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.

Picking up the Pieces, Reaching for Wholeness.

This past weekend, I drove up to Portland for a Christian conference of sorts. I went to the Northwest Ekklesia Project Meeting. Chris Smith and John Pattison, authors of Slow Church were the speakers (I heard about this gathering via Chris, and I’ve interacted with both authors online, though we had never officially met them until this weekend). In three sessions, Chris and John described our age  as being characterized by profound fragmentation, and they offered three biblical metaphors of church (Church as family, as body, as light) as a counter vision and way of being in the world. John and Chris drew   on their book, Slow Church, their current personal projects, and stories from church communities they’ve been privileged to interact with as a result of their book.

This was not one of those huge church conferences, but an intimate gathering, tucked into a small church in northwest Portland. Nobody made me wear a name tag, so I wasn’t subjected to institutionalized intimacy. There was only about 20-30 people there. I learned pretty quick that everyone else was in a thicker sort of community than I am in. The other folks who were gathered were committed to neighborhood and place, and they didn’t just do church together. Most were part of intentional Christian communities (co-housing, shared life, etc.). Nobody made me feel out-of-place for my thin, anemic communal life, or like I didn’t belong there. I felt enfolded in the hospitality of the group, but it made me aware of ways my experience of church was far less robust.

In the first session, John noted that fragmentation is a characterization of every age—in the very warp and weft of the universe. However, he identified three forces of fragmentation peculiar to our day: radical individualism, hypermobility, and materialism.

Traditionally the season of Lent is a time for preparing. We fast, and we examine our lives, we repent, and we strive to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly. And yet, I am not whole. I recognize the forces of fragmentation in my own life but also the longing for wholeness.

I am individualistic

John Pattison noted in his Friday night talk that the Apostle Paul uses the phrase ‘Our Lord’ something like 53 times, but only once says “my Lord” (cf. Phil 3:8). Similarly, 22(?) times the New Testament speaks of Jesus as “our Savior” and only once does an individual refer to Jesus as ‘my Savior’ (Mary, in her Magnificat, Luke 1:46).  Our post-Enlightenment age emphasizes the private individual. We are the self-made men. And faith and spirituality has become privatized. Evangelical Christians preach the need to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and deemphasize the fact that Jesus came to overturn the social order and establish a new people.

And yet so much of my Spiritual journey is all about me, following my bliss, me on my journey toward my self actualization.  But Jesus calls us to something fuller, deeper and more involved than my personal relationship with him. God is community (Trinity) and the community the Godhead establishes images God’s unity in diversity, God’s justice and God’s love for all.

I hunger for deeper community, even as my own woundedness and suspicion keeps me from others. Part of my journey this season is to experience more of God with others because spiritual experience is so much more than the internal experience of my own human brain.

I am rootless

Sitting in a room full of people with a deeper, thicker experience of community life, I was struck with how hypermobile my life is. In conversation with Chris and John, before the conference began, I revealed my circuitous journey, and how I came to be in Medford. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, raised in Hawaii, two short years in urban mission in Atlanta and Miami, Vancouver BC for seminary, North Washington for several years, my pastorate in Florida and now, my neighborhood in South Medford. And then John went to talk about hypermobility as led to further fragmentation and rootlessness

Theologically, I prefer stability. I’ve read my Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson. I went to a Parish Collective thing a few years ago and cried through the whole thing feeling like these were my people— those who commit to place and neighborhood and strive to feel the rhythm of what God was already do there.  As much as I’ve moved, I believe wholeheartedly in tending the soil where you are, and committing to place. Jesus was God with human skin come to dwell among his people. Incarnation happens in place, and there is reality we won’t enter into if we keep  on moving. I feel the rootlessness, but wherever I moved, I’ve hoped it would be for the long haul.

I am a materialist. 

Materialism means valuing the material more than the spiritual. It creates within us both a consumer mindset, where people and things are commodified, and a scarcity mindset, where we are most conscious of our material lack (e.g. resources, programs, technology, etc).

Certainly I feel both the forces of commodification and scarcity in my soul. Too often, my individualist impulse has subsumed even spiritual practices into commodities— techniques to achieve my personal satisfaction. And the weight of scarcity also weighs on my soul. Everything is a commodity and none of it is enough.

