10 Reasons Why You Should Read “Embrace”by Leroy Barber

This is not an unbiased review. Leroy Barber is a friend and mentor. I have come to trust his insights on mission, justice and racial reconciliation. When I heard Leroy was writing Embrace: God’s Radical Shalom for a Divided World, I knew I would like it. And I do! If you want an unbiased review (because you think there is such a thing) look elsewhere. In lieu of that, here are 10 reasons why you should read Embrace:

978083084471510. Leroy knows what he is talking aboutEmbrace shares Leroy’s own experience as a pastor, urban minister, and community developer. The things this book exhorts us to— a lifestyle reconciliation, a heart for justice, and a commitment to love the other—are things Leroy tries to live out every day. He knows what he speaks of and he speaks with integrity.

9. Leroy is gracious. I don’t love others the way I ought to as a follower of Jesus. There are people, left to my own devices, I would avoid. I don’t measure up to my best ideals. Listening to Leroy, I don’t feel judged, but invited to live a better life—a riskier, sacrificial life, with a lot of pain and hardship, but better. This call is full of grace and compelling!

8. This is an important book because some of us live in Babylon. Leroy opens up about his own experience of following God’s call from Philadelphia to the South (Atlanta) and later Oregon. These new cities were Babylon to him: a place of un-belonging and where he experienced abject racism. I know the New Monastics talk about ‘relocating to the abandoned places of Empire.” Leroy talks about inhabiting  an antagonistic empire and seeking God’s shalom for the city we’re in. For those of us in Babylon, life is difficult but we are still called to embrace the place we’re in.

7. Because left to our own devices, we all have people we’d avoid. There are lots of things which keep people apart: race, religion, socio-economic status, etc.  Leroy’s encouragement to us is to learn to love the other: to not just retreat to our ‘in group,’ but to seek out relationships with people different than us. This isn’t just so we can help them and feel good about how amazingly loving and bighearted  people we are. As we seek out the people who are different from us (or difficult for us), and build relationships with them, we are enriched and our perspectives of the world are enlarged. Our own prejudices and privileges are challenged by learning to love well in relationship.

6. Diversity is a mark of God’s radical shalom and we all need to be more diverse than we are. Generally, we all like the idea of multiculturalism until it gets sticky. White churches welcome minorities but expect them to conform to their dominant church culture. We have similar expectations when we include different cultural groups, classes, and generations. We love the ones we can assimilate and ignore the rest. Leroy invites us to to a deeper communion where we honor the mutual image bearing of those who are different from us:

Our greatest danger as a church and believers is that we don’t actually see all people as made in the image of God. This is an immoral practice and it has ruined how people view Christians in the world. That Sunday mornings are segregated is no big secret; we’ve heard it over and over. For the most part our actions don’t seem to be changing. Worship and its lack of diversity is a joke. What kind of God are we representing? I don’t think we really care that we are segregated. We can quote Scripture of love and grace and yet be as divided as we are—this is the influence of Babylon on the people of God, not the people of God influencing Babylon (90).

5. God’s call for Justice begins where we are but then calls us outward.  Leroy will tell you that his cleaning up the basketball court in South Atlanta was so his own kids could play. But the whole neighborhood benefited. Caring for his own kids ‘became the natural way of justice for all kids.’ (101).  Leroy illustrates well how small acts of justice begin close to home, but because we are called to follow the God of justice, we are continually called to name injustice wherever we find it and stand with the oppressed. Sometimes ‘Justice’ seems like too big of a category. I like Leroy’s exhortation. Justice begins where you are and then wherever God takes you.

4. Because forgiveness and selfless love is the call. Injustice happens. People get hurt and killed. Leroy encourages us to follow the way of Jesus in loving our enemies. He talks about Dylann Roof being forgiven by the family of the fallen members of Charleston’s Emanuel AME church and our call to embody this sort of selfless love (109-110). Leroy doesn’t pretend this an easy commandment especially for those who have experienced profound trauma. I respect that Leroy never makes light of the pain and trauma which some people have faced (including himself), but still exhorts us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven.

