Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Russia's Uncommon Prophet

I first heard of Father Alexandr Men when I was studying at St. Vladimir's Seminary back in the late 1990's. A few of his sermon collections circulated around the seminary bookstore and in the library, but since I was busy with studies I didn't have much free time for extra reading. I wish I did since Fr. Men is a very important figure in the modern Orthodox world. His sermons, articles, essays, and books have been translated from Russian into English as well as numerous other languages.

Prof. Wallace Daniel, Distinguished Professor of History at Mercer University, has written a very good biography of Fr. Men. Daniel is the author of several books on Russian history and culture, The Orthodox Church and Civil Society in Russia as well as coeditor of Perspectives on Church-State Relations in Russia. I'm sure that his new biography on Men will be read as the definitive biography for some time, it is that good.

Fr. Men was important for many reasons. First and foremost, as the title states, he was a prophetic figure during the Soviet era. He lived during a time of great oppression to the Church, many churches, seminaries, chapels, and monasteries were closed, few clergy serviced parishes, and the laity were ill-educated in basic Church teachings and doctrine. Unlike many pastors, Fr. Men preached the gospel using basic easy to understand language, held secret adult education classes in apartments, and circulated sermons and articles through copying them via a xerox machine and circulating them among his congregation and among friends, what they used to call samizdat. Secondly, he reminded people that there was more to life than this world, more to life in Christ than merely working and serving the Soviet state; he spoke about love, relationship, family, connections; about the role and importance of poetry and literature, music, and art. In many ways Men was a renaissance man.

It was because Men couldn't be controlled by either the Church, which at that time was still very conservative and in some ways controlled or influenced by the Soviet leaders, or by the government which pressured him to stop preaching; that he was mysteriously killed on September 9, 1990 as he left his house to walk a few blocks to the train station.

One of the reasons why this book is so good is that Daniel doesn't merely explain Men through his own writing but describes Men in his own context during a very tumultuous time in Church history. Russian Orthodoxy had a very long and illustrious history in Russia but the Church and its leaders suffered greatly during communism. Daniel highlights Men's contributions as a watershed moment since not too long after Men died Premier Gorbachev rose to power, opening the floodgates and allowing more freedoms in Russia. This book serves as both a mini history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 20th century as well as a biography of a very important Church figure.

If you are interested specifically in the writings of Fr. Men or in modern Orthodox Church history then Uncommon Prophet by Wallace Daniel is for you.

For more information about this book click here 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review Varieties of Gifts

If you are a pastor, or a pastor in training, or are a voyeur and interested in how pastors think, feel, and act from Monday through Saturday then Varieties of Gifts: Multiplicity and the Well-Lived Pastoral Life (Rowan and Littlefield, 2016) is for you. Varieties of Gifts will certainly help you ponder the various identities and roles that pastors exhibit in their life. I know I did. Most of the books that I review are quick reads, but not this one. I kept stopping over and over again pondering the numerous vignettes and stories which Dr. Lindner includes. These stories were not just filler to keep the narrative moving forward, but are essential components for the book and which made me think of my own multiple identities that I carry around with me.

The major premise of this book is that pastors have, like every human being, multiple roles or identities which we exhibit. For example, when folks first meet me and when I tell them that I am an ordained minister they probably put me into one of their mental categories or boxes called “pastor.” They most likely have their own ideas or pre-conceived notions or even prejudices of what I do as a pastor, as in, “He probably just works on Sunday.” Of course we know that is a bunch of baloney, yet that is what many people think.

Yet when digging deeper they will learn that I am also a husband, father, friend, son, author, art lover, gardener, lover of poetry, and so forth. In other words when someone gets to know me they realize I am much more than just an ordained minister and that I have a wide variety of interests and things that I do which I find life-giving.

Lindner’s book is woven around numerous pastoral interviews which she conducted over a period of time. These stories were well told and are food for thought for the reader to return to again and again. The pastors whom she interviewed are also very diverse: men and women, pastors from big city congregations and those who minister in the countryside. She spoke with ministers who have been in parish life for a long time and those for a short time. The wide range of interviews and stories provides the posts or hangers, on which Lindner weaves her main thesis.

While reading I kept thinking of my own multiplicity of identities or roles and how these intersect or sometimes don’t. I kept thinking of older pastors whose primary identity has been that or a priest or pastor, always subjugating their other loves or interests to that of full time parish life. Many of these ministers are deeply conflicted and often angry, they never allowed their other multiple lives to come to the surface and have a voice. Their sole role or identity is that of minister, priest, or pastor, everything else falls by the wayside. 

