Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: Yoked Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry

I've been a pastor for while now and it's challenging enough having a parish AND a family. Thankfully my parish isn't too big but there are times when I feel torn between parish responsibilities and also supporting my family, especially regarding my daughter's school and sports activities.

However, my wife is not a pastor, she is a school teacher. She has her own friends and her own life apart from our parish. I cannot fathom how difficult the stresses, strains, challenges, and choices that need to be made in a clergy couple family, a family where both spouses serve as pastors. I don't have any clergy couple friends either so I do not know first-hand what life is like for them, but now, after reading Andrew and Mihee's book Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2014) I have some insight. After reading this book I thought, wow, there is no way I could do what they do!

This book is a wonderful resource for couples who either are already in ministry or who are contemplating having a joint ministry. It's also good reading for any pastor in ministry since many of the stories which Andrew and Mihee include are apropos to ministry in general.

Yoked is divided into ten easy to read chapters:

Church on Sundays 

What is nice about this book is that for each chapter both Andrew and Mihee made their own contributions rather than one person writing one chapter and then alternating them. Thus we get their combined insights into the various parts of parish ministry. To make matters even more complicated they are in a mixed race marriage Mihee is Korean-American and has her own cultural, racial, lingual, and sociological background to bring into the mix. They also have three children too. After reading a few pages I kept thinking to myself, how do they manage with all of the responsibilities and challenges of parish ministry.

Without going into too much detail I can say that at the end, after all is said and done the reader comes away with a radical honest and truthful confession about how pastors struggle with their personal faults and foibles, with negotiating marriage and child-rearing, and the difficulty and joys of parish life. Much of what they say does not just reflect the life of a two pastor family but is really applicable to every pastor; the need for sabbath and rest, the need for connection and community, and the need for established boundaries.

I commend Andrew and Mihee for writing this book and hope that other pastors, whether they are married to a pastor or not will read this book and learn something from it.

For more information about Yoked click here 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Review: A Life of Daring Simplicity

Once in a while a book comes along that is interesting, out of the ordinary. I read a lot of books on the priesthood, on pastoral care, and ministry so I'm quite familiar with the terrain. Recently Liturgical Press published a book by Michael A. Becker called A Life of Daring Simplicity: Daily Devotions on the Priesthood (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014). 

This book is identical to the many Year in the Life Books that are published, A Year in the Life with Thomas Merton or a Year in the Life of Dorothy Day. Each day devoted to a saying or quotation from a particular person. This book is basically a years worth of daily devotions for priests. Each day opens with a short scripture verse, a selection from numerous contemporary and ancient authors, and then a very short prayer or reflection.

I really wanted to enjoy this book. The cover is inviting and the topic is a great one especially for people like me who are pastors. Yet I found the book very uneven. Becker draws upon a variety of writers such as Pope Francis, Saint Pope John Paul II, and the former Pope Benedict as he does others such as Thomas Merton and Gordon Lathrop.  I didn't count but it seemed like at least sixty to seventy percent of the daily devotions were from Cardinal Bernadin, Pope John II and Benedict. I only counted two or three from Gordon Lathrop a very well known liturgical pastoral theologian, and maybe two or three from Thomas Merton. There were two from John Chrysostom and then a few others.

Yet within the Christian Tradition, both ancient and modern, Catholic and non Catholic are a whole host of wonderful sayings from so many other writers that could have been included but were not: Ignatius of Antioch, Gregory the Great, Augustine, Frank Senn, Eugene Peterson, Will Willimon, and others. They have wonderful insights and sayings about pastoral care which pastors would enjoy reading. Perhaps this is a book that Liturgical Press could put together for the future.

For more information about this book click here 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: Resilient Ministry

Once in a while  book comes across my desk that I know I have to read. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told us About Surviving and Thriving (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2013)  is one of those books. This is a book that all pastors both young and old need to read, especially those who are coming right out of seminary. It is that good, trust me.

The co-authors: Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie are well seasoned pastors and academics in the field of ministry and are well equipped to publish a book such as this. Resilient Ministry is chock full of information about the ups and downs, joys and sorrows of pastoral ministry. As I read through it the first time I knew that at some point I'd have to return again and re-read key sections as well as use the questions included in each chapter as key points for my journaling time.

The book originated out of the Pastors Summit which was a series of conferences on the life of the minister and his family. Included in the back of the book are a series of appendices such as research methods, questions, and various checklists that were used. It is great information since some of the information can be used by the reader such as creating your own Genogram as well as various checklists about emotions and other best practice type things.

Resilient Ministry is not a quick read. I generally read fast but I found that the organization of the book requires slow meditative reading especially since the authors include many quotations from pastors themselves about the parish life, the pastor and his family, and the challenges and choices that we make in congregational life. As a pastor who has served a single parish for fifteen years I really enjoyed reading many of these comments since so many of them validated either what I have experienced myself for what some of my co-pastors have experienced. These quotations stirred up a lot of memories for me, many that were not so good!

The book is organized into fifteen short chapters many of which are based on various themes such as: pastoral formation, self care of the pastor, marriage and family life, and leadership issues.  I found each chapter engaging, informative and really solid. As I was reading I thought, "Where was this book when I graduated seminary, I could have used it!" Alas, I realize that things come to us when we need them. I guess Resilient Ministry was meant for me now as I passed through my own desert experiences questioning my own vocation as a pastor. Not only have I survived but through the course of the years I've learned how to thrive.

I highly recommend Resilient Ministry for pastors who want to not only survive but thrive.

For more information about Resilient Ministry click here 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review Eager to Love

Father Richard Rohr is one of my recently favorite authors. A friend of mine suggested that I read two of his previous books, Immortal Diamond and Falling Upward. I read both in two days! They are great books for personal reflection, small group discussion, and for sermons. So when I saw his latest offering, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media, 2014) I knew I had to read it too.

Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest and the director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico as well as the author of over twenty books on Christian spirituality. Do yourself a favor and if you have not read anything by Father Rohr yet go out and get a few books, you won't be disappointed.

