger, a silent baby. But the reality was a lot more complicated. Jesus was born to refugee parents in the occupied Roman Empire. His birth was felt to be a threat to established order, a threat to the King. In “The Song of the Magi” by Anais Mitchell she sings:

“A child is born
born in Bethlehem
born in a cattle pen
a child is born on the killing floor
and still he no crying makes
still as the air is he
lying so prayerfully there
waiting for the war
welcome home, my child
your home is a checkpoint now
your home is a border town
welcome to the brawl
And life ain’t fair, my child
put your hands in the air, my child
slowly now, single file, now
up against the wall”

What a different picture that paints! And yet it is much closer to the truth of Jesus’ birth. We cannot divorce our stories of Jesus from the reality of the time in which they were lived.

Some might say that knowing this history takes away from the wonder and peace of the Christmas season, but I think knowing this history deepens our understanding of what it means for God to enter into the mess of human existence. Jesus wasn’t born to people with wealth and power, he was born to the poor and that, to much of the world, is good news.

And in this radical incarnation we understand a calling not to be obedient and mild but to an upheaval of the established order. We sing the Magnificat with Mary:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for God has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Once in royal David’s city was born a child who called us to a restructuring of values, a reordering of how we understand power. This baby, in all his vulnerability, brings us to understand how God cares for the vulnerable. And teaches us, in turn, what we are called to do: Speak truth to power, over turn the tables of those who put profit before people, and be in the mess with people wherever there is injustice. This is the message of Christmas: God with us. God in us. Bringing the good news of a new hope to all who have felt forgotten.

What I Miss About My Evangelical Days Part 5

In part one I wrote about Christian books and bookstores, in part two about worship (particularly music), in part three about Bible study and in part four about involvement.

I miss extemporaneous prayer. Actually, more than just extemporaneous prayer, I miss the emphasis on prayer in general.

In most mainline churches prayer seems to be a bit of an afterthought. Certainly we pray during the worship service: We pray written down, in unison prayers. We pray the Lord’s Prayer. The pastor will pray (sometimes a spontaneous prayer, sometimes a written out prayer).

Some churches have a prayer list, others don’t. We sometimes pray before meetings (generally if a clergy person is present) or before meals if someone thinks of it. Often we seem uncomfortable with public prayer.

Contrasted with my evangelical upbringing this is shocking. In my church we prayed all of the time. We prayed out loud, in groups, privately. We were encouraged to have a rich prayer life at home. Prayer was vital to the life and the work of the congregation.

Why is the contrast so large? I think part of it has to do with what we believe about God. Evangelicals (I’m painting with a broad brush here, but I think it holds) believe in a God that is intensely interested in each individual, a God who hears every prayer, a God who answers every prayer, and who is intimately connected with the world. Progressives and liberals are rather uncomfortable with such a God. They believe that God cares, but not that God is directly involved in every situation. So prayer tends to be broader, less specific.

I don’t know exactly what I believe about prayer. I don’t believe in a God that cares that I get that parking spot at the mall or that the weather will be sunny for my day at the beach. I don’t even know if I believe God intervenes to heal people (otherwise there are some very good people who wouldn’t be dead). But I do believe that prayer has value. If for no other reason than that prayer influences the person doing the praying.

I find praying helps me to focus on God. To realize that I am not the only one in the world with problems. It helps me to realize that some things are bigger than I am. It helps to orient me to the viewpoint of God: One that cares about the poor and the orphan and the widow.

I miss feeling like I could have a conversation with God and be heard. I miss praying for other people in a group. I miss being able to pray out loud without feeling silly or ashamed. Some of this is definitely more about me than it is about the progressive church, but I don’t see out loud, extemporaneous prayer being modeled in church and I think that’s a problem.

In general I think the progressive church lacks contemplative practices. We might give some lip service to meditation but we don’t often talk about prayer, about lectio divinia, or about the divine office. We are neglecting our own tradition.

I miss knowing what people need prayer for. There is an intimacy that comes with sharing requests with one another (certainly this could be abused and used as a time for gossip or for spite as I am sure there are plenty of people praying for my “healing” of my queerness but again…baby out with bathwater.). There is intimacy in placing your hands on someone and praying for them. There is an intimacy in allowing the words you are saying to God to be heard and shared by another person.

I miss praying with people. I miss praying for people (although I try to do it in my own prayer times). I want to reclaim prayer not just as an act to get things the way I want them, but as a way to orient and center my life and as a way to draw communities together. I’m not entirely sure what prayer does but I know that it does something and I know that it matters.

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What I Miss From My Evangelical Days Part 4

In part one I wrote about Christian books and bookstores, in part two about worship (particularly music), and in part three about Bible study.

