16 01 2010

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
– Matthew 13:33

I’m in the process of making ciabatta bread (it’s actually a two-day process; I just made the poolish, or starter, which will be transformed into a few loaves of home-baked goodness tomorrow). One of my Christmas presents was a book called The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. The author, Peter Reinhart, spends the first 90 pages telling a story about his experience entering and winning a national bread contest, and then expounding on various theories and techniques in the creation of artisan bread (this is before you ever even get to the recipes).

I dutifully sat down and read the opening section tonight before I started baking my bread, and soon I discovered a world far more complex and fascinating than simple step-by-step formulas (which was, I believe, Peter Reinhart’s intention). My head is spinning with new vocabulary and scientific processes and mathematical calculations, and I am intrigued enough to wonder how many varieties of ciabatta I could make, simply by tweaking the ratios here and there.

One point from Reinhart’s introduction especially stood out to me: “Remember that our mission is to evoke from the wheat the fullness of its flavor. The flavor of bread comes from the grain, not from the yeast. Leaven should not draw attention to itself but to the grain. Therefore, a baker’s maxim is to use only as much yeast as is necessary to get the job done. This minimizes the flavor of the yeast and maximizes the flavor of the grain” (53).

I couldn’t help but read that paragraph in kingdom-terms (and I apologize if I’m stretching the metaphor too far by trying to explain myself). For we only experience the tiniest glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, yet that is enough to work its way through all of the “dough.” And as the yeast works, it makes the dough rise and become far bigger than it ever could on its own.

And what about “maximizing the flavor of the grain?” Now, here’s an interesting thing. Ordinary flour contains two partial proteins, gliadin and glutenin. One of the main goals of the mixing process, I learned, is to allow those two proteins to link up and form glutin, the protein in wheat that gives bread its flavor. By themselves, the partial proteins are nothing. But the whole — glutin — is essential to the entire process.

And so it is with the kingdom of heaven. When we let it work within our lives, we find that our broken pieces are made whole, and we are united as the body of Christ, empowered to share our unique “flavor” with the rest of the world. And the all-important yeast helps us to rise up for a purpose higher than we ever could imagine on our own.

American Idol (atry?)

15 01 2010

Last night at Bible study, the question that was up for debate was “Does God forgive any sins, or are there unforgivable sins?”  (Let’s start with a nice easy one, right??)

Everyone came into the Youth Room lethargically, and for a few moments we all just sat on the futons and looked at each other.  The Wednesday slump had definitely hit us.  But our activity for the night — an American Idol spoof about rating sins — forced us to get moving and find our energy.

Three of the youth were assigned to the judges’ panel, where they received cards that read, “Not Sin,” “Little Sin,” “Big Sin,” and “Unforgivable Sin.”  The rest of us divided into pairs and drew a sin to act out (Sheppard and I got to act out “murder,” which meant I got to die a very dramatic death).  The judges’ panel, some weird mix of Simon Cowell and God, then judged our sins according to their severity.  As the judges debated their answers, we got into some interesting debates about the very definition of sin (is stealing food to feed your family a sin?  What about getting angry at your parents?)

We then jumped into Scripture, and the kids’ questions took us all over the Bible, from the Battle of Jericho to the Sermon on the Mount! I think we could have continued talking for another hour, but instead we’ll just have to wait for next week.

This week has been wonderful but busy  (although like I said, if I’m still excited about work at the end of a 14-hour day, then it must mean I’ve got the best job in the world!)  I’ve gotten to meet so many youth, and I think I’ve got (almost) all of their names down.  We’ve got so many neat ideas in the works for this upcoming year, I can hardly wait!

Books, books, books!

9 01 2010

One of my goals for 2010 is to read more books.  I always figured that after I finished school, I would have plenty of time to do nothing but read for fun. But, it seems this isn’t the case.  Life only got crazier, and instead of making time for required reading, I tended to not make time for reading at all.

So far I’m doing well.  I read two books last week and just started a third.  These aren’t easy beach reads, either.  The first two (Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell and Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn) were powerful, perspective-altering books, and from what I can tell, this third book (Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne) will be, as well.

