Review: Surprised by Paradox

surprised by paradox

Surprised by ParadoxJen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: In a world where things are often defined in either-or terms and a quest for certainty, Michel proposes there are many things, beginning with basic biblical realities that are both-and, inviting our continuing curiosity.

Whether it is schism in the church, political divides, or just a good old marital conflict, the parties often have defined things sharply in either-or terms, one way or another. Jen Pollock Michel explains how she began to look for a third way, and to write this book. A family member had been lying to her, repeatedly. She described her dilemma to her counselor.

“…I needed light for groping my way out of this tunnel with two exits: should I suffer lying or sever the relationship?

‘What if there’s a third way?’ she asked gently. Her language sounded like a struck bell, especially because ‘third way’ language was something my spiritual director often used with me. It was as if here was yet another invitation to find a sure-footed way on some undiscovered path–to find and where I had previously imagined only either and or. Here was an invitation to ‘lean not on my own understanding’ and find wisdom in the way of paradox” (pp. 22-23).

She discovered that paradox ran through the pages of scripture, that Christian orthodoxy is full of and, beginning with the incarnation, this idea that the Son of God came to earth, fully God, and also fully human. If paradox is at the heart of the nature of the Lord we trust and follow, might we look for God in the and, rather than insisting on answers to either-or questions. This paradox also suggests that we find the spiritual in the material, the living God in the stuff of everyday life. It also suggests that to conform to God’s ideal for our lives, is to live fully the “one wild and precious life” that is ours, expressing in our own uniqueness, the image of God in our lives.

She goes on to explore three other paradoxes. There is the paradox of the kingdom, which is already here and not fully come, where the least are the greatest, where we both give lavishly and enjoy lavishly what we are given, and where strength takes the form of vulnerability whose crowning hour is the cross. Grace confronts us with other paradoxes. Treasured, yet not for any personal excellency. Finding favor when the wrath we deserved falls upon his favored Son. Michel writes, “We don’t get grace because we change our lives–but our lives are indelibly changed because we get grace. Finally there is lament, the raw, unvarnished plea to God of people in pain that God has not shielded them from, that is a paradoxical kind of faith. It takes God seriously enough to become angry, to speak with blunt honesty rather than pretty pieties when what has happened in one’s life doesn’t square with our understanding of who God is.

Michel is a compelling author, one who can relate the depths of theology to teaching her daughter to drive, and her need for grace. She weaves scripture, teaching of the theological “greats,” contemporary realities, images, and personal stories into a narrative that sings and helps us examine with fresh eyes what we thought we knew down pat, helping us by asking, “did you notice this and this?”

A friend once observed that when we try to get rid of the tensions in our faith, or our lives by getting rid of one side of the tension to focus on the other, we make life simpler, but also smaller and more confined. Jen Pollock Michel invites us to live with paradoxes, and to celebrate the ands of God. She proposes that this opens us up to mystery, to surprise, and to the depth of the riches of knowing our God and what it means to live in the and of his purposes, to experience how grace transforms our work, and how our laments in all their perplexity may be among the most robust acts of faith. What might this “third way” mean as Christians are present to a world mired in “either-or?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Don’t Knock the Hustle

Don't knock the hustle

Don’t Knock the HustleS. Craig Watkins. Boston: Beacon Press, 2019.

Summary: An investigation of the ways young entrepreneurs are combining tech savvy, hard work, and social capital to create the careers, with a special focus on the inclusion of under-represented populations in tech fields including women and people of color.

S. Craig Watkins uses the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives, beating a supposedly unbeatable party insider in the primary election, to illustrate the basic premise of this book. Many younger millenials are using unconventional methods to build their own careers, often on a shoestring using readily available digital technologies, hard work (“hustle”), and social capital–one’s real and virtual network of friends and sympathizers, including the communities of fellow entrepreneurs who help each other

Watkins lead off case study of Ocasio-Cortez sets a pattern for the book, where a particular tech entrepreneur illustrates some aspect of this “hustle” economy. For example, he profiles Prince Harvey, a rapper, who records his first album in an Apple store turning retail space into a studio.

