Jeff Crosno Wants To Introduce You To Some Friends You Might Like To Know

From time to time, I'm asked to recommend books and authors that fall under the general category of "spiritual autobiography."  There is always some risk in doing so, for the deeply personal stories that touch me with their honesty, insight and humility may leave others stone cold and unimpressed.  The point is not that we agree with them on every point (I don't), but that in listening carefully to their stories we begin to discern the Holy Spirit at work within a human life.  And of course, once we begin to do this with others it comes as no surprise that we start listening for the Spirit's presence in our own lives with much greater care.  With all of this in mind, here is a short list of some of my favorites in the field:

Frederick Buechner.  Where to start with this Presbyterian minister and Pulitzer Prize nominated novelist?  Let me suggest several of Buechner's autobiographical offerings -- The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days; Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation; Telling Secrets; The Longing for Home: Reflections at Midlife; Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany.

Kathleen Norris.  Perhaps no living writer has helped me recognize the essential and formative significance of place in establishing our sense of identity and community than Norris in her bestseller, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.  Moving from New York back to her grandparent's home in Lemmon, South Dakota, Norris writes with a poet's clear eye regarding the contradictions of small town life in a declining agricultural community.  She has now gone on to enjoy both critical acclaim and further publishing success with the story of her immersion in a Benedictine monastery as a Presbyterian laywoman in The Cloister Walk.  If you get hooked on Norris, you will also want to read The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work," as well as Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith and Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life.

Lauren Winner.  Now a professor at Duke Divinity School, Winner burst onto the literary scene with a bestseller about her conversion, Girl Meets God: A Memoir.  Her follow-up, Mudhouse Sabbath, describes how her newfound Christian faith continues to be shaped by her previous experience as an Orthodox Jew.  And most recently, Winner has written with similar insight in two exceptional books: Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, and Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.

Paul Kalanithi.  By the time he succumbed to cancer at age 36 in 2015, Kalanithi was an honors graduate of Yale School of Medicine as well as the University of Cambridge serving as a world-class leader in his chosen field of neurosurgery at Stanford.  In his poignant and heartbreaking memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, Dr. Kalanithi describes in beautiful and elegant fashion the difficult journey through his tragic and completely unexpected terminal illness.  But ultimately it is his testimony to the rich gift of a thoughtful and meaningful life fully informed by Christian faith that made this slim volume a #1 New York Times bestseller.

Anne Lamott.  Newsweek once said that Lamott writes about subjects that begin with capital letters (Alcoholism, Motherhood, Jesus) with "self-effacing humor and ruthless honesty."  I find her shocking at times, consistently incisive, and quite often laugh-out-loud funny.  Try her books Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, or Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith to see what you think.

Reynolds Price.  Before his death in 2011, this Rhodes scholar, prizewinning novelist, poet and essayist taught English literature for several decades at Duke University.  In A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing, Price beautifully narrated his life-threatening bout with cancer and the deep reservoir of his own developing faith that subsequently informed all of his later work as a writer.  Both forever scarred and transformed as a result of his own physical suffering, Price also penned a very moving Christian response to the agonies of undeserved evil and pain entitled, Letter To A Man In The Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care?

Dorothy Day.  Writing about her Christian conversion and subsequent ministry as co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement in The Long Loneliness, Day stands as a reminder regarding the profound impact of any life given without reservation to Jesus Christ.  After you read this spiritual autobiography, don't miss what amounts to a second volume in this compelling story, Loaves and Fishes.

Scott Cairns.  I met Scott many years ago while working for the Forest Service, and now he is a celebrated Guggenheim Fellow whose poetry has been widely published.  If you are willing to prayerfully think beyond the familiar boundaries of your evangelical faith tradition, I am confident that you will enjoy Scott's recent memoir, A Short Trip To The Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven -- A Pilgrimage, written by this former Baptist from Tacoma whose adult journey includes a surprising conversion to the practice of an Orthodox Christian faith.

Fred Craddock.  During my initial years of pastoral service in a large Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation, it was my good fortune to become acquainted with Dr. Craddock during classes and seminars at Emory University in Atlanta.  As one of the truly renowned teachers, preachers, and theological writers of his generation, Fred's influence on me undoubtedly saved my patient congregants from greater suffering in those early days of my own ministry!  Before his death in the spring of 2015, Fred had been named "one of the 12 best preachers in the English language" by Baylor University in recognition of his preeminence as one of the true "master storytellers" of the Church.  Even if you are never ordained to pastoral service, I'm betting you will enjoy the profound wisdom of Reflections on My Call to Preach: Connecting the Dots.  What Dr. Craddock has to say about his own journey of obedience to Christ will most likely bring to mind your own experience of God's faithful guidance and grace.  Here is a writer of deep insight and perhaps even deeper humility.  

