Monday, July 24, 2017

God’s Use of and Delight in ‘the Least of These’

“Who would make good helpers, do you think? Clever ones? Rich ones? Strong, important ones? Some people might think so, but I’m sure by now you don’t need me to tell you they’d be wrong. Because the people God uses don’t have to know a lot of things, or have a lot of things — they just have to need him a lot.”
— Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible
NOT great things. Ordinary things, by definition. Banal things. Boring. Unattractive. These are the things of the Kingdom. They hold no attraction for those setting their sights on nobility. Those with lofty goals, who may not have read Jeremiah 45:1-5 recently.
I know that too often I am one of them. A person who covets too much to be used ‘greatly’. And each time I do I miss the sense of truth that God uses ordinary people like you and me every day, especially when we’re unsuspecting. We can be, and are, the least of these when we relinquish the chase.
To be used greatly is to shun the limelight. Where we place ourselves in positions where we’re easy to reject. And there are many of those situations. Actually, we cannot avoid them. We only have to have been a Christian for a little while to see how worldly Christians can be, notwithstanding the world that would diss us without a thought or care. Perhaps we’re more covetous than ever, but our humanity would suggest there’s nothing new under the sun.
God will use the rejected much more than he will use those who are favoured in this world. Think of situations where people might not reach out the hand of compassion. Their condemnation is in their own choice.
So far as the Kingdom is concerned, God uses greatly only those who are both destitute and those who serve the destitute. One is used as an instrument for sifting the righteous from the unrighteous. The other is used as the hands and feet of Jesus. Forget the glamour of ministry with a million likes and a church of hundreds or thousands, being an iconoclast leader. That desire will melt away as vanity before His glory in eternity, and be shown for what is was; the sinful nature emblazoned at the height of its pride.
One thing the destitute and those who serve the destitute have in common: they need God a lot.
Whose is the Kingdom? Those who are poor in spirit. (Matthew 5:3)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

How Must It Feel to be ‘Welcomed’ But Not ‘Affirmed’?

ALLEGIANCE. Swap faith in the sentence ‘salvation by faith alone’ to allegiance — salvation by allegiance alone. Self, this is a thesis by Matthew Bates. It reminds me of a chunkier more concrete way of loyalty for the gift of grace — I give Jesus my allegiance, reminiscent of His own imperative, “Follow me,” as I reciprocate His love by doing just that: I follow Him. As Andy Stanley might say, the acid-test is on me, the Christian. All non-Christians are absolved.
What is a disciple of Christ, but a learner? They cannot help but be open to learning, for they’re following Jesus. The extension of following Jesus is I don’t know where He’s taking me; my allegiance truly is by faith, knowing He is absolutely trustworthy. He, the Word, is the lamp to my feet. Every single step. As a repentant sinner, I’m helpless without Him, yet spiritually invincible with Him. And in following Jesus I’m to follow no other.
So often as a ‘follower’ of Christ, however, I forget how much Jesus included those whose lives were running off the rails. He sought them out. He risked His life to talk with them and to help them. He spent time with them, reclining and eating of all things, in a culture where eating with people said so much about how you felt about them. He healed them repeatedly, and often Jesus found in the broken person a receptive heart — a heart just waiting to be loved, to be sought out, to be redeemed — a heart ready to give allegiance. The allegiant person is spiritually poor, and it’s only the gospel of Jesus that flips many realities — hence, the poor in Jesus are infinitely and eternally rich. The Jesus I follow isn’t a rhetorician nor a lobbyist nor a spin-doctor. I might ponder Him as a rabbi, but the truth is, He transcends description. And, as the gospels seem to have it, His love always flew in the face of the religious elite whose piety was so off-course.
Now I come to an issue that has bamboozled me a long time: people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex. One step further and we’re into the same-sex marriage debate. Don’t worry, I’m not going there!
A Christian frame-of-reference is the well-worn term, ‘welcoming but not affirming’.
‘Welcoming but not affirming’ seems to have become a mantra from the book by the same title by Stanley J. Grenz. In some ways, the mantra has skewed over time what appears to be the original intent of Grenz. It has come to be used as a way of discriminating in terms of discipleship, at least it’s seen that way by those affected, not simply to disaffirm same-sex unions.
