Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Virtual Tours Part 1

Many people would love to visit Christian holy sites in various parts of the world but due to time constraints, higher travel costs, and family and work responsibilities, travel becomes very difficult. However you can always take a virtual tour. What is a virtual tour? A virtual tour is exactly what the phrase says--a virtual tour of holy sites. Now with greater technology the internet provides pictures, videos, and plenty of written information about holy sites of interest.

Today's trip is to the many holy sites in Israel. Sacred Destinations is a wonderful educational website that has plenty of information about the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem as well as in the Galilee area.

Take some time out of your busy life and visit the Holy Land

Monday, July 25, 2011

New Jerusalem Movie

I just found out that there is a new IMAX 3D movie coming out in 2013 called Jerusalem. It is being filmed right now and will be ready for viewing in a few years. The directors are filming aerial shots from across Jerusalem as well as in other parts of the Holy Land. The movie looks very exciting, I cannot wait to see it.

Below is a link to more information about the movie.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review A Will to Lead by William H. Willimon

I came across the writings and sermons of William H. Willimon a few years ago while doing graduate work in pastoral theology. Willimon currently serves as a Methodist bishop in Alabama, but for over twenty years was the Dean at Duke Chapel and instructor of preaching at Duke Divinity School. Willimon is funny, but not just funny for humor's sake, but funny because he speaks the truth. Actually Willimon holds nothing back as the subtitle of the book states, Letters On Leadership From a Peculiar Prophet, and that is the God's honest truth! If anything Willimon doesn't care what people think of him because what he says is audacious.

The collection of short essays are edited blog posts from Willimon's weekly blog that he maintains in order to communicate with his pastors and laity in his district in Alabama. He covers topics such as Advent and Christmas, Women in Ministry, Discipleship, as well as Leadership, and Clergy Issues. A good public speaker may not always be a good writer and a good writer is not always the best public speaker, but after reading a few of Willimon's books and hearing him preach, well, he received a double portion of the Spirit. The book is good, actually it is more than good. I would suggest that a pastor read through this book a few times letting Willimon's words soak into the soul.

Willimon is correct when he says that too many pastors water down the Word of God. We want to make parishioners happy, we want them to like us, to feel good about themselves and about the world around them. Yet the gospel doesn't allow it, we are to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Willimon is right when he says that in many areas the gospel has lost its power not because the Word is weak but pastors are weak, we cave into the whims and cares of the congregation.

Those of us in the Eastern Christian Church could learn a lot from Willimon. Many of us live in our ethnic and religious ghettoes, and sometimes I think we have turned into a sect! One of my very good pastor friends said that he was aghast when he suggested to his parish council that the parish host a free luncheon once a week for the local neighborhood, the response, "Father, we don't want those people in our Church." What? Those people! Those people are the ones that Jesus loved, the poor, the lame, the blind, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the sinners. Yet many parishioners are turned in on themselves, seeking to placate their own egos rather than move out of the boundaries of the parish to the world around them, living what the great preacher and pastor St. John Chrysostom said, "living the liturgy after the liturgy."

If you like Stanley Hauerwas, Eugene Peterson, Marva Dawn, Andrew Purves, and Walter Brueggeman, you will like this new book by Bishop Willimon. As God once said to St. Augustine, "take and read" and read deeply.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Thoughts about Faith, Hope, and Love

Still reading William Sloane Coffin, his writing is "right on" when it comes to the Church and the world. Below are a few more "spiritual gems' to think about in the days and weeks to come.

"Love, and you are a success or not the world thinks so. The highest purpose of Christianity, which is primarily a way of life, not a system of belief, is to love one another. And the first fruit of love is joy, the joy that represents meaning and fulfillment."

"Love measures our stature: the more we love, the bigger we are. There is no smaller package in all the world than that of a man all wrapped up in himself."

"If faith puts us on the road, hope keeps us there."

"I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Some Thoughts About the Life of Faith

Recently I have been reading Credo, a collection of thoughts from William Sloan Coffin, the former Chaplain at Yale University and pastor at Riverside Church in NYC. He was a big supporter of social justice, racial equality, and women's rights. He is a true prophet in all aspects of the word. Below are a few quotes from Credo, some food for thought as we try to follow Jesus better:

We are on the road to heaven if today we walk with God. Eternal life is not a possession conferred at death; it is a present endowment. We live it now and continue it through death. With God, "time is eternity in disguise."

While Adam lived through "summer's parching heat" Jesus died young, but didn't both show us that it is by its content rather than by duration that a lifetime is measured?

