Book Review: The Art of Neighboring

I almost never purchase books when they first come out – mainly because I’m cheap, but also because I have so many other things on my shelf to read that I figure by the time I get around to actually reading a book I buy, I could have bought it cheaper anyway.

Such is the case with the 2012 book by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon titled The Art of Neighboring.  I don’t remember when exactly I discovered this book, but I finally bought it last year (used on Amazon – I’m a total cheapskate) and finished it last week.  I’m not one for hyperbole, but I think I can actually say that this is the most valuable ministry book I’ve read for several years.  Nothing the authors say is particularly novel or earth-shattering, which is part of its brilliance.  Their entire message is rooted in the very simple and fundamental question: What if Jesus meant that we should love our actual neighbors?

The problem is, the authors point out in the beginning of the book, that hardly anyone seems to even know their neighbors.  They use the simple strategy of mapping out your house and the eight houses that are closest in proximity to your house, and ask the question how well do you know the people in those eight houses?  Do you even know their names?  Their families?  Their jobs?  Based on their experiences, the vast majority of people they’ve talked to can’t name their eight closes neighbors.  Most of their message can be summed up in the simple statement: Get to know your neighbors!

The whole idea for this “neighboring” movement was born  in Denver, Colorado where several local pastors were told by their mayor that most of the social ills of their community could be addressed if people simply learned to be good neighbors.  This realization prompted this group of pastors to work together and encourage their various churches to begin to intentionally get to know their neighbors.  The whole concept sounds so obvious that it seems a shame that such a book is necessary.  But it’s true. We’ve simply lost the ability to be good neighbors.

Our family has charted a similar path over the past 5 years to get know our neighbors, and we serve as a personal testimony for exactly the point this book sets out to make.  Too many Christians are too caught up in the bubbles of their church world that they often miss what is going on right under their noses.  I grew up in the country, so this whole neighborhood thing has taken me awhile to get used to.  I remember how strange it seemed to me when we bought our first house that my bedroom was less than 100 feet from my neighbor’s bedroom.  We slept less than 100 feet away from each other, but knew almost nothing about each other!

Pathak and Runyon make a compelling case for why we should get to know our neighbors (which is the easy part!), but then they provide plenty of firsthand examples of how rewarding and fulfilling it can be.  Additionally, they talk from their firsthand experiences of some of the challenges that opening your lives up to your neighbors brings.  The book is packed with practical pieces: group discussion questions, block party kits, and even more on their website.

The book moves from making the case that anyone and everyone can master the art of neighboring to some of the more pressing issues that come up once you begin the process.  I am glad that the very first thing they address in this section has to do with motivation.  Our motives in being a good neighbor can never be to convert people.  I hate it when someone calls me on the phone and is especially nice to me, only to find that their real motive is to sell me something.  It drives me crazy.  Christians are never called to be a good neighbor so that we can sneak the Gospel in there somewhere.  We are good neighbors because we are Christians.  And if we are Christians, eventually it’s going to come out, and eventually it’s going to make an impact.  But that is not our motivation.  Unfortunately, some of the rudest sales calls I’ve had at the church office has come from Christian companies trying to sell the church things – it’s almost like it’s in our blood.

The authors are also quick to speak to the Pollyanna tendency that can come from our attempts at being a good neighbor.  Once we become more intentional in our relationships  with our neighbors, it is inevitable that conflict and challenges will arise. Pathak and Runyon share firsthand stories that help reinforce the need for boundaries and the distinction between being all things to all people and being everything to everybody.

I don’t know that I’ve done a very good job of summarizing the book itself, but would encourage you to pick it up and read it yourself.  I share in their sentiment that if churches would begin to preach this message and equip and encourage their people to root their ministry in their own particular neighborhoods, we would, indeed, change the world.  If you are looking for a ministry book to encourage you, challenge you, and give you a new way to approach your local ministry, I believe you will be hard-pressed to find a better one than The Art of Neighboring.  In some ways I wish I would have read it sooner, but better later (and cheaper!) than never.  Read this book if you are looking for a practical and meaningful way you can put your faith into action and be led on an incredible journey.

Advertisements

Writing, Sports, Stephen King, and Donald Trump

I am envious of bloggers and writers who are able to maintain a consistent online presence.  Noticing that my last blogpost was more than four months ago, consistency is not the  name of my game.  When it comes to writing, the idea of writing is a lot more romantic and attractive than the actual writing itself.  It was about a year ago that I completed the longest writing project in my lifetime – a 200-page, double-spaced ode to sports and youth ministry.  As I clicked the final “submission” button for that project, somewhere a fleeting thought of optimism passed through the neurons of my cerebral cortex elating, “Now I will have the time and energy to blog and write more often about the things that I really want to write about.”

In one of Stephen King’s books he talks about how often people approach him and say, “Man, I would love to write a novel, but I just don’t have the time.”  King’s response is, “If you are a writer – you write.”  I think about that statement often.  As I have grown older, I have found an increasing joy in writing.  I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of artistically crafting sentences: searching for the right nuance of adjectives, wracking my brains for just the right verb, diving deeper for most meaningful word, typing and deleting, typing and deleting, typing and deleting.  I’ve come to appreciate something almost therapeutic about writing.  And yet, much like those throes of people who approach Stephen King, I just can’t seem to find enough time to write.  I just might not be a writer.

