For The Someday Book

Strength for the Journey: A Guide to Spiritual Practice by Renee Miller, New York: Morehouse Publishing/CREDO Institute, 2011, 134 pp.

strength-for-the-journey.jpgThis tiny little volume contains tiny little introductions to 20 different spiritual practices, along with a rubric for introducing and beginning each one. It is produced by the CREDO Institute, which runs the CREDO program of mid-career personal, spiritual and vocational development for clergy in the a variety of mainline denominations.

The book is intentionally lightweight and light reading. The 20 spiritual practices are grouped into five categories: Meditative Practice, Ministry Practice, Media Practice, Mind Practice and Movement Practice. Each section and each practice begins with a beautiful and simple color photograph, which invites you to slow down your reading for information and simply reflect on the invitation into spiritual practice. The author follows a formulaic approach to each one, offering a brief rationale for the gift and struggle of that particular practice; practical suggestions for how to begin to engage the practice and what to expect in the discipline; concluding with a short observation about what personality types will be draw to or resistant to a particular practice, and the stumbling blocks each might encounter.

I especially appreciated the inclusion of both ancient, traditional practices and contemporary, creative ones. Alongside praying with beads or praying the daily office, there is attention to technology, even movies as a possible spiritual practice. Movement practices do not just include walking and nature, but handwork. Ministry practices of hospitality and caring are joined by spiritual attention to money and gratitude.

Miller’s reflections made me want to try a few practices I had not sampled or engaged with any depth. She spoke with an honesty about the difficulty and reward (or lack thereof) of spiritual practice, emphasizing that it is not about obtaining a certain feeling or holiness, but about the way the practices take root in your life and shape you by the discipline you exercise in doing them to give attention to God. Her whole style had a sense of encouragement and accessibility I appreciated greatly.

I will be returning to this book throughout Lent, as I am preaching a sermon series called “A Lived Faith,” which is about inviting people into a life of spiritual practices, with a particular focus on those practices that we, as a congregation, should embody in an international, expatriate context. This is a book easily read in one sitting, but best consulted and savored slowly and spaciously.

 

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Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, 224 pp.

sustainable-youth-ministryBooks hang around on my to-be-read shelf for years, until just the moment they deliver right-on-time information. I went to a workshop with DeVries in 2011, got this book and tons of useful information that I still rely on. But only now, in preparation for hosting an international youth pastors’ conference and with an eye toward building our church’s youth ministry from the ground up, did I finally get around to reading his book. It was outstanding.

DeVries is a professional, long-time youth pastor, and also runs Youth Ministry Architects, a consulting firm for churches interested in building sustainable youth ministry programs. This book contains a systematic approach based on his experience–but it is not a magic fix.

DeVries begins by debunking the deeply cherished myths and prejudices held in churches about youth ministry. I confess that I have been guilty of many of them myself. He argues, effectively, that most churches’ strategy for youth ministry is to gamble–to try something (anything!!) and hope it works. If it is hot for awhile, great! If it doesn’t work or goes cold, toss it out and gamble again. Digging deeper, he warns against making program central, fearing or blaming politics, trying to hire away your problems, and believing your situation is special or unique.

After urging the reader to set down all their hopes for a quick fix, DeVries offers less exciting but (to me) feasible and necessary steps to actually building a lasting youth ministry program. He outlines with specificity the investment required in terms of dollar, staff and volunteer time, along with specific expectations for reasonable numbers of growth. Then he names the infrastructure documents necessary: a directory, an annual calendar, job descriptions, a master recruiting list, a curriculum template. (This was one of my favorite sections, because these are the exact documents I have been working to produce over the last year for my church. I didn’t start with DeVries list, but I had a sense that no growth or program development would be possible without them. Now I have confirmation on the importance of that work.)

Only with this administrative infrastructure can the task of developing vision, mission and values begin. Only then can you start the work of developing the kind of climate and culture you desire in your youth group. And only after that are you ready to pursue the right staff leadership to help bring this program plan to life, and he offers detailed information for search committees on how to go about doing this.

DeVries’ focus is on building broad volunteer leadership and support, so that a church does not rely on a superstar youth minister who, no matter how talented and skilled, cannot last without this kind of institutional framework of support. Along the way, the wisdom he offers does not just pertain to youth ministry, but to church leadership, growth and development at all levels and settings. As we consider how to rebuild our collapsed youth program from the ground up, I’ll be following this book as a blueprint and sharing it with church leaders as we cultivate the necessary capacity to build a sustainable youth ministry.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, New York: Washington Square Press, 2014, 337 pp.

