Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: Strengthen Your Brothers

Those of us in ordained ministry, whether deacons, priests, or bishops need inspiration, encouragement, advice, and comfort. Ministry is a very difficult vocation which comes with a lot of trials, tribulations, challenges and choices. Every day we fight isolation, despondency, being overworked, and barraged with emails or phone calls. How to deal with all of this?

Thanks to the latest publication from Liturgical Press we have a very good resource for those of us in pastoral ministry.

Strengthen Your Brothers: Letters of Encouragement from an Archbishop to His Priests is by J. Peter Sartain, the current Archbishop of Seattle.

Several years ago he began writing regular letters to his priests as a away not just to keep them informed of events and projects in his diocese but as a way to keep in touch with them. After all a bishop is supposed to be a "pastor of pastors" which unfortunately isn't always the case. Too often bishops are far removed from their clergy.

This book is divided into three sections:

Priestly Identity in Christ 

Priestly Practicalities 

Priestly Prayer 

Of all the sections I found the second one to be the most inspirational since it is here in the day to day ins and outs of ministry which I find the most challenging. In this section he covers topics such as gossip, loving difficult people, maintaing faith in dark times, and overcoming isolation and lonliness. The short chapters can be read in a few minutes but really they could take hours or days to reflect on each one.

I liked the fact that Archbishop Sartain spoke from his heart and included not just personal stories but also stories from the desert fathers, modern writers such as the famous Jesuit Walter Ciszek and Church Doctors like Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

The hardcover edition makes this a special volume as well.

For more information about Strengthen Your Brothers click here 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Book Review: Journey to the Kingdom

Recently Paraclete Press has published some very interesting and inspiring books. They recently publishing Life Together: Wisdom of of Community From the Christian East by my friend Bishop Seraphim Sigrist as well as some reprints of classic spiritual texts such as Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection and The Rule of Saint Benedict, among others.  

Their most recent offering is a little book called Journey to the Kingdom: An Insiders Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The author is Father Vassilios Papavassiliou, a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church in England.

The book is really what the title says, a guide or tour through the Divine Liturgy by someone who knows the Liturgy well. The twenty chapters are short and can be read in a few minutes. The publisher also included some very nice black and white pictures as a visual aide for the reader: the priest holding a censer, the altar table, and interior pictures of Churches. For someone who knows very little about the Orthodox Church worship this guide is a good resource, especially for the neophyte. It will also be a good resource for Adult Education programs for people who want to get a refresher on the Divine Liturgy.

Every so often there are "break out texts" which describe some things in greater detail. Like on page 5 where he talks about the two different liturgies, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great and then on page 89 when he talks about fasting and so forth. These little break out texts are also useful.

This book is a welcome introduction to the Divine Liturgy and a good resource for beginners. After reading Journey to the Kingdom readers may want to dig into something deeper such as Alexander Schmemann's The Eucharist as a way to learn more about the theology and context of Eastern worship.

To learn more about Journey to the Kingdom click here 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Father Alexander--Memory Eternal (1921-1983)

Today is the 29th anniversary of the falling asleep of Father Alexander Schmemann. For the past decade or so his sermons, essays, books, diaries, and life have influenced me greatly. Below is a link to a free online website where you can read many of his writings. You can find his books on

Also, if you are so inclined my recent book Church, World, and Kingdom provides a greater context into his life and legacy especially regarding his theological formation in France.

May Father Alexander's memory be eternal!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: Bringing Jesus to the Desert

If you are looking for an easy to read introduction to Eastern Christianity and don't know where to turn then look no further. Earlier this year Zondervan recently published the fourth volume in their Ancient Context, Ancient Faith Series edited by Gary M. Bunge. Written by Bradley Nassif Bringing Jesus to the Desert is part history, part memoir, part survey of the richness, diversity, and depth of the Eastern Church as it found its way into the desert. When reading Paul's letters for example we see a very urban type of Christianity as Christians lived in major cities like Rome, Jerusalem, Damascus, Corinth, and Athens. However, with the rise of Constantine the Great and the increasing political influence of the Emperor Christians began moving further and further into the desert and created little communities in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, among others.

Nassif is a graduate of Fordham University and is currently a professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University in Chicago, IL. Nassif is also a practicing Orthodox Christian as well which also enlightens and enlivens the current volume.

This book is rich with colorful photographs of monasteries, churches, monks, priests, ancient manuscripts, as well as a photo or two of his family. The saying goes that a picture tells 1,000 words and that is true. Nassif weaves his own family narrative into the larger story of the spread of Eastern Christianity. His family has roots in the Middle East so he has the wealth of knowledge when it comes to the culture, religion, and society of the time. There are pictures of his beloved Sitti, or grandmother as well as of his uncle and other family members. It reminds me of Paul's emphasis on the Church as the body of Christ. We tend to think of that metaphor in terms of its larger context but in Nassif's case it is real, each member of his or her family influenced him in big and small ways, especially regarding his faith formation and upbringing.

Bringing Jesus to the Desert includes six chapters:

Holy Land, Holy People 

Anthony of Egypt 

Makarios of Egypt 



Colorful Characters: John the Little, Moses the Ethiopian, and Simeon the Stylite 

While reading this book I was grateful for Nassif's work. There are many scholarly texts on each of the people mentioned above as well as thick tomes about desert spirituality as it is commonly called but very few basic, easy to read, entry level books for the average person. Who would read this book? Probably a non-Orthodox Christian who wants to learn more about the first few centuries of Christianity after Jesus or even an Orthodox Christian who might want to learn more about his or her faith.