Yet coming to terms that we lead multiple lives is not easy. I admit that it took me quite a while to come to a deep understanding that at the core of who I am is not merely just a pastor but all of my identities wrapped into one and that all of my roles or identities or gifts as Lindner suggests are all interconnected and foster and encourage my other roles and identities. If I am going to maintain a healthy balance then I need to keep these roles alive and well, otherwise I’ll fall into the trap of having a singular identity.

If you want to give one book to your parish priest or pastor, I encourage you to get a copy of Varieties of Gifts for them, they’ll love it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book Review The Witness of Preaching

Preaching is not an easy task, trust me. After preaching Sunday after Sunday, week after week, month after month, year after year I still find it challenging. I am relieved Sunday afternoon but Monday morning I pick up my Bible again and wonder what I will say the following week. It never ends. Now, it's not all that bad, but I would love to preach every other week or maybe every third week just to let me hear a sermon once in a while rather than always have to deliver one.

For pastors like me who are life-long learners you will enjoy Tom Long's classic book for preaching; The Witness of Preaching (Westminster John Knox, 2016) which is now in its third edition.

I came across the name Tom Long a while after seminary and read a few of his articles and sermons in The Christian Century Magazine. I never had the chance to take one of his classes or seminars but I was lucky enough to hear him preach at a local preaching conference, boy was he good. When he walked into that pulpit I felt that this man knew what he was talking about. His age, together with his many years of teaching and preaching gave him the authority to say, "Thus says the Lord..." I don't remember exactly what he said and that doesn't matter, it was years ago, but what stuck with me was the power of his delivery, his poise in the pulpit, and his booming voice in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest Divinity School.

Most of what I learned about preaching was done piecemeal, a conference here or there and several bookshelves of books which I have read and re-read. This classic book newly revised provides the pastor with food for thought as we continue to proclaim the word of God.

Long tackles the basics such as delivery, the do's and don'ts of crafting a sermon, as well as honesty and vulnerability in the pulpit. I also enjoyed the several sermon selections that are included in the back of the book and which Long actually dissects and exegetes for his readers. It is like watching a play-by-play commentary by the famous football commentator John Madden. Long is there with you in your seat reviewing and commentating on a sermon showing you the good and the not so good of the sermon. I appreciated that very much and would have liked to see several more included in the book.

For those of you who would like a preaching refresher or who never encountered Tom Long before I encourage you to pick up and read The Witness of Preaching, you won't be disappointed.

For more information about The Witness of Preaching click here 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Book Coming in 2017

I wanted to share some good news with everyone. My good friend Prof. Nicholas Denysenko, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in California has a new book coming out in 2017 called Theology and Form: Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America (South Bend, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

I look forward to reading the book and so should you! Check back later next year for ore information.

To read a synopsis of this book click here 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review Preaching the Luminous Word

Preaching is not an easy task. Trust me, as someone who has preached Sunday after Sunday, week in and week out for sixteen years I can attest: preaching is hard work. Why is it so hard? Well for starters as soon as you finish one sermon you have to begin another one. It's also difficult to preach an authentic inspirational and Biblical sermon that sounds fresh and new each week. I must say I do envy larger congregations that have a head pastor and maybe an associate or two which means that one could rotate sermon assignments, do I wish I could preach every other week rather than every week! But alas, pastors rise to the occasion and crack open their Bibles and lectionary notes for the following week and get started once again.

Preaching can be both life-giving and light giving at the same time as the preacher provides fresh insight and words about the Word made flesh. Preaching also can provide light and direction in a world that can often be full of darkness. Ellen Davis, who serves as the Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School, has published a collection of Biblical sermons and homiletical essays that provide both life and light to the preached word. I have come across Prof. Davis' name before, but never had the opportunity to read any of her work or hear her preach. I was both pleased and inspired by this sermon collection and now wish that I heard these sermons live.

I have read a lot of sermons in my life but Prof. Davis' sermons  are some of the best. I found that she has a razor sharp eye on the text and both keeps the reader's attention and focus on the task at hand. Many pastors fall into the trap of including everything in their sermons; details, too many quotes from other sources, and one too many stories. Davis keeps her focus on the Biblical text and therefore keeps her readers or hearers attention on the Biblical text as well. She states in the preface that she enjoys preaching on Proverbs and the Psalms which is also quite unique since many pastors, including myself, feel more comfortable in a narrative section of Scripture, for examples the many stories in 1-2 Kings for  or one of the gospel parables.