For many, from rappers to game developers, what happens is they seek out cheap warehouse spaces, or at their best, accelerators, that become coworking spaces where resources like printers, wi-fi, phones and furniture are shared, as are ideas in what Watkins calls a “perpetual hackathon.” Some become innovation hubs like Juegos Rancheros, a hub for indie game developers. Other young creatives learn everything they need to innovate in a just-in-time fashion on the internet.

At some point, start-ups, even “side hustles” supported by day jobs, need capital to ramp up. Accelerators can help with connections with investor “angels,” but just as often, these creatives use crowd-sourced funding methods to secure financial capital.

The music industry is a big place for young creatives who have developed alternative models of making and distributing music. Watkins profiles the development of SoundCloud and how it has been adopted by creative podcasters, hip-hop artists, and audio producers. What SoundCloud has been to music, YouTube has been to video, launching the career of Issa Rae, whose videos of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl provided an a young black woman who the traditional video media industry would not give a second look. Justin Simien used Twitter to launch Dear White People.

The latter part of the book focuses on the inclusion in this creative economy of the under-represented: women and people of color. He describes the idea of Debbie Sterling that girls needed opportunities to build things with construction toys, and came up with a side hustle called GoldieBlox. He introduces us to Kimberly Bryant who created a nonprofit called Black Girls Code. He narrates the work of Qeyno Group, a group formed to foster design thinking and hackathons among underserved populations in Oakland. He chronicles the street activism and civic engagement that arose among young creatives following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson including Mapping Police Violence, the first comprehensive database of police-involved shootings, and the development of the Wiki-based Resistance Manual.

He concludes the book in Detroit, discussing how the new creative economy holds promise for the re-building of a rust-belt city. The challenge is moving the creative economy out of the downtown areas into the more ethnically diverse neighborhoods. One answer is Ponyride, combining a high commitment to diversity with a high commitment to education in bringing together young creatives.

This is an inspiring book. While it might be asked how many of these entrepreneurial efforts will be around in a decade, this could be applied to the efforts of previous generations. If anything, the “fail fast” and then build it better attitude suggests a far more resilient approach than the one that believed in jobs that would always be there, even passed along from parents to children. The narrative of innovation not dependent on large amounts of financial capital, but on social capital and ingenuity takes us back to an earlier time, as well as into a new era. I’m also struck by the leveraging of different forms of digital technology and online resources. Part of the “creative” is seeing how innovators combine and adapt technologies not built for what they are trying to do, ending up both changing the technology and creating new products.

I realize that at least part of the pushback against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is ideologically and politically motivated. But I can’t help but wonder if part is that secretly, people are scared by the way she combined social capital, tech savvy, and just plain hustle and changed the rules of a game that other politicians thought they knew how to play. This book suggests that the rules are being re-written by young creatives in a variety of fields. Perhaps it is time to stop knocking the hustle and realize that this may be a new way of getting things done.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this advanced review copy from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Books I’ll Be Reviewing This Summer

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Recent weeks have brought a pile of new books for review that hold the promise for many hours of rich reading. That’s in addition to other books I am reading “just because.” I thought I’d give you a preview, just in case you see something you are interested in and don’t want to wait for the review. Let me take you on a quick tour down the pile.

religion in the university

Religion in the University, Nicholas Wolterstorff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. Wolterstorff, whose wonderful memoir I recently reviewed, argues that religion indeed does have a place in the modern university.

the reluctant witness

The Reluctant Witness, Don Everts. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019. The promotional copy for this book proposes: “As society has changed, it seems we have become more uncomfortable talking with people about our faith. We are reluctant conversationalists. The reality is that many of our churches and communities are shrinking instead of growing. What can we do about this?” The book draws on research from Barna and The Lutheran Hour.

priscilla

Priscilla, Ben Witherington III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. This is a study of a fascinating minor but significant character in the book of Acts, Priscilla, often named before her husband, an instructor of Apollos, and a co-worker with Paul. What can we learn from this important New Testament woman?

boundaries for your soul

Boundaries for Your Soul, Allison Cook and Kimberly Miller. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018. Often emotions of shame, guilt, anger, sadness, and fear end up overwhelming us. These two counselors share ways we can gain control and turn these emotions to good ends.

stones and stories

Stones and Stories, Judith E. Anderson. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2019. This slim volume explores the inescapable reality that we are interpreters of stories, whether in literature or scripture. The book, written for use in high schools, explores basic principles of how we exercise interpretive judgment.

jean vanier

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, Anne-Sophie Constant. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019. Constant describes the story of Vanier, recently deceased, and his life of living with the intellectually disabled, that not only changed how we look at the disabled but that changed Vanier, making him a “free man.”

