They Don’t Teach That in Seminary: 99 Prayers You Need

“They don’t teach that in seminary.” A minister’s whole career could be summed up with that sentence. Seminary fills a person with a lot of knowledge. But somewhere between eschatology and soteriology, the Nicene Creed and the Barmen Declaration, aspiring ministers aren’t taught what to do when a market crash wipes out a church’s savings or a tragedy brings reporters camped out on the sidewalk. Enter 99 Prayers Your Church Needs [But Doesn’t Know it Yet].

This thin but weighty book of prayers composed by Bethany Fellows covers all manner of unexpected and yet thoroughly plausible situations that a minister and congregation may face in their shared lives together – everything from a pastor waking up too sick to come in on Sunday, to a congregation deciding whether to become welcoming and affirming, to a family welcoming a foster child. As communities committed to walking alongside each other through every season of life, we want to mark significant occasions. But too often we are like the Apostle Paul, not knowing how to pray as we ought.

We all know the moments that call for prayer: baby dedications and baptisms, budget meetings and, of course, before any meal with a pastor in attendance. But what do you say when a community member is being deported? How do you come up with words when your pastor is being deployed as a chaplain? What words can appropriately convey gratitude for a major donor gift without sounding uncouth?

It is easy to assume that as long as a prayer is expressed from the heart, our words can never be wrong. But too many of us have suffered through cringe-worthy prayers to know this is not always true. We want to honor the spirit in which all prayers are offered, but if we are intentional in reflecting theologically on what to say at the graveside of a beloved congregation member, shouldn’t we bring the same care to acknowledging the loss that comes when a church staff member is fired? 99 Prayers is an invaluable tool for ministers and congregations caught in situations they never expected and never prepared for.  Read more

I’m Still Here: A Review

Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness was released this year and I commend it to you. Brown’s memoir is essential reading. Especially Christians who are white and living in the United States will benefit from listening to Brown’s wisdom and perspective as a woman of color.

Her absorbing book starts with a surprising story that immediately draws the reader in: Brown describes an encounter she had at the age of seven when the librarian was suspicious and questioned whether the library card actually belonged to this young Black girl. When Brown confronted her mother afterward, her mother confessed that she and Brown’s father had intentionally chosen a name most typically given to a white male, because they hoped that potential employers in the future would give “Austin” a chance not normally extended to people of color.

After this powerful chapter, Brown tells her story chronologically. She describes attending a private Christian elementary school in Toledo, visiting extended family in Cleveland, and she shares experiences—both positive and negative—with teachers at her Catholic high school and majority-white college in Chicago. After graduating, Brown worked at a number of Christian non-profit organizations. Brown is someone who is well acquainted with white evangelical culture, and she writes with persuasion and spiritual strength.

Going into the working world after college, Brown admits that she had assumed that she would be able to fearlessly combat racism, slaying racist nonsense as if it were a dragon. What she discovered, however, was that racism was not so much an “imposing beast” but a “poison” that “seeps into your mind, drip by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true.” My guess is that many young clergywomen could resonate with this experience. We may enter a ministry with idealism and a desire to effect change, but systems that oppress continue to oppress, and others undermine our truth at every turn. Every time we seek to name the problem, we are told that the problem is with us. It can be wearying.

For this reason, I am grateful for Brown’s tenacity: throughout her memoir, she fearlessly challenges the presence of white supremacy within the American church. At the same time, it was clear to me that she wasn’t using Christianity as a punching bag: there was no malice in her evaluation, only love. She writes, “even though the Church I love has been the oppressor as often as it has been the champion of the oppressed, I can’t let go of my belief in Church—in a universal body of belonging, in a community that reaches toward love in a world so often filled with hate. I continue to be drawn toward the collective participation of seeking good, even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness.”

In the workplace, Brown discovered how insidious white supremacy is. She writes, “Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls… It wants us to sing the celebratory ‘We Shall Overcome’ during MLK Day but doesn’t want to hear the indicting lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit.’ It wants to see a Black person seated at the table but doesn’t want to hear a dissenting viewpoint. It wants to pat itself on the back for helping poor Black folks through missions or urban projects but has no interest in learning from Black people’s wisdom, talent, and spiritual depth. Whiteness wants enough Blackness to affirm the goodness of whiteness, the progressiveness of whiteness, the openheartedness of whiteness. Whiteness likes a trickle of Blackness, but only that which can be controlled.”

