Category Archives: book reviews

“So You Want to Talk about Race.”

Over the past five years (since the Mother Emmanuel murders), part of my anti-racism journey has been a lot of reading and study. My bibliography is closing in on 50 titles. I know that reading and study is not all of the journey, but for me, it’s an important piece. Reading and study are a big part of how I navigate the world.

My pastoral work includes meeting and establishing a relationship with community leaders, and I’ve tried to be intentional about reaching out to BIPOC leaders. I have no other agenda for those meetings than to relate to another leader in the community. While listening is always a key ingredient in relational meeting, it’s especially important when I’m meeting with those whose experience is very different than mine as a white, cis-gendered, male. I’m always hopeful that I will learn something about how I can do better and be better in this anti-racism work.

It’s not uncommon that at some point in those conversations, we turn attention to what we’ve been reading. I want to know what they’re reading and what they think I should be reading. And therein is the reason I picked up this book. Consistently in conversations with BIPOC leaders, this is the book that I should be reading. I’m thankful for the recommendation.

Before writing the book, Ijeoma Oluo was active in a variety of on-line writing platforms in which she answered questions about matters of race. Her posts tended towards addressing the real, practical, on-the-ground questions that kept coming up about how to talk about race; she became known for quickly getting at the core truths surrounding the questions. As she writes in the preface, “My claim to fame was writing commentary on social issues that could be ‘of use’.” This book is an extension of that desire to “give readers the fundamentals of how race worked, not only in a way that they would take into their graduate race theory classes but in a way that they would take to the office or to their Thanksgiving tables.”  

Though I’ve been through two 25-hour anti-racism training sessions, read a lot of books, and led several racism conversations in my congregations, I found Oluo’s direct answers to common questions about race probably more clear and straightforward than anything I’ve ever read.

It’s critical for the white church to engage the work of breaking down the evils of structural and institutional racism. To do that, we have to engage the conversations. Often they will be hard and uncomfortable conversations, and as leaders, we will get pushback. This book offers the pastoral leader excellent guidance on how to frame those conversations and even the language that will be helpful. For instance, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that we engage in anti-racism conversations to change someone’s mind, to gain a convert, in short, to win. “Conversations on racism should never be about winning. The battle is too important to be so simplified. You are in this to share and to learn. You are in this to do better and be better.”

She spends whole chapters explaining matters that white people, unfortunately, have a hard time understanding: the connection between police brutality and racism, deconstructing the many misconceptions about affirmative action, micro-aggressions, and on and on. From this standpoint, it’s almost like a reference book for bolstering confidence about engaging these important matters. And all of them are interlaced with her own stories that put a human face on these challenging issues.

Throughout the book, the eyes of my mind opened in unexpected ways. One of the chapters that had a strong impact is the one entitled, “What if I talk about race wrong?” It has served as an encouragement to continue this work even though its hard (I know – that’s part of my privilege that I even get to say that – to decide to continue this work). I know about doing the race conversation wrong. It all started for me when I asked an African-American pastoral colleague if his congregation could help us learn about racism. He replied sternly, “That’s not our job.” Yup. I said that. And thankfully, our relationship was solid enough and he was confident enough to tell me to go do my own work.  Reminding me that I’m going to do conversations about race wrong, repeatedly and royally, she offers the encouragement that I need to have them anyway. And then offers some clear, no-nonsense tips that will increase the chance of a conversation success.

One caution I would raise for pastoral leaders: Oluo is not shy about profanity, including the occasional f-bomb. As always, each needs to make the decision based on their own people and their own situation. In my setting, the profanity wouldn’t prevent me from using it, as long as I let people know what to expect.

I can see clearly why my colleagues have recommended this book. I’m joining the chorus. It ought to be in the toolbox of every pastoral leader.

The Hard-to-Hear Stories We Must Hear

Oh, the stories.

The stories that are so hard to hear, yet that we desperately need to hear.

Sometimes, I think I’ve heard enough stories. (Which is itself a function of my privilege.) Then I hear another story and know that I must never stop listening to the stories.

Here’s the latest one for me.

I serve on the board of a Housing Trust. We are working to bring to the market home ownership opportunities for the working people in a tourist economy with inflated housing prices. I found that one of the multiple seeds of this movement was in the south in the 1950s. Georgia, if I recall correctly. It was in response to African-American sharecroppers who were fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes in response to their registering to vote.

Did you hear that? Did you let that sink in? Lost their livelihood and the roof over their heads simply because they registered to vote.

There is no end to the stories of injustice, violence, trauma, brutality that white America has wreaked on our African American siblings. Every time I start to tell some of those stories with the white people of my white church and white community, I get predictable responses. “That can’t be true.” “Where did you hear that?” “I never learned that.” “They didn’t teach us that in history class.” Precisely. That’s what happens when the majority tells the stories and doesn’t make space for the stories of anyone else.

