Review: Finding Your Yes

Finding Your Yes, Christine E. Wagoner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: An exploration of what it means to listen for God’s invitations and say “yes” to them.

One of the questions I often dealt with in student ministry was how one knows God’s will. Christine Wagoner, in Finding Your Yes, suggests that one of the key aspects of this is listening for God’s invitations, and that implies that God is even more interested in guiding us, at times, than we are to be guided.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is “Getting to Yes.” She begins by confessing that “yes” has often begun with “no.” She illustrates this with the story of how she kept saying “no” to writing as well as to teaching a woman’s group in her church and how Jesus pursued her until she said “yes.” She discusses all the “not me” obstacles we erect to those invitations, and how Jesus can shift our perspective, as he did with the woman at the well. She addresses the places of inner resistance, particularly our fear of failure. She tells stories of people who began with small “yesses” and how these led into bigger things. And she discusses how we grow in our yes through partnership and debriefing.

The second part is “Staying with your Yes.” Yes doesn’t automatically lead to a promised land of fruitful life. Sometimes “yes” involves waiting, as it did for Abraham, or recalibrating, when a reality we’ve said “yes” to, like motherhood, is not being fulfilled. Sometimes we say “yes” and life seems to fall apart. Were we mistaken? Sometimes “yes” takes us to a place of pain. Some of this is complicated by lies of the enemy: “this will destroy you”, “if, as a woman, you keep growing as a leader, you will never get married.” She talks about how we sometimes say “no” without exploring the possibility of yes and sometimes have a “no” concealed in our “yes.” I did find myself wondering in this chapter about discerning when God is inviting us to say “no” in order to say “yes.” Finally, she concludes with the joy of a life of saying “yes” again and again.

Wagoner shares a lot of her own experiences of God’s little and bigger invitations, her struggles to find her way to “yes” and then to live into those “yesses.” She writes as a woman leader, single until approaching forty. Her story may help other women who struggle with what saying “yes” to God may mean in terms of marriage and family, and where the use of one’s gifts defy traditional gender role expectations. But the basic message of the book speaks to men as well as women. God’s invitations come to all of us, and we all find ways to try to deflect them, or struggle within ourselves to say “yes.”

As we approach the new year, this book may be helpful as we consider what God may be inviting us to say “yes” to in the coming year. The questions at the end of each chapter are great to talk over with a trusted friend. As Wagoner reminds us, we often grow into and through our “yesses” with partners on the journey. Wagoner’s book can also be a partner in the journey of finding your yes.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Power Women

Power Women, Edited by Nancy Wang Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil, Foreword by Shirley Hoogstra. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Fourteen women who are both mothers and academics write about how they navigate these callings as women of faith.

Women in the academic world face a unique challenge. The biological clock and the tenure clock are synchronized. The critical years for child-bearing and for career advancement coincide. One’s faith community and cultural background further complicates this challenge with sometimes conflicting values around parenting and career advancement. Many women choose one over the other. Others, like the women in this volume, believe both callings to be important for them, and write about the ways they have cared for their families and continued to pursue their academic callings. Through all of this runs an underlying theme of continue to nourish their own souls and to practice good self-care.

The contributions are organized into four parts: navigating academia, navigating motherhood, navigating multiple callings, and navigating support. In the first part Maria Su Wang describes how she carves out time for research with young children, sharing some of the scriptural reflections that have shaped her choices. Stephanie Chan offered a unique perspective on the synergy of parenting and work (lullaby and syllabi) and how each may enrich the other. Teri Clemons talks about the misperceptions that exist about maternity leave and its importance, including how much time bonding with a child and recovery can take. She urges women (and men) to avail themselves of all the leave institutional and state policies allow. Yiesha L. Thompson closes out the section discussing the unique situation of adjunct professor moms. the special pressures and choices they must make, and ways administrators may offer appropriate support. .

