Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Joseph the Betrothed

By now most of us have our presents wrapped, cookies baked, and tree trimmed and glistening with lights. Well, at least some of us do. The other day I saw a zillion people in the store doing some last minute shopping. Oh well, there still are a few more days until Christmas..........

I always felt bad for St. Joseph, whom in the Eastern Church we called Joseph the Betrothed. He gets very little "air time" in the gospels. He is mentioned only a few times in Matthew 1-2 and then that's it. At Christmas we tend to focus on the Magi, or the Shepherds, or Mary, but what about Joseph?

I hope that your cookies don't burn and your cakes rise and your presents are wrapped without too much trouble!

Friday, December 10, 2010

O Little Town of Bethlehem .........

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit Bethlehem, the birth place of our Lord. I had no idea what to expect but boy were my eyes opened! I cannot go into all the details but Bethlehem (which in Hebrew means the house of bread) is in the West Bank in Israel. Suffice it to say people there are extremely poor and their are few jobs and opportunities for young people. Basically Palestinians living in Bethlehem have little chance of improving their lives, at least under the current situation.

As we go through the Advent Season take time to pray for Christians here and throughout the world who are being persecuted or who lack resources. Think of those who are less fortunate than us, those without home or shelter, those who lack food and education.

Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, but also a time when we reach out to those around us who need some joy and peace in their lives .

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Book Review: Christmas: Festival of Incarnation

Christmas is coming, Christmas is coming! Yep, I enjoy Christmas carols, trimming the tree, shopping for presents (not wrapping them though!), and everything else that comes with the Christmas season. There is nothing like taking a drive to a local Christmas tree farm and cutting down your own Frazier Fir for the house. Thanks to the work of Prof. Donald Heinz we have a thorough introduction to the "reason for the season" of Christmas: the incarnation of the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Christmas: Festival of Incarnation (Fortress, 2010) is a lovely book, the cover is very attractive as well, an angel fresco from Italy invites the reader to ponder and peruse Heinz's commentary on the problems, misunderstandings, and issues involving the Christmas season. Fortress Press has done a great job with this book and I hope readers will agree, this book is a must read during the holiday season.

Heinz, a professor of religious studies at California State at Chico. He takes the reader through several layers of the holiday season including the birth and infancy narratives in Luke 2 and Matthew 1-2, the history and development of the Christmas holiday, the cultural and societal issues regarding the holiday such as the desacrilization and resacrilization of Christmas as well as some interesting tidbits and facts surrounding Christmas such as the term "wassailing" comes from the German words which mean "sing for food/drink" or that peacocks were a delicacy during the Christmas dinner feast in some aristocratic circles.

Christmas: Festival of Incarnation is a comprehensive look at Christmas. These eleven chapters are packed with information about how Christmas was celebrated in 19th century England as well as in modern America. Heinz considers the music, art, and stories about Christmas as well. I didn't know for example that Christmas was out-lawed in Puritan New England for several years or that the major push for Christmas shopping and the secular reduction of Christmas started just after WWII.

If you want to give someone a book this Christmas, a book that deals with the "reason for the season" then give them Christmas: Festival of Incarnation.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue

My friend Dr. Adam Deville, professor of theology at St. Francis University, is pleased to announce his new book on Orthodox-Catholic dialogue published by University of Notre Dame Press (March 2011). Adam is a top notch scholar in the field of ecumenism and his new book, a revision of his doctoral dissertation will be an important piece of the continued discussion of the 1995 Papal Encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

The late Pope John II often said that the Church must breathe with both of Her lungs, both East and West, and hopefully Deville's book will be a breath of fresh air as Catholic and Orthodox continue to seek unity.

I look forward to reviewing Dr. Deville's book on my blog at at later date.

As we pray in the Divine Liturgy for the "union of all" may we always strive to seek peace, concord, and unity among Christians. Hopefully we can all be ambassadors of unity.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

St. Nicholas is coming.........

Next Monday (Dec. 6) Christians around the world will be celebrating the life and ministry of St. Nicholas, the fourth century saint and caregiver of the poor. St. Nicholas is the precursor to Santa Claus. Not much is known about St. Nicholas but stories have been handed down through the generations revealing his devotion to charity and care for the poor, orphan, and widow.

Wishing everyone a good Advent season and remember to help those who are less fortunate than you are. Pray for those in need. Help those who need help. Reach out to those who are suffering. Life is too short, we all need to help one another.

Hymn to St. Nicholas

You were revealed to your flock
as a measure of faith.
You were the image of humility
and a teacher of self-control.
Because of your humble life,
heaven was opened to you.
Because of your poverty,
spiritual riches were granted to you. O holy Bishop Nicholas
we cry out to you:
Pray to Christ our God
that our souls may be saved.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

O Come O Come Emmanuel.........

Well, today is December 1 and Christmas is just around the corner. While those of us in the Eastern Church have been in the season of Advent since November 15 our Western friends are just beginning their Advent season. I wish everyone a peaceful and wonderful Advent season as Christians around the world prepare for the birth of Christ.

