Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Here is a timely reminder; today is Ash Wednesday. Even if you haven't spent weeks contemplating what to do for Lent, now is as good of a time as ever. Last year I gave up the Internet. This year I'm going to try some new ways to celebrate the time. Not only by giving something up but also adding something. For me the former was easy to think of, the latter is really hard.

Dan linked one of his friend's Facebook note about Ash Wednesday. So I'll just keeping passing along the good words

Putting a roof over my head

My friend posted recently a blog entry I liked. I mean, I like her posts most of the time anyway, but I especially liked this one. I liked it for a lot of reasons. For one, she said things I resonated with but am too afraid to admit in writing. (Then she did it again.) She has more courage than I do. I was jealous. I was glad someone said it. Sometimes you need to hear someone else say what you feel. That’s how I know good writing: It does that. It puts vague feelings into concrete words—things I’m trying to think, wanting to say, but don’t know how to form into sentences that follow the rules of grammar. I can’t ever find those sentences it seems. I need someone to give them to me. Hers were like a gift, so I decided to stop being jealous.

Another reason I liked her post was that she let the contradictions stand like an A-frame house, each declaration leaning against the other. She was saying how she felt, and she felt both ways. I feel both ways too, but I can’t stand to let contradictions stay in the same paragraph together. I have to make things make sense. But she just said both because they were both true. Sometimes forcing things to make sense just gets in the way of what’s true. The truth doesn’t always make sense. That’s not a mark against truth though. Don’t think it is.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

God will give you more than you can handle

I’ve heard people say, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” That’s a nice sentiment, but I don’t think it’s true. It’s meant to be reassuring, and it sounds that way, but if it’s not true, it’s worthless.

The sentiment misquotes 1 Cor 10:13, which says, God “will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand.” The mistake is to conflate temptations and burdens when we should keep the two distinct. Temptations can certainly weigh a man down, and burdens can certainly birth temptations, but while they may be connected, they are not identical. In the case of temptations, I think God promises to guard us from them because failure in the face of temptation is sin. Failing to resist temptation damages our relationship with him. This is not always so with burdens.

No, I believe, God will give you more than you can handle. Sometime burdens will be heavier than you can carry.

I think Paul would agree. In 2 Cor 12:7-8 he wrote, “I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me. . . . Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.” That burden—that thorn—was too much for Paul. So how can I believe that God won’t give me more than I can handle? I get the impression that God’s not necessarily interested in proving that I’ve got what it takes to make it in this world. No, I think God’s interested giving us opportunities to screw it up trying.

How can God be glorified by a bunch of failures? It doesn’t make much sense. But that seems to be how it is. Plenty of others have faced more than they could handle too: Joseph got stuck in a prison, the Israelites got stuck between a river and an army, Ezekiel wasn’t allowed to weep for his dead wife—the disciples bailing a sinking ship, Stephen stoned to death, Peter stuck in prison. They couldn’t hack it. They needed a God who could.

I find that a whole lot more comforting. I like knowing that God will give me more than I can manage. Why? Because it will force me to depend on him more. Instead of pushing me away from God the way sin does, burdens can pull me closer. That’s what I think God is more interested in—more than making life easy. And honestly, you have to work really hard to make life easy. Even then, there’s no guarantee.

Like I said, there’s an important difference between temptations and burdens. Now, burdens certainly do sometimes tempt me to abandon God. And even if God gives me the burden, that doesn’t mean he’s tempting me. “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away.” The burden is not the source of temptation, it’s how my heart responds to the burden. That’s why James can say, “When you are being tempted, do not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ . . . He never tempts anyone.” My heart’s the problem. It’s just bent on making burdens into temptations.

As for burdens, when God gives us more than we can stand, he doesn’t leave us to struggle. God offers us his strength—not our own—to bear it. Instead of transforming the burden into a temptation, my heart can draw near to God for strength. Drawing near. That sounds like something God would want.

