Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: Holy Luck

I have been a longtime fan of Eugene Peterson. I read most if not all of his books. His publishing output is extraordinary and he is an inspiration to both pastors and authors alike. Not only has he written books on parish ministry, vocation, Biblical spirituality, but he also translated the entire Bible! It first started out as a small project, he would translate a few chapters at at time for his congregation. A few chapters turned into a few books and eventually The Message was born. I heard him speak several years ago at a ministry conference and he received several standing ovations after his talk. He is a pastor's pastor! I hope God gives him many more years of writing!

His latest book Holy Luck (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's Publishing, 2013) is Peterson's newest contribution and it is a collection of poems. I cannot believe that Peterson still, after all of his years in teaching and parish ministry still has the stamina and the mind to keep creating.

Holy Luck is not a big book, its rather small at around 90 pages and is organized around three major parts: Holy Luck, The Rustling Grass, and Smooth Stones (Occasional poems). However, these poems are very much like prayers, short, reflective and meditative stanzas that deal with life, death, growing up, death, marriage, and the Church. One could read a few at at time, close the book and spend the rest of the day thinking about them. Poetry for me is a breath of fresh air, bringing new insights to the human condition. Below are just a few that spoke to me as I read them:


The pale winter sun slants
Cool warmth
Across my iced mind
And promises a future thaw.

Four horses thunder through the storm
Of sin's hot hail
And splash apocalyptic colors
On my white-washed sepulcher.

Baptismal rains release blossom
Bursting shrubs and trees
From a cemetery winter
Into a resurrection spring.

Charismatic colors claim the earth.
Every fruit branch swings a censer
Through the air
Floating smells of praise.


Jesse's roots, composted with carcasses
Of dove and lamb, parchments of ox and goat,
Centuries of dried up prayers and bloody
Sacrifice, now bear me gospel fruit.

David's branch fed on kosher soil
Blossoms a messianic flower, and then
Ripen into a kingdom crop, conserving
The fragrance and warmth of spring for winter use.

Holy Spirit, shake our family tree;
Release your ripened fruit to our outstretched arms.

I'd like to see my children sink their teeth
Into promised land pomegranates

And Canaan grapes, bushel gifts of God,
While I skip a grace rope to a Christ tune.

If you like these there are plenty more. Most of his poems are rather short, only about a page or so but they are very beautiful. Poets are lovers of words and since Peterson is both a pastor and a writer he is a lover of words about The Word and how the Word can be expressed in words!

For more information about Holy Luck click here 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: RS Thomas Uncollected Poems

I have a running list of poets that I enjoy among whom are Denise Levertov, Ruth Stone, William Stafford, Billy Collins, and Edward Hirsch among others. I find new poets to read after taking suggestions by friends or if I happen to come across a poem or two in a newspaper or magazine that I like.

I recently came across the poetry of RS Thomas. I was reading a book about parochial ministry in England in which the author quoted several of Thomas' poems on the priesthood. I liked these poems because they focused on the challenges and doubts of pastors. After reading a few of his poems in this book I wanted to read more, so I purchased his Collected Poems 1945-2000 and was not disappointed. Many of his poems deal with farmers, day laborers, technology, and modernism, especially as it pertains to Wales where lived and ministered. However, many of his poems focus on the Church, Christ, ministry, parish life, and vocation. His poems are often dark and full of doubt sometimes bordering on despair. I felt drawn to Thomas because like him I am also a minister and have a small parish. While I do not live in the Welsh countryside I do live in a slightly rural area and enjoy the outdoors. Like Thomas I also question the problem of evil in this world, the interplay between faith and doubt, and the problems of the ministry.

Bloodaxe Books recently published a new collection of Thomas' poems called RS Thomas Uncollected Poems edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies. There are several volumes of Thomas' poetry that have already been published, a volume entitled Collected Poems 1945-1990 as well as a later edition of collected poems called Collected Later Poems 1988-2000. There are also individual compilations of his poems as well. Now we have a volume of previously uncollected poems that first appeared in magazines, journals, or magazines and now appear here together in this handsome volume.

