Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

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Book review: How to Survive a Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin

ShipwreckToday I have the honour of reviewing the new book by Jonathan Martin, titled How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help Is on the Way and Love Is Already Here.

Jonathan Martin is a self-described “hillbilly Pentecostal” who currently serves as teaching pastor at Sanctuary Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Prior to that, he founded Renovatus church in Charlotte, North Carolina – known, rather appealingly, as “a church for liars, dreamers and misfits” – where he served for ten years. How to Survive a Shipwreck is his second book, the first being Prototype: What Happens When You Discover You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think?

I first came across Jonathan Martin two or three years ago when I began listening to his podcasts from Renovatus church. Beyond his unarguable skill as an spellbinding orator, I was drawn to him by the fact that, as a fellow Pentecostal, he spoke my language, yet at the same time expressed a shared yearning for something richer and deeper than the sometimes superficial approach to faith found in charismatic Christianity.

In How to Survive a Shipwreck, Martin uses the image of a shipwreck as a metaphor for what happens in those times when our lives are overwhelmed by forces beyond our control, and we find ourselves cast adrift from all that we have known to be familiar and secure. However, lest you imagine that this book might offer a detached analysis of such crises and a formulaic recipe for how to overcome them, let me reassure you: nothing could be further from the truth.

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Broken apart, together

Rail flowerLately I’ve been thinking and writing quite a bit about brokenness. While this is a subject that will always be relevant this side of eternity, there are particular reasons why I’ve been focusing on it recently. But I’ll come to that.

As I wrote in one recent post, it seems to be the case that we often need to be brought to a place of brokenness before we are ready to begin to receive the healing light of God’s loving grace. However, as I wrote in another post, we often carry a deep sense of shame that acts as a powerful pull away from the light: because we are broken, we feel shameful and unworthy, and the last thing we want is anyone else seeing what we’re really like.

So we find ourselves caught in a deadly trap: in desperate need of healing, but kept away from the healing light we so need by shame and the fear of exposure. And this often happens at a level that is below our conscious awareness. We do not know why we are hiding, or even that we are hiding; all we know is that we feel trapped, lonely and desperately unhappy.

It seems clear to me that our fear of exposure is largely driven by the deep-seated belief that our brokenness is a source of difference, and therefore something to be ashamed of. If you know about the particular ways in which I am broken, you will see that I am different from you, and you will judge me and find me wanting. And, given that our brokenness is often bound up with a deep need for approval and acceptance (and a corresponding dread of rejection), the idea of being judged less than enough is simply too devastating a risk for many of us to willingly take.

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Repost: Knowing who you are

mountain-lake-931726_1920[I wrote this post two years ago, in May 2014. I’m reposting it because it resonates strongly with where I’ve found myself recently, and because some more recent friends and followers might benefit from it.]

You cannot really know God until you know who you are.

OK, that’s a deliberately bold and attention-grabbing opening line. Bear with me as I try to unpack it.

Once we have passed the relatively innocent age of our youngest childhood, we quickly grow accustomed to living in a world that places all kinds of demands upon us. Our parents play a vital role in teaching us what to value and how to behave, but even this good and essential duty is tinged by a dark side: we begin to learn very early on what it is to perform. We come to realise that if we behave in a certain way that meets the desires and expectations of parents, family members, teachers, classmates and others, we will be rewarded with expressions of approval and favour.

This mechanism of learning how to please others is critical to our growth and development into well-adjusted human beings who can live more or less peaceably in society. However, as I suggested above, it also has a dangerous underside: we can become so trained in and accomplished at pleasing others and seeking approval that we forget – or fail to ever discover in the first place – who we really are.

First, we try to be the kind of son or daughter our parents seem to want us to be – and, since parents often have differing expectations, this in itself can be quite a task. Next, we want our teachers to like us (or at least not to dislike us), partly because this makes school easier to navigate and partly because our parents will be pleased with us if our teachers are pleased with us. Then there are our friends and acquaintances: no one wants to be the odd one out in the playground, the child who is the butt of everyone’s jokes, so we try very hard to fit in, to use whatever particular skills and talents we have to impress at least a few people and gain some kind of social status.

