Thursday, November 28, 2013

Book Review Reading for Preaching

Every Sunday I have to prepare a sermon. For the first few years it was not that bad since I was preaching from the abundance of my recent knowledge at seminary. However, a few years into my pastorate I was having serious problems. Trying to prepare an inspirational, creative, encouraging, and thoughtful sermon every week is not easy! And it doesn't get easier with time either. After fourteen years in the parish it is still a challenge. I try not to repeat the stories that I use or recycle old sermons. Every week I draw on various life experiences as ways to explain the good news to the congregation. Reading has helped me tremendously. I read both wide and deep: novels, short stories, poetry, and some non-fiction. I read blog posts as well as the newspaper. Reading has helped my preaching and writing and the more that I read the better I become at both preaching and writing.

If you are a pastor and need inspiration for preaching than look no further. Cornelius Plantinga Jr has just written an excellent easy to read book about "reading" for preaching, hence its name Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013) 

This book is a must read for preachers. It is not really a how to manual but a series of thoughtful reflections on reading and literature. Basically Plantinga encourages preachers to read wide and deeply and to read all the time. Too often pastors are very busy, we have meetings, reports to write, sermons to prepare, parishioners to visit, and meetings to attend. Then of course they have their families to attend to as well as their own personal time. Many pastors complain that there is no time to read. However Plantinga says that even if you read five or six good books a year is better than nothing.

For more information about Reading for Preaching click here 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A 30 Day Retreat Kindle Version

If you are in need of a spiritual retreat or renewal then look no further than my book, A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Renewal (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010) It is now on Kindle where you have a 30 Day retreat at your fingertips.

Most folks can't take 30 days away at a retreat hour or cabin in the woods, so why not take a retreat with you. Each chapter has a series of "Food for Thought" questions for you to contemplate and think about.

Click here to order the Kindle version of A 30 Day Retreat 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Book Review: The Good Funeral

No one wants to talk about death these days, actually most folks want to avoid it. My dad always said that you can't avoid two things in this world son, death and taxes! How true. He also said don't bother saving up too much because you'll never see a U-haul hitched to a hearse. That's also very true. We live in a culture that avoids death. We don't like to visit hospitals or hospices. We skip funerals and go to a general memorial service instead. Our culture never really discusses death. We never see rows upon rows of military caskets on the tarmac after they arrived back in the United States. Basically we'd rather not talk about death at all. Recently a local hospital had a large advertising campaign replete with billboards and paid advertisements in the local paper that said, "Come to (hospital name), we cheat death!" Needless to say the public actually was upset and the hospital president was fired and so were a few of the trustees. Apparently even the general public who is often out to lunch when it comes to deep moral and ethical issues like this did not like the blatant disregard for a deeper, yet often not spoken about issue, such as death.

If we take the gospel and our faith seriously then we will certainly talk about death and mortality and sickness and suffering. It's a part of the human condition and central in the gospel too. Jesus warns his disciples that eventually he will be arrested, put on trial, mocked, and finally crucified. Yet they too, like us, don't want to talk about that, it's too dark and gruesome. Give us more life they say. Talk about the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, anything but death!

If you want to learn more about death, grief, suffering, and community care then you must read The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox, 2013). Written by two very well known authors, Thomas Long who serves as the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and Thomas Lynch a longtime funeral director and author of many essays, poems, and memoir. I have been lucky enough to have read some of Long and Lynch's previous work which I enjoyed very much so I was looking forward to reading there new co-authored book. This book is really full of wisdom, humor, and God honest truth about the world and culture of the funeral industry as well as caring for the grieving.

The Good Funeral really deserves a longer review which cannot be done here in this blog post but needless to say if you are a pastor or a layperson who wants to learn more about funerals and having a good death then read this book. Both Long and Lynch are insiders. They are not afraid to speak the truth about how we as a society have lost touch with death. While reading this book I was thinking about my grandparents and great-grandparents generation and how death must have been so prevalent in their world, especially during the times of World War I and World War II where many families were touched by death due to wars but also to sickness: the Spanish flu, pneumonia, typhoid, premature child death, heart attacks, and so forth. I can imagine that in small towns and villages death was very common, not to mention of course the death of farm animals in the more rural areas. This is contrasted of course with our modern culture where I have met many adults who well into their 30's have gone to maybe one or two funerals in their entire lives! Seventy years ago the odds would have been very different.

If anything The Good Funeral might start good conversations in our parishes and congregations about living wills, end of life issues, planning ones funeral and so forth. This book may give pastors a door way into a very hot and often "avoided" topic in parish life. A few years ago a parishioner who was a lawyer and I gave an evening presentation at our parish about end of life issues and caring for the dead. People were very open to this sort of thing. They wanted to learn some of the ins and outs of the funeral service and funeral planning as well as how to obtain a living will and regular will. They wanted to learn more about helping the grieving and mourning. Hopefully The Good Death will spawn more conversations like the one we had in our parish about death.

