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Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer, Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015, 158 pp.

Beyond ResistanceDon’t judge this book by its cover. It looks about as dry as can be. It’s not.

Don’t judge this book by its font. It’s annoying, yes, but you’ll get over it and the content is worth it.

Don’t judge this book by its subtitle. “Postmodern” is an overused, dated term these days, but the much of the content of this book on the state of the church is as contemporary as any I’ve read.

John Dorhauer is the newly-elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and this book lays out his perspective on the current state of decline in the American church. I read it as a clergyperson in the UCC eager to hear his vision.

What struck me first and foremost was that Beyond Resistance refuses to paint a rosy picture or offer a programmatic solution to the problem of church decline. This is an odd thing for a book, and it was initially a bit depressing. The author’s opening line is, “Let’s be honest… churches are dying.” (7) He then lists lower birthrates, aging property and “postmodernity” as the three key factors impacting church decline. While he does not try to define what postmodernity means (thank goodness!), he describes it as a cultural change “in expectations around what it means to be a person of faith,” (14) making note of three key factors of being “a postmodern.”

Disbelief in universal truth

Learning differently (i.e., not through written and spoken word alone)

Distrust of institutional authority

Let me pause here a moment to say: I find the term “postmodern” loaded with baggage from other disciplines and very dated. My philosopher spouse saw the book on the table and said, “How old is that book? Why are you reading a book on church change from the 1990s?” I wish Dorhauer had used another term–perhaps “post-Christendom” or “21st century” or even a neologism he invented. He later uses the term “Church 3.0,” which I also didn’t much like, but it’s at least better. However, the problems with vocabulary aside, the content of what he says is right on. It seemed obvious to me, because I clearly belong to the group he describes. However,  active, engaged, but older, clergy colleagues in a book group on this text were shocked and upended by this information about the worldview of so-called postmoderns. I was shocked by their shock, but it revealed to me just how vast is the divide between “moderns” and “postmoderns.”

Given that the church has historically been driven by its claims to universal truth and institutional authority, and Protestantism’s reliance on written and spoken word, you can see why the current crisis has occurred. However, Dorhauer insists that it is not a “rejection of Church as Church.”

This is not a denial of the value of a life well lived, enhanced by meaningful encounters with the sacred and shaped by like-minded people living in a committed community of faith with one another. It is simply the experience of coming to church, wanting to have a meaningful encounter, and walking out under-stimulated, bored, or having learned little to nothing. (20)

The second chapter argues that the church exists for mission, and much of our current malaise is founded upon our loss of our core sense of mission. However, Dorhauer never defines what he means by mission, and in my experience people hear that word to mean very different things. Does he mean acts of charity, caring for the poor and needy? Does he mean evangelism, converting people to the way of Christ? Does he mean discipleship, forming new followers who will walk in Christ’s way? The way he uses the term throughout the chapter seems to imply that he has only the first definition in mind–acts of charity and justice. If so, I find that deeply disappointing. While I agree that the church should always be about that kind of service and advocacy, our core mission is to build disciples AND build the Kin-dom of God. People don’t come to the church looking to help the poor–they come looking for holy presence and Jesus Christ, and we should be about making that presence known. Service and advocacy are one of the most important ways we do that–but only one. Dorhauer would probably agree with me here, but I was frustrated with the lack of clarity in the chapter, and the way service and advocacy seem to be privileged as *the* mission of the church. It is a frequent critique I have for leaders across our United Church of Christ.

However, lest you think I am only critical, the second chapter also contained one of my favorite sections. In his role as Conference Minister, Dorhauer talked with churches about these changes. When older, stable congregations talked about “becoming Church 3.0,” he told them frankly that they couldn’t. Instead, established congregations should seek mission partners who are about this new way of being church. That’s where the wisdom lies–with the establishment in doing tradition well, and with outsiders who are doing church 3.0 well. (40-43)

The third chapter is titled “Grieving, Believing, Perceiving,” which reminds me immediately of Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book Reality, Grief, Hope, which I have revisited in sermons, conversations and even our Indiana-Kentucky Annual Meeting theme in the last two years. The difference here is that Dorhauer takes on the truth-telling (reality) and grieving with a greater openness, depth and brutal honesty than I have seen anywhere else. It is painful, but also affirming to hear that we are not alone in our struggles. He shares openly about the shrinking opportunities for clergy and the feelings of failure. I felt heard and seen for the first time. Though the truth is depressing, it is liberating to hear it told, especially from the new GMP of the UCC. He gets it.