While irons never seem to leave the fire and familial responsibilities compete with pastoral ones, sitting quietly in front of a keyboard, typing out the thoughts and feelings pouring through my mind at any given moment just never seems to make its way to the top of the leader board on that day’s to do list.  Nevertheless, in the 60 days that have already passed in 2016, I have felt an overwhelming tug to make the time to write.  It’s almost as though I need writing to help work through and process the infinite number of feelings and emotions that are taking place each and every moment.  Reading and writing are important times to pause amid the busyness of the day.  Even now, I am compelled to tell myself to listen.  So, maybe this is another installment with the next coming four more months from now, but my soul needs decompressed, and in order to do that, I first need to purge.  So, forgive me while I purge through a litany of disconnected and unrelated topics and subjects that have been racing through my mind lately.  If you read them, thank you, and I hope you find some value in them – but the real value in this exercise is in my purging more than in your consuming.

Sports and Ministry 51xremj98jl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

Thoughts on youth sports and theology continues to take up a rather large portion of my time.  I recently read and reviewed the forthcoming book, Overplayed, by David King and Margot Starbuck.  The book comes out next week and reiterates a lot of the stuff I have been saying over the past couple of years.  My review is for the Englewood Review of Books and will probably be available next week.  I don’t want to rewrite the review here, so I’ll just link it when it is available.  In short, Overplayed would make for a great book for church youth groups or small groups of parents whose children are involved in youth sports.  Parents will find it both encouraging and challenging on several levels.  It is easy to read and easily utilized as a small group discussion book.

I continue to be amazed at how often I am having conversations with parents about the challenges that youth sports presents their families.  The Metzes are about the feel the full effect of having active children as our girls have decided to branch out from the confines of the dance studio this spring and summer with soccer and softball teams.  I continue to learn, discuss, and explore as we go!

The Stephen King Project2099-500x800

Awhile back I created a tab on the blog for The Stephen King Project.  If you’ve clicked on it, you’ve discovered that it is incredibly empty.  Nothing there.  I have a good idea, good intentions, but just haven’t been able to put it all together.  Back in 2014, I set out to read all of Stephen King’s books chronologically beginning with Carrie.  Some I had read before, so I am re-reading them when I come to them, but most of them I am working through for the first time.  Obviously (now two years later), I am working slowly through them, but my admiration and appreciation for King continues to grow.  Hopefully, this week I will be finishing up his longest novel (and maybe my favorite? we’ll have to see how it ends): It.

Few authors have been as popular as King and his early works are especially well known because of the incredible number that were turned into movies.  His stories tend to be gory, gruesome, and he is easily the best known author in the horror genre, but what can be easily overlooked is the complexity and (often) beauty in his writing.  Additionally, there are clear Christian theological undertones that inform many of his stories and I hope that one day The Stephen King Project will include a theological review of each of his stories.  It is a particularly compelling example of King’s use of Christian metaphor and imagery.  In a lot of ways It is an extended (if gruesome) parable of Jesus’ teaching, “Let the little children come to me.”  This project falls quite low on the list, but I’d like to at least type out some quick thoughts as I finish each of the novels while the story in fresh in my mind.  Stay tuned for my take on It.

Sports and Christianity Conference

Just today I set up a Go Fund Me account to help pay for me to attend the Inaugural Global Congress on Sports and Christianity event at York St. John University in York, England.  I anticipate sharing two papers at the event: “The American Youth Sports Industrial Complex, the Betrayal of Local Community, and its Impact on Local Congregations” and “The Priests of the Games: A Call for More Christian Referees.”  World class theologians will be there giving keynote presentations: Stanley Hauerwas and Tony Campolo, as well as the author of one of the most significant books to be written on sports and Christianity in the last 100 years Michael Novak.  I hate to ask for help in paying for the trip, but my education budget is tapped out for awhile.  I am excited about the possibility and hope to go be a part.  Incidentally, if you’d like to help, here’s the link to my page:
A Brief Word on Politics

I think I am suffering the effects of a political hangover.  I mean, here we are in the most unusual and interesting political election in any of our lifetimes, and I just find myself rather disinterested.  That’s probably overstating the case a bit, but I do feel rather unemotionally involved.  That’s not to say I’m not frustrated with the cantankerous fighting between politicians and the seemingly lowering of standards by which politics are handled.  That’s  not to say that I remain incredibly disappointed in Christian leaders voicing their support for Donald Trump.  Thankfully, there are many others doing that.  The problem is, none of the other candidates are any better.  And I don’t say that in any kind of dismissive, upset toddler kind of way.  I mean we will constantly be disappointed and upset if we continue to place our faith and trust in the powers of this world.  There is a reason my belief in pacifism has grown in recent years instead of weakened.  The rancor of politics affords people the opportunity to make themselves feel like they are fulfilling some drastically important political responsibility and the weight of the world lies on their vote while not actually contributing to any project or efforts that actually enact change.

I’m not saying politics don’t matter or that elected officials don’t matter.  I know plenty of Christians who vote their consciences (many voting for opposite candidates), and I can respect that.  However, it is more difficult to respect those who treat their vote as their most powerful weapon or voice.  As Christians, we wield a power so much stronger than that.  We don’t need to go around rubbing that in people’s faces, but can’t we find the internal confidence and reassurance to not have to play by the same rules as everyone else?  No matter what person is elected – Hillary, Bernie – or even Trump . . . we’re going to be OK.  I think deep down, most Christians believe that, I’m just disappointed that I don’t hear more people saying that – actually leading with that.