It’s not necessarily about escaping the burden but about relying on God more for strength, and knowing him better (loving him, even) in the process. Burdens can pull us into deeper dependence on him, allowing us to discover that “God is faithful.” That’s 1 Cor 10:13. We get a chance to see God in action—a personal sort of knowledge. The God who can hack it. Paul saw it too. After all his begging, God assured him, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”

If I had to pick between hearing those words and having burdens I could manage on my own, give me those words any day. Give me that assurance. Those words describe, I think, how God can be glorified by a bunch of failures, hearts bent in the wrong direction, and clinging to God for all they’re worth.

Believing that God won’t give me more than I can bear is a dangerous thing to believe because when that burden has me pinned to the ground, I will begin questioning God and maybe even give up on him—let go. All because I don’t have the right expectations of God, believing he’s promised something he never did.

As burdens go, Jesus himself said a few words about them. “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

You don’t have to carry your burdens alone. And hopefully you don’t think that you can. You can’t make it in the world, and Jesus is ready for you to stop trying and get some rest. God will give you more than you can stand. But Jesus came along to take the load off your shoulders, to carry the weight, and pull you along toward God. Oh sure, you may be holding on to God for all your worth, but don’t think you’re really the one with the good grip.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Conversation: On Social Justice

“We heard this guy talk tonight,” Mike was saying, “about doing ministry at a Gay Pride parade, one of the biggest parades in the country.” We were sitting at Rock Bottom. His friend, Nick, from England was in for the weekend. They’d been out to a church gathering. Now, he had to experience an American brewery. “They were simply handing out water bottles to the men in the parade. So this guy’s telling this story about one guy who comes up, dressed in almost nothing, big as a bodybuilder, for a drink. ‘Why you guys doing this?’ the Body asked this guy. And he responded, ‘Because Jesus loves you and so do we.’ And then he says the Body just lit into him, telling him how Christians are just judgmental hypocrites and all this. And the guy just stands there listening to the Body.”

“All this in a thong?” I was incredulous. The visual by itself made me uncomfortable.

“I know! But, so get this, the Body finishes his rant, and this guy just says, ‘So do you still want the water?’”

“I couldn’t do that,” I said. “I’d lose my bearings and forget what I was there to do. I’d be trying to defend Jesus.” It was the truth as I imagined it. “I wish I could keep that vision, but I know I’d get caught up in the argument.”

“No joke.”

“We did a similar thing at the Uni,” Nick recalled. Uni, I thought, I wish I had an accent. “It’s crazy how much people will resist kindness though. There was this big hill on campus, and one day we were offering to carry people’s bags up this big hill, but no one would let us. We were like ‘We just want to carry your bags up the hill. It’s a steep hill. Let us carry your bags.’”

“They’re afraid you’re going to run off with their computer,” Mike interjected.

I thought of a comment I’d once heard, that we refuse to help others out of fear—fear of being used, abused, taken advantage of. That made sense. But for people to refuse help for the same reasons—I was sad because I could make sense of that, too. Fear is such an ugly thing, dividing us from each other like that.

“Yeah, they’re all like, ‘No, no, I can carry my own bags. I don’t need any help,’” Nick was continuing. “We couldn’t serve people as much as we were trying.”

“I’ve been trying to fit that in my head—the whole social justice and compassionate action thing,” I admitted. “I mean, in Christian circles, you’ve got evangelism and discipleship and those make sense to me. I know what those are for. But I can’t figure out what all this social justice is for.”

“It doesn’t fit in those categories,” Mike recognized.

“No, it doesn’t. It’s like, it comes before all that,” I reasoned. “It seems to me like Christians have gotten this bad rap for all the reasons the Body was saying. He’s right about it in a lot of ways. And what that guy with the water bottles was doing was sort of clean-up, trying to redeem the reputation Christians have. It was basically public relations, image management. But is that it? Is that all we’re trying to accomplish with this social justice trend? Evangelism and discipleship, we know what the goals are and what the results are. We’re clear on that. We can measure that. But compassion and justice, what are the results for that? How do you know if you’re getting anywhere?”

“You don’t,” Mike acknowledged.

“So is it really an important part of being a Christian, if it isn’t saving souls or something like that?”

Then Nick, ignoring my logical cornering, said simply, “But serving is its own end.”

