A Triumphant Tale of a Blind Immigrant

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Julie Lip-Williams is a fitting sequel to The Spiritual Blessings of Country Music and to Steve Earle’s fierce determination to educate autistic children. His alarming words have far reaching implications that continue to trouble me.

“The cure to cancer could be locked up inside one of these kids.”

Julie’s story is a surprising account of unlocking—a stunning reminder of the beautiful potential that God plants inside his image bearers and the good that ripples out when those gifts are unlocked, nurtured, and enabled to flourish.

From birth, the odds were hopelessly stacked against her. It wasn’t just the culture’s inclination to discard her, which alone would have proven devastating. Her own family posed a threat far more serious than being marginalized or denied opportunity.

Her story began, as do the stories of countless baby girls throughout history and into the present, when those closest to her sought a way to end her life. Her story ended at the young age of forty-two with the best modern medical science has to offer and teams of skilled medical professionals fighting desperately to keep her alive.

Julie Lip-Williams’g memoir, The Unwinding of the Miracle: a Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything that Comes After, is fittingly described in The NYTimes Book Review as “a triumphant tale of a blind immigrant.”

Born poor and blind to Chinese parents in postwar Vietnam, she was sentenced to death by her paternal grandmother, who believed that her disability would bring shame to the family and render her an unmarriageable burden. But when her parents brought her to an herbalist and asked him to euthanize her, he refused. . . . She would go on to defy her family’s expectations, eventually graduating from Harvard Law School, traveling the world solo and working at a prestigious law firm where she meets Josh, the love of her life. She becomes a mother and, soon after a cancer patient, and soon after that, because of this unfortunate circumstance, a magnificent writer.

—Lori Gottlieb’s NYTimes review, “Swan Song: A dying young women’s remarkable exhortation to the living”

Even after Julie’s death, her gifts continue to bless—bringing solace and courage to others engaged in overwhelming battles. Many will marvel, as I do, at her clarity of vision in perceiving God’s hand at work in her story. Her blog—My Cancer Fighting Journey—is a powerful preview of her memoir.

She is one more reason for us to ask ourselves again how we are stewarding, affirming, and fueling God’s good gifts both inside and outside the church. What possibilities do we imagine when someone new shows up? What possibilities are we overlooking? Who matters and who doesn’t? It is it our place to decide? Or can we, should we, learn to see others with the eyes of expectation and the belief that they arrive bearing gifts?

We still don’t have the cure to cancer or many other problems the world is facing. And new possibilities for discovery and advances await. May God give us eyes to see potential all around us and to open doors and witness the unfolding of God’s goodness through the giftedness of others.

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Something to ponder . . .

Walter Brueggemann

It seems inevitable that if someone hangs out long enough with the ancient Hebrew prophets, they’ll start to sound like one. The same unvarnished straight talk, the same open-throated passion for God’s holiness, goodness, and love, the same glaring light of truth on how we, as followers of Jesus, capitulate to our culture and lower the bar for ourselves from who God calls us to be and to do as his children.

People familiar with Walter Brueggemann’s writings will be nodding their heads in agreement. He is, in the estimation of many, a modern day prophet. It is next to impossible to read his writings or hear him speak without feeling the weight of conviction and powerful stirrings of hope.

I’m currently reading Brueggeman’s Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile—his discussion of the works of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.

His section on Ezekiel, the chapter titled “Tough and Submissive,” opens with the following story that reflects the conflict of every Job sufferer in the Bible, the bracing honesty of the psalms, and our own anguished wrestlings. We are caught between the need to speak the truth of our hearts before God and to kneel in worship, trust, and adoration.

Brueggemann and the prophet Ezekiel open wide the door for both.

Elie Wiesel tells a Hasidic story of rabbis who debate and dispute with God over the destruction of God’s people. They challenge God, scold, berate, reprimand God in an abrasive fashion, surely beyond propriety and in violation of normal piety. After this has gone on a while, surely longer than God would wish, one rabbi in the discussion reminds the others that it is time for prayer. The rabbis leave off their abrasive argument with God, don their prayer shawls and bow down in reverence and devotion before the Holy One.

