Diversity as Missio Dei: a book review

Leroy Barber is my friend and mentor. I trust his voice when it comes to urban ministry and community. So when I saw that his new book was out, Red Brown Yellow Black White Who’s more Precious in God’s Sight?: A call for diversity in Christian missions and ministryI was eager to read it. I knew it would be a game changer.

 But it was much more than that. Red Brown Yellow Black White (RBYBW) is a summons for those of us who ‘say’ we care about reconciliation and justice to quit playing a it; it calls us to get on with working for real change in how we minister across the racial divide. In these pages, Barber opens up about his sometimes painful journey in the urban ministry world, how discrimination from fellow leaders and boards, locked him and fellow minorities out of key leadership positions. Because Barber is such a great relational leader, he sets his story alongside friends and co-conspirators.

In RBYRW, Barber grounds missions in the Missio Dei–the mission of God (God’s larger purpose for his people and his world and the end He is leading us toward).  But the history of missions, at different points, bears little resemblance to the Missio Dei.  Often white Europeans blended their efforts to spread the gospel with imperialism, colonialism and paternalism. Missionaries came to new cultures to minister, but seldom included indigenous leadership in their mission. Fast forward to the modern era and you find that missions organizations and missionary boards are still predominantly white.

Barber is an African American leader called to urban mission who launched his own non-profit and has led national and international missions organizations (he is currently the global executive director of Word Made Flesh). His heart burns for more diversity in mission and he has led ministries (like Mission Year) and counseled others to be more thoughtful about how to promote diversity in their organizations. Barber doesn’t  tells stories of not-for-profit organizations which have labored to change the culture and are working to promote diversity. While reconciliation is a difficult journey, real diversity is possible. And when it happens, we reveal the Kingdom of God to the watching world.

For us white Evangelicals, this means we share power! Barber observes how even justice-minded, white evangelicals fail to include African Americans in decision making,  and fundraising. He also relays several stories from the field, where leaders of color were deemed unqualified by short-term, white teams even though they had years of experience and understanding that these teams lacked.  Unfortunately these racial attitudes can still poison the well of real diversity in mission. Leaders of color bring different histories and gifts to the realm of mission and leadership. We are impoverished in our missional attempts when we fail to make space at the table and include people of color. For when we do, they can help shape our mission to the wider community in beautiful ways.

RBYBW is challenging for me. I love and respect Leroy and am grateful for the ways he has invested in my growth (and countless others). I am captivated by his vision of diversity in mission. And yet this book highlights how much work is still to be done. I have recently become pastor at a mostly white church that does care about racial justice and reconciliation. We are making an impact on our city but I still have a lot to learn about doing mission well. Barber highlights the racial  and socio-economic dimensions of urban mission for me and helps me pay attention to the dynamics. This book is a goldmine!

I highly recommend this book. Anyone interested in the mission of God (which should include Christians everywhere) will gain insight on how to engage in mission in ways that are sensitive to race and culture.  For white evangelicals (like me), we can be ‘color blind’ in a way that demeans the challenges that people of color face. We can also fail to value the gifts that people of color bring to our organizations and leadership.  I give this book five stars and think that this book should be required reading for pastors, non-profit directors and missionaries. ★★★★★

Spiritual Occupation: a book review

The Occupy movement offers criticism of business as usual from the Left. The past few weeks the Tea Party flexed its considerable political clout in bringing the leader of the free world to an absolute standstill. Two years ago the Occupy movement were poised to do the same. Now the movement seems to have all but petered out. Many wonder if there is still an Occupy movement.

Enter Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox. Both these men are activists, authors and advocates of contemplative spirituality.  They would both describe themselves as Christians, but the spirituality they advocate for in Occupy Spirituality is much broader than their own religious heritage.  Fox is a former Dominican turned Episcopalian most noted for his Creation Spirituality (a pantheistic Christian mysticism which emphasizes Original Blessing over Original Sin).  Bucko is a  Polish born anarchist and activist who works with homeless youth. Both men  are excited by the younger generation’s stand against economic and political injustice.

Occupy Spirituality is a dialogue between these two thinkers. Because the tone of the book is conversational, its organization is broadly circular. Nevertheless there are broad themes covered in each chapter.  In chapter one, Fox and Bucko argue that it is time to replace ‘the God of Religion’ with the ‘God of Life,’ meaning a spirituality that is more personal than institutional (institutional means bad). They lift the phrase from a quotation of Howard Thurman’s (the African American theologian and civil rights activist). From there, their discussion covers new avenues of spirituality, their personal histories, the meaning of vocation, spiritual practices, intergenerational wisdom, and new communities and the New Monasticism. Bucko and Fox also pepper their prose with quotations from co-conspirators and fellow activists.

