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    Friday
    Aug182017

    Book Review: James Bryan Smith's The Magnificent Story

    James Bryan Smith is one of my favorite contemporary writers on Christian spiritual formation. His latest book, The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth is another fine contribution to the field. Professor Smith’s writing is pastoral, warm, and intelligent, and this book presents a helpful approach to thinking about God, getting to know Jesus, and living as a disciple in the world. Smith helps us think theologically through the lens of the transcendentals: beauty, goodness, and truth.

    Professor Smith’s book addresses the human longing for a great and magnificent story, one that matches up with our deep desire to be part of a narrative that is rich with beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith believes that the good news of and about Jesus is that story, revealed to us in the life, person, and work of Christ. But Smith argues that the fullness of the Jesus story has been shrunken or reduced in ways that get things all out of balance, emphasizing God's wrath over God's grace, judgement over love, being right over being compassionate, and eternal life in the future over eternal life now. Smith addresses those imbalances throughout the book, offering a different way of seeing and understanding God that aligns more closely with a vision of the beautiful, good, and true.

    Smith focuses on practices in addition to offering counternarratives and alternative ways of thinking about the Christian story. Each chapter ends with a prescribed exercise that helps the reader begin to notice ways God is at work in the world. This approach is similar to what Smith offered in The Apprentice Series: Common Narrative, Counter Narrative, and Practice. In this book, narratives about God are examined in light of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and Smith tests these narratives in light of beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith also encourages his readers to join with others in community as they explore the ideas presented, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide group conversation and to work by grace through the practices he suggests.

    Professor Smith engages theologically with several ideas that are open to debate, and some readers may find themselves in disagreement. Smith challenges penal substitutionary atonement, for instance, as an example of a problematic doctrine. He argues that this representation of the Father pitted against the Son for our benefit does not accord with the idea of a merciful and loving God, nor does it take into account the full story given in Scripture. According to Smith, penal substitution is a shrunken story. Smith argues that we need forgiveness, our sins are real, and that the cross does defeat our sin. However, Smith argues that there is a different way of understanding atonement that better represents God. Smith’s approach is known as the Christus Victor model.

    On this point of doctrine, and perhaps on other points as well, some readers will have quibbles and even deep disagreements. The Christian community is no stranger to disagreement. Our perpetual challenge is to disagree in love while maintaining a firm commitment to unity under Christ, the head of the church. Smith’s critiques are charitable, I believe, and worthy of discussion among Christians. As Smith notes, some beliefs are harmful. Therefore, Christians must always be as clear as possible concerning what we believe, and undertake the challenging work of theology in a manner that is truthful, attractive, and good.

    Smith’s invitation to intimacy with God, knowing the loving kindness of Jesus as Savior, experiencing the availability of grace, and growth in sanctification is clearly explained, compelling, and attractive. This book rings with beauty, goodness, and truth. There may be points of disagreement among Christians that can be discussed in good faith. But the allegiance to Jesus is foremost. In him the church is united.

    I’m always on the lookout for resources that will help people draw near to God, experience the grace of Jesus, and engage seriously with discipleship. This book fits the bill. I recommend it. I appreciate the witness of James Bryan Smith. And I am glad to share with him in the magnificent story of Jesus Christ.

    Wednesday
    May312017

    Book Review: Tish Harrison Warren's Liturgy of the Ordinary

    All too often I hear stories from Christians who experience life apart from the mystery and delight that flows from trusting in the promises of God’s ongoing, everyday presence and companionship. Daylight breaks and routines unfold until the moment the sun hides again beyond the horizon. Another day is put in the books. The calendar turns, and the years pass. After a while, life comes to be described as “just one damned thing after another.”

    Sadly, I have shared these assumptions about life, and God’s workings and ways within it, failing to perceive the unending possibilities immediately before me for love, grace, and the overwhelming tide of the holy.

    That is why it is so refreshing when I encounter a book like Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, has allowed the practice of Christian worship to reshape her imagination and adjust her eyesight, renewing her vision in the everyday. Through engaging storytelling, clear prose, and acute theological reflection, she invites us to see our days not as mundane and meaningless, but as the arena of the eternal and the sacred. We join God upon his playground, as well as in his workshop, and we are his friends and co-laborers. Our play and our work is not profane, but is the very place where our redemption is actualized.

    The structure of her book is very simple. Warren walks us through a single day, from waking until sleeping. She writes, “How I spend an ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life.” She considers her everyday chores and routines, things like making the bed and brushing her teeth, and how these actions remind us of how our lives are shaped, and how we are mortal, embodied creatures. She considers our need for confession, faces the reality of friction in our closest relationships, and contemplates the gift that is a good meal. She takes up the bane that email can be, and often is, and reframes it as but one aspect of vocational holiness. She reflects on time, community, pleasure, and sabbath and explores their meaning for us as human beings. There are no empty calories in this book. Every sentence is a hearty morsel, amounting to a wholesome meal.