Another thing that I really miss about my evangelical church experience was the sense of involvement. The church I grew up in wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t tiny either. I’d say there were a couple hundred people there on Sunday mornings. I always had the sense, though, that I could be involved.

I was at church every time the doors were open. I went to Sunday school and church and youth group. On top of that I sang in the youth choir, started and led drama teams, hip hop groups, and more. I sang in the praise band for a couple of years. One time I even did a missions’ moment that went so long the pastor had to cancel his sermon! (Which he did very graciously! Try that in a mainline church and see the hook coming from off stage to yank you!)

The point is I was involved. I felt like I was a valued part of the church and the ministry of the church. And this is even being a somewhat quirky kid who was visibly queer (and assumed female). I was welcomed into ministry (for the most part) even then (even though there is a deadly “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the church, but that’s another post).

I have not felt that sense of involvement in the mainline churches I have been in. Things are more tightly controlled. We are afraid that the youth might mess things up if they participate in worship; that some folks might not like their hip hop (and it’s true, some folks might not like it). Things are run by professionals. We allow the kids to lead on a Sunday or two a year, otherwise we keep them hidden away. And they aren’t involved in leadership in other areas. And it’s not just the youth.

There is also this idea that people don’t want to be involved so we try to make it easy for them. We form lots and lots of boards and the people on the boards do all of the work. Or we try to make it so that people won’t have to commit to very much.

I think people want to commit, but they want to commit to something worthwhile. They don’t want to commit to tons and tons of meetings, but they would like to commit to doing something that actually benefits either the life of the church or the larger community. We are doing people a disservice when we make things too easy.

We have also taken away the idea of the priesthood of all believers. We don’t let people lead or get involved. We over structure things. And this isn’t just in large churches; this happened in smaller churches as well (although not quite to the same extent). Instead of empowering people to lead we put them on a board. And then we talk something to death to make sure that nothing happens too quickly.

I want to be in a place where people are empowered to lead. Where they can use their gifts in worship. Will it occasionally be a mess? Yes. But that’s okay. I want to be involved in the life of my worshipping community. I want to feel like I am necessary to the functioning of the church; that I am needed and wanted. That I have something to give to the community. Church isn’t a spectator sport, nor is it only the purview of professionals (and I say this as someone seminary trained). It’s about involvement.

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What I Miss About My Evangelical Days part 3

This is the third part of my series “What I Miss About My Evangelical Days.” In part one I wrote about missing Christian books and bookstores, and in part two I wrote about worship and music.

Another thing I really miss about my evangelical days is Bible study. When I was growing up everything was centered around the Bible. I spent time memorizing it, studying it, and being taught it. We would have sermon series where we would work our way through entire books of the Bible. We had Bible studies where the homework was to read an entire book of the Bible each day.

When I got into seminary I knew the Bible better than many of my classmates. I was able to test out of both Old and New Testament contents’ courses. Say what you will about the evangelicals, but they know their Bibles.

I have found a reticence around Bible study in the Progressive church. It’s as if once we stopped taking the Bible literally we stopped reading it at all. I find people who don’t read the Bible because they are afraid of it. Or who think that only fundamentalists read the Bible. The problem is that they have no idea what the Bible actually says or how to read it.

I no longer read the Bible literally, but I still find so much in it to love. I love the poetry and the mythology. I love the stories of Jesus. I love studying the Bible.

I also love studying the history of the Bible; how we ended up with the canon that we did, what was going on in the Roman Empire when the Gospels were written, and on and on. I find that knowing this history helps me to appreciate even more the text of the Bible. And I get so frustrated when we don’t really study the Bible.

Sure, we’ll preach from the Bible. We’ll maybe follow the lectionary. But we don’t have Bible studies anymore (at least not at the church that I’m in). And I hear people hungering for them. They want to know what’s in the Bible and we’re not giving that to them.

Whenever I teach about context in which the Bible was written, the things that many of us progressive ministers are being taught in seminary, I hear the same thing, “Why aren’t we being taught these things?” Why, indeed? Whenever I teach people queer theology and how to read the Bible with a queer eye (especially straight folks) I find them saying, you’ve allowed me to read Scripture again.

When is the last time we studied an entire book of the Bible? When is the last time we encouraged folks to memorize verses?

I have found many people who know virtually nothing about the Bible and these are folks who grew up in the church. We are failing people by not giving them the tools to read the Bible and to read it well.

Why aren’t we taking our own sacred text seriously? Why aren’t we studying it together? Why aren’t we looking at the ways in which this text can still provide comfort and instruction?

I think it’s time we get back to having a Bible study.

