Run the Mile You are In.

I’m training for a marathon. Well . . . nearer on the horizon, I’m training for a half marathon. For the past 11 weeks I’ve been doing a half-marathon training program with Katie Barrett I discovered on Audible (with some minor tweaks). Next week Saturday, I am headed to Eugene, Oregon for the Eugene Holiday Half. This will be the longest race I’ve run to date. I’m not in the best shape of my life, but I still expect to finish this in 2 and a half hours. And I hope it will be fun.

I start each Advent by reflecting on the meaning of the season, that we are waiting, and what we are waiting for isn’t here yet. The way Israel waited through their long exile, we wait for the return of the reigning Christ, when war, predation, suffering and grief will cease and we shall experience the renewal of all things. I believe practicing Advent means being dissatisfied with where we are, and being shaped by hope of what’s to come.

But guess what? Our world is not at peace. We are at war, there are mass-shooters that attack public spaces. Racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia are thriving, affecting vulnerable people in our society and in the world. And then there are broken relationships and betrayals, financial worries, discomforting diagnoses, and painful losses. The Advent of Christ feels a long way off.

Eric Liddell.jpg
Eric Liddell, OG Muscular Christian

When I started training for my half marathon, I committed to running four times a week, stretching, fueling my body appropriately and building in time for recovery. Twelve weeks later, I’m in better shape and better prepared to run. Because I’ve been training with an audible program, I’ve had a constant voice in my ear during my runs, reminding me to work on my form and stretch out my stride. I am coached when to push and when to run easy. At different times in my training program, I am coached to picture myself in my last mile, pushing as hard as I can. And at other times the exhortation is simpler: run the mile I am in.

So we celebrate Advent in the strong hope of God’s coming to us in Christ. But just as the Isaiah passage from Sunday exhorted Israel, “Come, descendants of Jacob,let us walk in the light of the Lord”(Isaiah 2:5). Isaiah shared a vision of the coming of God when swords are beat into plowshares and all the peoples of the world come to learn the ways of YHWH (Isaiah 2:1-4) and then exhorts his hearers to walk in the light of the Lord. The grand goal of worldwide shalom and communion with God, and the exhortation: run the mile you are in. Walk now in light of the things to come

How do we practice Advent in a way that both keeps our eye on the finish line, and with awareness of where we are, run the mile we are in? What are the practices which help us prepare well for the coming of Christ?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Light candles. A lot of our churches have Advent wreaths which count down the Sundays before Christmas. Our family also has a home wreath, which I haven’t unearthed yet. This is great mindful way to practice advent. The warmth and light of the Advent candles are a visceral and visual reminder of the way light dispels darkness. Just lighting the candles is a ritual of hope.

2. Sing songs. Some cranky liturgists and young preachers will tell you that this is not the time for Christmas carols. We are in a season of waiting and longing, and the joy of Christmas is coming. This is bosh. Mary sang (Luke 1:46-55). Yes there is pain, and longing and dissatisfaction. Yes, there is the ache of the already but not quite yet. But there is also wonder and awe, and joyful anticipation. If singing ignites and keeps hope alive. Sing. Sing loud, off key and exuberantly. Sing of the things to come. When people smile when they are running, they can run farther.

3.Do Justice. Part of our Advent hope in the coming of Christ, is that justice and peace will reign when he comes. Part of running the mile we are in, is find ways to press into God’s peace and justice now. Is there an issue facing your community which you can address? Are ways we can promote peace now? Who, of your neighbors is facing injustice? Can we do something about it? This is walking in the light of what’s to come. This is running the mile we are in.

4. Welcome. When Jesus comes everyone is welcome. We are talking kings and shepherds, women and men, Jews and Gentiles, young children and old saints—people of every tongue, tribe and nation. The radical inclusivity of God’s kingdom is coming! What are ways we can practice inclusion and welcome now? Who can you show hospitality to? Is there someone you can invite over for dinner? Is there someone you know, who feels alone and excluded that you can invite along with you where you are going? Do you know someone who needs you to run along aside them for a while?

Jesus came, Jesus comes, Jesus is coming. Our Advent hope is sure, and in our hearts we can picture the finish line. These are just a few suggestions of how we can run now, the mile we are in, as we prepare for the Day ahead. How do you practice Advent?

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.

Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee: a book review

People are moving and people are being displaced. There are immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers all wishing to leave there country of origin, for a variety of reasons poverty, environmental catastrophes, terrorism, nations destabilized by war and revolution, and the promise of a better life somewhere else. “There are about 60 million people on the move . . . . 1 out of every 122 people on the planet today is out of there natural home” (15). “The world has literally come to our doorstep. Will we open the door?” (back cover).

4535In  Serving God in the Migrant CrisisPatrick Johnstone and Dean Merrill teamed up to examine the causes of today’s refugee crisis and the global displacement, explore the  Christian response towards immigrants and aliens, and describe actional steps that individuals, churches, non-profits and the global body of Christ can do to respond to immigrants, refugees and vulnerable strangers in crisis. Johnstone is the original author of Operation World (a global prayer guide for Christians), and a number of other Operation World resources. He served on the leadership team for Worldwide Evangelisation for Christ (WEC International) for 32 years and has been active in writing, in advocating for and ministering to refugees in his home, Derby, England.  [Merrill is the author or coauthor of more than 40 books, but the ‘I’ voice throughout the book, is Johnstone’s].

The book divides into three sections. In part one, Johnstone examines what’s going on. Chapter 1, describes the scope of the global migrant crisis. Chapter 2 explores our attitudes toward immigrants. Notably, Johnstone speaks to several fears people have about migrants. Against the charge that immigrants will take advantage of us and be drain on resources, Johnstone posits that once migrants start working, their payroll tax contributes toward social funding (25-26). He also challenges the notion that immigrants have ill will in their hearts (or maybe secret terrorists). Certainly, there is a risk, which government officials are aware of and work to neutralize,  but the vast majority of immigrants are more likely to be victims of crime then they are to be perpetrators. Johnstone quotes Michael Collyer of the University of Sussex:

Where rapid urbanization coincides with a significant rise in urban violence migrants are often blamed. However, newcomers are over-represtened amongst poor and marginalized groups who typically suffer the most serious consequences of violence—they are much more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators (26).

Against the idea that helping people will only increase the flood of immigrants into our country, Johnstone allows that while may be true and that there are complicated issues around who immigrates and how (e.g. no one has argued for completely open borders),  he reminds us that as Christians we ought to continue to treat immigrants as Divine image bearers (27).  In chapter 3, Johnstone argues that with continued political unrest—failed states, and states which are on ‘shaky ground—as well as other factors, there seems to be no end in sight to global migration.

In part two, Johnstone describes what we should know as we seek to respond to the migrant crisis. Chapter 4 describes why people run—the things that push refugees out of their homelands, and the things that pull them to seek asylum in the West (e.g. security, hope and the promise of a better life). Chapter 5 provides a brief overview of immigrants in the biblical story (e.g. Jesus, Moses, the people of Israel, etc). Chapter 6 exhorts us to behave compassionately towards immigrants and refugees and to challenge the policies that are harmful toward them. Often government policies in the developing world, leave refugees languishing and at-risk in their countries of origin:

Whatever our nationality, citizens who care about justice for the “alien and stranger” need to work to reform these polices and practices. After all, 99 percent of the world’s refugees are not being savely restelled whether inside the borders of their own country, in a nearby country, or accross the ocean. Instead, they are waiting, waiting, waiting, often in squalid conditions as months and years tick by” (63-64).

Johnstone challenges us further, to not let fear or politics get in the way of helping the stranger:

Let it never be said that we “would have liked to” help today’s refugees, but the policy environment was not conducive, and so we turned to other activities. “Of course we want to keep terrorists out of the country,”  says Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (United States) “but let’s not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS.

His collegue Matthew Soerens, United States director of church mobilization for WOlrd Relief, adds, “With governemetn doing its job of screening and vertting, our role can’t be to ask, “Is it safe?” We have to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”

The need for real people—God’s highest creation—must always trump poitical arguements and personal fear. (68).

Chapter 7 argues that the contributions of immigrants to society will both re-energize a complacent society, and a complacent faith (i.e. often refugees fleeing primarily Muslim countries, are Christians).