There was something compelling about the Occupy Movement. Institutions, business and politics have hurt people, especially poor people. Economic injustice is a reality in our country and in our world.  People who stand at the margins and take a prophetic stance against power structures remind us of our interconnection and help lead us to strive for the common good.  While occupiers  may be dismissed as ‘lazy opportunists’ or ‘naive idealists,’ there is a part of their message that we need take to heart: Capitalism is not a benevolent force.   So I was interested in hearing what Fox and Bucko had to say about economic injustice and what to do about it.

They certainly affirm that economic injustice is bad and that we should oppose it.  But they weren’t as interested in speaking about practical solutions and approaches. Their attention was mostly turned to what spiritualities nurture activists in their fight.  Personally I was not enamored with their approach. I call it, ‘lowest common denominator spirituality.’  Christ ceases to be God in human flesh and becomes instead a ‘Christ Consciousness’ on the same level as a Buddhist awakening.  Fox and Bucko draw on the Christian mystical tradition, and a good many other world religions to frame their thoughts on spirituality Certainly I think you can gain some insights from their discussion but I find this nebulous, ill-defined \spirituality’ which underpins all religions a little bit boring and unhelpful.  Jesus speaks to the realm of injustice precisely because he laid down the rights of Godhood to experience suffering and injustice at the hands of the powers of his day.  Fox and Bucko’s version of spirituality might be personally nurturing, but I think it soft peddles the gifts of a distinctly Christian spirituality to stand against injustice.

This is illustrated by their appropriation of  MLK and Thurman to provide the spiritual underpinnings of their movement. This is hardly surprising. MLK and Thurman were at the center of the Civil Rights movement and fought against segregation and racial injustice.  But Fox and Bucko’s clipped quotations  and brief references don’t do justice to the legacy of these men.  The ‘God of Life’ versus ‘the God of Religion’ reference comes from Thurman’s The Luminous Web. Thurman spends the greater part of that essay urging Christians to recover the message of love at the core of Jesus’ teaching. MLK’s beloved community did the same. Yes, both of these theologians urged universal brotherhood and have broad ecumenical appeal.  But there is an emphasis in the writings of both men on the life and teachings of Jesus. Bucko and Fox rob King and Thurman of their Christological content and turn ‘the God of Life’ into mere subjective spirituality (i.e. what is personally meaningful, life giving and helpful). Subjective experiences are important, but not what Thurman and King were talking about.

So I was somewhat disappointed with this book. I give it two stars but I think this book would be of interest to those curious about the occupy phenomenon.

Thank you to SpeakEasy for providing me a copy of this book.


A Prayer for Easter, Week 2 (John 20:24-28)

Resurrection changed everything
    but one week later we sit in the house,
    frightened with the door shut.
Among us is Thomas, famous for doubts
   but he is just the most honest–
   we saw his broken body walk through walls
and felt his hot breath, but here we are.
We didn’t believe. . .not yet, not really.

Jesus came as before and smiled at the honest one.
    Peace be with you!
     Put your finger here. . .
     Reach your hand here
            Stop doubting and believe!

We saw all doubt and reservation melt from honest Tom,
       “My Lord and My God!”

Thank you Jesus that by your resurrection
    You brought hope to the world,
     You broke death and the power of darkness.

We confess that like your disciples,
   we disbelieve the testimony of others,
   we demand proof and have
   reservations about you.
Still you come to us in our woundedness and
    calm the storm raging
in our hearts.

Lead us to deeper faith
   so that in the face of war and destruction,
                                 misogyny and abuse,
                                 racism and systemic poverty,
                                 and countless other injustices that persist.
May we also gaze on You and exclaim,
        “My Lord and God!”

Lust but not Least (an examination of a deadly sin)

Lust is defined as a disordered sexual desire. Certainly desire and attraction, properly ordered is not sin but our culture has gotten this out of whack. You might say Lust is sexual desire, for its own sake, divorced from relationship, a love of sex because of how it makes you feel.

And Lust is certainly everywhere in our culture. We use it to sell cars, web domains, beer and margarine. It is celebrated in movies, television and song. Little boys look at lingerie catalogues and National Geographic (Jane Goodall=Hot). Sex shops and strip clubs spring up in sleepy little communities and there is an ever-growing list of celebrities whose marriages end in some kind of sexual scandal.