For more information about The Good Funeral click here 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: Holy Luck

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about Holy Luck click here 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: RS Thomas Uncollected Poems

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

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

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

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

Llanddewi Brefi (1948)

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

Sick Child (1993)

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

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

Coming True (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about RS Thomas and his books click here 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Review: Sermons From the National Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Without Apology Sermons for Christ's Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review Contemporary Jewish American Poetry

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

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

Grandmother's Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating the Apple

The first time
I spoon applesauce

your long shiver
makes me laugh

one bite, then 
you turn away

this new flavor
not yet familiar

in my imagination
I'm introducing you

to mangoes already,
to fresh bread,

halvah and tamales
injera and kimchi

but you're not
ready for difference

or new discovery
hot fists clinging

to the Eden 
you've always known

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

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

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: Leaving Alexandria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Review: Managing Clergy Lives

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

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

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

Managing Clergy Lives is divided into six chapters:

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about Managing Clergy Lives click here    

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review Preaching that Matters

I enjoy reading a variety of books; fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and memoir. Recently I have been reading some non-fiction books especially some books on Scripture and Preaching. Even though I have been a pastor for nearly fourteen years I always like to improve my skills and be reminded of "the basics" like preaching, teaching, and pastoral care.

I recently came across a great book by Lori J. Carrell called Preaching That Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons (Hendon, VA: Alban Publishing, 2013). Carrell is a professor of communication and the director of the Center for the Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Her expertise in communication, rhetoric, and public speaking provides her with the resources and experience to write such a great book. This is more than a book however, it is a resource and workbook which the reader will hopefully return to again and again throughout ones ministry.

Lori must be a wonderful teacher because her sense of humor, honesty, and truth comes out in her writing and surely in the classroom too. Even the chapter titles are creative: Transforming, Not Informing; Exegeting Then Organizing; and Delivering Not Decorating are a few of them.

Preaching That Matters includes wonderful questions for small group discussion and journaling. Actually, Alban Publishing included space to write in the book but I have a handy spiral bound notebook in which I wrote down notes and extended thoughts on each chapter. I will certainly go back again and do a more thorough job reflecting on my own preaching habits (good and bad!!), style, and delivery. Each chapter deals with one of these issues and she provides real anecdotes from participants in her workshops and conferences.

Preaching That Matters is certainly not a theory book or a "how to" book on preaching or merely a collection of stories about preaching but a book that engages the pastor as they engage the Word of God each week. Preparing a weekly sermon that is authentic, inspirational, unique, and Biblical is not an easy task. I vividly remember the several really long dry spells that I had in my own ministry and the difficulty it was to muster the energy to face my congregation each week and proclaim the Good News even though I was spiritually in the dumps so to speak. But preach I did and preach I have been doing for a long time.

One of Lori's main themes which is woven throughout the book is that preaching is for the transformation of people. All too often preaching because like dry dust, a mere exegetical exercise (which maybe appropriate for example in an Adult Bible study context) but not for the pulpit. People come each Sunday to hear the Good News and to be reminded that they are loved by God and that life does matter in a world of darkness, death, and despair. They come to be consoled, comforted, and encouraged on their walk of faith, not to be bombarded with theological jargon and interesting but trite historical minutae from ages ago. They want to hear good Biblical preaching, they want to hear about Jesus and his ministry and how our life can be changed today in the 21st Century Church.

I recommend this book for preachers everywhere who want to improve their homilies. I know that I will return to the questions in each chapter and re-think how I create and deliver my own sermons. There is always room for improvement!

For more information about Preaching That Matters click here 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book Review Saint Paul and the New Evangelization

I have turned to the writings of St. Paul again and again throughout my years in ministry. Like me St. Paul had to deal with faith, doubt, problems, pains, debate, and conflict. Ask any priest and they'll tell you the same thing; parish ministry aint' easy!

Liturgical Press just published a small but important book on the writings of St. Paul, focusing on the intersection of his writings and ministry and the New Evangelization. The book is called Saint Paul and the New Evangelization (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013). Father Ronald D. Witherup is the author and the supervisor general of the Sulpicians. Don't let the small size of this book deter you from reading it. This book is aimed at priests and lay leaders who want a fresh perspective on evangelization and parish renewal. Winthrup includes not only short passages from St. Paul but also important Vatican documents regarding our life in faith. It also includes a detailed appendix of these documents and what they cover.

Before reading don't think that Fr. Winthrup suggests that we go door to door seeking new catechumens. However, Winthrup does suggest that we take our faith seriously and that when each of us renews our faith in a very personal way then we can be formed and equipped to share our faith with others when the time is right.

Withrup also suggests that we all turn again to the writings of St. Paul as a way to renew this faith but also to see how both he and the early Christians engaged in ministry and evangelization. I envision that this book could be a study guide or at least a resource for parish leadership teams as they continue to work and persevere in the New Evangelization. As Jesus says the fields are ripe for the harvest and he sends his disciples out to reap some of that fruit. He sends us out just like his sent his disciples out as a way to preach the gospel and bring the good news to the world wherever we find ourselves. We don't have to go far either, the fields are right in front of us, we just have to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

For more information about Saint Paul and the New Evangelization click here 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Book Review Choosing Change

Change is not easy. At least most of the time. Change usually brings up a lot of anxiety especially when it involves something new, something different. Major shifts in life; a new job, a new house, a marriage, having children often causes stress, strain, and many emotions! But as humans we have to change, its natural. We age. We grow. The question is not whether or not we're going to change but how we navigate those challenging times in our life.