. . . It often happens that these two postures are seen as mutually exclusive. Either we will dispute or we will bow down, but we do not know how to do both in the same life. To be tough and submissive, to be prepared for dispute and for bowing down, is an invitation to a free life with God. . . . It is that capacity to be open in many postures with God that leads to vitality in faith.

—Walter Brueggemann



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The Spiritual Blessings of Country Music

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Marriage to Frank James came with a catch that I didn’t realize until it was too late.

Early on, he mentioned he loves country music. But the full extent of that love didn’t sink in until the wedding was over and we were driving from Portland, Oregon to our first apartment in Ambler, Pennsylvania. That’s when I learned the truth about his passion for country music and worse, that this man can find a country music radio station anywhere.

Pick any state from Oregon to Pennsylvania. Even in the remotest parts of the country—even in Oxford, England—Frank can find one. Let me just say, for someone trained in classical music (which he jokingly called “cartoon music”), that cross-country road trip put my wedding vows to an early test.

Fast forward to 2019. We’ve managed to negotiate our musical differences. Frank enjoys classical music as much as anyone, and I’ve even come to like some country music, although I must admit a sense of relief when the Tammy Wynette concert we were planning to attend got canceled.

I have my limits.

That said, recently I proved my undying love for Frank by accepting his invitation to a Steve Earle concert here in Sellersville PA. Admittedly, I actually liked a couple of his songs. But the takeaway for me came during one of the interludes when Earle spoke about his autistic son and the school he sponsors (The Keswell School) in New York City that provides one-on-one teacher/student education for autistic children. He said, “The cure to cancer could be locked up inside one of these kids.”

As a cancer survivor, that statement makes me shudder.

It leaves me wondering what other cures, innovations, creative solutions, and advances remain locked up because we give up on certain individuals, allow the natural consequences of poverty to take their course, fail to educate and provide opportunity for others, and simply lack the necessary curiosity to imagine what gifts God has entrusted to others?

What are we losing?

The ancient book of Ruth continues to hover over me—even showed up at a Steve Earle concert. The question Earle was asking is one the Ruth narrative raises.

When Naomi, a former famine refugee, returned home to Bethlehem with her immigrant daughter-in-law Ruth, no one in the receiving community imagined the good that was coming. In the eyes of the local culture the two women only brought deficiencies.

Both were widows. Neither possessed the qualities that mattered in a potential wife or that gave a woman status and security. The men in the family were all dead, and neither woman was fertile. Naomi was post-menopausal; Ruth was certifiably barren. According to the patriarchal culture’s gold standard for measuring a woman’s value—by counting her sons—both women scored a zero. Both were below the poverty level. They would be a drain on society, dependent on the Israelite welfare system (a.k.a. Gleaning Law) for survival.

No one in Bethlehem could have imagined how much was riding on the shoulders of these two “zeroes.” No one envisioned potential or promise when the pair arrived in Bethlehem. No one expected a day would come when the nation—indeed the whole world—would stand in their debt. No one, not even the two women themselves, would have dreamed that YHWH was powerfully at work through these two so-called “cultural nobodies” or that national and cosmic matters were at stake in their willingness to take bold risks and make costly sacrifices to address local family matters.

And yet, the purposes of God for the nation and for the world moved forward through their actions. The baby the marriage of Boaz and “barren” Ruth produced, the son Naomi raised as her own, became the grandfather of Israel’s King David and the forefather of Israel’s royal line that in hindsight we know ultimately produced King Jesus.

If the book of Ruth has taught me anything, it is to be careful before assuming I know through whom or how God is doing big things in today’s world. The likelihood is high that it isn’t someone I would ever suspect. Steve Earle underscored that when he spoke expectantly of unlocking the potential of autistic kids. It raises the question: What gifts and potential for good, what cures, innovations, and advancements remain locked up inside people we instinctively count out because they’re too young, too old, too poor, too washed up, too unemployed, too uneducated, too different, too “other”?

Shouldn’t the story of Ruth and Naomi and Steve Earle’s passion to unlock the gifts and potential in autistic children give us second thoughts when someone new crosses our border? Shouldn’t we as Christians possess a different perspective when we look at someone our culture (or we ourselves) are inclined to count out?

I am still no fan of country music. But I’m beginning to think an occasional country music concert might do me a lot of good. (Don’t tell Frank.)

