Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Review: Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon

Thomas Merton's memory is kept alive through the thousands of readers and seekers who continue to read his books as well as the books written about him. Not only do we have the written literature but we also have the Merton Center which is housed at Bellarmine University as well as the International Thomas Merton Society. Needless to say there are a lot of Merton fans out there.

One of the more recent additions to the vast literature about Merton is a new book by Donald Grayston titled, Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon: The Camadoli Correspondence (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015). Grayston is retired from his post as the director of the Institute for the Humanities at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada and is a post-president of the International Merton Society.

This book specifically covers the time period when Merton was seeking to leave the Gethsamni monastery in Kentucky for a more eremitical life in the Camadolese community in Italy. The Camaldolese are a part of the Benedictine community of monastics which have the eremitical life (smaller communities who live as hermits) as their major charism. The order's founder was Saint Romuald who sought to live out the Rule of St. Benedict in a more austere fashion.

Through analyzing letters written between Merton, his abbot James Fox, as well as the Prior and Provincial of the Camaldolese community in Italy, Grayston shows us the spiritual struggles of Merton during this difficult period of his life. Merton suffered, like many monks do with acedia, commonly called the noonday demon. This is often referred to as despondency as well. Basically the noonday demon is the temptation to question ones role as a monk or nun, to want to leave ones current home for another, the temptation to want to leave the monastic life altogether. Grayston shows us that Merton suffered greatly from acedia, the constant noise and hustle and bustle at Gethsemani, combined probably with the growing number of new vocations, and extra work was the impetus for Merton to want to leave the quiet country pastures of Gethsemani for another monastery in Italy.

Grayston is a wonderful storyteller, he weaves the narrative of Merton's relationship with Abbot Fox through the many letters that the two exchanged as well as the exchanges between Abbot Fox and the Prior in Italy and shows the various types of personalities that played into the mix.

In the end, after much discussion, dialogue, and debate Abbot Fox made a compromise. Merton was forbidden to leave Gethsemani but he was allowed to have a small hermitage on the monastery property where he could pray, write, and live more or less as a contemplative during the last years of his life.

Grayston also provided important background to Merton's life as well as some background to the Camaldolese community in Italy. However I did think that the book needed some editorial work, especially the numerous places where Grayston digressed, but don't let this small criticism detract from the book. If you are a fan of Merton's work than you need to read this one.

For more information about Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon click here 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Book Review: Crossing Thresholds

There are not many memoirs published by pastors, a few have been noteworthy such as Richard Lischer's Open Secrets or Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church are perhaps among the better ones; there are a few others. However, among the most recent is a small but powerful memoir titled Crossing Thresholds: The Making and Remaking of a 21st Century Chaplain (Cascade Press, 2015) by Lucy A. Forster-Smith. Forster-Smith is the Sedgwick Chaplain to the University and the Senior Minister at the Memorial Church at Harvard University. When I saw this book I knew I had to read it, especially because it is by both a chaplain and a pastor, someone who has one foot in separate, but similar ministries.

I don't want to give too much away lest the reader not want to read her book,  but her's is an intriguing story. She first writes about her time as the chaplain at Macelester College in St. Paul Minnesota and the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of religious life at a small Midwestern college, especially the stories about how non-relgious students began to question the role of the chapel and the Church in a liberal arts setting with many students from a wide range of religious beliefs: Jewish, Muslim, various Christian traditions, and non Christian too. One of the funnier stories is her coming to work without the slightest idea of what to do, boxes still unpacked, apparently there was no one around to show her the ropes. I say funny because it reminded me of my own foray into parish life; they gave me the keys and said basically, here it is, good luck. I'm sure most pastors had similar experiences.

Forster-Smith reveals a traumatic episode in her life which I want to let the reader find more out about on their own. However, any trauma, especially a violent one, can leave one hopeless and helpless. Yet somehow, through therapy, prayer, communion and community, Forster-Smith overcomes it and enters into full time ministry. While reading the book I felt like cheering her on, after all, many people are left damaged after traumatic experiences, never to regain their own personal power, dignity, and self-respect.

The only drawback to this memoir is that it is too short. I wanted to learn more about her own faith upbringing, her personal struggles with God, with students, with the larger Church as well as the chapel. Maybe she is saving this for another book in the future, I hope so, she is a good writer.

If you are a pastor or in any way interested in the role and ministry of chaplains and pastors pick up a copy of Crossing Thresholds, you won't be disappointed.