It is often said that the Church is a crutch. Of course it's a crutch. What makes you think you don't limp?

The Eucharist quenches my thirst for hope

Local churches, ministers, and laity alike need to be prodded, for we domesticate God's word too soon. Lacking the vigor to deal with big problems, we allow ourselves to become mesmerized by little ones.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Author Interview: Father Michael Plekon

Besides posting regular book reviews and other short insights about the Spiritual life I have been conducting some online author interviews. Recent interviews with authors such as Bishop Seraphim Sigrist and Sarah Sentilles can be found in earlier posts. Today I am including an author interview with a longtime friend, colleague, and mentor Father Michael Plekon. The original interview was conducted on the Eastern Christian Book blog hosted by my friend Adam Deville and he has given me permission to reproduce it here.


Please provide a brief biographical sketch:

MP: I have been teaching at Baruch College of the City University of New York since 1977. We have 18,000 students, with over 110 language groups represented in the academic community, so it’s a very diverse community! I love teaching there—the students are often the first in their families to attend college. They work alongside their courses, many full time. When you discuss the New Testament, for example, it is usual that there will be students from all the world's religious traditions in the class, some hearing the words of Jesus for the first time, all bringing fresh perspectives. We also have a high standard for scholarship and I am always working on one or another publications. I am also a priest in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and am associate at St. Gregory the Theologian Church, Wappingers Falls,NY, alongside my very good friend, the rector, Fr.Alexis Vinogradov, himself a trained and still-practicing architect. I have been at the parish 16 years and had almost 15 years of parish experience before that.

Tell us why you wrote these books:

MP: I am finished with the third in a series of books about holiness in our time. The one yet to be published (forthcoming from UND Press in 2012) is Saints As They Really Are, the title taken from Dorothy Day. This started with Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (U Notre Dame Press, 2002).

There I profiled a number of contemporary holy people, only one of whom has been canonized, viz., Mother Maria Skobtsova--the other being St Seraphim of Sarov, whom I included because of the many characteristics he possessed common to out time. The others—Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, Nicholas Afanasiev, Lev Gillet, Alexander Men, Gregory Krug, while renowned for their scholarship, teaching, spiritual insight, and iconographic gifts, do not fit the traditional categories of sainthood. And this is precisely why I wrote about them, generously using quotes from their writings as well as photos of them. The book got rave reviews and an award, but there was more to be said.Moreover, I did not want to give the impression that only Eastern Orthodox women and men can be saints. Thus, in the sequel, Hidden Holiness (UND Press, 2009),

I used as a point of departure Paul Evdokimov’s comment that in our time, holy people would be both more ordinary and diverse in their
holiness; hence their holiness would be less flamboyant or noticeable. Here I also wanted to listen to a much more diverse set of voices about living the holy life, not just those from my own church. Among those generously cited (and pictured) were Thomas Merton, Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil, Mother Teresa, Charles DeFoucauld, Rowan Williams, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Kathleen Norris, Sara Miles, Darcey Steinke, Dorothy Day, as well as lesser known individuals like Paul Anderson, Joanna Reitlinger and Olga Arsumqaq Michael. One good thing leads to another, though, and there were issues that I should have but could not address in Hidden Holiness. I did question the obsession with “heroic” holiness or the “cult of celebrity,” likewise the formal processes and requirements for canonization. Perhaps the theme stressed most was the universal call to holiness, and closely related, the everyday qualities and possibilities for holy living in our time. Yet there were many issues I did not address such as the destructive potential of institutional religion, the toxic mess we can turn our spiritual lives into, harming others as well as ourselves. In Saints As They Really Are, I tried to address these, again listening to a diverse chorus of voices—Barbara Brown Taylor, Nora Gallagher, Peter Berger, Matthew Kelty, Lauren Winner, Diana Butler Bass, Andrew Krivak, as well as some from the earlier two books and some Carmelites from my own ten years’ experience in that order.

Will you continue writing on these themes or are there other interests?