Over time God has put me into dialogue with a few (doesn’t have to be many) individuals who fit either loosely or tightly in the LGBTQI community. Not through what they said, but more through what I felt, I sensed them experiencing the conditional love in that turn-of-phrase, and the outworking of conditional acceptance, that I doubt could ever be a reflection of God’s love for them. I have heard some say they couldn’t set foot in a church that brandished such a ‘welcoming but not affirming’ vision. I think we need something better, more loving, more unifying, and more Christlike, than welcoming but not affirming. Sorry, I don’t have the answer. I feel God bringing me again to a place where the complexities perplex my urge for simplistic answers. And I cannot suppose churches aren’t very well intentioned in coming to that theological position. After all, many expect churches to state their purposes; to come to a landing on where they stand.
I sense that a person in the LGBTQI grouping takes ‘welcoming but not affirming’ to mean, ‘we welcome you, but we do not affirm you,’ instead of what it’s supposed to mean, ‘we welcome you, but we do not affirm of your lifestyle.’ I know that if I am welcomed, but part of me is unwelcome, I do not feel welcome. So much can come down to dichotomies of view regarding sin. And there’s the issue: something so central to another person is viewed as sin. For them it’s more than an insult. It’s damning, and it offers them no semblance of hope. It’s damning, and for many people in the LGBTQI grouping Christianity might as well be damned as a result. I can begin to understand. It saddens me when the church does not reach people for Christ.
As a church, I think we need to do better than say we welcome but do not affirm — and leaving it open to confusion. On the surface, it appears well-thought-out, as a direct response to the issue of marriage that departs from the biblical ideal (man and woman). I think the common person sees right through it, however, when they begin engaging with someone whose life is affected. Sure, it fits with biblical sensibilities, but it isn’t the fullest measure of the love of Christ, which is a love that trusts that the Holy Spirit works best when I get out of the way; when I focus on how loveable the other person truly is, in the sight of God; when I worship God by how devotedly I love others. Others argue that truth is part of love, that tough love is part of love, and I can only agree. But there is also much more to love than that.
When I place myself in the situation of the person who has lived their whole life wondering if they’ll ever be ‘worthy’ of love outside their minority group I’m saddened. I begin to think of this kind of person who, like me, is made in the image of God. The person whose life hangs by the thread of acceptance, only to be severed by the scissors of rejection the moment they have the authenticity and courage (or audacity, if I feel threatened) to be honest. The person in dire need of Christ, Whose love is the only saving love they’ll ever know. The person God has put in my midst to love, when I may struggle to muster such compassion, even though that’s my job (as an allegiant one) to issue compassion to ‘the least of these’. This is not easy. I’m on a journey to somewhere better — for them, for me, for God.
What about the son or daughter, the husband or wife, the father or mother, the brother or sister who has wrestled with their reality for years, if not decades, and in some cases their entire lifetime. Would I quietly cast them off — out of the family or community or friendship circle? Or, as with so many, do they begin to challenge my perceptions? Is God working within my repentance (for I can only do my own)? The theodicy is that they wrestle, like those with chronic pain or a grief that never ends, for how many of them would not otherwise choose to be ‘normal’? (This is not said as a slight on anyone who identifies as one within the broad LGBTQI grouping.)
That’s my question of myself… how must it feel to be welcomed but not affirmed? I think I have some vague idea, because I’ve experienced somewhat the unbiblical exclusivity of church, but nothing like the person who feels estranged not just from church but from much of society as well. What such a person — every person — needs, is the church. The church should be the sanctuary of peace for all persons. A place where all persons, no matter their particular brokenness, can be discipled with grace.
As an allegiant, surely it beckons me most to love without condition.
As an allegiant, could it be that God is asking me to ponder what it might feel like to be a bearer of His image and someone of LGBTQI orientation? I think so. That my care might rise to the worthiness of love. That no matter the nuance of my theology that I’d be affirming of an LGBTQI person, as they are, and in that way, be accepting of them.
And I also found this video that I find directs me in the way I should think and act.
Just as I was finishing this reflection I wondered how I could illustrate the topic. I looked outside my window and saw a man practicing walking a tightrope. God provides. I went over and asked him if I could take and use the photo above. He had no objections.
I find being Christian in this age of same-sex marriage, and the linking of LGBTQI issues, akin to walking a tightrope. What I need most is balance.
Jesus, please give me the balance of wisdom to love the marginalised well. Amen.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Best Parts About Becoming an Old Man

FIFTY. Sounds old. Is old. Should feel bad. But, doesn’t. Incredible. Compared with turning forty. What a paradox.
