D is for Discipleship (an alphabet for penitents)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? -Matt 16:24-26

Discipleship is just one of a preponderance of Lenten “D” words. “Denial,” “Difficulty,” “Death,”  “Delay” each name parts of our Lenten journey. Even “the Devil” would have brought to mind Jesus’ forty-day-wilderness fast when Satan came a tempting (Matt 4:1-11).  “Discipleship” is a broad term applied to “following Jesus.” He is the master to whom we apprentice ourselves to on our spiritual journey.

And yet in following Jesus, those other “D” words come into focus:

  • Denial-The first order for would-be disciples is: deny oneself. Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves . . . When you are an apprentice, your will is not your own. You do the bidding of your master, the tasks or projects you are given. Not many of us have been apprenticed, but maybe we’ve been interns or at least know how a job constrains our freedom to act out our every whim. What Jesus is saying is that, as our master, his will, will guide us, his mission will become our own, and that he sets the agenda for our life. 
  • Death– Would-be disciples take up their crosses and follow Jesus. When Christ was compelled to carry a cross at the end of the gospel, he was on the way to Golgotha. Cross-carrying is a vivid image of joining Jesus on his death march. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Cost of Discipleship, 89). This language is stronger than ‘denial.’ Following Jesus is a lifestyle of total self-sacrifice.
  • Difficulty– None of this easy. Following Jesus is hard. Again, following Jesus is hard.
  • the Devil– We remember in Lent, Jesus’ wilderness temptation. Forty days of fasting culminated with a visit from the Prince of Darkness who tried to push God’s Son off His mission. It is interesting to note that the things the devil tries to tempt Jesus with are the antithesis of Jesus’ call to discipleship:
    • “Make bread from stones”—You’re life doesn’t have to be difficult. There is an easy way.
    • “Use God’s angels to save yourself” You don’t really have to die!
    • “Bow to me and You will have power, riches, and anything you desire”—you do not need to deny yourself.

If this is the way the Devil tried to get Jesus off track, how much more his disciples?

  • Delay– Would-be disciples know about delayed gratification. Jesus predates pop-psychology and the ‘marshmallow test,” but he offered a challenge of his own. You know those psychological experiments where they place a child in the room with a marshmallow and tell them if they don’t eat the marshmallow for amount of time, they will get two marshmallows? Jesus version was to forgo life now to gain Abundant life for all eternity. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?  Would-be disciples are confident that blessings, resurrection, and glorification await them if they follow Jesus; however, they know that these things come by way of the cross. It is in losing our lives we find it but first the dying. 
sebastiano_del_piombo_-_christ_carrying_the_cross_-_wga21099

Sebastiano del Piombo – Christ Carrying the Cross

What has Bioregionalism to Do with Discipleship? a ★★★★★book review

Early Christians asked themselves, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” wondering about the relationship between the Christian faith and pagan philosophy. Today many Christians raise a similar question: “What does my faith have to do with the environment?” Western Christianity has imbibed a functional Docetism since Constantine, placing salvation outside of creation’s realm. We’ve also been bequeathed the medieval Doctrine of Discovery, and Industrialization’s anthropological assumption which has enabled colonization and the exploitation of our natural resources (5-6). We’ve commodified our land and resources and a major divide continually grows between our Christian faith and our lived environments. We are now at a critical juncture in which human persons are making a major impact on our world. It is time to re-place Christian discipleship within our ecosystems.

9781498280761Ched Myers is well known for his theological activism, his work as an educator, and for his political reading of Mark’s gospel, in books like Binding the Strongman, and Say to this Mountain.  He is co-director, with Elaine Enns, of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (BCM) where he advocates Christian engagement in the realms of peace, justice, and radical discipleship. At a 2010 meeting of the Bartimaeus Institute, he introduced the term ‘Watershed Discipleship’ as a way of impressing the importance of bioregionalism for North American churches (xvii), In this anthology, Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice Myers draws together essays from a dozen activists and scholars who share his vision for bioregional faith. He frames this collection with introductory and concluding essays of his own.

What does Watershed Discipleship mean? Myers describes the term as a triple entendre:

  1. It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and citizen inhabitants of specific places
  2. It acknowledges the bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our individual discipleship and the life and witness of the local
    church take place inescapably in a watershed context
  3. And it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. (2).

The essays in this volume engage the realms of theology, history, biblical studies, social science, and environmentalism; however, each essay is also autobiographically rooted.  The authors describe how they’ve come to care for their own watersheds. They are cognizant of the human and environmental crisis we face, attentive to their places, listening well to what their watersheds have taught them.

