Review: Embrace


EmbraceLeroy Barber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: An extended reflection on Jeremiah 29:4-7 and God’s invitation to embrace the difficult places, people, differences, and callings involved in bringing his peace and justice into a divided world.

Many of us who are followers of Jesus feel ourselves to be “strangers in a strange land.” As people who have experienced the life-giving shalom of new life in Christ, we are disturbed to witness the deeply divided public discourse in our country that reveals hostilities between political parties, between racial groups, between rich and poor, between natural born citizens and immigrants. As people who look forward to God’s new city, the new Jerusalem, we grieve the devastation of decaying cities, of polluted water and air, of unsafe streets.

Leroy Barber offers in Embrace a series of reflections on Jeremiah 29:4-7:

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I  carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you to will prosper.”

Barber speaks as a black pastor who has worked extensively in Christian community development work. He sees in these verses a call to embrace that will lead to the healing of our cities: an embrace of the place where we are, an embrace of the “difficult people” in our lives, of difference as a gift of God, He invites us into the hard work of change that lays down privilege to serve. He bids us to settle in for the long haul.

For the baseball fan like me, he challenges us to recognize and embrace the sacred spaces of the other–a favorite sport, television show, and to create new traditions in our Christian communities that honor those spaces. He calls us into the embrace that grieves injustice and advocates on behalf of those who are on the receiving end of injustice. He calls us into the difficult choice to offer the embrace of forgiveness to those who hurt us deeply as did families and friends of the Charleston Nine did with Dylann Roof.

Probably for many, he could have stopped there but he concludes with a chapter on Black Lives Matter, addressing ten myths about this movement. He writes, “I am not requesting that you agree with everything you have read about Black Lives Matter. I am advocating for a listening ear, healthy dialogue, and love. This is where loving hard people–including our enemies–begins to take shape in our hearts. Can you love and disagree? Can you love and honor another’s humanity in spite of the differences?” It seems in this that Pastor Barber may defining something of what “embrace” looks like between whites and blacks.

I feel in writing so far I haven’t captured the “winsomeness” of this book. Leroy Barber’s personal stories, but even more, his embracing manner makes embrace across the divides and challenges he speaks of, not easy, but compelling. He helps us see that this is the arc of the biblical narrative, the arc of the ministry of Jesus, and the arc of joy for many like him who have dared to embrace. He helps us envision, and believe, that this could be the arc of our own lives as well.



Review: The Very Good Gospel


The Very Good GospelLisa Sharon Harper (foreward by Walter Brueggemann). New York: Waterbrook, 2016.

Summary. Through a study of the early chapters of Genesis with application to contemporary life, Harper explores the theme of shalom and how this enlarges our understanding of the good news.

Have you ever felt that there must be more to the gospel? This is a question that Lisa Sharon Harper has struggled with in her own life and for which she found profound answers as she explored the biblical theme of shalom as well as the early the early chapters of Genesis, that begin with a vision of shalom, explore how shalom was broken, and the effects of that brokenness on our relationships with God, ourselves, between genders, in the creation, in families, around issues of race, and relations between nations.

In each chapter, Harper explores the Genesis text, develops the idea of shalom, and through this weaves in other biblical material from both testaments. In the process, she weaves in her own life as a black woman, from a flawed family, experiencing issues with her own self-image, with relationships, and in the journey to pursue racial reconciliation and justice. As she does so, she develops a vision of the gospel that is so much larger than just me and my sin and Jesus rescuing me from hell so I can spend eternity with Him. It is a gospel that explains both God’s incredibly wonderful intention for the world, and how our choice to love something more than God and believe a lie damaged the fabric of relationships, broke shalom. From the sacrifice of an animal in Genesis 3 to the sacrifice of Christ, she explores how God has restored shalom, which is indeed very good news.

The final chapter was the most moving. She talks about death, and her own struggle with dealing with death, including her silence when a close friend lost her father. And she movingly describes the breakthrough she experienced when Richard Twiss, a Lakota Indian ministry leader was dying and she had a vision of anointing his feet with oil, confirmed by a friend who had a similar vision.

