Review: True Inclusion by Brandan Robertson

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Are you serious about change?

I have heard time and time again from churches that they want to change and become more relevant. They wonder why they lose members and cannot attract the younger generation. The fact is, many churches are hypocritical to the message of inclusion that Jesus preaches and practices in the Bible. From the moment that the Christian way was co-opted by Constantine, the church has been ruled by the patriarchy. This has not changed much over the last thousand years and as Brandan Robertson states in his new book, True Inclusion, to become truly inclusive, we must move beyond the patriarchy to a point of egalitarianism. The first disciples practiced this extremely well and as humanity always seems to do, overtime, we lost track of what it meant to love our neighbors as ourselves.

While ordained in a denomination that puts up the image of being inclusive, there are still many of our congregations that are not! The ELCA is the least diverse of all denominations on any given Sunday. Unless we truly begin to embrace the inclusiveness that Jesus speaks of, I do not see how the ELCA or any given number of denominations will move into the future. The message of Jesus Christ has been abandoned and we must do what we can to once again proclaim that message for all to hear, not just a select few that think they are privileged.

The message that Brandan shares in his book is one that all congregations need to hear because as he says, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most radical message ever heard across the face of the earth, not because of its moralistic or dogmatic claims, but because it subverts the very way that humans are programmed to think, to live, and to love.” This is the message that must be broadcast, and yet some people will still choose not to hear it. All we have to do is look at the political spectacle today to know this truth.

Brandan’s definition of inclusion is “about following others to live into their full, divinely created humanity, not degrading them, stripping them of their dignity and personhood.” How can we argue about this in the church? This should be what we strive for, yet we are quick to make exceptions. Jesus’ love, knows no exceptions.

The inclusion that is spoke of in this book will make many people uncomfortable. It will make them uncomfortable because it questions their power and places their fears right in front of them. Yet, how can we call ourselves the church when we do not uphold to this most basic teaching of Christ?

This book is a short quick read, yet it is an extremely powerful call to live into God’s creation. Within this call, he also addresses intersectional inclusion in which two paths must work together, such as the equality between races as well as inclusion of the LGBT+ community. We can help each other in the path towards inclusion because the groundwork has already started to be paved.

He admits that this call to inclusion will not be easy because it requires a change of theology. God is moving within our world and if we fail to heed to the movement of the Spirit, we neglect those that we should have been loving and at times could even exclude ourselves.

A wonderful chapter in the book is when he brings in a panel to ask questions and dig deeper into what true inclusion means. These varied voices add integrity to a book that is already teeming with a call to follow Christ as he called us to love one another. This book is well worth the investment and could be a helpful tool in helping your community embrace a true inclusion where the diversity of God’s creation is fully welcomed and loved beyond capacity.

Thanks to Chalice Press for a copy of this book to review

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Review: Your God is Too Glorious by Chad Bird

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With thanks to Englewood Review of Books for the opportunity to review this title

Does the notion of God being too glorious make you shudder? Surely, it is not possible for God to be too glorious. It is God that has created the world and every breathing plant, animal, and creature that resides on it. It is God in Jesus Christ that gave up his life on the cross so that we may see what the love of God means for us and the life everlasting that flows from it. It is Jesus that is resurrected on the third day to conquer death once and for all. How can this be too glorious?

The gospel of John is all about the glory of Jesus and lifts it up for all too see! As I picked up Chad Bird’s newest book, I questioned exactly what he meant by the title. It seems at first a little off putting. That is, until you read the subtitle, Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places. This begins to shed a little light upon the main title. Using both stories from his personal life, and those of friends and acquaintances, Bird descends into the thesis that we do make God too glorious. Bird’s offering could be compared to Walter Wangerin Jr.’s latest offering, Wounds are Where the Light Enters. While Wangerin has many titles and years of experience to his repertoire, Chad Bird does an excellent job of standing right up there with him.

Bird’s stories are ones that can bring tears and an ache in the heart for everything that has happened to the people in them. Since the time the apostles began spreading the good news across the countryside of Israel and into the Diaspora, God has slowly been lifted to a place where the ordinary person cannot even think about reaching. It was Martin Luther that sensed this in the early sixteenth century and brought God back to the people in a Bible that could be read by the common people. God was not something that was outside of their grasp, only to be born by clergy, but a God that is with them in their daily lives.

As Bird presents throughout his ten easy to read chapters, God is awesome and wonderful. However, we have made God too glorious, where we have chosen to remove God from our daily lives and reserve God only for Sunday mornings. We have thought at times during the last millennia that God is not of this world, but only created the world. Yet, God is of this world and was present with us in Jesus Christ and continues to be present with us through the Holy Spirit and Christ guiding us. It is time that we begin to see God in the people that surround us and events that happen to us during the week.

