Dear Jeremy: a ★★★★★ book review

It is no secret that we Evangelicals have a leadership fetish. Yet leadership remains important and a worthwhile pursuit. Pastors and ministry leaders need to lead well if our ministries are to be successful We also need to develop the leaders around us. However, a look at the requirements for elders (cf. 1 Tim 3, Titus 1) reveals a leadership, in the New Testament sense, is more about character than specific skills. Jeremy Rios wrote People of a Certain Character with this conviction in mind.

people-of-a-certain-character-cover_thumbnailJeremy blogs at Mustard Seed Faith and Toolshed Meditations. He and I attended the same seminary (Regent College) and we share an appreciation of C.S. Lewis, Benedictine Spirituality, and Baron Fredrich von Hugel. He once T.A.ed a class I was in and commented that my writing was a ‘pedantic plod.’ He has a series of ‘Dear James‘ posts on his blog which make me feel self-conscious, especially since we blog about similar themes (I don’t think he’s really talking to me, but I am never completely sure). He has been a pastor and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Scotland. He is more successful, prolific and smarter than I am. I console myself that I’m much better looking (not actually true, but it is a comforting lie).  I’ve wanted to read one of his books for a while and was excited about this one because leadership development is a growth edge for me as a pastor.

There is nothing plodding about Jeremy’s prose. He has produced a handbook of short leadership meditations—twelve scriptural passages organized around twelve questions, discussion and reflection questions, and twelve suggested spiritual practices (plus an introduction and concluding word which follow the same format).  This booklet is user-friendly and not heady.  This book will be useful in church or ministry lead team discussions, staff retreats, in one-on-one mentoring relationships or even among youth leaders. This is so accessible! Jeremy’s questions help us leaders press into what it means to lead from the right source

In his introduction,  Jeremy offers a meditation on John 21:15-19, the passage where three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.  This is a significant passage for Christian leadership and Jeremey identifies three essential lessons for leadership:

  1. Loving and serving Jesus will mean loving and serving Jesus’ flock
  2. Loving and serving Jesus will mean being bitterly confronted with our own sense of failure and inadequacy.
  3. Loving and serving Jesus will mean giving up control of our future (6-7)

These three observations on the character of Christian leadership, prepare readers to count the cost of leadership and set the tone of humble dedication as we embark on this study (8).

The chapters that follow are divided into two sections. The first section probes our identity in Christ as leaders, the second traces out the implications of our mutual priesthood. The tables below show the chapters in each section with corresponding scriptures and suggested practices.

Part 1: Identity in Christ

1.Do you know you are loved by God?

1 John 4:7-21

Spiritual Practice: Meditation

2.Do you have a Conviction of Holiness?

1 Peter 1:13-16

Spiritual Practice: Confession

3.Are you Filled, and Being Filled, with the Holy Spirit?

John 15:1-11

Spiritual Practice: Petition

4.Are you Aware that God is in Charge of your Ministry

Psalm 24

Spiritual Practice: Release

5.Do you have a right relationship with Mammon?

Matt 6:19-34

Spiritual Practice: Giving

6. Are you willing to  Submit?

Hebrews 5:7-14

Spiritual Practice: Fasting

Part 2: The Priesthood of All Believers

7.Do you know how to connect with the Lord devotionally?

Hebrews 4:12-13

Spiritual Practice: Memorization

8.Do you know how to listen for the Lord’s interruptions?

Acts 9:10-19

Spiritual Practice: Walking

9.Do you know how to share the Gospel?

Acts 8:26-39

Spiritual Practice: Testimony

10. Do you know how to minister in the power of the Lord?

Acts 19:11-20

Spiritual Practice: Worship

11. Do you know how to care for others?

Job 2:11-13

Spiritual Practice: Journaling

12. Do you know how to restore yourself?

Luke 10:38-42

Spiritual Practice: Retreat

His ‘concluding word, based on 1 Timothy 4:6-16 reflects on the crucial components in Christian mentoring.

One criticism I have is that Jeremy’s suggested practices are almost wholly private. The exception is he suggests that ‘if you are in a tradition that utilizes confession to a pastor or priest, avail yourself of that system” (25), and writing out and practicing your testimony is designed so that you can share it.  I believe, as Jeremy does, in the need for cultivating personal devotion, though I wish he articulated corporate, communal spiritual practices more explicitly alongside these, as I think what we do in community also has a major impact on the quality of our leadership.