A Liberated Mind

A Liberated Mind, Steven C. Hayes. New York: Avery, 2019. The promotional copy for this book states: “Life is not a problem to be solved. ACT [Acceptance and Commitment Therapy] shows how we can live full and meaningful lives by embracing our vulnerability and turning toward what hurts.”

the reformation and the irrepressible word of god

The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God, edited by Scott Manetsch. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. The Reformers believed in the “living and active” Word of God, powerful to transform lives, and able to provide norms of belief and behavior for the life of the church. This collection of essays explores that belief and how this is no less true 500 years later.

campus life

Campus Life: In Search of Community, edited by Drew Moser and Todd C. Ream. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. This is an expanded and updated edition of a 1990 study by Ernest Boyer for the Carnegie Foundation, particularly exploring the contribution of Christian higher education to the practice of community and offering recommendations for higher education leaders.

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality, Gary S. Selby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. A work that explores the earthy spirituality of C.S. Lewis–that our spiritual life is found not in withdrawal from the physicality of life but a transforming engagement with it.

the dearly beloved

The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019. A story tracing the love and friendship and challenges of two couples over several decades, brought together by their care for a church in Greenwich Village.

balm in gilead

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Robinson and Keith L. Johnson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. In 2018, a group of theologians convened to dialogue about the work of novelist and essayist, Marilynne Robinson, known for the rich theological content of her work. Robinson was present and is a contributor of one of the chapters in this book.

the soul of an american president

The Soul of an American President, Alan Sears and Craig Osten with Ryan Cole. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019. A study of the faith of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the only president actually baptized in office.

the church of us vs them

The Church of Us vs. Them, David E. Fitch. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019. An investigation of why so many of our churches have become embroiled in the vitriol of our culture and the patterns and practices needed to be the presence of Christ in the world.

Well, that’s the pile top to bottom. Just skimming the descriptions and summarizing them whets my appetite to read them all. How about you? Anything here that you might want to pick up this summer? If you do, let’s compare notes.

Review: The Power of Christian Contentment

the power of Christian contentment

The Power of Christian ContentmentAndrew M. Davis. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary:  A biblical study of Christian contentment, exploring in what it consists, how it may be found and learned, the great value of contentment, and how contentment is sustained in one’s life.

It seems that a characteristic of the modern condition is restlessness–a relentless dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances. More is better, or in the words of a cell phone carrier’s ad a few years ago, bigger is better. We never have “enough.”

Contentment seems like a strange idea and yet for generations of Christians, one of the marks of the depth of one’s relationship with Christ was contentment. In 1643, a Puritan pastor, Jeremiah Burroughs penned what became a Puritan classic, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. In this book, Andrew M. Davis draws upon both scripture and this classic in a contemporary exploration of this classic Christian quality.

After reflecting on our contemporary discontents and the profound contentment that the apostle found in Christ, a contentment that brought him strength in weakness, Davis reminds us that contentment is commanded (Hebrews 13:5) and draws upon Burroughs for a definition of contentment:

“Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”

He parses out this definition word by word, noting the mindset, and our submission to God’s decisions. He then proceeds to show how contentment is rooted in a trust in the providence of God. He describes the “mysterious mindset” of contentment that is both completely satisfied in the world while completely dissatisfied with it, a paradoxical mindset that can embrace suffering with joy. In our quest to find and learn contentment, he directs us to the teaching of Jesus: his example, God-centeredness, atonement, resurrection, the access he has won for us, his presence, his demands,, the worth of the kingdom, and the defeat of our fear and anxiety.

Contentment is of great value. It fits us to worship more excellently, is central to all the fruit of the Spirit, prepares us to receive grace, prepares us to serve, enables us to resist temptation and comforts us with our unseen hope. By contrast (and this was a challenging chapter), Davis explores the evil and excuses of a complaining heart. The excuses are particularly convicting: “I’m just venting”; “God has abandoned me”; “You don’t know…”; “I never expected this”; “You’ve never experienced what I’m going through”; “I don’t deserve this”; and “I admit I’m complaining…but I can’t help myself.”