Eager to Love certainly does not disappoint. In the every-so-noisy world in which we live it's hard to hear God's small gentle voice. Father Rohr recommend that we listen to God's voice in the Bible (this is always the best place to start!) but also through the words of St. Francis.

Eager to Love is not a biography of Francis. You are more than welcome to read one of those on your own. However the book is a primer on what I guess we could call Franciscan spirituality a spirituality of poverty of spirit and of continual love. The book is divided into thirteen chapters which are not too long as well as two appendices. Each chapter includes teachings of St. Francis as well as some good stories by Father Rohr. I found myself underlining almost every other sentence so I can go back and re-read and reflect on it for future sermons and teachings in the parish.

The sub title of the book is also meaningful since it is "the alternative way" of Francis. Francis was a reformer and in many ways a revolutionary and a reactionary towards what he considered an abomination of the institutional Church with all its money, materialism, power, control, and authority. Francis reminded folks that the Jesus way was the humble way, the poor way, the way of the neighbor and unconditional love and support. Many folks called Francis a fool because he walked around Assisi begging and wearing simple clothes and preaching a gospel of peace while the wealthy bishops and priests lived in mansions and ate gourmet food! Ironically in many ways the Church has not changed much. That is perhaps one of the reasons why the new pope, Pope Francis, is beloved by many, because he is a simple man who seems to live the life of Francis while at the same time serving as the spiritual head of the Catholic Church.

I've never met Father Rohr but judging from his simple writing style, singular thematic approach to the subject, and story telling abilities he must be a good preacher too! The one thing that shines throughout Eager to Love is the continual calling to question what it means to follow Jesus, especially those of us who are pastors. It's too easy to get sucked into the ways of the institutional Church that are often sinful and not worthy of Jesus. We fall into the trap of success in the eyes of the world (butts in the pews, bucks, and budgets) rather than on success in the eyes of God (love, mercy, and forgiveness). We tend to focus on rules rather than on love, on the proper protocol versus the person who stands right in front of us.

I could go on and on about Eager to Love, but I won't. I'll let you, the reader, see for yourself how the ancient words of a crazy foolish vagabond named Francis changed the Church and hopefully will help change us.

Go out and get yourself a copy of Eager to Love!

For more information about Eager to Love click here 

For more information about the Center for Action and Contemplation click here 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Book Review: Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure

Why on earth you ask am I reviewing a book called Fail? Sounds strange, huh? Yes, you're right. It sounds more than strange it sounds crazy, insane, downright dumb even! Yet when I saw this new book on the InterVarsity Press website I couldn't wait to read it. Couldn't wait to read a book on failure? Yep. That's right, could-not-wait. 

You're probably thinking that I should review a book on success, on growing bigger and better parishes, on budgets, bucks, and more backsides in the pew. Been there, done that. In the early years in ministry I thought that I had to be slick and savvy, do anything to get the folks in the door. The more folks in the congregation the bigger the collection. The bigger the collection, the bigger the budget. The bigger the budget the bigger and better buildings we can have, and on and on and on. Unfortunately this is the primary passion of many pastors these days. They focus on coffee and donuts, on good music, and on slick advertising and social media sites. However, the main reason for being a pastor is gone: Jesus. 

JR Briggs knows a lot about failure because as many of us he did fail. He didn't have one of those huge fall from grace failures like some big name pastors have done, but he did fail. Not only did he fail in his parish but he felt like a failure on the home front too since he and his wife could not have children. I don't to give too much away about the book but I'll leave it to the reader to figure out the reset. 

Fail (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014) is a must read for all graduating seminary students and for young pastors. When I was reading I kept saying to myself, "Where was this book twenty years ago?" However I probably wouldn't have read it then anyway, I was too busy trying to succeed. But like Briggs I failed and failed and failed yet again, but I'm still in the saddle. Failure hurts as he says and many pastors can't take the pain and hurt that comes with failure. Pastors forget that in the eyes of the Romans Jesus was a big fat failure. He only had about twelve followers and even most of them were incompetent. Jesus requires us to be faithful not successful. Unfortunately we pastors got in wrong. Briggs tries to remind us that we shouldn't be afraid of failure, we actually should embrace it.

Briggs isn't preaching in the sense that he tells you what you should or should not do but he does guide the reader through the strange and mysterious labyrinth of when things go wrong in the pulpit. He weaves personal vignettes from his own ministry and from other pastors as well as biblical stories from both the Old and New Testaments to show the reader where he's headed. I really enjoyed the easy to read writing style combined with the biblical material. In many ways Fail is both a good read for experienced pastors like myself as well as a sort of text for a course in ministry or pastoral theology. The end of the book includes a very thorough resource section for further reading as well as a bunch of questions for reflection or small group discussion or for journaling. One of my tasks in the next two weeks is to go to a local cafe, order a large coffee, and do some journaling based on the questions that he includes in the end. 

Many pastors get caught in the early days to prove oneself to the congregation, to the local district or judicatory, and to God. We do everything to show others how wonderful we are in the pulpit and the counseling room, in the hospital and the hospice. If we're lucky we'll fail along the way, if we're really lucky we'll fail big time so that we can learn to follow Jesus and embrace the cross. It is only the crucifixion of our egos that we can finally become the pastors that we were called to become in the first place. 

I could go on and on about this book but I won't. I want to re-read portions of it and do some journaling when I have the time. 

Do yourself a favor and buy yourself a copy of Fail. No. Better yet, by two copies and give one to a clergy friend. You won't be disappointed. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review Convictions

We all have them. Deep felt core beliefs or truths that we hold near and dear. Nations and countries have them too: England has the Magna Carta, the United States has the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Persons have them too, here I think of Martin Luther's 95 Theses or Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letters from the Birmingham Jail.

Core beliefs are what help guide us during difficult times, during times of turbulence and chaos. They help us move forward taking one step at at time.