As a leader in the church, a white man, in an overwhelmingly white denomination, I plead with you to learn the stories. Here are a few places I’d encourage you to start, a beginning to listen to the stories that we never learned in history class. These books represent four of the most powerful, moving, and mind-changing books that I have read in the past few years.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson is a journalist who spent 15 years writing and researching this book. While it tells the story of the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north after Jim Crow, it does so in a wonderfully readable style. She tells the stories of three families, each migrating at a different time, from a different area of the country, and ending up in different place. She draws us into the stories of these families and particular individuals, people we soon learn soon to care about. At the same time, she fills in the background of the larger history of the migration, the effects it had on families, the collective obstacles and challenges they faced. And she describes not only the racist culture they left in the south, but the structures of racism they found when they arrived in the north.

The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein. As soon as I open up conversations with white people about the racist structures that have resulted in dramatic economic inequalities between white and black Americans, someone is bound to say, “Well, I worked hard for what I have.” And the implication, of course, is that if everyone worked as hard as they did, the economic divide would disappear. Yet, the truth is that the racist structures of our economic system have favored whites over blacks. Former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer captured it with this quip, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” For many white Americans, the accumulation of wealth has come through the great American dream, home ownership. Richard Roth tells the story of how persistently and consistently entities of American government have denied this mechanism of upward mobility to African Americans. In the process, the government has institutionalized with policy the racial segregation of America. With examples from a broad spectrum of time, from places throughout the country, and government entities from the federal government to county and municipal government, Rothstein paints a compelling picture of this persistent structural racism that has denied economic prosperity to African Americans.

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. This is one of the most difficult books I have ever read, and for that very reason, one that I think every white church member should read. Baptist argues that the rise of the American economy to become the largest and most prosperous economy in the world would never have happened without the exploitation of enslaved persons to drive that economic engine. Cotton is not by nature an easy crop to grow, and is not by nature even intended to be cultivated. It’s a bush. In pre-combustion engine days, the labor required grow and harvest cotton would make profit impossible– unless there was no cost to the labor. Both the clearing of the land and bringing cotton to harvest required slave labor. It also required the theft of land from indigenous peoples. Northern manufacturers and banks were complicit because they largely relied on the bounty from slave labor to drive their profits. And the proliferation the textile industry in England and New England would never have happened without slave labor. This is the large arc of story that Baptist tells. Closer to the ground he tells the story of the gut-wrenching brutality of slavery, both physical and psychological. The beatings, the separation of families, the sexual exploitation of women, and the list goes on. Though hard to read, I would argue that it’s necessary to understand the evil that fueled the rise of American capitalism.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Race is a made up category. Yet though it is made up, it has been a powerful influence in the lives of both white people and people of color. Xendi takes us through the progression of racist ideologies in American history, using biographical sketches of influential Americans as touchpoints for the iterations of racist ideas. It not only traces the history, but puts flesh and bones on the progression of racist ideologies. If you don’t know the difference between uplift, segregation, assimilation, and anti-racism, this book gives you the historical progression. I would argue it’s an essential progression for any white leader in the church to understand.

Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you think.

How We Think of Old People

A review of Elderhood: Redefining Agind, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, by Louise Aronson, M. D.. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

On a Friday evening in June, driving home from a week at church camp, I tuned into a random radio program where the interviewee grabbed my attention with compelling stories of her geriatric practice and her care for old people. She both critiqued how we care for old people, and offered a hopeful vision for what needs to change. At the conclusion of the interview, I pulled off the road and wrote down the name of the author and her book. The physician was Dr. Louise Aronson, and the book was Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life. Reading this book as a guide for reflection on how we grow old and how we care for the aging has been for me like a still picture in grayscale develop color and spring to life. It has fundamentally changed the way I understand that last third of life that we call growing old.

As life expectancies extend, generally speaking we’re spending more time in that part of life we call old age. What used to be a few years can now easily be thirty, fully a third of our lifespan. While we treat childhood, not as a single span of time, but as a complex multiplicity of developmental stages, as a society, as a medical care community, and I would add as a church, we tend to treat old age monolithically as if it’s one uniform span of time. As a leader in the church, I have attended to the pastoral care needs of individual persons, but haven’t thought very carefully about the different needs of the specific stages of old age. This book has pushed me.