Another bonus of this sermon collection are the four homiletical essays that are included:

Witnessing to God in the Midst of Life: Old Testament Preaching 

Holy Preaching: Ethical Interpretation and the Practical Imagination 

Surprised by Wisdom: Preaching Proverbs 

"Here I Am": Preaching Isaiah as a Book of Vocation 

Each of these essays provides much food for thought regarding the craft of preaching. I certainly will read and re-read these essays again as food for my heart, mind, and soul as I continue my own preaching and teaching vocation.

If you are interested in a preacher's preacher and want some good sermons to read and reflect on than pick up a copy of Preaching the Luminous Word, you won't be disappointed.

For more information about this book click here 

Friday, October 7, 2016

New Book Published

I wanted to share the good news that a wonderful new book has been published: The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish, and Ministry in the 21st Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016). Edited by my longtime friend and colleague Michael Plekon together with Maria Gwyn McDowell and Elizabeth Schroeder this diverse and important collection of essays calls into question the roles and structures of parish and congregational life. However, the essays also investigate the intersection of faith and life, ministry and world too.

I don't want to give too much away, but trust me, if you are a pastor or a lay leader who is vaguely interested in parish life go and buy a copy of this book, buy one for yourself, for your pastor, for your friends! You won't be disappointed. I also have an essay in the book too!

For more information about The Church Has Left The Building click here 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review The Eloquence of Grace

I never heard of Joseph Sittler before reading this book. I came across his name online somewhere and decided to read up more about him. I'm glad I did! This new book, edited by James Childs Jr and Richard Lischer with a Foreward by Martin Marty (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012) is a collection of essays and sermons from the famous Lutheran pastor and theologian Joseph Sittler. I included a link to Sittler's Archives below so you can read more about him under the "biography section." Sittler was active in the mid part of the 20th century as a pastor and as a teacher at various seminaries. He lived through the depression, through World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and died in the 1980's. The son of a Lutheran pastor himself, Sittler was well versed in ecclesial life from the ground up. He knew the ups and downs, the good and the bad, of parish life. His first parish was a small tiny country parish so he knew "the salt of the earth people" very well.

While the essays are written a long time ago they seem fresh and timeless. Settler's meta-narrative is God's grace towards creation focusing on the integration and interdependence of the creation and humans, between humanity and ecology, and between God and humankind.

From what I learned from this book is that Sittler was a preacher's preacher as they say, bringing the best of Biblical criticism, exegesis, and knowledge into the pulpit, bridging the pulpit and the pew, the altar and the world together. His sermons are deeply pastoral bringing the best of the gospel to his hearers. This is not an easy task since many theologians have a hard time speaking to the Average Joe or Jane Doe and some pastors have a hard time explaining the Bible in words and phrases which are understandable.

I am glad that I have been introduced to Joseph Sittler and wish I knew about him years ago. The Eloquence of Grace is a book that I will return to again as a breath of fresh air as I continue my own preaching and teaching ministry.

For more information about The Eloquence of Grace click here 

For more information about Joseph Sittler click here 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book Review: Questions Preachers Ask Essays in Honor of Thomas G. Long

Several years ago I attended the Elevating Preaching Conference hosted by Wake Forest Divinity School. It was a day of worship, teaching, and preaching. Among the preachers that day was Rev. Dr. Thomas Long. I had read a few articles by Long in the Christian Century but never heard him preach. I cannot remember exactly what he said during the sermon but his poise and his presence in the pulpit was memorable. I do recall that not only did he preach the Word but he performed it. His word choices, delivery, and sense of humor and irony was of that of a "preachers preacher." Tom Long is one of the best and what a better way to honor him at his retirement than to publish a selection of essays by other well known preachers about the current state of preaching.

The volume of essays is titled: Questions Preachers Ask: Essays in Honor of Thomas G. Long edited by Scott Black Johnston, Ted A. Smith, and Lenora Tubbs Tisdale (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2016).

If you want to learn more about the current state of preaching than look no further than this book. The book is divided into five major sections:

Changing Congregational Contexts 
Church and Culture 
Hopeful Signs 

The eleven chapters are organized around specific questions that have been asked of preachers today. Of all the essays I enjoyed the third section the most: Changing Congregational Contexts. 

This section was the most interesting I think because the Church today, and all aspects of Church life today, are going through monumental shifts: lover Sunday attendance, decrease of financial offerings, shifting trends in full time ministry, differing expectations of parish life from older generations and millennials, changing the way we train and form future pastors, the list goes on and one.  Then of course there is the rise of the "Nones" as the recent Pew Research report has stated, the rise of people who say that they have no religious affiliation at all. Richard Lischer's contribution, Prophesy to the Bones was a very insightful essay: what do you say to a parish and Church body that is indeed dying, yet it too needs to hear the Word of God? How do you preach to a congregational that sees the writing not the wall but is not completely dead yet? How do you preach the Good News to a parish who only has Bad News? I think a lot of pastors would benefit from this chapter alone!

