Embracing True Narratives: A Review of The Good and Beautiful God

What stands between you and a deeper spiritual life that makes you more like Jesus? For some, it’s a simple matter of not knowing how to pursue the spiritual life. For many of us, though, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about God and how he’s relating to us. James Bryan Smith explains and tackles this problem in his book, The Good and Beautiful God (IVP, 2009).

Smith is a theology professor, and a regular contributor to Renovaré, which is, in my opinion, one of the best sources today for finding books, events and other equipping resources for pursuing the spiritual life. The Good and Beautiful God is a Renovaré resource, and the first volume in their “Apprentice Series,” a sort of ‘curriculum for Christ-likeness” and means of making time-honored spiritual disciplines accessible to Christians today.

In The Good and Beautiful God, Smith addresses a number of the “false narratives” that we tend to tell ourselves about God. We might convince ourselves that we suffer because God is punishing us for our sins. We assume that the way to earn God’s favor is by doing good things, and if we don’t do enough God won’t bless us. Sometimes we tell ourselves narratives opposite of these but equally problematic – that God doesn’t care about our actions at all. Chapter by chapter, Smith dispels these and other false narratives we may tell ourselves, and replaces them with narratives that present God as the good, beautiful, generous and holy  God that he is. At the end of each chapter, Smith presents a “soul training” exercise for the reader to try out over the course of a week or so. The exercises range from different forms of engagement with Scripture (from lectio divina to reading the Gospel of John straight through) to practices as simple as getting enough sleep. The goal of the exercises is to embed more deeply the true narratives about God, and us that Smith lays out. They’re a way to embrace the true story, and in so doing also embrace the true, good and beautiful God made known to us in Christ.

I would recommend this book to any Christian who’s been hanging around the Church, sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, with little else to say about their faith, but wanting to set out into something deeper. This book provides a helpful introduction to a number of spiritual disciplines to get people started in pursuing the spiritual life. But plenty of books do that. The real genius of this book is that it presents these practices in the context of addressing the false narratives that usually keep us from pursing the spiritual life in the first place. The narratives we tell ourselves, after all, create the reality in which we live.

If you’ve already been practicing spiritual disciplines for some time, this may not be the book for you. You’ll likely read it, nod your head a lot in agreement, maybe find an explanation or illustration helpful, but mostly be thankful that this book exists as a resource for others. You may also wish it was available to you  years ago near the start of your spiritual journey. (I did.)

If you do choose to read this book, take heed to Smith’s advice. Go slowly, and read it in the company of a supportive group of others. Many, perhaps all, of the disciplines that this book will teach you are counter-cultural. They will make you less like the rest of the world even as they make you more like Jesus. That, can be lonely without a supportive community trying the disciplines with you. And when you’re done, don’t stop at the end of the last chapter. Skim the footnotes and make a note of the books Smith cites. There’s a gold mine of good literature to help you continue your journey.

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Deeper Gratitude = Wider Mission

I recently started working my way through the book, The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. It’s a spiritual formation book (one of Renovare’s), and after each chapter, Smyth suggests a “Soul Training Exercise.” At the end of the chapter I read today, the exercise was titled “Counting Your Blessings.” It’s a cliche phrase. All I could think about was the cheesy hymn with the chorus: Count your blessings, name them one by one, Count your blessings, see what God hath done! Count your blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done. I almost turned the page to skip right over the exercise and move on to the next chapter. I’m glad I didn’t.

The exercise was simple. Make a list of good things God has blessed you with for which you ought to be thankful. Try to make a list of 100 blessings. So, I pulled out my macbook, opened the word processor, and started my numbered list. The first few things on  my list were easy to think of because they were either obvious, very simple, or in my immediately memory: the beautiful, clear blue sky I got to look at while running yesterday afternoon; an encouraging message I received from a friend; a funny joke that made me laugh; my icon of Jesus that helps me focus when I pray; etc.  But then the exercise got a little challenging. Not because God isn’t good, but because making a list of 100 anything becomes daunting after the first 10 items or so.

I tried to keep growing my list by looking at what I had already included and identifying other blessings connected to them. My friend who sent the encouraging message is also a loving, compassionate person in general. The person who told the funny joke has a gift for adding humor to situations that would other wise be less pleasant. My icon was painted by an iconographer whose work has helped thousands of others worship Christ more intimately.