Aronson dives deep into a reflection on old age. As a practicing geriatrician, it’s not surprising that she critiques the way the medical community treats (or doesn’t treat) old people. At the heart of her assessment is that middle age adulthood is seen as the norm for what a healthy human looks like. Fair enough. Something has to be the baseline. Yet, when our bodies begin to age and we change physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially, the changes are seen as pathological rather than as part of normal development. What often makes things worse is that medicine tends to treat the maladies of old age the same way it treats a healthy 40 year old, even though administering the same treatments in old age often have much different outcomes, are more dangerous, and routinely lead to a decline in health rather than an improvement. As I think back to my accompaniment of scores of people interacting with the medical community in their old age, other than the effects of chemotherapy, it simply never occurred to me that a treatment that is routine in middle age could be harmful in old age. In addition, the medical community tends to neglect the social setting of the aging person, a factor that becomes more and more important as we age, and a factor for which there is great potential for meaningful, purposeful congregational ministry.

Aronson doesn’t confine her critique to the medical community, even though much of the book is about just that. She draws on philosophy, sociology, history, and personal experience to give a comprehensive picture of how our society regards old age. The richness of her experience makes the book read almost like a memoir, offering vulnerable glimpses of her own mistakes and learnings and of the complexities and oft-time failings of the medical system. Yet she also offers both hope and guidance for how we as a society and as individual persons can reimagine this significant span of life. We can do better.

As a pastor, I have been thinking about the content of this book a lot. We lament that the church is aging, and we wonder what that means for the future viability of the church. Youth remains a dominant metaphor for American culture, and for the church as well. We collectively look to family programming, energetic youth ministry, and comprehensive children’s ministries as the salvation of congregations. Yet for many of us, that’s not our reality. We look out on our congregations on Sunday morning to a sea of gray hair. By and large, I serve an aging congregation in an aging denomination. Honestly, I have not seen the aging congregants as the focus of my ministry, even though they are the people I spend most of my time with. What if I (and we) spent as much time and effort thinking creatively about how we might use the gifts of our elders and how to serve with and to the aging population of our communities? After all, as Dr. Aronson points out, the aging years are not just a time of maladies and diminishing capacities. They are also a time of joy, meaning, and fulfillment.

I found this book provocative in the best sense of the word. It has stayed with me and pulled me back into multiple readings. It is prompting a creative reassessment of my own rapidly approaching elderhood, and my ministry to and with the elders of my community and my congregation. There’s not much more I could ask of a book.

Five Recommendations for Black History Month

As we continue to observe Black History month, here are 5 histories that have been the among the most compelling that I have read.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson, tells the history of the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the Industrial North in the decades following the Civil War. While full of well-documented history, she structures that history around the stories of three different individuals who migrated at different times to different places. Those family stories bring the history to life and make for a compelling chronicle of the northern migration, both the opportunities and the pitfalls.

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist. Baptist writes a history of chattel slavery in the US from the perspective of economics and argues that the emergence of the US as a world economic power was only possible because of the tortuous institution of slavery. The expanding production of cotton in the 19th century brought prosperity not only to the owners of the land and production, but to northerners who invested in that production, not to mention others who benefited indirectly from the rippling effects of cotton production. Even the Industrial Revolution of 19th century England, centered in the milling of cotton and the production of clothing, would not have been possible without the whip-induced productivity of black slaves. “For what was done in the fields — specifically what was done to force enslaved people to create new ways to accelerate the pace of their own labor — shaped what was possible in the factory, the bank, the marketplace, and the halls of state. Invisible new financial wires bound the bodies of enslaved people to the dreams and desires of whose whose measuring eyes stared down women and men on the auction block and to those of investors around the world. Slavery rendered the United States powerful, its white citizens richer and more equal.” (p. 421)

Family Properties by Beryl Satter. Here you’ll find the well-documented history of the contract housing crisis in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960’s. Satter, who teaches history at Rutgers, does not, however, tell the story in the cold, distant tones of an historian. Her father was an attorney who represented many of the African Americans in their fights to keep their home. The dysfunction of the City of Chicago, is exposed, along with the realtors and property owners whose motive was money over people. Satter chronicles the breakdown of whole sections of the city. One of the chapters that I found particularly compelling was the one that told the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to the Chicago. He attempted to import strategies that were successful in the South to Chicago and got buried by the Daley machine.

White Rage, by Carol Anderson. I first learned of Carol Anderson through a powerful op-ed she wrote in the Washington Post following the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. In this book, Anderson examines each historical era in the US since the Civil War and tells the story of how the white privileged, institutional structures of oppression have denied economic opportunity to our African-American citizens. She terms “white rage” that reaction of white people to the advancement of people of color and in that reaction, the inevitable move to derail their advancement. This book was compelling in laying out the ongoing systematic structures of oppression.