Sportslebron-james-thumbs-up-miami

While I am purging.  I have this sinking feeling, as a Cleveland sports fan, that it’s happening again.  The Browns are in complete disarray and things may be looking optimistic for the Indians (it’s just so hard to win it all in baseball), but with LeBron’s decision to come back to Cleveland, it appeared all but certain that the Cavs would be the harbinger of sports championships for the city so desperately longing for one.  They were so close last year, and they’ve tweaked here and there to try and take that final step . . . and then it just so happens (in true Cleveland fashion) that something we’ve never seen before is beginning to take place.  What Golden State is doing with Steph Curry at the helm is leaving the sports media speechless (and that’s saying something).  There’s still quite some time to go, but you have to be crazy not to at least question whether or not the Cavs can climb that mountain.  I’m no the-sky-is-falling pessimist, but I am beginning to have that feeling of “here we go again” as the Warriors are playing at such a ridiculously high level.  My respect for LeBron is immense since his selfless return to Cleveland (how could it be seen as anything else), but the curse of Cleveland seems to be working in an altogether different way than it ever has before.  (If you’ve read It, it’s kind of eerie to see the parallel here as the clown manifested itself in so many different ways through its history in Maine – the same thing can be said of the curse in Cleveland.)  The sky is definitely not falling and the Cavs are definitely one of the best teams in the NBA . . . but those teams in the West . . . they certainly give us Cavs fans plenty to be worried about.  Let’s just hope I’m wrong.

That’s enough purging for today.  Hopefully, that purging will help me to move towards some more well thought-out ideas in the coming days and weeks.  Some of the things I hope to be posting about soon . . .

  • My (not so successful) experience with Lent this year
  • Our journey through the books of the Bible (Acts, Exodus, and Matthew so far)
  • Parenting in this age of technology (I am teaching a class in a couple of months about faith and technology with a special attention to parenting)
  • Politics – I’m sure I’ll get back in the ring to discuss them
  • Neighboring
  • Maybe an article or two specific for my Christian tradition (the Churches of Christ)
  • Woodworking – I’ve got a couple of projects at home waiting for me to dig into this spring – I want to try and document more of these things here on the blog

 

 

The Unkingdom of God: A Book Review

unkingdomOnce in awhile I review a book for Mike Morrell and Speakeasy.  I haven’t reviewed one in awhile, but when Mark Van Steenwyk’s book came available, it looked like something I’d like to dig into.  The Unkingdom of God is, essentially, a reflection of the practice of Christian anarchy shared through Van Steenwyk’s experience as a practitioner as a Mennonite pastor in Minnesota.

Unfortunately, I was not captivated by Van Steenwyk’s prose and skimmed through some portions I found to be somewhat repetitive even though I enjoyed the general thrust of The Unkingdom.  Throughout the book, I found myself unsettled by some of the author’s claims, though I usually realized that I was more put off by the fact that these are things I need to hear more than any issue I had with his message in particular.

A few years ago I went to a lecture by Irish, post-modern philosopher (and consummate critic of Western evangelicalism), Peter Rollins, and I distinctly remember him acknowledging his place at the periphery of the church.  He said something to the effect of, “I stand at the edge of the church beckoning her onward, beyond her complacency and inspiring her imagination.  I don’t expect everyone to stand alongside me.”  I’m sure he even acknowledged that it isn’t a safe place to be.  In the same way, at the Streaming Conference at Rochester College, back in October, the prolific blogger Richard Beck mentioned how he had really resonated with Rollins’ work on doubt and uncertainty.  However, once he began working with a prison ministry, he began to lose his resonance with Rollins.

I  say all of that, because I think Van Steenwyk’s work is similar (though not in content), to Rollins.  Van Steenwyk stands at the edges of the church and beckons the entire church to consider the implications of its complicity with the powers of the world.  In the tradition of the Israelite prophets, he asks the church, “Can’t you see who you’ve become?  Don’t you see what’s become of the mission of God?”  Interweaving his personal story of calling and transformation, Van Steenwyk does salvage conversations of Christian anarchism from the world of esoterism where so much of that conversation often remains, and asks the all-important question, “What if we actually tried that?”

He’s kind of like one of those annoying friends who just won’t let something go.  The kind of friend you need to keep you honest, and make you reflect – even when you don’t want to.  As David Fitch says in the Introduction, I don’t always agree with him, and even in my own anti-institutional leanings, I can still see an upside and the contributions of systems more than Van Steenwyk ever acknowledges.  In emphasizing their fallen nature, the author seems to forget that, as Walter Wink himself emphasizes, the powers and principalities are inherently good.  However, like that annoying friend who just won’t let it go without a concession, throughout his book, Van Steenwyk continued to nag me relentlessly to acknowledge the  injustices I so often ignore.  He emphatically calls the reader to a radical notion of community that we long for deep down, but see unable to allow ourselves to try.

While I haven’t read extensively in the area of Christian anarchy, what I have read often is so far removed from actual practice that it often leaves the reader inspired, but with no practical suggestions to turn toward in order to begin.  Mark Van Steenwyk does succeed in that, I believe – in remaining stringently practical throughout.  I found myself, throughout his book, reflecting on my current practices of “being a Christian” and he pushes me forward to break down more barriers, to overcome more insecurities, and, ultimately, to trust in God.  I think this book is a great offering for someone who maybe completely new to this radical notion of the kingdom, and who needs a kindred spirit to empower them to ask challenging questions.  For others who are better read in Wink, Stringfellow, and Yoder, this may be better set aside in favor of some other options.

