The Midwives of Mission: a book review

When I picked up To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth our CommunitiesI was already a Michael Frost fan, having read several of his books on the missional church and incarnational community. I was less familiar with his co-author, Christiana Rice; however, as a missional practitioner, church planting coach and trainer for thresholds, she brings keen insights to what it means to partner with God in the birthing of New Creation for neighborhoods and communities. Together, they crafted a book that is both helpful and awakens my imagination for mission.

4137Frost and Rice’s book is about transforming communities and neighborhoods, as its title, To Alter Your World, implies. Yet, I think this is one book where the subtitle, Partnering with God to Rebirth our Communities, is a more apt description of the book and its contents. The first half of the book (chapters 1 to 6) rests on images and metaphors of birth: labor, birthing, midwifery. The latter half of the book describes the dynamics of bringing social and spiritual change to neighborhood and place.

In chapter 1, Rice & Frost describe how God groaned like a woman in labor (Isa 42:14) awaiting Israel’s rebirth—their return from exile and captivity (14). They connect Israel’s experience to the Church’s role in welcoming the Kingdom of God into our broken world. In both cases, it is God who does the (re)birthing of communities, and not our frenetic religious or political activity.  Nevertheless, we are invited to partner with God in his restorative work. “Only this one—the Ancient of Days—can change our world, and those of us who have heard God’s groans and responded in faith are invited to serve God in this empire-shattering work” (28).

In chapter 2 and 3, Rice and Frost address the types of things which stand in the way of partnering in the New Creation,  God is bringing (e.g. the church’s disengagement from secular life, colonizing methodologies,  and big-box rootless churches, disconnected from the places and communities they inhabit). Frost and Rice articulate an invitation to churches and missional communities to be a disruptive presence by heeding God’s restorative purposes for communities.

In Chapters 4 through 6, Midwives to the Birth of the New Creation, Rice and Frost describe five Midwife practices. These practices are:

  1. – Releasing our Agendas.
  2. – Shaping the Environment
  3. – Holding the Space for Birth
  4. – Being Flexible and Fearless
  5. – Living Out a New Narrative

The metaphor of midwifery is an alternative metaphor to the sort of militaristic ‘band-of-brothers’—let’s take this city for Christ!—metaphor for mission. Midwives don’t deliver babies, they attend births, hold the space, help open doors, and nurture the birthing process. Frost and Rice draw the parallels between midwives attending birth children and leading pioneering missional movements which transform communities. Missional leaders attend to the New Creation God is birthing in their neighborhood context. Rice draws parallels between the midwife’s role at the birth of her children, and she and Frost point to stories of similar dynamics, as missional communities and churches partnered with what God was birthing in their communities.

In chapter 7 they present the Emory Social Change Model, which describes social change at the level of (1) the individual, (2)interpersonal relationships, (3) community, (4) institutional and (5) structural levels. While all levels are necessary and are encompassed by concentric circles, most churches operate at the individual and interpersonal levels, “encouraging personal self-awareness, congruence, and commitment” (124). However, Frost and Rice argue that to “catalyze social change there needs to be more work done on the three higher tiers” (124). By focusing on community and societal transformation, missional communities cast a bigger vision for what social transformation may look like in their contexts.

Chapter 8 demolishes the old clergy/laity divide, describing a more inclusive vision of work and vocation for community/church members. Chapter 9 explores how to change the world through place crafting (the church working with-in and in-with the wider community to bring about mutual flourishing). In chapters 10 and 11, Frost and Rice describe how the road towards social change, is also a road of mutual life with those communities. Missional communities do not just work to change others, they too are changed.  Missional communities do not just do just ‘take the city for Christ’ but are invited into a lifestyle of suffering and greater vulnerability as they seek the good of the city (or neighborhood) they are planted in.