Peter Coutts' new book Choosing Change: How to Motivate Churches to Face the Future (Hendon, VA: Alban Publishing, 2013) is a book for pastors and lay leaders who are dealing with change. Coutts has over twenty years experience in congregational life and has taught in the Dmin. program at McCormick Seminary in Chicago. His many years of parish life combined with his teaching ability gives Coutts the credibility to write this book. This is no ordinary book either, it reads as if the author is right there with you, leading you by the hand through the numerous thickets and briars of change.

No one likes change, well at least most folks. Parishioners generally don't like change either. In one vignette in this book Coutts talks about just the small change when he moved the pulpit on Sunday morning caused a ruckus in the congregation. I read that and smiled, been there, done that. Most communities like status quo and stability. Change comes hard. After all Jesus' main message in the gospel is "repent" a word which means change, not many folks wanted to follow. Thankfully some did!

Choosing Change is divided into two major sections:

Introduction to Motivation Theory 

Practice of Motivational Leadership 

While I understand some theory was important for this book I found part one to be less satisfying than part two.

What I really enjoyed about the book however was that Coutts offers many real life examples from his own life as well as stories from other parishes which he weaves throughout his narrative. I also liked that fact that he pauses at times and provides some easy to read bullet points for later re-reading and reference.

Coutts reminds clergy especially that change brings up a lot of anxiety and worry in people. Change is and often can be scary. A long time pastor leaves parish ministry, a parish closes, a parish is aging. All these things can bring up bad feelings in people. Change can also be good too. A small mission parish grows. A parish begins a building program. A young new pastor begins ministry. Change can be exhilarating at times too. Yet Coutts shows us that there are key factors in how communities and individuals change.

Choosing Change is a must read for any newly ordained pastor or parish council/vestry leader.

For more information about Choosing Change click on this link 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Review Praying and Believing in Early Christianity

A few years ago I came across a very interesting book by the well known liturgical theologian Robert Taft, SJ. In this book Taft explores the various intersections of early Christian society, culture, and liturgy. He looks for example at the numerous sermons from this period and what they can tell us about the liturgy during that time. I found his work fascinating since it pushed the boundaries of liturgical studies, exploring the other documents that shed light on liturgical development during this period.

So when I saw Prof. Johnson's new book Praying and Believing in Early Christianity (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013) I knew that I had to review it. Johnson is a professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame and a pastor in the Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Praying and Believing is aimed primarily at graduate students in liturgical theology or pastors like me who are interested in the intersection and connection between liturgy and what the liturgy means for the Church today. The book is organized around five major chapters:

Liturgical Praying and the Priority of Grace

Doxology and the Trinity 

Christ and Mary 

Worship and Praxis 

Praying and Believing Together 

Johnson reminds us that our present liturgy did not just fall from the sky but developed over time, layers upon layers of additions, shifts, and changes, yet the important things like the role of the Holy Spirit in our salvation as well as the two natures of Christ and the development of the creedal formulae found their way into the liturgy. Anyone who has attended and participated in an Eastern Orthodox liturgy for example is well aware of the emphasis on the Trinitarian formula Father, Son, and Spirit which is repeated over and over again in the Liturgy. He also draws our attention to the the role of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos in the life of faith. Popular devotion to her began before the time of the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE which was the council that finally affirmed her as "Theotokos" or "God-bearer." Popular devotion to her also inspired the creation of feast days in her honor (her birth, her entrance into the Temple, and her death) found their way into the Church year as well.

Prayer and belief, liturgy and life, they go together. In this fascinating book Johnson shows us exactly how belief and faith, liturgy and life play together in our Sunday worship. Don't let the small size of this book fool you either, while small it deals with large issues which are not just interesting for historical purposes but are necessary for our life of faith.

For more information about Praying and Believing in Early Christianity click here 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Interview about Church and World

If anyone is interested my good friend and a contributor to Church and World interviewed me on his blog Eastern Christian Books. Feel free to click on the link below to read the interview. Thank you Adam for doing this!

To read the interview click here 

To order a copy of Church and World click here 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

New Book Published

Wanted to share the good news about a new essay collection that I recently edited a longtime friend and colleague Father Michael Plekon, a professor of Sociology and Orthodox priest. The essays included reflect Michael's interests such as ecumenism, pastoral ministry, liturgy, and holiness.

Click here to order a copy of Church and World 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: Facing Feelings in Faith Communities

Alban Publishing has recently released some very practical and pastoral books for both clergy and lay leaders, among them is William Kondrath's new book, Facing Feelings in Faith Communities (Herndon, VA: Alban, 2013). Kondrath is the William Lawrence Professor of Pastoral Theology and Director of Theological Field Education at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. In addition to teaching he is also a creative consultant, multicultural trainer, as well as an executive coach. His many years teaching and consulting comes through in this book. If you are a pastor or lay leaders and want to learn more about your own feelings and how feelings and emotions impact ones family and the local parish then look no further, this is the book for you.