     “On the way to the hospital, I read the story of Lazarus and the grave (see John 11:1-44) and felt called to read it over Richard. When I arrived, I learned during the day, Richard’s kidneys had failed. I shared the two visions–mine and my friend’s–with Katherine, Richard’s wife and cofounder of Wiconi. She gave me permission to read the passage over Richard and to anoint his feet. As I read, we all wept. I never noticed this before, but the passage begins with an explanation that Lazarus was the brother of Mary, the woman who anointed Jesus feet for burial. I anointed Richard’s feet and prayed.

. . .

“I can’t help but think back to the moment when I anointed Richard’s feet. It is clear now. We were anointing our brother’s feet for burial. As I moved the oil over his feet, I repeated the words that Richard’s editor had said to me when we talked earlier that night: “Beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news.”

I think there are many like Lisa who have feared death, who never have been alongside someone as they were dying in the hope of Christ, the hope of Jesus’ resurrection, whose body with anointed feet was laid in a grave, only to walk out on those feet when the stone was rolled away. Lisa described this moment as “devastating and sweet.” She describes how we both grieve and yet hope because of this very good news.

This is a book for the believing person who is wondering, “is that all there is?” when they think of the gospel, particularly if they wonder about the relevance of the gospel to the brokenness they see around them. This is a book for new believers to help them understand the fullness of what they have believed. And it is a book that the person considering faith might also read, both because of its exposition of this “very good gospel” and for the honest yet winsome account Harper gives of her own growing understanding of that gospel.


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


Going Deeper: Peace Be With You

“Shalom”, the Hebrew word for “peace”

Our pastor (Rich) made the statement this past Sunday, “that when we show up what we need to do before anything else is bring peace.” He rooted this statement in the observation that three times in Jesus’s resurrection appearances in John 20, he says, “peace be with you.” In two instances it is the first thing Jesus says (John 20: 19, 26).

Rich went on to talk about the fact that Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they had nothing to fear from him. I suspect they weren’t too sure of that. Someone coming back from the dead can be a bit scary. Then there’s the matter of how they acted during his arrest and crucifixion. They were not exactly the poster children for loyalty or courage.

Instead, Jesus said “peace”, or “shalom”, the way Jews greeted each other and expressed their wish for wholeness and health on the life and home of the one they were addressing. It’s what Jesus taught his disciples to say when they came to a town bringing the good news and needed a place to stay. Rich proposed that “we could do worse than simply, everywhere we ever go, say and do whatever lines up with ‘Peace be with you.’ Our reputation in the world would change.”

It is troubling to me that people are fearful of their encounters with church people. But the truth is they are often expecting a judgment, a criticism, or an argument.  It strikes me that it could be a radical thing if instead, what they found in us were people who genuinely wanted them to find peace, wholeness, and health–all the things wrapped up in shalom.

It would be interesting to experiment with that for a week. I can think of some interesting ways to go about that:

  • What about closing our emails with “peace” or “peace be with you” (or “PBWY” on our texts!)?
  • What about writing “peace be with you” on our check at a restaurant along with a generous tip?
  • What about greeting each other at the beginning of our days with these words spoken gently, perhaps bearing a cup of coffee?
  • What about offering to pray for or even with (if they are comfortable) a friend who is stressed that they might experience God’s peace?

You get the idea. I would love to hear other ideas you come up with to say and do “peace be with you”.

Rich also made the point that for us to be that in the world, we need to start by practicing this with each other:

But I think in some ways it has to be our self-talk, too. When we come together, for whatever reason, our first stance, our first words, our basic orientation toward each other needs to be “Peace be with you.” Don’t be afraid, don’t be worried. Be at peace. Be at rest. Be yourself, and let me be myself, and let’s not be anxious about anything, for God is with us.

Churches aren’t always peaceful places. People coming from harried, busy lives may encounter messages that basically say, “you need to do more, give more, pray more” when maybe the first invitation we might give each other is to rest, to enjoy peace, to revel in silence, or the beauty of a song of praise. What a beautiful thing it can be for someone to ask, “where do you need the peace of God in your life right now?” What if board meetings began this way with prayer for one another to know the shalom of Jesus? And might it be the case that when people are at peace, then they can hear the empowering word of Jesus that infuses doing with joy!

On a personal note, I want to extend a “peace be with you” to our pastor as he begins a three month sabbatical. Rich, you labored hard these past seven years bringing peace and a new sense of hope to a troubled church through your week in, week out teaching and presence among us. Often it has meant bearing the burdens of others. May you know the peace of the Lord in rest, in quietness, in the simple richness of shared life with your family, in times of reflection, in all the warp and woof of your lives these next months. May the peace of the Lord be with you!