Marcus Borg's new book, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (Harper, 2014) is part memoir and part outline of his deep heart felt convictions of Christianity. Borg just turned 70, which is a major turning point in anyones life, especially the life of a very popular theologian.

The book is an easy read and is divided into eleven chapters which include his thoughts about faith, God, salvation, Jesus, the Bible, the cross, Christianity and politics, and justice for the poor. In short it's his thoughts on what he finds to be highlights or turning points of the Christian faith. Woven throughout the book is part of his growing up narrative, about being raised in a typically conservative Protestant household. His college studies changed him, opening his eyes to a fresh re-reading of the Bible, not in the literal way in which he was taught as a child but to read it metaphorically and allegorically.

While reading Convictions I kept wanting to hear more about his own life and how it changed. He does offer a few vignettes from time to time but someone has famous and as influential as Borg I wanted more. I wanted more of how he changed his mind on things, how he developed as a theologian. He certainly isn't without his detractors and over the years he has been very controversial in some theological circles. A book is not a soup pot and you certainly cannot put everything in it but I did want more of his personal growth story.

If you are remotely interested in contemporary Christianity or have read Borg's previous work than you need to read Convictions.

For more information about the book click here 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: A Replacement Life

If you are looking for a laugh out loud, funny, yet endearing book for this summer then look no further than Boris Fishman's debut novel A Replacement Life (Harper, 2014). I guarantee you'll laugh a lot, if not, somethings wrong with you!

Fishman was born in Belarus and immigrated to the United States as a child. He is the editor of Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier and his work has appeared in many noteworthy outlets such as New York Times Magazine as well as the London Review of Books. This is his first, but hopefully not last, novel.

A Replacement Life takes place mostly in Brooklyn New York in a Russian Jewish community. The main character Slava, is a fact checker at a booming and widely popular magazine called Century. He desperately wants to have a "real" article published one day but keeps on getting rejected. His whole career revolves around checking facts in  other articles written and published by his colleagues. Readers of Tom Rachman's first book The Imperfectionists will see similarities here, both very real and both extremely funny.

As Slava slods through article after article at work, word gets around the Jewish community that the German government is giving away money for victims who suffered in the Holocaust.  Slava is asked to write suffering narratives for "victims." Needless to say not all of these colorful victims suffered directly in the Holocaust, some, such as Slava's grandfather suffered in Uzbekistan! What is intriguing here is the tension between fact and fiction and how far one goes with it. Did all these characters suffer in some way? Yes. Did they all survive the war? Yes. Were all Jewish? Yes. But not all suffered directly in Nazi Germany. Does living in the diaspora, being forced out of ones home fall under suffering? Does living in a makeshift homeless shelter for a while fall under suffering? Where does one draw the lines around suffering, especially in war? Who is to say that having to move to Uzbekistan shouldn't be considered suffering?

Fishman is a wonderful writer. He has a keen eye for detail, colors, sounds, and shapes. There is one seen where Slava is invited to dinner and Fishman describes the meal as food after food is coming on the table, it took my breath away. Having lived among Eastern European Jews and worked with them as well, I know very well the culture, language styles (accents included!), and religion and Fishman describes all of it perfectly without getting into cliche.

The other important theme in A Replacement Life is faith. Slava and his grandfather are cultural Jews. After the war some Jews lost their faith in God and either became atheists or cultural Jews, Jews who  observed Passover or Hannukah but that's about it. Slava however finds himself caught up in a relationship with someone who is more of a believer than he. He questions his own faith just as he questions whether or not his cousins and neighbors suffered in the Holocaust. There is one touching scene when an older man named Israel walks to the local synagogue every once in a while just to light a candle and say a prayer for his son who returned to Israel to make aliyah. Israel is not that religious, but his son has become a Hasid with all of the trappings of the black fedora, coat, and long hair locks. This of course bothers Israel yet he still loves his son dearly.

Throughout the novel Fishman creates a continuous tension regarding immigration, identity, faith, community, and justice. He also creates a tension between truth, truth(s), and half-truths, as Slava tries to seek the "ultimate truth, "which of course he never can.

Barnes and Noble has made A Replacement Life one of their Discover New Writers Books. I hope you all can discover the joy of reading this book. I earnestly look forward to Fishman's second novel. Hopefully it will be both a page turner and as funny as his first one!

For more information about Boris Fishman click here 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: Sacred Fire

I enjoy books that intersect between Scripture and life, between spirituality and psychology. If you enjoy these topics too then I recommend that you read Father Ronald Rolheiser's new book, Sacred Fire: A Vision for A Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (Image Books, 2014). Rolheiser is a Catholic priest and a specialist in spirituality and systematic theology. He is also the author of the bestselling book The Holy Longing which came out a few years ago.

Rolheiser manages to weave together personal stories from his parish ministry, stories from Scripture, and stories from the writings of the saints in order to create a wholistic and organic way of looking at our spiritual journey. So often we fall into the rules, regulations, rites, and rituals nature of spirituality, participating in the Sacrament of Confession and partaking of Communion without thinking about what these actions mean. Rolheiser highlights some important aspects of our spiritual life and teaches his readers what it means to live a mature life in Christ.

The book is divided into three major parts

A Vision of Discipleship 

Mature Discipleship, The Struggle to Give Our Lives Away 

Radical Discipleship, The Struggle to Give our Deaths Away 

While this book focuses primarily on the second section, which is also the longest, he admits that he will be writing a book about Radical Discipleship which is very important, the notion that the way we live can reflect the way we die. If we want to have a good death we need to live a good life.

Rolheiser says that in our childhood and young adult years we are in the beginnings of our discipleship. We look at the Church, God, prayer, and life in very simple and often childish ways. We are just in the beginning stages of our life and therefore have a hard time thinking down the road. We are just beginning our walk of faith and often fall, not realizing the mistakes we make.

