Monday, January 17, 2022

Sensible Shoes

Sensible Shoes, Sharon Garlough Brown

Do you long for a fiction book to refresh you? To leave you desiring a deeper and closer relationship with God and understanding of what Christ has done for you?

You may find that the Sensible Shoes series by Sharon Garlough Brown could be that gift to you. It has been to me.

I have been interested in various spiritual disciplines and self-examination for a while, aware that while my faith is cognitively very strong, I can nervously steer away from the experiential. I think this is a tendency some evangelicals can have, which I suspect leaves us all the poorer for it.

Yet, I want to know God deeply, and the power of Christ’s resurrection in both my mind and my heart, and be challenged and encouraged in both.

The books are anchored around four main characters who meet in at a spiritual formation course at a retreat centre:
  • Meg, widowed young, now 46, whose controlling mother has recently died and daughter moved overseas for university. 
  • Mara, 50, struggling in a loveless marriage with two angry teenage sons 
  • Hannah, 39, pastor in a church who has worked so hard over 15 years to serve others she doesn’t realise just how spent she is, and 
  • Charissa, 26, newly married and a high-achieving doctoral major 
Over the weeks, they develop a friendship, open up and share their stories. All have their own challenges in trusting God in their situations, as well as coming face to face with their own areas of sin and struggle. I won’t expand on the storylines explored over the four books, lest I give it away to those who choose to read them, but everything is there - major illness, grief, relationship joys and breakdowns, friendships and family. (One major life experience not included in this series in mental ill health, although it is in her newer series Shades of Light).

The books weave the story with the various spiritual practices they are taught at the centre, and those readers who would like to engage with them could do at their own leisure. Each book contains different ones, some are a detailed bible study with reflection questions, some are a way of praying or bringing things to God, or a particular prayer to work through. I have been using some personally and finding them to be of great benefit. (It also seems that each book has a companion study guide for those that are interested).

My only frustration is that it is a female-focussed series. Yes, there are male characters, some wonderful and some not, but it’s not really about them. I suspect that could make it harder for some men to choose to read them. Which is a real shame, because one character Nathan models deep faith, humility and grace, and is a wonderful example of a man changed by such spiritual practices.

All in all, a lovely series. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Imperfect Pastor

The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine (Crossway, 2015)

When we turn to books on leadership, including Christian leadership, we often expect them to be full of strategies, ideas, and inspiration. That’s what many seek: a way to do the job better, in a more organised way, with less conflict, assuming that we are loving others and bringing glory to God. As such, leadership books are usually not refreshing or restorative. However, this one is. Deeply so. It is also humbling, challenging and encouraging.

Zack Eswine encourages the pastor to slow down, take their time, get to know people well, allow for sin and suffering, serve faithfully, and essentially rest in Christ and his goodness. He espouses a view of faithful, servant leadership that is embedded in the congregation in which we find ourselves, not seeking to know it all, fix it all, or be all things to all people right now.

Divided into four parts, he begins by exploring the calling we pursue. He considers the desires that hound us and should motivate us, how we need to remember we are human, finite and fallible, and that much that we do is invisible.
“One can receive accolades for preaching Jesus, yet at the same time know very little about how to follow Jesus in the living room of their ordinary lives.” (p26)

“To the important pastor doing large and famous things speedily, the brokenness of people actually feels like an intrusion keeping us from getting our important work for God done.“ (p28)
The second part considers the temptations we face: being everywhere for all, wanting to fix it all, thinking we know it all, and considering everything to be immediate and urgent.

I appreciated this insight on believing that ‘right teaching’ will solve the problems people face:
“One of the first signs that we are approaching the borders of attempting omnipotence is this: we believe that another is choosing a course of action because he or she simply isn’t clear on what is right. Therefore, we believe that if we just work hard enough to explain what is right, then he or she will obviously and immediately do the right thing. No one was more plain, true, reasonable, and clear than Jesus, and they crucified him. Clarity matters a great deal. But clarity can’t always solve or fix the broken things.“ (p93)
“You were never meant to repent because you can’t fix everything. You are meant to repent because you’ve tried. Even if we could be God for people and fix it all, the fact remains that Jesus often does not have the kind of fixing in mind that you and I want.“ (p96)
He says the same about knowledge:
“We are tempted to something like omniscience - the ability to know everything. But you were never meant to repent because you don’t know it all. You are meant to repent because you tried.” (p104)
The third section considers reshaping our inner life: letting God speak, beholding God, and finding our pace.
“For many of us, it has been a long while since we’ve heard God in the quiet, knowing that it was his voice and not ours. We stare into our detox and begin to realise that we have been like a rude spokesperson in the presence of our host.” (p138)
I appreciated his comments on pace, considering watches of the day, then weeks, and longer seasons. He thinks abut four stages of the day, morning, afternoon, evening and overnight; which can each incorporate change, prayer, reflection, repentance, as well as days off, and time off in the year. I have considered this in terms of overcommitment in the past, but not in terms of restoration and shaping my day in ways that honour God, aware of his grace and mercies, but also my tendency to sin. Actively considering a change in ‘watch’ can help us to engage in the activity we are in, wholeheartedly and less distracted whether it is work, family time, pastoral visiting, or rest.

The final section looks at reshaping the work we do: caring for the sick, caring for the sinner, having local knowledge of our congregation and community, and leadership.

I found the local knowledge chapter helpful and a bit more pointed. We must get to know our people and their history and culture. This is often where new ministers find themselves at loggerheads with a congregation, for it takes time to listen to people and understand their desires and concerns, and from that to discern strengths and weaknesses. Eswine makes two comments about entering the culture of a congregation:
  • ideally a pastor is a change agent in God’s hands for the good of a congregation. 
  • But also (and he notes this is rarely cherished among clergy) - a congregation is a change agent in God’s hands for the good of a pastor (p225-6). 
Eswine writes with a gentle entreating voice, strongly pastoral and caring. He is not strident, even though he has strong things to say. He shares his own personal wisdom and experience learned through major challenges (marriage breakdown, church conflict). You can tell a person who has lived through tough times and come out of it strengthened through the grace of God, and this is the voice of one who has learnt hard lessons and wants to humbly share them, hoping to spare others the pain of his own mistakes. His written voice reminded me of a gentle old Puritan, with echoes of Marilynne Robinson. This might grate with some, for it is almost poetic at points. At times he entreats the reader to read sections again and dwell on them. I can imagine some might find that annoying or even a little condescending, but I did not. While not referred to explicitly, he is writing this to men in ministry, there doesn’t seem to be an allowance for female pastors, or even female leaders. That’s not to say women can’t learnt much from this book and I certainly did, but it’s worth noting.

While there is excellent wisdom for new pastors here, I think it will be of most benefit for those who have been in ministry for a while. Who have felt the burdens, the sin (their own and others), the relentless pace, the desire to stay on top of everything, the wanting to know it all, and be all things to all people. This gives space for repentance, mercy, grace and a chance to reset.