He explores the contours of contentment in suffering and how we find contentment in suffering by asking for wisdom, resting in God’s goodness, expecting suffering, acknowledging our limited perspective, accepting that suffering can sanctify, anticipating our eternal glory, and sharing hope. He then shares a Puritan example, Sarah Edwards, and two contemporary ones. In the following chapter, he discusses what may be even more difficult, to be content in seasons of prosperity. He challenges our lack of generosity without calling us to asceticism, but rather commending the enjoyment of goods and knowing when to say “enough” and to realize the fleeting nature of wealth.

His final section is devoted to staying content. He draws an important distinction between contentment and complacency. Contentment can be zealous for God’s kingdom and is not complacent about hell. The last chapter talks about very practical practices to protect our contentment.

What is striking to me in all this is that contentment is not attained by a passive “chilling out” but by the active pursuit of Christ and the active forsaking of things that undermine our contentment. Contentment is not about having all the conditions of our lives just right. Paul is content in any and all circumstances because he “can do all things through Christ.” Contentment is far from settling for less. It is realizing that in Christ, we already have everything that matters, something that makes us bold and passionate for the things of God, because we have nothing either to fear or lose.

This is so different from all the positive thinking, best-life-now books on the market. These feed on discontentment rather than lead us to true contentment. My biggest beef with them is that their vision is too small. Davis offers us the expansive vision of a provident God who meets us in both plenty and want, offering us the sufficiency of the work of Christ, and our ultimate hope of glory. As Burroughs says, this is the jewel, worth exchanging everything else to obtain.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Living Gently in a Violent World

Living Gently

Living Gently in a Violent WorldStanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Essays by the two authors reflecting on the practice of gentleness in the L’Arche communities where assistants and the disabled live in community, and the theological and political significance of this witness in a violent world.

Stanley Hauerwas has been named “America’s best theologian” by Time magazine, known for his advocacy that the church embody its social ethic, that it be itself, in its communal life, and for his critique of liberal democracy, capitalism, and militarism, and the church’s often unthinking endorsement and adoption of these ideologies. Jean Vanier, deceased in 2019, was the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities where helpers and the disabled live and share life together in “houses” or communities. Until 2006, they had never met, although Hauerwas had commended the work of L’Arche. They were invited to a conference by the Center for Spirituality, Health, and Disability at the University of Aberdeen, where they spent two days conversing and speaking. This book, recently reissued in an expanded edition with study guide, reflects those conversations.

Other than introductory and concluding essays by John Swinton, this book consists of  four alternating essays by Vanier and Hauerwas. The first, by Vanier is a narrative of the beginnings and development of L’Arche. Drawn by the work of Father Thomas Philippe with the disabled in France, he moved there, began to live with two disabled men who had been institutionalized, and soon found himself leading the community. He describes L’Arche as fragile, subject to government regulations and the question of whether people will always choose to live with them. He also describes L’Arche as a place of transformation, both for assistants and the disabled, transformations that reflect the mystery of the Spirit’s work. He describes three crucial activities in their community, all requiring gentleness and patience: meals together, prayer and communion, and celebration of everything from birthdays and holidays to deaths of members. The message in all of this is, “You are a gift. You’re a gift to the community.”

Hauerwas responds by discussing how L’Arche is a “modest proposal” in a violent world that is a witness to the church of its call to gentleness and non-violence. It is a witness of care for those who cannot be cured, of patience in a particular place. For this reason, Hauerwas also believes that L’Arche needs the church as a reminder that they need to worship with the larger body that is not L’Arche. It is not only as a witness to the church, amplified through the church, but also support and sustenance from the church that makes its life possible.

Vanier then writes of L’Arche as a place that in a small way addresses the woundedness of the world by recognizing in weakness and wounds a way to God. He speaks of the connection of fear and violence, and the power of surrendering our fears to love–the love of God and the present love of the community, both the abled and the disabled. Grieving the sentiment that would abort all those with Down syndrome and the message that leaves the disabled feeling, “I am no good” Vanier writes:

“The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, ‘I am glad you exist.’ And the proof that we are glad that they exist is that we stay with them for a long time. We are together, we can have fun together. ‘I am glad you exist’ is translated into physical presence” (p. 69).