To learn more about Bringing Jesus to the Desert click here 

Monday, December 3, 2012


If you own a Kindle or any sort of e-reader I just found out that book book, A 30 Day Retreat is now available on Kindle for a low price of $ 9.09.

If you want a very low key spiritual retreat during the crazy month of December than this book is for you.

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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review: Imagining the Small Church

When I was small my mother always told me good things come in small packages. She was right most of the time! For the past thirteen years I have pastored a small(ish) parish of about fifty adults. At times we got as big as 78 and when I arrived we had about 30 or so. After looking around I found out that we were not unique. More than half the congregations in our country have under 100 souls. Astounding. So many times I compared our parish with the "big steeple" parishes in town; you know, the ones with the fancy stone or brickwork, the large halls and rectories (manses/parsonages), and of course the belltower. 

After a while though I realized that my job as a pastor was not to turn my parish into a "larger, bigger and better" congregation but to love them, care for them, console them, and love them the best that I could. If we grew in numbers, fine. If our collections increased, fine. But I could not loose track of my main job as a shepherd and to love the sheep under my care. 

Unfortunately however most national Church bodies, including seminaries, graduate schools, and denominational boards use the "large parish" model as the "example" for all of us. We are told time and time again that we must "grow" and "expand our budgets" and "have lots of programs." Well, my motto is live and let live. 

For years there have been small parishes, mostly in rural areas but also in suburban ones too, who have done good work. 

I am grateful for Rev. Steve Willis' new book Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path (Herdon, VA: Alban Publishing, 2012). Willis is the pastor of the Virginia Presbyterian Church in Buchanan, VA. He has pastored small churches for most of his life. 

Don't let the small size of this book distract you from the content inside! Willis writes is a fine down to earth style which is so different than many of the dense theological books written on parish growth, evangelism, and mission. Willis writes as if he were in the room with you, offering advice to pastors sitting around drinking coffee and sharing.

The book is divided into seven chapters: 


Each chapter deals with a certain aspect of small parish life. I especially liked the stories which Willis told as jumping off points in the book which served as illustrations emphasizing his main points. 

One might think that Willis argues that a small parish is "better" than the large "big steeple" parishes across the country, but he doesn't. He argues that national Church bodies need to take a long hard look at how small parishes work since in the future these large steeple parishes will have to re-think their own existence as memberships shift and financial income decreases. In many ways the small parishes are lean and mean! We have little overhead, no mortgages, and no paid staff except for maybe the pastor. Some small parishes don't even have a full time pastor, they might have a lay minister or maybe a pastor who works part or full time outside the congregation. 

I read this book with joy and wanted to underline almost every sentence. Each page I wrote down notes or personal reflections since Willis spoke directly to my situation. For years I was looking for resources which confirmed my own thoughts about pastoring a small congregation. I just wish that he included some additional resources for small parish ministry in the Notes section since many of the ones he mentioned I was already familiar with. 

Imagining the Small Church is a great resource for students currently in pastoral formation in seminaries. Even thought many seminarians will wind up in a medium or large church, the majority will most likely wind up in a smaller congregation which means less resources, income, and benefits. Pastoring a small congregation often means more headaches too since the brunt of the work may fall on the hands of the pastor. But there are plenty of joys too; more connections and relationships with parishioners, more time to learn about life together and share faith and fellowship, and to grow in Christ. 

I hope Willis keeps writing and reflecting on the nature of the small parish. He may feel like a prophet preaching to the wind but there are many out here who need to hear his voice. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book Review Coming Soon

I'm looking forward to reviewing Dr. Bradley Nassif's new book Bringing Jesus to the Desert (Zondervan, 2012). This book is chock full of pictures and maps, a great resource for people interested in learning more about the early Christians and the Middle East, particularly the "Holy Land."

For more information about Bringing Jesus to the Desert click here 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Thanksgiving Sermon

A few weeks before he died, Father Alexander Schmemann gave his final sermon which you can read below.

I wish everyone a blessed Thanksgiving holiday this week. Safe travels to everyone who is traveling.

Sermon from Father Schmemann

Thank You, O Lord!

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.
Thank You, O Lord, for having accepted this Eucharist, which we offered to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which filled our hearts with the joy, peace and righteousness of the Holy Spirit.
Thank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.
Thank You, O Lord, for having united us to one another in serving You and Your Holy Church.
Thank You, O Lord, for having helped us to overcome all difficulties, tensions, passions, temptations and restored peace, mutual love and joy in sharing the communion of the Holy Spirit.
Thank You, O Lord, for the sufferings You bestowed upon us, for they are purifying us from selfishness and reminding us of the “one thing needed;” Your eternal Kingdom.
Thank You, O Lord, for having given us this country where we are free to Worship You.
Thank You, O Lord, for this school, where the name of God is proclaimed.
Thank You, O Lord, for our families: husbands, wives and, especially, children who teach us how to celebrate Your holy Name in joy, movement and holy noise.
Thank You, O Lord, for everyone and everything.
Great are You, O Lord, and marvelous are Your deeds, and no word is sufficient to celebrate Your miracles.
Lord, it is good to be here! Amen.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Blog Interview

Today my friend and colleague Dr. Adam DeVille posted an interview that he conducted with me a few weeks ago. If you are so inclined you can find the interview in the link below.

He asked me a lot of questions and I told him that I felt that I was beginning volume 2 of my Schmemann series! Adam is a top notch professor and writer as well. His new book on sexuality and theology in the Eastern Church will be available sometime in 2013.

I am very grateful for the kind comments that I am receiving for the book. Father Alexander had many students and friends across the Christian Churches. I am grateful for their support too.