These one hundred and seventy eight poems are arranged chronologically. The editors included a handy bibliography in the back of the book for readers who want to know where these poems first appeared. Like with his other books Thomas draws upon several religious and spiritual themes as we see in the poems below:

Llanddewi Brefi (1948)

One day this summer I will got to Llanddewi
And buy a cottage and stand at the door
In the long evenings, watching the moor
Where the sheep pasture and the shadows fall
Thick as swathes under the sun's blade.
And there I will see somewhere beyond the wall
Of the old church the moles lifting the ground,
And think of the saint's cunning and how he stood
Preaching to the people from his secret mound,
A head's breadth above them, and they silently around.

Sick Child (1993)

We prayed hard;
we believed true.
All I remember
is fair hair, blue
eyes, looking at us
without seeing.

We held hands.
He remained dumb,
the would-be conductor.
Faith's alternating
current was switched on.
We buried her smiling.

Coming True (1979)

Not God, but a feeling of belonging
all places. The water at the Poles
circulates in us as the light does
from the Great Bear. We remember

the future as we anticipate
the past. We watch the weevil
at work as we do the hand
of a great sculptor. We are at home

with violence, but sallying
forth we find ourselves under
a serene sky. We fly our experiments
in the sun's face and the wax does

not melt. The universe is
our parish, and each of us
in his own church with an altar
waiting for the sacrifice of the superstition.

After reading most of his poems now I can see that Thomas did not have an easy faith. His ministry in a small farming village in Wales with its harsh seasons and climate provided the backdrop for his writing ministry. His faith is the faith of Thomas in the Gospel of John a skeptic and doubter. He does not have a quiet faith, but a complex and complicated faith which wrestles with truth, justice, and modernism, very much like Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis. I can imagine Thomas standing at the altar in his parish Church early on a Sunday morning shaking his fist at God demanding answers to his questions!

However, like with most collections these poems are of uneven quality. Most artists create a substantive amount of work but not all of it is noteworthy or of the same value. Needless to say fans and readers of RS Thomas need to purchase a copy of this new volume of Uncollected Poems to round out their  collection of Thomas' poetry. The front cover is also very beautiful showing Thomas' family above and then two pictures of him below, one younger dressed in his clerical attire and then one of him in a suit.

RS Thomas' Uncollected Poems is distributed by Dufour Editions in the United States.

For more information about RS Thomas and his books click here 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Review: Sermons From the National Cathedral

While some families took their summer vacation at the beach, ours did not. My parents loved to travel and after packing the car we set out on our adventures. Adventures they were! I was lucky to have traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard visiting big cities like Montreal and Quebec as well as smaller towns in Rhode Island, Virginia, nad Maryland. One year we visited Washington, DC. I vividly remember walking up and down the Mall as well as visiting the Lincoln Memorial. We also visited the National Cathedral. I do not remember the details but I do remember how small I felt in this large building. It was the first cathedral that I ever visited. I do remember the large vaulted ceilings and the hundreds of rows of pews. Later on in my life I was lucky enough to visit sister cathedrals like Notre Dame, Salisbury, York Minster (my favorite so far), as well as the famous Canterbury Cathedral.

Sermons From the National Cathedral: Soundings For the Journey is a collection of sermons by Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III the former Dean of the Cathedral. His picture is on the cover which itself is simply gorgeous. He is standing in the pulpit which we are told in the book was a gift from the trustees of the Canterbury Cathedral in England. I learned that Lloyd was not only the Dean of the Cathedral but after a few years decided, after much prayer and reflection, that he was called back to parish life. He is now the priest in charge  of Trinity Church in Boston. Ironically he served at Holy Trinity Church before going to the National Cathedral, so in many ways he returned back to his roots. Just that simple fact of saying no to the deanship and all that it entails; prestige, notoriety, media attention, and influence should tell us a lot about this pastor already.  It takes a lot of humility and meekness to turn down a gig like being the Dean of a major cathedral, not just any cathedral but the National Cathedral!

Lloyd's humility comes through on the printed page as well. These are perhaps a selection of hundreds of sermons which he must have delivered and I assume these are probably the better ones or maybe ones that reflect his overarching pastoral ministry. The collection is divided into three parts: Reflections on Faith, Events and Issues, and The Church Year.

