For The Someday Book

Archive for February 2015

Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land by Sandy Tolan, Bloomsbury USA, 2015, 480 pp.

Children of the StoneI was thrilled to discover Sandy Tolan was writing another book about life in Palestine. His first, The Lemon Tree, was so compelling, and the story so fascinating, I couldn’t wait to read Children of the Stone. While it was a good story, it was a less compelling read than I had hoped, and I found it somewhat disappointing.

The center of the story is Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, one of the young Palestinian boys whose picture was made famous for throwing stones at Israeli troops during the Intifada. Ramzi grows up to become a musician, and to found a music school for children in Gaza, the most improbably location. Children of the Stone tells the story of his growing up in Gaza, the (gross) violence he witnessed and the (minor) violence he engaged. It unfolds the incredible effort of his musical training, entering the realm of music at a much later age than many of his peers, and the way music freed him from Gaza and opened up the world for him. It shares his passion to open up that world for other Palestinian children through his music school.

Where the book disappoints is in the story of the building of the music school. Tolan tries to weave together Ramzi’s story with the stories of Palestinian academic Edward Said and Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim. Ramzi did come to play in the Divan orchestra founded by Said and Barenboim, but the connection between them did not seem worthy of the ink Tolan devoted to it. The Divan Orchestra was a greater source of frustration than inspiration for Ramzi. The many pages devoted to Said and Barenboim did not seem to advance the story, and Ramzi never even met Said. The same is true of the time Tolan spends developing the life portraits of several volunteers (mostly European) who travel to Palestine to help teach in the school.

Ramzi is somehow able to raise money for the school, convince musicians and volunteers to travel to Palestine to teach and play, continue touring Europe as a musician, oversee every detail of construction, handle publicity and politics, and gently encourage students that music is worthwhile. In order to do that, he must be an incredible force of passion and charisma, with an energy and magnetism that radiates. However, Tolan’s portrait does not capture and captivate us with that force. Like the journalist that he is, Tolan’s Children of the Stone reads too much like a laundry list of events and not enough like the captivating story of Ramzi’s amazing life. Ramzi feels diminished by the telling, which simply recounts “this happened, then this happened, and this witness said this, and this witness said that…” It’s too much like a newspaper account of an event, and not enough like an author crafting a narrative. Those who speak to Ramzi’s temperament and dedication come across as witnesses giving a deposition rather than those inspired (or angered) by Ramzi’s passion. At one point, about midway through, I almost put it down for good, bored by the side narratives and dry recounting.

The book is at its best when it is recounting the history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and telling the story of Ramzi’s family. With Ramzi’s life as the uniting thread, Tolan is able to open an important window into the untold stories of life in Palestine. His approach is less careful to justify the actions of the Israeli government than in The Lemon Tree, which I appreciate as a brave and important act of truth-telling. For that reason, I want to support this book, to have people read it and come to know the important story that it tells about Ramzi, his family and the people of Palestine. I only wish I could recommend it with more enthusiasm for the storytelling.

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Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic by Reinhold Niebuhr, Westminster John Knox Press, 1929, 152 pp.

LeavesThis book came to me like water in the desert, finding me when my soul was dry. I read it in 24 hours on a clergy retreat when my soul and my ministry longed for refreshment. Niebuhr’s reflections offered it.

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic is a compilation of excerpts from Reinhold Niebuhr’s journals during his years of parish ministry in Detroit from 1915-1928. They are years of struggle and difficulty, when Niebuhr questions the value of the church and whether it can survive in to the future. He confronts the social ills of industrialization, economic stratification, and poor treatment of the working people that comprise his parish. He is unabashedly liberal in the face of rising fundamentalism. He gets discouraged, angry, frustrated and occasionally despairing. In short, he’s a pastor just like me, with a whole pile of doubts and discouragements about the work we share and whether it matters at all. It made me feel so much better to know that these problems are not new to me or to my era of ministry.

In his preface from 1956, he writes,

The modern ministry is in no easy position; for it is committed to the espousal of ideals (professionally, at that) which are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary civilization. … It is no easy task to deal realistically with the moral confusion of our day, either in the pulpit or the pew, and avoid the appearance, and possibly the actual peril, of cynicism. (4-5)

That’s exactly how I had been feeling lately–that the Gospel I have vowed to preach is in direct conflict with all the common wisdom and desire of our day, and that I can either couch it gently enough to try and be heard or preach boldly and risk being dismissed as completely irrelevant.

The highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language. (75)

So it must be gentle, but firm. Compelling by charm, not compulsion.

Niebuhr discovered in his first year long ago what I have as well: we can, we must, fall in love with the people.

“The people are a little discouraged. Some of them seem to doubt whether the church will survive. But there are a few who are the salt of the earth, and if I make a go of this they will be more responsible than they will ever know.” (11)

It is a deep love and appreciation for the faithful people of my parish that keeps me going, always. They are truly incredible and inspirational in their faith, and I would not let them down.