Barbara Brown Taylor.  Another one of those "12 best preachers" who taught me about preaching at Emory University and the College of Preachers in Washington, DC during the early years of my ministry, I consider Taylor to be one of the most gifted "wordsmiths" in my acquaintance.  Let me introduce you to her ministry by recommending three of Barbara's most recent books, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, and An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.

Eugene Peterson. The son of a Montana butcher and a Pentecostal "preacher-woman," Peterson went on to minister to a growing, suburban Presbyterian church in Maryland for 29 years before finishing his career as a professor and bestselling author.  If you appreciate his translation of the Bible, The Message, you will probably want to read his account of a lifetime of faithful ministry in The Pastor: A Memoir.

Heidi B. Neumark.  This Lutheran pastor writes with fierce intelligence, passion and humor about her ministry in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City.  Prepare to be both deeply moved and challenged as you read Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.

Richard Lischer.  After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of London, Lischer took appointment to his first pastorate in a small, rural community in southern Illinois.  Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through A Country Church is the sparkling gem that resulted from those early years.  More recently, his memoir Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son chronicles a poignant faith journey through the heartbreaking death of Lischer's son, Adam, a talented young attorney who succumbed to melanoma just a few days before the birth of his first child. 

Greg Garrett.  This past winner of the William Faulkner Prize for Fiction and highly regarded professor at Baylor University tells the story of his own torturous path toward recovery and redemption in Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth.  In No Idea: Entrusting Your Journey to a God Who Knows, Garrett generously shares the follow-up to his critically acclaimed memoir by taking Thomas Merton's famous prayer ("My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going . . .") as his point of departure.  I'm betting that you'll find Garrett to be a trusted, deeply honest voice in your own discipleship journey.

Annie Dillard.  Living for two years on an island in Puget Sound, Dillard crafted a truly beautiful meditation on the mystery of living in a Creation that is both full of grace and inexplicably marked by suffering.  If you're looking for a writer who will take seriously the nagging questions about God that may be bothering you, please don't overlook Dillard and that stunning early book, Holy the Firm.  Once you start there, you will probably want to continue on with Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters; the memoir An American Childhood; and her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of essays, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.





Backup Plans

As business travelers go, my guess is that I tend to fall pretty squarely on the Compliant Passenger end of the airport Threat Assessment spectrum. Rubbing sleep out of my eyes at dark o’clock a few mornings ago, I was in a groovy, mellow mood while shuffling through the TSA Pre-Check line to pose for an X-ray glamour shot before receiving my complimentary security sniffing from the overly familiar German Shepherd doing his part to make sure we would be flying friendly skies on the first plane of the day. Wanting only my own dog-eared copy of the airline magazine and one of the thoroughly impenetrable bags of peanuts-and-pretzels that flight attendants throw to passengers like zoo handlers feeding a congress of chimpanzees, I settled into the departure lounge to wait eagerly for our boarding call. What could possibly go wrong?

If at this point in our story you have answered, “Plenty,” then you, my friend, are an experienced traveler showing outstanding potential for the Spiritual Gift of Martyrdom. But in my case, it wasn’t until the gate ticket agent wearing cargo shorts on that rainy day started breathing heavily into the microphone that I began to sense we might be in some trouble. First, Mister Cargo Shorts explained that we should not worry over the fact that the plane originally scheduled for our departure had just come up lame after arriving from Denver. Everything would be fine, he breathed reassuringly over the microphone, for we would simply wait for a replacement plane the airline was now scrambling to send us from San Francisco in expedited fashion. Honestly, it made me feel special at first. After all, who was I to worry or complain?  At that moment, I was envisioning a San Francisco flight crew running across the tarmac to clamber into our replacement plane after being summoned to duty by the blare of a klaxon horn which had undoubtedly awakened them from their bunks in some airport hangar. But after considering that it might actually take a fleet of taxicabs and hotel vans to ferry some unsuspecting flight crew toward that backup plane, I started to do what Mister Cargo Shorts had specifically told us not to do. I began to worry that a four-hour delay in my departure would cut into the margin of safety in my travel plans. For after finally arriving at my intended destination, I would still have another two-hour drive in a rental car to get up to the mountain lodge where I was scheduled to begin speaking that evening to a few hundred ministry households already gathering for their annual retreat. I might be cutting it a bit closer than planned, but really, what else could possibly go wrong?