Actually ALL preachers would benefit from reading Questions Preachers Ask. Even a well seasoned pastor who has preached for a long time needs to hear the Word of God fresh again and what a better way than to read a wonderful inspirational collection of sermons from some top notch practitioners in the field? Actually, one should not just read Questions Preachers Ask but also return to the writings of Rev. Tom Long. His magnum opus, Witness to Preaching is now in its 3rd edition, perhaps you can re-read that one again? Or maybe turn to his other books and articles in order to get some fresh words about The Word again? I know I do.

While I never had Rev. Long as a teacher and only heard him preach one time I want to re-read his books as a way to learn how I can preach better, preach deeper, and preach more truthfully and honestly. I commend the editors and Westminster John Knox press for publishing such a volume. Kudos!

For more information about Questions Preachers Ask click here 

For more information about Rev. Tom Long click here 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review: Preaching Gospel Essays in Honor of Richard Lischer

When I saw that Cascade Books recently published a volume of essays in honor of the Duke Divinity School's Professor of Homiletics, Richard Lischer, I knew that I had to read it. I was first introduced to Lischer's writings several years ago by a colleague who told me that I just had to read his books. I devoured his memoir Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery (Harmony Publishing,
2002) which recalls his time as a Lutheran pastor in a small town. Lischer is a preacher's preacher, teaching preaching and homiletics at Duke for 37 years. He will be retiring at the end of the Spring 2017 semester.

This volume of essays is a tribute to Prof. Lischer's long and industrious career. The seventeen essays are from former students and colleagues as well as from a diverse Christian spectrum. Each touch on an important aspect of the proclaimed word, and highlight Prof. Lischer's contribution to the field of homiletics. This is not a dry academic assortment of essays which one often finds in volumes such as these. Some of the essays such as Profs.  Stanley Hauerwas and Ellen Davis include not just an essay but sermons as well. As I was reading I thought what a wonderful way to honor a professor of homiletics than by including a few sermons too!

The essays include a wide variety of topics: preaching the Old Testament, social justice and the gospel, the gospel and spirituals, the gospel in the public arena, as well as others.

While some books of essays are arranged topically, this one is not, it would be very hard to do so, given the wide variety and range. Yet they all do share a common thread; every Sunday human preachers with human words help make the Word real and alive for people in the pews, and we do this Sunday after Sunday, year after year, season after season, and it's hard work. However, this work, according to Richard Lischer is not a burden, but a blessing, since we know in the Gospel of John that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. After reading Preaching Gospel I have a lot of gratitude for Prof. Lischer and all of his labors. I never heard Richard Lischer preach in person nor did I have him as a teacher, but I do know that after reading this volume of essays, as well as his own writings and sermons, that I have gained a lot for doing so, and for this I am grateful.

I congratulate the editors who put together this volume of essays and I commend and congratulate Prof. Lischer for his long teaching career. It has born fruit and we are all grateful for that.

For more information about Preaching Gospel: Essays in Honor of Richard Lischer click here 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review: Church Refugees

It's unfortunate, but it happens. It happens all too often. It happens right under our watch. It happens right in front of us but we usually don't notice, or deny that it's happening, but it does. People. Leave. Church. Yes, that is right, folks leave the pews. Sometimes they leave to start a new mission nearby or perhaps a new form of ministry, but people are leaving parishes and congregations. We can deny it but a sociology of religion professor colleague of mine always reminds me that data doesn't lie.

Josh Packard, together with his research assistant Ashleigh Hope have written a short but very good book on the "Dones" as they call them, folks who are done with Church. This is a play on the recent Pew Religion report that speak about the new wave of Millennials and Gen-X'ers who say that they have no religious affiliation. The media have labeled them the "Nones."

Dr. Packard is a professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado and co-director of the Social Research Lab. Ms. Hope is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University and one of Dr. Packard's former students.

Packard and Hope focus their attention on the Dones, the people who were once very faithful, very generous with their time, talent, and treasure, but as the word says, are "done" with Church. At least done with the institutional Church. These are the folks who attended prayer meetings and Bible studies, folks who volunteered for committees and worked with youth groups, but for numerous reasons are done with their local parishes and congregations and done with the institutional Church. These are not overly angry people are bitter, but they are tired of either being yelled at, scolded, or cajoled by clergy and lay leaders. They are tired of giving endlessly yet not being appreciated or affirmed. I guess many of these people are burned out on Church, at least with some aspects of Church life.