Man called OveI will probably not be able to consider this book without connecting it to a particular season of life. We were moving to London, and I had planned to read my mother-in-law’s copy of this book during our three week sojourn in our hometown before departure. A novel on vacation usually takes me only a couple of days to read. Then I got diagnosed with cancer. I did start the book, but in the three weeks, I only made it halfway through before having to abandon it and head to London. My mom delivered it to me over a year later, the same copy, to be returned when next we travel to the U.S. This time, I finished it in just a few days.

I picked up Backman’s My Grandmother Told Me To Tell You She’s Sorry when I was home last year for my father’s funeral, and returned to Ove with that background. In both books, a seemingly unlikeable curmudgeon becomes the savior of a tiny community. I love it. I want more of it.

Ove is a widow who has been forcibly retired from his job. A man who has lived by strict principles of hard work and duty now feels alone and adrift, as though his life no longer has meaning or purpose. The book slowly coaxes Ove out of his depression and isolation, as his principles lead him into relationship and even a care-taking role for all his neighbors–though caretaking in an irascible, agitated, curmudgeonly way. The book moves backwards and forwards through time, unpacking the story of Ove’s life and the ways he has known and shown love over the years, while also showing the way his life is being saved by the help and saving grace he extends to others in his initially bleak present.

A Man Called Ove is about Ove, but it is grows into an ensemble piece as Ove’s isolated world expands and connects. Backman creates a tiny community of neighbors, each with their own story and personality and evolution in the story. They are diverse and rich, not stock characters at all. To me, this portrait of an international community was my favorite element of the book.

It’s a good novel, good story, beautifully written. Read and enjoy.

Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett, Viking: New York, 2007, 238 pp.

Speaking of FaithI don’t listen to Krista Tippett’s On Being nearly as often as I wish I could, so I was grateful for a chance to connect with her and her show in print form. Speaking of Faith is part personal and professional memoir for Tippett, tracing her own family and religious history alongside remembrances and insights from her radio interviews across the years. More than that, though, it is an ambitious prescription for how to speak about faith in a way that opens and connects, rather than closes and divides. It was this perspective that I found especially helpful at this particular moment in life and ministry, as I serve in a congregation with a wide variety of Christian backgrounds and search for language to engage a secular city.

Tippett begins with the premise that religion and religious life matters, because there remain questions that only religion can address, “how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to one another.” (4) Engaging with Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer and Wiesel, she writes:

We’ve consigned God to the gaps in our scientific understanding, to the wings of our action. We’ve reserved prayer for when our best efforts fail. Bonhoeffer said we would have to rethink the very forms and vocabulary of faith if we were to keep it alive in the center of life, in the middle of the village. (41)

Drawing on her own experience in communist East Germany, she observes that regimes that exert excessive control over people’s outer lives can cultivate rich inner lives within those same people, yet it seems that people in power often have inner lives that are the most impoverished. (45) I found this reminder of religion and spirituality as cultivating a rich inner life a particularly important insight for the work within my own congregation.

Tippett later develops this concept as having “eyes to see and ears to hear.” While that borrows Christian language, she finds the concept in every religious tradition she has engaged.

Something mysterious happens when you train your eyes to see differently, your ears to hear differently, to attend to what you have been ignoring. The experienced world actually changes shape. (115)

This is as good an understanding of prayer and spiritual practice as any I have heard–engaging in spiritual disciplines changes our experience of the world.

Tippett structures the conversations in her broadcast around first-person narrative theology, inviting people to speak the truth they know without condemnation of others. Always navigating fundamentalist or domineering perspectives, she quotes Martin Marty, who does not divide the world into conservative and liberal but “mean and non-mean.” (161) Fundamentalism does not accurately represent any faith tradition. Both conservatives and liberals can practice and articulate their faith in ways that are mean or non-mean. This seems a constant good measure of our faith.

Tippett’s book was interesting and insightful, though not life-changing. I enjoyed it, and recommend it as a good perspective, especially for those who might be outside of faith and looking for a way to engage and understand what is happening in the lives of religious people of all stripes.

 

 

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, New York: Bantam Books, 1964, 209 pp.

Moveable FeastWe’re going to Paris! For the first time! So, I wanted to read a book about Paris. A classic. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is just that. Besides, we already had a old copy (same as the one pictured) in our home library, probably acquired for 50¢ at some used book sale over the years.

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir about the community of artists and writers, especially American writers, who lived in the Left Bank in the 1920s, named by Gertrude Stein as the Lost Generation. Hemingway tells tales of kindness, scandal, self-doubt, support, enmity and friendship among Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and other notable writers, most of whom were just beginning their careers and struggling at the time. The revelations would have been scandalous when they were published, but they are not especially so today.

The stories take place in the cafes and clubs around Paris, and feature Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop as the central point of connection for all the young artists. Beach tended to the writers like a protective mother, served as their post office and lender of books, food and emergency cash.