One of my favorite Christmas hymns from the West is the old Latin hymn Veni, Veni Emmanuel which translates as O Come O Come Emmanuel.......which is often heard by choirs and carolers. It is a beautiful theological hymn reminding us of God's salvation in Christ.

Below are the lyrics for the hymn. The hymn is part of the O Antiphons sung in the Western Church during Vespers. You can learn more about that in the link below. There are a series of hymns beginning with "O" therefore the name "O Antiphons"

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Helping Those In Need

December means that the Advent Season is now upon us. Advent is a time when Christians prepare for Jesus' birth which we celebrate on December 25. A lot of people use the Advent season as a way to help those in need. Advent is a time for caring and sharing. Many of us will be collecting food or clothing for the homeless or food for the hungry. We will probably hear sermons about love and caring for the less fortunate. It is important to take our faith seriously, love is a verb, it requires action. We just don't love abstractly, we love in concrete ways: a meal, a jacket, some money.

Each day during the Advent season take a few minutes out of your busy day and pray for those in need; pray for the homeless, the hungry, the orphan, or the widow. Pray for those who are jobless and hopeless. Share your love with those who have no love.

Below is a partial list of some well known national charitable organizations. Take some time and look at their websites and see how you can help them. Each of us can share our God given time, talents, and treasures with those who have none.

Click on each charity to learn more about them:

What are some of your favorite charities? Leave your list in the comment box along with a link to them and in a few days I will add these to this list.

May we always strive to serve both God and neighbor!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Review Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters

I am a big Merton fan. When I was in college I devoured many of his books, especially his spiritual biography The Seven Storey Mountain as well as Contemplative Prayer. Throughout the years many publishers have released various collections of his writings, namely his journals and letters. The Merton Center, hosted at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY has over 20,000 of Merton's letters, both the letters that Merton wrote as well as the ones that he received from fans or from business associates or friends. This latest paperback edition published by Ave Maria Press is a nice collection of a selection of Merton's letters and is a welcome resource for newcomers to Merton or longtime Merton fans.

This new paperback edition is identical to the hardcover edition published last year by HarperOne and edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen. The letters are organized by topics such as: monastic living, the writing life, culture, peace and war, and various letters on the state of the Catholic Church.

The letters reveal not just Merton the longtime Trappist monk, but the human Merton, the Merton who struggles with his faith, the Church, living the solitary life, as well as seeking forgiveness and love in a world in which war and power rules. People are drawn to Merton first and foremost because he was a real person. So much of contemporary spiritual writing is what I called "sugary spirituality" which offers readers pleasant platitudes or cliched spiritual aphorisms which don't offer much. Reading Merton is like sitting down to a three course dinner. When reading the letters we see the ride range of longtime friendships that he maintained such as: Dorothy Day, Catherine de hueck Daughtery, a well as the French Catholic philosopher and writer Jacques Maritaan and his wife Raiisa, as well as poets, writers, and artists. While living a cloistered solitary life far from family and society Merton's letters reveal a person who was very much connected to the world around him. The letters reveal a man who was widely read, not just in Catholic theology but in Orthodox and Protestant theology as well as in art, music, and other world religions. We see Merton struggling with his Abbot James Fox as well as living in a large monastery with all the trials and tribulations of what that type of living presents. We see a man struggling with love and intimacy as well as his own faith in God.

I encourage newbies to Merton's writings to take and read Ave Maria's new paperback edition of A Life in Letters. Those who are diehard Merton fans won't find much new in this book, but they might want a copy to fill the Merton section on their bookshelves.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone

Just wanted to wish everyone a good Turkey Day. I hope your day is peaceful and restful surrounded by family and friends.

On this day I am thankful for:





A government which provides us freedom and safety


All those turkey's out there who sacrificed their lives for millions of Americans (I couldn't resist that one!!)

What are you thankful for on this Thanksgiving?????????

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review: Come Sunday by Isla Morley

I usually have four to five books sitting by my comfy blue office chair at a time. Depending on the mood that I am in I will read one book, then another, and then hopefully finish at least one during the month! When I saw an advertisement of Come Sunday by Isla Morley (Picador, 2009) in the Fall issue of Poets and Writers Magazine I knew that I had to read this book; and as I thought, I stayed up late to finish it, there was no way I was going to go to bed and not read to the end!

The two main characters, Greg, a Methodist pastor and his wife Abbe live in Hawaii. Abbe is a transplant from South Africa and is working as a freelance writer before meeting her husband to be. They have one child named Cleo who is killed in a car accident.

Needless to say once you start reading you can't stop. Come Sunday is a page turner, we follow Greg and Abbe as they mourn both their dead child and their soon to be dead marriage. Greg eventually takes a parish in Fresno, CA, leaving his parish, house, and wife behind. We follow Abbe as she visits her native Paarl South Africa where she deals with her difficult past, her alcoholic father and battered mother. We see the racial divide of South Africa as well as the sheer stark beauty.

