Review: Good Works

Good Works: Hospitality and Faithful Discipleship, Keith Wasserman, Christine D. Pohl. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2021.

Summary: A profile of the key themes that have shaped the hospitable community of Good Works, Inc., a ministry providing shelter and support to people in rural southeastern Ohio.

Athens, Ohio, befitting its name is the home of the oldest college in Ohio. Ohio University was founded in 1787, sixteen years before Ohio became a state. Beyond the rolling contours of the scenic campus lie the foothills of Appalachia in southeast Ohio. In contrast to the gorgeous countryside, southeast Ohio is the face of rural poverty in Ohio. Forty years ago, a young convert to Christianity and his wife set out to provide shelter for the homeless and offer support for those in need, inviting them to experience the love of Christ and see the gospel incarnated in the community that became known as Good Works.

Through friends and a brief encounter with the founder, I’ve heard of the year in, year out faithful work of this community. So it was with great interest that I read this account by the founder, Keith Wasserman, and Christine D. Pohl, a professor at Asbury Seminary whose scholarship has focused around hospitality. The two met when Keith did coursework at Asbury, where she became intrigued with the work and Keith enriched in his vision of hospitality through their interaction.

The book is less a history of Good Works, Inc. than a description of key themes that have shaped its development. Yes, you do get the outlines of the growth of the ministry from the Wasserman’s basement to Timothy House on Central Avenue that serves as a 24 hour homeless shelter (the only one in southeast Ohio) to the complex of building on Luhrig Road out of which the rest of the community ministries take place. But the themes are of overriding importance and each chapter includes prayers and questions that challenge us to consider what shape these themes ought take in our own situations.

The most important theme shaping the life of Good Works is worship. Worship is not a few songs, prayers, rituals and readings on a Sunday but must overflow in the service of and love for others out of love for God. They write:

Although worship takes different forms, loving God and loving our neighbors are always at the heart of it. The recipients of our love–God and neighbors–are connected, but loving God is our starting place, and the ordering of our loves should not be reversed. If we think that our task is to love our neighbors with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love God as ourselves, we’ve wandered into bad theology–and troublesome psychological terrain” (pp. 18-19).

The second theme is integrity. Good Works likes to say “our program is integrity.” By this they mean engendering a high level of trust with the people they serve and among the staff who serve them. It involves both truthfulness and faithfulness. One of the cardinal practices among leadership is that of “Clear.” “Clear” means talking with each other without delay about grievances and disagreements. “Are we ‘Clear’?” is asked in every leadership meeting.

The third theme was on keeping perspective and one of the striking parts of this chapter was Keith’s description of spending a few days every few years in a different city, experiencing what it was like to be homeless there and to see homelessness from the perspective of the homeless. The chapter also talks about how they help each other keep perspectives amid hard interpersonal encounters.

A fourth theme of Good Works is relationships in community. Good Works does not see itself as a social agency but as a Christian community into which they are inviting those who seek their help. The shared meals and fellowship of Friday Night Life epitomizes this theme. They describe a continuum of relationships from associating to serving to loving to knowing and the movement that occurs from coming for help to become a leader serving others while continuing to remain in an accountable community with relational “guardrails.”

Leadership in community is the fifth theme and this is one of the best descriptions of leadership shaped by the way of the cross that I have read. Leaders live within a number of tensions:

  • assessing individual situations and institutional needs
  • dealing with failure
  • humility and teachableness
  • being above reproach and approachable
  • truthfulness in love
  • character and adversity
  • sacrifice

Wasserman also discusses longevity and confesses that at least sixty percent of the work needs to be joyful to be sustainable for him.

The sixth chapter, written by Pohl explores how hospitality is what makes Good Works good. A key in all of this is mutuality, a fellowship of giving and receiving that acknowledges that all people are gifts to one another. An appendix follows detailing the various settings in which Good Works mission and ministry of hospitality takes place.

I appreciate the approach taken in this book. I can see the temptation to try to copy the outward ministry of Good Works in other settings without first being shaped by the inner character of this work The mantra, “if we don’t have integrity, we don’t have a program” is one I wish every Christian ministry would take to heart. I am struck that I don’t hear a theme of scripture but rather the themes toward which scripture points us, even as scripture is often used throughout as basis–themes of worship, of truth and fidelity, of community and mutuality, of servant leadership, of hospitality. Good Works has touched thousands of lives in southeastern Ohio. Beyond that, it offers a vibrant alternative to our comfortable but uninspiring churches infatuated in politics because they’ve lost the joy of being in mission. Good Works simply is an object lesson in what it is to be the church.