Then it occurred to me: Making this list of blessings was forcing me to go deeper with my gratitude, and the deeper I went the more outwardly focused I became. The first things on my list of blessings had to do almost exclusively with myself. I was thankful for the blue sky because I got to see it. My friend’s message encouraged me. The joke made me laugh. The icon helps me pray. But my deeper expressions of gratitude reflected things and people who are blessings to others. The beauty of creation is a gift God is always giving to everyone. My friend has a gift for encouraging a lot of people, and it’s a gift that God uses in her to build up our church. My joke-telling friend makes a lot of people laugh and diffuses a lot of tense situations for a lot of people. My icon is actually a reprint of an older, larger icon that’s been seen and used by many in the Church.

The deeper we go in our gratitude, the broader our outlook becomes. If we want our churches, or our own lives to be missional, outward-focused expressions of God’s love for the world, then we need to practice the discipline of gratitude. Count your blessings. You’ll be surprised what the Lord will do.

Two Tea Drinkers and a Pilgrim

I recently started reading The Way of a Pilgrim – the memoirs of an anonymous Russian peasant chronicling his quest to fulfill Scripture’s command to “pray without ceasing.” The Pilgrim eventually learns from a spiritual director to pray the Jesus Prayer constantly, making it one with his breathing. His unceasing prayer leads him into mystical and miraculous experiences. After his spiritual director dies, he still receives instruction from him in dreams. At one point, he encounters a big wolf jumping at him, but the wolf is fended off by… his rosary. (I won’t even try to explain concisely how that happened…)

I picked up The Way of the Pilgrim again today to read more. Reading a book by a wandering peasant in the comfort of my own home didn’t seem right. So I walked down the street to my favorite place to drink tea – Te Cafe. I ordered a pot of the green tea of the day, and sat down in the big comfy chair in the corner to read more of the Pilgrim’s journey. Shortly into my reading, I across this: “As I came inside the [inn], I saw two distinguished-looking men, one elderly and the other middle-aged and rather stout; they were sitting at a table in the far corner of the room drinking tea.”

I smiled at the connection between me and the book, and kind of wished I would have ordered a pot of Russian Caravan to make the connection even more obvious. I felt a spur of inspiration to imagine myself as one of the men drinking tea and encountering the pilgrim. “Which man am I?” I wondered, “Does it even matter?” As I continued to read, I learned that it matters a lot.

The two men, I read on to learn, were a school teacher and a court clerk. The clerk was immediately sarcastic with the Pilgrim. Upon hearing about the Pilgrim’s encounter with the wolf and how his rosary fended off the wolf, the clerk replied with a smile, “Really? Do wolves pray?” As the pilgrim shared the details of the story, the clerk disregards any sense of the miraculous. He only sees an animal getting frightened by a blunt object being thrown at it.

I wondered to myself, “Is that me? Am I the clerk? Am I only reading the story of a man on an earnest -even admirable – quest but failing to see the depths of mystery, wisdom and holiness at work in the Pilgrim’s story?”

The teacher, on the other hand, saw the miracle, even in ways that the Pilgrim had not yet seen. The teacher saw in wolf’s being tamed by the rosary evidence of the owner’s holiness. The teacher recalls that the animals submitted themselves before Adam, and Adam exercised God-given authority over the animals as he named them. Holiness, the teacher explains is a return to the innocence of Adam in the garden, and that nature still recognizes that innocence and responds as the wolf did.

“Is that me? Am I the teacher? Am I experiencing the depths of mystery, wisdom and holiness in the Pilgrim’s story?”

I know which character I want to be. And the truth is that I’m probably somewhere on a spectrum between the two. I haven’t yet responded to the Pilgrim with the sarcasm of the clerk. But I also haven’t had nearly the depth of insight that the teacher displayed. What I am finding is that I’m falling in love with the God of the Pilgrim. I want to learn from the Pilgrim how to experience God as deeply as he does.

And that’s why we need to look at the Pilgrim’s story – and the whole world – with the same eyes as the teacher. The Pilgrim responds to the teacher’s interpretation of his story by giving him encouragement and instruction in the faith. The Pilgrim disciples him. We can’t learn from the Pilgrim, or any other spiritual master, if we aren’t willing to receive their lives as examples of communion with Jesus Christ.

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, that we would have the eyes of faith to see the fruits of holiness in your saints.

15 Authors

This started as a Facebook meme. The “rules” were to make a list of 15 authors who have influenced you. The Facebook note I wrote just had the list of names, but I thought it would be fun to write an “expanded version” with some explanation about why I chose them and how they’ve influenced me.