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The Beat of a Mother’s Heart

Edith Lucille Mouton Custis
a.k.a. Lucille, Edi-cille, Lucil,
Mrs. Custis, Mama, Aunti Lucil,
Grandmama
(July 16, 1923—January 7, 2019)

In the aftermath of my mother’s death last week, I came across this tender thought: 

“Remember, you’re the only person who knows what her heart sounds like from the inside.” 

In the case of my mother, I’m not “the only person.” There are four of us. And while it is true that there are many different routes to motherhood, I love the thought that, before I saw the light of day, the first sound I was hearing was the steady beat of my mother’s heart.  

This past Monday, her 95-year-old loving heart stopped beating. Mama’s passing—like the slowly setting sun—took place over time with a gradual litany of losses. First she lost her mobility, then her hearing, sight, and memory until, on January 7, that steady heartbeat went silent. 

Grief stretches out over years of decline. She felt those losses too. But death drives grief home with a finality that cannot be denied. Memories of conversations with my mother are treasures that live on. 

She got off to a tenuous start, weighing only three pounds when she was born on July 16, 1923 in Lafayette, Louisiana. My grandmother journaled, “I had eclampsia and lost consciousness before we reached the hospital. She was three days old before I was aware, and she was in the incubator.”

When she was seven, her mother decided it was time to have “the talk” and asked a couple of close friends to pray. When she explained the gospel, my mother responded by asking, “Is there any other way?” Grandmother told her, “You can be perfect.” My mother replied, “I think I’ll try that way.”

She spent the next morning in her bedroom putting a mosaic together, then skipped off happily to a birthday party. When she returned, mosaic tiles were scattered all over her bedroom floor. The culprit was her younger brother. She wanted to murder him! She went straight to her mother and said, “I need Jesus!”

When she was ten, the family moved from Louisiana to Harrisburg, Arkansas when my grandfather purchased part-ownership of what would eventually become the Mouton Rice Mill

At sixteen she displayed an uncharacteristic level of fearlessness and a willingness to press the limits of what her heart could stand (or her parents would permit). She said “Yes!” to a young friend/military pilot’s invitation to take a spin in his plane. He flew loops! She didn’t tell her parents about it until afterwards. 

My grandmother nurtured my mother’s love of Jesus and her hunger to study the Bible by investing countless hours teaching Mama and her best friend Elizabeth from Bible study material drawn from the Moody Bible Institute correspondence course. Both girls were also deeply involved in the Southern Baptist Church Women’s Missionary Union program for young girls. Together at thirteen both achieved the program’s highest award in the state of Arkansas.

She became an accomplished young pianist, giving numerous recitals and a performance on Memphis radio. Her love of music inspired her determination to insure music lessons for all four of her children.

Her call to ministry came early. Her childhood friend Elizabeth raised the bar for a rich spiritual depth of friendship that she didn’t encounter in the young men she knew, so she didn’t expect to marry. Instead, she planned to be a missionary and dreamed of studying at House Beautiful (part of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky until 1998). Southern Baptist Convention leadership created House Beautiful to remedy the fact that they were sending women missionaries without providing biblical and theological training.

College came first. Her parents shipped her off to Baylor University, where her freshman year she met my father. That changed everything. His calling was the pastorate, and her story took a different direction. Looking back, they often said they “fell in love over the Scriptures.” Both had a hunger to learn and grow that never diminished over 69 years of marriage.

Trust me, they were happy!

Her heart always belonged to my dad. At nineteen, she dropped out of college to marry him. She would follow him anywhere and did. Their years of ministry together took them to California, Texas, Vancouver, British Columbia, and mostly Portland, Oregon. In his later years he told me, “She’s my ezer.” 

Her college education may have been cut short, but she more than made up for it as an avid reader. The writings of Amy Carmichael, Irish missionary to South India, had an especially profound influence on her. 

Along with supporting my father’s ministry and managing the home front, she also had ministries of her own: an after school Bible club with neighborhood children, years teaching Sunday School for high school girls, women’s ministries, and hours privately mentoring young women. Beyond the members of her family, she has left an indelible spiritual impression on the lives of countless women who consider her their spiritual mother. Even in assisted living, God opened doors of ministry to her.

