Thanks(giving) Be To God!

"Mi Famiglia." The author's family gathered for her son's baptism.

"Mi Famiglia." The author's family gathered for her son's baptism in Laguna Beach, Calif.

To me, "unexpected" is at the heart of how I understand grace. It is the unearnable gift, the divine reversal and sacred surprise, the still small voice that drowns out the din of the maddening crowd, the little bit extra that my Cajun friends call lagniappe, the very thing we "deserve" the least but get anyway. From God. From the One who created the world and the audacious, indescribably power of love.

Taking a cue from Nell, here are just a few of the unexpected blessings I am grateful for today:

For God's fingerprints that cover every inch of our world, seen and unseen. And for the moments where I can almost make out the holy whirls imprinted in the sky, the ocean, the sunlight, and on the faces and stories of each of us.

For the generosity and selflessness I see so vividly — all around me, all the time — even in these lean, nervous days. I saw it in Zuccotti Park, where strangers prepared and served food to other strangers. I saw it in the sober faces and strong arms of the men who helped 84-year-old Dorli Rainey to safety after she was pepper-sprayed at an Occupy rally in Seattle. I heard it in the prayers lifted at the White House, at North Park University in Chicago, and in the basement of a church in Spanish Harlem where kind, mighty souls formed Human Circles of Protection last week and stood in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, and the least of those among us. I watched it on display at border crossings, immigration rallies, refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, and at a glass blower's studio in my hometown of Laguna Beach where strangers arrived with shovels and wheelbarrows to help dig out an artist and his artwork from the muddy ravages of a flash flood. I saw it in the fresh coat of paint on the front steps of my elderly parents' home in Connecticut that my cousins had applied for them with great care and kindness when my brother and I couldn't be there to do it.

Faith On Foot at UC Davis: Blessed Are The Peacemakers

Late Friday afternoon, UC Davis campus minister, the Rev. Kristin Stoneking, was in the car driving with her family from Davis to the American Academy of Religion gathering in San Francisco when she received a phone call from a campus administrator. Katehi was "trapped" inside her office at the university administration building, where a large crowd of protesters had gathered outside, flanking both sides of the sidewalk in front of the building's entrance. The chancellor was afraid to leave on her own and asked Stoneking to come mediate her exit with students.

Stoneking was running late, having missed a few of the AAR's sessions already, and was reluctant to heed the call. She called one of the students involved in organizing the Occupy protests on campus and learned that, "students were surrounding the building but had committed to a peaceful, silent exit for those inside and had created a clear walkway to the street." So she turned the car around and drove back to the university.

"Why did I walk the Chancellor to her car?  Because I believe in the humanity of all persons," Stoneking writes. "Because I believe that people should be assisted when they are afraid.  Because I believe that in showing compassion we embrace a nonviolent way of life that emanates to those whom we refuse to see as enemies and in turn leads to the change that we all seek.  I am well aware that my actions were looked on with suspicion by some tonight, but I trust that those seeking a nonviolent solution will know that 'just means lead to just ends' and my actions offered dignity not harm."

Wallis and Mohler Debate Social Justice and the Gospel

What was most telling about the disagreement between the two men was their discussion of Luke 4. Mohler argued the passage should be understood in light of how he interpreted the preaching and teaching of Paul and the other apostles. This means that when Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor that good news was personal salvation.

Wallis argued that yes, personal salvation is one part of that good news, but that the other part is the Kingdom of God breaking into the world and transforming societal relationships as well. When the Gospel is proclaimed, it is good news for a poor person's entire being, community and world -- not just his or her soul.

First, it was encouraging to hear Mohler spend a lot of time emphasizing that working for justice is essential to fulfillment of the Great Commission. Throughout the night he repeated his concern that a lot of Churches are REALLY bad at making disciples who actually do the things Jesus told us to do. As the president of one of the largest seminaries in the world, it will be interesting to see if he is able to train a generation of pastors who will do things differently. My concern is that he is missing the connection between his theology and the failure of Christians to actually do justice.

Halloween and Jesus: A Reconciliation in the Dark

One of my most vivid childhood memories of Halloween 1977, the year my family moved to a new town in Connecticut right after the school year had begun. I don't recall what my costume was, but I do remember going door-to-door with my father, meeting new neighbors and collecting a heavy bag of candy, as the suburban warren of Cape Cods and manicured lawns morphed into an other-worldly fairyland.

I was 7 years old and the new kid on the block, so when the cover of darkness fell at sunset, I hadn't a clue where I was. As my father deftly navigated our way home in the crisp autumn night, it felt like he had performed a magic trick. When the morning came, I couldn't believe that our adventure the night before had been on these same streets. To my young imagination (and heart) it felt as if we had been walking through Narnia or Rivendell rather than a sleepy New England suburb.

A few years after that, my family stopped celebrating Halloween. We had become born-again Christians and our Southern Baptist church frowned on the practice. Halloween, I was taught, was an occult holiday (or maybe even Satanic!) and good Christians should have nothing to do with it.

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Of Traffic and Tee Times: The Grace of Unexpected Community

It took us a solid hour to travel six miles down New York Avenue, then another thirty minutes to get through the 3rd Street tunnel. The children were thirsty. More than once I considered turning around and heading home, though by that point it would have taken just as long to get home as to get where we were going.

And all along the way I rehearsed to myself the arguments of the Free Range Kids / Last Child in the Woods crowd. My husband and I like to think we have a mellow style of child rearing, more focused on moral development and kindness than in developing the "Super People" described in James Atlas' essay in the October 2 New York Times.

I was becoming the stereotype I decried -- schlepping children to lessons at the great cost of time and calm. Couldn't they just run around outside the house?

Luci Shaw answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

2008-5-03 Luci orcas_1

The Christian world is broad and spacious, and within its circumference, like a large bowl holding a variety of colorful fish, swim a surprisingly diverse spectrum of believers. The secular media mistakenly seem to view "the evangelical movement" as a sort of monolithic structure akin to a well fortified garrison ranged to repel the attacks of "liberals" or "progressives" or "mainline churches." Or a right-wing political force often equated with Republicanism.

Lynne Hybels answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Lynne Hybels

Lynne Hybels

Increasingly, in meetings focused on a wide variety of human tragedies, I hear these words: "What are you doing here? I didn't think evangelicals cared about these things."

I understand those comments. I grew up in a form of Christianity in which "saving souls" was pretty much all that mattered. The God I discovered in that church was a harsh, demanding tyrant; I knew that if I wanted to earn God's love I would have to be very good, follow all the rules, and work very hard. As a devout adolescent I did that. As a young pastor's wife I did that.

Unfortunately, I worked a little too hard and eventually became utterly exhausted, seriously depressed, and physically sick. That plunged me into a total life crisis in which I felt compelled to give up the God of my childhood.

Fortunately, a wise friend said to me, "For a while, forget everything you've ever thought about Christianity; forget the Old Testament; forget Paul and the epistles-and just read Jesus."

So for months -- for years actually -- I just read Jesus. And slowly but surely, Jesus reshaped my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.