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    Entries in Discipleship (14)

    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.

    Friday
    Sep302016

    Guides and Companions

    A Christian’s need for personal spiritual direction cannot be delegated to books or tapes or videos. The very nature of the life of faith requires the personal and the immediate. If we are going to mature we need not only the wisdom of truth, but someone to understand us in relation to this truth.

    - Eugene Peterson, "On Spiritual Direction"

    For a three year period while serving in ministry I met monthly with a spiritual director. Martha is a faithful Christian, a Presbyterian, enjoys gardening, radiates joy, and is a person of prayer. Martha listened to my story and helped me to pay attention to where God was at work. Her ministry was a gift to me.

    I know many people who are following Jesus. They listen to sermons, take part in a Sunday School class or a midweek study, read their Bible, and pray. The most crucial concern for Christians, however, is not how much knowledge we accrue or how many practices we take up as a matter of convention, but instead the overall health and maturation of the soul. These things can help, and skilled teachers and preachers can inspire us from afar. But as my teacher Howard Hendricks observed, "You can impress from a distance, but you can only impact up close."

    What our lives often lack are guides who can speak to us concerning our inner life and do so in a personal way. We lack those who will help us face ourselves and ask if our actions align with our held convictions. We are masters of self deception, and without an outside observer who listens and tends and prays alongside us, a person with whom we can be vulnerable and who assists us in remaining accountable to God, we will often choose to serve the gods of our own making rather than the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

    Good guides always know where they are heading, and they also know those they are leading. A good guide knows the destination and discerns exactly what is required to deliver those in their company safely to the end of their journey. Good guides are familiar with the terrain and carefully observe those who traverse it with them, seeking to help along the way. They know when to rest, when to push, when to lend a hand, and when to change course. Good guides also know the names and faces of those in their company, and as they travel together, they learn something of their story, abilities, temperament, dreams, struggles, fears, and hopes. They are able to apprehend the context of their companions, and are thus better able to help.

    With Martha, I was better able to see and discern where I stood on the path. I was also able to see and understand that the path of discipleship, of following Jesus, is not only meant to be perceived and comprehended, but is foremost meant to be walked.

    We all do well when we have such guides.

    Tuesday
    Aug022016

    Glassmaking and Christian Discipleship

    On the Venetian island of Murano glassmakers have been mastering their craft for over a century. This video from Monocle, which caught my eye last week, features the work of Carlo Moretti. You will have to visit the Monocle website to view the video, as I am unable to embed it here.

    Learning about the craft and artisanship of glassmaking is interesting in and of itself. It involves skill, precision, aesthetic sensibility, and flair. Watching the work of the designers and glass masters is wondrously captivating. The glass they create is beautiful, made for the enjoyment and pleasure of the beholder.

    In watching this report, what sparked my imagination was how glassmaking contains numerous elements found within a healthy understanding of Christian discipleship. Among them, I noted the following:

    • Glassmaking requires a kind of knowledge. Master glassblowers understand the properties of glass, how glass is heated and cooled, and how it is shaped. Faith, though possessing an experiential dimension, is likewise a form of knowledge which must be transmitted from generation to generation. One element is proclamation or exhortation, but embodiment, discipline, and demonstration of the knowledge of Christ are also indispensable.
    • To excel at glassmaking requires training. Thanks to our revivalistic heritage in America, Christianity is often depicted as a matter of deciding. While decision is invariably one part of Christianity, discipleship is the difference between a healthy, robust faith and one which stands withering on the vine. To become a master glassblower, one must learn from the masters. The same is true for disciples of Jesus. We must abide first in him, as is commanded in John 15, but we do so in a fellowship wherein we love one another. Within that fellowship, we discover others who excel in the way of Christ, and can pass on to us the lessons they have learned by abiding in him.
    • The development of new talent is necessary for the craft of glassmaking to take on new life. Christianity is by no means a collection of those who are the most naturally talented, but every Christian is given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit then equips the church for ministry and enables the people of God for mission. As people profess faith in Christ and take their place within the community, their gifts must be developed and utilized for service.
    • Carlo Moretti sought innovation within the glassmaking craft through a generative partnership with "Breaking the Mold." How often do Christian fellowships ask themselves, "What creative opportunities are we missing? What practices or vital pieces of knowledge have been lost, or are now in the process of being forgotten? How can we be vulnerable to external critique and challenge, and who do we trust to help us reconnect with our heritage while simultaneously urging us to boldly enter our next season as an outpost of the kingdom?" When the church has solid ties with theologians, serving either in the university or seminary, this is a possibility. It is also a possibility when the church humbly listens to the child, widow, orphan, aged, broken, and forgotten.
    • To unleash contemporary design possibilities within glassmaking, "Breaking the Mold" first looked back to the techniques of the past. This is described as a process of excavation. Chiara Onida, one of the designers, explains that they first wanted to respect the traditions of the past, while also introducing novelty and innovation. One of the foremost admonishing found in the Bible is to remember. Faithful expressions of Christianity will be in keeping with what has come before, yet possessing a newness or freshness that bears witness to the work of the Spirit.
    • Onida also describes a feeling of privilege as she experiences being part of a living tradition. Glassmaking has not been limited to the present age. The craft precedes us, and if it is well tended, will outlive us. So it is with Christianity. Others have followed Jesus before us, and others will do so long after we die. God's grand drama of history is still in motion. We have the privilege of appearing in a few scenes.
    • Gillian Dobias, the narrator states, "Formulating modern strategies that honor traditions without being bound to them is key to reinvigorating the glassmaking community on the island that has, in recent years, struggled to survive. And working with new talent to find novel ways of working with this fragile but palpable material is an alchemy well worth investing in." That is the tension, and the opportunity, found in following Christ and inviting others to join along today.