And I knew he was right. It was like a math problem I was setting up the wrong way. Once I had the answer though, the whole problem seemed intuitive. Why hadn’t I seen it before? Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. “Even Judas’s,” Nick pointed out. Jesus set us that example of service. Since he did it for us, Jesus said, we should do it for others. I was so stuck in my concern with making sure we had something measurable, tangible to show for our work, that the equation didn’t make any sense. In reality, service isn’t about creating results but about obeying Christ.

But more than obedience even, it was about being like Christ. So much so, that even if nothing came of a cup of cold water, even still, that act of service was its own end. It looked like Christ, and that was enough.

Smelling my Shampoo

Most of my posts start off with me apologizing for not posting more frequently. So....
Ok, now that's over.

I hold my breath while shampooing my hair. At Walgreens every month they have free giveaways. You buy the product and then send in a recepit and they send you a check. I don't do this every month but if I'm there I'll take a look at the catalog posted in the store. That's how I haven't paid for toothpaste, shampoo, toothbrushes, deoderant, in the past 3 years.

Anywho, I was using my Herbal Essence shampoo and realized it smells really good. But for some reason I hold my breath while washing my hair and have missed out on the magnormous aroma.

(Yes, this is a sign of my downward spiral in the realm of blog posting)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Church Scramble

Pastor in the age of Celebrity (by Scot McKnight, i.e., worth your while)

Dirty Church: Clean it Up! (oh wait, that's Orbit)

Going to Church in Sin City.

State of the Church online survey

So what, now churches should manufacture experiences for consumers? (we could be a better church if we just did enough market research!)

I have this fear that for all the good series branding our churches are creating, we're going to start anticipating them like they're the next Batman sequel.

Shout out to singles!

"Having Church" (audio)

Something about churches laying people off in a bad economy rubs me the wrong way. The church isn't a business like that...

Another church gets in bed.

Technophilia 2

On Technology:
What Cell Phones are saying.
Kindle, iPhone, you
make your handwriting into a font
I told you, we like to keep our old cell phone numbers

On Facebook
5 Years Old already?
CT: "entertaining saboteur"
Can you quit Facebook? Is that even possible?

On Twitter
Versus Blogs
Blink overload
overkill, even

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Returning to Something New


1. My friends told me that my posts were too long. (Now if they were real "friends"...)

2. I needed to stay focused at work, so in order to clear my head I started sending myself emails about what I was thinking that I could file away. It was a functional brain dump.

3. Most of these ideas are potential blog posts.

4. I've filed 150 emails in the last 10 months.

5. I'll never write blogs for all, half, or even a quarter of them.

6. People are afraid, myself included, to comment on a polished blog post, so they never do. Maybe less polished blog posts would generate more conversation.

7. "Blogs" are "web logs." So in an effort to log something, I thought I'd log my thoughts instead of filing them in a black hole of an email folder.

8. I don't want to inundate, deluge, or otherwise clutter Watching Gravity.

Solution: TheSecondEclectic

What this means for you, the reader: Watching Gravity will continue to be the place for more fleshed out ideas. TheSecondEclectic is sort of a proving grounds for prototypes and simply an aggregate for my thinking. Engage with it, or disregard it. You have to decide if it's of any value.

Unlike posts here, posts at TheSecondEclectic will mostly be without context, without preface, and a bit more bite-size, unedited, and nascent (maybe what a blog was meant to be). Some may not make much sense at all. I think the context will emerge only if you follow it for any length of time.

I'd love to have you along for the ride. We could turn up the music, put the top down, and sing at the top of our lungs. "DON'T YOU REMEMBER YOU TOLD ME YOU LOVED ME, BABY?!"

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Madness, Delusions, Coincidence, Purpose!

It happened again. This time I was sitting at Jiffy Lube in the dingy waiting room looking onto the garage floor. It smelled of used oil. I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, laughing, and ignoring a ridiculous talk show on the static television and an air wrench zipping off lug nuts. But it didn’t start there.

It started in southwest Michigan last July in a bookstore smaller than my apartment, packed with untreated-pine shelves, stacked floor to ceiling with books. Wood pulp hung in the air. A struck match would’ve killed us all. So it goes. That’s where I bought Slaughterhouse-Five. Like usual, I bought the book because a friend raved about Vonnegut. And it was a classic—the kind best purchased at small, used bookstores like this, in places like southwest Michigan.

