Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review: Preaching Gospel Essays in Honor of Richard Lischer

When I saw that Cascade Books recently published a volume of essays in honor of the Duke Divinity School's Professor of Homiletics, Richard Lischer, I knew that I had to read it. I was first introduced to Lischer's writings several years ago by a colleague who told me that I just had to read his books. I devoured his memoir Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery (Harmony Publishing,
2002) which recalls his time as a Lutheran pastor in a small town. Lischer is a preacher's preacher, teaching preaching and homiletics at Duke for 37 years. He will be retiring at the end of the Spring 2017 semester.

This volume of essays is a tribute to Prof. Lischer's long and industrious career. The seventeen essays are from former students and colleagues as well as from a diverse Christian spectrum. Each touch on an important aspect of the proclaimed word, and highlight Prof. Lischer's contribution to the field of homiletics. This is not a dry academic assortment of essays which one often finds in volumes such as these. Some of the essays such as Profs.  Stanley Hauerwas and Ellen Davis include not just an essay but sermons as well. As I was reading I thought what a wonderful way to honor a professor of homiletics than by including a few sermons too!

The essays include a wide variety of topics: preaching the Old Testament, social justice and the gospel, the gospel and spirituals, the gospel in the public arena, as well as others.

While some books of essays are arranged topically, this one is not, it would be very hard to do so, given the wide variety and range. Yet they all do share a common thread; every Sunday human preachers with human words help make the Word real and alive for people in the pews, and we do this Sunday after Sunday, year after year, season after season, and it's hard work. However, this work, according to Richard Lischer is not a burden, but a blessing, since we know in the Gospel of John that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. After reading Preaching Gospel I have a lot of gratitude for Prof. Lischer and all of his labors. I never heard Richard Lischer preach in person nor did I have him as a teacher, but I do know that after reading this volume of essays, as well as his own writings and sermons, that I have gained a lot for doing so, and for this I am grateful.

I congratulate the editors who put together this volume of essays and I commend and congratulate Prof. Lischer for his long teaching career. It has born fruit and we are all grateful for that.

For more information about Preaching Gospel: Essays in Honor of Richard Lischer click here 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review: Church Refugees

It's unfortunate, but it happens. It happens all too often. It happens right under our watch. It happens right in front of us but we usually don't notice, or deny that it's happening, but it does. People. Leave. Church. Yes, that is right, folks leave the pews. Sometimes they leave to start a new mission nearby or perhaps a new form of ministry, but people are leaving parishes and congregations. We can deny it but a sociology of religion professor colleague of mine always reminds me that data doesn't lie.

Josh Packard, together with his research assistant Ashleigh Hope have written a short but very good book on the "Dones" as they call them, folks who are done with Church. This is a play on the recent Pew Religion report that speak about the new wave of Millennials and Gen-X'ers who say that they have no religious affiliation. The media have labeled them the "Nones."

Dr. Packard is a professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado and co-director of the Social Research Lab. Ms. Hope is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University and one of Dr. Packard's former students.

Packard and Hope focus their attention on the Dones, the people who were once very faithful, very generous with their time, talent, and treasure, but as the word says, are "done" with Church. At least done with the institutional Church. These are the folks who attended prayer meetings and Bible studies, folks who volunteered for committees and worked with youth groups, but for numerous reasons are done with their local parishes and congregations and done with the institutional Church. These are not overly angry people are bitter, but they are tired of either being yelled at, scolded, or cajoled by clergy and lay leaders. They are tired of giving endlessly yet not being appreciated or affirmed. I guess many of these people are burned out on Church, at least with some aspects of Church life.

A short book review cannot delve into the numerous details which this book provides. However every pastor in ministry needs to read this book since it highlights many reasons why folks leave. Some of which are:

1. Not being valued by their pastors and lay leaders.

2. Being scolded about their Church attendance or lack of giving (One person said that they were even called up years after they left their congregation and the Church was soliciting a donation from them!!!)

3. Being overworked

4. Not being listened to

5. Being scolded and judged

There are more reasons too, but these are the basic ones.