Without any doubt, the fiftieth year has been the most challenging. I’ve been reduced to the boy more this past year than any other adult year — I think. I’ve had to let go of pride. No great loss. Made better for surviving a series of trivial humiliations. Letting go of things that were never mine. Letting go of other things that were only mine yet should never have been.
I had my midlife crisis at forty. Two months of depression leading up to the day 40 came. My poor new wife had no idea who I really was. Frightening for her and I alike. Kicked in the pants by a shrewd therapist (which was what I needed) on August 9, 2007. Then God put the lights on again through Proverbs — an eighteen-month adventure of mystery and discovery that created within me the passion to write. Haven’t stopped since. And all I did was read Proverbs eighteen times. But one thing I’ve learned: never say never, though I’ve had to learn that again and again. I’ve had to accept, in some areas, I’m a slow learner; an early adopter, but a slow learner.
The period of the past 343 days or so has encapsulated a massive excursion of reflection — of positive cognisance of who I am, rather than what I hadn’t achieved (which led to the calamity at 40). God took me out of the arena for such a time as this has been, and He plunged me into another, the Refiner’s fire. It’s like turning 49 was serendipitously the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I still cannot explain it. It’s how God works in my life; the miraculous is blissfully inexplicable, often borne through the bowels of pain.
I promised myself I’d get in shape. My diet has changed a lot during the past twelve months. Some patterns for health established. But more than that. I’m in better shape for the things I’ve had to do that I didn’t want to do; for the times I’ve found myself at the end of myself, with no empathy for the pathetic shadow I’d become. Each time though, without knowing how or why, God resurrected me, without my even anticipating it. I didn’t get what I deserved. (I deserved dirt.) I ended up so much better off. Each and every time.
I’ve read and listened to a lot of Richard Rohr, Paul Washer, Jean Vanier, David Platt, Eugene Peterson, A.W. Tozer, Charles Swindoll, Henri Nouwen. A diverse range of voices. I’m trying to let go of my dualistic thinking, living more intentionally for eternity. But I still judge too quickly, too often. Yet I accept that if I’m not there at fifty maybe I’m not meant to be. And still I’m becoming more aware.
I’ve learned to place my mind in environments my mind doesn’t like. To heal my heart of its predilection for comfort I’ve come to learn something. I’m becoming healed by enduring the humiliation of the things I hate. Healed by being immersed in what I’d prefer to reject. Voices of others I don’t like. Bearing them. Views of people that are opposite to mine. Appreciating them. Learning a grace that only God can give me. A peacemaking grace. The grace of taking my time, of others taking their time, of suffering the indignity of patience. Pouring contempt on my not-so-inconsiderable pride.
Over the past decade, God has shown me the importance of holding my death near. Having a young child has accelerated the urgency to stay alive. I think about my eternal destiny more now than ever, about when I’m gone, but my quest for making the most of the living moment has also been an undulating journey. The beauty in a thought-free, sensual consciousness, where God exists and that’s all that matters.
So, with just 22 days until I become a quinquagenarian I’m comfortable in my body, mind and soul. Comfortable in my discomfort. Contented in my little story.
Mystery awaits. Hope abides. Ignorance allowed. Serenity remains. Amid letting go.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Brief Discussion On the Cost/Benefit of Discipleship

FROM whom great things are required, boundless rewards are offered, if the One who makes the rules is just. That is what every disciple of Jesus Christ has agreed, by faith, is the case. But we inevitably fall short. And still the rewards are unfathomably good:
“Anyone who counts the cost of discipleship has completely failed to grasp the greatness of the reward.”
— Francis Wright Beare
And yet discipleship — to follow Christ; with persistence and perseverance; growing in faith and repentance; all the years of our lives — demands everything we have and all that we are. A cost no less than this bears heavily on the graveness of the decision we first made; the ignorant precedent-for-faith that cast the die for the thousands of decisions to come; or, the fully-informed and well-intentioned decision made by the unction of the Holy Spirit.
Consider the fact that with each decision there’s the continual threat of our unfaithfulness.
And yet none of that matters, because of what Christ has done. None of our obedience matters, due the grace of God that saves us, yet it all matters, because we’re saved by grace through faith; not works per se, but true faith is visible through the fruit we bear.
Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13 confirms it. Only the seed sown in good soil produces a crop that manifests abundantly, one hundred, sixty, and thirtyfold yields.
The desire to be fruitful connects with discipleship. Belief in the ends secures the means.
Discipleship is not seen as a cost for the person who’s had their heart transformed.