In part three, Johnstone explores what we can do. Chapter 8 describes where we start. First, as an evangelical Christian committed to mission, Johnstone argues that we ought to appreciate the strategic opportunity of the world knocking on our door (82). Second, Johnstone argues that we need to admit and acknowledge our past mistakes, namely how Christian enmeshment with empire and colonialism is a driven a good deal of the current migrant crisis (86-89). Third, we need to become more sensitive toward other cultures (88-90). Fourth, we need to believe that God really cares about migrants (90). Johnstone points to a number of examples from the Bible that demonstrate God’s care for the immigrant (cf. Leviticus 19:33-34, Leviticus 24:22. Deut. 10:18-19, Deut 24:14-15, Deut. 27:19, 1 Kings 8:41-43, Psalm 146:9, Ezekiel 47:21-23, Zechariah 7:8-10, Hebrews 13:2).

The remainder of the book, (chapters 9-12) describe what individuals, churches, organizations and the world church can do to minister to migrants.

This is a short book, and certainly, Johnstone does not untangle all the issues. However, there are several aspects of this book I really appreciated. First, this book is certainly non-partisan. Johnstone is an old school evangelical but from a British, not American context. Many of the issues he describes were already pertinent before our current U.S. President took office. The current political rhetoric in this country makes it sound like Democrats care about helping people and Republicans lack compassion. The truth is that Republicans and Democrats have both been bad about carrying for immigrants. Second, I appreciate how much Johnstone sees the migrant crisis as an opportunity to care for others, to share our faith and to bless the world.

Johnstone is more of a practitioner than a scholar and this is a popular level book (134 pages. I read it on a plane ride). Certainly what is said here can be nuanced but if you are looking at the world and wondering how as a Christian you ought to respond to the millions of displaced peoples, this is a good place to start. I give this four stars. ★★★★

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

Bigger Chairs Too, Thanks: a book review

John Pavlovitz is a guy with a blog, a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, and a pastor with twenty-some years of ministry experience. His blog is called “Stuff That Needs To Be Said” and there he posts whatever he thinks needs saying. This includes posts which advocate justice and diversity, posts that wrestle with faith and what it means for progressives, like him, to follow Jesus, and posts critiquing the white evangelical support of Donald Trump and the GOP.

a-bigger-tableA Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic and Hopeful Spiritual Community is Pavalovitz’s first book. In it, he chronicles his journey towards progressive Christianity and becoming an LGBTQ ally, he casts a vision for a more hospitable ‘big table’ faith and describes some the challenges he’s encountered along the way.

The Book unfolds in three parts. Part 1, describes Pavlovitz’s spiritual journey, both to the Christian faith and to ‘a bigger table.’ Pavlovitz tells about how he learned to care about LGBTQ folk and racial justice. But he also describes his failure to speak prophetically (or even honestly) in his conservative church context where deviation from the tradition (or even voting Democrat) was viewed as a threat. Eventually, Pavlovitz learns to speak with his own authentic voice. This gets him fired. This furthered his faith de-construction and helped him to move toward a more activist, generous and inclusive faith.

Part 2 is about vision-casting. Here, Pavlovitz describes how Jesus set the table for diversity and inclusion of those on the margins, and the non-negotiable four legs of the table (radical hospitality, authenticity, diversity, and relational community). Part 3 is a hodgepodge of biblical and theological reflections, anecdotes from Pavlovitz’s work forming and encouraging diverse communities and struggles of friends, and his conversations with people who responded or reacted to certain blog posts of his.

I liked a lot of things about this book. Most of all, I enjoyed hearing about Pavlovitz faith journey, his struggles with church and his desire for authentic community. Anyone who has been at loggerheads with the church and has felt unheard or unaffirmed, regardless of whether you agree with Pavlovitz on every point, will find things in his story relatable. I’ve been a pastor at a church more conservative than I. I got fired. Our stories are different, but it is hard for me not also find myself in his journey.

Secondly, when Pavlovitz is describing the bigger, more welcoming table, he can be breathtakingly winsome. There are several passages I have underlined, that I think are really quite stunning. Here are a few favorite passages, each illuminating the struggle and gift of authentic, welcoming community:

Friend, the heart of the bigger table is the realization that we don’t have to share someone’s experience to respect their road. As we move beyond the lazy theology and easy caricatures that seek to remove any gray from people’s lives, we can meet them in that grayness, right where they are, without demanding they become something else in order to earn proximity to us or to a God who loves them dearly. Just as was true in the life and ministry of Jesus. real love is not contingent upon alteration; it simply is. There is no earning of fellowship or deserving of closeness; there is only the invitation itself and the joy that comes when you are fully seen and heard. (18-19)