Morley is truly a wordsmith. The writing is gorgeous and the sentences are crisp, there are no cliches in this book! Likewise the story revolves around the liturgical year beginning on Good Friday and ending on the Feast of Ascension a year later. This structure provides ample meaning as the turns of events hinge on certain feast days in the Church, drawing from their theology and context.

Come Sunday was not an easy read. Many times I caught myself getting mad at Morley because I didn't like the way the plot was turning. Of course this is my problem not Morley's! I wanted a certain character to act a certain way and others to get revenge for what was done to them. I wanted more forgiveness and less hurt.I wanted the book to end a different way too, but again this shows you how good Morley is, she leads you to places that you won't expect.

Come Sunday is also a theodicy asking deep questions about the existence of God and why there is evil in this world. Morley delves deep into Greg's vocation as a pastor and the "Church" people in his parish who don't always act in a Christian fashion. As a pastor I laughed at certain parts as Morley described some people to a "t" with their particular affections and mannerisms, people whom I have known over the years.

Do yourself a favor, go out and buy a copy of Come Sunday, do it now and find yourself lost in a book that delights mind, heart, and spirit.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Advent begins for Eastern Christians

For those of us in the Eastern Church (Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics) Advent, the lenten period before Christmas has started. There is a slight difference between the Advent season in East and West, Western Christians usually have four Sunday's of Advent, in the East we have a forty day period beginning November 15.

Wishing everyone a good Advent season this year.

What do you plan to do this Advent to prepare yourself for the birth of Jesus?

1. Support your local food pantry by donating canned food items?

2. Skipping a meal during the week or maybe cutting food consumption overall, as in, eating less at every meal?

3. Read the birth story of Jesus in Matthew chapter 1-2 and Luke 2?

4. Purchasing a few gifts for children in your local community?

There are a lot of ways that you can serve your neighbor!!!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review: Defending Constantine

It has taken a while but we finally have a book that presents the Emperor Constantine in a more objective light than what we usually get: an evil secular/worldly emperor who co-opted the Church and imported the Church-state problem to the rest of the world! Or as Leithart says in the introduction, Constantine has been called an anti-Semite, heretic, and a hypocrite. Constantine has been blamed for a lot of things and now with the diligent work and research of Prof. Peter J. Leithart we have a new take on this important figure in Church History.

Leithart is a senior fellow at St. Andrews College in Moscow Idaho and serves as the pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow. He is also the author of Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture.

Defending Constantine must have been a labor of love. Well researched with copious notes and references, clean crisp prose, and a good storyteller, Leithart brings Constantine to life for his modern readers, placing him in his cultural, social, and religious context. People generally refer to Constantine as a power hungry emperor who called the First Ecumenical at Nicea and eventually accepted Jesus Christ, reluctantly of course, on his deathbed. Not so says Leithart. Constantine was truly interested in theological matters and took much time to reflect upon the work of Nicea and the immediate aftermath. He was concerned about the future of the Church and the rise of heretical teachings.

In fourteen chapter Leithart goes through the evidence, parsing the great historians Eusebius and others showing us what Constantine actually was like and the legacy that he left behind. One major theme woven throughout the text is the relationship between Church and State, and the political impact of ones theology.

Defending Constantine is not a quick read. One has to read slowly, taking in all of the evidence and lengthy argument which Leithart presents. Defending Constantine is a book that I wish I had in seminary, it would have made Church History courses a lot easier! I hope that seminary students read Defending Constantine, not only will it make their life easier, it will certainly give them an alternative view of Constantine and his life.

If you are interested in Church History in general or the Emperor Constantine in general go out and get yourself a copy of Defending Constantine, it will fill your historical and theological appetite!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Book Review: Compassionate Fire

My mother always told me that great things come in small packages. I have to agree with that statement, especially regarding the recent publication of the letters between Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Thomas Merton called Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine de Hueck Doherty (Ave Maria Press, 2010). The book is only about 110 pages, you could easily read it in one sitting. However, don't let this small volume fool you, it contains a lifetime of "food for thought" on the Christian journey.

Much could be said about either of these two people and much has been written by them and about them too. Needless to say Ave Maria Press wanted to share some of the more personal and intimate lives with readers who are seeking truth and some guidance in the spiritual journey. Both Merton and Doherty struggled with their inner demons and temptations, after all who doesn't? Doherty started work setting up her Madonna House and Friendship House in Harlem as a way to live with the mostly African American community there which was poor, hungry, and often left without much assistance. Doherty received support from her longtime friend Dorothy Day who also corresponded with Doherty as well after Doherty moved to Canada.

Merton of course struggled as a monk. As a Trappist he took a vow of silence yet was encouraged to write, an ironic fact in his life that this "silent monk" as Doherty says was called to write volumes about life in God. Merton fought with his superiors and the Vatican censors as well as his own temptations as well. It is also ironic that Brother Louis as he was called in the monastery was buried next to the Abbot Fox in the Gethsameni Monastery cemetery.

