Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel

I dread Monday. Why you may ask? Monday mean that I have to begin preparation for next Sunday's sermon. A whole week prep time you ask? Yes, that is, if you want a well crafted, inspiring, and biblical sermon. In the early years of  parish ministry I used to put off my sermon prep till Thursday or sometimes Friday. I kept telling myself, "Oh, I'll get to that later." Well, later never happened. Phone calls, emails, meetings, and family matters always seemed to get in the way. Friday would come and I'd say, "Yikes, I need a sermon for Sunday." Trust me, it ain't fun trying to come up with creative, well crafted thoughts under pressure. Sermon prep takes time. It takes prayer. It takes quiet reflection and meditation on the Word. It takes some homework and some thoughtful imagination. You cannot do all of this in twenty four hours. Trust me, been there and done that. I have heard of pastors who even waited until early Sunday morning to prepare their sermon, now THAT is really crazy!

Chris Neufeld-Erdman is the senior pastor of the University Presbyterian Church and is also a teacher of spirituality courses at Fresno Pacific University. This book, Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel: A Guide for Wise, Empowered Preachers (Cascade Books, 2014) is his latest book.

The book is a collection of a well seasoned pastor, teacher, and preacher. These chapters are not dry academic "theospeak," but enlivened narrative from a man of God who has "been there and done that" thousands of times. He has stood in that pulpit on Sunday morning and preached the good news of salvation. Surely his parishioners love him very much but I also know that they have no idea how much work, struggle, sweat, and tears goes into his preaching. This book is really a one week retreat for seminarians or pastors who want to literally take a week long look at how Chris prepares his sermons. The book literally goes from Monday through Saturday as he explains his regular routine of prayer, reflection, word study, and making connections between the text and life. While reading Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel I wish I had it in year two or three in my ministry, I would have put it to good use. I had to learn the hard way. I was also amazed at how similar my own sermon preparation is to what Chris does, maybe good minds think alike!

Chris has a fine writing style and includes two sample sermons in the back of the book for readers to see a sampling of how he crafts his sermons and what they look like. He also includes a short reading list in the end of the book for those who want to read more.

Chris also adds other types of sermon types in the book such as marriage and funeral sermons too. I appreciated them and laughed when he gives the reader a dose of reality when he says that pastors shouldn't worry too much about the wedding sermon because after all no one, not even the preacher is going to upstage the bride! So true. I also agree that pastors need to preach sermons, the good news about Christ at funerals and not deliver eulogies. Eulogies should be left to family members or friends, the pastor's role is to proclaim the resurrection boldly and without shame.

For more information about this book click here 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review Learning to Walk in the Dark

Last Spring after Easter I tried an experiment. While walking one evening on the road behind our house I decided to close my eyes and "see" would happen. Just for a few minutes of course. It was strange. The road is more or less straight except for a sharp bend at one point and there are few cars that drive on it so I knew I'd be safe. I walked close to the edge of the road so as not to walk in the middle. It was surreal. Every twenty paces or so I opened my eyes just to see where I was on the road. I was also tempted to put my hands in front of me as if I were trying to feel my way through a room, talking about dumb! I tried to walk with my eyes closed to "see" what it might feel like being blind. Of course I am not blind and could never fully identify like that, but I was planning my sermon on the story of the man born blind in John chapter 9 and I wanted to have a similar experience. I wanted to see how it feels like to walk and not know what if anything is in front of you. I wanted to walk trying to figure out where I was headed. I noticed that I heard more birds and heard the wind rush through the Spring wheat. I felt the breeze on my skin and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. My other senses kicked in even though I couldn't see in front of me. Walking in the dark, not so easy. After my mini-experiment I was very grateful for my eyesight even though I now have to use reading glasses, a mandatory purchase after you turn forty I guess!

Dark and darkness is the theme for Barbara Brown Taylor's new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark (Harper One, 2014). I fell in love with Taylor's previous books especially her early sermon collections as well as her recent best-sellers Leaving Church and An Altar in the World. She has such a wonderful writing style, informative and conservational yet provides enough information for the reader to ponder and wonder about long after the first reading. When reading Taylor's books you feel like she is right in the room with you, guiding and leading you along with the material. As a pastor, preacher, and teacher Taylor is certainly using her gifts to share her well earned knowledge with the rest of us. I certainly will use some of her stories and examples in future sermons, maybe even when I return to the man born blind again later this year.

