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    Book Review: Goggin and Strobel's The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb

    Power is a tricky subject. It always has been. Power presents great temptations. It is also unavoidable and necessary, can be used for good or ill, and is best understood as a kind of stewardship.

    Power does not always receive the degree of reflection it deserves among Christians. It is an acknowledged presence in congregational, community, and personal interactions but is not always carefully addressed. Christians long for power, and even possess power to a certain degree, but fear naming it. There is kind of confusion that reigns concerning a proper or healthy disposition toward power and how it can be used for good as well as a blindness to its more seductive properties. In naming power, we acknowledge the responsibilities that come with it, as well as the temptations that accompany it. Bringing power to the forefront of conversation exposes us one way or another as good or poor stewards. Perhaps there is fear for what such a conversation might reveal.

    Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel address power in their book The Way of the Dragon and the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It. Far too often, Christian leaders look to the surrounding culture and for cues on power and its use. Goggin and Strobel apply pastoral wisdom and theological insight to the question of power while also inviting the reader to reject prevailing models and take up the way of Christ.

    Goggin and Strobel’s book unfolds as a travelogue. They travel from place to place and interview evangelical sages about power and report their findings, speaking with J. I. Packer, James Houston, Marva Dawn, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, John Perkins, and Jean Vanier. In each of these conversations they weave together their insights about present models for church leadership and why they are problematic and then offer alternative ways of leading the church that bring proper honor and glory to Jesus Christ.

    Goggin and Strobel are right to critique present leadership structures in evangelical churches, which can be overly-susceptible to defining success in terms of attendance, buildings, and cash. When taking their cues on leadership from sources other than Christ, churches can become entrapped by over-reliance on charismatic leaders and resistant to those who serve humbly and faithfully as shepherds. Sadly, small churches can be labeled unhealthy or second-rate just because of their size, when in fact they are just as much a part of the body of Christ as other fellowships who faithfully proclaim the gospel and serve the kingdom. Goggin and Strobel also note that some pastors can also fail to acknowledge God’s call to serve smaller fellowships because of false notions about what constitutes success.

    Strobel and Goggin also address how churches have at times elevated toxic leaders, those who use leverage their ministries for personal empire building rather than as serving as shepherds of an outpost of the kingdom of God. This phenomenon is certainly not limited to evangelicalism. It turns out that churches are just as vulnerable to temptation, corruption, and malfunction as any other human institution. Churches consist of sinners being remade into saints, and as Eugene Peterson notes, they also have sinners for pastors.

    But churches are also home to God’s people and are communities where God’s grace continues to be at work. Goggin and Strobel offer a prophetic call: reject the way of the dragon, the way of worldly power and domination. But they also offer a gracious invitation: embrace the way of the lamb, the way of service and humility, the way of Jesus Christ.

    The way of Christ is the way of weakness, which involves vulnerability, meekness, and the willingness to put self aside. Churches do not grow in maturity through technique or manipulation, but by grace and gentleness. Leaders who have been enraptured by the way of Jesus will be like John the Baptist, but understood that he must become less and Christ must become greater (John 3:30). Goggin and Strobel bring theological and biblical insight to bear on the question of power, and highlight the significance of practices like the Lord’s Table, communion, and baptism as formative in the way of the lamb.

    This is a good book containing a needed challenge for Christianity in evangelical circles and in other denominational or networked forms. The first task of the church is not to rule but to serve. The Christian way of service will differ from all alternatives. It is not a way of rejecting power but instead of stewarding power. It is a way of focusing on others and foremost upon God rather than pursuing the glorification of the self or of a particular congregation. Goggin and Strobel provide a compelling vision.

    But the realization of that vision would require a tremendous work of grace, as I am certain Goggin and Strobel would concede. The prayer of the church then should be one of humility and availability for service, as well as of reliance and trust, that the God who has all power would make his power manifest in his people, and that his people would join alongside the heavenly court, laying down their crowns, and proclaiming that all power and glory and honor are the Lord’s forever (Revelation 4:1-11). There is an alternative approach to power, one which seek to exalt the Lord’s power and is conscious and aware of human limitation, weakness, sinfulness, and need of grace. A different pathway for church leadership and for Christian discipleship is possible. This book points toward a better way.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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."