This is a small (and nitpicky!) critique,  especially since I believe the value of this resource is in the way it will deepen our discussions on how to lead well as a follower of Christ. I recommend this book  for those who have a hand in training others (though any leader can read through this profitably for their own benefit). I plan on using this book in future leadership and mentoring conversations. I give this five stars – ★★★★★

So: Dear Jeremy, Great job!

Note: Jeremy provided me with a copy in exchange for my honest review.  He didn’t ask me to say he’s smarter than me. It is just true.

Treasure in ‘Dark’ Places: a book review

I grew up in the Christian Missionary Alliance and I love a good missionary biography. They tell the story of those on the field, giving all, and living sacrificially to share the good news about Jesus. They speak of trusting God and seeing the miraculous, alleviating suffering and seeing real transformation in people’s lives and in whole communities. So I picked up Leanna Cinquanta’s book, Treasures in Dark Places, with interest, looking to see the way God worked through her ministry to set people free, including some of the over 25, 000 girls abducted annually in the region of Northern India where she serves as a missionary.  Cinquanta founded TellAsia Ministries and through her influence, more than 10,000 churches have been planted in areas which are only 5% Christian. I was excited to here about her work there and the ways she trains up indigenous leaders to do the work of the gospel.

9780800798161And she does tell about some of that in her book. Treasure in Dark Places speaks of her call to missions, and her experience of the supernatural at home and abroad. She shares some stories from the mission field nd she tells of growing up and feeling the call towards missions, some of her experiences of God along the way (prophecy, miracles, etc).

However, I felt like this book was more about her than about the mission itself. I heard her story of her call, but the mission was vague on the details and I am fuzzy as to what she actually does to combat sex trafficking in Northern India. There are few disconnected stories.

I am a crypto-charismatic and I like hearing stories about the miraculous. However, I didn’t feel like I was offered much in the way of a compelling narrative here. The details are too sparse, and we hear dramatic encounters but not much on the hard work of ongoing relationships. On the plus side, Cinquata does refer to the people she encounters in India as God’s treasures whom she is working to liberate. This mitigates some of my discomfort with calling a region of dark-skinned people a spiritually dark place (though it still bugs me).

In the end, I just didn’t connect with this book but I am glad for the mission and the ways Cinquata has extended the welcome of God’s Kingdom in northern India. The book itself I give two stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from Chosen Books in exchange for my honest review

Where’s Mikey? a kids book review.

I have heard the stats that only two in ten millennials attend church regularly. Why? I blame Martin Handford, creator of the Where’s Waldo series (Where’s Wally in the UK). Because of him, a generation of kids, in the late 80’s and 90’s, stopped looking for Jesus and instead asked ‘Where’s Waldo?’ It was more detrimental to childhood faith development than Bill Nye the Science Guy explaining away theism.

978-1-4964-2243-9Thankfully, we now have Bible Sleuth: New Testament. Mike, an adventure-loving little boy, sporting an orange and red painter’s cap, a red and white striped t-shirt and yellow overall shorts (an outfit which was last seen in 1991 worn by R&B sensations TLC) explores the New Testament. Unlike Waldo, who trekked across the globe, urban centers, and visited other cultures, Mike restricts his exploration to Bible Stories alone. So when you hunt for Mike and other figures in each scene, you are sure to only learn the Bible and not any new, subversive ideas. Doesn’t that sound much safer?

I’m kidding. There are tons of kids’ search books of a wide variety, and Bible Sleuth stands in a long tradition of Christian children’s books making use of the same idea. Bible Sleuth illustrator, José Pérez Montero has previously illustrated Seek & Find Bible Stories (Zonderkids, 2008, with author Carl Anker Mortensen) and I have reviewed similar kids books here before (see here or here).

Here is the thing though, when it comes to kids book reviews, my critical faculties pretty much go out the window and I end up saying things like, “My kids like it, so I like it.” And this is true again. My oldest, who is nearing ten, my seven-year-old, my six-year-old all enjoy it. My two-year-old likes the pictures though hasn’t demonstrated the patience required to find everything (though he is really great at Where’s Elmo).  All of us get annoyed that invariably one of the people we are looking for in the picture is barely cresting out from the center crease. But such is life.