2014 – My year in reading

Böcker

A few years back I started writing down all the books I read each year because it was getting difficult to keep up with all of them.  I’d start to forget if I read a book, and if I did, when, and all that.  Plus, it has made it easy to go back and reflect on the best stuff I read over the past year.  I don’t read like most people.  The vast majority of what I read is a few years old.  Did you know if you wait a year or two, books are cheaper?  That’s the gist of my philosophy on reading.  So if I really want a new book, I’ll but it on Amazon, but, but mostly my books come by the whim of a Goodwill store of a Half Price bookstore.

A few notes on the genres in which I spent my time reading.  1 – I finished the bulk of my research for my dissertation, so there I read a whole lot of books on the sociological and theological connection of sports.  That’s becoming the sweet spot in my reading.  That’s where I like to spend my time.  2 – I decided last year that I was going to begin to read all of Stephen King’s novels in the order in which they were published.  As a rule, I don’t read a ton of fiction, but I have long enjoyed Stephen King’s books.  I find him to be a great story teller, and I often resonate with these stories.  Throughout the year, it provided a nice break from nonfiction.  3 – I’m hoping to diversify my reading more this year.  We’ll see what happens.

Best book I read in 2014

they played their hearts out

They Played Their Hearts Out is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  It’s a wonderfully told true story of the grassroots basketball machine in Southern California.  The author, George Dohrmann, was allowed behind-the-scenes access to a coach trying to break into a lucrative, grassroots, corporate-sponsored coaching career as well as about two dozen different players who Dohrmann followed from middle school through college (some of the biggest basketball schools in the country).  It is inspiring at times, disheartening at others, and really eye-opening throughout.  As I discovered in my research, AAU basketball isn’t really thrilled to have journalists probing around behind-the-scenes, and Dohrmann’s book provides an essential perspective.  He goes where few journalists have ever gone before and has provided a realistic insight into the very youth sports machine that my dissertation is critical of.  Kobe Bryant’s recent comments along with LeBron James‘ helped bring light to the same topic even more recently.  Anyone who wants to think seriously about youth sports should read this book.

Best Stephen King Book I read in 2014

the stand

At this point, I think I’ve read about 20 of Stephen King’s books. Next up this year is his work of non-fiction Danse Macabre.  As I said earlier, I’ve taken up Stephen King’s books, because he is one of the few authors of fiction I’ve especially resonated with.  And of all of his books I’ve read, this was probably the one I enjoyed the most (with the exception of the Dark Tower series).  I remember watching the mini-series that was based on the books back in the early 1990’s, and have been rewatching it on Netflix.  I enjoyed the show, but the book was absolutely brilliant.  I lost myself in it over the weeks that I read it.  I read the abridged version, and plan to read the longer version when I get to the point that it was released in perspective of the others.  This novel proves, once and for all, that Stephen King was post-apocalyptic before post-apocalyptic was cool.  While the subject has become a staple in literature, on television, and in the movies, The Stand remains as one of the best of the lot.

Book I Should Have Read Earlier than 2014

sex god

I like Rob Bell, but have never been part of his cult of personality that many others have been.  I read Velvet Elvis and enjoyed it, I read Jesus Wants to Save Christians and enjoyed it even more, I watched the NOOMA videos and thought some were brilliant, and others were weird, but it wasn’t until this past year that I finally got around to reading the copy of Sex God and wondered why I waited so long.  I read it as I was studying to teach a class on the controversial topic of homosexuality (you can check it out online here) and it really helped provide me a framework to teach the class.  I wish I was as creative as Rob, and I appreciate his out-of-the-box way of seeing things.  It’s a really nice book on sex.

Book that I Keep Coming Back to from 2014

changing the gameIf sports ain’t your thing, sorry to bore you with these contributions from last year, but as I said, that’s where my head’s been the past couple of years.  John O’Sullivan has provided the youth sports industry in America with a resource that I hope more and more people will take a look at.  In all my research in this area, I didn’t find any resources quite like this.  He’s recognized many of the shortcomings in today’s youth sports industry and is setting out to address them.  If you want to see a synopsis and have a few minutes (about 10) his TED Talk is excellent and summarizes what his book is all about.  If you are a coach or have children involved in youth sports, this is the one book I would suggest above all the others.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXw0XGOVQvw

Book that Most Surprised Me in 2014

unlikely discipleI had kind of a low expectation for The Unlikely Disciple.  I didn’t expect to hate it, I just kind of expected it to be a typical caricature of either the Left or the Right political worlds by the other.  It certainly was that (a Liberals insider-tale of the tight-knit conservative world of Liberty University).  However, I thought Kevin Roose was able to somehow avoid extremes in his honest memoir, and provide a heart-warmingly honestly picture of a world that he was incredibly unfamiliar with.  Essentially, the uber-liberal Roose, brought up in an extremely (and admittedly) Ohio home and, at the time, current student at Brown University, decided to embark on a year-long undercover experience at “America’s Holiest University” – Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.  The book takes quite a few surprising turns, and Roose proves to be gentle and honest about where he was wrong about the people who became his friends, and at the same time, holding steady to his beliefs.  I was surprised to find myself coming back to the book so often after I had finished it.