Mature discipleship is coming to grips with our mortality and the choices that we make. Since I"m in my 40's I am right in the center of the mature discipleship, realizing that certain dreams and goals will never happen but at the same time being okay with that. In my 20's there was a strong passion for life, for moving mountains and so forth. Yet in our 40's and 50's Rolhieser says that we come to grips with the fact that life isn't that way. We have to realize our limitations and that our goals and dreams always don't come to fruition. We have to accept life as it comes, reminding ourselves that our call to faith does not equal success, especially in the eyes of the world. Jesus called his disciples to faithfulness, not to successfulness. Settling for life as it comes does not mean failure, it means accepting that we are human and that we cannot do and have everything we want. A fifteen year old may throw a tantrum because they cannot buy a game or a special piece of clothing or music. If a fifty year old does that we call him or her "immature" because they are acting like a teenager. Rolheiser says that it's normal for a fifteen year old to act that way but not a fifty year old, at least a fifty year old that is living a mature life in Christ. However, I have met fifty year old and even seventy year olds who act like teenagers sometimes!

The third part regards the nature of a good death. The way we live can hopefully reflect the way we die. If we live in a way that is Christian, realizing that we are all mortal and one day we will leave this world as we know it then our death can be a blessing for us and for those around us. I am looking forward to reading more about this in Rolheiser's next book.

If you want to dig into a good spiritual book this year, one that will provide you with "food for the journey" then look no further than Sacred Fire. You won't be disappointed.

For more information about Sacred Fire click here 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel

I dread Monday. Why you may ask? Monday mean that I have to begin preparation for next Sunday's sermon. A whole week prep time you ask? Yes, that is, if you want a well crafted, inspiring, and biblical sermon. In the early years of  parish ministry I used to put off my sermon prep till Thursday or sometimes Friday. I kept telling myself, "Oh, I'll get to that later." Well, later never happened. Phone calls, emails, meetings, and family matters always seemed to get in the way. Friday would come and I'd say, "Yikes, I need a sermon for Sunday." Trust me, it ain't fun trying to come up with creative, well crafted thoughts under pressure. Sermon prep takes time. It takes prayer. It takes quiet reflection and meditation on the Word. It takes some homework and some thoughtful imagination. You cannot do all of this in twenty four hours. Trust me, been there and done that. I have heard of pastors who even waited until early Sunday morning to prepare their sermon, now THAT is really crazy!

Chris Neufeld-Erdman is the senior pastor of the University Presbyterian Church and is also a teacher of spirituality courses at Fresno Pacific University. This book, Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel: A Guide for Wise, Empowered Preachers (Cascade Books, 2014) is his latest book.

The book is a collection of a well seasoned pastor, teacher, and preacher. These chapters are not dry academic "theospeak," but enlivened narrative from a man of God who has "been there and done that" thousands of times. He has stood in that pulpit on Sunday morning and preached the good news of salvation. Surely his parishioners love him very much but I also know that they have no idea how much work, struggle, sweat, and tears goes into his preaching. This book is really a one week retreat for seminarians or pastors who want to literally take a week long look at how Chris prepares his sermons. The book literally goes from Monday through Saturday as he explains his regular routine of prayer, reflection, word study, and making connections between the text and life. While reading Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel I wish I had it in year two or three in my ministry, I would have put it to good use. I had to learn the hard way. I was also amazed at how similar my own sermon preparation is to what Chris does, maybe good minds think alike!

Chris has a fine writing style and includes two sample sermons in the back of the book for readers to see a sampling of how he crafts his sermons and what they look like. He also includes a short reading list in the end of the book for those who want to read more.

Chris also adds other types of sermon types in the book such as marriage and funeral sermons too. I appreciated them and laughed when he gives the reader a dose of reality when he says that pastors shouldn't worry too much about the wedding sermon because after all no one, not even the preacher is going to upstage the bride! So true. I also agree that pastors need to preach sermons, the good news about Christ at funerals and not deliver eulogies. Eulogies should be left to family members or friends, the pastor's role is to proclaim the resurrection boldly and without shame.

For more information about this book click here 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review Learning to Walk in the Dark

Last Spring after Easter I tried an experiment. While walking one evening on the road behind our house I decided to close my eyes and "see" would happen. Just for a few minutes of course. It was strange. The road is more or less straight except for a sharp bend at one point and there are few cars that drive on it so I knew I'd be safe. I walked close to the edge of the road so as not to walk in the middle. It was surreal. Every twenty paces or so I opened my eyes just to see where I was on the road. I was also tempted to put my hands in front of me as if I were trying to feel my way through a room, talking about dumb! I tried to walk with my eyes closed to "see" what it might feel like being blind. Of course I am not blind and could never fully identify like that, but I was planning my sermon on the story of the man born blind in John chapter 9 and I wanted to have a similar experience. I wanted to see how it feels like to walk and not know what if anything is in front of you. I wanted to walk trying to figure out where I was headed. I noticed that I heard more birds and heard the wind rush through the Spring wheat. I felt the breeze on my skin and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. My other senses kicked in even though I couldn't see in front of me. Walking in the dark, not so easy. After my mini-experiment I was very grateful for my eyesight even though I now have to use reading glasses, a mandatory purchase after you turn forty I guess!

Dark and darkness is the theme for Barbara Brown Taylor's new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark (Harper One, 2014). I fell in love with Taylor's previous books especially her early sermon collections as well as her recent best-sellers Leaving Church and An Altar in the World. She has such a wonderful writing style, informative and conservational yet provides enough information for the reader to ponder and wonder about long after the first reading. When reading Taylor's books you feel like she is right in the room with you, guiding and leading you along with the material. As a pastor, preacher, and teacher Taylor is certainly using her gifts to share her well earned knowledge with the rest of us. I certainly will use some of her stories and examples in future sermons, maybe even when I return to the man born blind again later this year.