But one of the things I always try to pay attention to in Children’s Bible books, “How white is everybody?” I remember a friend observing that Jesus’ family once hid in Egpyt, so you know he must have had some color. And yet Little Mike and his pasty legs blend in pretty well to these pages, because of how white all the middle Eastern Palestinians seem to be. At least Jesus has brown hair and not blonde locks, that is until he is surrounded by a crowd of ONLY white people in John’s Revelation 19 vision (and the final scene in the book). Hair color throughout ranges from red, to brown and blonde.[The Tyndale site identifies the author of this book, as Scandinavia Publishing House, which may explain some this].

My kids like it and that means something, but on cultural accuracy and sensitivity, I find this book wanting. I give it a middle of the road review. -3 stars.

Notice of material connection:  I received this book from Tyndale in exchange for my honest review

Rules are Revolting: a book review

Becky Bond and Zack Exley worked together on Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign. While Bernie’s bid for the Democratic nomination was ultimately unsuccessful, they did mobilize an impressive amount of grass roots support. Rules for Revolutionaries gives a glimpse of the power of ‘big organizing’ and what it takes to ignite a movement. While the anecdotes in this book are drawn also exclusively from the Bernie campaign, Bond and Exley argue that the ‘rules’ reveal what leaders do in movements to mobilize millions of people.

19650The title, Rules for Revolutionaries alludes to the earlier work of Saul Alinsky, the influential Rules for Radicals. Alinksy was a Chicago-based labor organizer (whose work was influential for Obama). His work became a standard for organizers and activists. However Bond and Exley observe that Alinsky’s model was ‘premised on the paternalistic concept that an enlightened core of outside organizers was necessary to show the poor that there was a better way and then to represent them in a battle with elites” (8-9). Alinsky believed in building power so to compel negotiation (rather than revolutionize the entire power structure). Bond and Exley also criticize Alinsky for creating incrementalist Black and Latino groups designed to mitigate anger instead of effecting real change. In contrast, Bond and Exley believe their model provides a more revolutionary way forward:

The big organizing model that can fuel revolutions believes that communities are filled with talented and intelligent people who understand what was broken and, when given material and strategic resources, can wrest power from elites and make lasting change. A political revolution is different from community organizing as we know it today. (9)

The rules aren’t so much ‘rules’ as pithy chapter titles which describe aspects of their strategic vision. Some of these are practical: “Get on the Phone!” The Work Is Distributed. The Plan Centralized,” “Learn the Basics of Good Management,””The Revolution is Not Just Bottom Up; It’s Peer to Peer,” “Put Consumer Software at the Center,” “Get Ready for the Counterrevolution.” Other rules are about the right orientation toward the work of organizing: “You Won’t Get a Revolution if You Don’t Ask for One,” “The Revolution Will not be Handed toYou on a Silver Platter.” A couple of rules describe the issues worth organizing for: “Fighting Racism Must Be the Core Message to Everyone,” “There is No Such Thing as a Single Issue Revolution.”

If organizing is your thing, Bond and Exley have practical advice and hard-earned wisdom to share.  As I said, these really aren’t rules, they are practical description the approach that Exley and Bond took as part of the campaign. Whether or not the new rules overturn the old playbook remains to be seen. This is mostly just an insider’s look atBernie’s historic campaign.

I am not really sure that there is much revolutionary here. There is some good leadership advice such standing for something, giving people a big way to get involved, how to mobilize and empower leaders, and what it means to lead in a more cooperative less elitist way.  All of this is helpful. Revolutionary? Not so much. Will these rules ignite a revolution? That remains to be seen.  The rules begin to feel tedious by the end.  I give this book 3.5 stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Practicing Theolocal Spirituality: Prayer

In a previous post, I discussed our theolocal imagination and what it means for us to bear witness to the Spirit is already active in the world. I want to also describe some of the practices which shape us and enable our theolocal witness.  Prayer is fundamental to it all.

I say this as a lousy pray-er.  I would be the world’s worst mystic. I try to practice contemplative prayer, but am sabotaged by my frenetic ADHD. It’s your world and I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut to move your butt, to the dance floor now your butt’s up. Wait what?

When I sit to pray. I am immediately distracted. This is doubly difficult because I am an extrovert who works at home. Alone. I crave interaction. Personal prayer is difficult for me and I suck at it. I need to admit this up front because as a faith blogger and erstwhile pastor,  it is easy for me to cast myself in the role of expert. Not in this post, I am describing a practice which is still a major growth edge for me. Below I am describing aspects of prayer and spirituality I believe and long to grow into.