While reading this book I felt sad, sad for those who left, sad of the good things that could have been done if these people stayed.

One would hope that both pastors and lay leaders, seminary faculty and national Church boards could read Church Refugees and learn something. We cannot fix everything that is broken, so much which is broken is systemic to institutional life in general, but we can, take a few helpful hints from Church Refugees and at least be a place of generosity and welcome, a place where folks can find the balm of Gilead and find both holiness and wholeness.

I congratulate Dr. Packard and Ms. Hope for conducting this research and for writing such a fine book. I hope clergy will read it and take heed. There are still folks in our pews and parishes who maybe are on their way to being done with Church, but their not done yet, at least not for now.

For more information about Church Refugees click here 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Book Review Preaching in My Yes Dress

There is a debate in publishing regarding books that are marketed for for a female audience vs. a male audience, the debate largely revolves around covers. Some folks argue that book covers with overly "feminine" themes like beaches, wine glasses, or the like are marketed more towards a female audience than a male audience. Perhaps. I don't know enough really to chime in. However, my hunch is that if Jo Page's new book Preaching in My Yes Dress: Confessions of a Reluctant Pastor (SUNY Press, 2016) was in a window rack at a bookstore few men might be inspired to purchase a copy, after all how many men walk around with an orange dress on the cover? 

Yet don't let an ongoing debate fool you. Yes Jo Page is a minister. Yes this book deals with the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of a woman pastor. Yes this book has a dress on the cover. And yes, this book is worth reading, especially if you are a pastor and have been one for a long time. 

For years Jo Page has served various Lutheran parishes in upstate New York. She has an MFA from the University of Virginia and is a regular contributor to the Albany Times Union newspaper. 

Preaching in My Yes Dress provides the reader with short vignettes from her life. We see her a young girl who grows up Catholic to a woman who seeks ordination in the Lutheran Church, to a woman and mom of two young girls trying to navigate the pastoral life and still maintain a normal family at home. 

I found her life to be intriguing since she is not one of the many pastors who think they have the "God-thing" settled, as in a deep certitude. No. Jo Page is a pastor with a healthy amount of doubt, even questioning why she became a pastor in the first place. One of the funniest chapters is when she meets a mom at a band concert at her daughter's school. Here we see two women, two Christians, yet so very apart from one another, one a woman pastor who is trying to live authentically and a mom who seems to know it all, I found myself chuckling out loud because I have met plenty of people like this in my life. These are the folks who has God in a box. 

While Jo Page is a fine writer and the book is worth reading I kept wondering why she didn't go deeper into her own life? I felt that she skimmed the surface a bit, providing some details but keeping the rest of her life hidden. I wanted to know more about why she became a pastor, I wanted to know more about her marriage and why she got divorced, I wanted to know more about her struggles in the parish and at seminary. I realize that she probably wanted to protect her former husband and former parishioners but one can do this and at the same time provide some background and context to her life. One of my writing teachers always said that one has to dig deep into the marrow of life, allowing the pain and darkness to reach the surface. I thought Ms. Page could have gone deeper at parts. 

If you are interested in the ups and downs of a parish minister then this book is for you. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book Review Cities That Built the Bible

After reading The Cities That Built the Bible the first thought that went through my head was, gee I wish I read this book in seminary. Not only is this book chock full of information but information that I could have used years ago for my preaching and teaching. However, I guess it's better late than never! One thing for certain, I'm glad that I read this book!

The Cities That Built the Bible (Harper One, 2016) provides the reader with a tour of the important locations that are not only mentioned in the Scriptures but that helped form and shaped the Judeo-Christian texts, namely the Old and New Testaments. The author, Robert R. Cargill is an assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa and is the author of several books and many articles on various aspects of the early Christian world.

This book is not a dry boring historical book about ancient cities but a lively almost modern tour through the various locations that are important to the Bible: Nineveh, Babylon, Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Jerusalem, and others just to name a few. Cargill is a great tour guide as he gently leads his readers through the cities, villages, and towns that are important to Sacred Scripture. However, one of the most important things in the book is the historical and cultural world in which the Bible was written. In the opening pages he discusses the various deities, the gods and goddesses mentioned in the Old Testament and where they came from. He also mentions the many languages and language groups that helped shape and form ancient Hebrew and Greek as well as the land and the people from which the Bible was written and whose texts were read.