Kondrath is truly an expert and knows his material yet he does not get caught up in academic and scholarly talk. Surely he is trained and has plenty of real life and academic experience but he writes as if he is in the room with you guiding you along the way.

Most of us have all sorts of feelings: anger, sadness, grief, joy, happiness, and probably a lot of shame and guilt mixed in, I know I do. If you're human you have feelings. Kondrath takes these different feelings, dissects and explains them using real life examples, and then shows us how these feelings can also impact our fellow parishioners. After being for a pastor for a while I realized that so many of the problems that I encountered were not what I would call problems that could be solved but people coming and expressing their feelings in some what "inappropriate manners" such as lashing out, exhibiting passive agressive behavior, and so forth. Ask any pastor and they will all agree, folks come to us with feelings about God, about their faith, about their parents and project it on us!

Facing Feelings is divided up into ten rather short chapters and one of the great benefits of this book in particular is that each chapter has a series of questions pertaining to that particular feeling whether it be anger, sadness, joy, or fear. I took time out and wrote in my journal as I read through this book and I hope you do to. These questions can also be used for small group discussions as well.

The book also has a great series of footnotes for further reading and I'll make sure to follow up on some of them since I still have a lot more to learn about my emotions and feelings!

For more information about Facing Feelings click here 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review: Discernment

Every day I make many types of decisions, some big and some small. Most of them are small. For example I might have to decide whether to have eggs or cereal for breakfast. Or I may need to decide whether I will visit a parishioner before or after doing some domestic errands. We all have different types of decisions to make, some are easy and some are more difficult. Sometimes the decision is made for us before we can even think about it. I may have my day all planned out but if it starts to snow and the roads become icy I will probably stay inside the rest of the day.

If you are interested in a fulfilling spiritual life and are looking for a good book to read then you need to read Henri Nouwen's latest book called Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life (NY: Harper, 2013). Nouwen was a famous Catholic priest, author, and retreat leader. His books have sold millions and there are plenty of retreats that are based on his work. I have read three of his books so far and have thoroughly enjoyed every one of them.

Discernment is written in a typical Nouwen conversational style. He had a way of writing that was clearly understandable yet very deep as well. Various stories from his personal life seep through as well which make the book even more enjoyable.

This book is divided into three major parts: What is Discernment?; Discerning Guidance in Books, Nature, People, and Events; and Discerning Vocation, Presence, Identity, and Time. The book concludes with three appendices which were written by some of his close friends and students.

I found the entire book very enjoyable and read slowly on purpose, I wanted to savor every page! I underlined a lot of sentences too, food for further reflection and certainly for sermons too. Nouwen digs deep in the Sacred Scriptures as well as in the writings and lives of the saints and in our culture as well. His section on Discerning Guidance in Books, Nature, and Events was most interesting since we often do not look to those areas to read the "signs of the times" so to speak. Discernment is usually difficult because many people have to make decisions during difficult times such as whether or not to leave a job, whether or not to get married, or whether or not to get ordained or not. Nouwen recommends that we do not make hasty decisions nor should we drag our feet, but as we walk in the darkness we slowly try to seek out the light that guides our way.

For more information about Discernment click here 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: Sacred Relationships

There are plenty of books on spirituality around, some on Jesus and spirituality, others on the Apostle Paul and spirituality and others on different aspects or spiritual practices such as fasting, almsgiving, lectio divina, and so forth. However, I have come across few books dealing with spirituality and relationships in the Old Testament. This new book published by Liturgical Press (2013) is a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to dig deeper in the Old Testament in order to build stronger and closer relationships with God and neighbors alike.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is an ordained rabbi and a lecturer. He is the spiritual leader of the New Shul of the Conejo. He has an easy to read writing style and since he is a rabbi and spiritual leader and lecturer you feel like he's right in the room with you as you read. There are few difficult theological terms and when he does use them he explains what they mean. There is also a glossary in the back of the book for a reference.

What I liked most about this book is that it deals with a very important part of the Bible which is by in large neglected by Christians. It is hard enough getting parishioners to read the New Testament let alone the Old Testament which is almost four times as big! For many people the Old Testament is scary; strange names and stories pepper the pages. Yet Rabbi Barclay chooses almost a dozzen of the more poignant and perhaps palatable sections of the Old Testament as points of reflection. We learn about Ruth, the Psalms, Job, Daniel, Esther, and more. This is not a scholarly exegetical work so do not fear that you'll have to read page after page of footnotes or scholarly debates. After providing a brief overview of the book or passage Barclay provides the reader with a handful of key insights for the reader to reflect on.

This book is truly a gem. However, after reading it I really wanted more! I wanted Barclay not just to keep going, to provide more insight but I wanted him to go a bit deeper in the text, to pull out some more pearls of wisdom. Since he is well versed in Hebrew exegesis and the inspirational writings of the Talmud and the various sayings of the rabbi's I really wanted to know more about Ruth, Esther, and the like. I could easily envision another volume perhaps dealing with the other books of the Bible, providing more insight and inspiration for readers, especially Christians who are lacking in the Old Testament.

If you are searching for a sound Biblical reflection on building stronger relationships and healing the broken ones in your life then take and read Sacred Relationships, you won't go away disappointed.