Which led me to ponder: what have been the most life-changing or perspective-altering books that I’ve ever read?  Not necessarily favorite books, although I think they all fit somewhere into that category, as well.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, in chronological order that I first read them:

1. The Bible.  For obvious reasons.

2. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  One of my favorite books of all-time.  It’s whimsical and poignant and somehow perfect.  I’m putting it in here as the sole work of fiction to make the list.

2. Disposable People by Kevin Bales.  This was one of the first books I was assigned to read in college, and it really set me on a path of pursuing social justice as my life’s work (although I’m obviously still figuring out exactly what that life’s work is :))

3. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.  Something about his perspective really resonates with me.  When I’m questioning things, I find myself going back to this book  to reread his explanations and metaphors.  And whenever someone asks me a theological question, I almost always refer to this book.

4. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.  I actually don’t know if this one actually counts, since I’ve never read it all the way through.  But I’ve read bits and pieces of it multiple times, so that I’m pretty I’ve read most, if not all, of the words in the book.  A really interesting perspective on journalism, documentary studies, art, relationships, post-modernism, and understanding people in general.  It’s a heavy read, but a good one nonetheless.

5. Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne.  I first read this book in a time of angst and doubt and frustration with the church.  It showed me that there may indeed be another way to live out this thing we call Christianity.  I’m certainly not there yet, but at least I’m somewhere.  In some ways I think I liked Jesus for President better, but this one was definitely the catalyst.

There are more, of course.  Every book I read leaves me changed in some way.  And the really good ones have passages that stick with me forever.  But I’m always on the lookout for more.

And this leads me to my second list.  Given that my 2010 goal is to read more books, here are some that are on my list right now (if you have any of these that you want to let me borrow, let me know!):

1. Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

2. Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson

3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

4. Nurtured by Love by Shinichi Suzuki

5. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

6. Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright

7. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Husseini

8. Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen

9. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (This one has been on my list for an embarrassingly long time.  Maybe 2010 will be the year)

10. Letters to a Young Evangelical by Tony Campolo

11. The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

12. The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal

One for every month.  That’s a good goal, don’t you think?

I’d love to hear your lists, too–what are your most influential books? What are you going to read this year?

Shortcuts in the Psalms

9 01 2010

At the beginning of the year, I started as the new youth director at First United Methodist Church in Bossier.  I’m so excited–I’ve spent the past week planning and cleaning and meeting people and getting everything straight.  We also had our first Bible study on Wednesday night, and we focused on Psalm 119, which is an interesting bit of Scripture for a couple of reasons:

1. At 176 verses, it is the longest chapter of the entire Bible.

2. It’s also an acrostic.  Those 176 verses are broken down into 22 segments of 8 verses each.  In each segment, all of the verses begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the psalm progresses through the entire 22-letter alphabet. (Don’t go looking in your English Bibles for this phenomenon–that is something that is definitely lost in translation!)

3. The whole Psalm — all 176 verses — focuses on the Word of God.  As you read through the whole thing, you join the psalmist as he meditates, praises, obeys, and keeps the Word.  What a fitting introduction to our Bible study!

We did not read the whole thing on Wednesday but instead broke into groups, and each group was assigned one of the 8-verse segments.  As part of our “reporting back” to the big group, each small group had to share the one verse that summed up the entire passage.

It was a cool experience.  The one-verse fragments served as a summary of the entire psalm, and together they made an interesting psalm in and of themselves.  As I reflected on the lesson, I wondered: did I do the youth a disservice by not reading all of the 176 verses?  (I don’t think so) Was it more important to hear the words of Scripture, or to understand the big idea?  (Both)  Could you really boil the message of a psalm to a single verse? (Definitely something to try)

Then today, I came across Jon Acuff’s blog, Stuff Christians Like (a parody of Stuff White People Like).  This past week, he started a new series of the Psalms.  For 150 days, he will read a Psalm and post one thought on Twitter…in effect, boiling down the Psalm’s message to 140 characters or less.

I can’t wait to see what he does with Psalm 119!