It is certainly as prevalent as any of the other sins, but those caught in the clutches of Lust feel particularly isolated. It is easier to admit to gluttony, greed or envy than it is to admit that you are a Lust-monger. Personally I could abstractly tell you that I struggle with Lust (and the rest of the deadly sins) but I am reluctant to share the exact shape this struggle takes in my own life (I do have people I do talk to about this, just not the entire world wide web). What is it about this sin that isolates us in a sense of shame?

The strange flip-side is that we tell ourselves that our Lust doesn’t hurt anyone else. We say, “I’m only looking, I haven’t done anything.” But as we have seen with the other sins, internal thoughts and habits of mind will manifest themselves in our everyday lives. When we entertain private lustful thoughts, we withdraw from the hard word of relationship; when we objectify others this manifests itself in injustice towards them. One of the places where the damage of Lust is most evident is pornography, so I want to take a moment to explore that. Of course this isn’t the only place that Lust is damaging our society, but it’s worth looking at. The problem that is, not pornography. Pornography is just bad, don’t look at it.

Pornography: A Case Study of the Damage of Lust in Our Culture

According to familysafemedia.com, every second $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography, 28,258 internet users are viewing pornographic material and 372 internet users are typing adult search terms into internet search engines. Seventy percent of American men age 18-34 view pornography once a month. The internet provides few limits to accessing sexually explicit material and little accountability. 25% of all internet searches are related to pornography. In early 2008, Dennis Lohrmann observed that internet searches for “college girl,” “women” or “mature” returned over a billion results on Google. Whereas previous generations have had pornography, its access was limited and society shunned it. With the internet, television and movies, sexually explicit images are universally available. While it is clear that men use pornography much more than women, the use of porn by women has been steadily growing (28% of all people who admit to a ‘sexual addiction’ are women).

The ubiquity of pornography extends into the church. According to one estimate, “sixty-four percent of Christian men struggle with sexual addition or sexual compulsion including, but not limited to, the use of pornography, compulsive masturbation, or other secret sexual activity.” 1 out of 6 Christian married men, use pornography to masturbate and in the year 2000, 33% of clergy have visited a sexually explicit website (I have also read statistics which suggest that use of pornography is greater among Christian’s who subscribe to traditional complementarian beliefs). This is a major problem, particularly when you consider how pornography rewires brains, creates unrealistic expectations and isolates pornography users from relationships and community. There is an interesting blog post exploring this dynamic over at the Good Man Project.

And that is just what porn does to ‘the user.’ The real problem is what porn does to ‘the used.’ Pornography is not victimless. Many of the women of porn have been forced against their will to have sex on film. Even those in porn who say they are not victims bear the scars of the repeated psychological impact of being wanted only for their body and not for their person-hood. When women (and men) are objectified in this way, and a major segment of society habitually takes pleasure in their abuse, we have a cycle of oppression. And ‘the users’ do not restrict their ‘using’ to pornography but it shifts in their attitudes to women (and men) poison all their relationships.

Other Ways Lust is a Problem

Lust drives the sex industry. Why do men pick up prostitutes (and this is overwhelmingly men)? I once heard Michelle Miller of REED (Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity),s a non-profit working with sex-trade workers, once say to a congregation gathered for Sunday worship, “The men who are picking up prostitutes on the downtown Eastside [Vancouver] have baby seats in their backseat and Jesus fish on their bumper.” Evangelicals wax eloquent about family values but Lust has born its strange fruit in our midst (for the record, my only bumper sticker says “Reading is Sexy”). Certainly someone doesn’t just walk out of a Bible study one day and decide to go buy some sex; rather this stems from long cultivated habits of mind.

Freedom from Lust

The good news is that freedom from Lust’s control on your life is possible. This is not freedom from desire, desire is good when properly ordered. We can be free from the wrong expression of desire. There are thousands of ministries, counselors, books, internet filters available for sex addicts to get the help they need. If this is an area of major struggle, reach out for help. If the statistics above tell you anything, they tell you that you are not alone in this struggle. There is a ton of resources out there and I commend them to you.

But I want to commend something more fundamental to the struggle over lust: Relationship.

I once heard someone say, “Relational problems are best worked out in relationship.” Lust is preeminently a relational problem. And so if you want to experience victory and freedom then you need to cultivate good friendships. You need a network of support and care with people who know you and love you, and who you know and love. You need to have a relationship with your spouse or significant other where you are expressing love for them and not just using them. You need to cultivate a friendship with God, where you lay your soul bare before him and share your life with him. We need to move beyond our propensity to ‘use’ and learn how to appropriately give and receive love.