Hauerwas’s concluding essay explores the politics of gentleness in an extended engagement with the thought of John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum, both who labored to articulate a rationale for the rights of the disabled to help. He summarizes how L’Arche went beyond this:

“Nussbaum wants to give Jean justifications for helping the disabled. What she can’t do is give him a reason to live with them. But that is exactly what Jean says he needed. He had to be taught how to be gentle. It is not easy to learn to be gentle with the mentally disabled. As Jean has already said, they also suffer from the wound of loneliness. They can ask for too much. Which means gentleness requires the slow and patient work necessary to create trust. Crucial for the development of trust is that assistants in L’Arche discover the darkness, brokenness, and selfishness shaped by their own loneliness…. According to Jean, through the struggle to discover we are wounded like the mentally disabled, we discover how much ‘we need Jesus and his Paraclete…” (p. 90).

There is a gentleness that flows out of this awareness before God of our mutual weakness, exemplified in the practice of mutually washing one another’s feet, transformative to assistants and disabled alike, that is a witness in a violent world.

This slim volume is an extraordinary testament, a witness as it were, to the power of gentleness that flows from weakness, both in its description of the quiet wonder taking place within L’Arche, and the record of the conversation between Vanier and Hauerwas, as they opened minds and hearts to each other to explore the significance of the “modest proposal” that is L’Arche in an impatient and violent world.

Review: There There

there there

There ThereTommy Orange. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Summary: The narratives of twelve “Urban Indians” making their way with various motivations to a powwow in Oakland.

Tommy Orange has done for “Urban Indians” what Sherman Alexie has done for those on the reservations. In There There, he captures in the stories of twelve people a cumulative narrative of the quest for identity of Native Americans living in cities. They are people who in various ways are trying to figure out what it means, beyond ancestry and heritage to live as Native Americans in urban America.

In both Prologue  and Interlude, Orange discusses the dispossession of Native peoples from their lands, the struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, the challenges to discover one’s identity and the significance of powwows like the Big Oakland Powwow.

The book is structured around the stories of twelve people whose lives are connected who will end up at the Big Oakland Powwow. The book opens with Tony Loneman, “the ‘Drome” representing his birth with fetal alcohol syndrome. He deal drugs with Octavio, along with Charles who is owed money by his brother Calvin. These four hatch a plot to steal the prize money at the powwow, using 3-D printed guns to elude metal detectors. Others come for different reasons. Dene Oxendene is there to set up a story booth to capture the stories of his people. Thomas Frank is a former custodian at the Indian Center and a drummer at the powwow. Edwin Black is a bi-racial young man who lives on the internet who discovers his father is Harvey by accessing his mother Karen’s social media and takes an internship at the Indian Center, coordinating the powwow. Karen’s boyfriend, Bill Davis, a Vietnam veteran, works cleaning up trash at the stadium where the powwow will be held, having held a series of jobs after a prison term in San Quentin. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield cares for three of her half-sister Jacquie Redfeather’s grandchildren including Orvil who discovers Indian regalia packed away in a closet and wants to dance at the powwow. Jacquie, living on the edge of substance abuse, works as a substance abuse counselor. Jacquie and Opal were part of the Alcatraz occupation in 1970, where Jacquie had sex forced on her by the same Harvey, resulting in a daughter who she adopted out. That daughter happens to be Blue, the head of the powwow committee. In a weird turn of events Harvey and Jacquie encounter each other at a substance abuse conference and an AA meeting, and end up traveling together to the powwow.

The narrative moves back and forth between these characters who represent the conflicting currents of Urban Indian identity, from the criminal to those devoted to the cause, or to people they love. The book is organized around four parts: Remain-Reclaim-Return-Powwow, terms that reflect both movement toward the climactic powwow with the threat of violence, and the struggle to reverse the effects of dispossession.