On the hard parts of our journey, struggling with church, and counting the cost:

When the conflicts in our spiritual journey become too profound, something eventually has to give if we want to find a place of peace and rest the writer of the Twenty-third Psalm speaks of. There is often a steep price to pay to be the more authentic version of ourselves. The prophets and disciples and the early Christians understood this, but we’ve been conditioned to believe we can have our religious convictions with little or no alteration to our daily existence. But the truth is real spirituality is usually costly. Many followers of Jesus end up learning this not from the world outside the Church but from our faith tradition itself. We end up choosing Jesus and losing our religion; finding proximity to him creates distance from others. If you seek to expand the table you’re going to find yourself in a tough spot. The truth may not get you fired. (Although it might). (52).


Friend, this is what it means to be the people of the bigger table: to look for the threads that might tie us together and to believe that these are more powerful than we imagine. This is the only future the Church really has. Disparate people will not be brought together through a denomination or a pastor or by anything the institutional church can offer. We know that now. These were useful for a time, but they are exercise in diminishing returns. The Church will thrive only to the degree it is willing to be out making space for a greater swath of humanity and by recognizing the redemptive power of relationships. (62-63)

I appreciated his call for diversity and the emphasis he places on radical hospitality. I think hospitality—the welcome of God—is the gospel. Too often approaches to mission, and ministry are decidedly exclusive and unwelcoming. God is love. Our love is too often lost in translation. I think it is crucial we create contexts (tables) where people with different understandings and convictions can gather and talk. This is the kind of big table Christianity Pavlovitz is talking about. When it happens, it may be awkward and uncomfortable, but the Spirit hovers over the chaos and it can be really beautiful.

However, I am not always certain that Pavlovitz always lives up to the principles of the bigger table. I follow him on social media and resonate with him on a lot of critiques of Trumpism, the alt-right, GOP politics and White Evangelicals. He has strong words for them, because of ways their vision of the world marginalizes and excludes others and doesn’t allow them to have a place at the table. Yet, some of what Pavlovitz says online I find way more combative than it needs to be. He has tweeted that Foxnews employees aren’t even human, told white evangelicals they are no longer Christian (because of their Trump support) and has a blog post up about why he hates Trump and is okay with hating him. Rhetoric like that sounds more like fencing a table than building a bigger one (I think Pavlovitz would describe it more as keeping the oppressors at bay and excluding the excluders).

Trust me, I get the anger. But I worry that progressive evangelicals are simply refashioning legalism in their own image, becoming just as judgmental and unwilling to dialogue as they accuse the Right of being. Thankfully, I found this book more generous with conservatives than I sometimes find Pavlovitz’s online presence.

I give this book four stars. I don’t agree on everything Pavlovitz says and wish, in turns, that he was both more substantive in his theology, and more generous with those he disagrees with. But he is winsome, heartfelt, and a good story-teller, trying to welcome others the way Jesus did. -★★★★

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


X is for Xenophilia (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” (Matthew 26:23, NIV)

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20–21, NIV)

Xenophobia is something we are all too familiar with: the fear and disdain for people not like us. It is the default stance of the internet troll and the reason for the uptick in hate crimes towards Jews and Muslims. It is codified in the practices of law enforcement in minority communities and the mass incarceration of black and brown skinned people in our country. It is becoming our national immigration and foreign policy. It manifests itself as fear and hate or the desire for the other to keep their distance.

Xenophilia,  on the other hand, is the opposite: a love for foreign peoples, cultures, and customs.  In the Christian tradition, we call this welcoming the stranger. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) has a number of passages that talk about caring for foreigners, strangers and resident aliens dwelling in the land (cf. Deut. 14:29; 26:11-13, Lev. 19:10, 23:22, Zech. 7:8-10). There are also compelling examples within the narrative of hospitality and inclusion of strangers (i.e. Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18, Rahab, Ruth, etc).  The whole thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 was that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing, a priest to the nations to welcome them back into relationship with God. Christians can glean a lot about hospitality from the First Testament and Jewish practice.