There were times as I read this book that I had the same sensation as when I watched the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. What I had previously seen as benign in American culture was exposed, by Baldwin and Brown’s keen insights, to be grotesque. Brown rightly observes that the white church has viewed power as its birthright rather than its curse, and her memoir is a testimony of the damage done by the curse of whiteness in the American church.  Read more

Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-title

Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, A Review

Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-titleA well-hosted dinner party is a work of diligence and artistry. Even leaving culinary gifts aside, strategy and insight go into cultivating the guest list, arranging seating, introducing new topics of conversation, drawing guests in and lifting up the commonalities and unique expertise around the table. By the end of the evening, all the guests feel well-fed, not just by the content of the meal but by the characters around the table.

In Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, authors Emily Swan and Ken Wilson invite the reader to a sumptuous 3-course feast around a table filled with friends both familiar and yet-to-be-made. First, let me introduce you to our hosts. Emily Swan and Ken Wilson co-pastor Blue Ocean congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their story of leaving the Vineyard (charismatic, evangelical denomination) congregation where they previously served (a church that Wilson himself planted) folds into the content of the book.

Swan’s approach is shaped, in part, by her experiences as a missionary in China, by her wide range of reading interests, particularly theological voices from the margins and by her own story of falling in love and coming out as a queer woman. Wilson’s contribution to the text is shaped by his interest in mystics and patristics, his own experience of bereavement in the loss of his wife and by his evolving conviction regarding the full-inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community within his native evangelical Christianity.

In this book, our hosts prepare a three-course meal. First is the premise from which the book derives its title: “It’s enough to say a living Jesus is the final authority in Christianity.” (15) Rather than the doctrine of “sola Scriptura,” what if the church were led — now and always — by Jesus as revealed in Scripture and experience, in other words: “solus Jesus?” To this end, the authors introduce readers to Jewish scholarship, early church and recent church history—especially some of the finest work within their own charismatic, Pentecostal tradition—to prove the validity of experience as a teacher. One wonders if Martin Luther himself might agree with the authors’ premise as he never intended Scripture to be interpreted outside the received and living tradition of the church.

The second, most filling, course offers up an opportunity to investigate more recent theological understandings of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Rather than penal substitutionary atonement, where the primary work of the cross is to satisfy the wrath of God in God’s own son, scapegoat theology teaches that to look to the cross is to see all those who have been cast aside, misunderstood and crucified by our world’s insatiable demand for defining who’s in and who’s out. In a uniquely Christian response to hate, understanding Rene Girard’s view of Christ as victim on the cross allows us to gain a new lens by which to value and to stand in solidarity with all those who are victimized in our world — and our churches — today and, in particular, those  LGBTQ+ members of the Christian family.

The third course is the richest option, in which our hosts ask us to act according to the theological convictions laid out in the previous two courses. Again, pulling from a wide range of sources, our hosts ask us to consider this question: “What if we could learn to step away from the magnetic pull of rivalry and learn to be with each other differently?” (321) In a startling last chapter, our hosts leave us to consider the implication of a “non-rivalrous Gospel” amid other world religions.

Throughout each course, our hosts draw out the other guests around the table: their own Pentecostal tradition, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone, Rene Girard, Jewish midrash, Tibetan Buddhism, Eastern Orthodoxy, inviting each to interact with the hosts’ and readers’ own stories of faith. In this way, the authors of the text model their own thesis—a wide welcome in solidarity with Christ who identifies himself on the cross with all those who have been excluded from invitation in the past.

If I could be afforded one quibble it would stem from my own Calvinist-Reformed theological conviction, of which the authors write, “It’s difficult to picture solus Jesus taking root in churches tied to sola Scriptura as their institutional narratives (the Calvinist-Reformed and Lutheran sectors, in particular.)”  (362) In fact, a notable exclusion from this book’s guest list is Karl Barth, the 20th century’s greatest Calvinist-Reformed thinker who wrote, precisely, in favor of the centrality of the Word-made-flesh rather than the word of holy writ.

This is why, in many Reformed congregations today, you will hear the reading of Scripture prefaced not by “Listen to the word of the Lord” but, rather, “Listen for the Word of the Lord.” Surely there is some collegiality between Barth and the authors of this text. I would have delighted to hear his voice afforded a greater hearing at the table.