Click here for the interview with Adam 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Book Review Coming Soon

I look forward to reviewing this new book by my friend and colleague Tom Dykstra. Recently published by OCABS, the Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies, Dykstra questions Mark's place in the Canon and the issue of what Mark says about "the gospel."

Look for this review in the weeks to come.

For more information about the book click here 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Book Review Coming Soon

I look forward to reviewing this new book, a collection of essays in honor of Prof. Maxwell Johnson, a liturgical scholar who teaches at the University of Notre Dame. I have enjoyed Prof. Maxwell's books, especially his collection of essays on the Church year called Between Memory and Hope.

This book looks like a great resource and reference for liturgical theologians, clergy, and anyone interested in the intersection between liturgy and pastoral ministry.

For more information about the book click here 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Finally Available!!!

I am proud to say that my new book, whose cover page you see on the right is finally available from It sure took a while since the book was out in September, but finally after waiting 8 weeks here it is.

Please fee free to pass on the information to your pastor, to friends or whomever you think would enjoy reading a book on Father Alexander's theology of ministry.

Click here to order your copy of Church, World, and Kingdom 

Click here to read more about the book from the publisher website 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Review: The Blessing of Waters

Every year I fondly remember our parish priest coming to bless our house. It was usually a Saturday mid morning or early afternoon and mom would serve brunch. She spent Friday evening and Saturday morning cleaning the house, preparing the food, and setting the dining room table with her fine lace tablecloth and special dinnerware. She always set out a small icon, candle, and bowl of water for him to use as he would walk around singing the Epiphany troparion, "When Thou O Lord was baptized in the Jordan...." After the home blessing we all gathered in the dining room to eat. He always dressed in his black suit and collar and looked very important. After all, as a ten year old, most adults look pretty important.

I'll never forget those Epiphany blessings, not so much because of the food that mom served but that Fr. Paul took time out of his schedule to come visit and bless our house with holy water that he blessed in Church. The sacramental act of blessing homes is highly symbolic, reminding us that our home, the place where we eat, sleep, and live is a little Church.

Those of us in the Eastern Church should be particularly thankful to Dr. Nicholas Denysenko, assistant professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in LA and an ordained deacon in the OCA for sharing his well documented and researched book with us. The book, The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition (UK: Ashgate, 2012) is a thorough analysis of the various rites, rituals, and development of the water blessing at Epiphany. This short review cannot do this book service since Denysenko dives deep into the historical manuscripts comparing the various liturgical rites from around the Eastern Christian world. Suffice it to say his last chapter titled, "Pastoral Considerations" was for me, worth reading this book.

Denysenko is both a deacon as well as a liturgical scholar and in the end of this study he provides pastors and lay leaders with some well thought out considerations for Epiphany, drawing on the Catholic, Orthodox, and some Anglican traditions. I found this chapter to be insightful as we consider the numerous scriptural passages, rich hymnography, and other traditional customs associated with this feast.

The only drawback of this book is that most clergy and lay leaders may get bogged down with all the historical details and charts as Denysenko compares the various rites and rituals for Epiphany. It is not a drawback for the scholar but most readers I assume might not be interested in this material. The other drawback is the high price of the book which at last check was around $100.00. Of course one cannot blame the author for these issues, I just mention them as a warning.

However, for those of us who are regularly involved in preaching, teaching, and catechetical ministry this book is well worth reading, or at least a quick read, taking special note of the last chapter.

For more information about The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany click here 

For a recent interview with Dr. Denysenko click here

Friday, October 26, 2012

Book Review: Making Peace with the Land

This week I made fresh tomato soup from tomatoes harvested from our summer garden. We ate the soup with fresh bread baked in my oven, the flour was from a local farm in NC. This morning my daughter slathered her toast with homemade strawberry jelly made by yours truly. I could go on in this fashion but I think you get the idea.

There is nothing better than to mix up a batch of whole wheat flour that was harvested about an hour from your house from a local farmer who really cares about the land. Or picking strawberries in May, almost 4 gallons of them, from a local farm and making strawberry jelly that will last us until Easter time. Or making homemade vegetable soup made from fresh vegetables harvested from your backyard.

When I saw Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba's book Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation (IVP Press, 2012) I just knew I had to read it. Bashnson and Wirzba are professors of theology, Bahnson at Wake Forest and Wirzba at Duke but they are both tied to the land. They have a fine writing style and this book read more like a series of interlinked personal stories/memoir mixed with theology and ecology with a bit of social justice issues mixed in.

There are so many themes and variations on themes that I cannot touch upon all of them in this short review. Needless to say, one main theme that is woven from chapter to chapter is that as Christians we have focused so much on spiritually, so much on Scripture, so much on our Tradition we have forgotten that we are living on this planet, created by God and sustained by him. In many ways Christianity is still infected with a gnostic spirituality, one that separates the material and the spiritual, the hear from the head, or in this case the human from the land. We have polluted our rivers, clear cut our woods, wrecked our ecosystems, and even more destructive behaviors. But what do we read in the first book of the Old Testament, that God created the world and the mantra that is repeated again and again is "and he saw that it was good." Well, if you ask me we have forgotten that basic teaching.

Bahnson and Wirzba weave their story by drawing from personal anecdotes from their own lives, about reconciling the human with the ground. They talk about common community gardens where everyone comes and helps out to grow and harvest the vegetables or communities coming together for the common good. This book of course also includes plenty of Scriptural examples of reconciliation as well.

If you like gardening, theology, and ecology, then go out and read Making Peace with the Land!

