My work has had several foci, held together by the desire to find Jesus in unexpected places. The task of reading the bible, of the faithful life, and of teaching and preaching, is to find Christ where we’ve been led to believe we cannot or should not. Because he’s there—bearing witness to his Lordship, transfiguring all creation by the power of the Spirit into the world God wants. I do this academically by studying figural exegesis of scripture, popularly by reviewing books and movies, homiletically by encouraging folks to preach beautifully in ways that connect to hearers and connect them with something bigger than themselves. I’m dazzled by the breadth and width and height of the church’s majesty, sinners though we all are. There is always more to learn and adore among God’s people and in God’s world.
I’m also fascinated by the overlaps between mainline and evangelical, between Catholic and Protestant, between the Abrahamic faiths and far beyond communities of faith. I’m convinced God is trying to mend what we have pulled apart and find this usually in places unanticipated by us. I’m fascinated by the overlaps here in my new home in BC: between Canada and the US, between Cascadia’s famed secularity and the wonderfully creative ministries I see here, between the mountain community I’ve come from in Appalachia and the mountain communities of BC. Our deepest longing is for God, whether we know it or not. I’m on the lookout to spot that longing being fulfilled, even just a little, and to tell others about it as beautifully as I can.
Books to Recommend (Newbigin is obvious, I’m trying for less obvious sources here).
Towers of Trebizond—I love Rose McCauley’s exposure of the pretence of triumphalist faith (an Anglican is convinced if she just teaching common-sense Anglicanism in the Middle East folks will convert en masse—all they’ve heard is intellectually backward Islam and Roman Catholicism). But the book shows even more convincingly that the real pretence is our sin: we can’t be the sort of people we want, even when we want correctly. Some of the best arguments for faith I’ve seen are in this book, as well as some of the best undoing of cultural superiority.
Christianity in the West 1400-1700 John Bossy. He shows convincingly the tacit assumptions of late medieval and early modern village Christian faith in the west. This is what all our Reformed forebears could assume and did not think they would have to argue for: Jesus and his disciples were all kin; faith makes us kin as well, the church is a big raucous ridiculous body that shares delight and misery.
Andrew Walls corpus. He has two big books of essays and countless other contributions elsewhere. He’s a patristics scholar from Scotland who went to work teaching in west Africa 60 years ago and discovered that his students weren’t interested in the early church. Because they are the early church. Christian faith historically dies in the middle and renews itself on the edges. So the best thing we can do is find an edge and build something. Walls points out in his home city of Edinburgh three of the four great downtown churches are now nightclubs. The fourth is now an African immigrant church trying to figure out how to reach out in mission in its city. That’s how God works.
Fleming Rutledge corpus. She has books of sermons on the OT, on Paul, on the intersection of the church in the world, all of which repay multiple readings. This in an age when publishers insist they don’t publish sermons (because people don’t buy them). Her combination of rhetorical grace and intellectual firepower are extraordinary. She preaches as if something is on the line.
Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion Father Greg Boyle has done extraordinary ministry among gang members in South Central LA for decades. Now there’s a book befitting the glory of his work. The Jesuits are always throwing themselves into mission, creating family in unlikely places. Here he’s thrown himself into letters and produced something exemplary.
Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony Will Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas A little dated now (30 years), but makes the argument well that the church’s work isn’t to take over the state (Christendom) nor to vanish in self-lacerating apology (much of liberalism) but to create an alternative culture within the broader culture, one that demonstrates the goodness of the gospel and gives the world something interesting in which not to believe.
I’m staggered by the work of Grandview Calvary Baptist Church here in Vancouver, which has responded to its neighborhood and the world with a series of entrepreneurial ministries, from Kinbrace that helps immigrants resettle in Canada to Co:here that is building affordable housing on church land that otherwise does little ministry. They’re also starting a non-profit to help other churches use their underused land for affordable housing. Pastor Tim Dickau says, “If you combined the Catholic spiritual tradition, a Reformed desire to transform institutions, and the Anabaptists’ presumption that we’re over against the rest of the world, you’d have a church!”
L’Arche in France and worldwide. Jean Vanier wisely says that the church once built hospitals and universities. Now we have plenty of these. What we need now is to show the world how to be family, to build houses of compassion and grace that rehumanize people otherwise reduced to their productivity and bodily needs.
Mepkin Abbey. This monastery of the Trappist order in South Carolina bears the legacy of Thomas Merton, with whom some of these monks lived in community when they were young. Merton once imagined that God may keep the world going just because of the 3 AM prayers of a few berobed monks in the wilderness of Kentucky. I found the same spiritual power among these monks on the coast of the Carolinas.
Rutba House. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s community in Durham NC is trying to demonstrate in its life together the life-changing fullness of the gospel. They serve local at-risk kids, they teach in the prisons, they agitate for social justice with Moral Mondays. They weave together the life of the mind, the spirit of prayer, and the street work of agitation for justice in beautiful ways. Most impressively, they got the death penalty stopped in North Carolina by proving to a judge that the gas chamber was re-presenting the passion of Jesus (last supper Thursday, death Friday at noon), and therefore was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. Never say that a few people can’t change the world.
Embrace Church, The Gathering, Church of the Resurrection Downtown, Providence UMC, and Impact Church—5 United Methodist congregations that have planted in the past 10 years that have grown to 1000 or more attenders. One of their pastors (Matt Miofsky of The Gathering in St. Louis) and I are writing a book on these five to point to common patterns. Their paucity (just 5!) shows that for all the mainline’s fetishization of church growth, we don’t do it well often. Yet these five are vibrant places where people are finding faith for the first time, the poor are being fed, and cities are being transformed in places like Atlanta, Nashville, Kansas City, St. Louis and Sioux Falls SD. Surely there is something that can be studied here in the patterns, overlaps, and differences.
Churchforvancouver.ca. I love this website! It holds up a vision of church much bigger than our little fiefdoms, and whenever I learn of something interesting in our town I go there and find Flyn Ritchie has written about it years before. He has a love for social geography—for walking the city and learning the history of God’s people in that place. I love that sort of attention to the particular—it matches God’s love for the specific, the granular, for each hair of our head and each swallow that falls to the ground.