Learning to Walk in the Dark is an exploration of the theme of darkness. Her main thesis is that for many Christians darkness and "the dark" is associated with bad things; the "secular world" (darkness) vs. the Kingdom of God (light), or good (light) vs. bad/evil (darkness), as well as other examples. She says, very funnily I should add, that many Christians live in what she terms "full solar Christianity" which translates as just pray and you'll be fine as well as other self-righteous sayings and behaviors. I never had a full solar Christian experience. My entire life from college to seminary to graduate school to full time parish ministry has been one long walk in the dark. I was comforted reading the Thomas Merton poem that ends the book since someone gave me a copy of that poem long ago and I refer to it often. I do not know what tomorrow will bring or the day after so I must take each day as it comes, the good, the bad, and often the ugly. I am unsure about so many things and even after all these years of parish ministry I have more questions than answers. Taylor reminds her readers that this is perfectly normal. Walking in darkness is not a bad thing, it embraces the mystery of life.

The book is divided into nine chapters each dealing with a particular theme such as dark emotions, walking in a cave, the famous dark night of the soul of John of the Cross, as well as experiencing how the blind feel and act. Perhaps the most scary chapter for me was reading about her experience exploring a cave. I've been on large caverns before on tours but never explored a real cave with water, small rooms, and totally dark. The caves that I have been to were all tourist attractions. I cannot imagine trying to squeeze through those tiny crevices and duck down through those holes. Not only that but Taylor and her guide were talking in the dark expect for their flashlights and head lamps. This was certainly an act of faith on her part.

This is a short book but one that has to be read again and again to get the full effect. I found myself reading quickly and then stopping to re-read the chapter. Learning to Walk in the Dark would also be a good read for a parish book club or adult education class

For more information about Learning to Walk in the Dark click here 

For more information about Barbara Brown Taylor and her other books click here 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review Pastoral Work

I had the honor of hearing Eugene Peterson speak at a Faith and Writing Festival at Calvin College a few years ago. His keynote address garnered several standing ovations at least four that I remember. He stood at the podium and his greying hair and slight smile reminded me that Peterson is a "pastor's pastor." I cannot remember when I found Peterson's work. I think a friend gave me one of his books and I was hooked. Since then I devoured all of at least most of them and recently purchased his translation of the Bible called The Message.  After reading Pastoral Work I would like to re-read Peterson after the Easter season as a reminder of what it means to be a pastor.

Pastoral Work: Engagements with the the Vision of Eugene Peterson (Cascade Books, 2014) is a sort of Festschrift or honorary collection of essays by some well known pastors, writers, and pastoral-theologians: Lillian Daniel, Will Willimon, Anthony Robinson, Stephanie Paulsell, James Howell, and others. The book is edited by Jason Byasee and L. Roger Owens.

When reading these essays Peterson's voice and speech came back to me again. I had forgotten some of the vignettes and stories that he told in his own books and in his memoir. Peterson started out on an academic track studying with Brevard Childs and William Albright. However his academic track got off track when he became an assistant pastor in a parish in White Plains, NY. It was there in the parish where Peterson stayed for most of his ministry, returning to academic work later at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.

Peterson's writings reflect his love for reading, art, and Biblical scholarship as well as his love for the parish. He is the model of a pastoral-theologian, a pastor who has a keen sense of theology and who uses theology to serve the Church.

Pastoral Work reflects Peterson's love of both theology and the Church. The essays include a wide variety of topics from preaching, pastoral vocation, community building, and other such topics. Each essay is a mini reflection on what the author thinks of Peterson and what Peterson's own life and ministry has contributed to congregational life in the 21st Century.

I admire Jason Byassee and L. Roger Owens for their work and thank them for reminding us in the Vineyard that we are not alone. Petersons' writings are here on my shelf to take and read whenever I feel lost, isolated, disgusted, or in need of some reminding of why I followed the Lord's call to be a pastor in the first place.

For more information about Pastoral Work click here 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: Incognito

There are so many memoirs to read and so little time. There are memoirs about overcoming drug addiction, about overcoming eating disorders, memoirs about broken marriages and broken hearts. The list goes on and on and on. However, among memoirs today there is a category which can be labeled as those who are on spiritual seekers or spiritual journeys. Andrea Raynor's new memoir Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School (Howard Books, 2014) is one of them.

Raynor currently serves as a hospice chaplain as well as the chaplain for the Rye Fire Department in Rye, NY. At one time she was the chaplain for the 9/11 morgue in NYC. However, in her earlier life she attended Harvard Divinity School. Her new memoir is her journey of leaving her comfortable home life in Ohio to attend one of America's most prestigious seminaries. It is there, at Harvard where Raynor goes on her journey. She attends Harvard not to be on the ordination route, but to find herself. However, in the end she does get ordained to the ministry.

As someone who also went to seminary I can vouch for the fact that even though many people do attend seminary for ordination, or some other preparation for Church leadership, one does find oneself, usually! How can it be otherwise. After all, you are put into a place with people from different racial and cultural backgrounds, forced to attend chapel together, have common meals, and attend classes.

While at Harvard Raynor works at a local homeless shelter where she volunteers. She also gets involved in a local parish as a seminary assistant and has to deal with parishioners "projecting" emotions and feelings on her (spoiler alert: my jaw dropped with the hot tub scene). But after reading that part twice I had to remind myself that our parishioners often see us through their eyes and do project their feelings, emotions, and thoughts on us too. Sometimes pastors are not so sensitive to that fact.

Raynor has a fine writing style and a good eye for description. Very often I felt like she was right next to me taking me through the mouse ridden Harvard dormitory (which I also couldn't believe, Harvard mice?). Incognito is also funny too. Raynor has a keen eye for humanity and is not afraid to make fun of herself without being self-hating. As a reader I appreciated that very much.

While reading Incognito I wanted to hear more about her classes too. While she mentioned taking classes with Henri Nouwen and a few other big name professors I wanted to know more. I wanted to know if anyone dissuaded her from ministry or whether or not she felt like she wanted to quit. I wanted to find out if anyone didn't like the fact that she was a woman. I know this book took place in the late 1970's and early 1980's but even back then there were not a whole lot of female pastors even in the Methodist Church. Maybe Raynor is saving up for her second memoir, her post seminary years.