This book is about a Paris that no longer exists, a Paris of the past in which suffering and struggle have been romanticized by memory. Even by the time Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast in the 1950s, the war had forever destroyed the Paris he knew. It was published after his death, with yet another layer of remembrance. Reading it now, Paris is in yet another incarnation.  These layers of wistful memory seem to be part of Parisian identity itself. It is a city most often viewed through the lens of memory, as most people visit or even live there only for a short season of their lives. Only a few are permanent residents, and they likely see the city differently than all who freeze it with a particular age and stage of their own life.

Hemingway captures this sensibility in the title line:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

One of my favorite aspects of A Moveable Feast were Hemingway’s regular reflections on writing and his own creative process. He wrote in a hotel room office most days, separate from his home, and discusses the feeling of pride he had in leaving a day’s work knowing he had produced something good. He also made it his practice to always end the day knowing where he was going the next day, rather than somewhere stuck. However, when he did find himself at a loss,

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. (12)

When he would get stuck, he would often move to writing in a cafe. I share this affinity for writing in cafes. However, there is always the danger that someone will try to visit with you, not respecting the fact that, even if you appear to be staring into space, you are actually in the process of writing. He captured this “true sentence” of my experience.

Now you could get out and hope it was an accidental visit and that the visitor had only come in by chance and there was not going to be an infestation. (92)

From now on, I will think of these surprise visitors as an infestation. (Even though sometimes God works in these interruptions, I’ll admit.)

In the final chapter, he writes a brutal critique about the arrival of “the rich” ruining a small Alpine town that he and his wife have frequented. They also ruin him and his writing. Not by their criticism, but by the appeal of their lives of ease and their ready praise.

That every day should be a fiesta seemed to me a marvelous discovery. I even read aloud the part of the novel that I had rewritten, which is about as low as a writer can get. … When they said, “It’s great, Ernest. Truly it’s great. You cannot know the thing it has,” I wagged my tail in pleasure and plunged into the fiesta concept of life to see if I could not bring some fine attractive stick back, instead of thinking, “If these bastards like it, what is wrong with it?” That was what I would think if I had been functioning as a professional although, if I had been functioning as a professional, I would never have read it to them. (207)

This captured sometime especially true for me about ministry and preaching. Sometimes, we can be lulled into a “fiesta concept of life,” where we take it easy and enjoy ourselves, relishing praise and accolades for our words. But this rarely produces our best work as preachers, and usually obscures our faults from our own view. In fact, at our professional best, we question those sermons that are the most popular, wondering if we have indeed done justice to the challenge of the Gospel.

A Moveable Feast definitely made me even more eager to see Paris. As a lover of literature, I enjoyed reading Hemingway’s tales of the personalities and backstories of literary lights before they were so known. I was delighted to find gems about writing (and preaching) to carry forward with me.

The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998, 220 pp.

Godbearing LifeKenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian was one of the best books I read about ministry in the last decade, which drew me to look back at her earlier work. Although she specifically writes about youth ministry, her insights about the way cultural forces and church practices compete to shape our souls rings true in ministry with people of all ages. This book did not disappoint. Even though it’s 20 years old, many of the illustrations obsolete, and a whole generation of youth now parents of adolescents themselves, the book holds up because it is about greater themes of how we as pastors and churches care for the soul.

Dean and Foster operate within the powerful metaphor of Godbearing, which is drawn from Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a teenager herself who was chosen to carry Jesus into the world. As Christian leaders, we are invited to say “yes” to God’s request to live within us and let our lives be shaped by God’s purposes. Then we form relationships and bear witness to God’s work in the lives of others, helping them to see where God is calling and to respond by saying “yes” themselves.

They write:

I began spending the bulk of my “relational ministry” helping youth, even unchurched ones, develop a vocabulary of faith. I learned that pastors have permission, and even an obligation, to ask questions others do not ask. So I quit beating around the bush and asked up front: “What’s going on between you and God? How goes your spiritual life?” (13)

This is exactly what I am discovering, especially in this particular season of my ministry. I spend a lot of time with people who may or may not be part of my congregation, may or may not be Christian, may or may not see me as pastor or just as a friend. But my role gives me both permission and obligation to have these conversations. For many people, no one else in their lives engages these questions, and people are yearning to be asked, even though it feels scary for both of us sometimes.

They also write about evangelism not as convincing people to believe in God, but to believe that God matters.

The signature quality of adolescence is no longer lawlessness but awelessness. Inundated with options and the stress that comes from having to choose between them, contemporary adolescents have lost their compass to the stars, have forgotten the way that points to transcendence. (15)

This is not just adolescents. Every day, thousands of people pass by in front of our church on the street, and most of them–whether or not they believe in God in any way–are convinced that what we do inside that building has no relevance or meaning to their lives. Dean and Foster offer incarnational and relational ministry as a response. We don’t just build relationships in order to talk about the Gospel. We live the Gospel in our lives (Godbearing) so that others will experience the incarnation of God.