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What I Miss About My Evangelical Days: Pt. 2

I’ve been writing about the things I miss from my evangelical days. I wrote here about my experience of christian books/bookstores. This is the next post in that series.

One of the things I really miss about my evangelical days is the worship. I miss having worship (particularly music) that moves me and worship songs that I can actually sing.

I come from a tradition that did worship music in a way that was emotionally meaningful to me. It was stylistically accessible to someone who loves folk and pop music (and even some rock occasionally). I could sing at full volume and sing harmony by ear and rarely had to worry that there was going to be some weird flat or sharp that would mess up the melody line. (I can’t read music so that stuff sneaks out like a freaking ninja and trips me up!)

In the church I work at the music is high church. It’s all hymns and organ. It’s anthems sung in German and Latin. It’s featured soloists and classical musicians. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, but it doesn’t move me. I can’t belt out a hymn when it’s accompanied by an organ. To their credit, the congregation does sing with gusto, but it’s not the same.

And there are no hands raised, no dancing, no closed eyes and raised faces. I miss that. I hear people complain about repetitive worship songs, but the beauty of those songs is that you can learn them quickly and not need lyrics to keep singing. It allows you to get lost in the music and to enter into worship.

I know that some folks think that worship music is emotional manipulation, and it certainly can be, but it can also be used to tap into emotion in a healthy way and to reach places that wouldn’t be able to be reached without the music.

I also miss being able to sing worship music and have it reflect what I believe. Now I listen to worship songs and I just can’t do it. Either it only refers to God as a man, or it’s just about Jesus and me and lacks any social component, or it’s about how life is nothing and someday we’ll all just go to heaven and be happy.

These days I sing along with Mumford & Sons, but I want more music like this. I want to be in a community of people who aren’t afraid of a good folk or pop song. I want high quality music that sounds like something I would listen to throughout the week, not just in church. I want to be able to raise my hands and dance. I want to close my eyes and sing my heart out. I want guitars and drums.

I want protest songs updated. I want Jesus mixed with justice. I want expansive language about God. I don’t want to sing about heaven and deny life on earth.

And it’s not just about the music, but about the community. About worship as a way to recharge from the work that we’re doing together. Music as a way to bring people together and get them energized.

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What I Miss From My Evangelical Days: Pt. 1

Last week I wrote a post entitled “I Want More” and in it I briefly mentioned my evangelical past and a bit about what I miss. Writing that post got me thinking. I spent the majority of my life in the fundamentalist evangelical church. I needed to leave it for my own health and wellbeing (both physical and spiritual). It has been a long road from there to here one fraught with reframing, reclaiming, and re-envisioning. I feel like I finally have enough distance and space to revisit some of the things that I miss from my evangelical days. My guess is this will be a series of posts exploring different things that I miss. I would invite you to weigh in in the comments about the things that you miss (if you are an evangelical expat) as well.

One of the things I really miss is being able to walk into a bookstore (either Christian or not) and be able to walk into the religion section and find a number of books that appeal to me. I used to find tons and tons of books and have to decide between them. Now I walk into the store and I struggle to find even a single book that I might want to purchase.

I want books that don’t assume there is only one way to be a Christian. I want books that don’t use masculine language for God. I want books that are influenced by reputable scholarship (that isn’t influenced by apologetics), I want books that take seriously social justice.

Instead I find books that interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of the New Testament, I find books that are all about sexual “purity”, books that reinforce culturally constructed gender differences and call them “biblical”, lot of books by Mark Driscoll, books that encourage a belief in Hell, the list goes on.

I want a devotional that I can read without having to check my brain at the door. I want a devotional that speaks to me without making me cringe over bad theology. I want books about discipleship that are about more than just increasing the amount of Bible you read and really talk about changing your life, rooting out racism, classism. A discipleship book that challenges you to look at intersectionality.

Even the “radical” books aren’t radical enough. “The Book of Common Prayer for Radicals” by Shane Clairborne and others using masculine God language, and “Lord” language without explanation of the political meaning of that word. That’s radical?

So what are my options? Occasionally I can find a book online and order it. I can read scholarly books which are excellent but don’t necessarily feed my spirit. I can spend the entire time trying to reframe the language in my head (and that gets really exhausting).

I’ve read Marcus Borg and I like him, but he’s only one person. I find most of the emerging church folks that are being published to not be nearly radical enough.

Where are the books for radical Christians? Where are the devotionals for folks who take the Bible seriously but not literally? Where are the books that incorporate respected scholarship with a devotional feel? So far I haven’t really been able to find any. (Although I’d love your best recommendations in the comments.)

Maybe it’s time for us radical Christians to get to writing.

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