The Heavenly Mob

China’s Christian Martyrs by Paul Hattaway

Brother Yun had a fifteen hundred year heritage.

New Zealander Paul Hattaway is a missionary to China, so in writing a history such as this it is obvious that he knows what his mission is up against.  Like his earlier book The Heavenly Man, Hattaway’s China’s Christian Martyrs tells the stories of individual men and women who put the gospel before their own comfort.  There are Chinese of fifty-eight races, and Westerners of three continents: individual names and faces within the great cloud of witnesses that began with a dozen Nestorians in 635 and continues with millions today.  Three quarters of the book is taken up by the twentieth century, almost half by the Boxer massacres.

Several of the stories are of arrogance and interference; the consequence of outsiders favouring their own ways over indigenous ways, or the not always unintentional links between white-skinned missionaries and European colonial powers.  Most of the stories are of otherwise-ordinary foreign Christians sharing the good news of grace with groups occasionally unwilling to listen, and of the resolve and resilience of the local believers.

This book is fast-moving, engaging, easy to read, and lends itself to using a story or two as an aid to meditation.  The individual testimonies are inspiring although at times Hattaway uses martyr-jargon like “promoted to His Glorious Presence” which distracted me a little bit.

The take-home message is that Christ is coming with grace for another beloved ancient people, and he is doing it from the inside.  Maoist China doesn’t stand a chance.

Chosen and Special

Book: The Good And Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith

The basics in a life of grace and confidence in the love of God

“Falling in love with the God Jesus knows.”  That sounds wonderful doesn’t it?  This is one of the books I have been looking for all my life and I am pleased that it is but the first in a series of four books exploring a practical spirituality for twenty-first century local churches.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Smith confronts the false narrative that God’s love is based upon our efforts to “try harder” or “be good”, instead presenting a God who is good, holy, trustworthy, generous, self-sacrificing and transforming.  The God of Smith’s experience created women and men to enjoy God above all, and to live in a relationship of love with God that fills all corners of their lives.  Books to follow in the series will deal with a “good and beautiful life” (living a transformed life in the face of issues) and a “good and beautiful community” (living the good and beautiful life in public).

This would be an excellent resource for small group study as it includes group reflection and discussion questions along with a weekly “soul training” task for individuals.

Canon Lore

25 Books Every Christian Should Read edited by selected members of the board of Renovaré

The best bits of a variety of spiritual classics

Eleven.  Of the 25 books presented here in summary I had previously read 11, and I still don’t consider all them must-read.  Thirteen editors, many of them authors, made up the editorial board and each offers his or her own “top five” through the course of the book.  Many of the books on these lists are not by Christian authors yet suggest Christian themes; other books appear on more than one list.  This is a readers’ book and as such I had as much fun in debating the list as I did in reading the top 25 itself; yet it is also a devotional book and is designed to be thought through and reflected upon.

Each of the books, from St Benedict to Bonhoeffer and John Calvin to John Bunyan, is presented with an introduction to the author, the book’s place in history, and a guide on how to read it.  Following the excerpt there are study questions designed for both small-group discussion and personal reflection or journaling.  The final section provides a summary of the best contemporary authors, including some of the editors, (Richard J. Foster) alongside such names as Brian McLaren, and N.T. Wright.

Only two of the featured authors are women, but that may have more to do with church history than editorial bias. I enjoyed dipping in and out of the excerpts and am looking forward to finding some of these books to read in full.

Into The World

Servolution: Starting a Church Revolution Through Serving by Dino Rizzo.

Stop simply praying for the world’s needs: go in God’s strength and be ‘The Church’ to your community by addressing their practical and spiritual needs yourselves.

“It’s so important that we don’t always just send a cheque; whenever possible, we also need to engage with those who are hurting.”  According to Servolution the way to reach the community is to go and meet the community, and work with them rather than for them from a distance.  The community Healing Place Church serves is Baton Rouge in Louisiana, but that did not stop them being in New York City after 9/11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  If for John Wesley the world is our parish then for Dino Rizzo the world is also our responsibility: every church has a mandate from the mouth of Jesus and from scripture to be ‘The Church’, with no strings attached.

