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.

These Still December Mornings


By the time the third week of Advent rolls around, we’ve marked hope and our lingering dissatisfaction with where the world is. We have longed for the Peace of Christ to come to our war-torn-and-too-violent world. Then in week 3, even though we know it’s coming, we are surprised by joy. 

Luci Shaw

‘Tis the season for angelic visitations, a perfect image for this happy surprise of Advent Joy. Luke tells of two such visitations. Both times the visitor brought good news: A Child will be born. God has remembered his people and is sending a redeemer!

The first  visit left  Zechariah dumbstruck (Luke 1:22). On the next visit, Mary was receptive and after seeing Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, pregnant in her old age, she burst with song (1:46-55). 

Of course “angelic visitation” may not  always mean an aura of light, a long flowing robe and feathered wings. In Luci Shaw’s Advent Visitation the visitor comes in with the  ‘satin wind’ to her cabin door. We don’t get a look at the visitor but we sense the joy that this visit brought her:

Even from the cabin window I sensed the wind’s
contagion begin to infect the rags of leaves.
Then the alders gilded to it, obeisant, the way

angels are said to bow, covering their faces with
their wings, not solemn, as we suppose, but
possessed of a sudden, surreptitious hilarity.

When the little satin wind arrived,
I felt it slide through the cracked-open door
(A wisp of prescience? A change in the weather?),

and after the small push of breath–You
entering with your air of radiant surprise,
I the astonished one.

These still December mornings
I fancy I live in a clear envelope of angels
like a cellophane womb.  Or a soap bubble,

the colors drifting, curling.  Outside
everything’s tinted rose, grape, turquoise,
silver–the stones by the path, the skin of sun

on the pond ice, at night the aureola of
a pregnant moon, like me, iridescent,
almost full-term with light.


Like Shaw on one of these still December mornings, Mary, Elizabeth (and Zechariah) were each surprised by joy! The things they each hoped for but feared would never come to pass were now happening! The gnawing loneliness and ache of absence were being swallowed up. A people’s long exile was coming to an end. There was joy in the visiting and joy for what was yet to come. 

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 3He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 3and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Mary floated like she was in a clear envelope of angels like a cellophane womb. Or a soap bubble. Everything outside was tinted rose, grape, turquoise and silver. Joy! The reflection of the moonlight on the frozen pond, an areola of the pregnant moon—almost full-term with light! Anticipation and excitement reach a fever pitch. Jesus is coming, God is here!

Have you had an angelic visitation yet? God is near. 

Stand Still, O Beautiful End

The second week of Advent is the time for declaring our hope for God’s peace. We cry peace, peace when there is no peace. Our journey with the poets has noted a dissonance between our anxious thoughts and war-torn world, and Advent promise. Too often what we call peace in this life, is just a diversion and distraction—a turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. We stuff down our wounds. We comfort our souls with wine and song.

But we know that there are people struggling, hurting dying. We know about those desperate migrants who have fled the violence, economic and politic instability in Central America; the tenuous relationship between Israel and Palestine, starving children in Yemen, and we’ve heard something about escalating violence in the Philippines. All this seems so far away and abstract. We know we probably should care more than we do and that this is just the tip of the iceberg of the suffering of the world. There are so many stories we don’t know and hurts we’ve not heard about. We are aware, when we listen the anxious cry of our own hearts and though we may have some small measure of inner peace it is fleeting and we are ever aware of the ways we don’t experience it. Yet. 

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengalese poet was the first non-western Nobel Prize for Literature laureate (1913).  Called the Bard of Bengal, he  was given a knighthood by King George V but later denounced it in protest of the British Indian Army’s Jallianwala Bagh massacre. His novels touch on the violence of Colonial powers and the violence between Hindus and Muslims in India. His poem, Peace, My Heart (part of his Gardener cycle) describes our common longing for peace:

Peace, my heart, let the time for
the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain
into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the
nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be
gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a
moment, and say your last words in
silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

For Tagore, peace was what awaited us in death— a release from the heartache and pain of existence when we are reunited with the Cosmos. This idea is more Eastern than Western and reflects Tagore’s religious and spiritual worldview. Yet he captures what it means to be at peace, much of which is echoed in our own scriptures:

  • Not be a  death but completeness—from fragmentation to being made whole (Luke 17:19 “Your faith has made you whole”).
  • Love melting into memory and pain melting into song (Psalm 126:5, They that sow in tears will reap with songs of joy).
  • Our flight through the sky ending with us safe the nest, under the wings of a Mother bird (cf. Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”).
  • Our last touch of our hands gentle like a flower in the night (Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near”).

Qoheleth wrote that God set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Strangely anxious souls though we are, we long for and can describe a peace we know little, experientially about.  Torah written on the hearts of humanity (Romans 2:15), we all hunger for the peace of God to come.  Our heart testifies to us—we long for what none of us has, yet. 