I didn’t start reading the book until today, six months later, at Jiffy Lube.

In between that bookstore and this oil change, another friend mentioned in passing his favorite bookshop. This one was bigger but had pine shelves too and books stacked up to the drop-ceiling. And unlike the freestanding fire hazard along Red Arrow Highway, the Frugal Muse was in a strip mall in the suburbs, one of three locations.

After he told me about Frugal Muse and liking the name, I found the address online and decided to devote Sunday afternoon to visiting it. As usual, all the books were spine out except for a few on the front tables. So, as usual, I pressed my ear to my shoulder to read titles. I’ve been made fun of for that, but I don’t know how else to do it.

The place was dominated by shelves of fiction but scant on religion, long on biography but spare on philosophy and sociology. Still, off the sociology shelves I pulled a few books, abandoning religion and philosophy to their respective teleologies. Among the books were two slim volumes with titles that would cause most eyes to glaze over in their reading.

One had been translated from French, a noble effort. It recounted how childhood developed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—not a childhood but childhood in general, the concept. Apparently, before that, childhood didn’t really exist. The age of innocence was a foreign idea. Once weaned from their mother’s breast, children were autonomous individuals fully endowed with personhood. But in the 16th century a fundamental shift took place, beginning with “coddling” children, then extending to protecting and nurturing children, until much of family life centered on them.

I don’t remember the title of this noble work, and I wouldn’t have remembered the second book’s title either, except for what happened at Jiffy Lube. The second book was called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It was an old book from the 1840s, now in the public domain, and reprinted cheaply by some nameless publisher. I leafed through it briefly, but the writing was scholarly and difficult, and I couldn’t focus. I can’t read hardly at all when there’s music playing like there was at Frugal Muse that Sunday afternoon. For air wrenches and blaring televisions, it’s music that really distracts my attention. The cacophony of a thousand conversations doesn’t distract me, but the sound of one voice cannot be ignored. I read a bit about an obsession with tulips that arose in the country of the Netherlands. The author remarked at how it seems the more delicate an object, the greater the attentiveness it is given (a bit like children, I suppose). In the case of one wealthy Dutchman, 100,000 florins was not too much for 40 bulbs.

All this was novel and provincial, but the music was distracting, and the reading hard going, so I abandoned the book for something lighter, or less important, or less substantial, more contemporary. It seemed a curious oddity, the kind of book you thumb through on a Sunday afternoon, nothing worth purchasing.

But all this happened before I’d begun reading Slaughterhouse-Five. I know nothing about its author, Kurt Vonnegut, except what others have told me, and that is very little. He is an eclectic writer as far as I’m concerned. I thought for a long time that Slaughterhouse-Five was a sort of Stephen King-type horror novel, like Clockwork Orange, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Weird. So when I finally dropped the book into my bag this morning, I expected to be exposed to something altogether different. Perhaps indeed it is, for I’ve only just started reading it. Just today, at Jiffy Lube.

So as I read along—the narrator was talking about the Second World War and all wars being like glaciers—he began mentioning limericks about, well I won’t say, and songs about Wisconsin, and then he began quoting from books too. And before I knew it, he was talking about a book by Charles Mackay, who wrote about the mass pilgrimage of millions of children in the Children’s Crusade of 1213. Apparently, two monks convinced these children that they were headed to Palestine when really they were put on ships that sank in the Mediterranean on their way to North Africa. The ships that did make it, delivered their goods into slavery there. The book was titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

I gasped when I read the title and recalled my Sunday afternoon just a few weeks ago at the Frugal Muse in the strip mall that my friend had mentioned in passing. It was long after I’d already purchased Slaughterhouse-Five. How now that I should run across the same title is this brief time span? Could running across this obscure title in the span of a month be merely coincidence? I wondered. Am I detecting a pattern like a cheap metal detector where there are really only random pinging sounds? Is it meaningful—more than coincidence?