It is probably safe to say that this book is not for straight-ticket theological voters. Each voice around the table deserves its own consideration and, whether you are coming from the hosts’ own evangelical charismatic background or not, you will have opportunity to re-evaluate your tradition’s certainties and to wonder about the wisdom just past the borders of your own theological construct.

I’m struck by both the patience and the impatience of this book — arguing their case with urgency but rarely brushing off those who disagree — struggling to make the circle wider in a way that does not attack but that comes alongside. In this way, it reminds me of another host at another table who invites us to come, to partake, to remember and to believe as part of a community that is not made by our own choosing.

God Grew Bigger: A Review of This Is My Body

cover of This is My BodyHannah Shanks’ This is My Body came out the same week that I learned I was pregnant. I had already been planning to buy and read the book – the author is a friend – but that pee-saturated stick gave special urgency to my reading. On the first page the author finds out that she is pregnant and immediately “freaks out at life changes.“ This is familiar!

But don’t assume that this book is only for pregnant people or people who have given birth. My college self, for example, could have used the steady insistence that this is my body, holy and good, revealer of God’s image. Anyone who struggles with body image will find this book life-giving. And it would be an extraordinary mistake — a mistake born out of patriarchal assumptions — for men to skip this book. The final chapter encapsulates why: “When we are made one [in Christ], our stories are no longer relegated to a genre or niche of ‘women’s issues’… Though our experiences have been resigned to a market segment… Jesus’ story is our story — a birth story” (126-127).

This Is My Body weaves one particular human story into God’s unfolding story. Read more

Facing Fear: A Review of Everything Happens for a Reason

The other day, after school pick-up, my daughter and I swung by the church I serve to quickly pick up something. Naturally, my daughter had to use the restroom. While washing our hands, she asked with an earnest curiosity, “Does God brush his teeth here?” I asked her, “What made you ask that?” She responded, “Well, this is God’s house, so this is his bathroom – he must brush his teeth here.”

My biggest fear is being separated from my children by death. To miss moments like that one, or the feel of her hot breath on my neck as she naps on my shoulder. To no longer feel the weight of my son as he barrels at me as fast as he can with joy and excitement when I come home from work. The feared absence strikes without warning: in moments of utter bliss as I watch them sleep or moments of the unforgettable mundane as we prepare for school in the morning.

There is something (to borrow from Glennon Doyle Melton) “brutiful” about watching your worst fear played out in print. Brutal and beautiful: this is Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler captures the reader with honesty, humor, and raw emotion as she dives into her story: how to live life in the midst of dying; how to love others when you’re about to say goodbye.

None of us are strangers to loss, but Bowler’s vulnerability brings the intimacy of fear and love and longing right into our very lives. I tend to anxiously avoid facing my fears of “what if” the very worst happens. This book brought me face to face with those fears, while at the same time I was comforted and held in the structure of Bowler’s story. A difficult but important read, I discovered that as a priest and as a mother, my life needed this book. Read more

Learning to say “Yes, And…”: A review of God, Improv, and the Art of Living

I still remember that gathering in a hotel meeting room in Kansas City. The NEXTChuch conference had just ended, and a group of pastors gathered to learn about Improv and how it could impact our ministries. Our speaker was snowed into her hometown, and the leaders began to change their plan. Yes, we were going to improvise a 24-hour workshop on improvisation. Throughout our sessions, as we played and then debriefed, I kept asking for the rulebook, the place where I could read about what we were doing to understand it better. MaryAnn McKibben Dana was one of those facilitators, and she very patiently kept reminding me that she was in the process of writing the book for which I hungered.

When I finished reading the book, it took all I had not to race to the internet and preorder copies for all of my clergy colleagues and church leaders. It was this paragraph that held the book together for me and helped me pivot from “principles of improv” to “heres what it means”:

“The truth is, were not in control of our lives, and the unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Our job as improvisers is to use our resources to put together a life in the wake of these things – maybe not the life we had planned, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whats on hand.” (p. 119)

How much of ministry, how much of life really, is using our resources to fashion meaning out of what may appear to be chaos? The book is filled with examples of how this happens in workshops, on stage, and in the church. The way this works for those who look at life through an improv lens is saying “yes, and…” This is the key theme in McKibben Danas book. When we say “yes,” we accept the reality of what has been given to us. Be it the character to include in a skit, the terminal diagnosis, the relocation for a job, the burnt breakfast or any other number of circumstances we cannot change, the basics of improv include saying “yes” to the reality in front of us. Read more

The Story Bible That Made Me Cry: A Review of Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible

Confession – I’m a pastor, but I’m not great about reading the Bible with my kids. Maybe it’s because it feels a little bit like work. Maybe it’s because I’m just too tired at the end of the day. Maybe it’s because my kids whine, “Ugh, it’s not even SUNDAY.” Maybe I just know too much about the Bible so when I read the stories I can’t just let them lie – I have to explain and give context. I want to emphasize certain plot points and draw out the untold stories of women and girls. I hope to ask good questions that help them hear the overarching story: God loves us. God loves all creation. God is faithful, even we are not.

