Growth, Grace, and a Writer I Like

By LeRoy Lawson


Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeing God in the Crucible of Ministry
Ruth Haley Barton
Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2008

Lila: A Novel
Marilynne Robinson

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014

Persuasion: A Novel
Jane Austen

Originally published in 1817


I’ve written here before about how much I learn from my students. Many books in this column have appeared because they told me I needed to read a favorite of theirs. Ruth Haley Barton is one of those favorites. She is president of the Transforming Center, where she and her colleagues are in the business of resuscitating flagging ministerial souls and prayerfully guiding young Christian leaders in their spiritual formation. She also frequently lectures at seminaries and graduate schools, all the while writing substantive books like Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.

07_FMB_JNThis is a leadership book with a difference. No 10 steps for shaping up the organization, no seven sure-fire habits every leader must adopt. And absolutely no shortcuts to success, spiritual or otherwise.

Here Barton draws her lessons from Moses:

• the same Moses whose example kept me going through some of the darkest days of my ministry

• who spent years in the wilderness taming his own wildness

• who reluctantly answered God’s call to service and then often regretted his answer because, no matter what he did, he couldn’t satisfy the people God called him to lead

• and who, after having sacrificed everything to herd his ungrateful nation to the promised land, was not allowed to enter it himself.

That Moses.

Every chapter is worth pondering, but most helpful to me are “The Place of Our Own Conversion,” “The Practice of Paying Attention,” “Living within Limits,” “Spiritual Rhythms in the Life of the Leader,” and “The Loneliness of Leadership.” But I’ve just committed an injustice: I left out her chapters on intercession, on leading from within the community, on rethinking the meaning of a calling, and . . . you get the point.

Here’s the book in a nutshell: “Strengthening the soul of your leadership is an invitation to enter more deeply into the process of spiritual transformation and to choose to lead from that place.” That place is the right place for a leader.

The student who gave me the book called it “the best book on spiritual formation and leadership I’ve ever read.”

A Picture of Grace

Marilynne Robinson is another very wise woman. She first captured my attention with her novel Gilead, a simple and simply profound reading of the journal of John Ames, aging, cancer-stricken pastor in fictional Gilead, Iowa. I recommend it to every minister I know. It’s an inspiring look into the heart of a thoroughly good man, a conscientious shepherd of souls in a backwater town that, to a more worldly ambitious man, would have been the ultimate disappointment. For Ames, however, it is where God put him, and so it is where he has faithfully served.

And where, late in life, he marries again, decades after losing his first wife and child. Lila is this second wife’s book. It’s her voice we hear, and a most ungrammatical, most unlikely voice it is. She stumbles into Gilead knowing nothing about the place. She doesn’t care. She is fleeing a life that has dealt her little but cruel blows. Unwanted as a young child, she is abandoned on the steps of a church and then stolen by an ugly, equally unwanted itinerant worker who raises her as her own. They fight to exist in almost unimaginable poverty.

Lila is reminiscent of Gilead: same writing style and same theological explorations, but this time from the viewpoint of a woman ignorant of all things theological, almost ignorant of life except the lonely, hardscrabble, on-the-edge-of-extinction life in which she develops her only talent, her ability to survive.

Lila virtually, painstakingly teaches herself to read and write, but never with polish. Her words betray her harsh upbringing. When Doll, her surrogate mother, is no longer there to protect her, Lila makes her way the best she can, turning in desperation to selling herself—but even there she is the house’s least desirable purchase.

Then she runs away to . . . anywhere or nowhere. That turns out to be Gilead. There she is welcomed by the tentative, tender, and finally, unwavering arms of a lonely old pastor who knows something about agape love.

I kept thinking of the prophet Hosea. His story and Rev. Ames’s are not exact parallels, but his love for this abused and sinful woman is like God’s love of Israel, a love he asks Hosea to express in his treatment of unreliable Gomer.

Robinson has won many writing awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead. In Lila, her string of exceptional novels continues. I’d like it if she would return to the Ames family in a future novel. A boy is born of this union. How will he turn out? And how will Lila survive after the death of the old man who married and loved her and taught her she was loveable at last?

A Writer I Return to

After reading Barton and Robinson, I turned to the very different but also wise Jane Austen. From time to time I return to the 19th century. Once an English teacher, always a lover of the classics, I suppose.

Now before you ask what would possess a man to waste his time in reading the literary equivalent of a “chick flick,” let me defend myself. This lady is simply one of the greatest English novelists, male or female, and to learn from her is always rewarding if for no other reason than to be reminded what good writing looks like.

Her most popular novel is Pride and Prejudice, which has sold multiple millions of copies since its publication in 1813, and continues to inspire movies and stage plays, and regularly lands on the “Best Novels of . . .” lists. She also gave us Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and her last book, Persuasion, which she wrote in 1816, a little over a year before her death at 41.

If you are a fan of the popular television series Downton Abbey, you’ll probably like Jane Austen, although you may be surprised at her satirical wit. Hers are what are called novels of manners, but she is not really a fan of the manners she portrays. She’s not blind to the hypocrisy, snobbery, and superficiality of England’s idle rich. (I shudder to think how she would skewer America’s.) The heroine of Persuasion, for example, is the daughter of the insufferably dull and financially inept Sir Walter Elliot, whose pretensions far exceed his deserving. His first daughter, Elizabeth, shares his view that almost everybody else is beneath them, and his youngest, married daughter, Mary, believes herself suffering every kind of slight from people who just don’t recognize her importance. Only Anne, the overlooked, undervalued second daughter, seems to have any common sense.

The plot and subplots of Persuasion merge in memory with Austen’s other novels. I don’t read them for their almost predictable stories (they’re all about romantic love and stuff), but because I relish her deft use of the English language, her unforgettable depictions of English upper crust, her ability to lift the lowly and to deflate the airs of the high and mighty. You can’t read her without being reminded of the vanity of riches, of the silliness of social pretense, and that there are many, many aims in life more worthwhile than climbing the social (or in our day, the corporate or academic or entrepreneurial or popularity) ladder.

So here are this month’s contributors:

Ruth Haley Barton offers rich advice for one’s spiritual formation.

Marilynne Robinson lets us look at grace and goodness through the eyes of a woman who has received so little of either until she meets an old pastor who redeems her with both.

And Jane Austen? She’s in this column because I like her.

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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  1. donna hitchcock
    June 18, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    I’m enjoying your book reviews. I don’t often get Christian Standard, and for some reason was inspired to look it up on line. I got some a year old from my mother! Anyway, loved your comments on Jane Austen…and some of the other books you are reading make me realize, I have allowed my reading to become shallow.
    I am going to read some books on mentoring this week…that is a new phase in my life. I am old enough to be a mentor! Perhaps I will run into you at NACC. I will only be there one day…always love to see you. You always were my favorite minister! My sister and mother still attend englewood (I grew up there).

  2. Kelly Kastens
    August 18, 2015 at 10:40 am

    So glad you enjoyed Ruth Barton’s book! She, like you, is seasoned and wise in the ways of caring for others. Great summary of the book and of her ministry. Glad to have both of you as leaders in my life and ministry.

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