MP: I am not sure if there will be more writing about holiness and those struggling to live it in the 21st century, but all three volumes as well as my own pastoral experience (and that of colleagues and seminarian interns serving in our parish) have nudged me toward a related project. I am calling it “The Church Has Left the Building,” borrowing a phrase I saw on Religious News Service (RNS). I have asked colleagues and former interns to reflect, in essays, on their experience of parish life and pastoral ministry in the first decade or more of this new century. I think of those who may write, there is well over a hundred years of pastoral experience upon which to reflect, and all have encountered the complex collection of demographic, cultural and social factors challenging the churches now. For example, through no fault of dedicated clergy and laity, there are numerous “redundant” parishes across the churches: parishes in small towns now only a few minutes away from the next parish, also parishes where the economic and social bases have long since disappeared: mills, factories, mines to which immigrants flocked a century or more ago. Also the communities of ethnicity/language have now moved into the third or even fourth generation, with many, actually most “marrying out” of ethnic and denominational roots. Quite contrary to the myth that we continue to suffer from a “priest shortage,” the actual situation of basic church life, that is, parish life, is crying out for clear, insightful commentary. This is what the project hopes to provide through a handful of experienced pastors. It is not going to offer “recipes” for improvement, though clearly the conditions in which many parishes of all church backgrounds are finding themselves do signal a need to return to simplicity of life and the basics of prayer, sacraments, fellowship and service—precisely the characteristics Diana Butler Bass found in a study a decade ago.

Have you been involved in other projects?

MP: Yes, I have. Alongside these books, I have been involved in editing translations of some important studies in ecclesiology and church reform. Last year there was Jerry Ryan’s translation ofToward the Endless Day: The Life of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (UND Press, 2010).

AD: Yes, that was a splendid biography, which I discussed briefly on here last fall. As soon as I read it, I wrote to the editor of Reviews in Religion and Theology telling her of the importance of the book and volunteering to review it, which I then did. The review was published earlier this year. EBS is such a fascinating figure that I wanted to spread the word, and also encourage further discussion of her challenging and important ideas on, e.g., gender.

MP: In addition, I edited Vitaly Permiakov's translation of an important classic in ecclesiology: Nicholas Afanasiev's The Church of the Holy Spirit (UND Press, 2007).

AD: I know it well, and have used it in my courses. My own book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity shows its indebtedness to that book of Afanasiev, especially my conclusion.

Future projects?

MP: One is Antoine Arjakovsky’s The Way: Religious Thinkers of the Russian Emigration in Paris and their Journal, translated by Jerry Ryan, which I edited with John Jillions (UND Press, forthcoming, 2012).

And ahead lies the publication of Hyacinthe Destivelle, The Moscow Council of 1917-1918: The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church, also translated by Jerry Ryan with my editing.

For whom were the books written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

MP: The three books having to do with holiness in our time I aimed at the widest possible audience, trying hard to write accessibly, without jargon, also explaining wherever needed. The same would be true for the Elisabeth Behr-Sigel biography in translation. It’s a nominee for the ForeWord annual awards. I think both the Arjakovsky and Destivelle studies will attract those interested not just in Russian church history and theology but most importantly, in the efforts at renewal and reform in the Eastern Church in the modern era. The Moscow council of 1917-18, never really implemented there, did shape ecclesiastical statutes and structure here in the OCA, as well as in Finland, Japan, the Sourozh diocese in the UK and the Paris/western European archdiocese.

Nicholas Afanasiev’s The Church of the Holy Spirit (UND Press, 2007)

has had a much wider audience, involving theologians of the liturgy, ecclesiologists and ecumenists. Ecumenically minded readers would also have had a great deal to invite them in the three books on holiness, since the effort there was deliberately ecumenical in the writers selected and examined. Now I would hope that “The Church Has Left the Building” will be readable and accessible insofar as the reflections will be personal and based on everyday parish life.

What about your own background led you to the writing of these books?

MP: I think just as it goes with preaching and teaching, so too with scholarly research and writing—you work with what is of great interest and commitment to yourself. Surely, this is the case with every book I have mentioned here. As one who was always intrigued by saints, I wanted to respect and honor the past but look more carefully at the time we live in. Saints are not only for icons or statues or holy cards. Holiness is a gift of God, first and foremost, and only real people, flesh and blood women and men, can be saints! I have had quite a few years on my life deeply involved in the church. I went to minor seminary, gave monastic life a serious try. I have experienced both Eastern and Western church life from the inside, I have great love for the gospel but as with many, I have a lot of strong feelings about what the institutional church has done to distort it, not to mention other atrocities such as clericalism, abuse of those in pastoral care, or the fundamentalism pretending to be traditionalism--addressed in an essay of mine in this collection.

Were there any surprises you discovered in the writing?