Anyway, don't let these small comments dissuade you from reading this book.

For more information about Incognito click here 

For Andrea Raynor's webiste click here 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: Catholic by Choice

As a priest I meet a lot of inquirers, people who are interested in the Church but not sure about joining or not. Some have done a lot of reading and online research and are ready to make the plunge as they say and others are more tentative. Those who do want to join the parish are not really 'converts' as most people think; basically they are changing their affiliation from one Christian body to the next. In all of my years in parish ministry only a few were who I would consider really "converts" in that sense of the word; a conversion from atheism or non-belief to a full fledged Christian. However, spiritual journeys are spiritual journeys and everyone has their own story. My job is not so much to inculcate information to the neophytes but to help form and shape them into the Christian faith.

Richard Cole's new book Catholic by Choice (Loyola Press, 2014) is a memoir about one man's spiritual journey. The book opens up in a Benedictine Monastery in Texas which has "seen better days" according to Cole's description; Quonset huts, aluminum siding falling off the chapel, and an old decrepit dock. His three day getaway retreat begins the stirring of a spiritual journey which leads from basically a chaotic professional and personal life to a life of faith in a Catholic parish. He envisioned the Hilton but what he got was Motel 6! I've been in similar situations where sometimes the amenities at retreat centers are far from comfortable, but as a monk-friend told me, "we do that for a reason, we don't want folks hanging around here too long!" He's probably right. Basically they want you to visit but they also want you to leave too!

I don't want to give too much of the book away but Cole's spiritual journey leads him to get sober, find a work-home balance, and realize that life is more than going, going, going. As a business writer he lands a job writing text for a business website and from what I gather the Boss as she calls sounds like Tiger Mom; bold, brazen, and bossy. Life is not easy at home or at work. Cole's however that being in a parish with three very good parish priests helps him find his peace.

Catholic by Choice is a quick read, his fine writing style combined with funny anecdotes keeps the pages turning. However the last fifty or so pages of dramatic buildup to his being received into the Catholic Church seemed a bit forced and sounded like diary or journal entries. They probably were, but that's okay. This small detraction shouldn't give the reader pause. Cole's journey, is a journey which many people have had or will have one day. I am glad Cole's found the peace that he was so desperately looking for.

I commend Cole's for his honesty and humor. The bibliography and resources at the end of the book are also a nice addition and I was surprised to see that I have read most of the books that he lists which is affirming.

For more information of Catholic by Choice click here 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A 30 Day Retreat on Kindle

I hope everyone is having a good Lent this year. If you are interested in some spiritual reading then look now further. My book, A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Personal Renewal (Paulist Press) is now available on Kindle. You can download your copy today.

See the link below for ordering

I hope everyone has a good week. Take care and be sure to keep checking Walking With God blog for new book reviews and information about the spiritual life.

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

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Book Review: Mercy in the City

Jesus told his disciples to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and provide comfort to those who need it. Sounds easy, right? Yeah, easier said than done is what I say!

Her book basically focuses on the Corporal Works of Mercy which we find in Matthew chapter 25. Even after many years of preaching and teaching on this text it's much easier to love "humanity" in general but hate ones neighbor. It's easy to "love the world" but hate your wife or husband. Jesus didn't love in general, he loved persons: the Samaritan woman, the ten lepers, the man born blind, the paralytic, the woman with the flow of blood, as well as Peter, James, John, and the rest of the twelve. He loved individual people with their individual pains, problems, warts, and wrinkles. He loved both Jew and Gentile, both poor and rich, both married and single. When reading the gospels I often wonder, "how did Jesus love all of those people I know I can't. I try but it's not easy." 

In her new book, Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job (Loyola Press, 2014) Kerry Weber tries to unpack Matthew 25 in a way that we can all follow Jesus each and every day and as the subtitle says "keep your day job." 

Most folks think that priests or members of religious orders are called to ministry and service. What a bunch of baloney! By virtue of our baptism we are all called to serve the "least of these" as Jesus says. Weber, an editor at America Magazine set out one Lent to try to actually live according to Jesus' injunction in Matthew 25. Mercy in the City is her account of how she managed to seek perfection through loving ones neighbor yet doing it in fits and starts. 

Weber shows us how hard it is to see Christ in other people one day as she passed by a homeless man every day only to find that he shows up at the shelter one evening where she'd volunteer to work. She realizes then how she was like the Rich Man in the Rich Man and Lazarus story in Luke. She learns that this man has a name and that he actually knows Weber's boss at America. Talk about getting a dose of humility! There is a funny passage where she has to serve sandwiches in a morning breadline only to find out that even homeless people fight and argue over a sandwich and a cup of coffee. 

Mercy in the City is part memoir and part spiritual journey. The chapters are very short and one could read the entire book in a long afternoon. However, the one drawback from the book is that I was wanting more. Weber is such a good writer with great material. I found the chapters were almost like sketches rather than full blown chapters. I wanted to see more of the folks whom she met as well as how she changed through the process. You get glimpses of this throughout the book but I was hoping to have more of Weber's only spiritual journey on the page. I wanted to read more about her struggles trying to love her neighbors, more stories about the real inner struggle when one is conflicted to love those whom don't love you back. 

This being said Mercy in the City is a good read if you are looking for some insight into how you too, like Kerry, can follow Jesus in the 21st century without going to seminary, without necessarily studying theology, and as she says, not leave your day job. 

For more information about Mercy in the City click here 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Review: Jesus A Pilgrimage

Let me get this out of the way first: I love Father Martin's books.

A few years ago a friend mentioned Martin's book,  My Life with the Saints (HarperOne, 2007). I devoured it in a few days. After reading that I immediately read Between Heaven and Mirth (HarperOne, 2012) and A Jesuit Guide (to Almost) Everything (HarperOne, 2012) and loved them as well. I enjoyed them so much that I suggested that our parish prayer group read them for our book studies. And after Easter we will read Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne, 2014).