This approach is grounded in faith practices:

Practices are the constitutive acts of a community that both identify us as, and form us into, people who belong to that community. Christian practices mark us as and make us into Jesus’ followers. (107)

Dean and Foster offer a helpful rubric of organizing the variety of Christian faith practices into six major categories (communion, worship, compassion, teaching and nurture, witness, and dehabituation), highlighting particular faith practices that one uses in youth ministry, but again applicable to all ages. They devote full chapters to each category, but lift out spiritual friendship, “hand-holding and finger-pointing” (presence and direction), service, speaking in familiar language, and sabbath as particularly important.

One of the key challenges for youth ministry and all ministry is avoiding burnout. The authors introduced a helpful biblical metaphor in the burning bush.

God is most evident in our ministries not when we are “on fire for Jesus” but when we burn without being consumed. … God is not calling us to identify with Moses. God is calling us to identify with the bush. (72)

Faith practices are those things that keep our fires burning, and engaging more deeply in growing our faith so we can nourish the faith of others is a model for sustainable Christian ministry for everyone. It’s not about growing programs, it’s about growing faith and relationships.

This is an insightful read that has already helped me shape some of the work I am doing to lead a conference for youth pastors and to engage my congregation in a Lenten series on faith practices. It has also given me new language to understand my own work in ministry. I recommend it not only for youth ministers, but for clergy and lay leaders looking to understand our work in the world in a deeper way, especially around inviting others into relationship with Christ.

 

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, London: Vintage, 2001, 822 pp.

London-the-biographyThis book topped my list of things to read to acquaint myself with my new city before I moved, but cancer treatment and all the overwhelm of moving delayed it until I’d already lived here for 18 months. In the end, I’m glad of that timing. I can’t imagine how I would have understood or absorbed much of the book’s content if I didn’t already have some sense of the geography and architecture of the city. This book is as much an interpretation of London as it is a history of it, and I would not have understood its meaning without first having known London itself.

Peter Ackroyd was unknown to me in the U.S., but he is everywhere here, a prolific writer of fiction, history, biography and TV documentaries. He is captivated by the way London’s history and personality live on, even though the city changes constantly. He has a particular interpretation of the city as a place driven first and foremost by commerce, wealth and glamor, with a constant underside of poverty, sordidness and anonymity that allow flourishing subcultures. This masterwork on London captures those themes throughout.

Bolstered by sources but unburdened by the need to prove a historical case, deeply researched but unmoored from the demands of scholarly thoroughness, Ackroyd’s biography unwinds a compelling narrative of London as though it was a living being, a creature carving out its identity across time, with some traits endemic and immutable, and others changed by its story. In spite of its length, the book’s short chapters, organized by topic or neighborhood or niche rather than simple chronology, made it seem like a very quick read. Ackroyd’s prose turns a tome into a page-turner.

As a lover of social history, I enjoyed his attention to London theatre, labor, protests, poverty, literature, crime and other topics, rather than just a litany of major events, leaders and decisions that shaped its history. I especially appreciated the way Ackroyd honed in on microcosms of people and neighborhoods. There are whole chapters dedicated to eccentric personalities that once inhabited a particular street. Each dwelled for 30 or 40 years in a tiny corner of the massive city of millions, but somehow, to Ackroyd, they capture something of London’s essence, so he tells us their stories. By the same turn, there are chapters that look at a particular small square or neighborhood across time, and the way certain traits seem to dwell there. For example, he talks about poverty and seediness in St. Giles, and revolutionary plotting or protest in Clerkenwell Green. Ackroyd sees a persistent, recurring pattern of social behavior that he links to various places in the city, as though the places themselves are inhabited by a particular spirit that shapes the people who dwell there. A more sober historian might scoff, but I found his case compelling and delightful.

In spite of its size, this is not a reference book. If you want to learn about the history of the Temple Bar or when a particular borough was founded, you won’t find that here. Instead, this is a book to read like a biography–cover to cover–in order to meet London and get to know its personality. Like any biography, you might not like the author’s angle, and you will have to rely on your own observations or the alternative perceptions of others to argue for another, truer personality. I found Ackroyd’s insights fascinating, and true to my own reading of the city in many ways. After reading the book, I look at the city differently as I venture out in it. I see layers I did not notice before, I find historical treasures not readily visible, and I am able to place myself within the city’s narrative in a new way.

I recommend Ackroyd’s book to all Londoners and London lovers, though I suggest it will be best appreciated by those who know the city, rather than as an introduction or prelude to a visit.

 

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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