The title comes from a Gertrude Stein reference to Oakland — “There is no there there.” Orange writes:

“The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over America, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

The book retraces the struggle to recover a sense of identity and community, and some kind of way of life when there is no “there there.” For the most part, it seems the women fare better at this in the book. Even though Jacquie, Opal, and Blue bear the wounds of their heritage and upbringing, they are the ones caring for others, offering stability and direction to a next generation. Only Bill Davis seems to have clawed his way to some settled identity while the other men are either groping, or descending into criminality.

This is not a “feel good” book. But perhaps those of us who are the descendants of the disposessors need to understand the trauma that has worked its way down the generations. What is evident in a number of the stories is a perhaps inchoate sense that there is something valuable “there” in one’s native heritage that must not be given up on but striven for, perhaps in the shared telling of stories that both Dene Oxendene’s storybooth and this book represents.

Review: Live the Questions

Live the Questions

Live the Questions, Jeffrey F. Keuss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that a deep and satisfying life is closely related to the questions we ask, how we pursue them, and to whom they lead us.

It is sometimes thought that Christians are those who have found answers, perhaps the answer and that strong faith is characterized by a sense of certainty. To have questions, or even worse, doubts, is thought to reflect a lack of faith, or to be on the road to leaving one’s faith behind. We often err in one of two ways: we either anesthetize ourselves to the questions, or we take shortcuts, accepting textbook answers without facing what the questions expose about us, and about the ultimate we seek beyond the questions.

Jeffrey F. Keuss believes that the questions we ask may be more important than the answers we think we have found. He writes, “I hope you find that to be human is to ask more and more questions, and that deep meaning is found in the journey and pursuit of where and to whom those questions will bring us.” He proposes that we live the questions rather than just ask for the answers.

Keuss takes us a step further. He proposes not only that we live our questions but to consider the questions that fill the pages of scripture and that shape and form the lives of those who people its pages. He explores eight such questions:

  1. Where are you? (with Adam and Eve)
  2. Am I my brother’s keeper? (Cain)
  3. How will I know ? (Abraham)
  4. Who am I? (with Moses at the burning bush)
  5. Why this burden? (Moses, under the burdens of leadership)
  6. How can I just vanish in darkness? (Job)
  7. How can I be born after growing old? (Nicodemus)
  8. Where can I get that living water? (the Samaritan woman)

We are faced with how we will respond to the God who pursues those who are estranged from Him. We encounter the irony of a God whose mark on Cain makes God the keeper of a brother who murdered. We discover a God whose answer to Abraham is to take him out of his tent to the stars in the heavens, a God who delights in Abraham’s probing honesty, and whose answer is far more than Abraham could dream asleep in his tent.

In each chapter, Keuss probes the question asked, whether by God or people and how these questions brought these people into deeper contact both with their own humanity and the living God. Along the ways he references everything from Kierkegaard to Steve Martin.

Perhaps one of the most moving stories he relates is from his time as a young minister in Glasgow, visiting a comatose, unresponsive patient with whom he read scripture, prayed and spent thirty minutes just being there, doing all he was supposed to do, and feeling utterly futile. Later he receives a small bequest from the family that he is ashamed to use, until a colleague counsels, “This check isn’t about you, Jeff….This is about paying it forward beyond you. For some reason what you did was more than you or your intentions, so you need to honor that somehow in his name.” And he did by buying a pair of black Dr. Martens boots that he wore wherever he ministered “reminding [him] to have faith, to show up, and be ready for the unexpected.”

Keuss invites us in this book to listen to our questions, and the questions of the scriptures. He urges us that a healthy process takes us into relationships, and not isolation, and that questions and a life of faith and worship in community need not be at odds. He invites us not merely to discuss questions but to live in them, to walk in them, and rather than simply looking for answers, to allow the questions to take us deeper into the mystery and wonder of God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table (Hercule Poirot #15), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011 (originally published 1936).

Summary: Mr. Shaitana, who throws great parties, but seems to be feared by many, throws a party for the entertainment of Poirot, with four guests who he claims have gotten away with murder, and ends up murdered himself, but with no clue as to who the murderer was.

Mr. Shaitana was an enticing host of great dinner parties. Yet people feared him. “Mephistophelian” is a word that describes him,  after the elegant demon who deceived Faust. A seemingly chance meeting with Hercule Poirot leads to a boast of knowing murderers who had gotten away with their crimes and what proves an unwise idea of hosting a party at which Poirot, Scotland Yard Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist are invited to join four guests presumably guilty of murder. The four other guests are Dr. Roberts, daring in bridge and perhaps in life, Mrs. Lorrimer, an intelligent and proper widow, Major Despard, an adventurer, and young and seemingly vulnerable Anne Meredith.