Funniest Book I read in 2014

yes pleaseMy wife and I have read many books together through the years, but it’s taken a bit of a hiatus through my dissertation process.  It was nice to be able to enjoy reading Amy Poehler’s new book over the Christmas break.  Reading her book as a pastor, I had the following observations (of which I shared with my church yesterday): 1 – We should laugh more.  Christians, as a rule, take themselves way too seriously.  Mary Beth and I have long enjoyed watching SNL (the book we’ve begun for the new year is Live From New York and chronicles the history of the show.  Poehler’s book is, as expected, hilarious.  When I think about faith and God and the way that it is often expressed in church, I just wonder, why don’t people laugh more?   2 – Amy’s situation in comedy (along with many other women on SNL) is eerily similar to women in churches.  Amy tells of often being the only women in the room full of men.  Most comedies have exclusively male writing crews.  For all my Christian brothas and sistas . . . doesn’t that sound a bit familiar?  Amy Poehler along with Tina Fey, Maya Rudolf, and many others who have gone before them – represent a new era of strong female leaders in comedy.  I wonder how they would fare in church?  3 – Speaking of Christianity, Amy never mentions Jesus or churches, but she does, quite noticeably, quote quite a few Hindu and Buddhist platitudes.  I find it interesting to see how many celebrities opt for Eastern religion over Christianity.  When someone is in search of inner peace and meditation and stillness, the last thing they think of is the noise of mega churches or the shallowness of many preachers.  We should take note.

I don’t know if anyone cares too much, but it’s nice for me to spend a few minutes and reflect on some of the good books I came across.  A few other honorable mentions were, from my dissertation field (sports and religion): Michael Novak’s beautiful The Joy of Sports (if you are a Christian, and you love sports, you really should read this), Young Athletes, Couch Potatoes, and Helicopter Parents (I dropped a buck to get this one, but it was worth it – a whole lot of youth parents need to read this one), and Lincoln Harvey’s A Brief Theology of Sport.(if you’re interested in the topic, but wish I’d stop giving references, this is a good, short one that is worth the read).

A a few non-sports and theology related: I have finally read the first two books of the Harry Potter series, with my daughter, and think that J. K. Rowling is brilliant, absolutely brilliant; Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is a fantastic book and not talked about enough – incredible how many original stories he’s been able to write, ‘Salem’s Lot was great too, and, just to prove that I don’t blindly read Stephen King, I was a little disappointed with his newest book Revival.  With a former pastor as a main character, the book advertises following his journey through doubt, but I thought that faith ended up playing much more of a background for the plot than actually carrying it along.  I thought he could do a lot more with that, and  I thought his earlier book published this year, Mr. Mercedes, was much more fun and original.   I had high hopes of Revival, and thought that it was just OK.  Might have been better as an novella or even a short story.

The very first book I read last year was Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, and many people have said a great deal of nice things about it which I would concur.  It’s been a year, so I’m a little foggy on it, but I will say, her kindred spirit may just find herself at home for the new blog I am working to roll out here before too long.  Anyway, I’m ready for another year of reading.

Book Review: Occupy Spirituality

Recently I received the new book Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation by Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox for review.  It’s an interesting book written as a dialogue between, Fox, the older, on-the-fringe Dominican Catholic (kicked out of the Catholic Church by the previous pope) and the younger activist from Poland, Bucko.  In the book the seek to explore a post-religious spirituality present (and needed) within the occupy movement that has ignited over the past five years or so.

I have long had an interest in, for a lack of a better descriptor, “fringe” theological perspectives like Matthew Fox.  Bucko and Fox live on the fringes of organized religion and better identify with an anarchist, non-institutional eclectic movement that is rigorously postmodern and post-structural.  I was intrigued by the title and found the content to pique alot of my interest.

Anyone within the system of organized religion will have difficulty following Fox and Bucko.  Many times, I found myself thinking that a certain perspective or thought was interesting or provocative, but it certainly took me out of my comfort zone – which is a good thing.  This book helped me realized the small well from which I drink.  We grow so comfortable in our own bubbles of learning and exposure, that when something like this book is brought to your attention, you begin to question how blindly you follow the crowd you follow.

The book begins by each author sharing their personal story which helps inform the entirety of the book.  I found this to be helpful since I was unfamiliar with both (Fox, I knew a little bit about, but not much).  I find most non-fiction books should begin with an author’s introduction.  It’s easier to process what an author is saying knowing a little something about their person.  From the introduction, the book touches on calling, spiritual practices, the importance of inter-generational interaction, and ends by exploring some practical situations lived out in newer communities.

There is much I found helpful in this book.  I loved the ecumenical and inter-religious thrust of the dialogue.  As I said, it made me realize how limited my experience is.  It encouraged me, especially something Adam Bucko said near the end, to be proactive in finding spiritual advisers.  There is a Hindu temple and a Jain center both within a block of our suburban church.  This book has encouraged me to seek out their spiritual advisers and extend and olive branch to pursue productive relationships for the future.

I have chosen not to review a lot of the content because I am still processing a great deal of it.  It comes across to me in the unsettling way of a prophet.  Both authors reflect a great deal on the limitations of traditional Western education (particularly theological education) as it relates to spirituality.  It has convicted me here, too, as to the limitations of my own experiences.  The practices they discuss are a little out there, from time to time, but encourage me to be proactive in my experimentation.  Bucko works with homeless youth in New York City, and that drives his experience.  I wondered, sometimes, as I read how the kinds of things they are discussing relate to the “non-hippies.”  Many of the people I thought of as I read through this book would really be stretched by their perspective . . . maybe too far to be productive.  I appreciated the stretch, but I think many Christians, particularly may find them to be a little too far out of their comfort zone.

With that said, I would encourage pastors and leaders to read this book if for no other reason that to be stretched.  Consider how myopic our perspectives tend to be and just how big God is.

