Book Review of ‘Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit’ by Bob Ekblad

Bob Ekblad. Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit (Burlington, WA: People’s Seminary Press, 2018).

It is a great honor to be asked to read and review an advance copy of Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit by my friend and teacher, Bob Ekblad.

Bob and I first met fourteen years ago, when I was a seminarian at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. It was through his classes that I began to discern my sense of call to ordained ministry. I walked into his class with one career plan and walked out with another. Over the intervening decade and a half, Bob’s ideas have continually influenced the shape, location, and direction of my ministry as a substance abuse counselor, street chaplain, and pastor to a congregation of mentally disabled people.

Click here to read a blog post on how I have made use of Bob’s methods in my own ministry setting.

Bob taught me how to read the Bible with a new set of eyes. I had previously approached the Scriptures as a compendium of morals and doctrines. Bob showed me how to encounter and inhabit the Bible as a treasury of liberating news for people who live outside the bounds of institutional religion.

Guerrilla Gospel is a follow-up to Bob’s earlier book, Reading the Bible with the Damned (WJK: 2005). Both books present the sound theological basis for Bob’s method of biblical interpretation and illustrate the process with copious personal stories. Readers will derive the most benefit by perusing both books, though either one can stand on its own merit.

While Reading the Bible with the Damned focused on the theological framework, Guerrilla Gospel gets down to the nitty-gritty details of preparing and leading Bible studies with marginalized people. With its more practical emphasis, Guerrilla Gospel answers my one remaining question after finishing Reading the Bible with the Damned: “How do I actually do this?”

Clergy will find much in this book that is familiar from seminary courses in biblical exegesis, and will benefit from seeing how Bob applies these study methods in ministry contexts outside the institutional church. Lay leaders will also find in Guerrilla Gospel a thorough, yet accessible, crash-course in biblical interpretation. I would recommend this book for anyone seeking to start a Bible study in a traditional church setting, but especially for those who practice their ministry in marginal places like jails, prisons, drug rehabs, and homeless shelters. Hopefully, those who read Guerrilla Gospel from within the institutional church will be inspired to reach out and find the Spirit present and active in unexpected places. Believe me, you will be glad you did.

One of Bob’s greatest gifts is the way he so skillfully navigates the convergence of disparate streams of Christian thought. There is something in this book for almost everyone. Evangelicals will connect with Bob’s deep love of Scripture, charismatics with his openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, contemplatives with his explications of centering prayer and monastic spirituality, academics with his erudite scholarship, and social justice activists with his background in liberation theology.

At the same time, Bob’s unique theological location guarantees that Guerrilla Gospel also has something to make everyone uncomfortable. Readers of all theological stripes should come prepared for a challenge to their unconscious biases and assumptions. Wise and discerning readers will remain open to having their horizons expanded.

As a high-church Episcopalian, the one thing I would have liked to read more about in Guerrilla Gospel is the role of the Sacraments in ministry contexts like Bob’s. To be sure, the subject is not entirely absent. Another of his previous books, A New Christian Manifesto: Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom of God (WJK: 2008), has an amazing chapter on Baptism. Personal stories from his several books, including Guerrilla Gospel, frequently touch on the topics of healing (Unction), confession of sin (Reconciliation), family relationships (Matrimony), personal commitment (Confirmation), and ‘deputizing’ for ministry (Ordination) from a less formal perspective. In a future book, I would be very interested to read more about the ways Bob has witnessed the Holy Spirit liberating ministry through the celebration of the Eucharist, and what its theological implications are for margins and mainstream alike.

Whether the reader is clergy or laity, evangelical or progressive, contemplative or charismatic, leading ministries of education within the church or outreach beyond the church, Bob Ekblad’s Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit has something to inspire, inform, comfort, and challenge anyone who wants to be part of Jesus’ liberating movement on earth.

Also by Bob Ekblad:

Further reading:

No Sheep Left Behind

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical text.

[NOTE: This sermon is being preached as a dialogue with the congregation. Wherever you see questions asked, feel free to answer them in your own way. I must give credit to my beloved seminary professor, Bob Ekblad, who taught me this method and trained me to use it with this very passage of Scripture.]

Have you ever lost something that was precious to you?

What was it like when you found it?

In today’s reading, Jesus tells two stories about something that got lost: a sheep and a coin. Both stories repeat the same theme, so we’re going to focus on the first one about the lost sheep.

The stage for these stories is set with a scene from Jesus’ life. In this scene, there are two groups of people interacting with Jesus. Can you identify them in the text?

The first group is the tax collectors and sinners. These are the people who were regarded as delinquents and outcasts from society. They were not generally welcome in the religious community. Tax collectors were “bottom-feeders”. They worked for the occupying Roman government to exact tolls on goods and services from fellow Jews. Not only that, they would also commonly overcharge people on their taxes and keeping the extra for themselves. Most people regarded tax collectors as traitors and cheats. They were the lowest of the low.