Of course relationships are not easy and to say the answer lies in cultivating healthy, satisfying relationships is not a quick fix. But you only conquer Lust when you get beyond the quick fixes. What is required is commitment, intentionality and vulnerability.
In the end, this is what it means to put on the virtue of Chastity. Rebecca DeYoung says:

Chastity is a positive project, a project of becoming a person with an outlook that allows one to selflessly appreciate good and attractive things–most especially bodies and the pleasures they afford–by keeping those goods ordered to the good of the whole person and his or her vocation to love. Chastity’s fundamental question is not, “How far should I go on a date without crossing some invisible line of ‘sin’?” but rather, “How can my life–my thoughts, my choices, my emotional responses, my conversation, and my behavior–make me a person who is best prepared to give and receive love in relationship with others?” Chastity preserves and protects and paves the way for wholeness in all our relationships, all of the time. To channel and control our sexual desires is to empower ourselves to love. (Glittering Vices, 178)

So what are the things that keep you from real relationship? What are some ways you can reign in the Lust of your flesh and pursue Love more?

May the Lord Jesus free us from the clutches of Lust and set us free to Love him and others

What if the Evangelical Obsession With Sex Keeps us From Admitting Our Sins?

In an election year, like every year, you will here a lot of Evangelicals talking about sex. Recently prominent Evangelicals threw their support behind Rick Santorum. This is probably because of Santorum’s strong opposition to gay marriage, abortion and his integrity in sexual relationships (unlike Newt Gingrich who is on his third marriage). But of course Evangelical obsession with sex goes far beyond the realm of politics. Practically everything Mark Driscoll says about sex goes on the internet and goes viral and books, software and conferences directed at helping Christians have sexual integrity is a huge industry. I bet you are reading this because I’m talking about sex. We like sex, we love to talk about it, we want to have more satisfying sex and we want to be free from sexual sin. And yes, some of this is quite appropriate, though not all.

The Temptation of St. Hilarion
But what if our obsession with sex keeps us from examining other areas of our heart and life where sin has been crouching at the door?

My thoughts on this come to me as I am preparing a Bible Study on Galatians for my church small group. I have been reading through No Other Gospel: 31 Reasons From Galatians Why Justification By Faith Alone is the Only Gospel by Josh Moody. Josh Moody is the pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. Whenever I prep something I check more technical commentaries (for Galatians I always look at Richard Longnecker’s Word Commentary and
Jimmy Dunn’s Black’s New Testament Commentary) but I also want to know how it preaches. This is what Josh Moody provides. For the most part he has solid exegesis (with a Reformed Evangelical bias) which attends to the text, but as a preacher he proclaims and draws out the implications for life. In his exposition of Galatians 1:11-12 (verses that are not about sex) he says this:

The gospel of sexual liberation is a gospel of man that hasn’t worked. Why are our inner cities facing great difficulties? Why do our men cave in to the addiction of lust? Why is there rising risk of abuse? The gospel of sexual liberation is running its course. We are told that the Victorians were too strict and prim with their sexual repression, but now we have the fire of sexuality let out of the fireplace and running rampant through the house and setting ablaze and burning out and destroying people in our society.

This is a fairly typical conservative Evangelical interpretation of where society has run amiss. Sexual freedom leads to the breakdown of marriage which in turn causes all hell to break loose. But really? Sexual liberation is why the inner city faces such difficulties?
Or is it that we as a church have failed to take care of the most vulnerable members of our society?

    Could it be that we talk about sex so that we don’t have to take an honest look at where we as individuals and as a church have been complicit in injustice?

    Have we done our part to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27)?

    Have we cared for the resident aliens (Exodus 22:21) in our land or have we ghettoized them?

    Are we guilty of racism? Are there those in our suburban congregations (like, lets say in Wheaton, Illinois) who engaged in ‘white flight’ leaving the inner-city when minorities moved in? Did we as a church combat housing policies which discriminated against African-Americans and other minorities (essentially creating the ghettos we have today)?

    Are we doing all we can to combat injustice in our neighborhoods and society or are we turning a blind eye?

Does society’s libertine attitudes towards sex contribute to problems in society? Yes. But my problem with naming this as the sole cause of problems in the inner-city is that it doesn’t name our sin. It talks about the sins of those sex-crazed poor folk and not about the sins of an educated, mostly white evangelicalism which has failed to care for the poor.If our obsession with sex causes us to look in judgement on others, maybe we need to also look inward at the ways where our actions (and inaction) have contributed to societies ills.

I am absolutely in favor of sexual purity and fidelity to one’s spouse. Let’s just not end our discussion of sin there.