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