To learn more about Crossing Thresholds and to order a copy click here

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

New Book Review Coming Soon

Just wanted to share some good news from my friend and colleague Dr. Nicholas Denysenko, an Orthodox deacon and professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in LA. I look forward to reviewing his new book on my blog in the near future.

For more information about this book click here 

To order a copy of Liturgical Reform click here 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Come Follow Me Interview

I am very grateful to my longtime friend and colleague Dr. Adam Deville for interviewing me for his blog, Eastern Christian Books. I'm including a link to the interview below.

Wishing everyone a good week and many blessings during this Advent Season.

Keep reading, praying, and studying the Scriptures.

I am also including a link to order my new book as well. Buy a copy for friends, family, and your pastor!

For my interview with Adam click here 

To order a copy of Come Follow Me click here 

Friday, October 30, 2015

New Book Arrived!!!

Finally, after much writing, editing, revising, and still more revising my new book COME FOLLOW ME (Minneapolis, MN: OCABS Press, 2015) has arrived.

COME FOLLOW ME is a collection of twenty-five pastoral reflections on key Scriptural texts. The book is a good resource for:

Personal and Group Bible Study
Sermon Preparation
Lectio Divina
Spiritual Journaling

You can order a copy today via You can find the link below.

Wishing everyone a good weekend. Remember to keep reading and studying Scripture!

To order a copy of COME FOLLOW ME click here 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Book Review: Into Your Hands

I have reviewed several of Walter Brueggeman's books on this blog, especially his two-volume sermon collections which are very good. Brueggmann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He is a prolific author and has many books on both the Old and New Testaments as well as various essay collections and talks. I always enjoy his writing.

Into Your Hand: Confronting Good Friday (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014) is a short collection of sermons/prayerful reflections on the seven last words of Jesus. These talks were delivered in a three hour long prayer service at his home parish which included song, Psalms, and prayers. Even though the book is very short, its around 45 pages, it contains a lot of food for thought regarding Jesus' last hours.

What I like about Brueggemann is that although he is an Old Testament scholar and seminary professor he has a pastoral heart. He brings the Scriptures to life for his readers, and in this case, his hearers, as he reflections on the last words of Jesus which we find in the gospels.

It's unfortunate that in many Churches Good Friday gets overshadowed by Easter Sunday. All too often the focus is on the Empty Tomb, on Christ is Risen, and in some places, the Easter Bunny. Yet what about Good Friday? What about the suffering? What about the beatings? What about the crown and the vinegar? What about the abandonment? What about Jesus' crying to God the Father? All of these things are discussed by Brueggemann in a prayerful and pastoral way.

This book would be a great book club book for those wanting to learn and discuss the basic outline of Good Friday.

For more information about Into Your Hand click here 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review: Invasion of the Dead

Spring means blooming flowers, green trees and grass, and warmer weather. Spring also means that its the Easter season. It is very timely then that I received Rev. Dr. Brian Blount's new book, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox, 2014) for review. Couldn't have timed this better!

Rev. Dr. Blount is President and Professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA and is the author of numerous books, articles, and reviews. This book is a collection of lectures that he gave in 2011 at Yale University Divinity School. The three lectures are interspersed with three of his sermons.

Most parishioners forget that every Sunday is a mini-Easter, a mini-Resurrection feast. Sure we celebrate Easter once a year after Good Friday but every Sunday is the Lord's Day, it is the Day of the Lord, where we offer our prayer and praise and break bread and share fellowship with one another. Yet most of us probably don't think much about the resurrection, or as Dr. Blount says, many folks just stop a bit shy and focus on the cross. Yet all the gospels contain the resurrection accounts and the preaching of the good news to the whole world.

I must say being a pastor I enjoyed reading Dr. Blount's sermons and hope that one day he publishes them. The three sermons in this book focused on some aspect of the resurrection: new life, joy, rebirth. I especially enjoyed the last sermon in the book focusing on Mark 16 called "Rise" which was delivered in honor the rededication of First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. Blount refers to a tired and dying parish like that of Jesus. Yet there is hope in that dying. He admits that much of institutional Christianity is dying or has died, namely old ways of thinking and old ways of doing things.

Does this sound like a depressing story? Yes! But Dr. Blount provides hope. Just as Jesus rose from the dead so too can a parish rise from the burning ashes that they might find themselves in. Some parishes struggle with poor attendance, others struggle with lack of regular income, and others struggle with shifting demographics. All this sounds like bad news, tired, sad, and downright depressing. Yet Dr. Blount reminds us that new life is possible. That God's gracious gift of resurrection can even be found in big and small ways throughout the Church.