3. Because you shouldn’t be happy with the status quo. Prejudice remains a major problem. Racism is real. The marginalized suffer. The refugee is rejected and regarded with suspicion. Foreigners, immigrants and resident aliens are maltreated and abused by the system. Our world is divided and divisive. We need more of God’s shalom!

2. Because Leroy is a great storyteller. He tells the story of his own journey into racial reconciliation: relationships forged, hurtful conversations and difficult times. He tells of learning to love the other. And he shares the story of friends and fellow justice advocates as well. Leroy weaves this in with the narrative of Scripture. Telling God’s story he explores the story of Patriarchs and prophets and Jesus. If there is anything that makes this book compelling, it’s the stories.

1. Because  yes, Black Lives Matter. Leroy spends his last chapter addressing myths and misconceptions many people have about the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a fitting end to this book because all along Leroy is calling us to stand against injustice, care for the vulnerable and love the other. There is systemic injustice which the Black Lives Matter movement has called our attention to (i.e. unjust police shootings, mass incarceration and lack of legal representation of Black men, etc).  Still many (white) evangelicals view the movement with suspicion. Leroy invites us to lay aside privilege and Embrace the Other as we seek to love and listen well.

Note: I received this book from the author in exchange for my totally biased review. five stars: ★★★★★

Reading Well for the Sake of Others: a ★★★★★ book review

 C. Christopher Smith is the editor of The Englewood Review of Booksan online and print journal  which  showcasess valuable resources for the people of God. Another site Smith, curates is Thrifty Christian Reader, a website which catalogs quality sale books—mostly Kindle, mostly Christian—which explore culture, theology, sociology, justice, ecology, poetry and literature. His own books also promote the kind of thoughtful Christian engagement he highlights online. Notably, Slow Church (IVP, 2014), which he co-authored with John Pattison, is a prophetic challenge to the way churches are sometimes co-opted by the dominant cult of speed and efficiency. Smith and Pattison point us instead to honor the terroir of place, cultivate community, and ways for the church to be a faithful presence and witness to God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

44491For a church to transform a community it is imperative we learn to read well. Earlier generations of Christians were sometimes called ‘the people of the Book.’ A good part of Smith’s influence has been about helping us to, again, be the people of the Book. In Reading for the Common Good: How Books Can Help Churches and Neighborhoods FlourishSmith points out the crucial place reading (in community) has for shaping our identity and practice of God’s people.

In his introduction, Smith helps us to conceive of church as a ‘learning organization,’ with learning and action as central components of our identity. We can have a significant impact on our communities as we understand our context and discern effective ways to act and then act(16). Learning and acting form a cycle which helps us live out the compassionate way of Jesus for our neighborhoods and communities (18-20). But this sort of reading is a communal, rather than individual activity.

Smith’s first couple of chapters orient us to the practice of reading. Chapter one points us away from our modern, technologically infused reading (where we read a lot but not deeply) towards ‘Slow Reading.’ The ancient practice of lectio divina and preaching which attends to the words of Scripture provides the church with counter-cultural habits of mind. Chapter two illustrates how reading and conversation help shape the social imagination. Smith observes:

The practices of reading and conversation are vital for the process of transforming our social imagination. Part of human experience is imaging how the world should function. The question is what stories are feeding and shaping the imagination? Reading renews and energizes our social imagination. For our churches, reading and embodying Scripture is the foremost source of renewal, but renewal comes from reading reflecting on and discussing a broad range of works in the life and teaching of Jesus (51-52).

The next six chapters explore the way reading shapes our social imagination and paves the way for communities to flourish. Chapter three explores how reading the Bible in communion with other believers helps shape us into “the image of Christ, the Word incarnate” (55). While the Bible remains central, reading other books communally (and in a cruciform way!) is also beneficial for making sense of the world and our place in it (59-61). Chapter four discusses the role of reading in helping communities and individuals understand their vocation. Chapters five and six discuss how churches can read with their neighbors and neighborhoods. Churches can be (or support) libraries which preserve the shared memory of place and provide resources for the community. Churches can also become centers of education which promote literacy and understanding. The telos of this is a greater civic literacy and engagement in the community. Our reading also promotes a better understanding of our neighborhood place in the economic, environmental, educational and civic realms (103-107). Chapter seven discusses how reading connects us to our world, creation and other churches and chapter eight discusses how reading can support our faithful engagement in the realms of politics and economics.