The second section on navigating motherhood begins by asking just what is meant by being a “good” mother. Christine Lee Kim discusses the mixed messages mothers must negotiate and identifies good questions to identify those messages and describes her own process of working through these. Ji Y. Son identifies the double whammy working moms face of being disadvantaged both at work and home and suggests a recategorization that gives women grace by considering herself a “female dad.” Jean Neely describes her struggle with the imposter syndrome and how thinking of God as loving mother as well as father has transformed her spiritual life and how being a mother has deepened those insights.

Part three could be intimidating in its discussion of navigating multiple callings. Jenny Pak describes the juggling acts of the multiple callings of pastor’s wife, mother, and professor. Jennifer McNutt takes it a step further. She is a pastor, professor and mom of three. Yvana Uranga-Hernandez describes taking on homeschooling as a professor mom. For all, these are only possible as they reflect the singular pursuit of Christ and have the support of spouses, extended family, and the wider community.

That sets up the discussions in part four, navigating support. Deshonna Collier-Goubil speaks of her experience as a young widow of assembling a support network. Joy Qualls describes the choice she and her husband made for her to be the primary breadwinner while he managed the household as a stay-at-home dad. Doretha O’Quinn draws on her mentoring expertise to discuss how professor moms may mentor each other and also gets very practical about her own practices of self-care.

The chapters mix personal narrative and academic research. They are honest and practical. Their experiences demonstrate a variety of ways women have approached navigating the callings of mom and professor. While they are amazing in how much they accomplish, worthy of the “power women” label, their stories also reflect the importance of good institutional policies, including leave and tenure policies that do not disadvantage women, and the value of support from spouses, extended family, and a wider community, and lots of grace! This is a valuable work for men to read, to understand how they may be appropriate allies.

The women in this volume represented significant diversity of ethnicity, academic discipline, and life experience. What is missing are women in STEM fields and more women from secular universities (only one contributor is). That said, there is so much wisdom that may be extrapolated into these situations. I’ve worked with many graduate women who wonder whether it is possible to honor God as they pursue both motherhood and academic callings. These narratives offer a resounding “yes” as well as honest and practical models of how that is possible.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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The ministry with which I serve recently hosted a conversation with four of the contributors to this work that may be viewed on YouTube.

Review: Called to Create

Called to create

Called to CreateJordan Raynor. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: A view of creative, entrepreneurial work as a good calling from God, and the challenges and opportunities of pursuing entrepreneurial work for the glory of God.

We celebrate them when they are successful–the Steve Jobs, Elon Musks, and Oprah Winfrey’s of the world. They are risk-taking entrepreneurs whose creativity brings new products to the market, or whose artistic work is of a character of excellence and success that it gains wide notice. The author of this work extends the idea of entrepreneur “to anyone who takes a risk to create something new for the good of others.”  These include tech entrepreneurs, but also small business owners, artists and writers, nonprofit founders, chefs, and many others. The author, himself an entrepreneur, explores whether the pursuit of such work is honoring to God, or somehow “second class” to more “noble” forms of Christian service. Clearly, he believes the former to be true.

The book addresses four “C’s” of Christian entrepreneurship: Calling, Creating, Challenges, and Charge. He integrates biblical principles with the stories of forty men and women entrepreneurs in a variety of fields from J.R.R. Tolkien to the founders of TOMS shoes and In-and Out Burgers. What I appreciated was the combination of rich theological insight (rather than cliche’) and substantive examples.

In the section on “Calling” he begins with God as the first entrepreneur as maker of all things and the source of all creativity. I appreciate that he considers the incarnate Lord as a carpenter who for twenty years revealed God’s creative and entrepreneurial spirit. From this he outlines a theology of work as intrinsically good, and finally discusses how we discern calling as we understand what we are passionate, gifted for, and have the greatest opportunity to love others by doing.

“Creating” begins by looking at why we create–is it to make a name for ourselves as did the tower builders of Babel, or like Bach soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone). Then there is the question of what we create, and here the two factors are products that show something of what God is like and products that love others. It could be children’s stories like those written by Lewis, or the beer brewed by the Guinness family, less alcoholic than gin, and safe to drink. Finally, the question is how we create, and the key here is excellence in product and putting people before profit, which the author found exemplified in his study and interviews with Chick-fil-A personnel.