Or am I the common denominator here? Is it possible that somehow, despite my varied interests, that I am attracted to obscure and modern books that are in fact quite similar? Perhaps my interests aren’t so varied as I believed. Maybe these two books have more similarities than I recognize. But maybe not.

Then I thought about those children in 1213 and how they had probably all been weaned autonomous and fully endowed with personhood. I thought about how in the year 1213 nobody had thought of them as innocent, and so hadn’t coddled or nurtured them. I wondered what families did before the 1600s. What was their telos then? I mean seriously, where were their parents?

* Note the alternate title for Slaughterhouse-Five.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Come In

I'm thinking a lot about hospitality and what it means to be a welcoming person. Not just shaking hands and smiling but actually welcoming them into my apartment, my life, my space, etc. I haven't fully developed this idea yet but when looking at Jesus I see a lot of guidance for being a person/community of hospitality. So I shared a bit of this in my tag-team sermon last week with Paul.

Here it is in written form so just imagine me saying these words. Or better yet imagine James Earl Jones saying it because his voice is a whole lot more commanding than mine!

Jesus was in one sense homeless, an erratic traveler, a nomad. But he also drew people in wherever he went. He called his body a place of dwelling, a temple.

He said "come to me all who are weary and burden and I will give you rest." (Mt 11:28).

When you come to rest you are fed, "this is my body broken for you." (Matt 26:26, 1 Cor 11:24)

When you come to rest you are no longer thirsty, "this is my blood spilled for you." (Matt 26:27, 11 Cor 11:25).

Wherever he went he was a presence of hospitality that invited people into the family of fellowship with the Father, Holy Spirit, and fellow believers.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Sex at Church

Shocking as it sounds, everyone's talking about it. Is it the church's latest gimmick, or is the church redeeming sex from a culture that's used it as its own gimmick?

The latest headline-making sermon series is from NewSpring Church in South Carolina with its own website, The pastor, Perry Noble, is a famed blogger and has been revving people up in anticipation.

Another church is "Bringing Sexy Back." (HT:JT?)

But NewSpring and Revolution Church aren't the first churches to promote sex from the pulpit. There have been others paving the way. For example, "Pure Sex" is a sermon series that has been franchised around the country, with websites like or They've even been advertising on billboards.

At Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill in Seattle, they talked a whole lot about sex during their peasant princess series in Fall 2008.

Other churches encouraged all their couples to have sex every day for a month.

And it certainly has gotten people's attention, including the media (NBC, CBS, FOX).

If I were married, I'd be all about this too. I'd be happy if my church mandated sex for a month too. "Honey, remember what the pastor said."

While I'm certain that these series included very valuable, marriage-changing sermons, it's hard not to feel pushed aside, relegated to the sexless minority. I'm not the only one, either. The Search posted a 3-part series on his site: 1, 2, 3. She Worships offered her own thoughts on it too a while back.

For a minority already painfully aware of their Facebook's relationship status--and reminded of it every week looking around the church lobby--the church isn't helping. No, we don't want to be recognized and pitied like we have a handicap. We don't want the pastor to say, "Now, singles, where are you? Raise your hands. Let me say talk to you specifically for a moment...." But being ignored isn't what we're asking for either--that just magnifies the loneliness (and I'm speaking as someone who's part of one of the best young adult ministries in Chicagoland).

When the church narrows its focus to segments and demographics, its gospel shrivels. The robust embrace of the Gospel should be magnified in the church's radically inclusive message. For "the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself." That's more than we can say for sex.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Have you heard about “Ticket to Ride”? I think it’s an old game, but it’s gained renewed popularity. It’s none too complex. You simply build a railroad between two cities you’ve been assigned while others are building theirs. There are conflicts of course, and longer rail lines are worth more points, but that’s pretty much the game.

My exposure to “Ticket to Ride” happened 3 times in a week’s time, between Christmas and New Years. A colleague first told me about it after he’d played it over Christmas. Then, a college friend mentioned playing it on his Facebook status. Finally, a third friend, told me about having played it recently herself. None of these friends know each other. By New Years’ Eve, I was playing it myself. It seemed inevitable.