Smith’s final chapter discusses ways to help congregations become reading congregations, with examples from Englewood Christian Church (the faith community that Smith is a part of). The book closes with two reading lists: Recommended Reading for Going Deeper and Englewood Christian Church Reading List. 

Smith is an avid reader and this is a book about how reading well (in community) can help churches and neighborhoods flourish. So this book will make you want to read other books. Lots of them. Smith promotes helpful books throughout and he himself has been shaped by his reading of such luminaries as: Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, Peter Senge, Marva Dawn, Gerhard Lohfink, Mary Oliver, and more. I think it is impossible to read through this book without discovering new literary treasures (or at least places to dig). My wish list grew exponentially from reading this.

More significantly, this book touches a hunger I have for thoughtful engagement. I have been a part of churches which felt like the theological equivalent of a ‘food desert.’ Sometimes the  reading theology (or biology, philosophy, or whatever) is criticized for being disconnected from ‘real life.’ Smith rejects the binary between academia and activism, thinking well and living well. His chapter on the social imaginary (with a generous nod to Charles Taylor) should be required reading for pastors and leaders. I give this five stars and highly recommend it. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.

 

God Wants to Talk to You: a ★★★★★ book review.

His sheep know his voice. John 10:4 tells us that; yet many of us struggle to discern God’s voice in the midst of daily life. Samuel Williamson, founding director of Beliefs of the Heart, has written a helpful guide to hearing God’s voice everywhere.Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere helps us cultivate our curiosity and attention to the ways in which God speaks to us.
Williamson begins with a story of hearing God’s voice when he was just a 9780825444241ten-year-old, newly minted atheist. When God didn’t strike down his girlfriend Diane for cussing, Williamson lost  his faith. So he started his own experiment with profanity and living like God wasn’t there. God simply said, “Sam, I’m real, and you don’t understand” (24). Williamson was brought back to faith.  While this experience is unique to him, Williamson believes we all have a capacity to hear God’s voice. He relates the various ways people hear God. In his second chapter Williamson argues that the point of God speaking is less about directions from on high (though He is still God) and more about conversation. God wants to connect and commune with us. Williamson uses the analogy of learning sailing from his dad and the casual conversations that would spring up organically as a result (35-36).

But Williamson is also an evangelical. He gives pride of place to the Bible. Williamson wants us to read our Bibles, but not as a maintenance manual or a rule book but as an opportunity to encounter the living God. We read to commune with the living God. So he offers scriptural meditation (focusing on the one book where God clearly spoke) as a way to train ourselves to hear God’s voice, “The best way to  become familar with God’s voice is to meditate on his Word, just as the best way to spot a counterfeit is to spend lots of time with the real thing” (61).

Along the way Williamson has lots of practical advice for listening prayer: how to recognize God, how to hear God’s voice for others,  hearing God’s voice in the silence, and detours of life, the place of emotions, etc. Williamson opens up about his own journey of God. He shares childhood stories of learning to hear God’s voice,  awkward words that God gave him for others (or about others),  and his process of discerning God’s call to leave a stable career with a software company to pursue full time ministry. He suggests brainstorming with God (journaling) and listening to ‘God’s questions’ in the Bible as ways to press into a deeper relationship with God.

What distinguishes Williamson’s book from some treatments of listening prayer is how down-to-earth he is. He shares stories and anecdotes with good humor (occasionally this is a bit distracting).  Two appendixes address the arguments against listening prayer by some conservative evangelicals and those ‘questionable and excessive practices.’ There are other good books on this theme (notably, Joyce Huggett’s Listening to God and Brad Jersak’s Can You Hear Me?, Dallas Willard’s Hearing God). Williamson own influences in writing include Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard and Tim Keller (22). He makes a strong and helpful contribution to the topic of hearing God. The best thing I can say about a book on prayer is that it makes me want to pray. This book certainly makes want to do that.