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: From Bubble to Bridge


From Bubble to Bridge, Marion H. Larson and Sara L.H. Shady. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Explores how to equip Christians for engagement in our religiously diverse multifaith environment, moving out of our Christian “bubbles” and building bridges of understanding without compromising the convictions of one’s own faith.

Many of us don’t have to go beyond our own neighborhood to realize how religiously diverse our world has become. When my son was young, it was not at all uncommon for him to be playing basketball in our driveway with a friend who was Jewish and another wearing a turban who was a Sikh. Meanwhile, we watched an Indian couple, likely from a Hindu background walk down the street and a Muslim family arrive home just up the street.

The authors of this book are professors at a Christian college, Bethel University, in Minnesota and they became aware that it was not enough for them to prepare their students to connect their faith with their particular field of academic preparation. In our multifaith world, they realized that it was crucial to equip their students to be able to engage well with those who believe differently. As reflected in their title, they wanted to use the experience of students in this Christian “bubble” to prepare them to build bridges of understanding with those of other faiths. They write in their Introduction,

“A common goal of education, from a Christian perspective, is to cultivate a mature intellect and faith, one that enables us to lead lives of meaningful service as we actively engage and seek to transform the world. Over the years much has been written by Christian academics about the integration of faith and learning, and this scholarship continues to discuss the importance of helping students learn to weave together the academic, social, and spiritual aspects of their lives. Many recent works on Christian higher education have considered what faith-learning integration might look like in the twenty-first century; however, little attention is given to preparing Christian students to navigate a religiously diverse world. Christians need to be more intentional about preparing to love their neighbors, even (perhaps especially) when those neighbors have different religious beliefs. For those on evangelical Christian college campuses, such preparation needs to include interfaith service and dialogue on and off campus as an important aspect of education and spiritual development.”

This book describes how they have gone about that work. It begins in the first two chapters with an apologetic for the civic and religious imperative addressing how we engage religious pluralism. Failure to do so may lead to prejudice or even violence. More than this, the religious call is to love our neighbor, and to practice what Amy Oden has called the four movements of hospitality: prepare, welcome and restore, dwell, and send.

They then deal in the next two chapters with barriers to multifaith engagement and the question of how one does this without hopelessly compromising one’s own faith. One barrier is the seeming “conflicted Christian identity” that is unsure that one can be simultaneously hospitable and yet true to one’s faith. There are also tensions between Christian “privilege” and our own perception of being an embattled minority. Sometimes we are just fearful. The authors invite us into a model, drawing on the thinking of Martin Buber and Miroslav Volf, that avoids either mere tolerance or complete acceptance, but strives for inclusion that pursues genuine dialogue and relationship without jettisoning our own beliefs.

Chapters five, six, and seven explore how, practically, students on the Christian college campus can be educated for this kind of engagement. Chapter five focuses on cultivating three virtues: humility, commitment and empathy. Chapter six explores how these can be developed on the Christian college campus and chapter seven provides a number of practical resources, exercises, and experiential learning opportunities that develop the skills needed. Then chapter eight provides practical steps that can be taken in going into another’s religious “home”–attending a feast or observing a religious service, engaging in service together, and learning from partners from another faith.

Each chapter ends with one or two stories of students engaged in various interfaith experiences, emphasizing both the increased understanding of other faiths, and the greater confidence in and appreciation for one’s own. Surprisingly, even though such dialogue is not “proselytizing,” many of the Christian students speak of how profound it was for them to speak honestly of their own beliefs as well as understanding those of others. The end of each chapter also provides questions and “Give it a try” ideas for groups working through the book.

This book struck me as a very helpful resource, whether for an educator in a Christian college, or a ministry leader working with a collegiate group in a public setting. It is striking, as Eboo Patel, a leader in interfaith work on university campuses has observed, that evangelical Christians have often been the most reluctant to engage in these efforts. Yet many students have been alienated by instances of religious prejudice, and long for an expression of their faith that doesn’t confine them to a bubble and wall them off from their religious neighbors. Instead, they want to build bridges of understanding and find ways across differences to pursue common goods. This book is a helpful guide.


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: Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama

Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama
Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama by Kenneth E Bailey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Say it isn’t so!

If Kenneth Bailey is right (and I believe he is) I need to revise my mental images of the birth scene in Bethlehem. The manger scene in our living room is inaccurate because it places the birth in a stable.

We’ve grown up with the narrative that there was “no room in the inn” and then assumed that the “manger” in which Jesus was laid was in a stable. Bailey argues first of all that the normal word for inn (pandocheion) is not used here but rather a word (katalyma) that is most accurately translated (as does the NIV in Luke 2:7) as “guest room”. Bailey observes that this refers to a room in most homes of the time that would be used for visiting guests while the family occupies the main room. Second, he contends that in most of these homes there was an area off of the main room, sometimes slightly lower, where animals were brought in for the night. It would have been easy to move a manger for a small animal to the main room to serve as a bed for the baby.