Reading this book gave me several pearls of wisdom for my own parish ministry. Where do I see God's gracious hand in my life, in my parishes life, in the larger Church that I find myself? Where do I see glimmers of the shimmering light of the resurrection?

For more information Invasion of the Dead click here 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review: All Who Go Do Not Return

You might be wondering why is an Eastern Orthodox priest is reviewing a memoir about a former Hasidic Jew? Well for starters I grew up in a very Jewish world in New Jersey. Many of my school age friends were Jews, my mom's boss was an Orthodox Jew, I worked part time in high school for a brother and sister who survived concentration camps in Germany, and for a time I wish that I was Jewish too, especially around Chanukah. I was super jealous when us Christians only had one day of gift giving at Christmas where my neighbor friends had eight days! Since we had so many Jewish believers in our community my local school always had off on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. So it made perfect sense that I would read and devour Shulem Deen's new memoir (Graywolf Press, 2015)

Deen was a former member of the Skver Hasidic group based in Monsey New York, which is around thirty miles or so north of New York City up in Rockland County. There are many branches of the Hasidic community each involving various small cultural and theological nuances which usually include following their beloved Rabbi or Rebbe as they call him. The Rabbi is not just the main spiritual leader but the one who leads prayers, teaches, and upholds Jewish law. The Skver Hasidic dynasty originated with the teachings of Rebbe Yitzhok Twerski who lived in the Ukraine. Upon coming to the United States the Skver Hasids established New Square, New York as their home base, not too far from other Hasidic Jewish groups.

Anyone familiar with Hasidic Judaism knows that they generally live in tight closed knit communities where they live, eat, study, and pray together. Many own stores and shops in the community and in some ways their life is not too different than the Amish who live in Lancaster Pennsylvania  and who have very little contact with the world around them: i.e no televisions, radios, computers, movies, secular books, or newspapers. Their life revolves around prayer, study, marriage, and family. Like the Amish, many of the Hasidic Jews do not receive public education and therefore many do not have basic life skills such as reading and writing in English as well as little advanced math comprehension.

Deen's memoir is a heart wrenching story of a young married Hasidic man with children who after a long period of soul searching and discernment decided to leave New Square. Leaving any community is not easy, but leaving the Hasidic community seems nearly impossible. Deen was considered an "aprikoros" or heretic by the local Jewish leaders. He was banned, sent away as someone who would contaminate the rest of the community. This story is heart felt because as we know that life is never cut and dry, one has many connections, friendships, and networks within a community and to leave family, friends, and faith is horrific especially when someone is raised in that particular faith tradition. To leave what you know, what is familiar to you, all of the customs both big and small is not so easy as it seems.

There are many memoirs where the writing is thin and the story bland. Not this one. Deen's writing is like reading a piece of artwork. He provides the reader with the many sides of Hasidism, the good, the bad, and the ugly. He shows the warts and wrinkles the joys and the pains as well. For example of all the people mentioned in the book, it seems like his siblings still continue to love and care for him even though he left. As I was reading it dawned on me how painful it must have been for them as well. I also thought about his friends who stayed at New Square. How do they feel about his leaving? Are they jealous? Do they feel, like Deen, caught between staying and leaving?

As someone such as myself who is steeped in a robust liturgical and ancient faith tradition as the Eastern Orthodox Church I felt much sympathy and affinity with Deen's faith struggle. We too can often be very sectarian, afraid of secular books and culture, afraid of asking questions, afraid of challenging the saints and the Fathers of the Church (ancient sermons and theological writings of monks, bishops, and priests), but accept everything without questioning. More often than not what is left is a very thin faith and one that is one of fear of power and authority and not based on love. Many clergy, like the Rebbe's mentioned in the book fall into the trap of dominating power and authority in the parishes. Once I was asked by a parishioner to actually name her child. It is one thing to bless a child on the eighth day which is our custom, but she wanted me to provide the actual name, as if she was giving over all power to me. I firmly suggested that this was a decision that needs to be made between herself and her husband. She pushed the issue and I remained firm. I was not assuming that responsibility for her. Long story short it is not uncommon for believers to project things onto me as their spiritual leader and guide which is not really my responsibility. Things are similar in Hasidic Judaism where followers will hang on every word and teaching of their Rebbe, so much so as to push and shove one another as he enters a room so that they can touch him or receive a blessing.