Review: Educating for Shalom

Educating for ShalomEducating for Shalom, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2004.

Summary: This collection of essays and talks written or given over a 30 year period traces Nicholas Wolterstorff’s journey of thinking about Christian higher education, the integration of faith and learning, and his growing concern that education result in the pursuit of justice and shalom.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is an emeritus professor of philosophical theology at Yale, having previously taught on the faculty at Calvin College, a Christian college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The collection of essays and presentations that make up this collection were written or given over a 30 year period and chronicle how Wolterstorff’s conception of the task of Christians in higher education to connect faith and learning has changed over this time period.

Several of the essays in this collection chronicle that journey, giving the broad strokes of Wolterstorff’s emerging understanding. In essays like “Rethinking Christian Higher Education”, “Teaching for Shalom: On the Goal of Christian Collegiate Education”, “The Project of a Christian University in a Postmodern Culture”, and “Autobiography: The Story of Two Decades of Thinking About Christian Higher Education” he traces this journey. He began with the conception of his mentor, William Harry Jellema, of a Christian humanism concerned with applying Christian thought to the high culture of Western art, literature, and philosophy. As he went on to pursue graduate studies, this shifted to an academic discipline perspective, that immersed itself first of all in doing good work tackling original problems in the discipline and trying to think Christianly about them. Perhaps the watershed moment in Wolterstorff’s life was when he spent time in South Africa, and later among Palestinian Christians and became aware that education that does not eventuate in a concern for justice and human flourish–shalom is the best word to sum this up–is a sterile and barren enterprise.

Wolterstorff does not stop there. He also considers the question of what social practices contribute to the ethical formation of students who act for justice and shalom. He asks what moral dispositions incline students to act on intellectual convictions and how these moral virtues are developed through the educational process, a project James K.A. Smith has picked up in books like Desiring the Kingdom. Wolterstorff’s essay on “Teaching for Justice: On Shaping How Students Are Disposed to Act” is the clearest exposition of his thinking.

The remainder of the essays in one way or another explore how a Christian world and life view inform academic inquiry. He has a couple essays on Christian engagement with psychology, which seem somewhat dated being concerned more with the Freudian, Jungian, and Skinnerian approaches of the 70’s and 80’s than today’s cognitive and neuroscience based approaches. A couple essays explore the distinctive contribution of Abraham Kuyper to faith and learning. “The Point of Connection between Faith and Learning” explores the very different premises of the Christian who believes in regeneration and the materialist who believes only in empiricism. Yet both encounter the world through sensory data, the point of contact. In the other essay (“Abraham Kuyper on Christian Learning”), he contrasts Lockean rationalism, and its evangelical counterpart of evidentialism with Kuyper’s emphasis on the relationship of subject and object in any science–an anticipation of postmodern criticism by one hundred years.

Several other essays are also worth noting. He explores the contentious issue of academic freedom in religiously based institutions of higher education, noting that academic freedom is very different from freedom of speech. He also notes that those at religious institutions are free to advance views that would not be permitted in the secular context and thus that religiously based institutions may religiously qualify academic freedom, and religious faculty may in fact enjoy greater academic freedom in such contexts. In “Should the Work of our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College” he argues that physical work and creation of things should not be considered inferior to ideas. The collection closes with Wolterstorff’s fundamental agreement with Fides et Ratio and a call for Christian boldness in the world of ideas.

While Wolterstorff writes on Christian higher education, these essays are also of great worth for Christians working in higher education in the secular context. They are closely and well-reasoned works that demand careful attention and in return force one to think more deeply about what is meant by terms like “integration” or even “shalom” or “human flourishing”, all of which are bandied about. Equally, Wolterstorff paints an expansive and rich vision of the academic calling at its best.

The Great Disruption


I don’t like them. I’m a creature of routine, compulsively so my wife might say. In our Christmas Eve service last night, our pastor reflected on the giant disruption that the coming of Jesus represented. Among other things his coming:

Nativity holy family

  • Nearly wrecked the marriage plans of Mary and Joseph.
  • Disrupted the life of the family in Bethlehem who hosted them (see my post reviewing Open Hearts in Bethlehem for more on this).
  • Broke into the quiet night of shepherds.
  • Sent the Magi on a journey following a strange star.
  • Enraged Herod the King, threatened by a possible rival.
  • Led to a sojourn as an undocumented immigrant in Egypt.
  • Led eventually to a new numbering of years around the “thought to be” year of his birth.