For more information about the book click here 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review Devotion

Once in a while a writer just grabs me and doesn't let me go. Dani Shapiro is one such writer. Her latest memoir called Devotion: A Memoir is a moving story about a woman's sense of loss, the loss of her father when she was still only a teenager, the loss of her mother's emotional support and love, and then the loss of her childhood faith.

Shapiro was born and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family with all the rites, rituals, feasts and fasts of Judaism. However, along the way, like many people, she wandered away from that faith. Much of Devotion spoke to me as I grew up with Jewish friends and neighbors. We ate at Jewish delis and I attended several Jewish Passover dinners.

Devotion is a riveting story about one woman coming to terms with her mother who, according to Shapiro was very cold, narcissistic, and mean even to the end of her life. A low point in the book was when Shapiro's psychoanalyst said to her that in twenty years of seeing patients that, "there is no hope for you and your mother." Talking about a punch in the stomach!

We hear about Bar Mitzvah's and Bat Mitzvah's about being Jewish in a mostly Gentile waspish Connecticut, about being raised on hearing and saying prayers in Hebrew only to have found a Reform Jewish synagogue with prayers in English. On and on, story after story, of how one deals with a childhood faith which seems to have been left aside.

Reading this book through the eyes of a pastor I stopped along the way and kept thinking of all the people, in my parish, and in my life who have similar stories to Shapiro. Whether they were raised as Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutheran, or any other faith system people have hard times dealing with that. Some folks are wounded in very deep ways. Others rebel from their faith of origin.

I recommend Shapiro's book to clergy. Her story is one that is so common today yet which is not often discussed. How we come to grips with our faith as we grow and mature as adults.

For more information about Devotion: A Memoir click here 

For more information about Dani Shapiro click here 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Book Review Coming Soon

I am looking forward to reading and reviewing Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba's new book called Making Peace With the Land: God's Call to Reconcile With Creation (IVP Press, 2012).

Just look around and you will quickly notice how we have treated our earthly home: clear cutting trees for new subdivisions, polluted our streams and rivers, and poisoned the earth with chemicals. I am more aware of this now as I live in a mostly rural area with a small farm behind our house.

Making Peace With the Land is a conversation between ecology, creation, and theology and I look forward to what Bahnson and Wirzba have to say.

For more information about the book click here 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Good Pope: John XXIII and Vatican II

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. There will be many books and magazine articles devoted to Vatican II as well as conferences and discussions based on this very important part of Church life.

However, we cannot talk about Vatican II without talking about the inspiring work of Pope John XXIII also known as "Good Pope John" or as the Italians called him, "Ill Buono Papa." It was his initial thought about calling another council which literally brought in fresh air to a stagnant Church.

Greg Tobin's new book, The Good Pope (NY: Harper One, 2012) gives readers a very good overview of the work and ministry of Pope John XXIII as a way to reflect upon the ongoing dissemination and reforms of Vatican II.

The book is divided into three sections: Priest and Protector, The Soul of a Pope, and Father of the Council. Tobin traces Pope John's lively personality to his family whom he loved very much but also to his own pastoral career. Rather than remain in Italy, Pope John spent much time in Bulgaria, Northern Greece, and in Turkey. While traveling and ministering in these countries he encountered the Eastern Catholics as well as the Orthodox. It was this that would foster and encourage his thinking about reform and renewal.

One of the major obstacles that Pope John had to fight against was the Roman Curia and its administration. Pope John was a prophetic figure, seeking change and renewal, things that the Curia did not want to deal with. Tobin tells us that they were shocked when Pope John even considered calling a world-wide council! Yet he bucked the system and went full steam ahead, not only calling the council but encouraging the bishops and theologians to actively participate in it's workings.

While reading Good Pope John one thing kept coming back to me again and again and that was how each of us can be the agent of change in this world. Very often I get discouraged as I see the potential for change and renewal in my parish for example or in the larger Church. It is easy to say, "Oh well, there's nothing that I can do" or "Who cares if I get involved or not." These negative feelings and thoughts usually guide us in our daily life. However, reading this book showed me how one person can make a difference in the world and in the  Church. If Pope John XXIII had negative thoughts he would have never called the Second Vatican Council in the first place. Yet he had deep hope. Hope that bishops, priests, and theologians could discuss, debate, and reflect upon the true calling of the Church to be the light, peace, salt, and leaven in the world, and that if we all work together great things would happen.

I am grateful for Greg Tobin and his book. I hope other readers will take time to learn more about the life and ministry of John XXIII in this special anniversary year.

For more information about the book click here 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope

Hope is a powerful motivator, it keeps us moving one step in front of the other. Hope of course is a cornerstone in the Christian life, it binds us as disciples of Christ.

Many of you may not have heard of Christian de Cherge, the Abbot of the Trappist Monastery in Algeria. But you may have heard of the famous French language movie several years ago called Of God's and Men. The movie was based on the work and ministry of the monks at the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria. In 1996 six monks were kidnapped and eventually murdered by their Muslim captors. They were caught in much political and religious turmoil in the region. I saw the movie which was very powerful but had no idea that there was a book about this monastery. Thankfully, due to the work of Christian Salenson, a priest of the diocese of Nimes France we have an excellent volume about Abbot de Cherge and his views of Christian-Muslim relations.

The entire book rests on a highly ironic encounter between a young Christian and a Muslim layman named Mohammed, a village policeman. In 1961 Christian was in the French Army in Algeria working for the SAS a special section of the army that deal with administrative matters. During his time there he met a man named Mohammed who was married and had ten children. Christian tells us a little about their relationship:

"In the blood of this friend, I came to know that my call to follow Christ would have to be lived out, sooner or later, in the very country in which I received the token of the greatest gift of all." 