Stand still, O beautiful end. . . .I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

The Old Woman Waits: Advent Week 1

Paula Gunn Allen’s poem C’Koy’u Old, Woman describes waiting:

old woman there in the earth/ outside you we wait/ do you dream of birth, bring/ what is outside, inside? old/ woman inside/ old/ woman outside/old woman there in the sky/ we are waiting inside you/ dreaming your dream of birthing/ get what is inside/outside” (Skins and Bones: Poems 1979-87, West  End Press, 1988). 

Allen had in mind the sacred feminine, which underpinned her Native American, and feminist spirituality. Highly critical of colonial Christendom much of Allen’s work was aimed at recovering the place of the feminine in Native American Traditions, believing that western beliefs in patriarchy blinded them to significance of women in Native religion and culture. But the waiting and longing in her words bring me to Advent. I am reminded of Elizabeth, the old woman who had given up dreaming of birth, finding herself pregnant in her old age. She would give birth to John, the forerunner who would prepare the way for the coming of the promised Messiah

And I am reminded of Paul’s words in Romans:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:19–24, NRSV)

Advent is the season of waiting, not just for a boy wrapped in swaddling clothes who was laid in a manger, but for this Old Woman Creation who groans and longs for the Kingdom of God to come to fruition in our midst, who longs to be free from bondage and decay but fulfill her divine purposes.

  Jesus’ advent is not just a backwards glance at a historic event  but a cosmic hope that all that is wrong with the world will one day be put right.

The Gospel reading for today  (Advent 1C) hints at this cosmic scope:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

(Luke 22:25-29).

Today begins a season of hope, of  longing, and of waiting. Waiting not just for us, but for this old woman who dreams of birth and longs for the day: New Creation. 

Brother John: a book review

A few years ago, I read one of those genre-busting books by this guy I never heard of. It was called Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks by August Turak. Turak took the wisdom of the monks of Mepkin Abbey in Raliegh, North Carolina and applied their insights to business. I enjoyed the book, and I even reviewed it here. The book was unique enough that it stayed with me, though I have to admit, I forgot the author’s name.  

Brother John

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my latest genre-busting read about monks, was actually by the same guy and set in the same monastery. This time it wasn’t a business book, it was a picture book, called Brother John. It was written for adults but nothing suggestive( not that kind of picture book). In it, Turak describes his time on a Christmas retreat at the Mepkin Abbey, and how the particular witness of a monk-saint called Brother John stoked Turak’s spiritual hunger and helped reveal to Turak his life’s purpose. 

This book is two decades in the making. The events described in the text happened over twenty years ago (1996). In 2004, wrote of his experience at the monastery for an essay contest on “the purpose of life” from the John Templeton Foundation. The essay won him the coveted Templeton Prize. Turak was able to turn this same essay into a picture book by enlisting award-winning artist, Glenn Harrington to illustrate it. Harrington provides over twenty full-color paintings of the Monks and Mepkin Abbey.  

The book describes Turak’s encounter with a holy life, revealed to him, first by a selfless act, Brother John walking him back to his cottage in the rain. But this small act opened up space for Turak to examine the condition of his own heart and his hunger for the holy.  

This is a quick read (it’s a picture book) but thoughtful and evocative. The art is stunning. I love the way the book communicates a sense of the sacred. It is set in a monastery, and the monks are located in the Christian tradition, though Turak writes broadly and inclusively enough that all spiritual seekers could find themselves in these words. I give this four stars. 

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the author or publisher via SpeakEasy for my honest review. 

Watch a Trailer for the book. 

Wounded In Spirit: an Advent Devotional (p)review and GIVEAWAY!!!

The secular and liturgical calendars nearly converge this year, so whether you mark the start of Advent with those calendars of chalky, cheap chocolate from your local supermarket, or through participation in Sunday worship, the season begins this weekend. During Advent I always look for a devotional to read through, as I attempt to wait well. Friends at Paraclete Press were nice enough to share with me Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, a new devotional by David Bannon. Bannon combines reflections on grief, hope, wounds and waiting with beautiful works of art. It is an exquisite book!

9781640601451But Advent is the season of waiting. To wait is to note that things are not yet as they should be. And so, this is a difficult season for a lot of us. For all the promise of holiday cheer, these are long dark nights, often touched by heartache, loneliness, estrangement, deep wounds, and mourning. Bannon is no stranger to grief and heartache. In 2006 he was convicted for criminal impersonation. In 2015 his daughter died of a heroin overdose (introduction, XVI).  He know what it means to be broken and bereaved, to long for wholeness, healing and the coming of God’s shalom. He doesn’t speak explicitly about his own story in these meditations. He focuses instead on the stories of the artists—their stories, wounds and the works they produced.