Who knew that fragile little heart would beat so strong and steady for 95 years? Who knew so many others would come to depend on her or that her influence would radiate well beyond the inner circle of her family? 

Grief at the loss of my mother has, like her decline, come in stages. I’ve already had moments—plenty of them—when I feel the urge to tell her something or ask a question and I can’t. Now, as I contemplate that last goodbye, solace and hope mingle with heartache when I read the psalmist’s prayer:

“My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices;
    my body also shall rest in hope.
For you will not abandon me to the grave.” (Psalm 16:9-10)

The story isn’t over. My mother’s heart will beat again.

Rest in hope, dear Mama.

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When Politics and Christmas Collide

The Adoration of the Magi, Edward Burne-Jones (1890)

A careful reading of the Gospels reveals that the birth of Jesus takes place amid dark political machinations. Despite generations of Christian efforts to make the story suitable for children in cheerful Christmas pageants, Christmas has a menacing subtext of  poverty, marginalization, the threat of an honor killing, angel warnings, bold escapes from danger, a ruthless tyrant, and the actual killing of countless baby boys. 

Epiphany marks the final episode of the Christmas story: the magi’s visit to the Christ child. By the time we reach this day on the calendar, the holidays are over, kids are back in school, and with a sense of relief we’re packing up Christmas decorations and settling back into our normal routine.

Taking one last look back at events surrounding Jesus’ birth seems almost anticlimactic.

Yet to close the books for another year’s round of Christmas celebrations is to miss the point. Especially within the context of a world in constant turmoil—where wars, injustice, oppression, and evil seem always to prevail, and powerful despots hold the upper hand and command the headlines—we need this final chapter of the Christmas story more than ever. 

A Cosmic Confrontation

Far from being a welcome distraction from all of the divisiveness and turmoil of today’s politics, the birth of Jesus triggered cosmic events that are still playing out and that directly engage today’s political realm. 

All four Gospels begin with bold subversive political statements that would be regarded as revolutionary in any country. Matthew establishes Jesus’ legal right to the throne of King David. Mark declares, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news” (1:15). Luke records the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary about the son she would birth: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (1:32). The Apostle John casts a global vision of King Jesus who is the light that invades the darkness (1:1-5).

This cosmic battle intensifies and things turn deadly when the magi arrive in Jerusalem, determined to find “the one born king of the Jews.” Matthew is the only Gospel writer to record their story (2:1-23). The fact that they are Gentiles explodes the boundaries of this new King’s realm beyond the borders of Israel.

A Ruthless Tyrant

The reigning king of Israel was Herod the Great whose paranoia and ruthlessness inspired Caesar Augustus to say, “I would rather be Herod the Great’s pig than his son.” Herod, who was part Jewish (meaning pork was off the menu), had a bad habit of murdering his rivals, including his own wife and sons. 

When word of the magi’s mission reached Herod, it set of loud alarms. He asked the Jewish religious leaders where the true Messiah was to be born. They pointed him to Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).

To get a sense of the terrible threat this posed, imagine how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would react (and the subsequent bloodshed) if an impressive delegation of wealthy dignitaries and experts showed up in Riyadh asking, “Where is the one born King of Saudia Arabia?”

Herod’s order to slaughter Bethlehem’s little boys age two and under in hopes of assassinating Jesus displayed, not just his willingness, but his determination to kill Israel’s true Messiah. 

Where Thrones Shake  

The birth of Jesus was not good news for King Herod. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer powerfully reminds us, neither is it good news for perpetrators of injustice and abuse, for power mongers, or for ruthless tyrants at any point in history. 

“For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged. . . . Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.”[1]

Epiphany demands a new kind of politics. The Lord’s Prayer itself is a public declaration of political allegiance to a different Kingdom. Eugene Peterson (whose passing is our profound loss and heaven’s gain) agreed.

“Prayer is subversive activity. It involves a more or less act of defiance against any claim by the current regime. . . . [As we pray,] slowly but surely, not culture, not family, not government, not job, not even the tyrannous self can stand against the quiet power and creative influence of God’s sovereignty. Every natural tie of family and race, every willed commitment to person and nation is finally subordinated to the rule of God.”[2] 

We live in the already-not-yet, between Jesus’ two advents. Epiphany compels us to wait and watch and . . . in the meantime to participate as active agents of King Jesus and his kingdom.