As he moves toward the hopeful–believing and perceiving in his rubric–Dorhauer names the current task in this time of tumultuous change as identifying the core values and practices that cannot change if we are to remain faithful to the Gospel.

The Church as we know it is going to have to live through open debate about what changes can and will be accepted, and what changes simply cannot be made. … Knowing, through the time of change, what is so important that, if it is altered, we cease to be is an essential task of the Church. Knowing what must be passed on through the sea of change that is coming is important. (56)

In his role as GMP, I hope he leads our entire denomination through this kind of rigorous open debate. It is sure to be painful at times, but it is the best ministry we can offer right now, I believe.

Chapter four focuses on the difference between Church 2.0 and Church 3.0. As he recognizes, others have written with greater depth on this topic. Dorhauer takes special care to note that this change is not an upgrade or adjustment–it is an entirely new way of being and doing. Chapter five tackles the difficult questions arising around church authority and clergy authorization. He addresses the crumbling model of a seminary-educated clergy, who are trained for a dying church 2.0 at great expense, while recognizing the ongoing need for accountability, oversight and development of new religious leaders for church 3.0.

Chapter six repeated the same fundamental problem of this book–using outdated examples or terminology for a concept or content that is actually quite leading edge. The chapter is about metrics and measurement in churches, looking beyond membership and money to the lives we change, the impact we make in our communities, and the ways our mission is accomplished. However, he begins by saying the church should be more like McDonalds (“Over 6 billion served!”), without seeming to recognize that McDonalds is losing money like mad these days, a franchise on a faster downward spiral of unpopularity than the church is. The ideas in the chapter are good–the illustration risks making them look old and irrelevant.

Chapters 7-10 turn toward the new expressions of Christianity sprouting up in our midst. He is deeply appreciative of these new Christian communities, but draws a clear boundary around calling them churches–because they would not self-identify that way, nor would a traditional church necessarily recognize them. They are generally small, with flat hierarchies, non-ordained leaders, non-traditional gatherings that don’t resemble formal Christian worship, and exhibit a commitment to openness with regard to Christianity and other faiths, a mingling of diverse ideas. Yet what Dorhauer concludes after his exploration of many of these communities is that they are authentic expressions of Christian community.

The gospel as we know it is in good hands. It is my hope that your own explorations of these postmodern communities of faith are no threat to the current expression of the Church and, in fact, are going to preserve the good news and make it relevant in people’s lives in ways that my church can’t. (118)

He offers validation that those newly sprouting Christian expressions are real and true versions of following Jesus, even if they are unlike any church we have yet seen. The final chapter offers helpful guideposts to churches navigating this time of transition.

As you can tell if you’ve bothered reading this far, this book provoked a lot of reaction in me. There were things that bothered me and that I would argue against, but those are surface matters like vocabulary and illustrations that made cutting-edge ideas seem unnecessarily dated. The heart of the book, its insights and truth-telling, is a great gift as we wrestle with the rapid changes afoot in the life of the church. This book makes an important contribution to the conversation. If you care about this conversation, I highly recommend it, especially if you are a part of the United Church of Christ.

 

Doing Good… Says Who? Stories from Volunteers, Nonprofits, Donors, and Those They Want to Help by Connie Newton and Fran Early, Minneapolis: Two Harbors Press, 2015, 163 pp.

Doing Good Says WhoShortly after I turned 18, during my first year of college, I spent my spring break on a mission trip to the hills of Appalachia. With high hopes, I imagined that my unskilled hands and loving spirit were going to change the lives of the poor, needy, helpless souls we would serve in Jesus’ name. On my first day, I spent nine hours scrubbing the baseboards of an old tuberculosis hospital, alongside one other shiny young volunteer and an old local deployed as our supervisor. I had volunteered to depart from the group and go with him because he was said to be wise and full of stories, but he spent the day in silence in another part of the building. He made it clear that he knew exactly what we were good for–washing baseboards, and not much else.