The letters are not profound, the reader will not learn anything "new" in them. What you will find are two Christian pilgrims seeking some way towards clarity and integrity in corrupt Church and world. Yes, both Merton and Doherty struggled with the human side of the Church, Merton with his censors and Abbot General and Doherty with the Vatican. Many times she applied for her Madonna House to be a full Apostolate and was turned down. She never gave up. The letters reveal the joys and sorrows, the troubles and tribulations of living a life in community.

Go and read Compassionate Fire, you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Some more reviews just in...........

by Dr. Adam Deville professor of Theology at St. Francis College in Indianna. He maintains a book blog called Eastern Christian books, here is the link below..........

next week some more reviews coming and some Christmas season spiritual resources for your Advent and Christmas season.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Blog review of A 30 Day Retreat

I just found this nice online blog review of my book, A 30 Day Retreat, take some time to read it and also to look around Elaine's blog, called Walking the Water Way, beautiful pictures too

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Book Review Small Faith Great God

I am hooked on the writings of N.T. Wright. A few years ago our parish prayer group focused on his previous book, Suprised by Hope (Harper Collins, 2009). While not a quick read, we really dug deep into Wright's prose, talking and reflecting upon death, the afterlife, heaven, and the Kingdom of God. When I saw this new book, Small Faith Great God I knew I would like it right away.

Wright, recently retired as the Archbishop of Durham (England) and is now a professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews in England. His many years as an Archpastor and as a New Testament scholar serves him well as an author, speaker, and pastor.

Small Faith Great God is a small book, only 130 pages or so but it packs a punch. The chapters are revised talks and sermons that Wright delivered years ago, only now to see the light of day as a collection of his thoughts about the concept of faith and what it means today. The chapters focus on key biblical themes from the New Testament as we read about Moses, Abraham, Ruth, and the Virgin Mary. Wright includes many scriptural examples but not so much as to be burdensome.

I was a bit suprised though that even in the revised manuscript Wright didn't include more pastoral stories or events that would support his writing. Wright has a fine writing style that is easy to follow but his many years as a pastor would have provided him with some rich insight into the human condition. I was wanting to see more examples of present day faith in action other than just what some of the New Testament texts say. I always enjoy spirituality books that also include stories or vignettes to support their commentary, it makes the reading more interesting.

Also, since this book is probably marketed towards a lay audience it would have been nice to have a series of questions or a short "readers guide" at the end for group discussion. I envision that many parishes will use Small Faith Great God as a Bible study.

Readers look forward to future books by Wright as he enters a new phase of his ministry.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Book Review Things Seen and Unseen

Ave Maria Press based in Notre Dame Indianna is an up and coming Catholic Press. While they have certainly been around for a long time, 140 years and counting, it seems as if they have been publishing some really inspiring titles lately, a new collection of the letters of Thomas Merton, one of my favorite spiritual writers, and now Lawrence S. Cunningham's Things Seen and Unseen: A Catholic Theologian's Notebook.

I first came upon the work of Cunningham when reading Commonweal Magazine. He writes a regular Book Notes section for Commonweal and also a blog there as well. Cunningham is what I call an ecumenical theologian, he is firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition, yet his writing speaks to the larger/wider Church. As an Orthodox Christian I have found many pearls of wisdom from Cunningham's prose.

Things Seen and Unseen is not a traditional type of book. It is neither a regular journal, diary, or memoir, but a collection of thoughts, ideas, ruminations, from his many years teaching. Each entry stands alone, they are not arranged thematically or chronologically, but each on its own worth. When reading Things Seen and Unseen I immediately thought of the desert fathers and mothers whose writing we have in many collected anthologies. Their short bits of wisdom, usually a sentence or two, sometimes even a paragraph, would be enough to chew on for the rest of ones life.

Cunningham is no different. Collected here is over 30 years of teaching and writing, thoughts from the liturgical year, books that he has written or plans to write, articles, and lectures delivered to students or religious orders. This book is a book to be read and re-read again and again. I can envision using this book for sermon ideas or parish bulletins. Take for example this little insight from his entry about devotional practice and the word "heart" in spiritual writing:

Apropos to the memory of the Lord: The Italian very to remember is ricordare--literally it means to bring back to the heart. How wonderfully rich etymology can be! (page 15).

There are others like it. He speaks about current events or ideas for future lectures. Things Seen and Unseen is not a book to read quickly, but rather, the reader takes it slowly, entry by entry, taking time to reflect and gaze upon these precious pearls of wisdom. Things Seen and Unseen is perfect for lectio divina, holy reading, as we all struggle with the spiritual journey.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book Review: Vestments by John Reimringer

Once in a while a book crosses my desk and I say, "Wow, I HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!"