As someone who is both a full time pastor and preacher as well as writer I know full well how hard it is, seemingly impossible at times, to offer a word of hope, encouragement, and inspiration on a weekly basis. There are times when I feel high and dry yet I need to muster up a word about The Word to my congregation. Reading these sermons was an act of lectio divina for me, or slow divine or meditative reading.  Sermons are not read like a novel or the front page of the newspaper. Rather, sermons are like poems or prayers. After reading each sermon I took a while and reflected on the words, images, and stories that he told. Serving as the dean of a major cathedral was probably very time consuming and his days were very busy, yet I was surprised at the sheer amount of poems, quotes, and anecdotes that were included in many of his homilies which is a testimony that even a dean of a cathedral still finds time to read and reflect, feeding his own soul so that he can feed others.

I do not have a favorite sermon or story but I did like the sermons in the first part the best. They seemed more immediate, more timely than the others somehow.

If you are a pastor and in need of some inspiration or a serious Christian who likes to read and reflect upon Scripture than look no further than Sermons From the National Cathedral. You won't be disappointed.

For more information about Sermons From the National Cathedral: Soundings for the Journey click here 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Without Apology Sermons for Christ's Church

Several years ago I participated in a three year pastor-theologian program sponsored by Princeton Seminary. Stanley Hauerwas was a guest speaker at one of our summer conferences. Before attending that particular conference I had no idea who Stanley Hauerwas was. A fellow pastor leaned over and told me, "he's a riot." I do not remember who the other speakers were at that conference but I shall never forget Stanley! Wow! He spoke on the Gospel of Matthew, pastoral vocation and ministry and I do recall his line, "The Beatitudes aren't suggestions about our life in Christ, they're commands dammit!" I also remember laughing a lot during his talk too. The humor though wasn't gratuitous, he was not trying to be funny, but he was funny. He was funny because he told the truth in its entirety. In that way he was very much a prophet. I think most of us live in some state of denial about ourselves, about our families, about our friends and co-workers, and especially about our parishes and our churches. The truth often hurts but it is needed. We tend to laugh at those who speak the truth because they are real. I never met Stanley, although I would love to one day, he certainly spoke the truth at our summer conference and he certainly speaks the truth in this sermon collection which was recently published by Church Publishing.

Without Apology is a breath of fresh air. As a longtime pastor and preacher I find myself digging in the same well of Scripture week after week. After a while I wonder how I can preach on this same text, especially Mark's story about Jesus' driving the pigs into the Sea of Galilee or Jesus' parable about the sower. I enjoy reading various sermon collections not only for their content but also how the preacher weaves his or her sermon together; to see how they understand a particular text. I read sermons to be fed too because even pastors need to be fed and nourished on the Word of God. We need to be reminded of our common calling as disciples.

Without Apology is a small book and when it came in the mail I said to myself, "This is it?  Maybe there's a volume two coming soon?" But I was wrong. There is no volume two. This small book packs a punch. My mother always said good things come in small packages and a lot of good things come through in this smallish sermon collection.

The sermons are divided into five parts. The first two parts are the particular places where the sermons were preached; at Holy Family parish in Chapel Hill, NC and in Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville, TN. The other three parts are sermons given at particular occasions such as sermons on the priesthood which were delivered at ordinations or during installations of a new pastor to a parish. The other part are sermons that deal with certain topics like repentance and so forth.

Since I am a parish priest and have worked in the Lord's Vineyard for a while I enjoyed his sermons on the priesthood the most. In his sermons on the priesthood he speaks about the priest working together with the people since we are all members of one another. It is all to often that parishes think that their priest is their hired hand, it's his job to "do the ministry" not ours. However that thinking is simply wrong. Jesus is our sole high priest who invites us to join his priesthood, the priesthood of all believers. Some of us are set apart or ordained to engage in more specific or intentional ministry such as preaching, teaching, and providing pastoral care. The Vineyard is often overgrown with weeds and needs pruning from time to time. There are times for planting and sowing and reaping. More often than not the work is boring, long, and often thankless. Yet we continue. We strive on. We push ahead. Sometimes we wonder whether or not there is an end to al of this since most of what we do is a "work in progress." Ministry is really never finished I guess. Stanley's sermons on the priesthood have kept me going these past few weeks. I thank him for it.

If you are looking for some "pearls of wisdom" to help your preaching or are a longtime fan of Stanley's and want to read more of his work than look no further. His new book Without Apology: Sermons for Christ's Church is just what you need.