A short book review cannot delve into the numerous details which this book provides. However every pastor in ministry needs to read this book since it highlights many reasons why folks leave. Some of which are:

1. Not being valued by their pastors and lay leaders.

2. Being scolded about their Church attendance or lack of giving (One person said that they were even called up years after they left their congregation and the Church was soliciting a donation from them!!!)

3. Being overworked

4. Not being listened to

5. Being scolded and judged

There are more reasons too, but these are the basic ones.

While reading this book I felt sad, sad for those who left, sad of the good things that could have been done if these people stayed.

One would hope that both pastors and lay leaders, seminary faculty and national Church boards could read Church Refugees and learn something. We cannot fix everything that is broken, so much which is broken is systemic to institutional life in general, but we can, take a few helpful hints from Church Refugees and at least be a place of generosity and welcome, a place where folks can find the balm of Gilead and find both holiness and wholeness.

I congratulate Dr. Packard and Ms. Hope for conducting this research and for writing such a fine book. I hope clergy will read it and take heed. There are still folks in our pews and parishes who maybe are on their way to being done with Church, but their not done yet, at least not for now.

For more information about Church Refugees click here 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Book Review Preaching in My Yes Dress

There is a debate in publishing regarding books that are marketed for for a female audience vs. a male audience, the debate largely revolves around covers. Some folks argue that book covers with overly "feminine" themes like beaches, wine glasses, or the like are marketed more towards a female audience than a male audience. Perhaps. I don't know enough really to chime in. However, my hunch is that if Jo Page's new book Preaching in My Yes Dress: Confessions of a Reluctant Pastor (SUNY Press, 2016) was in a window rack at a bookstore few men might be inspired to purchase a copy, after all how many men walk around with an orange dress on the cover? 

Yet don't let an ongoing debate fool you. Yes Jo Page is a minister. Yes this book deals with the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of a woman pastor. Yes this book has a dress on the cover. And yes, this book is worth reading, especially if you are a pastor and have been one for a long time. 

For years Jo Page has served various Lutheran parishes in upstate New York. She has an MFA from the University of Virginia and is a regular contributor to the Albany Times Union newspaper. 

Preaching in My Yes Dress provides the reader with short vignettes from her life. We see her a young girl who grows up Catholic to a woman who seeks ordination in the Lutheran Church, to a woman and mom of two young girls trying to navigate the pastoral life and still maintain a normal family at home. 

I found her life to be intriguing since she is not one of the many pastors who think they have the "God-thing" settled, as in a deep certitude. No. Jo Page is a pastor with a healthy amount of doubt, even questioning why she became a pastor in the first place. One of the funniest chapters is when she meets a mom at a band concert at her daughter's school. Here we see two women, two Christians, yet so very apart from one another, one a woman pastor who is trying to live authentically and a mom who seems to know it all, I found myself chuckling out loud because I have met plenty of people like this in my life. These are the folks who has God in a box. 

While Jo Page is a fine writer and the book is worth reading I kept wondering why she didn't go deeper into her own life? I felt that she skimmed the surface a bit, providing some details but keeping the rest of her life hidden. I wanted to know more about why she became a pastor, I wanted to know more about her marriage and why she got divorced, I wanted to know more about her struggles in the parish and at seminary. I realize that she probably wanted to protect her former husband and former parishioners but one can do this and at the same time provide some background and context to her life. One of my writing teachers always said that one has to dig deep into the marrow of life, allowing the pain and darkness to reach the surface. I thought Ms. Page could have gone deeper at parts. 

If you are interested in the ups and downs of a parish minister then this book is for you. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book Review Cities That Built the Bible

After reading The Cities That Built the Bible the first thought that went through my head was, gee I wish I read this book in seminary. Not only is this book chock full of information but information that I could have used years ago for my preaching and teaching. However, I guess it's better late than never! One thing for certain, I'm glad that I read this book!

The Cities That Built the Bible (Harper One, 2016) provides the reader with a tour of the important locations that are not only mentioned in the Scriptures but that helped form and shaped the Judeo-Christian texts, namely the Old and New Testaments. The author, Robert R. Cargill is an assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa and is the author of several books and many articles on various aspects of the early Christian world.

This book is not a dry boring historical book about ancient cities but a lively almost modern tour through the various locations that are important to the Bible: Nineveh, Babylon, Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Jerusalem, and others just to name a few. Cargill is a great tour guide as he gently leads his readers through the cities, villages, and towns that are important to Sacred Scripture. However, one of the most important things in the book is the historical and cultural world in which the Bible was written. In the opening pages he discusses the various deities, the gods and goddesses mentioned in the Old Testament and where they came from. He also mentions the many languages and language groups that helped shape and form ancient Hebrew and Greek as well as the land and the people from which the Bible was written and whose texts were read.