Vestments by John Reimringer (Milkweed, 2010) is a must read for pastors and clergy serving in parishes (yours truly) or seminarians who are currently in ministry formation, or for anyone remotely interested in Christian spirituality. This is not a "feel good" book but a work which takes you to the depths of hell and despair and back again. It is a book that shows the reader that life, especially the spiritual journey, is not so neat and tidy but quite messy and raw. The reader encounters such moral questions as the place of celibacy and sex in ministry, abortion and the problems surrounding it, the role and place of family, and the ups and downs of friendship. Reading Vestments reminded me of the work of Elizabeth Strout, Andre Dubus, and Raymond Carver, authors who show the grittiness of life without glossing it over.

The cover art, reminiscent of a stained glass window at Church, is very attractive. The cover includes several lower income houses at the crack of dawn with smoke billowing from their chimneys but the artist has covered that image with a luminescent purple and mauve, as if you were looking through a stained glass window. The artwork is a nice touch because the book invites us into the lives of two young men who are in seminary formation and who will live the rest of their life, perhaps, in a parish setting.

I do not want to give away the story line, but suffice it to say we meet a very dysfunctional family, the father is a high school dropout, functional drunk, and who is both verbally and physically abuse to his former wife and children. His son, the main character, enters a Roman Catholic seminary. During this time we see him in action, learning theology but also dealing with celibacy and the major vows which he will undertake. He struggles not only with his future ministry in the Church but with his messed up family. I have met many families in my life but none as colorful as his family! They would be a case study for any pastoral counselor!

We also see his friend who is someone whom all too often I have seen in ecclesial settings as well, the "professional pastor" the one who envisions ministry as a profession and career. In many ways he is under the temptation of power and authority, having little trouble keeping his vows yet breaking them with his secret lover, his live in girlfriend who also is the local barmaid.

John Reimringer is a master storyteller, he weaves this book like a master weaver. Characters are neither all good or all bad, neither all darkness nor all light. Everyone has warts and wrinkles and also light and goodness. As a reader I was mad, I wanted the bad characters to "get their due" yet Mr. Reimringer doesn't allow that. His story, like the Bible, shows us life and humanity through the lens of how God might envision it, not as we do.

While searching online about Mr. Reimringer I learned that it took him nearly ten years to write Vestments. I hope his next book doesn't take that long, this is one reader who is hooked on Reimringer's prose.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Review Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins

I have been catching up on my book reviews so here is another installment this week which should be the last one for a while. I was getting a bit back logged in Sept!!

Every Sunday Christians attend worship. They pray to God, invoke the name of Jesus, offer their praise and prayer, and many break the bread of the Eucharist which is often referred to as the Last Supper. However, I bet most Christians do not have the foggiest idea that Christians long ago actually fought about who Jesus was. Yes, you heard correctly. There were debates, divisions, political wars, and blood spilled over the nature of Jesus and his ministry.

If you want to learn more about this intriguing part of Church History than look no further than Philip Jenkin's latest book, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (Harper One, 2010).

Jenkins is a full time professor at Penn State University and the author of numerous books on Christian history and culture. His writings and essays have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe.

Jesus Wars is written with a historians eye for detail and in the vein of a good story, after all, Church history is filled with intrigue, wars, debates, and arguments. Jenkins offers his readers insight into the history that led up to the great Jesus debates of the fourth can fifth century, namely: Nicea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. The book is woven around the basic theme which opens the book, a phrase from the gospels as Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"Was Jesus just a human being who had a divine vocation? Was he a "super human" with super natural powers? Was he solely divine who appeared to be human? Who was this Jesus anyway?

Since Jenkins is a Church historian his many years of teaching students provides him with the many questions that people have on their minds. He has a fine writing style and like a good teacher you feel like he is talking right to you, a trait which I wish all writers had!!

However, while reading Jesus Wars I kept asking myself, so what? Much of what Jenkins offers is already located in various Church history books. I didn't find much new in this book, other than the fact that Jenkins brings ancient texts to new light. Perhaps this is why Jesus Wars is so important, not for the fact that Jenkins is offering some new theories or ideas about Jesus but that he sheds light on the ancient Jesus debates and the various fights between bishops and emperors and between countries and nations.

When I finished this book I realized that the Jesus debates have not stopped, they are as fresh as ever. Christians across the globe are still arguing and fighting for the "correct" understanding of Jesus.

The statement that Jenkins uses to open the book is asked of us today, "who do you say that I am?"

What would you answer?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Book Review: The Complete Psalms by Pamela Greenberg

My bookshelves are filled with all types of books: fiction and non-fiction, hardcover and paperback, history, literature, culture, and art. Because I am both a pastor and an instructor in Scripture I have several shelves reserved for theological tomes, especially different translations of the Bible. I generally use the Revised Standard Version for daily devotion and sermon preparation, it is a translation that I grew up with and also used in seminary and in graduate school. However I also have other translations which I consult frequently: The Message, New Jerusalem Bible, as well as the New International Version and sometimes the King James Bible. I always encourage my students to use a variety of Bibles when reading and studying Scripture since they will most certainly find different nuances of words, concepts, and sentences. Every year publishers release new Bible translations and hosts of "Study Bibles." Among the latest publications dealing with an entire book of the Bible is Pamela Greenberg's The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation published by Bloomsbury.