Learning to Walk in the Dark is an exploration of the theme of darkness. Her main thesis is that for many Christians darkness and "the dark" is associated with bad things; the "secular world" (darkness) vs. the Kingdom of God (light), or good (light) vs. bad/evil (darkness), as well as other examples. She says, very funnily I should add, that many Christians live in what she terms "full solar Christianity" which translates as just pray and you'll be fine as well as other self-righteous sayings and behaviors. I never had a full solar Christian experience. My entire life from college to seminary to graduate school to full time parish ministry has been one long walk in the dark. I was comforted reading the Thomas Merton poem that ends the book since someone gave me a copy of that poem long ago and I refer to it often. I do not know what tomorrow will bring or the day after so I must take each day as it comes, the good, the bad, and often the ugly. I am unsure about so many things and even after all these years of parish ministry I have more questions than answers. Taylor reminds her readers that this is perfectly normal. Walking in darkness is not a bad thing, it embraces the mystery of life.

The book is divided into nine chapters each dealing with a particular theme such as dark emotions, walking in a cave, the famous dark night of the soul of John of the Cross, as well as experiencing how the blind feel and act. Perhaps the most scary chapter for me was reading about her experience exploring a cave. I've been on large caverns before on tours but never explored a real cave with water, small rooms, and totally dark. The caves that I have been to were all tourist attractions. I cannot imagine trying to squeeze through those tiny crevices and duck down through those holes. Not only that but Taylor and her guide were talking in the dark expect for their flashlights and head lamps. This was certainly an act of faith on her part.

This is a short book but one that has to be read again and again to get the full effect. I found myself reading quickly and then stopping to re-read the chapter. Learning to Walk in the Dark would also be a good read for a parish book club or adult education class

For more information about Learning to Walk in the Dark click here 

For more information about Barbara Brown Taylor and her other books click here 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review Pastoral Work

I had the honor of hearing Eugene Peterson speak at a Faith and Writing Festival at Calvin College a few years ago. His keynote address garnered several standing ovations at least four that I remember. He stood at the podium and his greying hair and slight smile reminded me that Peterson is a "pastor's pastor." I cannot remember when I found Peterson's work. I think a friend gave me one of his books and I was hooked. Since then I devoured all of at least most of them and recently purchased his translation of the Bible called The Message.  After reading Pastoral Work I would like to re-read Peterson after the Easter season as a reminder of what it means to be a pastor.

Pastoral Work: Engagements with the the Vision of Eugene Peterson (Cascade Books, 2014) is a sort of Festschrift or honorary collection of essays by some well known pastors, writers, and pastoral-theologians: Lillian Daniel, Will Willimon, Anthony Robinson, Stephanie Paulsell, James Howell, and others. The book is edited by Jason Byasee and L. Roger Owens.

When reading these essays Peterson's voice and speech came back to me again. I had forgotten some of the vignettes and stories that he told in his own books and in his memoir. Peterson started out on an academic track studying with Brevard Childs and William Albright. However his academic track got off track when he became an assistant pastor in a parish in White Plains, NY. It was there in the parish where Peterson stayed for most of his ministry, returning to academic work later at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.

Peterson's writings reflect his love for reading, art, and Biblical scholarship as well as his love for the parish. He is the model of a pastoral-theologian, a pastor who has a keen sense of theology and who uses theology to serve the Church.

Pastoral Work reflects Peterson's love of both theology and the Church. The essays include a wide variety of topics from preaching, pastoral vocation, community building, and other such topics. Each essay is a mini reflection on what the author thinks of Peterson and what Peterson's own life and ministry has contributed to congregational life in the 21st Century.

I admire Jason Byassee and L. Roger Owens for their work and thank them for reminding us in the Vineyard that we are not alone. Petersons' writings are here on my shelf to take and read whenever I feel lost, isolated, disgusted, or in need of some reminding of why I followed the Lord's call to be a pastor in the first place.

For more information about Pastoral Work click here 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: Incognito

There are so many memoirs to read and so little time. There are memoirs about overcoming drug addiction, about overcoming eating disorders, memoirs about broken marriages and broken hearts. The list goes on and on and on. However, among memoirs today there is a category which can be labeled as those who are on spiritual seekers or spiritual journeys. Andrea Raynor's new memoir Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School (Howard Books, 2014) is one of them.

Raynor currently serves as a hospice chaplain as well as the chaplain for the Rye Fire Department in Rye, NY. At one time she was the chaplain for the 9/11 morgue in NYC. However, in her earlier life she attended Harvard Divinity School. Her new memoir is her journey of leaving her comfortable home life in Ohio to attend one of America's most prestigious seminaries. It is there, at Harvard where Raynor goes on her journey. She attends Harvard not to be on the ordination route, but to find herself. However, in the end she does get ordained to the ministry.