Rose Marie Berger‘s poem, Prophecies from the Watershed Confederacy, stands at the beginning of the book, Denise Nadeau writes the forward. In chapter one, Katarina Friesen essay reflects on current Christian missions, and her experiences on missions and growing up as a Missionary-kid. She explores how the medieval Doctrine of Discovery has shaped conquest politics and contributed to a ‘dis-placed’ understanding of mission. She argues us to redirect missions toward our own watersheds:

As a church, we need a framework whose transformative potential adequately counters the oppressive history of forced conversion of land and people, a resurrection way of liberation for all people and land more powerful than the death legacy of colonialism.
As a people marred by placeless theologies, our challenge is to repent of Watershed Conquest through practicing Watershed Discipleship. We are being commissioned home, through the power of the One who will be with us “to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20b).

David Pritchett examines the city, showing how the urban grid has historically been ‘used a tool of the colonization, control and alienation of citizenry, in order to efficiently move goods and military assets across the landscape” (54). Pritchett draws inspiration from the book of Daniel, on how contemporary city-dwellers may subvert the urban grid’s hegemony. He gives contemporary examples of subversion such as urban art, de-paving parking lots (which contribute to urban watershed problems), and food mapping.

John McRay provides a theology and a biblical vision of the Kingdom of God and salvation as a ‘transfigured earth’ (60). McRay explores the biblical narratives of Jubilee, Jesus and Elisha-Naaman story, articulating a ‘hermeneutic of reinhabitation.’ He argues, “Our best chance for justice and peace is to enact Jesus’s blend of Jubilee and watershed transformation. Like Naaman, we must learn to move from profane control to holy conversation through acts of reinhabitation”(72).

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann tells her story of caring for the Detroit River watershed, the place of her baptism. She describes the fight for clean water in the city and its effects on the poor and marginalized.  Erinn Fahey, also in the Detroit Watershed, is a water engineer.  In her chapter, she explores the contradictions between the discipline of engineering and her vocation as a green engineer. Sarah Thompson interviews Atlanta community organizer, Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, discussing environmental racism and ecojustice in the Atlanta Watershed, the next stages of the civil rights movement, and the witness of Christian Peacemaker Teams in violence reduction around the world.

 Matthew Humphrey calls evangelicals away from a posture of abstraction to one of action for inhabited bioregions. Humphrey lives in the lower Mainland of British Columbia. He discusses the [North] American lack of place (“Americans have careers not places”) He reads the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard against the displacement of Aboriginal Canadians (in Indian Residential Schools) and the history of displacement of Native. Humphrey encourages us to inhabit our place, and become ‘settlers’ allies’ for ‘the sake of the land and its inhabitants’ (121)

Sarah Nolan interviews Erynn Smith and Reyna Ortega of The Abundant
Table project in Ventura County, CA, discussing their experience as organic
farmers and activists and the challenge of trying to practice agriculture which offers alternatives to the destructive farming which surround their community (138)

Sasha Adkins maps the disaster the problem of plastic from a public health
perspective and the damage it does to bodies and global watersheds calling us to examine our spiritual problem of disposability. Victoria Machado discusses the confluence between bioregionalism and the Catholic Worker movement (i.e. the local and contextual
nature and mission). Tevyn East and Jay Beck explore the Carnival de Resistance— a traveling carnival and school of transformation which promotes environmental justice and sustainability. They contend art serves watershed discipleship by supporting cultural transformation and spiritual recovery (181). Myers concluding essay explores the need for a theological and hermeneutic recovery, and the need to re-place our church practices

This is a rich collection of essays. I was familiar with the concept of Watershed Discipleship from Todd Wynward’s Rewilding the Way (also a great book). This book highlighted the perspectives and actions of a dozen theologians and activists. Two major themes jumped out at me as I read these essays. First, they underscore the importance and meaning of place. Missiologists and church planters talk about Incarnational ministry, but they seldom challenge the assumptions bequeathed to us by urbanism, Industrialism, and the Doctrine of Discovery. By conceiving of discipleship bioregionally, the authors in this volume are cognizant of the relationship between persons and their ecosystem (as well as their built environment). This opens fresh possibilities for what mission ‘in place’ means. It doesn’t involve simply asset-mapping a neighborhood for human services. It means understanding food systems, the impact of human communities on Creation, and how environmental problems impact people, particularly the poor and the marginalized. Mission in place means caring for both the community and creation within your bioregion. This is missiologically significant.

Secondly, I appreciate the hopeful tone of these essays. Because of the impact humans have on their environment, many books on environmental justice are kind of bleak. However, each of these authors believe social change and a more responsive relationship with Nature is not only desirable, but possible. They allow their faith and the eschatological vision of a restored creation to inform their thoughts and actions. The overall tone of this book was inspiring, getting me to think about what I can do in my own watershed (a region I’m new to and know little about).