His life was pretty disruptive as well as he:

  • Defied temptations to comfort, power, and acclaim.
  • Broke the power of illness and evil in countless lives.
  • Drove the money-changers from the “house of prayer for the nations.”
  • Challenged a religious system that divided one people into “law keepers” and “sinners” offering no hope for the latter.
  • Defied the messianic expectations of crowds and disciples to break a more oppressive power than Rome and win a greater victory.

I cannot celebrate Christmas without celebrating the “great disruption” of my life by this child, servant king. It is easy for me to focus on the parts of that disruption that I like — the forgiveness of sins, the love of God, the hope of eternal life. That’s a lot better than alienation and hopelessness. But this is a disruption that calls me out of self-centeredness to the love of God and others. It disrupts my checkbook, my comfort, my politics, and my associations. It disrupts the “either-or” ways of dividing the world into “us” and “them”, a world of “allies” and “enemies”. Sometimes it means not being understood by any of the people who love these divisions.

Our sentimental ideas of peace on earth have little to do with the shalom of God. To get lions to lie down with lambs represents the disruption of a predatory system. Exalting the humble and humbling the proud represents the disruption of systems of power, privilege, injustice and economic disparity.

This Christmas I’m praying that the coming of King Jesus will disrupt the racial divisions and wounds of our land. Maybe the disruption in my life will begin with some of my friends who I will not join in the litanies of “what is wrong with them.” Frankly, the disruption of Jesus makes me far more aware of the “logs” in my own eye that I need help getting rid of. Maybe the disrupting shalom of Jesus’s coming is meant to bring the quiet that cuts off our blathering, defending and denouncing in mid-sentence. What difference might it make to our national conversation if some of us would just shut up and listen?

It doesn’t seem very “Christmas-y” to wish you disruptions in your life. Yet, to say “come Lord Jesus” seems to be an invitation to life-giving disruption. Neither as individuals nor as a nation can we be all we are meant to be without such disruptions. And so this Christmas day I say “come, Lord Jesus!”

Blessed Are The Peacemakers — When We Can Find Them

It seems that it is difficult to get away from the tragic events in Ferguson if you are at all on the media. It probably says something about the range of people I call friends that some are posting about the terrible wrong to the young man who died, and some defending the police officer and his actions.  This post will not go there, although I do hope that a full, fair, and transparent investigation considering all the eyewitness testimony will take place to determine what happened at this scene and what charges or other action, if any, are warranted.

In our individualistic culture, it seems very easy to take sides in judging the actions of the individuals involved in these events, and to be sure Michael Brown and Darren Wilson each acted in ways for which they are responsible that led to the tragic outcome of a dead young man on the pavement. It seems to me that this is only the tip of a very tragic iceberg of issues. Phrases like “walking (or driving) while black”, books like The New Jim Crow, and the incongruity of a mostly white police force in a mostly Black community all remind us that race is far from a settled issue in our country and help account for the anger of a community that still sees itself as far from the realization of Dr. King’s dream. So when such a community sees a young, unarmed man dead in the streets shot by a white police officer, you have to be living in la-la land not to think a community will be angry.

I also wrestle with what police are being asked to do in many of our communities. Between liberal gun laws and illegally obtained weapons, our cities are lethal killing zones. As of today, for example, there have been 229 murders in Chicago. In Columbus, a much smaller city, we have had 63 murders. Nearly all of these deaths in both communities are shootings. Many of our communities want police presence to prevent some of these crimes and to get the perpetrators of crimes against people and property off the streets. The reality every police officer lives with is that every call and every traffic stop can place him or her at risk, often in a context where he or she is outgunned. While “militarizing” your police force may create an adversarial atmosphere as it seems to have in Ferguson, you have to be living in la-la land not to think the police would want to do all they could to protect themselves.

Meanwhile we have this media frenzy whipping up emotions among blacks and whites, playing upon the sense of grievance in each community. We have lawless elements looting the businesses in their own community because they have the chance to do so. And if a story in today’s Washington Post is to be believed, you also have militants from other cities who think it is time to get justice and are willing to use violence.