That’s the fundamental difference and benefit between God’s seed sown in good soil versus His seed sown on the rock-hard path, in rocky ground or thorny soil.
The cost of discipleship is in so many ways only a consideration for those who are still wrestling with the benefit of discipleship. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit we never have our relationship with Christ so much together as to never count the cost. The fact is discipleship does cost. Perseverance is always required; to the end (Matthew 24:13).
We count that cost most when life is especially tough — when we’re growing most in Christ. Yet, there’s also a time when we’re humble enough to thrive on tests because we don’t consider ourselves better than for testing. But pride is known to rise, and counting the cost is normative for our writhing flesh.
A disciple of Jesus is someone who knows who they are, in Christ, but also in reality. They keep both truths in the forefront of their mind. They treasure both truths in their heart. That knowledge convicts them, because who they are about is holiness and sin. It convicts them toward change and transformation because of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Why You’ve Never Lived Until You’ve Been Undone By Loss

NOT everyone who reads the title of this article will agree, and many will disagree with its content. But I write out of experience, and my experience is pretty much a Gospel experience; one that millions have come to attest to in their experience.
I don’t title the article glibly or proudly. For me, it’s a statement of fact. I spent my first thirty-six-years-and-six-weeks oblivious to this reality. I was a shell compared with who I am now.
This article is inspired by this one. One of the most truth-filled articles I’ve ever read. I would commend you to read that one before you read further, here. But it’s up to you.
Here goes. You will understand this if you’ve been wrecked by loss. You will not understand this if you’ve not yet suffered the anguish of something you cannot fix, ever.
Paradoxically, this article is written not for the person who already knows, but for the one who may yet one day experience that which turns life from day to night as a precedence for the dawning of a brand-new day, a majestic solstice.
Loss obliterates the life that entertains it has control over life.
That is the purpose of loss — to bring us headlong before an incontrovertible truth. Until we’re power-slammed by the grief outbound of loss we don’t understand the true depths and heights of life; until then, we evade reality. And even as we faceplant the bitumen and are dazed by severe realities we couldn’t previously predict were possible, something truly remarkable may occur, if we descend the cavernous abyss with courage enough to place our faith in God.
Loss teaches us that we do not control life. This is an essential lesson to learn; the earlier in adult life (preferably) the better. But, with loss must come a faith that something makes the loss meaningful. It’s not a faith that believes it’s enough simply to get through the grief, but it’s a faith that says, “I believe God will eventually show me more of the life there is, here in this physical world, as I endure this pain; as I accept it even through occasionally resenting it; as I come to the end of myself, again and again, over and over.”
Suddenly, out of loss, we read our Bibles with focused lenses, ever more spiritually attuned to the words that God has breathed His fresh life into. Those lines read differently and the themes spring forth. Suddenly the Old Book has immortal value.
Loss challenges every single assumption we ever made. It overturns the theology we had come to understand and realigns it with the great biblical narrative that we hadn’t until now recognized.
Until I had suffered the compendium of losses that I did in 2003 I had no idea, and had no real care, for the levels and the extent of suffering that pervades much of the world. Loss taught me compassion. It broadened my horizons. It taught me a deeper dignity for life. It created within me an interest in life that had not until that time been there. It sparked something in my consciousness; it honed my conscience. It was the redeeming of my heart and my mind, making me to feel and to think as the Redeemer would have me to feel and think.
Loss also taught me that everyone suffers. If not yet, some time soon. Loss catches up with every single soul. And it always comes as a shock, rudely entering at the most inopportune time, taking no prisoners. Reflecting on this truth breeds within a thinking person great empathy for the human condition. We’re born into this life and grow and develop in ways that produce great joy. But life is also full of great sadness and unknowable sorrow. The heights of life and the depths of loss — the enigmatic range between them — are impossible to comprehend.
Loss takes us into mysteries that can never be explained. It forces us to mature. When our hearts shatter, our eyes and ears are opened. Our ignorance is challenged and our arrogance is stymied. Loss humbles us. It makes us realer persons. Praise God.
Our modern way has been to shun anything that kills our pleasure; that inflicts pain. But the way life works in this world isn’t like that at all. We cannot bear misery, but the fact we have misery shows that God has made a way beyond it. Jesus came to show us.