I had a similar experience, one I’m sure you can relate to, this time with a book—well, actually, an author.

Since my trip to Congo in September, I’ve been more attuned to events in and around DR Congo. The Economist writes plenty about it. That’s where I first read the name, “Chinua Achebe.” It was a passing note about a novelist I’d never heard of, but the name stuck in my brain, I suppose because I like books in general. Then, before the election, I was reading Obama’s Dreams from My Father. In it, he mentions Achebe. Hailing him as perhaps the most famous African writer of the 20th century who sufficiently captured the African experience and condition. “Have you heard of him?” I finally asked a well-read colleague of mine. It was a foregone conclusion. Achebe is a must-read in world literature. Mentally, I added the title to my list of books to read. (Isn’t that how we often choose books to read?)

I think this is most often how things get my attention, emerging this way. I hear about the same thing repeatedly, and once some threshold of curiosity is reached, I go looking for more about them. Do you notice these patterns in your own experience?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Finding the Flow critique

The authors define a small group, somewhat traditionally, as a “microcosm of the larger church.” They define the purpose of small groups in a few different ways, all quite similar. In their view, small groups exist to address two basic needs: “to be known and to be connected to something bigger than ourselves.” And later, “make the primary goal of the group spiritual growth, and then create authentic community as the context for that larger purpose” (emphasis mine).

This seems somewhat contradictory though. They seem to be saying that the “larger purpose” of the group is the spiritual growth of the individual. In other words, the purpose of the group is to address “two basic needs” the individual has. How can the individual’s needs or spiritual growth be the “larger purpose” of the whole group? This doesn’t make sense to me.

Later they say it a bit differently: “the point of a small group is transformation” (emphasis theirs), later saying that “transformation usually happens during difficult times.” From this, I would conclude that small groups’ primary purpose is individual spiritual growth accomplished by struggling together.

Spiritual growth is certainly possible this way, but it still seems to lack anything like a “larger purpose.” Even if we defined that purpose as the spiritual growth of all individuals in the group, it’s still wouldn’t be “larger.” “Larger purpose” as I understand it must be bigger than the group, even bigger than the sum of its parts.

To this end, I think the purpose must be defined in relation to God and his glory. The purpose of the small group is not the growth of the individual(s) but about the glory of God. Of course, God is glorified in people who are transformed into the character of Christ. Yet it also happens among the individuals, in the relationships between them, in the gritty conflict and reconciliation that goes on between people, not just within them personally. In fact, transformation isn’t visible apart from relationships. This is the “larger purpose” of the small group, being a context of committed relationships, where God’s power is seen in the conflict, reconciliation, and love among his people (“they will know we are Christians by our love” and all that). We must define the appropriate end (God and his glory) and not stop shy of it (at personal spiritual growth).*

I imagine the authors would likely agree with my nuance. They see conflict as an important aspect of small group life. I agree completely when they say, “Conflict has a purpose. It is not something to be avoided.” However, the chapter focuses almost exclusively on conflict between the facilitator and other members of the group. I haven’t faced a lot of conflict in my group personally, and I’m sure addressing this sort of conflict is essential. However, I think the chapter should have also addressed how to mediate conflict between others. Mediation is addressed in passing in the accompanying appendix, but I think they could have offered valuable advice beyond the appendix’s outline. This chapter already dealt with probably the most complex ideas of the book, but I think this addition would have been valuable.

That said, I must add a personal note. The chapter on conflict challenged me beyond my small group context to think hard about addressing conflict in my life. It convicted me in my attitude toward others and toward conflict when I read, “I’m not very close to that person so it doesn’t matter anyway” and “bringing a conflict to someone shows a deep level of respect for that person.” I was forced to admit that I didn’t have much respect for a few people and that I didn’t care much about those relationships, but I knew that I probably should anyway. With these words echoing in my heart, and with God’s gracious shove, I resolved some conflict that had been brewing for a while. I’m thankful for that. With these sorts of counterintuitive admonitions about conflict, I think the authors give us good reason to believe that conflict and reconciliation are essential for being transformed into the people of God, for his glory.