Five stars. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Note: I received this book from Kregel Publications in exchange for my honest review

The Power of Presence: a book review

Neil Anderson, author of Victory Over the Darkness and The Bondage Breaker has been a passionate advocate for the freedom we have in Christ. Past hurts, spiritual commitments and brokenness have held people in bondage. Anderson has pointed Christians to the real freedom available to those who are in Christ; however this hasn’t always been an easy road (his autobiography is called Rough Road to Freedom). I haven’t always agreed with Anderson (I think his description of bondage from ‘ritual abuse’ is inaccurate and unhelpful) but I respect the ways he has opened up a way for evangelicals to experience God’s healing for their past. His newest book The Power of Presence: A Love StoryThe Power of Presence: A Love Story tells a story of freedom and struggle.

9780857217318Anderson’s wife of 50 years, Joanne, is in the midst of the long decline of agitated dementia. Her illness has necessitated that she spend her days at an assisted living facility. Neil is with her during the days.Joanne at times feels isolated and alone, longing for Neil’s presence with her. The Power of Presence tells the story of how Neil has learned to love his wife in this stage of life. Anderson also uses his wife’s struggle as a metaphor for our own desperation for God’s Presence.

This is a short, six chapter book. Chapters one and two feel the most vulnerable. Anderson describes the absence of God’s presence and the times where He feels absent (having suspended his conscious blessing).  Chapter describes coming into God’s presence and praying in the Spirit with thanksgiving. Chapter four describes ministry in God’s presence. Chapters five and six describe resting and being fully in God’s presence.

I appreciate this book for the way that Anderson shares the vulnerable and difficult journey it has been for him to internalize these lessons. There are poignant lessons that Anderson is learning in his wintering years. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Kregel in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Another Turn in the Labyrinth

I  walked a labyrinth in Ashland, Oregon today. Trinity Episcopal Church has a 42-foot-Chartes style labyrinth in the midst of their sacred garden near downtown-a quiet meditative space in the midst of breweries and boutiques,coffee shops and New Age bookstores.

I don’t think there is anything special about labyrinths. They provide a path for people to prayer walk if they don’t want to actually go anywhere while they are prayer walking (but in). But at different times I’ve found them helpful for clarifying my inner landscape.

For example, a decade ago I walked a labyrinth while on retreat. It was after a season of intense Christian service. I was preparing to attend (un)seminary.  As I walked, I was struck by how at times I seemed close to the center but had to keep walking a ways before I got anywhere close. Conversely, I noted that as the path winded to the outer rim, I was actually nearer to the Center than I was before. This was a vivid picture for me of pursuing God, feeling both distant and drawn in. 


Today as I stepped into the labyrinth, I was struck by how circuitous the route was, not unlike my own path as I’ve sought to live in the center of God’s will. I graduated from seminary six years ago, found a denomination we felt was a good fit, but I had no ministry job on the horizon. I took a job at the local hardware store and waited. When I finally found a pastor job. It took me from Washington to Florida. I thought I was closing in on the center, but it turned out to be a bad fit. Twists, delays and doubling back again.

I’ve kept walking, still pursuing the Kingdom of God, community, hospitality and justice. We’ve traversed the country again, looking for a place to belong. this time in Southern Oregon  (Ashland/Medford area). Still walking near the outer rim, hoping to close in on the center. What’s next? Church planting? Bivocational ministry? Or something else? The way is made by walking, but one day soon I will rest with Christ my center. I will lay aside my fears and hopes for the life and mission He’s calling me.

Change You Can Damn Well Believe in: a book review

Tom Sine is something of a senior statesman for Christianity and social change. He first published The Mustard Seed Conspiracy in the early 80s as a trumpet blast call to radical discipleship. In the late 90s he wrote Mustard Seed vs. McWorld to explore the power of the small, incremental change of the Kingdom of God. His new book, Live Like You Give a Damn!  hones in on the concept of social change in today’s world and the role younger generations can play in effecting change.

