Hey Church, Can We Talk? a book review

Despite the fact that we live in an age where we are technologically tethered, many of us feel disconnected. Collectively, we have lost the requisite skill to carry on a conversation, particularly with people who are different than us. Online, we mute the voices that challenge us. Offline we flock with birds of a feather. We are a fragmented people,simultaneously more connected than previous ages, and yet typified by a profound sense of alienation.

C. Christopher Smith is at the forefront of helping the church recover the art of conversation. He is a part of Englewood Christian Church, in the Englewood neighborhood of Indianapolis, which has hosted weekly congregational conversations for over 2 decades. Smith also has enriched conversation in the wider Church around the themes of community, reading and the common good. He is the author of Slow Church (with John Pattison), Reading for the Common Good,and as the editor of the Englewood Review of Books—a print and online journal that reviews books which they flag as valuable for the people of God. His newest book, How the Body of Christ Talks, is designed as a practical guide to help the church recover the art of conversation.

In chapter 1, Smith begins by laying out ‘the theological roots for conversation,’ (e.g. the mutual indwelling of the Trinity, a culture of reciprocity, the Christian practice of hospitality and the biblical vision of unity in diversity, the church’s role in incarnating Christ, and need for intentionality). These ‘big ideas’ cast a vision for a Christian dialogue and conversation.

In part 1, Smith gets practical, describing how churches can delve into the practice of conversation. In chapter 2, he desribes the dynamics of conversation (e.g. the size of the group, the degree of homogeneity, and the virtues and challenges of formal and informal conversations). In Chapter 3, Smith discusses what topics we should talk about as we convene a conversation. He suggests that when churches start practicing conversation, they don’t start with ‘abstract matters or highly charged topics,’ even if these are things that are worthwhile to discuss down the road. Instead Smith suggests that one possible starting point for conversation ‘might need to be about why we should talk together, thus creating a space for listening carefully to those who are hesitant, confused, resistant to the idea of conversation.’ In Chapter 4, Smith turns to the healing potential of conversation and reviews three models for structuring the conversation (Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Cafe).

In part 2, Smith discusses the ‘spirituality of conversation’ highlighting practices which will nurture our conversations. Chapter 5 explores conversation as ‘a prayerful way of being’ and describes how the prayer practices of corporate prayer, silence, listening prayer, binding, praying without ceasing and expectancy prepare us to be able to engage well with one another. Chapter 6 explores how we can abide with others through the messiness of life. Chapter 7 invites us to prepare our whole selves for conversation (hearts, minds, body).

Part 3 describes ways we can sustain the conversation, mindful of our church’s mission and identity (chapter 8), how to stay engaged and engage well through conflicts and disagreements (chapter 9), and how to emesh ourselves in the dance of community (chapter 10). A conclusion invites the church to bear witness through conversation and communion in the midst of our fragmented age.

Throughout the book, Smith weaves together stories of his church and other churches who are practicing conversation. Granview Calvary Baptist in Vancouver is highlighted as a church that engaged this conversation around LGBTQIA community with some members affirming and others taking the traditional stance (and their denomination’s stance). While the differences between ‘the sides’ remained important, through their conversation they were able to make a statement on human sexuality which both sides could affirm. Other churches and intentional communities share their wisdom in setting ground rules and framing conversation (these are included in an appendix).

One of the things I really appreciate about Smith’s work, is how he weaves together thoughtfulness and practicality. We are at a culture moment where we are ideologically and politically divided. Smith describes the nature of conversation and gives good suggestions for pursuing an ecclesially rooted conversation which will enrich both our churches and our wider communities. This book will be fruitful for churches and intentional communities as they seek to listen and speak well together.

Notice of material consent: I reviewed this book with an electronic advanced review copy provided by Net Galley. The book is good and I am also procuring my own physical copy.

What’s in the Board Books (and Coloring Books too)? a kids’ books review

Once upon a time (circa 1989), Phil Vischer with his Big Idea entertainment created the epic Christian kid’s show VeggieTales. It became wildly popular in the next decade. But after declaring bankruptcy in 2003, VeggieTales has fallen out Vischer’s creative control, now owned by DreamWorks (still employing Vischer as a writer and voice actor on a contractual basis). So well there have still been great Veggie Tales programs since Visher (that my kids love), there has also has been utterly inane versions of the original show, such as Netflix,”VeggieTales in the City.”