For more information about Sacred Relationships click on this link 

To learn more about Rabbi Barclay click on this link 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: Thomas Merton Selected Essays

For those who enjoy the writings of Thomas Merton the new anthology edited by Patrick F. O' Connell is a must read. Recently published by Orbis Books, Thomas Merton: Selected Essays is a sampling of the numerous essays which Merton wrote. Patrick F. O'Connell is a professor of English and theology at Gannon University in Erie, PA as well as the founding member and former president of the International Thomas Merton Society. 

I first encountered Thomas Merton in college. While browsing the theology shelves in a used bookstore I came across a small blue book called Contemplative Prayer. I read it so much the pages became well worn. After reading that book I read some of his other books and then his biography. Merton was certainly prolific writing not only monographs but also many book reviews and essays as well. This new collection is a sampling of thirty three of his essays which range from topics such as the theology of paradise to a loving tribute to Gandhi as well as the role of contemplation in the modern world and the relationship between Christianity and Zen. 

The word "essay" comes from the French word "essayer" which means to try or to attempt, particularly to attempt at exploring some topic or issue. These essays reveal Merton's attempt at exploring the many important issues of his day. Each of the essays includes a short introduction, explaining where the essay was first published and if it was previously anthologized and where it appeared. 

What is nice about this book is that you can read one or two of the essays and then take some time to reflect upon them and then move on. In that way they are like Zen koans, a statement is read and then you go away thinking about it for a while. Merton had that unique gift of getting right at the topic at hand without including too much minutae, he wanted to get at the hear of the matter. It's amazing that while these essays were written over forty years ago they are still very appropos to our day and age. 

Thomas Merton: Selected Essays also includes a short introduction by Brother Patrick Hart, Merton's former secretary as well as an appendix of his essays in chronological order for those who wish to explore more of Merton's writings. 

For more information about this book click here 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review: God's Other Children

As a priest in the Southeast United States I meet all sorts of people from a variety of backgrounds, especially religious backgrounds. However most of my contact has been with a variety of Christian backgrounds, i.e Methodist, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and so forth. Occasionally I'll meet an agnostic but that's pretty much it. My contact with Hindu's, Jews, Muslim's, Buddhists, Sikh's, and persons from other Eastern religions is limited to non-existent. However it was not always this way. When I lived in New Jersey I met many people from a variety of religious backgrounds; most of my friends were Jews and my parents worked with a few people who were Muslims.

For those people who know little about non Christian religions, and especially Eastern religions then this book is for you. God's Other Children: Personal Encounters with Faith, Love, and Holiness (NY: Harper One, 2013) is not a textbook nor a survey but a book regarding Bradley Malkovsky's experience with faith, love, and holiness in India. Malkovsky, a practicing Roman Catholic, actually married an Indian woman who was Muslim who eventually converted to Catholicism. This book is an intriguing exploration of how people from different faiths work, live, and exist together in a very big and multi-ethnic country. Malkovsky also is an expert in Eastern religions and teaches in the Theology Department at The University of Notre Dame.

Divided into twenty chapters, God's Other Children, takes the reader away from our comfort zones in the Western world and plops us down in India. I have never been to India but I have met several people who were from there and they all tell me if you want to learn about religions then go to India! You will find almost everything there! Indeed, from what I gather from God's Other Children, India seems like a religious mall for seekers. In one city you may find a Catholic Church down the street from a Sikh Temple or Buddhist shrine. You may come across a religious procession or other type of religious activity.

What makes God's Other Children intriguing and interesting is the personal touch that Malkovsky provides his readers. This book could have easily been an academic or theological exploration of India but it is not. Rather Malkovsky weaves personal vignettes from his own stay in India, studying at various ashrams, learning Sanskrit, living on his own, and also eventually dating and marrying a local girl from a village. God's Other Children is Huston Smith meets Elizabeth Gilbert I guess! I also found Malkovsky's writing very down to earth, he often would pepper the narrative with words and terms in their original language but then translate them for the lay reader. Most of the time we live in a religious bubble. If we are regular Churchgoers we may know very little about our Hindu or Muslim neighbors down the street and vice versa. I think the more we get to know one another the better we will be.

If you are interested in religion in general and the various religions of India in particular then take and read God's Other Children.

For more information about the book click here 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Review: You Are the Messiah

When I heard that Justin Lewis-Anthony had a new book coming out this Spring I new I had to read it right away! I read his previous book If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Re-thinking Priestly Ministry (London: Mowbray, 2009). There are few theological books that make one laugh and this one did. Serving as an ordained priest in the Anglican Church has provided Lewis-Anthony with plenty of material to work with, especially when it pertains to the parish, clergy, and the Church at large. After reading If You Meet George Herbert I told all my clergy friends about it.

Lewis-Anthony's new book, You Are the Messiah is an exploration of the concept of leadership as it pertains to the Church. Anyone who has spent enough time in parish life has encountered the word leadership, or leadership development, or leadership skills. It seems like every year diocesan administrations want to help train clergy for "better leadership skills." My hunch is that Lewis-Anthony, like myself, was tired of hearing so much about leadership that he wanted to write a book about it.