He was right, of course. We had lots of enthusiasm, little skill, and enormous amounts of unconscious prejudice. By the end of the day, left with nothing but silence and chapped hands, my self-centered idealism had been cracked open. It was a lesson in humility, service and perspective that I have valued ever since.

I wish this book had existed then, and that someone had given it to me before that first mission trip experience. I’m doubtful that it would have pierced my fantasies of “rescuing the poor from despair” with one week of unskilled labor, but it might have settled my expectations down or at least given me a resource to fall back on once I fell from such a great height of naive arrogance.

As they write in the introduction:

How do any of us go about recognizing what we don’t understand in another culture? How can we know when our efforts are actually “doing good?” Does it matter? In the stories that follow, it matters. (ix)

Fran Early and Connie Newton have assembled a collection of stories based on their years of experience living and working among the people of Guatemala and those good-hearted souls who want to improve their situation. These stories are collected from hundreds of interviews, woven together into five themed chapters. Each chapter is a story in itself, compiled from the many interviews into a single narrative. The stories themselves are powerful juxtapositions and memorable misunderstandings, and they range from recovering a stolen toilet to a disastrous offer of a $10,000 gift to a women’s co-operative only made possible by cakes and tamales. You’ll meet arrogant doctors and amazing ones; hardworking yet clueless funders; local women whose expertise is invaluable; and a cross-section of volunteers and local Guatemalans you will come to love.

 

I was initially disappointed with the authors’ decision to condense and co-mingle the stories into a single narrative. It felt a bit concocted or processed to me, and I wanted the raw experience that I thought I would glimpse in a direct interview. However, upon further reflection, I realized that’s part of their point.  If we travel or talk or read about people who are poor or foreign or struggling, we imagine we can have real, unadulterated access to other people’s lives. We can’t. Their strategy refuses to let us indulge in the illusion that, by this book, we too are somehow getting the real story. While we can grow in compassion and understanding, chances are we won’t ever fully be able to part from our own lenses to see things as others do. Such depth requires years of listening, living and learning, much as the authors have tried to practice. What we get here is, in fact, more helpful–it is the critical lens we need to question our perspective and learn to listen more carefully.

 

(And if you, like me, still worried that the narrative was not authentic enough, or you are bothered that stories take too many liberties, or you care about research methods and this kind of looseness makes you uncomfortable, start with the appendix. The appendix gives a thorough accounting of their research methodology and documentation of sources. Start there, your questions will be answered, and you will be at liberty to appreciate the stories and their contribution.)

Early and Newton identify five guiding principles or key concepts that anyone interested in helping out another community should come to understand. Each of these principles makes up a chapter of the book, one of the interwoven narratives that illustrates the theme, as would a case study. These themes are:

  1. Respect and value people
  2. Build trust through relationships
  3. Do “with” rather than “for”
  4. Ensure feedback and accountability
  5. Evaluate every step of the way

These guiding principles would be helpful tools for local church mission committees; mission trip participants; university service learning centers and students; any congregation or organization interested in forming partnerships (whether international or interfaith or just intercity/suburb); social work students; ministry students; Teach for America volunteers; NGO and non-profit boards of directors; and so many more. Any of these groups of good-hearted souls would benefit from a group reading and discussion of the stories, the guiding principles, and how they impact their work.

I typically make frequent notes and underlines in reading a study text, but not this time. Each story deserves to be taken as a whole, like the people they represent. They are not a frozen image or an inspiring quotation. There is no anecdote that can capture the complexity of reality. Only relationship, mutuality and listening with care can begin to get you there.

This book is so helpful, so necessary. I’m disappointed my 18 year-old self didn’t have it, but I’m glad to have it now, and plan to share it widely.

 

 

 

 

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1989, 171 pp.

Contemplative PastorI read and return to Eugene Peterson whenever I need to be grounded again in my pastoral calling. I don’t always agree with him, and sometimes see his generation and gender coming through too much, but I always find much wisdom and inspiration for what the life of a local church pastor ought to be all about.