Yes, God is extraordinary. Yet, this does not keep God from being in the ordinary events and occasions that occur daily. Bird discusses how God is present with us at times on “unseen altars” (pgs. 52-55). These “unseen altars” are present all around us. Perhaps even in the room where you are sitting to read this review. Those altars he says, “Look like a rocking chair where a mother cradles her crying infant to her breast. . .. look like a John Deere driven by a farmer who pulls a plow to ready the earth for seed. His cap is stained with sweat. His callused hands are the résumé he has. . .. look like a taxi, honking and weaving its way through the labyrinth of New York City traffic. They look like an outpost in Afghanistan, where a Marine holds a rifle in his hands and dreams of holding his three-year-old daughter again. . ..” As ordinary as these contexts may seem to us, they are not ordinary for God. In each of these contexts, God is present.

Many times, we find ourselves in situations that appear hopeless and we think we just have to ride them out. Yet, the awesome God that chose to enter this world in a newborn baby, walks with us this very day to guide us through those times that we feel lost or stagnant. It does not look glamorous where God decides to reside in our lives. It truly is the lowest points that God uses to show us that we are made for much greater things. The church is no different. We think we need to make everything glitzy to attract and grow congregations. However, God is present in the ugly and unpleasant. As Bird speaks of the seminars that are always claiming to solve all the church’s problems, he says, “The subtext of every one of them was the same: what you’re doing now is not enough. Not relevant enough. Not revolutionary enough. The time has come to recreate and refine the church’s dull image.  What she desperately needs to do is sexy herself up. What the church desperately needs, however is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a boob job and memberships at God’s Gym. She needs more flat tires” (pg. 131).

These flat tires we encounter along the way, in our personal and communal lives, is where the work of God becomes most evident. Unfortunately, while God is present, we choose not to see God in the times that are great, and everything is running along smoothly. It is in the flat tires that God is visible, and we open our hearts to the glory of the creator and savior of the world. Bird shows the visibility of God in these flat tire situations which then can prepare for those times when we feel as though we are on top of the world.

Resuscitating a Lost Language: A Review of Jonathan Merritt’s Learning to Speak God from Scratch

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The language that we use to speak of God has evolved over time and Jonathan Merritt puts out the call for us to reestablish our foundation. Learning to Speak God from Scratch is a way to examine our beliefs and reach out to generations that did not grow up knowing God in a religious setting.

We must remember that the Bible as we have it today has been passed down through numerous generations with many additions and subtractions and what we find ourselves reading today is the best rendition of the original intent, hopefully, inspired by God. Our Israelite ancestors did not originally share their faith through written word. It was an oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation which was finally put to animal hide, papyrus, or paper. The writers did the best they could to get their thoughts down. Yet, even from oral to written text, there is a loss of the intention of the original meaning.

This evolution has never ended as we can walk into any book store and find numerous translations of the Bible, with each claiming to be better to reach a certain segment of society. This is the visible reality of our faith today. This boils down to the point that the majority of people do not know how to share their faith so that others can understand. As a pastor, I am no stranger to this and just when I think I have a great sermon, I am reminded by those listening that it either went over their heads or they did not pick up what I was laying down.

Merritt calls us to reexamine those words that we utilize to share our faith and realize that their meanings too have evolved over time. Many times, we make the definitions fit into our way of thinking that makes us comfortable. For example, in our current immigration battles in the United States, we look over what Jesus meant by neighbor. We do not truly welcome in the neighbor as Jesus would have when we refuse to support and welcome refugees and those seeking a better life. Instead, we lock up our neighbors and separate their children from them.

Merritt explores and attempts to build a definition for many others words and ideas as well, including Yes, Creeed, Mystery, Grace, Brokenness, Saint, and Family, just to name a few. These discussions bear some personal stories as well as getting to the root of the biblical foundation of the words. Many of the words have been co-opted to serve our own purposes over time. Or simply, in our more secular society, we have chose to overlook words and disregard their meanings. There is a language barrier that has developed over time. Merritt is attempting to break down this wall.

By learning to speak God from scratch, the hope is that we will be able to reach out with a new profound proclamation. It is not a new message, just a renewed way of saying it. This is a good start on the journey to listening to God in our lives and therefore sharing that story with others.

Learning to Speak God from Scratch is scheduled to be released on August 14. Thanks to the publisher for an uncorrected proof copy to review.

Review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

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I’ll be honest, I probably would not have picked this book up if it had not been featured in a recent edition of BookPage. The one description that pulled me in was that it was the next Harry Potter.

I believe that statement may be a stretch, but it does draw ones attention and is a page turner. The book follows Zélie and her brother Tzain as they seek to restore magic to the Maji that had it taken from the several years ago. This hits close to home for them as their mother was a Maji and so is Zélie. In their journey they encounter the children of the king that had the magic destroyed and killed many of the adult maji, including their mother.