The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. On its surface this seems like an odd choice for Black History month, but stay with me for a moment. Here, Painter documents the development of race theory as a real thing, and in particular the notion of American whiteness. Race is not based on biology, but on a sociological construct that is meant to privilege white people and oppress people of color. She provides numerous illustrations through history of how white people have constructed notions of race for a variety of social, economic, and political gains. Read this book for a full scale debunking of the myth of race and of the devastation that such myths have unleashed on those whose skin is not white.

What books of Black History would you recommend?

My Favorite Books of 2017

I still remember the first chapter book that I learned to read: Miss Suzy. I was so proud to  read all by myself this book that my parents had been reading to me forever. Later on, I spent summers wearing out the path between our home and the Bridgeport Public Library. One summer, it was to see if I could read all the Hardy Boys series in one summer. The next summer it was Nancy Drew. My parents bought the Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Civil War, and I read that one summer; we also had the Worldbook Encyclopedia in our home. I didn’t read it cover to cover, but I got my licks in.

Reading continues to be important to me as an adult — as a pastor, as a curious resident of this amazing world, and as a responsible citizen of this nation and the global community. Reading also goes hand in glove with my vocation as a writer. The aspiration to be a good writer requires reading good writing.

2017 has been a year of transition, leaving one call in the western suburbs of Chicago and taking a position as pastor of a church Door County, Wisconsin. Transitions require a tremendous amount of my physical, intellectual, and emotional resources. For me, that means I haven’t done as much writing this year as I had hoped.

Reading, however, has remained constant. And I have read some books this past year that I thought were pretty great. Below is a list of the ones that really stood out for me.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post a short review of each, a new review posted every few days. They’re not listed in any order that would suggest that I liked one better than the other. They are from different genres and I liked them for different reasons. They appear here roughly in the order in which I read them, simply a random list of my favorites from the past year.  If there’s anything that looks intriguing, come back and take a look at the review.

The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit

The Day the Revolution Began, by N. T. Wright

Do I Make Myself Clear?, by Harold Evans

Tears We Cannot Stop, by Michael Eric Dyson

The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt

Original Blessing, by Danielle Shroyer

White Rage, by Carol Anderson

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, by Alan Jacobs

Faith Formation in a Secular Age, by Andrew Root

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

The Deep Challenge of Faith Formation


(This review first appeared in The Englewood Review of Books.)

Andrew Root. Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017.

If you’re sitting in the chair of the lead pastor at your church, and this book came across your desk, you might be tempted to pass it on to your youth pastor or the staff person in charge of the children and family programs. And if you’re sitting in either of those two offices, you might be tempted to put it on the tall stack of books that will offer you one more way to tweak your programs to reverse the slow bleed of people away from a church in decline. All three of you would be wrong.

This book is part cultural critique and part theology, combining to open a new way to think about faith formation and the future of the church.

Most anyone who works in or around the church is familiar with the notion of Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism. It’s the concept that emerged out of the sociological work of Christian Smith and became known in church circles through the work of Kenda Creasy Dean. The individualized, consumer spirituality represented by MTD has cut loose faith formation from the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Root accepts that critique of the church and for the first part of the work offers a detailed explanation of how we got here. He argues that as a culture, we’ve become obsessed with youthfulness, not as a way to honor or form the faith of our youth, but as as a culture-wide ethos out of which flows a drive for authenticity and fulfillment. From that false and empty well comes the church’s notion that if we could only keep youthfulness in the church, we could help people become more authentic and at the same time revitalize our churches.

Root is working out Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age for the broad task of faith formation in the church. Taylor makes a distinction between 3 different kinds of secularism, and Root seeks to unpack the implications of those distinctions for the work of faith formation. In Secular 2 (Taylor’s language), there is a competition between religious space and non-religious space; the church is constantly battling to maintain its hold on religious space. Faith formation becomes a battle to keep the youth participating in congregations, thereby maintaining our hold on that particular religious space. In Secular 3 (again, Taylor’s language), the facade of religion is held onto, even when we as a broad culture have given up on the idea that there can be any connection to the transcendent. Faith is simply the grasp of a set of cognitive truths that inform how we live ontologically in this world.

As an answer to the above, Root spends the second part of the book exploring Paul and how Paul’s understanding of faith helps us to seek connection with the divine in a culture that has lost any hope for transcendent experience. Basing much of this part of the work on the new Finnish interpretation of Luther and justification, especially Tuomo Mannermaa, “faith is a death experience (the cross) that leads to new life (resurrection).” What makes this faith possible is the real presence of Jesus as the minister who comes to us and even comes alongside us in our own experiences of brokenness and lostness to give us his very person as new life. Relying heavily on the great Christ hymn of Philippians 2 and the Orthodox understanding of that passage, Root explains how “the shape of Jesus’s ministering person is hypostasis (union of personhood) and kenosis (humble self-giving), leading to theosis (transformation into being a minister as Jesus is minister).”