“Challenges” begins with the relentless pressure entrepreneurs face to hustle and the issues of trust and rest, including sabbath, that are essential for staying focused on their callings. A reality of entrepreneurship is failure, yet often it is hushed up rather than transparently acknowledged and learned from, where it becomes a source of hope and boldness. Finally, he addresses the continual need for mental renewal that he believes comes through communing with God, partners, and others (for example, the Inklings).

The last part was perhaps the most unexpected for me. “Charge” begins with the call of entrepreneurs to make disciples through first loving people and then teaching the word. Perhaps the most moving story was that of Alex Clark, a Chick-fil-A manager who hires Jenny, before discovering she is a felon on probation, but sticks with her and develops her professionally to the point where she manages a store, but also comes to faith, and embraces a calling to do what Alex did with others. He talks about the use of profits– given away, reinvested to grow the business, and invested to help others called to create. He concludes with a chapter that focuses around a shared speaking engagement between Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal) and N. T. Wright that explores the idea of the new heaven and earth, and thinking about our work passing into the eternity of the New Creation.

In my work, I’ve had the chance to interact with entrepreneurs in business, in the world of ideas, and in the arts. Often, I’ve discovered that they have felt that the church looks a bit askance at them, or only views them for what they give to the church in time or money. This book is an encouragement to these people that their work matters to God and the pleasure they take in entrepreneurship may just be the favor of God upon their lives. This is also a book pastors desperately need to read, as it may stretch their imagination about the ways God might call the people who sit under their teaching Sunday by Sunday. Do we see Peter and Andrew simply as the first disciples, or as hard-working self-employed entrepreneurs? Is Lydia just Paul’s host, or an enterprising businesswoman in purple goods? Do we affirm just the hours people put into the ostensible ministries of the church, or recognize the ways they reflect and bring honor to their Creator in their work every day?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Deepening the Colors

Deepening the Colors

Deepening the ColorsSyd Hielema. Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2014.

Summary: An exploration of the question of “what is my place in God’s world?” that proposes that as we live into our calling to pursue God’s kingdom, our vision of our lives and the world grows ever deeper and richer.

In the tradition in which I grew up there was a great emphasis on becoming a Christian, but much less of a focus on what it meant to be a Christian.What is God’s purpose for the world, and how does the way I live my life fit into that? This delightful book by Syd Hielema explores this question and does something more that I have come to see of value. He describes what it looks like to live that life over the course of a lifetime.

He begins by quoting a passage from The Last Battle in which Peter and Lucy and Edmund, and others pass into Aslan’s country. They find that it looks like Narnia, only the colors are deeper and richer, more vivid and real. This metaphor of deepening colors serves as the basis for the title and a way of expressing what happens in our lives as we follow Christ.

It begins with understanding that the Jesus we fall is the king of the new creation, his coming kingdom and that our lives are about pursuing that kingdom through following Him. It is to live as a “called” person as part of a new community as well as a new creation. This means living into our identity as redeemed image bearers of God, a daily putting off of an old self committed to false gods; a daily putting on of a new self that will reflect the glory of the living God. This happens through the practice of “truth-walking” habits, spiritual practices that help us walk more deeply into the richer colors of truth.

As we walk in truth, God’s transforming work shapes every part of our lives–minds, bodies, emotions, actions, aspirations, and relationships. It leads in turn to the growth of wisdom in our lives expressed in being careful observers and listeners, practicing thoughtful and civil discourse with others, thinking critically about what we hear, practicing self-reflection, and not jumping to hasty conclusions. All this ends up in more deeply understanding our calling in the world as those who bear the image of the King, and share in his rule in the world.

Hielema makes a most helpful observation at the end, that it is less that God has this “plan” for our lives that we find or miss. Rather, we are “called” by God, something far more personal that implies an ongoing conversation. He provides helpful principles for discerning this call, this conversation.

All this comes off in a conversational style that shows how deep theological truths bear on understanding the purpose of our lives and how we should live in the light of that. It also is realistic about the lifelong process in which God “deepens the colors” of our lives. It offers hope to those who may wonder if they will ever “catch on” and become the people God has redeemed them to be,.