It is also companionship with other pastors that keeps me going. This book added a new companion to that list. To listen in on Niebuhr’s own struggles helped me feel less alone. He confesses to all the same faults I share: to walking past a home 2-3 times before having the courage to enter for a pastoral call, to wrangling inattentive youth in Sunday School, to preaching sermons that are tamer in delivery than in preparation, to frustration with the seeming impotence of the church, to tension with preaching economic justice, and to the failure to inspire people who call themselves Christians to step up and live into the teachings of Christ. I am not the only one to fail in these ways. Niebuhr was a great one, and he did too.

The book is full of short gems of observation about life in the ministry that also made me feel seen and known and understood. Here’s a sampling of things that I could, by shared sentiment, have written, though far less eloquently:

We liberal preachers … are too ready to attribute conventional opinions to cowardice. What we don’t realize is that the great majority of parsons simply don’t share our radical convictions. (141)

There must be something bogus about me. Here I have been preaching the gospel for thirteen years and crying, “Woe unto you if all men speak well of you,” and yet I leave without a serious controversy in the whole thirteen years. It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. (151)

Then, as always, Niebuhr demands the most high standards of fidelity to the cross, and he speaks with the same tenor of theological compulsion that has always motivated me.

Liberalism has too little appreciation of the tragedy of life to understand the cross and orthodoxy insists too much upon the absolute uniqueness of the sacrifice of Christ to make the preaching of the cross effective. … It is because the cross of Christ symbolizes something in the very heart of reality, something in universal experience that it has its central place in history. … What makes this tragedy redemptive is that the foolishness of love is revealed as wisdom in the end and its futility becomes the occasion for new moral striving. (70)

This should be a classic on the shelf of every pastor, especially those of us who call ourselves “liberal” or, these days, “progressive.” It is a reminder of the high nature of our calling, and the low, doubt-filled and failure-ridden nature of our attempts to fulfill it. For me, receiving that reminder from Niebuhr in the context of his own ministry is both challenging and reassuring. I know I will return to this book again, and re-read it again when I feel discouraged.

Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can Too by Molly Phinney Baskette, Pilgrim Press, 2014, 228 pp.

Real Good ChurchLet me start by saying that I knew going in to this book that Molly Phinney Baskette and First Church Somerville are the real deal. I got to know Molly when I served in Boston, and I was privileged to watch some of this transformation with my own eyes. I was there in the early years, when it was still fragile and uncertain, which makes it all the more exciting and encouraging to read about a church that is now thriving as a model for others. This book tells the story of how they did it.

I read a lot of books of advice for leading and transforming churches. Some of them sound like impossible plans only a consultant could concoct. Others promise that “if you just do this one thing, your church will turn around.” Still others offer a lot of theory, but not a lot of practical advice. Real Good Church manages to avoid all of those pitfalls. It’s packed with practical wisdom acquired from hard-earned experience, but it also offers a deeper reflection on the Spirit of God at work. The tone throughout is light-hearted and conversational, so you feel like you are carrying on a conversation with a friend in ministry. It’s a great resource.

One of my favorite insights comes early on–the need for clergy to be “Doomsday Pollyannas.” We must be honest about the realistic potential of demise, but also offer hope.

Communicating the urgency of doing things well and/or differently to our people, while also communicating how confident we are that we can do it. … What’s at stake is the death of the church for everybody, and what’s possible is the life of the church, for everybody already there who buys into the vision, as well as many more people who aren’t aware that this place and people are going to become an important part of their lives. (11)

I love this term and description, and I have found it true in the life of my own church. We are able to move forward best when we share both a sense of impending doom and impossible (or only possible with God) hope. She returns to this idea later, as well.

Dying churches are often churches with low self-esteem. Your task as a leader is not to build up the church’s self-esteem but to build up its God-esteem: its sense that God is guiding them and is a big stakeholder and participant in its life and future–their sense that God loves them and is hard at work, and visibly at work, among them. (72)

Another important insight running throughout the book is the connection between the church and its community.

Look for the action in your community, and be in the midst of it. Plant yourself there, be visible, build relationships. (75)

First Church Somerville did that with a Drag Gospel Sunday, participation in local parades and festivals, joining in the Red Sox excitement with outdoor viewing, office hours in the local coffee shop, and more. Baskette is clear that this is not a program for you to follow in your church, because they are rooted in the local community in Somerville and the identity of their congregation. However, every congregation can find the life and energy in their community and become involved. We can all shift our ministries to focus on “them” (those people who are not already active in the congregation) rather than “us” (church members’ tastes and needs).

The book has sections on everything from job descriptions to e-mail to worship to conflict to facilities management. The appendix is rich with examples of materials used at First Church Somerville. It radiates with the author’s creativity and energy for ministry.  I recommend it first for pastors, especially those serving churches in need of revitalization. It would work as well for lay leadership in those churches, but the sheer wealth of material might be overwhelming to a church council without a careful plan to absorb (and implement!) ideas slowly. You’ll learn a lot, enjoy reading it, and leave encouraged for the possibilities for the future of your church.


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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