Does the apple fall far from the tree? The king’s daughter, Amari, has a close connection to the maji as her best friend and servant was a maji and also killed by her father. The jury may still be out on the king’s son, Inan.

The author’s writing style is easy to read and shows much promise as she is only in her mid-twenties. I imagine as the series continues for it to only get better and better. For being classified as a young adult book, the intimacy that is contained within it, may be pushing the boundaries for some. Not much more than many of the other young adult novels that are currently on the market.

It is a story that has been told over and over again in many books, movies and throughout time. It is ultimately a story of good against evil. It is also a story that speaks to the current events of our time in America. The voices of white privilege quite often prevail in our society and silence the voices of persons of color. Her author’s note is a must read as she shares that she “shed many tears before I wrote this book.” In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the senseless killings of unarmed black men, women, and children. You can hear this coming through her writing and it pulls you into the heartache that each character experiences. A heartache that is not devoid of hope.

Review: What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather

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This past couple of years have helped highlight how divided we are as a nation. It seems to appear that you have to be either on one side of the political debate or the other. There is no room for middle ground. Yet, it is this middle ground that we must meet and enter into conversation with one another. It is only in our Utopian dreams that we are all going to get along and conflict will not exist.

In summary, this is a major part of Dan Rather’s presentation, along with Elliot Kirschner, in their book, What Unites Us. There is a common ground that we can all stand on and begin to vision what the future of our county looks like. There is not one right solution and at times there are valid points that can come from both sides of the aisle. Where our leaders are tending to fail their country more and more is in their believes that they have the only right solution.

Rather discusses what Patriotism looked like during World War II and his early years as a reporter. He shares his experience with Watergate and what it means for him to be a true patriot and love the country that he grew up in. Too often, we mix patriotism with the idea of nationalism. The United States was not created in the scope of nationalism. It was created in the hopes and dreams of founders that were seeking freedom and a better life for their families. Somewhere along the line this message got misinterpreted.

The United States is the nation that it is because of our diversity. The many cultures and identities that have came together to form a country that should be welcome to all. Rather does not wax poetically at this, he simply calls for a rationality to return to public discourse.

A Review: Wounds Are Where Light Enters by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Thanks to Englewood Review of Books for the advance copy and publishing this review.

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Walter Wangerin Jr. has become one of the quintessential story tellers of this day and age. His stories break through the mundane and add a personal touch to everything that he shares. Whether his stories are based upon scripture or from his own personal collection reflecting upon his own experiences, he can connect with his readers and listeners as he offers the opportunity to enter the story as well.

In his newest collection of stories, Wangerin Jr. shares stories from his own family. Stories that helped shape him as a person of God. In these stories, the reader witnesses humanity. A humanity that resides in the ordinary. A humanity that resides in the sin and the brokenness of life. The stories are endearing and are a witness that Walter Wangerin Jr. is a human being just like anyone else. Too often, pastors are put upon pedestals in the eyes of their parishioners, forgetting that they too sin just like everyone else.

He makes it clear that each and everyone of us has a brokenness that leads to the wounds that share who we are as people of God. These wounds are exactly where we see the light of God breaking through. The subtitle of the book calls it God’s intrusive grace. A grace that breaks through when it is least expected. A grace that reminds us who we are and whose we are. The grace breaks through in every one of the twenty-two stories that are shared. The stories range from Wangerin Jr.’s childhood of dreading Christmas to stories he shares of his neighbors as he pastored a church in Evansville. Some of the most personal stories that he shares are the ones of his own children. Being a parent is a tough job, and through the stories that he shares, shows that he struggles just as much as any other parent.

One instance of God’s intrusive grace can be seen in his son, Joseph. It is in the wise words of Joseph that Wangerin Jr. is brought to the realization that he too can make mistakes and bring some of his frustrations from work, home to the dinner table. As he flicks the hand of his daughter Talitha, because she is fidgeting a little too much, she starts to cry. It is Joseph that highlights the wound and encourages the light to shine through. “Sometimes Daddy spanks us and we don’t mind. It doesn’t hurt. We laugh and have fun, because it’s a birthday spanking and he’s counting the years since we were born. He says, ‘A pinch to grow an inch.’” . . . “But when Daddy is angry, even a little flick hurts.”

It is these little insights into his life that Wangerin Jr. reveals a light that shines for all to see amid our personal wounds. While there is a sense that these stories have been collected over the past several decades, they still speak boldly today. They speak to our wounds and the wounds that we encounter in others.