While reading this book I came across numerous factoids such as the following: that in the entire book of Jonah, we only have one statement from Jonah himself, the rest of the book is about Jonah, but not Jonah's words like we have in Isaiah or Ezekiel for example. While I've read the Book of Jonah many times the fact that Jonah only has one line in the entire four chapters surprised me. Now I'll have to go back and read the entire thing again in a new light.

If you are a serious student of Sacred Scripture and you want to know more about the culture, religion, and politics of the ancient Middle East and don't know where to turn, then go out and get a copy of The Cities That Built the Bible, not only will you learn something, you will certainly want to learn more. Cargill includes a lengthy Bibliography for those who want to dig deep into the sands of time to learn more about the people who wrote these very important texts. He also includes both color and black and white pictures of key places mentioned in the book and which are a very nice addition.

For more information about Prof. Cargill click here 

For more information about The Cities That Built the Bible click here 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Book Review Being Bread

If you are looking for some inspirational reading this spring then you need to read Being Bread by Stephen Muse. Muse is an ordained deacon in the Orthodox Church and is also a licensed pastoral counselor and directs the Pastoral Counselor Training Program and Clinical Services for the D.A and Elizabeth Turner Ministry Resource Center of the Pastoral Institute, Inc. in Columbus, Georgia. Stephen is also the author of numerous books and articles on mental well being and clergy self-care and is a a lecturer and teacher. Needless to say Stephen's own spiritual journey which is fraught with pain and suffering, combined with his many years as a mental health counselor has provided him the background to write this book.

Being Bread is a collection of articles which Stephen wrote for his local newspaper in Columbus as well as articles and talks that he has given in previous venues. Since this book is not a full narrative you can pick it up and at any point find some gems worth reading. The chapter titles alone should tell you something about the book:

Shark Tooth Grace

Pascha in July

Birds on a Wire

Rose of Sharing

Gurus, Stars, and Superheroes

I had the chance to meet Stephen only briefly on two occasions but his warmth, sense of humor, and most importantly, his humanity shines through this book. The theme that connects the chapters is the theme of bread. In the Divine Liturgy we are given the broken bread of Christ and we are given it so that we can become bread for others or as St. John Chrysostom said that we are to live the liturgy after the Liturgy. At the end of the Liturgy we are sent out to do the work of Christ, to be His hands and feet and to share our bread which we have been given with the rest of the world. Our bread multiplies too, while reading the various chapters I kept thinking of Jesus' miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes. This miracle is found in all four gospels and in Matthew's version there are 12 baskets of leftovers, not only did Jesus feed the 5,000 but there was an abundance of bread for later. Jesus gives us so much and yet there is still more!

Being Bread is a quick read, mostly because Stephen is a good writer. Each story flows nicely and is appropriate for the subject matter. One could easily read two or three stories at a time and put the book down for later. The stories end with some questions for reflection which can be used for a small group discussion or for some quality spiritual journaling time. I plan on going back and using the questions for my own journaling time, thinking and ruminating over how I can become bread for others and to be grateful for the bread that I have been given.

Reading this book has reminded me that God is so generous with us that he gives us much more than we need, He gives it so that we can share our abundance with others and even have some leftovers for later.

For more information about Being Bread click here 

To read an interview with Stephen Muse on the Eastern Christian Book Blog click here 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Review Room to Grow: Meditations on Trying to Live as a Christian

Preaching is hard. Actually preaching can be downright impossible at times. Ask any pastor and he will tell you that after a while preaching can be an uphill battle. It can also be a joy, but I've found after many years of ministry it's a lot of work trying to create an inspiring, Biblical, clear, and interesting sermon week after week, month after month, and year after year. There are times when I feel like my words are dry as dust. There are other times when I feel like they are seasoned with salt. Several years ago I got into the habit of reading sermon collections. I have a lot of them, I mean, a lot. I figured if I'm surrounded by great preaching by Will Willimon, Walter Brueggemann, William Sloane Coffin, and others how could I go wrong?  But I've found that if I am going to preach the Word of God that I must hear the Word of God too.

The latest sermon collection that has reached my desk is Martin Copenhaver's new book Room to Grow: Meditations on Trying to Live as a Christian (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015). If you are a pastor and have never heard of Copenhaver before take a few minutes and look him up online. He is a wonderful writer and storyteller and my hunch is that he's a good preacher in person as he is on the page. Copenhaver has written and co-authored a few books the most recent one Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Abingdon, 2014).