This sort of peer pressure is accentuated to the nth degree by the media. From the latest must-see TV show to the ubiquitous marketing and advertising messages with which we are bombarded daily from morning till night, we are continually squeezed by pressure to conform, to look like this, to act like that.

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Sheep and goats redux

Goat‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

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Why “God wants the best for you” is hogwash

business-163464_1280God wants the best for you!

If you’ve spent much time in and around evangelical churches, chances are you’ve heard this phrase or some derivative of it on quite a few occasions. Maybe you’re going through a tough time with your health or finances, or perhaps you’re struggling to feel optimistic about the future. Whatever the specifics of the situation, when you feel trapped in a corner and everything looks bleak, isn’t it nice and encouraging to be told that God wants the best for you?

While this innocuous-sounding expression is undoubtedly well intentioned and may indeed sound reassuring, if we stop and think for just a moment, it’s easy to see that it masks some quite problematic ideas.

First off, the idea of “best” only really works inside a system of exchange.

If I’m going to be the best in my class, it follows that no one else but me can occupy that top spot. Similarly, in order for me to have an above average income, someone else (or rather a lot of someone elses) has to earn less than the average. Seen from this perspective, the very idea of “best” only makes sense within a hierarchical system. And in any hierarchical system there are inevitably winners and losers, the powerful and the powerless.

It follows from this that we can’t all have “the best”, whatever that might be and in whichever area of life it might apply. Simply put, if we all had “the best”, by definition it would no longer be “the best”; it would simply be the norm or the average.

That being the case, does God perhaps want some people to have the best but not others? Well, Romans 2:11 tells us that God has no favourites. Hmmm.

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Broken

old-ship-164981I have been to many places
Climbed many mountains
Stood on many stages
Taken many bows and soaked up the plaudits
Worked hard and done my best
Tried to make everyone happy
Keep the whole train rolling

But as I stand here in this place
Surveying all this landscape
All this accumulated experience and supposed learning
Here’s the One Big Thing I’ve learned: I’m broken

I’m a broken man living in a broken world
Speaking broken words to people with broken ears
Trying my best to limit the damage
But so often just making matters worse

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Book review: How Jesus Saves the World from Us by Morgan Guyton

Guyton bookToday I have the privilege of reviewing the first book by Morgan Guyton, titled How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity.

I’ve been following Morgan’s writings for a few years now, first on his personal blog and more recently at his Patheos blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice. I’ve always found him a stimulating and thought-provoking writer, so as soon as I heard he had a book coming out, I got in touch and asked for a review copy, and he was kind enough to oblige.

In terms of context, Morgan and his wife Cheryl are directors of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Perhaps as a result of his background and vocation, I find that Morgan’s worldview and theology are informed by a broad range of church traditions, in addition to which he is an astute cultural commentator.

There are a few reasons I’ve always been drawn to Morgan’s writing, and I find these characteristics just as present in his book as they are in his blog posts. First, he writes with clarity, freshness and incisiveness; many of his sentences and paragraphs pack a powerful punch; they “zing” off the page with a real edge that makes his work compelling to read. You may agree with the things he says, or you may not; either way, you are unlikely to be indifferent. Second, he somehow pulls off the difficult task of combining this high-octane style with an attitude of great humility and authenticity. The result is that he can say piercingly critical things about beliefs and/or behaviours without leaving you, the reader, feeling offended or defensive – because you know the person at whom he directs his fiercest criticism is himself. He is disarmingly honest about his own struggles, shortcomings and failures, and this lends great credibility to the insights he proffers. And third, his writing is peppered with colourful imagery, cultural references and playful allusions, making it genuinely fun to read, even when he is addressing matters of great import.

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