If you want (as I want) to know the Theolocal Spirit—our God-come-near we need to set aside time to explore and grow in prayer. As I see it, prayer is necessary to the theolocal practice because it changes who we attend to, our attitude in the moment, and awakens us to where the wind of the Spirt may be blowing.

Paying Attention to God

Have you heard of confirmation bias? It is a social psychological reality which describe how naturally, each of us tends to overvalue evidence which confirms our preexisting set of beliefs. It is the reason why those on the far Right are able to put a happy face on a Donald Trump’s presidency (for the way he drains the swamp, takes on the lying fake news, stands up for the little guy and promotes economic growth) and those on the Left see corruption, collusion with Russia, careless speech, misogyny, and treason. Both the Left and Right are looking at the same guy, but they pay attention to different things, emphasizing the facts (or alternative facts) which confirm their bias. Neither side sees the whole picture.

There is much more to be said about confirmation bias (such as the need for epistemological humility), but how does any of this relate to prayer? On a basic level, confirmation bias is paying attention to the truths which matter to us. I believe wholeheartedly that God is living and active in our communities, constantly at work—the wind blowing where it will—whether we mark His Presence or not; however those of us who carve out serious time for prayer, and prayerful activities (such as Lectio Divina) will see evidence of his Presence everywhere. Prayer primes the pump. Our prayer awakens a habit of mind where we see the Divine in daily life. This is the Confirmation bias of Prayer.

As a young adult, I was part of a faith community which emphasized personal evangelism. We used to pray for ‘divine appointments,’ opportunities to share our faith with others. When they happened we called this answered prayer. Perhaps, but if I am honest I also have gotten into many spiritual conversations without praying in advance (I also missed more than a few).  If we cultivate a life of prayer, we are more likely to see ways God is at work and make the most of the opportunities which come our way.

Do you see God at work in your neighborhood and in your community? What about in the lives of friends and neighbors? 

An Attitude of Openness

My guiding theolocal conviction is that wherever we are, God got there first and is already at work. When this conviction guides our prayer life, we parse our ecosystems differently. We don’t just look for the areas of distress (e.g. addictions, pollutants, destructive behaviors, isolation or whatever) but we look to others in our community with an expectancy to see the hand and face of God.

We come to a neighborhood, not with the hope of bringing the Kingdom of God but with the expectation that we will bear witness to the ways the Kingdom is already there. We don’t go into the world simply to seek and save the lost as the incarnate Christ once did (Luke 19:10) but we go expecting to identify the altar of the unknown God (Acts 17:23) and ways the Spirit of Christ is there calling out to human hearts.

As we pray, we pray for an attitude of openness to see how and where  God is at work.

Awakened to the Wind of the Spirit

In prayer, we cultivate attention and an openness to God, but we also are awakened to see the ways God’s Spirit is moving.  This is the fruit of learning to attend to God. We recognize where God is, and at work. We also see when God is on the move.  How do you reach a community with the love of Christ and bear witness to the reality of God’s Presence in our midst? What is the missional strategy that you should take with your neighbors? In your community?

The answer is different for different places and different people. There is no missional strategy or fancy acronym that will bring the world to Christ. The Spirit of Christ is already there, in the world. Get theolocal and learn to attend to the ways God-Came-Near is moving.

guwg-prayer-open-hands

The Twelve Steps of Arrogant Anonymous: a book review

Joan Chittister, OSB is one of our great contemporary spiritual writers. She’s written on hope, liturgy, world religion, peace, feminism and her Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (along with Kathleen Norris’s works) was my gateway drug to Benedictine Spirituality. Her new book, Radical Spirit promises (in the subtitle) 12 ways to live a free and authentic life. If that sounds a little self-helpy, she isn’t waxing eloquent psychobabble about twelve steps to a better you. This twelve step program is cribbed directly from The Rule of Benedict, chapter seven: “The Twelve Steps of Humility.”