This fine hardcover edition is beautiful. The cover reminds me of my grandmother's old leather bound King James Bibles that she used often. The book also includes a red ribbon which serves as ready made book mark. This volume is one which readers will turn to again and again as they read and re-read the Book of Psalms.

Why a new translation? After all there are hundreds of Bible translations available in local bookstores and online. However Ms. Greenberg reminds her readers that the Psalms were written in Hebrew and very often the translations can be wooden and life-less, others perhaps less so. Mary Karr, the famous memoirist and poetry teacher at Syracuse University, says that Greenberg, "has lifted the old language from spider webs and mothballs, breathing new air into the songs." (from the front cover). I agree. Greenberg provides readers with a fresh translations, offering a new and refreshing insight into these ancient words.

When I read the Psalms I generally use the RSV translation, a translation which I am very familiar. The problem however is that since I know many of the Psalms already I tend to read very quickly, skipping over words or rushing through them. However, when reading Greenberg's new translation I caught myself reading slowly, meandering through the Psalms of David line by line taking in each and every word. I could not skip lines or read fast, this translation makes you savor each word as it should be savored. After all, the Psalms have been called the Prayerbook of the Church and for centuries both Christians and Jews have used the Psalms in their daily and weekly prayers.

Greenberg must be thanked for her hard work and dedication trying to capture the beauty of a very old language. I used The Complete Psalms for my lectio divina and I encourage you to do the same.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan

The Lord's Prayer is the only prayer that we have from Jesus himself and every Sunday millions of Christians throughout the world either read, sing, or recite this wonderful little prayer. Very often we recite this prayer not giving too much attention to what we are actually saying. When was the last time you really ever thought of "hallowed be Thy name" or "lead us not into temptation"?

Well, if you are interested in learning more about the Lord's Prayer in an easy to read friendly volume then look no further. Harper One has recently published John Dominic Crossan's new book, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer.

This is a book that I will keep on my bookshelf near the other books that I would like to re-read in the near future. Crossan certainly has a friendly conversational style of writing. He is a notable lecturer and teacher and his tone and style reflect that. I felt like Crossan was sitting in the room giving me a tour of the Bible and how the Lord's Prayer fits into the Christian Spiritual tradition.

The book is rather short, it includes 8 chapters devoted to each of the stanza's of the prayer. Crossan is a prolific writer and this book is a culmination of his other "Jesus" type books such as The Historical Jesus or The Birth of Earl Christianity or his latest book co-authored with his longtime friend and colleague Marcus Borg called The First Paul.

Crossan looks at the Lord's Prayer through the lens of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), especially looking at its connection to the prophets. The prophetic movement forced the aristocracy and kingly rulers to deal with important "kingdom" issues such as poverty, homelessness, lack of food, war, famine, and other social concerns. If you take some time and turn to any of the prophets (Amos or Hosea) for example you will see many examples of this common call to repentance. The prophets saw the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor and their lack of care for the needy neighbor.

Jesus entered into this prophetic movement as not just any prophet, but the Son of God who is the Prophetic Word incarnate so to speak. Jesus actualizes this common call to repentance and care for the poor. Crossan suggests that the Lord's Prayer is not some "spiritualization" but a radical call to change ones vision of the world. Crossan states numerous times that we are co-workers with God and collaborate with God in the creation of the kingdom of God in the here and now. Our calling as God's disciples is to be radical as Jesus, and that is a high calling indeed.

Of course there is much more to this book. I suggest that you buy it and read it for yourself. Perhaps you can use it for your next book club reading? Or maybe your parish adult education class will read it?

I plan to re-read this book again and again, finding pearls of wisdom in this wonderful little ancient prayer.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Me or God first??

The Christian life is not an easy path, there are days when I think, gee it would be much easier not to follow Jesus then to follow him!!! I feel like this when I get distracted and become irritable at those around me, get angry, or don't trust God. More often than not I think that I am the center of the universe rather than putting God in my center!

Oh well, I guess every day is a new day, a new beginning, a new chance to put one foot in front of the other trying to walk that life of faith.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Poem by Mary Oliver

Lately I have been reading a lot of poetry. Unlike prose and narrative, poetry slows you down, makes you savor and chew on every word. When reading a good page turning thriller or mystery it is easy to read fast skipping over words even, but not with poetry.

I have been reading several volumes of poetry by Mary Oliver. I came across this poem the other day and wanted to share, I hope you like it!

The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist

Something has happened
to the bread
and the wine

They have been blessed.
What now?
The body leans forward

to receive the gift
from the priest's hand,
then the chalice.