I know too well that many of the classic children’s stories can be – or should be – quite disturbing. In “Noah’s Ark” everybody on earth dies in a flood. In the story of Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery for being a brat. Even the central story of our faith – the cross and resurrection – can be traumatic for young ears and needs to be handled carefully.

As a church professional I own a LOT of story bibles. The Spark Story Bible is my favorite for reading in worship because it’s close to the text of the NRSV but tells stories in an engaging way and has (non-Eurocentric) illustrations which add feeling, meaning, and depth to the words. The Deep Blue Bible Storybook is my favorite bible for parents because it has great study notes that will help parents as they read to their kids. It’s kind of like a parent study bible. The Jesus Storybook Bible is lovely for weaving the scriptures into an overarching narrative which can be really powerful for adults and older children. While these are all excellent works that I highly recommend, they still leave me wanting – especially for a story bible for young children (their intended audience).

Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible is the Bible I want to read to my children because it feels like it’s written in my voice. The authors of these re-tellings are my colleagues, trusted pastors, chaplains, educators, and even a rabbi. These faithful practitioners of children’s ministry tell the story for kids, offering context and language that suits their understanding. Each story ends with questions and encouragement to Hear, See, and Act in a way that deepens understanding for childrenAnd, sure, adults can get a lot from reading this bible to their little ones, but it’s written perfectly for preschool and early elementary kids who think concretely and struggle to understand metaphor and symbolism.

In order to help parents choose a story that might be helpful or interesting for a particular child or situation, the editors chose to forgo the traditional order of the books of the Bible and group the texts thematically with headings like Beginnings, Prophets, and Listening for God. For example, the Rivalries section has the stories of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham as “A Family With a Big Disagreement” (Gen. 16:1-16) and “A Family Changes Its Shape” (Gen 21:8-21). While this may throw the biblically literate a bit off-kilter, it is still grouped into the two testaments and follows the basic flow (with a helpful scripture index in the back). The illustrations vary in style, but all are beautiful, and the majority are non-Eurocentric.

But what really makes this bible unique– what brought tears to my eyes– is how it lifts up the stories and points of view of female characters in a way that istrue to the text and to women’s lives. The first eighteen stories in the Strong Women and Men section have women as central characters. With titles like “God Made Sarah Laugh,” “Miriam Hides Moses,” “Queen Vashti Says ‘No!’” and “Nabal, Abigail, and David” the traditional stories gain a fresh and faithful perspective. Read more

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

Homegrown Terror: A Review of Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist (a Black Lives Matter Memoir)

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, with Angela Davis (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)

When I think of my own childhood, I remember playing barefooted in the backyard with my sisters. I remember planting pumpkin seeds beneath our jungle gym, that eventually grew into a reaching vine, stretching for the house. I remember an idyllic, safe childhood. This is not how Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ work, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, describes hers. Her childhood was defined by terror. Love, too, but the terror was most haunting for me as a white person reading this book.

You see, her memories include the normative regularity of her brothers being harassed by the police and arrested. Her memories include being handcuffed in front of her school class at the age of twelve for suspected drug use, even though no drugs were found on her. Her memories include attending a gifted middle school, and befriending the daughter of her slumlord, the very man responsible for the year her family did not have a working refrigerator in their apartment.

Hers was a childhood marked by pain and trauma, yet at the same time, vibrant life and fierce love: the love of siblings who care for each other, the love of a mother who works damn hard to feed her kids, the love of a father who claims her even though she is not biologically his, the non-judgmental love and honesty of her biological father, the love of friends who become family to her. While Khan-Cullors and I both experienced deep love in our childhoods, the contrast between my sheltered childhood and her terrorized childhood is one example of the painful difference between the experience of being a white person and being a person of color in the United States.