This fact ought to encourage you: life begins (again) at loss; God’s compensation for what we must go through. Not a life the world considers a life. Not that ‘life’. It’s a life characterized by the capacity to bear raw reality. That’s life — not pleasure, but to live it real.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Praying Contemplatively – The Peace In Practice

The Resting Lady (Image: S.J. Wickham)

MOWING the lawn, and it strikes me! I’m praying contemplatively. Let me explain. But before I do, let me tell you what Richard Rohr, renowned Catholic mystic, considers is contemplative prayer: non-verbal communion with God. That’s it. It can be considered God-mindfulness or God-consciousness. But there is more to contemplation.
Contemplation so far as prayer is concerned is a frank mind with the absence of thought. There are two concepts.
The first is absence. No thought of past or future. Nil. The present cannot be a thought, it is merely experienced. It’s why taking a photograph ruins the moment — because the taking of a photograph requires thought. But at least with the photograph we can enjoy contemplation of the moment as a glimpse of the past. So being present is simply experience enjoyed thoughtlessly by the mind. Absence can only be procured when we deal with repetitive thoughts of past and future. Thirty seconds of absence between lapses into thought can build to minutes with practice and discipline.
The second is frankness. Thoughts pop in; intrusions of past traumas and experiences and future hopes and fears. The mind trained to contemplate is instantly aware of those intrusions and expels the thought, letting it go. The mind says those words, I don’t need you, I choose to let you go. The frank mind suffers cognisance of the truth, of course. It sees the berating, lazy, fearful thoughts and is humble in accepting itself as frail.
My experience of mowing the lawn taught me how instinctively I move into contemplative prayer. God was communicating with me as my mind rested in automatic pilot mode. One simple example is through suggestion. I was given a verse from the Bible (Job 1:21) related to something I am presently studying. It’s the weirdest thing to become aware that you’ve been praying contemplatively. I wasn’t thinking of my own volition. Just mowing the lawn without thinking — enjoying that experience. God gave it to me as He roamed within my mind. God also gave to me suggestions for loving action. These were not thoughts; they came and went as a wafting breeze and prayerfully I guess I hoped to remember them.
The mind is fallible. There is preoccupation with past and future, whether they be ten minutes ago or to come, or ten years. Contemplation is the ridding of the mind of these burdens.
To be emptied of mind but open to God is an achievable and bliss-filled state of mind; a beautiful thing to practice and master.
A Guided Meditation – guided by Someone Else
Say the words in the following lines with a long pause between one line and the next. Focus on your breathing… safe, calm, relaxed, loose of muscle, tight of mind:
Be Still and Know That I Am God
Be Still and Know That I Am
Be Still and Know
Be Still
… be still and silent of mind (the best you can) for ten minutes.
Up your practice to thirty minutes, which may take two years to accomplish.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb

Image: Goggin and Strobel.
A dangerous though obligatory contribution. A testing litany of truth spotlighting the Venus flytrap of pastoral ministry; the corrupting antithetical nature of power set to offend the gospel kingdom. An urgently needed though repugnant offering. These are but a few observations that could be made of The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel.
This book will not be comfortable reading if you’re contented using worldly power to ‘build’ the [read, your] kingdom. And the starkest truth is we must all face the truth that our flesh instinct is to go the way of the all-powerful dragon. Our first challenge is to meet the truth we most wish to repel. It’s costly. But it’s also the only way we’ll build for the (capital ‘k’) kingdom. To go the way of the powerless lamb. But this book reveals the truth we all ought to implicitly know: the way of the dragon corrupts and ruins; yet, the way of the lamb multiplies peace.
Self-preservation may be the motive, for the Kingdom, but this motive reveals how insidious the way of the dragon is. One YouTube video to promote the book has Kyle Strobel saying:
“… there’s something that startled us. It was the reality that the church—the very institution God gave us to further His gospel, to be the body of Christ—can become a place that actually taps into evil power to try to further its message. And more and more as we consider this message we realize we’ve been tempted by them.”
This book is about power in weakness for love; a wholly Jesus power, vested in weakness through the cross for an all-consuming eternal love.
The authors say that power is the capacity to affect reality. But for Christians the pursuit of the ability to affect reality is second to our pursuit of God. For, to truly rely on Jesus is entrance into reality itself.
This book helps the reader to understand something inherent to the health of their soul: power is a perennial paradox. Grab at it and it stings us primordially. It promises to bless us, but instead it curses us.
The central thesis of this book is the differentiation of power: the way from above or the way from below. James 3:13-18. The book comes back time and again to this passage as its datum point.
This book harnesses the witness of sages like Eugene Peterson, Jean Vanier, J.I. Packer, Marva Dawn, James Houston, and Dallas Willard, unassuming people who belie the power they’ve been given.
