Review: Becoming Sage

becoming sage

Becoming SageMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Press, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of what Christian growth looks like in the second half of life.

One of the dirty little secrets of Christian discipleship is that most of the resources that have been developed focus around the early years of the Christian life, and most around the issues of the first half of life. What is a Christian to do who lives beyond his or her forties?

Michelle Van Loon proposes in this book that we move from what a Christian believes and does to growing in the wisdom won of hard life experiences, in other words becoming sage. Drawing on the work of Hagberg and Guelich, she argues that most church discipleship programs address the first three of six stages of Christian growth: 1. “God I believe in you”; 2. “God I belong to you.”; and 3. “God, I’m working for you.” At mid-life, we often hit the wall and all the earlier answers seem to stop working. She calls this “God where are you? I’m alone in the dark.” We face loss and we move from certainty to humility. If we persevere, we move into Stage 5 where we pass along what we’ve given, and Stage 6 as we prepare for and move toward the conclusion of our lives (“Lord, I’m coming home”).

Van Loon explores the process of growing sage through our changing relationship with the church and how we deal with wounds and disappointments. She describes our changing relationships with family and friendships that fade or endure and new ones that develop.

She explores that changes that inevitably happen to us bodily. She observes:

Becoming sage means growing into the tension of wasting away and being renewed. It is not an either/or proposition, but both/and. As unlovely as the notion of suffering and decay are, Paul tells us here that eternal glory is being created through them.

Change happens with our money and our intangible treasures as well. We come to terms that we can’t take anything with us, and need to think how we leave these things behind well.

One of the most perceptive chapters is on the “U” curve of happiness. She discusses acedia (often known as the “noonday demon”), a kind of weary sadness that comes over many in midlife. Van Loon doesn’t have simple answers for this but rather the persevering faith that allows Christ to deconstruct and transform our relationship with Him.

She describes the movement from doing to being, from being “world changers” with the hubris this carries to those who by quiet faithfulness heal the world. We learn to impart what we learn and begin to prepare for facing our own home-going, our own death.

People hitting midlife are leaving the church. Some decide that when the answers they learned in their early years as Christians don’t work or satisfy, that there is nothing there, particularly when the church offers nothing, no vision of the second half of life. The issues Van Loon discusses often aren’t discussed. How do we deal with the disappointments of the church itself. How do we come to terms with the bodily changes that remind us of our mortality? How do we fruitfully invest what we’ve earned and learned? How do we prepare to die well when no one talks about this? Van Loon breaks the conspiracy of silence and casts a rich vision of the second half of life, a vision of becoming sage, going deeper into Christ and Christ-likeness in a lifelong journey of discipleship.

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

 

Review: The Power of Together

power-of-together

The Power of TogetherJim Putnam. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

Summary: A pastor of a thriving church explores what he believes to be the key to both spiritual maturity and the ministry effectiveness of his church–the fostering of relationships of depth between believers throughout the church.

Jim Putnam begins this book by observing a gap that exists in many American churches. People have come to faith, been taught both Christian doctrine and Christian practice and yet seem to lack the vibrant maturity and depth one one would expect in disciples of Jesus. His thesis is that what is lacking is a depth of relationships between believers, where people are deeply engaging with each other week in, week out, practicing the Christian faith with each other in working through conflict, confessing and turning from sin, learning to serve together, learning to go the extra mile for each other, and caring for those who are seeking.

Relationship is central to the gospel, not only a restored relationship with God but also with each other. First Corinthians 13, he observes, is instructions on how people in the church are to love each other and be family to each other. Marriage is only a small subset of that. Pride is often the major barrier to really opening our lives to each other. We fear being known, and we resist the idea of submission when it means we need to be open to others speaking into our lives, calling us to change. This may especially be an affliction of church leaders to whom Putnam writes pointedly:

“Leaders must be submissive too. This might sound counterintuitive at first, but it’s not in practice. If leaders are submissive, to whom do they submit? The answer is that leaders must be submissive to God, to other leaders, and even other Christians. Yes, it takes strong leadership to get a church off the ground, and yes, it takes strong leadership to keep a church running smoothly. But Ephesians 5:21, which says, ‘Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ,’ applies to everyone, not just people who aren’t in leadership positions” (p. 121).

He writes of how deeply his church invests in training its leaders to work as a team and how hard they work at it. He recognizes the danger of leaders becoming siloed in their work and how much better leadership is when teams keep thinking about the whole and keep developing their capacity to care for the whole. Putnam argues this is crucial to meet the spiritual battle churches face and to stand out as “a city on a hill.”

The style of this book is a consistent movement between biblical principles and stories from various settings of life from Putnam’s personal life to sports. One of his most memorable images is that often our investment in relational discipleship is similar to buying an $8 tube to float down a river. Fine for calm waters, but entirely inadequate for white water rafting.

There are points where I felt the writing was a bit of “variations on a theme” where the author was reiterating his point about how important being together in relationships of depth is to our growth as disciples. I thought there were places where he could have fleshed out how this works more in his congregation. For example, thousands of congregations have some form of home groups or small groups. What distinguishes those at his church?

I think this could be a helpful book for a church leadership wrestling with a sense that the congregation seems “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Often that lack of depth is in the dimension of relationships. Putnam charts a biblical vision, some practical dimensions of the form this takes, what it looks like for leadership, and both the barriers and crucial spiritual importance of relational discipleship to spiritual maturity and church vitality.

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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.