I cannot devote the time needed for a longer review, hopefully a theological journal will do that. However, I do want to provide at least a summary of the book for you to at least consider reading it yourself.

The book is divided into three parts: Leadership is a Myth, the Myths, and Domination and discipleship. This book is not a page turner and nor is it merely just a theological exposition on leadership. Lewis-Anthony also includes plenty of examples from both the silver screen as well as popular culture as to show how leadership, especially heroic type leadership (aka General Patton, John Wayne, etc..) has provided a false image of leadership for those of us in the pews and in the parish. While I found his main thesis very strong I did get lost in the longer second section which really deals with film and film history as well as an excursus into main leadership issues. However I really enjoyed the first and last section when he shows how Jesus provides a very different image of leadership; one of humility, meekness, lowliness, and sacrifice, skills that are certainly not encouraged, taught, or discussed in MBA programs or in the business world.

Basically Lewis-Anthony shows that the Church has really adopted a very bad and even heretical notion of leadership from our culture at large. Bishops and priests cannot be leaders like George Patton and John Wayne, although unfortunately some do, and it often backfires on them! The image of Jesus and also Paul is that of counter-leadership really. When reading You Are the Messiah I really wish Lewis-Anthony explored this more in the last section. He has some really cogent and important things to say about this subject yet he sort of cut it short. He pulls no punches either. What makes Lewis-Anthony's writings and ideas so fresh is that he is radically honest and truthful. Too often our bishops and clergy leaders, even seminary professors, tiptoe through the tulips ignoring or downplaying the real problems and issues in ecclesial life, focusing the annual clergy gathering on "bucks and butts" (i.e. bette income and people in the pew), or clergy development (whatever that means!!), and better administration (again, huh?). It's almost always easier to have ones head in the sand rather than to hit head on the cares and concerns of the day. Perhaps he will be working on a future volume dealing with the image of Jesus and Paul as leaders, teasing out the gospel and epistle lessons which really are great examples for clergy; here I think of John 10 and 12, Romans 10, Matthew 25, and so forth.

For more information about You Are the Messiah click here 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Book Review: Believing

Just have faith. Yea right. Easier said than done. The word faith means trust as in if you trust someone very deeply. Faith is like walking in the dark putting one foot in front of the other hoping that you will keep going forward. Faith is the story of the Israelites wandering around in the desert for forty years not knowing whether or not they'll get the promised land, but they kept going anyway. Faith is tricky. It is also a life-long process too.

In his new book called Believing (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013), Eugene Kennedy takes up the mantle of faith and creates an extended essay of sorts on this notion of faith and belief. Kennedy is a professor emeritus from Loyola University in Chicago and the author of over fifty books in psychology and religion and has won many awards as well.

Believing is organized around nine chapters, each taking up a different aspect of faith such as incarnational faith, doubting, creative faith, and faith and life.

After reading this book one is left with more questions than answers, something which Kennedy notes is not a bad thing. A healthy dose of doubt is actually good for us! He warns us about people who think that they have all the answers, they are filled with hubris! Unfortunately the institutional Church, which also comes up from time to time in this book, often does seem to have all the answers to our questions and leaves little room for doubt. Doubt says Kennedy, allows humans to grow and expand and keep asking questions which propels us forward. Doubt is not bad, it just is what it is. He mentions that one of the major problems with the institutional Church is that it has not left enough room for doubters, people like theologians, artists, writers, poets who keep pushing the limits of knowledge. Very often these people are pushed aside and their voices are not heard. Kennedy calls for a new and vigorous support of these people since it is this creativity that is needed now more than ever.

Believing is a book which is short enough to read in a few hours but a book which will make you think for several weeks! It seems when we read the gospels for examples Jesus more often than not does not answer every question but he actually answers by asking a question himself, passing the ball into the inquirers court. If Jesus himself does not answer all questions why should be think different.

If you are interested in faith and the many aspects of it than read Kennedy's new book, you might leave scratching your head in the end and that's okay too, it just shows that you are a thinking person.

For more information about this book click here 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Book Review: Stations of the Heart

As a pastor I have ministered to people who have lost their fathers, mothers, siblings, and yes, children too. Death no matter how it comes, whether through cancer, stroke, heart attack, or just plain old age is not easy. Saying goodbye hurts, especially for those near and dear. It is not easy for me either. As a pastor and spiritual guide I have walked alongside parishioners through chemo and radiation, from testing to testing, and held their hands at the end of their life journey. I have prayed that God's hand comes quickly and watched people linger around probably longer than most. Death is tough for both the dying and the living. Death is tough on pastors too.

Richard Lischer, professor at Duke Divinity School, and former pastor in the Lutheran Church,  has recently written a very moving and inspirational memoir  Stations of the Heart: Parting With a Son (NY: Knopf, 2013). He writes with candor and honesty revealing the many details of both the life and tragic loss of his son Adam.

We meet Adam in the beginning of the book as he tells his father that his cancer has returned in a simple way by saying, "Hey dad..." and that "Hey dad...." changes everything. It is a "Hey dad..." that no dad wants to hear.