    Those are my observations. Have any to add?

    Sunday
    Jul102016

    Throwing Your Cloak

    In 1 Kings 19 we find the story of Elijah the Prophet placing his mantle, or cloak, upon the shoulders of Elisha son of Shaphat. We examined this narrative today in worship.

    In the Bible, prophets often donned a particular kind of garb. Imagine the ancient Israelite equivalent of the high school lunch room. You might find warriors, farmers, scribes, all congregating with those of like station. They are all within dress code. And then there is the Prophet table. Shirts of camel hair, rope belts. One or two are engaged in performance art. "Word of the Lord," is one oft-heard phrase. Prophets are found either compelling, repulsive, or contemptible. Few outsiders try to infiltrate their circle. Some draw a crowd, others are dismissed. More than one were killed because of their message. It isn't widely considered a promising career track, much like ministry today.

    In his day, Elijah the Tishbite of Tishbe in Gilead (a great designation) was the most notable among the prophets. As 1 Kings 19 opens, Elijah has experienced what might be considered the pinnacle of his prophetic career. At God's command, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal and God prevailed. But Jezebel, the Queen of Israel, issued a death warrant for Elijah. Elijah fled to Mount Horeb, where God met his needs, reassured him that God had preserved for himself a faithful people in Israel, and gave him a task. He sent him forth to anoint a successor, both for King Ahab of Israel, but also for himself.

    When Elisha son of Shaphat appears on the scene he is plowing a field. Elijah approaches and throws his cloak over him. Elijah doesn't stop. He is on the move. But Elisha leaves his oxen behind and runs after Elijah. Elisha knows that from this moment forth, everything would change. The cloak signals a transference, a weight of responsibility, a trust, and a new start. The mantle of Elijah would be passed to Elisha. Elijah's way of being with God would become Elisha's. Elisha becomes a student, and Elijah is the teacher. But it is the Lord who leads them both.

    Elijah brought a word from God. Elisha was ready to hear it. The first attribute of the student, if they are to excel, is that they must be teachable. And in what might be considered both a "burn the boats" kind of moment as well as a profound expression of praise, Elisha slaughters his oxen, makes a bonfire with his plowing equipment, celebrates a feast with his friends, and sets out to become the servant of Elijah.

    One of the topics visited most often in conversations with my dad is every Christian's responsibility to serve as a witness to Jesus, to share the gospel and to live according to the mandate given in Matthew 28:18-20: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, until the very end of the age."

    Elijah had been given a specific instruction: to seek Elisha son of Shaphat and anoint him as a successor.

    Like the first disciples, we too have been given a specific instruction: to announce the good news that in Jesus salvation has come, God reigns, and kingdom-schooling can commence. In this task, we are never alone. It is God who works in and through us.

    The call to make disciples is, in a sense, a call to throw your cloak, to pass the mantle, to raise up another, to invite others to join you on the way of following Jesus. And it isn't a call to one person here or there, but to all people everywhere.

    Throw your cloak.

    Tuesday
    Dec152015

    George Herbert: The Call

    Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
    Such a Way, as gives us breath:
    Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
    And such a Life, as killeth death.

    Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength;
    Such a Light, as shows a feast:
    Such a Feast, as mends in length:
    Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

    Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
    Such a Joy, as none can move:
    Such a Love, as none can part:
    Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

    - George Herbert, "The Call"

    George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633. He was a Welsh born Englishman, and an Anglican priest. He is remembered best for his poetry. His little book, The Country Parson, should be read by all ministers. If you are not familiar with his poem "Love (III)," take the time to click and read.

    As for the poem above, the first stanza uses a familiar grouping of three words. It is in John 14:6 where Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Herbert composes a progression: by being the way, we are given breath, by being truth, strife ends. With breath bestowed and strife removed, death has died, and Life remains.

    My favorite line in the poem occurs in the second stanza. Here, Light, Feast, and Strength build one upon the other. The light reveals, the feast heals, and strength binds. The word "mend," as it appears here, means both to restore to health and to repair what has been worn and broken. Christ, displaying his strength through weakness, has brought us unto himself as those invited to his table. We are his guests. I have often joked that there are too many who think, "Of course Christ died for me! Why wouldn't he? I'm such a wonderful person!" The reality, however, is that he has made us his guests because of his great love for us, "while we were yet sinners."

    Which leads us nicely to our third stanza. Joy, Love, and Heart. Joy is often understood as a changing emotion rather than as a state, but Christian joy expresses itself as thanksgiving in times of plenty, and hope in times of want. The soul of the joyful person is unmoveable, because they are bound to God in an inexhaustible love. That person's heart, then, constantly bubbles forth joy upon joy, for the love that gives birth to such joy is a wellspring unending.

    Dallas Willard was correct in saying that God is the most joyous being in the universe, for God is love.

    In Ephesians 3:14-21, it is Paul who prays that we would know "how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ." He then says that this love "surpasses knowledge." But in this knowledge, we are "filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."

    It is in that love that we are called.