Yes, I know. You have the Spiritual Gift of Prophecy, and at this point in the story it is indeed crystal clear to you that I was doomed. But given that even without my reading glasses I could still see our replacement plane through the terminal windows when it pulled up to the gate exactly four hours late, I remained completely relaxed and confident. I even stood to my feet before trudging over to assume the position next to my assigned place in the boarding line, as if by sheer force of will and punctuality I could help coax our plane back into the air on time to get me to that lodge where I would speak to what by now I had envisioned as a crowd of thousands of burdened and bedraggled pastor-types breathlessly waiting for me to share with them the Word that would keep them going for another day, week, or year of parish ministry. But alas, it was not to be. Once again, Mister Cargo Pants began blowing on the microphone, telling us that upon arrival at our airport, the cockpit warning indicator for the Anti-Skid System of our replacement plane had flickered on, and we would not be able to take-off until a contract airplane mechanic could be summoned to our location to see what might be done to reset that dashboard safety signal. Usually, Mister Cargo Pants explained to us, the captain and co-pilot would simply make a safety note in the maintenance logbook regarding this inexplicable Anti-Skid warning light and turn the plane around to head out for the next flight. But, on this particular rainy day, it would be de rigueur for the pilots to go strictly by-the-book to avoid aquaplaning down the slickened runway. Who knew? But after recalculating my remaining chance of making it on time to the mountain lodge where I was scheduled to speak to that imaginary gathering of presumably tearful and trembling pastors and spouses, I do not mind telling you that I was getting worried. By this time I was envisioning a waiting throng that probably numbered only slightly larger than the crowd that gathered on the National Mall for the Inauguration of President Donald J. Trump.  So, I did what any clear-headed man who has been happily married for at least three weeks would do: I called my wife to see what she might advise under these circumstances. I guess you could say that this is how I roll when it finally becomes clear to me that I am doomed, just as you had probably surmised much earlier.

Let me skip most of the rest of the blow-by-blow account of my lost day waiting almost fourteen hours at the airport through four cancelled flights before taking the last ride out of Dodge.  But it only seems fair to mention that I eventually made it safely through winding mountain roads to gratefully collapse at dark o’clock in a hotel room reserved for me by the very kind people whose guest speaker somehow managed to miss the opening session of their annual retreat. So, instead of further whining and complaint, perhaps I should simply state for the record at least a few of the initial theological conclusions that became evident to me while exploring every square inch of that airport terminal with my fellow passengers from Doomed Flight Number 378. First, with apologies to the Ordination Committee which had initially voted to approve my ministerial credentials three-and-a-half decades ago, having spent fourteen hours in an airport waiting for a plane that could safely get me off the ground, I am now open to reconsider the doctrinal concept of Purgatory. Seriously. If you ask me why this is so, let me merely share with you that for me, the coup de grace which finally put me out of my worry and misery had to be what happened when I went looking for a quiet place of solitude and relative silence in the terminal after learning that our fourth flight had been canceled due to rain. I know what you are probably thinking: Where would you find such a place of quiet rest in an airport? But after seeking some space to relax near several of the “terminal restaurants” (and here I am using quotation marks in a completely ironical sense) only to be driven away by the sound of jackhammers and hydraulic drills while these fine-dining establishments appeared to be under renovation, I did manage to make myself at home in a secluded spot where nobody seemed to bother me. However, I could not help but notice that passersby were in fact looking at me with some mixture of confusion and disdain while I sat contentedly in that place reading through my sermon files in preparation for the upcoming pastor’s retreat. At first, their dark glances in my general direction made very little sense to me until I looked again carefully at my own immediate surroundings to discover an overhead sign that solved this mystery. Mine was an honest mistake. It seems I had taken up residence next to the breastfeeding station for nursing mothers. Again, let me speak theologically. Some days a guy just can’t catch a break.