In 2008, Vischer returned with a new show and network, Jelly Telly and “Buck Denver Asks, What’s in the Bible?” The show is sort of a variety puppet show that explores the books of the Bible. It is thoughtful Christian children’s entertainment—packed with lots of Bible Quiz factoids, good humor, and interesting characters. Recently JellyTelly press (a new imprint of Faith Words) launched a book series based on the show.

Children’s author Hannah C. Hall and illustrators Greg Hardin (another BigIdea alum) and Kenny Yamada, have produced several new board books based on the characters “Clive & Ian” from What’s in the Bible?  These include:

 

G

These 4 books are perfect for a Toddler or Preschooler (and my special needs 4-year-old). One of the things I really appreciate about them, is that these books focus on the specialness of God’s creation, that he created such a wonderful world, and that he created us. I am suspicious of kids books that are moralistic, but this just talks about the goodness of God and his creation. These board books don’t really get farther into the Bible story than Creation, but they do illustrate it’s meaning well for young minds.

In addition to the board books, there are a couple of other new JellyTelly Press titles, like these Buck Denver’s Bible Coloring Books

Buck Denver's Bible Coloring Book New Testament Stories
Buck Denver's Bible Coloring Book Old Testament Stories

The coloring books depict scenes from the Bible, and occasionally characters from the What’s in the Bible TV show. This is a good resource to have on hand for days when you have your kids with you in the worship service Sunday morning or on rainy days. Fun stuff for the Christian kid. And not too preachy. These are great resources to have on hand.

Thank you Hachette Press and Faith Words for the opportunity to review these products. (These books are available from the publisher (see links above), from Amazon, or wherever fine Christian books are sold.

The End is Near: a book review

revelationJohn of Patmos’s Revelation is esoteric and strange. It has inspired hope and dread, beautiful art and Christian kitsch, good poetry and bad fiction. Michael Straus, a retired lawyer with a graduate degree from Cambridge in Ancient Greek, has produced a new ‘literary’ translation of Revelation. Beyond the woodenly literal translations of  most New Testament translation (e.g. NRSV, ESV, NASB), Straus weaves together Handel’s Messiah, with English, Spanish (Spanglish?), French, Italian and Greek words and phrases. The effect is that certain words and phrases catch readers familiar with Revelation off guard and allow for a fresh hearing. Also, the global intercultural aspect of revelation is emphasized. For the most part, however, Straus follows closely the Greek text in his translation with some added whimsical flourishes. Headings, chapters and versification has been removed, so that readers can read the text in a less atomized way. 

Pairing Straus’s translation, are illustrations from Jennifer May Reiland, a New York City based artist who has been awarded residencies at the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, the Foundation des Etats-Unis as a Hale Woolley Scholar and the Drawing Center’s Open Sessions program. Her artwork adds another interpretative lens to Revelation. Her illustrations combine the apocalyptic debauchery of Hieronymus Bosch with the cartoonish busyness of a Where’s Waldo (if Waldo worked in the porn industry). She combines the grotesque and strange imagery of beasts, dragons and horsemen with explicit images of sex, violence and sexual violence. The result is a dramatic depiction of the war between evil and good. 

Reiland’s illustrations are not appropriate for a children’s Bible and I didn’t let my own kids (4-11) read this take of John’s revelation, but I didn’t think the imagery was gratuitous either. The words and images depict a world in chaos awaiting it’s renewal and coming judgment

However, the closing chapters of Revelation also image a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem come down and a new state of affairs where there is no more crying or pain or suffering. There are no images that depict this (only judgment). I wish that Reiland applied her skill to imaging this aspect of the eschaton (Straus, of course translated it). 

On the whole, I found this a pretty interesting take (not kid friendly, but then neither is a lot of Revelation anyway). I give this four stars. 

Note: I got a copy of this book via SpeakEasy and have provided
my honest review.

There is Nothing I Can Do Against Your Coming.