Having read The Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that The Contemplative Pastor did not contain a lot of new ideas or concepts. As always, Peterson emphasizes that the pastor should be a local theologian, an unbusy presence in people’s lives, attentive to what God is doing in a particular community, focused on reading and teaching more than administrating programs. This book also contained a unique focus on poetry, arguing that pastors should also invest in the art of poetry, as both readers and writers. Each chapter begins with a brief poem, and the closing chapter is a collection of Peterson’s poems.

Rather than big, new insights and ideas about what the true essence of ministry is, or how to do the work of pastoring, I found in this book a series of short, beautiful statements that remind me of my purpose and reorient me toward my mission as a pastor. I share favorites below.

Here is an example of that reorientation toward mission:

The pastor’s question is, “Who are these particular people and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” … I’m responsible for paying attention to the Word of God right here in this locale. The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it. (4)

Again, later, he emphasizes the pastor’s task as listening and pointing out what God is already doing in the church and its people. This is what it means to “cure souls.”

What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on? (61)

One of the things Peterson does best is talk about prayer in the life of the pastor, and its central role in the pastoral way. I love how he addresses the tension here between God and pastors:

Prayer is the joining of realities, the making of a live connection between the place we find ourselves and the God who is finding us. But prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal. Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God. And so it happens without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines. (42-43)

Following a long exegesis of Annie Dillard, he concludes that teaching prayer is primary.

My primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical background of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. … The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did. (89)

Peterson is always good for me when I lose my way in this work, and need to get my feet on the ground and my heart right with God again. While The Contemplative Pastor was not as good as the other two listed above, and less likely to receive a reread in the future, it still served its purpose and moved me to prayer.

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2010, 173 pp.

Abundant CommunityI have been feeling a great sense of discontent in recent years about the engagement of churches in traditional mission endeavors. My own congregation houses a thriving community meal, which has served 75-100 people every Saturday for more than 20 years. It’s important to those who come for food, and even more important to those in our congregation and many others who find a venue there for Christian service. However, I wonder exactly what we are doing. Are we actually ending hunger in our community, or are we making it easier for the community to allow poverty to persist? Are we enabling forces of poor wages, corporate greed and negligent government to stand unchecked by softening the consequences of their action? Feeding people who are hungry feels like a basic good, something that ought to be clean and true and good. But are we ending hunger, or just perpetuating it? Especially because it makes us feel so good to be a part of it?

This book is the first of a series I am reading to help address this topic. I have a background in congregation-based community organizing, and read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton last year to begin to address these issues. This book, along with several upcoming, will continue that conversation.

The Abundant Community draws a sharp contrast between consumerism and citizenship, and the kinds of community that are possible within each conception of human life and connection. In the introductory chapter, beautifully titled “Welcome,” McKnight and Block draw the distinction.

Our culture tells us that a satisfying life can only be purchased. It tells us that in the place where we live, we don’t have the resources to create a good life. That we must find the expertise from marketers and professionals. This book reminds us that a neighborhood can raise a child, provide security, sustain our health, secure our income, and care for our vulnerable people. Each of these is within the power of our community. (xiii)

We have replaced the functions of family and neighborhood–caring for children and vulnerable people, providing security and income, sustaining health–with marketable goods, which has diminished the meaning of family and neighborhood while leaving us ultimately dissatisfied by the market’s inability to adequately provide what we seek (and have always found) in community. The first two chapters outline in detail the difference between consumerist attempts to provide those goods and community ones, and the history of how we moved from one to the other in the last century. The market mentality builds impersonal systems, with predictable ways to meet stated needs. However, those systems are predicated on perpetual need, commodified responses and predictable outcomes—none of which are capable of giving us the true intimacy, community and care we desire. The market relies on this ongoing dissatisfaction to ensure our continued engagement as consumers. Systems are designed to produce cures, but the human condition is not a problem to be solved. (38) McKnight and Block point to examples from education, law enforcement, grief care and health care to demonstrate how our consumer model of dealing with these concerns fails repeatedly, when a community approach could succeed.

One interesting observation they make is around privacy, professionalization and its impact on community.