Against a culture that eschews transcendent experience, Root argues that we experience transcendence when we stand alongside and minister to our neighbor in their own death experiences (brokenness, lostness). In doing so, “we find the real presence of Jesus, meeting our person with his own, infusing our being with Jesus’s own being as we share in the being of our neighbors humbly acting as her minister.”

The church, then is the household of ministry, and faith formation is centered in the church as the place where people receive the ministry of Jesus and then are sent into the world to minster to their neighbor. “The only thing the church offers the world is ministry! And this only thing, as we’ve seen, is everything. It is the very location of Jesus Christ; it is the energy to turn death into life and make us new beings who have our being and action in and through ministry.”

That ministry, he concludes, is lived out in three distinct dispositions for the church: gratitude, giftedness, and rest. Everything the church does in ministry — all of which is, ultimately, faith formation — is centered in these three distinct dispositions.

Don’t come to this book looking for lists of concrete steps to be taken to improve faith formation in the church. Don’t come looking for ways to tweak what you’re already doing to make it more appealing or more effective. You won’t find any of that.

But do come to this book ready to read slowly, to think and reflect upon the whole enterprise of faith formation from the cradle to the grave, and why the cognitive, programmatic approach that we’ve used for so long isn’t working. Come ready to be challenged and to call into question long held assumptions, and the plethora of bandaid approaches to the complex challenge of being church in this post-Christian time. No question, this is a challenging book; Root is reflecting on the difficulty of trying to connect people with God in a culture that is far more interested in the development of individual fulfillment than a life given over to divine service. I suspect that were we to take seriously Root’s diagnosis of a MTD church, we would blow up our present programs and start from scratch.

My fear is that the technical nature of the book and the short supply of practical tips will keep those who most need to read this from diving in. I hope I’m wrong and that this book will be widely read. One doesn’t have to agree with all of Root’s conclusions or even his sometimes too generalized arguments about how we got here. The rethinking of faith and the resultant reconsideration of how the church does faith formation could be transformative for our congregations. I also think this is one of those books that would be most fruitful if read in conversation with others facing the same challenges — as a staff, as a clergy or other church worker cohort. What holds great promise, in my opinion, is precisely the fact that he doesn’t offer a to-do list at the end of the book. Rather, because each context is different, each congregation with different people, different gifts, different traditions and different theological sensibilities, it becomes the responsibility of each of us to determine how we will each work to make our congregations households of ministry, and thereby deeply and substantively form the faith of our people, for the sake of God’s intentions for the world.

In the preface, Root indicates that this is the first of three books that will explore points and theories within Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and the implications for Christian ministry. Even as I continue to reflect on this one, I can’t help but eagerly look forward to the next two.

When Being Weird Is Good

WeirdChurchA review essay of “Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century, by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2016).

A good bit of my reflecting time and my conversation time these days is taken up with trying to figure out a way into the very uncertain and ambiguous future of congregational ministry. So many cultural shifts have taken place over the past 25 years that the context in which the local congregation does its ministry is hardly recognizable compared to the context in which I entered parish ministry 29 years ago. There’s no time to waste in engaging the challenge of adapting the form, structures, and practices of parish ministry. I’m so grateful for colleagues, congregational leaders, and indeed, a whole congregation willing to enter into this uncharged territory with me.

As we embrace the conversation and try to figure things out, we are always looking for dialogue partners who can help inform our own hunches about what lies in the future. Yes, I believe they are really little more than hunches; no one has firm, well-shaped answers for what’s next.

I most recently found a worthy dialogue partner in the book Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century, by Beth Ann Estock, and Paul Nixon. I know that I’ve uncovered something useful when a book pushes my thoughts in multiple directions, and when I can’t wait to talk about what I’ve read with colleagues and other lay leaders.

Estock and Nixon begin their book with a brief explication of Spiral Dynamics, a theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution. The theory suggests that throughout human history the species has followed a particular pattern of change and growth in human and cultural development. In these opening decades of the 21st century we are witnessing a transition from the rigid rules of character and morality, through the secular organization of society for the sake of the individual, and into a values system that goes beyond the needs of the individual and begins to focus on the needs of the larger community. In part, they suggest, the convulsions the church is currently experiencing is because our model for ministry is still focused on the spiritual needs of the individual, and we have not until recently paid more than lip service to the communal work of caring for all people, issues of equality, consensus, reconciliation, and care for the planet. I’m not enough acquainted with Spiral Dynamics to make any evaluation of its pertinence to congregational ministry; however, I’m also not sure that one has to buy into the theory to find value in their analysis and provocations for thinking about ways to move forward in fruitful congregational ministry.