Over the past year and a half, we have been reminded that race relations in our country are not what we thought they were. The story of his son Matthew, can break the readers heart. It is a story of hurt and a father’s love. When he was young, Matthew was friends with the neighbor girl. The only problem, is that in the neighbor’s eyes, “black and white do not marry.” The love that Wangerin Jr. shows for his son in this moment, is the same love that God shows for each and everyone of God’s children. A love that moves beyond race, nationality, or anything else that is used to separate one from the other. Unfortunately, there are still some people that have this opinion today. Matthew was not the perfect child. In another story it is shared that he had the tendency to steal comic books. It was Wangerin Jr.’s own response to his son’s thefts that actually made him stop. It was the sight and sound of his father crying that brought him to the realization that the theft of comic books must stop.

The stories that are shared within this quickly read volume can be life changing. Life changing for the author and for those that are in the story. The stories touch upon the reader’s heart and reveal the in-breaking of God in our own lives. We are all wounded in this life and some choose to dwell in the wounds and some choose to let the light break through for all to see. In sharing these personal stories of God’s love embracing humanity, Walter Wangerin Jr. once again reminds us that God is much greater than the wounds that scar.

This review is posted on Englewood Review of Books

A Review: A Course in Christian Mysticism by Thomas Merton, edited by Jon M. Sweeney

Thanks to Englewood Book Review for the advance copy and publishing this review.

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If you have never had the pleasure of visiting Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, I would recommend you take the time to do so. My visit to Gethsemani several years ago was one of my first true encounters with the work of Thomas Merton. Staying for a week at the Abbey allows one to hear Merton’s lectures during meal time. His voice coming through the speakers with an air of authority yet a playfulness that exudes an openness.

Jon Sweeney has done a wonderful job of compiling and editing some of Merton’s lectures into this thorough teaching on the early Christian mystics, providing the foundation for our practices that we have this present day. In this century, the interest in mysticism and spirituality has been on the rise as people are looking for deeper connections with God. Sweeney, bringing the lectures of Merton to life for all to easily access, provides a basis for an introduction to Christian mysticism while allowing the reader to make connections to the present.

Among his many jobs over the years at Gethsemani, Merton was a teacher and took pleasure in instructing novices and the other young monastics. These lectures came out of the need that he saw for reconnecting with the traditions of the early church. The lessons or lectures began in 1961. Merton wrote in his journal, “We have no memory. . .. The loss of tradition is an important factor in the loss of contemplation.” This is surely one reason why he wanted to deliver lectures on these topics to the young monastics (from prologue, xiii). Living in a community is not always easy, and it is through the eyes of Merton that the young monastics were encouraged to connect with the early Christian mystics and find their place in it all.

Thomas Merton, himself, is one of the leading Christian mystics of the last century. From his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain to his books on Zen and the connection Christianity has with Buddhism, Merton brings a well deep in mysticism that has not quite been seen to the same degree since his early death in 1968.

In his first lecture, he sets out the aim for the course and the importance of connecting with one’s tradition. As he witnessed the young monastics moving away from their knowledge of the tradition, we too can see that same loss today. Many Protestant churches express an uneasiness when it comes to connecting with the early mystical traditions of the early church fathers and mothers. The mystery of the church has lost its intrigue for many and they want to be told specifically what to think, say, and do. Merton acknowledged this concern within the Catholic church throughout his life and desired for people to seek out the mystical traditions that helped shape and form the early church. He says in the first lecture, “We must become fully impregnated in our mystical tradition. The mystical tradition of the Church is a collective memory and experience of Christ living and present within her” (pg. 10).

As Merton journey’s back to the first mystics, his writing can become a bit heady if you do not have a basic understanding of Christian history. He does a fairly good job at trying to explain himself, yet one may have to slow down a little to fully take it all in. The early martyrs and Gnostics, specifically Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, all have a place within the foundation of Christian Mysticism and while some of their practices and beliefs may have been corrected overtime, their influences are still felt to this day. In Martyrdom, Merton emphasizes that it helps one die to their own selves as they commit themselves to the way of Jesus Christ.

He points to many of these early martyrs and Gnostics as the source of Christian mystical thought and the beginning of true contemplation as we have come to know it today. He goes into a deeper discussion on the Cappadocian Fathers. He makes a connection with gnosis and the first thoughts of contemplation as he speaks of St. Ignatius.  The ascent to God is viewed through the sharing of the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa and many of the mystics throughout the centuries have taken aspects of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation on mysticism and the ascent of the soul to abide in God.

Merton also brings Evagrius Pontus into the discussion as “one of the most important, the least known, the most neglected, and the most controversial of Christian mystics” (pg. 57).  Merton continues his journey through time as he teaches upon St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Beguines, Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and many more.

These in-depth lectures over the course of three years are brought to life through the editing of Sweeney, so that the reader can feel as though they are right in the room with Merton instructing them and leading the discussion. The addition to pointing out additional resources and a study guide makes this a wonderful resource for group discussion. This is not the first time that these lectures have been in print, however, Sweeney edits them all into one collection and with his additions, he has created a resource that should be a part of anyone’s collection that is interested in learning more about Christian mysticism.