Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Russia's Uncommon Prophet

I first heard of Father Alexandr Men when I was studying at St. Vladimir's Seminary back in the late 1990's. A few of his sermon collections circulated around the seminary bookstore and in the library, but since I was busy with studies I didn't have much free time for extra reading. I wish I did since Fr. Men is a very important figure in the modern Orthodox world. His sermons, articles, essays, and books have been translated from Russian into English as well as numerous other languages.

Prof. Wallace Daniel, Distinguished Professor of History at Mercer University, has written a very good biography of Fr. Men. Daniel is the author of several books on Russian history and culture, The Orthodox Church and Civil Society in Russia as well as coeditor of Perspectives on Church-State Relations in Russia. I'm sure that his new biography on Men will be read as the definitive biography for some time, it is that good.

Fr. Men was important for many reasons. First and foremost, as the title states, he was a prophetic figure during the Soviet era. He lived during a time of great oppression to the Church, many churches, seminaries, chapels, and monasteries were closed, few clergy serviced parishes, and the laity were ill-educated in basic Church teachings and doctrine. Unlike many pastors, Fr. Men preached the gospel using basic easy to understand language, held secret adult education classes in apartments, and circulated sermons and articles through copying them via a xerox machine and circulating them among his congregation and among friends, what they used to call samizdat. Secondly, he reminded people that there was more to life than this world, more to life in Christ than merely working and serving the Soviet state; he spoke about love, relationship, family, connections; about the role and importance of poetry and literature, music, and art. In many ways Men was a renaissance man.

It was because Men couldn't be controlled by either the Church, which at that time was still very conservative and in some ways controlled or influenced by the Soviet leaders, or by the government which pressured him to stop preaching; that he was mysteriously killed on September 9, 1990 as he left his house to walk a few blocks to the train station.

One of the reasons why this book is so good is that Daniel doesn't merely explain Men through his own writing but describes Men in his own context during a very tumultuous time in Church history. Russian Orthodoxy had a very long and illustrious history in Russia but the Church and its leaders suffered greatly during communism. Daniel highlights Men's contributions as a watershed moment since not too long after Men died Premier Gorbachev rose to power, opening the floodgates and allowing more freedoms in Russia. This book serves as both a mini history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 20th century as well as a biography of a very important Church figure.

If you are interested specifically in the writings of Fr. Men or in modern Orthodox Church history then Uncommon Prophet by Wallace Daniel is for you.

For more information about this book click here 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review Varieties of Gifts

If you are a pastor, or a pastor in training, or are a voyeur and interested in how pastors think, feel, and act from Monday through Saturday then Varieties of Gifts: Multiplicity and the Well-Lived Pastoral Life (Rowan and Littlefield, 2016) is for you. Varieties of Gifts will certainly help you ponder the various identities and roles that pastors exhibit in their life. I know I did. Most of the books that I review are quick reads, but not this one. I kept stopping over and over again pondering the numerous vignettes and stories which Dr. Lindner includes. These stories were not just filler to keep the narrative moving forward, but are essential components for the book and which made me think of my own multiple identities that I carry around with me.

The major premise of this book is that pastors have, like every human being, multiple roles or identities which we exhibit. For example, when folks first meet me and when I tell them that I am an ordained minister they probably put me into one of their mental categories or boxes called “pastor.” They most likely have their own ideas or pre-conceived notions or even prejudices of what I do as a pastor, as in, “He probably just works on Sunday.” Of course we know that is a bunch of baloney, yet that is what many people think.

Yet when digging deeper they will learn that I am also a husband, father, friend, son, author, art lover, gardener, lover of poetry, and so forth. In other words when someone gets to know me they realize I am much more than just an ordained minister and that I have a wide variety of interests and things that I do which I find life-giving.

Lindner’s book is woven around numerous pastoral interviews which she conducted over a period of time. These stories were well told and are food for thought for the reader to return to again and again. The pastors whom she interviewed are also very diverse: men and women, pastors from big city congregations and those who minister in the countryside. She spoke with ministers who have been in parish life for a long time and those for a short time. The wide range of interviews and stories provides the posts or hangers, on which Lindner weaves her main thesis.