Our "stable" nativity

Our “stable” nativity (c) 2014 Robert C Trube

Furthermore, Bailey’s explanation gets at a mental objection I’ve always wondered about. It is basically along the lines of “how heartless can Bethlehem be if a town won’t house a relative ready to have a baby?” Furthermore, anyone who knows about Middle Eastern hospitality, knows that this flies in the face of everything that is good and decent and expected. Bailey contends that in fact, the real picture in the biblical narrative is one of relatives who are already hosting visitors in town for the census who open up their home even further to make room for their relatives in need–and so in fact open up their hearts to Messiah Jesus.

Bailey introduces all of this at the beginning of his “Christmas drama” which is built around his explanation of what most likely actually occurred on the basis of both custom and the biblical narrative. The drama that follows struck me as an understated account of how a couple, Benjamin and Judith, respond to the demands of hospitality. There is the practical question of whether to bring the animals in and the decision to do so with so many strangers in town. Most riveting for audiences is the scene where Joseph and Mary arrive outside the home and call out requesting hospitality. We see the real choice of a Herod-fearing people between fearfulness and welcome and what happens in this home, as well as with some neighboring shepherds, when this family opens not only home but hearts to Joseph, Mary, and the child that is soon born to them.

The drama is written to serve as a church nativity play and includes stage directions and program materials which may be used without permission for non-profit purposes if certain criteria (including purchase of twelve scripts and no admission fee) and suitable credit is given. There are also several songs in the drama for which a musical score and CD is available from the publisher.

This review probably comes too late for Christmas celebrations this season. However, churches may wish to consider this for the future because of the crucial question it poses to both cast and audience: is my heart open for the coming of Jesus?

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Review: Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear: Christian Practice of Everyday Life

Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear: Christian Practice of Everyday Life
Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear: Christian Practice of Everyday Life by Scott Bader-Saye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Be afraid, be very afraid.”

Scott Bader-Saye would observe that this is perhaps a warning we may take too seriously, and this absorption with fear has profound consequences for the ways we live our lives, and for those who are Christ-followers, for how we pursue, or rather fail to pursue the life of the kingdom.

The book begins by looking at how fear sells, particularly in the media. Much of the draw that new media uses to attract continued viewership is to play on our fears–of getting cancer, of child abductions, of gun violence, of terrorism and more. He notes research that indicates that the more we absorb of this media, the more dangerous we perceive the world and the more anxious we are. The church plays on this as well–fear is good as a rallying place (and also to raise money!).

All this has a profound impact on our moral lives. Fear leads to insecurity and all the things we do when safety becomes our ultimate concern. We engage in unwarranted suspicion of others, we personally, and sometimes nationally act pre-emptively against perceived danger, and we accumulate everything from money to bottled water against perceived dangers.

The author is not urging “fearlessness” however. Appropriate fear is good, particularly an appropriate fear of God that recognizes the greatness of his holy love. The issue, rather, is one of putting fear in its place by maintaining a proper perspective on the imminence of the things we are encouraged to fear, as well as being grounded in the security of God’s providence. While God doesn’t protect against all evil, He is able to work through it in our lives and circumstances as we continue to trust in Him, as the example of the cross demonstrates.

One of his most beautiful chapters is the one on “Community and Courage” in which he chronicles the response of the Taize Community to the tragic murder of Brother Roger, one of the community’s founders during a worship celebration. Their decision to continue to be a community of welcome meant no additional security measures, no metal detectors. This would mean to live in fear and suspicion rather than generous hospitality as a community.

The book concludes with three chapters that unpack what it means to live out of security in the providence of God rather than fear. This means hospitality that welcomes the stranger. It means peacemaking that risks misunderstanding and being caught in the midst of deadly conflict to bring reconciliation. It means generosity that trusts God’s provision and gives rather than hoards.

There is also an appendix which has a profound exploration of the use of fear in the political arena, particularly because of the breakdown of any positive metanarrative to unite us. It helped me understand much of what drives the political narrative in my country and to see how contrary these appeals are to the narrative of Christian faith, no matter which party they come from. It suggests to me how vital the role of the Christian community is, not in adding political heft to the arguments on one side or another, but providing a “third way” that transcends the politics of fear that polarize us.

This is an older (2007) book that I hope enjoys continued circulation. Each chapter has searching questions that make it useful for church leadership boards and small groups. I’ll leave you with one of these that challenged me:

Try this test. First think about how much you fear losing your house, your car, your savings account, or your job. Then, think about how much you fear being unloving, inhospitable, selfish, or impatient. Which do you fear more? Why?

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