*Lewis makes this point in his essay, “First and Second Things” in God in the Dock.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Finding the Flow

I’ve been leading a small group for over 3 years. In that time, it has been through a cycle of death and rebirth. And I have been with it through a cycle of excitement, discouragement, and renewal. When I started 3 years ago, I prepared lessons full of my insights and information about the Scripture we were reading. Now, 3 years later, I write down all my questions about the Scripture we are reading. About the only thing that hasn’t changed is the book we’re reading—the Bible.

I’ve never read a book about leading small groups, so when a friend was looking for some bloggers to review this book, I decided to volunteer. She sent me a copy of Finding the Flow. The title immediately made me think of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (that’s “cheek-sent-me-high,” fun to say) book Flow. Sure enough, the authors were alluding to it with their title. But they were also using it to liken the small group to a river. Carrying this forward they titled their chapters things like “Charting the Course” (Stages of Group Life), “Stirring the Waters” (Asking Good Questions), and “Rocks in the Riverbed” (Navigating Group Conflict). While the titles were a little cutesy and not wholly intuitive, the metaphor on the whole guided the writing but did not restrict it.

The book has two distinctive features worth mentioning. The first feature is the “Do This” sidebars, which appear frequently throughout the book. (I appreciate that they avoided extending the river metaphor here to something like “Paddles.”) These features suggested practical ways to implement or further explore the ideas being discussed. These types of sidebars can often be uncreative and useless, but not so here. Most of the suggestions are feasible and worthwhile. Most often, I found myself thinking, “That would be valuable or insightful” or “I wonder what interesting details that would expose.”

The second unique feature is the personal stories that appear throughout the book. The two authors Tara and Jenn trade off telling stories about their small group experiences that fit the concepts, problems, and solutions they’re talking about. The stories are a nice break from more analytical discussions.

These stories also establish a congenial tone for the book, which carries on throughout. The more casual tone makes the book easy and readable. They also made the authors a bit more accessible and the ideas a bit more digestible.

With this sort of accessibility, the authors’ own backgrounds are a bit more open to scrutiny as well. Picking up the book, the back cover notes that one worked as a pastor and the other serves as an elder within their church. They describe the church as “nontraditional,” specializing in being “unchurchy,” and made up mostly of people “in their twenties and thirties.” Jenn brings a corporate background to her perspectives on group dynamics and leadership and recently “started engaging in spiritual direction.” Both authors work now as life “coaches,” an emphasis which comes through strongly in the chapter on developing new leaders, “Creating New Streams.” Growing closer to God through information-gatherings is “a modernist idea,” they tell the reader. They refer to books ranging from John Steinbeck’s The Grape of Wrath and P. J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell to Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and Dudley Weeks’ The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution.

There’s plenty of Bible in there too. Tara pulls no punches—“My bias is for the Bible,” she writes, suggesting that it’s the best book for small group study when seasoned with open-ended questions and a Scripture-driven imagination. Lectio divina, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright are other alternatives. “Choose something substantive,” she advises.

The 200+ pages are broken into 7 chapters (with an Introduction and 7 short appendices also). They address the following topics: Knowing Yourself (the facilitator), Stages of Group Life, Listening to God and Others, Asking Good Questions, Navigating Group Conflict, Developing New Leaders, and Spiritual Transformation. Except for maybe one chapter, I felt I could read through each one in a single sitting. But that is not to say that the chapters are without substance. Indeed, I think the book addresses some of the foundational matters small group facilitators should think through (including the distinction between “leaders” and “facilitators”). The book is an easy read, and the suggestions are substantive enough for readers to come back to for fresh ideas and ways to navigate basic obstacles they’re facing.

For my first book on small groups, I felt it offered some good things to think about. This book explores the dynamics of small groups and looks for God in the mix. I thought it balanced the philosophy of small groups well with practical application, and connected the two. I’d primarily recommend it for a facilitator who’s currently leading a group. It may help someone who’s preparing for one or considering leading one, but I think it’s most valuable to someone actively involved with one. I’ve already recommended it to the other small group leaders I know, and I will probably lend my copy to another friend as well. I guess that’s an endorsement.

In my next post, I’ll offer a bit of a critique and personal note.