Parents of Children in (or about to be in) Sports Should Read This!

Just a note: I’ve updated a few of the pages on my blog and uploaded a few academic papers as well as a few old sermons.  I would like to pass along anything I create that I think might be helpful – that’s why I haven’t posted much – figuring not much would be helpful 🙂  Maybe you’ll find something of use there.  I did post a series of sermons I preached back in 2010 that you may find helpful if you find yourself in a Church of Christ that is wrestling through some of the theological and hermeneutical challenges that are a bit unique to us.  See what you think.

Game on

As I’ve begun this trek through youth sports and have been searching for the role of the church in helping equip our members for how to navigate these waters, few things have opened my eyes as wide as this book by Tom Farrey, published in 2008 (and then republished in 2009).

In writing his book, Farrey follows the development of children beginning with the first chapter (age 1) through the final chapter (age 14) discussing different parents’ obsession with making their children into sports icons.  He takes the reader to a sperm bank in Southern California where he quotes a doctor there as saying, “I’d say somewhere between 40% and two-thirds of the infertile couples look to prioritize athletic traits” . . . “In fact, after ethnicity . . . attributes such as height and body shape are most frequently requested” (p. 43).  He goes to a sports arena in Concord, Massachusetts to discuss with the parents of a set of seven-year-old twin girls who already are thinking ivy league, D-1 scholarships, and who already shell out over $10,000 per twin, per year, for hockey.  He takes the reader to Europe and compares the (much more effective) approach the French have towards their youth soccer programs which begins later in childhood and are much less rote and machine-esque  in comparison to the American counterpart.  From AAU to the NCAA, from soccer to basketball to girl’s hockey .  .  . even fencing is not out of Farrey’s aim.

Such a comprehensive volume is difficult to summarize in a brief blog overview, but I’ll do my best.  Farrey essentially sees a system of youth sports in the United States that has become extremely broken as it increasingly marginalizes the poor who cannot afford to be part of the system, contributes to the lack of inactivity and obesity in the country as travel and elite leagues stymie opportunities that use to exist in local recreation leagues, creates false dreams of NCAA scholarships (reinforcing what Michael Novak said more than 30 years ago – that sports has effectively become the opiate of the masses), and is detrimental to the country’s performance in international competition (he argues that not only does the current system do great harm to our country’s children – it’s actually not the best program for promoting athletes who compete at the highest levels – he offers Australia as a better example of success – check out their medal count in recent Olympics).

youth-sports

There is a great deal in Farrey’s work that will take some time for me to digest.  I am amazed at the irony of his book being published by ESPN who he points to (carefully, but certainly) as helping contribute to these problems.

Farrey is not writing from a Christian point of view, per say, but a great deal of what he points out should resonate with Christians looking for their children to participate in sports.  If sports, indeed, is a spiritual power, we should be asking ourselves, “In what ways can my children participate and contribute to the created good, intent of sports” rather than shrug our shoulders as if to say, “Well, if you can’t beat them, join them!”

Any parent who is wrestling for the best way their child might participate in youth sports would do well to read Farrey – and read it before you child is faced with the many opportunities that will come his or her way for participation in sports.  Be proactive, instead of sitting back and being marketed to.  Know what is best for your family.  Know what you are and aren’t willing to do.  Know how much travel you are willing to participate.  Know how much money you are willing to spend.  And keep your dreams realistic.  Don’t think about plans for your child to develop into a D1 athlete – think instead about how they can enjoy their childhood, and allowing sports to impact his or her life alongside other worthy endeavors.

When it comes to dreams of D-1 scholarships and opportunities at the “next level” I find it instructive to consider Farrey’s words as a reminder to stay grounded:

NCAA_Clearinghouse_Registration“I’ll keep it to one sentence.  If you’re gifted, really gifted, and lucky (right team, right coaches, right scheme, no wrecked knees) and play by the unwritten but uncompromising rules of the NCAA establishment – devote 360 days a year to your team and don’t make a habit of questioning the fairness of a system that uses your ability to perform in order to make hundreds of millions of dollars while you are on campus – then you might end up like Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, with a hunk of wood and metal in your left hand and a strirring national feature story (set to soft jazz) that memorializes your childhood descent into a Cleveland foster home and emergence as a student-athlete-celebrity, and how that Heisman Trophy you just won is going to motivate other kids to rise up from the ghetto in a similar manner, thereby helping to recycle the myth – critical to existing public policy – that big-time, commercialized college sports like D1 football and basketball are a viable route to a better life, when in fact there’s no real evidence to suggest that collectively the poor have been lifted by all that sport-centric dreaming and, besides, the Heisman isn’t what kids in the ghetto dream about anyway because chunks of metal and wood don’t put dinner on the family table and sometimes don’t even guarantee an NFL career, even if you so far have beaten the odds.”  (p. 146 – 147)

Let’s get realistic about our children’s involvement in sports – our communities will be better for it.

Book Review: Who is my Enemy?

We all have a tendency to consume media and interact with people who make us feel comfortable and conform to our current patterns of thinking.  Republicans watch Fox News and listen to Rush, Hannity, and Beck while Liberals watch MSNBC and listen to . . . well, no one since liberals don’t tend to do radio well.  We like to be pushed and challenged, to an extent, but we usually prefer that to happen in extremely sanitized ways.  We tend to write people off the moment they register on our “not-like-me radar.” Whether we admit it or not, our subconscious is on a constant quest to discern certain key words or phrases from those we are talking with or reading to know whether or not we should dismiss them or listen intently to them.  What kind of language do they use?  What key phrases do they refer to?  Who do they reference and quote?  We all have our circles of comfort.