However, our example par excellence of xenophilia is Jesus. I don’t want to be anachronistic. Jesus was a first century Jew and he came to the Jews. He didn’t welcome everybody in his lifetime. Still he demonstrated the stance of welcome in his friendship to tax collectors and sinners, the healing non-Jews (the Centurion’s servant, the Gerasene demoniac, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, etc), his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and teachings which challenged the exclusion of the Gentiles (i.e. Luke 4:20-30, the parable of Good Samaritan, etc.) His ultimate welcome of strangers came through the cross where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles was torn down (Ephesians 2:14).

Before we get to Calvary. Jesus dines with his disciples in an upper room. It was Passover, and they were in Jerusalem. These were Jesus’ disciples for three years of ministry. The guys he spent most of his time with. Friends. And yet there was a stranger in their midst. Someone who dipped bread and ate with Jesus, but in his heart, he was neither friend no follower. The stranger Jesus welcomed and called a friend, The friend who gives strange kisses in the garden.

On the same evening, Jesus offered up a missional prayer, that God would unite, sanctify and send his disciples out into the world (John 17). He didn’t just pray for them but for the ones he didn’t even know yet, who would respond to God’s message of welcome.

When they arrived to arrest him, a disciple cut off an ear of someone in the arresting party. Jesus healed the stranger.

How does hospitality, the welcome of strangers and xenophilia, shape your spiritual journey?  How can we follow the example of Christ (and the biblical tradition) in caring for strangers disconnected from basic relationships and security? Theologian Krister Stendhal wrote, “wherever, whenever, however, the kingdom manifest itself, it is welcome” (cited in Christine Pohl’s Making Room, Eerdmans, 1999).

We are at a good news moment in the Gospel story, why we call this Friday good. Let us seek to extend Christ’s welcome of strangers to the world too accustomed to fearmongering and hate. It is time to demonstrate the love of Christ to all those not like us. 

Jesus Subverting Empire: a ★★★★★ book review

Craig Greenfield grew up with a ‘nice’ Jesus. The Jesus he learned about as a kid, had blond locks and the perfect beard. He was always kind, always polite. As he grew older, ‘nice Jesus’ morphed into respectable-good-citizen-Jesus: the Jesus that would save your soul -without challenging the status quo.

T240_360_book-1913-coverhen when he was twenty-two he went to Cambodia where an interaction with a beggar outside a Khmer Rouge genocide museum sent him on a path where he re-thought and re-examined who Jesus really was, why he came and what it means to follow Him. Subversive Jesus tells the story of Greenfield, his Cambodian wife Nay, and their family as they walked the subversive ways of Jesus. Greenfield journey takes him from New Zealand to the slums of Cambodia, to Vancouver’s Down-Town Eastside and to Cambodia again. Greenfield shares the insights he gained from other theologian/practitioners,  notably folks like Charles Ringma, Dave Diewert, and Dave Andrews; yet this book is primarily about what Greenfield and his family learned as they followed their subversive Jesus by challenging empire,  practicing radical hospitality, and loving and advocating for the marginalized.

Greenfield shares about hospitality and community, learning the place his children had in mission, living vulnerably and non-violently in the midst of a violent neighborhood,  and sharing with and including neighbors. Their family would have a community meals where participants cooked together and shared life around a table. Greenfield maintained a hospitable and welcoming stance toward neighbors and friends, yet he also recognized the need for proper boundaries to sustain life and ministry. Dave Andrews phrase, “Bizarre Behavior is okay. Abusive Behavior is not okay,” became a community rule (56). Greenfield observes that in the culture-at-large, the opposite is usually true (the bizarre are shunned and the abusive are praised for their strength).

Sometimes we may be tempted to think that being a Christian means being a good citizen of our country. Greenfield lives a more robust form of discipleship believing Jesus came to challenge empire and the powers of this age. This has led him to take counter-cultural (subversive) stances and the practice of resistance. Greenfield helps us see away to act faithful to God and governing authorities while resisting laws and aspects of culture that are unjust (submitting to the consequences of our resistance to unjust laws, is still submitting to government authority). For him this includes taking lemonade to drug dealers, organizing flash-mob-protests, starting community gardens, and building relationships among the marginalized.

I like this book a lot and loved hearing Greenfield’s story. This is a thoughtful, theologically rich and biblically sound account, but it is also a story of what it means to follow Jesus in broken places and a call or us also to live more courageously as we seek to follow our subversive Jesus.