Frost and Rice have given some helpful and heartfelt instruction to those of us who long to see the Kingdom more fully revealed in our midst.  Through stories and the midwife metaphor, they make vivid a vision of mission. On a personal level, I found the ‘midwife/birthing’ chapters the most compelling part of this book, because it describes the missional vocation as actively partnering in the process of bringing about new creation (the Kingdom of God/the fall of empire/social change) without turning the minister into ‘the one who makes it all happens.’ The role of the midwife is not passive, but responsive, not manipulative but attentive and nurturing. This seems fundamentally right to me.

The sections on social change, place-crafting and ‘work as vocation’ are helpful. I underlined a lot of things and I think Frost and Rice say things well (and give lots of examples from their lives or from fellow missional practitioners). These sections weren’t new to me, in the sense that every missional author I respect says something similar, but they did flesh out a few of the ways we can enlarge our vision of what social change and put it into practice. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

Another Benedict Option: a book review

St. Benedict has gotten some good press recently. Conservative columnist Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option (March 2017) arguing that Christians ought to segregate themselves from modern society in order to live out our Christian calling away from the corrupting influence of liberalism. Dreher’s thesis harkens back to Benedict of Nursia’s  monastic rule and the intentional and cloistered Benedictine communities he founded.

At-Home-in-this-Life_9-page-001-663x1024-1Jerusalem Jackson Greer discovered another ‘Benedict Option.’ In At Home in this LifeGreer describes how she dreamed of moving with her family to the country, so she and her husband could impart to their children the virtues of hard work and life on the land and mutual life. Unfortunately, their house in town didn’t sell, and as she listened to God’s voice, and the rule of St. Benedict, she heard the call to stay put where she was. Benedict’s call to stability (not moving from where you are planted) resounded louder than the call to withdraw. Greer was called to stay.

Greer’s book is one part memoir, one part DIY manual for life on the homestead, and one part spiritual disciplines guidebook. Greer shares honestly about her hunger for a deeper spiritual life, how Benedictine spirituality has shapes her practice, and the ways she has learned to embody Christian spirituality in everyday life (not that this is always easy). She takes us on a journey from her angsty desire to be somewhere else (e.g. a country farm), toward learning how to embody Benedictine virtues of humility, hard work and hospitality in ordinary life. She describes what she’s learned from the practices of stability, stewardship, silence, stillness, prayer, Sabbath, manual labor, mutual support, humility and hospitality, and along the way she gives us tips for painting walls, making laundry soap, patching sweaters with doilies, crafting prayer flags, starting worm farms and gardening, cooking (together), hospitality, and organizing garage sale fundraisers.

Greer is a different from me. She’s from the south and loves the country. I’m a North-Westerner and am a city boy. I was drawn into Greer’s story by our mutual love for Benedictine spirituality, and the writings of people like Barbara Brown Taylor, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, Joan Chittister, Dennis Okholm, etc. I enjoyed reading her story about how the wisdom of St. Benedict works out in her everyday life and the ways she’s learned from stability, silence, humility and humbleness. Her description of learning to navigate meal preparation with her husband reminded me of some culinary angst my wife and I had early in our marriage. Greer writes with insight, vulnerability and a good humor. I enjoyed this book. I give this book four stars. ★ ★★ ★

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

The Day I Learned White Christians Hate Me

This is an important post!

Graysight

Dear White American Evangelical Christians,

It’s taken me three years to write this. Oh how I wish you could understand how hard the last few years have been for me, and millions of others. I wish you had the ability to sit with racial discomfort without lashing out at me for more than 30 seconds. I need to tell you a story, but honestly, I don’t know if you have the strength to sit with it. I need to tell you how your racial hatred has driven me away from the God you claim is love.

A mere three years ago, in what seems like a past life, I was attending Mars Hill Church. I was unhappy there but we were leading a community group and bailing wasn’t really an option. Then some tremors started.