In today’s terms, what categories of people can you think of who occupy a similar place in our society?

Try replacing the words “tax collectors and sinners” in the text with the categories you just thought of.

The second group is the Pharisees and scribes. These are the people who were very educated, respected, and religious. Again, what categories of people can you think of who occupy that kind of space in today’s society?

Try replacing “Pharisees and scribes” with those words and see how it sounds:

“Now all the _____ and _____ were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the _____ and the _____ were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

The Pharisees and scribes were offended that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. Eating dinner with someone, in that culture, was a sign of total acceptance of that person. Why do you think the Pharisees and scribes were so offended by that?

Jesus responds to their complaining by tell them this story:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

According to the words in this text, what does the lost sheep have to do in order to be found by the shepherd?

Does it say that the lost sheep finally got its act together and found its own way back to the sheepfold? Does it say that the lost sheep had to cry out sincerely, all day and all night, until the shepherd took pity and reluctantly let it back inside? Does the text say any of those things?

Next question: How does the shepherd react when the sheep is finally found? Was he angry? Did he beat or scold the lost sheep? Did he leave it alone to die in the wilderness because it was such a bad sheep?

                Let’s look again at the text:

“When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”

He rejoices. The shepherd comes looking for the lost sheep, finds it, carries it home on his shoulders, and rejoices.

According to Jesus, this is an image of the way God relates to us. Sadly, this image looks very different from the image of God that many people encounter in Christian churches today. Many people come to church and end up hearing some kind of “turn or burn” theology that threatens eternal punishment for those who do not conform to a particular interpretation of Christian beliefs and morals.

The word Gospel is supposed to mean “good news” but that kind of gospel is neither good nor news. The gospel that Jesus preaches and embodies, on the other hand, is good news.

It is good news for the “lost sheep” of this world, those who exist outside traditional religious institutions, because it presents them with the image of a God who loves them, who is searching for them, who will not stop until he finds them, and who takes them in his arms rejoicing. Tax collectors and sinners are naturally attracted to this kind of God, just as they were naturally attracted to Jesus while he walked on this earth.

This gospel is also good news for the “sheep in the fold”. It reminds us that the God we worship is not some harsh, demanding bookkeeper who looks over our shoulder all day, just waiting for us to make a mistake so he can punish us forever.

The good news is that the shepherd is out searching for all one hundred sheep, not just the few who obviously wandered away. And God’s attitude toward every sheep is the same, when he finds it:

“He lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.”

In the very last sentence of this story, Jesus mentions the word Repent. Some might think this is a prerequisite for receiving grace, but I don’t think Jesus meant it that way.

The word Repent, in Greek, is Metanoia. It literally means “To think differently.”

I think Jesus is inviting all of us, lost sheep and sheep in the fold alike, to think differently about God and the way God relates to us in the world. For this shepherd, there are no outsiders, no one who isn’t worth traveling over hill and dale to find in the wilderness.

God is seeking us, all of us, and will not stop until each of us is found. And when we are found, Jesus the Good Shepherd lays us on his shoulders and carries us home rejoicing.

This is the Gospel. It is good news that is both good and news. It is a Gospel worth believing in because the God of this Gospel believes in us. Thanks be to God.

(Reblog) I am Not Charlie: a Christian response to the killings in Paris

This is a reblog of an article by my seminary professor, Bob Ekblad:

I was deeply troubled by news of this week’s killings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, France’s beloved satirical newspaper, by two French Muslim brothers of Algerian descent, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi. I’ve been haunted by footage I saw of these gunmen’s shooting of a police officer in cold blood on a Parisian street where our good friends live and where we regularly stay. The killing of four hostages in the Jewish kosher grocery store by another jihadist activist, followed by the French police’s shooting of all three gunmen, has made this a traumatic week for France and the world.

Should we be surprised by these killings? Offense, resentment, and shame carried by many young Muslim men and others on the margins today incite rage. In this case, the rage is directed against the dishonoring gaze and mocking words of journalism that appears to consider nothing sacred, except free speech.

Click here to read the full article on Bob’s blog

Wetbacks: Following El Buen Coyote

Image by Manfred Werner. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Image by Manfred Werner. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Reading Jesus as a coyote who brings us into God’s reign against the law at no charge, or presenting baptism as making us all equally “wetback” strangers and aliens, are understandings coming directly out of years of working with undocumented immigrants struggling with the constant reality of possible deportation…

Reading Paul with undocumented immigrants, inmates, and “criminal aliens” cam clearly bring new life to worn-out texts.  Reading these Scripture passages in a way that holds onto the radical grace that infuses them requires faith and risk.  Though I am fully aware of other texts that emphasize the importance of being subject to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7) and of walking by the Spirit and not by the flesh (Gal. 5:16-26), I do not believe that people always need to be presented with the “whole picture.”  Most people on society’s margins assume the Scriptures are only about lists of dos and don’ts and calls to compliance.  Reading with people whose social standing, family of origin, addictions, criminal history, and other factors make compliance with civil laws or scriptural teachings impossible requires a deliberate reading for and acting by grace.  The good news alone must be seized by faith as having the power to save, heal, deliver, and liberate.  This good news is no one other than Jesus Christ himself, who meets us through the words of Scripture and the sacraments, and through the flesh of his family of buen coyote followers.

