For 15 years I tossed around as a magazine designer, art director, and editorial consultant. Now I'm a speaker for a New York Bible teaching ministry. My first book, currently titled Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places, combines memoir with spiritual musing and is due out next year through InterVarsity Press.
One of my favorite places to talk to the world is on my blog, Seedlings in Stone. I named it that because I love the thought that life can grow in the most unlikely places. Certainly, as a writer, I'm called to cultivate miracles from inhospitable environments and emotions.
People who don't find me online can find me in all my love, craziness, and light humor somewhere in New York.
But I Tell You
by Karen L. Oberst
RECENTLY I've been having a conversation with an atheist. She is passionate, articulate, and moral. For some reason, upon reading But I Tell You I thought of my atheist friend. Maybe it's her emphasis on morals that created the connection.
In But I Tell You by Karen L. Oberst we find an explication of Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount. The sermon, of course, addresses the issue of morals. With colorful images, it lays out the morals God expects in his kingdom. And, as Oberst reminds us, it shows just how difficult it is for us to meet these morals, because they go beyond surface appearances, requiring, rather, “a change of heart” (p. 207).
Indeed, as I read through But I Tell You, I wondered how my atheist friend would respond to this aspect of the sermon. I found myself musing, “Does she think it is okay to simply do the right thing? Or would she accept that morals must go deeper than outward actions, requiring a goodness of heart? And if she recognizes the importance of goodness of heart, how does she reconcile her secret, wayward thoughts?”
I haven't asked her these questions—yet. But I know that as I read Oberst's book, I was tempted to do so. Because in a steady and gracious way that's hard to wriggle past, But I Tell You calls us on the carpet. Again and again Oberst probes our supposed morality with concrete examples and questions of her own, like this one from the section “Love Your Enemies”: “Do we consider the enemies of our nation to be the enemies of our church as well?”
Reflecting back, it's this aspect of Oberst's work that I most appreciated. She had a gentle way of getting around my defenses and catching me unawares. This talent fit well with the nature of the Sermon on the Mount itself, for it had a way of getting around people's defenses when Jesus first delivered it. In fact, Oberst observes, the Greek word that describes people's initial response to the sermon literally means “to strike out of one's senses” (p. 206). It's hard to have defenses when you're struck out of your senses.
Having heard the sermon countless times, it was unlikely that I'd be struck out of my senses by reading it in But I Tell You. Yet I still found sweet surprises. After all, I love language. I delight in words. And Oberst went back to the Greek quite often to unearth these surprises. Here's one example I won't soon forget: “The word translated ‘blessed' is makarios in Greek. This is a poetic form of the word maker, which originally referred to the bliss of the gods, a euphoria that could not be known by mere mortals” (p. 4). Imagine, Jesus used this word when he said, “Blessed are the destitute in spirit.”
By frequently presenting the original Greek, Oberst helped me imagine more deeply what the sermon meant to its first listeners and what it can mean to me today. Furthermore, by delving into cultural practice, as when she remarked that the “Gehenna of fire” referred not to “hell” but to a place where people burned garbage outside of Jerusalem (p. 63), I also imagined that I might yet ask questions of my atheist friend; I simply don't want to picture her on the outskirts of the Holy City, burning.
Despite how it occasionally sent me into such strong imaginings, I felt that reading But I Tell You was like sipping jasmine tea on a peaceful morning. It was quiet and approachable, sweetly preparing me to meet the day. And like the Sermon on the Mount, it has a flavor of challenge I won't easily put aside.