The first half of the book offers a brief explanation of seven shifts that the authors believe are essential if Christian congregation ministry is going to be viable and sustainable in the coming decades.

  1. Let go of our fears of decline as measured in the things the church under Christendom has measured — attendance, members, budgets. Move into the freedom of a hopeful future guided by the Spirit. Clearly this is an attitudinal shift more than a behavior shift.
  2. Shift the focus from seeing the congregation and the current members as the primary constituency for ministry and  move towards seeing the neighborhoods and other people gatherings that our members are a part of as the primary constituency and location for ministry.
  3. Give up the illusion that the society in which we live is a Christian society; the society in which we live is governed by economics and politics that are in contradiction to a Christian understanding of the world and human community. Instead, adopt the mindset of the early church of going into that world as subversives for the sake of God’s rule.
  4. Give up the mindset that views people as either in the church or out of the church. Rather begin to view all people as God’s people; the witness of the church is to accompany people in trying to make vibrant and living the relationship with God that they are already seeking and yearning for.
  5. Give up the notion that the ministry of the church is to give people the right knowledge about Christianity. Rather, our ministry is to draw people into a lively relationship with God which is more a matter of the heart than the head.
  6. Shift from trying to control how things work and develop through an institutional structure (the local church) and just start stuff and let it go, giving our work the permission and the freedom to grow organically in ways that we can’t predict.
  7. Shift our understanding of leadership from skillful managing of an institution to incarnational leaders who enter into relationship with others and mentor them to do the same.

Even as I write these down for this review, it strikes me that no one of them is unrelated to what I’ve come across before. Still, I found it helpful to have them stated clearly and succinctly. (I’d encourage taking a look at the book to get the full treatment of each of the shifts.) I’m interested in having the leaders of my congregation take a look at these chapters and engage in conversation of the implications for this little corner of God’s kingdom.

The second half of the book is a collection of 18 short examples of how congregations and ministries around the US have experimented with these various shifts. I’m grateful that the authors explicitly offered these examples not as blueprints for what any other congregation should do, rather as examples of the creativity of faith communities seeking to do God’s work in the world and respond to the cultural changes going on around us. I can’t wait to lift these up with my leaders and see what creativity it might spark among us.

Here again is a hopeful treatment of the church today, a book that isn’t forecasting the complete demise of Christian congregations in the US. I also do not think that’s where we’re headed. With the authors of Weird Church, I, too, am tremendously hopeful for what will emerge and tremendously excited to be part of both conversation and action as we seek to do God’s work in the world in our very specific corner of the kingdom.

When Silence Is not Golden

troubled mindsA review essay of “Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission,” by Amy Simpson

You might think that I would be that pastor who is out in front, leading the charge to make the church a safe place to talk about mental illness, that guy who makes sure that my congregation carries out effective ministry to those with mental illness and their families. After all, I have been closely connected to mental illness my entire life.

I think both of my parents spent much of their adult life suffering from depression. My father’s depression was never diagnosed, at least as far as I know, and consequently, he never received any treatment. My mother’s depression was diagnosed, and some medication of the early generations of anti-depressants were prescribed — I remember her talking about Prozac —  though I have no idea how faithful she was in taking her medication. When I was a pre-teen, my mother attempted suicide twice. An uncle went through decades of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). An aunt had what my parents referred to as “a nervous breakdown.” Just what that was, we never really talked about. In the brief year between college and seminary, I spent a short time working at a university research hospital on the pysch floor as a pshychiatric technician; one of my responsibilities was to assist with ECT. Throughout my pastoral ministry, I have walked with and ministered to many families facing significant mental health issues. When approached, I have tried my best to be helpful.

Yet, despite all this, I have been complicit in the church’s silence about mental illness.

That’s the conclusion I have come to after reading Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson.

Ms. Simpson begins by telling her own story of growing up as a preacher’s kid and of her mother’s descent into psychosis and the decades long impact that disease has had, not only on her mother, but the entire family. In fact, the entire book is peppered with firsthand accounts of mental illness in her own family and in the families of people she interviewed in writing this book.

After beginning with her own family story, she goes on to make the argument that mental illness is mainstream; nearly every family has to deal with it in some fashion. Yet as common as it is, there is a cultural code of silence, and still, there is a sense of shame about its invasive presence into our lives. I have found the same thing to be true in my own experience. As I start down the list of active families in the congregation I serve, it is remarkable how many of them are touched by diagnosed mental illness (not to mention the many more whose illness goes undiagnosed.) Yet somehow, still we operate in the church under the cultural code of silence.