The art in this book is varied in style, though exclusively Western European,ranging from the Renaissance era to about mid 20th Century. There are works by celebrated artists like Gauguin, Tissot, Caravaggio, Tanner, Delacroix, Van Gogh and Dürer, as well as notable pieces from artists with less household name recognition. Bannon describes the artist’s life, and the ways their wounds bleed onto the canvas. He invites us to stop and pay attention, to really see the artist and their work, to experience healing and perchance commune. Each daily meditation includes quotations for reflection from notable artists, writers, philosophers or theologians.

Art is something that has been healing for me on my own spiritual journey so I am looking forward to sitting with these artists and their work. I have not read the whole book yet, just introduction and several entries, though Bannon appears to be a good guide.

Waiting is painful. Things are not yet as they should be. But waiting doesn’t have to be dull and dreary, it can be a sensory experience, a time of entering more fully into Life. A time to grieve, yes, but joy comes in the morning.

Paraclete Press, has graciously allowed me to run a giveaway on my blog of 3 copies of the book? Yeah, James, but how can I win? 

There are 2 ways to enter:

  1. Comment below and tell me what do you find most difficult about this time of year.
  2. Share this giveaway on Social Media by hitting the share button below, Be sure to comment and share the link in the comment section, so I see your entry!

Winners will be chosen Thursday, 11/29 at 9pm Pacific Time.

Becoming a Friend: A ★★★★★ Book Review

The Catholic Church doesn’t start the canonization process until after a person dies, but if there were applications for living saints, Jean Vanier would be top of the list. He is the founder of L’Arche, a network of intentional communities providing hospitality and care for those with developmental disabilities. He resides in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, where he has lived with people with disabilities for the past fifty-three years, regarded them as his teacher. The author of more than 30 books, Vanier’s gift to the church (and to me) is in imparting a vision of ministry that is inclusive of those margins, without being paternalistic. L’Arche is not a charity in the sense that they ‘do for the disabled’ but a community of welcome where those with disabilities, and those who are able, find themselves bound together in friendship and community.

9781640600966We Need Each Other: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together is vintage Vanier. The text of this book is drawn from talks Vanier gave at a retreat he led in 2008 for the community of Saint Martin in Nyahururu, Kenya (a community especially devoted to responding to Kenya’s HIV crisis). Vanier brings together scriptural reflections—especially on the life of Jesus— personal remembrances, and hard-won-wisdom on what it means to follow Jesus in being a friend to the poor and marginalized, facing our own fears and disabilities, and becoming more open toward the other.

The book is short but not what I’d call a quick read. It is only 138 pages and not overly complicated, but  I found myself reading and re-reading, reading slowly,  mulling over words and phrases, and underlining whole paragraphs. I will resist my urge to quote the whole book here, but here a few passages I found meaningful. The first passage discusses what it means to become friends with the poor, instead of just serving them from a place of privilege:

I can be generous:  I can volunteer to help someone living in an institution, or I can go into a slum area and listen to the people, or give them money. However, when I am generous, I hold the power. In my generosity, I give good things when I want. The initiative is mine. When I extend my generosity to you, I become superior. The equation changes, however when I become your friend. The generosity becomes a meeting point for the two of us, and the journey of friendship begins, When I become your friend, I become vulnerable with you. I listen to your story; I hear how much you have suffered: and you listen to my story. In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become a friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change (54-55).

On Spiritual growth:

If you read any books on the saints, you will discover that as one grows in spirituality, one feels less and less perfect. So, if you are feeling less and less perfect, it means you are getting closer to God! Those in religious life, when they entered the novitiate, had wings. After that, the wings were clipped and they began living in community, a life they found painful (65).

On the preferential option for the poor:

Those who are the most rejected must be respected. It is not a question of a preferential option for the poor. It is the fact that the Church is constitutioned by the presence of the poor. The poor are indispensable to the Church, because in their cry for recognition, in their cry for relationships, they are awakening the hearts of those who are seemingly rich in knowledge, wealth, or security (72).

On vocation and calling:

Sometimes I am a bit concerned when we talk of vocations, making reference only to the priesthood or religious life for sisters. I believe in the priesthood and I believe in religious life, but I also believe in the vocations of people with disabilities. I believe in the vocation of hearts filled with love of people like Maimanu and Dorothy and many others. We each have a vocation. We are all called by God to grow in love and be a sign of tenderness to the world. Our vulnerable Jesus is calling us to grow in love (118).

Sometimes people speak romanticly about ‘the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the disabled.’ Vanier has dedicated a lifetime to sharing life with the disabled in L’Arche and knows how difficult the journey can be. But he also knows the gift of love when we are open enough to share our lives with others. When he describes those with disabilities whom he calls friends, he describes what they have revealed about his own poverty of spirit and disability and ways they have spurred him on to greater love and humility. I highly recommend this book. I give it five stars – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: Paraclete Press provided me with a copy of this book. I was not asked to write a positive review.