Lischer provides some rich insight into his relationship with Adam as we see vignettes of their relationship from Adam's happy go lucky childhood dealing with a mysterious neurological disorder to his enrolling in law school to his work as a district attorney. The memoir takes the reader back and forth from the  present to the past to the present again. We know Adam is going to die in the beginning of the book, yet Lischer shows his readers that this is not just any person, it's his son. Lischer takes us through is PET and MRI scans, to his regular chemo treatments. He even reveals the very intimate details of dying such as the lack of humanity of the dying, the hair loss, the hospital gowns, and yes, the vomiting. After reading Stations of the Heart I really felt, in a small way perhaps, that I knew Adam a bit.

The title of Lischer's memoir is taken from the Stations of the Cross, a regular spiritual prayer ritual used in the Catholic spiritual tradition. Most Catholic churches have the stations of the cross on the walls alongside the interior of the Church building or sometimes in a garden area next to or behind the Church. Parishioners use the Stations of the Cross as a way to follow Jesus during the final moments of his life, from his betrayal all the way through is crucifixion. As a young adult Adam joins the Catholic Church in order to worship with his wife Jennifer and they together do the stations of the cross especially during his terminal illness. The Stations of the Cross become embedded in Richard as he walks the long walk towards the inevitable with Adam. The pain and suffering of Jesus becomes embedded in both Adam and father as they deal with Adams cancer.

I don't want to give to much away. This memoir is rich with emotion yet not sentimental. We see the tragic loss of a son yet we also see how Adam's death forces his father, a professor of theology, to deal with his own faith. As a pastor I have dealt with much suffering in my parish but also in my personal life. I confess that pain, suffering, and death does indeed call to question ones faith in the Almighty God whom we adore and worship. It also reminds us of the rich grace that he continues to pour out on us, like he did with Adam in his final days.

I congratulate Dr. Lischer for writing such a tender book. Surely it must have been cathartic putting on the page very tender and intimate moments of a father's love for his son. Adam's life and death surely changed his parents and his family and in a vicarious way it has changed mine too. I hope it will change yours as well.

For more information about Stations of the Heart click here 

To learn more about Dr. Richard Lischer click here 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: Notes From the Underground

Once in a while a book just hits me in my gut. One of those, "wow, I gotta keep reading" types of books. Donald Cozzens' new book, Notes From the Underground: The Spiritual Journal of a Secular Priest (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013) is that type of book. I am very familiar with Cozzens' previous books, The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest and The Changing Face of the Priesthood, both very good books for anyone interested in pastoral ministry.

Cozzens is a writer in residence at John Carroll University and has been a guest on NPR as well as Meet the Press. In many ways he is a "pastors pastor" as he served many years in the priesthood, taught college and seminary classes, and has authored several books.

Notes From the Underground is not so much a theology of ministry or of the Church neither is it a textbook. Rather it is what the subtitle states, a sort of journal or series of personal reflections on what the Church has become over the years, especially in the past thirty years or so. Cozzens has seen deep changes in the Church, first the major liturgical and theological changes at Vatican II and more recently the stronger conservative push coming from the Vatican. While this book is aimed more at Catholic audiences, those of us in the Eastern Church would benefit from this book as well. It is not hard reading, but it is certainly thought provoking to say the least.

Cozzens laments the fact that even after the wonderful documents coming from Vatican II such as Sancrosanctum Concilium as well as Lumen Gentium, the Church is still pretty much clerical, authority and power flows from the top down. Yet when one read the Sacred Scriptures as well as the major writings of the Patristic Fathers and Mothers and the Tradition, one finds that the opposite is true, the Church is the entire people of God, not just the bishops or priests, but everyone all together gathered around the Lord's Table.

Notes From the Underground is a prophetic book. He calls into question the lack of pastoral care of bishops and other clergy regarding the recent sexual abuse scandals as well as not listening to the laity. Our parishes are full of wonderful gifted lay men and women whose voices are never heard. No one asks what they think. At one point Cozzens says that the presbyters are supposed to be a "presbyteral council" to the bishop yet the bishop usually never asks what his priests think! So true. While reading this book I kept underlining sentence after sentence as his writing rang true for this reader.

Notes From the Underground is certainly not a feel good book, but it is a good book. It is short but yet it is packed with plenty of food for thought for later reading.

I highly recommend this book to clergy and lay leaders who want to be challenged and to hear a true "voice in the wilderness" aka Father Donald Cozzens.

For more information about this book click here 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Prayer of St. Ephrem

If you are looking for some Lenten reading then look no further than my book The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian: A Biblical Commentary. 

This ancient prayer will help you through your daily walk of faith as you strive to become more faithful in your life.

For more information about this book and to order a copy click here 

May we all learn to love both God and neighbor each and every day.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review The Novel As Church

Books are like a meal, there are those which one consumes like candy or dessert at the beach, those page turning mystery novels which are big on action and romance but light on their literary quality generally. Then there are those more philosophical type books which one consumes slowly, like sipping a full bodied Bordeaux.