To be clear, these rumblings had always been there, but they got pushed to the…

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The Arts & the Christian Imagination: a book review

Clyde Kilby(1902-1986)was renowned for popularizing the works of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and the Inklings among American evangelicals (and founding Wheaton’s Marion F Wade Center). However, he was also Wheaton’s professor of English and wrote prolifically and thoughtfully about the Arts and aesthetics.  Kilby attempted to allay evangelical suspicion of imagination and aesthetics and provide a positive vision for Christians in the Arts.Arts-and-the-Christian-Imagination

The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics(Mount Tabor Books, 2016) edited by William Dyrness and Keith Call bring together many of these essays, some previously published, and some published here for the first time. In many ways,  conversation evangelicals were having about arts in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties has moved some. There is less, general suspicion of the imagination. Today, Evangelical voices like W. David O. Taylor, Jeremy Begbie, Luci Shaw, Makoto Fujimura, Dyrness, and others, have all carried these conversations in new directions; nevertheless, Kilby provided an apology for imagination and helped set the trajectory for evangelical engagement in the arts.

The essays in this volume are divided into four sections, each with an editor’s introduction by Dyrness. Part 1—Christianity, The Arts, and Aesthetics—lays out in detail Kilby’s aesthetics. Dyrness and Call include Ninety-five pages from Kilby’s 450 page manuscript on Christianity and the arts, a previously published thirty-page booklet and a Christianity Today article, Kilby wrote that interacted with Selden Rodman’s The Eye of Man. In these pages, Kilby argues that the choice is never between aesthetics and no aesthetics, but between a good aesthetic and a bad aesthetic. Thus, he urges his fellow evangelicals toward the making of good art. He speaks glowingly about the role of imagination and lays out a Christianized-Platonic aesthetic of forms.

Part 2, The Vocation of the Artist, discusses Evangelicals in the Arts. Kilby argues in “Christianity and Culture” that Christian artists need to clarify and take a stance on their belief in culture (e.g. is Christianity coterminous with culture, or against culture, or somewhere in between). In the chapter entitled, “In Defense of Beauty,” he argues against P.T. Forsyth that the Hebrew Scripture was devoid of an aesthetic.  In “Vision, Belief, and Individuality” Kilby sets the ‘art experience’ along side the scientific ‘analytical experience,’ seeing value in both. In “Evangelicals and Human Freedom,” Kilby takes issue with the notion that the imagination is to be spurned wholesale (though he acknowledges it may get us into trouble. He closes this essay with 8 suggestions for evangelical writers and publishers:

  1. A Serious acceptance of poetry, the novel, biography, autobiography and the personal essay.
  2. More use of the parable, the parabolic, and allegory.
  3. A return to the use of symbol.
  4. Publishers demonstrating more care in accepting, editing, proofreading, illustrating and laying-out manuscripts.
  5. More willingness for publishers to ‘lift the evangelical taste.’
  6. The establishment of an evangelical writers’ colony.
  7. Week-long conferences with evangelical publishers, editors, writers, and critics that would face Christian publishing problems honestly.
  8. Engagement with classics like Aristotle’s Poetics or Plat’s Crito and Apology to find better models of ideas and style
  9.  And that as Evangelicals, we learn to poke some fun at ourselves (197-198).

Part 3, Faith and the Role of the Imagination’ has five essays which probe the value of the imagination in the Christian life (the first of which is in the form of an imagined dialogue on the nature of belief). In Part 4, Poetry, Literature and Imagination, Kilby offers his defense of Poetry and fiction (as an English professor at an Evangelical institution).

There is no question that Evangelical engagement with the Arts is more positive than the Evangelical world that Kilby addressed. However, this book has value beyond its critique of a bygone era. Kilby showed how the arts bring glory to God. His words spoke into a suspicious evangelical context and imparted a sense of wonder. Anyone who cares about the state of Christianity and the arts will find Kilby’s words instructive. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection, I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

Healing Hatred in Rwanda: a book review

When John Steward arrived in Rwanda in 1997, three years after the genocide, he was greeted by Rwandans who told him in a friendly, but direct manner, “Welcome to Rwanda. You have a difficult job— and please don’t ask me to forgive anybody” (11). He was there to coordinate reconciliation and peacebuilding work. He began searching for models that emphasized ‘the process of healing, the journey of forgiveness and the possibility of reconciliation (13). He also wanted to sensitive to the African culture and context. Building on the work of Rwandan psychologist, Simon Gasibirege, they began holding Personal Development Workshops (PDW) which helped Tutsis, and Hutus work through the pain of genocide and racial tensions.