I had difficulty reading this memoir, not because of the narrative or the quality of the writing, but because I saw in it the destructive power of religion. I wondered what if Deen was raised in a different type of Hasidic group, one that allowed for discussions, for questions, for a slightly different lifestyle? How different this life might have been! There is much in Judaism that is beautiful. I often listen to Jewish hymns on the internet and read selections from some of the great Hasidic spiritual writers such as the Baal Shem Tov as well as the more contemporary Abraham Joshua Heschel whose writing and life I admire very much.

Religion can easily turn into sectarianism and fundamentalism. Those who challenge or call to question are shoved to the margins and are either pushed out or are asked to leave. How sad. Judaism has a rich and lively heritage which in some ways parallels Christianity with its various rites, rituals, hymns, prayers, and food. Yet sometimes we can easily be imprisoned in these rites and rituals, very often not knowing why we do them, but wondering can they be done in a slightly different manner which is more appropriate for our time and place.

I could go on and on about Deen's memoir but I won't. I'll leave it up to you, the reader, to take and read. I commend Shulem Deen for his courage and humility to write this book. It must have been a labor of love. I know he touched my heart.

For more information about Shulem Deen and his memoir click here 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Book Review: Wearing God

There is a common saying that goes, "You shouldn't judge a book by it's cover." I admit if I saw this book on a store shelf I would most likely not pick it up. I'm not quite sure I understand the connection between the flying birds and the woman in the middle. However, that being said, I was intrigued by the title: Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (Harper One, 2015) 

I was first introduced to Laura Winner's writing when she published When Girl Meets God. I've read a few of her other books and was interested in what she has to say about vocation, God, the Church, and our life in Christ. She is a professor at Duke Divinity School and has published many books on the spiritual life.

The Bible is full of metaphors. When we read the gospels for example we read that Jesus refers to himself as a vine, as a shepherd taking care of his sheep, as the bread of life. These metaphors are so common sometimes we tend to glance over them and don't realize their power. We don't spend time with each metaphor and say to ourselves, "Gee how is Jesus like a shepherd for me?" or "How is Jesus like a vine and I'm one of the branches." Metaphors are powerful for they put the indescribable into something tangible and real for us. They make what is ethereal and put them into a concrete image so that we can better understand the meaning of the text.

 Winner's aim in this book is to unpack some of the major metaphors in the Bible that speak of Jesus and God. She delineates her topics into a few sections:



Bread and Vine 

Laboring Women 



Of course there are additional metaphors that she could have included but the book would have been over five hundred pages! The Bible is full of wonderful metaphors but one cannot write about all of them in a book like this.

Winner is a fine writer. She writes as if she is sitting with you over a cup of coffee or tea, explaining the meaning of these metaphors to us. She has a casual tone, a result of many years preaching and teaching seminary students. Throughout the book she includes several quotations from major writers, both modern and ancient, as well as prayers and hymns from the liturgical year. A few of these would have been fine, however I did get distracted with the over abundance of them. Sometimes less is more. Yet throughout the book I did pause and read the quotations allowing them to speak to me as well.

Two of them caught my eye:

"In every culture, clothing not only is utilitarian but also symbolizes a person's or group's identity." Sarah A Chase

"The Lord Jesus Christ himself…is said to be the clothing of the saints." Origen

I never thought about clothing as identity. One day I may wear blue jeans and another day I may wear my khaki pants and polo shirt. Yet how many people wear uniforms to work, police officers, fire men, postal workers, janitors. When I see a UPS man in his brown shirt and pants I know immediately that he is a UPS man without having to see the sign on the truck.

If anything, Wearing God will help the reader return back to the Bible again and take a slow read, allowing the metaphors unpack their meaning. I found that all too often I read the Bible too quickly and miss some of the major points!

If you are interested in reading more about some of the metaphors that speak about our life in Christ than Wearing God is a book for you.

For more information about Wearing God click here 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Book Review: Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann

I came across the writings of Walter Brueggemann several years ago and I'm so happy that I did! Brueggemann is a committed Christian, pastor, and for many years served as the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. I enjoy his writings because they have both depth and breadth and while he has a scholar eyes and mind he also has a pastors' heart. I rank Brueggemann up there with Eugene Peterson, Fred Craddock, Thomas Long, among others.