If a church leadership wants to be the church in this tremulous day they need to read this book. If a pastor wishes to be impactful for Christ they ought to genuinely trust Him, bearing the lessons of this book ever in their mind, on their heart, within their soul. Any Christian, if they wish to honour God, will step through the discomfort in this book, and reconcile themselves to an ugly and inconvenient truth: we, in our veiled power, are our own worst enemies, most atrociously when we insist we’re doing His work in our own strength through insidious motives.
Citing Calvin, the authors find power comes through weakness at the valley floor where rains make the lowly spirit salubrious, where otherwise the summit is dry, unsustaining, and a refuge for pride. Only where it rains is God’s grace plenteous. Paradoxically, the valley of spiritual hardship is the best place to be. So, this book says, to embody kingdom power, become a valley.
Desire for significance is something we all must reconcile. We don’t see how weakness augments power. Striving for significance is a fraudulent way to sidestep the work of weakness in all our lives.
James Houston is interviewed and highlights that self-redemption (the negation of Christ) is a form of atheism in the Christian life. This manifests in the church through role-playing and mask-wearing. Pouring contempt on pride is about choosing to minister in an area that is a personal Achilles heel. But churches want powerful, effective ministers. What is most deeply encouraging is what ‘ministry’ like this looks like through the humbling porthole of marriage—it is to accept “our inability to love another well.”[1]
The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb is considerately crafted having been painstakingly developed from a factfinding mission of the authors. They plumbed the depths of their sages’ lives. Sages gave freely and vulnerably. Their wisdom is carried down to us.
The authors are transparent to show through their own lives how they’ve indeed fallen for the power trap. Theirs are living case studies that “the flourishing self is the abiding self, not the actualized self.”[2] But so often self-actualization (the world’s way) has been the church’s way.
Another pivotal test of power in the church is its lauding of glitzy giftedness. Does any church honor those who society typically ignores or overlooks?[3] The authors cite 1 Corinthians 12:24-26 in such a way that I, the reader, felt I had read it for the first time, and thought, “wow!”
The “lust for domination” has always been a serious temptation for leaders in Christ’s church. Pivoting around James 3:13-18, again, the authors connect selfish ambition with the demonic. Biblically, the superapostles of 2 Corinthians[4] comes into view.
Marva Dawn says that Mammon, a serious power and principality of the church today, causes pastors to create facades of personality to draw crowds. But it’s not just pastors. Too many Christians are too reliant on salaries so their dependence on God is minimal. The demonic can be as banal as pastors trying to outdo one another. None of us would ever imagine that, being the church, we might work for the ends of the powers and principalities. Of course, the very culture that absorbs us and the church into it propagates evils such as racism, ageism, zealous nationalism, and materialism.[5] The demonic weaves itself through its agents—the world and the flesh.
The authors tell us that, whilst money, sex, and power are intertwined wisdom from below, our culture views only sex as sin, as far as a pastor’s life is concerned. The concept of immorality has been watered down. Yet, Jesus placed pride alongside murder and adultery.[6] And Paul saw likewise. Yet, our culture resists this wisdom in Scripture.
The challenge for the church, Goggin and Strobel say, is to identify the roots of its works. It’s about recognizing that sin and death are living powers ever undermining the Kingdom in this world. And cruciformity is the way, the truth, and the life; a calling to receive power in weakness.[7]
Part of the problem is we, the church, and leaders in the church, have fallen for the assumption that powers can save us. Jesus saw the temptations,[8] whereas we often don’t. Satan’s power is subtle and subversive, persuasive and persistent. Marva Dawn is seen by the authors as a paragon of Kingdom power, hobbling unimpressively up to a microphone to speak. Yet, we don’t like that kind of power. We have fallen for the ruse that being powerful is impressive. Still, impressiveness saves none of us. Only trusting in the impressiveness of Jesus saves.