This list was off the top of my head, and as a consequence, I think it’s a bit biased toward authors I’ve read more recently. The list might be a bit different if I made it while staring at my bookshelf. Even now, I”m realizing I should have included Jurgen Moltmann, GK Chesterton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe Paul Louis Metzger. But I also don’t know who would be removed from the present list to make room for them. At any rate, here it is:

1. St. Luke – OK,  I know that a pastor picking an author of Scripture as a writer who’s influenced him is about as cliché as a beauty queen using the phrase “world peace.” But the Bible is the one book I read from everyday, so it would seem almost dishonest not to include at least one of Scripture’s authors. Since the ‘rules’ limited me to 15 authors, I decided only to include one writer of Scripture. I chose Luke (who wrote Luke and Acts) because I’ve been very struck in recent years by how he portrays both Jesus and the Church in very similar ways.

2. St. Augustine – It’s rare that I read a book more than once. I’ve read The Confessions three times – first in college, then in my first year of seminary, and most recently in my first year as a pastor. I suspect I may read it again after another major life transition. Reading Augustine’s meditations on his past inspired me to do the same, and enabled me to see God’s presence in my life in ways I hadn’t before.

3. Gerard Manley Hopkins – Hopkins was a poet and a Jesuit priest. He struggled for quite a while about whether he was to pursue the priesthood or poetry. Finally, a friend said to him in a letter, “one vocation doesn’t cancel out the other.” In other words, Hopkins wasn’t to be just a priest or a poet, but a priest who writes poetry. The result was a priest with the creativity of a poet, and poetry with the faith and discipline of the priesthood. Hopkins’ own life example has taught me about doing ministry as a whole person, and that interests that I have “outside” of ministry are, in fact, a part of my vocation as a pastor.

4. Michael Frost and Alan HirschThe Shaping of Things to Come was, as I recall, the first book I read after seminary, and the first book The Upper Room’s initial leadership team read together. Their teaching about what it means to be “missional” has deeply influenced my work and the culture of the church that I’m planting.

5. Don Everts and Doug Schaupp – Their book, I Once Was Lost, is possibly the best book on evangelism that I’ve read, and is influencing the InterVarsity end of my ministry in big ways.

6. Neil Postman – I read Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death in college. It introduced me to the concept of unintended consequences, and that all that we call “progress” (television, internet, cell phones, etc.) can also cause just as much regress.

7. NT Wright – Wright makes the list in part because of how many books of his I’ve read (and probably will read in the future). More significantly, he’s introduced me to interpretations of the New Testament that, while faithful, are also outside of the box of what I’ve been taught in the past.

8. CS LewisMere Christianity was the book that helped me answer more clearly the question of why I believe. It probably aided my intellectual conversion more than any other book apart from the Bible.

9. Phillip Yancey – Like Wright, Yancey makes the list because of number of books I’ve read from him. Most of them were in college. It’s been a while, and I’m not sure if I would enjoy his stuff now as much as I did then. Nevertheless, it certainly shaped me in big ways.

10. John Calvin – For a Presbyterian, this is almost as cliché as including the Bible. But, I spent a good deal of time in the Institutes while in college, and then even more time in seminary. Reading them helped me better understand my own tradition.

11. Karl Barth – I was first introduced to Barth in college. We didn’t actually read Barth. We read about him, and listened to our professor talk about him. People in the class questioned his salvation. (Gotta love Grove City…) I finally read him for myself in seminary, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would doubt his faith. Most of what I’ve read from Barth has had to do with sanctification/holiness and mission. He’s had a great deal of influence on my thinking of both.

12. John Webster – I read Webster’s book Holiness in seminary. More than any other book, it made me realize how important the role of the Church is in one’s spiritual growth. Reading this book is what first made me think about a PhD that would focus on ecclesiology.

13. Anton Chekhov – Since I minored in theatre in college, I needed to include at least a couple of playwrights on this list. I enjoyed reading several of Chekhov’s dramas. But I really like his one-act comedies. I directed The Boar for one of the One Act Festivals at Grove City, and still have fond memories of that.

14. William Shakespeare – I remember struggling with Shakespeare in high school. We did several projects/workshops in our high school drama class of several Shakespeare scenes, and I felt completely lost as to what was going on. Finally in college, I presented a scene from the Taming of the Shrew for my Oral Interpretation class. It was the first time I actually understood Shakespeare, and it felt like a small victory.