In Room to Grow Martin manages to weave together the Biblical narrative at hand with meaningful stories that bring the gospel to life. The writing flows like a river flowing down stream and I found myself turning page. As a writer  I know full well how hard this can be but Copenhaver makes it feel effortless. I often felt like I was sitting in a pew listening to him. Many pastors simply provide an exegesis of the Biblical text thinking that this is a sermon but as one of my seminary professors of Scripture reminded us that the exegesis takes place Monday through Friday, but the sermon on Sunday is not exegesis. I couldn't agree more.

The meditations run the gamut from Psalms, Exodus, Isaiah, Matthew, as well as numerous letters from Paul and also from Acts and Revelation. The book is not organized around a specific theme or themes and neither does it follow the Church year but it is a selection of reflections on how we as sheep can follow the Good Shepherd.

If you are interested in digging deep into the Christian life and thinking about how you can live a life of faith than take and read Room to Grow, hopefully you too will grow into the image and likeness of Christ.

For more information about Room to Grow click here 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book Review Seven Last Words

I'm jealous of Fr. James Martin. Yes, I know that jealousy is a sin, but I guess I'm jealous in a good way. Fr. Martin has a wonderful writing style that cuts through all the unnecessary minutae that can easily distract a reader and gets at the heart of the matter. I'm a slow learner, but hopefully my own writing will be as clear and concise as his. I guess, like all of life, it's a work in progress!

 Fr. Martin's latest book is Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus (NY: Harper One, 2016). This book is a collection of short pastoral reflections on Jesus' seven last words from the cross:

"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." 

"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."

"Woman, here is your son….Here is your mother." 

"My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" 

"I am thirsty." 

"It is finished." 

"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." 

The seven last words are found in various places in the four gospels and in many parishes they have been a source for meditation and reflection on Holy Friday services. This particular collection of meditations were delivered last year at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. 

Holy Friday and Easter Sunday are the highlight or hallmark of the Christian year, but they also contain so many images and themes that it can be overwhelming; I always find it difficult to focus on one particular theme or image.  After all one could meditate on Jesus' betrayal in the Garden of Gethsamane as well as the Resurrected Lord's post-Easter meal with his disciples on the Galilee beach. Or what about John the Beloved Disciple and the Virgin Mary standing at the foot of the cross? 

Yet Fr. Martin reminds us that while these themes and images are important, the one central image is Jesus hanging from the cross on that dark and dismal Friday two thousand years ago. This was a cross that brought death, but also was the gateway to eternal life. 

Don't be fooled by the brevity of this book either. While only 134 pages each page is worth savoring at a slow pace. I found the various stories and anecdotes  book to be very moving. There is one story in the opening chapter about a sister who forgave the person who killed her sister, her sister's husband, and her sister's unborn child. I sat there just thinking of the wide range of emotions, feelings, pain, and anger that the surviving sister must have felt, yet, in the end mustered up enough love to forgive. Forgiveness is the root of our spiritual life, and Fr. Martin reminds us, is a central aspect of the first meditation too. 

The nice thing about Seven Last Words is that it is a book that you can return too every year. So many books on Christian spirituality are either "once and done" you either pass them along to a friend or they are forgotten on your bookshelf. Yet Seven Last Words will certainly serve as a resource for the future as we all grow and develop in Christ. 

About Fr. James Martin, SJ
For those of you who don't know him, Fr. Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large for America Magazine, and the author of numerous books, The Abbey, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Review The Collar

As a regular book reviewer I receive many books in the mail. Some look very interesting and I want to read them right away. Others look interesting and I feel like I'll read them soon. Then there are the books that I'll most likely never review. Sue Sorensen's The Collar: Reading Christian Ministry in Fiction, Television, and Film (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014) certainly falls into the first category. When this book came across my desk I new that I had to read it immediately.

Sorensen is a professor of English at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg and is married to a Lutheran pastor. Sorensen's marriage and long-term relationship with a pastor-husband, combined with her teaching literature in a university makes her the best person to right a book such as this one.

You probably don't think of pastors and clergy being smack in the middle of many television programs, films, or books, but we are there. Actually, according to Sorensen pastors seem to be everywhere!  I remember watching the 70's TV hit MASH and seeing Fr. Mulchahey dressed in his battle fatigues and collar hashing it up with Hawkye and Pierce. Or perhaps you've watched the funny British TV program The Vicar of Dibley with a female Anglican priest as the star of the show or the new British comedy-drama Rev with it's drinking and smoking priest as the main character. The list goes on. It's actually quite eye opening when you sit down and make a list of all the central clergy characters that appear in our cultural legacy. Sorensen sifts through all of this and provides her readers with some examples of how clergy are portrayed.