Systemic evil in the church is not something the authors wish to presume. But, they take a detour into the ways of below charted through American history: slavery, racism, and systems of evil. It wasn’t long ago we were still laughing at minstrelsy. And a deeply dark and racist thread has been woven into the underbelly of American culture since. Though the church hasn’t harbored such evil it’s done little to resist and speak into its culture through being an alternate, set-apart culture. Yet, a model was given us in nonviolent resistance by Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Befriending the oppressor, the system is resisted, as oppressors are loved. Such strength to love is proffered within only when a person’s heart refuses to hate. The authors demonstrate how King exemplified how to “overcome evil with good,”[9] knowing full well that even greater violence is the response of the oppressor who is resisted through being loved. King lived per his Lord.[10] And the showcase of John Perkins’ testimony glorifies God.[11] Reading Perkins’ own restoration, of white men showing him love, caused tears to well up within me; God’s touch upon his life rippling outward to you and me, the reader. Something so deeply paradoxical to evangelical Christianity, the book shows how slavery was used as an absurd and repugnant instrument for ‘doing good’ in lives that needed saving. And yet today we have the self-same capacities for justification. Thinking we’re better is a falling into pride.
The book showcases actual humility in the authors as they reflect on their gleanings. Goggin and Strobel gaze cavernously into the issues that make each of us one with evil. And Christ’s ministry of reconciliation brings us back, time and again, from that abyss. Recognising that people are not our enemies (the powers are) we might mindfully note the systemic evils present all around us.
Jean Vanier is founder of L’Arche, a movement of 150 communities of vulnerable people with disabilities. He mentored Twentieth Century theological paragon, Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932-1996), who joined L’Arche. Nouwen’s theology was impacted profoundly by L’Arche. Vanier tells the authors that living with people with disabilities led him to learn of his own disabilities; that loving people is difficult. Central to discipleship is learning disconcerting truths about ourselves. Through being in community, the Holy Spirit uses others to gently reveal these truths to us. Only as we anticipate God’s work in this process, accepting our weaknesses when it would be easier to reject them (and thus, ourselves), are we enabled to embrace all others. Making the healing process circular, Vanier says “being loved and accepted in community allows us to accept ourselves as we are.”[12] In a helpful insight, Goggin reflects on a community experience that hadn’t worked well, because of the insecurities he was at that time harboring. The wisdom of Vanier is this: he celebrates the appreciation of the very things that annoy him. He understands that reality can only be accepted; it’s Jesus’ will for his and all our lives.
What follows the extensive discussion with Vanier is a nuanced vignette in the paradoxes of vulnerability, as if the darkness itself would use weakness falsely. Worldly power seeks to turn every good thing into an idolatrous counterfeit. To address false vulnerability, we must be truly known by others.[13]
To be family, the book continues, means I am theirs and they are mine.[14] As opposed to groups who exclude, families include, seeing issues are internal to the self, not external from the self. There is no scapegoat in the authentic family; there are no inherent losers. Being ‘in Christ’ is a commitment to this type of community.[15] And Christ’s power can only truly be known in and through the community.
And yet, there are powers in community which must be exposed and stopped. Precisely through what Henri Nouwen called downward mobility, a community receives the leadership it needs through empowering servants exemplifying the giving wisdom of Jesus that comes from above. Our Lord’s example proves inspiring for anyone disposed as a wretch at the mercy of life. This rewarding read gives us a unique glimpse into humbling compartments of Nouwen’s life from the vantage point of his supervisor, Vanier. Indeed, the whole work is like that. Full of slivers of 24-carat gold. The precious Vanier parcels can only be fully appreciated by reading them in this book.
Etched in remarkable truth that none of us wishes to admit,[16] this book validates the lonely though authentic experience of life the Jesus follower often endures. Vanier tells the reader that loneliness was Nouwen’s oft reality.
Astoundingly, an anonymous pastor is quoted as saying a “smart, productive atheist” could do his job.[17] What an encouragement this book gives for pastors who don’t feel gifted, but must rely on the Holy Spirit. God equips the called. Real fruit is distinguished from worldly key performance indicators. What liberty Goggin gives when he describes how the Lord freed him from profession to vocation; duty for devotion! But that liberty is also imprinted in loneliness, for it is unadorned and real.
The next stop for the authors was every pastor’s best friend, Eugene Peterson. (As I read of the development in the authors’ letter-writing relationship with The Pastor, God compelled me to re-watch the recent video on U2’s Bono and Peterson.) Peterson calls attention to the paradoxical duality that is the power (within) and ignominy (without) in pastoral ministry. Akin to the earlier discussion on money, sex, and power, Peterson harkened awareness to the triune source of addiction: substances, sex, and crowds. The latter is a concealed crisis awaiting every pastor. The book unpacks this crisis.
Brought up within Saddleback Church, Goggin lays his cards at the table of his rest. In sharing his grandiosity, he walks the talk of the book. As Strobel and Goggin recommence their discussion with reluctant luminary, Peterson, the conversation swings to the thesis for good pastoral work, relationships, and the antithesis, control. Relationship tends away from programs and management and toward knowing people’s names and entering homes, theirs and, for them, ours. The very power a pastor has access to must be refused as he/she nurtures equality of relationship (i.e. friendship) with their congregants.