Through the course of tense events Mohammed was found dead, shot by insurgents at his family well. Mohammed had protected Christian and his fellow monastic brothers from and uprising, and for that he lost his life. Christian called Mohammed his "eucharistic brother" because it was Mohammed's devotion to his own Islamic faith, to his wife, and to his ten children, that showed Christian what it meant to be a true monk and follow God. In other words it was Mohammed's faith that lead Christian to deepen his own faith.

In a very tense time as today, with Christian-Muslim relations at a seemingly low tide I highly recommend anyone interested in ecumenism or Christian and Islamic studies to read this book. Salenson weaves together not only a very good biographical story about Christian and his fellow monks but at the same time discusses how the Christian practices of prayer, lectio divina, eucharistic, sacraments, fasting, feasting, and almsgiving can be deepened by an openess to what Abbot de Cherge called "radical hospitality" or "friendship." It is in deep friendships, in de Cherge's case it was Muslims, that helped foster dialogue, understanding, sharing, openess, appreciation, and love for the neighbor. The monks at Tibhirine did not live in some outpost away from their Islamic neighbors, but right in the center of the village. They worked, ate, and sometimes even prayed with one another, showing the world that true friendship and co-existence is truly possible.

There is so much more that can be said about Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope. When I came to the end I was a little sad because I wanted to read more. I wanted to read more of Abbot de Cherge's sermons and chapter talks that were quoted in the book. I wanted to read more about the other monks who lived at Tibhirine as well. I hope that Cisterican Publications, an imprint of Liturgical Press, will publish Abbot de Cherge's writings and sermons in the future.

Today, as parts of the Church become more closed minded, more sectarian, more inward looking, we need more words of wisdom from people such as Abbot de Cherge who provide us with hope in this world which seems to lack hope.

To read more about A Theology of Hope click here 

To read more about the movie Of God's and Men click here 

Friday, September 21, 2012

We Sinners Book Review

There are so many books and so little time! Yet when I saw the title and cover of We Sinners  I knew I just had to read this book.

We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen (NY: Henry Holt Publishing, 2012) tells the tale of the Rovaniemis family and their nine children: Brita, Tiina, Nels, Paula, Simon, Julia, Leena, Anni, Uppu. As you can see these aren't your average American names. The Rovaniemis family are Finnish and members of the Laestadian branch of the Lutheran Church. I have a very solid background in theology and in Church History and have been a pastor for thirteen years but this was the first time that I heard about this particular group of Christians.  Started in the 19th century by the Lutheran pastor Lars Levi Laestadius, the Laestadians are a very conservative community focusing almost exclusively on a personal confession of faith and belief and many live in Minnesota and Michigan.

This book is told from the vantage point of the children. The writing is crisp, flowing, and very sparse.  Plyvainen weaves her tales of sin and temptation  using minimal language, subconsciously perhaps, mirroring the minimalism in the Rovaniemis family? After all they have very little as far as material possessions and what little they do have they have to share with eleven people.  At one point, Pirjo, the mother takes her teenage son out to purchase their first TV and VHS. All of their friends already had a TV.

We Sinners is very startling. The book is about the family and normal family struggles especially since their are nine children. But it's also a story about identity, about balancing faith and life which it seems is not easy according to Laestadian teachings!

I read this book with a bit of horror. As a pastor I can see how people can take faith in Jesus to an extreme. I knew a family once who were adamant about getting cable television for their house but not just cable but a new "Christian cable" company that only showed G rated shows and only Christian oriented programs. How boring I thought. Or the family who fasts very so strictly that the mother gets herself sick. Or the father who will not let their children play sports because "Church comes first." And on and on it goes.

So many Christians have become so sectarian they have forgotten that Jesus himself didn't come just for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles, the non-Jews. He spoke and ate with outsiders like the Samaritans, he ate with prostitutes, he spent time with tax collectors and lepers. In other words Jesus came for the "life of the world and its salvation" not just a small group of people. We Sinners shows us how constricting life can become in a sectarian type of Christian community and how difficult it is to live up to standards that Jesus himself probably didn't and couldn't keep. The gospels themselves show us how he broke many of the Jewish rules and rituals to teach the point that love is the ultimate goal, not the rule, ritual, or regulation.

There are so many other wonderful themes in this book I could go on and on but I won't. I'll leave it up to you, the reader, to purchase a copy of We Sinners and start reading. You'll enjoy it!

For more information about We Sinners click here 

For Hanna Pylvainen's website click here 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Schmemann on Clericalism

I am very excited about my new book coming out, Church, World, and Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation for Alexander Schmemann's Pastoral Theology which will be available soon. One major theme in Schmemann's writings, especially in his journals, is the problem of clericalism.

Clericalism is the false separation between clergy and laity, where the clergy assume too much power and control over the laity. Clericalism envisions the Church as a top--down power structure where the clergy have the final say on things and the people just "pray, pay, and obey" as they say.

Schmemann saw this as a problem because this is not the way the Church is presented in the Scriptures, in our theology, and in our liturgical practice.

“Clericalism suffocates; it makes part of itself into the whole sacred character of the Church; it makes its power and a sacred power to control, to lead, to administer, a power to perform sacraments, and in general, it makes any power a “power given to me.”
Clericalism separates all “sacredness” from the lay people." (Feb. 2, 1982, p. 310).

One of the major problems today in our Church is clericalism. We have to remember the Church is not just the clergy alone, or the laity alone, but the entire people of God working together for the good of the Church. 

