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 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Book Coming Soon!

Wanted everyone to know that my new book Walking with God: Stories of Life and Faith will be coming soon just in time for Lent 2014. My publisher tells me that it will be available on amazon soon and the price will be $14.95

Check back for updates! 

Wishing everyone a happy and peaceful 2014!