Today is the winter solstice—the shortest of days, the longest of nights. The early sunsets and the cloud cover of the Pacific North West means that our Advent ‘wait for the light” is as literal as it is metaphorical. We are in the long dark, awaiting the break of dawn.

But these days are dark in other ways too. We may have lingering sadness for friends and family we won’t see this Christmas. We may feel anxious about money, grieving the loss of a loved one, or feel the ache of a failed relationship. We may be depressed and lonely. This can be a difficult season for lots of reasons. In our house, we have been battling the flu. There is no good time to be sick, but the prospect of sick kids over Christmas feels pretty awful.

Jane Kenyon was no stranger to the darkness. Like many poets, she struggled with clinical depression. Her poem Having it Out With Melancholy describes her lifelong struggle with the dark:

1 FROM THE NURSERY

When I was born, you waited 
behind a pile of linen in the nursery, 
and when we were alone, you lay down 
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on 
everything under the sun and moon 
made me sad — even the yellow 
wooden beads that slid and spun 
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude. 
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death; 
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother, 
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts 
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases. 
I was already yours — the anti-urge, 
the mutilator of souls.

2 BOTTLES

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin, 
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax, 
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft. 
The coated ones smell sweet or have 
no smell; the powdery ones smell 
like the chemistry lab at school 
that made me hold my breath.

3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

4 OFTEN

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner 
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away 
from the massive pain in sleep’s 
frail wicker coracle.

5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT

Once, in my early thirties, I saw 
that I was a speck of light in the great 
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole 
human family. We were all colors — those 
who are living now, those who have died, 
those who are not yet born. For a few

moments I floated, completely calm, 
and I no longer hated having to exist.

Like a crow who smells hot blood 
you came flying to pull me out 
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear 
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.

6IN AND OUT

The dog searches until he finds me 
upstairs, lies down with a clatter 
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing 
saves my life — in and out, in 
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . . 

7PARDON

A piece of burned meat 
wears my clothes, speaks 
in my voice, dispatches obligations 
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying 
to be stouthearted, tired 
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine 
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night 
I feel as if I had drunk six cups 
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder 
and bitterness of someone pardoned 
for a crime she did not commit 
I come back to marriage and friends, 
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back 
to my desk, books, and chair.

8CREDO

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work 
but I believe only in this moment 
of well-being. Unholy ghost, 
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet 
on the coffee table, lean back, 
and turn me into someone who can’t 
take the trouble to speak; someone 
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing 
but sleep; can’t read, or call 
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do 
against your coming. 
When I awake, I am still with thee.

9WOOD THRUSH

High on Nardil and June light 
I wake at four, 
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air 
presses through the screen 
with the wild, complex song 
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment. 
What hurt me so terribly 
all my life until this moment? 
How I love the small, swiftly 
beating heart of the bird 
singing in the great maples; 
its bright, unequivocal eye.

Married to Donald Hall (another brilliant poet!) and a dog owner, she was able to stave off the dark long enough to leave behind some great poems, full of evocative imagery and emotion. As she faced the darkness and sometimes she found the beauty in the shadow:


Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles 
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come. 


Let Evening Come

I love that last stanza: Let it come, as it will don’t be afraid. God doesn’t leave us comfortless, so let evening come.

Darkness in the guise of leukemia would claim Kenyon’s life in 1995, just as she was hitting her stride as a poet. Her last poems are wistful and sad. And yet despite the struggle and the sadness and the lingering dark, there is a thread of hope that runs through her poetry. God does not leave us comfortless so let evening come. Morning is coming soon and with it joy.

Joy is My Name

Poor Zachariah. He was cranky one day at work—not enough coffee—and he just wanted to get his job done. His hands held a stick aflame, ready to burn incense in the temple. He was interrupted by an angel—they tend to hang out there—this one was talking crazy, the whole thing surreal. One sarcastic retort and he was doomed to nine months of silence—no voice from the time he left the temple to the day he named his son, John.

William Blake engraved by Luigi Schiavonetti

What was it like for this father? He was an old man who had long since gave up hope for an heir to see his pregnant wife. In his silence, he remembered the angel’s words:

He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the LORD. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the LORD their God. And he will go on before the LORD, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the LORD.