RadSpiritusChittister  began her life as a nun in the 1950s and 1960s. She reflects on what she has learned in her experience as a sister in the Benedictine community and the wisdom of the rule. She describes the underlying issue addressed by each step and the spiritual implications for trying to live them out. The chapters titles, follow St. Benedict’s original steps, though Chittister has given the rule a twenty-first century facelift:

  1. Recognize that God is God
  2. Know that God’s will is best for you.
  3. Seek direction from wisdom figures.
  4. Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
  5. Acknowledge faults and strip away masks.
  6. Be content with less than the best.
  7. let go of a false sense of self.
  8. Preserve tradition and learn from community.
  9. Listen.
  10. Never ridicule anyone or anything.
  11. Speak kindly
  12. Be serene, stay calm (205-206).

Benedict wrote his rule in the 6th for monks living in community under an abbot. Chittister’s larger project has been about presenting the wisdom of Benedict to the wider world—oblates, roving Protestants like me, and beyond. Certainly she makes adjustments from the original document (e.g. ‘seek direction from wisdom figures’ was originally ‘we submit to the prioress or abbot in all obedience for the love of God’ and ‘never ridicule anyone or anything’ was originally states ‘we are not given to ready laughter, for it is written, ‘Only fools raise their voices in laughter). But Chittister’s editorial license preserves Benedict’s intent: a Godward, humble spirituality free from anxiety or pretension and released from false images of God and ourselves.

I enjoyed this book as a practical commentary on the Rule. I am not a Benedictine but I’ve learned a lot from that tradition (as has everyone in the Western Spiritual tradition).  Chittister’s prose does meander a bit as she traces out implications for each step. Occasionally I found her difficult to follow and indirect. But there is a lot here that is helpful and instructive. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

The Twisted Sisters of Christ the Redeemer: a book review.

When we meet Rebecca Holden, she is hiding out in the back cubicle of Secure Star Insurance, near the flushing toilets. She keeps the walls up between herself and her two coworkers (Sally and Gladys). Andrew, the new HR manager arrives and discovers that there is more to Rebecca than the quiet efficient assistant in the rear cubicle[Spoiler alert, next two paragraphs ].

Book+CoverFour years earlier, Rebecca Holden used to be Sr. Rebecca Marise, a member of the strict, traditional Sisters of Christ the Redeemer (SCR), a teaching order. The order clung to the strictures of pre-Vatican II Catholicism—the nuns wore habits and never styled their hair, they kept a strict community rule, regulated by the head of their order, Mother Mary Thomas. The order is growing in size and prestige with many new recruits and the support of conservative Bishops.

Sr. Rebecca is evidently happy in her vocation, living at the mother house among other young recruits. Then an older nun has a hard attack and Sr. Rebecca finds herself transferred to remote Appalachia, to a small school and convent, far away from the structure and strictures of SCR central command.  The difference between these sisters and those at the Mother house is immediately evident to her (e.g. a looseness with the hours of prayer, personal address, divine readings, educational strategies, and the dress code). Eventually these sisters are brought into conflict with the Mother house, precipitating the circumstances in which Sr. Rebecca leaves the order.

Linda Anne Smith, author of Terrifying Freedom, hails from somewhere near Calgary has woven a tale of terrifying freedom—what it means to pick up the pieces of life after the myth of certainty and control collapses. Her protagonist, Rebecca, leaves the order and the whole way of life she’s ever known only to feel isolated and suffer rejection from her mother. This is a story of what it means to pick up the pieces when the life of faith breaks open.

Generally, I am suspicious of fiction that is: (a) religious or (b) self published. Religious fiction tends to be too didactic, telling not showing, self-published works often suffer for lack of editorial review (there are some pretty great exceptions in both cases). Terrifying Freedom is well written. Smith’s use of religious themes serves the story. There is a message but Smith’s prose doesn’t preach. Smith did have an editor review her manuscript and the writing and production quality is excellent.

However, at 490 pages, I couldn’t help feel like the story was a little overlong (at that length, I feel like I expect a multigenerational family epic or the fires or Mordor). The first 157 pages tell the story of Rebecca and her coworkers at the insurance agency before we are transported back to Rebecca’s life as a nun (the meat of the novel).  I felt like this first part could have been significantly shorter. I wasn’t immediately grabbed by it (I restarted this novel several times) and I didn’t find it a compelling read until I had gotten some way in. The second part of the novel is much better and part 3 weaves the strands of Rebecca Holden’s life together as she confronts her past. If the first section was shorter, I think the whole novel would have been paced much better.

Still, a first novel, this is a pretty impressive achievement and I ended up enjoying the book a lot. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection:  I received this book for free from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.