This privacy is the enemy of community because it takes the personal away. It hides and removes our secrets from relationship building among families and neighbors. Secrets are the raw materials for good community. … Making secrets private also deprives the community of the capacity to deal with troubles. … (40)

Instead of dealing with problems together as a community, they argue, we send away everyone with a problem to a professional, which diminishes the community’s capacity to deal with problems.

The capacity has atrophied in the community. You do know what to do about it, but the professionalization of care has made you feel that you don’t. (40)

The third chapter enumerates the true costs of living in a consumer world–to the environment, to our sense of self worth, to relationships in the family and neighborhood, to the possibility of satisfaction. Because we have ceded so many responsibilities to the marketplace, neighborhoods, families and communities have become incompetent to deal with them. We must rebuild capable communities in order to reclaim those responsibilities.

One interesting observation throughout the book is the way that the consumer way strangles personality and individuality. The authors write, “A community is a place where you can be yourself. The institution causes me to lose myself–to be replaceable or to be called a ‘case.'” (55) I wonder at churches in this assessment. One of the best, most beautiful things about some churches is the way quirky people can find a way to serve and love and care for one another in true community. Yet sometimes, we in those quirky churches full of quirky people wish we could be more like the big, institutional, well-resourced churches who didn’t have to mess around with such troublesome uniqueness. Perhaps that instead is our greatest gift. The authors instead suggest that valuing idiosyncracy is key to community. The people in communities are not replicable–it’s Dr. Jack, the church usher that always carries Lifesavers in his pocket for the kids; it’s Horace’s unique artistry that graces the sanctuary; it’s Norma’s special brand of prayer and friendship. These things are unique and cannot persist beyond their lifetime, and that’s what makes the community.

The second half of the book points toward strategies for reclaiming community over consumerism and rebuilding competent communities. McKnight and Block name the abundance already present in communities–the collection of gifts, skills and competencies shared by any group of people. We must organize to help people share their unique gifts, rather than depend on impersonal systems.

A community based on scarcity, dependent on systems, with citizens competing and living in isolation from one another, threatens democracy. That is why consumerism threatens democracy. Because it is organized around scarcity and dependency by design. (110)

The way out of incompetent communities and consumerism is to claim our abundance, celebrate unique gifts, and decide to be satisfied with what we have.

There is much wisdom for pastors and churches in this book, and much to consider on my original question about church mission projects. Does our community meal foster community? Does it identify gifts and abundance? How can we do better?

 

In Search of Belief by Joan Chittister, Liguori/Triumph, 1999, 217 pp.

This is the third of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

In Search of BeliefJoan Chittister is in a category all her own. While everyone else approaches the creeds with an attempt to explain or expound, to offer background or argument or enhancement, Chittister approaches the creeds with her self, her questions, her wonderings, and her mysticism. What emerges is a spiritual conversation–sometimes argumentative, sometimes comfortable–musing on the Apostles’ Creed.

Chittister breaks the creed into more pieces than any other author, with 27 separate chapters, each one devoted to just a word or short phrase from the creed. This approach leads to more of a devotional resource than a reference book. Chittister’s meditations range far and wide from the creed itself, and she wanders about to expand the basic ideas more than clarifying them. In that expansive wandering, the reader stumbles into moments of beauty and insight that are beyond the words of the creeds, but true to its mysteries. For example, her short second chapter on “In God” contains these reflections:

God is the mystery nobody wants. What people covet in God is not mystery but certainty. (18)

In the long light of human history, then, it is not belief in God that sets us apart. It is the kind of God in which we choose to believe that in the end makes all the difference. (20)

God is both what we cannot think and what we cannot not think at the same time. (21)

Her fourth chapter, “Almighty,” follows this path:

We want interventions from God, in other words, to make the world what we want the world to be rather than to change ourselves so the world can become what it ought to be. We want someone else to do something, rather than face the need to become something other ourselves. We want a God who does physical miracles rather than spiritual ones. (35)

To see the Almighty God we must wrest ourselves open to the almightiness of God in us, around us, beneath us, before us, in every possibility that impels us to be more than we are. (37)

God is being as almighty in me as I have finally mustered the courage to allow and been given the opportunity to attempt. (38)