Luke 1:14-18

I imagine the joy he had the day he first held his son! The words of William Blake’s Infant Joy come to mind:

I have no name 
I am but two days old.— 
What shall I call thee?
I happy am 
Joy is my name,— 
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee; 
Thou dost smile. 
I sing the while 
Sweet joy befall thee. 

It is different for us dads. I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child, a daughter. Of course I was excited and eager to meet this little one. But she was not inside me, pushing my organs aside, making room for herself to grow. She didn’t widen my hips or make me tired or make me gain weight (though I did). My wife felt her kicks and prods a long time before I was even able too. There were ways that this child was still abstract to me. I worried as a dad that I just wasn’t feeling enough and wondered how I could love this stranger.

Then labor and delivery. I spent the night at the hospital listening to our baby’s heartbeat quicken and slow with every contraction, comforting and encouraging where I could, but feeling helpless and useless as my wife pushed out a tiny human. Then I held her, and was instantly smitten. I knew that I would do anything and everything for this child. My heart grew. My joy was full.

An incident at work left Zechariah speechless for three-quarters of a year. He watched, he waited, he regretted his stupid reply to God’s messenger. Then the day came. He held his little one. He fell in love. The child was joy and delight to him. He wondered at the angel’s promise and the man his little boy would become.

On the 8th day, they came to circumcise him. Elizabeth explained to Rabbi that the child’s name would be John. They silenced her and went instead to Zechariah who wrote on a tablet, “He is to be called John.” Suddenly Zechariah’s words returned and he began praising God:


Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
 salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
 to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
 to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Luke 1:68-79

A father’s hope and joy—the frustrating months of silence swallowed up in praise.

The Advent promise is that our tears will be turned to joy, that shalom awaits us, that the Day of the Lord is near and our hope is secure.

And yet, like Zechariah it is still abstract to us. We are still here. Our bodies have not changed to make room. Our day of joy is coming soon.

Sweet joy befall thee

Unnoticed and Unknown to Men of Power

When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, her ancient cousin—long past the years of child bearing—she came out to meet her. Elizabeth deepest shame had been that she was barren, but when Mary approached she saw her cousin’s glow, the swell of her abdomen, and delight in her eyes. As Mary approached Elizabeth was momentarily breathless. She put her hand on her belly. The baby had given her a spirited kicked. 

She called to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored that you would come to visit me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in me leapt with joy. Blessed is the one who believed God would fulfill his promise to her! (Luke 1:41-44)”

This is the setting of Mary’s own song, the Magnificat, where she glories in the Lord for her goodness to her and the coming justice her baby boy would usher in.

Priest and poet, Malcolm Guite imagines the scene, two women on the edge of things, unnoticed and unknown to men of power:

The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

This poem is taken from Malcom Guite’s blog: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/a-sonnet-for-the-feast-of-the-visitation/

Two women overlooked. The one who couldn’t conceive (Elizabeth), the one who shouldn’t (unwed teenager mum, Mary).The “too young” and the “past her prime.” It is it any wonder that Mary’s song lifts up the poor, the humble, and the hungry, over against the powerful, the wealthy, rulers of the age? Even before Mary unleashed her melody—a song which recalled Hannah (1 Sam 1), another overlooked woman—God was already at work lifting up the forgotten, the overlooked, the outcast.

When the Triune God set his redemptive plan in motion, he didn’t come to the powerful, the strong, or the patriarchy. He came to an unwed teen girl blessing her older cousin also. Both would have boys who would call God’s people to repentance and point to the coming reign of God. One of their boys would be God himself.

Yes, an Angel had visited Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah. The proud man couldn’t accept the angel’s news. Not like Mary. Not like Elizabeth. Favored of heaven, outcast on the earth, Prophets who bring the best in us to birth. 

Our Spirits Rejoice With God Our Savior

Nothing captures Advent Joy the way that Mary’s song does:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary’s song bursts. It exudes praise. She recognizes the significance of what God was going to do through her baby boy. Every generation will be blessed because of Mary’s participation in God’s redemption and the things her Son will do.