While reading I kept thinking of my own multiplicity of identities or roles and how these intersect or sometimes don’t. I kept thinking of older pastors whose primary identity has been that or a priest or pastor, always subjugating their other loves or interests to that of full time parish life. Many of these ministers are deeply conflicted and often angry, they never allowed their other multiple lives to come to the surface and have a voice. Their sole role or identity is that of minister, priest, or pastor, everything else falls by the wayside. 

Yet coming to terms that we lead multiple lives is not easy. I admit that it took me quite a while to come to a deep understanding that at the core of who I am is not merely just a pastor but all of my identities wrapped into one and that all of my roles or identities or gifts as Lindner suggests are all interconnected and foster and encourage my other roles and identities. If I am going to maintain a healthy balance then I need to keep these roles alive and well, otherwise I’ll fall into the trap of having a singular identity.

If you want to give one book to your parish priest or pastor, I encourage you to get a copy of Varieties of Gifts for them, they’ll love it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book Review The Witness of Preaching

Preaching is not an easy task, trust me. After preaching Sunday after Sunday, week after week, month after month, year after year I still find it challenging. I am relieved Sunday afternoon but Monday morning I pick up my Bible again and wonder what I will say the following week. It never ends. Now, it's not all that bad, but I would love to preach every other week or maybe every third week just to let me hear a sermon once in a while rather than always have to deliver one.

For pastors like me who are life-long learners you will enjoy Tom Long's classic book for preaching; The Witness of Preaching (Westminster John Knox, 2016) which is now in its third edition.

I came across the name Tom Long a while after seminary and read a few of his articles and sermons in The Christian Century Magazine. I never had the chance to take one of his classes or seminars but I was lucky enough to hear him preach at a local preaching conference, boy was he good. When he walked into that pulpit I felt that this man knew what he was talking about. His age, together with his many years of teaching and preaching gave him the authority to say, "Thus says the Lord..." I don't remember exactly what he said and that doesn't matter, it was years ago, but what stuck with me was the power of his delivery, his poise in the pulpit, and his booming voice in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest Divinity School.

Most of what I learned about preaching was done piecemeal, a conference here or there and several bookshelves of books which I have read and re-read. This classic book newly revised provides the pastor with food for thought as we continue to proclaim the word of God.

Long tackles the basics such as delivery, the do's and don'ts of crafting a sermon, as well as honesty and vulnerability in the pulpit. I also enjoyed the several sermon selections that are included in the back of the book and which Long actually dissects and exegetes for his readers. It is like watching a play-by-play commentary by the famous football commentator John Madden. Long is there with you in your seat reviewing and commentating on a sermon showing you the good and the not so good of the sermon. I appreciated that very much and would have liked to see several more included in the book.

For those of you who would like a preaching refresher or who never encountered Tom Long before I encourage you to pick up and read The Witness of Preaching, you won't be disappointed.

For more information about The Witness of Preaching click here 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Book Coming in 2017

I wanted to share some good news with everyone. My good friend Prof. Nicholas Denysenko, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in California has a new book coming out in 2017 called Theology and Form: Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America (South Bend, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

I look forward to reading the book and so should you! Check back later next year for ore information.

To read a synopsis of this book click here 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review Preaching the Luminous Word

Preaching is not an easy task. Trust me, as someone who has preached Sunday after Sunday, week in and week out for sixteen years I can attest: preaching is hard work. Why is it so hard? Well for starters as soon as you finish one sermon you have to begin another one. It's also difficult to preach an authentic inspirational and Biblical sermon that sounds fresh and new each week. I must say I do envy larger congregations that have a head pastor and maybe an associate or two which means that one could rotate sermon assignments, do I wish I could preach every other week rather than every week! But alas, pastors rise to the occasion and crack open their Bibles and lectionary notes for the following week and get started once again.