While reading this book I came across numerous factoids such as the following: that in the entire book of Jonah, we only have one statement from Jonah himself, the rest of the book is about Jonah, but not Jonah's words like we have in Isaiah or Ezekiel for example. While I've read the Book of Jonah many times the fact that Jonah only has one line in the entire four chapters surprised me. Now I'll have to go back and read the entire thing again in a new light.

If you are a serious student of Sacred Scripture and you want to know more about the culture, religion, and politics of the ancient Middle East and don't know where to turn, then go out and get a copy of The Cities That Built the Bible, not only will you learn something, you will certainly want to learn more. Cargill includes a lengthy Bibliography for those who want to dig deep into the sands of time to learn more about the people who wrote these very important texts. He also includes both color and black and white pictures of key places mentioned in the book and which are a very nice addition.

For more information about Prof. Cargill click here 

For more information about The Cities That Built the Bible click here 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Book Review Being Bread

If you are looking for some inspirational reading this spring then you need to read Being Bread by Stephen Muse. Muse is an ordained deacon in the Orthodox Church and is also a licensed pastoral counselor and directs the Pastoral Counselor Training Program and Clinical Services for the D.A and Elizabeth Turner Ministry Resource Center of the Pastoral Institute, Inc. in Columbus, Georgia. Stephen is also the author of numerous books and articles on mental well being and clergy self-care and is a a lecturer and teacher. Needless to say Stephen's own spiritual journey which is fraught with pain and suffering, combined with his many years as a mental health counselor has provided him the background to write this book.

Being Bread is a collection of articles which Stephen wrote for his local newspaper in Columbus as well as articles and talks that he has given in previous venues. Since this book is not a full narrative you can pick it up and at any point find some gems worth reading. The chapter titles alone should tell you something about the book:

Shark Tooth Grace

Pascha in July

Birds on a Wire

Rose of Sharing

Gurus, Stars, and Superheroes

I had the chance to meet Stephen only briefly on two occasions but his warmth, sense of humor, and most importantly, his humanity shines through this book. The theme that connects the chapters is the theme of bread. In the Divine Liturgy we are given the broken bread of Christ and we are given it so that we can become bread for others or as St. John Chrysostom said that we are to live the liturgy after the Liturgy. At the end of the Liturgy we are sent out to do the work of Christ, to be His hands and feet and to share our bread which we have been given with the rest of the world. Our bread multiplies too, while reading the various chapters I kept thinking of Jesus' miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes. This miracle is found in all four gospels and in Matthew's version there are 12 baskets of leftovers, not only did Jesus feed the 5,000 but there was an abundance of bread for later. Jesus gives us so much and yet there is still more!

Being Bread is a quick read, mostly because Stephen is a good writer. Each story flows nicely and is appropriate for the subject matter. One could easily read two or three stories at a time and put the book down for later. The stories end with some questions for reflection which can be used for a small group discussion or for some quality spiritual journaling time. I plan on going back and using the questions for my own journaling time, thinking and ruminating over how I can become bread for others and to be grateful for the bread that I have been given.

Reading this book has reminded me that God is so generous with us that he gives us much more than we need, He gives it so that we can share our abundance with others and even have some leftovers for later.

For more information about Being Bread click here 

To read an interview with Stephen Muse on the Eastern Christian Book Blog click here 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Review Room to Grow: Meditations on Trying to Live as a Christian

Preaching is hard. Actually preaching can be downright impossible at times. Ask any pastor and he will tell you that after a while preaching can be an uphill battle. It can also be a joy, but I've found after many years of ministry it's a lot of work trying to create an inspiring, Biblical, clear, and interesting sermon week after week, month after month, and year after year. There are times when I feel like my words are dry as dust. There are other times when I feel like they are seasoned with salt. Several years ago I got into the habit of reading sermon collections. I have a lot of them, I mean, a lot. I figured if I'm surrounded by great preaching by Will Willimon, Walter Brueggemann, William Sloane Coffin, and others how could I go wrong?  But I've found that if I am going to preach the Word of God that I must hear the Word of God too.