After dinner the four guests adjourn to play bridge. The four sleuths play in one room. The four “murderers” play in the other. Shaitana joins them by the fire. At the conclusion of play Shaitana appears asleep, but has been stabbed in the heart with a sharp implement from his collection. No one but the four bridge players, the four who had gotten away with murderer had been in the room. None says they saw anything amiss.

And so begins the sleuthing. Interviews with each of the guests. An investigation to learn if they could have committed a previous murder they would cover up. Battle, shrewd but stolid pursue conventional police methods. Race pursues inquiries on Major Despard. Mrs. Oliver focuses on young Anne and her roommate Rhoda Dawes. Poirot focuses on the bridge scores and what each remembers of the play, and the details of the room. Each has been connected with a murder. Things get more exciting yet with one more murder and another murder attempt. When we think the murderer of Shaitana is arrested, there is one more twist before the real murderer is exposed. In the end, the scores and play at bridge yield the critical clue.

Many consider this among Christie’s best novels. She pokes fun at herself in the character of novelist Ariadne Oliver.

” ‘I can always think of things,’ said Mrs. Oliver happily. ‘What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve written only thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then, I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.’ “

It is enjoyable to see the character and interactions of the sleuths, the subtlety of the clues, and the surprise at the end when we think we have the murderer, caught in the act of attempted murder. This is a great summer read, or for any time one needs an engaging diversion.

Review: Saved By Grace Alone

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Saved By Grace Alone: Sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2018.

Summary: Fourteen sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36, demonstrating from this text that salvation is by grace alone, due to our inability because of sin, and God’s loving initiative for his glory and our salvation.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a Welsh preacher who succeeded G. Campbell Morgan as pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. His ministry at Westminster began in 1939 and concluded because of health reasons in 1968. For a time he was president of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in the UK. His ministry was marked by consecutive exposition of different portions of scripture, combining careful exegesis of the text, treatment of the broader theological implications of the passage, and personal applicative appeals to his listeners. One series on Romans was published in fourteen volumes. In the case of this book, he takes fourteen sermons, preached over three months, to cover twenty-one verses in Ezekiel.

If that seems daunting, you are in for a surprise if you read this book. Lloyd-Jones preaches for the lay person and not the academic. Here is an example from one of the early chapters, on the Bible:

“This book is not a human book, it is not man’s ideas. It is the word of the Lord. Ezekiel had not been spending weeks and months in study, trying to understand the situation, and at last felt that he had discovered it and went to address the people; not at all. While he was sitting in helplessness and hopelessness with his fellow countrymen, the word of the Lord came to him. And that is still the only hope for our world. The word that comes to the world today is precisely this old word. Here is a perfect summary of the gospel” (p. 18).

The gospel in fact is the theme of this series of sermons, each on a verse or two from Ezekiel 36. As the title indicates, Lloyd-George is contending that this passage teaches us about God’s saving work, and that it is by grace alone. Following the passage, he traces Israel’s rebellion, their folly, and inability of themselves to live up to God’s standards. That is why Ezekiel is writing to exiles in Babylon. Exile reflects his just judgment on their sin, and there is nothing they can do to escape it or make up for their wrong. Yet God does not stop there. This would only be bad news, not gospel. Although they profaned God’s name among the nations, God will vindicate his name by restoring them, separating them unto holiness, bringing them back to Canaan, cleansing them from sin, giving them hearts able to obey, a new Spirit within them, a salvation that touches every aspect of their existence.

In each sermon, Lloyd-Jones moves from what salvation meant for the people of Israel to the parallel of what salvation means in the New Testament, accomplished through the work of Christ, confronting us with and cleansing us from sin, restoring us to life in Christ, reclaiming and going beyond what was lost in Eden. While showing the damage of human rebellion against God upon every dimension of life, and life’s futility under this regime, Lloyd-George repeatedly goes on to explore all the ways God in his grace meets us to liberate us from its hold, bringing forgiveness, and the indwelling Spirit, and an expanded vision of the purposes of God in us.