Each chapter ends with a Servolution Strategy with a summary of the chapter and several discussion questions to ignite thinking about the concepts raised for the local church.  Not every congregation can have an impact the size of HPC, but every community can engage with the people around it and reach into its neighbourhood with the love of Christ.

Flooded I-10/I-610 interchange and surrounding...

I like that this book constantly returns to two themes; that it is God’s work through us rather than our work for God that the Church is undertaking, and that God’s highest priority is not the programmes themselves, or even the growing reputation of the missional Church, but the people the local congregation is serving.  It all comes back to how we are caring for those who are yet to come, or are starting to come because they have heard about these people who care.  This message resonates well with me as a Christian and in my work as a school chaplain; and I am pleased to say that my local congregation is starting to think this way too.

If you enjoy books like The Church That Never Sleeps by Matthew Barnett, or even the 24/7 concept of local ministry conveyed by such a title, then Servolution is the book for you.

Candles, Contexts and Molotov Cocktails

 Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech edited by David Bunch and Angus Ritchie

A reader on the East-End, Anglo-Catholic, Christian Socialist, Drug Rehabilitation theologies of Kenneth Leech.

“We should not seek to bring Christ into our lives, but to enter ourselves into his.”  The question repeatedly asked by Leech is if Christ really is to be found among the outcasts and the overlooked then what does worship mean for the mainstream and established churches of the Western nations, and the coastal suburbs?

I had never heard of Kenneth Leech before I read this book, despite my having spent six years of Sundays worshipping in his London mission field of Soho.  I feel as though I have found, and yet missed meeting, a friend.  His work promotes him as more Roman in his Englishness than I was, yet his socialist, social heart beats to the same rhythm as my own.  Kenneth Leech is an enigma; equally at home Trotsky as with St John of the Cross he is both a robed and incense-clouded liturgist found in the highest of churches, an earthy and incensed rehab worker found in the dodgiest of dives, and a social commentator and theologian found in the worthiest of colleges, in the one fiery package.

Prayer and Prophecy covers forty years of Leech’s writing and thinking on theology, politics, and spirituality in easy to follow and exciting to read passages.  He speaks of a socially responsible, socially engaged gospel in a language drawn from within the beauty of holiness.  His cry is for the worshipping church to become the prophetic voice to our nation once more.

Theology for The Least

Hope In An Age Of Despair by Albert Nolan

A reader in an apartheid-era Liberation Theology.

The Gospel that we preach will not be a Gospel of Jesus Christ unless it takes sides with those who are sinned against: the poor and the oppressed.

“For use by white persons” – sign from the apa...

“For use by white persons” – sign from the apartheid era Español: “Sólo para blancos” – letrero de la era del apartheid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I found this book both useful and engaging as the Lectionary  directed my preaching through God’s preference for compassion rather than sacrifice.  According to Nolan Yahweh was the God who sided against “the powers that be” to rescue a people group trapped by the system.  That is what sets our God apart from all the other gods of ancient Egypt and modern South Africa.  Poverty is a structural problem as much in today’s world as it was in the days of Israel’s judges and kings.  Yet we cannot stop there, and Nolan directs his readers beyond a denunciation of injustice to an annunciation of the hope of a liberated society.  Don’t just complain, proclaim.

The most valuable contribution that a Christian can make in our age of despair is to continue, because of our faith, to act hopefully, and in that way to be an encouragement to those who have lost all hope.


Bigger on the Inside

Jean Vanier: Essential Writings edited and introduced by Carolyn Whitney-Brown

Essays from the founder of the L’Arche communities 

“Change the world with love, one heart at a time” is the central message of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community.  I had heard of L’Arche and Vanier before reading this book, but I have come to understand them both a good deal more since sitting down with Essential Writings.  Vanier, the son of a former Governor General of Canada, is an ex-serviceman of the Royal Navy who established a community of care for intellectually disabled men.  Today the movement which arose from this includes hundreds of houses and religious communities across France, North and South America and Asia.  This volume is made up of quotes taken from twenty-six of Vanier’s books, published across the last four decades, and was produced to coincide with his 80th birthday in 2008.