They are something else now
from what they were
before this began

or on the shore
just walking
beautiful man

and clearly
someone else

On the hard days
I ask myself
if I ever will

Also there are times
my body whispers to me
that I have.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Thought for Today

A while back I came across this short reflection by the famous pastor, author, and Church leader Reinhold Niebuhr and wanted to pass it along to you. I hope you find some inspiration in it too!

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review I Am Hutterite by Mary Ann Kirkby

Once in a while a very interesting book comes across my desk and I Am Hutterite (Thomas Nelson, 2010) by Mary Ann Kirkby is one of them.

The Hutterites were a small Protestant break off group that appeared in 1528 in Moravia. They took the Book of Acts very seriously and decided to have a common life together and have everything in common; food, fellowship, and income. The Hutterites make the Amish look liberal!

The Hutterites left Europe and many of them found a new life in Western Canada and in the North-Central United States, North and South Dakota, Iowa. Mary-Ann Kirkby's book is part family history and part memoir telling the story of her family through the lens of daily life in a Hutterite commune. Life was very structured with everyone eating and praying together, working on the farm, working the land, mending, sewing, and building. Kirkby recalls that each commune had about 125 people, just enough people to work the land and to feed without being too cumbersome.

The cover of the book says that the book received an award in Canada and Publishers Weekly gave the book a strong endorsement. I found the book intriguing in that Kirkby manages to tell us her own story through the lens of the Hutterite community, but I found her own voice missing. There was no empathy or emotion between me and Mary Ann. Not only was the book a bit cumbersome with the many German words peppered throughout, but the book was written almost objectively, without real feeling. I almost felt like Mary Ann was writing from too far away, that there was very little of "her life" on the page but was telling the story from several generations removed. Maybe this was no fault of her own, but in the end I am glad that I read this book, not only does it fill a gap in modern religious history but Kirkby also included a recipe for a Sugar Pie which I want to try one day, it looks delicious!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Interview with author Judith Couchman

A while ago I posted a short review of Judith Couchman's book, The Mystery of the Cross published by IVP Press. It is a wonderful read and a great resource for parish Bible study groups and or Christian book clubs.

Below is an interview that I recently had with Judith:

1. What inspired you to work on this particular book project, it is so unique, a combination of art history, theology, and Scripture? How did you manage to bring these three subjects together wholistically?
While working as a writer for years, I began studying art history just because I loved it. Then I decided to get a second master's degree in art history (I already had one in journalism) and studied online for it. I focused on Christian art. Especially as I studied early Christian andmedieval art, the visual representation of Christianity moved me deeply. It felt like viewing God at work in the world through images. It also intrigued me how, in a secular university classroom, I encountered Christian images and the beliefs related to them. The information spoke for itself, like a soft approach to sharing the faith.
While writing the book, I wasn't sure I was bringing art history, theology, and Scripture together wholistically. I wrote with hope and prayer. I thought the biblical and extra-biblical stories and beliefs offered context for the images. We can understand art better if we learn about its context. And always, readers want to know how ancient Christianity relates to their lives today. I wasn't sure if anyone else would benefit from the book, but the research affected me. Too often, the cross is just a common symbol to us. To the early Christians, it was everything. It represented their suffering Savior, the one who resuced them from sin. The one for whom they radically changed and sacrificed their lives.
2. Is there any particular chapter or chapters that are especially inspiring or memorable for you? Why?
Oh, yes. Chapter 9, The Descent from the Cross, touched me where I'd actually been living. That chapter relives how Joseph of Arimatheaand Nicodemus obtained and cared for Christ's body after his death. When my mother died, I helped prepare her body before the mortician took it. This was a loving, sacred act for me. A last chance to touch my mother and kiss her face. For the first time, I undestoodd the holiness of taking Christ's body down from the cross and preparing it for burial. I'd usually skipped that part when I thought about his death and resurrection.
Chapter 36, Desperately Seeking Sanctuary, also meant much to me. It described the ancient practice of sanctuary for those who'd committed crimes or fell into trouble. They ran to a church for sanctuary and received forgiveness through santuary laws. This practice is foreign to us; we want revenge. But the sanctuary laws and the cross's participation in them, exemplified God's forgiveness. It is broad, deep, wide, incomprehensible. I'm still trying to grasp the nature of such forgiveness.
3. What are some of the comments or feedback that you received from readers? I can imagine a lot of book clubs or small groups will be using this book for reading or devotional use.
Authors don't always know what's going on, unless people contact us. I'm no exception. But I do know the book has been discussed on blogs, taught in Sunday school classes, and read by churches for Lent. Readers have been complimentary about the content and the writing. I've worked hard to write decently, so good remarks about the writing cheer me. Some say they plan to read the book more than once. The book seems to be doing what I'd hoped: reaching into diverse Christian groups and bringing them closer to the Cross. I hope it's a book with a long life because the cross is a timeless topic. As the author, though, I think it's crucial to watch the book's progress with humility. It's really Christ's Cross that's speaking, not me. Whether the book sells a lot or a little, my responsibility is to follow God's call to write.
4. Has anyone, especially in the Protestant world, objected to the over use of Christian art or symbolism, especially the cross?
No, not so far. Instead, Protestants have been thrilled to read extra-biblical stories they hadn't heard before. I tried to write the book with a strong biblical foundation, in a way that Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians could appreciate it. I wanted the Scripture and the stories to minister to a broad range of Christians and possibly, spiritual seekers.
5. What are your future book projects? Any follow ups to this one?
I don't have a follow-up to The Mystery of the Cross, but I'd like to write one at some point. However, I just finished a book titled, The Art of Faith: A Guide to Understanding Christian Images (Paraclete). It releases in December of this year (2010). This book helps anyone interested in Christian art, from its beginnings through the Baroque era. You can read about the initial stirrings of Christian art; brief overviews of the Christian art eras; learn about common subjects in Christian art; understand its popular symbolism, and much more. The book is formatted so you can look at Christian art and consult the book for interpreting it. For every definition in the book, I've included, as an example, a work of art from somwhere in the world. And again, anyone can use it. You don't need a background in art or art history to understand and enjoy Christian art.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Some New Reviews in!!!!!!!!!