The latest sermon collection that has reached my desk is Martin Copenhaver's new book Room to Grow: Meditations on Trying to Live as a Christian (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015). If you are a pastor and have never heard of Copenhaver before take a few minutes and look him up online. He is a wonderful writer and storyteller and my hunch is that he's a good preacher in person as he is on the page. Copenhaver has written and co-authored a few books the most recent one Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Abingdon, 2014).

In Room to Grow Martin manages to weave together the Biblical narrative at hand with meaningful stories that bring the gospel to life. The writing flows like a river flowing down stream and I found myself turning page. As a writer  I know full well how hard this can be but Copenhaver makes it feel effortless. I often felt like I was sitting in a pew listening to him. Many pastors simply provide an exegesis of the Biblical text thinking that this is a sermon but as one of my seminary professors of Scripture reminded us that the exegesis takes place Monday through Friday, but the sermon on Sunday is not exegesis. I couldn't agree more.

The meditations run the gamut from Psalms, Exodus, Isaiah, Matthew, as well as numerous letters from Paul and also from Acts and Revelation. The book is not organized around a specific theme or themes and neither does it follow the Church year but it is a selection of reflections on how we as sheep can follow the Good Shepherd.

If you are interested in digging deep into the Christian life and thinking about how you can live a life of faith than take and read Room to Grow, hopefully you too will grow into the image and likeness of Christ.

For more information about Room to Grow click here 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book Review Seven Last Words

I'm jealous of Fr. James Martin. Yes, I know that jealousy is a sin, but I guess I'm jealous in a good way. Fr. Martin has a wonderful writing style that cuts through all the unnecessary minutae that can easily distract a reader and gets at the heart of the matter. I'm a slow learner, but hopefully my own writing will be as clear and concise as his. I guess, like all of life, it's a work in progress!

 Fr. Martin's latest book is Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus (NY: Harper One, 2016). This book is a collection of short pastoral reflections on Jesus' seven last words from the cross:

"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." 

"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."

"Woman, here is your son….Here is your mother." 

"My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" 

"I am thirsty." 

"It is finished." 

"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." 

The seven last words are found in various places in the four gospels and in many parishes they have been a source for meditation and reflection on Holy Friday services. This particular collection of meditations were delivered last year at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. 

Holy Friday and Easter Sunday are the highlight or hallmark of the Christian year, but they also contain so many images and themes that it can be overwhelming; I always find it difficult to focus on one particular theme or image.  After all one could meditate on Jesus' betrayal in the Garden of Gethsamane as well as the Resurrected Lord's post-Easter meal with his disciples on the Galilee beach. Or what about John the Beloved Disciple and the Virgin Mary standing at the foot of the cross? 

Yet Fr. Martin reminds us that while these themes and images are important, the one central image is Jesus hanging from the cross on that dark and dismal Friday two thousand years ago. This was a cross that brought death, but also was the gateway to eternal life. 

Don't be fooled by the brevity of this book either. While only 134 pages each page is worth savoring at a slow pace. I found the various stories and anecdotes  book to be very moving. There is one story in the opening chapter about a sister who forgave the person who killed her sister, her sister's husband, and her sister's unborn child. I sat there just thinking of the wide range of emotions, feelings, pain, and anger that the surviving sister must have felt, yet, in the end mustered up enough love to forgive. Forgiveness is the root of our spiritual life, and Fr. Martin reminds us, is a central aspect of the first meditation too. 

The nice thing about Seven Last Words is that it is a book that you can return too every year. So many books on Christian spirituality are either "once and done" you either pass them along to a friend or they are forgotten on your bookshelf. Yet Seven Last Words will certainly serve as a resource for the future as we all grow and develop in Christ. 

About Fr. James Martin, SJ
For those of you who don't know him, Fr. Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large for America Magazine, and the author of numerous books, The Abbey, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.