I recommend this book to anyone who wonders about the relationship between our environment and faith—our bioregion and the life of discipleship. You will get a sense of what others are doing in the realm Christian creation care. Several of these essays open new avenues for Christian mission. I happily recommend this book and give it five stars. -★★★★★

Note: I received an electronic copy of this book from Cascade Books (an imprint from Wipf & Stock) in exchange for my honest review.

Ethics as Discipleship: a book review

Recently I sat through a presentation where the presenter made the claim that people always act out of their own self-interest. That ethical egoism was enshrined as the only option for personal decision making made my inner-ethicist cringe. In that environment it was too much to hope for a full-scale discussion of ethical approaches (i.e. the role of rules, formational habits, or even the ‘greater good’). While this discussion didn’t happen in a religious environment, the moral decision making of Christians often looks the to the same as everyone else. And as much as I may balk at that presenter, we live in an ethical-egoist-age.

9780830824656In Pursuing Moral Faithfulness, theologian Gary Tyra explores the realm of moral decision-making under the rubric of Christian discipleship. Tyra is professor of biblical and practical theology at Vanguard University and has more than three decades of pastoral experience. His approach to ethics as discipleship aims to set ethics within a larger frame. One that has the possibility of theological and moral realism, accounts for the Spirit’s role in moral guidance, and balances respect for rules with considering consequences and cultivating character (21-27). The goal of ethics is to make thoughtful ethical decisions in keeping with what it means to be a follower of Christ.

This book divides into two sections. Part one introduces readers to Christian ethics and names the major ethical options (i.e. deontological and consequentialist approaches, and the effects of our cultural moral relativism on our ability to make ethical decisions). Part two aims at describing the ethic of responsible Christian discipleship: Christ-centered, biblically informed and Spirit empowered moral decision making.

Tyra is a pastor and theologian. His ethical formation came from studying with Lewis Smedes at Fuller Seminary (and practical theology from Ray Anderson). Throughout this book he focuses on the practical dimension of moral deliberation in the Christian life. The rubric of discipleship enables him to include the best elements of deontological, consequential and virtue ethics.  In this respect his approach reminds me of Dennis Hollinger’s (Choosing the Good, Baker Academic, 2002).

One of the features of Tyra’s approach is his use of scripture. He points to the ethical insights of Micah 6:8, the importance of consequences and God given wisdom for proper moral deliberation evidenced in Proverbs 2, how Jesus’ antithetical statements in the Sermon on the Mount (Mathew 5:21-47), reveal God’s heart in a way that hyper-literal observance of the law did not (216-219). Tyra doesn’t explore Torah at length or the ten commandments; he is more interested on what the heart behind a law is than mere legal observance. Laws and consequences are re-framed relationally. So is formation (the Spirit’s work guiding and enabling our moral life). I think his articulation could have been sharpened by a more substantive engagement with the Pentateuch and the concept of covenant. however, Tyra paints a practical picture of what responsible Christian moral decisions look like.

This is a good introductory book for Christian ethics. Tyra argues for a thoughtful approach to ethics which defies the relativism of our culture. This will be a good text book, and a helpful resource. I give this four stars.

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

 

 

 

Jesus is My Partner: a book review

With the five patches of ‘red letters’ and its exploration of Jesus’ life, Matthew’s gospel is an apt manual for discipleship.  In Partnering with the Kingauthor John Hiigel takes us on a 31-day-tour of Matthew, exploring its implications for disciples. The book opens with an examination of the story about the feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13:21). In that story, Jesus’ disciples were asked by Jesus to feed a crowd but had no resources to do so (or very little resources). Jesus takes whatever they had to give and he multiplies it and uses it, miraculously feeding the multitudes. This is what Hiigel calls ‘partnering with the King.’ Jesus holds the power because he is God and King, but we get to partner with him in bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.  Just like the disciples, we are asked to do what seems impossible, but as we learn to faithfully obey Jesus multiplies what we offer a. The nd uses it for his glory. The feeding of the five thousand is a personally meaningful image for my life and ministry and provides a great organizing motif for this book. 

Partnering with the King: Study the Gospel of Matthew & Become a Disciple of Jesus by John Hiigel

After the feeding of the five thousand,  the rest of the daily entries follow the book of Matthewin a  largely chronological fashion. As Hiigel walks through the text several themes emerge. Jesus’ authority is seen in his miracles, healing,  casting out of demons,  and his teaching.  His life is commended to us for our imitation, and we are challenged to put into practice his teaching.  Ultimately his entries explore what it means for us to participate with Christ and ‘partner with him’ in bringing about his Kingdom in its fulness. Disciples see the the kingdom Theses daily entries can each be read in 10-15 minutes and are fairly meaty.