But of course, as in Browning’s phrase, my reach exceeds my grasp (or ‘what’s a heaven for?’). I long for a greater sense of God’s Presence to invade my reality, alerting me to where the real world of the senses doesn’t comprise all of reality, and that there is always more of God around than I realize. I feel too much the weight of scarcity, but the promise of Jesus is abundant life.


I am an individual, isolated from the Other. I am rootless, longing for connection. I am a materialist and a consumer, longing to taste and see the goodness of God. These forces of fragmentation are useful to me as a self-diagnostic, describing how fragmented I feel most of the time, but they also help me see the things I long to see in my life, in my journey with Christ. Fragmentation is not the end of the story.

 

 

The Missional Grace of Together: a book review

Missional is one of those plastic terms and it can mean anything depending on who’s saying it (the way Emergent used to mean that people had couches and candles in their megachurch-GenX-service). So when I picked up Larry Duggins’s Together: Community As a Means of GraceI wasn’t sure what I would get. I mean, I knew it was part of the “Missional Wisdom Library,” and that Duggins was the Executive Director of the Missional Wisdom Foundation. I also knew that Duggins was an elder in the United Methodist Church. But I felt like these facts didn’t tell me all that much. I hadn’t heard of the Missional Wisdom Foundation and Methodists are all over the map.

9781532613050What did Missional mean when Duggins said it? Was it just a strategy or a formula for outreach? Was it a “whole new way of ministry?” Did it just mean pub church and community gardens? Or was Duggins pointing to a more robust theological understanding of what it means to be missional?

Duggins does like community gardens but there is, indeed, rich theological reflection here. Duggins sets to work casting a vision in which to root mission. He does this through the concept of community.

In chapter 1, Duggins discusses the  perichoretic community of the Triune God—and the relational dance of God. Chapter 2 explores the nature of humanity. Duggins posits that humans were created with a need for community. Genesis 1:27 describes the mutual Divine image bearing of female and male persons(9), whereas Genesis 2 underscores how it was “not good” for man to be alone:

It is noteworthy that the first thing that God points out as “not good” is the lack of community, not original sin! God sees that humans need other humans to be “good” as God intended (10).

So, Duggins argues, community with other people is an integral part of what it means for us to be human.

In Chapter 3, tells the story of Grace— human fallenness (beginning in Genesis 3) and God’s loving action and presence in effecting our deliverance (culminating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection). However, using a Wesleyan understanding of ‘means of grace,’ Duggins describes the ways Jesus lived in concert with God’s grace in daily life, commending Christ’s example to us (18-22).

At the close of chapter 3, Duggins describes  John Wesley’s understanding of prudential “means of grace” as activities, that is activities that bring us deeper into communion with God’s grace but “are not drawn directly from the life of Christ” (22). For Wesley, these were class and band meetings, love feasts, and covenant renewal movements. In chapter 4, Duggins digs deeper into Wesleyan’s communal examples of prudential grace and suggests implications for mission today:

Imagine Christians joined with others in communities that are important to people of this day and age, living as followers of Christ ready to be the hands and feet of Christ in the lives of those who do not yet know how to express their “spiritual but not religious feelings. Christians sharing their stories and experiences with people who are truly their friends, not to push them into conversion or membership, but because, as a friend, they want to share what is important to them. Christian people who model love & inclusion in community. Christians who are willing to help others see the presence of Christ in their midst.” (30-31)

In the remainder of the book, Duggins connects these theological understandings of community (community rooted in Trinity, the Imago-Dei, and Wesleyan Spirituality) and describes the variety of ways communities form today. Duggins doesn’t indicate a particular strategy or format(so no push for pub-church in particular) but he gives examples of theological-rooted communities in: traditional church contexts, in workplace communities, in communities that are centered around food, children’s schools or various affinity groups, and  he commends creative re-imagining discipleship and evangelism.

While I appreciated this latter part of the book, and Duggins’s refusal to prescribe just one form of community but instead describe the variety and experience of communities he’s known, for me, it is the theological visioning stuff at the front that I really liked. I found as I read on, I underlined less and less; yet, it is the latter half where we hear contemporary stories of missional community today and the practical outworking of theology.