15. Albert Hsu – Hsu’s Singles at the Crossroads has helped me understand my being single and place it within a sense of God’s purposes. It helped me to see how the church and our culture are both biased against singleness, but more importantly, it helped me see singleness as a gift to appreciated as much as marriage.

I Am Not the Holy Spirit: Reflections On The Go-Between God by John V. Taylor

I am not the Holy Spirit. An obvious statement, yes, and one that I would never deny verbally. In action, though, I often live as if I am the Holy Spirit, and I suspect I’m not alone in this behavioral blasphemy. As Christians, we believe that God’s Holy Spirit is within us, guiding us and forming us into the image of Jesus Christ. Often times, though, the Holy Spirit I claim to follow bears striking resemblance to myself. He seems to have the same personality as myself, the same desires, and the same thoughts. From my perspective, it’s not just the Holy Spirit who seems to resemble me. Even as I interact with others, I project myself onto them. I enter dialogue with another assuming he has the same values, the same basic assumptions about life, and the same worldview. I suspect I’m not the only one with this problem, but maybe that, too, is a projection of myself on the rest of the world.

It’s this interaction with the Holy Spirit and with the “other” that John V Taylor addresses in The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission. Taylor was an Anglican bishop and theologian, doing most of his work in the mid-twentieth century. He worked for sometime as a missionary in Uganda, and brings a missionary perspective to his work. The Go-Between God was first published back in 1972, and is now considered a classic theological work. (In fact, the edition of the book I read is from the SCM Classics series.)

Drawing heavily on Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Taylor’s main point of the book is that the Holy Spirit primarily works as a “go-between.” In other words, when individuals meet and converse, the Spirit is not merely “in” each of the individuals, but is His own personality working between them. If life were a drama, the Holy Spirit would be a separate character with his own personality. To use another analogy, used by Taylor, if a conversation between two people were represented by the equation 1+1, the Holy Spirit would be the “+”.

Not only do we need to see the Holy Spirit as his own character, Taylor goes on to explain that the Spirit’s function in the mission of God is to draw people together, to be the “+” in the 1+1 equation. The Spirit does this, Taylor argues, by helping people to see other individuals and entirely “other” than them. To help people to realize that the other person in the dialogue sees the world through entirely different lenses shaped by their own experiences.

Taylor draws out numerous implications for Christian mission. Among them, he writes of the importance of listening when doing evangelism or interfaith dialogue; that before the gospel can be proclaimed by one person to another, the evangelist must understand the worldview of the other. Taylor devotes an entire chapter to the pentecostal movement, and explains that the rest of the Church needs to learn from them in order to become more aware of the Holy Spirit’s personality and action. What I found most striking, though, was Taylor’s chapter on prayer in the Spirit. Taylor first explains, “To live in prayer, therefore, is to live in the Spirit; and to live in the Spirit is to live in Christ… to live in Christ is to live in prayer. Prayer is not something you do; it is a style of living.” And he later continues, “…we are saying that the essential missionary activity is to live in prayer.”

This, of course, is nothing new, but the type of prayer Taylor went on to recommend I found intriguing. He called it the “prayer of stillness.” The first step is to still the mind. (For what it’s worth, Taylor suggests Yoga or Tai Chi as methods to do this.) Next, he says to focus your awareness on another object – a lit candle, a glass of water, etc. When entirely focused on the object, the next step is to begin to think of it as a symbol of Christ – the Light of the World, Living Water, etc. – and then to slowly replace the image of the object in our mind with the person of Christ himself. The value of this type of prayer, I think, is that it brings us into deeper awareness of the Hearer of our prayers. We realize that when we pray, we actually are speaking to someone else. This awareness can then move toward those for whom we’re interceding, prompting us to pray for them without projecting ourselves onto them.

The Go-Between God has been published for nearly 40 years, now. But I think it’s a much needed book for ministers and missionaries today. In my pastoral work, and my campus ministry work, I’m often struck by how eager people are to take advantage of a listening ear. On more than one occasion, strangers I’ve met for the first time have shared with me deeply painful experiences of brokenness from their past, and longings for their future. Our busy and individualized society is increasingly isolating us from one another, and it’s leaving people with the desire to be heard and to be known by others. And I suspect that in the midst of our busy-ness, the Holy Spirit too is calling out for us to listen and to know Him. The Go-Between God paints a picture of the Spirit that just begins to scratch the surface of the Spirit’s personality, and the personality of humanity, and invites us to dive deeply into further exploring the deep mysteries of the Spirit and our neighbors.