One episode that was intriguing was the time, Greenfield’s community painted a pentagram as an act of worship to God and love for their neighbor. Yeah, It is terrible for me to give you that little detail without describing what actually happened or the events leading up to it. I guess you will just have to read the book yourself. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

How the church invented ‘customer service’ and why we need more

While I’m called to vocational ministry, my livelihood for the moment is tied to the marketplace. I work in a retail store and my Sunday morning liturgy this week was sitting through a customer service training.  Sitting through my training, my mind wandered to how applicable it was to a church context. Don’t get me wrong, I am not an advocate of the un-examined appropriation of business practices for the church. In business the bottom line is the bottom line. The telos of the church is to be a faithful witness to the coming kingdom (see the difference?). Customer service is especially suspect. When Christians appropriate a customer service model of church we end up ministering to felt needs of congregants instead of dealing with the objective problem (sin). We also fail to remain theocentric in our approach.

And yet. . . . As I sat through my training session this morning a thought dawned on me: Some ‘business best practices,’ are inspired by historic Christian witness. Not in a self conscious way, mind you. I doubt that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies read the Desert  Fathers (or even the New Testament) to help them form their business plans. However as I sat through a video presentation offering advice on how to exceed customer expectations,  I heard dimly the saints of old.  This was especially true as the advice I was given for business was taken directly from the hospitality industry.

Hospitality is a Christian practice (though not exclusively).  The early church took its cue from the Ancient Near East’s value on care for ‘strangers'(cf. Gen. 18 where Abraham offers hospitality to three ‘strangers’) and  injunctions in the Torah to care for the vulnerable (Deut. 24:20). So during the early centuries of Christianity, hospitality was not simply entertaining guests in your home for an evening, but a much more robust set of practices aimed at care for those in real need [for a good background on this practice see Christine Pohl’s Making Room: Recovering the Christian Practice of Hospitality (Eerdmans 1999)].  Early Christians rescued infant girls left to die of exposure and cared for the sick in their communities. Travelers in the ancient world were particularly vulnerable, and Christians offered a safe haven.   As the church’s resources grew (as well as the need), the Christian practice of hospitality became formalized in the establishment of hospitals as well  monasteries and inns which cared for  travelers. This was  the precursor to the modern hospitality industry.   When businesses seek to cultivate longstanding relationships with clients and offer service that goes above an beyond their expectations, they often look toward the hospitality industry(i.e. the Four Seasons Hotel, Walt Disney Resorts, etc.).

When market driven capitalists (such as those who run retail stores) seek to learn from the hospitality industry, they are appropriating a secularized version of the Christian practice of hospitality.  When the church seeks the wisdom of market place leaders (who are  gleaning  what they can from the hospitality industry), they are appropriating a dehistoricized version of their  practice. This can be diagrammed as follows:


And perhaps the cycle continues. But there are problems with this scheme. The historic practice of  Christian hospitality was meatier and more robust than its modern capitalist equivalent. When hospitality got institutionalized (into hospitals and hotels), it allowed for care of greater numbers of people, but something of the quality and attention of the earlier practice was lost.  So when churches attempt to learn from business on how to minister to the felt needs of their congregants, they are appropriating a watered down version of their own practice. The personalized care of the early church is lost. So is the depths of their biblical and theological reflection.

Does this mean that the church can’t learn from exceptional customer service representatives. Nope, all truth is God’s truth and some of God’s truth is wrapped up in contemporary business practices. I would be wary of how ‘customer service’ models would turn congregants into consumers, but to the extent that ‘customer service’ is a recovery of the practice of hospitality, we certainly can learn from the best practices of businesses.

In the retail business, caring for the customer and exceeding their expectations ensures their loyalty and strengthens your business relationship with them. In the church, hospitality makes visible the love of God before a watching world and brings needed care to the vulnerable members of society.  When we learn hospitality solely from business leaders our vision of hospitality is too small.  Recovering a Christian practice involves learning from notable examples in church history (i.e. the early church, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, St. Benedict, Basil the Great, Francis of Assisi, the Pietists, The Catholic Worker Movement, etc.).  It also means reading the Bible evocatively, allowing it to shape our imagination of how we in the church can best express the the hospitality of God. And it involves learning from exceptional practitioners (Christian or otherwise) about how to care for the vulnerable among us.

What is the greatest customer service experience you have ever had? Does the church offer something different from that?