This is a short book, less than 90 pages, without a lot of footnotes and extraneous references. It is accessible enough for lay leaders. This is the kind of book that a church leadership team or elder board could read together without feeling bogged down in anything too heady. While it starts with a Trinitarian, biblical, and theological reflections on community and means of grace, this is, in reality, for only 30 odd pages. The rest of the book gives practical examples of what this may look like in different contexts. This could be good fodder for discussion. I give this book four stars. – ★★★★

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

Lessons in Belonging: a book review

9780830843176I was slow in getting around to reading Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe. I had wanted to read it ever since I saw Erin Lane on a Regent Redux forum. But shortly after the book came in the mail, I lost it behind the couch.  For months. I had recently completed my time as pastor with a church (AKA as my lesson in ‘not belonging). I continued to attend weekly worship at another church but felt fairly disconnected. My interest in ‘belonging; waned. When I unearthed the book from its hiding place, I was completely  sucked in by Erin’s story.

Lane describes herself in the book with these words:

I am a twenty-nine-year-old who wears skinny jeans, man boots and Mac’s Red Russian lipstick. I live in North Carolina but was born in Nashville, reared in Ohio, raised near Chicago, schooled in Ann Arbor, married outside of Charlotte and awakened in San Francisco. I want to live in Seattle some day, but these days I’m making my home in Durham. I call myself a Christian and a feminist too.

I believe in being the church. I believe in attending church. I just don’t like to do it. I don’t like when the older people talk too long even though I need to be reminded of our shared history. I don’t like it when the young babies cry too loudly even though I need to be reminded of our shared need. I don’t take well to authority figures telling me what to do. And yet I have a lot of opinions on what they should do.

I like Jesus; I just don’t like when he’s separated from the other persons of the Trinity like the cheese who stands alone. I believe in tradition if there’s a good reason behind it. It’s just that I often can’t get a straight answer about what that reason is.

I have a master’s degree in theology, but I don’t want to hear your dissertation. I want specifics, like how you picture God when you pray and what you say to the beggar on the street who asks for money. I am interested in women and men who want to belong and are ready to do so with people who don’t look and sound like them.

The trouble is I have a hard time committing to these people, because as pastor Lillian Daniel puts it, “In church, in community, humanity is just too close to look good.” (17).

Lane’s memoir shares her struggle to belong to  a church. She struggles with patriarchal pastors,  artificial gender roles, and feeling ‘lost’ and ‘disconnected’ in the congregation. She does learn belonging by choosing to stick with a community, to show up at stuff, to read the community charitably, to be vulnerable and to offer ‘her portion.’ But this is no Pollyanna tale. Lane’s church angst persists. She sees the gifts of Christian community and belonging, she leans in, but it remains a struggle

I read this book with interest, because I really wanted to hear how her story turned out. She doesn’t attend church with her youth pastor husband, and at one point, moves to Seattle for a season (for work, but also to figure things out). Her marriage to Rush and cold feet about commitment, is also a window into her struggle to commit to a local congregation.

But reading this book reminded of some of ‘the lessons in belonging’ I have  had in my own church journey. I haven’t struggled in committing to churches the same way Lane has, but I can think of a couple of churches that I didn’t feel I belonged to until I committed to them for a coupe of years. There is no shortcut to knowing and being known.

I recommend this book for anyone who likewise struggles with ‘going to church’ or feels angsty about committing to a community. Lane is winsome and funny.  And she keeps it real. Despite being so theologically thoughtful, this isn’t a preachy book. I give this four-and-half stars. You should totally read it.

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

The Jesus Way of Love and Justice: a book review

A recent book I read was Dave Andrew’s The Jihad of Jesus. That book is interfaith dialogue at its best. Andrews explored the concept of Jihad and relates it to Jesus’ gentle struggle for peace and justice (also noting similarly gentle struggles within Islam itself). That book, plus another recent read, Craig Greenfield’s Subversive Jesus, (which speaks highly of Andrews) made me want to reach back into his catalog of books and see what else he had on offer.

9781610978514Not Religion But Love: Practicing a Radical Spirituality of Compassion was originally published in 1999, a follow up to Andrews infamous/influential Christi-Anarchy.  A 2006 edition accompanied a 2006 class Compassionate Community Work (published by Piquant Press). Wipf and Stock has republished the book (2012) with a new introduction from Brian McLaren and a forward by Charles Ringma.

