Book Review: Regarding Karl Barth

I first encountered Karl Barth in a seminary class. Gary Deddo assigned us to read Dogmatics in Outline. Though it was the smallest book we had to read for the class, it took the longest to read. In Barth, I encountered a theologian who worked more deeply than any of the pop-theologies available in your average Christian bookstore.

Barth is one of the most confusing figures in modern theology. At one moment, I find myself nodding my head with him. At another moment, I'm re-reading to see if he really just said the outlandish thing I thought he said. Barth is a difficult read.

And he's also written a ton. His major work, Church Dogmatics, runs for almost 10,000 pages. Getting your mind around so much writing can be pretty difficult.

This is why Dr. Deddo recommended Regarding Karl Barth by Trevor Hart. Hart provides a big-picture overview of the major themes in Barth's theology. He introduces Barth to us in a way that helps us understand where the great theologian is coming from. This context makes a tremendous difference.

For example, if you aren't aware of Barth's commitment to the "otherness" of God, his comments on the Incarnation and Scripture can be radically confusing. Some have even labeled Barth a "heretic" due to this confusion.

My favorite chapter in Hart's book placed Barth's ideas in conversation with modern pluralism. One by one, a great deal of Barth's theology locked into place: revelation, hypostatic union, dialectic. As an introducer of Karl Barth, Hart performed splendidly.

This book swims in the deep end theologically. It's not for the faint of head.

Here are some excellent quotes:

"If I offer the obvious qualification that I have not always agreed with what I have found in the text, it is equally true that I have rarely come away from the reading without some benefit"

"'What if,' he asks, 'God be so much God that without ceasing to be God he can also be, and is willing to be, not God as well?""

"The paradox of grace is precisely that it both liberates and binds us in the very same moment."

"The insistence of Athanasius that the Son is eternally from the substance of the Father, rather than a product of his will, carries within it the implication that the divine substance as such is inherently relational."

"We are dealing with a permanent antinomy rather than a dialectic to be resolved in a higher synthesis."

"Very often theological 'liberals' and 'conservatives' are united in their basic methodologies and in the tools which they brandish as weapons with which to destroy one another's fortified positions."

Brennan Manning, Broward College and Me

I heard that Brennan Manning passed away today.

He was an author and a priest. His books include The Ragamuffin Gospel, Abba's Child and All is Grace. He inspired the music of Rich Mullins and laid out the most incisive apologetic quote I've ever heard [sampled at the start of dc Talk's "What if I Stumble"]. I've enjoyed and benefitted from his wise words for years.

Brennan Manning and I have something in common. We both served as campus ministers at Broward College. For both of us, the weight of that service broke something in us.

In All is Grace, Manning writes about his experience at Broward College. [You can read the excerpt here All is Grace, 11]. He moved to Ft. Lauderdale in the 70's. Broward College and Ft. Lauderdale were vastly different then than they are now, but I live just down the road from the campus where he served.

At Broward Community College (which it was called at the time), Manning encountered students whose lives echoed his own ministry career and the state of his soul. Some students were succeeding. Some students were struggling. Some students were failing.

At the same time, Manning was doing each of these things as well: succeeding in ministry with top-of-the-world experiences, struggling with laziness and loneliness, and failing to maintain sobriety. After a year and a half, his alcoholism overcame him and he left Broward.

I've experienced this painful trinity at Broward as well: success and struggle and failure. This is an essential part of community college ministry.

When we moved to Florida, we located just down the street from Broward College. It was the center of the South Florida Area and we had work on two of the Broward campuses. I was thrilled to be so close.

I threw myself into the work at Broward, staffing both of the Broward chapters and planting a third. I saw students lead in spectacular ways, saw lives transformed by Jesus, saw God at work. Serving at Broward confirmed in me that I loved community college ministry. Before Broward, the community college was an idea to me. But no longer. Now the community college is Brian and Lisa and Leisa and Renata and David and Hannah and Juliana and Gaby and Jody and Daphne and Gonzalo and Francisco. Real people.

But I struggled as the Staff at Broward. The chapter I planted collapsed and is now being replanted by someone else. The chapter that grew from 12 to 70 students chose to disaffiliate from InterVarsity and said that it was, in part, because of my leadership. At every turn I found myself inadequate for the task of the work on campus.

And the work broke something in me. I had never failed at anything in my life. But I failed at Broward College.

I can see how Manning turned to alcohol for comfort. I turned to food and to workaholism. I worked 70 and 80 hour weeks until I snapped. Manning lasted a year and a half. I lasted 8 months. In 8 months I had put on almost 40 pounds, barely knew my son and could no longer walk due to an acute flare-up of gout. The ministry on campus was in a stall and no one knew about it but me.

Things are different today. Today I have a team of Staff at Broward. I learned from my experience. Chad and Fatimat are working together, Staffing BC South and planting BC Central. We're taking our time, finding allies, ministering with an eye toward sustainability.

Brennan Manning's story is spectacular. He emerged from rehab and went on to write and speak in beautiful and profound ways. But he carried with him a deep vulnerability. He shared his story, the story of his success and struggle and failure. In that way, he carried Broward with him everywhere he went.

My hope is to go and do likewise.

An On-the-spot Inductive Theory of Joy

Our Grow Group was studying Luke 24:33-53 tonight and talking about joy.

Out of nowhere, we created a theory of joy.

I got the ball rolling by asking this question: "Where do the disciples get their joy?"