9781783688838From Genocide to Generosity tells the stories of those impacted by Steward’s work in Rwanda, testimonies of those who faced grief, rage, and deep wounds, and took steps towards reconciliation and healing. In his prologue, John Steward shares how he was prepared for his Rwandan work when eighteen months prior to his trip to Rwanda when his wife told him he needed to work on his attitude. He began attending a workshop called, “Men Exploring Non-Violent Solutions”—an anger-management course. Through doing his own inner work and observing the emotional healing of other participants (many of whom were court ordered attendees), he built a foundation for his Rwandan work.

My own understanding of the Rwandan Genocide has been mediated through films like Hotel Rwanda (2004), Beyond the Gate (2005), and books like Roméo Antonius Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil (2003) and Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season (2003). Of these, only Hatzfeld’s book does the best job describing the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, and from the perspective of convicted perpetrators of violence. Steward casts a wider net, sharing about the healing journey of both the victims and victimizers.

This book is part of the Langham Global Library (a ministry of the Langham Partnership) and was a 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year: Gold Award Winner in the category of Grief/Grieving. It is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, as you hear stories of how people have picked up the fragments of their life after a profound tragedy. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book through the SpeakEasy Blog Review Program in exchange for my honest review

Seeing the Bible Through the Eyes of the Artist: a book review

C.S. Lewis famously said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”By that, he meant that the contours of the Christian story shaped his perception of the broader world. It gave him eyes to see. And with imagination, he helped many of us to see the Christian story (and everything else) through evocative works like the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy. What is true of Christianity is true of the Arts and the artist, no less the Christian artist, could also say “That through art and because of it, she sees everything else.”

9781498217330If the biblical story is the lens through which we as Christian see, the Arts have the ability to sharpen our focus.  In Imagining the Story (Cascade Books, 2017), Karen Case-Green and Gill C. Sakakini, engage the biblical story, bringing it into conversation with poetry, the visual arts, and creative enterprise. Intended as a coursebook for artists in community, they retell the bible story through a series of ‘C’ words, helping us to see implications for art and faith: Creation, Crisis, Calling, Conception, Coming, Cross & Comeback, Charisma, Community, Church, Consummation.

Case-Green and Sakakini bring pastoral, theological and aesthetic insight to the biblical story. Case-Green is a Baptist preacher and writer, who has lectured in English at the University of Surrey. Sakakini is an artist and teacher, a faculty member of the Grunewald Guild, and has taught at Carey Theological College. I met her when we were students together at Regent College. She is presently training as an Anglican priest. Her depiction of Christ’s incarnation provides the cover art for this book.  These two women meld their insights into the biblical narrative, with their appreciation and engagement of visual arts and literature.

Each chapter cycles through four components, we as readers are invited to engage. First, we read a passage of scripture (e.g., chapter 1, on Creation has us read Genesis 2:4-20, p 2-3). Second, we are invited to respond to the passage, through a series of questions on the text. Third, we reflect, bringing the passage, and the chapter of the story we are in, into conversation with works of art or poetry. Here also, Case-Green and Sakakini give their own reflections on the implication of the biblical story for them as artists and believers. Finally, we are invited to make—”a chance to playfully participate in the story by creating something—either visual or verbal—in response to the particular theme of the chapter” (xxii).  As this book is intended as a coursebook, the reflections, and creative projects work best in group discussions and contexts, though the book can be read, as I read it, on one’s own. However, in order to fully appreciate what Case-Green and Sakakini are doing, this book ought to be read slowly, and each of the four components engaged fully.