The book picks up on the radical vision for personal and communal renewal that Andrews described in Christi-Anarchy (the first chapter is a summary of some of the ideas from the earlier book). This book describes how to work out Jesus’ vision of love and justice in our lives and neighborhoods. Each of the nineteen chapters ends with ‘ideas for meditation, discussion and action, which call us to recall, reflect and relate how we can embody Christ’s relational and communal vision for justice.

The book divides into five parts. Part one, The Heart of Christ, describes Jesus’ vision for compassion, justice, and gentleness as an alternative to the dominant mode of operating in society. Part two, A Heart for Breaking Barriers, describes how living into Christ’s vision breaks down the barriers of futility, selfishness, fear and spitefulness that runs through our hearts. Part three, A Heart for Building Bridges, explores the work of building bridges between people through relationships and groups and through cooperation. Part four, A Heart for Bringing Growth and Change, describes how walking in Jesus’ way of love brings hope, political empowerment, problem resolution and prophetic transformation. The final section, From Half Hearted to Wholehearted Humanity provides ways to press into Christ’s spirituality of compassion through exploring his sayings, stories about his life, through resources, and through courses that Andrews offered (I haven’t checked to see if the courses are still on offer).

This is radical spirituality in the sense that Andrews is calling us away from Christendom back to the source: Jesus Christ. He aims at helping us recover Jesus vision for spirituality and justice and his challenge to the status quo.  Andrews peppers his chapters with stories of how he has tried to live out the way of Jesus in living simply, sacrificially and missionally.

I am tired of statusquo spirituality which tells people to come to Jesus but leaves them fundamentally unchanged in their to injustice, culture and everyday life. Andrews offers a vision of the life Jesus calls us to where we take up our cross and follow in his footsteps. Andrews is inspiring (with a little bit of hippy counter culture thrown in for good measure). I recommend this book for anyone else tired of status quo spirituality who wants to explore what it can look like to live out Jesus’ vision of compassion. This book is challenging and makes you hunger for something more prophetic, transformative, and life-giving than some of the ways the gospel is packaged. Religion doesn’t transform, the radical, relational and sacrifical love of Jesus does. This is a book about how to live Christ’s lvoe out.  I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Wipf and Stock in exchange for my honest review.

A Slow Study Guide a Comin’: a study-guide review

It has been almost two years since I plowed through Slow Church — a book critiquing the fast-food-like-franchising of the church, suggesting instead a more local, organic and inclusive vision of Christian community. I devoured the book. I didn’t read it slow. I swallowed it whole. I was (and am) sympathetic to the vision that C.Christopher Smith and John Pattison painted. The franchise model emphasizes efficiency, predictability, calculability and control. A slow church model seeks out  sustainable practices and the cultivatation deep relationships (to people and places).

4130IVP has recently released the Slow Church Study Guide which invites small groups and communities to participate in an 11 week discussion of the book. Each session is made up of six components:

  1.  Readings of Slow Church (the book) for participants to do prior to each meeting
  2. resources for facilitators to prepare, including videos, audio clips and blog posts (all linked at http://guide.slowchurch.com)
  3. a welcome (usually a poem or a quotation to center group members and help them to be present with one another
  4. Lectio Divina on a relevant portion of scripture
  5. Conversation starter questions
  6. closing thoughts

Ideally each sesson take about an hour and half to go through as a group.

The study guide is a chance to chew on the concepts and practices suggested by the book and press into its implications in the context of community. I did it wrong. My wife and I did the sessions together. I did go back and re-read the relevant sections of the book, but I doubt Smith and Pattison envisioned this as a “couple’s devotional.” We did read slow and follow the format of the book. We shared about the theological vision for slow church with our fifteen month old beside us and our toes in the sand overlooking Tampa Bay. We discussed the terroir (taste of place) over the finest Pinot Noir we could find (that came in a box). We discussed our church community and churches we’ve been apart of. We explored the character of our neighborhood and community and what we could do to embody God’s reconciling love and welcoming mission to our peculiar place.