    The book also includes a bonus: questions for discussion to accompany each chapter, as well as suggested practices to help the reader become more aware of God’s presence.

    I rarely dish out such high praise, even for books that I like. But I found this book so surprisingly fresh, and so creative, that I cannot help but gush. Consider your days, and, like Warren, allow the practice of worship to reshape how it is that you see. Discover that God’s holiness is abundant and present in every task that we undertake as his servants and friends. God does not remake us into the image of his Son apart from the kitchen, the cubicle, or the park. He meets us where we are. He works in our midst. He speaks in a thousand tongues, and with no sound at all.

    Attune your senses, and open your heart. God is present and active, unfolding his mystery in this moment, and the next. Warren can help us pay heed to the Spirit, to respond to the holy, and to walk with the Son. Take up and read. This is a great book.

    Monday
    Feb272017

    A New Resource for the Lenten Season

    Back in December I signed on with First Methodist Church of Mansfield, Texas to develop a series of Lenten devotional readings that would progress through the Gospel of Luke. Lent begins this Wednesday, March 1. My writings will be featured at First Mansfield's Daily First 15. If you would like to receive the readings in your email inbox you can visit their website and sign up by clicking "subscribe" in the upper right hand corner.

    It has been a pleasure to work with the team at First Mansfield, particularly with Pastor David Alexander. Pastor David has a passion for the local church, for teaching the Scriptures, and for evangelism. It has been good to speak and correspond with him about how best to serve his congregation. Our mutual aim has been for the people of God to be equipped with the knowledge necessary to live faithfully to Jesus.

    Pastor David invited me to join his team in January to film a couple of videos for Mansfield's Lenten sermon series and to speak a little about the devotional series and a small group resource that we developed in tandem. Here is the first video:

    Ben Talks about Super Series from First Methodist Mansfield on Vimeo.

    After working with Mansfield in the fall, Pastor David and his team discovered that people wanted to know who I was, and in an effort to help make a connection, we filmed a second video where I shared a little about my family and vocation:

    Meet Ben from First Methodist Mansfield on Vimeo.

    Many thanks to Pastor David and his team for granting me the opportunity to serve Christ alongside them as a partner in ministry.

    If you have enjoyed reading my stuff and are looking for a resource to help you grow during the Lenten season, I encourage you to visit First Mansfield and sign up for the Daily First 15.

    Through Luke, I hope you meet Jesus, know him a bit better, and follow him in daily life.

    Sunday
    Feb262017

    Living Skillfully

    The King James Version of the Bible still has its uses. In Proverbs 4:7 we read, "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding."

    Eugene Peterson writes, "Wisdom is the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves."

    To get wisdom we must first concede that we do not have it. The teachable heart is a prepared field for the seeds of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. This is horrendous English, but: with whatever getting you got, get wisdom. Once you have it, live a life of skill. Be an exceedingly sagacious engineer, brewmaster, or civil servant. Play the piano with all your might. Raise up students who will surpass you.

    Do not long for others to look upon you and say, "That person is wise." Rather, hope for this awe-filled whisper: "They are a blessing."

    Thursday
    Feb232017

    Picking Henbit

    It is late February in Central Texas and spring has arrived. A mild winter and warmer weather have sped along new growth, not only of green grass and budding bushes, but of weeds. Yard work begins.

    Over the past few weeks I have peered out my back window and observed my yard being overtaken by clover, chickweed, and henbit. I ignored these weeds as long as I could. These invasive weeds lack strong roots, but tend to emerge and overtake the St. Augustine grass I would like to see flourish. The weeds spread their leaves over the top of the lawn, blocking the sunlight my grass needs to thrive. Without an intervention the underlying grasses will wither and die.

    During the past two days I have been at work, pulling up the weeds. Cultivating a garden and tending the soul are close cousins. As I have yanked, gathered, and disposed of these unwelcome invaders, I have reflected upon the spiritual life.

    As in the emergence of an invasive weed, it is often true that we do not always cultivate those things that crowd out the good growth we desire in our own lives. They just take root and begin to grow. We passively let them emerge and unfold. We pause, reflect, and observe the beginnings of something that we know is a problem and could later become an epidemic, yet we delay action. We wait. Or we become consumed by our commitments and the cares of life, even while knowing that the best time to yank a weed is before it goes to seed. 

    Good growth takes tending. It takes attention. And it requires routine. In the spiritual life, we gather with the saints. We cultivate friendships that offer wisdom, accountability, encouragement, and challenge. We spend time reading the Bible, and we abide by the law of love in our quest to be found faithful to the Word. We pray, daily, and listen to the Lord. We worship God. These habits draw our attention to the voice of the God who speaks, who draws our attention to that clover over yonder, or that henbit right there, which, left alone and untended, may eventually occlude the Light that is Christ. 

    Tend your yard, yes, and may it flourish. Better yet, tend your life.