Vanier has much to say about the human condition and in living with compassion and dignity among people who are differently abled.  The insights into community, spirituality and peacemaking that make up this book were drawn from Vanier’s lectures to international conferences and councils, small group devotions within L’Arche, as well as his personal journals and correspondence.

This book is best used to dip in and out of, perhaps taking each section to reflect upon rather than to read straight through.  As a chaplain I enjoyed the gentleness with which Vanier addresses suffering, and the personal stories of his work among the poor in health but great in spirit.

Learning to Adore

The Fire of Your Life by Maggie Ross

A mystic’s year of seasonal reflections.

“Be still, and know that I am God.”  That’s a command, not only an invitation.  Jesus took time away from the crowds and the twelve to be alone with his God.  If the Son needed to do this in Roman Judea, then today’s daughters and sons probably do too.

Ross is a professed solitary who nonetheless writes for the practical needs of today’s Christians: be that the need for a taxi in New York, (you pray to the nearest fire hydrant), or the need to understand how chastity works in a world where many people are unmarried, some are homosexual, and all are bombarded by options without guidance.

The fire of my life needed stoking up, and thanks to the wisdom I have read here I had the time and the timber to do just that.  If you need it to I am sure it will reward you too.



Soul Music

 I Connecting: The Soul’s Quest by Kristina Kaine

People exist as body, soul, and spirit: but we are not fully alive if we don’t understand and nurture all three.

 Apparently it works like this.  “The-I” is my spirit: my spirit is the Artist: my soul is the artwork: my body is the canvas.   My spirit is “the-I” who am when I refer to myself (I/me/ego), it is my real self which is expressed as personality through my soul.   Follow? Hmm.

Kaine argues that if I don’t like who “I” am, then I will try to hide from that.  Addictions and issues with identity arise as I attempt to escape who I am.  In a similar way she sees Autism and the social disconnection of many (young) people in the twenty-first century as loose connections between body and soul.  The spirit is indeed willing, but the rudderless flesh is weak.  To heal ourselves, and our society, we need to reconnect our physical being with our individual souls, and put our unique spirit in charge.  As a school CPS worker I value this insight and the daily exercises for soul restoration in the final chapter; these will spur me to ponder anew the non-physical reasons behind what I daily encounter as a counsellor and chaplain.

This book engages the spiritual seeking of today and acknowledges the activity of the human spirit without reference to religious doctrines or practices.  Kaine embraces a holistic view of humanity, yet she makes no reference to how God acts upon the spirit and soul of a person. It seems that my spirit is what I allow it to be; myself fully alive, and I don’t need supernatural input for that.  I wonder if religion is where “the-I” connects with God: perhaps that’s for the Christian that “I” am to explore.

Who May Ascend?

Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick S. Cheng

 Reading old truths through LGBT eyes

Christian theology at its core is a queer enterprise.   According to Patrick Cheng both queer-theory and the gospel are about breaking down allegedly fixed barriers in the name of radical love.

People who identify as queer have been marginalised by the thinking of previous generations.  Queer Theology as a “transgressively self-conscious” way of thinking seeks a place beside other Post-Colonial, Feminist and Liberation theologies.  Unique to Queer Theology is its definition through sexual relationships.  Queer Theology challenges the “either/or” status of individuals with regard to their gender and uses its perspective to show how the life of Jesus challenged “natural” divisions like divine/human, centre/margin, punishment/forgiveness and death/life.

Cheng reviews the history and development of Queer Theology over the past seven decades and chooses the example of same sex marriage to provide an example of “doing queer theology”.  He examines each stanza of the Apostles’ Creed to rediscover the queer expressions of love of each person of the God who is Love.  Cheng makes extensive use of scripture and quotes widely from openly gay/lesbian theologians and historians to support his views and experiences so that in places Radical Love reads more like an LGBT primer than an alternative worldview.  Perhaps that is the point.  This is a way in to a new way of thinking about God.  At times there were too many footnotes for clear reading, but they would help readers looking to use this book for group study.