This is one of those books published by a small, Reformed college press that might easily be overlooked. It was recommended to me by Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Books. I’m glad I picked up this little gem that reminded me of things learned gradually by experience over many years. This book won’t help you understand God’s “plan” for your life, but rather help you begin to understand the ways God calls and toward what ends he calls us that we might be attentive to hear, and follow, and understand.

The Month in Reviews: November 2015

With the colder weather of November, it seems I found time to read a few more books. I began and ended the month around the idea of calling–our calling to care for creation at the beginning of the month, and a more general book on calling at the end. I read a novel on the life of St. Brendan the Navigator, and finished Philip and Carol Zaleski’s monumental work on the Inklings. I explored the history of the “Great Books” movement and a work on the Greek classic philosophers.  I learned about faith-rooted organizing and considered the idea of the pastor as public theologian.

All in all, a good month of reading, and you might find something here that would make a great Christmas gift. So, here is the list with book titles linked to the full review:

Laudato siLaudato Si’, Pope Francis. Vatican City, 2015. Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, advocating an “integral ecology” that links care for the creation with care for the poor, the quality of life in our cities, and a way of life emphasizing spiritual rather than material priorities.

Irresistable CommunityThe Irresistible CommunityBill Donahue. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2015. Looking at the upper room narratives, Donahue explores how Jesus created community through the table, the towel, and the truth.

BrendanBrendan, Frederick Buechner. New York, Harper Collins, 1987, 2000. This is a fictional account of the life of St. Brendan, often known as the Navigator. Buechner traces his life from being taking by St. Erc at one through his early years, the establishment of his leadership in founding Clonfert and in making kings, and most of all his marathon journeys, one lasting seven years.

Preventing SuicidePreventing Suicide, Karen Mason. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. This handbook is written for pastors and other religious counselors, who the author contends can play an important role in preventing suicide. It focuses on how both theology and psychology can contribute to helping those at risk to harm themselves.

AcediaAcedia and Its Discontents, R. J. Snell. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015. This is an exploration of the vice usually known as sloth, which is rather an contempt of all relationships and a destructive embrace of unchecked freedom rather than God and the good work to which God calls us.

The FellowshipThe FellowshipPhilip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015. This traces the literary lives of the four principle Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams) the literary club they formed and its impact on literature, faith, and culture.

When Athens Met JerusalemWhen Athens Met Jerusalem, John Mark Reynolds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. The Christian message advanced in a Greco-Roman World prepared in many ways by both the failure of the Homeric gods and the classic philosophers. This book explores the intellectual antecedents to the gospel in pre-Socratic, Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelian thought, culminating when Jerusalem meets Athens when Paul preaches on Mars Hill.

A Great Idea at the TimeA Great Idea at the TimeAlex Beam. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008. Beam narrates the story of the Great Books movement from its beginnings with John Erskine, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, to the publication of The Great Books by Britannica and rise of Great Books groups, the “core wars” and the remnants of this movement still hanging on today.

Faith Based OrganizingFaith-Rooted Organizing, Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014. Most advocacy and activism efforts have been organized around secular principles. The authors explore what organizing and advocacy work that is deeply and thoroughly rooted in Christian principles would look like and illustrate this from their years of experience.

God and RaceGod and Race in American Politics, Mark A. Noll. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. This text explores the interwoven story of religion, race, and politics in American history, with a concluding theological reflection.

Pastor as Public TheologianThe Pastor as Public Theologian, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. The authors contend that at the heart of the pastoral calling is a vision of doing theology with the people of God, pointing them to what God is doing in and through the Christ, and how they may participate in that work.

CalledCalled, Mark Labberton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Understanding our calling to follow Jesus and seek God’s purposes for the flourishing of the world is key both to a life well-lived and a church that fulfills its mission. This book explores the contours of what it means to live a called life.

Best book of the month: This doesn’t take much thought. The Fellowship was a magnificent treatment of the circle of friends that became known as the Inklings. Along with well-painted portraits of Lewis and Tolkien, we learn more about both Williams and Barfield as well as Warnie, Hugo Dyson and others in this circle.