For more information about Without Apology: Sermons for Christ's Church click here 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review Contemporary Jewish American Poetry

One may ask why am I reviewing a book on Contemporary Jewish American poetry on a largely Christian Spirituality blog? Well, for starters we cannot forget that fact that Christians have our roots deep in Judaism; the Patriarch Abraham is our ancestor too! We read the Old Testament including the beautiful Psalms which are poems as well as the Book of Proverbs and the Prophets too. Many of our liturgical prayers are based either directly or indirectly on the Old Testament. I often read the writings of the Abraham Heschel on of the most important Jewish thinkers and rabbi's in the twentieth century as well as some of the writings of the Baal Shem Tov and the other ancient rabbinical writers. Their insight into life, into the world is amazing and refreshing.

This book is really a gem of a book and needs to be digested in small doses. Poems are like prayers, they can be read, reflected upon, and re-read a few times before moving on. I found myself numerous times stopping and re-reading poems like the following one by Lori Desrosiers (p. 49):

Grandmother's Hands

Grandmother's hands, veined soft
petticoats she sewed floated whir
on clothes line blowing far aloft
gathered on her arm for the night 

petticoats she sewed floated white
by Ukraine's river long ago
gathered on her arm for the night
a man her family would not know

by Ukraine's river long ago
long brown curls, green eyes glowing
a man her family would not know
gathered her up, skirts blowing

long brown curls, green eyes glowing, 
grasped the ship's rail as wind's gust
gathered her up, skirts blowing
said to leave, but knew she must

children's laundry gently tossed
on clothes line blowing far aloft
gathered clothespins, none were lost
Grandmother's hands, veined, soft.

I just love the way this poem progresses with certain lines repeating, reminds me of the prayers in Church with the triple "Lord have mercies" sung by the choir, a mantra lifting our prayers to heaven.

A lot of the poems of course deal largely with Jewish themes like the Holocaust, Shabbat, the interplay between the sacred and the profane, between earth and heaven, the material and the immaterial. Themes of journey, pilgrimage, of forgiveness, and lament, they are all here, one in the same. As with most poetry I could only read a few at a time, stop and think, and then move on. These poems made me slow down a bit such as the following by Rachel Barenblat (p. 7):

Eating the Apple

The first time
I spoon applesauce

your long shiver
makes me laugh

one bite, then 
you turn away

this new flavor
not yet familiar

in my imagination
I'm introducing you

to mangoes already,
to fresh bread,

halvah and tamales
injera and kimchi

but you're not
ready for difference

or new discovery
hot fists clinging

to the Eden 
you've always known

If you like poetry with deep spiritual themes, if you like poetry that will make you both laugh and cry in the same breath then this new volume of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry is for you. All three hundred poems worth! Do yourself a favor, take this book, a cup of coffee or tea, and read a few of these poems, they'll change your life!

For more information about Bloomsbury's Contemporary Jewish American Poetry Anthology click here 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: Leaving Alexandria

Recently there have been a number of really good spiritual memoirs. Here I think of Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, Mary Karr's Lit, Kate Brakestrup's Here if You Need Me, as well as Kaya Oakes' Radical Reinvention. If you are interested in what I call "hard core spiritual" memoir then these books are a good place to start. What I like about them most is that the author really bares their soul, revealing their dreams as well as their failures, their faults and their foibles together with their joys and sorrows. Some memoirs are just too one sided, especially those written by former pastors or bishops. They become little more than quaint coffee hour anecdotes of their pilgrimages or their talks or books that they wrote. They are big on breadth but little depth. Leaving Alexandria is certainly a deep book.

Richard Holloway's new memoir Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2013) is up their with Mary Karr and Barbara Brown Taylor. He pulls no punches. He tells it like it is. He exposes his joys of ministry as well as the severe problems with it. I found myself stopping at time and trying to find my pen so I could underline passages for further reading.

Holloway is a former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church as well as the former Professor of Divinity and Chairman of the Joint Board of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen.