I hope that all of you have a wonderful parish community where everyone works together for the building up of the Body of Christ. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book review coming soon

I am looking forward to reviewing a new book that just arrived in the mail the other day called Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth-Century Constantinople (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2012). It has a lovely cover of the dome of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) which was the main cathedral in the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately Hagia Sophia is now a mosque and a museum and no longer functions as a center for Christian worship.

The author is Walter D. Ray an associate professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and a scholar in early Christian liturgy. This book looks beautiful inside and out and includes many color prints as well as black and white drawings of the various aspects of early Byzantine liturgy.

Here is what the publisher has to say about the book:

The Church at Worship is a series of documentary case studies of specific worshiping communities from around the world and throughout Christian history. In this second volume, Tasting Heaven on Earth, Walter Ray provides vivid descriptions of Constantinople, its history, its people, and its worship practices, setting the stage for a rich selection of primary documents that present readers with a vibrant snapshot of Byzantine Christianity in the sixth century. This illustrated, reader-friendly volume also features discussion questions for each chapter and suggestions for devotional use.

Primary materials collected in this book
  • Photos of mosaics, liturgical vessels, icons, and manuscripts
  • Drawings, diagrams, descriptions, and photographs of Hagia Sophia
  • Firsthand accounts of worship by Maximus the Confessor, Eutychius, and Procopius
  • Liturgical prayers and a reconstruction of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil
  • Sung and spoken sermons attributed to Romanus and Leontius
  • Imperial decrees on worship practices

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rosh Hashanah

Wishing all of our Jewish friends a happy new year. Tomorrow is Rosh Hashanah the beginning of the Fall Jewish festivals. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the new year for Jews and ends on Yom Kippur ten days later which is the day of judgment (September 25 this year). Jews believe that on Rosh Hashanah the names of the righteous Jews are inscribed in the Book of Life and those who are not have ten days to repent. Yom Kippur is also known as the Day of Atonement. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are sometimes referred to as the Days of Awe.

It is customary to blow the ram's horn (shofar) on Rosh Hashanah marking the beginning of the New Year.

You might be wondering, why should Christians be interested in Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or any Jewish holiday for that matter?

Actually, many of the Jewish feast days are included in the Old Testament Scriptures and Jesus and the early Christians were from the Jewish religious world. Several of these festivals are recorded in the New Testament such as the Passover, Feast of Tabernacles (Booths), and Hannukah which marks the Dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book review coming soon

I am looking forward to reviewing this new book published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press called Seven Day on the Roads of France June 1940. Written by the theologian Vladimir Lossky, this books gives us a little glimpse into the life of a Russian intellectual who wanted to join the French resistance after the Nazi occupation.

Below is more information about the book from the publisher:

This book follows Vladimir Lossky's attempt to enlist in the French army after the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. It records his reflections on suffering; the true nature of Christian or Western civilization; the rightness or otherwise of war; the problematic relationship between Church and State; what we mean by a "nation"; and secularization. Such issues are mulled over, not as arid abstractions, by someone who, as he walks across an increasingly war-torn landscape, quite literally has his feet on the ground.

A revelation to those who know only Lossky's more scholarly works - here one discovers his rounded personality, his warm humanity, and his love not only of Christian France but of the West in general.

Vladimir Lossky was one of the most influential Orthodox thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. Michael Donley is a writer and translator, and an expert in French literature.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book Review Emergence Christianity

One of my favorite liturgical seasons of the year is Pentecost. At Pentecost we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and recall the first Pentecost in Jerusalem when the Spirit came upon the disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Something new and life-giving was in the air. The disciples were filled with the Spirit, not with wine, as some onlookers thought.

For me Pentecost marks a time of change, of renewal, of life.

In her new book, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Publishing, 2012) basically tells us that the Church is a time of renewal. We are going through a long Pentecost.

Many have written about what has been called Emerging Christianity or Emergence Christianity. A few months ago I reviewed a book here by Diana Butler Bass called Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Many other similar type books have been published.

In short, these authors tell us that the Church is going through a massive change. People are very interested in God, holiness, liturgical worship, monastic practices; but the old bricks and mortar congregational life with parish halls, bell towers, large physical plants, not to mention large paid staffs are slowly dwindling. Across the country people are flocking to newer type Christian communities who focus on traditional spiritual practices but leave behind the old "forms" of what we consider Church life. Recently I was reading about St. Lydia's in Brooklyn, NY, a new emergence type Christian community that meets on Sunday morning, is inclusive, and also has no paid pastor. Tickle says that these types of groups are more common than we think.

Her book, Emergence Christianity, takes the reader through some historical background material in order to understand what is going on. Emergence Christianity is more of a survey than an in-depth study. She discusses some of the hallmarks of what we would call emerging or emergence Christianity and then discusses a few of them:

Lively worship
Focus on community
Smaller rather than larger
No paid pastor or maybe a pastor who works full time and pastors on Sundays
Focus on outreach and philanthropy to local community
Inclusive rather than exclusive
Thoughtful and reflective, some communities are neo-Monastic communities

Another really good benefit of Emergence Christianity is that Tickle includes color pictures of these communities, something which I found fascinating. As the old adage goes a picture tells 1,000 words and these pictures do just that! I just wish there were more.

Finally, if after reading Emergence Christianity you want to learn more, Tickle includes an annotated bibliography for further reading, guiding the reader to more resources.

I have been thinking a lot about the emergent Church movement and will most likely read more about it in the coming weeks and months, struggling to hear God speaking in this new Pentecost that we're experiencing. As a pastor of what we call a "traditional Church" (I am a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church) I am very much aware that most people I know are actually attracted to the hallmarks of "emergent Christianity" but find themselves in a bricks and mortar congregation. I look around my town and see mainline Christian congregations that are forced to share pastors since their income is down or have no more Church school programs because there are few children left. Pastors are being forced to work part time or three quarter time because income is down. Parishioners are no longer interested in keeping up with the physical plant, especially those with larger properties, halls, parsonages or manses.