The title of this book is inspired by phraseology in Peterson’s book Reversed Thunder—an exposition of biblical Revelation. The framing of the pastoral role is indelibly about shepherding and the embracing of weakness. It’s not something a pastor is ever to define.[18] The section on toxic leadership needs to be read individually and used as a helpful self-audit, not to audit another person’s leadership, which would flip us into judgment which is pride.
The next sojourn is at (the late) Dallas Willard’s home. The USC philosophy professor of forty-eight years and world guru on spiritual direction laments that there’s more humanity than Christ in Christianity these days. Pastoral leadership is sadly more about leadership and programs now and less about character and presence.[19] Pastors are to be carriers of God’s presence, kingdom, and grace into others’ lives. Willard is noted as saying pastoral ministry is truly an exercise in the abandonment of one’s life to God, as should be the case (but rarely is) for all Christians. Of course, the trust required for true abandonment is only possible for people who see spiritual realities beyond worldly realities.[20] In one short word, faith.
Christian leadership, the authors tell us, is to be set apart as different to worldly leadership, yet they lament how much Christian leadership has coveted and aligned itself with secular leadership models.
The book closes in a celebration of the New Covenant exodus of Jesus that gives us new life, and of concepts of our faith system that reinforce our equality, like communion, among the powers of God. Yet, there’s also the warning. The rituals of the church are just as easily co-opted to power and control; the way from below.[21]
The final chapter concludes the book well, with Goggin reflecting honestly on what he’s learned, and how he still relies on the way from below from time to time. Likewise, Strobel laments the struggle to relegate system value and personal status for the ways of weakness and God-reliance. With the focus on reinterning what was learned through the study tour process, our authors reflect on God’s goodness glorified through these sages’ lives.
It’s fitting that one of the concluding terms makes for something of a future vision within the church. Not often imbued by violence, but still so evermore tarrying in division, the church needs a mandate to non-divisive resistance, where power within the church is so minimized that conflict can run a healthy course. The authors commend a mature handling of conflict such that churches are malleable to the threat and possibility of splits, factions, and tribalism. Whilst Rev Dr King’s method of nonviolent resistance relied upon a refusal to hate, the church’s strategy of non-divisive resistance, equally, must reject the temptation of division. We must learn to name evil in the church, yet not be threatened by its naming; that naming would not need to be fatal. Indeed, church leadership should allow for such orderly digressions of resistance. And, further still, a pastoral response akin to Paul, in not correcting the ignorant, is restorative when the punitive approach might ruin the weaker brother or sister.[22]
This book, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, was very worthy of review. The authors taught me and encouraged me. I give the book four stars out of five.
This article by Ed Stetzer is a concise summary of the truths in The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb.
Full Reference: Goggin, J. & Strobel, K. The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017.

[1] Location 956 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[2] The abiding self in this context is the self that depends on (abiding with) God alone. Location 1032 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[3] Location 1103 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[4] See chapter 11, verses 13-15.
[5] Location 1387 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[6] Location 1441 of 4030 in the Kindle edition. See the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.
[7] Location 1515 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[8] Matthew 4:1-11.
[9] Romans 12:21. Also, verses 9-21.
[10] Jesus “… suffered at the hands of the very people he came to save.” (Location 1613 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[11] “Perkins saw how evil defiled human beings…” and Perkins himself said, “I couldn’t hate back. When I saw what hate had done to them, I couldn’t hate back. I could only pity them. I didn’t ever want hate to do to me what it had already done to those men.” (Location 1652 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[12] Location 1925 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[13] I like the authors’ quote: “Worldly power cannot thrive when honesty and vulnerability reign.” (Location 2040 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[14] Location 2040f of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[15] Location 2062 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[16] I like the authors’ quote… “We think we want community, but deep down we want to be in a group that makes us feel special.” (Location 2161 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[17] Location 2170 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[18] Location 2405 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[19] Location 2564 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[20] Location 2694 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[21] I like this quote from the authors (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:17): “When the rituals of the church are infused with the way from below, the church voids the cross of its power.” (Location 3049 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[22] In 1 Corinthians 8 the issue is food sacrificed to idols, but the deeper issue was one of ignorance. People should never be punished for encroaching boundaries they’re unaware of.