The memoir follows Holloway's life chronologically. We see glimpses of Holloway at his hometown of Alexandria Scotland just north of Glasgow where he was raised and then to study in an English monastery for the priesthood. It was a hard life at that, chapel services every day, theology classes, homework, projects, papers, all the while living far from home. The title of the book Leaving Alexandria becomes a theme or thread woven through Holloway's life as we see him leaving many Alexandria's; first his hometown, then the monastery school, then the parish, and eventually the Church altogether. It might be shocking for some readers to find out that in the end Holloway struggled very hard with his faith. Many people have a five year old conception of God; a God that just doles out answered prayers like candy. Or even worse they believe in a theology of numbers; one God, Jesus was both God and Man, the three persons of the Trinity, four gospels, and twelve disciples.  Little though or reflection after that. Yet when reading Holloway's story we find that he was a man of intense self reflection and authenticity.

I think what drew me so much to his memoir was that he was extremely authentic. He did not play politics in Church being the nice bishop that everyone wanted him to be. He made tough choices throughout his ministry. One choice was him leaving the UK to come to Boston where he served a parish church for a while.

I found Leaving Alexandria to be refreshing, a breath of fresh air. Here is a man whose entire life was formed and shaped in priestly service. Here was a man who learned and lived theology but at the end walked away from all of it. Thomas Merton, the great Catholic writer and Trappist monk once said that at the end of the day a man must stand alone before God on his own two feet. I find that so true. Whatever you may think of Richard Holloway after reading Alexandria, one thing is certain, he lived according to his heart. His story may not be your story, but it is a good story of one man's deep struggle and journey with God.

To learn more about Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria click here 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Review: Managing Clergy Lives

Before reading you might wonder, why is an Orthodox priest reading a book about Anglican clergy in England? The simple answer is that despite the various differences among Christians across the world there is much that we can learn from one another, especially clergy. When I saw this book I knew that I had to read it.

Managing Clergy Lives: Obedience, Sacrifice, and Intimacy (NY: Bloomsbury, 2013)  is a fascinating read. It is based on a study that was done by Nigel Peyton and Caroline Gatrell. Peyton is the Bishop of Brechin in the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gatrell is a senior lecturer within the Lancaster University Management School. Both of these authors are more than trained to produce such a thought provoking book for ministers like me who are struggling to find our way in the long walk of faith.

Ministry is not easy whether here in the United States or in England. Parishes and missions are closing, finances are drying up, and for the most part we are living in a post Christian culture and as one interviewed priest in the book said it best when he said that the Church is no longer necessary for most folks. So true!

Managing Clergy Lives is divided into six chapters:

In Search of Priesthood
Describing Clergy Lives
Obedient Clergy Bodies
The Sacrifice of Embrace 
Lost Intimacies
Clergy Authenticity 

I found each one of these sections intriguing an caught myself underlining key passages on nearly every page. While reading this book I didn't feel alone anymore, I felt connected with a large community of clergy, just like me who struggle every day with their parish, with their families, with their faith. Managing Clergy Lives includes research based on interviews with fifty rural clergy deans in the UK which of course is a rather small sampling yet at the same time gives us a glimpse into their lives. This book is not just a bunch of numbers and statistics but includes long samples from their interviews too. They interviewed men and women, married, divorced, and single.

These interviews paint a bleak picture for many clergy. Clergy who live in older and run down parish rectories, parishes which are losing both income and members, and the lack of hope for some clergy who are dealing with reduced pensions. These clergy give their lives for their vocation and the challenges are so great. Yet they manage to forge ahead.

Clergy live at the intersection between the Church and the world, between the sacred and the secular, this world and the world to come. Managing Clergy Lives reveals all of the doubts and desires of these clergy yet ends with a message of hope. On the last page the sub-title is "Belonging, Believing, and Becoming." Wow! It's true. Even though we all have doubts about our own faith and the faith of the Church, why bishops act the way they do or why we lack strong leadership we still forge ahead. We still continue to preach the gospel, to baptize, and to marry. We still hear confessions and perform weddings and bury the dead. We console and comfort, we admonish and rebuke. And we do this every day; Advent, Lent, and Ordinary time.

I hope that Managing Clergy Lives is required reading in Anglican seminaries because it provides much food for thought for both the present Church and the future Church as well. Newly ordained clergy will face many challenges but they must realize that they cannot do it alone, Managing Clergy Lives will be a handy resource for the years to come.

For more information about Managing Clergy Lives click here