This is a great guide and would be a wonderful small group study or a framework for church plant teams, or church lead teams to dream up possibilities for their community. I  resonate with both the book and the guide; however I have one small critique. One of the things I appreciate most about the vision for Slow Church is how inclusive it is. Franchised churches  commodify the gospel exclude the marginalized. In contrast, the theological vision for slow church emphasizes the inclusion of everyone (see the Lectio Divina on 2 Cor 5:14-21 in session one, the session/chapter on hospitality, etc). However I am not sure how inclusive the study guide is..The resources and welcomes are drawn from mostly white males. Ethnic and immigrant communities have a lot to teach us about local expressions of church (i.e. local theologies). It would have been nice to see more diverse voices included in the facilitator preparation especially. Also the focus on this as a book study caters to the more literary, thinkers and bookish types.  That describes me and I love it, but I am not sure that everyone I ever sat in a small group with would feel engaged by the material. I know a study guide can’t be all things, so put these critiques in the FWIW category. I liked it and overall give this study guide four stars.

Note: I received this study guide from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

Transformed Together on Emmaus Road: a book review

Ruth Haley Barton is well established as an author of Christian spirituality. I have read and found beneficial her Invitation to Solitude and Silence and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. The former, explores the importance of practicing silence as a spiritual discipline while the latter examines eight spiritual practices that help people press deeper into faith in God. Barton draws on the insights of the broad Christian tradition, but her writings is palatable for an evangelical audience.

Though I had read and enjoyed Barton before, I wasn’t prepared to like Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community as much as much as I did. My standing critique of many books on spiritual disciplines is how they appeal to an individualistic, consumer mindset and apply  it to the realm of spirituality (if this doesn’t work, try another discipline. . .). Barton made strides in Sacred Rhythms to address this attitude, but Life Together in Christ is a more developed, mature reflection on the nature of Spiritual practice.

Barton frames her exploration of communal spiritual transformation through one of the Jesus’ most evocative post-resurrection appearances.  In Luke 24: 13-35 we hear the story of Cleopas and his companion, despondent on their trek home from Jerusalem after Jesus was crucified. They are met on their way by a stranger who listens to them and explains to them, from the scriptures, why the Son of Man would suffer. When they reach the end of their journey, they invite him home for dinner and discover in the dinner grace that Jesus himself was their travelling companion.

Barton turns over the words of this story and reflects on nine communal practices and characteristics which enable and encourage spiritual transformation. These are:

  • Choosing to walk together
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Choosing to listen and not fix
  • Gathering on the basis of shared desire
  • The place of men and women in community
  • The cruciform nature of the spiritual journey
  • Locating our own stories in Jesus’ story
  • Discerning the presence of Christ in our midst
  • Bearing witness to what we have seen and heard

Barton is an astute reader of the text, but this isn’t a purely exegetical treatment (more of a sustained Lectio Divina). She finds in this story some great segues to the nature of the spiritual life in community. I appreciate her insights into spirituality. I also like that they way these chapters are crafted and set up, to sit down and read it cover to cover by yourself (as I did) is the absolutely wrong way of doing it. Barton is not naive about the difficulties, letdowns, betrayals and disappointments that happen in real-life Christian communities, but she is cognizant that to live the Christian faith we are a part of the church–God’s kingdom people. Her words hone in on how to be God’s people (and God’s presence) for one another.

My favorite part of the book was her explanation of the nature of the spiritual journey, or in her words, “the paschal rhythm of death, burial and resurrection as the essential rhythm of the spiritual life, and of suffering as a necessary part of it” (102). These poignant words helped me see how Christ’s cross and resurrection not only explain the journey the Son of God took, but all of us who are in Him. Often I hear this said theologically (we have been crucified with Christ and our lives are buried with him)  but Barton helped me connect the dots a little bit on how this is a lived reality.

I highly recommend this book. It is the best book on community I read in 2014 and it would be a great resource for small groups or to read with a spiritual friend (Barton herself is a spiritual director and leads a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of and training pastors and ministry leaders). Because it reflects on Christ’s resurrection, my lectionary-loving friends may appreciate reading through this in Easter as they seek to deepen their resurrection practice. However the principles and practices are applicable anytime. I give this book a hearty high five (stars): ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.