What I like about Lee Camp is that he tends to bring all of us to places of discomfort – probably one of the reasons a lot of people don’t bother with him.  Camp teaches at my alma mater, Lipscomb University, and is really one of their brightest and most audacious professors.   Having studied under John Howard Yoder at Notre Dame, Camp is on a lifelong quest to embody the pacifist, non-violent principles articulated by his academic mentor.  He says as much in his first book, Mere Discipleship.  There, he brings to life issues that are most often left to academic ramblings.  There, he teases out the practical implications of a Yoderan social politick in the life of the Christian.

Camp’s latest effort, Who is My Enemy?, is really a case study in following Jesus’ way of loving your enemy.  He begins by sharing his experience of delivering a lecture at a seminar on conflict resolution at Lipscomb University which addressed the relationship between Christians and Muslims.  Some of Camp’s comments, rightly or wrongly interepreted, set off a firestorm directed at Camp accusing him of everything from ignorance to cowardice.  This experience drove Camp to learn more about Islam and wrestle with Christians’ relationship with Islam (and Muslims, specifically).  The result is a jarring and, often, center-shaking work that all Christians should read – whether they think they’ll ever speak with a Muslim or not.

There is so much good in this book that I want to offer a few posts in which to share my reflections.  For full disclosure, I’m a big fan of Lee Camp and believe that he provides a very important voice among Christians, even though many people would be extremely troubled by his teaching (more on this later).  As a fellow Church of Christ-ite, he also represents my particular background underneath the Christian umbrella well.  While there certainly will be those who question Camp’s philosophy and some of his conclusions, it is difficult to ignore someone who actively pursues those who are different to humbly and peacefully engage in dialogue and share Christian love.  That may be what gives Camp’s words such power – a strong mixture of humility and Christian audacity.

Here’s a (not-too) brief first reflection . . .

One of the most compelling aspects of Camp’s book for me was rooted in an earlier work by William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence.  We have all been taught that religions are insatiably violent by nature – at least in dealing with those who think differently than they do.  Their constant warring is largely to blame for many of our world’s problems.  In the West we are taught that Western civilization has solved the riddle to these problems: make religion a private concern.  That’s what has created our great nation of freedom.  The Muslim states, so we are told, have never figured that part out.

The question Cavanaugh raises in this pointed critique of what many take as “common sense,” is what constitutes religion?  How do we so easily assume that Islam is all tied up in the war-making rhetoric and actions of nations like Iran and Iraq, but Western nations like ours are freed of any religious integration?  Cavanaugh’s theory here is that “religion” was a creation of modern Western civilization.  Throughout history, there was no separation from religion and the rest of life.  Although we’ve tried with all of our might, it’s awfully hard to claim that the Bible makes any such claims.  Thus, the more we have attempted to make Christianity a “private religion” in our evolved Western state, the more we have neutered the Gospel as it was given to the first Christians.  The earliest persecuted Christians didn’t seem to think they had been converted to some kind of private personal piety, how could this have become the “common sense” articulation of the Gospel today?

Camp summarizes Cavanugh and makes the following point: “the ‘myth of religious violence’ posits that the violence of religion is unacceptable, but the violence of the secular state is either ignored or seen as legitimate.  The violence of religion is always necessarily irrational, but the violence of the state is seen as necessary for peacemaking.  Once this assumption is swallowed, the violence of the state is justified, overlooked, ignored, or even celebrated by Western Christians, all while believing that the solution is for Islam to become more Western.”  (113)  The end result is that the church has often become nothing more than what Camp calls a “lapdog for the state” and “chaplain for America.”

I know this is a bit jumbled (and long), I’ll try to engage in a little more succinct matter late this week.  I’ll end with this parable in which Camp further makes this point:

“A king went out to conquer, amassing great wealth and power.  There came to him a people who asserted that some other was king, whom they called ‘Lord of Lords.’  The king replied: you may freely worship this one you call, ‘lord,’ you may freely build your buildings and write your books and seek your converts to this one you call, lord,’ while I am your public king.  I shall make the laws, and you shall obey them.  I shall tell you what enemies to kill, and you shall kill them.  I shall give you a marketplace, and you shall seek to maximize your profits and keep all your profits, even at the expense of the poor, or the widow, or the stranger, and thence you shall pay taxes with which we shall wage war against all who threaten your freedom to worship your personal ‘lord.’

“And the people replied: We will gladly do as you say, O king.  Indeed, we shall obey your laws.  And we shall seek great profit and keep all for ourselves.  And we will kill your enemies, for you, O king, have allowed us to pray to our houses of worship, in the privacy of our closets.  Even more,  O king, because you have allowed us to worship thus, we will denounce all those who do not exalt you, and we will proclaim that you have granted us the right to worship, and we shall profess that any who do not obey your laws or maximize profit or kill your enemies are no servants of the private Lord of Lords.  We will hang your standard in our halls of worship, we will honor those who fight your wrars, and we will celebrate those who heedlessly maximize profit.  Oh, grand us such liberty as this, O King!

The king was pleased, and his new subjects served him well and were happy and satisfied.  (115-116)

 

 

 

 

Book Review: On the Verge

A special thanks to Zondervan for the free copy of On the Verge by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson.  Incidentally, this is also required reading for my D. Min class this fall at Fuller with Alan Hirsch, so I am able to kill two proverbial birds with one stone.