When I saw his second volume of collected sermons I knew that I had to review it. A few years ago I read and reviewed the first volume of sermons and the second volume, very much like the first, doesn't disappoint.

As a longtime pastor I have found that I need to fill up my wells so that I can continue in my preaching and teaching ministry. It's certainly challenging to preach sermons week after week, month after month, season after season for many years. It can be downright tiring. However, I need to continually read, study, and pray the Scriptures as well as read books like this collection of sermons. It is food for the journey. If you're a pastor or a teacher in the Church I encourage you to read this collection too, you won't be disappointed.

The sermon collection is arranged according to the Church Year:

Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany 

Lent and Easter 

Pentecost and Ordinary Time 

What I like about Brueggemann is that since he knows the cultural and religious world view of the Old Testament he brings that to light in his preaching. His sermons weave both the Scriptural as well as personal as he finds no problem mentioning a book, movie, or personal anecdote as we would a story about King David or Abraham. The Old Testament comes to life in his sermons and while reading one could just imagine Adam or Eve just walking into the room. I don't get a chance to hear many preachers because I have a parish myself, however I hear from some folks that too many sermons are like dry bones, dusty and old, stories told and re-told without much imagination from the preacher. However, Brueggemann is far from dry, these dry dusty bones come to life as he refashions them into the life-giving story of God's salvation for us in Jesus.

If you want a book that will feed heart, mind, and spirit then look no further than Walter Brueggemann's Second Volume of Sermons, you'll be happy that you did!

Since reading this book I have read several other of his books too, his books on the prophets for example is excellent. I hope you will find Brueggemann as inspiring as I have!

For more information about the sermon collection click here 

For Walter Brueggemann's Website click here 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: Torah to the Gentiles

Children usually think that bigger is better; Joey has a bigger bike than Johnny, Suzy has a better doll house than Mary, Cade has a larger tree house than Jackson. However I was taught as a child not to judge a book by its cover, or size for that matter. Some of the most important pieces of writing were not long at all, here I think of the Magna Carta, Luther's 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Short pieces of writing but extremely important. The same pertains to the Scriptures. Paul's letter to the Galatians is very short at 6 chapters but extremely important and essential for faithful followers of Christ to fully understand not only what the gospel means but how we are to live together as one body of Christ in the Spirit.

Fr. Marc Boulos is the pastor of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church (OCA) in Eagan, MN and the co-host of The Bible as Literature podcast.

I applaud Fr. Boulos for his recent contribution for our understanding of perhaps Paul's most important letter in his corpus, the epistle to the Galatians. Boulos' many years as a pastor, teacher, and preacher, together with his pastoral experience has provided him the language to translate Paul's teachings on how we must live according to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It might be easy to discount this small book, but good things come in small packages. The introduction and conclusion are worth the price of the book for in them Boulos lays out the practical implications of living as one body; living by the rule of love, "Learning how to love is like learning to swim. It requires endless practice in the real world-endless hours in the pool-dealing with the primary data. In the case of love, this data is the wisdom gained from the shame of the cross." (p. 123). It is the crucified Christ which draws Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, into one body. Although we all know that living as one body is not easy, yet it is the command of love that is the glue that binds us together.

The book is divided into six chapters, each chapter includes both the original Greek and English so the reader can see both. What is important about this book is that Boulos uses "scripture to interpret scripture." In other words unlike some biblical commentaries that has various "theological lenses" in which they view the text Boulos uses the ancient teaching technique of using the scriptures to unlock the meaning of the scriptural text in which he is using. While reading Torah to the Gentiles I immediately thought that this would be an excellent resource for a Bible study or small book study since it includes both the scriptural text as well as commentary.

Paul is not an easy read. Most people prefer the gospels since they are straight narratives with characters, plot, setting, and drama. Paul's letters are dense as he primarily uses Graeco-Roman religious, military, and legal language in his argument and after a while many people stop reading Paul because they don't "get it." Yet Boulos takes this dense language and unpacks it, allowing the reader insight into Paul's writing itself. This is not an easy task, yet Boulos manages to do it with ease.

If you want a basic introductory to Paul's "epistle of epistles" then go out and buy yourself a copy of Torah to the Gentiles. No. Buy a few copies, give them to your pastor and to your local prayer group or Bible study. You won't be disappointed.

For more information about Fr. Boulos and his parish click here 

For more information about OCABS Press click here 

To purchase a copy of the book click here 

For an interview with Fr. Boulos click here