More than anything else, research on contemporary holy people as well as those writing about their own efforts to find God keeps showing me that ecclesiastical differences and divisions do not quench the Spirit. God is not the building nor is God the rules or the “culture” of the ecclesiastical community to which we belong. God is beyond all of this yet closer to us than our hearts. God lives with us and gives us the gift of holiness, God’s own life. Let me give you an example. In an online course, I guide students through some of the nastiest, meanest anti-ecumenical writing—not because I honor or agree with any of it but because it is there and in some places and for some people enormously powerful. The rationale then was that students needs to understand how strongly some feel about other Christians having no grace, no church life, sacraments, not even being Christians really, just heretics. All this runs counter to the New Testament as well as what we know and what was written in the first five hundred years of the church’s history. If anything, I have been very pleasantly surprised at seeing what I have been writing about confirmed, for example, in Diarmaid Macculloch’s magisterial Christianity, The First Three Thousand Years (Viking, 2010).

I have also been encouraged to see the swell of support for theologian Elizabeth Johnson in the wake of the heavy-handed criticism and rejection of her recent book, Quest for the Living God.

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

Publishers always ask about this in author’s questionnaires, mostly for marketing purposes. No good ideas are the monopoly of an author. Quite a few people have been writing about the same issues I have looked at, which is why I have listened to, quoted, even pictured so many of them in my books—James Martin, Elizabeth Johnson, Rowan Williams, Barbara Brown Taylor, Mary Karr, Elizabeth Strout, Mary Oliver-- to name just a few.

You’ve been very generous with your comments. Anything to add in closing?

This past spring 2011 semester, as I have done many times in the past, I used materials from my books in my classes at school. Specifically, we read together a number of memoir and autobiographical authors, some of which I had used, others not. The response, as usual, was very good but this time, far deeper, more moving, than I could have expected. Given the diversity of my students as well as the “street smarts” that usually make them personally very guarded, their sharing of their own searches for God, for identity and for meaning in their lives bowled me over—and I have been teaching for a long time! This assured me of something that the last years of working on and writing these books has revealed to me. The world around is ought not to be castigated as secular, immoral, materialistic, promiscuous, corrupting. Rather, it is filled with saints like the summer evening skies are with stars.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Author Interview: Sarah Sentilles

Earlier I posted a book review of Sarah's new book Breaking Up With God (Harper One, 2011) an honest look at her own work and ministry as she prepared for official ministry in the Episcopal Church. Her own faith crisis and journey is an honest look at the difficulties and issues involved with a spiritual journey. While I didn't agree with everything in the book I do think that her honesty and openness about her faith is commendable. Below is an interview with Sarah:

Tell us why you wrote Breaking Up With God? How long did it take to write it?

I was almost an Episcopal priest but now I don’t call myself a Christian. I wrote Breaking Up with God to figure out what happened to my relationship with God. Technically, I wrote the book in two years, but you could also say that it took me my whole life to write this book. The seeds for Breaking Up with God were planted when I wrote A Church of Her Own, which examines the sexism women face when they try to lead churches. My editor for that project made me take out all the parts of the story that were about me and focus instead on the ministers I interviewed. I realized then that I had my own story to tell.

For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

I always joke that I had Oprah in mind when I wrote the book (what writer doesn’t?), but in reality I always try to write imagining my closest friends as my readers. I think this is part of what gives my book an intimate feeling. Several readers have written to me to share that after they read the book they felt as if we were friends, as if we had just had a conversation in their kitchens late into the night. Sometimes I write just for myself, a choice that allows me to take bigger risks with my writing because I don’t worry about what anyone else will think of my words. For this particular book, however, the audience I most often had in mind was the person who is trapped in a faith—or a job, or a relationship, or a home—that is making her feel small and alone and frightened. I hope my book will help her give herself permission to leave, help her know she’s free to go, that she can claim a different kind of God.

Were there any surprises you discovered in the writing? Any painful moments? Any funny ones?

The writing process is filled with surprises for me. I never know what a book will look like until I am finished writing it, which is what makes writing so life-giving and exciting for me. The biggest surprise that came with this book was the revelation that the story I had been telling about why I was not a priest was not the whole story. I had been telling people that I left institutional Christianity because the institutional church was sexist—which is true—but I also left institutional Christianity because my faith in God changed dramatically. I no longer believed what I once believed. I had also been telling people that I lost faith in God, but writing this book I realized that wasn’t exactly right either: I didn’t lose my faith; I left it. I think that’s why the break-up metaphor works so well.