In the end, you might expect that the experience brought to mind a Scriptural text for a preacher like me who is rediscovering the fact that we are never really in control of our own circumstances. Honestly, the other day at the airport made it clear that I was traveling in the company of no less than the Apostle Paul whose own failed attempts to get successfully from Point A to Point B are recorded in the 16th chapter of Acts. If you look it up yourself, you will read a rather unusual itinerary for Paul’s business travel on what is known to us as his Second Missionary Journey. For there in the text, the Gospel storyteller lays out the history not of where Paul intended to go, but instead a perplexing itinerary of places where God did not allow him to go. He wanted to speak the Word in Asia, but Paul was forbidden to do so by the Holy Spirit. Then Paul attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow him to travel there. In the end, this bold and extraordinarily stubborn missionary of Christ ended up in a place called Troas only to learn by a vision in the night that where the Lord actually wanted him to go was the lone, remaining direction that he was still free to travel. So, after trying unsuccessfully to go South and North following his initial journey from the East, Paul and his traveling companions were eventually convinced that God had determined to send them with the Gospel for the very first time to the continent of Europe in the West. Maybe it just plays out this way at times when you’re trying to figure out the will of God. For after you’ve tried to travel faithfully toward the East, South, or North, perhaps the Lord may simply be telling you that it is finally time for you to consider moving West!  Indeed, sometimes discerning the will of God can turn out to be every bit as prosaic and pedestrian as discovering that you are being directed to keep moving forward in some new way only after all other roads have been closed off to you. Or to put it in another way, maybe the real issue is to just keep going.

Now I recognize that this is a rather counter-intuitive message in an evangelical subculture that generally tends to tell us that we should always be receiving at least our fair share of cherished dreams and hopes fulfilled if we are following hard after Jesus. But judging from what I know of both Scripture and our life of faith following this rather odd Messiah who was Crucified, Dead, and Buried before being Raised by the power of God, it should come as no surprise that sometimes we will instead have to become accustomed to encountering an occasionally inexplicable “No” in our journey with the Lord. We may not understand, agree, or fully appreciate that “No” that we are given at times along this way of faith, but being a disciple of Jesus often requires enough growth in grace that we can at least begin to hear and respond faithfully to those times when God has said, “No.” So, if you determine that you are willing to live in this way, you just might also find yourself praying more deeply, passionately, and obediently to that holy and wholly other One who has confused you at times by saying a Divine No that will frustrate your most carefully designed and best laid plans. But here is the Good News: When you are praying more intently and honestly out of the bewilderment and consternation you are experiencing, well, that is the best path for you to be on. The saints of every age will testify to that fact. For as David put it long ago in Psalm 25: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Because I do not wish to overlook the many times that this steadfast love and faithfulness (our Hebrew Scriptures call this hesed, or the “long-acting love” of God) often shows up precisely because things do not seem to be happening according to plan, something I read recently from pastoral theologian Craig Barnes sounds just right to me. He summarized it this way: “I think we need to develop a profound theology of Plan B. Theology goes like this: I thought I was supposed to do Plan A. I was wrong. Now I need Plan B. This is not a particularly sophisticated theology, but it works in my life. You would be amazed at how many times people in the Biblical drama are going to Plan B. But if you look it up, you’ll find it there over and over again . . . All of them had to go to Plan B, but along the way in their confusion they drew close to God, they learned to worship, and they experienced more [transformation] in their lives as a result of the worship, which was God’s Plan A all along. [And while] some of you may be up to Plan X or Y or Z, that’s all right. Go to double letters if you have to, but you have got to get off the hook for being right all the time with these choices. That’s called hubris, and it’s one of the deadlier sins.”

I missed an airplane the other day. In fact, I missed several flights, and as a result, I ran way late in getting to my intended destination. But that turned out to be OK. The whole ordeal simply became an experience in waiting, an extended exercise in grace given to remind me that at times God might force me to follow in some unexpected ways until I can rest content in the knowledge that truly all of the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness. Of course, I was thick-witted and obtuse enough that I did not see any of this at first, for at times I am not even attentive enough to recognize where I have taken my refuge in a noisy airport terminal. But maybe that posed no real problem to the patient Lord who was my Traveling Companion that day. For ours remains the God of this inconceivable hesed, a God of steadfast love who can and will use even the wrong roads to get us to the right places.

Jeff Crosno 

Sunday, October 22, 11:00 a.m.

In contrast to the clever marketing slogans that are often intended to seduce us as compliant consumers of the goods and services that seem to be forever "on sale," the man we know as Jesus, the original Nazarene, seems instead focused on making sure that we fully comprehend the depth and dimensions of every commitment he is asking us to consider.  Frankly, sometimes we seem to prefer the temporary illusion of ill-considered and half-hearted decisions in our spiritual journey.  But as we continue our Parable series drawn from the wisdom teachings of Jesus, Pastor Jeff will speak about Cost Estimates when we listen again to the Lord and his demanding words in Luke 14:25-33.