Just wanted to let you know some fresh reviews in about my book, A 30 Day Retreat, one from the UK and the other from New Zealand, check them out if you have time.

Later this week I'll have some more book reviews and other spiritual reflections, but for now, I'm back on track for blogging!!!!!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review The Art of Losing by Kevin Young

Well, finally back to blogging after a few days of R and R in sunny Florida. This week I have a few book reviews to post. I hope everyone is enjoying their summer and staying cool.

Recently I have been reading a lot of poetry. I find that poetry is very much like prayer, lyrical reflections on the human condition which are shared with the rest of the world. I have been reading Tony Abbott (a local NC poet), Mary Karr, Anne Sexton, Robert Frost, and Mary Oliver. Now I have to add Kevin Young to my list.

Mr. Young is the editor of a new anthology of poetry called, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing published by Bloomsbury (2010) is a collection of poetry on the theme of grief, loss, death, and survival. The book is divided into six sections:


I didn't know what to expect from Mr. Young's poetic insights because poetry is new to me. For the past 15 years I have devoted my time to theology, scripture studies, and Church history. Wow, did Mr. Young convert me! These poems were beautiful, some short, some long, some light, others intense. However, they all reveal the pain and anguish of losing a friend, parent, sibling, or neighbor. While reading I found myself thinking about grieving both of my parents who have died, one from a sudden heart attack and the other from a long bout with liver disease. I grieved each parent differently. Each parent left me with feelings of pain, joy, anger, and resentment. Poetry, like prayer, gives voice to those feelings.

The Art of Losing is a must read especially for pastors, social workers, or grief counselors who directly work with grief on a regular basis. These poems are the material from which sermons are made and prayers are offered.

Congratulations to Mr. Young for culling volumes upon volumes of poems and poets to find just the right ones to fill this lovely book. Judging from the poems and the beautiful cover of this book it certainly must have been a labor of love.

Take and read The Art of Losing, you will be inspired!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day 30 Angels We Have Heard on High

Well, today is the last and final posting in our 30 Day Retreat. It has been a good process and I hope that everyone learned something about the gospel and our common calling to follow the Lord. I also hope that you have found my book, A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Renewal edifying. If you like my book please spread the word to friends, family, colleagues, fellow parishioners, etc....

The last and final installment in our 30 day journey are angels. Very often we think of angels as cute cuddly cherubs floating on cotton ball white clouds strumming their harps and playing their flutes. Yet when we read scripture we see an altogether different version of angels:

In Genesis Jacob is depicted as wrestling with an angel all night long

In Luke's gospel an angel comes bearing good news that Mary will bear a son and her first reaction is fear

In Matthew's gospel an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph telling him that Mary will have a son and his first reaction is fear and the notion to divorce her

When the women come to Jesus' tomb in order to anoint his dead body they meet an angel in the garden and their first reaction is fear.

Why so much fear with angels?

Well, I'd be scared to if an angel appeared to me speaking the Word of God. After all it's much easier to have God at an arm's length, and quite another to have his Word come face to face!!!

Yet angels come and go in scripture.

The word "angel" literally means "messenger" and the angels are messengers of God bringing news.

So our Hollywood and Hallmark versions of angels are not very biblical. Yes they might be cute and cuddly and warm and fuzzy but they are not the angels that we see in either the Old or New Testament.

Angels are sent to bring the good news of the gospel which is the message of repentance. The message that we have new life in Christ and that we have the opportunity of eternal life with God for ever and ever.

This is wonderful and exciting news!!

Today we thank God for his messengers.

I hope everyone continues to read Scripture on their own. I also hope that you are active in your parishes in order to help build up the Body of Christ wherever you find yourself.

God bless all of you.

Thanks for spending the past 30 days with me.

I plan on taking a few days off with blogging and will be return posting on July 12.