Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book Review: Radical Reinvention

Every so often I read a book that I can't put down. Every so often I read a book and say to myself, "Oh my God, I can't believe they just wrote that." Every so often I read a book and want to tell all my friends about it. Radical Reinvention is such a book. After you read this review go order a copy, trust me, you won't be disappointed.

Kaya Oakes' new book, Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012) is a story of leaving and finding, of searching and finding and of faithlessness and hope. While reading Oakes memoir I kept on thinking of Mary Karr's Lit or Nora Gallagher's Resurrection both which deal with similar themes and issues, and both of whom are extremely honest about the Church.

While reading Radical Reinvention we learn that Oakes, like thousands if not millions of people is a "lapsed Catholic." As a pastor I have met many lapsed Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists, and on and on and on. It's really not that uncommon these days for apples to fall from the tree and roll down the hill, and if lucky, to maybe roll back closer to the tree again. Oakes was raised in a Oakland in an Irish Catholic family. Her family of origin sounds very colorful to say the least and while reading I wish she included more of her mother's and father's background and personality. However when writing memoir authors must navigate between the personal and the private.

Yet late in life, during her adult years Oakes finds her way back to the Church. She finds that running away from God can be a difficult thing, just read the book of Jonah or the beginning of Jeremiah if you want some insight! Needless to say she returns to a Church which is unlike her Church of origins. With the reforms of Vatican II and some very pastoral priests she finds her home again. Not only does she join the RCIA group in her parish but she also goes on a short Ignatian Spiritual retreat as well as make a pilgrimage to Italy. She even joins a "pray and bitch" group at Church, all women who spend time in prayer, fellowship, and bitching. I've heard of stitch and bitch groups before but not this type of group.

Oakes has a great writing style. She speaks to the average Joe or Jane, taking time to explain theological terms like creed, confession, retreats, communion, and so forth. Her self-deprecating humor is hillarious and I caught myself laughing out loud in my office especially the stories about her father and grandfather's "theological cursing" --- I'll leave it at that and let the reader find out later!

I was also saddened though because Oakes is very truthful and honest about her return, not is all wonderful. While on the one hand her parish priest is open and welcoming and warm and she meets some hospitable parishioners and even joins a 5am Food Bank outreach program, she also finds a Church that is still in the 19th or even 17th century to say the least. She includes thoughts about ordained ministry, bishops, and gender issues along the way. Yet somehow her faith transcends those issues and she still realizes that the Church is bigger than her. That Jesus called her back home.

I am glad that Oakes wrote this book, although I must say I was mad that I didn't find it sooner! I hope that other "lapsed anybody" will, as St. Augustine heard from the heavens, "take and read" Radical Reinvention. You won't be disappointed. I also hope that clergy read this book too. Some may have a knee-jerk reaction and want to throw it away perhaps, but her insight into the younger generation (Generation Xer's and Millenials) and their thoughts about theology, parish life, and the Church is important. If anything it will make a priest stop and think for a while, which of course is a good thing!

For more information about Radical Reinvention click here 

To visit Kaya's website click here 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: A Town of Empty Rooms

Communion and community are essential parts of life. The famous Roman Catholic monk and writer, Thomas Merton said that "no man is an island" we all need at least someone else, some other person, to share our joys, sorrows, failures, and faults with. While we might like our independence and solitude we also need each other. After reading this book every character in some way or fashion is seeking someone else to share their life with. We are all, as Bender suggests, living in separate rooms, sometimes living separate lives, yet seeking "the other" to make our life more full, more complete, more open. Karen Bender's new book A Town of Empty Rooms (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2013) takes up these themes as she weaves her latest novel.

The story centers around two central characters Serena and Dan Shine a married couple who relocate to Waring, NC, a Civil War port city in NC, i.e Wilmington (my guess). Serena and Dan are Jewish and while in Waring Serena finds her childhood faith again and finds community in a small established synagogue. Bender heats up the plot as Serena gets embroiled in a community argument between the crazy rabbi and the congregation. Needless to say the plot thickens in more ways than one. Very often writers neglect to show the toxic side of religious life, but here Bender pulls no punches, she reveals all the wrinkles, warts, faults, and foibles of this small aging congregation and how a community can turn on one very quickly. I don't want to reveal too much, I'll let you find out for yourselves!

Needless to say the themes of longing and desire are strong too. Bender weaves a tight story around her husband's relationship with his son who bond in Boy Scout activities and the annual Pine Derby race which has a twist of its own. There is plenty of mystery and mayhem in the book especially regarding Forrest, the Shine's crusty curmudgeon neighbor who wants to "put the Christ back into Christmas" in the local school system.