The song goes on:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 50-55)

She describes the mercy of God to those who fear (revere)him and how God scatters the proud, brings down rulers and lifts up the humble, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty.

This is radically inclusive and subversive!

A had a seminary professor who used to pastor an ex-pat church in the Philippines where it was illegal to read the Magnificat in public, for fear that it would incite riot and revolution. These words are politically charged. The proud are scattered and the rich go away empty. The humble are lifted up while the rulers are deposed. Mary challenges the whole system centuries before the classic Liberals defied Monarchy, the Communists decried Capitalism and the Anarchists denied institutional authority. If you do not hear a poignant critique of the way things are in Mary’s words, you are over-spiritualizing her words and dismissing them. There is raw power here. This is a rallying call!

Unfortunately, even the poets sometimes miss the point, focusing instead on Mary’s high praise while glossing over the phrases that challenge the status quo. Author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper published this poem in Sojourners in 2008. I think it gets at the joyful and subversive hope of Mary:

Mary’s Song: A Poem

Dark times
Regime change.
“How are we gonna make it?”
“How are we gonna live?”
Tomorrow?

Fear for breakfast
Trembling for brunch
Despair for dinner.

Dark thick air
Full of fumes
Can’t breathe.

Thick over the man on the street
With feet sticking out of his shoes.
Shoes wrapped in muslin.
It does not cover him
He lay cocked to one side.
In a fetal position.
He was a baby once.
Once — he cried and cuddled and coo-ed
Now he knows evil of this world.
His eyes have been baptized in the warped world of war.
They stare –- numb.
Dead eyes.
Murdered by drugs and guns and blood
Murdered by full metal jackets
Innocent eyes stolen
Stolen, too, the man’s soul.
Now
He lays in a fetal position
Waiting…

And the woman on the train
Across the aisle from me.
Her hand stretches forth
Rests on the carriage
Rocking a sleeping baby.
Innocent in all things.
Deserving of nothing
Deserving of all things
Baby lay waiting
In a fetal position
Baby waits to breathe above 125th street.
Fumes hover in her neighborhood
Where bus depots pepper the map.
Cancer fumes
Asthma fumes
Fumes that shape life
Limit life
Steal life
But for now she sleeps
And her momma rocks her carriage.

And the GM
And the Hedgefund
And the free-market giants
Three of them
Jolly and Green
They lay now
Tears trickle from baptized eyes
Dead eyes
They stare –- numb
Ransacked by green greed and time catching up
Now … nothing –- or at least it feels like nothing.
They have what feels like nothing.
And for fear of feeling fear
The giants lay feeling nothing.

Darkness hovers over the deep
And we wait.

We watch with dead eyes
Eyes that have seen too much.
Eyes that have known too much evil.
Redeem! Lord, Redeem!

Watch for the light.
Wait for the light.
It pierces darkness
And unfurls curled bodies
It covers twisted limbs.
It replaces fumes with blankets of breath
Mixed with love and sacrifice.

Mary watched and waited
The powerless, harassed young girl –- 13.
Barely a foot in the world
On the run
Chased down by power
Death surrounded her
Wrapped in the stench of King Herod’s dying babies

But

Into the darkness Mary sang!

“My soul doth magnify the Lord!
My soul doth magnify the Lord!
The one more mighty than darkness has done great things!”

For resting in her belly
Turning in her belly
Pressing on her belly
Light was being born

“God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,”
Mary says!
“God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts the lowly,”
Mary proclaims!

And the man with feet peeking from his shoes will be lifted up.
He will stand up!
And the baby covered in fumes will be lifted up.
She will stand up! Up!
And the green giants laying with dead eyes — yes, even they will be lifted up!
They will stand!
Blessed are they now, for they are ready to be lifted up.
They will lock hands
With their sisters and brothers and …

Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls will magnify the Lord …
… together!
And our spirits will rejoice in God our savior!

Amen.

Poem originally published by Sojourners, 12-17-2008 https://sojo.net/articles/marys-song-poem

The homeless, the mother and asthmatic child riding the train, the greedy green giants which lost everything in an economic downturn. All humble or humbled, awaiting the day when they will be raised up. Jesus is coming. My soul magnifies the Lord!