Father Martin brings the spiritual life "to life." So often authors use abstract terms and concepts or academic jargon,  but not Father Martin. No. When reading his books you feel like Father Martin is in the room with you gently guiding you through the text,  pointing out the essentials, but not getting too bogged down in details. I admire Father Martin's clear writing style and prose. I also enjoy his self deprecating humor. I never heard Father Martin preach, but judging from his healthy sense of humor and wit, I'm sure he's a great preacher.

Readers of Father Martin's previous books will not be disappointed with his latest offering. Jesus: A Pilgrimage is part memoir, part travel writing, and part Biblical commentary and reflection. The book is a result of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Father Martin took with his friend George a few years ago.

The book is divided into twenty five chapters which basically follow the life of Jesus. Jesus: A Pilgrimage brought back many memories from my own pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2014. I too, like Father Martin, took a journal with me and made many of the same observations and reflections as he did, especially the crazy atmosphere at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with tourists pushing and shoving and selling crosses and candles, it was like a zoo! After returning from the Holy Land I realized that many of the places where I felt the most "spiritual" or "in tune with God" was not in the crowded Church's, monasteries, and tourist sties,  but in the quiet places such as standing atop Mount Tabor overlooking the green valley below or while in a boat taking a short trip across the Sea of Galilee or watching the waterfalls at Caeserea Philippi.

I have read many books on the life and world of Jesus. Yet for the most part they are generally one dimensional. They cover the facts and offer important commentary and insight yet they are missing something: the personal dimension.  Father Martin's stories bring the Holy Land to life showing us how we can follow Jesus' footsteps from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem, but that we are all called to follow Jesus each and every day.  While Father Martin and George went on a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel we are all on our own personal pilgrimages in our homes, at work, in Church, and in the world. The personal invitation "come and see" that Philip made to Nathaniel in the beginning of John's gospel is an invitation for all of us whether we are clergy or lay, single or married, male or female. All of us are invited to follow the Lord wherever we are and in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Jesus: A Pilgrimage is a wonderful resource for pastors looking for greater insight for their weekly sermons and homilies. It's also a great resource for Bible studies and for parish book clubs. I certainly will return to Jesus: A Pilgrimage again for my own preaching and teaching in the years to come.

For more information about Jesus: A Pilgrimage click here 

For a list of Father Martin's other books click here 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Review: We Preach Christ Crucified

"Always preach the gospel, use words if you have to" is a phrase that has traditionally been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. I love this quote and have used it numerous times in some of my Sunday sermons. Too often pastors tend to over explain things drawing on complex theological and abstract concepts and at the end of the day the average Joe or Jane Doe in the pew has no idea what they are talking about. We have to be reminded that Jesus used simple everyday images in his teaching and preaching, images such as sheep, goats, vines, wheat, mill stones, wine, water, and bread. He spoke to farmers, peasants, single mothers, foreigners, Jews, and Greeks alike. He spoke to those who were wealthy and those who were poor. He spoke to those who were educated and those who were not. He spoke to both men and women, both married, and those who were single. Yet on Sunday morning we tend to forget that Jesus' preaching was simple but not simplistic, brief but not watered down.

Preaching is the heart of this new anthology recently published by Liturgical Press. We Preach Christ Crucified is a collection of essays and talks that were delivered at a conference on preaching hosted by the University of Notre Dame in June 2012. It includes a collection of seventeen essays by some noteworthy theologians, pastors, and preachers such as Barbara Reid, Jan Michael Joncas, Mary Catherine Hilkert, and John Cavadini among others. The essays also reflect a wide range of sub-topics such as preaching in the presence of children, preaching and the liturgical experience, the African-American experience of preaching, preaching among the poor, as well as some challenges and choices with preaching in the 21st century. There is literally something for everyone in this book.

Even though I am a well seasoned pastor I always try to learn something new in order to improve my sermons. Preaching may seem easy to our parishioners but its a challenge to create a well crafted, inspiring, and hopefully encouraging and uplifting sermon each week. I often feel like I've reaches the bottom of the well on certain gospel lessons yet if I look hard I always find something new to offer my community.

We Preach Christ Crucified needs to be read by both seminary students and pastors who want to get some new insights on preaching. The essay on "Preaching and Children" for example inspired me to read a book by Sofia Cavaletta, a student of the great Maria Montessori. Cavaletti's work involves children and how they view spirituality, God, and how they deal with mystery. I got it through my local library's inter-library loan department. I have quite a few children and Church and I hope that my sermons also touch their hearts as well. We often think we are only preaching to our adult members but we can easily forget that we have a parish full of young children who absorb what we say like sponges. We cannot forget to use basic, everyday images that also appeal to them as well.

I can go on and on about We Preach Christ Crucified but I don't have the time to elaborate. If you are interested in improving your sermons. If you are interested in what scholars today are saying about preaching in a way that is highly readable and important for us as clergy and for our laity, then go and read We Preach Christ Crucified. 

Click here to read more about the book 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some Lenten Reading

If you are interested in some Lenten reading this year then you might want to read my book The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian.

This short prayer is full of spiritual food for our Lenten journey. You can read a short description of the book in the link below.

I hope all of you have a good Lent this year.

To order a copy of this book click here 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Available on Amazon

Just wanted everyone to know that my new book, Walking With God: Stories of Life and Faith is now available on Amazon.com. It would make a great resource for Lent as well as for small group discussions and personal reflections.

I am very grateful for Nicholas Denysenko and Adam DeVille for their kind words about the book which are noted below.

Buy a copy for yourself, for your pastor, and for a friend!

"Walking with God reminds me of something the recent Nobel laureate Alice Munro once said: most of us lead lives that are "dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum." Mills gracefully helps us peel back the seemingly dull linoleum of our lives to see the amazing depth and unfathomable mystery of God--the good news--in places we least expect it but most need it." 