Preaching can be both life-giving and light giving at the same time as the preacher provides fresh insight and words about the Word made flesh. Preaching also can provide light and direction in a world that can often be full of darkness. Ellen Davis, who serves as the Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School, has published a collection of Biblical sermons and homiletical essays that provide both life and light to the preached word. I have come across Prof. Davis' name before, but never had the opportunity to read any of her work or hear her preach. I was both pleased and inspired by this sermon collection and now wish that I heard these sermons live.

I have read a lot of sermons in my life but Prof. Davis' sermons  are some of the best. I found that she has a razor sharp eye on the text and both keeps the reader's attention and focus on the task at hand. Many pastors fall into the trap of including everything in their sermons; details, too many quotes from other sources, and one too many stories. Davis keeps her focus on the Biblical text and therefore keeps her readers or hearers attention on the Biblical text as well. She states in the preface that she enjoys preaching on Proverbs and the Psalms which is also quite unique since many pastors, including myself, feel more comfortable in a narrative section of Scripture, for examples the many stories in 1-2 Kings for  or one of the gospel parables.

Another bonus of this sermon collection are the four homiletical essays that are included:

Witnessing to God in the Midst of Life: Old Testament Preaching 

Holy Preaching: Ethical Interpretation and the Practical Imagination 

Surprised by Wisdom: Preaching Proverbs 

"Here I Am": Preaching Isaiah as a Book of Vocation 

Each of these essays provides much food for thought regarding the craft of preaching. I certainly will read and re-read these essays again as food for my heart, mind, and soul as I continue my own preaching and teaching vocation.

If you are interested in a preacher's preacher and want some good sermons to read and reflect on than pick up a copy of Preaching the Luminous Word, you won't be disappointed.

For more information about this book click here 

Friday, October 7, 2016

New Book Published

I wanted to share the good news that a wonderful new book has been published: The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish, and Ministry in the 21st Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016). Edited by my longtime friend and colleague Michael Plekon together with Maria Gwyn McDowell and Elizabeth Schroeder this diverse and important collection of essays calls into question the roles and structures of parish and congregational life. However, the essays also investigate the intersection of faith and life, ministry and world too.

I don't want to give too much away, but trust me, if you are a pastor or a lay leader who is vaguely interested in parish life go and buy a copy of this book, buy one for yourself, for your pastor, for your friends! You won't be disappointed. I also have an essay in the book too!

For more information about The Church Has Left The Building click here 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review The Eloquence of Grace

I never heard of Joseph Sittler before reading this book. I came across his name online somewhere and decided to read up more about him. I'm glad I did! This new book, edited by James Childs Jr and Richard Lischer with a Foreward by Martin Marty (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012) is a collection of essays and sermons from the famous Lutheran pastor and theologian Joseph Sittler. I included a link to Sittler's Archives below so you can read more about him under the "biography section." Sittler was active in the mid part of the 20th century as a pastor and as a teacher at various seminaries. He lived through the depression, through World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and died in the 1980's. The son of a Lutheran pastor himself, Sittler was well versed in ecclesial life from the ground up. He knew the ups and downs, the good and the bad, of parish life. His first parish was a small tiny country parish so he knew "the salt of the earth people" very well.

While the essays are written a long time ago they seem fresh and timeless. Settler's meta-narrative is God's grace towards creation focusing on the integration and interdependence of the creation and humans, between humanity and ecology, and between God and humankind.

From what I learned from this book is that Sittler was a preacher's preacher as they say, bringing the best of Biblical criticism, exegesis, and knowledge into the pulpit, bridging the pulpit and the pew, the altar and the world together. His sermons are deeply pastoral bringing the best of the gospel to his hearers. This is not an easy task since many theologians have a hard time speaking to the Average Joe or Jane Doe and some pastors have a hard time explaining the Bible in words and phrases which are understandable.

I am glad that I have been introduced to Joseph Sittler and wish I knew about him years ago. The Eloquence of Grace is a book that I will return to again as a breath of fresh air as I continue my own preaching and teaching ministry.

For more information about The Eloquence of Grace click here 

For more information about Joseph Sittler click here