The rest of the book is a systematic deepening of our understanding of mental illness and the variety of ways in which the church might be a beacon of hope for individuals and families dealing with mental illness. In no place does Simpson go into a lot of detail, but at every turn, I found helpful information that has broadened my understanding. From thumbnail sketches of the varieties of mental illness, to first hand accounts of what its like to suffer from mental illness, to the ways both individuals and families forge mechanisms for coping, to the extraordinarily difficult task of navigating the healthcare system to get proper treatment, the book provides the basics for individuals and congregations to be inspired and empowered to take action. I came away from this book with a renewed commitment that I am no longer going to be that pastor whose silence contributes to the stigma that mental illness carries. By my own commitment to speak, I am resolved to make the congregation I serve a safe place for those who suffer from mental illness and their families. By coming out of our silence, I’m hopeful that we will also begin to take action.

What If the Problem Is in Our Hearts?

fearoftheothercoverI’m reprinting here a review of the profound and timely little book by William Willimon, “Fear of the Other”. I had the privilege of reviewing this book for the Englewood Review of Books, and the review is reprinted here as it appeared in ERB. I think every person of faith should read this book. In this foggy time of fear and uncertainty, Willimon calls us back to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

The long months of the presidential campaign have given people of faith plenty of self-righteous high horses from which to rail at those who would stir up the juices of our all too common human fear of the other.

Reminds me of that delicious story in Luke’s gospel of a Pharisee named Simon who throws a dinner party and invites Jesus (Luke 7). When a woman with a reputation crashes the party, Simon takes the occasion for some self-righteous harrumphing about Jesus’ rusty skills as a prophet. Jesus doesn’t even know who it is who is wetting his’ feet with her tears and wiping them dry with her hair, Simon says to himself. In a brief and masterfully told parable, Jesus turns the tables on that highly religious man, exposing Simon’s self-righteousness and need for forgiveness.

While it’s quite easy — and satisfying in a self-righteous kind of way — to point at those who stoke our fear of Muslims and Mexicans, and anyone else who is different, what if the problem is not them, but us. What if the problem is that we are so naturally inclined to a fear of the stranger, even we people of faith who claim to love our neighbors. What if we unwittingly operate from a position of fear over against the one who is not like us, the one who for any of a number of reasons is outside our tribe? What if the problem is not out there, but in our own hearts?

That’s the point from which Bishop William Willimon begins in his masterful little book, Fear of the Other. In the introduction he draws the reader in, particularly the reader who takes their faith seriously, that serious Christian who decries the fear-mongering rhetoric of our public discourse. Willimon won’t let us stay in our comfortable place of pointing our fingers at the public figures. We are the Other; we are the ones who have been separated from God by our own sin and brokenness; we are the Other with respect to God. And God has come to us in Christ. The command to welcome is rooted in that very basic salvific event at the heart of the Christian faith, the crashing of the divine into our lives by way of incarnation. And just like the welcome that we received in Christ was costly, so we are commanded to welcome regardless of the cost. Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we have received hospitality at the cross of Christ.

Willimon doesn’t try to explain away or deny the reality of fear. We are hardwired for fear. It’s part of who we are as humans. And with good reason. In the ancient days when human interaction with predators was a part of daily life, a quick flight or fight response was the difference between living to tell about it or not. But that’s not how most of us live. We have unwittingly allowed ourselves to fixate on what we perceive as a danger and misplace that fear towards those who are different. When we allow ourselves either to misplace our fear, to fear excessively, or to be dominated by the avoidance of evil rather than the pursuit of the good, then we no longer are responding faithfully to the brokenness of the world around us. The faithful response is to recognize how we have been changed in the relational and redemptive transaction with a God who has come to us in Christ. All the signifiers that serve to divide us and engender suspicion and fear of the other: class, gender, tribe, race, and history are being reframed and reinterpreted by this single qualifier: we are the baptized.

In the national climate of ramped up fear of the Other, Willimon argues that the church is particularly needed. The church is how God gets what God wants out of us and for getting what God needs for the sake of the world. The gospel of Jesus that saves us does not allow us to turn in on ourselves, but thrusts us toward the Other. Especially in an age of increasing diversity, the church has to answer the challenge of whether we will follow the expanding boundaries of God’s kingdom or not. When it comes to the church’s response, Willimon gets practical, offering a long list of concrete suggestions and challenges for how the local congregation might embody the welcome and hospitality of the Gospel.

I love this book. I want every member of my congregation to read this book. I want this book within reach every time I sit down to write a sermon. It’s not only timely in the sense of a clear response to the fear that has consumed our public discourse, but it’s timeless in the sense that it offers solid biblical and theological reflection for that symptom of our human brokenness that lies pretty close to the heart of things. In his inimitable style, Willimon not only offers profound theological insights and a crystal clear call to living as a Christian in a broken world, but he does so with abundant stories, blending his his keen gift for storytelling with an engaging sense of humor that brings a chuckle as well as a challenge.