Rev. Dr. Bob Ekblad, Reading the Bible With the Damned, p. 179-180, 195-196

 

The Immigrant Apostles’ Creed

Rio Grande on the USA-Mexico Border. Image by Bob Palin. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Rio Grande on the USA-Mexico Border. Image by Bob Palin. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

This was posted to Facebook by Neal Presa, the current moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I’m told it was originally written by Rev. Jose Luis Casal.  Fruitful theological food for thought for anyone who cares about USA immigration policies.

Also worth reading on this subject is this sample chapter from Reading the Bible With the Damned by Bob Ekblad:

FOLLOWING JESUS, EL BUEN COYOTE: READING PAUL WITH UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS

And here is the Immigrant Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in Almighty God,
who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home, who fled
his country with his parents when his life was in danger.
When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power. Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.
I believe that the Church is the secure home
for foreigners and for all believers.
I believe that the communion of saints begins
when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.
I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God,
and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.
I believe that in the Resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner
but all will be citizens of the kingdom
where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.

Tierra Nueva in the News

I love it when I get to advertise for my friends and their ministry work, especially when said work is being done at Tierra Nueva, an ecumenical outreach organization in western Washington state.

Tierra Nueva played a major role in my discernment process when I was preparing for pastoral ministry. It was there that I had two major “moments” of realization about myself and my life.  To tell that story now would detract from this being a post about these remarkable friends of mine.

In the past couple of weeks, two “arms” of Tierra Nueva’s ministry have been featured on my denomination’s national website.  The first is Chris Hoke and his work as a chaplain for gang members.  The second is Amy Muia and her work of establishing a halfway house for women in recovery.  Both of these articles are worth reading and both ministries are worth supporting.

Jail Break

Prayer is Like Medicine

Their founder and director, Bob Ekblad, is a sessional lecturer at Regent College, where I went to seminary.  Bob was, without a doubt, my favorite professor there.  I first met him as a student in his class, Reading the Bible With the Damned.  Shortly after I took the class, Bob wrote a book with the same title, published by Westminster John Knox.  You can order that book on Amazon by clicking here.

These are my friends and I’m proud to know them.

 

 

 

You Always Have the Poor With You

Since I have been on vacation this week, I was not present at our Thursday night Bible study as usual.  Because of this, my musings on this week’s gospel text are my own, and not enriched by the insights of our community at St. James Mission.

Our text this week is taken from John 12:1-8.

First of all, you should know that I love my job as Community Chaplain.  Even though the position does not (yet) come with a paycheck, it has its own dividends that cannot be quantified.  However, even in the best of jobs, there comes a time when one could use a vacation.

For the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that my capacity for Rogerian “unconditional positive regard” has been stretched to its limit.  At times, I have abandoned my usual non-directive stance in favor of speaking my mind.  One case that stands out concerns a friend who expressed a desire to enter rehab and then refused to go after I made the referral and followed up with him every day for a week.  Instead of letting it go, I gave him the cursory lecture on how alcoholism at his stage is fatal if left untreated.  Maybe it was tough love, maybe it was me giving voice to my own frustration.  Either way, I think I heard Carl Rogers spinning in his grave just then.

“You always have the poor with you”.  These words of Christ have stuck in my mind all week.  I hate how often they are used by Christians who want to excuse themselves from working for social justice.  Nevertheless, I felt the power of these words in a new way as I slammed up against the walls and limitations of my own finite love.

My friends Adria and Bob like to remind me that ministry in the margins cannot be based on the never-ending chasm of need that opens up before me.  If my success depends on someone else’s ability to change, I’m going to be a very unhappy person.  One day at a time, I am learning how to measure my success by my faithfulness to the one who has called me to love and serve the “least of these” in his name.  Contrary to the opinion of some Christians, this awareness does not excuse me from engaging with the poor.  Instead, it puts the fight against poverty and injustice into perspective.  We are not called to care for the poor in order to make a perfect society.  Neither are we called to admire them for their nobility.  We are called to love the poor because they are Christ.

As I head back into my regular routine this week, I pray for the eyes of my heart to be opened, that I might see my Savior in these dirty streets.  I pray that, like Mary of Bethany, my offering would reach beyond the social problems that surround me and touch the sacred heart of Christ.  To be clear, I fully intend to stay engaged with those who dwell in the margins of our society.  Indeed, I can do no other, since the one who said, “You always have the poor with you,” has also said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  But what I want is for my engagement in the margins to be a means through which I see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day.