Thoughts on “The New Christians” by Tony Jones

the_new_christians_tony_jonesAbout a year ago, now, I attended the Church Basement Roadshow when it stopped at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Communty in Pittsburgh. The Roadshow was a book tour for 3 then-recently-published books by Tony Jones, Mark Scandrette, and Doug Pagitt. I was really intrigued by what Tony had to say then, and so I picked up Tony’s book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.

Though he stepped down from the position last year, at the time of writing The New Christians, Tony was serving as the National Coordinator for Emergent Village. In The New Christians, Tony gives an explanation of the emerging church movement, including the shifts in our broader cultural context from modernity to post-modernity, some of the earlier history of the movement, the theology and ecclesiology behind the movement, and some contemporary stories that illustrate what the emerging church looks like on the ground.

The stories from the movement, both its early history and more recent stories of emerging churches, are what’s most helpful in the book. More than anything else, the emerging church is a movement of people. It’s difficult to define emergent Christianity in terms of a particular doctrine or theory, which Tony illustrates very well in the diversity of stories he tells. Tony’s stories aren’t just diverse in terms of the theological perspective of the individuals, though. Tony also reports “dispatches” of emergents who are very much at the center of the movement (though they wouldn’t like to be considered at the center or choose to be there) as well as lesser known emergents, faithfully demonstrating the movement’s egalitarian values.

What I found less helpful about the book is the ways in which Tony handles his and the emerging church’s critics. Tony begins the book by critiqueing and attempting to reveal the weaknesses of both evangelical/fundamentalist/conservative forms of Christianity and liberal/progressive forms of Christianity, as well as criticize both the religious right and left for attacking each other and the emerging church. He concludes that “Christian leaders resort to unnuanced attacks on one another.” [p.21] While this may be true, Tony says this after critiqueing and rejecting both the “right” and the “left” in less than 20 pages. His criticisms ultimately comes across as the pot calling the kettle black.

Tony also takes the comments of his critics VERY personally. Granted, some of his critcs have made comments that are very personal. Yet as I read the book, I couldn’t help but get the impression that Tony wasn’t prepared for some of the harsh criticism his thoughts have received. Much of the book comes across as defensive, and in some cases even as emotional venting.

The personal responses to personal attacks lead to what I think is the greatest weakness of the book. Because Tony responds in such a personal way that it’s hard to tell when Tony is talking about the characteristics of the emerging church and when he’s speaking more from his own opinion.

At the same time, this may be the book’s greatest strength. For much of the book, reading it feels like sitting across the table with Tony and chatting him. The New Christians is very much an insiders account of the emerging church, and Tony’s personal interest in the movement, his passion, and his emotions give the book an extra measure of authenticity.

If you’re looking to be inspired or to find new insights into the current state of the church, The New Christians will probably disappoint you. If you’re looking for an authentic first-hand account of the emerging church movement, though, The New Christians is certainly worth checking out.

Review: Being a Christian in Science

I picked up this book, written by Walter Hearn, for two reasons. First, I was looking over a bibliography of books recommended by the Grove City College faculty. This was on the list, and it caught my attention. Second, (and probably the reason why it caught my attention), I’m entering into ministry to graduate students at CMU and Pitt. Both schools have great departments in various sciences, and I know nothing about science, so I thought this would be a good introduction.

The book is actually about 10 years old now, but I still found some of the opening chapters to be excellent, mainly because of the theology of vocation that Hearn lays out. Hearn’s basic argument is that the world of science is a subculture, and thus a mission field. Christians entering into the world of science thus ought to see themselves as missionaries to this subculture. This is actually very similar to what Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch Call for on a broader scale in The Shaping of Things to Come.

As much as I enjoyed and agreed with those chapters that had more to do with theology, I was quickly reminded in the subsequent chapters which focused more on science that I am not one of those Christians called to be a “missionary” in science. Nearly all of Hearn’s discussions about various sciences went right over my head, which is somewhat humbling considering he wrote the book with the intention that it would be accessible even to high school students considering a career in science.

That being said, I get the impression that a lot of the science chapters are outdated. The few parts I actually did understand seemed to be such. For example, you may as well skip the ten-year-old chapter on the internet. Nevertheless, I would still recommend this book to Christians entering any of the scientific fields, if for no other reason than for the theology of the opening chapters. The world of science needs missionaries, and preferably missionaries who can understand the second half of Hearns’ book.