I only have one bone to pick, and it’s not with the author, but with the publisher. This is a tiny book in comparison to nearly everything else on your desk; it’s 90 pages and the cover is the size of a 5×7 photograph. It almost feels more like a pamphlet than a book, the kind of pamphlet that, literally, I want to put in the hands of every member of my congregation. But at $15 a copy, I won’t be doing that. I don’t know the exigencies of book publishing and I’m sure it’s more complicated than I can imagine, but how I wish there were a less expensive way to get this in the hands of my people.

As I said, that’s a small criticism. Go buy the book. Take the two hours that it will take you to read it. And then spend the rest of your life attempting to put it into practice.


What If It’s Not about the Rules?

bibleIt’s like that car crash that we can’t not look at. We all want it to go away, yet we keep looking.

That county clerk in Rowan County in northeastern Kentucky has now become the poster child for what some are calling a courageous stand for religious freedom. Her supporters are cheering for her version of Christianity, citing biblical support for her defiance, claiming that she is a righteous woman who is properly obeying God in the face of a law that would require her to sin were she to follow it. Her cause has been picked up by at least two Republican presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz; they appear ready to canonize her as an icon for what they would like this country to be.

Here I sit. An adherent of the same religion, at least in name. A leader in the church. I see her defiance very differently, not as something that brings honor to her faith, but distorts and diminishes the heart of Christianity. She willfully is disregarding the oath that she took when elected as County Recorder. I don’t have so much an issue with that fact that she disagrees with the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. That is her constitutional right. But if her conscience dictates that she can’t do what her job and her oath of office require, then she should resign. Instead she has chosen to grandstand and drag the whole country into this fake debate about religious freedom and a drama that is mostly irrelevant.

It is so striking to me how adherents of the same nominal Christian faith can come to such polar opposite conclusions about her actions, and more fundamentally, about the issue that prompted her grandstanding. Mike Huckabee is an ordained Baptist pastor and was the pastor of a large, successful Baptist church before going into politics. Ted Cruz grew up in the church; his father was the pastor of a large, successful fundamentalist-leaning church. Cruz is graduate of Princeton first, and then Harvard Law School. These are not stupid people.

While I don’t carry the educational credentials of Cruz, I am a leader in the church and called on almost daily to articulate the Christian faith. I come to vastly different conclusions about Davis’s actions, about gay marriage, and I suppose about nearly every other aspect of Christian teaching and Christian life. How can that be?

Earlier this summer, I read The Righteous Mind, a fascinating book by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a moral psychologist and the book sets out to describe how persons shape their moral universe. The common understanding is that people find their fundamental moral principles — often in their faith and their own sacred texts — and then arrive at actions and beliefs that are reasoned from their fundamental moral principles. So, for instance, if we are adherents of Christianity, we look at what the bible has to say about moral issues, the voice of the bible leads us to our moral principles, and then we determine our actions based on those principles.

But Haidt suggests that this isn’t the way it works. Using a wide array of theories, research and experimentation, he describes how people intuit moral positions and then go in search of a moral framework to support their position. So, for instance, if I have an intuitive disdain for homosexuality, that decision is made “in my gut” as Haidt describes it, and then I go in search of support for my position. Did you get that? Let me say it another way: we go looking for divine support for positions that we have taken intuitively.

I’m no expert on psychology, and so I can’t evaluate Haidt’s thesis as an expert. But he does make a compelling case. It strikes me as a cogent argument for, among other perplexing questions, why adherents of the same religion come to such different moral conclusions.

But it also shakes religious foundations to the very core. What could it mean if we do not, in fact, base our moral principles on our sacred scriptures, but on our intuitions that have been shaped by our upbringing, our culture, and even our personality? What then, could Christianity possibly be about, if not a moral code for righteous living?

As far as I can tell, Christianity has never been a moral code. it’s always been about a relationship and a calling. It’s about a recognition of our brokenness, a transformation that comes through Jesus and results in a dying to self and a rising to a new relationship with God, and then a calling to be in the world in such a way that you love God and love your neighbor. Morality? That’s something different.

That fundamental core of Christianity is so easy to forget. We want to be the good people. To be the good people requires knowing the rules. Knowing the rules means you have to make the rules. Then you can tell everyone else what the rules are. And if you don’t like the rules, then you make a different set of rules. And then we get to the kind of saga that is getting played out on our television screens and Facebook feeds, such a distortion of Christianity that I can’t even recognize it.

Here’s to believing it’s not about the rules.