Her spiritual paths invite a depth and richness in our contemplation of the creed, word by word, that cannot be hurried but must be pondered. As the creed unfolds, Chittister’s Roman Catholicism and feminism show through boldly in the chapters on Mary and the church, which offer searing critiques of the Roman church’s refusal to ordain women, denial of feminine language of God and closed-minded teaches on sexuality. I also found her Catholicism evident in the chapter on judgment, which included a wonderful insight into “healthy guilt,” which she identifies as a guilt that is felt for the right things (like ways we harm others), is not exaggerated, and can be acted upon to change our behavior and situation. There are lots of jokes about Catholic guilt, but this is an insightful understanding of the purpose of this emotion.

One of my favorite chapters was her reflection on the communion of the saints. She writes,

Belief in the communion of saints is a call to immersion in the holy-making project of living out the life of Christ ourselves as so many have done before us. … We are bound to the unfinished work of bringing the world to the beatitudes. (178)

The Creed is not a call to believe in the Church. The Creed is a call to follow the Christ. Believing in a church that makes us feel holy ourselves by keeping in good repair a checklist of private devotions is easy. Believing in the Christ who demands our sanctity be measured by our relationships to the rest of the human race is the real measure of the holy life. (179)

As always, Joan Chittister goes deep and invites us to engage not just in the work of thinking, but of connecting and living in a relationship with Christ, in this embodied world and in the realm of the heart. This book was well worth a slower, more dedicated read than I gave it. There is much beauty and wisdom contained in it.

The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters by Luke Timothy Johnson, Doubleday, 2003, 325 pp.

This is the second of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

The CreedLuke Timothy Johnson’s work is richest, deepest and most scholarly of the various books about the creeds I have read. All other sources after 2003 refer to his work as foundational. It is also the only resource that focuses on the Nicene Creed more than the Apostles’ Creed.

Johnson begins with more than 60 pages of background on the origins, history and importance of the creed. He provides the most detailed account of the origins of the creeds, beginning with the initial professions of faith that named Jesus as Christ, Lord, Messiah and Son of God. Johnson then offers an extensive but manageable review of the patristic letters and writings that show traces of the creed’s formation and development before explaining the dynamics of the Council of Nicea.

Johnson’s second chapter, “What the Creed Is and What It Does,” was incredibly insightful and helpful in explaining why the creeds matter. His claims answered my inner skeptic and the skeptics in my congregation, and helped me formulate my own response to their importance. He writes,

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they are words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40-41)

No one of us individually believes as much or as well as all of us do communally. The church always believes more and better than any one of its members. … We choose to stand together under these truths, in the hope that our individual “I believe” someday approaches the strength of the church’s “we believe.” (46)

When believers stand together in the liturgy after the readings from Scripture and recite the words of the Christian creed, they affirm that the world as imagined by Scripture and constructed by the creed is the world in which they choose to live. (61)

Johnson divides the creed into six major sections, and writes extensively about each one. He begins by tracing scriptural precedents for each, then offering a theological analysis of every piece of the creed. His Roman Catholicism, traditionalism and orthodoxy shine a little to strongly for me in his outdated critiques of liberation theology, but he surprised me with his insistence that we question all-male God language and recognize all forms of the church as holy and godly.

Many times in the course of the book, he makes a theological claim or description explaining the creed that is simply beautiful. He is able to articulate the importance of these basic theological claims in ways that leave me wanting to affirm them more deeply and more passionately. In his reflection on the resurrection, he writes,

The strong sense of salvation as a participation in God’s life, remember, depends on the strong experience of liberation and power, not as something hoped for in the future, but happening already in present-day lives. The reality of the resurrection was convincing because people acted freely and powerfully through the Holy Spirit. … The greatest miracle supporting the claims of Christians was the transformation of their lives and the creation of transforming communities. (151)

This is but one small example among many, in each section of the Johnson’s writings about the creeds, where he makes the ancient words come alive and reinforces their importance in the Christian life and faith.

The Creed is valuable not only because of the depth of its history, explanation and focus in the Nicene Creed, but because Johnson constructs a beautiful, holistic theology of the Christian faith. While I may disagree from time to time, I learned an enormous amount and my heart was warmed again and again throughout his reflection on the creeds.

Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church by Sarah Griffith Lund, Chalice Press, 2014, 116 pp.

Blessed are the CrazyThis book is brave. Sarah Lund commits from the very beginning to testify–to bear witness to the heartache and struggle of her own life and where God has (and hasn’t) been present and active in it. Then she follows through, confessing to her own pain, the pain of her family, and stories of brokenness and hope. Her vulnerability as a writer, pastor and person left me humbled and challenged to pursue that kind of testifying in my own life and ministry.

Before the book even begins, there is a definition offered for “crazy in the blood,” referring to the genetic predisposition to brain disease and “why some families are more dysfunctional than others.” This is Lund’s family and her story. She begins in her own voice as a five-year-old child, recalling a story of violence from her father after church. Her testimony unfolds through her teen and young adult years, as her father’s violence and mental illness unravel his life. Even as a local church helps her to know that “not everything in my life was ruined,” (7) Lund feels as though a God of love cannot reside in a home filled with such hate, and that faith and hope are set out to sea. She finds faith renewed in her college years, along with the perspective to understand her father’s violence as an illness.

After her years as a child and youth, her testimony turns to a faithful wrestling with how to love members of her family whose mental illness risks destroying their lives, and hers along with them. It is not just about her father. Her eldest brother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she comes to care for a cousin on death row for a murder likely triggered by untreated mental illness and family abuse. It is painful to read, but her truth-telling is healing and liberating.

While my own testimony is not shaped by “crazy in the blood,” I found myself relating to her journey in many ways. This is what makes it testimony–that it was not just a story about her life, but about God at work, which means I could come to see God at work in my life through it. She describes her father, brother and cousins as her greatest spiritual teachers, and they became my spiritual teachers too. For example, her brother Scott describes his relationship with God:

When he is mentally stable he believes in God; when he is feeling manic he believes he is God; and when he is feeling depressed he believes there is no God. (44)

While I am not subject to the pain of Scott’s illness, I can recognize my own relationship with God in his description. I too find myself thinking that I am god-like when I feel strong and capable, just as I doubt God’s existence when I falter and fail.

Healing is a word that Lund uses carefully and sparingly. Mental illness has no cure. Though it can be managed throughout life, it will again and again flare up to cause damage and distress. She uses the powerful metaphor of bearing the cross.

By bearing the cross of mental illness and carrying it, we can move it–not rid ourselves of it or deny it–to a place of transformation like Golgotha. … Instead of only being the instrument that killed Jesus, the cross became a symbol of the power of God to overcome the sins of the world. In the resurrection, God shows us that what is broken by this world can be made whole again. … I believe that by telling our stories of mental illness, by giving our own testimonies for mental health, we can carry our crosses to more healing places, even places of transformation. (51-52)

Subsequent chapters challenge social notions (and Christian ones) about people with mental illness. She talks about the execution of her cousin and crushing power of state-sanctioned murder. She asks, “if God was with Paul and in Paul, what happened to the God-part of Paul when he was executed? Did part of God get executed too?” (68) Her answer–that “part of me and part of God died the night of Paul’s execution”–indicts our whole system of “justice.” A similar indictment follows as she talks about a kind of Christian faith that believes faith and prayer are sufficient alone to combat the brain diseases that her family has suffered, or that they suffer due to insufficient faith in God.

Instead, Lund offers a better, more compassionate way for churches and Christians to journey with people with mental illness and their families. She evokes a theology of suffering, where mental illness is neither a blessing nor a curse, but a situation in which God enters to accompany humans in their suffering. As people of faith, we should join God in that faithful, compassionate work of accompaniment. The book concludes with practical suggestions for churches about how to begin those kinds of ministries.

At first,  what stands out most about Blessed are the Crazy are the personal stories, whose vivid drama draw attention and stick in the reader’s memory. But the book matters not just for its storytelling, but for the theology of suffering and God’s persistent love in the midst of it, and for the challenge to people of faith to live out that love by walking together with those who are suffering from “crazy in the blood.” This book is a gift to all clergy, to families seeking hope in mental illness, and to church communities seeking to respond.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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