The emergent Christian movement will certainly force us to seriously take a look at how we all "do Church" in the months and years to come.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review coming soon

I am looking forward to reviewing Hanna Pylvainen's new book We Sinners which was recently published by Henry Holt Co. We Sinners is about the toxicity of religion, how religion can destroy and chip away at ones life, and in this case a family.

Those of us who regularly attend Church and who are active in parish life tend to notice the good things; fellowship, outreach, uplifting worship. However we sometimes overlook the real tragedies in parish life, stories that Ms. Pylvainen brings up in her book.

Below is a description of We Sinners from the publisher:

This stunning debut novel—drawn from the author's own life experience—tells the moving story of a family of eleven in the American Midwest, bound together and torn apart by their faith

The Rovaniemis and their nine children belong to a deeply traditional church (no drinking, no dancing, no TV) in modern-day Michigan. A normal family in many ways, the Rovaniemis struggle with sibling rivalry, parental expectations, and forming their own unique identities in such a large family. But when two of the children venture from the faith, the family fragments and a haunting question emerges: Do we believe for ourselves, or for each other? Each chapter is told from the distinctive point of view of a different Rovaniemi, drawing a nuanced, kaleidoscopic portrait of this unconventional family. The children who reject the church learn that freedom comes at the almost unbearable price of their close family ties, and those who stay struggle daily with the challenges of resisting the temptations of modern culture. With precision and potent detail, We Sinnersfollows each character on their journey of doubt, self-knowledge, acceptance, and, ultimately, survival.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review coming soon........

I am looking forward to reviewing A Theology of Hope. This is a very moving collection of theological reflections based on the life and ministry of Christian de Cherge. A description of the book is noted below.

Christian de Chergé, prior of the Cistercian community at Tibhirine, Algeria, was assassinated with six of his fellow monks in 1996. De Chergé saw his monastic vocation as a call to be a person of prayer among persons who pray, that is, among the Muslim friends and neighbors with whom he and his brothers shared daily life. De Chergé’s writings bear witness to an original thinker who insists on the value of interreligious dialogue for a more intelligent grasp of one’s own faith.

Christian Salenson shows us the personal, ecclesial, and theological foundations of de Chergé’s vocation and the originality of his life and thought. He shows how the experience of a small monastery lost in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria contributes importantly to today’s theological debates.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Interview with Father Michael Plekon

My colleague Adam Deville posted a very inspirational interview with my longtime friend and mentor Father Michael Plekon the author of a new book called Hidden Holiness. A link to the interview if below as well as a link to his book.

Take some time to read the interview it is thought provoking and engaging.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Review coming soon

Wanted to share some good news from my friend and colleague Nicholas Denysenko an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology at Loyola Marymount in LA whose new book about the Blessing of Waters is coming out this month by Ashgate. The cover is gorgeous and the content is even better!

A full review will be coming in the next few weeks. Meanwhile you can read more about the book from the publisher page below

"This book examines the historical development of the blessing of waters and its theology in the East, with an emphasis on the Byzantine tradition. Exploring how Eastern Christians have sought these waters as a source of healing, purification, and communion with God, Denysenko unpacks their euchology and ritual context. The history and theology of the blessing of waters on Epiphany is informative for contemporary theologians, historians, pastors and students. Offering important insights into how Christians renew Baptism in receiving the blessed waters, this book also proposes new perspectives for theologizing Christian stewardship of ecology in the modern era based on a patristic liturgical synthesis. Denysenko presents an alternative framework for understanding the activity of the Trinity, enabling readers to encounter a vision of how participants encounter God in and after ritual."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Now on

My book on Schmemann is now updated on but it's too early to pre-order. Will notify everyone when orders can be taken. I'm thrilled about the book coming out. Seven long years of writing, rewriting, editing, and finally it will be available for readers.

It will also be available as an e-book too.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pre-publication comments

I just wanted to share some nice pre-publication comments about my new book. I am looking forward to it's publication in September 2012.

"Fr Alexander Schmemann was a man of tremendous theological and pastoral gifts, with uncanny insight into the world and church. In his writing, preaching and teaching he brought theology and life together in a Eucharistic approach that continues to question, critique, inspire and renew. Fr Mills shows convincingly that Schmemann’s work can be seen as pastoral theology. But in doing so, Mills has also beautifully introduced Schmemann to a new generation of Christian readers."

V. Rev. John A. Jillions

Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America

Associate Professor of Theology, Andrei Sheptytsky Institute

Ottawa, Canada

Alexander Schmemann continues to be a major voice in liturgical theology. He guided us back to liturgy as the "first" or "primary" source of theology and his work on Baptism and the Eucharist are required reading in liturgy courses. William Mills has another "first" in this discerning study--of Schmemann as an important voice in pastoral theology... Mills systematically yet very beautifully reveals another side of this great theologian of our time-- that of a wise and caring pastor.”

Rev. Michael Plekon
Professor, Sociology/Anthropology, Program in Religion & Culture
Baruch College, City University of New York
Associate, St Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Church, Wappingers Falls NY

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Book Review A Land More Kind Than Home

Once in a while I find a book that I can't simply put down. It is rare though and when I do find a book like that I just have to share it with friends and family. A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash is one such book.

Cash is a professor of creative writing at Bethany College in West Virginia and this is his first book.

As many of you know most of the books reviewed on this blog fall under the realm of Christian theology or general spirituality and I don't recall whether or not I reviewed a work of fiction lately.