Adam DeVille, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology
University of Saint Francis

"Mills reads the New Testament and shows how the God we read about in the Bible is present in our daily lives. Drawing from an array of sources, including his own experiences, Mills offers pearls of spiritual wisdom for growth in Christ. I highly recommend this book for everyone."  

Nicholas Denysenko, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology
Loyola Marymount University

To order a copy of Walking With God click here

To view a preview of the book click here 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review: City of God

When reading the New Testament it’s easy to think that most Christians lived in small quaint hamlets and villages, after all the gospels often talk about Jesus traveling from village to village across the Galilee. Yet when digging deeper we see that Jesus spent a lot of time in urban areas such as Jerusalem, Caesarea Philippi, and Caesarea Maritima. Jesus’ hometown village of Nazareth was just a stones throw away from the vast Roman city of Sepphoris, which was still undergoing construction when Jesus was preaching and teaching. Paul too preached and ministered in major cities and urban areas such as Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and Damascus where he encountered people from diverse cultures, religions, languages, and backgrounds. Just read the Book of Acts and you will clearly see the urban nature of early Christianity.
            We are reminded of the urban roots of Christianity in Sara Miles’ new book City of God: Faith in the Streets (NY: Jericho Books, 2014). City of God is literally a day in the life of her experience bringing ashes to her local community on Ash Wednesday 2012. Several years I recall reading an article about several Catholic and Episcopal parishes that decided to distribute ashes to people where they are rather than make them come to Church; some call it “ashes on the run” or “ashes to go.” People may think this is odd, but quite frankly the majority of our congregants spend a lot of time commuting to and from work, in carpool at school, or transporting their children to soccer practice or ballet lessons do not have time to stop in at their local parish and get ashes. Our lives and schedules do not often coincide with service times. Rather than turn their heads and shrub their shoulders, Sara and her friends at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, have literally gone to the streets to bring Christ’s healing hand to those who are broken, hurt, and who are in need of forgiveness. What a novel idea, rather than have people come to the parish, let the parish come to them!
            This fast paced memoir can be read in one long sitting. Miles weaves her story like a natural story teller cycling back and forth between Ash Wednesday 2012 and the various chores and errands that had to be done that day, filling in her readers with background information about parish ministry, the people in her parish and neighborhood, as well as a bit of sociological and religious commentary. City of God reads very much like her other two books Jesus Freak and Take This Bread, which are also well written and inspiring. I have used several of her stories in my sermons and adult education classes.
            Sara certainly has her finger on the pulse of her local parish as well as her surrounding community. She is concerned with both good liturgy and serving her neighbor. She discusses some of the crazies and crackpots in her life, not as people to be avoided, but as sources of grace and forgiveness. I found myself laughing at times, especially when she put on her cassock and asked herself, “Do I look ok? Is it too hot outside for this? What will people think?” Questions that have gone through my own head many times!

            Toward the end of the book Sara confesses that the Church has left the building. I agree. This is not to say that we don’t need parish buildings anymore, because we do need places for regular worship. This of course begs the question whether or not we need multi-million dollar buildings when we could build simple and aesthetically pleasing buildings that are both functional and prayerful, but that is not her argument. When Sara says that the Church has left the building she means that when we look at the gospels we see Jesus literally leaving the religious communities, the synagogue, and literally traveling from place to place, preaching, teaching, healing, and raising the dead. While Jesus had a home base in Capernaum he was not bound by that place, he went around to where the people lived; in their homes like he did with Zachaeus the chief tax collector or Jairus whose daughter was dying, or in the streets like he did while healing the ten lepers or the blind man lying on the side of the road. Jesus was not bound by geography and neither should we. City of God reminds us that ministry takes place in a variety of places; home, school; work, on the metro and subway, over a cup of coffee in a cafĂ© or in a bookstore. Looking back through my ministry I have probably heard more confessions in Starbucks than I have in Church that should tell us something! I laud Sara for writing a radically honest, and very funny book, but which has a serious strain throughout. I encourage you to take up and read City of God. Make it your Lenten reading this year. Make it your next read for your parish book club selection. You too, like Sara, might be inspired to take to the streets and bring the good news of Jesus with you!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: People Pleasing Pastors

I wish I read this book in seminary. I wish I had re-read this book at least every year since seminary! Every pastor, whether young or old should read Charles Stone's new book People-Pleasing Pastors which has been newly published by Intervarsity Press 2014.

Charles Stone is the head pastor of the West Park Church in London, Ontario and is the founder of Stonewall Ministries where he serves as a pastoral coach. He is also the author of 5 Ministry Killers and how to Defeat Them.

People-Pleasing Pastors is a topic that is essential for all pastors. The pastor's life is complicated and complex, which is usually comprised of a meandering web of relationships including his or her family as well as those in leadership positions and regular parishioners. People often project thoughts and feelings onto the pastor which then encourages the pastor to have strained and sometimes strange relationships with him or her. Stone has served as a longtime pastor and his experience combined with good sound research makes for an excellent resource for pastors and those who are in ministerial formation.

The book is divided into three sections: The Problem of People Pleasing in the Church Today, The Solution, and the Leader's Toolbox. Each section is then sub-divided into smaller chapters. Stone weaves in personal stories as well as some medical research about brain development and the Biblical stories that are appropriate for the narrative. Stone's basic thesis is that nearly three quarters of pastors try to appease or please parishioners in order to keep the peace in the parish. By doing this the pastor then often feels shame, guilt, and sometimes anger and resentment, sometimes even lashing out at people.

What is so important about this book is not just the information that he provides but the fact that they includes many types of questions for the reader to think about as well as some short little "do it yourself quizzes" about your family of origin, about your thoughts about leadership and so forth. I found myself stopping along the way reading and re-reading certain passages.

People Pleasing Pastors is a great book for small group study as well as for journaling. I will certainly go back and use this book in my journaling time thinking about my style of leadership and the gaps in it.

I highly recommend People Pleasing Pastors, do yourself and favor and buy a copy today!

For more information about this book click here 

For more information about Charles Stone click here