What this month’s books have in common is simply my fondness for the authors. Two are not widely published, and the third is not widely read by subscribers to CHRISTIAN STANDARD. But all three are worth knowing.
Responding to Suffering
I had already admired Lynn Gardner for decades when I read Where Is God When We Suffer? (College Press, 2007). I was preparing for some lectures on suffering for a retreat for furloughing missionaries, who probably know more about the subject than I do.
But not more than Gardner does. As his brother-in-law Sam Stone says in the Foreword, “When it comes to the topic of suffering, Lynn Gardner has earned the right to be heard.” His brother was severely handicapped, his sister Gwen (Sam’s wife) the victim of complications from a near-fatal automobile accident. His wife, Barbara, is battling cancer. Lynn himself was rescued from a terminal illness only by a double-lung transplant. And he and Barbara lost their adult son in yet another highway accident.
Through all this (and more) he has walked by faith and earned a sterling reputation for 34 years as Bible scholar, professor, and dean of Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri. Few have been hit harder by life’s exigencies. No one has complained less. When he speaks about suffering, we listen.
In these pages Gardner reveals the source of his strength. He shares enough of his and his family’s trials to establish his credentials, but his focus, in chapter after chapter, is on scriptural reasons for hope in spite of hurt. There’s no self-pity here, no dwelling on life’s injustices, nor any crying out for answers to life’s imponderables. What you will find is an honest facing up to reality with courage and trust.
And with concern for others. The last section, “Helping the Hurting,” is vintage Gardner. He draws on his personal experience to help his readers know how best to respond to other people’s heartaches, including unwitting offenses to be avoided. He’s been there. He knows.
A Return Visit
I first met Lynn Anderson as a fellow guest lecturer at St. Louis Christian College a few years ago and was, and continue to be, impressed by his wisdom. His They Smell Like Sheep, published in 1997, remains on my list of recommended books for church leaders.
Now comes They Smell Like Sheep, Volume II (Simon and Schuster, 2007). More of the same, admittedly, but reading it is like a return visit to a trusted mentor. (Mentoring, by the way, is Anderson’s vocation now, much to the benefit of his mentees.)
We need his counsel. Leading a church of any size involves the calling, teaching, laboring with, and encouraging one’s fellow leaders. Wise ministers, far from seeing themselves as “God’s (sole) man for the church,” encourage teamwork. The strength and unity of a congregation depend on a seasoned and caring team of leaders.
Most leadership books concentrate on the leader, not leaders. Because of my teaching, I’ve read many such volumes. To be honest, I’ve grown a little weary of them. There are only so many principles to be mastered. Most current publications just rework old ideas. They have much to say about techniques, structures, goals, policies, and practices, and not enough about the character of the leader. They borrow more from corporate management than from Scripture, which emphasizes character above all else.
Anderson does not make that mistake. He cares more about the welfare of the people the elders oversee than about the budgets and buildings and programs that consume the average leadership board’s time.
A sampling of chapter titles could be a personality profile for the ideal church leader: “A Heart on Its Knees,” “In Search of Integrity,” “Shaped by the Holiness of God,” etc. To such a shepherd’s heart you can entrust the care and feeding of the sheep. This nontechnical book is written for the average reader. Applied, it will lead to above-average shepherding.
‘Seasons of Faith’
In our churches we have some pretty strong ideas about the place of women. And “that place” often doesn’t include the pulpit. Many of us preachers, though, have profited richly from women who teach in colleges and seminaries and books.
I have never met Barbara Brown Taylor, but because I have appreciated her earlier writing, when Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (HarperOne, 2006) appeared, I was curious to learn why this pioneering Episcopalian pastor was “leaving church.”
She tells us. This autobiographical book frankly tells her story as a female believer who felt called to preach for 20 years as an ordained priest, during which her life went through what she calls three distinct “seasons of faith, not once or twice but over and over again. Jesus called them finding life, losing life, and finding life again.”
Many pastors could have written her summary of life with her parishioners:
Together we explored the mysteries of holy baptism and communion along with the vast and varied books of the Bible. Together we navigated both the predictable passages of human life on earth and some of its more unusual cruelties, taking comfort in the cycle of the church year, which never led us into the pit without lighting a way out again. Together we even managed to overcome our preoccupation with our own needs long enough to tend the needs of our neighbors, although never without the strong temptation to congratulate ourselves for our good work.
After serving as an associate pastor, Taylor became rector of a small, rural Georgia church, a risky venture for an urban woman and her husband, and a brave decision for the country church. The book recounts her side of their love affair, from the earliest, tentative, get-acquainted days, through the predictable storms and stresses of pastoral work, to the bittersweet decision to leave for a new career on a university campus. She feels relief in shedding the duties and often unrealistic expectations of the pastorate, but her heart still feels tugged toward that home.
As a longtime minister in a nonliturgical, nonhierarchical, nonbureaucratic, and male-dominated church fellowship, it has been good for me to hear Taylor’s story, even though she frequently speaks of a church world I know little about and offers a woman’s perspective that I needed to listen to.
She persuaded me that my kind has some things to learn from her. Still, I am satisfied to belong to my church. Satisfied, but not smug.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.