In the forward, W. David O. Taylor, recalls the words of Calvin Seerveld, “God’s Spirit calls an artistic practitioner to help their neighbours who are  imaginatively handicapped, who do not notice there are fifteen different greens outside their window, who have never sensed the bravery in bashfulness, or seen how lovely an ugly person can be” (xiv). Taylor writes:

For the Christian the twin gift of coherence and attentiveness afforded by good works of art comes as welcomed news. In fact, it’s nothing less than gospel stuff. It’s the sort of things, I’d hope, that we ought to be making and promoting and patronzing ourselves. And, in a sense that is exactly what Gill and Karen offer the reader in their book, Imaginging the Story (xiv).

This is the gift that this book offers. Case-Green and Sakakini invite us to contemplate the old, old Story and to reflect on evocative works of art. They have produced an accessible guidebook to a whole new way of seeing the Bible, the Faith, Creation and Creating—and everything else. The book is chock-full of images, though the printing of the book I read, is in black and white. However, a tech-savvy reader can find many of theses images online (including Gill Sakakini’s own gallery). Sometimes, they include web links to artist web pages in their footnotes. To me doing the extra step of looking for full-color and larger renderings, enhanced my appreciation of what Sakakini and Case-Green were doing through this book.

I recommend this for small groups, classes or anyone interested in seeing the Good, True, and Beautiful through the eyes of Scripture and the Arts. Four Stars ★★★★

Notice of material connection, I received this book from Wipf & Stock in exchange for my honest review. I was not asked to write a positive review.

Praying Myself Awake

I was reading this past week Jürgen Moltmann’s eschatological musings that are In the End—the Beginning (Fortress Press, 2004). He has a section where he describes what it means to Pray wakefully. Moltmann has this to say:

. . . that is only possible if we don’t pray mystically with closed eyes, but messianically, with eyes wide open for God’s future in the world. Christian faith is not blind trust. It is the wakeful expectation of God which draws in all our senses.  The early Christians prayed standing, looking up, with arms outstretched and eyes wide-open, ready to walk or to leap forward. We can see this from the pictures in the catacombs in Rome. Their posture reflects tense expectation, not quiet heart-searching. It says: we are living in God’s Advent. We are on the watch, in expectation of the One who is coming, and with tense attentiveness we are going to meet the coming God. (83-84).

This Moltmann quote begins, in typical Protestant fashion, taking a swipe at the mystics for promoting interior navel gazing instead of open-eyed and incarnational awareness of the world around them. I kind of get tired of that critique. Certainly some mystics, some of the time have evidenced a spirituality of privatized preoccupation and platonic idealism, though attention, expectation and a cultivated awareness of God and the world is also the prevue of  the mystics. However, I do appreciate Moltmann’s larger point, of praying wakefully and watchfully—looking for signs of Christ’s in-breaking Kingdom—a sort of hopeful awareness of God’s coming.

It is just the sort of reminder I need. As a pastor, I’ve preached about how the life of prayer primes our pump to see God at work in our lives. Praying expectantly for God to work in our situation, awakens our spiritual senses, allowing us to see the God who is always at work. Praying helps us take notice.  But I am mostly lousy at prayer.

I circled back to Moltmann in spiritual direction. I had been speaking to my director about feeling vocationally stuck, my longing to be rooted in place and my hunger for deeper community. I have been in my current city less than a year, and feel the creative tension of wanting to do something beautiful for God but not having a clear sense of what next steps look like.

My director suggested journaling (something I’ve done in the past but got away), and contemplative walking in the neighborhood. Neither practice is magical, but both practices involve slowing down and taking notice of what is happening in my life and the world around me. It is a movement away from my attempts at strategizing next steps to a spirituality of taking notice what is.

Implicit in this call to take notice, is cultivating an awareness of God’s Spirit and the things I am being invited into. I want to attend to this. So with Moltmann and the mystics, I’m going walking.