As someone who also went to seminary I can vouch for the fact that even though many people do attend seminary for ordination, or some other preparation for Church leadership, one does find oneself, usually! How can it be otherwise. After all, you are put into a place with people from different racial and cultural backgrounds, forced to attend chapel together, have common meals, and attend classes.

While at Harvard Raynor works at a local homeless shelter where she volunteers. She also gets involved in a local parish as a seminary assistant and has to deal with parishioners "projecting" emotions and feelings on her (spoiler alert: my jaw dropped with the hot tub scene). But after reading that part twice I had to remind myself that our parishioners often see us through their eyes and do project their feelings, emotions, and thoughts on us too. Sometimes pastors are not so sensitive to that fact.

Raynor has a fine writing style and a good eye for description. Very often I felt like she was right next to me taking me through the mouse ridden Harvard dormitory (which I also couldn't believe, Harvard mice?). Incognito is also funny too. Raynor has a keen eye for humanity and is not afraid to make fun of herself without being self-hating. As a reader I appreciated that very much.

While reading Incognito I wanted to hear more about her classes too. While she mentioned taking classes with Henri Nouwen and a few other big name professors I wanted to know more. I wanted to know if anyone dissuaded her from ministry or whether or not she felt like she wanted to quit. I wanted to find out if anyone didn't like the fact that she was a woman. I know this book took place in the late 1970's and early 1980's but even back then there were not a whole lot of female pastors even in the Methodist Church. Maybe Raynor is saving up for her second memoir, her post seminary years.

Anyway, don't let these small comments dissuade you from reading this book.

For more information about Incognito click here 

For Andrea Raynor's webiste click here 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: Catholic by Choice

As a priest I meet a lot of inquirers, people who are interested in the Church but not sure about joining or not. Some have done a lot of reading and online research and are ready to make the plunge as they say and others are more tentative. Those who do want to join the parish are not really 'converts' as most people think; basically they are changing their affiliation from one Christian body to the next. In all of my years in parish ministry only a few were who I would consider really "converts" in that sense of the word; a conversion from atheism or non-belief to a full fledged Christian. However, spiritual journeys are spiritual journeys and everyone has their own story. My job is not so much to inculcate information to the neophytes but to help form and shape them into the Christian faith.

Richard Cole's new book Catholic by Choice (Loyola Press, 2014) is a memoir about one man's spiritual journey. The book opens up in a Benedictine Monastery in Texas which has "seen better days" according to Cole's description; Quonset huts, aluminum siding falling off the chapel, and an old decrepit dock. His three day getaway retreat begins the stirring of a spiritual journey which leads from basically a chaotic professional and personal life to a life of faith in a Catholic parish. He envisioned the Hilton but what he got was Motel 6! I've been in similar situations where sometimes the amenities at retreat centers are far from comfortable, but as a monk-friend told me, "we do that for a reason, we don't want folks hanging around here too long!" He's probably right. Basically they want you to visit but they also want you to leave too!

I don't want to give too much of the book away but Cole's spiritual journey leads him to get sober, find a work-home balance, and realize that life is more than going, going, going. As a business writer he lands a job writing text for a business website and from what I gather the Boss as she calls sounds like Tiger Mom; bold, brazen, and bossy. Life is not easy at home or at work. Cole's however that being in a parish with three very good parish priests helps him find his peace.

Catholic by Choice is a quick read, his fine writing style combined with funny anecdotes keeps the pages turning. However the last fifty or so pages of dramatic buildup to his being received into the Catholic Church seemed a bit forced and sounded like diary or journal entries. They probably were, but that's okay. This small detraction shouldn't give the reader pause. Cole's journey, is a journey which many people have had or will have one day. I am glad Cole's found the peace that he was so desperately looking for.

I commend Cole's for his honesty and humor. The bibliography and resources at the end of the book are also a nice addition and I was surprised to see that I have read most of the books that he lists which is affirming.

For more information of Catholic by Choice click here 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A 30 Day Retreat on Kindle

I hope everyone is having a good Lent this year. If you are interested in some spiritual reading then look now further. My book, A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Personal Renewal (Paulist Press) is now available on Kindle. You can download your copy today.

See the link below for ordering

I hope everyone has a good week. Take care and be sure to keep checking Walking With God blog for new book reviews and information about the spiritual life.

To order a Kindle version of A 30 Day Retreat click here