As a pastor and also member of a minority Christian affiliation (Eastern Orthodox) I had strong affinities with Dan and Serena. Also relocating to NC I encountered a very different type of Christianity than I did in the Northeast as I drove around reading similar billboards on the highway as Bender describes in the book "Jesus Saves" or " Are You Born Again" or the typical bumper sticker, "This car will be unmanned in the rapture." Shocking to say the least. By placing Dan and Serena in Waring, NC Bender calls into question what are their core beliefs, Serena winds up being more committed to her faith while Dan not so much, but the interplay between religious rights and tolerance, between faith and politics. This book would be a great discussion piece on the interplay between religion and society as we navigate the personal and the public and the place of religious life in our culture at large.

What made this book a joy to read was not only the plot and character development but the writing. Bender writes strong sentences with fresh metaphors. The last chapter is worth reading again, especially the last five pages which are very moving.

After reading this novel I agree 100% with Bender that even though we might have our own families or co-workers that in the end we do live alone, and sometimes this isolation can be stifling as we see with Forrest and his wife or it can inspire and encourage us to find connection and communion with those around us. I hope that after reading A Town of Empty Rooms readers will find that one person to share their own story!

Kudos for Bender for writing this novel.

For more information about Karen Bender's book A Town of Empty Rooms click here 

To read more about Karen Bender and her writing in general click here 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Book Review Falling Upward

Once in a while a book just grabs me. One of those "I-can't-put-it-down-must-tell-all-my-friends-about-it type of book." Well, I think I found one this past week in Richard Rohr's Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey Bass, 2011). Now I read a lot of spirituality books and many often leave me a bit empty. Falling Upward was just the opposite. It made me want to read more and more and more!

I heard of Father Rohr before but have not ready any of his books until now. He is a Fransiscan priest and runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. A priest and pastor for over forty years Rohr brings the best of family systems, spirituality, and psychology together in one seamless whole.

The basic thrust of this book is quite simple, yet leaves the reader with plenty to think about for the rest of his or her life. In short, Rohr states that the first half of life is spent making a name for ourselves, creating our foundations, building our barns to so speak. We spend a lot of energy in this time of life, some of it fruitless and anxiety causing (trust me, been there, done that!!). Then the second half of life is spent hopefully in detachment, letting go, living more fully in Christ-likeness, yet also falling once in a while. Rohr also says that failing and falling is essential, important in the spiritual life. One cannot grow into a deeper understanding of who we are without first failing. It's hard to fail, heck, we all want to do better, to be the best that we can be, yet Rohr reminds us that Jesus taught us through word and example that being a part of his family means being the least, taking the lowest position, having humility, and being meek. Yet the world teaches us the opposite.

What makes this book stand out among the hundreds if not thousands of spirituality books is his writing style. He writes from his heart. This book does not have endless footnotes nor does it go off track. Each chapter builds upon the previous one. I certainly will read and re-read this book again and not too far in the future either.

I congratulate Father Rohr for his writing ministry and hope that he continues to  fail and fall but at this stage of life he probably can't fall too far!

For more information about Father Rohr and Falling Upward click here 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Book Review: Preparing the Pastors We Need

The parish is changing and there is no doubt about it. Demographics, finances, peoples' interest in congregational life is waning, and there are other factors too. Future pastors and clergy need as much experience as they can get both in and outside of seminary so that they can meet the every increasing challenges in both today's and tomorrow's parish.

George Mason, the senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church has offered us some good food for thought regarding training future pastors in his new book Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregations Role in Training Clergy (Alban Publishing, 2012). This book deals with the practical issues regarding resident clergy training or pastors in training as they are sometimes called. Pastors in training are pastors who take one to two years, sometimes more and sometimes a bit less, to apprentice with a well seasoned pastor and their congregation. This training period, usually after seminary education, provides the practical, pastoral, and formation that they will need before they go out on their own.

Most people think that you learn everything you need in seminary. Well, nothing can be farther from the truth. It is one thing to learn about preaching and homiletics but quite another to stand in front of a congregation week after week, season after season, year after year and preach the good news so that it doesn't sound old and tired. It is one thing to learn about the theology of marriage and weddings but quite another to perform them. This pertains not just to pastors but to lawyers and doctors as well. One can only learn so much in school, you need to have practical hands on training.

Mason outlines in very basic easy to read narratives the steps it takes to set up a training parish program for clergy. He talks about things such as preparing the parish, creating a budget, providing guidelines and goals, to follow up.

Preparing Pastors We Need is a wonderful resource to have as professors, pastors, and lay leaders navigate the bumps, hills, mountains, and valleys of parish life. Hopefully Preparing Pastors We Need will also help seminaries rethink the way that they train future clergy, as we all try to re-equip ourselves for the parish of the 21st century.

For more information about Preparing the Pastors We Need click here 

Also, a Happy New Year to everyone as we celebrate the great gifts of God that He has bestowed upon us this past year and the year to come.