“There might be nothing more radical and politically important than the notion that we are both anticipating the coming kingdom of God and offering glimpses of it today. This posture of ‘waiting and hastening’ (2 Pet 3:12) is a necessary stalwart against both political idolatry and political apathy. Instead of using the coming reign of Christ to justify political inaction, exploitation of the natural world, and indifference toward material suffering, Advent reminds us that we still have a job to do. While the master of the home is away, the expectation of his return motivates our participation in the redemption of the world. At the same time, the Advent reminder that we live between two advents keeps us from putting our hope and salvation in earthly political systems, for our true King is coming again and possesses the real power to make all things right.”[3]  

Come Lord Jesus, come!


[1]Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. God Is In the Manger, (Westminster John Knox Press), 26.

[2]Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community, 66

[3]Kaitlyn Schiess, “Advent is actually quite political.”

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The Men of Troy

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Nothing pleases me more than seeing Ruth’s name in lights—especially when I know it is the ezer-warrior version of Ruth (rather than the Cinderella version) who is getting the attention.

Ruth was in the spotlight again last week at Kensington Church in Troy, Michigan and will be now for several weeks as they engage a Bible study series on the book of Ruth. The backstory of how she got there in the first place was an unexpected encouragement for me.

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Lead Pastor, Danny Cox

The lead pastor at Kensington Church/Troy Campus, Danny Cox was assigned to read three books for a class at Fuller Theological Seminary: Wilmer G. Villacorta’s Tug of War: The Downward Ascent of Power, Andy Crouch’s Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, and Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World.

He said all three books had a profound impact on him and spoke a lot about the chapter in Presentation1Malestrom on Boaz, “The Power of Power.” Boaz led Pastor Danny to my other books and also to invite me to speak at the kick-off for Kensington’s church-wide study of the book of Ruth.

If you haven’t read that chapter or my other books on Ruth, Boaz embodies a redemptive view of male power and privilege. His encounters with Ruth the Moabitess—in his barley field and at the threshing floor—are the epitome of power and powerlessness. The power differential between them is extreme. Yet not once in the entire story does Boaz surrender his male power and privilege. Instead, he employs his male power and privilege fully to empower Ruth so that her initiatives succeed on behalf of Naomi and Naomi’s family.

The book of Ruth is both a powerful man-story and a courageous ezer-warrior story.

The example of Boaz couldn’t be more relevant and transformative in our current #MeToo world, and the men I met at Kensington Church/Troy get that. Male power and privilege can inflict horror and life-long scars on those less powerful. Or they can be a force for good, for the healing, flourishing, and empowering of others. The version of male power and privilege that Boaz projects doesn’t come at a loss for men either, even though he makes enormous sacrifices. In the end, he stand taller—taller I’m convinced—than any other male figure in the Old Testament. He is a leader in the recovery of the masculinity God entrusted to his sons in the beginning.

By the time I arrived in Troy, members of the church leadership team were reading Malestrom and Half the Church, a church-wide study of Ruth was starting, and the church leadership team was already engaged in discussions about relationships between men and women—a.k.a. The Blessed Alliance—and how that impacts their leadership.

And if all of this was not encouraging enough, hope exploded when I met Theo—grandson of Steve Andrews, the Kensington Network’s Lead Pastor and Co-Founder. Who knows how promising the future can be if the little men of Troy catch this vision early!?

Version 2

Theo, Future Champion of Women

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Heading to Troy, Michigan

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No one has to twist my arm to get me to talk about the Old Testament book of Ruth.

It has been a total game-changer for me. I live in the book of Ruth. Hardly a day goes by when I’m not pondering this story. After publishing two books on the subject (The Gospel of Ruth and Finding God in the Margins), I still haven’t exhausted everything this book has to say to us.

Who knew the message of this small book could be so 21st Century relevant and so utterly earthshaking.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to be invited to help kick-off the Midweek Series on Ruth at Kensington Church/Troy Campus. Like I said, no one has to twist my arm.

If you’re in the area, I hope I’ll see you there!

Kensington Church

1825 E Square Lake Rd
Troy, Michigan
Wednesday, October 10
7:00pm

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