This book is literally a page turner (note: I read it in one day, getting up to get myself a cup of coffee a few times!) as Cash tells a tale of old time country Christian religion combined with murder, mayhem, and mystery. Rather than rely on a single narrator A Land More Kind Than Home has several; an older Church lady, the sheriff, and a young boy. The shift of narrator is refreshing allowing the reader to receive the information via various viewpoints which I enjoyed very much.

One of the main characters in the book is Pastor Chambliss, a man so mean you want to hate, hit, and run out of town. A man so full of evil and darkness that I was reminded of Woody Allen's famous quote, "If Jesus came back today and saw what was done in his name he would keep vomitting and never stop!" I agree. Take this passage for example:

I'd seen people I'd known just about my whole life pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire to their faces just to see if it would burn them. Holy people too. God fearing folks that hadn't ever acted like that a day in their lives. But Chambliss convinced them it was safe to challenge the will of God. He made them think it was all right to take that dare if they believed. And just about the whole lot of them said, "Here I am, Lord. Come and take me if you mind to it. I'm ready if you are." (page 3)

The story gets better and once it gets going it doesn't stop. The last three or four pages are so beautiful that I underlined most of them and will go back and re-read them again and again and I assume some of this will come out in a sermon or two or maybe three! Unfortunately the truth of the gospel message gets lost on Pastor Chambliss and his ignorant flock, people who follow without discerning the Spirit of God and more unfortunately there are too many pastors today like Pastor Chambliss who preach and teach a similar message. And that's the scary part, that this type of teaching is still around. A teaching of secrecy, of signs, and miracles together with lies and hate and evil.

Cash tells a tall tale with superb narration. The Carolina country twang and dialogue is just enough without overdoing it and the characters are well rounded and real. There is a bit too much backstory on some of them, especially the older Church lady Adelaide which takes away a bit from the story, or at least provides a detour or two.

It is hard to believe that this is Cash's first novel, I cannot wait to read the second!

For all you pastors and priests and Church people go out and buy a copy of A Land More Kind Than Home you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Time of Pentecost

This is the Pentecost season for the Church. Those of us in the East celebrated it this past Sunday and those in the Western Church celebrated it a few Sunday's ago.

It is very easy to look around and see all the bad things that are happening in the Church, the lack of leadership, low memberships, even lower income (!!), lack of interest in Church activities, abuse of power and authority, shall I go on? You get the point.

Yet when you look again you also see some very good things happening. Babies are baptized, new members find God and join, people repent and change, in short, life goes on.

Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the world. The Spirit is the life-giver who inspires, encourages, leads, and draws all of us together.

Let's try to live by the Spirit this Pentecost season and see all the good things that are happening around us.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Review The Best of Will Willimon

This Spring has been a wonderful time for reading and if you skimmed a few of my recent blog posts you'll see that the reading list is theologically diverse from Yves Congar to NT Wright to Rowan Williams to Will Willimon!

Earlier this Spring I reviewed Bishop Willimon's other new book called Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question which you can read if you click here. Therefore I am not going to repeat the introductory material about Bishop Willimon and his ministry which you can read in my earlier posting.

His other new book this Spring is called The Best of Will Willimon: Acting Up in Jesus' Name (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012). This book is unlike his other monographs which deal with one particular theme such as preaching, vocation, or the role of the episcopate. Rather this book is a collection of short chapters on various themes which have interested Bishop Willimon. Some of the various topics are:

Good News
Following Jesus
The Church and the World

I'm not sure if these selections are from Bishop Willimon's blog which he regularly updates or if they are from his numerous books or essays. From a reading standpoint I wish the publisher included either a note or some information where these particular writings are from so that I can read the rest of them since I have a few of Willimon's books sitting on my shelf in my office. Needless to say I was drawn to his thoughts about pastoring, preaching, and of course following Jesus.

I was not disappointed either. Willimon has a pointed style, he draws you in with humor and then zaps you with the gospel message! I love it. Many pastors and bishops are not only good preachers but writers as well, since they are all servants of the Word; here I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, Frederick Buechner, Walter Brueggeman, and of course Will Willimon. Take the following for example:

"Sorry if you prefer your God to come at you in an exclusively spiritual, inflated, pale blue and fuzzy vagueness, hermetically sealed from where you actually live. In Jesus, divinity and humanity embrace." (p. 5)

or this one....

"Without humor, a bishop would be an insufferable bore, a district superintendent could be dangerous, and a pastor would be in a perpetual state of depression due to the state of the Church." (p. 164).

There are many more such poignant passages in this book. I caught myself laughing at several of them, especially ones about pastors, we are a messed up bunch and he knows it. The problem is that pastors don't know it and we walk around thinking that we know everything there is to know about the Church, humility seems to go out the door.

The Best of Will Willimon is not just a "greatest hits" type collection but a book that can be used as a daily devotional of sorts, taking one section per day and using it for reflection or journaling, or perhaps if it is read by a pastor for their clergy group. I also wish the publisher included a "Questions for Discussion" section or some questions for reflection as a way to get deeper into the chapters.

The wider Church is suffering from many things; dwindling membership, lack of funding, lack of vision, poor leadership, misuse of funds, but the Church is also grateful that there are prophets and preachers like Bishop Willimon and others who are faithful in their ministry which continues to feed and nourish us along our path to the Kingdom.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pre-orders being taken

I just found out that my publisher is now taking pre-orders for my new book Church, World, and Kingdom. It will be available on later in the Summer. If you know of anyone who is interested in the life and writings of Father Alexander Schmemann share the good news!