I must say that David Dickinson's new book, The Novel As Church: Preaching to Readers in Contemporary Fiction (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2013) is an entire meal! If you want to learn more about the rhetorical and homiletical nature of key works of fiction and you are interested in theology and ecclesial life then this book is for you. It is certainly not a quick beach read but it does inspire, entertain, and make one want to re-read it again, like a second trip to the dinner buffet.

Dickinson is the Director of the St. Albans Centre for Christian  Studies and the minister at the Marlborough Road Methodist Church in St. Albans, UK. This book is the fourth book in the Making of the Christian Imagination Series published by Baylor University Press.

The Novel as Church is intriguing. There are books that focus on the religious and spiritual nature of fiction and there are books which focus on preaching and homiletics and modern culture but to my knowledge there are very few, perhaps none so far which highlight the various and detailed nuances of the interplay between sermons and homilies that are imbedded within works of fiction and the many questions that arise from that such as the interplay between "authorial authority" vis a vis the sermon and the narrative as well as the reasons why the author chose to have the clergy character preach in the first place, the messages derived from the sermons, as well as the other questions that arise from that.

While reading The Novel as Church I was simply amazed at the vast material covered and the analysis that Dickinson provides. This book is not merely a synthesis of modern works of fiction and the role that clergy/pastors/priests play, but Dickinson really attempts to get at the many layers involved in having sermons in fiction in the first place and what role this plays in the spiritual life, in the relationship between Church and culture, as well as what the clergy characters reveal about spirituality today.

Ever since reading Douglas Alan Walrath's book Displacing the Divine: The Minister As Mirror in American Fiction  I have been keenly interested in clergy characters in fiction, especially modern fiction, of which there are many. Walrath's thesis is that across the centuries the "clergy character" reflects or serves as a foil or mirror of the society at large and how society envisions the Church. Yet Dickinson goes further because not only does he look at the roles of the clergy characters but in particular what role and function the sermon plays. He looks at some key works of fiction such as Geraldine Brooks' novel The Year of Wonder, Michael Addritti's saga Easter as well as others such as Jeanette Winterson's book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, as well as the many books by John Updike.  I found myself taking notes here and there highlighting works of fiction that I certainly have to read, and read soon!

I could easily write more about this book, but I hope that the reader find out on their own. If you are a pastor who enjoys fiction and culture then this book is for you. If you are a faculty member who teaches preaching and homiletics and want to learn more about the rhetorical and homiletical value of fiction then this book is for you. If you are just interested in the spirituality of modern fiction then this book is for you.

For more information about The Novel as Church: Preaching to Readers in Contemporary Fiction click here 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Review: The Graceful Exit

Pastors come and go. I was just talking to a pastor who was the 43rd pastor in a parishes' 84 year history, talking about a revolving door!  This is not too uncommon in some areas of the country. Some parishes are known for having many short term pastorates and others are known for much longer and extended pastorates. I know of one pastor who was in the same parish for 54 years!

Saying goodbye is a hard thing to do. Saying goodbye to a child when they leave for college is hard. Saying goodbye to a son or daughter who gets married and starts their own life is hard. Saying goodbye to a friend or loved one who died is hard. And saying goodbye to a parish when you are the pastor is hard. But thanks to the new book by Mary C. Lindberg, leaving a parish might be a little easier. Her knew book The Graceful Exit: A Pastor's Journey from Good-bye to Hello was recently published by the Alban Institute and is a wonderful resource for pastors who are transitioning from either full time ministry to retirement or from full time ministry in one parish to another parish or into some other form of ministry.

The book is a combination of personal narrative as well as well as stories of colleagues who have made these difficult decisions to leave ministry. Pastors are given special access to peoples lives. We visit them in the hospital. We visit them in their homes. We baptize their babies. We bury their dead. We marry them. We walk with them in their walk of faith. Leaving all of that must be terrible difficult. I have never left a parish before so I cannot speak of experience but I have had my own personal leavings of jobs and work and that is also traumatic at times.

Lindberg offers pastors a resource as to how we can better navigate and negotiate these leavings. The book is divided into three parts: The Good Good-bye, The Long Good-bye, and from Good-bye to Hello. Each chapter includes some questions for reflection which I found very helpful. The book is very short at only a little over a hundred pages, you can read it in a few hours. However if you read slowly and actually consider the points for reflection then this book is more of a work book rather than a book that you read once and put down. I encourage pastors to read through this book once quickly and then go back, with a journal in hand in the book in another and actually go through these questions. Even though I am not leaving parish ministry some of the questions for reflection are very enlightening and helpful, especially the ones which deal with lost hopes and fears, with "things left undone" as well as projects and plans which never got off the ground.

One thing pastors have to understand is that when you leave a parish their is grieving that will take place. Your grieving. The grieving of your parishioners. The grieving of your own family. The Graceful Exit will help in this process.

After reading The Graceful Exit I was very grateful to Mary Lindberg for writing this book. However, she now needs to write a complimentary volume on the The Graceful Entrance How Pastors Begin Ministry because so much is left unsaid about how pastors begin their new ministry and enter into a community of faith, how congregations welcome them, and how families can better navigate these issues too!

Kudos to Mary Lindberg for writing such a practical and pastoral book for us pastors out here.

For more information about The Graceful Exit click here