He also addresses his hearers (and readers), coming back again and again to commend the grace of God in Christ as our only hope. The sermons are wonderful examples of calling people to faith. Here is one example:

“Can you say, ‘My God?’ Do you know him personally? That is what Christ came to give you: not only forgiveness, not only new understanding, not only cleansing and holiness, but all that in order that we might be enabled to go into the holiest of all with full assurance of faith and know that we will always be there. Have you got that? Are you in that position? That is Christianity. That is the ultimate of it; the acme, the glory of it. He gave himself for us that he might bring us to God” (p. 147).

These sermons are not only valuable for exploring this passage in Ezekiel, and its gospel implications and as a model of appealing to someone to come to faith. They also preach the gospel to those of us who have believed. My heart was warmed by these truths afresh in reading Lloyd-Jones, even though I first believed them as a child. I can never get beyond but only go deeper into all that it means to be saved by grace alone through Christ alone. This book was a valuable aid in that journey.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ TalksC. Christopher Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of how substantive conversation can be central to the growth and transformation of our churches and the people who are part of them, the ground rules and spiritual practices that enable such conversation, and how conversation might be sustained as conflict arises.

C. Christopher Smith believes that one of the reasons many of our churches are struggling and many people are heading for the exits has to do with the lack of the capacity for substantive conversation about things that really matter. Just as our physical bodies are an ongoing conversation between our various members, so our social bodies, including churches, require ongoing and deeply connected conversations for both individuals and our collective bodies to thrive. Yet we live in a society where people have lost the capacity to talk about any serious matter where they might differ and we have become isolated in echo chambers of those who think like us. Sadly, conversation in the church often is little more than polite chit-chat about sports or recipes, or where we are going out to eat afterward. This happens in a body that is an earthly echo of the mutuality and conversation of the Triune God who is “God with us.”

Smith and his church have been practicing substantive conversations about ideas and practices that deeply matter in their congregation for over a decade. It was messy at times. People became angry. Some left. They learned how to set up ground rules to enable the speaking of truth in love. They developed practices to prepare for those conversations. They learned how to address conflict that can threaten to shut down conversation. This book is the distillation of that experience.

He begins by treating the subject of conversational dynamics, dealing with questions of group size, formal and informal conversation, how often a group meets, who facilitates and how to foster coherent conversations. He explores what to talk about, and not talk about, particularly when a group is learning conversation. He highlights three methods that have been developed to facilitate conversation: Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Café, giving brief explanations of each method and providing additional resources in an appendix.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of the book is the section on “Spirituality for the Journey.” Smith focuses on prayer as a means of being attentive to God first and throughout, including Quaker practices of silent, listening prayer. He helps us see the connection between the messiness of real life and our honesty about that, and the messiness of our conversations. Good sustained conversations have a high capacity for messiness. Finally he speaks of how we might prepare ourselves heart, mind, and body for conversation.

Conversation is critical in remembering and telling our story and discerning its next chapter. Often understanding our history and identity helps us discern how we might proceed on questions of how we might pursue our mission. The toughest season of conversation is conflict, which Smith believes is inevitable and can be healthy. Using the analogy of broken bones, he talks about acknowledging our fractures, aligning the fractured parts (our “like heartedness in Christ”), and supporting and healing the fractures.

His final chapter fuses the idea of conversation and dance and the picture of being drawn into the dancing conversation of the Triune God. His conclusion focuses on his church, Englewood Christian Church, and how conversation has eventuated in action creating a vibrant set of community ministries in the Englewood, and a church community that is integrally a part of the community in which it is situated.

The book includes numerous examples from different churches, including an appendix of examples of conversational ground rules different churches have set, and the governing principles at which a church arrived out of extended conversations on how to relate to LGBTQ+ persons joining their community in a denomination with traditional convictions.

Smith dares us to believe that the church could be the place where we recover the art of serious conversation, the kind that has the capacity to cultivate respect among people who differ, to live with messiness that defies neat resolutions, and to persist to the shared understanding that enables people to act creatively and missionally in their context. He shows how it has taken shape in real congregations, which makes it the most valuable sort of guidebook, one born out of years of trial and error and learning.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.