All around the circle, eyes turned to their papers, scanning the passages and looking for insight. A few grains of sand fell to the bottom of the hourglass in my mind. And then Don jumped in: "It looks like knowing that Jesus was alive again gave them joy. That and knowing that he was going to send the Spirit."

Now that, all by itself, was a slam-dunk answer. But the Group wasn't done.

Loretta pointed out that just before the passage mentions the disciples' joy, the passage notes that the disciples worshipped Jesus. Maybe worship and joy are connected.

Worship and knowing ... joy.

This was getting pretty interesting.

Michelle chimed in at this point, drawing our attention to Jesus blessing the disciples. This rounded out our emerging theory.

We know that Jesus is alive, which is a blessing to us and which leads us to worship. And the result of all this is joy.

So how can we see more joy in our lives?

Maybe we could look at these three ideas: knowledge and worship and blessing.

Bruce talked about growing in knowledge of Jesus.
Jody talked about spending time in worship.
John talked about taking a walk in his neighborhood and listening to Three Dog Night and enjoying the blessings of life in a way that honors Jesus.

Before we knew it, we had a robust inductive theory of joy, created on-the-spot. It was built on insightful analysis of the passage and is useful. I can do something with it today.

What a night!

Book Review: The Starfish and the Spider

What will happen to your organization if something happens to you?

Over and over again I've seen InterVarsity chapters collapse when Staff transition and when key student leaders leave campus. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a chapter collapse for any other reason.

Here in South Florida, we're trying to raise up communities on campus that thrive, that last, that aren't tossed aside every time leadership transitions happen. One way to do this is to amp up our leadership development process. Another way is to create a fundamentally different kind of community. A leaderless organization.

In The Starfish and the Spider, Brafman and Beckstrom explore leaderless organizations.

Their metaphor works like this ...

Cut a spider in half and a spider dies. You won't have to deal with the spider anymore. Cut a starfish in half and the starfish will re-grow the missing pieces. Then you'll have two starfish to deal with.

Leaderless organizations respond rapidly to challenge and are hard to defend against. They grow stronger the harder they're pressed. The authors cite AA, Wikipedia, al Qaeda and Craigslist as real-world examples.

I find this so intriguing. What would it look like for us to structure our Area in such a way that we aren't dependent on any particular leader in order to carry forward to the future? I don't know. But I very much want to explore this possibility.

As for the book, I have to admit that it's a rough read. It has the bones of a Gladwell book, but lacks Gladwell's knack for storytelling.

But the strategy is better than the writing. And it's worth reading.

Keeping Track of Your Giving

As tax season rolls around, I wanted to share something that shocked us this year.

We gave away less money than we meant to.

Amy and I really value generosity. As missionaries, we depend on the generosity of others for our paychecks. As people who love God's mission, we're delighted to reach into our pockets to partner where we can. But in 2012, we didn't give as much as we meant to.

It was a strange feeling, filling out my taxes and seeing the numbers. Checking the numbers. Rifling around for more receipts. "Surely we gave more than this" I found myself saying. Nope. We gave what we gave. And it wasn't as much as we meant to.

Amy and I try to think about our giving in terms of percentage. We pick a percentage and try to give that much. Ideally, we'd love to see that percentage go up and up and up over the years. How great would it be to be giving 20 or 30 or 40 percent of our income away?!?

This year, we're trying to pay better attention. And for us, paying better attention will mean giving more. But first, we need to figure out how to pay better attention to our giving throughout the year.

How do you keep track of your giving?

A Team Effort

We did an evangelistic even at MDC Wolfson this week.

The Staff on campus, Leah, could have pulled the whole thing off herself. She invited me to join her. And before we knew it, a team started to form.

Alexis - Staff at FIU BBC - helped us hand out flyers and invite students. There's no one better at that than her.

Stevenson - our faculty advisor - volunteered to run an ice-breaker for the event. He even brought some of his students to the event.

Magalie, Woodney and Wendina - students from FIU BBC - walked around campus inviting students and then stayed for the event to help welcome people as they arrived.

Matt - my Associate Area Director - stuck around afterwards to talk to students and help us wrap up.

What could have been done by one, was done by 8.

And it was better for it.

Why do we so often try to do ministry alone?

Balanced Identification

There are so many ways that cross-cultural relationships can go wrong. But when they go right, they're beautiful.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a couple of friends about healthy cross-cultural relationships. One of my friends is a historian (well ... studying history, but really serious about it). He shared about a fascinating book that lays out a complex model for cross cultural relationships. It's organized around x and y and z axes.

The most interesting axis for me was the Identification axis.

On one end, there's "I want you to be like me." People have have too much of this end up imperialistic. They foist their culture on others. They press and oppress.

On the other end, there's "I want to be like you." People who go too far down this road spiral into self-loathing and self-hatred. They become imposters.

I found this axis interesting because of the tension, the balance. You don't want to go too far in either direction, but you do want to go in both directions. The "I want you to be like me" impulse leads to openness and blessing. The "I want to be like you" impulse leads to humility and growth. But you can't go too far.

As a bi-racial person, I feel this tension every day. I want people to come toward me and I want to head over toward them. But I end up in the middle. Confused.

This is one of the reason I deeply value my bi-racial friends. They're just as confused as me. They feel this tension too, this push and pull. God meets us in this tension, not resolving it, but using it to form and shape us.