Sorensen provides us with plenty of examples too, perhaps too much at times. Each chapter includes many examples of clergy characters and I found myself pausing to get my bearings. Some of course I've heard of, others, like the main clergy character in William Golding's The Spire, I have not. Like Will Willimon who wrote the Foreward to this book, I too have read many clergy novels and short stories, but after reading Sorensen's book I will be reading a few more really soon.

This is a type of book that seminary students or newly ordained pastors should read. While reading I kept on thinking of pastoral identity or identities, how each generation speaks about or showcases clergy. While reading Anthony Trollope for example one gets a very different feeling for clergy as one would if they would read A Month of Sunday's by Isla Morley or Give Us This Day by Jonathan Tulloch whose clergy are spiritually complicated and often conflicted. Life and faith is not black and white but all too often our culture and media portrays them as such. I cannot for example read a Jan Karon novel, I find her Pastor Tim too saccharine for my tastes, so too with the TV program 7th Heaven. All the characters seem one dimensional to me. I'd much rather watch Rev not just for the laughs, but for the real spiritual struggles that clergy go through.

I highly commend Prof. Sorensen for not only sifting through the thousands of pages of material that went into her research but for writing a succinct and clear analysis of her findings. The Collar is certainly a book that I will keep and will re-read sections of in the near future. I do hope however that Prof. Sorensen continue her work in this area, the field is very large and there is much more to say about clergy, culture, identity, about the role of clergy in the Church but also in the world.

For more information about The Collar click here 

For more information about Professor Sorensen click here 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review Canoeing the Mountains

When I was a young newly ordained pastor one of the first things I kept saying to myself was, "I never learned this in seminary, I never learned this in seminary, I never learned this in seminary." There's so much that one cannot learn in three years of study. I had no idea how to read a budget or organize a study group. I had no idea about forms and administrative work or how to fix the copy machine. I'm not alone either. Most pastors have the same feeling when they leave seminary too, saying, "I never learned this in seminary."

Ted Bolsinger's new book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2015) is a must read not just for newly ordained clergy but for seminary students as well. Bolsinger is the vice president for vocation and formation and teaches practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. His pastoral experience combined with his working with seminary students makes him the best person to write this type of book.

Bolsinger weaves his narrative on Christian leadership around the famous Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 18th century. Sent by Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, together with their team of explorers, set out to map the western portion of North America. Since they were familiar with the colonies and areas of the Eastern seaboard they brought with them canoes and kayaks so they could navigate the many waterways that they would encounter. After all, the Eastern seaboard is full of lakes, rivers, and streams. They assumed that they would encounter the same in the West. They were proved wrong when they hit the Rocky Mountains. They weren't prepared for mountains. They weren't prepared for hiking them. They weren't prepared for mountain range after mountain range. They had to quickly change plans, re-think their original ideas, and get creative very quickly if they were going to succeed on their journey.

Bolsinger takes up the Lewis and Clark theme and applies it to pastors. We are in an ever changing Church, a Church which is now seeing steep declines among middle age and younger members, decline in income, shifting Sunday Church attendances, and also a shift in new coming seminary students who used to be well formed in the Christian faith and more and more have entered seminary not just as a preparation for ordination but to learn more about Christianity in general. Change is hard. Change can seem daunting, overwhelming even. When faced with a challenge or issue one usually falls back ones training. Yet the Lewis and Clark expedition shows us that we cannot keep doing the same thing again and again and expect the same results. Change requires creativity and the humility to learn something new, to become vulnerable to the task at hand.

This book includes short vignettes from the journals and letters of Lewis and Clark combined with other personal anecdotal material. He also brings to the fore basic leadership qualities that are needed in the 21st century Church.

Overall I found this book to be very stimulating and engaging and one which I already recommended to a few of my clergy colleagues. However, being that this book was about Christian leadership written for pastors or pastors in training, and that this book is for the Church at large, I kept wondering how come there was so little Scripture included in it? I fully realize that this book is not a Bible study on leadership, but I did expect a few Scriptural stories that could have been woven through the narrative as examples. There were plenty of people in the Bible who were faced with overwhelming challenges and it would have been great to include a few, perhaps at the beginning of each chapter as a way to highlight our Christian tradition.

I highly commend Tod Bolsinger for writing this book and for brining to light the importance of re-thinking how we lead, pastor, and administer our parishes and congregations.

For more information about Canoeing the Mountain click here