By LeRoy Lawson
David J. Wolpe, Why Faith Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2008).
Kevin G. Ford, Transforming Church: Bringing Out the Good to Get to the Great (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2007).
While armies duke it out in the Middle East and intellectuals debate it out on college campuses and ordinary blokes like you and me duck for cover and wonder whom to believe, the calm, understated reassurance Rabbi David Wolpe offers is like the balm in Gilead we used to sing about in church.
The noted leader of the conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles has earned a respectful reading. He writes of suffering as a veteran: his mother’s stroke 30 years ago left her unable to speak; his wife battled a rare cancer following the birth of their daughter; he has fended off a brain tumor, and then after it was removed, an unrelated, incurable form of lymphoma attacked. It’s in remission, but it’s still there.
Already the author of six books, he conceived this one while in chemotherapy, staring his mortality in the face. He wanted to speak to the polarization polluting the religious environment today. The two opposing camps are led by evangelistic atheists on the one hand and militant fundamentalist fanatics on the other. Both sides distort the truth.
Regarding today’s headlines, Wolpe is “disturbed by the charges of the new atheism and horrified by the cruelty of a brand of fanatical faith that breeds terrorists. I do not believe our choice is either an absence of God or an over-zealous embrace of God. Every day I see and hear individuals trying to make sense of their lives, seeking the comfort of community and an assurance of the reality of God’s love.” Of these he sings.
Faith, he insists, is primarily about relationships. Proving the Bible true or not true is not his central concern. “To have questions is not the opposite of faith. Questions assume faith. They assume there is a God to ask ‘Why?’” Believers “have found in faith the ability to ‘grow in soul, to achieve goodness, to work for causes larger than existence alone.’”
When undergoing brain surgery and cancer treatment, he expressed his faith in his prayers, which did not demand answers to unanswerable questions, but quietly asked, “God, stay close.”
When I had finished the book I had accumulated a host of memorable Wolpe sentences. Here are a few of them:
“Faith is where we stand in the universe, not an idea that is checked off in the truth-or-illusion column.”
“A brittle faith fears questions; a robust faith welcomes them.”
“[Philosopher Bertrand] Russell made belief a question of logic; I was learning that it was a question of life.”
Speaking of his prayers in his various illnesses: “I do not pray because I believe God will give me a clear scan. I pray because I am not alone, and from gratitude that having been near death I am still in life. I pray not for magic but for closeness, not for miracles but for love.”
“People of faith gaze less into the grave than up at the stars.”
“One can have simple faith, but faith is not simple.”
“Materialism itself requires an extraordinary leap of faith.”
In his generous foreword, Christian pastor Rick Warren writes of his Jewish friend, “The closer I get to David Wolpe, the more I am impressed by this man of faith.” He’s worth getting close to. On the matters he treats in Why Faith Matters, he writes with winsome authority.
LEADING A CHURCH
When I recently accepted the call to become ad interim minister of a small church in transition, I knew I needed a refresher course. It’s been 10 years since I left my last pastorate. Times and churches are changing.
I’d like for the church to think of me as experienced—not just old! I want to do a good job to prepare this congregation for their new leader. So I’ve been boning up on “how to do church today.”
A particularly helpful book for recharging pastoral batteries is Kevin G. Ford’s Transforming Church. It’s not your typical “Ten Magical Steps to Remake Your Sleeping Congregation into a Magnificent Megachurch.” Instead, Ford thoughtfully analyzes the culture we want to serve and the church we must become both to be true to our commission and to be effective on our mission field.
Here’s the heart of his presentation: “This book is about churches that have the courage to embrace change and to confront adaptive issues head-on—what I call transforming churches. These courageous churches help transform people into God’s image. They transform the communities in which they minister. And as organizations, they are continually transforming how they lead, operate, and minister.”
Following Ford’s advice, I knew what to look for and to help with as I began my new assignment:
1. How church members relate to each other—not as a collection of individuals doing their own thing, but as a community of persons who genuinely care about one another.
2. How the church’s “genetic code” gives the congregation a clear sense of identity. They know who they are and will remain true to their best selves even as they adapt to their changing environment.
3. How the church’s leadership functions. They are not autocrats relishing their positions of power, nor are they bureaucrats caught up in oiling the organization’s machinery. They are servants broadly sharing ministry opportunities with their fellow members.
4. How the church relates to the community around them. They are not disengaged from it but seek opportunities to serve it.
5. How church members think about the future. They don’t resist change; they embrace it, reinventing themselves as needed in order to remain connected and relevant.
These are the broad issues. Check out the book for the details.
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.