In recent years I’ve read most of Hirsch’s books (The Shaping of Things to Come, The Forgotten Ways, and, earlier this year, Untamed).  It’s his work in these volumes that has led me to enroll in the class coming up this November in Pasadena.  Hirsch brings a missiologist’s perspective to ministerial leadership.  He and David Frost’s book, The Shaping of Things to Come, is one of the more influential books I’ve read in the past five years.  My knock on Hirsch has always been that he too broadly dismissed the established church.  They say as much in The Shaping of Things to Come – the only hope is for newly established communities.

With On the Verge, his tone towards the established church (with the help of Dave Ferguson) seems to be softening.  One of the chief metaphors in the book is of blue ocean and red ocean.  The blue ocean is innovation and new directions; the red ocean is the competitive place fighting over the status quo.  Established churches are working in the red ocean (connecting to 40% of people) but the blue ocean is opportunity and has more possibilities (60% of people).  The 60/40 observation is one that I feel helps correct their over-dismissal of the established church in previous works.  Hirsch hasn’t sold out on his vision: he still believes in change, innovation, and the missional impulse (the bulk of his work in this book reflects the foundation laid in The Forgotten Ways).

Per his style, Hirsch’s portion of the book is flooded with charts, graphs, and diagrams.  Almost to a fault, Hirsch’s conceptual discourse can seem far removed from practical ministry.  However, in On the Verge, they’ve tried to balance that with Dave Ferguson’s writing, as he emphasizes Hirsch’s theory with on-the-job practical examples and stories from his ministry and the ministry of others.

Overall, the book is another helpful contribution to the missional church discussion, as it adds to the discussion by seeing relevance for the already established church while at the same time goading the church toward innovation (largely structured around the concept of building a movement).  My only critique of the book is that sometimes it seems overly diagrammed.  I still have a bias against a do this, do this, and do this to get this formula, and while I believe the authors would go to great lengths to deny this as their intent (they even verbally do so in the book in places) it still comes across that way at times.

I remain convinced that Alan Hirsch is doing important things within Western Christianity and his voice is an important one to behold.  The addition of Dave Ferguson’s voice in this particular book was a good complement and makes the book a helpful resource for ministry staffs and seminary students.

Desperately Needed: A Theology of Sports

I recently finished reading Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports to help me begin preparation for the final project of my Theology and Pop Culture class.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve taken a more critical look at the place sports has played in my life.  Undoubtedly, there are countless assets sports has provided in my development (I think of friendship with teammates, learning team work and working together, work ethic and discipline, and holistic health just off the top of my head), but in reality, sports has remained one of the largest unexamined parts of my life, speaking theologically.  I’ve treated it almost as if it is somehow morally “neutral.”  I think, by and large, that is the way most Christians see it – neutral or morally ambiguous.  Christians are called by groups like Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the YMCA, and others to work hard and play fair.  But is that all there is?

Shirl Hoffman’s book sets out to treat sports seriously through the lenses of theology.   It makes for an usual hybrid read, full of fascinating anecdotes from the sports world mixed with theologically academic concepts.  Hoffman’s work largely breaks new ground in the area of sports and theology.  He states regularly through the book that this is an area Christians must begin to treat with more theological rigor.  In his treatment of the history of Christians and sports, Hoffman traces the initial reluctance to all things sports, into an eventual blind acceptance of them which is, arguably, at an all time high as seen by “faith nights” at professional sporting events, professional athlete testimonies, regular religious imagery in sports . . . and on and on.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be putting together a series of videos and accompanying material that will hopefully help churches begin to reflect on both the positive aspects of sports as well as the potential negative side affects of sports.  We must begin to subject athletics to the same theological rigor that we would all other aspects of our lives.  Below is a list of the kinds of questions I seldom if ever hear Christians wrestle with that I believe we must start:

– Is competition inherently good, evil, or benign?

– What is the place of the opponent in athletic contests?

– Would Jesus let you win a one-on-one basketball game?  Or would he be any good?

– Is it sacrilegious to pray for the outcome of sporting events?  Does God care about the outcome?

– Is God really a Yankees and Cowboys fans?  Surely he would root for the Indians!

– Is it a healthy thing for Christians to admire “successful” athletes?  Why is it the only stories that get told are those who have won championships or have overcome great adversity (ie. “stories of inspiration”)?  How do we reconcile this with the biblical witness?

Hopefully, I can put something together that will help address these types of questions and move our conversation of sports forward.

Book Review: Revise us Again

Got this book to review as part of the SpeakEasy blogger network.  The book is a quick read (cruised through it in an hour or so), and touches on some messages that all Christians need to hear.  In short, Viola states, Christians need their lives “rescripted.”  We’re all given a script, but part of our advancing in our relationship with God is for us to move beyond the Jesus we meet when we first meet him.  This means coming to terms with some of the baggage that our traditions and history brings.

I wouldn’t “highly recommend” Viola’s book, as I didn’t find it especially compelling, but there were parts that are worth checking out and parts that any Christian would do well to reflect on.  Per the nature of our fractured Christian heritages, Christians from different backgrounds will be struck with different parts of the books.  I was particularly struck by his chapter entitled, “Captured by the Same Spirit You Oppose: Revising our Attitudes.”  The chapter contains a short discourse that all Churches of Christ would do well to read.

In the end, Viola has given a concise treatment of some of the most important issues for churches to wrestle with today.  If you get a chance, check it out of the library and jot down a note or two.