Best quote of the month: This was from Frederick Buechner’s Brendan from the mouth of his traveling companion, Finn in response to Brendan’s last words “I fear the sentence of the Judge.” Finn, after Brendan passes says:

“I’d sentence him to have mercy on himself. I’d sentence him less to strive for the glory of God than just to let it swell his sails if it can.”

That might be good wisdom for any of us who are our own harshest judges.

In coming weeks you can look for reviews of a book on the intellectual state of American universities, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a collection of apologetic essays in response to the New Atheists, John Frame’s magisterial A History of Western Philosophy and Theology and a re-reading of Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, which I first picked up twenty years ago. I also have a couple of books on sex (!) and Seamus Heaney’s version of Beowulf sitting on my TBR pile. I might also be working a book or two on Youngstown, my home town, into the mix. Stay tuned.

So here’s to a good cup of wassail and some good books!

Review: Called

CalledCalled, Mark Labberton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Understanding our calling to follow Jesus and seek God’s purposes for the flourishing of the world is key both to a life well-lived and a church that fulfills its mission. This book explores the contours of what it means to live a called life.

Mark Labberton has a vision of a church filled with people living out in daily life the call to follow Jesus and seek the flourishing of God’s purposes in God’s world. He sees the lack of the fulfillment of that vision expressed in lost churches that are self-absorbed, silo-ed, oppressive, invisible and often the bearers of bad news or no news. This lack is all the more urgent because he sees this church in the midst of a lost world characterized by free-floating values, disconnectedness from real community, consumeristic, and fearful–a place where the church which knows its calling could make a difference.

Having outlined the need, Labberton then charts the path. It begins by returning to the “first thing” of following Jesus. When Jesus called people, his call was “follow me.” Following means re-locating from the Promised Land of the American Dream to those who understand themselves to be exiles in Babylon. It means re-orienting by taking a hard look at how one is living out this call. It means re-focusing on who is calling and his fundamental call to character reflected in the fruit of the Spirit. It also means an embrace of wisdom, which he defines at “the truth and character of God lived in context.”

The next three chapters focus on three”ways” in which the called person lives. First is the Way of the Beloved–understanding ourselves individually and as communities as the beloved of God called to live in sacrificial love. The second is the Way of Wisdom, which is the translation of the truth and character of God into practical action that fits the needs of our context. Finally, he speaks of The Way of Suffering, in which faithfulness to Christ’s call is an invitation to enter into the sufferings of others, or even to suffer for the call itself.

Having laid out the need for a called people and the fundamental contours of the called life, Labberton turns to discerning the particular expression of calling for an individual. What is key here is keeping primary calling to Christ, to God’s purposes in the world, and to character, primary. Beyond this, individual call is discerned through the work of the Spirit, evidenced in the fruit of the Spirit, confirmed by the scriptures, attested to by the community, reflected in one’s spiritual gifts and strengths, and lived out in one’s context–one’s time, passions, work, finances and more.

The epilogue comes back to “first things” and challenges us with the idea that who we are as followers of Jesus is far more critical than what we do. All work that isn’t illegal or immoral is honorable and may be done unto the Lord. Opening ourselves up to pursue Jesus and listen to his call will lead us individually and together into well-lived lives and church communities that are salt and light in the world.

Each chapter concludes with a “Practice” section, allowing the reader to reflect on and put into practice the chapter content.

I can think of at least three audiences for which this book would be of value. First, church leadership teams could use this to great benefit to reflect on what it might be like to lead their churches in following Christ and hearing his call. Second, this could be helpful in adult ed contexts, particularly where the idea of “calling” is thought of as something for a special class of “saints”. Finally, this is a good gift for college students on the front end of discerning calling in their own lives.

The book size lends it to gift giving, and the short chapters and “Practice” sections lend this to use with groups. I would hope for wide circulation of this book, that Labberton’s vision of called people and renewed churches might be realized in many communities. Granted, that will take more than a book, but one never knows what the biblically-rooted vision found in this book under the grace of God might accomplish!