I think the funniest moment writing this book came when I first saw the design for the cover. I happen to love the cover. And at the same time I am a little embarrassed as a feminist that I love the fact that my book has a beautiful model on the cover. I sent my friend Amy Walsh the cover when I saw the first version of it to see what she thought of it, and she reminded me how weird it was to have a model on the cover. She said she wished I was on the cover, which made me laugh, so my husband and I did a fake photo shoot, and remade a version of the cover with me on it. Instead of sitting next to a suitcase, I sat next to my own dirty laundry. And instead of looking beautiful, my hair was all greasy because I’d just gotten back from the gym and I hadn’t yet showered that day. We laughed for days. Amy later sent me an even funnier version of the cover that now hangs on my refrigerator and that is too brilliant to try to describe here.

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a beautiful book called Leaving Church about her decision to leave the church where she was a priest. William Lobdell wrote a book called Losing My Religion about losing faith as a religion reporter for the LA Times. And there are, of course, all the books by the “new atheists”—God Is Not Great and The God Delusion and The End of Faith—but I think my book is very different from those. First, I am not an atheist. I am agnostic. And second, I understand the value of being part of a religious community, and I still very much miss that.

Is there anything in particular that you want readers to learn when reading Breaking Up With God?

That there is more to God than most of us have been taught in church. That faith is an imaginative, constructive, ethical enterprise. That theology matters. That the way we think about God has real effects on the earth and on other human beings. That we are the ones we have been waiting for. In the book I write, “This is my faith: a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us,” and I think that sentence sums up what the book is about.

I also think the book is an invitation, a way to let other people know that they don’t have to stay in faith communities just because they find themselves there by birth or by choice. It’s an invitation to come out—as a seeker, an atheist, an agnostic, a dissatisfied believer, a questioner. Sometimes you know something doesn’t feel right, but you force yourself to stay—whether it’s in a relationship that isn’t working, in a job that is making you miserable, or in a faith community that is making you feel small and scared. That is part of why I figured my faith in God as a romantic relationship. Just like you wouldn’t tell your friend to stay with a partner who hits her, you shouldn’t tell someone to stay with a version of God that makes them sick or scared or impedes her ability to thrive and shine and be her biggest self in the world.

What are you doing now professionally? Are you teaching? Doing more writing?

I am in the beginning stages of three books right now. I’m working on an edited volume with Karen King called Torture and Christianity. I’m working on a book about artists’ responses to torture. And I’m writing a novel based on the true story of a conscientious objector during World War II. I taught courses in critical thinking and art theory at a university when I lived in southern California. I am moving to Portland at the end of the summer and hope to find some teaching opportunities there. I’d love to teach in my field again, which is somewhere at the intersection of religious studies, ethics, visual culture, and theology. At the center of my work is a commit­ment to investigating the roles religious language, images, and practices play in oppression, violence, social transformation, and justice movements.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review: The Spirit's Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry

There are plenty of books written by academic theologians and teachers on the topic of pastoral ministry. Unfortunately many of these books are written by people who have little or no real life experience in the pulpit. These books deal with the theology of ministry as seen in the Scripture or the great Tradition of the Church but have little reference to real people and real lives.

The Spirit's Tether is different. The Spirit's Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry (Alban Publishing, 2011) by Malcolm L. Warford is a book focusing around the lives and ministry of 8 ministers. Warford followed these ministers from their seminary days in Union Seminary in NYC from 1976 to the present. He started his research as a way to get feedback from seminary students about their experiences in seminary. He followed them along their life-travels, including their parish experiences as well as their own personal ups and downs. The Spirit's Tether is not theories about ministry but ministry from the "ground up" told by both men and women who have diligently served in various pastoral settings.

The pastor's included in this volume come from a wide Christian background: Baptist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Episcopal, as well as Brethren. There are men and women, black, white, and hispanic. Some have been married more than once, others have had one spouse. Many have overcome great personal and spiritual battles: cancer, divorce, parish conflict, and other such difficulties. It is amazing to hear their stories. Warford does a very good job weaving their personal narratives into a seamless story about the formation and life of pastors.

I recommend this book for seminary teachers, spiritual directors, and pastoral mentors. These eight lives are witnesses to God's work in the world and in the Church.

Below is the Table of Contents of the Book:

Foreword by Donald W. Shriver, Jr.

Preface: Stories of Work and Calling

Chapter 1: Setting the Context

Chapter 2: Childhood and Formative Events

Chapter 3: Beginning Theological Education

Chapter 4: The Middle Years of Theological Study

Chapter 5: Reassessments and Moving On

Chapter 6: Years in Ministry

Chapter 7: Looking Back and Going Forward

Chapter 8: Summing Up

Afterword by Serene Jones