9781498206259The title of the book takes a nod to a ‘Eat like you give a damn!’ t-shirt worn by the wait staff of Portage Bay Cafe. Sine ate with his wife there after attending a recent conference of social innovators. He saw the shirt and blurted out, “That’s it! I need to join these social innovators and start living like I give a damn” (20). The entire book is a tool for looking at your world and neighborhood, dreaming and enacting new possibilities by joining the ‘changemaking celebration.’

The book begins by examining some global issues we face and some of the ways individuals, churches and organizations are already enacting social change. Sine identifies two steams of social innovation: the social entrepreneurial stream which involves creating businesses with societal and environmental impact, and the community empowerment stream which aims at increasing the capacities of neighborhoods for sustainability, resilience and mutual care. The exploration of these streams is interactive. There are ‘conversation’ and ‘dreaming-and-scheming’ sections built into each chapter.

Sine is a futurist who is committed to a lifestyle of radical discipleship in the way of Jesus. The change making celebration he is inviting us to includes living generously and simply, caring for the environment, and confronting systemic injustice. There is a lot to chew on in this volume and lots of exciting examples of what people are doing. However, this book has the occasional  distracting editorial lapse. For example, “Alberta, in Canada, is one of the first cities in North America to invite the Abundant Community Initiative to be field-tested as a way to create connected and empowered communities in the city of Alberta” (106). Alberta is a province and the city that Sine means to point us to is Edmonton. This is the equivalent of a Canadian author referring to the great city of Texas when he means Austin.

I like the lifestyle Sine is calling us to. I think this book is most helpful in dreaming possibilities but of less practical use. This is a compelling invitation to join the ‘changemaking celebration and live like we give a damn. I give this three-and-a-half stars and recommend it for dreamers and schemers and those who are wondering how to best impact their world.

Note: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

The Mind of Terror: a book review

Tass Saaada was a terrorist. He was a sniper for Yasir Arafat’s  Fattah organization. Since those days he converted to Christianity, and founded a non-profit, Hope for Ismael, that works to bring reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, and now spends a bunch of the year ministering to children in the Middle East. He wrote Mind of Terror (with Dean Merrill) to describe what motivates terrorists, and how we ought to respond to it.

978-1-4964-1394-9Part one describes the terrorist mindset, and the root causes of terrorism This includes an examination of honor and shame in Mid-Eastern cultures and reasons why they hate the west. Saada says that among the reasons people become a terrorist include  the violent loss of loved ones,  the firm belief that another person’s faith is corrupt, disgust at Western society’s decadence, a desire for the return of your homeland, discrimination and maltreatment, and the US backing of modern Israel state. The reasons for terror are a mix of ideological commitments and personal experiences.

Part two surveys an evaluates the various responses Westerners make to terrorism in our world: worry, fighting back, naive political solutions, or just chalking it up to end times prophecy.  Against these Saada points us, in part three, to the Jesus way. He explores God’s plan for Isaac AND Ishmael, explores the mind of peace, and discusses how we can neutralize terrorism and share the love of Jesus with our Muslim neighbors. The closing chapters profile Christians who are working among Muslims.There are some really helpful things here about questioning our personal assumptions and being gracious to our Muslim neighbors.

Increasingly, our lives are lived between acts of terror: New York, Boston, Paris, Orlando, Nice. So much of the rhetoric discusses how we can combat the terrorists: stamp out ISIS,  destroy their networks, mete out revenge. Saada brings the perspective and insight of  one who has been involved with terrorism in the past. He understands the root causes and the futility of some  of our responses. Yet he has been transformed by the grace of God through Jesus Christ and desires the same for those in his heritage. This book is neither a fear mongering book or Pollyanna. Terror is real and it destroys lives. But the solution to it is not politics, or war or benign neglect. It is the robust love of Jesus. This is a good book if you would like to understand more of the roots of terrorism and what a Christian response looks like. I give it four star.

Note: I received this book from the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my honest review.