All these things move me to pray for the peace of Ferguson. It seems to me that given the volatile mix in this situation, this is a “not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit” time. Might and power have simply beget more violence. We need to pray for the peacemakers, as well as pray about our own roles in not feeding the inflammatory rhetoric around the death of Michael Brown and the larger tragedy of Ferguson.

They are there, whether they are passing out water and food to protesters, cleaning up after each night’s demonstrations, or going through the streets pleading for restraint and the use of nonviolent means to press for the justice and respect needed in this community. Perhaps it would help if the press helped their voices be heard above the clamor.

But real peace, biblical shalom isn’t simply about restoring and maintaining order. It is about promoting flourishing and justice and mutual respect throughout the Ferguson community.  It is not about containing the anger but rather turning it to the constructive ends of substantive shalom. It might mean white police officials asking for the help of Ferguson community leaders in increasing the pool of black officers, and in developing policing strategies that address the crime concerns of the community, that show respect for residents while recognizing the safety concerns of officers. It might mean community leaders asking for the help of police, judges, and other community resources to develop strategies to keep youth in their community out of trouble and not be saddled with a criminal record–which is a one strike and you are out kind of thing.

Perhaps such efforts have been made. Perhaps they have failed or had limited success. These are hard conversations that are dealing with hard realities. Being able to hear the concerns of the other over the clamor of one’s own grievances is very hard. Laying aside one’s own concerns to hear the grievance of the other is perhaps harder. And moving from grievance to collaboration for a different future is perhaps hardest of all. Perhaps this is why Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” because it is perhaps some of the hardest work human beings can do with each other, whether it is in Ferguson or Israel/Palestine, or your home town or mine. Perhaps the first step beyond prayer is simply refusing to join those who inflame the rhetoric, to choose to understand rather than react and to choose to want for the other, what we want for ourselves.


Review: Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South

Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South
Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South by Nicholas P. Wolterstorff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book that sparkles with clear thinking and a personal narrative that helped inform and shape that thinking. Wolterstorff continues in this book to elaborate thinking outlined in Justice: Rights and Wrongs. In short chapters he shares both his own ideas about justice and the personal encounters with victims of injustice in South Africa, Palestine, and the Honduras. And he contends that it was the personal encounters with those whose dignity was impaired and whose inherent rights were denied that informed his theory of justice centering around human dignity and inherent rights.


Nicholas Wolterstorff

He distinguishes his approach from one of the leaders in the field, John Rawls. I’ve not read Rawls and so I don’t feel I can adequately assess the distinctions between the two. Wolterstorff focuses on the idea of inherent rights as opposed to right order as central in his concept of justice. This arose, as I’ve noted from his experiences, particularly in South Africa, of seeing justice defined as right order and yet denying basic liberties to blacks that he would consider inherent rights. His theory also develops an understanding of justice in terms of ‘primary’ and ‘reactive’ justice (the latter being justice that responds to criminal acts against a person while the former dealing with structural injustices that impair personal liberties). He argues against those who claim that an “inherent rights” approach can be abused by those claiming extravagant rights beyond what he envisions. He contends that abuse does not support doing away with an inherent rights concept but rather calls for its proper use.

Along the way, he engages some of the biblical theology surrounding justice, particularly what he sees as a mistranslation of the New Testament dik stem words in many contexts as righteous or righteousness instead of just or justice. He also argues against the blind submission to authority that many read into Romans 13, arguing that this is to be understood not as rulers who are divinely appointed who must be submitted to no matter what (except where submission involves direct disobedience to God) but rather that rulers are appointed to exercise justice and the power of the sword against perpetrators of injustice, which warrants advocacy when the state fails to live up to its God-appointed role.

Wolterstorff’s philosophical work has included work in the area of aesthetics and here he considers the role of artistic expression in justice movements. In a chapter on “Justice and Beauty” he argues for the intrinsic worth of art and that shalom, the kind of peace in which humans flourish, knits together the disparate elements of pursuing justice, scholarship, and beauty in the world.

My sense is that this book represents both a distillation, and, in some ways, an elaboration of his academic works on justice. It left me wanting more and served as a good introduction to his thinking about this important subject.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Goodreads “First Reads” program.

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