 Hiigel teaches Biblical Studies at the University of Sioux Falls. Having received his  Ph.D. from Fuller, he’s also served as a pastor for decades and as a musician in Los Angeles.  His examination of Matthew blends together the world of scholarship, pastoral insights, and musicality.  While music is not a major theme, he utilizes several examples of his ‘musician days’ to help explicate the text.

This is not a scholarly book and so it does not explore every critical issue or fill in all the background of the first century  context. That doesn’t mean that Hiigel is not a good scholar or that this book does not rest on good scholarship. It just doesn’t explore every jot and tittle of the text.  I was occasionally disappointed when Hiigel did not fully exegete my pet passage. On the other hand Hiigel stays on task, exploring Matthew for what it tells us about discipleship. What he shares here is challenging and engaging.  For a devotional commentary on the book of Matthew, I think this is the best of its kind even if I happily recommend it, especially for personal study. I think that this is better than Tom Wright’s Matthew for Everybody and breaking it down into daily readings makes it a great way to soak in Matthew’s message for a month.

Personally I really appreciated that this book did not just tell us what Jesus said or what Jesus did but raised a challenge by asking,”in light of this passage, what should we do?”   Hiigel wants people to be hearers of the Word who then do what it says. I found myself prayerfully reading over passages and underlining a lot. Listen to his words regarding the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: 31-46:

We are meeting surrogates for Jesus at every turn.  The grave danger is to be lulled to sleep by the ordinariness of life and miss the sacredness of the people around us and the reality of God’s unseen kingdom. Blessed is the servant whom Jesus finds doing what he commanded when he returns. Imagine hearing Jesus say in the end, “Well done good and faithful servant . . . Come,  you are blessed of my Father, and receive the inheritance that has been prepared for you from the beginning of time! (239)”

As someone who too often is lulled to sleep by the ordinariness of life  but really hungers to be used by God with my life and ministry, I found myself challenged anew in these pages. I give this book ★★★★★.

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

In this review, I didn’t offer a detailed summary of most of what Hiigel says but am always happy to discuss particular passages from Matthew and what Hiigel says about them.

First Rule of Fight Club. . .a book review

One of my passions and interests is to help people grow as disciples of Christ. I also really like the gospel. So when I saw a book called Gospel Centered Discipleship coming down the pike, I just knew I had to review it. Jonathan Dodson, pastor of Austin City Life Church (located conveniently in Austin) has written a thought provoking book addressing what discipleship properly centered on the gospel is. In part 1 he defines discipleship, in part 2 he addresses the motivation and power behind discipleship, and part 3 he addresses practical aspects of how we live it out.

Sharing vulnerably about his own steps and missteps as a disciple, Dodson demonstrates the ways that our discipleship models sometimes miss the point. Some disciples emphasize piety at the expense of mission (spiritual disciplines, instead of social justice or Evangelism). Others emphasize missional activism but fail to help people grow in holiness. The desire to provide accountability, sometimes gives way to legalism, while other discipleship groups err on the side of cheap grace by providing license for believers to sin. Dodson doesn’t want you to emphasize piety at the expense of grace or vise-versa; both vertical and horizontal dimensions of discipleship are important. What he wants us to live into the reality that Jesus is Lord and follow him in his mission and piety.

Along the way, he invites us to experience confession and community, stoke our religious affections and commune with the Holy Spirit to help us mature as disciples. His focus on the ‘three conversions’ (conversion to Christ as Lord and Savior, conversion to the Body of Christ, and Conversion to Christ’s mission) ensures that his own model of discipleship is fairly holistic and communal. His model is rooted in church practice rather than individual disciplines.

The last section of the book, talks about how we can practically live out this model of discipleship. Dodson writes about ‘fight clubs’ which are his name for a three person small group where participants meet to encourage one another to fight the good fight in living for Jesus (fighting sin in our lives, fighting to keep Christ at the center of our heart, fighting to extend his mission). Admittedly, I find the name is cheesy and a little gimmicky, but I like the concept. At any rate, Dodson’s description of fight clubs can be modified. This is just one example of how you can live out gospel-centered discipleship.

There is so much I like about this book. I really appreciated the way Dodson critiques some versions of discipleship which I have found unhelpful (i.e. how accountability groups can promote legalism). His model of discipleship is Biblically and theologically informed (mostly from a Reformed Evangelical bent). While I may disagree in minor points of emphasis, on the whole this seemed like a helpful and thoughtful book. I really appreciated the richness of sources he cited.

[Edit 5-09-2012: The earlier edition of this review criticized this book for having a subject and scriptural index which did not actually belong to this book (a printing error from the publisher). Crossway has just sent me a corrected copy where this error has been fixed.]

As a whole I would recommend this book to someone looking for an accessible guide to discipleship for those who want the truth of the gospel and Jesus’ Lordship (his kingship and leadership) to penetrate every part of our lives.

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this fair and rather friendly review.