Perhaps this painful experience fueled Khan-Cullors’ powerful passion to later become one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and why her memoir, written with asha bandele, is a heartbreaking and inspiring call to action. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir seamlessly weaves the particularity of Khan-Cullors’ story with sweeping statistics of brutality against people of color.

This accessible tapestry breaks through the lies us white people tell ourselves about our individual responsibility and unquestioned assumptions of the “good” intentions of police officers. In particular, the story of her brother Monte’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder, his torture in prison, and inability to get proper care at home (even after calling 911), is a scathing exposé of the terror Black communities experience daily.

The reader cannot help but notice that the title of the book is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement being branded as a terrorist movement, even when it is they who are on the receiving end of terror. Khan-Cullors reveals how sheltered we white people are from our own complicity in terror (through raids, murders, prison systems, and the like), and she will not let us ignore or forget this any longer.

Yet, just as her childhood was not only marked by terror but also by love, so this book is more than a stark documentation of terror; it is an inspiring text of hope and survival. It powerfully reveals glimpses of what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz would name the “kin-dom” of God – a radically inclusive community marked by equity, justice, and peace. Read more

Lessons We Can Learn from Wakanda

The author

My flight has safely landed back into town after visiting Wakanda – the mythical and majestic homeland revealed in the film Black Panther – a journey that left me mesmerized. I was immediately pulled into the world of Wakanda, with its technological advancements, beautiful African fashions, futuristic architecture, and tribal rituals so intense that, when my visit came to a close, I did not want to leave. I truly enjoyed getting to know the king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his sister and Wakanda’s key inventor, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and the fierce Dora Milaje, all-female warriors who protect the king. During my journey, I witnessed T’Challa fight for his honor and birthright to rule Wakanda after his father King T’Chaka’s sudden death, all the while struggling to keep his country safe and of one accord during the transition of power.

My self-pride as a Black woman was immensely heightened by the bold presence and uniquely authoritative femininity of Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), spy and love interest of T’Challa. Equally impactful was this same powerful femininity in Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of Wakanda security and General of the Dora Milaje. Certainly, my trip would not have been complete without the dramatic and complex encounters between T’Challa and villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and Killmonger’s partner in crime Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). The story unfolds with heightened drama for T’Challa when diplomacy becomes even more complicated by a would-be chance meeting with CIA Agent Andy Ross (Martin Freeman), the man with whom he became acquainted in Captain America: Civil War. Each complex character navigates their intertwined narratives and conflicting interests, leading to the seminal purpose of saving the world, or destroying it.

My Black Panther journey was made possible by the creators of that character: writer and artist Jack Kirby, and writer and editor Stan Lee, who also makes a cameo in every Marvel movie. Black Panther first appeared in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four. While the Black Panther character has been confused with the Black Panther Party (which was formed in October of 1966 in Oakland, California), the two are not synonymous. Black Panther first joined the Marvel cinematic world in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. T’Challa will make another Marvel movie appearance in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film (debuting in April 2018) where he will fight – and hopefully save the world – alongside Iron Man, Spider Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, and others.

What made my trip to Wakanda even more special was that I shared this momentous occasion with millions of people in the world, particularly people of the African diaspora. Many of my friends and associates had already seen Black Panther twice by the time I saw it on the Sunday night of its opening weekend. I have never felt such an energy of love for Blackness blended with an anxiousness to see any movie in my life. Who knew that a fictitious movie would cause people nationwide to come together in one accord with Black pride, wearing Dashikis, African attire, or dressing in all Black, and taking selfies in front of countless Black Panther posters? Read more

Album Review: “Work Songs”

The music on this album affirms the dignity of work and breaks down any perceived dichotomy between work and worship.

I read recently about an academic who conducted an analysis of television shows that depict clergy, and he drew the conclusion that a person might assume that they are more likely to meet a pastor-detective than a pastor-theologian.  So much of our work is hidden and mysterious.  It’s no surprise that a layperson may have an easier time imagining a clergyperson looking for clues to solve a murder instead of looking for clues of the divine presence in ordinary life.  But I think it is safe to say that, for most of us, our work has more to do with being a practical theologian than being a gumshoe.

For this reason, I am grateful for the 60 musicians, pastors, songwriters, and scholars who gathered in New York City last June for a conference on the theology of worship and vocation. While together, they made a live recording of new hymns and released them in October of 2017: “Work Songs” by The Porter’s Gate Worship Collective. It has been on heavy rotation in my home and I commend it to you. Read more